Lionel Messi remains the best player in the world in Ander Herrera's eyes and the midfielder expects Kylian Mbappe to dominate world football "for many years to come".

Messi ended a glorious 21-year association with Barcelona amid well-documented financial difficulties for the Catalan club as he moved to the Parc des Princes on a free transfer in August.

The Argentina international reunited with Neymar to form a formidable frontline with Kylian Mbappe, while Mauricio Pochettino also brought in Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Georginio Wijnaldum.

Paris Saint-Germain, buoyed by their new array of attacking talent, sit 13 points clear at the top of Ligue 1, although Messi is yet to fully fire as he continues to settle into life in France.

Messi netted 672 times in 778 appearances for his former club, but he has only found the net on six occasions for PSG across all competitions – averaging a goal every 219 minutes.

However, Herrera still believes Messi is comfortably the best player in the world and insisted Pochettino's side are learning to adapt around the forward, such is the 34-year-old's quality.

"Players of Messi's level shorten the acclimatisation time," Herrera told Mundo Deportivo. "He will play the same way in France, in Spain, in Japan or in Madagascar.

"He has won his seventh Ballon d'Or and trains and enjoys as if he were only starting to play now. No training action is taken as a joke.

"At times we have already seen the best version of Leo, as against [Manchester] City at home, but I think it is also the responsibility of all those around him. We have to put ourselves at his service to get the best out of him. Normally, regular players have to adapt to a new context. 

"Now it is the other way around because we are talking about the best footballer in history."

Mbappe has outshone Messi thus far, the France international managing 15 goals – scoring every 134 minutes – and 12 assists across all competitions this term.

Indeed, since the 23-year-old scored on his PSG debut on September 8, 2017, against Metz, only three players – Robert Lewandowski (208), Messi (168) and Cristiano Ronaldo (157) – have managed more goals across Europe's top-five leagues in all competitions than Mbappe (147).

But Herrera believes Messi still holds the edge over Mbappe, who the Spain international thinks will dominate football for years to come.

"Kylian will be the best player in the world for many years to come, but we all agree that Leo is number one," Herrera added. "No doubt. Mbappe has an immense humility and desire to learn from Leo."

A new contract for Mbappe has also been at the forefront of most discussions, with Real Madrid plotting a move for the former Monaco man, whose current contract expires at the end of the season.

Madrid had multiple advances turned down for Mbappe in the last transfer window, though they can open contract negotiations with the PSG forward in January should a new deal with his current club not be agreed.

But Herrera remains confident Mbappe will stay with Pochettino's side.

"There is scope to try to renew Mbappe," he said. "We have many examples of footballers who have done it in February, March or April. There's still time.

"He is an open, friendly, funny guy. We do not pressure each other at all about our futures. I'm not kidding you, we don't talk about anyone's contractual issues in the dressing room."

Former Clasico foes but now team-mates, Ramos also followed Messi as he ended a long-standing association with Madrid to move to Paris.

However, the centre-back has been hampered by injuries and received a red card in just his third outing for his new side against Lorient on Wednesday, but Herrera expects his compatriot to become a key figure.

"Of course [It has not been easy for him]," he said of Ramos. "He's used to feeling important, playing and leading. But he has now been training for two or three weeks at a fantastic level and we are optimistic.

"It shows in his character and in the happiness he radiates."

With Ramos and Messi among a depth of talent on PSG's books, Herrera understands there is more pressure on PSG now to win the Champions League, though he feels Madrid are favourites for their Champions League last-16 tie in early 2022.

"We want to win the Champions League and we are going to try," he added. "There's no doubt. But just because we have Messi doesn't mean we're entitled to more than everyone else.

"We understand that people expect the best from us, but in Europe there are eight or ten other teams with the same chances of winning.

"A club that has 13 Champions League titles, against one that has not yet been European champions, has to be a slight favourite."

Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain each have four nominees in the 23-man shortlist for the FIFA FIFPRO Men's World 11 for 2021.

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson and full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold are also included, although there is no place for Mohamed Salah.

