Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d’Or for the seventh time in his career, extending his record as the player to win it the most times.
The Argentine captain capped off a wonderful year for himself by pipping Robert Lewandowski and Jorginho to the award, making him the first Ligue 1 player to win the honour since Jean-Pierre Papin in 1991.
Messi had previously won each of his six awards with FC Barcelona, the club he played his entire career for before a summer move to Paris Saint-Germain.
The award was met with a mixed response from fans, with many believing Bayern Munich and Poland striker Lewandowski deserved the honour.
But in the end, Messi’s victory in the Copa America and Copa Del Rey as well as finishing as the top goalscorer in both tournaments and La Liga was enough to secure him the record breaking achievement.
Lewandowski finished second while Chelsea’s Jorginho rounded off the podium in third, having helped his club win the Champions League and led Italy to winning Euro 2020 in the summer.
Karim Benzema finished fourth, while N’Golo Kante finished fifth. The Premier League continued to dominate the top ten as Cristiano Ronaldo finished sixth, Mohamed Salah finished seventh and Kevin De Bruyne finished eighth, while PSG stars Kylian Mbappe and Gianluigi Donnarumma completed the top ten.
FIFA ensured that Lewandowski didn’t go home empty handed however, as the inaugral “Striker of the Year” award was given to the man who scored 64 goals in 54 games last season en route to yet another Bundesliga title.
Chelsea were crowned the inaugral “Club of the Year” winners, while Pedri was confirmed as the Kopa Trophy winner -given to the best Under-21 player in the world.
Messi’s victory moves him two clear of Ronaldo in the record hunt, as the Portuguese legend finished outside of the top three for the first time since 2010.
Because of those results both sides were entered into the playoffs, where they were drawn in the same path meaning they could meet in the playoff final for one of the three available places in the tournament.
The result means only one of the teams can go through and they are likely to meet in the final game, with Portugal getting drawn with home advantage.
Scotland and Wales were also drawn in the same path, meaning Britain won’t have more than two sides representing them alongside England.
Russia and Sweden were the seeded teams to be drawn into Path B, meaning that only one of those will be able to qualify also.
For the biggest teams to meet each other they must first win games against the unseeded teams in a one-legged game too. You can see the full draw below.
Semi-finals: Scotland vs Ukraine Wales vs Austria
Final: Winner of Wales/Austria vs Winner of Scotland/Ukraine
Semi-finals: Russia vs Poland Sweden vs Czech Republic
Final: Winner of Russia/Poland vs Winner of Sweden/Czech Republic
Semi-finals: Italy vs North Macedonia Portugal vs Turkey
Final: Winner of Portugal/Turkey vs Winner of Italy/North Macedonia
All semi-final fixtures will be played on March 24th 2022, before the finals on March 29th 2022.
The Qatar World Cup 2022 qualifying phase is over for European nations, but we still don’t know all the teams that will be playing in the tournament.
After ten games each in their groups, ten teams have been assured qualification to the tournament next winter when the most prestigious tournament in football goes to the Middle East.
Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Croatia, England and Denmark have all confirmed their places, but there are still three more places up for grabs from the continent of Europe.
But there will be 12 teams competing for those final three spaces, in a mini playoff tournament that will decipher which teams make it. It’s a bit complicated, but here is how it will work.
The 12 teams involved in the playoff tournament are;
Of those sides, the first six named will be seeded which means they will play the fixture at home.
There will be three paths to the World Cup, with four teams separated into each of the three paths. In those paths there will be a one-legged semi-final game and then a one-legged final. The winner of those finals will earn qualification into the World Cup.
The semi-finals and finals of the games will take place between March 24th and March 29th 2022.
The draw for the paths will take place on Friday November 26th in Zurich, with another draw to take place following the semi-finals to determine which team will play the final at home.
Italy got back to winning ways with a 2-1 win over Belgium in Turin to secure third place in the UEFA Nations League.
The European champions were beaten in the semi-finals by an organised and youthful Spain side in midweek, and took part in this fixture with a much changed lineup from that game.
