Messi leaves Barcelona: The clubs we'd really love to see him join

By Sports Desk August 05, 2021

For the first time in his career, Lionel Messi is looking for a new club.

Barcelona announced on Thursday contract talks had been unsuccessful due to the "economic and structural obstacles" of LaLiga's salary restrictions.

Messi's next step is far from obvious, but what if we imagine money is no object and he could play for anyone he chooses? What if the thrill of the game were more important to him than winning a fifth Champions League? What if he threw caution to the wind and went somewhere just for fun?

We've has imagined such a scenario, and these are the teams we'd love to see him play for...

 

AJAX

The link between Ajax and Barca goes beyond the basics of football: it's a shared ideology, a philosophical connection, a spiritual understanding.

From Johan Cruyff to Ronald Koeman, plenty of players and coaches have shared the love of both clubs, but Messi moving to Amsterdam would turn the romance up to 11.

Messi as the focal point of an Ajax side – who are beautiful to watch as it is – is a wonderful idea. He will certainly know all about the club from former player and close friend Luis Suarez.

Given the players Barca have signed from Ajax in the past – Frenkie de Jong the latest – it would be nice to see a player going in the opposite direction.

ATALANTA

Gian Piero Gasperini's side have captured the hearts of the football world in recent seasons, threatening title challenges in Serie A and coming close to reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2019-20.

They have done all this on a modest budget, playing vibrant, attacking football, and all during a global pandemic that struck Bergamo and the Lombardy region particularly hard.

The way Argentine Alejandro Gomez pulled the strings for Atalanta in the past was a joy to watch, but imagine if compatriot Messi were in that role. Imagine him again facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus. Imagine Marten de Roon's Twitter feed.

Glorious, isn't it?

COLOGNE

The GOAT and the Billy Goats – what could be better?

Cologne have gone through some tricky times but will hope to be on the up again in the Bundesliga after surviving a relegation play-off last term.

They might not have won the title since 1978, but they are among Germany's most esteemed clubs, with an ardent fan base and a beautiful home city. If Messi could lead them to challenge the might of Bayern Munich, it would be an unforgettable story.

If not... well, they have a goat as a mascot, for goodness' sake. It's too perfect.

LEEDS UNITED

It might be too early for Messi to return to Newell's Old Boys, but what if he joined up with Rosario's other most famous footballing export in Yorkshire?

Leeds United returned to the Premier League with a bang last season, continuing their progress under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa and his big blue bucket.

The chance to truly awaken a sleeping giant of the English game and take Leeds to the next level while playing for the man who inspired Pep Guardiola sounds like an opportunity that's too good to miss.

Plus, if he wanted to visit Pep, Manchester is less than an hour away by train.

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  • Does Derrick Henry's return matter for the Titans? Does Derrick Henry's return matter for the Titans?

    Despite claiming the number one seed in the AFC, there has not been much hype around the Tennessee Titans ahead of the start of their playoff campaign.

    After they each exploded for five-touchdown performances in the Wild Card Round, most of the attention on the AFC side of the postseason has focused on the rematch between Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Kansas City Chiefs counterpart Patrick Mahomes.

    Yet there is a 6ft 3in, 247-pound reason to pay attention to the Titans as they face Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round.

    Running back Derrick Henry's season appeared to be over when he suffered a Jones fracture in his foot in the Titans' Week 8 clash with the Indianapolis Colts.

    But he was activated from injured reserve this week and is in line to make his return for the visit of the Bengals as the Titans look to reach the AFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.

    A two-time rushing champion, on the surface Henry's value to the Tennessee offense is obvious as an explosive powerhouse back who when healthy this season was threatening Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing yards record.

    However, with the Titans continuing to excel on the ground even after Henry's injury, it is fair to ask: how much does his return actually matter?

    A slight drop-off

    If you looked solely at the raw numbers, it would be easy to answer that question in the affirmative.

    Between Weeks 1 and 8, when Henry was on the field, the Titans were fourth in the NFL with 147.6 rushing yards per game.

    After he went down injured, that average dropped to 135.9 yards per game, though that was still good enough to put them sixth in the league.

    In other words, Henry was worth nearly 12 extra rushing yards - or one explosive run - a game to the Titans.

    But in the grand scheme of things, that is a negligible difference and the counting statistics point to Tennessee still possessing an elite rushing attack even without Henry.

    And a more granular look at the performance of Henry and the two backs that assumed the bulk of the workload in his absence, D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard, also suggests there was not much of a drop-off when he left the lineup.

    Henry low on power?

    Henry's fearsome reputation as the most overpowering running back in the NFL is one earned off the back of a string of highlight-reel runs comprising brute force and remarkable open-field speed for a man of his size.

    More than simply bouncing off defenders, Henry is a back who can run them over at will.

    That makes his numbers in terms of after-contact yardage this season extremely surprising.

    Henry averaged 1.87 yards after contact per attempt in the regular season, below the league average of 1.95, with Foreman (1.92) outperforming him.

    His average of 3.05 yards per rush attempt on carries where then was a run disruption by a defender was on the right side of the ledger. The league average in the regular season was 2.88 yards per carry.

    Yet his efforts in that regard were inferior to those of both Foreman and Hilliard. Foreman averaged 3.40 yards per attempt when faced with a run disruption and Hilliard went beyond that with 4.03 yards per carry in those situations.

    Their efficiency in that area is in part down to a smaller sample size, Henry carried the ball 219 times this season compared to 133 rush attempts for Foreman and 56 for Hilliard.

