Hansi Flick hailed his side's "mentality" after they moved seven points clear at the Bundesliga summit with a 1-0 win over RB Leipzig on Saturday. 

Leon Goretzka's third goal in his last four top-flight games proved the difference at the Red Bull Arena as Bayern took a significant step towards a ninth consecutive Bundesliga title. 

It marked the 62nd consecutive match in which Bayern have found the back of the net, setting a new record in Germany football since the Bundesliga was founded in 1963. 

Bayern did not have it all their own way against Leipzig, who had 14 shots to their nine, and Flick acknowledged his side had to use all of their mental strength to claim all three points against their second-placed hosts. 

"It was a top game and Leipzig showed why they are right up there," he told Sky. "We were on the trigger right from the start. 

"We didn't play forward as we would have wanted, but the goal was played out nicely. Leipzig caused us some problems, but the morale and mentality of my players is really excellent."

Goretzka's goal was created by Thomas Muller, who has now been involved in 11 goals in his last 10 Bundesliga games (four goals, seven assists). 

The 31-year-old has not played for Germany since November 2018 after being deemed surplus to requirements by Joachim Low.

However, there have been growing calls for him to be recalled for the rescheduled Euro 2020 at the end of the domestic season. 

Flick praised Muller for his "sensational" campaign, but said he did not want to influence Low, who he was assistant to between 2006 and 2014.

"I don't have to interfere," he added. "Thomas Muller is playing a sensational season. He can be important for other teams too, but in the end it has to be decided by Jogi. 

"He pushes his team-mates again and again, also in training. I am glad that we have such players in our ranks."

No side leading the Bundesliga by at least seven points after 27 games has failed to go on and win the title, but goalscorer Goretzka is refusing to get carried away.

"There are still 21 points to be awarded," he said. "It was a big step, but not the decisive one."

Bayern host Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday before welcoming Union Berlin to the Allianz Arena in the Bundesliga four days later.

Daley Blind is hopeful he can be fit in time for the Netherlands' Euro 2020 campaign after being ruled out for the rest of Ajax's season with an ankle injury.

The 31-year-old sustained the damage during the second half of Tuesday's 7-0 World Cup 2022 qualifying victory over Gibraltar.

Blind was initially feared to have suffered knee ligament damage in the awkward fall, which left him wincing in pain and in need of a stretcher.

However, the versatile defender underwent a scan on Thursday and it was confirmed he has avoided a long-term lay-off, but he is unlikely to play again for Ajax this campaign.

Ajax provided an update on their official website and Blind said: "Today, after an examination in the hospital it turned out that fortunately there is no damage to the knee, but that the front ankle ligament of my left ankle is torn.

"I assume that my season at Ajax is over. I will have an operation next week. If everything goes well during rehabilitation, I hope that I can still make it to the Euros this summer."

"Of course I am terribly disappointed. You play football to win trophies and those trophies will be won in the coming months. Of course, I wanted to be there. It has been a wonderful season with Ajax so far. That now ends very abruptly for me."

Ajax are 11 points clear of PSV at the top of the Eredivisie, face Roma in the last eight of the Europa League and are into the final of the KNVB Beker, where Vitesse await later this month.

Vice-captain Blind has featured 34 times for Ajax in 2020-21 and started all three of the his country's World Cup qualifiers.

Fellow Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk is also in a race against time to be fit for the delayed European Championship finals, which begins for the Dutch on June 13 with a clash against Ukraine in Amsterdam. Ukraine and Austria are also in Group C.

An emotional Igor Angelovski suggested a sensational win over Germany was comparable to European Championship success for his North Macedonia side.

In the biggest shock of the World Cup qualifying campaign so far, North Macedonia claimed a remarkable 2-1 victory in Duisberg on Wednesday.

North Macedonia are set to make their major tournament debut as an independent nation at Euro 2020 and have now also improbably boosted their Qatar 2022 hopes, sitting above Germany in Group J, three points behind early leaders Armenia.

Angelovski's men had just 30.5 per cent of possession against the 2014 World Cup winners but were clinical when their chances came.

Veteran forward Goran Pandev and midfielder Eljif Elmas scored as North Macedonia registered six goal attempts, of which three were on target.

Germany had 11 efforts but only twice found their aim, as Timo Werner incredibly missed from point-blank range after Ilkay Gundogan's penalty had pulled the hosts back level.

For triumphant head coach Angelovski, the victory was particularly precious as he reflected on a difficult time in his personal life.

"What can I tell you? I can't, out of emotion, out of happiness," he said. "We made the North Macedonians proud and happy. This is like winning the European Championship.

"I came here with these guys because they promised to celebrate. My wife was in the hospital, she had COVID-19 symptoms, luckily she's better now.

"The kids were giving me support. Thank you all. What more can I say? Just to cry."

Unsurprisingly, 37-year-old record goalscorer Pandev - once a Champions League winner with Inter - was picked out for special praise.

