Kylian Mbappe is already the best player in France and can continue to make history after signing his new contract with Paris Saint-Germain, according to Ronaldinho.

Last week, Mbappe agreed a new three-year deal with the Ligue 1 champions, rejecting Real Madrid's public advances in a huge transfer blow to the Champions League finalists.

The World Cup-winning forward scored 39 goals and added 21 assists during a remarkable individual season with PSG, as Mauricio Pochettino's team secured a10th league title in the club's history.

The 23-year-old is already the second-highest Ligue 1 goalscorer in PSG history, scoring 171 goals in 217 league outings for the Parisian giants – only Edinson Cavani (200 goals in 301 games) has more.

Former PSG star Ronaldinho, who scored 25 goals in two seasons with the club before departing for Barcelona in 2003, says Mbappe is already out-shining team-mates Lionel Messi and Neymar.

However, Ronaldinho also insisted PSG would have been able to cope had the France star left for Madrid, highlighting the quality of his team-mates.

"Right now, of the future... he's a player that could be part of history," he told Mail Online. "He deserves all the respect he's getting. He is making history and can continue to create happiness for us in this game.

"Today he is the best player for PSG. If he left to go anywhere else, it would only be to have the chance to be the best player in another country. He's already the best in France.

"Paris Saint-Germain has some of the best players in the world right now – Messi, Neymar, Sergio Ramos. 

"Some of the best players in the world are in this team. So, if one of the best players in the world leaves, other top players will continue in their place."

 

Meanwhile, Ronaldinho's former Barcelona team-mate Messi endured a mixed first season in France, recording 11 goals and 14 assists in all competitions but being jeered by his own fans in the aftermath of March's Champions League defeat to Madrid.

However, Ronaldinho insists the Argentine is happy in Paris, highlighting his 2021 Ballon d'Or win as evidence of his continued quality.

The former Camp Nou star also insists Barcelona will recover from Messi's departure and return to the top of the game under Xavi's management, backing the Blaugrana boss to create another "beautiful" team.

'If my friend is happy, it's the right decision, and I believe he is very happy," Ronaldinho said of Messi. "He is going through a period of adapting, but he's already been voted the best player in the world.

"People said they were surprised when I left Barcelona and when Messi left. But Barcelona continues to be Barcelona. 

"Things change in football, naturally. Now the club's hierarchy needs to bring in new players with talent to continue being successful.

"They already have a great coach who has a foundation in the history of the club. So, the club can begin it's rebuild with this manager to create a beautiful team. They need to now give the manager the opportunity to build a great team.

"It won't be easy. They need a bit more time to build a side that is based around the best players. But I think players are happy to be playing for one of the best teams in the world."

Leon Goretzka says Germany are not setting any firm World Cup targets after two disappointing tournaments, but hopes Die Mannschaft can "make a good impression" in their upcoming UEFA Nations League games ahead of their trip to Qatar.

The Bayern Munich midfielder has won 41 caps for his country, scoring 14 goals, but has enjoyed limited tournament success with the national team, featuring in underwhelming campaigns at the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020.

Germany crashed out in the group stages in Russia in 2018 before being eliminated by England in the last 16 at the Euros last year, also missing out on qualifying for the Nations League semi-finals in 2020-21.

Goretzka, who missed Germany's 2014 World Cup triumph after suffering an injury in a pre-tournament friendly, recalled those negative experiences as he insisted Hansi Flick's side had yet to set any targets for their trip to Qatar.

Asked by Sky Sports Germany whether winning the tournament was a realistic aim, the 27-year-old said: "Answering the question doesn't do us much good. 

"We'll play our Nations League games first and see that we make a good impression and can go to the World Cup free. 

"I've already taken part in tournaments where we were considered one of the favourites and we failed quite a bit. Then there were tournaments where nobody expected us [to perform well] and we won. 

"Basically, we are an absolute footballing nation with great successes in the past, and accordingly we have our expectations in such a competition."

Germany have been drawn into a tricky Group E for the tournament, alongside Japan, Costa Rica or New Zealand, and Spain, having lost their last meeting with La Roja 6-0 in November 2020.

Before that, Flick's side face several tough Nations League fixtures, including a home clash with England and a double-header against European champions Italy, and Goretzka believes those contests will provide Germany with a real test after Flick won eight of his first nine games at the helm. 

"The opponents we have now are much more important," he added. "These are top games at the very highest level.

"We haven't had one under Hansi yet, so [with] many games against top opponents, which is why we made a good impression. Now we can prove that at another level, higher up."

Meanwhile, at club level, Goretzka endured an injury-hit campaign with Bayern, making just 19 league appearances as Julian Nagelsmann's men won the Bundesliga title, fewer than fellow midfielders Marcel Sabitzer (25), Joshua Kimmich (28), and Jamal Musiala (30).

Despite their domestic dominance, the midfielder said Bayern's Champions League quarter-final exit against Villarreal meant the team's season "wasn't satisfactory", and is targeting better things next term.

"We have a lot of things to improve. We played a pretty good, if not excellent, first half of the season. We were in the flow then," he added.

"You can't say that about the second half of the season. We weren't up to par in the important games - that wasn't Bayern-like. Getting kicked out in the Champions League hasn't happened to us against such an opponent in recent years. 

"That's why this season overall wasn't satisfactory, but that's what makes many in the club extremely motivated to do better next year."

Regardless of what occurs on the pitch at the Stade de France on Saturday, the 2021-22 season will have been a good one for Real Madrid.

