It's entirely possible the staging of the 2021 European Under-21 Championship will have passed many people by, given the fact it's taken on a somewhat peculiar format of a mid-season group stage with the knockout phase following two months later.

Originally due to take place solely in June, organisers were forced into a re-think following last year's postponement of the senior competition. It was decided to split the Under-21s' event in two, therefore avoiding a clash.

Despite the rather unconventional format, the competition will see many of the continent's most-promising prodigies on display.

The tournament, based in Hungary and Slovenia, begins on Wednesday with the Magyars hosting Germany, and we have identified some high-potential talents to keep an eye on.

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

Lafont has been a regular at this age-group level with France for many years, but a brief stint at Fiorentina in 2018-19 did not go to plan, with the Toulouse youth product freely admitting his performances "were not the best" as he secured to a loan move to Nantes ahead of last season.

Only Andrea Consigli (six) made more than Lafont's four errors leading to shots in Serie A two seasons ago, but his dependability appears to have improved considerably since returning to France, with no shots occurring because of errors by him in 57 Ligue 1 matches.

He also produced a particularly strong performance in the shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, making four saves including a couple of eye-catching stops to thwart Angel Di Maria.

 

A closer at Lafont’s performances for a struggling Nantes side in 2020-21 reveals he has not had the greatest campaign. When discounting own goals and penalties by the opposition, Lafont has allowed 3.5 goals more than the ‘average’ goalkeeper would have been expected to concede in Ligue 1 this season (37 conceded, 33.5 xG on target).

The metric ‘Goals Prevented Rate’ can account for different goalkeepers facing a different volume of shots through a period of time. An example of this is that PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas has a goals prevented rate of 1.37 this season, meaning for every non-penalty goal that Navas has conceded (excluding own goals), the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 1.37. Lafont’s rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers to have played 1800 minutes of French top-flight football in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, France's regular at this level knows he has a very capable understudy in Illan Meslier breathing down his neck.

Prior to his 21st birthday earlier in the month, Meslier broke the record for the most clean sheets by an under-21 goalkeeper in a single Premier League season (eight) and has since added another to that figure.

That means he has three times as many shutouts as Lafont, which is intriguing because it raises the question of why then has Meslier not conceded fewer goals?

For starters, it suggests Lafont is more consistent but also highlights that when Leeds concede, the floodgates can really burst open. With those 46 goals spread across 19 matches, it means Meslier is conceding on average 2.5 goals per game when he doesn't get a clean sheet – this drops to 1.7 for Lafont.

 

On top of that, Meslier's seven errors leading to shots is more than any other player in the Premier League this term, perhaps showing he's still in the inexperienced, nervous phase that Lafont has seemingly left behind.

Meslier's superior save percentage of 71.1 compared to 65.7 speaks to the former Lorient youngster's shot-stopping abilities, though for the time being Lafont's greater consistency looks set to keep him first-choice.

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

A promising loan spell with Heerenveen last season alerted Lille to the talents of Ajax-owned Botman and he has been a real hit for Les Dogues since a reported €8m move, helping them to mount a serious Ligue 1 title challenge.

Lille's 19 goals conceded is the fewest in France's top tier and, while not necessarily entirely down to Botman, there's no doubt he's made his presence known as a reliable powerhouse at the back.

 

Of the 856 players across Europe's top five leagues to have engaged in at least 150 duels, Botman's 71.4 per cent success rate is the best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess.

Only four of the 157 players in the continent's elite divisions to have been involved in 100+ aerial duels have a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (72.5 per cent).

While his impressive physical attributes might lead to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 452 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

 

Of course, there is likely to be a glaring absence from the senior Dutch side at Euro 2020. with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp not expecting Virgil van Dijk to be ready for the tournament.

That means there is potentially a spot up for grabs in the centre of the Netherlands defence, and Botman's combination of power and elegance suggests he could be a good fit as Van Dijk's deputy.

Granted, the young defender – who hasn't been capped at senior level yet – still has a way to go to match up to the Reds star, but in the context of young defenders of a similar ilk, Botman certainly compares well and his strengths are similar to those of Van Dijk.

His aerial stats prove he's an excellent physical specimen, and his effectiveness in duels reflects the fact he's a difficult defender to beat. A strong showing here might just help convince Frank de Boer that Botman's ready to step up later this year.

