"He wants to come."

Barcelona president Joan Laporta did not mince his words when speaking about the possibility of the Blaugrana signing Raphinha.

Last week, Chelsea struck a deal with Leeds United – reported to be worth around £55million with add-ons taking the total fee to more than £60m – to take the Brazil winger from Elland Road to Stamford Bridge.

That agreement seemingly saw Chelsea pip London rivals Arsenal to the post after a high-profile pursuit.

Yet a deal that seemed set for a swift resolution has, as of yet, not been completed, and that is because, if Laporta is to be believed, the 25-year-old is prioritising a switch not to Stamford Bridge, but Camp Nou.

Barca have been consistently linked to Raphinha, who has established himself as one of the most exciting attackers in the Premier League since his move to Leeds from Rennes in September 2020.

Yet Laporta acknowledged that, despite Raphinha's wish to join Barca – whose financial issues make matching Chelsea's offer to Leeds problematic – the race is not won.

"We've spoken to Leeds, I don't think they will be offended," he explained. "We have communication and we have spoken personally. 

"What happens is that there are other clubs that want Raphinha and they are making their proposals."

At this stage, it does seem to be a two-horse race. Previously, with Barca's interest having seemed to have cooled, Arsenal looked well set to beat their rivals Tottenham to the winger, but it was then Chelsea who stole a march.

Bayern Munich have been credited with an interest in the past, but Sadio Mane's switch to Bavaria has ruled the German champions out.

But just why has Raphinha, a somewhat under-the-radar arrival in Yorkshire under two years ago, been so coveted?
 

Brazilian stardust meets street fighter spirit

Brazil. The home of the Copacabana, festivals and beautiful football. Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Pele, Kaka, Neymar, Zico, Socrates... the list of world-class talent produced by the South American nation is endless. They are five-time world champions for a reason.

But while Brazilian flair remains in abundance, the most recent success stories when it comes to the players that have struck gold, in the Premier League at least, have been those who have merged that national talent with steel, grit and robustness perhaps more associated with the likes of Argentina, Uruguay or the northern European nations.

Raphinha fits that bill, and like Premier League-based compatriots Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison, always seemed set to move for pastures new this off-season.

His talent cannot be doubted. Since making his Leeds debut, he has directly contributed to 29 Premier League goals, scoring 17 times and providing 12 assists, at least five more than any team-mates in the period.

 

The variety of his strikes has also been hugely impressive, with seven of his league goals for Leeds coming from outside the area. Only one player – Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse – can boast a better total (nine) in the same time frame.

Raphinha's 11 league goals last season marked his best performance since the 15 he netted in the 2017-18 campaign, when he played for Vitoria Guimaraes in Portugal. He did not score as freely for Sporting CP, and only managed seven goals during his sole full season with Rennes in France.

Leeds' system, particularly under former manager Marcelo Bielsa and even still under Jesse Marsch, is physically demanding.

Raphinha, however, proved more than up to the task. Indeed, last season, he was a standout performer when it came to both targeted off-ball runs into the final third, and the number of sprints made per 90 minutes. 

A tireless runner, Raphinha offers both sides of the game.

He compares competitively when stacked up against Tottenham new boy Richarlison, one of the hardest working wide players in the Premier League across his time with Everton and a player that Raphinha competes with for a place in the Brazil side.

Raphinha's duel success rate of 42.6 per cent falls just short of Richarlison's 43.4 per cent, since the winger's league debut for Leeds on October 19, 2020, while the pair have won the same number of tackles (42), albeit Richarlison's success percentage of 59.7 compared to Raphinha's 54.1 puts him ahead in that regard.

Nevertheless, whichever club gets Raphinha is buying not just attacking output, but defensive steel.
 

Top-class creativity 

As mentioned, Raphinha's attacking output is up there with the best the Premier League has had to offer in recent seasons, especially when Leeds' struggles last season are taken into account.

Only four forwards have created more goals in the competition than Raphinha since his Premier League debut, and just one – Tottenham star Son Heung-min (131) – has created more chances in total than his tally of 129.

Of those opportunities, 85 came from open play, ranking him third in the division's attackers behind Mane (93) and Mohamed Salah (101), with his 22 big chances trailing only Salah and Harry Kane (both 26).

 

Raphinha has attempted 286 dribbles, the third-highest total in the league behind Adama Traore and Allan Saint-Maximin, though his success rate (41.3) trails some way behind that duo.

Four forwards had more than Raphinha's 155 shots, though his conversion rate of just under 11 per cent shows an area of improvement if he is to succeed at one of Europe's elite clubs.
 

World Cup hopes

It was in Portugal, not his homeland, that Raphinha made his name, but ahead of Qatar 2022, he seems a shoo-in to make Tite's squad.

He has won nine caps since his first selection in October last year, when he assisted twice on just his second appearance in a 3-1 win over Venezuela before scoring twice on his full debut in a 4-1 rout of Uruguay. Raphinha's third international strike came in a 4-0 defeat of Paraguay.

While a place on the plane to Qatar should be secured, barring injury, Raphinha will be determined to ensure he is fighting for a place in Tite's starting XI.

