Over the past 17 years or so, few – if any – fixtures in world football have been more synonymous with drama, chaos and, above all, the world's best players than El Clasico.

In a way, we probably came to take it for granted what El Clasico meant in terms of entertainment and quality.

Of course, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo became the star attractions of the contest, El Clasico almost becoming its own side story in the wider narrative of their Ballon d'Or rivalry.

Ronaldo's 2018 departure took away one element, and some might even suggest it impacted Messi negatively as well, as he failed to have a hand in a single Clasico goal after his old nemesis moved on.

Now both are gone, with Sunday's Clasico at Camp Nou the first of an era in which neither Messi nor Ronaldo will play any part.

The last season that didn't have either Messi or Ronaldo make a Clasico appearance was 2004-05, and as such there are many people who feel LaLiga has lost some of its lustre, even with Karim Benzema showing the kind of productivity that is unrivalled across the top five European leagues.

 

That's perhaps partly – along with the slow re-establishment of the tourism industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – reflected by the fact there were still 52,000 tickets available for the match as of Tuesday morning.

But that's not to say these squads aren't worth watching. El Clasico may be at the start of a transitional period itself, but there are talents in both teams who look capable of defining this fixture for the next 10 to 15 years.

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

Would Ronald Koeman be putting so much faith in younger players were it not for Barca's financial troubles? Even when you consider the club's history with La Masia, that's debatable.

But here we are, eight matches into the 2021-22 LaLiga season and only two clubs in Spain's top flight have a younger average starting XI age than Barca (26 years, 174 days). That highlights the significance of their squad replenishment since 2017-18, when their average starting XI age was 28 years, 36 days old – the fifth oldest in the division.

 

Nowhere in the Barca team is that more noticeable than in midfield, where youngsters are being forced to mature very, very early.

Gavi had only ever played two league games for Barca's second team before this season, and despite having just five LaLiga outings under his belt, he became Spain's youngest ever international earlier this month.

But the key thing to remember is, the talent – and seemingly attitude – is there. Gavi and Nico have made the step up this season to join Pedri, which could feasibly be Barca's long-term midfield trio, such is the ability and skillset the three teenagers have so far demonstrated.

Sadly, Pedri is likely to miss the Clasico this weekend due to injury, but the remarkable ease to which he took to LaLiga last season provided every shred of evidence needed to consider him a genuine key figure already. The maturity he showed at Euro 2020 only cemented that.

 

Pedri performed an integral function in Luis Enrique's team as he complete more final-third passes (177) than any other player at the Euros, the teenager proving to be hugely dependable when it came to helping keep Spain in possession and on the front foot in those tighter areas of the pitch.

Of course, the way Spain play means their players are likely to have more passes than others, but the fact he fitted in so quickly speaks volumes. Andres Iniesta comparisons have never been far away, even while he was still at Las Palmas, and it's his excellence in this kind of facilitator role that lends further credence to it.

Pedri was involved in 4.2 shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes last season, which was only bettered by five players who ordinarily play in central midfield roles – Frenkie de Jong (5.0) ranked highest. While Iniesta averaged 5.1 each game back in his prime in 2015-16, that dropped to 2.9 in his final season, highlighting how Pedri is absolutely on the right track in terms of influencing Barca's build-up play.

But the beauty of the options Barca have coming through at the moment is that Pedri can realistically expect to have plenty of assistance when it comes to managing the side's considered, possessional style.

 

Gavi has a particularly interesting profile. While he's undoubtedly comfortable on the ball with respect to both passing and dribbling – his nifty turn to spin around Paul Pogba before getting a shot away in the Nations League final was proof of that – he's also a feisty individual.

He's engaged in 14.5 duels per match on average this season. Going back to the start of 2020-21, the only Barca players (minimum of 300 minutes played) to be more involved in that respect are Messi (14.9) and Ilaix Moriba (17.4).

Of course, it's worth pointing out he still has a lot of room for growth here. Gavi's already got four yellow cards across all competitions this season, and his tendency to go flying into tackles a little recklessly was notable during the Nations League, but if this side of his game is nurtured properly then it will be a real asset to Barca's midfield. It's easy to see why Luis Enrique said Marco Verratti is the teenager's idol.

The other potential long-term pillar of Barca's midfield is Nico, the son of former Deportivo La Coruna title-winner and Spain international Fran. Of the three of them, Nico's probably still got the furthest to go to nail down a regular spot, but the promise is there.

In Barca's B team he carried out various midfield functions but really came into his own once deployed as a pivot, the Sergio Busquets role, if you will. It's in this position that his strengths really shine through, as he is comfortable at receiving the ball under pressure because he's so good at using his physicality in conjunction with a delicate appreciation of the ball at his feet.

The similarities with Busquets in that sense are quite striking, though he still has work to do to get a prolonged chance in that position under Koeman, who called Nico out for a lack of defensive awareness in the defeat to Atletico Madrid. He was blamed for letting Thomas Lemar run clear for the first goal.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to like about Nico, particularly his satisfying comfort on the ball. Although not especially quick, his dribbling ability is going to really help him stand out. Sure, it's early days in the season and he's not played a huge amount of football, but so far he is completing 73 per cent of his dribble attempts, which won't surprise those who have been raving about him for a while now.

