The Rosario derby is one of the feistiest in Argentina and in world football, as both teams’ fans passionately despise one another.
The derby game in Argentina’s top flight between Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys kicked off late on Sunday after “a number of grenades”, which had been thrown on to the field by fans, blew holes in the playing surface.
The fixture, a local derby between two fierce rivals in the Santa Fe province, is one of the major dates in the country’s football calendar.
On Thursday evening, 30,000 Newell’s fans gathered at their club’s stadium where there was a firework display to give the team a send off ahead of Sunday’s game.
The Newell’s Old Boys official Twitter account wrote: “Kick-off is being delayed as the referee is briefed by the Head of Security. A number of grenades that were thrown onto the pitch have made holes in the pitch.”
Newell’s won the game 1-0 thanks to a second-half goal from Juan García, with the forward flicking home from close range after some pinball in Rosario’s penalty area.
Fans have reacted to the incident and they still can’t come to terms with it.
One commented: “Argentine football on & off the pitch is on a completely different tier.”
Someone put: “England: take the plastic lid of ya bottle of pop in a ground. Argentina: Hand grenade, no problem. Enjoy the game lads.”
A third said: “Argentina got grenades being thrown on the pitch, whilst we’ve got people tying themselves to goalposts with cable ties.”
While another tweeted: “Argentina said, hold up Mexico, hold my beer, I’ll show you how we do it…”
Juan Manuel García scored the only goal of the game for Newell’s to secure a vital 1-0 win.
30,000 Newell’s fans gave their team a unique send off on Thursday by holding a pyro party as they training at the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa.
That Marcelo Bielsa the stadium is named after is indeed the former Leeds United boss.
He’s a cult hero among Newell’s fans and he’s had a run-in involving grenades in the past. Yes, you read that correctly.
When Bielsa was manager of Newell’s back in 1992, his side were beaten 6-0 and angry ultras decided to show up outside his house.
What did Bielsa do? The madman came to the front door in his pyjamas carrying a grenade in his hand.
The former Chile national team coach then threatened to pull the pin if they refused to leave.
Manchester United was mistakenly drawn with Villarreal, even though both teams faced each other in the group stage while the Premier League side’s ball was not added to the bowl as a potential opponent for Atletico Madrid.
Manchester United was mistakenly drawn with Villarreal, even though both teams faced each other in the group stage while the Premier League side’s ball was not added to the bowl as a potential opponent for Atletico Madrid.
The last 16 ties will be played in February and March.
UEFA blamed a “material error” due to a “technical problem with the software of an external service provider” as it announced that the draw for the first knockout round of its flagship competition would be redone at 2 p.m.GMT.
Fred’s long-range winning goal against Crystal Palace capped off a hugely encouraging first outing for the Red Devils under their new interim boss
Ralf Rangnick went into his first Manchester United game with two aims: to win, and to oversee a controlled display from his new team.
On Sunday, he succeeded on both counts.
The 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace did not mark a blistering start to the new regime at Old Trafford, but this was a performance to bring hope and promise that Rangnick, with a bit more practice, could bring success back to United.
Much like the end result is unlikely to cause major headlines once the dust settles, Rangnick arrived in the dugout for the first time to little fanfare.
He walked out merged in with the rest of the coaching staff, and stadium announcer Alan Keegan made no special declaration that a new manager was in town.
But even those who may have had their heads in the sand for the last three weeks and were not aware that United had made a new coaching appointment would have realised from the off that this was a different side to the one that has struggled through the early months of the season.
He may have picked the same line-up that had beaten Arsenal on Thursday – which given he only had one training session with his new players was hardly a surprise – but the team’s style of play was already markedly different.
Right from kick-off United pressed with purpose. It is not that they had not pressed in the past, but this time there seemed to at least be a structure to it.
Gone were individuals aimlessly hounding opposition players hoping for the best as they did so many times under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Here they pressed as a pack, and it almost bore fruit after just three minutes, as Alex Telles saw a shot pushed out for a corner after the ball had been won back deep in Palace territory.
