To suggest the next 12 months may well define Lionel Messi's career would be doing a disservice to what we have witnessed up close over the past 18 campaigns. 

From boy wonder to the greatest player ever in the view of many, and now into a new chapter with Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentina forward has nothing to prove to anyone.

And yet on the day he turns 35 – the average age of retirement for a footballer – questions continue to be asked of Messi. 

Will he win a World Cup – still in the eyes of many the real barometer of a truly great player, even in the era of the Champions League – before he retires? 

Can he prove himself in a different country after a mixed first season in France? Both of those questions will be answered before he celebrates his 36th birthday in a year's time.

Stats Perform looks at how Messi's game has already changed, and whether he is still capable of inspiring club and country to glory in possibly the biggest year of his career.
 

MESSI 2.0

Ten months have passed since the shock announcement that Messi was bringing an end to his 21-year association with Barcelona to join Ligue 1 giants PSG.

By his own high standards, Messi's first campaign in Paris was far from great. He scored 11 goals in 34 appearances, down on the 38 scored in his last season with Barca.

And those 11 goals came from an expected goals (xG) value of 16.8, meaning he scored 5.8 goals fewer than he should have based on the quality of his chances.

Among players in Europe's top-five leagues in all competitions last season, only six others had a worse return, with Lille striker Burak Yilmaz (8.11 differential) topping the list.

There were extenuating circumstances, of course, with Messi himself recently opening up on just how badly he struggled after testing positive for coronavirus in January.

The La Masia product also had to adapt to life outside the place he had called home for more than two decades, seeing him take on an entirely different role.

While his scoring figures dropped considerably, Messi set up 14 league goals – only once in his last five seasons at Camp Nou (21 in 2019-20) did he assist more in a campaign.

The majority of his assists last season came from a left-of-centre position outside the box, where he predominantly played alongside Neymar and just off Kylian Mbappe.


RONALDO SHOWS THE WAY

The 11 goals Messi scored at the age of 34 is his lowest return since the eight he netted when aged 18 and still in the infancy of his Barcelona career.

While that can be put down to a change of scenery, and being in the unfamiliar role of having to play second-fiddle to Mbappe, age is also surely a factor.

At 35 – or 34 as he was last season – Messi will inevitably have to rely more on his footballing brain than his legs to give him an advantage over opponents.

As showed by Cristiano Ronaldo, though, age is just a number when it comes to the very best, the Portugal star having scored 75 goals in 102 games since his 35th birthday.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, four months shy of his 41st birthday, has scored an impressive 112 goals in 174 appearances since hitting 35, an age often perceived as being 'over the hill'.


ALL EYES ON QATAR

Playing a supporting role may well be something we must come accustomed to when it comes to club level, but for Argentina Messi very much still remains the main man.

That was clear to see earlier this month when, in his final game in a gruelling campaign, Messi scored all five of Argentina's goals in their thumping friendly win over Estonia.

That five-goal showing rightly attracted plenty of focus, though it was arguably four days earlier in his side's 3-0 'Finalissima' victory over Italy that Messi truly showed his quality.

Messi pulled the strings from a slightly deeper position as Argentina, who also boast the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala, showed their credentials.

He assisted two of Argentina's three goals, including a delightful turn to leave Giovanni Di Lorenzo trailing in his wake before setting up Martinez for a simple finish. 

On the back of ending their 28-year wait for silverware in 2021 with victory at the Copa America, Lionel Scaloni's men now look good value to challenge for the World Cup.

Regardless of any more titles he adds to his collection at PSG, Messi lifting the most famous trophy of them all in Qatar later this year would be the defining image of his career.

Different now he may be, but Messi has a chance to show in his 35th year that he has plenty more left in the tank to turn a great career into the greatest.

Mario Gotze has all the qualities to return to the Germany squad ahead of the World Cup in Qatar, according to former Die Mannschaft coach Joachim Low.

Gotze has won 63 caps for his country and scored an extra-time winner against Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final as Germany lifted the trophy for a fourth time.

The creative midfielder has not appeared for the national side since November 2017, though, when he appeared as a second-half substitute in a friendly against France.

