Manuel Neuer's eventual exit from Bayern Munich will be a "bigger problem" than Robert Lewandowski departing, according to former boss Felix Magath.

Neuer joined the Bavarian side from Schalke in 2011 and holds the record for the most clean sheets in the Bundesliga (209), having surpassed Oliver Kahn (196) in 2021.

The Germany international's contract is due to expire at the end of the next season, when he will be 37, leading to speculation over his future at Julian Nagelsmann's team.

The goalkeeper has been absent in recent weeks after undergoing knee surgery, coinciding with a downturn in Bayern form.

Nagelsmann's side were downed 4-2 by Bochum in their first game without their captain and were then held by Salzburg before ending a poor run of form with a 4-1 win over Greuther Furth last time out.

Neuer returned to light training on Monday and Magath, who completed consecutive doubles in charge of Bayern between in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, believes the 35-year-old is more important to the reigning Bundesliga champions than talisman Lewandowski.

"Bayern and the national team live strongly from Manuel Neuer," Magath said to German outlet Kicker, adding: "Marc-Andre ter Stegen can be very good, but he doesn't have Neuer's charisma. Manuel is a stroke of luck for German football."

When pushed for a comparison between Neuer and Lewandowski, Magath responded: "It will be a bigger problem for Bayern when Neuer is gone."

 

Neuer helped Bayern earn a 3-2 home win over RB Leipzig in his last outing, as he matched Oliver Kahn's all-time record of 310 Bundesliga wins by a player. He achieved the first 77 wins with Schalke.

Meanwhile, Lewandowski has again been in scintillating form this campaign, scoring 39 times across all competitions – 14 more than any other player across Europe's top-five leagues.

The Poland forward currently finds the net once every 71.2 minutes on average, with only Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland managing goals at a faster rate among those to have scored 15 or more in the same group.

While Neuer's return date remains unconfirmed, Lewandowski will hope to continue his prolific term as Bayern look to extend their six-point advantage at the Bundesliga summit when they face Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday.

Four more teams begin their Champions League knockout-stage campaigns on Wednesday when Inter host Liverpool and Bayern Munich travel to Salzburg for the first leg of their last-16 ties.

The clash between European heavyweights Inter and Liverpool at San Siro could potentially be a landmark one for Reds boss Jurgen Klopp, who is one short of becoming the eighth coach – and the first German – to reach 50 wins in the competition.

Salzburg's meeting with Bayern will be a special occasion regardless as the Austrian Bundesliga champions are competing at this stage of the competition for the first time ever.

Bayern are unbeaten in their last 21 away games in the Champions League since September 2017 – the longest-such run in European Cup history – and they beat Salzburg by a combined 9-3 scoreline in last term's group-stage meetings.

With the help of Opta, Stats Perform picks out some of the best of the numbers ahead of Wednesday's pair of last-16 ties.

Inter v Liverpool

Each of the four previous encounters between Inter and Liverpool have come in the knockout rounds of the European Cup and Champions League. Inter advanced over two legs in the 1964-65 semi-finals en route to being crowned the kings of Europe, while Liverpool emerged victorious at this very stage in 2007-08.

Liverpool have won their last two away games against Italian opposition in European competition – just one win fewer than they managed in their previous 14 such encounters – after beating Atalanta in 2020-21 and Milan earlier this season 

Inter have been eliminated from two of their three two-legged knockout ties against English opponents since the Champions League changed format in 2003-04, losing to Liverpool in 2007-08 and Manchester United in 2008-09, before eliminating Chelsea in 2009-10.

The Nerazzurri have won their last two Champions League home matches, which is one more than they managed in their previous nine between November 2018 and September 2021. However, not since between December 2009 and November 2010 – a run of seven victories – have they won three in a row in San Siro in the competition.

Mohamed Salah is in line to make his 50th Champions League appearance for Liverpool. The Egypt international has scored 32 goals in 49 games to date – only Cristiano Ronaldo (51 for Real Madrid) and Robert Lewandowski (36 for Bayern Munich) have ever netted more as of their 50th game for a single club.

Inter will hope Edin Dzeko can continue his good record against Liverpool, having netted in each of his past three meetings with them, scoring once for Manchester City in 2015 and twice for Roma in the semi-finals of this competition in 2017-18. 

