Messi hails 'special' Copa del Rey triumph as Laporta backs forward to sign new deal

By Sports Desk April 17, 2021

Lionel Messi hailed the special achievement of captaining Barcelona to another trophy as president Joan Laporta backed the superstar forward to sign a new deal with the club.

The 33-year-old scored twice in Saturday's 4-0 Copa del Rey final victory over Athletic Bilbao after Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong had given Barca a two-goal lead.

With that double, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner made it a record nine goals in 10 appearances in the final of the competition to overtake Athletic great Telmo Zarra.

He has now scored the fourth most goals ever in the competition (56), meanwhile, behind Guillermo Gorostiza (64), Jose Samitier (69) and Zarra (81).

Messi's future remains a hot topic of debate with his contract due to expire at the end of the season, potentially making this seventh Copa triumph his last for the Catalan giants.

Barca were made to wait until the hour mark to find a way past opposition goalkeeper Unai Simon, but Messi is glad his side's patient approach to breaking down Athletic paid off.

"It's nice to lift a title. It's a very happy day for this group," Messi said. "It is very special to be the captain of this club. It is a very special cup for me to lift.

"We knew Athletic played this way, with a solid 4-4-2. We had patience with the ball and created spaces. We moved a lot in the first half and I think they fell in the second half.

"Not being able to celebrate it with our people, it's a shame. The situation is what we have to live in. The cups are always special and people enjoy them a lot."

Barca have enjoyed an upturn in form since the turn of the year and are two points off top spot in LaLiga, despite defeat to Real Madrid in last week's Clasico.

"It was difficult for us in the first half of the year. We lost a lot of silly points," Messi added. 

"Then we became strong, very good, and we got into the title fight. Last week, unfortunately, we couldn't get a good result from the Clasico."

Messi, who has now hit 30 or more goals for Barca in 13 successive seasons, has been touted as a possible target for Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

However, recently elected club president Laporta remains confident that the Argentina international can be tempted to stay at Camp Nou beyond the end of this season.

"Leo is the best in the world, he is deeply rooted in the club," Laporta said. "I am convinced that he wants to stay and we will do everything in our power to make him stay.

"Today we have seen that he is supported by a great team."

The victory at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja marked the first piece of silverware won by Koeman since being appointed by Barcelona last August.

And like Laporta, Koeman is hopeful Barca's improved performances in 2021 will be enough to persuade Messi to put pen to paper on fresh terms.

"I hope it is not the last Messi's cup match with us, we want him to continue with us," Koeman said at his post-match news conference.

"You never know if it has been Leo's last final because it is he who must decide. As the president says, we will do our best to make him stay. 

"He has proven, once again, to be the best in the world. With enormous effectiveness, he has led the team."

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  • France v Poland: Deschamps remains calm despite Les Bleus' struggle for goals France v Poland: Deschamps remains calm despite Les Bleus' struggle for goals

    France manager Didier Deschamps says he is "not concerned" with his side's recent struggles in front of goal ahead of their final Euro 2024 group game against Poland on Tuesday.

    Les Bleus are all but through to the knockout stages of the European Championships, sitting joint-top of Group D with four points, but need to avoid defeat to ensure progression.

    Yet France's only goal at the tournament so far has come courtesy of Maximilian Wober turning into his own net in the opening 1-0 victory over Austria, before a goalless draw with the Netherlands on Friday.

    France failed to score with any of their 15 shots in a wasteful display against the Oranje as Deschamps went without Kylian Mbappe, who was only fit enough for the bench due to his broken nose.

    Asked about Les Bleus' profligate showings, Deschamps responded: "I am not concerned. It is just the name of the game.

    "Sometimes you have countless chances and don't hit the back of the net, and sometimes it is the other way round.

    "I would be worried if there were not any chances. Efficiency at high-level football is important, and it is something we can work on.

    On Mbappe's fitness, Deschamps added: "Everything is going in the right direction; he is recovering from the shock, there is the haematoma part which will diminish each day, he will get used to his mask, which modifies the vision a little. But he is fine."

    Poland became the first side to be eliminated from the tournament following France's draw, after they lost their opening matches to the Netherlands (2-1) and Austria (3-1).

    They have faced their own problems without Robert Lewandowski, who missed the start of the tournament due to a hamstring injury before appearing from the bench against Austria.

