It's entirely possible the staging of the 2021 European Under-21 Championship will have passed many people by, given the fact it's taken on a somewhat peculiar format of a mid-season group stage with the knockout phase following two months later.

Originally due to take place solely in June, organisers were forced into a re-think following last year's postponement of the senior competition. It was decided to split the Under-21s' event in two, therefore avoiding a clash.

Despite the rather unconventional format, the competition will see many of the continent's most-promising prodigies on display.

The tournament, based in Hungary and Slovenia, begins on Wednesday with the Magyars hosting Germany, and we have identified some high-potential talents to keep an eye on.

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

Lafont has been a regular at this age-group level with France for many years, but a brief stint at Fiorentina in 2018-19 did not go to plan, with the Toulouse youth product freely admitting his performances "were not the best" as he secured to a loan move to Nantes ahead of last season.

Only Andrea Consigli (six) made more than Lafont's four errors leading to shots in Serie A two seasons ago, but his dependability appears to have improved considerably since returning to France, with no shots occurring because of errors by him in 57 Ligue 1 matches.

He also produced a particularly strong performance in the shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, making four saves including a couple of eye-catching stops to thwart Angel Di Maria.

 

A closer at Lafont’s performances for a struggling Nantes side in 2020-21 reveals he has not had the greatest campaign. When discounting own goals and penalties by the opposition, Lafont has allowed 3.5 goals more than the ‘average’ goalkeeper would have been expected to concede in Ligue 1 this season (37 conceded, 33.5 xG on target).

The metric ‘Goals Prevented Rate’ can account for different goalkeepers facing a different volume of shots through a period of time. An example of this is that PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas has a goals prevented rate of 1.37 this season, meaning for every non-penalty goal that Navas has conceded (excluding own goals), the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 1.37. Lafont’s rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers to have played 1800 minutes of French top-flight football in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, France's regular at this level knows he has a very capable understudy in Illan Meslier breathing down his neck.

Prior to his 21st birthday earlier in the month, Meslier broke the record for the most clean sheets by an under-21 goalkeeper in a single Premier League season (eight) and has since added another to that figure.

That means he has three times as many shutouts as Lafont, which is intriguing because it raises the question of why then has Meslier not conceded fewer goals?

For starters, it suggests Lafont is more consistent but also highlights that when Leeds concede, the floodgates can really burst open. With those 46 goals spread across 19 matches, it means Meslier is conceding on average 2.5 goals per game when he doesn't get a clean sheet – this drops to 1.7 for Lafont.

 

On top of that, Meslier's seven errors leading to shots is more than any other player in the Premier League this term, perhaps showing he's still in the inexperienced, nervous phase that Lafont has seemingly left behind.

Meslier's superior save percentage of 71.1 compared to 65.7 speaks to the former Lorient youngster's shot-stopping abilities, though for the time being Lafont's greater consistency looks set to keep him first-choice.

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

A promising loan spell with Heerenveen last season alerted Lille to the talents of Ajax-owned Botman and he has been a real hit for Les Dogues since a reported €8m move, helping them to mount a serious Ligue 1 title challenge.

Lille's 19 goals conceded is the fewest in France's top tier and, while not necessarily entirely down to Botman, there's no doubt he's made his presence known as a reliable powerhouse at the back.

 

Of the 856 players across Europe's top five leagues to have engaged in at least 150 duels, Botman's 71.4 per cent success rate is the best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess.

Only four of the 157 players in the continent's elite divisions to have been involved in 100+ aerial duels have a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (72.5 per cent).

While his impressive physical attributes might lead to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 452 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

 

Of course, there is likely to be a glaring absence from the senior Dutch side at Euro 2020. with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp not expecting Virgil van Dijk to be ready for the tournament.

That means there is potentially a spot up for grabs in the centre of the Netherlands defence, and Botman's combination of power and elegance suggests he could be a good fit as Van Dijk's deputy.

Granted, the young defender – who hasn't been capped at senior level yet – still has a way to go to match up to the Reds star, but in the context of young defenders of a similar ilk, Botman certainly compares well and his strengths are similar to those of Van Dijk.

