Mauricio Pochettino came out fighting after Chelsea outclassed Aston Villa to breeze into the FA Cup fifth round.

Enzo Fernandez’s stunning free kick sealed a 3-1 victory and set up last-16 tie against Leeds at Stamford Bridge.

First-half goals from Conor Gallagher and Nicolas Jackson put Chelsea in control of the fourth round replay and they cruised to victory, despite Moussa Diaby’s injury-time consolation.

Chelsea had come to Villa Park in disarray on the back of 4-1 and 4-2 defeats to Liverpool and Wolves – leaving them 11th in the Premier League.

But Pochettino insists they cannot be compared to the dominant side from the Roman Abramovich era which won five Premier League titles – despite spending over £1billion under owner Todd Boehly.

He said: “We need to stop this thing that we are Chelsea from 20 years ago. We are not this type of Chelsea anymore. Now we need to move on and we need to create this project.

“We need to move on, I don’t care if people are happy or not happy with my speech. I care for the club, I care for my players, I want to help the players.

“We are going to fight, I don’t care what the people say. I’m not more sad or happy today after a win because we have experience, this type of project needs time and trust.

“We cannot build a team to challenge because you need to fix too many things, you need to observe, analyse and compete.

“We are building a project which may be one year, two years, three years.

“Today you can see we were ready to fight. We fight for the fans, the badge, the coaching staff. Now the challenge is to be consistent.”

Just as the Chelsea fans sung for former owner Abramovich the visitors took the lead after 11 minutes.

Jackson and Noni Madueke combined to tee up Gallagher to find the top corner for his first goal of the season.

Ten minutes later it was 2-0 as Chelsea tore Villa apart down the right and Malo Gusto’s perfect cross was nodded in by Jackson.

There was barely a response from the hosts – who lost their 11-month unbeaten home league run to Newcastle last week – and Emi Martinez saved Cole Palmer’s effort as Chelsea looked for a third.

They found it nine minutes after the break when Fernandez, having been lucky to earn a foul off Youri Tielemans, curled a brilliant 25-yard free-kick into the top corner.

Villa were beaten but managed a consolation in stoppage time when Diaby’s strike went in off both posts and they now welcome a resurgent Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday.

Boss Unai Emery said: “We were excited and motivated and we started well, we didn’t score but we were feeling good.

“When they were getting in our box we were not being strong and they were affecting us. They got into our box with some crosses and were clinical.

“I was more or less feeling the difference was the clinical way for them.

“We scored a little bit late and had no time to score the second goal. We have to accept and analyse the match. To beat them is not easy when you’re not being clinical.”

Aston Villa scored a late penalty to beat strugglers Burnley 3-2 and move second in the Premier League before Manchester United slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest.

Villa – who lost 3-2 at Manchester United on Boxing Day after leading 2-0 – went ahead in the 28th minute through Leon Bailey.

The Clarets were back on level terms just three minutes later when Zeki Amdouni fired home from close range following a free-kick.

Burnley had the ball in the net again, but Lyle Foster’s effort was ruled out for offside before Moussa Diaby then added a second for Villa in the 42nd minute.

The visitors were reduced to 10 men in the 56th minute when midfielder Sander Berge was given a second caution for tugging back Douglas Luiz.

Foster, though, hauled Burnley level with 20 minutes left – this time his goal allowed to stand following a VAR review.

Just when it looked like Vincent Kompany’s men would hold out for a welcome point, Aaron Ramsey fouled Jhon Duran to concede an 89th-minute penalty. Luiz sent his spot-kick on to the underside of the crossbar and into the roof of the net to secure another home win for Villa.

In Saturday’s late kick-off, Manchester United were beaten 2-1 at Nottingham Forest, who secured a second straight win for new boss Nuno Espirito Santo. After a low-key first half, Forest went ahead just after the hour when Nicolas Dominguez swept in a low cross from Gonzalo Montiel.

United were level in the 78th minute after a poor clearance from Forest keeper Matt Turner was punished as Alejandro Garnacho squared for Marcus Rashford to equalise.

Forest, though, were back in front again just four minutes later when Morgan Gibbs-White curled a fine strike into the far corner to leave United in seventh place – nine points off the top four.

Manchester City beat Sheffield United 2-0 at the Ethiad Stadium to move third, above Arsenal on goal difference.

Rodri gave City the lead in the 14th minute with a low finish into the bottom corner after good hold-up play by Phil Foden.

Midfielder Jack Grealish – whose Cheshire home had been burgled while he was away playing at Everton on Wednesday night – was taken off early in the second half and replaced by Oscar Bobb.

Julian Alvarez doubled City’s lead just after the hour from close range after Bobb had played in Foden.

Earlier, Chelsea survived a spirited late fightback by Luton to win 3-2 at Kenilworth Road.

Mauricio Pochettino’s team had looked to be cruising to a first away victory since early November following a brace from Cole Palmer – his second goal showing fine close control – either side of Noni Madueke’s strike just before half-time.

Luton, though, set up a tense final 10 minutes after Ross Barkley scored against his former club before Elijah Adebayo pulled another back late on, but the Blues held out.

