Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came out swinging as he hit out at the media for the coverage and interpretation of his recent comments about Marcus Rashford.

England international Rashford made his first appearance of the season in the 4-2 weekend defeat to Leicester City, scoring one of United's goals.

But in his pre-match news conference on Friday, Solskjaer appeared to pedal a trope that was used to undermine Rashford's charitable efforts during the coronavirus pandemic by certain sections of society, urging him to "prioritise" football.

Solskjaer said: "You know what he has done off the pitch as well, because he has done some fantastic things, and now to prioritise, maybe prioritise his football and focus on football because he's got a challenge on his hands here at Manchester United, he has a challenge on his hands to play for England."

Many considered Solskjaer's comments to be a veiled criticism of Rashford's off-the-pitch endeavours, which helped raise enough money for the FareShare charity to distribute the equivalent of more than 21 million meals to struggling children and families.

His continued efforts saw him honoured as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and he also became the youngest ever recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Manchester.

Media speculation suggested Rashford and his entourage were annoyed by Solskjaer's comments last week, and ahead of Wednesday's Champions League clash with Atalanta, the Norwegian addressed the "elephant in the room" immediately with the 23-year-old sat next to him.

"We are so unbelievably proud of what Marcus has done off the pitch," he began.

"You [journalists] know what was said and you made headlines out of one little comment that I never intended to be the focus.

"I was speaking about Marcus and how it must be nice for the boy to be going into training not focusing on his shoulder or ankle or his back, and I think you know that. Now he can just enjoy his football.

"So, no questions on that, I just wanted to start with that one."

Media speculation suggested Rashford and his entourage were annoyed by Solskjaer's comments last week, and ahead of Wednesday's Champions League clash with Atalanta, the Norwegian addressed the "elephant in the room" immediately with the 23-year-old sat next to him.

"We are so unbelievably proud of what Marcus has done off the pitch," he began.

"You [journalists] know what was said and you made headlines out of one little comment that I never intended to be the focus.

"I was speaking about Marcus and how it must be nice for the boy to be going into training not focusing on his shoulder or ankle or his back, and I think you know that. Now he can just enjoy his football.

"So, no questions on that, I just wanted to start with that one."

The awkward headlines came at a particularly troubling time for United and Solskjaer as they have endured an underwhelming start to 2021-22 that has comprised of just five wins in 11 matches across all competitions.

Solskjaer is under increasing pressure with performances leaving a lot to be desired, and his job security was a key subject during Tuesday's news conference.

But he mostly cut a calm figure as he faced the tough questions.

"It doesn't affect me but of course you see some of the comments," he said when asked about Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher's assessment United should have a better manager than Solskjaer.

"We've got Liverpool on Sunday as well, so Jamie is always looking at these little things.

"I've got my values, my way of managing, I believe in myself. As long as the club believes in me, I'm pretty sure Jamie Carragher's opinion isn't going to change that.

"We've progressed over the years. Since I was here for half a season, we've finished third, second – you could see progress, development.

"This season we still want to improve. We signed players who raised expectations.

"There's pressure on me of course, but we've come through this before stronger as individuals and as a team.

"I'm in dialogue with the club all the time, so that's an open and honest discussion all the time."

Barcelona are close to tying Ansu Fati down to a new long-term contract, head coach Ronald Koeman has confirmed.

The Catalans are said to have been focused on handing out bumper deals to their most promising talents after losing Lionel Messi in pre-season, with a rebuild well under way.

Media speculation in recent days suggested their hopes of renewing Fati's deal had hit a stumbling block, with his agent Jorge Mendes apparently unwilling for a €1billion release clause to be inserted into his contract.

Such a clause proved no obstacle to securing Pedri's future and quickly the news reports were turned on their heads, with Mundo Deportivo claiming on Tuesday that a deal has been struck with Fati and Mendes "in principle".

Fati has broken a host of records since his emergence as a 16-year-old in 2019, including becoming Barcelona's youngest ever LaLiga goalscorer, and has looked sharp since returning from a serious knee injury.

He has already scored twice in just 94 minutes of LaLiga action this term, with Koeman easing him back.

Wearing Messi's former number 10 jersey, he looks set to lead Barca for at least the next five years.

"It's true that they are close [to an agreement]," Koeman told reporters ahead of Wednesday's Champions League clash with Dynamo Kiev.

