Mohamed Salah committed his long-term future to Liverpool on Friday by signing a new three-year deal.

The Egypt international was due to be out of contract at the end of the upcoming season, leading to strong links with a move away from Anfield.

However, out of the blue, Salah has penned an extension to – temporarily, at least – bring an end to speculation over his future.

After losing Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich, albeit with Darwin Nunez signed as a replacement of sorts, tying down Salah is a major boost for Liverpool ahead of the new season.

Here, Stats Perform looks at just how important Salah has been for Liverpool over the past five years, and how his record compares to Europe's other elite attackers.

ALREADY AMONG LIVERPOOL GREATS

It is difficult to remember now, but Salah's arrival from Roma in a deal rising to £43million raised more than a few eyebrows due to his disappointing earlier spell with Chelsea.

Six major honours later, including one as a key part in the club's first Premier League title triumph, and Salah will go down as one of Liverpool's all-time greats.

The 30-year-old has made 254 appearances for the Reds in total, 235 of those being starts, and has scored 156 goals while assisting 58 more.

Those 156 goals rank him ninth on the list of Liverpool's record scorers, with considerable ground to make up on Ian Rush at the top of that list with 346 goals.


CLOSING IN ON GERRARD RECORD

Salah might struggle to overhaul Rush, but he will also have another record in his sights when the 2022-23 campaign gets up and running next month.

With 164 direct goal involvements in the Premier League, Salah trails only Steven Gerrard (212) among Reds players in the competition in that regard.

Indeed, only two players from Europe's top five leagues have scored and assisted more goals across the same period – Robert Lewandowski (184) and Lionel Messi (200).

Kylian Mbappe, seen by many as the most desirable player in world football, is fourth on that list on 163 goal involvements, while Ciro Immobile is fifth with 159.


PREMIER LEAGUE PEDIGREE

Salah has scored 118 goals for Liverpool in the Premier League alone, which is 13 more than next-best Harry Kane among all clubs since the start of the 2017-18 season.

Those strikes have helped Salah to three Golden Boot awards – only Arsenal legend Thierry Henry (4) has finished top of the competition's scoring charts more often.

The former Basel forward also ranks top for minutes per goal among those to have played at least 100 times (126 minutes per goal), shots (678) and touches in the opposition box (1,575).

However, one metric he does not lead is assists, with Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne boasting 58 to Salah's 46.


MORE TO COME FROM MO

Salah's output has been consistent across his five years at Anfield, starting between 45 and 49 games a season and registering double figures for assists in all but one of those campaigns.

He has remained a prolific scorer throughout, with a high of 44 goals in the 2017-18 season and a low – but still respectable – 23 in the 2019-20 campaign. The latter was the season when Liverpool won the Premier League.

The Al Mokawloon youth product has managed 31 goals in each of the past two seasons, while the 15 assists registered last season was a career-high.

All that suggests Salah is far from finished on Merseyside, and with a new three-year deal signed, Liverpool fans have plenty more to look forward to from their 'Egyptian king'.

June 30, 2002, Yokohama. Ronaldo pounces on Rivaldo's dummy to side-foot past Germany's Oliver Kahn, becoming just the ninth man to score twice in a World Cup final and making Brazil champions of the world.

That moment, the pinnacle of the legendary forward's career, remains unmatched to this day for the Selecao, with Brazil failing to add to their five World Cup crowns in the subsequent two decades.

Should Brazil fall short of glory in Qatar later this year, that drought will stretch to at least 24 years, matching their longest wait for World Cup glory since their maiden title in 1958 (also between 1970 and 1994).

For a country whose hopes have been entrusted to such footballing icons as Ronaldinho, Kaka and Neymar in subsequent years, such a drought seems inexplicable, with three quarter-final exits and one historic semi-final humiliation the sum of their efforts since 2002. 

Exactly 20 years on from Brazil's triumph in Japan and South Korea, Stats Perform looks back on that momentous success, questions why it is yet to be repeated, and asks whether Tite's class of 2022 are equipped to bring glory to one of the world's most football-mad nations.

2002: Irresistible Ronaldo fires Selecao to glory in Japan and South Korea

It is no exaggeration to say Brazil's last World Cup win was one of the most impressive triumphs in the competition's history.

Luiz Felipe Scolari's men went from strength to strength after requiring a late Rivaldo penalty to edge a tense opener against eventual third-placed finishers Turkey, winning all seven of their games by an aggregate score of 18-4.

The class of 2002 thus hold the record for the most games won by a nation at a single World Cup, with Ronaldo – coming off an injury-blighted four seasons at Inter in which he managed just 36 Serie A appearances – the star of the show.

Partnering Rivaldo and supplied by Paris Saint-Germain's breakout star Ronaldinho, O Fenomeno netted eight goals across the tournament, the joint-most of any Brazilian at a single World Cup and the highest tally of anyone since West Germany's Gerd Muller struck 10 times in 1970.

 

Ronaldo's 19 shots on target in the tournament has not been matched in any subsequent World Cup, while his total of 34 attempts was more than five different nations managed. 

Quarter-final opponents England, vanquished when Ronaldinho audaciously (perhaps fortuitously) lobbed David Seaman from long-range, were the only side to keep Ronaldo out as he took the competition by storm.

A 25-year-old Ronaldo's final double against Germany represented his 44th and 45th international goals in just his 64th Brazil appearance. He managed just 17 further strikes in the famous yellow shirt during his career.

There was nothing in the 2002 squad's make-up to suggest a long wait for further tournament success was imminent: The experienced Cafu (31 in 2002) and Roberto Carlos (29) were still around in 2006, while future Ballon d'Or winners Ronaldinho (22) and Kaka (20) had their whole careers ahead of them.

How, then, did one of the greatest sides in modern international history contrive to fall so far short in subsequent World Cups?

 

2006-2010: Zidane and Sneijder sparkle as drab Brazil fall short

Brazil looked set for another shot at glory in Germany in 2006. Ronaldinho was crowned the world's best player in 2005; Kaka was to follow in his footsteps in 2007; and Ronaldo had hit a century of goals in his first four seasons with Real Madrid.

Brazil conceded just once in group-stage clashes with Croatia, Australia and Japan before crushing Ghana 3-0 in the last 16, but with Carlos Alberto Parreira cramming his three attacking stars into a rigid 4-4-2 shape, it was France who more closely resembled the Brazil sides of old in the last eight. 

Zinedine Zidane's performance in Frankfurt stands as one of the finest in the competition's history, as he tormented the defending champions' flat midfield before assisting Thierry Henry's winner.

It was the first of two masterful midfield displays to end the World Cup hopes of drab Brazil teams, with Wesley Sneijder assuming Zidane's role as the Netherlands vanquished Dunga's men in South Africa in 2010.

Progressing from the group stages has not been an issue for Brazil. Astonishingly, they are unbeaten in their last 15 group games, last suffering a first-stage defeat against Norway in 1998.

A lack of tactical nous against the world's best, however, has been a legitimate charge, and an understandable one given the identities of some of their head coaches.

Parreira's one Brazilian top-flight title was won way back in 1984, while Dunga's only club-level experience remains, to this day, a dire 2013 campaign with Internacional.

In that context, the return of Scolari, the emergence of Neymar and a home World Cup lifted expectations to monumental levels by 2014, when Brazilian dreams were to be shattered in the most incredible manner imaginable.

2014-2018: Home humiliation and Neymar reliance see Brazilian woes continue

The 2014 World Cup was billed as a festival of football, lit up by jubilant Brazilian crowds and thrilling football – the 171 goals scored across the tournament are the joint-most on record, alongside 1998.

Sadly for Brazil, eventual winners Germany provided 18 of those, with seven coming in a scarcely believable semi-final rout at the Mineirao.

Having gone 5-0 down within 29 minutes in the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva, Scolari's men collapsed to arguably the greatest humiliation in World Cup history and, as almost goes without saying, the heaviest semi-final defeat the tournament has ever seen.

