Amnesty International says sports stars must be prepared to speak out on Saudi Arabia to stop the country's "spell of sportswashing" from being successful.

Saudi Arabia has been in the sporting spotlight amid reports Premier League team Newcastle United are being sold to a sovereign wealth fund, which involves Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for approximately £300million.

The deal will reportedly see the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia purchase an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle, who have been owned by retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley for the past 13 years.

Newcastle's proposed sale has previously attracted criticism from Amnesty International, which has expressed fears the deal is being used as a means of "glamorising" the "abysmal" human rights record in the kingdom.

And Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK's Head of Campaigns, believes any sports stars participating in, or being linked with, Saudi Arabia, should be made fully aware of the prevalent issues.

On the subject of sportswashing, which is a nation using sporting involvement to improve its reputation or to deflect from other focuses, Jakens said to Stats Perform: "It's working in the sense that they are now managing to shift the conversation away from exclusively their oil production or the human rights abuses taking place there.

"The Anthony Joshua fight went ahead, that was deemed a success and Joshua took home £60m or something.

"It looks like boxing will be going back there, so people aren't turning away from it.

"We have seen some high-profile sportspeople take a stand on this – Rory McIlroy, for example, refused to play an invitational tournament there, as did Paul Casey.

"Both cited human rights reasons, so when sportspeople are prepared to speak out, then it can break the spell of sportswashing, as it were.

"It can insert the idea that, although there are these opportunities, people are raising objections and speaking out, and that's what we're calling for at Amnesty."

Jakens believes a decision to take part in an event that involves Saudi Arabia should only be taken after a sporting figure has fully analysed the situation.

He added: "Anybody involved in these sports should make themselves fully aware of who the Saudi authorities are and what's going on in the country, and then make their own decisions.

"But be prepared to speak out about what's happening there."

Newcastle United have been warned replacing Mike Ashley with a Saudi Arabia-backed ownership group will tarnish the club's reputation due to the country's dismal human rights record.

Ashley has owned Newcastle since 2007 but been considered widely unpopular for most of that time, particularly following the resignation of manager Kevin Keegan in September 2008.

Supporters have criticised billionaire Ashley repeatedly for what they believe to be a lack of ambition, limited transfer spend and misplaced priorities.

Ashley has reportedly been close to selling the club before, but a £300million takeover by a consortium backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - is now thought to be merely awaiting Premier League approval.

Critics have highlighted Saudi Arabia's history of human rights abuses, with Amnesty International suggesting it is attempted "sportswashing" – using sports or a club as a PR tool to divert attention away from areas of concern, or improve a country's image.

The PIF is generally regarded as a sovereign wealth fund, which will create a direct link between Newcastle and Bin Salman, and Amnesty International UK's head of campaigns Felix Jakens is urging fans to understand who the club are getting involved with.

"We are fully sympathetic of Newcastle United fans who want rid of an owner who in their eyes hasn't treated the club or city too well and they want change, to be successful, they want to be near top of the league," Jakens told Stats Perform.

"This isn't the responsibility of Newcastle fans, we're talking about the Premier League, and everybody involved at the club, but we do want Newcastle fans to be aware of who the Saudis are, because it's important they understand that and are able to make their own minds up about what they think of the owners.

"While they have real issues with Mike Ashley, there are going to be other PR problems heading their way with the Saudis. As I said, reform is not happening there, bad PR will be coming Newcastle's way.

"[In Saudi Arabia] there will be more killings, more imprisonment of peaceful democracy protestors, more arrests and imprisonments of LGBT people, there will potentially be more schools, hospitals and mosques being bombed in Yemen, and they [Newcastle fans] will have to think very carefully about how they talk about their owners in the context of those things, which are likely to continue to happen."

Amnesty is urging the Premier League to take Saudi Arabia's human rights record into consideration when assessing the potential new owners, arguing that allowing them to back a club would undermine the league's inclusion and diversity initiatives.

Asked what it would mean if such a takeover passes the Premier League's tests, Felix said: "It would demonstrate even a regime like Saudi Arabia can pass them and we would urge – and we have urged – the Premier League to be fully aware of what's happening in Saudi Arabia, what sportswashing is and what it means, and be really conscious of the Premier League's reputation.

