Anthony Martial revealed that Barcelona and Juventus both attempted to sign him in January, but the forward chose Sevilla as "the best option" for him and his family.

Julen Lopetegui's side brought the France international in on loan until the end of the season after limited opportunities under Ralf Rangnick at Manchester United.

Rangnick confirmed in December that the 26-year-old wanted away from Old Trafford due to a lack of chances – he had played the full 90 minutes of a game only once this season and featured for just eight minutes since the German's first game.

But the destination of Martial's move might have been different, with the former Monaco man revealing both Juve and Barca were interested in his services.

"Juventus tried to sign me," he told Diario de Sevilla in an interview released on Wednesday. 

"I was talking to my agent and told him that I preferred to go to Sevilla. It was the best option for me and my family.

"Barcelona spoke with my agent. But as I said, I spoke to my agent and told him: 'My priority is Sevilla'. And when I say something to someone, I don't change it, I keep my word.

"For me it was the right decision because I knew I was going to play and for me playing was the most important thing. 

"Other big clubs tried to convince me but I preferred to come to Sevilla because I knew that Sevilla was a very good club, a family club. For me it was the right decision."

The Bianconeri subsequently brought in Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina in a deal potentially worth €80million, with the Serbia star scoring on his debut against Hellas Verona on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Barca managed to sign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who terminated his contract with Arsenal, and Adama Traore on loan from Wolves to bolster his attacking ranks, which also include Ferran Torres after his arrival at the start of January.

The finances of Martial's loan were not revealed, but he confirmed he agreed to lower wages to secure a move to Spain as he looks to impress France boss Didier Deschamps ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

"Both Sevilla and I have made an effort so that I could come," he responded when asked about the finances behind the agreement. 

"I have less salary, but I also know that paying my salary is an effort for the club. So we've both made an effort. But I know that this effort will be good for both parties."

On World Cup selection, he added: "Yes. It is one of my goals. I want to do it because the last time I was not in the World Cup and France won it. So I'll do my best to be there this time."

Martial will be hoping to make an impact on Friday when Sevilla host Elche as Lopetegui's men look to cut the six-point gap on Real Madrid at the summit of the Spanish top flight.

Gabin Villiere scored a hat-trick as France recovered from a slow start to kick off their 2022 Six Nations campaign with a 37-10 bonus-point win over Italy at the Stade de France.

The pre-tournament favourites trailed to Tommaso Menoncello's try and were again behind with half an hour played after Anthony Jelonch had temporarily put them ahead.

But Villiere crossed over either side of half-time and Damian Penaud added a fourth, before Villiere completed his treble to confirm a 33rd successive loss in the competition for Italy.

Les Blues have now won 15 successive home Tests against Italy and join next opponents Ireland on five points after the first round of fixtures.

Italy responded superbly to falling behind to Melvyn Jaminet's fourth-minute penalty as Menoncello gathered Paolo Garbisi's cross-field kick and raced through for a debut try.

Garbisi added the extras but all of Italy's hard work was undone when Stephen Varney's offload was intercepted by Jelonch, who had a simple task in splashing over.

France did not initially push on, with Garbisi and Jaminet sharing a penalty apiece, though a Villiere try following a well-worked lineout ensured Les Blues led at the break.

Jonathan Danty had a try ruled out by TMO but there was no denying Villiere five minutes later, the Toulon wing darting for the line after France turned the ball over in the maul.

Penaud broke down the right, exchanged passes with Antoine Dupont and sealed a bonus point for France, with star man Villiere adding further gloss with a free run on the back of some sustained pressure.

Menoncello makes his mark

Kieran Crowley was taking charge of his first Six Nations match as Italy boss and his decision to hand Menoncello a debut on the wing paid almost instant dividends.

At 19 years and 170 days, Menoncello is the youngest try-scorer in Six Nations history, surpassing the record previously held by France's Gael Fickou (19y, 317d).

Hat-trick hero Villiere

Penaud tried to steal the limelight by crossing over for the third Test running in France colours, but this day undoubtedly belonged to Villiere.

Not only did he score three times, the 26-year-old also led the way for metres made (121) and was second only to Gregory Alldritt (21) with his 13 carries.

What's next?

