Angel Di Maria would be a great signing for Juventus who can emulate former Real Madrid team-mates Karim Benzema and Luka Modric by playing at an elite level in his mid-30s.

That is the view of Iker Casillas, who played alongside Di Maria when Madrid won their 10th Champions League title in 2013-14.

Casillas feels the Argentine will be keen to feature regularly for the Bianconeri to cement his place at what could be his fourth World Cup later this year.

Di Maria is departing Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer after spending seven years in Ligue 1, and is widely expected to join Massimiliano Allegri's Juventus in the coming days.

The 34-year-old's agent revealed this week that only the "final details" of his contract in Turin remain outstanding, and Casillas believes his former team-mate will thrive in Italy.

"Di Maria is a great move," the 2010 World Cup winner told La Gazzetta dello Sport. 

"Angel with [Federico] Chiesa, [Dusan] Vlahovic and [Paul] Pogba... what a great team! And he will want to prepare well for the World Cup.

"He is a very cautious guy who has always taken great care of himself physically. He has never suffered serious injuries. I think he is in great shape. 

"Here in Europe, he has always played at a high level, in big clubs. Di Maria will give Juve a new step.

"There is a World Cup in November and it is clear that he is looking for a team where he can play regularly and prepare in the best possible way for the challenge in Qatar.

"Even at 34 years old he is a great player. Age counts only relatively now, careers have lengthened. 

"Without reaching the 44 years of my friend [Gianluigi] Buffon, there are other examples of players over 30 who are doing very well and playing to the fullest level. You just have to think about Benzema and Modric."

Di Maria won six trophies during a four-year spell with Madrid, which he ended in spectacular fashion with a man-of-the-match performance in Los Blancos' Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid in 2014.

Recalling Di Maria's performance as a central midfielder in that 2014 match, Casillas argued his versatility would be a great asset for Juve.

"Juventus bets on a player who knows how to do a lot of things in different areas of the pitch," he added. 

"When we won 'the Decima', [Carlo] Ancelotti changed his position in the middle of the season and he played very well.

"He can play both up front and in the centre of the field, he is an intelligent guy who knows football well. Angel has impressive shots and can decide games by himself."

Vinicius Junior will be one of the leading candidates for the Ballon d'Or in 2023, according to Rivaldo. 

Brazil international Vinicius was a key part of the Real Madrid side that won LaLiga and the Champions League in 2021-22, scoring the only goal of the game as Los Blancos beat Liverpool in the European final. 

The 21-year-old scored 22 goals and supplied 16 assists – more than he managed across the previous three campaigns combined – in 52 games in all competitions. Only Kylian Mbappe (60), Karim Benzema (59), Christopher Nkunku (51) and Mohamed Salah (46) were involved in more goals in all competitions among players in the top five European leagues. 

Benzema is the favourite for the 2022 Ballon d'Or, which will be awarded in October, but World Cup-winning former attacker Rivaldo believes next year could be Vinicius' time. 

"After a fantastic season with Real Madrid, in which he scored the goal that won the Champions League, I can only hope the young Brazilian attacker continues to develop in this way," Rivaldo told Betfair. 

"He has improved a lot in front of goal and if he continues like this he can claim to be the star of Real Madrid, because Karim Benzema will retire one day. 

"It's hard to name favourites [for the Ballon d'Or] when the season hasn't started, but I don't seem him behind Kylian Mbappe, Kevin De Bruyne and others. 

"The titles that each club wins will be very important in the final choice." 

Kylian Mbappe could fulfil his "dream" of playing for Real Madrid in the future and chose to remain at Paris Saint-Germain due to "political issues", according to former Los Blancos forward Hugo Sanchez.

Mbappe had been widely expected to join Madrid on a free transfer before the 2018 World Cup winner elected to sign a blockbuster three-year extension to remain with PSG last month.

That decision irked senior figures at Madrid, with president Florentino Perez telling El Chiringuito the striker was "already forgotten" after Carlo Ancelotti's men won a 14th Champions League title last month.

LaLiga have also gotten involved in the saga, with the league's president Javier Tebas lodging a complaint about PSG's spending with UEFA, accusing the Parisians of seeking to "destroy the ecosystem of European football".

