Energy, versatility and goals: why Federico Valverde is key for Uruguay | Uruguay

Qualifying for Qatar was not plain sailing for Uruguay. Their qualifying campaign in South America began with a run of two wins from their first seven games and they were dealt a tough hand this time last year, when they faced Colombia, Brazil, Argentina (twice) and a trip to the high altitudes of La Paz in Bolivia in a two-month spell. They picked up just one point from those five games and looked in danger of missing the finals for the first time since 2006.

However, when the going got tough, Uruguay got going. They won their final four qualifying matches and finished third in the 10-team group, behind Brazil and Argentina. The two-time world champions are now many fans’ dark horses and it’s easy to see why.

In defence, they have the experience of Fernando Muslera, Diego Godín and Martín Cáceres – along with La Liga pair José María Giménez and Ronald Araújo – and, in attack, they still have their all-time top scorers Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, who have 125 goals between them for the national team. On top of that, Uruguay have a group of players in Darwin Núñez (23), Maxi Gómez (26), Rodrigo Bentancur (25), Manuel Ugarte (21) and Lucas Torreira (26) who are just entering their prime.

If Uruguay are going to be successful in Qatar, much will depend on one man: Federico Valverde. He is a central midfielder by trade, but Carlo Ancelotti has tended to use Valverde on the right flank for Real Madrid this season, and it has worked well. Ancelotti’s side is well stocked in the middle of the park, even after the departure of Casemiro to Manchester United. Aurélien Tchouaméni, a €100m signing from Monaco, is proving an astute replacement for the Brazilian, and Valverde has been superb on the right.

The 24-year-old has a bright future in the Real Madrid midfield. The mesmeric Luka Modric turned 37 in September and Toni Kroos will be 33 in January. In Tchouaméni, Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga, Real Madrid have a central trio who could dominate midfields in Europe for years. For the coming weeks, though, Valverde’s job is to inspire Uruguay to success on the world stage.

Federico Valverde celebrates after scoring for Real Madrid.
Federico Valverde celebrates after scoring for Real Madrid. Photograph: Manu Fernández/AP

His versatility gives Uruguay options, with coach Diego Alonso likely to play him on the right wing in a 4-4-2. If Uruguay need an additional body in central midfield, Valverde is able to tuck in and boost the numbers in the middle of the park. Alonso is essentially fielding one player to carry out two roles.

Valverde works tirelessly when out of possession, hassling opponents to win back the ball for his side so they can spring forward quickly. He has won possession the ninth-most times (12) in La Liga this season, which is impressive given that he plays for a side that enjoys an average of 58.2% possession, the third-most in La Liga. Real Madrid tend to dominate teams but, when they lose the ball, Valverde is there to provide the pressure and rapidly seize back control.

He has also added goals to his game this season. While previously thought of as primarily a ball-winner, his all-round game has developed superbly, so much so that he has scored six league goals so far this season – making him joint-sixth in La Liga’s scoring charts. In his previous five campaigns in La Liga, Valverde hit the back of the net just five times.

He is also among the fittest players in Qatar. Many a Real Madrid fan has quipped that his stamina and athleticism make it seem as though he has three lungs. He will run and run and run for the team and, in the testing Qatari climate, his work-rate will be imperative for Uruguay. He has also impressed in the Champions League this season and that experience will be crucial in the latter stages of the World Cup.

Uruguay were drawn in one of the more unpredictable groups. With four teams from different continents in their group – they face South Korea, Portugal and then Ghana – it’s difficult to predict who will progress to the last-16 stage. Yet, with Valverde in the team, they will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout phase and living up to their billing as dark horses.

Rayo Vallecano stun Real Madrid to end champions’ unbeaten start in La Liga | La Liga

Rayo Vallecano came from behind to upset Real Madrid 3-2 with the La Liga champions failing to reclaim top spot in the standings after two consecutive games without a win.

The hosts opened the scoring five minutes into the game when the midfielder Santi Comesaña finished from inside the box but Real responded quickly and went ahead with two goals in four minutes.

The first came in the 37th minute when the Croatian playmaker Luka Modric converted a penalty after Marco Asensio was fouled inside the box and the second came almost four minutes later with a towering header by Éder Militão.

However, the Rayo forward Álvaro García scored the equaliser just before half-time, scrambling home a loose ball.

Rayo were then given a penalty of their own in the 67th minute after a handball by the defender Dani Carvajal inside the area. Real’s Thibaut Courtois stopped Óscar Trejo’s effort, but the kick had to be retaken because the goalkeeper left his line too early. Trejo did not waste his second chance, scoring what proved to be the winner with a tidy finish to the goalkeeper’s left.

