Christopher Nkunku has long been on the various of Europe's big clubs, but this season has been a breakout.

The 24-year-old France attacker has contributed an extraordinary 17 goals and 15 assists in 30 league appearances for RB Leipzig this term.

Investcorp's reported takeover of Milan from Elliott Management, and the consequent injection of funds, has reportedly put Nkunku in Milan's sights.

 

TOP STORY – NKUNKU ON MILAN RADAR

A change in ownership is allowing Milan to go after RB Leipzig's Cristopher Nkunku, the Gazzetta dello Sport is reporting.

Milan's Scudetto charges in recent years have fallen short up front despite the quality of their midfield, but the change of ownership can dictate a change in transfer strategy.

Meetings with Sassuolo for Gianluca Scamacca and Hamed Traore could be scuppered because the likes of Nkunku would become available.

Any such moves would reportedly not rule out a transfer for Liverpool striker Divock Origi that is already in the works, however.

 

ROUND-UP

– Liverpool have identified Barcelona's 17-year-old talent Gavi as a potential target in an attempt to bolster their midfield at the end of the season, Sport is reporting.

– The Reds are also prepared to offer a new contract to Sadio Mane, whose current deal expires at the end of next season, per Football Insider.

Arsenal are interested in signing Lille's Kosovo attacker Edon Zhegrova, according to Sky Sports.

– Newcastle United have shown renewed interest in Torino defender Gleison Bremer, who is also on Arsenal and Tottenham's radar, Tuttomercato reports.

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini blasted the "absolute confusion" of the refereeing performance in his side's Europa League quarter-final exit to RB Leipzig on Thursday.

La Dea had high hopes following their draw in the first leg, but a Christopher Nkunku brace handed Leipzig a 2-0 win instead, with the German side going through 3-1 on aggregate.

With Atlanta down 1-0 on Thursday, however, Antonio Mateu Lahoz waved away what appeared to be a handball from Leipzig's Dani Olmo and also waved away the consequent call for a VAR review.

Nkunku then punished Atalanta for a second time in transition, while Gasperini was left to bemoan the lack of consistency in refereeing interpretation and decision-making with the tie in the balance.

"The strange thing is that he [Mateu Lahoz] gave a punishment that for me was a less obvious foul than it was a penalty. There is absolute confusion on handballs," he said. "The referee himself, in 30 seconds, evaluates the first instance more serious than the second which is much clearer.

"Well, it's not like you can cancel it [from context]. We had a good match, we conceded something, as is normal in these matches. There are goal situations on both sides in Europe. Everyone has an important attacking quality. It wasn't the defence that penalised us."

According to the 64-year-old, the penalty reinforced Atalanta's need to chase the result, which played into the fast, dynamic and ultimately reactive RB Leipzig's hands.

"It is always like this," he said. "They have pace and speed, they play very tightly and then go on the counter-attack.

"Sometimes they do them very well, we attacked for a very long time and unfortunately in recent weeks we have had difficulty in finding the final pass, the decisive shot. Even if for long stretches it was an excellent match for Atalanta."

Champions League qualification is likely unattainable now for La Dea, who sit 12 points off fourth-placed Juventus in Serie A, but are also four points behind Lazio in the Conference League playoff spot. They face Hellas Verona on Monday.

Christopher Nkunku scored twice in Bergamo as RB Leipzig's 2-0 win over Atalanta carried the in-form Bundesliga side through to the Europa League semi-finals.

The France striker was on hand to tuck home an early chance, a predator's goal, and his late penalty sealed a 3-1 aggregate triumph, raising the possibility of Leipzig lifting a first European trophy in their history.

Head coach Domenico Tedesco has transformed Leipzig's fortunes since replacing Jesse Marsch in December and the German visitors had too much for their Italian hosts here.

After seven goals in the Champions League this season, Nkunku now has three in this competition. Two years after a Champions League semi-final defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, the German outfit are back at the business end of a European campaign.

Atalanta's Davide Zappacosta drew a decent early save from Leipzig captain Peter Gulacsi, who got down well to block a low shot at his near post.

