Pulisic 'not panicked' by United States form ahead of World Cup

By Sports Desk September 27, 2022

Christian Pulisic is "not panicked" about the United States' form ahead of the World Cup despite a winless international break.

In the USA's final warm-up games for Qatar 2022, a poor 2-0 loss to Japan in Dusseldorf was followed by a limp goalless draw with Saudi Arabia in Murcia on Tuesday.

It means Gregg Berhalter's side will go into the finals with just one victory in their past five matches.

With Gio Reyna also suffering an injury scare against Saudi Arabia, this was not a successful camp for the United States.

But captain Pulisic pushed back on concerns around the team's performances, even if he acknowledged the need for improvement in the final third.

"We had a pretty good first half," the Chelsea forward stated. "I think we had a couple of half-chances where we created some things.

"But I felt like we lost it a bit at the start of the second half, and they got a little bit of rhythm. We have to do more to figure out what we are going to do to create chances at the end of the day.

"There are definitely some positives to take from the game, and a clean sheet is always good. I'm not panicked at all.

"We have a fresh slate going into the World Cup, and we're going to give it everything that we have."

The USA play Wales, England and Iran in Group B in Qatar.

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    Lionel Messi will walk out the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium tunnel on Saturday with the expectations of millions on his shoulders when Argentina face Australia in the last 16 of Qatar 2022.

    That is nothing new, of course, for this will be the 1,000th match of a remarkable career that may yet to have peaked – though that will depend on whether Messi can inspire his country past Australia and all the way to World Cup glory.

    Now aged 35, Messi has already accepted this will be his final chance to lift the most famous trophy of them all, a little over a year on from helping La Albiceleste end their 28-year wait for a major title with Copa America success.

    Ahead of the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner's milestone match, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind his previous 999 appearances for club and country – and why the next two weeks could yet define his career.

    Barca Breakthrough

    October 16, 2004. It would not be hyperbolic to suggest this was a day that football as we know it changed, with a 17-year-old Messi replacing Deco from the substitutes' bench in Barcelona's 1-0 win over city rivals Espanyol.

    In a sign of the mini maestro's longevity, he has since played alongside two players born after his Barcelona debut – Warren Zaire-Emery and El Chadaille Bitshiabu, born in March 2006 and May 2005 respectively.

    Both teenagers are on Paris Saint-Germain's books, where Messi is now plying his trade after ending his two-decade association with Barcelona in emotional circumstances in August 2021.

    Unsurprisingly, the majority of Messi's career appearances came during his 17 seasons at Camp Nou. He featured 778 times for Barca, scoring a staggering 672 goals and assisting 265, which amounts to 937 direct-goal involvements.

    He made more appearances against Real Madrid than any other opponent, playing 47 times against Barca's fiercest rivals.

    Good times under Guardiola

    Barcelona's inability to offer Messi a new contract due to their dire financial situation allowed PSG to pounce. After an underwhelming first campaign in Paris, the superstar forward has found his form this term.

    Messi has featured 53 times for the Parisians to date and has scored (23) and assisted (28) a combined 51 goals – just short of one goal involvement every match on average.

    He has already had two different managers at the Parc des Princes, with Christophe Galtier having replaced Mauricio Pochettino in the hot seat. That takes the number of head coaches Messi has worked under to 19.

    It was under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, between 2008 and 2012, that Messi played his most games as he featured on 219 occasions under the Catalan and scored 211 times.

    Luis Enrique is next on that list (158 games), followed by Ernesto Valverde (124) and Frank Rijkaard (110), the man who gave him his debut against Espanyol.


    1,000 not out

    Some 18 years and 48 days on from that first appearance comes match number 1,000 for club and country – and what a truly huge occasion it is for Messi and Argentina, who recovered from a slow start in the group phase to advance.

    Messi has featured in 22 previous World Cup matches – one more than Diego Maradona as the most ever for an Argentina player – scoring eight times and assisting six more. 

    Incredibly for a player of his game-changing quality, Messi has yet to score in the knockout stages of the World Cup – 23 efforts, zero goals. Interestingly, the same is also true of archenemy Cristiano Ronaldo (25 shots without a goal).

    The aim for Messi will be to put that right against Australia on what will be his 169th senior cap, 17 years on from his senior international bow against Hungary, which came just 10 games into his career for club and country.

    And while it will be a special occasion for Messi, the man many consider to be the greatest of all time will hope to make it to 1,003 matches before Argentina's Qatar campaign concludes.

