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Champions League

1 player Europe's top clubs should sign before transfer window closes

Time is running out for teams to make a splash in the January transfer window. With the shopping period set to close next week and a flurry of late activity expected in the coming days, we highlight one player that Europe’s top clubs should be targeting at the 11th hour, even if it means getting creative to get the deal over the line.

Note: Estimated transfer values provided by transfermarkt.com.

Premier League

Arsenal: Alexander Isak

Club: Real Sociedad | Position: Striker | Value: €40M

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the outs and Alexandre Lacazette floundering, Arsenal have mustered one goal in their last five matches – the Gunners badly need an influx of scoring punch. Seemingly set to miss out on primary target Dusan Vlahovic, the north London outfit would be wise to put all their efforts into convincing Real Sociedad to part with Isak, the 22-year-old Swedish gem who would become the focal point of Arsenal’s attack.

Chelsea: Jules Kounde

Club: Sevilla | Position: Center-back | Value: €60M

Chelsea’s interest in Kounde is longstanding – and with good reason. The Frenchman is a prototypical modern defender: He reads the game well, has excellent mobility, and, crucially, is comfortable on the ball. With Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, and Cesar Azpilicueta all impending free agents, the Blues need to be proactive to ensure they aren’t left frantically competing for signatures this coming summer.

Liverpool: Christopher Nkunku

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Club: RB Leipzig | Position: Attacking midfielder/winger | Value: €55M

Nkunku is ready for the next step. An electric talent who offers positional versatility, his familiarity with a high-octane system at Leipzig would help make the acclimation process at Liverpool a little easier. Rumors of interest in Nkunku suggest the club’s scouting and analytics departments have already done their homework and identified the Frenchman as an ideal signing. The Reds hit a home run with Diogo Jota, and Nkunku could have the same impact.

Manchester City: Julian Alvarez

Club: River Plate | Position: Striker | Value: €20M

What do you get for the team that has just about everything? One of the most exciting young forwards in South America, apparently. Manchester City are on the verge of sealing a deal for the 21-year-old Argentine international, moving to ensure their recent run of Premier League dominance continues long into the future. City don’t need Alvarez right away – the title race is just about sorted already – and can start thinking about the coming years.

Manchester United: Bruno Guimaraes

Club: Lyon | Position: Midfielder | Value: €30M

Few sides can compete with Newcastle United’s newfound riches, but Manchester United, one of the sport’s established powers, are certainly one of them. The Red Devils, like Newcastle, happen to be in the market for a central midfielder and could aim to hijack their peers’ reported €40-million move for Brazilian standout Guimaraes. It would address a glaring need and send a message that at least some power still resides at Old Trafford.

Tottenham Hotspur: Adama Traore

Jack Thomas – WWFC / Wolverhampton Wanderers FC / Getty

Club: Wolverhampton Wanderers | Position: Winger | Value: €28M

The prospect of Antonio Conte working with Traore is tantalizing. For some time, discussions surrounding the strapping 26-year-old have focused too much on what he can’t do on the pitch – namely, his final product is sometimes lacking. But Traore brings so much to the table with his elite dribbling ability, and one of Conte’s best traits as a manager is amplifying the specific skills that his players do have. Together, the two could make magic at Tottenham.

La Liga

Atletico Madrid: Darwin Nunez

Club: Benfica | Position: Striker | Value: €32M

With Luis Suarez expected to depart this summer and Joao Felix potentially joining him in search of a better stylistic fit, Atletico Madrid should be in the market for another forward. Luckily, Nunez fits the bill. The 22-year-old is exactly the type of robust presence you associate with Diego Simeone’s side. Wildly athletic, the Uruguayan forward’s blend of top-line speed and physicality would be welcomed at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Barcelona: Alvaro Morata

Club: Juventus (on loan) | Position: Striker | Value: €35M

Despite relying on bank loans and magic beans to sign new players, Barcelona remain active in the transfer market. The rebuilding Blaugrana have a lot of issues to rectify, and additional scoring prowess is near the top of the list. Xavi’s admiration of Morata could help push a deal over the line, but any move is complicated because the Spaniard is on loan at Juventus from Atletico Madrid, adding another layer of complexity to negotiations.

Real Madrid: Noussair Mazraoui

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

Club: Ajax | Position: Right-back | Value: €18M

Real Madrid have a few players who can operate at right-back, but outside of Dani Carvajal, there aren’t any natural options. The Spaniard is now 30, though, and he endured an injury-plagued 2021 – the decline is on its way for the decorated veteran. Mazraoui is due to become a free agent in the summer, but Los Blancos could jump the line and pay a nominal fee to secure the services of the 24-year-old Ajax star, who provides oodles of attacking impetus.

