Messi, Pjanic or Neymar? Top 15 free-kick scorers of last five years

It is a testament to Lionel Messi’s ability with the dead ball that any free-kick on the edge of the opposition area has Barcelona fans on the edge of their seats ready to celebrate.

The Argentine is one of the world’s top exponents of one of football’s trickiest arts, and just seems to be getting better in that respect, as he showed with two stunning efforts to down Espanyol in a one-sided derby victory for the Catalans last weekend.

It was the first time the Blaugrana captain had ever netted two in the same game and took his overall Liga tally to 19 since 2013-14.

However, Messi, who honed his technique under the legendary Diego Maradona, is far from the only dead-ball specialist in the game right now. 

Indeed, Juventus alone have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to free-kick takers, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s summer arrival at the club having only added to their remarkably long list of options.

The Portuguese now battles for the ball with Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala every time the Bianconeri earn a free in a dangerous position. 

In fact, Serie A has no lack of talent from dead-ball situations. Milan’s Hakan Calhanoglu too is every bit a match for Pjanic, and is currently tied with Juve’s Bosnian maestro for free-kick goals over the last five seasons in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues.

No. Player Current Club Free-kick Goals
1 Lionel Messi Barcelona 19
2 Miralem Pjanic  Juventus 12
3 Hakan Calhanoglu Milan 12
4 Paulo Dybala Juventus 9
5 Daniel Wass Valencia 8
6 Daniel Parejo Valencia 8
7 Aleksandr Kolarov Roma 7
8 Cristiano Ronaldo Juventus 7
9 Juan Mata Manchester United 6
10 Enis Bardhi Levante 6
11 James Rodriguez Bayern 6
12 Marvin Plattenhardt Hertha 6
13 Neymar PSG 6
14 Andrea Pirlo Retired 6
15 Alexis Sanchez Manchester United 6

A little further down the list we find Neymar, who, it is somewhat surprising to learn, has only punished six fouls in La Liga and Ligue 1 since arriving in Europe from Santos in 2013. 

Although, as an interesting aside, it seems the Brazilian saves his best efforts for Europe: no player, not even Messi, can match his sparkling Champions League record of five free-kick goals from just 17 attempts. 

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And fans of hulking defenders who are also adept at smashing in from long range are well-represented by Aleksandr Kolarov. The former Manchester City man, now at Roma, has managed no less than eight, giving him a place in the top 10. 

Even Andrea Pirlo features, despite leaving Juventus for MLS at the end of the 2014-15 season.

But the numbers do not lie: Messi’s reputation as the best in the business is fully earned.


South Africa officially bid to replace Cameroon as Afcon 2019 hosts

South Africa has finally submitted their bid to host the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations tournament. 

This was confirmed by the South African Football Association (Safa) through its communications manager Dominic Chimhavi. 

Initially, SA Sports Minister Thokozile Xasa said the country will not bid to replace Cameroon, saying that they would wait for Caf to approach Safa. 

“We have submitted our bid documents. It is now up to CAF to decide,” Chimhavi told AFP

The latest developments simply mean that the South African government has agreed to help Safa stage the tournament after the association made it public that there were not enough funds to host the continental showpiece. 

South Africa needs at least R140 million to host the 24-team tournament next year. 

Cameroon was stripped of the rights to host the games after it emerged that the stadia would not be ready come June 2019. 

Morocco has since pulled out of the running to host the tournament, but it was confirmed on Thursday that Egypt is also keen on replacing Cameroon. 

This means the race is between South Africa and Egypt, although the decision rests solely with Caf. 

The deadline for the submissions of bids is on Friday, while the new hosts will be announced in Senegal on January 9, 2019. 

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South Africa has previously hosted the tournament on two separate occasions – in 1996 and 2013. 

Egypt on the other hand, last hosted the competition in 2006.

Both South Africa and Egypt have eight Afcon titles between them, but the Southern African country last laid their hands on the trophy 22 years ago on home soil.  


AC Milan’s Europa League elimination unjust, fumes Leonardo

Leonardo fumed that AC Milan’s Europa League elimination at the hands of Olympiacos was “unjust” due to poor refereeing decisions.

Milan went to Piraeus with a three-point advantage over the Greek side in Group F, but a 3-1 defeat sent them crashing out of the competition.

Pape Abou Cisse and an own goal from Cristian Zapata put Olympiacos 2-0 up before the Colombian centre-back pulled one back for Gennaro Gattuso’s team in the 72nd minute.

However, referee Benoit Bastien deemed that Ignazio Abate fouled Vasilis Torosidis when the former Roma man attempted to get his head to a corner and awarded a penalty that Kostas Fortounis tucked home eight minutes from time.

