There is perhaps no sporting debate that captures the imagination like that concerning the identity of football's greatest ever player.

The incredible goalscoring feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo put them at the centre of the discussion, but what about the greats of yesteryear? 

Does the cunning of Diego Maradona or the ingenuity of Johan Cruyff make one of them the best to have played the world's most popular sport?

The ultimate reference for all those iconic players, however, is Pele. The only player to have won three World Cups, the ultimate personification of "o jogo bonito".

With tributes flooding in after the Brazil icon passed away at the age of 82, Stats Perform delves into the Selecao star's incredible career, asking how it compares to those of the game's other greats.

Pele: The World Cup's finest

While any debate over the greatest player of all time will always be subjective, nobody can deny Pele his status as the ultimate World Cup legend.

His introduction to the global stage came at the 1958 tournament in Sweden, where Brazil exercised the demons of 1950 – when they lost the final on home soil to Uruguay in what became known as the "Maracanazo" – to clinch their first title.

A 17-year-old Pele missed Brazil's first two games at the tournament, but the Santos youngster quickly made the Selecao's number 10 shirt his own after coming in for a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union.

From there, he went from strength to strength, scoring his first World Cup goal against Wales before helping himself to a hat-trick against France in the semi-finals.

As Brazil overcame the hosts 5-2 in a thrilling final, Pele – at the age of 17 years and 249 days – scored twice. Only one other teenager has ever netted in a World Cup final – Kylian Mbappe in 2018.

 

As if one outstanding World Cup campaign was not enough, Pele was key to further Selecao triumphs in 1962 and 1970 – assuming a talismanic role in what many consider to be the greatest international team in history at the latter tournament.

Pele's tally of six assists in Mexico remains the highest tally recorded at a single World Cup since records began four years earlier, and his nonchalant lay-off for Carlos Alberto to finish off a flowing team move in Brazil's final win over Italy remains one of the most iconic moments in the tournament's history.

While modern-day detractors may point to Pele's failure to test himself in Europe, his incredible record on the grandest stage of all dictates that he is remembered among the very best, and there can be no doubt as to his unmatched World Cup legacy.

Johan Cruyff: The innovator

If Pele's legacy can be measured in World Cup accomplishments, Cruyff's must be examined in a very different way.

Cruyff's unbelievable tally of 36 chances created at the 1974 World Cup may be a single-tournament record, but it was not enough for the Netherlands to avoid the first of their three final defeats at the competition.

Eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one LaLiga triumph as a player does not exactly do justice to the career of football's great innovator, the man considered responsible for "total football" and by extension, every free-flowing Barcelona or Ajax team that has followed.

If Pele's is best remembered as the World Cup's greatest player, perhaps Cruyff deserves the title of football's finest pioneer.

Diego Maradona: The individualist 

No conversation about football's greatest could be complete without a mention of Maradona, the man who almost single-handedly carried Argentina to football's greatest prize with a perfect blend of skill and cunning.

Astonishingly, Maradona claimed five goals and five assists as Argentina won the 1986 World Cup – a feat no other player has accomplished since detailed data collection began in 1966.

Maradona's quarter-final brace against England, perhaps the most iconic double in history, encapsulated his on-pitch personality perfectly – a mischievous first goal being followed by a truly remarkable second.

Maradona's tendency to carry unfancied sides to success was replicated on the club stage, with his two Serie A triumphs with Napoli earning him a level of adulation that will perhaps never be matched.

A beaten finalist in 1990, not even El Diego could match Pele's World Cup exploits, but the Argentine carved out a reputation as football's finest individualist. 

 

Cristiano Ronaldo: The big-game player

Like Cruyff, neither of the final two players on our list have made their greatest impact at the World Cup, but the incredible goalscoring feats of Ronaldo ensure his place among the game's legends.

In the Champions League – arguably the true pinnacle of the modern game – no player can match Ronaldo's total of 140 goals.

Ronaldo – who scored his 700th goal in club football earlier this season – has also lifted the Champions League trophy on five occasions – a tally no other player has bettered.

The 37-year-old started off the 2022 World Cup by becoming the first male player to net in five different editions of the tournament, though he ultimately ended it in disappointment, making just 10 touches after coming on as a substitute in Portugal's quarter-final defeat to Morocco.

He has been the ultimate big-game player. Whether he is anymore is clearly up for debate. 

Lionel Messi: The Magician 

While some may prefer the efficiency and athleticism of Ronaldo, there is no sight in modern football as joyous as that of Messi slaloming through panicked defences.

