Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez face off in World Cup qualifying; Brazil could field teenager Endrick

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez face off in World Cup qualifying; Brazil could field teenager Endrick
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi heads the ball next to midfielder Rodrigo De Paul during a training session in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires Province, on Nov. 14, 2023, ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifier football matches against Uruguay and Brazil. (AFP)
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Updated 15 November 2023
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Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez face off in World Cup qualifying; Brazil could field teenager Endrick

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez face off in World Cup qualifying; Brazil could field teenager Endrick
  • Messi will likely be playing his last two matches of the calendar year against Uruguay and then Brazil next week at the Maracana Stadium
  • Brazil will travel to face Colombia in Barranquilla as they try to recover from a home draw with Venezuela and a loss at Uruguay in their previous two qualifying matches

SAO PAULO: Lionel Messi and Luiz Suarez, close friends and former teammates at Barcelona, will renew their on-the-field rivalry on Thursday in World Cup qualifying.

Messi, who appears to have recovered from a muscle injury in his leg, led Argentina to their third World Cup title last year and has his team in first place in the South American qualifying group for the 2026 tournament. The 36-year-old Suarez has just returned to Uruguay’s national team as he nears the end of a high-scoring season in the Brazilian league.

The Argentines will take on two-time World Cup champion Uruguay at La Bombonera Stadium in Buenos Aires.

Also Thursday, Brazil will travel to face Colombia in Barranquilla as they try to recover from a home draw with Venezuela and a loss at Uruguay in their previous two qualifying matches. Brazil coach Fernando Diniz, who recently won the Copa Libertadores with Fluminense, could use teenager Endrick after calling him up for the first time.

Argentina leads the 10-team South American qualifying group with 12 points from four matches. Uruguay, Brazil and Venezuela have seven points each and are separated by goal difference. Colombia has six points, while Ecuador, Paraguay and Chile have four each. Peru has one point and Bolivia has zero.

The next World Cup in the US, Mexico and Canada will include 48 teams, meaning direct entry for the top six teams in South America. The seventh-place team will contest an intercontinental playoff for a berth.

ARGENTINA vs. URUGUAY

Messi will likely be playing his last two matches of the calendar year against Uruguay and then Brazil next week at the Maracana Stadium. The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner finished his season with Inter Miami on Oct. 21.

Suarez, a teammate of Messi at Barcelona from 2014-20, will return to Uruguay’s national team for the first time under coach Marcelo Bielsa. The veteran striker earned his place despite knee pain, which he doesn’t hide during every match for Brazilian club Gremio.

Both Argentina and Uruguay are expected to qualify for the next World Cup, but Messi and Suarez are not guaranteed to be with their national teams in 2026.

Argentina left back Nicolas Tagliafico, however, is hoping Messi will stay in the mix if the team defends its Copa America title next year in the US.

“If we win, I think he might extend it a little more. If we didn’t win the World Cup in Qatar, he would leave. But he did it and wants to enjoy it,” Tagliafico told newspaper La Nacion. “If we win Copa America, I am certain that will be an incentive for Leo to continue.”

COLOMBIA vs. BRAZIL

Endrick, who is set to join Real Madrid in January, is expected to get some playing time at Colombia.

The 17-year-old forward is likely to join Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo — both already playing for Madrid — up front.

Casemiro and Neymar, two of Brazil’s key players in recent years, are out with injuries.

Brazil have had a tough time winning in Colombia in recent World Cup qualifying campaigns, and facing Argentina in the next match on Tuesday could make it more difficult.

“We know that Brazil versus Argentina is a different match because of it all,” Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimarães said Tuesday at the team’s training ground in Teresopolis. “We have a big focus on Colombia, it is a tough and physical match. We are giving due attention to Colombia and then we will give it to Argentina.”

Colombia will field a recovered Luis Diaz, who on Tuesday was reunited with his father. Luis Manuel Diaz Jimenez was kidnapped by a guerrilla group in late October. He was released last week.

Also Thursday, Bolivia will face Peru, Venezuela will host Ecuador, and Chile will take on Paraguay.


Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
Updated 22 February 2024
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Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
  • The Jeddah giants leave it late but progress after a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan

Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad squeezed into the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on Thursday thanks to a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan, following a goalless draw in the first leg last week.

The Jeddah giants recovered from a Karim Bemzema own goal midway through the first half to take control of the game, level the score and eventually go through thanks to a late Navbahor own goal. It was no less than the Saudis deserved as they made most of the running and created the bulk of the chances.

Fabinho had the earliest opportunity to open the scoring but the former Liverpool midfielder fired just over the bar from outside the box.