Only when Yugoslavia faced Zaire in 1974 had a side previously been 5-0 up after 29 minutes at a World Cup, but for all the excitement building around the host nation, Brazil's class of 2014 always appeared flawed.

An over-reliance on Neymar – cruelly sidelined by a dreadful quarter-final challenge from Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga – was clear in both 2014 and 2018, when Brazil fell to a 2-1 defeat to a Kevin De Bruyne-inspired Belgium in Russia.

 

Across those two tournaments, Neymar's six goals and two assists saw him directly involved in 42 per cent of Brazil's goals.

Fluminense striker Fred, ridiculed by many for his performances in 2014, wasn't exactly up to the task of replacing his goal threat, while Gabriel Jesus failed to find the net despite starting every match under Tite in 2018.

Indeed, coming into the 2018 tournament, Neymar – with 55 goals in 85 caps, was the only player in the Brazil squad to have scored more than 12 international goals.

Having achieved the rare feat of holding onto his job after leading Brazil at a World Cup, Tite will hope the emergence of several other stars lessens the burden on his number 10 this time around.

The road to Qatar: Can the class of 2022 end World Cup drought? 

Assuming he remains in charge when they face Serbia on November 24, Tite will become the first coach to lead Brazil at back-to-back World Cups since Tele Santana in 1982 and 1986.

While neither of Santana's campaigns ended in glory, the current boss – a Copa Libertadores and FIFA Club World Cup winner – will hope his six years moulding the side will prove invaluable in Qatar.

Brazil have already ended one mini trophy drought under his watch, winning a first Copa America title in 12 years on home soil in 2019 before finishing as runners-up to Argentina two years later.

Most impressively, Brazil triumphed without the injured Neymar in 2019 as Everton Soares top-scored, and the form of a series of Selecao stars has given Tite enviable squad depth.

In Allison and Ederson, he can choose between arguably the top two goalkeepers in the Premier League, while Fabinho was crucial as Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool fell narrowly short of a historic quadruple last term.

Casemiro, who won his fifth Champions League title with Madrid in May, could partner him in a fearsome midfield duo, but most of the excitement is centred on his club team-mate Vinicius Junior, whose 22 goals and 16 assists for Los Blancos last term suggest he can be the man to dovetail with Neymar.

 

After landing an appealing group-stage draw alongside Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon, the excitement around Brazil is building once more.

With the Selecao topping the FIFA World Rankings, having fairly recent a Copa America win under their belts and possessing some of European football's most-effective players, 2022 seems as good a time as any for Brazil to end 20 years of disappointment and bring 'o Jogo Bonito' to the world once more.

Romelu Lukaku's second spell with Chelsea lasted just one season.

Inter have confirmed the return of Lukaku in a season-long loan deal just 321 days after selling him to Chelsea for just under £100million.

It reunites Lukaku with the club with whom he won the Scudetto in 2021 and writes another chapter in the history of the Blues signing a high-profile striker, only for them to fail to produce.

As the London club perhaps wonder what might have been with Lukaku, Stats Perform looks back at the string of forwards who saw their goals dry up after moving to Stamford Bridge.

Mateja Kezman

Kezman did not arrive for big money by today's standards, joining from PSV for a £5.3m fee in 2004, but he came with significant expectations after a goal-laden spell in the Eredivisie in which he plundered 105 in 122 league appearances and won the title twice.

However, he came nowhere close to living up to the billing in his sole season in the Premier League, finding the net seven times in 41 games in all competitions. His most important goal was the ultimately decisive third in Chelsea's League Cup final win over Liverpool as the Blues did the double, going on to claim a first Premier League crown under Jose Mourinho.

He was subsequently sold to Atletico Madrid and had spells with Fenerbahce and Paris Saint-Germain that delivered more trophies, though he never managed to recapture his PSV form.

Andriy Shevchenko

Few strikers in world football were as feared as Shevchenko during his golden years at Milan, for whom he remains the second-highest goalscorer in the club's history with 175.

Chelsea's £30.8m move to lure him from San Siro in 2006, then a record fee paid by an English club, reflected his reputation. Yet Shevchenko's transition to the Premier League did not go to plan.

In his final season in Serie A, Shevchenko averaged a goal every 116 minutes. Across two seasons with Chelsea, that dipped to one every 284 minutes in the Premier League. He netted 22 in 77 games in all competitions, with the appointment of Avram Grant as Mourinho's successor in 2007 limiting his game time. Shevchenko won the FA Cup and League Cup with the Blues but was an unused substitute as they lost the 2008 Champions League final to Manchester United.

He was sent back to Milan for an unsuccessful loan spell before finishing his career back at boyhood club Dynamo Kyiv.

Fernando Torres

Torres' 2011 move from Liverpool to Chelsea was one of the most famous January transfers in Premier League history. As with a lot of January moves, it did not have the desired impact.

In his final two full seasons with Liverpool in 2008-09 and 2009-10, 'El Nino' scored 32 Premier League goals from 166 shots that had an expected goals (xG) value of 13.3. In 2010-11, he scored nine for Liverpool from an xG value of 8.5. Across three and a half seasons with Chelsea, Torres scored 20 league goals from 217 shots with an xG value of 26.5.

In terms of silverware, Torres was still successful with Chelsea, winning three trophies. His crowning moment came as he scored the decisive goal at Camp Nou against Barcelona to send the Blues into the Champions League final, where they beat Bayern Munich on penalties.

But his overall output was never close to good enough, and he too had a brief spell at Milan before heading back to where it all began with Atletico Madrid.

Alvaro Morata

Of all the players on this list, Morata's relative lack of goalscoring success was the least surprising given he made the move to Stamford Bridge having never scored more than 15 league goals in a single season in his career.

Moving from Real Madrid on the back of that career-best campaign in 2016-17, Morata was unable to live up to his reported £60m fee, scoring 11 goals in 31 games in his first season and five in 16 in the first half of his second before being loaned to Atletico, who he then joined on a permanent basis having won the FA Cup and Europa League with Chelsea.

Timo Werner

Werner still has the chance to turn his Chelsea career around, but the former RB Leipzig striker's time at Stamford Bridge has followed a very similar trajectory to Chelsea's high-profile misfires.

Having scored 95 goals in 159 games for Leipzig, Werner has netted only 23 in two seasons for Chelsea since his £47.5m move, with his 191 shots carrying an xG value of 33.7, illustrating just how poorly the Germany international has performed in front of goal.

He has brought value in other areas, serving as a high-energy focal point of the Chelsea attack, but Thomas Tuchel will surely want to see more in terms of end product for Werner to free himself from the 'flop' tag.

Romelu Lukaku

Unable to cement a place in the Chelsea first team during his first spell with the club, Lukaku's second act at Stamford Bridge was expected to be much more profitable.

Chelsea forked out a club-record £97.5m on that proving to be the case but have now moved to cut their losses and allow Lukaku to return to Inter, if only on loan.

Lukaku scored a goal every 120 minutes in helping Inter to Serie A glory in 2020-21 but managed just eight in the Premier League at one every 198 minutes.

Between Werner and Lukaku, Chelsea could not afford to carry two struggling strikers, with the latter becoming the latest in a long line of misguided attacking investments to make a swift exit.

Eoin Morgan signalled the end of an era for England's limited-overs team as he announced his international retirement on Tuesday.

Morgan, who started his career playing for Ireland, had captained the white-ball side for eight years.

In that time, England went to the 2016 World Twenty20 final and then overcame the pain of that narrow defeat by winning a dramatic 2019 Cricket World Cup final.

Morgan will "go down as one of the most influential figures not just in English cricket but in world cricket", according to Brendon McCullum, while Nasser Hussain lauded "our greatest ever white-ball captain" and Michael Atherton hailed his "white-ball dynasty".

But more than merely an outstanding leader - who is expected to be replaced in his role by Jos Buttler – Morgan has also been a brilliant player for England.

Indeed, there is scarcely a white-ball record Morgan does not have his fingerprints on, with his Test career lasting only 16 matches.