    "We are depressed by this result, but we still have one more game in our group, and we need to put our best foot forward and try to win three points," Lewandowski said.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    France – N'Golo Kante

    N'Golo Kante was a surprise inclusion in Deschamps' squad for the tournament after a two-year absence from the national side, but his performances so far have earned him the Player of the Match award in their opening two games.

    The midfielder has made more major tournament appearances without losing than any other European player, with France unbeaten in all 17 games he has played across the Euros and World Cup (W12 D5).

    Poland – Piotr Zielinski

    Poland may be out of the tournament but will be desperate to go down fighting, with Piotr Zielinski again expected to be key here.

    Zielinski has been directly involved in more shots than any other Poland player at Euro 2024 (11 – seven shots, four chances created), as well as completing the most passes for his side (68) across the first two rounds.

    MATCH PREDICTION: FRANCE WIN

    This will only be the third meeting between France and Poland in a major tournament, and the first at the Euros. Poland won a third-place play-off match 3-2 at the 1982 World Cup, while France triumphed 3-1 in the round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup.

    Including all competitions, France are unbeaten in their last eight meetings with Poland (W4 D4), since losing a friendly match 4-0 in August 1982.

    Les Bleus simply need to avoid defeat to qualify for the knockout stages, and they are unbeaten in their eight games in the group stage at the Euros under Deschamps (W4 D4), with their last such defeat coming on MD 3 versus Sweden at Euro 2012 (2-0), under Laurent Blanc.

    Meanwhile, Poland have lost both of their games at Euro 2024 so far but have never previously suffered three defeats in a single group stage at a major tournament.

    Poland have lost their final group stage match in three of their four previous appearances at the European Championships, with the exception being a 1-0 win against Ukraine in 2016 – the only time they have reached the knockout rounds of the competition.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    France – 73.9%

    Draw – 14.8%

    Poland – 11.2%

  • Sabitzer focused on last-16 qualification after Champions League heartache Sabitzer focused on last-16 qualification after Champions League heartache

    Marcel Sabitzer insisted he will put his Champions League final defeat in the past as he prepares to help Austria reach the last-16 of Euro 2024. 

    The Borussia Dortmund midfielder played the full duration of their 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid at Wembley earlier this month. 

    Los Blancos secured their 15th success in the competition thanks to goals late in the game from Dani Carvajal and Vinicius Junior. 

    But Sabitzer played a starring role as Austria roared back from their defeat to France in their opening game of the competition, beating Poland 3-1 to bring it down to the final matchday. 

    Austria face the Netherlands in Berlin next Tuesday to conclude their Group D campaign, and know a win could see them finish top or second. 

    A draw or defeat could also leave Ralf Rangnick's side with a good chance of progressing as one of the four best third-placed teams. 

    "The possibilities then really open up," Sabitzer said.

    "I know that from the Champions League, especially this season. Once you're on a run in the knockout phase anything can happen.

    "The most important thing is to get through the group stage and into the round of 16 and then we'll see what happens next."

  • The Numbers Game: England desperate to build momentum against Slovenia ahead of last 16 The Numbers Game: England desperate to build momentum against Slovenia ahead of last 16

    England know a win, but more importantly, a performance is needed when they face Slovenia in Cologne on Tuesday. 

    The Three Lions squandered the opportunity to secure qualification to the knockout stages of Euro 2024 after a lacklustre display against Denmark last time out.

    Harry Kane's 18th-minute opener had given Gareth Southgate's side an early advantage but, much like in their opening 1-0 win against Serbia, England then failed to capitalise on an early lead.

    This time they were punished on Thursday when Morten Hjulmand's effort from distance levelled proceedings, with Denmark perhaps unfortunate to not claim all three points. 

    Many involved with England have already acknowledged they must improve and alterations are expected in an attempt to build momentum heading into the last 16, should they get there. 

    Here, we use Opta data to preview the Three Lions' final Group C clash.

    What's expected?

    England are expected to win and top Group C, with the Opta supercomputer handing them a dominant 75.5% chance of getting the job done in Cologne.

    Slovenia are predicted a meagre 10.4% likelihood of claiming a maiden triumph against their opponents in the same data-led simulations, with a draw forecast slightly higher at 14.1%. 

    This will be only England and Slovenia’s second encounter at a major tournament, with the Three Lions winning 1-0 in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup, but Southgate's men have a fine record in this meeting.

    Slovenia have failed to win any of their six matches against England across all competitions (D1 L5). Greece and fellow Group C side Denmark are the only opponents they have faced on more occasions (seven) without ever winning a single match.

