Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United may be coming to a premature end.

The Portuguese forward has struggled since Ralf Rangnick's arrival as interim manager in December.

United are also battling to finish in the Premier League's top four.

TOP STORY - RONALDO COURTS MOVE TO MESSI'S PSG

FootballTransfers claims that Ronaldo has decided that he will leave Manchester United if they do not qualify for the Champions League, with a move to join Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain on his agenda.

Speculation about Ronaldo's future at Old Trafford ramped up after he missed Sunday's Manchester derby due to a hip flexor injury and flew to Portugal.

The report that claims that Ronaldo returning to Juventus has been ruled out, along with his original Portuguese club Sporting CP, with the five-time Ballon d'Or courting a move to Paris.

 

ROUND-UP

- Defensa Central reports that Newcastle United have commenced talks with Real Madrid over a move for 31-year-old ex-Chelsea forward Eden Hazard who has had an underwhelming spell with Los Blancos.

- Manchester United's Marcus Rashford has a list of clubs circling for his services with Arsenal, Newcastle and West Ham all interested, according to 90Min.

- The Mail claims that PSG will make a move for Rashford too, should Kylian Mbappe leave the French capital to join Madrid.

- Manchester City and Madrid are in the lead to sign Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland ahead of Bayern Munich and Barcelona claims The Athletic.

- RB Leipzig midfielder Christopher Nkunku is being tracked by Chelsea and Man City according to FootMercato.

Victor Osimhen has netted 11 goals in all competitions, prompting admiration from some top clubs.

The Napoli striker is valued at around €80million by the Serie A leaders.

Manchester United are understood to be interested in Osimhen.

TOP STORY – REAL TO RIVAL MAN UTD FOR OSIMHEN

The race for Napoli forward Osimhen is heating up with Real Madrid joining United in pursuit of his signature, according to Calciomercato.

Osimhen's Napoli contract does not expire until 2025 but both clubs are ready to flex their muscles and move for him in the off-season transfer window.

The 23-year-old forward's stock has risen dramatically since Napoli signed him for €70m from Lille in 2020.

ROUND-UP

- Inter are lining up a move for Borussia Monchengladbach's Marcus Thuram as they prepare for Lautaro Martinez to be prized away amid interest from Manchester City, claims The Sun.

- Nicolo Schira claims that Milan have agreed personal terms with Lille defender and Newcastle United target Sven Botman, who has been lured by a five-year deal.

- Barcelona are set to join the race for Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves, who has interest from Arsenal and Manchester United, reports the Mail.

- The Express claims that Aston Villa are interested in manager Steven Gerrard's ex-Liverpool team-mate Luis Suarez along with Milan's Franck Kessie .

- Teenage England international Jude Bellingham has opted to remain with Borussia Dortmund for one more season, claims Bild.

- Kicker claims that Roma have joined the pursuit for Stuttgart's Sasa Kalajdzic along with Tottenham, West Ham, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig .

- West Ham are interested in Bristol City striker Antoine Semenyo, according to The Mirror, while Celtic are also tracking him.

Leeds United are being drawn into the relegation battle, mounting pressure on manager Marcelo Bielsa.

The Whites enjoyed a top-half finish in their return to the Premier League last season but have struggled this term.

Leeds have managed one point from their past six league games, conceding 20 goals in their past five.

TOP STORY – BIELSA EXITS STRUGGLING LEEDS

The Sun claims Marcelo Bielsa has quit as Leeds United manager with ex-RB Leipzig boss Jesse Marsch set to replace him.

Bielsa resigned after Leeds were hammered 4-0 by Tottenham on Saturday, having conceded 14 goals in their past three league games.

The Argentinean's exit from Elland Road is being thrashed out between lawyers, with Fabrizio Romano claiming that Marsch – who left Leipzig in December and previously managed Salzburg and New York Red Bulls – is the favourite to take over.

ROUND-UP

- Chelsea have slapped a £50million price tag on goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga who is wanted by Newcastle United, reports the Daily Star. The Blues signed Kepa in 2018 as the most expensive goalkeeper in history.

Manchester United are lining up two young talents according to the Mirror. The Red Devils are set to table bids for PSV's Cody Gakpo and Sporting CP's Joao Palhinha.

