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

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

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

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

 

Goalkeeper – Emiliano Martinez (Argentina)

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

 

Right-back – Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)

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

 

Centre-back – Marquinhos (Brazil)

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

Centre-back – Piero Hincapie (Ecuador)

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

Left-back – Pervis Estupinan (Ecuador)

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

Central midfield – Wilmar Barrios (Colombia)

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

Central midfield – Rodrigo De Paul (Argentina)

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

Right wing – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

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

 

Attacking midfield – Neymar (Brazil)

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

 

Left wing – Luis Diaz (Colombia)

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

 

Striker – Lautaro Martinez (Argentina)

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

Like Cristiano Ronaldo five years ago, Lionel Messi has ended his international trophy drought with continental glory.

Ballon d'Ors are one thing, with the pair sharing 11 between them, but achieving success with the national team has been critical to the grander standing and legacy of the two outstanding players of this generation.

There is a school of thought that Messi remains in Diego Maradona's shadow in Argentina.

The late Maradona, of course, took La Albiceleste to World Cup glory in 1986, which has eluded Messi who was a runner-up in 2014.

But Messi had also never won the Copa America. That was until Saturday's 1-0 win over Brazil, at the Maracana, the same venue where he lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany.

Messi was part of the Argentina sides that lost Copa finals in 2015 and 2016. He briefly retired after missing his penalty in the 2016 final shootout.

This tournament was his sixth shot at lifting the trophy. And it was the 34-year-old's best yet, dominating as joint top scorer with four goals and topping the Copa assists charts with four.

Messi was not the star in the final, with a lively Angel Di Maria scoring the winner with Argentina's first touch inside Brazil's penalty area.

Udinese midfielder Rodrigo De Paul set up the winner and was a key presence at both ends, while goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was the star in the semi-final shootout and exceptional again in the final.

But Messi was the big story. The Argentina captain and superstar has taken a huge weight off his shoulders with international glory.

Argentina fans will start dreaming about what is possible at next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Lionel Scaloni's La Albiceleste are unbeaten across 20 games and conceded only three goals at the Copa America.

Argentina scored 12 goals across the seven games in the tournament, with Messi directly involved in nine.

The final was billed as Messi versus fellow superstar and former Barcelona team-mate Neymar, who was busy but closely marked throughout by the Argentines in the final.

Neymar, who missed Brazil's 2019 Copa triumph, is another global superstar yet to lift the World Cup or a continental title. Missing out on home soil will be a great disappointment for the Selecao.

The loss was Brazil's first at home in 25 games under Tite (W21 D3 L1). It also ended their 13-game unbeaten run.

The margin between victory and defeat was fine, but the fallout for Messi and Neymar is a stark contrast. Ecstasy and pain.

The wobbles of Wimbledon struck Karolina Pliskova and Ash Barty in a women's final that delivered devilish drama and a marvellously charismatic new champion.

Barty's big moment at the All England Club has finally arrived, the world number one making good on the aim she publicly set herself by landing the second grand slam of a career that could yield many more.

As she joyfully paraded the Venus Rosewater Dish around Centre Court, it hardly mattered that the 25-year-old had staggered across the winning line.

When she raced up to the players' box to hug coach Craig Tyzzer and boyfriend Garry Kissick, they were not asking why she had not got the job done in straight sets.

When Barty's thoughts turned to her hero Evonne Goolagong, and tears began to flow, all that mattered to the Queenslander was that she had achieved her tennis destiny.

But what a curious contest this was, a first women's Wimbledon singles final to go to a third set since 2012, yet it would take a real optimist – Barty, for instance – to define it as a classic.

At least it was a contest. That had been in doubt when Pliskova lost the opening 14 points. It was 4-0 in just 12 minutes, at which stage memories of the Czech's 6-0 6-0 drubbing by Iga Swiatek in May's Rome final came to mind.

Pliskova did not fire a single winner in the first six games. Barty surged a set and 3-1 ahead in 45 minutes, a 13th straight-sets women's final in the last 14 Wimbledon championships seemingly inevitable.

The pre-match favourite's nerve was holding, or so it seemed, but when Pliskova held serve to trail only 3-2 the players had split the last 10 games, and that suggested a pivot in the flow of the contest was still possible.

Rudyard Kipling's encouragement to keep your head while others might be losing theirs is engrained in Wimbledon tradition, yet doing so on the big stage is easier prescribed than achieved.

This title match was painfully short on consistent quality, with more unforced errors than winners overall (Barty: 30/29, Pliskova: 27/32) as the pressure of the occasion affected the two first-time finalists. Movie star Tom Cruise was in the crowd, and a plot twist was coming.

A chant of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" went up at 5-5 in the second set, and Pliskova went on to drop serve from 40-love, missing a straightforward enough backhand volley at the net when she had the chance to close out the game.

Serving for the title, Barty played her worst tennis of the match, and when Pliskova powered through the tie-break those still awake Down Under must have been suddenly fearing the worst.

Serving first in the third set, Barty took a look down the other end and must have been thinking: "What are you still doing here?"

But Barty swiftly established a break, Pliskova volleying lamentably into the net from close range, and this time the Aussie nerve held.

She fired an ace to bring up a first match point and the title was hers when Pliskova drove a backhand into the net, her 32nd unforced error of the match.

Having held serve in 57 of her 61 service games up to the final, Pliskova was broken six times.

Barty won the girls' Wimbledon tournament in 2011 and 10 years later has achieved a rare double by adding the women's title, joining Ann Jones, Martina Hingis and Amelie Mauresmo as the only players to do so in the Open Era.

She has joined Margaret Court and Goolagong in becoming a women's champion for Australia at the All England Club, and Barty holds the latter in the highest regard.

They share an indigenous background, and 50 years after Goolagong landed the first of her two Wimbledon titles, Barty did just enough to fend off Pliskova and add her own name to the board of champions.

Barty called it "an exceptional match right from the start", and that verdict can probably be put down to the adrenaline of being a newly crowned champion.

She also spoke of having managed precious little sleep ahead of the match, which might explain some of the erratic side of her performance.

And then the BBC's Sue Barker asked her about Goolagong.

"I hope I made Evonne proud," Barty said, the first tears beginning to stream.

Barty has left home to pursue this dream, having chosen to spend almost all of 2020 back in Greater Springfield, near Brisbane, away from the world's worst COVID-19 crises.

Her family have remained in Australia, and Barty has made the trip worth it with this triumph.

"I know they're at home watching. I miss them, I love them," Barty said. "I can't wait to get home to them in a few months' time and really celebrate."

She suggested celebrations in her bubble would be "low key". The Barty party will have to wait.

There was a sense of justice and vindication about Italy reaching the final of Euro 2020. They had been arguably the most entertaining side at the tournament and attracted near-universal levels of acclaim for their performances.

Added to that, there was an inspiring narrative that followed their every step, how they'd recovered from the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, started from scratch with a new coach and philosophy, and seen it all come together at their first major tournament since.

But they were fortunate to get beyond Spain in the semi-finals, eventually coming through on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

La Roja did more than enough to win the match, their 1.5 xG almost double the 0.8 that Italy recorded, highlighting the greater quality chances created by Luis Enrique's men.

Although Spain's almost trademark – at this tournament, anyway – wastefulness eventually caught up with them, they at least did Gareth Southgate and England a service in pinpointing ways to hurt Italy.

 

Thinking outside of the box

The chief alteration Luis Enrique made to his side from Spain's previous matches at Euro 2020 was the decision to disregard Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno for that central striker berth.

Now, some might have suggested it was about time, given they were two of the three players with the worst xG underperformance ahead of the semi-finals – Morata had two goals from 3.95 xG, Moreno had no goals from 3.27 xG.

