Bayern Munich defender Dayot Upamecano said Robert Lewandowski and Real Madrid star Karim Benzema are both worthy of this year's Ballon d'Or.

Lewandowski and Benzema are among the nominees for football's most prestigious individual award – the 30-man shortlist will be whittled down to just three players.

Upamecano is team-mates with Lewandowski at Bundesliga champions Bayern, while he also plays alongside Benzema for World Cup and Nations League holders France.

Asked about Lewandowski and Benzema ahead of Bayern's Champions League fixture with Benfica on Wednesday, Upamecano replied: "Very good question!

"Lewandowski or Benzema, both of them deserve it [Ballon d'Or]. They are the two best strikers in the world. They prove it year after year.

"If Lewandowski wins, I would be very happy for him because he is my team-mate at Bayern. If Benzema wins, I also would be very happy for him."

Prior to Madrid's 5-0 rout of Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, Benzema had been involved in more shot-ending sequences of play (76) than any other player in the Champions League.

In this same period, Lionel Messi (12) was the only player who had recorded more multi-shot involvements than Benzema (10), which captures all instances of sequences where a player is both involved in the build-up and takes the shot.

Meanwhile, Lewandowski has scored five goals in six Champions League appearances against Portuguese opponents, including three against Benfica – no player has ever scored more times against sides from Portugal in the competition.

Bayern are on a record unbeaten run of 19 matches away from home in Champions League (W15 D4), netting 54 goals during this streak since losing 3-0 at Paris Saint-Germain in September 2017. Over a third of their goals in this unbeaten run have been scored by their Lewandowski (19 – 35 per cent).

German giants Bayern's eight unbeaten matches against Benfica in the European Cup/Champions League (W5 D3) is the joint-most by a team against an opponent since the tournament began in 1955 – Bayern versus Spartak Moscow (W5 D3) and Barcelona versus Lyon (W5 D3) have also faced eight times without ever losing.

Since the start of last season, Bayern have averaged more goals (3.2) and have a higher expected goals tally (2.6) per game than any other team in the Champions League. Among teams involved in both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 tournaments, they also have the highest shot conversion rate in this period (18.3 per cent).

Bayern Munich defender Dayot Upamecano may be fierce in the heat of battle, but Julian Nagelsmann says his centre-back is so peaceful he would hesitate to swat a fly.

Both Upamecano and Nagelsmann joined the Bayern ranks in the close season, leaving RB Leipzig to join the nine-in-a-row Bundesliga champions.

On Wednesday, Bayern take on Benfica in the third round of Champions League group games, looking to extend a dazzling start that has seen them beat Barcelona 3-0 and score a thumping 5-0 victory over Dynamo Kiev.

Manuel Neuer is in line for a 100th appearance in the competition with the Bavarians, which would make him the fourth player for the German giants to reach the landmark.

In front of Neuer, Upamecano is establishing himself as a fixture at the heart of the Bayern backline, and head coach Nagelsmann is convinced there is a hardman element to his game, as well as the nature of a gentle giant.

"Upamecano has taken an incredible development, he has an incredible defender's gene," said Nagelsmann.

"He loves to defend. Obviously, he has a good physique. He seems mad when looking at him but he's the opposite. He is a really kind and peaceful person that has a great character. I like working with him. He's rather shy and introspective but he is a great human being.

"He looks a lot more evil than he is. I think he has never in his life hit a mosquito on the wall and probably won't do that in the future. Also from his family, he got a lot of positive things on his way while growing up. You still notice that today."

Bayern thumped Bayer Leverkusen 5-1 in the Bundesliga on Sunday, scoring all their goals by the 37th minute as Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry both hit doubles.

The result sent Bayern to the top of the table, their now familiar position.

"There's always potential to improve," said Nagelsmann. "The question is if you have to improve or stay at your level. We'd be happy if we could keep the level of the minutes seven to 45 from the Leverkusen game. Then we could have a great away game in the Champions League."

Speaking in his pre-game news conference, the Bayern boss added: "I expect Benfica to be typically like a great team from Portugal with great footballers. They have two, three key players who I don't want to mention here because then they could prepare accordingly. But basically they're a team that like to have the ball and are used to it from their league. They had different possession stats in the first two Champions League games than in the league."

Bayern have never lost to Benfica in European competition, posting seven wins and three draws in their 10 previous games, including two victories in the Champions League.