"It's very important news. He's a young player with a lot of quality. He's one of those who should shape the future of this club."

Fati's previous deal was technically due to expire next year, though Barca did have the option to unilaterally extend the agreement until 2024, much like the case with Pedri prior to the signing of his new contract.

Pedri signed on until 2026 and Fati is rumoured to be in line for a similarly lengthy extension.

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.

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino has "no doubt" Lionel Messi will continue to perform at the highest level when playing for the Ligue 1 giants.

Messi and PSG will host Group A rivals RB Leipzig on matchday three of the Champions League on Tuesday.

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

As Messi continues to find his feet in the French capital following his blockbuster switch from Barcelona, Pochettino praised the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

"Leo [Messi] shines by himself.  He shone in Barcelona, [he] shines with Argentina and shines at PSG," Pochettino told reporters, with PSG level on four points with Club Brugge – a point above City and four clear of winless Leipzig.

"He is absolutely adapted, he has the intelligence and the adaptation ability at the highest level. He is now more relaxed and with the experience of being at the club and in the city a few months he is very happy here.

"We are very happy and we expect that everything goes naturally and him to perform the way he expects and everyone expects. I have no doubt about that."

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 Munich won 1-0 at the Parc des Princes.

Champions League runners-up in 2019-20, PSG 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.

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."

Mauricio Pochettino will be without Neymar and Leandro Paredes for Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League clash with RB Leipzig on Tuesday as his list of absent players continues to grow.

Brazil star Neymar returned from the international break with an adductor issue after impressing with a goal and two assists in a 4-1 win over Uruguay.

Paredes, meanwhile, was replaced in the second half of Argentina's 1-0 victory against Peru due to a problem in his right quadriceps and will also be unavailable.

The pair join Sergio Ramos – who is still yet to make his PSG debut – on the injury list, while Angel Di Maria is suspended and Mauro Icardi is a doubt after missing training due to personal issues.

"The priority is always the health of the players," Pochettino said. "In this case, [Neymar's injury] is a small problem but we hope it is a matter of a few days before finding it."

PSG defender Presnel Kimpembe also spoke ahead of what is set to be his 14th appearance of the season against Leipzig, having played a team-high 1076 minutes across all competitions so far.

"Obviously, there is fatigue like any player, the sequence of games is not easy, but I am at the team's disposal," Kimpembe said. "If I am on the pitch, it is because I have the capacity. The coaches know that I am a competitor, a soldier. If I am called upon, I will respond.

"We play a sport that we love. Some would like to be in my shoes, so if I'm not on the pitch, I'm not going to complain."

The France international defender also made sure to highlight the qualities of his compatriot and former PSG academy graduate Christopher Nkunku, who will be lining up for the Bundesliga outfit in Paris.

The versatile 23-year-old is comfortably his side's top scorer in all competitions with nine strikes in 2021-22 – six more than anyone else – and also has two assists in 931 minutes of football.

"[Nkunku] is tremendous," Kimpembe continued. "We all know his qualities, especially me because we were trained together.

"He's been able to show that he is one of the greats now. He's showing it on the European stage.

"It's going to be a great match. I can't wait to be able to meet him again and I hope he will make his debut for France when the opportunity arises."

Pep Guardiola has explained why Manchester City signed Jack Grealish from Aston Villa despite already possessing a wealth of attacking talent.

The England international became the Premier League's most expensive player in August, arriving in Manchester for a fee of £100million, as City smashed their transfer record despite boasting the likes of Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden in the wide and attacking midfield roles.

Guardiola, who led City to their third Premier League title in four years last season, insisted that signing top-quality players is necessary to keep things fresh for a successful side.

"[We signed Grealish because of his] quality in the final third," Guardiola said ahead of City's Champions League clash with Club Brugge on October 19. "He is able to attract opponents and find his [team-mates].

"We have many players but we added another one because we have a lot of games in many competitions. He is at a perfect age and when you are on top in those competitions, the squad must be removed a little bit otherwise it is difficult.

"Everyone has to feel the pressure from the new ones, and the new ones have to understand what the club has done. All the big clubs do it."

Guardiola feels Grealish has performed well since his arrival, adapting to the new challenge of playing regular European football alongside domestic competitions.

Since his arrival at City, the 26-year-old has managed two goals and two assists from 10 appearances across all competitions.

