Xavi has suggested Luuk de Jong could stay at Barcelona beyond the January transfer window after firing his side to "three golden points" against Real Mallorca. 

De Jong's loan from Sevilla was expected to be terminated this month ahead of the forward joining fellow LaLiga side Cadiz for the remainder of the season.

However, the Netherlands international was required against Mallorca on Barca's return to action on Sunday due to a spate of COVID-19 cases in the Blaugrana camp.

After twice hitting the woodwork, De Jong headed in his second league goal of the campaign in the 44th minute to seal a 1-0 victory for Barca in Palma.

In doing so, he became the first Barca player other than Lionel Messi to hit the frame of the goal twice in a single LaLiga game since August 2019.

And with Xavi still waiting on other players to return to fitness, the recently appointed coach hinted De Jong may yet remain at Camp Nou for the rest of 2021-22.

"He is an example of a professional," Xavi said at his post-match news conference. "It is said that he can go out, but he works, he sacrifices himself. He is a hell of a professional. 

"I am happy with him. Of course I am contemplating him staying because today he has been useful to us. He is an example for everyone. 

"Depending on how you train, you will play. We will see the future. We will see if there are exits and entrances. But they are all hypotheses."

 

De Jong has scored eight headed goals in all competitions since the 2019-20 season, a record surpassed only by Karim Benzema (13), Ante Budimir (11) and Youssef En-Nesyri (nine) among LaLiga players in all competitions.

It was also Barca's seventh headed goal in LaLiga this season, which is the most of any side and the same number they managed across 38 league matches last time out.

That match-winning moment helped Barca to just a second victory in six games across all competitions as they moved fifth in LaLiga and within a point of fourth-placed Atletico Madrid.

Xavi was pleased with the fighting spirit shown by his side, though the win would not have been possible if not for an impressive save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen to deny Juame Costa in stoppage time.

"There are three golden points," he said. "They way we played, and the circumstances we played in, this is a family victory. We have showed we know how to suffer.

"We had a very good first half and showed lots of personality. We are on the way up.

"We wanted the game to be suspended but I'm proud of the team, and proud of Marc. We needed him. He stopped a goal at the end and saved us.

"But the youngsters in the side are also helping us a lot. They have the right mentality and are well prepared. These three points put us in the fight for the top positions."

Riqui Puig was one of the many youngsters on display for Barca, the academy product making his landmark 50th appearance for the club in all competitions.

He completed 66 of his 69 passes for a passing accuracy of 96 per cent that no other Barcelona player could match on the day.

"Riqui was very good," Xavi said. "As were the others, like [Oscar] Mingueza and [Ferran] Jutgla. They have all worked hard for the team and it is exciting for us.

"This is the way forward and this victory is an example of that."

Dani Alves and Jordi Alba missed Sunday's win after testing positive for coronavirus, but the pair have since returned negative tests and have been given the green light to return to training from Monday.

Luuk de Jong scored the only goal of the game as a severely depleted Barcelona edged past Real Mallorca 1-0 in LaLiga on Sunday.

Xavi described the decision to force the Blaugrana to play as "crazy" after they were hit with a spate of COVID-19 cases during the mid-season break, but his makeshift side coped admirably against Luis Garcia's men.

De Jong – who had already hit the woodwork twice – headed in his second league goal of the campaign in the 44th minute to seal just a second win in Barca's last six games across all competitions.

The result moved the Catalan giants up to fifth – one point behind fourth-placed Atletico Madrid – while Mallorca remained in 15th.

Barca looked more lively than their hosts in the early stages and went close through Gerard Pique's free-kick and Ferran Jutgla's whipped strike.

De Jong twice went agonisingly close to opening the scoring moments before the half-hour mark, first poking against the post from Ilias Chakkour's pass and then crashing a spectacular bicycle kick off Manolo Reina's crossbar.

The striker was not to be denied shortly before the interval, though, rising highest at the back post to head home Oscar Mingueza's cross and give Barca a deserved half-time lead.

Barca continued to do much of the pressing after the break, with Pique and De Jong going close to grabbing a second. 

Marc-Andre ter Stegen superbly kept out Jaume Costa's stoppage-time volley as Xavi's side held on to claim a 12th win in their last 13 away LaLiga games against Mallorca. 

What does it mean? Youthful Barca continue fine run against hosts

Despite a starting XI with an average age of 24 years and 201 days – their third youngest since at least the 2005-06 season – Barca put in a mature, dominant performance to seal an eighth consecutive LaLiga win against Mallorca.

