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."

Ballon d'Or 2021 winner Lionel Messi has said that runner-up Robert Lewandowski deserved a Ballon d'Or of his own for his exploits last year.

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

The Paris Saint-Germain superstar has enjoyed a superb but bittersweet calendar year, highlighted by finally leading Argentina to success on the international stage with a Copa America victory in which he was both the tournament's top scorer and top assister.

He then returned to Barcelona expecting to sign a new deal, but the club's financial situation made it impossible.

In 40 club appearances this year between both Barca and PSG, Messi has managed an impressive 32 goals and 12 assists and was handed the gong by former team-mate Luis Suarez.

Lewandowski, meanwhile, continued the magnificent form he had displayed across 2020, when he led Bayern to a treble only for last year's edition of the award to be cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 33-year-old scored 41 Bundesliga goals to break Gerd Muller's 49-year-old record while, so far in 2021, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 42 appearances, the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions. 

Erling Haaland, his nearest challenger, is 15 back on 38. Lewandowski has averaged a goal every 67 minutes. Among those with 10 goals or more, club-mate Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting is the next most regular scorer, netting every 84 minutes.

"[Lewandowski], you deserve your Ballon d'Or," Messi said upon receiving the award. "Last year, everyone was in agreement to say that you were the big winner.

"Hopefully [France Football] give you the Ballon d’Or 2020."

Lewandowski sent his congratulations to the Ballon d'Or winners and nominees on social media, while thanking his teammates and fans for their support in helping him claim the Striker of the Year award.

"Congratulations Leo Messi and [Women's Ballon d'Or winner] Alexia Putellas, winners of the Ballon d'Or 2021, congratulations also to all nominated players," Lewandowski wrote on social media.

"I won [the] Striker of the Year Award and no player can win an individual award without [the] strongest team and loyal fans behind him. Thank you for your support."

Messi indicated in his acceptance speech a desire to keep playing, with retirement not on the 34-year-old's agenda in the near future.

"I don't know how many years I have left, but I hope there will still be many because I am having enormous fun," Messi added.

Lionel Messi has won a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or after beating Robert Lewandowski to the most sought-after individual prize in football.

The Paris Saint-Germain star may have endured a somewhat slow start to life in France this season, but before that he was electric for Barcelona and Argentina.

It was surely his long-awaited first trophy success with La Albiceleste that gave Messi the edge over Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski. 

Messi captained Argentina to Copa America success in July, ending their 28-year drought in major international competitions.

 

At the Maracana – the scene of Argentina's 2014 World Cup final defeat to Germany – Messi helped Lionel Scaloni's men to a 1-0 win over bitter rivals and Copa hosts Brazil.

He had previously lost Copa finals in 2007, 2015 and 2016, briefly retiring after missing his penalty in the shootout that saw the trophy slip from their grasp in the latter.

Messi may not have had the decisive impact in this year's final, but over the course of the tournament he was deemed to have been the best player, scoring four goals and setting up another five – no one bettered him in either metric.

 

Lewandowski had been considered the favourite before then, partly due to breaking Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season.

The Poland striker looked likely to have won the award in 2020 before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Messi's success in Brazil seemed to tip the scales in his favour, with the 34-year-old increasing his lead over Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d'Or stakes, the Manchester United forward now two back on five after finishing sixth in the voting this time around.

Lewandowski did, however, win the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Lionel Messi has edged out Robert Lewandowski to the 2021 Ballon d'Or award, a seventh of his magnificent career.

World football's most prestigious individual accolade was back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony taking place in Paris on Monday, where Messi was announced as the winner with Lewandowski second.

The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic, and was pipped by Paris Saint-Germain star Messi this year in the running for the 2021 iteration.

Lewandowski did get the consolation prize of the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Was it the right choice, though? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses why the Argentinian may have been awarded this year's prize.

Last season: Barca swansong v Muller's record

Few anticipated that the first half of 2021 would also be the final half-season of Messi's time at Barcelona.

His sensational free transfer to PSG at the end of the campaign was forced by financial issues at the Catalan club, and he bid a tearful goodbye to the Camp Nou, but not before signing off with a few more goals.

Messi's last LaLiga campaign before heading off to France saw him bag 30 goals in 35 games, with a further five in six Champions League games.

