Robert Lewandowski's departure leaves a big void for Bayern Munich to fill, yet Julian Nagelsmann has full confidence his squad is stronger now than it was last season.

Bayern sold star striker Lewandowski, who scored 50 goals across all competitions last season, to Barcelona last month.

Lewandowski had refused to sign a new contract with the Bundesliga champions, who made the reluctant decision to cash in on the 33-year-old.

Sadio Mane had already arrived from Liverpool as Lewandowski's de facto replacement, with Bayern chief executive Oliver Khan having confirmed the club do not plan to sign another senior forward this transfer window.

Bayern have also brought in defender Matthijs de Ligt from Juventus, as well as Noussair Mazraoui and Ryan Gravenberch from Ajax and teenage attacker Mathys Tel from Rennes.

Niklas Sule, Corentin Tolisso, Marc Roca, Omar Richards and Chris Richards are members of the first-team squad to have also left alongside Lewandowski, but Nagelsmann is confident his side have improved overall.

"I'm looking forward to the start with great anticipation I tend to put pressure on myself," Nagelsmann told a news conference ahead of Bayern's Bundesliga opener against Eintracht Frankfurt.

"I read very little. It's normal for Bayern Munich that we always strive for the highest. We lost a striker who scored more than 50 goals, we have to compensate for that.

"I think that's okay, our squad has improved. I know we're going to do well. The lads are very motivated."

 

Asked if more players might yet arrive, Nagelsmann said: "When the season starts, as a coach you focus on the players that are there and on preparing [for] the opponents.

"As a coach you have to do justice to every player in the squad. I don't have any expectations one way or the other.

"I'm very happy with the squad, and I'll see what happens between now and August 31."

As for Bayern's goals this season, Nagelsmann is aiming to improve on their trophy haul. A 10th straight Bundesliga title arrived last term, but they exited the DFB-Pokal early on and lost to Villarreal in the Champions League quarter-finals.

"My first championship was nice. The club is longing for more," Nagelsmann said. "The goal will be to come to Berlin and win the [DFB-Pokal] trophy. We also want to get further in the Champions League.

"It always depends on how lucky we are at the draw and the games. I would also like to take a photo with more titles in it. Maybe we can do that after this season."

Death, taxes and Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga title.

It is slightly paraphrasing the old idiom to say these are the only three things certain in life.

Such is the optimism of football fandom, though, the question always arises ahead of the new campaign whether this year will be the one where someone steps up and takes Bayern's throne.

The 2021-22 season saw the Bavarian giants claim their 10th Bundesliga title in a row, with Julian Nagelsmann leading Bayern to the championship by eight points in his first season at the Allianz Arena.

Since Jurgen Klopp's exciting Borussia Dortmund side of 2011-12, no team has been able to halt the relentless Bayern dominance of German football.

In fact, in the last decade, only the 2018-19 campaign saw anyone finish closer than the eight points Dortmund were behind last season, when BVB were just two points shy of their Der Klassiker rivals.

How can anyone seriously make the argument that their run will halt any time soon then? Well, let Stats Perform have a go as we take a look at some of the reasons why Bayern might struggle to maintain their stranglehold in 2022-23.

 

Loss of Lewy means new Bayern approach

Bayern's signing of Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund in 2014 was one of the catalysts for their concerted period of dominance.

However, after eight years of service and 238 goals in 253 Bundesliga games for Bayern, the Poland striker wanted to move on and eventually sealed a transfer to Barcelona.

His goals-per-game ratio in the German top flight of 0.94 bested even the great Gerd Muller (0.85), and his loss was certainly not one Bayern had planned for, with the club initially indicating they expected him to honour the final year of his contract, before finally relenting.

Despite being 33 years old, Lewandowski's impact had not waned at all, with him scoring 50 goals in all club competitions last season, making it seven consecutive seasons with at least 40 goals to his name.

Nagelsmann has insisted his team will evolve in Lewandowski's absence, though, and the signing of Sadio Mane appears to suggest that.

After Lewandowski's sale was confirmed, Nagelsmann told BR24: "I'm not worried right now, we are very well-equipped offensively and I'm still spoiled for choice. We have a possibility of building FC Bayern without a striker that can reliably score 40 goals."

With 120 goals in all competitions for Liverpool, Mane averaged a goal every 178.3 minutes for the Reds – a return of one in slightly under two matches. He also assisted 37 goals, meaning he was directly involved in a goal every 137 minutes.

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

His scoring rate has never been close to that of Lewandowski, though he has played a significant amount of his career on the left of a front three rather than through the middle, where he ended last season for Liverpool and is expected to mostly play at Bayern.

That means the likes of Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Kingsley Coman, Jamal Musiala and Thomas Muller will need to step up and contribute more goals, while it will be interesting to see if 17-year-old striker Mathys Tel will feature much in his first season after signing from Rennes.

