It may not prove to be the case in the long run, but New Zealand feel a little vulnerable going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Having failed to win this year's shortened version of the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks are no longer the top-ranked side prior to the tournament in Japan.

Admittedly, they have not suffered a World Cup defeat since 2007, when they were stunned by France in a quarter-final in Cardiff. Their pedigree, plus their strength in depth, means Steve Hansen's side deserve to be considered the favourites.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope for the rest of the rugby heavyweights. The question is: who is best placed to dethrone the champions? 

 

1. SOUTH AFRICA

Could the Springboks be peaking at just the right time? They won the Rugby Championship for the fourth time this year and, after a shocking start against Japan, came as close as any nation to ending New Zealand's march towards a second straight World Cup in 2015. An early crack at the All Blacks in their Pool B opener will give them the chance to land a potentially telling blow. Also, the Boks ruled the world in 1995 and 2007. Now, 12 years on from their previous success, will the trend be repeated? They deserve to be viewed as the main contenders to the defending champions.

2. ENGLAND

It cannot possibly go any worse than four years ago, right? Eddie Jones – who was in charge of the Japan team that upset the Boks in Brighton in 2015 – is at the helm and the schedule has aided their campaign, as they have Tonga and the United States in their opening two fixtures in Pool C, giving them a chance to iron out any issues before they round out the stage by facing Argentina and France. The talismanic Owen Farrell is the key – and not just because of his outstanding kicking off the tee.

3. WALES

Warren Gatland could finish his spell in charge by doing a Six Nations Grand Slam and World Cup double. The Kiwi reached the semi-finals in 2011 and then the quarters four years ago. The reason they are not rated higher, however, is the list of absentees. Flanker Taulupe Faletau and fly-half Gareth Anscombe are missing due to injuries, scrum-half Rhys Webb is unavailable due to selection rules and attack coach Rob Howley has returned home over an alleged betting breach.

4. IRELAND

Like several of his counterparts, Joe Schmidt's tenure comes to an end with the World Cup. His final Six Nations did not go quite to plan, but Ireland top the world rankings, defeated New Zealand less than a year ago (in a game where the mighty All Blacks failed to score a try) and have plenty of experience in their squad. Much will depend on the form and fitness of fly-half Johnny Sexton - can he help the team recapture the form they displayed in 2018? While Pool A looks to be plain sailing, they face the prospect of New Zealand or South Africa in the last eight.

5. AUSTRALIA

The beaten finalists from four years ago will be relying on experience to go one better than 2015. Michael Cheika has often seemed on the brink as their head coach, but he raised hopes by beating New Zealand 47-26 in Perth in August. Still, they lost the rematch 36-0 on the road and are minus their leading strike weapon in Israel Folau, who is locked in a legal dispute with the Australia Rugby Union following his sacking for comments on social media. Without him, they will be more workmanlike than eye-catching in attack. 

6. SCOTLAND

Scotland are in a pool that, apart from Ireland, looks softer than some of the alternative options. They will not take hosts Japan for granted in their final round-robin fixture and, if they do progress, will have to cause an upset against either New Zealand or South Africa in the next round. Gregor Townsend has plenty of World Cup experience from his playing days, but this is his first in charge of the national team - expect the Scots to be in some highly entertaining contests but the last four looks a long shot.

7. ARGENTINA

Los Pumas languish outside the top 10 in the rankings but have made the semi-finals at two of the last three World Cups. The reason they are listed so low here, though, is their group. Only two can progress and having been drawn alongside England and France, Argentina face a challenge to make the quarters. Mario Ledesma's squad is dominated by players from Jaguares, who reached the Super Rugby final for the first time this year, but will lean on the Stade Francais' Nicolas Sanchez to provide control.

8. FRANCE

There was a time when France were the team you wanted to avoid in the knockout stages (just ask New Zealand 12 years ago, while they only won the 2011 final 8-7 against Les Bleus). Yet this current bunch are not living up to previous versions, with a distinct lack of flair put down to a domestic game now dominated by big-name overseas recruits occupying key positions. Sure, France have turned it on for the big occasion in the past, but the 2019 squad should concentrate first on making it out of their pool.

AND THE REST...

Japan have improved since 2015. Italy? Not so much. The hosts can justifiably think a quarter-final slot is within reach, but the Azzurri look doomed in Pool B alongside the All Blacks and the Boks. Currently placed inside the world's top 10, Fiji will likely have to beat one of Australia or Wales just to make it out of their group. The other nations will hope for damage limitation against the big boys and aim to take points off each other in their remaining fixtures. 

Lionel Messi has his sights on a record set by Real Madrid great Raul when Barcelona face Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, as the Champions League proper gets started for the 2019-20 season.

Barca's talisman is back in their squad for the trip to Germany after missing the start of the campaign with a calf injury and, while he is unlikely to start, few would bet against him having a decisive impact if he does make an appearance.

Reigning champions Liverpool begin their title defence at Napoli in what will surely prove to be a tricky test, although Sadio Mane will be aiming to equal a record set by Didier Drogba.

There will also be Champions League bows in the dugout for Frank Lampard and Sylvinho.

Below, we examine the key data for Tuesday's encounters...

Salzburg v Genk

0 - Salzburg have not lost any of their last 18 home matches in European competition (W14 D4 – including qualifiers), with their most recent defeat at home coming in October 2016 against Nice in the Europa League.

1 - Genk forward Mbwana Samatta scored nine goals in 12 appearances in European competition last season and he also finished with 23 goals in the Belgian top flight in 2018-19. Should he play in this match, he will be the first Tanzanian player to make an appearance in the Champions League.

 

Napoli v Liverpool

5 - Napoli have won just one of their past six European meetings with English clubs, losing the other five in this run and failing to score in the most recent three. That one victory was against Liverpool last season, though.

15 - Liverpool forward Sadio Mane has scored 14 goals in 24 Champions League appearances. Should he score in his next outing, he will equal Didier Drogba's record of needing just 25 appearances to score his first 15 goals in the competition, a record for any African player.

 

Inter v Slavia Prague

20 - Inter will be making their 20th appearance in the Champions League/European Cup – only Juventus (34) and AC Milan (28) have had more among Italian sides (including 2019-20).

24 - Inter forward Alexis Sanchez has been involved in 24 goals (12 goals, 12 assists) in his 52 Champions League appearances, but none of these involvements came in six games in the competition for Manchester United, the club he left on loan last month.

