Real Madrid slumped to a shock 1-0 defeat at Levante thanks to Jose Luis Morales' stunning late winner, as Los Blancos produced a toothless display and lost Eden Hazard to injury ahead of a pivotal week.

Zinedine Zidane's men created the better chances in Valencia but were wasteful in front of goal, and Morales' glorious strike means Madrid head into next weekend's Clasico trailing leaders Barcelona – who thrashed Eibar 5-0 earlier on Saturday – by two points and possibly without the injured Hazard.

Karim Benzema was particularly culpable in the first 45 minutes, spurning a glorious opportunity early on, while Hazard – who was withdraw with what appeared to be a calf issue in the second period – also squandered a presentable chance after half-time.

Levante became a more prominent threat going forward following the interval and ultimately sealed an unlikely win through Morales' fierce effort 11 minutes from time, with Madrid heading into the first leg of their Champions League last-16 encounter against Manchester City on the back of a woeful result.

Madrid rarely looked worried at the back in the first half, though going forward they lacked a killer instinct.

That was clearest in the 11th minute when Benzema should have put them in front, but he shot straight at Aitor Fernandez with only the goalkeeper to beat.

Fernandez was alert again just before half-time, this time parrying Luka Modric's stinging drive.

It was the same story after the break.

The previously ineffective Hazard had the opportunity to make a decisive impact in the 53rd minute when released through on goal, but he could not get the bouncing ball fully under control and his eventual effort was scuffed harmlessly at the approaching Fernandez.

Hazard had to be withdrawn in the 67th minute due to an apparent calf strain seemingly suffered while attempting a backheel, and Levante netted soon after.

Morales chased a long ball down the left flank on the break and caught it sweetly as it bounced up, beating Thibaut Courtois at his near post with the venomous strike as Madrid dropped points for a second successive LaLiga game after last weekend's 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo.

Diego Simeone sees no problem with Atletico Madrid's players celebrating their victory over Liverpool, though insisted he has not let his squad get carried away.

Atleti will take a 1-0 lead back to Anfield after Saul Niguez's early goal gave them a win in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against the Premier League leaders and defending European champions.

Clips were subsequently shared on social media following Atleti's win of their players celebrating the triumph during a recovery session.

This is no issue for Simeone, though the Argentinian – whose side sit fifth in LaLiga ahead of Sunday's clash with Villarreal – left little doubt that his team must keep their feet on the ground.

"I have always said that extremes are bad," Simeone told a news conference when asked about the criticism Atleti had received for celebrating their win, with Liverpool defender Andy Robertson having suggested the Spanish side were acting as if they had already won the tie.

"There are no extremes in the locker room. We have seen that people lived with the negative results and when we see positive results the opposite happens.

"But we know that LaLiga is long, that the Champions League is very hard and the balance is in maintaining consistency.

"In the same way that I am saddened by defeats, we must celebrate the victories. Liverpool was a first half. The second one remains."

Joao Felix has been included in the squad for Sunday's match and Simeone is thrilled to be able to have his record signing back in the group.

"What excites me is that they are all in the squad. That generates internal competition," Simeone said.

"When Joao Felix and [Diego] Costa have been away, [Angel] Correa and Vitolo played and this generated a lot of internal competition.

"It also happened with [Jose] Gimenez and [Stefan] Savic, with Felipe and [Mario] Hermoso. This internal competition generates growth and improvement."

Martin Braithwaite enjoyed a strong second-half cameo on his Barcelona debut following a controversial transfer - and he vowed to not wash his jersey after receiving a hug from Lionel Messi.

After a difficult week for the club, Barca demolished struggling Eibar 5-0 at Camp Nou, with four-goal Messi in inspirational form as he netted a first-half hat-trick.

Before the match many Barca supporters waved white handkerchiefs towards president Josep Maria Bartomeu and chanted for his resignation after he was forced to deny allegations earlier in the week that the club had hired a firm to "damage the image" of players past and present, including Messi.

