The World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina that was suspended amid farcical scenes will be replayed, world governing body FIFA has confirmed.

September's contest in Sao Paolo was called off after Brazilian health officials entered the pitch early on due to an alleged breach of COVID-19 protocols.

The issue centred around visitors Argentina naming three Premier League players in their starting line-up, with travellers from the UK restricted entry to Brazil at the time.

Emiliano Martinez, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso, as well as Emi Buendia, were accused by the Brazilian government of providing false information on immigration forms.

FIFA launched an investigation at the time and, five months on, a verdict was announced on Monday.

As well as ordering the match to be replayed at a location and date to be set by FIFA, Martinez, Buendia, Romero and Lo Celso have been banned for two games.

The governing body says the suspension is "for not complying with the FIFA Return to Football International Match Protocol".

Brazil have also been fined 550,000 Swiss francs – the equivalent to £439,225 or $593,542 – and Argentina 250,000 Swiss francs.

South American heavyweights Brazil and Argentina have already booked a place at Qatar 2022 with three games, including the rescheduled match, still to play.

Perhaps there is something special to February 5. Or at least there is when it comes to world-class footballers.

On this day in 1985, Cristiano Ronaldo was born on the island of Madeira. Seven years later, Neymar came into the world in Mogi das Cruzes, in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo.

Two of modern football's greats being born on the same day is quite the quirk, but while Ronaldo has gone on to cement himself as one of the best ever, it's hard to shake the feeling Neymar has never quite lived up to his extraordinary potential.

He emerged at Santos as Brazil's golden boy, a bona fide superstar in the making. By the time he left for Barcelona in 2013 at the age of 21, he was already been talked up as a shoo-in for a Ballon d'Or success.

Yet, as the forward hits 30, no Ballon d'Or has arrived. Indeed, he finished 16th in the voting for the 2021 award, and his move to Paris Saint-Germain has not seen him scale new individual heights.

Instead, he has been somewhat overshadowed by Kylian Mbappe, one of the new kids on the block, and it was his team-mate and close friend Lionel Messi who claimed a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or last year.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, turns 37 back at the club where he became a global star.

Manchester United may not be the force they were under Alex Ferguson in Ronaldo's first stint, but his shock return to Old Trafford was a sensational story, and he continues to provide match-winning moments even if the comeback hasn't quite transformed the Red Devils into title contenders.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks back at what Neymar has achieved so far in his career, and how that stacks up against Ronaldo's feats by the time his twenties were over.

The trophies

Ronaldo was at Real Madrid when he turned 30 in 2015, a year after collecting his third Ballon d'Or, and a year prior to receiving his fourth. He went on to claim what was at the time a record-equalling fifth in 2017.

By the time he hit 30, Ronaldo had won four league titles (three Premier League wins, one in LaLiga), five domestic cup trophies and had enjoyed two Champions League triumphs. He had two Club World Cup successes to his name, and the UEFA Super Cup.

He played a pivotal role in Ferguson's dominant United team of the 2000s, combining with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez in a thrilling attack to win three successive Premier League titles between 2007 and 2009, before his departure to Madrid in a then world-record transfer. His maiden Champions League success came in 2007-08, and he left United after losing to Barcelona in the 2009 final.

Indeed, Barca were the dominant force upon Ronaldo's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu, and for much of the time before he turned 30.

In total, Ronaldo had won 16 major trophies by the time his twenties ended. Neymar, on the other hand, had already won six titles by the time he left Santos.

He added a further two league crowns to his name in Spain and won the Copa del Rey on three occasions, as well as the Champions League, Club World Cup and the Supercopa de Espana once each.

The Champions League has evaded Neymar so far at PSG, though he nevertheless has a trophy count of 10 and counting from his time in France, while unlike Ronaldo, he can count an Olympic gold – earned in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – among his honours.

Neymar has won 28 titles, with 21 of those coming in Europe and one with the Selecao (Confederations Cup 2013). However, Neymar missed Brazil's triumphant 2019 Copa America campaign through injury.

The rivalries

Ronaldo was 28 when Barca signed Neymar for €86.2m. The days of the Guardiola-Jose Mourinho Clasico rivalry were over, though the clash was still littered with superstars on each side.

