Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were more deserving of winning the 2021 Ballon d'Or award than Lionel Messi, according to Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos.

Messi won football's top individual accolade for a record-extending seventh time on Monday largely thanks to his success at international level with Argentina.

The 34-year-old played a key part in Argentina's Copa America success, contributing to nine of the 13 goals his side scored as he ended his long wait for an international trophy.

He has had a rather more mixed year at club level, having scored 28 goals in 29 games for Barcelona before completing a shock transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in August.

Messi has netted just four times in his first 11 games for PSG, but he did enough to finish ahead of favourite Robert Lewandowski for his latest Ballon d'Or triumph.

Lewandowski finished second despite scoring 53 times in 42 games this year so far – 15 more than any other player in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions.

Chelsea and Italy midfielder Jorginho was third, followed by Benzema – who has 34 goals this year – in fourth and N'Golo Kante placed fifth. 

Five-time winner Ronaldo finished sixth – the first time he has failed to make the top three in 11 years – but Kroos insists his former team-mate, as well as current colleague Benzema, have impressed more this year than Messi.

"[Messi's] award is absolutely not deserved," Kroos said on his Einfach mal Luppen podcast. "There is no doubt that Messi, with Cristiano, has been the player of the last decade, but this year there should've been others ahead of him.

"For me, Karim would have been the number one if you were really looking for the best individual player of the last year. I can see from close quarters what an outstanding footballer he is.

"When I see how many decisive goals Cristiano has scored lately – Manchester United are still in the Champions League thanks to him alone – then, in my eyes, Cristiano would have also come before Messi."

Messi won the first of his seven Ballons d'Or in 2009 and now has two more than Ronaldo, with Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten next on the list with three each.

The PSG superstar's latest success has caused plenty of debate, however, with legendary Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas also questioning the outcome of Monday's vote.

"It is increasingly difficult for me to believe in football awards," he posted on his personal Twitter account.

"For me, Messi, he is one of the five best players in all of history, but you have to know how to list the most outstanding players in a season. It's not that hard."

Cristiano Ronaldo lost ground in his quest to claim more Ballon d'Or awards than his rival Lionel Messi, finishing sixth while the Argentine claimed a historic seventh award.

It is the first time the Portugal forward, who was not in attendance at the ceremony in Paris on Monday, has not been named in the top three since 2010, when Messi – who won his second prize that year – was joined by then Barcelona team-mates Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

Ronaldo managed 30 goals at club level in 2021 for Juventus and Manchester United, while also becoming the all-time top scorer in men's international football.

The 36-year-old finishes above Paris Saint-Germain pair Gianluigi Donnarumma and Kylian Mbappe as well as Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and Liverpool attacker Mohamed Salah.

Salah and Mbappe both outscored Ronaldo at club level this calendar year, scoring 32 and 37 goals across all competitions, but finished seventh and ninth respectively.

Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante and Real Madrid centre-forward Karim Benzema claimed the fifth and fourth spots, with Ronaldo's former team-mate enjoying a prolific year, managing 34 goals and 12 assists for Los Blancos in all competitions.

Jorginho, who won the Euros with Italy and claimed the Champions League with Chelsea, makes it into the top three behind Messi and Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, who finished second but won the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Lewandowski had been considered the favourite before then, partly due to breaking Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season, while he has netted 53 times in 2021.

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

Ballon d'Or top 10:

1. Lionel Messi (PSG and Argentina)
2. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich and Poland)
3. Jorginho (Chelsea and Italy)
4. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid and France)
5. N'Golo Kante (Chelsea and France)
6. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United and Portugal)
7. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool and Egypt)
8. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City and Belgium)
9. Kylian Mbappe (PSG and France)
10. Gianluigi Donnarumma (PSG and Italy)

Manchester City's forward pursuit has dominated headlines.

Since Sergio Aguero left for Barcelona, Pep Guardiola's champions have been targeting a replacement.

Karim Benzema could reportedly fill the void.

 

TOP STORY – BENZEMA TO CITY?

Manchester City want to sign Real Madrid star Karim Benzema, according to El Nacional.

Premier League champions City are desperate to bolster their attack, having missed out on Tottenham's Harry Kane following the departure of Sergio Aguero at the start of the season.

Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic have been linked, but Benzema – out of contract in 2023 – has emerged as an option.

 

ROUND-UP

- Nicolo Schira claims Bayern Munich are set to battle Chelsea for Federico Chiesa. The Italy international is on loan at Juventus from Fiorentina and set to join the Bianconeri permanently at the end of the season. However, if Juve fail to qualify for the Champions League, rivals could pounce.

Barcelona are eyeing a move for Manchester United forward Anthony Martial, per Mundo Deportivo. Martial has found game time hard to come by at Old Trafford.

- SuperDerpote claims Madrid midfielder Luka Modric would be open to leaving for City. Modric is out of contract at the end of the season. It comes after Marca said Los Blancos are not interested in United star and soon-to-be free agent Paul Pogba.

Marcelo Brozovic is set to re-sign with Serie A champions Inter, according to Tuttosport. Brozovic has been linked with United, Barca and PSG.

Vinicius Junior's stunning late strike helped Real Madrid to a 2-1 win over Sevilla at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.

Sevilla, led by former Los Blancos boss Julen Lopetegui, could have moved a point clear of Madrid at the top of the table with victory, and they got off to a fine start thanks to Rafa Mir's early header.

Karim Benzema pulled the hosts level shortly after the half-hour mark, before Vinicius secured maximum points three minutes from full-time with a wonderful long-range drive.

The result moved Carlo Ancelotti's men four points clear of Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad at the top of the table, with Sevilla a further point back in fourth.

Sevilla went ahead in the 12th minute when an unmarked Mir headed Marcos Acuna's corner past Thibaut Courtois from 12 yards.

The striker should have scored again just minutes later, but David Alaba cleared his initial effort off the line and Courtois got down well to block the follow-up.

Lucas Ocampos hit the crossbar from distance as Sevilla sought to consolidate their lead, but Madrid pulled level when Benzema slotted into an empty net after Yassine Bounou had spilled Eder Militao's long-range strike onto the post.

Marco Asensio whipped wide from 25 yards shortly before the hour mark, while Vinicius wastefully blazed over after a rapid counter-attack. 

The Brazil international had the final say, though, cutting in from the left and fizzing a strike past Bounou from 22 yards to seal an important win.

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

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

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

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

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)

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

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

 

Lionel Messi (PSG, Argentina)

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

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

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, Portugal)

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

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

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)

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

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

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)

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

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

 

Kylian Mbappe (PSG, France)

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

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

Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)

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

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

 

N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

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

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

Carlo Ancelotti was full of praise for midfielder Toni Kroos after his influential display in Real Madrid's 3-0 Champions League win over Sheriff on Wednesday.

Kroos doubled Los Blancos' advantage before the interval after David Alaba had opened the scoring, while Karim Benzema added a third in the second half.

The routine win helped the LaLiga giants progress to the last 16 of the competition for the 19th season a row – the only team to do so since the round was introduced in the 2003-04 season.

Kroos has now been involved in four goals in his last three games in all competitions for Madrid (two goals, two assists) – as many as he had in his previous 13 games – and Ancelotti was delighted with his contribution.

"If Kroos is well the coach is calmer," the Italian told a media conference. "He handles the ball like nobody else. 

"That combination with Casemiro and Modric is spectacular. He is also scoring goals and he is doing very well."

The match was played on the same day Benzema was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence and fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of Mathieu Valbuena.

The France striker was one of five people standing trial over the attempt to extort former international team-mate Valbuena in a case dating back to June 2015.

It did not seem to distract the 33-year-old, who was in typically clinical form, with Ancelotti insistent the forward is focused only on what happens on the pitch.

"It is calm, it has been a topic for a long time," he added. "He is focused on Madrid and I see that he is well."

Alaba's deflected free-kick ended a run of 50 Champions League games without a goal for the Austrian since he scored for Bayern Munich against Arsenal in November 2015.

He was replaced in the 64th minute by Nacho after suffering an injury, yet Ancelotti is hopeful he will be fit for Sunday's LaLiga clash with Sevilla.

"It's a little knee sprain," he said. "It doesn't seem worrisome because he doesn't have much pain. We hope he plays on Sunday."

Madrid need just a point against Inter in a fortnight to ensure they progress to the knockout stages as Group D winners.

