Emiliano Martinez has signed a contract extension with Aston Villa until 2027.

The Argentina goalkeeper, who tasted Copa America success in 2021, has been an integral figure at Villa Park since his move from Arsenal ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Martinez managed 15 clean sheets in his maiden term under Dean Smith last season, equalling the club's Premier League record for shutouts that was last achieved by Brad Friedel.

Since saving a John Lundstram penalty on his Premier League debut for Villa on September 21, 2020, only two goalkeepers – Ederson (31) and Edouard Mendy (24) – have kept more top-flight clean sheets than the 29-year-old (20).

And after penning a fresh five-and-a-half-year deal, Martinez outlined why he has committed his future to Steven Gerrard's side.

"I won a major tournament with Argentina not long ago and every time I come through the tunnel at Villa Park on a matchday, I can see the crowd, the lights, the fans excited for us to play," he told VillaTV on Friday.

"Just before coming out [on to the pitch], I see the Champions League trophy and the FA Cup trophy and that's where I want to get.

"I want to be in a Champions League final with Villa, I want to be at Wembley playing in an FA Cup final or EFL final.

"That's why I'm committing five and a half years to this club because that's where I want to get."

Martinez endured a frustrating time at Arsenal, where he made just 15 appearances as he was loaned out to numerous clubs, but believes he has now settled at Villa.

"When I signed for Aston Villa, obviously I had massive ambitions about being in Europe and being the best version of myself, and the club have opened a really good door for me," he added.

"They made me a better goalkeeper, with the goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, Christian [Purslow], Johan [Lange], they're good people, very loyal and ambitious as well, like the owners."

"So winning a major tournament for Argentina, thank you to Aston Villa for developing me as a good goalkeeper; and I think actually I can improve much more here and I want to commit my future here.

"It feels like home."

Villa, who also brought in experienced goalkeeper Robin Olsen on loan from Roma on Tuesday, sit 13th in the Premier League on 23 points as they prepare for their next clash with Everton on Saturday.

Lionel Messi has not been included in Lionel Scaloni's latest Argentina squad as he continues to recover from coronavirus.

The Paris Saint-Germain forward has not played a match in almost a month, with the 1-1 Ligue 1 draw at Lorient on December 22 being his most recent outing.

He contracted COVID-19 while back home in Argentina during the mid-season break, forcing him to return to France later than initially planned.

Messi seemed all set to return to action against Lyon on January 9, but PSG said he needed to continue his recovery and then he also missed the 2-0 win over Brest on Saturday.

While he said last week that "I have almost recovered", Messi did reveal on social media that getting over the illness took "longer than I thought".

Given his situation, Argentina have seemingly deemed it pointless risking Messi or further disrupting his recovery given they have already secured qualification for this year's World Cup.

Argentina travel to Chile on Thursday before hosting Colombia five days later, with both opponents still desperately fighting for the right to play at Qatar 2022.

La Albiceleste's other remaining qualifiers are against Venezuela and surprise-package Ecuador in March.

 

There is nothing quite like an individual football award to create debate and there is sure to be plenty when one of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is named this year's men's FIFA Best winner on January 17.

While team trophies will always be the end game for most players, the few who are good enough to be in contention for individual accolades put such importance on being recognised that they have been known to move clubs specifically to improve their chances of collecting silverware in a tuxedo rather than just in a dirty kit. Neymar, anyone?

The Ballon d'Or is broadly seen as football's version of the Oscars, but the annual FIFA Best award is also becoming one of the more sought-after honours and the latest men and women's winners will be crowned on Monday at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.

The awards will be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website.

Stats Perform has taken a look at the data of the three nominees for the men's prize to try and decipher who is likeliest to come away with the prize.

The Best... at scoring goals

It is a harsh truth that scoring goals will almost always win over stopping them when it comes to the top awards, so it makes sense that Messi, Lewandowski and Salah are the nominees for this year.

The trio scored 129 goals between them in 145 collective games across 2021, which includes 21 overall in this season's Champions League group stage, over seven per cent of the total amount scored in the competition (297).

However, there is no doubt which of the star trio stood out for finding the net time and time again.

Lewandowski, last year's winner, was frankly ridiculous in front of goal, netting 43 in the Bundesliga in a calendar year, breaking Gerd Muller's record from 1972, and 58 in all competitions in just 47 outings.

Salah had a mixed year at Liverpool, with the Reds' poor form at the start of 2021 almost costing them a place in the Premier League's top four. However, thanks in part to the Egypt forwards' 15 goals in 28 games between the turn of the year and end of the campaign, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finished third in the league, ahead of European champions Chelsea.

His nomination is mostly down to his form in the second half of the year, though, with Salah scoring 22 goals in 25 games in all competitions. He scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player, and is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, well ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota in second place on 10.

For Messi, it is probably the other way round. The legendary Argentine has managed only six goals in 16 appearances since his sensational move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

However, his 28 goals in 29 games for Barca between New Year's Day and his emotional departure was Messi at his effervescent best, even if the rest of the team was lagging behind him, and he followed that up with four at the Copa America for Argentina.

Consistency and underlying numbers

While it has been mostly impressive from all three, Lewandowski's consistency puts him above the other two, with a 55.17 big chance conversion percentage across 2021, compared to Messi's 45.95 and Salah's 45.90, and an overall shot conversion rate of 28.02 against Salah's 19.37 and Messi's 15.74.