He scored with his only shot from his sole touch inside the Germany box but crucially provided an outlet, his average position the furthest forward of any North Macedonia player.

"Pandev is an amazing man, the leader of this team," Angelovski said. "They fought like lions to write the history of their state; I'm proud of these guys."

Roberto Mancini has set his sights on World Cup glory with Italy, though his first aim may well be to push for enlarged squads at Euro 2020.

Italy made it three wins from three to start their World Cup 2022 qualification campaign by seeing off Lithuania by the now familiar scoreline of 2-0. 

Goals from Stefano Sensi and Ciro Immobile bookended the second half on Wednesday, as Italy took a three-point lead in Group C.

The Azzurri have won their last five matches 2-0, and are unbeaten in 25 games under Mancini, which brings him level with Marcelo Lippi's best haul – only Vittorio Pozzo (30) has managed a better such streak.

Lippi guided Italy to a 2006 World Cup success, and Mancini did not shy away from wanting to emulate one of his predecessors.

"I'm happy we are top of the group, it's pleasing, but records are standalone issues compared to real results," he told reporters.

"I hope to match Lippi at the World Cup, maybe in December 2022."

With three qualifying wins under their belt, Italy's focus will now switch to the upcoming Euros, rearranged from last year.

Mancini picked a 38-man squad for this latest round of internationals, and suggested it would be prudent for UEFA to accommodate larger squads than the usual 23 at this year's tournament. 

"I think it could be a good idea to be able to name bigger squads for Euro 2020," Mancini said.

"I think it could be the right thing to do. The problem would above all be if a couple of players had problems in the tournament, as it's difficult to call them back after that, when players are on vacation."

Italy recorded 29 shots against Lithuania, with 11 of them on target – the excellent Tomas Svedkauskas pulling off nine saves.

Immobile, who scored from the spot with the last kick of the game, was particularly wasteful, sending a close-range header wide after seeing two efforts saved by Svedkauskas.

The 31-year-old Lazio forward has scored eight goals in World Cup qualifiers, the joint-third most in Italy's history – along with Daniele De Rossi – and Mancini believes fatigue played a big part in Immobile's profligate display.

"Ciro gave everything he could today," Mancini added. "The players aren't in the best shape right now, they are lacking sharpness, but the goals will come more consistently for him."

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez says he would like to see squad size limits expanded for Euro 2020 due to the COVID-19 situation.

Martinez revealed after Belgium's 8-0 2022 World Cup qualifying win over Belarus on Tuesday that the idea had been discussed among coaches including England's Gareth Southgate and Italy's Roberto Mancini.

Mancini flagged the idea of expanding squad sizes from 23 to 26 in the media on Monday, while Martinez noted the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB) was pushing for a change.

"I support the Royal Belgian Football Association completely in the idea of increasing the squad numbers," Martinez said.

"I think it's something that's needed. It would match the changes that've been made in the current situation in world football, with the five substitutions, the uncertainty of the pandemic attack and the extra level of injuries, I think it would be a good thing to do."

The Euros are set to be played across 12 cities in a dozen European countries, with Belgium's group playing in Copenhagen and St Petersburg, adding unique logistical challenges to the event.

Mancini and Martinez have argued that the congested recent football schedule and subsequent increase in injuries means the change made sense.

"I think we've got a bigger picture now international football is not what it used to be," Martinez said.

"They only had one big tournament around the corner. Now the Euros were delayed, in the next 18 months we're going to be participating in the qualifiers for the World Cup. You've got the World Cup at the end of it and you've got the Nations League final.

"There's many, many players who'll be needed over the next 18 months and everything is a process."

Belgium, who made the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, are among the favourites to lift the European title and Martinez said he was narrowing in on his final squad for the tournament.

"The information of this camp will be essential for the final list for the Euros," the former Everton and Swansea City boss said. "Everything is taken into consideration.

"When you go to tournament football, it's very, very different. We think that tournament football, you've got two tournaments in one tournament. First you've got the group phase, the three games, and then the knockout.

"We need to have players for both tournaments. It's a mixture. I'm willing to do it like we did in the World Cup 2018, making sure we take every individual to fit a good balance in the squad and pick the best members for the best squad possible."

Germany head coach Joachim Low has batted away talk of "world-class" Toni Kroos retiring from international football after this year's European Championship.

Real Madrid midfielder Kroos withdrew from the Germany squad at the start of last week, ahead of their opening World Cup qualifying fixtures.

Low's side claimed maximum points from their first two Group J games against Iceland and Romania and will expect to make it a hat-trick of triumphs when North Macedonia visit Duisburg on Wednesday.

Kroos is Die Mannschaft's most-capped active player – and joint 10th overall – having featured 101 times since his Germany debut in 2010.

His last appearance was in November's humiliating 6-0 Nations League defeat to Spain, although he did emerge with some credit.

Kroos enjoyed a pass completion rate of 97.7 per cent – the highest of any starting player across both sides – while no German starter lost possession fewer times than him (four).