But the reason for their absence, and the presence of Dani Olmo as a false nine, quickly became apparent. The RB Leipzig attacking midfielder withdrew into deeper positions so as to not directly engage Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci in physical duels, but at the same time this helped create midfield overloads in Spain's favour.

This was obvious on numerous occasions, but one of the most notable saw Olmo actually drop in front of Jorginho, a clever flick in the centre-circle seeing him release Pedri into space as Spain cleverly picked through the Italian midfield.

Granted, it didn't necessarily lead to a goal that time, but it highlighted how uncomfortable Italy sometimes found themselves, and the fact Olmo's combined total of seven shots and key passes (five attempts, two chances created) was the most of any player against Italy at this tournament cannot be a coincidence.

Morata's equaliser off the bench came from a situation not too dissimilar to the previous one as well. This time it was he who picked the ball up in a deep position, before charging straight through the Italy midfield and playing a one-two with Olmo, leaving him with a simple finish. Although he might've missed a few of those already in this tournament, he finished with aplomb on that occasion.

 

The blueprint

You know how in some video games there are unusually fearsome enemies who only unleash their wrath upon the player if they don't keep their distance? Well, that seemed to be how Luis Enrique saw Chiellini and Bonucci, and maybe he has a point.

Ahead of the final, Chiellini's 71.4 per cent duels success has been bettered by only six defenders (involved in 10 or more duels), while Bonucci's 12 interceptions is the best of all of them. Together, there's not much they don't possess.

That's why playing around them, rather than through them, seems to be the way to go.

While England don't possess a midfield that's as capable – in almost any sense – as Spain's, mirroring their set-up could at least make things trickier for Italy's core: that centre-back pairing and the three-man midfield.

Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Marco Verratti have been largely excellent at Euro 2020, but at Wembley on Tuesday they were overrun.

 

Jorginho found it particularly tough going, the Chelsea man completing just 26 passes and only five of those were in the Spain half. To put that into context, his previous match low for accurate passes at the Euros was 50, and he'd not gone below 29 in the opponent's half of the pitch.

 

Verratti and Barella also recorded tournament lows in the same metrics, but it was Jorginho's lack of influence that was most notable and, given he is generally the deepest-lying of the Italian midfield, it lends further credence to the idea that Olmo operating slightly deeper ensured the former Napoli star was uncomfortable and unable to truly dictate.

Instead, that was done by Sergio Busquets and – to a slightly lesser extent, but no less impressively – Pedri, while Koke spent much of his time marshalling Verratti in something of a man-marking role.

Of course, an important distinction to make is that Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Mason Mount aren't Busquets, Pedri and Koke, but if England are to limit the influence of the Italian midfield, all three will need to play the games of their lives.

Kane holds the key

If Phillips and Rice can establish some form of control, the second key factor for England will be the role played by Harry Kane.

While Kane is undoubtedly capable of causing Bonucci and Chiellini problems, mimicking Olmo's performance could be a smart move, and there are few strikers in world football more capable than the Tottenham man at dropping deep and impacting the match in withdrawn spaces.

Jose Mourinho would know all about that, given it was under the Portuguese coach in 2020-21 that Kane enjoyed his best season creatively, reaching double figures for Premier League assists for the first time.

Mourinho told talkSPORT: "[Spain] was the only team that managed to unbalance that Italy midfield, because they had three and Spain had three plus Olmo, almost in a diamond. It was really difficult for Italy to cope with it. I can see Harry Kane doing that a lot. I can see Harry dropping and being away from Bonucci and Chiellini.

 

"For Bonucci and Chilellini, to have a target man in there is what they want. By not having a target man there, it's an extra midfielder, Harry Kane does that better than anyone."

Kane's 14 assists (12 in open play) in 2020-21 came from 3.6 xA (expected assists). Granted, that 10.4 over-performance – which was by far the best across the top five leagues – suggests a hint of fortune or that he was helped by good finishing from team-mates, but the idea he got lucky on every single occasion is far-fetched. He is clearly a fine link-up player.

Seven of those assists came from deeper positions, and the role Raheem Sterling plays for England isn't too dissimilar to that of Son Heung-min at Spurs, and we all know about Kane and Son's on-pitch relationship.

Italy's midfield is their strength, but all three of their regulars are players who want the ball – none of them are destroyers, and Spain have provided England with the blueprint to dull their impact.

Whether the Three Lions are up to the challenge will define if 55 years of hurt finally end on Sunday.

 

A lot can change in a month. Think back to England's pre-Euro 2020 friendlies and most fans or pundits were likely highlighting the defence as their primary concern.

Harry Maguire was injured and seemingly a doubt for the entire group stage; Trent Alexander-Arnold was ruled out of the tournament; and certain decisions made by Tyrone Mings had alarm bells ringing.

Yet, here we are, four weeks on and England are preparing for a Euro 2020 semi-final having not conceded a single goal in five tournament matches.

While sceptics might suggest the general level of those opponents wasn't always world class, the fact is their five clean sheets has equalled a major tournament record – it is a genuine achievement in itself.

That record is extended to Jordan Pickford as well, with the Everton goalkeeper one clean sheet away from setting a new record for the most clean sheets at a European Championship (six).

 

Before Euro 2020, most will have been championing England's forward options as the team's strongest element, but now there's more than a case for the defence.

Solid and dependable

While Everton fans would insist Jordan Pickford's form has been strong for a while, it's fair to say there are many who've been surprised – rightly or wrongly – by his showings at Euro 2020.

His kicking has been an asset to England, while he's produced some excellent saves and his importance to the team is quantifiable as well.

According to xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Pickford has actively prevented 1.5 goals at Euro 2020. Now, that may not sound massive in the grand scheme of things, it's actually highly impressive given the small sample of matches involved.

Only Stole Dimitrievski (2.6) and Tomas Vaclik (2.5) have prevented more goals than him in the tournament, though their respective xGA (expected goals against) figures of 8.85 and 6.7 show their records come from a larger pool of quality chances than Pickford (2.95).

 

Of course, away from goalkeeping, defensive excellence can be difficult to outline with statistics, particularly in good teams. For example, if John Stones was leading the charts for the most tackles, it would suggest England were playing a risky game because of the over-reliance on someone in their backline. He isn't, and that obviously reflects well on the Three Lions' organisation.

But two individual metrics reflect particularly well on Harry Maguire. The Manchester United centre-back has received great praise since returning to the team for the third group game, impressing with his reliability at the back.

The acclaim is backed up by the fact he's not lost a single aerial duel (8/8) and come out on top in 14 of his 16 overall duels since coming back into the side.

Both he and Pickford will be looked to again on Wednesday, particularly given Denmark – whose 15 direct attacks is the most of all teams at Euro 2020 – have scored 11 times so far, a haul bettered by only Spain (12) before the semis.

Shields up

Central midfield was another area of the team that had sections of the support unconvinced ahead of the tournament, with the double-pivot of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips deemed by many as too conservative. Granted, few Premier League fans would have looked at them and thought, "these two guarantee goals", but international football over the past nine years has given great credence to the idea pragmatism rules.

It'd now be fair to assume the majority of England fans would start both players for the remainder of the tournament, regardless of the opposition. As a pair they possess great athleticism, good ball-retention ability, work ethic and defensive nous.

Phillips has arguably been the greater eye-opener. While his advanced role against Croatia may not have developed into a continuing theme, his ability to sniff out danger and be in the right place at the right time has been notable, and as such only six midfielders could better his 28 recoveries prior to the semi-finals.

 

Similarly, his athleticism has translated well to aerial battles as well, with his 10 aerial wins ranking him fourth among midfielders.

Rice has generally been the one of the two with the greater defensive responsibility, as reflected by his eight interceptions, two blocks and seven clearances, all of which put him in the top five for midfielders at Euro 2020 prior to the semi-finals.

