The 2022-23 season is right around the corner, with plenty to keep an eye on across Europe.

Title battles in England, Spain and Italy could be too close to call, while France and Germany will see rivals trying to knock Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich off their respective perches – while there is even more set to occur in the fight for European qualification and to avoid the drop.

Central to these battles will be the players, both new signings and established members of the old guard, and here are 10 to watch in the year ahead.

 

Ousmane Dembele – Barcelona

Previously considered to be one of the biggest pieces of evidence on Barcelona's transfer failings in recent years, Dembele turned a corner in the second half of last season to finish the campaign as one of Xavi's most important players.

Dembele finished with 13 assists in LaLiga last term, the most in the competition, 11 of which came in the final 15 games of the season – with the tally being more in that run from February than he accumulated across all competitions combined in the previous two seasons.

Handed a fresh new contract, all eyes will be on Dembele to see whether he is back to his best or whether the former Borussia Dortmund winger, who now has Raphinha for competition, merely had a purple patch.

 

Matthijs de Ligt – Bayern Munich

It has now been three years since De Ligt shone with the Ajax side that reached the Champions League semi-finals, where his performances made him one of the most coveted players in world football.

Stability was never quite found at Juventus, however, with shoulder injuries hampering his progress and the defender himself admitting the style was a "bit different" in Turin to what he experienced with Ajax.

Now at Bayern, De Ligt will look to return to the heights he was once at and is expected to form an exciting partnership with Dayot Upamecano.

Rafael Leao – Milan

In Milan's title-winning campaign last term, Leao was the team's joint-leading scorer in Serie A with 11 goals, alongside Olivier Giroud, but that was way off the pace in the overall charts as 15 players found the net more times.

Milan's total tally for goals in 2021-22 was 69, less than three of their rivals in the top five, and pressure is on Stefano Pioli's side to improve that return – with the signing of Divock Origi showing the desire to improve their return in the final third, with rivals Inter having strengthened by bringing Romelu Lukaku back to San Siro on loan.

It may all fall upon Leao, however, with the 23-year-old needing to show consistency in order to prove a significant venture into the market next year to replace veterans Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not required.

 

Djed Spence – Tottenham

Middlesbrough will likely wonder what might had been if they retained Spence's services, having loaned him to Championship rivals Nottingham Forest and seeing him play a key part in their promotion back to the big time.

From September, the only two games Spence missed during Forest's league campaign were the two clashes with his parent club and his displays, including those in the FA Cup against the likes of Arsenal, made him hot property.

Spurs ultimately signed the England U21 international, who could be a contender to break into Gareth Southgate's World Cup squad if he quickly finds his feet in north London. He is a right-back, after all...

Darwin Nunez – Liverpool

Liverpool's prowess in the transfer market is facing its biggest test under Jurgen Klopp, who is looking to rejuvenate what has been a brilliant attacking trio with Sadio Mane moving on and Roberto Firmino's future uncertain.

Having signed Luis Diaz in January, the Reds raided a Portuguese giant again – this time Benfica – for Nunez.

Nunez scored six Champions League goals in the 2021-22 season and plundered a further 26 in the league, averaging a goal every 76 minutes. Nunez certainly has the capability to fill Klopp's Mane-shaped void, even if his style is slightly different to the Senegal attacker.

 

Matteo Guendouzi – Marseille

Swiftly breaking onto the scene at Arsenal but just as quickly earning himself a bad-boy reputation, Guendouzi flourished in his loan spell with Marseille last season and has now made the switch permanent.

The France international featured in every game for Marseille in the 2021-22 season, starting in 35 of his 38 Ligue 1 appearances, and forced his way back into contention to make Didier Deschamps' squad on a regular basis ahead of Les Bleus' World Cup defence in Qatar.

Guendouzi's growing maturity saw him captain Marseille in a 2-0 defeat against Lille last season and the forthcoming campaign may continue his redemption arc.

Adam Hlozek – Bayer Leverkusen

A name that will be familiar to Football Manager enthusiasts, Hlozek has earned his big move to one of Europe's top leagues after leaving Sparta Prague in his homeland for Bayer Leverkusen and the challenges of the Bundesliga.

Capable of playing across the front line, Hlozek heads to Germany with a stellar record of 29 goals and 30 assists in 91 league appearances in the top-tier in the Czech Republic.

Add in the 24 goals that compatriot Patrik Schick netted for Leverkusen last season along with the creativity of Florian Wirtz from midfield and the result is one that could be extremely exciting.

Vinicius Junior – Real Madrid

A formidable season for Vinicius saw the Brazilian net 17 goals and contribute 10 assists during Real Madrid's La Liga title-winning campaign, only being outscored by team-mate Karim Benzema in the league.

Benzema, who was one of only two players to get more assists than Vinicius last season, is now in the twilight years of his career and will soon surely hand the mantle to the next star forward at the Santiago Bernabeu – with Vinicius near-certain to be that man now Kylian Mbappe has decided to remain in Paris for the time being.

In a World Cup year, Vinicius could enjoy a campaign that sees him take the leading man tag for both club and country come the end of the season.

 

Hugo Ekitike – Paris Saint-Germain

Arriving into an attacking that already boasts Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi, it remains to be seen just how much football 20-year-old Hugo Ekitike will manage to play for Christophe Galtier's side.

Moving initially on loan, Ekitike, who was also a target for Newcastle United, is certainly one for the future.

With 10 goals and four assists for Reims last term, Ekitike has shown his prowess in the final third and could be a valuable asset in the hunt to end the elusive wait for a Champions League crown.

