Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi may have accomplished a lot in the Champions League, but as Ajax thrashed Sporting CP on Wednesday it was Sebastien Haller who wrote his name into the history books. 

Haller emulated a feat only previously achieved by Marco van Basten by scoring four goals on his Champions League debut, powering Ajax to a 5-1 success in the Group C encounter at Estadio Jose Alvalade. 

Van Basten, a Netherlands and Ajax icon, struck four times when Milan defeated Gothenburg 4-0 at San Siro in the inaugural Champions League season of 1992-93. 

Haller's first in Lisbon came after just 68 seconds – the fourth time Ajax have scored a goal in the opening two minutes of the competition since the start of 2019-20, which is two more than any other team. 

The Frenchman then became the first player in Champions League history to score a double in their first nine minutes of action in the competition when he tucked the ball home from close range.

After scoring the first with his head and the second with his right foot, Haller completed a perfect hat-trick in the 63rd minute when he converted from Antony's delivery with his left.

And with Haller's fourth, Ajax registered five in a single Champions League game for just the third time. Their two previous hauls of at least five goals came back in 1995. 

Lionel Messi is in line to make his 150th Champions League appearance and his first with Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.

Mauricio Pochettino's men travel to Club Brugge and Messi is about to partake in his first European campaign without Barcelona, while Manchester City host RB Leipzig.

Liverpool and Milan renew rivalries in the competition for just the second time since the 2004-05 final between the pair but the Serie A side have a woeful record against English teams.

Inter have a similarly poor record against Spanish teams and they face Real Madrid, with Karim Benzema edging towards another goalscoring landmark.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data ahead of Wednesday's fixtures.

Inter v Real Madrid: Benzema looks to edge past former Galactico Raul 

Inter have lost four of their last five against Real Madrid but Los Blancos have only won one of their previous eight away games against Wednesday's opponents as they prepare for a replay of last year's group stage outing.

However, Inter have not won against a Spanish team in Europe's premier competition since 2010 and Madrid have been victorious in 12 of their last 13 against Serie A outfits.

Carlo Ancelotti has Karim Benzema among his ranks and the forward will appear in his 17th consecutive campaign as he looks for his 72nd goal to move ahead of Raul (71) into fourth in the all-time scoring list.

 

Manchester City v RB Leipzig: Guardiola's group stage dominance

Manchester City are unbeaten in their last 17 group-stage ties and, since Pep Guardiola was appointed, they have lost just three of 30 at this stage of the competition.

The hosts are eyeing their 50th win in their 91st game as they look to become the second fastest to the half-century, while RB Leipzig have lost three of their last four against English opposition.

City's attacking riches could thrive at Etihad Stadium, too, Ferran Torres has scored four in his last six appearances in Europe - a goal every 90 minutes - and Riyad Mahrez has been involved in 22 goals in 28 starts for Leicester City and his current side in the Champions League.

 

Liverpool v Milan: Istanbul replay ends Rossoneri's seven-year wait

Milan will appear in their first Champions League since 2014, their first fixture a replay of the memorable 2004-05 final that saw Liverpool triumph.

Stefano Pioli's men have won just one of their last 13 against English opponents in European competition, while the Reds have lost just one of their last 12 group-stage games at Anfield in Europe under Jurgen Klopp.

Mohamed Salah (25) is one of two Liverpool players – along with Steven Gerrard (21) – to score 20+ times in the competition but Sadio Mane (19) could join them with a goal on Wednesday to become the fourth African to the 20-goal mark.

 

Club Brugge v Paris Saint-Germain: Pochettino's attacking riches

Paris Saint-Germain have netted 21 goals across six games against Belgian opposition – winning five and drawing once – while Club Brugge have only won one of their six opening games.

Lionel Messi – the second all-time leading scorer in the competition – could make his first PSG continental appearance, having scored 120 goals and provided 35 assists in 149 games for Barcelona against teams from 17 nations.

The visitors also boast half of the six players to be involved in 30+ goals in the competition in the last four seasons, with Kylian Mbappe (37), Messi (36) and Neymar (31) all doing so.

Other fixtures:

Atletico Madrid v Porto:

41 – Diego Simeone has won 41 of the 79 Champions League fixtures he has managed since 2013-14, with only Pep Guardiola (56) picking up more wins in this period.

4 – Porto have won four of their last five away games in the competition, their only loss coming against eventual runners-up Manchester City last term.

Besiktas v Borussia Dortmund:

1 – Besiktas have only collected one win in their last 10 home games in the Champions League and two of four defeats in that run have come against Bundesliga sides.

100 – Borussia Dortmund have a 100 per cent record against Turkish opposition in the Champions League, though all four wins have come against Galatasaray.

Sheriff Tiraspol v Shakhtar Donetsk:

1 – Sheriff Tiraspol are the first ever Moldovan team to feature in the Champions League proper. They are unbeaten in their last nine in European competition.

3 – Shakhtar Donetsk have only been beaten three times in their last 11 games as they went unbeaten against Real Madrid and Inter in the group stages last season.

Sporting CP v Ajax:

36 – Aged just 36, Ruben Amorim becomes the second youngest Portuguese manager in the competition's history, after former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas (33) in 2011.

2 – Ajax have only lost two of 10 games against Portuguese opponents since the inaugural European Cup. However, just two of these games have taken place this century.

Antoine Griezmann and Saul Niguez were the big names to move late on deadline day, with Atletico Madrid having a busy night.

