Luka Doncic was labelled the "best player in the world" by Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez after he inspired Slovenia to an opening win at the Olympic Games.

The Dallas Mavericks star led his country to qualification for the Games and was at his remarkable best in Slovenia's 118-100 triumph.

Slovenia lead Group C after the first round of games, which wrapped up with Spain comfortably seeing off host nation Japan.

Ricky Rubio was the star for Spain, who emerged 88-77 victors at the Saitama Super Arena.


THERE'S NO DOUBT ANYMORE

Hernandez already had an extremely high opinion of Doncic, but his side's defeat at the hands of Slovenia's talisman left no question in his mind that he is the world's best.

Doncic scored 48 points, shooting 62 per cent from the field, and registered 11 rebounds in a stunning double-double performance.

Klemen Prepelic went four of six from deep in racking up 22 points, but this was predominantly a one-man show which left Hernandez in awe.

"It's really hard to analyse a game when one player just dominates everything as we saw tonight with Luka Doncic," Hernandez said. 

"We tried everything that we could and it truly sounds like an excuse but we weren't able to do much when you have such a dominating player.

"I said this two years ago: he is the best player in the world, including the NBA. If there was any doubt in my mind, there is no doubt anymore that he is the best player in the world."

RUBIO PULLS THE STRINGS

Spain will have been boosted by the United States' defeat to France as they seek a first Olympic gold medal.

And it was Rubio who ensured their quest started in routine fashion, top-scoring with 20 points and excelling as a passer in registering nine assists.

Japan improved in the second half after scoring just 14 points in each of the first two quarters, NBA duo Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe excelling for the hosts.

Hachimura scored 20 points while Watanabe finished with 19 points and eight rebounds but could not prevent Japan from coming up short in their comeback bid.

France got the better of South Africa in a seven-goal thriller as Andre-Pierre Gignac's hat-trick inspired Les Bleus to a 4-3 victory at the Tokyo Olympics.

Having been thrashed 4-1 by Mexico in their opening game of Group A, France hit back to keep their chances of progression alive, though they had to do so the hard way in Saitama.

Indeed, South Africa led on three occasions during a remarkable second half, yet it was Les Bleus who took the points.

Liberato Cacace's stunner was not enough to propel New Zealand to victory against Honduras in Group B, while reigning champions Brazil could only draw 0-0 with the Ivory Coast and Spain overcame Australia thanks to Mikel Oyarzabal's late winner.

 

GIGNAC AND SAVANIER SETTLE THRILLER

France were on the wrong end of conceding four last time out, and though they still let three in this time around, Teji Savanier's stoppage-time goal saw them clinch victory.

It was 35-year-old Gignac who had previously dragged France level on three occasions – a close-range finish followed by a thumping header before the Tigres striker, the leading scorer in the competition, converted his second penalty of the tournament to cancel out Teboho Mokoena's glorious 81st-minute strike.

Luther Singh had missed a first-half penalty for South Africa, with Kobamelo Kodisang and Evidence Makgopa also getting on the scoresheet.

But Gignac's efforts set the stage for France to nose themselves ahead when Montpellier's experienced Savanier lashed home, sending South Africa out in the process.

France sit third in Group A, three points behind leaders Japan, who survived a late scare to beat Mexico 2-1.

ALL WHITES LET LEAD SLIP

Cacace's exceptional strike put New Zealand ahead after just 10 minutes in Kashima – the defender picking out the top-right corner with a first-time effort from 30 yards out.

Luis Palma restored parity in first-half stoppage time, yet Chris Wood carried on his scoring form to put New Zealand back in front just after the restart.

Yet substitutes proved the difference for Honduras. Juan Obregon netted with 12 minutes remaining, paving the way for Rigoberto Rivas to clinch the comeback victory.

Matters were much more simple for South Korea, as they cruised to a 4-0 triumph against Romania, meaning all four Group B teams are on four points heading into the final matchday.

 

OYARZABAL RECORDS LONG-AWAITED SPAIN WIN

Spain secured their first win at an Olympic Games since 2000 thanks to Oyarzabal's header against Australia, which came with nine minutes of normal time remaining.

The 24-year-old Real Sociedad winger – who played a pivotal role in Spain's run to the semi-finals at Euro 2020 – has put La Roja top of Group C heading into Wednesday's encounter with Argentina, who beat Egypt.

Spain, who drew with Egypt in their opener, won gold in 1992 and silver in 2000, but had only qualified once since then, but they failed to score across their three appearances in the 2012 London Games.

CHAMPIONS HELD AS GERMANY BOUNCE BACK

Brazil sparkled in their 4-2 win over Germany on matchday one, though they could not find a way past the Ivory Coast, who held them to a 0-0 draw in Group D.

Douglas Luiz was sent off early on for Brazil, who missed a last-gasp chance to seal qualification through substitute Malcom after the Ivory Coast had also been reduced to 10 men.

Meanwhile, Germany recovered from their defeat on matchday one to beat Saudi Arabia 3-2 – Felix Uduokhai netting the decisive goal in the 75th minute.

New Barcelona signing Memphis Depay is relishing the chance to link up with Lionel Messi, who he believes showed at the Copa America why he is still the world's best player.

Netherlands international Depay joined Barca as a free agent when his Lyon contract expired on July 1 and was officially unveiled at Camp Nou on Thursday.

While the 27-year-old is excited to begin a new chapter in his career at Barca, club legend Messi's future is less clear as he has yet to sign a new deal and is now a free agent.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is reportedly close to agreeing a long-term contract with the Spanish giants that will keep him tied down to the club until 2026.

Messi is currently on an extended break after inspiring Argentina to their first Copa America crown since 1993 earlier this month.

He scored four goals and provided five assists to win the Golden Boot and his maiden piece of silverware while representing his country at senior level.

Depay is hopeful Messi will soon put pen to paper so he can fulfil a dream of playing alongside the superstar forward.

"He is a legend and the best player in the world," Depay said at his unveiling. "Did you see what he did in the Copa America?

"I really want to play with Leo. His qualities with the ball are undeniable. As long as I make the runs, I know the ball will come. I am a great fan of his.

