Roberto Mancini has revealed the decision to release several senior Italy faces such as Jorginho is to help repay the efforts made between club and country.

The Chelsea midfielder, along with a clutch of other key players such as Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, have left the Azzurri camp ahead of Tuesday's clash with Turkey.

Defeat against North Macedonia last week left the Euro 2020 hopes' of reaching Qatar 2022 in tatters, ensuring they will miss a second successive World Cup.

With that in mind, Mancini looks set to field a more experimental side for a dead rubber against Turkey, who were also eliminated from the play-offs.

Speaking ahead of the match at Torku Arena, Mancini explained that it was on his orders that Jorginho and others departed early, stating that it was intended as a favour to their respective clubs.

"I forced them to leave," the manager sought to clarify in his pre-match press conference. "If I can do something for them and for the clubs, we do it.

"They would not have played. Some were not physically at their best. Some of them, I forced them to go.

"Chelsea sent us Jorginho three days earlier [and] did not let him play in the FA Cup. I sent [him] back home because [he] would not have played."

Jorginho has endured a tough few months in the Azzurri fold, with his crucial missed penalties against Switzerland in the group stage qualifiers effectively costing his side a straight passage to Qatar.

While Mancini added that neither Napoli forward Insigne or Lazio striker Immobile would have featured against Turkey, but still paid tribute to their contributions.

"Lorenzo had physical problems [and] Immobile would have gone to the stands," he stated.

"The boys in recent years have deserved a lot. There are special players here, a special group has been created."

Roberto Mancini says Italy must "take some time to reflect" and "work towards the future" after they failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.

The Azzurri will not feature in the tournament in Qatar this year after suffering a sensational 1-0 play-off defeat to North Macedonia on Thursday.

Italy won Euro 2020 by beating England on penalties in the final at Wembley last July, but suffered heartbreak in Palermo this week.

Mancini's future has been called into question in certain quarters, but the head coach says it is important to look at where his side felt short and put the agony behind them.

He posted on Instagram: "Sometimes football can be a ruthless metaphor for life.

"Last summer we were on the top of Europe after having completed one of the most beautiful feats in the history of the national team. A few hours ago we woke up in one of the most dramatic points.

"We have gone from total joy to frustrating disappointment.

"It is really hard to accept, but also accepting the defeats in life is part of a healthy path of human and sporting growth.

"Let's take some time to reflect and understand clearly. The only right move now is to raise your head and work towards the future."

Roberto Mancini has "worked miracles" in charge of Italy and should not be hounded out of the role after their stunning failure to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.

That is the view of former Italy international Antonio Cassano, who described the current Azzurri vintage as "mediocre", citing last year's Euro 2020 triumph as proof of Mancini's brilliance.

Italy suffered a shock 1-0 loss to North Macedonia on Thursday to miss out on the World Cup for a second edition in a row, with some pointing the finger of blame of boss Mancini.

However, Cassano, who played 39 times and scored 10 goals for his country, said those critics "should be ashamed".

"Let's face it: our national team is a mediocre team and Mancini took them to the top of Europe last summer, making a miracle, playing in a way never seen before," he told Bobo TV. 

"I am truly sorry for Roberto, whoever asks for his resignation should be ashamed.

"We should all pray that Mancini will remain at the helm of the national team, he is the lifeline of Italy.

"[Ciro] Immobile, [Lorenzo] Insigne... many players seemed to me in difficulty. Italy has a mediocre team and Mancini had worked miracles so far."

The 39-year-old, who last played for his country in 2014, said Italy had been missing a talisman since Christian Vieri left the international stage in 2005.

He said: "Bobo, we haven't had a striker in the national team since you left."

Roberto Mancini will be searching for answers after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup, and his mother has helpfully provided one: Mario Balotelli should have been called up.

Speaking on Rai Radio 1 on Friday, Marianna Puolo said Mancini's Azzurri would have benefited from Balotelli's power, and his inclusion could have staved off what played out in Palermo, where Italy lost 1-0 to North Macedonia.

Balotelli, a one-time teenage wonder who now plays for Adana Demirspor in Turkey's Super Lig, has long been a favourite with Mancini, dating back to their time together as player and coach at Inter and Manchester City.

Now 31, Balotelli earned a recall for an Italy training camp at the beginning of this year. He had not been capped by Italy since head coach Mancini played him three times in 2018, which followed a four-year absence from the national team.