Brazil's coach has plenty of options to choose from for both flanks; the aforementioned Richarlison and Jesus can play central or wide, while Real Madrid star Vinicius Junior is surely a certainty to start on the left. Ajax's Antony, Madrid's Rodrygo and Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli and Everton, now back in Brazil with Flamengo, are all likely to be in that fight, too. 

Should he get his move to either London or Barcelona, Raphinha will get the opportunity to show Tite he truly can perform on the biggest stage.

Corentin Tolisso is hopeful that his move from Bayern Munich to Lyon will help secure him a return to the France fold ahead of the World Cup.

The 27-year-old's return to Lyon, with whom he started his career, was confirmed on Friday following the expiration of his Bayern contract. 

Tolisso spent five trophy-laden campaigns at the Allianz Arena, but he started just 12 matches in all competitions in an injury-plagued 2021-22 campaign.

He did not feature for France at all last season, with the most recent of his 28 senior caps coming at last year's rescheduled Euro 2020.

But after completing a move back to Lyon on a five-year deal, Tolisso is targeting a place in Didier Deschamps' squad in time for Qatar 2022.

"I didn't talk with [Deschamps about the decision. It was a personal one, though I talked a lot about it with my agents and my family," he said at a news conference.

"We said it was the best decision for me. The future will tell if I was right or wrong. Lyon is the right club for me to return to the French team and go to the World Cup.

"I am very proud and happy to be back in Lyon. The project seduced me. It's a good thing for me and my personal goal, which is to play in the World Cup."

Tolisso was a member of France's World Cup-winning squad four years ago and also won five Bundesliga titles and the Champions League during his time in Bavaria.

Injuries, including a cruciate ligament rupture that ruled the midfielder out for the majority of the 2018-19 season, restricted him to 118 games in five years with Bayern.

However, the Lyon youth product feels he learned a lot with the German giants and does not believe his injury issues are any longer a concern.

"I learned on both a human and professional level," he said. "I remember the trophies and how we won them. There are many things to remember. 

"I remember a lot of positive things. Of course, there were not only positive things, but that's also part of life, that's how it is. The negative experiences helped me to grow.

"I have gained more maturity and experience; I have learned a lot at Bayern Munich in these five years. I grew and learnt a new system, a new culture, a new mentality.

"As for the injuries, I passed the medical, which is already a good point. It's true that I had problems.

"I previously said that my worries were more psychological and mental than physical, for reasons I won't necessarily reveal today. 

"A lot of things have been going on in my head over the last year that have influenced the large number of injuries I've had. I did a lot of physical preparation. 

"Now I am ready. I passed some [physical] tests yesterday. It went extremely well so everyone can be reassured about my fitness. There will be no problem."

FIFA has confirmed it will utilise semi-automated VAR offside technology at the Qatar 2022 World Cup later this year, says head of refereeing Pierluigi Collina.

The move to introduce further advancements in the VAR process for this year's showpiece tournament has been ongoing over the past few months.

Following trials at the Arab Cup and Club World Cup, the fresh processes – which can cut VAR decision-making from 70 seconds to 25 seconds – is set to be implemented in the Gulf State in November.

Collina, a former World Cup final referee when he took charge of Brazil's win over Germany at Korea/Japan 2002, says the time is now to bring in semi-automated technology, which will further enhance decision-making.

"We are very positive. It is ready," he stated. "I read about robot referees. I understand this is very good for headlines, but it is not the case.

"The match officials are still involved in the decision-making process. The semi-automated technology only gives an answer when a player is in an offside position when they play the ball.

"The assessment of interfering with an opponent and seeing if a handball or foul was committed remains at the discretion of the referee. Our goal is to get referees taking decisions correctly on the field.

"If something wrong should happen, the referee may take advantage of the technology to get a better vision of what happened – but there will still be room for discussion."

Semi-automated technology will make use of in-ball sensors, dedicated multi-tracking camera rigs and 29 rapid data points on players to help calculate exact positions.

The Qatar 2022 World Cup opens on November 21, with Senegal facing the Netherlands and England squaring off with Iran before the hosts play the official opening game against Ecuador.

Spain's triumph at Euro 2012 proved to be the final flourish for one of the greatest ever international sides, with La Roja winning three consecutive international tournaments.

Prior to victory in Euro 2008, Spain had not won an international competition since 1964 and had been perennial underachievers. 

But that swiftly changed with the Euros win followed up by World Cup success in South Africa in 2010 before the successful defence of their continental crown.

The triumph in 2012 was the end of an era, however, with Spain eliminated in the group stages of the 2014 World Cup, bowing out at in the last 16 at Euro 2016 and then losing to hosts Russia on penalties at the 2018 World Cup.

However, a turn in fortunes was shown at Euro 2020, played in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, when Spain reached the semi-finals of the competition, narrowly losing to eventual champions Italy.

Now, all eyes are focused on Qatar this year. With Spain in a tough group alongside Germany, Japan and Costa Rica, a new dawn of young talents will be decisive to the hopes of the nation.
 

Pedri

Pedri's international debut came in Spain's second World Cup qualifying match against Georgia and he soon established himself as a core part of the squad for Euro 2020, where he played all but a single minute and was named Young Player of the Tournament.

In the semi-final against Italy, Pedri shone as he completed 65 of 67 passing attempts and overall at the tournament, he failed to complete just 40 of 461 attempts, resulting in a passing accuracy of 91 per cent.