"They [the Premier League] run an inclusion and diversity campaign, the Rainbow Laces campaign, which has been very successful and is about the inclusion of people from all walks of life, including LGBT people.

"Saudi Arabia is a country where LGBT people can face the death penalty, so they need to be making judgments on all of the criteria in their owners' and directors' test, and we're also urging them to consider the human rights situation when they do that."

On this day in 2019, Shane Long grabbed a quickfire slice of Premier League history.

The Southampton striker charged down an attempted pass from Craig Cathcart before lobbing Ben Foster to give his side the lead over Watford.

It was officially clocked at 7.69 seconds into the game at Vicarage Road, making it the fastest goal ever scored in a Premier League match.

The previous quickest was scored by Ledley King, who netted for Tottenham after 10 seconds against Bradford City back on December 9, 2000.

But do you know who holds the record for the other top-five leagues in Europe? Well, you do now.

BUNDESLIGA

DATE: 23/08/2014

PLAYER: Karim Bellarabi

GOAL TIME: 9.32 seconds

GAME: Borussia Dortmund 0-2 BAYER LEVERKUSEN

This goal showed the benefit of a bold approach to kick-off. Leverkusen got the game underway and immediately launched an attack, Sebastian Boenisch played it to Bellarabi, he turned into space and slotted the ball past Mitch Langerak.

LALIGA

DATE: 20/01/2008

PLAYER: Joseba Llorente

GOAL TIME: 7.8 seconds

GAME: REAL VALLADOLID  2-1 Espanyol

The art of the surprise attack. Llorente kicked off with Victor and raced upfield, while his team-mate turned back into his own half and then quickly spun to play a long ball over the Espanyol defence. Llorente kept his cool with a lobbed finish.

LIGUE 1

DATE: 15/02/1992

PLAYER: Michel Rio

GOAL TIME: 8 seconds

GAME: CAEN 3-1 Cannes

Rio's record is by far the longest in the top-five European leagues and helped Caen see off Cannes in convincing fashion. Whether he truly meant the inspired first-time finish, volleyed in off the crossbar after a long punt up the pitch, is less clear.

 

PREMIER LEAGUE

DATE: 23/04/2019

PLAYER: Shane Long

GOAL TIME: 7.69 seconds

GAME: Watford 1-1 SOUTHAMPTON

A start to a match that Cathcart will not want to watch too many times. He dithered on the ball just long enough to see his attempted pass blocked by Long, who held the centre-back at arm's length before clipping a fine finish over Foster. This was, though, the only goal on our list that didn't end up leading to a victory.

SERIE A

DATE: 02/12/2001

PLAYER: Paolo Poggi

GOAL TIME: 8.2 seconds

GAME: Fiorentina 1-3 PIACENZA

A goal born out of some fantastically frantic early pressing, allowing Poggi to race onto a loose ball and slam a powerful finish home from the edge of the Fiorentina box. It was one of only three he scored for Piacenza.

Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly eager to extend Kylian Mbappe's contract, while Inter are still doing their all to keep Lautaro Martinez.

Mbappe has been heavily linked with a move to Real Madrid despite being contracted at PSG until 2022.

Madrid's rivals, Barcelona, meanwhile, want Martinez, but they are facing their own challenges.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE EXTENSION A PRIORITY FOR PSG AS TENSIONS RISE

Despite the coronavirus pandemic impacting clubs financially, PSG are prioritising a lucrative new deal for Mbappe, according to ESPN.

Mbappe, 21, is a reported target for Real Madrid, whose interest seemingly remains.

AS reports PSG are prepared to lose Mbappe on a free in 2022 rather than selling him to Madrid before then.

 

ROUND-UP

- It remains to be seen whether Martinez will head to Barcelona. The cover of Sport says Inter are responding to Barca's interest by offering the forward an attractive new contract, although the LaLiga club are preparing their "final assault".

- Barcelona could have other plans should they not be able to land Martinez. Mundo Deportivo reports RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner, who has been linked with Liverpool, remains a serious back-up option for Barca.

- Seeking support for Casemiro, Real Madrid are apparently considering a move for Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga. The cover of Marca says Madrid could pay €60million for the 17-year-old.

- Arthur is linked with a move away from Barcelona. Tottenham and Inter will chase the midfielder, according to Mundo Deportivo.