Michael Olise scored twice as Crystal Palace returned to winning ways after coming from behind to beat Brentford 3-1 at Selhurst Park.

Keane Lewis-Potter fired the Bees into an early lead after just two minutes, the goal given following a lengthy VAR check for a possible offside.

Palace were soon back on level terms in the 14th minute when Olise volleyed in at the back post before Eberechi Eze completed the turnaround shortly before half-time.

Olise fired in a well-taken second from the edge of the penalty area in the 58th minute as Palace ended an eight-match winless run.

Wolves maintained their good form with a 3-0 win over relegation-battlers Everton at Molineux.

Captain Max Kilman put Wolves in front in the 25th minute following a scramble in the penalty area, which was only his second goal for the club. The players celebrated by holding up a shirt in support of Mario Lemina following the death of his father.

Wolves doubled their lead early in the second half through a close-range finish from Matheus Cunha and Craig Dawson added a third on the hour.

Hwang Hee-chan and Pedro Neto both saw goals disallowed for offside as Gary O’Neil’s well-drilled went on to close out a third straight win.

Newcastle United are reportedly planning a £150million injection of talent in the upcoming transfer window, with Arsenal left-back Kieran Tierney and Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby high on their list.

Tierney, 25, is a Scotland international with 37 senior caps to his name, but despite making 22 Premier League appearances this season, he has only been handed five starts.

Newcastle boss Eddie Howe is keen to shift Dan Burn back into a central defensive spot where he is most comfortable, and views Tierney as capable of assuming a more integral role than he currently possesses at Arsenal.

Meanwhile, Leverkusen's 23-year-old winger Diaby is the priority in the front third, having contributed 14 goals and 10 assists during his 41 matches in all competitions.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE PLAN OFFSEASON SPENDING SPREE

According to The Sun, Howe has been told he will have £150m to spend, and he believes £30m is a fair price for Tierney as his potential new starting left-back.

Diaby has a number of fans, including Newcastle's Premier League competitors Arsenal, and is expected to cost in the neighbourhood of £62m (€70m).

Newcastle are also reported to have interest in Diaby's Leverkusen team-mate Mitchel Bakker, a 23-year-old left-back who could be an alternative to Tierney.

 

ROUND-UP

Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are all planning bids for 27-year-old Fulham defensive midfielder Joao Palhinha, per Football Insider.

– The Daily Star is reporting Liverpool and 27-year-old Manchester City midfielder Kalvin Phillips have mutual interest in a transfer, and he is believed to be available for £35m.

– According to The Telegraph, 29-year-old Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku will be given the opportunity to revive his career at Stamford Bridge under expected new boss Mauricio Pochettino.

– Sport is reporting Barcelona are hoping to land 30-year-old Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha on a free transfer, while his current club have offered a new £200,000 per week contract in an effort to make him stay.

The race for Jude Bellingham's signature continues, with Liverpool having pulled out last week.

Numerous top clubs are keen on the 19-year-old England international who is contracted with Borussia Dortmund until 2025.

Bellingham signed his initial deal with Dortmund in 2020 but is set for a major pay rise if he moves or pens fresh terms.

TOP STORY – MADRID TO USE DIAZ IN BELLINGHAM DEAL

Real Madrid are plotting a potential player swap-plus-cash deal to land Jude Bellingham in the off-season, according to Cadena SER.

Los Blancos are investigating potentially using Brahim Diaz, currently on loan at Milan, in a deal to help reduce Dortmund's reported €150 million asking price.

Madrid are currently in the process of extending the stays of veteran midfielders Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.

ROUND-UP

- Manchester City are preparing a new contract offer for Erling Haaland to ward off rivals interest from top clubs such as Real Madrid, claims The Athletic.

- Rafael Leao wants to stay with Milan following interest from Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, according to Manchester Evening News.

- Newcastle United have established contact with Ousmane Dembele's representatives to discuss a move for the Barcelona winger, claims 90min.

- Arsenal and Newcastle United are both interested in Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby, per Le10Sport.

- The Telegraph reports Chelsea have opted against pursing Luis Enrique as their new manager, instead turning their attention to former Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain boss Mauricio Pochettino. The Guardian claims Julian Nagelsmann remains Chelsea's top candidate.

- Tottenham will swoop on Chelsea's decision and look to appoint Enrique as Antonio Conte's replacement, according to The Express.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has won plenty of admirers with 13 goals and 15 assists for runaway Serie A leaders Napoli this season.

The 22-year-old Georgian joined Napoli in July 2022, penning a contract until 2027 for a for a reported fee of €10–12 million from Dinamo Batumi.

Kvaratskhelia has helped Napoli into the Champions League quarter-finals, while winning the Serie A's Player of the Month twice.

 

TOP STORY – PSG TO TABLE LUCRATIVE OFFER FOR NAPOLI STAR

Paris Saint-Germain are ready to go all-out and offer Khvicha Kvaratskhelia a whopping €180m deal, claims Le10Sport.

Real Madrid are also reportedly monitoring the winger's status although he has previously shown no interest in exiting Napoli. It has been claimed Napoli would not accept anything below €100m for their emerging star.

