England boss Gareth Southgate has left it up to his players to decide whether they will take a knee prior to kick-off against San Marino.

The Three Lions start their qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup with a fixture against the European minnows on Thursday at Wembley.

Since Project Restart last June, teams across Britain have taken a knee prior to the start of matches in a show of unity against racial abuse and discrimination.

However, with fans still unable to attend matches, the abuse received by players of ethnic minorities has not been stemmed, with several England stars having been the victims of abuse on social media.

Jude Bellingham – Borussia Dortmund's 17-year-old midfielder – has been the latest recipient. 

Several club sides have now stopped taking a knee before matches, while Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha recently claimed the symbol was nothing but a token gesture which does not go far enough to tackle the problem.

Last week, former England midfielder and current Rangers manager Steven Gerrard demanded UEFA take action after Glen Kamara alleged to have been abused by Slavia Prague's Ondrej Kudela, who played as the Czech Republic thrashed Estonia on Wednesday.

When asked if England would be taking a knee, Southgate told a news conference: "I've spoken with the leadership team about this last night and I've asked them to talk with the other players.

"I think it's a good process to hear each others' views first and foremost and that's part of how we educate ourselves in all of these different matters and issues.

"The one thing we're very clear on is that we'll be unified in whatever we do and if there's any doubt then I think we'll take the knee.

"I'm hugely respectful of everybody's individual opinions on that. I think there's still an impact from it but I listened to Wilfried Zaha's comments on it, for example, and I thought he spoke really well that it wasn't enough and it seemed to now be just part of the background.

"It's complicated, the debate around whether we should take the knee or not, or walk off the pitch. The core problems are with racism and discrimination – they're the deeper conversations that need to happen.

"The protests help put those conversations on the table but we've got to address the much deeper issues as much as we have to make a symbolic gesture."

Southgate was also asked if players would be best advised to delete social media channels to avoid abuse, though the England manager does not believe that to be a solution.

"The first thing is that clearly it's unacceptable for anybody to be receiving this sort of abuse," he said.

"It's a very complex situation for what action the players might take because [social media] is a brilliant tool for communicating with the fans. With no fans in the stadiums, to lose all contact with the fans is not something we want.

"Equally if that interaction is bringing that negativity and abuse into your life, nobody wants to put up with that.

"We need stricter legislation around the control of those sites. I know that's a complex issue because of people in countries not to have a freedom of speech is a restriction. It's not an easy thing to police because it can be worldwide. We just need to make a stand on everything to say racism is not acceptable."

World champions France kicked off their Qatar 2022 qualifying campaign with a disappointing 1-1 draw against Ukraine at the Stade de France.

Les Bleus, winners of the previous World Cup three years ago, had looked as though they might make light work of Wednesday's visitors when Antoine Griezmann scored in stunning fashion less than halfway through the first period.

But Ukraine regrouped at the interval and equalised through a fortuitous Presnel Kimpembe own goal before protecting a precious first point.

It was a far cry from their 7-1 friendly defeat to Didier Deschamps' men when the sides last met in October, even if the first half hinted at a similarly one-sided affair.

France were on the front foot from the outset and might have led before their 19th-minute opener as Olivier Giroud's first-time finish was deflected agonisingly off target by Mykola Matvyenko.

There was no stopping Griezmann's stunning effort, though, curling inside the far post from the right corner of the penalty area.

The hosts had opportunities to add to their advantage heading into half-time, too, but Kylian Mbappe and Giroud each sent efforts over - the latter from a brilliant Benjamin Pavard cross - either side of a Kingsley Coman penalty appeal that saw Georgi Bushchan escape censure.

A huge slice of misfortune then saw France punished 12 minutes after the restart when Serhiy Sydorchuk's wayward shot earned a huge deflection off Kimpembe and crept into the net.

Les Bleus reclaimed complete control over the remaining minutes but could not forge a second goal or even a chance of note in an underwhelming start to their world title defence.

Belgium got their World Cup qualification campaign up and running as Kevin De Bruyne inspired them to a 3-1 comeback win over Wales.