Liverpool target Darwin Nunez is interested in joining the Reds according to Football Insider. The 22-year-old Uruguay international is currently with Benfica.

- Mundo Deportivo claims Barcelona are ahead of Bayern Munich in the race to sign Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen.

Barcelona will face Galatasaray in the last 16 of the Europa League.

Xavi's side were 4-2 winners on aggregate over Napoli in the round of 32 after dropping into the competition from the Champions League.

They will now meet the Turkish Super Lig giants, with the first leg at Camp Nou to be played on March 10.

Sevilla, winners of a record six trophies, will face David Moyes' West Ham, while rivals Real Betis will play Eintracht Frankfurt.

Rangers, who shocked Borussia Dortmund in the previous round, take on Red Star and RB Leipzig will play Spartak Moscow. Spartak's home leg must be played at a neutral venue due to the military invasion of Ukraine ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The first legs will be played on March 10, with the exception of Porto versus Lyon and Betis' game with Frankfurt, which will be held a day earlier. The second legs are a week later.

Europa League last 16:

Rangers v Red Star
Braga v Monaco
Porto v Lyon
Atalanta v Bayer Leverkusen
Sevilla v West Ham
Barcelona v Galatasaray
RB Leipzig v Spartak Moscow
Real Betis v Eintracht Frankfurt

Kylian Mbappe to Real Madrid has often felt like a never-ending transfer saga, but it appears a resolution might now be in sight.

Los Blancos are apparently confident of getting the Paris Saint-Germain star in 2022 even though their performance did not impress him in the Champions League.

However, Madrid do have a back-up plan.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID CONFIDENT ON MBAPPE BUT MANE IS PLAN B

Real Madrid believe they will win the battle to sign Kylian Mbappe on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain in 2022.

Carlo Ancelotti's side are preparing to announce the deal at the end of the season, according to Goal.

However, should their efforts to sign Mbappe or Erling Haaland fail, Madrid have a back-up plan: Fichajes claims they will submit an offer for Sadio Mane.

ROUND-UP

Arsenal are interested in signing Joao Felix from Atletico Madrid, according to television show El Chiringuito.

Manchester United have been quoted €75million (£62.5m) for RB Leipzig star Christopher Nkunku, Bild says.

- Meanwhile, United striker Edinson Cavani is ready to listen to an offer to join Botafogo when his contract expires, Goal claims.

- According to Sport, Tottenham have submitted the firmest offer to sign Paulo Dybala from Juventus, but Barcelona and Inter are also interested.

Milan are resigned to losing Franck Kessie after this season and could replace him with Renato Sanches, Tuttosport says.

UEFA has decided to move the Champions League final from St Petersburg, according to the BBC. The game could be held in London.

Cristiano Ronaldo ended a run of six matches without scoring in Tuesday's win over Brighton and Hove Albion, but the Manchester United forward's future remains uncertain.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner's second spell at Old Trafford has not gone quite to plan and a number of European clubs are said to be circling should he depart.

If reports are accurate, it may well be that a reunion with former boss Jose Mourinho is on the cards for Ronaldo in the coming months.


TOP STORY – ROMA IN FOR RONALDO

Roma are one of three clubs currently in the running to sign Ronaldo should he depart United in the next transfer window, according to The Sun.

Giallorossi boss Mourinho previously managed Ronaldo at Real Madrid and is eager to bolster his squad with a superstar signing.

However, it is not known if the 37-year-old would welcome a return to Serie A, where he previously spent three seasons playing for Juventus ahead of rejoining United.

European heavyweights Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are reported to be the other two sides to have expressed an interest in Ronaldo.


ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano claims Chelsea are now solely focused on signing Jules Kounde from Sevilla after being told that top defensive target Marquinhos will not be sold by PSG.

- According to The Sun, Armando Broja's form on loan with Southampton has seen the Chelsea youngster's name added to Bayern and Borussia Dortmund's list of targets.

- Manchester City have bid £5.5million (€6.5m) for Atletico Mineiro's teenage winger Savio, suggests The Guardian, with the intention of then loaning him out to PSV.

- Juan Mata will depart United as a free agent at the end of the campaign, claims Nicolo Schira. The midfielder may look to see out his career in his Spanish homeland.

- Ralf Rangnick is eager for United to bring in Christopher Nkunku from RB Leipzig, according to ESPN. Madrid, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal have also been linked.

