Wherever you stand on football's GOAT debate, you can't deny the legacy of Diego Maradona.

Some would place him behind Lionel Messi as Argentina's greatest ever footballer, and short of Pele in the sport's pantheon of the mighty; others would say Maradona eclipses them all. It's a debate that has raged for decades, and one that is not likely to be settled for some time.

But nobody can argue that Maradona – who died a year ago to the day at the age of 60 – produced a string of performances to rival anything the World Cup has ever witnessed in Mexico in 1986.

From the group stage to the final with West Germany, via the 'Goal of the Century' and a brazen moment of cheating, Maradona was so far above his contemporaries that the sheer idea of anyone else winning the Golden Ball was laughable.

Argentina beat South Korea, drew with Italy and defeated Bulgaria in their group, then saw off Uruguay, England and Belgium in the knockouts before a 3-2 final defeat of West Germany. 

As Opta data shows, Maradona was the beating heart of the Albiceleste's second World Cup triumph.

TAKE MY BREATH AWAY

Gary Lineker was the only player to score more goals (six) at the 1986 World Cup than Maradona (five). That's about the only category where he did not come out on top.

He added five assists to those five goals in his seven appearances, giving him the most goal involvements (10) of any player, ahead of the USSR's Igor Belanov (eight), and Lineker, Careca and Preben Elkjaer Larsen (six).

It stands to reason that Maradona also created more goalscoring chances (27) than any other player. Next on the list was France's Alain Giresse (24), then Klaus Allofs (23), Michel Platini (19) and Careca (17).

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Everyone, most famously West Germany, tried to man-mark Maradona out of the equation. None succeeded.

He completed 53 dribbles across the tournament, a tally that puts the rest of the competition to shame. The next highest number was recorded by USSR's Ivan Yaremchuk, who managed 16.

Of course, that kind of dazzling play will always attract a more prosaic approach from the opposition. Maradona was fouled 53 times, more than double the number of anyone else (Enzo Francescoli was next on 27 fouls won).

EDGE OF HEAVEN

Maradona's all-round impact on proceedings could only come from a player given freedom to drop deeper and seize the ball from lesser men. It's incredible, then, that he managed 44 touches in the opposition box, eight more than the next-highest on the list, Brazil's Careca. Lineker, winner of the Golden Boot, had 31 such touches.

Lineker and England have, of course, never forgotten Maradona's impact on their 2-1 quarter-final defeat in Mexico City. It was the scene of his greatest goal – a mazy, miraculous waltz through the heart of the opposition that ended with the bamboozling of goalkeeper Peter Shilton – and his crowning moment of infamy, when 'The Hand of God' punched Argentina into the lead.

Perhaps that wasn't such a one-off, though. Since 1966, no player has committed as many handballs at the World Cup as Maradona (seven) – and they're just the ones the referees spotted.

Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to World Cup glory, triumphed in Italy and Europe with Napoli and won countless individual honours.

Along the way, the footballing great – who died at the age of 60 on November 25, 2020 – scored some of the greatest goals the game has ever seen.

No matter the occasion, or indeed the opponent, Maradona was often unplayable – as can be seen from our selection of his five greatest ever goals.

 

Argentina v England (June 22, 1986)

Hailed by many as the greatest goal of all time, Maradona picked up the ball inside his own half and dribbled past four England players before calmly rounding Peter Shilton.

The moment of magic arrived four minutes after the notorious 'Hand of God' goal and helped Argentina into the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup, a tournament which they went on to win.

Peter Reid, one of the England players that Maradona sauntered past, described the mesmerising second goal as an example of "an artist at work, at the best of his ability".

 

Argentina v Belgium (June 25, 1986)

The goal scored by Maradona three days later, this time in the semi-finals, was not too dissimilar in that he had four opposition players between himself and the goal.

He slalomed between two of them, jinked past another – in the process taking out a fourth – and fired past Jean-Marie Pfaff for his second goal of the contest.

Napoli v Juventus (November 3, 1985)

Napoli ended their 12-year wait for a league victory over rivals Juventus thanks to Maradona's brilliance of a different kind. If the previous goals were all about neat footwork and clinical finishing, this was more to do with sheer audacity.

A large wall, set five metres from the ball, was not enough to stop the Argentine maestro delicately lifting the indirect free-kick, rolled short into his path, into the one spot Stefano Tacconi could not reach.

