It was with a sense of disbelief that Llori Sharpe stepped onto the podium in Spain at the conclusion of the Liga Autonomica de Féminas in Spain on Saturday.

In what was the first race of her professional career, Sharpe finished in third place in the Elite Category and second place in the Under 23 Category.

Her Rwanda teammate Valentine Nzayisenga finished in fifth place from a line-up of 110 riders. The 79 km, three-lap event included 6 km of gravel.

Sharpe signed a one-year contract with the German cycling team Canyon-SRAM Generation in December 2021, becoming the first Jamaican cyclist to sign with a European ream. On Saturday, the former triathlete began repaying their faith in signing her.

Still, it was a surreal moment for the 21-year-old Sports Science student at the University of the West Indies.

“When it just happened, I honestly couldn't believe it, but it has finally sunk in and I'm really proud of myself and my efforts today (Saturday),” she told Sportsmax.TV while explaining the successful strategy.

“I think I was able to read the race and my competitors well and just had to make my move when I felt the time was right.”

The success she enjoyed on Saturday, has not come without sacrifices. Sharpe has been living in Spain since mid-January, away from her family and those closest to her. She reveals that it has not been easy.

“Some days I feel really good and on others, I really miss my friends and family back home. The weather doesn't make it any easier since it’s not what I'm used to. But, I think to advance in anything in life whether personally, professionally or otherwise, one has to get out of their comfort zone, so although the adjustment has been tough at times, that's how I'll grow and develop not just in cycling, but as an individual,” she reasoned.

Otherwise, she has been pleased with her progress as she takes the first steps into competition in her professional career.

“Preparations have been going well, I'd say, and I'm glad that I'm now in an environment that's conducive to my progression in cycling,” she said.

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

Barcelona on Tuesday confirmed they have reached an agreement to sign Ferran Torres from Manchester City for a reported fee of €65million.

The Spain international returns to LaLiga following an 18-month spell in the Premier League and has signed a deal until June 2027.

Barca are said to be paying an initial €55m (£46.7m) and as much as €10m (£8.5m) in add-ons.

The Catalan giants revealed a €1billion release clause has been inserted in Torres' contract and he will be officially unveiled at Camp Nou on January 3.

City initially spent roughly €23m (£20m) to sign Torres from Valencia in 2020, meaning they have more than doubled their money on a player who has never truly been considered a first-choice starter.

Barca had been linked with Torres in pre-season but their crippling financial state meant transfer outlays were implausible.

The club's debts have topped €1.4billion this year and as a result of their financial performance, they saw their LaLiga salary cap slashed by €280m to just €97m, hence their inability to retain Lionel Messi.

That saw Barca slip from having the second-highest wage limit last season to seventh in 2021-22.

 

Speculation ahead of Torres' signing led to many pondering how Barca can suddenly afford such a significant transfer fee so soon, but reports indicate they recently took out a significant loan to ensure they can.

Torres' arrival means new coach Xavi has the type of young, dynamic attacker he had been after, with the 21-year-old capable of playing through the middle and out on the right, where he was most-frequently used at Valencia.

Since Xavi's return to Barca as head coach, he has spoken regularly about a desire to play with classic wingers, while his reluctance to use Luuk de Jong as the focal point of their attack has suggested a preference for a quick and energetic central striker – Torres fits the bill on both counts.

Yet he leaves City as something of an enigma, having only made 15 Premier League starts in 2020-21, and this season Torres has managed just four appearances in the top flight due to a foot injury he sustained on international duty in October.

As much as it feels he has left City before the Premier League truly got to know him, in his limited time Torres has made an impact on the pitch for City.

Among City players to feature for at least 1,000 minutes across all competitions since the start of last season, Torres' 0.55 goals per 90 minutes is the highest and none of his strikes have been from the penalty spot.

 

His average of 2.8 shots (per 90) is third only to Kevin De Bruyne (3.3) and Riyad Mahrez (3.2), and his expected goals on a per-90-minute basis of 0.44 is bettered by just Raheem Sterling (0.47), showing that Torres' high goals frequency comes from being a consistent threat.

Torres' 1.1 chances created on average is well down the list at City, however. While this may partly reflect the fact he has featured as a central striker often, perhaps greater productivity in this area would have seen City put up more of a fight to keep him.