Barcelona have been working to overcome their financial challenges over the past 12 months.

The Blaugrana have been plotting a way forward with their playing squad.

Barca landed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on a free transfer in January, as well as a loan move for Adama Traore.

TOP STORY – BARCELONA TARGET DE VRIJ

Barcelona are keen on Inter's Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij, reports Fichajes.

De Vrij is contracted with the Nerazzurri until the end of the 2022-23 season, but Barca may view him as Gerard Pique's successor.

Inter are reportedly open to interest from other parties, if the price is right, with the 30-year-old heading towards the final year of his present deal.

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail claims Paris Saint-Germain are putting together a lucrative deal to lure Paul Pogba to the club from Manchester United as a free agent. Pogba also has interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona, while he may still stay at Old Trafford.

- Newcastle United's efforts to sign Sevilla defender Diego Carlos will continue in the off-season after missing out in January, reports Marca.

- RB Leipzig forward Christopher Nkunku has been added to Manchester United's list of off-season targets, claims ESPN.

- Crystal Palace and Watford are both keen on Liverpool veteran James Milner, according to Fichajes.

Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski were on target as Bayern Munich claimed a thrilling 3-2 Bundesliga win over RB Leipzig on Saturday.

The champions' deadly duo scored either side of Andre Silva's equaliser to give them a half-time lead at the Allianz Arena, which was lit up in purple prior to kick-off to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Christopher Nkunku struck as Leipzig again pegged Bayern back only for Josko Gvardiol's unfortunate own goal to hand the home side maximum points.

Muller had a simple tap-in to put Bayern ahead after Peter Gulacsi had saved from Lewandowski when Corentin Tolisso forced a high turnover of possession.

Leipzig recovered to level after 27 minutes, though, Silva squeezing the ball over the line from a tight angle after Niklas Sule could not clear Konrad Laimer's cut-back.

Muller headed in a second only for VAR to disallow the goal for a foul by Lewandowski, while Leroy Sane was denied by Gulacsi.

Bayern's pressure told before the break, Lewandowski nodding Kingsley Coman's delivery back across goal and beyond the Leipzig keeper, yet they were again pegged back eight minutes into the second half. Laimer again was the provider, splitting the Bayern defence with a pass to Nkunku, who finished calmly.

This time, Leipzig were level for barely five minutes. Serge Gnabry was given too much space in the penalty area, and his drilled effort back across goal looped off Gvardiol and sailed over the helpless Gulacsi.

Emil Forsberg was denied by some last-ditch Bayern defending as Leipzig pushed for a third equaliser, but the champions held firm for their 17th win in 21 league matches in 2021-22.
 

What does it mean? Bayern stretch lead as Leipzig struggle again

Bayern's lead at the top is back to nine points, although Borussia Dortmund in second have a game in hand.

It also means Julian Nagelsmann has earned 52 points from his first 21 league games in charge of the club.

For Leipzig, this was an eighth consecutive league game against the champions without a win, while it leaves them three points outside the top four.

Muller marches on

Muller has now been directly involved in 23 goals in 21 league games this season and he would have had another had Lewandowski not been penalised for a foul.

His form has been exemplary under Nagelsmann and it shows no sign of abating.

Neuer notches famous win

Manuel Neuer, who made an important late save from Forsberg, has now reached 310 wins in 458 Bundesliga games. That puts him level with the competition record set by former Bayern keeper Oliver Kahn, who reached the same number in 557 matches.

What's next?

Bayern travel to Bochum next Saturday, while Leipzig host Cologne the day before.

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.

Kyle Walker has been hit with a three-match ban by UEFA following his red card in Manchester City's loss to RB Leipzig last month.

The England full-back was dismissed for a crude hack on Andre Silva late in a game that City went on to lose 2-1.

Pep Guardiola's side had already qualified for the round of 16, but will now be without Walker for both legs against Sporting CP.

UEFA confirmed the sanction in a statement on Friday, with Walker's actions described as an "assault".

The 31-year-old will also miss the first leg of the quarter-finals, should City progress to that stage.

Walker became the second-oldest Englishman to be sent off in a Champions League game, after Paul Scholes for Manchester United against Roma in April 2007 (32 years, 139 days).