The opening goal came from a familiar source but not in the way fans expected. The home crowd was silenced in the 25th minute when Jamshid Iskanderov floated over a free-kick from the right, and former Real Madrid star Benzema met it on the edge of the six-yard box to send a powerful header into his own net past a startled Abdullah Al-Mayouf.

The goal came out of nothing, against the run of play, but Al-Ittihad quickly regrouped, refocused their efforts and continued to dominate the game.

Benzema redeemed himself on the stroke of half-time, nodding down a corner to the near post where Abderrazak Hamdallah was waiting to sweep the ball home from close range.

The second half unfolded in much the same fashion, with Al-Ittihad enjoying most of the possession and creating more of the chances. Midway through the period, however, they were reminded of Navbahor’s goal threat when Filip Ivankovic fired just wide from the right side of the area.

With 15 minutes remaining, Benzema had the ball in the net, the correct one this time, when he fired home after some good work from Ahmed Hegazy. After a lengthy intervention, however, the video assistant referee ruled it out.

This only delayed the celebrations of the home fans, though, as three minutes from time the Tigers took a decisive lead, thanks to another own goal.

Substitute Saleh Al-Amri’s corner from the right failed to clear the first man but, in swinging a boot, Toma Tabatadze sliced his attempted clearance and the ball looped over the keeper into the far corner of the net.

Navbahor did their utmost to get back on level terms but time was against them and it was not to be. As a result, Al-Ittihad, back-to-back winners of the competition in 2004 and 2005, remain in the hunt for a third continental crown.


Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16

Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16
Updated 22 February 2024
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Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16

Milan and Benfica book spots in Europa League last 16
  • Benjamin Bourigeaud scored a hat-trick for Rennes, including a pair of penalties
  • Benfica also saw off French opposition as a 0-0 draw away to Toulouse

PARIS: AC Milan overcame a spirited Rennes 5-3 on aggregate despite a 3-2 loss in Thursday’s second leg to reach the Europa League last 16, where they will be joined by fellow former European champions Benfica.
Benjamin Bourigeaud scored a hat-trick for Rennes, including a pair of penalties, but goals from Luka Jovic and Rafael Leao ensured Milan were never really in danger of blowing a 3-0 lead from the first leg.
Benfica also saw off French opposition as a 0-0 draw away to Toulouse was enough to send the Portuguese side through following their 2-1 victory in last week’s first leg in Lisbon.
Marseille host Shakhtar Donetsk later in Jean-Louis Gasset’s first match at the helm following the exit of Gennaro Gattuso. The tie is level at 2-2 after the opening match in Hamburg.
Last season’s runners-up Roma take on Feyenoord in the Italian capital after a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
Sporting Lisbon are 3-1 up on Swiss champions Young Boys going into the return fixture, while Galatasaray have a 3-2 edge over Sparta Prague.
The draw for the last 16 will be made at UEFA headquarters in Nyon on Friday.


Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop

Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop
Updated 22 February 2024
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Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop

Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop
  • The Clarets are on course for relegation after a 5-0 hammering at home to Arsenal left them in 19th place
  • Offering an emotional account of his inner drive, Kompany said on Thursday: “It’s a deep answer, it’s about where you come from”

LONDON: Burnley boss Vincent Kompany has revealed his father’s experiences as a political refugee give him the drive and determination to lead the club’s fight for Premier League survival.
The Clarets are on course for relegation after a 5-0 hammering at home to Arsenal left them in 19th place with just three wins this season, but Kompany’s resolve has roots far beyond the football pitch.
Explaining his hunger to succeed, the former Manchester City captain cited his father Pierre, who fled what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for Belgium as a dissident in 1975 having protested against the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
He put his son on the path to a glittering sporting career and later became Belgium’s first black mayor.
Offering an emotional account of his inner drive, Kompany said on Thursday: “It’s a deep answer, it’s about where you come from.
“Where I come from is my dad, who was a political refugee. He had to flee a country not just at war, but as a dictatorship where he was getting whipped in his twenties because he was against the regime over there.
“It’s fleeing from one part of the country to the other, it’s losing family members, it’s everything you’ve experienced. It’s where I come from.
“You say where does the drive and desire come from? I have so many reasons to have that fire in me every single day. So many reasons why I can’t ever do less.
“It’s bigger than one result, or a bad month, or anything like that.”
Kompany, whose side face fellow strugglers Crystal Palace on Saturday, also pushed back against the notion that this season’s struggles were a new experience for someone more accustomed to lifting silverware than fighting the drop.
“That’s the bulk of the known experiences, yeah. But a gambler never tells you about his losses, right?” he said.
“That (a serial winner) is what you see, but my experiences feel different. I do feel I’ve had to overcome and do a lot to get where I was.”