 

Borussia Dortmund v Barcelona

33 - Lionel Messi has scored against 32 of the 37 different opponents he has faced in the Champions League. Should he score against Dortmund, the Barcelona star will equal the competition's record for different teams scored against, set by Raul (33 clubs).

2 - Borussia Dortmund have won just two of their past eight Champions League home matches (D2 L4), losing their most recent match 1-0 against Tottenham in the last 16 in 2018-19.

 

Lyon v Zenit

1 - Lyon boss Sylvinho will manage in the Champions League for the first time, also becoming the first non-Frenchman to take charge of the club in Europe's elite competition. The Brazilian made 32 Champions League appearances as a player for Barcelona, Celta Vigo and Arsenal, scoring three goals.

58 - Zenit captain Branislav Ivanovic could make his first Champions League appearance since March 2016 (for Chelsea) in this match. He has made 58 appearances in the competition; only Dejan Stankovic (87) and Predrag Djordjevic (62) have made more among Serbian players.

 

Benfica v RB Leipzig

10 - Benfica are Portugal's sole representative in the 2019-20 Champions League, making it the first time in a decade that there is only one Portuguese club in the competition.

3 - Timo Werner scored three goals from just seven shots on target in the Champions League back in 2017-18, more than any other RB Leipzig player. He went on to net seven times in European competition that term, the highest total by an RB Leipzig player in a single season.

 

Ajax v Lille

6 - Ajax won six games in the 2018-19 Champions League, as many as they did in their previous four participations in the competition.

11 - Including qualifiers, Lille have not won any of their past 11 European matches in all competitions (D6 L5) and scored only five goals in these games.

 

Chelsea v Valencia

102 - Frank Lampard will take charge of a Champions League game for the first time in his managerial career. As a Chelsea player, he made 102 appearances in the competition and is one of only 22 players to have played 100 games or more in the tournament with the same club.

2 - Valencia have reached the Champions League in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2012-13 (three in a row), which was also the last time they made it to the knockout stages of the competition, before being beaten by Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.

Eden Hazard helped lift the growing gloom around Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid as he made his long-awaited debut in a 3-2 LaLiga win at home to Levante on Saturday.

Amid driving rain in the Spanish capital - Hazard must have thought he would play in better conditions after leaving London - he made a bright half-hour cameo from the bench.

A thigh injury delayed the Belgium star's debut but after skipping international duty during the break he was finally able to pull on the famous white shirt he has so long desired.

But as Paco Lopez's side battled back from 3-0 down at the break to almost snatch a point, Thibaut Courtois making a fine save to keep out Ruben Vezo's stoppage-time header, it is clear Hazard will not be able to fix all Madrid's problems on his own.

Hazard certainly adds variety to their attacking options. Zidane initially fielded him in a free role ostensibly operating on the left, his favoured position for club and country, filling the void where Cristiano Ronaldo thrived for so long before joining Serie A giants Juventus last year.

That meant the effervescent Vinicius Jr swapped wings and played on the right, with Lucas Vazquez - one of Zidane's favourites - switching inside to a more central role than his usual position on the flank. Hazard did occasionally pop up on the right and also in a more classic number 10 role, so it appears Zidane is going to give the Belgium star plenty of freedom to run his side's attacks.

Hazard replaced Casemiro - the Brazil midfielder having scored the third goal - even though Los Blancos were being dominated in the second half, ex-Madrid striker Borja Mayoral having cut the deficit to 3-1. Toni Kroos therefore dropped back into the shielding role in front of defence and Zidane still has to fit Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric back in after he was ruled out by injury.

Victory was set up by Karim Benzema, who scored twice in the first half to help build Madrid's commanding lead. At 2-0, he had scored nine of Madrid's past 11 LaLiga goals at home, while his tally in the league since the start of the year stands at an impressive 19.

Benzema has often been under-rated by fans and pundits during his time at the Bernabeu, but not by Zidane. Other coaches have failed to fully appreciate his understanding of the game and ability to bring others into play, which will be crucial if Hazard is to shine. 

A perfect example of his all-round skills was provided by Madrid's second goal, with Benzema linking up perfectly with James Rodriguez before slotting a low finish past Aitor Fernandez. Benzema would have had the matchball to show for his efforts had the woodwork not denied him, the crowd later giving him a rousing reception when he was replaced by Luka Jovic.

It was arguably telling that although Hazard, Jovic and Eder Militao all came off the bench, Zidane's starting XI - as long as you include James, who spent the past two years on loan at Bayern Munich - did not include any of the new signings provided by Florentino Perez.

Cracks have already reportedly begun to show in the relationship between Zidane and Perez, who failed to deliver Paul Pogba for his coach, so this was a welcome win, albeit by a far narrower margin that Madrid's vibrant first-half display deserved.

Zidane had made it clear the World Cup winner was a key target, adding mobility and drive to a central midfield department that has grown stale, but Pogba could not be prised away from Manchester United despite telling reporters he was ready for a new challenge.

Hazard will instead be relied on to provide Galactico stardust, but he will hope to have a greater impact than the time-wasting job he carried out in the latter stages as Madrid clung on.

Zidane and Madrid could celebrate a much-needed win after successive LaLiga draws, though, ahead of Wednesday's Champions League trip to Paris Saint-Germain, where Hazard will surely make his first start.

Kim Clijsters has announced plans for a remarkable return to the WTA Tour after a seven-year absence.

The former world number one - a four-time major champion - has not played since the 2012 US Open, having called time on her career for a second time with 41 singles titles.

But Clijsters, 36, is now aiming to return in 2020, potentially competing again with Serena and Venus Williams - the only active players who can match her tally of Tour honours.

Inspired by the Belgian's decision, we look at some other notable comebacks in women's tennis.

 

Martina Navratilova

While Navratilova never again hit the heights that saw her claim 18 singles majors before her initial retirement, her 2000 return - 27 years on from her Tour debut - was undoubtedly a success.

Navratilova would not play singles at a grand slam until 2004 - winning in the first round at Wimbledon aged 47 - but spent the second part of her career mopping up numerous doubles prizes, finally bowing out in 2006 having won the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at all four majors for a total of 59 championships. Not bad.

Margaret Court

The only player with more grand slam titles across all disciplines than Navratilova is Court, although that would not have been the case had she stayed retired after Wimbledon in 1966, then playing as Margaret Smith.

She married Barry Court the following year, took his name on her return to tennis in 1968 and then set about achieving complete domination again in the new Open Era. She added 11 more majors, winning the Grand Slam in 1970, and finished on a still unmatched 24, retiring in 1977 due to the pregnancy with her fourth child.