Seven Ballon d'Or wins tells you all you need to know, Messi's army of fans may say, while Pep Guardiola's revolutionary Barcelona side – considered by many as the best team to ever take to the field – was built to accommodate the Argentine's incredible mix of elite finishing, dribbling and passing skills. 

 

Until the last two years, the only major blot on Messi's career was a perceived failure to replicate the feats of Maradona, with the expectations of the Argentinian public often seeming to weigh heavily upon the shoulders of the diminutive attacker.

However, having helped the Albiceleste end a 28-year wait to win the Copa America in 2021, Messi then contributed seven goals and three assists to mirror Maradona's achievement of leading Argentina to World Cup glory, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward's campaign in Qatar already regarded as one of the greatest in the tournament's rich history.

While the sight of Messi lifting the World Cup trophy at the Lusail Stadium caused some to declare any debate regarding football's greatest player to be over, the forward's age dictates he will not get the chance to equal Pele's feats on the game's grandest stage.

Everyone has a different opinion on what makes a player the greatest in history, be it their style, their goal record, or their impact on subsequent generations.

The role of football's greatest tournament will always be pivotal, however, and on that basis, Pele will always have a place among the legends of the game.

The power dynamic at Paris Saint-Germain is a curious watch, with Lionel Messi set to formalise an agreement to remain for another season.

Kylian Mbappe re-signed with the French champions in May until 2025 but has still been linked with moves away from the club.

Messi came out on top over Mbappe in the World Cup final earlier this month, and Barcelona believe an opportunity might arise. 

TOP STORY – BARCELONA SET TO SWOOP FOR FRUSTRATED MBAPPE

Mundo Deportivo claims that Barcelona are set for a shock move to sign Mbappe.

Speculation over Mbappe's future is growing amid reports he was further frustrated at Parc des Princes after Messi committed to extending his PSG stay.

The 24-year-old was close to joining Real Madrid in the past but he has been turned off by Los Blancos, since copping heavy criticism after opting to renew with PSG, and could now move to their fierce LaLiga rivals instead.

ROUND-UP

– Fabrizio Romano claims Barca have identified 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund forward Youssoufa Moukoko as a potential target and want to sign him as a free agent next year.

Liverpool want to sign Brighton and Hove Albion's World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister, reports La Repubblica. The Reds have joined Juventus, Dortmund, Inter and Benfica in pursuing the Argentina midfielder.

– Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham is set to choose Real Madrid over Liverpool, with the Spanish champions to prioritise a deal in 2023, claims Goal. The Liverpool Echo reports Bellingham and Dortmund will sit down in January to discuss his future.

Liverpool are interested in Inter defender Milan Skriniar , according to Fichajes. The Reds are looking at defensive reinforcements, with Skriniar out of contract at the end of this season.

Chelsea are interested in signing Celtic's Croatia international Josip Juranovic as cover for the injured Reece James, according to Sky Sports.

– Il Tempo claims that Roma have sounded out PSG about terminating Georginio Wijnaldum's season-long loan. The Dutchman suffered a serious injury in August.

Barcelona defender Alejandro Balde hopes to extend his stay with the club amid a breakout campaign.

The 19-year-old has backed up a strong pre-season to become a prominent figure in Xavi's team this term.

His form across 12 LaLiga appearances – all of which were as a starter – earned him a call-up to Spain's World Cup squad last month, making four appearances in Qatar.

Now back in Barcelona ahead of LaLiga's resumption, the club are reportedly keen to tie the teenager down to a new deal, with his current contract set to expire in 2024.

Balde says his next steps are out of his hands, though he is keen to remain at Camp Nou following an encouraging start to the 2022-23 season.

"Everything is managed by my agent," he told the radio programme Que t'hi Jugues. "I want to stay here, but no one knows the future.

"If they had told me previously I would be in the first team and have played at the World Cup, though... everything has gone quickly.

"A year ago, I was in the reserves, and now I am with the first team. It's all gone very quickly, but I'm learning things fast. It's a dream."

Despite his rapid rise, Balde's inclusion in Luis Enrique's World Cup squad was a little surprising, as was that of Barca team-mate Ansu Fati.

The forward, also a product of Barca's academy, has struggled to recapture his form after suffering horribly with injuries over the past two years.

But Balde is adamant Fati will find his groove once again, adding: "We all know the quality he has. We are convinced he will give us a lot of joy."

Barcelona resume their LaLiga campaign against local rivals Espanyol on Saturday with a two-point cushion over Real Madrid at the summit of the table.

Sergi Roberto is ready to sign another new deal with Barcelona, despite revealing his current salary is in line with a player who has been promoted from the reserve side.

