Barcelona have activated a fourth economic lever in a bid to ensure their new signings can be registered for LaLiga, announcing the sale of a further 24.5 per cent of their production company for €100million.

The Catalan giants, who have signed the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie despite ongoing financial troubles, have reportedly failed to register their new acquisitions for the upcoming league campaign.

President Joan Laporta has been working to raise funds to allow Barca to meet LaLiga's salary limits ahead of the season, and said last week the club had made a "great effort" to do so. 

Last month, 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios was sold to the company Socios.com for €100million, while the Blaugrana have also sold 10 per cent of their LaLiga broadcasting rights to American investment firm Sixth Street, among other measures.

But with reports suggesting the club were still struggling to meet LaLiga's rules, they have announced a second deal for an equivalent stake in Barca Studios.

"FC Barcelona announces the sale of 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios to the company Orpheus Media, managed by Mr Jaume Roures, an audiovisual production company with a long history of producing content, for 100 million euros," read a club statement.

"The agreement complements the one signed on 29 July with Socios.com and will help to accelerate the growth of the club's digital, NFT and Web.3 strategy.

"With this investment the strategic partners in Barca Studios show confidence in the value of the project and the future of digital content in the world of sport."

Reports suggest that while Barca are prioritising the registration of their new signings, they are still eyeing a move for Chelsea's Marcos Alonso, while Manchester City's Bernardo Silva has been touted as another target.

Barca begin their LaLiga campaign when they host Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, though it remains to be seen how many of their new stars can feature.

Barcelona have activated a fourth economic lever in a bid to ensure their new signings can be registered for LaLiga, announcing the sale of a further 24.5 per cent of their production company for €100million.

The Catalan giants, who have signed the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie despite ongoing financial troubles, have reportedly failed to register their new acquisitions for the upcoming league campaign.

President Joan Laporta has been working to raise funds to allow Barca to meet LaLiga's salary limits ahead of the season, and said last week the club had made a "great effort" to do so. 

Last month, 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios was sold to the company Socios.com for €100million, while the Blaugrana have also sold 10 per cent of their LaLiga broadcasting rights to American investment firm Sixth Street, among other measures.

But with reports suggesting the club were still struggling to meet LaLiga's rules, they have announced a second deal for an equivalent stake in Barca Studios.

"FC Barcelona announces the sale of 24.5 per cent of Barca Studios to the company Orpheus Media, managed by Mr Jaume Roures, an audiovisual production company with a long history of producing content, for 100 million euros," read a club statement.

"The agreement complements the one signed on 29 July with Socios.com and will help to accelerate the growth of the club's digital, NFT and Web.3 strategy.

"With this investment the strategic partners in Barca Studios show confidence in the value of the project and the future of digital content in the world of sport."

Reports suggest that while Barca are prioritising the registration of their new signings, they are still eyeing a move for Chelsea's Marcos Alonso, while Manchester City's Bernardo Silva has been touted as another target.

Barca begin their LaLiga campaign when they host Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, though it remains to be seen how many of their new stars can feature.

As their Serie A rivals attempt to turn back time, champions Milan are looking to the future.

Romelu Lukaku, Inter's 2020-21 Scudetto hero, and Paul Pogba, the winner of four straight championships at Juventus, have returned to their former clubs following ultimately unsuccessful Premier League stints.

Of course, this is a move that worked for Milan last season, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic had played for three different clubs in three different countries between featuring in the Rossoneri's two most recent title-winning campaigns.

Ibrahimovic, soon to turn 41, has signed up for another season, but there is a young, exciting core to the Milan team who secured that latest title and will now bid to defend it.

Young stars repay Pioli's faith

Milan had the fourth-youngest average age of their starters in Serie A last season (25y 337d), older only than Empoli (24y 325d), Spezia (24y 334d) and Torino (25y 189d).

And this average was dragged up significantly by Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud.

Among the 10 outfield players to start 20 or more league games for Milan in 2021-22, nine were below that average age at the end of the season, with Giroud (35y 233d) the exception.

Giroud scored 11 goals, including two the day the Rossoneri won the title at Sassuolo, but even he made only 22 starts as Stefano Pioli showed faith in his young charges.

Pierre Kalulu (21 starts) was 21 on the final day; Rafael Leao (31 starts), Sandro Tonali (31 starts), Brahim Diaz (25 starts) and Alexis Saelemaekers (22 starts) were all 22; Theo Hernandez (30 starts) and Fikayo Tomori (30 starts) were both 24; and the now departed Franck Kessie (25 starts) was 25, along with Davide Calabria (24 starts).

Of those, only Diaz was not in the XI at Sassuolo, with the 28-year-old Rade Krunic preferred.

 

That this young Milan side held their nerve on that day – needing to avoid defeat to ensure they could not be pipped at the post by Inter – justified Pioli's approach, and the club have seemingly sought to get even younger ahead of their title defence.

Milan boosted by Belgium pair

Realistically, given the financial power of other clubs across Europe, Milan have had little choice but to pay for potential rather than proven performers.