In the history of the European Cup and its subsequent Champions League guise, Bayern's eight unbeaten games against Benfica (W5 D3) is the joint most achieved by one team against an opponent since the tournament began in 1955. That means a record could be achieved on Wednesday, surpassing Bayern's eight-game undefeated record against Spartak Moscow (W5 D3) and Barcelona's proud record in clashes with Lyon (W5 D3).

The omens are good: Bayern Munich are on a run of 19 unbeaten away matches in the Champions League (W15 D4), since losing 3-0 at Paris Saint-Germain in September 2017.

They must be wary, though, that Benfica drubbed Barcelona 3-0 last time out in this competition.

Nagelsmann addressed the question of whether the Bundesliga might be becoming boring, given Bayern are clearly so strong compared to their rivals. It would be a major surprise were they not to carry off the title again this season.

"I don't know, I'm on the other side now," said Nagelsmann, previously boss of a Leipzig team that fought to challenge the Bavarian giants. "I think it is always easier to do everything yourself to be successful and not get into whining mode. I always acted like that and I think it's better that way.

"Of course, it is easier to speak from my position as Bayern manager now. It is easier managing a team with this quality, this greed and the desire to confirm your victories. I think that our team is being rated unfairly, leaving out the lack of tension in the league.

"But first, you have to give credit if a team is able to become champions 10 times in a row and still having this greed after [the treble-winning campaign of] 2020 and wanting to continue. I think it is remarkable to talk about our effort of character and not just the quality that we have, that's for sure."

Erling Haaland is the name on everyone's lips.

He has starred for club and country, but Real Sociedad's Swedish forward Aleksandar Isak has also impressed.

Isak could be lured to Barcelona if Haaland is not available.

 

TOP STORY – ISAK WANTED AT CAMP NOU

Barcelona are lining up a move for Real Sociedad forward Alexander Isak if they are unable to sign in-demand Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland, according to Diario AS.

Haaland is wanted by Barca and Europe's elite, with the Norwegian linked with Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

With competition fierce, LaLiga outfit Barca are looking close to home and at Isak as an alternative.

 

ROUND-UP

- Ekrem Konur claims City are considering Barca sensation Ansu Fati as a possible replacement for Raheem Sterling should the England international depart the Premier League champions. Barca are reportedly interested in Sterling on a loan deal.

Dortmund want Ajax's Sebastien Haller to succeed Haaland at the Bundesliga outfit, reports Calciomercato. Former Eintracht Frankfurt forward Haller has starred for the Eredivisie giants.

Juve's objective is to sign Monaco and France star Aurelien Tchouameni, says Calciomercato. Tchouameni is also a target for United, City, Chelsea, Liverpool, PSG and Madrid.

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims Juve, Milan and Tottenham are eyeing PSG's Mauro Icardi.

Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne believes Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski is the best player in the world.

Of the players to have scored eight or more goals across all competitions in Europe's top five leagues this season, Lewandowski ranks top for goals (15), minutes per goal (59.87), shots on target (27), expected goals (13.39) and expected goals on target (13.45).

The Poland captain's fine form is a continuation of his remarkable achievements in recent years, including a treble with Bayern in 2019-20 and breaking Gerd Muller's record for Bundesliga goals in a season last term.

With the Ballon d'Or set to be awarded next month after being cancelled last year, De Bruyne feels Lewandowski's performances over the last two years are deserving of the award. 

"I would have to look at a two year period and I would choose Robert Lewandowski," De Bruyne said. "For what he has done goalscoring-wise and what he has won with Bayern Munich."

De Bruyne also addressed the comments of his City team-mate Raheem Sterling, who voiced his openness to a move abroad due to concerns about his playing time.

"Sometimes it is tough to play one game and then miss then next, but obviously it is the manager who has to make those choices," De Bruyne continued.

"We have a group of 22 or 23 internationals who are unbelievable so when the team plays good, there's not a lot you can say as a player. It can be frustrating, but we are all supportive of each other."

The Belgium midfielder also insisted that, while the team are keen to compete for a Champions League title, they are satisfied with their numerous domestic achievements in recent seasons.

"We always try to maintain a high level at his club and compete for titles," De Bruyne added. "That is what we did last year. Winning two semis and a [Carabao Cup] final. Sometimes you can lose these games [the 1-0 defeat in the Champions League final against Chelsea] and you have to move on.

