Is Messi still the world’s best player?

Ninety per cent of climbers reach Everest base camp. Only the strong and the skilled make it to the summit of the world’s highest mountain. But even Everest base camp is almost as high as Mount Kilimanjaro. It is a four-day descent from there. Context matters.

Lionel Messi is on the descent himself. At 33, his very best years are behind him. That lightning turn of pace is gone and while his ball manipulation remains unsurpassed, time is one opponent he can never beat. Another Champions League season has now slipped by.

Just for a moment in Paris on Wednesday evening, there was a flicker of hope that the old magician might conjure up one more remontada for the road. A fierce shot from distance pulled one goal back. A penalty award soon after offered the chance of a second.

But that spot-kick was saved and with three goals still needed to have any hope of keeping Barcelona in a competition that Messi has won four times, they could not score one. Kylian Mbappe goes through. Messi joins Cristiano Ronaldo on the outside looking in.

It feels like a neat transfer of power on a night when Mbappe broke Messi’s record as the youngest player to score 25 Champions League goals. Erling Haaland had become the fastest to reach 20 of them as Ronaldo’s exited with Juventus. Power shift confirmed.

There is little point arguing that either are what they were. But how right is it to rush to crown new kings when the old ones are still alive and kicking the ball like Messi did here?

Even aside from his wonderful goal, he was the game’s outstanding player against Paris Saint-Germain, having the most shots on target, making the most passes in the opposition half, creating the most chances, completing the most crosses and the most dribbles.

Lionel Messi's passing for Barcelona in the Champions League this season

There was the delightful moment when he left two markers on the deck with the merest hint of a dropped shoulder. Moments later he was nudging the ball in behind the PSG defence only for Ousmane Dembele to waste yet another opportunity to score.

Barcelona were better than they have been for some time but the team’s limitations were obvious. Messi can no longer count on Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves for company. The club is in transition on and off the pitch and their captain is suffering as a result.

Messi’s game has changed too. The scamp who pressed with a passion, Pep Guardiola’s best defender, is gone. Energy conservation is the theme now, a man who appears to have reasoned that 60 games a year played at his pace is better than far fewer at full tilt.

But while Mbappe and Haaland deserve their praise and are worth being excited about, there is a danger that in acknowledging Messi’s decline, we risk judging him not against those who have come to claim his crown but against the player he once was.

Nobody, not even Messi, can compete with that.

There will be no repeat of 2012, when he scored a freakish 91 goals for club and country in the calendar year. But consider that while Mbappe has 10 so far in 2021 and Haaland is ahead of him on 14, Messi, the fading force, has found the net on 15 occasions himself.

These bald statistics matter because they reveal a picture free from the narrative of a man usurped. Put simply, if anyone else were producing the numbers that Messi is currently producing there would be little talk of decline, only that this player might be – objectively – the outstanding performer in European football.

Lionel Messi's stats for Barcelona in La Liga this season

He is not only the top scorer in La Liga this season, he has created the most big chances for others too. Only the poor finishing of his team-mates stops him topping the assist charts – and there were plenty of examples of that for Barca in Paris – but he is still fourth.

This is what still sets Messi apart in the numbers. While Mbappe and Haaland are scoring slightly more goals per 90 minutes this season, there is more to his game. They are not creating as many chances combined or completing as many dribbles combined as he does.

The dribbles are not as eye-catching as before but there have still been 105 of them in La Liga, far more than anyone else. Messi is top for touches, passes, crosses and through-balls.

In the Champions League, the numbers are similar. Messi has scored five goals in the competition this season but also ranks second for chances created and second for dribbles completed. He continues to be three players rolled into one – scorer, creator, dribbler.

He is at his own personal summit no longer. But the level is still lofty.

It is natural to view Messi’s current level through the prism of what came before. The great soprano Maria Callas spent the second half of her career with fans lamenting her lost octave. Paul McCartney has sold 100 million records since the end of The Beatles.

