Lionel Messi is not sure if his record will be broken after the Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina superstar won a seventh Ballon d'Or on Monday.

Messi claimed the coveted award for a record-extending seventh time during a ceremony in Paris, while Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski won the inaugural Striker of the Year award and finished second in the Ballon d'Or voting.

Many had backed Lewandowski to take home the prized individual honour, after France Football's 2020 Ballon d'Or was scrapped due to COVID-19 – the Bayern forward has scored 53 goals in 42 appearances in 2021, the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions.

But Messi added to his incredible haul after guiding Argentina to a drought-ending triumph at the Copa America – the country's first piece of silverware in 28 years, while he has netted 32 goals and supplied 12 assists across 40 club appearances for Barcelona and PSG this year.

"I don't know if the record is beatable, I just have to accept it," the 34-year-old Messi told reporters, with Cristiano Ronaldo next on the list after winning the award five times.

"But honestly, I don't know if this record seven Ballon d'Or's can be beaten. But seven anyhow is really impressive and I'm very happy to win it here in Paris.

"Concerning [Liverpool star] Mohamed Salah, like [Robert] Lewandowski he will have other opportunities in the years to come. Both players are really at the best at what they've managed so far. They will have other opportunities to win the trophy."

 

Messi scored four goals and provided five assists as he led the Albiceleste to their first Copa America title since 1993, involved in nine of the 12 goals scored by Argentina at the showpiece South American tournament.

"I had a pretty good year with Barcelona without titles, however I did win the Copa del Rey," Argentina's captain and all-time leading scorer Messi added.

"The Copa America was very important to help me win this Ballon d'Or. And yes, I am very proud to be the first PSG to conquer this Ballon d'Or. It's special to do so with another jersey and it makes me very proud.

"This trophy really is special. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment with the Argentine national team. It was indeed a special year for me and of course it helped me in this new stage in my life, this move to PSG and my family and kids.

"I know they enjoy the moment and I enjoy seeing them happy. Seeing my parents, cousins and brothers happy, too."

Ballon d'Or 2021 winner Lionel Messi has said that runner-up Robert Lewandowski deserved a Ballon d'Or of his own for his exploits last year.

Messi claimed the coveted award for a record-extending seventh time on Monday, while Bayern Munich forward Lewandowski won the inaugural Striker of the Year award and finished second in the Ballon d'Or voting.

The Paris Saint-Germain superstar has enjoyed a superb but bittersweet calendar year, highlighted by finally leading Argentina to success on the international stage with a Copa America victory in which he was both the tournament's top scorer and top assister.

He then returned to Barcelona expecting to sign a new deal, but the club's financial situation made it impossible.

In 40 club appearances this year between both Barca and PSG, Messi has managed an impressive 32 goals and 12 assists and was handed the gong by former team-mate Luis Suarez.

Lewandowski, meanwhile, continued the magnificent form he had displayed across 2020, when he led Bayern to a treble only for last year's edition of the award to be cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 33-year-old scored 41 Bundesliga goals to break Gerd Muller's 49-year-old record while, so far in 2021, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 42 appearances, the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions. 

Erling Haaland, his nearest challenger, is 15 back on 38. Lewandowski has averaged a goal every 67 minutes. Among those with 10 goals or more, club-mate Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting is the next most regular scorer, netting every 84 minutes.

"[Lewandowski], you deserve your Ballon d'Or," Messi said upon receiving the award. "Last year, everyone was in agreement to say that you were the big winner.

"Hopefully [France Football] give you the Ballon d’Or 2020."

Lewandowski sent his congratulations to the Ballon d'Or winners and nominees on social media, while thanking his teammates and fans for their support in helping him claim the Striker of the Year award.

"Congratulations Leo Messi and [Women's Ballon d'Or winner] Alexia Putellas, winners of the Ballon d'Or 2021, congratulations also to all nominated players," Lewandowski wrote on social media.

"I won [the] Striker of the Year Award and no player can win an individual award without [the] strongest team and loyal fans behind him. Thank you for your support."

Messi indicated in his acceptance speech a desire to keep playing, with retirement not on the 34-year-old's agenda in the near future.

"I don't know how many years I have left, but I hope there will still be many because I am having enormous fun," Messi added.