They enjoyed a whopping 64.7 per cent possession in a win that meant they have not lost their first game of the calendar year for the past seven seasons.

De Jong signing off in style

De Jong's loan from Sevilla is expected to the terminated this month, but the Netherlands striker is certainly going out with a bang. His header sealed all three points, while he was denied two more by the frame of the goal, becoming the first Barca player other than Lionel Messi to hit the woodwork twice in a single LaLiga game since August 2019.

Chakkour outshines Jutgla

Jutgla toiled in attack for the visitors, taking a single shot and failing to play a key pass. In contrast, Chakkour – playing on the other side of De Jong – had two shots and played a joint team-high three key passes.

What's next?

Both sides are in Copa del Rey action on Wednesday, with Barca travelling to Linares Deportivo and Mallorca visiting Eibar.

Carlo Ancelotti took a swipe at a subdued performance from Real Madrid in the 1-0 defeat to Getafe, saying: "It seems we stayed on holiday for one more day."

The Madrid head coach said there was no cause for "drama or tragedy" given his team continue to blaze a trail at the top of LaLiga.

However, the shock loss at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez was a miserable way to begin 2022 for the capital titans, who are attempting to unseat neighbours Atletico Madrid as Spanish champions.

It was the second time in three seasons under Ancelotti, who was appointed in June for a second spell with Los Blancos, that Madrid have lost their opening game of a calendar year.

The previous defeat came against Valencia at Mestalla in January 2015, when a 2-1 loss halted a run of 22 consecutive wins.

This time, Madrid fell behind inside nine minutes when Eder Militao was caught dawdling on the edge of the penalty area by Enes Unal, who fired past Thibaut Courtois.

Luka Modric, Casemiro and star striker Karim Benzema went close to finding an equaliser, but a gritty Getafe held on for the points.

"We had a reaction for the first 10 minutes after the goal, then we were nervous and lost balls and duels," Ancelotti said.

"I think there is not much to say about this game. It seems we stayed on holiday for one more day.

"It didn't seem like the team that ended the year: less concentration, less commitment. We didn't deserve to win, but we didn't deserve to lose either.

"We gave away a goal and lost. It is a wake-up call. We didn't play well and there are no excuses."

 

The former Chelsea and Milan boss had not expected such a pallid showing from his side, having observed they were looking sharp in training.

And he accepted it was not his finest day as a coach either, saying: "The coach might also have been on holiday today."

Italian boss Ancelotti added: "We face this defeat without drama or tragedy because we continue to be leaders."

Angel Correa scored both goals as Atletico Madrid got back to winning ways in LaLiga with a 2-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano on Sunday.

The reigning champions ended a four-game losing streak and leapfrogged their opponents, who failed to register a single shot on target at Wanda Metropolitano, into fourth place.

With Diego Simeone on the touchline having received authorisation from LaLiga following a recent positive COVID-19 test, Correa put the hosts ahead in the 28th minute with his first league goal since November 28.

The Argentina international doubled his tally and secured the points when he rounded off a neat move early in the second half.

 

Despite their poor form, Atletico were searching for a sixth successive win over Vallecano – and an eighth in the league on home soil.

The hosts squandered a great opportunity to take the lead in the 23rd minute when Luis Suarez robbed Esteban Saveljich of possession, but sent his attempted chip wide with only the goalkeeper to beat.

But they were not to be denied five minutes later. Mario Hermoso's blocked effort from a Yannick Carrasco cutback ricocheted kindly into the path of Correa, who drilled home through the legs of Luca Zidane.

Correa doubled the advantage within eight minutes of the restart, providing the finishing touch to Renan Lodi's cross from close range after a sweeping move by Atleti.

Thomas Lemar and Carrasco went close to increasing the margin of victory – the latter hitting the post for Simeone's side, who have now kept five clean sheets on the spin in this fixture.

Real Madrid's 11-game unbeaten run in LaLiga came to a surprising end as Enes Unal's strike gave Getafe a shock 1-0 win over the leaders.

It meant Quique Sanchez Flores got the better of Carlo Ancelotti, with Madrid's head coach seeing his team deliver a flat performance in their first game of the new year.

Madrid had won their last five away LaLiga games, scoring at least two goals in each, but they encountered a hard-grafting Getafe side who stretched their own undefeated streak to six games.

Unal took advantage of a defensive aberration from Eder Militao to strike early in the game, with Madrid frustrated in their efforts to draw level.

Militao was woefully caught out in the ninth minute, after collecting the ball from Toni Kroos on the edge of the penalty area. He stuttered rather than show his usual conviction and Unal exposed the uncertainty, making a careful tackle before firing past Thibaut Courtois, low into the left corner.