Samuele Ricci – Torino

Long touted as the next star in Italy's midfield, Samuele Ricci has moved on from Empoli but, to the surprise of some, did not take the leap to one of Serie A's big guns and instead continued his development by joining Torino in January.

Ricci featured 13 times for Torino, including nine starts in what was a stellar breakout year in Italy's top tier, with the 20-year-old having previously been crowned Serie B's best player in the 2020-21 season.

Breaking into Italy's squad in 2022, Ricci's meteoric rise should continue, and he may find himself coveted by some of the biggest clubs across Europe.

Santiago Solari expressed pride in Vinicius Junior's ability to "break down the door" and win Real Madrid fans over, ahead of their pre-season friendly with his Club America side.

After coming up through the club's reserve ranks, Solari was faced with the unenviable task of being Real Madrid's caretaker first team coach in a post-World Cup year when Julen Lopetegui was sacked in October 2018.

The 45-year-old lasted less than five months, but Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti arguably went on to reap the benefits of his integration of players such as Vinicius and Federico Valverde, while shifting Isco and Marcelo to the periphery. Vinicius was a particularly inconsistent case initially, before enjoying a breakout season last term, culminating with his goal in May's Champions League final.

The now-Club America boss sought to shift praise onto the players themselves, however, as well the structure and developmental environment Real Madrid provides to emerging talent.

"There is a point of pride for the player in which you think that if you had a 0.5 or one per cent of merit," Solari told Marca. "But the great merit, as with Valverde, [Sergio] Reguilon, Llorente, they belong to the club, its recruitment departments, the facilities it gives to players.

"The other great merit is from the footballers. If there is a bit of me in what Vinicius has achieved, in how he breaks down the door and wins people's hearts, he is wonderful, very beautiful.

"The objective of the coach should not be to seek to be right, but to work and do the best possible for an institution at the specific moment in which it is his turn. Real Madrid always makes their way. We have 14 Champions Leagues, and we are always on our way to the next one."

Ahead of their match, Solari also reserved praise for Ancelotti, describing him as a man of "great" wisdom.

"With Ancelotti I would only listen," he said. "I don't know him very well, I've greeted him once, probably when I was with the youth ranks and he was with the first team.

"I have a lot of personal sympathy for him and he is a man of great wisdom. I would love to listen to him."

Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior has underlined his partnership with Karim Benzema as an important part of his team's success last season.

The two were vital to Los Blancos as they won LaLiga and became European champions once again, with Vinicius scoring the winner to beat Liverpool to earn the club's 14th Champions League.

Benzema scored 44 goals in the 2021-22 campaign, second only to Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (50), who has now joined Real Madrid's fierce rivals Barcelona.

Vinicius was keen to emphasise the importance of his relationship with the France international, telling UEFA Media: "It's always important to have influence in games and Karim always tells me to be brave.

"You have to shoot to score or pass to assist. If not, keep the ball.

"Our connection has been very good and we have been able to win many games together."

 

In LaLiga last season Benzema and Vinicius combined for 66 goal involvements, with the latter contributing to 21 more goals than he had in the previous campaign.

Benzema's goal involvements in the league won his team 29 points, more than any other player in Europe's top five leagues while he scored 0.98 goals per game, better than any other season in his career.

Since he made his top-flight debut, Benzema's goal tally has been bettered by only five other players, with some calling for him to win his first ever Ballon d'Or after only Kylian Mbappe (60) had more goal involvements than him (59) in Europe's top five leagues last season.

Benzema and Vinicius were part of some remarkable Champions League comebacks in their run to lifting the trophy, namely against Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

And the 22-year-old believes the determination and never-say-die attitude is inherent to Real Madrid.

"It's the DNA of this club and of this shirt and it always shows up in big games," he added.

"Some games become an emotional roller coaster. We have players who know how to approach Champions League games."

Despite winning LaLiga and the Champions League last season, Real Madrid want to secure a bright future to follow their trophy-laden present.

Having confirmed the signings of Aurelien Tchouameni and Antonio Rudiger this off-season, Madrid managed to bolster their squad in two areas of the pitch.

Meanwhile, they are on the verge of securing the long-term futures of three foundational pieces in those successes last term.

 

TOP STORY – REAL MADRID TO SECURE BRAZILIAN TRIO

Real Madrid are all but set to confirm renewed contracts for their Brazilian trio of Eder Militao, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior, according to Fabrizio Romano.

Despite tricky initiations for each, all three have now established themselves as vital players under Carlo Ancelotti, as evidenced by their new release clauses.

Militao and Rodrygo have reportedly extended to June 2028, with respective €500million and €1billion release clauses.

After a breakout season, culminating with his goal in May's Champions League final, Vinicius will reportedly extend to June 2027, along with a €1bn release clause.

 

ROUND-UP

– Manchester United are now considering a move for Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic as an alternative to Frenkie de Jong, Calciomercato is reporting.

– Juventus have made a €23m (£19.5m) move for Liverpool's Roberto Firmino as they finalise the termination of Aaron Ramsey's contract, according to Tuttomercatoweb.

Jules Kounde's departure from Sevilla appears likelier with the defender close to agreeing personal terms with Barcelona, per Fabrizio Romano.

– Arsenal have confirmed their interest in Lucas Paqueta but are yet to make Lyon an offer, The Times has reported.

June 30, 2002, Yokohama. Ronaldo pounces on Rivaldo's dummy to side-foot past Germany's Oliver Kahn, becoming just the ninth man to score twice in a World Cup final and making Brazil champions of the world.

That moment, the pinnacle of the legendary forward's career, remains unmatched to this day for the Selecao, with Brazil failing to add to their five World Cup crowns in the subsequent two decades.

