Lionel Messi is celebrating his 33rd birthday, which provides the perfect excuse to reflect on the Barcelona star's best 10 goals.

The Argentina forward has been the scourge of defenders in Spain and across the globe since making his professional debut at 17.

He has now scored 699 goals, collecting 34 club trophies and a record six Ballons d'Or, but international honours have eluded him since he won gold at the 2008 Olympics.

To celebrate Messi's special day, we take a look at 10 of his very best and most important goals.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already had one goal wrongly ruled out for offside - an audacious chip from the edge of the box - Messi's confidence was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete stopper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for a club.

 

Getafe (H): April 18, 2007

In the 12 years since he first got on the scoresheet, only one of Messi's strikes was ever going to top this list: his Diego Maradona-esque solo goal against Getafe. Messi picked up the ball in his own half and danced around two players before turning on the pace, beating two more defenders and going around the goalkeeper, capping it with a right-footed finish.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, Messi's strike against Real Zaragoza seemed to take him from very good into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in this goal, which began when he won the ball from a tackle on halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling the ball into the far corner - leaving Pep Guardiola speechless.

 

Real Madrid (A): April 27, 2011

This was the height of one of the fiercest Clasico rivalries in decades, as Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid waged war on Guardiola's Barca. They met four times in three competitions in less than a month, including in the Champions League semi-finals, when Messi faced pretty brutal treatment as Madrid tried to shackle him. He scored twice in a 2-0 first-leg win at the Santiago Bernabeu but it is the first goal people remember: the tension of the match, the bitterness of the rivalry, the ducking, weaving slalom through the defence and the composed finish past Casillas, all from the most nonchalant Sergio Busquets assist you will ever see.

 

Iran (N): June 21, 2014

Prior to the 2014 World Cup, Messi had only scored one goal in eight appearances. Seemingly determined to step up for Argentina, he netted in his side's opening match before going on to score one of the goals of the tournament in the second against Iran. With the score at 0-0 heading into stoppage time, Messi took control of the ball and bent a powerful strike past the despairing arms of Alireza Haghighi to break Iranian hearts.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Having already opened the scoring three minutes earlier to give Barca a 1-0 advantage over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, Messi doubled his tally with a sumptuous effort. Ivan Rakitic's pass sent Messi on his way, before the little maestro's trickery put Jerome Boateng on his backside and allowed the Argentine to casually lift the ball over the onrushing Manuel Neuer.

 

Athletic Bilbao (N): May 30, 2015

The second part of a treble-winning season for Barca came in the form of the Copa Del Rey against Athletic Bilbao. With 20 minutes gone and the score deadlocked, Messi set off on a marauding run down the right wing and soon found himself trapped amongst three defenders. Naturally, Messi was able to float past the trio as if they weren't there, before cutting into the box and beating Iago Herrerin at his near post.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Real Madrid the title, and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in the 92nd minute gave Jordi Alba the chance to square it to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

 

Ecuador (A): October 11, 2017

Romario Ibarra's first-minute goal in the last match of CONMEBOL qualification left football fans across the globe staring at the prospect of the unthinkable – a World Cup without Messi. Enter the man himself, who dragged Argentina out of a bumbling stupor to single-handedly tear Ecuador apart with a sensational hat-trick. The shift of pace and stunning, dipping finish into the top corner to claim the matchball was the best of the bunch and a grateful bench spilled on to the field to mob their hero.

 

Real Betis (A): March 17, 2019

Messi has never won the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the year, although he has twice come second, most recently for this effort against Real Betis in a 4-1 win last season. He sent the ball left to Ivan Rakitic and hurried to the edge of the box for the return ball, then - having shaped for a powerful strike towards the near post - chipped a sublime effort into the far corner beyond the despairing Pau Lopez. The goal completed his hat-trick and earned an ovation from the home fans but was not enough to beat Debrecen's Daniel Zsori to the Puskas prize.

Tomorrow marks the 41st anniversary of the West Indies famous second lien on the ICC World Cup trophy and it is fitting that today’s Moments in Time takes you back to the very final, played at Lord’s against none other than England.

Zsa Zsa Gabor's eighth marriage was a shorter-lived affair than John Isner and Nicolas Mahut's licentious congress at Wimbledon.

The queen of all socialites wed a Mexican count, Felipe de Alba, on April 13 1983, with their union annulled a day later when it emerged marriage number seven had not yet been quite annulled.

Yet Isner and Mahut spent three days in cahoots at the All England Club, their head-spinning 2010 match breaking record after record, and it all began on June 22, 2010.

Ten years on, and although the longest tennis match in history eventually did end, it stands to be an eternal marker of ultra-endurance.

'IT'S A BASKETBALL SCORE'

Like Max von Sydow's knight facing down Death over a chess board, Mahut eventually bowed, Isner unrelenting in his pursuit of the kill.

They spent 11 hours and five minutes in action, ace after ace, mental and physical torment, but the match spanned a full 46 hours and 34 minutes of the human race's existence.

It started inconspicuously at 6.13pm on the first Tuesday of the Wimbledon fortnight and ended as a globally recognised phenomenon at 4.47pm on the Thursday.

Isner sent exceptional forehand and backhand winners fizzing past Mahut in successive points to take the win, sensational trolling from the American given both men were physically beat on their feet.

The match is quaintly recorded in Wimbledon's official compendium thus: J.R. Isner (USA) bt. N.P.A. Mahut (FRA) 6-4 3-6 6-7 (7-9) 7-6 (7-3) 70-68

That final-set score will forever have the air of a misprint, and Isner admitted to feeling "delirious" when play was suspended due to fading light on the Wednesday evening, the contest poised at 59-59 in the decider.

"It's a basketball score," Isner later told ESPN. "It always reminds me of that. I'll never forget these two numbers for as long as I live."

CALL THE COPS

You could watch The NeverEnding Story seven times in 11 hours and five minutes.

In the playing time that it took Isner to break Mahut's resistance, and his heart, you could watch Rafael Nadal's victory over Roger Federer in their epic 2008 Wimbledon final twice over, and be almost halfway through a third viewing.

You could watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy and leave yourself an hour and 47 minutes to wonder why you just did that.

Or you could watch all seven films in the Police Academy franchise and have a spare hour and four minutes to ruminate on whether Mahoney had a heart of gold or a hollow soul.

In 46 hours and 34 minutes, you could indulge your own Mission To Moscow fantasy and drive from the All England Club to the Russian capital, enjoying a couple of short overnight stays on the way.

EVEN THE SCOREBOARD COULDN'T BELIEVE IT

The truth is that barely anybody was engaged with Isner versus Mahut for its entirety. Different days mean different crowds at Wimbledon.