Nevertheless, the signing represents something of a coup for a Barcelona that just a few months ago was incapable of paying for players of such a calibre.

Barcelona on Tuesday confirmed they have reached an agreement to sign Ferran Torres from Manchester City for a reported fee of €65million.

The Spain international returns to LaLiga following an 18-month spell in the Premier League and has signed a deal until June 2027.

Barca are said to be paying an initial €55m (£46.7m) and as much as €10m (£8.5m) in add-ons.

City initially spent roughly €23m (£20m) to sign Torres from Valencia in 2020, meaning they have more than doubled their money on a player who has never truly been considered a first-choice starter.

Barca had been linked with Torres in pre-season but their crippling financial state meant transfer outlays were implausible.

The club's debts have topped €1.4billion this year and as a result of their financial performance, they saw their LaLiga salary cap slashed by €280m to just €97m, hence their inability to retain Lionel Messi.

That saw Barca slip from having the second-highest wage limit last season to seventh in 2021-22.

 

Speculation ahead of Torres' signing led to many pondering how Barca can suddenly afford such a significant transfer fee so soon, but reports indicate they recently took out a significant loan to ensure they can.

Torres' arrival means new coach Xavi has the type of young, dynamic attacker he had been after, with the 21-year-old capable of playing through the middle and out on the right, where he was most-frequently used at Valencia.

Since Xavi's return to Barca as head coach, he has spoken regularly about a desire to play with classic wingers, while his reluctance to use Luuk de Jong as the focal point of their attack has suggested a preference for a quick and energetic central striker – Torres fits the bill on both counts.

Yet he leaves City as something of an enigma, having only made 15 Premier League starts in 2020-21, and this season Torres has managed just four appearances in the top flight due to a foot injury he sustained on international duty in October.

As much as it feels he has left City before the Premier League truly got to know him, in his limited time Torres has made an impact on the pitch for City.

Among City players to feature for at least 1,000 minutes across all competitions since the start of last season, Torres' 0.55 goals per 90 minutes is the highest and none of his strikes have been from the penalty spot.

 

His average of 2.8 shots (per 90) is third only to Kevin De Bruyne (3.3) and Riyad Mahrez (3.2), and his expected goals on a per-90-minute basis of 0.44 is bettered by just Raheem Sterling (0.47), showing that Torres' high goals frequency comes from being a consistent threat.

Torres' 1.1 chances created on average is well down the list at City, however. While this may partly reflect the fact he has featured as a central striker often, perhaps greater productivity in this area would have seen City put up more of a fight to keep him.

Nevertheless, the signing represents something of a coup for a Barcelona that just a few months ago was incapable of paying for players of such a calibre.

Italy were drawn to face England and Germany in a tough 2022-23 Nations League group on Thursday.

The Azzurri beat England in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley in July and the two sides will do battle again in Group A3 of the Nations League.

They will also face Germany and Hungary home and away in matches that will take place next June and September 2022.

Holders France are in Group A1 along with Croatia, Denmark and Austria.

World champions France were crowned champions when they came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 at San Siro in October.

Spain were drawn in Group A2 and will come up against Portugal, Czech Republic and Switzerland in the third edition of the UEFA competition.

Belgium, who squandered a two-goal lead to lose against France at the semi-final stage of the Nations League two months ago, will take on Netherlands, Poland and Wales.

Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Ukraine and Armenia are in League B Group 1.

Russia, Iceland, Israel and Albania will do battle in Group B2, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland and Romania in Group B3.

Group B4 will see Serbia, Sweden, Norway and Slovenia lock horns as they strive to secure promotion.

Four of the six matchdays will be in June due to the scheduling of the World Cup in Qatar later in 2022.

The four group winners in League A will advance to the Nations League Finals in June 2023. The group winners in the other three leagues will all be promoted for the 2024-25 edition.

Barcelona and Spain midfielder Pedri has won the Kopa Trophy at the Ballon d'Or ceremony after a superb year for club and country.

The award is presented to the best player under the age of 21, with Pedri only turning 19 on November 25.

Pedri, who enjoyed a fine season with Barca before leading Spain to the semi-finals at Euro 2020 and featuring in the country's run to an Olympic silver medal, was also named on the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or, finishing 24th in the overall rankings.