Reports have circulated recently that 31-year-old Kroos is ready to call time on his international career after the rearranged Euro 2020 finals, but Low is not ready to write off the midfielder just yet.

"It's a media issue," Low told a media conference. "Toni is a world-class player with an enormous wealth of experience. We won't start to doubt his quality now."

Low also hailed the "step forward" made by Leroy Sane over the past week.

The Bayern Munich forward made three key passes against Romania – matched only by Serge Gnabry for Germany – and won 11 of his 12 duels.

Low was particularly impressed with the 25-year-old's defensive contributions.

"In the last two games Leroy had extremely good moments in defence," Low said. "He won four or five balls against Romania and some against Iceland.

"You haven't seen that before. He made a clear step forward."

Germany are red-hot favourites to progress to Qatar 2022 as Group J winners, but Low has warned his players against complacency when they host North Macedonia.

"I have the feeling that North Macedonia have rolled up their sleeves", said Low, who will step down from his position at the end of Euro 2020. "They are no worse than Romania. It will be a real show of strength.

"We're not taking anything for granted. North Macedonia are shrewd opponents. It will be another tricky task to come away with all three points."

Tottenham and England star Harry Kane said he will decide his future after the upcoming European Championships.

Kane has been linked with Premier League rivals Manchester United and Manchester City, as well as LaLiga champions Real Madrid.

The 27-year-old striker, who emerged from Tottenham's youth team in 2009, is contracted to Spurs until 2024.

But Kane is shutting out speculation over his future as he prepares for Tottenham's EFL Cup final against City next month and England's bid to claim their first piece of international silverware since 1966 at the rescheduled Euro 2020.

"I think that's a hard question to answer right now," Kane told the Telegraph when asked about the noise surrounding his future at Tottenham.

"It's important that all my focus is on the two England games coming up now and the rest of the season with Spurs and then the Euros.

"To be thinking about speculation or rumours would be damaging in terms of my own performance.

"I always like to be focused on one goal and one job and that's to finish strong with Spurs, win these qualifiers with England and hopefully go on and have a great Euros.

"Look, I try to stay out of that speculation as much as possible.

"I'm fully focussed on doing the job on the pitch from now until the end of the summer, and then we'll see where we go from there."

Jose Mourinho's Tottenham are sixth in the Premier League, three points outside of the Champions League qualification places ahead of the April 25 EFL Cup decider against City.

England have been drawn in Group D for Euro 2020, which gets underway in June, alongside Croatia, Scotland and Czech Republic.

Kane has scored 17 Premier League goals this season, while he has netted 27 across all competitions for Tottenham in 2020-21.

Germany head coach Joachim Low admits he is not completely satisfied with his side with just three months to go until the delayed European Championship finals.

Die Mannschaft cruised to a 3-0 win over Iceland in their opening World Cup 2022 qualifier on Thursday through goals from Leon Goretzka, Kai Havertz and Ilkay Gundogan.

It was a welcome win for Low's men, coming on the back of a 6-0 hammering against Spain in their final match of a poor 2020 that saw them win only three of their eight games.

Germany had 81.5 per cent of the ball, attempted 1,053 passes and had 15 shots compared to Iceland's eight, but Low feels there is plenty of room for improvement.

"I wasn't exactly full of praise for the whole game," he said at a news conference on Saturday previewing the trip to Romania.

"We could have done better in the second half in particular. If we look to the Euros, we have to improve in a few areas. 

"It was a good start and we had a lot of well implemented play. But I'm not yet completely satisfied."

Without the influential Toni Kroos, who withdrew from the squad with a knock, Germany's midfield three of Gundogan, Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich impressed against Iceland.

Jamal Musiala made his debut as a second-half substitute in Duisburg, while Borussia Monchengladbach's highly-rated Florian Neuhaus was also introduced for his fourth cap.

But Low insists Kroos, who remains a regular for Real Madrid, is still integral to his plans.

"The midfield set the tone against Iceland, everyone in their own way. I'm happy about that. But Kroos is a player with immense value to us," said Low, who will end his 15-year tenure after Euro 2020.

"Our strength at major tournaments has been players coming off the bench. We have good players in midfield - any team who wants to achieve something needs that."

Germany's win over Iceland was their 17th in a row in World Cup qualifying, setting a new record and placing them top of Group J ahead of Sunday's trip to Romania.

Niklas Sule has been ruled out of both that match and Wednesday's visit of North Macedonia, while Robin Gosens is also out and Goretzka and Leroy Sane are carrying knocks.

Low does not intend to make many changes ​for the showdown at the National Arena as Germany seek back-to-back competitive wins for the first time since November 2019.

"I'm going to wait until tomorrow to see how things develop with Leon," Low said. "He is the first option in midfield and I hope he can play from the start.

"If he doesn't then it is possible to let Musiala play, or move Serge Gnabry deeper and bring in Timo Werner. Our usual defensive line will start."