Salzburg v Bayern Munich

Bayern are facing Austrian opposition in the knockout stages of a European competition for the fourth time. The German giants have advanced on each of the previous three occasions – against Rapid Vienna in the 1966-67 Cup Winners' Cup and Austria Vienna in successive European Cup campaigns in 1985-86 and 1986-87.

That does not bode well for Salzburg, who have won only one of their last six games against German teams in European competition, conceding 18 goals at an average of three per match. However, that solitary win did come in their most-recent home match – a 3-1 win over Wolfsburg in the group stage.

Julian Nagelsmann's side are one of only three teams with a 100 per cent record in the Champions League this term, along with Liverpool and Ajax. Only three sides prior to this campaign have ever won their first seven games of a Champions League campaign, with Bayern the most recent to do so three seasons ago.

Salzburg will be hoping to follow Atalanta, RB Leipzig (both in 2019-20) and Wolfsburg (2015-16) as only the fourth team to win their first game in the knockout stage of the Champions League.

Robert Lewandowski is set to make his 50th away appearance in UEFA's showpiece competition. The Bayern striker has scored 37 goals to date in those games, which is already the most of any player to have reached that landmark, three more than next-best Lionel Messi.

Lewandowski's 11 direct goal involvements in the group stage were the second-most of any player, behind Ajax's Sebastien Haller (12). Next on the list is team-mate Leroy Sane, who scored five and assisted four more in six appearances.

Things have not quite gone to plan for Cristiano Ronaldo in his second coming at Manchester United.

The Red Devils are out of both domestic cup competitions and sit well off the pace of Premier League leaders Manchester City, making an unlikely Champions League triumph their remaining hope for silverware this season.

Ronaldo is enduring a five-game goal drought and, according to a report, he could choose to end his second United spell after only one season.

 

TOP STORY – RONALDO WANTS MENDES TALKS OVER FUTURE

Cristiano Ronaldo will speak with his agent after growing disillusioned with life at Manchester United, according to the Daily Star.

The forward is hoping to speak with Jorge Mendes when he is back in Portugal for March's World Cup play-off against Turkey about his options after the end of the season.

Ronaldo, whose contract runs until the end of 2022-23, wants to see who will be appointed as United's next permanent manager – but he is not in favour of giving the job to interim boss Ralf Rangnick.

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- Paul Pogba is also looking to leave Manchester United this year when his contract expires, but he will have to accept a pay cut to get a move abroad that he wants, the Mirror says.

- A possible replacement for Pogba could be Youri Tielemans. Het Nieuwsblad reports Leicester City have dropped their asking price for the midfielder, who is wanted by United and Arsenal.

Real Madrid rejected the idea of signing Dusan Vlahovic, now at Juventus, because they are putting everything into getting Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, says Cadena Ser.

- However, AS reports Madrid are still seriously interested in Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland, which could scupper Robert Lewandowski's hopes of moving to the Spanish capital.

Juve defender Matthijs de Ligt is flattered by interest from Chelsea and Barcelona, Sport Mediaset claims.

Barca are also desperate to sign Haaland and will therefore prioritise cut-price deals for defenders, says ESPN. Chelsea trio Cesar AzpilicuetaAndreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso are on their shortlist.

Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski were on target as Bayern Munich claimed a thrilling 3-2 Bundesliga win over RB Leipzig on Saturday.

The champions' deadly duo scored either side of Andre Silva's equaliser to give them a half-time lead at the Allianz Arena, which was lit up in purple prior to kick-off to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Christopher Nkunku struck as Leipzig again pegged Bayern back only for Josko Gvardiol's unfortunate own goal to hand the home side maximum points.

Muller had a simple tap-in to put Bayern ahead after Peter Gulacsi had saved from Lewandowski when Corentin Tolisso forced a high turnover of possession.

Leipzig recovered to level after 27 minutes, though, Silva squeezing the ball over the line from a tight angle after Niklas Sule could not clear Konrad Laimer's cut-back.

Muller headed in a second only for VAR to disallow the goal for a foul by Lewandowski, while Leroy Sane was denied by Gulacsi.