Leipzig then took the all-important 18th-minute lead when Konrad Laimer was allowed to run 50 yards unchallenged along the right flank and into the Atalanta penalty area, before cutting back for Nkunku to smash in off the right post from close range.

Dani Olmo had a chip comfortably caught by Juan Musso as Leipzig sought a second goal, while at the other end a low shot from Jeremie Boga was blocked.

Atalanta wanted a penalty early in the second half when Ruslan Malinovskiy's powerful free-kick hit Olmo on the arm, and it looked a credible shout, yet the hosts were denied after a VAR review.

Laimer almost added a second for Leipzig when a rapid counter-attack ended with Musso seemingly making a mess of reading his defenders' intentions, having to scramble to keep the lead down to one goal.

Nkunku was sharp for Leipzig and wriggled through to create a chance for himself as Musso blocked at the cost of a corner. As Atalanta became increasingly desperate, a foul by Musso on Nkunku gave the striker a chance to finish the tie, which he took by firing high into the left corner.

Barcelona loanee Philippe Coutinho was prominent as Aston Villa went on a recent three-match winning streak in the Premier League.

Despite losses to West Ham and Arsenal coming into the international break, Villa have steadied since the November appointment of head coach Steven Gerrard, who took over from Dean Smith.

Villa are thought to remain interested in turning Coutinho's loan into a permanent arrangement, but another suitor could yet strike a deal, according to Spanish newspaper Sport.

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE LINKED WITH COUTINHO RAID

Newcastle United are said to be ready to swoop for Coutinho if Villa, who have an option to buy, cannot piece together a long-term agreement for the Brazilian winger.

Villa signed Coutinho on loan in January and to take him off Barcelona's hands would reportedly cost around €40million (£33m).

The 29-year-old has immediately become an integral part of Gerrard's attack, providing four goals and three assists in 10 Premier League appearances since arriving.

However, the prospect of a permanent deal is based on Villa accounting for Coutinho's substantial wages, which Barcelona currently subsidise. With new ownership, Newcastle appear capable of finding such funds.

ROUND-UP

Barcelona have tried to exploit sanctions affecting Chelsea by attempting to sign three of the club's defenders in Antonio RudigerCesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen, according to The Telegraph.

– RB Leipzig are set to conduct contract talks with Christopher Nkunku, but according to ESPN they are willing to listen to offers in excess of €75million.

Edinson Cavani is set for a move to Boca Juniors when his contract with Manchester United expires at the end of the season, claims Todofichajes.

– Bruno Fernandes has signed a new contract with Manchester United, extending his existing deal by one season but with a substantial wage increase, The Guardian reports.

Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Manchester United may be coming to a premature end.

The Portuguese forward has struggled since Ralf Rangnick's arrival as interim manager in December.

United are also battling to finish in the Premier League's top four.

TOP STORY - RONALDO COURTS MOVE TO MESSI'S PSG

FootballTransfers claims that Ronaldo has decided that he will leave Manchester United if they do not qualify for the Champions League, with a move to join Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain on his agenda.

Speculation about Ronaldo's future at Old Trafford ramped up after he missed Sunday's Manchester derby due to a hip flexor injury and flew to Portugal.

The report that claims that Ronaldo returning to Juventus has been ruled out, along with his original Portuguese club Sporting CP, with the five-time Ballon d'Or courting a move to Paris.

 

ROUND-UP

- Defensa Central reports that Newcastle United have commenced talks with Real Madrid over a move for 31-year-old ex-Chelsea forward Eden Hazard who has had an underwhelming spell with Los Blancos.

- Manchester United's Marcus Rashford has a list of clubs circling for his services with Arsenal, Newcastle and West Ham all interested, according to 90Min.

- The Mail claims that PSG will make a move for Rashford too, should Kylian Mbappe leave the French capital to join Madrid.

- Manchester City and Madrid are in the lead to sign Borussia Dortmund forward Erling Haaland ahead of Bayern Munich and Barcelona claims The Athletic.

- RB Leipzig midfielder Christopher Nkunku is being tracked by Chelsea and Man City according to FootMercato.

