Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it seems, is no longer at the wheel.

Following another drubbing, this time a 4-1 rout at Watford on Saturday, Manchester United have reportedly called time on Solskjaer's tenure.

After a lengthy meeting, the club great is set to be axed.

 

TOP STORY – SOLSKJAER TO BE SACKED

Manchester United have agreed to sack manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to widespread reports.

Having already been humiliated by Premier League rivals Liverpool and Manchester City prior to the international break, United's season hit a new low following Saturday's 4-1 rout at lowly Watford.

Amid a worrying slump, The Athletic, Manchester Evening News and Fabrizio Romano claim United have opted to part with Solskjaer amid links to former Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane, Leicester City's Brendan Rodgers and Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sport says Raheem Sterling has told Premier League champions Manchester City he wants to join LaLiga giants Barcelona.

Barca and City are among the clubs interested in Arsenal forward Alexandre Lacazette, per Fichajes.

- The Sun reports Newcastle United are looking to sign Fiorentina star Dusan Vlahovic. The Serbia international, who scored twice to sink Milan on Saturday, has been linked with City, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Inter, Atletico Madrid, Tottenham and Arsenal.

Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid are set to go head-to-head for the signature of Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger, says Mundo Deportivo. The Germany international is a free agent at season's end. Bayern are also believed to be interested.

Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets admitted the embattled LaLiga giants needed to beat Espanyol after the Xavi era opened with a 1-0 victory in Saturday's derby.

Xavi's first match in charge resulted in three points against city rivals Espanyol at Camp Nou, where Memphis Depay's 48th-minute penalty settled the contest.

Barca have struggled this season, leading to the sacking of Ronald Koeman and prompting the return of club great Xavi, who had been in charge of Qatari outfit Al-Sadd.

Reflecting on the result, which saw Barca move within eight points of top spot before Real Madrid's fixture at Granada on Sunday, Busquets welcomed the win.

"We needed this victory for the team to continue to grow and regain our confidence. We have a new coach, a new philosophy and we will find a way up," Busquets said.

"I think generally we played well. I think the scoreline is a bit tight. They had some great chances, any team can cause you problems but we needed the win."

 

Barca have not lost any of their last 23 matches against Espanyol in LaLiga (W18 D5), keeping 17 clean sheets in those games, their longest unbeaten streak against the Periquitos in the competition.

At home, Barca have won their last 12 meetings against Espanyol in LaLiga, after winning just one of their previous five (D3 L1), since a 1-2 defeat in February 2009, in a match that featured Gerard Pique, Busquets and Xavi in the Blaugrana side.

"We need to believe, to regain confidence, little by little we will get better, with new ideas, a new philosophy, and we will find a way up," Busquets added.

"Right now we have a group of youngsters helping us. It's really important to have this young blood, especially right now because of the financial situation and we can't make many signings."

Depay has won three penalties in LaLiga this season, becoming the Barcelona player with the most penalties earned in a single season in the competition since Luis Suarez in 2018-19 (also three). Since 2005-06, only Neymar has won more in the same campaign in LaLiga for Barcelona (eight).

Barca's Depay has scored in each of his last three games in LaLiga (three goals), his best run in the top five European leagues since March-April 2018 (six games for Lyon – seven goals).

Barcelona head coach Xavi has denied reports that striker Sergio Aguero has been forced to retire.

Rumours emerged on Saturday that the Argentina international will hold a news conference next week to confirm he will not resume his playing career.

Aguero has not played a game since the 1-1 draw with Deportivo Alaves at Camp Nou on October 30, during which he was substituted after feeling dizzy and suffering apparent discomfort in his chest.

Barca later confirmed he would be unavailable for three months while doctors monitored a suspected cardiovascular problem. The 33-year-old tweeted on November 12 to insist he was "always positive" amid suggestions he would not be able to continue playing.

Xavi, who oversaw a 1-0 win over Espanyol in his first match in charge, insisted it was not true that Aguero's retirement was confirmed.

"What's come out isn't true," he told reporters. "I spoke with him, he's calm and happy. I asked him to come back when he was feeling okay."

