Bayern Munich honorary president Uli Hoeness admits it will not be easy to prise Xabi Alonso away from Bayer Leverkusen due to competition from Liverpool and Real Madrid.

The reigning German champions look set to lose their Bundesliga title to Alonso’s Leverkusen side as they trail their rivals by 10 points.

That situation prompted the early announcement of Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel’s departure at the end of the season but Jurgen Klopp revealing in January he was leaving Anfield in the summer has hastened proceedings as a host of big-name clubs battle to find new managers this summer.

Alonso, 42, is rated as one of Europe’s top young coaches with Leverkusen still unbeaten this season and heading towards their first Bundesliga title and has been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite to replace Klopp at Liverpool.

However, with two of the ex-Spain midfielder’s other former clubs also seemingly in competition for his services, the race is more complicated, although Carlo Ancelotti’s future at Real currently appears secure with the team eight points clear in LaLiga with the Italian signing a contract extension to 2026 in December.

“He’s (Alonso) proven that he can be a coach for the big time. There are hardly any suitable coaches who are currently free,” Hoeness told a panel at the Munich Trade Fair.

“Rather they are coaches who are under contract somewhere and possibly have great success.

“And that makes it much more difficult because clubs like Liverpool, Real Madrid, Leverkusen and FC Bayern are working on it (securing Alonso).

“It’s not so easy to tell them that Bayern is the measure of all things.”

The public comments made by the 72-year-old, who is also a supervisory board member with the Bavarian club, are unlikely to impress Bayern’s new director of sport Max Eberl.

On Wednesday, Eberl gave an interview to German newspaper Bild in which he said he did not want to provoke Alonso headlines and insisted he had not spoken to any potential candidates, which numbered “more than four but not 40 names” on an “unusual” list of successors.

“We have a list that we would like to work through in peace and have conversations in peace,” said Eberl.

Liverpool’s attempts to find Klopp’s replacement are expected to accelerate following Wednesday’s appointment of a new sporting director in Richard Hughes from Bournemouth.

Hughes was the driving force behind the appointment of Cherries head coach Andoni Iraola, whose agent Inaki Ibanez is the long-time representative of Alonso.

However, Hughes would have secured the appointment of Roberto De Zerbi – another being linked with Liverpool – had there not been a delay due in the change of the club’s ownership which allowed Brighton to secure the Italian.

Sporting’s Ruben Amorim is another likely to be on Liverpool’s short list.

Conor Bradley’s head could have been left spinning from a whirlwind few months but the Liverpool and Northern Ireland youngster’s feet remain firmly on the ground.

This time last year the 20-year-old was starring on loan at League One Bolton, but since breaking into Jurgen Klopp’s side before Christmas he has turned in a string of eye-catching displays for the club he grew up supporting.

He scored his first Liverpool goal in a man-of-the-match display in a 4-1 win over Chelsea in January and lifted the Carabao Cup a month later.

“I definitely didn’t think it would go this well,” Bradley said ahead of Northern Ireland’s friendly against Romania on Friday. “You dream about scoring your first goal for Liverpool but never think it will come true.

“My pinch-myself moment was probably against Chelsea when I scored and got two assists. The fans chanting my name was pretty special. I don’t think I will have a better night than that to be honest.”

Northern Ireland fans have known about Bradley’s talent since he made his debut in May 2021, and he would have more than his 13 caps but for the injury that ruled him out of their final six Euro 2024 qualifiers last year.

But his exploits with Liverpool have seen his name go global.

“I haven’t really felt it to be honest,” said Bradley. “I just try to keep doing the same things I was doing before.

“I am still the same person I was before. None of it has changed me so I just want to keep working hard and doing what I am doing.”

Michael O’Neill has praised the attitude of Bradley, who took a short break from the game in February after the death of his father Joe.

If there had been any danger of things going to his head, Bradley’s Northern Ireland team-mates would be happy to keep him in his place.

“All the lads still treat me the same, they still slag me off!” he said. “The boys have been brilliant with me since I’ve come back in.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been away with Northern Ireland, Denmark in June. I’ve missed quite a bit so I’m buzzing to be back.”

Bradley’s path from his childhood in Castlederg to Liverpool began in Gaelic football, which he kept playing until he was 16.