That is due to a lack of club success for the former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich star, who has traded PSV for Eintracht Frankfurt in a reported €4million move to the Europa League winners.

Appearing in the Champions League for Eintracht, alongside returning to the Bundesliga, the 30-year-old will be hopeful of making his way back into the fold for Germany.

Low, who guided Germany to that World Cup triumph in the crowning achievement of his 15-year tenure, says Gotze has the talent to earn a place in Hansi Flick's Die Mannschaft team before the 2022 tournament in Qatar in November.

"He has all the qualities for it," Low told Sky in Germany. "He will play in the Champions League again, he is the focus here in the Bundesliga and wants to impress for the World Cup."

Gotze scored 12 goals and added 11 assists across all competitions for PSV in the 2021-22 season, playing in 52 games, with reports linking him to Serie A champions Milan.

Eintracht swooped in as Oliver Glasner looked to bolster his squad to compete in Europe, but the Germany international's arrival came as a surprise to Low.

"Of course I didn't expect Mario to return to Germany, not at this point in time," he added.

"But I'm very happy for Mario and Eintracht. Mario is an exceptional player, very professional and with his great playing intelligence, he fits in very well with Eintracht."

Gareth Southgate has the full support of the Football Association after chair Debbie Hewitt provided an impassioned defence of the "high IQ" and emotionally intelligent England manager.

England have made it to the World Cup semi-finals and Euro 2020 showpiece under Southgate, the latter of which the Three Lions' first final appearance at a major tournament in 55 years.

But pressure has mounted after a dismal start to their Nations League campaign in June, losing to Hungary twice either side of draws with Germany and Italy to leave England in danger of relegation.

The most recent 4-0 thrashing to Hungary was the first time England have lost a home match by four or more goals since March 1928, when they lost 5-1 to Scotland.

Hungary also became the first team to score four goals in an away match against England since the Hungarians themselves won 6-3 at Wembley in November 1953.

Frustrated supporters could be heard chanting "you don't know what you're doing" at Molineux towards Southgate, who later vowed to not out-stay his welcome in charge.

With the World Cup in Qatar just five months away, Hewitt was quick to outline her support for the 51-year-old despite ongoing questions over his tactics.

"My personal opinion on Gareth is that he is, by the facts on the pitch, the most successful England manager we've had for 55 years," Hewitt told reporters at a news conference.

"The bit people don't see as much is the Gareth at camp and the culture he's created.

"Certainly prior to Gareth being the manager of England, there was not the pride of wearing the England shirt. There were the club rivalries we'd read about. The players not getting on.

"He's changed that beyond recognition and I've seen that first hand.

"I'd also say that I don't just work in football, I work in business and I've worked with a lot of chief executives and Gareth's skills — his high IQ and high EQ — would make him a chief exec in any sphere.

"That resilience and accountability [are] the two qualities I admire most. There are no slopy shoulders, he doesn't huff, he's resilient and that's what you want in an England manager."

While offering her support publicly, Hewitt says the reaction of Southgate to private conversations expressing the FA's backing also highlighted his credible demeanour.

"Gareth's reaction, as in everything with that sort of conversation, was that it is his accountability, there's always something to learn," she continued.

"That's why it's refreshing working with somebody like that because that openness to learn is quite remarkable and quite unusual in any sphere."

Southgate took charge, initially as caretaker manager, in 2016 and impressed after Sam Allardyce's one-game tenure, with the former Middlesbrough manager earning the permanent job.

After England qualified for the World Cup in Qatar with victory over San Marino in November 2021, Southgate was handed a three-year extension, keeping him as Three Lions' manager until December 2024.

The World Cup will start just one year after he signed the long-term extension and debate has been sparked over whether conducting negotiations was sensible before the results and performances in that tournament are known, but Hewitt assures the correct decision was made.

"I don't think we would be discussing [the contract] had we not had the recent series of games. Clearly, we did that [agreed the new deal] with proper discussion and thought," she added.

"The fact that there's been a stumble does not make us automatically say 'should we have given him a contract?' It is a red herring.

"We have confidence in Gareth for all the reasons I described and I think that's the important thing. And it's particularly important going into the biggest tournament."

