Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane is happy to leave Kylian Mbappe to make his own decision on his future amid talk of a possible move to Spain.

The Paris Saint-Germain star scored twice in a 3-2 win away to Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final this week.

Following that performance, reports in Spain suggested Mbappe has now informed PSG he will not be signing a new contract and is determined to become a Madrid player before next season.

The France international, who is said to be keen to work under compatriot Zidane, has scored 32 goals and provided nine assists this season and is behind only Harry Kane (45) and Robert Lewandowski (50) for direct goal involvements for players in Europe's top-five leagues this season.

Aside from Karim Benzema, who has 24 goals and six assists this term, few Madrid players have offered persistent goal threats, with none of Benzema's team-mates having scored more than six times in 2020-21.

Interest in Mbappe therefore comes as little surprise, but Zidane, speaking ahead of Saturday's LaLiga showdown with Barcelona, was not prepared to discuss a possible deal in detail.

"I know him and we know him well. That's it. He's not my player and I can't speak about anything," Zidane said.

"Kylian is a great player and we'll see what he wants to do in the future, but it's not my concern."

With Eden Hazard still out injured and the Mbappe rumours continuing, much of the focus on Saturday will be on Madrid forward Vinicius Junior.

The Brazilian produced arguably his best performance for the club on Tuesday, scoring twice in the 3-1 Champions League quarter-final first-leg win over Liverpool.

Zidane is confident in the 20-year-old as he aims for a victory that will lift Madrid above Barca and onto the coattails of league leaders Atletico Madrid.

"He's really well, working, he's very young and we have to keep calm with him. It's making me happy because there's a lot of noise but he is focused on what he has to do," Zidane said.

"We have Eden who, at the moment, is not available but we have Vini and we're happy with him.

"We've had a lot of complications this year with injuries and the truth is we've not liked it, but it's a very big squad where the players are always committed and want to play and that's the most important thing.

"Atletico have the advantage because they're first. You say who is going to win and it's a very competitive league, a very good league and all the teams can win, so until the end, we don't know who will do it. I don't know how many points are left, but there are many.

"I'm not thinking [if we lose, we can't win the league]. We'll see at the end of the game, but we're going to give everything and we're positive and we want to play a great game of football."

Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz has been ruled out of Saturday's clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and his replacement could raise a few eyebrows.

Experienced whistler Lahoz had been assigned El Clasico but on Friday it was revealed he is suffering with a muscle injury, with Jesus Gil Manzano named to take on the job instead.

The 44-year-old Lahoz officiated in Wednesday's Champions League clash between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.

The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) announced: "The refereeing committee for professional competition (CACP) has changed, due to a muscle injury, the appointment of referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the referee initially appointed to direct the match between Real Madrid and Barcelona on matchday 30 of the Primera Division. His replacement will be Jesus Gil Manzano."

Manzano is the referee who showed Barcelona captain Lionel Messi the first red card of his club career in January's Supercopa de Espana final defeat to Athletic Bilbao.

Messi swung an arm at Asier Villalibre in the final moments of extra time, and the Argentinian was dismissed following a VAR review.

Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman refused to discuss the referee after that match, saying: "It's better if I don't talk."

Manzano also previously red-carded former Barcelona superstars Luis Suarez and Neymar during their Camp Nou careers.

After being at loggerheads over wages for the past few weeks, the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) and the Reggae Boyz have reached a contractual agreement that now allows the focus to return to the coming CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers and the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Brisbane Roar ended an eight-match winless run in the A-League as they beat Macarthur 2-1 at Campbelltown Stadium.

The hosts had won their past three league matches on home soil but succumbed to goals in each half from Dylan Wenzel-Halls and Riku Danzaki, with Lachlan Rose netting a late reply.

It represents a measure of revenge for Brisbane, who suffered a 2-0 reverse to the Bulls in February, which proved to be the starting point of their long victory drought.

Macarthur stay third, with the Roar climbing to seventh, six points behind their hosts but with two games in hand.

Wenzel-Halls put Warren Moon's men ahead after 12 minutes, arrowing a fine strike beyond Adam Federici from the edge of the box.

Danzaki's close-range finish put the game beyond Macarthur's reach just before the hour mark, ensuring Rose's first A-League goal was a mere consolation. 