The Gaelic game is much rougher, but it toughened up the slender Bradley.

“There’s quite a big difference and I was getting too many yellow cards at Bolton last season with the challenges I was putting in,” he said.

“That was me getting used to League One and finding out what I could and couldn’t get away with compared to the Gaelic. It was really good for me and I loved playing it.”

O’Neill will use friendlies against Romania and Scotland to keep developing a young side with senior players including Jonny Evans, Stuart Dallas and Corry Evans still absent, and the retired Steven Davis now on the coaching staff.

With Liverpool locked in a tight title race and chasing Europa League glory, Bradley – the face of Northern Ireland’s next generation – has much to look forward to.

“The next few weeks are going to be big,” he said. “I don’t need to recharge because I want to go into these games and get two wins for Northern Ireland. I want to keep this momentum going that we’ve got with the win against Denmark (in November).

“I’m really looking forward to it, then after these two games we’ve got the (season) run-in.

“Hopefully we can do as well as we can and hopefully I’ll have a medal at the end of the season.”

What the papers say

Chelsea forward Raheem Sterling will give Saudi Arabian clubs the cold shoulder this summer, the Evening Standard reports, with the 29-year-old England international – who was booed  by Blues fans at the weekend – set on helping the Stamford Bridge club get their hands on silverware next season.

Borussia Dortmund would be keen to bring on-loan winger Jadon Sancho back to the club on a permanent basis, but only if Manchester United are willing to accept half the £73million they bought the England international for in 2021, the Mirror reports.

Chelsea striker Cole Palmer, 21, is to be rewarded with a new and improved contract after an impressive start to life at Stamford Bridge following his summer move from Manchester City, says Football Insider.

Social media round-upPlayers to watch

Joshua Kimmich: Bayern Munich are open to selling the Germany midfielder, however he is only interested in joining Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Real Madrid or Barcelona, writes Florian Plettenberg.

Eddie Nketiah: Wolves are in the hunt to sign the England striker, 24, who may leave Arsenal in the summer, reports Teamtalk.

Two Manchester United fans were arrested in connection with tragedy chanting during Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Liverpool at Old Trafford.

Greater Manchester Police is also trying to identify another United supporter after footage widely shared on social media footage appeared to show him allegedly engaging in tragedy chanting.

GMP announced it had made eight arrests in total at the game, including three Liverpool fans for possession of Class A drugs, an away supporter on suspicion of possession of a pyrotechnic, and two United fans for a racially-aggravated public order offence and pitch encroachment respectively.

As well as the arrests, a 39-year-old man, George Fenning from Edinburgh, has been charged with possession of a Class B drug, possession of a pyrotechnic and throwing missiles and subsequently bailed.

“The arrests made were the result of us taking a proactive, zero-tolerance approach to ensure that genuine supporters and spectators were able to enjoy the match safely,” said Chief Inspector Jamie Collins, silver commander for the match.

“GMP can confirm that a 21-year-old and a 59-year-old man were arrested in connection with tragedy chanting.

“Incidents of tragedy chanting will not be tolerated and will be dealt with robustly.

“We are also aware of footage circulating on social media of a Manchester United supporter engaging in tragedy chanting.

“No arrest has been made yet but GMP are working with both clubs to identify the individual in connection with this incident.

“We held a supporter group meeting with both sets of fans prior to the match and both groups agreed that tragedy chanting was totally unacceptable.

“GMP will clamp down on this and arrest those who engage in such behaviour, regardless of what team they support.

“I hope that these arrests will act as a deterrent to anyone attending future games.”

However, Peter Scarfe of the Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance believes police have to take a wider approach to tragedy chanting.

In the middle of the second half of Sunday’s FA Cup tie – which United won 4-3 after extra time – a significant number of fans in the Stretford End were heard chanting ‘Murderers’, quickly followed by ‘Always the victims’ and the singing was clearly audible to the live television audience.

“It’s not getting better. The message is not getting through,” Scarfe told the PA news agency.

“It’s one or two arrests and being charged but when you have the Stretford End singing ‘Murderers’ and ‘Always the victims’, who do you target?

“We had Hillsborough survivors at the game and they have tried to report it to stewards and police but there are too many of them.