PSG's attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are among the forwards, as is Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Veteran Dani Alves also won enough votes to make the list, even though the 38-year-old, who recently rejoined Barcelona, only played 16 times in domestic competition in Brazil this year.

Professional footballers across the world were asked to vote for the three players they considered to have the best seasons during the 2020-21 season among goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards.

FIFPRO said: "For the first time in 17 years, FIFPRO is updating the announcement about the most-voted players, reducing the shortlist from 55 to 23. This has been done to resemble a real-life 'squad' which, usually for international competitions, is the number of players involved. 

"The three goalkeepers, six defenders, six midfielders and six forwards with the most votes earned a place in the 23-men World 11 'squad'. To complete this elite selection, the two remaining outfield players with the most votes were added."

The keeper, three defenders, three midfielders and three forwards with the most votes will be chosen for the World 11, with the remaining spot assigned to the outfield player with the next highest number of votes.

The final 11 will be announced at The Best FIFA Football Awards ceremony on January 17.

 

FIFA FIFPRO MEN'S WORLD 11 23-PLAYER SHORTLIST:

Goalkeepers:
Alisson (Liverpool, Brazil)
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan/Paris Saint-Germain, Italy)
Edouard Mendy (Chelsea, Senegal)

Defenders:
David Alaba (Bayern Munich/Real Madrid, Austria)
Jordi Alba (Barcelona, Spain)
Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool, England)
Dani Alves (Sao Paulo/Barcelona, Brazil)
Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus, Italy)
Ruben Dias (Manchester City, Portugal)

Midfielders:
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona, Spain)
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium)
Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United, Portugal)
Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona, The Netherlands)
Jorginho (Chelsea, Italy)
N'Golo Kante (Chelsea, France)

Forwards:
Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus/Manchester United, Portugal)
Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund, Norway)
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)
Romelu Lukaku (Inter/Chelsea, Belgium)
Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain, France)
Lionel Messi (Barcelona/Paris Saint-Germain, Argentina)
Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain, Brazil)

Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe admitted he was "disappointed" not to join LaLiga powerhouse Real Madrid after his failed off-season transfer.

With his contract expiring at the end of the 2021-22 campaign, Mbappe was heavily tipped to swap PSG for Madrid, who have made no secret of their admiration.

However, a transfer did not materialise as Ligue 1 giants PSG – still determined to re-sign the France international – refused to part with Mbappe.

Madrid are expected to sign Mbappe as a free agent at the end of the current campaign but the 22-year-old was asked about his frustration at the failed swich to the Santiago Bernabeu.

"Disappointed with not leaving? A little," Mbappe told Amazon while speaking to France great Thierry Henry.

"It's not easy, but whatever happened, I was going to play for a great club. I'm Parisian, I feel great, but I wanted to discover something else."

Speculation had mounted about Mbappe's future at Euro 2020, when the forward missed the decisive spot-kick in France's last-16 penalty shoot-out defeat to Switzerland.

Mbappe failed to score at the Euros and provided one assist as world champions France fell well short.

"During the Euros they asked me a lot of questions. I talked a lot with my parents, I knew I wanted to go out," Mbappe said. "My parents told me to concentrate on the pitch. Maybe I was putting too much energy into other things."

Mbappe, who joined PSG from French rivals Monaco initially on loan in 2017, has won three Ligue 1 titles with the capital club.

PSG top Ligue 1 this season, boasting an 11-point advantage over Rennes after 17 rounds.

Despite PSG's lead, Mbappe, Neymar and off-season signing Lionel Messi are yet to fully play a cohesive attacking brand of football.

"We are aware that the three of us must do more, we cannot hide, we assume it," Mbappe said.

"If I am the boss? It is difficult when you are in a team with Neymar and Messi, it would be audacious to say it, although it matters little."

Mbappe has been involved in 15 goals this season in Ligue 1 (seven goals, eight assists), with only Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (17), Madrid forward Karim Benzema (19) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (22) doing better in the top five European league.

In the 1-1 draw against Lens, Mbappe was decisive in coming off the bench for the first time in the top flight since 5 December 2020 (goal against Montpellier).