Madrid playmaker Luka Modric saw a long-range strike tipped wide and went closer in the 17th minute when he beat David Soria but his 15-yard strike rattled away off the crossbar.

Carlo Ancelotti saw his Madrid team struggle to break down the home defence and was rankled by the officiating of referee Mario Melero Lopez, who might reasonably have booked former Barcelona midfielder Carles Alena.

Alena had committed five fouls by half-time, but it was Ancelotti who picked up a yellow card as he showed frustration on the touchline.

Modric was thwarted by Soria again early in the second half, a tame shot easily gathered, with Madrid struggling to pose a serious threat. Karim Benzema had been quiet but teamed up neatly with substitute Eden Hazard and had a shot from 15 yards headed over the bar by Jorge Cuenca.

Marcelo had his shirt tugged in the penalty area but spot-kick appeals were dismissed, while Casemiro had a thumping 20-yard strike turned wide by the excellent Soria.

Kylian Mbappe has convinced Mauricio Pochettino he will not be affected by transfer speculation as Paris Saint-Germain battle to keep the striker from Real Madrid's clutches.

France frontman Mbappe was targeted by Madrid in August and the Spanish giants are expected to attempt to sign the 23-year-old once more, with his contract less than six months away from expiring.

So far, Mbappe has given little indication about his plans, and it is an enviable choice that awaits the former Monaco player.

PSG head coach Pochettino will keep his focus on matters on the pitch, with contract negotiations not part of his remit. Mbappe could leave on a free transfer, but PSG hope he will agree to lucrative terms on a long-term extension.

Pochettino has been assured by Mbappe's words and deeds that the player who has 15 goals in 24 games this season will not be distracted by the question of where he will be playing next term.

"I think the contract situations in football only affects you if you are not mature enough," Pochettino said in a news conference on Sunday.

"Kylian Mbappe is mature and we know what the conditions are here. We do not think it is a problem. We all hope Kylian Mbappe can stay at the club for many years, but there are two sides to making this decision.

"We hope that Kylian Mbappe continues performing as he has been doing and that there is a positive solution for everyone."

Mbappe has said he has no intention of jumping ship in mid-season, meaning PSG can plan around him for the rest of this campaign.

They lead Ligue 1 and are through to the last 16 of the Champions League, where Madrid of all teams will be their opponents, which will inevitably trigger a new wave of speculation.

Speaking to CNN, Mbappe said in December: "No, I'm not joining Real Madrid in January. In January it's not happening.

"I'm in Paris Saint-Germain, I'm really happy, and I will 100 per cent finish the season as a PSG player. I'll give everything to win with Paris all titles this year."

PSG will hope to win the Coupe de France again, after taking that title in six of the last seven seasons, and begin their campaign against fourth-tier outfit Vannes on Monday.

"I like the Coupe de France," said Pochettino. "It's the oldest competition in France, we love this competition and playing against teams like Vannes. That's real football, it's a football that speaks to everyone and we can’t wait to be there."

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's future is unclear having become frozen out.

The Gabon striker was stripped of the Arsenal captaincy last month and dropped by the club for disciplinary reasons and has not played since.

Aubameyang's future is a hot topic as the January transfer window opens.

TOP STORY - NEWCASTLE IN FOR JANUARY AUBA MOVE

Big-spending Newcastle have got in touch with Arsenal about a loan deal for outcast striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang claims The Mirror.

The Magpies want to sign 32-year-old Aubameyang on loan for the remainder of the season.

Newcastle would also look to sign Aubameyang, who is away at the African Cup of Nations, on a £20million off-season permanent deal.

 

ROUND-UP

- Teenage US international Ricardo Pepi is on the verge of joining Bundesliga club Augsburg claims Fabrizio Di Romano. The 18-year-old netted 13 goals for Dallas in the 2021 MLS season and is set for a medical on Sunday.

- Eddie Nketiah is being pursued by Bayer Leverkusen on a free transfer from Arsenal when his contract expires at the end of this season, reports The Sun.

- Sport reports that Brazilian giants Palmeiras are not interested in signing forward Philippe Coutinho as Barcelona try to shop him around in January.

- Axel Tuanzebe will join Napoli on loan from Manchester United until the end of the season, claims the Manchester Evening News. Tuanzebe is currently on loan at Aston Villa.

- The Sun claims that Manchester United's pursuit of Declan Rice has been boosted by West Ham's recent slide outside the Premier League top four.