If given the opportunity to progress and develop, this trio could be Barca's next iconic midfield.

TWO MESSIS?

When Messi's exit was swiftly followed by the announcement of a then injured Ansu Fati taking the number 10 jersey, there were surely plenty of people wondering if it was too much, too soon for him.

Those doubts will not have stemmed from his ability, but rather concern for the mental toll such expectation could have on someone who – let's not forget – is still only 18.

But after 10 months out with a serious knee injury, he returned to the pitch against Levante last month and dazzled in a brief cameo, which included an excellent goal as he spun away from a defender and fired home from distance. It was the kind of reintroduction that suggested he was going to relish his new senior role rather than be cowed by it.

He made his first start of the season last weekend at home to Valencia and only needed 13 minutes to get Barca on the scoresheet. He came off the left flank, played a one-two with Memphis Depay and whipped a clinical effort into the bottom corner from 20 yards. Had it been off his left foot, there would have been more than a hint of Messi to it.

That took him to 11 LaLiga goals in 1,059 minutes since the start of February 2020. In that time, only Alex Fernandez (37.5 per cent) boasts a better conversion rate among LaLiga players with at least five goals than Fati (29 per cent).

Those 11 efforts come from a 4.5 expected goals (xG) value, which is of course a massive overperformance. Ordinarily one would be inclined to think such form is unsustainable, but Fati is clearly special. After missing the best part of a year, he's come back and looked extremely sharp.

One area Barca will hope for improvement is his ability to fashion chances for others because, not only did Messi score more than anyone else at Barca, he also created the most chances.

Fati's 1.7 key passes per 90 mins since the start of last season isn't bad, but Messi was at 2.6 in 2020-21. Of course, it would be unfair to expect anyone to rival Messi's output in terms of goals and creativity, but in an ideal world, Barca will pick up the slack somehow and Fati looks likely to be their next big hope, hence the new six-year contract with a €1billion release clause.

 

But perhaps Yusuf Demir can share some of the burden in future as well – after all, he was nicknamed the 'Austrian Messi' prior to joining Barca on an initial loan back in July.

The 18-year-old has been used sparingly since starting successive league games last month, but hopes for him are high. The Messi comparisons, perhaps rather obviously, come from the fact he's fairly small, left-footed and likes to dribble in off the right flank.

He's only five games into his Camp Nou career and undoubtedly raw, but Demir had been highly rated long before Barca took their opportunity to bring him in during pre-season.

At Rapid Vienna last season, Demir may have started in just six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga outings (825 minutes), yet he amassed a respectable seven goal involvements, which averaged out at one every 117.9 minutes – of the players to feature for at least 825 minutes, only 10 had a better record.

 

Only one of those involvements was an assist, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story about his creativity as Demir was a regular creator when he did play, which is evidenced by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth best among those to play at least 825 minutes.

But probably his most notable skill, and the one that inspires some of the Messi comparisons, is his dribbling. A dynamic and explosive player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles every game on average last term. No player (minimum 108 minutes) matched that. His 3.8 successful dribbles was also a league high, and it's that flair that has seen him find his way to Catalonia.

It remains to be seen what kind of an impact Demir can have at Barca this season, but there's every chance he and Fati could be terrorising LaLiga full-backs together for years.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

Barcelona's reliance on youth this season has been greater than Real Madrid's, for obvious reasons. But in Vinicius Junior they have one of most in-form players aged 21 or younger in world football, and Eduardo Camavinga joined in pre-season after developing into a serious talent at Rennes.

Camavinga remains something of a mystery regarding his long-term role and even suitability at Madrid, given he has only played five league games, but his promising beginning at Rennes offers plenty to be optimistic about.

For starters, he regularly featured in a midfield trio for Rennes and at least for the time being that will be the case in Madrid, but he also offers a nice blend of explosive flair and defensive work rate.

Only five players in Ligue 1 last season won more tackles than Camavinga (59) and all of them played at least 492 minutes more than him across the course of the season, while he also completed 66.2 per cent of his 65 attempted dribbles. Of the players to try at least 45, only six boasted a better success rate.

Obviously at a club like Madrid, Camavinga will expect to do less defensive work because they'll spend more time on the ball, but knowing they have someone in that number 8 role who is both effective in possession and without it can only be a good thing.

But while we wait for Camavinga to truly make his mark (he has only played 197 minutes in LaLiga), Vinicius is enjoying something of a coming-of-age campaign.

 

He's always looked exciting but so often there have been doubts over his decision making and decisiveness. For example, he only scored three goals in LaLiga last season from an xG value of 6.5 – he couldn't be counted on to make the difference.

But the strides he has made this season have been significant. The Brazilian is attempting more than twice as many dribbles each game (7.0) compared to 2020-21 (3.1), yet his success rate has improved (41.1 per cent to 44.6) as well.

In front of goal he's no longer wasting chances he should be converting – in fact, he's actually been clinical with five goals from 3.5 xG, his shot conversion rate going up from 7.5 per cent to 23.8.

