Memphis Depay is confident he can form a balanced front three with Lionel Messi and fellow new signing Sergio Aguero at Barcelona.

Netherlands attacker Depay joined Barca as a free agent when his Lyon contract expired on July 1 and scored a penalty on his debut in Saturday's 3-1 friendly win over Girona.

The 27-year-old got his career back on track at Lyon following a disappointing spell with Manchester United, scoring 76 goals in 178 appearance for the Ligue 1 side.

Depay played mainly as a centre-forward in the French top flight last season and scored 20 goals – only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27) netted more.

He also showed his ability to create for others by laying on 12 assists and creating 94 chances, which were more than any other player managed in Ligue 1 in 2020-21.

And the PSV academy product believes he is capable of playing with ex-Manchester City striker Aguero and Messi, who is expected to sign a new deal to remain at Camp Nou.

"We are all attackers, but we are all different in my opinion," Depay told Sport. "I have different abilities and strengths than Aguero, for example, or any other player.

"I think the three of us are compatible and different. But we will see how everything goes.

"It would be amazing to play with Messi and I hope that is possible. He has a number of qualities that the team needs and it's important to build everything around that.

"There is a lot of talent here. It would be great to play alongside him and win titles."

 

Depay previously played under Barca head coach Ronald Koeman for the Netherlands national side and is glad to have reunited with his compatriot in Catalonia.

"He has had a great impact on me," Depay said. "He changed the Netherlands team and counted on me, giving me confidence. 

"Now he is counting on me for this adventure, so he has undoubtedly been an important figure in my career.

"I know him and how he trains, so it's easier for me to adapt. I know what he expects of me after working together for a long time.

"Even with him on the bench it will obviously not be easy, but without him it would have been different."

Depay has been labelled a "rebellious" figure during his career to date but, citing comparisons to former Barca player Luis Suarez, is not fazed by that tag.

"I think 'rebellious' is often used as a negative, but sometimes you can use it as a good thing," he said. 

"Sometimes if you are rebellious on the field it can give you something extra and help you win the game. 

"For example, Luis Suarez has won many games and scored many goals without being the nicest and sweetest person in the world. 

"Maybe because of my appearance people may think that I am a rebellious boy. When you meet me, you see that I am a normal guy, like any other person. 

"Maybe I'm a little different because of the way I express myself, how I make music. I may be more misunderstood for that. 

"But boy, I don't mind being called a rebel. People have a feeling about me that may either be very good or they may not like. 

"The truth is that everyone is free to create their own opinion, their image."

New Barcelona signing Memphis Depay is relishing the chance to link up with Lionel Messi, who he believes showed at the Copa America why he is still the world's best player.

Netherlands international Depay joined Barca as a free agent when his Lyon contract expired on July 1 and was officially unveiled at Camp Nou on Thursday.

While the 27-year-old is excited to begin a new chapter in his career at Barca, club legend Messi's future is less clear as he has yet to sign a new deal and is now a free agent.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is reportedly close to agreeing a long-term contract with the Spanish giants that will keep him tied down to the club until 2026.

Messi is currently on an extended break after inspiring Argentina to their first Copa America crown since 1993 earlier this month.

He scored four goals and provided five assists to win the Golden Boot and his maiden piece of silverware while representing his country at senior level.

Depay is hopeful Messi will soon put pen to paper so he can fulfil a dream of playing alongside the superstar forward.

"He is a legend and the best player in the world," Depay said at his unveiling. "Did you see what he did in the Copa America?

"I really want to play with Leo. His qualities with the ball are undeniable. As long as I make the runs, I know the ball will come. I am a great fan of his.

"Yesterday I had a tour of the museum and saw all of the Ballon d'Or awards he has won. He probably has another one coming, too. It's going to be a dream for me."

 

After a short break following the Netherlands' last-16 exit to the Czech Republic at Euro 2020 last month, Depay arrived in Catalonia on Monday to begin pre-season training.

The Dutchman got his career back on track at Lyon following a disappointing spell with Manchester United, scoring 76 goals in 178 appearances for the Ligue 1 side.

He enjoyed an impressive final season in the French top flight with 20 goals, trailing only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27).