Prior to his 30th birthday, Ronaldo featured in 22 Clasico matches, starting 21 times. He scored 14 goals and provided one assist across 1,928 minutes of action. 

Neymar played against Ronaldo's Madrid in four of these games, scoring twice, including on his Clasico debut when he opened the scoring and teed up Alexis Sanchez's sublime winner in a 2-1 Barca victory.

Barca won two of the four Clasico games in which Neymar played while Ronaldo was in his 20s, with Madrid taking the bragging rights in the other games.

Neymar's overall Clasico record stands at three goals and as many assists from eight appearances.

The goals

Neymar has scored 195 goals in European club football since arriving at Barca in 2013. 

It is hardly a total to be scoffed at, yet it pales in comparison to the 411 Ronaldo had managed across his spells with Sporting CP, United and Madrid by his 30th birthday.

Indeed, by February 5, 2015, Ronaldo had already netted 36 goals in all competitions in 2014-15. He finished that campaign with an incredible 61 goals, the highest single-season total of his career.

That 61-goal haul came towards the tail-end of a run in which Ronaldo netted at least 50 times in six straight seasons. Neymar's best tally in a single campaign stands at 39 (2014-15), while his totals at PSG have dropped year-on-year, with his total for 2021-22 standing at three in all competitions, compared to Ronaldo's 14.

Ronaldo is also now of course the outright leading goalscorer in the history of international football, having overtaken Iran great Ali Daei.

The Portugal captain has netted 115 times for his country, with 52 of those coming in his twenties.

Interestingly, Neymar wins out by 18 goals in this regard, totalling 70 across 11 years of playing for Brazil. 

He still has some way to go to catch Ronaldo, who is of course still going strong for Portugal, though that is one target that may well be in Neymar's sights should he match Ronaldo's longevity.

That being said, Neymar's injury record would suggest that, unlike Ronaldo and Messi, his chances of going down as one of the all-time greats appear slim heading into his thirties.

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

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

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

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

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

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

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

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

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

Philippe Coutinho was delighted to have finally ended the long wait between goals for Brazil after netting in the 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Paraguay in Belo Horizonte.

The 29-year-old playmaker, who joined Aston Villa on loan from Barcelona in January, netted a sublime long-range strike to make it 2-0 in the 62nd minute on Tuesday.

That goal marked Coutinho's first for his country since October 2020 when Brazil beat Bolivia 5-0 in their opening World Cup qualifier in this campaign.

It was also Coutinho's sixth goal from outside of the area for Brazil during Tite's tenure, with no player having scored more such goals in that time.

Coutinho, who has 65 caps to his name along with 19 goals, was back in the Brazil set-up for a second successive international break after missing much of 2021 with a knee injury, but had not featured for the Selecao since 2020 prior to starting against Ecuador last week.

"I was absent for a long time and I came out of a very complicated injury," Coutinho told reporters.

"I was called up for the previous two games for the Brazilian team but I hardly had a chance to play. I received a new opportunity now and I am happy to have delivered.

“I am very happy to have scored again for the Brazilian national team and to have scored again in this stadium with the Brazilian fans present."

Coutinho started and played 73 minutes in an offensive Brazilian formation, sitting behind a front three of Vinicius Junior, Matheus Cunha and Raphinha, with Neymar absent.

Lucas Paqueta and Coutinho offered plenty of attacking threat from midfield too but Brazil head coach Tite cooled excitement about the formation being a permanent fixture despite piling on four goals, with Raphinha and substitutes Antony and Rodrygo – the youngest player to score for the Selecao in this qualification campaign – also on target.

"I don’t believe much that the team is more offensive by having three strikers," Tite told reporters. "I see football as a balance.

"Those offensive players can only create if they have a creative midfield behind.

"A balanced team takes possession of the ball more times. I do not conceive of football where the pieces do not have harmony."

Brazil turned on the style and piled on the goals as they continued their perfect home World Cup qualifying record with a comfortable 4-0 win over Paraguay in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

Leeds United forward Raphinha had a goal disallowed by the VAR early before netting the opener in the 28th minute, with new Aston Villa signing Coutinho adding a second on 62 minutes for his first international goal since 2020.

Brazil added two more in the dying minutes as Ajax forward Antony curled in the third, before Newcastle United addition Bruno Guimaraes laid off for Rodrygo to tap home.