Lionel Messi has won a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or after beating Robert Lewandowski to the most sought-after individual prize in football.

The Paris Saint-Germain star may have endured a somewhat slow start to life in France this season, but before that he was electric for Barcelona and Argentina.

It was surely his long-awaited first trophy success with La Albiceleste that gave Messi the edge over Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski. 

Messi captained Argentina to Copa America success in July, ending their 28-year drought in major international competitions.

 

At the Maracana – the scene of Argentina's 2014 World Cup final defeat to Germany – Messi helped Lionel Scaloni's men to a 1-0 win over bitter rivals and Copa hosts Brazil.

He had previously lost Copa finals in 2007, 2015 and 2016, briefly retiring after missing his penalty in the shootout that saw the trophy slip from their grasp in the latter.

Messi may not have had the decisive impact in this year's final, but over the course of the tournament he was deemed to have been the best player, scoring four goals and setting up another five – no one bettered him in either metric.

 

Lewandowski had been considered the favourite before then, partly due to breaking Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season.

The Poland striker looked likely to have won the award in 2020 before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Messi's success in Brazil seemed to tip the scales in his favour, with the 34-year-old increasing his lead over Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d'Or stakes, the Manchester United forward now two back on five after finishing sixth in the voting this time around.

Lewandowski did, however, win the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Lionel Messi has won a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or after beating Robert Lewandowski to the most sought-after individual prize in football.

The Paris Saint-Germain star may have endured a somewhat slow start to life in France this season, but before that he was electric for Barcelona and Argentina.

It was surely his long-awaited first trophy success with La Albiceleste that gave Messi the edge over Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski. 

Messi captained Argentina to Copa America success in July, ending their 28-year drought in major international competitions.

 

At the Maracana – the scene of Argentina's 2014 World Cup final defeat to Germany – Messi helped Lionel Scaloni's men to a 1-0 win over bitter rivals and Copa hosts Brazil.

He had previously lost Copa finals in 2007, 2015 and 2016, briefly retiring after missing his penalty in the shootout that saw the trophy slip from their grasp in the latter.

Messi may not have had the decisive impact in this year's final, but over the course of the tournament he was deemed to have been the best player, scoring four goals and setting up another five – no one bettered him in either metric.

 

Lewandowski had been considered the favourite before then, partly due to breaking Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season.

The Poland striker looked likely to have won the award in 2020 before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Messi's success in Brazil seemed to tip the scales in his favour, with the 34-year-old increasing his lead over Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon d'Or stakes, the Manchester United forward now two back on five after finishing sixth in the voting this time around.

Lewandowski did, however, win the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Robert Lewandowski can consider himself hard done by. The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, world football's most prestigious individual accolade is back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony set to take place on Monday.

Lewandowski, who scooped The Best FIFA Men's Player award for 2020 and has had another sensational year for Bayern, is among the favourites on a 30-man shortlist.

Will it finally be his time, or will old voting habits die hard to put Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in pole position? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses the credentials of the Ballon d'Or favourites.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)

Has anybody outperformed Bayern star Lewandowski in 2021?  While there was no repeat of the treble-winning heroics of the 2019-20 campaign, he has been in astounding form and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 as Die Roten were crowned champions for a ninth straight campaign.

With 25 to his name already across all competitions this term, Lewandowski leads the way for goals from players in Europe's top five leagues, nine clear of anyone else. When taking the whole year so far into account, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 41 games, putting him 16 clear of nearest challengers Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Unsurprisingly, his scoring rate – a goal every 65 minutes – is comfortably the best of any player to net 10 or more in 2021.

 

Lionel Messi (PSG, Argentina)

It has been a momentous year for Messi. He finally achieved success on the international stage, leading Argentina to a Copa America triumph. Following that, he was expected to sign a fresh deal at Barcelona, but we all know how that turned out. Now at Paris Saint-Germain, the 34-year-old marked his final season in Spain with one last trophy, the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. 

Across 39 appearances in 2021 for Barca and PSG combined, Messi has 32 goals, nine assists and 81   chances created. But it is Messi's triumph with Argentina that really puts him in the running for a seventh Ballon d'Or.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, Portugal)

Like Messi, Ronaldo – a five-time Ballon d'Or winner – made a big move of his own in 2021, returning to Manchester United after three seasons at Juventus. The 36-year-old has already scored 10 goals in his second spell at Old Trafford. While the team's struggles are well known – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job after last week's dismal defeat at Watford – Ronaldo's strike against Villarreal on Tuesday took him to 799 career goals for club and country, a remarkable feat.