Romania kicked off their qualifying campaign with a 3-2 home win against North Macedonia to make it four games without defeat, scoring 12 goals across those fixtures.

And Low expects to face an attack-minded side in Bucharest.

"They have great strengths on the attack and act much more aggressively than Iceland," he said. "We will face completely different challenges.

"I've seen Romania one time or another and we have a lot of information on them. 

"They have technically well-trained players who want the ball. They don't want to defend so much, but they want to play forward. I think Romania's central midfield is very good."

England manager Gareth Southgate insists he has never doubted the quality of Luke Shaw.

Manchester United left-back Shaw is expected to make his first England appearance in two-and-a-half years away to Albania in World Cup qualifying on Sunday.

Shaw only has eight caps and has not played for England since a Nations League match against Spain in September 2018.

He has excelled for United at club level this season and has been rewarded with a place in the England squad, which Southgate says is thoroughly deserved.

"Luke played in the first Under-21 game I took charge of – John Stones played right back in fact!" Southgate said ahead of the match with Albania in Tirana.

"There's never been any doubt in our mind about Luke's quality. 

"He’s obviously suffered from injuries and had to withdraw from a few squads. But it has been great to see him playing on the front foot as a full-back both with and without the ball.

"He has been on the front foot with his defending and really ambitious with his attacking and I think that's important. 

"He looks like he is physically in a good condition to be able to drive forward he has got excellent quality with the ball.

"It’s a good moment for him. I've seen somebody who has just delighted to be here, enjoying his football and playing with confidence. 

"First and foremost, Luke is a good defender and that's important for us. We have to keep clean sheets. He certainly seems to have a smile on his face."

Ben Chilwell started at left wing-back in the 5-0 home win over San Marino on Thursday and said after the match the competition between him and Shaw would benefit England ahead of Euro 2020.

He made the most of his opportunity, impressing to create five chances – only Mason Mount (8) had more - and set up the opening goal for James Ward-Prowse.

However, Shaw also has a strong case to start.

The 52 chances created in the Premier League this season by Shaw are more than any other defender in England's top flight and far in excess of Chilwell's 21.

Shaw has five assists to Chilwell's four, with his solitary goal in the recent Manchester derby victory set against two for the Chelsea defender.

Chilwell (79) has attempted more crosses than Shaw (67) but fewer have been successful – 11 compared to 18.

Shaw has attempted 39 dribbles and his 21 completed are two more than Chilwell has attempted overall.

In terms of tackles and interceptions, they are fairly evenly matched, with Shaw up 36-32 on the former metric, while the latter falls 19-15 in Chilwell's favour.

United captain Harry Maguire is looking forward to playing alongside Shaw at international level.

Maguire said: "I'm really pleased for Luke - it is a thoroughly deserved call-up. 

"He's had a great season. He’s creating a lot of chances for us at club level. Hopefully he can bring that to international level."

England will face Albania exactly 20 years since winning the last meeting 3-1 in Tirana in March 2001 through goals from Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Andrew Cole during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

They have lost just two of their last 29 away matches in World Cup qualifying campaigns (W19 D8), with their last defeat coming to Ukraine back in 2009.

England are scoring regularly under Southgate, having netted 42 goals in their last nine qualifiers for major tournaments (W8 L1).

They have scored five or more goals in six of those games under Southgate. The only other Three Lions boss to see England score 5+ goals in as many qualifiers was Bobby Robson (also six).

Nick Pope is set to retain his place in goal for England and could become the first goalkeeper ever to keep a clean sheet in each of his first six international appearances for the country.

Gareth Southgate says it is still too early to tell whether Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson will be fit for England's Euro 2020 campaign.

The 30-year-old underwent groin surgery at the end of February and was initially ruled out for around five weeks.

But Southgate, who has made clear he will not select players on reputation alone, does not expect Henderson to return until towards the end of the campaign.

England face Austria in a pre-Euros friendly on June 2 and Southgate is unsure if Henderson will be part of his squad for the rescheduled tournament.

"We know it's going to be close to the end of the season and we will just have to see how it goes," he said. 

"We are conscious that with any injury of that nature there is a guide and a time defined, but anything can happen along the way.

"In terms of promises, we can only say that Hendo himself is very optimistic about how the operation went and the prognosis that the specialist has given him as to what is possible.

"We also know he is likely to be a bit short of match minutes in high-level games. 

"There are a lot of things to take into consideration but, at the moment, that is a decision that is a few weeks away."

 

Who could fill in for Henderson?

Henderson has won 58 caps for England and started five games in the Three Lions' run to the semi-finals of the last World Cup.

The former Sunderland man would be one of the first names on the teamsheet if fit, but his possible Euro 2020 absence could give Southgate a selection headache of sorts.

Kalvin Phillips, James Ward-Prowse and Mason Mount started Thursday's 5-0 victory over San Marino, while Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden are other options.

Henderson was voted the FWA Footballer of the Year after helping Liverpool to the Premier League title last season, but he was predominantly used as a centre-back this term before being struck down by injury.