“I’ve become more hardened in my role but you see how painful it is to be continually called a murderer.”

United did not comment publicly but sources said the club were “fully supportive” of statements issued by The Football Association and GMP condemning tragedy chanting.

But Scarfe also believes clubs should be made responsible for their supporters.

“If you were to fine the clubs the money could go back into emotional support groups or awareness courses but it would then lower the allocation when they come to Anfield,” he added.

“So fans are not getting to go to away games and as it dwindles down there will be a banning order on them all.

“We don’t want that as a club, and neither will anyone else, because you want that banter between home and away fans.

“And I’m not saying there were not chants going the other way: there was one particular guy who started the Munich shout and he was told straight away to shut his mouth.

“Until we get our ducks in order we can’t expect others to do that same. It has to be zero tolerance to them.

“But what is going to happen in three weeks’ time when we play them again and Liverpool are playing to win the league?”

Liverpool midfielder Harvey Elliott believes their challenge for the Premier League and in Europe will benefit from a disappointing FA Cup exit to Manchester United as it will free up space in the calendar.

The 20-year-old tried to put a positive spin on their chaotic 4-3 extra-time quarter-final defeat at Old Trafford by suggesting it will allow them extra days for recovery.

Manager Jurgen Klopp admitted in the aftermath of defeat it was the first time he had seen his players struggle physically as they played their 46th game of a season which has at least another 12 fixtures and potentially more if they get past Atalanta in the Europa League’s last eight.

The cup exit equates to, at most, only two fewer games but it does mean their league match at Fulham scheduled for April 20 will not be shunted into midweek, especially as the club still have a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park to fit in.

“Now we can focus on other things, it frees up a few weeks for us,” said Elliott, who came off the bench to put Liverpool 3-2 up in extra time.

“Not as many games any more so the lads can be fresh and we can recover properly and focus on the rest of the season.”

The defeat was only Liverpool’s third in domestic competition this season, and of the two they lost in Europe one was a dead rubber against Union Saint-Gilloise.

However, while it was a blow, especially losing to their arch-rivals, Elliott insists the players will not allow it to put a dent in their ambitions for the rest of the season.

“Our confidence is always there, it isn’t going to affect us at all,” he added.

“Yeah, we’re going to be annoyed that we didn’t win but we’re going away with internationals now, so we can forget about it and come back after the break fresh again ready to crack down and fight for the rest of the season.

“Confidence-wise it’s not going to do anything to us because we had the game in our hands, had many chances but just didn’t put them away.

“It’s always going to be there and we just need to keep going as a team.”

Klopp has seen enough of his squad, especially some of their comebacks this season to snatch late victories, to be confident they will not allow the setback to derail them when they return at home to Brighton on March 31.

“We’ve played football for ages and you lose games – if that always leads to a mental state or situation where you need help… it’s just a normal thing,” he said.

“We all fail on a daily basis, maybe without even recognising it – we just get along with it.

“I got the question already (about) what kind of reaction I expect now. Nothing, they go to their countries and I hope they come back and have nothing (injury-wise) and then we think about Brighton when they come back.

“In general the team is in an outstanding situation in the moment. That we got through all of these different, difficult situations is absolutely exceptional.”

The Premier League has paused for the final international break of the season and when it resumes at the end of the month it is full tilt towards the finishing line.

Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal are locked in an enthralling title race, while things at the other end are just as fascinating with the prospect of seven clubs still fighting for survival.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the key issues that will be resolved after the international break.

Title race

Traditionally, this is the time of season that Manchester City click into gear and go on a winning spree which ends with them lifting the title. And few would bet against them doing so again as Pep Guardiola’s side have been there and done that and are looking ominously good.

Their next game could have a big bearing on the outcome of the title race as Arsenal, a point ahead of Guardiola’s men, visit the Etihad Stadium. The Gunners sit top on goal difference having won their last eight games, but this is usually when their campaign falters and it will be interesting to see how they have learned from last season’s capitulation.

Liverpool are level on points with the Gunners and will want to give Jurgen Klopp the perfect send-off by lifting the title. They have had a brilliant season and have overcome injuries in recent weeks but their Thursday night schedule in pursuit of Europa League glory could also have an impact. But, whatever happens, there are sure to be plenty of twists and turns in the final 10 games.