Should Brazil fall short of glory in Qatar later this year, that drought will stretch to at least 24 years, matching their longest wait for World Cup glory since their maiden title in 1958 (also between 1970 and 1994).

For a country whose hopes have been entrusted to such footballing icons as Ronaldinho, Kaka and Neymar in subsequent years, such a drought seems inexplicable, with three quarter-final exits and one historic semi-final humiliation the sum of their efforts since 2002. 

Exactly 20 years on from Brazil's triumph in Japan and South Korea, Stats Perform looks back on that momentous success, questions why it is yet to be repeated, and asks whether Tite's class of 2022 are equipped to bring glory to one of the world's most football-mad nations.

2002: Irresistible Ronaldo fires Selecao to glory in Japan and South Korea

It is no exaggeration to say Brazil's last World Cup win was one of the most impressive triumphs in the competition's history.

Luiz Felipe Scolari's men went from strength to strength after requiring a late Rivaldo penalty to edge a tense opener against eventual third-placed finishers Turkey, winning all seven of their games by an aggregate score of 18-4.

The class of 2002 thus hold the record for the most games won by a nation at a single World Cup, with Ronaldo – coming off an injury-blighted four seasons at Inter in which he managed just 36 Serie A appearances – the star of the show.

Partnering Rivaldo and supplied by Paris Saint-Germain's breakout star Ronaldinho, O Fenomeno netted eight goals across the tournament, the joint-most of any Brazilian at a single World Cup and the highest tally of anyone since West Germany's Gerd Muller struck 10 times in 1970.

 

Ronaldo's 19 shots on target in the tournament has not been matched in any subsequent World Cup, while his total of 34 attempts was more than five different nations managed. 

Quarter-final opponents England, vanquished when Ronaldinho audaciously (perhaps fortuitously) lobbed David Seaman from long-range, were the only side to keep Ronaldo out as he took the competition by storm.

A 25-year-old Ronaldo's final double against Germany represented his 44th and 45th international goals in just his 64th Brazil appearance. He managed just 17 further strikes in the famous yellow shirt during his career.

There was nothing in the 2002 squad's make-up to suggest a long wait for further tournament success was imminent: The experienced Cafu (31 in 2002) and Roberto Carlos (29) were still around in 2006, while future Ballon d'Or winners Ronaldinho (22) and Kaka (20) had their whole careers ahead of them.

How, then, did one of the greatest sides in modern international history contrive to fall so far short in subsequent World Cups?

 

2006-2010: Zidane and Sneijder sparkle as drab Brazil fall short

Brazil looked set for another shot at glory in Germany in 2006. Ronaldinho was crowned the world's best player in 2005; Kaka was to follow in his footsteps in 2007; and Ronaldo had hit a century of goals in his first four seasons with Real Madrid.

Brazil conceded just once in group-stage clashes with Croatia, Australia and Japan before crushing Ghana 3-0 in the last 16, but with Carlos Alberto Parreira cramming his three attacking stars into a rigid 4-4-2 shape, it was France who more closely resembled the Brazil sides of old in the last eight. 

Zinedine Zidane's performance in Frankfurt stands as one of the finest in the competition's history, as he tormented the defending champions' flat midfield before assisting Thierry Henry's winner.

It was the first of two masterful midfield displays to end the World Cup hopes of drab Brazil teams, with Wesley Sneijder assuming Zidane's role as the Netherlands vanquished Dunga's men in South Africa in 2010.

Progressing from the group stages has not been an issue for Brazil. Astonishingly, they are unbeaten in their last 15 group games, last suffering a first-stage defeat against Norway in 1998.

A lack of tactical nous against the world's best, however, has been a legitimate charge, and an understandable one given the identities of some of their head coaches.

Parreira's one Brazilian top-flight title was won way back in 1984, while Dunga's only club-level experience remains, to this day, a dire 2013 campaign with Internacional.

In that context, the return of Scolari, the emergence of Neymar and a home World Cup lifted expectations to monumental levels by 2014, when Brazilian dreams were to be shattered in the most incredible manner imaginable.

2014-2018: Home humiliation and Neymar reliance see Brazilian woes continue

The 2014 World Cup was billed as a festival of football, lit up by jubilant Brazilian crowds and thrilling football – the 171 goals scored across the tournament are the joint-most on record, alongside 1998.

Sadly for Brazil, eventual winners Germany provided 18 of those, with seven coming in a scarcely believable semi-final rout at the Mineirao.

Having gone 5-0 down within 29 minutes in the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva, Scolari's men collapsed to arguably the greatest humiliation in World Cup history and, as almost goes without saying, the heaviest semi-final defeat the tournament has ever seen.

Only when Yugoslavia faced Zaire in 1974 had a side previously been 5-0 up after 29 minutes at a World Cup, but for all the excitement building around the host nation, Brazil's class of 2014 always appeared flawed.

An over-reliance on Neymar – cruelly sidelined by a dreadful quarter-final challenge from Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga – was clear in both 2014 and 2018, when Brazil fell to a 2-1 defeat to a Kevin De Bruyne-inspired Belgium in Russia.

 

Across those two tournaments, Neymar's six goals and two assists saw him directly involved in 42 per cent of Brazil's goals.

Fluminense striker Fred, ridiculed by many for his performances in 2014, wasn't exactly up to the task of replacing his goal threat, while Gabriel Jesus failed to find the net despite starting every match under Tite in 2018.

Indeed, coming into the 2018 tournament, Neymar – with 55 goals in 85 caps, was the only player in the Brazil squad to have scored more than 12 international goals.

Having achieved the rare feat of holding onto his job after leading Brazil at a World Cup, Tite will hope the emergence of several other stars lessens the burden on his number 10 this time around.

