No Ronaldo extension, no glory? Messi records won’t count in Ballon d’Or race

Voting for the prestigious prize closed before the Argentine reached his two recent goalscoring milestones and unlike last year, there will be no new ballot this time.

No Ronaldo extension, no glory? Messi records won't count in Ballon d'Or race

Cristiano Ronaldo claimed his second Ballon d’Or in January, but only after the voting deadline was changed to include his decisive display in the World Cup play-off against Sweden last November. For Lionel Messi, there will be no such luxury in 2014.

“Messi, Ballon d’Or!” screamed the front page of Barcelona-based sports daily El Mundo Deportivo last Monday. Two days earlier, the Argentine had hit a brilliant hat-trick to lead the Blaugrana to a 5-1 win at home to Sevilla and overhaul 1950s legend Telmo Zarra as the greatest goalscorer in the history of La Liga.

And the day after that headline, the 27-year-old was at it again as he netted three more at APOEL in the Champions League to surpass Real Madrid icon Raul as the all-time top scorer in the history of Europe’s premier club competition. Two remarkable records smashed in the space of just four days in a timely return to form for Barcelona.

Unfortunately, however, they will count for little in the race for the Ballon d’Or.

The voting deadline for football’s foremost individual award closed on Friday, November 21 – just a day before Messi broke the first of those two long-standing marks.

Last year, the voting period was extended and allowed coaches and captains of national teams and journalists to consider Cristiano’s hat-trick against Sweden in the second leg of Portugal’s play-off against Zlatan Ibrahimovic et al, which sealed a place at Brazil 2014 for the Selecao.

To help his hopes of claiming the Ballon d’Or this time, Messi could do with a similar vote extension, but he won’t be afforded such a luxury. A Fifa source told Goal: “Voting has closed and there will be no extension this year. And contrary to popular belief, the voting wasn’t extended last year to help Ronaldo; it was actually because there weren’t enough votes registered to legitimise the prize.”

Whatever really happened with the voting, the truth is that the extension worked in the forward’s favour and the Portuguese went on to win the award for the second time in his career on the back of the votes registered after what was probably the finest week of his entire 2013 (he also scored the winner in the first leg against Sweden in Lisbon on November 15, just hours before the original voting deadline).

This year, the posturing has already started. Uefa president Michel Platini claimed the gong should go to a German player following the side’s World Cup win, but Madrid have hit back and coach Carlo Ancelotti has said the Frenchman should keep his opinions to himself. “I don’t think the president of Uefa should opine about the Ballon d’Or,” the Italian said after the club released a statement to complain about the 59-year-old’s public stance.

Meanwhile, Barca boss Luis Enrique backed his man. “Everyone is allowed his opinion,” he said. “The prize is for the best player this season and that is Messi, so I would give the Ballon d’Or to Leo.”

Ronaldo has also enjoyed an excellent 2014, despite disappointment at the World Cup where he struggled with injury and was unable to stop a poor Portugal team from crashing out in the group stages. Before Brazil 2014, however, his record 17 strikes in the Champions League helped Madrid claim La Decima (the club’s 10th European Cup crown), while he also finished as top scorer in La Liga and joint-highest in Europe alongside Luis Suarez (then with Liverpool).

Messi, meanwhile, has endured a tough time this year. The Barca forward impressed for the Albiceleste at the World Cup, but missed out on the game’s greatest prize as Argentina lost the final to Germany. And at Barca, he and his team-mates fell short when it mattered most to miss out on La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey when the biggest trophies were handed out in May.

But Ronaldo had not won a single trophy with Madrid in 2013 either and still he claimed the Ballon d’Or. And while the Portuguese benefited from an extended vote following a purple patch in his year which undoubtedly helped him scoop the individual award, there will be no such luck for Leo this time around. Rightly or wrongly, the Argentine’s remarkable records will count for nothing this time in the race for the prestigious prize

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Luis Enrique taunts tantruming Real Madrid: Messi deserves Ballon d’Or

The coach has stressed that everybody has the right to their own opinion on who the best player of 2014 is and insisted he thinks that person is his Argentine forward

Luis Enrique taunts tantruming Real Madrid: Messi deserves Ballon d'Or

Luis Enrique has taunted Real Madrid by suggesting everyone has a right to their own Fifa Ballon d’Or opinion and that his is that Lionel Messi has been the best player of 2014.

The European champions launched a scathing criticism of Uefa president Michel Platini on Friday after the Frenchman – who thrice won the accolade during his playing days – suggested that Germany’s World Cup success merited one of their players being bestowed with the Ballon d’Or.

However, the Camp Nou boss believes it is melodramatic to complain that everybody is not rooting for Cristiano Ronaldo as the worthy winner and – unsurprisingly, as Barca coach – says Messi has his vote of confidence.