France host Ireland in a huge showdown at the Stade de France next Saturday, while Italy are at home to England the following day.

The Six Nations is upon us for 2022, as Wales bid to defend their crown.

Wales won in 2021 without completing the Grand Slam, just the second time they have tasted victory without beating all five opponents, as their success came at the expense of France, who were frustrated by Scotland at the last.

Wayne Pivac's men are by no means favourites this time, however. They come into this Championship without Alun Wyn Jones, their captain and a great of the game, while George North leads a glut of star names also absent through injury.

Should Wales triumph, they would match a feat previously achieved only by England, while France are looking to end a long drought of success in the tournament.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform digs into some of the most intriguing facts ahead of the Six Nations.

Wales set England's record in their sights

The past 11 editions of the Six Nations have been won by either England, Ireland or Wales.

England and Wales have won the Championship four times each during that period.

If Wales defend their title successively, they would become the second team, after England, to win the competition seven times since the turn of the century, when it became the Six Nations.

But Pivac has some big names missing – none more so than Jones. Saturday's match against Ireland will be first time since 2006 that Wales have played in the Six Nations without him, while only Sergio Parisse (also 15) has appeared in as many editions of the Championship as Jones.

Can France finally strike gold?

In total, 86 tries were scored in the 2021 edition, the most in a single edition of the tournament. However, despite the free-scoring nature of the games, eight matches were decided by margins of five points or fewer, more than in any other previous Championship.

 

France were on the wrong end of one such fine margin, as they saw their hopes of winning the tournament for the first time since 2010 dashed in a postponed meeting with Scotland, which was played after the rest of the schedule had been completed.

Les Bleus' 11-year wait to win the Six Nations is the longest such stretch in their history, having joined the tournament in 1947.

France's squad is stacked full of talent, though. After recovering from COVID-19, Antoine Dupont is in line to play against Italy this weekend – only Wales' Louis Rees-Zammit (nine) made more clean breaks than the scrum-half last year (eight), with three other French players in the top 12 by that metric.

Dupont beat a defender on 13 occasions and topped the charts for offloads (nine) and try assists (five), ranking second for kicks in play (41) after Scotland's Finn Russell (47).

Romain Ntamack missed much of last year's tournament due to a jaw injury but is also set to feature.

Time for Scotland to step out of the shadows?

Scotland have never won the Six Nations, but they impressed in 2021. They enjoyed more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), and their tally of 9.8 entries into the opposition 22 per game was also the highest.

Duhan van der Merwe beat 31 defenders, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's record for the most in a single edition of the Six Nations (30 in 2000) – it was also the first time that a Scotland player has ended a campaign as the outright top try scorer (five tries; excluding years with joint top-scorers).

 

Van der Merwe also tallied both the most metres carried (482) and the most post-contact metres (208) of any player. Hamish Watson, meanwhile, has now completed 149 tackles in a row in the Six Nations, having not missed one since 2019. Only Lionel Nallet (154) has made more consecutive tackles without missing in the history of the tournament.

England and Ireland out to prove their quality

England have won three of the six editions of the Six Nations since Eddie Jones took charge at the beginning of 2016, with only Bernard Laporte (four) having coached his team to more Championship wins this century.

Jones' team had the best lineout success rate (95 per cent) in the 2021 tournament, losing just three of 58 throws. Luke Cowan-Dickie landed 32 of 32 throws, the most ever by a player in an edition of the tournament not to miss a throw.

Yet that proficiency in the lineout was not enough to propel England to success, as they won only twice to finish a disappointing fifth. 

Ireland finished third, on the other hand, despite losing their first two games.

Andy Farrell's team converted 94 per cent of their kicks last year, the best rate of any nation, missing just one penalty goal attempt and one conversion (29 of 31). In fact, it was the best ever success rate by a team to attempt 25 or more kicks at goal in an edition of the tournament, with captain Johnny Sexton the top points scorer (65).

 

Italy just making up the numbers?

Italy lost all five games again last year, picking up a 16th wooden spoon. They have lost 32 successive Tests in the competition, the longest run in Five/Six Nations history.

The wooden spoon has been theirs in each of the past six years, this after finishing bottom of the Championship just once in the four campaigns before that.