While it has not been the finest year at club level for Ronaldo, with Juve missing out on the Serie A title, albeit winning the Coppa Italia, he did become the record goalscorer in men's international football, scoring his 110th and 111th goals in a double against the Republic of Ireland in September to overtake Ali Daei (109); the forward now has 115. His agent, Jorge Mendes, told France Football: "All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time."

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)

Since Ronaldo departed Real Madrid in 2018, Benzema has stepped up to become Los Blancos' talisman. Although a LaLiga title evaded Madrid last season, it has been another fantastic year for Benzema. He earned a recall to the France squad for Euro 2020 and, despite the team's disappointing campaign, his stellar performances caught the eye, before he excelled again in World Cup qualifying and the Nations League Finals.

Indeed, Benzema's goal against Finland last week made him the first France player to score in four successive matches since he did so himself in five games between November 2013 and June 2014. There is no doubting he is a serious contender for this year's award.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)

Liverpool star Salah cannot be ignored. Jurgen Klopp has labelled the Egypt forward as the world's best player and, based on the season so far, it would be hard to argue too much with that suggestion, with Lewandowski the only player across Europe's top five leagues to be directly involved in more goals (27) than Salah (24) to this point.

Only four players have topped Salah's goals tally of 32   in 2021, although Liverpool's failure to retain their Premier League crown last season probably counts against the 29-year-old when it comes to this prize.

 

Kylian Mbappe (PSG, France)

While players in their thirties dominate the bookmakers' list of favourites, could this be the year that Mbappe steals the crown? The 22-year-old could well have left PSG in August, but the Ligue 1 giants held firm despite three bids from Madrid, who seem likely to get their man on a free transfer at the end of the campaign.

In the meantime, Mbappe is forming a formidable front three with Messi and Neymar, whose own Ballon d'Or hopes seem extremely slim. Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France slipped out of Euro 2020, but his 37 goals from 47 appearances for PSG across all competitions in 2021 tell their own story, while his shot conversion rate of 24.3 per cent betters that of Salah, Benzema, Messi and Ronaldo.

Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)

An outsider for the award, perhaps, but nevertheless a player who has been widely tipped, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho played a pivotal role the Blues' Champions League triumph and then Italy's Euro 2020 success, although he did miss a penalty in the final shoot-out against England. In fact, he has now missed his past three spot-kicks for Italy, after having scored each of his first six taken for the Azzurri.

Jorginho has already scooped the UEFA Men's Player of the Year award, and it is not too long ago that another deep-lying playmaker in Luka Modric won the Ballon d'Or, even if the competition this time around seems a little too stacked.

 

N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Might Jorginho's Chelsea midfield partner have a shout? Kante is still dominating midfields with his boundless energy five years on from his title triumph with Leicester City. He was already an elite performer before Thomas Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge, but he seems to have gone up another level since the German coach came in.

Across all competitions in 2021, Kante boasts a tackle success rate of 63.2 per cent and has made 193 recoveries. Freed by a box-to-box role in Tuchel's system, Kante has won 151 of 277 duels and registered an impressive 42 interceptions.

Wherever you stand on football's GOAT debate, you can't deny the legacy of Diego Maradona.

Some would place him behind Lionel Messi as Argentina's greatest ever footballer, and short of Pele in the sport's pantheon of the mighty; others would say Maradona eclipses them all. It's a debate that has raged for decades, and one that is not likely to be settled for some time.

But nobody can argue that Maradona – who died a year ago to the day at the age of 60 – produced a string of performances to rival anything the World Cup has ever witnessed in Mexico in 1986.

From the group stage to the final with West Germany, via the 'Goal of the Century' and a brazen moment of cheating, Maradona was so far above his contemporaries that the sheer idea of anyone else winning the Golden Ball was laughable.

Argentina beat South Korea, drew with Italy and defeated Bulgaria in their group, then saw off Uruguay, England and Belgium in the knockouts before a 3-2 final defeat of West Germany. 

