Karim Benzema deserves to become the first French winner of the Ballon d'Or since Zinedine Zidane – and that verdict comes from Zidane himself.

Real Madrid striker Benzema, who has taken over the captaincy since Sergio Ramos joined Paris Saint-Germain, is playing the best football of his career as he approaches his 34th birthday in December.

Zidane has seen that as close quarters, having had two spells as Madrid head coach during Benzema's time at the club.

Although Zidane left Los Blancos at the end of last season, he is firmly in the Benzema camp when it comes to selecting a Ballon d'Or front-runner.

Speaking to TF1's Telefoot, Zidane said: "We're talking about a player who deserves to win this Ballon d'Or.

"He's an incredible player, I had the great honour of coaching him. He knows how to do everything on the pitch. I hope he can be rewarded with this Ballon d'Or. It's the right moment because he's at the top of his game."

 

France international Benzema has been Madrid's attacking spearhead since Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Juventus in 2018 and has risen to that challenge.

He has topped the 20-goal mark in LaLiga in the last three seasons and has nine strikes in eight games so far this term in the Spanish top flight.

Last season, Benzema's 23 league goals came at an average of one every 126.13 minutes. They also came from an expected goals total of 18.81, indicating he is excelling in taking the chances that come his way.

His LaLiga shot conversion rate so far in 2021-22 is 26.47 per cent, higher than he has achieved across any full league campaign since arriving in 2009 from Lyon.

With three LaLiga titles and four Champions League wins in 12 years, Benzema has accrued plenty of silverware while with Los Blancos, much of it during Zidane's time in charge. He also helped France win the Nations League last weekend, scoring a stunning goal against Spain in the final.

Now, individual acclaim may be coming his way, although Benzema faces stiff competition, with six-time winner Lionel Messi rated a favourite for the Ballon d'Or with British bookmakers, having helped Argentina win the Copa America.

Benzema recently said it had been a long-held "dream of mine" to win the coveted award.

Robert Lewandowski's record-breaking 41-goal Bundesliga season last term also puts him firmly into contention, while Jorginho has a strong claim after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

The Ballon d'Or winner will be announced on November 29 at a ceremony in Paris.

Lionel Messi is "very happy" at Paris Saint-Germain despite making a slow start to life in the French capital since his shock move from Barcelona, according to friend and former team-mate Cesc Fabregas.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner signed for Ligue 1 giants PSG in August after Barcelona, the club he had been associated with for 21 years, were unable to fulfil an agreement on a new contract due to financial reasons.

Messi scored a staggering 672 goals and assisted 265 more in 778 appearances across 17 seasons in Barca's first team, but he has so far managed just one goal and zero assists in five games for his new club in what has been a stop-start campaign.

He has had 13 shots during his 370 minutes on the field for PSG, finding the target from four of those.

Monaco midfielder Fabregas has opened up on Messi's surprise departure from Camp Nou two months ago and has refuted previous suggestions that the Argentina international is unsettled in the French capital.

 

"He's very happy. There are a lot of players he knows already and who speak Spanish. He's very happy, of course," Fabregas, who progressed through Barca's La Masia academy and returned to the club for a three-season spell in 2011, told Prime Video Sport.

"I was on holiday with him a week earlier, and he told me he was close to signing for Barcelona and he was due to start training the following week.

"Five days later, he told me it wasn't possible and that the club had told him to leave. I was very sad because I'm his friend and I'm a Barcelona fan. But now, I'm happy to be able to play against him this season."

Messi was not included in PSG's squad for Friday's 2-1 win over Angers, the superstar forward not being considered for selection due to being in World Cup qualifying action for Argentina the previous day.

Kylian Mbappe's contentious late penalty sealed a ninth win in 10 Ligue 1 games for leaders PSG, who return to action on Tuesday with a home match against RB Leipzig in the Champions League.

Sergio Aguero and Ansu Fati have been included in Barcelona's 23-man squad for Sunday's crucial LaLiga clash with Valencia at Camp Nou.

Manchester City great Aguero has yet to feature in a competitive game for Barca since joining at the end of May, due to a troublesome calf issue.

Fati is being eased back into the first team after a long-term knee injury absence, with the teenage forward having featured three times as a substitute since making a return from a near year-long lay-off.