There was no room for Balotelli in Italy's squad for the World Cup play-offs, however, and the semi-final defeat to North Macedonia means the four-time champions will miss this year's finals in Qatar, just as they were absent in Russia four years ago.

"We had the game in our hand, but the attack was not great," said Mancini's mother.

"What would I have done different? I would have called Balotelli, because he has incredible physical strength and nobody stops him in front of goal.

"Sometimes he does stupid things, but I would have called him."

Italy had 32 shots but could not find a goal against North Macedonia, who had four and hit the back of Gianluigi Donnarumma's net in stoppage time, breaking Italian hearts.

Puolo agreed with her son's post-match verdict that it would go down at the biggest disappointment of his career.

"Yes, because in his career he has more or less always done well," she said. "I heard him this morning, he was sorry, but we know that these things happen in sport."

Jorginho's 90th-minute missed penalty at 1-1 against Switzerland in Italy's penultimate group-stage qualifier ultimately proved highly costly. Had he tucked it away, Italy would have likely not needed a play-off.

Chelsea midfielder Jorginho also missed from the spot in the first game against Switzerland, which finished as a draw, too.

Mancini's mother gave her verdict on Jorginho, saying: "Of course he didn't do it on purpose, poor thing, but if you miss two or three penalties, in the end, you pay for it."

Italy's humiliating failure to qualify for the World Cup means "profound change" must follow the sorrow, according to Serie A president Lorenzo Casini.

A stunning 1-0 defeat to North Macedonia in Thursday's play-off semi-final in Palermo has left Italy knowing they will miss consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history.

The Azzurri will be absent at Qatar 2022, just as they played no part in Russia 2018, and there will be a process whereby some are likely to be held to account over such a dire outcome for the four-time winners.

Elation at triumphing at Euro 2020 has been replaced by suspicions that was a flicker of rude health amid serious worries over the health of the Italian game.

Casini said on Friday: "Failure to qualify for the final phase of the World Cup is a failure for the whole of Italian football, which must lead everyone to serious reflection and a profound change in our system.

"Right now I am only experiencing the great disappointment of all the fans. I am very sorry when I think of the girls and boys who are still waiting to see Italy at the World Cup and who must be able to continue growing in the blue dream.

"Serie A clubs and their players have always responded positively to the call of the national team and always will, also because it is about the sporting commitment that unites the country and should always make us overcome every allegiance and every division. The national team belongs to everyone."

Roberto Mancini was backed to stay on as head coach by Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina in the immediate aftermath of Italy's defeat.

Gravina wanted the previous round of Serie A fixtures to be postponed to give Italy more time to prepare for the game, but his request was denied by the league. 

"I'm sorry the boys only met for one day to prepare for the game," Gravina said after Thursday's game. "It doesn't help, but I don't want to cause a controversy."

Roberto Mancini has been backed to stay on as head coach by FIGC president Gabriele Gravina despite Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. 

The Azzurri succumbed to a sensational 1-0 defeat to North Macedonia in a play-off semi-final in Palermo on Thursday, ending their hopes of securing a place in the tournament in Qatar this year. 

Having missed out on a spot at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Italy will not feature in two successive editions of the competition for the first time in their history. 

However, with Mancini having led the team on a 37-game unbeaten run that included Euro 2020 glory and only ended last October, Gravina still believes he is the right man for the job. 

"I hope Mancini will continue with us. He has a commitment to the project," Gravina told Rai Sport. 

"I hope, like all the other Italians, that he will dispose of the waste from this elimination and remain at the helm to continue our work. I still have a lot of energy. 

"I'm sorry, I'm truly embittered for all our fans. The great joy of the previous summer remains, but also the great bitterness of this defeat. We didn't expect it. 

"The guys were splendid and will continue to be so. They gave our country an extraordinary dream just a few months ago. However, tonight's defeat makes us understand there is something we need to do."

Gravina wanted the previous round of Serie A fixtures be postponed to give Italy more time to prepare for the game but his request was denied by the league. 

"I'm sorry the boys only met for one day to prepare for the game. It doesn't help, but I don't want to cause a controversy," he added. 

Italy have failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup following a shock 1-0 defeat by North Macedonia on Thursday.

For the first time in their history, the Azzurri will miss out on successive finals after Aleksandar Trajkovski struck a stoppage-time winner at Renzo Barbera.