Isner, the 23rd seed, and qualifier Mahut were assigned a late-afternoon Tuesday slot on Court 18, one of Wimbledon's smaller show courts but a hidden gem, and it was only on the Wednesday, when the fifth-set score kept nudging up, that media-room interest began to whip up.

By tea time on the second day, it was the longest match in Wimbledon history, then the longest in all grand slams, going beyond the six hours and 33 minutes Fabrice Santoro needed to beat Arnaud Clement in their 2004 French Open tussle.

The big serving of both players was cooking up never-before-seen numbers.

The scoreboard stalled at 47-47, technology's own expression of disbelief. And yet tennis' Fischer versus Spassky continued, a trial of temperament as much as talent. There was no Cold War element, just the question of which man would crack as the pressure ramped up.

On day four, the UK's Queen Elizabeth II made a rare visit to Wimbledon, albeit not to spend the day on Court 18.

RECORD AFTER RECORD

Come Thursday's denouement, Isner and Mahut had contested the most games in a grand slam match, with 183 toppling the previous record of 112.

They had played the most games in a set, with their 138 eviscerating anything in the record books, and until the dramatic finale they had played 168 consecutive games without a break of serve. The run of holds began early in the second set.

The fifth set alone, lasting eight hours and 11 minutes, was longer than any entire match ever played in professional tennis.

Isner hit a mind-boggling 113 aces across the piece and Mahut made 103, a miracle of athletic achievement.

Serious aesthetes may have found little to love except the drama, but sometimes drama and shows of lung-busting human willpower outweigh finesse on the sporting field.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?

Isner bombed out a day later, thumped 6-0 6-3 6-2 by Thiemo de Bakker, with the American a victim of his own first-round excesses, but the match against Mahut will never be forgotten.

A plaque on the wall outside Court 18 marks what occurred there, Wimbledon's equivalent of a Hollywood star as passers-by queue to be photographed next to the permanent record.

The introduction of a fifth-set tie-break at 12-12 by Wimbledon in 2019 means there is no prospect of another 70-68 these days in SW19.

Freakishly, Isner and Mahut were drawn together again a year later in Wimbledon's first round. Second time around, Isner needed just two hours and three minutes to record a straight-sets win.

There's no plaque to mark where that happened – it was Court Three, for the record – nor is the rematch spoken of in the bars and restaurants of Wimbledon Village.

They still talk reverentially of the 2010 occasion though, with 'Isner-Mahut' shorthand for the spectacular sporting stamina that tennis had never known the like of before and surely will never again.

As Isner said, moments after walking off court: "I guess it's something Nic and I will share forever really."

Manchester City are already planning for life without Leroy Sane.

Although there remains a chance the Germany winger could see out a contract running until June 2021 at the Etihad Stadium, Pep Guardiola's announcement on Friday that Sane will not sign a new deal means a long-mooted exit to Bayern Munich is likely to be imminent.

A key performer as City claimed back-to-back Premier League titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19 is on the way out and speculation will mount over who Guardiola will pursue to bolster his attack.

The City manager has suggested he could simply operate with the forward options he has, as has been the case this season due to Sane's cruciate knee ligament injury.

However, the near-surrender of their domestic crown to Liverpool in his absence tells its own story, while the decision not to secure a specialist replacement for departing captain Vincent Kompany last year might weigh heavily upon the prospect of a similar route being taken.

The twin factors of the coronavirus pandemic's expected economic impact on football and City's two-season Champions League ban, which is currently under appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), could also influence whether any of the names listed below can be brought to Manchester.

MIKEL OYARZABAL

Real Sociedad star Oyarzabal hit double figures for league goals in both of the past two seasons, netting 12 in 2017-18 and 13 in 2018-19 – outstripping the 10 Sane netted in each campaign.

Naturally left footed and, unlike City attackers Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, at home operating on that flank, the 23-year-old has nine this time around. A €75million release clause means he fits the model of signing up-and-coming LaLiga stars with sensible valuations in their contracts that saw Aymeric Laporte and Rodri end up at Eastlands.

LEON BAILEY

Livewire Bayer Leverkusen winger Bailey was first linked to City in 2018, when Guardiola ultimately plumped for Mahrez to bolster a title-winning forward line. The Jamaica international's output has dwindled since – scoring five times in each of the past two seasons and supplying a total of four assists. In 2017-18 he boasted nine goals and laid on a further six.

Bailey's considerable natural gifts – electric pace, excellent one-against-one dribbling and a sweet left foot – means he retains admirers and, as a stylistic fit for replacing Sane, Guardiola might consider the 22-year-old to be a diamond worth polishing.

FERRAN TORRES

Torres, who turned 20 in February, has enjoyed a stunning breakout campaign at Valencia after starring in Spain's European Under-19 Championship triumph last year. He scored both goals in the final win over Portugal after dispatching the decisive penalty in the shoot-out to see off semi-final opponents France.

Super Deporte reported last month that Torres heads the list of possible Sane heirs compiled by City's director of football Txiki Begiristain. A skilful and direct winger capable of operating on either flank, his big move is probably a matter of when rather than if.

KINGSLEY COMAN

Guardiola's declaration and Sane's contract situation mean Bayern might sniff an opportunity to get their man on the cheap. A gruelling round of negotiations could await both parties and Coman would certainly have value as a makeweight in the deal.

Familiar with Guardiola's methods having played for his Bayern side, the France international generally attempts dribbles (6.4 per 90 minutes this term, 8.9 in 2015-16 under Guardiola) more frequently than Sane, whose direct approach has been missed by City this year. However, the 24-year-old's persistent injury woes would be a major concern.

JADON SANCHO

From the over-arching CAS situation to Sancho's fractious departure from City in 2017, there are plenty of good reasons to assume the hottest property on the European transfer market is far more likely to end up on the other side of Manchester. However, City retain a "matching right" on Sancho – meaning Borussia Dortmund must inform them of any bid received – and must be tempted to try their hand.

The England star, 20, boasts a staggering 33 goal involvements (17 goals, 16 assists) in 31 Bundesliga games this season, dwarfing an impressive 26 (12 goals, 14 assists) from last time around. City have tended not to get involved in astronomical one-off deals – Rodri, at £62.8m, is their record buy – but Sancho presents a case that demands they make an exception.

ADAMA TRAORE

"It was always clear it would happen one day, and now it has," Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp observed earlier this season as Traore shifted rapidly from frustrating potential to a player wrecking defences across England on Wolves' behalf. Despite being a graduate of Barcelona's academy, the powerhouse wideman's seemingly off-the-cuff style could frustrate Guardiola as much as it delights.

