Lionel Messi should never have been allowed to leave Barcelona for another European club, according to former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The relationship between Messi and Bartomeu reportedly became toxic during the latter's final months in charge at Camp Nou, and Joan Laporta's election win in March 2021 appeared to point to a brighter future for the team.

However, in August there was the bombshell announcement that Messi would be released as the club could not afford to retain him, with their finances having been hit badly during the pandemic.

An agreed contract had to be discarded and Messi joined Paris Saint-Germain, who have no such money worries under their Qatari owners.

There ended Messi's 20-year career at Barcelona, during which he became the pivotal player. Messi departed as the club's record scorer, with the most first-team appearances of any player in Barcelona's history, and against his own wishes, a sobbing superstar waving an unexpected farewell.

"I have always thought that it is essential that he should be with us, not only because he is the best in the world but also because of his economic and institutional contribution," Bartomeu said, in an interview with Mundo Deportivo.

"It is a mistake to let Messi go. He represents much more than a footballer that you fall in love with."

Messi attempted to leave Barcelona after the 2019-20 season, believing an agreement that he should be allowed to depart if he told the club of his intention by May 31 should have been allowed to carry over until the end of August, given the delay in the campaign caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

That was rejected by Barcelona, with Bartomeu fighting to keep Messi with the Catalans.

"He wanted to leave the club, we talked about it and I said no," Bartomeu said. "I have always thought that Messi is very important for our club, also Barca is for him and it would be a serious problem if he left, as I think it has been now.

"I told him that if he wanted to go like Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta, to Qatar, China or the United States, something we understood, we can talk about it and we will do a tribute and a farewell.

"But Messi didn't have a team yet and he wanted to be free. We told him: 'We want Barça to be your last club in Europe. If you want to go to another continent later, no problem. But we want you to continue,' and that was a bit of the story of the summer of 2020. Us telling him that we wanted him to continue and he, that he wanted to leave. But without knowing where. I always asked him where he wanted to go."

Bartomeu frowned on suggestions there had been no strategy for growing the team, which was said to have been a major complaint of the Argentina forward.

He also dismissed any suggestion that players had an overbearing influence, having admitted Messi and Luis Suarez promoted the idea of bringing in Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool, before he arrived for an eye-watering fee in January 2018.

Barcelona agreed a deal said to be worth up to £142million for the Brazil midfielder, whose signing has not lived up to expectations.

Asked about player power, Bartomeu told the Spanish newspaper: "In the dressing room they have a power and you have to listen to them. It does not only happen at Barca. 

"You have to take them into account, they know the day to day and during this term we signed many players. Sometimes we have taken their considerations into account and sometimes not."

Ansu Fati was the subject of a rejected €150million bid from an unnamed Premier League club that would have helped solve Barcelona's financial woes, former president Josep Maria Bartomeu has claimed.

The money worries at the troubled LaLiga giants have been laid bare over the past year, with the club having seen huge streams of revenue lost amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the money crisis that ultimately led to Los Cules legend Lionel Messi departing on a free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, while several other big earners agreed to take a pay cut to help alleviate the cash-flow issues.

Bartomeu stepped down in October 2020 following a vote of no confidence, while it has been reported Barca's debts are at the €1.35billion mark.

The ex-president insists there was never any risk of the club dissolving and said teenage superstar Fati attracted interest that could have helped balance the books, but Bartomeu said the decision was taken to find alternative ways of redressing Barca's economic situation.

"No, never [was there a risk], it's fine as an alarmist message. Barca is a sports club and also in the case of the pandemic, the Royal Decree says that the losses due to COVID will never be losses that allow the dissolution of the club, which has assets of players, patrimonial, digital and has a low but high balance sheet value at the market level," he told Mundo Deportivo.

"That is why it is impossible that it is at risk of dissolution. In the summer of 2020 we had a very good offer for Ansu who would have settled the accounts that year and we prefer to bet on the sports project than not to fix the economic issue.

"We knew that when we reopened the Camp Nou to 100 per cent, in a short time we would recover the level of income."

It was reported in November of last year that Manchester United were the team to make a bumper bid for Fati, although that was never officially confirmed.

Asked to elaborate on the Fati offer, Bartomeu explained that had the pandemic never occurred, Barca would not have been in such a precarious financial position.

"It [the Fati bid] was from an English club. It would have been a direct benefit for the year 20-21, but at Barca the sports project prevails and the economy continues," he added.

"Until March 2020 we could afford the amounts that had been agreed. They are very high contracts, which are important because we are the most valuable club in the world.

"A few months ago, Forbes said it that way for the first time in 122 years of history. It is news of satisfaction. That in 2020, in the year of a pandemic, that we are number one in the world, contrasts with the mismanagement message since external organisations, such as LaLiga or Forbes, say so.