Spain international Sergi Roberto agreed terms on a one-year extension in June to stay at Camp Nou for the 2022-23 campaign following the conclusion of his previous contract.

The 30-year-old, who is into his 13th season as a member of Barca's senior squad, has again been linked with a move away as he enters the final six months of his latest deal.

While his salary has taken a hit in wake of the Catalan giants' crippling financial situation, Sergi Roberto is happy to stay on at the club for at least another season.

"Right now I'm getting paid as if I had moved up from Barca B, but I do it with pride because I want to be here. For me the economic issue is not important", he told RAC1.

"The last few years I didn't enjoy playing because I wasn't physically fit. I wanted to get back in shape physically and enjoy myself again.

"We haven't started talking [about a new contract] yet, but my idea is to stay. From what the coaching staff have told me, they are very happy with me and want me to stay.

"I would be very excited to be able to continue, to be able to enjoy myself on the pitch with the Barca shirt."

Sergi Roberto is one of five Barca players due to become free agents in July, along with Hector Bellerin, Marcos Alonso, Sergio Busquets and Memphis Depay.

However, according to reports from Spain on Wednesday, long-serving Busquets is prepared to sign a 12-month extension before departing in 2024.

Sergi Roberto has started just six games in all competitions this season after dislocating his left shoulder in Barcelona's 4-0 thrashing of Athletic Bilbao in October.

The academy product returned to full training at the start of December and is in contention to feature in Barca's showdown with neighbours Espanyol on Saturday.

After starting just 16 league games since the start of the 2020-21 season, Sergi Roberto is hopeful his latest return from injury could be a turning point. 

"I spent some difficult years with the issue of injuries, but I am convinced that 2023 will be a totally different year and that injuries will be forgotten," he said. 

"I am 100 per cent ready. You can always improve, but I am sure that in this second stretch of season I will be better than ever."

Robert Lewandowski will find it "painful" watching Barcelona's next three games from the stands after his suspension for an incident against Osasuna last month was upheld.

Poland international Lewandowski was shown two yellow cards in the first half of Barca's last match before the World Cup break – a 2-1 win at El Sadar on November 8.

The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) issued Lewandowski with an extended three-game ban for an alleged gesture made towards referee Gil Manzano after being dismissed.

It was announced on Friday that Barca were unsuccessful with their latest appeal against the suspension, and Lewandowski has questioned the severity of the punishment.

"It's difficult because I feel that three games is too much for what I did, that's for sure," he told Sport. "It's painful not to be able to play three games because of that."

Former Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski insists the gesture that landed him in trouble was in fact aimed at head coach Xavi.

"Nothing happened with the ref," Lewandowski said. "The reason I got three matches was nothing to do with the referee, it was to do with me and the coach. That's all I can say.

"One or two weeks before, I had a chat with Xavi, and he told me that I had to watch out if the referee gave me a yellow card.

"That was just a gesture to express he couldn't understand what was going on. We had talked about it, and it was something between Xavi and me. I didn't understand anything."

Lewandowski has 18 goals in 19 games this season – only Kylian Mbappe (19) and Erling Haaland (24) have scored more among players from Europe's top five leagues.

The 34-year-old has continued his prolific goalscoring form in a new country and is hopeful of adding to his trophy collection during his time in Catalonia.

"I will stay at Barcelona as long as I am fit and hungry for titles," he said. "We have to have the mentality of a champion."

Barcelona resume their LaLiga campaign with games against Espanyol and Atletico Madrid either side of facing third-tier side Intercity in the last 32 of the Copa del Rey.

Jose Mourinho is a man in demand at international level, with Brazil reportedly rivalling Portugal in pursuit of his signature.

The 59-year-old is currently employed by Serie A club Roma, having joined in 2021 on a three-year contract.

There are reports that Mourinho is not entirely happy in the Italian capital, specifically regarding player attitudes and the club's financial limitations.

TOP STORY – BRAZIL TO MAKE SHOCK MOVE FOR MOURINHO

Brazil will make a sensational swoop to make Jose Mourinho their new national team boss to replace the departed Tite, according to la Repubblica.

An intermediary of Brazil's national setup will fly into Italy to meet up with the Roma head coach – who has also been linked to the Portugal job – and begin negotiations face to face.

Brazil had been linked with Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, having reportedly turned to super agent Jorge Mendes to aid their pursuit of a new head coach.

 

ROUND-UP

– Journalist Bruno Andrade claims Manchester United have "overtaken" Liverpool in the race to sign World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez from Benfica. United boss Erik ten Hag is willing the trigger his €120m release clause.