There is a tale about Peter Cook, once voted by his fellow comedians as the greatest comic mind of them all, that illustrates the danger of comparison with one’s own earlier standards. It happened when he agreed to work with Chris Morris, the standout satirist of his day.

Morris “held out no great hope that he wouldn’t be a boozy old sack of lard with hair falling out and scarcely able to get a sentence out” – such was the reputation that preceded the ageing Cook. Amid hushed tones, folk spoke of lost talent, a gift long since squandered.

Instead, Cook “proceeded to skip about mentally with the agility of a grasshopper” as he improvised a series of “ridiculous scenes flipping back on themselves” to leave Morris stunned. “It was amazing,” said the much younger man. “Really quite extraordinary.”

Cook was not what he was. But he was still better than the rest.

Where is Messi on his own journey down from the top? Somewhere near Everest base camp, one suspects. Mount Kilimanjaro levels. In football terms, that four-day hike to the bottom could be many years away yet. Be sure to enjoy the player he still is until then.

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PSG survive early scare to dump out Barca

PSG survived a first-half onslaught from Barcelona, where Lionel Messi scored but missed a penalty, to draw 1-1 and progress 5-2 on aggregate in the Champions League.

Ronald Koeman’s side needed to score four goals for the tie to swing in their favour in Paris and started like a team capable of producing them with Osama Dembele wasting some glorious early chances.

It was to be PSG who opened the scoring when referee Antony Taylor awarded a penalty via the use of the pitchside monitor to deem that Mauro Icardi had been fouled off the ball by Clement Lenglet. The penalty was dispatched by Kylian Mbappe as he became the youngest player in Champions League history to reach 25 goals in the competition, taking the mantle from Messi.

Despite falling behind, Barcelona remained positive and Messi thrashed home a fabulous strike to inspire some hope but that hope faded away when his penalty was saved by Keylor Navas just before half-time.

The Spanish giants needed three second-half goals to force extra-time but PSG were much better organised after the break and restricted Messi’s influence on the game.

This will be the first Champions League season without a Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo side in the quarter-finals since 2004/05.

PSG will find out their opponents in the last eight on Friday, March 19 when the draw is made.

More to follow…

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Laporta wins Barcelona presidential election

Joan Laporta has won the Barcelona presidential election by a landslide.

With more than 54 per cent of the vote, the 58-year-old triumphed over Victor Font (29.99 per cent) and Toni Freixa (8.58 per cent) to gain his second term at the helm.

Laporta was previously president during one of the club’s most successful periods; earning 12 trophies between 2003 and 2010 including a famous treble under Pep Guardiola and with Lionel Messi as talisman.

Keeping the Argentina star will be his biggest and immediate priority, with Messi’s contract expiring in the summer and the player unsure whether he wants to finish his career at his boyhood club.

Messi – a target for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain – will take Laporta’s plans into consideration before making a decision on his future this summer, but the team are behind Atletico Madrid in the title race and look sure to be knocked out of the Champions League by Paris Saint-Germain, down 4-1 from their last-16 first leg.



GETTY - Lionel Messi arrived with his son as he cast his vote in the Barcelona presidential election




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Lionel Messi arrived with his son as he cast his vote in the Barcelona presidential election (Pictures: Barca TV)

Messi was pictured casting his vote at the Nou Camp earlier on Sunday as well as first-team players Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba. Former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who was was among four ex-Barcelona officials arrested in a corruption probe by Catalan police, also cast his at the stadium – one of four locations.

Bartomeu kept a low profile, having spent the night at a Catalan police station last weekend, after being detained along with current chief executive Oscar Grau, director of legal services Gomez Ponti, and advisor to the president Jaume Masferrer.

Sergio Busquets (Image c/o FC Barcelona)
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Sergio Busquets was one of several Barcelona first-team players to cast an early vote in the election (Image c/o FC Barcelona)

Despite the scandal, Barca were determined to present the vote as a positive occasion, hailing their democratic history and following strict coronavirus measures, having postponed the vote from January 24.