"The club has also been declared the best football club of the last decade. This allows you to have a solid base to continue progressing."

Late last month, Fati made a long-awaited return from a meniscus injury sustained in November 2020 that saw him require surgery on three occasions.

Raphinha declared it would be difficult to top the euphoria he felt after scoring twice in Brazil's 4-1 win over Uruguay in World Cup qualifying.

The Leeds United forward made his first start for the Selecao one to remember, netting the second and third goals of a clinical victory.

Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa also got on the scoresheet in Manaus, with Uruguay's reply coming from Luis Suarez.

Raphinha said: "Tonight will be hard to beat, it will be difficult to forget tonight, it never had to end.

"I'll go back and be focused on what made me get here, the good work in Leeds, I'll do my job well to come back other times.

"I don't think there's any way to explain the happiness I'm feeling, this match with the goals and the victory couldn't have been more striking for me."

Quoted in Globo, Raphinha added: "I'm making my childhood dream come true, not only to wear the national team's shirt, but also to represent the national team. Being able to help with goals is very gratifying."

 

Raphinha has a close family association to Brazil great Ronaldinho and was asked what he thought the former Barcelona and Milan star would have made of his impressive display.

"[He would] just congratulate me for the match, not only him but other people," said Raphinha. "The most important thing is that I'm managing to represent the community I came from, my family and friends.

"I'm from Restinga, from Porto Alegre. It is where [former Brazil international] Tinga came from and where there is a lot of lost talent, thank God I'm managing to represent the community."

Raphinha became the first Leeds United player to score for Brazil, and the 24-year-old admitted it helped to have Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar as a team-mate, to guide him through such a game.

"Playing with Ney is very easy. I'm a big fan," Raphinha said. "I'm very inspired by him, in his way of playing, in his way of attacking his opponent. I watch many videos of him. To be playing with him is a dream come true."

Real Madrid's pursuit of Paris Saint-Germain's 22-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe has been widely observed.

Los Blancos could not prise the France striker away from PSG during the last transfer window but may be ready to enter the market in a major way next year.

Carlo Ancelotti took over as Madrid head coach in June and is beginning to build his side.

 

TOP STORY –   REAL CONFIDENT OF HUGE DOUBLE SIGNING

The Sun reports that Real Madrid are confident of signing both Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe next year.

The report claims securing Pogba's signature would help Los Blancos clinch a deal for the Paris Saint-Germain star who is a France team-mate.

Pogba is out of contract with Manchester United at the end of this season, while Mbappe has stalled on an extension with PSG and appears set to exit.

ROUND-UP

- Madrid are also interested in signing Italy international Federico Chiesa from Juventus, reports Fichajes.

- Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Tottenham are keen on Fiorentina's Serbian forward Dusan Vlahovic, but Mundo Deportivo reports La Viola have set a €70million (£59m) asking price for him.

- Roma are willing to offload Everton target Gonzalo Villar in the January transfer window in order to raise funds to move for Borussia Monchengladbach's Denis Zakaria, claims Tuttomercatoweb.

- Liverpool are leading the race to sign highly sought-after Belgian talent Jeremy Doku who is currently with Rennes, reports RTL.

- Sky Sports reports that Atletico Madrid are eager to complete new deals for Jan Oblak and Thomas Lemar, with talks under way.

- Tottenham's Ryan Sessegnon could be offered a fresh start by Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce, according to Takvim.

If you want a true renaissance team, one that epitomises a city, look no further than Venezia.

From bankruptcy and the lower echelons of Italian football to a global fashion icon, the small side from the iconic city of Venice are the club on so many lips, attracting worldwide interest.

A football team on the water, literally, Venezia are setting trends with their must-have kits as they enjoy life back in Serie A for the first time in almost two decades, but it has not been an easy road for I Leoni Alati – the Winged Lions–, who resided in the depths of Serie D just five years ago.

Founded in 1907 and with their most significant achievement to date being victory in the 1940-41 Coppa Italia, Venezia were relegated from Serie B in 2005 and went bankrupt.

Businessman owner Maurizio Zamparini had left for Palermo in 2002, taking with him 12 players in a move dubbed locally as the "furto di Pergini" – the "theft of Pergine".

Venezia were re-founded twice – at the end of the 2008-09 and 2014-15 seasons – having been declared insolvent on both occasions. It led to the 2015 arrival of a group of American investors, and while they have been in the ascendency at Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo ever since, Venezia have soared to new heights under president Duncan Niederauer.

A former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, Niederauer arrived in early 2020 and it coincided with Venezia going from Serie B battlers to Serie A newcomers after a breathtaking and dramatic play-off in May of this year, which led to the Venetian version of a street party – fans jumping into the canals and players celebrating on gondolas.