The victory means Selecao, who have already clinched their spot at Qatar 2022, are unbeaten in 15 qualifiers and remain four points clear of rivals Argentina at the top of the CONCACAF standings.

Brazil have also won seven out of seven qualifiers on home soil, netting 18 goals and conceding only once, while Paraguay officially cannot qualify for Qatar 2022 due to the defeat.

Brazil head coach Tite has criticized the decision to appoint a Colombian referee for Thursday's chaotic 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Ecuador.

Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan handed out four red cards throughout the game, including two to Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson which were both rescinded by the VAR, along with two overturned penalty awards for Ecuador.

Trailing 1-0 to Casemiro's first-half strike, Ecuador had a 55th-minute penalty awarded by Roldan overturned when it was determined Pervis Estupinan had dived in the box as opposed to being fouled by Raphinha.

In stoppage-time, the hosts again thought they had a penalty which could have led to the winner after a foul from Alisson but the award was overturned by the VAR, offering the Liverpool goalkeeper and Brazil a late reprieve.

Tite was critical of Roldan's "impulsiveness" but also the decision to appoint a referee from Colombia, who came into this matchday fourth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying behind Ecuador.

“Today there was no point in appointing a referee from the fourth country in the table, when the third and first were playing," Tite said at the post-game news conference.

"Roldan is a good referee, but it gives for interpretations. The designation took a bit of sensitivity."

Tite added: "It was a difficult game. The number of fouls was exaggerated, 20 fouls by Ecuador and 12 by us.

"The circumstances happened, it wasn't evil, it was impulsive. Incorrect, yes. And it needs to be corrected, yes. It needs to be mature, yes. But it wasn't evil."

Alisson was given a stoppage-time VAR reprieve after conceding a penalty as Brazil somehow clung on to a 1-1 draw against Ecuador in a chaotic World Cup qualifying classic.

Felix Torres equalised with 15 minutes to go and Ecuador looked set to grab the win that would put them on the brink of qualification when awarded a last-gasp penalty, but that opportunity was taken away in an ending that befitted the remarkable 90 minutes that preceded it.

The first half saw the red card brandished three times – the first two, for Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez and Brazil right-back Emerson Royal, were decisions that remained, but Alisson's was overturned.

All the controversy somewhat overshadowed Casemiro's early goal, which looked likely to be the winner given Ecuador had a goal wiped out and a penalty decision reversed soon after the restart, before Torres headed in.

Alisson was then sent off again, but for the second time his dismissal was overturned and Ecuador were denied their late spot-kick.

Brazil head coach Tite is bullish that Philippe Coutinho can help replace the injured Neymar in his first appearance in national colours for more than 12 months.

Coutinho, who earlier this month joined Aston Villa on loan from Barcelona, is set to line up for Selecao in place of the suspended Lucas Paqueta in Thursday's World Cup qualifier away to Ecuador.

The 29-year-old has not played for Brazil since October 2020 having undergone knee surgery in January 2021.

Coutinho's return coincides with the absence of Neymar who is out for the upcoming qualifiers with an ankle injury.

"People always want Neymar, but at times things don't happen the way you want," Tite told reporters.

"We feel sorry that Neymar can't be here, but we have other options. I'm talking about Coutinho. He is a player that can play in that role and I believe in his quality.

"Coutinho is an important player and he's been recovering to his best level."

He added: "From a social and human standpoint, I know how much time he has invested and the challenges he has faced to recover from injury."

Ex-Liverpool forward Coutinho has started life at Villa brightly, netting the equalizing goal in the 2-2 draw with Manchester United on debut.

Brazil have already clinched their spot at Qatar 2022, but Tite wanted to push his players in the qualifiers against Ecuador and also Paraguay on Tuesday.

"I thought the emotions and feelings would be lighter but no, we have the same emotions and anxieties," Tite said.

"I want to test players in the upcoming qualifiers. I still have the same pressure."

Tite confirmed that he will field Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior against Ecuador along with Raphinha and Matheus Cunha.

Brazil duo Neymar and Vinicius Jr could thrive in the same starting XI, despite both forwards preferring to play in the same position, according to Juninho.

While Neymar is out injured, Vinicius has been called up for Brazil's World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Paraguay over the coming week.

