Jamaica international Leon Bailey could return to action for English Premier League club Aston Villa against Arsenal next week after failing to return to the line-up on Saturday.

A few weeks ago, the player had a smashing impact for the Claret and Blue, coming off the bench to provide an assist for one goal before smashing the other into the roof of the net in a 3-0 win over Everton.  The player was, however, forced to leave the field after picking up an injury soon after and has not returned to the line-up since.

Bailey also missed out on the latest round of World Cup qualifiers for his country Jamaica.  Villa boss Dean Smith confirmed that the player has come up short ahead of Saturday’s encounter against Wolverhampton.

“Leon Bailey’s hasn’t ticked all the right boxes for the medical staff yet. We’re hopeful he’ll be ready for the Arsenal game,” Smith said.

Aston Villa went on to lose the match 3-2 after surrendering a two-goal lead.  The Jamaicna joined the club this summer following the departure of talisman Jack Grealish who made a big-money move to Manchester City.

The race is on to sign Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland, who might be set to make a move in mid-2022.

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain are all interested in the Norwegian goal machine, but could Newcastle United also be a factor?.

Haaland netted 41 goals from 41 games last term for Dortmund and already has 13 this season.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE ENTER HAALAND RACE

Newcastle are the latest club to enter the race to sign Borussia Dortmund's Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, reports AS.

The report claims Real Madrid are losing their grip as favourites to sign Haaland, with Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and now Newcastle potentially in contention.

The Magpies' move is said to be "not out of the question" following the club's takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund who appear set to make a splash in the transfer market in January. 

ROUND-UP

- Mohamed Salah's agent has arrived in England for contract talks with Liverpool over a £500k-per-week deal, according to the Mirror.

- ESPN reports that Premier League trio Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool are tracking Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, rivalling Real Madrid. United's interest is said to be based around whether Paul Pogba departs.

- Dusan Vlahovic will follow Federico Chiesa's lead and reject a new Fiorentina contract offer in favour of a move to Juventus, ignoring Premier League interest from Tottenham and Liverpool, reports La Gazzetta dello Sport.

- Barcelona are interested in Manchester United's Nemanja Matic, claims The Sun. The Serbian has a little over 18 months remaining on his United deal so Barca believe they could sign him next off-season on a cut-price deal.

- Goal Germany reports that Bayern Munich are making a move to sign Salzburg talent Karim Adeyemi, with the player's agent and father reportedly holding talks with the Bavarian club on Saturday.

"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch – as next opponents Bayern Munich may find out on Sunday.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform prior to the international break, after which Leverkusen now prepare to face champions Bayern in a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Havertz at Leverkusen, it is a sign to sit up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continued to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – at least up until the international break, it was the best rate of all players in Europe's top five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and consider how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez got on the scoresheet as LA Galaxy breathed life in their MLS playoffs aspirations with a 2-1 home win over Portland Timbers on Saturday.

Sacha Kljestan netted a stoppage-time penalty to clinch all three points for Galaxy, who had been in a freefall with a winless nine-game span.

Chicharito poked in at the back post for the opening goal in the 62nd minute, pouncing on Larrys Mabiala's defensive error from Victor Vazquez's ball into the box.

The Timbers equalized 10 minutes later when Sebastian Blanco's cross-cum-shot drifted over Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond and in off the post.

Blanco hit the upright from a long-range effort, before LA won a penalty when substitute Efrain Alvarez was brought down inside the box by Josecarlos Van Rankin.

Kljestan fired low to Timbers keeper Steve Clark's right for the winner which moves Galaxy up to 42 points, retaining their grip on sixth spot in the Western Conference.

Supporters Shield-leading New England Revolution conceded late as they drew 2-2 at home with Chicago Fire.

The sides traded four goals in the second half, with Wilfred Kaptoum drilling in a low opener in the 47th minute before Alvaro Medran equalized instantly with a classy volley.