But added precision to his play means the 24-year-old is now one of the most dangerous attackers in the Premier League. Three of his four goals this season came in wins over City, a wonderful assist for Raul Jimenez in Saturday's win at West Ham was his eighth this term and his dribbling output of 9.1 per 90 minutes is relentless.

It's getting closer, and that's about the best Liverpool can say about the 236th Merseyside derby. 

Yes, they dropped points in the Premier League for just the third time this season, but Liverpool always draw at Everton. It's seven times in the last eight meetings in the competition now that the Goodison game has ended in stalemate. 

That elusive Premier League trophy is nevertheless edging its way towards Anfield, and that means this latest visit across Stanley Park can be chalked up as a successful mission. 

Had Dominic Calvert-Lewin converted the chances that came his way in the second half, or Tom Davies buried a glorious match-winning opportunity, then the elbow bump followed by an attempted bear hug from Carlo Ancelotti for Jurgen Klopp at the final whistle might not have been so gladly received. 

For Everton were Liverpool's equals in this first match back for both sides since the league was suspended in March, and that should provide cheer for those on the blue side of the city fence. 

Klopp's Reds, whose lead over Manchester City has been clipped slightly to 23 points and could drop to 20 when Pep Guardiola's men face Burnley on Monday, ought to have nothing to worry about. 

They, as much as Everton, could have won this game, which was not a classic by any means. They rarely are: with tempers raging and tackles flying in, football can come second to animosity and score-settling in the derby. 

But unusually this was tepid, akin to pre-season fodder, one to chalk off probably as a settler for the rest of the games that will rush by over the next five weeks. 

The coronavirus effect on football has inevitably cast a dampener on Liverpool's special campaign, and empty seats at the home of their rivals were a sorry sight. 

Everton and Liverpool have not traditionally done social distancing particularly well, with Goodison Park and Anfield being uncomfortably close. 

The boys in blue have been in their neighbours' shadow for the past 35 years too, and seeing Liverpool carry off the title this season will sting. 

Yet in the league table, these teams have unmistakably been keeping their distance from one another this season. 

Everton began the game with just 37 points, a full 45 fewer than Liverpool, the greatest gulf between the sides for a Merseyside league derby in their histories. 

For a while, the contest was a great advert for a points-per-game resolution and an abandonment of the campaign - the resolution many of those without an eye on football's finances have thought wise all along. 

But then came the flashes of excitement you remember from when football stadiums were packed, and supporters would chide one breath, cheer the next, and when players would respond and the energy would grow, sending the temperature of these occasions soaring. 

Roberto Firmino burst forward and drove his shot wide, Trent Alexander-Arnold went for goal with a free-kick from 35 yards that could have embarrassed Jordan Pickford, and then Liverpool lost James Milner to an apparent hamstring problem, a dose of first-day-back-at-school glumness for the midfielder and Klopp. 

Naby Keita shot just off target after a neat one-two with Firmino before Everton began to hog the chances, Richarlison squandering a big opening when he blazed high and wide of Alisson's goal, his composure still in lockdown. 

Calvert-Lewin almost made the breakthrough when he produced a delicate backheeled flick to divert Richarlison's cross from the left towards goal. 

Alisson made the save but the ball still reached Davies at the far post, the 21-year-old seeing derby glory before him but sending his shot against the foot of the left post. 

Calvert-Lewin headed wide for Ancelotti's men moments later, with the visitors clinging on. 

Liverpool might be about to anti-climax their way through the final leg to glory, but glory all the same is surely still coming. 

I use my Sundays to look back at what has been happening in the world of sport. On many a Sunday, I realise that people have looked at the stories they've seen throughout the week with different lenses. I have my own personal take on some of these issues and I will share them with you. Welcome to #INCASEYOUMISSEDIT.

NBA Ball or no ball?

With the 2019/2020 NBA season set to resume on July 31, there are divergent views regarding the restart. Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving has been vocal about his opposition and says attention should be placed on resolving the systemic racial injustice and inequality which divide Americans. He has received support from Lakers Centre Dwight Howard along with many others, citing there are more important things than basketball.

By contrast, Lakers star LeBron has reportedly spoken about the need to get the season going again and this has been endorsed by his teammate Patrick Beverly who tweeted, “If the King says he is hooping, we are all hooping.” Most news sources have reported that LeBron wants to continue to play while also being a voice for social change.

In my opinion, change isn’t confined to one path. Daily media coverage fed to millions of sports-starved fans can be an even stronger vehicle for their message. The players can use their power and resources to effect change. Refusing to play will undermine all the hard work that black men and women did to stamp their legacy on the sport. Why not get the best of both worlds? Play and effect change!

 

Kraigg Braithwaite. Is he ready?

Sports overall is unforgiving because of its competitive nature. Selectors and fans demand results. Windies opener Kraigg Braithwaite has been under serious scrutiny and criticism because of his inability to contribute with the bat in the last few Tests. However, I will not judge the 27-year-old; just yet.
With a Test average of 33 and a top score of 212, I have time for him. In his recent press conference, he explained that he has been doing remedial work with coach Desmond Haynes. He stressed the importance of his mindset and confidence. In addition, I think opening the batting with John Campbell is also a plus as both players have a history that dates back to the Under 15 days. I think once Kraig applies himself, he can be a destructive batting force. It’s all up to him and the clock is ticking.

 

Marcus Rashford beats the UK government with a fast-footed appeal

A U-turn that was welcomed whole-heartedly by me since this is a cause that is remarkably close to my heart because of my love for children. Due to Rashford’s selflessness, approximately 1.3 million children will benefit from the free school meal vouchers for the six-week holiday period. It is a gesture that may appear a simple act of kindness but it will touch the lives of children and in turn affect their upbringing.

Rashford's act paints footballers in a positive light. It reiterates that the 22-year-old ManU forward has his heart in the right place while highlighting the extent of power that public figures have and how they can use their millions of Twitter followers to effect change.

 

Royal Ascot 2020: No fanfare but pure quality

The 2020 presentation of the Royal Ascot had no fans, no fanfare, no fancy dresses, and no hats but the quality of the races compensated. It has only been the first week and Jim Crowley has cupped 5 wins. James Doyle is also making his mark winning the Prince of Wales Stakes. The most exciting of them all he was the Windsor Castle Stakes that he won for the Queen with Tactical. The Queen’s first win since 2016.

