Pep Guardiola has insisted a lack of trophies does not stop Mauricio Pochettino from being considered among the world's top managers.

Paris Saint-Germain boss Pochettino has been widely tipped as the leading contender to take over at Manchester United following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's sacking on Sunday.

Pochettino arrived at the Parc des Princes in January and missed out on Ligue 1 and Champions League success in his first half-season in charge.

However, the Argentinian has lifted the Trophee des Champions and Coupe de France this year – his first cup triumphs following five trophyless years with Tottenham.

With speculation mounting that Pochettino is interested in the United job, Guardiola has defended the ex-Espanyol and Southampton coach's major trophies record.

"I am sure managers become better every year. Every season you have a lot of learnings. I am pretty sure [Pochettino] is an excellent manager," he said ahead of City's showdown with PSG on Wednesday.

"You can be a top manager and not win titles. For the managers who have a chance to win, it is because you are at top clubs with good investment and top players. 

"That doesn't mean managers in the Championship or not at the top of the Premier League aren't excellent managers."

City welcome PSG to the Etihad Stadium requiring a point to secure a place in the last 16 of the Champions League, while a win will seal top spot in Group A with a game to spare.

PSG are winless in three games on their travels in the competition and could go without an away victory throughout the group stage for the first time since 2004-05.

English champions City were beaten 2-0 in the reverse fixture in Paris two months ago, with Lionel Messi getting off the mark with his first of four goals for PSG to date in all competitions.

PSG's travelling party is packed full of superstar attackers and Guardiola acknowledged there is little advice he can give his players when it comes to stopping Messi in particular.

"It's so difficult. Sometimes when he has the ball he doesn't know what he's going to do – so imagine you have to know what he is going to do," Guardiola said.

"There are players who you can say if they will go right or left. When he has the ball, not even he knows exactly what he is going to do.

"I cannot tell the players what he will do, but hey, it happens with Neymar and [Kylian] Mbappe, with [Angel] Di Maria, with all the players up front in this team.

"Every player could be a complete star in any team around the world, and all four are in the same team. But I am still glad and happy that he is still playing at the level he plays."

City have scored 15 goals in the Champions League so far this season, a tally bettered only by Bayern Munich's 17, with the Citizens averaging 3.4 expected goals per game.

Last year's beaten finalists are averaging a goal every 37 minutes in all competitions this term, meanwhile, despite playing without a recognised striker through the middle.

Guardiola, who is hopeful of having Jack Grealish back from injury in midweek, explained that playing with or without a number nine is not too dissimilar.

"If a full back goes into midfield you can say he is an attacking midfielder, for example" he said.

"The movements of the players – on the tactics board you put out the names, but after, everyone has permission to drive in the box and has permission to get back and help."

Jurgen Klopp was adamant that his Liverpool team will not step off the gas when they face Porto in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Liverpool host Porto in their fifth game of the Champions League campaign with top spot in Group B already secured.

The Reds have taken 12 points from 12 on offer so far, with a 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid last time out guaranteeing their position as group winners.

Porto were hammered 5-1 in the reverse fixture, though a win at Anfield could see them through should Atleti lose to Milan.

Klopp suggested he will look to rotate his side as the fixture list begins to become even more hectic, though insisted that does not mean Liverpool - who trashed Arsenal 4-0 on Saturday - will change their full-throttle approach.

"When you sign a contract for Liverpool as a manager or player you pretty much have to win all the games," he told a news conference.

"It means there's a lot of pressure on their shoulders. We don't have to win the game tomorrow but we want to win the game. I hope it gives us the freedom to play but have the desire to defend and all those kinds of things.

"In our Champions League history since I was here we always had to fight until the last second of the last game to get through the group, that's the only difference but actually it's not in my mind. I know it's a difference, but we try to win the game.

"We know that our opponent will be motivated in the highest level, for two reasons, because we won there in the other game in a way they didn't like and another is if they win they have a final against Atletico in the last match of the group, so that's what they want.

"It will be a difficult game for us, I really hope everybody at Anfield is at their best, we always show up to win the game. We never take this thing for granted, I hope nobody is doing that, we need to put a proper fight together, I'm pretty confident we can do that."

Liverpool also played in a Champions League dead rubber last season, with Klopp's decision to field a strong team backfiring when Diogo Jota sustained a serious injury.

