Wednesday, September 11, 2013

USA Advances to World Cup

From Huffington Post Sports:

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The United States has qualified for the World Cup while Mexico has taken another step backward after the Americans held on for a 2-0 victory over their CONCACAF rivals in a crucial CONCACAF qualifying match at Columbus Crew Stadium on Tuesday.

Coming off a devastating loss at Costa Rica four days earlier, Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan scored in the second half to put the Stars and Stripes in position to finish in the top three of the Hexagonal to book a place in Brazil next summer.

The USA, which moved back into first place ahead of Costa Rica, officially qualified for the World Cup after Panama lost to Honduras an hour after the final whistle of its win.

Fighting for position, the U.S. was without arguably the region's top player, Michael Bradley, who sat out for the second straight game with an ankle injury. Three additional Americans also missed the match because of yellow card accumulation: forward Jozy Altidore, midfielder Geoff Cameron and defender Matt Besler.

Ahead of the game, Klinsmann called in four additional players, including Clarence Goodson, who started in place of Besler in central defense along with Omar Gonzalez. Fabian Johnson shifted from midfield to the back line opposite of left back DaMarcus Beasley. Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Donovan, Alejandro Bedoya and lone striker Johnson filled out the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Mexico opened the match with a different feel from Friday, when the team had a late second-half collapse at home against Honduras for its second loss in the Hexagonal that ultimately led to the firing of coach Jose Manuel de la Torre. He was replaced by Luis Fernando Tena, who put star striker Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez back in the starting XI despite the striker coming off a hamstring injury.

After shifting much of their lineup from the Costa Rica loss, the Americans looked a bit unsettled after kickoff. Mexico was on the attack early, forcing goalkeeper Tim Howard to make a diving save on an attempt from Christian Giménez in the 18th minute for the first scoring opportunity from either side in the first half.

But after the nervy moment, Jurgen Klinsmann's men calmed down and had some chances of their own, with both Dempsey and Donovan getting into the box for shots that were blocked by Mexican defenders. Johnson nearly had the opener off a corner kick in the 32nd minute, but Mexico keeper Jesus Corona saved the attempt on the goal line.

The teams entered the half scoreless. But that wouldn't last long.

Playing with a sense of urgency in front of a raucous crowd, the U.S. came out of the locker room much like Mexico did to open the game. However, the Stars and Stripes were able to capitalize off of their surge when Johnson used his head to slip one into El Tri's goal.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

USA Wins Gold Cup

From Huffington Post Sports:

CHICAGO -- Jurgen Klinsmann helped get them there, and a young American squad did the rest to get their coach his first trophy with the United States.

With Klinsmann sitting in a booth high above the playing field at Soldier Field, the Stars and Stripes overcame their coach's suspension and dominated Panama to walk away witha 1-0 victory and a Gold Cup title in front of a crowd 57,900 on Sunday afternoon.

Brek Shea scored the lone goal in 69th minute in a match the U.S. controlled from start to finish with 69 percent of the possession, pushing the team's record winning streak to 11 games.

The U.S. has now won five Gold Cups, but this is the first trophy for Klinsmann, who took over the national squad two years ago and has the team headed in the right direction ahead of next summer's World Cup in Brazil.

Klinsmann was suspended for the match after getting tossed out of his team's 3-1 victory over Honduras in the semifinals last Wednesday. In Klinsmann's absence, his two assistant coaches, Martin Vasquez and Andreas Herzog, handled responsibilities from the sideline.

Their first major coaching decision came in the 23rd minute when they subbed out Stuart Holden after the midfielder went down with a knee injury caused by a collision with Panama's Alberto Quintero. Holden, who has been battling knee injuries for the last two years, was replaced by Mix Diskerud.

Holden's injury, which is being called a sprained knee and will be reevaluated, overshadowed anything that happened on the field in a first half that was lacked any real scoring chances for the Americas.

But things would go much more smoothly for the hosts in the second half.

