With free-kick goals in three consecutive La Liga games, Lionel Messi has proven in recent weeks that he is a master of one of football’s most difficult arts. But his ability from dead balls is no accident – rather, it is the culmination of years of honing a craft that has made him such a deadly threat standing over a set-piece.
In 2005, Barcelona staged a showcase for the young stars of La Masia. The format was simple: each child would tell the camera, “Remember my name” – some with more confidence than others, having first demonstrated their skills.
A young Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi closed out the video, having already made his first team debut the previous year. Messi let loose with a spectacular free-kick that flew into the corner of the net, a strike that sent tongues wagging inside and out of the club. Ironically, however, he was not known for his set-piece prowess.
“Until that moment he had not taken too many free-kicks at La Masia,” Roger Giribet, an ex-team-mate of Leo’s in the Barca youth system, told Goal .
“Victor Vazquez, who was amazing, and the left-footed Juanjo Clausi used to take them, Messi almost never.” Former La Masia chief Albert Benaiges added that the famous old academy did not prioritise the skill. “It was something we did not practice,” Messi’s old tutor said. “At Barcelona we used to occasionally do free-kick drills with a wall. We would give the odd bit of advice, but it was not a part of the game we worked on particularly hard.”
Giribet did reveal that the La Masia hopefuls would sometimes stay behind after training to work on their free-kicks — “if we were allowed onto the pitch” — but the youth system’s philosophy at Barca veered away from specific drills in favour of instilling a greater natural understanding of the game.
As Giribet recalls, however, the youngster did receive some useful tips. “We were once told how to place the ball in order to deliver. I think it was (former Barcelona B coach, now at Universidad de Chile) Guillermo Hoyos who told us we had to set the ball with the air valve on the grass — that way we would make it come down easier after kicking.”
Messi absorbed every lesson offered, but his talent was something different, an innate ability with the ball. “While Messi took free-kicks differently when he came to Barca compared to now, it isn’t something we taught him at La Masia,” Benaiges explained. “It is a natural feature of his ability which he has been working on alone. His experience has served him well.”
It was, in fact, none other than Diego Maradona who took Messi’s free-kick abilities to the next level. In February 2009, in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, the then-Argentina coach gave his successor at No.10 a masterclass in how to excel at the art.
Maradona’s assistant Fernando Signorini recalled to La Nacion that after one particular training session, in which Messi was preparing to leave in frustration after missing a handful of free-kick attempts, he was intercepted by his boss. “I saw Diego coming, he took him by the shoulder and said: ‘Little Leo, little Leo, come here man. Let’s do it again.’ It was like a teacher with his pupil,” Signorini said.
“He continued: ‘Put the ball here and listen to me: don’t take your foot away from the ball so fast because otherwise it won’t know what you want.’ He then stroked the ball with his left foot straight into the angle of the net, with Messi’s face full of admiration.”
Since that fateful meeting Messi has only gotten better at beating the wall. Thirteen years have passed since he introduced himself with that first free-kick seen all over the world, but Giribet remembers it as if it were yesterday.
“Everyone had to have two or three tries except Messi,” he laughed. “He was the only one to do it first time, in 30 seconds he had finished, even the camera operators were impressed.”
Now even the most spectacular free-kicks barely raise an eyebrow — it is just another day for Lionel Messi.
Serena Williams knocked out in first round by Naomi Osaka
Serena Williams was knocked out of the Miami Open in the first round by Naomi Osaka as the 23-time Grand Slam winner continues her return after pregnancy.
Williams, unseeded after taking 13 months off to have her first child, was beaten 6-3 6-2 by the Japanese, 20.
The American lost serve twice in each set and was unable to break back.
Her defeat comes after the Miami Open director said seeding rules for players coming back after maternity leave were a “punishment” and “should be changed”.
Osaka is herself also unseeded but last week claimed her maiden title at Indian Wells to move up to 22 in the world.
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Her powerful serve and relentless returning proved too much for Williams, who was broken at 3-3 and 5-3 in the first set and again at 3-1 in the second.
Osaka clinched victory when Williams sprayed a wide open forehand long, and will now face world number four Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in the second round.
“I was extremely nervous coming on to the court. I don’t know if anybody knows this but Serena is my favourite player,” Osaka said.
“So just playing against her is kind of like a dream for me. I’m very grateful I was able to play her and it is even better that I was able to win.”
Williams, 36, made her return to the WTA Tour at Indian Wells earlier this month, losing to sister Venus in the third round.
She has no official ranking, which means she cannot be seeded for WTA events.
However, she can gain entry to eight tournaments in 12 months – including two Grand Slams – with her protected world number one ranking.
Azarenka & Muguruza go through
Two-time grand slam winner Victoria Azarenka marked her fourth event since giving birth with a 6-3 6-0 win over American Cici Bellis.
The Belarusian pulled out of the US Open and the Fed Cup final earlier last year because of a custody dispute over her young son.