For starters, this suggests he's picking his opportunities better, but the fact he's already at 3.5 xG highlights that he's getting himself into better positions as well.

Vinicius has rarely appeared to lack confidence, but now that seems to be translating into extra attacking responsibility and he's embracing it. He's carrying the ball more and across greater distances, but more importantly than that, it's leading to an increase in Madrid's output in the final third, with Vinicius' shot involvements from ball carries improving to 2.9 this term from 1.1 (per 90 minutes) in 2020-21.

Suddenly he's looking like the future superstar many thought he was destined to be when he left Flamengo, with his wonderful brace against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday a prime example of his new-found clinical nature.

Few would bet against him having a similarly decisive impact in El Clasico, but even if he doesn't, there will be enough young talent on display to highlight why this could be the start of an exciting new era in Spanish football's most watched fixture.

Gianluigi Donnarumma's move to Paris Saint-Germain dominated headlines following a busy off-season in the French capital.

Donnarumma was part of an incredible transfer window for PSG, which included the likes of Lionel Messi and Achraf Hakimi arriving.

But Donnarumma is already reportedly considering his future with the Ligue 1 giants.

 

TOP STORY – DONNARUMMA WEIGHING UP FUTURE

Gianluigi Donnarumma will leave Paris Saint-Germain if he continues to be overlooked in favour of Keylor Navas, according to Calciomercato.

Donnarumma only joined PSG from Milan on a free transfer at the start of the season, but he has found himself playing second fiddle to Navas in Paris.

The Italy international has already been linked with Juventus and Barcelona.

 

ROUND-UP

Luis Suarez is seeking a new contract at Atletico Madrid but the LaLiga champions want to hold off until the end of the season before deciding, per Saturday's Marca. Atletico have been linked with wantaway Fiorentina star Dusan VlahovicManchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Inter have also been linked to Vlahovic.

Bayern Munich are pushing to sign Salzburg forward Karim Adeyemi, reports Sport1. The 19-year-old has impressed in Austria, where he has been linked with Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Inter and Real Madrid.

- Porto's Luis Diaz is attracting interest from Newcastle United, Chelsea, Bayern and Madrid, claims Nicolo Schira.

Antonio Rudiger's priority is to stay at Chelsea but Fabrizio Romano says the race is open to sign the Germany defender, with Madrid and Bayern among his admirers.

- Mundo Deportivo claims Inter midfielder Marcelo Brozovic has emerged as an option for Atletico, who are planning for life without Saul. Brozovic has been linked with Manchester United and Barca.

 

Lionel Messi has Le Classique on his mind, not El Clasico. Cristiano Ronaldo faces the daunting challenge of trying to out-match Mohamed Salah, arguably the best forward in the world at this moment.

This Sunday is one of those remarkable days in European football, with Messi and PSG heading to Marseille for a Velodrome battle, while Ronaldo and Manchester United tackle Liverpool.

Sunday also sees Barcelona and Real Madrid clash at Camp Nou, in LaLiga's first Clasico since Messi followed Ronaldo by bidding Spain farewell.

It is one of those quietly momentous moments in sport. The recent US Open tennis tournament happened without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and now a Clasico in Spain's post Messi and Ronaldo era is upon us.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looked at the impact Messi and Ronaldo have had on world football's biggest club game.

Messi and Ronaldo were Clasico mainstays

For the duration of Ronaldo's nine-year stint with Madrid, neither he nor Messi missed a Clasico in LaLiga. Both started 17 games and appeared as a substitute once each.

And the raw facts tell us Messi had far more to celebrate in the league series, with Barcelona winning 10 times and Madrid notching just four victories, with four games drawn, an aggregate scoreline of 39-23 going in the Blaugrana's favour.

Madrid had an average of 14.1 shots per game to 13.0 by Barcelona, but the capital side could not make that slight advantage count in the overall reckoning.

Taking all competitions into account, Madrid's overall Clasico record in the Ronaldo era perked up slightly (W10 D8 L14). They had two Copa del Rey final wins over Barcelona in this time, with Jose Mourinho's side snatching a 1-0 win thanks to Ronaldo's extra-time header in 2011. Ronaldo was then absent through injury for the 2014 final, Madrid winning 2-1 after a late golazo from Gareth Bale.

A Champions League semi-final success for Barcelona in 2011, however, was a sweet knockout blow, delivered after a swift double jab from Messi, his double in a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu being the telling contribution. Messi's goals that night, from a personal expected goals (xG) total of 0.8, were a blow from which Ronaldo and Madrid could not recover in the second leg at Camp Nou. Barcelona went on to beat Manchester United 3-1 in the final, Messi scoring the second goal and being named man of the match.

 

Who was Clasico goal king of the record breakers?

Messi hit an all-time record of 474 goals in LaLiga and Ronaldo grabbed a sensational 311 in nine seasons, but who saved their best finishing form for El Clasico?

The data tells us Messi wins this one, with both players deadlier away from home during their head-to-head rivalry.

Ronaldo hit six goals in nine LaLiga games at Camp Nou, but he only managed three at the Bernabeu against Barca, and they were all penalties. In Madrid's home league tussles with Barcelona, Ronaldo's shot conversion rate was just 6.4 per cent, but it would have been 0.0 per cent without those spot-kicks. The 6.4 per cent conversion rate ranked, of all the fixtures in which he scored in LaLiga, as Ronaldo's fourth worst.

