Updated: May 28, 2021 11:21 am
At Club level, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have won a combined 17 league titles, 13 domestic cups, 14 domestic Super Cups, 9 Champions Leagues, 5 Uefa Super Cups and 7 World Club Cups. As individuals, they have won 11 Balon d’Ors, 10 European Golden Shoes and been their League’s top scorer 13 times.
They have set all kinds of astonishing records such as Messi’s 91 goals in a calendar year and 73 goals in a domestic season and Ronaldo scoring over 50 goals in 6 consecutive seasons, as well as scoring at least 15 goals in 3 CL campaigns.
At international level, they have competed at a combined 17 major international tournaments (those being the three biggest international competitions: the FIFA World Cup, the Euros & Copa América) winning a combined 1 and never top-scoring at a tournament. This is what has made the international careers of Messi and Ronaldo in some ways more interesting. Whereas at club level they’ve been routinely unstoppable with a level of play and consistency the game has never seen before, which has led them to accomplish endless amounts of personal and team glory, international football has humanised them and regularly humbled them.
Even in the rare disappointing seasons for Messi and Ronaldo in terms of their club teams performance, such as this one just past, they themselves have never had any trouble atleast from a personal perspective as emphasised this season with Messi being La Liga’s top scorer and Ronaldo topping Italy’s domestic chart despite both having to settle for the domestic cup as their only source of silverware.
In International Football, they had prior to this summer competed at a combined 17 major international tournaments (those being the three biggest international competitions: the FIFA World Cup, the Euros & Copa América) winning a combined 1 and never having top-scored at a tournament. This is what has made the international careers of Messi and Ronaldo in some ways more interesting. Whereas at club level they’ve been routinely unstoppable with a level of play and consistency the game has never seen before leading them to accomplish endless amounts of personal and team glory, international football has humanised them and regularly humbled them.
Ronaldo: 179 Caps, 109 Goals, 30 Assists, 131 mins per goal, 102 mins per G/A Messi: 151 Caps, 76 Goals, 47 Assists, 165 mins per goal, 103 mins per G/A
Ronaldo: 128 Apps, 90 Goals, 22 Assists Messi: 104 Apps, 42 Goals, 32 Assists
Here you see quite a gulf in the numbers, but when analysing such numbers the context is of course essential. Due to Messi playing his international football in a continent with much fewer nations, Ronaldo has faced many more lower ranked sides in qualification matches for the Euros and World Cup. The nations Ronaldo has scored against most in competitive internationals are Lithuania, Sweden, Hungary, Andorra, Armenia & Latvia. Messi’s five favourite opponents for the same criteria have been Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela and Uruguay.
Due to most of Argentina’s quality being in the striking positions, Messi has often dropped deeper for the national side to use his quality in the areas Argentina don’t have as much. But as South American football is a much more physical brand than is seen in Europe, he hasn’t been able to with the same ease as for Barcelona, dribble through teams and score carrying the ball from deep.
Euros/ Copa America
Ronaldo: 25 Apps, 14 Goals, 6 Assists, 154 mins per goal, 108 mins per G/A Messi: 34 Apps, 13 Goals, 17 Assists, 224 mins per goal, 97 mins per G/A
FIFA World Cup
Ronaldo: 17 Apps, 7 Goals, 2 Assists, 211 mins per goal, 164 mins per G/A Messi: 19 Apps, 6 Goals, 5 Assists, 271 mins per goal, 108 mins per G/A
Major Tournament Total
Ronaldo: 42 Apps, 21 Goals, 8 Assists, 173 mins per goal, 125 mins per G/A Messi: 53 Apps, 19 Goals, 22 Assists, 238 mins per goal, 110 mins per G/A
Ronaldo: 1 Winner, 1 Runner-Up, 2 Semi-Finals, 1 Quarter-Final, 3 Last-16, 1 Group Stage Messi: 1 Winner, 4 Runner-Up, 1 Semi-Final, 3 Quarter-Finals, 1 Last-16
The main difference between Ronaldo and Messi at major tournaments has not been between their own personal level of contribution but that of teammates, exemplified by Eder finishing a chance that he made for himself in a major final to win Portugal the Euros, whereas Higuain missed the several he had made for him in finals over the years. Ronaldo has scored in all 8 major tournaments he’s played in thus far, whereas Messi has failed to score in 2 of his 9, those coming in back to back years. Messi’s best tournament tally is 5 however, whereas Ronaldo’s is 4. The Argentine’s best tally for goals & assists combined is 9, and for Ronaldo, it’s 5. Both netted 4 in their best World Cups.
Ronaldo has scored in all 9 major tournaments he’s played in thus far, whereas Messi has failed to score in 2 of his 10, those coming in back to back years. Messi’s best tournament tally is 5 as is Ronaldo’s. The Argentine’s best tally for goals & assists combined is 9 which he has achieved twice, and for Ronaldo it’s 6. Both netted 4 in their best World Cups.
The Portugal team Ronaldo came into when he was debuting in 2003 was full of quality. Experienced, proven players such as Luís Figo , Fernando Couto, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes, Pauleta and Simao alongside members of FC Porto’s Champions League winning side of 2004 the likes of Deco, Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Costinha and Maniche. Adding Cristiano Ronaldo to this and it was little wonder they reached at least the Semi-Final stage of Ronaldo’s first Euros and World Cup.
In the following years as some of these players retired from international duty, the replacements were not as talented, but Pepe and Bruno Alves meant they were at least kept continually stacked with quality at the back. Players such as Nani, Ricardo Quaresma, Raul Meireles and William Carvalho have had average club careers compared to their predecessors but they tended to reserve their best contributions for their national side. And though Ronaldo hasn’t had the quality around him for the bulk of his Portugal career the likes of which he had at the start, some has been provided from midfield by Joao Moutinho, who has 130 caps for his national side.
Like Ronaldo, Messi came into an incredibly strong national team when coming into the side back in 2005. His early years saw him part of a team that had in defence players like Roberto Ayala, Pablo Sorin, Gabriel Heinze, Javier Zanetti and Gabriel Milito. In midfield there was Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Sebastian Veron, Pablo Aimar and Juan Román Riquelme and in attack Hernan Crespo and Carlos Tevez.
As the years went by Argentina added more and more attacking quality to their roster with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria, which made them the envy of the footballing world. Whilst these options were of course great, they couldn’t play them all and the other players who came into the side, certainly in the backline, were not in the same league as the men they were replacing. Only Pablo Zabaleta was a defender of the required standard and of the ilk Ronaldo has been able to rely on at Portugal.
Messi has at least got to play with the astute defensive qualities in the midfield of Javier Mascherano for much of his international career, but aside from that regular central midfield starters such as Fernando Gago, Lucas Biglia and Enzo Perez have looked a long way short of Argentine midfielders of the past. Only Ever Banega has been of the required standard from that aspect. Also appearing over the years has been Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi, neither of whom have been able to replicate their club form consistently enough to be regular starters, and this failure to produce for country their same level when at club has been a problem that has afflicted much of that generation.
Whereas players such as Nani and Raul Meireles rose in a Portugal shirt, some highly rated Argentines have sunk in theirs. Di Maria, one of the best wingers of this era has played less than a combined 90 minutes across the 3 finals Argentina made between 2014 and 2016, partly down to injury, partly down to not grabbing his chance when it finally came. Carlos Tevez a player with over 300 club goals managed just 13 goals in 12 years for the national side, and for a player with Sergio Aguero’s well-earned reputation he should have nailed himself down a spot as a guaranteed starter for years, but he was unable to do so.
This piece will now examine in greater detail the 5 Euros, 6 Copa Americas and 4 World Cups the two greatest players of this and perhaps any generation have played so far and look ahead to this summer’s competitions.
After his debut season at Manchester United which saw the teenager net 6 goals in 40 games including one in the FA Cup final, Ronaldo was selected for Euro 2004, a tournament which would be held in his country of Portugal. The first match of the Championships saw the hosts take on minnows Greece. Playing in just their 3rd major tournament ever and still awaiting their first tournament win, they seemed ideal opposition for Portugal to get off to a winning start.
However, it took the Greeks just 7 minutes to take the lead in the Estadio do Dragao in Porto. When the scoreline hadn’t changed by half-time, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari (fresh off the back of a World Cup win with Brazil 2 summers prior) turned to his bench and introduced Cristiano Ronaldo for his first competitive match for Portugal, in so doing becoming the youngest Portuguese to appear in an international competition.
It did not pay immediate dividends as 6 minutes after the break Greece doubled their lead from the penalty spot. Ronaldo marked his 8th cap with his first senior international goal, pulling one back with a free header from a Luis Figo corner, but coming in the 93rd minute it could never have been any more than a consolation goal and Portugal fell to a shock defeat.
Ronaldo again started on the bench for Portugal’s 2nd match with Russia which had become a must-win. With Greece and Spain both on 4 points, and Spain to be Portugal’s final group opponents, the margin for error was none as Portugal took to the field at the Estadio da Luz in the Nations capital. An early goal from Maniche settled any nerves, and an excellent late cameo from Cristiano saw him provide the perfectly placed cross for Rui Costa to seal the game in the 89th minute. Ronaldo’s impact was enough to earn him a start in the game against Spain, a match Portugal really had to win to avoid being eliminated from their own tournament by their neighbours. A Nuno Gomes goal was the only one of the game, as Portugal, in the end, topped the group, due to Russia defeating Greece in the other Group A match. This meant Portugal would avoid Group B winners and defending Champions France and instead face England.
Cristiano played the full 2 hours in the Quarter-Final in what proved to be one of the best games of a tournament that had many good games. England led for 80 minutes after an early Michael Owen goal, but Helder Postiga equalised for the hosts to force Extra-Time. After Sol Campbell had a goal disallowed for a foul that didn’t seem to be there, Rui Costa scored a brilliant shot from outside the box to put the Portuguese on the verge of the Semi-Finals. But with 5 minutes of Extra-Time remaining, Frank Lampard responded with a great turn and finish meaning a penalty shootout would be necessary to separate the sides.
After one miss apiece with both England Captain David Beckham and Portugal’s vastly experienced Rui Costa blazing high over the bar, Ronaldo stepped up to take Portugal’s 4th penalty with England leading in the shootout for the first time. With a stuttered run-up the 19-year-old fired a confident penalty past David James to restore parity. It was to be James’ opposite number Ricardo who would prove the hero of the shootout, first by removing his gloves to save Darius Vassell’s spot-kick, and then blasting one into the bottom corner himself to give the hosts a 6-5 shootout win.
Portugal met the Netherlands in the Semi-Finals and Cristiano gave them the lead in the 26th minute, scoring his 2nd header from a corner at the tournament, this time from a Deco set piece. Cristiano then played a part in his side doubling their lead just before the hour mark, but it was a small part, playing a short corner to Maniche before the midfielder fired in one of the goals of the tournament. The Dutch pulled a goal back 5 minutes later but Portugal held on to reach their first-ever major tournament final.
Their final opponents would be the same opponents they met 3 weeks prior on the opening day of Euro 2004, Greece. The underdogs had surprised everyone by reaching the final but no one could say they weren’t there on merit. After beating Euro 2000 winners France in the Quarter-Finals, they then beat a talented Czech Republic side in Extra-Time to reach the final. But with that said, playing on home soil Portugal were extremely confident they could avenge their earlier defeat and win their first ever trophy.
However, like the French and the Czechs, Portugal found them impossible to break down, as for the 3rd game in a row a single goal was enough for Greece. Ronaldo and his Portugal side were beaten for the second time in a matter of weeks by the Greeks, who were 150/1 to win the tournament and could celebrate surely the greatest upset triumph in the history of international football when they lifted the Henri Delauney trophy.
Stats: 6 games, 2 goals, 2 assists
World Cup 2006
Despite an injury cutting short his first full season with FC Barcelona forcing him to miss out on the teams Champions League triumph over Arsenal, Lionel Messi did enough with 8 goals in 25 starts to make the Argentina squad for the 2006 World Cup. After watching from the bench as Argentina won their opening match 2-1 against tournament debutants Ivory Coast, he became the youngest player to play for Argentina at a World Cup since 1934 when he came on for Maxi Rodriguez with a quarter of an hour to go in their 2nd game against Serbia & Montenegro. It was a good time to enter the fray, with Argentina leading 3-0 in a game they played with all the swagger of a team who believed they could go all the way.
Messi assisted Argentina’s 4th just 3 minutes after coming on, providing Hernan Crespo with an empty net after passing across the six-yard box. After Carlos Tevez had made it 5, Lionel Messi finished the scoring off for his side, confidently beating the keeper to give the Argentine fans, many of whom had clamoured for his inclusion in the squad, a reason to get even more excited about this emerging talent.
With qualification assured for both Argentina and their final group opponents Holland, manager Jose Pekerman rotated his side and gave Messi what was his one and only start at the finals. The 0-0 draw was enough to secure top spot for the Argentines on goal difference, which meant avoiding Cristiano’s Portugal and instead set up a meeting with Mexico. After a goal apiece in the opening 10 minutes in Leipzig, noone scored again for the remainder of normal time. Messi was brought on in the 84th minute and looked bright during Extra-Time which Argentina won after one of the best goals of the tournament by Maxi Rodriguez.
The Quarter-Finals saw a clash between Argentina and host Germany at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. For 2 hours Messi watched and waited, but his time never came. Instead, Pekerman introduced Julio Cruz as his attacking option off the bench and Messi could be no more than a spectator as Argentina exited on penalties following misses from Roberto Ayala and Esteban Cambiasso.
Stats: 3 games, 1 goal, 1 assist
Like Argentina, Portugal’s first match of the tournament came against African World Cup debutants, in the shape of Angola. An early goal from Pauleta was enough for the Portuguese to claim 3 points in Cologne. In their next match, they were forced to wait considerably longer for the opener against Iran, but it came in the 63rd minute courtesy of a wonderful first-time strike from Deco. With 10 minutes to go, Luis Figo was fouled in the box and Cristiano converted the resulting spot-kick to score his first-ever goal at the World Cup Finals. With the top spot secure so long as defeat could be avoided against Mexico, Ronaldo was rested for the final group game in which Portugal won 2-1 but came back in the side for the Round of 16 meetings with the Netherlands which would become known as ‘The Battle of Nuremberg’.
Ronaldo was forced to leave the field after just 34 minutes after being injured by a 2nd nasty foul on him by Khalid Boulahrouz. Having earlier already stamped down hard on Ronaldo’s thigh causing him to need a bandage around it, the Dutchman took him out again, making contact with the same thigh. Ronaldo exited in tears after the foul he later described as “clearly an intentional foul to get me injured.” Portugal went into half-time a goal up thanks to Maniche (and helped by the referee’s failure to award an extremely blatant penalty for a foul on Arjen Robben), but a man down as defensive midfielder Costinha was shown a second yellow for handball just before the break.