Then there was the controversial signing of Braithwaite, who arrived from Leganes as an "emergency" purchase to cover the absence of Ousmane Dembele and seen as an underwhelming acquisition.

But the Denmark international made an immediate impact, having a hand in Messi's fourth before getting involved in Arthur's goal that rounded out the scoring.

When asked about what Messi said after helping him score, Braithwaite told reporters: "He congratulated me, he's a great guy.

"He tried to make me comfortable [after being brought on], he looked for me with his passes. I won't wash my clothes after the hug he gave me," he quipped.

"Honestly, I'm very happy to have been able to give him assistance. I felt very well here, surrounded by fantastic players.

"I tried to run and move, which is what I have to do, and the team-mates have found me, so it has been amazing. I am very happy."

Barca coach Quique Setien was pleasantly surprised by Braithwaite, accepting the forward had more of an impact than anticipated.

"Braithwaite did more than I expected, much more," he said. "Honestly, he was very good and I think we have got an extraordinary signing.

"He'll adapt perfectly to what we do, he was involved in two goals and he understands the game so well. He's powerful and technically very proficient – he's a worker and has many things that will help us."

Barca are in action again on Tuesday in the Champions League against Napoli, before returning to LaLiga action against Real Madrid next Sunday.

Lionel Messi was in inspirational form as he scored four goals – including a first-half hat-trick – to lead Barcelona to an easy 5-0 win over Eibar at the end of a difficult week for the club.

Messi had gone over a month without a goal in LaLiga before Saturday but once he found his groove there was no hope for hapless Eibar, as Barca's talisman tore the visitors apart at will.

Much of the build-up to the contest had been dominated by off-field matters, including the controversial out-of-window signing of Martin Braithwaite and president Josep Maria Bartomeu denying the club hired a firm to "damage the image" of players past and present, including Messi.

Yet Messi appeared unencumbered by the controversies, the Argentina superstar scoring a wonderful treble in the first half before adding a fourth after the break. A goal for Arthur late on completed a handsome triumph ahead of a potentially season-defining week, which includes clashes with Napoli and Real Madrid.

The white handkerchiefs were being waved with vigour in the direction of Bartomeu by many supporters even before kick-off, and for a moment early on in the contest they looked to have another reason to fume, as Sergi Enrich emphatically headed in Jose Angel's cross.

But the offside flag spared Barca from falling behind and Messi soon took charge, opening the scoring with a remarkable goal – coolly clipping a delicate effort past Marko Dmitrovic having nutmegged Anaitz Arbilla and held off Papa Diop.

It was 2-0 in the 37th minute, Messi again driving into the box and picking out the bottom-right corner with aplomb.

And he swiftly completed his treble, turning in from close range after Antoine Griezmann wasted an opportunity to shoot.

The hosts appeared to ease off after the break, with the only notable opportunity before the hour-mark seeing Ivan Rakitic thwarting by Dmitrovic after Griezmann's cross.

However, Barca eventually increased the deficit in the final three minutes – Messi scoring his fourth after toying with the Eibar defence before Arthur's straightforward finish, with substitute Braithwaite showing his usefulness by having a hand in both.

Cristiano Ronaldo brought up 1,000 career appearances in Juventus' trip to SPAL in Serie A on Saturday.

A hero for Portugal, Sporting CP, Manchester United and Real Madrid across a decorated career, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner has racked up a succession of impressive landmarks.

And there have been plenty of moments of magic that live long in the memory along the way.

Here, we take a look back at 10 of Ronaldo's very best goals.

 

Manchester United v Portsmouth: January 30, 2008

Perhaps the finest free-kick Ronaldo has struck in his career.

The Portuguese developed his reputation as a set-piece master at United and he lashed a phenomenal 25-yard effort past David James as part of a double to send Alex Ferguson's side to the top of the Premier League.

His knuckleball technique sent the ball swirling into the top-right corner for one of his defining Old Trafford moments.

