Messi's Barca debut anniversary: The clubs we'd really love to see him join next

By Sports Desk November 16, 2020

Lionel Messi first represented Barcelona's senior side 17 years ago, on November 16, 2003. It's difficult to adequately describe the impact and influence he's since gone on to have on one of the world's most illustrious clubs.

A six-time Ballon d'Or winner and long-established as Barca's all-time leading scorer, virtually every major decision that is made at the club ultimately appears to be taken with Messi in mind.

Perhaps the reality is different, but the way the Barca soap opera is played out in Spanish and Catalan media, one comes to assume it isn't just on the pitch that Messi pulls the strings.

It was this situation that made the pre-season tug of war between Messi and the club all the more damaging – while the player was adamant he could leave for free, then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu seemingly reneged on a previous agreement and stood firm.

Seventeen years on from his first appearance in the Barca team, during a friendly with Porto, it seems an opportune time to consider where Messi might go next if he allows his contract to expire next year.

So, just for a minute, let's imagine money is no object and Messi could play for anyone he chooses. What if the thrill of the game were more important to him than winning a fifth Champions League? What if he threw caution to the wind and went somewhere just for fun?

We've imagined such a scenario, and these are the teams we'd love to see him play for...

AJAX

The link between Ajax and Barca goes beyond the basics of football: it's a shared ideology, a philosophical connection, a spiritual understanding.

From Johan Cruyff to Ronald Koeman, plenty of players and coaches have shared the love of both clubs, but Messi moving to Amsterdam would turn the romance up to 11.

Messi as the focal point of an Ajax side - who are beautiful to watch as it is - is a wonderful idea, and there is even the faint prospect of Luis Suarez going back to his old club to join him one day.

Plus, given the players they have signed from Ajax in the past - Frenkie de Jong and Sergino Dest the latest - Barca probably owe the Eredivisie club a transfer favour in return.

ATALANTA

Gian Piero Gasperini's side captured the hearts of the football world in 2019-20, threatening a title challenge in Serie A and coming close to reaching the Champions League semi-finals.

They did all this on a modest budget, playing vibrant, attacking football, and all during a global pandemic that struck Bergamo and the Lombardy region harder than almost anywhere else in Europe.

The way Argentine Alejandro Gomez pulls the strings for Atalanta is a joy to watch, but imagine if Messi were doing it alongside him. Imagine them facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus. Imagine Marten de Roon's Twitter feed.

Glorious, isn't it?

COLOGNE

The GOAT and the Billy Goats - what could be better?

Cologne are going through some tricky times. Markus Gisdol did a brilliant job in steadying the ship in the Bundesliga last season and was rewarded with a new contract until June 2023, though they're struggling in the bottom three this term.

They might not have won the title since 1978, but they are among Germany's most esteemed clubs, with an ardent fan base and a beautiful home city. As unlikely as it would be in any scenario, if Messi could lead them to challenge the might of Bayern Munich, it would be an unforgettable story.

If not... well, they have a goat as a mascot, for goodness' sake. It's too perfect.

NEWELL'S OLD BOYS

What could be more magical than Messi returning to where it all began? A lifelong Newell's fan, Messi was on their books as a youngster until they – and River Plate afterwards – were unable to pay for necessary growth hormone treatment.

Before then, as the story goes, Messi had scored nearly 500 goals in youth football for the club, and throughout his days as a professional he has been linked with a future move to Newell's prior to retiring.

As recently as last year Messi expressed doubt that such a "dream" could ever happen due to the needs of his family.

It is the move football romanticists will want to see and, while unlikely, Messi did leave the door open: "I will try to convince the family."

LEEDS UNITED

It might be too early for Messi to return to Newell's Old Boys, but what if he joined up with Rosario's other most famous football export in Yorkshire?

Leeds United are back in the Premier League at last, having swept all before them in the Championship in 2019-20 under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa and his big blue bucket.

The chance to help awaken a sleeping giant of the English game while playing for the man who inspired Pep Guardiola sounds like an opportunity that's too good to miss.