Gustavo Bou netted his 13th goal of the season to restore Revolution's lead with a deft lob from Carles Gil's lofted pass in behind the defence in the 76th minute.

Bou was denied by Chicago keeper Gabriel Slonina before Brian Gutierrez danced forward for the visitors, finding Ignacio Aliseda who fired home an angled 88th minute leveller.

Western Conference leaders Seattle Sounders missed the chance to close on New England after going down 2-1 at Houston Dynamo.

Maxi Urruti scored a spectacular volley to put Houston ahead on the quarter hour, with Darwin Quintero doubling their lead with a fine solo left-foot strike in the 20th minute.

Jimmy Medranda halved the deficit with a rifled 41st minute shot after recycling an over-hit corner, although Houston came closest to a second-half goal, hitting the woodwork four times, before Seattle's Joao Paulo had a stoppage-time free-kick cannon into the crossbar.

Real Salt Lake solidified their grip on a playoffs spot with a 3-1 home victory over Colorado Rapids, who are third in the Western Conference.

Minnesota United remained ahead of RSL by two points with a 1-0 triumph at lowly Austin thanks to Franco Frangapane's 16th-minute strike.

US international Gyasi Zardes netted a double as Columbus Crew thrashed Inter Miami 4-0, condemning them to their sixth straight defeat, during which they have scored one goal and conceded 16 times.

Luiz Araujo and Marcelino Moreno both netted late in each half as 10-man Atlanta United triumphed 2-0 at Toronto.

Junior Urso netted early as Orlando City eased past struggling Cincinnati 1-0, while DC United and Nashville drew 0-0 with the visitors recorded a draw for the fourth successive game.

Olivier Giroud was relieved to get back among the goals as Milan fought back to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 at San Siro on Saturday.

The Rossoneri looked to be heading for a first defeat in 30 home Serie A meetings with Verona when Gianluca Caprari and Antonin Barak put them 2-0 up before half-time.

Giroud headed in just before the hour mark to spark Milan's revival, with Franck Kessie levelling the scores from the penalty spot before a late decisive own goal from Koray Gunter.

The result put Stefano Pioli's men top of the table ahead of Napoli's clash with Torino on Sunday.

In scoring his third goal in his first two Serie A home games, Giroud matched a feat only previous reached by Oliver Bierhoff, Alexandre Pato, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Bacca since 1994-95.

The former Arsenal and Chelsea striker, who had missed four of Milan's previous five games, admitted it had been a long time coming to be back on the scoresheet.

"I've waited a long time for this moment. I missed the competition," Giroud, who last scored in the win over Cagliari in August, told DAZN.

"In the first half, we didn't do well but the reaction was important. I don't feel 100 per cent yet but I am growing and I feel more free.

"This victory is a joy. I can't wait to go and celebrate with my team-mates. In the first half, there was a lack of nastiness and quality. We could only do better in the second half, and that's what we did."

Pioli was left delighted with the endeavour shown by his side in the second half as they now prepare for a key Champions League group game with Porto on Tuesday.

"My team believe in what they do and put their soul into everything," he told DAZN.

"We tried to play from the back but they were very aggressive in the first half. They took away our space and often left us with just the long ball. We were not very dynamic and we suffered.

"The best thing about this group is to see everyone involved. The credit doesn't go to me, but it's the air we breathe. The boys put individuality aside to put themselves at the service of the team.

"We should enjoy this game but prepare for Porto. We've recovered some players and we've lost some. The more rotations there are, the better we can do." 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) wants discussions to be held over FIFA's plan to stage the men's World Cup every two years instead of four. 

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has been travelling across the globe in a bid to drum up support for making the World Cup a biennial competition. 

The proposal, which is set to be voted on in December, has been met with criticism from federations at a continental and national level, as well as players' and supporters' unions. 

The IOC suggested it is simply a money-spinning exercise for FIFA and said it shared concerns raised about the impact on other sports, gender equality and player welfare. 