The former PSV youth product's 12 assists and 94 chances created, meanwhile, were more than any other player managed in Ligue 1 in 2020-21.

After months of drawn-out speculation, Depay is pleased to have finally completed a switch to Barcelona this month.

"It's an honour to be here, a dream come true," he said. "Since I was little I dreamed of it. The conversations have been long, but the will has always been there.

"At last I am here. Everyone who is present knows the importance of the club around the world, of how great it is and the impact it has.

"At 27 years of age achieving my dream is surprising and fantastic. I really want to start playing. 

"The team is ready for the new season, we are rested and the time has come to go back to work and pick up trophies."

Koeman previously managed Depay while in charge of the Netherlands, but the former Man Utd attacker insists his compatriot was not a deciding factor in leaving Lyon for Barca.

"I would have come even if he was not here because you don't say no to Barca," he said. "I would have come anyway, but it is also true that the coach has had a great impact. 

"I know him well. He played me as a forward with the national team. He has made me feel comfortable because I started playing better."

Depay is one of three free agents to have joined the cash-strapped Catalans this window, along with former Manchester City pair Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia.

Asked if he is concerned by Barca's financial problems, which have not been helped by the coronavirus pandemic, Depay said: "No. I am focused only on the game. 

"I cannot focus on that. The business part is something the president [Joan Laporta] and the board will take care of. When fans are back in the stadium the situation will improve."

Barcelona president Joan Laporta insists the club are "making progress" in all aspects of the contract negotiations with Lionel Messi after the six-time Ballon d'Or winner's previous deal expired.

Despite Messi technically no longer belonging to Barca, those associated with the club have portrayed a serene demeanour regarding a potential future agreement.

Even with his contract winding down, Barca officials have routinely affirmed that Messi's desire is to remain at Camp Nou, though LaLiga's salary cap rules mean he is reportedly set to be on half his previous wage should he ultimately accept a new deal.

However, the caveat that is thought to favour Barca in discussions is they are said to be offering Messi a five-year contract that would keep him at the club until he is at least 39.

While that may surprise some, Messi's form in 2020-21 showed he is far from being finished, as he ended the campaign as LaLiga's top scorer and managed 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions, which translated to a goal every 110.3 minutes.

Similarly, he laid on 117 chances for others across all competitions. The fact Jordi Alba was the second most creative player in the Barca squad with 85 key passes only further underlined Messi's remarkable influence, but Laporta is adamant talks are proceeding as planned.

"The player has always said that he wants to continue [at Barca], there is no doubt about that," Laporta said at the presentation of Memphis Depay on Thursday.

"We are making progress in all the negotiations involving a contract of this type. They are going very well and it is a wish that we all have [for Messi to sign].

 

"We do not hide the will that we want him to continue and to be here for many years."

One player who is still signed to Barca but arguably has a more uncertain future than Messi is Antoine Griezmann, who could reportedly be involved in a swap deal that sees Atletico Madrid's Saul Niguez arrive in Catalonia.

Laporta initially stressed Griezmann has a future at Barca, though he soon acknowledged he is not untransferable.

"He is a player in the Barca first team, he has a valid contract and we are counting on him," Laporta said.

"The transfer market has started and practically nothing has happened. All the clubs are in certain difficulties.

"Players like Griezmann have a market, there are interested clubs and we are building our squad looking for financial balance. We are delighted with him and we are all professionals.

"Yes, the market is moving. We are open to all proposals because we are in a delicate moment and we are talking with all the players of the first team to see how they feel so that balancing acts hurt as little as possible."

Gianfranco Zola believes midfielder Jorginho would be a deserving winner of the Ballon d'Or despite Lionel Messi's claims on the award.

Jorginho finished the 2020-21 campaign as Chelsea's leading Premier League scorer with seven goals, albeit each of those came from the penalty spot.

He carried that form into Euro 2020, playing every game for Italy in their successful campaign that ended with a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley.

Jorginho actually missed from the spot in the final, but he otherwise enjoyed an impeccable tournament for the Azzurri.

The Brazilian-born player led the way in terms of interceptions at Euro 2020 with 25, substantially more than Chelsea team-mate N'Golo Kante (14), who was next best.

