Is there a more reliable way of making sure a football team fails to live up to expectations than to label them the 'Golden Generation'?

Okay, maybe that's a little reductive as 'living up to expectations' is of course entirely dependent on context – the Czech Republic's 'Golden Generation' from 1996-2006 finished second and third at two out of three European Championship appearances. While not successful in the literal sense, most would agree it was a commendable achievement.

But for Belgium's plentiful crop, a lot more was expected than what they've achieved. While perhaps less of a disappointment than England's own 'Golden Generation', third place at a World Cup isn't going to be much of a legacy given some of the talent the Red Devils have had.

Roberto Martinez's side fell at the quarter-final hurdle in Euro 2020, with eventual winners Italy emerging 2-1 victors and Belgium left to watch the latter stages of another tournament pass them by.

At the very least, this week does offer them a chance at a first international trophy. They face France in Turin on Thursday in the second of the 2021 Nations League semi-finals.

But down the line when their best talents have retired, would the Nations League – which probably has a limited shelf-life itself if certain people at FIFA get their way over proposals for biennial World Cups – really suffice as the pinnacle of their achievements?

Red Devils awaiting replenishment

Of course, Belgium do still have time – the next World Cup is only 13 months away.

But how many would realistically consider them among the favourites? Concerns over the age of their squad are valid and, while 13 months isn't necessarily a long time, elite football has a tendency to expose and exacerbate even the slightest weakness, of which age can be an example.

Reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final was the closest Belgium have come to winning the biggest prize in football, as they got to the last four before ultimately losing to Thursday's opponents France.

 

Martinez's starting XI in that game was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the 2018 World Cup. While that may not necessarily be shockingly old in itself, some might suggest that was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Since Russia 2018, Belgium have only got older. Now, you might be inclined to say, "Yeah, that's how aging works, genius", but football is obviously cyclical. Teams don't just age for eternity, they are refreshed and replenished.

It's difficult to say that's happening on a consistent basis with Belgium, though.

Young Lions setting the example

Gareth Southgate's England got just as far as Belgium in Russia and their squad was already rather young (26.0 years), with only Nigeria (25.9) having a younger group of players at the tournament.

The third-place play-off – when fringe players were given opportunities – aside, England's starting XI's average age only dipped below 26 once, and that was their third group game (also against Belgium) having already secured a spot in the next round.

But there were clear signs of further refreshment to Southgate's team after the tournament, with their first XI's average age not reaching 26 again for more than two years (November 2020).

 

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. Their oldest average age in that time, 30 years and 148, was during the 1-0 win over Portugal at Euro 2020.

Of course, it didn't work out too badly on that occasion, and their collective age isn't necessarily a barrier in a given game, but it does suggest Martinez has to be reliant on his older players because the next generation isn't of the same calibre.

The starting XI selected against Portugal at the Euros was the second-oldest named by any team at the tournament after Slovakia.

While key players such as Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco, Youri Tielemans and Thibaut Courtois haven't reached 30, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard have.

So, what of the next generation?

Belgium's next hopefuls

Belgium's youngest team of 2021 – and fourth-youngest since the start of the last World Cup – was named last month (26 years, 364 days) in the 1-0 win away to Belarus.

Among the 15 players who featured, only three were 24 or younger: Dodi Lukebakio, Tielemans and Alexis Saelemaekers, who at 22 was the youngest. Zinho Vanheusden (also 22), Yari Verschaeren and Charles De Ketelaere (both 20) were unused substitutes.

Arsenal midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga (21) had been in the squad, while Jeremy Doku impressed with his pace and trickery at Euro 2020 despite only turning 19 in May. These, for the time being, appear to be Belgium's next biggest hopes.

Lokonga looks set to be an interesting option in midfield. Athletic and a hard worker, his 62.2 per cent duel success was the 15th highest among outfield players in the Belgian Pro League last season, but he's also an assuring presence in possession.

 

Of the Pro League players to attempt at least 30 dribbles last term, Lokonga (41) ranked third in terms of completion percentage (72.1), while no midfielder or winger recorded more ball carries (627) than him. Among the same group, only three – two of whom were wingers – carried the ball further upfield over the course of the campaign than Lokonga (3,356.9 metres).

His former Anderlecht team-mate Verschaeren has been around for a few years now, with this impressively his fourth season in the club's first team. Last term saw him progress as a goal threat, improving from two the season before to six, but early suggestions he could be the 'next Eden Hazard' haven't really been on the money.

While Hazard has always been renowned for his dribbling, Verschaeren is a rather less conventional winger in that sense given he only attempted 1.8 per 90 minutes in 2020-21. Instead, his strength lies in link-up play, with just six players among forwards and midfielders (at least 900 minutes played) bettering his 83.5 per cent pass completion in the attacking half of the pitch.

