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Biggest winners and losers from Messi's stunning move to PSG

It really happened. Lionel Messi, fresh off an emotional departure from Barcelona, joined Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, inking an initial two-year contract with the nouveau-rich club. PSG are clear winners in all this, of course. Meanwhile, Barcelona, stuck in a financial crater of their own making, are obvious losers. But there are more dominoes in the wake of a signing that alters European football’s landscape. Below, we examine the other winners and losers from Messi’s move to the French capital.

Loser: Joan Laporta

The president who let Messi leave. Laporta will never be able to shake that.

You could certainly argue that Josep Maria Bartomeu and, to a lesser extent, Sandro Rosell are more culpable here; Laporta, in fairness, inherited a financial disaster that his predecessors largely created. But the current president will never escape the fact that Messi departed on his watch. Worse yet, Laporta made retaining the once wantaway superstar the primary selling point of his presidential candidacy. Keeping Messi was to be the crowning achievement of his second tenure, and he failed to deliver.

It’s irrelevant, really, whether he misjudged the economic crisis at the Camp Nou or contributed to it by making several signings this summer. It was his job to keep Messi, and instead, he’s now in Paris.

Winners: Real Madrid

In more ways than one.

The most obvious victory also applies to Atletico Madrid and every single defender in La Liga: None of them have to worry about concocting a scheme to try to shackle the most dominant attacking force the sport has ever seen. That’s certainly cause for celebration.

Helios de la Rubia / Real Madrid / Getty

In the long term, Messi’s departure could have direct implications on Real Madrid in the transfer market, too. Los Blancos have long been linked with PSG superstar Kylian Mbappe, to the point where many have speculated that his move to the Spanish capital is a matter of when, not if. PSG may have unlimited funds, but even for the Qatari-backed club, keeping Mbappe without running amok of Financial Fair Play (FFP) shouldn’t be possible, even if FFP is largely a charade. After you’ve already committed tons of money to various free agents, spent €60 million on Achraf Hakimi, recently re-signed Neymar in a deal that reportedly pays the Brazilian €31 million per season, and added the most expensive player in the world on top of an already hefty wage bill, conventional wisdom suggests some kind of sacrifice has to be made.

Mbappe is slated to become a free agent next summer, and if his departure is the cost of Messi’s arrival, Real Madrid will be eternally grateful. PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi remains convinced Mbappe will stay put, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Loser: Parity

It was viewed as a victory for fans and football when the infamous Super League plot imploded amid an avalanche of backlash. What is sport without open competition, after all? And while that remains wholly true, we’re now getting a look at the alternative, and it’s … not much better?

The non-Super League world looks a whole lot like a Super League right now, except this one is comprised of only a few oligarchs and nation states masquerading as football clubs.

The gulf between the sport’s rich and poor has never been greater. State-backed clubs like PSG and Manchester City, with their unfathomable wealth, have changed the conversation, spending wildly simply because they can. When it became clear that Messi was leaving Barcelona, there were basically two, maybe three, realistic destinations. The greatest player of his generation – and perhaps of all time – didn’t have a choice. Not really. No matter how you slice it, that’s not good for the sport.

Money – especially from shadowy sources – has always been present in football. A collection of preeminent clubs have long enjoyed more wealth than others, scooping up talent and reaping the competitive advantages that go along with a loftier economic status. That isn’t new.

But this feels different, especially amid the backdrop of a pandemic that torpedoed the finances of so many proverbial heavyweights. The degree to which teams like PSG, City, and even Chelsea can blow everyone else out of the water is staggering. The top, at least, always had some semblance of parity, but we’ve surely hit another threshold now.

The Super League architects were misguided – and obviously selfish – in crafting their plan to “save” the sport. But for all the ridicule, they were right about the unsustainable direction football was, and is, heading. PSG’s ability to sign Messi, having already spent a fortune on wages for other players this summer, only highlights that truth.

