Paris Saint-Germain have announced head coach Mauricio Pochettino has signed a new deal that will keep him in the French capital until 2023.

Pochettino arrived at the Ligue 1 club at the start of January, taking over following the departure of Thomas Tuchel, who is now in charge at Chelsea.

The former PSG defender was unable to secure the top-flight title for a fourth straight season, however, as the reigning champions were dethroned by Lille. They did win the Coupe de France, as well as reaching the last four of the Champions League.

Previously linked with a stunning return to Tottenham, who sacked the Argentinian back in November 2019, Pochettino has now agreed to extend his stay in Paris, along with his coaching staff.

"I'm really very happy, for myself and also for my staff," Pochettino told the PSG website.

"It's very important for us to feel the confidence of the club and we will give our maximum so that the supporters are proud of Paris Saint-Germain. That's why we will try and reach our objectives all together, as one.

"Twenty years ago I was captain of this club and today I am the coach… It's a dream come true."

PSG have been busy during the close-season as they prepare for the new campaign, with Pochettino seeing his first-team squad boosted by a host of big-name arrivals.

Sergio Ramos, Georginio Wijnaldum and Gianluigi Donnarumma have all arrived on free transfers, while Achraf Hakimi was signed from Inter for a reported initial fee of €68million.

"We are delighted that Mauricio has reaffirmed his commitment to the Paris Saint-Germain family," said Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman and CEO of PSG.

"Having also captained the team 20 years ago, he understands the club values, ambition and vision for the future. With Mauricio's leadership, we're excited and confident about what the future holds."

PSG kick off the season on August 1 when they take on Lille in the Trophee des Champions. Their Ligue 1 campaign begins six days later with a trip to Troyes.

Ange Postecoglou's first competitive match in charge of Celtic ended in a 1-1 Champions League qualifying draw at home to Midtjylland, leaving the Bhoys with plenty of work to do in the second leg.

Celtic were unable to win a 10th successive Scottish Premiership title last season as Rangers ended their long drought, meaning Celtic have had to start in the second round of Champions League qualifying.

And Midtjylland – runners up in Denmark last term – proved stubborn opposition, looking particularly bright in the early stages.

Though Celtic opened the scoring in the 39th minute, Israeli youngster Liel Abada – a new signing from Maccabi Petah Tikva – turning in from the middle of the box after Jonas Lossl could only parry an initial effort from Ryan Christie, who had hit the post not long prior.

Nir Bitton then put Celtic's position in doubt, reacting angrily to an apparent dive by Anders Dreyer and earning a second booking for poking the winger in the face.

But Dreyer – who was also yellow-carded in that prior incident – did not last much longer either, with referee Sandro Scharer making the arguably harsh decision to dismiss him in the 56th minute for what he perceived to be another display of simulation.

Celtic might have fancied their chances to finish the job after that, and they did swiftly hit the crossbar through Callum McGregor.

But unconvincing goalkeeping from Vasilios Barkas 10 minutes later allowed Evander to send a free-kick into the top-right corner, and that sealed a draw.

The two teams meet again in Denmark next Wednesday, though Celtic's saving grace is away goals no longer count double as a tie-breaker.

The possibility of moving to Milan brought childhood memories rushing back to Olivier Giroud. 

The Frenchman made official his departure from Chelsea for a reported two-year deal with the Serie A giants on Saturday. 

Now the veteran striker has designs on winning trophies with the Rossoneri himself. 

“I still feel like a little kid, 35 -- or almost 35 -- years old,” Giroud told Milan TV. “When I was young, I looked up to Jean-Pierre Papin, Andriy Shevchenko and obviously Paolo [Maldini].

“This team made me dream. I was also a big fan of Marco van Basten. So many great players have played in this massive club in Europe.

“Milan have a massive history in Europe and that’s why I wanted to join the club.

"Also to play in the best competition in Europe, in the Champions League, and I hope we can achieve great things with the team."

Milan will return to the Champions League this season for the first time since 2013-14. 

Only Real Madrid (13) have won more European titles than Milan's seven, but the Rossoneri have not triumphed in the competition since 2007. 

After winning the Champions League and the Europa League with Chelsea over a three-year span, Giroud wants to have the same type of experience in Milan. 

“I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to win trophies, playing for big clubs,” Giroud said.