The lucrative deal is plausible given PSG hold the record for the two most expensive transfers in world football, signing Neymar for €222m in 2017 and Kylian Mbappe for €180m in 2018.

 

ROUND-UP

– Mundo Deportivo reports Borussia Dortmund have placed a bumper €125m (£110m) minimum price tag on midfielder Jude Bellingham as a long list of clubs chase his signature including Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Manchester United are willing to pay the €50m (£44m) release clause in Ousmane Dembele's Barcelona contract as they look to sign the French winger, reports Fichajes. The report claims the Blaugrana may be open to that as they look to sort their financial challenges.

Chelsea are interested in an off-season move for Leeds United goalkeeper Illan Meslier, reports Football Insider. The report claims Blues boss Graham Potter wants a new stopper, with Meslier seen as a cheaper option if Leeds go down. Fichajes claims Chelsea are keen on Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana to take over from Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Newcastle United have revived their interest in Bayer Leverkusen pair Moussa Diaby and Mitchel Bakker claims 90min. Arsenal have been linked with Diaby in the past, with the French winger reportedly worth €70m (£62m).

Juventus are still pushing to sign Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante as a free agent despite reports he will re-sign with the Blues, according to Calciomercato.

– The Mirror reports Manchester United are set to hand manager Erik ten Hag a new three-year extension, despite the ongoing uncertainty around the sale of the club.

Chelsea may not be finished with their January signings, reportedly joining Tottenham in the pursuit of Brighton and Hove Albion winger Leandro Trossard.

Trossard, 28, is in his fourth season with the Seagulls, and after never scoring more than eight Premier League goals in each of his previous three campaigns, he is on pace to set a new personal-best with seven in his first 16 appearances.

His exploits this season have included a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw against Liverpool, as well as goals against Manchester City and Chelsea, but he recently butted heads with head coach Roberto De Zerbi and has been left out of Brighton's last two matchday squads.

The Belgium international with 24 senior caps has also had his agent announce his intention to leave the club this month, triggering plenty of interest from fellow Premier League sides.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA WANT TROSSARD TO RECREATE MAGIC WITH POTTER

According to The Mirror, Chelsea are understood to now be a main player along with Tottenham and also Arsenal as the three clubs compete for Trossard's services.

Trossard had only six months remaining on his contract on the south coast, before Brighton reportedly activated a 12-month extension to ensure he would not be able to leave the club on a free transfer.

It is believed Chelsea have the most spending power of the trio, even after their £88.5million purchase of Shakhtar Donetsk winger Mykhaylo Mudryk, and Trossard remains a favourite of his former boss Graham Potter.

His asking price has been set at £25m, while the report adds any potential deal for fellow Brighton talent 21-year-old Moises Caicedo – also of interest to Chelsea as well as Liverpool – would cost "more than double" that £25m figure.

 

ROUND-UP

– The Mirror is reporting West Ham would like to bring in 29-year-old Manchester United centre-back Harry Maguire on loan.

– According to Sky Sports, Arsenal have enquired about 23-year-old Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby, but have been told he will not be available this month and will cost €100m (£88.5m) at the end of the season.

Barcelona are hoping to secure 32-year-old Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan on a free transfer at the end of the season, per the Telegraph.

– Fichajes is reporting Arsenal will attempt to sign Chelsea's Raheem Sterling after failing to land the 28-year-old England international prior to his move to Stamford Bridge last year.

– According to The Independent, Real Madrid and Juventus are monitoring United 18-year-old Alejandro Garnacho after he rejected the club's most recent contract extension.

PSV's Cody Gakpo has become one of the early breakout stars at the World Cup, and will reportedly be courted by some of the world's biggest clubs in January.

Gakpo, 23, has spent his entire career with PSV after arriving at their youth academy back in 2007, and has risen through the ranks to become one of the Netherlands' top attacking options.

He has racked up nine goals and 12 assists in his side's first 14 Eredivisie fixtures, and has started his World Cup campaign with goals in each of the first two group stage matches against Senegal and Ecuador.

Having been linked to Leeds United before the season, he reportedly opted to remain with PSV to secure a move to an even bigger club – and now Champions League teams are said to be calling.


TOP STORY – EUROPEAN POWERHOUSES SET SIGHTS ON GAKPO

According to Dutch journalist Marco Timmer, the clubs who will make an attempt to sign the Dutch talent include Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

Having previously said he would be happy to remain in the Netherlands until the end of the season before exploring a move to the Premier League, Gakpo's value is said to have soared past the £50million mark.

There were reports early in the season that PSV's financial situation would force them to accept any further bids around £30m, so if a team with deep pockets comes with a serious offer in January, it will likely be hard to turn down.
 

ROUND-UP

– According to Fichajes, United have added 23-year-old Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby to their list of forward targets. 

– 90min is reporting Milan are considering another bid for Chelsea's Hakim Ziyech in January after testing the waters in the previous transfer window.

Memphis Depay could return to former club United in January as Barcelona are considering terminating the 28-year-old's contract to get him off their books.

– According to Sky Sports Germany, United are not considered a realistic destination for Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham.