 

Porto v Manchester United: April 15, 2009

He had absolutely no right to score this one.

Back in his homeland for a Champions League quarter-final against Porto, Ronaldo picked up the ball in the middle of the opposition half, got it out of his feet and sent a searing strike flying past Helton to seal a 1-0 win at the Estadio do Dragao and a 3-2 aggregate triumph.

 

Almeria v Real Madrid: April 15, 2010

Ronaldo has developed into more of a penalty-box poacher in recent seasons, but this effort against Almeria was a reminder of how devastating he could be when starting from outside the area.

Rafael van der Vaart won back possession in the Almeria half and the ball was worked to Ronaldo, who accelerated past two challenges, left a third defender for dead with a stepover, and drilled home with his left foot. The visitors would go on to win 2-1.

 

Sevilla v Real Madrid: December 17, 2011

Sevilla have grown sick of the sight of Ronaldo – he has scored 27 times against them, after all – but this strike in a 6-2 thrashing is perhaps the best of them all.

Collecting Karim Benzema's pass 30 yards out, Ronaldo took advantage of the time and space given to him by the defence to blast a shot into the top-right corner, the swerve on the ball making it totally unstoppable. It was one of three he scored that day at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

 

Real Madrid v Valencia: May 4, 2014

It was not enough to keep Madrid's title chase alive, but this was another goal that showcased Ronaldo's killer instinct and dexterity.

In second-half injury time, with Valencia 2-1 ahead, Angel Di Maria volleyed over a cross from the left and Ronaldo swivelled to score a backheel volley and snatch a point.

 

Real Madrid v Espanyol: January 31, 2016

Although his game had become more refined from those buccaneering early days, Ronaldo showed here he was not quite done when it came to solo runs and spectacular finishes.

With Madrid already 3-0 up in what would prove to be a 6-0 thrashing, James Rodriguez's pass was deflected into Ronaldo's path and he did the rest, showing brilliant footwork to skip beyond three challenges before rifling home from the edge of the area with his left foot.

 

Hungary v Portugal: June 22, 2016

Portugal fell behind to Hungary three times in Lyon during Euro 2016, and Ronaldo brought them level on the second occasion with a display of fine skill.

The captain added a deft flick with his trailing leg to Joao Mario's right-wing cross to make it 2-2, and he cancelled out Balazs Dzsudzsak's second with a double of his own. It was enough to send Portugal into the knockout stages and from there they went on to claim a maiden international title.

 

Juventus v Real Madrid: April 3, 2018

Arguably the best goal Ronaldo has produced.

Moving away from goal as Dani Carvajal dug a cross towards the penalty spot from the right, he rose into the air to connect with a marvellous overhead kick. His leg was at a right angle to his body as he struck with the sweetest of volleys that flew past Gianluigi Buffon.

 

Portugal v Spain: June 15, 2018

Having twice given his side the lead, Ronaldo found Portugal 3-2 down to their Iberian neighbours in their thrilling opener at the 2018 World Cup.

The was a sense of inevitability when he stood over an 88th minute free-kick, but the execution was sheer perfection – power and dip combined to leave David de Gea with no chance.

 

Juventus v Manchester United: November 8, 2018

Another decorated Portuguese was celebrating at full-time when Jose Mourinho watched his Manchester United team complete a 2-1 comeback win.

But Ronaldo struck first with a sumptuous and technically brilliant strike, watching Leonardo Bonucci's raking ball over his shoulder to volley home.  

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to make his 1,000th appearance for club and country when Juventus face SPAL in Serie A on Saturday.

The Portugal superstar was named in Maurizio Sarri's starting XI after being rested for the 2-0 win over Brescia last weekend.

Providing the 35-year-old comes through the warm-up unscathed, he will bring up his incredible landmark and seek to add to his tally of 724 goals. 

It will be the five-time Ballon d'Or winner's 73rd outing for Juve, with the bulk of his matches having come for Real Madrid (438).

