Barcelona's much-publicised financial difficulties are creating unwanted kind of leverage in the transfer market.

The Blaugrana have been linked to the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Mohamed Salah, but via a free transfer, circumventing the need for an initial outlay.

Reports suggest one of their transfer targets this off-season appears to be unattainable, though.

TOP STORY – SEVILLA STIFLE KOUNDE MOVE TO BARCELONA

Barcelona's reported interest in Jules Kounde will face a stumbling block in the form of Sevilla, according to Marca.

The Andalusian club have set a €60million price for Kounde, reportedly knowing that interest from Premier League clubs will meet that benchmark and effectively price Barcelona out of the market.

In addition, Sevilla would want to close the deal quickly, forcing Barcelona into cash-flow difficulty if they were to meet the demands for Kounde.

Barcelona are unwilling to pay the €60m despite sourcing fresh funds, with a reported need to primarily balance this year's budget.

ROUND-UP

Arsenal and Newcastle United are keen on Napoli midfielder Fabian Ruiz, whose contract runs out in 2023, according to Corriere dello Sport.

Borussia Dortmund are set to sign Ajax striker Sebastian Haller, per ESPN.

Real Madrid have stepped up their interest in Raheem Sterling with his future in Manchester City uncertain, the Mirror reports.

Chelsea are considering signing 29-year-old Lens full-back Jonathan Clauss, Goal is reporting.

Kylian Mbappe could be at Real Madrid next season, but Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Leonardo jokingly warned they may be feeling overconfident. 

PSG clinched their 10th Ligue 1 title in bizarre circumstances against Lens on Saturday, as fans made their way out of the stands in the 75th minute in protest at the club's management.

The game finished in a 1-1 draw with 10-man Lens equalising through Corentin Jean in the 88th minute at the Parc des Princes, and the final whistle was met with boos in some sections.

Mbappe has been involved in 51 goals (33 scored, 18 assisted) in 42 appearances in all competitions for PSG this season, more than double the haul of Lionel Messi (22 – nine goals, 13 assists) and almost three times as many as Neymar (18 – 11 goals, seven assists). 

Only Robert Lewandowski (53 – 48 goals, five assists) and Karim Benzema (52 – 39 goals, 13 assists) have managed more in all competitions across the top five European leagues.

Mbappe can leave PSG on a free transfer after his contract expires in June, but the club are understandably keen to tie him down to a renewal with Madrid circling. 

The World Cup-winning attacker insists his mind is not yet made up, and Leonardo playfully reminded Madrid that they have yet to prise Mbappe away from the club, despite their long-term interest. 

"In Madrid, they have been sure for the past three years that Kylian will end up at Real. Maybe they are a bit too sure about that," Leonardo told Sky Sport Italia. 

"When Kylian says he hasn't decided yet, I believe him. We have an upfront relationship. He is checking everything to make the best decision. 

"He knows we want him here and he is everyone's protege. Today, he is the best player in the world. He will make his decision together with us – the relationship is very good." 

He added to Canal+: "Kylian is still thinking. There's a possibility he'll stay. With or without him next season, it changes everything." 

Kylian Mbappe says he understands fan protests during Paris Saint-Germain's 1-1 draw with Lens on Saturday which sealed a 10th consecutive Ligue 1 title.

PSG clinched the French league title with four games to spare with the point against a 10-man Lens side, who equalised via Corentin Jean in the 88th minute.

Home fans started to make their exit in the 75th minute in protest of the club's management, while the final whistle was greeted by booing in sections of the Parc des Princes.

The 23-year-old Mbappe believes that while anger at the club's eventual failure to win the Champions League in spite of substantial investment in the squad this season is understandable, a need to move on remains.

"Disappointed by the fans? Me no, I'm adapting," Mbappe said. "They want to celebrate, they celebrate, they don't want to celebrate, they don't celebrate. They were disappointed, we totally understand them but it's still been a month since it's happened.

"They wanted to send a message, the club understood it. It's them who decide, we're nobody to tell them to celebrate or not. We won, we are happy."