 

Memphis Depay's penalty sealed Barca's victory over their city rivals, although they rode their luck in the closing stages as Raul de Tomas twice hit the post and Landry Dimata headed a glorious chance for an equaliser wide.

"I'm very happy with the three points and the effort of the players," said Xavi. "We're not in the best of spirits and Espanyol created a lot of problems for us. And we deserved the luck with the posts.

"I'm happy, and I think it was a deserved victory. What couldn't fail, which was the attitude, didn't fail."

The result moved Barca to within eight points of LaLiga leaders Sevilla, who earlier drew with Alaves, after 13 LaLiga matches.

While a title shot appears unlikely at this stage, Xavi – an eight-time league champion in a glittering playing career with the club – saw no reason to discount a challenge for the trophy.

"We're far away but there are matches left. I'm optimistic and why can't we fight for the title?" he said.

Diego Simeone believes the period of Barcelona and Real Madrid dominating LaLiga finished with the ends of their respective 'MSN' and 'BBC' eras.

Atletico Madrid battled to a slender 1-0 win at home to Osasuna on Saturday, with Felipe getting the decisive goal in the 87th minute.

The result moved them back to within a point of Real Madrid, though they have a game in hand, while Sevilla and Real Sociedad are just one point better off at the summit.

Osasuna pushed Atletico all the way and Simeone felt this was prime evidence of LaLiga's competitiveness, convinced the day's of the 'big two' are over.

"It demanded a lot from us because LaLiga is very competitive," Simeone told reporters. "There isn't much difference [in quality between all teams].

"The Barca of the MSN era and the Madrid of the BBC era have passed. Now LaLiga is very competitive for everyone."

For a while it looked as though Atletico were going to be frustrated by Osasuna, who almost clung on for a point.

Stealing the win at the end felt good for Mario Hermoso, who believed getting a positive result ahead of Wednesday's Champions League clash with Milan, as Atletico could have their knockout-phase hopes ended if they lose.

"These victories taste different," the defender added. "When you go on and on, insisting on what you believe in, on what the coach wants, on what we trust and work on during the week, sooner or later the time ends.

"What better way than to do it with that goal at that moment with the push of the fans and especially ahead of the 'final' that we have on Wednesday."

Xavi enjoyed a winning start as Barcelona head coach as they claimed a 1-0 derby win over Espanyol at Camp Nou.

Appointed as Ronald Koeman's successor and tasked with restoring both style and results to Barca, the former midfielder would not have wanted to countenance the end of a 22-match unbeaten run against their city rivals.

The Blaugrana were profligate with their chances, though, and it took a controversial Memphis Depay penalty to secure victory as Espanyol missed out on the chance to move three points clear of Barca in the table.

Barca had 77 per cent of the possession in the first 15 minutes, Depay and Ilias Akhomach leading a dangerous-looking attack in front of a buoyant crowd of more than 74,000.

However, Espanyol proved a difficult defence to breach and the visitors came closest to snatching the lead, Raul de Tomas' shot deflecting just over Marc-Andre ter Stegen's crossbar.

Three minutes after half-time, Leandro Cabrera was penalised for a challenge on Depay – despite appearing to make contact with the ball – and the Netherlands international swept home the spot-kick.

Barca could not build on their lead, though, and De Tomas came within inches of an equaliser when his free-kick clipped the outside of the left-hand post.

Landry Dimata should have snatched a point, but he could only nod wide of Ter Stegen's goal from six yards out, and De Tomas was again denied by the woodwork from another unmarked header.

 

What does it mean? Encouraging start for Xavi's new era

This was a slender victory that only moved Barca to within eight points of league leaders Sevilla, so there are few reasons to become too excited.

However, the signs of Xavi's influence were clear: the strong man-to-man pressing, the possession-based play and the commitment to attack were all obvious, even if the end product was not always the best.

This was an encouraging start to life for the new coach.

Xavi making his mark

There were eight graduates from the La Masia academy in the starting line-up and they seemed determined to carry out Xavi's instructions to the letter.

Barca had 11 shots in the first half, their most in a LaLiga match this season, and enjoyed 70 per cent of the ball before the break.