Roberto Mancini's side triumphed at Euro 2020 just eight months ago, defeating England on penalties in the final to claim their second title.

But four years after their playoff defeat by Sweden denied them a place in Russia, they will be absent in Qatar after suffering their first ever loss on home soil in a World Cup qualifier.

It is fair to say it has been quite the journey from one World Cup qualifying failure to another.

Swede success

Despite finishing behind Spain in their qualifying group, Italy were heavy favourites to overcome Sweden in a two-legged playoff.

However, Jakob Johansson struck the only goal of the opening leg to set up a tense climax in Milan.

The Azzurri dominated their opponents, but the Swedes stood firm to deny them a place at the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958.

Euro 2020 glory

Failure to qualify for Russia culminated in the departure of Gian Piero Ventura, who was replaced in the hot-seat by Mancini.

Despite winning just one of his first six matches in charge, things eventually clicked into gear for the former Inter and Manchester City coach, who oversaw a perfect qualifying campaign for the delayed Euro 2020.

The Azzurri came flying out of the blocks; topping Group A with maximum points before seeing off Austria, Belgium and Spain, before holding their nerve to overcome England on penalties for a second European crown.

The record-breaking run

In fact, Italy did not look back after a 1-0 defeat by Portugal in the Nations League in September 2018.

The Azzurri subsequently embarked on a record-breaking 37-match unbeaten run across all competitions spanning three years.

The streak came to an end following a 2-1 defeat by Spain in the Nations League semi-finals last October.

North Macedonia mayhem

Despite going unbeaten in qualifying, four draws from their last five matches meant Italy had to settle for second place in Group C and another playoff berth.

Once again, the Azzurri were red-hot favourites to overcome North Macedonia, who are seeking their first appearance at the finals as an independent nation.

But despite 32 attempts on goal, the hosts were unable to make their superiority count in Palermo, and were punished right at the death as the visitors stunned the four-time world champions.

Roberto Mancini described Italy's shock World Cup qualifying play-off exit to North Macedonia as the antithesis of the Azzurri's Euro 2020 triumph.

Only eight months have passed since Mancini's men defeated England in a penalty shoot-out at Wembley to be crowned European champions.

But tears of joy were replaced by howls of agony in Palermo on Thursday as Aleksandar Trajkovski's 92nd-minute strike earned the minnows a memorable victory and a final against Portugal in pathway C of UEFA qualification.

For head coach Mancini, the chain of events since that day in London – including his side's failure to qualify from Group C – is difficult to fathom.

"Just as the Euros was the most wonderful experience of my life, this was the biggest disappointment," he told Rai.

"We can't say anything but this is football. Sometimes incredible things happen.

"Maybe we shouldn't have been there, we did everything to win it. Some matches are like that and it's difficult to talk about it. 

"The victory at the Euros was absolutely deserved, we played great football. Then some of the luck we had in that tournament turned into complete bad luck, as some unbelievable things happened from September onwards.

"We dominated the group, all we needed was one of those moments to go well, but neither of them did. Tonight, it feels almost as if conceding a goal at the 92nd minute was fitting.

"This is a group of fine players and I am sorry for them."

The loss is sure to lead to questions over Mancini's future, with even his Euros triumph unlikely to buy him much favour after a desperately disappointing defeat, which means Italy have failed to qualify for consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history.

But Mancini said it would be wrong to discuss such matters so soon after the event.

"We will see. I think everyone is too disappointed right now to talk about the future," he added.

"I have to say, I care more for my lads now than I did in July. This is such a tough moment, my affection for them is immense. 

"It's too early to say what happens next, as there is such disappointment, but at the same time this is a squad of great players with a bright future."

Roberto Mancini says Italy will not look beyond Thursday's play-off semi-final with North Macedonia as they aim to avoid more World Cup qualifying heartbreak.

Italy, then under the management of Gian Piero Ventura, failed to qualify for the last World Cup for the first time since 1958 after losing to Sweden in the play-offs.

The Azzurri bounced back from that disappointment by winning the European Championships last year for only the second time.

Just eight months on from that triumph, Mancini's men are once again relying on the play-offs to help them reach Qatar 2022 after finishing behind Switzerland in their group.

Should Italy overcome North Macedonia in Palermo, they then face a showdown with either Portugal or Turkey – who meet in Porto on Thursday – in next week's final.