    Still, Foreman and Hilliard got enough run in his absence to indicate that they were actually superior to Henry when it came to turning potential negative plays into gains for Tennessee.

    In fact, Henry's most substantial contribution may not be what he does with the ball in his hands, but the influence the threat of him carrying it has on opposing defenses.

    A play-action asset

    He might not have been overly effective in gaining yards after contact in the regular season, however, it is obvious defenses still very much respect his ability to do so.

    Indeed, Henry was consistently faced by defenses who committed an extra man to the box. Among running backs with at least 100 carries, Henry was fifth in the NFL in percentage of snaps where the opponent had one more man in the defensive box than the offense had in its box.

    Per Stats Perform data, Henry encountered a 'bad box' on 58 per cent of his snaps compared to 48.2 per cent for Foreman. Additionally, on bad box plays where Henry was on the field, the Titans gained 6.05 yards per play but only 5.09 yards when he was off the field in those situations.

    And the Titans excelled at using their opponents' aggressiveness in committing to stopping Henry against them.

    The Titans sold the run to throw a pass on play-action or a quarterback bootleg on 25 per cent of their passing plays in the regular season, the second-highest rate in the NFL and well above the league average of 19 per cent.

    Without Henry, they averaged 7.06 yards per play on play-action and bootleg passes, below the league average of 8.1. With Henry on the field, that figure ballooned to a remarkable 9.94 yards per play.

    Henry's impact as a runner may be somewhat overstated, but his influence on the Titans' offense is not.

    As a player whose reputation precedes him, Henry's mere presence forces defenses to commit more men to the box and helps set up play-action passes on which the Titans averaged almost enough yardage for a first down on every such play when he was healthy in 2021.

    It remains to be seen how effective Henry can be after his lengthy spell on the sidelines, yet the numbers leave no doubt his return does matter. However, he is less important to what has been a consistent rushing attack than he is to a passing game that may need to go blow for blow with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to avoid a swift playoff exit.

  • Rumour Has It: Manchester United pull out of race for Dortmund's Haaland Rumour Has It: Manchester United pull out of race for Dortmund's Haaland

    The race for Erling Haaland's signature will be a huge story in 2022.

    The 21-year-old sensation has interest from some of Europe's biggest clubs.

    Haaland has netted 63 goals in the past 18 months for Borussia Dortmund.

     

    TOP STORY – MAN UTD GIVE UP ON HAALAND

    Manchester United have pulled out of the race to sign Dortmund's Haaland, according to ESPN.

    The Red Devils will focus on alternative attacking options with uncertainty around Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo's futures at the club while Haaland is favouring a move to Real Madrid.

    United have had a long-standing interest in the Norwegian, who has a €75 million (£62m) release clause on his Dortmund contract.

     

    ROUND-UP

    - Manchester City are closing in on a deal for River Plate's 21-year-old Argentina international Julian Alvarez, claims The Telegraph. As part of the imminent deal, Alvarez – who has interest from Milan, Inter and Juventus – will remain with River until June. The fee is expected to be no less than £20m.

    - Liverpool have joined the race to sign Borussia Monchengladbach's Denis Zakaria, according to ESPN. The Reds will rival Dortmund and Bayern Munich who are both keen on the Swiss midfielder.

    - Ajax's Mexico international Edson Alvarez is attracting interest from Premier League trio Chelsea, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, reports Football Insider.

    - Leeds United have opened contract talks with Brazilian superstar Raphinha,  according to the Daily Star, amid interest from Chelsea and Liverpool .

    - French club Nice are set to offer Tottenham's Bryan Gil a loan deal, according to L'Equipe. The Spaniard has struggled for impact since his move to England.

    - Diario AS claims that Valencia are working on a January deal for Athletic Bilbao defender Unai Nunez .

  • Simeone confirms Suarez will play against Valencia Simeone confirms Suarez will play against Valencia

    Diego Simeone has confirmed that Luis Suarez will play for Atletico Madrid against Valencia on Saturday, despite a lack of form and apparent recent falling out between the pair.

    The Uruguay international is Los Rojiblancos' top scorer in all competitions this season with nine goals, but has only found the net once in his last 11 club matches.

    Suarez made his frustration known when he was substituted during last month's 2-1 defeat at Sevilla, appearing to direct expletives towards his manager.

    The 34-year-old is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with a Premier League reunion with former Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa, but Simeone insisted at a news conference ahead of the weekend's clash at the Wanda Metropolitano that he has spoken to Suarez and intends to play him.

    Atletico have been on a poor run of late, winning just one of their last six LaLiga games and being eliminated from both the Supercopa de Espana and Copa del Rey in their last two outings.

    "Luis Suarez will play," the Argentine coach confirmed. "I have no doubt that these moments make us stronger, because we have been in difficult moments and very good ones during my ten years at the club [as a coach].

    "This moment is something we've never experienced before and it is like life itself, we need to defend ourselves continuously. What you did yesterday doesn't count, it counts what you do today and I love it like this because this is what happens in life itself.

    "I've already talked to Luis and with the club. With all the people I've needed to, we've talked already. They know what I think, and I'm [currently] thinking about the match against Valencia.”

     

    Suarez has scored 30 goals across all competitions since his arrival at Atletico from Barcelona in September 2020. Karim Benzema (54) and Gerard Moreno (41) are the only players currently based in Spain to have scored more often during that time.

    Additionally, only Lionel Messi (231) has more than Suarez's 175 LaLiga goals since the Uruguayan joined Barcelona from Liverpool in July 2014.

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