Bayern's pressure told before the break, Lewandowski nodding Kingsley Coman's delivery back across goal and beyond the Leipzig keeper, yet they were again pegged back eight minutes into the second half. Laimer again was the provider, splitting the Bayern defence with a pass to Nkunku, who finished calmly.

This time, Leipzig were level for barely five minutes. Serge Gnabry was given too much space in the penalty area, and his drilled effort back across goal looped off Gvardiol and sailed over the helpless Gulacsi.

Emil Forsberg was denied by some last-ditch Bayern defending as Leipzig pushed for a third equaliser, but the champions held firm for their 17th win in 21 league matches in 2021-22.
 

What does it mean? Bayern stretch lead as Leipzig struggle again

Bayern's lead at the top is back to nine points, although Borussia Dortmund in second have a game in hand.

It also means Julian Nagelsmann has earned 52 points from his first 21 league games in charge of the club.

For Leipzig, this was an eighth consecutive league game against the champions without a win, while it leaves them three points outside the top four.

Muller marches on

Muller has now been directly involved in 23 goals in 21 league games this season and he would have had another had Lewandowski not been penalised for a foul.

His form has been exemplary under Nagelsmann and it shows no sign of abating.

Neuer notches famous win

Manuel Neuer, who made an important late save from Forsberg, has now reached 310 wins in 458 Bundesliga games. That puts him level with the competition record set by former Bayern keeper Oliver Kahn, who reached the same number in 557 matches.

What's next?

Bayern travel to Bochum next Saturday, while Leipzig host Cologne the day before.

Robert Lewandowski insists Erling Haaland's impressive form at Borussia Dortmund does not necessarily mean the striker will be a world-class talent in years to come.

Haaland is one of the most sought-after talents in world football after scoring 80 goals in 79 appearances for Dortmund since joining the club in January 2020.

That is a goals tally only Lewandowski can match over that period among players from Europe's top five leagues, the Bayern Munich star having notched 107 goals in 90 games.

Haaland's 80 strikes have come from an expected goals (xG) return of 64, meaning he has scored 16 goals more than expected given the likelihood of the shot going in.

No player from the Bundesliga, Premier League, LaLiga, Serie A or Ligue 1 boasts such a large xG differential, with Lewandowski (12.3) behind Luis Muriel (12.4) in third.

While there is no disputing Haaland's quality in front of goal, however, Lewandowski has questioned whether the Norway international will remain as prolific in seasons to come.

"Haaland is a great player who is fun to watch," Lewandowski told Polish magazine PilkaNozna. 

"But just because someone has great potential, it doesn't mean they will be a real star for many years."

 

Breaking down Haaland's goals with Dortmund further, he has scored 96 per cent of them from inside the box, compared to 84 per cent for Lewandowski over that period.

However, Haaland has scored far more goals with his left foot (80 per cent), whereas Lewandowski is predominantly right footed, netting 67 per cent of his from within 18 yards.

The duo are far from identical in terms of playing style, too, as pointed out by Lewandowski.

"I don't like comparing a 33-year-old player with a 21-year-old player because everyone has their own development," he said.

"But he's strong, fast, physical. His game is based on that. I have different qualities. And we don't know how he will develop..."

This season alone, Lewandowski has scored 10 goals more than Europe's next most prolific marksman in Karim Benzema (24 goals), with Haaland third on 23 goals.

The Poland international turns 34 in August, but in a warning to his rivals for the 2022 Ballon d'Or award, he does not believe he is yet at his peak.

"My performance tests are now giving better results than last year," he said. "As for the numbers, it seems my best time is yet to come. I feel better now than I did two years ago."

Bayern Munich will do "everything" to keep Robert Lewandowski for "as long as possible", but Niklas Sule is set to leave the club at the end of the season.

Lewandowski's contract expires at the end of 2022-23 and there have been suggestions Bayern could look to move the Poland star on this year to free up room for Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

That is despite the 33-year-old having just won The Best FIFA Men's Player Award for the second year running, his 34 goals in all competitions this season at least 10 more than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.

Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn suggested on Wednesday that the Bundesliga champions have no plans to let Lewandowski leave.