The club has also added Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui from Ajax, while former Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt has arrived from Juventus to replace the outgoing Niklas Sule, who chose to swap Munich for Dortmund when his contract expired.

Will Dortmund finally solve flakiness issue?

Marco Rose looked to be a very astute appointment in 2021, but the former Borussia Monchengladbach boss just did not work out at Dortmund.

Rose has been replaced by Edin Terzic, who enjoyed a spell as caretaker boss in the second half of the 2020-21 campaign, winning the DFB-Pokal.

Terzic now has the reins permanently and has two big jobs on his hands.

The first is fixing a leaky defence, which conceded 52 goals in the Bundesliga last season, more than any other team to finish in the top eight, and only one goal fewer than relegated Arminia Bielefeld.

The club may have addressed the issue in the transfer market as they have essentially procured the German national team's central defence by adding Sule from Bayern on a free transfer and the highly rated Nico Schlotterbeck from Freiburg.

Schlotterbeck won 69 per cent of his duels in the Bundesliga last season, the joint-most of all players who contested at least 100 duels, while Sule was third with 68 per cent.

Another issue that needed addressing was similar to Bayern's Lewandowski issue, with Erling Haaland having departed for Manchester City.

The Norwegian scored 86 goals in 89 appearances at Dortmund, including 22 of their 85 league goals last season, though he was only able to feature in 24 games due to injury.

Sebastien Haller was signed to replace Haaland but will unfortunately miss the first few months of the campaign after undergoing surgery for a testicular tumour.

The addition of exciting young talent Karim Adeyemi from Salzburg will give them a dynamic in attack they have missed since selling Jadon Sancho to Manchester United, while in Haller's absence it will be interesting to see if Youssoufa Moukoko, still just 17-years-old, can add to the five Bundesliga goals he already has to his name.

Having also signed defensive midfielder Salih Ozcan from Cologne to provide some steel alongside Jude Bellingham, who it appears they will be keeping hold of for another season at least, the balance of a frequently wobbly side could be there for Terzic to build some momentum.

Best of the rest

Bayer Leverkusen enjoyed a strong campaign last season and have replaced Lucas Alario with promising Czech striker Adam Hlozek.

They also appear to have fought off interest in Moussa Diaby so it would not be a surprise to see them go well again, but with Champions League football to contend with, questions remain whether they have the depth of squad to excel on all fronts.

RB Leipzig will hope to provide a challenge and have also kept hold of their star player in Christopher Nkunku, though losing Tyler Adams and Nordi Mukiele will be a blow, while Eintracht Frankfurt will want to build on last season's Europa League success.

It would be churlish to write Bayern off, of course. They go into the season as heavy favourites and rightly so.

 

Mane might not have the same goalscoring output as Lewandowski, but football has proven time and again that having one player who scores lots of goals is not the only way to be successful.

The African Football Player of the Year has the chance to be the face of the new Bayern, where everyone will be expected to chip in and Nagelsmann can truly cement his ideas on the team.

However, while Bayern have been somewhat forced into a new era, Dortmund appear to have reached theirs more by design and if everything clicks early on for Terzic, an exciting title race could develop.

After all, the only thing that is certain about football is that nothing is certain.

Montreal scored twice in the final two minutes to rally from behind to claim a 2-1 victory away to Columbus Crew in the MLS on Wednesday, in a game delayed by inclement weather.

Lucas Zelarayan had fired the Crew into a 14th-minute lead with a low shot but Montreal hit back late, to help them move into third in the Eastern Conference.

Kei Kamara nodded in Alistair lex Johnston's 89th-minute corner, before Joel Waterman got in behind the defence from Lassi Lappalainen's lofted pass to squeeze home the winner in the 94th minute.

Inter Miami breathed life into their season with a 1-0 road win over San Jose Earthquakes to move up to eighth in the Eastern Conference.

Juan Mota's spectacular left-foot strike in the 12th minute was the difference, while Gonzalo Higuain's skill went unrewarded after a mazy run early in the second half.

Charlotte stayed ahead of Inter with a 3-0 home victory over DC United moving them up to seventh in the east.

Steven Birnbaum's 13th-minute own goal separated the sides, before second-half strikes from Karol Swiderski and Quinn McNeil within four minutes settled the contest.

Portland Timbers and Nashville drew 1-1 keeping both sides in the middle of the Western Conference standings.

Sadio Mane has yet to kick a ball in the Bundesliga and already the former Liverpool striker is facing jibes – including a tongue-in-cheek volley from Bayern Munich's opening-day opponents.

Eintracht Frankfurt president Peter Fischer is relishing Friday's tussle between his team, who lifted the Europa League trophy in May, and German champions Bayern.