Serie A

AC Milan: Andreas Christensen

Club: Chelsea | Position: Center-back | Value: €35M

With Simon Kjaer shelved for the campaign and Fikayo Tomori sidelined for at least one month with a knee injury, AC Milan would be wise to strengthen their backline if they hope to overtake city rivals Inter Milan in the race for this season’s Scudetto. Christensen, who’s on an expiring deal, represents an opportunity to add someone who can improve the squad immediately but also offers a long-term solution should Alessio Romagnoli depart.

Inter Milan: Paulo Dybala

Club: Juventus | Position: Forward | Value: €50M

Dybala’s contract kerfuffle presents an alluring opportunity for Inter to make a huge statement, and frankly, stick it to a direct rival in an extremely satisfying way. The Argentine forward is Juventus’ vice-captain and has been a longstanding pillar of the squad. Beppe Marotta, the former Juve CEO now at Inter, could bolster his attacking ranks and kick his former club while it’s down. Inter already ended Juventus’ title run – now it’s time to take things up a notch.

Juventus: Denis Zakaria

Matthias Hangst / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Club: Borussia Monchengladbach | Position: Defensive midfielder | Value: €27M

Juventus are nearing a deal for prolific Fiorentina striker Dusan Vlahovic, which will certainly help the club’s anemic attack. The Serbian’s addition, though a huge boon, doesn’t rectify the glaring weakness in midfield that continues to plague Max Allegri’s team. Zakaria would instantly improve a positional group that lacks mobility and a trustworthy shield for the defense while simultaneously freeing up Manuel Locatelli to get forward more often.

Bundesliga

Bayern Munich: Josko Gvardiol

Club: RB Leipzig | Position: Center-back | Value: €25M

With hulking defender Niklas Sule on his way out at campaign’s end, Bayern Munich have been tabbed as players in the impending Antonio Rudiger sweepstakes. But bidding wars for stars in their late 20s isn’t this team’s modus operandi – snapping up exciting young talent has become the Bayern way. Gvardiol, the 20-year-old Croatian who can play both center- and full-back, would help replace the versatility and physicality that Sule provided.

Borussia Dortmund: Karim Adeyemi

Club: Red Bull Salzburg | Position: Forward | Value: €35M

Beating everyone to the punch and procuring a rising young star’s services is quintessential Borussia Dortmund fare. That’s partly why it almost makes too much sense for Adeyemi to end up at the Westfalenstadion. The German forward, who just turned 20 last week, would add to Dortmund’s celebrated crop of youngsters while also helping to soften the blow should Erling Haaland make his anticipated move elsewhere this summer.

Ligue 1

Paris Saint-Germain: Tanguy Ndombele

Tottenham Hotspur FC / Tottenham Hotspur FC / Getty

Club: Tottenham | Position: Midfielder | Value: €38M

For the good of both the player and club, Ndombele’s time at Tottenham appears to be nearing its end. The partnership simply never worked out the way it should have. But the Frenchman remains a supremely skilled midfielder, and reuniting with former boss Mauricio Pochettino at Paris Saint-Germain could reignite his career. Would a midfield with Ndombele and Marco Verratti be functional? Maybe not, but it would be a wild ride that we deserve to see.

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Champions League

Report: Pogba considering offer to return to Juventus

History could repeat itself for Paul Pogba.

The French midfielder is considering an offer to reunite with Juventus after his Manchester United contract expires at the end of June, reports Rob Dawson of ESPN.

Pogba left United for Juventus in 2012, establishing himself as an elite midfielder during a spell in Italy that lasted until 2016. He then rejoined United for an £89.3-million fee – a world record at the time.

He’s now contemplating a return to Serie A after receiving a “concrete proposal” that puts Juventus in the lead to sign the World Cup winner, Dawson adds.

The French international has yet to make a final decision, according to Dawson.

Marco Luzzani / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Paris Saint-Germain are also reportedly in contention and could attract Pogba with an offer to play in his home country.

Manchester City were surprise contenders, but Pogba rejected an offer to join Pep Guardiola’s squad due to reported concerns about backlash from Manchester United supporters.

Pogba has struggled to consistently replicate the form that made him a star at Juventus in the six years since he returned to Old Trafford; frustrated fans booed him in his last two games against Norwich City and Liverpool.

The 29-year-old recently admitted to experiencing depression, which began during Jose Mourinho’s volatile spell as Manchester United manager.

Pogba, who has missed the last four matches with a calf problem, could be in contention to play his final match for Manchester United on Sunday after returning to training.