Barcelona remain two points clear at the top of the league following their victory over Almería on Saturday. Real Madrid suffered their first league defeat of the campaign against Rayo Vallecano and Carlo Ancelotti’s team play their final game before the World Cup break at home to Cádiz on Thursday.

Champions League last-16 draw: tie-by-tie analysis | Champions League

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Last month, Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, advocating for a Super League, lamented that his club have faced Liverpool in just nine competitive games. His wish for more has been granted sooner than he expected and perhaps would have liked. Real beat Liverpool reasonably comfortably in last season’s final and had few issues topping a relatively straightforward group, while Liverpool have suffered a miserable start to the season. With Mohamed Salah returning to form, though, Jürgen Klopp’s side may have improved by February and, out of the title race, can afford to focus on Europe. Aurélien Tchouaméni has joined Real and Eduardo Camavinga was beginning to make an impact last season, but the sense remains that the post-Casemiro midfield is yet to be really tested.

Winners Liverpool.

RB Leipzig's André Silva is congratulated after scoring against Manchester City last season
RB Leipzig’s André Silva is congratulated after scoring against Manchester City last season. Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

RB Leipzig v Manchester City

These teams met in last season’s group stage, City winning 6-3 at the Etihad before a 2-1 defeat in Germany, with qualification long since secured. In the first of those games, Leipzig were managed by Jesse Marsch; in the second by the caretaker Achim Beierlorzer. Since then Domenico Tedesco has come and gone and now, under Marco Rose, there has been a significant upturn. Saturday’s 3-0 win at Hoffenheim extended Leipzig’s unbeaten run to 11 games and they have been prolific in that time. The front four of André Silva, Dominik Szoboszlai, Christian Nkunku and Timo Werner, who should be back from his ankle injury by February, will test City on the counter.

Winners Manchester City.

Club Brugge v Benfica

Club Brugge were the great surprise of the group stage, winning their first three games without conceding a goal. They secured progress with a 0-0 draw at Atlético Madrid, but the heavy home defeat to Porto that ultimately cost them top spot perhaps gave a truer impression of their abilities: no pushovers, well-organised, but essentially limited. Benfica, meanwhile, ended the group stage in joyous form, with Rafa Silva and João Mario playing probably the best football of their careers. There may be defensive concerns but, even more than the 6-1 win at Maccabi Haifa that meant they topped the group, the 4-3 win over Juventus, when they should have won far more convincingly, demonstrated just how dangerous Roger Schmidt’s side can be.

Winners Benfica.

Milan v Tottenham

Tottenham have not lost to Milan in their four previous meetings, a Peter Crouch goal giving them a 1-0 win at San Siro in their last tie in 2010-11, but how good they are at the moment is anyone’s guess. Hampered by injuries to forwards, with a weird inability to play in the first half (particularly when Dejan Kulusevski is absent) and a dislocation between the midfield and the forward line, their results have been rather better than performances so far this season. The Italian champions have suffered only two defeats in Serie A and have in Rafael Leão one of the more exciting forwards in Europe, but they were desperately poor in losing twice to Chelsea during the group stages, with injuries offer only some excuse.

Winners Tottenham.

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa celebrates scoring Napoli’s second goal in their 4-1 win against Liverpool in September
André-Frank Zambo Anguissa celebrates scoring Napoli’s second goal in their 4-1 win against Liverpool in September. Photograph: Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Eintracht Frankfurt v Napoli

Top of Serie A, unbeaten domestically and hugely impressive in the group stage, Napoli may be the most serious Italian challengers since Juventus decided five league titles in five seasons just wasn’t good enough and got rid of Max Allegri. They are playing fast, dynamic football under Luciano Spalletti and, after the failure of Italy, Nigeria and Georgia to qualify for the World Cup, have an unusual number of players who should be refreshed by a winter break. But unfancied as they may be under Oliver Glasner, Eintracht Frankfurt have become masters of the European away leg. Their Europa League success last season featured victories at Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham, and this season they won on the road against Marseille and, when they absolutely needed it, Sporting.

Winners Napoli.

Borussia Dortmund v Chelsea

After a shaky start, progress from the group ended up being straightforward for Chelsea, but this is a club still undergoing transition as the recent league defeats to Brighton and Arsenal have shown. There were problems to be addressed in the squad even before the complications of sanctions, and recent injuries have exposed the imbalances that Graham Potter will need to resolve. With Sevilla in miserable form, Borussia Dortmund qualified for the last 16 easily enough, thanks in no small part to a 4-1 win in Spain, a game that highlighted just how important Jude Bellingham has become to Alen Terzic’s side. He may be only 19 but only he, Julian Brandt and Nico Schlotterback have played all 13 league games this season.