"The best way to celebrate turning 19 is receiving this award," Pedri said as he collected the trophy. "I'd like to thank everyone at Barcelona for helping me [get] here."

Pedri beat out Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, who finished second. His Dortmund team-mate Giovanni Reyna came ninth.

Bellingham has become a star at Dortmund following his move from Birmingham City, establishing himself as a regular in Gareth Southgate's England squad.

More Bundesliga stars featured the top 10, with Jamal Musiala of Bayern Munich coming third and Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz ranking seventh.

English pair Mason Greenwood and Bukayo Saka – of Manchester United and Arsenal – finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch and Renne's Jeremy Doku shared eighth place, while Paris Saint-Germain left-back Nuno Mendes was fourth.

Barcelona and Spain midfielder Pedri has won the Trophee Kopa at the Ballon d'Or ceremony after a superb year for club and country.

The award is presented to the best player under the age of 21, with Pedri only turning 19 on November 25.

Pedri, who enjoyed a fine season with Barca before leading Spain to the semi-finals at Euro 2020 and featuring in the country's run to an Olympic silver medal, was also named on the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or, finishing 24th in the overall rankings.

"The best way to celebrate turning 19 is receiving this award," Pedri said as he collected the trophy. "I'd like to thank everyone at Barcelona for helping me [get] here."

Pedri beat out Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, who finished second. His Dortmund team-mate Giovanni Reyna came ninth.

Bellingham has become a star at Dortmund following his move from Birmingham City, establishing himself as a regular in Gareth Southgate's England squad.

More Bundesliga stars featured the top 10, with Jamal Musiala of Bayern Munich coming third and Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz ranking seventh.

English pair Mason Greenwood and Bukayo Saka – of Manchester United and Arsenal – finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch and Renne's Jeremy Doku shared eighth place, while Paris Saint-Germain left-back Nuno Mendes was fourth.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic acknowledged his shoulder charge on Cesar Azpilicueta was stupid but insisted he would "100 per cent" do it again. 

In the closing stages of Sweden's 1-0 defeat to Spain this month, which meant they would have to go through the play-offs to reach the 2022 World Cup, Ibrahimovic steamed into Azpilicueta and sent him flying to the ground. 

The veteran striker was shown a yellow card that has ruled him out of Sweden's play-off semi-final in March. 

But Ibrahimovic felt it was important for him to stand up for a team-mate and teach the Chelsea defender a lesson. It is not a decision he would change if he had his time again. 

"The other day in the national team, I gave a tackle to [Azpilicueta]. I did it on purpose. I'm not ashamed to say it because he did something stupid to my player. Acting big to my player," Ibrahimovic told The Guardian. 

"It was a stupid thing but I would still do it to make him understand: 'You don’t f****** do that. You don't have balls to do it against me. But I will show you what happens if you do it to me.' That’s why I did it. 

"It's not about missing the play-offs. It's about making the guy understand you don't take the p*** out of somebody laying [on the ground]. You don't attack a dog that doesn't talk. Attack the one able to do something. It's too easy to pick on my team-mates who are 20 years old and very nice guys. I hope he understands now. 

"I'm not afraid to say it to you. I did a stupid thing. [But] I will do it again. 100 per cent. 

"That is what I say about being 'perfect'. Being myself is perfect for me. I don't need filters to ask them what kind of questions you will give me." 

Asked if Azpilicueta had said anything to him after the game, Ibrahimovic replied: "What can he say? He will not say it to me but he will say it to my player – who will do nothing because he's too nice. 

"It was not a good thing by me, but I would still do it. That's me. I'm not ashamed to say it." 

The 2022 World Cup is now just 12 months away, with qualifying entering its closing stages following a series of crunch November clashes.

Difficulties still await Italy and Portugal – the past two European champions – in the play-offs, but most of the other big names are well on their way if they have not already confirmed their place in Qatar.

So, how are the expected contenders shaping up? Stats Perform investigates.

Argentina

Having finally ended his long wait for a senior international honour at this year's Copa America, Qatar looks like Lionel Messi's last realistic chance to guide Argentina to World Cup glory. They last triumphed in 1986, in the days of Diego Maradona.