Italy are strong favourites to beat North Macedonia, who are 61 places below their opponents in the FIFA rankings, but Mancini does not consider his side favourites.

"We all start the same; each game is 0-0 and anything can happen in those 90 minutes," he said at Wednesday's pre-match news conference.

"It's an obvious thing to say, but you have to play each game. I don't think there are favourites in these matches.

"North Macedonia defend well and have good technique. Don't forget they won away to Germany in the qualifiers. We need patience, but it starts from 0-0."

A large core of Italy's current contingent were also part of the squad that missed out on a place at Russia 2018, but Mancini is unsure if that works in his side's favour.

"I don't know if it can act as an advantage," he said. "This is part of the life of a sportsman. There are exciting moments in your career and others of disappointment.

"We just have to be focused on what we have to do. Italy know how to play football and we have to just think about ourselves, not other things."

Italy were jolted ahead of the World Cup play-off against North Macedonia when two members of the Azzurri staff tested positive for COVID-19.

The European champions are bidding to qualify for the Qatar 2022 tournament, knowing a win over Thursday's opponents would see them go into a straight fight with Portugal or Turkey for a place in the finals next Tuesday.

Those have tested positive have gone into isolation.

Italy boss Roberto Mancini will hope there are no further cases detected at the Coverciano training base, particularly among his playing squad.

The identities of those who have tested positive have not yet been disclosed by the FIGC, Italy's football federation, which said targeted checks would continue.

A statement from the FIGC said: "During the preventive anti-COVID checks at the entrance to the national team meeting, two cases of COVID positivity were found among the members of the national team staff. The people were promptly isolated and re-entry was organised.

"Other positive cases relating to the organisational support staff to the national team emerged upon the arrival of the staff in Coverciano and, also in this case, the parties concerned were isolated and not admitted to the technical centre."

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini expressed his optimism for World Cup qualification as he called on his Euro 2020-winning side to prove the doubters wrong again.

The Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but followed that up by winning the delayed European Championships last year.

Italy are now staring at a familiar fate, however, after not progressing through their World Cup qualifying group, leaving them having to beat North Macedonia in Thursday's play-off semi-final to keep their Qatar 2022 hopes alive.

Mancini's side would then have to negotiate past Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or Turkey in the final, but the former Manchester City boss spoke optimistically before the clash with North Macedonia in Palermo.

"We should not take the first game for granted. It won't be easy and, in case we win, we'll have four days to prepare for the final," he told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

"We have built a solid base, we are positive and we must think that everything will go well. We have two tough games ahead. We were not supposed to be here, but it happens to struggle sometimes.

"We must continue playing as we've always done. We didn't reach our targets by coincidence. We didn't want to play these games, but the lads are feeling well and that's important.

"I am optimistic because I have players who won the Euros starting from nothing when nobody believed in it. We must think about what we did to have more self-confidence, the team is solid and with quality.

"Our target is to win the World Cup, and in order to do it, we must win the next two games. We want to go to the World Cup to win it."

Mancini has handed maiden call-ups to Luiz Felipe and Joao Pedro, while Lorenzo Insigne and Nicolo Barella made the cut despite underperforming for their clubs.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, whose second-leg blunder proved costly in Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League last-16 loss against Real Madrid, is another familiar face among the Azzurri ranks, and Mancini is backing in the players he has selected.

"I am not worried, they [Insigne and Barella] have always done well with the national team," Mancini said when asked about the pair's form with Napoli and Inter respectively.

"Of course, there are highs and lows during a season. [Giorgio] Chiellini is feeling quite well and it's good that he played a little. 

"He probably won't play two games, but we'll talk and decide together. He knows his condition and he will tell me if he can play two games in five days.

Pressed whether Donnarumma's form was concerning, Mancini responded: "Absolutely not, it's better to have him with us than against."

Mancini also has Domenico Berardi and Gianluca Scamacca to call upon in his frontline, though he is slightly light on numbers at the back due to injuries, with right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo having to be replaced in the squad by Mattia De Sciglio.

"Berardi and Scamacca are doing well, but I can't reveal the line-up today. We'll make our assessments starting from tomorrow. Except for defenders, the others are feeling quite well," Mancini said.

"I don't think there are big problems in midfield and attack."

Italy great Fabio Cannavaro insists the Azzurri cannot afford to fail to qualify for two consecutive World Cups.