22-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma was named captain, with both sides missing key players from their team in a fixture that Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois labelled ‘pointless’ following their defeat to France in the other semi-final.
But it was the new generation of Italian stars that shone brightest, with Nico Barella opening the scoring with a beautiful volley just after half-time following a half-cleared corner kick.
The other star of the show was Federico Chiesa, as the Juventus winger won a penalty after a great run drew the foul from Timothy Castagne and allowed Domenico Berardi to tuck home from the spot.
Both players are still in their early 20’s and have recently seen a big change in their roles and responsibilities at both club and international level, becoming key players in Serie A.
But while Italy’s squad is full of experienced professionals such as Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne it’s the new blood that have brought the hunger and quality to the side to blend in and make them a real force once again.
Barella and Chiesa represent both the present and future of the national team, with the Inter Milan central midfielder a potential future captain in the making.
He has a bite to his game that means he will never be physically bullied on the pitch, but he also has supreme technical quality on the ball that means he is capable of playing in all types of teams.
In a similar way to Arturo Vidal, Antonio Conte helped to mould Barella into a goal threat too and he now has seven goals in 33 internationals with four of those coming in the last 13 months.
Chiesa on the other hand is the man, along with Paulo Dybala, who has been elevated in the Juventus squad to replace Cristiano Ronaldo and he is becoming a world-renowned name following his performances at Euro 2020 and in Serie A.
His pace, directness, goal threat and creativity mean he will undoubtedly become the face of the national team in the coming years and at only 23-years-old there is plenty of room for improvement too.
It’s a great reaction to their first defeat in over three years and shows that even against top opposition, the squad is strong enough to compete and the young players are ready to step into senior roles.
The European Championships has it’s final four participants and they have set up two huge semi-final clashes at Wembley Stadium.
Italy, Spain, England and Denmark have seen off competition from 20 other teams to make it to this stage of the tournament and now must go head-to-head to make it to the final on Sunday night.
First up is Italy vs Spain on Tuesday night and here’s everything you need to know about the fixture and then my prediction to go with it.
Last time out:
The quarter-final stage threw up some truly brilliant games of football, filled with high drama and quality across the board.
Italy took on world number one ranked Belgium in their last eight clash and came out on top in a highly entertaining encounter. Roberto Mancini’s side played fast-paced, intense pressing football and were able to keep the ball for much of the game.
They scored two finely worked goals and other than a slightly late challenge that allowed Romelu Lukaku to score a penalty, they were imperious defensively in their traditional way to earn a 2-1 win inside 90 minutes.
Spain on the other hand found themselves up against Switzerland and while they dominated the ball for large portions of the game they once again struggled to turn chances into goals.
They took the lead early on through Denis Zakaria’s own goal and while they missed several chances again, it allowed the Swiss to get back into the game following an error from Pau Torres for Xherdan Shaqiri to slot home.
The game was open and back and forth from that point on which led to a penalty shootout after 120 minutes of action, which they came out on top of 3-2 after five penalties each.
Italy unfortunately lost their player of the tournament so far in Leonardo Spinazzola against Belgium when he suffered a ruptured achilles tendon in the second half, ruling him out for the rest of 2021.
His absence means we should see the arrival of Emerson Palmieri of Chelsea into the starting lineup at left-back, meaning a natural left-footer and just as much attacking impetus. Marco Verratti’s form since returning from injury has been excellent so he should continue to start ahead of Manuel Locatelli while Federico Chiesa is likely to keep his place out wide ahead of Domenico Berardi.
Spain on the other hand have no new injury worries ahead of the semi-final clash, but they are likely to make changes after being taken to extra-time in both of their knockout ties so far.
The midfield three of Sergio Busquets, Koke and Pedri will likely remain intact but Eric Garcia could return to centre-back ahead of Pau Torres while Jose Gaya could take the place of Jordi Alba, although that is less likely.
In attack however Dani Olmo and Ferran Torres are pushing for starts ahead of Pablo Sarabia and Gerard Moreno, while Adama Traore and Mikel Oyarzabal are yet to start any games at this tournament.
