Lionel Messi described former Real Madrid captain Iker Casillas as "a legend of the game" following his retirement from football. 

Casillas issued a statement on Tuesday to confirm he is calling time on a playing career that spanned more than 20 years. 

The 39-year-old suffered a heart attack during Porto training in May last year and has not played since. 

Casillas won five LaLiga titles and the Champions League on three occasions in a glittering Madrid career, while he was also a key part of Spain's greatest period in international football. 

He earned 167 senior caps for his country and captained them to back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup triumph in South Africa in 2010. 

Although on the other side of the Clasico rivalry, Messi has no doubt Casillas deserves the highest praise for his career. 

"Iker is retiring, but his status as a legend of the game was secured long ago - not just because he was one of LaLiga's best players, but also because he won everything at international level," Messi told AS. 

In a message to the former goalkeeper, he added: "You're a fantastic goalkeeper and were a really tough opponent, I have to say. 

"Looking back, I think it was a really special rivalry that pushed us to reach new levels every time we came up against each other."

Ferran Torres believes "crooked" Valencia employees are attempting to smear his image following his move to Manchester City.

Torres joined City for an initial £21.1million (€23m) on Tuesday, putting pen to paper on a five-year contract at the Etihad Stadium to replace the departed Leroy Sane.

The Spain Under-21 international acknowledged he was not leaving Valencia on the best of terms having failed to see eye to eye with certain members of the media and the club's hierarchy.

"On the one hand, [I am] excited and happy, but at the same time sad because I'm leaving my club. Valencia game me everything and trained me since I was seven," Torres told Marca.

"I've had hard times there and that's why I ended up leaving, but I want to emphasise that I'm very grateful to Valencia and will always support them.

"The problem is that there are people within the club and a few journalists who are determined to damage my image. I don't want to leave on bad terms because I'm a Valencia fan.

"When the club decided to put me in the first team I began to come under pressure and criticism. It wasn't just me, but they wanted to harm my representatives and my family.

"The same people who now campaign against me said then that I would fail, which hurt a lot at 17. But I have to say that there were other journalists who treated me with love and respect. There are, though, club employees working to smear my image.

"I'm sure I can [return in future]. I refuse to think otherwise. Even if there are crooked people. A lot of them won't be there in a few years and I'll have shown that I deserve to return."

Torres began to consider leaving Valencia last year after being told he was the "fifth winger" in the squad, but he still managed to establish himself as a first-team regular in 2019-20.

He had been open to staying at Mestalla until the club failed to agree to certain conditions around a potential renewal.

"One was for [owner] Peter Lim to be involved so that I knew I was important, another was to be captain as I had seen other clubs do, [Atletico Madrid] with Fernando Torres, for example, and the third was to be one of the highest paid players. I wanted two of the three, but none were fulfilled," said Torres.

The rapid winger made his senior debut for Valencia as a 17-year-old in 2017 but struggled to forge a bond with skipper Dani Parejo.

Asked if it was true his relationship with Parejo is frosty, Torres explained: "After three years I'm more mature and mentally stronger. But at 17, no.

"He's a great player but I never had a relationship with him. When I joined the first team at 17, a number of weeks passed before he said a simple 'good morning' to me. He wasn't a good captain with me.

"The worst of it came after Marcelino's departure when [Lee] Kang-in and I were seen as culprits in the dressing room and they stopped talking to us for weeks."

Pablo Machin has been appointed as head coach of Deportivo Alaves.

Former Girona, Sevilla and Espanyol boss Machin has signed a contract for the 2020-21 season.

Juan Muniz guided Alaves to LaLiga safety after they sacked Asier Garitano with four games remaining but did not extend his stay beyond the end of the campaign.

Machin was fired by Espanyol last December with the club bottom of the top flight.

He reportedly rejected an approach from Chinese Super League team Qingdao Huanghai before agreeing to join Alaves.

Will Manchester United sign Jadon Sancho or not?

That is the question dominating headlines as United reportedly negotiate with Borussia Dortmund.

This transfer saga is one to watch.

 

TOP STORY – UNITED READY TO END SANCHO PURSUIT

Manchester United are threatening to walk away from a deal to sign Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho, according to reports in England.

