Romelu Lukaku dedicated his inspirational performance in Belgium's win over Russia to Christian Eriksen after his Inter team-mate collapsed during Denmark's Euro 2020 game against Finland.

Denmark captain Eriksen required emergency treatment on the field after he fell to the turf late in the first half of the Group B match at Parken Stadium on Saturday.

The midfielder was awake in hospital and undergoing tests following such traumatic scenes in Copenhagen, with his team-mates having formed a protective barrier around him while efforts were made to resuscitate him.

Lukaku shed tears for Eriksen as he watched the game before scoring twice in Belgium's 3-0 win over Russia later in the day.

The striker shouted "I love you Chris" into a television camera after putting the Red Devils in front.

He told beIN SPORTS: "I'm really happy with the win but for me it was difficult to play today because my mind was with my team-mate, Christian.

"I hope that he's healthy and I dedicate this performance to him.

"I cried a lot because I was scared. We lived strong moments together for a year and a half, I spent more time with him than with my family. My thoughts are with him, his girlfriend, his two kids and his family."

Toby Alderweireld had similar thoughts after the match, writing on Twitter about his former Tottenham team-mate to say: "First win of the tournament but tonight was about more than football." 

Tagging Eriksen, he added: "My friend, my thoughts are with you and your family."

Finland beat Denmark 1-0 after the first Group B game resumed with the five remaining minutes of the first half played before a shortened half-time interval.

UEFA said the match was completed "following the request made by players of both teams".

Widespread concern met the decision for Denmark and Finland to return to the pitch less than two hours after Christian Eriksen had first collapsed in Copenhagen on Saturday.

An alarming incident prompted serious fears for Eriksen's life, fears that were eased but not eradicated by positive updates on the midfielder's condition.

For those watching from afar, the swift restart could not have been anticipated. There was wonder instead for how Belgium and Russia could possibly play later.

The Belgium squad features Eriksen's Inter team-mate Romelu Lukaku and long-term Ajax and Tottenham colleagues Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.

But, sure enough, confirmation was forthcoming of the resumption in Group B's first fixture, set for 20:30 CET, with Belgium's kick-off to follow as scheduled half an hour later.

Understandably, Denmark turned in a distracted display. Lacking the same enthusiasm as earlier, they fell to a 1-0 defeat that would usually have been considered a major upset. Few were thinking about Finland's historic result, minds focused instead on Eriksen.

Indeed, it was a similar story in Saint Petersburg, even if Russia made for accommodating hosts.

Lukaku profited from hapless Andrey Semenov defending and finished ruthlessly after 10 minutes. Rather than revel in his eighth tournament goal – the most of any Belgium player – the forward made for a nearby television camera.

"Chris," he bellowed, reaching the lens. "Chris, stay strong. I love you."

Eriksen occupied Lukaku's thoughts even at a moment of apparent elation, an action that backed up the words of UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.

"At these times, the unity of the football family is so strong and [Eriksen] and his family carry with them the good wishes and prayers of everyone," Ceferin said.

Further tributes will follow and it is difficult to imagine how that agonising Parken Stadium wait for family, friends, team-mates, opponents and fans, eager for any news at all as medical staff worked at length, does not overshadow the entire tournament.

Lukaku will hope there is at least time for some Belgian cheer before the Euros concludes at Wembley next month.

If Eriksen continues to recover, the Red Devils striker can allow his attention to return to the professional task at hand: finally delivering finals glory for his country.

Now or never is the popular verdict. Belgium entered this competition with a squad that boasts the most caps and ranks second oldest, behind only Sweden.

Lukaku is 28 and should play at Qatar 2022 and beyond, but some of his team-mates may not.

While the defence is undoubtedly ageing, the injury issues that are dogging other star names have become increasingly, frustratingly regular.

As Belgium reached the latter stages of Brazil 2014, Euro 2016 and Russia 2018 – only France also figured in the quarter-finals of all three tournaments – no outfield players started more matches than Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel (all 15 – tied with Alderweireld).

In 2020-2021, the trio were restricted to 11, 36 and 18 club starts respectively.

Hazard, having dealt with a series of muscle problems, started from the bench on Saturday. De Bruyne (orbital fracture) and Witsel (torn Achilles tendon) are both still recovering.