But the brilliant Barcelona form that has been the bedrock of Messi's outstanding career is no more. Since clinching the Copa, the forward has left Camp Nou for Paris Saint-Germain and played just 595 minutes across eight games at club level, scoring three goals and assisting none. Heading into this weekend, he had yet to net in Ligue 1.

At odds with the rest of his career, Messi has briefly become one of those players who performs better for country than for club, scoring four goals in seven games for Argentina in the same period, even allowing for the minutes spent regaining fitness in November. But the national team must be concerned Messi's unconvincing displays and shaky recent fitness record hint at a decline that could continue for another year before he gets an opportunity to lead a global title charge.

Although Argentina undoubtedly have other highly talented players – Messi was one of four to make the Team of the Tournament as they become South American champions – it is tough to imagine a successful Albiceleste side without the great number 10 at the heart of it.

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez's Belgium remain the world's top-ranked team, but it feels like their window for a first major title might now have passed.

Martinez took charge after Euro 2016, where a stacked squad lost to Wales in the last eight, yet he has found a glass ceiling, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and fourth at the 2020-21 Nations League either side of another quarter-final exit at Euro 2020. Since a disappointing performance at the Nations League Finals, Martinez has been linked to a host of club roles – albeit he is expected to stay put until Qatar.

Although Belgium's 'Golden Generation' have maintained their position at the top of the game despite an ageing defence, there are worrying signs their key attacking players could also be on the wane.

Through a combination of injuries and poor form, Eden Hazard has not looked the same player since he left Chelsea for Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, also beset by fitness issues and below-par outings of late, will hope not to follow the same path. Both he and Romelu Lukaku must still be at their peak to give the Red Devils a chance.

Brazil

Brazil were outclassed by Belgium in the quarter-finals in Russia but have lost just three matches since then. One of those was in this year's Copa final against Argentina, although the Selecao also won the competition in 2019.

Unlike previous Brazil teams, Tite's side are built on the strength of their defensive record. They have kept 28 clean sheets since the 2018 World Cup, conceding just 16 times in 42 games, with 11 shutouts in 2021 alone.

However, that solidity comes at a price. Brazil are scoring at a relatively unspectacular rate of 2.0 goals per game, including netting only two in their three Copa knockout games in July and just one across two November qualifiers.

Neymar will have a key role in producing those timely moments of magic and should not be short of motivation heading to Qatar, having suggested this will be his last World Cup. The forward has excelled on the world stage before without taking Brazil all the way.

England

As so often, England have qualified with relative ease, benefiting from a kind draw, but will not face a true test until the tournament comes around.

That means a wait to see if Gareth Southgate can make the necessary tweaks to turn the Three Lions from nearly men into champions, with the midfield a key area of focus having ceded 65.4 per cent of the possession to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, 53.2 per cent to the Netherlands in the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals and 55.5 per cent to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semis. The continued development of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham should encourage optimism.

But England also find themselves in a position, like Argentina, where the performances of their talismanic captain are suddenly a concern – at least at club level.

Harry Kane has so far this season used the international breaks as sweet relief, quickly closing on Wayne Rooney's record goals tally by scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers up to September and notching seven in November alone, but there is a break now before March's fixtures and the forward simply must rediscover some sort of form for Tottenham and add to his single Premier League goal in order to return to the England fold in good nick.

 

France

Welcoming Karim Benzema back into a frightening front line, France appear to have an even more impressive line-up than at the previous World Cup, where they emerged as champions.

Benzema has already directly combined for five goals with Kylian Mbappe and one with Antoine Griezmann, who has in turn linked up once with Mbappe. The trio netted nine of France's 10 goals this month, while Mbappe had assists for each of Benzema's strikes at the Nations League Finals as both players scored in both matches and Les Bleus twice came from behind to take the title.

Yet those prior deficits and the six goals conceded at the Euros hinted at the weaknesses in this France side, as Didier Deschamps is still working on his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

The composition of the midfield in that team is crucial, and N'Golo Kante was missing against Belgium and Spain before Paul Pogba suffered an injury prior to the November fixtures. France have no shortage of quality but may not head to Qatar as the most settled unit.

Germany

It was clear Joachim Low's Germany tenure was reaching its natural conclusion before he announced his departure plans in March. That the team followed up a group-stage exit at the World Cup by stumbling through their pool at the Euros before exiting to England only further illustrated that this was the right decision.