Manchester United have commenced talks with PSV winger Cody Gakpo, reports The Daily Mirror. Gakpo netted three goals in three World Cup group games.

– Fabrizio Romano claims that Barcelona have no intention of selling midfielder Franck Kessie or full-back Hector Bellerin in January.

Paris Saint-Germain are interested in Real Madrid winger Marco Asensio, reports SPORT. Arsenal have also been linked with the 26-year-old, while Ara claims Barcelona are monitoring the situation and may swoop.

PSG are also interested in signing Manchester United's Brazilian midfielder Fred, claims The Sun. That is despite United recently triggering a 12-month extension on Fred's contract.

Bayern Munich have added Leeds United's French goalkeeper Ilhan Meslier to their transfer targets, reports MediaFootMercato. Bayern are looking for cover the injured keeper Manuel Neuer.

Pedri hopes Barcelona team-mate Sergio Busquets stays with the Blaugrana, but identified Frenkie de Jong as a capable replacement for the evergreen midfielder.

Barca great Gerard Pique confirmed his retirement in November and Xavi's side may be set to lose another veteran, as Busquets nears the end of his contract in June.

The 34-year-old remains a pivotal part of Xavi's midfield trio, alongside youngsters Pedri and Gavi, helping Barca to sit two points clear of Real Madrid at the LaLiga summit heading into the World Cup.

While 20-year-old Pedri continues his seismic rise in both international and domestic football, Busquets called an end to his Spain career after their World Cup elimination in the last 16 to Morocco.

Pedri urged his midfield partner to continue with Barca past the end of his existing contract, though he feels De Jong could step into the role given his experience with the Netherlands.

"I would like him to continue, he is a key piece," he told Catalunya Radio. "Frenkie de Jong could be a good replacement for Busquets, he has played in that position with the Netherlands in the World Cup."

Spain's early World Cup exit in Qatar culminated in the departure of Luis Enrique - much to Pedri's disappointment - with Luis de la Fuente replacing him.

Meanwhile, team-mate Ousmane Dembele suffered final heartbreak with France, with the 20-year-old suggesting the winger has returned a different player after the agonising defeat to Argentina.

"[Luis Enrique] transmits things very well. It's a shame, but we will now play with Luis de la Fuente to the fullest," he added. "[Dembele] is now more professional than he was before, and it shows."

Pedri and Busquets will hope to pick up where they left off as Barcelona restart their LaLiga campaign against rivals Espanyol on December 31.

Real Madrid will face fourth-tier club Cacereno in the Copa del Rey's round of 32 in early January.

Cacereno produced the biggest shock of the second round when beating LaLiga side Girona 2-1 on Thursday, with the Catalans becoming the first top-flight side to be knockout of this season's competition.

The Segunda Division RFEF side have been rewarded for that success with a dream duel with Real Madrid, who will travel to Caceres for the game.

For Cacereno, such a draw will provide a huge boost financially.

Club president Carlos Ordonez was quoted by AS as saying: "It is the maximum lottery that a man from Caceres could win. It has been a continuum of messages, calls, WhatsApps...

"It is the greatest prize that could be given to us. It is an economic boost that for a club like ours is super important. Real Madrid hasn't come to Extremadura for a long time and it's a prize for all Extremadurans."

Madrid only entered the competition in Friday's draw, with Barcelona joining them.

The Blaugrana are set to face third-tier side Intercity of San Juan de Alicante, who have had a fairly rapid ascension to the Primera Division RFEF since their 2017 foundation on the sixth level of the Spanish football ladder.

Atletico Madrid will go to Real Oviedo, while holders Real Betis begin their campaign at Ibiza Islas Pitiusas.

Real Sociedad and Sevilla were drawn with third-tier opponents in Logrones and Linares Deportivo, respectively.

Matches are due to take place between January 3 and 5, with exact kick-off dates and times to be confirmed in due course.

Full third-round draw:

Ibiza Islas Pitiusas v Real Betis

Cacereno v Real Madrid

Intercity v Barcelona

La Nucia v Valencia 

Logrones v Real Sociedad

Eldense v Athletic Bilbao

Pontevedra v Mallorca

Gimnastic Tarragona v Osasuna

Linares Deportivo v Sevilla

Ceuta v Elche

Deportivo Alaves v Real Valladolid

Levante v Getafe

Real Oviedo v Atletico Madrid

Cartagena v Villarreal

Sporting Gijon v Rayo Vallecano

Espanyol v Celta Vigo

After Lionel Messi's Argentina lifted the World Cup in Qatar, attention turns back to club football with Europe's top five leagues set to resume in the coming weeks.