"We've not won [the Champions League] but we are trying. Hopefully in my period here we can get one. It doesn't define your legacy, maybe for people outside. I'm happy with what we've done as a club for the last six years."

Julian Nagelsmann was pleased with Bayern Munich's display in their 5-1 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen but felt his side should have added even more goals to their tally.

The reigning champions responded to their first defeat of Nagelsmann's tenure two weeks ago against Eintracht Frankfurt with a superb attacking display at BayArena on Sunday.

Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry each scored a first-half double and Thomas Muller was also on target in between those braces, all in the space of 37 minutes.

It marked the first time Bayern have scored five goals away from home in the first half of a Bundesliga match as they reclaimed top spot from Borussia Dortmund.

Bayern also hit the post through Leroy Sane, whose eight shots was the most of any player in a game this campaign in the German top flight.

And with Patrik Schick getting a consolation for Leverkusen in the second half, Nagelsmann does not believe the scoreline was a true reflection come full-time.

"We had an incredible number of closing situations and an outstanding structure," he told DAZN. 

"It sounds strange at 5-0, but we also had a chance of scoring sixth, seventh and eighth goals in the first half. We could have scored more.

"The second half was more calm and that's completely normal from both teams' point of view. 

"A lot of things we didn't do well against Frankfurt worked out today. In the end we are very happy to win the game."

 

Only twice before in Bundesliga history has an away side scored five goals in a quicker time from kick-off – Dortmund against Schalke (23 minutes) and Karlsruhe versus Frankfurt (30 minutes), both in 1964.

There have been 10 occasions when teams have scored five or more goals in the first half of a Bundesliga game this century, with Bayern responsible for six of those 45-minute thrashings, including when they put five past Dortmund before the break in March 2018 on the way to a 6-0 win.

Leverkusen are no strangers to one-sided first halves, meanwhile, as they are the only team to have scored six goals in the opening 45 minutes of a match in the division since the turn of the millennium, doing so in their 6-1 win over Frankfurt in 2018-19.

"It was a terrible beginning," Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky added. "We have to ask ourselves whether we gave it our all. There was something missing from everyone today."

Lewandowski's two goals came from three shots as the Poland international brought an end to his mini drought.

His run of scoring in 15 successive league games was ended prior to the international break when failing to net against Greuther Furth and then Frankfurt, before also going scoreless in Poland's double-header of October fixtures.

The 33-year-old has now scored two or more goals in 73 different Bundesliga games – a tally bettered only by late Bayern great Gerd Muller (87) – and was happy to joke about his short-lived scoreless run after getting back on the scoresheet.

"Four games without a goal... which four games? Do you mean training? I scored in the Champions League game before the Frankfurt match," Lewandowski pointed out.

"Personally, I'm happy when people ask when I'll score my next goal. That shows what expectations they have of me.

"Sometimes there are phases when the ball doesn't fall to you, you have to be patient. Today it worked out twice.

"We scored five goals in 45 minutes. At the break it was clear we would take all three points with us to Munich. We can be satisfied with the performance."

The 29 goals scored by Bayern in their opening eight Bundesliga matches equals their previous highest tally at this stage in a campaign from the 1976-77 season.

Bayern Munich helped themselves to five first-half goals as they thumped Bayer Leverkusen 5-1 on Sunday to return to the top of the Bundesliga.

The reigning champions suffered their first defeat of Julian Nagelsmann's tenure last time out, but they responded in the best way imaginable at BayArena.

Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry helped themselves to a couple of goals each in a one-way first half, with Thomas Muller registering in between those doubles.

Leverkusen were level on points with Bayern before kick-off and pulled one back through Patrik Schick, but Nagelsmann's side were able to cruise through the rest of the match to overtake Borussia Dortmund at the summit.

The hosts had won their previous five matches in all competitions, keeping a clean sheet in the last three of those, but it took Lewandowski just three minutes to backheel Dayot Upamecano's centre past Lukas Hradecky.

Bayern went on to lose after opening the scoring against Frankfurt, but there was no sign of that happening against Leverkusen. Shortly after Leroy Sane sent a shot against the right post, Lewandowski lashed home a second of the game on the half-hour.

That was the first of four goals in seven minutes, with Muller in the right place to deflect in a Niklas Sule shot before setting up Gnabry to score. Gnabry then joined Lewandowski in bagging a brace with a shot into the bottom-left corner.