Personally, the highlight for me was when Record-breaking rider Hollie Doyle claimed her first Royal Ascot success with a last-gasp triumph aboard Scarlet Dragon in the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes. She enjoyed a stellar 2019, riding 116 winners – more in a calendar year than any other female jockey, becoming only the third woman to reach a century after Hayley Turner and Josephine Gordon.

Hollie has set the stage for all women looking on to feel confident to excel in what was originally deemed a sport for men.  The manner in with she kept her cool and managed to weave a passage between horses to pick up the win is an enormously proud moment that should be celebrated.

 

Fake crowd noise, does it make a difference?

The return of the Premier League during the Covid-19 pandemic has been different. Initially, I was sceptical about having no fans and people being replaced by artificial sounds. However, it has turned out better than I expected.

The lack of crowd means their needs to be intense concentration by those operating the systems and generating the reactions to ensure fans feel involved like before.

Also, the most noticeable aspect of crowd-free football is that everyone hears everything. That may be true inside the stadium, though even with the crowd noise muted, not much came over the television. Who needs people inside the ground when you can create your own atmosphere?

Sunday, June 21 is the 50th anniversary of the 1970 World Cup final in which Brazil destroyed Italy 4-1 in Mexico City.

Rob Bateman recalls a tournament, team and star player that live long in the memory...

 Growing up in England with football in the 1960s and 1970s was very different from today.

The foreign superstars playing in English football were from the rest of Great Britain and Ireland, not from mainland Europe or South America.

The best teams and players in the world weren’t on TV every week. There was no live football on television apart from the FA Cup final, the Home Internationals and World Cups.

Great Britain was an island, both geographically and in terms of football.

It wasn’t too different across Europe. Live games were not regularly shown, in domestic or UEFA competitions.

As a result, there was no homogenised football where teams played roughly the same style. There was no internet, no YouTube, no sports channels to catch glimpses of football outside your own country. When a World Cup came around you saw players you had only read about in books or newspapers.  

You saw genuinely new things that delighted, enthralled and shocked the viewing audience, such as the famous Cruyff turn, the ticker tape at Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires and fouls in the opposition half by a "rush goalie" like Ramon Quiroga of Peru.

But nothing stands out in that era as much as the Brazil side of 1970. Still vaunted as the best team ever in some quarters, it’s hard to argue against the fact that they, and their talisman Pele, had the greatest impact on world football.

From the iconic yellow shirts, blue shorts and white stockings in the first competition to be broadcast live in colour, to their beautiful and effective style of play. Kenneth Wolstenholme's famous description of their "sheer, delightful football" summed up how Brazil in 1970 captured the hearts of all fans and encapsulated everything great about the world’s favourite sport.

Mario Zagallo became the first man to win the trophy as a player and then a coach. His team was the first since the 1930s to win all their World Cup matches en route to the trophy.

Six games, six wins in qualifying. Then six games and six wins at the finals, scoring at a rate of 3.2 goals per game in Mexico. Only one team has averaged more goals per game since 1958 than this brilliant Brazil side and that was Hungary in 1982 whose average was boosted by a freak 10-1 win over El Salvador.

This 1970 Brazil squad scored three or more goals in five of their six matches; a feat only matched in World Cup history by the West German side of 1954.

Jairzinho scored in all six matches, becoming the only player to net in every single round at the World Cup finals, although they needed to be prolific as they only kept one clean sheet in the six matches they played.

Of course, Brazil are famed for their long-range shooting. Stats Perform have analysed all the World Cup finals matches back to and including 1966. During that time, the Selecao have scored 37 times from outside the box – 11 more than closest rivals Germany and over double any other side.

It’s not just quantity though, it’s quality of shot – only South Korea (6 per cent) have scored with a higher percentage of their long distance attempts than Brazil who have netted one in every 23 attempts (4.4 per cent).

Team

Goals (outside box)

Brazil

37

Germany

26

Netherlands

16

Korea Republic

14

Argentina

13

And they have netted 13 from direct free-kicks, more than double any other team at the World Cup in that same period.

Team

Direct Free Kick Goals

Brazil

13

Germany

6

Korea Republic

5

Argentina

5

Between 1966 and 2018, only nine teams have scored two direct free-kicks at a World Cup finals. Four of those teams were Brazilian squads including the 1970 vintage.

There are so many iconic moments that the 1970 tournament lingers stronger in the memory than any other. And Brazil and Pele were at the heart of most of those.

Bobby Moore’s tackle on Jairzinho, Pele leaping to power home a header for Brazil’s 100th goal at the World Cup finals and another header by the world’s greatest footballer to force arguably the best save of all time by Gordon Banks.

There was Pele’s audacious shot from his own half (59 yards) against Czechoslovakia which narrowly missed and that wasn’t even his longest attempt as he failed with a shot from 75 yards against Uruguay!

The Uruguayans were also on the end of one of the most outrageous dummies ever seen as Pele ran toward a pass with the goalkeeper advancing and then let the ball run between them, confounding the goalkeeper by running straight past, retrieving the ball, only to screw his shot wide and deny us one of the most outrageous goals of all time.

And, of course, one of the most iconic goals in football history as Brazil netted their fourth goal in the final against Italy courtesy of Carlos Alberto. That goal was the epitome of the style that team oozed. A patient build-up, then devastating speed and clinical efficiency in front of goal.

 

That goal saw nine passes, but was typical of Brazil’s measured build-up. They averaged far more moves of 10 passes or more than any other team at the 1970 finals.

Team

Sequences per game of 10+ open play passes

Brazil

5.2

England

3.5

Czechoslovakia

2.7

Peru

2.5

Romania

2.3

 

 

Tournament average

1.9

And as you can see below they were prepared to hang on to the ball to find the right moment to strike, performing with the grace and rhythm of a slow, quick, quick of the Samba.

Team

Ave passes/sequence

Ave Sequence time (secs)

Brazil

3.6

11.5

Germany

3.1

10.6

England

3.2

10.5

Romania

3.0

10.2

Czechoslovakia

3.0

10.0

That fourth and final goal against Italy was inevitably set up by Pele. That assist was his sixth of the tournament and remains a record tally for a single World Cup tournament that Stats Perform have analysed.

He created 28 chances in total, 27 from open play. Only Johan Cruyff (29) in 1974 has created more in a single tournament since 1970, having played a game more. 

Player

Team

Assists

Pele

Brazil 1970

6

Maradona

Argentina 1986

5

Littbarski

Germany 1982

5

Gadocha

Poland 1974

5

Häßler

Germany 1994

5

Pele was the second most prolific player in relation to attacking contribution at the 1970 World Cup when combining Expected Goals and Expected Assists per 90 minutes, scoring four goals and registering six assists. He was narrowly behind Gerd Muller who netted 10 goals, but those two are way out ahead of anyone else in the tournament.