Yet their early moves in this close season sought to find a blend of the two, as Milan honed in on two stars of Lille's shock 2020-21 Ligue 1 title success.

Centre-back Sven Botman, only 22, was a favourite of Paolo Maldini, while Renato Sanches, 24, appeared a good fit for a midfield set to be robbed of Kessie following his move to Barcelona as a free agent.

Unfortunately, Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain – backed by Saudi Arabia's PIF and Qatar's QSI respectively – outmuscled Milan in both cases.

Instead, Kalulu could be set to start again alongside Tomori, and Tommaso Pobega, returning from a loan at Torino and now 23, is a likely replacement for Kessie.

Milan have preferred to focus their limited budget on the attack, successfully holding off rival interest to sign Charles De Ketelaere.

 

The Belgium international, who turned 21 in March, contributed 14 goals and nine assists in 39 First Division A matches for Club Brugge last term.

De Ketelaere was the second-youngest player in the Belgian top flight to tally at least five goals and five assists for the season – after Anderlecht's Bayern Munich loanee Joshua Zirkzee (16 goals, nine assists).

He will now link up with Leao (11 goals, eight assists), who was the second-youngest to achieve that feat in Serie A in 2021-22 – after Sassuolo's Giacomo Raspadori (10 goals, five assists).

Even De Ketelaere's Belgium team-mate Divock Origi – another new forward signing, set to become Milan's latest experienced option up front – is only 27.

Still young, now experienced

The signing of Origi, an elder statesman in the Milan dressing room, would actually have made Serie A rivals Juventus (27y 319d) and Inter (29y 73d) younger.

Indeed, Inter were the third-oldest team in Serie A last season – after Sampdoria (29y 212d) and Lazio (29y 217d) – with their squad already in need of regeneration a year after winning the Scudetto.

There is no danger of Milan being in the same position, with their young side getting younger and extending their window in which they can expect to contend for further titles.

The Rossoneri were comfortably the youngest champions across Europe's top five leagues last season, with Champions League victors Real Madrid (28y 95d) the oldest.

 

Milan's title winners will undoubtedly benefit from their 2021-22 experiences, too.

Leao (85), Tonali (60), Diaz (47), Saelemaekers (45), Tomori (34) and Kalulu (13) had each played comfortably fewer than 100 games in Europe's top five leagues heading into the previous campaign. Kalulu had tallied a mere 727 minutes prior to his breakout year.

In the Champions League, they were even greener. Besides Giroud, who had played 41 games and started 25, those nine other Serie A regulars had made just 11 combined appearances and five combined starts in Europe's elite club competition up to that point.

Milan's European campaign did not pan out as they would have hoped, losing their first three group stage matches and finishing bottom of the table in a punishing pool, but there was a dramatic away win at Atletico Madrid, and the Rossoneri twice took the game to eventual finalists Liverpool.

There may be departures along the way – and Milan will hope to receive a fee, unlike in Kessie's case – but this team should continue to grow together.

If Milan's players progress as they have done so far, there will be plenty more title challenges – and perhaps even a tilt at an eighth European crown soon enough.

Barcelona fans may have completely forgotten there will be actual football to play very soon.

So chaotic and draining has the off-season been for Barca supporters that they'd be forgiven for thinking they were stuck in some form of purgatory, where the club's finances are discussed and debated endlessly.

In fairness, even those who don't necessarily support Barca may have similar feelings. If you've been following the soap opera in recent weeks and months, you'll already be sick to death of the word palanca, or 'lever'.

Of course, those proverbial levers are what president Joan Laporta has been pulling to inject capital. Barca were expected to work within another measly LaLiga salary limit this season before selling off some of their TV rights at the end of the last financial year, which meant they actually turned a profit.

With the other 'levers' Laporta has activated, he claims the club has brought in €860million in two months, but obviously the deals involved will result in reduced long-term income, hence the widespread suggestions Barca are "mortgaging their future".

It's probably an understatement to say there has been a lot to take in, and that's before we even mention the Frenkie de Jong sideshow, the signings and the latest concerns about whether their new players can even be registered.

In the background, Xavi continues to plug away and drown out all the nonsense surrounding the club, and on the pitch, there are genuine reasons for optimism at Camp Nou.

A platform of rapid improvement

There was a time last season – even after Xavi's November appointment – when Barca's campaign looked to be heading for embarrassment.

After a 1-0 defeat to Real Betis in December, Barca had 23 points from their first 16 matches of the league season, their worst total at that stage since 2002-03.

But the same team – plus a few January additions – claimed more points (45) in LaLiga than any other club after the turn of the year. Sure, Real Madrid played one game less over the same period, but even if they had contested an extra match and won, Los Blancos would still have been two points shy.

Of course, Madrid's focus towards the end was on the Champions League as they never looked likely to throw the title away, so it's probably not the perfect comparison, but it does at least highlight the results Xavi was getting and the degree of the turnaround he has already overseen at Camp Nou.