"Yesterday I had a tour of the museum and saw all of the Ballon d'Or awards he has won. He probably has another one coming, too. It's going to be a dream for me."

 

After a short break following the Netherlands' last-16 exit to the Czech Republic at Euro 2020 last month, Depay arrived in Catalonia on Monday to begin pre-season training.

The Dutchman got his career back on track at Lyon following a disappointing spell with Manchester United, scoring 76 goals in 178 appearances for the Ligue 1 side.

He enjoyed an impressive final season in the French top flight with 20 goals, trailing only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27).

The former PSV youth product's 12 assists and 94 chances created, meanwhile, were more than any other player managed in Ligue 1 in 2020-21.

After months of drawn-out speculation, Depay is pleased to have finally completed a switch to Barcelona this month.

"It's an honour to be here, a dream come true," he said. "Since I was little I dreamed of it. The conversations have been long, but the will has always been there.

"At last I am here. Everyone who is present knows the importance of the club around the world, of how great it is and the impact it has.

"At 27 years of age achieving my dream is surprising and fantastic. I really want to start playing. 

"The team is ready for the new season, we are rested and the time has come to go back to work and pick up trophies."

Koeman previously managed Depay while in charge of the Netherlands, but the former Man Utd attacker insists his compatriot was not a deciding factor in leaving Lyon for Barca.

"I would have come even if he was not here because you don't say no to Barca," he said. "I would have come anyway, but it is also true that the coach has had a great impact. 

"I know him well. He played me as a forward with the national team. He has made me feel comfortable because I started playing better."

Depay is one of three free agents to have joined the cash-strapped Catalans this window, along with former Manchester City pair Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia.

Asked if he is concerned by Barca's financial problems, which have not been helped by the coronavirus pandemic, Depay said: "No. I am focused only on the game. 

"I cannot focus on that. The business part is something the president [Joan Laporta] and the board will take care of. When fans are back in the stadium the situation will improve."

Graham Arnold revealed he had "visualised" Australia's impressive 2-0 win over Argentina in their Olympics opener – and said keeping Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona out of conversations was all-important.

Australia head coach Arnold saw his Olyroos team strike a major victory for the underdog with their Tokyo 2020 success in Sapporo, where goals from Lachlan Wales and Marco Tilio did the damage.

Although the Argentina team this year does not carry the same star quality as the 2004 and 2008 sides that featured Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi respectively, the South Americans were expected to be on a high after their senior side lifted the Copa America trophy earlier this month.

Arnold's Australian troops were highly impressive in the Group C tussle, however, even though their coach still saw room for improvement.

"Nobody would have given us a chance apart from us. I've been visualising this performance for the last couple of weeks, I even visualised the score," Graham said.

"I believe in these boys and I believe so much in them that I'm not happy with our overall performance. I was happy with the work rate, the energy, but at times we turned over the ball too simply and too easily. We need to improve as we go on, and we will."

 

Arnold pointed to Australia having only one previous Olympic men's football win in the 2000s, a 5-1 win over Serbia and Montenegro in 2004 at the Athens Games.

"It's a great win, but we've done nothing yet. It's three points, we're off to a great start, the first win, but the important thing is improvement," the coach added.

"We didn't mention the name of the opposition, it's all about us. Sometimes when you mention a nation like Argentina's name, everyone just starts thinking of the players, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and Copa America champions.

"It was more about focusing on ourselves for the last week and making sure all the players knew their roles, their jobs and building a lot of belief in the players that we could go out there and put in a good performance and win the game."

He vowed Australia were "here to compete for a gold medal" and offered up the victory to those locked down in Australia during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

"It was probably the last thing I mentioned to the players before they went on the pitch," he said. "Australia, New South Wales in particular, is going through a very tough time at the moment with COVID, with lockdown and I just said to the boys, 'A lot of families are locked down at home, let's put a smile on a lot of Australian faces tonight, give them a performance they will remember'.

"I really expect that a lot of people back at home who didn't give us much chance of winning before really enjoyed that. I expect we put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces ... for tonight anyway."

Richarlison fired a first-half hat-trick before nervy Brazil almost squandered a 3-0 lead against Germany in their Tokyo 2020 opener, while Australia stunned Argentina.

Reigning Olympic champions Brazil eventually toppled Germany 4-2 in the Group D opener in Yokohama, a rematch of the final from the 2016 Games in Rio that went to a penalty shoot-out.

Brazil were pegged back to 3-2 on this occasion before Paulinho's stoppage-time strike ended 10-man Germany's hopes of snatching a draw.

Richarlison made a seventh-minute breakthrough when Germany defender Amos Pieper slipped to allow the Everton striker a clear run on goal. Although his first shot was pushed out by Florian Mueller, Richarlison lashed in the rebound on the half-volley.

A close-range header after 22 minutes made it 2-0 and Richarlison sealed his treble with a shot into the right corner that took a slight deflection off Pieper.

Matheus Cunha missed a penalty for Brazil in first-half stoppage time before clumsy goalkeeping from Santos allowed Germany to get on the scoresheet after the break, Nadiem Amiri's tame volley creeping in.

Germany's Maximilian Arnold was dismissed after a soft second booking for a clash with Dani Alves, but another goal arrived when Ragnar Ache headed home in the 83rd minute, only for Paulinho's clinical breakaway finish, high into the top right corner, to make sure of the points.

Australia enjoyed a banner day as goals from Lachlan Wales and Marco Tilio floored a youthful Argentina side, who had midfielder Francisco Ortega sent off shortly before half-time.

Wales tucked in a low cross from Joel King to give the Olyroos a 14th-minute lead, and Ortega was dismissed for two bookable offences in quick succession to leave Argentina in trouble.

Tilio sealed a 2-0 win with a thumping left-footed strike into the right corner from 20 yards after 80 minutes as Argentina were caught on the break.

France were beaten 4-1 by Mexico, with substitutes Uriel Antuna and Eduardo Aguirre putting the finishing touches to the impressive win with late goals. Andre-Pierre Gignac, who plays his club football in Liga MX, got France's consolation with a second-half penalty.

