There is perhaps no sporting debate that captures the imagination like that concerning the identity of football's greatest ever player.

The incredible goalscoring feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo put them at the centre of the discussion, but what about the greats of yesteryear? 

Does the cunning of Diego Maradona or the ingenuity of Johan Cruyff make one of them the best to have played the world's most popular sport?

The ultimate reference for all those iconic players, however, is Pele. The only player to have won three World Cups, the ultimate personification of "o jogo bonito".

With tributes flooding in after the Brazil icon passed away at the age of 82, Stats Perform delves into the Selecao star's incredible career, asking how it compares to those of the game's other greats.

Pele: The World Cup's finest

While any debate over the greatest player of all time will always be subjective, nobody can deny Pele his status as the ultimate World Cup legend.

His introduction to the global stage came at the 1958 tournament in Sweden, where Brazil exercised the demons of 1950 – when they lost the final on home soil to Uruguay in what became known as the "Maracanazo" – to clinch their first title.

A 17-year-old Pele missed Brazil's first two games at the tournament, but the Santos youngster quickly made the Selecao's number 10 shirt his own after coming in for a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union.

From there, he went from strength to strength, scoring his first World Cup goal against Wales before helping himself to a hat-trick against France in the semi-finals.

As Brazil overcame the hosts 5-2 in a thrilling final, Pele – at the age of 17 years and 249 days – scored twice. Only one other teenager has ever netted in a World Cup final – Kylian Mbappe in 2018.

 

As if one outstanding World Cup campaign was not enough, Pele was key to further Selecao triumphs in 1962 and 1970 – assuming a talismanic role in what many consider to be the greatest international team in history at the latter tournament.

Pele's tally of six assists in Mexico remains the highest tally recorded at a single World Cup since records began four years earlier, and his nonchalant lay-off for Carlos Alberto to finish off a flowing team move in Brazil's final win over Italy remains one of the most iconic moments in the tournament's history.

While modern-day detractors may point to Pele's failure to test himself in Europe, his incredible record on the grandest stage of all dictates that he is remembered among the very best, and there can be no doubt as to his unmatched World Cup legacy.

Johan Cruyff: The innovator

If Pele's legacy can be measured in World Cup accomplishments, Cruyff's must be examined in a very different way.

Cruyff's unbelievable tally of 36 chances created at the 1974 World Cup may be a single-tournament record, but it was not enough for the Netherlands to avoid the first of their three final defeats at the competition.

Eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one LaLiga triumph as a player does not exactly do justice to the career of football's great innovator, the man considered responsible for "total football" and by extension, every free-flowing Barcelona or Ajax team that has followed.

If Pele's is best remembered as the World Cup's greatest player, perhaps Cruyff deserves the title of football's finest pioneer.

Diego Maradona: The individualist 

No conversation about football's greatest could be complete without a mention of Maradona, the man who almost single-handedly carried Argentina to football's greatest prize with a perfect blend of skill and cunning.

Astonishingly, Maradona claimed five goals and five assists as Argentina won the 1986 World Cup – a feat no other player has accomplished since detailed data collection began in 1966.

Maradona's quarter-final brace against England, perhaps the most iconic double in history, encapsulated his on-pitch personality perfectly – a mischievous first goal being followed by a truly remarkable second.

Maradona's tendency to carry unfancied sides to success was replicated on the club stage, with his two Serie A triumphs with Napoli earning him a level of adulation that will perhaps never be matched.

A beaten finalist in 1990, not even El Diego could match Pele's World Cup exploits, but the Argentine carved out a reputation as football's finest individualist. 

 

Cristiano Ronaldo: The big-game player

Like Cruyff, neither of the final two players on our list have made their greatest impact at the World Cup, but the incredible goalscoring feats of Ronaldo ensure his place among the game's legends.

In the Champions League – arguably the true pinnacle of the modern game – no player can match Ronaldo's total of 140 goals.

Ronaldo – who scored his 700th goal in club football earlier this season – has also lifted the Champions League trophy on five occasions – a tally no other player has bettered.