As Opta data shows, Maradona was the beating heart of the Albiceleste's second World Cup triumph.

TAKE MY BREATH AWAY

Gary Lineker was the only player to score more goals (six) at the 1986 World Cup than Maradona (five). That's about the only category where he did not come out on top.

He added five assists to those five goals in his seven appearances, giving him the most goal involvements (10) of any player, ahead of the USSR's Igor Belanov (eight), and Lineker, Careca and Preben Elkjaer Larsen (six).

It stands to reason that Maradona also created more goalscoring chances (27) than any other player. Next on the list was France's Alain Giresse (24), then Klaus Allofs (23), Michel Platini (19) and Careca (17).

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Everyone, most famously West Germany, tried to man-mark Maradona out of the equation. None succeeded.

He completed 53 dribbles across the tournament, a tally that puts the rest of the competition to shame. The next highest number was recorded by USSR's Ivan Yaremchuk, who managed 16.

Of course, that kind of dazzling play will always attract a more prosaic approach from the opposition. Maradona was fouled 53 times, more than double the number of anyone else (Enzo Francescoli was next on 27 fouls won).

EDGE OF HEAVEN

Maradona's all-round impact on proceedings could only come from a player given freedom to drop deeper and seize the ball from lesser men. It's incredible, then, that he managed 44 touches in the opposition box, eight more than the next-highest on the list, Brazil's Careca. Lineker, winner of the Golden Boot, had 31 such touches.

Lineker and England have, of course, never forgotten Maradona's impact on their 2-1 quarter-final defeat in Mexico City. It was the scene of his greatest goal – a mazy, miraculous waltz through the heart of the opposition that ended with the bamboozling of goalkeeper Peter Shilton – and his crowning moment of infamy, when 'The Hand of God' punched Argentina into the lead.

Perhaps that wasn't such a one-off, though. Since 1966, no player has committed as many handballs at the World Cup as Maradona (seven) – and they're just the ones the referees spotted.

Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to World Cup glory, triumphed in Italy and Europe with Napoli and won countless individual honours.

Along the way, the footballing great – who died at the age of 60 on November 25, 2020 – scored some of the greatest goals the game has ever seen.

No matter the occasion, or indeed the opponent, Maradona was often unplayable – as can be seen from our selection of his five greatest ever goals.

 

Argentina v England (June 22, 1986)

Hailed by many as the greatest goal of all time, Maradona picked up the ball inside his own half and dribbled past four England players before calmly rounding Peter Shilton.

The moment of magic arrived four minutes after the notorious 'Hand of God' goal and helped Argentina into the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup, a tournament which they went on to win.

Peter Reid, one of the England players that Maradona sauntered past, described the mesmerising second goal as an example of "an artist at work, at the best of his ability".

 

Argentina v Belgium (June 25, 1986)

The goal scored by Maradona three days later, this time in the semi-finals, was not too dissimilar in that he had four opposition players between himself and the goal.

He slalomed between two of them, jinked past another – in the process taking out a fourth – and fired past Jean-Marie Pfaff for his second goal of the contest.

Napoli v Juventus (November 3, 1985)

Napoli ended their 12-year wait for a league victory over rivals Juventus thanks to Maradona's brilliance of a different kind. If the previous goals were all about neat footwork and clinical finishing, this was more to do with sheer audacity.

A large wall, set five metres from the ball, was not enough to stop the Argentine maestro delicately lifting the indirect free-kick, rolled short into his path, into the one spot Stefano Tacconi could not reach.

Napoli v Hellas Verona (October 20, 1985)

This one was all about the technique - and the confidence to even think about taking it on. Maradona brought down the ball with his first touch, turned and sent a long-range drive flying over Giuliano Giuliani from a good 40 yards out.

What made it all the more special is that this strike came in a 5-0 thrashing of Hellas Verona, who were the reigning Serie A champions at the time.

Boca Juniors v River Plate (April 10, 1981)

Maradona spent a season with Boca Juniors before arriving in Europe, and it soon became clear what a talent he would become.

His first spell at the club may have been short, but he left behind plenty of memories, including a famous goal against bitter rivals River Plate. Intricate footwork in the penalty area left River helplessly bamboozled before Maradona converted from close range.

