Why Messi deserves time off; Pulisic, Weah among USMNT stars to watch in Milan vs. Juventus clash

Welcome to Onside/Offside! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed and what to keep an eye on in the coming days.

This week, LME discusses Lionel Messi’s plans for the rest of the year and why the footballing world should take note, Wayne Rooney’s debut as Birmingham City manager, and the American flavor that will take place when AC Milan face Juventus this Sunday in Serie A.

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After shining once again with the Argentinian national team in World Cup qualifiers, Messi is back in the U.S., ready to wrap up his first season with Inter Miami. They didn’t make the playoffs, but in a short span of time he already gave this young club — and MLS — something to celebrate after winning the Leagues Cup, Inter Miami’s first ever trophy.

So what’s next for Messi seeing as there is no postseason for him?

Well, as we told you here on ESPN from the very beginning — and as Messi himself confirmed — there was never going to be a loan deal to Europe or Barcelona. He will continue to train with Inter Miami and prepare for CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers in November and then take a well-deserved break in December when he will head to Argentina before returning to work again in January. It will be the longest break this 36-year-old star has ever had in his career.

This is something to celebrate and, whether he meant it or not, it’s a great message for the rest of the footballing world. Players need more time off as the schedule — including league action, international tournaments, qualifiers and friendlies, other domestic competitions, plus the summer calendar — is too much. Look at the Premier League right now. Per premierinjuries.com, there are 131 total injuries from the 20 teams in the top flight. Neymar Jr. just suffered another serious one against Uruguay this week, an ACL tear and meniscus issue that will keep him out for at least eight months.

Messi’s long break sets an example and choosing not to go on loan is a great message. Less is more.

Through the years, AC Milan and Juventus have given us some of the most memorable games in Italian football. Indeed, not all of them were goal-fests — the 2002-03 Champions League final comes to mind — but overall, thanks to these two teams, we have witnessed some historic matches.

There was the 1996-97 game where Marcelo Lippi’s Vecchia Signora destroyed Milan 6-1 thanks to goals from Zinedine Zidane, Vladimir Jugovic, Nico Amoruso, Marco Simone and a brace from Christian Vieri. How about 2010 when Ronaldinho scored a brace and helped the Rossoneri earn a 3-0 victory? There are simply too many memories to remember.

However, in the last few years the rivalry has lost its poetic gravitas but as we look ahead to Sunday, we could be in store for a fantastic encounter reminiscent of past battles. Milan currently lead the table on 21 points with Juventus trailing by four in third place so there’s a lot at stake, even this early in the season.

What’s even more interesting is that we now have a distinctive American flavor to the game. With four goals and an assist in eight matches, Christian Pulisic has finally found his home in Milan. He carried this confidence over the international break with a magnificent goal against Germany and another one against Ghana in a 4-0 rout. Yunus Musah is also at Milan and has mentioned how this move has helped him grow as a player.

Meanwhile, on the other side, Tim Weah will see this game with a nostalgic eye due to the legacy of his father George Weah, who was one of the greatest African players in the history of the game and a legend with AC Milan between 1995-2000. He also happens to be a personal hero of mine.

“It will be a very special match, I can’t wait,” Weah told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Obviously my father has an important past in the Rossoneri, so this match has a special meaning for my family.”

And let’s not forget Weston McKennie, who has gone from being an outcast at Juve to an important part of Max Allegri’s team. Much of that has to do with Paul Pogba’s failed doping test and Nico Fagioli’s seven-month suspension due to illegal betting. McKennie can now play a central role and reports suggest he might even get a new contract.

There are key absences for Juve including Federico Chiesa and Danilo, and we’ll have to see if Dusan Vlahovic starts after returning to training from a back injury. So, Milan at home are perhaps the favorites, but one thing is for sure: this historically impressive match-up seems to be back.

The recent news from Italy regarding the betting investigation into Italian players has caused many headlines, specifically focusing on Sandro Tonali as it was confirmed on Tuesday that the Newcastle United midfielder is battling gambling addiction.