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

Les Bleus are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in most areas, but the fact Kounde is turning out for the Under-21s in this tournament instead of the senior side exemplifies their depth in quality at the heart of the defence.

In his second full season with Sevilla, Kounde has kicked on following a hugely encouraging second half to 2019-20, so much so that he's arguably the first name on the team sheet for Julen Lopetegui.

 

His forward-thinking nature has made him key to the coach's 'Lavolpiana build-up' defensive structure, a setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward from a three-man backline.

Only two central defenders in La Liga have bettered Kounde's rate of 19.2 carries per 90, while there are just three who have covered more distance carrying the ball further up field than the Frenchman this term (2,774 metres).

This positivity is generally offset by Fernando dropping in to form a faux back three, while Kounde's movement up the right can often create overloads as he teams up with Jesus Navas, Sevilla's biggest chance creator (44).

 

But evidence of his progressive mentality doesn't stop there. While possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs, given the sheer number of simple short balls played between defensive colleagues, Kounde is clearly looking ahead, and often.

No defender has been successful with more forward passes in open play than Kounde this season in LaLiga (507), with the 22-year-old completing an impressive 79 per cent of these. Therefore, perhaps it's not surprising to learn no Sevilla player has been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences than he has (53), demonstrating his value to their forays forward, despite not attempting the shots or making the final pass in that move.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he is developing into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who would have looked at home in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

It's fair to say that, when Sporting CP set out to replace Bruno Fernandes, never in their wildest dreams would they have expected what they got. Pedro Goncalves had been a key figure for Famalicao in 2019-20, but to say he's surpassed expectations in Lisbon would be an understatement.

Goncalves operates in similar spaces to Fernandes, albeit drifting towards the right a little more, and his hot streak in front of goal has helped put Sporting on course for a first league title since 2001-02.

 

In 22 Primeira Liga matches, the attacking midfielder has scored 15 goals – none of which were penalties. The 22-year-old's xG total is just 6.9, meaning his over-performance of 8.1 is the biggest across Europe's top six leagues, aside from the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (9.3).

Of course, the chances of him being able to sustain such a run in the long-term are low, but it still highlights what a danger the former Wolves youngster poses in his current form.

 

Comparisons with Fernandes have been rife, for obvious reasons, but they show many different traits to their game.

In Fernandes' final 50 league games for Sporting, he averaged 3.4 shots per 90 minutes and 2.3 of those non-penalty shots came from outside the box – Goncalves attempts 2.6 on average each game, with only 1.1 coming from beyond the penalty area.

As such, the average quality of Fernandes' shots in his final 50 games for Sporting weren't outstanding, with his xG per non-penalty shot equating to 0.07. Goncalves' is almost double that at 0.13, suggesting he picks his moments more selectively while also taking fewer attempts.

Nevertheless, despite Fernandes' penchant for a long-range effort, he only scored four times from outside the box in his final 50 league matches for Sporting – Goncalves already has three this term from 28 fewer games.

 

The biggest difference between the pair is assists. Fernandes' 20 in his final 50 outings for Sporting dwarfs Goncalves' three in 2020-21, but interestingly their expected assists per 90 minutes isn't hugely dissimilar. Fernandes is ahead 0.29 to 0.20 in this area, but a potential explanation for this potentially lies in the respective teams they've played in.

 

The next highest-scorer for Sporting this season after Goncalves himself is Nuno Santos with six – they don't have a prolific centre-forward, whereas Fernandes was supplying Bas Dost, who netted 76 times in 84 league games for the club between 2016 and 2019.

As we all know now, Fernandes was on the trajectory of an elite-level player. He's proven this at Manchester United, though there were certainly those who were sceptical about him prior to his move.

It'll be a tough ask, but why can't Goncalves continue to defy expectations?

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

Russian striker Fedor Chalov is undoubtedly one of the most experienced players involved at the tournament, with the 22-year-old having already played 115 Russian Premier League matches in addition to his 11 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Chalov burst on to the scene in Russia with CSKA Moscow at 18 years old back in November 2016 and scored in just his fifth top-flight appearance for the club versus Ural a month later.

After scoring six goals in each of his opening two league seasons at CSKA, 2018-19 was when he really began to make a name for himself in Russia - winning the league's top scorer award with 15 goals, while also posting his best-ever season tally for assists (7).