 

South Korea international Hwang Hee-chan will join Wolves permanently at the end of the season, the Premier League club has confirmed.

Hwang initially joined on a season-long loan from Bundesliga side RB Leipzig and agreed personal terms on a deal before arriving in England.

Wolves have now activated a clause to make the move permanent from July for a fee reportedly in the region of £12million.

The deal will run to 2026 and was confirmed by the club's website on the player's 26th birthday.

The former Salzburg forward made an impactful start at Wolves, scoring four goals in his first six Premier League games, including his first strike just 20 minutes into his debut after coming off the bench in the 2-0 win at Watford in September.

He has failed to find the net since scoring the opener in the 1-1 draw at Leeds United in October, however, and has not played since sustaining a hamstring injury in the 1-0 win at Brighton last month.

 

Hwang first came to prominence at Salzburg during the 2019-20 season, playing in an attack that included Erling Haaland, Takumi Minamino and Patson Daka, before signing for RB Leipzig for around €9m in 2020.

However, he only managed three goals and four assists in 29 appearances across all competitions for Die Roten Bullen – albeit only five of those were starts.

Wolves technical director, Scott Sellars, was delighted to confirm the news and told the club's website: "He's had a really positive affect on not only the team, but also the whole football club, and he's been a fantastic addition to Wolves.

"We could see straight from our first meeting with him that Hee-chan is such a focused and determined young man who wants to be successful in his football career.

"He's not had the experiences he would have liked at Leipzig and he wanted a change, and he's grabbed his opportunity here in the Premier League with both hands. He's shown a lot of determination, a lot of focus and certainly a lot of professionalism every day, and he's got his rewards in terms of his performances and his goals."

The futures of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, arguably the two most sought-after players in world football, could be determined by the end of the January transfer window.

While the forwards look set to stay at Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain respectively this month, moves away at the end of the campaign look increasingly likely.

And despite intense competition from fellow heavyweight clubs, Real Madrid are determined to win the race for both players.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID TO PUT ASIDE €350m FOR HAALAND

Madrid had two bids knocked back for Mbappe last year but, according to Marca, they remain in pole position to sign the France international in six months' time.

Landing Haaland could prove to be a little more complicated, though, given he will still have two years to run on his contract at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.

However, the Spanish publication reports that Madrid are willing to spend big on the prolific striker, who is thought to have a €75million release clause in his deal.

On top of triggering that, it is claimed that Los Blancos will have to set aside cash for Haaland's father, agent Mino Raiola and a hefty salary for the player himself, which could total around €350m.

 

ROUND-UP

- Madrid may be considered the frontrunners to sign Mbappe and Haaland, but they already have a back-up plan in place should either of those moves fail to materialise. According to El Nacional, Fiorentina's in-demand Dusan Vlahovic is also on the Spanish giants' radar.

- CalcioMercato reports that Milan have joined the queue to sign Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen. Christensen, who comes out of contract at the end of this season, is being chased by Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

- Newcastle United could beat Manchester United in the race for RB Leipzig's Amadou Haidara, with The Mirror reporting that the newly-rich Magpies are set to make an offer.

- The Everton board got together on Saturday to discuss manager Rafael Benitez's future in the job, according to Sky Sports. Everton have won one of their past 13 league games and lost to bottom club Norwich City 2-1 on Saturday.

- PSG, Bayern and Madrid are among Kalvin Phillips' suitors. El Nacional reports that Leeds United have a battle on their hands fending off interest in the midfielder, who has been capped 19 times by England.

- The Mirror reports that Chelsea are considering a move for Inter's Ivan Perisic. The Blues are in the market for a versatile player who can play at left-back while Ben Chilwell recovers from a long-term injury.

 

We may only be a week into 2022, but the first major international football tournament of the year is on the horizon, with the Africa Cup of Nations kicking off on Sunday.

It's been a long time coming as well – it was initially due to take place in June and July 2021 but was brought forward to January 2021 due to concerns about the weather. It then had to be pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, fans and teams have had to put up with the usual posturing from those at certain clubs regarding the inconvenience of relinquishing players in the middle of the season, but despite that there remains a healthy selection of big names.

In fact, given the standard the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and Achraf Hakimi usually play at, some might even argue this is one of the highest-quality groups of players to feature at a single AFCON.

