Darrell Clarke hails Elliot Bonds as double sends Cheltenham to victory

By Sports Desk February 13, 2024

Darrell Clarke praised midfielder Elliot Bonds after his brace earned Cheltenham a comfortable 2-0 home win over Blackpool.

The midfielder scored the first double of his career on his 100th appearance for the club, finding the net in each half to give the Robins’ survival chances a huge lift.

“He’s taken his goals well, run up and down the pitch and defended well so it was a top all-round performance from Elliot Bonds,” Clarke said.

“He had a bit of a breather on Saturday, came back in and scored a couple, which is great.

“They have good players and if we allowed them too much possession they could have hurt us so we played two eights, with Kins (Liam Kinsella) and Bondsy ready to jump and they did that job brilliantly.

“I’d probably go as far as to say that’s our best performance since I have been at the club.”

Sean Long’s 31st-minute corner from the right fell to Bonds after a scramble and he found the net with a low left-footed finish.

George Lloyd was tripped in the box by Jordan Gabriel but Daniel Grimshaw dived low to his right to push away Aidan Keena’s well-struck spot kick in the 75th minute.

Bonds then made sure of the points five minutes from the end, beating Grimshaw after a neat turn and finish.

Blackpool boss Neil Critchley felt his side were second best on the night.

“We got what we deserved because we weren’t good enough from start to finish,” he said.

“I’ve praised the players recently for their spirit and fight but we were well off it.

“The better team won and that’s hard to take.

“That’s not a performance I’d associate with a Blackpool team while I’ve been in charge. We had a vulnerability about us all night which isn’t like us.

“The performances in the last few games have deserved more – not tonight.

“There are still games to go and I’d have said before tonight we could go on a run. Tonight makes that look less likely.

“Cheltenham thoroughly deserved their win and we respect them.”

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  • Reggae Boyz winger Gray Ready to shine at Copa America on return from injury Reggae Boyz winger Gray Ready to shine at Copa America on return from injury

    For Demarai Gray, the journey to recover from a broken collarbone in time for the Copa America has been a testament of resilience, passion, and an unwavering commitment to representing Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz.

    The England-born winger, who suffered the injury earlier this year, while representing Saudi Pro League club Al-Ettifaq, recently returned to fitness, and his joy and excitement about being back in Jamaica’s setup are palpable, as he prepares to parade his skills in one of the most prestigious tournaments in international football.

    “It's good to be back; I was disappointed that I missed the World Cup qualifiers, but I'm happy the boys got the six points. I am glad to be back with the boys and excited for this tournament,” Gray said in an interview with the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) media.

    “It was a difficult end (to the season) with the injury, I had about six weeks out, but over the last few weeks, I've been working and trying to get as fit as possible for the Copa. So, we've got a few more days for me to build, and hopefully I can get off to a good start against Mexico,” he added.

    Gray going through his paces in training.

    Gray's injury initially cast doubt on his availability for the Copa America, but the 27-year-old's return to a clean bill of health represents a significant boost for the Reggae Boyz, who view him as a crucial component of their attacking force.

    Since he made the switch to represent Jamaica in 2023, Gray has quickly become a fan favorite, celebrated for his electrifying speed, deft dribbling, and ability to change the course of a game. His contributions have been instrumental in the Reggae Boyz's recent successes, including crucial goals and assists that have propelled the team forward in international competitions.

    Reflecting on his journey with the Jamaican national team, Gray expressed deep pride and a sense of belonging that transcends his England roots.

    “Yeah, it's been good. I've seen a lot since playing for Jamaica, playing back in Jamaica and being at the Gold Cup, and now being at this (Copa America) competition. So it's been good. It's been exciting, and fans have shown me a lot of love and respect, and the boys have been good,” Gray shared.

    “So, yeah, it's been a good experience and, you know, with these tournaments and the World Cup qualifiers that we've got ahead, there's a lot of exciting things to look forward to, and I'm just taking it each game at a time, trying to achieve and contribute as much as I can for the country,” the soft-spoken player declared.

    In 11 appearances so far, Gray has scored five goals, and he was instrumental in Jamaica’s historic third-place finish in the 2023-24 Concacaf Nations League campaign. That is an accomplishment that the nippy player prides himself on, and one he hopes is the first of many to come on the international stage.

    “Throughout my career, I want to get as many medals as I can, and win as many things as I can. I think we're a nation that's slowly building, I think you can see the talent and the potential that we've got, but things don't happen overnight, so we have to be a bit patient, but there's a lot to look forward to.

    “Just qualifying and making different competitions is good for us as players, the young players coming through and the fans, it's just good for the whole nation. So I think that would be the main objective, just trying to be as successful as we can in competitions and just keep building,” Gray noted.

    As the Reggae Boyz gear up for the Copa America, Gray's presence adds a layer of optimism and confidence to Heimir Hallgrimsson’s squad. He is focused on making a significant impact and is determined to help Jamaica achieve new heights on the international stage.

