Liverpool’s troubles at the hands of VAR headlines this week’s ESPN’s Insider Notebook. PLUS: Lionel Messi is set for a huge Barcelona payday.

Jump to: Messi’s bonus after trying to leave Barca | Man United track rising star defender | Spurs, Eriksen cool on reunion | FA staff reeling from Clarke chaos | La Liga make COVID-19 breakthrough | PSG’s Leonardo angers fans with Marseille praise | Forest have their own prince

VAR proving to be Liverpool’s nemesis

VAR favours Liverpool, does it? That was the reaction on social media last season, when the hashtag #LiVARpool was everywhere as they won their first league title for 30 years. Rival fans reckoned that VAR had been a key reason for the success, though the facts showed that was unjustified, and this season Jurgen Klopp’s men have every reason to feel the VAR has been against them.

How every club is being affected
VAR’s biggest controversies of the season
How VAR has changed for 2020-21

Liverpool now lead almost every VAR category you’d want to avoid. They faced a VAR overturn just eight times in their title-winning season, of which only three went against them. But the quest to defend their Premier League crown has been tested to the hilt in the early part of the campaign, involved in six overturns already with five in favour of the opposition.

No team has had as many goals disallowed as Liverpool’s three in the opening eight games, the same as they suffered in the whole of 2019-20. They have had more decisions (five) against them than any other team, and no other club has had more than the two VAR penalties awarded to the opposition. The Reds also sit bottom of the table for net VAR decisions, on -4.

The decisions have, so far, not been too damaging in terms of their results. They won 2-1 at home to Sheffield United despite conceding a controversial early VAR penalty, and then had a Mohamed Salah goal disallowed for offside with the score at 1-1. They also had an 82nd-minute Diogo Jota goal against West Ham ruled out for a foul before the Portugal forward managed to find a winner. But they got away with one at Manchester City when Kevin De Bruyne missed from the penalty spot after Joe Gomez was harshly penalised for handball by the VAR.

There was the double-whammy against Everton at Goodison Park. The VAR missed a clear red card for Jordan Pickford’s tackle on Virgil van Dijk. And to make matters worse in the derby, Jordan Henderson had his stoppage-time “winner” disallowed for a questionable offside against Sadio Mane. Yet despite all this, and with only Andreas Christensen‘s red card for Chelsea in their favour, Liverpool sit one point off the top of the table.

It’s a very different picture at the champions’ rivals Everton. All three overturns have been in their favour and positively affected their results, gaining them six points, four more points than any other club. And then you factor in Pickford’s escape too.

Of the rest of the big six, only Tottenham Hotspur come close to matching Liverpool’s negative record with three of four decisions going against them — the most high-profile being the injury-time penalty awarded to Newcastle United for handball against Eric Dier, one of two spot kicks given against them.

Chelsea haven’t been involved with VAR since that Christensen dismissal against Liverpool with the score at 0-0, in a game they went on to lose 2-0. But manager Frank Lampard will point to the certain penalty the VAR missed at Old Trafford, when Harry Maguire had Cesar Azpilicueta in a WWE-type hold, again with the score at 0-0.

Manchester United have been heavily involved but their seven VAR decisions have come across just three fixtures and, arguably, only 3-2 win at Brighton — a penalty against overturned and a late penalty given for them — saw the result affected. Arsenal and Man City have seen just one overturn in their games and neither has changed the outcome. — Dale Johnson

Messi’s €33m bonus after trying to leave Barca

Barcelona must pay Lionel Messi a €33 million loyalty bonus next summer as part of the contract he signed with the club in 2017, sources told ESPN. Messi has received half of the €66m bonus in February, with the second half due in June when his contract expires and he can leave for free.

It’s not the first time Barca have chosen to reward players in this manner. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta also received bonuses — although nowhere near as much as Messi — while other players, including Carles Puyol, turned down the chance to make more money from the club.

According to sources, Messi also received a renewal bonus “worth around €100m” when he signed the four-year deal three years ago. That bonus was paid in instalments across the course of his contract.

Messi, 33, would have given up the second half of the bonus had he left the club earlier this year, as he wanted to. Instead, he remained at Camp Nou and his future beyond this season heavily depends on who is elected as the club’s new president after Josep Maria Bartomeu stepped down. Messi’s 20-year stay at the club hinges on the incoming president being able to sell the club’s new sporting project to him.

The €33m owed to Messi comes at a bad time for Barca as they continue to negotiate wage deferrals with the club’s employees, including the first-team squad. Several players have already agreed to new contracts which will see them take a hit on their salaries this season under the agreement that it’s returned in the coming years.

Barca have said they need to knock €190m off their wage bill this season due to the financial consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Several big earners were sold in the summer, which helped, but talks are still ongoing with other members of the squad with Nov. 23 set as a deadline for an agreement — Moises Llorens

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Steve Nicol is hopeful Lionel Messi can get back to his best with Argentina after a tumultuous season at Barca.

Man United keen on rising star defender

Portuguese defender David Carmo is attracting interest from Premier League clubs including Manchester United, sources told ESPN.

The highly rated 21-year-old has impressed for Braga in Portugal, emerging as a target for a number of clubs in England and across Europe. Roma and Fiorentina were among the clubs to express an interest in Carmo during the summer.

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains keen to add a left-sided centre-back to his squad and Carmo, part of the Portugal Under-19 team which won the European Championship in 2018, is among the options.

However, any move for a defender is likely to be based on at least one centre-back leaving Old Trafford. United are open to offers for both Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo after the pair were left out of this season’s Champions League squad. — Rob Dawson

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Julien Laurens is surprised by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s comeback after sacking rumours.