This game is set up to be absolutely brilliant. Two teams who work relentlessly when out of possession to win it back and look to dominate the ball.
Normally you’d expect a battle for ball possession to be won by the Spanish, but this Italy squad is incredibly gifted on the ball and for my money they’re more likely to have the edge there. They’re also better defensively by a country mile, but the pace and energy of the Spanish side could cause them some issues.
Overall though, this is Italy’s tie (and tournament) to lose. They’re the better team overall, playing the better football currently and will have fitness and momentum on their side to reach the final.
It’s been a fantastic tournament so far and we’re now entering the business end of the competition as the quarter-finals roll around.
England, Ukraine, Spain, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Denmark have all made it into latest round of the competition with highly entertaining wins and now we have four sets of incredible ties to come to see who makes it to Wembley for the semi-finals and final.
In the best tie of the round, the only team left in the Euro 2020 competition with a 100% record inside 90 minutes Belgium take on one of the favourites in Italy.
Route to the final:
Italy came through their group unscathed with 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland before a 1-0 win over Wales with a heavily rotated side. They then met Austria in the last 16 and were taken to the limit in normal time, before Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina scored in extra-time to earn a 2-1 win after 120 minutes.
Belgium were also dominant in their group with a 3-0 win over Russia, before coming from behind to beat Denmark 2-1 and then defeating Finland 2-0 in the final game. That set them up with a round of 16 clash against reigning champions Portugal, where a Thorgan Hazard screamer on the stroke of half-time earned them the win in a close fought game.
That game didn’t come without it’s problems though, as both Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard picked up injuries that forced them to come off the pitch and they are now severe doubts to start the game against Italy.
That means Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco are likely to start for the Red Devils as they did in the opening game of the tournament, while Romelu Lukaku will continue in attack.
For Italy, they will welcome captain Giorgio Chiellini back from a minor hamstring problem that saw him miss the win over Austria. Marco Verratti is likely to retain his place in the team over Manuel Locatelli, while Chiesa is expected to get the nod over Domenico Berardi after his match-winning contribution last time out.
It should be the tie of the round and could arguably produce the game of the tournament, which would be something after the last round.
Italy are the better team in my eyes. They are more organised, better defensively and have good quality going forward too. Belgium are still a very good team though, they’re not ranked number one in the world for no reason, but they don’t look the most solid defensively.
Normally I’d give Belgium the advantage because of the added individual quality they have that could separate a tight game, but with De Bruyne and Hazard both likely to miss the game that factor is eliminated.
Because of that I think Italy will be able to keep it tight at the back and in a fascinating, tactical encounter, they’ll come away with a win thanks to a set-piece goal.
Euro 2020’s first round of matches has come to an end and we’ve been shown who the true contenders for the title are already.
It is one of the more stacked tournaments in recent memory, with several top sides coming into the competition with an expectation upon them that they make it to the latter stages.
But following the first round of group games being completed, three teams in particular have stood out as ones to watch more than any other.
Italy opened up the tournament with a 3-0 win over Turkey in Rome, where they really took their pre-tournament dark horses tag literally and turned in a fantastic performance. Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne added to an own goal but the way they kept a high tempo, pressed hard and passed the ball quickly was a joy to watch.
Their home advantage definitely will have helped to spur them on but defensively they still look as solid as they are historically know for being, but going forward they have lots of options and dynamism which stands them in good stead going forward.
Portugal are another side who started the tournament very well. It was a close game against Hungary, in front of a capacity crowd of 61,000 fans in Budapest, but Portugal largely dominated proceedings with some bad decisions and execution in the final third costing them.
They eventually found their rhythm late on though and scored three goals in the final ten minutes to put Hungary to the sword and earn themselves three points – as many as they earned in the entire group stage in 2016.
Also in their group are the last two World champions France and Germany, who played out a highly entertaining game later on Tuesday evening. Mats Hummels’ own goal in the end was the difference, but the French side played a great game that saw them control the tempo for the most part.
They had two goals disallowed for marginal offside calls too to show they are a threat going forward, while Germany didn’t really create any clear cut chances the other way.