- Inter Miami have been eyeing a big-name signing. Goal reports owner David Beckham has been in contact with Real Madrid regarding potentially signing James Rodriguez.

- Loris Karius could be heading back to Liverpool. The Telegraph reports the goalkeeper is close to mutually agreeing a termination of his loan at Turkish club Besiktas and returning to Anfield.

A large part of sport's huge appeal is the chance for the seemingly impossible to be achieved.

Shane Long and Chris Gayle realised that potential on April 23, each entering the record books in their respective sports.

Long and Gayle etched their name into the history books for delivering in quick time, but on this date 15 years ago Aaron Rodgers' NFL Draft experience was anything but swift.

Here we look back on some of the most memorable moments from the world of sport to take place on April 23.

 

1991: Borg way past his best on comeback

Having initially retired as an 11-time grand slam champion in 1984, Borg made his return to the tennis court, but was a shadow of his former self.

The 34-year-old proved too slow to compete with Jordi Arrese at the Monte Carlo Open, his Spanish opponent easing to a 6-2 6-3 win in just 78 minutes.

Borg went on to suffer first-round exits in 12 tournaments before putting the racquet down for good.

2005: Niners go with Smith over Rodgers

The San Francisco 49ers held the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and the sentimental choice was clear.

Quarterback Rodgers, a Northern California native who had starred across the bay from San Francisco in Berkeley for the California Golden Bears and grew up a 49ers fan, was among the cream of the crop.

However, instead of selecting Rodgers, the 49ers went with Utah quarterback Alex Smith, leading to a now-infamous draft-day slide.

Rodgers was eventually selected 24th overall by the Green Bay Packers and, as Smith experienced a rollercoaster career with the Niners, went on to establish himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.

He won a Super Bowl with Green Bay at the end of the 2010 season, but revenge over the Niners has not been forthcoming. Rodgers has faced the 49ers three times in the playoffs and lost on all three occasions, including in last season's NFC Championship game.

2013: Universe boss sends records world records tumbling

West Indies star Chris Gayle is famed for his explosive batting, and he delivered in record-breaking fashion seven years ago.

Playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League, Gayle struck an incredible unbeaten 175 against Pune Warriors.

Hitting 13 fours and a scarcely believable 17 sixes in a memorable 66-ball stay, Gayle set records for the fastest Twenty20 century and the highest T20 score of all time.

It truly was a day on which the self-titled 'Universe Boss' lived up to his moniker.

2019: Shane didn't need long to score

April 23, 2019 is a date Ledley King may want to forget, as the former Tottenham defender saw his record for the fastest Premier League goal broken by Shane Long.

The Southampton striker needed just 7.69 seconds to score in a 1-1 draw with Watford at Vicarage Road.

His effort was over two seconds quicker than King's, who netted for Spurs after 10 seconds against Bradford City back on December 9, 2000.

Jan Vertonghen said he wanted to learn another language as the Tottenham defender hinted at a move with his contract expiring at the end of the season.

Vertonghen, 32, has been linked with a move from Spurs, where he arrived from Ajax in 2012, with his deal coming to an end.

The Belgium international did not rule out staying at the Premier League club, but said Spain and Italy were options, with Inter reportedly interested in his services.

"I want to sign with the right club. That could be Tottenham, but also another club," Vertonghen told Play Sports Kot on Wednesday.

"In any case, it should be a club with ambition. And I want to keep playing in Europe because the national team is very important to me."

He added: "I would like to learn another language. Spain and Italy are options.

"The duration of the contract that is offered to me will also play a role."

The coronavirus pandemic is set to impact clubs financially and affect the transfer market.

But Vertonghen said the situation could help him, revealing there had been greater interest because of COVID-19.

"It may sound crazy, but there has been more interest since the corona crisis," he said.

"I'm a free transfer and some clubs may have a little less money to spend."

Luis Suarez showed "phenomenal" strength to recover from biting bans to become a Barcelona star, according to former Liverpool team-mate Charlie Adam.

Suarez has won 13 major trophies with Barca since moving from Liverpool in 2014, including the treble of LaLiga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League in his first season in Spain.