Meanwhile, Jorginho's 484 successful passes were bettered only by Spain's Aymeric Laporte (644), leading to seven chances being created for his team-mates. Only Azzurri colleague Lorenzo Insigne (40) was involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 38.

 

Barcelona's Messi, a six-time Ballon d'Or winner, finished as LaLiga's top scorer last season with 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions before inspiring Argentina to glory in the Copa America.

Despite Messi's pedigree former Chelsea forward Zola – who earned 35 caps for Italy and scored 10 goals between 1991 and 1997 – backed Jorginho as a worthy challenger. 

"The Ballon d'Or is usually awarded to a striker or an offensive player who can score a lot," Zola told Stats Perform. 

"Now we are talking about a fantastic player like [Lionel] Messi who did extraordinary things for the first time with his national team – and this won’t go unnoticed. 

"Should they give it to Jorginho, it would be deserved. He gives concrete balance and pace to his teams. I was lucky to have him at Chelsea and I know what he does on the pitch.

"It would be deserved because not only were his performances at a high level, but the teams he played for have been outstanding. This must be taken into account."

Ronald Koeman has warned Barcelona's rivals a rejuvenated and focused Lionel Messi will have a massive impact in the forthcoming season.

Messi is technically still a free agent after his contract with the Blaugrana expired at midnight on June 30, but it has been widely reported the 34-year-old is poised to sign a new five-year deal at Camp Nou.

Messi was again hugely influential for Barcelona last season, finishing as LaLiga's top scorer and managing 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions.

He also created 117 chances for others and netted a goal every 110.32 minutes over the course of 2020-21. 

The Argentina international is expected to take a substantial pay cut to stay at Barca but Koeman does not expect his influence to diminish.

"Messi is very important, he is the captain of the team and an example," head coach Koeman told a media conference on Sunday.

"After a difficult start due to his own situation, his effectiveness was enormous [in 2020-21].

"He really wanted to win the Copa America and, as he is the best player in the world, he is used to winning things. For me, he is the big favourite to win the Ballon d'Or."

 

Koeman claimed the presence of Messi and other experienced players will bring balance to Barca in the new campaign.

"The veteran players have a place in the squad," Koeman explained.

"They already showed it last year and it is important that they be with us. In a club like Barca, the balance between the oldest and the youngest must exist."

Koeman has taken some of the attacking burden of Messi shoulders with the signings of Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero on free transfers.

Depay enjoyed a fine final season in Ligue 1, scoring 20 times, trailing only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27), while his 12 assists and 94 chances created were the most in France's top flight.

Aguero scored a club-record 260 goals in 389 appearances in all competitions during a glittering decade with Manchester City.

"I know Memphis very well and he knows how to work," Koeman added.

"He has a lot of character, physicality, speed, he can play in different positions in attack. He's the perfect age to show it.

"With Sergio, we had to improve our performance at the top and he is a very experienced and dangerous player in the penalty area. 

"The important thing is that he is physically well and our goal is to keep him in top form."

Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain was a "dream" scenario, according to Argentina team-mate Leandro Paredes.

Messi was heavily linked with the French giants, as well as Premier League side Manchester City, having handed in a transfer request at Camp Nou last year.

Messi ended up staying to see out the final year of his deal and recently became a free agent, though there has been little talk of a move away from Barcelona amid reports he is on the verge of signing a five-year extension.

Paredes talked up the chances of his compatriot making the switch to PSG earlier this year, but he accepts the superstar forward is now set to stay in Spain.

"Yes, there was a lot of talk at the club when it emerged that Leo could come to Paris," he told ESPN. "It was a dream to imagine he could be with us next season.

"But hey, that didn't happen. I hope he likes where he plays."

 

Messi has spent his entire senior career with Barcelona, making 778 appearances and scoring a club-record 672 goals.

He was again hugely influential for Barca last season, finishing as LaLiga's top scorer as he managed 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions.

Taking all competitions into account, he created 117 chances for others and netted a goal every 110.32 minutes. Full-back Jordi Alba was next on the list of the most chances created for Barca in 2020-21, teeing up 85 opportunities.

Despite the speculation surrounding his club future, Messi carried his club form onto the international stage, inspiring Argentina to their first Copa America crown since 1993.

He scored four goals and provided five assists to win his maiden piece of silverware while representing his country.