Kylian Mbappe to Real Madrid has often felt like a never-ending transfer saga, but it appears a resolution might now be in sight.

Los Blancos are apparently confident of getting the Paris Saint-Germain star in 2022 even though their performance did not impress him in the Champions League.

However, Madrid do have a back-up plan.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID CONFIDENT ON MBAPPE BUT MANE IS PLAN B

Real Madrid believe they will win the battle to sign Kylian Mbappe on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain in 2022.

Carlo Ancelotti's side are preparing to announce the deal at the end of the season, according to Goal.

However, should their efforts to sign Mbappe or Erling Haaland fail, Madrid have a back-up plan: Fichajes claims they will submit an offer for Sadio Mane.

ROUND-UP

Arsenal are interested in signing Joao Felix from Atletico Madrid, according to television show El Chiringuito.

Manchester United have been quoted €75million (£62.5m) for RB Leipzig star Christopher Nkunku, Bild says.

- Meanwhile, United striker Edinson Cavani is ready to listen to an offer to join Botafogo when his contract expires, Goal claims.

- According to Sport, Tottenham have submitted the firmest offer to sign Paulo Dybala from Juventus, but Barcelona and Inter are also interested.

Milan are resigned to losing Franck Kessie after this season and could replace him with Renato Sanches, Tuttosport says.

UEFA has decided to move the Champions League final from St Petersburg, according to the BBC. The game could be held in London.

Cristiano Ronaldo ended a run of six matches without scoring in Tuesday's win over Brighton and Hove Albion, but the Manchester United forward's future remains uncertain.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner's second spell at Old Trafford has not gone quite to plan and a number of European clubs are said to be circling should he depart.

If reports are accurate, it may well be that a reunion with former boss Jose Mourinho is on the cards for Ronaldo in the coming months.


TOP STORY – ROMA IN FOR RONALDO

Roma are one of three clubs currently in the running to sign Ronaldo should he depart United in the next transfer window, according to The Sun.

Giallorossi boss Mourinho previously managed Ronaldo at Real Madrid and is eager to bolster his squad with a superstar signing.

However, it is not known if the 37-year-old would welcome a return to Serie A, where he previously spent three seasons playing for Juventus ahead of rejoining United.

European heavyweights Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are reported to be the other two sides to have expressed an interest in Ronaldo.


ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano claims Chelsea are now solely focused on signing Jules Kounde from Sevilla after being told that top defensive target Marquinhos will not be sold by PSG.

- According to The Sun, Armando Broja's form on loan with Southampton has seen the Chelsea youngster's name added to Bayern and Borussia Dortmund's list of targets.

- Manchester City have bid £5.5million (€6.5m) for Atletico Mineiro's teenage winger Savio, suggests The Guardian, with the intention of then loaning him out to PSV.

- Juan Mata will depart United as a free agent at the end of the campaign, claims Nicolo Schira. The midfielder may look to see out his career in his Spanish homeland.

- Ralf Rangnick is eager for United to bring in Christopher Nkunku from RB Leipzig, according to ESPN. Madrid, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal have also been linked.

Barcelona have been working to overcome their financial challenges over the past 12 months.

The Blaugrana have been plotting a way forward with their playing squad.

Barca landed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on a free transfer in January, as well as a loan move for Adama Traore.

TOP STORY – BARCELONA TARGET DE VRIJ

Barcelona are keen on Inter's Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij, reports Fichajes.

De Vrij is contracted with the Nerazzurri until the end of the 2022-23 season, but Barca may view him as Gerard Pique's successor.

Inter are reportedly open to interest from other parties, if the price is right, with the 30-year-old heading towards the final year of his present deal.

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail claims Paris Saint-Germain are putting together a lucrative deal to lure Paul Pogba to the club from Manchester United as a free agent. Pogba also has interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona, while he may still stay at Old Trafford.

- Newcastle United's efforts to sign Sevilla defender Diego Carlos will continue in the off-season after missing out in January, reports Marca.

- RB Leipzig forward Christopher Nkunku has been added to Manchester United's list of off-season targets, claims ESPN.