Messi, during that same 2009-18 period, grabbed nine goals in nine league games at the Santiago Bernabeu, four of them penalties, and also scored three in nine home games against Madrid, a free-kick and two from open play. His shot conversion rate of 11.1 per cent at home was balanced out nicely by a sharp-shooting 27.3 per cent away to Los Blancos.

Six assists from Messi to just one from Ronaldo in the nine-season rivalry further underlined the Argentine forward's upper hand in these games.

Across his entire Barcelona career, which spanned 17 years at first-team level, Messi scored 18 LaLiga goals in Clasico battles.

 

What more can we learn from the Leo v CR7 LaLiga years?

Madrid targeted Messi, or at least the numbers suggest they tried to stop him through fair means or foul, albeit with limited success.

He was fouled 30 times at Camp Nou and 26 times at the Bernabeu during Clasico league games. No LaLiga opponent fouled Messi more than that combined total of 56 during the nine-year spell of the Ronaldo rivalry (Atletico Madrid - 47, Espanyol - 46).

Madrid conceded an average of 18.2 fouls per Clasico during that era, and won 12.6, and such margins can be significant.

Barcelona had a string of pass masters in their ranks, with the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets bossing the midfield for much of this vaunted period, and in the LaLiga Clasico games their precision was noticeable.

Passing accuracy of 84.2 per cent in the opposition half during games against Madrid during the Ronaldo years showed where they excelled, and Madrid's 74 per cent mark in this category showed they were often losing possession.

Giving the ball away to any team can spell trouble, and being inaccurate with more than a quarter of passes in the Barcelona half pointed to problems. Only against Rayo Vallecano (71.7 per cent) did Madrid have worse accuracy in that area of the field while Ronaldo was at the club, and that hardly mattered as they won all 10 of their LaLiga games against the side from nearby Vallecas.

Ronaldo's 73.6 per cent passing accuracy against Barcelona was his third worst against any LaLiga opponent, while Messi soared above him with 83.7 per cent, his sixth highest against all league opposition for the seasons from 2009-10 to 2017-18.

The fact he pulled off such consistency while targeting high-tariff manoeuvres in enemy territory further served to underline Messi's dominance of perhaps the greatest LaLiga Clasico head-to-head of them all.

 

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti thinks Barcelona are rediscovering their identity as they make a comeback from a slow start to the new season.

Barca sit seventh in LaLiga, five places – but just two points – behind Ancelotti's Real Madrid as the pair prepare for a Clasico showdown on Sunday.

Ronald Koeman, who seemed on the brink of an exit earlier in October, has been under pressure after a mixed start to the LaLiga term while losing consecutive Champions League group games for the first time since 2000-01.

However, an improvement in recent weeks has, at least temporarily, kept Joan Laporta from dismissing Koeman, and Ancelotti – who has never won an away game against Barca in five attempts – insists the Blaugrana are on their way back.

"It is a team [Barca] that is coming back in the sense that it has had many problems, but little by little it is finding its identity and is improving," Ancelotti told Madrid's media.

"It is not important how a team gets to this type of game but what kind of game it can get.

"It does not matter how it gets there if not what is done on the field. All these games are like this."

 

Despite Ancelotti's poor away record, Madrid may travel to Camp Nou as favourites, given Barca have failed to win any of their last four games against Los Blancos.

Indeed, Koeman has lost his first two LaLiga Clasico fixtures – only Patrick O'Connell between 1935 and 1940 was defeated in all his opening three matches of the famous fixture as Barca manager.

As Madrid look for their fourth consecutive win against Barca in all competitions, only winning more in a row in 1965 (seven), Ancelotti hinted his defence will be key against Koeman's side, who have scored in 34 of their last 35 top-flight home games.

"For our team the most important thing is always to defend well, both with a low, medium and very high block," he continued.

"Defending well is the key to everything. All the games in which we have finished with a clean sheet we have won.

"The problem for this team is not scoring goals, but not conceding. Therefore, most of the time I try to focus on this."

Superstar 22-year-old Kylian Mbappe is expected to leave Paris Saint-Germain at the end of this season.

Real Madrid have long courted the France international and are expected to secure his signature.

PSG remain hopeful of Mbappe extending his contract but there could be another twist in the transfer saga.

Madrid's LaLiga rivals Barcelona appear ready to make a surprise move.

TOP STORY – BARCELONA READY FOR MBAPPE MOVE

Barcelona believe they can outspend Madrid and land Mbappe from PSG, according to AS.

Despite their financial challenges, the Catalans intend to hijack their rivals' move for Mbappe, who will be a free agent in mid-2022.

Barcelona's salary cap will increase by then and vice president Eduard Romeu reportedly wants to make one major signing.

ROUND-UP

- ESPN reports that Erling Haaland will demand a salary of £30million (€35m) per year for his expected transfer from Borussia Dortmund next year. Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City and Bayern Munich are among those chasing the Norwegian.

- Eden Hazard could return to Chelsea with the Blues interested in a deal for the Real Madrid midfielder, claims El Nacional.