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti wants consistency when it comes to match postponement protocols following calls to have Barcelona's trip to Real Mallorca cancelled despite them being able to name a squad.

Several LaLiga clubs have suffered with coronavirus outbreaks over the past month or so, with Madrid among them.

Their bitter rivals Barcelona have come into 2022 amid something of a selection crisis of their own, with Xavi set to be without 17 players for their trip to Real Mallorca on Sunday.

Nine of the 17 are absent due to testing positive for COVID-19 in the past week, with Barca coach Xavi calling the decision not to postpone their match "crazy".

While postponements have become commonplace in the Premier League in recent weeks, LaLiga has remained generally uninterrupted due to regulations that make such situations far rarer.

Teams still have to play so long as they have 13 available players from their first and second teams.

Clubs must continue to adhere to the rule that dictates a minimum of seven players registered to the senior team are on the pitch at the same time, but that can drop to five players if teams have fewer than seven professionals available for selection.

Essentially, providing Barca can name five first-team players in a starting XI – there are 11 in the squad travelling to Mallorca – their games will not be postponed, and Ancelotti points out that any wavering in this regard would highlight a lack of consistency.

When asked if games should be postponed, Ancelotti told reporters: "It's a complicated issue. I respect everyone's opinion, because each person has their own.

"A lot of teams have been affected, as we were against Athletic [Bilbao]. There are protocols. We can offer opinions but we have to respect the protocols.

"Before making these decisions [to postpone games], the protocols would have to be changed.

"We've already been on hiatus, and there were a few months without games being played. The pandemic is relatively under control, and we have to continue [playing]."

Given Ancelotti's news conference fell on January 1, he was predictably asked again about the possibility of signing Kylian Mbappe on a free transfer – the Frenchman is now eligible to discuss a move as he is in the final six months of his contract.

But, unsurprisingly, the Italian gave short shrift to the questioning.

"I don't know," he replied to being quizzed on whether Mbappe will join. "We're thinking about fighting for titles.

"It's an interesting time because we're fighting for LaLiga, and the Copa del Rey and Supercopa de Espana are starting too.

"It's an important period. The last thing I'm thinking about is what's going to happen on June 30.

"What I want is that, when the new stadium opens, I'll be sitting on the bench."

Diego Simeone insisted Kieran Trippier is an important player to Atletico Madrid but suggested the right-back may leave the club amid talk of a move to Newcastle.

Eddie Howe's side head into their first transfer window following the Saudi Arabian-backed takeover in October, with Newcastle reportedly submitting a formal bid to make Trippier the first signing of their new era.

The experienced Trippier has repeatedly been linked with a mid-season switch to Newcastle, having impressed during his stint in the Spanish capital, and has also previously been suggested as a target of Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton.

Trippier, who joined the reigning LaLiga champions from Tottenham in July 2019, has managed 67 top-flight appearances for Atletico, while Howe has previously managed the 31-year-old when the pair crossed paths at Burnley in 2012.

Atletico head coach Simeone addressed the transfer speculation on Saturday as he expressed his admiration for Trippier, though he conceded that managers cannot influence players' decisions to leave.

"Kieran Trippier has to decide whether he is leaving or not," Simeone told reporters on New Year's Day at his news conference.

"We will move on following his decision. We have always had these situations where very good players have the possibility of leaving.

"It will depend on what the player wants. We will then look for solutions. We coaches can't do too much in terms of players' decisions. We can only tell Trippier how important he is for the team."

Trippier has hardly excelled for his current team this campaign, failing to register a goal or an assist in 17 games across all competitions, but his previous displays for Tottenham highlight the quality Newcastle would be acquiring.

He created 49 chances in 27 Premier League games in 2018-19, the third-highest for defenders behind only Lucas Digne (71) and Andy Robertson (51), while playing eight and nine games fewer than the respective full-backs.

His addition would offer Howe an attacking outlet and the former Bournemouth manager will also hope the full-back can firm up Newcastle's defence, which conceded 80 league goals in 2021 – the most shipped by any Premier League team in a calendar year.

Howe's side are currently 19th, having won only once in their opening 19 league matches and collected just 11 points.

Xavi believes forcing Barcelona to play Real Mallorca on Sunday is "crazy" due to the Blaugrana's 17 first-team absences.

Barca were hit with a spate of COVID-19 cases during the winter break, with as many as 10 players testing positive for the illness.

One of those – Samuel Umtiti – has since returned a negative test meaning he is technically available for Sunday's trip, though he is not deemed match fit after being unable to train in the past week.