But Sanchez, who scored 208 goals in 283 appearances for Madrid between 1985 and 1992, winning five LaLiga titles and finishing as the league's top goalscorer on five occasions, thinks Mbappe could still end up at the Bernabeu in the future.   

"It's very difficult to answer you, because I'm not in his head, in his brain, nor am I him," he told Marca.

"But I sense that he didn't say no to Real Madrid, but he told Real Madrid to 'wait for me a little bit'.

"He has so many pressures, so many external situations, and maybe even family members have pressured him and influenced his decision to [not] choose Real Madrid. It was his wish [to join Madrid], it was his illusion, it was his dream, but that dream, as he said, well, the dream can wait a little while.

"I think he is showing signs that he wants to go to Real Madrid, but now, because of political issues, social issues… economic issues I don't think they are, because he was going to earn a lot of money at Real Madrid, as he is going to earn a lot of money at PSG, so it is not because of money.

"Rather, he has not said no to Real Madrid, rather he said, 'I cannot betray other types of situations that are stronger than money'. You have to understand that."

 

Sanchez was also asked how his own talents compared to those of Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who has been widely tipped to win the Ballon d'Or after recording 59 goal involvements (44 goals, 15 assists) in 46 games last season.

But he refused to engage in such a debate, only saying that true footballing greats would shine in any era and that Brazilian legend Pele was his first idol.

"It is very difficult, these are answers that you must answer first and not me, because I am very respectful in terms of eras and times," he said.

"What I am sure is that players like Pele and [Franz] Beckenbauer, who are older than me, would succeed in today's soccer, and so would all the great players who have been participating in this wonderful sport.

"I feel that because of the physical conditions and the training and preparation that we have today, we can say that people nowadays, like Cristiano Ronaldo or [Lionel] Messi, if they had been born in the time of Pele, Beckenbauer, in our time, would be shining exactly the same way.

"The great talents and the great footballers, the successful people, I believe that they would succeed in any period.

"On my side, my reference was Pele, apart from other Mexican players who were playing professionally when I was a kid."

Mohamed Salah wants to emulate George Weah as only the second-ever African to win the Ballon d'Or, and was "shocked" by his seventh-place finish last year.

The Egypt international posted sixth and fifth-place finishes in 2018 and 2019 in the annual awards ceremony to crown the best men's footballer in the world.

But he saw his standing slip two years later after a 2020 cancellation, placing outside the top six as Lionel Messi extended his record haul.

Since then, Salah has helped fire Liverpool to a domestic cup double, plus a second-place Premier League finish and another Champions League final during 2022 as he recorded 46 goal involvements in 2021-22 (31 goals, 15 assists).

In addition, he has already picked up a slew of individual prizes, including another Premier League Golden Boot, the FWA Footballer of the Year and - most recently - the PFA Player of the Year.

But it may not be enough for the forward to emulate Liberia star Weah, who is the only African to previously lift the Ballon d'Or.

"I want to win it to join George Weah, the only African [in 1995]," Salah told L'Equipe.

"It's true that I was shocked by my ranking in 2021 (seventh). For this year, the defeat against Real Madrid is a disadvantage, even if I played a good game in the final.

"But it doesn't cancel out everything I've achieved for months. Let's wait for the vote. And if I'm not Ballon d'Or in 2022, I'll do everything I can to be the next one."

Salah's disappointment at losing in the Champions League final to Madrid last month has not dimmed his appreciation for fellow attacker and Ballon d'Or frontrunner Karim Benzema.

Salah admits he sees himself in the France forward, and feels a kinship in his approach to how he imposes himself upon the wider team.

"I understand what Benzema says. He doesn't just see himself as a goalscorer, he knows he influences every aspect of Real Madrid's game," he added.

"Like others, I want to be seen as the best player in the world.

"At Liverpool, everyone runs for everyone else. If I don't fight for the defence, they won't fight for me.

"I have to be an example, to be the first to press, to sacrifice myself for the team."

Karim Benzema deserves to win the Ballon d'Or, according to Real Madrid great Roberto Carlos. 

A stellar season with Madrid has made Benzema one of the favourites for the accolade. He scored 44 goals and supplied 15 assists in 46 games in all competitions, helping Los Blancos win LaLiga, the Champions League and the Supercopa de Espana. 