Additionally, the playmaker leads his team for chances created (22) and has the second-highest dribble success rate of any player to have attempted at least 20 (53.13 per cent).

"We spoke about [playing in Europe] and how he has to live when he is not here, in terms of eating, resting and sleeping," Guardiola continued.

"What he has done so far is excellent. Apart from [against] Burnley, he has played every game at a good level and I'm sure he will improve. As a manager, you have to know the best position, but he has played very well.

"He is focused on and off the pitch and he is strong, his weight and body fat is perfect and he is mentally is in the right position. It is the first time he plays every three days. We play every three days for 11 months and it's difficult but it is a good challenge for him."

Guardiola praised City's upcoming opponents for their quality in attack and revealed that Brazilian pair Ederson and Gabriel Jesus are both in contention to feature after flying straight to Belgium after the international break.

"We see the protocols, [Ederson and Jesus] couldn't land [in England] unless they isolate [for] 10 days," Guardiola added. "We will join them in the hotel and [on Tuesday] they will do preparation, maybe play, maybe not.

"I'm sure they will feel good because they recovered really well, they will train there, and we will see tonight how they feel.

"What we have seen [from Club Brugge] is physicality and they know what they have to do. They have a lot of quality up front. We go there, we have four games left and 12 points to fight for to qualify for the last 16.

"This is the target, and our mentality will be the same. We want to make them adjust and control the game with how we play."

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is not a fan of Atletico Madrid's style of play but says he has nothing but admiration for "results machine" Diego Simeone.

Klopp questioned Atleti's defensive tactics after the Spanish side knocked Liverpool out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage in the 2019-20 season.

Speaking after his side's 3-2 defeat, seeing them crash out 4-2 on aggregate, Klopp said he "does not understand with the quality they have why they play this type of football".

The two teams face off at Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday and again at Anfield two weeks later in a couple of crucial games in Group B.

Liverpool have taken six points from six so far, leaving them two points above second-place Atletico after the LaLiga champions followed up a stalemate against Porto with a late win at Milan.

Klopp praised opposite number Simeone ahead of Liverpool's trip to the Spanish capital, the Argentinian having won eight trophies during his decade in charge of Atletico, while also reaching two Champions League finals.

"I was angry and disappointed about a lot of things when I said what I said after the last game," Klopp said at Monday's pre-match news conference.

"We played against a team full of world-class players and they defended with all they have. That's probably the reason I said those things.

"I couldn't respect more what they do. Do I like it? Not a lot, but that's me. I like a different style of football. But it just has to be successful and Atletico have been that, for sure.

"Simeone is the current Spanish champion. He's been there for a long time and has been very successful.

"They play a different system now but they are still the results machine they were before. How Simeone keeps them on their toes with the fight they show I don't know.

"They did well with their signings and have a proper team that looks like possible champions again this year in LaLiga. That's incredible.

"So yeah, what I said before was definitely influenced by my mood on that specific day."

Liverpool beat Watford 5-0 at the weekend to remain second in the Premier League, one point behind leaders Chelsea.

The Reds have scored at least three times in all eight away matches this season, a run that includes a 5-1 win at Porto in their most recent European outing.

Klopp's side have 33 goals to their name this term in all competitions – only Bayern Munich (52) have more among teams from Europe's top five leagues – but the German coach is not expecting a high-scoring affair against Atletico.

"We don't think about the amount of goals we've scored," he said. "We never make the difference between home and away games, though we do enjoy home games more.

"Scoring three goals again, with Atletico next, doesn't sound too likely.

"We know if we win both games against them it's very likely we will go through the group.

"The last time we played there we scored early and had lots of possession, but did not create enough chances. We learned a lot between those two most recent games.

"Hopefully we can use the things we've learned, even if they have changed a lot since then."

Liverpool have failed to win any of their four Champions League matches against Atletico, drawing two and losing two – only Basel have they faced as often without winning in their European Cup history.

Reds defender Virgil van Dijk played a full part in the last-16 double-header two seasons ago but insists that extra-time heartbreak will not be in his thoughts on Tuesday.

"We don't need any extra motivation," he said. "We are playing in the Champions League, the most prestigious cup in Europe. We want to go out there and show our qualities. 

"It's a game we're looking forward to and we know we can get a good result there. It's always a good feeling to play at a full stadium."

Barcelona's youngsters can help the club emerge from their transitional period as a stronger side, according to former full-back Juliano Belletti.