However, team awards were scarce, with just a Copa del Rey to show for his efforts. Barca finished a meek third in LaLiga, and were eliminated – somewhat ironically – by PSG in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Something that may have counted against Lewandowski was his own lack of silverware compared to the previous year, where he and Bayern hoovered up a remarkable treble, including the Champions League. They did though still retain the Bundesliga title with relative ease, as well as clinching the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

They were eliminated from the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, also by a pre-Messi PSG, though this can hardly be blamed on the Polish striker, who missed both legs of the tie through injury.

Lewandowski himself remained in outstanding form, and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 for Die Roten in just 29 league games, with a deadly shot conversion percentage across the season of 29.93.

It may have been Messi's superior creativity that helped sway the judges, creating 77 chances in his 35 league games, 22 of which were big chances, compared to 32 and nine from Lewandowski in his 29 league appearances in Germany.

The former Barca man did only manage two more assists than Lewandowski (nine to seven) but completed 159 dribbles and 1,068 successful passes ending in the final third, compared to the Pole's 22 and 237. Of course, it should be noted that Messi's role is typically a deeper one than Lewandowski's, so those latter statistics are not too surprising.

This season: New adventures v same old story

Messi's start to a new life in a new league has not exactly matched the inevitable expectations that accompanied his arrival in Paris.

The 34-year-old has just one goal in seven appearances in Ligue 1 with a shot conversion percentage of just 4.17, though he does have three in four Champions League games for Mauricio Pochettino's side.

Lewandowski has continued to plunder goals against all-comers, with 25 goals in 20 games in all competitions for Bayern, including an incredible nine in five Champions League games, and his shot conversion rate is currently even better than last season at 30.86 per cent.

In all competitions, the former Borussia Dortmund striker has played almost twice as many games as Messi (20 to 11) so it is tricky to compare them too accurately in terms of output, but Lewandowski has created 26 chances to Messi's 18, with six big chances created to five, while Messi has the edge on assists (three to two), dribbles completed (22 to 20) and successful passes ending in the final third (222 to 146).

So far you would have to say it is the Pole who is impressing most in the current campaign, having also had a more productive season last time out, so where exactly did Messi win this award?

 

Internationals: Argentina v Poland

Despite being an individual award, there is no doubt that team accolades often play a big part in swaying the judges, and an eventful pre-season for Messi at club level was arguably the only thing that could possibly have overshadowed what happened at international level as he finally lifted his first trophy in an Argentina shirt.

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

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament.

Their star striker still managed to score three goals in three games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

 

Very little creates debate in football quite like the Ballon d'Or, and on the face of it this year's trophy could have gone either way, with honourable mentions for the likes of Jorginho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah and Karim Benzema.

It is Messi's Ballon d'Or in 2021 though, and it seems that Copa America success is what tipped it in his favour. PSG fans will be hoping that a domestic trophy haul over the next 12 months can see him installed as favourite to secure his eighth award next year, ahead of potentially his last attempt at World Cup success with Argentina.

Lionel Messi has won a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or after beating Robert Lewandowski to the most sought-after individual prize in football.

The Paris Saint-Germain star may have endured a somewhat slow start to life in France this season, but before that he was electric for Barcelona and Argentina.

It was surely his long-awaited first trophy success with La Albiceleste that gave Messi the edge over Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski. 

Messi captained Argentina to Copa America success in July, ending their 28-year drought in major international competitions.

 

At the Maracana – the scene of Argentina's 2014 World Cup final defeat to Germany – Messi helped Lionel Scaloni's men to a 1-0 win over bitter rivals and Copa hosts Brazil.

He had previously lost Copa finals in 2007, 2015 and 2016, briefly retiring after missing his penalty in the shootout that saw the trophy slip from their grasp in the latter.

Messi may not have had the decisive impact in this year's final, but over the course of the tournament he was deemed to have been the best player, scoring four goals and setting up another five – no one bettered him in either metric.

 

Lewandowski had been considered the favourite before then, partly due to breaking Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season.

The Poland striker looked likely to have won the award in 2020 before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Messi's success in Brazil seemed to tip the scales in his favour, with the 34-year-old increasing his lead over Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d'Or stakes, the Manchester United forward now two back on five after finishing sixth in the voting this time around.