The 34-year-old scored a joint-record 10 goals in the knockout stages of the Champions League, earning the competition's Player of the Season award. 

Luka Modric is the only player other than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to have won the Ballon d'Or since 2008, but Roberto Carlos thinks now is Benzema's time. 

"We hope that this year it can be given to him because he has had a great season and we are all eager for Karim to win the Ballon d'Or for what he has done on the pitch," he told Stats Perform ahead of his participation in Sunday's Soccer Aid match. 

"He has scored goals, he is a leader and captain of Real Madrid, and it is time for him to win the Ballon d'Or." 

Madrid had been linked with a move for Benfica striker Darwin Nunez, but the Uruguayan is reportedly set for a €100million switch to Liverpool. 

"I think Benzema has done so many things for Real Madrid that today everyone wants a striker like him. Darwin has shown in Portugal to be a great striker and I wish him the best if he ends up at Liverpool," said Roberto Carlos. 

Madrid's success against Liverpool in Paris made Carlo Ancelotti the first coach to win the Champions League on four separate occasions. 

He has now won 23 titles during his coaching career and Roberto Carlos anticipates there will be more in the 2022-23 campaign. 

"The coach is fantastic, he's fantastic. That is why he has won so many Champions Leagues and so many leagues," said Roberto Carlos. 

"He is an amazing person. Real Madrid has had a great season in LaLiga, the Supercopa and the Champions League. Now they have to rest to have the same titles next season as this year." 

Karim Benzema has decided to drop his appeal against a one-year suspended sentence handed out after he was found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of Mathieu Valbuena, his lawyer has said.

The Real Madrid striker was handed the sentence along with a €75,000 fine back in November over an extortion case that dated back to 2015 in relation to a sex tape, and saw him exiled from the France national team until his recall last year.

Benzema, who has consistently denied the accusations, was one of five people who stood trial in a case that rocked French football, and it was initially reported he would appeal against the verdict with the hearing set to have taken place over June 30 and July 1.

The 34-year-old's lawyer, Hugues Vigier, told L'Equipe that his client will withdraw the appeal but will continue to maintain his innocence.

"My client is worn out by this process,” he said. "This withdrawal endorses a ruling of condemnation and apparently guilt. It is a judicial truth. 

"But this is not the reality. Karim Benzema will always claim his innocence in this case and he never wanted to participate in a blackmail operation against Mathieu Valbuena."

Benzema had been accused of helping the four other men blackmail former Les Bleus team-mate Valbuena over an intimate video that had been taken from Valbuena's mobile phone.

He had originally been expected to attend the Versailles court himself at the appeal. French agency AFP reported that the Versailles court of appeal will notify the relevant parties of the withdrawal order on Tuesday.

Benzema was on target as France were beaten 2-1 by Denmark in the Nations League on Friday.

Andreas Cornelius struck twice in the second half as France's Nations League title defence began with a shock 2-1 loss to Denmark in Paris.

France took the lead through Karim Benzema at the Stade de France, the venue where he lifted the Champions League with Real Madrid six days earlier, but they were unable to see out the win.

Trabzonspor striker Cornelius volleyed in a delightful equaliser and then fired in a winner two minutes from time to stun France, who lost Kylian Mbappe to a first-half injury.

Denmark join Austria, who beat Croatia 3-0 elsewhere on Friday, at the top of Group A1.

The visitors enjoyed a near-perfect campaign in qualifying for Qatar 2022, where they will meet France in the group stage, and started the brighter in this contest.

Kasper Dolberg got in behind the home defence inside the first three minutes and picked out Joakim Maehle, who hit the outside of the post with the angle against him.

France soon grew into the game, with Benzema having a goal-bound shot blocked by Jannik Vestergaard and a low strike past Kasper Schmeichel ruled out for offside.

Mbappe sustained an injury shortly before half-time and played no part after the break, but Didier Deschamps' men did not require long to open the scoring in the second half.

Benzema played a one-two with Mbappe's replacement Christopher Nkunku, took the ball past three opposition players and slid the ball away from Schmeichel for the 51st-minute opener.