"He is an absolute phenomenon," Kahn told reporters. "Not just for the goals he constantly scores but for the level at which he has been playing for years.

"Of course, we will try to keep Robert with us. He's a kind of insurance for us, with his way of playing football. We will do everything we can to have Robert with us for as long as possible."

 

Sule, however, appears destined to leave the Allianz Arena after rejecting Bayern's offer of a new contract.

The centre-back, 26, has missed just two games in the Bundesliga this season and is reportedly of interest to Chelsea and Newcastle United, who could offer greater salaries.

"Negotiations with Niklas have dragged on for a very long time," Kahn said.

"We made him an offer, but he didn't accept it, as he told us. I think [club president] Herbert Hainer wanted to leave the back door a little ajar.

"Now we know what the situation is. This has happened over the past few days. I think you have to take into account that there are a lot of conversations going on. At some point, a player makes his decision.

"I think it was a very good offer. We have economic limits within which we must move. He's one of the best central defenders out there right now. I think we showed him that appreciation.

"Ultimately, it's the player's decision."

When asked if Bayern would look to sign a replacement, Kahn added: "We always look at all the options. We have a lot of options when it comes to the centre-back position.

"We have Lucas Hernandez in central defence, an excellent centre-back in [Dayot] Upamecano, young talent in Tanguy Nianzou. [Benjamin] Pavard can also play there."

 

Agreeing a new contract with Robert Lewandowski is not a matter of urgency for Bayern Munich president Herbert Hainer, though he hopes the striker will stay put.

With his deal set to expire at the end of next season, Lewandowski's future has been the subject of much speculation. 

It was reported this week that Bayern were open to selling the Poland captain at the end of the season to avoid losing him on a free transfer. 

Lewandowski on Monday won The Best FIFA Men's Player award for the second straight year, having scored an astounding 82 goals in 68 games in all competitions for Bayern since the start of last season.  

That is the most of any player from the top five European leagues. Erling Haaland is his closest rival with 64 strikes in 61 appearances for Borussia Dortmund. 

Hainer remains keen for Lewandowski to extend his stay at the Allianz Arena, though he insists there is no rush for an agreement to be reached. 

"I've already said this a few times. I would be happy if Robert ended his career at Bayern," Hainer told Sky. 

"Our sporting management is in constant contact with the players. We still have a little time with him. The contract runs until 2023." 

Hainer suggested a new contract for goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, reportedly until June 2025, is much closer to being confirmed. The Germany star's existing deal is also due to expire at the end of next season. 

"I am absolutely convinced Manuel will end his career at Bayern Munich. He can certainly play at this level for a few more years," said Hainer. 

"He's still the world's best goalkeeper for me, and I'd be happy if we can announce it at some point. 

"We are in no hurry. Manuel knows what he has in us. We know what we have in him. He's been with us long enough now, so there is no rush. But at some point, I hope, it will happen." 

Defender Niklas Sule is only under contract until the end of this campaign and he has been linked with Barcelona and a number of Premier League clubs. 

Hainer confirmed an extension has been offered to Sule and he has a deadline to make his decision so the club are not left scrambling for a replacement. 

"We made Niklas an offer. Now it's up to him to accept or reject that," said Hainer. 

"Of course, it has to be within a certain period of time because we have to position ourselves accordingly. 

"I don't know the exact date right now, but it will certainly be at some point in the foreseeable future that he will say what his wishes are. Then we will take to him." 

Cristiano Ronaldo's dream homecoming to Manchester United has not gone quite to plan so far.

While Ronaldo has scored 14 goals in 22 games – double the amount of any other United player – his team have otherwise struggled this term.

And with United in a serious battle to qualify for next season's Champions League, an early parting of the ways could be on the cards.

 

TOP STORY – RONALDO'S TOP-FOUR ULTIMATUM

Ronaldo's representatives have informed United that the superstar forward will leave if the club miss out on a top-four finish in the Premier League, according to The Sun.

The Portugal international, who penned a two-year contract in August with the option of a further year, is said to be concerned by the direction in which United are heading.

Ralf Rangnick's side beat Brentford 3-1 on Tuesday but still remain seventh, albeit now just two points off fourth-placed West Ham with a game in hand.