But Chalov's career hasn't kicked on as expected since then, scoring just 13 goals in 50 top-flight appearances over the past two seasons, but his performances have been stirring enough to attract the attentions of multiple Premier League clubs during the January transfer window.

 

Despite this, Chalov's numbers domestically at top-tier level are mightily impressive for a player so early in his career. Despite only being 22, Chalov's tally of 60 goal involvements since his Russian Premier League debut are the third most by a player in the competition.

Russia are certainly one of the underdogs for the 2021 Under-21 European Championship and are unlikely to top their group, having been drawn alongside favourites France. However, if Chalov can find form in the first stage of the tournament then he could be the linchpin to Russian hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages in May.

Could Harry Kane end up at Real Madrid?

Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland is one of Europe's most sought-after and expensive players, while Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe also commands a hefty fee.

With that in mind, Tottenham's Kane has reportedly emerged as a transfer target in the Spanish capital.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID ADD KANE TO LIST

Real Madrid are interested in signing Tottenham star Harry Kane, according to SER Deportivo.

Madrid have been heavily linked with in-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe.

But Madrid's hierarchy reportedly feel a deal to prise Kane from Tottenham may be easier.

 

ROUND-UP

- Wednesday's Marca and Diario AS newspapers are dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo. Marca claims Ronaldo would exit Juventus to return to Madrid, who he left in 2018. Diario AS says Juve are ready to listen to offers for the five-time Ballon d'Or winner. Ronaldo has also been linked with former club Manchester United.

- Sport reports Manchester City defender Eric Garcia will join Barcelona on a five-year deal. It will be the first major signing under new president Joan Laporta as the LaLiga giants also eye Haaland and look to re-sign superstar captain Lionel Messi, who has been tipped to join either PSG or City on a free transfer at season's end.

- TV3 claims Ronald Koeman will continue as Barca head coach in 2021-22 following talks with Laporta. RB Leipzig's Julian Nagelsmann and club great Xavi had been linked.

Inter are ready to reignite their interest in Udinese star Rodrigo De Paul, claims Calciomercato. The Serie A leaders have previously been linked with the Argentina midfielder. Antonio Conte's Inter are also tracking Madrid outcast Isco, according to Sport.

- L'Equipe claims United are considering a move for Tottenham captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris amid doubts over David de Gea. Milan star Gianluigi Donnarumma has also emerged as a possible target.

Bayern Munich are in talks to sign Madrid attacker Lucas Vazquez on a free transfer, according to AS.

Liverpool, Juventus and Roma are among clubs interested in Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez, says AS. The 31-year-old is out of contract at the end of 2021-22.

Real Madrid great Fernando Hierro said the LaLiga champions should sign both Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe.

In-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain star Mbappe have been linked with moves to Madrid.

Madrid captain Sergio Ramos believes it would be easier for Los Blancos to sign Haaland instead of Mbappe due to the financial situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But former Madrid skipper Hierro – who won five LaLiga titles and three Champions League trophies among other honours during his career at the Santiago Bernabeu – wants the club to bring in both forwards.

"If I were Real Madrid, I would sign Haaland and Mbappe," Hierro told Radio Marca.

The future of Madrid superstar Ramos is also dominating headlines, with the 34-year-old Spain defender out of contract at season's end and no closer to extending his deal.

Ramos has been linked with PSG and Manchester United and there appears to be a significant chance of him opting to move elsewhere after 16 trophy-laden seasons in Madrid.

"I would like Sergio Ramos to continue and retire at Real Madrid," Hierro said.

"But not because of the time he has been there, but because of his performances.

"He is showing that he is still the best in the world. When there is will, people understand each other.

"There are times when the economic situation is not the most important thing and you have to assess where you want to be."

Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos has withdrawn from the Germany squad for their upcoming fixtures because of an adductor injury.

The 31-year-old linked up with his national side on Monday for the World Cup qualifiers with Iceland, Romania and North Macedonia.

However, Germany confirmed on Tuesday that Kroos has returned to Madrid as a precautionary measure and will play no part in any of their games over the next eight days.

"Our medical department has examined and treated Toni intensively," said head coach Joachim Low, who will step down from his position at the end of the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament.

"He would have liked to stay with us, and I am reluctant to be without him. But with a view to the Euros, we decided that the full recovery from this injury must be a priority."

Kroos earned his 100th cap for Germany in October's 3-3 draw with Switzerland and has featured 35 times in all competitions for Madrid this season.