European qualification

Aside from those three clubs in the title race there are up to eight clubs who have realistic ambition of qualifying for European football in one of the three competitions.

Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester United are eyeing the big prize of the Champions League, which is definitely earned by finishing fourth and possibly also fifth – depending on how English teams fare in the knockout stages of this season’s European competitions. Villa seem to be hanging on to fourth place after a jittery period while Spurs’ inconsistency has seen them fail to take advantage. United have also had the same problem and seem an outside bet to make the top four.

The race for a top-six finish, which would most likely guarantee Europa League football is just as fascinating as West Ham and Brighton are hot on the heels of United. The Hammers, who are also juggling Thursday night commitments, have overcome a sticky period that saw David Moyes defending his record and are looking strong, while Brighton have been hit by injuries but are still in the mix.

Assuming seventh place is rewarded with a Europa Conference League position, which is highly likely, then a number of clubs are in the hunt. Wolves, Newcastle, Chelsea and even Fulham could all eye a late dart up the table.

Beating the drop

Exactly what is going to happen in the relegation fight could depend on the Premier League as Nottingham Forest and Everton could both be docked points for breaching financial rules. How many get deducted and the outcome of any appeal will affect a host of teams and could keep Sheffield United and Burnley interested when ordinarily they would be certainties to go down.

Luton could also benefit as they are still very much in touch even if no points are taken off as they look to complete an impressive first season at this level. Brentford and Crystal Palace will be also keeping a close eye on matters and they could be pulled into danger if they end the season poorly.

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag hopes his side’s dramatic FA Cup quarter-final win over arch-rivals Liverpool will prove to be the turning point of their season.

The Dutchman declared himself happy with his weekend after United snatched a 4-3 victory in time added on in extra time courtesy of Amad Diallo’s breakaway goal, having seen Tottenham and Aston Villa both drop points in the race for the top four in the Premier League.

Speculation about Ten Hag’s long-term position has increased since Sir Jim Ratcliffe bought a 27.7 per cent share of the club but the manager believes this victory could be pivotal.

“Every team needs a moment into a season and we have never had this moment,” he said.

“This could be the moment where the team can have the belief and energy that they can do amazing things.

“I think when you can beat Liverpool in the way we did you can beat any opponent – it is up to us to prove that point. Today we did.”

Ten Hag was asked whether the nature of this victory, achieved after they came from 2-1 and 3-2 down, was more significant than their Carabao Cup win last year.

He added: “It was a good win but I’ve had some more good wins, I can tell you. For me winning a trophy is more. Maybe it can be very important towards winning another trophy.

“I am pleased with the performance of my team, the first 35 minutes we showed again that the future of this team is very bright and there is huge potential and we have to get it out.

“We have to get to the consistency but from January onwards we are ready, we got results.

“After the first 35 minutes we had our drop, allowed Liverpool to be back in the game and we know they have a very good team but we showed resilience and determination to win this game.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp insisted he could not find fault with his side but admitted it was the first time he had seen them struggle physically as their gruelling quest for an unprecedented quadruple finally caught up with them.

“Obviously the day was on and above the edge, it was really tough for us with all the 130-whatever minutes,” he said.

“The second half was absolutely exceptional but we didn’t finish the game off and when you leave the door open at Old Trafford it is clear they will get chances and they could score the equaliser and Marcus (Rashford) had a big chance at the end of normal time.

“They could win it there and then it got really hard for us, that was the first time I really saw my team really struggling.

“The problem was we didn’t even know who to take off. In 90 minutes it would have been fine but then with extra time our options were really not (there).

“We say we have to bring the kids in at the right moment but it was not the right moment.”

Asked who he wanted to take off, Klopp added: “Macca (Alexis Mac Allister) definitely, Wataru (Endo) definitely, Darwin (Nunez) definitely. Lucho (Luis Diaz) we did.

“The boys play all the time and the way we conceded the last two goals you could see were not on top of our game anymore – we gave two balls away but absolutely no criticism of the boys.

“They gave absolutely everything, today it was not enough and that is what we have to accept.”

The Football Association has condemned the tragedy chanting heard during Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final between Manchester United and Liverpool and vowed to liaise with police over the matter.