Karim Benzema scored on the same day he was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence as Real Madrid swept aside Sheriff 3-0 to book their place in the last 16 of the Champions League.

France forward Benzema was also fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of former international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

It did not prove to be a distraction for Carlo Ancelotti's men, however, as they brushed aside their less illustrious opponents with the minimum of fuss – at odds with their shock home defeat in the reverse fixture.

David Alaba and Toni Kroos put Madrid two goals ahead at the break, and Benzema added a third before the hour mark to seal his side's place in the knockout stages with a game to spare in Group D.

Benzema saw an early goal ruled out for offside after Georgios Athanasiadis had parried Kroos' shot, and the Sheriff goalkeeper got down well to Rodrygo's strike before the midway point of the first half.

Madrid's dominance was rewarded in the 30th minute, though, when Alaba's free-kick from 20 yards was deflected past Athanasiadis for the Austria international's first Champions League goal for the club.

Kroos then doubled Madrid's advantage in first-half stoppage time, stroking in a sublime effort from 20 yards via the underside of the crossbar.

Benzema scored his fifth goal of this season's competition in the 55th minute with a cool strike into Athanasiadis' bottom-right corner from just outside the penalty area.

Sebastien Thill's cross crashed back off Thibaut Courtois' post as Sheriff rallied in the closing stages, yet Madrid held firm to ensure there was no blot on their copybook this time.

 

Karim Benzema will not be excluded from France selection despite being handed a one-year suspended prison sentence on Wednesday, French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet has said.

Real Madrid striker Benzema was also fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of former Les Blues team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

Benzema, who has always denied the accusations and was not present in court in Versailles when the verdict was given, intends to appeal the decision.

The case dates back to June 2015 when Benzema is said to have put pressure on Valbuena to pay off blackmailers in order to keep a sexually explicit tape out of the public eye.

Benzema and Valbuena, who now plays for Greek side Olympiacos, were both dropped from the France national team in the wake of the scandal.

However, Benzema was recalled earlier this year ahead of the rescheduled Euro 2020 – ending a six-year absence – and has been a regular for Didier Deschamps' side ever since.

The 33-year-old will continue to remain available for Les Blues when the national team reconvenes for their next batch of fixtures in March 2022.

"I don't know what Karim and his lawyers will decide, but as far as the Federation is concerned, there is no change," La Graet said, as quoted by L'Equipe. 

"He remains selectable, while regretting this unfortunate record. He did not play for several years with the France team. This sanction does not change anything for me. 

"He is selectable. Even if he does not appeal, for me, that does not change anything. He has the right to work." 

Benzema is part of Real Madrid's squad for Wednesday's Champions League tie with Sheriff.

Karim Benzema has been handed a one-year suspended prison sentence and fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of Mathieu Valbuena.

The Real Madrid and France striker was one of five people standing trial over the attempt to extort former international team-mate Valbuena in a case dating back to June 2015.

He has always denied the accusations and one of his lawyers, Antoine Vey, expressed shock after Wednesday's verdict, before confirming that an appeal will be lodged.

Benzema was not present at court in Versailles as he prepares for Real Madrid's Champions League clash with Sheriff later on Wednesday.

Valbuena, who now plays for Greek side Olympiacos, was also not in attendance.

Benzema had been accused of helping the four other men blackmail Valbuena over an intimate video that had been taken from Valbuena's mobile phone.

The other four defendants were also found guilty. Axel Angot received two years in prison, Mustapha Zouaoui two years and six months in prison, Karim Zenati fifteen months in prison and Younes Houass and eighteen months suspended sentence.

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

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

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

 

Belgium

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

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

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

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

Brazil

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

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

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

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

England

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

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

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

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

 

France

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

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

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

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

Germany

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

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

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

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

Spain

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

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

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

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

Didier Deschamps hailed the complementary partnership between Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe after France ended their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 2-0 win over Finland.

Benzema's deflected 66th-minute effort and a sublime individual goal from Mbappe, who had teed up the Real Madrid star for the opener, 10 minutes later ensured victory for Les Bleus in Helsinki.