The visitors had kept a clean sheet in only one of their last nine league games, however, and that poor defensive record was extended when Schick latched onto Florian Wirtz's throughball and arrowed a shot past Manuel Neuer in the 55th minute.

Sane squandered a couple of good opportunities to get in on the act, including a header over the bar from close range, while a disallowed Lucas Alario goal for offside was the closest Leverkusen went to further reducing the deficit.

Bayern Munich became the third-fastest side in Bundesliga history to score five goals in an away match as they raced into a 5-0 lead against Bayer Leverkusen inside 37 minutes.

The reigning champions tasted their first defeat of Julian Nagelsmann's tenure at home to Eintracht Frankfurt prior to the international break, but they responded in style at BayArena.

After going back-to-back league games without scoring for the first time in two years, Robert Lewandowski flicked Bayern into the lead inside three minutes in Sunday's match.

Lewandowski scored a second on the half-hour mark and Thomas Muller was next on the scoresheet four minutes later.

Serge Gnabry added a quickfire brace of his own, the Germany international dinking in Bayern's fourth of the contest before slotting in number five two minutes later.

Only twice before in Bundesliga history has an away side scored five goals in a quicker time from kick-off – Borussia Dortmund against Schalke (23 minutes) and Karlsruhe versus Frankfurt (30 minutes), both in 1964.

There have been 10 occasions when teams have scored five or more goals in the first half of a Bundesliga game this century, with Bayern responsible for six of those 45-minute thrashings, including when they put five past Dortmund before the break in March 2018 on the way to a 6-0 win.

Leverkusen are no strangers to one-sided first halves, meanwhile, as they are the only team to have scored six goals in the opening 45 minutes of a match in the division since the turn of the millennium, doing so in their 6-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in 2018-19.

Erling Haaland is putting early-season pressure on Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga goal charts, with the Norwegian hailed as "massively important" to Borussia Dortmund after his latest heroics.

Bayern striker Lewandowski has finished as the German top flight's leading scorer in six of the last eight seasons, including each of the last four campaigns.

In 2020-21, Lewandowski hit 41 goals to break Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 in a Bundesliga campaign, yet it is no foregone conclusion that he will be top of the pile this term.

Haaland is the rising force, and the 21-year-old returned from a thigh injury lay-off to score twice in Saturday's 3-1 victory over Mainz.

The double – a penalty followed by a stoppage-time clincher – took Haaland to nine goals in six Bundesliga games this season, lifting him two clear of 33-year-old Ballon d'Or contender Lewandowski.

It was the fourth time this season in the Bundesliga that Haaland has scored twice in a game, and the 17th double of his league career with Dortmund, which only began in January of last year. He also has a Bundesliga hat-trick and a four-goal game on his Dortmund resume.

In all, Haaland has 49 goals in 49 Bundesliga games for BVB, a startling return and one that has drawn attention from the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City.

Marco Reus, who scored Dortmund's opener against Mainz, said: "We have obviously missed Erling in the past few games. Today, we have seen it again: he is massively important for us because he always occupies two or three players. The fact that he scored two goals on his comeback is fantastic. That's why we signed him."

 

Head coach Marco Rose said, quoted on the club's website: "We needed him, including for defending set-pieces. He defended well towards the end. And then he went and scored another goal in the 95th minute. That came in handy."

Whether Haaland stays at the top of the scoring chart remains to be seen. Bayern were in action against Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday, with Lewandowski looking to end what for him represented a worryingly long lean patch: two Bundesliga games without a goal.

Dortmund sat top of the table ahead of that game, and would stay there in the event of a draw. Should either team win at the BayArena, however, they would displace Rose's side from first place.

The race is on to sign Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland, who might be set to make a move in mid-2022.

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain are all interested in the Norwegian goal machine, but could Newcastle United also be a factor?.

Haaland netted 41 goals from 41 games last term for Dortmund and already has 13 this season.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE ENTER HAALAND RACE

Newcastle are the latest club to enter the race to sign Borussia Dortmund's Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, reports AS.

The report claims Real Madrid are losing their grip as favourites to sign Haaland, with Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and now Newcastle potentially in contention.

The Magpies' move is said to be "not out of the question" following the club's takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund who appear set to make a splash in the transfer market in January. 

