Karim Benzema believes the Clasico is still "the best match that exists in football", even with neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo involved for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Benzema's Madrid visit Barca next week to begin a new era in one of the game's most famous fixtures.

After Ronaldo left the capital for Juventus in 2018 – and later rejoined Manchester United – Messi followed his great rival out of LaLiga this year.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner, who had been a first-team player at Barca since 2004, joined Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer when the Blaugrana could not afford to renew his contract.

In the 21st century, only Diego Forlan (10) has scored more LaLiga goals against Barca than Ronaldo (nine). Messi's 18 Clasico goals are the most of any player against Madrid in that time.

Benzema, leading the league for both goals (nine) and assists (seven) in 2021-22, is the outstanding player among those who remain, but he insists the excitement around the match is undimmed.

"For me, it's still the same. It remains the best match that exists in football," he told ESPN.

"It doesn't matter about the players who are there, who have left or who will join. Real-Barca is historic.

"The names change, but before there was [Zinedine] Zidane, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, [Samuel] Eto'o. Real-Barca will always be Real-Barca."

 

Leaders Madrid will undoubtedly be favourites, even in Catalonia. Ahead of the games this week, when Los Blancos are not in action but Valencia visit Camp Nou, Barca are down in ninth.

Benzema is impressively holding the fort as Madrid's main man, but Barca are a little short on quality following Messi's departure amid a dire financial situation.

The Blaugrana's salary cap is only the seventh-highest in the league, a long way behind Madrid's, and doubts remain around Ronald Koeman.

He lost his first two Clasicos last season, becoming the first Barca coach to do so since Joaquim Rife in 1980. Koeman is also three without a win against champions Atletico Madrid, who beat his side before the international break.

But Benzema says: "There's never a good moment to play them. A team like Barca or any top team, they can have a poor game and then bounce back again.

"It's a match that we can't take lightly, even if they haven't played well so far."

Benzema certainly has played well, and he has made the shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

In this calendar year, the France international has 28 goals and 11 assists for Madrid in all competitions. Across the top five leagues, only three players – Robert Lewandowski (46), Erling Haaland (45) and Kylian Mbappe (43) – have recorded more involvements than Benzema's 39.

"It's been a dream since I was young and also a motivation – the Ballon d'Or represents the best players in the world and [it is great] to be on the list," Benzema said.

"If you count who's on there, it's very satisfying. It's always been an objective.

"You could say [I am close]. What I've done for the last three to four years, to continue to perform at a high level.

"When I'm playing, I don't think about the Ballon d'Or. I think about helping the team win, providing a spectacle. The Ballon d'Or comes as a result of that, because it's more of an individual focus, but it's all about the collective."

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer defended his decision to bench Cristiano Ronaldo before the international break, adamant he is trying to learn from his own mistake of overexerting his players.

Ronaldo was surprisingly named among the substitutes as United could only draw 1-1 with Everton in their most recent Premier League match.

United produced a disappointing performance as they were left with just two wins from their past seven home games in the league.

Ronaldo came on in the second half to make his 200th top-flight appearance for United, becoming only the fifth player since 2003 to reach that milestone in two of Europe's big five leagues.

The Portugal star looked furious as he walked down the tunnel after that match and a video posted by Mixed Martial Arts star Khabib Nurmagomedov – who was a guest of the club – showed Alex Ferguson questioning Solskjaer's decision to rest Ronaldo in a conversation with him.

But while Solskjaer says he would like to play Ronaldo – who scored four goals in two games for Portugal over the past couple of weeks – as much as possible, he insists he is looking out for United's collective conditioning in the long term.

"He's an exceptional player, finisher, goalscorer and professional," Solskjaer told reporters ahead of Saturday's clash with Leicester City.

"It's hard to leave him out and everyone would love to play six games [in a row] and play the same XI, it's great, but it's rotation [they need].

"We need to get to May with everyone firing. We got to May and the final stretch last season and we were a little tired.

"I'm the manager, I manage for the club, but of course it's nice to have him on the pitch because he'll always come up with the goods, and the more we have him on the pitch, the better."

While many will expect Ronaldo to start at the King Power Stadium, he could potentially be joined in attack by Marcus Rashford for the first time.

