Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri hailed Real Madrid as "the strongest team in Europe" after the Spanish giants beat the Bianconeri 2-0 in a friendly in the United States.

A first-half penalty from Karim Benzema was followed by a second-half Marco Asensio tap-in, which was enough to secure the win for LaLiga and Champions League holders Madrid at the Rose Bowl in California in front of a crowd of 93,702.

It was the final game for both teams on their tours of the USA, and Allegri was left upbeat despite the loss.

Speaking to Juventus' official website, Allegri said: "A good match that concluded a good 10 days' work in the United States. We were up against the strongest team in Europe, and as long as it was possible to play, we did, trying to manage possession and not give the ball away.

"I am satisfied with the effort from the boys. We can still grow a lot, though, and there are players who have still to return. Tonight there were chances for both sides, and we should have managed ours with a little more patience.

"Now we have a couple of days' rest and then back to work because the season is approaching."

Madrid head coach and former Juve boss Carlo Ancelotti was pleased with his own team's work and believes they are ready for the UEFA Super Cup clash with Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt, which takes place on August 10 in Helsinki.

"[The tour] has been very positive because we haven't picked up any injuries, aside from a small sprain for [Dani] Carvajal," Ancelotti told Madrid's official website. 

"The team has worked really well, and we've had no issues. It's been a well-executed pre-season, and now we have the confidence to go and win the European Super Cup".

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti says Eden Hazard is a "great player" who the Spanish champions need after netting in Tuesday's 2-2 friendly draw with Club America.

Hazard has struggled for impact at Madrid since his switch from Chelsea in 2019 amid a string of injuries, making only 66 appearances and scoring six goals across three seasons.

The 31-year-old Belgian midfielder is fit again and vowed earlier this week to show his best with Los Blancos this season.

Hazard was on the scoresheet from the penalty spot against the Mexican side in San Francisco, with Ancelotti hoping to set him up for a big campaign.

"We need these games to try to give Hazard minutes because Hazard is a great player that we need," Ancelotti told reporters.

"So I use these games to give him minutes. He improved his game compared to the first game."

Los Blancos have one more game in their US tour against Juventus in Pasadena on Saturday prior to the new LaLiga campaign commencing on August 14.

Ancelotti continues to learn about his squad during pre-season, in particular new additions Antonio Rudiger and Aurelien Tchouameni.

On Tchouameni, the Italian said: "He's a different six than Casemiro, who stays more in his position. Tchouameni has the ability and quality to play more in attack. He has also improved on the ball."

Karim Benzema was Madrid's other scorer, equalising for 1-1 with an excellent low strike from outside the box in the 22nd minute.

Benzema, who scored 44 goals in all club competitions last term, had not played any competitive games since May, enjoying a longer break with the World Cup later this year in mind.

"Benzema is in good shape, even if he hasn't done a lot of training sessions," Ancelotti said.

"It's clear that he still needs to improve his physical form. But we are on schedule, working a lot.

"After the game against Juventus we will reduce the pressure a bit to be in good shape for the Super Cup."

Santiago Solari expressed pride in Vinicius Junior's ability to "break down the door" and win Real Madrid fans over, ahead of their pre-season friendly with his Club America side.

After coming up through the club's reserve ranks, Solari was faced with the unenviable task of being Real Madrid's caretaker first team coach in a post-World Cup year when Julen Lopetegui was sacked in October 2018.

The 45-year-old lasted less than five months, but Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti arguably went on to reap the benefits of his integration of players such as Vinicius and Federico Valverde, while shifting Isco and Marcelo to the periphery. Vinicius was a particularly inconsistent case initially, before enjoying a breakout season last term, culminating with his goal in May's Champions League final.

The now-Club America boss sought to shift praise onto the players themselves, however, as well the structure and developmental environment Real Madrid provides to emerging talent.

"There is a point of pride for the player in which you think that if you had a 0.5 or one per cent of merit," Solari told Marca. "But the great merit, as with Valverde, [Sergio] Reguilon, Llorente, they belong to the club, its recruitment departments, the facilities it gives to players.

"The other great merit is from the footballers. If there is a bit of me in what Vinicius has achieved, in how he breaks down the door and wins people's hearts, he is wonderful, very beautiful.

"The objective of the coach should not be to seek to be right, but to work and do the best possible for an institution at the specific moment in which it is his turn. Real Madrid always makes their way. We have 14 Champions Leagues, and we are always on our way to the next one."

Ahead of their match, Solari also reserved praise for Ancelotti, describing him as a man of "great" wisdom.

"With Ancelotti I would only listen," he said. "I don't know him very well, I've greeted him once, probably when I was with the youth ranks and he was with the first team.

"I have a lot of personal sympathy for him and he is a man of great wisdom. I would love to listen to him."