Playing with a sense of urgency, Landon Donovan nearly drew a penalty kick shortly after halftime when he kicked the ball into a defender's hand, but the referee decide it was incidental contact. Moments later, he headed a cross just wide of the goal.

With full momentum on their side, the much-anticipated goal would come in the 69th minute. Donovan whiffed on a cross from Alejandro Bedoya but the ball rolled to Shea at the far post for an easy tap-in goal.
Shea, who had recorded his first international goal earlier in the tournament, scored just 43 seconds after entering the match for Joe Corona.

After the goal, Klinsmann left his box and would appear on the pitch after the final whistle to celebrate with the mostly reserve side that proved how deep the U.S. player pool has gotten since the German-born boss took over.

Monday, June 3, 2013

US Surprises Germany 4-3

From Fox Soccer:

They were strange and unusual scenes: the United States men’s national team picking apart the three-time world champions Germany in a 4 - 3 romp.

This startling result came on the back of the USA’s embarrassing 4-2 defeat to Belgium on Wednesday, in which they had been resoundingly outplayed.

“I think we saw a lot, a lot of good things on the field,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who faced the team he starred for and later coached. “Today, we set the tone right from the beginning, we pressured them high. We made it very difficult for them to play out of the back. There was a far higher pace in our game, a better understanding.”

The game marked the United States Soccer Federation’s hundredth anniversary. So a grandiose opponent was found in Germany to properly mark the occasion and frame the cocktail parties, gala dinners and other festivities which surrounded it. A boisterous sell-out crowd of 47,359 crammed into decrepit old RFK Stadium, where the overwhelmingly pro-USA patrons saw entertainment sufficient to justify the $60 average ticket price.

So abundant was the merriment that it was easy to forget that this was only a friendly, and that Germany had shown up with its second string – players from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, who form the core of the squad, were unavailable – or that the USA had given up two late goals, allowing the contest to become unnecessarily close.

In the sweltering 85-degree heat and 60-percent humidity, the heralded opponents, rumored to have been swayed with an eight-figure match fee, wilted quickly. Ahead of the game, Miroslav Klose, who would captain the Germans on Sunday, had denounced the predicted weather as “extreme”. And sure enough, the Germans looked very sluggish and a step behind the pace. At half-time several of them slumped over in exhaustion.

“I would almost call my team sleepy at times,” Germany head coach Joachim Low said following the game.

But if their opponents were hamstrung by their surroundings, the USA, looking resplendent in their white 1950 World Cup throwback jerseys, made the most of the opportunity afforded them. For the first time since their World Cup qualifier against Jamaica in Columbus in September, they zipped the ball about purposefully for long stretches. Jozy Altidore formed a good target, Clint Dempsey connected the dots around him and Michael Bradley dictated a smooth rhythm. At last, runs were sharp and transitions snappy.

“We did a better job with keeping possession in the attacking third, creating chances for ourselves and being sharp in front of goal,” said Dempsey.

The USA showed its willingness and intentions early, earning a series of looks from corners. With the backs overlapping well, allowing the wingers to drift inside to create a presence in the center of the park, ball circulation was markedly improved from previous outings. That’s how Graham Zusi was found out on the right in the 13th minute. Zusi quickly deposited a cross onto the boot of Altidore, who was wide-open in the box and struck his volley past the well-beaten Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Three minutes later, the high pressure USA head coach Klinsmann has so vociferously advocated throughout his time in charge forced Stegen into a bad own goal. Trying to play a square pass on a goal kick, ter Stegen mishandled defender Howedes' return pass so awfully that it trickled past him into his own net.

It was a deserved lead, but not one that went unthreatened. In the rare German jousts upfield, they twice created wide-open looks. But Per Mertesacker and Andre Schurrle both inexplicably sent their finishes wide and Klose drifted offside on his disallowed goal. The Germans looked disinterested and, at times, comical in moments of ineptitude, like when a teammate struck a pass into the back of Julian Drexler’s head.