There is a feelgood factor around Eintracht as the new season arrives, with a UEFA Super Cup clash against Real Madrid coming up next Wednesday.

Confidence is surging, and even the prospect of facing Bayern is not intimidating the team that trailed in 11th in last season's Bundesliga.

Bayern have lost Robert Lewandowski since he hit 50 goals last season, and few would expect new addition Sadio Mane to come close to that tally.

Not many would see it wise to be hurling insults his way, though, however light-hearted the intention.

Fischer, in an interview with broadcasters RTL and n-tv, did just that though, as he said: "Who the f*** is Mane?"

 

Fischer added: "By the way, we always did relatively well with Robert Lewandowski."

That is debatable, given that Lewandowski scored 15 goals in 18 appearances against Eintracht, prior to his close-season switch to Barcelona. They came at a rate of one every 91.53 minutes.

Fischer predicted there would be "an exciting mood in the stadium" as Eintracht host the 10-in-a-row champions.

"And of course we have a chance. If it ends in a draw, I won't start to cry either."

Eintracht head coach Oliver Glasner worked with Mane when the Senegalese forward moved from Metz to Salzburg in 2012, and he has since admired the 30-year-old from afar, particularly during his stellar six-year Liverpool career.

"I am happy that Sadio is in the Bundesliga now," Glasner told a news conference. "It's been 10 years since I got to know him. He was just a young boy that was relegated from the French second to third division. He only spoke French but had enormous talent.

"He was very ambitious and had a clear idea. When we talked about learning German, he said he wants to learn English because he wants to go to the Premier League.

"I am very happy for him. And for Bayern to sign a player from Liverpool is evidence of the attractiveness of the Bundesliga which they were afraid of losing."

Glasner said his team would not be "raising the white flag" of surrender against Bayern and would "do everything we can" to score the upset win, even if he sees Bayern as champions in waiting once again.

After Bayern comes the Madrid game for Eintracht in Helsinki.

"This morning I said it's actually cool for us," Glasner added. "We play the Champions League winners three years ago on Friday and the current Champions League winners on Wednesday. Quite a cool start. Nevertheless, I think that over the course of the Bundesliga season, Bayern will have the edge again."

Kasper Schmeichel has ended an 11-year association with Leicester City after joining Nice for an undisclosed fee.

The Denmark goalkeeper spent more than a decade at Leicester after arriving from Leeds United, winning a Premier League title, an FA Cup and a Community Shield during his time at the King Power Stadium.

Schmeichel made 479 appearances in all for the Foxes, featuring in more Premier League games for Leicester than any other player (276), and, barring injury, will be a part of the Denmark squad for the World Cup in Qatar later this year.

Speaking to Leicester's official website on the announcement of Schmeichel's departure, Chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said: "Throughout his time with us and particularly as a captain and vice-captain, Kasper has always been a player willing to stand up and take responsibility, leading the team with distinction.

"His influence and his leadership on and off the pitch speak volumes about him as a professional, as a football player and as a human being.

"I know Leicester City supporters share the respect we all have for a player of Kasper's standing after all his accomplishments as a footballer and captain and will join me in wishing him the very best for the next stage of his career in France with OGC Nice. 

"It's clear to everyone who has watched him perform that Kasper has given everything to Leicester City every time he has played and the experiences shared between him, the club and our supporters over the last 11 years mean he will always remain a part of this family."

Schmeichel sits behind only West Ham's Lukasz Fabianski (284) and Manchester United's David de Gea (283) for appearances in the Premier League since the start of the 2014-15 season.

Nice also announced the signing of young centre-back Mattia Viti from Empoli earlier on Wednesday, adding to other new arrivals in the transfer window Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Beka Beka, Rares Ilie and Badredine Bouanani.

David Raum has confidently described his move to RB Leipzig as "the most important transfer" in the Bundesliga ahead of the 2022-23 season.

The wing-back has gone from strength to strength in recent seasons, leading the 2. Bundesliga with 15 assists in Greuther Furth's 2020-21 promotion campaign before adding another 11 in the top flight last term after joining Hoffenheim.

Raum led all Bundesliga defenders in assists, as well as chances created (83) and expected assists (13.9), earning another transfer – this time to Leipzig.

And the Germany defender believes his arrival significantly boosts his new side in their bid to hunt down champions Bayern Munich.

"With the new additions that Bayern has brought in, they are probably clear favourites for the championship," he told a news conference.

"But I think we have a team that can also win titles. I want to strengthen this team, and then we'll see how much we can annoy Bayern. 

"Of course, the others have strengthened well. But I think the most important transfer was mine to RB Leipzig."

Raum's move comes ahead of the World Cup in Qatar, where the nine-cap Germany international is looking to secure a spot in Hansi Flick's side, and he revealed he spoke to the national team coach about his transfer.