Diego Maradona enjoyed a stellar career, playing for some of the world's biggest clubs and instilling himself in World Cup folklore.

It is a year since the Argentina great died at the age of 60 after suffering a heart attack.

While his career was not shy of controversy, at his best Maradona was simply unplayable, and enjoyed success in South America and Europe, as well as on the international stage.

Stats Perform takes a look at his five greatest achievements, from World Cup success with Argentina to an era of Serie A glory with Napoli.


Bernabeu ovation

It takes something truly magnificent for Real Madrid fans to contemplate applauding a Barcelona player. Maradona delivered just that in June 1983, when he rounded Los Blancos goalkeeper Agustin and then, with the goal at his mercy, opted to sit the back-pedalling Juan Jose on the floor before tucking the ball home.

Maradona was given a standing ovation when he was later substituted – something that would not be repeated for a Barcelona player in that ground for another 22 years, when Ronaldinho was similarly honoured.

Goal of the century

Maradona's greatest goal is arguably the best in the history of the World Cup. He made the extraordinary seem easy as a matter of regularity and, on June 22, in a 2-1 quarter-final win over England, he did just that. In perhaps a summary of Maradona the man – and the player – his moment of magic followed on from possibly his most controversial act on a pitch: the 'Hand of God' goal.

Four minutes after inciting uproar in the England ranks, Maradona embarked on a mazy, remarkable run through the heart of the opposition and, within seconds, was coolly rounding England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to put Argentina into an unassailable lead.

World Cup glory

Following the win over England, 25-year-old captain Maradona led Argentina to a 2-0 semi-final victory against Belgium – scoring both goals once again – and a 3-2 triumph over West Germany in the final, as his country clinched their second World Cup crown.

Maradona finished the tournament in Mexico with five goals and a further five assists in seven games – no other player has done that since at a single edition of a World Cup.

He went on to captain his country again at the next World Cup, Italia 1990, before featuring twice in World Cup 1994, and he holds the Argentina record for the most appearances in the World Cup, with 21, ahead of Javier Mascherano (20) and Lionel Messi (19).

Triumph in Napoli

When Maradona arrived at Napoli in 1984, the club had not won a Serie A title in their 61-year history. After scoring 14 goals to help Napoli to eighth place in his first season, and netting another 11 as they finished third in his second, Maradona was the catalyst for a historic performance from the Partenopei in 1986-87.

They finished the season as champions, three points clear of bitter rivals Juventus, and the city exploded into celebrations that included an informal day of holiday to enjoy the moment. The triumph was by no means down to Maradona alone, but he is remembered as their inspiration and star.

Last-gasp joy as Albiceleste boss

Maradona's career as a head coach cut a stark contrast to his playing days, but a lack of success at the helm of Textil Mandiyu and Racing Club did not prevent him taking charge of his country in 2008. The highlight of a tumultuous two-year spell came in October 2009, when Peru came to Buenos Aires for a World Cup qualifier Argentina desperately needed to win to revive their hopes of qualifying for South Africa 2010. Maradona's decision to play Gonzalo Higuain ahead of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero proved a shrewd one as the striker gave Argentina the lead, but Peru levelled the match in the last minute through Hernan Rengifo.

The moment called for a hero and Martin Palermo, recalled to the national team by Maradona after a 10-year absence, scored the winner deep into injury time to prompt wild celebrations on the touchline and in the stands, with the image of Maradona sliding along the rain-soaked pitch on his belly etched into the country's memory.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell was delighted with his side after they hammered Argentina 53-7 to collect their third win from three games in the Autumn Nations series on Sunday.

The visitors caught Ireland cold when Santiago Carreras danced down the right wing to open the scoring at the Aviva Stadium. However, tries from Josh van der Flier, Andrew Porter and Caelan Doris ensured the hosts led 24-7 at half-time.

Van de Flier bundled over for a second time after the break, with Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Beirne all getting in on the act after Tomas Lavanini's dangerous tackle had seen Argentina reduced to 14 men.

Having overcome New Zealand last time out, the hosts are now unbeaten in eight games since a 15-13 loss against France last February and Farrell reflected on a great performance from his whole squad.

"We are delighted with the win," Farrell told Channel 4 after Ireland's 27th win in 29 games at the Aviva Stadium.