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has outlined his plans for new signing Antonio Rudiger, and hinted that he could be utilised in an unfamiliar position.

The Germany international joined the reigning Champions League winners on a free transfer following the expiration of his contract with Chelsea, where he was a regular fixture in the Blues' side at the heart of the defence.

Different opportunities may present themselves in Ancelotti's plans, however, as the head coach admitted he does not want to disrupt the centre-back partnership of Eder Militao and David Alaba.

Rudiger started at left-back during Madrid's 1-0 pre-season defeat to Barcelona, and Ancelotti hinted it is an area he could find himself slotting into more regularly.

"I liked him a lot. I am not crazy and he is very intelligent," the Italian said after the loss.

"He can play in that position, just as he can also change in the match with Alaba. They didn't do so today, because it went well.

"[Alaba] as a left-back, only when necessary. I don't want to change the pair from last year."

Real have a void on the left side of their defence following the departure of club legend Marcelo last season.

Though another signing is unlikely to be made before the end of the window, with Ancelotti making it clear he is not targeting further additions to his squad.

Los Blancos complete their pre-season preparations against Club America and Juventus, before tackling reigning Europa League champions Eintracht Frankfurt in the Super Cup.

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti has declared his squad as "better than last year", and suggested there will be no more arrivals at the Santiago Bernabeu in this transfer window.

Los Blancos won LaLiga and the Champions League in 2021-22, and have since added Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea and Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco.

However, questions have been asked about a perceived lack of attacking options, with Luka Jovic having left for Fiorentina and doubts about the immediate future of Marco Asensio.

Madrid faced El Clasico rivals Barcelona on Saturday as part of their pre-season preparations in Las Vegas, losing 1-0 to a stunning Raphinha strike.

As well as the former Leeds United man, Barca have signed Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich to complete a formidable looking set of forward options ahead of the new campaign.

Madrid's star striker Karim Benzema was not involved, though Ancelotti confirmed the France international will return in their next outing against Club America.

When asked by reporters following the defeat to Barca if he needed another striker, Ancelotti replied: "The squad is closed and it is better than last year. Our two new arrivals are going to contribute a lot. 

"There are 27 players, a lot of them, and training them is not easy, but the ones I have are intelligent and understand the difficulty I have."

On the futures of Asensio and midfielder Dani Ceballos, Ancelotti simply said it was "up to them" and "up to the club".

Eden Hazard started the game at Allegiant Stadium playing as a false nine in between Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, and Ancelotti hinted that could be where the Belgian predominantly features in the coming season.

"He can play in several positions, it was seen last year," he said. "He has the quality to be false nine, but he has to get used to it."

Robert Lewandowski made his debut for Barcelona as they defeated Real Madrid 1-0 in their pre-season friendly in Las Vegas on Saturday.

The 33-year-old had to share the spotlight with Raphinha however, with the latter's lone goal ultimately proving the difference in the 27th minute.

With Xavi also able to take his place on the touchlines after he was allowed entry into the United States, the Blaugrana started close to what could be considered a full-strength starting XI, with Andreas Christensen starting ahead of Gerard Pique.

Carlo Ancelotti kept a number of starters on the bench to begin the match, with the trio of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos eased in along with Ferland Mendy, while Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga were paired in midfield to start.

Raphinha scored what would be the winning goal midway through the first half in what was an ultimately timid affair, firing home from the top of the penalty area after a quick regain of possession up the pitch for Barcelona.

Modric, Kroos and Casemiro were introduced while the likes of Pedri and Sergio Busquets came off in the second half, creating the aura of a sparring match, and Barcelona held out despite chances to Ousmane Dembele.

Carlo Ancelotti claims Real Madrid have already completed their summer spending as he ruled out any more arrivals at the Santiago Bernabeu.

That underlines a staggering difference between Madrid and their great rivals Barcelona, who have barely got started and are hoping for pieces to fall into place to allow a spree to go ahead.

Madrid, the LaLiga and Champions League double winners, have brought in German defender Antonio Rudiger on a free transfer from Chelsea, while landing French midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco for a reported initial €80million.

The club cleared plenty of space on their wage bill by offloading Gareth Bale, Isco, Marcelo and Luka Jovic, and head coach Ancelotti has decided to keep trust with the bulk of the squad that achieved so much last season.

"I can't talk about signings, but I'm already saying that everything is over. We're not going to sign anyone. We're fine like this," Ancelotti said.

As Barcelona wrestle to get players in and out, the message is already clear from Madrid that the champions have their ducks in a row already and cannot wait to get going in the 2022-23 campaign.

Ancelotti, who was speaking to international media ahead of Madrid's pre-season trip to the United States, saw Rudiger and Tchouameni come through their first training sessions with Madrid on Thursday.