"It's really easy to sit there and say leave him out, leave this player out," Klopp hit back when asked if he regretted that decision.

"It's very easy to sit in your chair, we have to line up a team to win the game and the Diogo situation was very unlucky and I hated it. Would I have done the same decision again? Yes.

"We need stability, we cannot play football games with one line up and then the next game change the team and then bring them back again, the players need rhythm, all these kinds of things.

"It's not fair that you bring it up this old story that a player got injured. These things happen in football and hopefully nothing happens tomorrow."

Jordan Henderson and Andrew Robertson are, according to Klopp, fit after returning from injuries, though he is unsure if either will play a part against Porto, who have never beaten Liverpool in nine competitive meetings.

One player set to feature is Takumi Minamino, who scored less than a minute after coming on from the bench against Arsenal.

Klopp said: "He played for Japan in the last few games because he's in good shape, he's in exceptional shape, we knew that.

"That's why it's important for us. He's pretty much our first option for changing five positions, that says a lot, because he can play all the different positions and when he came on it was a wonderful moment, 40 seconds on the pitch and scoring a goal.

"You can see the confidence now and how good a player he is. He will get his minutes, definitely."

Ousmane Dembele looks set to be in Barcelona's match squad for just the second time this season when Benfica visit Camp Nou on Tuesday.

The 24-year-old French winger's injury struggles throughout his Barca career have been well publicised, with the former Borussia Dortmund talent yet to make more than 20 LaLiga starts in a single season.

He appeared to be getting back on track last season, with 19 league starts and 44 overall appearances across all competitions, but Dembele had to undergo knee surgery at the end of June that kept him out of action for four months.

Then, after returning to the pitch with a 25-minute cameo in the 1-0 win at Dynamo Kiev on November 2, Dembele was ruled out again with a hamstring injury.

While it remains to be seen if he can feature against Benfica, new head coach Xavi has deemed him fit enough to be a part of a 22-player squad from which he will make his final selections. Teams are allowed up to 12 substitutes on the bench.

Barcelona announced that group on Tuesday, nine hours before kick-off.

Dembele is entering a pivotal period in his Barca career, with his contract due to expire at the end of the season.

But, if he can stay fit, Dembele appears to have a real lifeline in Xavi, who backed the France international to be the "best in the world" in his position if he lives up to his potential.

Xavi made it clear during his first news conference as Barca coach that he sees tying Dembele down to a new contract as a "priority".

Barca go into Tuesday's game second in Group E with six points, but defeat would see Benfica move above them – Bayern Munich are first and already all but confirmed to finish top of the group due to a goal difference that is at least 19 goals better than the other three teams.

Paris Saint-Germain forward Lionel Messi is upset to see Barcelona struggle in his absence and has reiterated he would love to one day return to the club.

Messi's trophy-laden two-decade association with Barcelona came to an end in August when he joined PSG on a free transfer.

He scored a club-record 672 goals for Barca across 778 appearances, but the Catalan giants were unable to honour a contract offered to the player, due to financial restrictions.

The Argentina international's shock exit has left a huge void at Camp Nou, with Barca winning just seven of their 17 matches in all competitions this campaign.

Barca are seventh in LaLiga and have a crucial tie with Benfica on Tuesday as they aim to keep their Champions League last-16 hopes in their own hands.

Asked if his former club's form this season makes him sad, Messi said: "Yes, obviously. I always want the best for Barcelona. I'm a fan even though I'm not playing there now. 

"And I have colleagues and friends there within the team. I want them to do well. It is true that in LaLiga they've dropped many points, but there is still a lot more to play for. I have no doubt that Barcelona will get themselves back up the table."

Messi, who spent 17 seasons in Barca's first team, revealed earlier this month he is open to returning to the LaLiga club in the future in a technical secretary position.

In a wide-ranging interview published by Marca on Tuesday, Messi gave further insight into his recent departure and his future plans.

"I always said that at some point I will return to Barcelona because it is my home and because I am going to live there," he said. "And obviously if I can contribute and help the club I would love to come back.

"My exit is done. I left there and time has passed. What they told me is that they couldn't renew my contract and that I couldn't stay. You don't have to look for more culprits or look back at what happened. I'll stick with what they told me and that's it."

Barca's terrible start to their first season without Messi since 2003-04 led to the sacking of head coach Ronald Koeman in October and the subsequent appointment of Xavi.