Espanyol pay for slow start

Espanyol were on a run of three wins in six games, as many as in their previous 25, and you would have thought the chance to ruin Xavi's day would have been a huge incentive.

As it was, they only truly threatened in the final 15 minutes and mustered just two shots on target.

What's next?

Xavi gets his first taste of Champions League action as a coach on Tuesday, when Barca host Benfica.

It had long felt inevitable that Xavi would return to Barcelona at some stage and the time has finally come.

The former midfielder will take charge of his first match in Saturday's derby clash with Espanyol after replacing Ronald Koeman during the international break, having embraced both a financial and sporting crisis at Camp Nou that sees the team ninth in LaLiga and more than €1.2billion in debt.

Given his pedigree as a player for the club, where he won 25 major trophies, and the fact he delivered three cups and a Qatar Stars League title during his time in charge of Al Sadd, you would be forgiven for thinking Xavi could have chosen to bide his time and wait for a more opportune moment to take the job.

Yet here we are, with another of Europe's grandest sides appointing a club legend. It's a move that often resonates well with a disillusioned fan base, but recent history tells us a star playing career often counts for little when it comes to life in the dugout at the elite end of football.

There are a fair few examples of ex-players heading back to their old clubs in the past few years – and to different levels of success...

Mikel Arteta (Arsenal): Jury's out

When Arsenal lost their first three league games of the season without scoring a goal, it looked like the Arteta experiment might have run its course.

Now on a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions, buoyed by a derby defeat of Tottenham and a manager of the month award for September, it's beginning to look as though the former captain might just have got things on track at Emirates Stadium.

Winning the FA Cup last year was also a big feather in Arteta's cap, but there's still a sense that the next bad result is just around the corner. After all, he lost 20 of his first 60 league games in charge; it took Arsene Wenger 116 matches to reach that number.

Ronald Koeman (Barcelona): Failure

There is no question Koeman stepped into the breach at Barca at a terrible time, with an institutional crisis ongoing and the team having lost 8-2 to Bayern Munich in Quique Setien's final game in charge. He was chosen for his estimable record as a player at the club, and he did at least deliver Copa del Rey success last term.

Yet as soon as new president Joan Laporta admitted before this season that he was basically only keeping Koeman because there wasn't another option, the writing was on the wall.

Uninspiring football and a troubling run of results that culminated in a first loss to Rayo Vallecano since 2002 forced Laporta into action – he sacked Koeman on the flight home, if reports are to be believed. In the end, his contribution as a player offered little protection.

 

Niko Kovac (Bayern Munich): Short-term success

Kovac took over from Jupp Heynckes before the start of the 2018-19 season, becoming only the fourth former Bayern Munich player to become head coach (after Soren Lerby, Franz Beckenbauer and Jurgen Klinsmann).

Trophies were not a problem: Kovac won the DFL-Supercup 5-0 against old club Eintracht Frankfurt in his first match in charge, and the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal followed. Nobody at Bayern had ever won the double as both player and coach before.

It all turned a bit sour in 2019-20, though. Bayern won just five of their opening 10 league games and were thrashed 5-1 by Frankfurt in November, at which point Kovac and the club agreed the time was right to part ways.

Frank Lampard (Chelsea): Failure

Chelsea's record goalscorer only had one season of experience at Championship side Derby County before being entrusted with the big job at Stamford Bridge.

Losing 4-0 to Manchester United in his first game wasn't exactly a strong start, but Lampard did guide the Blues to fourth in the Premier League and an FA Cup final, all while navigating the difficulties of a transfer ban.

However, after a squad investment of close to £250million before 2020-21, Chelsea's progress stalled and a run of two wins in eight league games saw Lampard replaced by Thomas Tuchel. His points-per-game average of 1.67 was the fourth lowest of any permanent Chelsea manager in the Premier League era.

Andrea Pirlo (Juventus): Failure

Compared with Pirlo, Lampard was a seasoned veteran in managerial terms. Juventus handed the top job to their former star midfielder when his only coaching experience was nine days of looking after the Under-23s.