Both players are in contention to play a part against Valencia as Barca attempt to kickstart their LaLiga campaign on the back of a 2-0 loss to Atletico Madrid two weeks ago.

Aguero's inclusion and the return of Fati will be considered a major boost for coach Ronald Koeman, whose side are down in ninth place after seven matches.

Barca's shot conversion rate of 13.6 per cent in LaLiga this term is their lowest in a single campaign since 2007-08 (13.5 per cent).

Asked on Saturday about Aguero's chances of playing his first competitive minutes at club level since the Champions League final, Koeman said: "He's improved a lot lately.

"He played 20, 25 minutes in Wednesday's [practice] game and it is going well. But he lacks the rhythm of the games and a certain physique.

"He will get that with games. His quality is not questioned; he can give a lot to this team. Especially up front."

 

Fati has scored 14 goals in 46 appearances for Barca since making his senior debut in August 2019, but he has just 57 minutes of playing time under his belt this term and was not included in Spain's most recent squad.

Koeman will not take any unnecessary risks over the youngster's fitness, with games against Dynamo Kiev and Real Madrid to follow in the coming week, in the Champions League and LaLiga respectively.

"Every day he is doing better because he has been away for a long time," Koeman said at Saturday's pre-match news conference.

"You have to think with Ansu that there are three games this week and he cannot play the entire three games. We must decide what is best for him and the team."

Elsewhere, Barca are without the injured Ronald Araujo, Pedri, Martin Braithwaite and Ousmane Dembele.

The Catalan giants have just lost one of their last 10 LaLiga games against Los Che (W5 D4) – a 2-0 reverse in January 2020 under Quique Setien.

The race is on to sign Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland, who might be set to make a move in mid-2022.

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain are all interested in the Norwegian goal machine, but could Newcastle United also be a factor?.

Haaland netted 41 goals from 41 games last term for Dortmund and already has 13 this season.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE ENTER HAALAND RACE

Newcastle are the latest club to enter the race to sign Borussia Dortmund's Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, reports AS.

The report claims Real Madrid are losing their grip as favourites to sign Haaland, with Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and now Newcastle potentially in contention.

The Magpies' move is said to be "not out of the question" following the club's takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund who appear set to make a splash in the transfer market in January. 

ROUND-UP

- Mohamed Salah's agent has arrived in England for contract talks with Liverpool over a £500k-per-week deal, according to the Mirror.

- ESPN reports that Premier League trio Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool are tracking Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, rivalling Real Madrid. United's interest is said to be based around whether Paul Pogba departs.

- Dusan Vlahovic will follow Federico Chiesa's lead and reject a new Fiorentina contract offer in favour of a move to Juventus, ignoring Premier League interest from Tottenham and Liverpool, reports La Gazzetta dello Sport.

- Barcelona are interested in Manchester United's Nemanja Matic, claims The Sun. The Serbian has a little over 18 months remaining on his United deal so Barca believe they could sign him next off-season on a cut-price deal.

- Goal Germany reports that Bayern Munich are making a move to sign Salzburg talent Karim Adeyemi, with the player's agent and father reportedly holding talks with the Bavarian club on Saturday.

Dani Alves has revealed he wants to return to Barcelona, claiming his experience can make him a perfect foil for the talented youngsters emerging at Camp Nou.

The Brazilian right-back hopes to push for a place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar but is without a club after leaving Sao Paulo in September.

He would love to make the leap back into LaLiga, in what would be a startling move for a 38-year-old who left Barcelona five years ago.

Now it remains to be seen whether head coach Ronald Koeman thinks there is a place in his squad for the six-time LaLiga winner.

"I always said that I left because I saw that things were not the way I thought they should be," he told Spanish newspaper Sport.

With Joan Laporta back for a new stint as president, Alves believes Barcelona can move in the right direction.

"If left saying that when Barca needed me and wanted me, I would be at their disposal regardless of where I was," he said. "The affection, love and respect that I have for this club is too much. If Barca think they need me, they just have to call. I still think that I can contribute anywhere, but more at Barca because of the number of youngsters they have now.

"In every place I have been, I have always thought that the perfect mix is ​experience with youth. There will come a time when youth will mature and the older ones will leave. It is a natural cycle, but in football mistakes have been made and this process has accelerated. Processes cannot be sped up. The mix is ​​essential."