Koeman left with a record of 28 wins from his 48 league matches in charge, but Messi believes the Dutchman was treated harshly, saying such dismissals are always "unfair" to coaches.

"When there are bad results, the easiest thing is to target the coach, to replace him and not the players," Messi said.

Messi has made a mixed start to the new chapter in his career with PSG, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner scoring four goals in nine appearances in all competitions.

He netted his first Ligue 1 goal in his sixth outing in the competition last weekend and now feels his "adaption has been pretty fast".

Messi has joined a star-studded cast at PSG that also includes Kylian Mbappe and former Barca team-mate Neymar.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the trio each rank in the top seven for goal involvements in all competitions among players from clubs in Europe's top five leagues.

Messi leads the way with a combined 377 goals and assists, with Mbappe fifth on 246 goal involvements and Neymar seventh with 231.

Despite boasting arguably the strongest attack on the continent, Messi does not believe PSG can consider themselves as firm favourites to win the Champions League.

"Everyone says that we are the big favourites and I will not deny that we are one of the candidates by name, but we still need things to become a really strong team," he said.

"We have to finish consolidating as a team and we have the advantage of having very great players to achieve it.  But we are not the only ones, there are other great teams that are candidates."

Sergio Ramos has taken a significant step towards making his Paris Saint-Germain debut after he was named in the squad to face Manchester City on Wednesday.

Ramos is yet to feature for PSG, having struggled with a calf issue since his arrival from Real Madrid on a free transfer in the close season.

The Spain international only made 15 LaLiga appearances in his final season at Madrid, and last played in May when Los Blancos went down to Chelsea in the Champions League.

Mauricio Pochettino confirmed last week that Ramos was nearing a return to action, but the 35-year-old – along with fellow centre-back Marquinhos – was not included in the squad to face Nantes at the weekend.

However, both have been included for Wednesday's Champions League trip to the Etihad Stadium.

A win for PSG would guarantee their progression to the last 16, while a victory for City would see Pep Guardiola's team top Group A.

PSG won the previous meeting between the sides in the group stage, with Lionel Messi scoring his first goal for the club in a 2-0 win at the Parc des Princes.

Messi netted his maiden Ligue 1 goal in the 3-1 win over Nantes on Saturday, and the Argentinian is also fit to face City, as are PSG's other star forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

Manchester United start life without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a huge Champions League showdown at Villarreal, while Chelsea and Juventus face a blockbuster battle.

A 4-1 Premier League hammering at Watford was the final straw for the United board as Solskjaer was sacked on Sunday.

Michael Carrick has stepped in to take charge on an interim basis and must rally the troops for the clash between the top two in Group F at Estadio de la Ceramica.

Juventus are already assured of a place in the round of 16 and Chelsea will join them in qualifying from Group H if they avoid defeat at Stamford Bridge.

Barcelona take on Benfica in their first Champions League match with Xavi as boss knowing a win will see them through. 

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data for the fixtures on Tuesday.

 

Villarreal v Manchester United: Red Devils in troubled waters ahead of Yellow Submarine showdown

Villarreal have failed to beat United in five Champions League matches, drawing four and losing one.

The LaLiga side did get the better of the Red Devils in the Europa League final last season on penalties, though, and may never have a better opportunity to consign them to a defeat in Europe's premier club competition.

Carrick takes charge for the first time following Solskjaer's departure and will need United to tighten up at the back as they look to end a four-match winless away run in the Champions League. The wounded Premier League side have not kept a clean sheet in the competition this season.

Chelsea v Juventus: Bianconeri plotting another Italian job on holders

Juventus could win the group if they halt Chelsea's nine-match unbeaten run, as they lead the holders by three points.

The Premier League leaders have not lost since they went down 1-0 to Juve in September and they are overdue a victory against Italian opponents.

Chelsea have not come out on top in their past four meetings against Italian teams and Juve could become the first side to record three consecutive wins over the London club in the Champions League.

 

Barcelona v Benfica: Pressure on for Xavi's Champions League bow 

Xavi celebrated a derby victory over Espanyol in his first game as Barcelona boss on Saturday and another win over Benfica will secure qualification from Group E.

Third-placed Benfica beat Barca 3-0 in September and will attempt to become only the third side to do the double over the Catalan club in the group stage, Dynamo Kiev in 1997-98 and Bayern Munich in 1998-99 being the others to achieve that feat.