By the opening of voting at 9am on Sunday, more than 20,000 of the 110,290 members had cast theirs by postal ballot. As well as the Nou Camp, there were voting stations set up in Girona, Lleida, Tarragona, Tortosa and Andorra.

Who is Joan Laporta and what has he promised?

Joan Laporta (Image c/o FC Barcelona)

Joan Laporta was previously the Barcelona president from 2003 to 2010.

This was one of the club’s most successful periods in which they clinched 12 major trophies, including their first treble under Pep Guardiola in 2009.

For this reason, he is popular with a large part of the fan base.

Laporta has declared he has the best chance of keeping Lionel Messi at the club out of all the candidates.

He said early in his candidacy that he will “do everything to ensure Messi continues” with Barcelona beyond the end of his contract this summer.

He has also pledged to make La Masia – the club’s academy – the focus again and the main source of players for the first team.

“What can guarantee the club’s future is La Masia: we’ll present a project with a new methodology to make La Masia a centre of excellence central to our focus,” he has said.

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CL last 16: Will Juve, Barca complete second-leg comebacks?

The Champions League last-16 second legs get under way this week with Liverpool, Barcelona and PSG in action, but who will make it to the quarter-finals?

Borussia Dortmund vs Sevilla (agg 3-2), Tuesday, 8pm

17 February 2021, Spain, Sevilla: Football: Champions League, knockout round, round of 16, first leg Sevilla FC - Borussia Dortmund at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Dortmund's Erling Haaland (r) celebrates after scoring the goal to make it 1:2. Photo by: Daniel Gonzalez Acuna/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)
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Erling Haaland scored twice in the first leg and has netted four times since

Team news

Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna and Raphael Guerreiro are out, but leading striker Erling Haaland will be fit, coach Edin Terzic said on Monday. However, Jadon Sancho remains sidelined for several weeks.

Sevilla to be confirmed…

What happened last time?

In a thrilling first-leg tie, Sevilla took the lead early through Suso Fernandez but Dortmund rallied with a goal by Mahmoud Dahoud and a Haaland double before half-time at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium. Luuk de Jong scored Sevilla’s late second goal to improve the Spanish team’s chances in the return leg on Tuesday.

The win ended Sevilla’s strong run and put Dortmund back on track after a series of poor results that had left coach Edin Terzic under pressure.

What’s happened since?

Sevilla players celebrate after Suso scored his side's opening goal during the Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match between Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Angel Fernandez)
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Sevilla will need to find more goals if they are to knock Borussia Dortmund out of the Champions League

The defeat has sent Sevilla on a downward spiral, winning just once since against Osasuna in La Liga. They have lost successive games against Barcelona – one knocking them out of the Copa del Rey – before defeat to Elche on Saturday.

In comparison, Dortmund have won three games since their victory in Spain, but were beaten 4-2 by Bayern Munich in Der Klassiker at the weekend. Sevilla will also be concerned that Haaland has scored four more goals since the first leg.

The key stats

  • Borussia Dortmund’s only previous home match against Sevilla was in the 2010-11 Europa League group stage, losing 1-0.
  • Sevilla have lost three of their last four Champions League matches against German sides, since a 3-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach in September 2015.
  • Sevilla have never gone through in a European Cup/UEFA Champions League knockout tie after losing the first leg, going out against Real Madrid in 1957-58, Fenerbahce in 2007-08 and Bayern Munich in 2017-18.

Juventus vs Porto (agg 1-2), Tuesday, 8pm

Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during the Champions League round of 16, first leg, soccer match between FC Porto and Juventus at the Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Luis Vieira)
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Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo did not have an impact in the first leg

Team news

Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini and Paulo Dybala will miss Tuesday’s match through injury, while Matthijs de Ligt’s participation is also in doubt. Rodrigo Bentancur tested positive for COVID-19 late last week and will likely miss out while Danilo is suspended.

