Xabi Alonso's immediate future has been decided, with the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich star signing a new one-year contract with Real Sociedad.

Alonso first took up a coaching role at Madrid, but left Los Blancos to take over La Real's B team in 2019, penning a two-year deal.

In a season curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Alonso guided the reserve side to a fifth-placed finish in Segunda Division B.

This week, he was the subject of intense speculation linking him with a switch to Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach, whose current head coach Marco Rose will be joining Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season.

Rumours of the move being all but done proved to be premature, however, and though several clubs are said to have been interested in the former midfielder, Alonso has now agreed an extension with La Real until 2022.

"I want to continue to grow in this project and continue the final push for education at [La Real's training ground] Zubieta," Alonso told La Real's official website.

"We have more goals and the intention to challenge ourselves this year."

Reports suggest Gladbach, who exited the Champions League at the hands of Manchester City and sit a disappointing 10th in the Bundesliga, had already moved on from the possibility of drafting in Alonso.

Gladbach snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating Schalke 3-0 last time out. The run of defeats followed on from the club announcing Rose's impending departure on February 15.

Barcelona have reportedly joined the queue chasing Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

Haaland is a player in demand following his exploits for Bundesliga outfit Dortmund.

The Norway international could be among a number of new recruits at Camp Nou.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND WANTED AT CAMP NOU

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman is leading the club's recruitment this off-season and has identified Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland as a key target, according to Diario AS.

Haaland has been linked with Barca, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Liverpool.

Koeman is also reportedly eyeing City defender Eric Garcia, Lyon captain Memphis Depay and soon-to-be Liverpool free agent Georginio Wijnaldum.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fresh from netting a hat-trick to knock Tottenham out of the Europa League, Dinamo Zagreb's Mislav Orsic has been linked with a move to London rivals Arsenal by The Sun, which claims the Gunners are looking at the Croatian attacker as an off-season signing.

- Marca claims Arsenal will not be able to sign on-loan Martin Odegaard on a permanent deal as parent club Real Madrid see him as part of their long-term future plans.

Roma want either Maurizio Sarri or Massimiliano Allegri to be their next coach to replace Paulo Fonseca, according to Messaggero.

- Calciomercato says rumoured Premier League target Franck Kessie has rejected Milan's latest contract extension offer.

- Schalke's California-born 20-year-old Matthew Hoppe is hot property and Valencia are the latest club to join the chase, alongside TottenhamBarcelona, Ajax and PSV, according to AS.

- The Sun reports in-form Leicester City forward Kelechi Iheanacho will sign a new deal with the club.

Spain head coach Luis Enrique clarified that Sergio Ramos' half-time substitution had nothing to do with injury, instead managing his minutes ahead of two more 2022 World Cup qualifiers as he allayed concerns.

Real Madrid and Spain captain Ramos was replaced at the interval by Inigo Martinez, who gave away the penalty in Spain's surprise 1-1 draw with Greece in Granada on Thursday.

Ramos missed two months of club football with a knee injury, the 34-year-old star defender returning earlier this month for games against Elche and Atalanta before missing Madrid's LaLiga clash with Celta Vigo on Saturday due to a shin issue.

​"Sergio Ramos is perfectly fine," Luis Enrique said post-game. "He didn’t play the last game with his club due to a blow.

"We had already decided in advance that he would only play the first half and he is perfectly fine.

"He is available for the following games."

Ramos, who has a record 179 international caps, is in the mix for Spain's upcoming qualifiers away to Georgia on Sunday and Kosovo on Wednesday.

Ronald Koeman is a "great coach" who has expertly handled Barcelona's difficulties this season, according to defender Ronald Araujo. 

Koeman, who was appointed last August on a two-year contract, has had to manage the fallout from Lionel Messi's ultimately unsuccessful transfer request ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. 

A failure to get past the last-16 stage in the Champions League was a major disappointment, but a superb recent run in LaLiga has given them a chance of catching leaders Atletico Madrid. 

Sunday's 6-1 thumping of Real Sociedad – a ninth consecutive top-flight away win – lifted them to within four points of Diego Simeone's side heading into the international break.