LaLiga has found "no evidence" that Cadiz's Juan Cala racially abused Valencia's Mouctar Diakhaby.

Play was halted during the first half of Sunday's clash between the sides following an altercation involving Cala and Diakhaby, after which the Valencia player and his team-mates left the pitch.

Diakhaby did not return for the remainder of the game, which resumed after a 20-minute delay, while Cala was substituted at half-time.

In a video posted on Twitter, Diakhaby said Cala called him "negro de mierda" which translates as "black s***".

Cala maintained his innocence at a subsequent news conference, insisting he had simply told Diakhaby to "leave me in peace".

The Spanish top-flight's governing body released a statement on Friday after concluding its investigation into the incident, which included the use of lip reading experts.

"After the analysis of the material, it is concluded that no evidence has been found... that the player Juan Torres Ruiz (Juan Cala) insulted Mouctar Diakhaby in the terms denounced," it read.

"Specifically, the audiovisual and digital files available have been examined, the audio of the meeting, the images broadcast and what was disseminated on the different social networks have been analysed.

"In order to complement the report, a specialised company has been hired, which has carried out a lip reading analysis of the conversations and a study of the behaviour of the players Juan Torres Ruiz and Mouctar Diakhaby.

"LaLiga has shared these reports with the clubs involved and the relevant authorities, so that they form part of those ongoing investigations.

"LaLiga reiterates its condemnation against racism in all its forms and maintains its commitment to permanently fight against any type of demonstration in this regard, which has materialised in the presentation of numerous complaints of hate crimes, including as a private accusation, in previous proceedings."

The Spanish Football Federation is also looking into the matter.

Luka Jovic will return to Real Madrid at the end of his Eintracht Frankfurt loan before considering his long-term future.

Los Blancos forked out a reported €60million fee in June 2019 to bring the Serbian striker to the Santiago Bernabeu from Frankfurt, who had only exercised an optional fee on Jovic's loan move from Benfica a couple of months earlier.

But the switch to the Spanish capital did not bring much success for Jovic, who started just 11 times, scoring twice and assisting two more across all competitions.

That gave Jovic a ratio of 0.18 goals per 90 minutes, while he averaged 0.62 shots on target before being shipped out on loan back to Frankfurt in January.

Jovic has shown glimpses of form back in the Bundesliga, scoring three goals from 12 appearances in all competitions – of which only four have been as part of the starting XI.

Asked by Bild about his long-term plans, Jovic replied: "Eintracht is a special club for me in every aspect but everybody knows that officially I am a Real Madrid player. 

"And that's where I will return to at the end of the season. 

"It's logical that I will only be able to talk about the next steps of my career in a few months' time."

Prior to his move to Madrid, Jovic scored 36 goals in 75 games during his first spell at Frankfurt, providing eight assists.

That measures at 0.73 goals per 90, while he also averaged 1.68 shots on target.

Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has urged the European champions to show unity amid reports of renewed tensions between head coach Hansi Flick and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic.

No secret has been made of the fact the pair have had their differences, with Flick insisting after last month's Champions League win over Lazio that they "wanted to leave these things behind us".

However, following Wednesday's 3-2 first-leg loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals of a competition they won last year, speculation was rife that the duo were at loggerheads once again.

It is an issue that Rummenigge wants to lay to rest, insisting such talk was "superfluous" as he called on all parties to find harmony.

"We all have to pull together, have to work together harmoniously, loyally and professionally," he told Bild.

"That is my clear requirement for the sporting leadership. That has always distinguished FC Bayern.

"This topic has to come to an end. It is superfluous that we have to constantly comment, especially since we are in the last quarter of the season, are first in the Bundesliga with a seven-point lead, and despite our 3-2 loss against Paris, we still have a chance to advance in the Champions League.

"We need calm and a focus on the essentials."

The defeat to PSG ended Bayern's 19-match unbeaten run in Europe's elite competition.

It was billed as one of the most important Clasicos in years. The outcome, it was said, could set the tone for the entire season and, by extension, the future of Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian's revelation he wanted to leave was still ringing in the ears of Barca directors two months on in October last year. While they'd managed to keep hold of him, owing to Messi's reluctance to drag his club through the courts, his form on the pitch hardly suggested he was at peace.