 

It wasn’t all grace and guile though from the three-time World Cup winner.

Having been fouled repeatedly and injured in both the 1962 and 1966 editions, Pele certainly showed he knew how to look after himself in 1970. Only five players since 1966 have committed more fouls in a single tournament than the 23 the Brazilian playmaker was penalised for in the 1970 edition.

Pele retired from international football in 1971 and Brazil have spent many years since trying to emulate that 1970 team’s iconic achievement, with limited success.

Although they won the World Cup in 1994 and again in 2002, there were criticisms of those teams’ styles of play, while the beautiful attacking flair of the squads of 1982 and 1986 ultimately went unrewarded as they were knocked out of the tournament early.

Perhaps Andy Warhol was right when he said: "Pele is one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries."

Mikel Arteta must be wishing the Premier League's return had been put off by another week as this has been about as bad a restart as he could have feared to endure.

Two games, two defeats, five goals conceded and three more injuries, two of them serious, to add to a growing treatment list. It has all made for a miserable few days.

The Gunners are six points behind fifth-placed Manchester United and will be 11 adrift of the top four if Chelsea win at Aston Villa on Sunday. Victories for Burnley and Crystal Palace will see them drop to 11th in the Premier League table.

As a Champions League return slips further from their grasp, Arteta can be under no illusions: his team are a long way short of the quality required to compete at Europe's highest level.

The injuries to Granit Xhaka and Pablo Mari against Manchester City, and David Luiz's red card, were misfortunes Arteta could not have seen coming but the performance at the Etihad Stadium was still alarmingly meek for a team with aspirations of competing with the champions sooner rather than later.

Similarly, no amount of preparation from the Gunners head coach could have softened the blow of seeing Bernd Leno carried off on a stretcher in the first half against Brighton and Hove Albion, the goalkeeper having apparently done some serious knee damage after colliding with Neal Maupay.

The trouble is Arsenal's inability to respond to setbacks. They were accused of having a soft underbelly long before Arteta replaced Unai Emery in December, but the former Man City assistant has not yet managed to address the problem.

Brighton started the day as the only team without a Premier League win in 2020 and with just two in all competitions since early November, one of which came at Emirates Stadium, but they were a match for Arsenal throughout.

The visitors threatened fleetingly through Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but Mat Ryan kept at bay anything they threw his way.

Aubameyang's one and only clear chance was finished with aplomb but chalked off for offside, his resigned expression as he jogged back into position a fitting one for a top-class forward who is wondering whether his remaining peak years would be better spent elsewhere.

Arsenal finally produced a moment of genuine quality when Saka found Pepe, who cut onto his left foot and curled a sublime shot over Ryan's head. It was his seventh Gunners goal – his first outside London – and brought Saka to 11 assists for the season. These two, at least, appear to be getting better as the 2019-20 campaign stretches onwards.

But few consider a win to be safely in Arsenal's hands when the scoreline reads 1-0, and so it proved again. They fell asleep at a corner and Lewis Dunk squirmed the ball over the line for the 13th goal Arteta's men have conceded from set-pieces in the league this season.

As a draw seemed safe, Maupay completed his villainous turn, dummying a pass to Aaron Connolly, collecting the return and finishing past Emiliano Martinez as the clock reached 94 minutes and 26 seconds.

Arsenal were furious when the final whistle went just after they had won a corner, probably showing more determination in those fruitless appeals to referee Martin Atkinson than at any stage of the match. Their season is fizzling out fast and it is hard to see any quick fix that will let them close the gap to the best in England and Europe.

Serie A resumes on Saturday, making it the latest major European League to return to action. 

The coronavirus pandemic forced most global sport to shut down in March, but the Bundesliga, LaLiga and Premier League have all recommenced their 2019-20 campaigns – albeit behind closed doors. 

Football has already returned in Italy, however, with Napoli edging out Juventus to lift the Coppa Italia trophy on Wednesday. 

But the top tier makes its comeback with a double-header of Torino v Parma and Hellas Verona v Cagliari on Saturday, with everything from relegation to the title still to be decided. 

As we look forward to the season's resumption, we glance back at the best Opta stats from Italy's top-flight campaign so far. 

JUVENTUS

- Juve have been trailing for 133 minutes in 2019-20, less time than any other team in Serie A this season.

- At home, Juve are unbeaten in their previous 34 league games (W29, D5), more than double the next best streak (Lazio at 15).

- This term, Cristiano Ronaldo equalled the record of 11 consecutive goalscoring appearances in a single Serie A season. He has also already levelled his haul of goals from 2018-19 despite making nine fewer appearances, averaging 0.95 goals per game compared to 0.68 last season.

- Among the players who made their debut in the three-points-for-a-win era, Ronaldo was the fastest to reach 42 goals (52 appearances) – before him the record was 58 games played (Vincenzo Montella, Andriy Shevchenko and Brazil great Ronaldo).

LAZIO

- Lazio are unbeaten in their previous 21 league games (W17 D4), already an all-time Serie A record for the club. Six of the seven previous teams with streaks as long as that in a single season went on to win the Scudetto (the only exception was Roma in 2009-10).

- Ciro Immobile has 27 goals in 26 games in 2019-20. Only Antonio Valentin Angelillo (29) in has managed more after 26 matchdays.

INTER

- Antonio Conte is the first Inter coach to see his team score in each of his first 19 games in all competitions.

- Inter have won nine of their 13 Serie A away games this season (D2 L2): only in the 2006-07 campaign have the Nerazzurri won more (11).

- Romelu Lukaku is one of three players to have scored at least 17 Serie A goals in their first 25 games of a debut season with Inter, emulating Giuseppe Meazza (1929-30) and Stefano Nyers (1948-49).

ATALANTA

- Atalanta's 70 goals in this Serie A campaign already represents their second-best haul in a single season (77 in 2018-19).

- No team has scored as many as 70 goals in the first 25 matches of a single Serie A season since 1959, when Fiorentina netted 79.

- Three Atalanta players are into double figures in terms of goals this season: Josip Ilicic, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata. Only in 1949-50 and 1951-52 have the club had as many players reach 10 goals.

MILAN

- Since Stefano Pioli joined Milan, they have kept the most clean sheets in Serie A (seven).

- Since his first spell at Milan (which began in August 2010), Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 60 goals for the Rossoneri in all competitions, more than any other player with the club in the period.

It is nine years to the day since India captain Virat Kohli made his Test debut at the age of 22.

Kohli contributed just 19 runs in the two innings of his Test bow in a victory against West Indies at Sabina Park, twice snared caught behind by Fidel Edwards.

