Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring their third goal against Paraguay in a 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Cordoba

Lionel Messi plans return from injury in January, could this layoff aid Argentina?

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As he picked up his Golden Boot award for scoring the highest number of goals, for the third time in the last four years, in European club soccer on Tuesday, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi gave some indication as to how his thigh injury is healing.

The Argentinian ace expects to return in January.

Persistent thigh and hamstring injuries have plagued the 26-year-old over the last six months and this lengthy lay off may be exactly what he needs to finally eradicate the long-term issues.

Saying that, Messi is etching to make his return. Will it be on January 5 when Barca play Elche after the winter break in Spain’s La Liga?

“I hope so,” Messi said. “The truth is I have not put a date on the return. If all goes well it will be that date, but we will see what happens. I will be back when it is supposed to happen.”

Throughout his recovery, all eyes will be on Barcelona to see how they cope without their talisman. They’ll probably continue to win with ease in Europe and in the league as Messi returns home to his native land of Argentina to fully rest and recuperate.

“My objective is to return in good shape, to strengthen the body so that, God willing, I can play without injuries,” Messi said. “I am improving bit by bit — it does not hurt any more. I am starting to do things.”

And we all know that when he is fully fit, nobody can get near the pint-sized genius.

(MORE: 31 down; one to go – Updated list of countries qualified for FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil)

Something struck me about this lengthy lay-off, Messi has never really had this much time off in his eight-year career so far. It’s a blessing in disguise… for Argentina at least.

source: Getty Images
Messi has scored 37 goals in 83 games for Argentina. Although that’s impressive, it’s nowhere near his sensational form for Barcelona.

Heading into World Cup 2014 in Brazil, La Albiceleste are aiming for a vast improvement on recent World Cup performances. Since 1990, over 23 years ago, they haven’t made it past the quarter final stage. For a side that has won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, Argentina have underachieved massively in recent years.

Messi’s performances in the famous blue and white stripes haven’t been anywhere near the regular masterclasses he churns out for Barcelona. A rest and some much needed down time will recharge his batteries and let him regain his form and fitness to reach his peak just before the World Cup rolls around. That’s ominous for the rest of the teams at the tournament as Brazil’s fiercest rivals completely dominated South American qualifying for the 2104 tournament, finishing top of CONMEBOL with ease.

A resurgent, fresh and hungry Messi captaining Argentina can only be a good thing. One other thing, every time a World Cup has taken place in South America or Mexico, a side from South America has won the tournament.

Uruguay lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1930 when it was hold in their homeland and they won it again in 1950 when it was held in Brazil. In 1962 Brazil won the famous trophy when Chile hosted the showpiece event and they won it again in 1970 when Mexico was the host. The Argentina won the trophy in 1978 in Argentina and again in Mexico in 1986.

All signs point towards a South American side winning the World Cup this summer. Messi’s rest over the winter means he will recharged and ready to lead Argentina’s charge for their third World Cup trophy.

Video: Schmeichel opens up about Ranieri sacking, state of Leicester

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Leicester’s downward spiral this season has certainly been one of the most intriguing storylines in the Premier League, and that story came to a head when manager Claudio Ranieri was sacked by the club.

[ MORE: Chelsea, Everton extend unbeaten runs in Saturday’s PL action ]

After leading his side to an improbable PL title during the 2015/16 season, the Foxes are now in the midst of a difficult relegation battle as the season hits its most crucial juncture.

[ MORE: Brighton extends lead in Championship, Newcastle held by Bristol ]

Still, the Foxes must turn their attention towards survival despite losing a manager that was amongst the most well liked in England and really all throughout European football.

“Claudio [Ranieri] leaving is obviously very, very sad. We achieved the impossible together and I have nothing but the upmost respect for him for everything that he achieved at this club,” said Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

“Everybody knows he’s a classy guy. He came in and said his piece to the players, thanked us for our efforts and for last season and said goodbye. It’s a shame it has come to this.”

Schmeichel reiterated that he didn’t believe Ranieri was the issue and that the players are at fault for not taking care of the results on the pitch.

“You can look at our performances on the pitch,” Schmeichel said. “We haven’t been quite good enough this season. It’s quite clear. The league doesn’t lie. We’re in the position we are in because we haven’t been good enough.”

The keeper stated that he especially is taking Ranieri’s sacking to heart and that he wishes the club could have strung together some better performances in order to save his former manager’s job.