- Everton have set their sights on a January deal for Manchester United's Jesse Lingard, according to Football Insider.

- Marca claims that Newcastle are ready to splash out £67m (€80m) to sign Porto's Colombian striker Luis Diaz.

- Manchester City are set to enter the race for Ajax's 21-year-od Brazil international Antony alongside Barcelona, according to El Nacional.

 

Juliano Belletti believes Barcelona and Real Madrid can make memories to last for many years in Sunday's Clasico as he recalled being on the team that swept aside the famous 'Galacticos'.

Brazilian full-back Belletti spent three seasons at Camp Nou between 2004 and 2007, winning two LaLiga titles and scoring the winner in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal.

He featured in four games against Los Blancos for the Blaugrana, winning one, losing one and drawing two.

The 45-year-old, who is now assistant manager at Brazilian club Cruzeiro, reflected on the stature of the historic fixture and cast his mind back to his first Clasico after arriving in Catalonia.

"Most of the best players in the world are [at Barcelona and Real Madrid]," Belletti told Stats Perform. "So, just being involved is already special. Barca and [Real] Madrid have fans all over the world. We are aware of it as football players. And when we are not involved in El Clasico, whether we are from the football world or not, we are watching this game.

"There is top quality football, there is big rivalry. There is so much history and it is something global. It is not only about LaLiga. That's why I believe the impact of the result of this game, winning or losing, is incredible. That's all what makes this Clasico special.

"My first Barca v Madrid was at Camp Nou in 2004. We faced 'Los Galacticos' of Real Madrid. It was very special for me to be there at that time.

"Besides, we won that game 3-0. It was even more special as my first time playing against 'Los Galacticos' and winning the game. And even nowadays my family remembers that day."

 

David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Brazilian striker Ronaldo were all in the Madrid team in that November 2004 game, with Samuel Eto'o, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Ronaldinho scoring for Barcelona.

Belletti says those that feature in this weekend's game will already feel, with some justification, that they have made it in the game.

"This sport is very competitive," Belletti said. "Reaching Barca or Real [Madrid] is a very high level, so demanding, a very hard-working culture. So, being there, you think: 'Oh my god, I did well. Now it is time to enjoy it.'"

Barcelona have been experiencing a decline of late, with the Catalan giants failing to win the league in their last two seasons and not claiming a Champions League title since 2015.

Furthermore, financial difficulties prevented the club from offering Lionel Messi a new contract, with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner joining Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer, and Barca started this year poorly in his absence.

They have won their last two games, however, beating Valencia 3-1 in LaLiga and Dynamo Kiev 1-0 in the Champions League as under-pressure head coach Ronald Koeman looks to generate momentum ahead of the first Clasico of the campaign, possibly a pivotal match in his reign.

Raheem Sterling is open about a move away from Manchester City for more game time.

The 26-year-old dropped down the pecking order at City last season before an excellent Euro 2020 campaign, where he scored three times for runners-up England.

Sterling has only managed five starts in all competitions this season and could be on the move in the January transfer window.

 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA PRIORITISE STERLING MOVE

Barcelona will make completing a loan deal for Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling their priority in January, claims Sport.

Sterling faces strong competition for places at City and has spoken publicly about his desire for more time on the field.

The Catalans have financial restraints inhibiting their transfer activity but view a loan deal for the England international as an attractive option given their ambition.

ROUND-UP

- Real Madrid have lost ground in the pursuit of Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland , who is also being tracked by Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain,  according to AS. Madrid are being squeezed out financially by the competition for Haaland's signature.

- France forward Ousmane Dembele is open to a move to Newcastle at the end of his contract, claims Goal.com. Dembele has not played a minute for Barcelona this season.

- Newcastle are also interested in signing Everton's England striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin,  reports The Telegraph.

- Manchester City are keeping a close eye on Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic as the race for his signature hots up, according to Tuttosport. City are short on forward options, having not replaced Sergio Aguero following his exit for Barcelona.

- Calciomercato reports that Inter are concerned about the state of contract talks with Croatia international Marcelo Brozovic,  whose current contract expires in June.

Paris Saint-Germain will go backwards if Kylian Mbappe leaves for free, according to former midfielder Jerome Rothen. 

Mbappe's contract is due to expire at the end of the season and he has been heavily linked with a free transfer to Real Madrid, whose president Florentino Perez this month said he would have news about the 22-year-old in January. 

The World Cup-winning attacker has scored 138 goals and supplied 62 assists in 184 appearances since joining PSG in 2017, developing into one of the most exciting talents in world football. 

He scored the opening goal in the 3-2 Champions League win over RB Leipzig on Tuesday but blazed a penalty over in second-half stoppage time following a Lionel Messi double.

Still, Rothen believes it is Mbappe, not Messi or Neymar, who is essential to PSG's future.

Their win percentage in all competitions drops by 5.7 per cent to 69.8 per cent when Mbappe does not feature, while their average goals scored slips from 2.7 to 2.3 in his absence. 

"If Mbappe leaves for free, PSG will go backwards I am sure," Rothen said on RMC Sport. 