The Uruguay star secured a switch to Camp Nou after a stunning campaign in the Premier League in 2013-14, in which he scored 31 goals in 33 league games to win the European Golden Shoe and be crowned the PFA Players' Player of the Year and the Premier League Player of the Season.

Suarez could not make his Barca debut until October 25, though, after he was banned for four months by FIFA for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.

It was the third time in his career Suarez was found guilty of the offence, the player having bitten Otman Bakkal while playing for Ajax in 2010 and then Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea three years later, which saw him given a 10-game ban.

Adam, who was a team-mate of Suarez in his first season at Liverpool in 2011-12, says the way the forward has kicked on in his career is remarkable.

"He will have been disappointed at what had happened [his ban for biting], how he got involved in the situation, both situations, and how it occurred," Adam told Stats Perform.

"But the way he's bounced back from that mental toughness has been incredible. I still say he's one of the best number nines in the world where he could occupy a defence on his own.

"He's hungry to score goals, he's playing for one of the best teams in the world with the greatest player I've ever seen [Lionel Messi]. It's phenomenal to see that he's made that step up.

"It was crucial for him when he left Liverpool to go to Barcelona and everyone thought 'was he the right type of player for Barcelona?' but he's been phenomenal and I was grateful to be able to share the dressing room with him."

Adam has been hugely impressed with the link-up between Messi and Suarez at Barca, which has yielded four LaLiga titles in the past five seasons.

"The top players connect well. Even when Neymar was there, the three of them seemed to connect," said the Reading man. "There was no ego about any of the players, they wanted the best for the team and that's the important thing.

"You sort of saw it when they signed [Ousmane] Dembele. He was the other type of player that was all about him. When you're at Barcelona it's all only about one person and that's Lionel Messi. It's not being disrespectful, but you have to try and manipulate your game to suit him because he's the main man. But Dembele's not really gone there and expressed how Neymar did.

"Neymar knew that he wasn't going to be the main man at that time, but he got his head down, knuckled down and they had some great success together, the three of them."

Adam moved to Stoke City in 2012, where he played alongside former Barcelona forward Bojan Krkic and ex-Real Madrid man Jese Rodriguez.

Neither player was able to fulfil their promise with the Potters, with Bojan – whose best run of form was interrupted by a serious injury – now playing under Thierry Henry at MLS side Montreal Impact and Jese back with Sporting CP in Portugal, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain.

"Bojan was a player who came with the pedigree of where he'd played, Barcelona, he'd been at Roma and he'd been somewhere else [Ajax], and then he came to Stoke. And from day one he just hit the ground running, he was phenomenal," Adam recalled.

"On day one, you could see the talent he had. But most of all, he was a great guy. He was a great guy to have in the dressing room, always laughing and joking. But his mentality to work hard was incredible.

"The only thing about Bojan was when he got that knee injury, that was when his football went a different way. He had to change and adapt his game, he wasn't as sharp as he was but [he was] a phenomenal player.

"It's a shame to see an injury like that curtail someone's career because he could have been phenomenal for Stoke. I loved playing with him, I was playing that night against Rochdale [in an FA Cup match in January 2015] when he did his cruciate [ligament] and it was heartbreaking for the lads to see it because in the dressing room he was a great guy and it was disappointing for him.

"Jese was one where he came to the club from Real Madrid, he was the boy wonder at Real Madrid. He got that serious knee injury from that tackle with [Sead] Kolasinac [for Madrid against Schalke in 2014] and he ended up with a cruciate injury as well.

"He probably never fulfilled the potential or the career that he was going to have before that injury and that's what serious injuries do to you. For Jese, I think there was a lot of other things going on off the pitch, which probably never helped, and that was difficult.

"It was a strange one but, as a group of players, you've got to adapt and you've got to try your best but unfortunately, it never worked out for him."

Real Madrid star Gareth Bale still considers himself a Tottenham fan and was disappointed by their Champions League final heartbreak last June.

Wales forward Bale departed Spurs for the Santiago Bernabeu in a reported £86million deal in September 2013 and has gone on to win the Champions League four times, as well as a LaLiga title and Copa del Rey medal.

Bale has endured a tricky relationship with head coach Zinedine Zidane, though, and has often been linked with an exit, while a move to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning collapsed in July.