In the first meeting of the teams since Wales' memorable 3-1 triumph in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, the world's number one ranked side fell behind to Harry Wilson's 10th-minute opener.

Gareth Bale was central to Wales' opener, though Belgium's star player subsequently stepped up, levelling proceedings with a stunning effort.

Thorgan Hazard completed the turnaround six minutes later and, after a bright second-half performance from Wales, Roberto Martinez's team sealed a strong start to Group E through Romelu Lukaku's penalty.

Wales suffered a blow when Joe Allen hobbled off injured in the eighth minute, yet the visitors were celebrating a wonderfully worked goal moments later.

Bale was the heart of the 17-pass move, threading a perfect first-time throughball into the path of Wilson, who calmly slotted home.

De Bruyne's sensational right-wing cross handed Lukaku a golden chance to restore parity, only for the Inter forward to blaze over.

Wales' luck did not last, though, with De Bruyne taking full advantage of being given space and time 25 yards out – the Manchester City star's strike clipping in off the right-hand upright.

Wearing the number 10 shirt typically taken by his older brother Eden, Hazard got the assist for De Bruyne's equaliser, and the Borussia Dortmund playmaker turned scorer when he steered Thomas Meunier's cross home.

No stranger to magnificent overhead kicks, Bale could have equalised early in the second half, but failed to make full contact with an acrobatic attempt.

Lukaku saw a shot well blocked with 24 minutes remaining and De Bruyne sliced wide on the rebound.

But Wales' lingering hopes were quashed when Chris Mepham flung a boot at Dries Mertens and Lukaku drilled in from 12 yards to make sure of the victory.

Portugal required an own goal from Maksim Medvedev to help them to an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Azerbaijan in their opening World Cup 2022 qualifying fixture in Turin.

The reigning European and Nations League champions dominated possession against Group A's bottom seeds on Wednesday but struggled to create many clear-cut chances.

Azerbaijan skipper Medvedev put into his own net eight minutes before half-time following a mix-up with keeper Sahruddin Mahammadaliyev and that proved to be the only goal.

Cristiano Ronaldo fired a third successive blank for Portugal at Juventus' Allianz Stadium, where the game was being staged due to coronavirus travel restrictions, but Fernando Santos' men ultimately picked up the win.

Azerbaijan, the designated away side, had drawn their last four matches by the same 0-0 scoreline and kept Portugal's attacking talents quiet for large swathes of the first half.

Mahammadaliyev denied Ruben Neves and Joao Cancelo in quick succession, while Domingos Duarte fired wide from five yards after bringing down a chipped pass from Ronaldo. 

But Portugal's pressure told 37 minutes in when Mahammadaliyev raced off his line and punched a cross into Medvedev, the ball flying off the Azerbaijan skipper and trickling into the net.

Despite the introduction of Bruno Fernandes from the bench at half-time, the Selecao continued to toil in the final third against a side ranked 108th in the FIFA rankings.

Ronaldo was kept out by Mahammadaliyev on the volley and Bernardo Silva also tested the Azerbaijan keeper, but Portugal could not add a killer second goal.

That nearly proved costly 19 minutes from time as Anatolii Nuriev blazed over with plenty of the goal to aim for after stand-in keeper Anthony Lopes failed to deal with a ball into the box.

Harry Kane will not be allowed to pick and choose when he plays for England, Gareth Southgate has said.

Southgate became embroiled in something of a verbal tussle with Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho earlier this season over the England manager's use of talisman Kane.

The Three Lions captain started twice in the Nations League in November, playing the entire game in a 2-0 loss to Belgium before going off in the 76th minute during a 4-0 rout of Iceland.

Kane is on 32 international goals, 21 shy of Wayne Rooney's all-time record of 53 strikes for the Three Lions.

At 27, Kane has Rooney's record well in his sights, but asked if he will let his skipper choose when he plays over the course of the three World Cup qualifiers coming up for England, Southgate laid down the law.

"If I allowed Harry to make that decision, he'd play every minute!" said Southgate, who will celebrate his 50th match in charge of England when his team host minnows San Marino on Thursday.