Kroos announces Germany return ahead of Euro 2024

Kroos announces Germany return ahead of Euro 2024
Updated 22 February 2024
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Kroos announces Germany return ahead of Euro 2024

Kroos announces Germany return ahead of Euro 2024
  • “Hey folks, short and sweet, I’ll be playing for Germany again from March,” Kroos said

BERLIN: World Cup winner Toni Kroos announced his return to the German national team on Thursday ahead of Euro 2024 on home soil.
Kroos, 34, will be eligible for selection in the upcoming March international friendlies against France and the Netherlands.
“Hey folks, short and sweet, I’ll be playing for Germany again from March,” Kroos said in an Instagram post.
“Why? Because I was asked by the coach and I’m up for it.
“I’m sure that much more is possible with the team at the European Championship than most people think right now.”
The Real Madrid midfielder, who has 106 caps for Germany, stepped down from international duty after the Euro 2020 last-16 elimination at the hands of eventual finalists England.


Ex-Brazil star Dani Alves sentenced to 4.5 years in jail for rape

Ex-Brazil star Dani Alves sentenced to 4.5 years in jail for rape
Updated 22 February 2024
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Ex-Brazil star Dani Alves sentenced to 4.5 years in jail for rape

Ex-Brazil star Dani Alves sentenced to 4.5 years in jail for rape
  • It also ordered the three-time Champions League winner to five years’ probation after he serves his jail term
  • “The victim did not consent and there is evidence that, beyond the complainant’s testimony, permits the rape to be considered proven,” the Barcelona court wrote in a statement

BARCELONA: A Spanish court on Thursday sentenced former Brazil international Dani Alves to four and a half years in prison after finding him guilty of raping a young woman at a Barcelona nightclub in December 2022.
It also ordered the three-time Champions League winner to five years’ probation after he serves his jail term, and demanded he pay 150,000 euros ($162,000) in compensation to the victim.
“The victim did not consent and there is evidence that, beyond the complainant’s testimony, permits the rape to be considered proven,” the Barcelona court wrote in a statement.
“The court considers as proven the fact that the defendant abruptly grabbed the complainant, threw her to the ground and penetrated her vaginally, preventing her from moving, while the complainant said no and wanted to leave.”
Prosecutors had called for a nine-year jail sentence for the 40-year-old followed by 10 years of probation.
Alves, who maintains the sex with the woman was consensual, will appeal the ruling, his lawyer told reporters outside the court.
One of the world’s most decorated footballers who played for Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain during a storied career, Alves went on trial earlier this month on charges of raping a woman at the Sutton nightclub in the early hours of December 31, 2022.
His accuser — who testified behind a screen to protect her identity — said Alves had violently forced her to have sex in a private bathroom of the nightclub despite her begging him to let her go, causing her “anguish and terror,” according to prosecutors.
Police officers who attended the woman told the court about the victim’s state of agitation and “shock” when they arrived at the nightclub, as well as her anxiety that “nobody would believe her” if she filed a complaint.
During the trial, his defense focused on trying to show that Alves was drunk when he met the woman.
Alves, who was present in court throughout his three-day trial, testified that his sexual encounter with the woman was consensual and denied hitting her and grabbing her hair.
“I am not that type of man, I am not violent,” he told the court after his defense lawyer asked if he had forced her to have sex.
“If she wanted to leave, she could have left, she was not obligated to be there,” he added.
But the court ruled that the injuries found on the victim’s knees were “the result of the violence used by Mr. Alves,” and said her testimony had been “consistent” throughout the proceedings.
Spain’s leftist government in 2022 passed new legislation — dubbed the “only yes means yes” law — that strengthens the country’s penal code against rape by requiring explicit consent for sex acts, a move long demanded by assault survivors and women’s rights groups.
The player’s defense had argued that the young woman had danced “glued” to him at the nightclub, and there was “sexual tension” between the two.
But the court ruled that “these attitudes... do not mean giving ‘carte blanche’ to... a subsequent aggression.”
Alves initially denied knowing the woman in a TV interview but later acknowledged having sex with her, saying it was consensual.
He told La Vanguardia newspaper in June that he had lied because he was afraid his wife would leave him.
The player has been in detention since he was arrested in Barcelona in January 2023. His requests to be released on bail have been repeatedly denied by the courts which considered him a flight risk.
Brazil does not extradite its own citizens when they are sentenced in other countries.
Alves is widely considered one of the greatest defenders of all time, winning 42 trophies during a highly successful career.
The peak of his career was with Barcelona between 2008 and 2016 when he won 23 trophies. At the time of his arrest, he was contracted to Mexican club Pumas UNAM. He was sacked soon after being detained.