Early in the second half, Heiko Westermann rose amid a pack of Americans and hammered his header through the raised arms of Tim Howard to make it 2-1. But soon enough, the newly-confident Altidore prepared a chance for Dempsey, who smashed in the USA’s third. A few minutes later, Dempsey deposited a sharp curler behind ter Stegen from outside the box.

“Having a player like Clint Dempsey on your team is just a privilege,” said Klinsmann. “This is one of the best players I think in U.S. history, you see him perform almost now every game on a very, very high level.”

With the stadium rocking, the USA grew emboldened and tinkered with the fancy stuff: the stepovers, the little chips, the against-the-grain clips. For the regular observer of this team, it was a strange and somewhat unsettling sight, the USA taking liberties with mighty Germany. And it would backfire. Max Kruse was afforded the room to hit in the 4-2. Then, Sydney Sam's shot was poorly handled by Howard, allowing Draxler to sweep in the 4-3.

This unloosed a topsy-turvy, end-to-end finale in which both teams had a bundle of chances. The USA maintained, however, and was allowed to add Germany to the high profile teams it has vanquished in friendlies, along with Mexico and Italy.

“We’re a little bit frustrated that we conceded three,” said Dempsey. “We thought the game should have been 4-1, 4-2 – that would have been nice. But still we take confidence from this going into the World Cup qualifier games.”

That’s the big question now, how this game affects the Americans going into their crucial bouts with Jamaica, Panama and Honduras between June 7 and 18. Spirits could soar, but the draining conditions may have sapped precious energies as the USA readies itself to travel to Kingston on Tuesday.
The legacy of this game will be decided by its aftermath, throughout the next month. It could prove a harmful and ultimately needless overexertion, or it may transpire to be the badly-needed boost in morale.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Consolation Championship

The problem with being a fan of an elite team like FC Barcelona, is that merely winning the league title isn't really good enough.  Earlier this week Barca wrapped up it's 22d Spanish league title.  Fans of most other soccer teams in any nation would be thumping their chests to win their league title.  For example, when hapless DC United finally wins the MLS Cup again at some point in the future, you can be sure that the team's fans will go berserk with happiness. 

However, for Barca, any year they don't also win the Copa del Rey and the Champions League title, somehow feels sub-par.  The expectations for this magnificent team are so high and, frankly, unrealistic.  No team can keep on winning every cup and title in sight, not even a side led by Lionel Messi; and neither did Manchester United win the English Premier League title every year under Sir Alex Ferguson. 

This year in particular, the drubbing that Barca received at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League tournament, has really seemed to dampen enthusiasm for winning La Liga title.  Twenty-two league titles is an awesome achievement, especially since this is the fourth La Liga title in the last five years.  Yet somehow, it does not feel as joyous for Barca fans as it would in other years.

So, congratulations to FC Barcelona for yet another Spanish league championship.  For most Barca fans, it somehow feels like a consolation prize-- the consolation championship of 2013.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Barca Rebounds Over Betis

From BBC Sport:

Lionel Messi came off the bench to score twice in quick succesion and help Barcelona get back to winning ways with a 4-2 victory over Real Betis at the Nou Camp.

The Argentine has now scored 60 goals this season, including 46 in the league, and the Catalan club need only one more win - or any dropped points from second-placed Real Madrid - to regain the La Liga title from their arch rivals.

It was the perfect response for Barca after their humiliating Champions League exit to Bayern Munich.

Barcelona were forced to work hard for their win against an adventurous Betis side, who took an early lead when poor defending allowed Colombian striker Dorlan Pabon to run unchallenged into the penalty area and convert with a low finish.

Their lead lasted barely two minutes, however, when Alexis Sanchez headed in Andres Iniesta's cross from the left.

David Villa was then the chief culprit as the home side wasted several chances. The Spain striker missed four presentable opportunities, while Cristian Tello crashed a shot against the underside of the crossbar.

Betis then punished Barca for their profligacy by retaking the lead shortly before half-time, and it was a stunning 30-yard strike into the top corner from Ruben Perez, who had never previously scored a professional goal.

