Raphael Varane has hailed Ousmane Dembele's "extraordinary qualities" and believes the 25-year-old is finally "blossoming" at Barcelona.

Dembele has been a player reborn since Xavi took charge in November 2021, with his 17 assists in all competitions bettered only by Lionel Messi (22) and Kevin De Bruyne (21) among players in Europe's top five leagues, while his 15 LaLiga assists during that time represent a league high.

The former Borussia Dortmund man also leads Barca's charts for chances created (63), chances created from open play (52) and touches in the opposing box (126) under Xavi in LaLiga.

Dembele signed a new two-year deal with Barca in July, and Varane thinks the best is still to come from his compatriot.

"I'm very happy to see him at this level," he said. "We see him blossoming. He has extraordinary qualities.

"As a person, I always find him with the same joy of living, he brings this freshness to the group.

"He is also more calm, always quiet. He has managed to find the recipe for physical recovery, to feel better, and we are very happy.

"He had some difficult moments with some injuries that followed one another, but now we have the chance to see him having fun and enjoying himself on the field, so we are all very happy."

 

Varane also praised the impact of France team-mate Aurelien Tchouameni at his former club Real Madrid.

Tchouameni, who joined from Monaco in June for a fee that could rise to €100million, has started the season in impressive form for Carlo Ancelotti's side, and Varane believes he has the maturity to keep on getting better.

"I think we can welcome his lightning adaptation in a club like Real Madrid," the Manchester United defender said.

"I know from experience how difficult it is. He has the maturity and the qualities for it, so hats off to him. He is a very complete player. He has the ability to defend well, protect the defence, and also the ability to organise the game.

"He does not hesitate from his first selections to ask for the ball, to impose the tempo in midfield. For his young age, he is already very mature, and I wish him to stay the course, to continue like this, because what he is doing is already extraordinary."

Everything appeared to be heading towards Barcelona and Ousmane Dembele parting on poor terms after a largely unsatisfactory association.

"Either he renews, or we look for an exit," Xavi said in January, fielding the latest in a series of questions about the winger.

With Dembele failing to agree to a new Barcelona contract at the start of 2022, director of football Mateu Alemany was even more forthright, declaring: "He must leave the club immediately."

Fast forward eight months, and the unpredictable attacker has emerged as a key cog in a revitalised Barca side, one tipped to compete with Real Madrid after making an unbeaten start in LaLiga.

Having been in the cold since Euro 2020, Dembele is also back in the France squad for their upcoming Nations League matches, with his sights set on claiming a spot in Didier Deschamps' party for the World Cup in Qatar.

Football loves a redemption arc, and that of Dembele in 2022 is up there with the very best in recent memory.

On the eve of his France return, Stats Perform looks at Dembele's journey from €105million flop to the creative hub of Xavi's side, asking whether a World Cup flourish is next for the winger.

Injury woes and the long shadow of Neymar

Barcelona's failings following Neymar's 2017 move to Paris Saint-Germain have been well-documented, with Dembele long viewed as the ultimate personification of the shambolic recruitment policy during Josep Maria Bartomeu's tenure.

The Blaugrana parted with an initial €105m for Dembele, who recorded 30 goal contributions (10 goals, 20 assists) and created 100 chances in his lone season with Borussia Dortmund.

That substantial fee saw Dembele, a talented yet raw 20-year-old, touted as a replacement for Neymar, a pressure that appeared to weigh heavily on the Frenchman; he needed over seven months to score his first goal in LaLiga, finally finding the net at Celta Vigo in April 2018.

While Ernesto Valverde led Barca to a domestic double in 2017-18, Dembele's own contribution was limited by a series of injury setbacks, which represented a sign of things to come.

 

Dembele made just 17 league appearances and 12 starts in his debut campaign, having been ruled out until January 2018 after suffering a serious hamstring injury within a month of his arrival.