His aerial stats prove he's an excellent physical specimen, and his effectiveness in duels reflects the fact he's a difficult defender to beat. A strong showing here might just help convince Frank de Boer that Botman's ready to step up later this year.

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

Les Bleus are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in most areas, but the fact Kounde is turning out for the Under-21s in this tournament instead of the senior side exemplifies their depth in quality at the heart of the defence.

In his second full season with Sevilla, Kounde has kicked on following a hugely encouraging second half to 2019-20, so much so that he's arguably the first name on the team sheet for Julen Lopetegui.

 

His forward-thinking nature has made him key to the coach's 'Lavolpiana build-up' defensive structure, a setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward from a three-man backline.

Only two central defenders in La Liga have bettered Kounde's rate of 19.2 carries per 90, while there are just three who have covered more distance carrying the ball further up field than the Frenchman this term (2,774 metres).

This positivity is generally offset by Fernando dropping in to form a faux back three, while Kounde's movement up the right can often create overloads as he teams up with Jesus Navas, Sevilla's biggest chance creator (44).

 

But evidence of his progressive mentality doesn't stop there. While possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs, given the sheer number of simple short balls played between defensive colleagues, Kounde is clearly looking ahead, and often.

No defender has been successful with more forward passes in open play than Kounde this season in LaLiga (507), with the 22-year-old completing an impressive 79 per cent of these. Therefore, perhaps it's not surprising to learn no Sevilla player has been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences than he has (53), demonstrating his value to their forays forward, despite not attempting the shots or making the final pass in that move.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he is developing into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who would have looked at home in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

It's fair to say that, when Sporting CP set out to replace Bruno Fernandes, never in their wildest dreams would they have expected what they got. Pedro Goncalves had been a key figure for Famalicao in 2019-20, but to say he's surpassed expectations in Lisbon would be an understatement.

Goncalves operates in similar spaces to Fernandes, albeit drifting towards the right a little more, and his hot streak in front of goal has helped put Sporting on course for a first league title since 2001-02.

 

In 22 Primeira Liga matches, the attacking midfielder has scored 15 goals – none of which were penalties. The 22-year-old's xG total is just 6.9, meaning his over-performance of 8.1 is the biggest across Europe's top six leagues, aside from the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (9.3).

Of course, the chances of him being able to sustain such a run in the long-term are low, but it still highlights what a danger the former Wolves youngster poses in his current form.

 

Comparisons with Fernandes have been rife, for obvious reasons, but they show many different traits to their game.

In Fernandes' final 50 league games for Sporting, he averaged 3.4 shots per 90 minutes and 2.3 of those non-penalty shots came from outside the box – Goncalves attempts 2.6 on average each game, with only 1.1 coming from beyond the penalty area.

As such, the average quality of Fernandes' shots in his final 50 games for Sporting weren't outstanding, with his xG per non-penalty shot equating to 0.07. Goncalves' is almost double that at 0.13, suggesting he picks his moments more selectively while also taking fewer attempts.

Nevertheless, despite Fernandes' penchant for a long-range effort, he only scored four times from outside the box in his final 50 league matches for Sporting – Goncalves already has three this term from 28 fewer games.

 

The biggest difference between the pair is assists. Fernandes' 20 in his final 50 outings for Sporting dwarfs Goncalves' three in 2020-21, but interestingly their expected assists per 90 minutes isn't hugely dissimilar. Fernandes is ahead 0.29 to 0.20 in this area, but a potential explanation for this potentially lies in the respective teams they've played in.

 

The next highest-scorer for Sporting this season after Goncalves himself is Nuno Santos with six – they don't have a prolific centre-forward, whereas Fernandes was supplying Bas Dost, who netted 76 times in 84 league games for the club between 2016 and 2019.

As we all know now, Fernandes was on the trajectory of an elite-level player. He's proven this at Manchester United, though there were certainly those who were sceptical about him prior to his move.

It'll be a tough ask, but why can't Goncalves continue to defy expectations?

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

Russian striker Fedor Chalov is undoubtedly one of the most experienced players involved at the tournament, with the 22-year-old having already played 115 Russian Premier League matches in addition to his 11 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Chalov burst on to the scene in Russia with CSKA Moscow at 18 years old back in November 2016 and scored in just his fifth top-flight appearance for the club versus Ural a month later.