France talisman Antoine Dupont has recovered from coronavirus in time to captain Les Bleus in their Six Nations opener against Italy on Sunday.

World Rugby Player of the Year Dupont had withdrawn from his country's initial squad for the Championship having tested positive, yet he has now been cleared to return for matchday one.

The scrum-half, who is skipper in place of the injured Charles Ollivon, was the 2020 Player of the Championship and starred again in 2021 as France came agonisingly close to the title, leading the tournament with five try assists.

Four of those assists came in last year's meeting with Italy, becoming the first player to achieve that feat in a single game in Six Nations history.

Les Bleus are not quite clear of COVID-19 for this clash, however, as coach Fabien Galthie will be absent following his positive test, meaning general manager Raphael Ibanez is in charge.

He comes up against Kieran Crowley in his first Six Nations match as Italy coach in Saint-Denis.

Crowley has named a youthful Azzurri side, including two debutants in the XV in Tommaso Menoncello and Toa Halafihi.

Italy have only won one of 24 away Tests against France – back in March 1997 – and come into this match on a record 32-game losing run in the Six Nations.

 

France team: Melvyn Jaminet, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Gabin Villiere, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (captain); Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Uini Atonio, Cameron Woki, Paul Willemse, Anthony Jelonch, Dylan Cretin, Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Demba Bamba, Romain Taofifenua, Francois Cros, Maxime Lucu, Yoram Moefana, Thomas Ramos.

Italy team: Edoardo Padovani, Tommaso Menoncello, Juan Ignacio Brex, Marco Zanon, Montanna Ioane, Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Tiziano Pasquali, Niccolo Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (captain), Toa Halafihi.

Replacements: Epalahame Faiva, Ivan Nemer, Giosue Zilocchi, Marco Fuser, Giovanni Pettinelli, Manuel Zuliani, Callum Braley, Leonardo Marin.

The 2022 Six Nations campaign begins with a mouth-watering contest between defending champions Wales and a well fancied Ireland side at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. 

Wales won the championship for a sixth time last March, narrowly missing out on a Grand Slam with defeat to France in their final game, but they enter this year's tournament as outsiders in the eyes of many.

Much like Ireland, France will be eyeing top spot after going 12 years since their most recent triumph – Les Bleus' longest-such run since joining the Five Nations in 1947 – with their campaign beginning at home to an Italy side without a win in 32 games in the competition.

A relatively inexperienced England side do battle with perennial dark horses Scotland at Murrayfield for the Calcutta Cup, meanwhile, with the hosts looking to record back-to-back wins in this fixture for the first time since 1984.

Ahead of the opening round, Stats Perform previews the upcoming matches with help from Opta.


IRELAND v WALES

FORM

Ireland have won four of their last five meetings with Wales, though their solitary defeat in that run came in the most recent match between the sides in last year's Six Nations when going down 21-16.

Wales have lost their last four away games against Ireland, their worst-such run since losing four in a row between 2002 and 2006, but never before have they lost five in a row away to Ireland.

Ireland have won 27 of their last 29 Tests at the Aviva Stadium, including their last six in a row, with their only defeats coming against England in 2019 and France in 2021 – both in the Six Nations.


ONES TO WATCH

Johnny Sexton will win his 102nd international cap for Ireland this weekend and remains a key player for his country. The 36-year-old recorded the best goal kicking success rate of any player (minimum of three kicks) in last year's Six Nations, finding the target from 25 out of 26 (96 per cent).

Wales are without a long list of players due to injury, most notably skipper Alun Wyn Jones. It's set to be the first Six Nations the Dragons have played without Jones since 2006, with fly-half Dan Biggar being left with big shoes to fill in his first game as captain.

 

SCOTLAND v ENGLAND

FORM

Scotland have won five of their last six Test matches, with their solitary defeat in that run coming against the world champions South Africa in November.

England have won 15 of their last 18 Tests, including their last five in a row, although their three defeats in that spell all came in last year's Six Nations – just the fourth time they had lost more than twice in an edition of the tournament since 2000 (also lost three in 2005, 2006 and 2018).

This will be the 140th Test between the rival nations in a fixture that dates back to the first ever rugby international back in 1871. Scotland have won on 44 occasions, compared to 76 victories for England, with the other 19 ending all square.


ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have named a near-identical XV to the one that ended last year's Six Nations, Duhan van der Merwe among them. The British and Irish Lions wing beat 31 defenders in the 2021 edition, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's record for the most in a single Six Nations (30 in 2000).

In the absence of Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry will captain England at the age of just 23, making him the youngest player to do so since Will Carling in 1988.

 

FRANCE v ITALY

FORM

France and Italy have met on 45 occasions, with Les Bleus winning 42 of those matches. That 93 per cent win rate is their highest against any nation they have faced more than five times.

Italy have lost 23 of their last 24 away games with France in Test rugby, including their last 14 in a row. The Azzurri's only victory in France came in Grenoble in 1997.

France have won 12 of their last 13 Test matches at home, although their solitary defeat in that run came in their most recent Six Nations game against Scotland. They have not trailed at half-time in a home game since February 2018, going into the break ahead (17 times) or level (twice) in each of their last 19 such games.

ONES TO WATCH

Captain and recently crowned World Rugby Player of the Year Antoine Dupont will be looking to pick up from where he left off in 2021. He was directly involved in eight tries during the last Six Nations, more than any other player, scoring three and assisting a Championship-high five.

Sebastian Negri made 64 carries and 68 tackles during the 2021 tournament, his combined tally of 132 carries and tackles being the second most of any player in the Championship, behind only Taulupe Faletau (140). Italy could do with more of the same here to help avoid another loss.

 

France head coach Fabien Galthie will miss the Six Nations favourites' opening game against Italy after a positive COVID-19 test.

The 52-year-old said he was experiencing only mild symptoms of the coronavirus, and the French Rugby Federation (FFR) stated Galthie would stay involved with the team from afar.

The FFR said: "Fabien Galthie tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, February 3, via an antigen test according to the established protocol. The result has been confirmed by a PCR test this Friday, February 4."

Galthie will be able to rejoin the squad from February 8, if he tests negative by then, or February 10.

France team manager Raphael Ibanez is set to stand in for Galthie when Italy visit the Stade de France on Sunday.

There were no more COVID-19 cases detected when the France squad were tested on Friday morning, the FFR said, with another round of testing planned for Saturday.

Galthie said: "This morning, I have tested positive for COVID-19. I'm feeling fine with mild symptoms. As a consequence, I'm isolating and will work remotely this week. Raphael Ibanez and all of my staff, in whom I have full confidence, will be my go-betweens on the pitch."

France cancelled their scheduled Friday news conference as a result of Galthie's test result.

Les Bleus, who finished second in last year's championship but have not won the Six Nations since 2010, are rated as favourites with the bookmakers for the title this time around.

Eleven months on from playing the roles of party poopers against the same opponents, France will this weekend set out on a journey that Fabien Galthie and his men will hope ends with the Six Nations trophy being held aloft at the Stade de France on March 19.

Les Blues denied Wales Grand Slam glory with an enthralling 32-30 victory in Paris in the Dragons' final match of an otherwise perfect 2021 campaign, snatching the win through an injury-time Brice Dulin try, but they ultimately fell short by finishing four points adrift in second.

Now on their longest run without winning the championship since joining the Five Nations in 1947, with their most recent triumph coming in 2010, France will consider anything other than first place this time around a real disappointment.

But if that is to happen, then Galthie's side have a number of obstacles to navigate, not least beating defending champions Wales – now one shy of England's record of seven Six Nations crowns – in Cardiff in the fourth round of fixtures.

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years, yet few are giving them much of a chance this time around after failing to push on in the second half of 2021.

Wayne Pivac's side are without inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones and do not exactly have history on their side, having won back-to-back championships just once – doing so in 2012 and 2013 – but the Dragons do at least play three of their five matches on home soil.

 

A fast start is imperative but a first-round trip to in-form Ireland presents the reigning champions with arguably their toughest assignment of the tournament. Champions in 2018, four barren years would feel like a lifetime should Ireland miss out again.

Andy Farrell's charges are certainly not lacking momentum thanks to a strong end to the last campaign. Eight wins in a row, including a famous triumph over New Zealand in November – only their third win in that fixture in 33 meetings – has them riding the crest of a wave.