Understandably, this has led to the general consensus that Pedri is the heir apparent to Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who were vital for Spain's glory years a decade ago, and under the stewardship of the former at Barcelona, expectations are high.

Still a teenager and only turning 20 in the days after what is expected to be his World Cup debut against Costa Rica on November 23, his calm and composed demeanour will help to keep Spain ticking through midfield in Qatar.

Gavi

The other half of Barcelona's exciting midfield duo, Gavi too has settled into Spain's international fold since his debut appearance in the semi-finals of the Nations League against Italy – where he became the youngest-ever player to represent Spain's senior squad.

A further record would tumble last month in the Nations League clash against the Czech Republic, where he became his country's youngest-ever scorer, and he has accumulated 10 appearances for his national side in less than a year.

Gavi's creativity has proven to be a stellar asset for his national side and his movement across the field, shown by his touches during his international career, is extremely difficult to track – and noticeably touches inside the box are few and far between.

Just 14 of 321 touches have come inside the 18-yard box, with his work tending to orientate from a deeper role. That is reflected by his passes – with just eight passing attempts inside the box and the remaining 234 coming outside.

Ansu Fati

Earning an international debut in September 2020 against Germany, then scoring a few days later against Ukraine, Ansu Fati notched up four caps for Spain before the close of that year but injury problems derailed his progress for club and country.

A nine-month absence began in November 2020, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season, and a further injury setback occurred in January this year which saw him miss three months of the campaign before his return in May.

While his international football has been limited ahead of the World Cup, expectations remain high at Barcelona where he has netted 19 goals during his career – with 15 of those strikes coming from inside the box.

That results in a significant asset for Spain, as Pedri and Gavi often provide the sort of passes that Fati thrives on.

Fati could prove particularly important given La Roja are limited with central options in the attacking third.

Eric Garcia

While not commanding as many headlines as other young talents within the Spain squad, Eric Garcia's role in the years ahead is vital given the ageing defensive line La Roja have at their disposal.

In the most recent call-ups in June, Garcia was the only defender under the age of 25 and one of only three beneath 30, alongside Pau Torres and Diego Llorente, which shows a clear changing of the guard lying ahead.

Garcia is likely to be one of the first names on Spain's teamsheet in the heart of defence, with 17 caps since making his international debut in 2020 and having started five of Spain's World Cup qualifying matches.

In true Spain style, one of his greatest assets is his ability on the ball and he showcased that last month in Spain's 2-0 Nations League against the Czech Republic, where Garcia completed 110 of 115 pass attempts.

Pedri has been hailed as "the Iniesta, the Xavi" of the Spain team that will go after World Cup glory in Qatar.

The praise came from former Liverpool and Newcastle United left-back Jose Enrique, a player who was crowded out of the Spain squad by the country's last golden generation.

Jose Enrique's peak playing years coincided with Spain's most dominant period in international football, and although he does not consider Luis Enrique's squad quite at that same level, the likes of Barcelona youngster Pedri make him optimistic for the World Cup.

Spain won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and Euro 2012 in a sensational period of dominance. They have not won a major tournament since, but a burgeoning group of young talent is emerging once again, with 19-year-old midfielder Pedri among the most exciting talents in the world game.

"To me, the player that has more projection in terms of image on that team is Pedri, he won't be out of the team," said Jose Enrique.

"You also have Ferran Torres doing well for Barcelona and Pau [Torres], the central defender of Villarreal; I think he will be key for the team as well."

Speaking to Stats Perform, Jose Enrique said Spain's final squad for the finals would be "difficult to predict" due to head coach Luis Enrique often filtering players in and out of his squad.

"But to choose one who will make the difference 100 per cent, and that already did in the past, it is Pedri," Jose Enrique said.

"For me, he is the star of the national team, the Iniesta, the Xavi. Back in that day it was different because there were many and that is why Spain won everything. But if you mention Spain now, the first player that comes to my mind is Pedri."

Pedri endured an injury-disrupted 2021-22 season with Barcelona, scoring five goals and having one assist in 22 games across all competitions. Only five Barcelona players created more chances than the 31 he carved out.

In the previous season, he played a team-high 52 matches, going on to win Tuttosport's prized Golden Boy award as Europe's top young talent. He will be expected to continue to grow into his responsible role in coach Xavi's Barcelona team in the new season.

Barcelona greats Xavi and Iniesta were at the heart of Spain's indomitable midfield for their three successive big tournament triumphs.

Jose Enrique was starring in the Premier League at the time but got no further than the Spain Under-21 team, such was the strength throughout the national squad.

He says the current group of players and the pool that brought glory to Spain during a dazzling four-year period cannot be compared, but stressed that does not mean the new breed cannot be successful.

A run to the Euro 2020 semi-finals was a step in the right direction for Spain, after a run of disappointing big-stage performances, fuelling Jose Enrique's belief they will be a threat when Qatar hosts in November and December.

Spain must navigate a challenging group that will see them face Germany, Japan and Costa Rica.

"Spain will always be one of the favourites because I believe that Spain always is," Jose Enrique said. "But to win a World Cup isn't easy and Spain did it: Euro-World Cup-Euro when they had a brutal selection of players, and now it is completely different.

"It has a magnificent coach and a squad that changes depending on the players' performances and I love this about Luis Enrique, but it is true that we cannot compare.