– CBS is reporting multiple Premier League clubs, including Everton, Leeds and West Ham, are interested in 26-year-old Senegal forward Boulaye Dia, with the Villarreal-contracted player scoring against Qatar on Friday.

Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly prepared to activate the €150million release clause in the contract of Milan forward Rafael Leao.

Leao, 23, has emerged as one of the top attacking players in the Serie A since arriving for €35million back in 2019, tallying a career-high 14 goals in all club competitions in the 2021-22 season before starting this campaign in blistering form.

The Portuguese star with 11 international caps has four goals and four assists from his first eight league games, as well as three assists from three Champions League fixtures, and it seems Paris Saint-Germain have seen enough to justify a substantial investment.

TOP STORY – PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN TO PULL THE TRIGGER ON MASSIVE LEAO RELEASE CLAUSE

French outlet Media Foot is reporting Paris Saint-Germain will return with bids for multiple big names they were unable to land in the past transfer window, and they could come in January.

The report mentions Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Luis Campos was responsible for bringing Leao to Lille in 2018, and as a result he has been monitoring the young talent for years.

With the futures of Lionel Messi and Neymar uncertain, Leao could represent the future of the club going forward, with Kylian Mbappe, and he is not the only big-money target mentioned in the report.

Paris Saint-Germain are said to also be returning with another offer to Inter for Milan Skriniar, and remain interested in Manchester City's Bernardo Silva.

ROUND-UP

– Sky Sports Germany is reporting Real Madrid have plans to replace Karim Benzema with City star Erling Haaland in 2024.

– According to The Independent, Manchester United are only going to make a move for one of Jude Bellingham or Frenkie de Jong, with the target yet to be decided.

– Liverpool's Naby Keita is a target for Barcelona, with the 27-year-old's contract set to expire at the end of this season.

– The Daily Mail is reporting Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli is demanding his wages be tripled before he agrees to a new contract.

– According to The i, Newcastle United are preparing bids for Leicester City midfielder James Maddison and Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby.

Tottenham are reportedly looking to swoop in with an offer for Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus, who has been a key target this transfer period for rivals Arsenal.

Just days ago stories were written about Arsenal feeling "cautiously optimistic" about their chances of landing the 25-year-old Brazilian, despite their reported bid of £30million falling well below City's £50m asking price.

That move is now in jeopardy thanks to Tottenham's involvement, with the club able to offer Champions League football to the striker who has scored 20 Champions League goals across City's past five European campaigns (38 games).

 

TOP STORY – SPURS SWOOP IN WITH OFFER OF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FOOTBALL

There is no doubt about Jesus' ability to perform at the highest level, scoring at least seven goals in each of his Premier League seasons since arriving as a 19-year-old. He has also added more creativity to his game, with 21 Premier League assists in his past three campaigns compared to 10 from his first three with City.

The Mirror reports another aspect of his game that Spurs boss Antonio Conte values is his willingness to play out wide on a wing, which means he could still complement star Harry Kane if their formation only calls for one striker.

It is not mentioned whether Tottenham are willing to meet City's asking price, but a second serious bidder will mean Arsenal's desire to land him for a much smaller figure is likely no longer possible.

 

ROUND-UP

– Chelsea will loan striker Romelu Lukaku back to Inter for a fee of at least £8.5m, according to the Daily Mail.

– The Athletic is reporting that Raheem Sterling has been asking friends about life in west London after Fabrizio Romano revealed Chelsea had a £21.5m bid turned down for the City winger.

– Fabrizio Romano claims Manchester United are preparing another bid for Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, but if Barcelona will not bring their asking price down, the Old Trafford club are prepared to pivot to Wolves' Ruben Neves.

– According to Sport, Bayern Munich are demanding €50m from Barcelona for Robert Lewandowski, while the Spanish club are currently offering €40m plus performance bonuses.

Newcastle United have been told by Bayer Leverkusen that 22-year-old French winger Moussa Diaby will cost €50m, according to The Sun.

With Marcus Rashford reportedly drawing interest from Italy, Spain and even Tottenham, Manchester United are trying to keep him at Old Trafford by placing a price-tag on him "between £70million and £80m".

In a disappointing campaign, the 24-year-old scored just five goals from 32 games in all club competition, and he did not play a full 90 minutes in any of the five Champions League fixtures he was healthy for (subbed on twice, subbed off three times).

His Premier League season also did not go to plan, missing the first seven games due to a shoulder injury, and finishing with 12 of his 25 appearances coming off the bench.

TOP STORY – RED DEVILS LOOK TO KEEP RIVALS AWAY FROM RASHFORD

The exact figures of "between £70m and £80m" came from Italian super-agent Roberto De Fanti during an exclusive interview with CaughtOffside, where he said he expected United to ask for "around £40m, maybe £50m."

De Fanti mentioned he was aware of interest from "all the top sides in Spain and Italy" and that Rashford's management had met with Tottenham about a potential deal, but Spurs "feel negotiating a deal for Rashford is virtually impossible" due to the asking price.