Despite playing 23 ODIs for Ireland between 2006 and 2009 before switching allegiances, no player has appeared in more matches for England in the format (225); the same is true of T20Is (115).

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Morgan leads England in runs in both formats – 6,957 in 50 overs and 2,458 in 20. In fact, only eight players of any nationality have scored more T20I runs.

Morgan has played with some of the sport's biggest hitters but can hold his own, too: his 220 ODI sixes (202 for England) include 17 in one match against Afghanistan at the 2019 World Cup, a record that stands to this day.

In the shortest format, he has hit 120 sixes – the most of any England star and the fourth-most overall.

A star in the field, too, Morgan has taken 46 catches in T20Is to lead England all internationals and rank joint-eighth across the board.

But Morgan will perhaps still be best remembered as the man organising the field as England scaled new heights – and he owns his fair share of records in that regard, too.

Morgan was captain for just over half of his ODI appearances (126), comfortably the most such outings of any England player, ahead of Alastair Cook (69).

It is unsurprisingly a similar story in the younger T20I format, with Morgan's 72 games as captain matching India's MS Dhoni for the record.

Morgan's sublime career is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry, but this array of dominant records ensures that will remain the case.

It always feels somewhat presumptuous to talk about an NBA Draft in the immediate aftermath and judge who did well and who did not. Surely, we have to wait to see how things play out and whether players with immense potential are able to fulfil it?

However, what you can do is judge those who, on paper at least, seem to have struck gold and those who appeared to stumble through their Thursday evening and may well have come away disappointed with their haul.

The night started off delightfully chaotically as the Orlando Magic went against the widely predicted number one pick of Jabari Smith Jr and instead brought in Paolo Banchero.

Now the dust has settled after an interesting night, Stats Perform has taken a look at the potential winners and losers of the draft.

Winners

Houston Rockets

The Rockets could probably not believe their luck when the Magic decided to opt for Banchero. The Italian-American would have still been a fine first-round pick, but given the choice it seems like Houston would rather have taken Smith Jr, and they had the chance to do just that.

The youngster was a disruptive defender for Aubern, and clearly has sound fundamentals, a result no doubt of growing up in and around basketball, with his father Jabari Smith Sr a former NBA player himself.

Smith Jr averaged 16.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists while shooting 42.9 per cent from the floor and 42 per cent from the three-point line in 2021-22, and should dovetail nicely with Alperen Sengun, a first-round pick from last year.

The Rockets also took Tari Eason, a breakout star at LSU, and TyTy Washington, a high-quality and versatile option who was expected to be picked up earlier in the night.

Detroit Pistons

A very similar moment of fortune fell for the Pistons as their top choice Jaden Ivey was surprisingly still available when it came to their number five pick, with the Sacramento Kings instead taking Keegan Murray.

In two seasons at Purdue, Ivey showed himself to be a top-five prospect with a well-rounded game, though questions persist about the consistency of his shooting. He averaged 17.3 points per game last season, though, with a field goal percentage of 46.0.

Detroit were also involved in a three-way trade with the Charlotte Hornets and the New York Knicks. This ended with them procuring Jalen Duren and Kemba Walker in exchange for their 2025 first-round pick, having acquired it as part of the Jerami Grant trade to the Portland Trail Blazers earlier in the week.

Walker is expected to be bought out of his contract and become a free agent, so it looks like sound dealing to essentially trade a first-round pick to get Duren through the door, who averaged 12.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for the Memphis Tigers last season.

San Antonio Spurs

Nothing outrageous from the Spurs, but on the face of it, they ended the night with three solid picks.

Jeremy Sochan became the first British player to be picked in NBA Draft in over 10 years. As a freshman at Baylor, Sochan averaged 9.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in 25.1 minutes per game, making 47.4 per cent of his field goal attempts.

As that average suggests, one aspect to his game that could be improved is his shooting, but San Antonio's Chip Engelland is one of the best shooting coaches in the game and could well help the young man who was raised in Milton Keynes, England.

Malaki Branham looks a smart choice as the number 20 pick from Ohio State, with his one college season seeing him average 13.7 points on 49.8 per cent shooting, while Blake Wesley from Notre Dame also has the potential to also be a valuable arrival.

Losers

New York Knicks

After a poor season that felt like it would at least set them up for a productive draft, the Knicks appeared to overthink things at the draft, or underthink them depending on your viewpoint.

They decided to trade their number 11 pick for three future first-round picks, though none that really hold any value.

They managed to get Walker's contract out the door to the Pistons to free up some salary space, seemingly putting all their eggs in the Jalen Brunson basket, or potentially even Kyrie Irving. However, they only saved $9.2m from Walker's contract, which is not a lot considering they gave up one of their first-round picks. 

Who knows if it will pay off, but Knicks fans were almost certainly expecting more.

Washington Wizards

There was nothing particularly wrong with the picks from the Wizards, but as harsh as it may sound, they are in danger of becoming the NBA's dullest team.

A win percentage of 0.427 was down from 0.472 in 2020-21, and it felt like they might need to take a bit of a risk in the draft with their number 10 pick.

Johnny Davis is a fine player, averaging 19.7 points per game for the Wisconsin Badgers last year, the 25th highest in the college game, but someone like Duren could have been a roll of the dice for something to boost that win percentage sometime soon.

Who knows? It could be a sound strategy, but to be frank, it is a strategy that has not been working for the last few years in Washington.

Sacramento Kings

There is some sympathy with the situation the Kings were put in as the extremely obvious pick at four was Ivey, who had expressly said he did not want to go to Sacramento, so they went with Murray instead.

Murray is a fine prospect himself, and arguably a better fit than Ivey for the Kings, but the latter felt like an opportunity to at the very least have significant trade leverage.

Murray did average the fourth-highest points per game average last year with 23.5 for Iowa, while also adding 8.7 rebounds per game, so comes in as a promising addition.

Ivey will inevitably feel like the one who got away if he does what many think he will at Detroit, though, which could bring back memories of when Sacramento failed to take on Luka Doncic in 2018.

To suggest the next 12 months may well define Lionel Messi's career would be doing a disservice to what we have witnessed up close over the past 18 campaigns. 

From boy wonder to the greatest player ever in the view of many, and now into a new chapter with Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentina forward has nothing to prove to anyone.

And yet on the day he turns 35 – the average age of retirement for a footballer – questions continue to be asked of Messi. 

Will he win a World Cup – still in the eyes of many the real barometer of a truly great player, even in the era of the Champions League – before he retires? 

Can he prove himself in a different country after a mixed first season in France? Both of those questions will be answered before he celebrates his 36th birthday in a year's time.

Stats Perform looks at how Messi's game has already changed, and whether he is still capable of inspiring club and country to glory in possibly the biggest year of his career.
 

MESSI 2.0

Ten months have passed since the shock announcement that Messi was bringing an end to his 21-year association with Barcelona to join Ligue 1 giants PSG.

By his own high standards, Messi's first campaign in Paris was far from great. He scored 11 goals in 34 appearances, down on the 38 scored in his last season with Barca.

And those 11 goals came from an expected goals (xG) value of 16.8, meaning he scored 5.8 goals fewer than he should have based on the quality of his chances.

Among players in Europe's top-five leagues in all competitions last season, only six others had a worse return, with Lille striker Burak Yilmaz (8.11 differential) topping the list.

There were extenuating circumstances, of course, with Messi himself recently opening up on just how badly he struggled after testing positive for coronavirus in January.

The La Masia product also had to adapt to life outside the place he had called home for more than two decades, seeing him take on an entirely different role.

While his scoring figures dropped considerably, Messi set up 14 league goals – only once in his last five seasons at Camp Nou (21 in 2019-20) did he assist more in a campaign.

The majority of his assists last season came from a left-of-centre position outside the box, where he predominantly played alongside Neymar and just off Kylian Mbappe.


RONALDO SHOWS THE WAY

The 11 goals Messi scored at the age of 34 is his lowest return since the eight he netted when aged 18 and still in the infancy of his Barcelona career.