ROUND-UP

- Mohamed Salah's agent has arrived in England for contract talks with Liverpool over a £500k-per-week deal, according to the Mirror.

- ESPN reports that Premier League trio Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool are tracking Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, rivalling Real Madrid. United's interest is said to be based around whether Paul Pogba departs.

- Dusan Vlahovic will follow Federico Chiesa's lead and reject a new Fiorentina contract offer in favour of a move to Juventus, ignoring Premier League interest from Tottenham and Liverpool, reports La Gazzetta dello Sport.

- Barcelona are interested in Manchester United's Nemanja Matic, claims The Sun. The Serbian has a little over 18 months remaining on his United deal so Barca believe they could sign him next off-season on a cut-price deal.

- Goal Germany reports that Bayern Munich are making a move to sign Salzburg talent Karim Adeyemi, with the player's agent and father reportedly holding talks with the Bavarian club on Saturday.

"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch – as next opponents Bayern Munich may find out on Sunday.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform prior to the international break, after which Leverkusen now prepare to face champions Bayern in a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Havertz at Leverkusen, it is a sign to sit up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continued to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – at least up until the international break, it was the best rate of all players in Europe's top five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and consider how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

Julian Nagelsmann expects normal order to be restored against Bayer Leverkusen as he backed Bayern Munich and Robert Lewandowski to get back on track this weekend.

Lewandowski's run of netting in 15 successive Bundesliga matches came to an end prior to the international break as he failed to find the net against Greuther Furth and then Eintracht Frankfurt.

It is the first time since November 2019 that the 33-year-old has gone scoreless in consecutive league games, and he also failed to find the net in Poland's World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Albania over the international break.

The former Borussia Dortmund striker will be looking to put that right when Bayern travel to the BayArena, but his average of a goal every 225 minutes against Leverkusen is his worst record against all current German top-flight teams.

However, Nagelsmann is convinced the prolific marksman will return to the scoresheet in Sunday's top-of-the-table showdown, with Bayern only ahead of their opponents by virtue of a superior goal difference going into the weekend.

"Normally the situation takes care of itself when you take into the equation his quality and the number of chances we create," Nagelsmann said at Friday's pre-match news conference. "I expect things to return to normal again on Sunday.

"Of course I speak to him, like I do every other player, but mostly about the things that he can bring onto the pitch. Even a player like Robert can go a few games without scoring a goal." 

 

Bayern's unbeaten start to Nagelsmann's tenure came to a surprise end in their most recent match as they fell to a 2-1 loss at home to Frankfurt, with that also their first league loss at the Allianz Arena since November 2019.

The reigning champions now face a tricky trip to Leverkusen, but the omens are on the visitors' side.

In the past eight such meetings between the first and second-placed teams in Bundesliga, the league leaders have lost only once – Leverkusen against Bayern in this corresponding fixture last season.

Nagelsmann is not seeking excuses on the back of the Frankfurt loss, a game in which opposition keeper Kevin Trapp made 10 saves – the joint-most of any keeper in Europe's top five leagues this season – with full focus now on Leverkusen.

"It would be too cheap for me to say it was simply a case of the ball not going in in the last match," Nagelsmann said. "We played very similar to our other games this season, but on this occasion we didn't score four or five goals.

"We've spent time working on that. Over the course of several games, we will continue to work and deal with issues in the same way. On Sunday we can take the next step in our development.

"You can see Leverkusen have had good results and they have as many points as we do. I prepare for such a game by watching the opponents' matches, reading about them, watching interviews.

"I've learned about the good spirit they have. They have a good feeling of togetherness in their camp. But in the end we are looking forward to a top game and it is one we want to win."

Nagelsmann confirmed Lucas Hernandez is in contention to start against Gerardo Seoane's side, despite facing a six-month prison term for breaching a restraining order following a 2017 conviction of domestic violence against his then girlfriend.

Hernandez will attend court next week, but Nagelsmann has no concerns over the defender's mindset.

"I've experienced a normal player, not one with any negative effects," Nagelsmann said when asked about Hernandez. "If I hadn't read about the story, I wouldn't have asked about it.

"He's trained well again today and made a good impression. If he's healthy then he will play both in this game and the Champions League match against Benfica on Wednesday."

Julian Nagelsmann fired a warning to defences across Europe by claiming Robert Lewandowski has a long time left at the top level – insisting the Ballon d'Or should come his way this year.

