Ronaldo record, unbeaten Italy, and a monkey off Messi's back – football in 2021 in numbers

By Sports Desk December 31, 2021

As football concludes for 2021, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the past year even happened at all.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, the climate crisis continues unabated, Donald Trump is crying election fraud and everyone is talking about cryptocurrency without really knowing why. If Bill Murray appeared on television to tell you we're stuck in a 2020 time loop, you'd barely even blink.

Well, 2021 really did happen, and we have the data to prove it. Here, Stats Perform presents a selection of the biggest footballing moments of the year, and the numbers that help to make them unforgettable – even if you can't remember what day it is...

Tuchel your fancy

Expectations are pretty high for Chelsea coaches, but winning the Champions League before you've been in the job for half a year – after replacing club legend Frank Lampard, no less – isn't a bad way to impress the owner! No but seriously, Thomas Tuchel is brilliant.

The Blues beat Atletico Madrid, Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City in the knockouts as they became kings of Europe for the second time. They only conceded twice in those matches; in fact, Edouard Mendy became the first goalkeeper to keep as many as nine clean sheets in his debut season in the competition.

From Tuchel's first match in charge until the end of 2020-21, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) across all competitions than Chelsea. It's worth remembering that, Thomas, if you really do think your title hopes are already over at the halfway stage of the season.

Live and let Daei

Football's greatest-of-all-time debate is likely to drag on until humanity has long since gone extinct, with nothing left of civilisation except decaying ruins and NFTs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, most likely dressed as goats, stored on a giant blockchain server at the centre of the Earth (no, we don't understand it all, either).

We can at least agree on one non-fungible Ronaldo record, though: as of 2021, he is the leading international goalscorer in the history of men's football.

A brace against the Republic of Ireland on September 1 took him to 111 for Portugal, two more than previous record-holder Ali Daei of Iran. Ronaldo will start the World Cup year on 115 goals in 184 international appearances – but without the Ballon d'Or on his mantelpiece...

Gerd lord, another record

With practically the final kick of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, Robert Lewandowski pounced on a loose ball to score his 41st league goal and break Gerd Muller's previous single-season record of 40, which had stood since 1972.

Not satisfied with the greatest goalscoring effort in Germany's top flight for nearly half a century, Lewandowski ended 2021 with 43 goals for the calendar year (in only 34 games), again surpassing a previous best tally set by Muller. During that run, he became the first player in the competition to score in 13 consecutive home matches, beating the 12-game runs of Jupp Heynckes and, yes, Muller. The late Bayern great's record of a goal in 16 Bundesliga games in a row still stands, though, Lewandowski having been stopped from matching it by the crossbar in a 3-1 win at Greuther Furth in September.

This year also saw the Bayern Munich striker reach 120 away goals in the Bundesliga, which is, you guessed it, another record. At least this one was previously held by a different name: Klaus Fischer, on 117. Muller is third on 115, for what it's worth.

Let's talk about six, baby 

Liverpool started the year boasting the second-longest unbeaten home run in the history of England's top division: they had gone 68 games without defeat after losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace in April 2017, a streak only bettered by Chelsea (86 games ending in October 2008).

Then, they lost 1-0 to Burnley at Anfield. Then, 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield. After that came a 4-1 battering by Manchester City, an almost unthinkable 2-0 loss to Everton, and then another pair of 1-0 defeats, this time to Chelsea and Fulham... and all at Anfield.

Six consecutive home defeats: something never endured by any Liverpool team before, nor any reigning champion of England's top flight.

Pep-pered with records

City were top of the Premier League on Christmas Day for the third time in their history. They won the league on the previous two occasions (in 2011 and 2017), so the omens are positive for 2021-22 – not that they need much divine intervention right now.

The reigning champions, boasting a 10-match winning streak, broke the record for the most victories in a calendar year in England's top flight with their 34th of 2021 against Newcastle United this month. The previous best was 33 set by Bob Paisley's Liverpool in 1982.

In the process, Pep Guardiola's men also set a new top-tier record of 18 away wins in a single year, beating the previous best of 17 set by Bill Nicholson's famous Tottenham side of 1960-61. Oh, and their 112 goals scored in 2021 is the best such calendar-year return in the Premier League era.

An Argentine tango – and a Messi divorce

Lionel Messi ends 2021 with 23 goals and eight assists in LaLiga, the most direct goal involvements of any player aside from Karim Benzema (41). And he hasn't played in the competition since May.

Messi's tearful departure from Barcelona, who decided they simply couldn't afford to keep the player they previously couldn't afford to lose, heralded the end of an era in Spanish football. It hasn't gone particularly well for either party, either: Barca, who sacked Ronald Koeman in November, sit seventh in LaLiga, while Messi has scored one goal in 11 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain.

