Memphis Depay claimed he will thrive on the expectancy at Barcelona after scoring his first goal for the club in a friendly match.

The Netherlands forward converted an 85th-minute penalty as Barca clinched a 3-1 win over Girona at Johan Cruyff Stadium on Saturday.

Depay joined the Blaugrana on a free transfer earlier this month after his contract expired with Ligue 1 club Lyon.

"I know they expect a lot from me," Depay told a post-match media conference.

"I'm very happy to have played with this shirt. I enjoyed the fans in the stadium, they were very enthusiastic throughout the match and they have shown a lot of energy. 

"I work hard to provide incredible moments for Barca fans. 

"When we play in the stadium it will be incredible too. The fans will give us energy."

Depay netted 76 goals in 178 appearances for Lyon where he enjoyed an impressive final season in Ligue 1 with 20 goals, trailing only Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe (27 goals).

The 27-year-old's 12 assists and 94 chances created were more than any other player managed in France's top flight in 2020-21.

In all competitions, meanwhile, Depay scored 22 goals last term at an average of one goal every 141.5 minutes, making it his second-best season since arriving.

He massively exceeded his expected goals (xG) total of 12.38.

"He is a high-quality player," Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said of Depay after the win over Girona.

"He has shown it in certain moments of the game. It is important because you have to have competition in the positions at the top.

"Some players may have more minutes than others in pre-season. The internationals, not yet. Little by little we will give more. We will try to be prepared for the first league game."

Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

 

Physical dominance is the key

There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

 

And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

 

For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

 

If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

 

But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

Pressure now on Ole

Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

Jack Grealish was the player England fans wanted to see during Euro 2020.

Now a move to a bigger Premier League club might be on the cards.

Grealish is reportedly moving closer to leaving Aston Villa.

 

TOP STORY – CITY EYE GREALISH SWOOP

It seems increasingly unlikely Aston Villa will be able to hold onto Jack Grealish.

The England winger has agreed to personal terms with Manchester City, according to a Football Insider report.

Though he grew up a Villa fan and has spent his entire career with the club, save for a season on loan to Notts County, Grealish is in demand among the Premier League's big-money clubs.

City reportedly are preparing a £90million offer that would be difficult for Villa to refuse.

ROUND-UP

- With Paul Pogba and Manchester United at a stalemate in contract talks, the Telegraph says Paris Saint-Germain believe they can sign the midfielder with a £43million bid.

- Alexandre Lacazette is entering his final year under contract with Arsenal but the Gunners are ready to move on. According to the Sun, they are hoping to net £15m for Lacazette after paying £52m to sign him four years ago.

- Arsenal remain interested in a move for James Maddison, reports the Mirror, and they could explore a swap deal with Leicester City to get it done.

- PSG want to keep Moise Kean on a permanent deal after his year on loan from Everton, but Juventus also are interested, Le 10 Sport reports.

Karim Benzema has had to delay his return to training at Real Madrid after testing positive for COVID-19.

The 33-year-old striker was on holiday in France when he was found to have the virus, and it means he must isolate before heading back to Spain.

Benzema played for France in the Euro 2020 finals after being called up to Didier Deschamps' squad for the first time since 2015.

He scored four goals in four games, hitting doubles against Portugal and Switzerland, but could not help France advance any further than the second round, with the Swiss ousting Les Bleus in a penalty shoot-out after a 3-3 draw.

According to reports in Spain, Benzema is undergoing his quarantine period in Lyon.

A short statement from his club read: "Real Madrid CF confirm that our player Karim Benzema has tested positive for COVID-19."

Benzema has been Madrid's leading scorer in each LaLiga season since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus in 2018, scoring 21 goals in 2018-19 and 2019-20 before improving to 23 goals last term, adding nine assists.

Madrid, who appointed Carlo Ancelotti to succeed Zinedine Zidane in June, begin their LaLiga campaign on August 14 with a match against Deportivo Alaves.