"Those are players who have something extra," said Dries Mertens, who took up one of the vacant attacking roles. "To not have three players like that, we're going to feel that, but we have to step up and be ready."

Leander Dendoncker stepped in for Witsel and said: "Axel has such a massive role in the squad, so it's logical we're talking about him. Kevin and Eden aren't here now either, and we're all talking about their absence. It's normal; they've earned it."

But it was Lukaku who ensured that absence was not felt. His clinical opener wrecked Russian dreams and might have been quickly followed by a second had Georgi Dzhikiya not expertly intervened. There were two minutes remaining when he belatedly hit the net again for Belgium's third, celebrated in more traditional fashion.

The Nerazzurri superstar has now been involved in 26 goals (22 goals, four assists) in his 19 games for Belgium since the World Cup.

Of Lukaku's nine finals goals, only one has arrived in the knockout stages, but this early effort was crucial in seizing control of the group. On this form, he will surely also add to that tally.

For all that this was an impressive win as Hazard featured sparingly and two key midfielders not at all, there is an argument – at least from those studying their wallcharts – Belgium might actually be better served finishing second in their pool. That could potentially mean no repeat of 2018, when they landed in the trickier half of the draw and met France in the last four. The same scenario is very possible again from first place.

That was not something for Lukaku to worry about on this occasion, though.

His friend's welfare was of primary concern, and then a talismanic outing to lift spirits just a little at the end of a tough day for football.

Romelu Lukaku sent his support to Christian Eriksen after setting Belgium on their way to a 3-0 victory Russia in their Euro 2020 opener on Saturday.

Lukaku's Inter team-mate Eriksen is awake in hospital and undergoing tests after collapsing during Denmark's encounter with Finland in Copenhagen earlier in a traumatic second day of the tournament.

Red Devils record goalscorer Lukaku said "Chris, I love you" into a television camera following his opening goal in the Group B match at Saint Petersburg Stadium.

Thomas Meunier scored Belgium's second in the first half and the impressive Lukaku added a late third as the top-ranked side in the world moved level on points with Finland, 1-0 winners over Denmark in a game that resumed following encouraging news on Eriksen.

 

Roberto Martinez believes Belgium's players can handle the expectations of a potentially legacy-defining tournament as they prepare to open their Euro 2020 campaign against Russia in St Petersburg.

The Red Devils sit atop FIFA's world rankings, a position to which a lavishly gifted squad have become accustomed over the recent past.

However, an improvement upon their third-placed finish at the 2018 World Cup will be required to make good on their incredible promise.

Until that run under Martinez, quarter-final exits at Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016 went down as disappointments for the generation of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, the latter of whom will sit out the Group A opener alongside Axel Witsel.

"I'm sure that the last three years, when the team reaches the level of continuity and consistency that it's showed in the world rankings there is more expectation," Martinez told a pre-match news conference. "There are more neutral fans who follow the team.

"But that doesn't change anything for us. You grow from expectation within the team. The difficulty is the team we have in front of us. I don't think this team will suffer because of expectation."

Krestovsky Stadium was the scene of Belgium's narrow World Cup semi-final loss to France and their win over England in the third-place match three years ago.

A partisan crowd means Martinez expects a different feel this time around.

"There are no secrets between the two teams. We know Russia really well, as they know us really well," he added.

"We are in a magnificent stadium where there will be over 30,000 Russia fans. That's an element we have to overcome in this game."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium – Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku re-established his reputation as one of the premier strikers in world football by firing Inter to Serie A glory this season. His 35 goal involvements (24 goals, 11 assists) were more than any other player managed in Italy's top-flight and he is very much in the Golden Boot conversation. Lukaku's capacity to create as well as score also bodes well in the absence of De Bruyne, as the Manchester City playmaker continues his recovery from facial injuries sustained during the Champions League final.

 

Russia – Artem Dzyuba

Russia have a powerhouse striker of their own in cult hero Dzyuba. An outspoken character, he was banished from international duty for a year before returning with three goals in a run to the World Cup quarter-finals on home soil in 2018.