In the Second half, the referee lost complete control of the game. Figo headbutted Mark Van Bommel behind the refs back and went unpunished with Scolari later saying “Jesus Christ may be able to turn the other cheek but Luís Figo isn’t Jesus Christ.”
The Dutch lost their man advantage in the 63rd minute when Boulahrouz received a long-overdue second yellow card, having been adjudged to have elbowed Figo in the face. On this occasion, the defender appeared not to have done too much wrong, however, with Figo certainly making a meal of the contact. This sending off sparked chaos on the touchline with players and substitutes alike getting involved in the melee.
Another brawl followed 10 minutes later when Deco took out John Heitinga. In the aftermath of the foul, Wesley Sneijder recieved a yellow for sending Petit flying with a shove. 5 minutes later Portugal was down to 9 men after Deco was dismissed for refusing to immediately relinquish the ball after a Netherlands free-kick was awarded. Given the number of tackles absolutely flying in, it seemed a tad harsh. In the end, the game saw 4 red cards (2 apiece as Gio Van Bronckhorst recieved his marching orders in added time) and 16 yellow cards shown to 12 players, but just the one goal which was enough to put Portugal in the Quarter-Finals wherein a repeat of two years earlier, they would once again face England.
Though Deco was ruled out of the Quarters through suspension, Ronaldo was fit to start. The key moment of the game came on the hour mark. With Rooney aiming to protect the ball just inside his own half against a battling Ricardo Carvalho, the Englishman appears to deliberately stamp on the defender right under the referee’s nose, hoping to pass it off as accidental in the tangle.
Ronaldo then runs in front of the referee appearing to demand a red card be shown to his Manchester United clubmate which causes Rooney to angrily shove him. England’s star striker is shown red, but unlike 8 years earlier when Beckham was dismissed in the Round of 16 game against Argentina, the English media’s ire is this time not for the man receiving the red card, but the man they feel responsible for it, Cristiano Ronaldo. This level of anger multiplies when he is seen winking at the bench, which is taken to mean it was part of a plan to get the temper prone striker dismissed.
Despite having an extra man for an hour, Portugal had no more luck scoring than they did in the first hour, so after 120 minutes of very few openings, both teams had kept their 4th clean sheet in 5 and just as it was 2 years prior between the sides, it would again come down to a penalty shootout. Unlike last time, however, when 11 of the 14 penalties were scored, the penalties this time around were much poorer. 4 of the first 6 were missed, 2 each, before Postiga made it 2-1 to Portugal. Carragher then missed, meaning that Portugal’s 5th penalty taker had the chance to win the shootout.
Up steps Cristiano Ronaldo. The 21-year old takes a breath in order to compose himself, he can barely contain a smile that threatens to break out on his face, so confident he appears to be almost enjoying himself. As 2 years ago, he goes with a stuttered run-up and the outcome is the same, as Paul Robinson dives the wrong way and Portugal are through to the World Cup Semi-Finals for the first time since 1966.
The Semi-Final was also decided from the penalty spot, just one this time as Zinedine Zidane converted after Ricardo Carvalho brought down Thierry Henry. Portugal was unable to match their previous best World Cup finish of 3rd after being outplayed in the 3rd place play-off against Germany, going down 3-1.
Copa America 2007 & Euro 2008
After the 06/07 season where Messi had established himself as one of Barcelona’s best and most important players with 17 goals in 36 games, including a hat-trick against Real Madrid and one of the best goals ever with his rendition of Maradona’s Goal of the Century against Getafe, heading into the 2007 Copa America which was staged in Venezuela there was mass Argentine excitement over this just turned 20-year old with the long hair, with whom comparisons with icon Diego Maradona were already being made.
Lionel Messi started his side’s first game of the tournament, a Group C encounter with USA, to earn his 14th cap. After falling behind to a penalty, Argentina responded almost instantly through Hernan Crespo and the sides went into the dressing rooms level. An hour into the game, Argentina completed the turnaround, when Messi found Crespo with a through pass, allowing the striker to score his brace. Pablo Aimar made it 3-1, before Tevez who had replaced Messi with 10 minutes to go added his name to the scoresheet to give Argentina a convincing win.
Argentina went behind early again against Colombia and it was again Hernan Crespo with the equaliser, after Lionel Messi was adjudged to have been fouled in the box. Juan Roman Riquelme then scored a brace, one with his head and one with a free kick into the bottom corner to send Argentina into the break 3-1 to the good. Colombia scored in the 76th minute to promise a nervy final quarter of an hour, but the final goal of the match was scored by Diego Milito of Argentina.
Messi started the final group match on the bench but was on the pitch when Javier Mascherano scored the only goal of the game to put Argentina through with maximum points. They faced Peru in the final quarter-final and after seeing Uruguay hit hosts Venezuela for 4, Brazil trounce Chile 6-1 and Mexico hit 6 of their own against Paraguay, Argentina set about completing a clean-sweep of Copa America Quarter-Final thrashings.
It didn’t look likely as the first half finished 0-0, but Riquelme struck a fine shot from outside the box to give Argentina the lead 2 minutes into the second half. Messi doubled the lead with half an hour to go as Riquelme (given an unforgivable amount of space to operate by the Peruvians) picked out Leo’s diagonal run into the box, who was then able to take a touch and finish beyond the goalkeeper. Later excellent combination play from Tevez and Messi led to a shot from Leo that could only be parried to the feet of Mascherano who with his 2nd goal of the tournament had scored in 2 consecutive games, which was to amount for 25% of the goals he would score in his 796-game professional career. Argentina’s 4th goal of the night was Riquelme’s 4th of the tournament as he was picked out by Aimar who beat 2 Peru defenders, before presenting his teammate with a straightforward chance.
The Copa America Semi-Finals saw a repeat of the previous years’ World Cup round of 16 games as Argentina faced Mexico. Right on the verge of half-time Argentina took the lead with a brilliant clipped free-kick from Riquelme finished off by Gabriel Heinze. Argentina’s second goal was the official goal of the tournament, the ball is played from the full-back into the chest of Carlos Tevez who helps it on to Messi, left in acres of space on the right-hand side, he takes a touch to put the ball into the box, then chips it with the lightest and most delicate of touches over an unsuspecting goalkeeper whose hand cannot stretch bar far enough to keep it out. A goal of that quality in a Copa America semi-final announces Messi for the first time on the international stage, a goal so special he makes the world sit up and take notice if they weren’t already. Riquelme adds Argentina’s 3rd from the spot and they are into the final, where there will be a repeat of the final of 3 years prior, against their biggest of enemies Brazil.
Brazil had triumphed last time on penalties, and it was a penalty shootout win that saw them reach the final this time out as they beat Uruguay 5-4 after a 2-2 draw and 7 spot-kicks each. Going into final Argentina were the clear favourites, they had scored 16 goals in 5 games to reach the final and they had by the far better team. Brazil were without Captain Lucio, Emerson, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano as they sent a squad of mostly deputies in their place rather than regular first-teamers, due to injury and fatigue of their usual stars. On top of that stand-in captain, Gilberto Silva was also injured for the final, with Elano, Mineiro and Josue (who had a combined 22 caps going into the competition) competing in midfield against Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso (108 combined caps). In attack Argentina had a 3 of Riquelme, Tevez and Messi which had been working to devastating effect to that point, whereas Brazil’s attack featured Robinho, Wagner Love and Julio Baptista.
For the third time in 6 games, Argentina conceded inside the first 10 minutes, lasting just four before Baptista found the top corner with a wonderful finish that left the keeper rooted to the spot. Riquelme came close to equalising when he hit the post, but the next goal was scored by an Argentinian. Unfortunately, though it was into the wrong net, as Roberto Ayala diverted a cross into his own goal.
With Argentina committing bodies to the attack desperately trying to find a goal to get them back into the contest, Brazil hit them on the counter and it was finished off by Messi’s future Barcelona teammate Dani Alves. With 20 minutes to go Argentina were 3-0 down and in search of a miracle. Messi rounded the keeper and would have pulled one goal back, but the flag went up against him for offside. So after scoring 16 goals and conceding just 3 in making the final, Argentina had fell at the last hurdle. Brazil who had been beaten earlier by Mexico and taken to penalties by Uruguay had been hardened to tough matches, Argentina had had it all their own way up to that point and weren’t ready for a team able to stand up to them. Lionel Messi made the team of the tournament but it was Robinho who won the award for best player, also top scoring the competition with 6 goals.
Stats: 6 games, 2 goals, 1 assist
When Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at the 2006 World Cup he was still waiting to hit double figures in the league for the first time, with 9 the best tally in his first 4 seasons. And when he exited the tournament to return to Manchester, it was a widely held belief that he’d be back long enough only to pack his bags, with his club probably happy to help him do so, such was the surely irreparable damage done to his relationship with Rooney over ‘wink-gate’. There could also be no question over who United would prioritise keeping, at the time it was Rooney who appeared more likely to become the world’s best player.
But it wasn’t to transpire this way, Rooney got over the incident as soon as the pair were back in training together, and the two’s on-field partnership quickly grew stronger after the sale of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Not quite so forgiving were the fans of fellow Premier League clubs, who booed Ronaldo every time he touched the ball. This probably wasn’t a wise move, as it seemed to make him play better, he appeared more determined and was finding the net with more regularity than ever before. After his partnership with Rooney fired United to their first league title for 4 years (it was a long time then), Carlos Tevez was added to the forward line for the 07/08 season and alongside retaining their crown, they also added the Champions League with Ronaldo scoring in the final. Gone was the out-and-out tricky winger of 2006, heading into Euro 2008 Cristiano had transformed himself into an unstoppable, ruthless goal machine. With 42 goals in 49 games in the season leading up to the Euros, Ronaldo had become not only the best player for his club and country but the best player in the World.
Another change for this European Championships was the shirt number on his back, the retirement of Luis Figo meaning that Cristiano swapped 17 for 7, the number he is now synonymous with. Portugal’s first opponents were Turkey, Ronaldo hit the post from a free-kick, but it was Pepe who broke the deadlock just after the hour mark before Raul Meireles added the 2nd in added time.
Deco gave the Portuguese an early lead in game 2 against the Czechs, after Petr Cech had blocked Ronaldo from taking the ball around him, the ball fell to the feet of Deco who a scrambling Cech could not prevent from eventually forcing the ball home. After Czech Republic had headed themselves level, it was Deco’s turn to become provider with Ronaldo the finisher, as he swept home from just inside the box a powerful well-placed finish to get off the mark at the finals. After a quick free-kick caught the Czech’s napping, Ronaldo found himself clear through on goal, calmly squaring it for an unmarked Quaresma to add a 3rd in stoppage time to make safe Portugal’s progression to the Quarter-Finals. With that secure, Ronaldo was rested for the final group match against hosts Switzerland which they lost 2-0.
Though topping the group, Croatia’s surprise win over Germany in Group B meant this actually did them no favours as they met the Germans in Basel. Goals from Schweinsteiger and Klose had Germany two to the good, but after Jens Lehmann had saved from Cristiano, Nuno Gomes profited by steering it in past Metzelder guarding the line, to reduce the deficit with 5 minutes of the half remaining. Portugal almost went into half-time all square, when Ronaldo cut in from the right, made his way into the penalty area and found a shot that beat Lehmann, but was unable to find the bottom corner flying just the wrong side of the post.
Pepe had a huge chance to level it when he missed a header from point-blank range, this miss was to become all the more costly when Michael Ballack restored Germany’s two goal lead, doing what Pepe was unable to do by heading the ball into the back of the net, after a set-piece which was very poorly defended from Portugal’s perspective. The scoring wasn’t finished there though, as Portugal’s hopes was briefly revived in the 87th minute when Luis Nani found the head of Helder Postiga, but the equaliser couldn’t be found and Portugal exited at the Quarter-Final stage.
Stats: 3 games, 1 goal, 1 assist
World Cup 2010
After winning their first 3 World Cup Qualifiers with 8 goals to zero conceded, Argentina then when 5 without a win. Although this run was ended by a win at home to Uruguay that was then followed by a 1-0 defeat away to Chile and Alfio Basile was replaced as manager by his former captain Diego Maradona. Things started well enough for Diego with 2 friendly wins, including one away to France in which Messi scored, and Messi scored again in Maradona’s first qualifier as coach, a 4-0 win over Venezuela in which Leo wore the famous number 10 for Argentina for the first time, following Riquelme’s retirement.
But what followed was maybe the worst result in the nation’s history, a humiliating 6-1 defeat in Bolivia. Argentina steadied themselves with a 1-0 home win to Colombia in the aftermath, but then lost 3 straight, including a particularly damaging loss to Ecuador, considering they were now on a run of just 1 defeat in 11 Qualifiers, and along with Uruguay had now plunged Argentina in real danger of not only missing out on 4th place which ensures direct qualification, but even 5th place which would mean a play-off to reach the finals. With 2 qualifiers left, pressure was piled high on the manager and players to avoid being the first Argentina side to fail to reach the World Cup for 40 years. When Peru equalised in the 89th minute, these fears looked to be realised but Argentina scored again in the 92nd minute for all 3 points. In their final game, Argentina travelled to Uruguay where they needed a result for automatic qualification. They got it with a 84th-minute winner and a relieved, highly emotional Maradona declared that the media that had heavily criticised him and his team could “suck it and go on sucking it.”
All was not well with the world however, Lionel Messi who had scored 85 goals in his last 108 Barcelona matches in the 2 seasons leading up to the World Cup, could not score for Argentina. Played out of position by Maradona, he had netted just 4 goals in his 18 qualifiers and if Argentina were to harbour any real hopes of lifting the trophy, this needed to be rectified. Diego flew to Barcelona to ask for Messi’s tactical input, who then instructed the coach to put him back in the middle behind 2 strikers where he could see much more of the ball.
This seemed to work in the opening game against Nigeria, as Messi dribbled through bodies and put an early chance on a plate for Gonzalo Higuain, who missed from point-blank range (they’ll be more of that). Leo then forced a good save out of Vincent Enyeama in the Nigeria goal with an effort from outside the box, and Argentina took the lead from the resulting corner, with an excellent header from Heinze. Messi forced another couple of excellent stops out of Enyeama who prevented him from getting on the scoresheet, but the early signs were atleast promising.