Serial winner Ronaldo last week questioned the attitude of some of his United team-mates and then reacted angrily to being substituted off during the win at Brentford.


ROUND-UP

Bayern Munich will consider selling Robert Lewandowski at the end of the season if their talisman turns down the offer of a new deal, according to Bild. Lewandowski, who received The Best FIFA Men's Player of the Year on Monday, is out of contract at the end of 2022-23.

– Goal reports that Atletico Madrid have no intention of allowing Luis Suarez to complete a sensational return to the Premier League this month. The former Liverpool striker had been touted as a target for Aston Villa, who are now under the management of his old team-mate Steven Gerrard.

Chelsea have set their sights on a trio of Barcelona players, reports El Nacional. Blues boss Thomas Tuchel is said to be particularly keen on Frenkie de Jong, while full-back Sergino Dest and youngster Gavi are also targets.

– Meanwhile, Sport say that Barca are interested in Chelsea's Andreas Christensen. Barca are hoping to reach a pre-contract agreement with the defender this month.

Newcastle United must fend off competition from another Premier League club for the signing of Sevilla centre-back Diego Carlos, claims Sky Sports. The Magpies are also reported to be interested in Jesse Lingard.

Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the subject of a loan bid, with an obligation to buy, from Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr. The Gabon international is out of the picture under Mikel Arteta and may be granted permission to leave for the rest of 2021-22. Goal are reporting that story.

Robert Lewandowski declared he would not let it trouble him after Lionel Messi left the Bayern Munich striker off his picks for the FIFA Best Men's Player award.

Paris Saint-Germain superstar Messi lavished Lewandowski with praise after pipping him to the Ballon d'Or award in November, saying the Poland captain would have deserved the previous year's award, which was scrapped because of the pandemic.

Yet when it came to selecting his picks for the FIFA prize, which is a right afforded to all national team captains and head coaches, Argentina skipper Messi chose PSG team-mates Neymar and Kylian Mbappe as his first and second picks respectively, putting Real Madrid's Karim Benzema in third place.

Lewandowski picked Champions League and Euro 2020 winner Jorginho as his first choice, ahead of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

In the end, Messi's voting choices did not prevent Lewandowski picking up the FIFA honour, which went his way on Monday. Messi finished second, with Liverpool's Mohamed Salah third.

"When you see what he said at the Ballon d'Or, those were nice words and it was very nice of him," Lewandowski said of Messi in a news conference on Tuesday.

"Regarding his choices, this question must go to him. I don't think he can be mad at me privately, if it's about sport. It was his decision and I have to respect that. I don't have to be mad. I definitely voted him second."

Messi and Ronaldo had held a near-duopoly over European and world football's top awards in recent times, but Lewandowski has now won the FIFA award in consecutive years.

The 33-year-old set a Bundesliga single-season scoring record last term when he hit 41 goals for champions Bayern Munich, passing Gerd Muller's 40-goal benchmark.

Once again, this season he is setting the standard across Europe's top five leagues for putting the ball in the back of the net.

Among players from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, LaLiga and Serie A, nobody comes close to matching Lewandowski's haul of 34 goals in 27 games so far across all competitions.

Benzema is second on the list with 24 goals, Mbappe has 19, while Messi has scored only six times for PSG since his dramatic move from Barcelona.

After Salah (23 goals) in third place, next among scorers is Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland (21 goals).

There has been speculation Haaland's next club could be Bayern, and Lewandowski was asked whether the strikers could play together.

"If I train with him, then after a week or two you could say something," Lewandowski said. "Erling is a different type of player than me. But he's a top player, and I'm happy that he shows how good he is in every game. For me, that means I can keep doing my job.”

The FIFA Best Awards were conducted on Monday, with Chelsea taking three prizes.

While Robert Lewandowski and Alexia Putellas, who won the women's Ballon d'Or last year, took home the prizes for Best Men's and Women's player respectively, the Blues had winners in the form of Thomas Tuchel, Emma Hayes and Edouard Mendy.

Tuchel, who guided Chelsea to Champions League success last season, scooped the Best Men's Coach award, while Hayes was named Best Women's Coach.