The reigning European champions could not top their World Cup qualifying group, leaving them having to beat North Macedonia in the playoffs semi-final on Thursday to keep their hopes alive.

Italy would then have to bypass either Turkey or Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in the final to secure their spot at Qatar 2022, which means one of the previous two European Championship winners will not be present at the World Cup.

Robert Mancini's reinvigorated Azzurri responded to failure to qualify for FIFA's showpiece event in 2018 by lifting the delayed Euro 2020, and Cannavaro explained that it is vitally that they find a way through this year.

"Between us and qualifying for Qatar there could be Portugal, but also Turkey would not be a walk in the park," Cannavaro, who won the World Cup in 2006, told Italian newspaper Il Mattino.

"And even before that in Palermo, we must beat [North] Macedonia. We threw away a chance in Rome against Switzerland [in the group stages], there is no way we can not qualify for the World Cup for eight years.

"It would be a disaster for everyone. Mancini will find the resources to be able to qualify."

While Italy push for World Cup qualification, Russia will not be featuring in Qatar after FIFA excluded them due to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, a decision Cannavaro supports.

When asked if FIFA had made the right call, he added: "Yes. Football is not a world apart. It had to give a signal and it did."

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini has left out Mario Balotelli from his squad for the upcoming World Cup playoffs, while handing maiden call-ups to Joao Pedro and Luiz Felipe.

The Azzurri failed to top their World Cup qualifying group, which leaves them having to beat North Macedonia in the playoff semi-finals on Thursday to set up a meeting against Turkey or Portugal five days later.

The draw means one of the two previous European Championship winners, Portugal and Italy, will not feature at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Mancini has named a 33-man squad for the upcoming clash against North Macedonia in Palermo, with Balotelli snubbed for the introduction of Cagliari forward Joao Pedro, who was born in Brazil but has an Italian passport.

Lazio defender Luiz Felipe also qualifies under the same criteria and he features in the Italy squad for the first time, while Federico Chiesa and Leonardo Spinazzola miss out through injury.

Moise Kean, Alessio Romagnoli and Davide Calabria were also notable omissions, with Cristiano Biraghi expected to take Spinazzola's full-back spot and Roma's Nicolo Zaniolo filling in for Chiesa.

Matteo Politano, Stefano Sensi and Pierluigi Gollini - who replaces the injured Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret - all return, with Manuel Locatelli called up despite testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

Locatelli's Juventus colleague Leonardo Bonucci has made the squad even though he suffered a reoccurring problem with his calf in Wednesday's 3-0 Champions League aggregate loss to Villarreal.

Italy squad:

Alessio Cragno (Cagliari), Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris Saint-Germain), Pierluigi Gollini (Tottenham), Salvatore Sirigu (Genoa); Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Cristiano Biraghi (Fiorentina), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Emerson Palmieri (Lyon), Alessandro Florenzi (Milan), Luiz Felipe (Lazio), Gianluca Mancini (Roma); Nicolo Barella (Inter), Bryan Cristante (Roma), Jorginho (Chelsea), Manuel Locatelli (Juventus), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma), Matteo Pessina (Atalanta), Stefano Sensi (Sampdoria), Sandro Tonali (Milan), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain); Andrea Belotti (Torino), Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Joao Pedro (Cagliari), Matteo Politano (Napoli), Giacomo Raspadori (Sassuolo), Gianluca Scamacca (Sassuolo) Mattia Zaccagni (Lazio), Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma).

Mario Balotelli has been called up for a three-day Italy training camp and Joao Pedro is among the new faces given the nod by Roberto Mancini.

Balotelli has not played for his country for over three years, but the in-form striker was named among 35 players who will assemble for a camp in Coverciano from Wednesday to Friday this week.

The enigmatic 31-year-old has scored nine goals for Adana Demirspor since joining the Turkish Super Lig side in July, including three in his past four matches.

Brazil-born duo Joao Pedro and Luiz Felipe are among seven uncapped players brought in by Mancini two months before the European champions face North Macedonia in a World Cup qualifying play-off.

Marco Carnesecchi, Giorgio Scalvini, Nicolo Fagioli, Davide Frattesi and Samuele Ricci were also called up for the first time.

The Azzurri do battle with North Macedonia in a play-off semi-final at Stadio Renzo Barbera on March 24.

If they come out on top in Palermo, Italy will then face Portugal or Turkey knowing a victory will seal their place in the tournament in Qatar this year.