The 37-year-old started off the 2022 World Cup by becoming the first male player to net in five different editions of the tournament, though he ultimately ended it in disappointment, making just 10 touches after coming on as a substitute in Portugal's quarter-final defeat to Morocco.

He has been the ultimate big-game player. Whether he is anymore is clearly up for debate. 

Lionel Messi: The Magician 

While some may prefer the efficiency and athleticism of Ronaldo, there is no sight in modern football as joyous as that of Messi slaloming through panicked defences.

Seven Ballon d'Or wins tells you all you need to know, Messi's army of fans may say, while Pep Guardiola's revolutionary Barcelona side – considered by many as the best team to ever take to the field – was built to accommodate the Argentine's incredible mix of elite finishing, dribbling and passing skills. 

 

Until the last two years, the only major blot on Messi's career was a perceived failure to replicate the feats of Maradona, with the expectations of the Argentinian public often seeming to weigh heavily upon the shoulders of the diminutive attacker.

However, having helped the Albiceleste end a 28-year wait to win the Copa America in 2021, Messi then contributed seven goals and three assists to mirror Maradona's achievement of leading Argentina to World Cup glory, with the Paris Saint-Germain forward's campaign in Qatar already regarded as one of the greatest in the tournament's rich history.

While the sight of Messi lifting the World Cup trophy at the Lusail Stadium caused some to declare any debate regarding football's greatest player to be over, the forward's age dictates he will not get the chance to equal Pele's feats on the game's grandest stage.

Everyone has a different opinion on what makes a player the greatest in history, be it their style, their goal record, or their impact on subsequent generations.

The role of football's greatest tournament will always be pivotal, however, and on that basis, Pele will always have a place among the legends of the game.

Enzo Fernandez and the rest of his Benfica team-mates have only one shot at their career, Roger Schmidt has acknowledged, but the coach is not entertaining transfer talk until the New Year.

Fernandez has enjoyed a superb first season in Europe so far, with the Argentina international helping the Lisbon club top the Primeira Liga and their Champions League group, before also tasting World Cup success.

Handed the tournament's Young Player Award for his performances in Qatar, the 21-year-old is expected to be a target for several of Europe's elite in the January transfer window.

Schmidt previously expressed his hope that Fernandez and other Benfica stars who impressed at the World Cup would stay, but acknowledged on Thursday that the desire of the players could prove decisive.

"These young players sometimes have opportunities," he said ahead of Benfica's Primeira Liga clash with Braga. "It's not just Enzo, it's all the players.

"It's part of the football business. If they have opportunities, they have to make decisions. I can give them advice and recommendations.

"But I always respected the players' decisions, because they only have one career."

Fernandez, who only signed for Benfica in June from River Plate, has already been linked with the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United.

With the transfer window yet to officially open for business, Schmidt would not entertain further discussion of potential departures from Benfica, adding: "Until December 31, we are safe.

"Nobody can buy a player. On the eve of the game against Braga, I'm just focused on that. Everything else will happen, perhaps, when the transfer window is open."

Carlo Ancelotti has made it abundantly clear that he will never declare Lionel Messi as the greatest football of all time.

Victory at the World Cup with Argentina handed Messi the one prize that had previously escaped his clutches, adding to a trophy cabinet that boasts four Champions League medals, 10 LaLiga titles and seven Ballon d'Or wins.

That has reignited the debate surrounding who the greatest player in history is, with Messi's standing receiving a boost against the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona.

While some are now happy to declare Messi as the greatest of all time, those are words that Real Madrid boss Ancelotti, who has coached the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Karim Benzema, will never utter.

"It's a hard thing to say. His career continues, whether he has a World Cup or not," he said in a press conference.

"In every era there have been very strong players, a lot. 'Messi is the best in history' will not come out of my mouth.

 

"I enjoy the best, I have seen Maradona, [Johan] Cruyff, I coach the current Ballon d'Or winner [Benzema]. I don't know who is 'the best ever'."

Ancelotti has been linked with taking over as coach of Argentina's great rivals Brazil, but the Italian reiterated his commitment to Madrid.

"I don't know if they are interested, because they haven't contacted me," he said.

"I appreciate it, in any case, but my situation is very clear: I am happy in this adventure and I will continue until Madrid tell me 'it's over'."

