An inglorious finale to the season but Messi will bounce back like he always does

Andy West 7/07/2019
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A sour ending to 2018-19 for Lionel Messi.

This has been a rather strange season for Lionel Messi.

As the Barcelona and Argentina captain finally heads away for an overdue but brief summer holiday, he will reflect on a long campaign which, on the plus side, saw him play some of the best football of his career to power Barcelona to the La Liga title with an 11-point margin over second-placed Atletico Madrid and a record 19 point gap to eternal enemy Real Madrid.

On the downside, however, Messi’s season suffered a finale which was nothing short of total disaster: in the last two months he has been powerless to prevent Barcelona exiting the Champions League in humiliating circumstances and then losing the Copa del Rey final, before suffering more international heartache with Argentina’s elimination from the Copa America at the semi-final stage against Brazil.

For the poisoned icing on top of the cake, Messi’s very last act of the 2018/19 campaign, of course, was receiving only the second red card of his career – and his first since 2005 – in a bust-up with Chile’s pitbull Gary Medel during Saturday night’s third-place Copa play-off.

The injustice of that dismissal, and Argentina’s perceptions of their overall mistreatment by Copa America officials, saw Messi head into his holidays on a very sour note, risking further disciplinary action by launching an uncharacteristically emotional tirade at the ‘corruption’ he believes exists within CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body.

For such a fierce competitor who takes his career so seriously, it’s clear that Messi will be inhabiting a dark place during the first few days of his short vacation, perhaps only alleviated by the merciless mocking he is bound to receive from his son Mateo, who revels in any opportunity to make fun of his poor father.

It was a dismal end to the season for Messi with Barca as well.

It was a dismal end to the season for Messi with Barca as well.

Before long, though, he will put those agonies behind him, consign them to the dustbin of the past and look forward to the future. Because that is what he has always done.

Yes, Messi has been here before. Even arguably the greatest footballer of all-time has regularly been forced to fight his way through some deeply depressing summer months before emerging into brighter days on the other side.

In 2006, for example, the young Messi was left distraught after finishing the season by being omitted by Barca boss Frank Rijkaard from the squad which claimed a Champions League final victory over Arsenal, followed quickly by another consignment to the bench as Argentina were beaten in the World Cup quarter-finals by Germany.

The summer of 2014 was even worse as Messi contemplated Argentina’s traumatic World Cup final defeat to Germany, coming hot on the heels of a season of downright failure with Barca and the tragic death of his much-loved former Barca coach and mentor, Tito Vilanova.

On both those occasions, and every other time Messi has been forced to confront serious setbacks and infuriating failures, he bounced back. He put his frustration behind him, focused on the future and got back to doing the thing he does best: scoring and creating goals.

Messi bounced back brilliantly after the 2014 World Cup final loss.

Messi bounced back brilliantly after the 2014 World Cup final loss.

Over the next few weeks and months, he will do that again.

Sure, the conclusion of the now-finished season will have left a sour taste in Messi’s mouth, and he will be deeply dissatisfied with the litany of disappointments he has encountered in the last couple of months.

There is also considerable doubt as to what the future holds at Barcelona. Will he spend next season playing alongside Luis Suarez? Or Antoine Griezmann? Or Neymar? Or Ousmane Dembele? Or some combination of the four? Will he perform on the right wing? Or as a false nine? Or a support striker? Or a deeper creative midfielder?

At the moment, he does not know the answer to those questions, and Barca’s evolution is fraught with danger.

But if you think those failures in the recent past and that uncertainty over the immediate future will have left Messi beaten, that he is a broken man and a spent force, then you obviously haven’t been paying much attention over the last 15 years.

Messi is made of strong stuff and he lives for this kind of challenge. He has something to prove, and he will prove it, just like always has done in the past. He’ll be back.

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CONMEBOL label "corruption" allegations "unacceptable" following Lionel Messi quotes

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The South American football confederation said questioning the integrity of the Copa America is “unacceptable” after Lionel Messi alleged Argentina were victims of “corruption” in their 2-1 win over Chile.

Messi saw red towards the end of the first half of their third-place play-off in Sao Paolo and refused to take part in the medal ceremony.

The Barcelona star was dismissed following a confrontation with former Cardiff midfielder Gary Medel, who was also shown a red card.

Messi appeared to have been hard done by, with Chile defender Medel appearing to push his head towards the Argentina playmaker as they squared up, chest to chest.

The Argentina captain suggested he had been singled out following his comments over the “crazy” officiating in the wake of their 2-0 semi-final defeat by hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte.

“We don’t need to be part of the corruption that we’ve suffered at this tournament,” Messi said, as quoted by Spanish media outlet AS.

“Medel is always right at the limit. With a yellow that would have been the end of it for both of us, but well, maybe what I said recently had an impact.

“What’s important is that the team finished well in the tournament. Maybe this was ordered and I ended up suffering because of what I said.”

In the aftermath, CONMEBOL said a “fundamental pillar of fair play is to accept the results with loyalty and respect”.