A switch of formation to Rangnick’s favoured 4-2-2-2 resulted in the team being more direct in their attacking play, too. With half-an-hour gone, Marcus Rashford had created three chances, Cristiano Ronaldo had attempted five shots and Jadon Sancho looked lively as he switched positions with Bruno Fernandes behind the front two.
In total, United managed 12 efforts on goal during the first half, with all that was missing was that final clinical pass or shot.
Rangnick, who spent the majority of the match in the technical area, seemed encouraged by what he was seeing, as he applauded each attempt on Vicente Guaita’s goal. Their pressing was clearly paying off, as across the duration of the match they won possession 12 times in Palace’s defensive third. Their previous best in a league match this season was seven times.
“It has been an average season so far, there is no avoiding that, but the club has players who are much better than the position we currently occupy, and it is my job to improve those players and that position,” Rangnick wrote in his first programme notes. “The first step in doing that is a shift in how the collective approaches games.
“If you want to win a football match, you have to control it, so the aim right now is to help the team control games more. That means being more proactive with and without the ball.”
That proactivity was clear, though the energy levels required to keep that up over the course of 90 minutes is something United’s players will need to reach going forward as they began to flag after just 20 minutes of the first half.
That said, they still recorded season highs for first-half passes into the final third (48), first-half touches in the opposition box (26) and first-half passes into the opposition box (26), among other metrics.
“I didn’t expect us to play on that level after only one-and-a-half training days with the players,” Rangnick told Sky Sports post-match. “The first half-hour was amazing. It was high-intensity, high-speed, high-tempo.
“The way we played against the ball, the whole game was in their (Palace’s half). I was positively surprised.”
Rangnick did his best to maintain his team’s intensity after the break, and could be seen wildly gesturing with his arms on the touchline as he looked for a solution to break down Patrick Vieira’s visitors.
The ex-RB Leipzig boss introduced Mason Greenwood and Anthony Elanga from the bench in a bid to spark his attack back into life, but in the end it was Fred who provided the moment of magic that United required.
Despite the win, this was not a perfect 90 minutes from United. There was, though, clear progress, and having only met his players for the first time 48 hours ago, that is as much as Rangnick could have asked for.
The control he demanded in his programme notes was certainly there as David de Gea was rarely tested on his way to securing United’s first clean sheet at Old Trafford since April, and with consecutive league wins for the first time since September, the fight for a top-four finish is on ahead of what looks to be a forgiving run of fixtures.
The Rangnick revolution has begun, and the signs are encouraging for all those related to Manchester United.
The Red Devils’ new interim manager has been discussing the Portuguese star’s role in his team
Ralf Rangnick has officially taken charge at Manchester United, with the interim boss at Old Trafford revealing how Cristiano Ronaldo figures in his plans and how foundations for long-term success will be put in place.
The German has been cleared to inherit the reins from caretaker coach Michael Carrick, who is walking away completely after three games at the helm, with a visa finally granted.
There is much for Rangnick to do in the wake of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dismissal, particularly how Ronaldo will fit into his plans.
What has been said?
Ronaldo was dropped to the bench by Carrick for the trip to Chelsea, but returned to the United starting XI with a bang as he passed the 800 goal mark for his career in a thrilling 3-2 victory over Arsenal.
Rangnick was in attendance for that game and said at his introductory press conference: ”You always have to adapt your style or your idea of football to the players you have available, not vice-versa.
“Having seen Cristiano yesterday in the second half at the age of 36, an amazing top professional. At his age, I’ve never seen a player who is still that physically fit. He’s still a player who can easily make the difference.
“So, yes, it’s about how we can develop the whole team not only Cristiano. We play in the most competitive league in the world so we need all the players on board.
“What I saw from Cristiano yesterday, he is more than willing to do that, to put his input into the team. His team-mates will have to do the same.”
Why turned down Chelsea?
Ralf Rangnick has confirmed that Chelsea offered him the chance to take over as interim manager last season, before they settled on Thomas Tuchel as Frank Lampard’s permanent replacement.