Hayes' team won the Women's FA Cup and Premier League in 2020-21, while also finishing as runners-up in the Women's Champions League to Barcelona, who Putellas plays for.

Mendy, meanwhile, won the Best Men's Goalkeeper award. However, he did not make the Men's XI, with Italy and Paris Saint-Germain shot-stopper Gianluigi Donnarumma preferred.

Tuchel's triumph also means that a German coach has won the Men's award for the last three years, after Jurgen Klopp in 2020 and 2019.

The Denmark national team won the Fair Play Award for their actions in helping to save Christian Eriksen's life after the midfielder collapsed on the pitch in Copenhagen at Euro 2020.

Erik Lamela won the Puskas Award for his incredible rabona finish in the north London derby.

Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, was given a Special Award for his career achievements.

FIFA Best Awards 2021 winners:

Robert Lewandowski (Best Men's Player)
Thomas Tuchel (Best Men's Coach)
Edouard Mendy (Best Men's Goalkeeper)
Alexia Putellas (Best Women's Player)
Emma Hayes (Best Women's Coach)
Christiane Endler (Best Women's Goalkeeper)
Denmark men's national team (FIFA Fair Play Award)
Erik Lamela (Puskas Award)
Denmark and Finland fans (FIFA Fan Award)
Cristiano Ronaldo (FIFA Special Award)
Christine Sinclair (FIFA Special Award)

Robert Lewandowski won the men's FIFA Best award for the second year running at a ceremony at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on Monday.

The Bayern Munich striker beat fellow nominees Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah to the award, having also won it the last time it was up for grabs in December 2020.

Lewandowski scored 58 goals in 47 games in all competitions in 2021, which included breaking two long-standing records previously held by the legendary German striker Gerd Muller. He bagged 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season for Bayern, and 43 Bundesliga goals in a calendar year.

The Pole has scored 34 goals in 27 games so far this season, including nine in the Champions League group stage.

 

The 33-year-old was presented the award in Munich surrounded by Bayern's chief executive officer Oliver Kahn, sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and head coach Julian Nagelsmann.

"Thank you very much. I am very honoured to win this trophy," he said upon receiving the award. "I feel very proud, very happy. This trophy also belongs to my team-mates and my coaches."

Lewandowski was also asked about breaking the records of Muller, who passed away in August last year at the age of 75.

"I never dreamed I could break [Muller's] records, to score 41 goals in 29 games, if you asked me a few years ago if this was possible I would tell you 'no'.

"But now he's not with us anymore, and these old records that I broke, I also say to him 'thank you' because he had so many records and for us, the next generation players, that was like the next step. To try to break these records and I did, so I am very honoured and very proud of this as well."

Robert Lewandowski won the men's FIFA Best award for the second year running at a ceremony at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on Monday.

The Bayern Munich striker beat fellow nominees Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah to the award, having also won it the last time it was up for grabs in December 2020.

Lewandowski scored 58 goals in 47 games in all competitions in 2021, which included breaking two long-standing records previously held by the legendary German striker Gerd Muller. He bagged 41 goals in a single Bundesliga season for Bayern, and 43 Bundesliga goals in a calendar year.

The Pole has scored 34 goals in 27 games so far this season, including nine in the Champions League group stage.

Manuel Neuer described Robert Lewandowski as a "machine" after the striker reached 300 Bundesliga goals with a hat-trick in Bayern Munich's 4-0 win over Cologne.

The Poland star broke the deadlock on Saturday as Bayern became the first team in the history of the competition to score in 66 consecutive matches.

After Corentin Tolisso struck a fine second, Lewandowski delivered two more precise finishes following Leroy Sane throughballs to move the leaders six points clear.

The 33-year-old is just the second player in Bundesliga history to reach a treble century of goals, after Gerd Muller, who scored a record 365.

Last season, Lewandowski scored 42 times to break Muller's record for goals in a single Bundesliga season, and he could now have the outright leading tally in his sights.

"After the defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach, it was just important for us to get our first points of the year, and that's what we did," Neuer told Sky Sport.

"We're happy and grateful that we have Robert. He's a machine up front."

 

There was a curious moment after the match, when Neuer exchanged his shirt for the flat cap of Cologne head coach Steffen Baumgart.