“I think Milan is a club that deserves to play at the highest level." 

Beyond helping the team return to glory, Giroud is especially excited to play alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

“I think he’s an example for the youngsters, he’s one of the best strikers in Serie A and I’m looking forward to playing alongside him," Giroud said. "I think we will have fun!”

“I just want to win something with Milan, and with Zlatan it’s even better, you know.”

Olivier Giroud has joined Milan in a reported €2million (£1.7m) deal from Chelsea.

Giroud has signed a contract with the Rossoneri – said to be for two years – after they met the modest release clause in his contract.

Chelsea triggered a one-year extension for Giroud last season, which meant a free transfer was not possible, but there were otherwise few obstacles to block the move.

While Giroud was rarely a first-choice option at Chelsea following his arrival from Arsenal in January 2018. He found starts particularly hard to come by following the appointment of Thomas Tuchel.

After the German replaced Frank Lampard in late January, Giroud made only three Premier League starts, none of which came after February 28.

Previously, under Lampard, Giroud had taken on a fairly important role after the three-month coronavirus-enforced pause, scoring six goals in seven starts.

The signings of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz restricted Giroud from building on that form at the start of 2020-21 – he did not score a Premier League goal until December, though he did net five times in the Champions League group stage.

That included a remarkable four-goal haul in Chelsea's 4-0 win away to Sevilla, which made him the oldest player (34 years, 63 days) to score a hat-trick in the Champions League/European Cup since Ferenc Puskas (38y, 173d) for Real Madrid in 1965.

Although Giroud did not feature for Chelsea in their Champions League semi-final nor final matches, he did get a medal in the competition and heads to Milan as a European champion.

Giroud will hope he enjoys a resurgence similar to his new team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Milan, with the Swede scoring 15 goals in just 19 appearances last term before sustaining an injury.

The French World Cup winner is the second player to swap Stamford Bridge for San Siro this year, following Fikayo Tomori to Serie A after his loan move was made permanent.

On top of Giroud, Milan are close to two other incomings, with Brahim Diaz – who spent last season at San Siro on loan from Real Madrid – set to rejoin on a two-year deal from Los Blancos, with an option to buy.

Monaco left-back Fode Ballo-Toure, meanwhile, is also set to sign.

Mauricio Pochettino is laying the groundwork to ensure there is no repeat of a disappointing 2020-21 season at Paris Saint-Germain.

Having been appointed in January, the former Southampton and Tottenham head coach oversaw a frustrating time in Paris as his team were eliminated at the Champions League semi-final stage by Manchester City and finished runners-up in Ligue 1 to Lille.

That second-place finish ended a run of three successive league titles for PSG and Pochettino is aware that corrections are needed if they are to go one better in the 2021-22 campaign.

A strong transfer window, however, has further boosted the French giants, as they have added Sergio Ramos and Achraf Hakimi to their ranks, alongside Euro 2020 shoot-out hero Gianluigi Donnarumma.

But Pochettino is insistent that the pre-season period is vital to PSG if they want to retake the Ligue 1 title and stake a claim in the Champions League.

"Other players will join us later, maybe they won't feature in the first competitive matches of the season, so that they too can prepare in the best way possible", Pochettino told the club's media.

"It's important so that, during the season, they feel fresh and strong and that what happened last season never happens again."

PSG's Ligue 1 downfall was due to their woeful record against fellow top-four contenders Lille, Monaco and Lyon.

Pochettino's men, previously coached by current Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel, collected just four points from six matches against their competitors and that proved the difference in the title race.

Aware of those failings, the Argentine coach is keen to involve the youngsters, who could provide fresh legs as PSG compete both domestically and in Europe.

"There are a lot of young players who will have the opportunity to show themselves in these first games and prove to us they can fight for a place in the team during the season," Pochettino said.

"I think the most important thing is to establish the guidelines and lay the foundations for the future.

"I think that's what we are doing at the beginning of the pre-season, and it will surely contribute to all those things that we need to do to prepare well and have the ingredients we need in the decisive moments.

"So that we can be much closer to achieving our goals and to winning the things we want to win."

Istanbul will finally get to stage the Champions League final in 2023, UEFA has announced.

The Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Turkey was originally due to put on Europe's biggest club match in 2020, only for the coronavirus pandemic to mean the closing stages of the tournament were shifted to Lisbon.