Alves played for Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain after leaving Barcelona, winning league titles with both, before returning to Brazilian club football.

A three-time Champions League winner with Barcelona, he joined in 2008 from Sevilla and left eight years later. In 247 LaLiga games for Barcelona, he helped the team to 95 clean sheets, had 78 goal involvements (64 assists, 14 goals) and created 377 chances. The latter total across the eight-year period was beaten by only five players, two of whom were Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Alves said there was a subconscious "thorn" in his mind regarding the World Cup, and the fact he did not go to the 2018 tournament due to a knee injury. Winning a gold medal with Brazil at the Tokyo Olympic Games was rated by Alves as his greatest achievement in the game.

"Many times you stop playing not because of the physical element but because you have been mentally destroyed. And this is one of the things that I have the strongest: I decide when I start and I decide when I finish. And along the way you have to live it intensely, which is what I do," he said. "I know that if I am going to compete in a team, that is what will take me to the World Cup."

He scotched any thought of him lacking the physical wherewithal to compete at the highest level.

"There came a time in Sao Paulo that we played every other day," Alves said. "I am reaping what I have sown all my life, which is respect for the profession, discipline and care that one has to have ... it is what allowed me to compete in the Olympic Games with boys of 18 or 20 years old and have a good performance.

"I don't believe myself to be better than anyone, but I trust my work, my dedication and my preparation to face all my challenges. This is the basis of my entire career."

Ronald Koeman had Sergio Aguero and Ansu Fati on his mind ahead of Sunday's clash with Valencia as the under-pressure Barcelona boss seeks the wins he admits his team urgently need.

Former Manchester City striker Aguero – the Premier League champions' record scorer – has yet to play a competitive game for Barcelona since joining in the close season, due to a calf injury.

The Argentinian was in Koeman's thoughts, however, ahead of the clash with Valencia at Camp Nou, while Fati appears ready to make his first start of the season.

It remains to be seen whether that comes on Sunday or in the Champions League game with Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday, or even in the Clasico against Real Madrid next weekend.

Three home games in eight days for Barcelona could go a long way to determining whether Koeman has a future at Camp Nou, with a Champions League defeat to Benfica and a LaLiga loss to Atletico Madrid before the international break having ramped up pressure on the Dutchman's position.

Assessing Aguero, Koeman said on Saturday: "He has improved a lot lately. He played 20, 25 minutes in Wednesday's [practice] game and it is going well.

"But he lacks the rhythm of the games and a certain physique. He will get that with games. There is a possibility that he will be on the squad list. His quality is not questioned, he can give a lot to this team. Especially up front."

Barcelona have taken 12 points from their opening seven games in LaLiga, meaning they have ground to make up already on the likes of Real Madrid, Atletico and Real Sociedad, who each stood on 17 points from eight games coming into this weekend, albeit Koeman's men have a game in hand.

Teenage forward Fati is being eased back into the first team after his long-term knee injury absence, with Koeman determined not to rush the young Spain international, while at the same time aware his qualities could be hugely helpful to this Barcelona team.

The shot conversion rate by Barcelona in LaLiga so far this season is 13.6 per cent, their lowest in a single campaign in the top flight since 2007-08 (13.5 per cent).

 

"Every day he is doing better because he has been away for a long time," Koeman said of Fati. "You have to think with Ansu that there are three games this week and he cannot play the entire three games. We must decide what is best for him and the team."

Koeman was backed by president Joan Laporta before the Atletico game, but he needs results and knows it.

"I always try to be calm, which isn't easy," Koeman said. "The important thing is to put your energy where you have an influence. Winning games and points is what counts."

The former Ajax and Everton boss will hope Barcelona's reasonably strong recent record against Valencia can continue. They have just lost one of their past 10 LaLiga games against Valencia (W5 D4), a 2-0 setback in January 2020 under Quique Setien.

A flurry of goals would seem likely, given the recent history of this fixture. Valencia are the away team with the most goals at Camp Nou in LaLiga since 2013-14, netting a remarkable 14 goals in eight games and scoring at least twice in six of those.

Koeman would presumably take a win by any means, whether a scrappy 1-0 or a dramatic and high-scoring affair. A defeat is almost unthinkable, given it would be a third straight loss for the Blaugrana.