Gianluigi Donnarumma is Euro 2020 winners Italy's star player and will be the best goalkeeper in the world for the next 10 to 15 years, according to Fabio Cannavaro.

The 22-year-old was named UEFA's Player of the Tournament for his penalty shoot-out heroics in Italy's victory over England in last Sunday's final at Wembley.

Donnarumma kept out efforts from Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, after Marcus Rashford had earlier hit the post, as Italy ended their 53-year wait to win a second Euros crown.

He has won all five of the shoot-outs he has been involved in for club and country, having also made a crucial save in the semi-final shoot-out victory against Spain.

Italy legend Cannavaro believes Donnarumma answered any of his remaining critics with his displays at Euro 2020 and expects his compatriot to shine for at least the next decade. 

"Donnarumma is the real champion of this Azzurri side," Cannavaro told Tuttosport. "I am surprised that, before the Euros, some people thought he was an average goalkeeper. 

"There's nothing average about Gigio. Just think of the tranquillity he has at 22. He will be the best goalkeeper for the next 10 to 15 years."

Donnarumma played more minutes at Euro 2020 than any other player (719), missing only the closing stages of Italy's win against Wales in the group stage.

After spending time celebrating the Azzurri's triumph, the young keeper this week completed a free transfer from Milan to Paris Saint-Germain, where he will compete with Keylor Navas.

"At least we will enjoy him with the national team," Cannavaro added.

 

In his final season at San Siro, where he has spent his entire senior career to date, Donnarumma recorded a joint-high 14 Serie A clean sheets alongside Inter's Samir Handanovic.

While Italy ended a long wait for continental silverware last week, Argentina did likewise by claiming their first Copa America crown since 1993.

Lionel Messi was the star performer for Argentina, scoring four goals and assisting five more to win his first trophy at international level.

Despite Donnarumma's impressive displays for Italy, Cannavaro is backing Messi to win a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or crown later this year.

"He is the absolute number one and he was the protagonist of a great Copa America," Cannavaro said.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta is optimistic Lionel Messi will sign a contract extension with the club but knows they must stay patient.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner is now a free agent after his deal at Camp Nou expired on June 30.

According to reports, Messi has agreed a new five-year deal with the Blaugrana while accepting a substantial pay cut – although there has yet to be official confirmation.

Barca's significant financial difficulties are likely to mean other players must leave before Messi – or any of the club's new signings, including Sergio Aguero – can be registered.

Nevertheless, club president Laporta says negotiations are progressing well and is confident there will be a positive update in the near future.

"The professionals are doing their job well," he said. "We are very satisfied with how everything is progressing.

"But you know that it is a special market that requires patience, skill and sometimes some juggling.

"But I think, as the summer progresses, we will be able to give good news."

Messi has spent his entire playing career with the Catalan giants, for whom he is the all-time leading scorer with 672 goals in 778 appearances.

The 34-year-old has also won 10 LaLiga titles with Barca since making his senior debut in 2004, as well as the Copa del Rey seven times and the Champions League on four occasions.

And he recently captured his first major international honour; captaining Argentina to Copa America glory following a 1-0 victory over Brazil in the final.

Lionel Messi has agreed a five-year contract extension with Barcelona after accepting a substantial pay cut, according to reports.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner became a free agent when his contract at Camp Nou, where he has spent his entire senior career, expired at midnight on June 30.

However, following months of speculation regarding Messi's future, Catalan dailies L'Esportiu and Sport reported on Wednesday that the 34-year-old has agreed to stay on.

An announcement could be made as early as Thursday, it is claimed, once LaLiga officials have signed off on the contract.

Barcelona are facing high-profile financial problems and need to reduce their wage bill if they are to comply with LaLiga's financial fair play rules.

Speaking on Monday, however, Barca president Joan Laporta revealed talks between the Catalan giants and Messi were "progressing adequately".

The same reports suggest Messi has agreed to a far lower salary, potentially as much as 50 per cent on his previous deal that was signed in 2017.

The five-year contract will take the superstar forward through to the age of 39, though Barca may allow Messi to see out the final part of his career in Major League Soccer.

Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City were the main frontrunners for Messi last year, though neither club made an immediate move for the free agent.