Ryan Giggs has resigned as manager of the Wales national team.

Giggs stepped back from his role as Wales boss, which he assumed in 2018, in November 2020 after being arrested of suspicion of assault. He was charged with assaulting two women by Greater Manchester Police in April 2021.

The former Manchester United winger was replaced by Robert Page for Wales' campaign at the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, with the caretaker boss since leading the team to qualification for the World Cup later this year.

Giggs was originally due to face trial on January 24 this year after being charged with causing actual bodily harm to a woman in her 30s and common assault of a woman in her 20s, but his case was adjourned until August 8 due to a lack of court space.

The 48-year-old has denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty to the charges, as well as to one count of controlling and coercive behaviour.

He announced on Monday he was stepping down to allow the team to prepare for the World Cup without any distractions.

"After much consideration, I am standing down from my position as manager of the Wales men's national team with immediate effect," read a statement issued by Giggs.

"It has been an honour and a privilege to manage my country, but it is only right that the FAW, the coaching staff and the players prepare for the tournament with certainty, clarification and without speculation around the position of their head coach."

In the statement, widely reported by UK media, Giggs said: "I do not want the country's preparations for the World Cup to be affected, destabilised or jeopardised in any way by the continued interest around this case. I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed some unforgettable moments during my three years in charge of the national team.

"I am sad that we cannot continue this journey together because I believe that this extraordinary group will make the country proud at our first World Cup since 1958.

"It is my intention to resume my managerial career at a later date and I look forward to watching our national team alongside you in the stands."

In a separate statement, the Football Association of Wales said: "The FAW places on record its gratitude to Ryan Giggs for his tenure as manager of the Cymru men's national team and appreciates the decision he has taken, which is in the best interests of Welsh football.

"The full focus of the FAW and the Cymru men's national team is on the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year."

Poland have dropped Maciej Rybus and will not consider him for their World Cup squad following his transfer to Spartak Moscow.

The defender, who has 66 caps to his name, has spent the past five years in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow and has moved to their city rivals on a free transfer.

While Rybus has decided to remain in Russia, compatriots Grzegorz Krychowiak and Sebastian Szymanski are both set to leave the nation – with the former joining AEK Athens in March on a short-term loan until the end of the season.

The decision comes following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, which led Poland to refuse to play their scheduled World Cup play-off semi-final in March – with FIFA then booting Russia out of qualification altogether.

A statement from the Polish FA read: "The coach of the Polish national team, Czeslaw Michniewicz, talked to Maciej Rybus, who was staying in Poland, after the training camp of the national team ended last week.

"The coach informed the player that, due to his current club situation, he would not be called up for the September training camp of the national team and would not be considered for the team that would go to the World Cup in Qatar when determining the composition of the team."

Poland are in Group C for the World Cup later this year, opening their group stage campaign on November 22 against Mexico before facing off with Saudi Arabia and Argentina.

A study has shown that over 55 per cent of players who featured in the finals of Euro 2020 and this year's Africa Cup of Nations were abused online.

The independent report, released by FIFA five months prior to the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, identified that homophobic and racist comments were the two main areas of concern.

Over 400,000 social media posts were examined, spread across Twitter and Instagram, and 541 cases of direct discrimination or other forms of abuse were discovered.

The majority of hate comments were found to have originated from the home countries of targeted players, with 38 per cent having been made in the United Kingdom.

The study showed that 40 per cent of abusive messages contained homophobic content, and 38 per cent were racist. A further three per cent were categorised as containing a threat, while 58 per cent of the racist remarks were found to be still visible online in April 2022, with 87 per cent of non-racist abuse also still live.

The report comes after England players Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford received racist abuse online after missing in the Euro 2020 final penalty shoot-out against Italy, which England ultimately lost.

It was revealed that 78 per cent of the abuse aimed at players involved in that game contained racist remarks.

Such abuse was heavily condemned by England manager Gareth Southgate as well as UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who vowed to take action against racist trolls. 

For the AFCON final between Senegal and Egypt, the abuse was found to be 26 per cent racist in tone, and 62 per cent homophobic.