Asked about his position and the pressures that come with it, Koeman said: "I am used to it. Don't worry, in a big club there are always things with the coach. Last year they also talked about the coach.

"The president has defended me and supported me. Things are fine as they are, in spite of the fact that every coach has to win games to continue."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain midfielder Pedri declared his desire to "win everything every year" after signing a new contract at Barcelona, which he believes to be the "best club in the world".

The 18-year-old has secured new terms until the end of the 2025-26 season with a release clause of €1billion after establishing himself in the first team last term, having been initially signed from Las Palmas to play for Barcelona B.

Pedri featured in a club-high 52 games across all competitions in 2020-21 and played the seventh-most minutes (3,529). The teenager also completed the fifth-most opposition-half passes of any Barcelona player in LaLiga (1,100).

The young midfielder has also impressed for Spain, with nobody completing more passes ending in the final third at both the Tokyo Olympic Games and Euro 2020 – making 117 in Japan and 177 in his first senior major tournament.

A Copa del Rey with Barca and a silver medal in Tokyo remain Pedri's only team honours so far, but the youngster is convinced he is in the right place to earn major silverware, despite the difficult financial situation the Blaugrana find themselves in.

"My hope is to be here for many years, it is a difficult moment but it is the best club in the world and it is going to get up and achieve great things," Pedri said.

"I'm at the best club in the world and I want to aspire to win everything every year. Thank you to the president and the club and I hope [I will be here] will be many more years.

"They have all made me improve and grow as a footballer and hopefully many more dreams will come.

"It is true that everything has happened very quickly but thanks to these three people, my mother, my father and my brother, they help me to have the feet on the ground and give me advice. I am very grateful to them for everything.

"While at Barça you can dream of winning titles, this club is the biggest in the world and when I won the Copa del Rey I felt a lot of happiness, I can't put it into words."

Pedri has also been nominated both for the Golden Boy award and the Ballon d'Or, marking his meteoric rise since arriving at Camp Nou last year.

"[The Golden Boy nomination] is a prize for the work of the season and the fact that Gavi is there is a pride for Barca, which has many talented young people and I hope we can do great things,” Pedri said.

"I don't have to decide [who wins the Ballon d'Or] but I would give it to Leo [Lionel Messi] for all that he has helped me, he is the best in the world."

Pedri also insists he is unfazed by the enormous release clause inserted into his new contract, focusing instead on the length of the deal and his ambitions for the years to come.

"[The release clause] is an image of what the club is betting on for me," Pedri said. "I really want to add great things to this club and I prefer the years and the project that are more important to me than the clause.

"I leave the responsibility aside when I enter the field. I take it as I really want to go back and show the confidence they have given me."

Lionel Messi should never have been allowed to leave Barcelona for another European club, according to former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The relationship between Messi and Bartomeu reportedly became toxic during the latter's final months in charge at Camp Nou, and Joan Laporta's election win in March 2021 appeared to point to a brighter future for the team.

However, in August there was the bombshell announcement that Messi would be released as the club could not afford to retain him, with their finances having been hit badly during the pandemic.

An agreed contract had to be discarded and Messi joined Paris Saint-Germain, who have no such money worries under their Qatari owners.

There ended Messi's 20-year career at Barcelona, during which he became the pivotal player. Messi departed as the club's record scorer, with the most first-team appearances of any player in Barcelona's history, and against his own wishes, a sobbing superstar waving an unexpected farewell.

"I have always thought that it is essential that he should be with us, not only because he is the best in the world but also because of his economic and institutional contribution," Bartomeu said, in an interview with Mundo Deportivo.

"It is a mistake to let Messi go. He represents much more than a footballer that you fall in love with."

Messi attempted to leave Barcelona after the 2019-20 season, believing an agreement that he should be allowed to depart if he told the club of his intention by May 31 should have been allowed to carry over until the end of August, given the delay in the campaign caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

That was rejected by Barcelona, with Bartomeu fighting to keep Messi with the Catalans.

"He wanted to leave the club, we talked about it and I said no," Bartomeu said. "I have always thought that Messi is very important for our club, also Barca is for him and it would be a serious problem if he left, as I think it has been now.

"I told him that if he wanted to go like Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta, to Qatar, China or the United States, something we understood, we can talk about it and we will do a tribute and a farewell.