While that can be put down to a change of scenery, and being in the unfamiliar role of having to play second-fiddle to Mbappe, age is also surely a factor.

At 35 – or 34 as he was last season – Messi will inevitably have to rely more on his footballing brain than his legs to give him an advantage over opponents.

As showed by Cristiano Ronaldo, though, age is just a number when it comes to the very best, the Portugal star having scored 75 goals in 102 games since his 35th birthday.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, four months shy of his 41st birthday, has scored an impressive 112 goals in 174 appearances since hitting 35, an age often perceived as being 'over the hill'.


ALL EYES ON QATAR

Playing a supporting role may well be something we must come accustomed to when it comes to club level, but for Argentina Messi very much still remains the main man.

That was clear to see earlier this month when, in his final game in a gruelling campaign, Messi scored all five of Argentina's goals in their thumping friendly win over Estonia.

That five-goal showing rightly attracted plenty of focus, though it was arguably four days earlier in his side's 3-0 'Finalissima' victory over Italy that Messi truly showed his quality.

Messi pulled the strings from a slightly deeper position as Argentina, who also boast the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala, showed their credentials.

He assisted two of Argentina's three goals, including a delightful turn to leave Giovanni Di Lorenzo trailing in his wake before setting up Martinez for a simple finish. 

On the back of ending their 28-year wait for silverware in 2021 with victory at the Copa America, Lionel Scaloni's men now look good value to challenge for the World Cup.

Regardless of any more titles he adds to his collection at PSG, Messi lifting the most famous trophy of them all in Qatar later this year would be the defining image of his career.

Different now he may be, but Messi has a chance to show in his 35th year that he has plenty more left in the tank to turn a great career into the greatest.

It is the end of an era at Liverpool as one of their iconic front three leaves for pastures new.

After six years at Anfield, Sadio Mane has departed for a new adventure with Bayern Munich, completing a move for €41million (£35.2million).

Stats Perform understands Liverpool will receive a guaranteed €32million (£27.5m), plus €6m (£5.2m) based on appearances and a further €3m (£2.5m) depending on future success that Mane and Bayern achieve.

The Reds have already moved on by bringing in Uruguay striker Darwin Nunez from Benfica, but it feels significant that Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah will never play together again for Jurgen Klopp's side.

The trio fired Liverpool to multiple trophies, including a Champions League and Premier League, though the additions of Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz in the last couple of years had already seen a slight evolution.

However, Klopp has now lost one of his main men, which is an experience the German boss has had to get used to in his career, especially the idea of his players moving to Munich.

While it may not feel like quite the blow of past desertions given the forward planning, Stats Perform has taken a look at how the decision to leave Klopp went in the past.

 

Nuri Sahin

Sahin was always likely to be a major component for Borussia Dortmund when he became the Bundesliga's youngest player aged 16 years, 11 months against Wolfsburg in August 2006, a record that was only broken in November 2020 by Youssoufa Moukoko.

He shone under Klopp, particularly in 2010-11 when Dortmund shocked German football to win the Bundesliga title, with Sahin claiming the league's Player of the Year award and earning a move to Real Madrid.

After 14 goal involvements from midfield (six goals, eight assists) in his last season in the Bundesliga, Sahin struggled to do similar in Spain, making just 10 appearances in all competitions for Madrid, with one solitary goal in the Copa del Rey against Ponferradina.

An unsuccessful loan move to Liverpool the following season was cut short halfway through, and just 20 months after leaving Signal Iduna Park, Sahin was back in the yellow and black on loan, before making the switch permanent in 2014, staying until a move to Werder Bremen in 2018.

Shinji Kagawa

The Japan international spent two very productive seasons at Dortmund under Klopp between 2010 and 2012, winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles and scoring 21 goals in 49 league games.

Kagawa decided to try his hand at the Premier League, moving to Manchester United in June 2012, but much like Sahin, found the grass far from greener.

Due to injury, he only played a supporting role as United won the title in the 2012-13 season, scoring six goals in 26 appearances in all competitions, before making a further 29 in the first campaign at Old Trafford following the retirement of Alex Ferguson, with no additional goals to his name.

Like Sahin, Kagawa returned to Dortmund in 2014, spending a further five years at the club.

 

Mario Gotze

The fresh-faced Gotze came through the youth ranks at Dortmund and, like Kagawa, played a vital role in Klopp's great Dortmund side that won two Bundesliga titles, and also had a big hand in getting them to the 2013 Champions League final.

One of the side narratives to that final against Bayern was that prior to it, Gotze had agreed a €37m move to the Bavarian club.

Klopp was hurt by Gotze's decision, but although the attacking midfielder went on to score the winner for Germany in the 2014 World Cup final and have a decent record at Bayern, scoring 36 goals in 114 games, he never really established himself as a key cog in their team, and in a familiar move for those who had left Dortmund, returned three years later.

Gotze spent four years back in the yellow and black, but was never able to recapture the magic that made him one of Europe's hottest prospects under Klopp.

Robert Lewandowski

Arguably the only real success story of those who moved on from Klopp, though there is no denying that the building blocks were put in place by the German for Lewandowski to become the striker he is today.

Arriving at Dortmund as an unknown from Lech Poznan, he scored just eight times in 33 games in his first Bundesliga season, before going on to rack up 66 across his next three league campaigns.

His goals also played a part in Dortmund winning two titles and reaching the Champions League final, but a year after Gotze had moved to Bayern, Lewandowski did the same following the expiry of his contract.

There were thoughts that the Poland international might struggle to replicate his form to quite the expected levels in Munich, scoring just 17 goals in his first Bundesliga season.

However, since then he has never scored fewer than 22, and broke Gerd Muller's record for most goals in a Bundesliga season when he netted 41 times in just 29 games in 2020-21.

Since leaving Dortmund in 2014, Lewandowski has won eight Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokal's and a Champions League, while also being awarded the FIFA Best Men's Player of the Year in the last two years.

 

Philippe Coutinho

Klopp probably thought the days of losing his star players were behind him when he arrived at Liverpool, but on the eve of his third season at Anfield, he was rocked when Coutinho handed in a transfer request.

The influential Brazilian was part of Klopp's first great front three at Liverpool along with Mane and Firmino, but the arrival of Salah softened the blow of his move to Barcelona in January 2018, as did the reported £142m (€160m) fee.

Despite a promising start to life at the Camp Nou, the pressure of the price tag and essentially being the replacement for the legendary Andres Iniesta proved too much, with Coutinho loaned to, of course, Bayern after just 18 months in Spain.

He had a successful season in Germany, winning a treble and having 20 goal involvements (11 goals and nine assists) in 38 appearances in all competitions, but returned to Barca and again failed to impress, albeit a serious knee injury curtailed most of his 2020-21 campaign.

After 16 goals and seven assists in 84 games in all for Barca, Coutinho returned to England in January 2022 to play for ex-Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa, recording five goals and three assists, enough to secure a permanent move for a slightly more modest fee of around £17m (€20m).

Georginio Wijnaldum

The Netherlands midfielder may be a harsh inclusion as it remains unclear how much of his exit from Liverpool was his decision and how much was the club's, but Wijnaldum parted ways with Klopp and the Reds at the end of the 2020-21 season to join Paris Saint-Germain.

The man who earned cult status at Liverpool with his two goals against Barcelona in their dramatic comeback in the Champions League semi-final second leg three years ago would now get the chance to play alongside Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi.

However, despite being a regular under Klopp, having never started fewer than 27 league games in his five years on Merseyside, the 31-year-old started just 18 Ligue 1 games for PSG, scoring once.

Wijnaldum was voted the worst signing in Ligue 1 by a poll held by Get French Football News, but still has two years left on his contract at the Parc des Princes, so could yet turn things around, and had a title winners' medal to show for his efforts after his debut campaign.

Mane will most likely win more titles in Germany to add to his already meaty collection from his time at Liverpool, but whether he can recreate the level of performances and subsequent adulation he received from the red half of Merseyside remains to be seen.