Mauricio Pochettino challenged Paris Saint-Germain to adapt and find the best tactical balance in the absence of the injured Neymar.

The Brazil forward has been ruled out for six to eight weeks after sustaining ankle ligament damage against Saint-Etienne last weekend.

Neymar was carried off during the final stages of Sunday's 3-1 win in Ligue 1, and will not play again in 2021.

Speaking ahead of PSG's home match against Nice on Wednesday, Pochettino expressed his sympathy for Neymar, who has registered three goals and three assists in 10 league appearances this season.

Nevertheless, the head coach insists his side must demonstrate their ability to cope during his spell on the sidelines.

"I'm sad for him because he's someone who loves to play football above all else," Pochettino said.

"We are not trying to replace Neymar, but to find solutions to have the best tactical balance.

"We feel that we are facing a challenge that makes us grow as a team and as a staff. 

"These are problems that arise and to which solutions must be found.

"I think the principle of the team, of the game is going to be there. 

"We will continue to develop what we want since the beginning of the year beyond the players who are there on the field."

Neymar, Harry Kane and Erling Haaland are among the most notable players to have missed out on the top 10 of the Ballon d'Or.

The first 20 names from the 30-man shortlist have been announced, with Haaland just failing to break in at 11th, while Neymar is 16th and Harry Kane is down in 23rd.

Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku, who led Inter to their first Serie A title in 10 years last season, is just behind Haaland in 12th, while Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes did not make the top 20, finishing joint-21st in the voting.

Of players from Europe's top five leagues, only Bayern Munich centre-forward and Ballon d'Or favourite Robert Lewandowski scored more goals in all competitions than Haaland's 38, which the Norway forward netted at a rapid rate of one every 87.66 minutes.

While the Borussia Dortmund sensation, who scored his 50th Bundesliga goal in as many games on Saturday, can count himself unlucky not to feature higher up on the list, the same cannot be said for Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar.

The Brazil forward, who finished third in 2015 and 2017, had an underwhelming, injury hit year in which he scored just 11 goals and recorded eight assists for PSG across all competitions, although he did reach the Copa America final with Brazil, losing out to club team-mate Lionel Messi.

Kane won the Premier League golden boot award in 2020-21, and topped the assist charts before helping England to a Euro 2020 final.

However, Tottenham finished seventh in the Premier League and the England captain - who had a prospective move to Manchester City break down - has only a solitary top-flight strike to his name this term.

Lukaku recorded the same tally as Kane, but did help Inter to a first Serie A title in 10 years, while Fernandes, who split 21st place with Inter's Lautaro Martinez, hit one less, but did also record 17 assists for United.

Manchester City's Ruben Dias, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling were placed joint-26th, 25th, 20th and 15th respectively, while 2018 Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric was 29th alongside Cesar Azpilicueta.

The Chelsea captain's team-mate Mason Mount was 19th, with Luis Suarez 17th, the Uruguay forward having played a pivotal role in Atletico Madrid's LaLiga success last term.

Italy defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini came 14th and 13th, with compatriot Nicolo Barella sharing 26th place with Dias and Villarreal's Gerard Moreno.

Barcelona youngster Pedri enjoyed a wonderful year, and was ranked at 24th.

The top 10 players remaining are: Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema, Kevin De Bruyne, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Jorginho, N'Golo Kante and Kylian Mbappe.

Paris Saint-Germain have confirmed Neymar will be out for six to eight weeks with an ankle injury.

The Brazil star was taken off on a stretcher during the closing stages of the 3-1 win over Saint-Etienne and was seen leaving the stadium on crutches.

Head coach Mauricio Pochettino said he did not expect the injury to be serious, but tests have shown Neymar has sprained the ligaments in his left ankle.

PSG said on Monday that a further update on his recovery time would follow this week.

Should Neymar be sidelined for two months, he would miss eight games in all competitions, including PSG's final Champions League group game against Club Brugge and the league trip to Lyon on January 8.

The 29-year-old has struggled for top form in 2021-22, managing three goals and three assists in 14 appearances in all competitions.