This promise continued against Korea Republic at Soccer City, Johannesburg. A free-kick whipped in by Messi deflected in off the shin of Lee Chung-yong and Higuain then doubled the lead. A mistake by Martin Demichelis let Korea back into the contest, but the 2 goal lead was restored in the 2nd half when Higuain profited from a tap-in after Messi’s shot off the post fell to his feet. Argentina’s number 9 then netted his hattrick after a lovely move involving Messi and Aguero, the latter completing the play by putting the ball on Higuain’s head for the goal.
In the Argentine’s last match of Group C they went into half-time level against Greece, mostly due to their keeper Alexandros Tsorvas, who was the star of the half, the pick of his stops being from a brilliant effort from Messi which was dipping just under the bar until Tsorvas palmed it over. After Demichelis had given Argentina the lead, Messi (captaining the side in the absence of Mascherano) continued to get closer and closer to his first goal of the finals. After gliding past a defender as though not there, he leathered a shot that beat Tsorvas but could not beat the post. With a minute to go Messi came close yet again, dribbling around a defender before his powerful shot was blocked by the keeper’s hands, the ball falling directly to substitute Martin Palermo who was left with the goal gaping and tucked it away.
The Round of 16 saw them meet a familiar opponent in Mexico. Argentina broke the deadlock on 26 minutes when keeper Oscar Perez could not gather in Messi’s throughball for Tevez, only pushing it back to Leo’s feet who lifted it on to the head of Tevez for 1-0. Higuain made it two after a horrible error in the Mexican defence, but they could do little about the third after Tevez hit an absolute rocket into the top corner to put the game to bed. A good goal from Javier Hernandez made it 3-1 with 20 to go, but it never seemed likely to be more than a consolation.
With 10 scored and only 2 conceded, Argentina seemed in a good place. There would be no Quarter-Final rematch between Maradona and England, after they suffered a 4-1 defeat to another old foe of Diego’s, the Germans. His side got off to the worst possible start falling behind to Thomas Muller inside 3 minutes, and it didn’t get better from there. Dreadful marking allowed Lukas Podolski to square for Klose to walk it in for 2-0 in the 68th minute. 6 minutes later and Germany were beginning to make their opponents look stupid, playing with huge confidence Schweinsteiger dribbled into the box at will and squared it for another German tap-in, this time finished by Arne Freidrich. With a minute to go, the beating was complete when a failed one-two between Messi and Aguero led to a counter-attack which ended in Mesut Ozil brilliantly picking out Klose who bagged his second and Germany’s fourth.
It was a terrible end to a World Cup which to that point had been going well for Argentina, and despite Messi mostly performing well, being involved with many of Argentina’s goals and coming very close on several occasions to scoring himself, that wouldn’t be remembered. What would be remembered was Messi failing to score in the tournament, and Argentina’s heavy Quarter-Final defeat. This was to be the final game in charge for Maradona and including a friendly match against the Republic of Ireland which was new manager Daniel Passarella’s 1st game at the helm, Messi had scored 1 goal in 15 Argentina games, until he netted in a 4-1 Friendly win over World Champions Spain, incidentally the last team he’d been able to score against.
Stats: 5 games, 1 assist
Fresh off the back of his first season as a Real Madrid player, where the most expensive player in the world had scored 33 in 35 games in his only season with the number 9 on his back, Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal out for their Group G opener against Ivory Coast as captain, following new manager Carlos Queiroz decision to omit Nuno Gomes from the squad. After making room for a shot with a piece of skill to get away from Yaya Toure, Ronaldo let fly from over 30 yards out and the keeper was nowhere near it, his magnificent effort cannoning off the post, denying him what would have been one of the best goals of the tournament. It was by far the most exciting moment in a game that finished 0-0.
Portugal’s next match was to make up for it, though at half-time it looked like it might prove another tricky one. Portugal led 1-0 after 45 against North Korea, who had lost just 2-1 against Brazil in their first World Cup match since 1966. But in the second half the floodgates opened, 3 goals in 7 minutes put Portugal four to the good on the hour mark, with Ronaldo assisting the fourth, and another 3 Portuguese goals in 8 minutes as the game drew to a close saw Ronaldo score the 6th of Portugal’s 7, as he waited for the ball to first juggle off his back and head before dropping for him to sidefoot home his first competitive international goal since scoring at Euro 2008 after he had failed to find the net in Qualifying.
Due to the draw with the Ivory Coast, Portugal needed a win against Brazil to top the group, but for Ronaldo’s 75th cap they had to settle for their second 0-0 draw of the finals, their best chance falling to Meireles after determined work from Ronaldo saw the ball break to him in the box, but he was unable to provide the finishing touch.
A second-place finish meant a meeting with European Champions Spain who had won 29 of their last 31 matches, but Portugal had an extraordinary record of their own, with 20 clean sheets in 24 games under Queiroz, and a 19-game unbeaten run. Portugal conceded for the first time at the tournament in the 63rd minute of their 4th match. David Villa’s goal was to be the only one Portugal conceded in the tournament but was also the only goal of the game meaning Portugal were knocked out in the last 16. Despite a strong defensive record, it had been a disappointing tournament for Ronaldo and co. only scoring in one match which was against North Korea. This meant that by the end of the tournament Ronaldo had scored just 1 in his last 14 internationals, a record identical to Messi’s. Both were really struggling to deliver for their country what they did for their clubs.
Stats: 4 games, 1 goal, 1 assist
Copa America 2011 & Euro 2012
Messi came into the 2011 Copa America off the back of 3 successive La Liga titles and one of the all-time great Champions League final performances which had established his Barcelona team as one of the best sides ever with a 2nd European Cup in 3 years. With 53 goals in 55 appearances in the 10/11 season, the 24-year old was already being discussed as potentially the greatest player to ever live.
All was not so rosy with the national team, however. After coming under harsh criticism in his homeland after the 2010 World Cup, this Copa America which would take place in Argentina would see the vitriol aimed at Messi peak at its worst and most unjust level.
The hosts began the tournament against Bolivia and had many good chances to take the lead in the first half. The most guilt-edged falling to Carlos Tevez, who got a header completely wrong, missing the goal altogether, after Messi had chipped a free-kick onto his head. Messi then found Lavezzi who dragged his shot wide, and then Tevez missed another chance created by Messi. Lionel then tried a shot of his own which the keeper could only spill to Cambiasso but he was unable to finish.
Argentina were made to rue these missed opportunities when Bolivia took the lead early in the second half. Edivaldo Rojas flicked a corner onto goal, and Ever Banega somehow failed to clear it, instead of taking the ball over the goal-line himself. Bolivia looked certain to double their lead when woefully open defending allowed Bolivia through for a one-on-one but Marcelo Martins was unable to take it round Romero who got a hand to it. Argentina then levelled with a quarter of an hour to go after a magnificently struck volley from Sergio Aguero, but were unable to win the game when Aguero looked to find his brace from a tight and difficult angle, when a few yards away Messi was free infront of goal.
Colombia followed on a cold night with a hot atmosphere in Santa Fe. An increasingly frustrated crowd voiced their displeasure as Argentina toiled, with the best chances of the game coming for Colombia, including a missed open net in the 26th minute. The hosts seemed unnerved by the crowd and their defence gave the ball away in bad areas repeatedly. In the final minutes, it was Colombia pushing for the winner and Argentina hanging onto the 0-0. This match was the lowest moment in the relationship between Messi and the Argentine fans, as for the first and only time in his career, he was jeered by his own supporters. They aired their frustration at him for his failure to link well with Carlos Tevez, who the Argentine people preferred for his passionate style of play. Very unpleasant remarks would appear in Argentine society, not only did they say Messi could only play well if he had Xavi and Iniesta with him, they now said he didn’t care about Argentina the same way he cared about Barcelona, and due to leaving age 13, he wasn’t a true Argentinian.
With Tevez left out for the following game, Messi responded in the must-win final group match against Costa Rica. In what appeared likely to prove another frustrating game with a whole host of chances missed, Argentina finally took the lead in first half stoppage time after a keeping error presented an easy chance to Aguero. Messi provided 2 assists in the 3-0 win, one for Aguero and one for Angel Di Maria, but he probably should have had 6. He provided Higuain with 3 big chances, two in the first half, one a perfectly placed cross where Higuain completely missed the ball, the next when Messi dribbled from deep and slipped it into an unmarked Gonzalo Higuain who skied it. The same thing happened again in the 2nd half when Leo attracted and occupied all 3 defenders with a dribbling run before passing it to an unmarked Higuain, who once more fired it over the crossbar. The final of the 6 chances Messi put on a plate for his teammates was missed by Lavezzi who hit the post, but Argentina were through and would face Uruguay in the Quarters.
The Quarter-Final saw a return to Santa Fe, where the Argentines fell behind inside 5 minutes after bad positioning from Romero on a free-kick saw him stretching for a header and able to push it out only as far as Diego Perez who was unmarked for a tap-in. A brilliant Messi ball for Higuain saw them level it up 12 minutes later, as the Argentina number 9 this time took the chance created for him. Messi then found the head of Higuain again from a free-kick who in turn found the net once again, but the flag was rightfully up for offside.
Diego Perez would go from hero to villain for Uruguay after he was given his marching orders for a second bookable offence, being judged to have deliberately prevented an Argentine counter attack. However Argentina were unable to make their man advantage count and it was instead Uruguay who came closest to going infront when Diego Forlan headed onto the crossbar. With the game 1-1 on the scoreboard, it became 1-1 for sendings off in the 87th minute when Luis Suarez invited a challenge from Mascherano in typically crafty fashion, and Mascherano clumsily took the bait.
Neither side was able to win the game in Extra-Time so it was decided by a shootout with Messi going first and sending the keeper the wrong way. The following three penalties were just as emphatic, until Tevez stepped up for Argentina’s third spotkick. Muslera in the Uruguay guessed right and saved. It was ironic that it was the player whom the fans loved most, whose miss was responsible for their exit, as a perfect penalty into the top corner by Martin Caceres sent Uruguay into the semi-finals 5-4 on penalties.
Most disappointing about this Quarter-Final defeat for Argentina, as well as it being a competition on their soil, was that Brazil had also fell at the Quarters stage, losing to Paraguay on penalties. The three other semi-finalists were Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela so this was plainly a golden opportunity missed as had they won that shootout they almost certainly would have beaten Peru and Paraguay, but instead it was Uruguay who got to lift the trophy in Buenos Aires.
Stats: 4 games, 3 assists
After playing all 38 league games in 11/12 and scoring 46 goals to end Barca’s 3 year hold on the La Liga trophy, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were in Euro 2012′s group of death alongside Germany, Denmark and Netherlands. First up was a repeat of Portugal’s last match in the Euros with Germany the opponents once more. This time it was a much tighter, low scoring affair with the only goal of the game coming from the head of German forward Mario Gomez. Next came a meeting with Denmark, who had stunned Netherlands with a surprise 1-0 win in their first match. Pepe and Postiga gave Portugal a 2-0 lead but Denmark clawed it back with 2 Nicklas Bendtner headers, the second coming with just 10 minutes of normal time remaining. Portugal were on the verge of just 1 point from their opening 2 games which would have them in serious danger of going out, but a great strike from Silvestre Varela in the 87th minute put Portugal back infront and they were able to see it out.
Coming in to Group B’s final round of games, qualification to the Quarter-Finals alongside the Germans was still possible for the other three sides in the group, despite Portugal’s opponents Netherlands being yet to pick up a point. It was the Dutch who took the lead after 11 minutes through a wonderful effort from Rafael Van Der Vaart. Portugal responded well though and immediately put pressure on the Netherlands goal, with Ronaldo hitting the post and later forcing a save out of Martin Stekelenberg. Portugal drew level in the 28th minute with Ronaldo put in on goal and coolly slotting past the keeper. Cristiano completed the turnaround in the 74th minute, cutting back onto his right foot after Gregory Van Der Weil had been put on his backside and firing into the Dutch goal.
Portugal’s second place finish was secured and they came up against Group A winners Czech Republic in the Quarter-Finals. Ronaldo came close to opening the scoring in the first half with what would have been one of the goals of the tournament. With 3 touches he took a cross on his chest, then flicked it to spin round the defender and then shot past Petr Cech, but the ball found the post rather than the net. Cristiano would meet the post again in the second half when he struck a 30-yard free kick against it, but it was becoming inevitable that it would be a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ for him and his team. The moment finally arrived in the 79th minute when Ronaldo connected with a diving header, sending the ball bouncing into the ground and finishing in the roof of the net.
Ronaldo’s deserved goal and win set up a semi-final meeting with Spain, who had ended their World Cup dreams two years prior. Ronaldo had a big chance to win the game in the final minutes of normal time when he was found in the area by Raul Meireles, but he got the shot all wrong, firing high over the crossbar. An extra 30 minutes was unable to determine a winner, so Portugal would face their 3rd shootout of their last 4 competitions for a place in the Euro 2012 final.
Xabi Alonso was first up and had his spotkick saved by Rui Patricio, though Portugal were unable to gain the early advantage when Iker Casillas was able to respond by denying Joao Moutinho. Iniesta, Pepe and Pique then all scored, before there was confusion over who would take Portugal’s 3rd kick with Nani first making his way to the penalty area, followed by a jogging Bruno Alves. It was Nani who took, scoring, before Ramos made it 3-2 with a panenka. Alves then got his chance from the spot but hit the crossbar, giving Cesc Fabregas the opportunity to put Spain into the final. He took it and Cristiano was left to rue a shootout defeat where he hadn’t even had the opportunity to take one, as he was lined up as Portugal’s 5th and final taker.
Stats: 5 games, 3 goals
World Cup 2014
13/14 saw Real Madrid win ‘La Decima’ with their first Champions League title in 12 years, helped in no small part by the 17 goals Ronaldo scored in the competition in just 11 matches. After finishing below Russia in their group, Portugal required a play-off against Sweden to reach that summers World Cup and did so with Ronaldo scoring all 4 of their goals in a 4-2 aggregate win over the Swedes, including a second leg hattrick away from home where he equalled Pauleta’s record of 47 Portugal goals. Ronaldo would become Portugal’s leading goalscorer outright in the next game, a friendly with Cameroon.
The Sweden win saw Portugal grouped with USA, Ghana and Germany who they would begin their campaign against, suffering their third defeat against the Germans in four tournaments. This was by far the heaviest and most one-sided of the lot with Germany racing into a 3-0 half time lead. Portugal were also forced to play the second half a man light following the 37th minute dismissal of Pepe, and the rout was completed in the 78th minute with Thomas Muller’s hattrick sealing goal.