Although his shot-ending sequence involvement average of 4.1 per 90 minutes was unspectacular, it was above average, whereas his goal-ending sequence involvement of 0.8 each game was bettered only seven.

But where Verschaeren's stock may not have risen as quickly as some expected a couple of years ago, De Ketelaere does appear to be on a good trajectory.

Capable of playing as a striker, winger or No.10, De Ketelaere has often been deemed lightweight despite his height and easily knocked off the ball. His duel success has improved to 54.6 per cent this term from 44.3 – among the worst – last season, a consequence of him bulking up somewhat, and although he continues to lack presence aerially (36.8 per cent aerial success), De Ketelaere can get by because he's a good technician.

He was important as an associative player in attack in 2020-21, as demonstrated by the fact he was involved in shot-ending sequences with a total xG (expected goals) value of 21.8, the seventh-highest in the Pro League, while he's already matched last season's goals output of four.

 

Doku is seemingly the outstanding one of the bunch in terms of flair, at the very least. He attempted (184) and completed (110) the fifth-most dribbles across the top five European leagues last season, encouraging proof of his confidence and technique.

Currently injured, Doku still has plenty to work on in terms of his end product, but the raw minerals are there, and he didn't look out of place at Euro 2020.

Are these youngsters enough to carry the burden of expectation that's been cultivated by Belgium's 'Golden Generation', though? At the moment it's difficult to say the new kids on the block are generally of the same quality on an individual level, because Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard et al have just been so good over the years.

While Nations League success may not cut it as a satisfactory legacy for this Belgium team, winning the title in Italy might just give them the nudge their collective mentality needs ahead of what looks likely to be a last realistic tilt at the World Cup for a while.

Raphael Varane said France are united in the good and bad moments after star team-mate Kylian Mbappe revealed he considered taking a break from international football following Les Bleus' Euro 2020 disappointment.

Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France sensationally crashed out of Euro 2020 at the hands of Switzerland in the round of 16.

The 22-year-old, who was embroiled in a pre-tournament public war of words with fellow forward Olivier Giroud, ended the European Championships without a goal amid links with Real Madrid.

Following reports of Mbappe being a disruptive figure within the France team, the Paris Saint-Germain sensation felt a lack of support in the aftermath of the country's Euro 2020 exit.

As France prepare for Thursday's Nations League semi-final against Belgium, Varane was asked about Mbappe's comments.

"I think that in the group, it's quite clear and it was immediately clear after the match, that we are together," France and Manchester United defender Varane told reporters.

"When things go well and when they don't go well, we take responsibility together and we don't leave anyone out.

"That's the state of mind of this group and that's our mentality. Our philosophy. We're not going to change that."

Talk of Mbappe moving to LaLiga giants Madrid has intensified after the Frenchman revealed he told PSG of his intention to leave the capital club at the start of the season.

Mbappe, who is out of contract at the end of 2021-22, has made no secret of his desire to join Madrid, where countryman Karim Benzema, head coach Carlo Ancelotti and Los Blancos president Florentino Perez have spoken openly about the PSG target.

Varane, who left Madrid for Premier League powerhouse United before the transfer window closed, added: "For Kylian, it's simply his future, he's the one who decides, he's the one who has the maturity to choose with his family.

"Whether he stays or goes, he knows. I think he is down to earth and he knows clearly what he wants. I think it's not my role to advise him or to make a decision for him. He knows very well on his own."

Roberto Mancini has insisted Italy "have to improve" ahead of their Nations League semi-final with Spain, despite the Azzurri winning Euro 2020 in July.

Italy are also unbeaten in their last 37 games - a world record - with 30 wins and seven draws across all competitions and friendlies since October 2018.

Mancini's men bested Spain in a penalty shoot-out in the last four of the European Championships after a 1-1 draw in regular time in a fixture that Spain dominated, enjoying 71 per cent possession.

The former Manchester City and Inter head coach believes Spain remain the superior side in terms of keeping the ball and feels his team can still get better in that department.

"We suffered in that [Euro 2020 semi-final against Spain]," Mancini said. "Spain put us in trouble in possession, they have been doing it for 20 years and on this, they are ahead of us.

"We have to improve this game situation, be faster. We have to improve, we also have young players who have to play important competitions. We have 14 important months and we have to play better and better, offensive and balanced.

"[The Nations League] is an important competition. It is clear that it comes after a European Championship and preparing in such a short time is not easy but they are two matches among the four best in Europe and we want to improve, that's for sure."

Mancini also responded to Luis Enrique's claim that the Azzurri's unbeaten streak would end eventually, agreeing with his counterpart.