"It is a great day for us because we grow as a group, with players out some people got their chances and did pretty well, it is pretty satisfying overall.

"That's how we train, we make sure we're all across our work, anyone who comes into the hotel on Friday or Saturday has to be ready to play."

Asked how his side will prepare for their next clash with Wales in their Six Nations opener in February, Farrell added: "We will meet and review and take the lessons learned.

"We will watch the lads fight against one another for their provinces over the next couple of months and hopefully they grow as players before they come back in and we hit the ground running for our first game of the Six Nations."

The 2022 World Cup is now just 12 months away, with qualifying entering its closing stages following a series of crunch November clashes.

Difficulties still await Italy and Portugal – the past two European champions – in the play-offs, but most of the other big names are well on their way if they have not already confirmed their place in Qatar.

So, how are the expected contenders shaping up? Stats Perform investigates.

Argentina

Having finally ended his long wait for a senior international honour at this year's Copa America, Qatar looks like Lionel Messi's last realistic chance to guide Argentina to World Cup glory. They last triumphed in 1986, in the days of Diego Maradona.

But the brilliant Barcelona form that has been the bedrock of Messi's outstanding career is no more. Since clinching the Copa, the forward has left Camp Nou for Paris Saint-Germain and played just 595 minutes across eight games at club level, scoring three goals and assisting none. Heading into this weekend, he had yet to net in Ligue 1.

At odds with the rest of his career, Messi has briefly become one of those players who performs better for country than for club, scoring four goals in seven games for Argentina in the same period, even allowing for the minutes spent regaining fitness in November. But the national team must be concerned Messi's unconvincing displays and shaky recent fitness record hint at a decline that could continue for another year before he gets an opportunity to lead a global title charge.

Although Argentina undoubtedly have other highly talented players – Messi was one of four to make the Team of the Tournament as they become South American champions – it is tough to imagine a successful Albiceleste side without the great number 10 at the heart of it.

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez's Belgium remain the world's top-ranked team, but it feels like their window for a first major title might now have passed.

Martinez took charge after Euro 2016, where a stacked squad lost to Wales in the last eight, yet he has found a glass ceiling, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and fourth at the 2020-21 Nations League either side of another quarter-final exit at Euro 2020. Since a disappointing performance at the Nations League Finals, Martinez has been linked to a host of club roles – albeit he is expected to stay put until Qatar.

Although Belgium's 'Golden Generation' have maintained their position at the top of the game despite an ageing defence, there are worrying signs their key attacking players could also be on the wane.

Through a combination of injuries and poor form, Eden Hazard has not looked the same player since he left Chelsea for Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, also beset by fitness issues and below-par outings of late, will hope not to follow the same path. Both he and Romelu Lukaku must still be at their peak to give the Red Devils a chance.

Brazil

Brazil were outclassed by Belgium in the quarter-finals in Russia but have lost just three matches since then. One of those was in this year's Copa final against Argentina, although the Selecao also won the competition in 2019.

Unlike previous Brazil teams, Tite's side are built on the strength of their defensive record. They have kept 28 clean sheets since the 2018 World Cup, conceding just 16 times in 42 games, with 11 shutouts in 2021 alone.

However, that solidity comes at a price. Brazil are scoring at a relatively unspectacular rate of 2.0 goals per game, including netting only two in their three Copa knockout games in July and just one across two November qualifiers.

Neymar will have a key role in producing those timely moments of magic and should not be short of motivation heading to Qatar, having suggested this will be his last World Cup. The forward has excelled on the world stage before without taking Brazil all the way.

England

As so often, England have qualified with relative ease, benefiting from a kind draw, but will not face a true test until the tournament comes around.

That means a wait to see if Gareth Southgate can make the necessary tweaks to turn the Three Lions from nearly men into champions, with the midfield a key area of focus having ceded 65.4 per cent of the possession to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, 53.2 per cent to the Netherlands in the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals and 55.5 per cent to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semis. The continued development of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham should encourage optimism.

But England also find themselves in a position, like Argentina, where the performances of their talismanic captain are suddenly a concern – at least at club level.

Harry Kane has so far this season used the international breaks as sweet relief, quickly closing on Wayne Rooney's record goals tally by scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers up to September and notching seven in November alone, but there is a break now before March's fixtures and the forward simply must rediscover some sort of form for Tottenham and add to his single Premier League goal in order to return to the England fold in good nick.