The result denied Finland a place in the play-offs as Ukraine finished second in Group D. France, meanwhile, end qualifying unbeaten and are undefeated in their past 27 competitive matches, though that run includes the stunning Euro 2020 shoot-out loss to Switzerland, a streak that stretches back to June 2019.

"We must not forget Antoine Griezmann," Deschamps said afterward when asked about Benzema and Mbappe. 

"It looks easy because the two players are technically complementary.

"They will have a lot of club matches between now and our next meetings. But the combination of all these talents allows the France team to be even more efficient."

Asked about the unbeaten run, he replied: "These are numbers. There are also 13 away matches. This shows the strength of this France team. The quality is there with the addition of new players, young or old.

"It's great to end the calendar year with this victory in Finland."

Reflecting on the year, Deschamps said: "It is a positive result if I rule out 10 minutes of fatal loss of the Euro. 

"We win the Nations League and then we qualify without trembling for the World Cup. 

"We end the calendar year undefeated even if the draw against Switzerland is a defeat despite everything. The France team has shown that it remains competitive.

"There are still improvements and things that could be improved."

France ended Finland's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time as a 2-0 win in Helsinki condemned the Nordic nation to third place in UEFA qualifying Group D.

With France's place at Qatar 2022 already secured, attention in the group was firmly on the battle for a place in the play-offs between Finland and Ukraine.

Finland began the night in the box seat, two points ahead of Ukraine, but the situation was turned on its head in the second half.

Oleksandr Zinchenko and Artem Dovbyk secured a 2-0 win for Ukraine over Bosnia-Herzegovina while Karim Benzema's deflected strike and a superb individual effort from Kylian Mbappe saw the reigning world champions claim maximum points as Finland fell at the final hurdle.

A long-range Mbappe effort was the most threatening chance France could muster in a first half where both sides had just one shot on target.

France were forced to withdraw Leo Dubois after he was injured late in the opening period, with Benjamin Pavard filling in at right-back after the break.

The change had no impact on France's control of the game, with Les Bleus' backline rarely tested, and it was the visitors who eventually found a way through in somewhat fortuitous fashion in the 66th minute

Benzema and Mbappe played a neat one-two and the Real Madrid forward's effort nicked off Leo Vaisanen and beyond Lukas Hradecky.

Finland's goalkeeper was beaten in more convincing fashion 10 minutes later, Mbappe burning Vaisanen for pace down the left and bending an unerring finish into the bottom-right corner.

Hradecky's brilliant save denied Mbappe a second, with the Paris Saint-Germain star's second-half performance illustrating the gulf in class that made sure Finland will watch next year's World Cup from home.

Didier Deschamps hailed a "beautiful" win for his France side after Kylian Mbappe inspired Les Bleus to an 8-0 thrashing of Kazakhstan.

Mbappe scored a first-half hat-trick at Parc des Princes, paving the way for Karim Benzema, Adrien Rabiot and Antoine Griezmann to get in on the act after the break.

The Paris Saint-Germain star rounded off the scoring as France booked their place at the Qatar World Cup in truly excellent fashion.

It was an emotional match on Saturday, with the game played six years to the day since the terrorist attacks that took place across Paris on November 13, 2015. 

In total, 130 people were killed across separate incidents, with one target having been the Stade de France, which was at the time hosting a game between France and Germany.

With tributes paid before kick-off, Griezmann celebrated his goal by lifting up his jersey to show a shirt with "13/11/15" and a love heart. 

And on a significant day in France's history, Deschamps believes France's performance delivered.

"It is a very beautiful evening of football, even if we do not forget that it is a day of remembrance," Deschamps told M6.

"The objective was to qualify, but in addition there is the manner [in which it is done] and the pleasure that the players have playing together, the understanding between them, especially the forwards.

"It is good, everyone had their piece of the pie. It's a result that rewards everything we did well. We had the right tempo. The risk is always to relax a little but we continued."

Star of the show Mbappe added: "The most important thing was qualifying. We wanted to give ourselves this chance to defend our title.

"Even for those who played and won it, it remains an unimaginable dream to play in a World Cup. We respected the game and the opponent, we wanted to hurt until the end."

Mbappe is the first player to score four goals in a game for France since Just Fontaine in June 1958, against West Germany.

