New Zealand head coach Ian Foster dismisses ‘favourites’ tag against Argentina

By Sports Desk October 19, 2023

Head coach Ian Foster has warned New Zealand the past counts for nothing as they head into their World Cup semi-final against Argentina as overwhelming favourites.

The three-time champions have lost just two of 36 matches against Los Pumas and are widely expected to prevail again in Friday’s crunch clash at the Stade de France in Paris.

“There are two teams in the semi-final – anyone can win,” said the All Blacks boss. “That’s the first mindset both teams have.

“We are massively respectful of Argentina. We know that they have had a great tournament.

“We don’t live in the past in terms of results. Rugby World Cup tournaments are really about the present. It’s about the best team on the night.

“If you go into a World Cup semi-final with any expectation that the past is going to happen again, you have got problems.”

Foster has made two changes to his side following the hard-fought 28-24 quarter-final win over Ireland, with Samuel Whitelock coming into the second row and Mark Telea starting on the left wing.

Foster said: “We’ve been really impressed with Argentina. We’re playing a team that we know scrap and fight for every little bit of possession. We are going to have to be at our best.”

Argentina overcame a 10-point deficit to beat Wales last weekend and reach the semi-finals for a third time.

Coach Michael Cheika has recalled Gonzalo Bertranou at scrum-half in his one change to the line-up.

“The history is not in our favour, but it is up to us to change that,” said Cheika, who oversaw a famous win over the All Blacks in Christchurch last year.

“We have a chance to on Friday and we will be ready. When we arrive on the field we will do what we do best.”

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    Lionel Scaloni says Argentina are not resting on their laurels as they prepare for a tough Copa America title defence.

    The Albiceleste won the 2021 edition of the tournament, beating Brazil 1-0 in the final, before lifting the World Cup in Qatar a year later.

    Argentina are among the favourites to lift the trophy again, for what would be a record 16th time, edging past Uruguay, who also have 15.

    However, Scaloni believes they need to put their recent successes behind them ahead of their opening game against Canada on Thursday.

    "We are talking about things that have already passed. [Winning the World Cup and the Copa America] was very nice, but it's over," he said in his press conference.

    "Football matches are all different, there are no easier games than others. A lot of things can happen. The difficulty of France, Brazil or Canada can be the same.

    "It will be a difficult Copa America as always; we are prepared for what is to come. We are doing well, with clear ideas and knowing the difficulty of this tournament.

    "Beyond the titles, we have enjoyed a lot. It's a pleasure to watch how [the players] give their all. That leads to being able to achieve things. We have shown that even if we didn't win like in 2019, we were able to continue and show you can do things."

    Lionel Messi, who is set to break the all-time appearance record in the competition when he features for Argentina, is potentially playing in his final major tournament for the national side, while Angel Di Maria announced he will be retiring at its conclusion.

    Instead of looking to a future without the two star players in his squad, Scaloni urged fans to enjoy getting to see them play together while they still can.

    "It is a pleasure to see them train and play, how they give themselves. I am not worried about the future of Messi and Di Maria.

    "It doesn't make much sense to think about when they're gone. Let's enjoy them now. We'll see what happens later. Messi is fine, he's happy. I have renewed ideas and strength. It's a nice challenge to defend the title."

    Argentina will also face Chile and Peru in Group A.

  • Messi, Vinicius and the other Copa America 2024 Golden Boot contenders Messi, Vinicius and the other Copa America 2024 Golden Boot contenders

    A festival of football is about to kick off in the United States, as the Copa America sparks into action.

    Argentina, the reigning champions, get the ball rolling when they face Canada in the opening Group A match, and Lionel Messi will be the main man as ever for La Albiceleste.

    Messi was the joint-leading scorer at the 2021 Copa America, netting four goals to lead the standings alongside Colombia’s Luis Diaz.

    The Barcelona great is expected to be right up there again when it comes to the 2024 Copa America Golden Boot race, and here, we dive into the main candidates for that award.

    Lionel Messi

    Not only did Messi finish as joint-top scorer at the 2021 Copa, he was also the leading assister and then, 18 months later, he went on to lead Argentina to World Cup glory, scoring seven goals in the process, from 6.6 expected goals – only Kylian Mbappe (eight) netted more times in Qatar.

