Diego Simeone has backed his players to respond to a shock LaLiga defeat to Real Mallorca against Porto in the Champions League next week.

Atleti are in fourth spot in LaLiga – seven points behind leaders Real Madrid – after the 2-1 loss at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday.

It was their first defeat on home turf against Mallorca since April 2006 and against a side who were winless in their previous seven LaLiga games.

Atletico also lost a LaLiga match at home after scoring the first goal of the game for the first time since a 2-1 loss to Barcelona in September 2015.

Atleti's attention will now switch to their final fixture in Group B against Porto on Tuesday where anything other than victory will see them exit the competition.

Simeone claimed the prospect of that fixture did not distract his side against Mallorca, and is confident this result will motivate his players in Porto.

"I have no doubt that surely this type of blows generates a reaction and we hope to find it on Tuesday," he told a news conference.

"I absolutely don't think [it distracted the players]. Specific situations couldn't be controlled. Two shots, two goals is what happened."

Matheus Cunha had put Atletico ahead but Franco Russo equalised before Takefusa Kubo, on loan from Atleti's rivals Real Madrid, slotted home in injury time.

Russo's header for Mallorca's equaliser was the ninth goal Atleti have conceded from a set-piece in LaLiga season and only Cadiz (11) have given away more which Simeone acknowledged was a worry.

He said: "We are concerned, we are concerned and we seek to work on it. We hope to find better results in the next matches.

"It is difficult to explain situations sometimes. There are moments when things flow and moments that are more difficult.

"We are going through a moment of this type. It is a difficult moment, but I trust the squad. The best thing is to have close matches to see if we can reverse the situation."

Atleti midfielder Koke believes the club's squad have enough wise, experienced heads to know how to recover quickly from the setback.

"We have to analyse it and improve many things. When we look at it coldly, we'll see what we have to improve," he added.

"We are older and we have the personality and character and we are international players who have lived through difficult times. We know that with work and more work we will get ahead."

Stefano Pioli hopes Milan have the quality to exploit the Liverpool defence in their crucial Champions League clash at San Siro on Tuesday.

The Rossoneri ended a three-game winless run at home in all competitions with a routine 2-0 victory over Salernitana three days before their crunch meeting with the Reds.

After beating Atletico Madrid 1-0, Pioli's side enter the final round of games in third place in Group B, a point behind Porto in second.

Should they beat Liverpool – who are already through to the last 16 as group winners – and Porto draw with Atleti, Milan will progress to the last 16.

Although the odds are against them – Milan have not beaten English opposition in Europe since February 2012 – Liverpool could elect to field a weaker side, while their defence has not looked as impregnable as it sometimes has under Jurgen Klopp.

While their 12 clean sheets before December 4 was the joint-most in Europe's top five leagues this season, they have conceded 17 goals from an expected goals against total of 23.4, suggesting they should have let in at least six more given the quality of chances faced.

Pioli hopes to exploit any possible weakness in the Reds rearguard, telling DAZN: "Having faced them already gives us more information about them.

"Liverpool have a thousand strengths: they have fantastic strikers, and one of the strongest teams. We'll try to do our best in a great atmosphere that we'll try to make the most of.

"We wanted to be in this position and now we can only try to give our best. We know Liverpool will inevitably cause us some problems, but spaces can open up too because they are certainly not unbeatable or impenetrable in defence."

Milan dominated Salernitana on Saturday and should really have added to their two goals, firing in 22 shots and eight on target while facing just two from Serie A's bottom side.

They attempted 14 in the first half alone, the most they have managed in the opening 45 minutes of a game this season, as they eased to a win that moved them two points clear at the top ahead of Inter's trip to Roma.

"I leave with the satisfaction of a good performance and a good victory. Of course, scoring a few more goals would have been better," Pioli said.

"I'd predicted a balanced league. It looks like the top four are becoming separated. I expected Juventus, Roma and Lazio to be closer but, in a league, it's the details that will make the difference.

"To win the title, you need great consistency and that's what we're trying to achieve. We need to keep the level high all year round. We're satisfied with what we're doing but we don't need to look at the table while staying focused to have a great Christmas."

Porto and Sporting CP face a one-year ban from playing in Europe if they fail to pay outstanding debts by the end of next month.