    The Boyz will kick start their Group B campaign against perennial rivals Mexico, before rubbing shoulders with Venezuela and Ecuador later in the tournament.

    “I am very excited. It's one I've been looking forward to. Obviously, if you look at the history of this tournament, see how many good players have played in it, and it's a very competitive tournament and testing tournament and I want to be tested at the highest levels in the best competitions,” he said.

    “I'm happy that we're in this and got an opportunity to showcase what we're about. It's going to be a tough tournament because it's very high quality, but without these tests, we're not going to push ourselves. I'm very excited. I can't wait for the first game,” Gray ended.

  • Messi, Vinicius and the other Copa America 2024 Golden Boot contenders Messi, Vinicius and the other Copa America 2024 Golden Boot contenders

    A festival of football is about to kick off in the United States, as the Copa America sparks into action.

    Argentina, the reigning champions, get the ball rolling when they face Canada in the opening Group A match, and Lionel Messi will be the main man as ever for La Albiceleste.

    Messi was the joint-leading scorer at the 2021 Copa America, netting four goals to lead the standings alongside Colombia’s Luis Diaz.

    The Barcelona great is expected to be right up there again when it comes to the 2024 Copa America Golden Boot race, and here, we dive into the main candidates for that award.

    Lionel Messi

    Not only did Messi finish as joint-top scorer at the 2021 Copa, he was also the leading assister and then, 18 months later, he went on to lead Argentina to World Cup glory, scoring seven goals in the process, from 6.6 expected goals – only Kylian Mbappe (eight) netted more times in Qatar.

    As soon as he features for Argentina at this tournament, Messi will become the Copa America’s all-time record holder for appearances – he is tied with Chile great Sergio Livingstone on 34, as it stands.

     

    Messi has scored 13 Copa America goals, which puts him joint-seventh on the all-time list, alongside fellow Argentina great Gabriel Batistuta. If he is able to replicate his four goals from the 2021 edition, then Messi will join Norberto Mendez and Zizinho at the top of the all-time charts – that is unless Peru’s Paolo Guerrero and/or Chile’s Eduardo Vargas were to net at least four times each to set a new record.

    Since the start of the 2011 Copa, Messi has had 102 shots – more than any other player. Surprisingly, his conversion rate stands at just 10.78 per cent, which stands as the second-lowest out of any player to have netted at least five goals in the competition in that time.

    But there can be no doubting Messi’s genius, and the little magician is entering what will surely be his final Copa in fine form – he has scored 12 goals in MLS for Inter Miami this season, outperforming his 8.3 xG and averaging a goal every 86 minutes.

    Argentina are the Opta supercomputer’s favourites to win the Copa, and group matches against Canada, Chile and Peru provide Messi with a favourable jumping off point to win the Golden Boot again.

    Vinicius Junior

    Fresh from winning the Champions League with Real Madrid (and scoring in the final – again), Vinicius heads into the Copa America as Brazil’s talisman.

    With Neymar absent through injury, the onus will fall on the winger to provide the creative spark and clinical edge to drag what looks like a more dogged, workmanlike squad through to the latter stages – Brazil are, according to our model, second favourites behind Argentina, with a 23 per cent win probability.

    If the Selecao are to challenge the holders, then they need Vinicius in top form.

    While he played as a split-striker for Madrid this season as Carlo Ancelotti found a way to get the best out of Jude Bellingham, Vinicius is more likely to play wide left for his country, though his cutting runs from out-to-in will make him a constant threat, as long as the likes of Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta can pick him out.

     

    Vinicius netted 24 times for Los Blancos in 2023-24, and attempted 286 dribbles – 10 more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues across all competitions. He averaged 8.4 take-on attempts per 90, a tally bettered by only Jeremy Doku, while Vinicius also boasts a dribble completion rate of 3.3 per 90.

    He is yet to score at the Copa America, however. That being said, he did not make a single start in 2021, with all four of his appearances coming as a substitute, having only one shot and completing only one of his seven dribbles. But such has been his stellar form under Ancelotti in the intervening three years, there is no doubting he is now Brazil’s main man.

    Brazil face Costa Rica, Paraguay and in-form Colombia in Group D, but none of those defences should strike fear into Vinicius.

    Luis Diaz

    Diaz enjoyed a superb campaign three years ago, scoring two absolute screamers – one came in the group stage, an overhead kick against Brazil, while the other came in the third-place play-off as Colombia beat Peru; it was a stunner from outside the area, with the then-Porto winger lashing into the top-right corner after skipping in from the flank and taking on several defenders.

    Indeed, the quality of Diaz’s finishes are shown by his xG in 2021, which was just 1.0. And Diaz’s excellent shooting at that edition is further evidenced by his expected goals on target (xGoT) figure of 2.2.