The road to Qatar: Can the class of 2022 end World Cup drought? 

Assuming he remains in charge when they face Serbia on November 24, Tite will become the first coach to lead Brazil at back-to-back World Cups since Tele Santana in 1982 and 1986.

While neither of Santana's campaigns ended in glory, the current boss – a Copa Libertadores and FIFA Club World Cup winner – will hope his six years moulding the side will prove invaluable in Qatar.

Brazil have already ended one mini trophy drought under his watch, winning a first Copa America title in 12 years on home soil in 2019 before finishing as runners-up to Argentina two years later.

Most impressively, Brazil triumphed without the injured Neymar in 2019 as Everton Soares top-scored, and the form of a series of Selecao stars has given Tite enviable squad depth.

In Allison and Ederson, he can choose between arguably the top two goalkeepers in the Premier League, while Fabinho was crucial as Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool fell narrowly short of a historic quadruple last term.

Casemiro, who won his fifth Champions League title with Madrid in May, could partner him in a fearsome midfield duo, but most of the excitement is centred on his club team-mate Vinicius Junior, whose 22 goals and 16 assists for Los Blancos last term suggest he can be the man to dovetail with Neymar.

 

After landing an appealing group-stage draw alongside Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon, the excitement around Brazil is building once more.

With the Selecao topping the FIFA World Rankings, having fairly recent a Copa America win under their belts and possessing some of European football's most-effective players, 2022 seems as good a time as any for Brazil to end 20 years of disappointment and bring 'o Jogo Bonito' to the world once more.

Vinicius Junior announced his desire to stay at Real Madrid, claiming they are the most "united" since he arrived in 2018.

The 21-year-old Brazilian enjoyed a breakthrough year this past season, providing 17 goals and 13 assists in Real Madrid's LaLiga title triumph, before scoring in the final to claim the club's 14th Champions League.

He has two years left on his contract but is expected to extend until 2026, turning down reported interest from Paris Saint-Germain.

In anticipation of a contract renewal, Vinicius cited the atmosphere at the Santiago Bernabeu as a critical factor in his growth.

"I will continue in the biggest team in the world," he told Sport TV. "It's the most united team since I arrived. The celebrations were different this year. We all felt something special. 

"Younger people arrived with Rodrygo, [Eder] Militao, [Eduardo] Camavinga and me. Everyone likes each other and that's important.

"It's the best atmosphere in the world. Everybody wants to be there. The most experienced give us peace of mind and freedom to do what they want."

In the meantime, Vinicius has become a more regular figure for the Brazil national team, playing in seven of the Selecao's final 11 World Cup qualifiers and starting in five of them.

Despite his own burgeoning status, the 21-year-old revealed he will still be looking to defer to the talismanic Neymar later in the year in Qatar, as Brazil seek a sixth World Cup title.

"He is our best player," Vinicius said. "The rivals always focus more on him and he asks us to run into space because he has great quality to find us. He does everything for me, he is a great friend.

"The pressure is greater for him being older. He calls it responsibility. He also takes it away from us, from those who are arriving. Playing for the national team is a lot of pressure, but we're getting used to it."

The midfield appears to be the primary business agenda for Manchester United this off-season amid Erik ten Hag's rebuild.

With Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata already leaving Old Trafford this off-season, incoming transfers in the centre of the park appear a certainty.

As such, Ten Hag reportedly has his eyes on midfielders who are known quantities to him.

 

TOP STORY – MAN UTD NOT VEERING FROM DE JONG PLANS

Frenkie de Jong appears to be Manchester United's primary transfer target, according to the Daily Mail.

While Donny van de Beek is set to return and others are linked to Old Trafford, it is understood talks are continuing between the Red Devils and Barcelona.

Though no formal bid has placed for the 25-year-old, he is rated at £70million (€80.4m) despite failing to provide a return on investment at the Camp Nou.

While De Jong appears intent to stay in Barcelona, he might have to be sacrificed to allow the cash-strapped club room to manoeuvre.

ROUND-UP

– Meanwhile, the Red Devils have made an offer to sign Christian Eriksen, according to the Athletic.

– Bayern Munich are preparing another offer for Sadio Mane after Liverpool rejected their previous two, Bild reports.

Richarlison has turned down an approach from Arsenal, with Tottenham and Chelsea his preferred destinations, per UOL Esporte.

Real Madrid are close to agreeing a new contract with Vinicius Junior, Goal is reporting.

Kylian Mbappe, Vinicius Junior and Erling Haaland are the three most valuable players in world football, according to research group CIES Football Observatory.

Mbappe comes in as the most valuable having had a stellar season with Paris Saint-Germain, with 60 goal involvements (39 goals, 21 assists) in 46 games in all competitions.

Vinicius won the LaLiga and Champions League double with Real Madrid, while Haaland is soon to make a lucrative move from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester City after scoring 86 goals in 89 games during his time in Germany.

Mbappe turned down a move to Madrid to sign a new three-year deal with PSG last month, and the France international and World Cup winner is valued at an estimated €205.6million (£175.7m) by the CIES.

 

Vinicius is second at €185.5m (£158.3m), while Haaland supposedly has a value of €152.9m (£130.4m) despite costing City just €60m (£51m) thanks to a release clause.

The rest of the top 10 includes Barcelona trio Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ferran Torres, City's Phil Foden and Ruben Dias, Dortmund's Jude Bellingham and Liverpool's Luis Diaz.

CIES' research is based on a range of measures such as age, value of club, level of player performance and inflation.

The CIES report states: "The statistical model to estimate the transfer values for players from teams of the five major European leagues was built from a sample of 1,790 paid transfers carried out between July 2012 and January 2020.