"So that won't be happening. It's brilliant we've got a captain who wants to play every minute of every game.

"We've got to be mindful he had extra-time last Thursday and another high-intensity game on Sunday. We've got that situation with a lot of the players really.

"We've got to make sure we manage the fixtures correctly, we've got to manage training this week as well.

"And of course we've got to be just as fresh for the games with Albania and Poland as we do tomorrow night so that's not an unusual challenge for us and our coaching team, and for our medical team and physical performance team.

"But we always communicate well with the players and I think we're in a good place going into the game tomorrow."

Kane has scored 20 goals in 19 appearances in qualifiers for major tournaments, with only Rooney (30) netting more in these games in England's history. 

Southgate, meanwhile, will be the seventh manager to reach the 50th game milestone for the Three Lions.

He has won 29 of his 49 games so far (D10 L10), and a win would see him equal Ron Greenwood and Roy Hodgson's 30 wins in their first 50, but three behind the record of 33 set by Alf Ramsey and Walter Winterbottom.

While Kane will no doubt be a key figure for England this month, two players who may not be involved are Marcus Rashford and Arsenal youngster Bukayo Saka.

Rashford is at St George's Park but is struggling with an injury, while Saka is yet to join up with the squad.

"They're both doubtful," Southgate confirmed. "Marcus is more doubtful than Bukayo at the moment but we're going to assess them.

"Marcus has been very keen to be with us. He wasn't with us so much in the autumn so he's been keen to be part of the group.

"Bukayo has been getting assessed at the club but he'll be with us in the next couple of days."

National footballer players in St Lucia demonstrated in front of the St Lucia Football Association (SLFA) headquarters in Castries today against the country’s withdrawal from the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Burak Yilmaz rolled back the years to score a brilliant hat-trick as Turkey withstood a fightback and consigned the Netherlands to a 4-2 defeat in their 2022 World Cup qualifying opener.

Veteran striker Yilmaz had not scored an international goal in two years prior to a first-half brace that had Turkey in control by half-time of the Group G contest at the Ataturk Stadium.

Hakan Calhanoglu's fine effort 31 seconds into the second half left the Dutch reeling but quickfire goals from substitutes Davy Klaassen and Luuk de Jong offered hope of an unlikely point with 15 minutes to go.

But 35-year-old Yilmaz wrapped up the points and made sure he was leaving with the matchball with an outstanding free-kick nine minutes from time, the visitors' miserable outing consigned by Memphis Depay's late penalty miss.

Few individuals have had such an enduring impact upon what we think constitutes beautiful football than Johan Cruyff.

As a playmaking forward in the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s, Cruyff oozed inimitable style as he bent games to his will and thrilled the world with his eponymous turn.

An icon of his era and arguably the greatest European footballer ever to play the game, Cruyff's impact as a coach was somehow even more profound.

The irresistible approach of his Barcelona "Dream Team" in the early 1990s brought a maiden European trophy to Camp Nou along with four consecutive LaLiga titles. It is a legacy that sets the standard for the Catalan giants to this day

Beyond that, he switched on a generation of fans to the frictionless wonder of Barca's positional play, not to mention a host of tacticians whose deeds continued to burnish his considerable reputation.

On the fifth anniversary of his death, we look at five of Cruyff's most notable disciples.

FRANK RIJKAARD

"He is like the Godfather of Dutch football," Frank Rijkaard said of the man who coached him at Ajax in the mid-1980s before his tactical reputation was firmly established at Barcelona, while Cruyff's great mentor Rinus Michels also coached Rijkaard with the national team

Even though Rijkaard was not associated with Cruyff's most famous team, he followed in his old boss' footsteps by taking over as Barcelona head coach following a relative fallow period in 2003.

The arrival of Ronaldinho revitalised the ailing Blaugrana and Rijkaard enjoyed the fruits of La Masia's finest generation, as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi came to the fore.

Back-to-back LaLiga titles and the 2005-06 Champions League were the highlights of a 273-game reign. Only Cruyff (421) has led Barca more often in all competitions.