One goal in four LaLiga matches heading into that October 24 Clasico was his slowest start to a season since 2005-06 when he was a fresh-faced teenager still trying to establish himself.

What followed at Camp Nou on that Saturday looked set to plunge Barca further into crisis, as the Catalans lost 3-1 to Madrid despite dominating much of the match. It was a bad look for new coach Ronald Koeman – already under-fire – as well as Messi, whose failure to score took him to 515 minutes without a goal against Los Blancos in LaLiga, just seven shy of his worst ever barren run in El Clasico.

Messi's proviso for staying beyond the end of 2020-21 was that Barca had to look capable of winning titles; while supporters felt hard done by given Sergio Ramos' theatrics when winning a penalty, there was little in the Blaugrana's performance to suggest a title tilt was realistic.

But here we are, a little over five months later, and the outlook is rather different.

Koeman gets to know his squad

"Koeman explodes," read the front page of Mundo Deportivo the next day. "A Clasico robbery," declared Sport. Both publications listed their grievances with the result but largely glossed over Barca's issues.

This was more than just a one-off defeat in a Clasico, it was the second of four league losses in a run of just seven games. That run, culminating in a shock loss to promoted Cadiz in December, saw them suffer at least four defeats in the first 10 LaLiga matches of the season for only the second time since 1988.

 

Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Koeman.

His decision to implement his favoured 4-2-3-1 system wasn't necessarily surprising, but given Barca's attachment to 4-3-3, it was certainly seen as a bold move.

To say that it flatly didn't work wouldn't be entirely accurate, but Koeman's subsequent search for alternative set-ups speaks to the fact Barca weren't convincing.

Since suffering back-to-back defeats to Cadiz and Juventus at the start of December, Koeman has largely – depending on personnel and opponents – switched between 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1.

While their form hasn't been perfect across all fronts, they've not lost a LaLiga game since. The move to a back three in particular has appeared to resonate with the Barca squad, winning six of seven league – and conceding just three goals – matches when operating with such a defensive structure.

That 85.7 per cent win ratio is a significant improvement on the 63.6 per cent recorded in games where they've deployed a back four, suggesting the three-man defence allows for greater harmony across the team.

Frenkie finds his feet

Koeman's tinkering has helped bring the best out of several areas of the team, but most notably the centre of midfield. While Sergio Busquets has received widespread praise, arguably the two main benefactors have been Frenkie de Jong and Pedri.

De Jong's first season at Barca, while by no means bad, was hardly scintillating, and Koeman's arrival initially saw him placed in a double pivot, though activity maps show he often got drawn out to the left.

But over the season as a whole, compared to 2019-20, De Jong has clearly made good strides and is enjoying greater attacking freedom.

As across the entirety of last season, the former Ajax man has made 29 league appearances in 2020-21, but his goal involvements have enjoyed a boost (two goals, two assists in 2019-20, three goals and four assists in 2020-21). Added to that, he's averaging 1.1 key passes per game, up from 0.9.

 

But it's De Jong's general influence that has increased most, with his 87.1 touches per game up considerably from 66.2, while he averages 25.3 carries per game, as opposed to 17.7 last term.

Not only have De Jong's team-mates seemingly placed greater trust in him, but he's relishing the added responsibility. The Netherlands midfielder is seeing much more of the ball and using his increased influence effectively.

No player in LaLiga has covered more distance carrying the ball upfield than De Jong (4,375.8 metres), while he also leads the league in total progressive carries (405) and is second only to Pau Torres on progressive carries of 10 yards or more (168).

Indeed, De Jong ranks towards the top of almost every metric relating to ball carries, highlighting just how important he is to Barca getting up the pitch.

The heir apparent

It quickly became clear Pedri was going to establish himself in the Barca first-team squad following his move from Las Palmas, convincing the club they would be better served keeping the teenager around than sending him out on loan.

But it's only been since Koeman altered his position that he's really come to life, essentially nailing down a place in the starting XI.

For the first few months of the season, Pedri often operated from a slightly wider position, cutting in from the left onto his right foot. Now, while he still often drifts out to the left flank, the Spain international is spending more time in the central zone outside the opposition's penalty area.