The home fans were starting to get jittery in the early stages of the second period, but Villa calmed the nerves by finally scoring as he met Dani Alves's right-wing cross with a far-post header.

And then it was time for Messi. The Argentine star, who did not start due to an ongoing niggling hamstring injury, replaced Villa before play even resumed following the latter's equaliser, and wasted no time making his mark as he stepped up to score with a delicious free-kick from the right corner of the penalty area.

Remarkably, Messi very nearly did exactly the same thing a few minutes later, this time with a set-piece from the left edge of the box, only for the crossbar to rescue Betis.

Messi would not be denied, though, and he soon completed the scoring by profiting from some wonderfully slick passing which culminated in Iniesta and Sanchez combining to create a simple tap-in.

Sanchez nearly added a fifth with a cheeky chip and Betis keeper Adrian's save denied Messi a hat-trick after a mazy dribble in the last minute, but the game was already well won and Barcelona will be crowned champions if Madrid fail to beat Malaga on Wednesday evening.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bayern Crushes Barca 4-0

From Yahoo News:

MADRID, April 24 (Reuters) - Even Lionel Messi, so often Barcelona's saviour, was at a loss to explain how the La Liga leaders could come back from their Champions League semi-final mauling in Munich.
Barca were thumped 4-0 away by an impressive Bayern Munich in their first leg on Tuesday, putting in one of their most toothless displays in recent memory.

On Wednesday, they were greeted with newspaper headlines such as 'Historic beating' in Madrid-based daily Marca, 'Catastrophe' in Barcelona-based Mundo Deportivo, and 'Azulgrana Waterloo' in daily El Mundo.

The Barca players looked dazed and downcast as they spoke to reporters in the mixed zone, and lacked conviction when asked about their chances of turning the result around at the Nou Camp next Wednesday.
"They were better than us, they were much stronger. They beat us in everything and were superior," World Player-of-the-Year Messi told reporters.

"A comeback is difficult, Bayern are a very good team. We have to lift ourselves, try to secure the league title and try to turn this round. If we can't, we need to start thinking about next season."

Barca could be crowned La Liga champions for the fourth time in five years if they can beat Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, and Real Madrid lose the city derby at Atletico.

The Argentine forward has been the outstanding figure in the Barcelona side that won the European Cup in 2009 and 2011, his goals helping them to a sixth consecutive Champions League semi-final, but he was a barely noticed presence in Munich.

Messi suffered a hamstring injury against Paris St Germain in the quarter-final first leg, and after making a decisive substitute appearance to help Barca through the second leg two weeks ago, he has not played.

On Monday, he was given the all-clear to feature against Bayern, but on the pitch he looked short of spark and energy as he was crowded out time and again.

"I haven't played for a long time, but I felt fine," Messi said when asked about his fitness.


While Messi faltered, Barca coach Tito Vilanova's lack of faith in his alternatives up front was startling.
He did not make a substitution until the 83rd minute, bringing on striker David Villa for Pedro, by which time his side were already 4-0 down. His other two possible changes were not made.

Asked if the side were too reliant on Messi, Dani Alves retorted: "The debate on our 'Messi-dependency' only appears when we lose.

"It will be very difficult (to turn around)," the Brazil defender added. "But if we have to fall, let us do it with our heads held high. We haven't said the last word in this."

Barca came back from a 2-0 first-leg reverse to defeat AC Milan 4-0 at home in their last 16 tie in March, but the latest defeat felt more decisive.

Barca have famously shunned talk of a Plan B when their trademark passing game fails to produce the goods, simply saying they need to sharpen and improve Plan A.

Looking ahead to the second leg, their only alternatives up front are Cesc Fabregas and little-used winger Cristian Tello, while the suspension picked up by flying fullback Jordi Alba will limit them even further.
On top of that, is the feeling that the side are running out of steam.

Their pressing game high up the pitch has dropped off and the circulation of the ball has lost its zip, in stark contrast to a dynamic and imposing Bayern.

"They beat us with their physical fitness," Barca captain Xavi told reporters.