After scoring six goals in each of his opening two league seasons at CSKA, 2018-19 was when he really began to make a name for himself in Russia - winning the league's top scorer award with 15 goals, while also posting his best-ever season tally for assists (7).

But Chalov's career hasn't kicked on as expected since then, scoring just 13 goals in 50 top-flight appearances over the past two seasons, but his performances have been stirring enough to attract the attentions of multiple Premier League clubs during the January transfer window.

 

Despite this, Chalov's numbers domestically at top-tier level are mightily impressive for a player so early in his career. Despite only being 22, Chalov's tally of 60 goal involvements since his Russian Premier League debut are the third most by a player in the competition.

Russia are certainly one of the underdogs for the 2021 Under-21 European Championship and are unlikely to top their group, having been drawn alongside favourites France. However, if Chalov can find form in the first stage of the tournament then he could be the linchpin to Russian hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages in May.

Netherlands boss Frank de Boer accepts it is unlikely Virgil van Dijk will return to action before next season and will not put pressure on the defender to be fit in time for Euro 2020.

Liverpool centre-back Van Dijk has been sidelined since rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in October's Merseyside derby against Everton.

The 29-year-old returned to individual training last month, but Klopp reiterated last week he does not expect him to play any part at this year's rescheduled European Championship finals.

But De Boer, who was appointed as Ronald Koeman's successor in September, says the final decision will be made by the player himself closer to the tournament.

"Anything he can contribute to Liverpool and possibly us would be a bonus," De Boer said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"I'm not counting on it at the moment. But if it were to happen, it would be fantastic for the squad. We're going to see. I'm not putting any pressure on him at all. 

"He has to do it himself and has to trust himself. The choice is with him. When the moment comes and we know how he is doing, you go with him to see what he can do.

"Then I have to make a decision about it. We let him take it easy now and continue his recovery work. Things are going well now. Whether that will be enough, we do not yet know.

"He is on the field. There can be setbacks. And setbacks can mean that he cannot play games for Liverpool. Then I can imagine them saying, 'focus on next season'."

The Netherlands start their World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign with a trip to Turkey on Wednesday, looking to extend a five-game unbeaten run after ending 2020 on a relative high.

De Boer controversially chose to leave in-form Wolfsburg striker Wout Weghorst out of his squad for the match with Turkey, as well as the qualifiers against Latvia and Gibraltar.

Weghorst has scored 17 Bundesliga goals this season, placing him behind only Andre Silva, Erling Haaland (both 21 goals) and Robert Lewandowski (25) in the scoring charts.

But De Boer has defended his decision to omit the 28-year-old and instead put his faith in Sevilla striker Luuk de Jong, who has four goals in 25 LaLiga outings in 2020-21.

"I had to choose between Luuk and Wout. At the moment I choose Luuk," he said. "I understand very well that it is a very delicate issue - it is also a very difficult issue. 

"Certainly for Wout, but also certainly for me. Because Wout has done just fantastic, but Luuk has also done very well with the Dutch national team. 

"We are in a very short period, then you consider things and I chose Luuk at that moment.

"I also called Wout and that was terribly difficult. He was certainly not happy, let that be clear. That is also normal, but at least he made it as difficult as possible for me. 

"He knocks terribly hard on the door, let that be clear. There are already a few holes in it. It was by far my most difficult decision, but at the moment I choose other players. Some are a bit more multifunctional, for example."

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp believes it is "unlikely" Virgil van Dijk or Joe Gomez will feature at Euro 2020 this year.

Netherlands star van Dijk has been sidelined since October after suffering a serious knee injury, while England defender Gomez has been out since November due to a knee injury.

The European Championship was pushed back to this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and is set to begin on June 11.

Klopp said he did not expect van Dijk or Gomez to be ready for the tournament after their serious injuries.

"That's not my decision, but to be honest, the information I have in the moment [is] it will be unlikely," he said.

"So, not that I don't let them go because I don't want to have to do that anyway, but it's because of the extent of the injury. We all hope that they will be ready to start the pre-season with us. That's what we hope.

"And, by the way, with Joel [Matip] it's pretty much the same, he's just not qualified for the Euros but it's with him the same.