Winners Chelsea.

Internazionale v Porto

Porto trail Benfica by eight points domestically but they showed admirable resolve to bounce back from successive defeats at the start of the group stage to qualify with four wins in a row. After suffering a knee injury a month ago, Pepe is a doubt for the World Cup but Porto should have his experience back at the heart of the defence for the last 16. This has not been an easy season domestically for Internazionale and they were twice well-beaten by Bayern Munich, but two fine counterattacking performances against Barcelona ensured progress to the knockout phase for only the second time in the past decade. If Romelu Lukaku can rediscover his form and fitness, his partnership with Lautaro Martínez represents a major threat.

Winners Porto.

PSG’s Keylor Navas concedes the only goal of the 2020 Champions League final to Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman
PSG’s Keylor Navas concedes the only goal of the 2020 Champions League final to Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman (second right). Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/AP

Paris Saint-Germain v Bayern Munich

For most of the group stage Paris Saint-Germain seemed to be cruising to top spot, but they were undone at the last by Benfica’s flurry away to Maccabi Haifa and are punished with a repeat of the 2020 final. In a sense they fell into a trap they had dug themselves by drawing at home against Benfica the day after stories broke of Kylian Mbappé’s supposed unhappiness at the club. The competing egos will always be the biggest challenge for a PSG coach. Bayern are top of the Bundesliga again, but four draws and a defeat at Augsburg have led to a certain amount of chuntering about Julian Nagelsmann, despite six wins out of six in the Champions League. His record in big European games is not brilliant.

Winners Bayern Munich.

Liverpool to face Real Madrid in last 16 of the Champions League | Champions League

Liverpool and Real Madrid have been drawn to face each other in the last-16 of the Champions League, bringing together the teams who met in last season’s final in Paris.

The first leg will take place at Anfield in February and for Jürgen Klopp’s side the tie represents an opportunity to avenge May’s 1-0 defeat to Real in the French capital , an encounter that was marred by organisational chaos which led to the kick-off being delayed and hundreds of Liverpool supporters fearing for their safety.

Manchester City, meanwhile, have again been handed a favourable tie, this time against the German side RB Leipzig, while Tottenham face Milan, the Serie A champions, and Chelsea take on Borussia Dortmund.

Elsewhere there is an eye-catching meeting between Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, the French and German champions respectively.

The other last-16 ties see Eintracht Frankfurt face Napoli, Club Brugge face Benfica and Internazionale take on Porto.

The first legs are scheduled for 14/15/21/22 February, with the second legs on 7/8/14/15 March.

Celtic’s Champions League campaign ends with Real Madrid humiliation | Champions League

Celtic missed a penalty and conceded from two as their Champions League campaign ended with a 5-1 defeat. Luka Modric and Rodrygo scored from the spot after two handball decisions before Josip Juranovic saw his effort from 12 yards saved.

Second-half goals from Marco Asensio, Vinícius Júnior and Federico Valverde took the game well beyond Celtic but the visitors created a number of chances and substitute Jota scored with one of their 14 attempts at goal as he curled home a brilliant free-kick.

With RB Leipzig earlier beating Shakhtar Donetsk in Warsaw, Real needed a win to clinch top place in Group F against a Celtic side who had lost any hope of dropping into the Europa League when they were held by Shakhtar last week.

Joe Hart led Celtic in the absence of the injured Callum McGregor and Cameron Carter-Vickers, whose place was taken by Carl Starfelt for the Swede’s first appearance since damaging his knee against Rangers two months ago.

The first half was a tale of penalty kicks and summed up Celtic’s European campaign. They had made a lively start but a reverse pass opened them up and Asensio’s mis-kicked shot hit the arm of Moritz Jenz. The referee, Stéphanie Frappart, immediately pointed to the spot and Modric sent Hart the wrong waydespite the goalkeeper going to Juranovic, Modric’s teammate for Croatia, for advice.

Celtic’s Greg Taylor shows his disappointment.
Celtic’s Greg Taylor shows his disappointment. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The holders doubled their lead in the 21st minute after a VAR-assisted penalty. Hart had saved well from Vinícius before Rodrygo’s shot struck the arm of Matt O’Riley. The shot was taken from two yards away from O’Riley and was going well wide but Frappart gave a penalty and booked the Celtic midfielder after watching a replay.

Celtic’s 35th-minute penalty came after Liel Abada skinned Ferland Mendy and was then chopped down. Juranovic had scored all five of his previous penalties for the Scottish champions but his powerful strike was a good height for Thibaut Courtois to parry.