The quarter-finals, semi-finals and final were all played in Portugal's capital, with Istanbul awarded the 2021 final instead.

However, that too was taken away when UEFA moved the match between Chelsea and Manchester City to Porto, this time because Turkey was on the United Kingdom's travel red list amid the continuing COVID-19 health crisis.

Supporters of the two English clubs would have been unable to make the trip to Istanbul, but restrictions on travel to Portugal were less stringent.

Now UEFA's executive committee has awarded the 2023 final to Istanbul, in the hope it will get to stage the game in two years' time. Munich was due to host the game but will instead stage the 2025 final.

UEFA said in a statement: "Following the relocation of the 2021 UEFA Champions League final from Istanbul to Porto, it was decided to award the staging of the 2023 UEFA Champions League final to the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul.

"Furthermore, the European club season kick-off event, which includes the draws for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and UEFA Europa Conference League will take place in Istanbul at the end of August both for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons."

UEFA said that Wembley's position as host venue for the 2024 final was unaffected.

It also said it had reached "a settlement agreement" with Dublin and Bilbao after both cities were unable to stage Euro 2020 matches, as had been the original plan.

They could not meet UEFA's requirements on spectator numbers, owing to the COVID-19 situation, but the governing body said it recognised "the efforts and financial investment put by the two cities in preparing for the tournament".

It said Dublin would now host the 2024 Europa League final and Bilbao would stage both the 2025 Europa League final and the 2024 Women's Champions League final.

Milan target Dusan Tadic will not be moving to San Siro, with the forward having agreed a new three-year deal with Ajax.

Ajax captain Tadic was reportedly close to a switch to the Serie A giants, who are back in the Champions League for the 2021-22 season after a second-place finish last term.

However, the 32-year-old has opted to stay in Amsterdam, penning a new deal keeping him at Ajax until June 2024.

It is a one-year extension on his previous contract, which was set to expire at the end of the 2022-23 campaign.

Tadic joined Ajax from Premier League side Southampton in 2018 and went on to play a key role in the Dutch team reaching the Champions League semi-finals that season.

He scored 28 goals in the Eredivisie and added a further six in the Champions League proper, following three goals in Ajax's qualifiers.

Only Lionel Messi (12) and Robert Lewandowski (eight) scored more times than Tadic in UEFA's flagship competition in 2018-19, with his tally of four assists second to Kylian Mbappe and Jordi Alba (five). No player created more chances than the Serbian (37), who was eight ahead of his nearest rival in that regard (Toni Kroos, 29).

Tadic outscored his expected goals (xG) figure of 4.79, suggesting his finishing from certain situations was more proficient than would be expected. His standout performance came in a 4-1 last-16 win at Real Madrid, with the former Twente forward scoring a stunning effort and assisting two other goals.

In total, Tadic has played 149 competitive games for Ajax, scoring 76 times, and he was named Dutch footballer of the year in 2020-21 as he helped Ajax retain the title, with the previous season having been voided due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ajax's director of football Marc Overmars told the club's official website: "It is no secret that Dusan plays a very important role for the team.

"Both on and off the pitch, he is a real leader. So, it's fantastic that we can keep him at Ajax even longer."

For fans across the globe it may seem quite peculiar to see Sergio Ramos in new colours for the 2020-21 season.

After announcing the end of a hugely successful 16-year association with Real Madrid, the Blancos legend has a new home at Paris Saint-Germain.

The 35-year-old has penned a two-year deal at the Parc des Princes – having been unsuccessful at getting the same length of contract at Madrid – and brings with him a history of success.

Stats Perform has looked at some of the impressive statistics during his time at the Santiago Bernabeu.

LONGEVITY THE KEY

It is not just the quality Ramos brought to Madrid's backline but the sheer longevity he has been at the top of his game.

Over 16 trophy-laden seasons, Ramos has played in 469 LaLiga games for Madrid – only three players have racked up more for Los Blancos.

Moreover, the 22 trophies he has lifted with the club is bettered by only Paco Gento, who collected 23.

It will not surprise anyone to learn Lionel Messi (383) is the only player to have won more games than Ramos in LaLiga, whose 334 is coincidentally the same amount achieved by fellow Madrid great Iker Casillas.

And the 45 Clasico games Ramos has played in is a joint-high with Barca talisman Messi.