But Germany know all about recovering quickly from such setbacks; they seemed to reach rock bottom at Euro 2000 and were in the World Cup final two years later.

Now Hansi Flick, having set Bayern Munich back on course, is excelling again with the national team, becoming the first Germany coach to win his first six matches in charge – a sequence that now stands at seven and counting. The team's last longer winning run ended at 12 games in 1980.

Germany were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe during qualifying, this despite naming their oldest XI in more than 21 years in a recent qualifier against Liechtenstein. Striking this same balance between energy and experience will be key in Qatar.

Spain

Spain have come a long way since the last World Cup, where they appeared to be in crisis from start to finish, eventually exiting to hosts Russia on penalties.

Luis Enrique's subsequent work across two spells has made them contenders again, reaching the last four at the Euros – only to again fall foul of a shoot-out – and briefly leading France in the Nations League final. The emergence of Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi over the course of these campaigns provides a major cause for long-term optimism, too.

However, injury issues have kept that trio from ever featuring together for their country; in fact, Fati, Pedri and Gavi are yet to play a single minute together for Barcelona.

They were three of 39 players to appear for Spain in qualifying, showing the depth of talent at Luis Enrique's disposal. Within that group, however, there is not a prolific goalscorer – a major concern with 12 months to go.

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

Luis Enrique said Spain's automatic qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has "taken a big weight" off his shoulders.

Alvaro Morata's late goal helped Spain clinch a 1-0 win over Sweden in Seville on Sunday and secured top spot in Group B of European qualifying.

Sweden will go into a play-off next March to reach the tournament while Spain can begin preparations for their 12th consecutive World Cup finals.

Only Brazil (all 21), Germany (18) and Argentina (13) have qualified for more consecutive tournaments than Spain, who have reached every finals since 1978.

"Today has been a very beautiful day. We have suffered a lot, but the players have had faith and have taken their deserved prize," Spain head coach Luis Enrique told a media conference.

"It is an excellent group of players. Not only the 25 who are here but all those who have been coming. 

"We are already in the World Cup and to be honest I have taken a big weight off my shoulders.

"I have felt much more pressure in these last games than in the European Championships or in the Nations League. 

"When you have to achieve something that seems easy or you have to do it because of history, you put pressure on yourself.

"We have worked on the psychological aspect and we have transmitted to the players the necessary confidence. We have generated enough to win the game."

Morata has played 50 games for Spain in all competitions since his debut in November 2014 against Belarus and since then he has netted 23 goals for La Roja.

His winner against Sweden after coming on as a substitute means he has 10 more goals than any of his compatriots during that time and Luis Enrique hailed his impact for La Roja.

He said: "There is not a player that represents more than Morata overcoming adversity and criticism. 

"Morata is always available to help. He is a very versatile player."

Morata acknowledged it is unthinkable for Spain, who won the World Cup in 2010, to not qualify for the tournament.

"Spain has to be in all the World Cups," Morata told RTVE.

"We have worked a lot to achieve the goal.  We have also had bad times together, now every time there are more nerves and more emotion.

"I needed to qualify for the World Cup and win, we are a great group and we deserve to be in the World Cup and we will be there."

Spain qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after a tense 1-0 victory over Sweden that was secured by Alvaro Morata's late winner.

Sweden needed to win in Seville on Sunday to top Group B but will go into the play-offs instead after Luis Enrique's home side saw out a nervy final match of their qualifying campaign to clinch the automatic spot.

Emil Forsberg had two clear-cut goalscoring opportunities for Sweden at the Estadio La Cartuja but was unable to test Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon.

Morata gave Spain victory with a close-range strike on the rebound with four minutes of the game left after Dani Olmo had seen his effort hit the crossbar.

Luis Enrique wants the home crowd to be the difference for Spain against Sweden in their final qualifier for the 2022 World Cup on Sunday.

La Roja moved top of Group B after beating Greece 1-0 on Thursday, taking advantage of Sweden's shock 2-0 defeat in Georgia.

A first-half penalty from Pablo Sarabia was enough to secure victory for Spain in Athens and meant they now have their fate in their own hands, needing just a point to secure qualification for Qatar 2022.