Winner … sort of: Javier Tebas

Well, Tebas certainly stuck to his guns. The La Liga president asserted all along that he wouldn’t shift the goalposts and make any exceptions in order for Barcelona to register Messi’s contract. The rules are the rules, after all, even for the biggest star. True to his word, Tebas didn’t budge, and now Messi’s gone.

Anadolu Agency / Anadolu Agency / Getty

That’s a win in the sense that the outspoken Tebas, an extremely headstrong executive, got the best of Laporta after the pair clashed over the aforementioned Super League; Barcelona, remember, are one of the three teams still in favor of the breakaway competition that Tebas branded a “joke.”

A Pyrrhic victory, perhaps, as Tebas’ resolve has helped contribute to the loss of a megastar who drives ticket sales and helps add zeros to La Liga’s TV contracts.

Loser: Sergio Aguero

Playing with Messi, one of his oldest and dearest friends, wasn’t the sole reason Aguero signed with Barcelona as a free agent this summer, but that was clearly a huge selling point for the Argentine striker.

So much for that.

At least Aguero, who will miss the first 10 weeks of the season with an injury, has plenty of time to draw up celebratory dances with Antoine Griezmann now.

Winner: YouTube highlight reels

As we’ve already outlined, Messi’s move has all but crystalized a dangerous paradigm shift in football. But, from a strictly on-pitch perspective, there’s simply no denying that the prospect of the all-conquering 34-year-old linking up with Neymar and Mbappe is wildly exciting.

Messi and Neymar are masterful playmakers, progressing the ball and slicing up opposing backlines with their elite – and unfair – combination of dribbling and passing ability. It takes an entire defensive plan to stop one of them, never mind trying to nullify both.

And then, even if by some miracle you’re able to slow down the South American dynamos on the same day, there’s the small matter of Mbappe, the most explosive player in the world in open space. Viewers of Barcelona have long lamented the club’s inability to find someone who can run behind the defense, which in turn forces the opposition to sit deeper, thus creating more room for Messi to operate in attacking midfield areas.

Now he has Mbappe. All you can do is laugh. Or cry, if you’re another Champions League contender.

Playing all three of them together has some obvious defensive issues that Mauricio Pochettino will need to creatively solve – midfielders Idrissa Gueye, Marco Verratti, and Gini Wijnaldum will be asked to cover absurd amounts of space, for starters – but frankly, that’s a secondary concern. There really is no limit to what the three superlative stars can do in attack.

Good luck, everyone else.

Loser: Romanticism

For anyone who hoped Messi would make a fairytale return to Newell’s Old Boys after leaving Barcelona, his unveiling in Paris was the latest reminder that football is a business with little place for romance.

That’s not an indictment on Messi, either. He should absolutely seek out the best financial deal possible, especially since this is probably the last enormous contract of his career. He’s certainly earned the right to be paid handsomely; the suggestion that he should’ve played for free to stay at Barcelona was ludicrous.

Still, the cold reality of Messi at PSG is yet another indication that the most important color in football is green.

Winner: Argentina

Messi hasn’t played fewer than 2,500 league minutes in a season since the 2007-08 campaign. For someone who is constantly on the ball, running at defenders, and trying to avoid having his ankles scythed, the little Argentine has been extremely durable throughout his career.

That takes a toll, though. Even on a magician.

Yes, his game has changed over the years, and he’s become more adept at picking his spots and saving himself for decisive bursts, but the human body can only accept so much wear and tear at 34 years old. Whereas Barcelona have been entirely dependent on Messi to do everything for so long – since Neymar left, essentially – PSG and Pochettino will have the luxury of resting the veteran forward more frequently, keeping him fresh in anticipation of what should be another deep Champions League run.

That will be music to the ears of Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni ahead of the 2022 World Cup, which will almost definitely be Messi’s final – and perhaps best – chance to hoist the only accolade missing from his collection.

Loser: ‘MSN’

The most dominant attacking trio football has ever seen? That crown may be on the verge of changing hands. Pour one out for Luis Suarez.