Using his figures from last season's league campaign, the title-winning skipper averaged 88.24 touches per 90 minutes on average.

Among the aforementioned candidates to fill in for Henderson, Ward-Prowse comes closest to that figure this season with 83.59, followed by Bellingham (77.36 in the Bundesliga) and Mount (76.89).

Another area Henderson ranked highly in last season is passes into the opposition half, with 45.28 on average, compared to 38.36 for Mount in 2020-21 - who generally plays in more advanced areas for Chelsea - and 33.41 for next-best Ward-Prowse.

But, learning lessons from the past, could Southgate be after more of a tough tackler in that department? 

If so, Bellingham is out in front this season in terms of tackles won (1.88), in front of Henderson (1.64) and Phillips (1.42).

Virgil van Dijk will ultimately make the decision on his participation at the upcoming Euros, according to his Netherlands defensive partner Matthijs de Ligt.

Liverpool star Van Dijk has been out since October, with the centre-back having sustained a serious knee injury after a challenge from Everton and England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

Jurgen Klopp has consistently stressed caution over the return of Van Dijk, who stepped up his rehabilitation at a facility in Dubai before heading back to Merseyside.

It remains to be seen whether the 29-year-old will be fit to play again before the season is out, and as such his participation in the Euros is doubtful.

Netherlands boss Frank de Boer claimed in the build-up to Wednesday's defeat to Turkey that Van Dijk had another eight weeks left on his recovery, with the Oranje coach claiming he was not relying on the former Southampton and Celtic man to return in time for the tournament.

De Ligt, however, was less pessimistic, with the Juventus defender revealing Van Dijk is in good spirits, and will return when he feels the time is right.

"We had a meeting yesterday, [Van Dijk] was there too," De Ligt said on Friday.

"He looked very good, he seemed very fresh and free. Of course, I don't know how he feels physically, he doesn't really want to put any pressure on himself either.

"He has a clear mind and looks at it day by day. He is calm and wants to see where he's at, at moment the Euros are starting. I think it's important for him to be calm, and to be able to recuperate from his injury without any pressure from us or from the country.

"He will decide if he will be at the Euros. If he's there, he’s there. If he's not there, other guys will have to fill his shoes. But yesterday he looked well."

With Inter's Stefan de Vrij having contracted coronavirus, De Ligt's former Ajax team-mate Daley Blind partnered the 21-year-old in defence against Turkey.

It was neither of the duo's finest performances, with Burak Yilmaz scoring a hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Netherlands' World Cup qualification rivals.

Asked who he would prefer to have next to him should Van Dijk fail to make the Euros, De Ligt replied: "That's a question that’s not really relevant to me.

"In the end, it's the manager who decides who plays, what we need. In possession, Daley is one of the best defenders I have ever played with.

"Stefan plays in Italy, is more physical and is stronger than Daley. So it might also depend on our opponents. We also have Nathan Ake and other guys. There are enough options.

"I might not even be playing. That's something the manager decides, that depends on the game. We simply have to respect the manager's decisions."

Jesse Lingard has revealed Gareth Southgate pointed him down the path towards an England recall.

Southgate will take charge of his 50th game when England begin their World Cup qualifying campaign against San Marino at Wembley on Thursday.

His first, against Malta in October 2016, was also Lingard's international debut and the attacking midfielder became one of Southgate's key performers as England charted a surprise run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.

However, struggles for form and fitness at Manchester United, along with difficulties in his private life, saw Lingard fall out of the Three Lions picture.

In January he joined West Ham on loan and has been a player revitalised.

Five goals in seven Premier League appearances for David Moyes' men earned an England recall for the 28-year-old, who thanked Southgate for his counsel and his influence over the Hammers move.

"He's shown a lot of support and belief in me, he gave me my England debut, which I'm proud of," Lingard told talkSPORT.

"I still kept in contact with him even though I wasn't playing, just to get his advice on what I should do.

"It was just about the right move, whether it was going out to Europe or staying in the Premier League.

"He said, 'If I was you, I would stay in the Premier League'. After that, it was about finding a Premier League side and West Ham fitted in perfectly."

Since his West Ham debut against Aston Villa on February 3, only Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho (six) has more Premier League goals than Lingard (five), while he is level with England captain Harry Kane and Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan over the period in question.

His 12 shots on target are a joint Premier League best along with Kane, giving him a shot conversion rate of 23.8.

Lingard also has two assists for the Hammers and has created eight opportunities for team-mates overall.

 

Another man in from the cold, although less dramatically, is Manchester City centre-back John Stones.

Like Lingard, Stones was a mainstay at Russia 2018 but last played for England in November 2019 after his club form dwindled.

However, a supreme centre-back alliance with Ruben Dias for Premier League leaders City made a recall for the 26-year-old a virtual formality – not that he necessarily viewed it that way.

"It was difficult watching from home," Stones told reporters, having also acknowledged Southgate "texted now and then" when he was out of favour.