Barca are two points ahead of Benfica following back-to-back 1-0 wins over Dynamo and are looking to keep clean sheets for three consecutive Champions League games for the first time since May 2019.

 

Sevilla v Wolfsburg: Los Nervionenses nearing last chance saloon

Sevilla dropped points when they were held to a 2-2 draw by Deportivo Alaves in LaLiga on Saturday, and they can ill afford to slip up when they face Wolfsburg.

Bottom of Group G and without a win from four matches, they have not been victorious in their past seven meetings with German sides, losing four and drawing three.

Third-placed Wolfsburg have not been a Spanish team away from home in Europe, losing to Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid either side of a draw with Villarreal.

 

Other fixtures:

Dynamo Kiev v Bayern Munich

17 – Bayern have scored 17 goals in their four Champions League matches this season, the joint most by any team after four matches in a season alongside Paris Saint Germain's tally in 2017-18. Already through to the round of 16, the Group E leaders have also had the most shots (84) and shots on target (34) of any side this campaign. 

9 – Dynamo have failed to score in any Champions League matches this season, attempting just nine shots on target – three fewer than Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski has managed in 2021-22 (12).

Lille v Salzburg

43 – Following their 2-1 victory away at Sevilla, Lille will be aiming to record back-to-back wins in the Champions League for the very first time. This will be their 43rd game in the competition.

2 –  Salzburg have only won two of their previous 12 away games in major European competition (excluding qualifiers), drawing twice and losing eight times. These 12 games have seen a total of 46 goals scored (19 for, 27 against), at an average of 3.8 per game.

Malmo v Zenit

– Zenit have only won one of their past 11 games in the Champions League (D1 L9). That solitary victory and clean sheet in this run of games came in their last meeting with Malmo (4-0 in September). 

8 – If Malmo fail to score in this game, they will equal the record for most consecutive games without finding the back of the net in the European Cup/Champions League (currently on 7). The previous instances of a team going eight games in a row without scoring are Dinamo Zagreb (2016), Deportivo La Coruna (2004) and Avenir Beggen (1986).

Young Boys v Atalanta

3 – Since winning three consecutive away Champions League games without conceding a goal between October and December 2020, Atalanta have failed to win each of their past three away games in the competition (D1 L2), conceding eight goals in the process.

4 – Young Boys won their opening group game against United but have since suffered three consecutive defeats in the competition. Bottom of Group F, If they lose this game, they will have suffered four defeats in a row in major European tournaments for the first time.

Lionel Messi predicts "Barcelona will grow with Xavi" because of his knowledge of football and the club. 

Former midfielder Xavi was this month appointed as Barca's head coach following the dismissal of Ronald Koeman. 

A penalty from Memphis Depay gave the Catalan giants a 1-0 victory over Espanyol in his first game at the helm last weekend. 

The Blaugrana had 11 shots in the first half at Camp Nou – the most they have had in the opening 45 minutes of any game this season – but had also faced 12 by the final whistle, the most in a Barca boss' opening LaLiga game in charge since Frank Rijkaard (17) in August 2002. 

A potentially pivotal Champions League clash with Benfica is next up on Tuesday, and Messi believes his former team-mate Xavi has what it takes to get the Catalan giants back on track. 

"Barcelona will grow with Xavi. He is a coach who knows a lot and knows the club perfectly," Messi told Marca. 

Messi will be hoping to get his hands on the Champions League trophy this season, having linked up with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain. 

While the Argentina captain acknowledged they are among the favourites for European success, he feels Mauricio Pochettino's team have plenty of work to do to reach the required level. 

"Everyone says that we are the favourites and I will not deny that we are one of the candidates because of our name, but we still need things to be a really strong team," he said. 

PSG will book their place in the Champions League round of 16 if they beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday.

Messi has scored seven goals in as many Champions League appearances against City, who lost the reverse fixture 2-0 back in September.

Xavi has challenged his Barcelona side to qualify for the Champions League round of 16 in style when they face Benfica on Tuesday.

Benfica will be unable to catch Barca if the Catalan giants secure all three points in their penultimate Group E game at Camp Nou.

The Blaugrana managed a 1-0 derby win over Espanyol in Xavi's first game in charge on Saturday after the club great replaced Ronald Koeman as head coach.

Former Spain star Xavi wants Barca to put on a show against a Benfica side that beat them 3-0 in September and could move into second place behind Bayern Munich with another victory.