"It's a chance to have one of the best players in the world. He is the player who best represents Paris Saint-Germain today, the player who often makes the difference and makes you win the big games. 

"It must be shown to Mbappe and his entourage, that the project is around Mbappe, not anyone else. It's not around Lionel Messi or Neymar. 

"Of course, Lionel Messi remains Lionel Messi. Except that today, we see he can disappear for 20 or 30 minutes." 

Mbappe revealed this month that he asked to leave PSG in the close season so they could get money from selling him and find a replacement. 

Messi has a contract at the Parc des Princes until June 2023, with the option for another year, while Neymar's deal runs until 2025. 

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti says Vinicius Junior is brimming with confidence following his wonderful individual goal in their thrashing of Shakhtar Donetsk.

The 13-time European champions romped to a commanding 5-0 victory in Kiev, their biggest away win in the Champions League since beating Viktoria Plzen by the same scoreline in November 2018.

Vinicius was on target twice, his second goal in the 56th minute the highlight of a dazzling performance.

Just five minutes after doubling his side’s lead, the winger beat several defenders with a jinking run from the left, before firing past Shakhtar keeper Anatolii Trubin.

Ancelotti saluted the Brazil international, who now has seven goals in all competitions this season, his highest tally during a single campaign for Los Blancos.

But the head coach insisted the highest praise should be reserved for the entire team as they bounced back from successive defeats, and warmed up nicely ahead of Sunday's Clasico showdown with Barcelona.

"My team thrives on incredible ambition, which is why we've produced the perfect match," Ancelotti said to reporters post-match.

"After our recent results, it was vital to react and we've done it well. We did what we promised to. 

"Vinicius finished very well indeed, but it was a team effort to produce the goals. 

"He's a young guy, a great player in the making, learning and right now, he's brimming with confidence. But the special praise I'll give is to the entire team." 

As well as his two goals, Vinicius teed up international compatriot Rodrygo's goal as the former recorded a goal and an assist for the first time in 24 Champions League appearances.

The 21-year-old is pleased with the strides he is making, while he also expressed his gratitude for the faith shown in him by Ancelotti.

"I'm still 21, there's lots of time for me to grow into a great player," Vinicius commented after the full-time whistle.

"But I'm working hard so that even if sometimes things don't come off for me, other moments will. I've scored seven times this season – better than the last season – and that's important.

"I love playing in pressure matches, that's natural to me. But the trust and confidence this coach has shown in me is important, too."

Vinicius Junior scored twice as Real Madrid got their Champions League campaign back on track with a commanding 5-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk.

Having suffered a shock defeat by Sheriff last time out in Group D, Carlo Ancelotti's men endured no such difficulties at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.

Sergey Krivtsov's own goal got the ball rolling for the visitors seven minutes before half-time, while Vinicius' quickfire double put them in control after the break.

Further strikes from Rodrygo and Karim Benzema completed the rout as coach Ancelotti claimed his fifth straight victory over Donetsk in this competition.

Despite a bright start at the scene of their 2018 Champions League final triumph over Liverpool, Madrid had a scare in the 23rd minute.

Indeed, Ferland Mendy was forced to clear Ismaily's dangerous cross with Mateus Tete lurking for a tap-in.

But it was the 13-time European champions who hit the front in extremely fortuitous circumstances after 37 minutes, as Lucas Vazquez's hopeful ball towards Benzema was sliced beyond his own goalkeeper by skipper Krivtsov.

Benzema was involved again as Madrid doubled their lead within six minutes of the start of the second half. After Donetsk were caught in possession from a throw-in, the skipper found Luka Modric, whose perfectly weighted first-time ball was delicately finished by Vinicius.

The Brazilian grabbed his second in emphatic fashion just five minutes later.

Receiving the ball from Benzema on the left flank, he embarked on a jinking run into the heart of the hosts' defence before sweeping the ball past Anatolii Trubin.

Vinicius then turned provider in the 65th minute, demonstrating tremendous vision to cut the ball back for Rodrygo to thump into the roof of the net. Benzema completed the scoring with a neat finish in the dying moments of the contest.

Erling Haaland is the name on everyone's lips.

He has starred for club and country, but Real Sociedad's Swedish forward Aleksandar Isak has also impressed.

Isak could be lured to Barcelona if Haaland is not available.

 

TOP STORY – ISAK WANTED AT CAMP NOU

Barcelona are lining up a move for Real Sociedad forward Alexander Isak if they are unable to sign in-demand Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland, according to Diario AS.

Haaland is wanted by Barca and Europe's elite, with the Norwegian linked with Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

With competition fierce, LaLiga outfit Barca are looking close to home and at Isak as an alternative.

 

ROUND-UP

- Ekrem Konur claims City are considering Barca sensation Ansu Fati as a possible replacement for Raheem Sterling should the England international depart the Premier League champions. Barca are reportedly interested in Sterling on a loan deal.

Dortmund want Ajax's Sebastien Haller to succeed Haaland at the Bundesliga outfit, reports Calciomercato. Former Eintracht Frankfurt forward Haller has starred for the Eredivisie giants.

Juve's objective is to sign Monaco and France star Aurelien Tchouameni, says Calciomercato. Tchouameni is also a target for United, City, Chelsea, Liverpool, PSG and Madrid.