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Champions League

4 thoughts from Manchester City's breathless win over Real Madrid

The Champions League semifinals kicked off with an absolute classic, as Manchester City defeated Real Madrid 4-3 in Tuesday’s first leg at the Etihad. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from a truly incredible match.

Real Madrid embrace the chaos

Real Madrid conceded twice in the first 11 minutes of Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal first leg at Manchester City and capitulated again eight minutes after the interval. They allowed the first goal in three of the four knockout matches that preceded the topsy-turvy contest at the Etihad Stadium, and yet, they progressed each time.

Madrid responded on Tuesday as well. Karim Benzema produced an unbelievable touch to make it 2-1, Vinicius Junior ran unabated to make it 3-2, and Benzema’s beautifully executed Panenka made it 4-3. Madrid didn’t play well at all – City could’ve scored another three or four goals – but they again found success amid chaos. Two pieces of individual brilliance kept them in the game, and a penalty kick kept them in the tie, but it felt like Madrid enjoyed the contest more than City did. Every time City scored, Madrid had an answer.

Sebastian Frej/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

In previous matches, Madrid needed a substitution or two to spring back to life. But manager Carlo Ancelotti didn’t do much to influence Tuesday’s encounter. He just allowed Madrid’s best players to do their thing. Benzema hurried to take a corner kick, Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal sent in dangerous free-kicks and crosses, and Luka Modric surged into the penalty area. They wanted to find the quickest way into the final 18 yards, and they did. It was all instinct, a phenomenon of muscle memory.

“I have a squad who knows these types of games very well, knows what has happened, and knows what can happen,” Ancelotti said earlier this month, according to The Athletic’s Dermot Corrigan.

Los Blancos are still fighting in this competition because their players have such a sense of occasion, such opportunistic qualities, and such a pedigree in the Champions League that no game ever seems lost. Just imagine how good they’d be if they didn’t need to fight back in the first place.

City tend to panic in Champions League

Manchester City’s short history in the competition reads like a drama. It’s unusual: City rarely break stride in the Premier League, showing few nerves, but as soon as the Champions League anthem rings out, they take on a different personality. It’s true that Pep Guardiola, one of the greatest managers of all time, routinely overthinks European matches, but that’s not what happened on Tuesday. The pressure of expectation is the culprit here, not any tactical oversight.

Benzema said it best afterward, per Mirror Football’s Colin Millar: “It’s confidence, nothing more. It’s all mental.”

Add the whacky 4-3 win over Madrid to the 6-6 defeat on away goals to Monaco in 2017, the 4-4 defeat on away goals to Tottenham Hotspur in 2019, and the 3-1 shocker at the hands of Lyon in 2020. City have been all over the place in this competition, and that’s why they’ve failed thus far to win it.

Alex Livesey – Danehouse / Getty Images Sport / Getty

In reality, City created enough chances to ice the semifinal tie on Tuesday. They could’ve had a multi-goal cushion heading into next week’s second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, which, given Madrid’s seeming immortality, could’ve come in handy. Instead, Oleksandr Zinchenko narrowly missed wide, Riyad Mahrez hit the post, and Aymeric Laporte shot straight at Thibaut Courtois from six yards away.

Now the Premier League champions need to approach the second leg with caution. They have it within themselves to play a more reserved game. They’ve used possession as a form of defense against Liverpool – and came away with decent results. It’s time for City to be pragmatic. They’re ahead on aggregate, and all they have to do is keep it that way.

Fernandinho giveth and taketh away

Real Madrid’s plan of attack was painfully obvious on Tuesday.

With Guardiola facing a full-back shortage through a combination of injury (Kyle Walker) and suspension (Joao Cancelo), the Spanish strategist was forced to deputize John Stones at right-back, despite admitting before the match that the Englishman, a central defender by trade, was also a “doubt” due to an undisclosed muscle issue.

Vinicius sought to take full advantage down his left wing; Madrid made a concerted effort to attack Stones before his injury flared up and forced him to leave the pitch in the 36th minute. Fernandinho, the 36-year-old midfielder, took his place. There was no classic Guardiola tinkering this time. The veteran slotted right into Stones’ vacated spot. What choice did Pep have, really?

The decision seemed inspired when Fernandinho left Vinicius sliding on his backside with his first touch of the match and even better when, early in the second half, he lofted a sumptuous cross onto Phil Foden’s head to help City grab what was then a commanding 3-1 advantage.

He then proceeded to undo his good work almost immediately, falling – quite horribly – for a wicked dummy near the touchline. Vinicius, who in his sleep could beat his compatriot in a sprint, turned on a dime and raced roughly 60 yards after the nutmeg, eventually slotting home a sensational goal.