But Spain’s performance during the competition is one that has largely divided opinion.
Luis Enrique’s side enjoyed 80% of possession against Sweden in their opening game but after missing a host of chances during the game they could only secure themselves a 0-0 draw – the only one of the tournament so far.
While some claimed they “defended with the ball” by just playing the ball side-to-side with little penetration, I saw it very differently.
They played with a high tempo, moved the ball quickly and Pedri in particular stood out as someone who looked to make those incisive passes in behind the low block of Sweden’s defence. The only thing they were missing was a clinical finisher in goal.
Alvaro Morata, as usual, missed the majority of those but Spain were threatening enough and kept the ball well enough to make me think that that isn’t something that will trouble them long term.
They have options in the squad that can score, with the likes of 30-goal Gerard Moreno, but also Morata can’t keep missing all his chances. The likes of Dani Olmo, Adama Traore, Pablo Sarabia, Ferran Torres and Mikel Oyarzabal are also all capable of finding the net, so it’s not like Spain are going to struggle for depth.
I’m not saying they’re going to waltz to a tournament win here, not by any stretch, but with their style of play and the fact they’re clearly very well drilled in that methodology the results will only improve over time.
Against the top sides they will absolutely need to be more clinical, but they are well set up to get far in this tournament and depending on their route and getting a bit of lucky you cannot rule them all the way out just yet.
Euro 2020 is upon us after a 12-month delay and it means there will be plenty of faces at the tournament this summer that wouldn’t have been originally.
24 nations will compete to be crowned champions of Europe while playing across 11 cities on the continent, but many will be relying on young players in their squads to fill a role.
Whether that role be as a starter, competition for a place, an impact sub or just filling numbers and earning experience there are plenty of quality youngsters that will be involved. With the tournament kicking off tomorrow, here are five youngsters to keep a close eye on.
The Barcelona youngster made a very big impression in his first season with the first-team under Ronald Koeman.
Originally coming through as a winger, the 18-year-old moved over into central midfield as the season progressed and made the role his own alongside Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets. A fantastic passer, Pedri is also a great dribbler and breaks the lines well. Defensively his work rate is excellent too and while he faces plenty of competition to get into the side, once he gets his chance I fully expect him take it with both hands.
His transition from Las Palmas to Barcelona was seamless, and I expect his transition to international football will be just as good.
After coming through the Chelsea academy and representing England at youth level, Jamal Musiala made the move to Germany with Bayern Munich and chose to represent the country of his birth at international level.
At just 18-years-old, Musiala established himself as part of Bayern’s first-team squad this season and made 39 appearances, scoring seven times. Playing mostly as a number ten when he did play, his willingness to play on the half-turn and confidence to try things with the ball really set him apart from the rest of the players his age.
His end product is great and he won’t be expected to play much, but if given the chance he is good enough to make an impact against any defence he may come up against.
This might be a bit of a cop out since Foden has been on everyone’s list for a couple of years, but if this tournament took place last year as it was meant to then he wouldn’t have been in the squad.
This season though he had a superb campaign with Manchester City, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year and registering double digits for goals and assists across all competitions. Brilliant passing, a delicate first touch, driving dribbling and versatile with the positions he can play, Foden will be right in Gareth Southgate’s thinking for the England team
He’s probably the one who will play the biggest role for his nation during this tournament and is a superstar in the making.
The only defender on this list comes from the reigning European champions and is another player who has benefited from the tournament being delayed by a year.
Playing as a left-back or left wing-back for Sporting CP this season, the Lisbon side won the league for the first time in 19 years and Mendes was a big part of that. His pace is tremendous and his drive with the ball makes him a constant threat going forward.
He started both warm-up games in the build up tournament and it seems that he is the new first-choice left-back ahead of Raphael Guerreiro, so he has some big shoes to fill.
Holland are well known for producing absolute gems when it comes to young players, but Gravenberch might be the best one in a little while.