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Who's in, who's out? World Cup field taking shape after European qualifying

The European contingent for next year’s World Cup is nearly finalized.

Tuesday brought an end to the group stage of UEFA’s qualifying format, with the Netherlands securing the last of 10 automatic berths allocated to Europe for the showpiece tournament in Qatar; 13 European teams in total will partake in the event.

Below is a breakdown of the nations that already qualified, along with a complete explanation of the new playoff system, which will decide the final three European countries that will head to Qatar in November 2022.

Qualified for World Cup

The 10 group winners from qualifying can officially start booking their flights.

  • Serbia
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • France
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Netherlands
  • Croatia
  • England
  • Germany

Going into qualification playoffs

PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP / Getty

With 10 nations earning a ticket to Qatar, that leaves three outstanding World Cup places for UEFA. Those berths will be determined by a new 12-team playoff format. The nations will be drawn into three groups of four – called “Paths” – and play one-off semifinals and a final to decide which teams get the last three spots.

The draw for the playoffs takes place on Nov. 26 at 11:00 a.m. ET.

  • Seeded: Portugal, Scotland, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Wales
  • Unseeded: Turkey, Poland, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Austria, Czech Republic

The six seeded nations will be drawn against the six unseeded teams to create the semifinal matchups; the seeded sides will play those respective games at home. The semifinal matches are scheduled for March 24.

The draw will also determine the potential finals for each of the three “Paths,” meaning each team will know its prospective opponent before a ball is kicked in March.

  • Path A: winner of Semifinal 1 vs. winner of Semifinal 2
  • Path B: winner of Semifinal 3 vs. winner of Semifinal 4
  • Path C: winner of Semifinal 5 vs. winner of Semifinal 6

The three finals are slated for March 29.

Aside from Russia and Ukraine being kept apart for political reasons, there are no restrictions on the draw. That means the two most recent European champions – Italy and Portugal – could potentially meet in a one-off final to determine which continental heavyweight goes to the World Cup and which one misses out.

Italy, which famously failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament by losing in a two-legged playoff to Sweden, could very well meet the Swedes again, too.

Notable absentees

Fran Santiago / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Erling Haaland won’t get the opportunity to play in his first World Cup, as Norway finished third in Group G by virtue of Tuesday’s defeat to the Netherlands, thus failing to earn either automatic qualification or a playoff spot. The Borussia Dortmund superstar missed the 2-0 loss due to injury.

Norway will be joined on the sidelines by the likes of Ireland, Hungary, Greece, Finland, and Iceland.

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La Liga

10 thoughts from this week's Champions League action

The Champions League rumbled on this week with an entertaining slate of action. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Matchday 3 in Europe’s premier club competition.

What happens if goals dry up for Liverpool?

Liverpool’s exhilarating 3-2 win over Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday was arguably the best match of the competition this season. It had a little bit of everything: an electric atmosphere, great goals, a red card, a penalty, and wild swings in momentum.

And though Jurgen Klopp should be enthused by Mohamed Salah’s sizzling form and his team’s continued ability to fill the net (Liverpool have now scored 18 goals in their last five matches across all competitions), it wasn’t all positive for the German tactician.

After a ferocious start in which the Reds rocked Atletico during the first 15 minutes, Diego Simeone’s side steadied the ship and was the better team over the remainder of the contest. Looking beyond all the noise – the excellent finishing, Antoine Griezmann’s red card, and the late penalty incidents – Atleti probably should have come away with three points; Alisson was forced into some stellar saves on both sides of the halftime interval as Liverpool afforded an uncharacteristic amount of space, especially out wide, to the hosts.

Klopp, who correctly pointed out that winning “dirty” is an important attribute of successful teams, isn’t blind to the issues facing his squad at the moment.

“We are not that confident, to be honest,” he said after the match. “We know our struggles, we know our problems but we try to ignore them very often.”