 In an interview with Stats Perform, Niederauer – whose Venezia have five points from seven rounds to start the 2021-22 campaign – said: "When we took over in early 2020, I think step one was just to survive in Serie B to be perfectly honest. The team was struggling in the second division. Then last season, from the outset, I thought we would be very, very competitive. I thought we built a very good team. I don't think the experts agreed with me, but we declared early in the season last year that I thought we could compete for a spot in the play-offs. The team backed that up and was really in the play-off discussion all season.

"Somewhat unexpectedly to just about everybody, we got through the play-off battles. One of the things we hoped to accomplish was to get to Serie A in two-three years. We're kind of a couple of years ahead of schedule. The good news is you're ahead of schedule. The other news when you're in Serie A for the first time in two decades, you probably don't have the infrastructure that you need, you don't have the organisational construct that you need and that was certainly true for us. While it's been very exciting to be in the first division, we've had a lot of work to do to try to get ourselves prepared as a team and organisation to be in the first division. That's where a lot of the focus was spent on in the summer. We had to upgrade the stadium, we had to add to the organisation and re-think the roster to be competitive in Serie A while respecting our approach and budget."

Venezia captured the attention of millions with their last-gasp play-off win over Cittadella – Paolo Zanetti's men were down a man and trailing 1-0 after 36 minutes, and appeared destined for another season in the second tier.

But, with virtually the last kick of the game, Riccardo Bocalon's strike three minutes into stoppage time salvaged a 1-1 draw and a 2-1 aggregate win to send Venezia back to Serie A for the first time since 2001-02.

It sparked wild scenes on the pitch as Niederauer celebrated promotion with Venezia. While the team exceeded expectations externally, their president always believed.

"We have a really different philosophy with this team. Our culture is very much one of a family. I was discouraged by many others from getting close to the players," Niederauer said. "I was told if you get close to the players, it will cloud your judgement and it won't work. I fundamentally disagree with that in any business I've ever run. If you take care of your people, they can do great things, right?

"I remember saying to the players early in the season, 'Just to be clear, I work for you, you don't work for me. You tell me what you need to be successful, I just want to clear all the clutter so you can play.' They really took it to heart and they knew they could count on me. I think what you saw was a group of guys, who throughout the season, believed more and more in themselves. It culminated in that evening in late May... the players on the field, I said, 'Guys, that was unbelievable'. They said, 'Pres, not really, that's what family does'. We didn't want the story to be about Pasquale Mazzocchi's red card but about our promotion to Serie A... I thought that was a pretty strong culture which benefited a lot.

"To be there in person. It's a weekend, my wife and I, we will never forget. It's our favourite city in the world. We were there together the night of the match. I held it together surprisingly well until I saw her on the field and then I burst into tears because I think I was just so proud of them for what they did. If you watch the celebration, it's not a group of people who sort of like each other, sort of know each other, it's a family celebrating a shared success. Lots of tears and joy. If I had a do-over, I don't think I'd jump in the canal again, but at the moment, the players were doing it and seemed like the right thing to do. We had been in it together, so how could I not do it? It was a surreal experience. The celebration over the weekend... I said to my wife, when we don't remember each other's names, we will remember floating down the canal during that parade because it's like no other celebration in the world. It's a long emotional answer, but it was a really, really special evening."

Having stepped into the precarious world of Italian football, Niederauer added: "People ask me, what other sporting ventures are you going to do in Europe and the answer is none. Our second home is in Italy. My wife and I spend a lot of time in Italy. Venice has been our favourite city for a long time.

"When the opportunity came up to do this and do something special for these kids and this city, I don't think we would've done this anywhere else to be honest. I wasn't on the hunt for a football team to run from the United States. I just thought all the stars aligned and it seemed like an opportunity to do something really, really special. The pay-off was watching these young men perform above everyone's expectations except ours. I said to them at the start of the season, 'Guys, you're really, really good. Don't let anyone tell you you're not good. You're a good team and if you play for each other like family plays for each other, you can do spectacular things this year.' That's what happened, it's not any more complicated than that."

Fast forward to this season and Venezia are riding an unprecedented wave. During the 2020-21 campaign, their popular Nike jerseys – both home and away – were a hot commodity, despite the team being a relative minnow.

But at a time when the jersey industry is booming, and fashion and football more entwined than ever, Venezia have hit record heights since switching to Italian manufacturer Kappa. All three jerseys – now collectors' items – were swiftly sold out.

While a strategic plan to turn heads on and off the pitch, it's something not even Niederauer could have anticipated following the collaboration with a brand closely tied to Italian football.

"If you're in the city like Venice which is at the centre of art, fashion and history, I think it's incumbent on us to do our best to have the club aligned with the virtues of the city and the strengths of the city," Niederauer said as he discussed the global branding and fashion-forward identity ahead of Monday's clash with Fiorentina.