"These are really serious injuries. And it's not about now that we talk [about] which competition they can play. As far as I know – and I'm always open for positive surprises, now they all of a sudden show up in team training – but nobody told me that.

"The two of them [Gomez and Van Dijk] look in the moment better than Joel looks because he's still in his [what] looks like skiing boots. But he is here as well. Joe is not running, Virgil is already running, but this is really a tough one.

"We are completely over the moon when they are ready to train with us for the start of pre-season. About the Euros, I didn't think about it.

"I don’t know when you would have to be back that you are able to play the Euros. The week before? The day when the Euros start? I don't know. That's it. I understand maybe the need of that but we cannot make this decision and we will not.

"It's just about when they will be fit, they will be fit. That's how it is."

The Netherlands will face Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia in Group C, while England will take on Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic in Group D.

Diogo Jota is closing in on a return to action for Liverpool, while fellow long-term injury victim Virgil van Dijk is also stepping up his rehabilitation. 

Jota has not featured since suffering a knee injury in December. 

It curtailed a superb start to life at Anfield from the Portugal international, who racked up nine goals in 17 appearances after joining from Wolves last September. 

Jota completed a full session with Jurgen Klopp's first-team squad at the AXA Training Centre on Wednesday. 

Van Dijk's absence stretches back further after he suffered knee ligament damage due to a challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford during last October's Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. 

Lengthy and ongoing absences for Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have made centre-back a problem position for Klopp this term, and Jordan Henderson is waiting to find out the extent of an adductor injury having filled in manfully at the heart of defence. 

Unlike Jota, Van Dijk's return is not imminent, but he took part in an individual outdoor session away from his team-mates and appeared to be in good spirits. 

Liverpool won four and drew three of eight matches with Van Dijk in the side this season, including a remarkable 7-2 loss at Aston Villa. 

That 50 per cent win ratio has not been maintained in his absence, however, with 14 wins, seven draws and eight losses amounting to 48.3 per cent. 

Such form has put paid to hopes of a successful Premier League title defence but Klopp's men remain in contention in Europe after an impressive 2-0 last 16 first-leg win over RB Leipzig. 

Jota's return could be key to their hopes of reaching a third final in four seasons in the Champions League. 

He netted a hat-trick in the 5-0 group-stage thrashing of Atalanta and overall Liverpool won 58.8 per cent of games with Jota involved (W10 D5 L2). 

That falls to 40 per cent (W8 D5 L7) in the months since his injury, while the Reds' goals-per-game average is down from 2.2 to 1.7 without the 24-year-old, even though they average almost two more shots per game (15.9) set against when Jota does feature (14.1). 

While Sunday's trip to Sheffield United may come too soon for Jota, he could potentially feature in the home clash with top-four rivals Chelsea next Thursday.

Pep Guardiola claims Ruben Dias has become "undroppable" amid comparisons between the Manchester City centre-back and Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk.

Dias joined City from Benfica last September for a club record fee of £62million.

He arrived in the aftermath of a chastening 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City, when Guardiola's men looked a far cry from the team who head into Wednesday's match at Burnley on top of the table and aiming to extend a 12-match winning run across all competitions.

The Portugal centre-back has been a key figure in the turnaround and Guardiola was asked whether his impact at the Etihad Stadium has been similar to the galvanising effect Van Dijk had at Anfield upon his January 2018 arrival.

Although the City manager shunned the chance to make a direct comparison, he left no doubt that Dias is one of the most important signings of his four and a half years in Manchester.

"Yeah, absolutely, absolutely," Guardiola said. "He settled immediately. In terms of mentality he's a guy who lives 24 hours for his profession.

"Every step he does, at home, on or off the pitch, eating, sleeping, recovery time, preparation time - everything is to be perfect during [the next] 95-minute football game.

"That's why [he has had an impact]. It depends on him to maintain [his form] and hopefully we can help him to grow. We are more than satisfied."

Van Dijk proved a crucial piece in the puzzle for Jurgen Klopp, transforming his Liverpool from a thrilling but inconsistent side into a winning machine that lifted the 2018-19 Champions League and 2019-20 Premier League.

