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Zlatan: “I don’t need the Ballon d’Or to know I’m the best”

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This will only fuel those reluctant to acknowledge what Zlatan Ibrahimovic does on the field, but after yesterday’s UEFA Champions League match, the Paris Saint-German star didn’t hold back when asked about this year’s Ballon d’Or. With Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo,and Frank Ribéry favorites for men’s soccer’s highest honor, Ibrahimovic knows he won’t win the award. But according to the Swede, his standing in the eyes of awards voters doesn’t influence how he fells about his game.

“I don’t need the Ballon d’Or to know I’m the best,” the ever-confident striker said yesterday, having scored the opening goal of his team’s 2-1 Wednesday win over visiting Olympiacos. The victory put the defending Ligue 1 champions into Champions League’s knockout round, with Ibrahimovic scoring his competition-leading eighth goal of the tournament.

Given his name’s been missing from the Ballon d’Or discussion, Ibrahimovic’s claim is unlikely to be a popular one. The general feeling is that three players are competing for this year’s award: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Franck Ribéry. If Ibrahimovic really is the world’s best, odds are some extra-competitive factors are influencing how he’s perceived.

And of course, there are. The type of brashness that “Ibra” shows leads him to be thought of as an arrogant, self-centered player. While that may very well be true, those terms are often used a prejoratives, people confounding those qualities with an unwillingness to help a team. As Ibrahimovic’s title record shows, his teams seemed to be helped by his arrogance. Over the last 11 seasons, Ibra’s clubs have won 10 titles across five different leagues, the Swede almost always serving as the focal point of his teams’ attacks.

Isn’t it possible that arrogance, confidence, or an undo level of self-believe could be a positive on a soccer field? Leading you to strive for levels others dare not achieve, like a 30-yard bicycle kick in a high-level international friendly?

And isn’t it possible that ambition is actually a good thing? That our want to see such attitudes as inherently negative obscures the possibility that, on the rare occasion that pride matches production, arrogance can help a team?

As people compared Cristiano Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic during the recent UEFA World Cup Qualifying playoffs, there seemed to finally be the willingness to look beyond Ibra’s reputation and recognize what he brings to a team. Despite years of media accounts (particularly, English media accounts) trying to tear him down, Ibrahimovic has taken his rightful place amongst the world’s best. W’ve acknowledged you can be brash off the field and great on it.

Does that mean Ibrahimovic is right when he calls himself the best in the world? No, even if his honesty is refreshing. If you were to dose Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with truth serum, you’d probably get the same answers. It’s hard to compete to be the world’s best player without that kind of attitude, even though Messi and Ronaldo have public faces which obscure their confidence. Ibrahimovic bizarrely gets punished for forgoing the facade.

But he’s no Lionel Messi. Nobody is, right now. As polished and ruthless as Ronaldo can be, not even the Real Madrid star can claim to be a healthy Messi’s equal.

Why Frank Ribéry is in theBallon d’Or discussion over Ibrahimovic, well, we touched on that earlier. Ibrahimovic can claim to be one of the world’s top three players, but sometimes, team factors can poison what’s supposed to be an individual award.

El Clasico: Ramos’ 90th minute equalizer leaves Real, Barca level (video)

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Luis Suarez (2nd L) of FC Barcelona and Sergio Ramos (L) of Real Madrid CF fight for the ball during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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Real Madrid’s six-point table lead over Barcelona remains thanks to Sergio Ramos’ heroics near both goal lines, as La Liga’s leaders came back to draw 1-1 at Camp Nou on Saturday in the first El Clasico of the season.

Luis Suarez gave Barca a second-half lead only to see Ramos claw one back and then save a goal at the death.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

It’s no surprise that Ronaldo was lively, and one of his two shots saved by Ter Stegen after a clever dribble inside the 18.

Messi had a moment, too, his free kick dipping around the wall but into the waiting arms of Keylor Navas.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

A careful Messi dribble ended with a lofted ball that Luis Suarez chose to trap rather than volley, and Real Madrid killed the chance for a corner kick.

Suarez put Barca up off Neymar’s arrow of a free kick, slightly redirecting the tight-angle shot with his head.

Neymar nearly made it 2-0 in the 68th minute, dribbling through Real’s right side before sailing a shot over Navas and the goal.

Andres Iniesta sprung Messi through in the 82nd minute, but the Argentine dragged his shot wide of goal.

The chances came late for Real, with Sergio Ramos heading a corner just over a leaping Ter Stegen… and the bar. Then Jordi Alba cleared Ronaldo’s in-tight header off the line after Marcelo’s terrific cross.

The equalizer came in the 90th minute, as Ramos rose high to head his chance off a diving Ter Stegen and into the goal. Barca answered with a chance of their own, but Ramos cleared the chance off the line.