Unsurprisingly, this also led to a significantly better minutes per goal rate, with Lewandowski averaging a goal roughly every 68 minutes, while Messi bagged one every 116 minutes and Salah every 122 minutes.

While all three scored plenty of penalties that could potentially skew the numbers, Lewandowski again dominated in expected goals (xG) without spot kicks, with a 2021 xG excluding penalties of 43.86, compared with Salah's 29.6 and Messi's 24.37.

Not all scorers have to be selfish

Of course, while goals make the headlines, someone has to create them or nothing will happen. This is where Salah and Messi start to claw it back.

Lewandowski managed seven assists in 2021 in all competitions and created 61 chances for team-mates. Quite respectable for any number nine.

However, despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being "selfish", Salah recorded 11 assists and created 88 chances, while Messi had 13 assists to his name and created exactly 100 opportunities.

In terms of big chances (which Opta define as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score), it is a bit closer, with Lewandowski crafting 16, Salah 18 and Messi 24, though with the Pole usually playing higher up the pitch it makes sense that the opportunities he creates would come in a dangerous area.

Show us your medals

While it is not entirely without merit, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to base how much credit an individual player deserves on what his team has achieved. There are plenty of world-class players who did not always play in teams capable of winning much silverware, just like there have been numerous average players who were simply members of squads that won a lot, whether they had much to do with it or not.

It usually comes into consideration when the big awards are handed out though and is likely the ultimate reason that Messi pipped Lewandowski to last year's Ballon d'Or.

Messi helped Barcelona win the Copa del Rey last season and then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with his nine direct goal involvements helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament. He still managed to score three goals in as many games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

He did win the Bundesliga title again with Bayern, but after claiming a remarkable treble the year before, it may rather harshly look like a bit of a regression.

Unfortunately for Salah, this is probably where his chance to finish above the other two falls down, as arguably proven by his astonishingly low seventh place in the Ballon d'Or voting.

The 29-year-old did not have an opportunity for national team success in 2021, and he is currently aiming to help Egypt recover from an opening game defeat to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but he also did not win any trophies at club level.

It is possibly a bit too early for Salah, but his form has been electric this season and if he can continue it through the rest of the campaign, ideally for Liverpool collecting a trophy or two along the way, he will certainly be in the conversation for next year's honours.

The question will be the same as it was for the Ballon d'Or; will those with voting power be more impressed by Lewandowski's goalscoring exploits, or by Messi's final six months at Barca followed by a successful Copa America, or could Salah's explosive form in the second half of the year see him sneak it?

Whatever the outcome, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the trio are not currently the three best footballers on the planet, though if you take a look on social media when the winner is announced, you'll find plenty of people willing to try.

Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah have been announced as the three finalists for The Best FIFA Men's Player Award.

The attacking trio were named on a shortlist for the prize in November that also included Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne, Karim Benzema, Jorginho and N'Golo Kante.

Lewandowski, Messi and Salah are the final nominees chosen following a public vote that closed on December 10. Jennifer Hermoso, Sam Kerr and Alexia Putellas are the finalists for the women's award for 2021.

The final three up for The Best FIFA Men's Coach award, confirmed on Thursday, are Pep Guardiola, Roberto Mancini and Thomas Tuchel. Lluis Cortes, Emma Hayes and Sarina Wiegman are the finalists for the women's coaching prize.

The player awards will now be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website. The winners will be announced on January 17.

Lewandowski, who won the 2020 prize after firing Bayern Munich to the treble, scored 41 times in the Bundesliga last season to break Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals in a single season. He ended 2021 with 48 goals in all competitions.

Messi, who won the 2021 Ballon d'Or to extend his record to seven trophies, helped Barcelona to win the Copa del Rey in what proved to be his final season at the club. He then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with four goals and five assists helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Liverpool star Salah scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player. He is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota on 10.

As football concludes for 2021, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the past year even happened at all.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, the climate crisis continues unabated, Donald Trump is crying election fraud and everyone is talking about cryptocurrency without really knowing why. If Bill Murray appeared on television to tell you we're stuck in a 2020 time loop, you'd barely even blink.

Well, 2021 really did happen, and we have the data to prove it. Here, Stats Perform presents a selection of the biggest footballing moments of the year, and the numbers that help to make them unforgettable – even if you can't remember what day it is...

Tuchel your fancy

Expectations are pretty high for Chelsea coaches, but winning the Champions League before you've been in the job for half a year – after replacing club legend Frank Lampard, no less – isn't a bad way to impress the owner! No but seriously, Thomas Tuchel is brilliant.

The Blues beat Atletico Madrid, Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City in the knockouts as they became kings of Europe for the second time. They only conceded twice in those matches; in fact, Edouard Mendy became the first goalkeeper to keep as many as nine clean sheets in his debut season in the competition.

From Tuchel's first match in charge until the end of 2020-21, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) across all competitions than Chelsea. It's worth remembering that, Thomas, if you really do think your title hopes are already over at the halfway stage of the season.

Live and let Daei

Football's greatest-of-all-time debate is likely to drag on until humanity has long since gone extinct, with nothing left of civilisation except decaying ruins and NFTs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, most likely dressed as goats, stored on a giant blockchain server at the centre of the Earth (no, we don't understand it all, either).

We can at least agree on one non-fungible Ronaldo record, though: as of 2021, he is the leading international goalscorer in the history of men's football.