Having contributed 22 goals and 15 assists in 31 league appearances this season, Mbappe has now secured a fifth Ligue 1 title to go with his 2018 World Cup triumph on the list of team honours.

While there's conjecture over whether the French international will stay at PSG, with his contract expiring at the end of the season, the ever-growing list of team and individual achievements is not lost upon him.

Ultimately, Mbappe says he and teammates found solace in the PSG dressing room, as fans celebrated outside the stadium.

"Maybe I'll stay and we won't win. I'm savouring the moment, it's my fifth title. I never thought I'd win so much so quickly. I'm savouring it and I'm continuing to work," he said.

"We were very happy, we celebrated in the locker room. Of course, the trophy was missing for a bigger festivity but the public was there. I think people were happy to be there. It's not because a minority of supporters left, they don't represent all PSG supporters.

"The stadium was full, we thanked them. Afterwards, we wanted to get closer to each other, meet between players to celebrate in the locker room."

Lionel Messi scored a fine goal as Paris Saint-Germain sealed the Ligue 1 title despite being pegged back late on by 10-man Lens in a 1-1 draw at the Parc des Princes.

PSG went into the game knowing a point would be enough to claim a record-tying 10th Ligue 1 title and were hoping to get the job done in style on home turf.

Lens had Kevin Danso sent off in the 57th minute, and 11 minutes later Messi effectively clinched the title with a magnificent long-range goal.

Yet the title-winning moment was spoiled somewhat as slack PSG defending allowed Corentin Jean to steal in at the far post and ensure the hosts secured the trophy with a damp squib rather than a bang.

Mauricio Pochettino's men were booed off by the home fans at half-time, Seko Fofana and Danso having spurned early chances for Lens before Achraf Hakimi and Neymar went close for PSG.

PSG were improved after the break and Kylian Mbappe was denied by Jean-Louis Leca's save and Christopher Maurice Wooh's goal-line clearance from the rebound following Marco Verratti's quickly taken free-kick.

Danso paid the price for a rash challenge on Neymar on the edge of the area as he received a second yellow card. Although Leca turned Messi's subsequent free-kick behind, he could do nothing to prevent the Argentina international's thunderbolt from finding the net 10 minutes later.

It was a trademark Messi finish, his 25-yard shot lacking in perfect placement but possessing both the bend and velocity to leave Leca with no chance.

Yet the frustration that defined much of the evening returned in the 88th minute when Jean slid in to turn home Deiver Machado's ball across the face of goal and dampen the celebrations.

Mauricio Pochettino quipped that he would like to take Kylian Mbappe "on vacation" and home with him if it ensured he will stay at Paris Saint-Germain.

Mbappe has just over two months remaining on his PSG contract and his future remains up in the air.

Real Madrid are reportedly confident of signing the France forward as a free agent, with Erling Haaland thought to be on his way to Manchester City rather than the Spanish capital.

Head coach Pochettino wants Mbappe to sign a long-term deal with PSG and hopes an agreement can be reached after his side have regained the Ligue 1 title, a feat they can achieve if they pick up a point against Lens on Saturday.

He told reporters: "As a coach, the situation does not bother me. You have to understand it. This does not only happen in Paris, but also in other clubs. 

"This is not the first, nor the last time that such situations arise. We have to adapt. Selfishly, I would like to keep Kylian with me, of course. 

"I would like to take him on vacation, take him home, keep him all the time. The club would like him to be able to stay here for a long time. It's a negotiation. 

"This decision is always related to different parties. It may be taken once the objective of the title is reached, once the season is over."

The Parisian giants are set to match the record of 10 Ligue 1 titles held by Saint-Etienne and Marseille.

PSG were dethroned by Lille last season and although there has been discontent from supporters after they missed out on Champions League glory once again, Pochettino says they must celebrate another domestic triumph.

The former Tottenham boss said: "You always have to value the possibility of winning a league title because when you don't win it, it becomes a big problem. 

"From my personal level, it is very important. It is also for the supporters and we hope that they will celebrate it with us, that they will agree to put the current situation on hold, knowing that the criticisms remain constructive and that the club remains attentive to them. 