Nani gave Portugal the lead after 5 minutes against the United States after a mistake from Geoff Cameron presented him with a golden opportunity. Portugal held their lead for almost an hour of gameplay, until Jermaine Jones struck a magnificent equaliser that keeper Beto did not even move for. Clint Dempsey then gave the Americans the lead with 10 to go as they honed in on a win that would have ensured their qualification and Portugal’s exit. Ronaldo had one final say on the matter however as his perfect cross in the 95th minute for Varela kept Portugal barely breathing but still alive in the competition.
As Germany had also drew 2-2 with Ghana, no teams progression from Group G was yet secure but all 4 teams still had a chance. Ronaldo hit the crossbar but it was an own goal that gave his side the lead when John Boye sliced into his own net. Ghana responded in the 57th minute however when the head of Asamoah Gyan drew the sides level. Ghana should have then taken the lead with another header as Abdul Waris was unmarked infront of goal but directed his header off target from point-blank range. The match-winner was scored by Cristiano with his 50th goal for Portugal, after he was gifted the ball as a present by Ghana’s goalkeeper Dauda, who palmed the ball out right infront of his feet, allowing him a strike at goal and the chance to continue his run of scoring at every major tournament he had played at. The win was not enough however to send Portugal through to the knockout stages, as despite losing 1-0 to Germany in their last game, the USA made it through in second place at Portugal’s expense by nature of goal difference, with Portugal’s 4-0 defeat against Germany proving extremely costly. This was the only time to date either Ronaldo or Messi has failed to progress through the Group Stage of a major tournament.
Stats: 3 games, 1 goal, 1 assist
In contrast to Ronaldo, Messi’s 13/14 season was his most disappointing to date. Failing to win a trophy for the first time since 07/08, it was also the fewest appearances he’d made in a season since then and the fewest goals he’d scored in a season since 08/09. To be clear, he’d still netted 41 times in 46 games, but his lack of faith in manager ‘Tata’ Martino was clear as he looked unhappy and unmotivated on the pitch.
For Argentina though, things were finally on the up. After scoring just 9 goals in 33 caps between 2009 and 2011, under new manager Alejandro Sabella, Messi was now producing by far his most prolific form in the shirt of the Albiceleste. Messi scored 2 hattricks in friendly matches, either side of a World Cup Qualifier against Ecuador in which he also scored, a hattrick against Switzerland being his first for Argentina and the second against Brazil saw one of his best ever displays for his country. 10 goals in 14 qualifiers was in stark contrast to the 4 in 18 he’d managed in the 2010 qualifiers.
With Messi in this kind of form, Argentina were confident they could win their first World Cup for 28 years and on the soil of their hated rivals Brazil. The group they were drawn in could only have strengthened this belief as they were matched with Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
World Cup debutants Bosnia would be first up in the Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. It took just under 3 minutes for Messi to make his first contribution, with his wickedly whipped in ball deflecting in off Sead Kolasinac. The rest of the first half was a frustrating one for Messi and co, though personnel changes at the break led to some improvement in the second half. Overall though it was proving a very underwhelming opening game for Leo and his teammates, that was atleast until the 65th minute when Messi dribbled from just inside his own half, exchanged a one-two with Higuain then beat a defender to make room for the shot, this time doing what he’d been unable to do in 5 matches in South Africa and finding the back of the net, for his first tournament goal in 7 years. A late goal from Bosnia could not spoil the party, Argentina and Messi had arrived at the World Cup.
Or so they thought. Iran, managed by ex-Portugal boss Carlos Queiroz, provided the stubborn opposition in Argentina’s second game, as the South Americans struggled to break them down. Messi’s first chance of the game arrives just short of the hour mark but this time he is unable to find the bottom corner as he shoots just wide of the post. Into added time and the game looks to be heading for stalemate, but there is one man who has not given up and that man is Messi. He comes up with a beautiful curling effort from 25 yards out and the keeper can’t get anywhere near it.
Argentina made it 9 points from 9 with Messi hitting his first and to date only World Cup brace against Nigeria in a 3-2 win. Messi’s stunning free kick was his 24th goal in his last 23 internationals, but he was having to do virtually everything in attack, Argentina’s winning goal against Nigeria was their 6th of the tournament and the first Messi hadn’t scored or created, the others were going to have to step up because Leo would no longer be able to do it alone against better oppostition.
The last 16 game saw Argentina take on Switzerland in Sao Paulo and it was the Swiss who had the better of the 1st half chances, Messi was able to conjure up a few moments of magic in a game where he was very tightly marked by not just one but often two Swiss midfielders, confident that if they could stop Messi they could stop Argentina. And for 117 minutes they did, the game beginning to drift towards penalties, when Messi who had in extra-time began to look out of energy and ideas, suddenly burst back into life dribbling towards the Switzerland goal before switching the play to Angel Di Maria who was unmarked to his right, Di Maria didn’t bother taking a touch and instead side-footed it into the bottom corner. Despite the late nature of Argentina’s would-be winner, Switzerland almost found themselves level when substitute Dzemaili headed onto the post from inside the six-yard box, with the ball then bouncing back off his shin and behind for a goalkick.
Argentina would also win their next match 1-0 against a side in all red, but they were much more convincing in this Quarter-Final against Belgium, producing what was their best performance of the tournament in their only knockout stage game to be decided in 90 minutes. The game’s only goal came after 8 minutes with Messi finding Di Maria who in turn found Higuain after a deflection, which allowed the ball to set up nicely for a first time shot which the striker directed powerfully into the net.
Sabella’s side were by no means awe-inspiring, but they were atleast now solid, having found a line-up and structure to the side which now provided Messi with a good support base behind him, with the midfield expertly marshalled by Mascherano. Messi had a big chance in the final minutes to get his 5th goal of the tournament when a quick Argentine breakaway saw him go clean through but he was unable to beat Courtois. Still this was Messi’s easiest day at the office so far in Brazil, as for the first and only time really in the tournament, other attackers such as Higuain stepped up and did their bit.
After Germany had massacred hosts Brazil 7-1 in the first semi-final, the second semi between Argentina and Netherlands was an extremely cautious affair, with chances at a premium. The best opening of the 90 came for Arjen Robben who appeared to have gotten clear of the Argentine defence for a rare sight at goal, but Mascherano got backed magnificently for a perfectly executed slide tackle. Argentina had the better of Extra-Time with their first chance being squandered by Rodrigo Palacio. Leo who had exerted a lot of energy in getting Argentina to this stage appeared fatigued, as if now it had all caught up with him and he didn’t have much left. But as he did against Switzerland he found the energy for one last run beating Dirk Kuyt and Ron Vlaar twice to get down the right and float in a ball for Maxi Rodriguez who was unable to make solid contact.
So it would be a shootout to decide Germany’s Rio opponents, and Netherlands to go first. Centre half Ron Vlaar stepped up and had his poor penalty saved by Romero. Lionel Messi had the chance to give his team the advantage in the shootout, and that’s what he did. Arjen Robben then got Netherlands off the mark in the shootout, before Argentina sent up a central defender of their own. Ezequiel Garay had better luck than Vlaar though as he smashed his home. Wesley Sneijder who was Netherland’s 3rd taker in their Quarter-Final shootout against Costa Rica was third again now, and he again went to the same side, this time with a different outcome as Romero guessed correctly and saved to put Argentina on the cusp of the final. Aguero and Kuyt both scored meaning that if Maxi Rodriguez made it 4 successful spotkicks out of 4, Argentina were through to their first World Cup final since 1990. Jasper Cillessen got gloves to Maxi’s pen but the power was too much to keep out and for the third time in World Cup history the final would see Argentina play Germany.
The match would also be Messi and Argentina’s third successive World Cup meeting with Germany and for the third time Germany would inflict heartache on Messi and his nation.
Argentina would get the better of the early goings, with Messi getting beyond Mats Humels and reaching the byline, but Leo made a rare poor choice here, instead of trying to pick out Higuain with a ball across the 6-yard box, he appeared unaware of this option and went for the trickier option of trying to find Enzo Perez and Schweinsteiger was in position to clear. For a player of Messi’s decision making, it was a big missed opportunity.
Worse was to follow in the 20th minute when Toni Kroos made a woeful misjudgement, getting too much on a header back towards his own goal and putting Higuain clear of his own defence, baring down on goal. Inexplicably, Higuain opted to not to take a touch when he had ample time to do so and instead tried to beat the best goalkeeper in the world with a half-volley from the edge of the box. He got this difficult skill horribly wrong and the shot was an awful one, going nowhere near the net. For a long time people will wonder what on earth Higuain was thinking, in this moment that would truly typify his Argentina career.
Around 10 minutes later it looked momentarily as though Higuain had made amends, and he himself certainly believed so but the flag was raised for offside. Germany came more into the game as the half progressed and it was they who came closest to scoring first when Benedikt Howedes powerfully met a corner with a diving leap, but somehow found only the post with the goal gaping.
Leo’s big moment came just over 90 seconds into the second half, when he is put through for his only shot of the game from inside the penalty box. Messi knowing he is up against the world’s best goalkeeper in the form of his life tries to make the finish absolutely perfect to give Manuel Neuer no chance with it, and the shot is too far away from the keeper for him to stop it, but it isn’t perfect and it goes past the far corner, rather than finding it.
The final was quite a good one, an even game with both teams looking dangerous but both also defending well. Germany worked situations well but were in the final moment just lacking the right touch and the match moved into Extra-Time. Argentina had another big chance in the 95th minute when a great ball from Marcos Rojo picked out substitute Palacio, but his chest control was a little too heavy and with Neuer advancing on him he seemed to panic and attempt a difficult lob when there were surely other easier possibilities, such as just putting his foot through it.
It was the Germans who were clinical in a way Argentina weren’t able to be when they scored the first and only goal of the final in the 113th minute, with the two substitutes Andre Schurrle and Mario Gomez combining, the latter scoring with a brilliant chest control and half volley finish.
Messi’s last kick of the final is a bad one, he has a free kick 30 yards out for Argentina’s final chance to force penalties but it’s a horrible one going way over the bar. And as Messi walked up the steps to claim his runners-up medal, it was of no consolation to him to also pick up the award for the tournament’s best player, for he had to walk past the FIFA World Cup, rather than lift it.
Stats: 7 games, 4 goals, 1 assist
Copa America 2015
Messi responded brilliantly to the disappointment at the Maracana, delivering one of his best ever seasons with 58 goals in 57 games as Barca won their second treble. Leo also gained some form of retribution over Germans Jerome Boateng and Neuer, when he humiliated the former before dinking it over the keeper in a 3-0 Champions League semi-final win. The summer of 2015 also offered the opportunity for international redemption in the shape of the Copa America which took place in Chile.
In their opening match all appeared to be going swimmingly with Argentina 2-0 up and coasting thanks to goals from Aguero and a penalty from Messi, but strange positioning from Sergio Romero with him being unnecessarily stood outside of his six-yard box invited a shot from Nelson Valdez and with it he pulled Paraguay back into the contest. Argentina saw their 3 points turn into 1 in the 89th minute when a free-kick was headed down for Lucas Barrios to lash in.
That was far from ideal with defending champions Uruguay next. But Argentina were able to pick up all 3 points on this occasion with a well worked move involving Messi, Javier Pastore and Zabaleta ending with Aguero heading the latter’s cross into the top corner. 1-0 was also sufficient in the final group game against tournament invitees Jamaica, for what was Messi’s 100th Argentina cap. Higuain this time getting the goal to ensure top spot and a tough Quarter-Final against Colombia, who had already beaten Brazil.
Argentina produced nearly all the chances, with Colombia keeper David Ospina pulling off an excellent double save to deny first the boot of Aguero with his foot, then the head of Messi with his hands. In the second half he pushed another effort onto the post and aswell a Colombia defender had to slide in to clear the ball out of the goalmouth, with Argentina players lurking close by awaiting a tap-in. Argentina through all their efforts were unable to break the Colombians down though and the contest progressed through to penalties.
Messi levelled the shootout at 1-1 after James had given Colombia the lead, and the next four spotkicks were also successful until Luis Muriel stepped up and skied Colombia’s fourth penalty. Lucas Biglia had the chance to put Argentina through with Argentina’s fifth kick but he shot wide of the goal meaning sudden death. Marcos Rojo was next to miss a penalty that would have put his team in the semi-finals, but finally after Colombia had missed their 3rd penalty and Jeison Murillo had become the 5th of the last 7 takers to miss, Carlos Tevez finally sealed Argentina’s win and one can only wonder why he hadn’t stepped up sooner.
For the second consecutive Copa America, Brazil had lost on penalties in the Quarter-Finals against Paraguay, meaning Argentina would face them for the second time at the tournament. Given their first meeting had finished in a draw, and Paraguay had matched Brazil for 2 hours before beating them on penalties, it promised to be a difficult match.
Rojo gave Argentina the lead after 14 minutes as he pounced first on Messi’s free kick. That lead was doubled when Messi assisted Pastore, but when Paraguay scored a few minutes before half time with an incredibly soft goal from Argentina’s point of view, history was in danger of repeating itself. However, this time the match took a different route and a much more scenic one for Argentina with Di Maria restoring the two-goal advantage shortly after the break. Then with many Paraguay players caught up field, a dribbling run by Messi where he beat 3 opponents gave Argentina a 5 against 1 situation, Leo played in Pastore whose heavy touch before the shot almost undid Messi’s great work, but the rebound was knocked in by Di Maria for his second goal in six minutes.
After Aguero had made it 5-1, his replacement off the bench Higuain added his name to the scoresheet for six of the best from Argentina. 6 goals and 5 different goalscorers, Messi wasn’t one of them but he provided 3 assists for the first and only time in an Argentina shirt, on what was an almost perfect night for them and a great provider of confidence ahead of the final against hosts Chile, who would be appearing in their first Copa America final since 1987.
A sea of ‘La Roja’ red greeted the teams from all four sides of the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. A cagey first half of few chances was followed by a second half which was somehow even less eventful, totally without incident until the 82nd minute when Alexis Sanchez attempted and was close to succeeding with a well-hit volley meant for the bottom corner, but instead whizzing by half a foot the wrong side of the post.
With 20 seconds left of the 2 minutes additional time, Messi broke clear for a 3 against 3 counter attack, he picked out Ever Banega to put him in on goal, the situation seemed to be crying out for a first-time shot but Banega instead let the ball run across his body and attempted to pick out the run into the six-yard box of Higuain, but the pass was not as good as it needed to be, forcing Higuain too wide and narrowing his angle as he found only the side netting. This was to be by far Argentina’s best chance of the game, with the only chance of Extra-Time going to Chile after a mistake from Mascherano let Alexis run in, but he couldn’t keep his shot under the bar.