"We now have a young squad with few veterans, and they could win the World Cup because anything can happen in football. England had a very young squad and made it to the [2018 World Cup] semi-finals.

"Youngsters have more support than before and Spain can be a surprise because Luis Enrique knows very well how to play. He has young players but full of desire and hunger. The most important thing for me is to start well. If they do, they are capable to win against any team, and why not Germany."

June 30, 2002, Yokohama. Ronaldo pounces on Rivaldo's dummy to side-foot past Germany's Oliver Kahn, becoming just the ninth man to score twice in a World Cup final and making Brazil champions of the world.

That moment, the pinnacle of the legendary forward's career, remains unmatched to this day for the Selecao, with Brazil failing to add to their five World Cup crowns in the subsequent two decades.

Should Brazil fall short of glory in Qatar later this year, that drought will stretch to at least 24 years, matching their longest wait for World Cup glory since their maiden title in 1958 (also between 1970 and 1994).

For a country whose hopes have been entrusted to such footballing icons as Ronaldinho, Kaka and Neymar in subsequent years, such a drought seems inexplicable, with three quarter-final exits and one historic semi-final humiliation the sum of their efforts since 2002. 

Exactly 20 years on from Brazil's triumph in Japan and South Korea, Stats Perform looks back on that momentous success, questions why it is yet to be repeated, and asks whether Tite's class of 2022 are equipped to bring glory to one of the world's most football-mad nations.

2002: Irresistible Ronaldo fires Selecao to glory in Japan and South Korea

It is no exaggeration to say Brazil's last World Cup win was one of the most impressive triumphs in the competition's history.

Luiz Felipe Scolari's men went from strength to strength after requiring a late Rivaldo penalty to edge a tense opener against eventual third-placed finishers Turkey, winning all seven of their games by an aggregate score of 18-4.

The class of 2002 thus hold the record for the most games won by a nation at a single World Cup, with Ronaldo – coming off an injury-blighted four seasons at Inter in which he managed just 36 Serie A appearances – the star of the show.

Partnering Rivaldo and supplied by Paris Saint-Germain's breakout star Ronaldinho, O Fenomeno netted eight goals across the tournament, the joint-most of any Brazilian at a single World Cup and the highest tally of anyone since West Germany's Gerd Muller struck 10 times in 1970.

 

Ronaldo's 19 shots on target in the tournament has not been matched in any subsequent World Cup, while his total of 34 attempts was more than five different nations managed. 

Quarter-final opponents England, vanquished when Ronaldinho audaciously (perhaps fortuitously) lobbed David Seaman from long-range, were the only side to keep Ronaldo out as he took the competition by storm.

A 25-year-old Ronaldo's final double against Germany represented his 44th and 45th international goals in just his 64th Brazil appearance. He managed just 17 further strikes in the famous yellow shirt during his career.

There was nothing in the 2002 squad's make-up to suggest a long wait for further tournament success was imminent: The experienced Cafu (31 in 2002) and Roberto Carlos (29) were still around in 2006, while future Ballon d'Or winners Ronaldinho (22) and Kaka (20) had their whole careers ahead of them.

How, then, did one of the greatest sides in modern international history contrive to fall so far short in subsequent World Cups?

 

2006-2010: Zidane and Sneijder sparkle as drab Brazil fall short

Brazil looked set for another shot at glory in Germany in 2006. Ronaldinho was crowned the world's best player in 2005; Kaka was to follow in his footsteps in 2007; and Ronaldo had hit a century of goals in his first four seasons with Real Madrid.

Brazil conceded just once in group-stage clashes with Croatia, Australia and Japan before crushing Ghana 3-0 in the last 16, but with Carlos Alberto Parreira cramming his three attacking stars into a rigid 4-4-2 shape, it was France who more closely resembled the Brazil sides of old in the last eight. 

Zinedine Zidane's performance in Frankfurt stands as one of the finest in the competition's history, as he tormented the defending champions' flat midfield before assisting Thierry Henry's winner.

It was the first of two masterful midfield displays to end the World Cup hopes of drab Brazil teams, with Wesley Sneijder assuming Zidane's role as the Netherlands vanquished Dunga's men in South Africa in 2010.

Progressing from the group stages has not been an issue for Brazil. Astonishingly, they are unbeaten in their last 15 group games, last suffering a first-stage defeat against Norway in 1998.

A lack of tactical nous against the world's best, however, has been a legitimate charge, and an understandable one given the identities of some of their head coaches.

Parreira's one Brazilian top-flight title was won way back in 1984, while Dunga's only club-level experience remains, to this day, a dire 2013 campaign with Internacional.

In that context, the return of Scolari, the emergence of Neymar and a home World Cup lifted expectations to monumental levels by 2014, when Brazilian dreams were to be shattered in the most incredible manner imaginable.

2014-2018: Home humiliation and Neymar reliance see Brazilian woes continue

The 2014 World Cup was billed as a festival of football, lit up by jubilant Brazilian crowds and thrilling football – the 171 goals scored across the tournament are the joint-most on record, alongside 1998.

Sadly for Brazil, eventual winners Germany provided 18 of those, with seven coming in a scarcely believable semi-final rout at the Mineirao.