The surfacing of an explicit video featuring Dzyuba threatened to derail him once again earlier this season, but he heads into Euro 2020 as captain of his country and their main threat after 20 league goals for Zenit – the second successive campaign he has finished as top scorer in the Russian Premier League. Only England's Harry Kane (17) was directly involved in more goals during qualification than Dzyuba (14 – nine goals, five assists).

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Belgium were one of only two teams – alongside Italy – to win all of their games in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign (10/10). They also scored more goals than any other team (40) while setting the joint-best defensive record of three goals conceded.

- No player delivered more assists than Eden Hazard in the Euro 2020 qualifiers, with all seven of those coming from open play. He was also the joint-top assist provider at Euro 2016 (4, level with Aaron Ramsey).

- Russia are winless in their last five matches at the European Championship (D2 L3), since a 4-1 win against Czech Republic in June 2012.

- Thibaut Courtois conceded an average of 0.74 goals per game in LaLiga in 2020-21 (28 in 38 appearances), the lowest ratio for a Real Madrid goalkeeper playing every match of the same top-flight season since Opta began collecting this data in 2005-06.

- Aleksandr Golovin was directly involved in 14 goals in 21 games in Ligue 1 in 2020-21 (five goals, nine assists). Only Andrey Arshavin (six goals, 11 assists with Arsenal in 2010-11) has had more goal involvements among Russian players in the top-five European leagues over the past 15 seasons. Monaco won 41 per cent of their league games without Golovin on the pitch this season, winning 81 per cent when he was involved.

Predicting the winner of a major international tournament is a natural part of being a football fan, even if it can sometimes be something of a fool's errand – as proven by Greece and Denmark.

But considering how integral statistics are to football these days, using data could potentially give you the edge, and that's where Stats Perform comes in.

Our Artificial Intelligence team have used Opta's extensive data reserves to quantify each team's chances of winning the entire tournament.

Every match has been run through the Stats Perform Euros Prediction model to calculate the estimated probability of the outcome (win, draw or loss). This uses odds from betting markets and Stats Perform team rankings, which are based on historical and recent performances.

It takes into consideration the strength of each team's opponents as well as the difficulty of their respective paths to the final, plus the make-up of the groups and any relevant seedings heading into the knockouts.

Then, the rest of the tournament is simulated 40,000 times and analysed, providing the AI team with a percentage for each nation, showing the probability of them ultimately lifting the trophy at Wembley on July 11.

Without any further ado, let's check out the results, some of which may come as something of a surprise…

MOST-LIKELY WINNERS: France (20.5 per cent)

Well, this one probably isn't much of a shock. Anyone who has looked through the squad at Didier Deschamps' disposal has likely come to the conclusion that Les Bleus will have to implode a la the 2010 World Cup if they're to be beaten.

Most of the key players from their 2018 World Cup-winning squad are present, and now they can call upon the services of Karim Benzema again, which is no small thing.

 

Our model also gives France a 46.8 per cent chance of finish top of the so-called 'Group of Death', which also includes defending champions Portugal and a Germany side desperate for redemption after World Cup humiliation in Russia.

If France are successful, Deschamps will become the first man in history to win the World Cup and Euros as both a player and manager.

2. Belgium (15.7 per cent)

Could this be the last-chance saloon for Belgium's 'Golden Generation'? Our predictor model certainly suggests they're still in with a great chance of winning the title, with their 15.7 per cent the second highest.

They have the joint-oldest squad at the tournament (29.2 years) along with Sweden, so while they're certainly not a young team, several of their best players are right at the peak of their powers, with Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku coming into the tournament arguably in the form of their lives.

 

They looked sharp in qualifying – for what it's worth – with a 100 per cent win record and a 40-goal haul that wasn't matched by any other team, while they will be strong favourites to win their group ahead of Russia, Denmark and Finland.

3. Spain (11.3 per cent)

Now, one thing our model cannot take into consideration is a coronavirus outbreak. La Roja had to field their Under-21s for the senior side's final pre-Euros warm-up game against Lithuania – while it means nothing for their chances at the tournament, they did ease to a 4-0 win.

It remains to be seen if there are any further consequences of Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente testing positive for COVID-19, but if we assume Luis Enrique is able to rely on a squad that's more or less the selection he initially picked, they will at least be strong options to reach the latter stages.