“Sandro Tonali is playing the most important match at the moment, the one against gambling addiction, and he will win this one too,” said Giuseppe Riso, Tonali’s agent, on Tuesday.

Merson, a former professional player, has never shied away from telling the story of his own gambling addiction as well as helping others, and took time to post some words of support for Tonali.

“Just want to wish Sandro Tonali all the best from this horrible addiction,” Merson wrote on social media. “And hope FIFA and everyone else goes easy and to understand this is an illness and to stop throwing out big bans and to help people get help.

“I understand if someone is playing in a game and is betting on the other team, then a ban should (be) imposed. But people need HELP.”

More often than not, the headlines are always focused on the person in question as opposed to the actual issue, and like Merson said, it’s important to find a way to help them. I have already talked in the past about the murky, contradictory relationship between betting and the Premier League, so this is really about the need for empathy and understanding that gambling addiction is a catastrophic problem for many people that doesn’t only cause financial issues but also endangers mental health.

Just like Merson once said, “Addiction is a baffling, cunning, hideous disease that gets hold of you. Gambling addicts think they are bad people, but they’re not, they’re ill people who need to get well. That’s the message I want to get across…hate the addiction, not the person.”

Wayne Rooney is ready for his managerial debut with Tom Brady’s Birmingham City (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write) and he’ll return to coaching in the Championship when they travel to the Riverside for a game against Middlesbrough this Saturday. It will also be a reunion with his former Manchester United teammate and close friend Michael Carrick, Boro’s manager.

This is less about the game and more about this perplexing decision to hire Rooney, which in my opinion, was more about status as opposed to merit, especially in a situation where he replaced John Eustace, who has taken the club to a playoff spot in the table until he was let go to make way for the former England star.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Wayne Rooney deserves nothing but respect for what he has given to the game. He is one of the greatest players England has ever produced — but as a manager, there is still a long way to go. He valiantly coached a financially-ridden Derby County but in the end, failed to save them from relegation and just recently, in a league where more than half the teams in each conference make the playoffs, Rooney did not deliver in his attempt to secure a postseason playoff spot with D.C. United.

There is an ongoing, institutional sentiment that former star players — those who were incredible on the pitch — are going to mirror their previous successes as a head coach, but that’s not always the case. Of course, it does happen and many former star players have become incredible managers — in fact, some of the best ever produced. Pep Guardiola, Zinedine Zidane and Johan Cruyff are just a few examples. And just like Xavi Alonso and Mikel Arteta, some of the current, best young managers were also fantastic on the pitch.

But all those names went through a careful, detailed, step-by-step process when becoming a coach. They either stayed in a club to learn from the ground up or became students under great mentors. Rooney has not really experienced this as he jumped quite quickly without being an assistant or learning the ropes from deep within — a contrast to Carrick who joined Jose Mourinho’s coaching staff at Man United almost immediately after retirement.

In the hiring of Rooney, I think City’s new American ownership opted for optics and status as opposed to tactical substance. I might eat my words in the months to come and Rooney could indeed prove us all wrong but for now, I stand firm. Hiring Rooney is a big gamble for Birmingham City.

Neymar’s ACL and meniscus injury is horrible news for the Brazilian and I’m sure all of us wish him a fast recovery. No one wants to see a player go through this.

But can we talk about this social graphic from Neymar’s club Al Hilal for a moment?

I am sure the club’s social media team did not mean ill intent, but in an attempt to promote a post supporting your star player and his hopes to rehabilitate, it does seem a bit strange to specifically choose the one photograph where Neymar is at his most vulnerable, literally in agonizing pain. It’s the one image he wants to completely forget.

Maybe next time, be smarter in your photo selection, Al Hilal.

If you follow me on social media and know my work, it’s no secret to you that I am a massive Bad Bunny fan. His new album is out and I thought I’d take this moment to salute its release as he mentions Messi many times! However, trust me, fam: it sounds better in Spanish!

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