The new pair were described by Ancelotti as "the best that could be found on the market".

The first pre-season test for Madrid comes against Barcelona in Las Vegas on the evening of Saturday, July 23. That Clasico clash is "not an exhibition", according to Ancelotti.

Quoted in the Spanish press, the Italian boss said: "It's never a friendly against Barcelona. They are the team we respect the most and the one with the greatest rivalry."

There could be an experiment or two from Ancelotti before the season begins, as he toys with the idea of using Eden Hazard as a 'false nine' striker.

Ancelotti is wary about overburdening captain and star striker Karim Benzema, and he believes Belgian Hazard could thrive in the role when called upon.

Madrid have the defence of their domestic and European titles as obvious targets, and a mid-season World Cup complicates planning for the campaign ahead.

"We have many options for that position. Benzema is number one, but we have to understand that this will be a strange season, different, with the World Cup in the middle, and we have to look at different options," Ancelotti said.

"My idea is to try to see Eden in that position. Given the quality that Eden has, it could be good for us to test him there."

Antonio Rudiger described the prospect of playing under Carlo Ancelotti as an "honour" after leaving Chelsea to join Real Madrid on a free transfer, as he targeted winning another Champions League title.

Rudiger signed a four-year contract with Madrid earlier this month, with his and Aurelien Tchouameni's arrivals at the Santiago Bernabeu already making for a significant transfer window.

He joins a side which has just won La Liga and the Champions League – the latter for a record-extending 14th time, while boss Ancelotti became the first coach to be crowned European champion on four occasions with last month's final win over Liverpool. 

Rudiger, who was instrumental as Chelsea won European football's premier competition in 2021, believes working under the Italian can help him reach those heights once more.

"It's an honour to play for Carlo Ancelotti," he told the club's website. "I'm convinced I can still learn a lot from him, and I hope he can help me win another Champions League here.

"The manager has played a big part in this [transfer]. After I spoke to him, I was convinced I wanted to join Real Madrid. But in general, everything this club represents is evident.

"I've always said that the Champions League is Real Madrid's competition, because that's where you see the club's real side.

"I'm very grateful to be here. It's like I'm dreaming, but this is real, and I feel immense pleasure to be here. I've never seen anything like this before."

Rudiger, who has won 53 caps for Germany, also revealed it was not international team-mate Toni Kroos that advised him to move to the Santiago Bernabeu, but Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic, who made 109 appearances during a four-year spell with the Spanish giants. 

"I haven't spoken to Kroos too much about Real Madrid, I've spoken to Mateo Kovacic and he's told me a lot of things," Rudiger added. "He talked a lot about [Madrid and Croatia's Luka] Modric.

"He told me: 'You go there and enjoy it, it's a great move for you'. I've never heard a bad word about Real Madrid."

Rudiger has also been in touch with another former Blancos star since making the move to Spain, namely Brazil's legendary 2002 World Cup hero Ronaldo Nazario.

"Ronaldo played in the 2002 final against Germany sporting a very distinctive haircut," the defender recalled. "When we were kids playing football in the street, Ronaldo was our idol.

"When I signed, I spoke to him on a video call. I was excited and very nervous at the same time!"

Real Madrid enjoyed a brilliant season, winning LaLiga comfortably before also being crown champions of Europe by beating Liverpool in Paris.

That 1-0 win at the Stade de France capped a remarkable run in the Champions League, with Los Blancos having instigated great escapes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.

It's difficult to recall any team enduring a tougher run to Champions League success, and yet Carlo Ancelotti – who was seen as a steady if slightly underwhelming appointment – managed to mastermind arguably his greatest triumph as a coach.

There's no sign of Madrid standing still, either. While the Spanish giants may have missed out on Kylian Mbappe, the fact they were in the hunt for him is evidence enough they are in a strong financial situation, perhaps unsurprising given their generally modest – by Santiago Bernabeu standards – outlay in the transfer market over the past couple of years.

Antonio Rudiger was signed up for next season nice and early, Aurelien Tchouameni's reported €100million signing was confirmed on Saturday, and the departures of Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Isco will give Madrid plenty of room for manoeuvre when it comes to wages.

Either way, there's nothing to suggest the LaLiga champions aren't going to be stronger in the 2022-23 campaign, meaning the chasing pack – namely Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla – have work to do, given how far behind they finished this term. 

Out with the old, in with the Nou

After a rocky start to 2021-22 that ultimately led to Ronald Koeman's dismissal, Xavi got Barca back on track and eventually secured second place, which was impressive given the top four looked beyond them for a while.

Nevertheless, their form did tail off a little in the final five or six weeks of the season, losing four of the final nine matches across all competitions.

Barca's season in general vindicated the decision to ditch Koeman for the inexperienced but well-regarded Xavi. It also proved the potential in the Blaugrana squad, as well as a degree of mental weakness at the business end.