The visitors had earlier squandered a number of decent opportunities. Kyogo Furuhashi hit Daizen Maeda’s low cross wide on the stretch when Abada was well placed and unmarked behind him. Reo Hatate shot over, Furuhashi hit an effort straight at Courtois after again being set up by Maeda and the goalkeeper made a good stop from Hatate’s long-range strike.

The difference in quality between the teams was evident from two incidents early in the second half. Asensio produced an excellent first-time finish from Dani Carjaval’s cutback in the 51st minute. At the other end, Aaron Mooy took a poor touch after being set up in the Real area.

The hosts went four up in the 61st minute when Vinícius got goal-side of Starfelt and flicked home Valverde’s low cross.

Ange Postecoglou made a triple substitution for Celtic and they were all involved as Real again survived some pressure. Sead Haksabanovic’s cross set up Giorgos Giakoumakis but he shot straight at Courtois and Hatate’s weak follow-up was blocked before the goalkeeper saved David Turnbull’s powerful drive.

Again the difference in finishing was displayed when Valverde swept home from 22 yards in the 71st minute before O’Riley came close from a similar chance.

Celtic continued pushing for a goal, leaving themselves exposed on the counterattack at times, and Courtois denied Jota twice but the goalkeeper was finally beaten by the winger’s free-kick in the 84th minute.

European roundup: Union Berlin back on top of Bundesliga after late drama | European club football

Union Berlin scored a stoppage-time winner through Danilho Doekhi to snatch a dramatic 2-1 comeback win over visiting Borussia Mönchengladbach to go back to the top of the Bundesliga, one point ahead of Bayern Munich.

Kevin Behrens’s powerful header levelled the score in the 79th minute for Union, avoiding a second consecutive loss for the club, who have surprisingly led the title race for more than a month, before Doekhi’s last-gasp winner.

Gladbach’s Nico Elvedi headed in for the lead in the 33rd minute from a Lars Stindl corner, with the visitors controlling possession in the first half. The hosts pushed forward after the break and earned the equaliser when Behrens beat keeper Tobias Sippel 11 minutes from the end.

Union then put the ball in the net again but Christopher Trimmel’s 87th-minute header was overruled by the VAR before Doekhi got the winner in the eighth minute of injury time with the last move of the game.

In La Liga, Real Madrid were held to a 1-1 draw by Girona at the Bernabéu but the reigning champions maintained their unbeaten streakand hold a one-point lead over Barcelona.

After a goalless first half, Madrid opened the scoring through Vinícius Jr in the 70th minute but their lead was cancelled out by a Cristhian Stuani penalty 10 minutes later.

Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos is shown a red card by the referee in the 1-1 draw with Girona.
Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos is shown a red card by the referee in the 1-1 draw with Girona. Photograph: Jose Breton/AP

Madrid’s afternoon only got worse when midfielder Toni Kroos was sent off in added time after receiving a second yellow card. Girona, who are 16th in the standings, came away with a precious point as their players sank to the ground in relief. Elsewhere in La Liga, sixth-placed Osasuna continued their fine start to the season with a 2-0 home win over Valladolid.

Atalanta regained second place in Serie A with goals from defender Hans Hateboer and Ademola Lookman giving them a 2-0 away win over Empoli on Sunday. The visitors took the lead after 32 minutes when Hateboer reacted instinctively and knocked a loose ball into the net from inside the box.

Empoli had a chance to equalise shortly after, but Tyronne Ebuehi’s shot after 34 minutes was blocked by Rafael Toloi with a well-timed slide. Atalanta were awarded a penalty shortly before the end of the first half when Mattia Destro handled the ball, but keeper Guglielmo Vicario saved Teun Koopmeiners’s kick with his legs.

Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata celebrates with fans after the 2-0 win at Empoli.
Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata celebrates with fans after the 2-0 win at Empoli. Photograph: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Lookman nevertheless doubled the lead in the 59th minute with a well-placed shot inside the box that went past both defenders and keeper and into the lower left corner. Elsewhere in Serie A, Fiorentina won 2-1 away at Spezia and Cremonese played out a goalless draw with Udinese.

Breel Embolo and Aleksandr Golovin scored in the second half as Monaco beat bottom side Angers 2-0 at home in Ligue 1 to move up one spot to sixth in the standings. Elsewhere in France, Auxerre beat Ajaccio 1-0, Nantes and Clermont Foot drew 1-1, Rennes moved up to third with a 3-0 home win over Montpellier while fourth-placed Lorient were beaten 2-1 at home by Nice. Brest and Reims played out a goalless draw.

Champions League roundup: Benfica eliminate Juventus as PSG run riot | Champions League

Benfica’s Rafa Silva scored twice as the Portuguese side defeated Juventus 4-3 in a thriller at the Estádio da Luz to seal a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League and end the Italian club’s chances in this year’s competition.