Manchester United sit second on that list (292), with 31 of his games coming for Sporting CP, a further two for Sporting B and 164 for his country. 

Inter boss Antonio Conte is not concerned about Lautaro Martinez's head being turned after the striker was lauded by Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

Martinez has been strongly linked with a move to Camp Nou as a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez and was this week hailed as "spectacular" by compatriot Messi.

The 22-year-old reportedly has a €111m release clause in his contract and has also been touted as a possible target for Manchester United, Manchester City and Real Madrid.

Despite the growing interest in Martinez, however, Conte is confident the Argentina international is only focused on helping Inter.

"The boy is fully concentrated," Conte said at a news conference on Saturday. "He is doing well and must continue in this way. 

"He has grown a lot over the last year and is only 22. He is committed and I am happy to have him available."

Inter recovered from back-to-back defeats in the league and cup with a 2-0 win over Ludogorets in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie on Thursday.

Conte's men face a quick turnaround for Sunday's visit of Sampdoria in Serie A and the head coach is anticipating a difficult test against the relegation battlers.

"Playing on a Thursday makes things difficult as you only have one day to prepare for the next game," he said. "It is something we will get used to over time.

"Sampdoria are in good shape, despite losing last week. We will have to be very focused to get the three points.

"They have a highly experienced coach in Claudio Ranieri and experienced players like Fabio Quagliarella, who amazes me every year."

Conte will wait until Sunday before making a decision on whether to start Marcelo Brozovic, who has been struggling with a knock but took part in training on Saturday.

Brozovic's return could see Christian Eriksen used in an advanced midfield position behind Martinez and Romelu Lukaku, with Conte happy to try out different formations.

"It depends on the game and the opponent. You can try different things but don't forget you have to field a balanced team," he said. "We will see if this is the right time to do it."

Carles Perez has hit out at Barcelona for the manner of his exit and suggested his former club no longer have patience to bed in academy players.

The 22-year-old joined Roma on an initial loan deal in January that will be made permanent at the end of the season if various clauses are triggered.

And after marking his first start for his new side with the only goal in Thursday's 1-0 Europa League win over Gent, Perez admitted to being hurt by Barca's decision to cash in.

"Am I in pain? Mostly, because of the way it happened," he told Mundo Deportivo "I think they didn't behave well in the end, but I'm grateful to Barcelona.

"I'm a guy who has given everything for Barcelona since I was a kid. My dream was to make it to the first team; I achieved that and they took it away from me for no reason. 

"And especially with the performances I was having. They talk a lot about the academy and in the end, they show the opposite.

"Anyway, I don't view Barcelona in a bad light; I am grateful, but I don't like the way it was handled. Nothing else."

As well as offloading Perez to Roma, Barcelona also sent fellow academy product Abel Ruiz to Braga in a deal worth a reported €8million.

Those sales have been brought into focus following the emergency signing of Martin Braithwaite, which Perez claimed offers further evidence of Barca's priorities shifting.

"Sometimes you make good decisions and sometimes you don't," he said. "And now they have to make a life for themselves.

"I think about what Marc Cucurella previously said: at Barcelona, you always want to win but don't have the patience with academy products anymore."

Perez made 14 first-team appearances for Barcelona, including five LaLiga starts this term, and has not ruled out the possibility of returning to Camp Nou one day.

"I haven't thought about that since I left," he said. "Barcelona is the past and I am focused on Roma, although I don't know what will happen in the future."

Gareth Bale's move from Real Madrid to Jiangsu Suning fell through because Los Blancos asked for a transfer fee at the last moment, the Chinese Super League club's head coach has said.

Wales forward Bale appeared destined to depart the Santiago Bernabeu in July having reportedly agreed a deal that would have seen him earn £1million per week.

But Bale, who joined Madrid in August 2013, remained in the Spanish capital after talks broke down at the last minute.

