Xavi claimed Ousmane Dembele could become the "best player in the world in his position" after Barcelona president Joan Laporta suggested the forward is better than Kylian Mbappe.

Dembele, who was a €105million signing from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with a move away from Camp Nou in January.

The France international will be free to discuss fresh terms with clubs next month if a new contract cannot be agreed with current club Barca.

Laporta revealed on Thursday that negotiations were going slower than expected with Dembele but assured the following day that the 24-year-old wanted to stay and told TV3 he believes the Barca forward was better than Mbappe.

"We have a very good relationship with Dembele and he wants to stay," Laporta said.

"We also want him to stay because he's a great player. These situations need negotiations with representatives who want the best for the player.

"I'm enthusiastic about Dembele. He's a better player than Mbappe."

Asked for an update on the Dembele situation, Xavi told reporters:  "What I know is that it is not only the economic issue.

"We have left him a very clear position. He is a very important player with great talent. I already said it, he can be the best player in the world in his position. It depends on him. 

"We think of him as a key figure in this project. If it is because of the sporting project, he is happy. We are going to be positive. It is not just an economic issue. He wanted to feel loved and this he will have."

Questions were then put forward as to whether Dembele would feature without signing a contract and Xavi responded: "It would not be the objective, if he has a contract I think he has to play. 

"You have to be positive. But on the other hand, I am very clear on that, if you have a contract you have to play, also because of the image of the club. I do not value that option; I do not contemplate it."

 

Club legend Xavi took the reins after Ronald Koeman's dismissal in late October and has triumphed in his opening two LaLiga games – only four Barca managers have ever won their first three in the competition in the 21st century.

The Catalan club sit seventh, 13 points off leaders Real Madrid ahead of facing Betis, who have won just one of 20 previous top-flight meetings with Barca.

Xavi's side then face Bayern Munich on Wednesday in a crucial Champions League clash that they are likely to have to win to qualify for the knockout stages, but the former midfielder insisted his focus was on Betis.

"I look no further," Xavi responded when asked about the week ahead. "Each game is vital. Tomorrow is also a final. We cannot lose points if we want to connect and fight for the league. 

"We will play with the best 11, with whom I think they can perform better due to the circumstances. The league will tell us where we are at the end of the season.

"It is an important week like the next one will also be. And in January. Barca is a daily requirement and every game. 

"Every week at Barca is vital. There is no rest until the holidays and more in this situation, we can't give anything away.

"Barca aspires to win everything and time will always tell where we got to. We are a team made to win, compete and the notes will say where we have competed."

Carlo Ancelotti says "children have to pursue the dreams they have" when asked about a comic book detailing Kylian Mbappe's love of Real Madrid in his teenage years.

In the autobiographical comic, Paris Saint-Germain superstar Mbappe recalls a visit to Los Blancos' Valdebebas training ground as a 14-year-old where he met his heroes Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The publishing of the story has only exacerbated rumours Mbappe will make the move to the Spanish capital, having been the subject of an unsuccessful deadline-day bid in the previous transfer window.

Mbappe is out of contract at the end of the season and has been largely tipped with signing a pre-contract agreement with Madrid, who are top of LaLiga.

Asked about Mbappe and the comic, Ancelotti replied: "Children have to pursue the dreams they have. 

"As a child I had the dream of playing in Serie A and I fulfilled it."

However, when asked which player he would like to be if he were to have a do-over in his playing career, Ancelotti name-checked another superstar striker in the form of Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland among his list.

"I would like to be a forward. Vinicius [Junior], [Karim] Benzema or Haaland," he said.

"What I lacked in my career are the goals."

Madrid battled to a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday and face off against third-place Real Sociedad on Saturday.

As things stand, Ancelotti's side have a seven-point lead over rivals Atletico Madrid, who have played one game fewer.

The trip to San Sebastian begins a huge week that also sees Madrid face Inter in the Champions League and Atleti in LaLiga.

But Ancelotti says changes to his line-up will only be considered if players need a rest.

"We are not thinking about Inter and Atletico. I am going to put the best line-up to win the game against La Real," he added.

"Casemiro is going to play even though he has four yellow cards. We have no alarm, we are evaluating the squad. We have almost everyone. [Gareth] Bale has returned with the team, although he will not be in the squad. 

"Almost the entire squad is in good physical condition. I have looked a little at the statistics and only against Shakhtar [Donetsk] and Barca [did I] repeat the eleven."

Asked specifically whether his favoured midfield of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos can cope with playing in all the games, he replied: "I don't know if they can play the three games in a row. 