"Afterwards, the club will make the decisions that will have to be taken. I just hope that tomorrow the fans will be with us and that we can celebrate the title together."

Didier Deschamps says those who jeered Jonathan Clauss on his full debut are not true supporters and their opinion therefore does not count.

Clauss was handed a first start for Les Blues in Tuesday's 5-0 friendly win against South Africa, four days after earning his maiden cap as a late substitute against Ivory Coast.

However, the occasion – and indeed France's emphatic victory – was somewhat overshadowed by the reaction Clauss received from a section of his country's own fans.

The 28-year-old was targeted at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, the home of club side Lens' fierce rivals Lille, and Deschamps has praised the full-back for the way he handled the boos.

"I wanted to make him as comfortable as possible, so I find it regrettable to say the least what happened," he said at his post-match news conference.

"It goes against what the France team is, but it didn't stop him from bouncing back. Those who foolishly protested with whistles, it was faded by what he was doing on the pitch."

Asked if the jeers call into question France's decision to stage friendlies away from the Stade de France, Deschamps said: "No, I don't think so.

"But the fact we're talking about it, even if it was only a few people, encourages them to do it. It must be a non-subject – there's no place for it in a stadium.

"There is a rivalry between clubs, which I understand, but here we are with the France team. 

"I ask them to do everything possible to unite the team. The other people are not supporters; they don't matter."

Clauss can be pleased with his display, having intercepted the ball more times than anyone (five), while only Adrien Rabiot won possession more often (14 compared to seven).

In an attacking sense, meanwhile, only Olivier Giroud (eight) and Kylian Mbappe (20) had more touches in the opposition box than the defender's five, level with Lucas Digne.

"He has a lot of dynamism and is able to defend," Deschamps added. "I told him not to play with the handbrake today."

Mbappe scored twice in France's routine victory and assisted Matteo Guendouzi's first international goal late on after Khuliso Mudau had been sent off for the visitors.

In doing so, Mbappe became the first player to net in five successive France matches since Karim Benzema did so between November 2013 and June 2014.

The Paris Saint-Germain striker is 25 goals short of Thierry Henry's record of 51 for France, but Deschamps insists his side are not a one-man team.

"It's not Kylian and the others, but Kylian with the others – that's important.

"His legs were on fire today. His ability to score and accelerate places him among the world's most outstanding players."

Wissam Ben Yedder was also on target for France, as was Olivier Giroud with his 48th international goal, moving him within touching distance of Henry's all-time record.

Giroud will be 36 by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around in November and Deschamps could not offer any guarantees over his long-term future in the squad.

"I've had discussions with him, as I have with many players," Deschamps said. "I don't know about the future and neither does he.

"But when he's here, he has the ability to score. His profile is well known – he's a support striker. He has this sense of the goal and is important for us even without scoring."

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

Mauricio Pochettino accepts Paris Saint-Germain were not at their best in the 1-1 draw with Lens but believes a draw was a fair result.

Georginio Wijnaldum headed home in stoppage time to salvage a point after Keylor Navas had dropped Seko Fofana's long-range drive into his own net.

The result meant PSG have now picked up 16 points from losing positions in Ligue 1 this season – more than any other team in the big five European leagues.

PSG allowed a spirited Lens side 18 shots, and Pochettino acknowledged it was not an easy game for his side, who are now 13 points clear at the top of Ligue 1.

"You have to give credit to Lens, who are an aggressive team who played a very good game," he told a media conference.

"It wasn't our best night, but it's good that the team kept fighting. Lens is one of the teams that gives us the most difficulty.

"We lost a lot of balls, especially at the start of the match, which prevented us from putting ourselves in the right positions.

"The result is fair. We lacked a little precision and freshness due to our busy schedule."

Kylian Mbappe created Wijnaldum's goal with a superb cross after being introduced from the substitutes' bench in the 70th minute.

The France international has now been involved in 15 goals in Ligue 1 this season (seven goals, eight assists), with only Robert Lewandowski (17), Karim Benzema (19) and Mohamed Salah (22) doing better in Europe's big five leagues.