"But Messi didn't have a team yet and he wanted to be free. We told him: 'We want Barça to be your last club in Europe. If you want to go to another continent later, no problem. But we want you to continue,' and that was a bit of the story of the summer of 2020. Us telling him that we wanted him to continue and he, that he wanted to leave. But without knowing where. I always asked him where he wanted to go."

Bartomeu frowned on suggestions there had been no strategy for growing the team, which was said to have been a major complaint of the Argentina forward.

He also dismissed any suggestion that players had an overbearing influence, having admitted Messi and Luis Suarez promoted the idea of bringing in Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool, before he arrived for an eye-watering fee in January 2018.

Barcelona agreed a deal said to be worth up to £142million for the Brazil midfielder, whose signing has not lived up to expectations.

Asked about player power, Bartomeu told the Spanish newspaper: "In the dressing room they have a power and you have to listen to them. It does not only happen at Barca. 

"You have to take them into account, they know the day to day and during this term we signed many players. Sometimes we have taken their considerations into account and sometimes not."

Ansu Fati was the subject of a rejected €150million bid from an unnamed Premier League club that would have helped solve Barcelona's financial woes, former president Josep Maria Bartomeu has claimed.

The money worries at the troubled LaLiga giants have been laid bare over the past year, with the club having seen huge streams of revenue lost amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the money crisis that ultimately led to Los Cules legend Lionel Messi departing on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, while several other big earners agreed to take a pay cut to help alleviate the cash-flow issues.

Bartomeu stepped down in October 2020 following a vote of no confidence, while it has been reported Barca's debts are at the €1.35billion mark.

The ex-president insists there was never any risk of the club dissolving and said teenage superstar Fati attracted interest that could have helped balance the books, but Bartomeu said the decision was taken to find alternative ways of redressing Barca's economic situation.

"No, never [was there a risk], it's fine as an alarmist message. Barca is a sports club and also in the case of the pandemic, the Royal Decree says that the losses due to COVID will never be losses that allow the dissolution of the club, which has assets of players, patrimonial, digital and has a low but high balance sheet value at the market level," he told Mundo Deportivo.

"That is why it is impossible that it is at risk of dissolution. In the summer of 2020 we had a very good offer for Ansu who would have settled the accounts that year and we prefer to bet on the sports project than not to fix the economic issue.

"We knew that when we reopened the Camp Nou to 100 per cent, in a short time we would recover the level of income."

It was reported in November of last year that Manchester United were the team to make a bumper bid for Fati, although that was never officially confirmed.

Asked to elaborate on the Fati offer, Bartomeu explained that had the pandemic never occurred, Barca would not have been in such a precarious financial position.

"It [the Fati bid] was from an English club. It would have been a direct benefit for the year 20-21, but at Barca the sports project prevails and the economy continues," he added.

"Until March 2020 we could afford the amounts that had been agreed. They are very high contracts, which are important because we are the most valuable club in the world.

"A few months ago, Forbes said it that way for the first time in 122 years of history. It is news of satisfaction. That in 2020, in the year of a pandemic, that we are number one in the world, contrasts with the mismanagement message since external organisations, such as LaLiga or Forbes, say so.

"The club has also been declared the best football club of the last decade. This allows you to have a solid base to continue progressing."

Late last month, Fati made a long-awaited return from a meniscus injury sustained in November 2020 that saw him require surgery on three occasions.

Real Madrid's pursuit of Paris Saint-Germain's 22-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe has been widely observed.

Los Blancos could not prise the France striker away from PSG during the last transfer window but may be ready to enter the market in a major way next year.

Carlo Ancelotti took over as Madrid head coach in June and is beginning to build his side.

 

TOP STORY –   REAL CONFIDENT OF HUGE DOUBLE SIGNING

The Sun reports that Real Madrid are confident of signing both Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe next year.

The report claims securing Pogba's signature would help Los Blancos clinch a deal for the Paris Saint-Germain star who is a France team-mate.

Pogba is out of contract with Manchester United at the end of this season, while Mbappe has stalled on an extension with PSG and appears set to exit.

ROUND-UP

- Madrid are also interested in signing Italy international Federico Chiesa from Juventus, reports Fichajes.

- Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Tottenham are keen on Fiorentina's Serbian forward Dusan Vlahovic, but Mundo Deportivo reports La Viola have set a €70million (£59m) asking price for him.

- Roma are willing to offload Everton target Gonzalo Villar in the January transfer window in order to raise funds to move for Borussia Monchengladbach's Denis Zakaria, claims Tuttomercatoweb.

- Liverpool are leading the race to sign highly sought-after Belgian talent Jeremy Doku who is currently with Rennes, reports RTL.

- Sky Sports reports that Atletico Madrid are eager to complete new deals for Jan Oblak and Thomas Lemar, with talks under way.

- Tottenham's Ryan Sessegnon could be offered a fresh start by Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce, according to Takvim.

The October international break has provided an opportunity to reflect on the club season so far, with the campaign starting to settle into some sort of pattern.

Paris Saint-Germain have quickly moved clear at the top of Ligue 1, but there look to be genuine title tussles on the cards in the Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga and Serie A.

However, while there are familiar names involved in each league, that does not mean the same individuals are excelling as in previous seasons.

A close-season that saw two of the sport's greats make moves shook things up a little, giving other emerging stars the opportunity to establish themselves at the forefront of the European game.

Studying the best shooters, creators, dribblers and goalkeepers, Stats Perform takes you through the standout statistical performers of 2021-22 so far.

Hotshot Haaland and luckless Lorenzo

There were familiar faces at the top of the shooting charts last season, as Lionel Messi (196 shots) led the way ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo (168). This term, although Ronaldo has hit the ground running, neither rank among the top marksmen.

Kylian Mbappe (35) has had the most attempts, but Erling Haaland is averaging 5.2 per 90. While that is the most among players with 20 total shots or more, it falls short of the 5.8 Messi was mustering last term.

Haaland is certainly making the most of his opportunities, though. From chances worth just 4.77 expected goals (xG), he has produced finishes worth 7.05 expected goals on target (xGOT) – a metric measured after the shot. These efforts have led to seven goals, performing in line with the quality of his finishing.

The Borussia Dortmund man is not outperforming his xG by as much as Karim Benzema, who leads the way in that regard. His nine goals have come from opportunities worth 4.43 xG, although his shots have only accounted for 5.22 xGOT, suggesting poor goalkeeping has also contributed to his success.

Lorenzo Insigne certainly has not encountered any below-par work from opposition keepers. His 27 attempts have been worth 5.5 xG, and he has narrowly surpassed that mark with his xGOT of 5.57. Yet the Napoli captain, third behind Messi and Ronaldo last year with 144 shots, somehow has only two goals.

Just two players in the whole of 2020-21 – Houssem Aouar (seven goals, 10.75 xGOT) and Edin Dzeko (seven goals, 10.58 xGOT) – fell so far short of their xGOT, suggesting Insigne's fortunes must surely change soon.

Benzema benefiting like Kane last year

Bruno Fernandes is one of Europe's best creators and scarcely gets a rest at Manchester United, so it is no surprise to see him figuring high up the rankings for key passes both this season and last. In 2020-21, Fernandes created the second-most chances (95) and the second-most chances from open play (77). This term, he is joint-fifth for total chances created (23).

Eden Hazard is back producing once again, averaging 3.99 key passes per 90 – all from open play. He is third for chances created and first for chances created from open play among those to forge 10 or more opportunities.

But Hazard has only a single assist to his name, not so far as fortunate as Fernandes' team-mate Paul Pogba or his own colleague Benzema.

Pogba has created chances worth just 1.45 expected assists (xA) and Benzema 2.05 xA, yet the pair have seven assists apiece thanks to the fine work of their club-mates. It means Benzema has been involved in 16 goals despite his combined xG and xA making up a mere 6.48. He is a man in top form, but this statistical output does not seem sustainable.

It is Harry Kane's example that Pogba and Benzema are following. His 14 assists led the Premier League last term, but he only actually created chances worth 3.63 xA, far and away the most spectacular disparity as Son Heung-min and Co. boosted Kane's figures.

Messi actually went in the opposite direction, last season creating chances worth 13.37 xA but only being rewarded with nine assists.