Griezmann's move to his former club completed a day of outgoings for Barcelona, who sold Emerson Royal and Ilaix Moriba, as well as loaning out Ray Minaj.

Ronald Koeman's Barca did get one player in, however, who will seemingly replace Griezmann in attack.

Barca's LaLiga rivals Real Madrid did not manage to get a mega deal for Kylian Mbappe over the line, despite a reported bid of €200m having been lodged on Tuesday, though Los Blancos did sign Rennes sensation Eduardo Camavinga.

Cristiano Ronaldo's move back to Manchester United was confirmed early on, but there was plenty of late action in England, too.

 

Another returning king as Chelsea call on Saul

Romelu Lukaku back to Chelsea. Ronaldo back to United. Now, Griezmann has made a return to one of his former clubs, with the 30-year-old re-joining LaLiga champions Atleti on a season-long loan.

There is an option to make the deal permanent for €40million – just the €80million less than Barca paid for the France forward in 2019.

Replacing Griezmann at Barca is Luuk de Jong, with Koeman turning to his compatriot from Sevilla. Messi to De Jong... not quite the end to the window Barca fans would have had in mind.

Saul, meanwhile, is leaving LaLiga. He has joined Chelsea on a loan deal from Atleti, with an option to buy for a reported £30m.

 

No Madrid move for Mbappe... yet

A third Madrid bid for Mbappe was reportedly lodged, and ignored, on Tuesday, as Florentino Perez's obsessive hunt of the Paris Saint-Germain star proved fruitless.

However, Mbappe is out of contract next year, so he may well be a Galactico soon enough.

One player who will be playing in the famous all-white strip this season is teenage midfielder Camavinga, who has joined from Rennes.

As well as keeping Mbappe, PSG added to their squad, completing a stellar transfer window by signing Sporting CP left-back Nuno Mendes to fill what has proved a problem position. Pablo Sarabia went the other way.

In Italy, Milan marked a quiet end to the window overall by confirming the signings of Yacine Adli and Messias Junior.

Inter already had their business done, while Juventus confirmed Moise Kean's return on Tuesday morning. The Bianconeri also signed Mohamed Ihattaren, who was then loaned to Sampdoria.

Ronaldo headlines Premier League moves

The early confirmation of Ronaldo's move back to United being complete was the biggest story of the day in England's top flight. It also paved the way for the Red Devils to sell Daniel James, who moved to Leeds United.

Arsenal blocked Everton's attempts to sign Ainsley Maitland-Niles, though Hector Bellerin did leave the Gunners to head to Real Betis on loan. Mikel Arteta's Gunners completed their record-breaking transfer window (in terms of overall spend) with the acquisition of Japan defender Takehiro Tomiyasu from Bologna. Earlier in the day, Arsenal loaned out Reiss Nelson and Alex Runarsson.

Their north London rivals Tottenham completed the signing of Emerson from Barca, with Serge Aurier's time at Spurs subsequently being brought to an end by the mutual termination of his contract.

Everton's hunt for a right-back was to no avail. The Toffees did bring in Salomon Rondon on a free transfer, handing the forward a two-year deal with an option for a third. James Rodriguez was involved in a mooted part-exchange deal with Porto for Luis Diaz, but the Colombian star is staying put.

Manchester City rounded off their dealings by sending out seven players on loan. Among them was Patrick Roberts, who was one of three players to join Ligue 1 club Troyes.

Wolves were unable to complete deals for Kieffer Moore or Boubacar Kamara. A late offer from Spurs for Adama Traore was reportedly rejected.

Czech Republic midfielder Alex Kral joined West Ham on loan from Spartak Moscow. He was the Hammers' second signing of the day, with Croatia playmaker Nikola Vlasic having arrived early on.

There were two outgoings at Celtic. Scotland international Ryan Christie signed for Bournemouth, while Crystal Palace bought striker Odsonne Edouard for a reported £15m. The Hoops replaced him with Greece forward Giorgos Giakoumakis.

Paris Saint-Germain capped a busy transfer window with the loan signing of highly rated left-back Nuno Mendes from Portuguese champions Sporting CP, with Pablo Sarabia moving in the other direction.

Mendes joins PSG on a season-long loan, while the Ligue 1 giants have the option to buy the Portugal international at the end of the season.

The 19-year-old had previously been linked with the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, but he has made the move to PSG alongside fellow recruits Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi and Georginio Wijnaldum.

A product of Sporting's famed youth academy, Mendes played a key role as the club ended their 19-year title drought last season.

The teenager amassed a total of 47 appearances across all competitions, scoring once and tallying three assists for Sporting, who also won the Taca da Liga in 2020-21.

Last season, Mendes ranked fourth in the league in expected assists (3.44), third in duels won (186) and second in dribbles attempted (88).

Mendes made two Primeira Liga appearances this term, leaving an unbeaten Sporting side second in the standings and two points adrift of rivals Benfica through four rounds.

He joins a PSG team that standing two points clear at the top of Ligue 1 with four wins out of four and craving a first Champions League triumph.

Spain midfielder Sarabia will spend the remainder of the season on loan with Sporting.

The 29-year-old has scored 22 goals and provided 12 assists for PSG since his move from Sevilla in 2019.

Barcelona let three players leave on a busy final day of the transfer window, while Saul Niguez looks set to join Chelsea in a late deal.