Even if they are ultimately left with only the Spanish top-flight title to show for their efforts, there's an argument to be made that Carlo Ancelotti has defied expectations in his first campaign back at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Given the important losses of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos coupled with the fact only two new players were incoming, it would've been understandable if fans were less demanding than usual in their pre-season predictions.

After all, Ancelotti was seen as a safe pair of hands rather than someone who was going to come in, shake things up and preside over a philosophical overhaul – and looking back over the course of the season, he's been the perfect appointment.

Of course, the turmoil at Barcelona helped Madrid's cause, while Atletico Madrid's title defence fell flat early on. For a while Sevilla looked to be the only challengers to Los Blancos, but given they ran out of steam in the previous campaign, it's unlikely Ancelotti and his team will have been unduly worried by them – they ended up scraping a top-four spot.

As composed and dominant as Madrid were at LaLiga's summit, fans, pundits and journalists alike did go searching for potential weaknesses, or reasons for the chasing pack not to give up hope.

One area that appeared to be brought up more than most was rotation and the risk of burnout.

Full steam ahead

Between the start of the season and the end of December, six Madrid players had featured for more than 1,400 minutes in LaLiga. There are no surprises in this list: they would be considered the majority of the team's core players.

In the same period, only Espanyol (seven) had more players feature for at least 1,400 minutes in LaLiga, but they didn't also have Champions League football to contend with. Sevilla had three players meet the criteria; Barcelona had two and Atletico Madrid just one, goalkeeper Jan Oblak. 

Similarly, Madrid named the same starting XI three times in LaLiga this season. While that doesn't sound a lot, only Celta Vigo, Getafe, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna have done so more often.

It's clear to see Madrid have relied on a bigger group of core players than their rivals, and as such concerns about fatigue appeared astute earlier in the season.

But here we are, right at the end of the campaign: Madrid won LaLiga with four games to spare and are preparing to play in the Champions League final – and their route to this stage has relied on the ability to laugh in the face of fatigue, with Los Blancos coming back from the brink three times.

In that sense, you have to praise Ancelotti's squad management. Whether their lack of injuries has been by design or a fluke is difficult to speculate about, but there's clearly an element of Ancelotti swiftly establishing his preferred XI and then only wavering from it when absolutely necessary.

And when he did have to look elsewhere, there's no doubting who his favourites were.

Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga have come off the bench 23 times each across all competitions this season, the joint-most in the Madrid squad.

Granted, it's not as if they're two hopefuls promoted from the academy – both were expensive additions to the squad. But the frequency Ancelotti has turned to them as substitutes shows his belief in them to either carry out his instructions or make a difference.

Nowhere was that clearer than in the latter stages of the Champions League. Five of Camavinga's nine appearances in this season's competition have been in the knockouts, while Rodrygo has come off the bench four times in Europe since the turn of the year.

The latter has, understandably, taken a lot of plaudits in the second half of this season. He scored the vital aggregate equaliser against Chelsea, the brace that flipped the City tie on its head, and was inspirational off the bench away to Sevilla in the 3-2 win that essentially wrapped up the title.

Before the turn of the year, Rodrygo appeared to be struggling for relevance at Madrid. There will have been some wondering if he had a long-term future at the club, but he knuckled down after Christmas and has become a genuine weapon, seemingly embracing the fact you can still be decisive even off the bench.

On a per-90-minute basis, he heads into Saturday's game ranked fourth at Madrid for open-play chances created (1.4) and goals (0.34), joint-second for assists (0.34, behind Benzema on 0.35) and third for shots (2.4). He's beginning to show his worth.

Ancelotti's choice

Some might have generally expected more from Camavinga since joining from Rennes last year. He's not been able to establish himself as a regular in midfield at the expense of his more senior colleagues, perhaps unsurprising given he lacks the metronomic abilities of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and the grit of Casemiro. However, his impact shouldn't be overlooked.

In the second-leg clashes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, every single one of Madrid's eight goals came after Camavinga's introduction. Those goals ensured Ancelotti's men produced great escapes in each tie.

In fact, over the 146 minutes both Camavinga and Rodrygo have been on the pitch in the Champions League in 2022, Madrid have scored eight times and conceded none. Over 502 minutes without at least one of them on the pitch, they've scored six and let in 11.

Of course, it's not as if Camavinga himself has been a central figure to all eight goals. His importance in these scenarios is more centred on the wide-ranging skillset he instantly brings to Madrid – he can pass, he's confident on the ball and is a hard-working competitor.

His contributions were notable in all three second legs, but it was against City when he really forced people to sit up and acknowledge him. In the three and a half minutes that followed his 75th-minute entrance, Camavinga showed his poise with a nice switch of play, swept up effectively in midfield as Phil Foden looked to pounce on a loose ball, and then tackled Rodri out wide.

He was happy to accept possession under pressure several times, with one occasion seeing him turn and lift a wonderful pass over the City defence in the 82nd minute as Karim Benzema tested Ederson in goal. A minute later he was darting back in pursuit of Bernardo Silva, ultimately producing an exceptional sliding tackle to win the ball back.

Camavinga then played a vital role in Madrid's first goal in the 90th minute. His inch-perfect lofted pass to the back post allowed Benzema to turn the ball into the danger zone where Rodrygo was on hand to flick home.

Rodrygo's second in quick succession forced extra time, and Camavinga helped bring about Madrid's crucial third. It was he who carried the ball over half the length of the pitch before finding the Brazilian to cross towards Benzema, who won the penalty from Ruben Dias.

But he showed his value off the ball as well. His four tackles from 45 minutes on the pitch was bettered by only Federico Valverde (five) among Madrid players, and he played the full 120.

His showing was another reminder of the supreme talent Madrid brought in last year and, for many it might've even been enough to earn a starting spot in the final.