UEFA on Friday revealed sanctions that have been issued to eight clubs for breaches of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

Primeira Liga leaders Porto and second-placed Sporting have been fined €300,000 and €250,000 respectively and will not play in the next UEFA club competition they qualify for in one of the next three seasons unless they can prove by January 31, 2022 they have settled "outstanding overdue amounts."

LaLiga side Real Betis have been hit with a €250,000 fine, while CSKA Sofia and CD Santa Clara were both ordered to pay €75,000 and Mons Calpe SC must fork out €15,000.

All of those clubs also face missing out on playing in Europe in either the 2022-23, 2023-24 or 2024-25 season if they qualify, but have not paid what they owe.

FC Astana and CFR 1907 Cluj were fined €150,000 and €200,000 respectively, but were not threatened with a ban.

The newly established First Chamber of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB First Chamber) also found that AEK Athens did not comply with several club licensing and FFP rules.

The Greek club agreed to pay an unconditional financial contribution of €1.5million, while they will also withhold 10 per cent of UEFA prize money they make in the next UEFA club competition they qualify for.

Bayern Munich will play the remainder of their home matches this year behind closed doors due to rising coronavirus rates in Bavaria.

Bavaria's Prime Minister Markus Soder revealed earlier this week that fans were set to be prevented from attending games "for the foreseeable future".

The Bavarian government on Friday approved increased measures in an attempt to contain the pandemic, including bans on spectators at large, cross-region sporting events until the end of the year.

Bayern will face Barcelona in their final Champions League Group E match next Wednesday without fans.

The Bundesliga leaders, already assured of a place in the last 16 of Europe's premier club competition, will then take on Mainz on December 11 and Wolfsburg six days later behind closed doors before the mid-season hiatus.

Bayern vice-chairman Jan-Christian Dreesen said: "It's a big blow to have to play in front of empty stands at the Allianz Arena again.

"Football is only half as nice without our fans in the stadium, not to mention the financial effects.

"We must of course accept the decision as it is, even though we've done everything we could for the health of our visitors at the Allianz Arena with the 2G+ rule and our hygiene concept."

Augsburg and Greuther Furth will also be affected, while similar measures have been introduced in neighbouring Baden-Wurttemberg, with Freiburg, Stuttgart and Hoffenheim seeing capacities reduced to 750 spectators.

Karim Adeyemi is inspired by the former Salzburg stars who have gone on to establish themselves as household names in European football as he plots a move of his own.

Adeyemi joined Salzburg in 2018 after spending six years with his local side in Germany, Unterhaching. He had joined them shortly after leaving Bayern Munich's academy.

While he did not fit in with the culture at Bayern, Adeyemi developed into a highly sought-after talent at Unterhaching, attracting the attention of clubs such as Chelsea before ultimately becoming the most expensive under-18 German player ever at the time when joining Salzburg for €3million.

After spending a season and a half at sister club Liefering, Adeyemi returned to Salzburg in January 2020 and has steadily built up his minutes. The 2020-21 season was something of a breakout campaign as he scored seven times in 29 appearances, though in 2021-22 he has established himself as the club's latest star and a full international with Germany.

Numerous big clubs such as Liverpool, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund have been linked with him in recent times, with the 19-year-old seemingly unlikely to be in Austria next season.

While some might urge him to be cautious and choose another club that will help his development, Adeyemi is aiming high.

Asked about Salzburg's impressive list of alumni, Adeyemi told Tuttosport: "It's true, in recent years a lot of young players have matured in Salzburg and then landed at the best international clubs.

"I'm thinking of Erling Haaland, but also of Sadio Mane and Naby Keita of Liverpool, or Dominik Szoboszlai, who moved to RB Leipzig.

"Obviously, I also have this goal: I would like the next stage of my career to be at a top club."

Adeyemi is enjoying a wonderful campaign and does appear to be outgrowing – or have outgrown – the Austrian Bundesliga.

The 19-year-old had previously been used across the front, but this term he has really nailed down a spot as Salzburg's main striker. He may not be the tallest, but he has bulked up, possesses immense speed and is proving a reliable finisher.

Adeyemi has 11 goals in 15 Bundesliga appearances – excluding penalties, his tally of nine is only slightly higher than his non-penalty expected goals (8.1 xG) as well, which suggests he is not just in the midst of a lucky streak.