Emerson Royal, Ilaix Moriba and Rey Manaj were allowed to leave Camp Nou on Tuesday.

Leicester City were also busy with one in and one out, while a young Frenchman (no, not that one) has joined Real Madrid.

Here is a round-up of some of the deadline-day deals, and what could be coming in the closing hours...
 

A new Royal rocks up in London

Talks had been ongoing over the past few days between Tottenham and Barca for full-back Emerson, who only arrived at Camp Nou earlier in the window after impressing at Real Betis.

The right-back has joined Spurs for a £21.5million (€25m) fee, with his arrival likely to push Serge Aurier closer to the exit door.

Could Aurier end up at a Premier League rival? Everton appear to be in need of a right-back with Ainsley Maitland-Niles set to stay at Arsenal.

Back at Barca, they have sold midfielder Ilaix Moriba to Bundesliga club RB Leipzig, who have paid €16m plus €6m in add-ons for the teenager. Manaj, meanwhile, has joined Italian side Spezia on loan.

Paris Saint-Germain have been at the centre of one of the biggest stories over recent days, but it looks like Kylian Mbappe will be staying put.

Indeed, the France star seems set to have a new team-mate in the capital, with Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes said to be nearing a €40m move. Pablo Sarabia may head the other way.

While they may have missed out on Mbappe, Madrid did complete a deal for another France international in Eduardo Camavinga, who has signed a six-year contract following a transfer from Rennes.

Better call Saul?

Chelsea have been chasing Sevilla defender Jules Kounde but the European champions have instead lined up another LaLiga player to boost their squad, with Atletico Madrid's Saul reportedly set to arrive on loan.

One outgoing at Chelsea was Ethan Ampadu, with the youngster signing a new contract before heading out on loan to newly promoted Serie A side Venezia.

Another Premier League club busy as the deadline approached were Leicester, drafting in Ademola Lookman on loan from Leipzig. The winger impressed with Fulham last term. Dennis Praet, meanwhile, has left to return to Serie A, joining Torino on loan for the season.

After the Cristiano Ronaldo deal was confirmed by Manchester United, the Red Devils decreased the logjam for starting spots in the forward line by allowing Dan James to depart for Leeds United - the club he so nearly joined previously, only for the deal to fall through.

Liverpool have been more focused on tying down current members of their squad than bringing in new faces; they have handed young defender Rhys Williams a new deal, with the centre-back then joining Swansea City on loan. Nathaniel Phillips has also extended his contract, though looks set to stay at Anfield for now.

Burnley have signed full-back Connor Roberts from the Swans, while Everton are expected to complete the signing of Salomon Rondon as a replacement for Moise Kean, whose move to Juventus was confirmed earlier in the day.

Arsenal have supposedly agreed a deal with Bologna for defender Takehiro Tomiyasu. The move would seemingly offset the loss of Hector Bellerin, who is said to be close to switching to Real Betis. Reiss Nelson has already left the Gunners, heading out to Feyenoord on loan. 

The transfer windows in Italy and Germany have already shut, meaning Juve, Inter, Milan, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have all concluded their business.

Euro 2020 has been a long time coming. Delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the European Championship is less than a week away from kick-off.

While the disappointment of seeing such a major tournament postponed and pushed back in 2020 was significant for many football fans, the delay has arguably helped the prospect of having more young players involved.

Every international event has its star man, but they also have their breakthrough talents and youngsters on the scene for the first time.

Euro 2016 had the likes of Kingsley Coman, Joshua Kimmich, Young Player of the Tournament Renato Sanches and Marcus Rashford – the youngest individual to feature – enjoying their first experiences of such events.

Who will be their equivalents at Euro 2020?

Well, Stats Perform has identified 10 members of the 'next generation' either hoping to stake their claim for a regular spot in the team or announce themselves on the big stage.

Becir Omeragic, 19, centre-back – Switzerland

It's no mean feat to establish yourself as a regular at club level as a teenage centre-back, a position that often requires maturity and composure, but Omeragic has done just that with FC Zurich, playing 48 league games for them since the start of 2019-20.

A tidy player in possession, Omeragic generally operates as the right-sided defender in a back three, and that suits him down to the ground with the national team, whom he has represented four times already.

If he does appear for Switzerland in the Euros, he'll become their second-youngest player to feature for them at a major tournament in the past 10 years, with Breel Embolo the only one to do so at a younger age (19 years, 118 days at Euro 2016).

 

Kacper Kozlowski, 17, attacking midfielder – Poland  

The fact Kozlowski was even in contention for a place in the squad is a triumph in itself, given that he broke his pelvis and back in a car crash just last January. That he actually secured a place is truly remarkable.

Kozlowski is the next great hope of Polish football, having already made a name for himself back home at Pogon Szczecin, with whom he became the second-youngest player in Ekstraklasa history (15y, 215d). He then became the club's youngest league goalscorer (17y, 182d) in April with a diving header against Podbeskidzie.

That came a month after he made history with the national team, becoming their youngest ever player (17y, 163d).

Kozlowski is a technical gifted attacking midfielder, but don't let that lead to certain misconceptions – he's also an impressive physical specimen for his age and a feisty competitor.

 

Jonas Wind, 22, forward – Denmark

Scandinavian countries are producing some bright attacking talents at the moment, and Wind looks set to be Denmark's contribution to the trend.

Wind has been a regular in the Copenhagen squad since he was a teenager, but in 2020-21 he enjoyed something of a breakthrough as he started 28 of their 32 league games.