In three of Dembele's first five campaigns at Barca, injuries ruled him out for 100 days or more. Between the beginning of 2017-18 and the end of 2020-21, meanwhile, he started just 36 per cent of the club's league games.

On the rare occasions Dembele did stay fit, meanwhile, his output was negligible in a side increasingly reliant on Lionel Messi's brilliance. Dembele's tally of 17 league goals and 14 assists in his first four seasons hardly represented value for Barcelona's mammoth investment, meaning the winger was considered ripe for a sale as the club's economic position worsened.

From contract rebel to key man: Spearheading the Xavi revival 

Even LaLiga's casual observers must have grown tired of discussions over the economic "levers" being pulled by Joan Laporta's regime. But before the sales of future TV rights and production companies, shifting Dembele was touted as a means by which to balance the books after the January arrival of Ferran Torres.

With a loan move for Adama Traore leaving Barcelona's forward line well-stocked, the message could not have been clearer; if Dembele would not agree to fresh terms, he was surplus to requirements.

But with Traore struggling on his return to Spain and Torres regularly deployed centrally, Xavi decided to utilise Dembele once the January transfer window closed. He was richly rewarded after reinstating him on the right of Barca's attack.

Since Xavi took charge in November 2021, Dembele's 17 assists in all competitions is bettered only by Messi (22) and Kevin De Bruyne (21) among players in Europe's top five leagues, while his 15 LaLiga assists during that time is a team-high.

Dembele also leads Barca's charts for chances created (63), chances created from open play (52) and touches in the opposing box (126) under Xavi in LaLiga, finally combining his menacing dribbling ability with genuine threat and creativity.

 

And Dembele's 68 dribbles completed in that time – also a team-high – show he has not sacrificed the individual skill that attracted Barcelona's attentions five years ago. 

Three months on from Dembele being booed by his own supporters during a Europa League clash with Napoli, Xavi said: "When he has not been involved, we have noticed."

The former midfield maestro was right. Barcelona won two-thirds of the league games Dembele started last season, and 47.8 per cent of those he didn't.

That impact meant Dembele's belated contract renewal, finalised in July, was received with enthusiasm by everyone at Camp Nou, with the winger subsequently going from strength to strength.

The tonic to Deschamps' blues?

If some thought the arrival of Raphinha might threaten Dembele's place in Xavi's side, he has made them eat their words at the start of the new campaign.

Having tallied the most assists (13) and expected assists (9.2 xA) in LaLiga last season, Dembele has recorded four league goal contributions since the August restart (two goals, two assists), forcing his way back into Deschamps' thoughts.

By the end of August, Dembele had been involved in more shots (15) as a consequence of ball carries than any other player in LaLiga, and his dynamic, unpredictable style may be just what Les Bleus require.

 

Dembele was used sparingly at Euro 2020, with Antoine Griezmann preferred alongside Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe as France won just once in four outings. However, it's easy to see why Dembele's ability to hug either touchline might appeal to Deschamps, offering him tactical flexibility when several other options appear compromised. 

Griezmann's lack of game-time at Atletico Madrid has been subject to much debate in recent weeks, while Kingsley Coman is out of France's latest squad through injury. Benzema's own injury scare, meanwhile, will no doubt have sharpened Deschamps' mind on the need for a plan B.

With France failing to win any of their first four Nations League games this time around, Dembele's Barcelona revival may have come at the perfect time.

Should Dembele carry his club form onto the international stage, potentially contributing to the first successful World Cup defence since Brazil's 1962 win, his 2022 will surely go down as one of football's most emphatic comebacks. 

France continue to be blighted by injury setbacks after Lucas Digne became the latest player to withdraw from their squad for this week's Nations League matches with Austria and Denmark.

Coach Didier Deschamps was already having to cope without Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Lucas Hernandez and Kingsley Coman before Hugo Lloris and Theo Hernandez joined them on the sidelines on Monday.

Now Digne, who was drafted in as Theo Hernandez's replacement, has been ruled out after the Aston Villa defender suffered an ankle problem.