He’s not the first player to get posterized by the electrifying young winger, but his midfield instincts came back to bite him in this instance. In the center of the pitch, often a congested area, if you try to jump a pass and miss, there should be someone backing you up. You have more liberty to take those risks. Isolated one-on-one out wide, though, there’s nowhere to hide. Laporte didn’t cover himself in glory on the play, either, oddly refusing to come across and engage with Vinicius as he approached the penalty area. But it was Fernandinho’s overzealousness that created the opportunity.

Tuesday’s madcap contest brought back memories of Manchester City’s similarly frenetic 5-3 win over Monaco in this same competition back in 2017. Playing at full-back that night? Fernandinho.

Some praise for the referee

Let’s face it: being a referee at this elite level simply cannot be fun. You’re constantly maligned. Half of the people watching are upset with every decision you make, and the only time you garner significant attention is when you’ve made a mess of things. Nobody remembers a flawless officiating performance, but everyone recalls the terrible ones.

We’re flipping the script this time, though. Istvan Kovacs deserves plenty of praise for the way he handled the buildup to Manchester City’s fourth goal of the match. Bernardo Silva’s quick-witted rocket was the result of a fantastic advantage played by Kovacs, who didn’t rush to blow his whistle when Zinchenko was hacked down by Kroos on the edge of the area.

Mike Egerton – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Instead, with Silva picking up the loose ball, Kovacs allowed play to continue. Carvajal stopped for a moment, expecting the whistle to sound. That split-second gave Silva the space he needed to uncork a shot that flew past a surprised Courtois. At the highest level of the sport, the tiniest hesitation makes all the difference.

That goal stood as the one to ultimately separate the two teams, and Kovacs’ part in it was paramount. Well done, referee.

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Champions League

4 thoughts from Tuesday's Champions League action

The Champions League quarterfinal stage concludes this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s games in Europe’s premier club competition.

Madrid always make it hard for themselves

Carlo Ancelotti’s conservative tactics nearly backfired in the round of 16 against Paris Saint-Germain, and with a 3-1 lead to protect on Tuesday, Real Madrid nearly blew it again.

Ancelotti’s side lined up at the Santiago Bernabeu with the sole intention of seeing out a boring draw against Chelsea. Even a narrow loss would’ve suited Madrid just fine. They showed little ambition – until the visiting Blues forced them to change their minds. Chelsea scored once and then twice, and when Timo Werner made it 3-0 on the night – and crucially, 4-3 on aggregate – Madrid suddenly found themselves in need of a goal. Ancelotti threw on Brazilian winger Rodrygo for defensive midfielder Casemiro, and with minutes remaining, the 21-year-old sent the match to extra time, firing home from Luka Modric’s beautiful searching ball.

Karim Benzema scored in extra time to kill off Chelsea once and for all, keeping Madrid in the competition by the narrowest of margins. Benzema did the same against PSG, scoring a hat trick in 17 minutes to overturn a 2-0 deficit. It’s just what he does.

Chris Brunskill/Fantasista / Getty Images Sport / Getty

And this is what Madrid do: They save their best football for the most desperate of situations. They wait until they’re facing elimination to come alive. They’re in the Champions League semifinals because of individual heroics, not a sound and consistent game plan. Critics have skewered Ancelotti for his conservative tactics all season, and they have more ammunition after Tuesday’s near-collapse.

Madrid can quite clearly feast on teams when they choose to go on the attack, which makes Ancelotti’s tactical decisions all the more confusing. He’s undoubtedly a brilliant manager, and his substitutions Tuesday swung the course of the tie back in Madrid’s favor, but he wouldn’t have to take these kinds of corrective measures if he had prepared his side to win in the first place.

Maybe he knows his players will find a way to progress. Maybe he knows his team will find the answers if his game plan goes awry. After all, his players can always fall back on their attacking instincts. He doesn’t need to coach that.

“I have a squad who knows these types of games very well, knows what has happened, and knows what can happen,” Ancelotti said before kickoff.

All of it happened. And in the end, Madrid advanced.

Chelsea respond to Tuchel’s call to action

Thomas Tuchel laid into his players during a closed-door meeting last week, challenging them to take accountability for a pair of losses against Brentford and Madrid. Chelsea responded with a 6-0 drubbing at Southampton on the weekend, and his players showed similar composure in the second leg on Tuesday.

The Blues didn’t get “hammered” at Bernabeu as Tuchel had predicted. They even made the impossible look possible. There’s no shame in losing 5-4 on aggregate, especially after trailing the first leg 3-1. Tuchel knew it was “unlikely” his team would overturn the tie. But it was, as he added, “worth trying,” and try they did, right to the end, winning, as it happened, 3-2 on Tuesday. Chelsea couldn’t do much more.