 

Similarly, there were signs of classic Barca in their performances. Their 9.4 high turnovers per game was a LaLiga high after Xavi's appointment, while they also boasted the greatest average share of possession (64 per cent).

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Barca's promise under Xavi was the 4-0 hammering of Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in March's Clasico. They had lost their previous five such clashes, including four in the league, making it the Blaugrana's worst run against their bitter rivals since the 1960s.

Barca were electric going forward, carving through Madrid almost at will, while they also looked solid defensively, with Xavi's decision to play Ronald Araujo at right-back proving wise as he kept Vinicius Junior in check.

Gerard Pique responded by declaring: "We are back."

Playing the part

The improvement Xavi instigated last season was made even more impressive by the fact certain players didn't have an especially prominent role.

Pedri made just 12 appearances in the league, while Ansu Fati recorded 10. Both were hampered by serious injuries but will in all likelihood – assuming they stay fit – be key players this season.

Pedri will be the vital midfield conductor, keeping the build-up play ticking over, while Fati can provide both goals and creativity from out wide on the left. As clichéd as it sounds, the Spain forward will feel every bit a new signing if he can stay out of the medical room.

 

But it's also fair to say there are several players whose reputations have been enhanced lately – or at the very least restored.

Ronald Araujo really stepped up last season and matured into a colossus of a centre-back. Athletic, composed on the ball and uncompromising in defence, the Uruguayan looks cut out for a long career at the heart of Barca's backline.

While some might've had concerns about his ability to get Barca on the front foot, with his passing range hardly that of a young Pique, the arrival of Jules Kounde should offset those worries given the France international's reputation as an excellent progressor of the ball.

Arguably the biggest surprise of the Xavi era so far, however, has been Ousmane Dembele.

 

Almost perennially injured or underwhelming at Barca, Dembele became essential for Xavi's men in the second half of last season.

Between January 1 and the end of the campaign, Dembele's assists count of 11 was four more than anyone else in the league despite the Frenchman not even playing 1,100 minutes. Vinicius, for example, registered six from 1,182 minutes.

Granted, Dembele's assists tally outstripped his expected assists (xA), though his 7.3 xA was still comfortably better than everyone else over the same period – Vinicius was second with 4.5 xA.

Until he has an extended period without injury, Dembele's fitness and reliability will always be a concern, but Xavi has made it clear the winger is key to his plans, and the 25-year-old has certainly shown his commitment by signing a new contract on reduced terms. He wants to be a success at Barca.

New blood

Now, obviously this part comes with an asterix. Barca have made some impressive additions to their squad, but it remains to be seen whether they can register them in time for the opening weekend. They can only do that if LaLiga are happy their finances are in order and the club adhere to their salary limit.

But assuming Laporta finds a way to get the green light before the transfer window closes, the new faces should be considered statement signings.

The headline arrival is obviously Robert Lewandowski. Barca didn't necessarily have a problem scoring goals last season, but they were short of reliable options in the centre of attack, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang often occupying spaces out on the left.

 

Ferran Torres simply isn't a 'killer' in front of goal, Lewandowski is, and you don't need to go into any great detail to explain precisely what he'll offer; his 161 top-flight goals over the past five years is 30 more than any other player in the top five leagues (Lionel Messi is second with 131).

Among those charged with laying on chances for Lewandowski will be Raphinha, whose dynamism and exceptional creativity made him one of the standout Premier League wingers at Leeds United.

His ability to come inside onto his left foot will give Barca greater invention in central areas as well, potentially key against packed defences, and he's demonstrably a wonderful creator, with his 13.0 xA over two seasons in the Premier League bettered only by Trent Alexander-Arnold, Bruno Fernandes, Mohamed Salah, Mason Mount and Kevin De Bruyne – not bad for a player who was embroiled in a relegation battle last term.

 

Then you've got Kounde, who has not only marked himself out as one of LaLiga's best defenders in three seasons at Sevilla, but many consider him an archetypal Barca centre-back – in fact, his ability on the ball was best exemplified against the Catalans in the Copa del Rey last season, when he embarked on a brilliant solo run from defence before applying a cool finish.

 

Add Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen to the mix as well, and Barca have themselves an impressive array of signings who all appear well-suited to the club's particular brand of football.

When they'll all be able to play is still a mystery, but clearly Barca will be a force when they can.

 

For the second consecutive year, Romelu Lukaku is returning to a former club. This time around, there is greater confidence he will be a success.

Lukaku's second attempt to forge a career at Chelsea proved as frustrating as his first.

Underused at Stamford Bridge as a young player before departing for Everton, Lukaku would argue he was misused last season.

The unstoppable force who had fired Inter to the 2020-21 Serie A title was gone, with the Belgium forward looking a little lost in Thomas Tuchel's system.

Now, though, Lukaku is back at Inter. Antonio Conte may no longer be at San Siro, but Lautaro Martinez, Lukaku's former strike partner, crucially still is.