In their last eight games in all competitions, Liverpool have conceded two or more goals in four of them, looking wobbly at the back against AC Milan, Brentford, Manchester City, and now Atletico. With Salah absolutely destroying his opponents right now, Liverpool can outscore their defensive issues, but at some point, they’ll have a spell when the goals don’t flow quite so freely. Hopefully, Klopp will have sorted out a suddenly susceptible backline by then.

PSG still lack a clear plan

With seven points from their opening three matches, Paris Saint-Germain are well-positioned to emerge from Group A and reach the knockout stages of the competition. But, not for the first time this season, the star-studded French side lacked cohesion and coherence, relying instead on individual quality from Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe to claim a 3-2 comeback win over RB Leipzig on Tuesday.

Mauricio Pochettino obviously has a plan for his team, but outside of scoring early and then using their elite attackers to wreak havoc on the counter, it’s been difficult to discern what, exactly, PSG want to do this season. Case in point: PSG had an open-net tap-in on the goal line – Messi’s first goal of the match – and still lost the overall expected goals (xG) battle when you exclude penalties from the equation.

Give the ball to Messi and Mbappe, and get the hell out of the way is, in fairness, an approach that will work more often than not. It was enough on Tuesday, after all. Conventional wisdom suggests that plan should be even more fruitful when Neymar is fit and involved, but something is still missing.

Great attacking tridents can carry a team very, very far – we’ve seen it happen in the past – but more than most sports, football truly is a team game. There needs to be balance all across the pitch, or the system crumbles. Barcelona’s famed “MSN” triumvirate, for example, was aided by an elite supporting cast, including a brilliant midfield.

Messi, Mbappe, and Neymar will deliver goals, but what Pochettino does with the rest of his squad will likely determine how successful PSG are this season.

Foden makes Manchester City tick

Amid doubts this season over Manchester City’s ability to get results without a traditional No. 9, victory in Belgium was proof that the Premier League club is doing just fine without a center forward in the fold.

In what was another example of Pep Guardiola’s tactical prowess, Manchester City produced one of their best attacking performances of the season in Tuesday night’s lopsided away win over Club Brugge.

VIRGINIE LEFOUR / AFP / Getty

With Phil Foden deployed as a false nine, City dominated en route to a 5-1 victory. The versatile 21-year-old was on another level, as his vision, passing, and movement off the ball caused problems for defenders all night long. This is a quality Brugge side that beat RB Leipzig and held PSG to a draw in its previous Group A matches, so such a thorough hammering is nothing to scoff at.

Foden’s confident display was one that City fans have come to expect from the exciting English international – and one that would be nearly impossible for just about any “traditional” striker in the world to replicate. With Ferran Torres out injured and Gabriel Jesus’ continued struggles with consistency in front of goal, Foden could be the target man of the future for Guardiola.

Toothless Milan on brink of humbling exit

AC Milan’s return to the Champions League has been nothing short of a disaster. Despite their impressive start in Serie A, the Rossoneri have struggled to get their Champions League campaign off the ground and now face the threat of an embarrassing exit after another frustrating night.

Stefano Pioli’s men arrived in Portugal with their best opportunity yet to secure their first Champions League point since 2014. Instead, a controversial goal from Luis Diaz lifted FC Porto to victory over the seven-time European champions, who were also the victims of very dubious officiating decisions that factored into their loss to Atletico Madrid on Matchday 2.

Regardless of their poor luck with the officials, Milan now have a mountain to climb just to avoid finishing last in Group B after losing their opening three matches; they sit four points back of Porto and Atletico, and nine behind leaders Liverpool.

The assignment was always going to be difficult given the strength of the quartet. But toothless displays such as the one on Tuesday night – when Milan managed only one shot on target – are likely to result in a humiliating departure from the tournament that fans were so desperate to see the club compete in again.

Just how far can Ajax go this season?

After years of consistently developing prodigious talents and selling them at huge profits, Ajax have often been relegated to underdog status during their recent Champions League endeavors. Based on some of their upsets, it’s a role the young Ajax teams of late have cherished.