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

The damage was done in the first leg. Sometimes, a brutal giveaway can mean the end of a title defense. Those are the margins. Mistakes like that can and will happen. Tuchel can and will look at this quarterfinal not as proof his team is short of today’s best teams but as evidence that Chelsea can bounce back from disappointment. He quite clearly has the players’ confidence, no matter who’s on the pitch.

Chelsea played exactly as Tuchel likes his teams to play: They pressed Madrid, hassled them out of possession, and maintained composure on the ball. The Blues took their time, waiting for opportunities to pass into space. There was little sign of panic from a team that had every reason to heave the ball forward in desperation.

Take the passage of play that resulted in Marco Alonso’s disallowed goal: Kai Havertz nicked the ball off of the dawdling Ferland Mendy deep in Madrid’s half, and his teammates worked it quickly to Alonso, who fired a bullet into the top corner. If he hadn’t handled the ball ever so slightly, Chelsea would’ve sealed the comeback.

The margins worked against Tuchel’s side, but the performance told him everything he needed to know about his team.

Albiol, Villarreal willing to ‘suffer’

Thomas Muller was perplexed. The Allianz Arena was in a stupor. Bayern Munich, despite outshooting Villarreal 45-16 over two legs, saw their Champions League run come to an unexpected end at the hands of Unai Emery’s Yellow Submarine on Tuesday. Villarreal had just two shots on target in 180 minutes of quarterfinal action. Both of them ended up in the net, with Samuel Chukwueze’s 88th-minute strike on the counterattack proving to be the decisive blow in the club’s latest high-profile upset.

“If you take just this game into account, without the first game, we should have gone through convincingly,” Muller, still trying to wrap his head around the result, said. “It’s difficult to accept this; I don’t know what to say.”

There’s only one thing to say: Well done, Villarreal.

Nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg last week, Emery knew that his team would be forced to defend for most – if not all – of Tuesday’s encounter in Bavaria. Some sides would cower at that prospect. Most would deflate after conceding to Robert Lewandowski; the floodgates have opened many times before for Bayern and their Polish superstar under similar circumstances.

But not Villarreal. And certainly not Raul Albiol. The 36-year-old captain, a decorated defender at club and international level, steadied the ship after Lewandowski’s second-half goal leveled the tie at one apiece. He ensured his teammates didn’t shrink when it mattered most, marshaling the backline, winning tackles and aerial duels, and providing the type of calming presence needed in high-pressure situations. This isn’t his first rodeo, after all. A predominantly counterattacking team, Villarreal were always going to weather a storm in Germany.

“We suffered against Juventus, we suffered against Bayern, but we are now in the semifinals,” said the grizzled Albiol, who was named Player of the Match. “Now we can dream of going even further.”

Should Liverpool finish the job against Benfica on Wednesday and advance to the semis, Villarreal will once again be heavy underdogs. They’ll need to “suffer” to have any hope of reaching the final for the first time in club history. If their run has taught us anything so far, that’s just the way they like it.

Super League-esque revamp faces fresh opposition

The division between UEFA and English fans widened during Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinals after Premier League supporters’ groups slammed the body’s controversial plans to revamp the competition.

“We are united in opposition to proposals to reform the Champions League that are a back door attempt at a return to the discredited idea of a European Super League,” the Football Supporters’ Association’s Premier League Network statement read.

European football’s governing body, backed by national associations, wants to allow four extra teams into the Champions League from the 2024-25 campaign and is set to ditch the current group format in favor of a 36-team league. Each participant will play five home and five away games, with the top eight moving on to the last 16 and the other half of that draw determined by two-legged playoffs between teams positioned ninth to 24th.

FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP / Getty

Perhaps most controversial of all, UEFA has vowed to reserve two qualification places for teams on historical merit rather than their performances in the previous season.

UEFA’s executive committee will make a final decision on the plans on May 10, six days after the end of this campaign’s Champions League semifinals. Expect the proposals to become a bigger talking point in the coming weeks as fans in England and on the continent urge UEFA to rethink.

“We’ve been in communication and (have explained) our position to UEFA, but obviously we are facing a powerful force in the world of football, and they have different interests to the ones of the fans,” Ronan Evain, the executive director of Football Supporters Europe, told theScore.

“We hope that UEFA will make the right decision, which is to take into consideration the past mistakes that led to the Super League and (to consider) the demand from fans and society in general for a more balanced system of European club competitions,” Evain added.

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