He previously missed two games earlier this season with a gluteal injury, seeing him play no part in the league wins over Real Valladolid and Levante.

Germany are also without Niklas Sule and Robin Gosens for Thursday's clash with Iceland in Duisburg, the pair unavailable with thigh and muscular problems respectively.

The build-up to the match has been dominated by talk of who will succeed Low as the next Germany head coach, but Manuel Neuer insists it will be business as usual on the field.

"We had a short team meeting and are concentrating on our tasks," he said. "We have to be well prepared for the European Championship and will use every game to do that.

"We cannot make any more mistakes. We have a strong group, against some strong opponents, so every game is a final from the start.

"Of course now we want to crown this era with a success. The coach deserves that to end with a success after the successful years.

"He is is very motivated and ambitious. It's not that he thinks he's going to retire. He's enthusiastic. He wants to quit as national coach as successfully as possible."

Under-21s boss Stefan Kuntz is among the frontrunners to replace Low, who has been at the helm since 2006 and guided his country to World Cup success in 2014.

Ralf Rangnick and Hansi Flick, who manages Neuer at club level with Bayern, are also in the running, while Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann have distanced themselves.

Asked about the candidates for one of the top jobs in football, Neuer said: "A national coach must have experience and must have done one or the other in German football. 

"He should know the Bundesliga. It's not about what we think, but about the goals that we have in front of us."

Wales captain Gareth Bale insists he is not distracted by uncertainty over his future and expects to return to Real Madrid at the end of the season as planned.

The 31-year-old rejoined Tottenham on a season-long loan from Madrid last September after falling out of favour at the Santiago Bernabeu under Zinedine Zidane.

Bale has had a mixed time of things since returning to north London, the forward having scored 10 goals and assisted three more in 25 appearances.

There had recently been talk of Bale staying on at Spurs after hitting form, but he was criticised by Jose Mourinho last week and played no part in Sunday's win at Aston Villa.

And with a year still to run on his Madrid contract, the forward believes he will be back in the Spanish capital after representing Wales at the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament.

"It's no distraction," he said at a news conference on Tuesday previewing Wales' opening World Cup 2022 qualifier against Belgium.

"The main reason I obviously came to Spurs was I wanted to play football, I wanted to be match fit. The original plan was only to do a season.

"After the Euros, I have a year left at Real Madrid. My plan is to go back."

Wales' preparations for Wednesday's clash with Belgium, the world's number one ranked nation, have been disrupted by a number of injury withdrawals.

Having already lost Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey from their initial 31-man squad, Tottenham's Ben Davies and fellow defender Tom Lockyer pulled out on Tuesday.

It is a big blow for Rob Page as he once again takes caretaker charge of Wales in the absence of Ryan Giggs, who remains under investigation due to an allegation of assault, which he denies.

"It's not great news for us, two defenders getting injured prior to camp," Page said. "We've assessed them and they're no good. It's not ideal preparation. We’ve got to react to that and pick a team that we think will win us the game.

"I think they're quite significant injuries. It's a shame. But we have to deal with it."

Page also took charge of Wales' three fixtures in November – a friendly draw against the United States, followed by Nations League wins against the Republic of Ireland and Finland.

Skipper Bale has been impressed by Page's work in the last two camps but is eager for the situation regarding Giggs to be resolved before the Euro 2020 finals.

"Pagey has done an incredible job. He's addressed the situation amazingly well and kept the consistency," Bale said.  "There are no excuses. We've had another good couple of days and we're fully focused. We're ready to go.

"I think my influence has been the same. We're just trying to keep it the same. Nothing has changed. Going into the Euros, ideally things are sorted, but we understand the situation. The FAW [Football Association of Wales] will be in charge of that, not the players."

Asked about his fitness, having been benched against Dinamo Zagreb and not used at all versus Villa three days later, Bale said: "I didn't play Sunday but I've had a couple of days' training. 

"It's been a quick turnaround. Same for every country. Everyone is in the same boat – we're ready to go.

"It's probably the most match fitness I've had. I'm feeling fresh and ready to go."

Wales have won their opening group match in just five of their 18 World Cup qualifying campaigns, although they have done so in two of the previous three.

The Dragons are unbeaten in four games against Belgium, famously beating their next opponents 3-1 in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.