Napoli v Hellas Verona (October 20, 1985)

This one was all about the technique - and the confidence to even think about taking it on. Maradona brought down the ball with his first touch, turned and sent a long-range drive flying over Giuliano Giuliani from a good 40 yards out.

What made it all the more special is that this strike came in a 5-0 thrashing of Hellas Verona, who were the reigning Serie A champions at the time.

Boca Juniors v River Plate (April 10, 1981)

Maradona spent a season with Boca Juniors before arriving in Europe, and it soon became clear what a talent he would become.

His first spell at the club may have been short, but he left behind plenty of memories, including a famous goal against bitter rivals River Plate. Intricate footwork in the penalty area left River helplessly bamboozled before Maradona converted from close range.

Diego Maradona enjoyed a stellar career, playing for some of the world's biggest clubs and instilling himself in World Cup folklore.

It is a year since the Argentina great died at the age of 60 after suffering a heart attack.

While his career was not shy of controversy, at his best Maradona was simply unplayable, and enjoyed success in South America and Europe, as well as on the international stage.

Stats Perform takes a look at his five greatest achievements, from World Cup success with Argentina to an era of Serie A glory with Napoli.


Bernabeu ovation

It takes something truly magnificent for Real Madrid fans to contemplate applauding a Barcelona player. Maradona delivered just that in June 1983, when he rounded Los Blancos goalkeeper Agustin and then, with the goal at his mercy, opted to sit the back-pedalling Juan Jose on the floor before tucking the ball home.

Maradona was given a standing ovation when he was later substituted – something that would not be repeated for a Barcelona player in that ground for another 22 years, when Ronaldinho was similarly honoured.

Goal of the century

Maradona's greatest goal is arguably the best in the history of the World Cup. He made the extraordinary seem easy as a matter of regularity and, on June 22, in a 2-1 quarter-final win over England, he did just that. In perhaps a summary of Maradona the man – and the player – his moment of magic followed on from possibly his most controversial act on a pitch: the 'Hand of God' goal.

Four minutes after inciting uproar in the England ranks, Maradona embarked on a mazy, remarkable run through the heart of the opposition and, within seconds, was coolly rounding England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to put Argentina into an unassailable lead.

World Cup glory

Following the win over England, 25-year-old captain Maradona led Argentina to a 2-0 semi-final victory against Belgium – scoring both goals once again – and a 3-2 triumph over West Germany in the final, as his country clinched their second World Cup crown.

Maradona finished the tournament in Mexico with five goals and a further five assists in seven games – no other player has done that since at a single edition of a World Cup.

He went on to captain his country again at the next World Cup, Italia 1990, before featuring twice in World Cup 1994, and he holds the Argentina record for the most appearances in the World Cup, with 21, ahead of Javier Mascherano (20) and Lionel Messi (19).

Triumph in Napoli

When Maradona arrived at Napoli in 1984, the club had not won a Serie A title in their 61-year history. After scoring 14 goals to help Napoli to eighth place in his first season, and netting another 11 as they finished third in his second, Maradona was the catalyst for a historic performance from the Partenopei in 1986-87.

They finished the season as champions, three points clear of bitter rivals Juventus, and the city exploded into celebrations that included an informal day of holiday to enjoy the moment. The triumph was by no means down to Maradona alone, but he is remembered as their inspiration and star.

Last-gasp joy as Albiceleste boss

Maradona's career as a head coach cut a stark contrast to his playing days, but a lack of success at the helm of Textil Mandiyu and Racing Club did not prevent him taking charge of his country in 2008. The highlight of a tumultuous two-year spell came in October 2009, when Peru came to Buenos Aires for a World Cup qualifier Argentina desperately needed to win to revive their hopes of qualifying for South Africa 2010. Maradona's decision to play Gonzalo Higuain ahead of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero proved a shrewd one as the striker gave Argentina the lead, but Peru levelled the match in the last minute through Hernan Rengifo.

The moment called for a hero and Martin Palermo, recalled to the national team by Maradona after a 10-year absence, scored the winner deep into injury time to prompt wild celebrations on the touchline and in the stands, with the image of Maradona sliding along the rain-soaked pitch on his belly etched into the country's memory.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell was delighted with his side after they hammered Argentina 53-7 to collect their third win from three games in the Autumn Nations series on Sunday.

The visitors caught Ireland cold when Santiago Carreras danced down the right wing to open the scoring at the Aviva Stadium. However, tries from Josh van der Flier, Andrew Porter and Caelan Doris ensured the hosts led 24-7 at half-time.