Uruguayan Araujo, who has played in 15 LaLiga games this season after featuring in just six during his debut campaign in 2019-20, has been impressed with Koeman's efforts and wants him to remain at the helm beyond this season. 

"It's very good that the board has confidence in Koeman because the boss has shown that he is a great coach," the 22-year-old told TV3. 

"He is very good with the team and the locker room. This relationship is very important. I am very happy that he can continue with us because he brings a lot to us, especially the young people.

"The work he had in front of him was not at all easy, considering how the whole situation was. But he is a coach with a lot of character, who knows how to deal with these issues, and the coaching staff have done a very good job. 

"We are working well and that translates into the way the locker room is and the results."

Araujo also declared his admiration for Messi and hopes Barca's talisman stays at Camp Nou beyond this season.

On Sunday, Messi overtook Xavi as the player with the most appearances for Barca (768), six days after the 33-year-old scored a 20th LaLiga goal for the 13th successive season – another record.

The Argentina forward has been involved in more goals in 2021 than any other player across Europe's 'top five' leagues, but he still has not tied his future to the Catalan club, with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain reportedly interested in signing him. 

"I hope he stays with us next year and many more years to come," Araujo added. "Leo is fine, I see him very happy. He works a lot, not only in matches, but also in training. 

"Messi trains like a beast and that's very good because he is the captain and he is a reference, and he spreads it to us all, to the rest of the team and to the young people."

Barca host Real Valladolid in LaLiga on April 5 after the international break, followed by El Clasico against Real Madrid five days later.

Could Luis Suarez return to Liverpool, where he spent three and half seasons from 2011 to 2014?

The Uruguayan forward has been a key part of Atletico Madrid's LaLiga title push this term, with 19 league goals.

The Reds are reportedly keen to bolster their forward options, with Suarez on their list.

 

TOP STORY – REDS PREPARING SUAREZ OFFER

Liverpool are interesting in the return of Suarez this off-season and are preparing an offer for the Atletico Madrid forward, according to Fichajes.

Reds boss Jurgen Klopp reportedly wants to add experience to his front line and 34-year-old Suarez fits the bill.

Suarez scored 82 goals in 133 appearances for the Reds in his previous stint before joining Barcelona.

ROUND-UP

- Spanish outlet Cope claims that Real Madrid are not contemplating a move for Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo despite widespread speculation of a return. The report says Madrid are focused on the future rather than a veteran player whose career is winding down.

- Barcelona are planning to release Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho this off-season due to their financial issues, allowing them to retain young talent Pedri, Ilaix Moriba and Ansu Fati, according to El Confidencial.

- On the topic of Barcelona, Sport is claiming the Catalans have approved the signings of Georginio Wijnaldum from Liverpool and Memphis Depay from Lyon and are awaiting validation from their new board.

- Diego Costa has reached an agreement to join Benfica as a free agent, according to Mundo Deportivo. Costa left Atletico Madrid in December and returned to his native Brazil.

- Manchester United are considering a move to sign 24-year-old Villarreal defender Pau Torres in the off-season, according to the Manchester Evening News.

- Galatasaray, Flamengo or Marseille are the primary options to be Arturo Vidal's next home as he is set to leave Inter, reports Calciomercato.

Few individuals have had such an enduring impact upon what we think constitutes beautiful football than Johan Cruyff.

As a playmaking forward in the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s, Cruyff oozed inimitable style as he bent games to his will and thrilled the world with his eponymous turn.

An icon of his era and arguably the greatest European footballer ever to play the game, Cruyff's impact as a coach was somehow even more profound.

The irresistible approach of his Barcelona "Dream Team" in the early 1990s brought a maiden European trophy to Camp Nou along with four consecutive LaLiga titles. It is a legacy that sets the standard for the Catalan giants to this day

Beyond that, he switched on a generation of fans to the frictionless wonder of Barca's positional play, not to mention a host of tacticians whose deeds continued to burnish his considerable reputation.

On the fifth anniversary of his death, we look at five of Cruyff's most notable disciples.