A significant number of fans in the Stretford End at Old Trafford were heard chanting ‘Murderers’, quickly followed by ‘Always the victims’ around the hour mark, with the singing audible to the live television audience.

The FA said in a statement: “We are aware of the reported tragedy chanting during today’s FA Cup fixture between Manchester United and Liverpool, and we will be liaising with and supporting Greater Manchester Police.

“We strongly condemn any offensive, abusive and discriminatory chants in football stadiums, and we are determined to stamp this behaviour out.

“It is entirely unacceptable and can have a lasting and damaging impact on people and communities within our game. It must stop, and we support any club and their fans who try to eradicate this from the terraces.”

Manchester United and Greater Manchester Police have been contacted for comment by the PA news agency.

Manchester United beat Liverpool 4-3 after extra time in a gripping FA Cup semi-final on Sunday.

Here, the PA news agency looks back at some other memorable United cup wins.

Liverpool 1 Man Utd 2, final, 1977

United prevented Liverpool, already First Division champions and playing the European Cup final four days later, from winning the treble. All the goals came in a five-minute burst early in the second half. Stuart Pearson’s opener was quickly cancelled out by Jimmy Case but Lou Macari’s shot rebounded in off Jimmy Greenhoff to settle it.

Chelsea 0 Man Utd 4, final, 1994

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side turned on the style in the second half at Wembley to win their first double with some swagger. Eric Cantona broke the deadlock with two penalties in quick succession and Mark Hughes added another shortly afterwards. Brian McClair wrapped up the scoring in stoppage time.

Man Utd 2 Liverpool 1, fourth round, 1999

Liverpool took an early lead through Michael Owen but United, establishing a trend which would manifest itself with even greater significance in Europe later that season, turned it around with two late goals. Dwight Yorke equalised in the 88th minute and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer snatched a thrilling winner moments later.

Arsenal 1 Man Utd 2, semi-final replay, 1999

In another dramatic encounter in United’s treble-winning season, Ryan Giggs settled what was to be the last-ever semi-final replay with a sensational solo effort. United had led through an early David Beckham goal at Villa Park but seemed to be hanging on after Dennis Bergkamp levelled and Roy Keane was sent off. Yet Bergkamp missed the chance to win it from the penalty spot and Giggs had the final word in extra time.

Man Utd 3 West Ham 1, fifth round, 2023

Erik Ten Hag’s United produced a stirring late fightback to reach last year’s quarter-finals. Said Benrahma’s powerful strike put the Hammers on course for victory but United drew level in the 77th minute when Nayef Aguerd headed into his own net. Then, in a frantic finish, Alejandro Garnacho curled in a 90th-minute shot and Fred followed up with another in stoppage time.

Super sub Amad Diallo sealed a scarcely-believable 4-3 extra-time triumph against bitter rivals Liverpool to send Manchester United into the FA Cup semi-finals and breathe new life into their season.

All eyes were on Old Trafford as these great rivals met in a highly-anticipated clash that lived up to the hype on Sunday, swinging from one way to the other before a box-office conclusion.

Scott McTominay put United into an early lead, but Liverpool looked set to run amok after Alexis Mac Allister and Mohamed Salah scored late in the first half to put Jurgen Klopp’s men in control.

Under pressure Erik ten Hag’s side offered little in response, but substitute Antony managed to level against the run of play in the 87th minute.

Marcus Rashford blew a gilt-edged opportunity to win the quarter-final with the final kick of regulation time, with the roller-coaster ride continuing in extra time.

Liverpool sub Harvey Elliott landed a 105th-minute body blow but, in front of United fan Tyson Fury, the hosts picked themselves off the canvas.

Rashford drew United level in the 112th minute and Diallo scored on the break in added time at the end of extra time, shaking Old Trafford to its foundations.

The 21-year-old was sent off after receiving a second booking for taking his shirt off during the ear-shattering celebrations on a day that seals the winger’s place in United folklore.

Erik ten Hag is relishing the challenge of overcoming Liverpool in Sunday’s crunch FA Cup quarter-final as Manchester United look to save their season.

All eyes will be on Old Trafford as Jurgen Klopp makes his penultimate visit as Reds boss against a side looking to keep their final route to silverware alive.