But Tuesday felt like a turning point.

picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

Ajax thwacked Borussia Dortmund, claiming a resounding 4-0 win befitting of a juggernaut, not an underdog. That’s exactly what the Dutch side has looked like this season; between the Eredivisie and Champions League, Ajax have racked up 43 goals in 12 games, conceding only three times.

Erik ten Hag’s team is supremely skilled in virtually every area on the pitch, and the imposing Sebastien Haller offers a change of pace up front that is, somewhat surprisingly, jiving perfectly with his more technical teammates.

FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) has the usual suspects rated as the best teams in this season’s Champions League: Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Liverpool occupy the top three spots at the moment. However, Ajax are fourth.

Until we see evidence to the contrary, the storied club should be viewed as a legitimate candidate to make serious noise in the tournament.

Barca’s unspectacular win papers over cracks

It took them until Matchday 3, but Barcelona got their Champions League campaign up and running with a 1-0 win over Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday.

But the path to victory was rougher than it should have been against a team Barcelona would have historically been heavy favorites to beat. Less than a year after winning 4-0 on a trip to Ukraine, Barca had to grind their way to victory at the Camp Nou.

On an evening when the hosts struggled to generate scoring opportunities, it took the heroics of a defender to decide the match. Gerard Pique scored the winner and became the first player to register a Champions League goal for the club since Lionel Messi’s departure.

Despite getting the three points, it was a brutal performance that won’t fill fans with confidence ahead of the season’s first edition of El Clasico this weekend. If Koeman can’t inspire his men ahead of the showdown with Real Madrid, it could spell the end to the Dutchman’s time in charge.

Ronaldo rescues Solskjaer … again

Of course.

For the second consecutive Champions League match, Cristiano Ronaldo saved the blushes of Manchester United and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, delivering a late header to cap a stirring 3-2 comeback win over Atalanta.

Villarreal know the feeling, too.

Martin Rickett – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Solskjaer, who has come under increasing pressure amid the club’s poor run of form, was surely the most relieved person inside Old Trafford as he watched Ronaldo’s header hit the back of the net in the 81st minute. Though United created some chances in the first half, they again looked disorganized in defense and cumbersome overall, and the team, down 2-0 at halftime, was jeered off the pitch. The home crowd was growing restless.

Such a thrilling comeback will surely placate some – being able to turn that game around was no small feat, and praise is warranted – but getting into that situation in the first place should keep the alarm bells ringing. All is not solved, and the same pressing questions remain.

Does Solskjaer have the tactical nous to fix what’s ailing the team? Or, as has long been suggested by his detractors, is he more of a cheerleader who needs to make way for a more celebrated tactician who can get the best out of a very talented squad?

Welcome to the De Sciglio renaissance?

Mattia De Sciglio was an afterthought for many Juventus supporters following his return from a loan spell with Lyon, but the versatile Italian has shown in recent matches why Massimiliano Allegri continues to have faith in him.

The 29-year-old, never the most buccaneering full-back, has directly contributed to Juventus’ last two goals, whipping in delicious crosses against Roma this past weekend and Zenit St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Juve claimed 1-0 victories in both contests.

De Sciglio is often afforded plenty of space by the opposition, who have clearly identified him as the Bianconeri’s least threatening outlet, regardless of which flank he takes up. It’s not an unwarranted approach, to be fair, but if he continues to make worthwhile attacking contributions, opposing teams will eventually need to account for a player who some didn’t expect to see wearing a black and white shirt at all this season.

Time for Tuchel to get creative

Chelsea cruised to a 4-0 win over Malmo on Wednesday, but any delight was tempered after watching strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner both leave the contest in the first half with worrying injuries.

Thomas Tuchel said after the victory that the Belgian star twisted his ankle, adding that the German speedster sustained a hamstring issue. He suspects the duo will miss “some games,” according to James Olley of ESPN. The extent of their ailments will be learned later this week.