The elegant batsman soon shed the 'one-day specialist' tag, though, and has since established himself as one of the best players in the world in all formats.

We look at Kohli's exploits in the longest format with data supplied by Opta.

 

Almost on a par with Tendulkar 

The great Sachin Tendulkar is comfortably the highest Test run-scorer of all time with 15,921 and Kohli will not be threatening his record.

However, Kohli could soon be bettering his legendary compatriot's average of 53.78.

The India skipper averages 53.62, scoring 7,240 runs from his 145 knocks, with Tendulkar having recorded his incredible average from a mammoth 329 innings.

 

Leading by example

Taking on captaincy duties has proved to be a burden for some players of the years, but that is definitely not the case with Kohli.

Quite the opposite, in fact, as the 31-year-old has thrived since taking on the extra responsibility of leading his country,

Kohli, skipper in all formats, has the record for most runs as India captain and there will no doubt be plenty more to come.

He has averaged 61.2 from 90 Test knocks as captain compared to 41.1 in 55 innings before taking on the duties.

 

A double no trouble

Only three batsmen have scored more Test double centuries than India's superstar middle-order craftsman.

Kohli has seven to his name and achieved two in as many matches in a series against Sri Lanka in 2017.

Don Bradman (12), Kumar Sangakkara (11) and Brian Lara (9) are the only players to have scored more Test double-hundreds.

 

Cemented among 'the big three'

Some rate Kohli as the best Test batsman in the world, but the rankings show Australia run machine Steve Smith has that mantle.

Kohli can boast a higher career-best score than Smith and New Zealand's run-machine captain Kane Williamson, with an unbeaten 254 against South Africa last year.

He also has the most centuries with 27, but Smith has just one fewer and has played 13 fewer Tests.

A joy to watch when at his majestic best, Kohli also has a better strike rate than Smith (55.3) and Williamson (51.6) with 57.7 runs per 100 balls. 

 

Home comforts

Kohli has treated packed crowds in his homeland to many memorable masterclasses over the years.

His record in India is phenomenal, with an average of 68.4 in 60 Test innings.

That is the best by any batsman in the country to have made at least 30 trips to the crease.

Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Tottenham means they are unbeaten in 12 matches in all competitions, scoring 30 and conceding three in that time. 

They have progressed through that run mostly without Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, two standout stars who returned to action in north London on Friday only because the coronavirus pandemic gave them time to recover from injuries. 

They are still fifth in the Premier League, two points behind Chelsea having played a game more, meaning hopes of a Champions League return are very much alive regardless of their Europa League campaign, which resumes in August. 

By all accounts, those are satisfactory truths about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side. But an emboldened attack since the January signings of Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo and a stronger defensive unit have glossed over a glaring problem: they can no longer rely on David de Gea. 

Before Friday, the last league goal United had conceded – the only one they had conceded since January 22 – came in the 1-1 draw at Everton in March. With his first meaningful act of the game, De Gea dithered on the ball and let Dominic Calvert-Lewin block his kick into the United net. He was rescued by Fernandes' equaliser. 

When he was United manager, Jose Mourinho hinted De Gea could sometimes lose concentration when the action is far from his goal, and you have to wonder if he had told his Spurs players to test the Spain international – described by Roy Keane as the most overrated goalkeeper he has seen “in a long time” during a half-time tirade – at the earliest opportunity.

The home side took only their second shot on target after 27 minutes of mostly United control, but it was enough to beat De Gea. Steven Bergwijn ran straight towards Harry Maguire and left him for dead – a deeply humbling moment for the world's most expensive centre-back – and shot fiercely but directly at the United goalkeeper. He could not keep it out. 

De Gea would then make a fine one-handed save from Son Heung-min to various social media proclamations that he had "made amends", which is a goalkeeping misconception. A striker can miss a chance at 0-0 and make up for it with a breakthrough goal a minute later, but De Gea's good save did not erase the fact United were behind. Such is life for a keeper. 

Whether or not Mourinho planned for a Dea Gea error, he would certainly have accepted a 1-0 half-time lead. The fact he builds his team around Moussa Sissoko rather than Harry Kane might not enthrall the viewer, but it does make Spurs a troublesome side to break down, something United have struggled to do against deep-lying defences all season. 

That's what makes Pogba such a potentially pivotal player in their final eight matches. He came on for 27 minutes, his first action since last December, and his first act was a sliding tackle to rob Serge Aurier near the Spurs box. Put the questions on his future to one side for now; a World Cup winner who has made only eight league appearances all season just wants to play. 

With Marcus Rashford ineffective and Anthony Martial anonymous, it was Pogba and Fernandes, paired in midfield at last, who carried United's threat. Fittingly, it was their combination that brought about the equaliser, Pogba's quick feet leading Eric Dier into a cumbersome challenge and Fernandes thwacking home the penalty. 

Doubts have persisted about De Gea for the best part of two years and the debate over his future as United's number one will continue. What is certain is United need Pogba's game-changing influence if they are to make sure any future blunders at the other end do not derail their season.

After upwards of a year of speculation, Pep Guardiola has confirmed Leroy Sane will leave Manchester City.

The Germany winger is widely expected to join Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich after rejecting a new contract at the Etihad Stadium.

His existing terms expire in June 2021, although the likelihood is City will begin the 2020-21 campaign without Sane in their ranks.

A solution in the transfer market might not be easily found, considering the two-season Champions League ban City have appealed against at the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the expected wider economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here, we look at some of the players in Guardiola's squad who – for better or worse – might be impacted by Sane's departure.

RAHEEM STERLING

If Sane had bought into Guardiola's demands of a wide forward and maximised his talent to the extent England star Sterling has, this is probably not a conversation we would be having. While the City boss increasingly appeared not to trust Sane's contribution during last season's treble run-in, Sterling was and remains absolutely integral to his plans.

However, being almost exclusively played on the left during Sane's injury absence this season has seemed to take a toll upon the 25-year-old, whose preference for cutting in on his right foot had started to become predictable and easier to defend. Sane's presence allowed him to switch flanks and ask varied questions of defences. If his departure means Sterling being restricted to left-wing duties, City might struggle to fully realise the ample talents of their most potent attacking threat.

GABRIEL JESUS

Life as understudy to the club's all-time record goalscorer Sergio Aguero appears to weigh heavily upon Jesus at times, while playing an entire World Cup as Brazil's number nine without scoring – as he did at Russia 2018 – knocked his confidence considerably.