 

Of course, it would be much easier for the club to build on the positives of this season were they not in a financial quagmire equivalent to over €1billion in debt.

As such, reports suggest Barca will largely be relying on free transfers, two of which are said to have been concluded already. Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen have apparently agreed to join, while Cesar Azpilicueta may follow the latter from Chelsea.

But the big question mark hangs over Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich talisman has made no secret of his desire to leave the Bundesliga, and Camp Nou is where he sees himself next – but Die Roten are playing hardball, and who can blame them?

A whole raft of players are expected to depart Barca, however, with Ousmane Dembele seemingly destined for Chelsea and the likes of Clement Lenglet, Antoine Griezmann, Samuel Umtiti, Oscar Mingueza, Riqui Puig, Martin Braithwaite and Sergi Roberto all expected to leave permanently. On top of that, Adama Traore and Luuk de Jong are highly unlikely to have their loans renewed, while Frenkie de Jong appears the most likely to deposit some serious money in the coffers, given Manchester United's interest.

But such upheaval will be difficult to contend with. Even if Lewandowski signs, it'll take something spectacular for Barca to be champions this time next year.

Finally Joao Felix's time to shine?

Diego Simeone's side were dethroned with little more than a whimper. Their title defence looked over before it ever really got started.

It was a disappointing season given many felt Atletico's squad was strengthened significantly last year. Griezmann, Matheus Cunha and Rodrigo de Paul provided extra spark, creativity and goal threat, though arguably none of them quite reached expectations, even if the Brazi forward did prove a dependable option off the bench.

The departure of Luis Suarez means a new striker is likely to arrive, and early indications are Alvaro Morata may be returning – granted, that may not be enough to get Atletico fans excited.

Either way, fans and neutrals alike will once again be hoping Simeone can finally find a way to get the best out of his more creative players.

 

Joao Felix is still yet to shine on a consistent basis, with 2021-22 a tricky campaign in which injuries, illness and suspension contributed to him making only 24 league appearances; just 13 of those were as a starter.

His 12 goal involvements came at roughly one every 100 minutes, which is a decent return, but there is clearly an element of Simeone not completely trusting him yet, otherwise he'd surely have started more frequently.

The exit of Suarez might allow for Joao Felix to take on a little more responsibility in attack, and who's to say that won't be the making of him?

No one doubts the talent's there; he just needs to show he can be Atletico's talisman on a regular basis. If he can, Atletico may again be the most likely to stop Los Blancos.

A Sevilla summer of upheaval

Sevilla fans are accustomed to seeing most of their squad replaced over the course of a transfer window – it's just what Monchi does.

While their rebuild may not be quite as extensive this year as in past windows, expect to see plenty of ins and outs; in fact, there's already been one key departure.

Diego Carlos has joined Aston Villa in a move that begins the dismantling of Julen Lopetegui's bedrock of a defence. In 2021-22, no team in LaLiga conceded fewer than Sevilla (30 goals), while only Manchester City (57) and Madrid (52) kept more clean sheets than Julen Lopetegui's side (51) across the top five leagues during the Brazilian's time at the club.

His centre-back partner Jules Kounde is widely expected to leave as well, with long-term admirers Chelsea once again able to flex their financial muscle now they're no longer sanctioned.

But while Sevilla boasted the best defence in LaLiga, it's easy to forget that for a while they looked to be the only team capable of challenging Madrid for the title.

 

In the end, they scraped fourth place, with their form between February 1 and the season's conclusion seeing them rank seventh with 24 points; Barca led the way with 38 in that period, while Madrid took 36.

Sevilla's biggest issue was scoring goals. Only Rafa Mir (10) reached double figures in LaLiga, with Lucas Ocampos (six) the one other to net more than five.

That – and centre-back – would appear to be where Monchi's focus will lie over the coming months, particularly now it seems Lopetegui will be staying.

But Monchi's got his work cut out keeping the team as competitive given the likely upheaval and small gap between themselves and bitter rivals Real Betis in fifth. 

A title challenge like that of 2020-21 would be an impressive feat, but if Sevilla can limit the break-up of their defence and sign a reliable striker, it would become more realistic.

Casemiro says the Real Madrid team is like something from a "movie" as Los Blancos continue to make history.

Madrid eased to their 35th LaLiga title this season, securing the Spanish top-flight triumph with four games to play.

Carlo Ancelotti's side also celebrated Champions League glory, winning the European Cup for the 14th time – more than double any other club has achieved – with victory over Liverpool in Paris.

The 1-0 win over Jurgen Klopp's men at the Stade de France last month was far less dramatic than most expected it to be, given Madrid's route to the final.