Mauricio Pochettino hopes that Neymar has not sustained a serious injury, though conceded the images he has seen of the incident do not look good.

Neymar had to be taken off on a stretcher late on after suffering an ankle injury in Paris Saint-Germain's win over Saint-Etienne on Sunday, shortly after Angel Di Maria had made it 2-1 to the Ligue 1 leaders.

Marquinhos then headed in his second goal of the game to round off a difficult 3-1 victory, though focus was on Neymar's injury in Pochettino's post-match media duties.

Neymar was pictured leaving the ground on crutches and while hopeful the forward will make a swift recovery, Pochettino explained PSG must wait for a full diagnosis on Monday.

"There is nothing more to say for the moment, it is the pain he felt in the leg with his ankle that turned. We will have the exams tomorrow and we will see," Pochettino told a news conference.

Pochettino had previously told Amazon Prime: "We will have to see this tomorrow but from the images, I hope that it's not a big deal and that he will be back with the squad quickly. But the action is not good."

Neymar subsequently posted an update to his official Instagram account.

"Let's recover, unfortunately these setbacks are part of an athlete's life," he wrote. "Now that's what you have, lift your head and let's go. I'll come back better and stronger."

Should Neymar face a lengthy absence, PSG can at least rest assured they can still field a star-studded front three, with Di Maria proving his worth against Saint-Etienne as he scored in successive league appearances for the first time since November 2019.

PSG also, of course, have Lionel Messi, who provided all three assists in the victory – the third time in his career he has set up three goals in a single league match. 

At the back, Sergio Ramos made his long-awaited bow, becoming PSG's oldest debutant since David Beckham in 2013.

Denis Bouanga put Saint-Etienne ahead, meaning PSG came back to win after conceding the opening goal for the fifth time in Ligue 1 this season, already equalling their best tally for comeback victories in a full season, set four times before (2014-15, 2011-12, 2003-04, 1985-86).

Neymar suffered a potentially serious injury as Paris Saint-Germain laboured to a 3-1 win over 10-man Saint-Etienne.

Looking for a response after their defeat to Manchester City in midweek, not to mention the speculation over Mauricio Pochettino's future, PSG fell flat for much of Sunday's game but Angel Di Maria and Marquinhos came up with the goods late on.

Marquinhos had earlier cancelled out Denis Bouanga's opener, after Timothee Kolodziejczak was sent off for the struggling hosts.

However, PSG will now hold concern over Neymar, who had to be taken off on a stretcher with an apparent ankle injury between the visitors' late goals.

Angel Di Maria is open to playing in midfield for Paris Saint-Germain as he looks to secure more game time, and believes it could be his best position.

Di Maria has been a star for PSG since joining the Ligue 1 giants from Manchester United in 2015.

The attacker has made 274 appearances for PSG across all competitions, scoring 89 goals and providing a further 107 assists.

Since he joined PSG, no player has played more games than the Argentine, who has also crafted 669 chances, way ahead of Neymar, who ranks second in the squad with 350. Indeed, Di Maria is 41 assists ahead of Kylian Mbappe (66), and only three players have scored more goals in the same timeframe.

Di Maria only signed a new contract in March, he has not been able to nail down a regular starting berth so far this term.

Mauricio Pochettino has a wealth of options at his disposal, and can hardly be blamed for starting Neymar, Mbappe and Lionel Messi, who arrived from Barcelona in August, in a sensational attacking trident.

While the trio have not yet clicked to their full potential, Di Maria has often been the man left out. The 33-year-old has made just 10 appearances this season, scoring twice and setting up a further three goals.

Having started seven games, Di Maria creates 2.42 chances per 90 minutes on average, showing his playmaking abilities are still as good as ever.

In fact, despite his lack of minutes, Di Maria has only created fewer chances than Neymar (28) and Mbappe (33) in 2021-22.

With Messi, Mbappe and Neymar needing to be accommodated up front, Pochettino has often gone with a more workman-like midfield three.

However, Di Maria, who was excellent in a deeper role in his final season at Real Madrid in 2013-14, is hoping he gets the chance to show his quality in midfield.