Sancho has been tipped to swap Dortmund for United, with Bild claiming a lucrative five-year contract has been agreed as the Bundesliga outfit insist on a €120million (£108m) fee.

But Goal, Sky Sports and The Mirror say United are ready to pursue alternatives of Dortmund do not lower their demands.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Guardian reports Leicester City are trying to sign Francisco Trincao from Barcelona. Leicester have proposed a two-season loan deal with an obligation to buy for £45m (€50m). Trincao is preparing to link up with Barca after the LaLiga giants signed the 20-year-old from Braga in January.

- Premier League champions Liverpool are eyeing a move for Norwich City left-back  Jamal Lewis, says The Mirror. Lewis impressed in 2019-20 as Norwich were relegated and Liverpool are looking to wrap up a £10m deal.

- Gianluca Di Marzio claims Tottenham right-back Serge Aurier is open to joining Serie A side Milan.

- According to Tuttomercatoweb, Juventus are lining up possible replacements for under-fire head coach Maurizio Sarri. Former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi, Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini and Luciano Spalletti have all been linked.

-  Aston Villa are aiming to keep star captain and rumoured United target Jack Grealish by offering a new contract, reports The Sun.

- Linked with United , Everton and Napoli, France Bleu Nord claims Arsenal are leading the race for Lille centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes.

- Is Federico Chiesa set for Old Trafford? La Nazione reports United have made a €55m (£49m) offer for the Fiorentina forward, who has also been linked to Inter, Juve and Chelsea .

- Bournemouth defender Nathan Ake is poised to complete his move to Manchester City. Fabrizio Romano reports there is a total agreement and a medical will take place in the next couple of days.

When Ferran Torres scored the fourth and final goal of Valencia's 4-1 Champions League win over Lille in November, he further enhanced his burgeoning reputation and announced himself to another mass of admirers.

While the goal mattered little in the grand scheme of the match, and it was hardly a contest likely to draw in all of the indecisive neutrals, it gave him his own slice of history, becoming the first player born in 2000 to net a Champions League goal for a Spanish club.

His cool, top-corner finish after an incisive run into the box will have been met with nods of approval from those being alerted to Torres' potential.

While the skilful and direct winger wasn't exactly an unknown quantity at that point, it was an early landmark in a career that looks set for many, and now he is headed for the glamour of the Premier League and Manchester City.

CITY'S DECISIVE SWOOP

Torres and his sister Arantxa have a tattoo in common. "An anchor. It was a reminder for us not to let ourselves be sunk by anything or anyone," she told OTRO last year.

Perhaps that should have served as a portentous warning to Valencia during their ultimately unsuccessful contract negotiations, with Torres' future long dominating headlines in the local media – he was due to become a free agent in 2021.

That, in a nutshell, is how City have managed to pull off such a coup with respect to paying a reported initial fee of £21.1million (€23m). Even with variables, the most they'll pay is thought to be in the region of £32.2m (€35m), a massive reduction on his €100m (£92m) release clause.

Local sports paper Super Deporte had remained optimistic for a while, some might say naively so, but with Champions League qualification proving well beyond Valencia, a departure long seemed unavoidable.

Even a club run as poorly as Valencia could not risk losing such an asset for nothing, yet City will certainly consider themselves to have struck a brilliant deal.

With Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Juventus all noted as keen admirers of Torres, City officials will be patting themselves on the back – it did not take them long to fill the space left by Leroy Sane.

THE EXPLOSION

Despite only being 20, 2019-20 was Torres' third season in the Valencia first-team squad and he already has 71 LaLiga appearances to his name – 26 of which were as a starter in the campaign just finished.

He had only played 12 times for Valencia's B team in the third tier before Marcelino Garcia Toral promoted him permanently to the senior side in December 2017, his LaLiga debut as the fifth-youngest player in the club's history a rare ray of sunlight as he came off the bench in the rain during a 2-1 defeat at Eibar.

"All of us within the club were sure that we were looking at a very high-level footballer," Marcelino told Panenka magazine. "It was only a matter of time before he exploded, because it was clear this player had to play. He still has a significant margin for improvement, but along with [Martin] Odegaard, for me, he is one of the revelations of the season."

His form for Spain Under-19s during last year's European Championship further highlighted his potential as he scored both goals in the 2-0 final win over Portugal to earn a spot in the Team of the Tournament.