Sadio Mane's illustrious spell at Liverpool has come to a close after the forward completed a move to Bayern Munich.

The Senegal international had just one year remaining on his contract at Anfield and was yet to agree terms on an extension, leading Liverpool to accept a €41million (£35.2m) bid from the Bundesliga champions for his services.

Mane's departure will leave a void within Jurgen Klopp's attacking ranks, although work had already been done to prepare for the changing of the guard with the signing of Luis Diaz from Porto in January and the capture of Darwin Nunez from Benfica in June.

While Diaz has hit the ground running on Merseyside and expectations are high for Nunez, replacing Mane is certainly no easy feat – as displayed by his record over the past six years...

Reliable return

Mane's contributions have been vital to Liverpool's success, with 120 goals across all competitions for the Anfield club. He averaged a goal every 180 minutes – one every two matches.

With an additional 37 assists, Mane chipped in with a goal involvement every 137 minutes.

In the Premier League, only Harry Kane (134), team-mate Mohamed Salah (118) and Leicester City's Jamie Vardy (104) scored more Premier League goals than Mane (90) over the course of his Liverpool career.

Leading the way

As part of a devastating attacking trio alongside Salah and Roberto Firmino that helped fire Liverpool to multiple honours, including ending a 30-year wait for a league title, Mane was often the provider at crucial moments.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Mane's Premier League goals were worth 63 points; only Tottenham's Kane ranks higher in that regard, with strikes worth 75 points.

Mane (38) was also only behind Kane (43) for opening goals in Premier League matches, while he scored 29 winning goals – behind Kane (38) and Salah (34).

 

Crucial role

In six years at Liverpool, Mane made 269 appearances across all competitions for Liverpool, starting 248 of those – resulting in a total of 21,577 minutes for Klopp's side.

In that time, only Firmino made more Reds appearances, with 278, but Mane led the way for both starts and minutes.

Mane, Salah (20,697) and Firmino (20,142) were actually the only three Liverpool players to tally more than 20,000 minutes over this period.

Having Mane available so often was key, too, as Liverpool's win rate improved from 58.3 per cent without the former Southampton man to 65.4 per cent when he featured.

NFL fans have been spoiled by the standard of quarterback play in the 21st century.

A golden age led by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers is seemingly running right into another, though one largely dominated by quarterbacks with very different skill sets.

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson have heralded the start of a fascinating new era. The success of Mahomes, Allen and Co. has in part been a product of their ability to make an impact with their legs as well as through the air.

Still, the ultimate test of a quarterback remains his ability to deliver in situations where the defense knows a pass is coming.

The confluence of the final years of the great pocket quarterbacks and the beginning of potential Hall of Fame careers of several dual-threat superstars can make a discussion about which modern-day signal-callers perform best in these scenarios a difficult one to settle.

However, Stats Perform has developed a metric to rank the top quarterbacks since 2008 in expected passing situations called spread value.

Spread value is calculated using our efficiency versus expected (EVE) metric. For quarterbacks, EVE measures performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations.

The spread value is generated using the EVE baselines for each season since 2008. In essence, spread value is how far a quarterback is above or below the cumulative baseline in that period, with significantly more weight given to recent results.

That weighting has undoubtedly influenced the quarterback at the top of the standings, though his consistently spectacular play has also played a substantial role.

Mahomes Magic

With the historic pace Mahomes has set since entering the NFL, it's no surprise the man leading the charge for 'the new generation' is atop the rankings.

Mahomes has racked up 18,707 passing yards over his first four seasons as a starter, comfortably surpassing the likes of Manning and Rodgers and putting him on track to go down as an all-time great.

His spread value of 6.429 is a product of Mahomes leading the NFL in EVE in three of his four seasons as a starting quarterback, including in a 2021 campaign that saw questions about his and the Kansas City Chiefs' ability to excel against two-high safety defenses.

Mahomes' task going forward will be to maintain his superiority with a receiving corps absent Tyreek Hill following his trade to the Miami Dolphins.

He will not lack for in-conference challengers, with a further six active AFC quarterbacks inside the top 20 for spread value since 2008. Half of those QBs reside inside his own division, encapsulating the arms race that is the AFC West.

Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers is 11th after finishing fourth in EVE last season, Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders is 17th and new Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson 18th. 

The man regarded as Mahomes' chief rival, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, is 12th behind Herbert. His position below Herbert can be attributed to his early struggles after entering the NFL and a 2020 season regarded to this point as his vintage year only being good enough for 13th in EVE.

Allen did improve to eighth in 2021 and, though some may wonder how much better he can get following his stupendous playoff duel with Mahomes, he will look to take the next step and help the Bills finally overhaul the Chiefs.

Yet for all the talk of the AFC being the deeper conference, there are seven active NFC quarterbacks in the top 20, with Rodgers (third), Dak Prescott (fourth), Matthew Stafford (seventh) and Kirk Cousins (eighth) all residing in the top 10.

A 2021 season in which he was 10th in EVE ensured Kyler Murray of 16th in spread value and, despite the disappointing end to the campaign, underscored the Arizona Cardinals' need to sign him to an extension. His NFC West rival Jimmy Garoppolo is three spots higher, above even his former New England Patriots mentor in an indication of the level of efficiency successor Trey Lance will need to at least match for the San Francisco 49ers to succeed in 2022 and beyond.

Breesy Does It

Despite a glorious career in which he compiled a plethora of records, some of which Brady has since broken, Drew Brees perhaps does not receive the same level of acclaim as his contemporaries in the NFL’s 'old guard' of quarterbacks.

But the New Orleans Saints' legend is second behind Mahomes in spread value. Immediately trailing him among that veteran group are Rodgers and Philip Rivers in fifth.

Brees' position is a consequence of him leading the NFL in EVE in expected passing situations for five straight seasons between 2008-12. He regained that spot in 2017 and the final season of his career in 2020 was the only year in which he finished outside the top five.

Those remarkable numbers are a tribute not just to Brees' accuracy – he was first in well-thrown percentage (min. 100 attempts) in 2019 and fourth in 2020 – but also to the longevity of the connection between him and former Saints coach Sean Payton.

But what of the man who ended Brees' career and stunned the NFL world by reversing his decision to conclude his own?

Tom Not Terrific?

Brady's career was over for all of 40 days and it will now continue for as long as the greatest of all time sees fit, even if he appears to have nothing left to prove.

While Brady's legacy is secure, the extra season(s) could help him climb the ladder in spread value, in which he is a – by his standards – lowly 19th.

His standing is impacted by a 2008 campaign in which he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 and his final year with the New England Patriots in 2019, which marked his worst EVE performance in expected passing situations over the 14-season span.

Brady's zenith in that regard came in the spectacular 2016 season in which he led the league in EVE despite playing only 12 games. He subsequently guided the Patriots to Super Bowl glory with a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.

The latest act of his incredible two-plus decades in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has not seen him return to those heights even as he has lifted the Bucs to the league's elite.

He was 12th in EVE in 2020 as he guided the Bucs to Super Bowl glory and 13th in 2021 in what appeared to be his final season in the league.

Brady will want to go out on top of the mountain and the Bucs will hope he is not about to hit the cliff, with two of his greatest rivals having carried on long past their peak.

Quit While You're Ahead

Given the four Super Bowls they share evenly between them and the prominent role they have played in football in this century, it is quite remarkable to see Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning so low in the spread value rankings.

Roethlisberger is 37th while Manning is way down in 67th, spots that belie their first-ballot Hall of Fame resumes.

But it's the weighting towards recent seasons that goes against Roethlisberger and Manning, both bowing out from pro football on the back of dreadful individual campaigns.

No quarterback with at least 300 attempts in expected passing situations had a worse EVE than Manning in 2015, when he was briefly benched for Brock Osweiler. In his defence, the end came extremely quickly for Manning following an MVP season in 2013 and a Pro Bowl campaign in 2014 and he still managed to do enough to go out by winning a Lombardi Trophy with the Broncos.