"I tried to give solutions to the players by making changes," Pochettino added. "Kylian has played a lot of matches in a row, he felt a little tired. We thought we had to give him a breather."

While PSG did manage to seal a late point, they have now gone two consecutive Ligue 1 games without a win for the first time since Pochettino took over in January.

Despite that, midfielder Marco Verratti was pleased with the result, praising his team-mates' character during a pulsating game.

"Lens are a team that plays in a very special way; it's a team that I like a lot, they have a lot of courage," the Italy international told Canal+.

"It feels good to play matches of this nature; you could say a little English style, with lots of chances on both sides. It was a very intense game, played until the end.

"We congratulate the Lens team, but we also showed a lot of character. We wanted to win today, but it was very hard."

PSG, whose place in the Champions League knockout stages has already been secured, take on Club Brugge in their final Group A game on Tuesday, before hosting Monaco in Ligue 1 next weekend.

Georginio Wijnaldum scored in stoppage time to salvage a 1-1 draw for a below-par Paris Saint-Germain against Lens at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis on Saturday.

After Lionel Messi hit the post, Mauricio Pochettino's side, who were held to a 0-0 draw by Nice on Wednesday, looked like they were on their way to a second Ligue 1 defeat of the season when Keylor Navas dropped Seko Fofana's effort into his own net after 62 minutes. 

Wijnaldum – introduced in the 70th minute for Leandro Paredes – headed home fellow substitute Kylian Mbappe's left-wing cross two minutes into added time to secure a point for the leaders, though.

The result meant PSG moved 13 points clear of second-placed Marseille, who have a game in hand, while Lens remain in fifth.

Sergio Ramos has been ruled out of Paris Saint-Germain's clash with Lens as the defender's injury-plagued start to life in the French capital goes on. 

The 35-year-old has endured a frustrating time of things since arriving at the Parc des Princes from Real Madrid, whom he had represented for the previous 16 seasons.

Ramos made his long-awaited debut in last weekend's 3-1 win over Saint-Etienne, but he was not included in the squad for the midweek stalemate against Nice.

Spain international Ramos will again be absent on Saturday when PSG travel to Lens as Mauricio Pochettino's side attempt to get back to winning ways in Ligue 1.

"Ramos' workload has been adapted for muscle fatigue following his return to play. He will resume training with the squad on Sunday," read an update on PSG's official website.

Madrid legend Ramos has played just six matches at club level this calendar year, totalling 485 minutes on the field, while his last appearance for Spain came in March.

The 15 LaLiga games Ramos started last season was the fewest he managed for the club and a big drop from the 35 games started in the season before.

 

As well as being without Ramos against Lens, Ander Herrera, Julian Draxler and Neymar are also absent for PSG, with the latter ruled out for the remainder of the year.

Pochettino confirmed at Friday's pre-match news conference that he intends to make changes following his side's 0-0 draw with Nice.

That was the third time PSG have failed to score in their last 11 games, with Lionel Messi again firing a blank to leave his tally at one goal in eight Ligue 1 appearances.

Indeed, Messi has the highest differential (2.95) between his goals scored (1) and his expected goals (xG) (3.95) in Ligue 1 this term.

However, Pochettino is confident his compatriot will soon find his scoring touch in front of goal.

"It's a question of efficiency," Pochettino said. "Leo is someone who has always scored goals. It's also a matter of time and he's going to score a lot of goals here."

With the January transfer window now less than a month away, Pochettino is not yet thinking about bringing in any new recruits to bolster his star-studded squad.

"I'm not waiting for signatures at the winter break. I didn't talk about that after the Nice match. This is not the time to talk about this at all," he added.

"When the time comes, we will talk to the club to see if there are any needs in the team, but we are far from that."

Arsenal could look to offload Nicolas Pepe in the January transfer window.

The 26-year-old has not lived up to his billing after being signed in 2019.

Pepe has scored once in nine appearances for the Gunners this season.

 

TOP STORY – MILAN SET FOR JANUARY PEPE SWOOP

Italian giants Milan are interested in signing Arsenal's Ivorian winger Nicolas Pepe, claims Il Milanista.