"We always want to win, then we know it will depend on us," Mancini continued. "[Enrique's] right, sooner or later [we will lose]. We would like to go on like this until December 2022, but we know it won't be that simple."

If Italy best Spain again on October 6, they will face one of Belgium or France in the Nations League final at San Siro on October 10.

Raphael Varane called on France to rediscover their World Cup-winning form as they prepare to face Belgium in the Nations League semi-final.

Varane won the World Cup in 2018 with Les Bleus but was also part of the disappointment of Euro 2020, which saw France eliminated at the last-16 stage by Switzerland.

France's form in 2021 includes a run of five consecutive draws across all competitions, the first time Les Bleus have gone on such a streak, up until the 2-0 win over Finland in their last outing.

Didier Deschamps' side have however remained unbeaten in their first six matches of World Cup 2022 qualification – the first time they have achieved the feat in qualifying matches for a major tournament since 2006.

And Varane implored his country to use the triumph over Finland as a confidence booster for the upcoming Nations League clash, with the winner facing either Spain or Italy in the final.

"We finished the last game very well," Manchester United centre-back Varane told reporters at Tuesday's pre-match news conference.

"We needed it to revive a dynamic, to regain that confidence. When we chained draws together, there could have been less confidence, but these are the hazards of high-level football.

"We must build on this to continue to maintain this positive dynamic and gain new momentum, with greater success.

"There are all the qualities in this group. It's up to us to succeed in triggering this confidence and success which has enabled us to be world champions.

"We know that it takes this energy, this little madness sometimes in the game to create it."

Varane is joined in the France camp by the Hernandez brothers, Lucas and Theo, who could feature in defence together against Belgium.

The pair, who appeared at the news conference in tandem, assured that whoever starts will give their all to ensure that their team are in the final on Sunday.

"We are brothers but on the field, we are partners," Lucas Hernandez said.

"The most important thing is that everyone wants to win. These are special moments.

"When the matches start, we don't know who will start, but we will be united, we will give each other advice. We're all going to pull in the same direction."

Theo Hernandez echoed his brother's sentiments, adding: "We will help each other. It doesn't matter if it's me or Lucas playing. The other will be there to help him at all times."

Kylian Mbappe revealed he considered taking a break from playing for France after their disappointment at Euro 2020.

Mbappe endured a frustrating campaign at the European Championship, culminating in him missing the decisive spot-kick against Switzerland as Les Bleus succumbed to a shock last-16 exit.

The 22-year-old left the major tournament without a goal to his name, despite attempting 14 shots across 390 minutes of action, before returning to Paris Saint-Germain, where reports swirled of a potential move to Real Madrid.

The France international was also embroiled in a pre-tournament public war of words with fellow striker Olivier Giroud, who claimed members of Didier Deschamps' side were not passing to him before their opener against Germany.

With the poor performances and the early exit for the 2018 World Cup winners, reports emerged that Mbappe was a disruptive figure within the France setup, leading to the superstar contemplating a hiatus from the national team.

"I have always placed the French national team above everything and I will always put it above everything," Mbappe told French outlet L’Equipe ahead of the Nations League semi-final against Belgium.

"I have never taken a single Euro to play for the French national team and I will always play for my national team for free. 

"Above all, I never wanted to be a problem. But from the moment where I felt like that I was starting to become a problem and that people felt I was a problem - the most important thing is the French national team.

"And if the French national team is happier without me... that is what I was made to feel and that is what I felt.

"I received the message, that my ego was what made us lose, that I wanted to take up too much space, and that without me, therefore, we might have won. 

"I met with the [FFF] president, [Noel] Le Graet, and we had exchanges."

 

Deschamps' world champions seemingly had their Euro 2020 quarter-final berth in their grasp, leading 3-1 with just over 10 minutes remaining.

However, two late goals for Switzerland marked a remarkable comeback, which peaked when Yann Sommer guessed the right way against Mbappe in the shoot-out.

Along with the failure from 12 yards, Mbappe did not muster a shot on target despite firing in six attempts against Vladimir Petkovic's side but the barrage of abuse, including racist comments, is what left the former Monaco forward considering his future.

"I have so much love for the French national team that I abstract from it all," he continued. "What shocked me, again, was being called a monkey for the penalty.

"That is what I wanted support around, not because I took my penalty to the left and Sommer stopped it: that is on me, that is my foot that did that.

"I was booed in all of the stadiums in France! Aside from that, there was not just that, there was also the transfer, but the reality is that I was booed in all the stadiums, yes.

"But I understand everything around the sporting world now: if you are not good, you accept what people say, there you go.