    Diaz had only 10 shots, 18 fewer than Messi, yet boasted a hugely impressive 40 per cent shot conversion rate. Only Messi (57) and Neymar (77), meanwhile, attempted more dribbles than Diaz (43) at the 2021 edition, while it was just that superstar duo that completed more dribbles, too (Neymar 35, Messi 34, Diaz 26).

     

    His performances at that tournament piqued the interest of Premier League sides, and Diaz subsequently moved to Liverpool in January 2022. So while he will not be quite the unknown quantity that he was three years ago, if he is at his best, he will still be hugely difficult to stop – especially with James Rodriguez pulling the strings behind him.

    Darwin Nunez

    Bookending this list of the top Golden Boot contenders is Uruguay’s Darwin Nunez. The Liverpool striker has been superb under Marcelo Bielsa, and looks to be El Loco’s main attacker, even with Luis Suarez in the squad.

    Nunez scored 11 Premier League goals for the Reds in 2023-24, but underperformed his xG (16.4) by 5.4. While he was unfortunate in a sense – he hit the woodwork on nine occasions, four more times than any other player – he was also erratic in his finishing, with his xGoT dropping to 15.5. Nunez also missed 14 big chances, which ranked behind only Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (34).

     

    The 24-year-old may never be ultra-clinical, (he had a shot conversion rate of 10.2 per cent in the Premier League in the season just gone) but his pace, tenacity and work rate make him the ideal Bielsa folly up top.

    Nunez scored a hat-trick in Uruguay’s 4-0 demolition of Mexico earlier in June, while he is the leading goalscorer in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, with five to his name.

    Uruguay head into the tournament in fine fettle, and Bielsa will always be willing to risk it all in attack – meaning plenty of opportunities should come Nunez’s way.

    They are in a group with the hosts USA, Panama and Bolivia – the worst-ranked team in the tournament – so Nunez should be aiming to make a dent early on.

    Other contenders

    Lautaro Martinez

    Martinez has had an outstanding season for Inter, who he led to the Scudetto while finishing as top scorer in Serie A, scoring 24 goals in 33 appearances, and comfortably outperforming his 17.6 xG.

    However, he has not netted for Argentina in 2026 World Cup qualifying, and is not a regular starter under Lionel Scaloni, so chances may not be of a premium for him. That being said, he did score twice in Argentina's 4-1 win over Guatemala on Friday.

     

    Endrick

    Boy wonder Endrick, who will link up with Vinicius, Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid next season, has scored three goals for Brazil in his last three appearances.

    He scored those in successive matches, though he was unable to become the first Selecao player since Neymar in 2021 to net in four consecutive games as Dorival Junior’s team drew 1-1 with the USA in a warm-up match. At 17, Endrick looks like a superstar in the making, and he could be an outside bet for the Golden Boot.

    Luis Suarez

    Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer Suarez is bang in form heading into this tournament. The veteran has 68 goals in 138 caps and has netted 12 times already for Miami in MLS this season, averaging a goal every 96 minutes.

    Of players to score at least five times in MLS in 2024, Suarez has the fourth-highest shot conversion rate, too (33.33 per cent). Uruguay are ranked as the third-favourites by the Opta supercomputer, so Suarez could have plenty of matches to add to his international goals tally.

    Christian Pulisic

    The USA cannot find much consistency under Gregg Berhalter, though they did draw 1-1 with Brazil in a friendly on June 13. If the hosts are to make a serious run, then they will need to channel through Pulisic.

    While he is more likely to act as a creator, the attacker has proved he is more than capable of putting away chances. He scored 15 goals for Milan in 2023-24, making it the best goalscoring campaign of his career.

  • Italy 'like looking in the mirror' for Spain, says De la Fuente Italy 'like looking in the mirror' for Spain, says De la Fuente

    Luis de la Fuente sees striking similarities between Italy and his Spain side as La Roja prepare to "get muddy" against the Azzurri at Euro 2024.

    Spain and Italy each won their Group B openers, against Croatia and Albania respectively, and a further victory for either team on Thursday will clinch top spot.

    Although the pair account for three of the past four European Championship titles, neither have widely been counted among the leading contenders, but De la Fuente expects a highly competitive encounter between two young sides.

    "They're very similar to us," Spain coach De la Fuente said of Italy. "They have changed coach and they have young players. They are very competitive.

    "When I see them, it's almost like looking at ourselves in the mirror actually.

    "We are a growing, developing team, working on cohesion and consistency, and so are they. I think it will be a very high quality match."

    Italy beat Spain on penalties in the semi-finals of the last Euros, while the sides went on to meet in the 2012 final when they last played each other in the group stage.

    The calibre of the fixture makes for a mouthwatering occasion, in which De la Fuente is keen to ensure Spain will be "ready for everything".

    "It's a football clasico, a clash that could easily be a Euros or World Cup final," he said.

    "We are prepared to get muddy, to dig deep in a quarry, for a good day at the office. We are ready for everything.

    "We know what kind of football Italy play and how competitive they are, so we won't be surprised. I expect a strong, aggressive Italy who will try to control possession."

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