So it would be the lottery of penalties to decide if Argentina could win their first Copa America since 1993 or if Chile would win their first, ever. Lionel Messi took Argentina’s first kick and though keeper Claudio Bravo dived the right way, he couldn’t get near it. This penalty to make it 1-1 would be the last Argentina would score in the shoot-out, with Higuain and Banega both missing. This meant Alexis Sanchez could win it for Chile with their 4th kick, and he did, securing the title in style with a panenka.
Angel Di Maria who had missed the 2014 World Cup Final through injury and who had starred in the Copa America semi-final with 2 goals again experienced bad luck with injury, having to leave the field inside half an hour, in what was a big blow for Argentina. Carlos Tevez who had scored 29 goals in the 14/15 season must have been frustrated having to watch everything unfold from the bench, with no part to play for him in the final. And you have to wonder had Tata Martino been brave enough to go with 2 strikers upfront when making his 3rd and final substitute, instead of going like for like and replacing Pastore with Banega, would the outcome have been different? Surely if in the 92nd minute, Messi had been able to slip Tevez clear on goal, instead of Banega, the striker would atleast have taken a shot. And given Tevez scored the winning penalty in Argentina’s Quarter-Final shootout win, it surely would have been good to have him on the field for this shootout too. If, But’s and Maybe’s. Small margins again defined Messi and Argentina’s failure to take home the prize.
Stats: 6 games, 1 goal, 3 assists
Euro 2016 & Copa America 2016
Ronaldo headed to the Euros after the second All-Madrid Champions League final in three years had the same outcome with Real Madrid again ending victorious after a 1-1 normal time draw, though this time winning on penalties rather than in extra-time. In a much closer finish than their 4-1 ET win, this time around Cristiano converted the decisive penalty for the 5-4 shootout win.
Portugal found themselves in Group F for the first ever 24-team Euros following its expansion with an additional 8 teams. They were accompanied by tournament debutants Iceland, Austria who had progressed through qualification for the first time having got there automatically as hosts in 2008 and Hungary, playing at their first Euros since 1972.
Portugal met Iceland in Saint-Etienne for the minnows first ever major tournament match. In the 20th minute Ronaldo found a cross into the six-yard box for Nani who had escaped his marker, but he could not direct it away from the keeper who was equal to it, saving with his legs. 5 minutes later, a ball over the top put Ronaldo in on goal but he fluffed his lines, mis-timing the ball as it dropped down for him to volley and missing it all together.
His side took the lead however in the 31st minute, when Luis Nani turned in a cross from Andre Gomes. Portugal’s advantage lasted for less than 5 minutes of the second half though, when Iceland scored their first ever tournament goal through a cross of their own. Slack marking in the box saw 5 Portugal defenders and just 3 Iceland attackers, yet still Birkir Bjarnason was left completely free at the back post and he volleyed with aplomb past Rui Patricio.
Nani came close to grabbing his second to restore Portugal’s lead but his glancing header went just the wrong side of the post. Ronaldo then had a big chance with his head 15 minutes later after finding some space in the area, but he could not find the net as easily, heading straight at the keeper from Nani’s cross in a reversal of their first half situation. With virtually the last kick of the game, Ronaldo had one final chance with a free-kick in the centre of goal from just over 25 yards out, but he could find only the wall and Portugal had to settle for a disappointing point.
Portugal’s second game against Austria was for Ronaldo the kind of match he thought could only happen in his nightmares, before he woke up safe in the knowledge that a player as good and successful as him could never have a match go so bad. But it did happen, in what was his record-breaking 128th appearance as he surpassed Luis Figo as the man with the most caps won for Portugal.
But as hinted at, it was not to be an occasion of happy celebration. Ronaldo’s first chance came and went begging after 21 minutes, when he failed to hit the target from close-range, putting a big chance wide. After Nani hit the post with a free header and the sides then went into the break goalless, Cristiano came out even more determined and with a powerful shot from distance forced a good save from Robert Almer, who was then needed to deny Ronaldo again with a header from the resulting corner kick.
The Cristiano goal was beginning to feel inevitable however and it looked as though the moment had arrived when in the 77th minute he was brought down whilst trying to get on the end of a cross. Portugal’s skipper stepped up to take the subsequent penalty but despite sending the keeper the wrong way was denied by the post. With 5 minutes left it seemed Ronaldo had finally gotten the last laugh when he met a free kick with a great leap to beat the keeper, but not Austria’s defensive line as he was flagged for offside and the game finished scoreless. After 2 games, Ronaldo was still waiting for his first goal, despite registering 20 attempts.
Portugal’s final group game with Hungary was one of the games of the tournament, the first of the game’s six goals being scored by Hungary’s Zoltan Gera with a wonderful strike from 25 yards. With just 3 minutes of the half remaining Cristiano thread a ball into the area for Nani, who beat keeper Gabor Kiraly with a first-time side foot finish.
Less than 90 seconds into the second half and Portugal were back behind again, a heavily deflected free-kick from Dzsudzsak catching Rui Patricio out. But Hungary were only able to hold this lead for 2 minutes until Portugal were again level, Cristiano Ronaldo with his 1st goal of the Championships at a key time for his side, his perfect flicked finish providing an emphatic response to not delivering in the Austria game, as in that moment he produced one of the more aesthetically pleasing goals of the finals to become the first man to score at 4 European Championships.
However another deflected Dzsudzsak shot in the 55th minute gave Hungary the lead for a third time and with the same player scoring 2 heavily deflected goals in 8 minutes, either side of Ronaldo’s flick, it seemed as though the luck was really with Hungary and against Portugal. But Ronaldo and Portugal again responded, with the skipper meeting a Ricardo Quaresma cross with a bullet header to make it 4 goals in 15 minutes.
No further goals were scored, meaning Portugal finished third having drawn all 3 of their games, but they were able to take advantage of the new tournament format which allowed for 4 of the 6 best ranked 3rd place teams through to the last 16. By nature of goal difference, Portugal progressed ahead of Turkey and Albania, the two 3rd place teams who missed out and also had 3 points. Portugal were the only 3rd place side to fail to win a single match, and therefore the only team so far to have qualified through the Euros group stages without claiming a win.
Portugal’s 3rd place finish earned them a game with the Group D winners. This was expected to be Spain for yet another tournament meeting between the sides, but a win for Croatia over them meant a rare avoidance of that fixture and a meet with the Croatians instead. With Group F winners Hungary meeting Group E runners-up Belgium, Portugal though still with a tough opponent, had arguably a better draw than if they had finished 1st.
After their victory against Spain, Croatia went in as favourites to knock out the side who were yet to muster a win against considerably weaker opposition, but the game the sides produced was a very dull one, bereft of quality and chances. Croatia’s best chance came in the 5th minute of Extra-Time when Domagoj Vida rose to meet a corner with Patricio out of his goal in no man’s land, but he couldn’t keep his header under the bar. It was to prove a costly miss, as Portugal hit the front with 3 minutes of Extra-Time remaining, a shot from Ronaldo parried by Subasic and headed home by Quaresma who inches from the line could not miss.
Portugal’s Quarter-Final opponents were Poland and the Poles got off to the best possible start when Robert Lewandowski put them into the lead after 100 seconds. Portugal picked themselves up off the canvas yet again though, with teenage sensation Renato Sanches combining power and precision to devastating effect by blasting it in from outside the penalty box after exchanging a one-two with Nani.
In the 56th minute, Portugal had a good situation with Ronaldo in the box and Joao Mario waiting in the middle, but Ronaldo declined to look to find him instead going for goal and finding only the side-netting. Two other chances fell Ronaldo’s way in normal time but he miss-kicked them both, failing to make contact with either and so the game progressed into Extra-Time, meaning both teams would face their second two-hour match in six days.
Extra-Time was only a minute old when a third Ronaldo chance of the night went a-begging, with him being found on the edge of the six-yard box by an excellent cross but yet again he mis-timed it and failed to connect with a shot. With this it became crystal clear that for Ronaldo this game was more similar to the Austria game than to his last match against Hungary.
After 120 minutes the teams were yet to be separated so it was down to a penalty shootout, Poland’s second in consecutive games. Ronaldo was the very first player to step up, determined that the scenes of four years earlier when he was due to be final taker and never got the chance, should not repeat itself. It had been a difficult night for him, but he made no mistakes from the spot putting his penalty miss against Austria firmly behind him.
Lewandowski then levelled it up, before Renato Sanches, like Cristiano 12 years earlier in the Euro 04 shootout against England, showed composure way beyond his years by confidently converting from the spot. After Poland had made it 2-2, Joao Moutinho stepped up to take Portugal’s third, but only after Cristiano had convinced him. Moutinho was apparently lacking the courage to take one, before Ronaldo persuaded him with the words: “Come kick. You hit them well. If we lose, fuck it. Be strong, come on. It’s in God’s hands now.” The words had the desired effect as Moutinho scored. Kamil Glik then smashed in his penalty for 3-3 before Nani put Portugal back in front. Jacub Blaszczykowski was the unfortunate player to miss the first penalty of the shootout, with Rui Patricio denying him and Ricardo Quaresma made it 5 from 5 for Portugal as they advanced through to the final four.
In the Semi-Finals Portugal took on Wales, who were playing at their first major tournament since 1958 and had stunned Belgium in the Quarters. Ronaldo would come up against his Real Madrid colleague Gareth Bale, but the loss of Aaron Ramsey due to suspension was a heavy blow to Wales’ chances, as one of their standout performers at the finals.
After an even first half, Ronaldo broke the deadlock for Portugal 5 minutes into the second half by rising high and heading powerfully past Wayne Hennessy, for his record equalling 9th European Championships goal, putting him level with Michel Platini for most ever. The lead was doubled 3 minutes later, when a Ronaldo shot was turned in by Nani for his 3rd of the finals, putting him level with the goals assister as Portugal’s joint-top scorer at that years tournament.
Ronaldo came close to overtaking him again, with a very good free kick that landed on the roof of the net and later by rounding Hennessy but finding only the side netting with the angle narrowed. But it mattered nothing in the end as Portugal won their first ever Semi-Final on foreign soil and their first match of the tournament inside 90 minutes.
In a reversal of the situation of 12 years ago, Portugal would this time be the underdogs attempting to spoil the party against the hosts in the final. The hosts being France, who went in as clear favourites after beating the World Champions Germany in their semi-final.
The final Ronaldo had been waiting for ever since he’d cried tears as an 18-year old after losing to Greece was irreversibly altered for him after just 7 minutes, when a tackle by Dimitri Payet, not judged to be a foul by the referee, left him writhing in pain. Ronaldo then limped on for 9 minutes clearly not right, before taking to the turf again this time with tears in his eyes. He refused to give up just yet returning to the field with his leg now heavily bandaged, but the reality was there was no way he could continue and this was finally accepted by Ronaldo in the 24th minute as he left the field on a stretcher.
12 years after shedding tears in his last Euros final, he was crying again in this one, though not for defeat, not yet (though the replacing of their captain with 61 international goals for Ricardo Quaresma who had so far managed 8 before coming on for this his 57th cap made the defeat seem somewhat inevitable) but through pain and aswell the curtain being drawn prematurely on what was supposed to be his stage.
Hugo Lloris in the France goal was a virtual spectator for much of the game, but Portugal showed why they had conceded only once in 5 and a half hours of knockout stage football prior to the final, as they limited France who had scored 9 goals in 4 and a half hours in their knockout games, to efforts from outside the box and mere glimpses rather than a proper sight at goal, though Patricio’s gloves were still required on occasion.
That was until the 66th minute when a flighted cross from Kingsley Coman found Antoine Griezmann, who had ran off Raphael Guerrero to get on the end of what should have been a relatively straightforward header for a player who had scored twice as many goals as anyone else at the tournament. With 6 goals in 6 games, including 5 in the knockout stages and 2 in the semi-final win, many would have put their house on Griezmann to score an uncontested header from right in front of goal, but he headed over the bar to the surprise of everyone watching.
After 79 minutes, manager Fernando Santos made his final sub introducing a striker for an attacking midfielder in order to give Portugal more of a presence in attack. The man they turned to seemed to highlight the lack of depth the manager had to choose from as he brought on Eder, a forward who had failed to score in 15 games for Swansea City that season, before fairing better following a loan move to Lille. Eder hadn’t been used since the second match against Austria and entered the pitch for his 29th cap with just 3 international goals to his name. Portugal’s threat improves with his introduction, as Nani moves back out to the wing where he feels most comfortable and almost catches Lloris out with a cross that ends up dipping underneath the crossbar until the keeper swipes it away.
But it’s Portugal’s keeper who has established himself as probably the man of the match to that point after saving decent efforts from Olivier Giroud and Moussa Sissoko. With just 1 minute and 40 seconds of additional time remaining, Andre-Pierre Gignac hits the post with what surely would have been the winner. He spins Pepe and leaves him on the floor, showing excellent feet with his turn and looks to find the bottom corner, his shot rebounds off the post but too fast for Griezmann who is waiting in the middle for a tap-in and the ball passes infront of him, in sight but out of reach.
The game went into Extra-Time, Portugal’s third lot in just over 2 weeks, whereas it was France’s first two-hour match of the tournament. Who would be more tired remained debatable however, as Portugal had the advantage of a full 24 hours longer to prepare for the final, with their semi taking place the night before France’s. As Portugal began to now look dangerous, this led to the return of Ronaldo to our screens, looking increasingly animated, especially after a free-kick from Guerreiro crashes against the under-side of the bar.
A minute later and the substitute Eder shrugs off the challenge of Laurent Koscielny and arrows the ball into the bottom corner from 25 yards in what is one of the all-time great trophy winning goals. For a striker turning 29 that year, it was just his 72nd senior career goal making him one of the unlikeliest of scorers, but that didn’t matter because he’d scored the most important of the lot to put Portugal 11 minutes away from glory.
Ronaldo was in tears again but tears of joy this time, and his desperation to win was made crystal clear by his obvious eagerness to get Guerreiro back on the pitch despite an injury, due to Portugal’s absence of remaining subs. As the minutes tick down, Ronaldo is now in full manager mode, the 31-year old still in full kit with a bandaged leg hobbling around side-by-side with the suited Fernando Santos, 40 years his senior. The physical differences of the pair could not be more apparent, but with their gestures, emotions and expressions they were united in their desperation for Portugal to get over the finish line.
The final whistle goes and Portugal are Champions of Europe for the first time as they can now celebrate the best night in their football history. The team supposedly carried by one individual had won in what was truly a team effort. Against all the odds after failing to win a group game, needing Extra-Time to make the Quarters, penalties to make the semis, and with their tournament winning goal coming from a man with 3 in 28 for them prior, against a team they hadn’t beaten for 41 years whom they’d lost their last 10 against, playing for over an hour and a half without their talisman, Portugal’s win was truly a win of team spirit, doggedness and seizing your moments.