“I don’t think anyone has had more sleepless nights over our form than I have,” Schmeichel said. “Our form affects me deeply. Every person can clearly see that we haven’t performed on the pitch and we deserve the criticism that we get and that we are getting because of our performances. But anything above that is out of our hands. On the pitch, we definitely deserve the criticism that we are getting.”

In the interim, Craig Shakespeare will be tasked with replacing Ranieri and hoping to keep his club afloat next season in the PL.

While Shakespeare does have caretaker experience back in 2006 with West Bromwich Albion, the 53-year-old is in a much more difficult position this time around given the magnitude of Leicester’s fall from grace.

“Craig is someone I’ve known for a very long time,” Schmeichel said. “He’s a very bright character. he’s a very serious football man, what you’d call a real football man. he’s very enthusiastic about training. I have absolutely no doubt that he’s capable of becoming a manager whether it’s now or at some point. I think that he does have ambitions of that but he’s been a magnificent manager in his time here.”

La Liga & Serie A: Sevilla moves second, Caldara guides Atalanta

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 29:  Stevan Jovetic (L) of Sevilla FC celebrates with his team mates after scoring his team's first goal during the La Liga match between RCD Espanyol and Sevilla FC at Cornella-El Prat stadium on January 29, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Betis 1-2 Sevilla

Sevilla has moved into second in La Liga thanks to a pair of second half goals on Saturday. Riza Durmisi gave the hosts the advantage heading into the halftime break but Sevilla fought back in the second stanza with finishes from Gabriel Mercado and Vicente Iborra to pull into a tie on points with league leaders Real Madrid.

Leganes 4-0 Deportivo La Coruna

Raúl Albentosa’s red card was the least of Deportivo’s worries on the day as the 17th place side took a hammering from Leganes. The victory for the hosts moves Leganes two points clear of Deportivo in the table and five points above the drop zone. Alexander Szymanowski and Martín Mantovani helped Leganes jump out to a 2-0 lead inside of the opening half hour before late finishes from Unai Lopez and Alberto Bueno put the finishing touches on the encounter.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Alaves 2-1 Valencia
Eibar 3-0 Malaga

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Espanyol vs. Osasuna (6 a.m. ET)
Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona (10:15 a.m. ET)
Athletic Bilbao vs. Granada (12:30 p.m. ET)
Sporting Gijon vs. Celta Vigo (12:30 p.m. ET)
Villareal vs. Real Madrid (2:45 p.m. ET)


Napoli 0-2 Atalanta

Mattia Caldara netted a brace on Saturday and helped guide his Atalanta side to within three points of Napoli in the Serie A table. Atalanta currently sits fourth in Italy’s top flight, but the race for the second place is heating up as Roma, Napoli and Atalanta all sit within five points of one another. Meanwhile, Inter Milan will have a chance to draw level on points with Atalanta on Sunday when they take on Roma.

Juventus 2-0 Empoli

It took a bit for the league leaders to get going but Juventus remains in firm control of Serie A after another victory. An own goal from Lukasz Skorupski gave the hosts the lead after the halftime break before Alex Sandro doubled the advantage 12 minutes later after finishing off a Dani Alves cross. The Bianconeri now hold a 10-point advantage over second place Roma.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Palermo vs. Sampdoria (6:30 a.m. ET)
Chievo vs. Pescara (9 a.m. ET)
Crotone vs. Cagliari (9 a.m. ET)
Genoa vs. Bologna (9 a.m. ET)
Lazio vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. AC Milan (9 a.m. ET)
Inter Milan vs. Roma (2:45 p.m. ET)

Championship Focus: Brighton continues to roll, Newcastle tripped up

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18:  Sam Baldlock (R) of Brighton & Hove Albion celebrates scoring with teamates during the Sky Bet Championship match between Barnsley and Brighton & Hove Albion at Oakwell Stadium on February 18, 2017 in Barnsley, England.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
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With most clubs having just 10 matches remaining before the promotion playoffs, both ends of the Championship table boast plenty of storylines.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

Brighton & Hove Albion 3-0 Reading

Brighton is on a warpath towards promotion and it looks like the club won’t be stopped in its attempts to reach the Premier League next season. With just four blemishes on its record this season, the Championship leaders picked up another convincing win on Saturday against fifth place Reading. Sam Baldock continued his brilliant scoring streak this season in the first half, before Jamie Murphy and Anthony Knockaert each found the back of the net on the other side of the break.