Plus, if he wanted to visit Sergio Aguero, Manchester is less than an hour away by train.

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    TOP STORY – MAN UTD TO CHALLENGE CHELSEA FOR RICE

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    ROUND-UP

    - Eric Garcia looks set to finish the season with Manchester City. Marca reports Barcelona cannot afford a transfer fee for the defender and the delay of the LaLiga club's presidential elections, now scheduled for March 7, mean Garcia will have to wait for a move.

    - Also at Barcelona and backup goalkeeper Neto has asked for a January move, according to Sport. It comes as he struggles for game time behind Marc-Andre ter Stegen and amid links to Arsenal.

    - Eder Militao is facing an uncertain future at Real Madrid. Goal reports Bayern Munich have joined the list of clubs who have asked about the defender, with Juventus, Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund also reportedly interested in Militao, who has played just three times this season.

    - Milan want Chelsea's Fikayo Tomori. The Daily Mail reports the Serie A leaders have discussed a loan with the option to make the move permanent for €30.4million (£27m) at season's end.

  • Man Utd have stopped scoring against the big sides – that must change at Liverpool Man Utd have stopped scoring against the big sides – that must change at Liverpool

    Manchester United's record against the so-called 'big six' of the Premier League this season reads zero wins, two defeats and two draws.

    They have conceded seven goals, six of them at home to Tottenham, and scored just once – a Bruno Fernandes penalty two minutes into that 6-1 hammering in October.

    Fernandes scored their previous goal in these encounters from the spot, too, in a 1-1 draw at Spurs last June. In fact, you have to go back to March 2020 and their 2-0 win at home to Manchester City, the last Old Trafford game played in front of a crowd, for the previous occasion that they scored a goal against a big-six team that wasn't a penalty.

    They might be top of the league heading into Sunday's showdown with Liverpool but, for a manager that made an early habit of extracting big performances against the best sides, that stat should be of serious concern to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

     

    BIG ZERO SIX

    Since the end of the 2019-20 shutdown, United have played seven games against the big six and won none of them, if you include domestic cup losses to Chelsea and City.

    In league football alone, they have drawn against Tottenham, Chelsea and City and lost to Spurs and Arsenal, with just two Fernandes penalties to show for it. All their previous three such games were at home and they have not scored in any of them.

    In their first 14 league games against these sides under Solskjaer, United won six times and lost only four, scoring 16 goals and conceding 13 – a decent record given their real problems with consistency.

    The strange thing is United's winless run against the best has coincided with a general upturn in form since the previous season restarted last June. Taking only results in that time into account, United have played 26, won 17, lost just three, scored 56 goals and conceded 30. That's the best record of any side in the league and seven points better than Liverpool.

    In fact, narrow that down to results against teams in the top half of the table in the same time frame, and United have lost the fewest games (two) of any side, with 21 points taken from 13 games, just three behind Jurgen Klopp's side.

    So, why the recent drop-off against the very best?

    Solskjaer's most dependable attacking weapons have been Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all three of whom will almost certainly start at Liverpool, barring injury.

    They were all involved in their last big-six contest in the league, a 0-0 draw at home to City in December. Rashford managed only one shot all game and created no chances for anyone else; Martial, a late substitute, created one chance but had no shots himself. Fernandes, ever the fulcrum of United's attack, had four shots and created two chances.

    The previous game was a staid goalless draw with Chelsea that made the derby look positively thrill-a-minute. That day, with Martial banned, Rashford was more involved, with three attempts at goal and two chances created; he was outdone by Fernandes (three shots, four chances created).

    They don't exactly look like imperious figures, but they actually fall in line with their per-90-minute numbers for this season. On average, Rashford attempts 2.7 shots per game and creates 1.3 chances; Martial has 2.9 shots and creates 1.2 chances; Fernandes musters 3.6 shots and creates 3.4 chances.

    Put succinctly, based on this season's performances, Fernandes should be expected to create between three and four goalscoring opportunities in every league game he starts for United. In other words, he was bang on his average against City and Chelsea. Rashford's numbers are similarly close to the mean.

