Asensio, Balotelli and the winners and losers of international week


WINNER: MARCUS RASHFORD


Marcus Rashford England 2018-19

Many England players emerged from the World Cup with their reputations enhanced. It must be said that Marcus Rashford wasn’t one of those.

While the country fell in love with the likes of Kieran Trippier and Harry Maguire, Rashford was somewhat on the fringes and did not contribute a lot to the English charge to the semi-finals.

He has however started the new cycle in fine form.

England may have lost against Spain on Saturday in their UEFA Nations League opener but Rashford was bright and busy, scoring the opener and serving a reminder of his capabilities to the onlooking Jose Mourinho.

He was efficient in front of goal on Tuesday as well when England beat Switzerland in a friendly at the King Power Stadium, scoring the only goal of the game.

It’s been a difficult start to the Premier League season for Rashford – and indeed for Manchester United as a whole – but goals in back-to-back games for the first time for his country will do his confidence the world of good.


WINNER: GEORGE WEAH


George Weah

Some 15 years after his retirement, the president of Liberia George Weah made an incredible international comeback in a 2-1 home defeat to Nigeria.

Weah, Africa’s only Ballon d’Or winner, was to be honoured at the game in the Samuel Doe Stadium in Monrovia where his legendary No. 14 shirt was to be retired.

Those in attendance were taken by surprise when Weah – now aged 51 – led the Lone Stars out with the captain’s armband instead of merely watching from the stands.

He lasted an impressive 79 minutes and by all accounts put in quite a shift despite a paunch reflecting his years of good living. James Debbah – one of Weah’s former international team-mates – also played aged 48.

There are repercussions in Nigeria where many are demanding answers on why the NFF agreed to send a senior representative team to play in a glorified friendly.

For the president – elected in a runoff last December – it was a fond farewell on the same night his son Timothy played for the United States against Mexico.


WINNER: RICHARLISON


Richarlison Brazil El Salvador Friendly 11092018

A strong start to the season for new club Everton preceded a first call-up to the Brazil squad for Richarlison, who took Pedro’s place late in the day.

And having been handed the legendary No. 9 shirt by Tite, the £50 million man made quite the impression on his first start for his country.

He won an early penalty against El Salvador in a Stateside friendly – which Neymar converted – before Richarlison stole the show himself in front of goal.

Brazil won 5-0 – to add to their 2-0 win last week over the United States – and Richarlison provided the pick of the bunch.

He scored in either half; the first a curler into the top corner and the second a powerful effort from the edge of the box.

With that performance and those goals, he will have served notice of his abilities to Tite, who is plotting the next stage of Brazil’s cycle after a disappointing World Cup.


WINNER: MARCO ASENSIO


Marco Asensio Spain 2018-19

Long heralded as one of the coming forces in world football, this is expected to be the season Marco Asensio stands among the elites.

He has won two Champions Leagues with Real Madrid but now with Cristiano Ronaldo gone he will step up to become one of the European champions’ key players.

And for his country too, Asensio looks ready to become a superstar.

Spain have won six points from six in their opening Nations League fixtures and on Tuesday night Asensio ran the game against Croatia.

The World Cup semi-finalists were smashed 6-0 by Spain with Asensio providing three assists as well as a stunning long-range strike of his own.


LOSERS: ITALY AND BALOTELLI


Balotelli Italy Poland

This was supposed to mark the start of a new era under Roberto Mancini.

The 2006 World Cup winners failed to qualify for this year’s tournament and so a new regime took over. Italy, however, look scarcely better for swapping Giampiero Ventura for the former Inter manager.

They were lacklustre and out of ideas in a 1-1 draw against Poland before succumbing to a 1-0 loss against Portugal on Monday. 

Alarmingly, they have won a total of two matches in a year of football – a World Cup qualifier against Albania and a friendly against Saudi Arabia. They are a team bereft of confidence and ability.