Les Blues did not build on that lead, however, as Cornelius flashed a first-time finish past Hugo Lloris in the 68th minute with the side of his boot after being spotted by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

N'Golo Kante hit the post with a curled effort, but it was Cornelius who had the final say in Paris with a thumping finish into the roof of the net at Lloris' near post.

Eden Hazard has backed Real Madrid colleague Karim Benzema to win the Ballon d'Or, while he suggested fellow team-mate Thibaut Courtois should finish in the top five.

Benzema has enjoyed a remarkable season, inspiring Madrid to Champions League success and the Spanish title with four games to spare.

The France international scored 15 times in the Champions League, including a joint-record 10 in the knockout stages to be named as the competition's Player of the Season.

The Madrid talisman ended the season with 44 goals and 15 assists across all competitions. Only Kylian Mbappe (60) can better Benzema's 59 goal involvements among players from Europe's top five leagues.

Meanwhile, Courtois was the star of the show against Liverpool as he made nine saves, a record for a Champions League final since Opta began collecting data in 2003-04.

Courtois has led the way among goalkeepers in the competition this season, making the most saves (59) and boasting the highest save percentage of those to produce five stops or more (80.6).

That led to suggestions the Belgium international may be an unlikely contender for the Ballon d'Or, but Red Devils team-mate Hazard believes Benzema should win the coveted individual award.

"I've known [Courtois] for ten years now and he's been doing this for ten years," Hazard told reporters at a Nations League news conference on Tuesday.

"That was already the case at Chelsea and now at Real. Courtois, [Kevin] De Bruyne, [Sadio] Mane, Vinicius [Junior], they all had a good season. 

"But still I think Benzema deserves to win it. Courtois should be in the top five. But when you see how Benzema played in the quarter and semi-finals, that was really impressive."

Benzema will hope to carry his scintillating club form into the next season with Madrid, and also with France at the World Cup in Qatar.

The 34-year-old will partner with Mbappe at the tournament in November, and the Paris Saint-Germain star was almost Benzema's club team-mate before he snubbed Los Blancos earlier in the month.

Mbappe opted to stay in the French capital and sign a three-year extension with PSG, leaving Hazard to rue the impact he could have had at the Santiago Bernabeu as he aims to recover his own form for the upcoming campaign.

"The seats are already expensive at Real, but with Kylian Mbappe they would be even more expensive," Hazard added.

"Now I have to show the coach that I'm ready, that I can play. But since my surgery I do feel better. My approach will not change. All my success is also due to how I approached it."

Karim Benzema has been named the 2021-22 Champions League Player of the Season after helping Real Madrid to a 14th European crown.

Benzema also won the competition's Goal of the Season honour for a supreme header against Chelsea in the quarter-finals, while team-mate Vinicius Junior has been named Young Player of the Season.

The duo were instrumental in Madrid's defying run to Saturday's final in Paris, where Vinicius' finish was enough to earn a 1-0 victory over Liverpool.

With 15 goals across the season, Benzema topped the scoring charts in Europe, with a joint-record ten of those goals in the knockout stage.

The attacker, a heavy favourite for the Ballon d'Or this season, was at the centre of dramatic comeback wins against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Vinicius meanwhile delivered four goals and six assists throughout, with the latter tally only bettered by Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes.

Both Madrid players were named to the Champions League Team of the Season, alongside club-mates Thibaut Courtois and Luka Modric.

Courtois made nine saves in the final to keep Liverpool at bay. He finished the Champions League campaign having faced 72 shots on target, conceding 14 goals. According to expected goals data, the Belgium international prevented 4.7 goals.

 

Beaten finalists Liverpool also contributed four players, with Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson featuring.

Kylian Mbappe, who scored six goals in eight Champions League matches, was named alongside Benzema and Vinicius in attack – an attacking trio that might have been lining up for Los Blancos next season had the France forward not decided to stay at PSG.

City playmaker De Bruyne also made the XI, as did Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger, who is set to join Madrid on a free transfer.

2021-22 UEFA Champions League Team of the Season: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid); Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Andy Robertson (Liverpool); Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Fabinho (Liverpool), Luka Modric (Real Madrid); Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid).