"You feel a bit helpless that you can't contribute and be a part of the squad, but I used it as a motivation to strive to be better.

"When I got the text the other day, it was a great feeling to be back involved and see all the faces I've got some great memories with.

"I was very nervous. I had worked so hard and I was hearing people say, 'you should be in'.

"But I didn't take any of that in until the text arrived. I wanted to hear from the source. I was absolutely made up."

City remaining in contention for four major honours shows how impressive their overall performances have been this season, but with Stones in the team their record verges on the absurd.

In 20 games where the former Everton defender has not played, Pep Guardiola's men have won 13, drawn five and lost two for a 65 per cent win rate. In these games they conceded 19 times.

Out of Stones' 26 appearances, City have won 24 alongside a draw and a loss and have conceded only seven times. This tallies to 0.3 goals against and 2.8 points per game and a win percentage of 92.3.

It's entirely possible the staging of the 2021 European Under-21 Championship will have passed many people by, given the fact it's taken on a somewhat peculiar format of a mid-season group stage with the knockout phase following two months later.

Originally due to take place solely in June, organisers were forced into a re-think following last year's postponement of the senior competition. It was decided to split the Under-21s' event in two, therefore avoiding a clash.

Despite the rather unconventional format, the competition will see many of the continent's most-promising prodigies on display.

The tournament, based in Hungary and Slovenia, begins on Wednesday with the Magyars hosting Germany, and we have identified some high-potential talents to keep an eye on.

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

Lafont has been a regular at this age-group level with France for many years, but a brief stint at Fiorentina in 2018-19 did not go to plan, with the Toulouse youth product freely admitting his performances "were not the best" as he secured to a loan move to Nantes ahead of last season.

Only Andrea Consigli (six) made more than Lafont's four errors leading to shots in Serie A two seasons ago, but his dependability appears to have improved considerably since returning to France, with no shots occurring because of errors by him in 57 Ligue 1 matches.

He also produced a particularly strong performance in the shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, making four saves including a couple of eye-catching stops to thwart Angel Di Maria.

 

A closer at Lafont’s performances for a struggling Nantes side in 2020-21 reveals he has not had the greatest campaign. When discounting own goals and penalties by the opposition, Lafont has allowed 3.5 goals more than the ‘average’ goalkeeper would have been expected to concede in Ligue 1 this season (37 conceded, 33.5 xG on target).

The metric ‘Goals Prevented Rate’ can account for different goalkeepers facing a different volume of shots through a period of time. An example of this is that PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas has a goals prevented rate of 1.37 this season, meaning for every non-penalty goal that Navas has conceded (excluding own goals), the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 1.37. Lafont’s rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers to have played 1800 minutes of French top-flight football in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, France's regular at this level knows he has a very capable understudy in Illan Meslier breathing down his neck.

Prior to his 21st birthday earlier in the month, Meslier broke the record for the most clean sheets by an under-21 goalkeeper in a single Premier League season (eight) and has since added another to that figure.

That means he has three times as many shutouts as Lafont, which is intriguing because it raises the question of why then has Meslier not conceded fewer goals?

For starters, it suggests Lafont is more consistent but also highlights that when Leeds concede, the floodgates can really burst open. With those 46 goals spread across 19 matches, it means Meslier is conceding on average 2.5 goals per game when he doesn't get a clean sheet – this drops to 1.7 for Lafont.

 

On top of that, Meslier's seven errors leading to shots is more than any other player in the Premier League this term, perhaps showing he's still in the inexperienced, nervous phase that Lafont has seemingly left behind.

Meslier's superior save percentage of 71.1 compared to 65.7 speaks to the former Lorient youngster's shot-stopping abilities, though for the time being Lafont's greater consistency looks set to keep him first-choice.

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

A promising loan spell with Heerenveen last season alerted Lille to the talents of Ajax-owned Botman and he has been a real hit for Les Dogues since a reported €8m move, helping them to mount a serious Ligue 1 title challenge.

Lille's 19 goals conceded is the fewest in France's top tier and, while not necessarily entirely down to Botman, there's no doubt he's made his presence known as a reliable powerhouse at the back.

 

Of the 856 players across Europe's top five leagues to have engaged in at least 150 duels, Botman's 71.4 per cent success rate is the best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess.

Only four of the 157 players in the continent's elite divisions to have been involved in 100+ aerial duels have a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (72.5 per cent).

While his impressive physical attributes might lead to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 452 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

 

Of course, there is likely to be a glaring absence from the senior Dutch side at Euro 2020. with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp not expecting Virgil van Dijk to be ready for the tournament.

That means there is potentially a spot up for grabs in the centre of the Netherlands defence, and Botman's combination of power and elegance suggests he could be a good fit as Van Dijk's deputy.

Granted, the young defender – who hasn't been capped at senior level yet – still has a way to go to match up to the Reds star, but in the context of young defenders of a similar ilk, Botman certainly compares well and his strengths are similar to those of Van Dijk.