"I was in close contact with national coach Hansi Flick, called him and took him with me on my way," he added.

"He is a coach who always wants to know what is going on in the players' minds, what the next step will be. 

"He was immediately convinced of the idea that I fit in well here and can take the next steps. I am firmly convinced that I can assert myself here and hopefully go to the World Cup."

Arsenal striker Folarin Balogun has joined Ligue 1 side Stade Reims on loan for the 2022-23 season.

The 21-year-old made his first-team debut for the Gunners during the 2020-21 season, and also penned a long-term contract.

Balogun featured in the Premier League just twice last season, before spending the second half of the campaign on loan at Middlesbrough - his first loan spell away from Arsenal.

While on Teesside, Balogun contributed three goals and three assists in 18 Championship appearances (nine starts) as Chris Wilder's team fell short of reaching the play-offs.

Reims finished 12th in Ligue 1 last season, 12 points above the relegation zone, and begin their new campaign on Sunday against Marseille.

Balogun becomes the French side's sixth signing of the transfer window, following the additions of Junya Ito, Andreaw Gravillon, Emmanuel Agbadou, Patrick Pentz and Maxime Busi.

Kalidou Koulibaly has condemned plans by Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis to tell new signings they must agree not to play in the Africa Cup of Nations.

De Laurentiis proposed the controversial policy on Tuesday, saying that any African player who joined the Serie A club should make a commitment to skip the tournament.

It remains to be seen whether he goes through with the plan, or whether it is enforceable. The next AFCON is due to be played in the Ivory Coast in January 2024.

Last season, Napoli were without Cameroon international Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa and Senegal defender Koulibaly as they represented their nations in the tournament that took place in January and February, while Nigeria striker Victor Osimhen missed out because of an injury.

Koulibaly, who has since moved on to Chelsea, felt De Laurentiis was out of line with his remarks, and claimed the views would not be endorsed by many others at the club.

"It's up to him if he wanted to tell this, but for me the most important [thing] is to respect everybody," Koulibaly told a news conference in London.

"When I played there, I was playing also for Senegal, and I won the AFCON with Senegal when I was playing with Napoli.

"It's true that it was a difficult moment for them when we went to AFCON, but we won it and I'm really happy today."

While Napoli may have struggled for numbers without their African players, their results were strong nonetheless, with Luciano Spalletti's team taking 13 points from a possible 15 from their first five league games of the year. The only real disappointment was a Coppa Italia exit at the hands of Fiorentina in mid-January.

Koulibaly added: "You cannot speak for African national teams like this, I think. You have to have respect, like you have for other national teams.

"As captain of Senegal, I think that this is not a good way to speak about African national teams.

"But I respect what he thinks. If he thinks the team can play without African players, it's up to him. But I think not everybody has the same idea as him at the club.

"I know that some people who are part of this society and team do not have the same idea as him. It's not the idea of the society or the city, because the city is very respectful."

UEFA has announced the introduction of semi-automatic offside technology, which will debut in the Super Cup and be used in the Champions League during the 2022-23 season.

SOAT's introduction will "allow VAR teams to determine offside situations quickly and more accurately", UEFA says, and will operate thanks to specialised cameras, which are able to track 29 different body points per player.

Set to be used in the Super Cup match between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt in Helsinki on August 10, UEFA says the technology has been tested 188 times since 2010 – including all matches in last season's Champions League, knock-out fixtures in the Women's Champions League and during the UEFA Women's Euros, as well as other club competition finals.

"UEFA is constantly looking for new technological solutions to improve the game and support the work of the referees," UEFA Chief Refereeing Officer Roberto Rosetti said in a press release.

"The system is ready to be used in official matches and implemented at each Champions League venue."

UEFA also announced that English referee Michael Oliver will officiate the Super Cup final, who will be assisted by compatriots Stuart Burt and Simon Bennett.

Rumsas Donatas (Lithuania) will act as the fourth official, while the VAR role has been assigned to Tomasz Kwiatkowski (Poland), and he will be assisted by his fellow countryman Bartosz Frankowkski, as well as Tiago Bruno Lopes Martins (Portugal).

Another Bundesliga campaign kicks off on Friday after a frantic close-season saw Germany's top flight robbed of its two biggest stars.

Bayern Munich superstar Robert Lewandowski left for Barcelona, while fellow striking sensation Erling Haaland departed Borussia Dortmund as expected for Manchester City.

What do these moves do to shake up the Bundesliga, then? Perhaps not an awful lot...

Stats Perform AI has predicted the outcome of the coming campaign, estimating the likelihood of teams finishing in each position informed by their expected results in each match.