England international Rashford has not played since Euro 2020 after undergoing surgery on a persistent shoulder injury in August.

Solskjaer confirmed the forward will be in the squad on Saturday and did not rule out him starting, though the game will come slightly too soon for captain Harry Maguire.

"[Rashford] is in the squad, yes. If he's starting or not, I can't tell you because it wouldn't be right, but he's been really bright this week.

"He had a 60-minute involvement in a behind-closed-doors friendly last week, so he's fit and raring to go.

"Harry's just joined us on the grass this morning, so that was the first time he's been on the grass."

Fellow England international Jesse Lingard has been the subject of significant speculation in recent months after a blistering loan spell with West Ham last season.

His contract expires at the end of the season and he has been linked with numerous clubs, including Barcelona, though Solskjaer was unequivocal in his desire to keep Lingard at Old Trafford.

"Jesse's had a good start to the season, come on and scored a few goals," Solskjaer said. "He's been important for us.

"We want to prolong his contract; we see him as an important player. It's up to him to get more playing time, and maybe it's up to me giving him more playing time because he deserves to [play], but I always have to leave players out.

"Hopefully we can get a deal sorted for Jesse, because we really rate him and value him around the club. He's a top player and a top person."

Agent Jorge Mendes claims his client Cristiano Ronaldo "has never deserved the Ballon d'Or more" following his individual achievements at club and international level.

The Portugal star returned to Manchester United from Juventus after a successful year in terms of individual records, including becoming the all-time international top scorer while also finishing as the leading marksman in Serie A in 2020-21.

The veteran forward has continued to be prolific for United this term, scoring five goals in just six appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils.

Ronaldo was less successful on the team front as Juventus saw their grip on the Italian top-flight broken, finishing fourth, while also being knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16, and Portugal lost to Belgium at the same stage of the Euro 2020 finals.

However, Mendes feels the 36-year-old's remarkable personal achievements should make him the frontrunner for the coveted accolade.

"The numbers and statistics attached to Cristiano Ronaldo's name speak for themselves and should be enough for him to win another Ballon d'Or," Mendes told France Football.

"The absolutely remarkable total of 115 goals for the Portuguese national team makes him the record holder in the history of men's international football. This year he broke that 15-year-old record, to which he can add that of the top scorer in the history of professional football.

 

"All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time.

"It is true that this is an individual trophy, but let's not forget that Cristiano Ronaldo was the top scorer in the demanding Serie A and was also the top scorer in the last European Championship [making him the all-time top scorer in that competition].

"He holds the record for goals in the Champions League and is the only player in the world to have won everything in three different countries with maximum competitiveness, as was the case in England, Italy and Spain.

"All this at the age of 36, with an absolutely unique regularity, commitment and a phenomenal capacity to overcome difficulties. In my opinion, this year the Ballon d'Or has a name: Cristiano Ronaldo. For me, he has never deserved it more."

Ronaldo faces stern competition if he is to win a sixth Ballon d'Or, however, with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski netting the most goals in all club competitions among players in Europe's top five leagues last season (48, 12 more than Ronaldo) and he has already managed 13 this term.

Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi also outscored the Portugal star in all club competitions last season, and Messi claimed an international trophy with Argentina as he won the Copa America, finishing the tournament as the top scorer and top assist provider.

Meanwhile, midfielder Jorginho is being tipped as a contender after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

Former Liverpool left-back Jose Enrique believes LaLiga cannot compete with the Premier League, particularly in the absence of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018, before returning to Manchester United on deadline day this year, while Barcelona's financial difficulties forced Messi to find a new club in August, joining Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.

The departure of the superstar pair from the Spanish league has coincided with LaLiga falling behind other top European leagues financially – especially the English top flight.

As a result, Jose Enrique expects clubs from the two leagues to have dramatically different fortunes in the Champions League, tipping Premier League sides for more success after the all-English final last season as Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0.

"Ronaldo is not at Madrid, Messi is not at Barcelona," Jose Enrique told Stats Perform. "Now, listen, on TV sometimes people just wanted to watch those teams because of those two.