But Belgium enter the match in Leuven in great form, winning 23 of their past 24 qualifying matches since going down 1-0 to Wales in June 2015, and Bale is predicting a tough opening Group E test.

"We know Belgium is a great team and we know we're going to be the underdogs," he said. "But you don't need to be the best team to win a game.

"This is why football is so great. What we showed that night [at Euro 2016] was more heart, desire, belief. When we pull on the Welsh shirt, we believe we have more passion than anyone.

"I think beating a big nation in a qualifier gives us confidence to grow. When you enjoy winning, it breeds more."

Manchester City have been linked with Erling Haaland.

As Sergio Aguero appears headed for an exit, Pep Guardiola wants to bolster his attack.

But Danny Ings has reportedly emerged as an alternative to the expensive and in-demand Haaland.

 

TOP STORY – CITY TARGET INGS

Manchester City are considering a move for Southampton star Danny Ings, according to Sky Sports.

City's all-time leading goalscorer Sergio Aguero is out of contract at the end of the season and no closer to extending his deal in Manchester.

Pep Guardiola's City are reportedly among the admirers of Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland, who has also been linked with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Juventus.

With Haaland set to command a huge fee, City are eyeing former Liverpool forward Ings as a cheaper alternative.

 

ROUND-UP

- Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport report Juventus head coach Andrea Pirlo is on the brink of being sacked. Juve are out of the Champions League and 10 points off the pace following their shock loss to Benevento. Former boss Massimiliano Allegri has been linked with a return, while La Repubblica claims Atalanta's Gian Piero Gasperini, Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi and Luciano Spalletti are on a three-man shortlist.

- Former Chelsea and Juventus boss Maurizio Sarri is Roma's number one option should they sack head coach Paulo Fonseca, says Gazzetta dello Sport. Fonseca – under pressure in the Italian capital – has also been linked with Napoli, alongside Hellas Verona's Ivan Juric. Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso has been linked with Fiorentina, Torino and Bologna.

Neymar re-signing with Ligue 1 holders PSG is "just a matter of time", according to Fabrizio Romano.

Aaron Ramsey is interested in a move to Premier League champions Liverpool, according to Calciomercato. The Juventus midfielder, who left Arsenal for Turin in 2019, is seen as a possible replacement for rumoured Barca target Georginio Wijnaldum at Anfield.

- The Daily Express reports Arsenal are eyeing Barcelona misfit Philippe Coutinho. However, a move will depend on whether Arsenal sign loanee Martin Odegaard permanently from Madrid.

Xabi Alonso is set to become the new head coach of Borussia Monchengladbach next season, replacing Dortmund-bound Marco Rose. Romano, however, insists no contract has been signed as the former Bayern Munich star remains in charge of Real Sociedad's B team.

Erling Haaland dismissed speculation over his future, insisting he has three years remaining on his Borussia Dortmund contract.

Haaland continues to take Europe by storm as the Dortmund star reportedly attracts interest from Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool.

The 20-year-old was asked about his future while on international duty with Norway, who will face Gibraltar in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday.

"I still have three years of contract [at Dortmund]," Haaland told reporters.

"I am not worried about that."

Haaland, who joined Dortmund from Austrian champions Salzburg in January last year, scored twice in Saturday's 2-2 draw away to Cologne.

He took his tally to 14 away goals in the Bundesliga this season, more than Werder Bremen (13), Hertha Berlin (13), Mainz (11), Arminia Bielefeld (10) and Schalke (eight) have scored at home in 2020-21.

Haaland has scored 21 goals in 21 league appearances this season and 33 across all competitions.

Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane said he aspires to play with the best players as the Frenchman addressed speculation linking Kylian Mbappe to the LaLiga giants.

Mbappe has been tipped to leave Ligue 1 champions PSG for LaLiga holders Madrid, with the France star yet to re-sign in Paris as his contract expires in 2022.

PSG remain in discussions with Mbappe – who celebrated his 100th Ligue 1 goal on Sunday – over a new deal.

Varane was asked about France team-mate Mbappe ahead of Wednesday's World Cup qualifier at home to Ukraine, and he told Europe 1: "He's still young, but he's already progressed enormously and he continues to evolve.

"He's becoming more and more complete and he's still a goalscorer; he's one of the greats.

"I aspire to play with the best players and Kylian is one of the best players in Europe."

Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane has made no secret of his desire to work with countryman Mbappe at the Santiago Bernabeu.