"I think I've already shown that I can play in that position. In fact, it was my best year at Real Madrid, in 2014," Di Maria told RMC Sport.

"The manager knows I can play there, but then it's down to decisions. He's there to decide and we're there to do as best as we can on the pitch, no matter where, in midfield, up front, or elsewhere.

"Those are questions for him, the only thing I've done since I arrived at PSG has been to give it my all when on the pitch.

"It's true that I like to play with the ball at my feet. In 2014 I played in midfield and I felt very good, really happy. With quality players at PSG like Marco [Verratti], Leandro [Paredes] or Gana [Idrissa Gueye] it could work, but those are the manager's decisions."

 

Last season, Di Maria scored two goals, created 14 chances and provided three assists in Ligue 1 from attacking carries, suggesting he may be suited to playing deeper to drive with the ball and supply the attack. 

Although frustrated by a lack of regular action, Di Maria understands the reasons.

"When you have those three up front, it makes sense that the first option is to play them, they are the best on the pitch," he added.

"With what they've won, and who they are, it gives all three of them a different status. Or at least to two of them, because Messi is different to the others. He's the best player in the world and he always has to be on the pitch.

"But I'm always trying to give it 100 per cent to get into the starting XI. I know that it's not easy for me given the players in my position. That's why I'm doing as much as I can to maybe find a different option."

Pep Guardiola felt Manchester City showed they learnt their lesson from the September defeat to Paris Saint-Germain as they defeated the Parisians 2-1 on Wednesday.

City secured top spot in Group A thanks to the victory, becoming just the second English club to win their group in five successive seasons in the competition's current format.

They had to do it the hard way as PSG took the lead through Kylian Mbappe early in the second half.

Raheem Sterling cancelled that out and then substitute Gabriel Jesus got the winner, making it the first Champions League match PSG have ever lost after opening the scoring themselves in the second half.

For a while, the match followed a very similar pattern to the two teams' first meeting of the season when PSG won 2-0 – once again City created comfortably the better chances, only to somehow be level at the break.

But while City failed to score despite racking up 1.9 expected goals (xG) in Paris and PSG netted twice from 0.46 xG, Guardiola's men saw their 1.99 xG in this one match up nicely with two strikes at the Etihad Stadium.

They were clinical, and that pleased Guardiola.

When it was put to him that the game was resembling the September meeting, Guardiola told BT Sport: "That's true, that's true. That's why it's a good lesson.

"You are losing – okay, you have to continue. It's 90 minutes, more than 90 minutes, you have to continue.

"The games are long, we knew the draw was a good result for us, but fortunately in the end we won.

"We did again a good performance like the first game. Unfortunately, in the first half we couldn't convert the chances and after the goal, we suffered, but after that, with our people [fans], thank you so much to the people for coming, it was a lovely night for us."

PSG's famed front three of Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi only mustered five shots between them, with the Parisians' overall xG total kept to a relatively low 1.1.

Of course, they hardly needed a sniff at the Parc des Princes, but Guardiola was generally pleased with how City coped this time.

"I always believe with these players that the further they are from our goal, we are safer," he added. "The closer they are, they find spaces.

"Look at the action when Neymar was through on the goalkeeper and mishit. They create from nothing.

"They are too good up front, and we had to defend as a team. If you believe one guy is going to solve the quality they have, it's impossible.

"We were there with good composure and at the end, I don't know the stats but I think we were brilliant again today and that's good for us."

Gabriel Jesus's late winner saw Manchester City come from behind to beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 on Wednesday, sealing top spot in Group A for Pep Guardiola's men.

Mauricio Pochettino, who has been linked with City's neighbours Manchester United, needed his team to avoid defeat if they were to stand a chance of winning the group, but ultimately the hosts' dominance told.

Guardiola would have been frustrated with the amount of chances City spurned in the first half, though, particularly given Kylian Mbappe then put PSG in front four minutes into the second period.

PSG had improved considerably as an attacking threat, but City upped the intensity again and deservedly levelled through Raheem Sterling, before substitute Jesus completed an impressive victory.