A brace against the Republic of Ireland on September 1 took him to 111 for Portugal, two more than previous record-holder Ali Daei of Iran. Ronaldo will start the World Cup year on 115 goals in 184 international appearances – but without the Ballon d'Or on his mantelpiece...

Gerd lord, another record

With practically the final kick of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, Robert Lewandowski pounced on a loose ball to score his 41st league goal and break Gerd Muller's previous single-season record of 40, which had stood since 1972.

Not satisfied with the greatest goalscoring effort in Germany's top flight for nearly half a century, Lewandowski ended 2021 with 43 goals for the calendar year (in only 34 games), again surpassing a previous best tally set by Muller. During that run, he became the first player in the competition to score in 13 consecutive home matches, beating the 12-game runs of Jupp Heynckes and, yes, Muller. The late Bayern great's record of a goal in 16 Bundesliga games in a row still stands, though, Lewandowski having been stopped from matching it by the crossbar in a 3-1 win at Greuther Furth in September.

This year also saw the Bayern Munich striker reach 120 away goals in the Bundesliga, which is, you guessed it, another record. At least this one was previously held by a different name: Klaus Fischer, on 117. Muller is third on 115, for what it's worth.

Let's talk about six, baby 

Liverpool started the year boasting the second-longest unbeaten home run in the history of England's top division: they had gone 68 games without defeat after losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace in April 2017, a streak only bettered by Chelsea (86 games ending in October 2008).

Then, they lost 1-0 to Burnley at Anfield. Then, 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield. After that came a 4-1 battering by Manchester City, an almost unthinkable 2-0 loss to Everton, and then another pair of 1-0 defeats, this time to Chelsea and Fulham... and all at Anfield.

Six consecutive home defeats: something never endured by any Liverpool team before, nor any reigning champion of England's top flight.

Pep-pered with records

City were top of the Premier League on Christmas Day for the third time in their history. They won the league on the previous two occasions (in 2011 and 2017), so the omens are positive for 2021-22 – not that they need much divine intervention right now.

The reigning champions, boasting a 10-match winning streak, broke the record for the most victories in a calendar year in England's top flight with their 34th of 2021 against Newcastle United this month. The previous best was 33 set by Bob Paisley's Liverpool in 1982.

In the process, Pep Guardiola's men also set a new top-tier record of 18 away wins in a single year, beating the previous best of 17 set by Bill Nicholson's famous Tottenham side of 1960-61. Oh, and their 112 goals scored in 2021 is the best such calendar-year return in the Premier League era.

An Argentine tango – and a Messi divorce

Lionel Messi ends 2021 with 23 goals and eight assists in LaLiga, the most direct goal involvements of any player aside from Karim Benzema (41). And he hasn't played in the competition since May.

Messi's tearful departure from Barcelona, who decided they simply couldn't afford to keep the player they previously couldn't afford to lose, heralded the end of an era in Spanish football. It hasn't gone particularly well for either party, either: Barca, who sacked Ronald Koeman in November, sit seventh in LaLiga, while Messi has scored one goal in 11 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain.

Club football might have been more of a nightmare than a dream for Messi this year, but the same cannot be said for his international exploits. He was the joint-top goalscorer and the tournament's best player as Argentina finally ended their long wait for silverware, defeating Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America. It was enough to secure Messi a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or, even though he seemed to think Lewandowski actually deserved to win (and, let's be honest, a lot of us did).

It's a Lille bit funny...

Last season, Paris Saint-Germain replaced Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino ostensibly so they might win the Champions League. Instead, while Tuchel took Chelsea to European glory within just five months, Pochettino's PSG could not even keep hold of their Ligue 1 crown.

Lille won the French top flight for the fourth time in their history, becoming only the fourth side to win it at least twice since the turn of the century (the others being PSG, of course, Monaco and Lyon). Their triumph was inspired by the late-career renaissance of Burak Yilmaz: his 16 league goals were the most scored by anyone over the age of 35 in Europe's top five leagues last season, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo (29).

While their title defence isn't going too swimmingly – Lille are eighth in the table after 19 games, 18 points behind leaders PSG – they managed to win their Champions League group for the first time in seven attempts. They also boast the top scorer in Ligue 1 this term: Jonathan David, who was an 11-year-old playing for Ottawa Gloucester Hornets when Lille won their third league title in 2011, has scored 12 times already.

Get Inter the spirit

This year saw Inter end their decade-long wait for the Scudetto and bring about the end of Juventus' recent stranglehold on Serie A.

Inspired by Antonio Conte – who started Juve's nine-year title streak back in 2012 – and league MVP Romelu Lukaku, the Nerazzurri finished 12 points clear at the top as their coach became the man with the best points-per-game ratio (2.26) in the modern history of Italy's top flight.

Despite a close-season of upheaval in which Conte walked, Lukaku returned to Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi went to PSG, Inter go into next year with a four-point advantage at the top and just one defeat in 19 league games, having scored over 100 league goals in a calendar year for the first time in their history.

Mancini's miracle

Italy's second European Championship trophy, secured courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley, was the pinnacle of a quite remarkable run of results under Roberto Mancini.

The Azzurri would go on to set a new world record in men's international football of 37 matches without defeat, during which they won 30, scored 93 goals and conceded only 12. The run ended when they lost 2-1 to Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in Milan, marking their first competitive home defeat since 1999.

In the first 33 of those matches, starting from a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in October 2018, they were behind for only 44 minutes. At Euro 2020, they had five players who scored at least twice, they ended the tournament with a joint-high 13 goals and conceded only four. And yet, in 2022, they must navigate the play-offs – and potentially a meeting with Portugal – if they are to avoid failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row.