Burnley striker Chris Wood scored as New Zealand earned a 1-0 win over South Korea, and Milan midfielder Franck Kessie netted in Ivory Coast's 2-1 victory against Saudi Arabia.

Spain were held 0-0 by Egypt, while hosts Japan edged South Africa 1-0 and Romania beat Honduras by the same scoreline.

Gianfranco Zola believes midfielder Jorginho would be a deserving winner of the Ballon d'Or despite Lionel Messi's claims on the award.

Jorginho finished the 2020-21 campaign as Chelsea's leading Premier League scorer with seven goals, albeit each of those came from the penalty spot.

He carried that form into Euro 2020, playing every game for Italy in their successful campaign that ended with a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley.

Jorginho actually missed from the spot in the final, but he otherwise enjoyed an impeccable tournament for the Azzurri.

The Brazilian-born player led the way in terms of interceptions at Euro 2020 with 25, substantially more than Chelsea team-mate N'Golo Kante (14), who was next best.

Meanwhile, Jorginho's 484 successful passes were bettered only by Spain's Aymeric Laporte (644), leading to seven chances being created for his team-mates. Only Azzurri colleague Lorenzo Insigne (40) was involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 38.

 

Barcelona's Messi, a six-time Ballon d'Or winner, finished as LaLiga's top scorer last season with 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions before inspiring Argentina to glory in the Copa America.

Despite Messi's pedigree former Chelsea forward Zola – who earned 35 caps for Italy and scored 10 goals between 1991 and 1997 – backed Jorginho as a worthy challenger. 

"The Ballon d'Or is usually awarded to a striker or an offensive player who can score a lot," Zola told Stats Perform. 

"Now we are talking about a fantastic player like [Lionel] Messi who did extraordinary things for the first time with his national team – and this won’t go unnoticed. 

"Should they give it to Jorginho, it would be deserved. He gives concrete balance and pace to his teams. I was lucky to have him at Chelsea and I know what he does on the pitch.

"It would be deserved because not only were his performances at a high level, but the teams he played for have been outstanding. This must be taken into account."

Gianluigi Donnarumma is Euro 2020 winners Italy's star player and will be the best goalkeeper in the world for the next 10 to 15 years, according to Fabio Cannavaro.

The 22-year-old was named UEFA's Player of the Tournament for his penalty shoot-out heroics in Italy's victory over England in last Sunday's final at Wembley.

Donnarumma kept out efforts from Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, after Marcus Rashford had earlier hit the post, as Italy ended their 53-year wait to win a second Euros crown.

He has won all five of the shoot-outs he has been involved in for club and country, having also made a crucial save in the semi-final shoot-out victory against Spain.

Italy legend Cannavaro believes Donnarumma answered any of his remaining critics with his displays at Euro 2020 and expects his compatriot to shine for at least the next decade. 

"Donnarumma is the real champion of this Azzurri side," Cannavaro told Tuttosport. "I am surprised that, before the Euros, some people thought he was an average goalkeeper. 

"There's nothing average about Gigio. Just think of the tranquillity he has at 22. He will be the best goalkeeper for the next 10 to 15 years."

Donnarumma played more minutes at Euro 2020 than any other player (719), missing only the closing stages of Italy's win against Wales in the group stage.

After spending time celebrating the Azzurri's triumph, the young keeper this week completed a free transfer from Milan to Paris Saint-Germain, where he will compete with Keylor Navas.

"At least we will enjoy him with the national team," Cannavaro added.

 

In his final season at San Siro, where he has spent his entire senior career to date, Donnarumma recorded a joint-high 14 Serie A clean sheets alongside Inter's Samir Handanovic.

While Italy ended a long wait for continental silverware last week, Argentina did likewise by claiming their first Copa America crown since 1993.

Lionel Messi was the star performer for Argentina, scoring four goals and assisting five more to win his first trophy at international level.

Despite Donnarumma's impressive displays for Italy, Cannavaro is backing Messi to win a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or crown later this year.

"He is the absolute number one and he was the protagonist of a great Copa America," Cannavaro said.

When we look ahead to the Olympics, we usually think about track & field sports, swimming, cycling, maybe even wrestling and boxing.

Given it dominates so much of the sporting agenda for the rest of the year, football may not be among those sports we initially associate with the Olympics, but it has offered numerous stars the opportunity to show their talents to a global audience and to potentially take home a coveted medal.

Of course, the Olympic football tournament is geared more towards lesser-established players, given the age-restriction rules in place.

While teams are usually allowed no more than three players over the age of 23, that age limit has been increased to 24 so not to penalise those around the cut-off who may well have missed out as a result of the 12-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Superstars such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi may be missing, but there are still plenty of familiar faces. Barcelona's Pedri will be involved after starring for Spain at Euro 2020; Brazil great Dani Alves is joined by Arsenal and Everton forwards Gabriel Martinelli and Richarlison; and dynamic Milan midfielder Franck Kessie will be the Ivory Coast's go-to man.

But there are plenty of other relatively unheralded talents ready to make you sit up and take note. Below, Stats Perform takes a look at 10 of them.

Facundo Medina, 22, centre-back – Argentina

It's fair to say Lens defender Medina has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence. The French side brought him in from Club Atletico Talleres just last July and he's already being mentioned as a potential target for clubs like Manchester United.

While he may not be the most physically imposing central defender, he's a good technician, which is demonstrated by his ease on the ball – only three Ligue 1 centre-backs (more than 1,000 minutes played) embarked on more ball carries per 90 minutes (20) than Medina, while his average of 56 successful passes per game was more than any of his team-mates.

Bryan Gil, 20, winger – Spain

La Roja's squad is packed with familiar names – as many as six were at Euro 2020, and that doesn't include the likes of Marco Asensio, Carlos Soler and Dani Ceballos. But of the players with less global recognition, old-fashioned left-winger Bryan is arguably the most exciting.

He just completed a very encouraging loan spell away from Sevilla with Eibar, where his direct and brave style of play was frequently on display, with only Lionel Messi, Javi Galan and Yannick Carrasco attempting more dribbles than him (132). In January he became only the second player born this century to score a LaLiga brace, and he won his first senior Spain caps this year.