Though it's also worth highlighting that, although Rice works effectively off the ball, his influence in possession is also significant, as evidenced by the collective xG value of build-ups he's involved in being 3.1, only bettered by four Spain players.

Sure, this metric will be weighted in favour of teams who play more games and have a greater share of the ball, but he's ranked higher than the likes of Jordi Alba (2.3) and Jorginho (2.6), which speaks volumes.

So, while the defence and Pickford are certainly doing a fine job, their defensive shield is also proving highly capable.

Passive effective

In 2021, high-intensity pressing is very much in vogue, which is another reason why this England team is so interesting. While some teams almost religiously stick to such principals, the Three Lions prefer to pick their moments.

This is partly reflected by England's 35 high turnovers being the lowest of the four semi-finalists (Spain and Denmark on 47, Italy on 42), while their 98 defensive actions is also well behind (Spain 159, Italy 134, Denmark 127).

England's average starting position of 42.6 metres (also a low among the last four) shows how they tend to defend deeper, and the fact they allow 18.6 passes on average before initiating a defensive action (PPDA) further reflects Southgate's desire to have a lower line of engagement.

 

It's not that England don't press, they are just more passive in general. This certainly won't be a surprising revelation to anyone who has watched them at Euro 2020.

This passive nature doesn't necessarily lend itself to many people's idea of exciting football, but it seems to be having a real impact…

How it all comes together

Whether or not Southgate's masterplan was to shutdown the opposition and rely on their own clinical finishing, only he can say, though it's worked out that way so far.

Again, generally speaking England games haven't exactly been packed with excitement for the neutrals, with their matches averaging just 15.8 shots – that's the lowest of any side in the Euros dating back to at least 1980, with the next being Germany (2021) on 18.5.

Seemingly England's low defensive line – which has often comprised of a back three – coupled with two defensive-minded deep-lying midfielders has contributed to England facing just two shots on target per game, second only to Italy (1.8).

 

On top of that, 43 per cent of their shots faced have been outside of the box, the fourth-highest share of all teams at the tournament, and that undoubtedly plays a role in England's 0.07 xG against per shot being the lowest at Euro 2020 ahead of the semis. Additionally, their 2.95 xG against and two Opta-defined 'big chances' conceded are the lowest.

Of course, that would all be for nothing if England couldn't put the ball away at the other end, yet their 21.6 conversion rate is the highest of all 24 teams prior to the final three matches and shows just how efficient they've been, despite Harry Kane coming in for significant criticism earlier in the tournament.

 

Nevertheless, England's excellence at the back so far is by no means a guarantee of success on Wednesday. It only takes one moment of genius or calamity to ruin all the hard work, and that could come from anywhere, anyone.

But the data helps paint a picture of structural effectiveness in the team, as well as a collective quality that is breeding consistency.

While the relevance of the past certainly pales in comparison to what comes next, it's undoubtedly comforting to Southgate and England fans alike that they've had such a solid foundation to this point.

However, it will be defined by what happens in the next five days: crumble and England will fade, or stand firm and the Three Lions will surely roar again.

When you take a look at Lionel Messi's trophy cabinet, there isn't much missing.

No player in Barcelona's history has won more titles than Messi at Camp Nou – 10 LaLiga trophies and four Champions League crowns among his club-record haul of 34 pieces of silverware.

That's even before you get to his individual accolades and records… six Ballons d'Or to go with being Barcelona and Argentina's all-time leading goalscorer among other things.

But there is one glaring absence in Messi's trophy cabinet – a senior international title with Argentina. Unlike legendary countryman Diego Maradona and even Portuguese foe Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi has never conquered the international stage.

Regarded as one of, if not, the greatest footballer of all time, yet Messi has often been the bridesmaid and never the bride with La Albiceleste following three runners-up medals at the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016, while he was left heartbroken in the 2018 World Cup decider.

Such is the pain, there's also been periods of international retirement for Messi. The 34-year-old debating whether to shoulder the load of another drought-ending quest for Argentina, dating back to the 1993 Copa America.

But, thanks to Emiliano Martinez and his heroics, Messi's coveted dream of international glory remains alive as the superstar prepares for a fifth final in Argentina colours.

 

Martinez saved three penalties in the shoot-out to send Argentina through to Saturday's showpiece against defending champions and rivals Brazil at the iconic Maracana after Tuesday's clash with Colombia ended 1-1.

Argentina goalkeeper Martinez came up big when his country needed him most, saving penalties from Davinson Sanchez, Mina and Edwin Cardona. It was the third shoot-out between Argentina and Colombia in Copa history, with the former winning all of them.

Prior to Martinez's herculean effort, magical Messi had pulled the strings for Argentina.

Messi was brilliant from the outset, the superstar dancing past three players before picking out Lautaro Martinez, but the latter's header sailed just wide of the post in the fourth minute.

Not heeding Messi's initial warning, the most-capped player in Argentina's history did create the opening goal three minutes later – twisting away from Mina before lifting his head to find Lautaro for his fifth assist of this year's tournament.

It was a sign of things to come from Messi, who ended the opening half with a flawless passing accuracy – 100 per cent.

 

As has so often been the case during the tournament, Argentina fell away following a bright start and Colombia were unfortunate not to equalise. However, Messi – unsurprisingly – continued to be at the heart of his team's best moments.

The conductor of Argentina's orchestra, Messi was almost unstoppable – it took a third Colombia defender to hack him down. Messi then saw his shot hit the woodwork with nine minutes remaining.

He finished with a team-high key passes and a joint team-best three shots against Colombia. Since 2011, Messi is the Argentina player with the most duels of the ball – averaging 15.7 per game after being involved in 26 in the semi-finals.

Argentina has been the source of great anguish for Messi. But, Lionel Scaloni's men are riding the wave of 19 matches without defeat, dating back to the 2019 Copa semi against Brazil. It is the second longest unbeaten streak among Argentina head coaches, only behind Alfio Basile (33 between 1991 and 1993).

It seems somewhat fitting that Messi – amid talk of a possible seventh Ballon d'Or – has the chance to cap his remarkable career with an international prize against the Selecao in Rio de Janeiro.

In the 15th minute and then early in extra time, the chant of "Football's coming home" rang out around certain quarters of Wembley.

A handful of English supporters even waved the St George's flag excitedly, these people having sadly come down with a curious case of 'helluva match' fatigue.

The Spanish and Italian fans in London whistled in derision, united in incredulity. Before them a vintage Euro 2020 semi-final was unfolding, but their English brethren were farting out a Lightning Seeds song.

Like the Wimbledon wag who shouts "Come on, Tim" in an Andy Murray match, this was conduct that invited pity. Save it for another day, eh?

Besides, hadn't they read the signs?

An Italy fan strode down Wembley Way before kick-off in a tricolore flag bearing the slogan 'IT'S COMING HOME TO ROME', a giant red cross striking out 'HOME'.

And who would doubt that now?

Italy aren't going home to Rome yet, but when they do, they believe it will be as returning heroes. The Azzurri are through to the European Championship final, vying to land this title for the first time since 1968, a penalty shoot-out victory over La Roja sure to only enhance the sense of invincibility that now characterises Roberto Mancini's team.

That's 33 games unbeaten for Italy now, Jorginho their fifth taker in the penalty shoot-out with the glory, passing the ball into the right corner with an unimaginable degree of calm after Gianluigi Donnarumma saved from, rather inevitably, Alvaro Morata.

 

Andrea Belotti, Leonardo Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi before him had also beaten Unai Simon, after Manuel Locatelli and Dani Olmo traded early misses.

Italy's players raced to their supporters behind the goal, boss Mancini danced for joy with his coaching staff, and Spain held their heads in dismay.

Luis Enrique's Spanish team, whose tepid start to this tournament must have been some sort of smoke screen, would have been equally deserving winners of a gripping match.