Pirlo's swaggering style as a player did not translate itself to the dugout: Juve lacked cohesion and creativity and were embarrassed when 10-man Porto knocked them out of the last 16 of the Champions League, a result that did more damage to Pirlo's position than any other.

The former Italy man delivered Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia success, and managed to drag Juve back to a fourth-placed finish on the final day of the season, but Inter had already marched to the title by then. In the end, Pirlo lasted less than a year.

 

Mauricio Pochettino (Paris Saint-Germain): Slow progress

Pochettino is a little different to the others on our list given his coaching experience covered Espanyol, Southampton and a memorable five years at Tottenham before he went to PSG, the club where he spent two seasons as a player.

The 49-year-old has won renown for getting his teams to play high-tempo, exciting football, but this has yet to be consistently evident in Ligue 1 even if results are mostly going his way.

Ten wins from 12 games have them comfortably top of Ligue 1, while wins over Manchester City and RB Leipzig stand them in good stead in the Champions League, but it feels like PSG are too often being rescued from mediocre performances by a moment of inspiration from a star player – and that's rarely been the Pochettino way.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Manchester United): Who knows?

Manchester United have become one of the most singularly baffling football teams in the world under Solskjaer, the man who won six Premier League titles as a player and scored arguably their most famous goal: the winner in the 1999 Champions League final that secured the treble.

Hired as an interim coach in December 2018 to repair the damage of Jose Mourinho's final months, Solskjaer rebuilt United's morale through sheer goodwill and a heady dose of nostalgia, both of which have kept him in the job ever since.

They finished second in the Premier League last term but lost the Europa League final, and seem to have gone backwards in 2021-22, with that 5-0 hammering by Liverpool almost sounding the death knell for Solskjaer. However, the talents at his disposal – not least Cristiano Ronaldo – seem to do just enough to keep Ole at the wheel on a weekly basis.

 

Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid): Resounding success... but walked away (twice)

Many of these clubs hoped to discover the next Pep Guardiola: the famous ex-player who could turn his first senior coaching job into something not just successful, but era-defining, unforgettable. Zidane at Real Madrid is the closest we have seen.

After spells as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti and coach of the Castilla, Zidane replaced the unpopular Rafael Benitez in January 2016 and led them to Champions League glory. He did the same for the next two seasons as Madrid became the first side in the tournament's modern era to win successive trophies.

Zidane also won two LaLiga titles: in 2016-17, in which he oversaw a club-record 40 games unbeaten in all competitions, and in 2019-20, when he had returned to club after walking away in May 2018. He left again at the end of 2020-21, the only season in which he did not win a trophy.

 

Xavi emphasised the importance of a "united" Barcelona and promised to do everything he can to improve results at the Camp Nou. 

The 41-year-old was recently appointed as Ronald Koeman's successor, returning to the club where he spent 17 seasons during his playing career.

The former Spain international has spent the past two and a half years in charge of Qatari club Al Sadd, and knows the extent of the task at hand to turn fortunes around at the Catalan giants, but wants the fans to get on board with the project from the start.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of his first game in charge against Espanyol on Saturday, Xavi said: "We need all the support. We will give our all on the field. We will not have a problem with attitude, that's for sure. We are going to give our all.

"We have to be united. We will try to make [the fans] happy, enjoying good football.

"It is more than a professional aspect. I am a Barca fan, and no-one is going to change this. I am going to give it my all to try and get good results.

"We are Barca, and we have to give more than 100 per cent.

"We’ve had group and individual chats, we don't have more time and I hope we can see things in the game and psychologically. We're here to get results.

"We cannot drop points, of course. We are ninth in the standings and that's the reality. We cannot drop points tomorrow. We have to win."

The World Cup winner also spoke about the importance of experience and youth in his squad, specifically mentioning the return of 38-year-old Dani Alves and the promise of 17-year-old Gavi.

"[Alves] is going to help us a lot in all aspects," he added. "I know him really well, he's a winner. He's so positive, he has a great character, and also on the field we saw it. We saw his last games, he's in great shape physically.