"Step number two which was a little less obvious, I like and respect Nike a lot. The current CEO is someone I've known for a long time. In fairness to Nike, we weren't big enough as a small second division club in Italy that had not been particularly well run previously. I don't blame them for not spending a lot of time with us. If I'm honest, I probably would've made the same decision if I were Nike. It seemed like it was time for us to find a partner that was closer to home who we could really collaborate with and almost co-author the designs.

"I thought this year was a really, really important year to make a statement. We left it to the design team and the design team collaborated with Kappa. It was a little bit rushed, but you see the results of what they produced... we're about to drop the fourth jersey in a couple of weeks here. All three we have released are all in the top 20 globally. That was purposeful. I don't know if we will hit all the right tones again every year, but for this year, I thought it was really important we take some risks and go over the top to design something special. Kudos to the design teams. I had basically nothing to do with it except turn them loose. What I like about the third and fourth jerseys, both were down in collaboration with foundations which support sustainability in Venice. We think part of our purpose as a club is we have to be part of the community and part of the city. Venice is obviously beautiful but not without its challenges with climate change. Proceeds from the third and fourth jersey go towards those organisations. We've tried to position ourselves as a global brand. It's early, early days but the jerseys are helping us do that. Now it will come down to can we perform in Serie A and stick around for a while?"

A few years ahead of schedule, now is when Niederauer's ambitious plan of turning Venezia into a viable business clicks into gear, with the former Goldman Sachs banker leaning on his financial background as the club learn from past mistakes.

"Our philosophy is you do your best to leave every situation better than when you found it. That's already been accomplished. I think our next objective is to build a sustainable club that, I don't think is competing for Champions League in the next few years, but at least is a club that you come into every season not solely focused on salvation," he said, with Venezia since signing former Manchester United and Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero as the club benefit from the picturesque city as a recruiting tool.

"You come into the season where you're expected to be a mid-table team. A mid-table team in Serie A given our investment approach and how we identify players, we have a long way to go to be as great as Atalanta have become at this. But if you built the foundation in the youth academy that we're doing and on your first team, and if you can get to that point where you're mid-table pretty predictable, I think we can run quite a profitable and sustainable franchise. We wouldn't look beyond that yet. We would have another decision to make. It would be arrogant to start thinking of those things before we prove ourselves. The next three years is about proving that the model works, proving we can stay in Serie A, proving that we can be a mid-table team and then hopefully start to reap all the seeds we planted in the youth academies, which were grossly underinvested."

The plan for Venezia goes beyond the first team, with the increased infrastructure leading to the establishment of their first ever women's team on top of a revamped stadium and facilities – a new headquarters set to open next September – as Niederauer bets on the future.

Niederauer – whose Venezia could draw three consecutive Serie A games for the first time since April 1962 – added: "You have to be conscious about the past because if you don't look back a bit to understand what you can learn from history, you're making a big mistake. Our approach was really simple and I think we were fortunate in the pandemic because as a Serie B team who weren't really drawing a lot of fans and didn't have a global brand, the revenue that ticket sales and merchandise were accounting for before we really organised and set ourselves on a better path, was small enough that it didn't poke a big hole in our boat last year. Our salaries were well under control – I think we had the 13th or 14th highest payroll in Serie B. We are pretty thoughtful about it. Our approach this season hasn't changed too much. We obviously want to be competitive and would like to stay, so you're willing to spend a bit of money to do that. I would bet you that our payroll is the lowest in the league. I would bet you our coach is not only the youngest coach but probably one of the lowest paid, but we think he is one of the best and that's why he has a four-year contract. We believe in him and are willing to bet on him. The players deserve continuity. We're not the type that would change coaches if the team isn't performing. That's on us more than it's on him – we are the ones that assembled the roster. It's up to Zanetti to do the best he can with it.

"We didn't overspend. We stuck to our strategy – we find young talented players. We did spend a little money acquiring some of them? Yes. My background would suggest that if you buy undervalued assets in the long run, as long as you take a long view, your returns will be just fine. That's what we convey in every decision. These are long-term investments. We didn't panic when we lost the first two games of the season. When you have a strategy, you don't divert from it and you don't let your emotions get the best of you. I don't find it that complicated. We have a challenge ahead of us. Serie A is a great league but I think we've built a really good roster. We're improving with every match. I like our chances of surviving and then the sky is the limit after that."

 

"Last year, at the start of the season, in Italian football everyone talks about salvation," he continued, with Venezia boasting the youngest player in Serie A this season with at least one goal and one assist – 19-year-old American sensation Gianluca Busio. "I said, 'Guys, I know I'm going to sound a lot like Ted Lasso here, I apologise, but we're not going to talk about salvation'. And they're like, 'Pres, what do you mean? We all talk about salvation.' I said, 'I'm going to stand up and say you're a play-off team, I believe that you are. I believe you will be in the conversation for promotion this year. So if that's our goal, why would we talk about salvation? We're not going to talk about salvation, I don't want you talking about it in your interviews and I won't in my interviews other than to dismiss it.' They were completely confused.