Rennes' Adrien Truffert has been called up in his place with a view to earning his first cap.

France have posted two draws and two defeats in their opening four Group A1 matches and are battling relegation from the top tier. They face Austria on Thursday, and Denmark on Sunday.

Injured in his right ankle, Lucas Digne drops out and is replaced by Adrien Truffert! pic.twitter.com/MRcOvSDVSC

— French Team  (@FrenchTeam) September 20, 2022

Kylian Mbappe has prevailed in his image rights dispute with the French Football Federation (FFF) after the governing body confirmed it will "revise" its agreement with France players.

Paris Saint-Germain striker Mbappe had been involved in a disagreement with the FFF since March, when he refused to show up to a photoshoot organised for France's senior men's team.

Mbappe was eager to gain greater control of his image to avoid being associated with certain brands, but FFF president Noel Le Graet and the player's entourage were unable to reach a compromise when they met in June.

Le Graet told L'Equipe there was not enough time to make the requested changes before the World Cup – as such, Mbappe's team confirmed on Monday he was to once again boycott a photoshoot scheduled for Tuesday after the squad reconvened for upcoming Nations League games against Austria and Denmark.

But after a subsequent meeting involving FFF officials on Monday, it was eventually decided to agree to Mbappe's demands.

"After conclusive discussions in the presence of the executives of the French team, the president, the coach and a marketing manager, the French Football Federation undertakes to revise, as soon as possible, the agreement inherent in the rights to the image that binds it to its players in selection.

"The FFF is delighted to work on the outlines of a new agreement, which will allow it to ensure its interests while taking into consideration the legitimate concerns and convictions expressed unanimously by its players."

Hugo Lloris and Theo Hernandez have withdrawn from the France squad for this week's Nations League matches with Austria and Denmark.

France are already without a number of key players for the double-header, with Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Lucas Hernandez and Kingsley Coman all sidelined.

Adrien Rabiot withdrew from the squad last week and Didier Deschamps is now without two more players for the visit of Austria on Thursday and trip to Denmark three days later.

France confirmed on Monday that Tottenham goalkeeper Lloris and Milan defender Theo Hernandez are nursing thigh and groin injuries respectively.

Nantes keeper Alban Lafont has earned a first call-up to provide cover for captain Lloris, while Aston Villa's Lucas Digne has been summoned as Theo Hernandez's replacement.

France have posted two draws and two defeats in their opening four Group A1 matches and are battling relegation from the top tier.

France head coach Didier Deschamps says Paul Pogba "will do everything to recover as quickly as possible" ahead of the upcoming World Cup, but accepts time is not on the midfielder's side.

Pogba underwent external meniscus surgery in early September and is not expected to be back on the field for another six weeks.

This puts the 29-year-old's World Cup place in serious doubt, with the tournament in Qatar just over two months away.

But Deschamps has no doubt Pogba will do all he can to recover in time, telling Telefoot: "I know Paul well, he will do everything to recover as quickly as possible and be with us in November.

"But the timing is short. He will come provided he is fit and in competitive mode."

Pogba is yet to make a competitive appearance for Juventus since he returned on a free transfer from Manchester United in July.

And Deschamps already insisted on Thursday he will not take the midfielder to Qatar if he is unfit, saying: "If he is recovered, it would be a very good thing.

"He won't come if he's not fit. He doesn't want that either. It's inconceivable. The number of players who will be there, they will all be ready to play."

Pogba was not the only notable player to be ruled out of Deschamps' France squad for their upcoming Nations League fixtures, with Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante and Presnel Kimpembe among the other absentees from the games against Austria and Denmark.

The 2018 World Cup winners have much work to do if they are to avoid relegation from the Nations League's top tier, having drawn two and lost two of their opening four matches in Group A1.

Paul Pogba's brother Mathias has been charged and detained over the alleged extortion of the France and Juventus midfielder.