"He's an outstanding player, one of the best I saw in my career. He's going to help us a lot. It is a shame he won't be able to play until January.

"[Gavi] can play as a winger, an attacking midfielder, also as a pivot. He has a complete profile. He has good physical conditions. He's a versatile player, and a really important player for us."

Arsenal could look to offload Nicolas Pepe in the January transfer window.

The 26-year-old has not lived up to his billing after being signed in 2019.

Pepe has scored once in nine appearances for the Gunners this season.

 

TOP STORY – MILAN SET FOR JANUARY PEPE SWOOP

Italian giants Milan are interested in signing Arsenal's Ivorian winger Nicolas Pepe, claims Il Milanista.

Pepe has more than two years to run on his Gunners deal, having joined on a five-year contract from Lille in 2019 for a club-record fee of £72 million (€79m).

Arsenal may be willing to let Pepe go for a little as £25m in January.

ROUND-UP 

- Chelsea's Spanish full-back Cesar Azpilicueta is on Barcelona's transfer radar, according to SPORT. The 32-year-old's contract expires at the end of this season.

- Tottenham have joined Inter in having an interest in signing Bayern Munich midfielder Corentin Tolisso, claims Kicker. Tolisso is out of contract at the end of this season.

- Fabrizio Romano reports that talks between Gavi and Barcelona on a five-year contract extension are progressing amid interest in the Spanish teenager from Chelsea.

- Jose Mourinho's Roma are considering a move to sign Atletico Madrid's Mexico international midfielder Hector Herrera in January, claims Calciomercato. Atletico are willing to cash in on Herrera, who is out of contract in mid-2022.

- Manchester City target Theo Hernandez is close to completing a contract renewal with Milan, according to Rudy Galetti. The Rossoneri have reached an agreement with him until 2026.

- FotoMac claims Mohamed Elneny's agent has reached an agreement with Arsenal for the Egyptian to leave in January. He was previously linked with Galatasaray.

- Lens midfielder Seko Fofana has been added to Newcastle United's shortlist of transfer targets, claims Foot Mercato.

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.

Paul Pogba's future continues to make headlines.

With his contract expiring, it remains to be seen whether he will remain at Manchester United.

United are believed to be ready to move on as Real Madrid lurk.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID READY TO POUNCE FOR POGBA

Manchester United have given up on keeping Pogba and Real Madrid have a "great opportunity" to sign the Frenchman, according to the front page of Thursday's Marca.

Pogba is out of contract at the end of the season and the United star is no closer to a renewal at Old Trafford.

Madrid are continuing to circle Pogba, who has also been linked with former club Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona.

 

ROUND-UP 

- Sport claims Barca are eyeing moves for Chelsea's Hakim Ziyech and Bayern Munich star Kingsley Coman. Out-of-favour Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling and RB Leipzig's Dani Olmo have also been linked.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will extend his contract at Milan until 2023, reports Gazzetta dello Sport.

Chelsea are interested in signing Leicester City defender Wesley Fofana, says Foot Mercato. The 20-year-old is yet to play this season due to a serious leg injury.

- El Nacional reports Madrid and Chelsea will go head-to-head to land Monaco star Aurelien Tchouameni. The France international is also reportedly wanted by Juve, City, United, Liverpool, Bayern and Newcastle United.

Newcastle are eyeing Inter duo Stefan de Vrij and Marcelo Brozovic and Lazio goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha, per The Times.

Dani Alves is convinced he can still contribute on his Barcelona return despite his age and the absence of superstar Lionel Messi.

The 38-year-old re-joined the club on a free transfer on Friday, having left Sao Paulo in September over a contractual dispute after two years in Brazil.

The right-back will have to wait until January to add to his 391 appearances for Barcelona and will also hope to add to his list of trophies won with the club, which includes three Champions Leagues and six LaLiga titles.

Despite seemingly being in the twilight of his career, Alves is convinced he can play a part both on and off the field in spurring Barca back to the top.

"I have a little less hair but the desire will be just as great! I know what this club represents and I know what I can contribute, both inside and outside, creating synergy with the club, the fans," Alves said after his official unveiling. 