His aerial stats prove he's an excellent physical specimen, and his effectiveness in duels reflects the fact he's a difficult defender to beat. A strong showing here might just help convince Frank de Boer that Botman's ready to step up later this year.

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

Les Bleus are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in most areas, but the fact Kounde is turning out for the Under-21s in this tournament instead of the senior side exemplifies their depth in quality at the heart of the defence.

In his second full season with Sevilla, Kounde has kicked on following a hugely encouraging second half to 2019-20, so much so that he's arguably the first name on the team sheet for Julen Lopetegui.

 

His forward-thinking nature has made him key to the coach's 'Lavolpiana build-up' defensive structure, a setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward from a three-man backline.

Only two central defenders in La Liga have bettered Kounde's rate of 19.2 carries per 90, while there are just three who have covered more distance carrying the ball further up field than the Frenchman this term (2,774 metres).

This positivity is generally offset by Fernando dropping in to form a faux back three, while Kounde's movement up the right can often create overloads as he teams up with Jesus Navas, Sevilla's biggest chance creator (44).

 

But evidence of his progressive mentality doesn't stop there. While possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs, given the sheer number of simple short balls played between defensive colleagues, Kounde is clearly looking ahead, and often.

No defender has been successful with more forward passes in open play than Kounde this season in LaLiga (507), with the 22-year-old completing an impressive 79 per cent of these. Therefore, perhaps it's not surprising to learn no Sevilla player has been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences than he has (53), demonstrating his value to their forays forward, despite not attempting the shots or making the final pass in that move.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he is developing into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who would have looked at home in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

It's fair to say that, when Sporting CP set out to replace Bruno Fernandes, never in their wildest dreams would they have expected what they got. Pedro Goncalves had been a key figure for Famalicao in 2019-20, but to say he's surpassed expectations in Lisbon would be an understatement.

Goncalves operates in similar spaces to Fernandes, albeit drifting towards the right a little more, and his hot streak in front of goal has helped put Sporting on course for a first league title since 2001-02.

 

In 22 Primeira Liga matches, the attacking midfielder has scored 15 goals – none of which were penalties. The 22-year-old's xG total is just 6.9, meaning his over-performance of 8.1 is the biggest across Europe's top six leagues, aside from the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (9.3).

Of course, the chances of him being able to sustain such a run in the long-term are low, but it still highlights what a danger the former Wolves youngster poses in his current form.

 

Comparisons with Fernandes have been rife, for obvious reasons, but they show many different traits to their game.

In Fernandes' final 50 league games for Sporting, he averaged 3.4 shots per 90 minutes and 2.3 of those non-penalty shots came from outside the box – Goncalves attempts 2.6 on average each game, with only 1.1 coming from beyond the penalty area.

As such, the average quality of Fernandes' shots in his final 50 games for Sporting weren't outstanding, with his xG per non-penalty shot equating to 0.07. Goncalves' is almost double that at 0.13, suggesting he picks his moments more selectively while also taking fewer attempts.

Nevertheless, despite Fernandes' penchant for a long-range effort, he only scored four times from outside the box in his final 50 league matches for Sporting – Goncalves already has three this term from 28 fewer games.

 

The biggest difference between the pair is assists. Fernandes' 20 in his final 50 outings for Sporting dwarfs Goncalves' three in 2020-21, but interestingly their expected assists per 90 minutes isn't hugely dissimilar. Fernandes is ahead 0.29 to 0.20 in this area, but a potential explanation for this potentially lies in the respective teams they've played in.

 

The next highest-scorer for Sporting this season after Goncalves himself is Nuno Santos with six – they don't have a prolific centre-forward, whereas Fernandes was supplying Bas Dost, who netted 76 times in 84 league games for the club between 2016 and 2019.

As we all know now, Fernandes was on the trajectory of an elite-level player. He's proven this at Manchester United, though there were certainly those who were sceptical about him prior to his move.

It'll be a tough ask, but why can't Goncalves continue to defy expectations?

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

Russian striker Fedor Chalov is undoubtedly one of the most experienced players involved at the tournament, with the 22-year-old having already played 115 Russian Premier League matches in addition to his 11 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Chalov burst on to the scene in Russia with CSKA Moscow at 18 years old back in November 2016 and scored in just his fifth top-flight appearance for the club versus Ural a month later.

After scoring six goals in each of his opening two league seasons at CSKA, 2018-19 was when he really began to make a name for himself in Russia - winning the league's top scorer award with 15 goals, while also posting his best-ever season tally for assists (7).

But Chalov's career hasn't kicked on as expected since then, scoring just 13 goals in 50 top-flight appearances over the past two seasons, but his performances have been stirring enough to attract the attentions of multiple Premier League clubs during the January transfer window.

 

Despite this, Chalov's numbers domestically at top-tier level are mightily impressive for a player so early in his career. Despite only being 22, Chalov's tally of 60 goal involvements since his Russian Premier League debut are the third most by a player in the competition.