 

Italy training squad:

Marco Carnesecchi, Alessio Cragno, Alex Meret, Salvatore Sirigu; Alessandro Bastoni, Cristiano Biraghi, Davide Calabria, Giorgio Chiellini, Mattia De Sciglio, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Alessandro Florenzi, Luiz Felipe, Gianluca Mancini, Luca Pellegrini, Giorgio Scalvini, Rafael Toloi; Nicolo Barella, Bryan Cristante, Nicolo Fagioli, Davide Frattesi, Manuel Locatelli, Matteo Pessina, Samuele Ricci, Stefano Sensi, Sandro Tonali; Mario Balotelli, Domenico Berardi, Federico Bernardeschi, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, Joao Pedro, Giacomo Raspadori, Gianluca Scamacca, Mattia Zaccagni, Nicolo Zaniolo.

As football concludes for 2021, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the past year even happened at all.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, the climate crisis continues unabated, Donald Trump is crying election fraud and everyone is talking about cryptocurrency without really knowing why. If Bill Murray appeared on television to tell you we're stuck in a 2020 time loop, you'd barely even blink.

Well, 2021 really did happen, and we have the data to prove it. Here, Stats Perform presents a selection of the biggest footballing moments of the year, and the numbers that help to make them unforgettable – even if you can't remember what day it is...

Tuchel your fancy

Expectations are pretty high for Chelsea coaches, but winning the Champions League before you've been in the job for half a year – after replacing club legend Frank Lampard, no less – isn't a bad way to impress the owner! No but seriously, Thomas Tuchel is brilliant.

The Blues beat Atletico Madrid, Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City in the knockouts as they became kings of Europe for the second time. They only conceded twice in those matches; in fact, Edouard Mendy became the first goalkeeper to keep as many as nine clean sheets in his debut season in the competition.

From Tuchel's first match in charge until the end of 2020-21, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) across all competitions than Chelsea. It's worth remembering that, Thomas, if you really do think your title hopes are already over at the halfway stage of the season.

Live and let Daei

Football's greatest-of-all-time debate is likely to drag on until humanity has long since gone extinct, with nothing left of civilisation except decaying ruins and NFTs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, most likely dressed as goats, stored on a giant blockchain server at the centre of the Earth (no, we don't understand it all, either).

We can at least agree on one non-fungible Ronaldo record, though: as of 2021, he is the leading international goalscorer in the history of men's football.

A brace against the Republic of Ireland on September 1 took him to 111 for Portugal, two more than previous record-holder Ali Daei of Iran. Ronaldo will start the World Cup year on 115 goals in 184 international appearances – but without the Ballon d'Or on his mantelpiece...

Gerd lord, another record

With practically the final kick of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, Robert Lewandowski pounced on a loose ball to score his 41st league goal and break Gerd Muller's previous single-season record of 40, which had stood since 1972.

Not satisfied with the greatest goalscoring effort in Germany's top flight for nearly half a century, Lewandowski ended 2021 with 43 goals for the calendar year (in only 34 games), again surpassing a previous best tally set by Muller. During that run, he became the first player in the competition to score in 13 consecutive home matches, beating the 12-game runs of Jupp Heynckes and, yes, Muller. The late Bayern great's record of a goal in 16 Bundesliga games in a row still stands, though, Lewandowski having been stopped from matching it by the crossbar in a 3-1 win at Greuther Furth in September.

This year also saw the Bayern Munich striker reach 120 away goals in the Bundesliga, which is, you guessed it, another record. At least this one was previously held by a different name: Klaus Fischer, on 117. Muller is third on 115, for what it's worth.

Let's talk about six, baby 

Liverpool started the year boasting the second-longest unbeaten home run in the history of England's top division: they had gone 68 games without defeat after losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace in April 2017, a streak only bettered by Chelsea (86 games ending in October 2008).

Then, they lost 1-0 to Burnley at Anfield. Then, 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield. After that came a 4-1 battering by Manchester City, an almost unthinkable 2-0 loss to Everton, and then another pair of 1-0 defeats, this time to Chelsea and Fulham... and all at Anfield.

Six consecutive home defeats: something never endured by any Liverpool team before, nor any reigning champion of England's top flight.

Pep-pered with records

City were top of the Premier League on Christmas Day for the third time in their history. They won the league on the previous two occasions (in 2011 and 2017), so the omens are positive for 2021-22 – not that they need much divine intervention right now.