    As soon as he features for Argentina at this tournament, Messi will become the Copa America’s all-time record holder for appearances – he is tied with Chile great Sergio Livingstone on 34, as it stands.

     

    Messi has scored 13 Copa America goals, which puts him joint-seventh on the all-time list, alongside fellow Argentina great Gabriel Batistuta. If he is able to replicate his four goals from the 2021 edition, then Messi will join Norberto Mendez and Zizinho at the top of the all-time charts – that is unless Peru’s Paolo Guerrero and/or Chile’s Eduardo Vargas were to net at least four times each to set a new record.

    Since the start of the 2011 Copa, Messi has had 102 shots – more than any other player. Surprisingly, his conversion rate stands at just 10.78 per cent, which stands as the second-lowest out of any player to have netted at least five goals in the competition in that time.

    But there can be no doubting Messi’s genius, and the little magician is entering what will surely be his final Copa in fine form – he has scored 12 goals in MLS for Inter Miami this season, outperforming his 8.3 xG and averaging a goal every 86 minutes.

    Argentina are the Opta supercomputer’s favourites to win the Copa, and group matches against Canada, Chile and Peru provide Messi with a favourable jumping off point to win the Golden Boot again.

    Vinicius Junior

    Fresh from winning the Champions League with Real Madrid (and scoring in the final – again), Vinicius heads into the Copa America as Brazil’s talisman.

    With Neymar absent through injury, the onus will fall on the winger to provide the creative spark and clinical edge to drag what looks like a more dogged, workmanlike squad through to the latter stages – Brazil are, according to our model, second favourites behind Argentina, with a 23 per cent win probability.

    If the Selecao are to challenge the holders, then they need Vinicius in top form.

    While he played as a split-striker for Madrid this season as Carlo Ancelotti found a way to get the best out of Jude Bellingham, Vinicius is more likely to play wide left for his country, though his cutting runs from out-to-in will make him a constant threat, as long as the likes of Bruno Guimaraes and Lucas Paqueta can pick him out.

     

    Vinicius netted 24 times for Los Blancos in 2023-24, and attempted 286 dribbles – 10 more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues across all competitions. He averaged 8.4 take-on attempts per 90, a tally bettered by only Jeremy Doku, while Vinicius also boasts a dribble completion rate of 3.3 per 90.

    He is yet to score at the Copa America, however. That being said, he did not make a single start in 2021, with all four of his appearances coming as a substitute, having only one shot and completing only one of his seven dribbles. But such has been his stellar form under Ancelotti in the intervening three years, there is no doubting he is now Brazil’s main man.

    Brazil face Costa Rica, Paraguay and in-form Colombia in Group D, but none of those defences should strike fear into Vinicius.

    Luis Diaz

    Diaz enjoyed a superb campaign three years ago, scoring two absolute screamers – one came in the group stage, an overhead kick against Brazil, while the other came in the third-place play-off as Colombia beat Peru; it was a stunner from outside the area, with the then-Porto winger lashing into the top-right corner after skipping in from the flank and taking on several defenders.

    Indeed, the quality of Diaz’s finishes are shown by his xG in 2021, which was just 1.0. And Diaz’s excellent shooting at that edition is further evidenced by his expected goals on target (xGoT) figure of 2.2.

    Diaz had only 10 shots, 18 fewer than Messi, yet boasted a hugely impressive 40 per cent shot conversion rate. Only Messi (57) and Neymar (77), meanwhile, attempted more dribbles than Diaz (43) at the 2021 edition, while it was just that superstar duo that completed more dribbles, too (Neymar 35, Messi 34, Diaz 26).

     

    His performances at that tournament piqued the interest of Premier League sides, and Diaz subsequently moved to Liverpool in January 2022. So while he will not be quite the unknown quantity that he was three years ago, if he is at his best, he will still be hugely difficult to stop – especially with James Rodriguez pulling the strings behind him.

    Darwin Nunez

    Bookending this list of the top Golden Boot contenders is Uruguay’s Darwin Nunez. The Liverpool striker has been superb under Marcelo Bielsa, and looks to be El Loco’s main attacker, even with Luis Suarez in the squad.