 

Jennifer Capriati

Capriati's lay-off from tennis was only brief following the 1993 US Open as she struggled with the pressure of the sport, yet she had a long, long route back to the top, having been a child star and won the Olympics in 1992.

Her hard work paid off eventually, though, and the American won the Australian Open and French Open titles in 2001 and became world number one, defending her Melbourne title the following year. Having finally got close to fulfilling her immense potential, Capriati's final retirement came following an injury-plagued 2004 season.

Kim Clijsters

Clijsters need look no further than the mirror for inspiration when she steps back out onto the court next year, having already completed one hugely successful return.

She retired aged just 23 in 2007, citing a desire for "health and private happiness", but was back two years later. Clijsters made her grand slam singles comeback at the US Open and won her second title, before defending her crown for a third the following year. She backed that up at the 2011 Australian Open before apparently calling it quits for good the next year.

But now she is back again...

After months of speculation and reports of legal action, Mauro Icardi's time at Inter is over… for the foreseeable future anyway.

Frozen out of the first team by head coach Antonio Conte, Icardi completed an initial loan move to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain on deadline day.

PSG have the option to buy former Inter captain Icardi for a reported €70million at the end of 2019-20.

After Icardi was loaned to PSG, Omnisport looks at the timeline of events that transpired at Inter.

October 7, 2016 - Icardi signs a new deal following interest from rivals Napoli.

October 16, 2016 - Curva Nord want Icardi stripped of the captaincy following comments made in his autobiography 'Sempre Avanti'. Icardi claimed that he became "a hero" to his team-mates after confronting an ultra leader following a 3-1 defeat to Sassuolo the season prior. Inter's most prominent ultras faction insist Icardi is "finished" at the club.

October 17, 2016 - Inter sanction Icardi but he retains the armband, much to the frustration of the Curva Nord - who denounce the Argentinian as their skipper.

October 21, 2016 - Paolo Fontanesi, author of the book, says the biography "will be reprinted" following the controversy.

January 16, 2017 - Wanda Nara claims Icardi has offers from China.

March 30, 2017 - Icardi says he "loves" playing for Inter and wants to "stay here forever".

December 16, 2017 - Nara refuses to dismiss the possibility of a move to LaLiga giants Real Madrid. "I do not know anything, I do not say yes or no. Mauro would stay at Inter all his life, but it depends on other things."

April 4, 2018 - Inter sporting director Piero Ausilio says there is no rush on Icardi's contract renewal.

May 13, 2018 - Icardi admits he could leave Inter but only if it is in the best interests of the club.

September 3, 2018 - Nara claims Juventus and Napoli were both interested in signing Icardi during the transfer window, revealing she met with the latter's president Aurelio De Laurentiis.

October 18, 2018 - Icardi says he is happy to stay at Inter. "We will try to find a renewal, but I don't know if it will arrive before Christmas."

December 18, 2018 - Nara says Inter and Icardi are still "very far" apart in contract negotiations amid links with Madrid.

January 9, 2019 - Nara reiterates that a renewal is a "long way off" after Ausilio suggests a new offer is on the table for Icardi, adding a number of European clubs are monitoring the forward.

January 21, 2019 - After Inter chief Giuseppe Marotta says Icardi will re-sign, Nara reveals a new contract is virtually a "100 per cent" certainty.

February 13, 2019 - Icardi is stripped of the captaincy and replaced by goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, before being left out of the Europa League squad to face Rapid Vienna.

February 17, 2019 - Icardi watches from the stands as Inter beat former club Sampdoria 2-1 in Serie A.

February 17, 2019 - Nara later claims Icardi has no intention to leave Inter after losing the armband.

April 3, 2019 - Icardi ends exile with a goalscoring performance in the 4-0 rout of Genoa. Inter's Curva Nord, though, are in no mood to forgive Icardi following his return, insisting he is not part of the club's future.

July 5, 2019 - Inter tell Icardi he is free to leave following Conte's arrival. The player and his agent notify the club of their plans to stay. However, CEO Giuseppe Marotta said Icardi is not part of their project for 2019-20.

July 15, 2019 - Icardi moves a step closer to leaving Inter after mutually agreeing to withdraw from the team's pre-season tour of Asia.

August 9, 2019 - Inter's club-record signing Romelu Lukaku is handed the number nine shirt, previously worn by Icardi, following his arrival from Manchester United.

August 19, 2019 - Nara rules out a move to Ligue 1 side Monaco as links to Napoli, Juventus and PSG persist.

August 26, 2019 - Marotta and Inter express their frustration after comments made by Nara, who claims Icardi has been invited to stay after missing the Serie A opener against Lecce.

September 1, 2019 - Marotta says Icardi is "not a problem" despite reports the striker's lawyer is threatening to sue the club over his exclusion from the first team.

September 2, 2019 - Icardi seals a deadline-day move to PSG on loan, not before signing a one-year contract extension with Inter.

Lionel Messi headlines the final three for the Puskas Award, given to the scorer of the best goal of the season.

A panel of FIFA and external football experts selected 10 goals to put to a public vote and three of those remain in the running after seven were cut on Monday.

Barcelona icon Messi is the big name still in the hunt, while Juan Fernando Quintero of River Plate and Colombia and Hungarian rookie Daniel Zsori join him.

The winner will be announced on September 23 at The Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony and we have the lowdown on each of the three still in with a chance…

Lionel Messi (Barcelona) v Real Betis – March 17, 2019

We have become so accustomed to Messi's brilliance that he makes the extraordinary seem normal, but his hat-trick clincher in March's 4-1 win at Betis was pure genius. After receiving a cut-back from Ivan Rakitic, he caressed a first-time chipped effort over Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from about 18 yards when shooting through a crowded penalty area looked an impossibility.

 

Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate) v Racing Club – February 10, 2019

A former so-called 'wonderkid' who went off the boil before enjoying a resurgence, Quintero has had a fine couple of years. A playmaker with an eye for the spectacular, his free-kick against Racing in the 2-0 Superliga win in February was quintessential Quintero – from about 35 yards out on the right flank, his left-footed strike bent inside the top-right corner in a remarkable display of accuracy.

 

Daniel Zsori (Debrecen) v Ferencvaros – February 16, 2019

Eighteen-year-old Zsori announced himself to Hungarian football in astonishing fashion in February. On his league debut, the attacker met a cross from deep with an overhead-kick just inside the area, picking out the top-far corner in stoppage time to secure a 2-1 win.

The second weekend of the new Serie A season sees last term's top two meet in Turin as defending champions Juventus host Napoli.