Both Camavinga and Rodrygo certainly deserve at least the chance to impact proceedings in Paris, but don't expect Ancelotti to lose faith in his preferred XI at this stage.

Sadio Mane has revealed he came close to joining Manchester United in 2016, agreeing a contract with the Red Devils before making a last-minute decision to join Liverpool after a call from Jurgen Klopp.

Mane has scored 23 goals in 50 appearances for Liverpool in all competitions this term, helping Klopp's team to win the EFL Cup and FA Cup trophies, while the Reds could yet add the Champions League when they face Real Madrid in Saturday's final in Paris.

The 30-year-old scored when Liverpool faced Madrid in the 2018 final in Kyiv, though substitute Gareth Bale netted a brace to condemn Klopp's side to a 3-1 defeat.

Liverpool are bidding to win their seventh European crown at the Stade de France, and Mane has been touted as a potential Ballon d'Or contender after also firing Senegal to their first Africa Cup of Nations title earlier this year.

However, things could have been very different for Mane, who said he had the chance to join Liverpool's rivals United when he departed Southampton in 2016.

Speaking to former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher in an interview for the Telegraph, Mane recalled how a phone call from Klopp, who had attempted to sign him for former club Borussia Dortmund on a previous occasion, saw his head turn.

"I have to say, I was really close to going to Manchester United," Mane said. "I had the contract there. I had it all agreed. 

"It was all ready, but instead I thought, 'no, I want to go to Liverpool'. I was convinced to go with Klopp's project. 

"I still remember the first time I got the call from Klopp. He said, 'Sadio, listen, I want to explain to you what happened at Dortmund'. 

"That was when he thought of signing me for Dortmund and for some reason, it didn't work out. He tried to explain and I said, 'it's okay, it happened'. I forgave him.

"Then he said, 'now I want you at Liverpool', and I said, 'okay, Dortmund is behind us, let's focus on the future'. He said, 'we have a big project at Liverpool and I want you to be part of it'."

Mane scored in both legs of Liverpool's Champions League semi-final win over Villarreal, setting up the Reds' ninth European Cup/Champions League meeting with Madrid.

Having won the first three such contests between 1981 and 2009, however, Liverpool are winless in the last five (one draw, four defeats), including their 2018 final loss.

Saturday sees Liverpool and Real Madrid go head-to-head in the final of the Champions League.

After the trophy has been lifted, the medals handed out and the confetti all cleaned up, there will be talk of more individual matters.

Discussions have already begun about which player will take home the coveted Ballon d'Or trophy this year, with the goalposts slightly moved for 2022.

As the World Cup takes place in November and December, it has been decided that this year's award will be handed out in October, with the tournament in Qatar being included in consideration for the 2023 gong.

It will also take into account the entirety of the 2021-22 season, rather than just the calendar year period.

Therefore, it is probably safe to say that any players who play a key role in winning the Champions League will give themselves a huge advantage when it comes to voting later this year, and there are three in particular who have already been popping up in conversation.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Karim Benzema, breaking down the numbers and trying to predict which one might be donning a tuxedo with a beaming smile at October's ceremony.

Mohamed Salah

At the halfway point of the season, you would have been forgiven for suspending betting on at least the Premier League's player of the year, and arguably the Ballon d'Or as well.

Salah was unstoppable as Liverpool looked to push Manchester City in the title race, as well as steer their way through a tricky Champions League group.

The Egypt international scored a hat-trick as Liverpool demolished Manchester United 5-0, becoming the first away player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford for over 18 years, since Ronaldo did so for Real Madrid back in April 2003 in the Champions League.

At that point, Salah had bagged 15 goals in 12 games for Liverpool for the season, and had only failed to score in one.

He had 23 goals in all competitions to his name by the time he left to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations in early January, where he helped Egypt reach the final in Cameroon.

It was heartbreak for Salah and The Pharaohs though, losing on penalties to Senegal, before experiencing exactly the same outcome against the same opposition in their World Cup qualifying play-off almost two months later.

Salah returned to score crucial goals against Inter in the Champions League last 16 and Norwich City in the Premier League, but after that went 11 games in all competitions without scoring a goal in open play, before bagging another two against United in a 4-0 win at Anfield.

There were a further seven games without a goal at all after that, though when he came off the bench to score against Wolves on the final day of the season, if it had not been for City's comeback against Aston Villa, Salah would have scored the goal to win his team the Premier League title.

Salah ended the season with 31 goals in all competitions, as well as 15 assists. He lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup before missing out on Premier League glory.

If he can get the "revenge" he is openly seeking against Madrid for their 2018 Champions League final victory against the Reds and make it a trophy treble, he could well be top of the list in the Ballon d'Or voting.

Sadio Mane

Like Salah, Mane had an impressive start to the season as he scored in nine of his team's first 16 games in all competitions, though had a drier period just before the Africa Cup of Nations, scoring just once in 10 outings.

Where Mane arguably has the edge over his rivals is his showing in Cameroon. Though he only scored three goals during the tournament, he played a big part in key moments.

He netted a pressure stoppage-time penalty in the opening game against Zimbabwe that turned out to be their only goal in the group stage, therefore crucial in them progressing. Mane then scored the opener against Cape Verde in the last 16, and a late clincher against Burkina Faso in the semi-finals.

Mane then took the weight of a nation on his shoulders as he slammed home the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Egypt in the final.

By the time he returned to club action with Salah, Luis Diaz had arrived at Anfield and already taken up residence in Mane's usual position on the left of the front three.