"I have to think first if they can play against La Real. I have to think about it. If Modric doesn't sleep well or feels tired, I won't put him in there."

Cashed-up Newcastle United are currently sitting last on the Premier League table, without a win with the season into December.

As a result, the Magpies are expected to be busy when the transfer window opens in January.

Newcastle are the only team yet to win a Premier League game this season.

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE TARGET ENGLISH SEXTET

The Telegraph claims that Newcastle United have six English players on their January shortlist, including Manchester United's Jesse Lingard, Tottenham's Harry Winks, Chelsea's Ross Barkley and Atletico Madrid's Kieran Trippier.

According to the report, the club will hand over a blank cheque to manager Eddie Howe to land players who can make an instant impact.

Newcastle's owners are confident they can act swiftly in January despite their ongoing search for a sporting director. Burnley's James Tarkowski and Liverpool's Nat Phillips are also on their radar.

ROUND-UP

- The Mirror reports that Arsenal are tracking Everton's England international forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin with a view to an end-of-season move, as Alexandre Lacazette's replacement.

- Manchester United's veteran Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani wants to join Barcelona next season claims The Times.

- Milan and Internazionale are both lining up bids for Manchester United's Brazilian full-back Alex Telles according to The Sun.

- The Sun claims that Chelsea loanee Saul Niguez is unhappy at the club and wants a switch in January after joining the Blues on loan from Atletico Madrid in August. However, Saul cannot join a third European club this season, complicating matters.

- Talks between Barcelona and Ousmane Dembele have failed to progress, putting in doubt his future at the club, reports Sport.

LaLiga's hopes of staging domestic matches abroad have taken another blow after a Spanish court ruled all league games must take place in Spain.

The Spanish top flight and the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) have been contesting a legal battle for three years over proposals to take matches to the United States.

Back in 2018, LaLiga signed a 15-year agreement with multinational media, sports and entertainment company Relevent, with the aim being to promote the division in North America.

That partly revolved around LaLiga matches taking place in Miami, Florida – the first such occasion was supposed to be a game involving Barcelona and Girona in early 2019, but the Blaugrana pulled out citing a lack of support for an idea that attracted widespread criticism.

LaLiga then attempted to organise for Villarreal and Atletico Madrid to face each other in Miami, but a Spanish court declined a November 2019 request to grant an injunction against RFEF, who had blocked the move.

An appeal lodged by LaLiga was then rejected in March 2020, though those in charge of the competition vowed to submit another challenge to the ruling.

Once again, however, the court in question has ruled in favour of RFEF.

"The latest ruling of the Provincial Court of Madrid regarding the Miami match that LaLiga intended to play between Girona and FC Barcelona has once again proved the RFEF right," a statement on the RFEF website read on Thursday.

"This is the second time that justice has ruled on this matter and has once again dismissed the position of LaLiga, rejecting the appeal in full, after the first favourable ruling to the RFEF of March 6, 2020.

"The Spanish justice endorses the prohibition of the dispute of league matches outside of Spain. Justice condemns LaLiga once again to pay the costs of the judicial process. Justice returns to pronounce in favour of the RFEF in a judicial process with LaLiga."

LaLiga chiefs insist they will not be giving up yet, however, with suggestions they could yet lodge another appeal, this time to the Spanish supreme court.

"The internationalisation of Spanish football is a key issue for the future of the industry," said a statement. "Consequently, it will continue to work towards achieving the crucial objective of holding a match outside of Spain."

Discussions between Ousmane Dembele and Barcelona over a new deal for the forward are going slower than hoped, according to the club's president Joan Laporta.

Dembele, a €105million signing from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with a move away from Camp Nou in January.

Recent reports from Spain suggest the France international's agent, Moussa Sissoko, is prepared to listen to offers as he is not happy with Barca's latest contract proposal.

The 24-year-old can discuss a free transfer with overseas clubs from next month if fresh terms cannot be finalised with Barca, but Laporta is hopeful of an agreement being found.

"It has been a slower process than desired on our part," he told TV3. "We are working on it, we continue with our swords raised."

Dembele's time at Barcelona has been blighted by fitness problems, but he remains a key player for the Catalan giants when available.

He has managed 30 goals and 20 assists in 121 appearances since his debut in September 2017, meaning he has been directly involved in 0.65 goals per 90 minutes.

That puts him on a par with Liverpool's Roberto Firmino among players from Europe's top five leagues, and just behind Inter's Lautaro Martinez (0.67).

