The greatest of his generation but Lionel Messi won't be the greatest ever without a World Cup trophy

Matt Jones 14/06/2018
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Lionel Messi has yet to win a World Cup with Argentina.

Lionel Messi is in his prime. He will turn just 31 later this month and has many years left before he brings the curtain down on one of the grandest modern-day careers.

Yet there are those who have long anointed him as the greatest player to ever play the game when he finally does hang up his boots. There are some who claim he already is.

But until the Argentine icon wins an elusive World Cup it would be irresponsible to lavish such high praise on a totemic figure who nevertheless cannot occupy exalted air enjoyed by legends who have won the greatest competition of all – some even multiple times.

Two obvious idols stand out – Brazil behemoth Pele who won three World Cups and is widely regarded as owning the status that Messi covets. The other, of course, is Messi’s magical compatriot, the deadly and devilish Diego Maradona.

While Messi has largely struggled – and still strives – to spark his generation’s Argentina to win that maiden Jules Rimet trophy and third in total for La Albiceleste, prolific Pele led Brazil to their first World Cup in 1958. He was staggeringly just 17 at the time and would go on to hoist the hallowed trophy again in 1962 (his medal was retrospectively awarded in 2007) and 1970.

Maradona, meanwhile, was the driving force behind Argentina’s second success in Mexico 86 as the men in the famous white and sky blue shirts soared to a heavenly second triumph less than a decade after their first.

These victories on the beautiful game’s biggest stage, as well as a myriad of other milestones reached in fantastic careers, saw Pele and Maradona retire as true gods of the game.

Pele

Messi is undoubtedly the best player of his generation. But for all his individual brilliance, success domestically and in Europe with Barcelona, he remains a mere mortal, for now.

Pele remains the poster boy for football’s most celebrated nation. The golden-shirted Samba Boys won international football’s biggest prize more than anyone else (five).

Maradona’s nickname in his native language is El Pibe de Oro – Golden Boy – and though Messi is often described as having the golden touch, he cannot yet be valued as highly as this exalted duo.

He is as yet to take a World Cup by storm such as Pele did as a teenager in Sweden 60 years ago, nor as Maradona did 28 years later in Mexico.

In 1958 Pele scored six goals, this despite a knee injury meaning his first game of the tournament was the third group match against the Soviet Union. He scored the winner in a 1-0 victory over Wales in the quarter-final, a hat-trick in the 5-2 semi-final mauling of France and a brace in another resounding 5-2 triumph over the hosts in the final.

Maradona, meanwhile, scored a brace, including the ‘Goal of the Century’, in a 2-1 quarter-final victory over England, as well as another double in the 2-0 semi-final victory over Belgium – five goals in total.

Pele registered 12 goals in 14 World Cup appearances; Maradona eight in 21. Up until 2014, Messi had just one in seven (now five in 14).

Even as he came closest to his dream four years ago when Argentina lost 1-0 in the final to Germany, he failed to truly exert his influence.

That might sound ridiculous considering he was named player of the tournament. But Argentina’s presence in the final was as much a triumph of the collective, a workmanlike showing rather than any Messiah-like influence from Messi.

He scored four group stage goals but none in the knockouts as La Albiceleste meandered rather than marauded to the tournament’s showpiece.

Diego Maradona

When analysing the numbers, Messi is at least comparable to Pele – his 552 club goals in 637 games for Barca earning him an average of 0.86 goals per game. That is some way ahead of Maradona’s 312 goals in 590 games (0.52 goals per game) but still some way off Pele’s 1,033 goals in 1,120 games – scored at a rate of 0.92 goals per game.

There are all kinds of caveats to the goals per game ratio argument. Messi has played for one of the most dominant club sides in European history. And although Maradona also graced the famous Blaugrana colours, he really rose to prominence after being cast out of Spain following a brief two-year tenure, pitching up at Napoli – hardly a giant of Italian football compared to Juventus and the Milans – but a club that he totally transformed.

Pele, meanwhile, never played outside Brazil, while his goalscoring record is also heavily debated.

But what it all comes down to once again is the World Cup – where Pele and Maradona reign supreme.

So, as the 2018 version kicks off, we are again presented with the notion of Messi and his quest to obtain immortality. Will Russia represent his final chance to join the pantheon of football’s greats?