Although Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski turned 33 in August, there is no indication age is catching up with the Poland international.

His record haul of 41 Bundesliga goals last season came at a rate of one every 60.07 minutes.

That was the fastest rate of scoring across a campaign, in terms of minutes per goal, for any player with 10 or more goals in a Bundesliga season since the league was founded in 1963.

After missing out on Ballon d'Or recognition last year, when the award was cancelled due to the pandemic's impact on the global game, there is little doubt Lewandowski is a serious contender this time.

Bayern did not match up to their 2019-20 treble-winning feats, but they carried off a ninth consecutive Bundesliga title and Lewandowski was their spearhead.

"He deserves the Ballon d'Or – and in my opinion he has to win the award, because he has played more consistently than anyone else over the past three years," Bayern head coach Nagelsmann said.

Speaking to Munich newspaper Abendzeitung, Nagelsmann predicted Lewandowski would continue to thrive at the highest level into his late thirties.

"If Robert Lewandowski's body stays like this, it is far from over," said Nagelsmann.

"He is extremely dynamic, has no injuries, he can train a lot: I definitely trust him to play at the top, top level for a few more years – also because he aligns everything in his life accordingly, to be in the best physical condition."

 

In Bayern's triumphant 2019-20 Champions League campaign, Lewandowski netted 15 times, scoring on average once every 59.13 minutes. This term, he has four goals already in that competition from just 169 minutes on the pitch.

Lewandowski has said it "would mean a lot" to scoop the individual honour, and after being shortlisted his chief rival appears to be six-time winner Lionel Messi, who helped Argentina to Copa America glory.

Nagelsmann, meanwhile, is sitting tight when it comes to the future of Bayern defender Niklas Sule, whose contract expires at the end of this season.

Sule has been linked with Chelsea and Newcastle United, and Nagelsmann is taking a wait-and-see approach to what comes next for the Germany international.

"It depends on his development and also on the market situation whether he wants to extend the contract or not," Nagelsmann said. "Then we'll see if it works for both sides.

"Niki still has to develop a little with his potential and then make the most of it as a very good central defender."

Robert Lewandowski is hopeful of landing a first Ballon d'Or, citing his remarkable achievements over the past two years.

Lewandowski was in incredible form as Bayern Munich won a treble in 2019-20, but the award was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the 33-year-old has maintained his incredible standards and was named on the 30-man shortlist for this year's prize.

Last season, the centre-forward broke Gerd Muller's long-standing record of Bundesliga goals in a single season, netting 41 times in the league and scoring seven more across all other club competitions, the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues. 

Lewandowski has not surrendered that position this season, with his 13 strikes in all competitions lifting him above second and third-placed Erling Haaland and Karim Benzema, on 11 and 10 goals respectively.

The Poland captain feels his astonishing level of production makes a good case for him to win the award, despite competition from the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Benzema and six-time winner Lionel Messi.

"The possibility of winning the Ballon d'Or means a lot to me, it makes me feel proud, if you look at everything I've achieved, not just this year, last year as well when they cancelled the ceremony, I've won a lot of titles, scored a lot of goals," Lewandowski told Marca.

"It would mean a lot to me to win it, having won the Champions League, the Super Cup, the Club World Cup. Breaking Gerd Muller's record of [40] Bundesliga goals [in a single season] was also a big achievement, one which made me very proud and happy.

"Everyone can see what I have done and keep doing. My achievements speak for themselves because my last two years have been a big achievement, not just for me but for any player in history."

 

Of his many achievements over the last two years, breaking revered goalscorer Muller's record is one of the most special to Lewandowski, who surpassed the late Bayern legend on the final day of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season with a 90th-minute strike in a 5-2 victory over Augsburg.

"I have to say that I couldn't sleep well [the night I broke Muller's record]," Lewandowski continued. "I remember the week before the game well, I heard I was on the verge of breaking the record. Until then the importance of breaking it hadn't really dawned on me, not just for the Bundesliga but in terms of football history.

"The day of the match I thought "this is mentally tough because it's all anyone is talking about". I knew I was so close, on the verge of making history, it was hard, but after scoring in the final seconds of the game I said to myself, "this is like a Hollywood movie."

"I was very proud of myself, of my team-mates, because they helped me a lot to break the record. To be honest, I still can't truly appreciate the magnitude of it, but I know what it means to people, they remember that record stood for [nearly] 50 years."