He then established himself in Valencia's starting XI, taking full advantage of Goncalo Guedes' injury absence. While still somewhat raw, Torres has been a joy to behold with his fast dribbling and direct style.

NOT THE FINISHED ARTICLE

There's no doubting the ability Torres has to excite – after all, only five midfielders in LaLiga attempted more dribbles in 2019-20 than his 112, and when in full-flight, his combination of pace and upper-body strength make the leggy winger a formidable weapon.

Similarly, Torres is nimble and very agile, capable of jinking out of situations that appear one-sided in the defence's favour.

But he certainly hasn't hit his ceiling. Torres has many areas in which he can improve, particularly with respect to increasing his chance creation frequency.

His record of 25 opportunities crafted this term is not particularly great and is way behind Lionel Messi (89), Sergio Canales (80) and Jose Campana (73) out in front in LaLiga.

His dribble map suggests a potential reason for this, highlighting that many of his ball carry attempts are made outside of the pitch's final third.

The greater awareness he requires should come with experience. After all, it would be a bigger problem if he was struggling to ever find dangerous positions, and that simply is not the case.

He has touched the ball more times (64) in the opposing area than any of his midfield team-mates in 2019-20.

And while nine goal involvements (four goals, five assists) may not sound remarkable, that is only one fewer than Martin Odegaard – a standout performer until his injury – and no one with more than nine is younger than Torres.

He may need a little time to settle in the Premier League, but the potential is undoubtedly there and he shouldn't be plagued with suggestions of being too small, like David Silva was when he made the same move 10 years ago.

Whether Torres can have a similar impact to Silva is another matter, but the 34-year-old's success at least sets a strong precedent for talented Valencia-developed technicians leaving their mark at City.

Manchester City have signed highly rated 20-year-old winger Ferran Torres from Valencia.

Stats Perform News understands the Spain Under-21 international will cost City £21.1million (€23m), plus further add-ons.

City were linked to several young wingers after Leroy Sane's move to Bayern Munich was confirmed at the start of July, with Torres ultimately emerging from the pack to pen a five-year contract at the Etihad Stadium.

While perhaps not a like-for-like replacement, Pep Guardiola and City will believe they have got themselves a bargain and pulled off a significant coup in landing Torres, who had also attracted interest from Barcelona, Juventus and Liverpool.

"I am so happy to be joining City," Torres said. "Every player wants to be involved in attacking teams and Manchester City are one of the most attacking in world football.

"Pep encourages a really open, aggressive style, which I love, and he is a manager with a proven track record of improving players. To have him overseeing my development is a dream."

Torres is considered one of Spain's most promising young players, having come through Valencia's academy and made his debut as a 17-year-old in 2017.

A talented and direct winger capable of playing on either flank, though preferring to operate from the right, he enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2019-20.

Having made 24 LaLiga appearances in 2018-19, Torres had even greater exposure to first-team football this term due to injuries, taking full advantage of Goncalo Guedes' long-term absence as he featured 34 times domestically.

He scored four goals and set up another five in LaLiga, while his Champions League strike against Lille in November made him the first player born in 2000 to net in the competition for a Spanish club.

Torres' contract with Valencia was said to contain a €100m release clause, but he had stalled on signing fresh terms, meaning Los Che were never likely to hold out for such a fee given his deal was due to expire next year.

With Valencia failing to qualify for European football next season after a disappointing 2019-20, their final bargaining chip was essentially lost and City have moved swiftly to secure the youngster's future.

Manchester City have signed highly rated 20-year-old winger Ferran Torres from Valencia.

Stats Perform News understands the Spain Under-21 international will cost City £21.1million (€23m), plus further add-ons.

City were linked to several young wingers after Leroy Sane's move to Bayern Munich was confirmed at the start of July, with Torres ultimately emerging from the pack to pen a five-year contract at the Etihad Stadium.

While perhaps not a like-for-like replacement, Pep Guardiola and City will believe they have got themselves a bargain and pulled off a significant coup in landing Torres, who had also attracted interest from Barcelona, Juventus and Liverpool.

"I am so happy to be joining City," Torres said. "Every player wants to be involved in attacking teams and Manchester City are one of the most attacking in world football.

"Pep encourages a really open, aggressive style, which I love, and he is a manager with a proven track record of improving players. To have him overseeing my development is a dream."