An IOC statement read: "A number of international federations (IFs) of other sports, national football federations, clubs, players, players associations and coaches have expressed strong reservations and concerns regarding the plans to generate more revenue for FIFA, mainly for the following reasons: 

"The increased frequency and timing for the World Cup would create a clash with other major international sports. This includes tennis, cycling, golf, gymnastics, swimming, athletics, Formula 1 and many others. This would undermine the diversity and development of sports other than football. 

"The increase in men's events in the calendar would create challenges for the further promotion of women's football. 

"The plans ... would create a further massive strain on the physical and mental health of the players." 

The release continued: "The IOC shares these concerns and supports the calls of stakeholders of football, international sports federations and major event organisers for a wider consultation, including with athletes' representatives, which has obviously not taken place." 

Milan roared back from 2-0 down to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 on Saturday and claim top spot in the Serie A table.

Unbeaten in their opening seven league games of the season, the Rossoneri were 2-0 down at the break against a side previously without an away win against them in 29 attempts.

Gianluca Caprari and a penalty from Antonin Barak had Verona heading for an unlikely three points before the home side produced a second-half turnaround.

After Olivier Giroud had headed home a third goal in three league games, Franck Kessie equalised from the penalty spot before Koray Gunter's own goal settled a gripping contest.

Milan had not conceded two first-half goals in Serie A since last November – against these opponents – but they paid the price for a lifeless start to the contest.

Ciprian Tatarusanu, in for the injured Mike Maignan, was powerless to keep out Caprari's precise finish seven minutes in after Miguel Veloso had kept Verona's attack alive.

The lead was doubled 17 minutes later, Barak putting his penalty just out of Tatarusanu's reach after Alessio Romagnoli was judged to have fouled Nikola Kalinic as the former Milan forward darted in front of him to meet a cross.

This Milan is a resilient side, though – they have only twice taken more points after the first eight matches of the season in the three-point era than they had before this game – and they got a lifeline just before the hour when Giroud nodded in Rafael Leao's expert cross from the left.

A swift passing move saw Leao backheel the ball to Samu Castillejo, who was caught from behind by Marco Faraoni, allowing Kessie to dispatch a confident penalty and level the scores with 15 minutes left.

Stefano Pioli introduced Zlatan Ibrahimovic off the bench, and the veteran striker may well have had a tap-in had Gunter not scuffed an attempted clearance beneath the legs of goalkeeper Lorenzo Montipo to give Milan the lead.


What does it mean? Milan go top – and stay unbeaten

Milan's comeback saw them leapfrog Napoli, who play Torino on Sunday, and go top of the table by a single point.

With Inter having lost 3-1 at Lazio earlier, Pioli will be doubly pleased with the manner of their second-half performance as they capitalised on their rivals' first loss of the season.

Verona are 13th, with eight points from eight games.

Olivier takes centre stage

Giroud has made a career out of being a penalty-box menace and it was no surprise to see him drag Milan back into the contest.

He is the fifth Rossonero since 1994-95 to score three goals in his first two Serie A home games, after Oliver Bierhoff, Alexandre Pato, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Bacca.

Maldini goes missing

Daniel Maldini completed just seven passes before being hooked at half-time as Pioli rang the changes to good effect.

By contrast, replacement Rade Krunic completed twice as many in the opposition half alone while creating four goalscoring chances.

What's next?

Milan head to Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday before facing Bologna away on October 23.

Simone Inzaghi was left anguished after his first Serie A defeat as Inter boss came at his former club Lazio, admitting: "We lost our heads."

A 3-1 setback came after a flurry of second-half goals from the home side in Rome, with the defending champions knocked out of their stride late on by a moment of controversy.

With Inter's Federico Dimarco down, apparently injured, Lazio played on and got the 81st-minute goal that put them 2-1 ahead, Felipe Anderson netting from close range after Ciro Immobile's strike was parried by Samir Handanovic.