The Catalan giants have endured a difficult time of things on and off the field of late, with a solitary Copa del Rey triumph all they have to show for the last two seasons.

Barca finished outside the top two in LaLiga last term for the first time in 13 seasons and are down in seventh place eight games into the 2021-22 campaign.

Due to the club's well-documented financial problems, with their debts amounting to €1.35billion, they were unable to keep hold of legendary forward Lionel Messi during the close season.

As well as being off the pace in LaLiga, Ronald Koeman's men have also kicked off their Champions League campaign with successive 3-0 losses to Bayern Munich and Benfica.

It is the first time Barca have lost back-to-back group games in a single season since 2000-01, putting added importance on Wednesday's clash with Dynamo Kiev.

But while many are questioning whether the 26-time Spanish champions are a fading force, Belletti insists what his former side are going through is completely normal.

Belletti has personal experience of helping Barca return to the top of Spanish and European football after the previous barren spell that saw them go five seasons without a trophy between 1999 and 2005.

Then a Brazil international, Belletti arrived from Villarreal ahead of the 2004-05 campaign and was a regular in that season's LaLiga triumph.

He also lifted the title in a memorable second campaign at Camp Nou that also saw him score the winner in the Champions League final against Arsenal – his only goal for the club.

Fourteen years on from his departure, Belletti can see a similar scenario playing out in Catalonia.

"It is very weird for world football to see what's going on at Barcelona lately," he said. "However, I see it as a transition: from what has happened last season, to a new era of the club. 

"When you change something as Barcelona has done it, there are always difficulties and tough times. And you should know how to deal with them. 

"Barca has already dealt with them at times in their history. It is not the first time. When I arrived at Barcelona in 2004, the club was in a dry titles run for five years. 

"It was seen as a very big crisis, so much pressure, many critics… and we were able to change the way. It is exactly what it is going to happen again. 

"Nevertheless, as Barcelona is very global nowadays, their issues are very global too. 

"It's a very well-known club, with many fans all over the world… so, pressure is different to what it used to be a few years ago. But I think it is normal. 

"They will go through it. There are going to be many tough times, but the current president has experience on how to fix this situation."

Belletti, who made 102 appearances for Barcelona before joining Chelsea in 2007, added: "Nobody is perfect and I can guarantee the work is really hard and complicated when you work in a global company. 

"You need people around you who support you, especially in football. All of us we go through difficulties. We are managing a small, medium or huge company. In that process, there are difficulties. 

"What happens to Barcelona is due to its huge size, meaning that difficulties are huge too. They haven't won trophies and it has been tough to keep youngsters like they used to do it and that affects into the pitch."

One positive for Barca this season has been the continuation of their proud history of transforming academy hopefuls into first-team stars.

The average age of Koeman's side this season is 24.9, considerably down on the 27.2 from four seasons ago. That ranks Barca as the team with the third-youngest side in LaLiga this term behind only Real Sociedad (24.2) and Valencia (24.3).

And Belletti is hopeful the likes of Gavi and Ansu Fati, the latter of whom has taken on Messi's famous number 10 shirt, can help Barca get back on track.

"It is what all of us hope, because La Masia has already proved on being able to solve many issues of the club with its own talents," he said. "That transition from the academy to the pro football is one of the main issues to many clubs in the world. 

"However, Barca knows how to do it. They have to work for getting the benefit of this. Youngsters have the talent, as the club has proved already in the past, for being in a top table of best players in the world. 

"So, it has to be invested on them. And especially protect them when there is more pressure around in order to avoid those direct pressures on their performances. 

"On the other hand, they are aware of that pressure and deal with it because they have been educated in that way, so they become Barcelona players."

Diego Simeone was typically curt when asked about Jurgen Klopp's 2020 criticism of Atletico Madrid's style of play ahead of the teams' reunion on Tuesday.

Atletico progressed to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2019-20 thanks to a 4-2 aggregate win over Liverpool, which was aided by a remarkable turnaround in the second leg.

Atletico found themselves 2-0 down early on in extra time, but two goals from Marcos Llorente before the halfway mark of the additional 30 minutes quickly turned the tie on its head, and Alvaro Morata sealed Liverpool's elimination right at the end.

Jurgen Klopp seemed particularly irritated by the defeat because of Atletico's methods, telling BT Sport at the time that he could not "understand, with the quality they have the football they play", suggesting they had the ability to "play proper football" but chose not to.