No Tottenham return for Eriksen

Inter Milan were optimistic in offering Christian Eriksen back to Tottenham this week. Sources told ESPN that neither Eriksen nor Spurs are particularly keen to revisit a partnership that ended with an awkward £17m transfer in January, prompted by the midfielder deciding to run down the final year of his contract.

Although Eriksen was an important player during his six-and-a-half years in north London, scoring 69 goals in 305 appearances, Tottenham were disappointed by the way the 28-year-old pushed to leave. They have also remodelled their attack in the meantime, having made Giovani Lo Celso‘s loan deal from Real Betis permanent in addition to re-signing Gareth Bale on a temporary basis from Real Madrid.

Eriksen would likely be available for a cut-price fee given he has endured a difficult first year in Italy with Inter coach Antonio Conte preferring more mobile players in advanced positions, but Spurs boss Jose Mourinho is also following a similar approach at Tottenham.

Eriksen remains a talented player who would improve many teams across Europe but more water surely has to flow under the bridge before any reunion with Spurs becomes a realistic possibility. — James Olley

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Tyrone Mings speaks about ex-FA Chairman Greg Clarke’s comments and explains why education is vital in football.

Clarke chaos a setback as FA strives for change

England’s Football Association has faced widespread criticism in the wake of chairman Greg Clarke’s chaotic resignation on Tuesday following his use of a racist term — to the frustration of many staff members who remain.

Sources told ESPN that while there is an acceptance Clarke made his position untenable with a series of unacceptable remarks during a Parliamentary select committee hearing, the resulting depiction of the entire organisation as antiquated has left many employees disappointed.

The FA clearly has some distance to travel to become a fully modernised and inclusive governing body — past chairmen including David Bernstein and Greg Dyke have hinted at the difficulty in implementing wholesale change — and staff are fearful that the work which has been done will be lost in the storm surrounding Clarke’s departure.

Just last month, the FA launched the Football Leadership Diversity Code with the backing of over 40 clubs across the Premier League, EFL, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship which is aimed at tackling inequality across leadership, operational and coaching roles.

The FA also has the smallest gender pay gap of any major sports governing body in addition to becoming the first English national governing body to introduce a regional code of governance.

Staff are also fearful that the furore over Clarke’s exit will prove a setback to the work done in establishing programmes to encourage Asian communities to enter football, creating 25 disability Wildcats Centres and the FA’s partnership with the Black Collective of Media in Sport to support efforts to diversity sports media.

There is a hope in the Wembley offices that the next chairperson will be able to enhance these steps by communicating more effectively than Clarke managed in his four years. — James Olley

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Commissioner Don Garber discusses how the MLS is Back Tournament came about and the process the league will undergo if a player is diagnosed with the coronavirus.

La Liga make COVID-19 testing breakthrough

La Liga is helping to launch a pioneering new way to test for COVID-19, which will speed up the process of testing players and could be rolled out across the rest of Spain in the coming months, according to a league source.

Footballers in Spain’s top-flight are tested for the coronavirus at least three times per week in line with the league’s protocol. Until now, that has involved swabbing the nose — a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test — but things are about to get easier.

Soon, clubs will have two options for testing. Players can either secrete saliva and deposit it into a container or ingest two serums, gargle and spit into a pot. Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad are among five clubs trialling the former; Real Betis and Valencia are among five clubs using the latter method.

A source at La Liga believes the league is the first in the sport’s world to use this new method, which makes the process smoother, quicker and easier.

Trial tests by the Synlab Group returned the exact same results as the PCR test and, providing there are no problems in La Liga, the methods will begin to be used elsewhere. It’s hoped it will make home-testing easier and more reliable, while it will be especially useful for detecting the virus among young children as it is much less invasive — Sam Marsden

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Julien Laurens feels Thomas Tuchel can’t make many more mistakes after PSG lost 2-1 to RB Leipzig in the Champions League.

PSG’s Leonardo angers fans with Marseille praise

Did he do it on purpose? Was it a mistake? Was he honest and didn’t realise the damage his words could do? Regardless, Paris Saint-Germain sporting director Leonardo’s comments on Paris not being a football city unlike arch rivals Marseille has not gone down well with supporters, especially the Ultras.

Leonardo said: “In Paris, there is a [football] culture to build. Paris has never been, for example, a city of football. It is always Marseille. There are so many other things to do in Paris [than to go to a football match.]”

To make matters worse, Leonardo’s comments came during an online chat with PSG’s own supporters.

His comments infuriated PSG supporters. The main Ultra group, the CUP, responded with an aggressive statement, reminding him about the great atmosphere at the Parc des Princes.

Luis Fernandez, former PSG player and manager piled on: “Leonardo doesn’t understand or doesn’t know anything about Paris and PSG,” he said. — Julien Laurens

Prince of Monaco arrives at Forest

English Championship side Nottingham Forest have their own prince. For a couple of weeks, Louis Ducruet, the son of Stephanie, the Princess of Monaco, has been working at the club, officially as “an advisor for international projects.”

The nephew of Albert II of Monaco, the monarch of the Principality, has high ambitions at the club. Sources told ESPN that he will also be involved in player recruitment, communication and marketing.

Ducruet, 27, spent five years working for Monaco before joining Forest. At the Ligue 1 club, he occupied various positions in the commercial and recruitment departments and ended up as assistant to vice-president Vadim Vasilyev and then his successor Oleg Petrov.

The prince, who still lives in Monaco, has signed a two-year deal at Forest, where he is hoping to gather a lot of experience. — Julien Laurens