A lack of playing time at club level for certain players could hamper Ireland in their opener, however, setting up an intriguing game to kick things off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

While it is clear what can be expected from France, Ireland and Wales, fellow heavyweights England enter this latest edition as something of an unknown quantity due to injury absentees, skipper Owen Farrell among them.

Tom Curry will have to step up and lead an inexperienced England side that contains seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV to face Scotland. It will make for a challenging six weeks from Eddie Jones' perspective, but one he will be relishing in his seventh Six Nations with the Red Rose.

 

England are one of two sides, along with Ireland, yet to collect the Wooden Spoon. That cannot be said of Italy, who have propped up the table in each of the last six years, that after finishing bottom only once in the previous four campaigns.

Another disappointing 2021 saw Italy lose all five matches as their losing run in the tournament stretched to 32 games, the longest such streak in either Five or Six Nations history.

Italy's place in future competitions continues to be debated, with a possible promotion and relegation system being touted by some, but for now the Azzurri will simply be focused on proving their doubters wrong by ending a long-running losing streak that stretches back to 2015.

While there are some promising signs at age-group level, it is hard to see past Italy claiming an unwanted 17th Wooden Spoon this time around, particularly with trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff to prepare for.

Exactly who Italy will battle it out for to avoid bottom spot is a tougher question to answer than predicting an overall winner, with Scotland one of those whose campaign could go either way.

Experienced but too inconsistent, Gregor Townsend's perennial dark horses need to find a way to string together a run of victories to remain in contention right until the end. 

The hallmarks of a great team were there 12 months ago when enjoying more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), but there are still a number of issues that need to be ironed out.

That is a running theme throughout, though, and all adds to the unpredictability and excitement.

With fans back inside grounds, scores to be settled and no shortage of subplots, it is easy to see why this year's Six Nations is the most anticipated in several years.

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

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

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

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

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

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

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

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

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

Fabien Galthie provided an encouraging update on Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack after France's key duo tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Six Nations.

Les Bleus' preparation for the tournament has been hard hit by a host of contracting coronavirus.  

Bernard Le Roux had to make 11 changes to his 42-man squad, with World Rugby Player of the Year Dupont, fly-half Ntamack and Bernard Le Roux among those who were unable to report for international duty.

Galthie on Wednesday revealed the absentees due to COVID-19 are recovering well ahead of his side's opening game of the tournament against Italy at Stade de France a week on Sunday.

The France head coach said: "We keep in touch with all the players from afar, of course.

"We have good news concerning the players and their state of health and spirit and all are doing well."

Mercurial scrum-half Dupont has not played since December 11 due to a knee injury and coronavirus.

Galthie says the playmaker could return for Toulouse in their Top 14 encounter with Racing 92 on Saturday.

"I have spoken to him: he is doing well. He resumed training two weeks ago," said Galthie 

"He wanted to play against Cardiff but the match did not go ahead. Then of course he tested positive for COVID. But he is fine, and is still training. Today he had a test at his club and depending on the results he will play or not for Toulouse this weekend.

"That is up to his head coach Ugo Mola and I have confidence in him he will take the right decision both for his team and for Antoine."

It is 12 years since France won the Six Nations, but they are favourites to end that title drought this time around and that is music to Galthie's ears. 

"I am very happy with this compliment, we’re very happy and proud to be labelled as favourites," he said.

"We are very happy to hear all those positive comments. It's very rewarding, it's rewarding for our two-year work, it's rewarding for all the commitment of the players, the virtues of the team and their dedication on the pitch."

Kylian Mbappe has received the glowing praise of France's president Emmanuel Macron, who hopes the star continues to "enchant the public".

Mbappe has enjoyed a sensational rise and, at just 23, is already considered one of the world's best players.

Having burst onto the scene at Monaco in 2016-17, Mbappe has gone on to win four Ligue 1 titles, three Coupe de France crowns, the Coupe de la Ligue twice and the 2018 World Cup.

Since joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, Mbappe has scored 150 goals in 196 appearances, ranking him third out of players across Europe's top five leagues within that timeframe, behind Robert Lewandowski (208 goals) and new PSG team-mate Lionel Messi (162).

