Giorgio Chiellini bowed out of international football and warned a "difficult period" awaited Italy as Roberto Mancini bids to get the Azzurri back on track.

The joy of winning last year's delayed Euro 2020 tournament has been replaced by rapid deflation after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Having also missed out on the Russia 2018 finals, falling short of a place at Qatar 2022 represented crushing disappointment for the four-time winners.

Chiellini, the 37-year-old defensive titan who is leaving Juventus and expected to join Los Angeles FC, has called time on his Italy career.

He played the first half on Wednesday in a 3-0 defeat to Argentina at Wembley, in a match tagged as the Finalissima, a clash of the champions of Europe and South America.

"We were hoping to win the match and the trophy," Chiellini told Italian broadcaster RAI. "We knew it would be tough, but the defeat does not cancel what has gone before.

"Now I expect a difficult period. We need everyone to support this group."

Chiellini lasted just 45 minutes in his farewell game, with Italy 2-0 up by the time he departed.

This was the first staging of the CONMEBOL/UEFA 'Cup of Champions' since 1993. Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala got the goals as Lionel Messi pulled the strings

It was a sorry way for Chiellini to go out, and he said: "It's a shame because in the first half we made a lot of mistakes and we ruined the match by ourselves."

Turning his attention to Argentina, he added: "Above all, at this moment they are too strong, they have confidence and they are a team. They look like us a year ago."

Italy, without Chiellini, will switch their focus to the Nations League. They face Germany on Saturday and again on June 14 – matches against Hungary and England are sandwiched in between.

Writing on his Instagram page, Chiellini reflected on the end of a 117-cap career.

He wrote: "Thanks to everyone, it's been a beautiful journey."

Italy coach Roberto Mancini promised changes after a difficult few months for the Azzurri was compounded by a crushing defeat to Argentina in Wednesday's Finalissima.

Argentina were comprehensive 3-0 winners at Wembley, as the CONMEBOL/UEFA 'Cup of Champions' was revived for the first time since 1993.

Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala got the goals as Lionel Messi pulled the strings, but in truth Italy were fortunate to only lose 3-0 against a hugely impressive Albiceleste.

It was only Italy's second match since their shock World Cup qualifying defeat to North Macedonia in March, with that loss preventing them from reaching Qatar 2022.

Despite the Azzurri winning Euro 2020 less than a year ago, Mancini is already looking to instigate something of a rebuild.

But he was keen to pay tribute to those who have played a key role over the past four years.

"In the first half we made two mistakes on their two goals, then they were better at keeping the ball," Mancini is quoted as saying by Sky Italia.

"They were better than us, but I must say thanks to these guys who have played in these four years.

"There is regret for the lack of qualification for the World Cup, and tonight's match was initially balanced, then they had superior quality to us.

"After this match we had in mind to change several things and we will do it. We need to find the players, put together a team that will suffer at the beginning and that in the future will be able to give us joy."

Clearly, the attack will be Mancini's primary focus in any rebuild as he rued a lack of threat going forward.

"We have great difficulty scoring at the moment, and we have to work a lot knowing that it will not be so simple and it will take time [to overcome their issues]," he continued.

"After the European Championship we struggled to score and we have to find solutions in this sense and try to be fast, but it will not be easy to put together a team that gives us short-term satisfaction even if there are good guys. We will have to make as few mistakes as possible.

"I have optimism. I like to work and train. It's true that we lost against a great Argentina team, but we must know that there will also be these moments and we must make sure that the youngest players learn quickly."

Italy now turn their attention to the Nations League. They face Germany on Saturday and again on June 14 – matches against Hungary and England are sandwiched in between.

Argentina's impressive 3-0 Finalissima win over Italy saw La Albiceleste set a national new record of 32 matches unbeaten.

Lionel Scaloni's men were sensational at Wembley, producing a dominant and rampant performance that could have seen them claim an even more one-sided victory.

Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala got the goals, while Lionel Messi pulled the strings as Argentina made something of a statement less than six months before the World Cup.

Argentina's last defeat was a 2-0 loss to bitter rivals Brazil in the semi-finals of the 2019 Copa America, but they got their revenge in the final last year, beating the Selecao 1-0 at the Maracana to clinch their first title in 28 years.