The reigning champions, boasting a 10-match winning streak, broke the record for the most victories in a calendar year in England's top flight with their 34th of 2021 against Newcastle United this month. The previous best was 33 set by Bob Paisley's Liverpool in 1982.

In the process, Pep Guardiola's men also set a new top-tier record of 18 away wins in a single year, beating the previous best of 17 set by Bill Nicholson's famous Tottenham side of 1960-61. Oh, and their 112 goals scored in 2021 is the best such calendar-year return in the Premier League era.

An Argentine tango – and a Messi divorce

Lionel Messi ends 2021 with 23 goals and eight assists in LaLiga, the most direct goal involvements of any player aside from Karim Benzema (41). And he hasn't played in the competition since May.

Messi's tearful departure from Barcelona, who decided they simply couldn't afford to keep the player they previously couldn't afford to lose, heralded the end of an era in Spanish football. It hasn't gone particularly well for either party, either: Barca, who sacked Ronald Koeman in November, sit seventh in LaLiga, while Messi has scored one goal in 11 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain.

Club football might have been more of a nightmare than a dream for Messi this year, but the same cannot be said for his international exploits. He was the joint-top goalscorer and the tournament's best player as Argentina finally ended their long wait for silverware, defeating Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America. It was enough to secure Messi a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or, even though he seemed to think Lewandowski actually deserved to win (and, let's be honest, a lot of us did).

It's a Lille bit funny...

Last season, Paris Saint-Germain replaced Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino ostensibly so they might win the Champions League. Instead, while Tuchel took Chelsea to European glory within just five months, Pochettino's PSG could not even keep hold of their Ligue 1 crown.

Lille won the French top flight for the fourth time in their history, becoming only the fourth side to win it at least twice since the turn of the century (the others being PSG, of course, Monaco and Lyon). Their triumph was inspired by the late-career renaissance of Burak Yilmaz: his 16 league goals were the most scored by anyone over the age of 35 in Europe's top five leagues last season, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo (29).

While their title defence isn't going too swimmingly – Lille are eighth in the table after 19 games, 18 points behind leaders PSG – they managed to win their Champions League group for the first time in seven attempts. They also boast the top scorer in Ligue 1 this term: Jonathan David, who was an 11-year-old playing for Ottawa Gloucester Hornets when Lille won their third league title in 2011, has scored 12 times already.

Get Inter the spirit

This year saw Inter end their decade-long wait for the Scudetto and bring about the end of Juventus' recent stranglehold on Serie A.

Inspired by Antonio Conte – who started Juve's nine-year title streak back in 2012 – and league MVP Romelu Lukaku, the Nerazzurri finished 12 points clear at the top as their coach became the man with the best points-per-game ratio (2.26) in the modern history of Italy's top flight.

Despite a close-season of upheaval in which Conte walked, Lukaku returned to Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi went to PSG, Inter go into next year with a four-point advantage at the top and just one defeat in 19 league games, having scored over 100 league goals in a calendar year for the first time in their history.

Mancini's miracle

Italy's second European Championship trophy, secured courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley, was the pinnacle of a quite remarkable run of results under Roberto Mancini.

The Azzurri would go on to set a new world record in men's international football of 37 matches without defeat, during which they won 30, scored 93 goals and conceded only 12. The run ended when they lost 2-1 to Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in Milan, marking their first competitive home defeat since 1999.

In the first 33 of those matches, starting from a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in October 2018, they were behind for only 44 minutes. At Euro 2020, they had five players who scored at least twice, they ended the tournament with a joint-high 13 goals and conceded only four. And yet, in 2022, they must navigate the play-offs – and potentially a meeting with Portugal – if they are to avoid failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row.

Palmeiras pull off the unbeliev-Abel

The Copa Libertadores final is not something Andreas Pereira will want to remember: it was the Manchester United loanee's error that allowed substitute Deyverson to win it for Palmeiras in extra time.

This was a historic result, though. Not only were Palmeiras the first team since Boca Juniors 20 years ago to win back-to-back Libertadores trophies, but Abel Ferreira became the only European coach to win the competition twice.

Before his time in Brazil, arguably Abel's finest achievement in his post-playing career was helping PAOK reach 51 league games unbeaten – although he was only actually in charge for 17 of those matches, including the 4-2 loss to Aris that brought the streak to an end.

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