Liverpool have already won the Carabao Cup and would love to pile further misery on injury-hit United, who are looking to avoid their campaign heading into a tailspin.

A Wembley semi-final would prove a welcome shot in the arm for Ten Hag’s side before returning to their push to climb the Premier League and sneak Champions League qualification.

Asked if he trusts his players to save the season for him over the coming weeks, Ten Hag pointed to the collective and said: “I think we have to save the season.

“But we know we have to catch up in the Premier League but now we have an opportunity to win silverware. The only opportunity is the FA Cup, so we are only three wins away but big games and we have to play our best.

“Sunday is a test for us, but we like the test, we like the challenges and we can be, to a certain range, relaxed because we believe in ourselves. But on Sunday we have to prove (that).”

Ten Hag spoke with calmness and confidence at a time of scrutiny as ambitious new co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos look at the best way to take United back to the top.

The Dutchman won the Carabao Cup, reached the FA Cup final and finished third in the Premier League in his first season in charge, but pressure has mounted as things have gone awry this term.

United face an uphill battle for Champions League qualification and exited Europe before Christmas, but setbacks and adversity could improve their resolve.

“So, of course, it’s about sticking together,” Ten Hag said. “You have to face it together and make sure we are always on one page together. You know around Manchester United there will always be noise.

“Don’t get distracted from it and know together where we are going. What is the project? But also what is the process?

“Then everyone knows why we are in the position that we are and how can we improve it? Then the attitude, always give your best. Every day deliver, then finally you will achieve your aims and your goals.”

Harry Maguire, Rasmus Hojlund and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are set to bolster United’s squad on Sunday after returning to training this week, so too reportedly is summer signing Mason Mount.

Liverpool were also looking at the England international before he left Chelsea for Old Trafford, where he has enjoyed a challenging start to life and has missed the last four months with a calf issue.

“I’m convinced he will be (a key player),” Ten Hag said. “He didn’t have the chance to prove this point. But he will be a very good player for Manchester United.

“It’s really unfortunate and disappointing for him but also for us when you have such a class player in the middle and you can’t play him.

“He has had three injuries as we all know, so he didn’t have any time to come into a rhythm. But I am sure that when he is fit and he will play and get into that rhythm, then he will contribute to a successful Manchester United I’m sure.”

Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk believes Joe Gomez’s England recall is fully deserved as the team’s popular utility man continues to impress.

It was not that long ago that speculation was linking the defender with a move away as he dropped down the pecking order at Anfield.

However, this season he has taken over the mantle of the veteran James Milner, who left for Brighton in the summer, in terms of being a reliable performer in a number of positions.

His 40 appearances have come across the back four, with a couple as an emergency holding midfielder, as injuries piled up in February and that versatility is something which appeals to Gareth Southgate, who included him in his squad for the first time since 2020 for next week’s friendlies against Brazil and Belgium.

“I’m very happy for him. To be honest, me and Ibou (Ibrahima Konate) have been saying for quite a while he definitely shouldn’t book any holidays in this international period as he will definitely be in it,” said Van Dijk.

“Still, it’s been such a long time for him. The work he has put in day in, day out – him and his family – not many people see but he has been outstanding the whole season and I’m delighted.

“Let him get his chance and then he will show he should stay in the squad.”

Gomez could be deployed in either full-back position or as Van Dijk’s partner for Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

It is a credit to him that his performances have not dropped despite being shifted around the pitch and the fact he is still only 26 means his best years are still ahead of him.

Asked what had changed, Van Dijk added: “Playing more helps, of course, but it’s the confidence he plays with as well in any position across the back line and a couple of games as a holding midfielder.

“He’s doing great, he’s a fantastic player.”

Manager Jurgen Klopp trailed Gomez’s selection after last weekend’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City, when he praised his performance and suggested it was a simple decision for Southgate.

“I don’t think my comments had a lot of influence. Wasn’t necessary really, Joey deserves it, absolutely,” said the Reds boss.

“The season he has played so far is absolutely exceptional. We would not be where we are without Joey. He’s played so many different positions. Really happy for him.

“I saw on his face he was very happy about it so it’s good news. Now, let’s play the (United) game, he can go there, and hopefully comes back healthy and we can play the rest of the season.”

Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk takes inspiration from world’s best sportsmen and tries to live by NBA great LeBron James’ ‘strive for greatness’ mantra.

Last week the pair were pictured together in an advertising campaign for the Los Angeles Lakers – and Reds’ minority shareholder – star’s signature clothing collection for the club.

It is the second collaboration from the NBA’s all-time leading points scorer and while Van Dijk has yet to meet or even speak to LeBron, they have exchanged messages and the 32-year-old believes he can learn from someone seven years his senior.

Lebron sent him a video message in which he said: “I know you will lead this club on amazing things. Strive for greatness.”

“We haven’t spoken but we have had messages passed between us. I saw the billboard this week and it is amazing,” said the Netherlands captain.

“That phrase that he uses is perfect and it could be used for a lot of things. For me personally I definitely try and follow that because I want to achieve the most I can in life and get the maximum out of myself, the team and the position we are in. We are in a good place to do that this season – again.

“Funnily enough I look at all the top athletes at the highest level because I feel like they all have a big role, either as a big role model or for their team and community and there are so many things you can learn.

“The way they conduct themselves on the pitch or on court, also what they do in order to be great.

“There is LeBron, (Novak) Djokovic, Roger Federer, Tom Brady – I could name so many. I like to listen to these guys and learn with how they dealt with being at the top and dealing with difficult moments but also good moments.

“We always hear about the negative sides but you also have to deal with the positives.”

Van Dijk’s assertion that Liverpool are in a good place is down, in no small part, to the return of the imperious form which made him the world’s best defender a few years ago before an ACL injury.

He scored the goal which won them the Carabao Cup last month and is the cornerstone of a team which sits second in the table behind Arsenal only on goal difference.

Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United represents the third leg of a potential quadruple, with Atalanta awaiting in the last eight of the Europa League.

“Every season is always a challenge but this season we are in a special situation,” added the Dutchman.

“There are no guarantees but we feel like it is quite special with the way we have overcome things as a group, situations like the news of the manager (leaving at the end of the season).

“I feel very comfortable this season in every aspect of the game. Obviously confidence is a big driver but in general I think I have made big steps in possession. I think there are a lot of things that just clicked again.

“I feel really good and the responsibility I have has helped that but I feel that I have made steps again in possession, in the way I defend and I really enjoy that, I want to continue enjoying it and see what it leads to.”

After lifting his first trophy as Liverpool captain at Wembley, Van Dijk aimed a barb at his critics by saying ‘They thought I was finished’.

“I shouldn’t have said that. That was part of the emotion coming out of me because there were so many emotions going through my whole body that day,” he explained.

“Last season was disappointing. Not disappointing in a way that I was bad, I didn’t feel like that at all, I was just below my standards and the consistency wasn’t there that I have had and set for myself in every game.

“I fully understand the noise that came with it but I am a human being and not immune to any of that.

“Maybe in one way it was good to say because it gets it out of me – but I don’t like noise around me.”

Erik ten Hag says Manchester United have no intention of selling Marcus Rashford this summer.

After signing a new five-year deal after hitting 30 goals last season, the 26-year-old academy product has scored just seven times in a poor campaign for all connected to the club.

Rashford was this week again linked with a move to Paris St Germain, which could provide United with a huge windfall at a time of Premier League profit and sustainability considerations.

It would represent pure profit on that front as he is a homegrown player but Ten Hag says financial benefits are outweighed by the importance of the forward to the future.

“We didn’t re-sign him last season for (five) years with the intention to sell him, no,” Ten Hag said.

“He should be part of this project, so that is not a subject we talk about.”

Ten Hag was speaking ahead of Sunday’s crunch FA Cup quarter-final against rivals Liverpool – a match that may go some way to deciding whether the manager remains part of the now Ineos-led project.

Injury-hit United have endured a tough season and need to overcome Jurgen Klopp’s side at Old Trafford to keep their last remaining hope of silverware alive.

They sit sixth in the Premier League and face an uphill battle to qualify for the Champions League but Ten Hag hopes Sunday can act as a catalyst to transform their season.

“Actually, we never got to turn around so far,” Ten Hag said. “We had our opportunities, but we missed the opportunities (to turn things around).