Having gone 5-0 down within 29 minutes in the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva, Scolari's men collapsed to arguably the greatest humiliation in World Cup history and, as almost goes without saying, the heaviest semi-final defeat the tournament has ever seen.

Only when Yugoslavia faced Zaire in 1974 had a side previously been 5-0 up after 29 minutes at a World Cup, but for all the excitement building around the host nation, Brazil's class of 2014 always appeared flawed.

An over-reliance on Neymar – cruelly sidelined by a dreadful quarter-final challenge from Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga – was clear in both 2014 and 2018, when Brazil fell to a 2-1 defeat to a Kevin De Bruyne-inspired Belgium in Russia.

 

Across those two tournaments, Neymar's six goals and two assists saw him directly involved in 42 per cent of Brazil's goals.

Fluminense striker Fred, ridiculed by many for his performances in 2014, wasn't exactly up to the task of replacing his goal threat, while Gabriel Jesus failed to find the net despite starting every match under Tite in 2018.

Indeed, coming into the 2018 tournament, Neymar – with 55 goals in 85 caps, was the only player in the Brazil squad to have scored more than 12 international goals.

Having achieved the rare feat of holding onto his job after leading Brazil at a World Cup, Tite will hope the emergence of several other stars lessens the burden on his number 10 this time around.

The road to Qatar: Can the class of 2022 end World Cup drought? 

Assuming he remains in charge when they face Serbia on November 24, Tite will become the first coach to lead Brazil at back-to-back World Cups since Tele Santana in 1982 and 1986.

While neither of Santana's campaigns ended in glory, the current boss – a Copa Libertadores and FIFA Club World Cup winner – will hope his six years moulding the side will prove invaluable in Qatar.

Brazil have already ended one mini trophy drought under his watch, winning a first Copa America title in 12 years on home soil in 2019 before finishing as runners-up to Argentina two years later.

Most impressively, Brazil triumphed without the injured Neymar in 2019 as Everton Soares top-scored, and the form of a series of Selecao stars has given Tite enviable squad depth.

In Allison and Ederson, he can choose between arguably the top two goalkeepers in the Premier League, while Fabinho was crucial as Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool fell narrowly short of a historic quadruple last term.

Casemiro, who won his fifth Champions League title with Madrid in May, could partner him in a fearsome midfield duo, but most of the excitement is centred on his club team-mate Vinicius Junior, whose 22 goals and 16 assists for Los Blancos last term suggest he can be the man to dovetail with Neymar.

 

After landing an appealing group-stage draw alongside Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon, the excitement around Brazil is building once more.

With the Selecao topping the FIFA World Rankings, having fairly recent a Copa America win under their belts and possessing some of European football's most-effective players, 2022 seems as good a time as any for Brazil to end 20 years of disappointment and bring 'o Jogo Bonito' to the world once more.

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."

Angel Di Maria is concerned he has yet to do enough to guarantee himself a place in Argentina's World Cup squad due to uncertainty surrounding his future at club level.

The 34-year-old is without a club after leaving Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer following a seven-season spell in the French capital.

He has been linked with a number of teams, with Serie A giants Juventus reportedly close to agreeing a one-year deal for the former Manchester United and Real Madrid player.

Speaking earlier this week, meanwhile, newly appointed Rosario Central boss Carlos Tevez revealed he is hoping to bring Di Maria back to the Argentine club.

Di Maria will not have long to settle at his new side before Qatar 2022 begins on November 21, with Argentina in Group C alongside Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland.

And despite playing a key part in his country's successful qualifying campaign with three goals, the free agent is not taking his place in the 26-man squad for granted.

"The only one guaranteed to be in is Lionel Messi," Di Maria, who has appeared at three previous World Cup finals, told TNT Sports. 

"Four months from now you don't know. I have to change clubs, adapt again, play and feel good – that will make a difference."

 

Di Maria is Argentina's fourth-most capped player of all time with 122 appearances, behind only Messi (162), Javier Mascherano (147) and Javier Zanetti (145).

He made 31 appearances for PSG in his final season at the Parc des Princes and registered 13 goal involvements – five goals of his own and a further eight assists.

That is a tally only Neymar (21), Messi (25) and Kylian Mbappe (60) could better among PSG players in the 2021-22 campaign.

Juve remain the favourites to sign Di Maria and the attacking midfielder confirmed the Italian side's interest, as well as commenting on previous links to Barcelona.

"Juventus are the biggest club in Italy and one of the teams interested in me," he said. "Right now I am thinking things through, but I am focused on my holidays and family.

"Barcelona are one of the best teams in the world and I have always had to play against them in the past."

To suggest the next 12 months may well define Lionel Messi's career would be doing a disservice to what we have witnessed up close over the past 18 campaigns. 

From boy wonder to the greatest player ever in the view of many, and now into a new chapter with Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentina forward has nothing to prove to anyone.

And yet on the day he turns 35 – the average age of retirement for a footballer – questions continue to be asked of Messi. 

Will he win a World Cup – still in the eyes of many the real barometer of a truly great player, even in the era of the Champions League – before he retires? 

Can he prove himself in a different country after a mixed first season in France? Both of those questions will be answered before he celebrates his 36th birthday in a year's time.

Stats Perform looks at how Messi's game has already changed, and whether he is still capable of inspiring club and country to glory in possibly the biggest year of his career.
 