"The correlation between the sums paid and estimated is greater than 80 per cent. This shows that the variables taken into account explain more than four-fifths of the gaps in the level of fees paid for transfers included in the model."

 

Top 10 valued players in world football (according to CIES Football Observatory)
1. Kylian Mbappe (PSG) - €205.6m (£175.7m)
2. Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid) - €185.5m (£158.3m)
3. Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund) - €152.9m (£130.4m)
4. Pedri (Barcelona) - €135.1m (£115.4m)
5. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) - €133.7m (£114.2m)
6. Phil Foden (Man City) - €124.0m (£105.9m)
7. Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona) - €112.5m (£96.1m)
8. Luis Diaz (Liverpool) - €110.1m (£94.0m)
9. Ruben Dias (Man City) - €109.6m (£93.6m)
10. Ferran Torres (Barcelona) - €109.5m (£93.5m)

Karim Benzema has been named the 2021-22 Champions League Player of the Season after helping Real Madrid to a 14th European crown.

Benzema also won the competition's Goal of the Season honour for a supreme header against Chelsea in the quarter-finals, while team-mate Vinicius Junior has been named Young Player of the Season.

The duo were instrumental in Madrid's defying run to Saturday's final in Paris, where Vinicius' finish was enough to earn a 1-0 victory over Liverpool.

With 15 goals across the season, Benzema topped the scoring charts in Europe, with a joint-record ten of those goals in the knockout stage.

The attacker, a heavy favourite for the Ballon d'Or this season, was at the centre of dramatic comeback wins against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Vinicius meanwhile delivered four goals and six assists throughout, with the latter tally only bettered by Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes.

Both Madrid players were named to the Champions League Team of the Season, alongside club-mates Thibaut Courtois and Luka Modric.

Courtois made nine saves in the final to keep Liverpool at bay. He finished the Champions League campaign having faced 72 shots on target, conceding 14 goals. According to expected goals data, the Belgium international prevented 4.7 goals.

 

Beaten finalists Liverpool also contributed four players, with Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson featuring.

Kylian Mbappe, who scored six goals in eight Champions League matches, was named alongside Benzema and Vinicius in attack – an attacking trio that might have been lining up for Los Blancos next season had the France forward not decided to stay at PSG.

City playmaker De Bruyne also made the XI, as did Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger, who is set to join Madrid on a free transfer.

2021-22 UEFA Champions League Team of the Season: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid); Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Andy Robertson (Liverpool); Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Fabinho (Liverpool), Luka Modric (Real Madrid); Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid).

And so at the end of a gruelling 63-game season, mentality monsters Liverpool met their match against the miracle men of Real Madrid.

For the best part of an hour in Paris, Carlo Ancelotti's side looked off the pace and seemingly in need of some inspiration. Yet Madrid did what Madrid do. 

Just ask Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City exactly how that feels.

Unlike in the previous three rounds, no comeback was required on Saturday thanks to Vinicius Junior's 59th-minute strike and a string of incredible Thibaut Courtois saves.

The pair, who along with Karim Benzema have been key in Los Blancos' run to the final, will now forever be synonymous with their side's 14th continental triumph.

That is double the number of European Cups or Champions Leagues won by the next most successful side, with Milan on seven and Liverpool just behind, still stuck on six.

Back in the city of the first of their triumphs, you can be sure that this will not be the last for the true kings of Europe.

 

Not for the first time this season, Ancelotti's men were slow getting out of the blocks, perhaps not helped by a delay to kick-off of more than 30 minutes.

That was down to crowd congestion, as UEFA put it, with one half of the ground swathed in white 45 minutes before the scheduled start time and the Liverpool end a patchy red.

Those Liverpool fans who didn't make it into the ground on time would have missed a dominant first-half display from their side.

The Reds had more shots on target in the first 22 minutes than they did in the entire of the 2019 final, which ended in victory against Tottenham.

Madrid had not even registered a shot or a touch in the Liverpool box by that point, and the Premier League side's dominance only grew as the warmth in the Paris air turned to a slight chill.

By half-time, Jurgen Klopp's side had aimed as many shots on target as in their previous two finals combined, including the defeat to Madrid four years ago in Kyiv.

Crucially, though, Courtois had kept out each of them, including a fine stop from Sadio Mane, helping his shot onto the post.

That was the seventh time Liverpool had hit the woodwork in the Champions League this season – the most of any side – yet the first signs of the tide turning arrived just before the break.

Benzema, kept quiet for large parts, fired the ball in after a mix-up between Alisson and Ibrahima Konate, only for the officials to deem the France striker to be offside.

It was a hugely contentious call, one that took three minutes for VAR to review, although it will now represent a mere footnote when looking back at this game in years to come.

 

Vinicius – and Courtois – ultimately proved the difference, despite Liverpool throwing all they had at their opponents. The Belgium international made the most Champions League final saves (nine) of any goalkeeper on record (since 2003-04).

And so, for the eighth final running, the side that scored first went on to win, a run stretching back to Madrid's comeback victory against Atletico Madrid in 2014.

Digging deep is nothing new for Madrid, then, and again in Paris – albeit perhaps not quite to the same extent as witnessed in previous rounds – their grit and character was on show.

A side who had trailed for 178 minutes in the semi-final, and 243 minutes in total in this campaign (21 per cent of their minutes played), came through this most difficult of runs.

Let it not be forgotten that the LaLiga winners saw off the champions of France, the champions of England and the erstwhile champions of Europe en route even before facing Liverpool and toppling them, too.

It will be particularly special for Ancelotti, who becomes an outright record four-time winner of the Champions League, but this success was about a team who refused to be beaten and again had the ability to grind out a victory just when required.