Rangnick has since been snapped up by Manchester United on a temporary basis, taking over until the end of the season as head coach before he moves into an advisory role for a further two years.
After red tape delayed his appearance on the touchline – the German was forced to watch United’s victory over Arsenal on Thursday from the stands – he will finally be in the dugout for his new side’s meeting with Crystal Palace.
Speaking before that game, Rangnick explained why he turned down a Premier League move with Chelsea before being tempted to England by the Red Devils’ offer.
“When Chelsea contacted me last year, they only spoke about the option to become interim manager for four months, without any prospective to work in the long term together,” he said.
“Now here we are talking about six-and-a-half months, so we only have one third of the games played in the Premier League.
“We have also agreed on a two-year advisory role after those six-and-a-half months. In the end, to be honest, if a club like Manchester United contacts you for such a role you cannot possibly turn it down.”
Rangnick arrives at Old Trafford with United lagging behind his former suitors. The Red Devils currently sit in seventh, 12 points behind leaders Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table.
Will additions be made?
Rangnick has arrived in England with another transfer window fast approaching, but claims to have no recruitment plans in place yet.
He said when asked about possible additions in January: “We haven’t spoken about new players.
“Now is the time to get to know the current squad in detail, the squad is definitely not too small. There are enough players.
“Maybe after Christmas, there will be a time to talk about possible transfers in the winter. In my experience, winter is not the time for sustainable transfers. It will be difficult in the winter.”
There have been suggestions that United will look to use Rangnick’s presence as a bargaining chip to prise Erling Haaland away from Borussia Dortmund, with the 63-year-old having previously spent time working with the Norwegian striker as sporting director at Red Bull Salzburg.
Bonuses are said to be up for grabs if such a deal can be put in place, but Rangnick has laughed off those reports.
He said: “£10 million [$13m] for Haaland, £10m for [Kylian] Mbappe, £10m for [Robert] Lewandowski and £10m for [Joshua] Kimmich.
“This is nonsense. There is no such clause in my contract. There is little point in speculating over new players. I know what kind of player he is, but in the meantime, the whole world has realised how good the player is.
“The offensive players we have here, we have so many top players in the offensive department that we don’t need to speak about any other player.”
How long will Rangnick stay?
For now, Rangnick is eager to keep focus on the present as he has only signed up to six months in the dugout before shifting into an advisory role.
He said of his position: “The people who I’ve spoken with, they have been very clear that it is a six-month role. We have never spoken about what will happen in the summer.
“If they will speak about me with that, we will see. if they ask me about my opinion, I might make the same recommendation that I did at RB Leipzig twice, that it might be better to work with me for one year.
“It’s not unusual that after a long, successful spell, the club needs to find a new pathway. The club has had no continuity in signing new players and sticking to the DNA of the club.
“In the future, the board members and my self have the same opinion. It’s important not to have many changes in management.”
The Blaugrana president has full confidence in side’s chances to advance to the Champions League knockout stage
Barcelona president Joan Laporta is “convinced” his club will defeat Bayern Munich in their final Champions League group game on December 8.
He has said the appointment of Xavi as manager has inspired more respect from opponents, which could be a factor in what he has predicted to be a “miracle” win at the Allianz Arena.
The Blaugrana could still advance to the knockout stage without toppling their German opponent, but leaving Munich with a win is the only way to 100 per cent assure advancement regardless of what happens in Benfica vs Dynamo Kyiv.
What has been said?
“Beating Bayern is something that can be achieved,” Laporta said to AS. “There is going to be a miracle, I am convinced that we are going to win.
“Xavi is very motivated and very strong. I hope everything goes well for us, I think that at the moment Xavi’s arrival has generated a little respect from our opponents. They know we can do it again.”
Barcelona lost 3-0 to Bayern Munich at Camp Nou earlier in the campaign, and their general form this season has been below typical standards as they sit in seventh place in La Liga.
There is also the matter of their infamous 8-2 loss against Bayern Munich in 2020, which they will be reminded of by rival fans in the build-up to the December 8 clash.
However, the Bavarians may be fielding a weakened starting line-up as they have already clinched first place in the group and could be hesitant to risk injury.