Additionally, Xavi is without five players through injury; Sergio Busquets is suspended; Yusuf Demir is negotiating his departure; and Ferran Torres, who is injured anyway, cannot be registered until Monday at the earliest.

While postponements have become commonplace in other competitions, such as the Premier League, regulations in LaLiga make such situations much rarer.

Teams will still have to play so long as they have 13 available players from their first and second teams. Clubs must continue to adhere to the rule that dictates a minimum of seven players registered to the senior team are on the pitch at the same time.

But that minimum can drop to five players if teams have fewer than seven professionals available for selection – essentially, as long as Barca can name five first-team players in a starting XI, their games will not be postponed, much to the frustration of Xavi.

"It makes no sense to play tomorrow," Xavi told reporters in Saturday's pre-match news conference.

"We are in an extreme situation. We have between 17-18 casualties, it depends on Umtiti, who today has tested negative but has not trained for a week.

"It's a time to suspend the game. In this way [not postponing the game], the competition is adulterated, it is crazy to play like this.

"We have no choice but to compete with who we have. Mallorca has also asked for it [the game to be postponed].

"We must appeal to common sense. It's not a complaint, it's a reality. Basketball has been suspended.

"We will play if LaLiga forces us. We've trained well, but it's a chaotic situation. Be that as it may, we will go out to compete and try to win."

Barca head into their first game of 2022 seventh in LaLiga, 18 points adrift of leaders Real Madrid.

January 1 2022 is a date Real Madrid and Kylian Mbappe have been anticipating for some time.

Los Blancos were the subject of two failed bids for the Paris Saint-Germain superstar in the previous transfer window.

But the new year sees Mbappe enter the final six months of his contract at the Parc des Princes meaning he is free to talk to clubs outside of France.

And it seems Madrid are more confident that ever of landing their top target.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID HAVE 'TOTAL OPTIMISM' ON MBAPPE

The future of Mbappe has dominated the rumour mill for months and Spanish publication Marca claims there is "total optimism" among the Madrid hierarchy they will land their man.

One complication is the fact the two teams are set to meet in a Champions League last-16 grudge match, with any announcement unlikely to happen before that tie.

But come July 1 there is growing expectation Mbappe will be a Madrid player, with the signing of Lionel Messi and potential future arrival of Zinedine Zidane as head coach seemingly not enough to convince him to remain in the French capital.

 

ROUND-UP

- Chelsea's need for defensive reinforcements may be exacerbated by the fact Andreas Christensen has no intention of signing a new contract. Spanish paper Sport says the Dane, who is out of contract at the end of the season, is close to joining Barcelona.

- Speaking of Barcelona, AS reports the future of Memphis Depay is shrouded in doubt. With Ferran Torres having arrived from Manchester City and Alvaro Morata a top target, Depay may be set for a close-season exit after a solitary campaign at Camp Nou.

- Manchester United could be about to get one over old boss Jose Mourinho by landing Boubacar Kamara. The Daily Mirror reports the Red Devils are attempting to beat Roma to the signing of the Marseille midfielder.

- Roma have also been in the hunt for Arsenal midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but they apparently face competition from Everton according to the Liverpool Echo.

- Over on the Red side of Merseyside, Italian agency ANSA is reporting Liverpool are about to pip Arsenal and Tottenham to the signing of Milan midfielder Franck Kessie.

- The Athletic suggested the Gunners are also likely to have more frustration. Arsenal have been linked with a move for Lille forward Jonathan David but will apparently have to wait until the end of the campaign to land their man.

January 1 ushers the start of a new year and, for many, a chance for a fresh start. That is particularly true in the world of football as it signals the day the transfer window opens and some of Europe's top talents can plot a lucrative move elsewhere.

A number of the sport's top talents, including Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe and Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, are due to be out of contract at the end of 2021-22 and can therefore open talks with teams abroad in January.

While the futures of Mbappe and Pogba will be heavily discussed in the coming weeks, other big names across the continent will also become that little more attractive to buyers given their availability on a free (notwithstanding their lucrative salaries, of course!).

Stats Perform looks at the best players soon to be out of contract and therefore available to sign pre-contract agreements elsewhere from January 1.

 

Hugo Lloris (Tottenham)

Where better place to start than with a goalkeeper potentially seeking a new destination. Lloris has spent 10 seasons with Tottenham and has captained the side for the past six years, while also skippering the France national team since 2012.

Spurs have historically been reluctant to offer long-term deals to players in their 30s and that policy could see them lose one of European football's finest goalkeepers from the past decade. He has racked up 392 appearances for Tottenham, keeping 131 clean sheets in the process.