The main man in Lukaku's absence, Martinez improved his goal output from 17 in 2020-21 to 21 last season, albeit that tally was still only enough to finish third in the Capocannoniere race.

Lukaku had been second the year before with 24, beaten by Cristiano Ronaldo, but his focus in returning to Italy is again on team success, with Inter having just lost the Scudetto to Milan.

"I don't care about the top scorers' ranking, I tell you honestly," Lukaku told DAZN ahead of the new season. "I only think of the Scudetto.

"Yes, the goals come, but we are at Inter, here we play for the Scudetto and not for individual things."

 

Succeeding as a team means playing as a team, and Lukaku and Martinez undoubtedly did that in 2020-21.

The pair created a combined 29 chances for one another, with eight of those leading to goals. That goal-assist combination made Lukaku and Martinez the most effective partnership in the division, ahead of Ruslan Malinovskyi and Duvan Zapata at Atalanta (seven goals).

The five goals Lukaku laid on for Martinez contributed to his 11 assists for the season, trailing only Malinovskyi (12) in that regard.

Indeed, since Opta's Serie A assist data began in 2004-05, Lukaku is the only player to score 20 or more goals and provide 10 or more assists in the same season.

Lukaku's inability to contribute a single assist in the Premier League last term therefore illustrates how spectacularly Chelsea failed to get the best out of him. Netting just eight times himself, he failed to link up with any Blues team-mate for more than a single goal.

That is not to say Lukaku and Martinez clicked instantly at Inter; in the former's first season in Italy, in 2019-20, he scored 23 goals but assisted only two. One of those two assists saw Lukaku tee up Martinez, but the Argentina forward did not return the favour even once.

In 2020-21, unlike at Chelsea, Lukaku was able to make the most of his best attributes for the benefit of both himself and his team-mate.

Rather than consider Lukaku a target man, Conte allowed his number nine to turn and run with the ball, with five of his assists coming following ball carries – along with four of his goals. Only Luis Muriel (12), another Atalanta player, contributed to more Serie A goals following carries than Lukaku's nine.

None of his eight Chelsea goals came following carries as he recorded only 4.4 carries per 90 minutes, down from 7.7 at Inter.

 

With Simone Inzaghi still using the same 3-5-2 formation that suited Lukaku so well, he and Inter will hope his reintegration now is seamless.

There remain other issues at the Nerazzurri, and goals were not necessarily the biggest problem Inzaghi's side had last term; they scored just five fewer than the previous season and led the league in that regard.

With three fewer victories than in their title-winning campaign, Inter finished two points shy of rivals Milan.

Yet Lukaku either scored or assisted in 22 of Inter's 38 games in 2020-21 and in 20 of their 28 wins – both league highs that show how vital his contributions can be.

The Nerazzurri will now head into the new season feeling confident they have re-signed the one man most likely to dominate Serie A matches on his own... or with a partner.

Fans' wait for the World Cup has, of course, been a little longer than normal this time around – ordinarily the tournament would've already been completed.

Nevertheless, the big kick-off is closing in with Qatar 2022 now just 100 days away – we're into the final straight!

As with any major tournament, predicting a winner in the build-up is just a natural part of being a football fan, even if it can often be a fool's errand.

But considering how integral statistics are to football these days, using data might just give you the edge, and that's where Stats Perform come in.

Our Artificial Intelligence team have used Opta's extensive data reserves to quantify each team's chances of winning the entire tournament.

Every match has been run through the Stats Perform World Cup prediction model to calculate the estimated probability of the outcome (win, draw or loss). This uses odds from betting markets and Stats Perform team rankings, which are based on historical and recent performances.

It takes into consideration the strength of each team's opponents as well as the difficulty of their respective paths to the final, plus the make-up of the groups and any relevant seedings heading into the knockouts.

Then, the rest of the tournament is simulated 40,000 times and analysed, providing the AI team with a percentage for each nation, showing the probability of them ultimately lifting the trophy at the Lusail Stadium on December 18.

Let's check out the results…

FAVOURITES: France (17.9 per cent)

Suspend your disbelief! Yes, reigning champions France have the greatest probability of winning the World Cup this year, with our model giving them an almost 18-per cent chance of clinching a third title.

But let's not overlook how remarkable an achievement that would be. No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil in 1962, and the only other occasion of that happening was in the 1930s when Italy won it back-to-back.

France were the favourites heading into Euro 2020 but were ultimately disappointing – they'll need to do significantly better here otherwise their fate could be sealed by the dreaded winners' curse.

Each of the past four European winners of the World Cup have been eliminated in the group stages, a trend that began with Les Bleus in 2002.

 

2. Brazil (15.7 per cent)

Another unsurprising entry. That's right, record winners Brazil come in at second in terms of likelihood of winning the World Cup.

Tite's side qualified with ease and clearly have an extremely talented group of players available to them – the problem is getting them all on the pitch at one time while retaining a cohesive and balanced shape.