The Premier League is the first to restart, with all 20 teams in action on either December 26 or 27, while Ligue 1 and La Liga get back under way in the following days.

You will have to wait until the new year for Serie A to recommence, before the Bundesliga starts back up again with Bayern Munich's visit to RB Leipzig on January 20.

It has been a while since Europe's elite paused for the World Cup, so Stats Perform provide a refresher of how things were shaping up before the hiatus.

LALIGA

Title race

It looks like a two-horse race in LaLiga, as it appears giants Barcelona and Real Madrid are set for an epic title fight.

Barcelona have their noses in front with a two-point margin over Madrid, but Carlo Ancelotti's side came out on top when the teams met in October.

The next El Clasico will take place on March 19 at Camp Nou and could have massive implications for who lifts the LaLiga trophy come the end of the season.

Champions League spots

With Barcelona and Madrid stretching away at the top of LaLiga, Basque sides Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao are the two teams that occupy the other Champions League spots.

Athletic are one of three sides on 24 points, while Villarreal in ninth are just three points behind following their Champions League heroics last season.

Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano are two teams that were not expected to be in the race for top four, but they sit in seventh and eighth respectively and are well within striking distance.

Relegation battle

Six-time Europa League winners Sevilla are in big trouble at the bottom of LaLiga, with two victories in their first 14 matches putting them in the relegation zone.

They are yet to win at home, and head coach Julen Lopetegui was relieved of his duties after their Champions League exit.

Sevilla are kept off the bottom by Cadiz and Elche, with the latter yet to win a league game this season and picking up just four points before the World Cup break.

Big performances will be needed from World Cup heroes such as Argentina's Marcos Acuna and Morocco's Youssef En-Nesyri and Yassine Bounou if Sevilla are to haul themselves away from trouble.

PREMIER LEAGUE

Title race

Arsenal hold a five-point lead at the top, but Pep Guardiola's Manchester City will fancy their chances of retaining the title and have a rested Erling Haaland itching to get back scoring goals.

Haaland has been a revelation since joining from Borussia Dortmund, scoring 18 times in 13 games, though City's quest for a fifth title in six years has been hampered by defeats to Liverpool and Brentford.

However, with Haaland ready to play and Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus out for three months with a knee injury suffered at the World Cup, Mikel Arteta's side must carry on where they left off.

Champions League spots

Newcastle United have been one of the stories of the Premier League season, with a run of five straight victories under Eddie Howe taking them all the way up to third.

There is still a long way to go, but Newcastle are in a great position to finish in the top four of the Premier League for the first time since the 2002-03 campaign under Bobby Robson.

Tottenham currently hold fourth position with Manchester United just three points behind in fifth, while Liverpool's poor start sees them 15 points off leaders Arsenal.

Surprise package Brighton and Hove Albion and Chelsea are both on 21 points, but a solid run of form could put the pressure on those above.

Relegation battle

It may be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire for Lopetegui as he was appointed as head coach of Wolves in November, with the Midlands club bottom of the Premier League at Christmas. Only two teams in that position have avoided relegation in the past.

A source of comfort for Wolves fans will be just how many teams are in danger of the drop, with Bournemouth in 14th just six points above them.

Everton and Leeds United are once again down there after narrowly staying up last season, while 2021-22 Europa League semi-finalists West Ham United are just a point above Nottingham Forest, who are in the bottom three after a tough opening to their first season back in the Premier League after a 23-year exile.

SERIE A

Title race

After an incredible start, Napoli currently hold an eight-point lead at the Serie A summit, the largest among the top five leagues.

They have achieved that in impressive fashion, yet to lose a league match this season and boasting the most potent attack with 37 goals in 15 matches, led by the division's top goalscorer Victor Osimhen (nine goals) and new star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (11 goal involvements), both of whom should be fresh having not played in the World Cup.

Just three points separate Milan in second and Inter in fifth among the chasing pack, but Napoli may soon be out of sight if they can pick up their incredible form from before Qatar.

Champions League spots

Just six points separate second and seventh in Serie A as teams desperately scramble to keep leaders Napoli in view.

Inter are currently out of the top four on goal difference, while Juventus are third despite Massimiliano Allegri coming under pressure during a mixed start.

Holders Milan are second and Lazio sit fourth, while Jose Mourinho's Roma are well poised in seventh place.

Relegation battle

The three teams in the relegation zone are yet to hit double figures for points, with 17th-placed Spezia six points above the drop zone.