Palmeiras pull off the unbeliev-Abel

The Copa Libertadores final is not something Andreas Pereira will want to remember: it was the Manchester United loanee's error that allowed substitute Deyverson to win it for Palmeiras in extra time.

This was a historic result, though. Not only were Palmeiras the first team since Boca Juniors 20 years ago to win back-to-back Libertadores trophies, but Abel Ferreira became the only European coach to win the competition twice.

Before his time in Brazil, arguably Abel's finest achievement in his post-playing career was helping PAOK reach 51 league games unbeaten – although he was only actually in charge for 17 of those matches, including the 4-2 loss to Aris that brought the streak to an end.

Belgium will sit at the top of FIFA's world rankings for a fourth successive year at the end of a record-breaking 12 months for international football.

Having seen just 352 full internationals take place in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fewest since 1987 (323), things were cranked up several notches this year as World Cup qualification attracted focus.

A total of 1,116 FIFA internationals were played across 2021, a new record, with teams making up for the loss of action a year earlier.

While the frequency of games changed significantly, one constant remains: Belgium lead the way once again, edging out Brazil by 2.1 points, while UEFA Nations League winners France finish the year third.

 

European champions Italy go into 2022 in sixth having claimed 115.77 points more than in 2020, while Copa America winners Argentina are one place better off, improving on their 2020 points total by 108.51 points.

But the biggest improvement of the year has been recorded by Canada, whose ranking of 40th is the joint-highest they have ever been.

The Canucks reached the semi-finals of the Gold Cup and are well on course to reach only their second World Cup finals – and a first since Mexico 1986 – as they sit top of the CONCACAF qualifying group with six games to go.

Their 1,462.32 points is 132.32 more than last year, the biggest 12-month improvement of all FIFA nations.

Meanwhile, World Cup hosts Qatar head into their big year just inside the top 50 at 48.

Sergio Aguero insisted his retirement is not a tragedy as he looked back on an outstanding career that taught him to "turn defeat into victory".

The former Manchester City and Barcelona forward announced his retirement on Wednesday after suffering from a heart problem.

Aguero struggled with chest discomfort and dizziness, which were later attributed to a heart arrhythmia, in Barcelona's 1-1 draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30.

After consultation with specialists, Aguero – who is City's leading scorer in Premier League history – accepted he would not be able to play again as the risk to his health would be too great.

But despite his sudden retirement, the 33-year-old insisted he would look back on his "amazing career" fondly as he reflected on the lessons football has taught him.

"I've always known that I'd give it all to have a chance to play again," Aguero said in his statement published on Twitter. However, after the last exams, I was advised by my doctors to cease practising professional football.

"Their words were sufficient to make a choice. Retiring under these circumstances is difficult, but life comes first - I've known that from the start.

"One of the many things that football taught me is that you can turn defeat into victory. This won't be any different. It's surely painful but it's no tragedy.

"A tragedy would have been another thing altogether. My thoughts are not on the time I could have played on, they are on the wonderful 18 years I did get to play.

"This amazing career will remain with me, and so will carrying it out with passion and dedication year after year. I keep the affection and care I received from each of the teams I played for when I was just a kid.

"And then at Independiente, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, and Argentina's national team, always so dear to me. My recognition goes to the fans, who stood by me through thick and thin - your support has made me stronger."

 

Aguero left City for pastures new at Barcelona on a free transfer in July, having scored 184 times in the Premier League at a rate of one every 108 minutes, the best frequency of any player to net at least 20 in the competition's history.

Indeed, the former Argentina international could play another 2,520 minutes of Premier League action (the equivalent of 28 full games) without scoring, and he would still boast the best minutes-per-goal ratio of any player to have scored 20 or more times.

Aguero is also the Premier League's highest-scoring overseas player and holds the record for the number of goals scored for one club, while his 12 hat-tricks are another benchmark in the competition.

But as his career comes to an end, the former Atletico Madrid man heaped praise on those he has worked with.

"I want to thank all the trainers, team-mates, colleagues, staff, physios and managers who allowed me to develop my career in the best of conditions," he continued.

"My special gratitude goes to my family and friends, who were always by my side. And to my agents, the same I've kept since I was 14 years of age, who accompanied me with utmost professionalism and honesty.

"Beyond the titles I've contributed to win - something I greatly value - my biggest achievement has been earning the respect of my colleagues, and the love from the world of football.

"That's something that won't change - I'll keep it in my heart and it will make me strong for what's to come.

"Life goes on, and there's plenty of it ahead. It will be a new stage, a different one indeed, but I'll keep on just like I've done so far: always positive, with enthusiasm and joy."

Italy and Argentina will face off in what has been dubbed a "Finalissima" in June following their respective successes in Euro 2020 and the Copa America.

It was a momentous year for the Azzurri and Albiceleste, as they both put troubling periods behind them in emphatic fashion.

Italy recovered spectacularly from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally got himself an international honour to shout about.

Argentina's success ended a 28-year period without a major international title, a spell that saw them lose four Copa America finals and one World Cup final.

Italy had not won a European Championship title in 53 years, which is the longest-ever gap between two successes in the tournament by a single nation.

En route to their triumph, Italy also surpassed 30 matches unbeaten in all competitions, setting a new record in international football.