Vinicius has only made nine appearances for Brazil and is yet to score for his country, only starting twice – against Chile in September and Argentina in November respectively.

Up until this season, the Real Madrid winger had struggled for consistency, but under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti, he has thrived for Los Blancos.

Only Karim Benzema (33) has more direct goal contributions for Madrid in all competitions than Vinicius, who has scored 15 times and provided eight assists.

 

Neymar, meanwhile, has had another stuttering season with Paris Saint-Germain, making just 14 appearances in all competitions and completing 90 minutes only nine times.

However, should he be fit, Neymar will no doubt be Brazil's main man heading to Qatar in November.

With Vinicius in such fine form, though, his place in Tite's squad also seems a certainty, and asked if the attackers - who both play predominantly from the left wing in a 4-3-3 formation - could feature together, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) director Juninho believes there is no reason why not.

"The two of them can play together," Juninho told Spanish radio show El Larguero.

"Vinicius shows his quality at Madrid and is beginning to show it for the national team now.

"He's improving every game. Now he's been playing very well for a while.

"Like [Philippe] Coutinho or [Lucas] Paqueta, they can also play together."

Juninho may be convinced Neymar and Vinicius fit into the same side, but neither would be suited to playing in a central role in Tite's preferred 4-3-3 system, while both are at their best when given the freedom to drift inside from the left, rather than the right.

 

Neymar is having a poor season in terms of end product. He has only scored three goals (and one of those was a penalty) and provided as many assists, while he has also underperformed his expected goals (xG) of 4.3, suggesting his finishing has been below par.

Vinicius, on the other hand, has outperformed his xG (12), averaging a goal every 169 minutes for Madrid.

The 21-year-old has also created 64 chances in comparison to Neymar's 28. However, when assessed per 90 minutes, the former Barcelona star crafts 2.1 opportunities, which is not far behind Vinicius' 2.3.

Neymar is also a more proficient dribbler, completing 3.6 dribbles per 90 minutes in comparison to Vinicius' 3.4, while he also creates 0.5 big chances per 90, as opposed to the Madrid man's 1.6.

Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) director Juninho has confirmed Brazil will not release Real Madrid players before the end of the international break.

South American teams are in World Cup qualifying action over the coming week, with FIFA having inserted an extra international window into this season's calendar to make up for time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brazil have already qualified for this year's World Cup in Qatar and sit top of the CONMEBOL standings on 35 points.

They face Ecuador on Thursday and Paraguay on February 1. 

Madrid, meanwhile, have a Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic on February 3.

Four Madrid players – Casemiro, Eder Militao, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior – have been called up for Brazil.

However, Juninho insisted that even if the players do not feature in each of Brazil's games, they will remain with the national team until February 2 when the international window ends, meaning there is little chance of Los Blancos having the quartet available for the trip to San Mames.

"We are not going to release the players," Juninho told Spanish radio show El Larguero.

"The players have to be with us until the end of the FIFA period, on February 2. Depending on how they play the first match [we will] discuss whether or not they play the second.

"They will be with us until the end. We are not willing to release them. We cannot set a precedent. We have had requests from other clubs.

"We have a few days with the players. We must take advantage of this year now that the preparation for the World Cup has begun."

Juninho stressed Brazil have turned down Madrid's requests on the grounds of fairness to other teams.

"We can't, it's not that we don't want to," he added.

"In Tite's management it has never happened. That is not the situation, we understand the situation of the clubs. It has happened because of the pandemic. Before, there was no January date. It is the situation that was forced on us.

"We have a very good relationship with the clubs. We always talk cordially. [Brazil coach] Tite has explained the situation to Ancelotti. 

"It was in a good tone. They understood our situation and I think they haven't had any problems."

Asked if Tite had discussed the issue with the players in question, Juninho said: "I guess Tite has talked to them and made the situation very clear.

"The October [2022] dates were cancelled and we only have a week to prepare for the World Cup [in November]. There is only one week for Tite to be with the players and see how they are. The clubs understand that.

"I also spoke with [Paris Saint-Germain director] Leonardo and the English clubs on other occasions with the same problems."

Rodrygo has his sights set on World Cup glory with Brazil later this year following his call-up to the squad.

The Real Madrid winger has been selected by Tite for his nation's qualifiers against Ecuador and Paraguay this week.