These are calculated using betting odds and Stats Perform's team rankings – based on historical and recent team performances – and have thrown up some interesting results, even if the title race is a little too predictable.

MANE TO MAINTAIN BAYERN DOMINANCE

Lewandowski's exit was offset by the arrival of Sadio Mane at Bayern, and Stats Perform AI expects Julian Nagelsmann's side to again charge clear at the top of the table.

Bayern have won 10 consecutive titles, so perhaps it is no surprise they are given an 84.93 per cent chance of taking the trophy home again in May.

That figure makes Bayern the most likely champions across all of Europe's top five leagues, with nearest contenders Dortmund only in with a 6.01 per cent shot.

RB Leipzig (4.64 per cent), Bayer Leverkusen (3.38 per cent) lead a group of 10 other clubs who are given at least a slim hope of winning the championship.

For six teams – including 2003-04 champions Werder Bremen and 2006-07 victors Stuttgart – their title tilt is over before a ball has even been kicked.

 

SCRAMBLE OUTSIDE THE TOP FOUR

Unfortunately, the top-four tussle appears as predictable as Bayern's coronation.

The champions will of course occupy one Champions League spot – their 99.53 per cent chance again the greatest across the top five leagues – while Dortmund (76.78 per cent), Leipzig (72.2 per cent) and Leverkusen (62.98 per cent) also look secure, forecast second, third and fourth respectively.

That means a return to Europe's elite competition for all of those who have qualified this year, even if Leipzig have leapfrogged Leverkusen.

Stats Perform AI suggests Union Berlin (4.66 per cent) and Freiburg (8.22 per cent) – one and three points outside the top four last term – have missed their shot, with Borussia Monchengladbach (22.94 per cent) and Eintracht Frankfurt (21.5 per cent) the most likely gatecrashers despite last season finishing 10th and 11th.

Eintracht are also in the Champions League this term after winning the Europa League, but they are considered the team most likely to return to the second-tier competition (13.32 per cent).

There could be a real scrap for those final European places, though. All but four teams have at least a 1.0 per cent likelihood of qualifying for the Europa Conference League, with title favourites Bayern one of those four.

 

SCHALKE AND WERDER FACE A FIGHT

Schalke and Werder – two of the great names of German football – have returned to the top flight following successful promotion campaigns in the 2. Bundesliga last season, but they face tricky first seasons back in the big time.

The ceiling for Schalke is a little higher, so Stats Perform AI has them finishing in the relegation play-off place in 16th.

This is despite two teams – Augsburg (14.02 per cent) and Werder (13.9 per cent) – being more likely to qualify for that play-off than Schalke (13.3 per cent).

Werder are ranked 17th, while the outlook for Augsburg is awful; 14th in the Bundesliga in 2021-22, they have a new coach in ex-Dortmund II boss Enrico Maassen and are considered a strong 38.19 per cent shot for relegation.

Bochum (30.84 per cent) are also in a little trouble, with Hertha Berlin (11.62 per cent) backed to pull away and finish 12th after their play-off scare last time out.

Borussia Dortmund will not be selling Jude Bellingham, but the Bundesliga giants are optimistic they will have a new striker on board by the end of next week.

England midfielder Bellingham has emerged as a target for some of Europe's biggest clubs, with Real Madrid reportedly among his admirers.

At just 19, he is entering his third Bundesliga campaign, having previously spent a year as a first-team regular with English second-tier side Birmingham City.

It appears Bellingham will still be a Dortmund player by the time the World Cup gets under way in November, with the German club eager to avoid a second star exit in this transfer window after Erling Haaland left for Manchester City.

Asked if he could rule out selling Bellingham, Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said: "Yes, definitely, 100 per cent."

Dortmund's focus is on finding a striker to cover for the absence of Sebastien Haller, their Ivory Coast international whose testicular tumour has been confirmed as being malignant.

Haller, who joined from Ajax in the close season, will undergo chemotherapy treatment and is expected to be absent for several months.

Watzke acknowledged Haller faces a "relatively long" spell out of action and said it would be expecting too much to think that teenager Youssoufa Moukoko could step up week after week as a deputy.

Watzke told Sportschau.de: "To dump everything on Youssoufa Moukoko's shoulders – he is 17 years old – that might be a bit much.

"So I think we'll do something again in terms of personnel. A really good solution is also difficult because the range on the market is not exactly lavish.

"Ideally, something should happen in the next eight to 10 days."

Gaga Slonina has joined Chelsea on a six-year contract before returning to the Chicago Fire on loan until January.

The 18-year-old has established himself as the most exciting young goalkeeper in MLS since making his Fire debut last August.

Then 17, Slonina became the youngest goalkeeper to start a match in MLS history as he kept a clean sheet in a draw with New York City FC.