An investigation was opened last month into allegations Paul was the target of an extortion plot by his brother and childhood friends demanding a €13million sum.

Mathias, who is a free agent after a spell with French fourth-tier side Belfort came to an end in April, threatened to share "explosive revelations" in a video posted on social media. 

The 32-year-old has denied taking part in extortion attempts against his brother.

However, it emerged on Saturday that he and four others have been charged and will now be held in jail while he awaits a decision from the judge regarding bail.

Mathias' lawyer confirmed to French outlet BFMTV that his client intends to challenge the decision.

"It's a decision we do not understand especially because the courts have recognised Mr. Pogba did not participate in the acts of kidnapping, which his brother was allegedly the victim of," the lawyer said.

"Mr. Pogba could perfectly have and should have been released during this judicial investigation. So that will not stop there, we will challenge this decision from a legal point of view so that Mr. Pogba can be released as soon as possible.

"This is an individual who has never been talked about, who has a clean criminal record, who is not a thug, who is presumed innocent. And the elements of this file, it is my assessment, show that he did not commit any criminal offence. 

"So for a person who may not have, and I'm telling you certainly not, committed a criminal offence, ending up in prison is something extremely difficult. So we are going to fight so that he can get out as soon as possible."

Aston Villa midfielder Boubacar Kamara has been summoned by France boss Didier Deschamps after Adrien Rabiot was ruled out of next week's Nations League games.

Already without a number of key midfield figures including Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante, the injury to Rabiot deprives Deschamps of another experienced player.

Rabiot has not fully recovered from a left calf muscle injury, the French Football Federation (FFF) said on its website, and has been ruled out of Juventus' Serie A match against Monza this weekend.

Deschamps decided it was sensible, as a precautionary measure, to withdraw Rabiot from his group and promote a player more likely to be available for full squad activities when the group gather at the Clairefontaine training base on Monday.

Kamara made his France debut against Croatia in June, shortly after it was announced he would be leaving Marseille to join Villa.

France have recorded two draws and two defeats in their first four games in Group A1 of the Nations League, leaving the world champions battling relegation from the competition's top tier. They host Austria on September 22 and travel to face Denmark three days later.

Didier Deschamps insisted he will not take a half-fit Paul Pogba to the World Cup after France saw several stars ruled out of their upcoming Nations League fixtures.

Pogba has yet to make a competitive appearance since returning to Juventus on a free transfer in July. He is a doubt for the tournament in Qatar after opting to undergo surgery to solve a lesion to the lateral meniscus in his right knee.

The 2018 World Cup winner is not the only injury concern for Deschamps ahead of Nations League contests with Austria and Denmark this month.

Real Madrid talisman Karim Benzema has been left out of their squad after suffering a knee injury, though Carlo Ancelotti said the striker was "progressing well" earlier this week.

Meanwhile, N'Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe, Lucas Hernandez and Kingsley Coman are also out.

Pogba's injury is the most worrying for Deschamps, who was unable to offer any update on his condition on Thursday.

"It is impossible today to affirm anything [except] through the intervention and the treatment protocol he has," Deschamps said.

"I know very well Paul, with whom I talk regularly. Today, no one, even him, can say whether he will be there [at the World Cup]. I don't know if he can be cured.

"Since I've been here, I've never for a single final tournament taken a player if he was not fully recovered. Paul, he's not here to amuse the gallery.

"If he is recovered, it would be a very good thing. He won't come if he's not fit. He doesn't want that either. It's inconceivable. The number of players who will be there, they will all be ready to play.

"It is a question in relation to the competition, those who will be selected will be able to answer these requirements."

Benzema's absence means Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann could be handed an opportunity in Les Bleus' upcoming games, despite seeing his game-time limited at club level this season.

With Atleti reportedly looking to avoid meeting a purchase clause in Griezmann's loan deal, the striker has played just 192 minutes in all competitions this season, though he has still found the net three times.

Deschamps is not concerned by the 31-year-old's lack of action, adding: "At least he's not tired. He has a situation that you know limits his playing time.