If Tite can find the magic formula at the World Cup this time, at the very least you'd expect them to get beyond the quarter-finals, the stage they crashed out to Belgium four years ago in Kazan.

Failure, however, will mean Brazil's World Cup drought will stretch to 24 years by the time the 2026 edition comes around, and that would make it their joint-longest barren run in the competition since claiming their first title in 1958.

3. Spain (11.5 per cent)

La Roja aren't the force they were as recently as 10 years ago, when they won a third successive major international tournament with victory at Euro 2012.

However, Luis Enrique has turned them into a side that is easy on the eye and capable of carving open the best teams – their main issue in recent years has been finding a reliable striker, and that'll likely be what determines how far they get in Qatar.

Either way, we can surely expect a better showing than they managed in Russia, where they were hindered by the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup as a result of accepting a post-tournament role at Real Madrid.

4. England (8.0 per cent)

The Three Lions almost won their first major international trophy since 1966 last year at Euro 2020, only to fall at the final hurdle against Italy.

Either way, few can deny it was a sign of progress: they reached the Russia 2018 semi-finals, the final at Euro 2020, so surely Qatar 2022 is theirs already?

Gareth Southgate has made England an effective tournament side, even if doubts remain over his ability to impose a style of play that sees the Three Lions take the initiative against the biggest teams.

Similarly, their performances in the first round of Nations League fixtures in June left a lot to be desired, but that won't stop expectations from soaring in Qatar.

5. Belgium (7.9 per cent)

Squeezing into the top five ahead of the Netherlands (7.7 per cent) are Belgium, who reached the semi-finals four years ago before being eliminated by eventual winners France.

It's fair to say this is likely to be the last opportunity for the Red Devils' so-called 'golden generation' to truly leave its mark on a major tournament – in fact, many original members of that Belgium generation have already retired.

While success for Roberto Martinez's side looks unlikely, they are a match for any team on their day, and our probability score recognises they are by no means out of contention.

THE REST OF THE FIELD

Netherlands and Germany (7.2) are hard on Belgium's heels in our predictor table, though in both cases fans might feel their squads have more to offer than their neighbours.

Both teams have solid blends of experience and youthful exuberance, while the two coaches have vast experience – Louis van Gaal needs no introduction, while Hansi Flick has been involved in the Germany setup for much of his coaching career.

But the teams many will be looking out for because of certain individuals are Argentina (6.5 per cent) and Portugal (5.1 per cent).

 

They are the only other two to be given more than a 2.3 per cent chance of World Cup success, and given the presence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they cannot be discounted.

Argentina have rebuilt since a somewhat shambolic campaign in Russia, with Lionel Scaloni inspiring La Albiceleste to their first Copa America in 28 years in 2021.

Messi was central to their triumph in that tournament, and now he's got the proverbial monkey off his back, there's hope Argentina could produce a respectable showing.

With Ronaldo 37 and Messi 35, it's unlikely either will play another World Cup. Given the tournament is synonymous with those generally regarded as the best ever – Pele and Diego Maradona – they will be desperate to crown their respective careers.

This is it.

 

10. Croatia (2.3 per cent)
11. Denmark (2.0 per cent)
12. Uruguay (1.5 per cent)
13. Mexico (1.4 per cent)
14. Switzerland (1.0 per cent)
15. Poland (0.8 per cent)
16. Iran (0.6 per cent)
17. Japan (0.5 per cent)
18. United States (0.5 per cent)
19. Wales (0.4 per cent)
20. Qatar (0.4 per cent)
21. South Korea (0.4 per cent)
22. Serbia (0.2 per cent)
23. Senegal (0.2 per cent)
24. Ecuador (0.2 per cent)
25. Australia (0.1 per cent)
26. Ghana (

The European domestic season is now back up and running, meaning we are officially into a World Cup campaign.

For some players, the main focus over the next few months will be remaining fit with the hope of entering Qatar 2022 in peak condition for their respective nations.

For others, the first part of the 2022-23 season will provide an opportunity to play themselves into contention for a squad place ahead of the biggest tournament of them all.

That includes an array of talented stars who have yet to represent their countries at senior level, but who could be given the chance to showcase their talent on the global stage.

With the big kick-off now just 100 days away, Stats Perform has identified five uncapped players who still have an outside shot of glory in Qatar.


Gleison Bremer (Brazil) – 25, centre-back, Juventus

If Bremer was not on the radar of Brazil head coach Tite ahead of the 2021-22 season, the 25-year-old certainly will be now. He ranked first among Serie A defenders last term for duels contested (451) and also led the way for headed clearances (75), showing that he can be relied upon at the back.

Indeed, Bremer's form last time out led to Juventus splashing out a reported €50million to sign him from Torino during the close season. Brazil must be quick, though, as the Italian top-flight's best defender last season is also eligible to represent the Azzurri.