 

Diego Lainez, 21, winger – Mexico

It feels like Lainez has been tipped for a big future for a long time now – after all, he first burst on to the scene with Club America four years ago. Two-and-a-half years into his time in LaLiga with Real Betis, he's yet to really establish himself with only 13 of his 48 league appearances coming as a starter. He's still not scored a goal.

But there's no doubting he's a talent. In 2020-21, he attempted a dribble every 17 minutes, which was a record among Betis players and ahead of even Nabil Fekir (21 mins). Lainez is an entertainer and clearly gifted, but perhaps lacking consistency in his end product. Who knows, as one of the more talented players in the Mexico squad, being seen as a go-to player may aid his quest for maturity.

Teji Savanier, 29, central midfielder – France

Savanier is the odd one out in this list, given he's the only one who actually counts towards an over-age quota, though it could be argued that it's to players like him that playing at the Olympics may matter the most. Savanier's never even played for France's youth teams, let alone the senior side, and he only made his top-flight bow as recently as 2018, but he's one of those central midfielders that's a joy to watch with his wonderful ability on the ball.

He has completed 58.4 per cent of his 279 dribbles in Ligue 1 since July 2018, which is bettered by only three players (more than 150 attempts) in the same period. For greater context, Neymar's completion rate in that time is 52.5 per cent. Savanier should also provide France with a threat at set-pieces, as only Benjamin Bourigeaud created more chances (40) from such situations than the Montpellier star (37) in 2020-21.

 

Thiago Almada, 20, attacking midfielder – Argentina

La Albiceleste's squad boasts numerous talented young attacking players – Ezequiel Barco, Pedro de la Vega, Ezequiel Ponce, but Almada's arguably rated highest of the lot.

A diminutive attacking midfielder from Carlos Tevez's old neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, Fuerte Apache, Almada is skilful, explosive and creative. Among players born this century, Almada boasts the best chances created per game frequency (two) in the Copa Libertadores (at least two games played) this season, as well as being the youngest player to have netted at least twice in the competition in 2021.

Claudinho, 24, forward – Brazil

All roads point to Europe for Claudinho, who looks poised to be the first major export of Red Bull Bragantino, the energy drink giant's Brazilian club. While no move has been confirmed yet, it seems only a matter of time before RB Leipzig look to bring him over to Germany.

 

After all, he was the joint-top scorer in the 2020 Brasileirao (18 goals), with his finishing abilities highlighted by the fact a league-high seven of those were scored from outside the box. Claudinho also created 25 more chances than anyone else in the division, and scooped both the Young Player of the Year and MVP awards.

 

Nathanael Mbuku, 19, winger – France

He may not necessarily be a starter for Les Bleus, given they've plenty of attacking talent in the squad, but at the very least left-winger Mbuku could be an interesting option from the bench. Reims are reported to already value him at €15million, and he has previous when it comes to excelling in national team colours – he netted five goals in six games as France finished third at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup.

Mbuku enjoyed a smattering of Ligue 1 appearances that season, though it was in 2020-21 that he truly established himself, making 28 starts – that was tied with Eduardo Camavinga for the most by a player born in 2002 or after. He caught the eye with his ability to beat a man, completing a highly respectable 58.1 per cent of his 74 dribbles last term, a completion rate bettered by only 10 players who attempted at least 70.

Felix Uduokhai, 23, centre-back – Germany

Wolfsburg plucked Uduokhai from 1860 Munich in 2017 with much expected of him. He fell well out of favour in his second season before moving on loan to Augsburg, who triggered their purchase option on him last year. Since moving to Bavaria, he's hardly looked back.

He earned his first senior call-up to the Germany team in November and now there is chatter that some of the Bundesliga's biggest clubs are circling for him again. Whoever gets Uduokhai will land an imposing centre-back whose 102 aerial wins was the fourth-highest in the league last term, while only Amos Pieper (160) bettered his 157 clearances.

 

Brenno, 22, goalkeeper – Brazil

For years, goalkeeper was considered the only position where Brazil struggled to develop world-class players, though Alisson and Ederson have firmly disproved that notion and Brenno could be another to keep an eye on.

In the 2021 Brasileirao, Brenno is averaging the fourth-most amount of saves per 90 minutes (3.5) among those to have played at least four times, and is reportedly interesting Portuguese clubs. A solid showing in Japan might see a potential transfer sped up.

Amad Diallo, 19, winger – Ivory Coast

Manchester United fans will be eager to get a good look at Amad during the Olympics, given they only got glimpses of him in 2020-21 after joining from Atalanta. Amid those eight appearances, he certainly showed flashes of his exciting ability and silky footwork, but they will hope to see some performances of a little more substance.

As much as anything, it could be an opportunity for Amad to earn himself a loan move or prove to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he's worth keeping around. Jadon Sancho's arrival will likely further impact his exposure to first-team football, but impressing in Japan might encourage his manager to use him as a regular back up to the England international, with Mason Greenwood moved into a central position.

The United States are always favourites at the Olympic Games – and rightly so. In 18 entries to the men's basketball event, Team USA have collected 18 medals, 15 of them gold.

But those three defeats serve as a warning for Gregg Popovich's side.

And any remaining complacency heading to Tokyo 2020 – in pursuit of a fourth straight title – should have been shifted by their initial pre-tournament exhibitions.

The United States lost to Nigeria last Saturday and then to Australia two days later, their third and fourth defeats in exhibitions since first fielding NBA players with the formation of the 'Dream Team' in 1992.

"It was better," as Popovich said, in Tuesday's win over Argentina – "bit by bit, every day, I hope," the coach added – but the pressure is still on, as consistent results must follow when the real action begins.

 

TOUGH START FOR TEAM USA SUPERSTARS

Of course, Team USA have never failed to advance from the preliminary round and that spotless record is highly unlikely to change this year. A kind draw has thrown up only one true test, but it comes first up: against France.