Inter were furious and both sides had two players booked as bickering on the pitch threatened to spill over. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic sealed the points in stoppage time with a fine header, ending Inter's seven-game unbeaten start to the league campaign.

Inzaghi's new team took the lead against his former charges when Ivan Perisic converted an early penalty, but Lazio had a spot-kick in the 64th minute after Patric's header from a corner was handled by Alessandro Bastoni. Immobile tucked away that chance and the comeback gathered momentum from there.

The result rankled with Inzaghi, who said afterwards: "That was our best recent performance, but when a team like ours is a goal up, we have to manage the game better in terms of our final ball and double our lead."

Quoted on the official Inter website, he added: "Unfortunately, they scored their equaliser from a corner that we shouldn't have conceded. From that point on, the game changed and Lazio got back into the contest.

"The second goal was a bit strange and we lost our heads, which is something we can't allow to happen. It's disappointing. It's a setback that we didn't need in terms of our league position, but we'll take the performance and move on."

Inter sit third in the Serie A standings, behind Napoli and Milan, and their next league clash sees them face Juventus on Sunday of next weekend.

"When you face sides like Lazio, you can't give them a chance to get back into the match," Inzaghi said. "We managed the contest particularly well for an hour, but we then let our opponents back into the game and paid the consequences."

Lazio head coach Maurizio Sarri said Inter should have put the ball out of play themselves when they had an opportunity after Dimarco went to ground.

Sarri was also dismayed to see Luiz Felipe, who had an excellent game in central defence, red-carded after the final whistle.

Luiz Felipe, in celebration mode, jumped on his former Lazio team-mate Joaquin Correa, who left for Inter in August. Correa did not see the funny side and Luiz Felipe was in tears after being dismissed.

"Luiz Felipe told me he was saying goodbye to Correa, they played together for a long time. They didn't want to fight," said Sarri. "It's a big misunderstanding."

Lazio scored twice late on as they came from behind to beat Inter 3-1 and end Simone Inzaghi's unbeaten start in Serie A with his new club.

Ivan Perisic opened the scoring from the spot after just 12 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico, before Lazio's Ciro Immobile equalised with a penalty of his own after the break.

Controversy followed as Felipe Anderson tapped in on the rebound from Immobile's strike with nine minutes remaining, with Inter's Federico Dimarco seemingly down on the ground and injured in the build-up to the goal.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic added a third with a late header as Inter's unbeaten start to their title defence, under the guidance of former Lazio boss Inzaghi, abruptly ended. The result leaves them four points behind leaders Napoli, who host Torino on Sunday.

Lazio's Luiz Felipe was red-carded after the full-time whistle for an altercation with former team-mate Joaquin Correa as tempers flared after the conclusion of the game.

Paulo Dybala will miss Juventus' Serie A meeting with Roma on Sunday and he is a doubt to face reigning champions Inter next weekend. 

A thigh injury has sidelined Dybala since the 3-2 victory over Sampdoria on September 26, though he was still called up to the Argentina squad. 

The 27-year-old did not meet up with the squad after being assessed by Argentina and it was reported he would be fit for the visit of Roma to the Allianz Stadium this weekend. 

However, Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri insisted that is not the case and suggested Dybala could yet miss the Derby d'Italia against Inter at San Siro a week on Sunday. 

"During the week I was reading that maybe Dybala could play against Roma – maybe the return match! I think he will be available in a week, or 10 days at most," Allegri said in a news conference. 

"There's no problem with his recovery, he's on schedule. It was thought that maybe he'd need a few days less, but these things happen. 

"With muscle injuries you think one thing and believe you can do less. It always depends on the evolution of the situation." 

Roma have gained four more points from seven matches this season than Juve and will be out to avoid suffering a 10th away loss in Serie A in the calendar year - something that has not happened to them since 2012.