Torres is considered one of Spain's most promising young players, having come through Valencia's academy and made his debut as a 17-year-old in 2017.

A talented and direct winger capable of playing on either flank, though preferring to operate from the right, he enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2019-20.

Having made 24 LaLiga appearances in 2018-19, Torres had even greater exposure to first-team football this term due to injuries, taking full advantage of Goncalo Guedes' long-term absence as he featured 34 times domestically.

He scored four goals and set up another five in LaLiga, while his Champions League strike against Lille in November made him the first player born in 2000 to net in the competition for a Spanish club.

Torres' contract with Valencia was said to contain a €100m release clause, but he had stalled on signing fresh terms, meaning Los Che were never likely to hold out for such a fee given his deal was due to expire next year.

With Valencia failing to qualify for European football next season after a disappointing 2019-20, their final bargaining chip was essentially lost and City have moved swiftly to secure the youngster's future.

Gianluigi Buffon told the retiring Iker Casillas "without you everything would have been less meaningful" in an emotional social-media tribute.

There has long been a mutual respect between veteran Juventus legend Buffon and Real Madrid great Casillas, who have earned reputations as two of the greatest goalkeepers of their generation.

On Tuesday, Casillas called time on his career, which started with a Madrid debut in 1999 and saw him rack up 725 appearances, five LaLiga titles and three Champions League medals before departing for Porto in 2015.

Buffon is still going strong at the age of 42, albeit he departed Juve for a season at Paris Saint-Germain before returning last year and now largely acts as understudy to Wojciech Szczesny.

While Buffon has never experienced Champions League success with Juve, both he and Casillas have won the World Cup with Italy and Spain respectively.

Buffon credits Casillas for making him a better goalkeeper.

"They say competition makes us better than others but not perfect faced with ourselves," Buffon wrote on Twitter. 

"Maybe this futile pursuit of perfection is what made us who we are. 

"#Grac1as Iker, without you, everything would have been less meaningful."

Iker Casillas "conquered the hearts of the Madridistas" and Real Madrid will always be his home, said president Florentino Perez in a glowing tribute.

Los Blancos legend Casillas officially announced his retirement on Tuesday, although he has not played since suffering a heart attack in training with Porto on May 1 last year.

Casillas rose through the youth ranks at the Santiago Bernabeu, making his first-team debut in 1999 as a teenager and going on to make 725 appearances for the club before departing in 2015.

During that time, former captain Casillas won every major honour possible with Madrid – including five LaLiga titles and the Champions League on three occasions, while he also became a two-time European Champion and a World Cup winner with Spain.

Perez said Casillas earned the respect of team-mates and rivals alike during a glittering career.

"Iker Casillas is one of the great symbols of Real Madrid. The Madridistas are especially proud of one of our eternal captains today, captain also of the Spanish national team," Perez said. 

"Today, Iker Casillas bids farewell as a professional player, having contributed to further enlarging the myth and Real Madrid legend.

"He came to our club as a boy, at just nine years old, and here he has grown up, he has formed and has become a benchmark for all football fans.

"From Real Madrid today we want to convey to you our love, our admiration, and of course, our gratitude for all that he has given us, both inside and outside the pitches. 

"And I also want to thank your wife Sara, all the support she's always given to Iker Casillas. For Sara, also, all our affection.

"Iker represents the values of Real Madrid. This club is the most beloved and admired in the world and is admired [for] players like Iker Casillas. With his commitment, with his work and with his humility he has conquered the hearts of the Madridistas, but also the respect of their rivals.

"In this club, with this shield and this jersey, he's won it all. For Real Madrid and for Madridistas from all corners of the world it has been an honour to have a goalkeeper, a captain, like Iker Casillas.

"He is a reference for children who come to our Real Madrid City with the dream to one day wear our jersey. His legacy will always be here. Iker knows that this is and will always be your home."

Iker Casillas has announced his retirement from football, calling time on a decorated career with Real Madrid, Porto and Spain.

Casillas, 39 has not played since suffering a heart attack during training with Porto on May 1 last year, for which he required surgery.

In February this year, around the time he announced a subsequently withdrawn bid for the presidency of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Porto president Pinto da Costa said Casillas had retired.