This week, Mbappe was placed at number one on French sports newspaper L'Equipe's list of "30 who make French football".

President Macron, who last year expressed his desire to see Mbappe remain at PSG amid interest from Real Madrid, provided a glowing appraisal of the Parisian forward.

"Kylian Mbappe may be so young, but he espoused the excellence of his sport for [his] club and national team, he lived the most extreme experiences and he demonstrated the qualities of the greatest: lucidity, courage, resistance. I am sure of one thing: he will continue to amaze us," Macron wrote.

"Everyone obviously wishes him to make this promise come true by building the best track record in European football and above all to continue to enchant the public with his jubilant gestures, his brilliant passes and his magical goals. We know that he can.

"But if Kylian Mbappe has taken a special place in the hearts of the French, it is also through his attitude on and off the field."

Mbappe may not be in Ligue 1 for much longer. He does not seem to intend to sign a new deal with PSG and, from this month, he is eligible to sign pre-contract agreements with teams from other countries.

Madrid, who had multiple bids rejected by PSG in August 2021, are the frontrunners for his signature.

Italy were drawn to face England and Germany in a tough 2022-23 Nations League group on Thursday.

The Azzurri beat England in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley in July and the two sides will do battle again in Group A3 of the Nations League.

They will also face Germany and Hungary home and away in matches that will take place next June and September 2022.

Holders France are in Group A1 along with Croatia, Denmark and Austria.

World champions France were crowned champions when they came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 at San Siro in October.

Spain were drawn in Group A2 and will come up against Portugal, Czech Republic and Switzerland in the third edition of the UEFA competition.

Belgium, who squandered a two-goal lead to lose against France at the semi-final stage of the Nations League two months ago, will take on Netherlands, Poland and Wales.

Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Ukraine and Armenia are in League B Group 1.

Russia, Iceland, Israel and Albania will do battle in Group B2, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland and Romania in Group B3.

Group B4 will see Serbia, Sweden, Norway and Slovenia lock horns as they strive to secure promotion.

Four of the six matchdays will be in June due to the scheduling of the World Cup in Qatar later in 2022.

The four group winners in League A will advance to the Nations League Finals in June 2023. The group winners in the other three leagues will all be promoted for the 2024-25 edition.

France manager Didier Deschamps has denied advising Kylian Mbappe to leave Paris Saint-Germain and Ligue 1 at the end of the season.

Mbappe has been heavily linked with a move to Real Madrid at the end of the current campaign when his contract at PSG expires, with little sign of the 22-year-old sensation signing an extension at the Parc des Princes.

In an interview with RMC Sport, Deschamps was adamant that he did not suggest that Mbappe should leave the French top flight for another country.

"It's bull***t to say that I said [Mbappe] had to leave France," he exclaimed. "I never said that, neither for him nor for anyone else.

"This is not to denigrate Ligue 1. Compared to the requirements of the France team, which is the top international level, the more they will be used to top level matches in their daily life in the championship or the European Cup and the closer they get to the level of requirement.

"This is not the case at Real [Madrid] when they play other teams in LaLiga. This is not the case for Bayern [Munich] in their league. Kylian will choose, it's his choice. It’s not a problem if he stays in Paris."

Deschamps' own contract situation was also raised, with the 53-year-old giving little away on his long-term future as the national team boss, insisting that it is a decision for French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet. Deschamps' current deal runs out after the 2022 World Cup next December.

"I don't know. In all honesty, I don't know. I don't care," he said. "It's my president who decides. The only person and last to decide is the president. He will decide. I don't have to. I have not extended yet, that's how it is.

"The most important contract is the contract of confidence. The situation is like that and I don't have a problem.

"It's a possibility to continue. Coaching is another job. I'm not going to forbid myself something. I am fulfilled as a coach.... I am at the top level with the best players and the best competitions. It has always been a possibility to continue. I do not close any doors."

The former Juventus and Monaco boss was also asked about the potential for his eventual replacement in charge of Les Bleus to be his former team-mate Zinedine Zidane, who has been heavily linked with the role since leaving Real Madrid at the end of last season.

La Graet indicated in a recent interview that 'Zizou' will be considered as a future candidate to take the reins after Deschamps.