Juve finished 11 points clear in 2018-19 as Napoli, in Carlo Ancelotti's first campaign in charge, struggled to match their consistency from Maurizio Sarri's reign.

Sarri is now with Juve - an ongoing recovery from pneumonia means he will not be on the bench against his old club on Saturday - and has already criticised his new side's seemingly clumsy transfer strategy.

The door could therefore be open for a different Serie A champion for the first time since Milan were crowned in 2010-11, since when Juventus have triumphed every year.

Omnisport takes a look at four factors that could see Napoli, who were last Scudetto winners during Diego Maradona's time, come out on top.


DOMINANT DEFENDERS

Napoli only conceded six more goals than Juventus last season but they moved to further strengthen their defence by signing Kostas Manolas from Roma. On paper, they now have one of the most dominant defensive duos in world football, with Manolas joining the excellent Kalidou Koulibaly at the heart of their back line. Some initial teething problems were on show as Napoli shipped three goals at Fiorentina last time out though, with Ancelotti's men requiring Lorenzo Insigne's second goal of the game to edge a 4-3 victory. Alex Meret is only 22 but is considered one of the best young goalkeepers around and he should be well protected once Manolas and Koulibaly form a partnership.


FEARSOME FORWARDS

Napoli's front line was already incredibly strong, but the addition of pace ace Hirving Lozano gives them an even greater threat in the final third, plus a wonderful option from the bench against tiring defenders. The Mexico forward has arrived from PSV for a fee that could reportedly rise to €42million - eclipsing Gonzalo Higuain as the club's record buy - but will find it challenging to break into Ancelotti's attack given the coach already has Insigne, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon, as well as Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik, to choose from. Insigne, Callejon and Mertens all scored against Fiorentina and Milik - who missed the opening weekend with injury - struck 17 Serie A goals last season.


ANCELOTTI PEDIGREE

There is a school of thought that has suggested Ancelotti is a fading force, but his coaching record still demands total respect. The 60-year-old has collected three Champions League titles - nobody has won more - and has triumphed in leagues in Germany, England and Italy, failing to top the table only in Spain, with Real Madrid. Ancelotti's reputation was hurt somewhat by a slightly underwhelming spell with Bayern Munich but he remains one of the most respected coaches in world football, even if he is regarded more as a motivator than an innovator.


SETTLED SQUAD

Juventus, Inter, AC Milan and Roma all have new coaches in the dugout for 2019-20 after an unprecedented close season of upheaval, but steady stability could count in Napoli's favour. Amadou Diawara has been the only notable sale, the midfielder moving to Roma, although Napoli previously lost the inspirational Marek Hamsik to the Chinese Super League in February. Lozano and Manolas look to be two of the most impressive signings in Europe.

Napoli have finished second in three of the past four seasons, but taking the next step is always going to be a huge challenge given Juve's gargantuan financial advantages. An attempted move for James Rodriguez, an Ancelotti favourite from Madrid and Bayern, demonstrated Napoli are serious about being title contenders, although their failure to get that deal over the line indicated there is still a lot of work to do.

Victory for Napoli on Sunday could be the start of a Serie A shake-up, but Juventus have won seven of their last eight home league games against this weekend's opposition. Juve's last home loss, though, came at the hands of Napoli in April 2018, thanks to Koulibaly's late header. If they can repeat the trick, Ancelotti and his charges may start to believe it is their year.

Cristiano Ronaldo made his first competitive appearance for Real Madrid 10 years ago in a 3-2 LaLiga victory against Deportivo La Coruna.

The Portugal forward reached superstar status after being made the world's most expensive player at the time when joining Madrid from Manchester United for a reported €94million.

He went on to become the club's all-time leading scorer and won 15 trophies, including four Champions League crowns and two LaLiga titles, before leaving for Juventus in 2018.

To mark the decade anniversary since it all began for Ronaldo at Madrid, we look back at their team from that day and where they all are 10 years on.

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas

Synonymous with the number one shirt at Real Madrid and widely considered one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, Casillas brought an end to his 25-year spell at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2015 by joining Porto. The veteran suffered a heart attack during a training session in May and doubts remain over his future in the game, with an administrative role at Porto likely if he retires.

Right-back: Alvaro Arbeloa

Arbeloa returned to Madrid for a second spell at the club the month after Ronaldo joined and he became a regular at the back for several years before joining West Ham in 2016. The World Cup-winning defender retired after one season at West Ham. He has lived a somewhat low-key retirement, but did briefly coach Mambo FC in 2018, a team formed of freestyle footballers from YouTube.

Centre-back: Ezequiel Garay

Garay's Real Madrid career never managed to take off and he was sold to Benfica in 2011 after falling down the pecking order. He moved to Zenit St Petersburg three years later and is now back in the Spanish top flight with Valencia, where he has featured regularly over the past three seasons.

Hay que seguir luchando,no hay otro camino,los resultados positivos seguro que van a llegar,gracias a la afición por el apoyo de siempre #G24 #amuntvalencia pic.twitter.com/Wo7PVLl97z

— Ezequiel Garay (@Garay_24) February 17, 2019

Centre-back: Raul Albiol

Another player signed the year Ronaldo arrived, Albiol was snapped up from LaLiga counterparts Valencia and played 43 matches in all competitions in his debut campaign. He left for Napoli in 2013 after seeing his playing time gradually reduce, spending six seasons there before returning to Spain with Villarreal in July.

Left-back: Marcelo

One of only two players from this side still at Madrid, Marcelo is now into his 14th season at the club and has been a regular in most of those campaigns. Despite strong links with a move to Juve earlier this year, Marcelo remained at the Santiago Bernabeu and has started both league matches this term.

 

https://t.co/ZW98dzRll2

— Marcelotwelve (@MarceloM12) July 28, 2019

Central midfielder: Lassana Diarra

Diarra made a positive start to his Los Blancos career and later featured 17 times in their title-winning season of 2011-12, but the Frenchman moved to Anzhi Makhachkala in 2012 after playing time decreased. He then spent time with Lokomotiv Moscow, Marseille and Al Jazira, before a surprise move to Paris Saint-Germain in January 2018. He retired in February, though he was an unused substitute once for Belgian side Sporting Charleroi in March.

Central midfielder: Xabi Alonso

Alonso was signed from Liverpool and became the linchpin of Madrid's midfield for five years, winning five major honours, including the Champions League in 2014. He then linked up with Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, before bowing out on a high in 2017 after adding five more trophies to his collection. He has since moved into coaching, taking charge of boyhood club Real Sociedad's 'B' team.