Looking to dethrone reigning champions Atletico Madrid in 2021-22, Ancelotti's team will step up pre-season efforts with a friendly against Scottish champions Rangers in Glasgow on Sunday.

Harry Kane looks like he might soon get his wish to leave Tottenham.

Spurs had previously dug in their heels and were determined that Kane, who is contracted until 2024, would stay.

The England captain won last season's Premier League Golden Boot with 23 goals, and now he could be heading to the champions.

 

TOP STORY – CITY SET FOR BUMPER KANE DEAL

Tottenham forward Harry Kane is poised for a £160million move to Manchester City, reports The Sun.

According to the report, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy will allow Kane to exit the club for such a sum.

Kane is said by the newspaper to have agreed personal terms on a £400,000-a-week deal with City, which is reportedly double his current Tottenham contract.

 

ROUND-UP

- Paul Pogba has rejected a £50million contract offer at Manchester United and is set to leave this summer, according to The Mirror as rumours swirl about Paris Saint-Germain's interest.

- Marca reports that Kylian Mbappe will reject Paris Saint-Germain's latest contract offer and look to seal a move to Spanish giants Real Madrid.

- Fabrizio Romano has reported that talks are ongoing between Atalanta and Tottenham for Cristian Romero with personal terms agreed and a €55m price tag on the table.

- Atalanta want Tottenham defender Davinson Sanchez included in any deal, reports Sportitalia.

- Milan are interested in signing Chelsea midfielder Hakim Ziyech on loan, claims Calcio Mercato.

- Donyell Malen 's transfer from PSV Eindhoven to Borussia Dortmund is all but done according to Dutch outlet ED, with an anticipated €30m fee.

New Barcelona signing Memphis Depay is relishing the chance to link up with Lionel Messi, who he believes showed at the Copa America why he is still the world's best player.

Netherlands international Depay joined Barca as a free agent when his Lyon contract expired on July 1 and was officially unveiled at Camp Nou on Thursday.

While the 27-year-old is excited to begin a new chapter in his career at Barca, club legend Messi's future is less clear as he has yet to sign a new deal and is now a free agent.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is reportedly close to agreeing a long-term contract with the Spanish giants that will keep him tied down to the club until 2026.

Messi is currently on an extended break after inspiring Argentina to their first Copa America crown since 1993 earlier this month.

He scored four goals and provided five assists to win the Golden Boot and his maiden piece of silverware while representing his country at senior level.

Depay is hopeful Messi will soon put pen to paper so he can fulfil a dream of playing alongside the superstar forward.

"He is a legend and the best player in the world," Depay said at his unveiling. "Did you see what he did in the Copa America?

"I really want to play with Leo. His qualities with the ball are undeniable. As long as I make the runs, I know the ball will come. I am a great fan of his.

"Yesterday I had a tour of the museum and saw all of the Ballon d'Or awards he has won. He probably has another one coming, too. It's going to be a dream for me."

 

After a short break following the Netherlands' last-16 exit to the Czech Republic at Euro 2020 last month, Depay arrived in Catalonia on Monday to begin pre-season training.

The Dutchman got his career back on track at Lyon following a disappointing spell with Manchester United, scoring 76 goals in 178 appearances for the Ligue 1 side.

He enjoyed an impressive final season in the French top flight with 20 goals, trailing only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27).

The former PSV youth product's 12 assists and 94 chances created, meanwhile, were more than any other player managed in Ligue 1 in 2020-21.

After months of drawn-out speculation, Depay is pleased to have finally completed a switch to Barcelona this month.

"It's an honour to be here, a dream come true," he said. "Since I was little I dreamed of it. The conversations have been long, but the will has always been there.

"At last I am here. Everyone who is present knows the importance of the club around the world, of how great it is and the impact it has.

"At 27 years of age achieving my dream is surprising and fantastic. I really want to start playing. 

"The team is ready for the new season, we are rested and the time has come to go back to work and pick up trophies."