Stats: 7 games, 3 goals, 2 assists
To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the first South American Championships, a special Copa America Centenario tournament was arranged for the summer of 2016. This was to be the first Copa America with as many as 16 teams, the usual 10 from South America being joined by 6 from North America, including USA who would be the first non-South American nation to host the tournament, perhaps rather unusual timing given the competition was staged to celebrate 100 years of the South American federation.
This meant Champions Chile would become the first team to defend their title in back-to-back years since the start of the Copa America era, in place of what was then known simply as the South American Championship. That defence would face a tricky start in Group D against last year’s beaten finalists Argentina.
Argentina started a tournament game without Lionel Messi for the first time since 2007 as he was carrying a knock and not yet 100% right, with Argentina hoping to build his fitness for the later rounds. He was a relatively comfortable spectator in Santa Clara, California once Di Maria had put Argentina in the lead after 51 minutes after a through-pass from Banega, and then repaid the favour by putting Banega in 8 minutes later for 2-0. Chile spoiled Argentina’s cleansheet with a 93rd minute goal after Sergio Romero misjudged a free-kick and left his goal vacant, but that was the only thing the holders were able to spoil as Argentina claimed a small slice of revenge for the previous years final.
Messi’s first involvement came in game 2 against Panama, entering the field with just half an hour to play with Argentina a goal to the good thanks to a 7th minute header from Otamendi. Panama had been sent down to 10 after only half-an-hour but Argentina had been unable to kill the game off before the introduction of Messi.
Leo needed 7 minutes to end Panama’s hopes of getting an unlikely point when they failed to clear their lines properly and the ball fell in front of the man the Panamanians least wanted it to fall to, and he said thanks very much to score his first open-play Copa America goal since 2007. 10 minutes later after being fouled 25 yards out, Messi picked himself up and curled a stunning free-kick in for 3-0 to send the Soldier Field in Chicago into rapture.
After a further mistake whilst attempting to play-out from the back, Messi grabbed a 19-minute hattrick, his first at an international tournament, having been on the field for just 27 minutes. Having made them wait an hour for his introduction, Leo was still not done enthralling the 53,000 in attendance, producing one of the best pre-assists you could see, picking out the run of Marcos Rojo with an inch perfect, impossible to defend against through-ball, the defender then squaring it for Aguero to head home for five-nothing.
Messi returned to the bench again for the final group game against Bolivia, which Argentina won 3-0 with all the goals coming in the first 32 minutes courtesy of a deflected Erik Lamela freekick, Lavezzi and defender Victor Cuesta. Leo came on for the second half but with the game already wrapped up, his impact was more minimal this time out.
With the Quarter-Final line up complete without both Uruguay and more shockingly Brazil who had been stunned by Peru in their final group match, Argentina came up against Venezuela in their Quarter. Leo Messi would now not miss another minute for his side at the tournament. Argentina took a commanding lead against the Venezuelans, going two-up with a brace from Higuain, the first in the 8th minute from a Messi pick-out and the second coming 20 minutes later after a terrible back-pass put him clear to round the keeper.
After Venezuela had blown a chance to get in at half-time with the deficit halved after a horrible panenka penalty went straight into Romero’s gloves, Messi got in on the act for Argentina’s third, coolly slotting through the legs of keeper Dani Hernandez to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 54 goals to become Argentina’s joint leading goalscorer. Salomon Rondon then glanced one back for Venezuela with 20 minutes remaining, but Lamela then went straight up the other end to make it 4-1 as Messi’s second assist of the game made certain Argentina’s progression to the last 4.
Over 70,000 fans came to the NRG Stadium in Houston, many of course hoping USA could pull off a huge upset and reach their first ever Copa America final. It took less than 3 minutes for the likelihood of this outcome to shrink yet further, when Leo Messi’s scooped pass found the head of Lavezzi who looped it over Brad Guzan for 1-0. With half an hour gone, a foul on Messi around 25 yards out was able to temporarily bring him down but it wasn’t enough to stop him as he converted the resulting free-kick, with a brilliant, totally unsaveable strike befitting of the player, the occasion of a Copa America Semi-Final and aswell the achievement: that goal being the one to put Leo outright as Argentina’s all-time top scorer.
A brace from Higuain made it 4 Argentina goals in 2 games for him, his first coming 5 minutes into the second half, and his second assisted by Messi with a few minutes to go. Argentina and Messi were through to their 3rd Copa America final in 4 tournaments, and it was looking as though it would finally be their year. They came into the final with 18 goals in 5 games for only 2 conceded and with their key man Messi having the best tournament of his career in terms of end product with 5 goals and 4 assists, with all four of the assists coming in his last 2 matches. Higuain’s form aswell suggested he was coming good at just the right time.
The final would be a tough test though, a repeat of last year’s final opposition Chile, who after a slow start to the competition had livened up in the knockout stages, beating Mexico 7-0 before reaching the final by virtue of a 2-0 win over Colombia.
A big chance came the way of Argentina and Higuain in the 21st minute, a mistake in defence giving him the opportunity to run clean through on goal but rather than just rounding the keeper to tap into an empty net as he did against Venezuela, he instead attempted the rather more difficult skill of lifting the ball over the keeper once he could no longer stay big and to pick out the bottom corner. He was unable to do so, shooting wide. Higuain had come into the tournament after by far the best season of his career, scoring 36 goals in 35 Serie A games for Napoli, but it appeared this mattered not whenever presented with a big chance in a final for Argentina, as yet again he failed to do what was required.
A foul on Messi brought a second yellow card for Marcelo Diaz, but the referee held the yellow card up so long he appeared not to realise for a while that he had already booked Diaz and now needed to produce the red. Eventually he did and Chile were down to 10. Argentina’s man advantage lasted for all of 15 minutes, until a foolish tackle from Marcos Rojo through the back of Arturo Vidal gave the referee (who seemed to be enjoying getting his cards out at this point, given he’d shortly prior to the tackle booked 3 players including Messi, in a span of 3 minutes) the chance to send a second player off for an early bath.
The referee’s failure to control the game really ended the spectacle of a game that had made a promising start, as it became punctuated with fouls and couldn’t get going again. Substitute Aguero worked some space for a shot in the 84th minute but he couldn’t do any better with the finish than the man he’d replaced Gonzalo Higuain, as he skied his shot horribly.
For the second year in a row the Copa America final between Argentina and Chile ended 0-0 and went to Extra-Time, where Aguero forced a top save out of Claudio Bravo, whose diving fingertips were just able to prevent the striker’s header finding the net from Messi’s free-kick. That was the last opening for either side as the game between two sides who’d managed a combined 34 goals at the tournament going into the final, again remained scoreless after 120 minutes.
Arturo Vidal stepped up first for Chile and had his spotkick saved by Romero, giving Messi the chance to take an early advantage for Argentina. However, he instead cancelled out Vidal’s miss, getting his penalty all wrong and clearing the crossbar with it. The next 5 penalties were scored to give Chile a 3-2 lead as Lucas Biglia approached the spot for Argentina’s fourth kick. His penalty was not particularly well-placed and Bravo saved it, meaning the trophy was once again on the boot of a Chilean, this time Francisco Silva who made himself the hero by sealing Chile’s 2nd Copa America title in 2 years.
For Messi, there was the heartache of a third final defeat in 3 years. Three times his side had got as far as Extra-Time in the final, and conceded just 1 goal in 6 hours of said finals, but been unable to get a single one of their own in that time. And as Messi was forced yet again to watch the other teams lift and parade around with the trophy, this loss hurt maybe even more than the others.To fall to the same team in exactly the same way 2 years in a row, off the back of losing a World Cup final was tough to swallow. Making it even harder for Leo was perhaps knowing that this time he’d been partly responsible for the defeat with the penalty miss.
Due to the pain that brought Leo to tears on the field of the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, Messi announced his retirement from international football after the match at aged 29, but such was the swell of support for him to alter his decision and aswell further time taken by Leo to reflect, he reversed his decision saying: “A lot of things went through my mind on the night of the final and I gave serious thought to quitting, but my love for my country and this shirt is too great.”
Stats: 5 games, 5 goals, 4 assists
World Cup 2018
After ending a glorious 9-year stint at Real Madrid with a third Champions League in as many years, Ronaldo came into the Russian World Cup as a European Champion at both club and national level and with a move to Italian giants Juventus on the horizon.
First though there was the opportunity to become a World Champion, and that got off to the ideal start in their opening Group B encounter with familiar foes Spain when Ronaldo was adjudged to have been brought down in the box by his colleague at Real Madrid, Nacho. Having been the only man to score at 3 different World Cups for Portugal, he now became the first to score at 4, as he gave his side the lead from the spot.
Diego Costa levelled things up 20 minutes later, before a horrible error from David De Gea on the brink of half-time allowed Ronaldo his first World Cup brace. In the space of 4 minutes though, Spain turned the game on its head with 2 goals in the 55th and 58th minute to take them from behind to infront. And that’s how it remained until 2 minutes from time, when a stunning free-kick from Cristiano left De Gea rooted to the spot, the Spain number 1 could only watch with everyone else as Ronaldo’s first ever tournament hat-trick turned Spain’s 3 points into 1.
When Ronaldo headed Portugal’s opener in their second game against Morocco just 4 minutes in, this was beginning to look like it could be his tournament. As just 4 minutes into game 2 at the finals he’d already scored more than at his 3 previous World Cups combined. That goal being enough to secure Portugal’s first win and meant they required just a point from their final game against former manager Carlos Queiroz’s Iran to progress. A wonderful Ricardo Quaresma strike gave them the lead in the last minute of the first half, and the chance came to double that lead early in the second half when Ronaldo was awarded a penalty after a VAR review. Ronaldo was unable however to net his 5th in 3 games, as his penalty was saved.
This failure to kill off the game would cost Portugal 3 points as another VAR review led to a second penalty review in stoppage time, this time going for Iran. Karim Ansarifard was able to do what Ronaldo wasn’t and levelled things up for his side. Spain equalised late against Morocco to top the group on goals scored, meaning that if Portugal had been able to hang on against Iran they would have finished 1st and faced hosts Russia.
Instead, they would meet Group A winners Uruguay who had picked up 9 points from 9 and were yet to concede in the tournament. It was the Uruguayans who took the lead after just 8 minutes in Sochi, a Luis Suarez cross picking out the head of Edinson Cavani. Pepe drew the Portuguese level when Uruguay finally conceded for the first time at the finals in the 55th minute. They were at 1-1 for just 7 minutes however until Cavani scored again, giving Rui Patricio no chance with his finish. Bernardo Silva came closest to levelling it up again when Fernando Muslera lost control of a tame cross, but Silva who the ball fell to was unable to keep his shot down.
And that was to be it, Ronaldo’s tournament which had started with such a bang had gone out with a whimper with the penalty miss against Iran and a very subdued performance against Uruguay, as he exited the competition before the Quarter-Finals for the 3rd consecutive time.
Stats: 4 games, 4 goals
Leo Messi missed 8 World Cup Qualifiers, from which Argentina picked up just 7 points. He was also on the field for a 3-0 drubbing in Brazil and as Argentina failed to win either at home to Venezuela nor in their penultimate qualifier at home to Peru, meaning they had to win away in Ecuador to secure automatic qualification. This looked unlikely when they fell behind after just 37 seconds. However Messi was able to rescue his side with a masterclass, hitting a hat-trick to get 3rd place for his side.
The signs however were not good. A 4-2 loss against Nigeria and a 6-1 hammering against Spain, both without Leo was an indicator of the level of their reliance on their star man. A 4-0 win against Haiti on the tournaments eve with a returning Messi hitting another hat-trick was a small morale booster ahead of facing World Cup debutants Iceland in the Group D opener in Moscow.
A smart turn and finish from Kun Aguero put Argentina ahead, but the lead lasted only 4 minutes before Alfeo Finnbogason scored Iceland’s first ever World Cup goal. Argentina had the chance to regain the lead when Aguero was fouled trying to get on the end of a clipped ball from Messi. Leo struck the kick, but Halldorsson was equal to the relatively poor penalty.
Messi had one more chance to find the winner for his nation but his 81st minute effort from outside the box flew just wide of the target. With Iceland’s midfield camped in front of their defence on the edge of the penalty box, there was minimal space to be found for openings and Argentina had to live with just an underwhelming point.
It may have been of some consolation to them to know that the last team to draw 1-1 with Iceland in their tournament opener was Portugal two years prior, who ofcourse went onto to win the competition. History looked unlikely to repeat itself however as early as the national anthems ahead of Argentina’s second match against Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod. Looking quite different to how he’d ever looked before pre-game, the usual calm and relaxed looking Messi was replaced by a Leo frantically rubbing his forehead, eyes closed deep in seemingly worried thought.
He looked like a man carrying if not the weight of the world on his shoulders, then the weight of a nation. And after his penalty miss lost his side 2 points, the pressure on him had ramped up to a level that he did not appear comfortable with. The first big chance however did go the way of the Argentines, the ball breaking to Enzo Perez with an empty goal around 13 yards away, but his side footed finish goes wide of the post.
Next it is Croatia’s turn to miss their own glaring chance to score, as Mario Mandzukic fails to beat Willy Caballero from point-blank range, heading wide. The Croatians needn’t have worried, as Caballero then presented them with a gift-wrapped chance 8 minutes into the second half, slicing a bizarre, stunningly bad kick straight back to Ante Rebic, rather than over his head, which was presumably his intention. Though so badly was it executed, it’s hard to be certain what he was doing. Rebic volleyed home the present for 1-0. From Willy with love.
Argentina come close to equalising when Higuain gets in behind, but instead of wrapping his foot round the ball to put it immediately across the six-yard box where Messi is positioned for a tap-in, he doesn’t look up and instead cuts it back to Maximiliano Meza who shoots straight at the keeper, the ball rebounds to Meza who flicks it to Messi but from an extremely tight angle with the keeper’s body close, there wasn’t much Messi could do with it even before Ivan Rakitic came in with the block.
They were made to rue such wastefulness when a great strike from Luka Modric with 10 minutes to go had the feeling of a game-deciding goal. Their misery was made worse in stoppage time, when Messi’s Barcelona teammate Rakitic heaped further misery on him with what was quite a farcical goal. Argentina defenders stopping dead with their hands raised, whilst allowing Rakitic a free tap-in summed up the disarray and ineptitude of the team, as Argentina suffered their worst World Cup defeat since 1958.
This was also the first time they had failed to win either of their first World Cup games since 1974, meaning going into their last group match against Nigeria, they had to win and hope Iceland didn’t better their score against Croatia in order to progress.