His haul of 15 goals and eight assists was bettered by only one Danish Superligaen player and also shows his well-rounded nature.

A real unit, Wind is effective in the air, good at holding up play and also technically efficient. This blend of abilities – particularly his aerial prowess – could be a real weapon in Group B, which looks as though it could be a tight one.

Adam Hlozek, 18, forward – Czech Republic

If there's one teenager who looks likely to spark a post-tournament bidding war among Europe's biggest clubs, it's arguably Hlozek, who appears to be a serious talent.

At Sparta Prague, he initially started out as a winger because of his direct style of play and dribbling abilities, but those skills have transferred particularly well to a more central berth this term, where he has also been able to make the most of his impressive build.

Despite missing a chunk of the season through injury, Hlozek's still managed to plunder 15 Liga goals in just 19 matches, and in April became the competition's youngest hat-trick scorer with his treble against Opava.

He then finished the season with an astonishing four-goal haul against Zbrojovka Brno to finish as the league's joint-top scorer, though he also had six assists to his name. The 18-year-old is a complete striker if there ever was one, and he could be a wonderful wildcard option for Czech Republic if he overcomes a pre-tournament injury.

 

Illya Zabarnyi, 18, centre-back – Ukraine

Hopes are high for Zabarnyi, not just with Ukraine, but at club level as well. Currently playing for Dynamo Kiev after coming through their academy and making his debut just last September, the highly regarded centre-back is already attracting interest from abroad, with Chelsea supposedly among those keen on him.

Zabarnyi was one of only two Dynamo players to play every minute in the group stage of the 2020-21 Champions League (540), along with Tomasz Kedziora, highlighting just how trusted he already is by the Ukrainian champions.

The nine clearances he made in December's 1-0 win over Ferencvaros was more than any other Dynamo player in a single game in the 2020-21 edition, while his 34 across the group stage was bettered by only seven defenders. While some might point out such metrics tend to favour those in so-called lesser teams, it's worth mentioning the likes of Marquinhos, Antonio Rudiger and Stefan Savic were among the few with more clearances than Zabarnyi.

His distribution can still be problematic when under pressure, but he does possess a cool head on the ball – Zabarnyi certainly has the potential to be a mainstay for Ukraine in the coming years, and hopefully he'll get an opportunity at Euro 2020.

 

Maksim Mukhin, 19, defensive midfielder – Russia

With Belgium the big favourites to advance from Group B, there's going to be a three-way tussle for second (and third) between Denmark, Finland and Russia. Those three could be quite well-matched, with their contests looking difficult to call either way.

Mukhin's destructive tendencies could be key towards the end of games if Russia are under pressure but still in with a chance of victory, with the 19-year-old recording the best minutes-per-tackle rate (one every 19.8 minutes) among all players to feature at least 10 games in the Russian Premier League in 2020-21.

Young he may be, but Mukhin won't be overawed by the occasion having made his Champions League debut with Lokomotiv Moscow this season, catching the eye in his solitary appearance – a 3-1 defeat by Salzburg in which he made four tackles (bettered by only one player on the pitch) and three interceptions after coming off the bench at half-time, evidence of his defensive capabilities.

An energetic and competitive midfielder, Mukhin – who has agreed to join CSKA Moscow for next season – could be a real asset for Russia, if not now then almost certainly in the future.

 

Jules Kounde, 22, centre-back – France

Granted, Kounde is perhaps a level above the rest here in terms of how established he already is at club level with Sevilla, but it's worth noting he only got his first senior cap since the domestic season ended.

His form with Sevilla has helped him jump up the queue somewhat, with the Bordeaux youth product getting into France's squad ahead of Bayern Munich-bound Dayot Upamecano.

Kounde won't go into the tournament as first choice, but he is an interesting option at centre-back should France need – or want – a change.

A progressive and positive defender, Kounde's 624 carries (defined as movements of at least five metres with the ball) was bettered by only Pau Torres, while he carried possession forward to the tune of 3,908.8 metres across the campaign, a figure only two defenders could improve on in LaLiga this term.

He's also a keen distributor with 3,172 attempted passes – Edmond Tapsoba is the only player younger than him to try more (3,509) across the top five leagues. Potentially set for a big move away from Sevilla this year, making the most of any opportunities at the Euros won't hurt his chances.

 

Jeremy Doku, 19, winger – Belgium

It seems as though most young talents these days have a backstory that includes almost joining one of Europe's biggest clubs – Doku is no different, having opted against signing for Liverpool back in 2018.

A player who dreams of joining Barcelona, Doku definitely looks primed to have an impact for Belgium at the Euros. An explosive winger to his very core, the teenager has just enjoyed a fine debut campaign at Rennes in Ligue 1.

While his goal involvements return of five (two goals, three assists) is modest, his ability on the ball makes him a nightmare to defend against. In fact, of the players to attempt 200 or more dribbles in the top five European leagues this term, he's one of just three to boast at least a 60 per cent success rate – the other two are Lionel Messi and Adama Traore.

Raw, for sure, but if you want a livewire to inject a little unpredictability to you team, you can count on Doku.

Giacomo Raspadori, 21, forward – Italy

Italy are back in the big time after missing out on the 2018 World Cup, and much of the scoring burden will fall on Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti. But if they aren't doing the business, Sassuolo's Raspadori offers a considerably different alternative.