His 26.8 per cent conversion rate is also the third-best in the division among players with at least 20 shots, evidence of impressive maturity in terms of shot selection, especially given his age.

Another key dimension to his style of play is running with the ball. He has attempted 14 more dribbles than anyone else in the division this season (79) and completed the most (32) as well – granted, his success rate of 40.5 per cent is not extraordinary, but it is worth remembering as a striker he will be attempting those dribbles in the most congested areas of the pitch.

In terms of end product at the end of a ball carry, only five players can better his 16 shot involvements (shots taken and assisted), and Adeyemi is well aware of the role Salzburg have played in nurturing himself and other young players.

"The experience at Unterhaching was very important, but for the first time I played at a really high level with Salzburg," he continued.

"It's a fantastic club for young people like me. They throw you in right away and give you the chance to get to a high level quickly.

"Competing for the title of the Austrian championship is very helpful for the growth of a young person, it gives you experience.

"Equally important is the possibility of being protagonists in international competitions. This year we are in the group stage of the Champions League for the third season in a row, a fact that is far from obvious for a club in a small league like the Austrian one.

"In the Champions League we face the best teams and top players in the world: these experiences are priceless."

Young Boys have been granted a "special permit" allowing them to face Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Champions League next Wednesday.

Switzerland have imposed a new 10-day quarantine period for those returning from the United Kingdom, sparking concerns that Young Boys' clash with United would have to take place elsewhere.

However, the Swiss champions have now received permission from the Canton of Bern to travel to and from England without any COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Young Boys announced the news confirming their trip to Manchester will go ahead as planned via a statement on the club's official website on Wednesday.

"BSC Young Boys has received a special permit from the Canton of Bern for away games in the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Youth League," the statement read.

"This means that the players and staff of the teams do not have to be in ten-day quarantine after returning from the UEFA Champions League game against Manchester United on Wednesday, December 8.

"This would have meant that the Swiss champions would not have been able to play their games against Sion (December 12) and Basel (December 15) and would also have played the last game of the year on December 19 in Lugano, coming straight out of quarantine.

"The BSC Young Boys points out that the players and staff will be in a bubble strictly separated from the environment [between] Tuesday, 7 December from the departure at the Wankdorf Stadium via the charter flight to Manchester until the return journey on Thursday, 9 December.

"This concept has already proven its worth on the five European trips to the away games so far this season.

"The BSC YB would like to thank the Canton of Bern for its flexibility and the exemption and will do everything in its power to continue to serve as a role model."

Bayern Munich are set to play home matches behind closed doors "for the foreseeable future" due to rising coronavirus infection rates.

Two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant were detected in Bavaria at the weekend.

As of Monday, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases in the southern German state stood at 12,304.

Government officials are scheduled to meet on Thursday to decide on new restrictions for the country in an attempt to halt the spread of the respiratory illness.

The state of Saxony has already stopped supporters from attending matches and Bavaria will now do likewise, regardless of the outcome of Thursday's meeting.

Speaking on Tuesday, Bavaria's Prime Minister Markus Soder told state broadcaster BR: "When Christmas markets are closed, it is not appropriate to have full stadiums."

"It makes no sense for the foreseeable future to admit viewers again. It is an important demand that we decide today that we will no longer allow viewers in the future. 

"If that doesn't work at the federal level, we would do it for Bavaria alone."

Soder later used Twitter to justify his comments, posting: "The high mobility when travelling to and from the club is currently irresponsible. 

"Football is a great role model. We now have to reduce contacts everywhere."

No timeline was set by Soder, but Bayern do not play at the Allianz Arena again until Barcelona visit in the final round of Champions League matches on December 8.

The Bundesliga champions then host Mainz in the league three days later and Wolfsburg on December 17 in their final game before the mid-season hiatus.

Fellow Bavarian Bundesliga sides Augsburg and Greuther Furth would also be affected by the measures.

Jack Grealish is finding life at Manchester City tougher than expected but is relishing the opportunity of playing in the Champions League.

Grealish left boyhood club Aston Villa for a British record £100 million fee ahead of the 2021-22 season as he joined Pep Guardiola's already impressive wealth of attacking riches.