Emphasising that it is not a case of United trying to scrounge every possible dollar out of a sale, De Fanti said "United are confident a club is unlikely to pay that [figure]", and that he is not on the list of players Erik ten Hag is planning on selling to fund up to six new signings.

 

ROUND-UP

– According to The Sun, Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku has been contacting Inter since Christmas in an attempt to expedite a transfer away from Stamford Bridge.

– Todofichajes is reporting Liverpool view Chelsea's Christian Pulisic as a potential replacement for Sadio Mane, with the American's price-tag said to be in the range of £42m.

West Ham United sent scouts to watch Denmark's recent Nations League fixture, with the Daily Star reporting they are interested in both Christian Eriksen and Atalanta right-back Joakim Maehle.

– According to De Telegraaf, Barcelona are willing to part ways with Frenkie de Jong if they receive what they perceive to be a fair offer, with Manchester United leading the race.

– The Express is reporting that Newcastle United have set their sights on Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin after missing out on Bayer Leverkusen star Moussa Diaby.

After a cardiac episode at Euro 2020, there were questions about whether Christian Eriksen would ever be able to play football again, let alone at the highest level.

But less than a year after being released from his contract at Inter, the Denmark international is a hot commodity once again.

Since signing with Brentford on a six-month deal, Eriksen has displayed the quality that saw him net 69 goals over six and a half seasons for Tottenham, and now Premier League teams are circling.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE WANT ERIKSEN AS FLAGSHIP SIGNING

Tottenham have been linked with Eriksen in a potential reunion in the upcoming transfer window, but they are reportedly going to have to contend with Newcastle United, who wish to make him a "flagship" signing, per the Northern Echo.

Being out of contract, Eriksen will have his pick of potential suitors, yet Newcastle will likely have deep enough pockets to contend with anyone serious about adding the midfielder.

Since his return from the bench against Newcastle, Brentford have won all four Premier League matches in which Eriksen has played 90 minutes, including a 4-1 away win at Chelsea, where he scored.

 

ROUND-UP

– Football Insider is reporting Mohamed Salah is close to signing an extension with Liverpool that will pay him £400,000 per week.

West Ham have entered the race for Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby, per Calciomercato.

– 90min is reporting Edinson Cavani may be Manchester United's "secret weapon" in their quest to sign fellow Uruguay striker Darwin Nunez from Benfica in the upcoming transfer window.

Cardiff City and Tottenham are joint-favourites to land the services of Wales international Gareth Bale when his contract with Real Madrid expires in June, per Wales Online.

– According to the Chronicle, both Arsenal and Newcastle are heavily linked with Lyon midfielder Lucas Paqueta, who is expected to fetch a price of around £58million.

Georginio Wijnaldum only joined Paris Saint-Germain in June but is reportedly unsettled.

The 31-year-old Dutch midfielder had signed a three-year deal with the Parisians.

Wijnaldum has been linked with several clubs given his situation.

TOP STORY – VILLA PLOT WIJNALDUM MOVE

Steven Gerrard's Aston Villa are considering a move for PSG's Wijnaldum , claims Sport.

Gerrard is keeping tabs on ex-Liverpool midfielder Wijnaldum, who is reportedly ready to leave PSG whom he joined less than 12 months ago.

The Villans were quoted with a £21million price tag for Wijnaldum who is contracted until 2024.

 

ROUND-UP

- Marca claims that 35-year-old Luis Suarez will leave Atletico Madrid at the end of this season, with Inter, Ajax and Sevilla pursuing him along with unnamed Brazilian clubs.

- Newcastle United will table a £50m offer for Bayer Leverkusen's French winger Moussa Diaby,  according to the Mail. Leverkusen have set a £75m valuation for Diaby.

- PSG want to re-sign Italy international forward Moise Kean, who is currently on loan at Juventus from Everton, claims Calciomercato. Kean was on loan at PSG last season, netting 17 goals in 41 appearances.

- Football Insider reports that Arsenal are monitoring Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins as a cut-price forward option if moves for Alexander Isak, Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Darwin Nunez fail to materialise.

Paris Saint-Germain continue to plan for Kylian Mbappe's potential departure. 

The Ligue 1 giants have been linked with several possible replacements. 

Robert Lewandowski is the latest rumoured target.

 

TOP STORY – PSG EYE LEWANDOWSKI AS MBAPPE REPLACEMENT

With seemingly everyone expecting Kylian Mbappe to depart Paris Saint-Germain after the season, the club have been linked with several potential attacking options. 

Robert Lewandowski is the latest, with Le10Sport reporting the Bayern Munich and Poland striker could make a lucrative move to PSG. 

The 33-year-old is under contract with Bayern through 2023, though, and could end up agreeing to a new deal to remain in the Bundesliga. 

 

ROUND-UP

Real Madrid are set to take another run at Manchester United's Edinson Cavani during the January transfer window, says El Nacional. 

Andrea Pirlo and River Plate's Marcelo Gallardo are candidates to replace Ronald Koeman if he is sacked by Barcelona in the coming days, the Express reports. 

PSG are eyeing midfield help, with Inter's Nicolo Barella a possibility, according to Calciomercato, along with N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Franck Kessie.