 

"That's the reality. And obviously, the income is not gonna be the same. But again, Madrid and Barcelona they are always two teams that in two legs they can beat you. Madrid, I believe more. A little bit more even if they're struggling.

"But obviously the Premier League, even with the COVID situation. Look at Chelsea who won the Champions League and went out there and spent 100 something million and bought Lukaku. So you can’t compare at the moment.

"Listen, in our game of football, anything can happen. But I [think] the strongest teams, they're gonna be the English teams, definitely, in the Champions League."

It is not only the Premier League that Jose Enrique thinks is ahead of LaLiga, with the 35-year-old explaining that the wages on offer in Serie A are also superior to those in Spain.

"For example, Italy I see them as strong as well, the Italian League," Jose Enrique continued. "And now I know how much they pay to the players and everything and I know in Italy they're paying quite good, even normal teams.

"In Spain, they're not paying nearly that much compared with some of the fees that they've been [doing] there."

Cristiano Ronaldo said he promised to "always be looking for more and more and more" after scoring another hat-trick in Portugal's World Cup qualifying rout of Luxembourg.

Ronaldo netted his 58th career hat-trick – his 10th for Portugal – as the Selecao eased past minnows Luxembourg 5-0 on Tuesday.

The five-time Ballon d'Or, 36, winner scored two penalties within five minutes early in the first half before completing the treble three minutes from the end of the match after Bruno Fernandes and Joao Palhinha had also found the back of the net.

Portugal are one point behind Group A leaders Serbia, though they have a game in hand, heading into next month's crucial showdown on the road to Qatar 2022.

Ronaldo – who extended his all-time men's international goals record to 115 – wrote via Instagram: "Another victory, another step towards our goal, another historic night in defence of our colours!

"Everything becomes easier when we play at home and in front of an audience that cares for us from the first to the last minute…

"I had promised that I would always be looking for more and more and more!

"It's in my DNA and in our DNA, we're never content, we never lower our arms and we always go."

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos jumped to the defence of his experienced side after they cruised past Luxembourg 5-0 in their World Cup qualifier thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo's 58th career hat-trick and 10th international treble put hosts Portugal out of sight at the Estadio Algarve, where Joao Palhinha and Bruno Fernandes also got on the scoresheet on Tuesday.

The five-goal crushing left Portugal a point behind Group A leaders Serbia, albeit with a game in hand, with two matches remaining and the top two teams meet on the final matchday, in what is likely to be a winner-takes-all decider.

However, Santos' focus after the game was on the age of his squad as he quashed suggestions that his veterans were likely to let him down again, after exiting both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage.

"I hear a lot about it [the age of the squad], I even understand, but more changes than what we have been done over the past six years are difficult," Santos told reporters during his post-match his news conference, with set to be 37 heading into next year's World Cup.

"Just look at who was at the World [Cup], the European Championship and who is playing now. There are no age restrictions, it doesn't even make sense.

"Players do not have to stop playing for the national team because they are of more or less age, quality is what counts. 

"Fortunately, we have a lot of 30-year-old or 31-year-old players able to get here and play and the players have shown that [quality]."

Portugal will have to wait until November's international break to seal their fate and Santos appreciates the decisive nature of the Serbia clash while imploring his side to still improve.

"We managed to restrain the opponent and take advantage of every situation to transform them into goalscoring opportunities," he told RTP after the game.

"We did very well until the 25th minute, with how we played and what we had seen from Luxembourg.

"After that we also did well, but we started to want to do everything in a hurry, in one touch, two touches, and we even allowed Luxembourg to get ahead.

"The last game will be decisive, whatever happens in the next round, neither team will be out, although I believe we will win [against the Republic of Ireland] – it will be decisive."

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick as Portugal cruised past Luxembourg 5-0 in Tuesday's World Cup qualifying clash.

Ronaldo took just eight minutes to open the scoring at the Estadio Algarve as he finished from the penalty spot before doubling his tally soon after in the same fashion.

Bruno Fernandes netted a third inside a decisive opening 20 minutes before the Manchester United playmaker assisted Joao Palhinha for the fourth in the second half.