 

He is averaging 26.9 more touches per game since the first 10 matches of the season – understandable given he's operating closer to the thick of the action – and that in turn has helped him create 1.4 chances per game, up from 0.8.

But to focus solely on that would be to do Pedri a disservice. His talent as a fine passer and nimble mover make him the ideal attacking conduit, as evidenced by his 132 shot-ending open-play sequences – ranking third among LaLiga midfielders to have played 900 minutes or more this term.

In fact, of these players, Pedri is involved in the most shot-ending open-play sequences per 90 minutes (6.2).

Andres Iniesta comparisons might be considered a little over the top at this point, but there's certainly no doubt the teenager is thriving. Maybe he could be the World Cup winner's heir...

Messi's miraculous revival

The chief instigator in Barca's revival has, of course, been Messi himself. Having only scored four times, with no assists, in Barca's first 10 league games this term, he's netted 19 and laid on eight in 17 since.

It has been a remarkable resurgence and central to Barca's climb up the table, with the Blaugrana's unbeaten run undoubtedly inspired by their talisman.

Messi's improvement has been almost inexplicable because his shooting habits haven't changed massively. After all, his shots per game are only up slightly from 4.9 to 6.0, with this increase spread across his efforts from both inside the box (2.9 shots per 90, up from 2.4) and outside the area (3.4 shots per 90, up from 2.7).

Again, there's not a huge difference in his expected goals (xG) value per shot, with his efforts worth 0.11 on average until December 6 and 0.13 since, yet Messi has gone from underperforming his overall xG (four goals, 5.6 xG) to massively overperforming (19 goals, 12.9 xG).

 

One potential explanation comes from looking at his shot maps over the two periods in question. Messi does now appear to be getting into the centre of the box more often, with as many as 10 of his 18 goals (excluding penalties) coming from this part of the pitch.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that Messi, without a significant pre-season, saw his preparations for the new campaign interrupted heavily by the off-field controversy. That period of turmoil will surely have taken its toll mentally, perhaps making it inevitable that his focus should drift and his form suffer.

Whatever the reason, Koeman has got Messi back on track and his team-mates able contributing in recent months, seemingly ensuring the coach will be safe for another season.

But the job is not done yet. Messi wanted Koeman and Barca to prove that winning titles was possible. They've more or less done that and now need his brilliance to guide them through a do-or-die Clasico.

Argentine veteran Sergio Aguero has been list with plenty of clubs after Manchester City confirmed he would be leaving this off-season.

Among those are European heavyweights Chelsea and Barcelona.

But Leeds United have reportedly entered the race for the 32-year-old forward.

 

TOP STORY - LEEDS JOIN AGUERO PURSUIT

Leeds United want to bring Sergio Aguero to Elland Road on a free transfer this off-season.

Manchester City confirmed last month that Aguero would be departing the club after a decade of service.

90Min reports that Leeds hope Aguero's countryman Marcelo Bielsa can help woo him to the newly promoted club.

 

ROUND-UP

- The speculation around Kylian Mbappe's future continues, with The Telegraph reporting that he is stalling on signing a new deal with Paris Saint-Germain with his current contract to expire in 2022. Cuatro claims Mbappe will not sign a new deal as he wants to join Real Madrid.

- ESPN reports Edinson Cavani is "closer than ever" to finalizing a deal to join Argentine club Boca Juniors from Manchester United for this off-season.

- Manchester United may look into signing West Ham United's England international midfielder Declan Rice, as part of a permanent switch for Jesse Lingard, claims the Athletic.

- Metro claims Lyon's Joachim Andersen will cost £25m amid reported interest from Manchester United and Tottenham.

- Yangel Herrera, who is on loan at Granada from Manchester City, has ignited interest from West Ham United according to Todofichajes.

- Inter may explore signing Napoli's Nikola Maksimovic if Andrea Ranocchia leaves, reports Calciomercato.

Haiti will take on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guatemala faces Guyana while Trinidad and Tobago will go up against Monserrat when Round One of the preliminaries of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off on July 2 and 3 at Inter Miami CF Stadium in Florida.

Cuba will tackle French Guiana, Guadeloupe will battle The Bahamas and Bermuda go up against Barbados in what will be the first time ever that the competition will have preliminaries that will see three teams qualify for the 16-team Group Stage.