They had 16 shots to Italy's seven, a dominant 70.1 per cent of possession, and their record of four in five penalty shoot-out triumphs in European Championship history seemed to bode well.

Yet that lone defeat came at Wembley, a full 25 years ago when England scuppered Spanish hopes in the quarter-finals. Luis Enrique was on the bench that day, an unused substitute powerless to directly impact the outcome, and history harshly repeated itself.

Italy looked for a while to be going through on the back of a glorious fast-break goal, clinically finished by Federico Chiesa, whose father Enrico played at Euro 96 for the Azzurri.

As the hour approached, Donnarumma clutched a tame Jordi Alba cross and put a plan into action.

Italy's players were crowded around their penalty area, as far as Spain were concerned, Alba and Co having spent the previous minute trying to plot a route through a thick wall of blue shirts.

And then suddenly the Italians weren't there, they were going this way and that, left and right, and the ball was going with them.

Donnarumma ran a few strides and rolled it to Marco Verratti, who dashed from the edge of Italy's penalty box and picked out a pass to Lorenzo Insigne tight to the left flank.

Forward, forward, forza Azzurri. Insigne threaded a near genius ball with the outside of his right foot behind the Spanish defence, and despite Aymeric Laporte preventing Ciro Immobile running through to score, the ball reached Chiesa. Eric Garcia stood off, allowed Chiesa to shift the ball to his right foot, and the winger lashed into the far right corner.

It was a goal that made Italy just the second side in European Championship history to have as many as five different players (Chiesa, Matteo Pessina, Insigne, Immobile and Locatelli) score two or more goals at a single edition of the competition, after winners France in 2000.

 

Mancini in his playing days was one of those footballers whose first yard was in his head, who would see things before others, who made up for a lack of any real pace with an abundance of awereness.

No wonder he looked exhilarated by Chiesa's goal, which came straight out of the quick thinker's playbook.

Mancini's one-time mentor Sven-Goran Eriksson told Stats Perform ahead of this game that Mancini was always a step ahead in his mind.

"He was able to see things way more quickly than any other player, even than me as a coach. And he would see that something could happen," Eriksson said.

"I like seeing the football played by Italy because they attack, they play the ball pushing forward, they don't play like tic-tac, tic-tac. They get the ball, they steal the ball and then go. They lose the ball, they fall back, they defend, aggressive."

This was Italy encapsulated against Spain, with the emphasis on the aggressive in the late stages, a tiring team resorting to what tiring teams sometimes must.

The Azzurri did not have a single shot on target in the first half, the first time that has occurred during the knock-out stage of a major tournament since their loss to France in the Euro 2000 final. They did, however, hit the bar seconds before the break, Emerson from a tight angle.

 

Italy's lead here lasted 20 minutes, Morata stepping off the bench and seemingly setting his tournament onto a positive course, after taking so much early flak in these finals.

Giorgio Chiellini, the 36-year-old captain of Mancini's team, was unable to keep pace with his Juventus team-mate as Morata sprinted past him to score.

The Morata narrative had more to give though, and it came as a surprise surely to nobody when Donnarumma smothered his timid penalty.

Jorginho was up next and Italy were home and hosed. They sat out the last World Cup, humiliated by failure to qualify, but these heavyweights of international football are back.

Mancini threw his arms around Donnarumma and Italy celebrated hard. England or Denmark await them in Sunday's final, also to be played at Wembley.

"Let's go back to Wembley, the dream continues," began Corriere dello Sport's write-up of this occasion.

When we talk about football coming home, and where its heartbeat lies, perhaps this year there's no place like Rome.

Euro 2020 is disappearing before our eyes, with the delayed tournament somehow already at the business end as we head into the final three matches.

It's been a thrill ride since the very beginning. From Italy making a sparkling start and Denmark rallying after Christian Eriksen's medical emergency, to France falling at the last 16 and England reaching the semi-finals of a second successive major tournament.

Italy, England, Spain and Denmark are all that's left as Euro 2020 enters its final week, and at this point it seems particularly tricky to call, particularly between first three.

But, given how integral statistics are to football these days, data can potentially give you edge when attempting to predict certain outcomes, and this is where Stats Perform's Artificial Intelligence team comes in as they've used Opta's extensive data reserves to quantify each semi-finalist's chances of winning tournament.

Every match has been run through the Stats Perform Euros Prediction model to calculate the estimated probability of the outcome (win, draw or loss). This uses odds from betting markets and Stats Perform team rankings, which are based on historical and recent performances and also takes into consideration the strength of each side's opponents.

The games are then simulated 40,000 times and analysed, providing the AI team with a percentage for each nation, showing the probability of them ultimately lifting the trophy at Wembley on July 11.

Without any further ado, let's take a look at the results…

Denmark (8.8 per cent chance of winning Euro 2020)

The fact Denmark even got out of their group was an achievement in itself as they became the first team to ever reach the knockout phase having lost their opening two matches. Yet, here we are.

The Danes are into the last four for the first time since winning the competition in 1992 and have really hit their stride since their two early defeats, with only Spain (12) outscoring Kasper Hjulmands' men until this point (11) – that haul is the most they've ever managed at a major tournament.

 

Denmark have projected a real sense of unity since Eriksen collapsed against Finland, and it's hard to believe they will fear anyone at this point.

Nevertheless, England should represent trickier opposition than the likes of Wales and the Czech Republic, which is perhaps reflected by the fact their 8.8 per cent chance of winning the title is the lowest of the four remaining teams.

But if standout performers such as Joakim Maehle, Simon Kjaer and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg continue to deliver the goods, who's to say they cannot emulate the 1992 vintage?

 

Spain (23.1 per cent)

Luis Enrique's Spain have been a fascinating watch at Euro 2020, partly because they somehow manage to flitter between exceptional and unrefined. Their erratic nature has become one of the sideshows of the tournament.

For example, only the Netherlands (53) have forced more high turnovers than Spain, while La Roja are the sole side to break the 100 barrier in terms of sequences of 10 or more passes (147). They only allow their opponents 8.3 passes on average in the defensive third before they initiate a defensive action, indicating they are the most intense pressers at the tournament, and their haul of 12 goals is more than anyone else.

 

Yet, their xGA (expected goals against) of 6.8 is comfortably the worst of the four teams left, and their xG underperformance of 3.6 is the biggest of all 24 teams. In short, these points suggest that not only have Spain been lucky to only concede five times, they are also the most wasteful team at Euro 2020.

 

That's obviously not helped by the fact Gerard Moreno (no goals from 3.3 xG) and Alvaro Morata (two goals from 3.95 xG) are among the three players with the worst xG underperformance records in the competition.

However, they've got this far and have still crafted plenty of goal-scoring opportunities, with their record of 25 big chances a tournament-high. If the penny drops with Spain's forwards and they start to convert in line with their xG, they could have real joy.

 

England (29.1 per cent)

It would be fair to say England's performances in the group stage, although not alarming, certainly didn't inspire a huge amount of confidence as they scored just two goals. But in the two games since, they have netted six times and attracted significant acclaim.

The fact they don't necessarily stand out in many specific team metrics (perhaps bar 10+ passing sequences – 98, second to Spain) is arguably partly down to how flexible Gareth Southgate's team have been in their approach to specific games. For example, their passes per defensive action (PPDA) dropped from 13.7 against Scotland to 25.9 against Germany, suggesting they were concerned about the German midfield playing through their press and instead sat back more in order to cut off passing routes.

Of course, adapting to your opponents is hardly revolutionary, most teams do it to a certain extent, but in a tournament where Spain and Italy have almost religiously stuck to principals and formations that govern their setups, England have chopped and changed.

 

It's clearly worked as well given the fact the Three Lions have equalled a major-tournament record of five successive clean sheets, while their 2.95 xGA (with no goals conceded) leads the way at Euro 2020.

