F1 returns at Spa after drama in the paddock if not in the title race

By Sports Desk August 24, 2022

Formula One's midseason break delivered drama that the title race so far perhaps had not.

The first half of the campaign had its own intriguing narratives, with Ferrari's frequent collapses and Mercedes' unprecedented struggles, but those strands only served to allow Max Verstappen to build a healthy lead at the top of the standings.

Attention has turned to those in the midfield in recent weeks, though, with Sebastian Vettel's imminent retirement prompting a series of developments that have not yet slowed.

Alpine have been at the heart of the drama, losing Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin in Vettel's place and then failing to secure Oscar Piastri as his replacement.

Piastri instead seems set for McLaren, who have announced Daniel Ricciardo will be leaving the team.

For Alpine then, there will be some relief that focus can now return to the track at the Belgian Grand Prix, with Verstappen set to resume his role at centre stage.

Qualifying key to Red Bull repeat

For those hoping to reel in Verstappen's 80-point lead, they will hope to get more opportunity to attack him than at Spa in 2021, when he started from pole and completed just two laps behind a safety car to claim victory amid a deluge at the circuit in Stavelot.

That result actually continued a recent trend in Belgium, where recovering from a poor qualifying session has proven increasingly tricky.

The past seven winners of the Belgian GP have started from the front row of the grid, with Verstappen among six of those to line up on pole.

Repeating the feat has not been quite so straightforward, however, as Verstappen will be looking to become the first driver to win this race from pole in consecutive entries since Ayrton Senna did so a remarkable four years in a row between 1988 and 1991.

Senna had five Belgian GP wins in total, behind only Michael Schumacher (six). Lewis Hamilton (four) will be bidding to join the Brazilian this weekend.

In-demand Fernando on top form

Alonso will hope his shock move to Aston Martin does not knock his final season with Alpine off course, as the Spaniard had refound form before stunning his team during the break.

The two-time world champion has earned points in each of his past eight races for his best run since another sequence of eight in 2018.

Alonso has not finished in the points in more than eight straight races since 2014, when he put together 15 in a row – the last of them being in Belgium.

But perhaps this could instead be a strong weekend for Alonso's future employers and the man he will replace.

Vettel's best qualifying performance at Aston Martin was fifth at Spa in 2021, finishing fifth on race day, too. Only in Azerbaijan last year (second) has he enjoyed a better result with the team.

Related items

  • Cody Gakpo, Mohammed Kudus and the breakout prospects of the World Cup group stage Cody Gakpo, Mohammed Kudus and the breakout prospects of the World Cup group stage

    Once every four years players from across the globe get a chance to perform on the world stage and force their way into the football zeitgeist.

    Whether it is a young midfielder from Ghana who has been battling injuries the past couple of seasons, or a mercurial Dutch forward trying to push his way out of the Eredivisie, it is the perfect launchpad to alter the course of a player's career.

    Stats Perform has identified four players who have lit up Qatar and, in turn, have seen their profile and transfer stock skyrocket, opening the door to a new world of possibilities come the January transfer window.

    Take a look at these young leading lights...

    Cody Gakpo, the Netherlands

    Cody Gakpo has perhaps been the breakout star of the tournament, finding the back of the net in all three of the Netherlands' group matches.

    Having spent his entire career with PSV, the 23-year-old six-foot-four forward took a huge step forward in the 2021-22 season when he shattered his best goal return, following up his 11 goals in the 2020-21 campaign with 21 last time out.

    While those in the Netherlands set-up were waiting to see if he could replicate his terrific 12 months, he has taken another leap, with 12 goals and 14 assists in 19 combined Eredivisie and Europa League contests this term.

    There were rumours in the most recent transfer window that Leeds United were among the clubs looking to lure Gakpo away from PSV for a fee in the range of €30million, but he opted to reject their contract offer in the hope of landing at one of Europe's biggest clubs.

    That bet on himself has proven to be a masterstroke, with his performances on the Qatar stage well and truly putting him on the radar of Champions League sides including Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, per Dutch journalist Marco Timmer.