Kylian Mbappe has shrugged off the taunts from Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez following France's defeat in the World Cup final.

Martinez has come in for significant criticism for his actions following Argentina's shoot-out win over Les Bleus in Qatar, where he called for a minute's silence for Mbappe in dressing room celebrations.

The Aston Villa keeper was then was pictured with a doll with the Paris Saint-Germain star's face stuck on it during an open-top bus parade in Buenos Aires.

Mbappe was not fazed by Martinez's behaviour and offered a blunt verdict when a question was posed to him about the antics.

"Celebrations are not my problem. I don't waste energy in such trivial things," he told RMC Sport after PSG's Ligue 1 win against Strasbourg on Wednesday.

"The important thing for me is to give the best of myself for my club, and we will wait for Leo (Messi) to come back to continue scoring and winning games."

Mbappe also revealed he spoke to Messi following the end of the World Cup final and offered congratulations to his club team-mate.

"I spoke with him after the game, I congratulated him. It was the quest of a lifetime for him, for me too, but I failed, so you always have to remain a good player." he said.

Messi is set to return to club duty next week.

Lisandro Martinez has returned to Manchester United following his World Cup success with Argentina, handing Erik ten Hag a timely boost.

A dramatic penalty shoot-out victory for La Albiceleste against France in the final in Qatar was followed by celebrations in his homeland, with Martinez given an extended break by Ten Hag.

However, his absence has come alongside defensive issues for United as an illness has swept through the squad, affecting both Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof.

Casemiro and Luke Shaw have subsequently deputised in central defence for United's last two games – against Burnley in the League Cup and Nottingham Forest in the Premier League – though Raphael Varane returned against the latter and Maguire came off the bench.

Ten Hag had previously reminded Martinez of the need to be available to return to action swiftly, saying: "[Martinez] has been celebrating in Buenos Aires and I can understand that. It's the highest you can achieve.

"But also, Lisandro Martinez has to accept that on [December 27], the Premier League will go on."

United face Wolves in the Premier League on Saturday, which begins a period of five games in a two-week spell across three competitions.

Lionel Scaloni has no intention of stepping down as head coach after guiding Argentina to World Cup glory, says Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Claudio Tapia.

Argentina defeated France 4-2 on penalties in a thrilling Qatar 2022 final that finished 3-3 after extra time to add to the Copa America crown won last year.

With his team's latest success, Scaloni became just the third manager in history to win both competitions, after former Brazil bosses Mario Zagallo and Carlos Alberto Parreira.

The 44-year-old is due to be out of contract later this week and has been tipped to take on a high-profile position at club level, but Tapia does not see that happening.

"I have no doubt he will continue to be the head coach of the Argentina team," AFA chief Tapia told reporters.

"We are both men of our word. We shook hands and we said yes to each other. He is currently travelling but as soon as he comes back we are going to finalise it."

Scaloni has been in charge since July 2018, initially on a caretaker basis, and also won the inaugural Finalissima earlier this year with victory over European champions Italy.

However, the decision to appoint Scaloni as Jorge Sampaoli's successor after defeat to France in the last 16 of Russia 2018 was not a unanimous one.

"Ninety-nine per cent of people thought we were wrong or even crazy," Tapia said. "But this team brought happiness to the people with the three titles they won."

Emiliano Martinez's "stupid" celebrations "took away" from Argentina's World Cup success, according to France and Arsenal great Patrick Vieira.

Martinez saved Kingsley Coman's attempt and watched Aurelien Tchouameni roll wide as La Albiceleste overcame France 4-2 on penalties following an entertaining 3-3 draw in Sunday's Lusail Stadium final.

The Aston Villa goalkeeper was criticised for his gamesmanship during the shoot-out before his subsequent celebrations were thought to cross the line after appearing to repeatedly taunt Kylian Mbappe.

Martinez called for a "moment of silence" for Mbappe after his hat-trick proved in vain, while he was seen holding a bizarre puppet with the France forward's face on during homecoming celebrations.

Former Gunners captain Vieira, who won the 1998 World Cup with Les Bleus, labelled ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Martinez's action as unnecessary.