It wasn't a problem, though, as Mane simply reinvented himself as a central striker, scoring a vital winner against West Ham before repeating the trick of scoring a pressure penalty against Egypt to send Senegal to this year's World Cup.

Mane really started to motor as Liverpool looked to win an unprecedented quadruple, scoring nine goals in his last 13 games, including in both the league draw and FA Cup semi-final win against Man City, and then in both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Villarreal.

His numbers still might not quite match up to Salah or Benzema, with 23 goals and two assists in 50 appearances in all competitions at club level, but he did only score two fewer non-penalty goals than Salah (25).

His ability to turn important games and a potential medal collection of EFL Cup, FA Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League all since January should put him in a strong position.

Karim Benzema

Calling Benzema the man for the big occasion still doesn't feel like it quite does him justice. The 34-year-old is in the form of his life, showing that age really is just a number.

Benzema has made headlines throughout the season, mostly for his uncanny ability to come up with important goals in the Champions League, and he is without doubt the main reason Madrid made it past the last 16, let alone all the way to the final.

Five goals in the group stages from Benzema helped Los Blancos to a last 16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain, with Kylian Mbappe and company taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Mbappe was dominating again that night, making it 2-0 on aggregate and getting through time and again, until Benzema took over.

His 17-minute hat-trick turned the tie on its head, and sent Carlo Ancelotti's team through to face Chelsea, who Benzema also scored a treble against at Stamford Bridge.

Though Madrid struggled in the second leg at home, Benzema's extra-time strike sent them into the semis, where Man City awaited.

Two more goals from Benzema in the 4-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium gave them a fighting chance, and though it was Rodrygo who caused all the drama in the closing stages of normal time of the second leg, it was Benzema from the penalty spot who ultimately took his team to the final.

As this year's Ballon d'Or takes into account the whole season, you would have to assume that includes the 2020-21 Nations League, which Benzema and France won in October, with his goals in the semi-final win against Belgium and the final success against Spain seeing Les Bleus lift the trophy.

Benzema was also unstoppable in LaLiga, with his 27 goals being nine more than anyone else managed in the Spanish top flight, and he scored an incredible 44 goals in 45 games in all competitions.

He has also been almost as creative as Salah and more so than Mane, with 83 chances created and 20 big chances created (a chance from which the attacker would be expected to score), while Salah created 85 chances and 21 big chances, and Mane 63 chances and 14 big chances.

So, there are the three cases. For me, if the Spanish giants win, I think you can close the betting on Benzema.

However, should Liverpool lift the trophy, it could lead to an interesting few months as people debate whether Salah's slightly superior numbers or Mane's international credentials mean more.

Whatever happens, you can be sure that whichever horse you back, you will end up having an argument with someone somewhere who thinks Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo should win the crown again.

Harry Kane is hoping to break Wayne Rooney's England goalscoring record at the World Cup later this year, as he looks to help the Three Lions improve on their 2018 semi-final appearance.

Kane has scored 49 goals in 69 appearances for England after moving level with Bobby Charlton's international tally in a 2-1 friendly win over Switzerland at Wembley in March.

The Tottenham striker is now just four goals behind Rooney's Three Lions record, despite playing 50 international games fewer than the Manchester United legend.

Indeed, Kane has averaged 0.71 goals per game for his country, compared to Rooney's 0.45, and it looks to be a matter of time before Gareth Southgate's captain establishes himself as the greatest goalscorer in the national team's history.

Kane also enjoyed a successful season at club level, registering 17 goals and nine assists in the Premier League to help Antonio Conte's Spurs to Champions League qualification.

 

Speaking on The Tonight Show, the Spurs talisman expressed his excitement for England to build on their 2018 World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia, as he targeted breaking Rooney's record in Qatar.

"I'm excited," Kane told host Jimmy Fallon. "In the last World Cup we got to the semi-finals, which was the furthest we've gone in the tournament for 30 years.

"The country was going mad, but we fell just that one step short. I'm looking forward to this one as we've got a really good coach and a really good team. 

"We've been building nicely to this World Cup, and hopefully I can break the goal record while we're there."

Kane could even break the record before the tournament, with England facing four Nations League contests next month, including clashes with Germany and Euro 2020 final conquerors Italy.

The 28-year-old scored six goals as England progressed to the final four of the last World Cup in Russia, and a repeat performance would also see him become his country's record goalscorer at the competition, with Gary Lineker having scored 10 goals across the 1986 and 1990 tournaments.

Toni Kroos believes Karim Benzema has filled the Cristiano Ronaldo void at Real Madrid "to perfection" after enjoying a stunning 2021-22 season that has him in Ballon d'Or contention.

Heading into Saturday's Champions League final, Benzema has scored 44 goals from 45 matches across all competitions this term, which is 12 more than his previous best for a single campaign.

Similarly, his record of 0.98 goals per game is also comfortably the best he has managed over the course of one season.

Add to that a haul of 15 assists, Benzema's 59 goal involvements is second only to Kylian Mbappe (60 – 39 goals, 21 assists), highlighting just how much of a double threat Los Blancos' talisman has been.

Among his goals have been some crucial strikes as well. He netted consecutive hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the Champions League, before also scoring three times over the course of the semi-final defeat of Manchester City.

He has not always been Madrid's main man in attack, with Benzema speaking openly in the past about having to sacrifice his own output for Ronaldo during their time together at the Santiago Bernabeu – he scored just five league goals in the 2017-18 season, for example.

But Kroos admires how the Frenchman has stepped up.

"It wasn't easy to become an even better player," Kroos told ZDF. "I've seen him for eight seasons in all kinds of different roles. Not in other positions, but in terms of the jobs he did on the pitch.