MESSI 2.0

Ten months have passed since the shock announcement that Messi was bringing an end to his 21-year association with Barcelona to join Ligue 1 giants PSG.

By his own high standards, Messi's first campaign in Paris was far from great. He scored 11 goals in 34 appearances, down on the 38 scored in his last season with Barca.

And those 11 goals came from an expected goals (xG) value of 16.8, meaning he scored 5.8 goals fewer than he should have based on the quality of his chances.

Among players in Europe's top-five leagues in all competitions last season, only six others had a worse return, with Lille striker Burak Yilmaz (8.11 differential) topping the list.

There were extenuating circumstances, of course, with Messi himself recently opening up on just how badly he struggled after testing positive for coronavirus in January.

The La Masia product also had to adapt to life outside the place he had called home for more than two decades, seeing him take on an entirely different role.

While his scoring figures dropped considerably, Messi set up 14 league goals – only once in his last five seasons at Camp Nou (21 in 2019-20) did he assist more in a campaign.

The majority of his assists last season came from a left-of-centre position outside the box, where he predominantly played alongside Neymar and just off Kylian Mbappe.


RONALDO SHOWS THE WAY

The 11 goals Messi scored at the age of 34 is his lowest return since the eight he netted when aged 18 and still in the infancy of his Barcelona career.

While that can be put down to a change of scenery, and being in the unfamiliar role of having to play second-fiddle to Mbappe, age is also surely a factor.

At 35 – or 34 as he was last season – Messi will inevitably have to rely more on his footballing brain than his legs to give him an advantage over opponents.

As showed by Cristiano Ronaldo, though, age is just a number when it comes to the very best, the Portugal star having scored 75 goals in 102 games since his 35th birthday.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, four months shy of his 41st birthday, has scored an impressive 112 goals in 174 appearances since hitting 35, an age often perceived as being 'over the hill'.


ALL EYES ON QATAR

Playing a supporting role may well be something we must come accustomed to when it comes to club level, but for Argentina Messi very much still remains the main man.

That was clear to see earlier this month when, in his final game in a gruelling campaign, Messi scored all five of Argentina's goals in their thumping friendly win over Estonia.

That five-goal showing rightly attracted plenty of focus, though it was arguably four days earlier in his side's 3-0 'Finalissima' victory over Italy that Messi truly showed his quality.

Messi pulled the strings from a slightly deeper position as Argentina, who also boast the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala, showed their credentials.

He assisted two of Argentina's three goals, including a delightful turn to leave Giovanni Di Lorenzo trailing in his wake before setting up Martinez for a simple finish. 

On the back of ending their 28-year wait for silverware in 2021 with victory at the Copa America, Lionel Scaloni's men now look good value to challenge for the World Cup.

Regardless of any more titles he adds to his collection at PSG, Messi lifting the most famous trophy of them all in Qatar later this year would be the defining image of his career.

Different now he may be, but Messi has a chance to show in his 35th year that he has plenty more left in the tank to turn a great career into the greatest.

Mario Gotze has all the qualities to return to the Germany squad ahead of the World Cup in Qatar, according to former Die Mannschaft coach Joachim Low.

Gotze has won 63 caps for his country and scored an extra-time winner against Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final as Germany lifted the trophy for a fourth time.

The creative midfielder has not appeared for the national side since November 2017, though, when he appeared as a second-half substitute in a friendly against France.

That is due to a lack of club success for the former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich star, who has traded PSV for Eintracht Frankfurt in a reported €4million move to the Europa League winners.

Appearing in the Champions League for Eintracht, alongside returning to the Bundesliga, the 30-year-old will be hopeful of making his way back into the fold for Germany.

Low, who guided Germany to that World Cup triumph in the crowning achievement of his 15-year tenure, says Gotze has the talent to earn a place in Hansi Flick's Die Mannschaft team before the 2022 tournament in Qatar in November.

"He has all the qualities for it," Low told Sky in Germany. "He will play in the Champions League again, he is the focus here in the Bundesliga and wants to impress for the World Cup."

Gotze scored 12 goals and added 11 assists across all competitions for PSV in the 2021-22 season, playing in 52 games, with reports linking him to Serie A champions Milan.

Eintracht swooped in as Oliver Glasner looked to bolster his squad to compete in Europe, but the Germany international's arrival came as a surprise to Low.

"Of course I didn't expect Mario to return to Germany, not at this point in time," he added.

"But I'm very happy for Mario and Eintracht. Mario is an exceptional player, very professional and with his great playing intelligence, he fits in very well with Eintracht."

Gareth Southgate has the full support of the Football Association after chair Debbie Hewitt provided an impassioned defence of the "high IQ" and emotionally intelligent England manager.

England have made it to the World Cup semi-finals and Euro 2020 showpiece under Southgate, the latter of which the Three Lions' first final appearance at a major tournament in 55 years.

But pressure has mounted after a dismal start to their Nations League campaign in June, losing to Hungary twice either side of draws with Germany and Italy to leave England in danger of relegation.

The most recent 4-0 thrashing to Hungary was the first time England have lost a home match by four or more goals since March 1928, when they lost 5-1 to Scotland.

Hungary also became the first team to score four goals in an away match against England since the Hungarians themselves won 6-3 at Wembley in November 1953.