A nimble and technically gifted forward, Raspadori does not have great physicality on his side, so Italy might need to adapt their game slightly if he's in the attack as opposed to Immobile or Belotti, but he is more likely to dribble past his man.

That's certainly not all he's good at, though. While his return of six Serie A goals is by no means remarkable, four of those were scored in his final six games of the season and among Italians to net five non-penalty goals or more this term across all competitions, Raspadori's conversion rate of 37.5 is the best.

Nuno Mendes, 18, left-back – Portugal

A key player in the Sporting CP side that won the club's first league title since 2001-02, Mendes looks set for a big future.

The teenage left-back has already been strongly linked with the likes of Real Madrid and could be the ideal long-term replacement for Marcelo, such is Mendes' skillset.

He was the only teenage defender to create 30 or more chances (31) across the Portuguese Primeira Liga or any of Europe's top five leagues in 2020-21, proof of just how effective he can be and his forward-thinking nature. He also offers good deliveries from set-pieces.

He'll likely be back-up to Raphael Guerreiro at the Euros, but he's certainly not there just for the ride – he can have an impact if given the chance.

Fernando Santos is confident Diogo Jota will be fully fit for Portugal's Euro 2020 campaign, despite the Liverpool forward's troublesome foot problem.

Jota sustained the injury in last week's 4-2 win over Manchester United  at Old Trafford – a game in which he scored – and has missed the Reds' subsequent two games.

However, Klopp revealed on Tuesday that the 24-year-old has a small chance of returning for Liverpool's final match of the season at home to Crystal Palace on Sunday.

After naming him in Portugal's 26-man squad on Thursday for next month's rescheduled Euro 2020 tournament, Santos confirmed Jota is on course for a swift return to action.

"The information I have is that he is clinically fit and that on the 27th he will start training with his colleagues," Santos said at a news conference on Thursday.

"Those in charge of the clinical department got in touch with me after seeing his tests. I wanted to make sure every player was analysed. That's something I had to weigh up.

"I fully believe in the reports the health and performance department have showed me."

Jota made an excellent start to his Liverpool career following a reported £45million move from Wolves, but he has struggled with injuries in the second half of the campaign.

A knee problem sustained in December kept him sidelined for nearly three months, though his value to the Reds when available is clear.

He has nine goals for the Merseyside outfit in 18 Premier League appearances, 12 of which have been starts, outperforming an xG of 6.4 from 46 shots.

That cutting edge could come in handy for Portugal if they are to match their achievement of five years ago and retain their European Championship crown.

The big surprise in the Selecao's squad is the inclusion of Pedro Goncalves, who has yet to be capped at senior international level.

The 22-year-old scored 23 goals in 32 Primeira Liga appearances for Sporting CP this term to finish top of the scoring charts en route to ending his side's 19-year wait for top-flight glory.

"I may not have seen him in the national team, but I have all the necessary information on him," Santos said when asked to explain his decision.

"I have taken into account everything he has done this season. He is here because of the obvious quality he has.

"He's someone we considered when he was at Famalicao and we continued to watch him at Sporting. I went to the stadium to observe and he was close to being called up before.

"One of the criteria to consider was, beyond quality and tactical knowhow, picking players who can provide different characteristics.

"It took me hours to make the final call with regards to the squad. Yesterday I still had 30 players. It's about finding the right qualities and assembling the puzzle."

Portugal are among the favourites to go all the way in this year's rescheduled tournament, which has been delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A number of familiar faces are included in the squad, including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix.

Ronaldo will be 37 by the time next year's World Cup comes around, but Santos is adamant Euro 2020 will not be the last tournament to feature the Juventus forward.

"It is always very difficult to think like that with him," Santos said. "He is a machine. He takes great care of himself.

"Cristiano, the way he takes care of himself and treats himself, we can never say no. There are many factors and it will depend a lot on his motivation.

"I believe he will be at the next World Cup. As for the next Euros, I think it depends a lot on how he will be prepared psychologically and physically."

Portugal begin their title defence against Hungary in Budapest on June 15, before facing Germany in Munich four days later.

Santos' side round off their Group F campaign against fellow heavyweights France on June 23.

Portugal Euro 2020 squad:

Rui Patricio (Wolves), Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Rui Silva (Granada); Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Nelson Semedo (Wolves), Jose Fonte (Lille), Ruben Dias (Manchester City), Pepe (Porto), Nuno Mendes (Sporting CP), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund); Danilo Pereira (Paris Saint-Germain), Joao Palhinha (Sporting CP), Ruben Neves (Wolves), Joao Moutinho (Wolves), Renato Sanches (Lille), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Sergio Oliveira (Porto), William Carvalho (Real Betis), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City); Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus), Diogo Jota (Liverpool), Rafa Silva (Benfica), Andre Silva (Eintracht Frankfurt), Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Pedro Goncalves (Sporting CP).

Romelu Lukaku has starred for Inter since arriving from Manchester United in 2019.

Lukaku is spearheading Inter's quest for a Serie A title, with Antonio Conte's side clear atop the table.

His exploits, however, have not gone unnoticed in Europe.

 

TOP STORY – LUKAKU HAPPY AT INTER

Inter star Romelu Lukaku is flattered by Barcelona's interest but is not looking to leave the Nerazzurri, according to Mundo Deportivo.

Lukaku has been linked with Barca, Real Madrid and former club Chelsea following his exploits for Inter, who are closing in on the Scudetto.