Many fans and experts who already champion Messi as the greatest the game has ever seen may be influenced by Maradona’s wild and often controversial side – especially in latter years. Many will only have seen footage of Pele play.

And yet they did the one thing the greatest talent of our generation has been unable to. Inspire his nation like he inspires his club.

Until he does, to state that Messi is unequivocally better than either is feeble and frankly unfounded.

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Barcelona star Sergio Busquets is only sure starter in Spain's talented midfield

Alex Rea 14/06/2018
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Two neighbours with three Silvas between them begin their quest for World Cup gold on Friday as Iberian nations Portugal take on Spain in Group B at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi.

Openers inevitably carry great gravitas as they tend to shape the group but given the potential trickiness of both Iran and Morocco, neither of these two giants can afford a slip up.

It’s a blockbuster clash with some of the best players in the world on show, so here, we examine some of the key tactics which will shape the narrative.

SPAIN’S MIDFIELD MAKE-UP

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La Roja are a beautifully balanced side. Their fire and ice centre-back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique form a formidable centre, the full-backs Jordi Alba and Alvaro Odriozola are energetic and enterprising, while Isco and David Silva provide boundless creation.

The No9 is an obvious grey area but the same notion can also apply to the middle of the park – for different reasoning. While the options up front are a little short, for the three spots in the middle of the 4-3-3, there are up to seven choices.

Sergio Busquets is a sure thing to slot in at No6 but ahead of him there are varying combinations. Koke and Saul Niguez have enjoyed outstanding campaigns at Atletico Madrid, Andres Iniesta as he showed against Argentina is still a slick operator at 34 while Thiago Alcantara is one of the best modern midfielders in the game.

Iniesta and Thiago with Busquets is a mouthwatering combination so expect Fernando Hierro, having been handed the job at the last minute, to opt for the tried and tested.

PORTUGAL’S BACK PROBLEMS

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Pepe in 2016 was one of the world’s finest centre-backs but now at 35 and plying his football in Turkey after moving to Besiktas from Real Madrid last summer, he is a little suspect.

It will worry Portugal fans immensely that he remains their leading defensive talent because the options to partner him at the back are dubious.

Jose Fonte was atrocious at West Ham and now plays in China while Bruno Alves struggled with Rangers.

Fernando Santos hoped youth would bail him out but Benfica’s Ruben Dias, 21, missed the March friendlies through injury and was only able to make his debut last month.

That would leave Alves as first-choice but at 36, a centre-back pairing of a combined age of 71 hardly inspires a lot of confidence.

Even with all the disarray of Julen Lopetegui’s exit, Spain will surely be licking their lips.

FULL-BACKS ON THE ATTACK

Spain v Switzerland - International Friendly

One interesting dynamic for this fixture will be how the two sets of full-backs are utilised.

Spain are narrow in attack as they aim to overload the middle areas which means any natural width has to come from the full-backs.

Dani Carvajal and Jordi Alba both have bottomless tanks of energy and a deadly delivery but their intelligence to hang back and cover when the other pushes up is a key facet of Spain’s play.

Of course, Odriozola will occupy the right against Portugal due to Carvajal’s injury absence but he is more than capable of filling in with his competent mind powering a sprinter-like physique.

The responsibility to provide quality in attack and chase back counters will be crucial for Spain.

On the opposite side, Portugal are bolted to a 4-4-2 and given the weaknesses of the two centre-backs, Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro will be required to help plug the inside and outside channels, restricting their ability to venture forward.

It will mean less numbers in attack so the cat-and-mouse nature of the full-backs could form an interesting layer to the fixture.

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Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa to take centre stage as Portugal face Spain

Alex Rea 14/06/2018
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Two neighbours with three Silva’s between them begin their quest for World Cup gold on Friday as Iberian nations Portugal take on Spain in Group B at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi.

Openers inevitably carry great gravitas as they tend to shape the group but given the potential trickiness of both Iran and Morocco, neither of these two giants can afford a slip up.

It’s a blockbuster clash with some of the best players in the world on show and with that in mind, we compare and contrast some of key protagonists.