Slonina has gone on to keep 13 clean sheets in 34 appearances and is Chicago's first-choice keeper, playing every minute of the 2022 campaign.

The United States youth international, who rejected a senior call-up from Poland in May, will play out the rest of the season in Illinois ahead of joining a pool of Chelsea goalkeepers that includes Edouard Mendy.

Chelsea have reportedly paid an initial £8.2million ($10m) for Slonina, although that fee could increase to £12.3m ($15m).

Fire sporting director Georg Heitz said in a statement: "We're very proud and happy to see Gaga reach this milestone moment in his career.

"Since joining the club, Gaga has embodied what it means to be a Chicago Fire player.

"In addition to his incredible talent, he is mature beyond his years, extremely hard-working and a fantastic team-mate.

"Gaga is a role model to many young aspiring footballers in Chicago, and this transfer demonstrates that a player can progress to the first team from our academy before joining one of the biggest clubs in the world."

Slonina added: "I joined this club [the Fire] with ambitions of playing at the highest level, and it's been a dream come true to wear the Chicago Fire jersey.

"This club has become my second home, my second family, and there are so many people that have played a big role in helping me get to where I am today.

"I'm so thankful for all the support that I've received from my family, coaches, team-mates and everyone associated with the club. It's been an incredible honour to work alongside each one of you."

Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has controversially suggested the club will not sign African players unless they make agreements not to play in the Africa Cup of Nations.

Last season, Napoli were without Cameroon international Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa and Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly during their participation in Africa’s showpiece tournament, the latter of whom went on to win the tournament and has since departed Naples for Chelsea.

Striker Victor Osimhen could have been another player to travel to the tournament in Cameroon to play for Nigeria, but an injury ruled him out.

The next AFCON is due to be played in the Ivory Coast in 2024, and De Laurentiis says the club would want some sort of commitment from any player joining Napoli that they would be willing to skip the tournament.

"I told them: lads, don't talk to me about Africans anymore," De Laurentiis told a streamed event in quotes reported by Football Italia.

"I love them, but either they sign something confirming they'll back out of playing the Africa Cup of Nations, or otherwise between that tournament, the World Cup qualifiers in South America, these players are never available!

"We are the idiots who pay salaries only to send them all over the world playing for others."

De Laurentiis also revealed how he rebuked the advances of American investors in an offer worth $900million back in the 2017-18 season.

"In recent years these investment funds have become fashionable, they have to guarantee their investors a certain revenue within five years," the 73-year-old added.

"They saw that football is a great opportunity and they can double their investment by selling clubs to investment funds in future. That's what Milan and Inter have done, right?

"I am assailed by funds, I can't take it anymore. In 2017-18, an American fund offered me $900m to sell Napoli. But they don't realise I am this pure entrepreneur who enjoys playing the game, so let me keep playing."

It felt like a landmark moment in European football.

In August 2017, Paris Saint-Germain forced Barcelona to hand over one of their prized assets when they triggered the €222million release clause of Neymar, apparently signalling a power shift from the more traditional European powerhouses to the French giants.

It has not quite been that simple in the five years that have followed, though.

Barca have not won a Champions League since Neymar left, but neither have PSG, and the Catalan club can probably point to wider issues as to why their trophy haul has dried up in recent times, like how poorly they spent all the money they received for him.

The Brazil international remains the most expensive footballer in history, even if his transfer did signal a general explosion in fees across the top level of the game, but has he been worth it for PSG?

Half a decade since he swapped Spain for France, Stats Perform has taken a look at Neymar's five years in Paris.

Bye-bye Barca

Neymar's name first came to prominence when he was called up to the Brazil squad for the 2010 World Cup at the age of just 18. Immediate comparisons were made to Ronaldo, who was taken to the 1994 World Cup by the Selecao at a young age, before latterly becoming one of the greatest strikers the game had ever seen.

The new kid on the block was clearly a different kind of player to the legendary forward, but Neymar's flicks and tricks at Santos excited onlookers enough that the whole of Europe was trying to sign him, with Barca winning the race in 2013.

Neymar went on to become part of a fabled front three at Camp Nou alongside Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, winning two LaLiga titles, three Copa del Rey trophies and the Champions League in 2014-15.

During his four years at Barca, he was directly involved in 164 goals in 186 appearances (105 goals, 59 assists), and in his final season in Spain, Neymar was the only player in Europe's top five leagues to record 20 or more for both goals (20) and assists (21) in all competitions.

It was therefore quite a blow when PSG came along and took him in 2017.

 

Life in Paris

Despite having been in Paris for a year longer than he was in Barcelona, Neymar has so far played 42 fewer games for PSG than he did at Barca, with 156 goal involvements (102 goals, 54 assists) to his name in 144 appearances in all competitions. 