But the beauty of every international tournament is that there's more to them than the big names – there are plenty of promising younger players looking to impress for a global audience.

Kamaldeen Sulemana, 19, winger – Ghana

Hold on to your seats! Kamaldeen is sure to ramp up the excitement at AFCON, such is his rather chaotic approach to attacking – and acrobatic celebration. The teenage winger is immensely tricky and agile, with his 246 take-on attempts in the 2020-21 Danish Superliga nearly twice as many as anyone else – to put that into context, only Lionel Messi managed more (261) in the top five leagues. He's carried that into Ligue 1 following his move to Rennes, with his average of one shot involvements from a ball carry every 43 minutes being the second best in Ligue 1 (min. 900 minutes played) after Kylian Mbappe – that's obviously pretty good.

 

Ibrahim Sangare, 24, defensive midfielder – Ivory Coast

While good performances at AFCON alone may not be enough for players to convince big clubs they're worth a punt on, showing promise might just get a few more eyes on them. Sangare is definitely one of those who could put himself 'in the shop window'. The PSV midfielder has a lot about him, particularly when it comes to defending. In this season's Eredivisie, only three players (at least 500 minutes played) have averaged more than his 3.4 tackles per 90 minutes, while he ranks fifth for interceptions frequency (2.5) and third for middle-third recoveries (5.7). He's also technically proficient and happy on the ball, with only three players attempting more passes (81.1) on a per-90-minute basis than him.

Hannibal Mejbri, 18, attacking midfielder – Tunisia

A former France youth international, Mejbri may have only declared for Tunisia in 2021 but this will already be his second international tournament. The Manchester United midfielder started all six of Tunisia's games as they reached the final of the Arab Cup in December, eventually losing to Algeria in the final. Hannibal may not feature quite as prominently in a full-strength squad, but the midfielder possesses the kind of off-the-cuff abilities that endear him to fans – if not opponents. He is known to be targeted for fouls when playing for United's second team, such is his natural talent.

Ilaix Moriba, 18, central midfielder – Guinea

2021-22 hasn't quite gone as Moriba presumably thought it would. He left Barcelona after failing to agree a new contract, despite having broken into the first-team setup at Camp Nou. The midfielder had shown exceptional promise, particularly on the ball – he averaged 3.2 dribbles per 90 minutes, a total bettered by only four team-mates, and boasted a success rate of 89.3 per cent, with only Miralem Pjanic bettering him. The €16million signing has played just twice in the Bundesliga since the move to Leipzig and will surely be relishing some competitive action.

Edmond Tapsoba, 22, centre-back – Burkina Faso

If Burkina Faso go on to have a good tournament, Tapsoba will almost certainly have had something to do with it. The centre-back is an extremely elegant player for someone roughly the size of a small building and whose name sounds like a hipster bar, and at club level he performs a vital function in getting Leverkusen on the front foot, with his 13.5 progressive ball carries in the Bundesliga this term second only to Alphonso Davies. If he can translate that to the international stage, Burkina Faso will have a real weapon in the middle – even if he doesn't, he'll still give them aerial threat at set-pieces.

 

Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, 17, forward – Ghana

The case of Issahaku is a rather intriguing one. Transfer rumours in 2021 suggested Liverpool had signed him for £1.5million, but that soon turned out to be false. He remains in his native Ghana, but the exciting attacker has seemingly done enough to earn a shot at international level despite being just 17 – he's the second-youngest player at the tournament. But he's used to that sort of situation. After all, before he'd even turned 17 in March he was named Player of the Tournament at the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations. While that Liverpool move never materialised, he's got himself another opportunity to shine.

2021 is dead – long live 2022.

It's a new year, and while the one changing to a two literally overnight may seem arbitrary, it gives us an excuse to look ahead and what's on the horizon.

Of course, we're now into a World Cup year – 12 months from now, we'll have newly crowned world champions and, who knows, maybe a new superstar or two will have emerged.

While there's no guarantee about a player's trajectory, Stats Perform have at least put together a list of 22 under-22 players who could be worth keeping an eye out for in 2022.