FIFA said it would collaborate with global players' union FIFPRO to start a moderation service to monitor hate speech during upcoming tournaments, in the hope it will stop the messages being seen by the intended targets.

"Our duty is to protect football, and that starts with the players who bring so much joy and happiness to all of us by their exploits on the field of play," FIFA president Gianni Infantino said.

"We want our actions to speak louder than our words and that is why we are taking concrete measures to tackle the problem directly."

As well as the moderation tool, educational and mental health advice will be offered to players at FIFA tournaments in 2022 and 2023 to help them deal with online abuse.

Rodrygo has revealed that international team-mate Neymar wants him to inherit Brazil's famous number 10 shirt when the Paris Saint-Germain star retires from international football.

The Selecao are seeking to win a first World Cup title in 20 years in Qatar, where an impressive forward line is set to include Neymar, along with Real Madrid duo Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior.

Neymar had already hinted that the 2022 tournament could be his last and appears to have relayed that message to his compatriots, with Rodrygo apparently in line to inherit the iconic number 10 shirt.

"Neymar said to me 'I'm already leaving the national team and the 10 is yours'," he told Podpah.

"I didn't even know what to say to him. I was embarrassed, I giggled and didn't even know what to say properly.

"I told him that he must play some more, that I didn't want [him] to [do so] now. And then he laughed."

Neymar is the latest in a long line of greats to grace the famous shirt for Brazil, following the likes of Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Pele – while he sits just three goals shy of the latter's goalscoring record for his national team.

Expectations are high for Rodrygo, who has been capped five times, and the 21-year-old revealed that Zinedine Zidane has also touted him to become the best player in the world.

"Zidane said that one day I would be the best in the world," he added.

"Carlo Ancelotti also spoke about me. I try to train and evolve every day to get there. I was very happy. 

"I have this dream and I know that if I dedicate myself every day, I can get there."

Brazil open their World Cup campaign on November 24 against Serbia, with Switzerland and Cameroon also in Group G.

Nicolo Zaniolo has apologised for Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar as he pledged to become a key part of Roberto Mancini's next Azzurri side.

Italy will miss a second successive World Cup this year after falling to a stunning play-off reverse to North Macedonia in March, and their misery was compounded this month when they were beaten 3-0 by Argentina at Wembley in the Finalissima.

They also won just one of their first four Nations League games, losing 5-2 to Germany last time out.

Zaniolo was absent as Mancini's men beat England on penalties to win the rearranged Euro 2020 tournament last July, and made just one appearance throughout Italy's unsuccessful World Cup qualification campaign.

The creative midfielder is desperate to become a key part of Mancini's next side, and hailed the job the former Manchester City boss has done with the national team.

"I'm sorry, because we have to wait another four years," he told Sportweek. "But let's go on. I'm used to chasing. There will be other goals in between.

"The first time Mancini called me I was very young... He came there to talk to me, to make me feel immediately at ease. Great person, professional. I will do everything to convince Mancini."

Moving forward, Italy will be without defensive stalwart Giorgio Chiellini, who won his 117th and final international cap in the Argentina defeat – matching Daniele De Rossi as his nations' fourth-most capped player.

And Zaniolo thinks the former Juventus man will be difficult to replace.

"[Chiellini] has always been the most difficult to overcome," he said. "He is physically strong and off the pitch, he is an exceptional person."

At club level, Zaniolo enjoyed a successful campaign under Jose Mourinho at Roma, making 30 appearances in all competitions as the Giallorossi won the Europa Conference League, and scored the only goal of last month's final win over Feyenoord.

The 22-year-old says he has learnt a lot from playing under Mourinho.

"He's a winner," he said. "He taught me how to get into position in the defensive phase, where we had to improve and I still have to do it. 

"He helped me to manage certain situations, in the past I would have reacted badly or worse due to exclusion from games that were very significant for me. 

"He taught me to bite my tongue, [to be] mute and work more in the field."

A "very optimistic" Roberto Carlos declared "it is time to win" as he backed Brazil to lift the World Cup in Qatar.

The Selecao breezed through South American World Cup qualifying, topping their group after going unbeaten before the rearranged clash with Argentina on September 22.