 

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Lazio

Goalkeeper Maximiano is another who moved to a club of bigger stature just a few months out from the World Cup beginning after swapping relegated Granada, where he impressed in his only campaign, for Serie A side Lazio. The 23-year-old certainly had a chance to showcase his shot-stopping abilities last season, with his 127 saves the most of any keeper in LaLiga, and the fifth-most of anyone in Europe's top five leagues.

Following the departure of long-serving Thomas Strakosha, Maximiano will be installed as first choice at Stadio Olimpico, where Portugal boss Fernando Santos may make a visit or two in the coming months.



Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Newcastle United

Despite catching the eye in Ligue 1 with Lille, particularly in 2020-21 when starting 37 of the 38 matches played in their stunning title-winning campaign, Botman has remained on the periphery of the Netherlands squad. He has been a regular for the Oranje at Under-21 level, but after joining Newcastle in a £31.8m (€37m) transfer last month, he is surely now in serious consideration for a place in the senior squad.

Having led the way among Lille players last time out per 90 minutes for successful passes (53.4), blocks (0.84) and headed clearances (2.2), the Dutchman will hope to hit the ground running in another new league.

 

Benjamin Bourigeaud (France) – 28, attacking midfielder, Rennes

Reigning world champions France are blessed with world-class talent right across the pitch, but could there be room for a wild card in the form of Bourigeaud? The versatile attacking midfielder can play in a number of positions, though was predominantly used out on the right in what was a career-best season last time out in Ligue 1.

While France are hardly crying out for another player to slot into the final third, Bourigeaud's 23 direct goal involvements for Rennes last season is a tally bettered by only four others, while his David Beckham-esque deliveries from wide can provide something a little different for Didier Deschamps' men.

 

Inaki Williams (Ghana) – 28, forward, Athletic Bilbao

Ghana's squad has been completely transformed since booking their place in Qatar, having persuaded six players to switch allegiance and represent them at the World Cup. Patric Pfeiffer, Stephen Ambrosius and Ransford-Yeboah Konigsdorffer are all available for selection, as are Inaki Williams, Tariq Lamptey and Mohammed Salisu.

Each of those players will enhance Otto Addo's squad, with Williams – capped once by Spain in a friendly – possibly a game-changing option in attack. He is someone who can be replied upon, too, having appeared in each of Athletic's past 233 LaLiga matches, a run spanning back to April 2016. 

It's getting close. We may have had to wait an extra five months than usual, but the 2022 World Cup is now just 100 days away.

A likely last hurrah on the World Cup stage awaits superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while new names will break through and rising talent will be put to the test.

Eight nations have been champions of the tournament that was first staged in 1930, and it will be France looking to defend the title this time.

Many of us pride ourselves on remembering World Cup trivia from past tournaments, but just how good is your knowledge?

These Opta-assisted 20 questions should sort the group-stage flops from the champions of World Cup quizzing. The answers are below, but don't cheat!

The first...

1. Name the English boss who at Qatar 2022 will become the first to coach a team at both the men's and women's World Cups?

2. Gregg Berhalter will become the first man to serve as player and manager of the USA at the World Cup. He appeared at the 2002 tournament and is now boss of the American side. To which present-day Premier League club did Berhalter then belong, becoming their first World Cup player?

3. Who became the first player to score a Golden Goal winner at the World Cup when he netted for France against Paraguay in a 1998 last-16 clash?

4. In the 2018 showdown between France and Croatia, who became the first player in World Cup final history to score for both teams?

5. Qatar will attempt to become the first nation from the AFC confederation to win their first World Cup finals match. Ten of the previous 11 have lost (including Israel in 1970), but who were the team who in 1982 managed a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia?

 

The last...

6. There have been 52 hat-tricks in the tournament's history, but who was the last player to score a treble in the knockout stages of the World Cup?

7. A goalkeeper won his 159th and final international cap at the 2018 finals, when he became the oldest player to appear at the World Cup, at the age of 45 years and 161 days. He saved a penalty in a 2-1 defeat for his team against Saudi Arabia. Who was that goalkeeper and what team did he play for?

8. Ghana reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 and Senegal did so at the 2002 finals. But who were the first team from Africa to make it to the last eight, doing so at the 1990 finals in Italy?

9. Brazil last lost a group game at the World Cup in 1998, since when they have won 12 and drawn three games at the first-round stage. Which team beat them in that 1998 tournament?

10. Cameroon have lost each of their past seven games at the World Cup (between 2002 and 2014). Only one team have ever lost more games in a row in the competition's history – nine between 1930 and 1958. Who were that team?

The most...

11. Just Fontaine scored his 13 World Cup goals in just six games for France. The competition's all-time record scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose, who netted 16 times for his country in how many appearances: 22, 23 or 24?

12. Who will become the only team to have appeared at all 22 editions of the World Cup when they take part in Qatar 2022?

13. Iran will be making their sixth appearance at the World Cup and have never gone beyond the group stage. Which country has made the most appearances (eight) without making it past the first round?

14. Which forward had the most goal involvements of all players in European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, scoring 12 and assisting six times in 10 games?

