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.

You wouldn't necessarily know it given some of the scrutiny, but things aren't going all that terribly at Manchester United.

With four wins and two draws from their first seven games of the Premier League season, they are just two points behind leaders Chelsea. It's a solid improvement from 2020-21, when, at the same stage of the campaign, they were four points worse off and with a negative goal difference.

Exiting the EFL Cup was frustrating, as was losing to Young Boys, but that last-gasp win over Villarreal means their Champions League fate remains firmly in their own hands. It also ensured their challenge for the two biggest trophies on offer are very much alive, and it's why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's job is not currently under threat.

Their next 10 games could change that. It's very hard to predict United results and quality of performances from week to week, but their coming fixture list looks seriously daunting on paper. Before the end of November, they must face league visits to Leicester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, home games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, a Champions League double-header with Atalanta and a trip to Villarreal, LaLiga's only remaining unbeaten side.

Solskjaer could approach the third anniversary of his return to Old Trafford on the back of a buoyant run of results, with a renewed spring in his step ahead of the festive season. Alternatively, December may bring about a deafening clamour for a change of management, just as Jose Mourinho faced in 2018.

Hallowe'en season makes for scary reading

One thing that's marked Solskjaer's time in charge is a tendency to pull out big results when the pressure is on. He's lost just one of five league games against Pep Guardiola and is the only United manager to win all three of his first league visits to the Etihad Stadium. He is unbeaten in five against Chelsea and has been beaten just once by Tottenham.

With two wins in six matches before the international break, the Norwegian will need to summon something similar in the coming seven league fixtures. The trouble is, these games did not go according to plan last time.

United's next league fixtures are Leicester City away, Liverpool at home, Spurs away, Man City at home, Watford away, Chelsea away and Arsenal at home. Last season, the only one of those same games that resulted in a United victory was the trip to Spurs and the embattled Mourinho. Of course, Watford weren't in the top flight last season, but United's last visit to Vicarage Road in December 2019 ended in a miserable 2-0 defeat.

In the Champions League, Solskjaer's men face Atalanta at home and away before heading to Spain to play Villarreal. They edged out Unai Emery's side at home thanks to a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo goal at the end of a contest in which the visitors had 2.31 expected goals to United's 1.07 but were thwarted by goalkeeper David de Gea.

While that was an important result, it didn't gloss over wider concerns. United have kept only one clean sheet in 12 Champions League games under Solskjaer, losing seven of them in total. That's only one defeat less than predecessors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho suffered in 30 matches combined in the competition.

In short, it would take a serious optimist to expect United to get through this run of matches in overwhelmingly positive fashion.

What's the plan, Ole?

But hang on: two points off the top, only one defeat... United's Premier League form isn't that bad, surely?

Well, it's certainly not awful. United have scored more open-play goals than anyone else this season (14) and conceded four, a figure bettered only by Man City (three), Brighton and Hove Albion (two) and leaders Chelsea (zero).

There is often criticism around United's perceived lack of control over games, but that is perhaps not as bad as some think. Only Man City (63.4 per cent) average more possession per game than United (60.7 per cent), while their tally of 55 open-play shots against is the same as Liverpool's and only five down on Chelsea. Indeed, their expected goals against figure in open play (5.5) is slightly lower than that of Jurgen Klopp's men (5.9).

The problem is, as injury-time Ronaldo goals and De Gea penalty saves will tell you, United are treading a fine line between success and disappointment.

Those league-high 14 open-play goals came from 86 shots, a figure only bettered by Man City (94) and Liverpool (97), but one worth just 7.9 expected goals. That differential of 6.1 between goals scored and xG is by far the biggest in the league, and will almost certainly begin to level off at some stage.

That xG figure is in spite of United registering 1,256 passes ending in the final third, a tally only beaten by Man City (1,340). They also rank just fifth for passes into the box (234) and are well behind Liverpool (270) and Man City (273) for touches in the opponents' penalty area (206). Despite having lots of the ball, those clear-cut chances are scarce.

That relatively high possession figure apparently doesn't offer the security at the back that it should, either. But United have still faced 77 shots this season and are on an 11-game run without a clean sheet at home, their worst such sequence since 1964. Champions City, meanwhile, use keeping the ball as their first line of defence: they have only faced 42 shots, just 10 of which have been on target compared to United's 24.

At least United can't generally be accused of a want of trying. There are only two teams – Southampton (997) and Leeds United (1,210) – who have tallied more team sprints than United (991), which is impressive given the length of time they keep the ball rather than scurrying around trying to win it back.

Plus, only Liverpool (147) and Man City (127) have attempted more shots overall than United (120), while there are four United players among the top 18 in the division for attempts at goal this season. Those four – Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba – have also created 50 goalscoring chances between them. In fact, Fernandes leads the league when it comes to shots attempted and chances created combined.

Solskjaer's ethos, it seems, continues to be based on individual inspiration: put enough talented attackers on the pitch, and, more often than not, they'll do enough to win you a game. But that tactic did not work against Everton, or Aston Villa, or Young Boys, or Southampton. Will it be enough against the rest of the 'big six' between now and December?

Will it be enough, indeed, to keep the wolves from Solskjaer's door?

Julian Nagelsmann fired a warning to defences across Europe by claiming Robert Lewandowski has a long time left at the top level – insisting the Ballon d'Or should come his way this year.

Although Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski turned 33 in August, there is no indication age is catching up with the Poland international.