Indeed, Les Bleus dealt the United States their humiliating quarter-final exit at the FIBA Basketball World Cup two years ago.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert – the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year – put up a game-high 16 rebounds in that France victory and his size is a real problem for familiar opponents.

Gobert led the league with 2.7 blocks and 10.1 defensive rebounds per game in 2020-21, snaring 33.5 per cent of defensive boards while on the floor for the third-best mark in the NBA.

Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green might be versatile but, as the two preferred American options at the five, finding joy in the middle seems unlikely, while Team USA might also struggle to stop 7ft 1in Gobert on defense. His 67.5 per cent shooting was another benchmark.

However, the talent elsewhere in the Team USA lineup should ensure they have enough to win most matchups.

Kevin Durant shot 52.3 per cent from the midrange and 45.0 per cent from beyond the arc in the regular season; only two players made more threes than Damian Lillard (275), who then broke Klay Thompson's record with 12 makes from deep in a single playoff game against the Denver Nuggets.

The opener could either see Durant and Co lay down a marker for the rest of the tournament or provide other contenders with a blueprint for beating the United States.

 

BOOMERS BANG UP FOR MEDAL PURSUIT

Australia are far from the biggest team at the Games, but they have already shown the joy that can be found in the paint against Team USA, scoring 44 points from inside the key in their exhibition win.

The Boomers' effective, well-executed gameplan was all the more impressive given the unsettled nature of their team.

They have changed coach three times since the World Cup, and star name Ben Simmons is absent – working to "develop that skill package and improve in a couple of areas", Brian Goorjian said, after averaging an awful 9.9 points per game in the playoff series defeat to the Atlanta Hawks.

But Philadelphia 76ers team-mate Matisse Thybulle is still on hand to provide defensive energy, having led the NBA in steal percentage (3.9), while Patty Mills remains more reliable at international level than for Popovich's San Antonio Spurs.

Four times beaten in the bronze medal game, Australia will expect to finally secure some hardware, yet Group B also contains a dark horse in the form of Nigeria, who followed up their own victory against the United States by dominating Argentina.

Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent had 21 points against the country of his birth, a total he has only once topped in his NBA career to date.

Nigeria have chemistry, talent and, in Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, coaching experience. They have also played so far like they have a point to prove.

 

DONCIC DRAWN INTO GROUP OF DEATH

Second and third pool games against Iran and the Czech Republic respectively should see that there is no jeopardy for the United States early on, but Group C shows how tough this tournament can be.

There will be a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final between Spain and Argentina, while hosts Japan will hope to make some noise. Then there is Slovenia, led of course by Luka Doncic.

One of the most exciting young talents in the world, Doncic has already shown himself capable of dragging a team to against-the-odds victories single-handedly.

The 22-year-old, whose 36.0 per cent usage rate led the NBA this year, was unsurprisingly named the MVP at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kaunas just three weeks after forcing the Los Angeles Clippers to go to a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

Doncic has averaged 33.5 points across his 13 career postseason games – all of which have come against the Clippers. No player in NBA history has played 13 playoff games or more and averaged more, with Michael Jordan second on 33.4.

But Doncic has lost both of those series to date and is now faced with some hugely experienced players at this level. Argentina's Luis Scola and Spain's Pau Gasol – who moved to Barcelona specifically to prepare for the Games – are both in their 40s.

Should Doncic guide his country into the knockout stage, though, Team USA would undoubtedly be wary of taking on the two-time All-NBA First Team selection.

Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich is confident his side is getting better after responding to rare back-to-back losses with a 108-80 win over Argentina on Tuesday.

The gold medal favourite's preparations ahead of the Tokyo Olympics were shaken up after consecutive exhibition game defeats to Australia and Nigeria.

But the Americans were much improved 12 days out from their Olympics opener, led by Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal who both had 17 points and six rebounds.

USA led 58-42 at half-time and never looked back, as Bam Adebayo returned to the starting five with good impact.

“I thought we sustained it pretty well in our game against Australia, and we competed well, rebounded, played defense, ran the floor and had good pace for one half, but then it dissipated through the second half,” Popovich said.

“Tonight, I thought we maintained [effort] pretty much throughout the game, so hopefully that's a sign that we are in a little better condition.

"To play these games is huge for us. So, it was better, and it is getting better, bit by bit, every day.”

Popovich also praised Adebayo along with Draymond Green, while Jayson Tatum missed the game with a right knee injury with no timeframe confirmed.

"I thought both Bam and Draymond Green facilitated a lot of action, and they were very active," Popovich said. "They got everybody involved, which is something that's really important for us."

Beal added that the side had learned some important lessons from the Australia and Nigeria defeats.

"The biggest thing we have to realise is that it’s not the NBA, and coach Pop keeps re-emphasizing that to us every single day," Beal said.

"It’s more physical. These guys have been playing together for five, 10-plus years, so they have this experience and chemistry. We're trying to develop that in a short period of time."

USA have further games against Australia and Spain, before departing for Tokyo next Monday with the first Olympics game against France on July 25.

Italy and Argentina can prepare for the 2022 World Cup full of confidence after continental triumphs in the European Championship and Copa America.

The Azzurri have recovered in spectacular fashion from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally has an international honour to shout about.

Those teams were not alone in taking encouragement from this year's major international tournaments, but other potential Qatar contenders were not quite so impressive.

While some sides could reasonably point to mitigating factors – Belgium's injuries, Germany's final campaign under Joachim Low – plenty of big names underwhelmed.

With the World Cup finals, now just 16 months away, the next big target on the horizon, Stats Perform assesses which teams have put themselves in a better or worse position to challenge.

FULL OF HOPE...

Italy

Italy might have missed the previous World Cup after an awful qualifying campaign but, barring another such mishap, will enter the next tournament as defending European champions, and the Azzurri have in the past tended to perform better on the world stage than in the Euros, this their second continental championship to go alongside four global triumphs.

The only question mark against Roberto Mancini's side heading into Euro 2020 on a long unbeaten run was how they might fare against top teams, having largely avoided facing elite opposition since their most recent defeat to Portugal in September 2018. They then eliminated Belgium, Spain and England in succession to take the title and extend their stunning streak to 34 matches without a loss.