Indeed, Liverpool had 71 per cent of the ball and 34 shots, which translated to an expected goals (xG) value of 3.5 – Atletico's 10 attempts equated to 1.1 xG, meaning they scored almost three times as many goals as the average team would ordinarily expect given the quality of those chances.

Jan Oblak undoubtedly played a part, with his saves adding up to a full goal prevented in xG terms, while at the other end, Adrian was deemed a weak link and his goals prevented figure was -0.7, suggesting he should have done better.

The two teams will meet for the first time since then at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday and Simeone was unsurprisingly asked for his opinion on Klopp's comments – his response was perhaps to be expected.

"Nothing," he replied with a massive grin, a brief awkward silence following.

But soon after he was queried on his perception of Liverpool, and the Argentinian coach was glowing in his appraisal.

"Chelsea, [Manchester] City, Liverpool are all fantastic, but watching Liverpool is a real pleasure," he continued.

"They press high, play a high line, they have no fear of leaving spaces at the back. They have very quick players to go on the break. With [Virgil] van Dijk now [back from injury], they have improved their solidity in defence, which is very important even for a team like Liverpool.

"I don't expect anything other than a team who will make things very difficult for us. We will try and find a way to hurt them, we need to match their intensity and will look to create our own chances."

Atletico captain Koke played in that previous tie with Liverpool and was also asked about Klopp's comments – his conclusion was that Simeone's team will never change.

"Every manager has their own way of playing and their own way of dealing with the press, for example," Koke said.

"We are going to keep on playing our style, which is to try and compete and win and that is never going to change.

"Every team has different mentalities and different ideas about what the best football is. We just try to play the best way to get a victory, it doesn't matter if we have more or less passes."

Liverpool have lost six and won none of their past seven away Champions League matches in Spain since beating Real Madrid in 2008-09 – though they did win the 2018-19 final at the Metropolitano as a neutral ground.

Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne believes Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski is the best player in the world.

Of the players to have scored eight or more goals across all competitions in Europe's top five leagues this season, Lewandowski ranks top for goals (15), minutes per goal (59.87), shots on target (27), expected goals (13.39) and expected goals on target (13.45).

The Poland captain's fine form is a continuation of his remarkable achievements in recent years, including a treble with Bayern in 2019-20 and breaking Gerd Muller's record for Bundesliga goals in a season last term.

With the Ballon d'Or set to be awarded next month after being cancelled last year, De Bruyne feels Lewandowski's performances over the last two years are deserving of the award. 

"I would have to look at a two year period and I would choose Robert Lewandowski," De Bruyne said. "For what he has done goalscoring-wise and what he has won with Bayern Munich."

De Bruyne also addressed the comments of his City team-mate Raheem Sterling, who voiced his openness to a move abroad due to concerns about his playing time.

"Sometimes it is tough to play one game and then miss then next, but obviously it is the manager who has to make those choices," De Bruyne continued.

"We have a group of 22 or 23 internationals who are unbelievable so when the team plays good, there's not a lot you can say as a player. It can be frustrating, but we are all supportive of each other."

The Belgium midfielder also insisted that, while the team are keen to compete for a Champions League title, they are satisfied with their numerous domestic achievements in recent seasons.

"We always try to maintain a high level at his club and compete for titles," De Bruyne added. "That is what we did last year. Winning two semis and a [Carabao Cup] final. Sometimes you can lose these games [the 1-0 defeat in the Champions League final against Chelsea] and you have to move on.

"We've not won [the Champions League] but we are trying. Hopefully in my period here we can get one. It doesn't define your legacy, maybe for people outside. I'm happy with what we've done as a club for the last six years."

Manchester United will be able to call on Aaron Wan-Bissaka for next week's Champions League clash with Atalanta.

Full-back Wan-Bissaka was sent off in the first half of United's 2-1 defeat to Young Boys in September.

The former Crystal Palace defender subsequently missed the second Champions League outing of the campaign, as United came from behind to beat Villarreal 2-1 thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's late strike.

However, United have been successful in appealing the length of the ban, which was reduced from two games to one.

As such, the 23-year-old – who has started every Premier League game this season – will be available to face Serie A side Atalanta at Old Trafford next Wednesday.