Although perhaps not blessed with the kind of 'superstar' talent they've had at other tournaments over the past 15 years or so, they do have a highly regarded coach and beat Germany 6-0 as recently as November. Nevertheless, their disrupted build-up to the tournament could be telling when their campaign starts.

4. Germany (9.8 per cent)

Joachim Low's going to have to upset the odds if he is to enjoy one last hurrah with Die Mannschaft. The World Cup-winner coach is stepping down a year early after the Euros, with Hansi Flick set to take over.

Having the likes of Thomas Muller back in the squad after a stunning couple of seasons with Bayern Munich will surely improve their chances – though our model doesn't take player data into account.

 

The predictor will see that Germany have failed to beat Denmark and North Macedonia in two of their three most recent games, while they also have a particularly hard group.

5. Portugal (9.6 per cent)

The other major footballing power from the 'Group of Death' – our predictor suggests Portugal are the least likely of themselves, France and Germany to win Euro 2020.

Nevertheless, La Selecao will surely feel good about themselves heading into the competition. Their squad is arguably significantly better than the one that won Euro 2016, while coach Fernando Santos is a shrewd operator.

They also have this chap up front called Cristiano Ronaldo, who is one away from setting a new record for the most goals (10) in European Championship history.

THE REST OF THE FIELD

According to our predictor, a resurgent Italy and Netherlands are the next most likely to win the tournament, which would represent a rather good turnaround from missing out on the 2018 World Cup – in fact, the Oranje weren't at Euro 2016 either.

At this point there are probably many of you pondering – assuming you've not just scrolled straight down to the list – about England's chances.

Well, the Three Lions' ranking here is a prime example of how a good draw can really pay. While they should – in theory, at least – have more than enough firepower to get out of a group that also contains Croatia, neighbours Scotland and Czech Republic, their route to the final would almost certainly see them come up against one – or more – of Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. They're also probably not helped by the fact they've played more Euros games (31) without reaching the final than any other team.

England's 5.2 per cent chance of success sees them behind Denmark (5.4 per cent), whose path to the final would likely be a little kinder, though the caveat is that the Three Lions could potentially play the vast majority of their matches on home soil at Wembley.

Tournament debutants North Macedonia are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the least likely to win Euro 2020, with their chances rated at 0.02 per cent.

 

6. Italy (7.6 per cent)

7. Netherlands (5.9 per cent)

8. Denmark (5.4 per cent)

9. England (5.2 per cent)

10. Switzerland (2.3 per cent)

11. Sweden (1.5 per cent)

12. Croatia (1.0 per cent)

13. Russia (1.0 per cent)

14. Poland (0.8 per cent)

15. Ukraine (0.8 per cent)

16. Wales (0.6 per cent)

17. Turkey (0.4 per cent)

18. Czech Republic (0.2 per cent)

19. Austria (0.2 per cent)

20. Finland (0.1 per cent)

21. Hungary (0.1 per cent)

22. Scotland (0.1 per cent)

23. Slovakia (0.04 per cent)

24. North Macedonia (0.02 per cent)

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

Chelsea won the Champions League last month but they are not sitting still.

Thomas Tuchel is determined to strengthen his attack as he seeks to dethrone Premier League champions Manchester City in 2021-22.

Erling Haaland is reportedly Chelsea's number one target.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA WANT HAALAND

Chelsea are "working intensely" on a deal to sign Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland, according to the Telegraph.

Haaland has been linked with Real MadridManchester CityBarcelonaParis Saint-GermainManchester UnitedJuventusLiverpoolChelsea and Bayern Munich.

Tottenham's Harry Kane and Inter forward Romelu Lukaku have emerged as options for Chelsea, though the Champions League winners appear set on Haaland.

 

ROUND-UP

PSG are poised to sign Italy international goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma on a free transfer, reports Gianluca Di Marzio. Out of contract at Milan, Donnarumma was also linked with Juve and Barca.

- The Times says United are moving closer to reaching an agreement with Dortmund for Jadon Sancho. The England international was heavily tipped to move to Old Trafford ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.