Liverpool are interested in Bayer Leverkusen winger Moussa Diaby, according to Calciomercato. 

Timo Werner could look to leave Chelsea if he does not receive more playing time the rest of the season, says the Telegraph.

The first international break of the 2021-22 campaign has arrived, and with it comes an opportunity for many national teams to start afresh.

Following the conclusion of the Copa America, Gold Cup and Euro 2020 in quick succession, all roads now lead to the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

For a number of players, the September qualifiers provide an opportunity to make an impression, while for others it is potentially a first taste of international football. 

With the games coming thick and fast over the next week or so, Stats Perform has looked at those in contention to make their senior international debuts.

Albert Sambi Lokonga (Belgium)

Belgium's golden generation of talent missed another opportunity to turn promise into something more tangible when losing to eventual winners Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals.

Roberto Martinez has decided against wholesale changes after that disappointment, with Lokonga the only outfield player in line for his first cap, having failed to get further than the bench – against Greece in June – after previous call-ups.

A product of the same Anderlecht youth system that oversaw the development of Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker, among others, Lokonga sealed a move to Arsenal in July after impressing in the Belgian top flight.

The £15million signing has not had the best of starts to life at Arsenal, the Gunners finding themselves bottom of the English top-flight table having played at least three league matches for the first time since October 1974.

Lokonga, noted for his ability to play in front of the defence, featured in just two of those games yet still trails Granit Xhaka alone in terms of passes (113 to 139) and successful passes (97 to 118) and is behind only Sead Kolasinac for interceptions.

 

Claudinho (Brazil)

Citing concerns over the availability of his European-based contingent due to clubs being reluctant to release players to red-list countries, Tite has named a bloated Brazil squad for this month's triple-header of World Cup qualifiers.

Those complications appear set to deny Raphinha a debut, having impressed during his first year in the Premier League with Leeds United. 

Raphinha ranks seventh in the division for dribbles attempted since the start of last season (142), completing 42.96 per cent of those. He also ranks in the top 10 for chances created over that period with 68.

But Claudinho remains in line to be capped for the first time, called up after helping his country secure Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

The midfielder, whose signing at Zenit was announced not long after the Olympic tournament had concluded, described his call-up as "a dream come true".

Theo Hernandez and Moussa Diaby (France)

It is out with the old and in with the new as far as France's first post-Euros squad is concerned – to an extent, at least, with Olivier Giroud one of nine players to make way from the previous group named by Didier Deschamps.

Injuries have also played a part in that, potentially giving a quartet of uncapped players the chance to impress in the upcoming qualifiers with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine and Finland.

Hernandez, a more natural left-back option than brother Lucas, will feel his first call-up is long overdue following back-to-back campaigns as a regular for Milan, whom he joined from Real Madrid. 

Since making his Rossoneri bow in September 2019, no defender in Serie A has completed more dribbles than Hernandez (133), while only Federico Dimarco (87) and Juan Cuadrado (107) have created more chances than his 86.

Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and Roma's Jordan Veretout may also feature during this international break, but perhaps the most exciting of the new additions is Bayer Leverkusen winger Diaby.

The Paris Saint-Germain product scored twice and assisted another in Leverkusen's opening two Bundesliga games of 2021-22, while Alphonso Davies is the only player in the division to have attempted more dribbles this term (24 to his 22).

Known for his blistering pace and ability to take on opponents, Diaby could well provide Deschamps with a different option in an attack already packed full of talent.

 

Otavio (Portugal)

Three new players have been called up by Fernando Santos, who is looking to the future after his Portugal side's reign as European champions came to an end in July.

Goncalo Inacio is injured, but Diogo Costa and Otavio could each make their senior debuts during this international window, with the latter the name on many lips right now.

Otavio has tallied 11 goal involvementss in each of the past two Primeira Liga campaigns for Porto and has made a fast start to the new season with two assists in his first four games.

Since the start of last season, only team-mate Mehdi Taremi has provided more assists (12) in the Portuguese top flight than Otavio's 10, coming from 51 chances created.

The Brazilian-born attacking midfielder was granted Portuguese citizenship earlier this year and will be eager to show that Brazil's loss is very much Portugal's gain should he get some minutes over the next week.

Ricardo Pepi (United States)

The dual-national drama surrounding Pepi appears to have reached a resolution as the FC Dallas forward has seemingly pledged his allegiance to the United States over Mexico.

After breaking into the Dallas side two years ago and featuring regularly last year, 2021 has been quite the season for the El Paso-born youngster.

Pepi, who does not turn 19 until next January, has 11 goals and two assists in 21 games this term and scored the decisive kick in last week's penalty shoot-out win for MLS against their Liga MX counterparts in the All-Star Game.

He has 13 MLS goals in total, the fourth-most ever by a teenager – ahead of Freddy Adu – and just nine short of the record held by Diego Fagundez.

On the basis of the past four months in particular, the USMNT could have a potentially world-class player to lead their line for a number of years to come.

 

Karim Adeyemi (Germany)

For the first time in 17 years, Germany will play a match without Joachim Low in their dugout either as assistant or head coach when they face Liechtenstein on Thursday.