"You just have to look at yourself in the mirror: I was not as good as I should have been, I accept it, and I live with this failure because it will serve me well."

After 15 years without success on the international stage, Italy could win a second title in three months this week as the 2021 Nations League concludes.

That may come as a surprise to some – after all, given how recent Euro 2020 was and the fact the Nations League Finals are taking place amid a busy World Cup qualification period, it wouldn't be unsurprising if most people had completely forgotten about UEFA's secondary competition.

But here we are, it's Finals week and hosts Italy have themselves a wonderful opportunity to clinch another trophy, with Portugal winning the inaugural competition – also in front of home crowds – two years ago.

France and Belgium will contest the second semi-final, with Italy going up against Spain first on Wednesday in a repeat of their Euro 2020 last-four clash, which Roberto Mancini's men won on penalties.

Italy head into the tournament amid a world-record 37-match unbeaten run, last month's draw with Switzerland and the subsequent 5-0 win over Lithuania taking them clear of Brazil and La Roja.

Of course, the Spain team that had previously equalled Brazil's world record back in 2009 were in the throes of their most successful period ever, and Italy will hope that's a sign of things to come for them.

 

Spain's semi-final hurdle

That legendary Spain side saw their 35-match unbeaten streak – a run that included Euro 2008 success – ended in 2009 by the United States.

While the Confederations Cup was never really seen as a hugely important title, hence FIFA pulling the plug on it in 2019, the USA's 2-0 win in the semi-finals 12 years ago was a fairly big deal.

Jozy Altidore's opener was the first goal Spain had conceded in 451 minutes of play and only their third concession in 17 matches, and it was added to by Clint Dempsey.

On the 10th anniversary, Spanish publication AS referred to it as "one of the biggest upsets in football history". A little hyperbolic? Sure, but it certainly was a shock.

For starters, it remains Spain's sole defeat in five meetings with the USA, while it's still their only loss to a CONCACAF nation in 23 matches.

But perhaps the key fact from Spain's perspective was coach Vicente del Bosque's assertion of it only being a "little step backward" stood the test of time – a little over a year later, Spain were World champions for the first time and then they followed that up with Euro 2012 success.

 

That made them the first team since the foundation of the World Cup in 1930 to win three successive major international titles.

It was an iconic side that was routinely filled with players who'll always be remembered as all-time greats for La Roja.

The foundation of their ascension to greatness lay in that unbeaten run, and Italy will a similar status awaits them, regardless of how long they stay undefeated for.

Star quality

Many took for granted just how many remarkable players that Spain squad contained – it's unlikely they'll ever produce the same collective greatness in such a small period.

Xavi was the metronome and, as such, a key component. He played in all but two of the 35 matches in that unbeaten run, with Sergio Ramos (31), David Villa and Iker Casillas (both 29) next on the list.

But when it came to goalscoring, one man above all was the crucial cog: Villa.

A lethal striker for Valencia, Barcelona and – to a slightly lesser extent – Atletico Madrid at the peak of his powers, Villa scored 23 goals during La Roja's famous run, almost three times as many as anyone else. Fernando Torres was next with eight.

 

Luis Enrique's current team could do with a player of Villa's skillset, given the dearth of quality available to him in that position. After all, his squad for this week has no recognised centre-forward in it, with Ferran Torres arguably the closest to fitting the bill.

Cesc Fabregas was the man supplying the best service for Spain's goals in that period, with his 12 assists the most impressive return, while Xavi and Andres Iniesta had seven apiece.

Spain's incredible run compromised of 32 wins and just three draws, while they scored 73 times and conceded only 11.

A team, no superstars

Of course, Italy's world-record effort has already proven successful, with the 37-match run including their Euro 2020 triumph.

And in certain ways, it has actually been more fruitful than Spain's, with the Azzurri scoring 93 goals and letting in just 12, though nine of those matches were drawn.

While Spain spent 174 minutes trailing, Italy have had even less time behind in matches, just 109 minutes, and 65 of those were in one match – the Euro 2020 final against England.

Italy have been much less reliant on a single goalscoring outlet as well, which is perhaps explained by the theory they are less a collection of superstars but instead a tremendous team unit.

Ciro Immobile is their top scorer over the past 37 matches, his haul of eight insignificant compared to Villa's 23, whereas Lorenzo Insigne has been their most reliable source of creativity with seven assists.

But 10 players have scored at least four times for Italy, compared to only five in that Spain team.

Roberto Mancini's comfort with rotating and being able to adapt to different groups of players has really shone through.

 

While the Spain side of Luis Aragones and then Del Bosque had 11 players feature 24 or more times, only five Italians have played that often in Mancini's run, while the most he has used any single starting XI is twice – Spain's most-used line-up was put out four times.