Never has a Champions League triumph been so hard-fought and yet so deserved.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has been impressed by Vinicius Junior in Real Madrid's run to the Champions League final, but says Liverpool have a plan to deal with the Brazilian.

Vinicius has been directly involved in 37 goals for Madrid in all competitions this season, a tally that includes three goals and six assists in the Champions League.

With those nine goal contributions, Vinicius is one short of becoming the first South American player 21 or under to be involved in 10 or more since Lionel Messi in the 2008-09 campaign.

While it may be Karim Benzema who is at the centre of much of the pre-match focus in Paris, Alexander-Arnold will be tasked with dealing directly with Vinicius down Madrid's left.

Asked ahead of Saturday's showpiece at the Stade de France how he intends to go about stopping Vinicius, Alexander-Arnold said: "You expect to come up against the best.

"There will be battles all over the pitch; we have game plans for everyone we face.

"As for Vinicius, he's an exciting player to watch, but we have a job to do as a collective and as individuals. There are individual battles, but it's the team that wins."

Alexander-Arnold is set to start his third Champions League final, which would see him surpass the record for the youngest to do so, held by Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (23y, 245d). Alexander-Arnold will be 23 years and 233 days old on Saturday.

The England international has started 46 games for Liverpool this season – only Virgil van Dijk (50) and Alisson (53) have been used from the beginning more often.

 

 

The most recent of Alexander-Arnold's starts came in last Sunday's 3-1 win against Wolves, which was not enough to prevent Manchester City from pipping the Reds to the Premier League title.

Despite the dream of a quadruple being ended, Alexander-Arnold insists that loss will not linger over Liverpool in the French capital.

"Not at all. We've put that behind us," he said. "We have the experience this season to focus on the competition we have ahead of us.

"For us, we've found it useful to ignore other competitions. Whatever has happened before last week, yes it was disappointing and hard to take, but you put it behind you.

"We have a Champions League final to prepare for and what better way to make up for it by coming to Paris and an amazing venue to win the best competition in the world."

Andy Robertson will almost certainly be selected on the opposite flank to Alexander-Arnold, with the left-back himself playing a huge part in the Reds' latest European run.

Liverpool are playing their 63rd game of the season – no side in Europe's top five leagues will have played more – having gone all the way in winning the FA Cup and EFL Cup.

Indeed, the last side from across the Premier League, LaLiga, Ligue 1, Serie A and Bundesliga to play more times in all competitions were Manchester United in 2016-17 (64 games).

Madrid have played 55 matches, meanwhile, and sealed the LaLiga title with four matches to spare, allowing Carlo Ancelotti to heavily rotate in recent weeks.

But Robertson is adamant that fatigue will not be an issue for his side against the Spanish champions.

"They've obviously had a bit more relaxed preparation and wrapped up their league two or three weeks ago," Robertson said.

"They've maybe not played as many games and at a high tempo. We knew how hard our run was going to be on our bodies, but we're in the best possible shape.

"We've come through a lot and yes we've had injuries and problems, but the lads are fully fit. It's important we take the competitive nature of a tough season into the last game.

"Real have had a fantastic season winning the league and being in incredible games in the Champions League, they've been a joy to watch.

"We have to stand in their way. Our fans demand a lot this season and we want to win it for them."

Karim Benzema moved level with Raul as Real Madrid's second-highest all-time top goalscorer and Vinicius Junior scored a hat-trick as the LaLiga champions relegated Levante with a 6-0 hammering.

Ferland Mendy got Carlo Ancelotti's side, who were crowned champions a fortnight ago, on their way early on, before Benzema joined Madrid icon Raul on 323 goals soon after.

Rodrygo and Vinicius added further goals before the interval, with the latter completing his treble in the second half at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday.

While the rout restored Madrid's 12-point advantage over Barcelona at the summit, it condemned Levante drop with two games to play.

Any hopes Levante had of causing an upset were dispelled in the 13th minute when Mendy powered into the penalty area and slotted past Daniel Cardenas.

Federico Valverde then steered a volley against the post, before Benzema doubled his side's advantage with a close-range header from Vinicius' cross after 19 minutes.

Rodrygo slid home Luka Modric's cross to make it three in the 34th minute, while Cardenas twice pushed Valverde drives onto the crossbar as Madrid dominated.

They made it four in the 45th minute, when Vinicius collected Modric's pass and curled past Cardenas from a tight angle.

Cardenas pawed away Modric's whipped effort and Vinicius saw an effort ruled out for offside after the interval. 

The Brazil international was not to be denied in the 68th minute, though, tapping into an empty net after Benzema had rounded Cardenas.

He had his hat-trick seven minutes from full-time courtesy of a cool finish from 10 yards out after breaking through Levante's dispirited backline. 

Palmeiras midfielder Danilo has been granted his first call-up to the Brazil squad, while Tite selected Fabinho for the upcoming friendlies in June despite injury concerns over the Liverpool star.

Brazil announced a 27-man squad on Wednesday for friendlies against Korea Republic, Japan and South American rivals Argentina next month.

Fabinho is one of 13 Premier League players called up, despite the midfielder limping off in Liverpool's 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Tuesday after suffering a muscle injury.

Reports suggest Fabinho will miss the upcoming FA Cup final against Chelsea, along with league games against Wolves and Southampton, as he faces a race against the clock to feature in the Champions League final against Real Madrid on May 28 as Liverpool hunt an unprecedented quadruple.

Fellow midfielder Danilo was the other notable inclusion by Tite, with the Palmeiras man earning his maiden call-up after impressing at the Club World Cup, where his side were defeated in the final by Chelsea.