"There were times when he had to pull the bandwagon with his goals and others in which he used to look more to his right and left.

"Cristiano scored 50 goals per season for us and Gareth [Bale] was also on the left in his best years. Those two pillars fell from us.

"Others came like Vinicius [Junior] or Rodrygo, who are evolving very well, but we weren't able to cover Cristiano's 50 goals with just one player until Karim took on that role to perfection."

Saturday's game will be the third European Cup/Champions League final to be contested between Madrid and Liverpool, making it the most common match-up in UEFA's club showpiece.

Although Madrid won LaLiga with four matches to spare, there is a consensus they have exceeded expectations in the Champions League, particularly given they have had great escapes in all three knockout rounds.

Despite that, Kroos does not necessarily consider Liverpool favourites, even if he does accept they have been Europe's best this season.

"Honestly, I think this Liverpool are a better team than in 2018," he added, looking back to Madrid's 3-1 final victory in Kyiv.

"They managed to retain their best players and they signed a few more. Thiago [Alcantara] sets the standards in midfield, they are still very strong at the back and I think that, in terms of record, they were the best team in Europe this season.

"But it's still just one game and you also have to take into account that we eliminated them last season in the quarter-finals. It's 50-50."

He continued: "In a Champions League final you give everything, especially considering that we already had to give everything on more than one occasion to reach the final.

"Now we're there and we want to win the cup, yes, all being aware of the great rival we face."

Luis Diaz insists Liverpool are not favourites to beat Real Madrid in Saturday's Champions League final, as he prepares for a "dream" appearance in European football's showpiece event.

Having already lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup this season, Jurgen Klopp's team are looking to make up for missing out on the Premier League title by being crowned European champions for a seventh time in Paris.

Such a triumph would see Liverpool draw level with Milan's tally of European Cup/Champions League successes, leaving only Madrid (13) with more titles in the competition's history, as well as avenging their 2018 final loss to Los Blancos.

Liverpool have been touted as favourites after ending their domestic league campaign with a 19-match unbeaten run (16 wins, three draws), while Madrid have already required several spectacular comebacks in the competition, becoming the first team to reach a Champions League final after losing a match in each of the round-of-16, quarter-finals, and semi-finals.

Diaz has been a key part of Liverpool's extraordinary four-front fight since joining from Porto in January, recording six goals and four assists in 17 starts for the club.

But Diaz was cool to temper expectations ahead of an intriguing final.

"Always I have dreamed of winning the Champions League. Even more so against a team like Real Madrid, I am living a great dream," Diaz said. "I want to take advantage of these moments and be happy.

"Are we favourites? No, there are no favourites here. 

"We know that a final is contested minute by minute. We are going to give 100 per cent. We know what we have to do."

When asked if he was the side's most in-form player, the 25-year-old responded: "No, I don't believe so. I think every one of us is in very good shape to compete at a high level, not only me. 

"Everyone in the squad is in good form. I know if I am given the opportunity, I will go out there to take advantage like always."

The winger also highlighted attacking duo Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, alongside midfielder Toni Kroos, as the key threats for Carlo Ancelotti's side, with the former having scored 15 goals for Madrid in the Champions League this season to sit just two strikes shy of Cristiano Ronaldo's single-season record in the competition (17 for Madrid in 2013-14).

"Clearly, we know what Real Madrid have, what a great team they are, the experience they have," he said.

"But we also have a great squad and a great game, and we are going to counteract what they do. Who are Real's best players? I don't know – Karim, Vinicius, I really like Toni Kroos."

We've been here before. Saturday's Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid will be the third instalment of the two clubs tussling for European football's biggest prize.

That will make this the most common European Cup/Champions League final contest in the competitions' collective history.

There was Madrid's 3-1 win in Kyiv four years ago, and in 1981 Liverpool emerged 1-0 victors. And it is that Reds success many will be reminiscing about this week.

The 1981 edition was the last European Cup/Champions League final that Madrid lost – their seven such appearances since then have all been won.

To put that stat into context, no other team has won UEFA's elite competition more than seven times, yet Madrid have done so just since 1998.

But given that defeat came to Liverpool and also in Paris (at the Parc des Princes rather than Stade de France, but still…), the focus on that occasion is likely to be a little greater this time around.

La route de Paris

The paths of Madrid and Liverpool to Paris in 1981 were significantly less long-winded than in 2022.

With no group stage to traverse, the old European Cup went straight into a knockout competition and both sides enjoyed some one-sided scorelines along the way.

Finnish club OPS were first up for Liverpool. While the Reds could only return home with a 1-1 draw, any chances of an upset were emphatically blown away at Anfield – Bob Paisley's men won 10-1, though it wasn't quite good enough to break the club's record for biggest European win: an 11-0 defeat of Stromsgodset seven years earlier.

Little did Liverpool know that their next opponent would one day be the club's greatest nemesis. Alex Ferguson and Aberdeen faced the Reds in the second round, but once again Paisley's men claimed an emphatic win, going through 5-0 on aggregate.

CSKA Sofia didn't put up much more of a fight as Liverpool beat them home (5-1) and away (1-0) as well. Bayern Munich did prove a tougher nut to crack in the semi-finals, but after a 0-0 stalemate at Anfield, a 1-1 draw in Germany ensured the Reds progressed thanks to the away goals rule.

Madrid first crushed Ireland's Limerick 7-2 over two legs, before then seeing off Honved (3-0) and Spartak Moscow (2-0).

Inter awaited in the semis and did at least become the first side to beat Madrid in the competition that season, but their 1-0 win in Milan was insufficient to send them through as Los Blancos' star men Juanito and Santillana had earned a 2-0 victory in the first leg.