Anthony Martial (Manchester United)

Martial did not quite transform into the superstar forward many were expecting upon joining United from Monaco six years ago, but neither has the France international been as big a flop as some would suggest.

Indeed, since making his Premier League debut in September 2015, only Marcus Rashford (57) has scored more goals for United than Martial's 56. Those goals have come from an expected goals (xG) return of 43, with that xG differential of 13 the largest of any player at the club in that timeframe.

 

Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)

Chelsea face the prospect of losing four defenders without receiving a fee of any sort at the end of the campaign, with Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva, Cesar Azpilicueta and Rudiger all nearing the end of their respective contracts.

Tying down Rudiger to fresh terms should be the priority, given there has arguably been no better defender in the Premier League since Thomas Tuchel first took charge of Chelsea on January 27, backed up by the centre-back's Premier League-leading 17 clean sheets over that period.

Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

No player has quite dominated the transfer column inches in the same manner as Pogba in recent years and, with no sign of a new contract being signed anytime soon, it now looks certain the 28-year-old will depart United for a second time.

Pogba may have struggled for consistency at Old Trafford, not helped by niggling injury issues, but he has averaged one assist per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season – a tally not matched by any player to have played more than once.

Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)

PSG rejected multiple offers from Real Madrid in 2020, but as it stands they are powerless to stop one of the game's leading lights departing at the end of the season.

As well as breaking a number of goalscoring records, Mbappe's 215 direct goal involvements in all competitions since making his PSG debut in September 2017 – 147 goals of his own and 68 assists – is a tally bettered by only Robert Lewandowski (242) and Lionel Messi (246).

 

Marcelo Brozovic (Inter)

Inter have so far been able to persuade Nicola Barella and Lautaro Martinez to extend their stays at San Siro, but Brozovic's future remains unclear heading into the new year.

Brozovic was a key part of Inter's Scudetto-winning side last term, featuring in 33 of their 38 games, and has started all 19 of their matches this campaign. Only Ruben Dias (1,713), Joao Cancelo (1,803) and William Saliba (1,840) have played more successful passes than the Croatia international (1,681) among players from Europe's top five leagues in 2021-22.

Luka Modric (Real Madrid)

Gareth Bale and Isco are two high-profile Madrid players set to move on either in January or at the end of the season, but as well as trying to seal Mbappe's signing, Madrid's other priority might be ensuring Modric does not bring an end to his decade-long spell at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2022.

Proving that age is just a number, 36-year-old Modric has been as good as ever for LaLiga leaders Madrid this season. The six big chances created by the midfielder in 2020-21, leading to four assists, has been bettered by only four others in the division.

 

Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona)

Dembele has struggled to come close to justifying his hefty transfer fee, reported to be an initial €105million, but he was recently described as having the potential to be the best attacking player in the world by head coach Xavi.

Barca president Joan Laporta is also eager to keep hold of Dembele, who has managed 30 goals and 22 assists in 126 appearances since his debut in September 2017, meaning he has been directly involved in 0.6 goals per 90 minutes. For comparison, that is an identical number to Antoine Griezmann during his short-lived stint at Camp Nou.

Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach)

Strongly touted as a target for the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Zakaria will depart Borussia Monchengladbach in 2022 after confirming to the German club that he intends to run down his contract.

The defensive midfielder averages 52.3 passes every 90 minutes and 47.1 successful ones, the latter being the ninth-most this season among Bundesliga midfielders with at least 500 minutes played. Among the same group of players, only seven average more than his two successful dribbles every 90 minutes – all of those being more attack-minded players.

Paulo Dybala (Juventus)

Dybala has indicated that he wants to remain a Juventus player beyond this season but the longer talks over a new deal drag on, the more unlikely it appears he will still be in Turin six months from now – and that would be a major blow for the Bianconeri during an already difficult period.

The Argentina international has eight goals and four assists in 17 appearances this term, without being at what many would consider his best form – at least three more direct goal involvements than Juve's next most threatening player Alvaro Morata and double that of Federico Bernardeschi in third.

As football concludes for 2021, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the past year even happened at all.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, the climate crisis continues unabated, Donald Trump is crying election fraud and everyone is talking about cryptocurrency without really knowing why. If Bill Murray appeared on television to tell you we're stuck in a 2020 time loop, you'd barely even blink.

Well, 2021 really did happen, and we have the data to prove it. Here, Stats Perform presents a selection of the biggest footballing moments of the year, and the numbers that help to make them unforgettable – even if you can't remember what day it is...