"When you talk about the abuse and the comments that [Mbappe] received after the World Cup, I think that is damaging the game and himself," the Crystal Palace manager said on Friday.

"Some of the pictures that I saw from the Argentina goalkeeper took away a little bit from what Argentina achieved at the World Cup.

"I don't think they really needed that. Sometimes, you can't control people's emotions or decisions, but that was a stupid decision from Martinez to do that. I was really disappointed. 

"I want to have a picture of the Argentina fans with the passion and the love they showed during those games. Of course, they won the World Cup, but in the stands, they were the best as well.

"I want to keep that in my mind and not think about those stupid fans who put some darkness on top of what Argentina achieved on and off the field. This is the dark side of the Argentina World Cup win."

Emiliano Martinez's "stupid" celebrations "took away" from Argentina's World Cup success, according to France and Arsenal great Patrick Vieira.

Martinez saved Kingsley Coman's attempt and watched Aurelien Tchouameni roll wide as La Albiceleste overcame France 4-2 on penalties following an entertaining 3-3 draw in Sunday's Lusail Stadium final.

The Aston Villa goalkeeper was criticised for his gamesmanship during the shoot-out before his subsequent celebrations were thought to cross the line after appearing to repeatedly taunt Kylian Mbappe.

Martinez called for a "moment of silence" for Mbappe after his hat-trick proved in vain, while he was seen holding a bizarre puppet with the France forward's face on during homecoming celebrations.

Former Gunners captain Vieira, who won the 1998 World Cup with Les Bleus, labelled ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Martinez's action as unnecessary.

"When you talk about the abuse and the comments that [Mbappe] received after the World Cup, I think that is damaging the game and himself," the Crystal Palace manager said on Friday.

"Some of the pictures that I saw from the Argentina goalkeeper took away a little bit from what Argentina achieved at the World Cup.

"I don't think they really needed that. Sometimes, you can't control people's emotions or decisions, but that was a stupid decision from Martinez to do that. I was really disappointed. 

"I want to have a picture of the Argentina fans with the passion and the love they showed during those games. Of course, they won the World Cup, but in the stands, they were the best as well.

"I want to keep that in my mind and not think about those stupid fans who put some darkness on top of what Argentina achieved on and off the field. This is the dark side of the Argentina World Cup win."

Angel Di Maria has commemorated Argentina's World Cup triumph by unveiling a giant tattoo of the trophy on his leg.

The winger played a starring role as La Albiceleste claimed their third world crown on Sunday, beating France on penalties in an epic final.

Di Maria was fouled for the penalty from which Lionel Messi opened the scoring, before doubling Argentina's lead himself following a stunning counter-attack.

The Juventus man was substituted with his side in control, although they ultimately required a shoot-out to defeat France 4-2 after a 3-3 draw.

Argentina's celebrations still have not ceased, and Di Maria now has a permanent reminder of the biggest win of his career.

The 34-year-old shared with his 22.9 million Instagram followers footage from his visit to tattoo artist Ezequiel Viapiano, who produced a huge sketch of the World Cup on his right thigh.

It is not the first time Di Maria has celebrated success by adding to his vast display of personalised ink.

Indeed, a tattoo of the Copa America trophy occupies his left thigh after Argentina's 1-0 victory over Brazil in last year's final, in which his goal ended his nation's 28-year wait for major silverware.

Unai Emery will address Emiliano Martinez's controversial celebrations following Argentina's World Cup victory when the goalkeeper returns to Aston Villa.

Martinez was the penalty shoot-out hero for La Albiceleste at Qatar 2022, helping them to victory over France in the final.

But it has been suggested the keeper's subsequent celebrations have crossed the line. Martinez, whose gamesmanship in the shoot-out had already drawn criticism, has appeared to repeatedly taunt beaten France hat-trick hero Kylian Mbappe.

Martinez called for a "moment of silence" for Mbappe in the dressing room after Argentina's win and was seen holding a bizarre puppet with the France forward's face on during homecoming celebrations.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet revealed this week he had written to his Argentina counterparts to complain about abuse aimed at Mbappe.