Russia are certainly one of the underdogs for the 2021 Under-21 European Championship and are unlikely to top their group, having been drawn alongside favourites France. However, if Chalov can find form in the first stage of the tournament then he could be the linchpin to Russian hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages in May.

Netherlands boss Frank de Boer accepts it is unlikely Virgil van Dijk will return to action before next season and will not put pressure on the defender to be fit in time for Euro 2020.

Liverpool centre-back Van Dijk has been sidelined since rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in October's Merseyside derby against Everton.

The 29-year-old returned to individual training last month, but Klopp reiterated last week he does not expect him to play any part at this year's rescheduled European Championship finals.

But De Boer, who was appointed as Ronald Koeman's successor in September, says the final decision will be made by the player himself closer to the tournament.

"Anything he can contribute to Liverpool and possibly us would be a bonus," De Boer said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"I'm not counting on it at the moment. But if it were to happen, it would be fantastic for the squad. We're going to see. I'm not putting any pressure on him at all. 

"He has to do it himself and has to trust himself. The choice is with him. When the moment comes and we know how he is doing, you go with him to see what he can do.

"Then I have to make a decision about it. We let him take it easy now and continue his recovery work. Things are going well now. Whether that will be enough, we do not yet know.

"He is on the field. There can be setbacks. And setbacks can mean that he cannot play games for Liverpool. Then I can imagine them saying, 'focus on next season'."

The Netherlands start their World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign with a trip to Turkey on Wednesday, looking to extend a five-game unbeaten run after ending 2020 on a relative high.

De Boer controversially chose to leave in-form Wolfsburg striker Wout Weghorst out of his squad for the match with Turkey, as well as the qualifiers against Latvia and Gibraltar.

Weghorst has scored 17 Bundesliga goals this season, placing him behind only Andre Silva, Erling Haaland (both 21 goals) and Robert Lewandowski (25) in the scoring charts.

But De Boer has defended his decision to omit the 28-year-old and instead put his faith in Sevilla striker Luuk de Jong, who has four goals in 25 LaLiga outings in 2020-21.

"I had to choose between Luuk and Wout. At the moment I choose Luuk," he said. "I understand very well that it is a very delicate issue - it is also a very difficult issue. 

"Certainly for Wout, but also certainly for me. Because Wout has done just fantastic, but Luuk has also done very well with the Dutch national team. 

"We are in a very short period, then you consider things and I chose Luuk at that moment.

"I also called Wout and that was terribly difficult. He was certainly not happy, let that be clear. That is also normal, but at least he made it as difficult as possible for me. 

"He knocks terribly hard on the door, let that be clear. There are already a few holes in it. It was by far my most difficult decision, but at the moment I choose other players. Some are a bit more multifunctional, for example."

Luke Shaw has thanked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for "managing me right" after earning an England recall.

Shaw has been one of United's standout performers this term and is back in the international fold for the first time in two years, as Gareth Southgate's squad prepare for World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland.

Those matches will be the Three Lions' last before Southgate names his squad for the rescheduled Euro 2020, with former Southampton youngster Shaw looking set to contest a starting berth with Chelsea left-back Ben Chilwell.

It is a far cry from the 25-year-old's time under Jose Mourinho at OId Trafford, where public criticism from his manager appeared to do more harm than good as he struggled for form, fitness and confidence.

"[Solskjaer's] man-management is second to none. The way he conducts himself in terms of how he speaks to the players, it gets the best out of them," Shaw told Sky Sports.

"You can see that. He deals with situations perfectly in terms of what is needed, especially at a big club like Manchester United.

"He takes the pressure off the lads and takes it all himself.

"Sometimes it is not fair because we are the ones on the pitch and we need to take our fair share too.

"For me, especially, from what I had before Ole came in, it is a total difference. It has pushed me to a new level."

Mourinho infamously decried an apparently promising Shaw performance versus Everton in April 2017 as "his body and my brain", telling reporters his constant instructions from the sidelines were a big factor in the defender impressing.

"I had no confidence at that time. I was losing my belief," Shaw said.

"I think that is what changed with Ole. He managed me right and I got my confidence back and I am really enjoying it at the moment."

Confidence is certainly not an issue for Shaw right now, as he contributes for United in all aspects of the game.

His 52 chances created are the most by any defender in the Premier League this season.

In open play, he has delivered 67 crosses and has five assists this season – crediting the arrival of experienced striker Edinson Cavani at Old Trafford with encouraging him to take a more active role as a creator in the team.

"I never used to cross it as much as I should have done," he said.

"It helps to have Edi and that threat in the box. It means that if you do deliver a ball he will be there to fight for it and give everything he can to win it.

"Since he came in, the lads up front have seen how he works and what he does. They are trying to copy what he does in the box so there is definitely more movement.

"It means that you don't have to hit a man, you just have to hit a space and someone will be in there."

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