Porto are expected to be without Chancel Mbemba, while Ivan Marcano is also an injury doubt.

What happened last time?

Mehdi Taremi gave Porto the lead after just 63 seconds when a defensive mix-up from Juventus gifted him an easy finish. Moussa Marega then netted 19 seconds into the second half.

But Federico Chiesa scored what could prove to be a vital away goal for Juventus in the 82nd minute, with Cristiano Ronaldo failing to make an impact. Tuesday’s hosts will need him firing on all cylinders if they are to reach the Champions League quarter-finals for a fourth time in five seasons.

What’s happened since?

Porto's Moussa Marega, right, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the Champions League round of 16, first leg, soccer match between FC Porto and Juventus at the Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Luis Vieira)
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Moussa Marega scored against Juventus in the first leg

Juventus are unbeaten in their four games since the first leg. Furthermore, they are also unbeaten in their last 11 games in all competitions at Juventus Stadium, winning 10 of those fixtures. Juventus have scored nine goals combined in their last three home matches, all have which have come since defeat to Porto.

But Porto have proved hard to beat in recent away matches, losing just one of their last 15 games on the road. They have won both away games since the first leg, but have drawn and lost two at home, including a Portuguese Cup exit to Braga.

The key stats

  • Juventus have won their two home Champions League matches against Porto, winning 3-1 in October 2001 and 1-0 in March 2017, the latter being the second leg of the last 16 of the 2016-17 tournament.
  • FC Porto’s 2-1 victory over Juventus in the first leg was their first ever win over them in European competition in the sixth attempt (D1 L4). Porto have lost their last five away Champions League games in Italy, since a 3-2 win over AC Milan in 1996.
  • Juventus have been eliminated from five of their last six UEFA Champions League knockout ties when losing the first leg, with the exception being the 2018-19 last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid (0-2 first leg, 3-0 second leg).
  • FC Porto have been eliminated in each of their last three UEFA Champions League knockout ties after winning the first leg, going out versus Arsenal in 2009-10, M├ílaga in 2012-13 and Bayern Munich in 2014-15.

Liverpool vs RB Leipzig (agg 2-0), Wednesday, 8pm

Liverpool played RB Leipzig in Budapest last week in the Champions League
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Liverpool halted a run of three defeats with a win against RB Leipzig in the first leg

Team news

To be confirmed…

What happened last time?

Liverpool broke a run of three straight defeats with their designated away victory at Budapest, where Wednesday’s tie again takes place.

Jurgen Klopp’s side hit their opponents with a quickfire double after half-time with Mohamed Salah (53) and Sadio Mane (58) punishing some inexplicable defending from the Bundesliga side.

The good news for Liverpool is that they have never been eliminated from a European Cup/Champions League knockout tie after winning away from home in the first leg. In addition, the last time they won both legs in the Round of 16 was back in 2008/09 against Real Madrid.

Liverpool's Roberto Firminho takes on RB Leipzig's Nordi Mukiele in Tuesday's last 16 tie
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Liverpool lead 2-0 in the Champions League last-16 tie

What’s happened since?

RB Leipzig could not have timed their Champions League round of 16 return leg any better. Leipzig’s 3-0 win at Freiburg at the weekend was their sixth straight league victory, while Liverpool slumped to a club-record extending sixth consecutive home league defeat on Sunday, losing 1-0 to Fulham.

Liverpool have only beaten Premier League basement boys Sheffield United since their first-leg win, losing their three other games, with their two goals against the Blades the only match in which they have managed to score.

The key stats



LIVERPOOL 0-1 FULHAM




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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Fulham’s win over Liverpool in the Premier League
  • Since his Borussia Dortmund side were beaten by Bayern Munich in the 2012-13 Champions League final, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is unbeaten in his three games against German opponents in the competition (W2 D1), with all three of those fixtures coming in the Round of 16.
  • Liverpool will be the third English opponent RB Leipzig have faced away from home in the Champions League since the start of last season (also Spurs and Man Utd), while they suffered their heaviest defeat in European competition against Man Utd at Old Trafford back in October (0-5).
  • This will be the 21st time Liverpool have hosted German opposition across all European competitions, while they are unbeaten in the previous 20 (W16 D4), scoring 52 goals and conceding just nine in return.