Attacking midfielder: Kaka

Kaka arrived at Madrid in June 2009 as a one-time Ballon d'Or winner and was the most expensive player in the world for all of a month, a record that was taken from him by Ronaldo. The Brazilian struggled under Jose Mourinho and returned to AC Milan four years later, with Gareth Bale's arrival pushing him further out of the picture. He was unable to match his previous heights in San Siro and saw out his career in Major League Soccer with Orlando City. Rumours of a return with Silvio Berlusconi-backed Monza failed to materialise.

Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo got off the mark in his first outing for Madrid with a penalty. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner went on to add a further 450 goals, becoming Madrid's all-time leading goal-scorer. If last year's switch to Juve was surprising, his form for the Old Lady was anything but. He was crowned Serie A's Player of the Year in his debut campaign after guiding Juve to an eighth straight Scudetto with his 21 goals in the league.

Forward: Raul

Club icon Raul was into the latter stages of his Madrid career when Ronaldo arrived, spending just one season alongside him. Ronaldo was handed Raul's number seven shirt when the Spaniard left for Schalke 04 in 2010 and many of his goalscoring records have since fallen to arguably the club's greatest ever player. Raul spent a combined five years with Schalke, Al Sadd and New York Cosmos before moving into coaching with Real Madrid's age-grade and reserve sides.

Forward: Karim Benzema

The other member of this team still at the Santiago Bernabeu, Benzema has managed to see off a succession of strikers to remain Los Blancos' go-to man up top. The Frenchman joined the same year as Ronaldo and formed an impressive partnership with his attacking colleague. He is sixth on the club's list of all-time leading scorers with 224 goals, but is still a long way short of Ronaldo's record.

Substitute: Esteban Granero

Granero started his career with Madrid and returned in 2009 following a spell with neighbours Getafe. He never became first-choice and is now at Espanyol, having also played for QPR and Real Sociedad.

Substitute: Gonzalo Higuain

The Argentine striker was prolific for Madrid and Napoli between 2007 and 2016, before controversially swapping Naples for Turin. After unsuccessful loan spells with AC Milan and Chelsea, he is back with the Old Lady under Maurizio Sarri.

Substitute: Guti

Guti spent 15 years with Madrid and is renowned as one of the most talented players to have come through their academy. He left in 2010 and spent the final year of his career with Besiktas and is now part of their coaching staff, having also previously worked behind the scenes with Madrid.

Clubs in Spain, Germany, Italy and France have less than seven days left to buy reinforcements in the transfer window, though there are plenty of players still available for free.

The process of signing free agents is less restrictive than buying players from other clubs, as they can be brought in after the deadline passes.

Many teams might therefore be able to find what they are looking for without forking out hefty transfer fees, which have been known to increase closer to the window closing due to the difficulty of finding replacements.

Several out-of-contract stars secured moves earlier in the year, with Adrien Rabiot, Aaron Ramsey and Ander Herrera proving there is still real value to be found in the market.

We've identified six players without a club who could still do a job at a decent level.

 

Hatem Ben Arfa

If a club is willing to put up with some potential baggage and the occasional off-field issue, Ben Arfa could prove an inspired signing. He proved with Rennes last season that he is still immensely capable, as he scored seven goals and set up another two in 26 Ligue 1 appearances, while he also caught the eye with his dazzling dribbling in the Europa League. At 32, he is surely still worth a punt for a year.

Fernando Llorente

Even in his more youthful days Llorente was not the most mobile, but that did not prevent him playing for Athletic Bilbao, Juventus, Sevilla and Tottenham. It is difficult to read too much into his Spurs spell, given he only made seven Premier League starts in two years, but his ability to hold the play up and cause problems with his physicality seem to be intact. Recently linked with Manchester United, he might be more suited to a return to Spain, where the pace is slightly less intense.

Jose Mauri

After breaking through at Parma as a teenager, Mauri looked a very smart acquisition by AC Milan when the former were relegated in 2015 and forced to start again in Serie D due to bankruptcy. In four years, he made just 11 Serie A appearances for Milan, but the former Italy Under-21 international is not without talent. A creative midfielder who is still only 23, there is plenty of time for Mauri – like former club Parma – to enjoy his own rebirth.

Martin Caceres

An immensely experienced centre-back, Caceres, 32, has played for Barcelona, Villarreal, Sevilla, Juventus and Lazio in a distinguished career. He spent the second half of last season at the Old Lady for a second spell, making nine Serie A appearances. Injuries have troubled him over the years, but he proved in Turin he is still capable of playing in a top division.

Claudio Marchisio

Although he is still recovering from knee surgery, a recent social post captioned "tick tock #imready" hinted Marchisio was itching to return to action. Most recently with Zenit in Russia, the Juventus icon has ruled out playing for another Italian side, which scuppered a potential deal with Brescia. Although not the competitor he once was, Marchisio can be counted on for experience, leadership and fine technique.

Lazar Markovic

Markovic is widely regarded as one of Liverpool's worst signings, certainly in the Premier League era. The Serbian winger rose to prominence at Benfica as a teenager, with the Reds then bringing him to Anfield for an estimated £20m in 2014. He has unsuccessful loan spells at Fenerbahce, Sporting CP, Hull City and Anderlecht before joining Fulham on a free in January. However, at 25, time is still on his side. A move to humbler surroundings might just be what the midfielder needs to rebuild his career.

Franck Ribery is to take on a new challenge in Serie A at the age of 36, having agreed a deal to join Fiorentina.

The winger has signed for La Viola on a free transfer after leaving Bayern Munich at the end of last season.

Ribery enjoyed 12 hugely successful years in Munich but is excited by the prospect of playing for "a big team" in "a beautiful city", while others of a similar age elect to wind down their careers on less high-profile shores.

The former Marseille man says he spoke with ex-team-mate Luca Toni before accepting Fiorentina's offer - a wise decision, given Toni is one of only four people to have represented both clubs as player or head coach.

Below, we look at how the others got on...

Stefan Effenberg
Bayern: 1990-92
Fiorentina:1992-94
Bayern (again): 1998-02

Although best known for his success at the heart of the midfield of Bayern - where he won three Bundesligas and the 2001 Champions League among nine trophies in total - Effenberg did spend two years in Tuscany.

Joining at the age of 24 after Lothar Matthaus had returned to Bayern to take his place, Effenberg endured a miserable first season as Fiorentina were relegated from Serie A. He helped them bounce straight back to the top flight as Serie B champions, though, before returning to Germany with Borussia Monchengladbach.

