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

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.”

Champion Marquez begins 2020 build-up in Japan

Repsol Honda Team rider Marc Marquez of Spain takes a corner during the second free practice session at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Motegi, Tochigi prefecture on October 18, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 48 min 54 sec ago

Champion Marquez begins 2020 build-up in Japan

  • Behind Marquez all riders down to Quartararo are still in with a chance of the runners up position for the 2019 season

MOTEG, JAPAN: With his sixth MotoGP world title already secured, Marc Marquez will head into this weekend’s Japanese race already planning for next season where he will aim to close in on Giacomo Agostini’s all-time record of eight elite level championships.
Spain’s Marquez claimed his sixth MotoGP crown in seven seasons last time out in Thailand, with four races to spare, and eighth overall.
A race victory on Sunday would be his 10th of the season but the 26-year-old Honda rider is already thinking of next year where another title would take him level with Valentino Rossi, who won the last of his seven world championships in 2009, one back from Agostini, whose record eighth came in 1975.
“The target now is to win the ‘Triple Crown,’” said Marquez. “The constructors championship is there but the team championship will be difficult, we’ll never give up. 2020 starts in Motegi.”
His focus on next year comes as a consequence of the pressure being applied by fast-improving French rookie Fabio Quartararo.
The Yamaha rider has suffered two narrow defeats to the world champion in recent races with victory only decided on the closing laps.
“I didn’t expect this guy,” Marqeuz said of Quartararo. “He will be a very tough contender next year for the championship.”
The 20-year-old Frenchman has had four pole positions and five podium slots so far.
“I really like this track,” Quartararo said on Thursday on the Twin Ring Motegi track which is 86 miles away from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.
“The objective at the beginning of the year was to take the ‘Rookie of the year’ title, but I’m not focussing on that any more.”
Quartararo’s rookie season has seen the Petronas Yamaha rider climb to seventh in the rankings, and in the second half of the season he has emerged as Marquez’s biggest rival.
Behind Marquez all riders down to Quartararo are still in with a chance of the runners up position for the 2019 season.
However, Ducati’s 33-year-old Andrea Dovizioso, who won in Japan in 2017, can seal second place on Sunday.
“I’m expecting to deliver a big performance, it’s a stop-start kind of course with fast acceleration key and our machine likes that even if some of the bends suit other bikes,” said Dovizioso, who was 125cc champion back in 2004 but never yet won the title in the top category.
The season wraps up with a 21st race at Valencia in mid-November after visits to Australia and Malaysia.