Tuchel your fancy

Expectations are pretty high for Chelsea coaches, but winning the Champions League before you've been in the job for half a year – after replacing club legend Frank Lampard, no less – isn't a bad way to impress the owner! No but seriously, Thomas Tuchel is brilliant.

The Blues beat Atletico Madrid, Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City in the knockouts as they became kings of Europe for the second time. They only conceded twice in those matches; in fact, Edouard Mendy became the first goalkeeper to keep as many as nine clean sheets in his debut season in the competition.

From Tuchel's first match in charge until the end of 2020-21, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) across all competitions than Chelsea. It's worth remembering that, Thomas, if you really do think your title hopes are already over at the halfway stage of the season.

Live and let Daei

Football's greatest-of-all-time debate is likely to drag on until humanity has long since gone extinct, with nothing left of civilisation except decaying ruins and NFTs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, most likely dressed as goats, stored on a giant blockchain server at the centre of the Earth (no, we don't understand it all, either).

We can at least agree on one non-fungible Ronaldo record, though: as of 2021, he is the leading international goalscorer in the history of men's football.

A brace against the Republic of Ireland on September 1 took him to 111 for Portugal, two more than previous record-holder Ali Daei of Iran. Ronaldo will start the World Cup year on 115 goals in 184 international appearances – but without the Ballon d'Or on his mantelpiece...

Gerd lord, another record

With practically the final kick of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, Robert Lewandowski pounced on a loose ball to score his 41st league goal and break Gerd Muller's previous single-season record of 40, which had stood since 1972.

Not satisfied with the greatest goalscoring effort in Germany's top flight for nearly half a century, Lewandowski ended 2021 with 43 goals for the calendar year (in only 34 games), again surpassing a previous best tally set by Muller. During that run, he became the first player in the competition to score in 13 consecutive home matches, beating the 12-game runs of Jupp Heynckes and, yes, Muller. The late Bayern great's record of a goal in 16 Bundesliga games in a row still stands, though, Lewandowski having been stopped from matching it by the crossbar in a 3-1 win at Greuther Furth in September.

This year also saw the Bayern Munich striker reach 120 away goals in the Bundesliga, which is, you guessed it, another record. At least this one was previously held by a different name: Klaus Fischer, on 117. Muller is third on 115, for what it's worth.

Let's talk about six, baby 

Liverpool started the year boasting the second-longest unbeaten home run in the history of England's top division: they had gone 68 games without defeat after losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace in April 2017, a streak only bettered by Chelsea (86 games ending in October 2008).

Then, they lost 1-0 to Burnley at Anfield. Then, 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield. After that came a 4-1 battering by Manchester City, an almost unthinkable 2-0 loss to Everton, and then another pair of 1-0 defeats, this time to Chelsea and Fulham... and all at Anfield.

Six consecutive home defeats: something never endured by any Liverpool team before, nor any reigning champion of England's top flight.

Pep-pered with records

City were top of the Premier League on Christmas Day for the third time in their history. They won the league on the previous two occasions (in 2011 and 2017), so the omens are positive for 2021-22 – not that they need much divine intervention right now.

The reigning champions, boasting a 10-match winning streak, broke the record for the most victories in a calendar year in England's top flight with their 34th of 2021 against Newcastle United this month. The previous best was 33 set by Bob Paisley's Liverpool in 1982.

In the process, Pep Guardiola's men also set a new top-tier record of 18 away wins in a single year, beating the previous best of 17 set by Bill Nicholson's famous Tottenham side of 1960-61. Oh, and their 112 goals scored in 2021 is the best such calendar-year return in the Premier League era.

An Argentine tango – and a Messi divorce

Lionel Messi ends 2021 with 23 goals and eight assists in LaLiga, the most direct goal involvements of any player aside from Karim Benzema (41). And he hasn't played in the competition since May.

Messi's tearful departure from Barcelona, who decided they simply couldn't afford to keep the player they previously couldn't afford to lose, heralded the end of an era in Spanish football. It hasn't gone particularly well for either party, either: Barca, who sacked Ronald Koeman in November, sit seventh in LaLiga, while Messi has scored one goal in 11 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain.

Club football might have been more of a nightmare than a dream for Messi this year, but the same cannot be said for his international exploits. He was the joint-top goalscorer and the tournament's best player as Argentina finally ended their long wait for silverware, defeating Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America. It was enough to secure Messi a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or, even though he seemed to think Lewandowski actually deserved to win (and, let's be honest, a lot of us did).

It's a Lille bit funny...