Lionel Messi says there can be "no doubts" Karim Benzema would be a worthy Ballon d'Or winner after the Real Madrid star cemented his frontrunner status with Champions League glory.

The France international is the favourite to succeed the Argentinian as the next recipient of the game's most prestigious individual prize after inspiring his side to domestic and European success this term.

Benzema netted 44 goals in 46 games across all competitions this term for Carlo Ancelotti's side and led them in Paris to victory over Liverpool on Saturday as captain.

Messi, who has added to his trophy cabinet with a Ligue 1 title at Paris Saint-Germain in his first year away from Barcelona, certainly feels Benzema has earned his shot at the award.

"I think there is no doubts," Messi told TyC Sports when asked if the Frenchman would be a fitting successor as the Ballon d'Or winner.

"It is very clear that Benzema had a spectacular year and ended up consecrating himself with the Champions League, being fundamental from the round of 16 onwards in all the games.

"I think there are no doubts this year."

Messi also reflected on his triumph in 2021, when he defended the crown he won in 2019 against Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski after the award was cancelled for 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lewandowski would have been many people's favourite in 2020 and went on break Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 Bundesliga goals in a single season the following year.

Yet he was forced to make do with second behind Messi after he helped Argentina to their first Copa America success in 28 years.

Messi acknowledged Lewandowski would have been a worthy winner in 2020, but on reflection feels he deserved the 2021 triumph he was awarded.

"What I said at that moment was from my heart and because I really felt that way," Messi said, alluding to his comments at the 2021 Ballon d'Or ceremony.

"I said that he deserved the Ballon d'Or before, because the year before it had seemed to me that he had been the best.

"But the year that I won, he wasn't the best. I just said that. But let him take it as he wants. Everyone says what they want and obviously he can express himself and say what he wants.

"Honestly, I don't share what he said, but I didn't give it much importance either. That's it, he can say what he wants, I'm not interested."

The end of the club season means individual awards are dominating the discourse right now in European football. Well, if you can't beat them, join them.

Rather than just run through the usual categories highlighting the best player and best coach – although we will do that, too – why not focus on some alternative prizes?

The NBA Awards provide a fine blueprint, rewarding superstars alongside breakout performers, recovering veterans and valuable bench players.

Relying heavily on Opta data, we'll steer clear of team honours – a blow to Wout Weghorst, whose eight blocks (leading all forwards in Europe's top five leagues) might have carved out a spot leading the All-Defensive First Team – but there remains plenty to go at...

Most Valuable Player

Only one player had more goal involvements than Karim Benzema (39) in the top five leagues this season, and Real Madrid would really rather not talk about the man top of the charts. That other leading France forward had a hand in 45 goals, yet the value of Benzema's contributions to a LaLiga title triumph separates him from the rest.

Benzema's goal involvements were worth 29 points across the season, the most of any player, with Kylian Mbappe, of course, second on 28. Just considering Benzema's 27 goals, he accounted for 20 points – trailing Dusan Vlahovic (22 points) alone.

 

Required to perform repeated rescue acts in the Champions League, too, Madrid's number nine played only 2,596 minutes in LaLiga – or 75.9 per cent of the full season. He was therefore involved in a goal every 67 minutes, narrowly second in this regard behind Erling Haaland (66 minutes) among those to play 1,000 minutes or more across Europe.

Coach of the Year

Were this the NBA, Carlo Ancelotti would surely also qualify for the Lifetime Achievement Award. In guiding Benzema and Madrid to the LaLiga title, the Italian became the first coach to win each of Europe's top five leagues, following successes in Serie A with Milan, the Premier League with Chelsea, Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain and the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich.

Ancelotti, also the oldest LaLiga-winning coach at 62, earned only two more points than Zinedine Zidane had in finishing second in the prior season, but Madrid maintained this high standard despite losing both of their senior centre-backs heading into the campaign as they seemingly saved for the now failed pursuit of Mbappe.

Meanwhile, Everton, the team Ancelotti left for his second Madrid stint, finished 20 points short of their 2020-21 total, spending the season battling relegation rather than chasing Europe and perhaps putting his work at Goodison Park in context.

