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.

MLS Cup Playoffs: D.C. United 2-4 Montreal Impact (video)

CORRECTS DATE - Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, back, celebrates his goal with Ignacio Piatti (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against D.C. United, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three moments that mattered

4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.

43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.

58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu

Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.