The player himself did not publicly confirm the move, however, and Porto head coach Sergio Conceicao was last month forced to quash rumours that Casillas was set to turn out for the club in a farewell appearance – although he did take to the field to lift the Taca de Portugal at the weekend after his team-mates beat Benfica 2-1 to complete a domestic double.

In a statement released via social media on Tuesday, Casillas confirmed he would call time on his playing days.

"The important thing is the path you travel and the people who accompany you, not the destination to which it takes you," the 2010 World Cup-winning captain tweeted.

"Because that with work and effort, I think I can say, without hesitation, that is has been the path and the dream destination."

Casillas played four seasons at Porto and has was first choice before being forced to the sidelines.

But it is his exploits for Madrid and Spain for which his career will be remembered by most.

Casillas came through Madrid's academy and established himself in the first team as a teenager, eventually going on to play 725 times for the club in all competitions, a figure bettered by only Raul (741).

He won every trophy possible with Los Blancos, including three Champions Leagues and five LaLiga titles.

Casillas also starred in the historic Spain team that won the country's first World Cup in 2010 and ended a 44-year wait for European Championship success two years earlier. They went on to win Euro 2012 as well.

Widely regarded to be among the finest goalkeepers of his generation, he was Spain's record appearance-maker with 167 caps until Sergio Ramos overtook him last year.

Madrid issued a statement of their own in response to Casillas' retirement, declaring him to be the greatest ever keeper in their rich history.

"Real Madrid C. F. wants to show its recognition, admiration and affection for one of the biggest legends of our club and of world football," the statement read. 

"The best goalkeeper in the history of Real Madrid and Spanish football joined us at the age of nine. He was formed here and defended our shirt for 25 years, becoming one of our most emblematic captains of all time.

"Iker Casillas earned the love of Madridismo and is a symbol of the values that Real Madrid represents. Today one of the most important footballers in our 118 years of history calls it a day as a professional player, a player we love and admire, a goalkeeper who has made the Real Madrid legacy bigger with his work and exemplary behaviour both on and off the pitch."

Madrid's statement added: "Iker Casillas belongs at the heart of Real Madrid and will do so forever. Real Madrid would like to convey to him and his family the love of our club, which is the club of his life."

Things seem to be moving quickly at Manchester United and Jadon Sancho could be on his way to Old Trafford.

Sancho, 20, has been heavily linked with a move to several Premier League giants this close season after starring for Borussia Dortmund.

And a switch to United appears to be close, latest reports indicate.

 

TOP STORY – MAN UTD TO PAY €120M FOR SANCHO

Borussia Dortmund expect Manchester United to pay £107.9million (€120m) for Sancho in instalments, according to Sport Bild.

Its report says the Bundesliga club are prepared to accept that as long as the offer is submitted by August 10.

Sancho scored 20 goals in 44 games in all competitions for Dortmund in 2019-20.

ROUND-UP

- Staying at Manchester United and Alexis Sanchez is reportedly set for a permanent exit. Gianluca Di Marzio reports Inter and United have reached an agreement over Sanchez, saying he will make his move to the Serie A club permanent on a free, signing a three-year deal worth €7m per year.

- Barcelona are still looking to raise funds. Sport reports the LaLiga club's main transfer targets are Inter star Lautaro Martinez and Manchester City defender Eric Garcia. Meanwhile, Sport also says Barca rejected a £54m (€60m) bid from a Premier League club for 20-year-old forward Francisco Trincao.

- While Manchester City are reportedly set to sign Bournemouth defender Nathan Ake, the Premier League giants are apparently still looking to strengthen elsewhere at the back. ESPN reports City are still interested in Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, as well as Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres.

- There remains uncertainty over Antonio Conte's future at Inter, according to reports. Fabrizio Romano says the head coach held a call with president Steven Zhang with a decision to be made after the Europa League.

- With Willian coming out of contract at Chelsea at the end of the season, the attacker is apparently attracting plenty of interest. France Football reports Arsenal have offered Willian the best deal with their three-year offer.

- Idrissa Gueye could be on his way out of Paris Saint-Germain after just one season. Le 10 Sport reports the Ligue 1 champions want to sell the midfielder, who has been linked to Manchester United and Wolves.