The match will see Jose Mourinho in the dugout at the Allianz Stadium for the first time since November 2018, when he celebrated leading Manchester United to victory over Juventus by cupping his ear to the crowd. 

Allegri has only won seven of his 20 Serie A games against Roma as a coach - a win percentage of 35 that is his worst against teams he has faced at least three times.

"Mourinho is a coach who has won a lot and I respect him a lot," said Allegri. 

"It's in his character to, every now and then, do something like he did with Manchester United a few years ago. 

"It pleases me to have a coach of his standing back in Italy." 

Mourinho is hopeful of having Tammy Abraham available for the game after the striker limped off during England's 1-1 draw with Hungary on Tuesday. 

"He will travel with us. We'll decide tomorrow whether he'll be on the pitch, the bench or in the stands. He's improving," said Mourinho. 

Juve have won three straight Serie A games to climb up the table after a woeful start and will be seeking to make it four in succession for the first time since July 2020.

Mourinho believes the depth in Juve's squad means that – despite them already being 10 points adrift of unbeaten leaders Napoli – they remain strong contenders for the Scudetto. 

"They're a very strong team and they always play to win games and the league. It's not a team of 11 good players, they have more than 20 good players with experience," said Mourinho. 

"The coach also has a lot of experience. Juve are a strong candidate [for the title]." 

Dani Alves has revealed he wants to return to Barcelona, claiming his experience can make him a perfect foil for the talented youngsters emerging at Camp Nou.

The Brazilian right-back hopes to push for a place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar but is without a club after leaving Sao Paulo in September.

He would love to make the leap back into LaLiga, in what would be a startling move for a 38-year-old who left Barcelona five years ago.

Now it remains to be seen whether head coach Ronald Koeman thinks there is a place in his squad for the six-time LaLiga winner.

"I always said that I left because I saw that things were not the way I thought they should be," he told Spanish newspaper Sport.

With Joan Laporta back for a new stint as president, Alves believes Barcelona can move in the right direction.

"If left saying that when Barca needed me and wanted me, I would be at their disposal regardless of where I was," he said. "The affection, love and respect that I have for this club is too much. If Barca think they need me, they just have to call. I still think that I can contribute anywhere, but more at Barca because of the number of youngsters they have now.

"In every place I have been, I have always thought that the perfect mix is ​experience with youth. There will come a time when youth will mature and the older ones will leave. It is a natural cycle, but in football mistakes have been made and this process has accelerated. Processes cannot be sped up. The mix is ​​essential."

Alves played for Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain after leaving Barcelona, winning league titles with both, before returning to Brazilian club football.

A three-time Champions League winner with Barcelona, he joined in 2008 from Sevilla and left eight years later. In 247 LaLiga games for Barcelona, he helped the team to 95 clean sheets, had 78 goal involvements (64 assists, 14 goals) and created 377 chances. The latter total across the eight-year period was beaten by only five players, two of whom were Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Alves said there was a subconscious "thorn" in his mind regarding the World Cup, and the fact he did not go to the 2018 tournament due to a knee injury. Winning a gold medal with Brazil at the Tokyo Olympic Games was rated by Alves as his greatest achievement in the game.

"Many times you stop playing not because of the physical element but because you have been mentally destroyed. And this is one of the things that I have the strongest: I decide when I start and I decide when I finish. And along the way you have to live it intensely, which is what I do," he said. "I know that if I am going to compete in a team, that is what will take me to the World Cup."

He scotched any thought of him lacking the physical wherewithal to compete at the highest level.

"There came a time in Sao Paulo that we played every other day," Alves said. "I am reaping what I have sown all my life, which is respect for the profession, discipline and care that one has to have ... it is what allowed me to compete in the Olympic Games with boys of 18 or 20 years old and have a good performance.

"I don't believe myself to be better than anyone, but I trust my work, my dedication and my preparation to face all my challenges. This is the basis of my entire career."