Koeman previously managed Depay while in charge of the Netherlands, but the former Man Utd attacker insists his compatriot was not a deciding factor in leaving Lyon for Barca.

"I would have come even if he was not here because you don't say no to Barca," he said. "I would have come anyway, but it is also true that the coach has had a great impact. 

"I know him well. He played me as a forward with the national team. He has made me feel comfortable because I started playing better."

Depay is one of three free agents to have joined the cash-strapped Catalans this window, along with former Manchester City pair Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia.

Asked if he is concerned by Barca's financial problems, which have not been helped by the coronavirus pandemic, Depay said: "No. I am focused only on the game. 

"I cannot focus on that. The business part is something the president [Joan Laporta] and the board will take care of. When fans are back in the stadium the situation will improve."

Barcelona president Joan Laporta insists the club are "making progress" in all aspects of the contract negotiations with Lionel Messi after the six-time Ballon d'Or winner's previous deal expired.

Despite Messi technically no longer belonging to Barca, those associated with the club have portrayed a serene demeanour regarding a potential future agreement.

Even with his contract winding down, Barca officials have routinely affirmed that Messi's desire is to remain at Camp Nou, though LaLiga's salary cap rules mean he is reportedly set to be on half his previous wage should he ultimately accept a new deal.

However, the caveat that is thought to favour Barca in discussions is they are said to be offering Messi a five-year contract that would keep him at the club until he is at least 39.

While that may surprise some, Messi's form in 2020-21 showed he is far from being finished, as he ended the campaign as LaLiga's top scorer and managed 38 goals and 12 assists across all competitions, which translated to a goal every 110.3 minutes.

Similarly, he laid on 117 chances for others across all competitions. The fact Jordi Alba was the second most creative player in the Barca squad with 85 key passes only further underlined Messi's remarkable influence, but Laporta is adamant talks are proceeding as planned.

"The player has always said that he wants to continue [at Barca], there is no doubt about that," Laporta said at the presentation of Memphis Depay on Thursday.

"We are making progress in all the negotiations involving a contract of this type. They are going very well and it is a wish that we all have [for Messi to sign].

 

"We do not hide the will that we want him to continue and to be here for many years."

One player who is still signed to Barca but arguably has a more uncertain future than Messi is Antoine Griezmann, who could reportedly be involved in a swap deal that sees Atletico Madrid's Saul Niguez arrive in Catalonia.

Laporta initially stressed Griezmann has a future at Barca, though he soon acknowledged he is not untransferable.

"He is a player in the Barca first team, he has a valid contract and we are counting on him," Laporta said.

"The transfer market has started and practically nothing has happened. All the clubs are in certain difficulties.

"Players like Griezmann have a market, there are interested clubs and we are building our squad looking for financial balance. We are delighted with him and we are all professionals.

"Yes, the market is moving. We are open to all proposals because we are in a delicate moment and we are talking with all the players of the first team to see how they feel so that balancing acts hurt as little as possible."

Atletico Madrid supporters will not forgive Antoine Griezmann for his move to Barcelona in 2019 even if he was to return to Los Colchoneros, according to the Spanish champions' president Enrique Cerezo.

Griezmann has been linked with a move back to Atletico during the current transfer window as part of a swap deal that would see Saul Niguez head the opposite way to Camp Nou.

France international Griezmann scored 94 LaLiga goals for Atleti across five seasons with the club before joining Barca two years ago when his release clause was triggered.

Cerezo recently refused to rule out a move for Griezmann, but the Atleti chief does not believe the 30-year-old returning would be widely accepted among Atleti fans.

Asked if there had been any development with regards to a move for Griezmann, Cerezo said: "You're not talking to the right person."

When further probed on the issue and asked if supporters would forgive Griezmann for joining Barcelona in the first place, Cerezo said: "I don't think so."

 

Griezmann endured a disappointing first campaign at Barca marred by injuries and inconsistency, though he did net 20 times across all competitions in 2020-21 to finish as their second-highest goalscorer behind Lionel Messi.