City are chasing Spurs star Kane and Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish, per ESPN. Pep Guardiola's side are willing to buy both if they are able to do so. Kane and Grealish have also been linked with Manchester neighbours United.

Atletico Madrid have offered Saul Niguez to City in exchange for Bernardo Silva, according to the Times. Unsettled at LaLiga champions Atletico, Saul has also reportedly caught the attention of United, Chelsea and Bayern.

- The Daily Mail claims Brighton and Hove Albion are looking to keep England international defender Ben White by demanding £50million amid interest from clubs such as United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

Milan are eyeing Chelsea trio Olivier Giroud, Fikayo Tomori and Hakim Ziyech, claims the Gazzetta dello Sport. Ziyech has also been linked with Napoli.

- Gazzetta dello Sport says Inter are hopeful of re-signing Nicolo Barella and Atletico Madrid target Lautaro Martinez by the end of the off-season.

- Juventus are interested in Roma veteran Edin Dzeko and are ready to offer a two-year deal, reports Corriere dello Sport.

Romelu Lukaku was on target and Eden Hazard made a long-awaited international return as Belgium beat Croatia 1-0 in their final Euro 2020 warm-up game.

The impressive Lukaku struck in the first half at King Baudouin Stadium on Sunday to give the Red Devils a deserved victory.

Injury-blighted Hazard came off the bench late on to make his first Belgium appearance for 19 months, just six days before Roberto Martinez's side face Russia in their first match of the European Championship.

Zlatko Dalic's Croatia side lacked a cutting edge in Brussels a week prior to their opening game of Euro 2020 against England at Wembley.

Croatia started positively but the Red Devils started to look increasingly threatening, Nacer Chadli blazing over the crossbar from outside the penalty area.

Lukaku was proving a real handful and the striker rattled the post with a left-footed strike after turning sharply, with Yannick Carrasco heading against the crossbar following up.

Croatia were made to pay by Lukaku seven minutes before the break after some slack defending, the prolific Inter frontman drilling home with his right foot from six yards after Jason Denayer nodded the ball into his path.

Bruno Petkovic twice called Thibaut Courtois into action early in the second half as Croatia went in search of an equaliser.

Carrasco spurned a good opportunity to double the Red Devils' lead when he sliced wide and a Lukaku header deflected off target.

Croatia boss Dalic made a whole host of changes in the second half, but Belgium saw out the victory and Real Madrid man Hazard gave them another lift when he came on with nine minutes to go.

Hazard was given a short outing and Lukaku came close to a second goal when his close-range header was superbly kept out by Dominik Livakovic.

Josip Brekalo could have snatched a stoppage-time equaliser, but his shot was well saved by Courtois as Belgium held on for the win.

Is Aymeric Laporte's future away from Manchester City?

Laporte hit the ground running in Manchester, but Pep Guardiola has since preferred John Stones and Ruben Dias.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are reportedly willing to pounce.

 

TOP STORY – LAPORTE HEADED FOR SPAIN RETURN?

LaLiga pair Real Madrid and Barcelona are tracking Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte , according to Caught Offside.

Laporte left Spanish outfit Athletic Bilbao for City in 2018 but the newly capped Spain international slipped down the pecking order during the 2020-21 campaign.

As City reportedly prepare a new long-term contract for John Stones , who has been preferred alongside Ruben Dias, Madrid and Barca are waiting in the wings.

 

ROUND-UP

-  Tottenham have abandoned their plans to appoint former Inter boss Antonio Conte , reports Sky Italy. Spurs and Conte were in negotiations and while ex-Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici is poised to join the Premier League side, Conte will not reunite with his Italian compatriot. Tottenham were initially linked with former manager Mauricio Pochettino , who is currently in charge of Paris Saint-Germain. Amid ongoing speculation, Le10 Sport claims a sensational deal to bring Pochettino back to London could go ahead.

- PSG  are trying to hijack Barcelona 's move for Georginio Wijnaldum , says ESPN. Wijnaldum is available on a free transfer following the expiration of his Liverpool contract and he has been tipped to make the switch to Camp Nou.

- Mundo Deportivo reports Valencia captain Jose Luis Gaya is the on the radar for Barca , who are eyeing a new left-back.