14 minutes in to the decisive game in Saint Petersburg, Ever Banega from just inside the Nigeria half expertly spots an incoming Leo Messi run and provides a pass worthy of the idea, flighting an excellent ball over the top for him. There’s still so much for Messi to do, he begins by receiving the ball on his left thigh with a feather-light touch, then pushes the ball into the area with his left foot, the touch a perfect one to keep it away from the ensuing defender and aswell to position it for a right-footed shot. Leo’s weaker foot, but it didn’t seem like it as the shot looked like beating Francis Uzoho the instant it left his foot and it flew into the back of the net as Messi became the first player to score in the World Cup in his teens, twenties and thirties. The joy and relief was plain to see as Messi dropped to his knees and pointed with both hands up to the heavens.
20 minutes later, Messi was inches from his second with an almost perfect free-kick, which a diving Uzoho would not have been able to keep out, but the post did his job for him and denied Messi a magnificent second. This moment appeared even more significant when 4 minutes into the second half, Mascherano who was holding Leon Balogun in the area as he looked to closely mark him from a corner kick, was rather harshly penalised for a foul and a spotkick was awarded. Victor Moses calmly slotted it away, and Argentina were in serious trouble now.
Their World Cup life flashed before their eyes in the 75th minute when a Nigeria counter-attack had Ahmed Musa and Odion Ighalo racing away towards their goal, Musa’s attempt to find him wasn’t the best but Rojo’s attempt to clear it was even worse, the ball coming off his shoulder as he went to head it and falling straight to Ighalo to volley. There was nothing goalkeeper Franco Armani who had been drafted in for the disgraced Caballero could do, he could only watch and pray the ball didn’t hit his net, and it didn’t, going wide.
Finishing level wouldn’t be enough though, as it stood Nigeria were going through and Argentina were going home. In the end they were saved by the unlikeliest of sources, a cross from Gabriel Mercado found an unmarked Marcos Rojo who found the volley of his life, producing a striker’s finish for just his third ever Argentina goal, his second in a World Cup against Nigeria.
Argentina were however only able to extend their World Cup stay for 4 more days, coming up against France in the first Round of 16 match. The trouble in-store became apparent after 11 minutes when Kylian Mbappe stretched his long, sprinters legs and raced from the inside of his own half into the penalty box. Rojo unable to deal with his speed brought him down and Griezmann made it 1-0 from the spot.
A wonderful strike from Di Maria out of nothing sent Argentina into half-time level and things got even better for them a few minutes into the second half, when Messi helped the ball towards goal with a shot that Gabriel Mercado was able to touch in. The lead lasted for just 9 minutes, as there was little they could do when Benjamin Pavard struck one of the goals of the tournament. Mbappe took France from behind to infront again in the 64th minute and then doubled their lead four minutes later.
With Argentina completely unable to deal with Mbappe, the game was in danger of turning very ugly for them, but instead it was they who scored the final goal of the game, Messi from deep finding the head of Aguero who nodded home astutely. Argentina finished on the wrong of the 7-goal thriller but had maybe re-established some pride, finishing the game chasing the 4-4 goal. When reflecting they could also take some consolation from the fact their only defeats suffered at the tournament came against the two sides who went on to play each other in the World Cup Final. But a day that begin with the possibility of a Argentina v Portugal Quarter-Final and a first ever meeting of Messi and Ronaldo at an international tournament, ended with both knocked out.
Stats: 4 games, 1 goal, 2 assists
Copa America 2019
With the 2019 Copa America, Messi was playing in his 5th international tournament in 6 years, meaning the footballing God’s either really wanted to see Messi lift a trophy with Argentina and wanted him to have as many opportunities as possible, or they were extremely unmerciful and enjoyed seeing the humbling of the world’s most superhuman football player.
It appeared to be the latter after an uninspiring Argentina performance resulted in a 2-0 defeat to Colombia, Messi missing the best chance for his side around the hour mark with the game still at 0-0, a header he surely felt he should have done better with. Things scarcely improved in the next match against Paraguay, as a Lionel Messi penalty from a rather fortuitously awarded spotkick got Argentina back level after they had gone behind. A much less debatable penalty was then awarded Paraguay’s way just 4 minutes later after a woefully bad tackle from Otamendi. Keeper Armani guessed right and kept it out from Derlis Gonzalez and Argentina got away with a point.
Argentina needed a win against Qatar to be sure of a Quarter-Final place, and they achieved it in relatively straightforward fashion, helped on the way by a 4th minute opener from Lautaro Martinez. The victory was not made certain however until the 82nd minute when Sergio Aguero put it out of Qatar’s realistic reach. This win meant 2nd rather than 3rd place, setting up a Quarter-Final with Venezuela, rather than Brazil who they would have faced had they drawn.
Another early Martinez goal, this time 10 minutes in at the Maracana Stadium got Argentina off to the ideal start. Also like the Qatar game, Argentina were made to work before they could put it to bed with a second goal, but it arrived in the 74th minute with Giovani Lo Celso profiting from an awful keeping error as he spilled a tame Aguero effort.
Having reached their 4th Copa America semi-final of the last 5 editions, they would now face hosts Brazil, who narrowly avoided a Quarter-Final exit for the 4th Copa America running, in what would have been their 3rd straight penalty shootout loss to Paraguay at the Quarter-Final stage, after falling to them in 2011 and 2015. They were able to finally end that curse with a 4-3 shootout victory, to set up the first Copa America meeting of the continents most revered footballing nations since 2007.
Gabriel Jesus gave the Brazilian’s the lead before his club teammate Aguero almost equalised from a Messi free-kick but was denied by the bar. Argentina acquitted themselves reasonably well to the challenge and Messi saw them hit the goalframe for a second time as he shot against the post. It was Brazil though who got the game’s second and decisive goal as Robert Firmino finished off a slick counter-attack. Brazil went on to the event’s showpiece against Peru, whilst Argentina had to make-do with a third place play-off match against their most familiar of recent foes, Chile.
Quick-thinking from Messi saw him put Aguero clean through in the 12th minute with a free-kick and the striker rounded the keeper to score. When Paulo Dybala slotted in their second 10 minutes later, things were going unusually well for a Copa America meeting with Chile. Too well. And ofcourse something had to go wrong, with Messi being sent off for just the second time in his career after an altercation with Chile’s Gary Medel who was also dismissed. What Messi actually did other than have someone’s head butting towards his face was unclear, and the referee for some reason decided against re-watching the incident back on the VAR monitor, too pre-occupied with the ensuing disagreements on the field between both sets of players, but in the end after a few minutes of the usual bad tempers flairing up whenever these sides met, both Messi and Medel left the field.
Things threatened to get worse for Argentina when Chile were awarded a penalty and subsequently halved the deficit. Though Argentina remained the deserved winners, ending their competition with a win for the first time since 1993, though sadly for them only to ensure 3rd place. How they must have wished they could have found a victory in their last match against Chile in 2015 or 2016 instead. However after a dreadful start to the competition, Argentina had assured some pride, and produced reason for wary optimism.
Stats: 6 games, 1 goal, 1 assist
Euro 2021 & Copa America 2021
Entering a major tournament as defending Champions for the first time, Portugal had on paper atleast a far stronger squad than the one they won the last Euros with. With the seemingly ageless Pepe and aswell Raphael Guerreiro, William Carvalho and Cristiano Ronaldo the only players to start the tournament opener who had also started on that Paris night 5 years earlier. They were joined on the field by Ruben Dias and his club teammate Joao Cancelo who’d been two of the best defenders in the world in the 20-21 season.
Up the field there is an almost endless array of attacking quality that Portugal has produced in the 5 years that have passed between their last Euros win and this Covid-delayed edition such as Bruno Fernandes who has amassed 40 goals in a season and a half at Manchester United, Diogo Jota who had provided a rare positive in a difficult season for Liverpool and Bernardo Silva already with 50 caps, but not selected for Euro 2016.
Undoubtedly Portugal had to go into their opening match harbouring realistic hopes of retaining their crown, containing one of the best squads at the tournament and their strongest since Ronaldo’s early years in the National Team. Their group opener would be against Hungary and knowing they had record 3-time Euros Winners Germany and World Champions France to come, in what was one of the strongest Euros groups ever, they were aware a good start was imperative. At this most non-Neutral of Euros, Portugal would be the visiting team facing Hungary in Budapest, the only country and stadium of the 11 taking part in hosting the tournament which would be using 100% of its capacity. And so the match took place in front of a bumper 55K crowd, surely the biggest seen at a football match in Europe for what has felt like an age.
The best chance of the first half fell to Cristiano who should have done better after Fernandes had found him unmarked right in front of goal. Ronaldo was unable to take the power out of the ball and failed to keep it under the crossbar. For 83 minutes much of the game was played in Hungary’s half with Portugal knocking on the door but not able to kick it down. That was until the ball broke to Guerreiro in space inside the area and his hugely deflected effort made its way right into the bottom corner leaving the keeper completely flat-footed.
Around a minute and half later Portugal were in again, when fine work from the two combining substitutes Renato Sanches and Rafa Silva led to the latter being brought down in the box giving the referee the easy decision to point to the spot. Cristiano confidently dispatched the penalty sending the keeper the wrong way to become the outright all-time top goalscorer at the Euros, overtaking Platini who hit 9 in 5 games with his 10th goal in 5 tournaments, as he aswell became the first man to score in 5 European Championships, a record that will surely never be overtaken and difficult to match.
The icing was put on the Madeira cake in stoppage time when after a series of one-twos with Rafa Silva, Ronaldo then played a one-two with himself from one foot to the other to take it around the keeper before passing into an empty net, for his third career brace against Hungary and his second at a Euros. This 3-0 triumph appeared all the more impressive when in their next match Hungary led and eventually drew with France. Later that day, having beaten Hungary in Hungary, Portugal hoped they could repeat the trick when they met Germany in Munich.
Germany made a strong start, but were undone by a perfect Portuguese counter-attack from their own corner in the 15th minute, Bernardo expertly picked out Jota who took it down on his chest and occupied Neuer’s attention before laying it into Ronaldo’s path, who couldn’t and didn’t miss. Ronaldo started the breakaway with the clearing header and made sure he was there to finish showing his still sublime pace to ensure he was in the right place at the right time.
Portugal held the lead for 20 minutes but it was cancelled out when Ruben Dias could only turn into his own net when trying to deny Kai Havertz from getting on the end of Roben Gosens’ volleyed cross. With the momentum all with Germany, they forced a second Portuguese own goal and having scored at the right end to give Portugal the lead in the first game, Guerreiro now netted in the wrong goal to have Portugal trailing the Germans.
Six minutes into the second half and Germany finished a move on their own for the first time. Portugal were finding it impossible to cope with their opponents speed of pass and movement and were cut open for a third time with Kai Havertz this time finishing it off. On the hour mark it was becoming a rout, as Germany again accurately put the ball into the danger zone and Gosens helped himself to Germany’s fourth of the evening. A Portugal free-kick in the 67th minute resulted in the deficit being reduced when Ronaldo got on the end of it and hooked it back into the six yard box, where Jota was able to turn it in for the sixth goal of the match. Sanches then thumped a great effort off the post with the keeper beaten, had that gone in, an already brilliant game would have gifted us a thrilling conclusion. But as it was, the scoreline remained the same and Germany, the great nemesis of Ronaldo and Portugal recorded their 4th victory in as many meetings between the sides over the last 13 years.
Half an hour into Portugal’s final group match with France and they were awarded a penalty when Lloris crashed into the side of Perreira’s head with his forearm when attempting to meet a free-kick. As against Hungary, Ronaldo fired into the opposite corner to the one in which the keeper dived.
Portugal were unable to take their lead into the break when 2 minutes into additional time a rather soft foul by Semedo on Mbappe was judged by the referee to be worthy of a penalty. Benzema made no mistake from the spot and following the interval added his brace when he got on the end of an excellent Paul Pogba pass to cooly finish in off the post. On the hour mark, the third penalty of the night and Portugal’s third of the tournament was awarded after a hand had been used to block a Ronaldo cross. Ronaldo then ofcourse stepped up to take the penalty he had won.
Having achieved Euros records with his spotkick against Hungary, Ronaldo’s personal objectives had moved on to chasing down and catching Iranian Ali Daei’s world record of 109 international goals. Cristiano’s 1st penalty of the night had been his 108th goal and with his second he equalled the record, yet again sending Lloris the wrong way. This was Ronaldo’s 5th goal of the tournament, already his best ever tally.
On an exciting night where all 4 teams group positions had moved often, we ended up back where we started prior to the games kicking off. The 2-2 draw secured France top spot, Germany who had to come from behind twice to also draw 2-2 with Hungary came in second on head to head above Portugal, who as in 2016 finished 3rd and qualifed as one of the 4 best 3rd placed teams. Hungary who at points on the night had been up in second, finished bottom but after a valiant showing in what was one of the greatest Euros groups witnessed.
In the Round of 16, Portugal faced Belgium in what was one of the ties of the round, featuring two teams with the credentials to go all the way. Of Belgium’s 5 matches at the tournament, it was one of only two in which they were able to start with their 3 best players, Lukaku, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. It was however Eden’s younger brother Thorgan who made the key impact on the game, scoring one of the best goals at the tournament with an effort that looked in the moment it left his foot.
It was the only shot on target Belgium produced in the match as they sat back and looked to play on the break. Portugal had 23 shots to Belgium’s 6, coming closest in the 83rd minute when Guerreiro struck the post. Just like in Russia 3 years prior, after a great group stage for Ronaldo personally, it had quickly petered out for him and his side in the knockout rounds as their defence was ended at the last 16 hurdle. In a tournament where much was expected of Bruno Fernandes and young sensation Joao Felix, it ended up being the young star of Euro 16 Renato Sanches who really made his mark on the tournament, shining as he did then as one of Portugal’s best players.
Despite bowing out before the Quarters, Ronaldo’s 5 goals was enough for earn him joint-top scorer with Czech Republic’s Patrick Schtick. Schtick required one more game to reach 5 and Ronaldo also notched an assist whereas the Czech didn’t. Though just one of Schtick’s 5 goals were a penalty, and he scored two in the knockout rounds whereas all Ronaldo’s goals came in the group.
On paper atleast, Portugal have a far stronger squad than the one they won the last Euros with, they have one of the best squads at the tournament and their strongest since Ronaldo’s early years in the national team. For this reason they harbour very realistic hopes of retaining their crown. Ruben Dias has been the best centre-back in the world this season and his club teammate Joao Cancelo, one of the best full-backs. They add to the vastly experienced centre-back options of Jose Fonte who has been ever-present in an outstanding domestic season for Lille and the seemingly ageless Pepe. Raphael Guirreiro of Borussia Dortmund is another fine defensive option.