He also impressed for France at Euro 2020, creating a team-high 10 chances across the tournament as Les Bleus suffered a shock last-16 elimination by Switzerland on penalties.

In his best season for Atleti in 2017-18, Griezmann scored 19 times in LaLiga – 11 more than any other team-mate – and provided 13 assists, while only Koke (81) created more opportunities than his 65 that campaign.

Spain boss Luis de la Fuente was dismayed to lose Oscar Mingueza and Dani Ceballos to injuries in the team's Tokyo 2020 opener.

The head coach of the Olympic team fears Barcelona defender Mingueza and Real Madrid midfielder Ceballos will not make swift recoveries.

He was also critical of the officiating that allowed Egypt to enforce their physical game on the match that finished 0-0 in Sapporo.

Speaking about the injured duo, who were both forced off in the first half, De la Fuente said: "They are the greatest concern. They do not look good. Let's see if I'm wrong and they can recover.

"We are very concerned because they could be serious injuries."

Mingueza was on the receiving end of a sixth-minute heavy tackle that saw Ahmed Fotouh yellow-carded, and then came off in the 22nd minute.

Ceballos was replaced shortly before half-time after being fouled by Taher Mohamed, although it was seemingly unintentional when the Egyptian player stood on the Spain star's left ankle.

Asked about Egypt's approach, after they were shown four yellow cards, De la Fuente suggested they should have had more discouragement from such forceful tackling.

He said, quoted in Marca: "The other day we had a talk in which they explained to us how the VAR works and we hope that next time we will have better luck with the sanctions that take place in the field of play because today we have not had it.

"We had a meeting that explained the actions that could be punished with a red card. Today there were several of them and they were not punished as they told us."

Mingueza had a breakthrough season at Barcelona last term, playing 39 senior games after stepping up from the club's B team.

Ceballos has returned to Real Madrid ahead of the new LaLiga campaign after spending the past two campaigns on loan at Arsenal. He failed to score in 40 games for the Gunners last season and had just three assists.

Following the conclusion of the European Championship and the Copa America, focus has switched back to club football as the 2021-22 campaign draws ever nearer in Europe's top leagues.

Most clubs are busy strengthening their squads ahead of the new season, while for others there is a need to raise funds as the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to be felt.

With six weeks of the window to go for teams in England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy, the futures of many top talents remain uncertain – not least in the case of Lionel Messi, who became a free agent on July 1.

But while Messi is widely expected to sign a new long-term deal with Barcelona, other global stars will remain in the headlines until a transfer is secured or the window shuts.

Stats Perform looks at some of the biggest names who could be on the move between now and the end of August.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)

Linked with: Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United

While Messi's future now seems certain to be with Barcelona beyond next month, fellow superstar Ronaldo's status is less clear after entering the final year of his Juventus deal.

The Bianconeri are supposedly weighing up whether to cash in on the five-time Ballon d'Or winner or risk losing him for free next year when his deal expires.

While Juve endured a disappointing 2020-21 that saw them miss out on the Scudetto for the first time in nine years, Ronaldo had another impressive season in front of goal.

He scored 29 goals in 33 league appearances to finish top of the scoring charts, becoming the first player to win the Golden Boot in Serie A, LaLiga and the Premier League.

 

Harry Kane (Tottenham)

Linked with: Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid

Kane has spent 17 years with Tottenham but admitted in May he feels at a "crossroads" in his career following another trophyless campaign last time out.

The England international, who scored four times in his country's run to the Euro 2020 final, is yet to discuss his future with recently-appointed boss Nuno Espirito Santo.

He finished as the Premier League's top scorer last season, making him the third player to win the Golden Boot on three occasions after Thierry Henry (four times) and Alan Shearer.

Kane also set up 14 goals to become only the second player in the Premier League era to top the charts for both goals and assists, the other being Andy Cole for Newcastle United in 1993-94.