One thing they have been lacking is firepower in front of goal. Mario Balotelli being sent back to his club for being a reported 15 kilograms overweight will not have helped the cause and they are already looking at Nations League relegation.


LOSERS: IRELAND AND ROY KEANE


Roy Keane Ireland

Controversy is raging in Ireland with assistant manager Roy Keane predictably at the centre of things.

A leaked WhatsApp voice message from left-back Stephen Ward detailed two extraordinary training camp rows between Keane and Irish internationals Jonathan Walters and Harry Arter. It has led to calls for Keane’s sacking given the manner in which he addressed the players and brought questions about exactly what it is he does in Martin O’Neill’s regime.

That overshadowed things to such an extent that it was easy to forget Ireland were hammered in their opening Nations League fixture against Wales before giving up a late draw away to Poland in a friendly.

The Irish public has simply been turned off the national team given the poor levels of performance in recent games and the lack of anything approaching a shake-up – in the boardroom, the dugout or on the pitch.

The rot has well and truly set in.


LOSERS: ICELAND


Iceland Belgium Nations League

The surprise team of Euro 2016 have long since shed their underdog tag and are struggling with life at a higher level.

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They qualified well for the World Cup but could not get out of their group. Now their failings are being exposed in the Nations League.

They were annihilated 6-0 by Switzerland on matchday one before the boos rang out in Reykjavik on matchday two as Belgium ran riot with a 3-0 victory.

It was their first home defeat since June 2013 and a demoralising one at that given they were in the game until Eden Hazard scored from the penalty spot.

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Nice manager Vieira bemoans lack of aggression after ‘catastrophic’ defeat

Nice manager Patrick Vieira bemoaned a lack of aggression from his side after they slumped to a “catastrophic” 4-0 defeat to Dijon in Ligue 1.

The top-flight French outfit have taken just one point from their opening three games of the new campaign, with their loss at the Allianz Riviera to Olivier Dall’Oglio their heaviest defeat of the season so far.

Naif Aguerd put Dijon ahead in the 67th minute before the visitors made the game safe late on through Oussama Haddadi and a late Jules Keita double to keep the visitors at the top alongside Paris Saint-Germain.

It is a harsh contrast to Vieira’s first triumvirate of matches, and the former New York City boss was left to rue his side’s inability to take their chances.

“This is a catastrophic scenario for us,” the 42-year-old said. “Losing 4-0 at home is hard to accept.

“We have created many opportunities without scoring. We were shy. The message to the players at the end of the match was this: Playing well is not enough. We need more. We did not get it tonight.

“Defeat is due to lack of success and aggression. We lack character, personality and aggressiveness.

“That’s why this scenario has become catastrophic. We do not have enough players to carry the team up.

Vieira however remains confident that his current crop of players, including star forward Mario Balotelli, have more than enough composure to turn around their fortunes.

“It is when one is in difficulty that you see the character of each one,” he added. “It’s a nice challenge to take up.

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“This lack of rigour and aggressiveness summarises the first matches. We are in difficulty, but I believe in this group, in the players.

“We will work to react from the next match.”

Nice next travel to Lyon, seeking their first win of the season, on August 31 before a fortnight off for the international break. They then return to action at home to Rennes on September 15.

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‘Nobody tells me what to do’ – Balotelli explains why he stayed at Nice

Mario Balotelli has admitted he wanted to leave Nice at the end of last season and had several offers to exit the club. 

The striker has enjoyed a career renaissance with the French side, scoring 43 times in 66 appearances since joining in 2016 following a disastrous spell at Liverpool. 

His prolific form led to reported interest from Marseille and Napoli among other clubs. 

“To be honest, at the end of last season, I wanted to leave. The president and the club knew it,” Balotelli admitted in an interview with OGC Nice TV. 

“I had five very concrete proposals and I waited. But in the end, I decided to stay. But I’ve could have left very easily.”

The 28-year-old failed to arrive on time for pre-season training last month, leading to increasing speculation that he could be sold.