- Gazzetto dello Sport reports  Juventus  are interested in Fiorentina defender  Nikola Milenkovic . Fiorentina could be willing to sell the Serbia international, who is out of contract in 2022. Milenkovic has previously been linked with  Tottenham Manchester United  and  West Ham Milan  could also make a move if they fail to tie up a permanent deal for Chelsea's  Fikayo Tomori .

Dusan Vlahovic  of Fiorentina, Marseille's  Arkadiusz Milik and Sassuolo's Gianluca Scamacca  are among the possible new forward signings for  Milan , says Gazzetta dello Sport. Chelsea veteran Olivier Giroud has been strongly linked with Milan.

- Marca claims  Gareth Bale  is leaning towards retirement after Euro 2020. Bale is set to return to Real Madrid following his loan spell at Tottenham.

- New Inter boss  Simone Inzaghi  wants to keep  Alexis Sanchez , per Calciomercato. As Inter look to cut costs, Sanchez has been linked with  Roma Romelu Lukaku Lautaro Martinez  and  Alessandro Bastoni  and their futures have also been questioned due to the club's financial issues.

Inter star Romelu Lukaku insisted he is staying at the Serie A champions amid speculation over his future.

Lukaku has been linked with an Inter exit following the departure of head coach Antonio Conte as the Nerazzurri struggle financially due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite leading Inter to their first Scudetto in a decade, Lukaku has reportedly caught the attention of former club Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Lukaku, however, has no plans to leave San Siro as he eyes more silverware in Milan after he was named "the best overall" Serie A MVP.

"I am staying at Inter," Lukaku – who arrived from Manchester United in 2019 – told VTM as Inter reportedly prepare to appoint former Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi.

"I've already spoken to the man who will become our new coach. Maybe I shouldn't say that yet… but it was a very positive conversation.

"The challenge is to win again. I feel good at Inter, I finally won some silverware.

"I really enjoyed it, but I want to do that again, this time with a packed San Siro."

Lukaku scored 24 goals from 36 league outings in 2020-21, while the Belgium international forward also provided 11 assists.

Lukaku scored 30 goals in all competitions this past season – only in 2016-17 for Everton did the Belgian score more (25) in a single campaign in one of Europe's top five leagues. 

Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku headlined the list of Serie A's MVP winners for the 2020-21 season.

Ronaldo finished the campaign as the leading scorer in the competition, netting 29 times across 33 appearances for Juventus to be named the most valuable forward.

Lukaku ranked second in the scorer's list with 24 goals from 36 outings, though the Belgium striker did provide 11 assists compared to Ronaldo's tally of three as he was named "the best overall" MVP.

Both forwards only netted one goal from outside the area and scored six penalties apiece, while Lukaku had a better shot conversion rate than Ronaldo – 25 per cent compared to 17.26 - as he helped Inter finish as champions.

 

Meanwhile, Gianluigi Donnarumma – whose future remains unclear as his contract at Milan nears an end – was selected as the top goalkeeper.

No other keeper played more games than the 22-year-old (37), while his tally of 14 clean sheets was level with Inter's Samir Handanovic for most in the league.

Cristian Romero was named as the best defender after a fine season with Atalanta, while Inter's Italy international Nicolo Barella scooped the midfield MVP honour.

Barella played 36 times for Antonio Conte's champions, scoring three goals and setting a further up seven. On average, he created 1.46 chances per 90 minutes.

There was also recognition for Dusan Vlahovic, named the best player under the age of 23 in Serie A after netting 21 league goals for Fiorentina.

Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge?

Lukaku's first taste of English football was with Chelsea between 2011-14.

He could be set for a Chelsea return amid doubts over his Inter future.

 

TOP STORY – TUCHEL WANTS LUKAKU

Chelsea are planning a move for Inter star Romelu Lukaku, according to The Guardian.

Lukaku, who joined the Blues in 2011 before leaving in 2014, is reportedly considering his future after Antonio Conte quit Inter amid the Serie A champions' troubled financial situation.

Inter quartet Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez, Achraf Hakimi – linked with Paris Saint-Germain – and Alessandro Bastoni could be sold by the Nerazzurri.

Chelsea are now eyeing a reunion with Real Madrid and Barcelona target Lukaku after winning the Champions League, while Tottenham's Harry Kane and Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland are also on their radar.