A return to Tottenham has also been mooted and Bale clearly still has love for the club he played for between 2007 and 2013, describing his sadness at their defeat to Liverpool in last season's European showpiece.

"Everybody loves tuning in to watch the Champions League final, and obviously Tottenham were there so I had a very keen interest, I was hoping they'd get to the final like they did," Bale told BT Sport. 

"They had some great matches on the way, obviously in the semi-final [against Ajax].

"For us Tottenham fans it was a bit disappointing in the final, but you have to look at the bigger picture. They did great to get there and gave a good account of themselves."

Bale has several Champions League moments to savour, including winning the trophy in Cardiff and scoring a wonderful overhead kick against Liverpool in the 2018 final in Kiev.

For Bale, though, scoring and beating Atletico Madrid to clinch La Decima six years ago remains his favourite.

"They all have their own special moments. The first one is always so special because I'd never won a trophy before and you don't know the experience, excitement and euphoria you get from lifting the trophy," he added.

"Winning in my home city was an incredible moment for me personally because not many people get to do that.

"Then the last final [against Liverpool] I played in I scored that goal and for it to be the winning goal was also special.

"It's difficult to pick one but in terms of the overall experience I'd go for the first one because it was the first final and I didn't expect what was coming, the nerves of it and how we won it in the last minute.

"The celebrations were something I'd never experienced before. Everything was just new, so it was really exciting and it made it so special."

Nearly all of European football remains suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic and Bale opened up on the tough lockdown measures in Spain.

He said: "It's quite a strict lockdown, we can't go out at all, can't go out for a walk or exercise or anything. It's very strict, but I guess we're all doing it for the greater good.

"Everyone wants to play football, but the most important thing is everyone stays safe, we don't come back too early and we make sure everything is done safely so we avoid the second wave of this virus.

"The difficult thing, you hear everyone saying they want to get the season finished and do this and that. But you need to look at the bigger picture, the most important thing is everyone's health.

"With football, everyone misses it and wants to play, everyone wants to watch.

"But the bigger picture is there will be many more seasons of football, Champions Leagues, leagues and cups, the important thing is getting this right now, if we can get that right, it'll make football last much longer in the future and we won't have a problem like this in the future."

Jurgen Klopp has fired a warning to rivals by insisting Liverpool are "not the finished article" and can still get better.

The Reds were 25 points clear of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, having played a game more, when the season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If 2019-20 can be completed, then Liverpool appear certain to claim their first top-flight title in 30 years and add to their substantial recent success under Klopp.

After losing the 2017-18 Champions League final, they lifted the trophy for the sixth time last year by beating Tottenham in the final in Madrid, before winning both the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup in 2019.

Klopp, however, insists there is room for improvement in a team who have lost just twice in the league since the beginning of last year.

The Liverpool manager told Sky Sports: "We will not change, that's the first thing, but whether we will be successful depends on what other clubs are doing as well because they have all the chance to improve things, do things better.

"So, I have no clue what the future will hold for us. But we will not change. This team is not the finished article, and we have a lot of space for improvement, and we work on that.

"We have fresh blood internally coming through. We can improve with this team, which is great."

Klopp, who took charge in October 2015, endured some disappointments at Anfield before finally landing his first trophy last year.

Liverpool lost the EFL Cup and Europa League finals in 2015-16 and were beaten by Real Madrid in the Champions League final in 2018.

Klopp, though, says he never felt under particular pressure from the Liverpool hierarchy.

"It was really clear we needed time," he said. "It was clear we cannot fix it overnight. Everyone wanted that, but we couldn't, so I had to ask for time. I knew.

"Before that, in my career, I never got the sack so I had no experience with that, but I knew then it was a different level, and if I can't deliver here quick enough, then I will get the sack.

"We got that time, and the nice thing is that after six, seven, eight games, they were really positive about the situation, they realised we were on the right path. From that moment they didn't question it one second. They were full of faith and trust, and they said the path we will stay on, and everything will be fine.

"That's what we did then. When we lost finals against Sevilla or City or Real Madrid, I think pundits say then, 'If he doesn't win the next one then they might change.' But internally it was never somebody thinking like this."

Qatar-based broadcaster beIN SPORTS has reportedly asked Premier League clubs to block the proposed takeover of Newcastle United.