 

Mario Gomez
Bayern: 2009-13
Fiorentina: 2013-16

Gomez won the treble in 2012-13 in his final season with Bayern before heading to Florence, having scored 113 goals in 174 appearances in all competitions and lifted seven trophies.

The striker's time in Italy was unlucky, though, with knee ligament damage restricting him to only 21 starts in Serie A before he was loaned to Besiktas for the 2015-16 campaign. He helped them win the Turkish Super Lig.

 

Franck Ribery
Bayern: 2007-19
Fiorentina: 2019-?

Winning 23 trophies in 12 seasons is remarkable by anyone's standards, and it highlights just how important Ribery has been to Bayern's restoration as the pre-eminent force in German football over the past decade.

The treble of 2012-13 was his crowning achievement and should, arguably, have seen him win the Ballon d'Or. Since then, injuries have begun to take their toll, and it is unclear just how effective the Frenchman will prove to be in Italy.
 

Luca Toni
Fiorentina: 2005-07
Bayern: 2007-10
Fiorentina (again): 2012-13

Toni won the World Cup with Italy midway through an impressive first spell with Fiorentina, prompting Bayern to spend a reported €11.6million to take the striker to Germany.

Three domestic trophies in his first season were followed by a more fallow spell, however, while an Achilles injury and disagreements with coach Louis van Gaal led to his departure in 2010. A return to Fiorentina would come three years later, where he enjoyed a single productive season before heading for Hellas Verona.

 

Giovanni Trapattoni
Bayern: 1994-95
Bayern (again): 1996-98
Fiorentina: 1998-00

For a man who turned out for just two clubs as a player, Trapattoni has certainly enjoyed a nomadic coaching career.

He was twice Bayern boss, winning the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and DFB-Ligapokal in his second spell, before he returned to Italy with Fiorentina. Those two years in Florence ended trophyless, but they were enough to land him the job with the national team.

Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic lead the names nominated for FIFA's Puskas Award, given to the scorer of the best goal of the season.

A panel of FIFA and external football experts selected 10 goals to put to a public vote, with the efforts ranging from the sublime to the outrageous.

Barcelona icon Messi is nominated for the fourth time in five years, while three female players are included after there were none up for the award last year.

All goals selected for consideration were scored between July 16, 2018 and July 19, 2019, and we have the low down on each one, with voting open until September 2…

 

Matheus Cunha (RB Leipzig) v Bayern Leverkusen – April 6, 2019

Brazilian midfield Cunha dazzled the Leverkusen defence in April's 4-2 win as he latched on to a pass in from the left, beat a defender with a pirouette and then found the net with a sumptuous chip.

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy) v Toronto – September 15, 2018

Ibrahimovic has always been synonymous with the extravagant. His goal in last year's 5-3 defeat to Toronto is up there with his best. The Swedish forward got on the end of Jonathan dos Santos' lofted throughball and, despite initially looking set to take it down on his chest, he spun and guided the ball into the net acrobatically. His penchant for martial arts was immediately noticeable from the finish.

 

Lionel Messi (Barcelona) v Real Betis – March 17, 2019

We have become so accustomed to Messi's brilliance that he makes the extraordinary seem normal, but his hat-trick clincher in March's 4-1 win at Betis was pure genius. After receiving a cut-back from Ivan Rakitic, he caressed a first-time chipped effort over Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from about 18 yards when shooting through a crowded penalty area looked an impossibility.

 

Ajara Nchout (Cameroon Women) v New Zealand Women – June 20, 2019

Arguably the standout goal of the Women's World Cup was also a vital winner. With Cameroon being held to a 1-1 draw, Nchout – who also got her team's first – embarked on a mazy run, beating her marker twice with sharp turns before guiding a composed finish in to seal a late 2-1 win and book their place in the knockout phase of the competition.

 

Fabio Quagliarella (Sampdoria) v Napoli – September 2, 2018

Quagliarella went on to have the best season of his career at the ripe old age of 36 last term, scoring 26 times. We should have seen the early signs, as his first of the campaign was a truly special effort. Against his former club Napoli, Quagliarella met Bartosz Bereszynski's right-wing cross with an airborne back-heeled effort from 12 yards that left the goalkeeper helpless.

 

Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate) v Racing Club – February 10, 2019

A former so-called 'wonderkid' who went off the boil before enjoying a resurgence, Quintero has had a fine couple of years. A playmaker with an eye for the spectacular, his free-kick against Racing in the 2-0 Superliga win in February was quintessential Quintero – from about 35 yards out on the right flank, his left-footed strike bent inside the top-right corner in a remarkable display of accuracy.

 

Amy Rodriguez (Utah Royals) v Sky Blue FC – June 16, 2019

After picking up possession inside her own half, Rodriguez cleverly side-stepped a defender and burst into the attack. She got to the final third and, sensing little support, let fly with a left-footed screamer that nestled in the top-right corner.

Billie Simpson (Cliftonville Ladies) v Sion Swift Ladies – August 9, 2018

A truly ridiculous goal. Straight from the opposing goal-kick, Simpson volleyed it right back in the opposite direction, catching it perfectly with a ferocious volley that caught the goalkeeper completely off guard.

 

Daniel Zsori (Debrecen) v Ferencvaros – February 16, 2019

Eighteen-year-old Zsori announced himself to Hungarian football in astonishing fashion in February. On his league debut, the attacker met a cross from deep with an overhead-kick just inside the area, picking out the top-far corner in stoppage time to secure a 2-1.

Three months on from Rafinha's emotional farewell, there is a Brazilian back at Bayern Munich.

Thiago Alcantara, a Spain international born to Brazilian parents, had been the club's lone ongoing link to the country until Philippe Coutinho formally arrived from Barcelona on Monday.

The Vasco de Gama product has a lot to live up to Allianz Arena, where many of his compatriots have shone in the past.

An option for Bayern to buy the attacking midfielder on a permanent basis hints at a bright future in Bavaria, but can he emulate the likes of these former favourites?

 

Giovane Elber

The only non-European member of the club's hall of fame was a human highlight reel throughout his six excellent seasons.

Signed from Stuttgart in 1997, the 'Samba Striker' wrote his name into the annals by forging an entertaining and prolific partnership with target man Carsten Jancker.

Elber scored the bulk of goals - 140 of them in all competitions - to help deliver four Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokal triumphs and a Champions League crown in 2001.

The fringe Selecao forward signed off with a league-high 21 goals in his final season in Germany before joining Lyon in 2003.