PEP GUARDIOLA  

After the Rijkaard era ambled to a bloated end, Barca turned to the man who has done more than any other to keep Cruyff's vision at the forefront of world football.

"Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it," said Pep Guardiola, whose restoration sparkled beyond all reasonable expectations.

Barca won three consecutive LaLiga crowns and two Champions Leagues – the first as part of a 2008-09 treble.

Unlike Cruyff, who never coached again after leaving Barca, and Rijkaard, who maybe should have followed suit and not endured underwhelming stints with Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia, Guardiola spread the gospel far and wide.

His Bayern Munich won three out of three Bundesligas, while Manchester City have set a record 100-points margin in the Premier League and are closing in on the third top-flight title of Guardiola's trophy-laden tenure.

ERNESTO VALVERDE

One of Guardiola's legacies after leaving Barcelona was any potential successors would have a stronger chance of getting the job if they had a link to Cruyff, La Masia or both. Luis Enrique followed Guardiola's path from Barca B to first team and even emulated the treble.

As a back-up forward at Camp Nou between 1988 and 1990, Valverde was an unflashy squad member of Cruyff went about empire building, a description that could also be applied to a strong coaching career as he earned respect during spells in charge of Espanyol, Olympiacos and Athletic Bilbao.

His Cruyff association, as much as those efforts in the dugout was a factor in him being appointed to replace Luis Enrique in 2017.

Despite inheriting the saga of Neymar's departure and an increasingly muddled sporting policy, Valverde won back-to-back LaLiga titles and helmed a record 43-match unbeaten run in LaLiga between April 2017 and May 2018 that began under his predecessor.

RONALD KOEMAN

The shambles that followed under Quique Setien, culminating in a shambolic 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in last year's Champions League quarter-finals, spoke well of the tight ship Valverde ran. After that failed experiment, Barca reverted to a familiar type.

Ronald Koeman became the club's fifth Dutch head coach after Michels, Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Rijkaard.

Despite outstripping Mauricio Pochettino's win percentage at Southampton by 47.4 to 35.2, Koeman's work in the Premier League did not have other elite clubs beating down his door – much less his spell at Valencia.

His first season in the job he craved has not been without considerable turbulence, but a recent switch to a particularly Cruyffian 3-4-3 (hello, Frenkie de Jong in the middle of the back three!) and the apparent backing of recently elected president Joan Laporta suggests brighter days ahead.

JULEN LOPETEGUI

Even less prominent than Valverde as a Cruyff player, Julen Lopetegui was Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper between 1994 and 1997. But again, an unshakeable impression was made.

"As soon as I had the first training session with Johan I thought 'this is different to all other coaches', he was brilliant," he told BBC Sport in 2019.

"He planted the seed for other coaches to take on his ideas and develop those ideas. He was one step ahead of the rest."

The same could not be said for Lopetegui as he exited two dream jobs with Spain and Real Madrid in the space of a nightmare six months, but a cathartic Europa League triumph with Sevilla last season showed a coach impressively rebuilding his reputation.

Among coaches to have managed at least 40 Sevilla games in LaLiga, none can better Lopetegui's 54.5 per cent win percentage.

Lionel Messi is "the best player in history" and should stay at Barcelona, claims LaLiga president Javier Tebas, who laughed off the suggestion of Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland joining a Spanish club.

On Sunday, Messi overtook Xavi as the player with the most appearances for Barca, six days after the 33-year-old scored a 20th LaLiga player for the 13th successive season – another record.

The Argentina forward has been involved in more goals in 2021 than any other player across Europe's 'top five' leagues, but he still has not tied his future to the Catalan club, who he wished to leave in 2020.

Messi elected to stay and see out the last year of his contract, but his future remains up in the air with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain interested.

Tebas has consistently urged Messi to remain in Spain but has also refuted the suggestion LaLiga would suffer markedly without the Barca star, citing examples of Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for PSG and Juventus respectively.

He reiterated those comments on Wednesday, suggesting Messi would damage his "brand" by moving to another club.