15. Since 1966, only three players have completed more than 12 dribbles in a single World Cup game, with Brazil's Jairzinho achieving 13 against Paraguay in 1970 and Paul Gascoigne matching that total for England against Cameroon in 1990. Who managed the most – 15 in a game against Italy at the 1994 tournament?

 

The GOATs...

16. Which superstar, who scored eight times and provided eight assists in 21 World Cup games, also holds the record for the most handball decisions given against a player at the tournament (seven) since records began?

17. Who holds the record for the most minutes played in World Cup history, having featured in 2,216 minutes of finals action?

18. Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo is one of only four players to score in four different World Cup tournaments. He will attempt to go one better this year, but Ronaldo currently sits alongside Pele, Klose and which other player?

19. Between them, Ronaldo (seven) and Lionel Messi (six) have managed 13 World Cup goals. How many of those goals came in the knockout rounds?

20. Ronaldo is one of just two European players to have either scored and/or assisted a goal in each of the last five major international tournaments (World Cup/European Championship). Who is the other player to have managed the feat?

 

Answers:

1. John Herdman (Canada – he managed Canada Women at the 2015 Women's World Cup)
2. Crystal Palace
3. Laurent Blanc (France)
4. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)
5. Kuwait.
6. Tomas Skuhravy (for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica, last 16, 1990)
7. Essam El Hadary (Egypt)
8. Cameroon
9. Norway
10. Mexico
11. 24
12. Brazil
13. Scotland
14. Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
15. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
16. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
17. Paolo Maldini (Italy)
18. Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
19. Zero
20. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

Paris Saint-Germain have been open about wanting three more new signings before the transfer window closes.

PSG head coach Christophe Galtier also explained that among those was the desire to bring in a forward.

The French champions have already sealed the services of Renato Sanches, Nordi Mukiele, Hugo Ekitike, Vitinha and Nuno Mendes during the off-season.

TOP STORY – PSG IN TALKS WITH MAN UTD'S RASHFORD

PSG have opened talks with Marcus Rashford's representatives about joining the Ligue 1 club from Manchester United, according to L'Equipe.

The England international striker is contracted with United until 2023, having signed a four-year deal in 2019 with the option to extend by a further year.

Sky Sports, however, claims that PSG are unlikely to follow up on their initial interest, having first enquired about Rashford last week.

ROUND-UP

Manchester City are targeting Atletico Madrid's Brazilian Renan Lodi as they look to add a new left-back, according to The Telegraph. City want to bolster their options in the position following Oleksandr Zinchenko's departure for Arsenal. City are also considering Arsenal left-back Kieran Tierney, claims 90min.

– Foot Mercato reports that Italian champions Inter are looking at Nice defender Jean-Clair Todibo as a possible replacement for Martin Skriniar, should he leave. Todibo also has interest from PSG and Chelsea . Inter have also been linked to Borussia Dortmund's Swiss defender Manuel Akanji along with Lazio veteran Francesco Acerbi.

– Chelsea's Emerson Palmieri is drawing interest from both Nottingham Forest and Atalanta, according to the Evening Standard. The 28-year-old left-back is being squeezed out at Stamford Bridge following Marc Cucurella's arrival.

Napoli and Argentina international forward Giovanni Simeone have reached a verbal agreement, reports Sky Sport Italia. Simeone is set to join Napoli on loan from Hellas Verona, but Sky Sport Italia claims Juventus are prepared to poach him at the last minute.

Filip Kostic has expressed his gratitude to Eintracht Frankfurt ahead of his move to Juventus.

The Serbia winger is on the verge of completing his switch to Juve, ending a four-year spell with Eintracht.

Kostic helped the Bundesliga club win the Europa League last season and has played more games (167) and started more matches (161) than any other player for the club since his arrival from Hamburg.

The 29-year-old says Eintracht will always have a special place in his heart.

"THANK YOU Eintracht Frankfurt for believing in me when no one else did!" he posted on Instagram.

"I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to the club, all the wonderful people who work at the club, the team-mates, the coaches, the management, the fans and the whole city for making my stay at the club and in the city unforgettable.

"Eintracht fans, thank you for supporting us every game. We bled together for the colours of the club, you in the stands and us on the field.

"Together we managed to write club history by winning the Europa League. Thank you for all the love and support you have given me.

"We wouldn't have made it without you. I will carry you in my heart forever."

 

 

Paris Saint-Germain striker Arnaud Kalimuendo has joined Rennes in a reported €25million transfer, penning a five-year deal with the Ligue 1 side.

Kalimuendo, a France Under-21 international who signed his first professional contract with PSG as a 17-year-old in 2019, had been strongly linked with Premier League side Leeds United after they missed out on Belgian forward Charles De Ketelaere to Milan.

The pacey forward has spent each of the last two seasons on loan at Lens, scoring 12 league goals in the 2021-22 campaign as they recorded an impressive seventh-placed finish.

Only nine players, including PSG stars Kylian Mbappe (28) and Neymar (13), outscored Kalimuendo last term, earning the 20-year-old a big-money move to Europa League qualifiers Rennes.