 

Only in the centre of defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, are Italy really ageing, and even then a swift turnaround could see the pair go again, having trailed for only 109 minutes of their undefeated stretch – 65 of those coming in the final against England.

Argentina

Argentina had been without a major honour since 1993, losing four Copa America finals and one World Cup decider since then. Messi had been involved in four of those five disappointments, but his and his country's fortunes finally changed for the better against Brazil.

The world's finest free agent was the obvious difference-maker, even if he did not score or create a goal in the 2021 final. Messi's goal involvements across the campaign improved from two in 2019 to a leading nine. He also created more chances (3.0, up from 2.0) and attempted more shots (4.0, up from 3.1) per 90 minutes.

But Messi also benefited from Argentina's sturdier foundations. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – a debutant last month – was a breakout star, with the defence in front of him limiting chances as La Albiceleste conceded only three goals, half as many as in more matches in two years earlier.

England

Qatar 2022 will feel a long way away right now for England, who were so close yet so far from glory at Wembley. It ended in disappointment, but just making a first major tournament final in 55 years can only be counted as a success.

And the Three Lions have now proven they can now regularly contend; having reached the semi-finals at the previous World Cup, they have won knockout matches at consecutive tournaments (excluding third-place play-offs) for the first time. This might well be England's best ever team and they still have age on their side heading to Qatar.

Gareth Southgate's side should at least continue to be hard to beat. Since his first game in charge in 2016, England have kept 35 clean sheets – four clear of Italy with the best tally for a European nation.

 

Spain

Two games into Euro 2020, it seemed unlikely Spain would emerge from the tournament in a particularly positive light. They had dominated against Sweden – setting records for possession (85 per cent), passes (917) and successful passes (830) – and Poland, yet drawn both matches.

But the next two outings were rather more uplifting as La Roja scored five times against both Slovakia and Croatia to become the first team in Euros history to do so in consecutive matches. After scraping past Switzerland on penalties, Spain were the better side against Italy in the last four, only to come up just short – this time beaten on spot-kicks.

If Luis Enrique can unearth a reliable forward before next November, having underperformed their expected goals total by an alarming 4.1, Spain will very much be back in business.

DOWNWARD SLOPE...

Netherlands

At the end of the group stage, the Netherlands looked to be on a comparable course to Italy. They had also missed out on the 2018 World Cup – and Euro 2016 – but then reached the final of the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and won their first three matches at Euro 2020.

Led by Memphis Depay, those victories had also extended a run of scoring at least twice to 10 consecutive games in an Oranje record. Only then, though, did their campaign fall apart.

 

Matthijs de Ligt's red card against the Czech Republic in the last 16 led to a shock 2-0 defeat and cost Frank de Boer his job. Rebuilding again, the Netherlands – who were missing Virgil van Dijk due to the injury he sustained in October 2020 – have work to do just to get to Qatar, one of three teams on six points in Group G in qualifying, behind Turkey.

France

France were the favourites for Euro 2020 and may well be the popular pick again next year, but their shock shoot-out exit to Switzerland raised plenty of questions.

Supposed to shine alongside the returning Karim Benzema, superstar forward Kylian Mbappe disappointed for the first time on the big stage, a solitary assist his only goal involvement. Yet even when the big names did combine to devastating effect, as Benzema scored twice within four minutes and three seconds of a Hugo Lloris penalty save against Switzerland, dismal defending cost Les Bleus.

France gave away a tournament-high three spot-kicks, not helped by Didier Deschamps' unsuccessful attempt to switch to a new 3-4-1-2 formation – one that will surely be left in the drawer for the World Cup.

Portugal

Will Cristiano Ronaldo consider this a successful tournament? Portugal lost their crown, but he took home the Golden Boot with five goals and an assist. The Juventus forward's contributions kept Fernando Santos' side in contention as far as the round of 16, although – as at times at club level – there was a suspicion this team might better be able to thrive without their talisman.

 

No other Portugal player tallied more than two goal involvements, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva each drawing blanks. Indeed, that highly talented quartet only attempted 10 shots – five fewer than Ronaldo alone – and created 13 chances between them.

In Qatar, Ronaldo may be less mobile but will surely remain front and centre, reluctant to step aside for Fernandes and Co as he takes one final shot at World Cup glory.

Brazil

Had a tense home final gone their way, Brazil would have again been big winners coming out of the Copa America. But Argentina's progress and decisive victory has seen the Selecao – for so long on top in South America – knocked off their perch.

After five consecutive successes, it was Brazil's first major tournament final defeat since the 1998 World Cup, while they had not been beaten in a knockout match at the Copa America (excluding penalties) since 2001 against Honduras. However, they did become world champions for a fifth time the following year.

That will be the hope as Tite's men regroup, having lost their scoring touch when it mattered most. Brazil netted only twice in three knockout games.

Lionel Messi finally secured his holy grail this weekend as Argentina claimed a 1-0 win over bitter rivals Brazil at the Maracana to lift the Copa America.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner has cleaned up time and again with club side Barcelona but major honours at international level had repeatedly proved elusive.

Germany beat the Albiceleste 1-0 after extra time in the 2014 World Cup final, after which Messi was named player of the tournament – a much disputed award given he appeared to be shadow of himself during the closing knockout stages.

The same could not be said when the 34-year-old lifted the individual gong in Rio. Although he was not Argentina's standout performer in the final, Messi was a man on a mission who would not be denied throughout the competition.

Here, we take a game-by-game look at how the great man inspired a long-awaited triumph.

 

Group stage: Argentina 1-1 Chile

Messi got an early shot at the team who inflicted Copa heartache upon Argentina during the 2015 and 2016 final penalty shoot-outs and at times it felt like he was playing them by himself.

He opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick and his seven shots, three on target, two blocked and four chances created were the most of any Argentina player, as were his 66 touches and 10 crosses.

A rash challenge from Nicolas Tagliafico resulted in a Chile penalty before the hour, with Eduardo Vargas converting on the rebound after Emiliano Martinez saved from Arturo Vidal. A timely reminder that Messi would not quite be able to do this all alone.