Roethlisberger's awful 2021 was easier to forecast, his mobility and ability to push the ball downfield already having waned before he posted the worst EVE of his career in his final season.

By contrast, Tony Romo called it a career in 2017, but his last full season as a starter was in 2014 when he was seventh in EVE. The former Dallas Cowboy stands sixth in spread value as a result.

Brady's play and his efficiency numbers from his two seasons with the Buccaneers suggest he is more likely to replicate Romo, who may well be his inspiration when he heads into his post-playing career.

There has been a lot of talk about the money Liverpool are investing in Darwin Nunez.

The Uruguay striker arrives at Anfield for a fee that will likely end up surpassing their previous club record of £75million spent on Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in January 2018.

Benfica confirmed on Monday they had agreed to sell Nunez to Liverpool for an initial fee of £64m (€75m), with a further £21.4m (€25m) in add-ons. Liverpool provided their own confirmation on Tuesday.

The Merseyside club will likely be saying goodbye to a key player at the same time, though, with Sadio Mane being strongly linked with a move to Bayern Munich.

So can Nunez emulate what the Senegal star has been able to in his time at Liverpool, or can he even surpass it?

Stats Perform has taken a look at the 22-year-old to see what Liverpool might be getting for their cash.

Is Nunez a Mane replacement?

What appears to stand out above all else is that Nunez is being signed primarily to score goals.

He may not have hit the ground running at Benfica after making a €24m move from Almeria in September 2020, netting just six times in 29 Primeira Liga games (19 starts) in 2020-21, but he more than made up for it this season.

Nunez had an expected goals (xG) rating of 9.98 in his first season according to Opta, suggesting he was not scoring as many as he should, which he almost overcompensated for in 2021-22 by recording 26 goals in 28 league games (24 starts) from 18.4 xG.

By comparison, Mane – who is in the conversation for the 2022 Ballon d'Or – scored 16 goals in 34 Premier League appearances (32 starts) an xG figure remarkably similar to Nunez (18.3). So, while the chances that went their way were of a comparable value over the course of the season, the Uruguayan proved far more clinical.

The relative difference in quality between the top flights in England and Portugal must be taken into account, of course, but in the Champions League the duo also matched up well.

Nunez scored six goals from 10 appearances (six starts) from an xG of just 3.1, while Mane registered five goals from 13 games (11 starts) from an xG of 4.5. Once again, the 22-year-old proved a more dependable finisher of chances than the Senegal star.

Whether Nunez can translate this to English football remains to be seen, but there are other interesting parallels between the two players which indicate they are perhaps not as different as some appear to think.

In their respective leagues last season, Nunez and Mane also offered a similar degree of creativity. The former registered four assists from an expected assists (xA) total of 4.8, while Mane had two from 4.4 xA to his name, suggesting he was let down by poor finishing from his team-mates on occasion.

Both players have proven themselves to be comfortable running with the ball as well, attempting 86 dribbles each over the 2021-22 season, though Mane's success rate of 54.7 per cent was significantly better than Nunez's 45.4.

Of course, the chief difference between the pair is the fact former Southampton attacker Mane has mostly played off the left for Liverpool, whereas Nunez is primarily a centre forward.

That should not be an issue though, given the Reds addressed that side of the pitch only a few months ago by shopping in a familiar market.

Primeira Liga? Completed it, amigo

To the surprise of many, not least Liverpool, they had their hand forced at the end of the January transfer window and signed Luis Diaz from Porto, so it is a league they clearly know well.

Not that they hadn't already intended to buy Diaz, but reports suggested the plan was to do so at the end of the season, only for an unexpected advance from Tottenham to make them bring the transaction forward.

It proved a welcome necessity as Diaz hit the ground running and played a big part in Liverpool almost doing the unthinkable and winning an unprecedented quadruple.

However, with the Colombian taking the role on the left of the attack, Mane was asked to play in an unfamiliar central position for the remainder of the campaign, though broadly to impressive effect.

Nunez will be a slightly more natural fit in that central role, and like Diaz will be hoping the transition from the Primeira Liga to the Premier League is a relatively seamless one.

He already showed in his two performances against Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals this term that he can cut it against English opposition.

In the first leg in Lisbon, Jurgen Klopp's men ran out 3-1 winners, but Nunez scored the Benfica goal and played well enough that Virgil van Dijk recently listed him as one of his toughest ever opponents in an interview with Rio Ferdinand.

He arguably impressed more in the return leg at Anfield, when Van Dijk did not play. Nunez often pulled out to the left and stretched Liverpool's defence, and had it not been for their effective offside trap, could have had a hat-trick.

Nunez put the ball in the Liverpool net three times, but two were ruled out by the assistant referee as Benfica drew 3-3, losing 6-4 on aggregate.

He showed his force of personality in the final 10 minutes though as he also brought a tremendous save out of Alisson, and almost dragged his team back into a contest they had previously been well out of.

Can Liverpool adapt to Nunez?

Two of Liverpool's goals that night were scored by Roberto Firmino, who was excellent under the Anfield floodlights, but who has seen his previously key role in Liverpool's attack diminish in recent years.

It was appreciated that the way the Brazil international played in more of a 'false nine' role allowed Mane and Mohamed Salah to thrive, until the arrival of Diogo Jota in 2020, which signalled a slight move away from that as the former Wolves man increasingly played a role closer to that of a traditional striker in Klopp's system.

It oversimplifies Nunez to suggest he is an out and out number nine in the mould of an Erling Haaland. He drops deep and pulls wide similarly to smaller attackers, like the ones already at Liverpool in fact.

However, at 6ft 2in tall, he could also provide a weapon that will have the eyes of Liverpool full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson lighting up, particularly the former.

No other defender in Europe's top five leagues created anything like Alexander-Arnold's 129 chances this season, with Robertson second on 90, ahead of Fiorentina's Cristiano Biraghi (89).

He also created the most 'big chances' this season (defined by Opta as a chance from which a goal would be expected) with 27, while only Hoffenheim's David Raum (226) and RB Leipzig's Angelino (211) provided more open play crosses than his 191.

On paper, Nunez has everything needed to succeed in the Premier League. Pace, power, skill, shooting accuracy and lovely hair.

The Darwin evolution puns are already wearing thin, for which we take partial responsibility, but it will be best for the player if he ignores all comparisons.

Nunez can simply be his own man.

Even when Jack Grealish charged into the penalty area in the 87th at the Santiago Bernabeu last month and saw his shot cleared off the line by Ferland Mendy, there seemed no way Manchester City wouldn't be in the Champions League final.

They were already 1-0 up in the semi-final second leg, 5-3 up on aggregate. Real Madrid had three minutes plus stoppage time to turn things around – even for a side that produced some memorable comebacks en route to the semi-finals, turning things around looked impossible.

Yet we all know how the tale unfolded in a matter of minutes, with City's Champions League aspirations dissolving for another season.

Over the course of the two legs, City were comfortably the better team and yet to failed to advance through to the final in Paris, where Madrid went on to beat Liverpool 1-0.

City's failure served to highlight a key deficiency in their squad.

Whether that's fair or not is up for debate, because they have since gone on to win a fourth Premier League title in five years, and no one would've questioned the legitimacy of them seeing off Madrid, but when the victor is led by the type of figure the loser is lacking, it's an easy conclusion to jump to.

Karim Benzema may not have been at his unplayable best in last month's second leg, but he won and converted the ultimately decisive penalty, and the effectiveness with which he led the line in the first leg ensured Madrid were still in with a shout upon the return to Spain.

City will now hope they have such a goalscoring talisman in Erling Haaland.

A month after confirming an agreement was in place for Haaland, City announced on Monday that the prolific striker has put pen to paper on a five-year deal that will officially go through on July 1.

City are apparently set to pay £51.3million (€60m) to Borussia Dortmund for his transfer. Even when you consider the apparently significant agents' fees et cetera, it's difficult to see this as anything other than a bargain for City.

The dust may now have settled on City's recent collapse in the Spanish capital, but it's hard not to look at the deal through the prism of Champions League failure because of what will now be expected – rather than hoped for – with a player like Haaland in the team.