The Brazil international has been largely ruthless, converting 52.9 per cent of his big chances, bettering Mbappe (46.4 per cent) and Messi (26.1 per cent).

He made an impressive start, scoring 28 in 30 games in his first season, followed by 23 in 28 the next.

His lack of availability has often been an issue, though, seemingly unable to stay fit for long enough to truly dominate across a season.

That being said, Neymar currently sits fifth in the club's all-time leading scorers alongside, but well behind team-mate Kylian Mbappe (171), who has become the face of the current PSG side, particularly now he has committed his future to the club after penning a new deal in May.

On the surface, you would say those numbers suggest Neymar has been a relative success at the Parc des Princes, particularly as he has also won four Ligue 1 titles, three Coupe de France trophies and twice lifted the now defunct Coupe de la Ligue.

However, you cannot really mention Neymar or PSG without then discussing Champions League ambitions.

Having ironically been at the centre of PSG's embarrassing elimination at the hands of Barca just months before leaving the latter for the former in 2017, it was hoped that adding Neymar would tip the scales in the Ligue 1 side's favour as they looked to lift Europe's most prestigious prize for the first time.

As it is, they have reached just one final, losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in 2020, and they once again suffered a humiliating collapse against Spanish opposition last season as they crashed out against eventual champions Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, despite holding a 2-0 aggregate lead heading into the second half of the second leg.

Following that loss, PSG fans turned their ire on Neymar, believing the superstar to have not done enough to prevent their elimination, but he was not the only one receiving boos from his own supporters, with a well-regarded Argentine also being partly sneered at.

 

Friends reunited

Since Neymar left Barcelona, barely a transfer window has passed without him being linked with a move back to Camp Nou, with suggestions that Messi wanted to play with his former partner in crime again.

What many hadn't seen coming was that they would indeed be reunited, just not in LaLiga.

Barca's inability to give Messi a new contract after the league imposed financial restrictions on them in 2021 meant he had to leave, with PSG waiting with open arms to bring the Argentina legend to link up with Neymar once again.

It has not quite been the same, though, and while you can excuse Messi not setting the world alight in his first season having only played for Barcelona at senior level in his illustrious career, Neymar also failed to light up many games in which he featured.

He again missed several games through injury, making just 28 appearances in all competitions in 2021-22, scoring 13 goals, three of which were penalties.

 

Notably, he also failed to register a single goal in the Champions League, the competition he was essentially signed for such vast money to lead the club to winning.

There have been murmurs about PSG moving on from the Neymar experiment, with fans turning on him and club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi recently saying he wants to move on from the "bling bling" era and bring in more local players like Mbappe over the next few years.

Whether anyone is willing to take a gamble on a player who will still cost a lot of money remains to be seen, with Manchester City seemingly distancing themselves from a move in this transfer window.

It might not be too late for Neymar, though. The talent is undoubtedly there, and he has shown he is capable of putting up tremendous numbers, it's just a case of remaining available and turning up in the big games.

The arrival of Christophe Galtier as head coach appears to be a step in the direction Al-Khelaifi was alluding to, and the former Lille and Nice boss has said he would love for Neymar to stay and be a part of things next season.

As far as starts go, Neymar made a strong one to the new campaign, netting twice in Sunday's 4-0 rout of Nantes in the Trophee des Champions, a game that Mbappe missed.

With PSG looking set to play with a back three, there might be even more room for their attack to flourish, and Neymar could prove his doubters wrong.

The 2022-23 season is right around the corner, with plenty to keep an eye on across Europe.

Title battles in England, Spain and Italy could be too close to call, while France and Germany will see rivals trying to knock Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich off their respective perches – while there is even more set to occur in the fight for European qualification and to avoid the drop.

Central to these battles will be the players, both new signings and established members of the old guard, and here are 10 to watch in the year ahead.

 

Ousmane Dembele – Barcelona

Previously considered to be one of the biggest pieces of evidence on Barcelona's transfer failings in recent years, Dembele turned a corner in the second half of last season to finish the campaign as one of Xavi's most important players.

Dembele finished with 13 assists in LaLiga last term, the most in the competition, 11 of which came in the final 15 games of the season – with the tally being more in that run from February than he accumulated across all competitions combined in the previous two seasons.

Handed a fresh new contract, all eyes will be on Dembele to see whether he is back to his best or whether the former Borussia Dortmund winger, who now has Raphinha for competition, merely had a purple patch.

 

Matthijs de Ligt – Bayern Munich

It has now been three years since De Ligt shone with the Ajax side that reached the Champions League semi-finals, where his performances made him one of the most coveted players in world football.

Stability was never quite found at Juventus, however, with shoulder injuries hampering his progress and the defender himself admitting the style was a "bit different" in Turin to what he experienced with Ajax.