FRANK RIJKAARD

"He is like the Godfather of Dutch football," Frank Rijkaard said of the man who coached him at Ajax in the mid-1980s before his tactical reputation was firmly established at Barcelona, while Cruyff's great mentor Rinus Michels also coached Rijkaard with the national team

Even though Rijkaard was not associated with Cruyff's most famous team, he followed in his old boss' footsteps by taking over as Barcelona head coach following a relative fallow period in 2003.

The arrival of Ronaldinho revitalised the ailing Blaugrana and Rijkaard enjoyed the fruits of La Masia's finest generation, as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi came to the fore.

Back-to-back LaLiga titles and the 2005-06 Champions League were the highlights of a 273-game reign. Only Cruyff (421) has led Barca more often in all competitions.

PEP GUARDIOLA  

After the Rijkaard era ambled to a bloated end, Barca turned to the man who has done more than any other to keep Cruyff's vision at the forefront of world football.

"Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it," said Pep Guardiola, whose restoration sparkled beyond all reasonable expectations.

Barca won three consecutive LaLiga crowns and two Champions Leagues – the first as part of a 2008-09 treble.

Unlike Cruyff, who never coached again after leaving Barca, and Rijkaard, who maybe should have followed suit and not endured underwhelming stints with Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia, Guardiola spread the gospel far and wide.

His Bayern Munich won three out of three Bundesligas, while Manchester City have set a record 100-points margin in the Premier League and are closing in on the third top-flight title of Guardiola's trophy-laden tenure.

ERNESTO VALVERDE

One of Guardiola's legacies after leaving Barcelona was any potential successors would have a stronger chance of getting the job if they had a link to Cruyff, La Masia or both. Luis Enrique followed Guardiola's path from Barca B to first team and even emulated the treble.

As a back-up forward at Camp Nou between 1988 and 1990, Valverde was an unflashy squad member of Cruyff went about empire building, a description that could also be applied to a strong coaching career as he earned respect during spells in charge of Espanyol, Olympiacos and Athletic Bilbao.

His Cruyff association, as much as those efforts in the dugout was a factor in him being appointed to replace Luis Enrique in 2017.

Despite inheriting the saga of Neymar's departure and an increasingly muddled sporting policy, Valverde won back-to-back LaLiga titles and helmed a record 43-match unbeaten run in LaLiga between April 2017 and May 2018 that began under his predecessor.

RONALD KOEMAN

The shambles that followed under Quique Setien, culminating in a shambolic 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in last year's Champions League quarter-finals, spoke well of the tight ship Valverde ran. After that failed experiment, Barca reverted to a familiar type.

Ronald Koeman became the club's fifth Dutch head coach after Michels, Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Rijkaard.

Despite outstripping Mauricio Pochettino's win percentage at Southampton by 47.4 to 35.2, Koeman's work in the Premier League did not have other elite clubs beating down his door – much less his spell at Valencia.

His first season in the job he craved has not been without considerable turbulence, but a recent switch to a particularly Cruyffian 3-4-3 (hello, Frenkie de Jong in the middle of the back three!) and the apparent backing of recently elected president Joan Laporta suggests brighter days ahead.

JULEN LOPETEGUI

Even less prominent than Valverde as a Cruyff player, Julen Lopetegui was Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper between 1994 and 1997. But again, an unshakeable impression was made.

"As soon as I had the first training session with Johan I thought 'this is different to all other coaches', he was brilliant," he told BBC Sport in 2019.

"He planted the seed for other coaches to take on his ideas and develop those ideas. He was one step ahead of the rest."

The same could not be said for Lopetegui as he exited two dream jobs with Spain and Real Madrid in the space of a nightmare six months, but a cathartic Europa League triumph with Sevilla last season showed a coach impressively rebuilding his reputation.

Among coaches to have managed at least 40 Sevilla games in LaLiga, none can better Lopetegui's 54.5 per cent win percentage.

Lionel Messi is "the best player in history" and should stay at Barcelona, claims LaLiga president Javier Tebas, who laughed off the suggestion of Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland joining a Spanish club.