 

However, to put Dembele's injury issues into some context, the 121 games he has played for Barca is 91 fewer than team-mate Sergio Busquets over the same period.

Laporta is excited about what Dembele still has to give to Barca, though, should a new contract be agreed.

Dembele's future is one of a number of issues Barca have to resolve ahead of the January transfer window, which is expected to be a quiet one at Camp Nou.

The club's well-documented financial problems mean signing any new players next month is not possible unless others are moved on.

"We can't ignore that there is a salary margin. We first have to expand that salary margin and the only way to expand it is for some players to come out of the squad," Laporta said.

"Xavi knows the players he has and is in permanent communication with the football director, Mateu Alemany, our general director and the people we trust.

"If it is possible to strengthen the team, we will see what possibilities we have.

"Xavi has a lot of players and we are sure that he will be able to get much more out of the squad than has been obtained so far. 

"We are confident that Xavi will apply a criterion that will make this squad much more efficient than it is."

Barca are unbeaten in three games under new head coach Xavi and return to LaLiga action on Saturday with a home match against Real Betis.

Is Robert Lewandowski's time at Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich coming to an end?

Lewandowski has called Bayern home since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in 2014.

However, the 33-year-old Poland international is reportedly ready for a new challenge.

 

TOP STORY – LEWANDOWSKI SET ON MADRID MOVE

Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski has ordered his agent to finalise a transfer to LaLiga giants Real Madrid, according to Diario AS.

Lewandowski has repeatedly excelled for Bayern, where he has broken numerous records, while he was unfortunate not to win the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

Previously linked with a move to the Premier League, Lewandowski appears to be set on a switch to Madrid, where his former team-mate David Alaba now calls home.

 

ROUND-UP

- Tuttosport claims Fiorentina want to sell Dusan Vlahovic abroad but the Serbia international is not interested in Arsenal as he eyes Juventus. Vlahovic has also been linked with Manchester City, Manchester United, Inter, Atletico Madrid, Tottenham and Bayern. It comes as Sky Sport Italia says Fiorentina are close to signing Lille forward Jonathan Ikone.

- Interim United manager Ralf Rangnick will try to convince Erling Haaland to leave Dortmund for Old Trafford, per Bild. Rangnick and Haaland worked together at Salzburg. Haaland is a player in demand amid interest from Madrid, Barcelona, Juve, Bayern, City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain. Since Rangnick's arrival, United have also been linked with RB Leipzig pair Christopher Nkunku and Amadou Haidara, as well as Chelsea forward Timo Werner.

- Record reports Dortmund are keen on Benfica and Uruguay attacker Darwin Nunez amid uncertainty over the future of Haaland.

- Premier League champions City have scouted Bologna and Sweden sensation Mattias Svanberg, according to Nicolo Schira.

Carlo Ancelotti was pleased with Real Madrid's ability to grind out a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao after acknowledging they were far from their best at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Karim Benzema, who also scored in the 2-1 win over Sevilla at the weekend, grabbed the only goal of the game in the 40th minute with his 12th strike of the LaLiga season.

The France international has now scored 35 goals in 46 games for Madrid across all competitions in 2021, equalling his best goalscoring tally in a single calendar year for Los Blancos (35 goals in 50 games in 2019).

The hosts had to work hard for a fifth consecutive LaLiga win, with the visitors taking 18 shots on Thibaut Courtois' goal.

Indeed, their expected goals against indicator of 2.7 was the highest Madrid have had in a match this season in all competitions.

"It is true that our opponents had more rest than us, and they are very good," Ancelotti told a media conference.

"In the first half, we did well. In the second we failed with more passes than in the first, and we suffered.

"The ability to suffer is a quality of the team. We know how to play football, and we know how to suffer when the football we want to play isn't happening.

"Real Madrid never give up. Our character and commitment is very strong. Sometimes when we can't use our quality, we are able to use other qualities.

"I liked the ending more than the first half – we were missing something then."

The result moved Madrid seven points clear of Atletico Madrid in second, although Diego Simeone's men have a game in hand.

Los Blancos are next in action on Saturday when they travel to third-placed Real Sociedad, and Ancelotti accepted he might be forced into making changes to his starting XI.

"The team has finished tired, and we will have to analyse it," he added.

"It is normal when you play against a fresher team that it costs you at the end a little. I must assess whether to make changes for the next game. We have three games very close [together], without time to rest.

"I have to think carefully about the decisions, but the streak is very good, and I am very satisfied with everyone: with those who play, those who play for five minutes, and those who do not have a minute.