Lewandowski did, however, win the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Robert Lewandowski can consider himself hard done by. The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, world football's most prestigious individual accolade is back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony set to take place on Monday.

Lewandowski, who scooped The Best FIFA Men's Player award for 2020 and has had another sensational year for Bayern, is among the favourites on a 30-man shortlist.

Will it finally be his time, or will old voting habits die hard to put Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in pole position? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses the credentials of the Ballon d'Or favourites.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)

Has anybody outperformed Bayern star Lewandowski in 2021?  While there was no repeat of the treble-winning heroics of the 2019-20 campaign, he has been in astounding form and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 as Die Roten were crowned champions for a ninth straight campaign.

With 25 to his name already across all competitions this term, Lewandowski leads the way for goals from players in Europe's top five leagues, nine clear of anyone else. When taking the whole year so far into account, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 41 games, putting him 16 clear of nearest challengers Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Unsurprisingly, his scoring rate – a goal every 65 minutes – is comfortably the best of any player to net 10 or more in 2021.

 

Lionel Messi (PSG, Argentina)

It has been a momentous year for Messi. He finally achieved success on the international stage, leading Argentina to a Copa America triumph. Following that, he was expected to sign a fresh deal at Barcelona, but we all know how that turned out. Now at Paris Saint-Germain, the 34-year-old marked his final season in Spain with one last trophy, the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. 

Across 39 appearances in 2021 for Barca and PSG combined, Messi has 32 goals, nine assists and 81   chances created. But it is Messi's triumph with Argentina that really puts him in the running for a seventh Ballon d'Or.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, Portugal)

Like Messi, Ronaldo – a five-time Ballon d'Or winner – made a big move of his own in 2021, returning to Manchester United after three seasons at Juventus. The 36-year-old has already scored 10 goals in his second spell at Old Trafford. While the team's struggles are well known – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job after last week's dismal defeat at Watford – Ronaldo's strike against Villarreal on Tuesday took him to 799 career goals for club and country, a remarkable feat.

While it has not been the finest year at club level for Ronaldo, with Juve missing out on the Serie A title, albeit winning the Coppa Italia, he did become the record goalscorer in men's international football, scoring his 110th and 111th goals in a double against the Republic of Ireland in September to overtake Ali Daei (109); the forward now has 115. His agent, Jorge Mendes, told France Football: "All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time."

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)

Since Ronaldo departed Real Madrid in 2018, Benzema has stepped up to become Los Blancos' talisman. Although a LaLiga title evaded Madrid last season, it has been another fantastic year for Benzema. He earned a recall to the France squad for Euro 2020 and, despite the team's disappointing campaign, his stellar performances caught the eye, before he excelled again in World Cup qualifying and the Nations League Finals.

Indeed, Benzema's goal against Finland last week made him the first France player to score in four successive matches since he did so himself in five games between November 2013 and June 2014. There is no doubting he is a serious contender for this year's award.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)

Liverpool star Salah cannot be ignored. Jurgen Klopp has labelled the Egypt forward as the world's best player and, based on the season so far, it would be hard to argue too much with that suggestion, with Lewandowski the only player across Europe's top five leagues to be directly involved in more goals (27) than Salah (24) to this point.

Only four players have topped Salah's goals tally of 32   in 2021, although Liverpool's failure to retain their Premier League crown last season probably counts against the 29-year-old when it comes to this prize.

 

Kylian Mbappe (PSG, France)

While players in their thirties dominate the bookmakers' list of favourites, could this be the year that Mbappe steals the crown? The 22-year-old could well have left PSG in August, but the Ligue 1 giants held firm despite three bids from Madrid, who seem likely to get their man on a free transfer at the end of the campaign.

In the meantime, Mbappe is forming a formidable front three with Messi and Neymar, whose own Ballon d'Or hopes seem extremely slim. Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France slipped out of Euro 2020, but his 37 goals from 47 appearances for PSG across all competitions in 2021 tell their own story, while his shot conversion rate of 24.3 per cent betters that of Salah, Benzema, Messi and Ronaldo.

Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)

An outsider for the award, perhaps, but nevertheless a player who has been widely tipped, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho played a pivotal role the Blues' Champions League triumph and then Italy's Euro 2020 success, although he did miss a penalty in the final shoot-out against England. In fact, he has now missed his past three spot-kicks for Italy, after having scored each of his first six taken for the Azzurri.