But Lukaku is happy at Inter, with the Belgium international only possibly leaving San Siro should the Italian powerhouse seek to raise funds.

 

ROUND-UP

- Tuttosport reports Cristiano Ronaldo wants to see out his Juventus contract, which runs until June 2022. Ronaldo has been tipped to leave Turin, where Juve are struggling under Andrea Pirlo this season. Former clubs Madrid and United have emerged as possible destinations, as well as Paris Saint-Germain. However, Ronaldo is keen to continue at the club, should they qualify for the Champions League.

- PSG star Kylian Mbappe remains a priority signing for Madrid, claims Diario AS. Mbappe has been a long-term target in the Spanish capital, though the economic fallout following the coronavirus pandemic appears to have derailed Madrid's pursuit. But Los Blancos – also linked with in-demand Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland – are still determined to prise Mbappe from Paris.

- Record reports United are ready to make a move for Sporting CP star Nuno Mendes, who has also been linked with Manchester City and Liverpool. United could reportedly use Alex Telles in a deal to sign the Portuguese full-back.

- Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli is eyeing a new deal amid interest from Barca and Chelsea, according to Calciomercato. Romagnoli is contracted to the Rossoneri until 2022. Barca's reported pursuit comes as they eye the likes of Bayern Munich star David Alaba, City duo Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero, Lyon forward Memphis Depay and Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.

Lionel Messi has been tipped to leave Barcelona for either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

But Haaland could reportedly unlock Messi's future.

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND TO CITY MEANS BARCA STAY FOR MESSI?

Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland could hold the key to Lionel Messi's future at Barcelona, according to the front page of Thursday's Diario AS.

Haaland is a player in demand, linked with Barca, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

City have been tipped to sign Messi, but should they step up their pursuit of Haaland, the Premier League leaders could reportedly drop their interest in the Barca captain.

 

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- Mundo Deportivo says new Barca president Joan Laporta is preparing a contract renewal for Messi, who is set to become a free agent at season's end.

- Bayern Munich are eyeing a move for Tottenham star Son Heung-min, claims Football Insider. Son has reportedly been offered a bumper new contract by Spurs, but the former Bayer Leverkusen forward is wanted in Munich.

- Sporting CP's Joao Palhinha, Borussia Monchengladbach star Denis Zakaria and Sander Berge of Sheffield United are on the list of midfielders to replace City veteran Fernandinho, reports A Bola.

- Gazzetta dello Sport says Juventus and Barca are interested in Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli. The Italy defender is out of contract in 2022 and is reportedly seeking a €6million-a-year contract.

Napoli are eyeing Lazio head coach Simone Inzaghi and sporting director Igli Tare, claims Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli. Gennaro Gattuso has been tipped to leave Napoli at the end of the season, with ex-Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri, Luciano Spalletti and Hellas Verona's Ivan Juric among the possible replacements. But Lazio duo Inzaghi and Tare are being monitored to replace Gattuso and Cristiano Giuntoli in Naples.

United are interested in Lille defender Sven Botman, according to Fabrizio Romano. Sevilla star Jules Kounde has been on United's radar but the club's asking price of €80m (£68m) is too steep.

- Romano also says there is no agreement with United and Paul Pogba over a new contract. Pogba has been linked with former club Juve, Madrid and PSG.

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.

Cristiano Ronaldo's future is dominating headlines.

After Juventus crashed out of the Champions League last 16, Ronaldo has been linked with a move away from Turin.

Could a return to the Spanish capital be on the cards?

 

TOP STORY – RONALDO ON MADRID'S RADAR

Real Madrid are interested in bringing Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo back to the club, according to the frontpage of Monday's Diario AS.

Ronaldo – Madrid's all-time leading goalscorer – left Los Blancos for Juventus in 2018 but his future with the Serie A champions is far from certain following their Champions League elimination.

Diario AS says Ronaldo represents an easier and quicker target than Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe.

Marca, though, insists Ronaldo's possible return does not alter Madrid's objectives as they weigh up either Haaland – heavily linked to Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona, Juve, PSG and Liverpool – or Mbappe.

 

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- TodoFichajes reports United will turn their attention to Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres if they miss out on star Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, whose contract expires at season's end.

Chelsea and United want to sign Rennes star Eduardo Camavinga, claims Diario AS. Camavinga has been tipped to join Madrid, while PSG have also emerged as a possible destination.

Bayern Munich are in danger of losing head coach Hansi Flick, claims Bild. Flick has been named as a possible replacement for Germany boss Joachim Low. It comes as Bild says Flick's relationship with Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic is worse than previously known, while RB Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann has reportedly been sounded out.

- Football Insider reports Barca's move for Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum is "95 per cent done". The Dutchman is set to become a free agent.

City are set to make an approach for Sporting CP left-back and Madrid target Nuno Mendes, says Diario AS.

- ESPN claims Barca are tracking Rapid Vienna sensation Yusuf Demir. The 17-year-old is also reportedly wanted by City, United, Dortmund and Bayern.

- Ligue 1 side Monaco are interested in a two-year loan deal for Bayern goalkeeper Alexander Nubel, according to Kicker. Monaco are led by former Bayern head coach Niko Kovac.

Erling Haaland continues to dominate headlines.

The Borussia Dortmund sensation is one of the most sought-after players in Europe.

Manchester City and Real Madrid are reportedly going head-to-head to sign the Norwegian.