"His cap is legendary!" he said.

The game was Bayern's first since it was confirmed that full-back Alphonso Davies will have to sit out training after being diagnosed with inflammation of the heart.

Coach Julian Nagelsmann said the Canada international will be out of action for at least the next month.

"It could be that it goes away quickly, but it's at least four weeks – and everything is possible for an indefinite amount of time," he said prior to the match.

"If you suffer from something like this, you usually don't notice it. You only notice that you're not 100 per cent when you move.

"[It is important] that we do the examinations meticulously, and that's how we diagnosed it. It's important for him to heal, but it's a shape because Alphonso had just come back."

Robert Lewandowski hit a hat-trick as Bayern Munich set a Bundesliga record in Saturday's 4-0 away win over Cologne.

The Poland striker's ninth-minute opener meant the champions scored in a record 66 consecutive league games, a feat never before achieved in Germany's top tier.

Corentin Tolisso scored a fine second before two more Lewandowski goals in the second half secured a ninth league win in a row over Steffen Baumgart's side.

Fittingly, it was Lewandowski who set Bayern's latest goalscoring record, the striker side-footing past Marvin Schwabe from Thomas Muller's pass and a VAR check overruling the offside call.

The visitors doubled their lead in spectacular fashion, Tolisso controlling Muller's lay-off before rifling left-footed into the top-right corner from the edge of the box.

Cologne thought they had pulled a goal back through Mark Uth, but another VAR check showed an offside, and the hosts finished the half without another shot on target.

Marcel Sabitzer had an effort saved and Jamal Musiala's turn and shot clipped the outside of the post as Bayern stepped up their pressure after the interval.

Cologne offered a slight threat of a comeback with a good period of pressure, but it was promptly Lewandowski quelled 62 minutes in, Lewandowski drilling home his 22nd Bundesliga goal of the season after being played through by Leroy Sane.

The pair combined again for Bayern's fourth, Muller releasing Sane on a zig-zagging run before he prodded through for Lewandowski to finish with aplomb.

 

What does it mean? Bayern respond to Dortmund pressure

You have to go back to February 9, 2020, and a goalless draw with RB Leipzig, to find the last occasion in which Bayern played a league game without scoring a goal.

Their latest two helped them to a comfortable win that stretched their lead at the top back to six points, Borussia Dortmund having closed the gap with a 5-1 thumping of Freiburg on Friday.

Cologne sit eighth in the table, but just two points off the top four.

 

Magnificent Muller

Lewandowski's goalscoring exploits can often overshadow Muller, but two assists and four chances created here were a reminder of his importance to Bayern.

The Germany star has now directly set up 150 Bundesliga goals since his debut back in August 2008. In that time, only Lionel Messi (180) has made more assists in Europe's top five leagues.

No sniff of a Cologne goal

Cologne managed only one shot on target throughout and starting strikers Uth and Anthony Modeste were substituted even before Lewandowski netted Bayern's fourth.

They had promising moments in the final third but this was a surprisingly toothless performance from a side whose 28 points from their first 18 games was their second-best return this century.

What's next?

Bayern are back in action next Sunday away to Hertha Berlin. Cologne host Hamburg in the DFB-Pokal on Tuesday before resuming league duties at Bochum four days later.

There is nothing quite like an individual football award to create debate and there is sure to be plenty when one of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is named this year's men's FIFA Best winner on January 17.

While team trophies will always be the end game for most players, the few who are good enough to be in contention for individual accolades put such importance on being recognised that they have been known to move clubs specifically to improve their chances of collecting silverware in a tuxedo rather than just in a dirty kit. Neymar, anyone?

The Ballon d'Or is broadly seen as football's version of the Oscars, but the annual FIFA Best award is also becoming one of the more sought-after honours and the latest men and women's winners will be crowned on Monday at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.

The awards will be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website.

Stats Perform has taken a look at the data of the three nominees for the men's prize to try and decipher who is likeliest to come away with the prize.

The Best... at scoring goals

It is a harsh truth that scoring goals will almost always win over stopping them when it comes to the top awards, so it makes sense that Messi, Lewandowski and Salah are the nominees for this year.