Laporta also believes the Xavi boost in spirit will translate to a passionate display on the pitch.
Barcelona will seal a place in the last 16 if they beat Bayern Munich; if they draw or lose at the Allianz Arena they would need Benfica to draw or lose their match against Dynamo Kyiv in order to advance.
The Italian head coach made no excuses after watching his side suffer a surprise loss in the Europa Conference League
Antonio Conte has admitted that it will “take time to bring Tottenham back” while slamming their “poor” display in an upset defeat to Mura.
Spurs slumped to their first loss under Conte in the Europa Conference League, losing 2-1 to Slovenian minnows Mura.
A stoppage-time winner from Amadej Marosa gave the hosts all three points, leaving Spurs’ new manager fuming on the touchline.
What’s been said?
Conte expressed his disappointment in his post-match press conference, telling reporters: “This a bad loss for us. The performance was poor. We know we have a lot of work ahead of us. This is a difficult moment for us.
“We need patience to improve, to be good again. We were poor not only technically and tactically but also mentally. It will take time to bring Tottenham back.”
The Spurs head coach added: “After three weeks I am starting to understand the situation. It is not simple. At this moment the level at Tottenham is not so high.”
Spurs humbled in Slovenia
Conte made nine changes to the team that beat Leeds 2-1 in the Premier League last weekend, but still included household names such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele in his lineup.
Despite the array of talent on the pitch for Tottenham, Mura took the lead through Tommy Morvat after just 11 minutes.
The visitors’ task was made all the more difficult when Ryan Sessegnon was sent off for a second bookable offence just before the break, setting up a tense second half of action.
Spurs eventually found an equalizer when Kane chipped into the net from a tight angle with 18 minutes left, but Mura had the final say thanks to Marosa’s late deflected effort.
Conte’s men must now beat Rennes in their final group stage game to make certain of a place in the playoffs for the knockout stage.
Welcome! We’re on matchday five of the Champions League now, and here’re all you need to know before the Tuesday matches start! Before our preview begins, please do not hesitate to subscribe to the matches you’re waiting for on our ‘Opera Football’ app, you will surely receive one of the quickest and best livescores & event pushes once the match starts!
Villarreal vs Manchester Utd
Both teams are on seven points at the top of this UEFA Champions League (UCL) group, and depending on Atalanta’s result, Group F can be won with a matchday to spare. Villarreal enter this clash with something to prove, having dropped two points despite leading at half-time in their weekend match at Celta Vigo, although that was a fourth game unbeaten across their last five (W2, D2, L1). A Villarreal win would see them equal the ten-point tally that was sufficient to win a group containing Manchester United back in their debut UCL campaign (2005/06). History awaits if the hosts can utilise home advantage from the start, as the ‘Yellow Submarine’ are yet to win a H2H (D5, L1) or score before half-time in a UCL clash against the ‘Red Devils’.
The sole defeat in that record came via a devastating stoppage-time winner from Man United’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the reverse clash on matchday two. Times have changed though, and United travel after a bruising 4-1 defeat to Watford on Saturday. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked following, after a third defeat by a 2+ goal margin in five matches. A win here at the Estadio de la Cerámica should all but secure top spot for United, given their relatively easier finish to this group stage with a game at home to Young Boys on the final matchday. That said, the three-time European champions have conceded 2+ goals in each of their last four UCL away games (D1, L3), illustrating the task that lies ahead for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s replacement. Players to watch: Villarreal’s Arnaut Danjuma has seen two of his last four goals come in stoppage time of either half. Ronaldo could be ready to haunt Villarreal again though, as he’s closed the scoring in each of Man United’s last three UCL outings (W2, D1). Hot stat: Each of Villarreal’s UCL games this term have seen at least one goal beyond the 80th minute. Our prediction: Villarreal 1-1 Manchester Utd
Dyn. Kyiv vs Bayern Munich
A 6-1 victory at the weekend pushed Dynamo Kiev top of the Ukrainian Premier League by virtue of goal difference (W12, D2, L1) although the hosts need to improve upon their UEFA Champions League (UCL) form if they’re to qualify from Group E. Sat five points behind second-placed Barcelona with two matches to play, that’s likely to prove a tall order but a third-placed finish and potential Europa League campaign could prove a handy consolation. The hosts’ attacking output will need to improve drastically if that’s a possibility though. That’s because Dynamo have failed to score in their four UCL matches this campaign (D1, L3) whilst they’ve mustered just nine shots on target, three less than Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski has managed on his own (12)!