Argentina and Italy are now scheduled to play each other in a specially arranged match in London - with the venue not yet confirmed - on June 1, 2022 as part of a new agreement reached between the two continental confederations, UEFA and CONMEBOL.

The governing bodies signed a memorandum of understanding in February last year with the intention of collaborating in numerous ways – on Wednesday it was renewed and extended until June 2028, with the arrangement of the Finalissima confirmed as part of the agreement.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said: "We are delighted to build upon our excellent relationship with CONMEBOL, and our strong desire to act jointly for the development of football and its benefits to society is further reflected by this new memorandum of understanding.

"There is a long tradition of cooperation between UEFA and CONMEBOL, as could be witnessed over the years with competitions such as the Artemio Franchi Trophy and the Intercontinental Cup, and it is with great pride that we are relaunching such a prestigious national team trophy to the delight of football lovers across the globe.

"We are very much looking forward to explore new opportunities together and we are eagerly awaiting the Finalissima in London in June 2022.

"I would like to thank Alejandro Dominguez [CONMEBOL president] for his dedicated involvement in this project and for his outstanding work at the helm of South American football."

Dominguez added: "We are immensely pleased with the fruits we are reaping together with UEFA, due to an excellent relationship between our institutions.

"By signing this renewal and expansion of our memorandum of understanding we are laying the foundation for this fluent cooperation to grow and develop further.

"The final between Argentina and Italy in London will be joined by other top-level sporting events, as befits the tradition of South American and European football.

"The opening of our joint office [in London] will allow us to face new projects with agility and vigour for the benefit of millions of fans on our continents and in the rest of the world."

Lionel Messi expressed his sadness after close friend and Argentina team-mate Sergio Aguero was forced into early retirement for health reasons.

Aguero announced on Wednesday that he has had to walk away from football after a heart issue was detected in the wake of Barcelona's 1-1 draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30.

The 33-year-old suffered chest discomfort and dizziness, which were later attributed to a heart arrhythmia.

Following consultation with specialists, Aguero accepted continuing his playing career would be too great a risk to his health, meaning his Barcelona career has ended before it ever really got going.

Of course, his initial move to Barca after leaving Manchester City was deemed to have been centred around the possibility of teaming up with Messi, though the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner ended up moving to Paris Saint-Germain soon after due to the Blaugrana's financial woes.

Nevertheless, the pair played alongside each other for Argentina both in youth football and in the senior side, culminating in both being present as the Albiceleste ended their 28-year wait for a trophy by winning the Copa America in July.

Following Aguero's emotional news conference, Messi penned a heartfelt tribute to his friend.

It read: "Practically a whole career together, Kun... We lived very beautiful moments and others that were not so [beautiful], all of them made us unite more and more and made us greater friends. And we are going to continue living [beautiful moments] together off the pitch.

"With the great joy of lifting the Copa America so recently, with all the achievements you achieved in England…the truth is that now it hurts a lot to see how you have to stop doing what you love the most because of what happened to you.

"Surely you will continue to be happy because you are a person who transmits happiness, and those of us who love you will be with you.

"Now a new stage of your life begins and I am convinced you are going to live it with a smile and with all the enthusiasm that you put into everything.

"All the best in this new stage!!! I love you a lot, my friend, I'm going to miss being with you on the pitch with the National Team a lot!"

It is a debate almost as old as the competition itself – who is the best striker to grace the Premier League?

Let's be honest, there are many different ways of looking and none are absolutely nailed-on.

However, one area that many might point to is goals frequency.

It stands to reason. The aim of football is to put the ball in the net and the player who does it most regularly must be pretty good.

That's where Sergio Aguero comes in.

The Manchester City great announced on Wednesday that he has retired from the game due to health reasons, having had a heart issue detected over the past month and a half.

It has cut his career disappointingly short given, at 33, he seemingly still had plenty to offer – but it does provide the opportunity to look back on one of the best goalscorers of recent times.

While he enjoyed his breakthrough to a global audience with Atletico Madrid, he truly peaked at Manchester City and went on to become their record goalscorer with 260 strikes across all competitions.

Of those, 184 were scored in the Premier League, the most any player has ever scored for one club in the competition. He is undoubtedly a modern great.

But compared to the Premier League's other legendary strikers, is he the greatest?

Aguero's 184 goals in the Premier League came at a rate of one every 108 minutes, by far the best record of any player to net at least 20 times in the competition.

But what makes this even more impressive is the fact he could play another 2,520 minutes (or 28 full matches) and still boast the best minutes-per-goal ratio (20+ goals) in Premier League history.

So while Alan Shearer may hold the record for most goals, it would seem Aguero was even more lethal...

Jurgen Klopp said Sergio Aguero is one of the best players he ever managed against after the ex-Manchester City forward announced his retirement.

Aguero, who joined Barcelona from City earlier this year, confirmed his decision to retire on Wednesday at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the Blaugrana's first-team players, while representatives of the 33-year-old's other clubs – including Pep Guardiola – also attended.

The Argentina international suffered chest pain in a LaLiga match against Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which Barca confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

Further tests resulted in Aguero being ruled out for three months to undergo a "diagnostic and therapeutic process". After consultations with specialists, he was told it would be too great a risk to continue playing.

Aguero scored 260 goals in his 10 years at City, with 184 of these coming in the Premier League, making him the highest-scoring overseas player in the competition's history.

Having scored league goals at a rate of one every 108 minutes, the best frequency of any player to net at least 20 in the competition, Aguero could play another 2,520 minutes of Premier League action (the equivalent of 28 full games) without scoring and he would still have the best minutes-per-goal ratio of any player to have scored 20 times or more.