"If I were Messi's advisor I would tell him, 'Stay at Barca'," Tebas told reporters.

"I want Messi to stay. He is the best player in history. If you are thinking about his last years of football, he should continue to be linked to the Barcelona brand.

"He started at Barcelona and I think he should continue at Barca. If I was his advisor, I would tell him he must do everything possible to stay at Barca."

While Messi continues to break records at Barca, his era of dominance in European football appears to be coming to an end.

Mbappe and Haaland are the players seemingly destined to take the baton from Messi and Ronaldo, with the Borussia Dortmund and PSG stars already having been pitted against each other by media outlets across the continent.

Mbappe, 22, hit his 100th Ligue 1 goal in a 4-2 win over Lyon on Sunday, while 20-year-old Haaland has been in sensational form since breaking through with Salzburg last season.

Between them, the duo have shared 41 goals in all competitions this season (21 for Haaland, 20 for Mbappe), while they have both converted 17 of the 27 "big chances" they have been afforded at a rate of 62.96 per cent.

Often utilised in a wide role for PSG, Mbappe has provided six assists and crafted 25 chances. Haaland has also proved his worth from a creative standpoint, teeing up four goals and forging 19 opportunities for team-mates to score.

Mbappe has often been linked with a move to Barca or Real Madrid but is in talks with PSG over a new deal, while Haaland is reportedly a priority target for Pep Guardiola's City, and Tebas sees little chance of either player moving to LaLiga.

"How, with a magic trick?" Tebas quipped when asked of the likelihood of seeing Mbappe or Haaland playing in Spain.

"Barca have to move out many players to bring a star, Madrid are not in position to do it either. Apart from the clubs owned by nation states, everyone has financial issues."

Alvaro Morata believes Cristiano Ronaldo is happy at Juventus but says the superstar forward will certainly have been affected by the criticism directed his way.

Ronaldo joined Juve in 2018, signing a four-year deal in Turin.

He has gone on to help the Bianconeri to successive Serie A titles – their eighth and ninth in a row – yet has not been able to propel the team to Champions League glory.

It is a failure that cost both Massimiliano Allegri and Maurizio Sarri their jobs, while latest incumbent Andrea Pirlo will also be unable to count European success among any accolades this season, with Juve falling to Porto in the last 16 earlier this month.

Juve's chances of a 10th consecutive Serie A title also look slim, with a shock defeat to Benevento last time out leaving Pirlo's side 10 points adrift of leaders Inter.

With just over a year remaining on his contract, speculation around Ronaldo's future is rife.

And although Morata hopes his team-mate stays put, he understands why the 36-year-old – who was heavily criticised following Juve's Champions League exit – may be disappointed with what the Bianconeri have achieved in recent seasons.

"We have all been criticised but no one in the team has won as many trophies as he has," Morata, who is on international duty with Spain, told Cadena SER's El Larguero programme.

"It has affected all of us and whoever says it hasn't is lying. I am the first to know when I receive criticism. I'm sure he will know when he is criticised too. I don't have to explain who Cristiano is because we all know.

"Small details were what decided the Porto game. We are all to blame. If I had scored that header in the first half we would be in the quarter-finals.

"But you have to look on the positive side. We won the [Supercoppa Italiana], we have another cup final against Atalanta. We have to look at this season as one of change. Some things can be improved and that is all there is to it."

Asked about his relationship with Ronaldo, Morata replied: "We talk about everything apart from football. We spend a lot of time together and, when we aren't playing, we talk about all kinds of subjects, life, the world we live in.

"We talk about the pandemic situation in Spain, in Portugal.

"He gives that sensation because he is so used to being at the top. It's nothing to do with Juve because he would be the same at any other club.

"He seems happy to me but, the thing is, he is so used to winning that it's understandable he feels disappointed – as we all do. But he's happy at Juve."

Morata came through the ranks at Madrid while Ronaldo – who has scored 30 goals in all competitions for Juve this term – was in the middle of his Los Blancos career.