But the important thing most people remember when looking back at that Spain squad is not any specific unbeaten run in itself, but the wider context and history that streak was a part of.

Similarly with Italy, the vast majority of people in 10 or 15 years arguably won't give much thought to their world-record unbeaten run because winning Euro 2020 is a bigger deal.

But Mancini and Italy will surely be hoping that was just the start of a period of domination, one that Spain's unbeaten streak seemingly foretold.

 

While Nations League success isn't going to elevate them to iconic status, it does provide another opportunity to continue building on a winning mentality ahead of next year's World Cup, and the fact they are unbeaten in 61 competitive matches on home soil since 1999 is a good omen.

Succeed in Qatar and then we can start to talk about Italy's legacy.

Roberto Mancini admitted trying to win the Nations League is a daunting task despite succeeding at Euro 2020 with Italy.

Italy, who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, underwent a transformative period under Mancini, culminating in them winning Euro 2020 – their first European Championship since 1968.

The Azzurri, led by experienced campaigners such as Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, are on a 37-game unbeaten run as they prepare for their Nations League semi-final with Spain on Wednesday.

Indeed, Mancini's side required penalties to edge past Spain in the semi-finals at Euro 2020 and the 56-year-old is expecting another tough task against Luis Enrique's men at San Siro.

"Spain were the team we struggled against most during Euro 2020. They are a good team with good players," Mancini told UEFA's official website.

"It will be a good match. [Passing the ball on the ground is] something they are the best at. We didn’t have the time to master it at their level. It will be different this time.

"It would be amazing to win [the Nations League straight] after the European Championship and it would be amazing to qualify for the World Cup early, but it won't be that easy."

 

Italy were at a low ebb when Mancini was appointed and he immediately recalled familiar faces, settling on a more attacking mindset as he attempted to instil pride back in the team.

His side subsequently achieved glory – their first triumph since the 2006 World Cup – and the former Manchester City manager expressed his delight at delivering success for Italian football.

"It was great because we made many people happy, both young and old," Mancini continued. 

"So it was something for everybody. Something that made a lot of people happy, maybe also because of these times we have been living through. The fans have been enthusiastic, and we play to entertain people. It was a wonderful time.

"The best things about the Euro's? Probably the relationship we created within the team. It was a group that worked together for 50 days and that's not easy. 

"They were hard, tiring [days], but there weren't any issues. It was the chemistry and the love, that isn't something easy to obtain.

"[The perception of the Italy team] has changed, but we can't forget that Italy is a country that has won four World Cups. [We] are the European champions and have a significant history."

Romelu Lukaku hates being labelled a "goal poacher" as the Chelsea and Belgium striker believes he is an all-rounder in attack.

The 28-year-old returned to Chelsea from Inter in August and has scored four goals in nine appearances this term.

He has been one of the most prolific frontmen over the past decade, the Belgium international reaching double figures for league goals in each of the last nine seasons.

Since the start of 2019-20 when joining Inter, Lukaku's 50 goals in 78 league appearances is a tally bettered by only five others in Europe's top five divisions.

Of those half-century of goals, just two have come from outside the penalty area – against Brescia in 2019-20 and Genoa in 2020-21, both during his time with Inter.

However, Lukaku feels his reputation can sometimes precede him.

"The way I'm built – I'm quite big – everybody thinks I'm a sort of target man: just holding up the ball and being a goal poacher," he said in an interview with UEFA. 

"But I've never played that way and I hate it. My biggest strength is that I'm dangerous when I'm facing towards the goal, because that's when I rarely make wrong choices.

"After I pass the ball, I know where I have to position myself in the box. 

"I can do a bit of everything and in some games when I know there is a lot of space behind the defence, I play differently. 

"The reason I'm so productive [in front of goal] is because I can do a bit of everything."

Lukaku marked his 100th cap for Belgium with his 67th goal in last month's 3-0 win against the Czech Republic, extending his record as his country's all-time leading scorer.

"To have reached 100 caps is something you really strive to achieve as a young player," he said. "I was lucky that I started out at an early age. 

"I'm 28 now; nearly 12 years have passed with lots of ups and downs, but as a team we have always continued to grow. 

"In the end, the ultimate goal remains to win and that's my motivation. Every time I play for the national team, I want to win. And to win a tournament."

Despite being on course to finish as the world's top-ranked nation for the fourth year running, Belgium have yet to claim any silverware with their golden generation of talent.

That could change this week, though, as Roberto Martinez's men take on France in the Nations League semi-finals on Thursday, with Spain and Italy also vying for a place in Sunday's final.

"In recent years, we have always managed to have a good start at tournaments and the expectations were always high," Lukaku said. 