However, Zidane's future in the Spanish capital has been debated amid talk he could leave Madrid at the end of his contract in 2022.

Zidane returned to Madrid in 2019 after exiting a year earlier, having guided Los Blancos to three consecutive Champions League titles and LaLiga glory.

Taking charge of France has long been mooted, with Didier Deschamps' Les Bleus contract due to expire after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

"It's a possibility," Varane said of former international and 1998 World Cup winner Zidane coaching his native France.

"The French national team is a target for every French coach, it's normal that he’s potentially considered but it's not something relevant now.

"Our coach [Deschamps] is doing a very good job and we must focus on our short-term goals: clinching our presence in the World Cup and then the 2021 Euros."

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland will "define an era" according to Atletico Madrid forward Luis Suarez, who placed him ahead of Paris Saint-Germain sensation Kylian Mbappe.

Haaland continues to take Europe by storm as the Dortmund forward reportedly attracts interest from Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool.

The 20-year-old, who joined Dortmund from Salzburg in January last year, scored twice in Saturday's 2-2 draw away to Cologne – the Norway international taking his tally to 14 away goals in the Bundesliga this season, more than Werder Bremen (13), Hertha Berlin (13), Mainz (11), Arminia Bielefeld (10) and Schalke (eight) have scored at home in 2020-21.

Suarez heaped praise on Haaland, who has scored 21 goals in 21 league appearances this season and 33 across all competitions.

"He [Haaland] is a great player, he's at a spectacular level, he has an admirable physical strength," Suarez told Gerard Romero on Twitch.

"He's one of the best number nines in the world and will define an era.

"I'm a bit more in favour of Haaland, but [PSG forward Kylian] Mbappe is at a great level."

Suarez, meanwhile, has flourished since leaving LaLiga powerhouse Barcelona for rivals Atletico at the start of the season.

The 34-year-old Uruguay international reached 500 career goals for club and country after scoring Atletico's winner against Deportivo Alaves on Sunday.

Suarez has scored 19 league goals this season – only former team-mate Lionel Messi (23) has netted on more occasions in 2020-21 – as Atletico top the LaLiga standings by four points.

Eyeing silverware in Madrid, Suarez revealed he still keeps tabs on Messi and Barca, having spent six trophy-laden years at Camp Nou.

"I watch them because I like to watch football, I admire the club I defended and I'm grateful," Suarez added.

"I talk to Leo [Messi] almost daily, but sometimes about the odd game. Everyone knows the love I have for them for what I did there, also for what they have given me."

Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham believes signing stars such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar is far from a pipe dream for the MLS club.

The franchise has been linked with offers for Barcelona captain Messi and Juventus superstar Ronaldo as they approach the final years of their storied careers, while Brazil and Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar stated last year he had given Beckham his word he would sign for him in the future.

Former Manchester United midfielder and England captain Beckham remains confident he can attract players of such calibre to Florida.

"When we announced Miami, there was always going to be talk about what players we were going to bring in, whether it was Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar," Beckham told ESPN.

"There was always going to be those discussions. I actually don't think it's a tough one for players to decide, to be honest, because it's a great place.

"Obviously, it's a great city, I feel like we've got a great fan base, but I also understand there's great talent in Miami and South Florida, and I think we have a real opportunity. Miami is a city that has that pull on players who have been playing in Europe that are big stars."

After signing notable names such as Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi and Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami endured a tough time in 2020, finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference before losing in the play-in round of the playoffs.

Inter Miami also suffered three defeats in three games in Group A of the MLS Is Back tournament amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Co-owner Beckham is now hoping for a brighter second season in MLS under former team-mate Phil Neville, who took over from Diego Alonso as head coach.

"[Neville] is the kind of coach that will get the best out of the players," said Beckham. "He won't just work with the [Designated Players], he works with the young kids that have come through the academies.

"His experience being a part of one of the best academies in the game at Manchester United when we were growing up, working with different coaches.

"He was David Moyes' assistant at Manchester United, he was an assistant coach at Valencia, and then obviously he went on to be the coach of the England women's national team, which was a great experience, but also challenging at times."

Didier Deschamps believes Ousmane Dembele can still become a more consistent contributor after recalling the forward for the start of France's World Cup qualifying campaign. 

Dembele has not played an international game since November 2018, when he came on as a substitute in a 2-0 Nations League defeat to the Netherlands. 