"He remains an important and decisive player for his club. He aspires to better, to do more. It's been a good moment [even though] he hasn't done a full 90 minutes."

Deschamps has named three uncapped players in his 23-man squad for this month's fixtures: Eintracht Frankfurt's Randal Kolo Muani, and Monaco duo Youssouf Fofana and Benoit Badiashile.

France have posted two draws and two defeats in their first four games in Group A1 of the Nations League, leaving the world champions battling relegation from the competition's top tier. They host Austria on September 22 and travel to face Denmark three days later.

France squad: Alphonse Areola (West Ham), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Mike Maignan (Milan); Benoit Badiashile (Monaco), Jonathan Clauss (Marseille), Theo Hernandez (Milan), Jules Kounde (Barcelona), Ferland Mendy (Real Madrid), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), William Saliba (Arsenal), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Raphael Varane (Manchester United); Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Youssouf Fofana (Monaco), Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid); Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid); Olivier Giroud (Milan), Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain).

France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris says the injuries sustained by Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema are a worry for Les Bleus ahead of their World Cup campaign.

The world champions could be without key midfielder Pogba when they travel to Qatar in November after he was forced to undergo surgery on a knee injury this week.

Pogba originally opted to undergo conservative therapy to solve a lesion to the lateral meniscus in his right knee, but doctor Roberto Rossi has since declared that choice "worsened" his injury, leaving his World Cup place in doubt.

France were also left concerned when Benzema hobbled off during Real Madrid's 3-0 Champions League win over Celtic on Tuesday, although the striker's thigh injury is not thought to be serious.

Speaking after helping Tottenham to a 2-0 win over Marseille on Wednesday, Lloris said: "What worries me the most are the small physical glitches they are having.

"We will need our best players in November and I hope they will all recover. I hope it's not too serious for Karim."

Lloris was less hopeful on Pogba's injury, however, adding: "For Paul, we know that his chances are compromised."

France begin their World Cup title defence against Australia on November 22 in Al-Wakrah.

Excitement levels for the 2023 Rugby World Cup have ramped up another notch with Thursday marking exactly one year to go until the tournament gets up and running.

For some teams, the next 12 months will present a chance to continue building momentum ahead of the showpiece event. For others, a year of uncertainty awaits.

While it is still too early to pick out a strong favourite to win the event, a handful of teams – major issues or not – stand out among the top candidates to lift the famous trophy.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how the leading lights are shaping up ahead of the quadrennial world championship in France.
 

SOUTH AFRICA

Where better to start than with the reigning world champions? The Springboks triumphed somewhat against the odds in Japan three years ago, becoming the first team to win the title after losing a match in the pool stage.

Owing to the coronavirus pandemic, South Africa went 20 months between beating England in the 2019 final and cruising to a 40-9 victory over Georgia in July last year, though series victories over the British and Irish Lions, England and Wales have helped get any rustiness out of the system over the past 12 months or so.

The ongoing Rugby Championship is a better litmus test of what to expect in a year's time, and the Boks find themselves third with four matches played, albeit with only a point separating the four sides. Consistency is proving to be a major issue, having strung together successive wins only twice in their past 14 outings, something that must be put right.

 

NEW ZEALAND

Perennial World Cup favourites New Zealand won back-to-back tournaments prior to South Africa's triumph three years ago. If they are to have any chance of wrestling back the Webb Ellis Cup, then a number of issues must be resolved.

The All Blacks opted to put faith in under-fire boss Ian Foster amid a run of desperately disappointing results, which included three successive home Test losses for the first time in their history, with Ireland winning their maiden Test series in the country.

Defeat against Argentina two weeks ago may well have forced New Zealand chiefs to reconsider their options before it is too late, but Foster's side responded with an emphatic 53-3 victory against the same opponents in Hamilton to move top of the Rugby Championship standings and send out a message to their critics.