A UEFA statement read: "The appeal lodged by Manchester United has been upheld. Consequently, the UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body's decision of September 23, 2021 is amended as follows:

"To suspend Manchester United player, Mr. Aaron Wan‐Bissaka, for the next one (1) UEFA club competition match for which he would be otherwise eligible, for rough play."

United sit third in Group F, one point behind leaders Atalanta.

Jurgen Klopp has expressed his frustration at the scheduling of Liverpool's Premier League clash with Watford just 35 hours after Brazil's World Cup qualifier against Uruguay.

Fabinho started for the Selecao as they beat Uruguay 4-1, while goalkeeper Alisson was named on the bench, and the pair will not return to England ahead of the Reds' next league game on Saturday.

Instead, Klopp will have to make do without them as they fly straight to Spain in the hopes of featuring in Liverpool's Champions League encounter with Atletico Madrid on October 19.

The German tactician explained that the decision had been made to avoid forcing the pair to isolate for longer than necessary, but bemoaned the fact that Liverpool's European opponents Atletico do not have a league game this weekend.

"Somebody decided to give Brazil the opportunity to play last night and then somebody made the decision for us to play on Saturday at 12:30," Klopp said. "It's not in our hands.

"Atletico [Madrid] are not playing at the weekend and they are our next opponents in the Champions League. That would not happen here. We have known it for a while so we have decided that the boys would not be here and they would go straight to Madrid.

"We had to sort quarantine issues and the decision we made is the boys will not be here, they will go directly to Madrid, wait there for us, hopefully, be able to play against Atletico, then will come back slightly later than us, so then they can come back in our normal procedure again.

"Obviously they could have flown into England but with all the quarantine stuff that would have meant they would have to isolate from their families and Ali has three kids and being away with the national teams and then 10 days in isolation with the same rubbish again. We need solutions for that and they are still not there.

"They have played in Brazil so they already had four days there not in a red-list country and that's what counts. Then another six days not in a red-list country then they can come back and start immediately so even when they go from bubble to bubble to bubble it is still 10 days and for us that is the solution."

Alisson has played every minute of Premier League football available for Liverpool, while Fabinho has started five of the Reds' seven games, but Klopp will be forced to look for alternatives within his squad against the Hornets.

However, Liverpool are already light on midfield options, with Thiago Alcantara, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott all ruled out through injury.

Agent Jorge Mendes claims his client Cristiano Ronaldo "has never deserved the Ballon d'Or more" following his individual achievements at club and international level.

The Portugal star returned to Manchester United from Juventus after a successful year in terms of individual records, including becoming the all-time international top scorer while also finishing as the leading marksman in Serie A in 2020-21.

The veteran forward has continued to be prolific for United this term, scoring five goals in just six appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils.

Ronaldo was less successful on the team front as Juventus saw their grip on the Italian top-flight broken, finishing fourth, while also being knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16, and Portugal lost to Belgium at the same stage of the Euro 2020 finals.

However, Mendes feels the 36-year-old's remarkable personal achievements should make him the frontrunner for the coveted accolade.

"The numbers and statistics attached to Cristiano Ronaldo's name speak for themselves and should be enough for him to win another Ballon d'Or," Mendes told France Football.

"The absolutely remarkable total of 115 goals for the Portuguese national team makes him the record holder in the history of men's international football. This year he broke that 15-year-old record, to which he can add that of the top scorer in the history of professional football.

 

"All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time.

"It is true that this is an individual trophy, but let's not forget that Cristiano Ronaldo was the top scorer in the demanding Serie A and was also the top scorer in the last European Championship [making him the all-time top scorer in that competition].

"He holds the record for goals in the Champions League and is the only player in the world to have won everything in three different countries with maximum competitiveness, as was the case in England, Italy and Spain.

"All this at the age of 36, with an absolutely unique regularity, commitment and a phenomenal capacity to overcome difficulties. In my opinion, this year the Ballon d'Or has a name: Cristiano Ronaldo. For me, he has never deserved it more."

Ronaldo faces stern competition if he is to win a sixth Ballon d'Or, however, with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski netting the most goals in all club competitions among players in Europe's top five leagues last season (48, 12 more than Ronaldo) and he has already managed 13 this term.

Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi also outscored the Portugal star in all club competitions last season, and Messi claimed an international trophy with Argentina as he won the Copa America, finishing the tournament as the top scorer and top assist provider.

Meanwhile, midfielder Jorginho is being tipped as a contender after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

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