His record haul of 41 Bundesliga goals last season came at a rate of one every 60.07 minutes.

That was the fastest rate of scoring across a campaign, in terms of minutes per goal, for any player with 10 or more goals in a Bundesliga season since the league was founded in 1963.

After missing out on Ballon d'Or recognition last year, when the award was cancelled due to the pandemic's impact on the global game, there is little doubt Lewandowski is a serious contender this time.

Bayern did not match up to their 2019-20 treble-winning feats, but they carried off a ninth consecutive Bundesliga title and Lewandowski was their spearhead.

"He deserves the Ballon d'Or – and in my opinion he has to win the award, because he has played more consistently than anyone else over the past three years," Bayern head coach Nagelsmann said.

Speaking to Munich newspaper Abendzeitung, Nagelsmann predicted Lewandowski would continue to thrive at the highest level into his late thirties.

"If Robert Lewandowski's body stays like this, it is far from over," said Nagelsmann.

"He is extremely dynamic, has no injuries, he can train a lot: I definitely trust him to play at the top, top level for a few more years – also because he aligns everything in his life accordingly, to be in the best physical condition."

 

In Bayern's triumphant 2019-20 Champions League campaign, Lewandowski netted 15 times, scoring on average once every 59.13 minutes. This term, he has four goals already in that competition from just 169 minutes on the pitch.

Lewandowski has said it "would mean a lot" to scoop the individual honour, and after being shortlisted his chief rival appears to be six-time winner Lionel Messi, who helped Argentina to Copa America glory.

Nagelsmann, meanwhile, is sitting tight when it comes to the future of Bayern defender Niklas Sule, whose contract expires at the end of this season.

Sule has been linked with Chelsea and Newcastle United, and Nagelsmann is taking a wait-and-see approach to what comes next for the Germany international.

"It depends on his development and also on the market situation whether he wants to extend the contract or not," Nagelsmann said. "Then we'll see if it works for both sides.

"Niki still has to develop a little with his potential and then make the most of it as a very good central defender."

Raphael Varane is set to be out for "a few weeks" after sustaining an injury in France's Nations League final win, Manchester United have confirmed.

Varane had to be replaced by Dayot Upamecano just before half-time in Les Bleus' 2-1 victory over Spain.

The centre-back went to ground off the ball and was quickly withdrawn from the match, with United now confirming he sustained a groin injury.

A brief statement read: "Raphael Varane sustained a groin muscle injury in the Nations League final and has commenced rehabilitation at the club.

"He will be out for a few weeks."

It comes as a massive blow to United and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ahead of a potentially pivotal few weeks.

While it is unclear exactly how many games Varane will miss, the central defender will be absent for a chunk of what looks set to be a gruelling run of matches.

United face Leicester City, Atalanta twice, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City all in the next four weeks.

After a rather erratic start to 2021-22 consisting of just five wins from 10 matches across all competitions, Solskjaer heads into the upcoming run under pressure.

To make matters worse, there was already uncertainty over the condition of captain – and Varane's regular centre-back partner – Harry Maguire, who missed the clashes with Villarreal and Everton due to a calf injury before the international break that prevented him from linking up with England.

Whether Maguire will be fit to face former club Leicester at the weekend is yet to be determined, meaning the rather haphazard Eric Bailly and the dislodged Victor Lindelof could form an unfamiliar partnership at the back.

Although United have come in for criticism so far this term, Varane's early form has largely been considered positive and he has performed an important function in getting the team on the front foot, with his 7.6 passes into the final third per 90 minutes the most among the club's defenders.

Kalidou Koulibaly says "it is a real shame" Senegal team-mate Edouard Mendy is not in the running to win this year's Ballon d'Or after an impressive first year at Chelsea.

Mendy joined Chelsea from Rennes last September and did not take long to oust Kepa Arrizabalaga as first choice between the sticks at Stamford Bridge.

He played a key part in the Blues' 2020-21 Champions League triumph, the 29-year-old's nine clean sheets the most by a goalkeeper in their debut campaign in the competition.

That includes a clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Manchester City in the final as Mendy became the first African goalkeeper to lift the famous trophy.

Mendy's 19 shutouts in all competitions this calendar year, meanwhile, has been bettered only by Manchester City's Ederson (20) among keepers in Europe's top five leagues.

He was not included on the 30-player Ballon d'Or shortlist last week, however, and Koulibaly has suggested that could be down to his nationality.

"It's a real shame that Edou isn't included. He is the first African goalkeeper to win the Champions League," Koulibaly told reporters while away on international duty with Senegal.

"We must continue to work and move forward. We have to do the double [the work] of some people to be well judged.

"Edou is a very positive person. We talked about it together. He will continue to fight to be part of it. For me, he has a place among these 30 players."

Gianluigi Donnarumma is the only goalkeeper in contention to win football's most prestigious individual accolade after helping Italy to Euro 2020 success.

The Paris Saint-Germain star's save percentage of 70.8 in 2021 is considerably lower than Mendy's 77.23 at club level when taking all competitions into account.

Indeed, only Keylor Navas – who Donnarumma is battling with for a starting spot at PSG – boasts a better save percentage (78.38) than Mendy among those to have played at least 15 times since January 1.

Napoli defender Koulibaly is also not part of the shortlist for the award, with Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez the only African players selected.

Five of Mendy's Chelsea club-mates were included in the shortlist, however, with Mason Mount, Romelu Lukaku, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Jorginho nominated. 

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