When trying to understand what has specifically gone wrong for City in the Champions League since Guardiola was hired, most people seem to have different opinions. Some might point to an apparent lack of on-field leaders, others highlight wastefulness at crucial moments, and of course there are many who have bemoaned Pep's dreaded "overthinking".

The idea of there being a lack of on-field leaders has always seemed wide of the mark, while no one can accuse Guardiola of overcomplicating his selections against Madrid – even if they did try to claim that, City were on course for the final until the 90th minute of the second leg.

Similarly, wastefulness is something most clubs can be accused of at one time or another and, in fact, across all the Champions League ties from which City have been eliminated under Guardiola, they have scored 17 times from 16.99 expected goals (xG). Granted, there were occasions where they didn't score as often as they should have, but over time it evens itself out.

Yet perhaps this is where Haaland can make the difference. Sure, City's xG has evened out over the unsuccessful ties in question, but with a striker as freakishly deadly as the Norwegian, there becomes a greater opportunity to finish chances that maybe you wouldn't generally expect to.

Since his Bundesliga debut on January 18, 2020, Haaland has scored 86 goals in 89 games for Dortmund in all competitions, averaging a goal every 84 minutes.

Only Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski (123 goals in 108 games) boasts a better scoring rate over that period among players from Europe's top five leagues.

Despite struggling with injuries in the 2021-22 season, he still managed 29 goals in 30 games for BVB, including a strike in his final game. Twenty-one of those goals were scored via his favoured left foot, three came via his right and the other five were headers.

One thing you cannot accuse City of is being ineffective when it comes to controlling football matches and creating chances – they wouldn't have enjoyed the success they have in the Premier League, under intense pressure from an incredible Liverpool side, if not.

But in knockout ties when there is such a limited amount of time to respond to setbacks or make amends for certain mistakes, whether that's defensive or in front of goal, the value of the greatest strikers can shine through even more: Benzema showed that against City.

While there are likely to be stylistic compatibility questions to be asked regarding City and Haaland, particularly given the Premier League champions haven't really played with an out-and-out striker for a couple of years now, they suddenly have arguably the finest finisher of his generation in their arsenal.

If Haaland isn't the final piece of the puzzle in City's quest for a maiden Champions League crown, Guardiola might as well give up.

In an ordinary World Cup year, we would either already be engrossed in the group stages or be a matter of days away from the big kick-off.

But this is no ordinary World Cup year. We still have two of the 32 places to be confirmed for Qatar 2022, which is due to begin in November.

Tuesday's intercontinental play-off between Costa Rica and New Zealand will complete line-up, with their contest falling exactly four years to the day since Russia thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup.

Before that meeting, however, New Zealand's neighbours Australia face Peru in the penultimate play-off on Monday.

Both matches will give the victorious teams a vital taste of what it's like to play in Qatar, with the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium playing host to both winner-takes-all encounters.

Peruvian shamans are expectant

It will be a long day for any Australia fans hoping to catch the game before work – kick-off will be at 4am AEST.

Those who do brave the early start will surely be doing so out of loyalty and hope, rather than expectation.

The Socceroos' route through the Asian qualification phase was unconvincing to say the least. They scraped third place in the third round, finishing just a point ahead of Oman and seven adrift of Japan.

Australia met the United Arab Emirates in the fourth-round play-off and edged the game 2-1 to find themselves in the familiar locale of an intercontinental play-off.

This was how they reached Russia 2018, beating Honduras over two legs, with their 3-1 win at home in the second leg proving decisive after a 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula.

Monday's game will be only the second time Australia have ever played Peru. Coincidentally, that other instance was in Russia four years ago – Los Incas won 2-0 to claim a first World Cup win since 1978, although the result mattered not as it was the final group game and neither side could reach the knockouts.

Whichever team prevails this time will be in a familiar-looking group. France and Denmark, the other two teams in Group C four years ago, await in Group D alongside Tunisia.

A group of 13 Peruvian shamans believe it will be Peru, with a spiritual ceremony – which involved poking a picture of the Australia team with a sword – conducted on Saturday, apparently reaching the conclusion the Socceroos will be unsuccessful.

If it is Peru who make it, it will be just the second time they have ever qualified for successive World Cups, a remarkable achievement in itself given the country's domestic league is regarded as one of if not the weakest in South America at the moment: none of their four representatives in the Copa Libertadores this year claimed a single victory.

And yet Ricardo Gareca ensured his team finished ahead of Colombia and Chile in qualifying. The much-vaunted Ecuador only registered two points more than Peru.

Los Ticos back from the back

New Zealand fans will have a similar conundrum to their Aussie counterparts. Do they get up excruciatingly early to endure their nail-biting contest with Costa Rica, or do they just try to sleep through it and get the result a few hours later?

Either way, it's fair to expect a few more Costa Rican eyes to be on the game. The country's president Rodrigo Chaves has authorised an extra hour's lunch on Tuesday for public servants and private sector workers to allow fans to tune in.

The fact Costa Rica even made it this far is commendable given the difficult start they had to the third round of CONCACAF qualifying.

After one win from their first seven matches, a 90th-minute winner by Gerson Torres in a 2-1 defeat of Honduras last November proved to be the turning point.

Including that game, Costa Rica won six of their final seven qualifiers. The only game they didn't win was a 0-0 draw away to Mexico – in the end, Los Ticos only finished behind the third-placed United States on goal difference.

Success on Tuesday will see Costa Rica reach three consecutive World Cups for the first time, and in all likelihood they will make that four in 2026 given hosts Canada, Mexico and USA will qualify automatically.

New Zealand's preparations certainly don't go back as far as Costa Rica's, given the Oceania qualification section was only able to begin in March.

The All Whites cruised through, as they usually do, racking up 5-0 and 7-1 wins along the way, but Costa Rica will provide much sterner opposition.

Danny Hay's men have since played warm-up games against Peru and Oman, losing 1-0 to the former and drawing 0-0 with the latter.

It was Peru who prevented New Zealand reaching Russia 2018.

While they will once again be considered underdogs, there's arguably greater reason for optimism this time around now they are not facing a CONMEBOL nation and have just one match to play, rather than a two-legged affair.

In that sense, this is almost certainly the biggest match New Zealand have played since beating Bahrain 1-0 over two legs in November 2009 to qualify for South Africa 2010.

On that occasion they ended the World Cup as the only undefeated side after drawing all three of their group games.

A rather trickier group awaits this time with Spain, Germany and Japan already in place, but New Zealand won't care in the slightest if they just get the chance to cause an upset.

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.

The 2021-22 season may still be ongoing at international level, but Premier League and Ligue 1 clubs can officially register new signings for the next campaign following the opening of the transfer window on Friday.

Teams in LaLiga, Serie A and the Bundesliga must wait until July 1 for their business to go through – though that is not to say preparations are not already in full swing behind the scenes.

Indeed, a number of big deals are already in place and waiting to get the seal of approval, with Antonio Rudiger heading to Real Madrid and Karim Adeyemi brought in by Borussia Dortmund to replace Manchester City-bound Erling Haaland, while others – Darwin Nunez to Liverpool and Aurelien Tchouameni to Madrid – appear to be all-but complete.

One transfer saga came to an end before the window even officially opened, meanwhile, with Kylian Mbappe confirming that he is staying put at Paris Saint-Germain, despite strong interest from Madrid.

For others, there are weeks of uncertainty ahead. Having already picked out the big-name free agents up for grabs this window, Stats Perform looks at the transfer sagas that are likely to rumble on for a little while longer yet.


Player: Robert Lewandowski
Current club: Bayern Munich
Rumoured suitors: Barcelona, Real Madrid

While the futures of Mbappe and Haaland have already been resolved, arguably the world's best striker in Lewandowski is seeking pastures new after recently declaring that his time at Bayern "has come to an end" – even if the German champions do not quite see it that way.