The England international has since made his Champions League debut, scoring against RB Leipzig in September, while featuring regularly for City in the Premier League until suffering an injury on international duty with England earlier in November.

Grealish, who might be fit to face his former club on Wednesday, conceded the task of European football, and adapting to his new club, has been far more challenging than expected.

However, he in no way regrets his decision to swap Birmingham for Manchester.

"You only get one shot at your career and it just flies by," Grealish told The Telegraph. "I feel Villa are going towards that [Europe] but I just didn't know how long it was going to take for us. 

"If I hadn't come here, I would have regretted it forever. I remember hearing Michael Owen say the same about Real Madrid.

"You look at most of my England team-mates – I was probably one of the last to play [in the] Champions League. You could probably count two or three who haven't, such as Kalvin Phillips or Sam Johnstone.

"It's the one we all want to win. The manager has come here and won everything else, we're all desperate to win it and I've come here to try and help them.

"I've got so much more to give. I've found it a lot more difficult than I thought I would, adapting to a different manager and team-mates. 

"At first I thought I'd have more of the ball, get more assists and goals but it doesn't work like that at all. I've had nowhere near as much of the ball as I used to get at Villa."

Grealish has started in all of his nine appearances in the Premier League for City, who are a point behind leaders Chelsea after 13 games, but, as he explains himself, he is seeing less of the ball as a part of Guardiola's remarkable depth of attackers.

Grealish attempted 4.53 dribbles per 90 minutes in the league for Villa last term, which has reduced to 3.39 with City and this may have translated into his final output.

With Villa, he scored or assisted every 137 minutes, a figure that goes up to 248 this term with just one top-flight goal and two assists to his name.

He managed six goals and 10 assists in 26 appearances last season, creating 3.34 chances per match and shooting 2.06 times. Again, this falls to 3.15 for the former and 1.94 for the latter with the reigning champions.

Grealish also revealed he came close to joining City's neighbours Manchester United in 2020.

"I was really close to going, but nothing happened in the end," he said of the potential United transfer. "We played United in a pre-season game on [the] Saturday and I wasn't supposed to play in a cup game at Burton. 

"But after the United game I said to [Christian] Purslow [Villa's chief executive] and my agent [David Manasseh] 'if I'm not leaving, I'll sign my new contract'.

"I went in with my dog on Tuesday morning, signed the deal, and played later that day. We all agreed on the clause and if any team hit that, it's a win-win because it means I've had an unbelievable season and Villa got £100 million."

Reiterating how difficult it was to move on from his former club, Grealish added: "You can't imagine how hard it was for me to leave.

"I was a bit surprised by some of the backlash when I left. I'd never want a toxic relationship with anyone there. I owe everything to them and I wouldn’t be at City without Villa.

"If I score, I'm not going to be celebrating. At the end of the day, I'm Jack Grealish from Solihull who loves the Villa."

Mohamed Salah was thrilled to emulate "legends in football" by winning the Golden Foot award, as he credited Didier Drogba for motivating him to break Premier League records.

Salah ranked seventh for the Ballon d'Or on Tuesday as Lionel Messi collected his record-extending seventh accolade.

However, the Egypt forward was named the Golden Foot winner on the same day, an award given to standout performers for their athletic achievements – both as individuals and team players – and personality.

The trophy, which was won by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2020 and Luka Modric the year before, is only given to active players aged 28 and above, while players can only claim the title once. The victor also leaves a permanent mould of their footprints on the 'Champions Promenade' on the Monaco seafront.

After triumphing among 10 nominees, which are chosen by a panel of international journalists before an online poll decides the winner, Salah expressed his delight following more individual success.

"It's great to win any award, but this one is special because a lot of legends in football have won it, so it's something special to win," Salah said after winning the award in Monte Carlo.

 

Salah sits top of the English top-flight scoring charts this term with 11 goals to his name, having also become the third-fastest player to 150 Premier League goal involvements with his assist for Diogo Jota in Saturday's 4-0 win over Southampton.

The Liverpool forward achieved the feat in just 171 games, with only Alan Shearer (148) and Thierry Henry (163) reaching the milestone in fewer appearances.

Salah, who now has 108 goals along with 42 assists, also previously surpassed Didier Drogba (104 goals) as the Premier League's top African goalscorer in the competition's history with his hat-trick in the 5-0 rout of Manchester United in October.