Last season, Paris Saint-Germain replaced Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino ostensibly so they might win the Champions League. Instead, while Tuchel took Chelsea to European glory within just five months, Pochettino's PSG could not even keep hold of their Ligue 1 crown.

Lille won the French top flight for the fourth time in their history, becoming only the fourth side to win it at least twice since the turn of the century (the others being PSG, of course, Monaco and Lyon). Their triumph was inspired by the late-career renaissance of Burak Yilmaz: his 16 league goals were the most scored by anyone over the age of 35 in Europe's top five leagues last season, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo (29).

While their title defence isn't going too swimmingly – Lille are eighth in the table after 19 games, 18 points behind leaders PSG – they managed to win their Champions League group for the first time in seven attempts. They also boast the top scorer in Ligue 1 this term: Jonathan David, who was an 11-year-old playing for Ottawa Gloucester Hornets when Lille won their third league title in 2011, has scored 12 times already.

Get Inter the spirit

This year saw Inter end their decade-long wait for the Scudetto and bring about the end of Juventus' recent stranglehold on Serie A.

Inspired by Antonio Conte – who started Juve's nine-year title streak back in 2012 – and league MVP Romelu Lukaku, the Nerazzurri finished 12 points clear at the top as their coach became the man with the best points-per-game ratio (2.26) in the modern history of Italy's top flight.

Despite a close-season of upheaval in which Conte walked, Lukaku returned to Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi went to PSG, Inter go into next year with a four-point advantage at the top and just one defeat in 19 league games, having scored over 100 league goals in a calendar year for the first time in their history.

Mancini's miracle

Italy's second European Championship trophy, secured courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley, was the pinnacle of a quite remarkable run of results under Roberto Mancini.

The Azzurri would go on to set a new world record in men's international football of 37 matches without defeat, during which they won 30, scored 93 goals and conceded only 12. The run ended when they lost 2-1 to Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in Milan, marking their first competitive home defeat since 1999.

In the first 33 of those matches, starting from a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in October 2018, they were behind for only 44 minutes. At Euro 2020, they had five players who scored at least twice, they ended the tournament with a joint-high 13 goals and conceded only four. And yet, in 2022, they must navigate the play-offs – and potentially a meeting with Portugal – if they are to avoid failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row.

Palmeiras pull off the unbeliev-Abel

The Copa Libertadores final is not something Andreas Pereira will want to remember: it was the Manchester United loanee's error that allowed substitute Deyverson to win it for Palmeiras in extra time.

This was a historic result, though. Not only were Palmeiras the first team since Boca Juniors 20 years ago to win back-to-back Libertadores trophies, but Abel Ferreira became the only European coach to win the competition twice.

Before his time in Brazil, arguably Abel's finest achievement in his post-playing career was helping PAOK reach 51 league games unbeaten – although he was only actually in charge for 17 of those matches, including the 4-2 loss to Aris that brought the streak to an end.

Barcelona are in the market to bolster their squad in January.

The Spanish giants have financial challenges to overcome.

But after an ordinary start to the season, they are ready to get busy to build Xavi a stronger squad.

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA TO MOVE FOR LAPORTE

Barcelona could move for another Manchester City star, with The Sun reporting that the Blaugrana want to sign Spain international Aymeric Laporte.

The defender has lost his starting spot to John Stones and is said to be unsettled at City.

Barcelona announced a deal to sign Ferran Torres from City this week.

 

ROUND-UP

Juventus have no interest in a potential swap deal with Barcelona whereby Alvaro Morata would trade places with Memphis Depay, reports Football Italia.

Newcastle United are set to complete their first piece of January transfer business by signing Lille defender Sven Botman, claims the Mail.

Liverpool are interested in Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka, claims the Express. Saka is contracted to the Gunners until 2024.

Liverpool have also pitched a contract offer to Milan midfielder Franck Kessie, reports Ansa.

Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann are among five new positive cases of coronavirus at Atletico Madrid.

Midfielders Koke and Hector Herrera and Portugal star Joao Felix also returned positive results in the club's latest round of testing.

The Spanish champions said all five are asymptomatic and isolating at home.

COVID-19 infections have been recorded at several LaLiga clubs in recent days, with Barcelona having had 10 positive tests this week alone.

On Wednesday, Real Madrid confirmed Thibaut Courtois, Eduardo Camavinga, Federico Valverde and Vinicius Junior had all tested positive for the virus, while Sevilla recorded five positives during the short mid-season break in Spain.

Valencia face Espanyol on Friday before most sides return to action on Sunday, with Atletico taking on high-flying neighbours Rayo Vallecano at the Wanda Metropolitano.

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