 

Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)

Linked with: Manchester City, Real Madrid, Chelsea

Alongside Kylian Mbappe, who Paris Saint-Germain will refuse to sell this window despite his delicate contract situation, Haaland is arguably football's hottest property.

The Norway international has been superb for Dortmund since arriving in January 2020, breaking a number of Bundesliga and Champions League goals records along the way.

That includes becoming both the quickest and youngest player to hit 20 goals in the Champions League, doing so in just 14 matches for Dortmund and former side Salzburg.

Last season alone, Haaland netted 27 times in 28 Bundesliga games. That included two or more goals on 11 occasions – only Gerd Muller (12 in 1971-72) has done so more times in a season.

 

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)

Linked with: Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid

Having won it all during his time with Bayern, including seven successive Bundesliga crowns, could the time be right for Lewandowski to seek a new challenge elsewhere?

Recently-appointed Bayern boss Julian Nagelsmann admitted last week teams are interested in signing the 32-year-old, but that should of course come as no surprise.

Lewandowski is coming off his finest campaign yet for the Bavarian giants, having scored 41 times in the Bundesliga in 2020-21 to break Bayern great Muller's record for goals in a single season that had stood for 49 years.

The Poland striker's 48 goals in all competitions last time out were the most scored by any player in Europe's top five leagues in 2020-21, meanwhile, followed by Mbappe (42) and Haaland (41).

 

Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)

Linked with: Manchester United

With the signing of Jadon Sancho as good as wrapped up, Man Utd are rumoured to be closing in on a second big-money signing of the window in long-serving Madrid defender Varane.

The Frenchman has spent a decade at the Santiago Bernabeu, but it looks as though both the player and club are ready to cut ties with less than a year to run on his contract.

United are seeking a partner for Harry Maguire and Varane ticks plenty of boxes for what the Red Devils are after, not least in terms of his passing accuracy (89.58) and headed clearances (60) in 31 LaLiga games last term.

That compares to a passing accuracy of 89.82 for Victor Lindelof, 88.26 for Eric Bailly and 87.29 for Maguire in the Premier League last term. Maguire led the way with 86 headed clearances, meanwhile, some way in front of Lindelof's 40 in 29 games.

Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

Linked with: Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Juventus

United have been linked with an array of top talent, though they could have a battle on their hands keeping hold of one of their own star men in Pogba.

Following a couple of years of speculation, the World Cup-winning midfielder is supposedly eager to head home to France with Paris Saint-Germain.

Pogba has undoubtedly struggled for consistency in his second spell with United, but showed exactly what he is capable of in his four appearances for France at Euro 2020.

He scored a stunning goal against Switzerland and set up another against Portugal, while his eight chances created was second only to Antoine Griezmann (10) among France players.

Eduardo Camavinga (Rennes)

Linked with: Real Madrid, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, Arsenal

A number of Europe's top clubs are on red alert after Rennes president Nicolas Holveck admitted this week that in-demand midfielder Camavinga may be sold this window if a new contract cannot be agreed.

Camavinga made his debut for boyhood club Rennes in April 2019 and has gone on to make 82 appearances in all competitions, with 67 of those outings coming in Ligue 1.

The 18-year-old leads the way in the French top flight for tackles attempted (226) and tackles won (138) since his debut, followed by Marseille's Valentin Rongier in both categories (194 and 125 respectively).

To further underline exactly why so many teams are keen on the youngster, he was one of only two current teenagers – along with Barcelona's Pedri (1,485) – to complete more than 1,000 passes in Europe's top five leagues last term with 1,418.

 

Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo)

Linked with: Juventus, Arsenal

Euro 2020 acted as a shop window for a number of players, and not many of them saw their stock rise in such a way as Italy midfielder Locatelli.

The 23-year-old featured five times for the Azzurri in their successful European Championship campaign, including an appearance from the bench during extra time in the victory over England in the final.

He scored twice in the 3-0 group-stage win over Switzerland and had the second best goals-per-90-minutes ratio of any Italy player (0.66) after Matteo Pessina, who scored twice in four games (0.95).