The 23-year-old rehabilitated his standing with the Selecao in a wide-right role during last season's Copa America triumph, while he put in arguably his finest City performance on the left flank when he opened the scoring in February's 2-1 Champions League win at Real Madrid. A selfless performer, Aguero and Sterling would have few complaints were Jesus to fill that position on a more frequent basis.

PHIL FODEN

Of the pending exits at Manchester City, David Silva's departure at the end of this season is viewed as the most significant for presumed heir Foden. However, Guardiola has deployed the England Under-21 playmaker on the left of a front three this season, most notably when he was thrust into the EFL Cup final against Aston Villa and turned in an irresistible man-of-the-match display.

Foden came off the bench against Arsenal to score for the 11th time in 63 senior appearances, once again showing a keen eye for goal. He averages 2.5 chances created per 90 minutes in the Premier League.

BENJAMIN MENDY

When Sane leaves, City will badly lack for natural width down the left side. One man who provides that if fit and firing is left-back Mendy, although his travails following two bouts of knee surgery since moving to Manchester in 2017 mean that "if" is doing an awful lot of work.

Guardiola has always been reluctant to pair Mendy and Sane, seemingly because both men like to operate in similar zones of the pitch. Without the latter, Mendy would be free to rove and Jesus could thrive as a tucked-in forward inside him. The big question, however, is whether the force-of-nature attacking threat City signed from Monaco can ever truly return after what his body has been through.

RIYAD MAHREZ

City's record signing when he joined in 2018, Mahrez has not been able to hit the heights he did at Leicester, where his mercurial skills secured the PFA Player of the Year award amid the most unlikely Premier League title triumph in 2015-16.

More often than not at City, the Algeria star has looked a rung or two below Sterling and Sane in terms of elite quality. Mahrez's 30 Premier League starts have yielded 14 goals and 12 assists in sky blue at a comparable per-90-minute rate to Sane. Maybe without him he can truly thrive?

JAYDEN BRAAF

The latest jewel of City's academy set-up, Braaf has already amassed a considerable personal following thanks to some moments of individual skill for the age-group teams that quickly went viral.

City would surely be loath for Braaf, who is reportedly admired by numerous clubs across Europe, to become the next Jadon Sancho and depart for superstardom elsewhere at a knockdown price. Sane's departure might just give the Diutch youngster a way in.

The Texas Rangers were not very good last season and deserved to sit out the postseason. That is hardly a controversial statement for a 78-84 team.

Yet it is very possible that a team with a similar record to the Rangers – albeit in far fewer games – could advance to the playoffs in 2020 and beyond if MLB goes ahead with a proposed 16-team expanded playoff following a regular season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the proposal, eight teams from each league would reach the postseason and the two wild card games would transform into an eight-team wild-card round with eight best-of-three series.

If the proposed 16-team format is applied to the final 2019 standings, the added playoff teams would have been the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Rangers in the American League, and the New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs in the National League.

Each of those teams finished above .500 except for the Rangers, who would qualify under the new format as the eighth seed in the AL.

The only previous team to reach the playoffs after finishing the regular season under .500 was the Royals with a 50-53 mark in the strike-split 1981 campaign. The Kansas City Royals went 20-30 in the first half of the season and 30-23 in the second half before losing to the Oakland Athletics in the playoffs.

It is not difficult to see why both MLB and players would be in favour of expanded playoffs. More postseason games mean more broadcast rights can be sold, which is particularly important after so much revenue will be lost from an abbreviated regular season played without fans in most cases.

In the proposal, commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB would give the additional playoff games to broadcast partners for free this year to compensate for the shortened regular season, and MLB would then sell the games for 2021.

The increase in playoff games gives players extra opportunities to play beyond the regular season, which is after all why the games are played in the first place. The new format also adds the designated hitter to all games for the first time, including games between National League teams for 2020 and 2021.

That will not make baseball purists happy and fans will be robbed of magical moments like Bartolo Colon hitting a home run, but a universal DH adds jobs to a game that has seen its free agent market squeezed recently. It will also extend the careers of players no longer able to play defense adequately.

How will fans feel about more than half the teams reaching the playoffs? Some will scoff at the idea and say that it makes baseball look too much like the NBA and the NHL.

Others might be totally on board with it. That could especially be true of fans in Detroit or Baltimore or any other team with no chance at the postseason in a regular 162-game season. Maybe the Orioles get hot for a couple of weeks late this summer and somehow sneak into the playoffs. This new format at least provides a glimmer of hope, however miniscule.

It was not long ago that just four teams out of 28 qualified for the playoffs, but changes were made following the 1994 strike season.

A wild card team was added in 1995, increasing the number of playoff teams to eight. That remained the status quo until another wild card was inserted in each league in 2012 to bring the total number of playoff teams to 10 out of 30.

It's often said that a whole new season begins with the playoffs and look no further than the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals for a prime example. Washington did not even win their division, finishing four games behind the Atlanta Braves, but the Nationals were the best team when it mattered most.

This new format may decrease the importance of the regular season, but it adds more excitement to the playoffs and would make those games even more tense.

More playoff teams provide more opportunities for upsets and what fan couldn't get behind a sub-.500 team knocking off a top seed? That scenario is a whole lot more likely if MLB goes through with the proposed three-game series in the first round of the playoffs.

Certain seasons leave an indelible mark, whether for on-field play or for other reasons. The 1981 season with its two halves and the 1994 strike-shortened season fall in the latter category. The 2020 season appears destined for that group as well.

If you go back a decade, Palermo had threatened to become a major force in Serie A football.

Known as U.S. Citta di Palermo, the Sicilian outfit secured three consecutive top-six finishes between 2004 and 2007 but there was something different about their famed 2009-10 side.

There was an extra sprinkle of stardust – Palermo boasting the youthful Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore, as well as talismanic captain Fabrizio Miccoli, Antonio Nocerino and Salvatore Sirigu.

Palermo dazzled as they celebrated a memorable fifth-place finish, missing out on Champions League qualification to Sampdoria by an agonising two points.

A lot has changed since, however. Palermo were declared insolvent in October 2019 after they were kicked out of Serie B in July last year. Initially relegated to Serie C due to 'administrative irregularities', the Rosanero dropped to Serie D under a phoenix club – SSD Palermo, though they still wear their iconic pink jersey.

The rise and fall of Palermo – now owned by Hera Hora srl – is well documented but the heights of 2009-10 is something Federico Balzaretti remembers all too fondly.

Reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of Palermo's famous season, former full-back and Italy international Balzaretti told Stats Perform News: "I have many, many memories about that year because it was amazing. We were very close to the Champions League… The last home match to Sampdoria – the main match of the season. We were very close. The atmosphere in Palermo, the stadium, was amazing. Three hours before the match, the stadium was already full.