 

TOP STORY – AGUERO OUT, HAALAND IN?

Manchester City want to sign Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland as a replacement for veteran forward Sergio Aguero, according to Bild.

Aguero, who has been hampered by injury this season, is out of contract at the end of the current campaign.

Haaland is a player in demand, having been linked to Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich.

But Haaland dominates the front pages of Thursday's Marca, Diario AS and Mundo Deportivo in Spain amid Madrid's interest.

The Norway international reportedly wants to listen to Madrid, who will need €150million to prise Haaland to the Santiago Bernabeu.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato reports Lyon star Houssem Aouar remains on the radar of Juventus. Aouar has previously been linked with the Serie A champions, as well as Arsenal.

Chelsea are interested in Monaco's defensive midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, claims ESPN.

- O Jogo says Liverpool could reignite their interest in Sporting CP defender Nuno Mendes. Juve, Madrid and Milan have also been tracking the 18-year-old, who has a £60m (€70m) release clause.

Edinson Cavani is open to extending his United contract, according to Fabrizio Romano. Cavani joined United as a free agent on a one-year deal at the start of the season. The former PSG star has been linked with Boca Juniors.

Real Madrid are considering a move for Kalidou Koulibaly, while Manchester United are targeting Jadon Sancho in a cut-price deal.

Amid uncertainty over Sergio Ramos' future at Madrid, the LaLiga giants continue to be linked with centre-backs.

They seemingly have plenty of options – and Napoli star Koulibaly is among them.

 

TOP STORY – REAL MADRID LIKE KOULIBALY

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane likes Napoli defender Koulibaly, according to AS.

The report says Bayern Munich star David Alaba, who is out of contract at the end of the season, is still Madrid's first option.

With Ramos potentially leaving when his contract expires at campaign's end, AS also says Villarreal defender Pau Torres and Sevilla's Jules Kounde will be expensive.

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United opted not to sign Borussia Dortmund star Sancho ahead of 2020-21, and it could pay off. Eurosport reports United could land Sancho for just £50million (€57.1m) in the next transfer window. The Bundesliga club were demanding about £100m (€120m) for Sancho last year.

- Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Florian Neuhaus is seemingly attracting plenty of interest. Kicker reports Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, Manchester City and Juventus are interested in the three-time Germany international.

- Arsenal look set to strengthen ahead of next season. The Sun reports they are close to finalising a deal for 18-year-old Sporting CP forward Tiago Tomas for £20m (€22.8m).

- On loan at Real Betis from Barcelona, Emerson may not return to Camp Nou. CalcioMercato reports Milan are considering a move for the right-back.

- Former Milan and Chelsea forward Alexandre Pato will join Orlando City on a one-year deal, according to Fabrizio Romano and The Mane Land. Pato has been without a club since leaving Sao Paulo in August last year.

One year on from his Red Devils debut, Bruno Fernandes is the face of Manchester United and one of Europe's finest, but back in 2012 it was a lot different.

There were no camera crews when a baby-faced Fernandes packed his bags and left Portugal for Italy almost nine years ago – Novara was the destination for the unheralded midfielder.

Novara, a club based in the Piedmont region in northwest Italy, had been alerted to the 17-year-old. Scouted by former head of youth Mauro Borghetti, they opted to sign Fernandes from Boavista – investing for the future.

"The previous season our club was in Serie A but was being relegated in Serie B, so with the board we took the decision to invest some money on some foreign talents," Borghetti – now sporting director of the Serie C side – told Stats Perform News.

"Bruno Fernandes was in this list and because of his technical skills and his value – we knew his value more or less – we decided to make a survey for this player and pay him a visit.

"On a Saturday morning I took a flight to Portugal to watch an Under-19 Boavista game. He struck me for the characteristics he is showing now, although he didn't shine that much in that game. But I could see his skills and his personality on top of his creativity."

It is not often Portuguese talent leave their homeland for abroad, but Fernandes forged his own path en route to Old Trafford, having also played for Udinese, Sampdoria and Sporting CP.

"Bruno's situation was peculiar," Borghetti said. "He was not playing in one of the top Portuguese clubs that boast great visibility and can make young talents grow in the country. Bruno was playing in the U19 of Boavista, a club relegated in the third division at the time.

"He was waiting for his chance to shine. Novara, an Italian club, albeit in Serie B at the time, was what Bruno was waiting for. So it was not hard to find a deal and Bruno didn't take long to give us the green light."

Initially signed to Novara's youth team, Fernandes made an immediate impact at Stadio Silvio Piola, where he learnt Italian language using post-it notes.

Fernandes scored four goals in 23 appearances as Novara finished fifth in the 2012-13 Serie B season before falling to Empoli in the promotion play-offs.

"Bruno is a very smart guy so he settled in right away at Novara," Borghetti continued. "In one week, 10 days tops, he started communicating with the group in Italian, an example of his intelligence. This helped him a lot as much as the fact of being the only foreigner, the only Portuguese, in a full Italian squad. This helped him get involved faster, he was basically forced to speak Italian. He settled down so quickly and this helped him a lot."

Borghetti added: "As a foreign kid who was supposed to take his time to settle in, he definitely was quick in doing it. We didn't expect such a growth as we didn't know him so well. When we started to know him better, then yes, we thought he could go straight to the first team.

"In fact, he stayed only six months in Novara U19 squad. He then played the second part of the season as a starter of the first squad, scoring and taking the team to the playoff for Serie A."