Now at Bayern, De Ligt will look to return to the heights he was once at and is expected to form an exciting partnership with Dayot Upamecano.

Rafael Leao – Milan

In Milan's title-winning campaign last term, Leao was the team's joint-leading scorer in Serie A with 11 goals, alongside Olivier Giroud, but that was way off the pace in the overall charts as 15 players found the net more times.

Milan's total tally for goals in 2021-22 was 69, less than three of their rivals in the top five, and pressure is on Stefano Pioli's side to improve that return – with the signing of Divock Origi showing the desire to improve their return in the final third, with rivals Inter having strengthened by bringing Romelu Lukaku back to San Siro on loan.

It may all fall upon Leao, however, with the 23-year-old needing to show consistency in order to prove a significant venture into the market next year to replace veterans Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not required.

 

Djed Spence – Tottenham

Middlesbrough will likely wonder what might had been if they retained Spence's services, having loaned him to Championship rivals Nottingham Forest and seeing him play a key part in their promotion back to the big time.

From September, the only two games Spence missed during Forest's league campaign were the two clashes with his parent club and his displays, including those in the FA Cup against the likes of Arsenal, made him hot property.

Spurs ultimately signed the England U21 international, who could be a contender to break into Gareth Southgate's World Cup squad if he quickly finds his feet in north London. He is a right-back, after all...

Darwin Nunez – Liverpool

Liverpool's prowess in the transfer market is facing its biggest test under Jurgen Klopp, who is looking to rejuvenate what has been a brilliant attacking trio with Sadio Mane moving on and Roberto Firmino's future uncertain.

Having signed Luis Diaz in January, the Reds raided a Portuguese giant again – this time Benfica – for Nunez.

Nunez scored six Champions League goals in the 2021-22 season and plundered a further 26 in the league, averaging a goal every 76 minutes. Nunez certainly has the capability to fill Klopp's Mane-shaped void, even if his style is slightly different to the Senegal attacker.

 

Matteo Guendouzi – Marseille

Swiftly breaking onto the scene at Arsenal but just as quickly earning himself a bad-boy reputation, Guendouzi flourished in his loan spell with Marseille last season and has now made the switch permanent.

The France international featured in every game for Marseille in the 2021-22 season, starting in 35 of his 38 Ligue 1 appearances, and forced his way back into contention to make Didier Deschamps' squad on a regular basis ahead of Les Bleus' World Cup defence in Qatar.

Guendouzi's growing maturity saw him captain Marseille in a 2-0 defeat against Lille last season and the forthcoming campaign may continue his redemption arc.

Adam Hlozek – Bayer Leverkusen

A name that will be familiar to Football Manager enthusiasts, Hlozek has earned his big move to one of Europe's top leagues after leaving Sparta Prague in his homeland for Bayer Leverkusen and the challenges of the Bundesliga.

Capable of playing across the front line, Hlozek heads to Germany with a stellar record of 29 goals and 30 assists in 91 league appearances in the top-tier in the Czech Republic.

Add in the 24 goals that compatriot Patrik Schick netted for Leverkusen last season along with the creativity of Florian Wirtz from midfield and the result is one that could be extremely exciting.

Vinicius Junior – Real Madrid

A formidable season for Vinicius saw the Brazilian net 17 goals and contribute 10 assists during Real Madrid's La Liga title-winning campaign, only being outscored by team-mate Karim Benzema in the league.

Benzema, who was one of only two players to get more assists than Vinicius last season, is now in the twilight years of his career and will soon surely hand the mantle to the next star forward at the Santiago Bernabeu – with Vinicius near-certain to be that man now Kylian Mbappe has decided to remain in Paris for the time being.

In a World Cup year, Vinicius could enjoy a campaign that sees him take the leading man tag for both club and country come the end of the season.

 

Hugo Ekitike – Paris Saint-Germain

Arriving into an attacking that already boasts Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi, it remains to be seen just how much football 20-year-old Hugo Ekitike will manage to play for Christophe Galtier's side.

Moving initially on loan, Ekitike, who was also a target for Newcastle United, is certainly one for the future.

With 10 goals and four assists for Reims last term, Ekitike has shown his prowess in the final third and could be a valuable asset in the hunt to end the elusive wait for a Champions League crown.

Samuele Ricci – Torino

Long touted as the next star in Italy's midfield, Samuele Ricci has moved on from Empoli but, to the surprise of some, did not take the leap to one of Serie A's big guns and instead continued his development by joining Torino in January.

Ricci featured 13 times for Torino, including nine starts in what was a stellar breakout year in Italy's top tier, with the 20-year-old having previously been crowned Serie B's best player in the 2020-21 season.

Breaking into Italy's squad in 2022, Ricci's meteoric rise should continue, and he may find himself coveted by some of the biggest clubs across Europe.

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