CRISTIANO RONALDO V DIEGO COSTA

13 06 2018 key battles WC1

Ronaldo is three goals shy of Ferenc Puskas 84-goal haul for Hungary which stands as the most ever by a European player.

Few will doubt the Real Madrid forward’s chances of breaking yet another record in Russia after an absurd goalscoring streak in 2018 – he notched 22 of his 26 La Liga goals after the turn of the year.

At 33, he remains the spearhead and source of goals for his country and his immense physical conditioning means he’ll arrive for the Spain clash in peak shape – a fearsome prospect for club team-mate Sergio Ramos and bitter rival Gerard Pique.

A big-game mentality has hallmarked his club career, but he’s struggled to translate that reputation onto the international stage having only scored once against seven of the eight World Cup winners in 22 appearances (he’s never faced Uruguay). Look for him to lay down a marker in Sochi.

For Spain, the number nine has been dominating the thoughts of former boss Julen Lopetegui as if it were some mathematical equation but with no obvious answer, the probability is Costa will lead the line regardless of who occupies the touchline.

He often has looked out of place for La Roja, though. The Atletico Madrid striker is a demolition man, behind him in contrast are architects and he very often tears down their attacking constructs with poor passing and wayward ball control.

He’s a vice and virtue quality, however, as Costa batters defenders and inevitably gaps appear for the likes of David Silva and Isco to exploit.

With Spain likely deploying a 4-3-3, those two flanking Costa will be expected to create works of art out of the rubble of their striker’s destruction.

Pepe and Bruno Alves sit in the heart of Portugal’s defence and at a combined age of 71, could be in for a turbulent night.

BERNARDO SILVA V ISCO

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Andres Iniesta is in the dying embers of his marvellous Spain career but the carousel of creative talent will see Isco step up to prominence in Russia.

While he’s been largely mystifying for Madrid, struggling to gain the complete trust of Zinedine Zidane particularly in the early part of last season, with Spain he has truly come alive.

The 26-year-old’s stunning hat-trick in the not-so-friendly trouncing of Argentina saw him move onto a respectable 10 goals in 27 international outings.

While debate has raged over who occupies the No9 shirt, the topic could be completely inconsequential because they have enough playmakers to create chances and Isco could be the man they look to for a finish. Portugal are a sit-in-and-counter side and so Isco will be tasked with unpicking a resolute defence.

Similarly, Bernardo Silva has endured a season punctuated by an inconsistent run of games but unlike Isco, he retains the confidence of Pep Guardiola and it led to a string of impressive outings.

He’s one of a trio of Portugal players tipped as the heir to Ronaldo – Goncalo Guedes and Andre Silva the other two – and has on occasion lined up slightly behind the skipper.

Fernando Santos will likely to revert him back to the right-hand side and Manchester City observers will be well aware of his quality as he drifts in from wide positions.

Nicknamed ‘Bubblegum’ for the way in which the ball is glued to his feet, he is quick of thought and skill. Having missed the Euro 2016 triumph through injury, he’ll be desperate to make his mark and there’s no better way to start than against Spain

GONCALO GUEDES V MARCO ASENSIO

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Asensio is unlikely to start for Spain but curiously that doesn’t actually lessen his potential impact.

The fixture could turn out to be a tactical chessmatch and there is every chance Spain could struggle to make inroads.

If that is the case, Asensio is an ace card, capable of producing moments of magic when it matters most.

The 22-year-old has proven as much throughout his fledgling but flourishing Real Madrid career, scoring in a Champions League final while goals arrived against heavy hitters like Bayern Munich and Barcelona last season.

He’s fast, tricky and melds those talents to a mallet left-foot which form the perfect make-up of an impact sub.

Likewise, Guedes might be another young star to begin this tournament on the bench. Santos is an arch pragmatist so it remains to be seen whether he is bold enough to partner Ronaldo with Guedes in his starting XI or opt for the more tested Andre Silva.

Guedes, though, is fresh from a stunning season on loan at Valencia and scored twice in last week’s warm-up win over Algeria.

What he lacks in international pedigree, the 21-year-old makes up for in enterprise and if Santos wants to relieve some of the goalscoring burden from Ronaldo’s shoulders, Guedes is an enticing option.

Either way, he may have something to say in this game, the question is whether it be from the bench or the start.

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