Of course, Ramos is known for the occasional gamesmanship and ill-discipline. The 20 LaLiga red cards he has received is also a competition high.

It is not just domestically where Ramos has made his presence felt, he is of course a four-time Champions League winner.

Impressively, all of his 129 Champions League games were starts – the most of any player in Europe's premier competition without a single substitute appearance.

GOALS, GOALS, GOALS

PSG have of course signed a player with exceptional defensive prowess and leadership skills.

But the Ligue 1 giants may also find Ramos contributing to their cause at the other end of the pitch too, as he so often did for Madrid.

Ramos first hit double figures for goals in the 2016-17 campaign, scoring 10 times. He improved on that in 2018-19, registering 11, before netting 13 times in his penultimate season with Madrid, albeit seven of those came from the penalty spot.

Indeed, he is the only defender to score 100 goals while playing in one of Europe's top five European leagues since the turn of the century.

In total, he scored 101 goals for Madrid. 72 of those were in LaLiga, 15 in the Champions League, seven in the Copa del Rey, three in the Club World Cup and two apiece in the Supercopa de Espana and UEFA Super Cup.

Of his Madrid goals in all competitions, 22 came from the penalty spot (21.7 per cent), while 55 (54.4 per cent) were unsurprisingly headed goals.

In the 21st century, only three players have scored more headed LaLiga goals than Ramos – Fernando Llorente (42), Aritz Aduriz (49), and long-time team-mate and Madrid's all-time record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo (52).

SOME REIGN FOR SPAIN

Ramos' successes have not been confined purely to Madrid. The legendary centre-back has also enjoyed a mightily impressive international career.

He was a member of the Spain squads that won three straight major tournaments – European Championship triumphs in 2008 and 2012 sandwiching World Cup glory in 2010.

A spate of injuries this term meant Ramos was a shock omission from Luis Enrique's selection for Euro 2020.

But even accounting for that, no one can better the whopping 180 appearances Ramos has made for Spain, while his 23 goals is seventh on their all-time leading goalscorers list.

Only Fernando Hierro with 29 has scored more for Spain among defenders.

UEFA has announced the away goals rule will no longer be used in any of the organisation's club competitions for the 2021-22 season.

The regulation was first introduced in 1965 to decide the outcome of a two-legged knockout tie in cases where the teams were level on aggregate.

However, statistical data has shown a reduction in the gap between home and away wins, according to data released by the governing body on Wednesday, as well as the average number of goals scored at home and on the road.

Following the recommendation of both its club competitions committee and women's football committee, UEFA has abolished the ruling for the upcoming campaign, with the change made ahead of the start of the qualifying phases.

"The away goals rule has been an intrinsic part of UEFA competitions since it was introduced in 1965," UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said in a statement.

"However, the question of its abolition has been debated at various UEFA meetings over the last few years. Although there was no unanimity of views, many coaches, fans and other football stakeholders have questioned its fairness and have expressed a preference for the rule to be abolished.

"The impact of the rule now runs counter to its original purpose as, in fact, it now dissuades home teams – especially in first legs – from attacking, because they fear conceding a goal that would give their opponents a crucial advantage.

"There is also criticism of the unfairness, especially in extra time, of obliging the home team to score twice when the away team has scored."

Analysing data stretching back to the mid-1970s, UEFA revealed how the success rate for teams at home in men's competitions had dropped from 61 to 47 per cent, while away wins had risen from just 19 per cent up to 30 per cent.

"It is fair to say that home advantage is nowadays no longer as significant as it once was," Ceferin said.

"Taking into consideration the consistency across Europe in terms of styles of play, and many different factors which have led to a decline in home advantage, the UEFA executive committee has taken the correct decision in adopting the view that it is no longer appropriate for an away goal to carry more weight than one scored at home."

The decision means away goals will no longer be a factor to consider in the Champions League, Europa League and the new Europa Conference League, as well as the Women's Champions League.

LaLiga president Javier Tebas has stated the breakaway European Super League is "dead", deeming the controversial concept "impossible" after nine of the 12 clubs involved pulled out.

The announcement of the planned competition led to a huge backlash, including from governing bodies, rival clubs, fans, players and media, leading to the majority of the teams that had signed up making a quick U-turn.