An underwhelming final

It's fair to say the build-up to the 1981 final – played on this day 41 years ago – was rather less expectant than for this season's.

Liverpool had struggled with injuries over the course of the season, with their fifth-placed finish in the league an indictment of their situation at the time.

They had won each of the previous two First Division titles and would go on to win the next three as well, so 1980-81 was a particularly low ebb when it came to the extended competition of domestic football.

As for Madrid, Vujadin Boskov's team were more renowned for being tough rather than silky, and they had just missed out on the Spanish title to Real Sociedad due to their head-to-head record – Los Blancos didn't get their next LaLiga crown until 1986.

Similarly, this was hardly a Madrid side that was revered on the continental stage at the time. Of course, they had won the first five editions of the competition, but since that run between 1956 and 1960, their only other triumph had been 15 years earlier in 1966.

The match didn't exactly surpass expectations as a spectacle, even if it proved a glorious night for Liverpool.

There were few chances of note in a cagey first half and not many more after the break – Jose Antonio Camacho's chip did at least cause some worry for Reds fans, but he got too much on it as his attempt flew over.

Another defender, Alan Kennedy, made no such mistake, however. The Liverpool full-back raced into the left side of the Madrid area, making the most of a failed clearance attempt by an opponent and smashed into the net from an acute angle with under 10 minutes to go.

They might have picked Madrid off on the break late on, but their inability to do so didn't matter as the Reds were European champions for the third time.

While that match was ultimately deemed an end of an era in some regards for an ageing Liverpool team, they weren't gone for long...

A sign of things to come?

This particular period was something of a golden era for English clubs in the European Cup. Liverpool's 1981 success was the fifth consecutive edition of the competition to be won by a team from England.

The Reds had won their first European titles in 1977 and 78, before Nottingham Forest claimed back-to-back crowns – in fact, they were the fourth team in a row to lift the trophy at least twice in succession after Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Ajax.

Aston Villa prolonged the English dominion in 82 and, although Hamburg were victorious in 83, the European Cup was back in Liverpool's hands again the following year – that would be the last English triumph until Manchester United's treble winners won the Champions League in 1999.

It seems astonishing now, given how synonymous Madrid are with the competition, but it took them 17 years to reach another European Cup/Champions League final. That 1998 victory over Juventus in Amsterdam reignited the club's obsession, however, with six more titles arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu since the turn of the century.

But Madrid arguably head into Saturday's showdown as the underdogs, with English football seemingly entering another era of domination.

If Liverpool win, they'll be the third English team in four years to win the Champions League – it'll also be the first time since the 1980s that England has had back-to-back winners.

Granted, English clubs threatened to establish a similar stranglehold over the competition earlier this century, with seven of the eight finals before 2013 containing a Premier League team, but such is the financial gulf these days, it's difficult to see the rest of Europe resisting for long.

You could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu when Liverpool take on Real Madrid in the Champions League final at the Stade de France on Saturday.

The two European giants faced off in 2018 in Kyiv, with Los Blancos running out 3-1 winners thanks to, among other things, a sensational Gareth Bale overhead kick.

Four years later Liverpool and Madrid ready to battle it out to be crowned kings of the continent, with 19 European Cups/Champions Leagues already between them.

Just how much have the two teams changed since then, though? Stats Perform has taken a look at both to see if there are any similarities and marked differences to expect in Paris.

From nearly men to trophy collectors

One of the many reasons defeat in Kyiv hurt for Liverpool was it would have not just been another Champions League success, but the first trophy won since Jurgen Klopp had taken over.

The German coach had been at Anfield since October 2015, and while there had been clear progress, it had not yet manifested in the form of silverware.

The idea that the loss was merely a bump in the road on the start of a journey has since been proven correct, as Liverpool have since hoovered up a Champions League, Premier League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, EFL Cup and FA Cup.

At the time, though, it may not have felt that inevitable given the Merseyside club went into the final having finished fourth in the league, 25 points behind champions Man City, having also been knocked out of the EFL Cup in the third round and the FA Cup in the fourth round.

As well as making the final, the 2017-18 season was memorable for the Reds acquiring one Mohamed Salah, who went on to score 44 goals in all competitions.

They lost Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in the January transfer window, but signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton to help out a troubled defence.

The team that started against Madrid included at least six players you would think will start in Paris in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Jordan Henderson, Salah and Sadio Mane, while James Milner and Roberto Firmino will at least be on the bench.

It is perhaps the additions made that will make the difference this time, most notably in goal.

Loris Karius suffered a concussion after an elbow to the head from Sergio Ramos that night, which could explain his bizarre performance after that where he threw the ball straight onto Karim Benzema's foot for Madrid's opener, before dropping the ball into the goal from a Bale shot for their third.

Brazil international Alisson is a significant upgrade on Karius.

Instead of the... shall we say... enigmatic Dejan Lovren, Van Dijk will be partnered by either Joel Matip or Ibrahima Konate, both of whom have performed well with the big Dutchman this season.

Should they be fit, Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho will play with Henderson in midfield instead of Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, while Luis Diaz will almost certainly play alongside Mane and Salah in place of Firmino.

Klopp only made two changes off the bench that night, with Adam Lallana replacing the injured Salah in the first half, while Emre Can also arrived in the second half with little impact.

He will likely have players such as Firmino, Milner, Diogo Jota, Naby Keita and, for one last time, Divock Origi to make the difference if needed in the French capital.

But overall, how much have they changed as a team since that season?

In all competitions in 2017-18, Liverpool averaged 2.39 goals for and 1.11 goals against per game, while making 584.18 passes per game.