Darren Walsh / Chelsea FC / Getty

Barring a rapid recovery, Tuchel will need to get crafty with his lineup selections in the coming weeks. Kai Havertz, who found the net in Wednesday’s rout, figures to see some time as a false nine.

There’s never a good time for injuries, but the Blues will take solace in the fact that Lukaku and Werner’s setbacks come during the most favorable portion – at least on paper – of Chelsea’s schedule.

Adeyemi ready for big move

Karim Adeyemi will very likely be the subject of a bidding war in January.

The Red Bull Salzburg forward, 19, brought his tally to three goals in as many matches in this season’s Champions League, scoring an early marker in his side’s 3-1 triumph against Wolfsburg. The Austrian club is now sitting pretty atop Group G and will fancy its chances of reaching the knockout stage.

The German international’s explosiveness has been central to Salzburg’s success. In addition to his scoring prowess, the teenager has won four penalties in three games. Defenders can’t handle him.

Manager Matthias Jaissle should probably enjoy the next couple months while he’s able to call upon Adeyemi; a handful of Europe’s top clubs are apparently eyeing an opulent transfer for the youngster, who looks destined to be the next big star to come through the vaunted Red Bull pipeline.

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Chiesa, Son among 5 Ballon d'Or snubs

The finalists for the 2021 Ballon d’Or award were unveiled Friday, with many of football’s biggest stars occupying a spot on the prestigious list.

As is the case every year after France Football releases its 30-man shortlist, there are a handful of controversial omissions.

Here are five of the biggest snubs for the 2021 Ballon d’Or award:

Heung-min Son (Tottenham/South Korea)

Adam Davy – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

On the heels of another sensational season at Tottenham Hotspur, Heung-min Son somehow failed to make the cut for the revered honor.

Son was brilliant for Spurs last term, forming a dynamic partnership with Harry Kane on his way to finishing the 2020-21 Premier League campaign with 17 goals and 10 assists. But even though his statistics eclipsed the figures that earned him a place in the top 30 two years ago, the South Korean’s best season in north London went unrewarded by the French outlet.

Federico Chiesa (Juventus/Italy)

There’s not much more Federico Chiesa could’ve done to earn his place among football’s elite.

The 23-year-old winger developed into an integral component for both club and country last season. But even after playing an influential role in spearheading Italy’s journey toward capturing the Euro 2020 title and emerging as a star for Juventus, his heroic efforts weren’t enough for some, apparently.

Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich/Germany)

Alexander Hassenstein / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Joshua Kimmich is perhaps the most puzzling omission of the lot. The versatile German is one of Bayern Munich and Germany’s most consistent players, yet he’s been overlooked by France Football for the second time running.

There’s no doubting the 26-year-old will eventually get recognized in the near future. But there’s also no doubt that, right now, Kimmich is arguably one of the most important and talented players for a Bayern Munich side that habitually competes for – and wins – titles.

Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid/Slovenia)

There wasn’t any room for Jan Oblak in this year’s list of Ballon d’Or contenders, with Italian Gianluigi Donnarumma singled out as the lone representative of the goalkeeping brotherhood.

While there are cases to be made for other goalkeeper snubs – such as Manchester City’s Ederson, Liverpool’s Alisson, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, and Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy – Oblak’s exclusion may be the most egregious considering his commanding performances in helping Atletico Madrid end their seven-year wait for a La Liga title.

Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain/Brazil)

Simon Stacpoole/Offside / Offside / Getty

A trophy-less season at Paris Saint-Germain could be one of the explanations for overlooking Marquinhos. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good reason to omit one of the world’s top defenders.

While it was a disappointing season overall for PSG, Marquinhos was a force throughout the campaign before going on to play a vital role during Brazil’s journey to the Copa America final last summer.

Honorable mentions: Marcos Llorente (Atletico Madrid/Spain), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich/Germany), Edouard Mendy (Chelsea/Senegal), Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich/Germany), Kyle Walker (Manchester City/England)

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