"At Euro 2016 we didn't deliver. It was very hard. During the 2018 World Cup we did quite well.

"But I think now in the Nations League we must do really well, so that we can peak at the next World Cup."

Gianluigi Donnarumma feels he has become a better goalkeeper since joining Paris Saint-Germain after training alongside Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

The Italy international signed for PSG on a free transfer in July after failing to come to an agreement with boyhood club Milan over a new contract.

He was one of a number of additions at the Parc des Princes during the transfer window, the highest-profile of which undoubtedly being Messi's arrival from Barcelona.

PSG already had fellow superstar forwards Neymar and Mbappe in their ranks and the duo, along with Messi, have helped Donnarumma develop both on and off the field.

"Training with them makes you improve a lot. Sometimes there are battles that make you grow," he said at a news conference on Monday while on Italy duty.

"Training with all these champions helps you develop as a human and as a player.

"It's a good challenge for me. I'm happy to train with them and grow, to move forward in this new challenge of mine. I always try to give my best."

Donnarumma has started PSG's last two matches and now appears to be Mauricio Pochettino's first choice, with Keylor Navas as back-up.

The 22-year-old was previously sharing goalkeeping duties with Navas but insists he did not fear losing his place in the Italy side as a result of his lack of regular minutes.

"That's not a problem," he said. "I went to PSG to play. It's normal that it's like this at the beginning. I'm sure everything will be great.

"I have no problems with the national time. I'm continuing on my path and hope everything will go well for me."

 

Despite his young age, Donnarumma has already appeared 218 times in Serie A and Ligue 1 combined since making his Milan debut aged 16 in October 2015.

Only Samir Handanovic (219) and Inaki Williams (220) have featured more regularly in Europe's top five leagues across that period.

Donnarumma has kept 72 clean sheets in those 218 league games and has a save percentage of 72.72.

Eleven others to have played at least 100 times in that timeframe rank higher in that metric than Donnarumma, with Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak (78.87) leading the way.

Donnarumma, who is set to start Italy's Nations League semi-final with Spain on Wednesday, therefore believes there is still room for further improvement.

"There's always a way to learn and get better," he said. "My target is to go higher and higher. There's always something to learn from the goalkeeper coach.

"We try to understand what I need to work on and improve. There's an excellent relationship between us. We try to structure the training in the best possible way.

"With the new coaches, there's a different comparison and this makes me happy for my growth."

Italy confirmed on Monday, meanwhile, that injured Atalanta midfielder Matteo Pessina has been replaced in their 23-man squad by Federico Dimarco for this week's Nations League Finals.

Didier Deschamps is not worried about Antoine Griezmann's lack of form ahead of France's Nations League Finals campaign this week.

The 30-year-old returned to Atletico Madrid from Barcelona in a high-profile transfer at the end of August following two largely underwhelming campaigns at Camp Nou.

Griezmann was expected to revive his career in the Spanish capital, but he has managed just one goal and no assists in seven appearances in his second spell with Atletico.

That solitary strike came in last week's 2-1 win over Milan in the Champions League, though he was again left out of Atletico's starting lineup for Saturday's showdown with Barcelona.

He has been named in Deschamps' 23-man squad for this week's Nations League Finals, which will see France face Belgium in the semi-finals on Thursday.

Les Blues will then either take on Italy or Spain in Sunday's final or third-placed play-off, depending on the outcome of both semi-finals.

And Deschamps has no concerns about using Griezmann, who has 41 goals in 98 caps for France, in those matches.

"His goal in the Champions League was very positive," Deschamps said at a news conference on Monday. "Even though he didn't start, that goal will give him confidence.

"He has returned to a club he knows well, but with different players around him. He can't just click his fingers.

"But because of his qualities and state of mind, I do not worry about him. I know he will be happy to join up with the France team."

Griezmann played a full part for France in their World Cup semi-final clash with Belgium en route to lifting the trophy in 2018, setting up Samuel Umtiti's winning goal.

The Nations League presents France with a chance to add to that triumph, having exited Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage, but they must overcome two sides ranked in the world's top eight.

"There is a title at stake; we have a semi-final to play against one of the best teams in the world," he said. 

"With Italy and Spain on the other side, there are four of us fighting for this title. We did everything to qualify for this final phase in a very tough group. 

"We want to get this title. Before there were two titles: the Euros and the World Cup. Now there is the Nations League. Winning it is our goal."

Belgium have named a vastly experienced squad for the Finals, with Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard all boasting over 100 caps.

Roberto Martinez's men only reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, where they were beaten by tournament winners Italy – their only defeat in 17 matches and one of only two defeats in 31 games since November 2018.