"I took Laurent Blanc's place; someone will take my place," Deschamps added. "It will be Zizou or another. It's not the fact that I like it or not, the conditions have to be met. Zizou has a link with the France team. With him we said that he would be coach when he launched his career. If he wants to and if the conditions are met, so much the better.

"Zidane has been talking about it since 2016 and 2018. It is not the president who spoke about it. He has the right to answer. He can say what he wants, that is not a problem. Whether it is Zizou or another. I'm not going to comment on my president's words but he also said that it was inappropriate to ask about my future."

France scrum-half Antoine Dupont has been named World Rugby Men's 15s Player of the Year, becoming the first Frenchman to win the prestigious award since Thierry Dusautoir in 2011.

Dupont has starred for Les Bleus in an impressive 2021, culminating in a famous 40-25 victory against New Zealand in Paris last month in the final test of the Autumn Nations Series, their first win against the All Blacks since 2009.

The 25-year-old also impressed in the Six Nations, making five try assists – two more than anyone else in the competition – while adding three tries of his own and making the third most passes (261).

Dupont, who also helped Toulouse to a Heineken Champions Cup and French Top 14 double, was presented the award by France team-mate and long-term friend Anthony Jelonch.

On receiving the award, Dupont said: "It's hard to believe. Of course I have a lot of joy and pride. A lot of feelings and emotions that blend together.

"To be named alongside two French players, [former winners] Fabien Galthie and Thierry Dusautoir, you have players like [Richie] McCaw and [Dan] Carter, who have won three each I believe, they are legends of our sport so it's weird to see myself named in this list.

"You almost have the feeling of not deserving it. You have to do everything to be able to repeat it, and always keep performing, keep going and give more.

"I am very happy and proud to have been named 2021 Player of the Year. I can't wait to tell my loved ones and share it with them too."

England's  Zoe Aldcroft was named the World Rugby Women's 15s Player of the Year on Friday, meanwhile, having started all eight of her nation's matches in 2021 as they extended their unbeaten run to 18 tests.

Robert Lewandowski can consider himself hard done by. The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, world football's most prestigious individual accolade is back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony set to take place on Monday.

Lewandowski, who scooped The Best FIFA Men's Player award for 2020 and has had another sensational year for Bayern, is among the favourites on a 30-man shortlist.

Will it finally be his time, or will old voting habits die hard to put Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in pole position? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses the credentials of the Ballon d'Or favourites.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)

Has anybody outperformed Bayern star Lewandowski in 2021?  While there was no repeat of the treble-winning heroics of the 2019-20 campaign, he has been in astounding form and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 as Die Roten were crowned champions for a ninth straight campaign.

With 25 to his name already across all competitions this term, Lewandowski leads the way for goals from players in Europe's top five leagues, nine clear of anyone else. When taking the whole year so far into account, Lewandowski has netted 53 times in 41 games, putting him 16 clear of nearest challengers Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Unsurprisingly, his scoring rate – a goal every 65 minutes – is comfortably the best of any player to net 10 or more in 2021.

 

Lionel Messi (PSG, Argentina)

It has been a momentous year for Messi. He finally achieved success on the international stage, leading Argentina to a Copa America triumph. Following that, he was expected to sign a fresh deal at Barcelona, but we all know how that turned out. Now at Paris Saint-Germain, the 34-year-old marked his final season in Spain with one last trophy, the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. 

Across 39 appearances in 2021 for Barca and PSG combined, Messi has 32 goals, nine assists and 81   chances created. But it is Messi's triumph with Argentina that really puts him in the running for a seventh Ballon d'Or.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, Portugal)

Like Messi, Ronaldo – a five-time Ballon d'Or winner – made a big move of his own in 2021, returning to Manchester United after three seasons at Juventus. The 36-year-old has already scored 10 goals in his second spell at Old Trafford. While the team's struggles are well known – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job after last week's dismal defeat at Watford – Ronaldo's strike against Villarreal on Tuesday took him to 799 career goals for club and country, a remarkable feat.

While it has not been the finest year at club level for Ronaldo, with Juve missing out on the Serie A title, albeit winning the Coppa Italia, he did become the record goalscorer in men's international football, scoring his 110th and 111th goals in a double against the Republic of Ireland in September to overtake Ali Daei (109); the forward now has 115. His agent, Jorge Mendes, told France Football: "All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time."