Having exceeded expectations at Novara, Fernandes quickly made the step up to Serie A – firstly with Udinese before joining Sampdoria three years later in 2016.

But it was not until 2017, when he returned to his homeland, that Fernandes captured the attention of United and Europe's elite.

Fernandes was a class above in Primeira Liga, scoring 64 goals in 137 appearances for Sporting, where he led the Portuguese giants to Taca da Liga (2018 and 2019) and Taca de Portugal (2019) glory.

There were rumours of interest from Real Madrid and Tottenham, but after months of speculation, United finally landed their talisman in deal worth an initial £47million last year.

Fernandes has not looked back – the Portugal international has been involved in 45 goals across all competitions, more than any other player for a Premier League club.

Only captain Harry Maguire (54) has made more competitive appearances for United than the Portuguese (53), but the former Sporting skipper has scored the most goals (28) and assisted his team-mates the most often (17).

Fernandes ended 2020 winning his fourth Premier League Player of the Month award, becoming the first to claim that many honours in a calendar year. For that award, he has already matched the tallies of United greats Paul Scholes and Ronaldo and is just one behind all-time leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.

A transformative signing for the Red Devils, Fernandes has been directly involved in 33 goals in his first 35 appearances (19 goals, 14 assists) – a figure bettered only by Andrew Cole (41) in the history of the Premier League.

"For us he was a very important player," Borghetti said. "He always proved he was a cut above the average footballers. But to be honest with Udinese and Sampdoria he was in Serie A but hadn't impressed us all so much.

"His breakthrough came after his season in Portugal with Sporting. There he became a world-class player, playing the World Cup next to Cristiano Ronaldo, so you could expect a big move.

"Now he is at United, one of the most glorious clubs in Europe, and he fully deserves it. He epitomises the idea that a player can always improve throughout his career and achieve higher and higher results."

Fernandes was crowned United's Player of the Year in 2019-20, becoming the second Portuguese player to win the award after international team-mate Ronaldo. Since its inception in 1987-88, no player has won the award having played as few games in a season as Fernandes' 22 in all competitions last term.

This season, Fernandes has scored 11 Premier League goals and supplied seven assists in 21 appearances as second-placed United dream of silverware. In total, he has managed 16 goals across all competitions.

Not since 2013 – Alex Ferguson's final season at the Theatre of Dreams – have United won the Premier League but Fernandes' presence has awoken a sleeping giant after years of mediocrity. While Maguire wears the armband, the 26-year-old Fernandes is a demanding figure on and off the pitch.

"He didn't stay long in the youth team and then in the first squad because he moved to Serie A right away, so he didn't have the chance to become a captain [at Novara]," Borghetti said. "But he is a soul captain, his personality makes him an example on the pitch and as a professional. He always proved this so I am not surprised at all that in his career and now he is so mature as a leader and could be shortlisted for being the captain." 

As Fernandes continues to take England by storm, Borghetti added: "When I watch him on TV, I feel satisfaction. I follow United more now because there is a kid I know who plays there. Whatever he achieved was done thanks to his skills, exclusively his merit. On the other hand, a glimpse of importance is mine because with one evaluation I gave him the chance to prove himself.

"Novara in his history, although short, was a chance to shine. Without Novara, maybe Bruno would have got to the highest level anyway through different paths, but since this cannot be proved, I can say Novara and I have been an important stepping-stone for him." 

"I think he is at a high level now," he said. "To improve he should only win individual trophies or with his team domestically and in Europe. That is what he should do with Manchester United. On a personal level, it is the athlete's constant aim to improving all the time, but now Bruno is at such a high level where improvements are now difficult."

Could Barcelona be about to make a splash in the free-agent market?

Strapped for cash amid the coronavirus pandemic, Barca are believed to have set their sights on two stars.

David Alaba and Sergio Aguero are on the agenda at Camp Nou…

 

TOP STORY – BARCA EYEING OUT-OF-CONTRACT DUO

Barcelona are set to target Bayern Munich star David Alaba and Manchester City's Sergio Aguero , according to Mundo Deportivo.

Alaba and Aguero are both out of contract at the end of the season, prompting interest from embattled LaLiga giants Barca.

Bayern's Alaba has been tipped to join Real Madrid , while the likes of Manchester United , Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain have also been linked.

Aguero, meanwhile, is no certainty to renew in Manchester, where Pep Guardiola is reportedly eyeing Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Inter's Romelu Lukaku .

 

ROUND-UP

-   Sport reports Raphael Varane wants to leave LaLiga champions Madrid . The French defender has previously been linked to United .

- Madrid cannot afford to sign the likes of PSG star Kylian Mbappe and Haaland due to their current financial situation amid the coronavirus pandemic, claims Marca.

- The Guardian says West Ham have lowered their asking price for Declan Rice , who has been linked to Chelsea and United .

- Martin Odegaard is close to swapping Madrid for Arsenal on loan, reports journalist Fabrizio Romano.

- Romano also says United have not opened talks with Lens to sign Argentine centre-back Facundo Medina . The Red Devils are eyeing a new centre-back amid links with in-demand RB Leipzig star Dayot Upamecano .

Napoli want to sign either Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes or Benfica's Nuno Tavares , reports Calciomercato.

- There are serious doubts over Edin Dzeko's future at Roma, with Calciomercato claiming Juventus and Inter are monitoring the situation.

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