Aguero scored seven league goals against Liverpool, with his last such strike a thumping opener in a crucial 2-1 win in January 2019. City edged out the Reds by a single point in that season's title race.

Asked about Aguero's impact on the Premier League, Klopp – whose side face struggling Newcastle United on Thursday – told a news conference: "Massive, massive.

"I really feel for the boy. He obviously made a move to Barcelona not to retire but for another exciting move in his career, he was not able to contribute because of his issues and I really feel for him.

"He had a great career, there will be a moment where he will see that as well and see that 33 is an age where other players retire but for other reasons, but of course for him at the moment he is of course in shock, that's what you get when you have to announce something like this.

"The impact he had on the Premier League, on football, I think was incredible. The whole time at City, even before Pep arrived there, the goals he scored, the importance of the goals he scored.

"Since I'm here, when we played against City, even if he was not too busy scoring against us, he was massive. He scored a very important one I remember. I don't know him as a person but as a player I can say he's one of the best I ever faced."

Sergio Aguero is proud to look back on his career achievements after announcing his retirement at the age of 33.

The Barcelona forward confirmed his decision to retire on Wednesday at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the Blaugrana's first-team players, while representatives of Aguero's other clubs – including Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola – also attended.

Aguero, who starred for Atletico Madrid before becoming a City great, suffered chest pain in the draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which the club confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

Further tests resulted in the Argentina forward being ruled out for three months to undergo a "diagnostic and therapeutic process". After consultations with specialists, Aguero was told it would be too great a risk to continue playing.

Aguero was in tears as he confirmed his retirement at Camp Nou but is happy with what he achieved throughout an astounding career.

"I was in good hands with the medical staff who did their best, who told me the best thing would be to stop playing," Aguero said.

"So, ten days ago I made that decision, but I want to tell everyone I did everything to have some hope, but there wasn't very much.

"I'm very proud of the career I've had, I'm very happy. I always dreamt of playing football since I was five, my dream was to play in the Primera [Argentina] – I never thought I'd get to Europe, so I want to thank everyone.

"Atletico took a bet on me when I was just 18, people at City – you know how I feel about City, I did everything to the best I could there, I'm very grateful because they looked after me very well, and everyone here at Barca. The team has been great to me, without doubt one of the best clubs in the world.

"I'm grateful because they treated me really well, and of course the Argentina national team, what I love the most. I'm grateful to everyone who's come today, my family, people who've worked with me, and to my team-mates – most recently of Barca – I think I always did my best to help them win.

"I also give my thanks to my team-mates who helped me to grow, and I'll leave now with my head held high, happy. I don't know what awaits me next, but I know there's lots of people who love me and want the best for me. I'm grateful to everyone who's here, all the clubs I played at, and I'll always remember the amazing things."

Aguero helped City win five Premier League titles during his time with the club – his last-gasp goal against QPR in 2012 securing one of the most memorable titles successes in the competition's history.

He left City having scored 184 times in the Premier League at a rate of one every 108 minutes, the best frequency of any player to net at least 20 in the competition's history. In fact, Aguero could play another 2,520 minutes of Premier League action (the equivalent of 28 full games) without scoring, and he would still have the best minutes-per-goal ratio of any player to have scored 20 or more.

The City player closest to that ratio (min. 20 goals) is Edin Dzeko, who scored a goal every 141.6 minutes for City in the English top flight. 

Aguero is also the Premier League's highest-scoring overseas player and holds the record for the number of goals scored for one club.

His only goal for Barcelona came in a 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid in October. A calf injury prevented him from playing more before his heart issue, though he helped Argentina win the Copa America in Brazil during the off-season.

Asked if he had processed the change in his life, Aguero replied: "I feel okay right now, obviously the first two weeks were really difficult. When they did the first physical test on me in the clinic, the medical staff called to say there was a big possibility I wouldn't be able to keep playing.

"I started to process then but it wasn't easy. I'm still processing everything – one of the doctors told me straight up, that's enough. When it was definitive, it took another few days to process. Right now, I'm okay but it was difficult."

Sergio Aguero has retired at the age of 33 due to a heart problem.

The Barcelona forward announced his decision to retire in a statement on Wednesday that was delivered at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the club's first-team players.

Aguero, who starred for Atletico Madrid before becoming a Manchester City great, suffered chest pain in the draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which the club confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

Sergi Barjuan, interim coach at the time, said Aguero told him he was feeling "a little dizzy".

Further tests resulted in Aguero being ruled out for three months to undergo a "diagnostic and therapeutic process". 

However, after consultations with specialists, the Argentina international has been told it is too much of a risk to continue playing.

An emotional Aguero said at Camp Nou on Wednesday: "This conference is to communicate that I have decided to stop playing football.

"It's a very difficult moment. The decision I've made, I've taken it for my health, because of the problem I had a month and a half ago. I was in good hands with the medical staff, who did their best, who told me the best thing would be to stop playing.

"So, 10 days ago I made that decision, but I want to tell everyone I did everything to have some hope, but there wasn't very much."

Aguero joined Barca on a free transfer from City in July, but a calf injury meant he did not make his debut until October.

He made five appearances in all competitions for Barca, playing just 166 minutes, with his sole goal coming in the form of a late consolation in a 2-1 Clasico defeat to Real Madrid.