Van de Flier bundled over for a second time after the break, with Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Beirne all getting in on the act after Tomas Lavanini's dangerous tackle had seen Argentina reduced to 14 men.

Having overcome New Zealand last time out, the hosts are now unbeaten in eight games since a 15-13 loss against France last February and Farrell reflected on a great performance from his whole squad.

"We are delighted with the win," Farrell told Channel 4 after Ireland's 27th win in 29 games at the Aviva Stadium.

"It is a great day for us because we grow as a group, with players out some people got their chances and did pretty well, it is pretty satisfying overall.

"That's how we train, we make sure we're all across our work, anyone who comes into the hotel on Friday or Saturday has to be ready to play."

Asked how his side will prepare for their next clash with Wales in their Six Nations opener in February, Farrell added: "We will meet and review and take the lessons learned.

"We will watch the lads fight against one another for their provinces over the next couple of months and hopefully they grow as players before they come back in and we hit the ground running for our first game of the Six Nations."

The 2022 World Cup is now just 12 months away, with qualifying entering its closing stages following a series of crunch November clashes.

Difficulties still await Italy and Portugal – the past two European champions – in the play-offs, but most of the other big names are well on their way if they have not already confirmed their place in Qatar.

So, how are the expected contenders shaping up? Stats Perform investigates.

Argentina

Having finally ended his long wait for a senior international honour at this year's Copa America, Qatar looks like Lionel Messi's last realistic chance to guide Argentina to World Cup glory. They last triumphed in 1986, in the days of Diego Maradona.

But the brilliant Barcelona form that has been the bedrock of Messi's outstanding career is no more. Since clinching the Copa, the forward has left Camp Nou for Paris Saint-Germain and played just 595 minutes across eight games at club level, scoring three goals and assisting none. Heading into this weekend, he had yet to net in Ligue 1.

At odds with the rest of his career, Messi has briefly become one of those players who performs better for country than for club, scoring four goals in seven games for Argentina in the same period, even allowing for the minutes spent regaining fitness in November. But the national team must be concerned Messi's unconvincing displays and shaky recent fitness record hint at a decline that could continue for another year before he gets an opportunity to lead a global title charge.

Although Argentina undoubtedly have other highly talented players – Messi was one of four to make the Team of the Tournament as they become South American champions – it is tough to imagine a successful Albiceleste side without the great number 10 at the heart of it.

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez's Belgium remain the world's top-ranked team, but it feels like their window for a first major title might now have passed.

Martinez took charge after Euro 2016, where a stacked squad lost to Wales in the last eight, yet he has found a glass ceiling, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and fourth at the 2020-21 Nations League either side of another quarter-final exit at Euro 2020. Since a disappointing performance at the Nations League Finals, Martinez has been linked to a host of club roles – albeit he is expected to stay put until Qatar.

Although Belgium's 'Golden Generation' have maintained their position at the top of the game despite an ageing defence, there are worrying signs their key attacking players could also be on the wane.

Through a combination of injuries and poor form, Eden Hazard has not looked the same player since he left Chelsea for Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, also beset by fitness issues and below-par outings of late, will hope not to follow the same path. Both he and Romelu Lukaku must still be at their peak to give the Red Devils a chance.

Brazil

Brazil were outclassed by Belgium in the quarter-finals in Russia but have lost just three matches since then. One of those was in this year's Copa final against Argentina, although the Selecao also won the competition in 2019.

Unlike previous Brazil teams, Tite's side are built on the strength of their defensive record. They have kept 28 clean sheets since the 2018 World Cup, conceding just 16 times in 42 games, with 11 shutouts in 2021 alone.

However, that solidity comes at a price. Brazil are scoring at a relatively unspectacular rate of 2.0 goals per game, including netting only two in their three Copa knockout games in July and just one across two November qualifiers.

Neymar will have a key role in producing those timely moments of magic and should not be short of motivation heading to Qatar, having suggested this will be his last World Cup. The forward has excelled on the world stage before without taking Brazil all the way.

England

As so often, England have qualified with relative ease, benefiting from a kind draw, but will not face a true test until the tournament comes around.

That means a wait to see if Gareth Southgate can make the necessary tweaks to turn the Three Lions from nearly men into champions, with the midfield a key area of focus having ceded 65.4 per cent of the possession to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, 53.2 per cent to the Netherlands in the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals and 55.5 per cent to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semis. The continued development of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham should encourage optimism.