PSG vs Barcelona (agg 4-1), Wednesday, 8pm

PSG's Kylian Mbappe celebrates after scoring his side's second goal against Barcelona
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PSG’s Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick against Barcelona in the first leg

Team news

To be confirmed…

What happened last time?

In an incredible first-leg encounter, Kylian Mbappe’s hat-trick inspired last season’s Champions League finalists PSG to an emphatic victory.

Lionel Messi gave Barca the lead from the penalty spot after Frenkie de Jong had his heels clipped by Layvin Kurzawa before Mbappe responded five minutes later for the visitors. After the break, Mbappe completed his hat-trick with Moise Kean netting PSG’s third goal in between his team-mate’s second-half strikes.

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring for Barcelona against PSG
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Lionel Messi was also on the scoresheet at the Nou Camp

It leaves Barca requiring another considerable comeback heading into the second leg on Wednesday, four years on from the sides’ memorable last-16 clash in which the La Liga outfit recovered from a 4-0 first-leg loss in France by winning the second 6-1 at the Nou Camp.

Barcelona are yet to concede a goal away from home in the Champions League this season (three games), but following defeats against Juventus and PSG in their last two games in the competition, face the prospect of losing three in a row in the European Cup/Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.

What’s happened since?

Barcelona are unbeaten since their defeat at the Nou Camp. It was followed by a disappointing draw against Cadiz in La Liga, but they have won all four games since. This run also included a comeback in the Copa del Rey, eventually knocking out Sevilla.

PSG followed their superb Champions League victory with a 2-0 defeat to Monaco in Ligue 1, but have won and kept clean sheets in their last three games, scoring eight goals.

The key stats

Moise Kean nodded home PSG's third Champions League goal
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Moise Kean nodded home PSG’s third Champions League goal
  • PSG have won two of their last three games against Barcelona in the Champions League (L1), as many victories as they managed against the Catalan side in their first eight meetings in the competition (W2 D3 L3).
  • In the history of the European Cup/UEFA Champions League, no team has ever progressed from a knockout tie over two legs after losing the first leg at home by a margin of three goals.
  • This will be the first UEFA Champions League meeting between PSG and Barcelona at the Parc des Princes since February 2017, when the home side recorded a 4-0 victory. This remains PSG’s biggest margin of victory in a home knockout game in the UEFA Champions League, while it’s also Barcelona’s joint-heaviest defeat in a knockout game away from home in the competition (also 0-4 v Liverpool in May 2019 and v Bayern in April 2013).
  • Barcelona have only won one of their last nine away games in the knockout stages of the Champions League (D3 L5), beating Manchester United 1-0 in April 2019. They have scored just three goals in total across these nine games, while failing to score at all in six of them.

Pitch to Post Review: Man City Quadruple a step too far? Bale’s Spurs future and Liverpool’s crisis assessed

Jasper Taylor is joined by Ben Ransom and Dharmesh Sheth to discuss the latest round of Premier League fixtures as Manchester United ended Manchester City’s 21-game unbeaten run on Super Sunday. After a third straight win at the Etihad, what is it about this fixture that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer loves? And what are City’s chances of an unprecedented Quadruple?

After a sixth straight home defeat for Liverpool, beaten by Fulham on Sunday, we ask: could their form do irreparable damage? And there’s praise for a huge statement victory for Scott Parker’s side.

In part three, Sky Sports News’ Paul Gilmour talks all things Spurs in the Regional Review- is Gareth Bale playing for his future at the club? And is Harry Kane the best striker in the world? And in part four, we get Dharmesh and Ben’s performances of the week, including some praise for Luke Shaw.

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