The Ajax starlet broke into the first-team this season as they won another Eredivisie title and played a starring role in central midfield. Compared to Paul Pogba because of his tall frame but brilliant technical ability, the 18-year-old has got all the attributes to really dominate a midfield and control a midfield.
Alongside the experience of Gini Wijnaldum and composure of De Jong in midfield, Gravenberch has a great chance of making a real name for himself this summer.
After a year long delay, Euro 2020 is finally upon us with a genuine top level tournament threatening to take place.
After the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the tournament last summer, 24 nations will finally take place across the continent as we seek to crown the champions of Europe for the first time since Portugal lifted the trophy in 2016.
With so many stars packing the tournament with quality at the vast majority of teams, some squads are far more stacked than others. With that said, there are several teams who will believe they have a genuine chance of winning the competition this summer.
All the usual heavyweights are involved this year so lets take a look at the top contenders for the trophy this summer at Euro 2020.
The Dutch squad looked set to develop into something genuinely exciting under Ronald Koeman, reaching the UEFA Nations League final and bringing through yet another generation of exciting youngsters.
Then Koeman left for Barcelona and was replaced by Frank De Boer, arguably the worst manager in football right now still getting jobs at the top level. It didn’t help that Virgil Van Dijk got a horror injury before the tournament started that ruled him out for a year and it’s even less helpful that goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to sit the tournament out.
They’re preparing to play in a 3-5-2 system with Memphis leading the line up front and in form, but they just don’t look well drilled right now. Despite that though, they have got a lot of quality in the side. Youngster Ryan Gravenberch will almost certainly be a breakout star in the tournament, while Matthijs De Ligt will look to improve his reputation as one of the best young defenders in Europe.
Unfortunately for them though, De Boer is such a huge negative factor when it comes to them that this tournament will come too soon for them to see any sort of success. With any such luck, it’ll be De Boer’s first and last tournament as boss.
It’ll be the final tournament of Joachim Löw’s 15-year tenure as Germany boss this summer and he’ll look to go out with a bang.
After finishing as runners-up at Euro 2008 and winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Low’s time in charge comes to an end when he is replaced by Hansi Flick after this tournament. But in front of him, he has selected a stacked squad full of young talent and experienced quality blending together.
After a horror show last time out at World Cup 2018 in Russia, Low will be counting on the quality of the likes of Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels in the spin of his team but with the fresher generation of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane supporting them.
Tactically they look sharp in a 4-2-3-1 or in a three-at-the-back system with wing-backs and they look clinical going forward too with such quality options in attack. They’ve been chucked into the group of death in this tournament, but with the four best third-placed teams able to qualify they will feel they have a great chance of getting through and then beating anyone in a one-off game.
It’s been a while since Italy were deemed a genuine threat at an international tournament but Roberto Mancini has absolutely got them there again.
The former Manchester City boss has developed a squad that is filled with quality in key areas and blessed with physical attributes as well as lots of technical skill. Led by veterans Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in defence, with the youthful Gianluigi Donnarumma behind them and Marco Verratti in front, they are a force to be reckoned with.
They then have the brilliance of Nico Barella, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Manuel Locatelli in midfield too while Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernadeschi can support the attack of Andrea Belotti and/or Ciro Immobile.
They have great depth, a great togetherness and are currently on a 27-match unbeaten run stretching back to 2018. They know how to keep a clean sheet with nine in their last 11 fixtures and with goals all over the pitch as well as an ability to either be defensive or go on the front foot, they’re real dark horses for the competition.
This is Luis Enrique’s second spell in charge of the Spanish national team, but his first tournament after his shock resignation back in 2019 saw him leave the role for six months.
During that spell and this current one though, Enrique has been able to put together a string of highly impressive performances using a variety of players and has even left some big names out. Despite naming only 24 players for a 26-man squad, the likes of Sergio Ramos and Saul Niguez weren’t selected.
Even without them though, Spain look good. Defensively they look well organised and press well, while on the ball they move it quickly and have lots of interchanging movement among their players. One thing they do lack is a lethal striker. Gerard Moreno hit 30 in all competitions for Villarreal this season but he doesn’t really suit Spain’s style of play and it’s Alvaro Morata who tends to start as the striker.