RB Leipzig's win at Club Brugge means PSG will qualify for the knockout phase regardless, however.

City appeared in control almost from the outset, first going close after six minutes when Rodri's glancing header was cleared off the line by Presnel Kimpembe.

Keylor Navas then denied Riyad Mahrez at full-stretch shortly after Ilkay Gundogan hit the post from the centre of the box, with PSG creating precious little at the other end.

But PSG took a rare chance early in the second half, when Mbappe drilled through Ederson's legs after Lionel Messi's cross at the end of a flowing move fell kindly at the back post.

City's equaliser 13 minutes later was similarly well-worked, though, Rodri picking out Kyle Walker at the far post, whose pass across the face of goal was nudged on by Jesus for Sterling to prod home.

Jesus then got the winner 14 minutes from time, guiding in a composed finished after being delicately teed up by Bernardo Silva.

The 2022 World Cup is now just 12 months away, with qualifying entering its closing stages following a series of crunch November clashes.

Difficulties still await Italy and Portugal – the past two European champions – in the play-offs, but most of the other big names are well on their way if they have not already confirmed their place in Qatar.

So, how are the expected contenders shaping up? Stats Perform investigates.

Argentina

Having finally ended his long wait for a senior international honour at this year's Copa America, Qatar looks like Lionel Messi's last realistic chance to guide Argentina to World Cup glory. They last triumphed in 1986, in the days of Diego Maradona.

But the brilliant Barcelona form that has been the bedrock of Messi's outstanding career is no more. Since clinching the Copa, the forward has left Camp Nou for Paris Saint-Germain and played just 595 minutes across eight games at club level, scoring three goals and assisting none. Heading into this weekend, he had yet to net in Ligue 1.

At odds with the rest of his career, Messi has briefly become one of those players who performs better for country than for club, scoring four goals in seven games for Argentina in the same period, even allowing for the minutes spent regaining fitness in November. But the national team must be concerned Messi's unconvincing displays and shaky recent fitness record hint at a decline that could continue for another year before he gets an opportunity to lead a global title charge.

Although Argentina undoubtedly have other highly talented players – Messi was one of four to make the Team of the Tournament as they become South American champions – it is tough to imagine a successful Albiceleste side without the great number 10 at the heart of it.

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez's Belgium remain the world's top-ranked team, but it feels like their window for a first major title might now have passed.

Martinez took charge after Euro 2016, where a stacked squad lost to Wales in the last eight, yet he has found a glass ceiling, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and fourth at the 2020-21 Nations League either side of another quarter-final exit at Euro 2020. Since a disappointing performance at the Nations League Finals, Martinez has been linked to a host of club roles – albeit he is expected to stay put until Qatar.

Although Belgium's 'Golden Generation' have maintained their position at the top of the game despite an ageing defence, there are worrying signs their key attacking players could also be on the wane.

Through a combination of injuries and poor form, Eden Hazard has not looked the same player since he left Chelsea for Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, also beset by fitness issues and below-par outings of late, will hope not to follow the same path. Both he and Romelu Lukaku must still be at their peak to give the Red Devils a chance.

Brazil

Brazil were outclassed by Belgium in the quarter-finals in Russia but have lost just three matches since then. One of those was in this year's Copa final against Argentina, although the Selecao also won the competition in 2019.

Unlike previous Brazil teams, Tite's side are built on the strength of their defensive record. They have kept 28 clean sheets since the 2018 World Cup, conceding just 16 times in 42 games, with 11 shutouts in 2021 alone.

However, that solidity comes at a price. Brazil are scoring at a relatively unspectacular rate of 2.0 goals per game, including netting only two in their three Copa knockout games in July and just one across two November qualifiers.

Neymar will have a key role in producing those timely moments of magic and should not be short of motivation heading to Qatar, having suggested this will be his last World Cup. The forward has excelled on the world stage before without taking Brazil all the way.

England

As so often, England have qualified with relative ease, benefiting from a kind draw, but will not face a true test until the tournament comes around.