Hansi Flick is tasked with ushering in a new generation of German talents, with help from the old guard, many of whom were key to his successful spell at Bayern Munich.

Away from regulars such as Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Manuel Neuer, Flick has included four uncapped players in his first squad – David Raum, Nico Schlotterbeck, Florian Wirtz and Adeyemi.

A technically gifted and supremely fast winger, Adeyemi has long been considered one of Germany's most promising young players, having cost Salzburg a reported €3m when he was 16.

Adeyemi, who left Bayern six years earlier, has been given the chance to spread his wings with Salzburg and has been strongly linked with Red Bull sister club RB Leipzig.

He already has six goals in six Austrian Bundesliga appearances this term, just one less than he managed in 29 top-flight appearances last time out – a return he will be looking to build on if he is given the nod by Flick.

Justin Bijlow (Netherlands)

The Netherlands are another European heavyweight going through a transitional period of sorts after turning to veteran coach Louis van Gaal for a third stint in charge.

Frank de Boer failed to get the most out of this talented Dutch squad and already Van Gaal has put his own mark on the team by calling up a few newbies.

There will be plenty of focus on the goalkeeping position as, with Jasper Cillessen not fully fit and Maarten Stekelenburg recently retiring, Joel Drommel and Bijlow can stake a claim to be the long-term number one.

Bijlow is considered one of the finest young goalkeepers in Europe and already has 45 Eredivisie games under his belt for Feyenoord, where he is a real fan favourite.

The 23-year-old has kept 15 clean sheets across those appearances and boasts a save percentage of 72.16. Van Gaal can seemingly rely on the young stopper, as he has made just one error leading to a goal.

"There is a spirit in the team but also the club – a dynamic in the last months and last years. That should lead us one day to a title, that's our big goal."

Bayer Leverkusen are one of Germany's biggest clubs, but not since the 1993 DFB-Pokal have they celebrated silverware.

Leverkusen have come close on numerous occasions in the Bundesliga – runners-up in 1997, 1999, 2000, 20002 and 2011, while they also reached the 2002 Champions League final, succumbing to Zinedine Zidane's iconic volley in Glasgow.

There were also runners-up appearances in the DFB-Pokal – 20002, 2009 and 2020. But an exciting and entertaining Leverkusen, even in the post-Kai Havertz era, are on the right track amid Bayern Munich's domestic and European dominance.

Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform News: "It's not easy if you're playing with the best team in the world – Bayern – but we have made a step forward and quite close to the top. We want to go forward. If it happens this year, fantastic. But we want to proceed and develop the squad, and mentality."

When star Havertz left for Chelsea at the start of the season in a transfer that could rise to €100million, and Kevin Volland joined Monaco, it left a noticeable hole at BayArena, where the pair scored 30 goals across all competitions in 2019-20.

But led by prodigy Florian Wirtz and a thrilling core of players, including Moussa Diaby, Leon Bailey and Nadiem Amiri, Leverkusen are continuing to challenge this term.

Leverkusen are third in the Bundesliga – three points behind RB Leipzig and 10 adrift of reigning champions Bayern – while Peter Bosz's side are preparing to face Young Boys in the Europa League last 32 and Rot-Weiss Essen in the DFB-Pokal round of 16.

With Havertz having departed, Leverkusen have a better goals/game ratio (2.5) through 26 games across all competitions this season, compared to 1.8 in 2019-20. The club have also improved defensively – goals conceded/game (1.0) and expected goals against (1.0) are better than last term (1.3) and (1.4) respectively.

Collecting 32 points, Leverkusen have played the best first half of a Bundesliga season for seven years – they collected 37 points at this stage in 2013-14.

Leverkusen have also exceeded their xG value of 23.1 to almost nine goals (8.9) – only Bayern have a greater margin between goals and xG (13.9). 

"In general yes because it's a chance for other players to develop and take more responsibility in the team and on the pitch," Rolfes, who was appointed in 2018, said when asked if he was always confident following the exits of Havertz and Volland. "We had the view that there could be other players who could take a step forward. The only thing for sure is Havertz is a world-class player, a fantastic guy and player. It's very difficult to replace him, so we said, it's not our direction to find a replacement for Kai because you will never find that replacement.

"We said okay, we will give our own players the chance to grow, this strategy works out very fast. It's always a risk for sure, but we have the confidence in those players to make a step forward, and also the team. If your superstar is gone, everyone knows we have to give more.

"We try to build-up, play offensive with ball possession, straightforward – the kind of style we showed against Borussia Dortmund [2-1 on January 19] is what we want. We want to have the ball, a lot of clubs and trainers are speaking to play without the ball, in Germany it's very popular, but we want to have the ball and want players who want the ball."

The emergence of teenage sensation Wirtz, and development of Diaby, Bailey, Edmond Tapsoba and Amiri, has further highlighted Leverkusen's successful recruitment and philosophy, which has become synonymous with German clubs.