Spain have a chance of becoming the darkest of horses in the tournament, however their lack of a real goalscorer blunted their attack in the friendly against Portugal in the warm-up game. With players testing positive for COVID-19 just days before the tournament starts too, their preparation will be affected and I don’t think they’ll be successful this time although they will be entertaining.
The England squad is arguably at it’s strongest since the golden generation that saw Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham all lining up alongside each other back in the Euro 2004 era.
With bags of attacking talent and some solid defensive options, Gareth Southgate has got a great chance of improving on the World Cup semi-final run that they managed to put together in 2018. Their preparations took a hit when Trent Alexander-Arnold was forced to withdraw with a thigh injury, but Southgate drafted in Brighton’s Ben White to cover in midfield and defence.
Jack Grealish is in the form of his life in attack while Mason Mount and Phil Foden are coming off the back of a Champions League final to end their brilliant seasons in attack, supporting Harry Kane who had the best season of his career all-round.
There is genuine hope and belief that England could turn in a Euro 96-esque performance this summer, getting to the latter stages and causing the big sides real problems. There is expectation on them to perform but with Southgate in charge they may struggle.
He prefers to work towards the strengths of his opponent to nullify, rather than exposing their weaknesses with his great squad and against the top sides that could be the difference in winning and losing.
One of the deepest squads in the tournament, Belgium have got some insane quality amongst their ranks for this tournament.
Thibaut Courtois is among the best goalkeepers in the world, Yannick Carrasco has excelled as a wing-back for Atletico this season winning La Liga, Kevin De Bruyne and Youri Tielemans have had fantastic seasons domestically while Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard would get into most teams when fit.
Robert Martinez has developed a great style of play with the ‘Red Devils’ which has seen them capable of dominating possession and counter-attacking in style, while defensively they can be a very solid side too with plenty of experience.
Skill, quality, a lethal goalscorer, fantastic creators in midfield and experienced, quality defenders, Belgium will be disappointed to not be challenging for honours at the very least at Euro 2020.
The current reigning European champions, Portugal are in the middle of a golden generation once again. After winning the tournament in 2016, the Selecao have developed even greater depth in their squad and are genuinely quality against any opposition now.
Cristiano Ronaldo is still leading the line at 36 years old but is coming off the back of a Serie A golden boot campaign, while Bernardo Silva, Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo all enjoyed stellar campaigns with Manchester City.
Bruno Fernandes will be looking to improve his international form after scoring just twice for the national team in 28 appearances, while Joao Felix will be keen to finally perform to the standard everyone knows he can.
Fernando Santos is still in charge which means Portugal are still very hard to beat, but it also means they can be limited in attack against the top opposition which could see them struggle in the latter stages. In the group of death too, that could see them struggle early on and ultimately they’ll likely fall short.
Without a doubt the strongest squad and the favourites to win the tournament, World champions France are back with a vengeance.
Beaten at the Euro 2016 final by Portugal on home turf, France bounced back to win the World Cup in style and have developed one of the greatest pools of players to select their squad from ever. Now with Didier Deschamps still at the helm, they’ll look to make history as just the third team to be World and European champions simultaneously.
With a very similar squad to 2018, the biggest factor is the return of Karim Benzema after five years away from the international scene following legal and political issues. It’s pretty hard to improve the World champions, but Benzema is the calibre of player who can.
His potential link up with Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba make it nigh on impossible to see France not make the final at the very least and anything but winning it would be deemed as a failure among neutrals and French fans.
Behind every great winning team is a world class defence. Within that world class defence, there is usually one stand-out defender in the team holding it all together.
In every team Alessandro Nesta was in, he made up a large chunk of that solidity with his brilliance. Yet despite winning everything there was to win he’s often overlooked when we discuss the absolute best defenders that we’ve ever seen.
I’ve made it my personal mission to remind everyone just how good Nesta was once upon a time and why he is my personal favourite central defender of all-time.