Although it does not mention Messi by name, the statement said: “The same goes for refereeing decisions, which are human and will always be improvable.

“It is unacceptable that as a result of incidents typical in competitions, involving 12 teams, all on equal terms, unfounded accusations have been launched that lack the truth and question the integrity of the Copa America.

“These accusations represent a lack of respect for the competition, all the participating players and the hundreds of professionals of CONMEBOL, an institution that since 2016 has been working tirelessly to make transparent, professionalise and develop South American football.”

Messi had helped set up an early goal for Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero, with Argentina going 2-0 up through Paulo Dybala.

Chile were handed a way back into the match following another controversial VAR review which resulted in a penalty being awarded after Argentina’s Giovani Lo Celso was adjudged to have fouled Charles Aranguiz. Arturo Vidal dispatched the spot-kick but La Albiceleste held on for a 2-1 win.

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Copa America 2019: Free agent Dani Alves proves for Brazil that he may be old, but is still gold

Andy West 3/07/2019
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Old, but gold: Dani Alves.

In the 19th minute, there he was.

Showing determination and athleticism to win a loose ball in midfield, Dani Alves drove towards goal and fed a perfect pass into the stride of Roberto Firmino, whose low cross was easily dispatched by Gabriel Jesus for the opening goal.

In the 90th minute, there he was again.

With Brazil looking to close out the final few seconds and Argentina pressing hard to give themselves a lifeline, Alves gathered possession inside his own half and sped forward, drawing a foul on the halfway line to relieve the pressure and take a few more seconds off the clock.

From the first minute until the last, Brazil skipper Alves was absolutely everywhere on Tuesday night.

The stats speak for themselves: he had 112 touches, 44 more than any other Brazilian player (Arthur) and 21 more than any Argentine (Leandro Paredes). He also made that possession count, embarking upon a team-high five dribbles and delivering three crosses into the box, while also fulfilling his defensive duties with three tackles, two clearances and one interception.

Beyond the numbers, though, Alves was even more important for his role as Brazil’s spiritual heartbeat. In a team which can look one-paced and predictable, he added a much-needed spark of drive and dynamism to lift his team-mates, energise the home crowd and deflate the opposition. He was, to borrow his own personal social media catchphrase, ‘good crazy’.

Alves Messi

All of this, of course, came from a man who is now 36-years-old and has already won nearly everything there is to win (the World Cup is the only major miss) over the course a sensational career.

In fact, he has won more than practically every other player in history, bagging a ‘good crazy’ total of 41 honours, including multiple league titles with Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, three Champions League crowns with Barca, the Europa League with Sevilla and Copa America with Brazil in 2007.

Pretty impressive. The craziest thing about Alves right now, though, is that he is currently a free agent, having announced last month that he will not renew his contract with PSG.

That’s right: one of the most decorated players in history, who has just delivered a man of the match performance while captaining Brazil to the Copa America final, is available on a free transfer. It’s the steal of the summer, and Europe’s big guns must be lining up to knock on his door with pre-prepared contracts only requiring his signature on the dotted line.

Of course, there is the caveat of his age. It would be entirely unrealistic to expect a player who will be 37 before the end of next season to excel as a week-in, week-out starter. His total of 32 appearances across all competitions for PSG last season is probably more or less his limit. So whoever signs Alves next will also need to have another right-back on board to share playing time.

In modern top-level football, though, that is pretty much a given. Challenging for major honours in top competitions over the course of nine months requires deep squads, and only goalkeepers and perhaps central defenders can be expected to play nearly every game.

In any case, Alves showed on Tuesday night that he still possesses phenomenal levels of fitness, finding the energy at the end of a very long season to constantly charge up and down the sidelines and power Brazil’s victory over Argentina as he closes in on yet another title.

Sure, the absence of a transfer fee means that Alves will command a massive signing-on bonus, and he would also expect to be a high earner. But his qualities – technical, physical and intangible – are rarely available elsewhere, and the added element of his vast experience makes him a cheap short-term option whatever the price.

Barcelona have never succeeded in replacing him, and there’s a strong logical argument that the Camp Nou club should simply give up in their efforts to do so and just bring him back for a glorious swansong.

However, Alves left Barca on very poor terms with the club’s board, who will be highly reluctant to now welcome him back, so that option looks unlikely.

Manchester City have come close to signing Alves in the past, and the English champions are another possibility this time, especially if they do not secure Joao Cancelo from Juventus – there could certainly be no better role model or teacher for Kyle Walker. There may also be a move to a different new country with Bayern Munich, who would find Alves’ experience a major asset in their rebuilding process.

Alternatively, Alves could choose to cash in by ending his career with a lucrative stint in China, and that appears to be the most likely conclusion according to experts.

That, though, would be a shame. Alves, to be frank, is better than that, and his star showing for Brazil on Tuesday shows that he still had a huge amount to offer at the highest level. Alves might be old, but he’s still gold.

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