The Magpies are said to be close to being sold to a sovereign wealth fund, which involves Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, for approximately £300million.

The deal will reportedly see the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia purchase an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle, who have been owned by retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley for the past 13 years.

The proposed sale of the club has attracted criticism from Amnesty International, which has expressed fears the Newcastle deal is being used as a means of "glamourising" the "abysmal" human rights record in the kingdom.

According to widespread reports in the UK media, beIN SPORTS has now urged Premier League clubs to oppose the takeover due to concerns raised around a pirate broadcasting network in which Saudi Arabia is allegedly involved.

The network, known as beoutQ, has been identified as an illegal pirate channel showing live sports events including Premier League matches in several Middle East territories.

In the letter, Yousef al-Obaidly, the chief executive of beIN SPORTS, reportedly told chairmen of Premier League clubs that "the potential acquirer of Newcastle United [has] caused huge damage to your clubs' and the Premier League's commercial revenues".

He is said to have added that the economic damage being wrought by the coronavirus pandemic means the beoutQ piracy is happening "at a time when football clubs need to protect their broadcast revenue the most".

In August 2018, the Premier League published an open letter condemning beoutQ and declaring beIN as the legitimate rights holder for the Premier League in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

It also confirmed it had appointed legal counsel in Saudi Arabia to bring action against the parties involved in the illegal broadcasting, which it described as "a highly sophisticated pirate operation".

A Premier League spokesperson also said: "The Premier League has written to the European Commission as part of the Sports Rights Owners Coalition. This is just one of the measures we are taking to address this very serious issue.

"We operate a significant anti-piracy programme in a range of countries to protect the copyright of the League and our clubs. Like all content creators and rights owners, our business model is predicated on the ability to market and sell protected rights and we will take all available action to support the investment made in the League by our legitimate broadcast partners."

Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan believes the enforced break in the Premier League could be beneficial for Leroy Sane.

Sane damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last August and was nearing a first-team return before the Premier League season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gundogan said he was sometimes training with Sane, 24, remotely and feels the attacker – who has been linked with a move to Bayern Munich – could be helped by the hiatus.

"We have the same fitness coach in Germany. Some days we do our exercises via FaceTime. It's worked out well so far and we're on it and trying to be very focused," he said, via the club's website.

"For everyone the situation has its good and bad sides. On one hand, Leroy had already trained with the team and he had his comeback in sight, even though he still had a few minor things.

"But he was almost back at playing again. Especially for your psyche, it's important to be able to play again after such a long time.

"On the other hand, he now has a bit more time to figure out those minor problems he still had. The fact that others can't play either is not so bad for him."

Gundogan, whose side were 25 points adrift of leaders Liverpool when play was halted, admitted it was at times tough to get motivated when training alone.

"I have a few things to do and then I'm ready to go," the Germany international said.

"To be honest, it's not so easy to motivate yourself these days every day when you are training. You know, like people who are working from home, you can maybe compare it to that.

"For those people it's also not the same as driving to work every day and then doing their jobs.

"You have to motivate yourself to do things and to do your work. Some days it's harder than others."

Chelsea are reportedly in talks with Barcelona over Philippe Coutinho, while Real Madrid are preparing a "grand revolution".

Coutinho is expected to leave Barca permanently this close season, with the playmaker on loan at Bayern Munich in 2019-20.

With a Premier League return touted for the former Liverpool star, it seems Coutinho is close to getting back to England.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA START COUTINHO TALKS

Chelsea have already started talks with Barcelona over Coutinho, according to Sport.

Bayern will reportedly not use their €120million purchase option on the Brazil international, opening the door for Chelsea.

Barcelona have set a starting price of €90m (£79.5m) for Coutinho, who joined the club from Liverpool for a reported initial fee of €118.8m (£105m).

 

ROUND-UP

- Real Madrid are preparing for a "grand revolution". The cover of Sport says president Florentino Perez is getting ready to make changes at Los Blancos, with Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and 14 players out on loan the main problems.

- With Newcastle United reportedly on the verge of a takeover, the Premier League side are being linked with a new manager. The Mirror says former Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino is among the top targets for the club once the sale is complete.

- Ashley Young has impressed at Inter. The Guardian claims Young, 34, will get a one-year extension at the Serie A club.