Newcastle 2-2 Bristol City

Bristol won’t be winning a title this season but the club did manage a vital point against one of the Championship’s top sides on Saturday to keep its hopes of avoiding relegation alive. The visitors got off to a stunning start against the Magpies with a pair of first-half finishes giving Bristol a halftime lead of 2-0. Then, Newcastle picked up their pressure and pulled one back after a Korey Smith own goal before Ciaran Clark leveled the match with under 10 minutes to play for the second-place team.

Leeds United 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday

Chris Wood helped move his side up to fourth in England’s second flight, however, Leeds still remains nine points out of second position. Meanwhile, keeper Robert Green was forced into a brilliant save from the penalty spot to deny Wednesday a share of the points. Wednesday are currently sixth in the table and hold the final promotion playoff position.

Elsewhere in the Championship

Aston Villa 1-0 Derby County
Barnsley 1-1 Huddersfield
Brentford 4-2 Rotherham
Cardiff 2-2 Fulham
Preston North End 2-1 QPR
Wigan 0-0 Nottingham Forest

Bundesliga wrap: Top three win as Lewandowski bags trio

Munich's Robert Lewandowski, right, celebrates with Douglas Costa after scoring during the German first division Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and Hamburger SV in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (Andreas Gebert/dpa via AP)
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The top teams keep winning as the Bundesliga closes in on its final third of the season, as the top three sides all scooped up multi-goal wins on Saturday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Bayern Munich 8-0 Hamburg

One to forget for USMNT man Bobby Wood, as Bayern again spun the collective heads of Hamburg. Robert Lewandowski scored a hat trick and Kingsley Coman added a brace as the leaders battered 16th place Hamburg.

Lewandowski’s 19 goals are good for a tie atop the leaderboard, as he joins Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (More on him after this wild Tweet).

Freiburg 0-3 Borussia Dortmund

Aubameyang struck twice stay atop the Bundesliga leaderboard with 19 goals, and Sokratis Papastathopoulos also scored for third-place BVB. USMNT winger Christian Pulisic made an 8-minute cameo when he came on for Marco Reus late in the match.

RB Leipzig 3-1 Koln

Emil Forsberg scored in the first five minutes and an own goal gave the new boys a 2-0 halftime lead. Timo Werner than restored the two-goal cushion after Yuya Osako had scored Koln’s only goal.

Elsewhere

Wolfsburg 1-2 Werder Bremen — RECAP
Bayer Leverkusen 0-2 Mainz
Darmstadt 1-2 Augsburg
Hertha Berlin 2-0 Eintracht Frankfurt
Ingolstadt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach — 9:30 a.m. EDT Sunday
Schalke vs. Hoffenheim — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 22 16 5 1 54 13 41 8-3-0 8-2-1 53
 RB Leipzig 22 15 3 4 41 22 19 9-1-1 6-2-3 48
 Borussia Dortmund 22 11 7 4 46 23 23 7-3-0 4-4-4 40
 1899 Hoffenheim 21 9 10 2 38 21 17 6-5-0 3-5-2 37
 Hertha BSC Berlin 22 11 4 7 30 24 6 9-1-1 2-3-6 37
 Eintracht Frankfurt 22 10 5 7 25 22 3 6-3-1 4-2-6 35
 1. FC Köln 22 8 9 5 31 22 9 5-5-0 3-4-5 33
 Bayer Leverkusen 22 9 3 10 34 32 2 5-2-5 4-1-5 30
 SC Freiburg 22 9 3 10 28 39 -11 7-0-4 2-3-6 30
 FSV Mainz 05 22 8 4 10 31 37 -6 5-3-3 3-1-7 28
 FC Augsburg 22 7 6 9 21 28 -7 3-3-5 4-3-4 27
 FC Schalke 04 21 7 5 9 25 22 3 6-1-4 1-4-5 26
 Mönchengladbach 21 7 5 9 23 29 -6 5-3-3 2-2-6 26
 VfL Wolfsburg 22 6 4 12 20 33 -13 3-2-7 3-2-5 22
 Werder Bremen 22 6 4 12 28 43 -15 3-1-7 3-3-5 22
 Hamburger SV 22 5 5 12 21 45 -24 3-3-4 2-2-8 20
 FC Ingolstadt 04 21 5 3 13 19 32 -13 2-2-6 3-1-7 18
 Darmstadt 22 3 3 16 15 43 -28 3-3-6 0-0-10 12