Adama dominant with Messi missing

As well as being one of Europe's most prominent shooters and creators, Messi was right at the top for dribbles last term. No player attempted (261) or completed (159) more take-ons. Given Neymar attempted the most dribbles per 90 (11.28) among those with 50 or more attempts, slow starts for two Paris Saint-Germain stars have left a gap in the market.

Unsurprisingly, Adama Traore has stepped into that void. The Wolves winger was next behind Messi for attempts (232) and completions (153) in 2020-21 and now comfortably leads the way (61 and 49). Among those with 20 attempted take-ons or more, Traore is now completing more dribbles per 90 (9.63) than any other player in Europe is even attempting. His success rate is an astonishing 80.33 per cent.

The Spain international has 14 times this season beaten multiple players in the same run and has created six chances immediately after a successful dribble – two more Europe-wide highs.

Traore only ranks joint-second for chances created from all carries, however, his nine trailing Allan Saint-Maximin's 11, with the pair out in front of the rest across various metrics with the ball at their feet.

Oblak off the mark and Keylor kept out

There were two clear outstanding goalkeepers in Europe in 2020-21, as Jan Oblak led the way for goals prevented using expected goals on target data (8.58, having conceded only 25 times excluding own goals) while Keylor Navas had the best save percentage of those to face 50 or more shots on target (80.43). Oblak was second for save percentage (80), with Navas third for goals prevented (8.11).

But both men have slipped below those standards this season.

Oblak has endured a significant wobble, saving only 57.14 per cent of 14 shots and conceding five goals from efforts worth 4.22 xGOT. Navas has a better save percentage of 72.73 but still is not having a positive impact, conceding six from an xGOT of 5.02. He also now looks to have lost his place to Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Going the other way, though, there has been a positive change in fortunes for Aaron Ramsdale, who last year had to make 147 saves – behind only fellow relegated England international Sam Johnstone (166). Since joining Arsenal, Ramsdale has faced just 10 shots on target and saved nine of them, a benchmark save percentage.

Matias Dituro is the standout difference-maker this term, however. Despite conceding 11 times, excluding own goals, since joining Celta Vigo, he has actually prevented 4.05 goals.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atletico Madrid's "world class" strike force of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez, Angel Correa and Joao Felix will help the club to finish above Real Madrid, Barcelona and any other challengers in the LaLiga title race.

That is the view of ex-Valencia, Celta Vigo, Villarreal and Real Zaragoza defender Jose Enrique, who told Stats Perform he also expects Atleti to put up a fight for the Champions League under "annoying" boss Diego Simeone.

The reigning Spanish champions are level on points with city rivals Madrid at LaLiga's summit after eight matches thanks to a 2-0 win over Barcelona – who are five points worse off in ninth with a game in hand – prior to the international break.

Atleti have been far from perfect at the start of their title defence, though, having dropped points against Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Deportivo Alaves this term, losing 1-0 to the latter in the shock of the season so far.

Simeone's side have also had to ride their luck at times, with three of their 11 league goals coming in added time and another two arriving in the 78th and 79th minute.

Suarez leads the way with four goals, including a strike against former side Barca two weeks ago, while Correa has three to his name.

With that goal against Barca, the Uruguay international completed the set by scoring against all 31 teams that he has faced in the Spanish top flight.

 

Joao Felix has yet to get off the mark for the LaLiga campaign, though, and Griezmann is also goalless in the league since rejoining from Barcelona at the end of the most recent transfer window.

Yet while Madrid have double the number of goals as Atleti, Jose Enrique rates Los Rojiblancos' attack as the best around and cannot see past them finishing top for a third time in nine seasons this time around.

"I think it will be Atletico," the Spaniard, who also spent eight years in the Premier League with Newcastle United and Liverpool, said when asked who he expects to win the title.

"I know there been some games where they had to struggle in terms of scoring, with 90-something minute winners or whatever. 

"But what they have in the players they have is just incredible. You see the strength of the squad they have. They just signed Griezmann and they have Suarez, Joao Felix, Correa. 

"You talk about those four and for me that could be in any team in the world, and the four of them are strikers.

"Correa can play out on the wing sometimes, Joao Felix as well. But you're talking about four world-class strikers in my opinion. So, for me they are amazing. 

"It is true that that defensively, maybe there's a little bit more. But this is a team that I really believe is going to win the league this year.

"In the Champions League they're going to be annoying again, because Simeone is very, very annoying, always."

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