Jorginho has already scooped the UEFA Men's Player of the Year award, and it is not too long ago that another deep-lying playmaker in Luka Modric won the Ballon d'Or, even if the competition this time around seems a little too stacked.

 

N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Might Jorginho's Chelsea midfield partner have a shout? Kante is still dominating midfields with his boundless energy five years on from his title triumph with Leicester City. He was already an elite performer before Thomas Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge, but he seems to have gone up another level since the German coach came in.

Across all competitions in 2021, Kante boasts a tackle success rate of 63.2 per cent and has made 193 recoveries. Freed by a box-to-box role in Tuchel's system, Kante has won 151 of 277 duels and registered an impressive 42 interceptions.

Italy and Argentina will face each other in June 2022 after UEFA and CONMEBOL agreed to stage a series of matches between the European Championship and Copa America winners. 

Euro 2020 holders Italy, who ended a 53-year wait for the trophy by defeating England in July, are set to take on Copa America 2021 victors Argentina next year.

While a venue is yet to be confirmed for the inaugural fixture, there will also be further games held between the respective winners after the next two editions of each tournament. 

A statement from the governing bodies said: "UEFA and CONMEBOL have today announced the broadening of their existing cooperation as well as the staging of a match between the UEFA Euro 2020 winners Italy and the CONMEBOL Copa America 2021 winners Argentina during the international window in June 2022 at a venue to be confirmed. 

"The organising of this match is part of the expansion of the cooperation between UEFA and CONMEBOL, which notably includes women’s football, futsal and youth categories, the exchange of referees, as well as technical training schemes. 

"The agreement reached by the two organisations currently covers three editions of this match between the respective continental winners and includes the opening of a joint office in London, which will be in charge of coordinating projects of common interest. 

"By reaching this agreement, UEFA and CONMEBOL express their commitment to the development of football beyond their geographical zones, as a bridge uniting people, countries, continents and cultures. 

"The UEFA Executive Committee and the CONMEBOL Council also expressed a strong willingness to continue collaborating on other issues of mutual interest going forward." 

The agreement signifies a strengthening of the working relationship between the organisations, both of whom have openly opposed FIFA's plans for a biennial World Cup. 

With UEFA and CONMEBOL improving relations between one another, it could prove vital for knocking back FIFA's proposed changes, which remain in the pipeline with their Chief of Global Development Arsene Wenger leading the charge. 

Lionel Messi reflected on his "special" Copa America triumph after fulfilling a dream, having been treated as a "failure" with Argentina.

Messi guided Argentina to their first trophy in 28 years – La Albiceleste dethroning defending champions and hosts Brazil in July's Copa final.

For Messi, it ended years of heartache and near misses after the superstar Argentina captain finished runner-up in the Copa America three times (2007, 2015 and 2016) as well as a beaten finalist at the 2014 World Cup.

As Argentina prepare for Thursday's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier against Bolivia, six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi discussed his first senior international crown.

"After so much suffering, lifting something with the national team was special," Paris Saint-Germain's Messi – Argentina's all-time leading goalscorer and most-capped player – told ESPN. "There was a part of the journalists that treated me as a failure and that I didn't feel the shirt.

"Everything I won was important, I was lucky to have won a lot of things in a row at my club and very fast and the blows came later.

"With the national team, it was blow after blow, that made it more important now. It cost a lot to get it.

"When we won, I couldn't believe it. I dreamed it so much that I didn't understand what was happening. Honestly, I enjoy it more now when I see the images than that moment."

Messi won a club-record 35 trophies at Camp Nou – including 10 LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues – before sensationally leaving Barcelona for PSG on a free transfer in 2021-22.

"I don't know where I'd place it [Copa America triumph]. Everything I won was important but this was the most difficult," Messi said.

"A lot of things happened and I won very quickly at Barcelona. At the national team, it was one hit after another."

Argentina are in the midst of a 21-match unbeaten streak – dating back to 2019 – after Sunday's blockbuster clash against Brazil was abandoned following an apparent breach of coronavirus regulations.

Lionel Scaloni's Argentina are undefeated on the road to Qatar 2022 and Messi added: "You have to start by recognising that we are not the best in the world.

"We were not the worst before and we are not the best now."

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