Cremonese, Sampdoria and Hellas Verona in 18th, 19th and 20th respectively have combined for two victories from 45 matches so far.

While the likes of Spezia, Lecce and Sassuolo may be looking over their shoulders, they can remain pretty confident they will be playing Serie A football next season if the bottom three maintain their dreadful form.

BUNDESLIGA

Title race

In the Bundesliga, Bayern won six matches in a row prior to the World Cup, a much-needed run considering they had been victorious in just one of their previous six.

That upturn in form saw them build a four-point margin at the top, but the loss of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer with a broken ankle sustained in a skiing accident could be a big blow.

However, it is reasonable to expect Bayern to have enough quality to see off the challenges of the likes of Freiburg and Leipzig and earn an 11th consecutive Bundesliga title.

Champions League spots

Borussia Dortmund will face Chelsea in the Champions League round of 16, but they have much work to do if they are to qualify for next year's competition after a disappointing start in the Bundesliga

They currently sit sixth and are playing catch up, with Eintracht Frankfurt and Union Berlin also ahead of them.

It should be an exciting race for the top four spots, with Werder Bremen in ninth just six points off the Champions League places, while Wolfsburg in seventh are a team to watch having gone nine unbeaten before the World Cup.

Champions League spots

Schalke have won just twice this season at the foot of the league, and could face an immediate relegation back to the second tier.

Stuttgart occupy the relegation play-off spot and have called upon former head coach Bruno Labbadia as they fight to stay up, while Bochum are between Stuttgart and Schalke.

Of the teams just outside the drop zone, Xavi Alonso's Bayer Leverkusen won their last three matches prior to the break and appear to be steering themselves out of trouble, while in contrast Augsburg failed to win any of their past seven.

LIGUE 1

Title race

While a 2022-23 league title would only be Napoli's third in the club's history, Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain will be collecting a ninth in just 11 years if they see the job through.

PSG's players starred at the World Cup with Messi and Kylian Mbappe facing off in a brilliant final and return to club football with the hopes of working together to finally win the Parisian club's first Champions League.

Mauricio Pochettino's failure to win European football's top prize last season cost him his job, despite winning Ligue 1 at a canter, and Christophe Galtier will know the same fate could befall him should PSG be defeated by Bayern in the round of 16, with the first leg set to be played on February 14.

PSG's domestic challengers include Lens and Rennes, but they face a real challenge if they are to close the five-point gap to Galtier's side, who are unbeaten and have the division's best attack and meanest defence.

Champions League spots

While Lens and Rennes may not be able to catch PSG at the peak of Ligue 1, the two teams will certainly fancy their chances of staying in the top three.

With fourth place in Ligue 1 only enough to earn a place in the Europa League, Marseille will be striving to dislodge one of the aforementioned sides and wrestle their way into Europe's premier club competition.

Lorient have finished 16th in the last two campaigns but an excellent start sees them in fifth, above perennial European contenders Monaco, Lille and Lyon.

Relegation battle

Ligue 1's relegation scrap is wide open with the reduction of France's top tier to 18 teams meaning four teams will go down this season.

There is just six points between Reims in 11th and second-bottom Strasbourg, the latter of whom narrowly missed out on the European qualification spots last term.

Angers are propping up the league on eight points, and their survival chances could take a significant hit if they lose midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, who is reportedly wanted by Barcelona after outstanding performances for Morocco at the World Cup.

Benfica will reportedly hold out for Enzo Fernandez's full €120million release clause just six months after signing him for €10million from River Plate.

Fernandez, 21, has become one of the hottest names in football since arriving at Benfica, helping his side to an undefeated group stage in the Champions League before earning his place in Argentina's World Cup squad.

After starting the group stage on the bench, Fernandez worked his way into the starting XI for the final group match against Poland, before playing every minute of Argentina's run through the knockout stages.

His rapid rise saw Fernandez become a target of both Real Madrid and Liverpool, and despite earlier reports that he would be available for €100m, the Portuguese club will now seemingly not settle for anything less than his release clause.

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL, MADRID TOLD TO MEET €120M RELEASE CLAUSE FOR FERNANDEZ

Portuguese publication Record is reporting the €100million bid Benfica rejected came from Liverpool, with an earlier Daily Mirror story claiming the Reds had reached a pre-agreement with Fernandez on personal terms.

Liverpool have made no secret of their desire for a new midfielder, but it remains to be seen if the extra €20million to meet the release clause will be a deal-breaker.