Asked about breaking yet another record and overtaking African legend Drogba, the 29-year-old responded: "Well, I'm always trying to find the motivation inside me, just to drive me to give my best. 

"I don't know exactly, but that was one of the motivations to break his record. He of course is a legend. We know each other, he is my friend. So, it was a motivation for me to break his record, which I did."

Liverpool cruised through their Champions League group after just four games and are third in the league, two points behind leaders Chelsea after 13 games.

Having already achieved Premier League success with the Reds in 2019-20 and continental joy with Jurgen Klopp's side the season before, Salah refused to pick which trophy he would prefer to win this term. 

Instead, he wants both.

"Well, I always say that I love always to win the Champions League," he added. The Premier League… I would pick both. I think hopefully we can do both again this season."

While the 29-year-old now dominates English and European football, he initially struggled during his time at Chelsea between 2014-16.

A subsequent move to Fiorentina on loan and then a permanent switch to Roma, following another season on loan there, shaped Salah's career and he appreciates the influence Serie A has had on his career.

"I think it's helped me a lot," he continued when asked about his experiences in Italy.

"When I was in Chelsea, I had to change my football, I had to change to the culture. I felt that I needed to change my football, so I went to Italy. I played good and that helped me to be where I am at the moment."

Dwight Yorke has claimed Manchester United did not need to sign Jadon Sancho due to the emergence of Mason Greenwood at the time.

Sancho joined from Borussia Dortmund in a big-money move in the last transfer window, though the winger's arrival was somewhat overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo's sensational return to Old Trafford.

The 21-year-old has struggled for form since the transfer and was dropped by England after disappointing in his initial showings for United.

However, Sancho – who has accumulated 744 minutes across all competitions for his new club – finally found the net against Villarreal on Tuesday after previously going 14 appearances and 10 shots without finding the net.

His Champions League strike was his first goal for the club, having failed to score before United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer parted ways with the Red Devils sat eighth in the league.

But Yorke expressed his confusion as to why United signed Sancho when they have Greenwood, who stormed onto the scene in 2019-20 before he became only the second teenager to find the net in the opening three matches of a Premier League season this term.

"I think people forget these are young men that come in with huge expectations," Yorke, who finished as United's top league goal scorer in 1998-99, told Stats Perform. 

"He hasn't had the best of campaigns with England. We've seen that missed penalty, that can have a knock-on effect as well. All those little things, things that young players have to deal with. 

"I am a fan; I just probably think it would have been a little bit too early for us to bring him in. 

"I think we didn't need Sancho at the point in time with the emergence of Greenwood. I just think that was a position that we didn't really need to go for."

United are reportedly edging closer to appointing Ralf Rangnick on an interim basis, with a permanent solution set to be found at the end of the season.

The 63-year-old will no doubt know about Sancho, who is the only player from Europe's top five leagues to have scored 10 goals or more and had at least 15 assists across all competitions in each of the previous three seasons.

Despite questioning whether his arrival was necessary, Yorke added how exciting Sancho's potential can be for United, who travel to Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday.

"However, you still cannot underestimate the talent the boy does possess," he continued.

"He's definitely one for the future. Again, we have an English product and we want to make sure that we continue to pick up the English players. 

"But sometimes that can get a little bit overwhelming at times and people get ahead of themselves a little bit. But there’s no question in my mind that he's a very talented young man and will be a great asset to the football club going forward."

Dwight Yorke appreciates Harry Maguire is going through a tough phase but implored the centre-back to keep things simple to battle through his dip in form.

Maguire joined Manchester United in August 2019 for £80 million – a world record fee for a defender - from Leicester City on a six-year contract, with the option of a further year.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the man to bring the England international to the club, though the Norwegian and the Red Devils have now parted ways with United eighth in the Premier League after a 4-1 humiliation at Watford.

Maguire was the first to admit the players must "share the responsibility" for Solskjaer's departure, with his downturn in form coinciding with United's struggles in recent months.

Former striker Yorke, who won three successive top-flight titles at Old Trafford between 1999 and 2002, wants the 28-year-old back at his best to aid United's revival.

"These guys are supposed to be world class," Yorke told Stats Perform.