UEFA issued fines to Atletico Madrid, Inter, Milan, and the six Premier League clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham - but a court ruling meant disciplinary proceedings against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus, the three founding members yet to cut ties with the Super League, had to be halted.

A preliminary injunction was granted by a judge in Spain, with the case heading to the European Court of Justice.

Barca president Joan Laporta recently said his own club will not apologise for "wanting to be the owners of our own destiny", while he also insisted the project remains very much alive.

However, speaking on a media call on Wednesday, Tebas made clear Barca are incorrect to make such an assessment, considering the mass exodus.

"I've spoken with Barca executives in recent days. They believe they should keep doing what they're doing and I think they're wrong," Tebas said. 

"The concept of the Super League is impossible. Nine of the twelve clubs have asked to dissolve the company they founded."

He added: "The model they're defending, without the English clubs... I think it's dead.

"Laporta says the courts have said they're in the right, but that's not true, it's one judge in Madrid and an injunction.

"I've tried to convince them that they're wrong and should work along other lines."

Tebas was also asked about Lionel Messi's future, making clear Barca will not be allowed any leeway in terms of LaLiga's salary cap to make sure the superstar remains at Camp Nou.

Barcelona have already been busy in the transfer market as they reshape their squad, adding forward duo Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay on free transfers, as well as centre-back Eric Garcia.

"LaLiga has its rules and Barca know that. They know that they have to lower their salary costs by a lot," said Tebas, who hopes to have stadiums 60 per cent full when the 2021-22 season begins, despite the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Messi is the same as Sergio Aguero or anyone else that they are adding. We will not make any exception for Messi to stay here."

Joan Laporta insists Barcelona will not apologise for "wanting to be the owners of our own destiny" in am impassioned defence of the doomed European Super League.

The contentious project failed to get off the ground after nine of the 12 founding members pulled out amid a furious backlash to competition.

Last month, UEFA issued fines to Atletico Madrid, Inter, Milan, and the six Premier League teams involved but a court ruling meant disciplinary proceedings against Barca, Real Madrid and Juventus – the three teams yet to cut ties with the Super League – had to be halted.

Barca president Laporta remains adamant the Super League will still go ahead in some guise in the future as he issued a note of defiance when addressing the club's general assembly, where he explained a vote on participation in the competition was no longer necessary as the format no longer existed.

"We spoke with the clubs [involved] and said we liked [the proposals], but that we needed them to accept that our members would have to approve entry at the next assembly," Laporta said.

"It was logical to have that vote before June 30. But now, as the format doesn't exist, I won't ask you to vote. But the project is alive, I insist.

"We're still trying to enter into dialogue with UEFA. We won't apologise for trying to organise a competition. We won't say sorry to UEFA for wanting to be the owners of our own destiny. At least not while I am president."

Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham had all signed up as participants from the Premier League.

Laporta suggested the English teams may now be rueing their decision to withdraw.

"The English clubs were the competition's driving force and they got scared under pressure from UEFA," he added.

"I think they regret leaving the Super League now, seeing how UEFA have backtracked on their threats."

Laporta claimed the Super League would have been worth "€700m in addition to variables" for Barca, a sum that would have helped boost the coffers of a club reportedly over €1.2billion in debt.

On Sunday, a vote agreed to accept a loan from Goldman Sachs worth up to €525million, money that Laporta insists will not be used on transfers.

"We're talking about the viability of the club," Laporta said prior to members voting. 

"No one should think that this money will be for signings or other projects. We have to stop the bleeding."

Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland wants to stay out of his "comfort zone" as he plots his career path.

Haaland has quickly established himself among European football's elite, moving from Molde to Salzburg to Dortmund.

His form for BVB has prompted links to a host of the world's leading clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester United.

Haaland, who has scored 57 goals in 59 games in all competitions since moving to Germany, is widely expected to stay at Dortmund for another season, but he is always looking for his next challenge.

"I have been taking a couple of steps over the past few years and I think they have been good steps for me, personally, to get out of my comfort zone and to develop even more," he told the Telegraph.

"I want to challenge myself in everything that I do. It's something I think about.

"It's also for everyone to always do this. People can sometimes be too comfortable staying in their 'zone' so I think it’s important to get out of that."

Haaland was asked if he was yet approaching his peak and replied: "I am still only 20 years old. So, I think that says it all."