Rookie of the Year

Given the differences between the NBA and Europe's top five leagues, it is difficult to quantify exactly how many players might be considered 'rookies', let alone identify the best of them. Someone like Luis Diaz, for example, played his first minutes in the top five leagues this season, yet he had already scored goals in the Champions League and Copa America so surely doesn't fit the bill.

On the other hand, Hugo Ekitike definitely does.

Among the nine players who were teenagers at the start of the season and finished with 10 or more goal involvements, only Ekitike had never previously started a game in Europe's top five leagues. His 13 involvements in 2021-22 (10 goals, three assists) arrived every 98 minutes on average, the best rate of this group and the 18th-best overall – just behind Neymar (also 98 mins) and ahead of Son Heung-min (101 mins).

The 19-year-old Reims forward, who turned down a transfer to Newcastle United in January before sustaining a thigh injury, scored with an astonishing 32.3 per cent of his shots – second behind Wissam Ben Yedder (34.7 per cent) among players with 20 or more attempts – and has been linked with moves to PSG and Borussia Dortmund, as well as St James' Park.

 

Defensive Player of the Year

As elsewhere, many of these awards focus on offensive talents, so there is a dedicated category for the best defender – and there could really only be one winner this year.

Injury restricted Virgil van Dijk to 371 minutes in 2019-20, and he was badly missed by Liverpool in their title defence, as they conceded 42 Premier League goals – their most since shipping the same number in the season before the centre-back's 2018 arrival.

With Van Dijk fit again this term and missing only four matches, the Reds conceded the joint-fewest number of goals across the top five leagues (26, tied with Manchester City). No defender played a part in more clean sheets (21).

Those figures show the impact Van Dijk had on the team as a whole, but his performances in individual battles were equally impressive. The Liverpool man won 73.5 per cent of his duels and 77.5 per cent of his aerial duels – both the best marks of defenders to make 30 or more appearances in the top five leagues.

Comeback Player of the Year

Okay, so the NBA no longer highlights a Comeback Player of the Year, but the NFL continues to identify an individual who has overcome the adversity of the previous campaign, allowing us to recognise one of the stories of the season.

Of course, for the reasons outlined above, Van Dijk might have had a claim to this prize in any other year, yet he is beaten this time by a player who actually won Serie A in 2020-21.

Within weeks of that title triumph, Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020, prompting fears for his life and then, even after his recovery, his career.

But Eriksen was fitted with an ICD, left Inter, joined Brentford in January and promptly won each of the first five Premier League games he started for the relegation-threatened Bees. Finishing with seven victories from 10 starts, only nine players in the top five leagues created more chances over this period than Eriksen (29, including four assists).

Most Improved Player

There were no shortage of players showing signs of significant improvement in 2021-22. Five-goal Euro 2020 forward Patrik Schick starred on the club stage at last, Newcastle striker-turned-midfielder Joelinton enjoyed a resurgence and Vinicius Junior was outstanding as Benzema's foil, but Christopher Nkunku stood head and shoulders above the rest as he swiftly established himself among Europe's elite.

Nkunku had scored a mere six goals and assisted the same number for RB Leipzig in the 2020-21 Bundesliga, but those goal involvements increased dramatically from 12 to 33 this season, ranking fifth across Europe's top five leagues and joint-third when excluding penalties (32). With 20 total goals and 13 assists, the newly capped France international was one of just 12 players to reach double figures in both categories.

Of players to feature in at least 20 games in each of the past two campaigns, only Moussa Dembele (20) and Schick (15) improved their season-on-season goal tallies by a greater margin than Nkunku (14); Dembele alone (24) showed greater improvement in terms of goal involvements (21).

 

In a season in which Leipzig recovered from a slow start to make the top four by a single point, Nkunku's contributions were vital. He had a hand in 45.8 per cent of their Bundesliga goals and 50.8 per cent of those he was on the field for.

Twelfth Man of the Year

The NBA's Sixth Man of the Year is recognised as the season's most impactful bench player, which feels like a nice addition here.

Were this a long-standing European football award, it might have by now been renamed in honour of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored 17 goals in 84 Premier League substitute appearances – one every 88 minutes on average. Given Rodrygo Goes and Eduardo Camavinga largely reserved their heroics for the Champions League, the 2021-22 equivalent in the top five leagues could be Matheus Cunha.