On Sunday, Messi overtook Xavi as the player with the most appearances for Barca, six days after the 33-year-old scored a 20th LaLiga player for the 13th successive season – another record.

The Argentina forward has been involved in more goals in 2021 than any other player across Europe's 'top five' leagues, but he still has not tied his future to the Catalan club, who he wished to leave in 2020.

Messi elected to stay and see out the last year of his contract, but his future remains up in the air with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain interested.

Tebas has consistently urged Messi to remain in Spain but has also refuted the suggestion LaLiga would suffer markedly without the Barca star, citing examples of Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for PSG and Juventus respectively.

He reiterated those comments on Wednesday, suggesting Messi would damage his "brand" by moving to another club.

"If I were Messi's advisor I would tell him, 'Stay at Barca'," Tebas told reporters.

"I want Messi to stay. He is the best player in history. If you are thinking about his last years of football, he should continue to be linked to the Barcelona brand.

"He started at Barcelona and I think he should continue at Barca. If I was his advisor, I would tell him he must do everything possible to stay at Barca."

While Messi continues to break records at Barca, his era of dominance in European football appears to be coming to an end.

Mbappe and Haaland are the players seemingly destined to take the baton from Messi and Ronaldo, with the Borussia Dortmund and PSG stars already having been pitted against each other by media outlets across the continent.

Mbappe, 22, hit his 100th Ligue 1 goal in a 4-2 win over Lyon on Sunday, while 20-year-old Haaland has been in sensational form since breaking through with Salzburg last season.

Between them, the duo have shared 41 goals in all competitions this season (21 for Haaland, 20 for Mbappe), while they have both converted 17 of the 27 "big chances" they have been afforded at a rate of 62.96 per cent.

Often utilised in a wide role for PSG, Mbappe has provided six assists and crafted 25 chances. Haaland has also proved his worth from a creative standpoint, teeing up four goals and forging 19 opportunities for team-mates to score.

Mbappe has often been linked with a move to Barca or Real Madrid but is in talks with PSG over a new deal, while Haaland is reportedly a priority target for Pep Guardiola's City, and Tebas sees little chance of either player moving to LaLiga.

"How, with a magic trick?" Tebas quipped when asked of the likelihood of seeing Mbappe or Haaland playing in Spain.

"Barca have to move out many players to bring a star, Madrid are not in position to do it either. Apart from the clubs owned by nation states, everyone has financial issues."

Germany head coach Joachim Low has revealed he is planning to learn Spanish in the future but insisted he does not have a club job in LaLiga lined up.

Low will step down as Germany boss after this year's European Championships after the German Football Association (DFB) agreed to his request to leave the position early.

His contract originally ran to the 2022 World Cup but Low will instead depart after the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament which starts in June this year.

The 61-year-old has been at the helm since 2006 when he replaced Jurgen Klinsmann and guided his country to World Cup success in 2014.

Speaking at a media conference on Wednesday ahead of World Cup qualifiers with Iceland, Romania and North Macedonia, Low quashed talk of a job in Spanish football.

"I was thinking about it a little while ago. But this hasn't anything to do with a club," Low said.

"You could use Spanish in the whole world. In South America, Europe and the USA you could always use it. After English, it is a very important language. 

"I like the language and wanted to learn it at some point. Maybe I will have the chance to deepen that in the future. But that hasn't anything to do with a Spanish club, it is a useful language to know, though."

Low has taken charge of 189 games for Germany and overseen 120 wins, 38 draws and 31 defeats with a win percentage of 63.49.

The build-up to the Thursday's clash with Iceland in Duisburg has been dominated by talk of who will succeed Low, but midfielder Emre Can insisted the players have not been distracted.

"I think for us players it's almost irrelevant. It's more a topic for the media," Can said.

"Football players are always under pressure when we play for the national team and participate at tournaments. It doesn't matter if there is debate around the coach or not. 

"The coach has made his decision and for sure he is highly motivated for the European Championships, obviously we want to play a successful European Championships for his farewell."

Hansi Flick, who won a remarkable sextuple in his first year as Bayern Munich's head coach, has been mooted as the DFB's preferred successor to Low.