Pepe has more than two years to run on his Gunners deal, having joined on a five-year contract from Lille in 2019 for a club-record fee of £72 million (€79m).

Arsenal may be willing to let Pepe go for a little as £25m in January.

ROUND-UP 

- Chelsea's Spanish full-back Cesar Azpilicueta is on Barcelona's transfer radar, according to SPORT. The 32-year-old's contract expires at the end of this season.

- Tottenham have joined Inter in having an interest in signing Bayern Munich midfielder Corentin Tolisso, claims Kicker. Tolisso is out of contract at the end of this season.

- Fabrizio Romano reports that talks between Gavi and Barcelona on a five-year contract extension are progressing amid interest in the Spanish teenager from Chelsea.

- Jose Mourinho's Roma are considering a move to sign Atletico Madrid's Mexico international midfielder Hector Herrera in January, claims Calciomercato. Atletico are willing to cash in on Herrera, who is out of contract in mid-2022.

- Manchester City target Theo Hernandez is close to completing a contract renewal with Milan, according to Rudy Galetti. The Rossoneri have reached an agreement with him until 2026.

- FotoMac claims Mohamed Elneny's agent has reached an agreement with Arsenal for the Egyptian to leave in January. He was previously linked with Galatasaray.

- Lens midfielder Seko Fofana has been added to Newcastle United's shortlist of transfer targets, claims Foot Mercato.

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

France boss Didier Deschamps insists he will continue to select players on merit and not in response to "buzz" ahead of his team's final two World Cup qualifiers.

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

At a press conference ahead of the two games, Deschamps was asked why he has not yet selected Lens right-back Jonathan Clauss, despite the player making a "buzz" in Ligue 1 this season.

"A buzz? But who is making the buzz?" Deschamps asked with a smile. "I watch the matches, so a lot of players, including this Lens player, of course. Buzz or no buzz, that's not what will lead me to select a player or not.

"Of course, [Clauss] is one of the players we follow. With the characteristics that are his, after it is also a question of competition in the position. I know you're waiting for something new at every selection, but I'm not here for that."

It was put to Deschamps that perhaps the 29-year-old's age or lack of experience in the Champions League or Europa League had put the coach off selecting him.

"I have always incorporated new ones, and to draw a parallel to the age of the player, Jordan Veretout is more or less the same age," he said.

"He arrived late, he plays in Rome, in European competition of course, but that does not prevent [Clauss from being picked. [It's the same for] those of 18 years, I select [them] when I think it is the [right] moment. The 'buzz' is closed."

Does Clauss deserve a place with Les Bleus?

Deschamps has named a 23-man squad for the upcoming games, including Bayern Munich's Benjamin Pavard and Lyon's Leo Dubois, both of whom can play in Clauss’s usual position of right back.

The manager has decided to stick with what he knows for now, given the importance of getting over the line in World Cup qualifying, but is Clauss’s form at Lens more than just "buzz"?

It is difficult to compare him to Pavard as the Bayern defender only returned to action in September after an ankle injury and has only played nine games, less than half of which were in the Bundesliga.

If Clauss is going to force his way into the France squad, a likelier route may be to do so at the expense of his fellow Ligue 1 competitor, Dubois.

The obvious reason for the public clamour for Clauss is his two goals and six assists from 13 league games this season – three of those (one goal, two assists) came in his team's 4-0 thrashing of Troyes on Friday, whereas Dubois is yet to register his first goal involvement in 11 appearances.

 

However, it must be noted that Clauss primarily plays as a right wing-back, and sometimes even as a right midfielder for Lens, while Dubois predominantly plays as an orthodox full-back.

That goes someway to explaining how Clauss has created 28 chances, compared to just six from Dubois.

The Lyon man has the upper hand in terms of passing and defensive play, with superior percentages in passing accuracy (85.4 to 77.3), dribble success (58.3 to 47.1), duel success (60.6 to 56) and tackle success (60.7 to 50), though some of these may be down to Dubois operating in less-congested areas of the pitch.