Ben Yedder scored the most goals from the bench this season, but those seven counted towards 25 in total as he also started 29 matches. Cunha was restricted to only eight starts for Atletico Madrid, yet he scored three and assisted four in 21 outings as a substitute, matching Ben Yedder and Ignacio Pussetto with a Europe-high seven such goal involvements.

Atletico's man in times of need, Cunha contributed to vital goals, too. He was one of only two players to both score and assist in the same game as a substitute on more than one occasion (also Arnaud Nordin), with the second of those two performances seeing the Brazil forward introduced against Valencia with his side 2-0 down; Cunha scored seven minutes after his introduction and later teed up the winner in a 3-2 victory, justifying his season-long role as a super-sub.

Karim Benzema would have loved to play alongside Kylian Mbappe at Real Madrid, but insists the forwards' decision to stay at Paris Saint-Germain will not affect their friendship.

Mbappe was widely expected to move to the Santiago Bernabeu at the end of his contract in Paris, but he conducted a late U-turn last week and chose to sign a new three-year contract with the Ligue 1 champions.

But Madrid showed they have the firepower to cope without the 2018 World Cup winner as they beat Liverpool 1-0 in Saturday's Champions League final, with Vinicius Junior scoring the only goal of the game.

Benzema played a key role during Madrid's 14th European triumph, scoring 15 Champions League goals this season to fall just two strikes short of Cristiano Ronaldo's single-season record (17 for Madrid in 2013-14).

The striker, who has been tipped to win the Ballon d'Or later this year, also became just the second French player to win a European Cup/Champions League final as captain after Didier Deschamps with Marseille in 1993.

Mbappe, meanwhile, scored 39 goals and added 21 assists in all competitions in a fine individual campaign.

Although Benzema admits he would have been delighted to see Mbappe join Los Blancos, he respects the 23-year-old's decision and is looking forward to teaming up with him for France's upcoming Nations League fixtures.

"I would have liked him to be able to realise his dream of playing at Real Madrid, together," Benzema told Telefoot.

"He chose PSG, you have to respect [his decision]. He is young, he has a lot of responsibilities on him.

"It's his choice, he's a PSG player, so we will enjoy playing together in the [national] selection. 

"Everyone makes their choices. "I'm not disappointed, I'm happy and I hope he does good things. We're good friends, it won't affect our relationship."

France will play four Nations League fixtures next month, including a double-header against Croatia, who they beat in the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow.

Thierry Henry declared the race for the Ballon d'Or over after Karim Benzema lifted the Champions League with Real Madrid on Saturday.

Benzema became just the second French captain to lift the trophy, after Didier Deschamps with Marseille in 1993, following a 1-0 win over Liverpool at the Stade de France.

Carlo Ancelotti's side were largely indebted to the heroics of Thibaut Courtois after the goalkeeper produced nine saves – a Champions League final record since Opta began recording data in 2003-04.

Vinicius Junior may have scored the winner in Paris but a 14th European Cup for Madrid, which is double the tally of second-best Milan (seven), came down to Benzema's efforts throughout the knockout stages.

The 34-year-old netted a hat-trick against Paris Saint-Germain, four goals across two legs with Chelsea and three in the tie with Manchester City, including an extra-time penalty to win the semi-final.

Benzema has been involved in 59 goals this season (45 goals, 15 assists) in all competitions, with only France team-mate Kylian Mbappe (60) bettering that total across Europe's top five leagues.

And Arsenal great Henry believes Benzema ended the debate for who should win the Ballon d'Or this year with his success in Paris.

"I just wanted to say something for France Football or whoever is voting. Close the votes, Benzema won it. Bye," Henry said to CBS Sports after the final.

France coach Didier Deschamps will hope Benzema can lead Les Bleus to more World Cup glory in November, and he echoed Henry's sentiments by suggesting the Madrid talisman should win the award.

"The answer is simple: yes. This new title and the sporting season achieved with his team, and what he was able to do, he was so decisive," Deschamps told Telefoot.

"Obviously, he was already one of the favourites and he deserves this reward."