"At the beginning of this season, I said, 'I'm not a hypocrite, but this year we talk about salvation. This year it would not be realistic not to talk about salvation. So this year it's OK to talk about salvation.' But last year, we did not say a word about it on purpose because I thought our ambition should not just be about to survive but to win. I think they got it. It's a little bit unorthodox for Italy, but I think we have a few people starting to mimic what we're doing.

"There's a lot of people betting on this project and I like our chances, if we can stick to the long-term view and not waver from it, I really like what we're building here."

Argentina captain Lionel Messi hit out at the referee, despite the in-form Copa America champions' 1-0 win against Peru in World Cup qualifying.

Lautaro Martinez's header two minutes before half-time settled Thursday's contest in Buenos Aires, where La Albiceleste extended their unbeaten streak to 25 matches across all competitions.

Peru wasted a chance to salvage a point when Yoshimar Yotun's penalty cannoned off the crossbar with 25 minutes remaining.

Messi reacted to Argentina remaining undefeated on the road to Qatar 2022 through 11 CONMEBOL fixtures, though it remains to be seen what he was referring to when mentioning the referee after Martinez had also gone down inside the area in the first half.

"Difficult match, difficult to play. A lot of wind, they were playing deep, leaving little space for us," Messi wrote via Instagram.

"The referee always does this when he referee's us, as if he does it on purpose. But well, three important points and we're close to our objective."

Martinez scored his 17th international goal and the Inter star is Argentina's top scorer in the Lionel Scaloni era, two ahead of Messi.

"The play against Uruguay was more fluid, there was more space. It got complicated for us a little but we always tried to have a solution and today, we knew how to find that," Martinez said.

"Every time we go out on the pitch, we try to give our all because this shirt deserves respect and responsibility. All of this is exciting, my family saw me play again after a long time. Today, they're here again. I hope that the people have enjoyed the win."

Argentina head coach Scaloni became the second coach in the history of the national team to go 25 games unbeaten in all competitions, after Alfio Basile.

"Today we felt a bit tired. Playing a triple date in South America is wearisome," added Scaloni. "We took it forward and got the three points, which is what we wanted.

"It was a very important game and there was tension for that. I do not think that Argentina was satisfied with the result. Peru plays well, it is a very difficult opponent. Beyond the penalty play, I think the game was controlled."

Brazil returned to winning ways and continued on their path to Qatar 2022 as Neymar and Raphinha dazzled in a 4-1 World Cup qualifying win over Uruguay on Thursday.

The Selecao, whose perfect qualifying record ended with Sunday's 0-0 draw in Colombia, raced to a two-goal lead within 18 minutes against a ragged Uruguay side via strikes from Neymar and Raphinha, making his first international start.

Raphinha doubled his account in the 58th minute as Brazil dominated La Celeste, with Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera prevented the score from being uglier in Manaus.

Luis Suarez's 77th minute free-kick meant Brazil, who had gone six qualifiers without conceding a goal and nine in home World Cup qualifying games, have conceded twice in their past three before Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa's rounded out the scoring four minutes from time.

Neymar netted in the 10th minute, chesting down Fred's lofted ball into the box, the superstar forward getting around Muslera and drilling home from a sharp angle past Sebastian Coates on the line.

Raphinha doubled Brazil's advantage, firing in after Neymar's shot deflected off Diego Godin and Muslera into his path to become the first Leeds United player to score for the South American giants.

Brazil should have had a third in the 34th minute when Neymar and Raphinha both took a touch too many inside the box, failing to shoot.

Muslera kept Uruguay in the game after the interval, denying Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus twice in quick succession, along with Raphinha.

Edinson Cavani, who started alongside Uruguay's all-time leading scorer Suarez, had a goal disallowed for a clear offside in the 56th minute before Brazil added a third.

Raphinha grabbed his second, capping off a swift counter-attack by firing in off the post from Neymar's release approaching the hour.

Muslera saved well to thwart substitute Barbosa twice, before Suarez rifled in a free-kick into the bottom corner for a consolation goal – his 65th international strike.

Barbosa got his goal after VAR consultation, heading in from Neymar's cross to make it two goals in his last three international appearances.

Former Liverpool left-back Jose Enrique believes LaLiga cannot compete with the Premier League, particularly in the absence of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018, before returning to Manchester United on deadline day this year, while Barcelona's financial difficulties forced Messi to find a new club in August, joining Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.

The departure of the superstar pair from the Spanish league has coincided with LaLiga falling behind other top European leagues financially – especially the English top flight.

As a result, Jose Enrique expects clubs from the two leagues to have dramatically different fortunes in the Champions League, tipping Premier League sides for more success after the all-English final last season as Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0.