Former Real Madrid defender Oscar Ruggeri labelled Barcelona star Gerard Pique a "bang-average" player, while insisting Sergio Ramos is the best centre-back in the world.

Pique has enjoyed great success since re-joining boyhood club Barca from Manchester United in 2008, winning eight LaLiga trophies and three Champions League titles among other honours to establish himself as one of the world's best defenders.

The 33-year-old is also a World Cup and European Championship winner with Spain.

However, ex-defender Ruggeri – a 1986 World Cup champion with Argentina who spent a season playing for Madrid in 1989-90 – talked down Pique as he hailed Los Blancos and Spain captain Ramos.

"Pique is a second-rate [player], like me, like many others," Ruggeri told FOX Sports Argentina.

"He's good looking, he's with the singer [Shakira]... he has a cool beard, but if he played for Valencia, he wouldn't be well known.

"Pique ended up playing for Barcelona. He's like me – bang average. A good defender, but not much else.

"He doesn't get put under pressure, except against the big teams.

"Sergio Ramos is the best [centre-back] in the world, by far."

Cristiano Ronaldo would have made Real Madrid favourites to overturn a first-leg deficit in their Champions League tie against Manchester City, according to Emmanuel Adebayor. 

Los Blancos lost 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of the last-16 clash at the back end of February, with the return meeting postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Madrid were outstanding when LaLiga resumed in June, though, winning 10 and drawing their final game en route to beating Barcelona to the title, their first since the 2016-17 season. 

Former City and Madrid striker Adebayor says Zinedine Zidane's side still have the players capable of turning the tie around but the presence of Ronaldo – who won the Champions League four times with the Spanish club before departing for Juventus in 2018 – would have significantly increased their chances. 

"If you had asked me that question two years ago, I would have said yes [Madrid can turn the tie around]," Adebayor told AS.  

"Madrid would have been favourites with Cristiano. Back then, they had Cristiano, who is a goal machine. He can make the difference at any moment and he would give the team 50 goals a season.  

"They lost the first leg at home and it's going to be very difficult without the fans, against Manchester City, the city, the weather but it's not impossible. 

"Madrid have players with a lot of experience like Marcelo, [Karim] Benzema, [Thibaut] Courtois and they are used to playing in big games like this one." 

Adebayor believes Madrid did not fully appreciate how difficult it would be to replace a player such as Ronaldo, who became the club's record goalscorer during nine prolific seasons. 

"Without Cristiano, Madrid know what they have lost, but maybe not what they could have won if he was still there," he added.  

"I think maybe they thought they would get another player like Ronaldo but players like him only come along once every 200 years." 

Karim Benzema has taken on much of the scoring burden and has surpassed 20 LaLiga goals in the past two seasons. 

Adebayor says the French striker is crucial to Madrid, saying: "When Ronaldo left, he had to take up the responsibility and I think he's done really well.  

"He's scored a lot of goals, important goals so he'll be a danger, no doubt about it." 

Adebayor's stint in the Spanish capital was a short one and game time was limited under Jose Mourinho. However, he has nothing but fond memories of the Portuguese coach, describing him as the best ever. 

"I love Mourinho, we had a great relationship and he was the one who brought me to Madrid, although it wasn't easy for him to find a place for me in the side," he said.  

"The only trophy I have ever won was at Madrid with him. Now he's at Tottenham and I wish him the best of luck. He is the best coach in the history of football." 

Sergio Ramos is the best defender in the world and can keep on playing until he is 40, according to former Real Madrid team-mate Rafael van der Vaart. 

Ramos was very influential in helping Madrid end Barcelona's run of success in LaLiga, scoring 11 goals as Zinedine Zidane's squad were crowned champions for the first time since 2017. 

The Spaniard was signed from Sevilla as a teenager in 2005 and was still young when he was joined at the club by Van der Vaart, who stayed at the Santiago Bernabeu for two seasons before joining Tottenham in 2010. 

However, having watched on as his old club secured the title once again, the Dutchman is impressed by how Ramos has matured and, considering his physical condition, sees no reason why the 34-year-old should be thinking of retiring anytime soon. 

"For me, he is the best defender in the world," Van der Vaart told Stats Perform News as part of the UEFA Europa League Trophy Tour. 

"When I was at Real Madrid, he was 21 or 22 and bursting with energy. He wanted to be everywhere. Free kicks, corner kicks, everywhere. 