The Selecao, who sit top of the CONMEBOL qualifying table, are already guaranteed a place in Qatar having collected 35 points from their opening 13 matches. 

Rodrygo has three senior caps to his name and knows the upcoming games present an opportunity for him to stake his claim to appear at the finals, and helping Brazil claim a sixth World Cup triumph – and first since 2002 – tops his priority list for this calendar year.

"It is very important for me to be [back in the] Brazil [squad]," he said in quotes reported on Marca via TNT Brazil.

"It was a goal to return to [the] Brazil [squad]. I think these games can define things, and I hope to play and settle in the national team.

"All Brazilians want to be in Qatar. I'm going to work to try to be there. If I play well, I have a chance [to go].

"[If I had to choose a title to win in 2022, I'd say] the World Cup."

Rodrygo has made 17 appearances for Madrid in LaLiga this season, with 11 of those coming as a substitute – the same as Luka Jovic – with none of his team-mates appearing from the bench more often. 

He has had more joy in the Champions League however, scoring in victories over Inter and Shakhtar Donetsk.

The 21-year-old has attempted 16 dribbles in Europe's premier competition this term, with Vinicius Junior (36) the only Los Blancos player to top that.

Rodrygo will hope to be involved again as Carlo Ancelotti's side face Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16, and he is excited by the prospect of lining up against one of his compatriots.

"This game could have come a bit later [in the competition]," he added.

"They have some of the best players in the world. We know it's difficult, but it's a collective effort that will give us the chance to go through.

"Playing against Neymar will be special. I hope Real Madrid win."

2021 is dead – long live 2022.

It's a new year, and while the one changing to a two literally overnight may seem arbitrary, it gives us an excuse to look ahead and what's on the horizon.

Of course, we're now into a World Cup year – 12 months from now, we'll have newly crowned world champions and, who knows, maybe a new superstar or two will have emerged.

While there's no guarantee about a player's trajectory, Stats Perform have at least put together a list of 22 under-22 players who could be worth keeping an eye out for in 2022.

GOALKEEPERS

Etienne Green, 21, English – Saint-Etienne

Honestly, he's not included just because of the perfection of a player called Etienne Green playing for Les Verts, Saint-Etienne – though that certainly warrants a mention. Colchester-born Green has played 23 times in Ligue 1 for the club, making Leeds United's Ilan Meslier the only goalkeeper born after 2000 to play more often (53) across the top five leagues. In April he became the fourth Ligue 1 keeper since Opta records began (2006-07) to save a penalty on his debut and he's since gone on to nail down a starting spot. Having recently declared for England over France, Green could be an outside bet for Gareth Southgate's squad at Qatar 2022.

Maarten Vandevoordt, 19, Belgian – Genk

In 2019, Vandevoordt became the Champions League's youngest ever goalkeeper at 17 years and 287 days old – it proved to be a bit of a nightmare as Genk lost 4-0, with youngster at fault for two goals. It would've been enough to shatter the confidence of most young players, but Vandevoordt's since gone on to become first-choice, playing 16 league games in 2020-21 and all 21 this term.

DEFENDERS

Kaiky, 17, Brazilian – Santos

If there's any area of the pitch that one might consider to be the hardest to establish yourself in as a young player, most would say centre-back. Yet, despite not turning 18 until January 12, Kaiky has racked up an impressive number of appearances there for Santos. He played more minutes in the 2021 Brasileirao (1,334 minutes) and the Libertadores (495) than any other under-19 player and has impressed with his comfort in possession, aerial ability and demonstrable appetite for defending. He has a long way to go, but he sure has made a promising start.

Becir Omeragic, 19, Swiss – FC Zurich

Omeragic is among the most highly rated young centre-backs in Europe and was in Switzerland's Euro 2020 squad – despite still being only 19, he's already played 71 Swiss Super League games for Zurich. This season he ranks highly in numerous metrics among defenders, such as tackle attempts (29, fifth-highest), interceptions (26, seventh-highest) and possession won (105, fifth-highest), while he offers good progression on the ball, his carry progress of 1,796.6m upfield being the fourth-best among all defenders – two of those are full-backs. Expect to see him in one of Europe's biggest leagues fairly soon.