But England also find themselves in a position, like Argentina, where the performances of their talismanic captain are suddenly a concern – at least at club level.

Harry Kane has so far this season used the international breaks as sweet relief, quickly closing on Wayne Rooney's record goals tally by scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers up to September and notching seven in November alone, but there is a break now before March's fixtures and the forward simply must rediscover some sort of form for Tottenham and add to his single Premier League goal in order to return to the England fold in good nick.

 

France

Welcoming Karim Benzema back into a frightening front line, France appear to have an even more impressive line-up than at the previous World Cup, where they emerged as champions.

Benzema has already directly combined for five goals with Kylian Mbappe and one with Antoine Griezmann, who has in turn linked up once with Mbappe. The trio netted nine of France's 10 goals this month, while Mbappe had assists for each of Benzema's strikes at the Nations League Finals as both players scored in both matches and Les Bleus twice came from behind to take the title.

Yet those prior deficits and the six goals conceded at the Euros hinted at the weaknesses in this France side, as Didier Deschamps is still working on his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

The composition of the midfield in that team is crucial, and N'Golo Kante was missing against Belgium and Spain before Paul Pogba suffered an injury prior to the November fixtures. France have no shortage of quality but may not head to Qatar as the most settled unit.

Germany

It was clear Joachim Low's Germany tenure was reaching its natural conclusion before he announced his departure plans in March. That the team followed up a group-stage exit at the World Cup by stumbling through their pool at the Euros before exiting to England only further illustrated that this was the right decision.

But Germany know all about recovering quickly from such setbacks; they seemed to reach rock bottom at Euro 2000 and were in the World Cup final two years later.

Now Hansi Flick, having set Bayern Munich back on course, is excelling again with the national team, becoming the first Germany coach to win his first six matches in charge – a sequence that now stands at seven and counting. The team's last longer winning run ended at 12 games in 1980.

Germany were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe during qualifying, this despite naming their oldest XI in more than 21 years in a recent qualifier against Liechtenstein. Striking this same balance between energy and experience will be key in Qatar.

Spain

Spain have come a long way since the last World Cup, where they appeared to be in crisis from start to finish, eventually exiting to hosts Russia on penalties.

Luis Enrique's subsequent work across two spells has made them contenders again, reaching the last four at the Euros – only to again fall foul of a shoot-out – and briefly leading France in the Nations League final. The emergence of Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi over the course of these campaigns provides a major cause for long-term optimism, too.

However, injury issues have kept that trio from ever featuring together for their country; in fact, Fati, Pedri and Gavi are yet to play a single minute together for Barcelona.

They were three of 39 players to appear for Spain in qualifying, showing the depth of talent at Luis Enrique's disposal. Within that group, however, there is not a prolific goalscorer – a major concern with 12 months to go.

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

Brazil head coach Tite blasted the video assistant referee (VAR) and labelled it "inconceivable" that Nicolas Otamendi was not sent off for an elbow in Tuesday's 0-0 2022 World Cup qualifier draw with Argentina.

Raphinha was floored and left bloodied after the 34th-minute incident where Otamendi flailed his arm into the Brazilian midfielder's face.

Otamendi lifted Raphinha to his feet with no sanction from referee Andres Cunha, nor any VAR intervention in the aftermath leaving Tite flabbergasted.

"It's impossible not to see the elbow. Was it decisive in the result? I do not know," Tite said during the post-game news conference.

"Was it a great match for both teams? It was. Great game between them. Tradition, technical quality. Now, there's a component that has to be equal, for those who have the discernment to see.

"But a high-level VAR referee cannot work like this. It is inconceivable, and that is not the term I want to use, but I use it because I am educated."

The result in San Juan leaves already-qualified Brazil six points clear of second-placed Argentina in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying standings.

Argentina officially earned their spot in Qatar one hour after full-time when Chile were beaten 2-0 at home by Ecuador.

Brazil return to action away to Ecuador in late January when CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying resumes.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni celebrated a "magnificent year" after the Copa America champions qualified for the 2022 World Cup.

Despite a goalless draw at home to already-qualified rivals Brazil, Argentina booked their spot at Qatar 2022 after Colombia, Uruguay and Chile all failed to win in CONMEBOL on Tuesday.

It caps a successful 2021 for two-time world champions Argentina, who ended their 28-year wait for silverware by dethroning Brazil in July's Copa America final.