“I don’t want to exacerbate things with Real Madrid after what Platini said, but everyone is allowed their own opinion,” Luis Enrique told reporters at a press conference ahead of Sunday’s visit to Valencia.

“This prize is for the best player of the season and that is Messi, so I would give the Ballon d’Or to Leo.”

It was confirmed this week that Barca’s summer signing Thomas Vermaelen – who is yet to make his debut for the club – will be out for up to six months due to needing an operation on an injury, and Luis Enrique played down the peculiarity of the situation.

“Inside professional football, injuries are common and sometimes they require surgery, this is the case of Thomas,” he added.

“We think is the best solution for him, he’s doing very well, we need to support him and he’ll be back with us soon. There’s no intention to find a substitute in the winter market.”

Another summer signing who has not had a fruitful first six months at Barca is German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who has largely been kept out of the first team in La Liga by excellent performances from fellow new arrival Claudio Bravo.

However, Luis Enrique hinted that rotation between Ter Stegen, Bravo and third-choice Jordi Masip is the future for the remainder of 2014-15 due to his belief in all three options between the sticks.

“We could see Ter Stegen playing La Liga and Bravo the Champions League, or Jordi in La Liga – we can see any of them in any competition,” the coach continued.

“From the beginning of the season I talked about my confidence in the three goalkeepers. We could use another goalkeeper in the third phase of the Champions League.”

Barca’s clash at Mestalla on Sunday kicks off at 21:00CET.

Pique: Messi more naturally talented than Ronaldo

Ahead of Monday’s Ballon d’Or trio reveal, the Barcelona defender has complimented the effort his former Manchester United team-mate puts in to keep pace with the Argentine

Pique: Messi more naturally talented than Ronaldo

As the Ballon d’Or race hots up, Gerard Pique has stated that Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi is more naturally talented than Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo.

The duo have collectively won the past six awards, with Messi’s four triumphs sandwiched in between Ronaldo’s accolade for his 2008 performances and last year’s success.

As a result both are favourites and battlelines are being drawn, with Uefa president Michel Platini publicly chastised by Real Madrid on Friday for suggesting a German – and not Ronaldo – deserved to win the Ballon d’Or following the nation’s World Cup victory.

In response, Luis Enrique goaded the European champions by insisting that the new La Liga and Champions League top goalscorer of all-time has been the best player of 2014.

Pique, however, did not outright stress his belief that Messi has had a superior 12 months to his former Manchester United colleague.

Instead, the Camp Nou centre-back praised Ronaldo for the effort he has put in to stay at the same standard as someone as gifted as his current Argentina team-mate.

“Messi is more of a natural talent,” he told Voetbal Magazine. “He’s not as obsessed with training. It is not a matter of who’s better but of perception.

“I admire the mental strength shown by Cristiano after Messi won the Ballon d’Or four times. I was pleased for him that he had won in 2013.

“It’s not only just the talent though. Behind Messi there is a lot of work, he’s a formidable force with a very powerful engine that makes him tick. Cristiano is more physical than Messi, yes, but if you lack the physical ability, nothing works.”

On Monday the final trio of Ballon d’Or candidates will be announced ahead of January 12’s Ballon d’Or ceremony.

Wenger: Jack will bounce back

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is confident midfielder Jack Wilshere can return stronger from the setback of facing three months out with an ankle injury.

Jack Wilshire: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is confident the midfielder will be

The England international had surgery to repair ligament damage following a tackle by Manchester United defender Paddy McNair in the 2-1 loss at home last Saturday.

Wilshere is now set for another spell on the sidelines, having seen his progress hampered by various problems before and at one point being absent from the Arsenal first team for around 17 months after suffering a stress fracture in his ankle during 2011.

“He is very down. Jack is a football man who loves the game, but on the other hand, he is a very strong character as well and he has learnt to deal with adversity at a very young age,” Wenger said at his Friday press conference.

“I think he will be back at the end of February, beginning of March, and he will focus on coming back to rehab, having a strong rehab, and then I am sure he will help us to do well until the end of the season.

“Jack always came out stronger and, when I spoke with him, the final sprint of the season is already in his mind and he wants to come back stronger.”

Wenger believes Wilshere can shrug off the latest in what has been a long line of injuries to hamper his progress.

“I was more worried one year ago than I am today because he had two or three surgeries on his right ankle. At some stage, you could raise that question, but today I am much more confident that he will fulfil his potential,” Wenger added.

“If he has no problem with his joints, he will make a massive career.”

Arsenal have a host of injury concerns to juggle in thier squad selection for Saturday’s Premier League clash at West Brom, and Wenger confrimed he will look to bring in “at least one body” to bolster the depleted squad, with a defensive midfielder the expected target with centre-half Laurent Koscielny fit again and full-back Mathieu Debuchy close to a return from his long injury lay-off.