Benfica have 11 points from five games, the same as the Group H leaders Paris Saint-Germain, who defeated Maccabi Haifa 7-2 in an equally stunning game at the Parc des Princes. Juve’s three points, meanwhile, leaves them to focus on winning a place in the Europa League, something they can secure on the final matchday when they host PSG.

Benfica are now unbeaten in 20 games in all competitions this season and it was easy to see why on Tuesday night. They were inventive with the ball and might have been out of sight at half-time before a late Juve rally meant a nervous finish. As it was, it is the first time in the Italian giant’s history they have conceded three first-half goals in the Champions League, and the first time since 2013-14 they have failed to get out of their group.

The teenager Antonio Silva scored his first Benfica goal to give the home side the lead after 17 minutes before Juventus drew level when Moise Kean bundled the ball home four minutes later. Benfica were back in front thanks to a controversial penalty that was converted by João Mario before Rafa Silva appeared to make the points safe with two sublime finishes either side of the break.

The visitors pulled a goal back late on through Arkadiusz Milik after he was set up by the young English winger Samuel Iling, and the latter was key in creating a chance for Weston McKennie to score Juve’s third. That led to a tense finish on a night when Benfica looked as though they would humiliate their visitors but had to hold on as Rafa Silva missed out on a hat-trick by hitting the post.

“It’s really a pity and difficult to find the words,” the Juventus midfielder Manuel Locatelli said.

Paris Saint-Germain’s Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé both scored twice, with Neymar also on target, as the French club’s fearsome attack tore apart Maccabi Haifa in a 7-2 win to send them into the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring in the thrashing of Maccabi Haifa
Lionel Messi celebrates scoring in the thrashing of Maccabi Haifa Photograph: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

The irrepressible trio were simply too much for Maccabi to handle although the Israeli side showed plenty of spirit in the Group H clash, with Abdoulaye Seck scoring twice. PSG’s romp means with one game remaining against Juventus they top the standings on goal difference from Benfica.

Despite their heavy defeat, Maccabi remain level on three points with Juve and will go into their last game at home against Benfica still hopeful of sealing a Europa League spot.

Christophe Galtier’s side took a while to find their attacking rhythm but once they clicked they were devastating as they threatened to surpass their 7-1 rout of Celtic in 2017.

“The 4-3-3 system meant the front three could be a little higher up the pitch and they had a little more freedom in their movements thanks to the work of the midfield,” Galtier said. “It’s a privilege to have those players and to see them play like that, for each other.”

Messi started things off in the 19th minute with a sumptuous opening goal scored with the outside of his left foot after being played in by Mbappé on the left side of the area. Mbappé’s opener was just as silky, the French forward bending a right-footer in the 32nd minute past goalkeeper Joshua Cohen who could not be faulted for any of PSG’s goals.

It began to turn ugly for Maccabi three minutes later when Mbappé and Messi combined to play in Neymar and the Brazilian’s shot went in on off the post. PSG switched off defensively to allow an unmarked Seck to head in from Omer Atzili’s free-kick but Messi then swapped passes with Neymar before dropping his shoulder and belting a left-footed shot low into the corner to make it 4-1 at half-time.

It took Messi’s Champions League total to 129, 12 behind the record of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Maccabi actually controlled the opening 10 minutes of the second half and when PSG made a hash of clearing a corner, Seck looped a header over Gianluigi Donnarumma and into the net. The visiting fans celebrated joyously but PSG then moved through the gears to run riot.

In the 64th minute Mbappé was picked out by a diagonal pass from Achraf Hakimi and he took a deft touch before picking out the far corner. As Maccabi finally lost heart Neymar’s dribble and low cross ended with Sean Goldberg netting an own goal.

Messi, who was denied a record ninth Champions League hat-trick by the crossbar, then set up Carlos Soler to wrap up the scoring with a low shot.

“We caught Paris on a good day. The smallest slip in concentration against players like that and they can score or have a big chance,” Maccabi defender Dylan Batubinsika said.”

RB Leipzig took a big step towards the Champions League knockout stage with a 3-2 home win against the holders Real Madrid.

With Real having already qualified for the last 16 their manager, Carlo Ancelotti, rested several regular starters and his side were dominated early on by a young Leipzig team. The hosts took the lead on 13 minutes with Josko Gvardiol scoring on the rebound from a Thibaut Courtois save after a bullet header by André Silva.

With the European champions still recovering from that blow, Leipzig extended their advantage five minutes later when David Raum tried to pass into the box but the ball deflected off a defender into the path of Christopher Nkunku who was quick to react and rifled the ball in off the crossbar.