Argentina are another force to be reckoned in the battle for the famous Jules Rimet trophy, having gone undefeated in 33 games – the longest intact unbeaten run in international football.

Holders France are also among the contenders, while England, Spain and Germany will be expected to provide stern competition at world football's showpiece event.

Roberto Carlos was in the team that won Brazil's fifth and most recent World Cup in 2002, and he believes Tite's side will end a 20-year wait to be crowned champions in December.

 

"The most important thing is that Brazil have a great team," he told reporters. "It's time to win, because the last photo we have is ours [in 2002].

"I am very optimistic. It is not easy to win a World Cup. In recent times, the Brazilian team are as usual, since our time, they have played great games, but have never been so good.

"The Copa America is important but for the Brazilians, this World Cup is going to be very important and has a special flavour, the moment of the national team is very good.

"At least the European press put Brazil as one of the favourites. This is already an important factor.

"Luis Enrique commented on it the other day, if you ask any other national team coach, the Brazilian team is one of the four favourites for this World Cup. If they prepare well, Brazil will win again."

Brazil start their World Cup campaign against Serbia on November 24, with clashes against Switzerland and Cameroon to follow in Group G.

Wantaway Liverpool forward Sadio Mane deserves to be in contention to win the Ballon d'Or, says Patrick Vieira. 

Mane, who has been widely linked with a move to German champions Bayern Munich after Liverpool announced the signing of Benfica attacker Darwin Nunez, scored 23 goals as the Reds won the EFL Cup and FA Cup last season.

He was also decisive as Senegal claimed their first Africa Cup of Nations title in February before leading his national team to World Cup qualification the following month. 

Those exploits have led to suggestions he could compete with Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema to be named the world's best player later this year, and Arsenal legend and Crystal Palace manager Vieira thinks his wide-ranging abilities put him in contention.

"Sadio Mane is part of the new generation of attackers who knows how to do everything," Vieira told the Diambars Institute, a football academy in Senegal.

"He scores goals, he knows how to defend, he knows how to run in depth. He is a hard worker in the field. 

"He is one of the modern attackers. For me, he should be considered for the Ballon d'Or.

"He is one of those great players who can win it. I saw him every weekend in the Premier League and for me, he is one of the great European strikers."

Having won six trophies in a six-year spell at Anfield, Mane is expected to move to Bayern in the current transfer window, perhaps as a replacement for Barcelona-linked striker Robert Lewandowski.

Asked about such rumours, Vieira said Mane will make the best decision for his career. 

"I think he has his head on his shoulders to make the best decision," the Frenchman added.

"Should he stay or go? It's up to him to make that decision. But he is a player that I admire in relation to his talent as a footballer, but also in relation to his talent as a man."

Real Madrid will see a "totally different" Eden Hazard next season, according to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, who says the winger is "obsessed" with succeeding at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Having joined Madrid in a blockbuster £103.5m deal in 2019, Hazard has struggled in Spain, making just 48 appearances in LaLiga for the club - 20 of which have come from the bench.

Hazard has only recorded 10 league goal involvements in that time (four goals, six assists), and was a virtual spectator as Carlo Ancelotti's men won LaLiga and the Champions League last season, starting just seven league games.

But the 31-year-old impressed for Belgium during the recent international break, and was adamant he will get back to the player he was after assisting Kevin De Bruyne's goal in a recent 6-1 win over Poland. 

Martinez agrees that prediction, and believes the winger's goal of winning the World Cup in Qatar this year will provide an additional motivation when he returns to Madrid.

"Eden Hazard is in the best period of his career," Martinez told radio programme El Larguero.

"I was surprised by the state of mind and physical condition he was in in June," he said. "Real Madrid fans are going to see a totally different Hazard.

"He is obsessed with succeeding at Real Madrid. He has not thought about changing his objective. He wants to win the World Cup."

Meanwhile, Martinez's own future as Belgium boss has been questioned in recent months, with the former Everton man failing to lead the Red Devils' so-called "golden generation" of stars to tournament glory since taking charge in 2016.

The 48-year-old recently said he will not discuss any prospective new contract with Belgium until after the World Cup, but has now refused to close the door to coaching the Spanish national team in the future.