Ronaldo then secured his hat-trick with three minutes remaining to cap the hosts' dominant performance and ensure they remain a point behind Group A leaders Serbia – who have played a game more – ahead of the next international break.

Sebastien Thill and Anthony Moris were the guilty parties for the early penalties with fouls on Bernardo Silva and Ronaldo, the latter clinically converting both.

Things went from bad to worse for the visitors as Fernandes made it 3-0 despite Moris getting a hand to his right-footed drive following Silva's throughball after 17 minutes.

Ronaldo almost claimed his hat-trick on the stroke of half-time but was denied by Moris, who also saved Silva's acrobatic volley.

Danel Sinani brought a rare save from Rui Patricio, with both Palhinha and Fernandes missing the target at the other end after being found by Nuno Mendes' searching deliveries.

Ronaldo's overhead-kick deserved to complete his treble, but Moris tipped over before Palhinha headed home from Fernandes' resulting corner.

Luxembourg almost grabbed a consolation goal through Gerson Rodrigues, but his left-footed strike was turned away by Patricio and Ronaldo completed the scoring as he headed in from Ruben Neves' deep cross.

Marcus Rashford is thrilled to have Cristiano Ronaldo back at Old Trafford and is hoping the superstar forward can provide "a push" for Manchester United to win trophies.

The Portugal forward made a sensational return to the red half of Manchester on deadline day this year and has since scored five goals in just six appearances across all competitions – the most of any player at the club.

The 36-year-old has done so despite ranking third at United this season for total shots (23), recording the best conversion rate (21.74 per cent) of any player at the club who has taken at least eight shots.

Ronaldo's finishing and ability to find dangerous positions clearly remain at an elite level, with the forward slightly outperforming his expected goals total of 4.27 – the highest mark of any United player by some distance, with Bruno Fernandes second on 2.44.

Without Ronaldo, United last earned silverware in 2017, collecting an EFL Cup and Europa League double under Jose Mourinho, and have not won the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013.

Rashford, however, believes having five-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo back could be the catalyst the club needs in their pursuit of success.

"[Having Ronaldo back at the club is] a great feeling for me as a player, but also as a fan of the club as well," Rashford told BBC Breakfast.

"It's always nice when a club legend finds a way back to the club. To be playing with him back at Old Trafford is a terrific feeling and hopefully gives us a push to start winning more trophies."

Rashford has not played for club or country since England's penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy in the final of Euro 2020 due to a shoulder injury.

The Three Lions star missed just four matches for United in 2020-21, making 57 appearances across all competitions in which he scored 21 goals and assisted 12.

Among outfield players in Europe's top five leagues, Rashford's 4,153 minutes were the 16th-most last season, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka (4,707) top of that list.

In the forward's five full seasons as a senior United player, Rashford made 253 appearances, second only to Manchester City's Bernardo Silva (255) in that time.

The 23-year-old – who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester due to his campaign against child poverty – returned to full training at the start of October and is hoping to be back in action sooner rather than later.

"My recovery is I wouldn't say coming to an end, because obviously I have to keep looking after it, but I'm in a much better place physically and mentally," Rashford added.

"Last year was a very long season for me, I got this injury at the end of September, and gradually it got that little bit worse, but now I'm fully free of that, I feel much better physically and mentally."

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. 

Cristiano Ronaldo has been named Premier League Player of the Month for September after making a great start to his second spell with Manchester United.

Ronaldo sensationally returned to Old Trafford from Juventus at the end of August and has hit the ground running.

The Portugal captain scored twice in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United in his first match for the Red Devils since 2009.

Ronaldo was also on target in a 2-1 Premier League win at West Ham last month and found the back of the net twice in the Champions League.

The prolific 36-year-old's 17 shots in September was more than any other player registered in the top flight.

Ronaldo was on Friday named as Premier League Player of the Month for the fifth time, matching his former team-mate Wayne Rooney's record tally for United.

Real Madrid's record all-time goalscorer Ronaldo last won the gong in March 2008, a gap of 13 years that is the longest in Premier League history.

Joao Cancelo, Antonio Rudiger, Allan Saint-Maximin, Mohamed Salah and Ismaila Sarr were the other players on the shortlist for the award.