Back-to-back fixtures with Australia, followed by Tests with Wales, Scotland and England, will provide a better indication of exactly where this New Zealand side are ahead of the World Cup after a turbulent period.


IRELAND

Ideally for Ireland, the World Cup would start this week rather than in a year's time on the back of what has been a stellar period. Andy Farrell's side closed out the momentous series win in New Zealand in July and have won 13 of their past 16 matches.

Despite that consistent run of results, Ireland have gone four years between Six Nations titles, with their solitary loss to France in this year's competition prolonging their wait for silverware.

Ranked at number one in the world a year out from France 2023, Ireland need to fine tune one or two areas and ensure they keep their star players – Johnny Sexton among them – fit and firing.

 

FRANCE

Having lived up to the hype by ending a 12-year wait for Six Nations success, followed up by their recent series win over Japan, France are now under pressure to win the World Cup for the first time in their history on home soil next year.

Les Bleus have won 10 in a row since their most recent defeat, coming at the hands of Australia in July 2021, and will test themselves against Australia and South Africa prior to their Six Nations title defence getting under way in February.

A fit Antoine Dupont remains crucial to any chance France have of ending their World Cup hoodoo following a record three defeats in finals. Beyond wrapping certain players in cotton wool, Fabien Galthie must ensure the hunger remains and that his men can cope with the pressure that comes with being the host nation.


ENGLAND

If results in both hemispheres over the past few months have taught us anything, it is that any of the major rugby nations can beat any other on their day. Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Argentina have each produced some big victories, for example, while Australia as ever will fancy themselves on the biggest stage of them all.

The same is very much true of England, who earned an impressive series win Down Under to silence Eddie Jones' growing list of critics following yet another underwhelming Six Nations campaign.

And therein lies the problem for England. Jones has constantly said hitting form in time for the World Cup is all that matters, and the Red Rose simply cannot afford for one of their off days to come in a knockout match. 

As runners-up last time around, and as one of only four teams to have ever lifted the trophy, this will be another win-or-bust tournament for England in what will be Jones' final bow before being replaced.

Paul Pogba's meniscus injury was "worsened" by the Juventus midfielder's decision to undergo conservative therapy rather than surgery, says his doctor Roberto Rossi.

The France star initially decided against an operation to solve a lesion to the lateral meniscus in his right knee, and favoured an alternative course of treatment.

Inconsistent results during training last week, however, forced him to undergo surgery on Monday, with a predicted eight-week recovery period casting doubt on his chances of making France's Qatar 2022 World Cup squad.

His decision to initially delay an operation has left Juventus frustrated, and now Rossi has outlined further how Pogba's original choice has waylaid him even more.

"The lesion to the lateral meniscus was tricky because the tissue was fragmented and the injury had worsened and when the player tried to force it by running into the field," he told Tuttosport.

"The conservative therapy did not work. On the contrary, the injury worsened. When we intervened, there were no conditions to complete a broken meniscus suture. It was only possible to intervene with [surgery]."

Pogba returned to Juventus for a stint, having originally left them in 2016 to return to Manchester United.

His arrival back in Turin on a free transfer has proven difficult so far thanks to his injury, and Didier Deschamps will face a decision whether to include the World Cup winner for his squad ahead of their title defence in Qatar.

France star Virimi Vakatawa looks to have played the final rugby match of his career after it was revealed the 30-year-old has a heart condition that made the risk of competing "too great".

It emerged on Monday that Vakatawa had been told he would no longer be allowed to play rugby in France.

There was no initial announcement of what Vakatawa's issue was, but that was revealed at a press conference held by his club, Racing 92, on Tuesday.

An emotional Vakatawa was accompanied by France coach Fabien Galthie as he addressed the shock of learning his career had come to a sudden halt.

Vakatawa, a skilful operator at centre or on the wing, was set to be deployed by France in their Rugby World Cup campaign next year.

The 30-year-old, who was born in New Zealand and later lived in Fiji, moved to France as a teenager and played for Les Bleus in sevens before progressing to the 15-a-side national team. He has won 32 caps for France.