"We have to work a miracle. There are 90 minutes remaining and it is practically impossible, but we have to try because we wear the badge of Barcelona."

Friday, April 5, 2013

Barca, PSG Draw 2 - 2

From BBC Sport:

Barcelona have filed a complaint to Uefa about the refereeing of Wolfgang Stark in their 2-2 Champions League draw at Paris St-Germain.

Stark refused to stop play after Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba collided, leaving both players on the ground.

Barca were also left unhappy that Zlatan Ibrahimovic's equaliser stood after it appeared he was offside.
"It was evident that the referee did not apply the rules of the game," said Barca spokesman Toni Freixa.
"When two players from the same team are on the floor, the referee should stop the match, which did not happen.

"We are fully conscious of the possibility of errors in refereeing and we do not consider ourselves badly treated. But it surprises us that in a high-level competition a referee does not know the rules," Freixa added.

Stark has hit the headlines before when he sent England striker Wayne Rooney off during their 2-2 draw in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro in October 2011.

Barcelona host Paris St-Germain in their quarter-final second leg at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Magical Messi Over Milan

from sports:

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Hailed as perhaps soccer's greatest team ever, Barcelona faced a challenge no club had overcome: advancing in the Champions League after a 2-0 first-leg loss on the road.

Lionel Messi & Co. came through in spectacular fashion with another record-setting night.

Messi started the revival with a pair of first-half goals, and Barcelona overwhelmed AC Milan 4-0 Tuesday to reach its sixth straight Champions League quarterfinal with a 4-2 aggregate win.

"It had been a long time since we had pulled off a historic comeback," Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. "We pressed them very well and played an exceptional match."

Messi scored in the fifth and 40th minutes, and David Villa and Jordi Alba added second-half goals.
"We went out gunning from the start, and scoring early helped us," Villa said. "We have believed in the comeback ever since we lost in Milan, and belief combined with hard work is how you achieve things."

Before a screaming crowd of 94,944 at Camp Nou, Europe's largest stadium, Messi scored his first goal to goalkeeper Christian Abbiati's right with curling left-footed shot into the upper corner from 17 yards between two defenders. The goal moved Messi past Ruud van Nistelrooy into sole possession of second on the Champions League career list with 57, trailing only Raul Gonzalez's 71.

Messi then scored his second goal to Abbiati's left with a low 19-yard shot after Andres Iniesta stole the ball from Massimo Ambrosini.

"For anyone who doubted Messi, today Messi gave a lesson on how to play football," said Barcelona assistant coach Jordi Roura, in charge while coach Tito Vilanova undergoes treatment in New York for a saliva gland tumor. "He is extraordinary, and surrounded by great players, he is capable of doing what he does."

Villa put Barcelona ahead in the series in the 55th minute with a 14-yard shot after Cristian Zapata's weak clearance was intercepted by Javier Mascherano, and Kevin Constant missed a sliding tackle on Xavi's through pass to the forward.

Alba sealed the win in the second minute of stoppage time when he raced the length of the field on a counterattack after Messi stole the ball and passed to Alexis Sanchez on the break.
"Milan only needed a goal, but we knew how to handle the game very well," Alba said. "This is a very important win for us. A lot was at stake."

AC Milan, a seven-time champion, won the first leg at San Siro on Feb. 20 and nearly got a valuable away goal in the 38th minute, but 18-year-old forward M'baye Niang hit a post with an open shot after a sloppy headed backpass by Mascherano. If Niang had tied the game 1-1, Barcelona would have needed at least three more goals at that point to advance because away goals are a tiebreaker.

"Barcelona is still the best team in the world. Moving on was a true feat," Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said. "The first leg didn't change these two teams, and whoever thought so was wrong. We played worse than in the first leg, but that is to Barcelona's credit."

Messi, the four-time FIFA Player of the Year, got his 18th multigoal game of the season and increased his season goals total to 53.