    United's best attackers, then, are keeping their performance levels consistent against the big six. They're just meeting greater resistance. That becomes clearer looking at expected goals.

    In their most recent three league games against these sides, United have had xG of 0.6 against City, 0.7 against Chelsea and a lowly 0.4 in a 1-0 loss to Arsenal. In those same fixtures in 2019-20, those figures were 1.6 (in a 2-0 win against City), 2.2 (in a 4-0 win over Chelsea) and 0.9 (in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal). Interestingly, though, Chelsea and Arsenal had higher xG numbers in those games last season, even though they suffered worse results, and City's only increased this term by 0.7.

    This reflects a general balancing out in these matches. They are, for the most part, more attritional and less unpredictable affairs settled by fine margins – exactly the sort of contest you'd expect between true heavyweights. United are not significantly under-performing each time; they're just not quite tilting the odds in their favour.

    How, then, might they change that against Liverpool? There is one simple way.

    SLAB EXPERIMENT

    United have one particular weakness, regardless of opposition: set-pieces. This season, they have conceded 11 goals from set-plays; only Wolves (12), Brighton and Hove Albion (14) and Leeds United (16) have a worse record. They have shipped four goals from corners, the same number as Liverpool, but the champions have only conceded eight times from dead-ball situations overall.

    At the other end, United have scored 10 goals from set-pieces, a tally bettered by just four teams: Aston Villa and Southampton (11), and Chelsea and Liverpool (12). Only Chelsea (34) have created more dead-ball chances than United (31).

    There is an argument to say they should have more set-piece goals than anyone else. It's an argument that centres around their captain – the man who might be the very thing United need to get back to scoring against, and winning against, big-six opposition.

    Since the start of last season, Harry Maguire has won 73 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League. That's the best rate of anyone who has contested at least 300 in that time. In fact, he has lost only 98 of the 341 he has been involved in, which is the lowest number of losses across the same period within that elite group.

    However, in an attacking sense, the world's most expensive defender doesn't seem to have his head on straight. Since the start of 2019-20, he has attempted 27 headed shots, hit the target with just nine of them, and scored with two. Of players with at least 20 headed shots in that time, only four have hit the target less often.

    On Sunday, Maguire will face a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip. He will rarely have a better chance of stealing a march at set-plays and, if he does, he could well end United's wait for a goal – and a win – against the best. Sometimes, those fine margins are the width of a forehead.

  • Fernandes hits back at Klopp over penalty complaints Fernandes hits back at Klopp over penalty complaints

    Bruno Fernandes hit back at Jurgen Klopp after the Liverpool manager complained about the number of penalties awarded to Manchester United.

    Klopp was unhappy his side were not given a penalty during a loss to Southampton earlier this month and the German pointed to the number of spot-kicks United had been awarded.

    Since the start of last season, United have won 20 penalties in the Premier League compared to Liverpool's 10.

    Fernandes, who has scored five penalties in the Premier League this season, insisted he was unfazed, also suggesting Klopp was trying to put pressure on referees ahead of United's trip to Anfield on Sunday.

    "You always see what people say, but I really don't care. I'm not focused on what they're saying. We have really quick players up front," he said.

    "Anthony Martial is one of the best players one against one in the box, Marcus Rashford is another one who is quick and has quick feet, who can take the ball away from the defender at any moment.

    "It's normal that sometimes, because of that, they will be tripped and will fall and they gain penalties.

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    United visit champions Liverpool with a surprise three-point lead atop the table.

    Liverpool claimed their first top-flight title since 1990 last year, moving onto 19 in total – one shy of United's record.

    Fernandes said the players were aware how much such records meant to supporters.

    "You don't want your rivals at the same level as you, or with the same amount of trophies as you," he said.

    "So it's clear for everyone here at the club and in the dressing room, everyone knows what it means for the supporters.

    "It would be a lot more fun with 21 titles and Liverpool still on 19, of course."

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