Jiangsu coach Cosmin Olaroiu said Madrid had originally agreed to allow Bale to leave on a free transfer but changed their mind, making a deal unviable for the Chinese side.

"It was very close," Olaroiu told The National. 

"The club agreed with his agent, his agent was there. We agreed with Madrid and in the last month - I don't know what happened there, they lose some friendly games by a big score - Madrid changed their mind.

"First they said they would release him and we would have to pay his salary, then suddenly they said 'No, you have to pay for the transfer'.

"And paying the transfer and his salary was a little bit over the budget and so we looked for another player.

"But, actually, I know that it was done 90 per cent in the evening, and then in the morning everything changed. But Real Madrid, not us."

Bale has made 17 appearances in all competitions for Zinedine Zidane's men this term, scoring three goals, but was left out of the squad to face Levante on Saturday reportedly due to illness.

The 30-year-old has won LaLiga and Copa del Rey medals with Madrid, as well as four Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups.

Manchester City's Champions League ban could have some serious consequences.

While City are planning to appeal UEFA's two-season suspension from European competition after an investigation found the club broke financial fair play regulations, rivals are circling.

City's stars are reportedly attracting interest from far and wide.

 

TOP STORY – BARCA EYE BERNARDO SILVA

LaLiga champions Barcelona are targeting Manchester City star Bernardo Silva, according to the Transfer Window Podcast.

The report comes following City's Champions League suspension handed down to the Premier League giants by UEFA.

City team-mate Raheem Sterling has already been linked to Real Madrid.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca says Madrid are ready to make a move for Rennes teenager Eduardo Camavinga. The 17-year-old has starred for the Ligue 1 outfit and is reportedly valued at €70million.

Paul Pogba has also been linked to Madrid but Goal claims he could be offered a new contract by Manchester United, who expect the Frenchman to leave at the end of the season. Former club Juventus are also reportedly tracking the midfielder.

Paris Saint-Germain are looking to either Juventus head coach Maurizio Sarri or Massimiliano Allegri amid uncertainty over the future of Thomas Tuchel, reports La Gazzetta dello Sport.

- Lille defender Gabriel is being monitored by Arsenal, Everton, PSG and now Leicester City, according to Le10 Sport.

- The Mirror says Arsenal are set to raise transfer funds through the sale of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and potentially Matteo Guendouzi as the Gunners eye Valencia's Carlos Soler and RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano.

Pep Guardiola says any club would "tremble" if Real Madrid or Barcelona enquired about one of their star players, amid speculation linking Raheem Sterling with Los Blancos.

In an interview with Spanish publication AS on Friday, City forward Sterling spoke of his admiration for Madrid following rumours of a potential move to the Santiago Bernabeu.

The England international was also pictured holding up the shirts of both City and Madrid, who meet in the Champions League last 16 next week.

In a news conference ahead of City's Premier League clash with third-placed Leicester City, Guardiola insisted he has no doubt over Sterling's commitment.

However, he conceded all clubs have to worry should Madrid or their LaLiga rivals Barcelona come calling.

"All the clubs have to know that when Real Madrid or Barcelona knock on the door, the other clubs must tremble, they will be a little bit in trouble," Guardiola told reporters.

"Barcelona and Madrid are maybe the strongest and most powerful teams in terms of history and how good they are. That is normal and I understand completely.

"But on the same point, you just see the commitment from Raheem, every single day when he arrives. He's never injured.

"His commitment in every game, offensively and defensively, so he's one of the best players in the world and it's normal that big clubs see his desire for the team.

"I don't know if Madrid or Barcelona called his agent, [but] I don't have any doubts about the commitment Raheem and the other ones have had from the first day to the last day."

Guardiola himself has been linked with leaving City after the club was handed a two-year ban from the Champions League by UEFA for a breach of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

With City in the process of lodging an appeal after denying UEFA's claims, Guardiola swiftly moved to dismiss reports of a potential exit and reiterated his commitment to City once more on Friday.