Visiting Bayern suffered a shock 2-1 Bundesliga loss to Augsburg last time out, but with the German champions already guaranteed qualification from UCL Group E after four wins from four outings, the pressure is off for this long trip to Ukraine. In fact, top spot in the group will be secured with a game to spare if Bayern can avoid defeat here. What will be a cause for concern though, is Bayern’s poor recent away record against Ukrainian opposition. The visitors are winless in their last three such matches (D2, L1) and were defeated 2-0 in their last away H2H in 2000. They’re unlikely to be held goalless again here however, as Julian Nagelsmann’s outfit are currently averaging a whopping four goals per match across all competitions this season. Players to watch: Dynamo’s Vitaliy Buyalskyi has eight goals in 13 league outings this campaign after netting a brace in his last match. Bayern’s Lewandowski has scored in his last eight UCL appearances and is looking to become the first player in competition history to net in nine straight matches on more than one occasion. Hot stat: Bayern could become the first ever team to score four or more goals in four straight UCL matches. Our prediction: Dyn. Kyiv 1-4 Bayern Munich
Barcelona vs Benfica
A season record 74,418 fans at the Camp Nou witnessed club legend Xavi Hernández’s Barcelona managerial bow in a 1-0 win over Espanyol last weekend. As Xavi etches his name into the record books as the fifth individual to both play for and manage the ‘Blaugrana’ in the UEFA Champions League (UCL), the need for three points supersedes emotion as a win will guarantee progress from the group stages for an 18th season in a row, something which looked beyond reach after starting with consecutive 3-0 losses. While back-to-back 1-0 UCL wins have put them in pole position for second place, Barça remain shot-shy with only Malmö (four) having fewer shots on target in the competition than their six. Yet, their 11 first-half shots over the weekend vs Espanyol (four on target) is Barça’s season-best for the first period in all competitions, hinting at a change of focus and possibly fortunes.
The scars of a 3-0 loss to Benfica are still fresh though, with that win ending the Portuguese side’s 60-year wait for a win over Barcelona. Back-to-back domestic wins before this trip just plaster over their diminishing UCL form, as Benfica have conceded nine goals across their last two matchdays after starting the group stage with two clean sheets. Benfica last progressed from the UCL group stages in 2016/17, with the ‘Eagles’ winning just once across their last 13 UCL competition proper away games (W1, D3, L9), and conceding an average of 2.85 goals per game. Whilst a win here would see them leapfrog their hosts – with an easier final matchday ahead – the fanfare surrounding the homecoming of Xavi will make this a difficult assignment for the visitors. Players to watch: Memphis Depay’s match-winning penalty over the weekend for Barcelona made it a joint-league high seven La Liga points won via his goals (seven) this season. Meanwhile, Benfica’s history-chasing Darwin Núñez has three UCL goals this season and can become just the third player to net three against Barcelona in a single group stage, after his brace in Lisbon. Hot stat: The team scoring first has lost only once in Barcelona’s 17 competitive matches this Our prediction: Barcelona 1-0 Benfica
Chelsea vs Juventus
It’s going swimmingly in the Premier League for Chelsea who currently sit at the top of the table, yet there’s work to be done if they want to finish top of UEFA Champions League (UCL) Group H (W3, L1). Their one defeat, which came against Juventus in the reverse fixture (1-0), was also the only game in which they conceded in this competition. Consequently they’re three points off the Italian giants with two rounds to play, making this a real six-pointer. With qualification into the knockout stage all but secure, it’ll be revenge and finishing first that will be the driving motivation heading into this clash. Not only did the ‘Blues’ suffer their first UCL defeat since April against the ‘Old Lady’, but that fixture also extended their winless H2H run against the two-time competition winners to four matches (D2, L2), the last two of which ended in defeat ‘to nil’.