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)

Since Ronaldo departed Real Madrid in 2018, Benzema has stepped up to become Los Blancos' talisman. Although a LaLiga title evaded Madrid last season, it has been another fantastic year for Benzema. He earned a recall to the France squad for Euro 2020 and, despite the team's disappointing campaign, his stellar performances caught the eye, before he excelled again in World Cup qualifying and the Nations League Finals.

Indeed, Benzema's goal against Finland last week made him the first France player to score in four successive matches since he did so himself in five games between November 2013 and June 2014. There is no doubting he is a serious contender for this year's award.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)

Liverpool star Salah cannot be ignored. Jurgen Klopp has labelled the Egypt forward as the world's best player and, based on the season so far, it would be hard to argue too much with that suggestion, with Lewandowski the only player across Europe's top five leagues to be directly involved in more goals (27) than Salah (24) to this point.

Only four players have topped Salah's goals tally of 32   in 2021, although Liverpool's failure to retain their Premier League crown last season probably counts against the 29-year-old when it comes to this prize.

 

Kylian Mbappe (PSG, France)

While players in their thirties dominate the bookmakers' list of favourites, could this be the year that Mbappe steals the crown? The 22-year-old could well have left PSG in August, but the Ligue 1 giants held firm despite three bids from Madrid, who seem likely to get their man on a free transfer at the end of the campaign.

In the meantime, Mbappe is forming a formidable front three with Messi and Neymar, whose own Ballon d'Or hopes seem extremely slim. Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France slipped out of Euro 2020, but his 37 goals from 47 appearances for PSG across all competitions in 2021 tell their own story, while his shot conversion rate of 24.3 per cent betters that of Salah, Benzema, Messi and Ronaldo.

Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)

An outsider for the award, perhaps, but nevertheless a player who has been widely tipped, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho played a pivotal role the Blues' Champions League triumph and then Italy's Euro 2020 success, although he did miss a penalty in the final shoot-out against England. In fact, he has now missed his past three spot-kicks for Italy, after having scored each of his first six taken for the Azzurri.

Jorginho has already scooped the UEFA Men's Player of the Year award, and it is not too long ago that another deep-lying playmaker in Luka Modric won the Ballon d'Or, even if the competition this time around seems a little too stacked.

 

N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Might Jorginho's Chelsea midfield partner have a shout? Kante is still dominating midfields with his boundless energy five years on from his title triumph with Leicester City. He was already an elite performer before Thomas Tuchel's arrival at Stamford Bridge, but he seems to have gone up another level since the German coach came in.

Across all competitions in 2021, Kante boasts a tackle success rate of 63.2 per cent and has made 193 recoveries. Freed by a box-to-box role in Tuchel's system, Kante has won 151 of 277 duels and registered an impressive 42 interceptions.

Karim Benzema will not be excluded from France selection despite being handed a one-year suspended prison sentence on Wednesday, French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet has said.

Real Madrid striker Benzema was also fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of former Les Blues team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

Benzema, who has always denied the accusations and was not present in court in Versailles when the verdict was given, intends to appeal the decision.

The case dates back to June 2015 when Benzema is said to have put pressure on Valbuena to pay off blackmailers in order to keep a sexually explicit tape out of the public eye.

Benzema and Valbuena, who now plays for Greek side Olympiacos, were both dropped from the France national team in the wake of the scandal.

However, Benzema was recalled earlier this year ahead of the rescheduled Euro 2020 – ending a six-year absence – and has been a regular for Didier Deschamps' side ever since.

The 33-year-old will continue to remain available for Les Blues when the national team reconvenes for their next batch of fixtures in March 2022.

"I don't know what Karim and his lawyers will decide, but as far as the Federation is concerned, there is no change," La Graet said, as quoted by L'Equipe. 

"He remains selectable, while regretting this unfortunate record. He did not play for several years with the France team. This sanction does not change anything for me. 

"He is selectable. Even if he does not appeal, for me, that does not change anything. He has the right to work." 

Benzema is part of Real Madrid's squad for Wednesday's Champions League tie with Sheriff.

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