    He became the first player from any European nation since 2002 to score in each group match, while he also became only the second player to put his side 1-0 up in all three group fixtures.

    Enzo Fernandez, Argentina

    Just over six months ago, Enzo Fernandez was playing for River Plate back in Argentina, but just half a season after arriving at Benfica for a deal worth up to €18m, the attacking midfielder could be moving on to greener pastures.

    Fernandez, 21, broke into the Argentina squad while still with River Plate, but did not receive his senior debut until September 24 this year.

    His lead-up to the World Cup was strong enough to book his ticket to Qatar, and after coming off the bench in Argentina's first group-stage loss to Saudi Arabia, he came on and scored against Mexico, forcing his way into the starting XI before contributing an assist against Poland.

    His rapid rise has not gone unnoticed, and Marca is reporting Benfica have slapped a €100m fee on their new star if any team wants to pry him away while his contract still has another four seasons locked in.

    Real Madrid are one side said to be accepting of that figure, with Marca claiming they now view him as an alternative option to Borussia Dortmund and England prodigy Jude Bellingham.

    Mohammed Kudus, Ghana

    Ajax's Mohammed Kudus had begun to break out at the club level this season heading into the World Cup.

    The 22-year-old central midfielder scored four goals – including one each against Liverpool and Napoli – while adding two assists in six Champions League fixtures.

    After being awarded his first senior international cap for Ghana back in 2019, he was spotted at Danish side Nordsjaelland and brought over to Ajax for a €9m fee in 2020.

    He missed extended stretches of both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns through injuries, and still has not been used as a guaranteed starter this season, but his emergence on the World Cup stage has been undeniable.

    Against South Korea, Kudus delivered Ghana their only win of the group as he found the back of the net twice in a 3-2 triumph, and it was a performance that is said to have caught the eye of European powerhouses.

    Fichajes named Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain as interested parties, and Sports Illustrated believe his price will be around £90m.

     

    Harry Souttar, Australia

    Australia have now qualified for five World Cups in a row, but after not winning a game at both the 2014 and 2018 editions, they had centre-back Harry Souttar to thank for finally taking three points against Tunisia.

    Souttar, 24, stands at a towering six-foot-six and showed off an impressive ability to cover ground in a hurry when he was called upon for a potentially game-saving, last-man challenge to defend Australia's 1-0 lead.

    It was one of the most spectacular defensive efforts of the tournament so far and one that will go down in Australian football folklore, and it is even more significant when taking into account his recent history.

    Tipped as a potential £20m transfer target late in 2021, Souttar then tore his ACL and missed 12 months of action, returning to the field in time to get three games under his belt with Stoke City before jetting off to the World Cup.

    While he could be forgiven for needing time to work his way into form, he has instead started all three group games and been the Socceroos' top performer, including his stellar efforts in a second clean sheet against Denmark to help his side through to the knockout stage.

    Clearly back to the player he was before his injury – at least – Souttar's showings on the world stage have been the kind that can take a career to a new level.

  • Messi to make 1,000th appearance, but career-defining match may still be to come Messi to make 1,000th appearance, but career-defining match may still be to come

    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.

  • Cameroon 1-0 Brazil: Indomitable Lions bow out despite last-gasp Aboubakar strike Cameroon 1-0 Brazil: Indomitable Lions bow out despite last-gasp Aboubakar strike

    Vincent Aboubakar fired Cameroon to a last-gasp 1-0 win over Brazil before being sent off on Friday, but it was not enough to save the Indomitable Lions from an early World Cup exit – or to prevent the Selecao from topping Group G.

    Having seen Brazil secure a place in the round of 16 by beating Switzerland last time out, Tite made nine changes to his side, which resulted in a disjointed Selecao showing at the Lusail Stadium.

    Devis Epassy kept Cameroon in the contest with several fine saves before Aboubakar nodded home a stoppage-time winner for Rigobert Song's men – and was promptly shown a second yellow card for removing his shirt.

    However, the result was ultimately immaterial as Switzerland clung on to beat Serbia 3-2 in the group's other game, ensuring Brazil topped the pool and sealing Cameroon's elimination. 

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.