    Should that be the case and Argentina go on to lift the World Cup for the first time since 1986, a centre-stage Messi will have the defining moment of a truly special career that still has some way to go yet.

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    Jordan Henderson is convinced England's experience of coming within touching distance of glory can make them better equipped to go the extra mile – because it is a process he knows all about from playing for Liverpool.

    Defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley was a crushing blow to England, who felt they were on the brink of a first major title in over 50 years.

    Gareth Southgate's team also went mightily close to reaching the 2018 World Cup final, missing out after losing to Croatia in the semi-finals.

    They are getting close repeatedly, and this is relatable for Henderson given his 11-year Liverpool career has seen its ups, downs and close calls.

    The Reds finished as runners-up in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League during Henderson's time at Anfield before laying their hands on each of those trophies, and he can see why England's situation is comparable.

    "I suppose you could see similarities in terms of getting so close and just failing at the last bit until we ended up winning," Henderson said.

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    "I keep my runners-up medals. Not many players get to cup finals so I'll always respect the process of getting there. But when you just miss out on your dream then it can hurt a lot and that is what drives you to get better."

    Henderson, an FA Cup and EFL Cup winner as captain of Liverpool last season, said complacency "won't be a danger" when England tackle Senegal in a last-16 tie on Sunday.

    His former Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane was ruled out by the Africa Cup of Nations champions just before the tournament began, after a cruel injury blow, but Senegal still beat Ecuador and Qatar in the group stage.

    They are a team to be taken seriously, and Henderson, quoted in the Guardian, said: "We can say they are missing Sadio Mane, but they got into the knockout stages without him and they will be feeling confident.

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  • Xhaka in shirt controversy as Switzerland advance Xhaka in shirt controversy as Switzerland advance

    Granit Xhaka found himself at the centre of another controversy involving Serbia after donning a shirt with 'Jashari' on the back following Switzerland’s 3-2 win in Doha on Friday.

    Xhaka produced a man of the match display as the Swiss hit back from 2-1 down to secure second place in Group G and advance to a last-16 clash with Portugal on Tuesday.

    But his actions after the final whistle could attract the attention of FIFA.

    In the post-match celebrations, Xhaka put on a shirt carrying the name 'Jashari'. Asked afterwards what it meant, the Arsenal midfielder claimed it was for Switzerland squad member Ardon Jashari.

    However, the name carries significance in other ways with Adem Jashari a late founder of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a Kosovo Albanian separatist group that fought for independence from the former Yugoslavia.

    Xhaka is of ethnic Albanian heritage linked to Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but has not been recognised by Serbia. 

    Asked about the shirt afterwards, Xhaka said: "There’s no political background to it whatsoever.

    "Ardon is part of our squad and we spend a lot of time together. I told him if we won I would wear his shirt."

    Xhaka was a key figure throughout a feisty encounter. He also prompted a second-half melee that saw the Serbia bench encroach on to the pitch after making a crude gesture, thought to be in the direction of substitute goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, whose personal life has been the subject of speculation this week.

    Switzerland boss Murat Yakin said he will "wait and see" if action is taken against Xhaka.

    "We will enjoy this moment, it cost us a lot of emotions and energy. It was a fair match," he said.

    "Before the game a lot of people were talking about the situation but we were able to face that challenge.

    "We are happy we are moving on. Everything else is speculation and we will wait and see."

    On the incident involving Rajkovic, Yakin added: "What I saw was a Granit Xhaka who was focused fully on football and performed very well. I saw the players from Serbia crossing the line, and others trying to calm them down. It was a normal exchange."

    It is not the first time Xhaka has been embroiled in controversy against Serbia. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he and Xherdan Shaqiri were fined after crossing their hands to mimic the eagle displayed on the Albanian flag in Switzerland’s 2-1 win.

    Shaqiri also played his part in Switzerland's victory here, scoring the opening goal at Stadium 974, but appeared annoyed to be taken off after 69 minutes.

    "No-one likes to be subbed," Yakin said. "Every player wants to play the whole game, but it’s part of my responsibility to protect players. He scored his goal and had a great assist.

    "The substitutes brought great energy and I thought they did well."

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    Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic praised his players but lamented the fact so many were struggling for fitness throughout their time in Qatar. He also insisted he had no intention of resigning.

    He said: "We are not happy with the result but, given the problems we faced from our arrival here and the injuries we had to contend with, it was too much for us to cope with.

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    Stojkovic claimed not to hear any of the chants that prompted an announcement over the public address system asking fans to refrain from discriminatory songs or gestures, thought to originate from sections housing Serbian supporters.

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