"This is the number one England defender, stand-in captain when Harry Kane doesn't play. It's just crazy how things change so quickly and opinions of others change so quickly. 

"Listen, you go through phases in your career. And it's never going to be an easy part where you play every game and you get an eight or nine each game and stuff. 

"You're going to have challenges in your time and Harry Maguire is obviously going through one of those phases.

"Especially in a team that is not winning games, you come back into a team that is not winning, not high on confidence, you’re going to be low on confidence and you're going to be making mistakes. 

"And unfortunately, when you're at a club like Manchester United, you're going to be scrutinised, right, left and centre. If you don't perform well, you’re not going to get away with it at Manchester United, and Harry Maguire is no different."

Michael Carrick has been placed in temporary charge as United search for an interim appointment, which looks likely to be Ralf Rangnick, before hiring a permanent solution at the end of the season.

In his first game at the helm against Villarreal, Carrick managed to sure up a shaky defence that has conceded 21 times in the Premier League, only Newcastle United and Norwich have been breached more (both 27).

Maguire captained the side in Tuesday's Champions League clash but Yorke believes the solution for the defender is to return to the basics that have previously served him so well.

"We're talking about someone that we invested £80million in so there's a huge expectation for him," he added.

"Now he has to get back by doing what Maguire did in the first place, that has got him all this recognition, which is to defend and make the game very simple. 

"When you start making it complicated you cause problems, especially in a team that is struggling on confidence at the moment. 

"And this is where if I was Carrick, I would get back to just the basics of getting these players doing their job and doing it well in their areas rather than trying to complicate the game like they are doing at this moment."

Dwight Yorke believes criticism of Cristiano Ronaldo for having a negative influence on Manchester United is "absolutely crazy".

Ronaldo made a sensational return to Old Trafford at the end of the last transfer window, moving back to United after a 12-year absence following spells with Real Madrid and Juventus.

The Portugal forward struck twice on his second debut for the Red Devils against Newcastle United and has added two further goals to take his tally to four in the Premier League.

The 36-year-old has been especially prolific in the Champions League, netting six times as he became the first player to score in the first five matches of a European Cup/Champions League campaign for an English team with his most recent goal in the 2-0 win against Villarreal on Tuesday.

But United's form in the 2021-22 campaign has been far from inspiring, with the club eighth in the league after parting ways with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer following a 4-1 reverse at Watford.

Criticism has been directed at Ronaldo, who some believe does not have the work rate to lead the line, but Yorke disagrees with suggestions that the forward is a disruptive presence.

"That's just rubbish, nip that in the bud," Yorke, who won three successive Premier League titles with United between 1999 and 2002, responded to Stats Perform. 

"For people to be questioning every now and then about how disruptive he has been to the football club, it's just absolutely garbage. 

"I mean, you have arguably the best footballer in the world. You want, and any manager wants him in your team, and you've just got to fit the puzzle around him. As simple as that. 

"You know, make him happy, make him do what he does best which he's been able to do for nearly two decades of his playing career. It's sensationalist. 

"It was crazy how ex-footballers and pundits, people could say that he can be disruptive at Manchester United, which is a farce. 

"This guy is sensational. He's a rare talent. He wants to win at all costs, you can see that winning mentality, it is a rare thing. And for people to be saying that he is disruptive at our football club is just absolutely ludicrous."

Michael Carrick will be United manager ahead of their trip to Chelsea, who are winless in the last seven top-flight meetings between the pair.

Reports suggest former RB Leipzig boss Ralf Rangnick will become the interim manager until the end of the season, when the club will look for a permanent appointment.

Mauricio Pochettino has been strongly linked to the role but, whoever the manager, Yorke thinks it is on all the players to get United back to where they belong.

"It's all well and good having a world-class player, other people have to come along and join in that bandwagon and get us back to where we were," he added.

"There is no question in my mind that the team that we have, and the quality that we have possessed in that squad, we should nowhere be near where we are today. 

"We should be definitely challenging for the league, and all the other competitions because I think that we have got one of the best squads in world football at this current time. 

"But for some reason, we haven't been able to back that up with performances. And for people even trying to point the finger at Cristiano Ronaldo is just absolutely crazy, in my opinion."

Robert Lewandowski can consider himself hard done by. The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, world football's most prestigious individual accolade is back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony set to take place on Monday.