Los Blancos turned around a two-goal deficit in the second half of the second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, before staving off a Chelsea fightback to win in extra-time.

Manchester City then seemed to have one foot in the final, but a stoppage-time Rodrygo Goes double followed by Karim Benzema's extra-time penalty secured another sensational victory.

Casemiro has lifted the Champions League trophy five times as a Madrid player and the Brazil international likened their success to something that belongs in Hollywood.

"This team is from a movie. Winning five Champions Leagues in the last eight years only has one definition: making history," he told Spanish daily AS.

"The Champions League won in Paris will be remembered for life. It is the most wonderful European Cup story ever told."

Having led Milan to Champions League glory in 2003 and 2007 and done so with Madrid in 2014 and this year, Ancelotti is the most successful manager in the history of the competition.

Ancelotti is an example in everything. Everything good that happens to him deserves it. He has an infinite illusion for Madrid." Casemiro said of the legendary Italian.

Casemiro has won his Champions League titles alongside Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who signed a one-year extension on Wednesday.

The 30-year-old revealed Madrid president Florentino Perez affectionately named the midfielders after a trio of famous Spanish opera singers.

"Florentino calls us 'The Three Tenors'. Kroos, Modric and I have earned the right to be remembered for many years," Casemiro continued.

The end of the club season means individual awards are dominating the discourse right now in European football. Well, if you can't beat them, join them.

Rather than just run through the usual categories highlighting the best player and best coach – although we will do that, too – why not focus on some alternative prizes?

The NBA Awards provide a fine blueprint, rewarding superstars alongside breakout performers, recovering veterans and valuable bench players.

Relying heavily on Opta data, we'll steer clear of team honours – a blow to Wout Weghorst, whose eight blocks (leading all forwards in Europe's top five leagues) might have carved out a spot leading the All-Defensive First Team – but there remains plenty to go at...

Most Valuable Player

Only one player had more goal involvements than Karim Benzema (39) in the top five leagues this season, and Real Madrid would really rather not talk about the man top of the charts. That other leading France forward had a hand in 45 goals, yet the value of Benzema's contributions to a LaLiga title triumph separates him from the rest.

Benzema's goal involvements were worth 29 points across the season, the most of any player, with Kylian Mbappe, of course, second on 28. Just considering Benzema's 27 goals, he accounted for 20 points – trailing Dusan Vlahovic (22 points) alone.

 

Required to perform repeated rescue acts in the Champions League, too, Madrid's number nine played only 2,596 minutes in LaLiga – or 75.9 per cent of the full season. He was therefore involved in a goal every 67 minutes, narrowly second in this regard behind Erling Haaland (66 minutes) among those to play 1,000 minutes or more across Europe.

Coach of the Year

Were this the NBA, Carlo Ancelotti would surely also qualify for the Lifetime Achievement Award. In guiding Benzema and Madrid to the LaLiga title, the Italian became the first coach to win each of Europe's top five leagues, following successes in Serie A with Milan, the Premier League with Chelsea, Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain and the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich.

Ancelotti, also the oldest LaLiga-winning coach at 62, earned only two more points than Zinedine Zidane had in finishing second in the prior season, but Madrid maintained this high standard despite losing both of their senior centre-backs heading into the campaign as they seemingly saved for the now failed pursuit of Mbappe.

Meanwhile, Everton, the team Ancelotti left for his second Madrid stint, finished 20 points short of their 2020-21 total, spending the season battling relegation rather than chasing Europe and perhaps putting his work at Goodison Park in context.

Rookie of the Year

Given the differences between the NBA and Europe's top five leagues, it is difficult to quantify exactly how many players might be considered 'rookies', let alone identify the best of them. Someone like Luis Diaz, for example, played his first minutes in the top five leagues this season, yet he had already scored goals in the Champions League and Copa America so surely doesn't fit the bill.

On the other hand, Hugo Ekitike definitely does.

Among the nine players who were teenagers at the start of the season and finished with 10 or more goal involvements, only Ekitike had never previously started a game in Europe's top five leagues. His 13 involvements in 2021-22 (10 goals, three assists) arrived every 98 minutes on average, the best rate of this group and the 18th-best overall – just behind Neymar (also 98 mins) and ahead of Son Heung-min (101 mins).

The 19-year-old Reims forward, who turned down a transfer to Newcastle United in January before sustaining a thigh injury, scored with an astonishing 32.3 per cent of his shots – second behind Wissam Ben Yedder (34.7 per cent) among players with 20 or more attempts – and has been linked with moves to PSG and Borussia Dortmund, as well as St James' Park.

 

Defensive Player of the Year

As elsewhere, many of these awards focus on offensive talents, so there is a dedicated category for the best defender – and there could really only be one winner this year.