Meanwhile, Madrid appear to be looking elsewhere, with a fresh report from AS stating they are in the driver's seat in the chase for Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, and that they view 24-year-old Juventus midfielder Manuel Locatelli as a reliable back-up plan if they land neither Fernandez or Bellingham.

ROUND-UP

Chelsea have agreed to a £10.5million signing of 20-year-old forward David Datro Fofana from Norwegian club Molde, per Fabrizio Romano.

– According to Repubblica, Arsenal are interested in signing 27-year-old Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot on a free transfer at the end of the season.

– The Evening Standard is reporting Fulham, Villarreal and Bayer Leverkusen are considering January moves for Arsenal full-back Cedric Soares.

– The Evening Standard is also reporting Crystal Palace would like to bring right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka back to the club, three years after selling him to Manchester United.

– According to Sport, Barcelona will look to move on from Raphinha at the end of the season if he does not make himself a key part of Xavi's plans.

Xavi is the "best coach in the world", according to Barcelona president Joan Laporta.

A product of La Masia, Barca's famous academy, Xavi won LaLiga eight times and the Champions League on four occasions with the Blaugrana in a playing career that coincided with one of the most successful periods in the club's history.

However, financial troubles have plagued Barca in recent times, and they have failed to match the glory days under Pep Guardiola.

Xavi returned to Barca as head coach in 2021 following Ronald Koeman's sacking, and despite an early Champions League exit, the former midfielder led the team to the LaLiga summit heading into the World Cup break.

The 42-year-old has outlined the need to deliver silverware at Camp Nou this season, and Laporta is encouraged.

Laporta believes Xavi is the best coach out there, and says the 42-year-old's emotional attachment with the club is helping him to bring success back to Camp Nou.

"I say we need to win titles this season. I totally agree with Xavi," Laporta told Barca TV.

"I am very lucky to have the best coach in the world, because Xavi, in addition to his great football knowledge, is a man who is always very interesting to listen to with his reasoning, who is also a club man and is very aligned with the club.

"We share moments together, and also we share much of everything that is being done, and I feel very accompanied and supported with Xavi and all his staff.

"They are people in whom we all have full confidence in their knowledge but also in their sense of the club, which is very important, very important."

Xavi's former midfield partner Sergio Busquets is still in the playing squad at Camp Nou, although he is out of contract at the end of the season.

The recently retired Spain international has been linked with Inter Miami, who are also potential suitors for Lionel Messi, but Laporta says Barca are keen to keep him.

"Xavi counts on [Busquets], and he wants him to continue," the president added. "In other words, what we want is that, if possible, he continues.

"There are reports now in the winter market that he had offers from MLS and others.  

"Obviously, whatever Busquets decides is well decided, and the club will always be with him with what he needs and helping with what he needs. When the contract ends, then it will end.

"I don't know if he will decide this winter or continue until the end of the season. We want him to continue until the end of the season because Xavi has let me know [he still wants him].

"Busquets is also one of those that Barca is his home."

Barcelona's interest in Lionel Messi back to the club is "obvious", president Joan Laporta has said.

Barca brought Messi to Europe as a youngster, and he entrenched himself as a Blaugrana legend becoming the club's all-time leading scorer and winning seven Ballons d'Or while at Camp Nou.

Messi also helped Barca win 10 LaLiga titles and four Champions League trophies during his time in Catalonia, in what was one of the club's most successful periods.

However, financial troubles meant the LaLiga giants did not renew Messi's contract when it expired in 2021, and Paris Saint-Germain swooped to bring him to the French capital on a two-year deal.

The 35-year-old lifted the World Cup with Argentina for the first time last weekend, and his impressive displays in Qatar earned him a second Golden Ball, the first man to ever achieve that feat.

With Messi showing he can still perform at the very top level, there is discussion over his future with his PSG contract coming to an end in June 2023.

 

PSG reportedly have a verbal agreement in place to extend his contract, but Laporta did not hide his desire to bring the forward back to the club, though he was keen to temper fans' excitement with financial issues still looming.

"It is obvious that I would like him to return one day," Laporta told BarcaTV. "I would love to, but we cannot generate expectations.

"He is a PSG player, who has a contract with them.

"What I don't want is to create expectations that have great difficulty. The [financial] levers were made to save the club because it was in a very difficult situation.

"We would like very much that he came back, but it is something that [we will have to see]."

Messi's World Cup win has seen him instilled as the favourite to win an eighth Ballon d'Or in 2023.

Laporta is one of many who believe Messi is the greatest player in football history, explaining: "For us, he is the best of all time.

"We have had him here and he has become a player here. He will always be linked to Barca."