- Despite only arriving at Manchester United in June 2018, Diogo Dalot could be set for an exit. The Sun says United are willing to listen to offers for the 21-year-old Portuguese full-back.

- It seems Roma have received some good news. Corriere dello Sport reports Manchester United's Chris Smalling and Arsenal's Henrikh Mkhitaryan, will remain at the club on loan until the end of the season, even if it goes beyond June 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

- Cengiz Under could be on his way out of Roma. CalcioMercato reports Everton, Milan and Napoli are interested in Under and Roma may be willing to lower their initial demand of €40m.

Alex Ferguson and David Moyes will remember April 22 as significant days in their Manchester United managerial careers for vastly contrasting reasons.

While for Red Devils legend Ferguson it is a day that ensured he bowed out from the game as a winner, something he became very accustomed to being at Old Trafford, for Moyes it is a day where a prophecy went unfulfilled.

Lennox Lewis will want to remember the date about as much as Moyes, while Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne engaged in a memorable showdown.

Below we take a look back at some significant moments of sporting history on April 22.


2013 – Van Persie treble delivers one last title for Fergie

It was unbeknownst at the time but Robin van Persie's superb first-half hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa – including that volley from Wayne Rooney's assist – would take on extra significance.

The victory ensured United wrested the title back from rivals Manchester City, delivering a 13th Premier League trophy under Ferguson and a 20th top-flight triumph for the club overall.

Just over a couple of weeks later, Ferguson announced he would be stepping down after 26 glorious years that returned 38 trophies.

Ferguson is reported to have hand-picked Moyes personally as his successor, leading to him being dubbed the 'Chosen One' by the United faithful…

2014 – The 'Chosen One' done

Exactly a year later and the situation was worlds apart from the celebrations that saw United toast their latest title triumph.

Moyes was sacked just 10 months into a six-year contract with the champions, with United languishing down in seventh and guaranteed to record their lowest-ever points tally in the Premier League.

United particularly struggled at Old Trafford, so long a formidable fortress under Ferguson, while fans grew impatient with a docile style of play.

Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have been and gone without returning United to the top of the pile, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's experiment remains a work in progress.

2001 – Lewis shocked by underdog Rahman

Lennox Lewis was the overwhelming favourite for the 'Thunder in Africa' against 20-1 shot Hasim Rahman in South Africa back in 2001.

But in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history, Lewis was floored by a strong right in the fifth round leaving the Briton unable to answer the count and surrendering his WBC and IBF heavyweight belts.

By November of that year, Lewis – after some legal wrangling – had his rematch and regained the belts with a fourth-round knockout.

1998 – Tendulkar goes after Warne

The record books will show Australia victorious by 26 runs, with India falling short in a revised target.

But the match against India was remembered for one particular legend v legend moment between Warne and Tendulkar.

Tendulkar masterfully judged the flight of Warne's delivery, smothered the spin and with astounding speed whacked the ball into the billboards at long-on.

Warne wiped the sweat off his face, knowing the personal battle on that occasion was emphatically lost.

On this day seven years ago, Manchester United clinched their 20th top-flight title in England in Alex Ferguson's final season.

Robin van Persie's magical hat-trick at Old Trafford secured a 3-0 win over Aston Villa and ensured the Premier League trophy would be wrested from the grasp of Manchester City.

At the end of 2012-13, Ferguson was replaced by 'The Chosen One', David Moyes, who oversaw 34 league games before his six-year contract was terminated in ruthless fashion after a miserable defeat to old club Everton.

There have been ups and many more downs under Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since then, but there were signs United were finally back on track before the coronavirus pandemic brought football to a halt.

Still, as Opta data shows, Moyes' United of 2013-14 and Solskjaer's side of 2019-20 are not so different...

POINTS TO PROVE

United played 29 games this term before the season was paused, winning 12, drawing nine and losing eight. That left them on 45 points, at an average of 1.55 points per game.

Moyes lost 11 of his 34 league games in charge, but he did win exactly half of them - 17 - and averaged 1.68 points per game. That number is closer to Ferguson's side in 2012-13, who won 28 and lost only five league matches all season, taking 2.34 points from each game on average.