Speaking before the crucial game in Seville, Luis Enrique said: "It is very important to focus on the difficulties we can expect, which will be many. They defend very well. I hope that [the fans] will help us in the delicate moments.

"This will not be a party until the game is over. Our job is to close with a victory, but they are a rival and that will not be easy."

Spain and Sweden drew 0-0 in the group stages of Euro 2020 earlier this year, while the Swedes won the reverse game in World Cup qualifying 2-1 in September, and Luis Enrique was asked if he intends to change his approach this time.

"I am not going to change anything beyond nuances. Sweden defends very well and at the top they have fast people, which causes problems against you. 

"In the European Championship we were better, and I don't think we deserved the defeat in Stockholm. But football does not know about merits or justice, it only knows about results. That is why we need the public because with them, we are stronger and they are weaker."

The Spain head coach was also asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic and whether he would prefer to see the legendary striker on the pitch on Sunday.

"That's your problem, that of Sweden and its coach, not mine. I have never met Ibra. I don't know him," Luis Enrique added.

"The truth is that with Ibra the direct game improves, but that is only part of the attack. Ibra boosts Sweden's long game, but we'll see if he comes out when they give his line-up. If he plays we will try to deactivate him, but 100 per cent it will be impossible."

Luis Enrique insisted Spain will be going for the win against Sweden on Sunday even though a draw would be sufficient for his team to win Group B and qualify for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Spain moved top of the group after beating Greece 1-0 in Athens, taking advantage of Sweden surprisingly losing 2-0 in Georgia earlier on Thursday.

A first-half penalty from Pablo Sarabia was enough to secure victory for La Roja and means Spain now have their fate in their own hands, but Luis Enrique said they will still go for the three points when they host Sweden in Seville in their final group game.

"On Sunday we will go out to win as we do every game against a very difficult opponent, but one that we know very well," Spain head coach Luis Enrique told reporters.

"I hope that the fans will be the 12th player for us."

Luis Enrique was happy with how his team played in Greece and said that he saw improvements from the home side from their first meeting in the group, despite the fact that the reverse game in March finished 1-1.

"Greece has improved a lot since the first game we played in Spain," he added. "Thanks to the attitude and effort of my players, we have taken the game forward against a very hard-working team.

"I think we could have played better. We had a first part of control in which we neutralised their attack.

"I was happy with the attitude of the team. They have not been gripped, which in these games is not easy.

"The players have done a great job, they have overcome difficulties and are ambitious.

"We have a positive dynamic. There are always things to improve, but that we receive support is due to the effort of the team."

Luis Enrique allayed fears about Gavi after the teenage midfielder came off in the second half with what appeared to be a facial injury, saying that he is "fine". The Barcelona starlet was impressive once again, completing 100 per cent of his 43 passes, including 32 in the opposition half.

Spain's game against Sweden will be played at Estadio La Cartuja in Seville, and Luis Enrique emphasised again he wants the fans to roar his team over the line on Sunday.

"In my time as a player we qualified for a World Cup against Denmark in Seville. I don't remember a similar game in my career in which the fans carried us like that day," he said, recalling the qualifier for the 1994 World Cup against Denmark, which Spain won 1-0.

"La Cartuja has to bounce."

Spain have World Cup qualification in their own hands going into the final round of games after winning 1-0 in Greece.

Luis Enrique's side took advantage of a surprise slip from previous Group B leaders Sweden, who lost 2-0 in Georgia earlier on Thursday, to leapfrog them into first place.

Spain had never lost away to Greece in four previous meetings, and a first-half penalty from Pablo Sarabia increased that record to four wins and one draw.

They will book their place at Qatar 2022 if they can avoid defeat to Sweden on Sunday in Seville.

The visitors unsurprisingly dominated possession but created little early on against a well-organised Greece.

The home side thought they had taken the lead on 21 minutes as Giorgos Masouras finished well from a Thanasis Androutsos throughball, but the Olympiakos forward was offside.

Just three minutes later, Spain were awarded a penalty after Inigo Martinez was felled in the box by Dimitris Giannoulis following a corner, and Sarabia sent Odisseas Vlachodimos the wrong way to put La Roja ahead.

The hosts needed a win to keep alive any hopes of qualification themselves and started to gamble a little more towards the end of the game, but Spain remained relatively calm as they eased to a vital win in Athens.

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