 

ROUND-UP

Gianluigi Donnarumma is prepared to join Juventus on a worse contract than he rejected at Milan, reports Corriere dello Sport. Donnarumma is available on a free transfer and the Italy international has been linked with Barca, Manchester United and PSG. Mundo Deportivo says Barca consider Donnarumma a good market opportunity.

- Bild reports Florian Neuhaus will remain at Borussia Monchengladbach, despite interest from Bayern Munich.

Olivier Giroud will join Milan as a free agent from Chelsea, claims Calciomercato. Giroud is available after his contract was not renewed at Stamford Bridge.

- Lille's Christophe Galtier is the latest candidate to replace head coach Simone Inzaghi at Lazio, joining Maurizio Sarri, Andre Villas-Boas and Sinisa Mihajlovic, according to Tuttomercato. Inzaghi is poised to succeed Conte at Inter.

What does the future hold for Achraf Hakimi?

In his first season with Inter, the Morocco international claimed the Scudetto.

However, his time in Milan could already be coming to an end.

 

TOP STORY – HAKIMI TO PSG?

Paris Saint-Germain want to sign star Inter full-back Achraf Hakimi, according to Fabrizio Romano.

Inter won the Serie A in 2020-21 but find themselves in a tough financial situation due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with head coach Antonio Conte already opting to depart.

Hakimi, Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez and Alessandro Bastoni could reportedly be sold to ease some of the economic pressure at San Siro.

PSG are believed to be interested, though Inter are demanding more than €60million for the 22-year-old, who only joined from Real Madrid at the start of the season.

Madrid have the right of first refusal and can match any offer for their former defender, while Bayern Munich and Chelsea have also been linked.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail claims Arsenal are plotting a shock bid for Manchester City star Raheem Sterling. The England international found himself out of Pep Guardiola's starting XI at times in 2020-21. Madrid and Barca have been previously linked.

Paul Pogba remains a dream signing for Juventus, reports Calciomercato. Sassuolo's Manuel Locatelli and Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez have emerged as targets for Juve, though the Bianconeri are still keen on Manchester United star Pogba, though Udinese's Rodrigo De Paul is an alternative.

- Romano says Barca are open to selling Philippe Coutinho, though Arsenal are not interested in the former Liverpool attacker.

Lionel Messi's contract extension is a priority for Barca before any new signings are made, according to the front page of Saturday's Mundo Deportivo. Barca have been tipped to bring in Lyon captain Memphis Depay, Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Manchester City pair Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia on free transfers. Gianluigi Donnarumma – another free agent option as his Milan contract expires – is also a possible recruit.

- According to Romano and widespread reports in Italy, Luciano Spalletti has agreed to replace Gennaro Gattuso as Napoli head coach.

Inter star Romelu Lukaku said he owes Antonio Conte "a lot" after penning a heartfelt farewell message to the former Nerazzurri head coach.

Conte guided Inter to their first Serie A title since 2010 but the Italian boss remarkably departed less than a month on from the club's Scudetto triumph by mutual consent on Wednesday.

The 51-year-old, who had another year remaining on his contract after arriving from Chelsea in 2019, had been tipped to leave amid Inter's financial situation and a supposed dispute over salary cuts and player sales.

Lured to San Siro by Conte in 2019, Lukaku paid tribute to the outgoing boss.

Lukaku wrote via Instagram: "2014 we spoke for the first time and we have had a bond ever since. We had many moments to work together but only god knows why it never happened earlier.

"You came at the right time and basically changed me as a player and made me even stronger mentally and more importantly we won together!

"Winning is and it's all that matters to you and I'm glad that I have had you as a coach.

"I will keep your principles for the rest of my career [physical preparation, mental and just the drive to win…] it was a pleasure to play for you!

"Thank you for all what you did. I owe you a lot…"

Former Italy boss Conte became only the second coach in Serie A history to win a Scudetto with both Inter and Juventus, joining Giovanni Trapattoni.

Conte earned his fourth Serie A title this season – only five other coaches in league history have managed at least four.