Asked about the subject ahead of Villa's return to Premier League action against Liverpool on Boxing Day, Emery stopped short of criticising his player but acknowledged there would be discussions about his conduct.

"When you have big emotions, sometimes it's difficult to control [them]," he stated. "I will speak with him next week about some celebrations.

"But for now, I respect that he is with his national team. When he is going to be with us and under our responsibility, we can speak about it then."

Martinez is to miss the match against Liverpool as he remains in Argentina.

Rafael Nadal has revealed he had tears in his eyes as Lionel Messi led Argentina to World Cup final glory.

Even for Real Madrid fan Nadal, there was a joy in seeing former Barcelona talisman Messi achieve his greatest feat at an age when some doubted he would ever lift the trophy.

Now 35, Messi was the driving force behind Argentina's success in Qatar. He scored two goals as Sunday's final against France ended in a pulsating 3-3 draw, plus a penalty in the shoot-out that followed, clinching the Golden Ball as the tournament's outstanding player.

For Nadal, who won his 22nd grand slam two days after turning 36 in June, seeing another person achieving late-career success is something to which he can relate.

"Messi lifting the World Cup made me happy. That someone so great culminates with a title that was missing, of this calibre, with all that it means for Argentina, it seemed fair to me," Nadal said.

"I enjoyed it and I was moved. Without siding with Argentina, when Messi scored the third goal tears came to my eyes.

"It was because of the emotion of seeing someone so great achieve what was missing, having suffered so much to achieve it."

Nadal would also have taken a close interest in Kylian Mbappe hitting a hat-trick for France in the Lusail Stadium final, given the Paris Saint-Germain striker is a long-time Madrid target.

Mbappe snubbed Madrid to sign a new PSG contract in May, but it would be no surprise if eventually he ends up at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The matter of Mbappe came up in an interview with AS, who made Nadal their athlete of the year.

Nadal was asked if he would forgive Mbappe if he signed for Madrid.

"I don't have to forgive Mbappe for anything and as a Madrid fan, if he could, come tomorrow," Nadal said.

"In the end, things happen in sports and I suppose that such a young boy was overwhelmed by such tremendous pressure from all angles that in the end... I think he wanted to come to Madrid, but due to many factors, everything was very complicated for him. Hopefully we can see him in Madrid in the future."

Nadal said he would be leaving for Australia on December 26 and cautioned against expecting too much immediately at the start of the new tennis season, pointing to "very difficult" singles matches at the United Cup against Cameron Norrie and Nick Kyrgios.

The Australian Open, where Nadal is the defending men's singles champion, begins on January 16 in Melbourne, with all the focus on getting into prime shape by then.

"Let's see now how the year begins. I'm aware that I'm a little tight here, but I'm confident that I can get to the level I need to be competitive in Australia," Nadal said.

"We'll see what happens. Things change very quickly in sports. But I have the illusion of having a good year again and giving myself options to compete again at the highest level. I am aware that I am the age that I am, and that things happen. I will have to manage it in the best possible way and try to do my best to give myself real options."

Manchester United defender Lisandro Martinez must be ready to make an impact on his return to club football after Argentina's World Cup win, manager Erik ten Hag warned.

Martinez featured in five of Argentina's seven games as they clinched their third World Cup title in Qatar, starting twice.

Argentina's victory – which was sealed via a penalty shoot-out after a pulsating 3-3 draw with France – sparked wild celebrations in the country, with Tuesday's parade in Buenos Aires being cut short as huge crowds held up the team's bus.

While United boss Ten Hag says Martinez must savour his career highlight, he emphasised the need for the Red Devils' squad to switch focus as the Premier League returns.

"I can understand that it's emotional, it's very loaded when you achieve this. When you get the World Cup into your country it's magnificent, it's the highest thing you can achieve," he said.

"But also Licha has to accept that on the 27th, the Premier League will go on.

"We all know that the restart is five or six days after the World Cup final, and we all know that after the World Cup, the Premier League continues quickly. 

"Everyone has to be ready for that and you have to accept it; the manager, the coaching staff, but also the players. 

"We wanted to have a strong team to battle for the trophies. We spoke about the tough competition, so we have to be ready for it and it's not easy."