For good measure, Ryan Giggs won two of his four matches in charge after Moyes' exit, at an average of 1.75 points per game. His one defeat came at home to Sunderland.

OLE BEING BLUNTED

Solskjaer has been happy to embrace the demands of the United fan base when it comes to attacking football - but less so than Moyes, perhaps.

With 44 scored this term, United are averaging 1.5 goals per game, less than the 1.65 in 2013-14, when Moyes's side scored 56 times in 34 games.

That's not for want of trying. In 2019-20, United have attempted 429 shots, averaging 14.8 per game, a larger number than the 13.4 under Moyes. They have already had more shots on target this season (166) than they did under Moyes (161), despite playing five games fewer. In fact, their average of 5.7 shots on target per match is better than the 5.6 recorded in Ferguson's final season.

Why, then, is goalscoring a problem? Well, Solskjaer's men this season have converted only 10.3 per cent of their shots. Under Moyes, that rate was 12.25, and it was 15.3 in 2012-13.

Little wonder Solskjaer has asked his strikers to get some extra practice in during lockdown.

HARRY'S GOT HIS BACK

One thing about Solskjaer's United that is sometimes overlooked is that they seem to be growing more and more solid.

United conceded 40 goals in Moyes' 34 games in charge - that's 1.2 per match. In 2019-20, that number stands at a little over one per game. They have kept eight clean sheets this term, four down on Moyes' tally.

On average this season, United have faced 10.45 shots per game, well down on the 12.3 under Moyes and 12.8 in Ferguson's final term, when a leaky defence was generally bailed out by the Van Persie-inspired forward line. The shots-on-target numbers look slightly better, too: Solskjaer's side have faced 3.6 per game on average this season, lower than the figures under Moyes and Ferguson (3.9).

United's possession in 2019-20 is down a touch compared to 2013-14 and 2012-13 - 54 per cent on average, compared to 55 and 56 - showing they don't have to keep hold of the ball to stop shots coming in. Maybe that's to be expected for a team boasting £80million-man Harry Maguire at centre-back.

BIG-SIX APPEAL

The numbers seem to indicate there is not much to split Solskjaer in 2019-20 and Moyes in 2013-14 - so why is the Scot's season such a painful memory for fans, while the current boss has a fair bit of backing?

One reason is their respective record against the Premier League's so-called 'big six', which does not make for happy reading for Moyes.

In 10 games, Moyes managed just one win against those opponents - a 1-0 defeat of Arsenal at Old Trafford in November. He suffered six defeats, scoring just six goals and conceding 18, six of which came in back-to-back 3-0 losses at home to Liverpool and Manchester City.

Solskjaer, meanwhile, has something of a knack for beating the big guns. This season, United have won five and lost just two of their nine big-six meetings, scoring 14 goals and conceding just eight. That win percentage of 55.6 per cent is better than in Ferguson's last season in charge, when United won five from 10, lost three, scored 17 and conceded 15.

 

THE VERDICT:

It seems United are slightly better at defending and slightly worse at attacking now than they were under Moyes. However, given the deficit in shot conversion under Solskjaer, the signs show they are creating enough opportunities to score more goals and just need a cooler head up top to boost those key numbers. Perhaps that's where rumoured interest in Harry Kane comes in.

If they can become a bit more ruthless and keep up their formidable record against the stronger sides, United look to be heading for better times under Solskjaer. The same could not be said on April 22, 2014, when the Moyes era came crashing down.

West Ham and Crystal Palace's pre-season fixtures in Australia have been postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Premier League clubs and A-League outfit Brisbane Roar were due to play in Queensland in July ahead of the 2020-21 season.

However, those fixtures were unsurprisingly postponed on Wednesday due to COVID-19, which has killed more than 177,000 people worldwide.

"It is a real shame that we will no longer be able to make it over to Queensland this summer, however, it is the right decision to postpone given the circumstances," West Ham manager David Moyes said in a statement.

"The players and I were really looking forward to seeing our fans and the people of Australia, especially as there was great excitement and support for the tournament.

"This is a situation that has affected the entire world, though, and the only thing that matters at this time is that people stay safe and well.

"We hope the tournament can be rearranged at a later date once things are back to normal, and we look forward to visiting Australia in the future."

Australia has seen more than 6,600 coronavirus cases, including 74 deaths.

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