“We look forward with great anticipation to this summer’s Gold Cup, which will undoubtedly be enhanced by this new Preliminary Round,” said Concacaf President and FIFA Vice President Victor Montagliani.

“The past year has been very challenging in our region and our thoughts are with all the communities that have suffered. We hope the opportunity to watch the best men’s national teams in Concacaf compete in our flagship tournament can provide fans with some hope and enjoyment

All 12 of the competing nations in the Prelims will get a full Gold Cup experience at the excellent Inter Miami facilities and we look forward to a great set of games.”

“We look forward to hosting the Gold Cup Prelims tournament in our stadium,” said Inter Miami CF Managing Owner Jorge Mas. “Our facilities in Fort Lauderdale were built with the intent of giving our fans opportunities to enjoy the world’s game knowing that our vibrant culture and sports-centric region would be attractive for global teams and competitions. This is just the beginning of the great things that lie ahead.”

Round Two will begin on July 6 when the winner of the Haiti/St Vincent clash will take on the winner of the Bermuda/Barbados matchup. The winner of the Guatemala/Guyana encounter will play the winner of the Guadeloupe/Bahamas match. And finally, the winner of the Cuba/French Guiana match will tackle the winner of the Trinidad and Tobago/Montserrat clash.

The winning nation in each of the three Round Two matchups will advance to the Group Stage of the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, where they were drawn into Group A, B and C as follows:

Group A: Mexico, El Salvador, Curacao, and Winner Prelims 9

Group B: USA, Canada, Martinique, and Winner Prelims 7

Group C: Costa Rica, Jamaica, Suriname, and Winner Prelims 8

Group D: Honduras, Panama, Grenada, and Qatar.

The 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup group stage will kick off on July 10 and run through August 1, 2021, and will feature 16 national teams, of which Canada, Costa Rica, Curaçao, El Salvador, Grenada, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, eight-time and defending champion Mexico, Panama, Suriname, six-time champion the United States, are already qualified to the group stage of the tournament. Additionally, Qatar has been invited to the tournament as the current champion and representative of the Asian Football Confederation.

The remaining three countries will qualify through the Gold Cup Prelims, in which 12 Member Associations will compete for the final three spots, to be played July 2-6- at Inter Miami CF Stadium in South Florida.

 

 

Growing speculation over Erling Haaland's future will not force Borussia Dortmund into setting any deadlines, insists sporting director Michael Zorc.

The Norway international is in high demand after netting 49 goals in 51 appearances for Dortmund, attracting interest from the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Talk of a transfer intensified after Haaland's agent, Mino Raiola, was said to have been in contact with a number of clubs, having reportedly spoken with representatives from Barca and Madrid.

But Zorc, who is eager to keep hold of the 20-year-old, claimed the Bundesliga club would not be rushed into a panic move.

"I don't see the need to set deadlines at the moment [for transfers]," he said on Thursday.

Widespread reports last year suggested Dortmund gave United a deadline in talks over Jadon Sancho, with the winger ultimately staying in Germany.

Zorc continued: "With Erling Haaland, we have a clear stance which we have communicated to the parties involved.

"Yesterday I spoke to Mino Raiola. We've made our intentions very clear. It's no problem when Alfie [Haaland's father] and Mino want to take a sunbathe on the Mediterranean Sea.

"I am relaxed because I know what we want."

Haaland drew a blank this week in Dortmund's Champions League loss to Manchester City, though he still boasts 10 goals in seven appearances in the competition this term.

Since Haaland scored a 23-minute hat-trick on his Dortmund debut, his 49 goals across all competitions have been bettered by only Robert Lewandowski (67) and Cristiano Ronaldo (53) among players in Europe's 'top five' leagues.

He has 21 league goals this season, with Edin Terzic's side sitting fifth in the Bundesliga.

Swansea City have announced a seven-day suspension of all social media activities as the Championship club take a "strong stance" against online abuse and discrimination.

The break in activity involves not just Swansea's official accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat, but also the first-team players and staff.

Academy players in the under-23 and under-18 squads have also agreed to the week-long boycott, which will start from 17:00 BST on Thursday.

Swansea revealed the move had been decided upon following conversations involving senior club staff, as well as the players and management.