Having beaten Burnley to reach the last eight of the EFL Cup on Wednesday, United return to Premier League action against Nottingham Forest next Tuesday.

Martinez and fellow defender Raphael Varane will almost certainly be absent after helping their countries to the World Cup final, but Ten Hag has backed the France man to bounce back from the disappointment of seeing Argentina triumph.

"Of course, he's disappointed about losing the final, but I think he can be proud that he was in the final again, and of everything that he achieved already in his career," Ten Hag said of Varane.

"As a team, or as a player like Rapha, when you win so many trophies and now he's second [in the World Cup], I think you can still be proud because getting to the final is already a big achievement.

"I think the level of the nations was so close as they came into the final, then it was even in the final, as you know, they were very close."

United entered the World Cup break three points adrift of a top-four place with a game in hand, and although Ten Hag recognises his side are under pressure to qualify for the Champions League, he believes their rivals are in the same situation.

"As you say, I accept it, how it is, but I think it's also for the manager of Chelsea, for Newcastle United and all those clubs invested a lot in their squads," he said. "That will be for every manager.

"It's a big pressure to get into the Champions League, that's clear. You want to be in the top four and you want to fight for trophies and that's our aim."

Argentina's World Cup celebrations were "vulgar" and evidence of them being "inelegant winners", according to French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera.

It was confirmed on Thursday that French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet wrote to his Argentinian counterpart, Claudio Tapia, to complain about the "abnormal" and "shocking" taunts towards Kylian Mbappe.

Argentina beat France 4-2 on penalties following an enthralling 3-3 draw after extra time in Sunday's World Cup final, sparking elaborate celebrations over the coming days in Buenos Aires.

Millions took to the streets of Argentina's capital, with Tuesday's victory parade ultimately cut short due to the huge crowds causing the team's bus to be held up.

During the celebrations, Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was seen holding a doll bearing Mbappe's face.

The Aston Villa player also landed himself in hot water for comments about his efforts to put off Aurelien Tchouameni – who missed his penalty – in the shoot-out, and for social media footage that showed Martinez calling for a "moment of silence" for Mbappe in the dressing room after the final.

Several France players were also subject to racist messages from members of the public on social media, and the whole ordeal left a sour taste for Oudea-Castera.

Speaking to RTL, she said: "We have to ask the Argentine Football Association [AFA] for an explanation and moreover Noel Le Graet has done, he asked his counterpart Claudio Tapia.

"I find it pitiful. As much as our French team knew how to lose with panache, so much of how this Argentinian team acted following this victory is not worthy of the match we saw.

"There was still inappropriate mockery there against Tchouameni [by Martinez], it's just vulgar and inappropriate.

"They are inelegant winners. There is inappropriate mockery, and unacceptable racist acts [on social media].

"I am glad that Le Graet has filed a complaint and is taking this step with his counterpart. Emiliano Martinez does not distinguish himself, it's quite pathetic.

"I was able to speak with Kylian Mbappe on the plane back and he has a step back from that. The best answer to bring is to return to the field and make the football speak."

After Lionel Messi's Argentina lifted the World Cup in Qatar, attention turns back to club football with Europe's top five leagues set to resume in the coming weeks.

The Premier League is the first to restart, with all 20 teams in action on either December 26 or 27, while Ligue 1 and La Liga get back under way in the following days.

You will have to wait until the new year for Serie A to recommence, before the Bundesliga starts back up again with Bayern Munich's visit to RB Leipzig on January 20.

It has been a while since Europe's elite paused for the World Cup, so Stats Perform provide a refresher of how things were shaping up before the hiatus.

LALIGA

Title race

It looks like a two-horse race in LaLiga, as it appears giants Barcelona and Real Madrid are set for an epic title fight.

Barcelona have their noses in front with a two-point margin over Madrid, but Carlo Ancelotti's side came out on top when the teams met in October.

The next El Clasico will take place on March 19 at Camp Nou and could have massive implications for who lifts the LaLiga trophy come the end of the season.

Champions League spots

With Barcelona and Madrid stretching away at the top of LaLiga, Basque sides Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao are the two teams that occupy the other Champions League spots.