PSG boss Christophe Galtier had confirmed Kalimuendo's move was imminent earlier on Thursday, while Mauro Icardi is also expected to leave the Parc des Princes to make room for another attacking recruit.

Rennes lost their Ligue 1 opener to Lorient last Sunday and face a trip to Monaco in their second game of the campaign on Saturday.

FIFA has confirmed the 2022 World Cup will start a day earlier than originally planned in order to allow hosts Qatar to face Ecuador in the opening match of the tournament.

Qatar had originally been set to open their first World Cup campaign on Monday November 21, with Group A rivals Senegal and the Netherlands scheduled to get the competition under way earlier that day.

But a unanimous decision taken by the Bureau of the FIFA Council means Felix Sanchez's Qatar side will now begin the tournament on Sunday November 20 at 7pm local time – continuing the tradition of the home side playing first.

The opening ceremony has also been brought forward a day to November 20.

"The FIFA World Cup 2022 will kick off with an even greater celebration for local and international fans as host country Qatar will now play Ecuador on Sunday, 20 November as part of a stand-alone event," read a statement issued by FIFA.

"The change ensures the continuity of a long-standing tradition of marking the start of the FIFA World Cup with an opening ceremony on the occasion of the first match featuring either the hosts or the defending champions. 

"The decision followed an assessment of the competition and operational implications, as well as a thorough consultation process and an agreement with key stakeholders and the host country."

 

The decision means the Netherlands' fixture against Senegal has been moved to a later time slot on November 21, and will now follow on from England's Group B opener versus Iran.

The World Cup hosts have featured in the opening match of the tournament since the 2006 edition in Germany, where Jurgen Klinsmann's team beat Costa Rica 4-2.

Between the 1974 and 2002 tournaments, the defending champions opened the tournament, with France infamously going down to Senegal in the last World Cup to follow that tradition.

Timo Werner simply needs to enjoy his football again after ending his frustrating Chelsea spell by returning to RB Leipzig, according to his new head coach Domenico Tedesco.

The Germany forward failed to live up to expectations after arriving at Stamford Bridge for a fee of £47.5million (€50m) two years ago, scoring just 10 Premier League goals in 56 appearances.

Werner had previously made his name during a four-year spell at Leipzig, for whom his tally of 95 goals remains a club record, and re-joined the side on a four-year contract this week for a fee said to be around £25m.

Tedesco, who led Leipzig to a fourth-placed Bundesliga finish after taking over midway through last season, is keen to avoid heaping pressure on the 26-year-old following his disappointing time in the Premier League.

"As for Timo, there is no pressure at all," Tedesco told a news conference. "Of course, we notice what kind of commotion that's creating. He's coming back, he played for Leipzig before as you know.

"He did a good job then. That's all we ask for. He just needs to enjoy what he's doing. He did the full pre-season with Chelsea but only played two games with them. 

"So we will not burden him. We all have to be careful that we don't overload him. We just want him to have fun, show his strengths, of which he has many. 

"The rest will come bit by bit. This won't happen overnight."

 

Leipzig recorded 28 shots and enjoyed 68 per cent of the possession in their Bundesliga opener at Stuttgart last Sunday, but could only manage a 1-1 draw after taking the lead eight minutes in.

Tedesco's side have also added David Raum and Xaver Schlager for eight-figure fees in the transfer window, but he insists their arrivals have not placed him under greater pressure to deliver, adding: "I am happy to have these guys on our team. You feel the biggest pressure from yourself.

"We would like to play every game like the one in Stuttgart but then also win. Other than that, [we want] the feeling to look forward and the joy to have a squad like this. 

"We are looking forward to midweek fixtures soon. Then we can get things going with this squad. This will also be important. 

"It makes a difference if we play every seven days or every three and a half days. Playing will be more fun. It was like that last season and now our team is even broader."

Leipzig host Koln in their first home match of the Bundesliga season on Saturday. 

Molynes United Football Club has appointed Alex Thomas as their head coach for the upcoming Jamaica Premier League season.

Napoli have announced the arrival of Italy goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu on a free transfer, with the former Paris Saint-Germain player reportedly penning a one-year deal with the club.

Sirigu, who won the most recent of his 28 Italy caps in a win over Lithuania last September, left Genoa upon the expiry of his contract after they were relegated to Serie B last season.

The 35-year-old will be expected to compete with Alex Meret for a starting spot in Naples after David Ospina left for Saudi Arabian outfit Al Nassr, although Luciano Spalletti's men have also been linked with moves for Keylor Navas and Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Sirigu made 190 appearances for PSG between 2011 and 2016, and has also spent time at Palermo, Torino, Sevilla and Osasuna.

Napoli boasted Serie A's joint-best defensive record as they finished third last season, conceding just 31 goals, but have seen the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens leave ahead of the new campaign.

Napoli travel to Verona for their first outing of the 2022-23 Serie A season on Monday.

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