He added: "My career has already been going very fast but also at a speed that I like.

"It's true that I am young, but I am setting myself goals all the time and I will do everything I can to achieve them."

 

His primary goal is Champions League glory, having already made a significant impact in Europe's premier club competition.

Haaland has 20 goals in 16 matches for Salzburg and Dortmund, netting one every 63 minutes – the best rate in Champions League history among players to score five or more.

Since the Norway international's debut in the competition, only Robert Lewandowski (also 20) can match his goals tally.

In the same period, Olivier Giroud (42.9) is the sole player with five or more goals to outperform an astonishing 42.6 per cent shot conversion rate.

"For as long as I can remember, even when I was a really young kid, I was watching the Champions League," Haaland said. "There were great teams with huge legends scoring goals.

"So, that became my dream. My dream was to play in the Champions League, to score in the Champions League. You know that is where the best players play and that's where the best players belong."

He added: "I am motivated for every game, of course I am, but I have been thinking about the Champions League my whole life, wanting to play there.

"So, maybe it gives me one per cent extra motivation when I go out on the pitch with the anthem.

"That is my big dream, to win the Champions League one day. Hopefully I can lift that trophy and that really would be amazing."

Sergio Ramos is leaving Real Madrid, the Spanish giants confirming on Wednesday that the 35-year-old defender will hold a farewell event on Thursday.

Ramos joined Madrid from Sevilla in 2005 and went on to cement his name as a legend at Santiago Bernabeu.

During his 16-year stint with Los Blancos, Ramos has won LaLiga five times and helped Madrid to four Champions League titles.

Diminishing returns last season, mainly due to injury, mean he does not quite go out on a high, but he will nevertheless be considered as one of the club greats.

BRILLIANT IN BOTH BOXES

It is not often that a defender is known for his goalscoring exploits, but Ramos certainly bucks the trend.

Indeed, he is the only defender to score 100 goals while playing in one of Europe's top five European leagues since the turn of the century.

His total of 101 goals is split between Sevilla and Madrid, though he only scored three times for the Andalusian club before his move to the Spanish capital.

In fact, his tally of 98 Madrid goals mean that, since the turn of the century, the only players to outscore Ramos – who also takes a mean penalty – for the club in all competitions are Cristiano Ronaldo (450), Karim Benzema (279), Raul (225), Gonzalo Higuain (119) and Gareth Bale (105).

Ramos first hit double figures for goals in the 2016-17 campaign, scoring 10 times. He improved on that in 2018-19, registering 11, before netting 13 times in his penultimate season with Madrid, albeit seven of those came from the penalty spot.

Defending, of course, still comes first. Ramos played in 206 games in which Madrid kept a clean sheet. It is a figure beaten for the club only by Iker Casillas (243) since the 1998-99 campaign.

A FULL-BLOODED WINNER

There are no half-measures when it comes to Ramos, who tallied up 214 yellow cards in 659 Madrid appearances, seeing red on 25 occasions. Remarkably, four of those dismissals came in his first season at Madrid.

Since making his Sevilla debut, Ramos has 452 wins under his belt, with 430 coming during his time with Los Blancos.

His trophy count speaks for itself, and his mastery of the dark arts – as Liverpool fans will cite from the 2018 Champions League final – is second to none.

A consistently reliable figure in Madrid's team, he played over 40 times in all but two of the last 16 seasons. His lowest total of appearances came last term, when he managed just 21 games, all of which were starts.

He leaves Madrid as the player with the fourth-most LaLiga appearances for the club, with 469, while only Paco Gento (23) has won more than Ramos' haul of 22 trophies.

SPAIN SNUB

Luis Enrique explained Ramos "has not been able to compete since January in the right condition, or even train with group", meaning he could not be included in Spain's squad for Euro 2020, despite the former Barcelona boss picking only 24 players, and that was before a coronavirus outbreak affected their preparation. 

Knee, calf and hamstring complaints limited the World Cup winner's involvement in 2021, but he had also already missed more matches than Madrid would have liked in the first half of the campaign.

Those 21 games and 1,790 minutes are by far the fewest Ramos has played across a season since joining Madrid in 2005, undercutting the previous low marks of 33 and 2,843 in 2015-16.