Their 32 games unbeaten is a new record for official games, though Argentina did go 33 matches without defeat under Alfio Basile – that run included two fixtures not recognised by FIFA as they were against the Rest of America and the Rest of World in 1991.

Argentina's streak is the longest currently intact in international football and leaves them just five adrift of the all-time record set by Italy themselves last year.

Argentina made an early statement of intent ahead of the World Cup with an impressively dominant 3-0 win over Italy to win the UEFA/CONMEBOL Finalissima at Wembley.

Although Italy failed to qualify for Qatar 2022, few would have expected the European champions to be so stunningly outclassed by the Copa America 2021 winners.

Much of the pre-game focus was on Giorgio Chiellini, but the last game of his distinguished international career ended at half-time with Argentina deservedly 2-0 up thanks to goals from Lautaro Martinez and Angel Di Maria.

Italy somehow prevented the inspired Lionel Messi and Di Maria adding more gloss to the scoreline, but Paulo Dybala finally got their third with the last kick of the game.

A brilliant intervention by Cristian Romero had earlier denied Andrea Belotti a simple finish in the 20th minute, with the striker then seeing a looping header saved by Emiliano Martinez a few moments later.

But Argentina soon took charge.

Messi wonderfully turned away from Giovanni Di Lorenzo and held him off before passing across goal for Martinez to tap home.

The Inter forward then turned provider on the stroke of half-time, spinning Leonardo Bonucci and feeding Di Maria, who lifted an audacious chip over the helpless Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Roberto Mancini made three changes at the break but if anything Argentina only became more dominant – Donnarumma desperately scurried back to stop a Bonucci back-pass going in, before importantly denying the excellent Di Maria twice.

Giovani Lo Celso then missed an open goal – albeit from a slightly tight angle – after great work by Messi, who subsequently tested Donnarumma twice.

But Donnarumma was eventually beaten again at the end, substitute Dybala finding the bottom-right corner after a solo Messi run terrified the Italy defence.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni says Italy did not deserve to miss out on the World Cup, while he cannot see Paulo Dybala being distracted by speculation over his future.

Euro 2020 winners Italy and Copa America champions Argentina meet in the 'Finalissima' at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.

But there is no chance of the pair meeting in Qatar next November after Italy failed to make a second straight World Cup following play-off defeat against North Macedonia in March.

That led to questions over Roberto Mancini's future and the Italian system for failing to produce young players, with the Azzurri reliant on experienced campaigners such as Giorgio Chiellini and Ciro Immobile.

Scaloni was quick to back his opposite number Mancini as he expressed his dismay at Italy faltering in World Cup qualification.

"Italy did not deserve not to go to the World Cup, they are still European champions, a great team," Scaloni told reporters on Tuesday.

"There are games in which the ball does not want to enter the goal, and that's how the games are lost. But Mancini has done a great job, restoring a clear identity to Italy after so many years.

"I don't think he will make a lot of changes now, rather it will gradually change as we did: it happens to all national teams sooner or later that they have to change. Now they can start over."

Meanwhile, Dybala is heading for the exit door at Juventus when his contract expires in June, with Inter reportedly the favourites to sign the Bianconeri talisman.

As speculation persists over the future of the Argentina forward, Scaloni insisted that will not impact Dybala's performances for his country.

"These are situations that we have all had," Scaloni said of Dybala. "The important thing is that the players choose with their heads and then play.

"They are professionals and know how to manage certain situations. He is an extraordinary player and boy. He didn't play as much with us as we wanted, but we hope he will be a good choice for us in the future."

New Italy captain Leonardo Bonucci hopes to start laying the foundations to rebuild the Azzurri when they face Argentina on Wednesday.

Italy won their first European Championship since 1968 by defeating England on penalties last July at Wembley.

Roberto Mancini's side return to Wembley to meet Argentina in the 'Finalissima' between the Euro 2020 winners and Copa America champions.

Italy have struggled since their last visit to England's national stadium; missing out on a second straight World Cup after falling to a stunning play-off defeat against North Macedonia.