    Yet Matjaz Kek may fancy an upset here as the normally resolute England defence has come under fire at Euro 2024. The Three Lions have faced five more shots than they have attempted in Germany (17 shots, 22 faced).

    They have failed to have more attempts than their opponents in five of their last seven Euros group stages (1992, 2000, 2004, 2012, 2020), something that hasn't happened in any of their last seven World Cup group stage appearances between 1998 and 2022.

    England are also averaging just 8.9 shots per game at the Euros under Southgate (80 in nine games). Going into Matchday 3, that is the lowest shots per game any nation has had under a manager to take charge of them in more than five matches at the European Championship on record (since 1980).

    Southgate will be desperate for his side to rediscover the creative spark that some of their star players have found so easy to muster with their clubs. 

    Changes expected for England, but who will Southgate turn to?

    With a plethora of attacking talent, the right blend of experience and youth, along with players picked to travel to Germany based on current form, England arrived at Euro 2024 among the favourites to win the tournament. 

    However, any form of cohesion and fluidity is yet to transpire for Southgate's side as jeers echoed around the Frankfurt Arena from the travelling contingent after their underwhelming display against Denmark. 

    Kane, who scored 44 goals in all competitions in his debut 2023-24 season for Bayern Munich, had the least touches (22) of any England player who started the game on Thursday, while also managing just one touch in the Danes' penalty area. 

    England's attacking quartet of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Kane managed 114 goals between them in all competitions last season, yet Southgate's men managed just two shots on target, forcing the Three Lions boss into a triple change with 20 minutes to go.

    Eberechi Eze, Jarrod Bowen, and Ollie Watkins were introduced but created just one opportunity of note. Meanwhile, Anthony Gordon and Cole Palmer are still yet to make an appearance in the tournament, despite combining for 33 Premier League goals for Newcastle United and Chelsea respectively last term.

    Despite creating more chances (three) and playing more line-breaking passes in the final third (five) against Denmark, it looks likely that Trent Alexander-Arnold's time in midfield could be up, but it remains to be seen who will replace him. 

    Chelsea's Conor Gallagher has replaced him in England's last two games, but only completed 82.4% of his 17 passes against Denmark, also collecting a yellow card for his troubles. 

    Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton are possible replacements and have shown in the Premier League they are more than capable of stepping up, yet an appearance alongside Declan Rice in midfield would mark both's first feature at a major tournament.

    All or nothing for Slovenia

    Slovenia know they must achieve the unlikely to keep their Euro 2024 journey alive, with their confidence taking a hit after coming inches away from securing a maiden success at the European Championships. 

    Luka Jovic's leveller in Thursday's 1-1 draw with Serbia marked the latest result-altering goal in a Euros match of all-time (excluding extra-time), with his equaliser timed at exactly 95 minutes.

    That late heartbreak leaves Slovenia winless across five matches at UEFA's flagship international tournament (D4 L1).

    It had started well for Kek's side when Zan Karnicnik netted his second international goal, but Slovenia succumbed to a familiar fate.

    Their opener was only the second time they'd gone ahead in a game at the finals, with the other instance coming against Yugoslavia at Euro 2000 when Slovenia led 3-0 before collapsing to a 3-3 draw.

    Benjamin Sesko showed the greatest promise for Slovenia, having the joint-most shots (two) and shots on target (one) for his side, but was loose in possession, ending the game with a pass accuracy of 55.8% – the second-lowest in the team. 

    Yet there is still hope for Kek as Slovenia are unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions (W4 D4), only enjoying a longer such run once in history (nine games between September 2020 and March 2021).

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    England – Harry Kane

    While much was made of Kane's performance against Denmark, there is no denying the quality he offers the Three Lions in and around the penalty area.

    The Bayern Munich striker has only managed two touches in the opposition box at Euro 2024 so far, the same total as both Kyle Walker and Alexander-Arnold.

    Yet Kane still scored his fifth goal in his last six appearances at the tournament, with only Wayne Rooney (six) and Alan Shearer (seven) managing more Euros goals for England.

    Slovenia – Petar Stojanovic

    With England expected to dominate possession on Tuesday, Slovenia's defence will have to be at their best to give them any chance of getting something from the game. 

    Right-back Petar Stojanovic won possession 11 times against Serbia, with only Ales Ceh at Euro 2000 against Spain (14) managing to win the ball back more often for Slovenia in a major tournament game.

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