Another win for Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus would create history. Not only would his team become the first to record three consecutive UCL victories against Chelsea, but they’d also be the first to win four consecutive UCL/European Cup away matches against English opponents. This is a feat they’ll surely be backing themselves to do given their 100% record in the competition so far. Whilst success on the continent has masked their domestic woes this season – they currently sit outside Serie A’s top six – overall form does look to be on an upward trajectory. They’ve lost only two of their last 11 competitive matches (W8, D1), restricting their opponents to one goal or less in seven of those clashes. Players to watch: Chelsea’s ever-present creative threat Reece James has registered an assist in three of his last four matches for club and country, whilst Juventus’ Federico Chiesa scored second-half goals in the last H2H and in his team’s most recent UCL win. Hot stat: Chelsea have won just one of their last ten UCL matches vs Italian opposition (D3, L6). Our prediction: Chelsea 2-0 Juventus
Lille vs Salzburg
After domestic stalemates over the weekend, Lille and Salzburg turn their attention to their penultimate Group G fixture of the 2021/22 UEFA Champions League (UCL). Starting this matchday occupying the top two places in the group, both clubs could almost certainly book their place in the next stage of the tournament if they get a result, a welcome surprise given that neither team has advanced from a UCL group stage for 15 years! Lille have hosted two scoreless draws in this group stage against the other two Group G clubs to date (Wolfsburg and Sevilla) and after registering a further three draws from their last four Ligue 1 fixtures – albeit with goals scored in all three – the hosts will be challenging for the title of biggest forearms in Europe after all the arm wrestling they’ve participated in!
Salzburg’s attackers are in need of an energy drink after the team registered just two goals across their last three matches in all competitions (W1, D1, L1). Whilst consecutive clean sheets in the league has kept their enormous lead at the top of the Austria Bundesliga intact, both teams have scored in all six of their UEFA matches this season and thus their recent solid defending appears unlikely to continue. They’ll even do well to keep Lille off the scoresheet in the first half, having registered three 1-1 results at the break across their four group stage games so far, although the exception did come in their 2-1 home win in the reverse fixture. With an inaugural Round of 16 place to be secured with victory, there’ll be no shortage of both nerves and motivation for the Austrian outfit. Players to watch: Lille striker Jonathan David has scored first for his club or country in five of his last six appearances of at least 20 minutes, whilst Karim Adeyemi has found the back of the net in three of his last seven Salzburg games in all competitions. Hot stat: The half-time result has been replicated at full-time in just one of the last eight competitive matches involving either team. Our prediction: Lille 1-1 Salzburg
With only four points separating those at the top and bottom of UEFA Champions League (UCL) Group G, an enticing climax is in store with any outcome possible heading into the penultimate round. Even last-placed Sevilla have destiny in their own hands. They’ve been involved in both a fiesty and fruitless campaign so far, with two of their matches producing a red card (D3, L1), but a pair of victories in their last two group games would be enough to secure progression to the next round. Home was a sanctuary for ‘Sevillistas Rojiblancos’ this season, until Lille handed them their first defeat of the campaign on their own turf in all competitions last round (W5, D2). A visit from Wolfsburg will have the Sevilla faithful on the edge of their seats, with their team only previously securing two wins in their nine UCL fixtures against German opposition (D4, L3 – excluding qualifiers). Wolfsburg know they need a positive result in order to avoid requiring favours from others come the final round of the group stages. Anything but a loss will set up what will essentially be a playoff with Lille on the final matchday, as the visitors are currently deadlocked on five points with the reigning Ligue 1 champions. Manager Florian Kohfeldt will be instructing his troops to focus on their concentration here given that they dropped two valuable points against Sevilla in the 87th minute in the reverse fixture. But winning only three of their previous ten UCL road games shows the magnitude of the task that awaits the ‘Wolves’ should they wish to progress (D1, L6). Players to watch: Sevilla midfielder Ivan Rakitić, who scored in the reverse, has never lost a UCL game when getting on the scoresheet (W7, D2). Opposing him is Lukas Nmecha, who has seen five of his last seven goals come away from home for Wolfsburg. Hot stat: Sevilla have failed to win any of their last five UCL group games on matchday five (D1, L4). Our prediction: Sevilla 2-2 Wolfsburg