They created 2.26 big chances per game, attempted 62.19 long passes per game and won possession in the final third on average 4.94 times per game.

Compare that to this season, they have averaged slightly fewer goals for with 2.37 per game, though have conceded just 0.76 per game, and made 624.55 passes per game, suggesting they control matches more than they used to.

They have created 2.43 big chances per game, and make fewer long passes with 57.13 per game, so are also maybe not quite as direct.

One of the more interesting stats is that they have been winning possession in the final third on average 7.32 times per game this season, significantly more than they did four years ago, so Madrid will be wary of that.

Speaking to Stats Perform, former Liverpool player and assistant manager Phil Thompson - who was captain of the Reds when they beat Madrid in Paris to lift the European Cup in 1981 - said he feels their added experience will help them this time.

"They're better equipped all round," he said. "We're better defensively. The back four, the goalkeeper, I do think all round we're more experienced now in the way we play with Sadio, Mo Salah, and Luis Diaz has brought a different element to our game."

Madrid back as Champions League experts

Back in 2018, Zinedine Zidane guided Los Blancos to their 13th European Cup/Champions League, but otherwise it was a pretty ordinary campaign.

They finished third in LaLiga, 17 points behind the champions Barcelona. They were also knocked out of the Copa del Rey at the quarter-final stage by lowly Leganes.

They just had a knack in the Champions League, though, and remarkably won their fourth in five years.

Similarly to Liverpool, you would imagine at least five of their starting XI in Kyiv will also start in Paris, with Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Benzema key men in Carlo Ancelotti's side.

Thibaut Courtois has replaced Keylor Navas in goal, while Eder Militao, David Alaba and Ferland Mendy will probably be the ones to take the places of Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo.

It is up top where things have mainly changed though, and not just in personnel.

Isco has become a squad player, who will leave at the end of the season, while Cristiano Ronaldo has long since departed, paving the way for Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo to come in, while Benzema has drastically increased his output.

The France striker scored 12 goals in all competitions in 47 games in the 2017-18 season, but has bagged 44 in 45 this campaign.

As for the team overall, in 2017-18 they averaged just 2.14 goals for per game, and 0.91 against, creating 2.11 big chances per game.

Somewhat bizarrely, their goal averages both for and against are the same as Liverpool's were four years ago (2.39 goals for, 1.11 against per game), though they have increased their average of big chances created to 2.71 per game.

However, they have won LaLiga this season, in addition to the Supercopa de Espana, and somehow found their way past Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City to reach the final.

Looking at those numbers and what has been achieved since, it is fair to say that both teams have improved since their Kyiv meeting.

Klopp's men have gone from a relative also-ran in English football to one of the strongest teams in the world, and had it not been for City's incredible comeback against Aston Villa on Sunday, would be playing to complete a phenomenal and unprecedented quadruple on Saturday.

Madrid have taken back their place as the best in Spain, and whether it was through luck or determination, have toppled three of the best teams in the competition to make it here.

You would assume the match in Paris will be a closer affair than 2018, and as finals so often are, is likely to be decided by the fine margins.

With the strength of both teams, though, do not be surprised if this isn't the last time we are sat here preparing to do battle in Europe's showpiece club game in May.

Stefanos Tsitsipas called Zdenek Kolar a "complete player", despite ultimately defeating his Czech opponent in the second round of the French Open.

Tsitsipas was relatively untroubled in the first set, but was made to work for the win after that as he and Kolar exchanged one tie-break each before the number four seed finally secured victory with another tie-break in the fourth set, sealing it 6-3 7-6 (10-8) 6-7 (3-7) 7-6 (9-7).

Kolar is ranked 134th in the world but looked every bit a threat to Tsitsipas on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, hitting 57 winners and succeeding with 29 of 37 net points (78 per cent).

Speaking at a news conference after his win, Tsitsipas explained the difficulties he experienced, saying: "He's someone I knew a little bit. It's never easy playing guys that don't really play on the ATP Tour. You don't really know what to expect. I guess they play more free.

"It's always like this. They really have a nothing-to-lose mentality. It's a different mentality than what we have, I think, which sometimes can really be brutal on the court and create some good tennis.

"He was really pushing a lot today, getting after every ball. His body was behind every ball. Running fast, reacting fast. Good net game. Complete player, I would say. Yeah, it wasn't easy out there to face him and come up with some good solutions."

Tsitsipas - who hit 25 aces - displayed some of his oft-seen frustration as he struggled to stay on top of his opponent, and was asked if his hardest obstacle was Kolar or himself.

"I guess both today," he said. "I had a lot of opportunities, break points, playing quite well, staying within the game. He was coming up with some really good ideas and I think dealt with all of the situations so maturely, not overexaggerating anything. He's an intelligent player, I would say.

"Look, last year there were moments where it was about me and the way I deal with situations on the court, not focusing that much on who is on the other side. It's all about perspective. It's sometimes good to focus on what you are doing, but also if you're not feeling great, you have to see the other side too."

Having rallied from two sets down to beat Lorenzo Musetti in the first round, and now being made to work hard by Kolar, Tsitsipas will now face Mikael Ymer after the Swede beat 29th seed Dan Evans on Thursday.

Zion Williamson has been cleared to return to play without any restrictions.

The New Orleans Pelicans star did not play a single game this season due to a foot fracture as his team reached the playoffs through the play-in tournament, before losing 4-2 to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.

Williamson has been troubled by fitness issues throughout his NBA career, and the former first overall pick returned to full team activities in late November, only to suffer further setbacks.