Xavi said in a press conference on Monday: "I envision a victory tomorrow. Why should I think otherwise? I prepare for that, so that [the players] are doing well and see that it is an opportunity to get into the second round.

"I am positive, and it seems an opportunity to me. I envision winning, scoring goals. No one is going to take away that hope. I would like a great team game, of course, but we are not here to give anything away.

"The most important thing is how. The objective is to win. Winning in any way will be welcome, but it is [about] how things are done, too."

Xavi has taken on a rebuilding job at the cash-strapped club following Koeman's departure, but the 41-year-old has high expectations.

"I am very happy," he said: "I feel proud and privileged. I think they are the best in the world, but they must prove it. We have to aim for excellence.

"Regardless of the system, the approach is the same. I try to give the team a winning mentality, personality."

Xavi revealed Ousmane Dembele could return from a hamstring injury, but Barca will not take any risks with the France forward.

Sergio Busquets, Nico Gonzalez and Oscar Mingueza were substituted in the win over Espanyol, but Xavi says all three should be fit to face Benfica.

He said: "The players we had to substitute on Saturday – Mingueza, Busquets and Nico – are fine. We'll see this evening and tomorrow, but I don't see any reason why they can't play on Tuesday.

"Regarding those with injuries – Dembele, Sergi Roberto, and [Sergino] Dest – it depends on how they feel. We don't want players getting injured."

Thomas Tuchel is unsure whether Romelu Lukaku will return for Chelsea's Champions League showdown with Juventus, while Kai Havertz could miss out entirely.

Record signing Lukaku has been out for a month due to an ankle injury, but is closing in on a comeback.

The Belgium striker was able to resume training last week, but Blues manager Tuchel will not rush him back into the side at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

While Lukaku's involvement appears undecided, Havertz seems unlikely to feature after suffering a hamstring injury against Leicester City.

Jorginho will be available after coming off with cramp in the win over the Foxes as the second-placed holders look for a win that would put them level on 12 points with the Group H leaders.

Asked about the possibility of Lukaku returning, Tuchel said: "Not sure yet. He seemed okay in training yesterday [Sunday], we will see about the reaction.

"He has an appointment with the doctors and physios. Maybe we can bring 20 players to the squad. The last minutes would be the absolute maximum.

"Jorginho is absolutely okay. Kai had a hamstring problem so we took him off and we have some doubts with him."

Chelsea are unbeaten in nine matches – winning seven and edging a penalty shootout – since losing 1-0 to the Bianconeri in September.

It has been reported that owner Roman Abramovich could be in attendance for the battle between the top two, but Tuchel says that will not give his side extra motivation to put on a show.

The German said: "Our show is the basics. We give our very best if the owner is here or if he is not here. He will watch us closely anyway if he isn't here.

"We put a show on a daily basis and that is with hard work to make him happy and all our supporters who are in the stadium tomorrow. We need everyone full on and ourselves to be at the top level."

The London club have only won one of their past 10 Champions League encounters with Italian sides.

Tuchel says Chelsea will not shoot themselves in the foot by taking a gung-ho approach to trying to qualify as group winners.

"We will not risk our qualification and go all in if the situation is like this, but we will try everything to win the game and the group and to do this, we have to win the game," said the former Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund boss.

Julian Nagelsmann is certain the issue of whether to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or not will not disrupt the harmony of his Bayern Munich team but is keen to avoid internal decisions leaking to the media.

Bayern were without Joshua Kimmich for Friday's shock Bundesliga defeat to Augsburg as he was forced to quarantine after coming into close contact with a positive case for coronavirus and has not been jabbed.

Serge Gnabry, Jamal Musiala, Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting and Michael Cuisance are now also in quarantine having come into contact with a person who tested positive and has close contact to the team.

German media outlet Bild has since reported Bayern have told players they will have their pay withheld for time missed in quarantine if they have not been vaccinated, with claims saying certain members of the squad are considering legal action against such measures.

Head coach Nagelsmann does not foresee the issue causing a split in the team, though,

Speaking prior to Tuesday's Champions League clash with Dinamo Kiev, he said: "It's always a group's distinction that you don't always agree.

"In a functioning team, however, everyone has to be there for everyone. I don't think it will break the team, we have to grow from it. 

"By not vaccinating, they are more likely to fail. But we have to be there for each other, we should grow from that.