Wenger also stated there had been “no enquiry from anybody” for Germany forward Lukas Podolski and denied a move for Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech.

Welbeck Rewards Wenger’s Faith

Danny Welbeck delivered an impressive performance against West Brom to ease the pressure on Arsene Wenger. Now he just needs to demonstrate better consistency…

It says something about Arsenal’s recent form that Saturday’s match-winner Danny Welbeck highlighted the significance of a clean sheet against West Brom. “We think the clean sheet is very important,” he said in his post-match interview. “And we always believe in ourselves to score goals.” After grabbing his first in seven matches with a brilliant second-half header, Welbeck looked suitably satisfied with his telling contribution.

Arsene Wenger will be encouraged by more than just the striker’s goal after the 1-0 victory over the Baggies. Starting alongside Olivier Giroud for the first time, Welbeck delivered one of his most mature displays so far for the Gunners. While his third Premier League strike since a £16m move from Manchester United proved decisive, temporarily lifting Arsenal back into the top four, his all-round play suggested he could be the perfect foil for the Frenchman.

When the team sheets were announced shortly before kick-off, Wenger’s starting line-up hinted that Welbeck might return to the wing. It would have been a major blow for a player desperate to cement his role in the centre.

“Over the past year or so, I started to think about what’s best for me,” he said recently of his decision to leave United before facing his former club. “I was playing on the left wing a lot and in a 4-4-2, which is very difficult for me because I can’t make an impact on the game.” Despite Welbeck’s pleas to play in the middle, Giroud’s return looked to have ended his chances.

However, as Saturday’s tedious encounter gradually unfolded, the 24-year-old’s position just behind Giroud became clearer. With Santi Cazorla drifting left, where he was supported by Kieran Gibbs, Welbeck was allowed to roam across the front line, recording more touches in central areas than on either of the flanks as he lurked around the 18-yard line.

The freedom allowed the forward to excel. An early diagonal run and shot brought a fine save from Ben Foster, before his cute touch on the edge of the area set up Santi Cazorla for a low drive. No Arsenal player created more chances than Welbeck during the 90 minutes, while he also recorded the third-highest passing accuracy in the opposition half of every Gunners player to start the match.

It was not only in attack that Welbeck proved effective. As well as his impressive link-up play in the final third – notably with Cazorla, who claimed his third assist in two matches after none in the previous 15 – the forward exhibited the work rate that helped make him a fan favourite at Old Trafford. His battling qualities were underlined by recording more tackles than any of his teammates as West Brom’s attempts to counter-attack were constantly thwarted.

The aim now for Welbeck is to demonstrate better consistency after finding the net in just four of his 14 appearances for Arsenal. Wenger will hope that Saturday’s impressive performance is the beginning of a more tangible contribution as he looks to guide his team through a sticky patch of form.

“He is a striker who plays left, right and centrally but for me it’s not important,” he said afterwards. “We have so many crosses coming in you always have a chance if you stay on the flanks as well.”

While the result eased some of the pressure on Wenger, a section of the travelling support unveiled a banner which read: ‘Arsene: Thanks for the memories, but it’s time to say goodbye.’ The manager was visibly frustrated by the protest in his post-match interview but, after back-to-back victories and successive clean sheets, he will hope he can still convince supporters his time at the club is far from over.

Benzema: Ronaldo not obsessed with Champions League record

The Portugal international now shares second place in the all-time standings after his winner at St. Jakob-Park, meaning he is now just three behind record-holder Lionel Messi

Benzema: Ronaldo not obsessed with Champions League record

Karim Benzema dismissed the suggestion that Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo is obsessed with the Champions League goalscoring record after Wednesday night’s 1-0 win at Basel.

The Portuguese star and Barcelona rival Lionel Messi were in a race to take over as the tournament’s all-time leading marksman as they closed in on Raul’s tally of 71 goals around the same time.

The Argentine broke the former Spain striker’s record by bagging a hat-trick in Barcelona’s 4-0 victory at APOEL on Tuesday, taking his overall tally to 74 goals.

Ronaldo moved level with Raul on 71 goals by netting the only goal at St. Jakob-Park, but Benzema denied that his colleague is determined to overhaul Messi at the top of the standings.

“Cristiano doesn’t ask me to pass him the ball in order for him to break the record,” Benzema told beIN Sports after teeing up the Portuguese for the winner in Switzerland.

“Frankly, he doesn’t ask for anything. But when he’s well positioned on the pitch, I offer him the ball.”

Madrid’s victory not only sealed top spot in Group B for Carlo Ancelotti’s men, it also saw the club from the Spanish capital complete a home-and-away double over Basel.

However, while the Blancos cruised to a 5-1 victory in their first meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu on matchday one, the reigning European champions were made to work harder for all three points in Switzerland.

“It was not an easy game,” Benzema acknowledged. “It wasn’t the same side as the first game. It was much more complicated.”