Injury restricted Virgil van Dijk to 371 minutes in 2019-20, and he was badly missed by Liverpool in their title defence, as they conceded 42 Premier League goals – their most since shipping the same number in the season before the centre-back's 2018 arrival.

With Van Dijk fit again this term and missing only four matches, the Reds conceded the joint-fewest number of goals across the top five leagues (26, tied with Manchester City). No defender played a part in more clean sheets (21).

Those figures show the impact Van Dijk had on the team as a whole, but his performances in individual battles were equally impressive. The Liverpool man won 73.5 per cent of his duels and 77.5 per cent of his aerial duels – both the best marks of defenders to make 30 or more appearances in the top five leagues.

Comeback Player of the Year

Okay, so the NBA no longer highlights a Comeback Player of the Year, but the NFL continues to identify an individual who has overcome the adversity of the previous campaign, allowing us to recognise one of the stories of the season.

Of course, for the reasons outlined above, Van Dijk might have had a claim to this prize in any other year, yet he is beaten this time by a player who actually won Serie A in 2020-21.

Within weeks of that title triumph, Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020, prompting fears for his life and then, even after his recovery, his career.

But Eriksen was fitted with an ICD, left Inter, joined Brentford in January and promptly won each of the first five Premier League games he started for the relegation-threatened Bees. Finishing with seven victories from 10 starts, only nine players in the top five leagues created more chances over this period than Eriksen (29, including four assists).

Most Improved Player

There were no shortage of players showing signs of significant improvement in 2021-22. Five-goal Euro 2020 forward Patrik Schick starred on the club stage at last, Newcastle striker-turned-midfielder Joelinton enjoyed a resurgence and Vinicius Junior was outstanding as Benzema's foil, but Christopher Nkunku stood head and shoulders above the rest as he swiftly established himself among Europe's elite.

Nkunku had scored a mere six goals and assisted the same number for RB Leipzig in the 2020-21 Bundesliga, but those goal involvements increased dramatically from 12 to 33 this season, ranking fifth across Europe's top five leagues and joint-third when excluding penalties (32). With 20 total goals and 13 assists, the newly capped France international was one of just 12 players to reach double figures in both categories.

Of players to feature in at least 20 games in each of the past two campaigns, only Moussa Dembele (20) and Schick (15) improved their season-on-season goal tallies by a greater margin than Nkunku (14); Dembele alone (24) showed greater improvement in terms of goal involvements (21).

 

In a season in which Leipzig recovered from a slow start to make the top four by a single point, Nkunku's contributions were vital. He had a hand in 45.8 per cent of their Bundesliga goals and 50.8 per cent of those he was on the field for.

Twelfth Man of the Year

The NBA's Sixth Man of the Year is recognised as the season's most impactful bench player, which feels like a nice addition here.

Were this a long-standing European football award, it might have by now been renamed in honour of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored 17 goals in 84 Premier League substitute appearances – one every 88 minutes on average. Given Rodrygo Goes and Eduardo Camavinga largely reserved their heroics for the Champions League, the 2021-22 equivalent in the top five leagues could be Matheus Cunha.

Ben Yedder scored the most goals from the bench this season, but those seven counted towards 25 in total as he also started 29 matches. Cunha was restricted to only eight starts for Atletico Madrid, yet he scored three and assisted four in 21 outings as a substitute, matching Ben Yedder and Ignacio Pussetto with a Europe-high seven such goal involvements.

Atletico's man in times of need, Cunha contributed to vital goals, too. He was one of only two players to both score and assist in the same game as a substitute on more than one occasion (also Arnaud Nordin), with the second of those two performances seeing the Brazil forward introduced against Valencia with his side 2-0 down; Cunha scored seven minutes after his introduction and later teed up the winner in a 3-2 victory, justifying his season-long role as a super-sub.

Pele has congratulated fellow Brazilians Vinicius Junior and Marcelo for their contributions to Real Madrid's triumphant Champions League campaign, which he hailed as a "beautiful adventure". 

Vinicius converted Federico Valverde's cross in the 59th minute to fire Madrid to a 1-0 final win over Liverpool at the Stade de France, as Los Blancos were crowned European champions for a 14th time - seven more occasions than any other team.

With his decisive strike, Vinicius became the first Brazilian player to score the winning goal in a Champions League final since Juliano Belletti did so for Barcelona against Arsenal in 2006, also in Paris.

The winger's sixth goal in the Champions League this season, combined with his previous four assists, made him the first South American aged 21 or younger to record 10 goal contributions in a single edition of the competition since Lionel Messi's 14 in 2008-09 (nine goals, five assists).

Meanwhile, Marcelo lifted the trophy as club captain before announcing his departure from Madrid, having made more appearances for Los Blancos than any other non-Spanish player during his 15-year stay at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Writing on Instagram after the final, Brazil great Pele hailed his compatriots for their roles in Madrid's success, also praising man-of-the-match Thibaut Courtois and Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, who is the first coach to win the Champions League/European Cup four times.