Led by the 25-year-old Messi, Barcelona is seeking its fourth Champions League title in eight years and is closing in on its sixth Spanish league championship in nine seasons. Barcelona is 16-0-4 at home in the Champions League since a loss to Ruben Kazan in October 2009.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

DC United Rehires Olsen


D.C. United today announced that it has exercised its option to extend the contract of Head Coach Ben Olsen to run through the 2014 season. Per team and League policy, details of the contract were not disclosed.

“I appreciate the commitment and loyalty this club has given me over the years,” said D.C. United Head Coach Ben Olsen. “Hopefully I can continue to repay this organization with results and a team that our community is proud of.”

“Ben has had the leading role in rebuilding D.C. United and he is extremely deserving to have his option exercised a year in advance,” said D.C. United General Manager Dave Kasper. “We are very excited about our future with Ben as our head coach.”

Olsen originally took the role of interim head coach after United relieved Curt Onalfo of his duties in August of 2010. Prior to this promotion, Olsen served as an assistant coach under Onalfo after retiring as a player on November 24, 2009. Following improved play under the former United midfielder, the club hired Olsen permanently as head coach on November 29, 2010.

2012 was a breakout year for Olsen as he led the Black-and-Red to the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years. After losing its home debut, United went on a 16-match home-unbeaten streak – including 12 wins – to capture more home points (40) than any other team in MLS. En route to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, Olsen was named the 2012 MLS All-Star Game Head Coach, leading the League’s select squad to a 3-2 win over 2012 European champions Chelsea FC.

As a player, Olsen was amongst the club’s all-time leaders in several key categories at the time of his retirement – second in games played (221), minutes played (17,097) and game-winning goals (13), third in assists (49) and shots on goal (155), and seventh all-time in goals (29). Arguably the most popular player in United history, the midfielder won eight total trophies while with the team, including two MLS Cups (1999 & 2004). He was a two-time All-Star (1998 & 1999), the 1998 MLS Rookie of the Year, the 1999 MLS Cup MVP, the 2003 USSF Humanitarian of the Year and an MLS Best XI selection in 2007.

In addition to his storied tenure with United, Olsen had an illustrious career with the U.S. Men’s National Team. He made his full international debut against Australia on November 6, 1998. His first goal for the U.S. came during just his second cap when he tallied against Chile on February 21, 1999. In 2000, he was part of the team that reached the bronze medal game at the Sydney Olympics before falling to Chile. Olsen was selected to the 2006 World Cup squad and played 51 minutes in the team’s final match against Ghana. In total, the midfielder earned 37 caps and notched six goals with the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Prior to his professional playing career, Olsen spent three seasons (1995-97) at the University of Virginia. During his time with the Cavaliers, the team posted a 56-8-8 record. All told, the midfielder compiled 34 goals and 41 assists and started and played every game (69) of his collegiate career. After his junior season, he was named the 1997 Soccer America Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Hermann Trophy. In his senior year, Olsen was selected as the ACC Tournament MVP and earned NSCAA All-American First Team accolades.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Barca to Copa del Rey Semis


Barcelona belatedly broke Malaga's game resistance in the closing stages of an epic Copa del Rey clash at the Rosaleda, triumphing 4-2 on the night, and 6-4 on aggregate, to set up a mouthwatering last-four encounter with great rival Real Madrid.

Twice the Blaugrana went ahead, through Pedro and Gerard Pique, and twice they were pegged back, first by Joaquin and then by Roque Santa Cruz. However, the Catalans reclaimed the lead through Andres Iniesta before Lionel Messi sealed their progression to the semifinals with a late header.

Barcelona’s disappointment at having drawn the first leg at home had been compounded by the shock of losing in La Liga for the first time this season, Tito Vilanova’s men suffering a dramatic defeat against Real Sociedad. However, they looked in fine fettle early on at the Rosaleda, taking the lead with the kind of wonderful passing move which has become their trademark in recent years.

Dani Alves advanced down the right wing before slipping a pass inside that Pedro cleverly allowed to run on to Xavi. The playmaker, as his wont, took a moment before smoothly slipping the ball through to Alves, who had continued his run in behind the Malaga defense. The Brazilian then calmly assessed his options before deftly chipping the ball up for the supporting Pedro to head home.