 

Ze Roberto

Versatile, reliable, valuable.

Ze Roberto favoured function over flair as he rivalled Elber's longevity in Bavaria and won as many Bundesliga titles.

Three were secured in the four years after his switch from Bayer Leverkusen, but a change in direction under Felix Magath led to a divorce between player and club.

Magath soon made way and Ze Roberto returned from South America on a two-season loan deal that showcased his development into an intelligent, crafty, goal-scoring central midfielder.

 

Paulo Sergio

Elber's success prompted the German giants to invest in another Brazilian attacker and together they exacted European revenge on Manchester United.

In the second of his three seasons at Bayern, striker Sergio netted a vital late winner in a 1-0 first-leg triumph at Old Trafford in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2001.

Elber then found the net in a 2-1 victory in the return encounter to help confirm the club's progression en route to continental glory.

Though the goals dried up after a fine first season, former Roma man Sergio continued to trouble United as he put another past Alex Ferguson's men less than a year on from their previous meeting.

Lucio

Like Sergio and Ze Roberto before him, Lucio cut his teeth in the Bundesliga at Bayern's rivals Leverkusen.

The elegant centre-back traded up in 2004 and stayed for five years, winning three domestic doubles in that time.

Lucio attracted as much acclaim for his ability to carry the ball forward as his faultless defending and scored seven goals in 144 top-flight appearances during his stay.

Spells at Inter, Juventus and Sao Paulo followed for the 2002 World Cup winner, who continues to play in his homeland aged 41.

 

Dante

Schooled in the same ball-playing style as Lucio, defender Dante squeezed an incredible amount of silverware into three seasons under Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola.

The left-footer won the treble in his first campaign at the club and barely veered from that level, lifting the Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup to go with another two Bundesliga titles.

A cult figure wherever he goes, the afroed ex-Borussia Monchengladbach player left Bayern with a full trophy cabinet when he moved to Wolfsburg in 2015.

 

Rafinha

"He was always there when the team needed him," Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said as Rafinha said goodbye to the club in May.

At right-back or left, as Philipp Lahm's understudy or Joshua Kimmich's mentor, Rafinha found ways to make himself useful.

He might only have won four caps for Brazil but the diminutive and adaptable defender was a big contributor at club level, making 266 appearances during a Bayern career spanning eight seasons.

Seven successive titles cemented a rich legacy.

Paris Saint-Germain endured another tough encounter against their Coupe de France final conquerors Rennes on Sunday, with the hosts coming from behind to claim a 2-1 win at Roazhon Park.

Playing a starring role in a fine performance from Julien Stephan's side was 16-year-old midfielder Eduardo Camavinga.

Romain Del Castillo's 48th-minute winner came courtesy of Camavinga's sumptuous cross – a moment typical of the quality the youngster carried throughout the contest.

Here, we tell you a little bit more about a teenage talent who looks set to become one of the hottest properties in European football in the not-too-distant future.


Latest talent off Rennes' conveyor belt

Responsible for bringing through the likes of Sylvain Wiltord, Yoann Gourcuff, Yann M'Vila, Moussa Sow, Yacine Brahimi and Ousmane Dembele, Rennes clearly liked what they saw with Camavinga as he became the youngest player from their academy to sign professional terms.

He signed in December 2018 after impressing at age-grade level and did not have to wait long to make an impact in the first team.


History maker

Camavinga was handed his debut in a 3-3 draw with Angers in April when brought on as a last-minute substitute for M'Baye Niang.

The youngster impressed enough to play a further six times before the end of the 2018-19 campaign, starting four of those matches.

The first of those starts came in a 2-2 draw with Monaco, making him the first player born after January 1, 2002 to start a game in the top five European leagues.


If you're good enough, you're old enough

Rennes knew they had a talent on their hands and, nine months after he penned his first professional contract, they offered Camavinga a new deal running through a further year until 2022.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the hype surrounding him, head coach Stephan has used the Angola-born teen in every minute of Rennes' three matches this season, including both matches against PSG.

Having been on the losing side in the Trophee des Champions clash on August 3, Camavinga had a lot more joy when the sides locked horns in Ligue 1 on Sunday by setting up Del Castillo's winner early in the second half.

In doing so, he became the youngest player to deliver an assist in the French top flight since Opta started recording such data in 2006-07.


What next?

The display against PSG will attract all the plaudits given the calibre of opposition and magnitude of the result, although Stephan will no doubt be just as pleased with Camavinga's performance against Montpellier the week before.

Leading 1-0 when Flavien Tait was dismissed, Rennes did not lose control of the match thanks largely to their prodigious young talent.

No Rennes player managed more touches of the ball or won more duels than Camavinga, who also ended the game with the second-highest pass count of any Rennes player – completing 97.6 per cent of those.

It is surely now just a matter of time before Europe's heavyweight clubs, PSG included, begin to circle for a player who does not turn 17 for another three months.

At his current rate of progression, and with new records being set seemingly on a weekly basis, Camavinga appears to be heading to the top.

Atletico Madrid broke their transfer record and Real Madrid spent a huge amount to freshen up their squad, but Barcelona will still be the team to beat in LaLiga's title tussle.

Barca have finished top in eight of the last 11 years, including the past two, and they head into the 2019-20 season as favourites to retain their crown.

The reigning champions accrued 11 points more than runners-up Atletico last time out and have strengthened during the close season with the additions of Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong and Junior Firpo.

But with Zinedine Zidane at the Madrid helm and long-term target Eden Hazard in place, not to mention the signings of Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy and Rodrygo Goes, there is hope Madrid can bridge the 19-point gap from last season.

Across the city at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico replaced Griezmann with €126million sensation Joao Felix and refreshed some key areas in the squad following the exits of Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, Juanfran and several others.

Ahead of the new season commencing on Friday, we used Opta data to look at which records and landmarks LaLiga's three heavyweights are targeting over the next nine months.

The #PrimeraIberdrola gets underway on September 8th!

Who will be the 2019/20 champions? pic.twitter.com/FyzvJxjEps

— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) August 14, 2019

 

Messi has more records in sight at Barcelona

⦁ With Cristiano Ronaldo no longer in the picture, Lionel Messi is closing in on the ex-Madrid forward's hat-tricks record in the Spanish top flight. One more treble will draw him level with Ronaldo on 34; two more will take him outright top.

⦁ Messi, unsurprisingly, leads the way at the top of Barca's all-time scoring charts in LaLiga with 419 goals to his name. Team-mate Luis Suarez has the chance to move up to third in the list, requiring one more goal to overtake Ladislao Kubala (131).