Meanwhile, Keylor Navas was a happy man after keeping a clean sheet in a rare start in goal for the Costa Rica international at the expensie of regular No.1 Iker Casillas.

“It’s a tournament that everyone loves to play in so I’m happy that we won and that I was able to contribute a bit to the victory,” the shot-stopper stated.

“I am calm, working hard. Little by little I’m getting more opportunities.

“Everyone wants to play some more, but we must go step by step.”

Liverpool’s late, late show fails to convince despite Rodgers optimism

The Reds recorded only their second win in nine matches courtesy of Glen Johnson’s header but under-fire Brendan Rodgers remains a man with questions to answer

Liverpool's late, late show fails to convince despite Rodgers optimism

Late, desperate scrambles have characterised a lot of Liverpool’s wins this season and so it proved again against Stoke. It was untidy and it was not enough to convince that last season’s runners-up might have finally found the solutions to re-align their campaign this time around.

This was a victory more of luck than design and Stoke pressed for a goal until the final seconds when Liverpool were clinging on and waiting for the whistle. Glen Johnson stooped bravely to head in after 86 minutes of fruitless play for the hosts, who struggled for fluency in front of an Anfield crowd that was either silent or complaining.

“I felt we needed to up the speed of our game a bit and press a bit higher,” said Brendan Rodgers of his team’s second-half performance. “In the first half we had enough of the ball but lacked a bit of intensity which is understandable. Second half we were excellent and deserved it. The courage we showed to keep going. It was hard-fought victory.”

Rodgers, as is his wont, may have been a bit too generous in his assessment. A defeat was less than Stoke deserved although, after two injury-enforced substitutions, they had run out of gas by that stage. The Potters also boasted two of the three best players on the pitch. Mame Biram Diouf had a shot blocked on the line and was difficult to mark throughout. Bojan Krkic hit the post. “Everyone saw the quality he has,” Mark Hughes said of the Catalan. “He is getting stronger in every game. He is enjoying the Premier League; enjoying playing for us. We need to give him the ball more often because he has the ability to produce.”

Bojan in particular threatened to make a bad season worse for Brendan Rodgers but it was an old head who managed to give Liverpool their first league win since beating QPR in mid-October.

Indeed, only one player signed in the summer’s cursed transfer window started for Liverpool. Rickie Lambert was chosen to lead the side’s attack and showed why he was only ever intended to play back-up. Had Daniel Sturridge been fit, the number of new signings would probably have been zero.

A combined £90-odd million worth of talent sat on the bench; the clearest indication given yet by Rodgers that he catastrophically misjudged the club’s transfer dealings in the wake of Luis Suarez’s departure for Barcelona.

Had he tried to roll back the clock any further, he might have picked Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam from the Stoke bench.

“We need players at this time who have quality and experience,” Rodgers said afterwards of his decision to pull the new signings out of the firing line. “Lucas Leiva has come in and been outstanding in two games. Kolo Toure’s got experience. The guys that came in, the younger players, will get experience. We need to have confidence in the team.”

Dejan Lovren though, a £20m signing from Southampton, is very much in ‘dropped’ territory at this stage having paid the price for a string of ordinary performances. Alberto Moreno was bought as an expensive replacement for Jose Enrique yet his compatriot was preferred here against Jon Walters. Adam Lallana has perhaps been Liverpool’s best summer signing but even he has not made himself an automatic choice. Emre Can and Lazar Markovic, about whom the less is said the better, were the other outfield players on the bench beside Steven Gerrard.

The captain cannot be relied upon to play effectively three times a week these days but on this the 16th anniversary of his Liverpool debut, he did not appear to take well to his manager’s decision to rest him. He cut a sulky figure in the warm-up, barely exchanging glances let alone words with his fellow substitutes. He was eventually given an introduction, and the arm-band, as he trotted out late on.

“I wasn’t aware it was 16 years until I walked into the dressing room and saw the programme,” Rodgers said. “Steven is in a part of his career when he is not going to play every minute of every game.”

This had been a dismal run for Liverpool, one win in eight matches, and Rodgers’ decision to drop all the new boys hinted at desperation. No longer does he seem to be picking specific XIs; he is merely hoping someone comes good. That someone here was Raheem Sterling; again Liverpool’s best player by far.

Sterling cut Stoke open time and time again, causing panic whenever the ball found his feet; two of the opposition back four were booked for fouls on the England man and in the second half in particular he bent his team’s attacking forays to his will. He set up Lucas and then Joe Allen for the best chances prior to the goal. He fired another one of his own just wide.

Sterling is moving towards the status that Luis Suarez enjoyed here last season; undroppable and totally relied upon. For Rodgers, he simply needs proper solutions. He may well take short-term success from Sterling’s contributions but the time will come when he, too, cannot give any more.

Then who will step up?