Stats: 4 games, 5 goal, 1 assist
The plan was for Argentina to co-host the 2021 Copa America tournament along with Colombia. But first CONMEBOL ruled Colombia as unfit due to the current political climate there and then with under 2 weeks to go, they then also ruled out Argentina, stating the level of Covid-19 too high for the tournament to take place there and instead Brazil became the sole hosts again, as they were just 2 years ago, though this time with every game barring the final to take place without spectators.
A changed format saw 2 groups of 5, with everyone reaching the Quarter-Finals barring the bottom-placed teams. Argentina’s tournament opener came against who else but Chile, who Argentina had drawn 1-1 with in a World Cup Qualifier just 10 days prior. On that day Messi had given Argentina the lead from the spot before Alexis Sanchez equalised.
In his last 3 Copa America matches against Chile, Messi had lost 2 shootouts, missed in one and been sent off. His fourth meeting with them in successive Copa America’s went better this time as he scored a spectacular free-kick from over 25 yards out to put Argentina ahead after 33 minutes. However, just as in the World Cup Qualifier, the Albiceleste could not maintain their lead. Tagliafico swung a wild leg which brought down Arturo Vidal. Vidal then had his penalty saved by Emi Martinez, but Eduardo Vargas followed in and headed in after the ball had rebounded off the crossbar.
Messi later crafted a perfect ball onto the head of forward Nicolas Gonzalez, who ran in clear of any defenders, but despite the acres of space he found himself in, he couldn’t direct the header and passed up this golden chance to re-establish Argentina’s lead. The game again ended one-apiece.
Second up was a clash against another South American heavyweight, Uruguay. Argentina came out flying and took a 13th minute lead with a perfect floated Messi cross leaving the keeper in no-mans land, unable to get anywhere near the ball as midfielder Guido Rodriguez headed in off the post. An increasingly confident Argentina were able to complete nullify Suarez and Cavani as their opponents did not muster a single shot on goal. One goal always looked likely to be enough and it was.
Game number 3 against Paraguay followed a similar pattern. Again Argentina came out with the intention of getting an early goal and they got it in the 10th minute when Angel Di Maria expertly spotted then picked out Alejandro Gomez who lifted the ball into the back of the goal. As against Uruguay, Argentina provided more entertainment at 0-0 than they did at 1-0, despite leading for 80 minutes. They allowed Paraguay to have the ball in areas they couldn’t hurt them and saw the game out in a straightforward manner.
With Quarter-Final progression secure going into their final game, they took on Bolivia who were already certain to finish bottom. Unsurprisingly, Argentina yet again took an early lead, this time taking just 6 minutes. Messi appears to see gaps twice as wide as they actually are and have twice as much time to see them as everybody else, so good is his spacial awareness. Upon receiving the ball on the edge of the box, he takes a touch and swivels on the ball. As two defenders close the distance on him, with his second touch he flicks the ball to land perfectly into the path of Alejandro Gomes, who catches the ball sweetly on the volley and sends it into the top corner.
Argentina are this time more willing to let the shackles off and as the half hour mark passes an obvious foul on Gomez sees Argentina get their first penalty of the tournament and with it the opportunity to score twice for the first time at this Copa. Messi cooly dispatches on his record-breaking 148th cap for Argentina, overtaking the record of Javier Mascherano.
Messi adds his second of the night just before half time when his run is found by Aguero. The strikers lifted pass bounces up nicely for Messi for him to take a one-touch finish which he does, lobbing the ball with a side foot over the keepers head and into the empty net for 3-0. Argentina then allow one back on the hour mark, before re-establishing the three-goal cushion with substitute Lautaro Martinez scoring immediately from the bench.
3 wins and a draw secured top spot for Argentina and meant a Quarter-Final clash with Group B’s 4th place side Ecuador. Argentina were unable to find the early goal this time but it came in the 40th minute. Ecuador keeper Galindez had rushed out to meet the ball before the Argentina forward who had been put in by Messi, and was able to deny him. But only to put the ball back in Messi’s path. With 2 defenders back and the keeper outside of his penalty area, Leo could have been tempted to go for goal, but he never was, instead choosing the better option to pick out a free Rodrigo De Paul, who composed himself with a touch and then side-footed in.
Messi got his second assist of the night when a bad first touch for an Ecuadorian defender was pounced upon, and Messi again calmy opted to slip in a teammate, this time Lautaro Martinez the one to profit. Neither Argentina or Messi were done yet, as Angel Di Maria was crudely brought down just outside the box as he advanced on the Ecuador goal. Hincapie was shown a red card but probably thought denying Di Maria a shot at goal and aswell committing the foul before it was a penalty atleast lessened his teams chances of conceding a third. How wrong he was. Messi found the spot he wanted for the ball and then picked out his spot in the Ecuador net. This free kick goal was his second of the tournament, meanwhile noone else at that time at either the Copa America or the Euros had even scored one. The goal was his 76th for Argentina, putting him one behind the all-time South American record of 77, held by Pele.
Argentina met Colombia in the semi-finals and early on Messi almost conjured one of the best assists of his career which is saying something, jinxing and weaving past 3 defenders in as many seconds before crossing for the head of Lautaro Martinez, who looked to find the bottom corner and had he found it, it would have been a certain goal with Ospina on the other side protecting his near post. As it was, the header skimmed just wide of the post.
A moment later and it was the Messi and Martinez partnership again, Messi being found in the box by Lo Celso, he uses his first touch to spin around hoping this will allow his second touch to be a shot, but a defender gets a foot in. Messi retains possession and lays it off to Lautaro who doesn’t need to take a touch and instead just strikes it first time past Ospina to give Argentina a 7th minute lead. For the fourth time at the tournament, Argentina had opened the scoring inside the first 13 minutes as Messi notched his 5th assist of the competition, the most he’d ever got at an international tournament.
But Argentina knew or should have known, this one was far from over as they lost a lead against Colombia less than a week prior to the Copa America kicking off. They had led 2-0 away in Colombia after just 8 minutes but the Colombians had found a 94th minute equaliser. And Argentina’s tactic which had for the most part worked successfully in the tournament up to now, of not committing many players to attacks, keeping the shape and looking to slow the game down with controlled possession, never looked likely to be enough here. Colombia forced a save out of Emi Martinez, hit the post and then the crossbar all before the first half was out.
Colombia’s deserved equaliser came in the 61st minute when Luis Diaz used just 2 touches to get clear of his defender and finish into the far corner past an advancing Martinez. This was just the second time Martinez had conceded at the tournament, and the first time since the opening game that Argentina had hit a bit of trouble.
This was a highly competitive semi-final with 27 shots, the edge going slightly to Colombia with 14 of them and 4 shots on target for both. Physicality was also very prevalent in the contest with 47 fouls and 10 yellow cards, six going to the side in yellow. Messi unsurprisingly was the most common victim of Colombia’s much more physical second half approach, a particularly high and heavy challenge left him writhing in pain and a big blotch of blood remained visible on the white sock covering his ankle for the remainder of the game.
The introduction of Di Maria with 20 minutes left help Argentina get back on the front foot in a game that was beginning to be snatched from their grip, but he was guilty of passing up a huge opportunity. It began with Ospina charging over 30 yards out of goal to meet him and trying to block the ball with his hands as Di Maria took it around him. With an open net right infront of him Di Maria instead bizarrely opted against simply side-footing it in and instead looked to set up Lautaro Martinez. The pass gave a defender time to get back on the line who Martinez then hit with the ball, which bounced back for Di Maria to hit. His shot coming 4 seconds after it should have done was an awful slice flying harmlessly away from the goal.
Di Maria in fairness quickly moved on from this disaster, brilliantly and skilfully escaping a marker before slipping it past another to find Messi in the box. From an extremely tight angle, Messi’s shot was so powerful it still would have likely beaten Ospina if not for instead cannoning off the post.
With no extra-time used before the final in Copa America, Brazil’s final opponents would be decided by penalties. Colombia had been victorious in a shootout just 3 days earlier advancing past Uruguay that way.
Colombia went first, historically an advantage in high-pressure shootouts at the end of major tournaments, and Cuadrado got them off to the ideal start beating Martinez despite the keeper guessing the right way. Messi immediately responds for his team with his penalty the perfect mix of power and precision going straight into the top corner. The next penalty is when the shootouts narrative really begins to form, with Argentina’s keeper Emi Martinez clearly and audibly talking to Colombia’s Davinson Sanchez as he prepares to take. Martinez told him “I’m sorry but I eat you brother” before saving his kick. De Paul missed the chance to give Argentina the edge in the shootout, clearing the crossbar as Sanchez’s miss was cancelled out.
Mina had successfully converted in the Quarter-Final shootout and after broke into a dance. Martinez was determined the same fate would not befall him. The two make eye contact and exchange words with Martinez telling him “I can tell you’re nervous. I know which way you’re going to shoot. Watch and see I’m going to eat you up.” Mina smiled and attempted to look calm but his spotkick betrayed him, it was weak and saved by Martinez. From the halfway line watching on Messi shouted “Dance now! dance now!” at a former teammate, highlighting what was at stake and the height of emotions as a third straight penalty was missed.
Parades then sent Ospina the wrong way to give Argentina the edge. As Borja Hernandez prepared to take Colombia’s fourth, Martinez was now warned by officials to stop the trash-talking as Borja too complained. The referee’s warnings didn’t make a difference as Martinez told Borja to “look at me, look at me in the face” Borja hits the penalty well however, hard and straight down the middle, and he then breaks into a dance infront of Martinez. Now is the turn of Argentina’s other Martinez to make his mark in the shootout and he does, his rooftop penalty giving Ospina no chance as he keeps Argentina in front.
Eric Cardona has to score Colombia’s 5th and final penalty to force Argentina’s 5th, but his penalty is poor and Martinez who this time opts to wait quietly on the line saves his 3rd penalty to book Argentina’s spot in the shootout. Martinez’s shootout performance was something special to witness, with him appearing so certain of victory and so confident he would play his part to achieve it, and he did that and more.
Messi played his fifth final at his tenth major tournament, meaning that Messi had reached the final at 50% of the major tournaments he’d played, but he was still waiting to win that elusive first trophy. The opponents were Brazil, who were Messi’s first final opposition back in 2007 and the stage was the Maracana stadium, scene of the worst night of Messi’s football career 7 years earlier when he’d lost the World Cup final. Could the same stage now provide perhaps the best and most satisfying night of Messi’s career? the signs were promising.
Messi himself had had an outstanding tournament, being named player of the tournament before the final had even kicked off. With 4 goals and 5 assists, he had scored or directly made 9 of Argentina’s 11 goals, and scored or assisted in every game bar 1. Aside from Messi, there was the formidable and assured presence of Emi Martinez who’d conceded just once and Lautaro Martinez had netted in 3 straight games, taking the reliance off Messi to score. Scaloni had done what all previous Argentina managers had for the most part failed to do, get a supporting cast around Messi who actually functioned as he needed them to.
Lo Celso and De Paul could feed Messi and avoid what had become an all too common sight in the previous years of Messi having to constantly come back to the halfway line to pick up the ball and then having a full team almost infront of him to try and bypass. The others were also for the first time trusting themselves and their own abilities, rather than constantly looking for Messi no matter where he was on the field and regardless of whether or not other players were better placed to receive the ball. Now the extreme over-reliance on Messi was over, Leo could better choose the right moments when to get involved and not get involved, meaning that when he did, he had plenty of speed and sharpness to offer, as he hadn’t had to spend time receiving the ball in bad areas and getting frustrated and tired from trying to do everything alone.
No game has better shown Argentina’s transformation than the Copa America final. The game promised to be extremely tight and well-matched with the two teams conceding 2 goals apiece in a combined 12 matches going into the final. With both defences so tight, the first goal felt like a massive one. And it went Argentina’s way. A long, accurate pass from De Paul in acres of space in midfield found the run of Di Maria, who was able to flick the ball on for himself with the first touch before lifting it beautifully over the head of Ederson and into the Brazil net, for Argentina’s first Copa America final goal since 2004, after failing to find the net in 3 finals since then.
It was fitting it should be those 2 players to combine, as they were by head and shoulders the best 2 performers on the pitch. Since the 2018 World Cup, Di Maria had been left out of a lot of Argentina squads and this was just his second start of the tournament. This seemed aswell to prove to be excellent management, as the 33-year old had plenty left in the tank for the final and turned in a truly excellent display in a game marred by a bad pitch and constant fouling. Having missed out on the World Cup final and being subbed out of the previous 2 Copa America finals, it was a wonderful redemption for Di Maria.
Brazil had a few moments in the second half, but could only force 2 saves from Martinez, who was easily equal to them. Even without viewing the multiple fouls Messi endured against Colombia, it was obvious to anyone watching the final Messi was less than 100% fit. Having played every minute of the 6 games to get there, the 34-year old had already exerted so much effort in getting his team that far and with the combination of fatigue and carrying a hamstring injury, his impact on the game was small.
Even more surprising than this, was how little a problem this was for Argentina, with Di Maria and De Paul stepping up fantastically. Argentina’s 28-year wait for a major honour ended and it could not really have come in sweeter fashion for Messi. They had done it meeting all 4 of the other South American heavyweights: Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil. Messi had joint top-scored at a tournament for the first time ever, aswell as being the top assistor and winning the award for tournament best player. And to win the trophy (their 15th Copa America tying Uruguay again for most) against a Brazil side that hadn’t lost a competitive match since 2018, it was also the first time Brazil had ever not won a Copa America held on their soil, this being the sixth.
It being at the Maracana aswell felt almost like this was a dream for Messi and his supporters, and the only things stopping it seeming like this was an actual script written for Messi by his admirers, was his failure to take a chance late on when Di Maria brilliantly found him, which would have made the victory certain sooner, and aswell tied him with Pele on most goals for a South American team. What a stage it would have been to do that. But Messi was able to do something both Pele and Maradona were never able to and that’s win South America’s top prize.
Maradona won the 1986 World Cup the year before his future successor’s birth, and Messi won this Copa America the year after Diego’s death. As the final whistle blew Messi knelt in tears as his teammates ran from all over the pitch to celebrate with him. Full of players now from the generation after him, these teammates have been looking up to Messi for years and you could see what it meant to them, to win it not just for themselves but for the man who had given everything of himself in search of international silverware for Argentina.
Messi celebrated what will likely always remain one of the best and happiest nights of his life, he was thrown into the air by his teammates and after lifting the trophy was reluctant to ever let it out of his hands for long.
And that’s all until Qatar next year.. he couldn’t could he?
Stats: 7 games, 4 goals, 5 assists