Young Boys vs Atalanta
On this penultimate matchday of the UEFA Champions League (UCL) group stage, things are looking wide open in terms of qualification in Group F. All four teams can technically still finish in the top two, although Atalanta would condemn Young Boys to bottom spot if they win here at the Wankdorf Stadium after the Swiss outfit lost all of their group games following their shock matchday one victory vs Manchester United. Another defeat here for the hosts would give Swiss Champions Young Boys an unwanted record too – their first set of four consecutive defeats in a major European competition. Indeed, a four-game winless run in all competitions coming into this game doesn’t give David Wagner’s men much confidence (D1, L3), although they do hold a solid home record vs Italian opposition (W3, L1). While Atalanta didn’t make their debut in Europe’s premier competition until 2018/19, they have progressed to the knockout stages in both of their prior group stage appearances. As such, the Bergamo-based outfit will want to make it three for three this time around and they will likely set up a straight shootout for qualification with Villarreal on the final day if they can win here. It’s been tough for Atalanta on their European travels this season, as they’ve failed to win both of their away group games this term despite scoring twice in both. However, this game is certainly the easiest on paper after travelling to Man United and Villarreal prior, so a callback to last season’s perfect away group return would be welcome here. Players to watch: With their league top scorer injured, Young Boys may rely on Jordan Siebatcheu for a goal here – but just three of his ten competitive strikes this term were match openers. Atalanta’s Duván Zapata has contributed to more goals in this UCL group (G1, A3) than Young Boys have scored altogether (three). Hot stat: Just four of the 32 UCL group sides have received fewer than Atalanta’s six yellow cards so far. Our prediction: Young Boys 0-2 Atalanta
Malmo FF vs Zenit
Rooted to the foot of Group H in this season’s UEFA Champions League (UCL), Swedish champions Malmö will need a drastic change of fortune to avoid finishing dead-last this time round. They’ve collected the wooden spoon in their previous two UCL group stage appearances, but managed to pick up a win in both those previous campaigns too. The Eleda Stadium has played host to both of Malmö’s prior UCL victories, with those results including their only clean sheets kept in the continent’s showpiece club competition. A rare feat indeed for ‘Di blåe’, who have lost all their other 14 UCL group games by an astonishing aggregate of 48-2. One of those heavy defeats came against Zenit Saint Petersburg, who registered their largest ever margin of victory in the UCL (excluding qualifiers) with their 4-0 trouncing of the hosts in the reverse fixture. A win here for Zenit would at least guarantee them entry into the preliminary knockout round of the UEFA Europa League, while keeping alive their slim hopes of snatching second place if results elsewhere also go their way. The Russian side are looking for a first victory on their UCL travels since securing back-to-back victories in the 2015/16 season, losing nine of their ten away games since. They’ll be favourites in their first-ever trip to Sweden, as the champions of the Russian Premier League battle it out with the champions of the Allsvenskan. Players to watch: Malmö’s Veljko Birmančević has scored his last five domestic goals in the first half. Albeit in qualifiers, two of Birmančević’s four UCL goals have proven decisive. Often key to the opposition’s best attacking moves, Artem Dzyuba has contributed seven goals in his last five appearances for Zenit (G5, A2). Hot stat: Zenit have seen nine of the 12 total goals scored in their UCL games this season come beyond half-time. Our prediction: Malmo FF 1-3 Zenit
The star forward has featured only intermittently for his new employers but it has been a different story on the international stage
It says something about the spell-binding appeal of Lionel Messi that even fans of Argentina’s biggest rivals are hoping he takes the field on Friday.