"That's why football is the most beautiful sport in the world. I got to see a dear friend, Vinicius, who overcame so many challenges to decide an epic game," Pele wrote.

"I'm delighted to see Marcelo be the first Brazilian to lift a Champions League trophy as captain. 

"I witnessed an impeccable goalkeeper, Courtois, make inexplicable saves, and a strategist coach, Ancelotti, who knew how to interpret the moment and use the best characteristics of his team. 

"Congratulations Real Madrid. What a beautiful adventure!"

Vinicius Junior and Thibaut Courtois were the heroes as Real Madrid downed Liverpool 1-0 in the Champions League final in Paris, securing a record-extending 14th European crown for Los Blancos.

Vinicius' second-half winner proved decisive as Liverpool failed to find a way past the outstanding Courtois despite piling on the pressure, as Madrid repeated their 2018 final win over the Reds.

While Jurgen Klopp's team have now missed out on both the Premier League and Champions League trophies after leading an incredible four-front fight for silverware this season, Carlo Ancelotti has led Madrid to a terrific LaLiga and Champions League double, reaching a personal landmark along the way.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the best Opta facts from the fiercely contested final.

After kick-off was twice delayed at the Stade de France, Liverpool made a fast start to the contest but found Courtois in imperious form as they eventually fell to their third Champions League final defeat – only Juventus (five) have lost more, while Jurgen Klopp has lost more finals in the competition than any other manager (three).

It was not for want of trying, however: Liverpool had as many shots on target in the first half (five) as they did in their previous two Champions League final appearances combined (two in 2018 and three in 2019).

The Reds ended the match having racked up 24 shots, the most on record (since 2003-04) from a team who failed to score in a Champions League final. 

Meanwhile, Courtois' nine saves in the match made up the highest tally in a single Champions League final (since 2003-04), surpassing Liverpool's Allison (in 2019) and Manchester United's Edwin Van der Sar (in 2011), both with eight.

Courtois also made 59 saves throughout Madrid's run in the competition this term, setting a new single-season record after Petr Cech made 58 for Chelsea in their triumphant 2011-12 campaign (since 2003-04).

But it was Vinicius who proved the match-winner, escaping Trent Alexander-Arnold's attentions to tap home from Federico Valverde's cross in the 59th minute.

Vinicius' goal made him the first South American to register 10 goal involvements in a single Champions League campaign (four goals, six assists) while aged 21 or under since Lionel Messi recorded 14 for Barcelona in 2008-09 (nine goals, five assists).

Furthermore, at 21 years and 320 days old, the Brazilian became the second-youngest player to net for Los Blancos in a European Cup or Champions League final, after Marco Asensio against Juventus in 2017 (21 years, 133 days), and the first Brazilian to score the winner in the competition's final since Juliano Belletti for Barcelona in 2006, also in Paris (against Arsenal).

Madrid's victory means they have won the European Cup or Champions League twice as many times (14) as the next-most successful club in the competition's history (Milan with seven), and Los Blancos have also won in each of their last eight final appearances, defeating Liverpool in their past two.

Finally, Ancelotti became the most successful coach in the competition's history with his fourth title (also 2002-03 and 2006-07 with Milan and 2013-14 with Madrid), as he moved clear of Madrid predecessor Zinedine Zidane and Liverpool great Bob Paisley (both three).

Carlo Ancelotti declared himself the "record man" after becoming the first coach to win the European Cup or Champions League four times after Vinicius Junior fired Real Madrid to a 1-0 final win over Liverpool.

Vinicius' second-half goal proved decisive as Madrid won their 14th European crown – twice as many as any other side has managed in the competition's history – as Los Blancos added European football's biggest prize to their LaLiga title triumph.

Madrid had to stand firm in the face of sustained Liverpool pressure, with Jurgen Klopp's men registering 24 shots during the course of the contest, but Los Blancos produced a resilient performance to replicate their 2018 final win over the Reds.

Having led Milan to Champions League titles in 2002-03 and 2006-07 and done likewise with Madrid in 2013-14 and 2021-22, Ancelotti is now the most successful manager in the history of the competition.

Speaking to BT Sport in the aftermath of the win, the Italian said he felt fortunate to have returned to the Santiago Bernabeu prior to the start of the season, also hailing his team's character after they followed up a series of dramatic European comebacks with another final victory.

"I am the record man!" he laughed. "I had the luck to come here last year, and to have a fantastic season. 

"I found, as usual, a fantastic club and a really good squad, with a lot of quality and a strong mental character. I think this season was top. 

"I cannot believe it. I think that we had a fantastic season, and we did really well. It was a difficult game. 