"Ronaldo is not at Madrid, Messi is not at Barcelona," Jose Enrique told Stats Perform. "Now, listen, on TV sometimes people just wanted to watch those teams because of those two.

 

"That's the reality. And obviously, the income is not gonna be the same. But again, Madrid and Barcelona they are always two teams that in two legs they can beat you. Madrid, I believe more. A little bit more even if they're struggling.

"But obviously the Premier League, even with the COVID situation. Look at Chelsea who won the Champions League and went out there and spent 100 something million and bought Lukaku. So you can’t compare at the moment.

"Listen, in our game of football, anything can happen. But I [think] the strongest teams, they're gonna be the English teams, definitely, in the Champions League."

It is not only the Premier League that Jose Enrique thinks is ahead of LaLiga, with the 35-year-old explaining that the wages on offer in Serie A are also superior to those in Spain.

"For example, Italy I see them as strong as well, the Italian League," Jose Enrique continued. "And now I know how much they pay to the players and everything and I know in Italy they're paying quite good, even normal teams.

"In Spain, they're not paying nearly that much compared with some of the fees that they've been [doing] there."

Argentina extended their unbeaten streak to 25 matches after Lautaro Martinez secured a 1-0 victory over Peru in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

Lautaro Martinez's 43rd-minute header settled the contest as Argentina stayed undefeated on the road to Qatar 2022 on Thursday.

Peru had the chance to snatch a point away from home, but Yoshimar Yotun's 65th-minute penalty cannoned off the woodwork in Buenos Aires.

Lionel Scaloni's Argentina – second in the standings – temporarily moved within three points of leaders Brazil through 11 qualifying fixtures.

Argentina made a bright start to proceedings at the Monumental, with Rodrigo De Paul in the thick of the action as the hosts saw two shots flash across goal inside four minutes.

Gianluca Lapadula's free-kick forced in-form Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez into an early save, while La Albiceleste found the back of the net in the ninth minute, but Cristian Romero's header was ruled offside following a lengthy VAR review.

In a team headlined by Lionel Messi, De Paul continued to pull the strings with some wonderful passing and he was the centre of Argentina's opener prior to half-time.

De Paul played a neat one-two with Nahuel Molina and the latter picked out Lautaro Martinez, whose wonderful header beat Pedro Gallese two minutes before the break.

Jefferson Farfan came off the bench to make his 100th international appearance – the 36-year-old becoming the sixth Peru player to reach the century club.

He made an immediate impact, earning a penalty after being brought down by Emiliano Martinez but Yotun rattled the crossbar with his spot-kick.

Messi was largely subdued by Peru, though his free-kick 20 minutes from the end forced a save from Gallese.

What does it mean? Argentina go from strength to strength

Argentina were on their knees when Scaloni took charge of the embattled South American giants. Now Copa America champions, Argentina have not lost since July 2019.

De Paul enhances reputation

The Atletico Madrid midfielder has quickly become a key part of Scaloni's XI. De Paul dazzled in the first half with 63 touches of the ball – the most among both teams. He also earned four fouls while completing 36 passes and four crosses in the opening 45 minutes.

Peru's drought continues

Peru have not gone 17 matches without winning against Argentina in World Cup qualifiers, dating back to 1985. The result condemned Peru to back-to-back defeats as they fight to qualify for next year's showpiece.

What's next?

Argentina will be back in action next month when they travel to Uruguay on November 10, while Peru welcome Bolivia on the same day.

Borussia Dortmund head coach Marco Rose is optimistic Erling Haaland will return to action this weekend, though he will not take any unnecessary risks regarding his star forward.

Haaland has missed three consecutive league games due to a thigh injury as Dortmund prepare for Saturday's Bundesliga clash with Mainz, while he was also absent for Norway during the international break.

As Haaland nears a comeback, Rose told reporters: "One by one, the boys are coming back. As a matter of fact, we don’t have [exact] comeback dates for certain players.

"Erling is in a sort of integrative training. We will see how the situation will be on Saturday. We will try everything and Erling wants to play so bad. But time is running thin.

"Our game changes substantially when Erling is not with us, that's for sure. But we could already win a Champions League game and a Bundesliga game without him. So we were capable of compensating for his absence. Still, it is very important that he comes back because he gives us a lot. Especially goals, they are very important.

"We will see how it will be on the weekend. We won't complain - we will be happy with whatever is possible. If Erling is not ready to start on the pitch, he will start on the bench. That's not an issue. For him, it is about the fact that he wants to help the team and enter the pitch.

"For Saturday, we will see what is possible. When he can start, he will start. We would be happy about that. If [he's not feeling fit] enough yet but he is feeling well for a few minutes, we will have him on the bench. If he can't play at all, we'll leave him out. This should not be an issue here."

Haaland has scored 68 goals in 67 appearances for Dortmund since arriving from Salzburg in January 2020.