With their defence seemingly watertight and Harry Kane finding some confidence with three goals in two games, England look in great shape. If our prediction model took into consideration that all of the remaining games are to be at Wembley, they'd likely be a bit closer to top spot.

 

Italy (38.9 per cent)

It seems like a long time ago now that Italy came into Euro 2020 as – some claimed at the time – unknown quantities. The common conception was that their 27-match unbeaten run coming into the tournament was misleading because most of the games were said to have been against sub-optimal opposition.

Well, they are now at 32 games unbeaten having won or drawn all of their five matches to this point at Euro 2020, setting a new national record in the process.

But, more than that, they've been utterly joyful to watch. They are relentless in attack, as highlighted by their tournament-leading shot (11) and goal-ending high turnovers (three), but also impressive at the back having only conceded one non-penalty goal.

 

Built around a solid core of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella that expertly blends craft and guile arguably unlike any team at Euro 2020, Roberto Mancini's turned Italy into a side that's not only been generally fun to watch, but also effective.

Spain represent a completely different challenge to any other side Italy have faced thus far, yet Luis Enrique's men have afforded their opponents plenty of chances. The Azzurri have been consistent throughout in attack, as demonstrated by their 11 goals from 10.3 xG. Without the one own goal in their favour, it would be 10 from 10.3 xG.

 

Italy have shown no major weaknesses en route to the semi-finals, and as such our model suggests it is they who have the greatest chance of success this week.

It is hard to think that before the start of this year's Copa America, some were calling for Tite's sacking.

Those calls stemmed on the uncertainty of the Selecao's participation after CONMEBOL controversially relocated the event from Argentina to Brazil.

The Brazil squad were united against hosting the Copa on home soil amid the coronavirus pandemic. The defending champions eventually committed to representing their country and now they stand on the cusp of another title with Tite at the helm.

On an historic night for Tite, Brazil moved through to a second consecutive Copa final at the expense of 2019 runners-up Peru 1-0 on Monday.

Tite made history by equalling Mario Zagallo as the Brazil head coach with the longest unbeaten run in Copa America history (12), winning nine games and drawing three fixtures.

 

The 60-year-old has the fifth-best winning percentage among coaches with at least 10 games in Copa America history – 75 per cent.

Only Flavio Costa (79 per cent, 19 games), Zagallo (83 per cent, 12 games), Guillermo Stabile (84 per cent, 44 games) and Pedro Cea (90 per cent, 10 games) have a better percentage.

Lucas Paqueta scored the decisive goal 10 minutes before half-time as Brazil extended their undefeated streak to 13 matches across all competitions, a run including 10 clean sheets and dating back to November 2019.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 42 clean sheets in 60 games under head coach Tite across all competitions (70 per cent).

During his tenure, Brazil have 45 wins, 11 draws and just four defeats.

This Brazil team have style and substance – trademark flair and free-flowing football but with defensive stability and the ability to close out games.

As Brazil – who have won the last five Copa finals they have played, 1997, 1999, 2004, 2007 and 2019 - await rivals Argentina or Colombia in Saturday's decider, Tite continues to reach new heights.

The Tokyo Olympics will scale new heights, ride the crest of a wave, and hit it out of the park.

You can guarantee the Games will achieve that triple-whammy, because sport climbing, surfing and baseball are all part of Japan's big show.

The Games of the 32nd Olympiad have been hit hard by the pandemic, but the diversity of 'new' sports on offer means a feast of entertainment is beckoning, designed to attract younger audiences.

Skateboarding an Olympic sport? After snowboarding proved a raging success at the Winter Games, it was a banker that kickflips and Caballerials would be coming to the summer programme.

And soon enough we will all have a tight grip on the technicalities of lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering.

The Olympics are getting a radical facelift, and you'll want to take a close look.


Sport climbing

Given the Olympic motto is 'faster, higher, stronger', perhaps it is a wonder that climbing has not been a part of the Games before now.

Yet this version of the sport is a relatively modern phenomenon, having first become established in the 1980s.

Climbing walls are as prevalent in many parts of the world as ice rinks or bowling alleys, becoming a fashionable leisure activity but a competitive sport for some.

Complicated routes to dizzying heights, seeking the highest controlled hold possible, are the hallmark of lead climbing, while speed climbing is an attack on the senses for competitor and viewer alike, with elite men having been known to hurtle up a 15-metre wall in barely five seconds.

Bouldering is a test of problem-solving expertise as well as skill, a true examination of the climber's wit and athleticism.

At Tokyo's Aomi Urban Sports Park, the climbing competition for men and women will cover all three disciplines, with combined scores deciding the medals.

 

Surfing

Sailing, canoeing and kayaking have been mainstays of the Olympic Games, and now surfing joins as a high-octane addition to the roster of sports.

The daredevil nature of surfing means it should prove one of the outstanding spectacles, assuming Mother Nature brings the Pacific coast waves Games organisers are looking for.

Each of the 20 men and 20 women competing will be allowed to ride up to 25 waves in 30 minutes, with their two highest scopes from the five judges being counted, so choosing the right moment for a high-tariff manoeuvre is all important.

Surf stars will be assessed on their "commitment and degree of difficulty, innovative and progressive manoeuvres, combinations of major manoeuvres, variety of manoeuvres, and speed, power and flow", the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said.

American John John Florence is a man to watch out for, with the 28-year-old two-time former world champion having built up his skills riding the waves of his native Hawaii. He suffered a worrying knee injury in Perth, Australia in May, but has recovered in time for the Games.

Skateboarding

Once largely portrayed as the preserve of weed-smoking punk kids, and certainly still patronised by the disaffected youth, skateboarding now comes with a highly professional element too.

Washington Square Park, Venice Beach and the undercroft of London's Southbank Centre have been epicentres of the growing subculture, but now the focus turns to Tokyo, where separate street and park disciplines will test the elite boarders.

Competitors will be assessed on the difficulty level, the originality and the execution of their displays at the Ariake Urban Sports Park.

This will be skateboarding's coming-out party as a major competitive sport, with the eyes of millions across the world setting their eyes on the stars who put themselves in more danger of injury than most Olympians.

Japan's Yuto Horigome and Aori Nishimura won gold in the men's and women's Street World Championship in Rome just a matter of weeks ago, ramping up the interest at home.

British 12-year-old Sky Brown, poised to become her country's youngest summer Olympian, will also be one to watch after recovering from a horror skateboarding accident last year that saw her suffer skull fractures. They are a tough set in this sport, with surely nobody braver than Brown.

Karate

Of course karate needed to be in any 21st century Olympics hosted by Japan, and it may be a surprise to many that this marks its debut at the Games.

The sport has Japanese roots and there seem sure to be home gold medals, while global exposure to karate is perhaps at an all-time high thanks to the popularity of Karate Kid spin-off Cobra Kai, the Netflix series.

Spain are a mighty force too, with Damian Quintero and Sandra Sanchez prime contenders for gold in the kata discipline, both being ranked number one in the world.

In the combat element, known as kumite, the jargon may take some getting used to for newcomers. One point, known as a Yuko, is awarded for a punch to key areas of an opponent, including the head, back or torso, while a Waza-ari is worth two points and will be given for a kick to the body.

An Ippon, for three points, is achieved by landing a high kick to the head or a punch to a grounded opponent.

Karate will take place at Tokyo's famous Nippon Budokan, which as well as being a famous martial arts venue also famously played host to The Beatles for a series of shows in 1966.

Rock acts including Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick recorded legendary live albums at the Budokan, which was built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and has also staged Muhammad Ali fights, one a standard boxing match in 1972 and the other a bizarre hybrid clash in 1976 with wrestler Antonio Inoki.