"My happiness. I'm looking for my happiness, that's the only thing I'm looking for," Guardiola said when asked if he would consider staying beyond the expiration of his current deal, which runs out at the end of next season.

"I'm working with exceptional players especially and I have the feeling that they follow us 100 per cent, knowing how it's not easy working with us and with me, but I'm happy.

"That is the only reason why, when I move on always it's because I am thinking I can be happier than the place that I was before. That is the only reason.

"We have got incredible owners and a good relationship, so I think it will not be a problem to understand both sides if we decide to stay three more years or stay in the time we are together."

Zinedine Zidane defended Gareth Bale's performance against Celta Vigo, yet the Wales forward has not been included in Real Madrid's squad for the trip to Levante.

Bale started and played 84 minutes on Sunday, as Madrid were held to a 2-2 home draw by Celta, who equalised late on through Santi Mina.

"I think Bale played a good game and we have to keep thinking that there's a long way to go and we have to think about what we all do on the pitch to improve it," Zidane said in the wake of the draw.

However, Bale will not get the chance to continue in Madrid's XI this week after he was left out of the squad for the clash with Levante.

The 30-year-old has reportedly been struggling with a stomach bug, which meant he was unable to train on Wednesday.

Striker Luka Jovic has also missed out – with the Serbia international reportedly suffering from the same issue – while Rodrygo and Nacho do not feature in the 19-man squad.

Eden Hazard, who made his comeback from injury against Celta, is included.

Madrid have been boosted by the return to non-contact training of Marco Asensio, who has missed the entirety of the season due to a knee ligament injury.

Head coach Quique Setien does not expect Barcelona's focus to waver over a key run of games despite a series of off-field controversies.

Barca face Eibar on Saturday before visiting Napoli in their Champions League last-16 first leg in midweek and then taking on LaLiga title rivals Real Madrid in El Clasico on March 1.

The forthcoming schedule represents a make-or-break stretch in the season for Setien's side, who are a point behind Madrid in the table.

Yet a number of incidents away from the pitch have overshadowed the early weeks of Setien's tenure.

Director of football Eric Abidal suggested the players had not been working for previous coach Ernesto Valverde prior to his January dismissal, prompting a strong response from captain Lionel Messi.

Barca then denied allegations made by Spanish radio network Cadena SER this week that they hired a company to damage the image of key figures associated with the club, including Messi, by spreading negative messages on social media platforms.

But Setien is not distracted said ahead of the Eibar game: "You'd think it might affect us, but the reality is it's not like that.

"We're very focused on what we need to focus on. We're focused on football matters, we have a lot to focus on. We know what goes on, but I can assure you it doesn't influence anything.

"We're focused on our objective, which is to win games, play well and allow the fans to enjoy themselves. Anything other than that really doesn't affect us."

And Setien confirmed president Josep Maria Bartomeu had discussed the latest issue with senior players.

"Everything the president says is accepted. He told us exactly the same as what he said everywhere," he said. "I'm not thinking about that anymore."

Setien was reluctant to discuss the clash with Napoli but was asked about Messi's suggestion in a wide-ranging Mundo Deportivo interview that Barca were not ready to compete for the Champions League this season.

"There are things that I agree with and things that I'm not in agreement with," Setien said. "In the past 20 years, we have won a lot of Champions Leagues.

"We've got the same chance of winning as other teams have. There's no room for error. There are things we need to try to improve and that we need to do well. That's clear.

"We're not happy with everything, but I think we're growing gradually and reaching a level that will allow us to compete, definitely, with every team."

Barca controversially signed Martin Braithwaite from Leganes this week, following long-term injuries to Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, and the new man has gone straight into the squad for the Eibar game.

"He's come here with a lot of excitement and a lot of desire," Setien said of Braithwaite. "We hope that he can help us a lot."

Also in with the chance of a first-team debut is Barcelona B left-back Sergio Akieme, who joined the club from Rayo Vallecano in September.