Leipzig had two more great chances but Courtois saved Amadou Haidara’s strike from the edge of the box and Nkuku put a close-range shot wide after beating the onrushing Real goalkeeper to the ball but ending up with a tight angle trying to find the empty net.

“I think we came out very distracted in the beginning of the game and were caught sleeping against a team that is very aggressive,” Courtois said.

Leipzig are second in Group F on nine points, one behind the leaders Real and three ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk, who they face in their final group game next week in need of a draw to guarantee a top-two spot.

Milan revived their hopes of reaching the last 16 with a 4-0 win at Dinamo Zagreb. Back-to-back defeats by Chelsea in their two previous matches had left the Serie A champions with plenty to do to qualify for the knockout stages, but Matteo Gabbia’s first-half header set them on their way to a crucial victory in Croatia.

Rafael Leão’s solo run and finish early in the second half put the game beyond the home side before Olivier Giroud made sure of the three points with a penalty just before the hour mark. A late own goal put the seal on the second win of Milan’s European campaign and one that moves them up to second place in Group E on seven points. If they avoid defeat next week against Salzburg they will reach the last 16.

“I think it is clear that our growth continues with qualification,” the Milan head coach, Stefano Pioli, said.

Sevilla kept alive their slim hopes of reaching the last 16 after second-half goals from Youssef En-Nesyri, Isco and Gonzalo Montiel secured a convincing 3-0 home win against 10-man FC Copenhagen in Group G.

Benzema’s legacy is ever larger. There can have been few clearer winners | Ballon d’Or

Luka Modric knew, but then so did everyone else. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and Real Madrid had just defeated Barcelona in another clásico – Rodrygo had scored, Fede Valverde had scored and Karim Benzema had scored of course – and the Croatian was standing at the side of the pitch, where his teammates were celebrating their return to the top of the table. “We all know what’s going to happen and we all want it to happen and we’re very happy for Karim,” he said. “We hope that tomorrow he will win the Ballon d’Or.”

Modric, the winner in 2018, wasn’t there when Benzema boarded a plane at Barajas airport just after 3.30pm the following day, but Benzema was joined by Thibaut Courtois. The club’s president, Florentino Pérez, travelled with them. Luis Figo and Ronaldo Nazário were on board, too. They have three Ballon d’Ors between them. By the time they made the return journey, there was a fourth. Five of the past eight have made the same journey. Benzema is the first Frenchman to win it since Zinedine Zidane 24 years ago and the sixth Real Madrid player.

When Pérez went to Benzema’s house at No 33 Rue Youri Gagarin to convince him to come to Spain, he told him that he could become the best player in the world and that Real Madrid was the best place to make that happen. It has taken 14 years, and there may even be an argument that in his case being at Madrid was an obstacle at times, the shadow cast by Cristiano Ronaldo colossal, but now he is.

If there have been doubts over the years – and there have been many, many of them, Benzema clearly believing his football has been misunderstood – there were very few this time. Modric knew; the Bernabéu knew, singing him on his way with chants of Karim, Balón de Oro; everyone knew. There can have been few clearer winners.

Last season Benzema scored 44 goals in 46 games and provided 15 assists. He was top scorer in La Liga, and top scorer in the Champions League, on 15, two off the record that Ronaldo had set back when Benzema was providing for him. He won both, plus the Spanish Super Cup. He won the Nations League with France, scoring in the final and the goal that begun the comeback against Belgium in the semi-final. Comeback: that’s a word you might have heard a bit, Benzema at the heart of probably the most absurd campaign the European Cup has seen.

If he was a Superman, and sometimes he was, his kryptonite was Osasuna’s keeper Sergio Herrera – against whom he missed two penalties in a single game last season and one this. Yet six days after those two misses in just seven minutes against Herrera, he stood on the spot at the Etihad Stadium, with time running out and the pressure on and clipped in a Panenka. It was 4-3 and somehow Madrid had life. A week later, he had another one at the Bernabéu, the clock on 96, and he scored that too, sending Madrid to the final. “We’re going to do something magic,” he said in Manchester, and now they had.

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring a goal against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Karim Benzema scored hat-tricks against Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain in Real Madrid’s journey to another European title. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Again. Against Paris Saint-Germain Madrid were 2-0 down on aggregate when he scored a hat-trick to take them through. He scored three more at Stamford Bridge, and scored again at the Bernabéu. Then came City. He had scored in every knockout game, having missed the loss in Paris. “Yes, we’re dependent on him; I have no problem saying that,” Carlo Ancelotti said. “I’m happy to be dependent on a player like Karim.” Nor was it just the goals, the coach saying that describing him as a striker “stopped short”.