Azarenka, who made her first appearance of the year at Indian Wells last week, took just over an hour to brush past the 18-year-old.
Meanwhile, Bethanie Mattek-Sands lost in her first WTA Tour match since dislocating her right kneecap and rupturing a tendon at Wimbledon last year.
The 32-year-old doubles specialist had been awarded a wild card but slipped to a 6-2 7-5 defeat at the hands of France’s Alize Cornet.
And third seed Garbine Muguruza of Spain progressed after her opponent, 16-year-old American Amanda Anisimova, withdrew due to injury.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Manchester United striker to leave Old Trafford club
Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is set to leave Manchester United imminently.
Although there has been no announcement from United, it is understood manager Jose Mourinho has agreed to release Ibrahimovic from his present deal which expires on 30 June.
It is not known where Ibrahimovic is going but there has been intense speculation recently that he will join Major League Soccer outfit LA Galaxy.
Ibrahimovic, 36, joined United from Paris St-German in 2016.
The former Sweden forward scored 29 goals in 53 appearances for the Old Trafford side but does not appear to have fully recovered from the cruciate ligament injury he sustained against Anderlecht last April.
It has recently been suggested that he could come out of international retirement for this summer’s World Cup.
England 58 all out: Trevor Bayliss says players like ‘deer in headlights’
England players were like “deer in the headlights” as they were bowled out for 58 by New Zealand in the opening Test, says head coach Trevor Bayliss.
In their first Test match since losing the Ashes 4-0 in Australia, England slipped to 27-9 before being dismissed in 20.4 overs at Eden Park, Auckland.
The sensational collapse was England’s sixth lowest total in Test history.
“We were nowhere near good enough. New Zealand bowled well but we batted equally badly,” said Bayliss.
“It was like deer in the headlights. Someone sneezes and everyone caught a cold today.”
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At one point England had looked on course for their lowest-ever Test total and to break a record that had stood for over 131 years.
Somerset bowler Craig Overton saved England from that ignominy with an unbeaten 33 as only he and opener Mark Stoneman (11) made double figures.
Left-arm seamer Trent Boult took 6-32 and new-ball partner Tim Southee 4-25 as five batsmen made ducks, equalling an England record.
It swung around a bit but nothing different to any other first day of a Test match.
“The ball was pitched up and swinging and we were caught behind the crease for a lot of dismissals. Trying to get forward and negate the swing would have been the way to go.”
|England’s lowest Test totals|
|45 v Australia, Sydney, 1887|
|46 v West Indies, Port of Spain, 1994|
|51 v West Indies, Kingston, 2009|
|52 v Australia, The Oval, 1948|
|53 v Australia, Lord’s, 1888|
|58 v New Zealand, Auckland, 2018|
|Lowest totals in Test cricket|
How the collapse unfolded
- 6-1: Cook c Latham b Boult 5 – no foot movement and edges outswinger to second slip
- 6-2: Root b Boult 0 – captain has his off stump knocked back as he attempts to drive one that swings back between bat and pad
- 16-3: Malan c Watling b Boult 2 – drawn forward and Watling takes fine diving catch in front of first slip
- 18-4: Stoneman c Watling b Southee 11 – another batsman not moving his feet, another edge to Watling
- 18-5: Stokes b Boult 0 – playing his first Test since September 2017, Stokes is cleaned up by a fine delivery that clips the top of off stump
- 18-6: Bairstow c&b Southee 0 – driving on the up and smartly taken in Southee’s follow-through
- 23-7: Woakes b Boult 5 – forward defensive, played on the walk, and is beaten all ends up by another inswinger
- 23-8: Moeen b Southee 0 – a third batsman of the innings is bowled, Moeen inexplicably missing a low full toss
- 27-9: Broad c Williamson b Southee 0 – captain takes sensational one-handed catch, diving high to his left at gully, as Broad departs with wry smile
- 58 all out: Anderson c Nicholls b Boult 1 – fends short ball to gully
‘Players will feel utterly embarrassed’
Analysis by former England spinner Graeme Swann on BBC Test Match Special
The players will feel utterly embarrassed by their performance today. Sometimes it just goes horribly wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it.
It was a horrific day from start to finish. New Zealand bowled well but England’s technique has been found wanting.
They didn’t get out of their crease and they didn’t cover their stumps.
In all of my time playing and watching cricket I’ve never quite witnessed anything like this morning. The first few overs passed without any incident and then it was just a snowball of England wickets.
- This was England’s lowest Test total versus New Zealand, eclipsing the 64 they made at the Basin Reserve in Wellington in 1977/78.
- England faced just 124 balls in their innings – the 16th shortest innings in the history of Test cricket.
- The total was England’s sixth lowest in Test cricket and the joint 32nd lowest of all Test-playing nations.
- Craig Overton’s 33 not out meant he scored 56.9% of England’s total.
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