 

France

Welcoming Karim Benzema back into a frightening front line, France appear to have an even more impressive line-up than at the previous World Cup, where they emerged as champions.

Benzema has already directly combined for five goals with Kylian Mbappe and one with Antoine Griezmann, who has in turn linked up once with Mbappe. The trio netted nine of France's 10 goals this month, while Mbappe had assists for each of Benzema's strikes at the Nations League Finals as both players scored in both matches and Les Bleus twice came from behind to take the title.

Yet those prior deficits and the six goals conceded at the Euros hinted at the weaknesses in this France side, as Didier Deschamps is still working on his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

The composition of the midfield in that team is crucial, and N'Golo Kante was missing against Belgium and Spain before Paul Pogba suffered an injury prior to the November fixtures. France have no shortage of quality but may not head to Qatar as the most settled unit.

Germany

It was clear Joachim Low's Germany tenure was reaching its natural conclusion before he announced his departure plans in March. That the team followed up a group-stage exit at the World Cup by stumbling through their pool at the Euros before exiting to England only further illustrated that this was the right decision.

But Germany know all about recovering quickly from such setbacks; they seemed to reach rock bottom at Euro 2000 and were in the World Cup final two years later.

Now Hansi Flick, having set Bayern Munich back on course, is excelling again with the national team, becoming the first Germany coach to win his first six matches in charge – a sequence that now stands at seven and counting. The team's last longer winning run ended at 12 games in 1980.

Germany were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe during qualifying, this despite naming their oldest XI in more than 21 years in a recent qualifier against Liechtenstein. Striking this same balance between energy and experience will be key in Qatar.

Spain

Spain have come a long way since the last World Cup, where they appeared to be in crisis from start to finish, eventually exiting to hosts Russia on penalties.

Luis Enrique's subsequent work across two spells has made them contenders again, reaching the last four at the Euros – only to again fall foul of a shoot-out – and briefly leading France in the Nations League final. The emergence of Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi over the course of these campaigns provides a major cause for long-term optimism, too.

However, injury issues have kept that trio from ever featuring together for their country; in fact, Fati, Pedri and Gavi are yet to play a single minute together for Barcelona.

They were three of 39 players to appear for Spain in qualifying, showing the depth of talent at Luis Enrique's disposal. Within that group, however, there is not a prolific goalscorer – a major concern with 12 months to go.

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

Brazil head coach Tite blasted the video assistant referee (VAR) and labelled it "inconceivable" that Nicolas Otamendi was not sent off for an elbow in Tuesday's 0-0 2022 World Cup qualifier draw with Argentina.

Raphinha was floored and left bloodied after the 34th-minute incident where Otamendi flailed his arm into the Brazilian midfielder's face.

Otamendi lifted Raphinha to his feet with no sanction from referee Andres Cunha, nor any VAR intervention in the aftermath leaving Tite flabbergasted.

"It's impossible not to see the elbow. Was it decisive in the result? I do not know," Tite said during the post-game news conference.

"Was it a great match for both teams? It was. Great game between them. Tradition, technical quality. Now, there's a component that has to be equal, for those who have the discernment to see.

"But a high-level VAR referee cannot work like this. It is inconceivable, and that is not the term I want to use, but I use it because I am educated."

The result in San Juan leaves already-qualified Brazil six points clear of second-placed Argentina in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying standings.

Argentina officially earned their spot in Qatar one hour after full-time when Chile were beaten 2-0 at home by Ecuador.

Brazil return to action away to Ecuador in late January when CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying resumes.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni celebrated a "magnificent year" after the Copa America champions qualified for the 2022 World Cup.

Despite a goalless draw at home to already-qualified rivals Brazil, Argentina booked their spot at Qatar 2022 after Colombia, Uruguay and Chile all failed to win in CONMEBOL on Tuesday.

It caps a successful 2021 for two-time world champions Argentina, who ended their 28-year wait for silverware by dethroning Brazil in July's Copa America final.

"This was a magnificent year," Scaloni – who matched Alejandro Sabella for the country's second longest undefeated run in CONMEBOL qualifying amid a 13-game streak, said. "Winning the Copa, qualifying for the World Cup unbeaten. It was a dream."