"This was a magnificent year," Scaloni – who matched Alejandro Sabella for the country's second longest undefeated run in CONMEBOL qualifying amid a 13-game streak, said. "Winning the Copa, qualifying for the World Cup unbeaten. It was a dream."

"We got four points against two very difficult rivals. We all like to win of course but these games help a team to mature. Without a doubt, the balance is positive.

"Having qualified so far in advance, in a really difficult qualifying section, is something we should be proud of."

Lionel Messi returned to the line-up but was unable to inspire Argentina, who played out a stalemate with Brazil in San Juan to extend their unbeaten streak to 27 matches across all competitions.

That underwhelming performance left Argentina waiting to discover their World Cup fate, though La Albiceleste only had to wait less than an hour following 10-man Chile's 2-0 loss at home to Ecuador.

Argentina – searching for their first world crown since 1986 – are second in the CONMEBOL standings with five matches remaining, six points behind leaders Brazil and six clear of third-placed Ecuador.

Eliminated in the last-16 stage at Russia 2018, Argentina and Brazil have both played a game less following September's qualifier in Sao Paulo, which was sensationally abandoned after Scaloni's men left the field as Brazilian health officials tried to detain visiting players due to coronavirus regulations.

After his subdued performance, superstar captain Messi – who missed Paris Saint-Germain's two matches prior to the international break – allayed his fitness concerns.

"I'm fine otherwise I wouldn't have played," Messi said before learning Argentina had qualified after the South American powerhouse made it six games without conceding – their longest streak in qualifying.

"I've been standing for a long time and it's not easy to play a game with as much pace as this one.

"Luckily I'm fine and I know that little by little I'm going to pick up the pace. I hope I can finish the year well."

Argentina qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, despite playing out a goalless draw with CONMEBOL rivals Brazil.

Lionel Messi returned to the line-up but he was unable to inspire Argentina, who played out a stalemate against Qatar-bound Brazil in San Juan on Tuesday.

That underwhelming performance left Copa America champions Argentina waiting to discover their World Cup fate.

Argentina only had to wait less than an hour as 10-man Chile lost 2-0 at home to Ecuador, sealing La Albiceleste's qualification after Colombia and Uruguay also failed to win.

Lionel Scaloni's Argentina – riding a 27-game unbeaten streak – are second in the CONMEBOL standings with five matches remaining, six points behind leaders Brazil and six clear of third-placed Ecuador.

Argentina and Brazil have both played a game less following September's qualifier in Sao Paulo, which was sensationally abandoned after Scaloni's men left the field as Brazilian health officials tried to detain visiting players due to coronavirus regulations.

Having ended their 28-year wait for silverware via July's Copa America, Messi's Argentina will now look to conquer the World Cup.

Two-time champions Argentina – eliminated in the round of 16 at Russia 2018 – have not won the World Cup since Diego Maradona inspired the country to 1986 glory, though they reached the final in 2014.

Argentina and Brazil played out an underwhelming 0-0 draw as the Copa America champions missed the chance to secure World Cup qualification.

Meeting for the first time since September's fixture was sensationally abandoned in Sao Paulo after Argentina left the field as Brazilian health officials tried to detain visiting players, La Albiceleste had the opportunity to earn a trip to Qatar 2022 following Colombia's draw against Paraguay.

However, despite Lionel Messi's return to the starting XI on Tuesday, Argentina were unable to breach CONMEBOL leaders Brazil, who were already assured of a spot at next year's tournament.

Argentina could still qualify on Tuesday if Chile lose to Ecuador later on Tuesday.

Chances were few and far between after a cagey start between Argentina and Brazil in San Juan, where neither goalkeeper was really tested in the opening half as Neymar sat out for the Selecao due to a thigh injury.

However, there was a big moment involving Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi and Brazil's Raphinha as the game came to life approaching half-time.

Raphinha went down in a heap and was left bleeding after coping a blow from Otamendi, but the former Manchester City centre-back escaped punishment.

Alisson almost gifted Argentina a chance to break the deadlock after failing to catch a cross but Brazil managed to clear their lines, while the Liverpool keeper took a boot to the face minutes before the interval.

Fred went close to making the breakthrough for Brazil on the hour – the ball fell to the Manchester United midfielder on the edge of the box and his volley hit the crossbar.

There was another opening for Brazil with 19 minutes remaining, but Vinicius Junior's effort was straight at Emiliano Martinez.