"As a football club, we have seen several of our players subjected to abhorrent abuse in the past seven weeks alone, and we feel it is right to take a stand against behaviour that is a blight on our sport, and society at large," a statement from the club read.

"We will always be unwavering in our support of our players, staff, supporters and the community that we proudly represent, and we are united as a club on this issue.

"We also want to stand with players from other clubs who have had to endure vile discrimination on social media platforms.

"As a club we are also acutely aware of how social media can impact on the mental health of players and staff, and we hope our strong stance will highlight the wider effects of abuse."

Swansea also revealed chief executive Julian Winter had written to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to push for stronger punishment for those guilty of "appalling and cowardly abuse" on their respective platforms.

Swans player Yan Dhanda was abused online following the FA Cup tie against Manchester City on February 10, with the player writing on Twitter in response: "How can this STILL be happening in 2021? I'm so proud of who I am and representing Asians. More has to be done."

Club colleague Ben Cabango was also targeted while away on duty with Wales, along with international team-mate Rabbi Matondo.

The suspension of the club's accounts will cover the away game against Millwall on Saturday, as well as the trip to Sheffield Wednesday on April 13.

Gianluigi Buffon proved his worth to Juventus in their vital win at Napoli on Wednesday, but Andrea Pirlo will restore Wojciech Szczesny as his first-choice goalkeeper.

World Cup winner Buffon, now 43, is firmly behind Szczesny in the pecking order in Turin, yet he was given a rare opportunity for the huge midweek Serie A match.

The veteran, who returned to the club from Paris Saint-Germain in 2019, made three saves as strikes from team-mates Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala set the Bianconeri on their way to victory.

Only a 90th-minute Lorenzo Insigne penalty denied Buffon a clean sheet as Juve moved three points clear of their opponents, who sit in fifth - just outside the Champions League places.

But Buffon should not expect to reprise this starting role on a regular basis, despite Szczesny committing an error leading to a goal in the weekend draw with city rivals Torino.

"I had already spoken to the lad [Szczesny]," said Pirlo, who had suggested earlier in the week Szczesny would play.

"He was already tired when he was back from the national team because he had played three games in a row, so he needed some mental rest and to recover his energy.

"It was already in my mind to have Gigi play, but [Szczesny] remains the main goalkeeper of Juventus."

 

Even besides the mishap against Torino, Buffon's output since returning to Juve has been more than a match for the number one.

Among goalkeepers in Europe's 'top five' leagues to play 25 games or more in all competitions since the start of last season, Buffon's save rate of 80.2 per cent trails only Sevilla's Yassine Bounou.

None of these keepers have conceded fewer goals than Buffon (18), while again Bounou is the only man conceding fewer goals per game (0.7 for Buffon).

With 11 clean sheets in 26 outings, he ranks ninth for clean sheet percentage (42).

Meanwhile, discounting penalties and own goals, Buffon has conceded 14 times over the past two seasons despite having an expected goals on target (xGOT) conceded total of 17.1, meaning he has prevented 3.1 goals.

This season alone, among goalkeepers to play 10 times or more, Buffon again ranks second for save percentage, his 81.8 this time trailing Sergio Rico.

 

Across the past two campaigns, Szczesny has saved 72.7 per cent of shots he has faced, but has conceded on average 1.1 goals per game and collected a clean sheet in just 31 per cent of his appearances.

He has prevented 7.7 goals - with a 66.7 xGOT conceded versus 59 non-penalty goals - albeit having played 68 matches, 42 more than Buffon.

In 2020-21, Szczesny has conceded a goal per game and kept out 71.3 per cent of shots on his goal.

With Buffon set to again lose his place despite remaining at the forefront of the European game, it would support Gianluca Pagliuca's suggestion the Juve great should have retired rather than return to Turin to sit on the bench.

Pagliuca told Stats Perform News: "If I was him, I have already retired. I would have retired after PSG. It was a good idea to go to Paris because it's a big club and he was playing regularly.

"Buffon on the bench? Happy to play only in Coppa Italia? It's not great.

"Someone with his career, it's better to retire when you are 41 and you are still playing than having a couple of years on the bench. He is still a really good goalkeeper.

"The best thing was to retire after PSG, considering his career. Maybe he still wants to compete. However, we have to think he's been the best goalkeeper in the football history."