"The atmosphere in the team is very good; I like it."

Real Madrid moved seven points clear at the summit of LaLiga as Karim Benzema's solitary goal sealed a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.

Benzema, who also scored in the 2-1 win over Sevilla at the weekend, struck in the 40th minute with his 12th league goal of the campaign – three more than anyone else in LaLiga. 

Athletic created enough chances to claim at least a point at the Santiago Bernabeu, yet they were unable to find a way past Thibaut Courtois. 

A fifth league win in a row lifted Carlo Ancelotti's side well clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid, although Diego Simeone's men have a game in hand.

Unai Simon twice denied Benzema from close range inside the opening 15 minutes as Madrid started brightly.

Athletic grew into the game, though, and twice went close before the half-hour mark, Inaki Williams seeing an effort deflected narrowly wide and an unmarked Raul Garcia heading straight at Courtois.

Madrid went ahead five minutes before the interval, Benzema sliding into an empty net from Luka Modric's mishit shot after Simon had thwarted Marco Asensio.

Toni Kroos whipped wide after a fine team move shortly after the restart, before Lucas Vazquez denied Dani Garcia a near-certain goal at the other end with a superb block. 

Unai Nunez inexplicably headed wide from an inswinging free-kick with 20 minutes remaining, while Courtois raced off his line to deny Oihan Sancet as Athletic ultimately fell short of finding the leveller they deserved.


What does it mean? Madrid pushed all the way

Athletic's tally of 18 shots is evidence that Madrid were far from their best, but Ancelotti's men did just enough to seal maximum points against their spirited opponents.

The result means Los Blancos are now unbeaten in their last 13 LaLiga games against Athletic – their best such run against them in the top flight.

Brilliant Benzema

The superb Benzema has now scored 35 goals in 46 games for Madrid across all competitions in 2021, equalling his best goalscoring tally in a single calendar year for Los Blancos (35 goals in 50 games in 2019).

Shot-shy Vinicius

He sealed all three points against Sevilla on Sunday with a sublime strike, but Vinicius Junior had no such luck in front of goal here. The Brazil international made a game-high five key passes, but failed to have a single shot as Madrid largely toiled in attack.

What's next?

Madrid travel to third-placed Real Sociedad on Saturday, while Athletic are next in action on Monday when they visit Getafe.

Barcelona midfielder Sergi Roberto is set to undergo surgery on his right thigh after sustaining an injury.

Sergi Roberto has not been able to feature for Barca since playing an hour in the 1-0 LaLiga defeat away to Rayo Vallecano on October 27 - former head coach Ronald Koeman's last game in charge.

The 29-year-old has started just six games in all competitions for Barca this season, featuring in another six off the bench, and has not completed 90 minutes this term.

Roberto's 568 minutes of playing time have also been split between central midfield and right-back or right wing-back as the La Masia graduate's versatility was utilised by Koeman.

The Spaniard will be hoping that - when he returns from surgery - he will be able to force his way into new head coach Xavi's thinking and earn more consistent minutes, either in a fixed position or as a utility player.

Roberto registered two goals and an assist in Barca's first three league outings, coming off the bench in the first two of those appearances.

Barca's next game is at home against Real Betis as the Blaugrana look to close the 10-point gap that has opened up between themselves in seventh and league leaders Real Madrid.

Manchester United's search for a new permanent manager continues, with Mauricio Pochettino the favourite.

Ralf Rangnick has been appointed on an interim basis until the end of the season, though Michael Carrick is set to preside over a third game as caretaker manager on Thursday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked last month after a poor run of results at the end of a trophy-less tenure.

 

TOP STORY – MANCINI EMERGES AS SHOCK MAN UTD CONTENDER

Former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini has emerged as a contender for the vacant Man Utd managerial role, claims The Telegraph.

The current Italy head coach, who led the Azzurri to the Euro 2020 title, is under "careful consideration" by United chiefs, according to the report.

Mancini is contracted with Italy until 2026 on a lucrative deal but may potentially be available to take over from Rangnick pending Italy's World Cup qualification play-offs in March.

 

ROUND-UP

Milan want to sign Arsenal forward Alexandre Lacazette as soon as possible and will make a move for him in January rather than wait for him to become a free agent at the season's end, according to Sport Italia journalist Rudy Galetti.

Man Utd have been offered the opportunity to sign Brazil attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho by Barcelona, reports Sport.

- Sport also claims Barcelona have a "total agreement" to sign Man City's Spanish forward Ferran Torres, although they want the English champions to lower their asking price of £60million.