 

Messi was again hugely influential for Barcelona last season, finishing as LaLiga's top scorer and managing 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions.

Taking all competitions into account, he created 117 chances for others and netted a goal every 110.32 minutes. 

Full-back Jordi Alba was next on the list of the most chances created for Barca in 2020-21, teeing up 85 goalscoring opportunities.

Despite the speculation surrounding his club future, Messi carried his club form onto the international stage by inspiring Argentina to their first Copa America crown since 1993.

He scored four goals and chipped in with five assists to win his first piece of silverware for his country.

Javier Tebas will not turn a blind eye to LaLiga's financial fair play rules to allow Barcelona to keep Lionel Messi.

Barca president Joan Laporta said this week that talks with Messi, who became a free agent for the first time in his career this month, were "progressing adequately".

And reports on Wednesday claimed Messi had agreed a new five-year contract with Barca that will pay him half his original salary.

Speaking prior to the emergence those reports, LaLiga president Tebas rejected the notion he could ignore salary cap rules to allow Barca to retain the services of the Argentina superstar.

In doing so, he hinted Barca could come under scrutiny from the league if they release players or staff to enable them to keep Messi.

"No, I won't [turn a blind eye] for Messi, it's impossible. There are many workers [at LaLiga] and in the economic control [department] as well," Tebas told Radio Marca.

 

"We often have to explain [the economic controls] to agents and players because they don't know about it or think clubs are deceiving them, and we've had to explain it in recent years.

"We'll have to analyse everything properly, because if there are dismissals for economic reasons but then they bring in Messi and others... we'd have to look into that.

"Right now, I can only give my opinion, and that is that it is odd that there has been no offer [for Messi] from Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

"And I firmly believe there isn't and that the player wants to stay."

 

Messi is coming off a 2020-21 season in which he scored 38 goals in all competitions, the fourth-most across Europe's top five leagues behind Robert Lewandowski (48), Kylian Mbappe (42) and Erling Haaland (41).

The sole reward for his efforts was the Copa del Rey, as Barca missed out on LaLiga and lost in the last 16 of the Champions League to Mbappe and PSG.

However, he crowned the campaign with his first senior international trophy, helping Argentina to triumph in the Copa America on Saturday as they defeated Brazil 1-0 in the final.

Kylian Mbappe should join Real Madrid at some point in his career, says Sergio Ramos, but Paris Saint-Germain's new signing wants the France star to stay put for now.

Ramos joined PSG earlier this month, signing a two-year contract with the Ligue 1 giants after leaving Madrid.

The defender, who missed out on Spain's Euro 2020 squad, failed to agree a new deal with Madrid and called time on a 16-year stint in the Spanish capital.

He joins a PSG team who will bid to reclaim the Ligue 1 title in 2021-22, after Lille's triumph last term, while the Champions League will be another one of head coach Mauricio Pochettino's goals.

However, perhaps the first priority for PSG is securing the future of Mbappe.

Neymar is already tied down to a long-term deal, but Mbappe is yet to sign an extension on the four-year contract he penned in 2018.

Mbappe, who endured a difficult Euro 2020 with France, has been heavily linked with a move to Madrid.

When asked if he would advise the 22-year-old to test himself in the Spanish capital, Ramos told Spanish media in a video call: "Of course. Madrid is one of the best clubs in the world. On a historical level, the best.

"For me, great players have to go through there. But now I want him on my team. I want to win and for that I want the best to be by my side.

"Advice on a personal level I could never give. I could tell him something from experience, but I would do it in private. As a PSG player, I would like him to stay. I like to play with the best and Mbappe is one of them."

 

Asked what he could say to help ensure Mbappe remains at PSG, Ramos said, according to AS.com: "I don't know. When you make the decision to leave or stay, it ends up being very personal.

"In my case, the family, the sports project. I don't know what Mbappe has in mind. I want him to stay here because he is very young and makes a difference.

"Here is a very good team. My winning spirit is what I can contribute to the group and if that can infect a team-mate, the better."

While Mbappe could become one of the most sought-after free agents of 2022, there is currently another superstar without a club.

As it stands, Lionel Messi is yet to agree a new contact with Barcelona, who are struggling financially.