"Thank you for coming today, it's difficult for me to speak in front of everyone," said Vakatawa, who was also joined by Racing head coach Laurent Travers and president Jacky Lorenzetti.

"Rugby is my passion. The hardest moment was yesterday in front of my team-mates. It was very difficult to tell all of those I've spent time with, on and off the field.

"I arrived in France as a 17-year-old, since when I've only known one club, Racing 92. It's hard to leave your family, but I've never had regrets. I thank the president, the club and all my friends. I'll remain a Racing man for all my life."

Racing doctor Sylvain Blanchard explained the situation, saying: "A cardiac anomaly had been detected before the 2019 World Cup in Japan. This anomaly, which is not linked to rugby, has been monitored but it is an evolving pathology. The risk has become too great."

France boss Galthie loses a key figure from his squad and expressed sadness for Vakatawa.

He said: "Thanks to Racing 92 for inviting me to join Virimi. I am rather moved.

"When we do sports at the highest level we know that these situations can happen, but when we meet it full in the face it affects us enormously.

"Virimi has made many children dream. He has been a key player in our history, he was tremendous. I wanted to pay homage to you on behalf of the France team."

Barcelona have confirmed the departure of Samuel Umtiti on a season-long loan to Serie A side Lecce, with no option to buy.

The World Cup winner only penned a new extension with Barca earlier this year, albeit on reduced wages.

He will spend the 2022-23 campaign in Italy with newly promoted Lecce, who are looking to consolidate their position in the top tier.

Umtiti joined Barca from Lyon in 2016 and has made 133 appearances across all competitions for the club, winning two league titles and the Copa del Rey on three occasions.

In addition, he was a key member of the France squad that claimed World Cup glory at Russia 2018, though the centre-back has not played for his country since 2019 and is expected to miss out on selection for this year's tournament in Qatar.

He becomes the latest player to be offloaded by Barca as they seek to get their squad in order following a high-spending transfer window, despite well-documented financial difficulties.

Robert Lewandowski, Franck Kessie, Raphinha, Andreas Christensen and Jules Kounde have arrived, with Neto, Oscar Mingueza, Riqui Puig, Luuk de Jong, Adama Traore and Dani Alves among those to leave so far.

Barca are still yet to register former Sevilla defender Kounde, whose future at Camp Nou could well hinge upon whether Xavi's side are able to offload forwards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Memphis Depay before the deadline, while Martin Braithwaite is another player they would like to move on.

Brazil head coach Tite has rebuffed Kylian Mbappe's suggestion that World Cup qualifying is more difficult for teams in Europe than it is in South America.

Paris Saint-Germain and France forward Mbappe said in May that European teams have an advantage in the global showpiece due to playing "high-level matches" in qualifying.

Mbappe, who lifted the World Cup with France in 2018, added that football in South America "is not as developed as in Europe".

However, Brazil boss Tite does not agree with those comments and feels the quality of football in the CONMEBOL region is as high as anywhere in the world.

"Maybe he is talking about these Nations League clashes or European friendlies, but not World Cup qualifiers," Tite told ESPN.

"We don't have, with all due respect, Azerbaijan to play. We don't have anyone that gives you a break.

"The qualifiers here have a much higher degree of difficulty than the group stage [of European qualifying]."

The past four editions of the World Cup have been won by European teams – Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, Germany in 2014 and France in 2018.

That is the longest run of victories for a single continent in the history of the tournament, with only one runner-up – Argentina in 2014 – coming from outside the continent.

Indeed, 12 of the previous 21 World Cups have been won by European teams, with South America responsible for the other nine winners.

France booked their spot at Qatar 2022 by finishing top of their qualifying group with five wins and three draws from their eight matches.

Brazil also went unbeaten in qualifying thanks to 14 wins and three draws en route to finishing six points ahead of Argentina in top spot in the 10-team pool.

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