- Crystal Palace and Watford are both keen on Liverpool veteran James Milner, according to Fichajes.

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.

Is Robert Lewandowski's time at Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich coming to an end?

Lewandowski has called Bayern home since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in 2014.

However, the 33-year-old Poland international is reportedly ready for a new challenge.

 

TOP STORY – LEWANDOWSKI SET ON MADRID MOVE

Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski has ordered his agent to finalise a transfer to LaLiga giants Real Madrid, according to Diario AS.

Lewandowski has repeatedly excelled for Bayern, where he has broken numerous records, while he was unfortunate not to win the 2021 Ballon d'Or.

Previously linked with a move to the Premier League, Lewandowski appears to be set on a switch to Madrid, where his former team-mate David Alaba now calls home.

 

ROUND-UP

- Tuttosport claims Fiorentina want to sell Dusan Vlahovic abroad but the Serbia international is not interested in Arsenal as he eyes Juventus. Vlahovic has also been linked with Manchester City, Manchester United, Inter, Atletico Madrid, Tottenham and Bayern. It comes as Sky Sport Italia says Fiorentina are close to signing Lille forward Jonathan Ikone.

- Interim United manager Ralf Rangnick will try to convince Erling Haaland to leave Dortmund for Old Trafford, per Bild. Rangnick and Haaland worked together at Salzburg. Haaland is a player in demand amid interest from Madrid, Barcelona, Juve, Bayern, City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain. Since Rangnick's arrival, United have also been linked with RB Leipzig pair Christopher Nkunku and Amadou Haidara, as well as Chelsea forward Timo Werner.

- Record reports Dortmund are keen on Benfica and Uruguay attacker Darwin Nunez amid uncertainty over the future of Haaland.

- Premier League champions City have scouted Bologna and Sweden sensation Mattias Svanberg, according to Nicolo Schira.

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.

Atletico Madrid are hoping to recover from losing to Liverpool on matchday three with a repeat of their Anfield heroics last March.

Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City will look to take bigger steps towards the last 16, while Real Madrid will go in search of another big win against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Inter can put themselves in a good position to progress, too, although city rivals Milan have got much more of a fight on their hands.

Here are some of the key Opta facts for Wednesday's Champions League matches...

 

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid: Can Suarez improve rotten recent record?

Atletico were winners at Anfield on their last visit as they claimed a 3-2 victory in the last-16 second leg in March 2020. Indeed, Liverpool have only twice beaten Spanish teams at home in 13 attempts in the European Cup and Champions League.

That said, the Marcos Llorente-inspired game last year was one of only two out of 22 at home that Jurgen Klopp has lost in this competition as Reds manager, while Diego Simeone is chasing what would only be the second instance of a third successive away win in the tournament with Atleti.

Luis Suarez will hope to haunt his old side, although recent history is against him: he's only scored one for Atleti in nine Champions League games, and none from open play. Mohamed Salah, meanwhile, needs one more goal to equal Steven Gerrard as Liverpool's top scorer in the competition at Anfield (14).

Manchester City v Club Brugge: Bad omens for Belgian champions

City's 5-1 triumph in Bruges on matchday three took their tally to six wins in seven European games against Belgian opposition, while Brugge are now without a victory over English teams in 13 attempts dating back to February 1995.

Since Pep Guardiola took charge, City have won 80 per cent (20 out of 25) of home Champions League matches, which is the best record for a coach at a single club in the competition among those to take charge of 20 or more. A first win on English soil for Brugge looks unlikely.

Might this be a chance for Raheem Sterling to impress? The England forward has been directly involved in 24 goals in 27 home Champions League games for City, a tally surpassed only by Sergio Aguero (27).

 

RB Leipzig v Paris Saint-Germain: Nkunku could outshine Messi

PSG have only lost one of their past nine away games in the group stage, but that defeat was against RB Leipzig last season. It was the only time in the previous seven meetings with French sides that Leipzig emerged victorious.