"Leo is one of the best players in the world," said Ramos, who has been a Clasico nemesis of Messi through the years.

"But it is not up to me. I could tell you a thousand things, but they would not be decisive. Each person makes the decisions they have to make. But I like being surrounded by the best and he would always have a place in my team."

Italy and Argentina can prepare for the 2022 World Cup full of confidence after continental triumphs in the European Championship and Copa America.

The Azzurri have recovered in spectacular fashion from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally has an international honour to shout about.

Those teams were not alone in taking encouragement from this year's major international tournaments, but other potential Qatar contenders were not quite so impressive.

While some sides could reasonably point to mitigating factors – Belgium's injuries, Germany's final campaign under Joachim Low – plenty of big names underwhelmed.

With the World Cup finals, now just 16 months away, the next big target on the horizon, Stats Perform assesses which teams have put themselves in a better or worse position to challenge.

FULL OF HOPE...

Italy

Italy might have missed the previous World Cup after an awful qualifying campaign but, barring another such mishap, will enter the next tournament as defending European champions, and the Azzurri have in the past tended to perform better on the world stage than in the Euros, this their second continental championship to go alongside four global triumphs.

The only question mark against Roberto Mancini's side heading into Euro 2020 on a long unbeaten run was how they might fare against top teams, having largely avoided facing elite opposition since their most recent defeat to Portugal in September 2018. They then eliminated Belgium, Spain and England in succession to take the title and extend their stunning streak to 34 matches without a loss.

 

Only in the centre of defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, are Italy really ageing, and even then a swift turnaround could see the pair go again, having trailed for only 109 minutes of their undefeated stretch – 65 of those coming in the final against England.

Argentina

Argentina had been without a major honour since 1993, losing four Copa America finals and one World Cup decider since then. Messi had been involved in four of those five disappointments, but his and his country's fortunes finally changed for the better against Brazil.

The world's finest free agent was the obvious difference-maker, even if he did not score or create a goal in the 2021 final. Messi's goal involvements across the campaign improved from two in 2019 to a leading nine. He also created more chances (3.0, up from 2.0) and attempted more shots (4.0, up from 3.1) per 90 minutes.

But Messi also benefited from Argentina's sturdier foundations. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – a debutant last month – was a breakout star, with the defence in front of him limiting chances as La Albiceleste conceded only three goals, half as many as in more matches in two years earlier.

England

Qatar 2022 will feel a long way away right now for England, who were so close yet so far from glory at Wembley. It ended in disappointment, but just making a first major tournament final in 55 years can only be counted as a success.

And the Three Lions have now proven they can now regularly contend; having reached the semi-finals at the previous World Cup, they have won knockout matches at consecutive tournaments (excluding third-place play-offs) for the first time. This might well be England's best ever team and they still have age on their side heading to Qatar.

Gareth Southgate's side should at least continue to be hard to beat. Since his first game in charge in 2016, England have kept 35 clean sheets – four clear of Italy with the best tally for a European nation.

 

Spain

Two games into Euro 2020, it seemed unlikely Spain would emerge from the tournament in a particularly positive light. They had dominated against Sweden – setting records for possession (85 per cent), passes (917) and successful passes (830) – and Poland, yet drawn both matches.

But the next two outings were rather more uplifting as La Roja scored five times against both Slovakia and Croatia to become the first team in Euros history to do so in consecutive matches. After scraping past Switzerland on penalties, Spain were the better side against Italy in the last four, only to come up just short – this time beaten on spot-kicks.

If Luis Enrique can unearth a reliable forward before next November, having underperformed their expected goals total by an alarming 4.1, Spain will very much be back in business.

DOWNWARD SLOPE...

Netherlands

At the end of the group stage, the Netherlands looked to be on a comparable course to Italy. They had also missed out on the 2018 World Cup – and Euro 2016 – but then reached the final of the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and won their first three matches at Euro 2020.

Led by Memphis Depay, those victories had also extended a run of scoring at least twice to 10 consecutive games in an Oranje record. Only then, though, did their campaign fall apart.