 

Baseball and softball

Baseball was an Olympic medal-awarding sport from 1992 to 2008 and softball had that status from 1996 to 2008, so you would be forgiven for not feeling any huge rush of enthusiasm about its return to the Games.

Unlike in basketball, the United States do not bring their baseball A-listers to the Games, relying on a group largely formed of minor-leaguers and free agents, and South Korea were the last Olympic champions.

This year the competition will feature the Dominican Republic, Israel, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and the United States, while the women's softball event will be contested by Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the USA.

Japan's baseball stars are reportedly each in line for bonuses worth 10 million yen (£65,000) if they carry off the gold medal.

They won an exhibition event at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, beating the United States in the final, and have since claimed a silver and two bronze medals.

"I want people to talk about the football and say, 'there was that team that Newcastle had and we loved going to watch them play, it was exciting and they always had it go'", says Newcastle Jets head coach Arthur Papas.

There are so many similarities between Papas and Australian trailblazer Ange Postecoglou, who is now embarking on his journey as manager of Scottish giants Celtic.

Postecoglou has an unrelenting belief in his philosophy, with an emphasis on a high-octane style of attacking football. Papas is no different.

That entertaining football delivered Yokohama F.Marinos their first J1 League crown in 15 years in 2019. Papas was Postecoglou's assistant during two highly successful seasons in Japan.

After almost 10 years and priceless journeys across India, Saudi Arabia and Japan, Papas is back in Australia and in the Hunter Valley, this time as coach of Jets.

Papas – who spent less than a year as an assistant with the Jets in 2011-12 – is Down Under to be closer to family, having been appointed head coach of J3 League outfit Kagoshima United in December.

The 41-year-old is now tasked with restoring the glory days to McDonald Jones Stadium, where the 2008 A-League champions have fallen on tough times.

Newcastle have missed the finals for the past three seasons, finishing seventh in 2019, eighth in 2020 and 11th in the 12-team competition last season.

"We're all aiming for success," Papas told Stats Perform. "I'm not in this just to get into the finals. That's not enough, the bar isn't low. There's no ceiling with what I want to achieve with this club. There shouldn't be. Anyone who puts a ceiling on it straight away has basically cancelled any ambition of where you could go.

"But, the main thing is I want people to talk about the football and say 'there was that team that Newcastle had and we loved going to watch them play, it was exciting and always had it go and okay, didn't get it right every time', but they could resonate with our football and they don't forget that. If we're able to achieve that, we would have done something special. Normally, if you have achieved that, you also would've got pretty close to being quite successful in terms of results."

Papas added: "You can be in a club where you're playing exciting football, but there's nothing better than having that in front of 10-15,000 people. The difference is in this league, you can also have teams that could do that but not attract that support. For me, the big reason is the supporters of the club because I know when this place gets it right, it's one of the most difficult places to come in the A-League, the strongest support and genuinely get behind the team.

"They've had some lean years but that's why the challenge is so great. You don’t want to be doing it in front of an empty stadium. It's going to generate momentum for us. It's going to take a bit of time because the football I like to play doesn't happen overnight, but it's going to happen because I'm so clear in how I work and the vision I have for how to build teams and play a certain brand of football. Then the idea is we're all connected and doing it together, including the whole region."

 

Since reaching the 2018 A-League Grand Final, the Jets have a 30 per cent winning percentage in the competition – Central Coast Mariners (25 per cent) are the only team with a lower win rate than Newcastle across the last three seasons.

The Jets have had an expected goals (xG) per game value of 1.6, the sixth-most of any team in the last three seasons; however they have scored 33 goals fewer than their xG suggests they should have – by far the largest negative difference of any team in the competition in that time.

"It's a really interesting job in terms of A-League context," Papas said. "Maybe every five or six years there's a good year and then it really falls away. There's so many reasons for that I'm sure. There's been constant talk about the ownership model, which hasn't created the stability that the club and region deserve.

"It's the kind of thing that I normally do, put myself in really difficult situations and relish those challenges. I believe we can do something special there."

Newcastle have won only 19 points from losing positions in the last three seasons of the A-League – the joint-fewest of any team among those to have participated in all three campaigns (Macarthur FC - 10pts).

The Mariners (92) and Jets (96) are the only teams to have participated in each of the last three A-League seasons but scored fewer than 100 goals across them.

Former boss Carl Robinson (60 per cent) – now in charge of Western Sydney Wanderers – is the only man to have won at least one third of his games as manager of the Jets across the last three A-League seasons.

But Papas has already set out to rebuild the Jets, luring Cameron Devlin, eight-time Australia international Matthew Jurman, Dane Ingham and Mohamed Al-Taay to the club, while boosting his staff with the arrivals of Arthur Diles, Huss Skenderovic and Riccardo Marchioli.

"It always has to be aligned to the vision I have for how we want to play and behave," Papas said. "No disrespect to anything been happening there, it's more about when you come in, you need as many people on the bus as possible to move in the same direction. I don't really compromise any part of how I see football being played, to be successful and winning teams. It's more identifying characters and kind of characteristics to play that type of football.

"The main thing is we need certain physical and technical profiles and certain characters. I know it sounds a bit cliché but after you speak to different people, I'm confident we've done some good business so far."

"The main part for me is we have a certain culture within the staff and competency to deliver a world-class program, that is really the goal," he continued. "To deliver an environment and program that players come and all they think about is today I'm going to get better and how am I going to get better and our staff are driving that daily. I feel, amongst improving players, I have a greater job than that and it's about how do we align the staff and improve those areas to make sure players come in and know they're coming into a special environment. We will create that because I have experiences now, I've seen it first-hand at the best levels in Asia under one of the best managers in the world and that's added layers to my coaching I'm sure. I'm constantly trying to grow and improve, which I've done from day one."

Papas is relying heavily on data to shape his team and turn the Jets into title contenders, adding: "It's part of the story for me and how we work. We utilised it extremely well in Japan. It depends on resources also. I'm not big on using data for data.

"I've developed a model over time that is specific to giving us ideas on what makes our game tick or not. We can use some of that to quantify what's happening but at the end of the day, it's not going to give you a total picture. It just gives you a framework. It's an evidence-based research in essence. It's very difficult for managers to do this because we get caught up in the emotions of that result on Saturday and that result evidently defines us but doesn't always show a true reflection of what's really happening.

"We've won games at times where I thought we weren't really where we needed to be and our data didn't actually stack up in terms of what we define as a game where we were strong across all areas. Other games, you lose and can't work out how you lost because you have a certain about of ball possession, expected goals … what do you do with these situations as well? I have certain data which I consistently refer to, whether it's physical or technical, that gives me a clear reflection of if we're on track or not."

Papas, who brings vast experience to the Jets and the A-League, returns to Australia at a time when calls for a national second division grow louder.

Beyond the A-League, Australian football currently relies on clubs in eight separate National Premier Leagues (NPL) as part of a mainly semi-professional second tier.

The Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) has already detailed their plans for a national second division amid hopes it could be introduced by the end of 2022.

As nations across Asia continue to invest and improve, Papas – who has coached India's Under-23 team, Pailan Arrows, Dempo and worked as an assistant for Saudi side Ettifaq FC and NorthEast United – said: "In terms of resources, I don't think we're competing at all.

"I've had some interesting stuff come to me over this period of coming back to Australia. I was working in J3 for example and people weren't sure if that was even full-time or not. I was a bit surprised by the naivety of that question because I had 11 full-time staff around me. The office has 30-plus people working around the clock. The resources available you can't even imagine and that goes all the way down to their academy systems. The important thing is you need to know what's happening out there. Between Saudi Arabia, Japan and the Indian Super League, they're all ranked in the top-eight leagues in Asia right now and I've been through all of them.