Had Ramos been able to get on the pitch more often, his performances would surely have seen him included by Luis Enrique, as he was second behind only Diego Llorente (of defenders called up) in terms of interceptions and recoveries in 2020-21.

However, he could not prove his fitness, and his last appearance in a Madrid shirt will ultimately be the disappointing Champions League semi-final defeat to Chelsea last month.

Now, the onus will be on Carlo Ancelotti to restructure Madrid's defence without the presence of a club stalwart.

N'Golo Kante believes Ballon d'Or speculation is way ahead of schedule as he attempts to add Euro 2020 glory to his Champions League success.

After an outstanding performance against Manchester City helped Chelsea become European club champions, Kante wants to make it a double by guiding France to success over the coming month.

The dynamic midfielder was tipped for the highest individual honour in football after Chelsea's 1-0 win over City in Porto, and Les Bleus team-mate Paul Pogba has thrown his support behind the growing clamour.

But Kante said he doesn't "pay attention" to praise of his displays, saying on Sunday: "What I hear can be touching, but I try to do what I have always done: be natural and give my best on the pitch. If it can give people pleasure, so much the better."

Asked about the prospect of winning the Ballon d'Or, Kante said: "It's a bit too soon to speak about that now. We're just getting to halfway through the year, there are six months to go, lots of competitions to play and it doesn't help to say that I deserve it now.

"Some years ago, I was in the top 10, that was the first time and it made me happy. To win it, that would be another story."

It was December 2017 when Kante cracked the top 10, finishing eighth in the vote.

"It's a great personal reward," Kante said of the prize. "I see it like the reward for an accomplished season by a player, but it's not an objective I work towards. Those who have won it are the players who have achieved the great things during their career."

Kante's France and Chelsea team-mate Olivier Giroud has little doubt the 30-year-old would be a worthy winner, describing him as "clearly a contender".

Speaking in a France news conference on Sunday, Giroud said: "We'll start talking to him about the Ballon d'Or if we win the Euros.

"He is stressed and tense when we talk to him about it! But it flatters him of course, even if he doesn't like compliments too much and prefers to keep a low profile. He deserves what happens to him."

Should Kante go on to land the award, which is handed out annually by France Football magazine, he would be the first Frenchman to do so since Zinedine Zidane.

Zidane took the honour in 1998, having inspired hosts France to win the World Cup for the first time.

Paul Pogba believes his France team-mate N'Golo Kante would be a worthy winner of the Ballon d'Or after playing a key role in Chelsea's Champions League success.

It was not too long ago that speculation suggesting Chelsea were tempted to cash in on Kante was rife, with the midfielder struggling with a few injuries in 2019-20.

But he enjoyed a strong 2020-21, evidenced particularly by his performances towards the end of the season in the Champions League.

The 30-year-old stamped his presence all over the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid and was named man of the match for both legs in a 3-1 aggregate triumph.

During the second encounter in London, Kante made five interceptions – only bettered by six from Jorginho – but also made more passes in the opposition half (25) and created more chances (three) than any other Chelsea player.

Heading into the final, he was one of just six midfielders in the 2020-21 competition with a passing accuracy above 85 per cent (86.4), an accuracy into the final third of above 80 per cent (82.1), more than 40 ball recoveries (63), over 500 touches (511) and at least 25 possession wins in the middle third of the pitch (42).

Then, in the final itself, Kante won 11 of 15 duels, recovered the ball 10 times for his team, and, as the shortest man on the pitch, won four out of seven aerial duels – nobody on his team won more. Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0, with Kante a vital component as Pep Guardiola's men lost the midfield battle.

While some in the past might have limited Kante's strengths to the more defensive aspects of the game, his form in the Champions League highlighted that to be unfair, with the World Cup winner actually a far greater all-round player than many give him credit for.

Indeed, international colleague Pogba thinks he is deserving of the most illustrious individual prize of all.

"What I would like to say to the whole world is that the 'NG' we have seen in recent months has always been the same," Pogba told Eurosport. "We talk a lot about his performances but he has always been as good as ever.

"There was no Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Lionel] Messi in the semi-final, so it's good to see the performances of the midfielders or even the defenders.

"I said a long time ago that it would be appropriate, if Chelsea won, for him to win the Ballon d'Or. It would be deserved, too.

"He's always performed well. I'm not surprised by what he's doing, I'm just surprised that he's still doing it. He has always played matches like that."

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