Clauss comes out on top when it comes to interceptions though, making 27 so far, more than twice as many as Dubois (12).

Either way, Deschamps has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, and it cannot be a massive surprise to see him stick with the players he knows well at the end of a qualifying campaign that has not always been comfortable.  

But if Clauss can maintain his high standards, he might just get the opportunity many feel he deserves next year when Deschamps turns his attention towards World Cup preparation friendlies.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona all pursued Erling Haaland in the recent transfer window.

The 21-year-old Norway forward opted to stay with Borussia Dortmund.

But the race will heat up again at the end of the season.

 

TOP STORY – BARCA INTERESTED IN STERLING

Manchester United still want to sign Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland and will make a move next European summer, reports the Express.

United made a major transfer splash when they landed Cristiano Ronaldo last month but remain in the Haaland race.

The Red Devils are looking to end their trophy drought and added Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho along with Ronaldo for this season.

 

ROUND-UP

- United are leading the way in the chase to sign Jude Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund, according to The Sun. The 18-year-old is being pursued by Chelsea and Manchester City too.

- The Sun reports that United are planning a clear-out at the end of this season, including Donny van de Beek , Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial to free up funds.

- Calciomercato reports that Juventus have identified Real Madrid forward Luka Jovic as a transfer target in the January window on loan.

- Ligue 1 club Lens could make a bid for Liverpool's Belgium international forward Divock Origi , claims Fichajes.

- Crystal Palace are interested in signing US international forward Daryl Dike from Orlando City, reports The Sun. Dike is set to command a £18m fee.

- Transfer expert Ekrem Konur claims that Flamengo have tabled an offer to sign Brazilian veteran Dani Alves.

French football authorities will demand answers from Lens after home fans invaded the pitch and confronted rival supporters at half-time in their Ligue 1 derby against Lille. 

Lens general manager Arnaud Pouille is certain the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) will begin disciplinary proceedings against his club, following the ugly scenes at their Stade Bollaert-Delelis home. 

Lille may also be summoned as league chiefs unpick the unsavoury scenes that saw fans from each club contribute to a volatile atmosphere. 

Tension spilled over at the interval as scores of Lens supporters raced across the pitch towards those who had travelled to support Lille. 

Pouille said the north-east derby trouble was bad news for the clubs because it would be "the image of the region that is affected". 

"I have a clear idea of what happened," he said, according to L'Equipe. "But I don't want to influence anyone by speaking out. It is not under our authority. 

"There were a few actions that ignited the powder and a reaction that is damaging. But in these cases, speaking out is complicated because whatever you say, you make it feel like you want to influence. 

"We condemn any act of violence. There are proceedings that are ongoing. At the level of the LFP, at the level of justice, there will be complaints filed by the club, and by the opposing club also from what I understood." 

Lille announced on Twitter at half-time that the game was under threat, stating: "Following a pitch invasion from the home end of the stadium, an emergency meeting is taking place to decide whether the match will be continued or abandoned." 

Pouille said he had spoken to Lille president Olivier Letang at half-time, as the trouble occurred. 

The recent abandonment of the match between Nice and Marseille due to supporter violence was followed by Nice receiving a two-point penalty, one of which was suspended. 

According to Pouille, the trouble at Saturday's match could not be compared to the mayhem in that fixture. 

"It is not at all the same circumstances," Pouille said. "No players in the [Lens-Lille] game were affected, the main events took place at half-time. 

"Yes, there will certainly be a summons from the disciplinary committee, we will discuss with them at that time." 

Lens went on to win 1-0 against last season's champions, who have made a rocky start to their title defence. 

Lille head coach Jocelyn Gourvennec said he had been unaware of the precise circumstances behind the trouble. The game was held up, with 40 minutes between the end of the first half and the beginning of the second. 

"Half-time incidents? We had already returned to the locker room. I don't really know what happened," Gourvennec said. "We were informed by the delegates and Mr Millot [referee Benoit Millot] who spoke to the coaches and captains. 

"It was just a bit long, it lengthened the half-time, we had to do a warm-up again, it was not ideal. I do not know more. I hope there were no injuries."

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