Zidane, who Benzema saw as a kind of big brother, would agree. “People talk about Karim as a pure No 9, a 9 and a half, a 10; for me, he’s a bit of everything,” he said. “I would define him as a total footballer.”

Benzema had always felt so too. In fact, he didn’t always see himself as a striker at all; he played, and for others. He played, he liked to say, for those who understand the game. Above all, of course, he played for Ronaldo and while he likes to claim his game hasn’t changed, he admits that it’s different when you have someone alongside you who gets 50 a season. In Ronaldo’s absence, he has taken on that responsibility. It didn’t happen immediately – the first year post Ronaldo was hard – but he has embraced it too, enjoyed it.

Stepping into the spotlight, he has been recognised too, the conversation shifting, his legacy ever larger, ever more lasting. The Balon d’Or in his luggage, where everyone knew it would end up, takes him to another level, driven there by numbers even though they are not everything. Benzema has overtaken Alfredo Di Stéfano and Raúl, meaning the only man to have scored more than him at Madrid is the man he provided.

Every season he got better: six times he has scored more than 20 league goals in his 13 seasons at Madrid; four of those are the past four, all having passed 30 years of age. Last season was better than any other and, put simply, better than any other player too. It culminated in Paris where he won his fifth European Cup and perhaps the first that was seen as his, ensuring that when he went back on Monday night this award would be too.

Alexia Putellas and Karim Benzema are crowned 2022 Ballon d’Or winners | Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas and Karim Benzema have been named the 2022 Ballon d’Or winners at the annual football awards ceremony in Paris.

Putellas retains her title as the world’s best women’s player after leading Barcelona to another Spanish title, scoring 18 goals in the process. Barça won all 30 of their league games and also won the Spanish Cup and Super Cup, but lost the Women’s Champions League final to Lyon and shed missed the Euros after suffering an ACL injury.

“I’m very happy to be back here,” Putellas said. “Winning last year pushed me to want to be even better. Without my teammates, this wouldn’t have been possible. I want to thank the coaches and technical staff who help me to improve every day.”

Benzema has won the men’s award for the first time after leading Real Madrid to the Spanish title and their 14th European Cup. The 34-year-old scored 27 goals in La Liga and was also the top scorer in the Champions League with 15. Ten of those goals came in the knockout stages, including hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.

After receiving a huge ovation from the crowd, Benzema said: “This prize in front of me makes me really proud. I never gave up, it was a childhood dream. There was a difficult period where I wasn’t in the France team, but I kept working hard. I kept in my head this joy of playing football; I’m really proud of my journey here.”

Quick Guide

Men’s Ballon d’Or 2022: the full list


Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)
Sadio Mané (Liverpool/Bayern, Senegal)
3 Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium)
4 Robert Lewandowski (Bayern/Barcelona, Poland)
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt) 
Kylian Mbappé (PSG, France)
Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid, Belgium)
Vinícius Júnior (Real Madrid, Brazil)
Luka Modric (Real Madrid, Croatia)
10 Erling Haaland (Dortmund/Man City, Norway)

11 Son Heung-min (Tottenham, Kor)
12 Riyad Mahrez (Man City, Alg)
13 Sébastien Haller (Ajax/Dortmund, Civ)
14= Fabinho (Liverpool, Bra), Rafael Leão (Milan, Por)
16 Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool, Neth)
17= Casemiro (Real/Man Utd, Bra); Luis Díaz (Porto/Liverpool, Col); Dusan Vlahovic (Fiorentina/Juventus, Ser)
20 Cristiano Ronaldo (Man Utd, Por)

21 Harry Kane (Tottenham, Eng)
22= Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool, Eng); Phil Foden (Man City, Eng); Bernardo Silva (Man City, Por)
25= João Cancelo (Man City, Por); Joshua Kimmich (Bayern, Ger); Mike Maignan (Milan, Fr); Darwin Núñez (Benfica/Liverpool, Uru); Christopher Nkunku (Leipzig, Fr); Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea/Real, Ger).

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Beth Mead finished second in the women’s vote after leading England to glory at Euro 2022. The Arsenal forward scored six goals and added five assists to win the tournament’s golden boot and best player awards.

The Australia and Chelsea forward Sam Kerr came third, ahead of the Germany and Wolfsburg midfielder Lena Oberdorf. Putellas’s Spain and Barça teammate Aitana Bonmatí completed the top five.

Sadio Mané, who left Liverpool for Bayern Munich this summer, came second in the men’s vote and won the Socrates award for his charitable work in Senegal. The Manchester City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne finished third, his highest placing to date ahead of Robert Lewandowski and Mohamed Salah.