Ronald Koeman had Sergio Aguero and Ansu Fati on his mind ahead of Sunday's clash with Valencia as the under-pressure Barcelona boss seeks the wins he admits his team urgently need.

Former Manchester City striker Aguero – the Premier League champions' record scorer – has yet to play a competitive game for Barcelona since joining in the close season, due to a calf injury.

The Argentinian was in Koeman's thoughts, however, ahead of the clash with Valencia at Camp Nou, while Fati appears ready to make his first start of the season.

It remains to be seen whether that comes on Sunday or in the Champions League game with Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday, or even in the Clasico against Real Madrid next weekend.

Three home games in eight days for Barcelona could go a long way to determining whether Koeman has a future at Camp Nou, with a Champions League defeat to Benfica and a LaLiga loss to Atletico Madrid before the international break having ramped up pressure on the Dutchman's position.

Assessing Aguero, Koeman said on Saturday: "He has improved a lot lately. He played 20, 25 minutes in Wednesday's [practice] game and it is going well.

"But he lacks the rhythm of the games and a certain physique. He will get that with games. There is a possibility that he will be on the squad list. His quality is not questioned, he can give a lot to this team. Especially up front."

Barcelona have taken 12 points from their opening seven games in LaLiga, meaning they have ground to make up already on the likes of Real Madrid, Atletico and Real Sociedad, who each stood on 17 points from eight games coming into this weekend, albeit Koeman's men have a game in hand.

Teenage forward Fati is being eased back into the first team after his long-term knee injury absence, with Koeman determined not to rush the young Spain international, while at the same time aware his qualities could be hugely helpful to this Barcelona team.

The shot conversion rate by Barcelona in LaLiga so far this season is 13.6 per cent, their lowest in a single campaign in the top flight since 2007-08 (13.5 per cent).

 

"Every day he is doing better because he has been away for a long time," Koeman said of Fati. "You have to think with Ansu that there are three games this week and he cannot play the entire three games. We must decide what is best for him and the team."

Koeman was backed by president Joan Laporta before the Atletico game, but he needs results and knows it.

"I always try to be calm, which isn't easy," Koeman said. "The important thing is to put your energy where you have an influence. Winning games and points is what counts."

The former Ajax and Everton boss will hope Barcelona's reasonably strong recent record against Valencia can continue. They have just lost one of their past 10 LaLiga games against Valencia (W5 D4), a 2-0 setback in January 2020 under Quique Setien.

A flurry of goals would seem likely, given the recent history of this fixture. Valencia are the away team with the most goals at Camp Nou in LaLiga since 2013-14, netting a remarkable 14 goals in eight games and scoring at least twice in six of those.

Koeman would presumably take a win by any means, whether a scrappy 1-0 or a dramatic and high-scoring affair. A defeat is almost unthinkable, given it would be a third straight loss for the Blaugrana.

Asked about his position and the pressures that come with it, Koeman said: "I am used to it. Don't worry, in a big club there are always things with the coach. Last year they also talked about the coach.

"The president has defended me and supported me. Things are fine as they are, in spite of the fact that every coach has to win games to continue."

Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri has revealed his respect for Roma counterpart Jose Mourinho, declaring it good news for Serie A that the Portuguese boss has returned to Italy.

The experienced pair go head-to-head on Sunday in Turin, with Allegri's men sitting a disappointing seventh in the league standings going into the weekend, four points and three places behind the capital club.

Mourinho returned to take charge of a team in Italy this term for the first time since leaving Inter in 2010, having won Serie A in his first season and a remarkable treble in his second at San Siro.

Allegri believes the presence of such a character can only be positive for the league, despite an incident in 2018 when Mourinho – then managing Manchester United – taunted Allegri's Juventus and their fans after a 2-1 comeback win in 2018 by cupping his ear to the crowd.

"Mourinho is a coach who has won a lot and I respect him a lot," Allegri said. "It's in his character to, every now and then, do like he did with Manchester a few years ago.