Neymar will miss his meeting with Lionel Messi after being ruled out of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier against Argentina due to an adductor injury, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) announced.

Brazil – already assured of a Qatar 2022 berth – will meet Argentina in San Juan on Tuesday, with a win for Messi's men all but guaranteeing World Cup qualification.

After coming off the bench against Uruguay last time out, Messi will definitely play a part for Copa America champions Argentina, according to head coach Lionel Scaloni.

However, Brazil superstar and Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Neymar – who teed up Lucas Paqueta for the winning goal against Colombia – will not be involved because of a thigh injury.

"After training at the Palmeiras Football Academy this Monday morning, athlete Neymar Jr. complained of pain in the adductor region of his left thigh," the CBF said.

"Neymar Jr. reported insecurity with the situation and because there was not enough time to carry out complementary exams, the technical committee chose to preserve the player, who will not travel with the Brazilian team's delegation to San Juan, location of Tuesday's game against Argentina."

Brazil and Argentina will meet for the first time since September's World Cup qualifier was sensationally abandoned in Sao Paulo.

The top-of-the-table fixture was halted following an apparent breach of coronavirus regulations, Argentina naming three Premier League players in their starting line-up – Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and Tottenham pair Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso – amid travel restrictions.

Despite the rulings, Martinez, Romero and Lo Celso were all starters for Argentina, with Brazilian health officials quickly acting by entering the pitch shortly after the match had started.

A subsequent melee ensued, and the visitors eventually left the field and did not return, Brazil playing out a training fixture among one another.

Looking ahead to Tuesday's showdown, Brazil head coach Tite told reporters: "It is hard to get the dimension of it. I don’t know how it was from the Argentinian side of it. Everything that happened. I am sorry about the fact that the match didn't happen.

"But now we have all the facts and understand why it didn't happen. I have all this very clear: before football, health is more important, laws exist and the correction of the facts. All these happened. I don't know how they face this situation because it is very particular.

"I can say that Brazil v Argentina is a huge match. Historically, it is huge. A lot of quality on both sides. The two best campaigns, a lot of technical quality individually from both teams."

Lionel Scaloni has confirmed Lionel Messi will definitely play a part in Argentina's World Cup qualifier against Brazil.

The rival nations meet for the first time since this year's Copa America final, which Argentina won 1-0, when they face off in San Juan on Tuesday.

Both teams have identical records since that final, each winning five of their six qualifiers. A clash between the pair in Sao Paulo in September was suspended due to coronavirus restrictions relating to Argentina's England-based players.

Already-qualified Brazil sit top of the CONMEBOL standings on 34 points, six clear of Scaloni's team, who defeated Uruguay on Friday.

Given the 12-point gap between Argentina and fifth-placed Colombia, who occupy the play-off spot, a win would all but guarantee their place in Qatar next year. Dropped points for two of Chile, versus Ecuador, Colombia, against Paraguay, and Uruguay, in Bolivia, would make the picture clearer still.

Messi, whose selection in Argentina's squad "did not make sense" – according to Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Leonardo – due to the 34-year-old's recent injury issues, came on as a 76th-minute substitute in the win over Uruguay.

Scaloni explained he had used Messi sparingly in order to keep him in top condition for Tuesday's clash with Brazil, and the coach confirmed in his pre-match news conference the former Barcelona superstar would certainly play, albeit he did not reveal if he would start.

"It is confirmed that Messi will play tomorrow," Scaloni told reporters on Monday.

On the challenge his team face, Scaloni said: "This Brazilian team is one of the most direct in recent times.

"They have already qualified for the World Cup, and we know how difficult this game is going to be.

"You have to always play the same, it is not worth it for me that a player of mine plays in one way against Venezuela and another against Brazil. Football is always the same regardless of the rival.

"I don't think the rest of the rivals in the qualifiers are less than Brazil. They are all very difficult games.

"There are always things to correct. Our goal is that the players do not relax, that they know that there are things to improve."

While Messi will play, Argentina may be without Paulo Dybala, who was taken off at half-time against Uruguay.

"Paulo came with a blow and at half-time of the game we decided to take him out, it was not worth risking it. Now we are waiting to see what [injury] he has," Scaloni added.

Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni says he used Lionel Messi off the bench for 15 minutes in Friday's 1-0 win in Uruguay with an eye to Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Brazil.