He might be enduring a difficult time in Ligue 1, but Lionel Messi has managed three goals in three games in Europe for PSG. His double in the reverse fixture was his 34th in the competition, something only Cristiano Ronaldo (37) can better.

However, perhaps the most in-form player in 2021-22 is Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku, who has been involved in the most open-play sequences ending in a goal (six) among Champions League midfielders this season. And he has four goals of his own from the first three matches.

Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk: Another big win on the cards with Benzema

Madrid's 5-0 win over Shakhtar on matchday three means the past five meetings between these teams have seen an average of 4.6 goals scored per game. In fact, Los Blancos have scored 15 times in five Champions League matches against Shakhtar: that average of three per game is their best figure against a side they have faced on at least five occasions, apart from Galatasaray (3.4 per game).

Shakhtar are one of just three sides yet to score in this season's group stage, but with Madrid having lost three of their previous eight home games in the competition, this could be a good opportunity.

They will need to stop Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, though: they are the two players with the most involvements in shot-ending sequences in 2021-22 (31 and 34, respectively). Plus, Benzema is on a run of 10 goals in 10 home games in the competition.

 

Sheriff v Inter: Nothing shot-shy about Inzaghi's men

Inter ended Sheriff's 11-game unbeaten run in Europe last time out and will now look to secure consecutive Champions League victories for the first time since October 2018.

The Nerazzurri have lost just once in their previous five Champions League away matches, but Sheriff are unbeaten in their most recent five European games on home soil, excluding qualifiers. They've also won the past two.

Inter certainly have the variety to break down Sheriff's stubborn defence. Each of their previous 17 away goals in the competition have come from open play, while their 29 shots in the meeting on matchday three were the most by an Italian side in a Champions League game since at least 2003-04.

Other fixtures:

Borussia Dortmund v Ajax

45 – Ajax's 4-0 win over Dortmund last time out was the biggest victory by a Dutch side over a German team in Europe since November 1976, when Feyenoord defeated Kaiserslautern 5-0 in the UEFA Cup.

8 – Sebastien Haller has been directly involved in more Champions League goals this season than any other player (eight – six goals, two assists). Among debutants in the competition since 2003-04, this is the highest such figure over a player's first four appearances and one more than Erling Haaland managed.

Milan v Porto

3 – Milan are one of just four sides this season to have lost all three group games. They are on a five-game losing run in the competition, the worst such streak in their history.

1 – Since scoring four for Chelsea against Sevilla in December 2020, Olivier Giroud has scored only once in 250 minutes of play in the Champions League.

Sporting CP v Besiktas

5 – Paulinho has been directly involved in three of Sporting's five goals (two scored, one assisted) in this season's Champions League. Their last player to manage more goals and assists combined in a single season was Nani in 2014-15 (six).

10 – Michy Batshuayi has attempted 10 shots for Besiktas in the Champions League in 2021-22 without scoring. Over the first three matchdays, only Inter's Lautaro Martinez (12) had more shots without finding the net.

What does the future hold for Erling Haaland?

The Borussia Dortmund forward is wanted across Europe.

However, Haaland could remain in Germany…

 

TOP STORY – HAALAND SET FOR DORTMUND STAY?

Erling Haaland is a player in demand but he is not certain to leave Borussia Dortmund, according to Sport Bild.

Haaland has been tipped to depart Dortmund at the end of the season amid links with Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

But Norwegian pundit Jan Aage Fjortoft suggests Haaland could remain at the Bundesliga outfit for longer than many expect.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sky Sports Italian claims Fiorentina chairman Rocco Commisso is concerned whether star forward Dusan Vlahovic intends to sign a new contract with Viola. Contracted until 2023, the Serbia international has been in talks regarding a new deal as the likes of City, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal and Inter reportedly circle.

- United are still backing under-fire manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to Fabrizio Romano.

- Tuttomercatoweb reports Atletico have joined the race to sign Chelsea's Timo Werner, who has found himself behind Romelu Lukaku at Stamford Bridge. Bayern and Dortmund are also reportedly eyeing Werner.

Madrid have been offered the chance to sign RB Leipzig Christopher Nkunku in 2022, says Mundo Deportivo.

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