Messi tipped for Ballon d’Or again

BARCELONA defender Gerard Pique has hailed team-mate Lionel Messi as the finest player in the world as the Argentinian waits to discover if he has won the FIFA Ballon d’Or award for 2011 today.

Messi, who won the Ballon d’Or in 2010 and was the FIFA World Player of the Year for 2009 as well, is on a three-man shortlist which also includes Barca team-mate Xavi and Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo.

He enjoyed a stellar 2011, helping Barcelona to Champions League and Primera Division glory, scoring 31 goals in La Liga alone. In the 2011-12 campaign he has already scored a further 17 league goals, an incredible statistic for a player who is not an out-and-out striker, and Pique believes the 24-year-old is without equal on the planet.

He said: “(Messi) is leading the team to be one of the best ever — it is thanks to him that we have won so many titles.

“It takes many years to get to the top level, and Leo is the best in the world.”

Messi may have brought Barca to the top of the world but his side were held 1-1 in last night’s derby clash at Espanyol.

Cesc Fabregas had given Barca a 16th minute lead but Alvaro Vazquez equalised in the 86th minute for their cross-town rivals at the Cornella-El Prat stadium.

Real Madrid lead La Liga by five points after their comfortable 5-1 weekend win over Granada.

Madrid looked in for a testing evening when Mikel Rico (22) cancelled out Karim Benzema’s 19th-minute opener. But Sergio Ramos headed Jose Mourinho’s side back in front on 34 minutes and the game was over as a contest when Gonzalo Higuain and Benzema scored within five minutes of the start of the second period.

Cristiano Ronaldo then added further gloss to the scoreline with the fifth two minutes from time.

Aritz Aduriz scored three minutes from time as Valencia recovered from two goals down to draw 2-2 against Villarreal at El Madrigal last night. Jose Molina was taking charge of Villarreal for the first time and his side made an ideal start as Marco Ruben and Gonzalo had them 2-0 up inside 18 minutes.

But Sofiane Feghouli finished well at the end of an excellent team move to get one back before half-time and Villarreal were made to pay for passing up chances to kill the game off in the second half as Aduriz calmly curled the ball home from 18 yards.

Jose Antonio Reyes failed to inspire Sevilla to victory on his return to the club as Rayo Vallecano picked up three valuable points on their return to La Lia action after the winter break with a 2-1 win.

Miguel Michu opened the scoring for the hosts before Raul Tamudo made it two six minutes into the second period, and although Julien Escude pulled one back for the visitors just after the hour, Rayo held on for their first win in five in La Liga.

Goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kevin-Prince Boateng kept AC Milan at the Serie A summit with victory at Atalanta.

The Swede scored a first-half penalty, after Alexandre Pato was fouled, and then set up Boateng’s clincher in the closing stages.

With Juventus, level on points with Milan, winning at Lecce, and Udinese having done so against Cesena earlier in the day to temporarily nudge ahead, the victory was vital to keep the Rossoneri on top of the pile.

Juventus have confirmed Italy striker Fabio Quagliarella suffered a fractured cheekbone in his side’s win over Lecce yesterday.

Quagliarella was substituted in the 23rd minute of the match. Juve won 1-0 thanks to Alessandro Matri’s 27th minute goal.

Udinese put the pressure on Juventus and AC Milan at the top of Serie A with a convincing 4-1 win over struggling Cesena at the Stadio Friuli.

Stevan Jovetic bagged a brace as Fiorentina cruised to a comfortable victory at Novara while two penalties from Francisco Totti Roma beat Chievo 2-0. Napoli last night beat Palermo 3-1 with goals from Goran Pandev, Edinson Cavani and Marik Hamsik.

In France, made a winning start to his tenure as coach of big-spending PSG but failed to make a sparkling impression in a gritty 2-1 League Cup win over Saint-Colomban Locmine.

Playmaker Javier Pastore put PSG ahead in the 52nd minute before Abou Maiga levelled with a penalty. Uruguay captain Diego Lugano spared Ancelotti’s blushes to secure the win in injury time.

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