"Now it is different, he has so much focus now. A focus on winning and he uses all his talents for that purpose. He's aware of his skills, strength and conditioning and that helped him being so important for his team in winning already so many titles. His body is unbelievable, he is a machine. 

"When I was watching a game the other day, I thought, 'how old is he? 34?' I believe he can still be playing for another six years, I've so much respect for him."

With LaLiga won, Madrid will now focus on potential European success as they return to Champions League action. 

They need to overturn a 2-1 first-leg deficit in their last-16 tie with Manchester City if they are to progress, with the remaining knockout rounds to be staged in Portugal, though Ramos will miss the match against Pep Guardiola's team at the Etihad Stadium due to suspension. 

However, Madrid have been outstanding since the season restarted in Spain midway through June, and Van der Vaart expects a "really interesting" return clash with City, who finished second in the Premier League. 

"Real Madrid have been very, very good after the coronavirus break," he said. "They have all been very focused [on the games]. Including a 10-game winning streak. 

"Karim Benzema and Ramos have been a key part of the team for me, and Zidane for bringing calmness to the team. 

"However, I watched Manchester City against Arsenal playing the semi-final of the FA Cup, as well as other games. They have so much individual talent, so they are always dangerous, for any team, including the magnificent Real Madrid. That's what we've seen in the first leg, so it is going to be a really interesting game." 

Van der Vaart was speaking as part of a Europa League Trophy Tour that has been collecting football boots from fans for Syrian refugees based in Jordan, a cause the former Netherlands international is passionate about. 

"It's great, I remember how incredibly happy I was as a little boy with my football boots. I even put my first pair on to bed and I dreamed of playing football. I hope that all children in the world may experience that kind of childlike joy. I'm so proud that I can help a little bit," Van der Vaart said. 

"We are collecting boots, which hopefully gives a bit more hope and fun for all children. So, I'm proud that I can help a little bit and be a part of it. 

"It's really important [to be able to go out and play]. Now there are so many things, but when I was little you would just go on the street and play. 

"In lockdown it was difficult, of course. You want to meet with friends, you want to go out and play games, but when I started playing it was just me and the ball."

Real Madrid star Karim Benzema had a simple answer when asked if he fancies a crack at mixed martial arts after his football career comes to an end: "No problem for me, I'm up for it!"

Benzema, 32, enjoyed a brilliant campaign for Madrid, scoring 21 goals and providing eight assists as Los Blancos beat Barcelona to the LaLiga title.

Such form suggests Benzema still has plenty of legs left in football yet, even though he may be approaching the twilight years of his career.

But there are other challenges that appeal to the French striker, including it seems having a go at the fight game.

Benzema took questions from several friends for a YouTube video, one of which came from French kickboxer Fouad Ezbiri, who he has trained with in the past.

Ezbiri asked if Benzema - a fan of fight sports - ever had plans to step in the ring at least once.

"Well Fouad my broski, in any case I hope you're doing good, and it's true that I love fighting sports," Benzema said. 

"I love training, as you say we already trained, after the soccer why not train with you for six months and if you think I can be ready for a fight, no problem for me, I'm up for it!"

Benzema also responded to a separate question about how much longer he feels he has left in football.

"I'm working a lot. I pay attention to everything I do, I take care of myself and I'm trying to get the best out of me as possible," Benzema added. 

"I know this is not the beginning of my career but in any case, for me, age does not mean anything and yeah we're going to do everything."

Benzema also revealed three major sporting influences of his, saying: "It depends there are many people who have inspired me but we'll take soccer for example. It's Ronaldo, the Brazilian, so he's the one who made me love football, simply. It's thanks to what he did but everyone knows it. 

"Then athletic, although I'm not a big fan of basketball, but I would say Michael Jordan for what he did, what he has been with the Chicago Bulls. And then another athlete I would say Mike Tyson, there you go Mike Tyson, because it's the power."

Real Madrid team-mate James Rodriguez pondered whether Benzema prefers scoring or assisting a team-mate.

"I'll answer you sincerely. Making assists or scoring goals are two different things but not that different and I like to do both," he said. 

"To choose, I choose to score. On the other hand if my partner is good and sure to score I'll pass him the ball and offer him the goal. So, I choose both my brother."

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