That means a wait to see if Gareth Southgate can make the necessary tweaks to turn the Three Lions from nearly men into champions, with the midfield a key area of focus having ceded 65.4 per cent of the possession to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, 53.2 per cent to the Netherlands in the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals and 55.5 per cent to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semis. The continued development of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham should encourage optimism.

But England also find themselves in a position, like Argentina, where the performances of their talismanic captain are suddenly a concern – at least at club level.

Harry Kane has so far this season used the international breaks as sweet relief, quickly closing on Wayne Rooney's record goals tally by scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers up to September and notching seven in November alone, but there is a break now before March's fixtures and the forward simply must rediscover some sort of form for Tottenham and add to his single Premier League goal in order to return to the England fold in good nick.

 

France

Welcoming Karim Benzema back into a frightening front line, France appear to have an even more impressive line-up than at the previous World Cup, where they emerged as champions.

Benzema has already directly combined for five goals with Kylian Mbappe and one with Antoine Griezmann, who has in turn linked up once with Mbappe. The trio netted nine of France's 10 goals this month, while Mbappe had assists for each of Benzema's strikes at the Nations League Finals as both players scored in both matches and Les Bleus twice came from behind to take the title.

Yet those prior deficits and the six goals conceded at the Euros hinted at the weaknesses in this France side, as Didier Deschamps is still working on his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

The composition of the midfield in that team is crucial, and N'Golo Kante was missing against Belgium and Spain before Paul Pogba suffered an injury prior to the November fixtures. France have no shortage of quality but may not head to Qatar as the most settled unit.

Germany

It was clear Joachim Low's Germany tenure was reaching its natural conclusion before he announced his departure plans in March. That the team followed up a group-stage exit at the World Cup by stumbling through their pool at the Euros before exiting to England only further illustrated that this was the right decision.

But Germany know all about recovering quickly from such setbacks; they seemed to reach rock bottom at Euro 2000 and were in the World Cup final two years later.

Now Hansi Flick, having set Bayern Munich back on course, is excelling again with the national team, becoming the first Germany coach to win his first six matches in charge – a sequence that now stands at seven and counting. The team's last longer winning run ended at 12 games in 1980.

Germany were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe during qualifying, this despite naming their oldest XI in more than 21 years in a recent qualifier against Liechtenstein. Striking this same balance between energy and experience will be key in Qatar.

Spain

Spain have come a long way since the last World Cup, where they appeared to be in crisis from start to finish, eventually exiting to hosts Russia on penalties.

Luis Enrique's subsequent work across two spells has made them contenders again, reaching the last four at the Euros – only to again fall foul of a shoot-out – and briefly leading France in the Nations League final. The emergence of Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi over the course of these campaigns provides a major cause for long-term optimism, too.

However, injury issues have kept that trio from ever featuring together for their country; in fact, Fati, Pedri and Gavi are yet to play a single minute together for Barcelona.

They were three of 39 players to appear for Spain in qualifying, showing the depth of talent at Luis Enrique's disposal. Within that group, however, there is not a prolific goalscorer – a major concern with 12 months to go.

Mauricio Pochettino has confirmed Sergio Ramos is closer to finally making his Paris Saint-Germain debut, four months after arriving from Real Madrid.

The Spain international signed on a free transfer in July but has been sidelined with a knee injury.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Saturday's Ligue 1 clash with Nantes, the PSG head coach said that Ramos is back in training and could be in contention to make the squad.

"Sergio Ramos has been doing well. He has trained with the squad three times and is making good progress. We are pleased and will see if he is available for tomorrow, or for an upcoming game," Pochettino said.

When asked about Ramos's mindset and frustration at not being able to play, the Argentine added: "A World Cup winner like Sergio Ramos with his competitive level and mentality is going to find it difficult to accept not playing as much as he would like.

"But he is very strong. He is working extremely hard, and we think he is making good progress. We have to be patient, as he has been. That speaks to his maturity.

"He is coping well with the [training] workload and that is an important step for him to get closer to playing."