Other sides may have folded after being seemingly put so firmly in their place by Barca’s bewitching brilliance, but Malaga, as it so wonderfully underlined at Camp Nou the week before, is well able to mix it with the self-styled masters of the beautiful game and they drew level less than four minutes later, Joaquin sweeping home from just inside the Barca box.

The visitors went close to restoring their one-goal advantage, both on the night and on aggregate, at the end of a truly enthralling opening quarter when Martin Demichelis gifted possession to Lionel Messi on the edge of his own area, but the talismanic No. 10 saw his low strike well saved by Malaga goalkeeper Carlos Kameni.

At the other end, Roque Santa Cruz was unable to control his volley after getting on the end of an inswinging cross from the left-hand side, but it was Barca which was still carrying the greater attacking threat and Andres Iniesta struck the top of the bar following a sublime one-two with Messi.

As it was, the two sides went in at halftime still level on the night and on aggregate, but with Malaga head on account of the away goals rule. However, Barca reclaimed the lead within four minutes of the restart, Pique showing the poise of a center forward in controlling a precision pass from Iniesta before slotting past Kameni.

Iniesta opened up the hosts' defense again on 67 minutes, scooping the ball through for Messi, who, again, inexplicably shot tamely at Kameni. It proved a costly miss because Malaga immediately counterattacked and Joaquin, after cutting infield, laid the ball off to Santa Cruz, who angled a shot past Jose Pinto via the right post.

Barca was furious, with a number of its contingent having felt that Fabregas had been stamped on by Weligton before Malaga had broken upfield. However, it did not allow their rage to get the better of the club and simply went about reclaiming the lead, which it did with just 10 minutes remaining.

Iniesta again provided the inspiration, playing another wonderful one-two, on this occasion with Fabregas, before sliding the ball under the advancing Kameni. This time around, Barca made sure that it finished the job, with Messi atoning for his earlier misses by heading home another wonderful delivery from the right from Alves.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Messi Wins Fourth Ballon d'or

From the

Another record falls.  Lionel Messi finished 2012 on 91 goals in 69 games. He began 2013 by winning the FIFA Ballon d'Or (with 41.6% of the votes), Cristiano Ronaldo (23.7%) came second and Andrés Iniesta (10.9%) third. It is the fourth time Messi has won it and no one else has won it so often. Because the award is a merger of the old European Footballer of the Year and the Fifa World Player of the Year which was inaugurated only in 1991, Diego Maradona never won it and nor did Pelé but it is doubtful if they would have matched Messi's achievement. Marco van Basten won the European award three times in five years, Johan Cruyff three in four and Platini three years in a row. Alfredo Di Stéfano won it twice. Messi has superseded all of them.

Months of speculation slowly gave way to a growing realisation, especially as the European Championship was left behind and Messi accelerated towards the end of the year: it was going to be him again. He scored twice in each of eight successive games and they were almost all goals of barely plausible brilliance; when he scored only once in his final game of 2012, it was as if he had underachieved. On Monday night, finally it was confirmed. "The good thing about the Ballon d'Or is that it's being handed out tomorrow," the Barcelona coach, Tito Vilanova, had said the night before. Everyone could get on with their lives, talk about something else for a change.

Hardly: first there will be the reaction and then it will not be long before talk turns to next year's award – except that right now it is hard to imagine anyone else walking away a winner from Zurich in 12 months' time. 2012, like 2010, was an opportunity for others but Messi swept all before him again – all the excitement, all the debates, all the headlines and the same winner. "To tell you the truth this is really quite unbelievable," Messi said. "The fourth award that I have had is just too great for words."
Michael Owen recalls how Gérard Houllier had to pull him aside after he won the Ballon d'Or in 2001 and impress upon him the significance of the award. Owen had taken it in his stride; Houllier was shocked at how blasé he was. In France, he insisted, it is huge.