The in-demand Dortmund star opened the season by scoring 11 goals across seven games in all competitions.

Dortmund are third in the Bundesliga standings, a point behind defending champions Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen.

Rose's Dortmund have won each of their last eight Bundesliga matches at Signal-Iduna-Park, scoring at least twice in each. The last time the club celebrated more consecutive league victories at home was in 1994 under Ottmar Hitzfeld (12 – club record).

If his side beat Mainz, Rose would become the first Dortmund coach ever to win each of his first five Bundesliga home games in charge of the team.

Neymar claimed the injury he suffered in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup was one of the worst moments of his career.

During the making of an exclusive new documentary entitled 'Neymar and The Line of Kings', the 29-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star has seemed to suggest his playing days are winding down.

"I think it's my last World Cup," Neymar told DAZN when asked about next year's showpiece in Qatar. He will turn 31 seven weeks after the final of the tournament, scheduled for December 18, 2022.

PSG head coach Mauricio Pochettino, Brazil boss Tite and compatriot Thiago Silva have been among those offering their support to Neymar, who claims he is unsure whether he has the "strength of mind to deal with football" much longer.

And, in another excerpt from the documentary, Neymar revealed one of the toughest incidents he has gone through to date, and just how close he was to suffer an injury with serious consequences.

Neymar, aged 22, was Brazil's poster boy heading into the 2014 World Cup on home soil. Only a year on from his move from Santos to Barcelona, the forward was the nation's great hope as it hosted FIFA's flagship tournament.

He scored four goals – including a double in the opening game against Croatia – as Brazil finished top of Group A.

 

However, Neymar's tournament was ended in the quarter-finals, when Colombia's Camilo Zuniga barged into his back, fracturing a vertebra.

"It was one of the worst moments of my career. It destroyed my dream to keep playing in the World Cup," reflects Neymar in the documentary.

"When I felt that pain in my back, I remember that Marcelo wanted to help me up, but I was really in pain.

"I then tried to move my legs, but I wasn't able to. I didn't have the strength to get up. I told them: 'I can't, I can't, I can't feel anything'.

"The doctor told me, 'I have good news and bad news'. I asked him to tell me the bad news first. He said, 'your World Cup is over'.

"I started sobbing, and asked him, 'and the good news?' – he said: 'you were two centimetres away from not being able to walk anymore'."

Brazil held on to progress to the semi-finals, yet without Neymar, capitulated 7-1 to Germany in one of the most humiliating results in World Cup history.

Neymar, fortunately, recovered, going on to help Barca win a treble in 2014-15, before becoming the world's most expensive player when he joined PSG in 2017.

He also helped Brazil win Olympic gold in Rio in 2016, a crown that was retained at Tokyo 2020.

Atletico Madrid's "world class" strike force of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez, Angel Correa and Joao Felix will help the club to finish above Real Madrid, Barcelona and any other challengers in the LaLiga title race.

That is the view of ex-Valencia, Celta Vigo, Villarreal and Real Zaragoza defender Jose Enrique, who told Stats Perform he also expects Atleti to put up a fight for the Champions League under "annoying" boss Diego Simeone.

The reigning Spanish champions are level on points with city rivals Madrid at LaLiga's summit after eight matches thanks to a 2-0 win over Barcelona – who are five points worse off in ninth with a game in hand – prior to the international break.

Atleti have been far from perfect at the start of their title defence, though, having dropped points against Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Deportivo Alaves this term, losing 1-0 to the latter in the shock of the season so far.

Simeone's side have also had to ride their luck at times, with three of their 11 league goals coming in added time and another two arriving in the 78th and 79th minute.

Suarez leads the way with four goals, including a strike against former side Barca two weeks ago, while Correa has three to his name.

With that goal against Barca, the Uruguay international completed the set by scoring against all 31 teams that he has faced in the Spanish top flight.

 

Joao Felix has yet to get off the mark for the LaLiga campaign, though, and Griezmann is also goalless in the league since rejoining from Barcelona at the end of the most recent transfer window.

Yet while Madrid have double the number of goals as Atleti, Jose Enrique rates Los Rojiblancos' attack as the best around and cannot see past them finishing top for a third time in nine seasons this time around.

"I think it will be Atletico," the Spaniard, who also spent eight years in the Premier League with Newcastle United and Liverpool, said when asked who he expects to win the title.

"I know there been some games where they had to struggle in terms of scoring, with 90-something minute winners or whatever. 

"But what they have in the players they have is just incredible. You see the strength of the squad they have. They just signed Griezmann and they have Suarez, Joao Felix, Correa. 

"You talk about those four and for me that could be in any team in the world, and the four of them are strikers.

"Correa can play out on the wing sometimes, Joao Felix as well. But you're talking about four world-class strikers in my opinion. So, for me they are amazing. 

