Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Franck Ribery to battle it out for Ballon d’Or

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The worst kept secret in the global game is out, now there’s just one more decision to make. It’s a big one.

On Monday FIFA released its three player shortlist for the Ballon d’Or award, which crowns the World Player of the Year.

Predictably, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Franck Ribery are the three finalists for the prestigious award that will be handed out in Zurich on January 13, 2014 to honor the best player in the last year.

Messi has won the Ballon d’Or award the last two years after it was re-branded and also has four consecutive World Player of the Year awards overall. But this season with his lengthy spells out through injury and Ronaldo’s sublime campaign it is the Portuguese attacker who many expect to claim the top individual honor in the game.

For Real Madrid and Portugal this season Ronaldo has already bagged 32 goals in just 22 games and is at the peak of his power. Messi has still scored 14 in 14 appearances but he is expected to finish a close second behind Ronaldo. And as for Ribery, the French midfielder has already come out to say he deserves to win the award but no matter how pivotal he was in Bayern Munich’s incredible campaign in 2012-13 when they won the Champions League and every domestic title in Germany, you simply can;t say he stands above Messi and Ronaldo on individual talent.

FIFA caused controversy when they reopened the ballot for this Ballon d’Or vote following Ronaldo’s sublime display in the World Cup qualifying playoffs when he scored all four of Portugal’s goals against Sweden to send them through to the World Cup. That angered many Messi fans as they duel between Real Madrid and Barcelona’s star attractions heats up on and off the field.

We’re witnessing two of world soccer’s greatest every players battle it out at the same time, that’s something we should cherish. But there can only be one winner.

Also, for fans of U.S. soccer Abby Wambach is once again nominated in the final three for the women’s award as the USWNT veteran striker continues to grow her legendary status across the world. Wambach is joined by Brazilian striker Marta and Germany’s Nadine Angerer.

FIFA’s glitzy award ceremony will take place in Zurich in January and here are the full list of nominees for each category, plus the FIFA Pro team of the year will also be announced.

Fifa Men’s Player of the Year:

Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Franck Ribery (France)

Fifa Women’s Player of the Year:

Nadine Angerer (Germany)
Marta (Brazil)
Abby Wambach (USA)

Fifa World Coach of the Year for Men’s Football:

Sir Alex Ferguson (Manchester United former coach)
Jupp Heynckes (FC Bayern Munich former coach)
Jurgen Klopp (Borussia Dortmund)

Fifa World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football:

Ralf Kellermann (VfL Wolfsburg)
Silvia Neid (German national team)
Pia Sundhage (Sweden/Swedish national team)

Ferenc Puskas Award for most beautiful goal:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden v England in November 2012)
Nemanja Matic (Benfica v Porto, Liga in January 2013)
Neymar (Brazil v Japan in June 2013)

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.