"After all, we have spoiled people for so many titles and maybe they are distrustful. But I think that if we all row towards the same side, the ship will reach the port."

 

Alves is not the only former player to have returned to Camp Nou, with club legend Xavi announced as the club's new head coach on November 6.

The Brazilian revealed that his former team-mate played a big part in bringing him back to Barcelona, claiming he was desperate to return and be part of Xavi's rebuilding project regardless of financial factors.

"I got heavy with the pressure. I told [Xavi] that I wanted to go back, that I wanted to help," Alves continued. "I was even so heavy that Xavi [said] he can't take it anymore! And Xavi told me that he was counting on me if I wanted to come.

"Many times people focus a lot on how much you are going to earn, what is your salary. For me, it is not important. I have never had anything.

"For me, it is important to support my family and the people I take care of, but it was not the time for that. It was the time to rebuild the team.

"I didn't even have to think. The rest is secondary, especially when one receives the call from Barca with the objective. We are ready for anything." 

Barcelona's financial issues prevented the club from extending Messi's contract, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner joining Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.

Alves regrets not being able to link up with his old team-mate, having provided the Argentine with 42 assists in their time together, but accepts that the club must look to the future.

"For me, the kid [Messi] is the greatest thing I've ever seen," Alves added. "You always miss the greats, especially when you have a good relationship.

"It would be incredible to come back to see him here, but unfortunately, it could not be like that. I love him and his family very much, but now we are in a new process.

"I would encourage everyone to return if they could because this is the best place. But the story is different now and we have to think about the process."

Barcelona president Joan Laporta has not ruled out the possibility of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta returning to the club in the future.

Speaking at an event presenting Dani Alves to over 10,000 fans at the Camp Nou, Laporta suggested the return of the Brazilian right-back might not be the only reunion in the coming years.

Iniesta left Barca to sign for Japanese side Vissel Kobe in 2018, while debts of more than €1.2billion meant the Blaugrana could not afford to sign Messi to a new contract, leading to the Argentine moving to Paris Saint-Germain in August.

 

"I do not rule it out," Laporta said when asked about the possibility of Messi and Iniesta returning.

"It has happened with Dani, and I want to thank him because he has seen the situation of the club and wants to come to help."

Alves is the first signing for new head coach, Xavi, and penned a deal until the end of the season, but will not be eligible to play until January.

"I also thank him for making an economic effort. We are going to reverse this situation, but now he has made this effort. It has to be appreciated," Laporta added.

"These are people who have made this club great. Messi and Iniesta are spectacular, I cannot predict the future, as they are still playing, but they have made the club great, we always keep them in mind, although now they have contracts with other clubs and you have to respect that, but in life you never know."

Laporta was also asked about contract renewals, with speculation around new deals for Ousmane Dembele and Gavi, to which he replied: "Hopefully we can achieve more renewals soon."

Alves was asked about Dembele, who has also received a vote of confidence from Xavi in recent days. The 38-year-old said: "He needs to understand that he's playing for Barca. It's my mission to remind that to him, that he's really good, that he's phenomenal and that he can achieve great things at this club."

Real Madrid are well-known admirers of Kylian Mbappe.

The Spanish giants have been linked with a January move for the winger.

Mbappe has indicated he will leave Paris Saint-Germain in the near future.

 

TOP STORY – REAL TO REMAIN PATIENT FOR MBAPPE

Real Madrid will not chase a deal for Paris Saint-Germain's Mbappe during the January transfer window, claims Mundo Deportivo.

Los Blancos have been pursuing the 22-year-old France international who is out of contract at the end of this season.

There had been speculation about when Madrid would move for Mbappe, given his contract status, but it is anticipated they will patiently wait until the off-season when he is a free agent.

ROUND-UP 

- Sky Sports Germany claims that Juventus could make a move for Borussia Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel in January. The report claims that Witsel is keen on a quick move.

- Philippe Coutinho is set to snub cashed-up Newcastle United in January as he does not want to leave Barcelona, claims Sport.