"It is true that that defensively, maybe there's a little bit more. But this is a team that I really believe is going to win the league this year.

"In the Champions League they're going to be annoying again, because Simeone is very, very annoying, always."

Former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu defended his Camp Nou tenure by insisting that he oversaw a "serious and responsible" period at the club.

Bartomeu stepped down as Barcelona chief in October 2020 after nearly seven years in the role ahead of a vote of no confidence against his leadership.

Barca won numerous major honours during that era, including their most recent Champions League in 2015, by which point concerns were growing over the club's transfer policy.

There has been a steady decline in recent years and the Catalan giants' financial problems have been laid bare since Laporta took over from Bartomeu in March.

The club's total debt has spiralled to the €1.35billion mark and they were unable to fulfil a contract that had been agreed with Lionel Messi in the most recent transfer window.

On the back of Messi's shock departure in August, Laporta alleged that Bartomeu was to blame due to his "disastrous" running of the club.

However, in his first interview since departing the club, Bartomeu has highlighted some of the positives from his tumultuous tenure. 

"Has our management been disastrous? I know it's a phrase that's been running but our management has been very serious and responsible," he told Mundo Deportivo.

"It was rigorous with a project and strategic plan that was established in 2015.

"Sports management and the entire heritage project prevailed, economically and socially. We've done many projects and we're the board that's been most active.

"But as of March 2020, that serious and rigorous management was truncated by the appearance of the coronavirus pandemic, which drastically decreased revenues. 

"From then on we suffered from a deep cut."

Asked again about Laporta's comments, Bartomeu said: "It has not been disastrous. There have been benefits of about €185m. It has been a good management.

"Forbes magazine said that in 2020 the club was the most valuable in the world."

Bayer Leverkusen wonderkid Florian Wirtz has been named as September's Bundesliga Player of the Month after a series of outstanding performances.

The 18-year-old scored three goals and registered two assists in three league games last month, helping Leverkusen to second in the table - behind Bayern Munich only on goal difference.

Wirtz has already managed four goals and leads the Bundesliga charts for assist (five) in just six appearances. In total, the versatile attacker has been involved in a goal every 47 minutes across all competitions, the best minutes per goal involvement ratio of all players in Europe's top five leagues to play at least 500 minutes.

The attacking midfielder's winner against Mainz also made him the youngest player to reach double figures for goals in the German top-flight, doing so at 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

 

Leverkusen sporting director and former midfielder Simon Rolfes praised the teenager's talent and willingness to better himself, comparing him to Kai Havertz, who was sold to Chelsea in 2020 after a similarly meteoric rise.

"The attitude is very good," Rolfes said to Stats Perform. "With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality.

"Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game.

"Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has the ambition to always improve and you have to improve."

Leverkusen captain and first-choice goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, 31, echoed Rolfes' sentiments as he hailed the work of the youngster following his individual accolade.

"Florian is a great player," Hradecky said to the Bundesliga's official website. "He’s doing an outstanding job and works hard on himself."

Wirtz will be hoping to maintain his streak of scoring or assisting in every Bundesliga appearance so far this season as Leverkusen host league leaders Bayern on October 17.

Sergio Ramos' debut for Paris Saint-Germain has been pushed back again as he continues his recovery from a thigh injury.

Ramos ended a 16-year association with Real Madrid as he joined PSG in July on a free transfer, but he has not played since Los Blancos' Champions League semi-final loss against Chelsea in early May.

Reports suggested the centre-back, who signed a two-year deal at the Parc des Princes, could make his debut on Friday against Angers. However, PSG have confirmed that is not the case.

The Ligue 1 champions released an update on Thursday, announcing Ramos is still in individual training with a view to joining the squad in 10 days, which means he will also seemingly miss Tuesday's Champions League clash with RB Leipzig and the trip to Marseille for Le Classique on October 24.

When asked about the Spain international's prolonged absence, Pochettino said at his pre-match news conference: "I am convinced he will get back to his best.

"It is clear that every player, in this case Sergio Ramos, does not enjoy the situations when they are out and unable to train with their team-mates and play for such a long time.

"He is suffering but is strong mentally and he is coping with it as well as he can. The performance team are helping him stay at a high level and full of motivation to get over this problem."

Ramos appeared in 469 top-flight games for Madrid – with only three players racking up more appearances in the competition for Los Blancos.

He lifted 22 trophies at the club – with only Paco Gento (23) bettering that haul – and started all of his 129 Champions League matches, the most of any player in the competition without a single substitute appearance.

When fit, Pochettino will not just have a defensive leader to call upon, Ramos is also one of the best defenders in terms of attacking returns.

Since the turn of the century, Ramos is the only defender to score 100 goals while playing in one of Europe's top five leagues, and only three players have netted more headed LaLiga goals in that period than the 35-year-old (39).

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