Aguero scored a club-record 260 goals in 390 appearances in a trophy-laden decade at City, including their famous last-gasp winner against QPR in 2011-12 to clinch the club's maiden Premier League title.

A little over two minutes before the moment that will forever define his career, Manchester City hero Sergio Aguero showed sharpness in the Queens Park Rangers goalmouth that would not have been out of place at Old Trafford.

Old Trafford cricket ground that is, just down the road from City's bitter rivals and their home of the same name.

As Edin Dzeko's equaliser from David Silva's right-wing corner bounced back off the netting, Aguero pounced, snaffling it like a quicksilver short-leg fielder and darting back to the centre circle for City's final tilt at the improbable.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the striker's movement after Joey Barton brazenly tried to dead leg him – one of many surreal and key incidents that fed into a frenzied and famous race against the clock on May 13, 2012.

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The whole story is now as well-worn as any in football history.

On the cusp of a first top-flight title for 44 years, Robert Mancini's Manchester City faced relegation-threatened QPR on the final day of the season. In their previous 18 Premier League home matches that season, they had won 17 and drawn the other – the most recent of those a 1-0 win over United that tipped a titanic Mancunian tussle back towards the blue side of town.

City simply needed to match United's result at Sunderland and led 1-0 at the interval thanks to Pablo Zabaleta, only for second-half goals from Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie to turn the contest on its head.

It remained 2-1 heading into stoppage time despite QPR operating with 10 men. City youth product Barton was dismissed for tussling with Carlos Tevez and responded to Mike Dean's red card by thumping his knee into Aguero's thigh before aiming a headbutt at Vincent Kompany. Fireworks enthusiast Mario Balotelli poured some petrol on this particular bonfire by confronting the combustible Scouser as he stomped towards the tunnel.

Aside from that significant blemish, QPR's discipline was otherwise impeccable. Despite ceding 81.3 possession overall and 84.1 per cent during the second half, they only made seven fouls. Stoppages were infrequent as City thrashed and flailed with increasing desperation and diminishing artistry around the opposition penalty area.

Without Barton's meltdown, there is little chance five minutes of stoppage time - or the three minutes and 20 seconds they ultimately required - would have been signalled. It was time City desperately needed and time they could put to good use with their top scorer's fast-twitch fibres bristling.

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Barton was not the only QPR man with City connections. His team-mates Shaun Wright-Phillips and Nedum Onuoha had also graduated through Jim Cassell's Platt Lane youth system, while Rangers boss Mark Hughes was Mancini's immediate predecessor, having been axed shortly before Christmas in 2009.

Hughes, of course, also played for United with distinction across two spells, and those loyalties struck a chord as news came through Bolton Wanderers had failed to beat Stoke City, meaning the Londoners were safe irrespective of the outcome at the Etihad Stadium.

"[City] got back on level terms and I always remember, at that point, I knew we were safe because the other result came in," he told the Coaches Voice in 2020.

"I'm thinking, 'I wouldn't mind United winning, if I'm honest'. It's 2-2 and Jay Bothroyd looked over, asking what we wanted them to do [from the restart]. The players understood the [Bolton] game was over and we'd stayed up. We just said kick it as far as you can, right in the corner and the game's over."

Hughes' recollections from that point credit City with a poise they absolutely lacked. Rarely can a team have scored twice in this space of two minutes and – save for a crucial few seconds – played so shambolically.

Bothroyd's hoof found touch and scampering Joe Hart ran out of his goal to take the throw-in. The England goalkeeper almost missed the pitch.

Gael Clichy carried the ball down the flank, only for his attempted cross to turn into a block tackle with Mackie. Samir Nasri's aimless, floated effort that followed did little more than give Clint Hill a ninth successful clearance of the afternoon.

Nasri then excelled himself by shepherding the ball out for a QPR throw-in. Just 40 seconds before that explosion of ecstasy there was fury and anguish in the stands. Aguero watched it all from roughly the QPR penalty spot. Apparently he'd seen quite enough.

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Aguero honed his lethal skills playing against bigger boys in Buenos Aires on the neighbourhood potrero – the hard gravel and mud neighbourhood pitches that football purists in Argentina bemoan are a diminishing presence.

"When you play you have to think fast. Who to take on, who not," Aguero said when recalling those days in a 2018 documentary for City's in-house television channel. "You know who is going to play dirty, who isn't.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

Reflecting further in the 2019 book 'Pep's City' by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin, he further explained the proving ground that readied him for Barton and others.

"Getting kicked black and blue was all part of the game," he said. "You held on to the ball any way you could.

"Running with the ball was a whole different concept for us. I'd be up against big, tough boys and I was always the smallest. But I learned how to survive."

Aguero remembered those matches were played for the prize of a peso, which would garner one of his favourite sweet treats, an alfajor or dulce de leche.

As United's players took in full-time and three points at the Stadium of Light, and Nigel de Jong brought the ball forward in Manchester to the soundtrack of QPR celebrations – their fans aware of Bolton's fate – the stakes were somewhat higher.

Vacating his spot in a penalty area already crowded by substitutes Dzeko and Balotelli, along with a marauding Kompany, Aguero took possession from De Jong 30 yards from goal.

He faced up to a compact QPR back four, with the visitors' four midfielders all in his immediate vicinity.

"You start to realise what you can do on the pitch and what you can't."

A shuffling touch to his left engineered space outside Shaun Derry, but Aguero needed help. Ideally from someone reliable, given the complete lack of any margin for error.