- Gazzetta dello Sport claims Juve, Milan and Tottenham are eyeing PSG's Mauro Icardi.

The Champions League group stage reaches the halfway point this week and Tuesday provides another set of tasty fixtures.

Liverpool travel to Atletico Madrid seeking revenge two seasons on from their last-16 exit to Diego Simeone's side in the pick of the games.

Real Madrid and Manchester City are each looking to respond to defeats last time out when they take on Shakhtar Donetsk and Club Brugge respectively.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain host RB Leipzig and two of Europe's great entertainers in Ajax and Borussia Dortmund face off in Amsterdam.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data ahead of some key contests.

 

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool: Reds face bogey side

Following their last-16 exit to Atletico two seasons ago, Liverpool are winless in four Champions League meetings with the LaLiga champions – only Basel have they faced as many times without winning in Europe's top competition.

The Reds have also lost six of their past seven games on Spanish soil in the tournament since beating Real Madrid in the 2008-09 last 16, though they were victorious at the Wanda Metropolitano against Tottenham in the 2018-19 final.

Mohamed Salah opened the scoring in that meeting with Spurs and he has more recently scored in each of his past five away games for Liverpool in the Champions League – the longest-such streak by a Reds player in the competition.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Real Madrid: Will Ancelotti be Los Blancos' lucky omen?

Shakhtar beat Madrid home and away in the group stage last season and could become just the third side to win three in a row against Los Blancos in the competition after Bayern Munich and Juventus.

While Madrid's recent record against the Ukrainian outfit is poor, head coach Carlo Ancelotti has won all four of his previous Champions League games against Shakhtar – only against Bayern (six) and Liverpool (five) has he won more often.

Prior to their shock defeat at the hands of Sheriff last time out, Madrid beat Inter 1-0 at San Siro in their opening Group D contest. However, not since 2014-15 have they won their opening two Champions League away games.

 

Paris Saint-Germain v RB Leipzig: History not on Germans' side

After netting in PSG's win against Manchester City three weeks ago, Messi is looking to join Neymar (2017), Alex (2012) and George Weah (1994) in scoring in his first two home games for the club in the competition.

PSG have a great record against German opponents, having won seven of their eight meetings with Bundesliga clubs on home soil, though the exception in that run was in April this year when Bayern won 1-0 at the Parc des Princes.

The Ligue 1 side do not tend to slip up at home in the group stage, losing just one of their past 28 such games – against Manchester United in October 2020 – and netting 2.7 goals per game on average.

Club Brugge v Manchester City: Pep seeking response to Paris pain

Ahead of this first ever meeting with City, Brugge are winless in 12 matches against English opponents in all European competitions since beating Chelsea in the Cup Winners' Cup 26 years ago.

The Belgian champions are unbeaten in their past four home group matches in the Champions League, though, picking up eight points across that run – only once have they gone five in a row without defeat (a run of six that ended in October 2019).

But Pep Guardiola will be confident of City getting their campaign back on track following defeat in Paris, the Catalan coach having lost successive away games in the competition once previously when in charge of Bayern in 2014-15 (against Porto and Barcelona).

 

Other fixtures:

Ajax v Borussia Dortmund

2 - Dortmund have won their previous two major European matches in the Netherlands, both in the Champions League. Their last defeat on Dutch soil was in the 2002 UEFA Cup final against Feyenoord.

3 - Ajax are aiming to win their opening three games to a Champions League campaign for the first time since 1995-96 under Louis van Gaal, the season in which they last made it all the way to the final.


Besiktas v Sporting CP

4 - Sporting have failed to win a European match on Turkish soil, drawing three times and losing once, with that loss coming against Istanbul Basaksehir in February 2020 in the Europa League. Besiktas, though, have won just once in 11 home Champions League games, beating RB Leipzig 2-0 in September 2017.

3 - Sporting lost their opening two group matches, against Dortmund and Ajax, and are at risk of losing three in a row for the first time in the current group-stage format.


Porto v Milan

6 - Porto have kept a clean sheet in six of their past seven games in the group stage of the Champions League, though they did concede five times in their last outing in the competition against Liverpool.

7 - Including qualifying matches, seven of Milan's eight away matches in UEFA competitions in Portugal have ended as a draw, with their only win coming against Porto in March 1993 courtesy of a Jean-Pierre Papin goal.


Inter v Sheriff

- Inter have failed to score in their previous three home Champions League games (the last two group games in 2020-21 and against Madrid this term). They have never previously gone four major UEFA European home games without scoring.

- Sheriff are looking to become just the third team this century to win their first three games in the Champions League, after Leicester City in 2016-17 and Malaga in 2012-13.

Carlo Ancelotti claimed nobody is more frustrated with Eden Hazard's injury problems than the Belgium international himself.

Hazard joined Real Madrid from Chelsea in 2019 for a reported €100million (£88.5m), but the former Blues star has endured persistent physical issues since his arrival in the Spanish capital.

He has managed a full 90 minutes on just four occasions in all competitions for Madrid, scoring just five times in 51 matches, prompting supporters and local media to vent their frustrations with the 30-year-old.