Lewandowski, who scooped The Best FIFA Men's Player award for 2020 and has had another sensational year for Bayern, is among the favourites on a 30-man shortlist.

Will it finally be his time, or will old voting habits die hard to put Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in pole position? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses the credentials of the Ballon d'Or favourites.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)

Has anybody outperformed Bayern star Lewandowski in 2021?  While there was no repeat of the treble-winning heroics of the 2019-20 campaign, he has been in astounding form and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 as Die Roten were crowned champions for a ninth straight campaign.

With 25 to his name already across all competitions this term, Lewandowski leads the way for goals from players in Europe's top five leagues, nine clear of anyone else. When taking the whole year so far into account, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 41 games, putting him 16 clear of nearest challengers Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Unsurprisingly, his scoring rate – a goal every 65 minutes – is comfortably the best of any player to net 10 or more in 2021.

 

Lionel Messi (PSG, Argentina)

It has been a momentous year for Messi. He finally achieved success on the international stage, leading Argentina to a Copa America triumph. Following that, he was expected to sign a fresh deal at Barcelona, but we all know how that turned out. Now at Paris Saint-Germain, the 34-year-old marked his final season in Spain with one last trophy, the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. 

Across 39 appearances in 2021 for Barca and PSG combined, Messi has 32 goals, nine assists and 81   chances created. But it is Messi's triumph with Argentina that really puts him in the running for a seventh Ballon d'Or.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, Portugal)

Like Messi, Ronaldo – a five-time Ballon d'Or winner – made a big move of his own in 2021, returning to Manchester United after three seasons at Juventus. The 36-year-old has already scored 10 goals in his second spell at Old Trafford. While the team's struggles are well known – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job after last week's dismal defeat at Watford – Ronaldo's strike against Villarreal on Tuesday took him to 799 career goals for club and country, a remarkable feat.

While it has not been the finest year at club level for Ronaldo, with Juve missing out on the Serie A title, albeit winning the Coppa Italia, he did become the record goalscorer in men's international football, scoring his 110th and 111th goals in a double against the Republic of Ireland in September to overtake Ali Daei (109); the forward now has 115. His agent, Jorge Mendes, told France 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."

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)

Since Ronaldo departed Real Madrid in 2018, Benzema has stepped up to become Los Blancos' talisman. Although a LaLiga title evaded Madrid last season, it has been another fantastic year for Benzema. He earned a recall to the France squad for Euro 2020 and, despite the team's disappointing campaign, his stellar performances caught the eye, before he excelled again in World Cup qualifying and the Nations League Finals.

Indeed, Benzema's goal against Finland last week made him the first France player to score in four successive matches since he did so himself in five games between November 2013 and June 2014. There is no doubting he is a serious contender for this year's award.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)

Liverpool star Salah cannot be ignored. Jurgen Klopp has labelled the Egypt forward as the world's best player and, based on the season so far, it would be hard to argue too much with that suggestion, with Lewandowski the only player across Europe's top five leagues to be directly involved in more goals (27) than Salah (24) to this point.

Only four players have topped Salah's goals tally of 32   in 2021, although Liverpool's failure to retain their Premier League crown last season probably counts against the 29-year-old when it comes to this prize.

 

Kylian Mbappe (PSG, France)

While players in their thirties dominate the bookmakers' list of favourites, could this be the year that Mbappe steals the crown? The 22-year-old could well have left PSG in August, but the Ligue 1 giants held firm despite three bids from Madrid, who seem likely to get their man on a free transfer at the end of the campaign.

In the meantime, Mbappe is forming a formidable front three with Messi and Neymar, whose own Ballon d'Or hopes seem extremely slim. Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France slipped out of Euro 2020, but his 37 goals from 47 appearances for PSG across all competitions in 2021 tell their own story, while his shot conversion rate of 24.3 per cent betters that of Salah, Benzema, Messi and Ronaldo.

Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)

An outsider for the award, perhaps, but nevertheless a player who has been widely tipped, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho played a pivotal role the Blues' Champions League triumph and then Italy's Euro 2020 success, although he did miss a penalty in the final shoot-out against England. In fact, he has now missed his past three spot-kicks for Italy, after having scored each of his first six taken for the Azzurri.