Inter gained more than 90 points in a single top-flight campaign for only the second time in their history (after 2006-07), while Conte became the first coach to achieve that tally with two different Serie A sides in the three-points-per-win era.

Lukaku scored 30 goals in all competitions this season and 24 in Serie A – only in 2016-17 for Everton did the Belgian score more (25) in a single campaign in one of Europe's top five leagues. 

Antonio Conte's departure from Inter sent shockwaves through Italian and European football on Wednesday.

Just weeks after leading the Nerazzurri to their first Scudetto in 11 seasons, Conte left San Siro by mutual consent, amid reports of the Inter board needing to slash the wage bill and sell star players.

The pursuit of major honours and a strained relationship with his bosses have been constant themes of a turbulent two seasons at Inter for the former Juventus, Italy and Chelsea boss.

Below are some of the highs and lows of his two-season tenure.

HIGHS

Winning Serie A

Having left another post abruptly, it remains to be seen what this episode does for Conte's standing when it comes to further elite coaching positions.

But there can be no doubt he gets results. Conte was brought in to bring down the Juventus dynasty he set in motion and his past three club jobs have now all yielded top-flight titles.

They romped to glory with 91 points this time around, meaning Conte is the first head coach in Serie A history to have gained in excess of 90 points at two clubs, having got 102 at Juve in 2013-14. He left after that one, as well.

Lukaku reborn

Conte is famously terrible at seeing eye to eye with his bosses and one of the reasons his tenure at Chelsea soured was the failure to bring Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge.

Lukaku's switch to Manchester United proved the wrong move for both parties and Conte finally got his man in 2019. The outcome has been fairly spectacular.

The Belgium striker's 72 Serie A appearances for Inter have yielded 47 goals, while his 64 in all competitions since the start of last season puts him joint fifth in Europe's top five leagues alongside Ciro Immobile, behind Robert Lewandowski (103), Cristiano Ronaldo (73), Kylian Mbappe (69) and Erling Haaland (65).

Kings of Milan

This is a moniker Lukaku applied to himself, mainly as a jibe in Zlatan Ibrahimovic's direction. But it applied just as much to Inter during Conte's spell in charge as they enjoyed some stirring victories over bitter rivals Milan.

Overall, in five Derby della Madonnina, Inter won four and lost one. Last season's 4-2 comeback win in Serie A from 4-2 down was an instant classic

Ibrahimovic opened the scoring, clashed angrily with Lukaku and was sent off in a feisty Coppa Italia clash this January. Lukaku then equalised from the penalty spot and Christian Eriksen sealed victory with a 97th-minute free-kick. Derby wins really do not come any sweeter.

 

LOWS

Europa League final heartache

If Conte is a specialist when it comes to domestic league titles, he fell short in the Europa League against the club that has mastered its vagaries better than any other.

Sevilla won the competition for the sixth time this century, prevailing 3-2 in a helter-skelter encounter in Cologne – Lukaku unfortunately deciding the contest with an own goal, having given Inter an early lead via a fifth-minute penalty.

The wider context around the loss probably sowed the seeds for the predicament in which Inter and Conte now find themselves.

Board room ructions

Having failed to lift European silverware and finished second in Serie A, despite Juventus showing some of the cracks that opened so widely this season, Conte was apparently ready to walk after a year in charge and talked cryptically about his prospects of carrying on.

From Lukaku and Eriksen to the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Alexis Sanchez and Ashley Young, Conte has been backed considerably in terms of transfer fees and wages at San Siro.

He rarely acknowledged this in public, frequently saying his squad needed new additions. Inter will have had a very good idea how all this was going to end if – as seems to be the case – cost-cutting is now so high on the agenda.

Champions League failure

Alongside the above concerns over his temperament, Conte's underwhelming results in the Champions League are another thing that will give prospective future employers pause for thought.

At Juventus and Chelsea, he never got particularly close to winning it and Inter, despite being handed a notably tough group alongside Real Madrid, Borussia Monchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk, bowed out at the round-robin stage in 2020-21, finishing bottom.

When he won the Premier League in 2016-17, Chelsea were not burdened by European football. There is unquestionably a disparity between Conte the one-game-a-week coach, who thrives on drilling his players with rigorous detail, and his returns when forced to battle on two fronts.

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