“Sunday we have another good opportunity to get the momentum. I think the players, the team showed lately from January on we are in a very good series of games with a lot of wins, so they have to believe they can do it. Now we have to take the momentum.

“That is also what I feel when I train with them, during and around the games; that they have that belief, a good confidence, good spirit is there in the team. Go and play and get the turnaround.”

United are underdogs heading into the quarter-final but Ten Hag expects to be boosted by the return to fitness of Rasmus Hojlund, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

The latter is set to return after two months out, with centre-back Maguire and striker Hojlund back after missing three and four games respectively.

“We had a good week,” Ten Hag said. “The players you mention returned on the pitch. Partly at the start of the week and today we had a session and they were all training.

“I think (they are available). We have tomorrow one session. Of course, we have to see how they recover from this but it looks good.”

Ten Hag also provided a positive update on Mason Mount – who has been kept out for four months with a calf issue – and says Tom Heaton is back with fellow goalkeeper Altay Bayindir out.

“Tom Heaton is back as well,” he said. “Also, it was very good Mason Mount trained also (the) whole week with us.

“First part of the week also partly but then also he had some full sessions with us, so it’s looking good.”

Lisandro Martinez, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia remain sidelined, while Jonny Evans has been dealing with calf and thigh problems recently.

United said “his game-time has been carefully managed”, which is why he has not been included in Northern Ireland’s squad for their March internationals.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp hailed the “pure quality” of Mohamed Salah as the forward prepares to face his favoured opposition Manchester United.

The German also praised the way his team coped without their leading scorer for the two months he was absent first at the Africa Cup of Nations and then with a hamstring problem sustained at the tournament.

Salah scored and had three assists in his first 90 minutes since New Year’s Day in the 6-1 Europa League demolition of Sparta Prague but Sunday’s FA Cup trip to Old Trafford will offer a better barometer of whether he is back to his sharpest.

The Egypt international will be relishing the game as he has scored more goals for Liverpool against United – a club-record 12 in 13 appearances – than any other team.

“Super good, you saw it last night. How many goals did he set up first half? He scored and was involved in all the others pretty much. Exceptional,” said Klopp.

“I would have loved to take him off but it was not possible because of Bobby’s situation (midfielder Bobby Clark had a minor problem) and he could manage that pretty well – even then he set up another goal which was offside.

“Mo is pure quality. Ask him what he likes most about Man Utd but the more we talk about it the less likely it will happen again. Exceptional guy, world-class player and how we dealt without him was unbelievable. Unbelievable.

“The boys did really well – but it is better to have him around and on the pitch than just in the dressing room.”

Salah and Darwin Nunez’s nine goals in his last 11 appearances should at least pose a significant threat at Old Trafford.

United are the only team in the last 55 matches to prevent Liverpool scoring, although since that goalless draw at Anfield in December they are on a run of 20 games with a goal.

Klopp said that day was the beginning of phase two of their season, even if ultra-defensive opponents frustrated them.

“I don’t know in the moment if we can play the same game again, it was a really good game,” he added.

“I would call this game the start of when we reached the next level for the season. Until then we were quite OK, we only lost one game, but it was still ‘Ah, sometimes really good, sometimes not so good’.

“It was difficult to judge us: we had so many things to overcome like red cards, being 1-0 down, so it was not clear how good we actually are.

“That game I first saw that was really us in the next gear. The result didn’t show that and I have no clue whether it will be the same game – I don’t expect it, obviously it’s a home game for them.

“But a lot of aspects in our game that day were really good and these aspects we try to bring on the pitch again.

“But the opponent had a full week to prepare, they might do a few things differently and then we have to adapt to that.”

Liverpool are chasing an unprecedented quadruple and Friday’s Europa League draw, a quarter-final versus Atalanta which could be followed by a semi-final against Benfica or Marseille, has made them even stronger favourites for that competition.

“Tricky but Atalanta we played there (in 2020) – not that I watched them since then 500 times, but still the same manager, pretty sure a similar structure so it means uncomfortable to play against, very well organised,” he said.

“It is a quarter-final – I didn’t expect any easy opponent. I have a lot of respect for what Atalanta is doing in the last years, very consistent.”

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