"We suffered a lot, more at the start, [we were] better second half. I think in the end, with all the games that we played, we deserved to win this competition.

"I think that we passed through a really difficult game every game, the supporters helped us a lot, in the last game [a 6-5 aggregate semi-final win over Manchester City] and tonight.

"We are really happy, honestly, what can I say? I cannot say more."

Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois played a crucial role in ensuring the victory, making nine saves during the game, the most on record by a goalkeeper in a single Champions League final (since 2003-04).

Asked to describe the Belgian's performance, Ancelotti was lost for words, saying: "Unbelievable. I tell you, I cannot believe it!"

Madrid had already become the first team to reach the Champions League final after losing a game in each of the last 16, quarter-finals, and semi-finals, making their triumph one of the most dramatic in recent history.

Asked about Madrid's incredible record on the biggest stage by M+, Ancelotti shrugged: "This is Real Madrid."

Carlo Ancelotti must have been considering it. He must have been thinking that this would not be Vinicius Junior's night.

The hour mark was approaching, the Brazilian boy wonder had barely made an impact on this Champions League final, and on the bench there was semi-final hero Rodrygo, straining for a chance.

Heck, there was Eden Hazard too, and even Isco and Gareth Bale. For old time's sake, did they ever cross Ancelotti's mind.

There had been a first-half flicker from the 21-year-old Vinicius, when he got the better of Liverpool's Ibrahima Konate with a stealthy piece of skill in the penalty area, but Jordan Henderson read the danger and gladly conceded a corner.

But that had really been the first and last time in the first 58 minutes of play that Vinicius caused Liverpool any real consternation. He had a team-low 29 touches of the ball at that point, but then Federico Valverde's low cross from the right presented him with a 30th, a tap-in at the far post. The phantom menace became the match-winner.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, needing to initially cover Karim Benzema, appeared to almost forget about Vinicius, but there he was, lurking, and he could not miss.

Billed as a Ballon d'Or shootout between Benzema and Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, this final largely ignored that script. If anybody put in a performance worth of such an honour here, it was Madrid's outstanding goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who made nine saves, the most on record in a Champions League final since 2003-04.

Watched by Ronaldo, the great Brazilian whose health scare before the 1998 World Cup final at this very stadium was followed by France romping to glory, Vinicius stayed on the pitch until stoppage time, when Ancelotti opted for Rodrygo's fresh legs.

Ancelotti, that is, who is now a four-time Champions League winner, the first coach in the history of the competition, in this or its previous guise as the European Cup, to reach that tally.

He has trusted Vinicius all season long, backed a blossoming talent and been richly rewarded by the youngster, and his winner in such a game of high prestige marks another step forward in a career that could see him finish among the all-time greats.

There were plenty of greats inside the Stade de France, many in the stands. Needless to say, the likes of Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Clarence Seedorf, Zinedine Zidane and Fabio Cannavaro did not have to tolerate any of the nonsense outside the stadium that forced this game to be delayed by 36 minutes, that left reports of children in tears, of pepper-spraying police, media being mistreated, and of panic on the streets of Paris.

The Galacticos were joined in the VIP seats by Rafael Nadal, midway through his crusade for a 14th French Open title.

Madrid now have 14 Champions League and European Cup titles, and Ancelotti, who delivered La Decima in 2014, has delivered two of those after the two he landed with his beloved Milan.

A double of LaLiga and the Champions League is theirs, while Liverpool must settle for their own twin triumphs from the FA Cup and EFL Cup. The quadruple was beyond them, and Liverpool blew themselves out in the first half here.

After knocking out Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City and now sinking Liverpool in the trophy match, Madrid reign once more.

Vinicius reigns – the first South American aged 21 or younger to have 10 or more goal involvements in a Champions League campaign since Lionel Messi for Barcelona in the 2008-09 season.

His four goals and six assists in Europe came from a personal all-competitions haul of 22 goals and 16 assists in 52 games for the season. At 21 years and 320 days, Vinícius is the fifth youngest player to score in a Champions League final.

Ancelotti reigns – "I am a record man," he told BT Sport at full-time.

Benzema reigns – it was not his night but could have been.

The Frenchman had a goal ruled out for offside just before half-time, after a three-and-a-half-minute wait for a VAR verdict. Deciphering that moment was as challenging as the task of unravelling the Agatha Christie footballers' wives court saga, and it caused almost as much soapbox frothing on social media.

Come the final whistle, and Madrid's celebrations of their 1-0 victory, that moment was an afterthought.

At full-time, former Liverpool and Madrid striker Michael Owen said of Jurgen Klopp's Reds: "I still think they're the team to beat... the most fearsome team in Europe".

Owen was in Paris, at pitchside even, but must have missed the news. Madrid reign again.

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