Bonucci has replaced Giorgio Chiellini as skipper of both Juventus and Italy, with his defensive partner heading for the exit door in Turin and announcing he will retire from international football following the game against Argentina.

The 35-year-old Bonucci is relishing the challenge of facing Lionel Scaloni's side.

"They are among the best in the world, Argentina hasn't lost in 31 games and it's no coincidence," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"We need maximum commitment and respect. We must start again and lay the foundations to bring Italy back to the top."

Argentina captain Lionel Messi suggested Italy would have been favourites for the World Cup should they have appeared in Qatar, and Bonucci expressed his gratitude for those comments.

"The fault is ours, it took very little to be able to play in something truly unique for a player's career," he added.

"We thank Messi for the kind words he said about us; tomorrow two winning national teams will meet and we want to put on a show to take the trophy home."

Bonucci hailed Messi, who will aim to guide Argentina to their third World Cup win and first since 1986.

"For a player who has won so many Golden Balls it is difficult to find words to described him," the Juve defender continued. 

"He was, and still is today, with Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the best in the world – great respect will be needed."

As for Chiellini's international retirement, Bonucci hopes to give him a fitting send-off as he outlined his own plans for captaincy.

"We must enjoy this last day with him, he was a great companion on the pitch and in life," he said. "From the day after tomorrow I will continue to do what I have always done, to be an example.

"From Chiellini I learned the ability to work out difficult situations in a short time and find the solution.

"That is the secret that made Giorgio a great person and a great captain, I'll try to smooth out the flaws. My team-mates will have to help me too, just as we helped Chiellini and [Gianluigi] Buffon."

Italy coach Roberto Mancini reiterated his disappointment with the Italian system failing to produce young footballers, but only promised to give youngsters a chance after the clash with Argentina.

The Azzurri lifted Euro 2020 after a penalty shoot-out victory over England last July but failed to qualify for a second straight World Cup following play-off disappointment against North Macedonia in March.

That led to questions towards Mancini and Italian football over the lack of trust placed in younger players, with the more experienced campaigners such as Ciro Immobile and Giorgio Chiellini preferred.

Mancini subsequently suggested that Italy are suffering as Serie A coaches refuse to provide youthful members of their clubs the opportunities to develop.

Italy face Argentina at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday in a meeting between the European Championship winners and Copa America champions, though Mancini appears reluctant to trust his younger players yet.

"Tomorrow will be the match that will end a cycle," the Azzurri boss told reporters on Tuesday.

"It does not mean that 15-20 players will leave, but from Wednesday we will include young players to understand how much they are worth and if we can count on them for the future.

"In the meantime, I must continue to choose the players always with a logical criterion, then courage will be needed because it will be a younger group that will need to be supported in a different way.

"We will not change the whole team, but in the four games one, two, three or four young people will play.

"This will also be a great thing to do. We are trying to work for the future, to improve. If the clubs do or do not let the young players play, I cannot decide.

"We will try to have more knowledge of the young people and we want to do things well, but we certainly cannot pray to anyone if they don't want to do it.

"We managed to win a European championship anyway, despite many difficulties."

Despite not having the likes of Immobile, Federico Chiesa, Domenico Berardi and Marco Verratti to call upon, Mancini expects his side to compete well against Argentina.

Asked if his side will still be able to put on a show, Mancini responded: "I think so, even if we are missing several players. I would have liked to have all the boys here, they deserved it.

"We have a good match ahead of us. It is nice to play this match, Italy-Argentina is a classic of world football and it will also be a tribute to many players.

"It is a great pleasure to be here, not even 12 months ago we were here to celebrate [winning Euro 2020 at Wembley] and for this reason, there is also a bit of emotion."

Eduardo Berizzo has been hired as the new head coach of the Chile national team, the Chilean Football Federation confirmed on Thursday.

Berizzo’s first coaching experience came as an assistant under Marcelo Bielsa with La Roja between 2007 and 2010, and will now be tasked with rejuvenating a team in generational transition.

Following a quarter-final finish at the 2021 Copa America, Chile finished five points off the inter-confederation playoff spot in CONMEBOL qualifying for this year’s World Cup, dismissing Reinaldo Rueda and Martin Lasarte in the process.