"You often have conversations, if the person is positive, you have to be in quarantine as an unvaccinated person.

"The players are doing fine though, they are being tested. Josh could return earlier than the others because he was quarantined earlier."

Nagelsmann did, though, add that such matters should always be an internal matter and not be played out in the press.

"Of course I'm not happy that certain internals are leaked, that's not beneficial. It's also about private things," he added.

"There are too many things that are carried outwards. But that doesn't endanger our sporting success. It would be nicer if it was a little more closed. 

"I have more fun when everything goes in the right direction. But we mustn't make the topic too big, every club has these problems. We mustn't project these issues too much onto the sporting side. 

"We have moved forward in all statistical values. A week ago we were celebrated. Noise has been a part of FC Bayern for years."

The suspended Dayot Upamecano will miss out, while Kinglsey Coman and Marcel Sabitzer are injury doubts, but Niklas Sule and Josip Stanisic face late fitness tests having returned negative coronavirus tests after previously contracting the illness.

"We're still not sure if 'King' and 'Sabi' can play. With Sabi, it doesn't look too good because he has problems with his Achilles tendon and calf. 'King' no longer feels any muscle pain, but we have to see tomorrow," Nagelsmann said.

"We have an important game on Saturday, and we have to make sure he doesn't miss it. If they're both unavailable, we still have 13 outfield players.

"Despite being without at least eight players, we still have a very good team. 'Niki' [Sule] has tested negative and will be examined tomorrow. The same applies to Stanisic. We might have two more alternatives at the weekend."

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire accepts the players must take responsibility for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tenure as manager coming to an end.

Following Saturday's humiliating 4-1 defeat at Watford, during which Maguire was sent off, it was confirmed on Sunday that Solskjaer's reign as boss was over.

The Norwegian had arrived in December 2018 and steadied the ship initially after Jose Mourinho's sacking, while he went on to preside over a second-place finish in the Premier League last term.

But after significant investment in pre-season, including the signings of Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo, United have gone backwards – Saturday's loss at Vicarage Road leaves them eighth in the Premier League with 17 points after 12 matches.

Solskjaer had routinely been criticised in the media for a perceived lack of tactical acumen, with a common perception being United were regularly bailed out by moments of individual inspiration rather than the team being great as a collective.

Individual quality seemingly was not enough this season, with United's 21 goals conceded only exceeded by Norwich City and Newcastle United (27 each), and just Arsenal (four) committing more errors leading to goals than the Red Devils (three).

Solskjaer paid the price, but Maguire acknowledged the players have more than played their part in his downfall.

"It's been really hard for us as players because of the amount of respect we have for the boss [Solskjaer] and the period he's been here," Maguire told reporters ahead of Tuesday's Champions League tussle with Villarreal.

"We've been on a journey together and it's never nice to see a man lose his job. We've shown as a group of lads how much we wanted to succeed.

"The result on Saturday wasn't good enough but the recent results have ultimately not been good and it's a result-based business. Unfortunately, Ole has paid the price for that and we [the players] have to take responsibility for that."

Although United's Champions League campaign has been far from straightforward, they do at least go to Villarreal at the top of Group F, level on seven points with the Yellow Submarine.

Michael Carrick, who was among Solskjaer's coaching staff, will be in charge for at least that match and potentially more, until United appoint an interim manager to guide them through to the end of the season.

Now Maguire is urging the players to dig deep to put things right, concerned that their issues have been spiralling out of control.

"I think in football you go through ups and downs. As players, it's probably the toughest time for you at club level," he continued.

"The recent performances haven't been good enough. When you're not doing it collectively, the results show. It snowballs from one thing to another.

"We've got to find something within ourselves; we've got to move this club forward. We've got to find something within us to put in a performance."

Whatever happens next, Solskjaer will be watching on as he would have prior to his return in 2018.

"Everybody's got a huge amount of respect for Ole," Maguire added. "He's a legend of the club and he'll always remain a legend here.

"One thing he said is that he'll be supporting us and wanting us to win every game."

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

Neymar has been ruled out of Paris Saint-Germain's Ligue 1 clash against Nantes on Saturday and is a doubt for next week's Champions League visit to Manchester City, according to reports.

The 29-year-old missed Brazil's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier against Argentina on Tuesday due to an adductor injury, which he suffered four days earlier in the 1-0 win over Colombia.