                                                                *********************

Balotelli was on the pitch in a Manchester City shirt for the first time in over a month.

Mancini had not trusted his wayward protege since a brainless red card in a 1-0 Easter Sunday defeat at Arsenal left City eight points behind United with six games to play. Tevez, who had spent the bulk of the campaign AWOL playing golf in Argentina, represented a far more dependable option.

But with nowhere left to turn, he dared and prayed for Mario to be super. However briefly.

Introduced in the 76th minute, Balotelli gave the impression he had not just been banished from Premier League arenas, but football pitches altogether since his previous game.

The Italy striker managed to run through seven attempts – two on target, five blocked – during a frenzied cameo. It was probably as well Aguero found him with his back to goal, inside the D and grappling with Anton Ferdinand.

"I tried to control the ball and I had a contact from the defender and the ball went a little bit far from my foot," Balotelli told City TV five years on. "I thought in that half second there is maybe going to be a little bit of space for Sergio."

If Balotelli had stayed upright, the likelihood is QPR would have seen through their final piece of dogged tireless defending. In being forced on to his backside for the only assist of his Premier League career, he created opportunity and chaos.

Facing his own goal, Derry had to hurdle a prone Balotelli, while Wright-Phillips' route back to defend was also compromised. With his centre-back partner grounded, Hill held his position square on, while Kompany's haring towards the six-yard box dragged left-back Taye Taiwo with him.

A pocket of space opened up. A spot of turf Balotelli was able to locate from his sedentary position. As limbs flailed around him and a tight defence scattered, Aguero was thinking fast.

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Argentina's aforementioned tradition of tough, uncompromising neighbourhood football goes hand in hand with the mystique and mythology that cloaks the country's national sport.

A playing style grounded in skill and improvisation – La Nuestra, which translates as "our way" – was locked into the collective consciousness during the first half of the 20th century. The pre-eminent football magazine El Grafico, served to deepen this romantic attachment, with depictions of the pibe – literally a kid or urchin, whose rough and ready footballing technique combined street smarts and skill and was something of an archetype. Typically they would dribble in the gambeta style, a description that implies close control, cunning and deceit of opponents.

The idea that the likes of Diego Maradona, Ariel Ortega, Lionel Messi and all those other squat, explosive and technically brilliant attackers from Argentina immersed themselves in the yellowed pages of El Grafico archive is far-fetched, but the style is unquestionably embedded. Think of the amount of barrelling, dribbling goals such players have produced – close control, small pauses and faints as thighs piston their way through defences.

As the walls were closing in on City's title bid, Aguero showed himself to be a proud product of this lineage. When Balotelli began his battle against gravity, he deftly checked his run behind and around Wright-Phillips to open up a path to the penalty area.

Letting the pass roll, he shaped to shoot, drawing a scampering Taiwo, who left his Kompany decoy a little too late to remain in control. Aguero did not actually touch Balotelli's return pass until his body position persuaded a rash slide tackle that he nudged beyond with the outside of his right boot.

With Taiwo suitably gambeta'd, there came one last stroke of fortune.

                                                                *********************

"I touched it again and saw I was close to the goal, so I said 'I'll shoot'. The worst thing was that I wanted to shoot hard across goal and it went to the near post, I don't know what happened," Aguero told TyC Sports last year – the latter sentiment at least aligning him with every soul inside the Etihad Stadium that day.

"After watching it back, I realised that if I had shot across goal a defender could have blocked it. I celebrated the goal and told everybody, 'I hit it so well!'."

Goal 23 of a personal Premier League tally that now reads 184, one of 130 with Aguero's ferocious right boot, understandably left an indelible impression on the suddenly defeated Hughes.

"Of all the games I've been involved in, that noise at that moment when that goal went in is different to anything I've ever heard before or since.

"It was just unbelievable sound – different sound to a football crowd. It was a mixture of screaming and noise. It was just an unbelievable moment."

That racket has since been replayed thousands of times across the world. A goal on a tightrope that altered the course of English football, which began with gifting the opposition a 92nd-minute throw-in and ended thanks to a miscue after the main protagonist's strike partner fell over.

It is the Premier League's most famous goal – a moment as synonymous with Manchester as cotton mills and the Hacienda, and yet Argentinian to its very bones.

As Aguero bids farewell to football begins, expect to see it replayed another few thousand times.

Sergio Aguero has retired at the age of 33 due to a heart problem.

The Barcelona forward announced his decision to retire in a statement on Wednesday that was delivered at an event featuring president Joan Laporta and the club's first-team players.

Aguero, who starred for Atletico Madrid before becoming a Manchester City great, suffered chest pain in the draw with Deportivo Alaves on October 30, which the club confirmed was down to a heart arrhythmia.

Sergi Barjuan, interim coach at the time, said Aguero told him he was feeling "a little dizzy".

Further tests resulted in Aguero being ruled out for three months to undergo a "diagnostic and therapeutic process". 

However, after consultations with specialists, the Argentina international has been told it is too much of a risk to continue playing.

Aguero joined Barca on a free transfer from City in July, but a calf injury meant he did not make his debut until October.

He made five appearances in all competitions for Barca, playing just 166 minutes, with his sole goal coming in the form of a late consolation in a 2-1 Clasico defeat to Real Madrid.

Aguero scored a club-record 260 goals in 390 appearances in a trophy-laden decade at City, including their famous last-gasp winner against QPR in 2011-12 to clinch the club's maiden Premier League title.

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