GOALKEEPERS

Etienne Green, 21, English – Saint-Etienne

Honestly, he's not included just because of the perfection of a player called Etienne Green playing for Les Verts, Saint-Etienne – though that certainly warrants a mention. Colchester-born Green has played 23 times in Ligue 1 for the club, making Leeds United's Ilan Meslier the only goalkeeper born after 2000 to play more often (53) across the top five leagues. In April he became the fourth Ligue 1 keeper since Opta records began (2006-07) to save a penalty on his debut and he's since gone on to nail down a starting spot. Having recently declared for England over France, Green could be an outside bet for Gareth Southgate's squad at Qatar 2022.

Maarten Vandevoordt, 19, Belgian – Genk

In 2019, Vandevoordt became the Champions League's youngest ever goalkeeper at 17 years and 287 days old – it proved to be a bit of a nightmare as Genk lost 4-0, with youngster at fault for two goals. It would've been enough to shatter the confidence of most young players, but Vandevoordt's since gone on to become first-choice, playing 16 league games in 2020-21 and all 21 this term.

DEFENDERS

Kaiky, 17, Brazilian – Santos

If there's any area of the pitch that one might consider to be the hardest to establish yourself in as a young player, most would say centre-back. Yet, despite not turning 18 until January 12, Kaiky has racked up an impressive number of appearances there for Santos. He played more minutes in the 2021 Brasileirao (1,334 minutes) and the Libertadores (495) than any other under-19 player and has impressed with his comfort in possession, aerial ability and demonstrable appetite for defending. He has a long way to go, but he sure has made a promising start.

Becir Omeragic, 19, Swiss – FC Zurich

Omeragic is among the most highly rated young centre-backs in Europe and was in Switzerland's Euro 2020 squad – despite still being only 19, he's already played 71 Swiss Super League games for Zurich. This season he ranks highly in numerous metrics among defenders, such as tackle attempts (29, fifth-highest), interceptions (26, seventh-highest) and possession won (105, fifth-highest), while he offers good progression on the ball, his carry progress of 1,796.6m upfield being the fourth-best among all defenders – two of those are full-backs. Expect to see him in one of Europe's biggest leagues fairly soon.

Ilya Zabarnyi, 19, Ukrainian – Dynamo Kiev

Previously linked with Chelsea, among other major clubs, Zabarnyi caught the eye at Euro 2020 with some mature displays. Despite being the joint-youngest player in the squad, Zabarnyi was one of the five players to play every minute for Ukraine, and among those to feature for at least 100 minutes, he ranked in the top three for touches (72.8) and passes (60.6) on a per-90 basis. Similarly, only four played more passes into the final third than him (4.7), and three of those were midfielders. A move to a bigger league will give us a better idea of just how good Zabarnyi is, but the promise is there.

Ethan Laird, 20, English – Swansea City (on loan from Manchester United)

Manchester United have rated right-back Laird highly for a while – he actually made his senior debut for them as far back as November 2019 in the Europa League. Since then, he showed great promise at Milton Keynes Dons and then followed coach Russell Martin in making the jump to the Championship with Swansea City, where he's continued to impress. Only three defenders in the division have created more chances than him in open play (23), while his five big chances created is the second-most in the Swans squad. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka seemingly unable to kick on at United, Laird's opportunity may arrive in 2022.

Alex Balde, 18, Spanish – Barcelona

Barcelona have seemingly once again become great trusters of youth – not that their situation has given them much of a choice. Balde's not yet one of those to become a regular, and you'd think he will struggle to dislodge Jordi Alba at left-back, but in his four LaLiga appearances the 18-year-old has shown real promise with his ability on the ball and pace. Given his skillset and Xavi's desire to play with classic wingers, he may find himself used further up the pitch – either way, he's definitely one to watch.

George Bello, 19, American – Atlanta United

Nigeria-born Bello may not be 20 until late January, but he's already made a strong impression in MLS, so much so that he became a regular part of the USA's senior side in 2021. Added to that, his 2,433 minutes played was the most of any MLS player to end the season as a teenager. An attack-minded left-back, Bello is excellent on the ball and possesses great pace, and he may well be on the move soon given his contract expires at the end of 2022. If anyone takes a punt, they could be rewarded handsomely.