Locatelli also won more tackles per 90 minutes (2.32) at the Euros than any other Italy player, followed by Marco Verratti (2.02) and Federico Bernardeschi (1.42).

Arsenal have already made a €40million (£35m) bid, but Juventus are considered the favourites to land the Milan youth product.

Eden Hazard has struggled for impact at Real Madrid two years into his five-year deal.

The 30-year-old signed with Madrid for a reported €100 million (£86m) from Chelsea in 2019.

Hazard has battled against injuries and poor form in Spain, making 43 appearances and scoring five goals in two seasons.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA WEIGH UP SHOCK HAZARD RETURN

Eden Hazard could make a sensational return to Chelsea and end his underwhelming spell with Real Madrid, reports AS.

Chelsea are weighing up a shock move for the Belgium attacking midfielder, who spent seven years with the Blues.

The report did not disclose any financial details but cited Hazard's strong connection with Chelsea's squad and desire to re-discover his best football.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Sun claims Manchester United are plotting a cut-price move for Bayern Munich midfielder Leon Goretzka as a replacement for Paul Pogba, who has been linked with Paris Saint-Germain in recent days.

- Tottenham's swap deal for Bryan Gil from Sevilla in exchange for Erik Lamela will soon be finalized according to Sky Sports. Spurs will also pay £21.6 million (€25m) for the winger.

- Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowsk is "interested" in a contract offer from Chelsea after his agent spoke to the Blues, claims Bild. Lewandowski is seen as Chelsea's alternative option should they fail to land Erling Haaland.

- Switzerland international Xherdan Shaqiri could be among those sold by Liverpool in an off-season clear-out, according to the Liverpool Echo. Divock Origi and Nat Phillips were also mentioned in the report.

- talkSPORT reports that Arsenal are preparing a £30m bid to sign Sheffield United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale . The Times claims the Gunners have been told to raise their offer.

Ronald Koeman was left feeling positive for the future after Barcelona kicked off their pre-season campaign with a hard-fought 4-0 win over 10-man Gimnastic at the Estadi Johan Cruyff.

Albania striker Rey Manaj, who has never played a competitive game for Barca and is expected to move on this window, scored a second-half hat-trick in Wednesday's friendly in front of around 2,000 supporters.

Alex Collado netted the other goal for Barcelona, but the game was not as one-sided as the scoreline suggests as three of the four goals were scored in the final five minutes.

Koeman named a different line-up in each half, with the likes of Sergino Dest, Gerard Pique, Miralem Pjanic, Sergi Roberto, Riqui Puig and Samuel Umtiti starting the game.

New signing Yusuf Demir, brought in on an initial loan from Rapid Vienna and described as the 'Austrian Messi' for his playing style, also played his first 45 minutes for the Catalan giants.

The second half saw a far more inexperienced side fielded and contained just one player, goalscorer Collado, with a competitive appearance for Barca under his belt.

Manaj stole the show with his three goals, the pick of those an angled finish into the roof of the net as Gimnastic, who had Alex Quintanilla sent off in the first half, started to tire.

Without Lionel Messi as the superstar forward delays signing a new contract, as well as new signings Eric Garcia, Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay, Koeman was pleased with what he saw.

"The important thing is that everyone has played 45 minutes; it is something important for the physical side of things," he told Barca TV. 

"We dominated and we got a good result. The game leaves positive feelings.

"My players have returned well. They also trained hard this morning – it's all about getting fit. With two different teams, everyone has had a chance to show their quality.

"It goes without saying that there are certain names that stood out."

Following a season played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday's game marked the first time Koeman has managed Barca in front of a home crowd.

"It was strange having people here, but thank goodness they were here," the Dutchman said. 

"I love that there is an audience and also the players do too. They helped us. We really needed it."

Barca have tougher tests to come than third-tier Gimnastic, with Girona up next on Saturday before facing Stuttgart and Salzburg in Germany and Austria respectively.