Athletic are one of three sides on 24 points, while Villarreal in ninth are just three points behind following their Champions League heroics last season.

Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano are two teams that were not expected to be in the race for top four, but they sit in seventh and eighth respectively and are well within striking distance.

Relegation battle

Six-time Europa League winners Sevilla are in big trouble at the bottom of LaLiga, with two victories in their first 14 matches putting them in the relegation zone.

They are yet to win at home, and head coach Julen Lopetegui was relieved of his duties after their Champions League exit.

Sevilla are kept off the bottom by Cadiz and Elche, with the latter yet to win a league game this season and picking up just four points before the World Cup break.

Big performances will be needed from World Cup heroes such as Argentina's Marcos Acuna and Morocco's Youssef En-Nesyri and Yassine Bounou if Sevilla are to haul themselves away from trouble.

PREMIER LEAGUE

Title race

Arsenal hold a five-point lead at the top, but Pep Guardiola's Manchester City will fancy their chances of retaining the title and have a rested Erling Haaland itching to get back scoring goals.

Haaland has been a revelation since joining from Borussia Dortmund, scoring 18 times in 13 games, though City's quest for a fifth title in six years has been hampered by defeats to Liverpool and Brentford.

However, with Haaland ready to play and Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus out for three months with a knee injury suffered at the World Cup, Mikel Arteta's side must carry on where they left off.

Champions League spots

Newcastle United have been one of the stories of the Premier League season, with a run of five straight victories under Eddie Howe taking them all the way up to third.

There is still a long way to go, but Newcastle are in a great position to finish in the top four of the Premier League for the first time since the 2002-03 campaign under Bobby Robson.

Tottenham currently hold fourth position with Manchester United just three points behind in fifth, while Liverpool's poor start sees them 15 points off leaders Arsenal.

Surprise package Brighton and Hove Albion and Chelsea are both on 21 points, but a solid run of form could put the pressure on those above.

Relegation battle

It may be a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire for Lopetegui as he was appointed as head coach of Wolves in November, with the Midlands club bottom of the Premier League at Christmas. Only two teams in that position have avoided relegation in the past.

A source of comfort for Wolves fans will be just how many teams are in danger of the drop, with Bournemouth in 14th just six points above them.

Everton and Leeds United are once again down there after narrowly staying up last season, while 2021-22 Europa League semi-finalists West Ham United are just a point above Nottingham Forest, who are in the bottom three after a tough opening to their first season back in the Premier League after a 23-year exile.

SERIE A

Title race

After an incredible start, Napoli currently hold an eight-point lead at the Serie A summit, the largest among the top five leagues.

They have achieved that in impressive fashion, yet to lose a league match this season and boasting the most potent attack with 37 goals in 15 matches, led by the division's top goalscorer Victor Osimhen (nine goals) and new star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (11 goal involvements), both of whom should be fresh having not played in the World Cup.

Just three points separate Milan in second and Inter in fifth among the chasing pack, but Napoli may soon be out of sight if they can pick up their incredible form from before Qatar.

Champions League spots

Just six points separate second and seventh in Serie A as teams desperately scramble to keep leaders Napoli in view.

Inter are currently out of the top four on goal difference, while Juventus are third despite Massimiliano Allegri coming under pressure during a mixed start.

Holders Milan are second and Lazio sit fourth, while Jose Mourinho's Roma are well poised in seventh place.

Relegation battle

The three teams in the relegation zone are yet to hit double figures for points, with 17th-placed Spezia six points above the drop zone.

Cremonese, Sampdoria and Hellas Verona in 18th, 19th and 20th respectively have combined for two victories from 45 matches so far.

While the likes of Spezia, Lecce and Sassuolo may be looking over their shoulders, they can remain pretty confident they will be playing Serie A football next season if the bottom three maintain their dreadful form.

BUNDESLIGA

Title race

In the Bundesliga, Bayern won six matches in a row prior to the World Cup, a much-needed run considering they had been victorious in just one of their previous six.

That upturn in form saw them build a four-point margin at the top, but the loss of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer with a broken ankle sustained in a skiing accident could be a big blow.