⦁ Barcelona could become the second team to score more than 6,100 goals in LaLiga history. They go into the season on 6,089, 15 fewer than Real Madrid.

⦁ Messi is also high on the list of the Catalan giants' all-time appearance-makers, featuring 684 times in all competitions to leave him second to Xavi Hernandez (767). Gerard Pique has some catching up to do, but he has a landmark in sight, as he is two outings short of 500 in a Barca shirt.

⦁ In the dugout, Ernesto Valverde is on course to become the 10th manager to reach 450 LaLiga games. The Spaniard, whose future was called into question during the close season, is 26 matches short of that impressive figure.

 

Simeone closing in on milestone Atletico victory

⦁ Retaining the services of boss Diego Simeone was key for Atletico during the close season. The Argentine coach remains and he could become the second manager to reach 200 LaLiga wins with a single team after Miguel Munoz for Real Madrid (257). He heads into the weekend on 180.

⦁ Since Radamel Falcao got the Simeone era up and running with goal number one in 2012, Atletico have gone on to add another 484 in LaLiga, meaning the 500 landmark is within touching distance.

⦁ Atletico have become more synonymous with the defensive side of the game under Simeone and boast one of the world's best goalkeepers in Jan Oblak. The Slovenia international is on 88 LaLiga clean sheets and is aiming to become the third keeper to reach triple figures in the 21st century after Victor Valdes (171) and Iker Casillas (160).

⦁ In new signing Joao Felix, Atletico boast one of the hottest properties in world football. Aged 19, he could become one of the youngest players to score for the club - a record held by Ignacio Camacho (17 years and 364 days when he scored against Recreativo Huelva in 2008).

⦁ Joao Felix will hope to have a long and prosperous career at the Wanda Metropolitano, much in the way team-mate Koke has. The academy product has made 285 league appearances for Atletico and will expected to become only the sixth player to reach 300 this term.

 

 Numancia
 Chivas
 Real Madrid
 MLS All-Stars
 @AtletideSanLuis
 Juventus

 100% win rate in pre-season! #AúpaAtleti #AtletiSummerTour pic.twitter.com/k007cDdLQk

— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) August 10, 2019

 

Familiar faces out to make history for Madrid

⦁ They may have fallen well off the pace last season, but no team has won more matches in LaLiga than Real Madrid's 1690 victories, 55 more than next best Barca. They could therefore become the first team to reach 1,700 victories in the competition.

⦁ Karim Benzema hit a good patch of form towards the end of last season to go sixth on the club's list of all-time leading scorers in all competitions with 222 goals. That leaves him just 20 short of fifth-place Ferenc Puskas, but still a whopping 228 adrift of leading marksman Ronaldo.

⦁ The Frenchman will hope to retain his place up top this term, especially with Hazard now providing the ammunition from out wide. The Belgian is looking to become the eighth current player to reach 100 assists in the top five European leagues. He goes into the season on 89 from his time with Lille and Chelsea.

⦁ Zidane was brought back to Madrid in March, 10 months after stepping down, and he is closing in on 200 games for Los Blancos. The 47-year-old has taken charge of 160 matches in all competitions, leaving him behind five others, including Jose Mourinho (178).

⦁ Players and managers come and go but one thing remains constant - Sergio Ramos marshalling the Madrid defence. The Spanish skipper has made 419 LaLiga appearances in the famous white strip, although he is only seventh on the list of record appearances makers, with Paco Gento (427) the next player in his sights.

Halfway through last season, Borussia Dortmund were in pole position to dethrone Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.

The new year saw Lucien Favre's bright young side falter just enough for Bayern's know how to tell, with Niko Kovac's men claiming a seventh successive top-flight crown.

But it means the anticipation is for a memorable tussle once again this time around, with the processions of recent campaigns hopefully a thing of the past. Throw in an ambitious chasing pack and you have quite a spectacle.

Before the first ball is kicked, five Omnisport journalists have put their necks on the line with some top-four predictions.

We totted up the overall scores and here's what we came up with. Apologies in advance to all at Signal Iduna Park…

 

1st – Borussia Dortmund

Unlike our near-unanimous choice for Manchester City to be Premier League champions, the panel was understandably split down the middle over who will prevail out of Dortmund and Bayern. BVB just got the edge.

STRENGTHS: Wonderful attacking quality, expertly coached by Favre, which is now bolstered by the arrivals of Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard. The returning Mats Hummels – alongside the likes of the talismanic Marco Reus and Axel Witsel – ensures a pleasing blend between experience and future stars.

WEAKNESSES: Can they handle the pressure better than last time around? Hummels is a fine addition but has a significant job on his hands to shore up a vulnerable defence in front of the gifted but error-prone Roman Burki.

2nd – Bayern Munich

Despite an unconvincing close season in the transfer market, defined by the unseemly Leroy Sane saga, it remains hard to back against the Bundesliga's dominant force. But we have!

STRENGTHS: Supreme title-winning pedigree and, although lacking some of the depth they would like, the best collection of individual players in the league. Robert Lewandowski is going for a fifth Torjagerkanone, while there are signs Manuel Neuer might be back to his best.

WEAKNESSES: Light in attack after the departures of club greats Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Significant doubts remain over whether Kovac is the right man from the job, seemingly from the terraces to boardroom level. As such, Uli Hoeness' mooted departure as chairman could lead to turmoil.

3rd – RB Leipzig

German football's new kids on the block were the only other a unanimous choice to finish inside the top four.

STRENGTHS: Julian Nagelsmann has cast himself as a generational coaching talent and should be the man to take last season's beaten DFB-Pokal finalists on to the next level. They have bought shrewdly by bringing in the likes of Christopher Nkunku and Ademola Lookman.

WEAKNESSES: The distraction of star forward Timo Werner entering the final year of his contract. Adapting to Nagelsmann's detailed pressing system is likely to be a challenge.

4th – Bayer Leverkusen

Peter Bosz's time in charge of Dortmund might have ended abruptly but he is doing plenty to convince with a vibrant Leverkusen side.

STRENGTHS: Kai Havertz scored 20 goals in all competitions last season and is a superstar-in-waiting. They have bought well, with Moussa Diaby an exciting replacement for Brandt. The arrival of Hoffenheim duo Kerem Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri also strengthens Bosz's hand significantly.

WEAKNESSES: The coach's system is always likely to lead to defensive vulnerability and there is a lack of quality cover for Jonathan Tah and Sven Bender at centre-back.

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