Ranked number one in the world, Deschamps acknowledged France face a big task against Belgium on Thursday.

"They have evolved well, with six or seven players on 100 or more caps," he said. "They are the best team in the FIFA rankings and have a very experienced core.

"It is a beautiful generation of players, but one that has not yet had the happiness of success at the Euros or World Cup."

Deschamps added: "It's going to be a fight at a physical, tactical and technical level. There is a lot of respect between myself and Roberto Martinez and also between the players.

"But there is of course a rivalry there because we are border countries, which we also have with Italy and Spain.

"There was also the 2018 semi-final we played, but this match cannot change what happened then. That will not have too much importance this week."

Bryan Gil has replaced Marcos Llorente in Spain's squad for the Nations League semi-final against Italy.

Atletico Madrid announced on Sunday that midfielder Llorente suffered a right thigh injury in their 2-0 LaLiga win over Barcelona on Saturday.

It is not clear how long he will be sidelined for but Llorente will play no part as Spain aim to get some small measure of revenge over European champions Italy, who beat them on penalties in the semi-finals of Euro 2020.

Instead, Tottenham winger Bryan will potentially get the chance to feature at San Siro on Wednesday.

Bryan has already won six caps for Spain during his international career and comes into Luis Enrique's squad despite a low-key start to his Spurs career.

Since joining Tottenham from Sevilla in July, Bryan has made only eight appearances in all competitions.

Three of those have come in the Premier League and four in the Europa Conference League with the other in the EFL Cup.

Bryan has yet to find the net for Spurs and has two chances created to his name.

 

N'Golo Kante will miss the entirety of the Nations League Finals as Didier Deschamps is unwilling to take a risk with France's superstar midfielder, who has contracted coronavirus having just returned to fitness.

Kante was named in the French squad for the previous international break but missed out through injury, included only as an unused substitute against Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Chelsea man has not played for his country since Euro 2020 and will not now be involved against Belgium in the Nations League semi-final, nor in either the final or third-place play-off after that.

Kante was missing from Chelsea's 1-0 defeat at Juventus on Wednesday due to testing positive for COVID-19.

France coach Deschamps acknowledges Kante would have been cleared in time for the second Nations League Finals match on October 10, but he doubts the midfielder would be in any condition to play to the best of his ability.

"It is 10 days since Monday, so you calculate," Deschamps said. "There was always the assumption that he would be there for the second game, but after 10 days without training, knowing that he was injured recently...

"I would prefer him to be there, but I also prefer him 100 per cent. Let him take advantage of this period to regain his physical freshness."

There is also no Kingsley Coman, who has been restricted to just eight minutes since the previous international break, or Thomas Lemar, as he battles a hamstring issue.

Steve Mandanda has been dropped after losing out to Pau Lopez in the Marseille goal, while Olivier Giroud's recent return for Milan is not enough for a recall – a "sporting choice", Deschamps explained, after other forwards impressed last time.

But the defence now looks a lot healthier, as Bayern Munich men Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez are able to rejoin the squad, as does team-mate Dayot Upamecano, who had to pull out last time. Deschamps listed Hernandez's brother Theo as a midfielder.

Crucially, the calf injury that kept Kylian Mbappe out of France's most recent games has subsided, meaning Deschamps must again attempt to strike a balance in attack, where Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema excelled in the Paris Saint-Germain forward's absence.

Griezmann, who has Deschamps' backing after a tricky start to his second stint at Atletico Madrid, scored twice against Finland – the first assisted by Benzema – as Les Bleus bounced back from draws with Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"What happened is in the past," Deschamps added. "There is a title to play for. We have a semi-final to play against one of the best teams in Europe and the world, if not the best.

"We have given everything to qualify for the Finals. Now, we are there. We keep the same state of mind; we want to go for the title."

France squad:

Benoit Costil (Bordeaux), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Mike Maignan (Milan); Leo Dubois (Lyon), Lucas Digne (Everton), Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), Jules Kounde (Sevilla), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Raphael Varane (Manchester United); Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille), Theo Hernandez (Milan), Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Monaco), Jordan Veretout (Roma); Wissam Ben Yedder (Monaco), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Moussa Diaby (Bayer Leverkusen), Antoine Griezmann (Barcelona), Anthony Martial (Manchester United), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain).

Luis Enrique has no interest in replacing Ronald Koeman at Barcelona while he is still under contract as Spain head coach.

Koeman is under growing pressure at Camp Nou following Wednesday's 3-0 defeat to Benfica, which makes it back-to-back defeats for Barca to begin a Champions League campaign for the first time ever.

The Catalan giants have now won just one of their past five matches in all competitions ahead of Saturday's trip to reigning LaLiga champions Atletico Madrid.