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West Brom 3-1 Watford: Baggies ruthless against 10-man Hornets

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Jonny Evans of West Bromwich Albion heads to score the opening goal during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Watford at The Hawthorns on December 3, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
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  • Evans, Brunt, Phillips score
  • Kabasele got Hornets back in it
  • Pereyra sent off late on 
  • West Brom unbeaten in four

West Brom beat 10-man Watford 3-1 at the Hawthorns on Saturday to continue their good form as Tony Pulis‘ side push towards the top six.

The Baggies went 2-0 up in the first half through Jonny Evans‘ header and then Chris Brunt‘s low free kick found the back of the net. Watford had some hope in the second half as Christian Kabasele made it 2-1 but after Roberto Pereyra was sent off the Hornets’ chances of a comeback were all but over and Matt Phillips scored late on to seal the win.

With the victory West Brom moves on to 20 points and leapfrog Watford in the table, who stay on 18.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Baggies got off to a flying start at home as Brunt’s corner was met with a towering header by Evans at the back post to put them 1-0 up in the 16th minute.

West Brom then sat back for the rest of the first half, with Watford doing most of the pressing but coming up against a stubborn Baggies rearguard.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Then came the sucker-punch.

Brunt doubled West Brom’s lead before the break as his free kick from 25-yards out took a deflection off Juan Zuniga and hit the back of the net. 2-0 and Watford were in a hole.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Watford came out fighting in the second half with Troy Deeney meeting a cross from the right but his shot was blocked by Gareth McAuley.

Soon Watford did pull one back as Ben Forster made a great save as McAuley’s header looped towards his own goal and from the resulting corner the ball was slotted home by Kabasele. 2-1. Game on.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Watford’s quest for an equalizer was hampered late on as Pereyra was sent off for reacting to a challenge by James McClean with plenty of players from both teams getting involved.

And the game was put beyond doubt in the closing stages as Phillips cut in off the right flank and drilled a low left-footed shot home. 3-1.

Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City: Black Cats buzzing, Luck running out for Leicester

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Robert Huth (2nd L) of Leicester City shows his dejection after conceding the own goal during the Premier League match between Sunderland and Leicester City at Stadium of Light on December 3, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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  • Black Cats up to 18th
  • Own goal, Defoe the markers
  • Leicester two points clear of drop
  • Okazaki pulls one back

Sunderland looked left for dead; Now the Northeast club’s Premier League survival hopes very much alive.

The Black Cats knocked off Leicester City for a third win in four games, kicking the Foxes firmly into the relegation mix after a 2-1 match at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.

Jan Kirchhoff hit the header than turned into a Robert Huth own goal, making a much-needed return to the Sunderland side.

Demarai Gray found Shinji Okazaki to make it 2-1 with 12 minutes to play.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Victor Anichebe is a striker in form, barely missing with an early laser before seeing a sure goal deflected away from goal to set up a fifth minute corner. The hosts were humming at the Stadium of Light.

Anichebe had a shout for a penalty in the 14th minute while Wes Morgan jostled with him in the box, but his cries were unheard and the big man didn’t go down.

Scary before the break, as Marc Albrighton and with Black Cats midfielder Steven Pienaar came together in an inadvertant collission. Pienaar was left the worse for it.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Islam Slimani didn’t see a seeing-eye pass through the 18 before it struck his shin, and Sunderland dodged an early bullet.

But oh boy. Kirchhoff won a free header by beating Huth to a corner kick, and his effort hit the defender on the way into the goal.

Defoe buttressed the lead with a fine goal, and it was one Sunderland would need following Okazaki’s finish.

Young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford got the job done for the Black Cats down the stretch, and Moyes can puff out his chest for yet another week after a miserable start to the season.

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Stoke City 2-0 Burnley: Hughes’ go top half with win

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Jonathan Walters (2nd L) of Stoke City celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his team mates during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Burnley at Bet365 Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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  • Walters lashes home
  • Muniesa nabs first PL goal
  • Clarets sink 14th

Jonathan Walters and Marc Muniesa scored as Stoke City continued to make its early season woes a thing of the past in a 2-0 win over visiting Burnley on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium.

The loss leaves Burnley just three points above the drop zone, while Stoke arrives in the top half with 19 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley had the ball in the early stages, but Bruno Martins Indi provided the first bit of true danger when the Stoke back headed the ball off the woodwork.

Tom Heaton missed the game through injury, but he wouldn’t have made a difference on Walters’ opener. The Stoke man belted a Mame Biram Diouf cross behind Paul Robinson to give the Potters a 20th minute lead.

Muniesa scooped up his first PL goal before halftime when Marko Arnautovic provided good service and the ex-Barca man didn’t mess up his lines.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

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