Berizzo is coming into this role after a disappointing tenure of his own with the Paraguay national team, where two quarter-final eliminations on penalties at Copa America tournaments in 2019 and 2021 were punctuated by an eighth-placed finish in South American qualification for this year’s World Cup.

"The Chilean Football Federation, headed by its president Pablo Milad, informs that it has reached a complete agreement with Eduardo Berizzo and his staff, so that he directs the Chilean National Team for the next process," the Chilean governing body said in a statement.

"Berizzo has had an outstanding career as a player with the Argentine national team, and as a coach he showed important steps for Estudiantes de la Plata, O'Higgins de Rancagua, a team with which he was crowned champion of Chilean soccer, and also with Celta de Vigo, Seville and Athletic from Spain. His last experience was in the Paraguayan soccer team."

La Roja will next face South Korea in the upcoming international window, before taking on Tunisia in the opening game of the Kirin Cup.

Marcos Senesi appears certain to be involved in June's Finalissima, and Argentina hope he will turn out in the Albiceleste.

The Feyenoord defender was born in Argentina but also holds an Italian passport.

Senesi remains uncapped and is said to be a target for Italy ahead of the June international break, in which they will play Argentina as part of the Finalissima between the European Championship winners and Copa America champions.

Lionel Scaloni has moved first by including Senesi in his preliminary squad, however, named on Friday.

And Senesi could get his opportunity as Cristian Romero, also called up by Scaloni, has been ruled out for the rest of the club season with Tottenham.

"We understood in the last few days that Romero had a serious injury and has finished this season," Spurs coach Antonio Conte said. "There are only two games to go and he has no time to recover for these two games."

After playing Italy at Wembley on June 1, Argentina also have a friendly on June 11 against Brazil, whom they must play again in a replayed World Cup qualifier.

Argentina squad in full:

Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa), Juan Musso (Atalanta), Geronimo Rulli (Villarreal), Franco Armani (River Plate); Gonzalo Montiel (Sevilla), Nahuel Molina (Udinese), Juan Foyth (Villarreal), Lucas Martinez Quarta (Fiorentina), Cristian Romero (Tottenham), German Pezzella (Real Betis), Marcos Senesi (Feyenoord), Nicolas Otamendi (Benfica), Lisandro Martinez (Ajax), Nehuen Perez (Udinese), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Marcos Acuna (Sevilla); Guido Rodriguez (Real Betis), Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain), Nicolas Dominguez (Bologna), Alexis Mac Allister (Brighton and Hove Albion), Rodrigo De Paul (Atletico Madrid), Exequiel Palacios (Bayer Leverkusen), Giovani Lo Celso (Villarreal), Papu Gomez (Sevilla), Nicolas Gonzalez (Fiorentina), Lucas Ocampos (Sevilla), Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Emiliano Buendia (Aston Villa); Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain), Angel Correa (Atletico Madrid), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Joaquin Correa (Inter), Julian Alvarez (River Plate), Lucas Alario (Bayer Leverkusen), Lautaro Martinez (Inter).

UEFA has confirmed that the game between Italy and Argentina to be played on Wednesday, June 1 in the first "Finalissima" in 29 years, will take place at Wembley Stadium.

The match was initially announced in September, with confirmation in December that a "renewed and extended Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) lasting until 30 June 2028" had been signed between UEFA and CONMEBOL, leading to a game to be played in London on June 1.

The original iteration, pitting the winner of the most recent European Championship against the winner of the most recent Copa America, was previously known as the Artemio Franchi Trophy and was held in 1985 and 1993.

France beat Uruguay 2-0 in the inaugural edition in 1985, while the 1993 game saw Argentina – led by Diego Maradona – beat Denmark in a penalty shoot-out.

As had been expected, the venue for this year's encounter has now been confirmed as Wembley, where the capacity will be 86,000 and tickets sold on a "first-come, first-served basis".

A statement from UEFA on Tuesday confirmed that: "[It] will give fans the chance to watch the current champions of the world's two best footballing continents contest the coveted CONMEBOL-UEFA Cup of Champions.