 

Matthijs de Ligt's red card against the Czech Republic in the last 16 led to a shock 2-0 defeat and cost Frank de Boer his job. Rebuilding again, the Netherlands – who were missing Virgil van Dijk due to the injury he sustained in October 2020 – have work to do just to get to Qatar, one of three teams on six points in Group G in qualifying, behind Turkey.

France

France were the favourites for Euro 2020 and may well be the popular pick again next year, but their shock shoot-out exit to Switzerland raised plenty of questions.

Supposed to shine alongside the returning Karim Benzema, superstar forward Kylian Mbappe disappointed for the first time on the big stage, a solitary assist his only goal involvement. Yet even when the big names did combine to devastating effect, as Benzema scored twice within four minutes and three seconds of a Hugo Lloris penalty save against Switzerland, dismal defending cost Les Bleus.

France gave away a tournament-high three spot-kicks, not helped by Didier Deschamps' unsuccessful attempt to switch to a new 3-4-1-2 formation – one that will surely be left in the drawer for the World Cup.

Portugal

Will Cristiano Ronaldo consider this a successful tournament? Portugal lost their crown, but he took home the Golden Boot with five goals and an assist. The Juventus forward's contributions kept Fernando Santos' side in contention as far as the round of 16, although – as at times at club level – there was a suspicion this team might better be able to thrive without their talisman.

 

No other Portugal player tallied more than two goal involvements, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva each drawing blanks. Indeed, that highly talented quartet only attempted 10 shots – five fewer than Ronaldo alone – and created 13 chances between them.

In Qatar, Ronaldo may be less mobile but will surely remain front and centre, reluctant to step aside for Fernandes and Co as he takes one final shot at World Cup glory.

Brazil

Had a tense home final gone their way, Brazil would have again been big winners coming out of the Copa America. But Argentina's progress and decisive victory has seen the Selecao – for so long on top in South America – knocked off their perch.

After five consecutive successes, it was Brazil's first major tournament final defeat since the 1998 World Cup, while they had not been beaten in a knockout match at the Copa America (excluding penalties) since 2001 against Honduras. However, they did become world champions for a fifth time the following year.

That will be the hope as Tite's men regroup, having lost their scoring touch when it mattered most. Brazil netted only twice in three knockout games.

Talks between Lionel Messi and Barcelona over a new contract are "progressing adequately", according to Joan Laporta.

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi, who has spent his entire senior career at Camp Nou, is now officially a free agent after his Barcelona deal expired at the end of June.

He has been linked with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the past, but the 34-year-old is widely expected to remain with the Blaugrana despite their financial problems.

However, Barca must first reduce their wage bill if they are to comply with LaLiga's financial fair play rules and offer Messi the deal he is holding out for.

Messi's club future is now back in focus after helping Argentina to Copa America success last week and Barca president Laporta remains hopeful terms can be agreed.

"[Messi's renewal] is progressing adequately," he told reporters during the presentation of Mago Pop's show 'Nothing is Impossible'.

"All the Catalans, Barcelona, Catalunya and the entire football world are happy because Leo won the Copa America.

"It is very exciting to see the best player in football history get excited about winning a title like this and he made all of us cry with joy.

"He is very happy, we are all happy. I am happy for Leo who has managed [to win the Copa America], together with his team-mates, and that Argentina are once again in the elite. 

"I am happy for Messi's family, for Argentina, for Barcelona who are recognised, admired and loved for having this bond with Leo."

 

Messi was again hugely influential for Barcelona last season, finishing as LaLiga's top scorer and managing 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions.

Taking all competitions into account, he created 117 chances for others and netted a goal every 110.32 minutes. 

Full-back Jordi Alba was next on the list of the most chances created for Barca in 2020-21, teeing up 85 goalscoring opportunities.

Despite the speculation surrounding his club future, Messi carried his club form onto the international stage by inspiring Argentina to their first Copa America crown since 1993.

He scored four goals and chipped in with five assists to win his first piece of silverware for his country.

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America had the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Italy and Argentina lifted the respective trophies at the weekend, with the Azzurri beating England in a penalty shoot-out and La Albiceleste seeing off bitter rivals Brazil at the Maracana to win the Copa for the first time since 1993.

Stats Perform has looked at 13 of the leading candidates to feature at either tournament to determine how their chances look heading into the new season.