Comparisons between him and Dias are set to persist when City travel to Merseyside this weekend, even though Van Dijk remains sidelined following knee ligament surgery.

Before the midweek match at Turf Moor, Dias has played 18 Premier League games, winning 12 and helming 11 clean sheets amid seven goals conceded.

During Van Dijk's first 18 top-flight matches, Liverpool won 11, conceded 11 and kept 10 clean sheets.

Like his Dutch counterpart, Dias' leadership qualities mean he has caught the eye beyond impressive raw statistics.

"He’s not just a player who plays good, he's a player who makes the other guys play good too," Guardiola said.

"It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.

"When that happens, it's difficult for me [to pick anyone else] and [Dias becomes] undroppable."

It has been far from a one-man act, however, with City's form truly gathering pace since John Stones was paired with Dias at the heart of defence.

In 10 Premier League games together, Stones and Dias have combined for a remarkable nine clean sheets and conceded once - Callum Hudson-Odoi's late consolation in City's 3-1 win at Chelsea last month.

Without the Stones-Dias partnership, City have won four, drawn four and lost two in the league this term, conceding 12 - the same amount of goals they scored in those games.

Stones was Guardiola's first major defensive signing at City back in 2016 but his days in east Manchester appeared to be numbered as he struggled for form and fitness amid personal problems last season.

The Stones turnaround has been as stunning as it was unexpected and Guardiola insists all the credit should lie with the former Everton man.

"What I want from my players - all of them, not just John - is to be happy," Guardiola said. "He struggled to be happy here - especially with injuries, some personal problems, for many reasons, a lack of minutes. I didn't see him like he is right now.

"In the past he was not like he is now, with the stability, the mentality, happiness, commitment, focusing and everything. That's why I give a lot of credit to him. He overcame this situation himself.

"He could have fallen down and gone even more down, but it was completely the opposite. He said 'no, I'm here, I know how good I am'. He didn't need my confidence, he didn't need the words.

"He said, 'I know who I am, I know I'm a top central defender and guys, I'm coming to show you, the whole of England, the whole Premier League and the whole of the world that I'm good'. This is the only way."

Virgil van Dijk will not play again for Liverpool this season barring "a miracle", according to manager Jurgen Klopp.

It had been reported that Van Dijk could return in April from an anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered in the Merseyside derby last October.

The 29-year-old has been undertaking his rehabilitation in Dubai and was said to be closing in on a return to the pitch, but Klopp does not consider that to be a realistic possibility.

"Whatever happens I think we have space for Virgil on the Champions League list, I think he was on the Premier League list – nobody told me I have to change something with that. If we have space in the Champions League list, Virgil will be on the list," he told a news conference.

"No doctor told me there's a chance for Virgil to play again this season. I don't want to say it's impossible, but it's not likely.

"If we have space we will put them all on even when the medical people tell them there's no chance because we believe in miracles from time to time.

"But if there's no place then we have to consider these things and say the chance is not too big so we have to make a decision. But if they're on the list then it's only because we hope for nearly a miracle and that's it."

With Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and makeshift centre-back Fabinho also out injured, Liverpool brought in Ben Davies from Preston North End and Ozan Kabak from Schalke on deadline day.

Klopp was pleased to have bolstered his defensive options and intends to let Rhys Williams return to the Under-23 squad in order to get more game time.

Liverpool take on Brighton and Hove Albion on Wednesday and Klopp is hopeful he will not have to throw Davies and Kabak straight into action against Graham Potter's men at Anfield.

"The good thing is it is football and they play football in Germany and the Championship, so that's not the problem," said Klopp.

"[There have been] 12 or 13 different centre-half pairings and then that makes it more difficult for example Neco [Williams] and Kostas [Tsimikas] too.

"You search for stability in the team when you change that often, but we don't live in an idle world and that means we have to be smart and quick and try different things.

"We play differently to Preston and Schalke so they'll need time but we don't have a lot, so we'll use the time we have in our hands and try our best.

"If they had to start Wednesday together I think that would be not too cool, but we will give them a few more days."

Liverpool are reportedly prioritising a new deal for Virgil van Dijk over Mohamed Salah, while they could be beaten to Dayot Upamecano by Manchester United.

Salah's future has been a talking point in recent weeks, although the forward is contracted until 2023.