Messi had missed the past two games at club level for Paris Saint-Germain with knee and hamstring issues but was used as a 76th-minute substitute against Uruguay.

Scaloni had said in the lead-up to the game that Messi was "good" and "wants to play" but explained afterwards he used him for limited minutes with a view to getting him ready to face Brazil, who are top of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying standings.

"His entry in the second half serves to get the rhythm ahead of the game with Brazil," Scaloni said during the news conference, when asked about Messi's cameo.

"We decided not to play him in the starting line-up because he's coming off some inactivity and the game was going to be like the one that happened."

The win was Argentina's first in Uruguay in 12 years, extending their unbeaten run to 26 games and was a "giant step" towards World Cup qualification according to Scaloni.

Scaloni said Argentina had won "without playing well" against Uruguay, who he claimed forced the game to be played on their terms.

"There are times when you can't play well because your opponent plays and proposes a type of game, and you have to adapt," he said.

"We adapted to the match that took place. That is a good sign as a team."

Argentina are second in qualifying on 28 points from 12 games, behind Brazil on 34 points from the same number of games. La Albiceleste hold a 12-point buffer on fifth-placed Colombia in the play-offs spot in fifth.

Argentina are on the cusp of World Cup qualification after extending their unbeaten streak to 26 games by edging Uruguay 1-0.

Angel Di Maria was the difference away to rivals Uruguay, his sublime seventh-minute strike lifting second-placed Argentina to victory on Friday.

Argentina – who tied their CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying record after going eight matches unbeaten on the road – are one win away from booking their spot at Qatar 2022 heading into Tuesday's showdown against Brazil.

Lionel Scaloni's Argentina defeated Uruguay 3-0 during last month's international window, after La Celeste failed to make the most of their chances against the Copa America champions.

It was a similar story on home soil in Montevideo, where Uruguay lacked a cutting edge in front of goal, despite Luis Suarez's best efforts.

With Lionel Messi on the bench, Di Maria wore the captain's armband and Argentina's stand-in skipper broke the deadlock in the seventh minute.

Giovani Lo Celso won possession and laid the ball to Di Maria, who curled a stunning shot into the top corner of the net.

Uruguay continued to press numbers forward and they had a chance to restore parity approaching half-time after Matias Vecino's brilliant turn created space for a shot, however it was easily dealt with by Emiliano Martinez.

Martinez was left scrambling as Facundo Torres' tricky cross almost looped over the Argentina goalkeeper before he palmed it behind for a corner in the 63rd minute.

As Uruguay pushed forward in search of an equaliser, it created more space for Argentina to attack and the visitors engineered a couple of decent openings before Messi was introduced off the bench during the closing stages.

With the minutes ticking down, Agustin Alvarez headed just over the bar for Uruguay, while Martinez almost saw the ball slip through his legs and into the net as the hosts' World Cup hopes remain in the balance.

Lionel Messi linking up with the Argentina squad while not fully fit "does not make sense", according to Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Leonardo.

The 34-year-old has endured an injury-plagued start to his PSG career since arriving on a shock free transfer three months ago after leaving Barcelona.

After sitting out last week's draw with RB Leipzig and win over Bordeaux with knee and hamstring injuries, Messi has now featured in just eight of PSG's 18 matches this season.

Despite his niggling injury issues in recent months, Messi has been included in Argentina's squad for their World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Brazil over the next eight days.

PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino said on Friday he is happy for his compatriot to play for La Albiceleste as it will give him an opportunity to build up his fitness.

However, Leonardo is not pleased with Argentina's decision to call up the forward and has urged world football governing body FIFA to get involved. 

"We do not agree to release a player for national team selection who, for us, is not in physical condition or who is in the rehabilitation phase," he is quoted as saying by Le Parisien. 

"It does not make sense, and this type of situation is worthy of a ruling from FIFA."

 

Messi has played just 325 minutes of Ligue 1 action for PSG, compared to 450 minutes for Argentina across their qualifying fixtures in September and October, not including the suspended match with Brazil.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner has registered three goals in his first eight appearances for the French giants but has yet to score or assist in the league.

He has had 15 shots without finding the net in Ligue 1, failing to score from an expected goals value of 1.9.

Only Clermont midfielder Jim Allevinah (16) and Troyes forward Renaud Ripart (19) have had more shots without scoring in the French top flight this term.

Indeed, Messi has netted more times for Argentina in 2021-22 than he has for PSG, with four goals in five appearances.

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