"I've never thought about that," Morata said when asked if Ronaldo could move back to the Santiago Bernabeu.

"A few years ago a friend asked me the same question but you know I am not going to answer. I want Cristiano to stay at Juve because I want Juve to have the best players.

"I hope to have him near but I'll be pleased with whatever he decides to do that makes him happy."

Bayern Munich wing-back Alphonso Davies wants to raise awareness for the plight of refugees worldwide after he was named as a global goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Canada international, 20, was born to Liberian parents in a refugee camp in Ghana after they fled their home country due to civil war.

Davies and his family were resettled to Canada when he was five, and at 16 he became the youngest ever player to represent the country's national team.

He is the first footballer to take on such a role with the UNHCR and vowed to help give refugees around the world a voice.

Davies told the agency's website: "I am proud to join the UN Refugee Agency as a goodwill ambassador. My own experiences make me want to speak up for refugees, to share their stories and to help make a difference.

"Whilst the refugee camp provided a safe place for my family when they fled war, I often wonder where I would have been if I had stayed there and not benefited from the opportunities I got thanks to resettlement. 

"I don't think I would have made it to where I am today. I want people to know about the importance of helping refugees, wherever they are, in camps or cities, in neighbouring countries or countries of resettlement such as Canada.

"Refugees need our support to survive, but also access to education and sports, so they can fulfil their potential and truly thrive."

UNHCR head Filippo Grandi added: "Alphonso personifies the power of sport and we are truly honoured to have him joining us. 

"Sport has the incredible power to bring hope, to heal and to help shape the future for those forced to flee. In our work with refugees, we see daily what uplifting difference sports can make in their lives.

"His personal story, his talent and triumph as a professional footballer and his commitment to help refugees is impressive. I am looking forward to working with him."

Davies joined Bayern from Vancouver Whitecaps in July 2018 and was a key part of their 2019-20 treble-winning campaign and subsequent Club World Cup victory.

He has played 52 matches in the Bundesliga, tasting victory on 39 occasions, with five goals and six assists in the competition.

Davies has one goal and one assist, from 15 chances created, in the 2020-21 season.

Sepp Blatter has been handed a new ban from football of six years and eight months, FIFA has announced.

Disgraced former FIFA president Blatter was originally banned for eight years, reduced to six, in 2015 over breaches relating to a "disloyal payment" to ex-UEFA chief Michel Platini.

That suspension is up in October of this year, although the 85-year-old will now be barred from all football activities for a further eight years due to "various violations" of FIFA's code of ethics.

Jerome Valcke, the former FIFA general secretary who is banned from football until October 2025, has been given the same punishment on those grounds.

Both men have also been fined 1million Swiss francs (€900,000/$1.1m).

A statement issued by FIFA read: "The investigations into Messrs Blatter and Valcke covered various charges, in particular concerning bonus payments in relation to FIFA competitions that were paid to top FIFA management officials, various amendments and extensions of employment contracts, as well as reimbursement by FIFA of private legal costs in the case of Mr Valcke.

"As the previous bans from taking part in all football-related activity imposed on Messrs Blatter and Valcke by the independent ethics committee in 2015 and 2016 have not yet been purged, the bans notified today will only come into force upon the expiry of the previous bans."

In the written reasons covering the decision of the adjudicatory chamber of the ethics committee, FIFA said Blatter's breaches included "accepting and receiving extraordinary bonuses" of 23m Swiss francs, "as a result of the conflict of interest created by the allocation and execution of extraordinary bonus payments between limited top-ranking FIFA officials" between 2010 and 2014.

The investigation highlighted a scheme through which Blatter, Valcke, the late former Argentinian Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona and ex-FIFA finance director Markus Kattner were "allowing themselves to obtain extraordinary benefits with minimum effort".

"This vicious circle saw three of them (Blatter, Grondona and Valcke) signing the amendment contracts of the others and approving the respective extraordinary bonuses, while the fourth (Kattner) was in charge of implementing the payment of such bonuses (as well as of keeping the matter "off the books", by not reflecting the bonuses in the FIFA financial statements and not reporting them to the FIFA auditors)," the verdict read.