"I've got to see so many parts of why Asia is progressing and I think we're still progressing at our own speed. The difference is the speed of it, are we progressing at the same speed at some of the other countries? Are we able to resource our leagues and academies at the same level? We have huge difficulties in establishing a second division as an example. In Japan, they have over 50 full-time professional clubs, so the opportunities are so much more available for young players. The problem is here, when you're not at a professional level, the drop is too big and it doesn't compare. Over time, it just makes the gap wider and wider. That is why it's important to think about creating a second division because it will create opportunities. Not only opportunities for players but for staff, administrators, coaches. Our ecosystem keeps growing and growing, and that's when you're finding people are climbing up the chain.

"Unfortunately there's just not enough opportunities and that's what prompted a lot of my choices in terms of my career. It's no disrespect to the NPLs etc, but it's so far away from what happens and professional level. The longer you stay at that level, the harder it is to think you can just jump to the next level."

"I honestly don't know if he's going to get tired of being praised every day," Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni mused after Lionel Messi's latest masterclass.

Once again, Messi was at the heart of all of Argentina's attacking play, providing two assists before netting a goal of his own with a sublime late free-kick in Saturday's 3-0 Copa America quarter-final win over Ecuador.

The 34-year-old tops the Copa America charts for goals and assists, with four of each.

As Scaloni suggests, it is hard to stop praising him. There arguably are not enough superlatives to describe Messi.

This Copa may have been viewed as the younger Neymar's time, on home soil, but the numbers back up the veteran Messi so far.

On a grander scale, Messi has now scored 76 goals for Argentina, one short of Pele's 77 for Brazil.

Only Pele has scored more goals for a CONMEBOL nation, meaning Messi – who will play his 150th cap for Argentina in the semi-finals – is on the verge of another remarkable feat.

There is no shortage of individual accomplishments which could be listed off for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner but as Argentina progress deeper at the Copa America in Brazil, the question of team success at international level looms for Messi.

He has never won a Copa America, nor the World Cup, coming close to the latter as 2014 runners-up in Brazil.

Fourteen-time winners Argentina, as a nation, have not lifted the Copa America since their second all-time top scorer Gabriel Batistuta helped them to the 1993 title.

Messi is playing at his sixth Copa, with Argentina finishing as runners-up three times during that period.

If La Albiceleste overcome Colombia in the semi-finals, they will likely face nemesis Brazil in the decider at the Maracana, the same venue where they lost the 2014 World Cup final.

The current crop is vastly different to the abundantly talented side from 2014, but Scaloni has made this group tough to break down, with a dependence Messi's individual brilliance in attack.

Scaloni's Argentina have gone 18 games unbeaten now, while they have only conceded once in their past four games at Copa.

This side have also scored in the first half in 11 consecutive matches. On Saturday against Ecuador they dearly clung on to a 1-0 lead for long periods of the second half, repelling several attacks with a resolute appproach as Ecuador had more possession (54 per cent). It is not the first time under Scaloni this has happened successfully.

So is this Messi's best shot at international success? Is it his last chance at the Copa, with the next event scheduled for 2024?

That remains to be seen for the 34-year-old, who is currently a free agent after his Barcelona contract expired on June 30, although he is expected to re-sign and play at next year's World Cup.

But the ingredients are there for that breakthrough success for both Messi and Argentina.

As the list of individual accomplishments and accolades continues to grow, achieving that elusive international team success with Argentina would solidify Messi's legacy. The time is now.

Throw them to the lions!

England's bloodlust was dramatically sated in Rome's modern sporting colosseum as Ukraine were ruthlessly torn apart, victims of such savagery that might make an emperor think he could soon rule Europe.

Four-nil, and even Jordan Henderson scored. England doubled their goals haul for Euro 2020 and have still yet to concede. This is Italian-like behaviour by the Three Lions. Where was the drama, where was the pain? This team rarely make it easy for themselves but here they trampled all over the opposition.

Goodness knows what Denmark made of it all, given they are next in line.

Home advantage at Wembley seemed to serve Gareth Southgate's players well in their early games at this tournament, and being taken out of that comfort zone triggered all sorts of concerns. If goals had been hard to come by at home, then would this be one of those nights of England toil, where perhaps they might grind out something ugly and winning but perhaps their bubble might burst too? Would it all end miserably, probably on penalties in that great English tradition.

By the time substitute Henderson nodded Mason Mount's corner past Georgi Bushchan for the fourth goal of the night, any such concerns had long been banished.

The Liverpool captain's first senior England goal arrived on his 62nd appearance. Of all England's goalscorers in their history, nobody has waited longer for that magical moment. Sol Campbell had been the previous holder of that curious record, scoring his first in his 47th appearance.

It was a third headed goal of the night, England now Europe's masters at using their noggins, netting 10 headers across this campaign and their 2018 World Cup semi-final run, where no other European side has managed more than four.

This team plays some beautiful football on the floor, with Jadon Sancho coming into the England ranks for this game and looking like he had been playing there all throughout this run, which will come as good news to Manchester United. Raheem Sterling's winding run and super throughball for Harry Kane to prod the fourth-minute opener was typical of this new England.

 

"I think rotations in the forward area for this team is so important," Rio Ferdinand said on the BBC at half-time. "People that run off the ball, run people away – it's not there for the naked eye sometimes, but it's people who are running people away, opening space and creating space."

Alan Shearer chipped in too: "Everyone's on the same wavelength, everyone wants the ball, backing each other up. It's really, really intelligent, exciting play."

But England do not eschew the direct stuff; Luke Shaw with a free-kick bang into the heart of the penalty area to set up Harry Maguire for the thumping 46th-minute header that made it 2-0, sparking joyous celebration.

And then Shaw with the delicious cross to give Kane the chance to nod England three clear just four minutes later.

Shaw, it should be said, was exceptional.

In the stadium where Jose Mourinho will resume his coaching career in the new Serie A season, as boss of Roma, Shaw provided the perfect response to his former Manchester United manager's recent criticism.

Mourinho reckoned Shaw's set-piece delivery in England's group game against the Czech Republic had been "dramatically bad", but even the Portuguese might shrink from picking any holes in this display.

It was remarkable that Kane finished as the Premier League's top scorer in Mourinho's muddle of a Tottenham side last season, and absurd that a couple of so-so performances for England early in this tournament should have led to doubt being cast on his place in Southgate's team.

He now has three goals in Euro 2020 and nine major tournament strikes across his England career, one behind all-time leader Gary Lineker.

Kane almost reached 10 in Rome, lashing a brilliant volley that was beaten away by Bushchan for the corner from which Henderson scored.

History told us that this game would go to penalties – all three of England's previous European Championship quarter-finals had.

Yet new England have little respect for anything that history might dictate, and now Wembley awaits them on Wednesday. England return home as heroes.

"It's the hope that kills you," Lineker joked on the BBC. To any English person used to failure, this all feels too good to be true.

But as Southgate said, teeing up the Denmark game moments later: "Everybody can really look forward to that, it's brilliant."

Ange Postecoglou changed the landscape of Australian football and now the trailblazer is tasked with leading an embattled Celtic back to the Scottish summit, having been dethroned by bitter rivals Rangers.

Postecoglou – cut from the same cloth as Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri – was appointed by Celtic last month amid some backlash in Scotland, but Bhoys fans are slowly starting to get an idea of why the former Australia manager is so highly rated.

With an emphasis on a high-octane style of attacking football and unrelenting belief in his philosophy, Postecoglou is the most decorated coach in Australian football history.

From South Melbourne to Australia and Japan, Postecoglou has won it all – a pair of National Soccer League championships, back-to-back A-League titles, a record 36-match unbeaten streak at Brisbane Roar, plus a ground-breaking 2015 Asian Cup triumph with the Socceroos and a J1 League crown with Yokohama F.Marinos - while silencing his doubters.