A Nevada court has recommended a civil case alleging Cristiano Ronaldo committed a sexual assault should be dismissed.

It means the Portugal star is likely to receive confirmation in the near future that the case has been thrown out.

Ronaldo was accused by Kathryn Mayorga of assaulting her in a Las Vegas hotel in 2009, but the footballer has strenuously denied the allegation.

Now at Manchester United, whom he joined from Italian club Juventus in August, Ronaldo initially described the claims, first reported in 2018 by German publication Der Spiegel, as "fake news" via an Instagram video.

No criminal charges were brought, with the Clark County District Attorney's Office announcing in July 2019 that the allegations could not "be proven beyond a reasonable doubt".

Ronaldo's lawyers pushed for the civil case to be dropped, and a United States District Court judge for the state of Nevada has agreed that documents, which emerged via alleged illegal hacks by Football Leaks, should be inadmissible and the action dismissed.

The court criticised Mayorga's legal representatives, Stovall and Associates, for the handling of the case.

"Dismissing Mayorga's case for the inappropriate conduct of her attorney is a harsh result," the court report said. "But it is, unfortunately, the only appropriate sanction to ensure the integrity of the judicial process."

In a document released by the court on Thursday, it was stated that the documents were "inherently prejudicial to Ronaldo fairly presenting his defence".

The report, signed by United States magistrate judge Daniel J Albregts, concluded: "It is recommended that Ronaldo's motion for case terminating sanctions be granted. It is further recommended that Mayorga's action be dismissed with prejudice."

The court's decision can be challenged with a written objection within 14 days, it stated.

Ronaldo said on Twitter in 2018: "I firmly deny the accusations being issued against me. Rape is an abominable crime that goes against everything that I am and believe in."

According to Der Spiegel, Mayorga first made a complaint of sexual assault in 2009 and subsequently reached an out-of-court settlement with Ronaldo. It is claimed by the magazine she was paid $375,000 as part of a privacy agreement, preventing her from going public with the allegations.

Manchester United defender Luke Shaw hailed the impact Cristiano Ronaldo has had on the Red Devils' mentality since returning to Old Trafford.

Ronaldo returned to United in August – via stops at Real Madrid and Juventus – to end a 12-year absence with the club, having first made his Premier League debut in 2003 under Alex Ferguson.

The Portugal captain has hit the ground running since then, scoring five times across the top flight and the Champions League, including a stoppage-time winner against Villarreal.

And Shaw says the character of Ronaldo, who made his 200th Premier League appearance for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side against Everton, is positively impacting his team-mates.

"You know the star he is, what he has been doing over a number of years, it is just unbelievable to be in a dressing room with him," Shaw told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"You see the way he conducts himself, how professional he is. It's clear to me why he has been at the top for so many years.

"His mentality is second to none. I think he has really improved that in and around the changing room."

United have been slightly erratic in their performances, however, as they are two points off top-flight leaders Chelsea after being beaten at home by Aston Villa and drawing with Everton in their last two league games.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, has remained in scintillating form and currently sits on 87 Premier League goals for Solskjaer's men.

The United head coach himself managed 84 goals in his first 200 top-flight outings, with Wayne Rooney leading the way on 93 – apart from that pair, no other player netted more than 47 (Paul Scholes) in their opening double century for the club..

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said he had no regrets starting Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench as Manchester United were held by Everton on Saturday.

The Red Devils boss made five changes to the side that beat Villarreal in the Champions League on Wednesday courtesy of a last-gasp Ronaldo goal.

The decision appeared to have been vindicated when Anthony Martial, making his first Premier League start since August, scored in the top flight for the first time since February to put United ahead.

Martial had to come off after picking up a knock, and less than 10 minutes after Solskjaer introduced Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho, Everton equalised as Andros Townsend buried only their second shot on target of the contest.

United could not find a way to take all three points and only avoided defeat when Yerry Mina's tap-in was correctly disallowed for offside by VAR, while they have now won just two of their past six games in all competitions.

Ronaldo looked clearly frustrated as he headed straight for the tunnel muttering to himself after the final whistle, but Solskjaer, who earlier cited the physical and emotional fatigue from their Champions League exploits, defended his team selection.