Ilya Zabarnyi, 19, Ukrainian – Dynamo Kiev

Previously linked with Chelsea, among other major clubs, Zabarnyi caught the eye at Euro 2020 with some mature displays. Despite being the joint-youngest player in the squad, Zabarnyi was one of the five players to play every minute for Ukraine, and among those to feature for at least 100 minutes, he ranked in the top three for touches (72.8) and passes (60.6) on a per-90 basis. Similarly, only four played more passes into the final third than him (4.7), and three of those were midfielders. A move to a bigger league will give us a better idea of just how good Zabarnyi is, but the promise is there.

Ethan Laird, 20, English – Swansea City (on loan from Manchester United)

Manchester United have rated right-back Laird highly for a while – he actually made his senior debut for them as far back as November 2019 in the Europa League. Since then, he showed great promise at Milton Keynes Dons and then followed coach Russell Martin in making the jump to the Championship with Swansea City, where he's continued to impress. Only three defenders in the division have created more chances than him in open play (23), while his five big chances created is the second-most in the Swans squad. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka seemingly unable to kick on at United, Laird's opportunity may arrive in 2022.

Alex Balde, 18, Spanish – Barcelona

Barcelona have seemingly once again become great trusters of youth – not that their situation has given them much of a choice. Balde's not yet one of those to become a regular, and you'd think he will struggle to dislodge Jordi Alba at left-back, but in his four LaLiga appearances the 18-year-old has shown real promise with his ability on the ball and pace. Given his skillset and Xavi's desire to play with classic wingers, he may find himself used further up the pitch – either way, he's definitely one to watch.

George Bello, 19, American – Atlanta United

Nigeria-born Bello may not be 20 until late January, but he's already made a strong impression in MLS, so much so that he became a regular part of the USA's senior side in 2021. Added to that, his 2,433 minutes played was the most of any MLS player to end the season as a teenager. An attack-minded left-back, Bello is excellent on the ball and possesses great pace, and he may well be on the move soon given his contract expires at the end of 2022. If anyone takes a punt, they could be rewarded handsomely.

MIDFIELDERS

Yacine Adli, 21, French – Bordeaux (on loan from Milan)

Milan fans have every reason to be excited about Adli. The kind of silky playmaker that makes almost everything look effortless, he has created more chances after a carry (11) than any other midfielder in Ligue 1 this term. He may not be a great goal threat himself, but his six assists is the second-most among the same group of players (Dimitri Payet has seven) – all of Adli's were from open play, however, which is the most the league's midfielders. Whether he can keep that up at Milan is unclear, but if he can, they'll have a real asset on their hands.

Unai Vencedor, 21, Spanish – Athletic Bilbao

Athletic are one of LaLiga's stranger teams in that they don't win, lose, score or concede very often, yet that's not stopping Vencedor from thriving. A controlling presence with satisfying calmness on the ball in centre midfield, Vencedor is mature for his age and already has significant influence over Athletic's play. Just Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams have been involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences than Vencedor (47) among Athletic players, while the former (eight) is the only one with more instances of being involved in build-up and taking the shot (five) at the end, highlighting his importance to not only keeping them on the ball but also posing an attacking threat.

Nicolo Rovella, 20, Italian – Genoa (on loan from Juventus)

Granted, Rovella's hardly a hidden gem given Juve signed him in a deal potentially worth €20m last January, but he's still not quite a household name. Nevertheless, he looks a real prospect. A deep-lying midfielder, Rovella is elegant on the ball, hard-working without it and excellent at set-pieces. For struggling Genoa this season, his 4.0 possession wins every 90 minutes in the middle third is the 15th highest among Serie A midfielders (min. 500 minutes played), as is his 1.4 successful tackles – though only four players from the same group who have attempted at least 20 boast a better success rate than him (71.4). There's talk he could be recalled by Juve in January, which highlights the impression he's making.

Caden Clark, 18, American – RB Leipzig

With goals against Atlanta United and then Toronto four days later in October 2020, Clark became the youngest player MLS history to score in each of his first two games – the second was an absolute scorcher as well. The 18-year-old agreed a move from New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig in 2021 and he officially makes the switch in January, with no return loan planned. The technically gifted midfielder has his chance to make it in the big-time, and the Bundesliga has previously been a good next step for MLS stars.