"It was amazing what happened in Palermo when we went back against Atalanta and we won [2-1]. It was full of fans waiting at the airport. It was a big, big festa for us. The team was very, very special. Special because the guys all together were amazing. Also because the quality of the team was very, very high. If you look at the stories about every one of us, you can see the career of Pastore, Cavani, me, [Mattia] Cassani, Sirigu, [Fabio] Simplicio, Nocerino, it was incredible.

"Another thing is that we expected so much from each other. We love each other so much. Even now, we have a group chat so we speak together and stay together and have dinner together when possible. It was something we built because the year before we were also close to qualifying for the Europa League. It was a very good cycle for Palermo."

Palermo – who were Coppa Italia runners-up the following season – were a force to be reckoned with in 2009-10, beating Italian giants Juventus and Milan home and away. It was a campaign which saw head coach Walter Zenga sacked in week 13 and replaced by Delio Rossi. The rest is history but what was the secret?

"The group," Balzaretti, who spent four years playing for Palermo before leaving for Roma in 2012, said. "The respect and the atmosphere you have in the locker room. This is the first thing because the mix was perfect. Italian players like me, Cassani, [Cesare] Bovo, [Fabio] Liverani with experience. Very simple guys. It was the experienced players with the mix of young players, talent, South American players because of Simplicio, Pastore, Cavani and Abel Hernandez and we always stay together. Every day and also after training we stay together. After every match we party together. It was a big family.

"With Walter Zenga, it was a very good atmosphere. The results were not bad, but you know our president [Maurizio Zamparini] was a little bit crazy about the trainer, so after two or three bad results, Delio Rossi came. He was very important for us because he was like a teacher. He explained everything at a tactical level – he was like a father for us. Also for the younger players, it was important for players like Pastore and Cavani. We improved a lot tactically and we prepared every match 100 per cent. We played against Juventus and Milan, we were sure to win. We won three years consecutive in Turin against Juve, it's not easy. We beat Milan, the huge Milan with Ronaldinho, Kaka and [Alessandro] Nesta. I remember in the second match against Milan, but after 20 minutes we were leading 2-0. It was very easy but it was natural because we play with our mind free, you have energy. It's not so easy to explain because there's some things you can't explain, it's in the air. I spent five years in Palermo and about the last years were so and so but the other four were top."

Miccoli scored a career-high 19 Serie A goals that season, while Cavani – who has gone on to play for Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain – contributed 13 of this own. As for Pastore, the Argentinean was the creative spark in midfield.

Uruguayan Cavani, though, soon departed – making the move permanently to Napoli in 2011. Pastore also said goodbye to Palermo that season, swapping the south of Italy for PSG in the French capital. Those sales, in some ways, were the beginning of the end for Palermo, who were relegated in 2013.

"The challenge of Palermo is to buy this kind of player [like Cavani and Pastore] – very young, develop the player and then sell," Balzaretti said. "I compare our Palermo with Atalanta. They reached the Champions League, now they are in the quarter-finals so they did better than us in terms of results but we were similar. It's very difficult to play for the championship but I think if this team could play together for more years, the possibility to reach the Champions League would have been very high, maybe sure. But the focus and goal of Palermo is not to reach the Champions League but to finish mid-table and sell the best player.

"If we stayed with Cavani, Pastore, Sirigu, [Mark] Bresciano, Nocerino, me, maybe yes to challenge or the possibility to reach the Champions League or Europa League every year was very possible. What the president wants, however, is not to arrive in the Champions League, to be stable. When I arrived at Palermo, we were better than Napoli. Better players, better results. But if you see Palermo and Napoli after 10 years, you can understand two different styles of strategy because the president of Napoli invests every year and keeps the best players. Palermo, unfortunately, the investment and management was not so good. Now, here we start in Serie D and win championship into Serie C but the strategy was so different. Ten years ago Napoli and Palermo were maybe the same, now it's different."

Palermo, who returned to Serie A in 2014 before dropping down to the second tier again in 2017, remain a unique club on the island of Sicily – separated from Italy by the narrow Strait of Messina – and close to Balzaretti's heart. Despite the pain and frustration of recent years, passion has not subsided with Palermo setting an attendance record this season on their way back from bankruptcy in Serie D.

Stadio Renzo Barbera welcomed 17,000 fans for their fixture against San Tommaso in September 2019. Palermo were seven points clear through 26 matches in Group I when the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in March as Rosario Pergolizzi's men now prepare for life in Serie C.

"The city is so special," Balzaretti, 38, continued. "The club was always very easy and direct because the president didn't live in Palermo, so he came sometimes before the match. But we had very good sport director in Walter Sabatini, he is like a second father for me because he was my director at Palermo and Roma.

"In the club, the people were very easy and very good. The feeling with the city was very special. It is one of the most important parts of this project because Palermo is a top city, the people are very generous and kind. You feel like you're at home. I lived in the north of Italy for 25 years, but I love the south. I love Palermo. I married a woman who was born in Palermo, so I have a very special family in Palermo. My wedding was in Palermo. An amazing relationship with the city.

"Also on the phone with other team-mates, we say we have to go to Palermo and stay there because it's something special. The people are very warm, they touch you and I need this, you feel like a star. That's great. In every bar you go, you hear and see Palermo. When you go to the stadium, it's full every match. Even this year in Serie D, they beat the record of attendance in Serie D. This is one of the factors that bring our team to the top at the moment. The fans are a very important part of football. Football without fans is not football."

Balzaretti, highlighting the renaissance of Parma and success of Monza through the divisions, added: "Next season in Serie C will be the most difficult season. You need to invest money. You can lose or beat anyone. Serie B and Serie A is a little bit easier to prepare. They deserve, the fans and city, to be in Serie A. They are missed a lot. I think it's possible in the next three, four years that they join Serie A. Parma were a similar story – a great story in the 1990s and then not good seasons. They failed and went to Serie D. Now they're playing very well in Serie A. This is a good challenge for Palermo, to follow the same path as Parma.

"I know the president at Palermo, he is very serious. The mentality is very good. The city deserves Palermo in Serie A but it's true, next season, many clubs in Serie C stay for many years. It's a difficult division. Then it's more easy to win Serie B and be more stable in Serie A. Serie C is not so easy but this is what they want. They need to invest – you look at Monza this season they invested a lot of money. Catania, three or four years in the same region in Sicily, they can't go up from Serie C. It's not the name that you win the league, but the team is more important than the name. I believe in the president. I know the general director because he was ours at the time, so I have a lot of confidence in these people."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.