However, his form this season for Barcelona has led to the 23-year-old being included in Les Bleus’ squad for games against Group D rivals Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Bosnia-Herzegovina 

Deschamps handed the player his full debut back in September 2016 and, after injuries wiped out the vast majority of the 2019-20 season, is pleased to see Dembele back performing again. 

Still, the France boss sees further room for improvement, pinpointing the need to have an even greater impact on games.

"He is a player who showed his qualities very early. He is still young," Deschamps told the media on Monday. 

"If we haven't seen him for a while, it's because he's not been spared from injuries. By the time he recovered he was injured again. 

"Now he is able to play again, he is able to make the difference and score goals. He could score more and be more effective. 

"It is not a question of changing him. He has been playing at the highest level for a long time. He is young. It would be good for him, for his club and for us if he could become more efficient.  

"Of course, this is something that needs to be worked on. As you mature, you may make better choices. All forwards have moments when they are less efficient than others."

Dembele has scored nine goals and provided four assists for Barca in all competitions this season, his fourth at Camp Nou.  

His tally of 78 shots is already his highest for a campaign since arriving from Borussia Dortmund, with his conversion rate sitting at 11.54 per cent.   

He barely featured last term but was more clinical in 2018-19, when he had 14 goals and eight assists in 42 appearances. That season, he converted shots at a rate of 20.29 per cent, with 45.45 per cent success from 'big chances', where Opta expects a player to score.  

Dembele has had 15 'big chances' and created a further seven under Ronald Koeman for Barca, who made it five wins on the spin in LaLiga at the weekend with a 6-1 thrashing of Real Sociedad, in which the Frenchman one of the goals.  

"Ousmane has and always had this ability to create chances and make the difference. He is not always decisive in the area. That's where it's most difficult," Deschamps continued.  

"The important thing is his ability to make the difference.  Yes, he can be more consistent from the beginning to the end of the game. 

"I'm not saying he can't progress or improve. I prefer to look at the qualities anyway. They all have little flaws that can be erased with time.   

"Sometimes they don't, but that doesn't stop them from being good. We are talking about a player who has been at the top level for several years and he is still very young."

Erling Haaland is one of the most sought-after players in Europe.

Europe's elite are lining up to sign the Borussia Dortmund sensation.

Barcelona are reportedly prepared to go all out as Haaland grows frustrated in Germany.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND EYES DORTMUND EXIT

Erling Haaland has notified his agent that he wants to leave Borussia Dortmund if they fail to qualify for the Champions League, according to Diario AS.

Haaland is a player in demand following his exploits for Dortmund, heavily linked with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Juventus.

Dortmund – through to the 2020-21 quarter-finals – sit outside the Champions League places this season, fifth in the Bundesliga.

Haaland has reportedly given Dortmund an ultimatum should they miss out on Champions League football.

It comes as Sport claims Barca have started to try and raise funds in their pursuit of the Norway international, with the LaLiga giants willing to let two strikers leave.

 

ROUND-UP

- Bild says Germany boss Joachim Low is a candidate for the Real Madrid job should Zinedine Zidane ever leave. Low is set to vacate his post after the reschedule Euro 2020. Telefoot, however, insists Zidane has no intention of leaving ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Liverpool are unaware of Georginio Wijnaldum's reported pre-contract agreement with Barca, claims the Liverpool Echo. Wijnaldum is out of contract at season's end and the Dutchman has been tipped to join Barca.

- United are ready to listen to offers for forward Anthony Martial, claims The Touchline Talk. It comes as the Red Devils seek to sign Haaland.

- Fiorentina are asking €40million for forward Dusan Vlahovic amid links with Milan, reports Calciomercato.

- According to The Transfer Window Podcast, Liverpool are set to rival Arsenal in the race to sign Celtic forward Odsonne Edouard.

PSG are still tracking out-of-favour Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli as the Ligue 1 champions also eye Lazio star Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, reports Calciomercato.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said the race for the LaLiga title will be close following Sunday's demolition of Real Sociedad.

Lionel Messi made history as he led Barcelona to a 6-1 thrashing of Sociedad – a result that moved the Catalan giants within four points of leaders Atletico Madrid.

Messi – in his club-record 768th appearance in all competitions – scored twice, Sergino Dest had a brace, while Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele also struck for the visitors.