So it is in Spain. The Ballon d'Or has become more important in England over the decade since international football, projected by the Champions League, carried by a television and internet boom, accessible in a way unthinkable 10 years ago, is followed far more closely than it was then and European exposure brings European tastes. But, at least while the candidates all reside south of the Pyrenees, the interest still does not match that of the Spanish.

Only one Spaniard has won the award: Luis Suárez in 1960. Many have never forgiven Owen. Some consider it a grave injustice that Raúl did not become the second; 2001 was the year when Raúl's candidacy was at its strongest; the England striker's Ballon d'Or was "rightfully" Raúl's. Similarly, had Owen not been a former winner, Real Madrid's president Florentino Pérez would surely have been less interested in signing him: here was another one for the collection, status guaranteed. An "objective" measure of the best player in the world.

Just as with Raúl, a sense of injustice exists now. It is quieter but it is there. This Spain side is the most successful international team there has ever been. But none of its players have won the award. In 2010 even Messi seemed surprised to finish ahead of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Here Iniesta was Spain's sole representative – the winner of Uefa's Best Player in Europe award following Euro 2012. "I don't need individual awards to feel recognised; football is a collective game," he said. But that collective success, some argue, should have been recognised in this award.

Spain's media and fans remain divided along club lines, though. Over 60% of the country declares itself a fan of Madrid or Barcelona and sports newspapers wear their club colours unashamedly. Even the idea of a Spanish winner only unites them at a superficial level: they want a club winner. When the list for the team of the year was released the front cover of AS said it all: "Madrid 6 Barcelona 5".

And so it is that the battle comes back down to the two men who have come to represent Spain's biggest two clubs, the personification of the greatest rivalry. Messi had already admitted that he would be voting for Xavi, Iniesta and his Argentina team-mate Sergio Agüero; asked why he did not vote for Messi, Ronaldo said the reason was simple – he had not voted at all. Injury meant that he missed international duty and his voting papers were passed to a team-mate – who voted for him.

By the time the ceremony came round, Ronaldo had got used to the idea that he was not going to win: "This is not a life and death issue," he said. In August he had insisted: "I only want justice to be done." José Mourinho, who did not attend despite being short-listed for the managerial award, bemoaned that Messi would win, "after the campaign that has been carried out". Yet the most aggressive campaign had been his own in favour of Ronaldo. "How can Messi win the Ballon d'Or without winning the league or the Champions League?" Mourinho asked.

Last year Messi picked up almost half the votes; there was no question. This time a case can certainly be made for Ronaldo, who helped carry Real Madrid to the league title, taking it from Barcelona for the first time in four years and breaking an all-time points record. He scored the goal that effectively clinched the title at Camp Nou, one of 63 he scored in 71 games. Ronaldo, like Messi, reached the Champions League semi-final and, like Messi, missed a penalty. But Ronaldo missed his in the shootout having scored in normal time.

At Euro 2012 Portugal reached the semi-final where they were defeated by Spain; Ronaldo was down to take the final penalty but never got the chance. Messi, of course, was not there. At team level Messi won only a Copa del Rey.

But then he scored more goals than anyone in a calendar year (the last man to hold the record, Gerd Müller, did not win the Ballon d'Or: Franz Beckenbauer did in 1972). Messi finished as the Champions League's top scorer for a fourth year in a row. And he started to do the one thing that everyone agreed he still had pending: perform brilliantly, consistently, for Argentina: his 12 international goals included a hat-trick against Brazil.

This is a wider electorate now than the ones used for either of the awards that preceded it. With the old system, where only journalists voted, Messi would not have won in 2010. With 600 in the electorate now, the criteria are widened and yet also narrowed; virtually no one is going to leave Messi out of their top three.
Beyond the analyses there is a very simple question: who is the best player in the world? Few would doubt that the answer is Messi. "For as long as Messi is around, the Ballon d'Or makes no sense," Dani Alves said, and Agüero concurred: "The Ballon d'Or will always be for Messi."

Messi is 25. It may be a long wait for someone else.