Ajax are looking to do a deal with Tottenham to sign Dutch forward Steven Bergwijn on loan, according to De Telegraaf.

- Calciomercato claims Juventus have pulled out of the race to sign Monaco's Aurelien Tchouameni, with Chelsea leading the contenders.

Gerard Pique revealed he feels "added pressure" as he does not want to let former team-mate and new Barcelona head coach Xavi down.

The centre-back has started all three games of the new era under Xavi, who was appointed in the wake of Ronald Koeman's dismissal at the end of October.

Barca have won twice while drawing the other of Xavi's first three games and currently sit in 10th in LaLiga, 10 points behind leaders Real Madrid.

Pique now feels an added incentive and pressure to perform for the former Blaugrana midfielder, who he played with 261 times during the Catalan club's halcyon days.

"Xavi has arrived and has set standards like many coaches," Pique told Spanish television show El Hormiguero on Tuesday. 

"They are necessary to demand orders and we are going to fulfil them all as it has always been in the past.

"It puts added pressure on me to have Xavi as a coach, you don't want to let him down.

"Morally I have to give him my best and if my performance is not the best I feel like I'm failing him."

Barca's challenge has mounted this term following the departure of Lionel Messi, who ended a 21-year association with the Spanish giants as he joined Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.

Pique explained the difficulties of seeing Messi leave as he reminisced on a glory period with the Argentine superstar, who collected a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or on Monday.

"It was very hard, we played together since we were 14 years old," he added. "It was very hard from a sporting and personal point of view. Things haven't gone well for us at the start of the season.

"I am happy for him and his seventh Ballon d'Or proves that he is the best of all time.

"He has gone to a new country and a new culture. It's difficult, it happened to me when I was 17 when I went to Manchester [United]. Leo has gone with his family and I went on my own, but it's hard."

Pique has no ambitions to leave Barca, though he has been gradually preparing himself for a potential retirement.

"Many team-mates say that when you retire it's hard. You have had this routine since you were little," the 34-year-old continued.

"It takes you a long time to adapt to the new life. People can take a year or more. And people recognise you less and less in the street and generations go by. It's hard.

"I have been preparing myself for this life for a long time. Investing in business, projects, [and so on] to have something to do after I retire.

"The key is to have something to do after leaving football. But clearly, I'm going to miss football."

Karim Benzema will be extra motivated to win the 2022 Ballon d'Or after finishing fourth in this year's voting, according to Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti.

The 33-year-old has scored 34 goals for Madrid this calendar year and was recalled to the France squad in May after a six-year exile.

Benzema's combined 46 goals and assists in 2021 has been bettered only by Erling Haaland (48), Kylian Mbappe (51) and Robert Lewandowski (59) from Europe's top five leagues when taking all club competitions into account.

The Madrid striker finished behind Euro 2020 winner Jorginho, Lewandowski and record seven-time winner Lionel Messi at Monday's Ballon d'Or ceremony, with N'Golo Kante completing the top five.

Benzema's Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos has argued the Frenchman did more than Paris Saint-Germain star Messi this year to win the award.

But Ancelotti accepts the decision, determined by journalists from across the world, and insists Benzema will not be fazed by finishing outside the top three.

"We have to give fair value to the classification," he said at a news conference previewing Wednesday's LaLiga contest with Athletic Bilbao.

"Messi has won and we must congratulate him. The individual awards are important but if they do not win it is not a catastrophe. I hope next year a Madrid player will win it.

"Benzema has had a great season and finished fourth. He will continue to be motivated to try to be first next time.

"If I had a vote, I would not choose any player outside of my own team. I'd have voted Benzema first, Vinicius [Junior] second, [Thibaut] Courtois third, Casemiro fourth.

"But you have to respect and congratulate Messi on winning."

Madrid-linked forward Kylian Mbappe finished ninth, but Ancelotti does not believe leaving Paris Saint-Germain will necessarily enhance his chances of winning the coveted crown.

"Playing for a great club can help you, but it is still an individual prize," Ancelotti said when asked specifically about Mbappe.

"These players will not cry because they have not won the award. The likes of Benzema and Courtois will accept it without a problem."

Benzema and Vinicius are in contention to start Wednesday's clash with Athletic as Madrid aim to make it five league wins in a row and maintain a four-point lead at the top.

Madrid are unbeaten in their last 12 LaLiga games against Athletic (W8 D4), one short of their best unbeaten run against the Basque club in the top flight.