- Barcelona are set to table a €40million offer for Red Bull Salzburg forward Karim Adeyemi according to Sport1, although Dortmund remain favourites to sign the teenager.

- Wolverhampton are ready to cash in Spanish winger Adama Traore in January with Barcelona circling to rival Liverpool for his signature, reports 90min.

- Former Chelsea manager Frank Lampard is not in consideration for the vacant Rangers head coaching position following Steven Gerrard's exit, reports Sky Sports.

Barcelona have accelerated a shake-up at Camp Nou by allowing technical secretary Ramon Planes to leave the club.

Planes, who was recently linked with a switch to Newcastle United, heads out of Barcelona within a fortnight of Xavi arriving as head coach.

He had a contract running through to the end of this season but will depart with immediate effect, having requested to be freed from his deal.

Barcelona said in a statement: "FC Barcelona and Ramon Planes have reached an agreement to terminate the contract that bound both parties until 30 June 2022, at the request of the man who had until now been the club's technical secretary.

"The club wishes to publicly express its gratitude to Ramon Planes for his commitment, professionalism and contributions throughout this last two years, and wishes him the best of luck and every success in the future."

Spanish sports daily Marca last week claimed there had already been contact between Planes and Newcastle, who are newly wealthy after a takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund but are also fighting a Premier League relegation battle.

Newcastle have appointed Eddie Howe as their new head coach but are seeking reinforcements to their staff elsewhere, and recruiting a man who has spent three and a half years at Barcelona would be seen as a coup, despite the LaLiga team having struggled in recent times.

Planes joined from Getafe in 2018 and was initially assistant technical secretary to Eric Abidal before taking on the lead role in August 2020.

His exit continues the process of overhauling Barcelona's football staff since Joan Laporta was elected as president in March.

The team sit ninth in LaLiga after winning just four of their opening 12 games, managing 19 goals so far from an expected goals (xG) tally of 21.03. Expected goals totals are judged by quality of chances.

Since the 2010-11 season, the point from which Opta has such records available, Barcelona have always exceeded their xG across a LaLiga season. Last term, before Lionel Messi's exit, they scored 85 goals from an xG score of 73.96.

Patience in former head coach Ronald Koeman ran out in October, paving the way for club legend Xavi to return to the club from Qatari club Al Sadd.

The departure of Planes will allow Xavi and Laporta to build their own leadership group.

Xavi is set for his first match as head coach when Barcelona host Espanyol in Saturday's derby.

It appears Raheem Sterling's future is away from Manchester City.

Down the pecking order, Sterling has been linked with Barcelona.

City, however, are believed to want a player as part of any deal.

 

TOP STORY – STERLING OUT, TER STEGEN IN?

Manchester City are interested in a swap deal that could see Raheem Sterling move to Barcelona in exchange for Marc-Andre ter Stegen, according to El Nacional.

Barca are reportedly trying to bring Sterling to Camp Nou, with the England international struggling for regular game time at the Premier League champions.

Pep Guardiola had previously tried to bring Frenkie de Jong to Manchester but Barca were not keen, though the City manager is now interested in goalkeeper Ter Stegen – who has been linked with Bayern Munich in the past.

 

ROUND-UP

Real Madrid plan to extend Luka Modric's contract for one more season, reports Marca. The 36-year-old is out of contract at the end of the season. He has previously been linked with Milan and Inter.

- Diario AS claims Barcelona are eyeing a move for Spain and Chelsea star Cesar Azpilicueta. The 32-year-old is out of contract at season's end.

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims Milan are accelerating their efforts to sign Lille and Portugal star Renato Sanches. It comes amid uncertainty over soon-to-be free agent Franck Kessie, who is tipped to leave Milan following reported interest from the likes of Manchester UnitedBarcaParis Saint-GermainTottenham and Inter. Sanches has also been suggested as a target for Liverpool and Wolves.

- Calciomercato claims CityLiverpoolJuventus and Roma are targeting Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria.

- Serie A champions Inter are pushing to sign Eintracht Frankfurt's Filip Kostic, per Gazzetta dello sport. Inter tried to prise the winger from Eintracht at the start of the season.

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