Club football might have been more of a nightmare than a dream for Messi this year, but the same cannot be said for his international exploits. He was the joint-top goalscorer and the tournament's best player as Argentina finally ended their long wait for silverware, defeating Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America. It was enough to secure Messi a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or, even though he seemed to think Lewandowski actually deserved to win (and, let's be honest, a lot of us did).

It's a Lille bit funny...

Last season, Paris Saint-Germain replaced Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino ostensibly so they might win the Champions League. Instead, while Tuchel took Chelsea to European glory within just five months, Pochettino's PSG could not even keep hold of their Ligue 1 crown.

Lille won the French top flight for the fourth time in their history, becoming only the fourth side to win it at least twice since the turn of the century (the others being PSG, of course, Monaco and Lyon). Their triumph was inspired by the late-career renaissance of Burak Yilmaz: his 16 league goals were the most scored by anyone over the age of 35 in Europe's top five leagues last season, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo (29).

While their title defence isn't going too swimmingly – Lille are eighth in the table after 19 games, 18 points behind leaders PSG – they managed to win their Champions League group for the first time in seven attempts. They also boast the top scorer in Ligue 1 this term: Jonathan David, who was an 11-year-old playing for Ottawa Gloucester Hornets when Lille won their third league title in 2011, has scored 12 times already.

Get Inter the spirit

This year saw Inter end their decade-long wait for the Scudetto and bring about the end of Juventus' recent stranglehold on Serie A.

Inspired by Antonio Conte – who started Juve's nine-year title streak back in 2012 – and league MVP Romelu Lukaku, the Nerazzurri finished 12 points clear at the top as their coach became the man with the best points-per-game ratio (2.26) in the modern history of Italy's top flight.

Despite a close-season of upheaval in which Conte walked, Lukaku returned to Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi went to PSG, Inter go into next year with a four-point advantage at the top and just one defeat in 19 league games, having scored over 100 league goals in a calendar year for the first time in their history.

Mancini's miracle

Italy's second European Championship trophy, secured courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley, was the pinnacle of a quite remarkable run of results under Roberto Mancini.

The Azzurri would go on to set a new world record in men's international football of 37 matches without defeat, during which they won 30, scored 93 goals and conceded only 12. The run ended when they lost 2-1 to Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in Milan, marking their first competitive home defeat since 1999.

In the first 33 of those matches, starting from a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in October 2018, they were behind for only 44 minutes. At Euro 2020, they had five players who scored at least twice, they ended the tournament with a joint-high 13 goals and conceded only four. And yet, in 2022, they must navigate the play-offs – and potentially a meeting with Portugal – if they are to avoid failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row.

Palmeiras pull off the unbeliev-Abel

The Copa Libertadores final is not something Andreas Pereira will want to remember: it was the Manchester United loanee's error that allowed substitute Deyverson to win it for Palmeiras in extra time.

This was a historic result, though. Not only were Palmeiras the first team since Boca Juniors 20 years ago to win back-to-back Libertadores trophies, but Abel Ferreira became the only European coach to win the competition twice.

Before his time in Brazil, arguably Abel's finest achievement in his post-playing career was helping PAOK reach 51 league games unbeaten – although he was only actually in charge for 17 of those matches, including the 4-2 loss to Aris that brought the streak to an end.

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    Barcelona are not in a position to finance a deal for Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski, according to LaLiga president Javier Tebas.

    Lewandowski last week confirmed that he has informed Bayern he will not be extending his contract beyond the end of next season.

    The Poland international hinted he is interested in a move away from the Allianz Arena in the upcoming transfer window, rather than departing as a free agent in a year's time.

    Barca are the favourites to land Europe's most prolific striker, with head coach Xavi insisting age would not be a barrier when it comes to his rebuild project.

    However, uncertainty lingers over whether Barca have the financial clout to make a move as they attempt to come through an economic crisis that has hit Camp Nou hard.

    And unless certain players, such as midfielder Frenkie de Jong, are sold to bring in additional funds, Tebas does not see the Lewandowski transfer being a possibility.

    "The numbers are easy: if you have more than €500million losses from the past two years, you have to recover money," Tebas is quoted as saying by Spanish publication Sport.

    "Lewandowski has one year left at Bayern. Between what he wants to earn and what Bayern want to take... as of today I don't see him at Barcelona. Other things must happen.

    "Selling players could be enough, depending on how much they raise and what Lewandowski costs. It could be €100m plus that is saved.