Hannibal Mejbri, 18, Tunisian – Manchester United

Some United fans are disappointed Hannibal didn't get more opportunities under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he's been restricted with Ralf Rangnick because of his involvement in the Arab Cup and the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations. But when he returns, there's every indication he may get more chances, or at least that's what Rangnick recently intimated. A silky and creative midfielder, but one who has a tendency to lose his head, Hannibal might be able to provide the extra injection of craft often missing from United's midfield.

WINGERS

Kayky, 18, Brazilian – Manchester City

There's every chance Kayky and Angelo could be challenging each other for a spot in the senior Brazil team one day. Now at Manchester City after joining from Fluminense in a deal apparently worth an initial £8.4million, Kayky's development is going to be fascinating to watch. With Flu, the talented winger became the club's youngest player and goalscorer in the Libertadores before making the switch to England in pre-season. He was on the bench for the Boxing Day win over Leicester City, and with COVID-19 cases proving an issue across the Premier League, there's every chance we may see a bit more of Kayky in the near future.

Angelo Gabriel, 17, Brazilian – Santos

Every year it seems there's a new Brazilian teenager causing a stir and subsequently being linked with a big move to Europe – the latest is Angelo Gabriel. The newest 'new Neymar', Angelo is actually a left-footed right winger but the similarities in style of play are at least comparable in that he's a good dribbler, skilful and likes to cut inside off the flank. Angelo's made the jump up to the first team a little earlier than Neymar, though – he only turned 17 in December but already has 51 first-team appearances to his name. In April, he became the Copa Libertadores' youngest-ever scorer (16 years, 105 days old) and was also the only under-17 player to feature in the 2021 Brasileirao.

Alan Velasco, 19, Argentinian – Independiente

Showing quality in Argentina's domestic league isn't always a guarantee of future greatness, but doing well as a tricky youngster does speak to a certain degree of bravery and resilience given the brutal reputation of the top flight. Velasco is among the league's most-promising young players, a skilful, quick and dangerous left winger. His 62 chances created this season is the fifth most in the division, while no player can better his 198 dribbles completed. Could he be a wildcard choice for Argentina at the World Cup? Don't rule it out.

Rayan Cherki, 18, French – Lyon

It feels like 2022 could be a massive year for Cherki. The versatile attacker is still nowhere near being a regular at Lyon, despite many feeling Peter Bosz's appointment might prove a boost to the teenager – after all, he played an important role in developing Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz. Yet, the raw ability is undoubtedly there for Cherki – whether he'll be able to harness that properly at Lyon remains to be seen, with suggestions growing that he might seek a move away in the next year.

FORWARDS

Yuri Alberto, 20, Brazilian – Internacional

Yuri Alberto looks likely to be 'one who got away' for Santos. He left for Internacional in 2020 after initially showing promise at Vila Belmiro and has been a shrewd acquisition, scoring 22 times in 56 Brasileirao appearances, the most of any player currently 24 or younger. His 12 in the 2021 season was only bettered by four players and he scored more hat-tricks than anyone else (three) during the calendar year – one of those being netted in the late-finishing 2020 campaign.

Mohamed-Ali Cho, 17, French – Angers

A dynamic, exciting forward who is most comfortable out wide at the moment, Cho may only be 17 but he already has 39 Ligue 1 appearances under his belt. Where France seem to have lost out to England with Green, Les Bleus look to be winning the battle for Cho, who spent five years at Everton until 2020. Now a France Under-21 international, Cho is the youngest player to have scored in Ligue 1 this season having netted against Rennes back in August when he was aged 17 years and 222 days.

Ricardo Pepi, 18, American – FC Dallas

Yes, another American. While Clark may not make it into the United States' World Cup squad, Pepi almost certainly will. A very well-rounded striker who is tall, agile and hard-working, Pepi has also – perhaps most importantly – proven an able finisher, with his 13 MLS goals in the 2021 season being the joint-most ever managed by a teenager in the competition. Similarly, he's also the youngest player to ever score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers for the USA. He has a long-term contract at Dallas, but no one would be surprised to see him leave for Europe in 2022, with Germany a likely destination. Expect him to fetch the largest ever fee for an American leaving MLS.

Matias Arezo, 19, Uruguayan – 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. He scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he surpassed that haul with 15 from six fewer appearances in 2021. 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. A well-built striker, he's definitely one to watch ahead of the World Cup – assuming Uruguay get there.