MIDFIELDERS

Yacine Adli, 21, French – Bordeaux (on loan from Milan)

Milan fans have every reason to be excited about Adli. The kind of silky playmaker that makes almost everything look effortless, he has created more chances after a carry (11) than any other midfielder in Ligue 1 this term. He may not be a great goal threat himself, but his six assists is the second-most among the same group of players (Dimitri Payet has seven) – all of Adli's were from open play, however, which is the most the league's midfielders. Whether he can keep that up at Milan is unclear, but if he can, they'll have a real asset on their hands.

Unai Vencedor, 21, Spanish – Athletic Bilbao

Athletic are one of LaLiga's stranger teams in that they don't win, lose, score or concede very often, yet that's not stopping Vencedor from thriving. A controlling presence with satisfying calmness on the ball in centre midfield, Vencedor is mature for his age and already has significant influence over Athletic's play. Just Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams have been involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences than Vencedor (47) among Athletic players, while the former (eight) is the only one with more instances of being involved in build-up and taking the shot (five) at the end, highlighting his importance to not only keeping them on the ball but also posing an attacking threat.

Nicolo Rovella, 20, Italian – Genoa (on loan from Juventus)

Granted, Rovella's hardly a hidden gem given Juve signed him in a deal potentially worth €20m last January, but he's still not quite a household name. Nevertheless, he looks a real prospect. A deep-lying midfielder, Rovella is elegant on the ball, hard-working without it and excellent at set-pieces. For struggling Genoa this season, his 4.0 possession wins every 90 minutes in the middle third is the 15th highest among Serie A midfielders (min. 500 minutes played), as is his 1.4 successful tackles – though only four players from the same group who have attempted at least 20 boast a better success rate than him (71.4). There's talk he could be recalled by Juve in January, which highlights the impression he's making.

Caden Clark, 18, American – RB Leipzig

With goals against Atlanta United and then Toronto four days later in October 2020, Clark became the youngest player MLS history to score in each of his first two games – the second was an absolute scorcher as well. The 18-year-old agreed a move from New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig in 2021 and he officially makes the switch in January, with no return loan planned. The technically gifted midfielder has his chance to make it in the big-time, and the Bundesliga has previously been a good next step for MLS stars.

Hannibal Mejbri, 18, Tunisian – Manchester United

Some United fans are disappointed Hannibal didn't get more opportunities under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he's been restricted with Ralf Rangnick because of his involvement in the Arab Cup and the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations. But when he returns, there's every indication he may get more chances, or at least that's what Rangnick recently intimated. A silky and creative midfielder, but one who has a tendency to lose his head, Hannibal might be able to provide the extra injection of craft often missing from United's midfield.

WINGERS

Kayky, 18, Brazilian – Manchester City

There's every chance Kayky and Angelo could be challenging each other for a spot in the senior Brazil team one day. Now at Manchester City after joining from Fluminense in a deal apparently worth an initial £8.4million, Kayky's development is going to be fascinating to watch. With Flu, the talented winger became the club's youngest player and goalscorer in the Libertadores before making the switch to England in pre-season. He was on the bench for the Boxing Day win over Leicester City, and with COVID-19 cases proving an issue across the Premier League, there's every chance we may see a bit more of Kayky in the near future.

Angelo Gabriel, 17, Brazilian – Santos

Every year it seems there's a new Brazilian teenager causing a stir and subsequently being linked with a big move to Europe – the latest is Angelo Gabriel. The newest 'new Neymar', Angelo is actually a left-footed right winger but the similarities in style of play are at least comparable in that he's a good dribbler, skilful and likes to cut inside off the flank. Angelo's made the jump up to the first team a little earlier than Neymar, though – he only turned 17 in December but already has 51 first-team appearances to his name. In April, he became the Copa Libertadores' youngest-ever scorer (16 years, 105 days old) and was also the only under-17 player to feature in the 2021 Brasileirao.

Alan Velasco, 19, Argentinian – Independiente

Showing quality in Argentina's domestic league isn't always a guarantee of future greatness, but doing well as a tricky youngster does speak to a certain degree of bravery and resilience given the brutal reputation of the top flight. Velasco is among the league's most-promising young players, a skilful, quick and dangerous left winger. His 62 chances created this season is the fifth most in the division, while no player can better his 198 dribbles completed. Could he be a wildcard choice for Argentina at the World Cup? Don't rule it out.