With fellow Australian Arthur Papas by his side in Yokohama, Postecoglou ended F.Marinos' 15-year wait for league glory in 2019.

As Postecoglou embarks on the biggest job an Australian coach has held in football, former assistant Papas – now in charge of A-League side Newcastle Jets – told Stats Perform: "It's a great achievement to be given a position of such stature.

"I'm ecstatic for Ange because the path to success is never a straight line. That is for everyone. The main thing is he's been consistent. Consistent in who he is as a person, how he approaches his work and what he believes in - and he believes in himself a lot.

"He is incredibly humble and hardworking, and full of self-belief. But he knows it's a big job, a difficult job. Celtic are another team who have fallen away in recent times and the pressure is immense, but I do think that's when he is at his best. He thrives under those conditions. It's a challenge after being so successful in Japan."

Postecoglou left F.Marinos with the highest winning percentage (49.2 – 58 victories in 118 games) in the history of the club. Since joining the Yokohama outfit, only two managers have a better winning percentage than Postecoglou from a minimum of 10 games: Toru Oniki (65) and Go Oiwa (50).

Despite the language barrier, F.Marinos bought into the Postecoglou way. Since 2018, the team ranked first for passing accuracy (86.5 per cent) and possession (63.2 per cent), while they were second for goals per game (1.9), expected goals per game (1.8), shots per game (15.2), shots on target per game (5.3), shot conversion rate (12.6), shooting accuracy (47.2), chances created per game (11.4), passes per game (619.4), passing accuracy in opposition half (82.4), big chance total per game (2.4), big chances created per game (1.8) and big chances scored per game (1.1).

Papas, who spent two seasons with Postecoglou at F.Marinos, added: "It's been well-documented the success in Japan but not really understood how difficult it is. People have asked me, for example, how will I deal with the pressure of being an A-League coach? I feel like saying, being in a country where not one player or staff speaks English and still getting a football message across and seeing it come to life so quickly, has more difficulty than maybe coming back here.

"Every job will have its challenge in the end. The main thing is [Celtic] have got themselves a world-class manager. A manager with a very clear philosophy and someone given the time, like every manager needs. Some use that time extremely well and you see progression, and others unfortunately – because the path isn't so clear, doesn't go that way. But given the time, he will be successful there for sure. He will be successful in his own unique way.

"Then, there will be another step after that because that's just Ange. He doesn't settle for that place and get comfortable. When he has had a bit of success, he wants more. That's why he is special at what he does."

Postecoglou, like Manchester City's Guardiola and former Chelsea and Juventus boss Sarri, pushes the boundaries. Firmly set in his belief of how football should be played, Postecoglou's approach never waivers and success follows the 55-year-old in his pursuit of excellence.

Asked about some of the initial negativity after Postecoglou's arrival at Celtic, Papas said: "Australian coaches, unfortunately, don't get start-up respect regardless, so there's always going to be someone that doubts you. What is important, is what you believe in about yourself.

"The thing is, he is so supremely confident in himself that it won't phase him. He knows it's just part of the challenge of where we are from and where we're going. He is a firm believer of it, we as Australian coaches probably get underestimated because of our passport not because of our competency. Having experiences across Asia, you see things and you're like wow.

"The passport unfortunately doesn't carry a lot of weight and definitely carries a lot of criticism at times, but he believes in himself.

 

"He will go there, it will take some time to engrain his ideas but there's no doubt they have a world-class manager that will turn that place upside down and get them on the right path."

During F.Marinos' triumphant season in 2019, Postecoglou's men covered the greatest distance in the J1 League (116.48km), ahead of Oita Trinita (114.79km). They also tallied the most total sprints with 191, more than FC Tokyo (174).

"Ange is the type that scours through every bit of information. If you're a staff member there, you need to be on top of everything because you'll get questioned at times about 'what was the data on this?', 'what were the statistics on this player?' He is obsessed with his work," Papas added.

"It doesn't matter how time progresses; he is just as obsessed as he's ever been in terms of details. There's a lot of work to get that engine going in the background to run that program in a way that he feels befits a world-class program."

Postecoglou oversaw a rebuild at the Roar and after asking to be judged a year from the time he replaced ex-Socceroos boss Frank Farina, his project culminated in the development of arguably the greatest footballing side the country had ever seen.

Playing an entertaining and possession-based brand of football, the Roar won the championship in 2010-11 and successfully defended their trophy the following season amid a 36-game unbeaten streak – an all-time Australian football code record for the longest undefeated run, surpassing rugby league outfit Eastern Suburbs' record set 74 years prior.

Postecoglou also coached Melbourne Victory before his Australia appointment in 2013. In the A-League, his teams scored 1.7 goals per game; only one head coach (minimum 30 games) has a higher average in the competition's history (Graham Arnold - 1.8).

The Greece-born boss left Australia's domestic competition with a 51 per cent win percentage as head coach – the joint-fifth best of any manager in the competition's history.

Named Australia boss in 2013, Postecoglou led Australia at the 2014 World Cup, conquered the Asian Cup the following year and also secured their position at Russia 2018 before stepping down. The Socceroos scored 86 goals in A-Internationals under Postecoglou – the second most they have scored under any manager since the beginning of 1965 (Frank Farina - 197).

Australia won 22 games during his tenure; only two managers have won more since the beginning of 1965 (Frank Farina - 34 and Holger Osieck - 23).

"I don't believe there is a certain timeline and it clicks," Papas said. "The process starts from day one and it's more about what is around you to implement that. Certain positions, you can go in and have the ability to make certain changes early on, which might fast track that progression. The only thing is that it's something that always grows and gets better. Because it's such a clear way of working and style of play that you're constantly working on everyday getting better at doing that.

"It's not, this week we're going to change it and sit back, these messages are so consistent that it just becomes something you get stronger at over time but that's why it takes a bit of time also. It's not a situational philosophy, it's a very clearly-defined progressive philosophy that has clarity and certain principles/frameworks that get reinforced on a daily basis."

When Brazil spring to mind, you don't normally associate defensive stability and clean sheets with the Selecao.

Brazil's flair and free-flowing football have made them the most feared and entertaining nation in world football.

But Tite's Selecao are built differently.

Playing with 10 men from the 48th minute, defending champions Brazil overcame their numerical disadvantage and Chile 1-0 in the Copa America quarter-finals on Friday.

Lucas Paqueta came off the bench at half-time and settled the contest a minute into the second half in Rio de Janeiro, where Gabriel Jesus saw red for a shocking high boot to the face of Chile's Eugenio Mena.

There was a Chile onslaught as they pushed forward in search of an equaliser and while Ben Brereton hit the crossbar, Brazil stood firm to extend their unbeaten streak while setting up a showdown with 2019 runners-up Peru.

In a run dating back to November 2019, Brazil have gone 12 matches without a defeat, including nine clean sheets in the process.

 

"It's a football game, you can't have a smile all the time. Anyone who played knows, you even discuss with friends, discuss plays," said Neymar, who has attempted the second-most dribbles (21) behind Lionel Messi (22) this tournament, while he has been fouled the most (21). 

"Chile are a great team, it was a great test, but the important thing is that we got the victory and advanced to the semi-finals."

Brazil have now won their last five games against two-time champions Chile at the Copa, scoring 12 goals and only conceding once.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 41 clean sheets in 59 games under head coach Tite across all competitions (69.5 per cent).

It further highlights the defensive strength of the Selecao with Tite at the helm.

Against Chile, Casemiro made a game-high four tackles in midfield, defender Marquinhos tallied four clearances, and Richarlison intercepted the ball on five occasions while the star forward gained possession eight times along with full-back Renan Lodi.

When it comes to Tite and Brazil, it is a team effort. Attacking and defending together across the pitch.

As Brazil eye a 10th Copa title, Tite's side have style and substance.

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