Hazard, though, has registered five starts this term – making eight appearances in total for his 382 minutes – but that short-term recovery has stuttered again as Ancelotti confirmed he would be without the attacker for the trip to Shakhtar Donetsk.

Despite the unavailability of the former Lille man, Ancelotti insisted Hazard is the most frustrated by the continuous injury problems after the forward returned from international duty with muscle fatigue.

"Hazard is tired of having these problems, he isn't injured but he has an overload," Ancelotti said at Monday's pre-match news conference.

"Nobody is more frustrated than Hazard. I think he will be available against Barcelona or Osasuna."

Hazard has only recorded one goal and one assist in 799 minutes for Madrid in the Champions League (12 appearances).

At former club Chelsea, he averaged a goal or assist in the competition every 183 minutes, scoring eight goals and setting up a team-mate eight times in his 38 appearances.

Ancelotti – without Hazard for Tuesday's visit to Ukraine – will have to rely on his other stars, with young prospects Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde impressing recently to place pressure on Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric.

The former Milan head coach, however, insisted his experienced trio remain an integral part of his plans as Madrid search for domestic and European glory.

"I think they [Kroos, Casemiro and Modric] are players who continue to compete at the top level," Ancelotti continued.

"Then we have a squad with young players like [Antonio] Blanco, Camavinga and Valverde who are pushing them a lot.

"I have to take into account everyone's age and their experience. We have a midfield that can compete against anyone."

Luka Modric believes Real Madrid team-mate Karim Benzema would be a worthy winner of this year's Ballon d'Or, while the midfielder also revealed his opposition to proposed biennial World Cups.

Modric was the first player to end the Ballon d'Or duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi when the midfielder won the prize in 2018 – it ended 10 years of domination by the two superstars stretching back to Kaka's win in 2007.

Of course, Messi won it for a record sixth time in 2019, and 2020 saw the award cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will make a return this year, with a shortlist of 30 candidates having been announced on October 8.

Among them is Benzema, who has elevated himself to another level at Madrid over the past few years, becoming something of a talisman since Ronaldo's 2018 departure for Juventus.

On an individual level, 2021 has arguably been the best year of Benzema's career, with the striker having a hand in 39 goals (28 scored, 11 assisted) across all competitions, a haul bettered by only Kylian Mbappe (43), Erling Haaland (47) and Robert Lewandowski (48) in the top five European leagues.

Benzema has been especially effective at the start of 2021-22, his 17 goal involvements better than anyone in the big five leagues and giving him an average of one every 52.2 minutes – Florian Wirtz (50 mins) and Haaland (50.4 mins) are the only players (at least 270 minutes played) who have been decisive more frequently.

"Let's see what happens," Modric told reporters when asked about Benzema's chances.

"There are several candidates who can win it. Karim is one of them. He deserves to win it because of how he has played this year and because of his career.

"He has always been at a top level and finally he has now won a title [the Nations League] with France, and that's important when it comes to voting.

"I'm sure he's one of the candidates. Hopefully Karim wins it."

It was Modric's role in helping his country get to the World Cup final that ultimately aided his own Ballon d'Or success, with the gifted playmaker winning the Golden Ball for the tournament's best player.

Yet he feels the competition will lose some of its draw to certain fans – including himself – if FIFA goes ahead with proposals to make it a biennial event rather than being hosted every four years.

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, now FIFA's head of global football development, is among the key figures in the governing body's push to canvas opinion on such a change. The proposals have been widely criticised, and with good reason, according to Modric.

"For me, a World Cup every two years does not make any sense, I wouldn't like it," he said. "It's special because everyone expects it every four years.

"The players are not asked much about it, nor are the opinions of the coaches. They try to do things without asking.

"I don't know what will happen. Me being honest, I wouldn't watch the World Cup every two years."

Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer running out of time at Old Trafford?

Manchester United are already five points off the pace in the Premier League and pressure is mounting.

United, though, are believed to be firmly in favour of sticking with their manager.

 

TOP STORY – SOLSKJAER WANTED AT THE WHEEL

Manchester United are still backing under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to Fabrizio Romano.

United slumped to a 4-2 Premier League defeat to Leicester City at the weekend, which has left the Red Devils with just two wins from their past seven games across all competitions.

As pressure mounts on Solskjaer, United still reportedly have faith in the Norwegian amid links with the likes of Antonio Conte, Zinedine Zidane and Erik ten Hag.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato reports Serie A champions Inter are ready to battle Arsenal for Madrid forward Luka Jovic. The Serbia international has struggled for form and fitness in the Spanish capital.

PSG want to swap Mauro Icardi for Barcelona's Sergio Aguero, claims El Nacional. The reports says Lionel Messi wants to reunite with countryman Aguero, who left Manchester City for Barca, only for Messi to join PSG.

- Monaco's Aurelien Tchouameni, Borussia Dortmund's Axel Witsel, Denis Zakaria of Borussia Monchengladbach and Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch are among Juventus' transfer targets as they look to add options in midfield, per Tuttosport. Tchouameni has also been linked with Chelsea, Manchester United, Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester City, while Roma have been eyeing Zakaria.

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