Wellington Phoenix eased to a 4-1 win over Melbourne Victory to hand the A-League's bottom club a ninth defeat in 12 matches this season.

A fourth consecutive loss for Grant Brebner's side looked on the cards from the moment Tomer Hemed scored a majestic 11th-minute opener for the hosts.

Reno Piscopo produced a dazzling piece of control to bring a high clearance under his spell, launching a blistering counter-attack where skipper Ulises Davila laid on Hemed to finish.

David Ball was the beneficiary of a 36th-minute goalmouth scramble before the picture-perfect goals returned as Davila curled home from outside the box after the hour.

Clayton Lewis got his first A-League goal as Victory again showed their vulnerability on the break, rendering Elvis Kamsoba's dinked finish to be scant consolation.

In Wednesday's later game, Perth Glory and Sydney FC played out an entertaining 1-1 draw.

Bobo swivelled to volley home a fine equaliser in the 63rd minute for Sydney after Bruno Fornaroli enjoyed a tap-in at the back post shortly before half-time.

Sydney remain sixth, four points above Wellington in eighth.

Perth are down in 10th but their 14-point haul is double that managed by lowly Victory.

Jesse Lingard has revealed Gareth Southgate pointed him down the path towards an England recall.

Southgate will take charge of his 50th game when England begin their World Cup qualifying campaign against San Marino at Wembley on Thursday.

His first, against Malta in October 2016, was also Lingard's international debut and the attacking midfielder became one of Southgate's key performers as England charted a surprise run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.

However, struggles for form and fitness at Manchester United, along with difficulties in his private life, saw Lingard fall out of the Three Lions picture.

In January he joined West Ham on loan and has been a player revitalised.

Five goals in seven Premier League appearances for David Moyes' men earned an England recall for the 28-year-old, who thanked Southgate for his counsel and his influence over the Hammers move.

"He's shown a lot of support and belief in me, he gave me my England debut, which I'm proud of," Lingard told talkSPORT.

"I still kept in contact with him even though I wasn't playing, just to get his advice on what I should do.

"It was just about the right move, whether it was going out to Europe or staying in the Premier League.

"He said, 'If I was you, I would stay in the Premier League'. After that, it was about finding a Premier League side and West Ham fitted in perfectly."

Since his West Ham debut against Aston Villa on February 3, only Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho (six) has more Premier League goals than Lingard (five), while he is level with England captain Harry Kane and Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan over the period in question.

His 12 shots on target are a joint Premier League best along with Kane, giving him a shot conversion rate of 23.8.

Lingard also has two assists for the Hammers and has created eight opportunities for team-mates overall.

 

Another man in from the cold, although less dramatically, is Manchester City centre-back John Stones.

Like Lingard, Stones was a mainstay at Russia 2018 but last played for England in November 2019 after his club form dwindled.

However, a supreme centre-back alliance with Ruben Dias for Premier League leaders City made a recall for the 26-year-old a virtual formality – not that he necessarily viewed it that way.

"It was difficult watching from home," Stones told reporters, having also acknowledged Southgate "texted now and then" when he was out of favour.

"You feel a bit helpless that you can't contribute and be a part of the squad, but I used it as a motivation to strive to be better.

"When I got the text the other day, it was a great feeling to be back involved and see all the faces I've got some great memories with.

"I was very nervous. I had worked so hard and I was hearing people say, 'you should be in'.

"But I didn't take any of that in until the text arrived. I wanted to hear from the source. I was absolutely made up."

City remaining in contention for four major honours shows how impressive their overall performances have been this season, but with Stones in the team their record verges on the absurd.

In 20 games where the former Everton defender has not played, Pep Guardiola's men have won 13, drawn five and lost two for a 65 per cent win rate. In these games they conceded 19 times.

Out of Stones' 26 appearances, City have won 24 alongside a draw and a loss and have conceded only seven times. This tallies to 0.3 goals against and 2.8 points per game and a win percentage of 92.3.

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.

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