Jorginho

Before Euro 2020, N'Golo Kante was the Chelsea midfielder seen to be within the best shot of scooping individual honours at the end of 2021, but a month on it's Jorginho who is the European champion at club and international level.

While he has perhaps been underappreciated or misunderstood at times with Chelsea, perhaps supporters will see him in a new light after playing a vital role in Italy's success as their deep-lying playmaker.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Lewandowski's Ballon d'Or hopes arguably aren't any worse now than before the Euros as no one will have expected Paulo Sousa's men to make much of an impact. He got three goals in as many games and was only out-scored by six players, which is a solid achievement.

 

Marco Verratti

Had he not been injured for the first two games of Euro 2020, there's every possibility it would have been Verratti being crowned as player of the tournament, with the Paris Saint-Germain star arguably the player who embodies the qualities of Roberto Mancini's transformed Italy side more than any other.

Not only did he create more chances than anyone else at Euro 2020 (14), but averaged more touches (114.5) than anyone, played the fourth-most passes (87.1) and ranked third for tackles (four) per 90 minutes among all players to have featured for at least 125 minutes. His all-action excellence set the tone for the Azzurri's vibrant and, ultimately, successful football.

 

N'Golo Kante

Kante inspired Chelsea to Champions League glory, named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final versus Real Madrid and the final against Manchester City.

But France's last-16 elimination by Switzerland will have done little to boost his chances, with Paul Pogba rather than Kante the standout figure for Les Bleus. While a nomination is almost a certainty, taking the gong home now looks beyond the all-action midfielder.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

His exceptional quality was further underlined by the fact only Verratti created more chances than him over the course of the tournament, an impressive feat given he started the tournament late due to injury and then had to play through another fitness issue in Belgium's final match, but that's unlikely to be enough to earn him the award.

Gianluigi Donnarumma

Generally, the player considered to be the best at a major international competition has a pretty good chance of winning further accolades, so in that case Donnarumma may have a reasonable opportunity after UEFA crowned him Euro 2020's Player of the Tournament.

Statistically there were numerous goalkeepers who were more important than him to their respective teams given he technically didn't prevent any goals according to Opta's xGOT metric – Tomas Vaclik's prevented a tournament-high 2.5. Nevertheless, Donnarumma wasn't guilty of any drops or errors that led to shots, and made crucial saves across two penalty shoot-outs, including a couple in the final.

 

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

A slow start to Euro 2020 followed, although Kane scored four times in the knockout phase as he played a key role in England's journey to the final. But when it mattered most he failed to have a single touch in the Italy penalty area. A talismanic performance in the showpiece may have put him firmly in the running, but it's difficult to see him being a major contender now.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

He certainly cannot be accused of failing to deliver for Belgium given he scored four times, but they came up short against Italy in the quarter-finals, with a partially injured De Bruyne unable to truly weave his magic. Lukaku's influence upon Inter shouldn't be overlooked, but the achievements of others on the international stage may overshadow his own.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it did put him right in the mix and he followed that up with a starring role in Argentina's Copa triumph, the first senior international trophy of his career. Given his lack of success with La Albiceleste was arguably the final barrier to clear in his career, a Ballon d'Or will surely follow later this year as he led Lionel Scaloni's men with four goals (joint-most) and five assists (the most).

 

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day, but it probably won't be in 2021. He was one of the biggest disappointments at Euro 2020, failing to score once despite his chances having an accumulative xG value of 2.02 – that under-performance was second-worst to Gerard Moreno (3.32).

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he only had an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or ahead of the Copa America, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

While his performances with Brazil would see him included in most people's team of the tournament, he wasn't dependable in front of goal, his one non-penalty strike coming from 5.3 xG, an under-performance unmatched by anyone in the tournament. He'll have to wait a bit longer for the prize he supposedly craves above all others.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

He definitely didn't do his chances any harm as he won the Golden Boot for most goals (five) – beating Patrik Schick by virtue of having more assists – after becoming the Euros' all-time leading scorer (11) and levelling Ali Daei's world-record haul of 109 international goals, but Portugal's failure to get beyond the last 16 won't help.

 

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

But he could only muster one goal at the Copa America as he and Uruguay had a minimal impact, meaning it'll take something special for Suarez to be a major candidate at the end of the year.

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