    "De Jong could give them that possibility, but I don't know if they are even planning to sell. To date they have not sold him."

     

    Lewandowski has scored 50 goals in 46 games for Bayern in all competitions this season, making him the top scorer among players from Europe's top five leagues.

    Next on that list is Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema with 44, followed by Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe with 36 in 45 matches.

    Mbappe had been widely expected to join Benzema at Madrid next season, but reports on Friday suggested the forward might decide to stay at PSG.

    However, Tebas expects the France international to end up at the Santiago Bernabeu in the coming weeks.

    "I think he'll be at Real Madrid, though one day he is white and another day he is black – he changes," Tebas said. "But yes, I think [he'll sign for Madrid].

    ”I have seen these twists and turns so many times – it's not unexpected, because there are always twists. 

    "The feeling I have is that if he had wanted to renew he would have already done so, but I could be wrong."

  • Ruud en route to another Geneva title, Norrie nears Lyon redemption Ruud en route to another Geneva title, Norrie nears Lyon redemption

    Casper Ruud is one match away from successfully retaining his Geneva Open title, while Cameron Norrie has a shot at redemption in Lyon. 

    World number nine Ruud was a 7-6 (7-2) 7-5 winner against Reilly Opelka on Friday, putting him on the brink of a second ATP Tour crown of the season and a sixth in his past seven ATP 250 events on clay. 

    The Norwegian made the semi-finals at the Internazionali d'Italia last week and maintained his momentum ahead of the French Open. 

    He converted the match's only breakpoint in the penultimate game and sealed the deal in the next, dropping just five of 46 points behind his first serve throughout.

    Ruud will take on Joao Sousa – who was the runner-up to Thomaz Bellucci in Geneva seven years ago – in the final after the Portuguese defeated Richard Gasquet 6-2 6-2. 

    Norrie will also be hopeful of making up for a past final defeat after winning his last-four encounter with Holger Rune at the Lyon Open. 

    The Briton was a set and a break up before Rune recovered to force a decider, which Norrie took for a 6-2 5-7 6-4 triumph in a little over two hours.

    Norrie was beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas in last year's final but it is Alex Molcan who stands between him and the trophy this time around. 

    Molcan, who is yet to win a Tour-level title, claimed an impressive victory 7-6 (7-2) 6-2 win over Alex de Minaur. 

  • Ashwin helps Royals to top-two finish despite Ali heroics for CSK Ashwin helps Royals to top-two finish despite Ali heroics for CSK

    Ravichandran Ashwin blasted an unbeaten 40 as Rajasthan Royals secured a top-two finish in the Indian Premier League with a dramatic five-wicket win over Chennai Super Kings.

    Moeen Ali breezed to a 19-ball half-century as the Super Kings raced to 75-1 at the end of the powerplay, but they did not capitalise on their early impetus in Mumbai on Friday.

    Spinners Yuzvendra Chahal (2-26) and Obed McCoy (2-20) were the pick of the bowlers to peg back Chennai, with MS Dhoni (26) the only other batter to pass 20 in support of Ali (93) in the Super Kings' 150-6.

    Jos Buttler fell for just two to Simarjeet Singh (1-18) in response, before Sanju Samson (15) followed to Mitchell Santner (1-15) and Ali bowled Devdutt Padikkal (3) to leave the Royals 76-3 in the 12th over.

    Opener Yashasvi Jaiswal batted on as his partners fell, making 59 off 44 balls before being dismissed by Prashant Solanki, with Rajasthan requiring a further 47 to win from the last five overs.

    Solanki soon added the dangerous Shimron Hetmyer (6) to his list of scalps, but Ashwin – promoted up the order – took charge of the chase to see his side over the line with two balls to spare.

    Victory meant Rajasthan will have two chances in the playoffs to make the final on May 29. Lucknow Super Giants must settle for third place.

    Ali efforts in vain

    All eyes were on Buttler, who leads the run charts with 629 in this year's IPL, but it was England team-mate Ali who delivered a scintillating performance at the Brabourne Stadium.

    The 34-year-old fell in the final over just seven short of a century after a tremendous 57-ball innings that included 13 fours and three sixes.

    He then superbly posted figures of 1-21 with the ball from his four-over allocation – but his efforts ultimately proved in vain, with Ashwin's 40 from 23 proving decisive.

    Chahal equals spin record

    Chahal once again edged ahead of Royal Challengers Bangalore's Wanindu Hasaranga in the battle to be the competition's top wicket-taker.

    The Royals' leg-spinner picked up two wickets, while going at just 6.5 an over, and equalled Imran Tahir's tally of 26 (in 2019) for the most wickets by a spinner in a single IPL season.

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