Messi back again for another shot at Copa America title

Argentina's players at Manoel Barradas Stadium in Salvador, state of Bahia, Brazil. (AFP
Updated 14 June 2019
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Messi back again for another shot at Copa America title

  • Messi is the guy Argentina is relying on once again to end its trophy drought in international soccer

SAO PAOLO : Lionel Messi was fed up and hurting three years ago, on the losing side once again at the Copa America.

“For me, the national team is over. I’ve done all I can,” Messi said after Argentina's penalty-shootout loss to Chile at the 2016 edition in the US.

Three years later, the five-time world player of the year is back at South America's biggest tournament, the guy Argentina is relying on once again to end its trophy drought in international soccer.

Now 31, Messi is still among the best players in the world. He is coming off another prolific season for Barcelona — 51 goals in 50 matches in all competitions — where he led the Spanish team to a fourth league title in five years.

Trophies at club level and personal awards just keep on coming for Messi. It is on the international stage that he continues to fall short, meaning that for many — especially in Argentina — he still cannot compare to the country’s other great player, Diego Maradona.

Argentina enters the Copa America in Brazil without a major international trophy at the senior level since 1993. That was the year it won the South American championship for the second straight edition and 14th time overall. Seven years before that, Argentina won the World Cup, mainly thanks to Maradona.

A quarter of a century without a big title is too long for such a soccer-crazy nation and it is weighing heavily on its players. Hence Messi's emotional reaction after the 2016 final, when Argentina slumped a second straight shootout loss to Chile in the final.

When the tournament begins on Friday with Brazil playing Bolivia, the host nation will be the favorite but the absence of Neymar because of an ankle injury should provide Argentina with more optimism.

“We have the best player in the world, we will try to help him so he feels comfortable,” Argentina midfielder Rodrigo De Paul said of Messi. “But we are aware that Brazil is the favorite.”

Led by interim coach Lionel Scaloni, Argentina has many young players in their first international tournament. With Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Angel di Maria among the other attackers, the concerns again lie in the defense, where Argentina has been weak for some time.

Here is what else to watch out for at the Copa America:

It would be the ideal time for South American soccer to put on a show at the Copa America and reassert some of its grandeur.

European teams have won the last four World Cups, the biggest streak on record. The club game in Europe, led by the Champions League, has never been so dominant and appealing.

Is South American soccer being left behind?

At the end of 2016, four South Americans players were widely considered the best in their positions: Messi, right back Dani Alves (Brazil), left back Marcelo (Brazil) and Luis Suarez (Uruguay). Other players like Thiago Silva (Brazil), Alexis Sanchez (Chile) and Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina) were coming off impressive seasons. Every match played at the 2016 tournament in the US included a key player from a top European team.

Former Brazil player Junior, who is a commentator at TV Globo, said those days are over and South American players are lagging behind the Europeans.

“The great players in the region are either nearing their retirement, in trouble or not ready to have a leading role,” he said. “This Copa America is important. We need to see either new stars rising or a last great run of the veterans. If not, European domination could advance into the next World Cup cycle.”


Algeria sink Senegal in fiery final to claim second Africa Cup of Nations

Updated 20 July 2019
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Algeria sink Senegal in fiery final to claim second Africa Cup of Nations

CAIRO: Baghdad Bounedjah’s early goal propelled Algeria to a first Africa Cup of Nations title in 29 years after a fiery 1-0 victory over Sadio Mane’s Senegal in Friday’s final in Cairo.
Bounedjah gave Algeria a dream start in the second minute when his deflected shot looped over Senegal goalkeeper Alfred Gomis, and it proved enough for the 1990 champions to lift the trophy on foreign soil for the first time.
For Senegal, who lost to Algeria by the same scoreline in the group stage, the long wait for a first continental crown goes on as coach Aliou Cisse, the captain of the 2002 runners-up, again fell short in the final.
It was the first title-decider to feature two African coaches since 1998, with Algeria boss Djamel Belmadi completing a whirlwind 12 months at the helm after inheriting a side that failed to make it out of the group stage two years ago.
With defensive rock Kalidou Koulibaly suspended for Senegal, Salif Sane deputised at the back and Ismaila Sarr was recalled in attack, while Belmadi kept faith in the same side that overcame Nigeria with an injury-time free-kick from Riyad Mahrez.
Senegal had understandably feared the absence of Napoli star Koulibaly, banned after two bookings in the knockout rounds, although the towering Sane was desperately unlucky as Algeria grabbed the lead with scarcely a minute played.
As Bounedjah took aim from 20 yards his effort smacked off Sane and arced high into the air before dropping underneath the crossbar and beyond a static Gomis, sparking delirious celebrations from both players and fans, some of whom arrived for the final on military planes provided by the Algerian government.
It was the first time Gomis had conceded in almost 400 minutes in Egypt having replaced the injured Edouard Mendy ahead of Senegal’s final group game.
Henri Saivet, who missed a penalty in the 1-0 victory over Tunisia, tried to catch Rais Mbohli out with a free-kick while Mbaye Niang fizzed a powerful drive just over as Senegal gradually showed signs of life before the half ended with both sets of players embroiled in a scuffle as they headed for the tunnel.
Senegal thought they had won a penalty on the hour when Cameroonian referee Alioum Alioum pointed to the spot for a suspected handball by Adlene Guedioura, but the official reversed his decision after a VAR review.
Niang rounded an advancing Mbohli after a searching ball through from Cheikhou Kouyate but the forward sliced wide of the target from a tough angle, with the Algeria ‘keeper then acrobatically tipping over a rasping drive from Youssouf Sabaly.
The Desert Foxes started to look jaded as Senegal brought on fresh legs in Krepin Diatta and Mbaye Diagne, but Youcef Belaili nearly made it 2-0 when his cross brushed the head of a defender and skimmed the roof of the net.
Sarr blazed over on the volley as Algeria clung on to their advantage in the closing minutes, the final whistle greeted by an outpouring of raw emotion as the North Africans emerged worthy winners of the expanded 24-team event.