Milan sporting director Leonardo criticised Bastien’s decision and lamented the fact VAR will not be used in the Europa League until next season.

“It looks to me as if the penalty was non-existent,” Leonardo told Sky Sports Italia.

“On a couple of occasions too, they had this system of putting a hand on a corner as if to wait for someone else and then taking it. [Samuel] Castillejo tried it and the referee whistled to stop us.

“If you go out of the Europa League for something like that, in the days of VAR, it becomes difficult to just accept a result. It’s ridiculous that a system like VAR that everyone now uses cannot be used in a European tournament.

“There was also a strange noise every time we went to attack. I don’t know what it was, but it’s not fair to use a sound like that to distract us every time we go forward.

“It was genuinely irritating. The referee should’ve stopped play and told them to stop it. After they scored, it actually got louder.

“We were three points ahead of Olympiacos, it was a difficult situation for them to win and it was in fact totally decided by these incidents.

“We know our problems and we have some players out, but I can say this was unjust.”

Gattuso must now pick his players up quickly ahead of next Tuesday’s crucial Serie A clash against Bologna, as they continue their pursuit of a top-four league finish.


Juventus and Zidane-like Ronaldo have already won Serie A – Camoranesi

Former Juventus midfielder Mauro Camoranesi believes high-flying Torino can trouble his former club and their superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo, even if the Bianconeri have all but wrapped up the Serie A crown.

Torino are currently sat sixth position in the table and have slowly been on the rise over recent seasons after bouncing between Italy’s top division and Serie B during Camaronesi’s stint at Juve from 2002-10.

Juventus have assumed their position back at the top of the standings – currently eight points clear of Napoli – as they shoot for their eighth consecutive league title.

Despite the season not having reached the halfway mark, Camoranesi is adamant Juventus will lift the championship as no rival has improved enough to be a contender.

“[The title was] closed five matches ago,” he told Goal.

“The reasoning is very simple: Juventus have improved the level of the squad in the summer. Napoli, which had the ability to make the last Serie A interesting, have maintained almost the same squad.

“I want to understand how the Azzurri can recover eight points of disadvantage.”

Camoranesi cited the addition of Ronaldo as a clear sign to the Bianconeri’s domestic superiority and lavished praise on the Portuguese megastar for his impact on the club.

The Argentine-born Italy international explained the gulf between Turin’s heated rivals while he was in the city, but believes Torino’s gradual improvement over the years has led to a physical style of play that could unsettle Juventus.

“Torino have grown a lot and now have a very good team. But for many years this match was a bit boring,” he added.

“In those years [I was at Juve], Torino lived between normality and relegation. Now, however, Torino have reached another level.

“In terms of quality, obviously, there is a big difference. But Torino are a very physical team and I think they can put Juventus in trouble, one way or another.”

Ronaldo Juventus Milan

He also thinks the Ronaldo’s capture makes Juventus a Champions League contender – especially considering the dip in form endured by some of their biggest continental rivals.

“Ronaldo is an incredible player for the whole Serie A. The Bianconeri has not had such a decisive player on a world scale since Zinedine Zidane,” Camoranesi said.

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“He can certainly help Juventus get the quality they are missing in Europe. We are talking about a player who takes responsibility and doesn’t burden his teammates.

“It may be a good year [in Europe for Juve], as it could have been last year. Some direct competitors of Juventus are not performing very well – Bayern Munich are recovering confidence and Real Madrid are reassembling.

“The arrival of a competition specialist like Ronaldo can mean a lot.”


Dembele needs to improve off the pitch for Barcelona, admits Alba

Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba insisted the La Liga leaders are happy with Ousmane Dembele, but admitted the forward has areas for improvement off the pitch.

Dembele, 21, has endured disciplinary issues this season, but showcased his talent with a stunning individual goal against Tottenham in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Despite that performance however, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde conceded Dembele wasn’t off the hook just yet after showing up two hours late to training.

Alba and his team-mates seemingly have no problem with the France international however, although the Spaniard revealed Dembele’s off-field behaviour could use some work.

“He is an important player for us,” he said on Thursday.

“He’s young, but in the dressing room we’ve never had any issues. At the end of the day he is playing well.

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“Things can improve off the pitch but we are happy with him.”

In 20 games for Barcelona this season, Dembele has contributed nine goals and five assists with Robert Pires claiming the Catalans shouldn’t consider swapping him for Neymar.

Lionel Messi has also jumped to Dembele’s defence in recent times, declaring the club ‘needs’ him amidst reported transfer interest from Arsenal.