Van Dijk also has an agreement at Anfield until 2023, but the injured defender is apparently Liverpool's focus.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL PRIORITISE VAN DIJK DEAL OVER SALAH

Liverpool are prioritising a new contract for Van Dijk over Salah, according to Eurosport.

Van Dijk, 29, is recovering from a serious knee injury and his absence has been felt by the Premier League champions.

Salah, meanwhile, has scored 13 goals in 18 league games this season, but in an interview with AS last month the 28-year-old refused to rule out a move to Real Madrid or Barcelona.

The report also says Liverpool may look at West Ham midfielder Declan Rice, with Georginio Wijnaldum set to leave as a free agent at the end of the campaign.

ROUND-UP

- With Van Dijk and Joe Gomez injured, Liverpool have been linked with a move for RB Leipzig defender Upamecano. But The Sun reports Manchester United are poised to sign the centre-back for £38million (€42.7m).

- Amid uncertainty over his future at Barcelona, Ousmane Dembele is being looked at by numerous European giants. Sport reports Chelsea, Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich are monitoring the forward's situation. Dembele is out of contract in 2022 and the Catalan giants could sell him if he does not extend his deal.

- Frank Lampard is under enormous pressure at Chelsea as the Premier League side struggle for form. The Mirror reports Chelsea could turn to Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers if they move on from Lampard.

- Yet to re-sign with Southampton with his contract expiring next year, Danny Ings is linked with a move. 90min reports Leicester City and Everton have joined the race for the forward, who has also been linked to Tottenham.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp provided a promising update on Virgil van Dijk, but he remains unsure when the star defender will return for the Premier League champions.

Van Dijk underwent surgery on his knee in October after suffering a serious injury in the Merseyside derby against Everton.

The Netherlands international has been missed by Liverpool, who are fourth and six points adrift of rivals Manchester United ahead of hosting Burnley on Thursday.

Klopp was upbeat about Van Dijk's rehabilitation, but he is unsure when the 29-year-old might return.

"He looks really good," Klopp told a news conference.

"I spoke this morning to him on the phone, he is in a really good mood so it's all very promising but I don't know when he will be back.

"There are for sure a lot of stages still to go over or to pass, whatever, that's clear. I had this injury myself.

"For the time we are in and for how long he is out now, how long the rehabilitation is going on, he looks really, really promising."

Since Van Dijk's Premier League debut for Liverpool in January 2018, Klopp's men have won 72 of 95 games with him in their side.

That win percentage of 75.8 drops to 50 in the 14 league games in which Van Dijk has been absent.

Liverpool have also averaged more goals for (2.3 to 1.9) with Van Dijk, and also conceded more with him (0.8 to 0.6) than without him.

Klopp's side, however, have struggled for consistency so far this season and head into their clash against Burnley on a four-game winless run in the league.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are three of the superstars who have been voted into UEFA's Men's Team of the Year by fans, with Virgil van Dijk also included despite missing a chunk of 2020 through injury.

Fans had from November 30 to January 6 to cast their votes, and a host of predictable names made the cut, though Champions League winners Bayern Munich dominate.

There are five players from Bayern's treble-winning 2019-20 in the team, including Robert Lewandowski – winner of The Best FIFA Men's Player of the Year award – and Thiago Alcantara, who has since joined Liverpool.

The other Reds player in the side is Van Dijk even though the Dutch centre-back has only played five Premier League games this season due to a serious knee injury.

However, earlier in the year he inspired Liverpool to their first league title since 1990.

Ronaldo was named in the side for a 15th time after helping Juventus to another Scudetto.

Messi earned his 12th inclusion despite failing to help Barcelona to LaLiga success in what was a largely difficult year for the Blaugrana and their captain.

UEFA confirmed the final selection for the women's team as well, with six players from Lyon's Women's Champions League-winning squad in the side.

 

Men's Team of the Year:

Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich and Germany); Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich and Germany), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid and Spain), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool and Netherlands), Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich and Canada); Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich/Liverpool and Spain), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City and Belgium); Lionel Messi (Barcelona and Argentina), Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus and Portugal), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich and Poland), Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil).