"I'm always open to any project with real belief behind it," he said.

Belgium and Spain could potentially face off in the round of 16 in Qatar, with Martinez's men facing Canada, Morocco and Croatia in Group F and Luis Enrique's team drawn alongside Germany, Japan and Costa Rica in Group E.

David Beckham says the timing of the World Cup in Qatar could provide England with an advantage as Gareth Southgate's men look to end a 56-year wait for major tournament success.

The Three Lions reached the semi-finals in Russia four years ago and lost on penalties to Italy in last year's Euro 2020 final.

A poor June resulted in a pair of defeats to Hungary sandwiching draws with Germany and Italy in the Nations League, but England are still tipped among the favourites for World Cup glory.

Beckham featured in three World Cups during a glittering international career that saw him win 115 caps, but success evaded the England sides he played in.

But with England kicking off their Group B campaign against Iran on November 21, Beckham says the timing of the tournament could suit Southgate's team.

"Personally I feel, for our team, it's a huge opportunity," he told former England and Manchester United team-mate Gary Neville on The Overlap podcast. 

"Like you said, we never did use it [fatigue] as an excuse [in previous tournaments], but truth be told, we came to the end of a gruelling season in the Premier League – the toughest league in the world, and you are tired, you do want a rest.

"You don't have that time to recover from a tough season. But these players are coming into this tournament at a time where they're at their peak, they're in the middle of their season, there's no reason and no excuse for them not to be at the top of their game.

"For our players, this is a huge opportunity. We have a young team, an exciting team, we have a manager that has been with these players for a long time.

"I really love watching this England team play, they're exciting, they play with passion, they play like they want to be there. It's something that, as an England fan, that's what you want to see.

"All of a sudden, our fans have come together behind this team again. For a moment, I'd say the fans – I wouldn't say they fell out of love with the national team, but there was a disconnect. 

"[Now] there's a connection. And I think Gareth's done an incredible job with this team."

Beckham also hailed the current Three Lions side as particularly likeable, praising the likes of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling for their off-field efforts to engage with fans on racism and other social issues.

"There's an excitement within this team," he continued. "I talk about these players, and they're more than just footballers. 

"What I love about this generation of players, particularly in England, is with the power they have on the field, they're trying to make change off the field.

"I see the work that Marcus has done, I see the work Raheem and other players have done, the good that they're doing outside the game is exceptional, using their platform to help other people and make change. 

"The fact they are now helping other people and helping educate people on racism, the stuff they go through every single day, they are making change and that's why I love this group of players and this generation."

Harry Maguire has defended under-fire England boss Gareth Southgate after a 4-0 defeat to Hungary, claiming he remains one of the best managers in international football.

Maguire, who came on as a late substitute with England 3-0 down at Molineux on Tuesday, says the loss was "unacceptable" but insisted the Three Lions can make a big impact at the World Cup this year.

England are facing the threat of Nations League relegation after taking just two points from four Group A3 games, following up draws against Germany and Italy with their heaviest home defeat since a 5-1 hammering by Scotland in 1928.

A failure to win any of their four games this month also leaves England on their worst run since June 2014, when they went without a victory in five games during a month which saw them finish bottom of their group at the 2014 World Cup under Roy Hodgson.

Hungary also became the first team to score four goals in an away match against England since their historic 6-3 triumph at Wembley in 1953, leading Southgate to come under fire from supporters.

Chants of "you don't know what you're doing" were aimed at Southgate by home fans during the hammering, but Maguire says he remains the right man to lead the team in Qatar later this year.

"Gareth is the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966," the defender told the Sun. "We all can't wait to work with him and the backroom team again at the World Cup.

"His managerial record is as good as anyone currently out there in international football.

"There's no reason why we can't do really well and our goal is to improve on our previous tournaments and make the country proud.

"We deserved more from the first three [Nations League] games, but against Hungary on Tuesday it wasn't acceptable.

"We all know that. Everyone needs a break now and a recharge. The spirit in the camp has been great, despite the results."

England face just two more Nations League contests – versus Germany and Italy in September – before they open their World Cup campaign against Iran on November 21.