According to reports from Spain, Barca chiefs will consider replacing Koeman during the upcoming international break should they fall to another defeat this weekend.

Luis Enrique is rumoured to be one of the club's top choices to take over should Koeman leave, but the former Blaugrana boss intends to serve the rest of his contract with Spain, which is due to expire after the World Cup in December 2022.

Asked if Barcelona president Joan Laporta had contacted him regarding the position, Luis Enrique said: "I don't think he has my phone number.

"I'm a coach here for a second time, and it's my custom to keep my word. I'll be here until my contract ends, for sure.

"Despite my proud history with that club, I don't want to get involved in other people's business."

Luis Enrique, who won nine trophies across a hugely successful three-year spell in charge of Barca, was speaking at a news conference on Thursday after announcing Spain's 23-man squad for the upcoming Nations League Finals.

Spain face European champions Italy in next Wednesday's semi-final at San Siro, with the winners of that match to take on either Belgium or France in the final four days later.

 

The high-profile match in Milan presents La Roja with a chance to exact some revenge following their penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 semi-finals a little under three months ago.

The Azzurri went on to beat England on penalties in the final and have remained unbeaten in their three World Cup qualifiers since that Wembley triumph.

Roberto Mancini's men set a new all-time record of 37 matches without defeat in men's international football with their 5-0 win over Lithuania earlier this month, surpassing the benchmark previously set by Brazil between 1993 and 1996.

"Italy are at their peak and were deserving champions at the Euros," Luis Enrique told reporters. "They have continued with that streak since then, but the day they lose for the first time is near. 

"We were capable of beating them in the tournament, but we didn't. This game will demand a lot from us as they are a team of the highest level, which is where we want to be.

"Whichever players I select on the day, I hope it will be another spectacular game."

Barcelona teenager Gavi has been called up by Spain head coach Luis Enrique for the first time ahead of the upcoming Nations League Finals.

The La Masia product made his senior bow at club level in last month's 2-1 win over Getafe as a second-half substitute and has featured a further five times in all competitions.

At 17 years and 49 days, Gavi became the second-youngest player to make his full debut for the Catalans in last week's stalemate with Cadiz, behind only Ansu Fati (16 years, 318 days).

He is now in line to make his first appearance for Spain in next Wednesday's Nations League semi-final clash with European champions Italy at San Siro, with the winners of that match to face either Belgium or France in the final four days later.

Explaining his decision to call up the youngster, Luis Enrique said at a news conference on Thursday: "I like what I have seen from him. His level has surprised me.

"I have known about him for a long time as he's a player from La Masia. I have no doubt about his future performances.

"With there being players absent I can have a look at others. It's a shame for those who are not with us, but now others can join up.

"Gavi still has to improve, of course, but with and without the ball he can contribute to the side. Seeing what I have seen so far, he will be up to the task.

"It would be risky to put a young player in the side. Perhaps he has been called up too early, but he may still start against Italy. We will see if he can adapt to our side."

While Gavi is preparing to link up with the national side, fellow Barca youngster Fati has not been included by Luis Enrique having only just returned from a serious knee injury.

"It is a joy to see him back, and yes, with him playing again I wanted to bring him back, even if it was not to play and for him to just be with us," Luis Enrique said. 

"We have to put that situation in context, and right now the best option is that he is not with us and that he continues playing and adding minutes for his club."

Gavi is not alone in earning a first call-up to the senior squad as Yeremy is also included after scoring one goal and setting three up for Villarreal in five LaLiga games this term.

Only five players have been directly involved in more goals in the Spanish top flight this term, all but one of whom have played at least one game more.

Chelsea wing-back Marcos Alonso is also part of Luis Enrique's 23-man squad, earning his first call-up in three years, but there is no place for his team-mate Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Luis Enrique has once again overlooked Real Madrid's contingent of players, while Alvaro Morata, Gerard Moreno, Dani Olmo and Raul Albiol are nursing injuries.

Ander Herrera and Brahim Diaz, who have been in good form for Paris Saint-Germain and Milan respectively, are also left out.

 

Spain squad:

David de Gea (Manchester United), Robert Sanchez (Brighton and Hove Albion), Unai Simon (Athletic Bilbao); Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Eric Garcia (Manchester City), Gavi (Barcelona), Inigo Martinez (Athletic Bilbao), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad), Pau Torres (Villarreal), Pedro Porro (Sporting CP), Sergio Reguilon (Tottenham); Pedri (Barcelona), Rodri (Manchester City), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona); Ferran Torres (Manchester City), Marcos Llorente (Atletico Madrid), Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Pablo Fornals (West Ham), Pablo Sarabia (Sporting CP), Yeremy (Villarreal).

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