 

A medical update from the club earlier on Friday confirmed Rafinha, Alexandre Letellier, Julian Draxler and Gianluigi Donnarumma will miss the weekend’s game, but Pochettino is expected to have Neymar, Lionel Messi and Leandro Paredes back available, with the latter two both featuring for Argentina during the international break.

On Neymar, Pochettino said: "He has trained well today. I am not certain, but I think he will be able to be in the squad for tomorrow."

The former Tottenham boss was also asked if he felt he has made his mark on this PSG team since arriving in January.

"I think there are many signs of identity that are transmitted based on who we are, and that goes for the coaching staff and the players," Pochettino added.

"Sometimes we speak about identity and philosophy without really knowing what those words mean. It is a very subjective area. I think the team is showing many positive signs. The things we like to see and what we have implemented in the team.

"When you join a club like Paris Saint-Germain as the coaching staff, some characteristics explain why the club would want you because they have seen things that you can transmit to the team. You can get the results that the team needs.

"I think the team has its identity and style of play. It has ideas, so we want to keep improving and helping the squad develop in every area of the game so that we can get the positive results we hope for."

Neymar has been ruled out of Paris Saint-Germain's Ligue 1 clash against Nantes on Saturday and is a doubt for next week's Champions League visit to Manchester City, according to reports.

The 29-year-old missed Brazil's CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier against Argentina on Tuesday due to an adductor injury, which he suffered four days earlier in the 1-0 win over Colombia.

L'Equipe reported on Thursday that Neymar had undergone tests upon returning to France and was deemed not fit enough to take part in the league match against Nantes at the Parc des Princes this weekend.

The injury also puts his participation in Wednesday's mouth-watering Champions League Group A match at City in doubt.

Pep Guardiola's City lead the group with nine points, with second-placed PSG on eight – four ahead of Club Brugge in third.

It was also reported that Marco Verratti (hip) and Presnel Kimpembe (thigh) took part in full training for a second consecutive day on Thursday, and they are likely to feature at the weekend.

Former Real Madrid star Sergio Ramos has also trained successfully all week and could make his long-awaited debut against Nantes.

Neymar will miss his meeting with Lionel Messi after being ruled out of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier against Argentina due to an adductor injury, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) announced.

Brazil – already assured of a Qatar 2022 berth – will meet Argentina in San Juan on Tuesday, with a win for Messi's men all but guaranteeing World Cup qualification.

After coming off the bench against Uruguay last time out, Messi will definitely play a part for Copa America champions Argentina, according to head coach Lionel Scaloni.

However, Brazil superstar and Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Neymar – who teed up Lucas Paqueta for the winning goal against Colombia – will not be involved because of a thigh injury.

"After training at the Palmeiras Football Academy this Monday morning, athlete Neymar Jr. complained of pain in the adductor region of his left thigh," the CBF said.

"Neymar Jr. reported insecurity with the situation and because there was not enough time to carry out complementary exams, the technical committee chose to preserve the player, who will not travel with the Brazilian team's delegation to San Juan, location of Tuesday's game against Argentina."

Brazil and Argentina will meet for the first time since September's World Cup qualifier was sensationally abandoned in Sao Paulo.

The top-of-the-table fixture was halted following an apparent breach of coronavirus regulations, Argentina naming three Premier League players in their starting line-up – Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and Tottenham pair Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso – amid travel restrictions.

Despite the rulings, Martinez, Romero and Lo Celso were all starters for Argentina, with Brazilian health officials quickly acting by entering the pitch shortly after the match had started.

A subsequent melee ensued, and the visitors eventually left the field and did not return, Brazil playing out a training fixture among one another.

Looking ahead to Tuesday's showdown, Brazil head coach Tite told reporters: "It is hard to get the dimension of it. I don’t know how it was from the Argentinian side of it. Everything that happened. I am sorry about the fact that the match didn't happen.

"But now we have all the facts and understand why it didn't happen. I have all this very clear: before football, health is more important, laws exist and the correction of the facts. All these happened. I don't know how they face this situation because it is very particular.

"I can say that Brazil v Argentina is a huge match. Historically, it is huge. A lot of quality on both sides. The two best campaigns, a lot of technical quality individually from both teams."

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