Sadio Mané receives the Socrates award from the late Brazilian’s brother, Rai.
Sadio Mané receives the Socrates award from the late Brazilian’s brother, Rai. Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters

Lewandowski, who joined Barcelona from Bayern Munich this summer, came fourth in the men’s ranking and also won the Gerd Müller trophy for the world’s best forward. “I want to thank my teammates from both Bayern and Barça, because I know how hard we have to work to score the goals,” he said.

Salah placed fifth, with the PSG forward Kylian Mbappé in sixth. Thibaut Courtois won the Lev Yashin trophy for the world’s best goalkeeper and placed seventh overall, with his Real Madrid teammates Vinícius Júnior and Luka Modric in eighth and ninth place. Erling Haaland (10th) finished in the top 10 for the first time.

Quick Guide

Women’s Ballon d’Or 2022: the full list


1 Alexia Putellas (Barcelona, Spain)
2 Beth Mead (Arsenal, England)
3 Sam Kerr (Chelsea, Australia)
4 Lena Oberdorf (Wolfsburg, Germany)
5 Aitana Bonmatí (Barcelona, Sp)
6 Alexandra Popp (Wolfsburg, Ger)
7 Ada Hegerberg (Lyon, Norway)
8 Wendie Renard (Lyon, France)
9 Catarina Macario (Lyon, USA)
10 Lucy Bronze (Man City/Barça, Eng)

11 Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal, Netherlands)
12 Christiane Endler (Lyon, Chile)
13 Alex Morgan (Orlando/San Diego, USA)
14 Selma Bacha (Lyon, Fr)
15 Millie Bright (Chelsea, Eng)
16 Marie-Antoinette Katoto (PSG, Fr)
17 Asisat Oshoala (Barcelona, Nga)
18 Trinity Rodman (Washington, USA)
19 Fridolina Rolfö (Barcelona, Sweden)
20 Kadidiatou Diani (PSG, Fr)

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The Spain and Barcelona midfielder Gavi won the Kopa trophy for the best men’s under-21 player, following the success of his teammate Pedri last season. Manchester City were named club of the year after Pep Guardiola’s side won their fourth Premier League title in five seasons.

Changes to the format of the awards, which are organised by France Football magazine, meant that for the first time, performances were judged across the 2021-22 season rather than the calendar year. The men’s judging panel was also reduced from 170 to 100, with 50 judges for the women’s prize.

‘Criminal assault’: report’s verdict on police treatment of fans at Champions League final | Liverpool

An independent report by leading academics into the chaos at May’s Champions League final claims police treatment of fans “constituted criminal assault”.

The report also suggests Uefa’s “egregious failures” led to thousands of supporters being caught up in severe congestion on the approaches to the Stade de France and those who reached the ground being forced up against the perimeter fence as ticketing and turnstile problems caused huge bottlenecks.

Fan attending the Liverpool v Real Madrid game were also attacked by local gangs, and Paris police used tear gas on supporters waiting to get into the venue and on those in the fan zone several miles away.

A panel led by Professor Phil Scranton, who also led the Hillsborough Independent Panel into the 1989 disaster in which 97 Liverpool fans died and has been an advocate for the affected families, has produced a report based on 485 eyewitness testimonies – two-thirds of whom mention fearing for their lives.

The report states: “Persistent, random police assaults on fans, and unprovoked deployment of teargas on men, women and children trapped in confined spaces, was reckless and dangerous. It constituted criminal assault.

“The hostility of the police prior to the match (at the Fan Zone and stadium approaches), during (in the stadium) and after (at the stadium, the stations and in the city) demonstrated a collective mindset which resulted in breaches of criminal law.

“At the Stade de France there were egregious failures on all aspects of Uefa’s responsibility for stadium safety. Sustained failure in crowd management severely compromised the health and wellbeing of fans.

“It is clear from fans’ statements that they were put at risk by aggressive policing, ineffectual safety measures and a failure to implement comprehensive stadium safety management plans based on risk management principles.

“Grounded in their understanding, and for some direct experience, of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool fans prevented a fatal tragedy occurring through their collective action.”

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The report stated the organisation of the final showed a lack of coordination between the actors involved and it identified “multiple malfunctions”.

“It is difficult to comprehend the sequence of events that constituted the debacle in Paris, leaving so many people physically injured, psychologically harmed and financially compromised,” said Scranton, Professor Emeritus, School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast.

“Men, women and children were subjected to unprovoked, indiscriminate police violence including teargas and baton assaults, together with robbery at knife-point by local gangs.

“Many left before the match, those who stayed were subjected to further attacks by riot police and gangs on leaving the stadium and arriving at local stations. Responsibility for the collapse in authority, management and safety, lies with those organising and administering the event.”

Uefa’s independent report into the events is due to be published next month and it will not comment on the subject until it is published.