    Nunez scored 11 Premier League goals for the Reds in 2023-24, but underperformed his xG (16.4) by 5.4. While he was unfortunate in a sense – he hit the woodwork on nine occasions, four more times than any other player – he was also erratic in his finishing, with his xGoT dropping to 15.5. Nunez also missed 14 big chances, which ranked behind only Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (34).

     

    The 24-year-old may never be ultra-clinical, (he had a shot conversion rate of 10.2 per cent in the Premier League in the season just gone) but his pace, tenacity and work rate make him the ideal Bielsa folly up top.

    Nunez scored a hat-trick in Uruguay’s 4-0 demolition of Mexico earlier in June, while he is the leading goalscorer in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, with five to his name.

    Uruguay head into the tournament in fine fettle, and Bielsa will always be willing to risk it all in attack – meaning plenty of opportunities should come Nunez’s way.

    They are in a group with the hosts USA, Panama and Bolivia – the worst-ranked team in the tournament – so Nunez should be aiming to make a dent early on.

    Other contenders

    Lautaro Martinez

    Martinez has had an outstanding season for Inter, who he led to the Scudetto while finishing as top scorer in Serie A, scoring 24 goals in 33 appearances, and comfortably outperforming his 17.6 xG.

    However, he has not netted for Argentina in 2026 World Cup qualifying, and is not a regular starter under Lionel Scaloni, so chances may not be of a premium for him. That being said, he did score twice in Argentina's 4-1 win over Guatemala on Friday.

     

    Endrick

    Boy wonder Endrick, who will link up with Vinicius, Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid next season, has scored three goals for Brazil in his last three appearances.

    He scored those in successive matches, though he was unable to become the first Selecao player since Neymar in 2021 to net in four consecutive games as Dorival Junior’s team drew 1-1 with the USA in a warm-up match. At 17, Endrick looks like a superstar in the making, and he could be an outside bet for the Golden Boot.

    Luis Suarez

    Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer Suarez is bang in form heading into this tournament. The veteran has 68 goals in 138 caps and has netted 12 times already for Miami in MLS this season, averaging a goal every 96 minutes.

    Of players to score at least five times in MLS in 2024, Suarez has the fourth-highest shot conversion rate, too (33.33 per cent). Uruguay are ranked as the third-favourites by the Opta supercomputer, so Suarez could have plenty of matches to add to his international goals tally.

    Christian Pulisic

    The USA cannot find much consistency under Gregg Berhalter, though they did draw 1-1 with Brazil in a friendly on June 13. If the hosts are to make a serious run, then they will need to channel through Pulisic.

    While he is more likely to act as a creator, the attacker has proved he is more than capable of putting away chances. He scored 15 goals for Milan in 2023-24, making it the best goalscoring campaign of his career.

  • Williamson steps down as New Zealand white-ball captain Williamson steps down as New Zealand white-ball captain

    Kane Williamson has stepped down as New Zealand's captain in both ODIs and T20Is, while also declining a central contract.

    New Zealand endured a disappointing T20 World Cup campaign, exiting at the end of the group stage after losing their opening two games against Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea.

    Williamson played his 100th Test earlier this year, leading New Zealand in 40 of those, and has 165 ODI caps and 93 T20I caps.

    As captain, he led them to the World Test Championship title in 2021, and two finals in the ODI World Cup in 2019, and the T20 World Cup in 2021, both of which they lost.

    With the hopes of prolonging his international career, the 33-year-old explained his decision to decline the contract for 2024-25.

    "Helping push the team forward across the formats is something I'm very passionate about and something I want to keep contributing towards," Williamson said in a New Zealand Cricket (NZC) release.

    "However, pursuing an overseas opportunity during the New Zealand summer means I'm unable to accept a central contract offer."

    Ahead of last season, Williamson had given up his Test captaincy, with Tim Southee appointed as his successor.

    Despite not taking the offer of a central contract, he has not written off signing one in the future if the timing is right.

    "Playing for New Zealand is something I treasure, and my desire to give back to the team remains undiminished.

    "My life outside cricket has changed, however. Spending more time with my family and enjoying experiences with them at home or abroad is something that's even more important to me."

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