The 22-year-old also got an assist when he teed up Benzema's second goal of the game - a strike that saw the latter overtake David Trezeguet as France's fifth-top scorer (35).

"I am proud of it. Trezeguet, he is a legend and that makes me happy, but the most important thing is to participate in a victory," said Benzema.

France have now qualified for a 14th consecutive major tournament, having not failed to do so since missing out on the 1994 World Cup.

France boss Didier Deschamps confirmed Karim Benzema will be available for their penultimate World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan on Saturday.

The world champions sit top of Group D and will qualify for Qatar 2022 if they win either of their final two games against Kazakhstan and Finland.

Benzema was taken off in the 83rd minute of Real Madrid's 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano by coach Carlo Ancelotti last weekend, but Deschamps said he is on course to play for his country despite a "small problem".

At a media conference ahead of Saturday's match, the former Monaco and Juventus head coach was asked about the availability of Benzema and reassured reporters. He said: "He didn't do a collective session but did some very good [individual sessions]. We took no risks.

"Karim also knows how to manage himself after a small problem with Madrid. He will participate in the session and will be available this Saturday."

Deschamps also hinted he is considering starting Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman, saying: "Coman is an option out wide but not only on this match. He is an option for the start or during the match.

"It depends on whether we have the ball or not. This requires defensive adjustments on the coverage of the areas. This may be an option."

France go into the game against Kazakhstan as heavy favourites, with the visitors to the Parc des Princes bottom of the group having taken just three points from seven games, but Deschamps refuses to take them lightly.

Deschamps, who saw France win 2-0 in the reverse fixture in March, added: "It wasn't an easy game there. I had Kazakhstan's last two games scouted. There is a well-defined system choice.

"I am not going to talk about the weak points. The team knows how to defend and knows that we have to make efforts together. It is a block, a team that does not give up and fights to the end.

"We must not underestimate this team and respect them as we did in the first game."

Captain Hugo Lloris also faced the media and emphasised the need for Les Bleus to try and wrap up qualification at the first time of asking against Kazakhstan.

The Tottenham goalkeeper said: "We will say that we know what we have to do, and that is to ensure a victory on Saturday. This would be ideal to stamp our ticket for Qatar.

"Once again everything remains to be done on the field against an opponent who will do everything to challenge us. We will have to score quickly and try to have a good time with our supporters and continue our phase of progression after winning the Nations League."

France's last game was the Nations League final success against Spain in October, and when asked about the 2-1 win, Lloris said: "When you win there is always a smile. We were honest about our situation after the Euros. There were moments of doubt but we showed our mental and collective strength through adversity.

"The matches against Belgium and Spain bear witness to this. It is always good to win with the national team, it has a special feel. The goal now is Qatar and we have to do the job on Saturday."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's future is in doubt as Manchester United continue to struggle.

United were outclassed effortlessly by neighbours Manchester City in Saturday's Premier League derby.

Struggling for form, Solskjaer could pay the price at Old Trafford.

 

TOP STORY – SOLSKJAER SET FOR AXE?

Manchester United are considering the departure of under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to the Daily Mail.

Manchester City eased past United 2-0 in the Premier League derby showdown at Old Trafford, where Solskjaer's side were left sixth and nine points off the pace.

There are reports of a player revolt as Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo grow frustrated with life in Manchester.

Zinedine Zidane and Ajax boss Erik ten Hag have been linked as possible replacements.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato claims Real Madrid and Newcastle United are interested in Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. The Egypt international, who is contracted to Liverpool until 2023, is keen to sign a new deal at Anfield.

City are weighing up a move for Juventus and Netherlands centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, says El Nacional. De Ligt has also been linked with Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United.

Karim Benzema is open to joining Paris Saint-Germain should Madrid sign Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund, per El Nacional. Benzema has reportedly snubbed a move to Newcastle, while Haaland has been linked with City, United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, PSG, Chelsea and Juve.

Gerard PiqueSergio BusquetsSergi Roberto and Jordi Alba will be allowed to leave Barca under new head coach Xavi, according to El Nacional. Fabrizio Romano adds Xavi will look to re-sign Pablo Gavi and Ousmane Dembele.

- Calciomercato claims Atletico Madrid are interested in Udinese's Nahuel Molina, who is also wanted by Inter.

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