Paul Pogba would be an "excellent" acquisition for Juventus should the Bianconeri manage to re-sign the former Manchester United midfielder, according to Italy legend Marco Tardelli.

Pogba, who spent four trophy-laden years in Turin between 2012 and 2016, has been strongly linked with a return to Juventus after his United departure was confirmed.

No United player registered as many Premier League assists (38) or chances created (231) as Pogba during his six-year spell at Old Trafford, although his second spell at the club ended in disappointing fashion, with the 2018 World Cup winner playing just 1,354 minutes of domestic league football last season.

Tardelli, who won five Serie A titles with Juventus during his playing career, insisted that while returning to a former club is always difficult, Pogba would be an ideal signing for coach Massimiliano Allegri.

"I believe that returns are always difficult, because there are higher expectations," Tardelli said, quoted by ANSA. "But it is an excellent acquisition."

Tardelli said Juventus needed to sign players who could make "an important contribution in every department". The squad is set for an overhaul, after finishing fourth in Serie A for a second successive season, having won the title in each of the nine previous campaigns.

 

The fact there are unusually few prominent Italian players at Juventus may not be helping the national team, who missed out on qualification for the World Cup and sit third in Nations League group A3 after winning just one of their first four games.

None of the five players to have played the most Serie A minutes for Juventus in the 2021-22 season (Wojciech Szczesny, Matthijs de Ligt, Juan Cuadrado, Alvaro Morata and Adrien Rabiot) are Italian, with Manuel Locatelli sixth on that list.

Roberto Mancini's Italy endured a disappointing international break in June, being thrashed 5-2 by Germany on Tuesday having begun the month with a 3-0 reverse to a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina at Wembley, and Tardelli also believes the Azzurri are missing an elite forward.

"There is a block of foreigners [at Juventus] more than anything else," Tardelli said. "[Italy forwards Gianluca] Scamacca and [Giacomo] Raspadori play for Sassuolo, a team with little international experience.

"We lack a champion, especially in the advanced department, a player who manages to invent a pass, not strictly the number nine.

"If you don't score a goal there is always a problem, but I have faith in Scamacca, I also had it in [Ciro] Immobile but, if you don't show signs, you are criticised.

"Mancini is doing an excellent job; he is trying to find young people, and he has done it well in some cases. We need to have patience and hope to find a champion like [Francesco] Totti, like [Roberto] Baggio or like [Alessandro] Del Piero, because now I don't see him yet."

Club Brugge star Noa Lang suggested he is unaware of Milan transfer advances, but would be open to a move "to take the next step" amid reported interest from Arsenal as well.

Lang scored seven goals in 37 Belgian Pro League appearances in the 2021-22 campaign as Brugge lifted their 18th league title in history and third in a row.

The 22-year-old also appeared in all six of Brugge's Champions League outings, though the Belgian side won just one in a tough group with Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig.

Featuring in Europe only served to further the value of Lang, who is said to have long been a target of Arsenal, along with Premier League side Leeds United.

Reports in Italy indicated Serie A winners Milan are also interested in the forward, but he assures no agreement has been reached with Stefano Pioli's side.

"There is no agreement with AC Milan or anything. I don't know where this kind of news comes from," Lang told Belgian newspaper HLN.

"If I have to report to Club Brugge again, I will do so with all my love. I love the club and will give the full 100 per cent."

The Netherlands international expressed his desire to move on from the Belgian Pro League, though, as he looks to impress Louis van Gaal ahead of the World Cup later this year.

"The agreement with Brugge is that it must come to a transfer, both parties agree on that. I want to continue to develop and so I have to take a step," he added.

"But I'm not afraid of that, I have to keep developing myself. If I go to a bigger club, I will probably become a better footballer. Then I train and play with a higher intensity. I only see benefits towards the World Cup.

However, Lang believes the thinking behind Van Gaal's selection has changed, with the Netherlands coach open to picking players who may not always be playing for their club.

"The national coach has abandoned his vision, as he says himself," he continued. 

"But then again: if I go to another club, I also want to play a lot. I have to enforce that myself. Whether it is at the top or just below."

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