Women's Team of the Year:

Sarah Bouhaddi (Lyon and France); Lucy Bronze (Lyon/Manchester City and England), Kadeisha Buchanan (Lyon and Canada), Wendie Renard (Lyon and France), Magdalena Eriksson (Chelsea and Sweden); Kheira Hamraoui (Barcelona and France), Amandine Henry (Lyon and France), Delphine Cascarino (Lyon and France), Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir (Wolfsburg/Lyon and Iceland); Danielle van de Donk (Arsenal and Netherlands), Pernille Harder (Wolfsburg/Chelsea and Denmark).

Virgil van Dijk is on track to be fit for the European Championship later this year, according to Netherlands head coach Frank de Boer.

Liverpool centre-back Van Dijk has been out since a 2-2 draw with Everton in October, when he sustained a serious knee ligament injury following a heavy challenge from Jordan Pickford.

Van Dijk's influence has since been notable in its absence for the Reds, for whom he played an integral role in ending their 30-year wait to win the English top-flight title in 2019-20.

Last season Van Dijk attempted more passes (3,255) than any other defender in the Premier League, while only two other defenders with more than 1,500 had a better completion rate than him (89.2 per cent).

On top of that, Trent Alexander-Arnold (3,664) was the sole defender to have more touches of the ball than Van Dijk (3,624), his 239 duels won was the fifth best among rearguard players and his 191 aerial wins was bettered by only James Tarkowski (199).

Van Dijk has posted a series of videos on social media recently, including one in Dubai where former Netherlands midfielder Clarence Seedorf assisted the defender with his rehabilitation.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp recently said Van Dijk still "has a long way to go" and it is uncertain if he will play for the defending champions in the rest of this campaign.

But De Boer has optimistically claimed the 29-year-old, who captains the Dutch national team, should be contention to play in the delayed Euro 2020 tournament provided he does not suffer any setbacks.

De Boer told De Telegraaf: "If Virgil doesn't get a kick-back and things go a little faster than expected, he should be able to make it for the opening European Championship match on June 13 against Ukraine.

"He is busy with so much energy. If you see what he's doing…In my time you were only allowed to kick in the swimming pool.

"He is very important for our team, on and off the field."

Van Dijk has won 38 caps for the Netherlands since he made his debut in October 2015.

Jurgen Klopp is encouraged by videos of Virgil van Dijk training in the gym but warned the commanding Liverpool centre-back still has a long road to recovery ahead of him.

Netherlands international Van Dijk suffered a serious knee injury during the 2-2 draw against Everton in October's Merseyside derby, as a result of a robust challenge from Jordan Pickford.

Van Dijk is likely to miss the rest of the season while his status for the delayed Euro 2020 remains unclear.

This week, Reds fans would have been boosted by the sight of Van Dijk's workouts in Dubai – where Netherlands great Clarence Seedorf dropped in to work with the defender.

Klopp too is happy to see the progress being made but also ushered a cautious tone.

"Good, very good I have no problem talking about Virgil van Dijk," Klopp said when previewing Monday's Premier League clash against Van Dijk's former club Southampton. 

"It's very good but still a long way to go that's [the deal with] this kind of injury. I'm happy when I see these videos because it just shows he makes good progress but it will still take a lot of time that's how it is. 

"I'd like to say something else but these are the facts unfortunately."

This week saw two matches called off, Manchester City's clash with Everton and Tottenham's fixture with Fulham, due to coronavirus cases in the City and Fulham camps.

On Tuesday, the Premier League announced 18 positive results for COVID-19 – the highest amount since regular testing began – but there are no plans as yet for a so-called "circuit breaker".

Klopp says he trusts whatever decision is made, adding: "I'm not a specialist, you all know that, we all try to do our best to keep the competition going.

"I think it works well, we knew before that the winter will be a second wave or something however you want to call that.

"On top of that for us in society Christmas is a challenge when it's about self-isolation and stuff like this, so I'm not surprised that the numbers go up. 

"That then happens in football as well, the numbers go slightly up - it's understandable but we still all try to do everything to keep the boys as safe as possible. 

"I think the competition can go on and I think it's important as well because people want to watch it. 

"I think really we can carry on, but I'm not a specialist and I respect all the decisions made in the next few weeks."

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