L'Equipe reported on Thursday that Neymar had undergone tests upon returning to France and was deemed not fit enough to take part in the league match against Nantes at the Parc des Princes this weekend.

The injury also puts his participation in Wednesday's mouth-watering Champions League Group A match at City in doubt.

Pep Guardiola's City lead the group with nine points, with second-placed PSG on eight – four ahead of Club Brugge in third.

It was also reported that Marco Verratti (hip) and Presnel Kimpembe (thigh) took part in full training for a second consecutive day on Thursday, and they are likely to feature at the weekend.

Former Real Madrid star Sergio Ramos has also trained successfully all week and could make his long-awaited debut against Nantes.

Former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness mocked Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain for their failure to win the Champions League despite their vast resources.

City were acquired by Abu Dhabi United Group – backed by Sheikh Mansour – in 2008, while PSG were bought by Qatar Sports Investments three years later, with the company's chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, becoming the club's president.

The two clubs have gone on to achieve extraordinary success domestically, with City winning five Premier League titles and PSG claiming seven Ligue 1 crowns since their respective takeovers.

However, neither club has managed to win the Champions League.

Both have gone close in recent years, though City were beaten in the final by Chelsea last season and PSG were bested in the showpiece event by Hoeness' Bayern the year before.

That was Bayern's second success in the competition since 2011, the other occasion being their 2-1 defeat of Borussia Dortmund in 2013 after losing the final on penalties to Chelsea the year before.

Hoeness takes great pride in Bayern pipping their richer counterparts to club football's most coveted European trophy and insisted the Bavarian giants will remain ahead of both sides. 

"So far they haven't won anything," Hoeness said on the 11 Leben podcast. "Nothing at all. The two teams don't have a single Champions League title.

"They will continue to lose against us. Not always, but sometimes. That has to be the goal, and if we win against them, I'm really happy. This is what stimulates me to show them, 'your s****y money, that's not enough!'

"The difference between [PSG president Al-Khelaifi] and me is: I worked hard for the money and he got it as a gift. He doesn't need to work for that. When he wants a player, he will find his emir."

City and PSG were both drawn into Group A of this year's Champions League and the pair are battling for top spot in the table, with Pep Guardiola's men one point ahead of Mauricio Pochettino's side after four matches.

Bayern, meanwhile, have won each of their four group-stage games and are already through to the knockout stages, sitting six points ahead of Barcelona in Group E.

Diego Simeone was critical of the officials after Atletico Madrid's Champions League hopes were left in the balance following a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool.

Atletico ended the first half with 10 men as the LaLiga champions' bid to reach the knockout phase was dealt a blow against last-16 bound Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday.

Beaten 3-2 in the reverse fixture in the Spanish capital, having also lost Antoine Griezmann to a red card on matchday three last month, Atletico conceded goals to Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane before Felipe was dismissed nine minutes prior to the interval for a cynical foul on the latter and subsequent apparent dissent.

It is the first time since November 2019 Atletico have lost back-to-back Champions League group-stage games under Simeone, whose side are third in Group B – a point behind Porto in the race for the final round-of-16 berth with two matches remaining.

Afterwards, head coach Simeone vented his frustration as he told reporters: "It is difficult for us to form an opinion. Firstly, because we didn't see the actions very well.

"The one from Griezmann [in the last game] was very quick. Of course, you could see later on TV as you probably have seen Jota's one tonight [Wednesday], too. The one from [Jose] Gimenez v Porto is, in theory, similar to Felipe's one tonight. These are up to the VAR people and the referees themselves.

"We coaches should be focused on improving the team and not stop on these things, which of course have an influence on the game because having one man less is a lot, especially in the first game when we were competing well and nearly winning the game.

"So, that decision made more difficulties for us in the game. Now is the time to be quiet, work together and again, I like how the team accepted its role in the second half and I give them all the credit for this."

Atletico conceded two goals in the first half of consecutive Champions League games for the first time after 105 fixtures.

Currently in the Europa League spot, Atletico host bottom-placed Milan on November 24 before travelling to Porto for their final group fixture on December 7.

"It is not a very different situation to the ones we have gone through in previous years in the Champions League," Simeone said on the team's group-stage struggles. "Lately, we are struggling to go through from the group stages.

"We used to do it much easier before, not reaching the last match with all at stake. It is different lately. So, we have to play a good game against Milan and only be focused on that."

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