Group stage: Argentina 1-0 Uruguay

From a short corner, Messi unfurled a trademark slow-slow-quick dribble to engineer space for the cross from which Guido Rodriguez scored the only goal.

Although less immediately visible than in the Chile match, Messi showcased his overall mastery of the game. He completed 40 of 47 passes, with 40 of them coming in the opposition half as he relentlessly poked and prodded at Uruguay.

His 78 touches were the joint-most by an Argentinian alongside Rodrigo de Paul and he contested 24 duels, winning 62.5 per cent. Left-back Marcos Acuna contested the next most duels with 11.

 

Group stage: Argentina 1-0 Paraguay

This was the only game in the build-up to the final where Messi was unable to provide either a goal or an assist amid a cagey affair of few chances.

Angel Di Maria unfurled a dreamy reverse pass for Papu Gomez to dink home a cute early finish – both pieces of skill that would have looked at home emanating from Messi's boots.

The man himself managed three shots with two on target and was fouled five times, more than any of his team-mates. He completed 34 of 41 passes, made 73 touches (second to right-back Nahuel Molina with 75) and won 70.6 per cent of a team-high 17 duels.

Group stage: Bolivia 1-4 Argentina

Bolivia left the competition with four defeats from as many outings and Messi and Argentina went to town on the Group A whipping boys.

The number 10 set up Gomez's opener and scored twice himself, the first from the penalty spot. His five shots and four on target led the way for Argentina.

Messi had 94 touches – fewer than strike partner Lautaro Martinez, German Pazzella and Acuna, by way of underlining how much Lionel Scaloni's men dominated the ball. Of his 75 passes, 62 came in the Bolivia half.

Quarter-final: Argentina 3-0 Ecuador

By the first knockout round, Argentina and Messi had hit their stride. He set up goals for De Paul and Martinez before getting in on the act in injury time.

Overall, Messi had seven shots with four blocked and created five chances.

His number of passes dropped down to 26, with 19 completed. Of those, 22 were in the opposition half, showing Messi zeroing in his efforts in the danger areas near the opposition goal.

 

Semi-final: Argentina 1-1 Colombia (Argentina won 3-2 on penalties)

Repeating a theme from the group stage, Messi got the assist for Martinez's early breakthrough before fading as Luis Diaz equalised after half-time.

Messi converted his spot-kick, as Emiliano Martinez was the hero with three shoot-out saves.

In open play, the superstar forward's three shots, three blocked shots and four key passes were the most of any Argentina player, as were his 68 touches, 26 duels (57.7 per cent success) and five fouls won. Messi attempted eight crosses, with none of his team-mates sending in more than one.

Final: Argentina 1-0 Brazil

After carrying his country on his back for chunks of this tournament and through good times and bad over the past decade, perhaps it was finally Messi's time to be hoisted aloft by those around him.

His two key passes were the most by any Albiceleste player, as were 40 passes made and 33 completed.

But Messi was confined to the margins, with De Paul's stunning long pass and Di Maria's cool lob over Ederson enough for long-desired glory.

Lionel Messi's long wait for major international honours with Argentina is finally over after playing a starring role in their Copa America triumph, winning the Player of the Tournament prize before the final was even played.

In the age-old – and some might say tiresome – 'greatest of all time' debate, the stick usually used to beat Messi with revolved around his lack of titles with Argentina, but that is no longer relevant and he also played a vital role for La Albiceleste.

It was also an important barrier that Argentina broke down as a team, winning their first major international title since 1993.

Messi's performances see him lead Stats Perform's Opta data-driven Team of the Tournament, and he is joined by some familiar names as well as those who enjoyed breakthroughs over the past month.

 

Goalkeeper – Emiliano Martinez (Argentina)

Aston Villa keeper Martinez has enjoyed a remarkable 18 months or so and it's fair to say his form at the Copa America has helped truly cement his place as Argentina's first choice between the posts. His personality proved vital in the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia in the semi-finals as he psyched out Yerry Mina, but he also showed his excellence by finishing with an 85.7 per cent save ratio that was the second best in the tournament, while his four clean sheets was the best tally.

 

Right-back – Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)

Cuadrado can always be relied upon to provide some attacking impetus on the right flank and he certainly didn't disappoint in the Copa, his 18 chances created being the most for Colombia and among the top five of all players. The same could be said of his 22 open-play crosses, while Cuadrado also made 45 recoveries, the second most in Los Cafeteros' squad, highlighting how he was often in the right place to sweep up danger as well.

 

Centre-back – Marquinhos (Brazil)

While Brazil ultimately fell short at the Maracana on Saturday, Marquinhos can leave the tournament with his head held high. His ability to bring the ball out from the back was routinely notable, as highlighted by the fact his 110 carries was bettered by only four players, all of whom are forwards, but he was also a commanding presence at the back, with his 2.8 aerial the most among Brazil players.

Centre-back – Piero Hincapie (Ecuador)

Still only 19, Hincapie showed real promise here. Granted, there were signs that he remains quite raw and naive, as demonstrated by some of his struggles against Argentina in the quarter-finals when he was sent off late on for tugging back Angel Di Maria. Nevertheless, the Lazio-linked talent averaged the most passes per game for Ecuador (52.2) and showed real positivity when in possession, carrying the ball 600.7 metres upfield over the course of the tournament, at least 44m more than any other centre-back.

Left-back – Pervis Estupinan (Ecuador)

Estupinan endured a somewhat underwhelming first season with Villarreal in 2020-21, but in the Copa he showed glimpses of the player that had impressed so regularly with Osasuna the season before. He was consistently a useful outlet on the left and his eagerness to create saw him average more crosses per 90 minutes (9.6) than any other player in the tournament, while his 2.4 key passes each game was the most of all defenders.

Central midfield – Wilmar Barrios (Colombia)

The all-action midfielder performed an important function as Colombia ultimately finished third in the Copa. Barrios was tidy in possession as he looked to keep Reinaldo Rueda's men ticking, completing 88 per cent of his passes, but he was also effective at regaining possession and recovering the ball as he started 76 open play sequences, which only Yoshimar Yotun and Casemiro could better.