Ancelotti, who has lost only one of his four LaLiga games against Athletic, is prepared to make changes to Madrid's line-up three days on from their 2-1 win against Sevilla.

"It's an evaluation I make every day," he said. "The dynamics of the team right now are very good. I won't rotate for the sake of it, but if we have any risks then of course we will do it.

"We are facing a well organised team at the back. Marcelino trains all his teams very well, especially in a defensive sense.

"This game will demand a lot from us and we need some offensive clarity. They are also a team that attacks vertically, so we must show good balance."

Despite having to contend with injury problems and a congested schedule, Ancelotti reiterated Madrid are not likely to bring in any new players in January.

"You have the summer to improve the squad," he said. "I don't like using January to adjust as that means something must have gone wrong in the summer.

"If players are not happy then we'll think about it, but we are not looking to sign. The squad is fine and will compete until the end."

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."

Bayern Munich great Lothar Matthaus "does not understand the world anymore" after Robert Lewandowski missed out to Lionel Messi for the 2021 Ballon d'Or award.

Poland international Lewandowski was considered the favourite to come out on top at Monday's ceremony in Paris following another impressive 12 months for Bayern.

The 33-year-old has scored 53 times in 42 appearances this calendar year so far – 15 more than any other player in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions.

He has averaged a goal every 67 minutes and also made history earlier this year by breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old record for the most goals in a Bundesliga season with 41.

Despite his impressive achievements in front of goal, Lewandowski finished second in the voting to Lionel Messi, who claimed a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or.

Matthaus, who won the coveted trophy in 1990, was among those to question the final standings, which saw Jorginho finish third, Karim Benzema fourth and N'Golo Kante in fifth.

"To be honest, after this vote, I don't understand the world anymore," he told Sky Sport. 

"With all due respect to Messi and the other great nominated players, nobody deserves it like Lewandowski."

Lewandowski, who also missed out on the 2020 award after it was scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, instead had to settle for the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Bayern director Oliver Kahn was also surprised to see Messi pip Lewandowski to football's top individual prize.

"Lewandowski deserved the Ballon d'Or just as much as his top scorer trophy because he has performed at the highest level for years," Kahn said.

"But congratulations nonetheless to Lionel Messi. 

"Even without the Ballon d'Or, Lewy has long since arrived as one of the Olympus of football greats. He will still be a Ballon d'Or contender in the years to come."

While Messi had a rather more mixed campaign at club level compared to Lewandowski, the Paris Saint-Germain forward did inspire Argentina to Copa America glory in July.

Messi scored 28 goals in 29 games in the first half of 2021 with Barcelona before completing a shock transfer to PSG, for whom he has scored four goals in his first 11 games.

Lewandowski took to social media on Monday to congratulate the superstar forward on his latest triumph, which takes him two clear of five-time winner Cristiano Ronaldo.

"Congratulations Leo Messi and Alexia Putellas, winners of the #BallonDor2021, congratulations also to all nominated players," he tweeted.

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

Denis Zakaria looms as an attractive signing, with his contract due to expire.

The Borussia Monchengladbach star is not short of admirers.

Liverpool and Barcelona are reportedly vying for his signature.

 

TOP STORY – ZAKARIA TO LIVERPOOL OR BARCA?

Liverpool lead Barcelona in the pursuit to sign Borussia Monchengladbach star Denis Zakaria, according to El Nacional.

Zakaria is available on a free transfer at the end of the season and the Switzerland international has been heavily linked with Jose Mourinho's Roma.

He has also reportedly attracted interest from Manchester United and Manchester City, however, Premier League giants Liverpool and LaLiga powerhouse Barca are believed to be set to battle it out.

 

ROUND-UP

- Staying at Anfield and Fichajes claims Liverpool have joined the race to prise Adama Traore from Wolves. Traore has also been linked with Barca and Juventus.

Paul Pogba is unlikely to sign a pre-contract agreement with a club abroad, says The Athletic. Pogba's United contract expires at the end of the season and Frenchman has been tipped to join either Real Madrid, Juve or Paris Saint-Germain.

- Premier League champions City are working to re-sign Riyad Mahrez, per The Sun. PSG are reportedly eyeing the Algeria international, who is contracted to City until 2023.

Newcastle United are set to make a move for Donny van de Beek, according to El Nacional. Van de Beek has found his chances limited at Manchester United and Newcastle are ready to pounce.

- After appointing Ralf Rangnick until the end of the season, The Times claims United's interim manager is targeting RB Leipzig midfielder Amadou Haidara.

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