"We got four points against two very difficult rivals. We all like to win of course but these games help a team to mature. Without a doubt, the balance is positive.

"Having qualified so far in advance, in a really difficult qualifying section, is something we should be proud of."

Lionel Messi returned to the line-up but was unable to inspire Argentina, who played out a stalemate with Brazil in San Juan to extend their unbeaten streak to 27 matches across all competitions.

That underwhelming performance left Argentina waiting to discover their World Cup fate, though La Albiceleste only had to wait less than an hour following 10-man Chile's 2-0 loss at home to Ecuador.

Argentina – searching for their first world crown since 1986 – are second in the CONMEBOL standings with five matches remaining, six points behind leaders Brazil and six clear of third-placed Ecuador.

Eliminated in the last-16 stage at Russia 2018, Argentina and Brazil have both played a game less following September's qualifier in Sao Paulo, which was sensationally abandoned after Scaloni's men left the field as Brazilian health officials tried to detain visiting players due to coronavirus regulations.

After his subdued performance, superstar captain Messi – who missed Paris Saint-Germain's two matches prior to the international break – allayed his fitness concerns.

"I'm fine otherwise I wouldn't have played," Messi said before learning Argentina had qualified after the South American powerhouse made it six games without conceding – their longest streak in qualifying.

"I've been standing for a long time and it's not easy to play a game with as much pace as this one.

"Luckily I'm fine and I know that little by little I'm going to pick up the pace. I hope I can finish the year well."

Argentina qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, despite playing out a goalless draw with CONMEBOL rivals Brazil.

Lionel Messi returned to the line-up but he was unable to inspire Argentina, who played out a stalemate against Qatar-bound Brazil in San Juan on Tuesday.

That underwhelming performance left Copa America champions Argentina waiting to discover their World Cup fate.

Argentina only had to wait less than an hour as 10-man Chile lost 2-0 at home to Ecuador, sealing La Albiceleste's qualification after Colombia and Uruguay also failed to win.

Lionel Scaloni's Argentina – riding a 27-game unbeaten streak – are second in the CONMEBOL standings with five matches remaining, six points behind leaders Brazil and six clear of third-placed Ecuador.

Argentina and Brazil have both played a game less following September's qualifier in Sao Paulo, which was sensationally abandoned after Scaloni's men left the field as Brazilian health officials tried to detain visiting players due to coronavirus regulations.

Having ended their 28-year wait for silverware via July's Copa America, Messi's Argentina will now look to conquer the World Cup.

Two-time champions Argentina – eliminated in the round of 16 at Russia 2018 – have not won the World Cup since Diego Maradona inspired the country to 1986 glory, though they reached the final in 2014.

Argentina and Brazil played out an underwhelming 0-0 draw as the Copa America champions missed the chance to secure World Cup qualification.

Meeting for the first time since September's fixture was sensationally abandoned in Sao Paulo after Argentina left the field as Brazilian health officials tried to detain visiting players, La Albiceleste had the opportunity to earn a trip to Qatar 2022 following Colombia's draw against Paraguay.

However, despite Lionel Messi's return to the starting XI on Tuesday, Argentina were unable to breach CONMEBOL leaders Brazil, who were already assured of a spot at next year's tournament.

Argentina could still qualify on Tuesday if Chile lose to Ecuador later on Tuesday.

Chances were few and far between after a cagey start between Argentina and Brazil in San Juan, where neither goalkeeper was really tested in the opening half as Neymar sat out for the Selecao due to a thigh injury.

However, there was a big moment involving Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi and Brazil's Raphinha as the game came to life approaching half-time.

Raphinha went down in a heap and was left bleeding after coping a blow from Otamendi, but the former Manchester City centre-back escaped punishment.

Alisson almost gifted Argentina a chance to break the deadlock after failing to catch a cross but Brazil managed to clear their lines, while the Liverpool keeper took a boot to the face minutes before the interval.

Fred went close to making the breakthrough for Brazil on the hour – the ball fell to the Manchester United midfielder on the edge of the box and his volley hit the crossbar.

There was another opening for Brazil with 19 minutes remaining, but Vinicius Junior's effort was straight at Emiliano Martinez.

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