The January transfer window is looming, and clubs across the globe will endeavour to bolster their squads for the second half of the campaign in a market like no other.
Attempting to negotiate big-money moves halfway through the season is a difficult enough challenge in itself, but with many top sides still reeling from the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic, multi-million-pound transfers for big-name superstars will be few and far between.
However, in the hope that sport will be able to get back to some semblance of normality approaching the summer, clubs will no doubt be turning their attention to players who are about to enter the final six months of their contracts.
A plethora of talented athletes can enter negotiations and sign pre-contractual agreements with other teams in January, and with that in mind, Sports Mole selects a best XI of players who are set to become free agents in the summer of 2021.
It is easy to forget that Gianluigi Donnarumma is still just 21 years of age – the Italian shot-stopper has already turned out 223 times for AC Milan since becoming their number one in 2015. The highly-rated youngster has been a key figure in the Rossoneri's rise to the top of the Serie A table this season, but his contract is up in June. Milan are reportedly trying to negotiate a new deal with Donnarumma, but Juventus and Inter Milan are believed to be ready to pounce if the Italy international – represented by Mino Raiola – does not agree to fresh terms.
Strasbourg's ever-present right-back Kenny Lala has already notched up two goals and one assist in Ligue 1 this term, but despite the 29-year-old's best efforts, Les Coureurs are teetering dangerously close to the dotted line. Lala was linked with a move to the Premier League after his impressive 2018-19 campaign, and with the threat of relegation looming large for Strasbourg, Lala is expected to seek pastures new in the summer.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has expressed optimism over Sergio Ramos's contract situation, but as it stands, the 100-goal centre-back is set to become a free agent in July and has been tipped to move to Tottenham Hotspur. While Ramos's future is shrouded in uncertainty, Bayern Munich chief Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has conceded that stalwart David Alaba will head for the exit door when his deal is up, and Madrid are reportedly lining up a swoop for the versatile 28-year-old – potentially as a replacement for Ramos if he does end his 15-year stint at the Bernabeu.
Wolverhampton Wanderers defender Romain Saiss is just as capable playing on the left-hand side as he is in the heart of defence, and the Morocco international produced a stellar performance against Manchester United before Marcus Rashford's effort deflected off him into the back of the net. Despite impressing in Nuno Espirito Santo's rearguard, Saiss is yet to pen an extension at Molineux past 2021, and the 30-year-old would not be short of offers if he does decide to leave.
Luka Modric is reportedly close to agreeing a new contract with Real Madrid, but at the time of writing, the Croatian's deal will expire in June. The 2018 Ballon d'Or winner remains a key player for Zinedine Zidane at the age of 35, and Jose Mourinho supposedly wants to reunite with the former Tottenham Hotspur man if he calls time on his Madrid career.
Speculation surrounding the future of Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum continues to intensify, and Barcelona have long been credited with an interest in the Dutch midfielder with his Anfield contract set to expire in June. The 30-year-old remains an important member of Jurgen Klopp's team, but a reunion with former Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman could be on the cards at Camp Nou if he refuses to commit his future to Liverpool.
The transfer world has been dominated by talk of Lionel Messi's future ever since he tried to force a move away from Camp Nou in the summer. Financial powerhouses Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are thought to be two of the few sides capable of pulling off a deal for the six-time Ballon d'Or winner, and even though candidates for the Barcelona presidency believe that Messi could be convinced to stay, 2021 may be the year that we see the 644-goal Argentine end his association with the Blaugrana.
We were spoiled for choice for the number 10 role in this out-of-contract XI, with the likes of Riqui Puig, Julian Draxler and Henrik Mkhitaryan all free to begin talks with other clubs next month. However, Manchester United-linked Hakan Calhanoglu is the second AC Milan player set to be in high demand with his contract up in six months' time. The 26-year-old has already struck six times and provided nine assists this season and had a hand in all three goals in the Rossoneri's 3-2 win over Lazio last week, but a new deal for the playmaker at San Siro is yet to be agreed.
As well as Wijnaldum, Barcelona have been strongly linked with another Dutchman in the form of Memphis Depay, whose eight goals and four assists have helped propel Lyon to the top of the Ligue 1 table. The 26-year-old is certainly not expected to leave midway through Les Gones' title charge, and Barcelona have supposedly cooled their interest in the Lyon man given their defensive concerns, but an intense battle will commence for his signature if he calls it quits at the Groupama Stadium.
The final spot in our team is occupied by one of the most prolific forwards in Premier League history. Sergio Aguero's recent injury problems have prevented the 32-year-old from adding to the 180 top-flight goals he has already chalked up in Manchester City colours, and the striker is being tipped to return to his native Argentina when his current deal at the Etihad runs out in the summer. However, the legacy that the former Atletico Madrid man will leave in Manchester is going to be incredibly difficult to live up to – even if his farewell season is plagued by an ongoing knee issue.