On Danilo's inclusion, Tite told reporters: "Danilo is one of those players that we have been following, we are always attentive to players that are emerging. 

"Danilo played well at the Club World Cup in games that we followed live and made visits to the club. We were looking at a series of things on how he performs so we could justify his selection."

Fabinho's Liverpool team-mate Alisson also made the list, along with fellow goalkeeper Ederson, while Manchester United duo Alex Telles and Fred were named alongside Arsenal's Gabriel Magalhaes.

Newcastle United's Bruno Guimaraes was again selected by Tite and will look to add to his six caps, but there was no room for Magpies team-mate Joelinton, who has impressed since dropping into midfield under Eddie Howe.

Casemiro could partner Guimaraes in the middle alongside Lyon's Lucas Paqueta, while Weverton and Guilherme Arana were the only other two players to feature from Brazil's domestic league.

Tite will have vast experience in the backline to call upon as well, with the likes of Alex Sandro, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos to select from.

Up top, Gabriel Jesus will look to carry over his scoring form from his exploits with Manchester City, with Neymar, Vinicius Junior and Real Madrid's Champions League hero Rodrygo part of a star-studded attacking line-up.

The upcoming friendlies are part of Brazil's penultimate preparations for the 2022 World Cup, where Tite's side are placed in Group G alongside Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon.

Brazil squad: Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City), Weverton (Palmeiras); Alex Sandro (Juventus), Alex Telles (Manchester United), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Danilo (Juventus), Guilherme Arana (Atletico-MG), Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Gabriel Magalhaes (Arsenal), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain) and Thiago Silva (Chelsea); Bruno Guimaraes (Newcastle United), Casemiro (Real Madrid), Danilo (Palmeiras), Fabinho (Liverpool), Fred (Manchester United), Lucas Paqueta (Lyon) and Philippe Coutinho (Aston Villa); Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal), Matheus Cunha (Atletico Madrid), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Raphinha (Leeds), Richarlison (Everton), Rodrygo (Real Madrid) and Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid).

Despite wrapping up their 35th LaLiga title and retaining a chance of winning the Champions League this term, Real Madrid find themselves at something of a crossroads.

The individual brilliance of Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior may have fired Los Blancos to a dominant triumph in LaLiga, but attention will soon turn to Madrid's attempts to defend the title for the first time since 2007-08.

With the potential arrival of a true global superstar and one of the Premier League's best defenders, as well as the matter of refreshing a brilliant but ageing midfield, it promises to be an interesting few months at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Here, Stats Perform analyses what Carlo Ancelotti's men could do to fend off the potential challenge of an improved Barcelona next season.

 

The Mbappe conundrum: How would the superstar fit in?

For months, if not years, Real Madrid's plans for 2022 seem to have revolved around one name: Kylian Mbappe.

While recent reports have suggested the 23-year-old could yet remain at the Parc des Princes, a move for the talismanic attacker – who will be a free agent in June – cannot yet be ruled out.

Having scored 35 goals and provided 19 assists in 43 appearances in all competitions for Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappe would clearly be an asset to any team in European football, but the question remains as to how Mbappe will complement another free-scoring Frenchman in the Spanish capital.

Benzema has become just the fifth Madrid player in history to score 40+ goals in a single season for the club (after Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez), and is being touted for the Ballon d'Or after driving Madrid's Champions League run. Benzema has scored 14 goals in 10 European appearances this term, averaging a goal every 65.1 minutes in a stunning campaign.

Mbappe and Benzema are no strangers to playing together, but the PSG forward failed to score and only provided one assist when doing so during France's disappointing Euro 2020 campaign. The Madrid man, meanwhile, finished just one goal short of the golden boot after netting four times.

Matters are complicated further when taking into account the form of Vinicius, who has formed a lethal partnership with Benzema this season, registering 33 goal involvements of his own in all competitions (18 goals, 15 assists), and Mbappe's preference to play from the left could infringe on Vinicius. 

However, Mbappe's development into a more well-rounded attacking talent should ensure he at least provides a threat, whichever flank he starts from. 

As well as improving on his 11 assists from last season, Mbappe has completed more dribbles (138) at a higher success rate (50.74 per cent) than Vinicius this term (130, 41.4 per cent), and could join him in playing a more creative role supporting Benzema.

Upgrading in defence: The arrival of Antonio Rudiger

Having announced his intention to leave Chelsea at the end of his contract, Antonio Rudiger is another player strongly linked with a move to the Bernabeu ahead of next season.

The German defender has been one of the Blues' outstanding players under Thomas Tuchel, starring in their Champions League triumph last year and enjoying another fine campaign this season.

Rudiger has been a key component in the Premier League's third-best defence this season, with Chelsea keeping 15 clean sheets and conceding just 28 goals despite falling out of title contention after a promising start.

The 29-year-old appears to be an upgrade on Madrid's current defensive options after last year's departures of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, offering more physicality than David Alaba and greater defensive steel than Eder Militao, a partnership that was frequently exposed by Manchester City recently.

Rudiger would also offer a threat at the other end of the pitch, with his three league goals this season bettered by just one other Premier League centre-back (Jan Bednarek, four), and his ability to step out of defence was on display when he scored a 39-yard stunner against Brentford in early April – Chelsea's longest-range Premier League goal since January 2007

However, Rudiger has been accustomed to playing in a back three at Chelsea and would be most likely to play as a right-sided centre-back in a back four for Madrid, unless Ancelotti opts to shift Alaba to left-back.

Rudiger would likely have to curb his attacking enthusiasm if paired with the naturally forward-thinking Alaba, but he appears a smart choice to further solidify a defence that has been the second-strongest in LaLiga this term (only Sevilla have conceded fewer goals).