Jorginho has already scooped the UEFA Men's Player of the Year award, and it is not too long ago that another deep-lying playmaker in Luka Modric won the Ballon d'Or, even if the competition this time around seems a little too stacked.

 

N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Might Jorginho's Chelsea midfield partner have a shout? Kante is still dominating midfields with his boundless energy five years on from his title triumph with Leicester City. He was already an elite performer before Thomas Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge, but he seems to have gone up another level since the German coach came in.

Across all competitions in 2021, Kante boasts a tackle success rate of 63.2 per cent and has made 193 recoveries. Freed by a box-to-box role in Tuchel's system, Kante has won 151 of 277 duels and registered an impressive 42 interceptions.

David Luiz believes Flamengo "without a doubt" have the quality to play in the Champions League as they prepare for the Copa Libertadores final against Palmeiras.

Former Chelsea centre-back David Luiz joined Flamengo in September, ending a 14-year association with European football after his contract with Arsenal expired. 

Injuries have hampered his return to Brazilian domestic football, but his side have cruised to the final of South America's showpiece event with a perfect six wins beyond the group stage.

Indeed, the 34-year-old made his debut in the Libertadores semi-final against Barcelona SC following a lengthy spell on the sidelines after knee surgery when at Arsenal.

While Palmeiras remain focused on the weekend, David Luiz told Stats Perform how he believes Flamengo are good enough to play in Europe's premier club competition.

"I believe that is right," David Luiz responded when asked whether Flamengo could cut it in the Champions League.

"Flamengo are the first club to be organised to give players the opportunity to represent and do best what we have to do, and that is to play football the best way we can. 

"We have an amazing structure – high calibre players, players who have played in numerous places and have a lot of quality. I believe, yes, we have the quality to play in the Champions League, without a doubt."

Palmeiras are eyeing a title defence in Montevideo after succeeding in last year's final against Santos in CONMEBOL's top-tier club tournament.

Flamengo, meanwhile, are searching for their second South American title in three seasons, and former right-back and now Cruzeiro assistant manager Juliano Belletti told Stats Perform how the pair have reached a class above in Brazilian football.

"It's a fact that Palmeiras and Flamengo have reached another level here within Brazilian football," Belletti said.

"With the signings that were made, the investment, both on and off the pitch. It's interesting to highlight that too. The structure of the clubs has changed a lot, for the better. 

"That's why they deserve to be in the Libertadores final. It's a match of great technical quality, which often goes against the spirit of the Libertadores that many people talk about.

"We see Palmeiras and Flamengo coming through, playing great football. They played good football to reach the final, a well-balanced game, and they deserved to be in this final match."

However, Belletti – who enjoyed spells with Barcelona and Chelsea during his playing days – was more measured in his response when asked the same question about Flamengo's Champions League credentials.

"The technical quality doesn't define a team's capacity to play or not in a competition like the Champions League," Belletti responded. 

"But there are players of quality that could play in teams that compete in the Champions League. That's for sure."

Pep Guardiola basked in his side's impressive form after securing a spot in the Champions League last 16 with a 2-1 defeat of Paris Saint-Germain. 

City will finish top of Group A thanks to the victory, becoming just the second English club to win their group in five successive seasons in the competition's current format.

It was hardly a sure thing, as City fell behind on Kylian Mbappe's goal five minutes after half-time, but Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus netted to lift the home side. 

“We played really well and the way we are performing is really good," Guardiola told a news conference. 

"People enjoy watching us and we are enjoying playing. Hopefully we can sustain this as long as possible.”

City prevailed despite playing without Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, giving Oleksandr Zinchenko just his third start of the season and his first for city in a central midfield role, where he typically plays for Ukraine. 

That move worked out for Guardiola, who also praised his team for the way they handled the challenge of defending Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi. 

"PSG – what a team, what players, what can I say?" Guardiola said. 

"We tried to keep these players far away from our goal. When they are close to your goal they can do anything.

"Except for five minutes after we conceded, when they [went for the] knockout on the counter-attack but couldn’t finish, we made a really top performance.

"We are happy to be in the next stage. Congratulations to everyone in the club. It’s many years of being there.

"Now we will focus on the Premier League and try to arrive in February in the best condition possible to go to the quarter-finals.”

 

 

 

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