As Barca loom large with 10 matches remaining, Koeman told reporters: "I think the win sends an important message – but mostly to ourselves. It shows the team is comfortable and confident in its own abilities.

"Physically we're in a strong place as well and we've improved a lot but it doesn't mean today's result and performance will be replicated in future games.

"There's still a lot of games left to play in LaLiga but we are still behind Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have also improved.

"They are much stronger as well. It's going to be a tough fight until the last game of the season. Therefore, we have to keep going game by game."

Barcelona have won their last nine games away from home in LaLiga, keeping six clean sheets to level their third-best consecutive winning run on the road.

Koeman's Barca also scored six goals in an away game across all competitions for the first time since February 2017.

Messi, meanwhile, has now been involved in more goals (23) than any other player in the top five European leagues in 2021 – 16 goals and seven assists.

Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman was delighted to mark his 58th birthday with an "incredible" 6-1 LaLiga thrashing of Real Sociedad.

The Catalans closed back to within four points of league leaders Atletico Madrid on Sunday with arguably their finest performance under Koeman.

Two goals each from Sergino Dest and Lionel Messi – who made a record 768th appearance for the club – and further strikes from Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele secured an emphatic victory, Barca's ninth in a row in the top flight.

Koeman, who was thrilled to see the goals spread out among four players and not only come from his captain, was proud at the way Barca made life so uncomfortable for their hosts.

"Without a doubt, it's the best present they could have given me," said Koeman. "I'm also happy for Griezmann and [Jordi] Alba, who've had their birthdays, and who played a great game.

"Scoring six goals at Real Sociedad is incredible. They tried to press us but, when they saw they couldn't, they took a step back.

"The first goal made us very calm and the second was almost decisive. We gave a really good impression of ourselves. We pressed really well without the ball and we were very effective.

"There's a long way to go. It won't be decided yet. Atletico are strong, but you saw against Alaves that it's not easy to win a game. Real Madrid are also in the fight; we can't forget them.

"We leave with a great result and a demonstration that we're going to go for everything. It's important that it's not just Messi scoring the goals because that makes it more difficult to defend against us."

Barca head into the international break trailing Atletico by 10 points after Diego Simeone's side claimed a hard-fought 1-0 win over Deportivo Alaves.

The Blaugrana look the sharpest of the big three in Spain at present and Koeman thinks they have improved significantly in recent weeks.

"I can't say we're not going to lose any game from here until the rest of the season, but it's clear that we're on a good path. We're very strong mentally and physically," he said.

"We've had many difficulties since the start of the season. We've changed things; any team needs time to learn. We've had some ups and downs in LaLiga, with defensive mistakes and a lack of effectiveness. But it's obvious the team has moved on."

Diego Simeone paid tribute to Luis Suarez and Jan Oblak for their crucial roles in Atletico Madrid's slender 1-0 win over Deportivo Alaves on Sunday.

Suarez opened the scoring just after half-time with a glancing header, the Uruguayan converting for the 500th time in his professional career.

For a moment it looked as though his goal would not be enough to secure victory, as Stefan Savic was penalised late on for catching Luis Rioja with a flailing elbow in the penalty area.

However, Oblak threw himself to his right to turn Joselu's spot-kick away and Atletico held on for an unconvincing triumph.

Simeone saluted the decisiveness of his two main men on the day and insisted the team's attitude has been exemplary in the wake of Champions League disappointment at the hands of Chelsea in midweek.

"As happens in great teams, there is always one that scores a lot of goals and another that saves a lot of goals, and a team that competes accordingly," he said.

"It usually happens a lot in big teams, having decisive players who give the team's overall work a boost."

He added: "Beyond the elimination in the Champions League the other day, the group's work has been extraordinary. There is always an intention, an availability, a commitment.

"In the first half we had control of the ball but we weren't incisive, we didn't create goal situations to break the deadlock. They closed us off very well.

"Each time the competition progresses, the matches will be tougher, more difficult, we are seeing it in all stadiums. The differences are minimal.

"In the second half we put into practice what we talked about. We accelerated, we had more people in the area to finish, and a great goal came.

"From then on it was the best moment of the game, until the 77th minute when we had three important occasions.

"The penalty – you try to stop it. I'm very happy for Jan. It [the penalty save] generates three very important points for the team."

The victory means Atletico stayed four points ahead of second-place Barcelona, who thrashed Real Sociedad 6-1.

 

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