The trio scored 129 goals between them in 145 collective games across 2021, which includes 21 overall in this season's Champions League group stage, over seven per cent of the total amount scored in the competition (297).

However, there is no doubt which of the star trio stood out for finding the net time and time again.

Lewandowski, last year's winner, was frankly ridiculous in front of goal, netting 43 in the Bundesliga in a calendar year, breaking Gerd Muller's record from 1972, and 58 in all competitions in just 47 outings.

Salah had a mixed year at Liverpool, with the Reds' poor form at the start of 2021 almost costing them a place in the Premier League's top four. However, thanks in part to the Egypt forwards' 15 goals in 28 games between the turn of the year and end of the campaign, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finished third in the league, ahead of European champions Chelsea.

His nomination is mostly down to his form in the second half of the year, though, with Salah scoring 22 goals in 25 games in all competitions. He scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player, and is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, well ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota in second place on 10.

For Messi, it is probably the other way round. The legendary Argentine has managed only six goals in 16 appearances since his sensational move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

However, his 28 goals in 29 games for Barca between New Year's Day and his emotional departure was Messi at his effervescent best, even if the rest of the team was lagging behind him, and he followed that up with four at the Copa America for Argentina.

Consistency and underlying numbers

While it has been mostly impressive from all three, Lewandowski's consistency puts him above the other two, with a 55.17 big chance conversion percentage across 2021, compared to Messi's 45.95 and Salah's 45.90, and an overall shot conversion rate of 28.02 against Salah's 19.37 and Messi's 15.74.

Unsurprisingly, this also led to a significantly better minutes per goal rate, with Lewandowski averaging a goal roughly every 68 minutes, while Messi bagged one every 116 minutes and Salah every 122 minutes.

While all three scored plenty of penalties that could potentially skew the numbers, Lewandowski again dominated in expected goals (xG) without spot kicks, with a 2021 xG excluding penalties of 43.86, compared with Salah's 29.6 and Messi's 24.37.

Not all scorers have to be selfish

Of course, while goals make the headlines, someone has to create them or nothing will happen. This is where Salah and Messi start to claw it back.

Lewandowski managed seven assists in 2021 in all competitions and created 61 chances for team-mates. Quite respectable for any number nine.

However, despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being "selfish", Salah recorded 11 assists and created 88 chances, while Messi had 13 assists to his name and created exactly 100 opportunities.

In terms of big chances (which Opta define as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score), it is a bit closer, with Lewandowski crafting 16, Salah 18 and Messi 24, though with the Pole usually playing higher up the pitch it makes sense that the opportunities he creates would come in a dangerous area.

Show us your medals

While it is not entirely without merit, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to base how much credit an individual player deserves on what his team has achieved. There are plenty of world-class players who did not always play in teams capable of winning much silverware, just like there have been numerous average players who were simply members of squads that won a lot, whether they had much to do with it or not.

It usually comes into consideration when the big awards are handed out though and is likely the ultimate reason that Messi pipped Lewandowski to last year's Ballon d'Or.

Messi helped Barcelona win the Copa del Rey last season and then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with his nine direct goal involvements helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament. He still managed to score three goals in as many games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

He did win the Bundesliga title again with Bayern, but after claiming a remarkable treble the year before, it may rather harshly look like a bit of a regression.

Unfortunately for Salah, this is probably where his chance to finish above the other two falls down, as arguably proven by his astonishingly low seventh place in the Ballon d'Or voting.

The 29-year-old did not have an opportunity for national team success in 2021, and he is currently aiming to help Egypt recover from an opening game defeat to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but he also did not win any trophies at club level.

It is possibly a bit too early for Salah, but his form has been electric this season and if he can continue it through the rest of the campaign, ideally for Liverpool collecting a trophy or two along the way, he will certainly be in the conversation for next year's honours.

The question will be the same as it was for the Ballon d'Or; will those with voting power be more impressed by Lewandowski's goalscoring exploits, or by Messi's final six months at Barca followed by a successful Copa America, or could Salah's explosive form in the second half of the year see him sneak it?

Whatever the outcome, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the trio are not currently the three best footballers on the planet, though if you take a look on social media when the winner is announced, you'll find plenty of people willing to try.

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