The 22-year-old has been called up to provide cover for Junior Firpo after Jordi Alba injured his right adductor last weekend, potentially making the Spain international a doubt to face Madrid.

Zinedine Zidane thinks Raheem Sterling is a quality player but is not interested in discussing a possible Real Madrid bid for the Manchester City star.

In an interview with Madrid publication AS, Sterling described Los Blancos as "a fantastic club" and suggested he could be interested in playing at the Santiago Bernabeu, although he made it clear he is happy at City.

With Pep Guardiola's side facing a ban from European competition pending the outcome of a planned appeal, the future of Sterling is likely to intensify over the coming weeks, particularly with Madrid and City meeting in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Madrid head coach Zidane is undoubtedly an admirer of Sterling, but he seems disinclined to encourage speculation.

"I can't talk about a player who isn't mine," he told reporters on Friday. "He's a very good player, no doubt about that."

Madrid face Levante in LaLiga on Saturday before their attentions turn to City next week.

One player hoping to impress is Rodrygo, who has not made a league appearance since January 26.

"He hasn't been in the last three squads, but we know he's an important player for us and when everyone is there, you have to select a squad," Zidane said of the Brazilian.

"That's all it is, because we're happy with him. He's shown he's very good."

Madrid captain Sergio Ramos is said to be at an impasse in talks over a new contract, with Madrid reportedly unwilling to match their captain's request for a two-year extension.

Zidane, though, expects a new deal to be agreed without too much complication and is even backing the defender in his desire to represent Spain at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

"Sergio's renewal looks easy to me. I want Sergio with me. He's our captain, our leader and an example as a player," he said.

"He's very important for all Madridistas, for the players...

"He should go, of course [to the Olympics]. I will support him. It's very beautiful to play for your country."

Raheem Sterling has described Real Madrid as "a fantastic club" amid speculation over his Manchester City future.

The LaLiga giants have been linked with a move for the 25-year-old over the past two seasons, but City's looming ban from Europe has fuelled those rumours further.

Sterling insists he is happy at City, where he has won two Premier League titles, two EFL Cups and the FA Cup since moving from Liverpool in 2015, but he cannot disguise his admiration for Zinedine Zidane's side.

"Right now, I'm at City and I'm really happy," Sterling told Madrid sports publication AS.

"But I say Real Madrid are a fantastic club. When you see the white shirt, you know exactly what the club stands for. It's massive. But at the same time, I have a contract with City now and I have to respect this. But it's a fantastic club.

"No one knows what the future will hold. I am a player and I am always open to challenges but right now my challenge is at Manchester City. In the future, hopefully, who knows..."

City were given a two-season ban from European competition by UEFA after being found guilty of breaching Financial Fair Play regulations, although the club insist they have done nothing wrong and intend to appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Speaking on the issue, Sterling said: "It's something we don't know much about yet because it's something that has not been confirmed. The club has a long way to go and we just have to wait and see what happens, but I have full confidence in the club."

City face Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League, with the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu taking place next Wednesday.

Sterling is relishing the challenge of facing the 14-time champions of Europe and does not think there is anything lucky about Zidane having led Madrid to three consecutive Champions League triumphs from 2016 to 2018.

"We had a good reaction when we knew that they will be our rival," said the England star. "If you want to do well I think the best thing you have to do is to play against the best teams straight away and there is no better challenge than Real Madrid.

"It is always going to be a difficult game whether they are in a good or a bad moment, just because of the atmosphere, the historical stadium that we are going to...

"It's going to be a difficult game, especially now that they are doing really well, but at the same time I’ve got full confidence in our team and if we get it right on the day, I believe we can win.

"I think to win the Champions League so many times, especially in a row as well, is very difficult. I don't think that's luck; it's definitely a formula. Some people have that winning mentality and he wins by any means. So I wouldn't say that it's luck, I'd say it's something he has probably developed over his great career as a player and he's developing his career as a manager, so it continues this winning touch."

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