The 56-year-old was Low's assistant coach for almost eight years, from August 2006 to July 2014, leaving his role after Germany's World Cup triumph.

Bayern have been the form side in Europe in Flick's time in charge, and despite a shock exit in the DFB-Pokal earlier this season, are still well in the hunt for a Bundesliga and Champions League double.

However, Bayern and Germany midfielder Joshua Kimmich does not expect his club boss to instead become his national team manager.

"Hansi Flick has a contract and we are incredibly successful here," Kimmich told Bild. "That's why I do not assume that he will."

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.

Could Harry Kane end up at Real Madrid?

Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland is one of Europe's most sought-after and expensive players, while Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe also commands a hefty fee.

With that in mind, Tottenham's Kane has reportedly emerged as a transfer target in the Spanish capital.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID ADD KANE TO LIST

Real Madrid are interested in signing Tottenham star Harry Kane, according to SER Deportivo.

Madrid have been heavily linked with in-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe.

But Madrid's hierarchy reportedly feel a deal to prise Kane from Tottenham may be easier.

 

ROUND-UP

- Wednesday's Marca and Diario AS newspapers are dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo. Marca claims Ronaldo would exit Juventus to return to Madrid, who he left in 2018. Diario AS says Juve are ready to listen to offers for the five-time Ballon d'Or winner. Ronaldo has also been linked with former club Manchester United.

- Sport reports Manchester City defender Eric Garcia will join Barcelona on a five-year deal. It will be the first major signing under new president Joan Laporta as the LaLiga giants also eye Haaland and look to re-sign superstar captain Lionel Messi, who has been tipped to join either PSG or City on a free transfer at season's end.

- TV3 claims Ronald Koeman will continue as Barca head coach in 2021-22 following talks with Laporta. RB Leipzig's Julian Nagelsmann and club great Xavi had been linked.

Inter are ready to reignite their interest in Udinese star Rodrigo De Paul, claims Calciomercato. The Serie A leaders have previously been linked with the Argentina midfielder. Antonio Conte's Inter are also tracking Madrid outcast Isco, according to Sport.

- L'Equipe claims United are considering a move for Tottenham captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris amid doubts over David de Gea. Milan star Gianluigi Donnarumma has also emerged as a possible target.

Bayern Munich are in talks to sign Madrid attacker Lucas Vazquez on a free transfer, according to AS.

Liverpool, Juventus and Roma are among clubs interested in Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez, says AS. The 31-year-old is out of contract at the end of 2021-22.

Real Madrid great Fernando Hierro said the LaLiga champions should sign both Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe.

In-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain star Mbappe have been linked with moves to Madrid.

Madrid captain Sergio Ramos believes it would be easier for Los Blancos to sign Haaland instead of Mbappe due to the financial situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But former Madrid skipper Hierro – who won five LaLiga titles and three Champions League trophies among other honours during his career at the Santiago Bernabeu – wants the club to bring in both forwards.

"If I were Real Madrid, I would sign Haaland and Mbappe," Hierro told Radio Marca.

The future of Madrid superstar Ramos is also dominating headlines, with the 34-year-old Spain defender out of contract at season's end and no closer to extending his deal.

Ramos has been linked with PSG and Manchester United and there appears to be a significant chance of him opting to move elsewhere after 16 trophy-laden seasons in Madrid.

"I would like Sergio Ramos to continue and retire at Real Madrid," Hierro said.

"But not because of the time he has been there, but because of his performances.

"He is showing that he is still the best in the world. When there is will, people understand each other.

"There are times when the economic situation is not the most important thing and you have to assess where you want to be."

Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos has withdrawn from the Germany squad for their upcoming fixtures because of an adductor injury.

The 31-year-old linked up with his national side on Monday for the World Cup qualifiers with Iceland, Romania and North Macedonia.

However, Germany confirmed on Tuesday that Kroos has returned to Madrid as a precautionary measure and will play no part in any of their games over the next eight days.

"Our medical department has examined and treated Toni intensively," said head coach Joachim Low, who will step down from his position at the end of the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament.