Central midfield – Rodrigo De Paul (Argentina)

Get ready to hear a bit more about De Paul over the next few years. While he's by no means an unknown given he's had a strong few years with Udinese, the midfielder is set to join Atletico Madrid and offers the blend of off-the-ball nous and technical ability that should see him thrive under Diego Simeone. His 32 ball recoveries led the way for Argentina while his six key passes was second only to Lionel Messi, with one of those being the glorious long-range pass to release Di Maria for the crucial goal in the final.

Right wing – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

While he may have fluffed his lines at the end of the final, Messi's exploits throughout the tournament previously meant he could be forgiven for that. After all, without his unbeaten four goals and five assists – a high for the tournament – Argentina almost certainly wouldn't have reached the showpiece. He remains one goal behind Pele's record (77) for CONMEBOL nations, but he finally has his first trophy with Argentina, and that's what matters most.

 

Attacking midfield – Neymar (Brazil)

Neymar had a peculiar tournament in some ways. No one would suggest he was poor, because he was routinely the player that provided the spark for Brazil, as evidenced by his tournament-leading 3.5 key passes and 21.6 passes into the final third each game (among players with more than one match played), but he was also wasteful in front of goal, his one non-penalty goal from 5.3 xG giving him the worst xG under-performance (4.3) at the tournament.

 

Left wing – Luis Diaz (Colombia)

Porto's Diaz is an exciting player and showed as much for Colombia as they claimed bronze. He scored more non-penalty goals (four) than any other player and produced some spectacular finishes, such as his remarkable bicycle-kick against Brazil and 30-yard screamer to seal victory in the third-place play-off against Peru. His four goals came from just 10 shots, with that 40 per cent conversion the best among those with three or more goals.

 

Striker – Lautaro Martinez (Argentina)

Despite the presence of Sergio Aguero, Martinez was the man generally chosen to lead the line at the Copa and he did fairly well as he netted three goals, with only Messi and Diaz getting more. While he was guilty of wastefulness at times, his three-goal haul was actually pretty close to his 3.3 xG, showing that for the most part he was dependable. Similarly, only two players averaged more shots on target per 90 minutes (players with more than one match played) than his 1.4. He also improved on his two goals from the 2019 edition, so he's seemingly going in the right direction.

Lionel Messi has expressed his happiness and relief at finally winning silverware with Argentina after Saturday's Copa America 2021 triumph over Brazil at the Maracana.

Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 after Angel Di Maria's 22nd-minute strike, earning six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi his maiden piece of silverware with La Albiceleste.

Messi has finished runner-up in the Copa three times; 2007, 2015 and 2016, as well as runner-up at the 2014 World Cup and revealed his joy after the game.

"I needed to get the thorn out of being able to achieve something with the national team, I had been very close for many years," Messi told reporters.

"I knew that at some point it was going to go right, it was going to happen and I think there is no better moment than this.

"I feel that God was saving this moment for me, against Brazil in the final and in their country."

Along with breaking 34-year-old Messi's international duck, it is also was Argentina's first Copa America since 1993, ending a 28-year wait.

"We still cannot believe that we are champions and what we have achieved," Messi said. "But I think it will be a match that will remain in history, not only because we are champions of South America but also because we beat them Brazil in their country."

Argentina's win marked 20 games unbeaten under head coach Lionel Scaloni and offered optimism for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Scaloni has changed the Argentine side, with relative newcomers Emiliano Martinez, Rodrigo De Paul and Cristiano Romero impressing.

"Lionel deserves special merit," Messi said. "He always wanted the best for the national team. He knew how to put together a winning team and deserves recognition."

Messi added: "We have to take advantage of this generation, this new crop of players. I told them they were going to be the future of the national team and I was not wrong. They showed it, today we are champions."

Scaloni also heaped praise on Messi who was named Player of the Tournament alongside Brazil's Neymar.

The Argentine finished as the equal top scorer with four goals as well as most assists (five).

“If all Argentines knew about the way he played this Copa America, they would love him more and more," Scaloni said. "I have no doubt.

"I, as a coach, could never do without this player, including playing in inferior conditions than we faced in this final and the semi-final.

"That's the kind of player we have and we have to enjoy, because one day in your career you won't be playing anymore. I have no words for him, he makes things easier on a daily basis."

Brazil head coach Tite has praised superstar Neymar for his show of sportsmanship to Lionel Messi after his side's 1-0 Copa America final defeat to Argentina on Saturday.

Neymar's Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Angel Di Maria scored the winner in the 22nd minute at the Maracana as Argentina lifted its first Copa since 1993 as Brazil relinquished the crown it won in 2019.

The Brazil boss was clearly disappointment with the result but spoke positively about Neymar's grace after acknowledging Messi's achievement in winning his maiden piece of silverware with Argentina.

The superstar pair are close friends from their four years together at Barcelona.

"There is greatness in defeat and in recognising the rival," Tite said.

"Perhaps, the image that was seen between Messi and Neymar after the game is a message that we have to give."

Tite was less positive about Copa America organisers, identifying CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez for criticism at the hastily organised event.

Copa America 2021 was originally planned to be played in Colombia and Argentina but hastily re-arranged due to political and COVID-19 issues with Brazil confirmed as hosts in May.

The defeat was the first time the Selecao have failed to win a Copa America played in Brazil, winning all five previous tournaments on home soil.

"The organisation of the Copa America left a lot to be desired," Tite said after the final defeat. "The quality of the pitches [left a lot to be desired].

"We almost lost Everton in training. We went to train, the grass locked up and he had a dislocated finger. In a short time it is impossible to organise a competition of this magnitude.

"I'm specifically talking about the person in charge, Alejandro (Dominguez), president of CONMEBOL, of having the organisation of the competition over a short period of time."

Tite had been outspoken about the quality of pitches during the tournament, in particular Estadio Nilton Santos in Rio de Janeiro where Brazil played four games.

Brazil's participation at the Copa was in doubt pre-tournament as the players opposed the relocation amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

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