The case for Camavinga: Time to look to the future?

The midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will go down in Madrid history: they started together in three consecutive Champions League final wins between 2016 and 2018, with the Croatian also starring in 2014's victory.

Nobody can question their quality or longevity. All three have made at least 35 starts this season, while Modric in particular has produced several sumptuous contributions in big games that have helped him to an assist haul of nine, six more than any other Madrid midfielder.

 

However, given they occasionally appear to lack a certain dynamism when out of possession, could Madrid benefit from some extra mobility in the engine room?

The signing of Eduardo Camavinga, who has made 35 appearances this term, was clearly made with such a move in mind, but the French youngster has only started 14 times in all competitions and would benefit from more playing time next season as he looks to improve his all-round game.

However, neither Camavinga nor Federico Valverde possess the kind of metronomic abilities of Modric or Kroos, and the younger pair also average fewer passes into the final third per 90 minutes than their more experienced peers (6.25 and 6.1, respectively).

As such, with the rumoured arrivals of Mbappe and Rudiger involving no transfer fees, Madrid could yet benefit from dipping into the market to acquire another young, progressive midfielder in a move that might also help to prolong the excellence of Modric and Kroos.

After a third successive Champions League title, Cristiano Ronaldo's departure for Juventus was meant to signal the end for a team that had scaled the heights of European football.

The annus horribilis of the 2018-19 season seemed to reaffirm such sentiment, but with Real Madrid now claiming a second LaLiga title and sitting another hair's breadth from the Champions League final since that departure, it seems even more irrational in hindsight.

How have Madrid been able to sustain their level among the best in European football and keep fighting for silverware on multiple fronts despite such a seemingly transformative absence? How have they won this season's LaLiga title with such ease?

Despite a severely weakened Barcelona and a supposed closing of the gap to the rest, Madrid can still reach 90 points this season.

 

In reality, their three successive Champions League triumphs during Zinedine Zidane's first spell in charge were largely due to the ideal balance of their midfield, comprising of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric.

To use but one example, bring into perspective how could they nullify Liverpool's ability to press in both the 2017-18 final and then again in the 2020-21 quarter-final over two legs, with Zidane in charge for a second time.

It bears repeating. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp – a great pressing team that squeezes the opposition into submission, consistently forces errors and is tactically transforming football before our eyes – were eventually rendered inert on multiple occasions.

At Madrid's core though, the collective did and continues to flourish via the creative and incorporative link between Modric and Karim Benzema, both with and without the ball. In a burgeoning era of automation and systems, they are the system.

 

The thing that maximises the duo's technical proficiency is their ability to improvise and embrace risk in the exploitation of space. If automation was football's equivalent to the legend of developing a pen in space, the link between Modric and Benzema is the comparative pencil – just as effective, far more practical.

Granted, that reliance on them creates volatility. When the two are on the pitch, they give Los Blancos a distinct flexibility. When they're not together, the collective is without a reference point and their relationship between defence and attack is compromised – as it was in their thumping in El Clasico in March or even going back to the 2016-17 season and their Copa del Rey elimination in the quarter-final over two legs to Celta Vigo.

 

Viewing Madrid through this prism makes a lot of other aspects relating to them clearer – the ability to feasibly play Lucas Vazquez at right-back in Dani Carvajal's absence, the varying shifts in form from the likes of Vinicius Junior and Kroos this season, or the differing fates of Eduardo Camavinga and Martin Odegaard upon attempting to integrate them into the midfield.

On that latter point, within this context, Camavinga earning more scope at Kroos' expense instead of Modric does not become much of a surprise – because while Benzema has elite comparisons in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane in terms of profile, Modric has always been one of a kind.

Midfielders as complete as Modric, possessing the effortless ability to blur the line between the elegant and the practical, simply did not exist before him – at least as a deep-lying player and not deployed higher up the pitch.

At the incomprehensible age of 36, the Croatia international is still unique, still elite. Ahead of Saturday's match, he led Madrid's midfielders in all competitions this season for chances created in open play per 90 minutes (1.1), expected assists (0.17) and trailed only Camavinga (1.5) for dribbles completed (1.4).

Only Kroos (12.5) bettered Modric (9.5) for passes into the final third per 90 in all competitions, but the German's passing represents an increasingly singular role in Madrid's midfield. He is a world-class distributor, but it is maximised as a result of the spaces that Benzema and Modric create.

No player is more relevant in this regard, however, than Vinicius. His own progression has also accelerated upon that basis. Benzema and Modric's ability to collapse opposition defences leaves the opposition full-back on Vinicius' side isolated, and the 21-year-old can be destructive when he has momentum to dribble.

This all matters because it creates a cumulative impact on how Madrid score their goals. In all competitions ahead of Saturday's game, Vinicius topped the team for dribbles completed per 90 (3.0), chances created from open play (2.3) and expected assists (0.23). 

This goes some way to explaining Benzema's dramatic increase in rate of goal scoring, especially comparing 25 goals in 29 league appearances heading into the weekend to his tally of five LaLiga goals in 2017-18.

Much like Modric, 34-year-old Benzema has the capacity to be flexible as that central striker, and to do what the game requires of him in any given moment. 

 

The reference point Benzema and Modric provide has been the primary dynamic in this season's title win – Carlo Ancelotti's first LaLiga success. They can win games in an instant but collectively, the consequent ability to manage games and keep applying pressure from either winning or losing positions, on the back of both territorial and positional superiority, has been critical.

Ultimately, intelligent footballers gravitate towards one another and it is one of most profound and beautiful aspects of the sport. While Madrid will eventually go on without Benzema and Modric, their interaction and how it has built a worthy title winner this season has only underlined that.

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