Nesta’s career started at Lazio, where he played through the youth system as a striker and then a midfielder before eventually settling down as a centre back. His place in ‘The Eagles’ academy came after an offer from Roma was rejected by his father, a lifelong Lazio fan.
He made his debut in the back end of the 1993/94 season as a substitute, but by the time 1997 rolled around Sven-Goran Eriksson had appointed the 21-year-old as the captain of the side. After two full seasons, Lazio were now ready to push for trophies and it was him that was entrusted to lead a pack of players including Roberto Mancini, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Pavel Nedved and Alen Boksic.
That season Lazio were in the race for the treble but they lost their last six games in Serie A to finish fourth, ten points behind eventual winners Juventus. They also made it to the UEFA Cup final but were beaten 3-0 by Inter Milan, although Nesta earned the first trophy of his career by scoring the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final.
He’d go on to be crowned the Young Player of the Year in 1998 as an honour to his performances and his time at Lazio would only bring more success. Despite a serious knee injury picked up during the 1998 World Cup meaning he missed half the season, he returned to captain the side through a title race that would see them miss out on the crown by a single point on the final day.
They did however earn the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup with a win over Mallorca and then go on to beat treble winners Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup at the start of the following season, thanks to a Marcelo Salas strike.
That campaign would be the best of Nesta’s Lazio career, as he would lead the team to victory in the 2000 Coppa Italia final over Inter as well as becoming Serie A champions for the first time in his illustrious career thanks to a final day victory over Reggina. Lazio would win the next edition of the Italian Supercoppa as Nesta won the final trophy of six during his spell in Rome.
Financial troubles and stellar performances would see him picked up by AC Milan in 2002 for €31million. He’d join a defence alongside Paulo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta to form one of the most feared back lines in Europe and earned instant success.
The Rossoneri finished third in Serie A but were successful in winning the double, trumping AS Roma 6-3 on aggregate in the Coppa Italia before winning the UEFA Champions League on penalties against Juventus, with Nesta scoring the fourth penalty. He was named the defender of the year and named in the UEFA team of the year, highlighting his performances.
The following year his performances alongside the addition of Cafu to the side helped the team to be crowned champions of Italy. Nesta made 38 appearances across all competitions as he was named in the UEFA team of the year for a third consecutive season ahead of Euro 2004, where Italy were eliminated at the group stages following some disappointing displays in front of goal.
Dutch centre half Jaap Stam then joined and former a formidable partnership, as Milan won the Italian Supercoppa before making two Champions League finals in three years between 2005 and 2007.
Unfortunately for Nesta he will be remembered for being part of the Milan side who blew a 3-0 lead to Liverpool in Istanbul, but he was also instrumental at the heart of the defence as they avenged that defeat two years later in Athens.
That final would come a year after Nesta won the World Cup with Italy in Germany. Nesta was first-choice alongside Fabio Cannavaro but picked up a knee injury in the group stages that would rule him out of the remainder of the tournament. As Italy went on to win the tournament, his partner Cannavaro would end up winning the Ballon d’Or following Juventus’ title that went with it, showing just how much extra work he needed to put in without Nesta.
Injuries began to affect the tail end of his career, but that didn’t stop him having one more top class season in 2010 and 2011. Milan won the league once again and then won the Supercoppa at the start of the following season as Nesta continued to be a regular in the side.
Alongside Thiago Silva the club conceded just 24 goals in 38 Serie A games on their way to the title, with Nesta postponing his planned retirement by a season and being named in the team of the year. His added title took his tally up to 326 games for the club with ten trophies won in ten seasons.
He ended his career playing in the MLS with Canadian outfit Montreal Impact, winning the Canadian title in 2013.
His career is one of the best, with trophies at all his clubs but also a legacy. He is one of the most artistic defenders the game has seen, with brilliant tackling and raw power to match his gazelle like speed and agility. He was also brilliant in the air at 6ft 2 but unlike the defenders of today he didn’t care for being a threat in the opposition box, it was all about stopping goals going in against him.
Nesta led the way for defenders from a young age and for my money is the best Italian centre-back of his generation, despite the accolades some others may have. Remember his greatness next time there’s a debate happening.