"It pleases me to have a coach of his value back in Italy."

Despite offering such words for his counterpart, Allegri is determined to see his team come out on top as Juventus look to close the gap between themselves and league leaders Napoli, who have won every game.

"Juventus versus Roma is always a great match where there has often been controversy. There's Mourinho, who has given them character. They are ahead of us, and we must score points to not fall behind the best in the championship.

"We need to prepare well and turn the switch back on immediately after the break."

Karim Benzema believes the Clasico is still "the best match that exists in football", even with neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo involved for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Benzema's Madrid visit Barca next week to begin a new era in one of the game's most famous fixtures.

After Ronaldo left the capital for Juventus in 2018 – and later rejoined Manchester United – Messi followed his great rival out of LaLiga this year.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner, who had been a first-team player at Barca since 2004, joined Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer when the Blaugrana could not afford to renew his contract.

In the 21st century, only Diego Forlan (10) has scored more LaLiga goals against Barca than Ronaldo (nine). Messi's 18 Clasico goals are the most of any player against Madrid in that time.

Benzema, leading the league for both goals (nine) and assists (seven) in 2021-22, is the outstanding player among those who remain, but he insists the excitement around the match is undimmed.

"For me, it's still the same. It remains the best match that exists in football," he told ESPN.

"It doesn't matter about the players who are there, who have left or who will join. Real-Barca is historic.

"The names change, but before there was [Zinedine] Zidane, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, [Samuel] Eto'o. Real-Barca will always be Real-Barca."

 

Leaders Madrid will undoubtedly be favourites, even in Catalonia. Ahead of the games this week, when Los Blancos are not in action but Valencia visit Camp Nou, Barca are down in ninth.

Benzema is impressively holding the fort as Madrid's main man, but Barca are a little short on quality following Messi's departure amid a dire financial situation.

The Blaugrana's salary cap is only the seventh-highest in the league, a long way behind Madrid's, and doubts remain around Ronald Koeman.

He lost his first two Clasicos last season, becoming the first Barca coach to do so since Joaquim Rife in 1980. Koeman is also three without a win against champions Atletico Madrid, who beat his side before the international break.

But Benzema says: "There's never a good moment to play them. A team like Barca or any top team, they can have a poor game and then bounce back again.

"It's a match that we can't take lightly, even if they haven't played well so far."

Benzema certainly has played well, and he has made the shortlist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

In this calendar year, the France international has 28 goals and 11 assists for Madrid in all competitions. Across the top five leagues, only three players – Robert Lewandowski (46), Erling Haaland (45) and Kylian Mbappe (43) – have recorded more involvements than Benzema's 39.

"It's been a dream since I was young and also a motivation – the Ballon d'Or represents the best players in the world and [it is great] to be on the list," Benzema said.

"If you count who's on there, it's very satisfying. It's always been an objective.

"You could say [I am close]. What I've done for the last three to four years, to continue to perform at a high level.

"When I'm playing, I don't think about the Ballon d'Or. I think about helping the team win, providing a spectacle. The Ballon d'Or comes as a result of that, because it's more of an individual focus, but it's all about the collective."

Milan midfielder Brahim Diaz has tested positive for coronavirus ahead of the club's Serie A match with Hellas Verona.

Diaz, 22, is feeling fine as he isolates at home, according to a statement from the club.

No other players tested positive in the latest round of tests ahead of the Verona clash at San Siro on Saturday.

Milan, though, are already without defender Theo Hernandez due to COVID-19.

"Close monitoring with swab tests will follow according to the indications provided by the relevant health authorities, who were immediately informed," read Milan's statement.

Diaz has played in all seven of Milan's league matches this season, starting six, and would again have been expected to be named in the XI against Verona by head coach Stefano Pioli.

The former Real Madrid player has scored three goals in Serie A, tied for the most with Rafael Leao, and added one assist.

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