Asked if he regretted not starting Ronaldo, he replied: "No. You make decisions throughout a long, long season, you have to manage the players' workload and the decision for me was the correct one.

"Anthony Martial did well, scored a good goal. Edinson [Cavani] needed minutes and could have had a goal. We have to make those decisions at the time."

United had nearly 72 per cent of the possession, but they could only manage 13 shots to Everton's 12 and rarely looked like scoring after Townsend's leveller.

Solskjaer was left frustrated at the manner in which his side conceded on the counter-attack following their own corner.

"We got hit on one break that cost us and we lacked that cutting edge to get the important second goal," he said. "We made a couple of decisions that cost us. We had players behind the ball when the ball was delivered and we should have dealt with it. We need to work on it because we are facing more and more opponents who allow us to have possession."

With games against Leicester City, Atalanta (twice), Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City to come after the international break, Solskjaer insisted he has confidence performances and results will improve.

"It's a big month. We have to be focused and make sure we use the international break well, come back with energy and [with a] clear focus," he said.

"The mindset is good, the players are hungry to improve. We dominated the game but just couldn't get the second goal you need in games like this.

"I'm confident we will get the best out of this squad. A lot has happened this month [player arrivals]. We have loads to work on but I do believe in these players and this coaching staff. I believe we have something going but the proof is in the pudding."

Andros Townsend insists his goal celebration during Everton's 1-1 draw with Manchester United was a mark of respect towards Cristiano Ronaldo, rather than mockery.

Townsend netted a second-half equaliser as the Toffees left Old Trafford with a well-earned point.

The winger rounded off a rapid counter by the visitors in the 65th minute, latching onto Abdoulaye Doucoure's pass before drilling past David de Gea.

Townsend marked his strike with his own interpretation of the signature celebration performed by Ronaldo.

But the former Crystal Palace man says the celebration was simply a tribute to one of his idols.

"Not imitating, it's just a mark of respect to a guy who influenced my career," he told BT Sport.

"I spent many hours on the training pitch and in the video room trying to analyse his free-kicks and his step-overs and the way he dedicated himself to football. 

"So, it wasn't an imitation; it was a mark of respect to one of my idols. 

"I probably didn't do the celebration justice and didn't execute it properly!"

For Townsend, the equaliser marked his fifth goal in nine appearances since swapping Selhurst Park for Goodison Park, as many as he scored in his final 79 appearances for Palace.

It was his third consecutive goalscoring appearance in the Premier League, a career first for the former England winger.

Manchester United fell short of expectations once again as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Everton at Old Trafford, with Andros Townsend continuing his brilliant start to the season.

United were bailed out by a late Cristiano Ronaldo winner after an unimpressive performance against Villarreal in midweek, though there was no such drama this time as the Red Devils lacked cohesion in the final third.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sprung something of a surprise by benching Ronaldo in favour of Edinson Cavani, and although that change may not have had the desired effect, United did go into the break leading thanks to Anthony Martial's first league goal since February.

Ronaldo was introduced from the bench for his 200th Premier League appearance but Everton refused to go away and deservedly levelled thanks to Townsend's fifth goal of the season, that equaliser preventing United from briefly going top.

The hosts survived a late scare as Yerry Mina saw a goal ruled out for offside following a nervy VAR check for the home faithful.

Everton were arguably the better team for most the first half and went close to the opening goal in the 16th minute with a Michael Keane header that went just wide.

Demarai Gray then forced David de Gea into a great save with a fine long-range effort shortly after a Cavani header that tested Jordan Pickford.

It took a little longer for United to click into gear, but when they did the deadlock was broken. Mason Greenwood picked out Bruno Fernandes, who turned before feeding Martial into the left side of the area and the Frenchman converted via a slight deflection.

Solskjaer introduced Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho as United went in search of the clincher, but Everton caught them on the break to level.

Gray twice held off flimsy tackles from Fred before feeding Abdoulaye Doucoure, and he set Townsend up for a straightforward finish just past the hour.

Everton thought they had a winner as Mina tapped in from Tom Davies' pass, but United's blushes were spared as replays showed the Colombian had strayed just offside.

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