Frustrated supporters could be heard chanting "you don't know what you're doing" at Molineux towards Southgate, who later vowed to not out-stay his welcome in charge.

With the World Cup in Qatar just five months away, Hewitt was quick to outline her support for the 51-year-old despite ongoing questions over his tactics.

"My personal opinion on Gareth is that he is, by the facts on the pitch, the most successful England manager we've had for 55 years," Hewitt told reporters at a news conference.

"The bit people don't see as much is the Gareth at camp and the culture he's created.

"Certainly prior to Gareth being the manager of England, there was not the pride of wearing the England shirt. There were the club rivalries we'd read about. The players not getting on.

"He's changed that beyond recognition and I've seen that first hand.

"I'd also say that I don't just work in football, I work in business and I've worked with a lot of chief executives and Gareth's skills — his high IQ and high EQ — would make him a chief exec in any sphere.

"That resilience and accountability [are] the two qualities I admire most. There are no slopy shoulders, he doesn't huff, he's resilient and that's what you want in an England manager."

While offering her support publicly, Hewitt says the reaction of Southgate to private conversations expressing the FA's backing also highlighted his credible demeanour.

"Gareth's reaction, as in everything with that sort of conversation, was that it is his accountability, there's always something to learn," she continued.

"That's why it's refreshing working with somebody like that because that openness to learn is quite remarkable and quite unusual in any sphere."

Southgate took charge, initially as caretaker manager, in 2016 and impressed after Sam Allardyce's one-game tenure, with the former Middlesbrough manager earning the permanent job.

After England qualified for the World Cup in Qatar with victory over San Marino in November 2021, Southgate was handed a three-year extension, keeping him as Three Lions' manager until December 2024.

The World Cup will start just one year after he signed the long-term extension and debate has been sparked over whether conducting negotiations was sensible before the results and performances in that tournament are known, but Hewitt assures the correct decision was made.

"I don't think we would be discussing [the contract] had we not had the recent series of games. Clearly, we did that [agreed the new deal] with proper discussion and thought," she added.

"The fact that there's been a stumble does not make us automatically say 'should we have given him a contract?' It is a red herring.

"We have confidence in Gareth for all the reasons I described and I think that's the important thing. And it's particularly important going into the biggest tournament."

Mohamed Salah has achieved "nothing" with Egypt and the Liverpool star must raise his level when featuring for the national team, according to former Pharaohs coach Hassan Shehata.

In response, Egypt's former sports and youth minister Khaled Abdel Aziz defended the forward, calling him a wonderful ambassador and unifying figure for the country.

Salah scored 31 goals and provided 15 assists across all competitions for Liverpool as they won the EFL and FA Cups last season, also finishing as runners-up in the Premier League and Champions League.

But the forward experienced a more frustrating campaign on the international front, as Egypt lost the Africa Cup of Nations final on penalties to Senegal in February and suffered the same fate in March's crucial World Cup qualification play-off – with Salah missing from the spot in the latter contest.

Those disappointing results have led Shehata, who coached Egypt from 2004 to 2011 and won consecutive Africa Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008, and 2010, to call for improvements from Salah.

"We all know that Salah is one of the stars of the world and not just one of the stars of Egypt," he told Sada al-Balad. "The awards he took and the goals he scored give him the right to be the top star.

"But technically, and I'm sorry to say this, Salah has done nothing with the national team. He should have done much better than he has. He must provide more when he plays for his country."

However, Shehata did admit Salah was playing with inferior players when joining up with the national team, and said it was up to coaches to get the best from the 30-year-old after Egypt put in a series of dull displays at this year's Cup of Nations.

"It's true [that there is a difference in quality compared to Liverpool]," Shehata said. "He should have said this to the officials here - although he is not the one who chooses the players - but he should've said that the players here are not like the players in England."

Shehata's criticisms have not gone unnoticed in Egypt, with the country's former sports minister Aziz defending Salah's role on and off the pitch.

"Mohamed Salah was one of the most important soft forces that returned life in Egypt to normal after the [2013] June 30 revolution," he wrote on Twitter, alongside an image of himself with the Liverpool star.

"He was a wonderful global ambassador for his country in a difficult political period and led the national team to the World Cup after 28 years [in 2018].

"And despite the suspension of the league [after deaths occurred amid stadium violence in 2015] and then the league of the two groups, he led the team to the final of Africa [Cup of Nations] 2017 after three consecutive times we did not qualify at all."

Egypt are seeking their third head coach of the calendar year after sacking Ehab Galal after only three games at the helm last week, just two months on from Carlos Queiroz quitting the role.

Ryan Giggs has resigned as manager of the Wales national team.

Giggs stepped back from his role as Wales boss, which he assumed in 2018, in November 2020 after being arrested of suspicion of assault. He was charged with assaulting two women by Greater Manchester Police in April 2021.

The former Manchester United winger was replaced by Robert Page for Wales' campaign at the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, with the caretaker boss since leading the team to qualification for the World Cup later this year.

Giggs was originally due to face trial on January 24 this year after being charged with causing actual bodily harm to a woman in her 30s and common assault of a woman in her 20s, but his case was adjourned until August 8 due to a lack of court space.