"He would have liked to stay with us, and I am reluctant to be without him. But with a view to the Euros, we decided that the full recovery from this injury must be a priority."

Kroos earned his 100th cap for Germany in October's 3-3 draw with Switzerland and has featured 35 times in all competitions for Madrid this season.

He previously missed two games earlier this season with a gluteal injury, seeing him play no part in the league wins over Real Valladolid and Levante.

Germany are also without Niklas Sule and Robin Gosens for Thursday's clash with Iceland in Duisburg, the pair unavailable with thigh and muscular problems respectively.

The build-up to the match has been dominated by talk of who will succeed Low as the next Germany head coach, but Manuel Neuer insists it will be business as usual on the field.

"We had a short team meeting and are concentrating on our tasks," he said. "We have to be well prepared for the European Championship and will use every game to do that.

"We cannot make any more mistakes. We have a strong group, against some strong opponents, so every game is a final from the start.

"Of course now we want to crown this era with a success. The coach deserves that to end with a success after the successful years.

"He is is very motivated and ambitious. It's not that he thinks he's going to retire. He's enthusiastic. He wants to quit as national coach as successfully as possible."

Under-21s boss Stefan Kuntz is among the frontrunners to replace Low, who has been at the helm since 2006 and guided his country to World Cup success in 2014.

Ralf Rangnick and Hansi Flick, who manages Neuer at club level with Bayern, are also in the running, while Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann have distanced themselves.

Asked about the candidates for one of the top jobs in football, Neuer said: "A national coach must have experience and must have done one or the other in German football. 

"He should know the Bundesliga. It's not about what we think, but about the goals that we have in front of us."

Wales captain Gareth Bale insists he is not distracted by uncertainty over his future and expects to return to Real Madrid at the end of the season as planned.

The 31-year-old rejoined Tottenham on a season-long loan from Madrid last September after falling out of favour at the Santiago Bernabeu under Zinedine Zidane.

Bale has had a mixed time of things since returning to north London, the forward having scored 10 goals and assisted three more in 25 appearances.

There had recently been talk of Bale staying on at Spurs after hitting form, but he was criticised by Jose Mourinho last week and played no part in Sunday's win at Aston Villa.

And with a year still to run on his Madrid contract, the forward believes he will be back in the Spanish capital after representing Wales at the rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament.

"It's no distraction," he said at a news conference on Tuesday previewing Wales' opening World Cup 2022 qualifier against Belgium.

"The main reason I obviously came to Spurs was I wanted to play football, I wanted to be match fit. The original plan was only to do a season.

"After the Euros, I have a year left at Real Madrid. My plan is to go back."

Wales' preparations for Wednesday's clash with Belgium, the world's number one ranked nation, have been disrupted by a number of injury withdrawals.

Having already lost Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey from their initial 31-man squad, Tottenham's Ben Davies and fellow defender Tom Lockyer pulled out on Tuesday.

It is a big blow for Rob Page as he once again takes caretaker charge of Wales in the absence of Ryan Giggs, who remains under investigation due to an allegation of assault, which he denies.

"It's not great news for us, two defenders getting injured prior to camp," Page said. "We've assessed them and they're no good. It's not ideal preparation. We’ve got to react to that and pick a team that we think will win us the game.

"I think they're quite significant injuries. It's a shame. But we have to deal with it."

Page also took charge of Wales' three fixtures in November – a friendly draw against the United States, followed by Nations League wins against the Republic of Ireland and Finland.

Skipper Bale has been impressed by Page's work in the last two camps but is eager for the situation regarding Giggs to be resolved before the Euro 2020 finals.

"Pagey has done an incredible job. He's addressed the situation amazingly well and kept the consistency," Bale said.  "There are no excuses. We've had another good couple of days and we're fully focused. We're ready to go.

"I think my influence has been the same. We're just trying to keep it the same. Nothing has changed. Going into the Euros, ideally things are sorted, but we understand the situation. The FAW [Football Association of Wales] will be in charge of that, not the players."