After not being awarded in 2020, the Ballon d'Or – football's most prestigious individual award – is back up for grabs this year.

Argentina superstar Lionel Messi is the overwhelming favourite with the bookmakers to win a record-extending seventh trophy.

Messi was, of course, among a shortlist of 30 players nominated on Friday, with that number to be whittled down to just three players next month.

Here, Stats Perform looks at five candidates for the prize… starting with the obvious.

Lionel Messi

Barcelona may be in turmoil, but Lionel Messi was still at his extraordinary best before departing for Paris Saint-Germain amid financial strife for the LaLiga heavyweights – albeit on the trophy front he won only the Copa del Rey last term. In 2021, Messi has 29 goals, nine assists and 76 chances created domestically for Barca and PSG. But it is Messi's triumph with Argentina at the Copa America that make him the favourite for a seventh Ballon d'Or, with the achievement finally marking his first title on the international stage. Messi had four goals and five assists as Lionel Scaloni's men celebrated success in Brazil.

Jorginho

It has been a year to remember for Jorginho, who has been one of the biggest beneficiaries following Thomas Tuchel's appointment as Chelsea boss in January. The deep-lying playmaker was influential as the Blues were crowned Champions League winners for the second time, securing the trophy thanks to a 1-0 win over Manchester City. Fast forward two months and Jorginho was celebrating Euro 2020 success with Italy, playing in every match for the Azzurri, who defeated England in the final via a penalty shoot-out at Wembley. His achievements have already been acknowledged after he was named UEFA's Men Player of the Year.

N'Golo Kante

Much like team-mate Jorginho, N'Golo Kante has been superb under the tutelage of Tuchel. Kante was a top performer as Chelsea defeated Real Madrid in the semi-finals and was named man of the match following an all-action display against City in the final. France's shock last-16 exit to Switzerland at Euro 2020 is likely to count against Kante, but he remains one the finest midfielders in the game.

Robert Lewandowski

Really the only thing that denied Robert Lewandowski winning a Ballon d'Or in 2020 was France Football's decision not to present the award amid the coronavirus pandemic. While there was no repeat of the treble-winning heroics of that disrupted 2019-20 campaign, Lewandowski has still been in astounding form for Bayern Munich 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. So far in 2021 across Europe's top-five leagues, Lewandowski leads the way for goals scored (41) and big chances (as defined by Opta) scored (34).

Cristiano Ronaldo

Much like Messi, five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo did not necessarily enjoy his finest year in terms of domestic trophies won. Juventus ended up in a disappointing fourth position in Serie A, while they were knocked out of the Champions League last 16 by Porto. But he did finish as top scorer in the league with 29 goals and helped the Bianconeri win the Coppa Italia before he left to re-join Manchester United in a late transfer window move. Internationally, Ronaldo – at the age of 36 – finished top scorer at Euro 2020, where Portugal's defence of the European Championship was ended at the last-16 stage. In September, he became the record goalscorer in men's international football, as a brace against the Republic of Ireland took him to 111.

 

Ballon d'Or 2021 shortlist in full:  Cesar Azpilicueta, Nicolo Barella, Karim Benzema, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Kevin De Bruyne, Ruben Dias, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Bruno Fernandes, Phil Foden, Erling Haaland, Jorginho, Harry Kane, N'Golo Kante, Simon Kjaer, Robert Lewandowski, Romelu Lukaku, Riyad Mahrez, Lautaro Martinez, Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, Luka Modric, Gerard Moreno, Mason Mount, Neymar, Pedri, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah, Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez.

The winner of the prestigious prize will be announced at a ceremony in Paris on November 29.

 

 

The contenders for the Kopa Trophy – awarded to the world's best male under-21 footballer – was also published by France Football on Friday.

Barcelona's teen sensation Pedri, Bayern Munich talent Jamal Musiala and England trio Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Mason Greenwood have all been nominated.

Jeremy Doku, Ryan Gravenberch, Nuno Mendes, Gio Reyna and Florian Wirtz complete the 10-man shortlist.

Meanwhile, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Ederson, Edouard Mendy, Thibaut Courtois, Kasper Schmeichel, Manuel Neuer, Emiliano Martinez, Jan Oblak, Keylor Navas and Samir Handanovic are in the running for the Yachine Trophy, which is awarded to the best goalkeeper of the year. 

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