Julian Alvarez, 21, Argentinian – River Plate

A sensational last couple of months in 2021 elevated Alvarez to a new level, one which has seen him mentioned regularly in transfer gossip columns – United are apparently especially keen. The striker, now an Argentina international, scored a total of 24 club goals across 2021, while also setting up a further 12 in the league, showing both his ability to finish chances and create them. A move abroad seems highly probable – where that takes him and how he does will be intriguing to watch, particularly ahead of the World Cup.

Brazil great Pele has been discharged from hospital but his treatment for a colon tumour is set to continue.

The three-time World Cup winner required an operation to remove the tumour in September and subsequently started chemotherapy as part of the rehabilitation process.

He was re-admitted to the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo on December 8, his condition at the time described as "stable".

The following day he moved to calm fears over his health as he wrote on Instagram that he was simply back in hospital for "the last [chemotherapy] session of 2021" and that he was taking the "chance to do a new battery of exams, so I'm going to stay here for a few days".

Pele insisted fans had no need to "worry" and the Santos legend confirmed on Thursday that he has been released in time for Christmas.

Writing on Instagram, he said: "The smiling photo is not for nothing.

"As I promised you, I will spend Christmas with my family. I'm coming back home. Thanks for all the kind messages."

According to Globo Esporte, a statement from the hospital read: "Edson Arantes do Nascimento was discharged from Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein this Thursday, December 23, 2021.

"The patient is stable and will continue treatment for the colon tumour, identified in September this year."

The former New York Cosmos striker is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, helping Brazil land the trophy in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Pele, 81, is also one of just four players to score in four different World Cups, while he remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for the Selecao.

Belgium will sit at the top of FIFA's world rankings for a fourth successive year at the end of a record-breaking 12 months for international football.

Having seen just 352 full internationals take place in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fewest since 1987 (323), things were cranked up several notches this year as World Cup qualification attracted focus.

A total of 1,116 FIFA internationals were played across 2021, a new record, with teams making up for the loss of action a year earlier.

While the frequency of games changed significantly, one constant remains: Belgium lead the way once again, edging out Brazil by 2.1 points, while UEFA Nations League winners France finish the year third.

 

European champions Italy go into 2022 in sixth having claimed 115.77 points more than in 2020, while Copa America winners Argentina are one place better off, improving on their 2020 points total by 108.51 points.

But the biggest improvement of the year has been recorded by Canada, whose ranking of 40th is the joint-highest they have ever been.

The Canucks reached the semi-finals of the Gold Cup and are well on course to reach only their second World Cup finals – and a first since Mexico 1986 – as they sit top of the CONCACAF qualifying group with six games to go.

Their 1,462.32 points is 132.32 more than last year, the biggest 12-month improvement of all FIFA nations.

Meanwhile, World Cup hosts Qatar head into their big year just inside the top 50 at 48.

Pele has moved to calm fears over his health as the Brazil great spoke positively about the colon tumour treatment he is undergoing in Sao Paulo.

In a message to his followers on Instagram, the 81-year-old showed a clenched fist and smiled from his hospital bed.

The three-time World Cup winner required an operation to remove a colon tumour in September and has since continued having chemotherapy as part of the rehabilitation process.

Hospital Albert Einstein confirmed on Wednesday that Pele had been hospitalised again, stating he was in a stable condition and on course to go home within days.

Pele confirmed that is his intention, as he wrote: "Friends, since September 30th, when I left the hospital, you know that I have been having small chemotherapy sessions as part of my treatment.

"Today I'm at Albert Einstein doing the last session of 2021. I wanted to share this achievement with you. After all, every little victory is a reason to celebrate, don't you think?

"I'm going to take this chance to do a new battery of exams, so I'm going to stay here for a few days. Don't worry, I'm just getting ready for the holiday season!"

Responding to Pele's message, Manchester United and Portugal striker Cristiano Ronaldo wrote: "Strength, friend."

Pele had prostate surgery in 2015 after being admitted to hospital twice in six months, and he was hospitalised again for a urinary infection in 2019.

The former Santos and New York Cosmos striker is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, helping Brazil land the trophy in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

The 81-year-old is also one of just four players to score in four different World Cups, while he remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for the Selecao.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.