However, it is reasonable to expect Bayern to have enough quality to see off the challenges of the likes of Freiburg and Leipzig and earn an 11th consecutive Bundesliga title.

Champions League spots

Borussia Dortmund will face Chelsea in the Champions League round of 16, but they have much work to do if they are to qualify for next year's competition after a disappointing start in the Bundesliga

They currently sit sixth and are playing catch up, with Eintracht Frankfurt and Union Berlin also ahead of them.

It should be an exciting race for the top four spots, with Werder Bremen in ninth just six points off the Champions League places, while Wolfsburg in seventh are a team to watch having gone nine unbeaten before the World Cup.

Champions League spots

Schalke have won just twice this season at the foot of the league, and could face an immediate relegation back to the second tier.

Stuttgart occupy the relegation play-off spot and have called upon former head coach Bruno Labbadia as they fight to stay up, while Bochum are between Stuttgart and Schalke.

Of the teams just outside the drop zone, Xavi Alonso's Bayer Leverkusen won their last three matches prior to the break and appear to be steering themselves out of trouble, while in contrast Augsburg failed to win any of their past seven.

LIGUE 1

Title race

While a 2022-23 league title would only be Napoli's third in the club's history, Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain will be collecting a ninth in just 11 years if they see the job through.

PSG's players starred at the World Cup with Messi and Kylian Mbappe facing off in a brilliant final and return to club football with the hopes of working together to finally win the Parisian club's first Champions League.

Mauricio Pochettino's failure to win European football's top prize last season cost him his job, despite winning Ligue 1 at a canter, and Christophe Galtier will know the same fate could befall him should PSG be defeated by Bayern in the round of 16, with the first leg set to be played on February 14.

PSG's domestic challengers include Lens and Rennes, but they face a real challenge if they are to close the five-point gap to Galtier's side, who are unbeaten and have the division's best attack and meanest defence.

Champions League spots

While Lens and Rennes may not be able to catch PSG at the peak of Ligue 1, the two teams will certainly fancy their chances of staying in the top three.

With fourth place in Ligue 1 only enough to earn a place in the Europa League, Marseille will be striving to dislodge one of the aforementioned sides and wrestle their way into Europe's premier club competition.

Lorient have finished 16th in the last two campaigns but an excellent start sees them in fifth, above perennial European contenders Monaco, Lille and Lyon.

Relegation battle

Ligue 1's relegation scrap is wide open with the reduction of France's top tier to 18 teams meaning four teams will go down this season.

There is just six points between Reims in 11th and second-bottom Strasbourg, the latter of whom narrowly missed out on the European qualification spots last term.

Angers are propping up the league on eight points, and their survival chances could take a significant hit if they lose midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, who is reportedly wanted by Barcelona after outstanding performances for Morocco at the World Cup.

Angel Di Maria has been "galvanised" by Argentina's World Cup success, which Massimiliano Allegri sees as good news for Juventus.

Di Maria played a starring role in his country's epic final triumph against France on Sunday.

The winger won the penalty for Lionel Messi's opener, then added a sublime second himself before being substituted with Argentina seemingly in control.

France rallied to reach a shoot-out following a 3-3 draw, but Messi and goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez led Lionel Scaloni's side to a long-awaited victory.

Di Maria had returned to the Argentina line-up for the Lusail Stadium showpiece having lost his place in the XI following an injury in the group stage.

It has been a similar story for the 34-year-old at club level this season, joining Juve as a free agent but seeing only 246 minutes of Serie A action prior to Qatar 2022.

Bianconeri coach Allegri is optimistic now, however, with Di Maria joined in the Argentina squad by club-mate Leandro Paredes.

"For sure they are galvanised by this World Cup victory," Allegri said on Thursday.

"And they are well physically, which is the most important thing, especially for Di Maria, who had some problems in the first part of the season anyway."

Di Maria's fitness has been far from Juve's only problem, with Allegri's men eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage and 10 points off the pace in Serie A.

But the coach said: "We need to prepare well and get back into the championship atmosphere straight away, because then from January 4 until June 5, we're never going to stop.

"We need to be very good at trying to play 36 games, which would mean getting to the Europa League final and getting to the Coppa Italia final."

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