Karim Benzema expects the title race in Spain to go down to the wire, meaning Real Madrid must treat every remaining LaLiga fixture as if it were a final.

Atletico Madrid at one stage in the season held a commanding lead at the summit, but Diego Simeone's side have now won just four of their past 10 fixtures, allowing their rivals to close the gap.

Barcelona sit second - just a point behind Atleti in the standings - having produced a 19-game unbeaten run since a shock 2-1 defeat away to Cadiz on December 5, 2020.

However, Madrid have already beaten their Clasico rivals once this season, the reigning league champions triumphing 3-1 at Camp Nou. A similar result on Saturday in what Benzema describes as "the greatest game in the world" would see them climb above Barca.

"There are still quite a few games to go," Benzema told LaLiga World.

"I think this league is going to go down to the wire, because it's still very competitive. We've got to treat every game as if it were a final."

On the fixture itself, he said: "In my opinion, El Clasico is the greatest game in the world. Not just for me but for everyone. There's an incredible history between the two clubs, it's always a key game.

"As always, it's going to be a tough match against a team who like to have the ball. But we also like to have the ball.

"I think a lot of the game will take place in the middle of the park. But just like when we played at Camp Nou, we've got to go all out to win because this is a final for us.

"They love to have possession, they've got a good keeper [Marc-Andre ter Stegen] and then they've got [Lionel] Messi. He is so important for Barcelona in every way. We've got to take care because he's very dangerous indeed."

Having scored 21 goals to help his team secure the title in the 2019-20 season, Benzema already has 18 in 25 league appearances this term.

The Frenchman is averaging a goal every 122.4 minutes in the competition during the campaign, while he has also provided six assists.

While Messi tops the scoring charts with 23, the Barca talisman has only managed one more goal in open play (17 to 16) than Benzema, who is playing with a freedom on the pitch that has benefited both him personally and also the team.

"I don't know if it's my best season. Every year I start from zero and aim to do better than the previous campaign," Benzema said.

"I'm on a good goal-scoring run and hope to keep it up, keep helping out my team, putting points on the board, keep winning games.

"But the most important thing is winning those games. I feel free on the pitch. I do what I like on the field, I help the team set up moves and I finish them."

Benzema has scored at least one goal in each of his past six LaLiga games - he could become the fourth Real Madrid player to find the net in seven or more in a row in the competition in the 21st century, following in the footsteps of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, who achieved the feat four times, and Gareth Bale.

Zinedine Zidane's Madrid can also make it three wins in a row against Barcelona for the first time since 1978; they have not done the league double over their opponents since the 2007-08 season.

What does the future hold for Lorenzo Insigne?

The Napoli captain is no certainty to remain at his boyhood club as his contract runs down.

A switch to Milan could be on the cards…

 

TOP STORY – MILAN TARGETING INSIGNE

Milan met with Lorenzo Insigne's agent as they eye a move for the Napoli captain, according to Gianluigi Di Marzio.

Insigne – previously linked with Liverpool – has one year remaining on his current contract and the Italy international is yet to re-sign with his boyhood club.

Serie A rivals Milan are monitoring the situation and ready to pounce.

 

ROUND-UP

- A move for Insigne depends on the future of Milan midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu. The 27-year-old is set to become a free agent and Arsenal and Chelsea are eyeing the Turkey international, reports Sky Italy. Manchester United have also been linked.

- The front page of Thursday's Gazzetta dello Sport says Inter and neighbours Milan are going head-to-head to sign Fiorentina defender Nikola Milenkovic. The Serbia international is also reportedly wanted by United, Juventus and Tottenham.

Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester City are vying to sign Inter star Romelu Lukaku this off-season, claims Calciomercato. Lukaku has emerged as a target for all three clubs, who are also eyeing Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling HaalandReal Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, United and Liverpool have also been linked with Haaland.

- According to Corriere dello Sport, Roma and Milan both want to sign Torino captain Andrea Belotti. With Torino struggling, the Italy forward could be ready to jump at the chance for European football.

Tottenham are stepping up their pursuit of Southampton defender Jannik Vestergaard, says the Express. Spurs have long been linked with Inter star Milan Skriniar, but Vestergaard appears to be an easier option.

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