Asked about his fitness, having been benched against Dinamo Zagreb and not used at all versus Villa three days later, Bale said: "I didn't play Sunday but I've had a couple of days' training. 

"It's been a quick turnaround. Same for every country. Everyone is in the same boat – we're ready to go.

"It's probably the most match fitness I've had. I'm feeling fresh and ready to go."

Wales have won their opening group match in just five of their 18 World Cup qualifying campaigns, although they have done so in two of the previous three.

The Dragons are unbeaten in four games against Belgium, famously beating their next opponents 3-1 in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.

But Belgium enter the match in Leuven in great form, winning 23 of their past 24 qualifying matches since going down 1-0 to Wales in June 2015, and Bale is predicting a tough opening Group E test.

"We know Belgium is a great team and we know we're going to be the underdogs," he said. "But you don't need to be the best team to win a game.

"This is why football is so great. What we showed that night [at Euro 2016] was more heart, desire, belief. When we pull on the Welsh shirt, we believe we have more passion than anyone.

"I think beating a big nation in a qualifier gives us confidence to grow. When you enjoy winning, it breeds more."

Manchester City have been linked with Erling Haaland.

As Sergio Aguero appears headed for an exit, Pep Guardiola wants to bolster his attack.

But Danny Ings has reportedly emerged as an alternative to the expensive and in-demand Haaland.

 

TOP STORY – CITY TARGET INGS

Manchester City are considering a move for Southampton star Danny Ings, according to Sky Sports.

City's all-time leading goalscorer Sergio Aguero is out of contract at the end of the season and no closer to extending his deal in Manchester.

Pep Guardiola's City are reportedly among the admirers of Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland, who has also been linked with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Juventus.

With Haaland set to command a huge fee, City are eyeing former Liverpool forward Ings as a cheaper alternative.

 

ROUND-UP

- Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport report Juventus head coach Andrea Pirlo is on the brink of being sacked. Juve are out of the Champions League and 10 points off the pace following their shock loss to Benevento. Former boss Massimiliano Allegri has been linked with a return, while La Repubblica claims Atalanta's Gian Piero Gasperini, Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi and Luciano Spalletti are on a three-man shortlist.

- Former Chelsea and Juventus boss Maurizio Sarri is Roma's number one option should they sack head coach Paulo Fonseca, says Gazzetta dello Sport. Fonseca – under pressure in the Italian capital – has also been linked with Napoli, alongside Hellas Verona's Ivan Juric. Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso has been linked with Fiorentina, Torino and Bologna.

Neymar re-signing with Ligue 1 holders PSG is "just a matter of time", according to Fabrizio Romano.

Aaron Ramsey is interested in a move to Premier League champions Liverpool, according to Calciomercato. The Juventus midfielder, who left Arsenal for Turin in 2019, is seen as a possible replacement for rumoured Barca target Georginio Wijnaldum at Anfield.

- The Daily Express reports Arsenal are eyeing Barcelona misfit Philippe Coutinho. However, a move will depend on whether Arsenal sign loanee Martin Odegaard permanently from Madrid.

Xabi Alonso is set to become the new head coach of Borussia Monchengladbach next season, replacing Dortmund-bound Marco Rose. Romano, however, insists no contract has been signed as the former Bayern Munich star remains in charge of Real Sociedad's B team.

Erling Haaland dismissed speculation over his future, insisting he has three years remaining on his Borussia Dortmund contract.

Haaland continues to take Europe by storm as the Dortmund star reportedly attracts interest from Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool.

The 20-year-old was asked about his future while on international duty with Norway, who will face Gibraltar in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday.

"I still have three years of contract [at Dortmund]," Haaland told reporters.

"I am not worried about that."

Haaland, who joined Dortmund from Austrian champions Salzburg in January last year, scored twice in Saturday's 2-2 draw away to Cologne.

He took his tally to 14 away goals in the Bundesliga this season, more than Werder Bremen (13), Hertha Berlin (13), Mainz (11), Arminia Bielefeld (10) and Schalke (eight) have scored at home in 2020-21.

Haaland has scored 21 goals in 21 league appearances this season and 33 across all competitions.

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