"Twenty-nine years after its last edition, the relaunch of this legendary footballing encounter is the result of the long-standing partnership between UEFA and CONMEBOL and will serve as a catalyst for the global development of football – uniting countries, continents, and cultures, while also demonstrating to fans around the globe that football can be a force of good in turbulent times."

Wembley holds fond memories for Italy as the venue of their Euro 2020 final victory over England last year.

Gonzalo Higuain is happy to have enjoyed a fruitful international career with Argentina, despite never getting his hands on a trophy for his country.

The attacker, who was a member of the Albiceleste team that finished second at the Brazil 2014 World Cup, retired from the national setup in 2019, missing out on the Copa America triumph last year.

Higuain, now playing for Inter Miami in MLS, is delighted for old team-mate Lionel Messi's long-awaited international success, but remains proud of his own career for his country.

"With my national team, I gave everything and I will never blame myself for that," Higuain told Stats Perform. "Unfortunately I couldn't get anything.

"But I'm happy for those who could because we've shared so many bad times, but nobody takes what we've lived through.

"We were a wonderful group and we played great football, but some of us stepped aside and those who followed made it."

Higuain also believes trophies must come secondary to how a player acts both on and off the pitch.

"I want to congratulate [Messi] for keeping trying, that's what life is all about," he added.

"I think that having won a Copa America or a World Cup doesn't make you a better person. The most important thing in life is the values one has and being a good person.

 "Unfortunately, people value you for what you win or what you lose, but I prefer to be remembered for being good people and having left something in each club I played.

"I was champion in each club, I scored goals and played in the best clubs, then whoever wants can evaluate you for one or two plays.

"I respect opinions, but my happiness does not change whether or not I have achieved something with my national team. If you are happy with yourself, then that's it.

"I congratulate them, but we continue our lives in the same way, I don't feel like a better or worse person for that."

Higuain will look to help Miami to a first win of the new MLS season against Houston Dynamo in their next outing.

The former Juventus, Real Madrid and Napoli forward scored 12 times in MLS last season but has only netted once so far this term, with Miami having lost three of their four games.

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.

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!"

Lionel Messi is not sure if his record will be broken after the Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina superstar won a seventh Ballon d'Or on Monday.

Messi claimed the coveted award for a record-extending seventh time during a ceremony in Paris, while Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski won the inaugural Striker of the Year award and finished second in the Ballon d'Or voting.

Many had backed Lewandowski to take home the prized individual honour, after France Football's 2020 Ballon d'Or was scrapped due to COVID-19 – the Bayern forward has scored 53 goals in 42 appearances in 2021, the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions.

But Messi added to his incredible haul after guiding Argentina to a drought-ending triumph at the Copa America – the country's first piece of silverware in 28 years, while he has netted 32 goals and supplied 12 assists across 40 club appearances for Barcelona and PSG this year.

"I don't know if the record is beatable, I just have to accept it," the 34-year-old Messi told reporters, with Cristiano Ronaldo next on the list after winning the award five times.

"But honestly, I don't know if this record seven Ballon d'Or's can be beaten. But seven anyhow is really impressive and I'm very happy to win it here in Paris.

"Concerning [Liverpool star] Mohamed Salah, like [Robert] Lewandowski he will have other opportunities in the years to come. Both players are really at the best at what they've managed so far. They will have other opportunities to win the trophy."

 

Messi scored four goals and provided five assists as he led the Albiceleste to their first Copa America title since 1993, involved in nine of the 12 goals scored by Argentina at the showpiece South American tournament.

"I had a pretty good year with Barcelona without titles, however I did win the Copa del Rey," Argentina's captain and all-time leading scorer Messi added.

"The Copa America was very important to help me win this Ballon d'Or. And yes, I am very proud to be the first PSG to conquer this Ballon d'Or. It's special to do so with another jersey and it makes me very proud.

"This trophy really is special. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment with the Argentine national team. It was indeed a special year for me and of course it helped me in this new stage in my life, this move to PSG and my family and kids.

"I know they enjoy the moment and I enjoy seeing them happy. Seeing my parents, cousins and brothers happy, too."

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