Rayan Cherki, 18, French – Lyon

It feels like 2022 could be a massive year for Cherki. The versatile attacker is still nowhere near being a regular at Lyon, despite many feeling Peter Bosz's appointment might prove a boost to the teenager – after all, he played an important role in developing Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz. Yet, the raw ability is undoubtedly there for Cherki – whether he'll be able to harness that properly at Lyon remains to be seen, with suggestions growing that he might seek a move away in the next year.

FORWARDS

Yuri Alberto, 20, Brazilian – Internacional

Yuri Alberto looks likely to be 'one who got away' for Santos. He left for Internacional in 2020 after initially showing promise at Vila Belmiro and has been a shrewd acquisition, scoring 22 times in 56 Brasileirao appearances, the most of any player currently 24 or younger. His 12 in the 2021 season was only bettered by four players and he scored more hat-tricks than anyone else (three) during the calendar year – one of those being netted in the late-finishing 2020 campaign.

Mohamed-Ali Cho, 17, French – Angers

A dynamic, exciting forward who is most comfortable out wide at the moment, Cho may only be 17 but he already has 39 Ligue 1 appearances under his belt. Where France seem to have lost out to England with Green, Les Bleus look to be winning the battle for Cho, who spent five years at Everton until 2020. Now a France Under-21 international, Cho is the youngest player to have scored in Ligue 1 this season having netted against Rennes back in August when he was aged 17 years and 222 days.

Ricardo Pepi, 18, American – FC Dallas

Yes, another American. While Clark may not make it into the United States' World Cup squad, Pepi almost certainly will. A very well-rounded striker who is tall, agile and hard-working, Pepi has also – perhaps most importantly – proven an able finisher, with his 13 MLS goals in the 2021 season being the joint-most ever managed by a teenager in the competition. Similarly, he's also the youngest player to ever score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers for the USA. He has a long-term contract at Dallas, but no one would be surprised to see him leave for Europe in 2022, with Germany a likely destination. Expect him to fetch the largest ever fee for an American leaving MLS.

Matias Arezo, 19, Uruguayan – 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. He scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he surpassed that haul with 15 from six fewer appearances in 2021. 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. A well-built striker, he's definitely one to watch ahead of the World Cup – assuming Uruguay get there.

Julian Alvarez, 21, Argentinian – River Plate

A sensational last couple of months in 2021 elevated Alvarez to a new level, one which has seen him mentioned regularly in transfer gossip columns – United are apparently especially keen. The striker, now an Argentina international, scored a total of 24 club goals across 2021, while also setting up a further 12 in the league, showing both his ability to finish chances and create them. A move abroad seems highly probable – where that takes him and how he does will be intriguing to watch, particularly ahead of the World Cup.

Barcelona are in disarray – out of Champions League and out of money.

Funds are limited at Camp Nou and it is forcing the embattled LaLiga giants to make some tough decisions.

Frenkie de Jong and Marc-Andre ter Stegen could be sold.

 

TOP STORY – DE JONG AND TER STEGEN TO LEAVE CAMP NOU?

Barcelona are willing to sell Frenkie de Jong and Marc-Andre ter Stegen due to the club's finances, according to Diario AS.

Eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage, Barca are in the midst of a financial crisis, having been forced to part with superstar captain Lionel Messi at the start of the season.

Barca head coach Xavi faces a rebuilding job but needs to raise funds, and star midfielder De Jong and goalkeeper Ter Stegen could be sacrificed.

De Jong has been linked with Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, who have also eyed Ter Stegen.

 

ROUND-UP

- Football Insider says Real Madrid are weighing up a move for former superstar Cristiano Ronaldo if he does not fit into the system of United interim manager Ralf Rangnick.

- ESPN claims Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, RB Leipzig midfielder Amadou Haidara and Kalvin Phillips of Leeds United are key targets for Manchester United. Erling Haaland is also a long-term target of United.

Chelsea are eyeing Leicester City's Wesley Fofana as a replacement for soon-to-be free agent Antonio Rudiger, per Goal. Rudiger has been linked with Real Madrid and Bayern on a free transfer. Preparing for life after Rudiger, Chelsea have also been linked to Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde.

Paris Saint-Germain are looking to move on Mauro Icardi, Rafinha and Abdou Diallo, says L'Equipe. Icardi has been linked with Juventus, Milan, Newcastle United and Tottenham.

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