"On Saturday we will have more players available," Koeman added. "We have a little time now to train all together. 

"In Germany we will have good games, against high-level rivals, where we can draw good conclusions."

David Alaba hopes to form a defensive alliance with Raphael Varane at Real Madrid, despite speculation linking the France international with Manchester United.

Alaba joined Madrid on a free transfer following a decorated spell with Bayern Munich, during which time he won an incredible 27 trophies.

The Austria international was presented to the media in the Spanish capital on Wednesday, where it was revealed he would inherit the number four shirt from Sergio Ramos, who has joined Paris Saint-Germain following a career-defining association with Los Blancos.

That in itself was a point of intrigue, but Alaba also addressed Varane – who he hopes does not follow the veteran Spain centre-back out of the Santiago Bernabeu exit door.

"I would have loved to play with Ramos, of course," he told reporters. "He is a leader, it would have been a pleasure.

"Varane, of course I would like to play with him. He is a player who has played excellent football.

"He is a great defender and has very good qualities. "

 

Alaba explained he has spoken to Ramos about taking on his famous shirt number.

"Ramos was here for a decade and has played football very well wearing this number and has become a leader," he said. "It is something that is present in everyone's head.

"He spoke to me. I was told that it is the last available number and I did not want to ask other players for their number. I feel honoured and it is a great motivation for me."

Even though a tough close-season market and the relatively parlous state of Madrid's finances look like obvious stumbling blocks, Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe continues to be linked with the club.

Alaba was on the winning side when Bayern beat PSG in the 2020 Champions League final, but Mbappe excelled when the Ligue 1 giants deposed the European champions in last season's quarter-finals.

The France forward's 42 goals in all competitions last season put him second only to Robert Lewandowski (48) across Europe's big five leagues.

"He is a world-class player and he has enormous quality, that is something indisputable," Alaba added.

"I think it is something that does not affect me. That question should be addressed to other people."

Antoine Griezmann has repeatedly been linked with a return to Atletico Madrid during this transfer window and Diego Simeone has heaped praise on a player he still believes can be a success at Barcelona.

Griezmann endured a mixed season for Ronald Koeman's men last campaign, scoring 13 times in 36 appearances as Barca's LaLiga title challenge faded down the home straight.

In contrast, Atleti – in true Simeone fashion – battled to secure their first Spanish top-flight success on the last day of the 2020-21 season and ended a seven-year spell without a LaLiga triumph.

Ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, reports in Spain have suggested that Simeone was keen to link-up with the France forward once more, but the Atleti head coach seemed keen not to inflame that speculation too much during an interview with Marca.

“I want the best for him and I hope he will succeed at Barcelona”, ​he said.

“He is at an extraordinary club and Antoine is a complete player. At Euro 2020, he again proved he can bring a lot [to a team] regardless of his positioning. But today, he is not with us. I only wish the best for a player who gave me everything.”

Indeed, Griezmann was in fine form at Euro 2020, despite France's last-16 shoot-out exit at the hands of Switzerland. He created more chances (10) than any of his team-mates as Didier Deschamp's team crashed out of the tournament earlier than expected.

Simeone's praise of his former player, of course, comes as no surprise. In arguably his best season for Atleti in 2017-18, Griezmann found the net 19 times in LaLiga – 11 more than any other team-mate – and provided 13 assists, while only Koke (81) created more opportunities than his 65.

 

And, while Griezmann's future remains unclear, he could partner Luis Suarez, whose 21 goals fired Atleti to LaLiga success last year, up top.

Simeone praised Suarez's workmanlike productivity up front and his unwavering desire to win.

"At the moment the option [to sign Suarez from Barcelona] appeared, I knew that the team lacked that forcefulness. There are not many. There are few specialists and Luis is one of them.", Simeone added.

"We understood that if we continued to be solid behind him, he would be closer to responding in the most difficult moments, when he had to appear. What I said about the 'Suarez area'. I'm not a fortune teller, but I'm a soccer man and I knew it was his time."

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