The Ballon d'Or has been won by Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in 13 of the past 14 seasons, barring when Benzema's team-mate Luka Modric was named the winner in 2018.

While Benzema may believe his achievements on a personal and team level are enough to stave off Liverpool's Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, the Madrid forward insisted he will be satisfied either way.

"Obviously, I finished my season, now I will join up with the national team," Benzema told Canal Plus.

"I think at club level I can't do better. We'll see what happens but in any case I'm proud of what I've achieved."

Thibaut Courtois believes he has little chance of winning the Ballon d'Or despite his incredible Champions League final performance for Real Madrid, noting the presence of team-mate Karim Benzema makes such an honour even more unlikely.

Courtois was in imperious form as Madrid claimed their 14th European Cup/Champions League triumph in Paris, making nine saves as Carlo Ancelotti's team beat Liverpool 1-0.

Liverpool managed 24 shots throughout the contest, the most a team has recorded without scoring in a Champions League final since Opta records began (in 2003-04).

Courtois' tally of saves, meanwhile, is the highest on record in a single Champions League final, with his 59 across Madrid's dramatic European campaign also a single-season record (both since 2003-04).

However, after being named man-of-the-match, Courtois cast doubt on his chances of winning the biggest individual prize in world football.

The 30-year-old said goalkeepers have little chance of being named the best player in the world, particularly given the form of Benzema, who scored 44 goals and added 15 assists in all competitions as Madrid were crowned champions of both Spain and Europe.

"It is impossible for a goalkeeper to win it, even more so if he plays in a team with Benzema," he told reporters, as quoted by Tuttomercato.

"I can go far, but it is difficult to win this trophy. 

"For me, what matters is the fact that when I returned to the locker room, all my team-mates were screaming my name. This is worth more than personal recognition."

Lev Yashin is the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or, doing so in 1963, while Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer came third in 2014.

Courtois also topped the Champions League charts for save percentage (80.6, minimum five saves), and goals prevented according to expected goals on target data (4.7) this season, before capping his fine season in perfect fashion in Paris.

While Courtois was keen to emphasise the collective nature of Madrid's success, he believed his saves from Mane in the first half and Salah after the break were crucial.

"It is incredible for me to win the Champions League final like this. For me, it was not important to be a protagonist, it was important to win," he added

"I was ready, I made an important save at 0-0 and one at 1-0. The one on Salah with my hand was beautiful, but also the one with my foot.

"I'm here to help my teammates, to keep the clean sheet and win. I'm happy to have been MVP in the final."

Meanwhile, Courtois also wished Liverpool supporters well after kick-off was twice delayed amid reports of heavy-handed policing in Paris.

Writing on Twitter on Sunday, the former Chelsea man said: "I feel sorry for Liverpool fans and the way they were treated. I hope everyone got home safe!"

Karim Benzema proudly declared "we are the best again" after Real Madrid secured another Champions League title with a 1-0 win over Liverpool.

France international Benzema largely watched on as Liverpool bombarded Madrid's goal in the first half at the Stade de France on Saturday.

Jurgen Klopp's Reds attempted five shots on target in the opening 45 minutes, as many as Liverpool had mustered in their previous two Champions League finals combined (two in 2018 and three in 2019).

During that first-half rearguard display in Paris, Benzema saw a goal ruled out shortly before the interval after being adjudged to stray offside inside the area.

But Vinicius Junior delivered the decisive strike just before the hour, while Thibaut Courtois thwarted Liverpool as Madrid held on for a record-extending 14th European Cup, more than double any other side.

Benzema became just the second French captain to lift the trophy, after Didier Deschamps with Marseille in 1993, and the Madrid talisman was quick to salute his side.

"We are the best again. It has been a very difficult season for us, and we deserved it again," he told Movistar.

"The game was very difficult, but we showed everyone that we are alive, and we won. A final always involves hard work and tiredness...

"We scored an offside goal and got into the game in the second half to end up winning the final."

Benzema also expressed his delight at winning the Champions League in his home country as he eyes the Ballon d'Or before heading to the World Cup with France.

"It means a lot to me, it's very important. I'm very proud," he continued.

On the Ballon d'Or, the 34-year-old added: "Let's see if it happens. Hopefully. But the most important thing is to enjoy today's victory."

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