The Poland international still has 12 months to run on his contract and Bayern are understandably reluctant to sell, even if that means forgoing a transfer fee in a year's time, making things particularly difficult for Barcelona, who are the rumoured frontrunners for his signature.

He was once again the hottest striker across Europe's top five leagues in 2021-22 when taking all competitions into account, the 33-year-old scoring 50 goals in 46 games for Bayern in what was his second-best goalscoring campaign across eight years in Bavaria, behind only the 55 netted in 2019-20.

 

Player: Sadio Mane
Current club: Liverpool
Rumoured suitors: Real Madrid

Whether it is to replace wantaway Lewandowski or to play alongside the prolific striker, Bayern are seemingly intent on bringing Liverpool and Senegal forward Mane to the Allianz Arena.

Bayern are reported to have had a second bid of €35.3million (£30m) turned down by Liverpool earlier this week, with the ball very much in the Reds' court – just like it is with the Bavarians and Lewandowski.

Mane would be a huge loss to Liverpool, having scored 90 goals in 196 Premier League appearances since joining at the start of 2016-17 – only Jamie Vardy (104), team-mate Mohamed Salah (118) and Harry Kane (134) have more – explaining their desire to snap up Nunez from Benfica.

 

Player: Gabriel Jesus
Current club: Manchester City
Rumoured suitors: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Real Madrid

Manchester City striker Jesus may just about be the most in-demand player up for grabs this window, with his agent confirming as many as seven clubs are interested in signing the Brazil international.

Arsenal are the only known team to be in discussions with Jesus' camp, though they are expected to face interest from the likes of rivals Tottenham and Chelsea, as well as reigning European and Spanish champions Madrid.

The stats reflect exactly why Jesus is so highly regarded – albeit not by City following the arrival of Haaland – as he has scored or assisted in 57 per cent of matches he has started in the Premier League, a figure bettered only by Salah (62 per cent), Thierry Henry (61 per cent) and City legend Sergio Aguero (60 per cent) among those to have started at least 10 games.

 

Player: Frenkie de Jong
Current club: Barcelona
Rumoured suitors: Manchester United

De Jong has not quite been able to match expectations at Barcelona since arriving from Ajax in a big-money deal two years ago, which the midfielder has regularly put down to being used out of position in central midfield.

The arrival of the Netherlands international's former Ajax boss Erik ten Hag at United has only intensified speculation that he could be on his way out of Camp Nou, with Barca themselves needing to offload players if they are to seriously strengthen elsewhere.

De Jong will leave a void to be filled if he does move on, though, as Sergio Busquets (51) was the only Barca outfielder to feature in more games in the 2021-22 campaign than the 25-year-old (47 apps).

 

Player: Christopher Nkunku
Current club: RB Leipzig
Rumoured suitors: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid

Nkunku well and truly burst onto the scene in the 2021-22 campaign with a combined 51 goals and assists in 52 games for Leipzig across all competitions, meaning he near enough directly contributed to a goal per game.

Only Europe's absolute elite players, Lewandowski (56 goal involvements), Benzema (59) and Mbappe (60), outperformed Nkunku in that regard, making links with Europe's top clubs unsurprising.

Still aged only 24, the four-cap France international may well be a Ballon d'Or winner in waiting if his trajectory over the past couple of seasons is anything to go by. But with two years to run on his Leipzig contract, it will take a huge sum for the Bundesliga side to even consider cashing in. 

 

The seemingly never-ending 2021-22 season may be ongoing, with a number of big international fixtures still to be played this month, but plenty of focus is already on the next campaign.

This month's conclusion will mark the end of an era for many players as their contracts come to an end – though for some it will provide a much-needed opportunity to begin a new chapter elsewhere.

For others, becoming a free agent simply provides more bargaining power when negotiating fresh terms with their current employers, at a time when most clubs cannot spend as frivolously on new players as they once could.

While some big-name freebies have already moved clubs, and others are reported to have signed pre-contract agreements elsewhere – such as Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen at Barcelona – others remain on the market.

Here, Stats Perform picks out some of those who are on the lookout for a new club.


Player: Paul Pogba
Current club: Manchester United
Rumoured suitors: Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain

United last week announced the departures of six players, with Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard and Pogba among them. While the first three of those will undoubtedly be of interest to teams across the continent, Pogba is arguably the most in-demand free agent around.

Juventus reportedly lead the way for the France international, who won eight trophies in four seasons with the Serie A giants prior to rejoining United in 2016. Whichever side of the divide you stand – that Pogba has too often been used out of position or is just simply not good enough – there is no denying his second spell at Old Trafford has not gone to plan.

Still, with 67 goals and assists in the Premier League since the start of 2016-17, United are waving goodbye to a player who has been involved in 17.5 per cent of their goals across that period – only Marcus Rashford (21.9 per cent) has directly contributed to more.

 

Player: Gareth Bale
Current club: Real Madrid
Rumoured suitors: Cardiff City, Getafe, MLS clubs

As the winner of 16 trophies across nine seasons at Madrid – one of those spent on loan at Tottenham – and still aged just 32, you would imagine Bale would have the pick of the world's top clubs to choose from in the upcoming transfer window.

But that is not quite the case, with hometown club Cardiff City and Madrid-based Getafe now considered the two favourites to land the Wales international. That does come with a caveat of sorts, though, as Bale's main focus is on entering November's World Cup with Wales in peak fitness, rather than adding to his trophy collection.

The forward has had a number of injury setbacks in recent years but, wherever he plies his trade next season, he will want to play more football than he did in 2021-22 when available. He featured in just seven of Madrid's 56 matches, totalling 290 minutes on the field, and started only four of those – seven per cent of all minutes Madrid played.

 

Player: Ousmane Dembele
Current club: Barcelona
Rumoured suitors: Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool

Barcelona were eager to get Dembele off their books in January, so much so that director of football Mateu Alemany publicly told the France international to find a new club "immediately". Five months on, after a strong second half to the 2021-22 season, Barca would like nothing more than to retain Dembele's services.

The former Borussia Dortmund attacker assisted 11 LaLiga goals between the start of 2022 and the end of the season, a tally that no other player across Europe's top five leagues could match, with Lionel Messi next best on 10 with PSG in Ligue 1.

Re-signing Messi has been touted, but that seems fanciful a year on from his emotional exit, so Barca may well focus on tying Dembele down to a new deal before PSG – who also have another ex-Barcelona favourite in Neymar on their books – add to a star-studded frontline.

 

Player: Paulo Dybala
Current club: Juventus
Rumoured suitors: Arsenal, Tottenham, Barcelona

Juventus are coming off the back of their first trophyless season in a decade, and with it comes the end of an era in many ways as Giorgio Chiellini is departing after 18 years in Turin, while Federico Bernardeschi is also on his way out and seemingly set for Napoli.

However, the name on everyone's lips right now is Dybala's, even if the Argentina international has not fully lived up to the admittedly huge hype following his arrival at Juve from Palermo in a €40million transfer seven years ago.

Dybala can still be pleased enough with his goalscoring return at the Allianz Stadium, having netted 115 goals in 293 appearances in all competitions, making him the club's third-highest foreign goalscorer of all time behind David Trezeguet (171) and John Hansen (124).

 

Player: Angel Di Maria 
Current club: Paris Saint-Germain
Rumoured suitors: Juventus, Barcelona

Di Maria signed off from PSG in the near-perfect manner with a goal and an assist in his final game for the club against Metz last month, though his importance clearly diminished following the arrival of Messi as he started just 19 Ligue 1 games last term, down from 23 in the two previous campaigns.

That performance against Metz, albeit in a dead-rubber, highlighted Di Maria's quality when used and it is perhaps little surprise that some big-name clubs are interested. A move to Juventus seemed a certainty not so long ago, but Barcelona are supposedly now the frontrunners for the 34-year-old.

Di Maria is not the only South American attacker available to sign on a free next month, either, as the aforementioned Cavani and Uruguay international team-mate Luis Suarez are also on the lookout for a new club following their exits from United and Atletico Madrid respectively.

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