The 48-year-old has denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty to the charges, as well as to one count of controlling and coercive behaviour.

He announced on Monday he was stepping down to allow the team to prepare for the World Cup without any distractions.

"After much consideration, I am standing down from my position as manager of the Wales men's national team with immediate effect," read a statement issued by Giggs.

"It has been an honour and a privilege to manage my country, but it is only right that the FAW, the coaching staff and the players prepare for the tournament with certainty, clarification and without speculation around the position of their head coach."

In the statement, widely reported by UK media, Giggs said: "I do not want the country's preparations for the World Cup to be affected, destabilised or jeopardised in any way by the continued interest around this case. I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed some unforgettable moments during my three years in charge of the national team.

"I am sad that we cannot continue this journey together because I believe that this extraordinary group will make the country proud at our first World Cup since 1958.

"It is my intention to resume my managerial career at a later date and I look forward to watching our national team alongside you in the stands."

In a separate statement, the Football Association of Wales said: "The FAW places on record its gratitude to Ryan Giggs for his tenure as manager of the Cymru men's national team and appreciates the decision he has taken, which is in the best interests of Welsh football.

"The full focus of the FAW and the Cymru men's national team is on the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year."

Brazil coach Tite declared "it's time to be champions" as the Selecao eye World Cup success in Qatar.

Tite's side coasted through South American World Cup qualifying, going unbeaten as they booked a place at this year's showpiece tournament.

Brazil have not won the World Cup since 2002, their fifth triumph overall, and will first have to contend with Serbia on November 24 before clashes against Switzerland and Cameroon follow in Group G.

Argentina are another force in the battle for the trophy, with the Copa America champions undefeated in 33 games – the longest intact unbeaten run in international football.

Holders France will also prove stern competition, while England, Belgium, Spain and Germany are among the favourites for success.

But Tite insists it is time for Brazil, who have overtaken Belgium at the top of the world rankings, to deliver.

"I'm expectant but focused. We reached the World Cup; now it's time to reach the final and be champions. This is the truth," he told The Guardian. 

"At the last World Cup I was the manager because of other circumstances [Dunga was fired in 2016 and Tite took over].

"Now I have had the opportunity to do the full four-year cycle. Expectations are high but the focus is on work. The pressure we face is a problem: the responsibility, the pressure of the position, the demands.

"When I was a supporter, I wanted the team to be the best. It's what moves us. But mental health is important. I think about what [Nelson] Mandela said: 'Courage is the ability to face fear'. 

"In every decision he made, fear was present. When I read that, I saw that I am a normal citizen. I have my fears, my nightmares, my little goosebumps. Fear but not dread; fear and dread are different."

Vinicius Junior has come to the forefront for Real Madrid in the 2021-22 campaign, but Tite believes Neymar remains the main star for Brazil.

"Neymar is Neymar. He remains our biggest star. The difference now is that the glow is diluted by nearby stars that can also shine," he added.

"Neymar's greatness is that he understands this – about the growth of these kids. He encourages the boys to go up a level. Time and experience provide this maturity.

"Because of Neymar's greatness, there will always be great expectations. But now it's diluted. It's Neymar, but also Vinícius, Raphinha; Thiago [Silva] is at a high level again, Paqueta, Casemiro, Fabinho too."

Tite has come into criticism during his spell as Brazil boss, particularly after a quarter-final exit at the 2018 World Cup, but he believes the questioning of his methods is unfair.

"We need time to understand. Works are best seen when they are at a distance, finished. We have results," Tite said.

"What people are expecting? We beat the record [for the most points] in the qualifiers. We have the longest unbeaten streak, 12 games [under Tite in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup] and now 17 games without a loss [in the 2022 qualifiers]. That is 29 games."

Kylian Mbappe and French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet have cleared the air over an image rights issue that could have disrupted France's World Cup preparations.

Le Graet indicated on Saturday that Mbappe has agreed for now to accept the existing collective agreement that governs rights for the France team as a whole.

Image rights are an increasingly lucrative market, and Mbappe is well aware of his own value after recently committing to a three-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain, snubbing Real Madrid. He is thought to have agreed to some of the most lucrative terms ever offered to a footballer.

With Les Bleus, though, there is a collective agreement that means each player receives the same amount in image rights income.

It was reported that lawyers for Le Graet and Mbappe met at the end of May to discuss that position, with the player's representatives saying an agreement was struck that will see a review of the terms that were drawn up in 2010. That now appears set to come after this year's World Cup.

Le Graet spoke about the matter after the federation's general assembly, telling a news conference: "I saw Mbappe by himself, then Mbappe at Clairefontaine [the national team headquarters], Mbappe in a group, then all the players."

According to RMC Sports, Le Graet added: "The conclusion remains: no change until the World Cup, perfect equality between all players. Frankly, there is no major problem to deal with.

"On the contrary. It was done in a very friendly manner with him, first, then the old soldiers of the federation, the players."

Mbappe had said in May that the matter would be handled "with intelligence and respect", as he sought greater control over where his image is used.

The 23-year-old striker has scored 27 goals in 57 internationals for reigning world champions France, becoming the leader of his generation of players.

He was a World Cup winner with Les Bleus as a teenager in 2018 and, with Karim Benzema, will carry the main goal threat for France at the Qatar 2022 finals in November and December.

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