A Messi return would see him play under a former team-mate in Xavi, who watched his team bounce back from a group-stage Champions League exit to head into the World Cup break top of LaLiga, two points above rivals Real Madrid.

Lionel Messi is currently holidaying in his homeland after Argentina's World Cup victory.

But the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner's club future is a hot topic, having put off any contract talks until after the event.

Messi is out of contract at Paris Saint-Germain at the end of this season, with former club Barcelona consistently linked.

TOP STORY – MESSI AGREES TO STAY WITH PSG

Lionel Messi has agreed to a one-year contract extension with PSG, according to Le Parisien.

The 35-year-old had put off contract talks until after the World Cup, which concluded on Sunday with Messi lifting the title with Argentina.

The report claims Messi and PSG have reached an agreement in principle, with the deal to be sealed once the Argentine returns to France.

ROUND-UP

– CBS's Ben Jacobs claims PSG will not let Kylian Mbappe exit the club in January and any off-season move will only be permitted at the right price. Mbappe was heavily linked with Real Madrid previously, but the move did not materialise, as he ultimately re-signed in May with the Parisians until 2025.

Barcelona have lost interest in Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, moving on from the idea of attempting to sign the 32-year-old on a free transfer in the off-season due to his age, claims SPORT.

Manchester United are interested in Aston Villa's Argentina World Cup-winning goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, claims Football Insider. That comes with David de Gea's future at Old Trafford unclear.

– Fabrizio Romano reports that Chelsea are on the verge of reaching agreement on a deal for Vasco da Gama's 18-year-old Andrey Santos. The Daily Mail claims the deal is worth £18m.

Tottenham will rival Bayern Munich in pursuit of Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer, according to GiveMeSport. Spurs are looking for a successor to veteran Hugo Lloris, while Bayern have lost Manuel Neuer to injury.

Winning LaLiga this season would show Barcelona's "recovery process is on the right track", according to president Joan Laporta.

Barca have suffered from poor finances and disappointing performances on the pitch in recent years.

They last won the league title in the 2018-19 campaign, while a group-stage exit in this season's Champions League means their seven-year wait to claim Europe's top club prize for a sixth time goes on.

Barca are, however, enjoying a domestic resurgence under Xavi, who returned as coach after a legendary playing career with the club.

Xavi is Barca's eighth head coach since Pep Guardiola left in 2012 and his team led LaLiga heading into the World Cup break.

"The priority objective is LaLiga," Laporta told reporters. "Clear and low.

"The dressing room, with Xavi at the helm, is clear about it.

"We want to win LaLiga to show that the club's recovery process is on the right track."

It appears it will be a two-horse race for the title with Real Madrid, who are two points behind Barca but came out victorious when the sides met at the Santiago Bernabeu in October.

Barca will get their league campaign back underway against city rivals Espanyol on December 31.

Cristiano Ronaldo will look to resolve his club future following his World Cup disappointment with Portugal.

Ronaldo spent time training with his former team Real Madrid last week, having parted ways with Manchester United.

The 37-year-old five-time Ballon d'Or appears to have run out of options in Europe, and seemingly Saudi Arabia beckons.

TOP STORY – SAUDI GIANTS EXPECT RONALDO DEAL BY END OF 2022

Al Nassr are hoping to complete their move for Cristiano Ronaldo by the end of the year, reports Marca.

Ronaldo is said to be in Dubai and waiting to travel to Saudi Arabia, with a two-and-a-half-year contract offer on the table worth €200million.

The report claims Ronaldo will spend Christmas with family in Dubai, with Al Nassr awaiting his arrival before the close of the year.

ROUND-UP

– Paris Saint-Germain are eager to renew Lionel Messi's contract in the next few days, reports Goal. Messi's contract expires in mid-2023, and he is free to talk to clubs outside of France from January 1. Messi's former club Barcelona have shown tentative interest in the Argentina World Cup winner returning to Camp Nou, while Inter Miami have also been linked.

– Bild claims Newcastle United could be preparing a January bid for Borussia Monchengladbach forward Marcus Thuram. Gladbach reportedly want £10.5million (€12million) for the Frenchman, although the Magpies may offer below that.

– Atletico Madrid and Arsenal are targeting Brighton and Hove Albion's World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister, according to AS.

– Mexico international goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa is set to join Serie A club Salernitana as a free agent from America, according to Fabrizio Romano, who says Ochoa will fly to Italy on Thursday to complete the move.

– Chelsea are on the verge of winning the race for Vasco da Gama's 18-year-old Brazilian sensation Andrey Santos, reports talkSPORT.

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