However, the Pelicans confirmed on Thursday that the 21-year-old is finally able to return without restrictions, saying via a statement: "The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that recent imaging of Zion Williamson's right fifth metatarsal showed continued improvement.

"Williamson has been cleared in his return to play progression without any restrictions."

In the 2020-21 season, Williamson averaged 27.0 points and 7.2 rebounds from 61 games, and scored more than 20 in each of his last 15 games before getting injured just over a year ago.

Williamson is eligible for a five-year, $181million max rookie extension ahead of the 2022-23 season, and he will not think twice if that offer comes from the Pelicans, recently saying: "Of course, I couldn't sign it fast enough."

Only the understandable media attention is allowing Iga Swiatek to keep count of her incredible winning run that reached 30 matches on Thursday.

The world number one sealed her place in the third round of the French Open after a dominant 6-0 6-2 win against Alison Riske.

That victory made her just the fourth WTA Tour player this century to win 30 or more consecutive matches. She has also taken 46 of the past 47 sets she has played.

Speaking at a news conference following her milestone win, Swiatek insisted she does not follow the numbers – although she has no need to while her streak remains the focus of journalists.

"I know how many matches I have won in a row because you keep reminding me, basically," she said. "But I don't keep track.

"I'm not like noting or something. I just try to come back to these matches to get experience from them. But that's the only reason why I come back to them."

Swiatek was asked to explain what had inspired her imperious form, with her 39 match victories in 2022 already three more than she managed in the whole of 2021.

"I think basically I changed some things, like I started being more aggressive and trying to be more proactive on court," she replied. "That's something that my coach really helped me to do.

"But also, I think all the work we have been doing, even last season, it finally clicked somehow.

"You know, last season it was a year for me where I really gained so much experience. This year I feel like I'm using it the right way. I have this experience already, and I can just move forward.

"So I think it's the physical work I have been doing but also with my psychologist, I think it's the work of the whole team as well. I'm pretty glad that it clicks right now."

The 20-year-old conceded her form will not last forever, but she is determined to enjoy it while it lasts.

"I was saying from the beginning that for sure I'm going to reach a point where I'm going to lose a match, and it's pretty normal, you know," Swiatek said. "I have been losing matches in tennis for a long time.

"For sure, the things we are doing right now are pretty extraordinary, but I know in tennis that only one person wins at the end. I will be okay with that.

"For sure, it's not fun to lose, but I think it wouldn't be different than any other loss that I had in my career."

Iga Swiatek again showed relentless form to ease past Alison Riske and book her place in the third round of the French Open on Thursday.

The number one seed stormed to a 6-0 6-2 victory on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, and will now face Danka Kovinic – the latest woman to attempt to halt the WTA Tour's winning machine.

Chasing her 30th straight win, there was an ominous start from Swiatek, who sealed the first set in just 20 minutes as Riske won just seven points.

Swiatek was ruthless as she sped through the games, winning all three break points against Riske to get halfway to victory in double quick time.

The American tried to fight back at the start of the second, but Swiatek seemed to move up a gear every time her opponent was able to win a point, breaking again in the second game.

Riske reached deuce in the next game, before finally holding serve to get herself on the board to a big cheer from the crowd.

The world number 43 showed more fight as she held serve again, but Swiatek's power and shot placement was ultimately too much as she motored to victory.

The 2020 champion has now won 39 matches this year (including Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers), three more than her tally for the entire 2021 season.

Data Slam: Dominant Swiatek

Swiatek's win here makes her just the fourth player this century to win 30 or more consecutive matches. She also won 85 per cent of points on her first serve (22 of 26) and did not face any break points.

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Swiatek – 23/15
Riske – 6/14

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Swiatek – 1/1
Riske – 2/2

BREAK POINTS WON
Swiatek – 5/9
Riske – 0/0

Michelle Wie West, the teenage prodigy who went on to win the U.S. Women's Open, has announced she intends to step away from the LPGA Tour.

The Hawaii-born player, who burst onto the scene as a 10-year-old when she qualified for the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship, will play just two more competitive events.

Wie West, who gave birth to her first child in 2020, is now 32 and has only played once on the LPGA Tour this year, at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in January.

She will play the U.S. Women's Open next week and also next year, but that may be it for her as a professional golfer.

"Excited to announce the next phase of my career as I'll be stepping back from playing on the @lpga_tour full time," Wie said on Instagram on Thursday. "I'm so grateful for the past 14 years I spent on tour, travelling the world and competing against the best in the game.

"Excited to spend more time now on projects that I always wanted to do but never had time for and to continually work to help golf become a more diverse and inclusive space."

She will work with Nike on golf projects and could yet one day make a playing return, but for now Wie West is done with the grind of the tour.

"I don't have any regrets because I feel like I've always learned from every mistake that I've made," Wie West told Golfweek.

"I feel like even if it was a huge major fail, at least it makes for a good story now. I think if I hadn't won the U.S. Open, I'd still be out there competing week to week trying to get that U.S. Open win."

She said she felt "very happy in my decision".

Tipped to be the Tiger Woods of the LPGA Tour as a teenager, Wie West was a record breaker during school, setting a series of impressive benchmarks and raising the profile of the women's game.

At 14, she carded the lowest score ever by a woman competing on the PGA Tour with a 68 at the Sony Open, and turned professional just before her 16th birthday.

Injuries hampered her progress despite a slew of major sponsorships, but she fought back in 2014 to claim her only major, in the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst.

Wie West won four other LPGA events during her career, most recently the HSBC Women's World Championship in 2018.

Despite stepping away from the tour, she has refused to call it a retirement, adding: "I'm definitely not ruling anything out."

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