But the Italy international had a change of heart and is set to stay for one more season at least with his contract entering its final season. 

“Why did I stay? Because the atmosphere is great with my team-mates, the club and everything,” Balotelli continued. “I also had one year left on my contract so I decided to stay.

“It’s my decision and nobody tells me what to do. I do whatever I want, in all due respect. The final decision regarding my career is always up to me.”

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Patrick Vieira’s arrival as manager in the summer also played a part in Balotelli’s decision, with the former Arsenal midfielder replacing now-Borussia Dortmund boss Lucien Favre.

“That changed like 80 per cent of my decision,” Balotelli said of Vieira’s arrival.

“I spoke with the president and Patrick. The way they spoke to me and the proposition they made, it was good. I spoke with my agent and told him let’s do one more here.

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‘We want to give Balotelli a leadership role’ – Nice president backs Italy ace

Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere refuted the suggestion that Mario Balotelli only stayed at the club because he failed to secure a move to Marseille and has said he will be given a more pre-eminent role in the team.

Balotelli was expected to leave Nice following the club’s failure to qualify for European football last season, which Rivere explained prompted a reduction in the Italy striker’s salary.

Rivere revealed that the 28-year-old received a “very, very large financial offer” from a club in the Chinese Super League and entered discussions with a number of French clubs, including Marseille, but opted to remain at Allianz Riviera for a third season.

The Nice chief insisted claims that Balotelli remained at the club by default are “totally wrong”, telling their official website: “He made this choice despite the absence of Europe and in less advantageous salary conditions than elsewhere.

“He has shown us his desire to stay and his dedication to the club. From now on it is registered, contractualised. We want to give him a leadership role. The coach will have him with him and make every effort to make the best season possible.

“We are very happy with this situation, we have a player totally invested in our project.”

Rivere also moved to quell speculation that Balotelli, who has served two games of a three-match suspension so far this season, disrespected the club by failing to report for training.

“It bothers me a lot that one might think that Mario did something wrong, because it’s not true,” he added.

Mario Balotelli GFX

“It was not a gesture of disrespect on his part towards the club, coach, or supporters. It was not a showdown, either.

“In his mind, he was no longer in Nice. He was going to leave us, he was suspended the first three games – it was clear for him.”

Balotelli, who joined Nice on a free transfer from Liverpool in August 2016, signed a two-year contract at the end of his first season at the club to keep him there until June 2019.

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Rivere emphasised the club’s achievement in retaining one of European football’s top strikers, saying: “People may not realise it, but having Mario Balotelli in Nice for three seasons, without having invested a transfer fee, it’s an unbelievable opportunity.

“This year, the club has the 10th largest budget [in Ligue 1]. It’s very difficult for us to do that kind of thing, but as soon as there is an ounce of hope, we get on it.

“We showed a lot of patience to seize our chance.”

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Marseille have ‘moved on’ from Balotelli deal

Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud does not expect a deal to sign Mario Balotelli from Nice to be revived and would not confirm if the demands of agent Mino Raiola had scuppered the deal.

The two Ligue 1 clubs had been in negotiations over a transfer for the Italy international striker, only for Nice to announce this week the 28-year-old will be staying at Allianz Riviera in 2018-19.

And OM chief Eyraud acknowledged in an interview with L’Equipe there is now little prospect of the striker moving to Stade Velodrome. 

“I have the feeling, following Nice’s announcement, that I can conclude Mario Balotelli will be in Nice next season,” he said.

When it was put to Eyraud that some collapsed transfers can be unexpectedly revived, he replied: “Oh? No, we have moved on.

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“In a deal like this one, every party around the table must make sacrifices. Achieving a balanced deal is the most important thing in business. The interests of all were not fully aligned. 

“As talented as the player is, it is an opportunity that does not deserve to call into question the economic fundamentals of our project and our ethical line of conduct in business.”

Asked if Raiola’s fee had proved an insurmountable obstacle, Eyraud said: “I will not speak on it.”

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