"You have to have a clear strategy," Rolfes, who made almost 400 appearances for Leverkusen between 2005 and 2015, said. "A clear strategy of recruitment but also your playing style. That's really important for players but also the success of a club – both are strongly connected. For your playing style, you have to sign the right players. Then you have the chance that the players adapt quicker and develop better in your system because they feel comfortable in the way of playing. That's crucial.

"We know the Bundesliga, financially solid, but we are not at the top that we can sign every player, we have to develop players. The strategy is to recruit good players for our style and develop them to the top. Some clubs in Germany are quite successful with this."

"We are focusing on that talent and try to find them," he said. "We analyse millions of data with artificial intelligence, to pre-select and be early. It's not because we know players other clubs do not know, maybe 20 years ago, but everything is transparent. But you have to find them a bit quicker, but also clear in your playing style and what can they develop with your training work, in which areas they can develop in weak points. Because we are not signing players where everything is 100 per cent, we know they have weak points, but we know we have to work with them on that."

Data and AI continue to play a huge role in football, with Rolfes adding: "It's very important and because the data will be better and better, it will become much more important in the future because you will get better results. We are working with our own team on scouting, preparing for next matches – just in our daily work."

The likes of Michael Ballack, Toni Kroos, Bernd Leno and Havertz have all made names for themselves at Leverkusen, and Rolfes continued: "We count on the young players [at Leverkusen]. We give them trust and the opportunity to play. For example, Wirtz, we give him the chance to replace Havertz and not sign another star to put in front of him. That is one thing.

"We have a very professional environment, we really take care of the guys – try to develop them, work on the pitch and prepare them for top football. We have an advantage that the media surrounding is not so big here. That's good for young players to have a familiar environment where they feel very comfortable and less stressful, then try to reach the best level on the pitch."

Wirtz is the heir apparent to Havertz, having made an immediate impact after the 17-year-old swapped Cologne for Leverkusen in 2020.

Having made his debut in May 2020, Wirtz became the youngest goalscorer in Bundesliga history the following month, finding the net in a 4-2 defeat to Bayern after coming on as a substitute. Dortmund's Youssoufa Moukoko has since snatched that record.

Among all players with at least 50 dribbles in this season's Bundesliga, only Augsburg's Daniel Caligiuri has a better dribbles success rate (70 per cent) than Wirtz (65 per cent). 

Wirtz is one of 50 players born in 2003 or earlier to appear in Europe's top five leagues this season. Those 50 players have collected a total of 14 goal involvements – with seven of them coming from Wirtz. 

Among all players in Europe's top five leagues born in 2003 or earlier, Wirtz played the most minutes in all competitions this season (1,579) and had the most goal involvements in all comps (11 – six goals and five assists). 

"I saw him for the first time at 13. Now I have to say, he is playing Bundesliga the same way he was playing at 13, 14, 15, 16 – I followed him all the years. I always said okay, that's the player for us, the player for Leverkusen. That was not a surprise for me when he came to us and adapted very quick to our style," former Germany international Rolfes said.

"It was also one argument I said to him during the transfer. I said, 'you are a player for us, you will develop your skills and strengths much better because that's what we need in our style'. His development is fantastic."

Like Havertz, Bailey could be the next Leverkusen star to leave amid constant speculation over his future.

The 23-year-old winger, who has scored four goals and supplied five assists in the 2020-21 Bundesliga so far, has been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City and Rolfes is unwilling to sell the Jamaican to just any club.

"He's played a fantastic season," Rolfes said. "He struggled a bit last season, but he is performing at a very high level. A good guy in the squad. He has a chance to score goals for sure. A fantastic technique. That's part of lives also, to sell players but we want to sell to the top eight clubs in the world, but not to other clubs. Sometimes a player will leave us. We have a contract with Bailey but we are quite relaxed."

Diaby is another prime example for Leverkusen, where the accelerating Frenchman has 561 sprints in the league this season, more than any other player. 

The former Paris Saint-Germain speedster has been involved in 15 goals in all competitions in this season (in 26 games) – with his next goal involvement the 21-year-old would already reach his value from his first season in Leverkusen (16 in 39 games). 

"When we extended the contract until 2025, that was a really nice Christmas present to extend the contracts of Diaby, Tapsoba and Wirtz," Rolfes said. "[Diaby] is a key player of our squad. His acceleration and speed is outstanding. He has developed on scoring and assisting. To use his acceleration on a top, top level. He has potential to develop further. I'm very, very happy he is part of our squad."

Meanwhile, Timothy Fosu-Mensah could be the latest success story for Leverkusen, who also completed the signing of Netherlands Under-20 international Jeremie Frimpong from Celtic on Wednesday.

After joining Manchester United's academy in 2014, the 23-year-old called time on his Old Trafford stay in January, and Rolfes said: "He is not so young but the last two years, you had the feeling there was more in the box than there was in the last two years. That's interesting for us, to sign that kind of player where you have the feeling they can reach more. We want to help him.

"Timothy is a really good guy, ambitious guy. I like this. He has the ability, the physicality, very fast, a good technique. A lot of fundamental things that are important for our playing style. Then if the mentality and ambition isn't right, then let's work on that to develop you. I'm convinced Timothy can be the next example for our club."

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