Despite complaints over the cost of tickets for the World Cup qualifier in Montevideo between Uruguay and the Albiceleste, Penarol’s Estadio Campeon del Siglo will likely be packed to the brim when the two sides walk out.
Indeed, no less a figure than Uruguayan FA chief Ignacio Alonso used the Paris Saint-Germain superstar as justification for the rather elevated prices, telling reporters in the build-up to the game: “They are normal for an important match with world-class players, and this could even be Lionel Messi’s last time playing in Uruguay.”
Whether or not Messi would even be available for Friday’s clash had been up in the air all week but it now seems that he will start against the Uruguayans and, if he remains unscathed, also on Tuesday, for Brazil’s visit to San Juan.
That is great news for his adoring public, not just in Argentina but across the entirety of the South American continent, but less so for PSG, who, with some justification, are beginning to feel short-changed.
Messi has made no secret of the fact that leading his national team to the World Cup in a year’s time is his top priority. According to reports he even has that condition written into his PSG contract, in a clause which states that the club must release him for any international game he wishes, regardless of the circumstance.
Since leaving Barcelona in August, the 34-year-old has racked up 450 minutes for Argentina in qualifying (not including that suspended clash against Brazil), compared to just 325 minutes in Ligue 1.
In that same period he netted four goals in international colours, while he is still waiting for his first strike in the French top flight.
Leo has delivered in the Champions League, hitting three times in as many outings as PSG sit on the verge of last-16 qualification, but he was forced to sit out their last clash with a knee injury and Argentina’s subsequent decision to call him up did not amuse anyone at Parc des Princes.
“We don’t agree with letting a player, who isn’t fit to play for us and is in recovery, join up with his national side,” PSG sporting director Leonardo told Le Parisien.
“It doesn’t make sense and this kind of situation needs to be discussed with FIFA.”
It is not a new topic of complaint for the Brazilian, who at the end of October said of Messi: “In these past two months he has spent more time with his national team than here.”
“I have a good relationship with Leonardo, because Walter [Samuel] was his team-mate and spoke to him recently,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni pointed out to reporters when asked of a possible rift with PSG this week.
“Their thing is understandable, because of what’s going on with the FIFA dates and the Copa America, for clubs there are a lot of trips with the national team and that is what is being discussed with FIFA.
“It is totally understandable from PSG, due to their calendar. But there is also no doubt that we are right to call him up and, if available, play him.”
For years clubs have enjoyed dominance over their international counterparts, withdrawing players at the slightest hint of injury and making clear that, as the ones who pay their wages, the clubs should enjoy a privileged position.
Messi thinks otherwise. At this point in his career he has nothing left to prove at club level, whereas the World Cup still looms as his white whale, the prize that has remained just out of reach.
Perhaps just as importantly, he seems happiest when around his Argentina colleagues, forming a stunning rapport with new faces like midfield general Rodrigo de Paul, which seems to have restored his love for the game.
Nobody, furthermore, can accuse the legendary No.10 of not deserving the odd break. In 2020-21, he played exactly 60 games between club and country – completing the 90 minutes in all but three – including that scintillating Copa America campaign, in which he played every single minute for his country.
That would be a heavy workload for any player, let alone a man who is looked to constantly as a match-winner, treated as such by opposing defenders and fouled more often than almost any other footballer on the planet.
That takes a huge physical toll, and yet year upon year Messi has continued to push himself to incredible extremes that defy all logic.
Now, it seems, it is time to take a breather. With 11 wins in 13 games and a 10-point lead PSG are not exactly missing his talents in Ligue 1, and even if he just uses the domestic game to keep sharp, Mauricio Pochettino’s men should by all rights win the title at a canter.
That leaves the Champions League and World Cup as the two crowns the Argentine must really work for, freed of the gruelling need to dig Barcelona out of a hole every week.
He should be in better shape than ever, both physically and psychologically, to do just that.
Seeing a player pick country over club might take some getting used to for PSG, then, but if they can accommodate their star and keep him content with this more limited, well-rested role then both they and Argentina are perfectly placed to reap the benefits, making everyone a winner.