Bernardo Silva had just set up the opening goal for Manchester City with a sumptuous cross – a suggestion that last season's form might be starting to return.

But this was no time for the Portugal playmaker to rest on his laurels and he set about harassing Crystal Palace left-winger Jeffrey Schlupp, whose pass towards the danger zone where specialist centre-backs should reside was intercepted.

Rodri's outing in the heart of the City defence was unexpected and frequently uneasy during the early stages at Selhurst Park. A slip momentarily left Wilfried Zaha unattended before a rushed, hacked clearance went unpunished.

Pep Guardiola deployed his two defensive midfield commanders. Rodri and Fernandinho, in defence due to Nicolas Otamendi joining Aymeric Laporte in the treatment room and John Stones not yet being match fit following an ailment of his own. City entered the field eight points behind Liverpool in the title race, with the decision not to replace Vincent Kompany starting to look season defining.

But if being the last line of protection against attacks does not come naturally to Rodri, he specialises in starting them. His interception from Schlupp doubled as an expertly cushioned pass to David Silva and City were away.

Kompany's successor as club captain deposited the ball at Kevin De Bruyne's feet in unfussy, one-touch fashion. Where the 2-0 loss to Wolves played out under a fug of doubt and laboured decision making, the whirring cogs of Guardiola's machine were clicking into place.

De Bruyne promptly pushed down the accelerator, powering through midfield. The Belgium star, who did not start either of City's league defeats in the opening eight games, had already proved a menace to Palace. His twinkling triangle on the right flank alongside Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo providing a persistent first half threat.

A great gift of De Bruyne's, a player on record as saying her prefers assists to goals, is he knows when to slip from leading man to supporting character. He found the opening goalscorer Gabriel Jesus.

The Brazil striker's scruffy diving header a little over a minute earlier was his fifth in as many starts for City this season. But the presence on the bench of club-record goalscorer Sergio Aguero – a man not so clinical behind the wheel on the road to training going off this week's evidence – means Jesus must always strive, always prove himself and always make the decision to please his manager.

A pass to the buccaneering Benjamin Mendy was just that. Fit again, for now, the left-back and his ravaged knees provides Guardiola with an extra dimension he will need if a third Premier League title in succession can be achieved despite early arrears.

Mendy's touch was heavy but he was fortunate to see the ball fall to Raheem Sterling, Manchester City's sure thing.

Goals 12 and 13 of the season for club and country came as England routed Bulgaria in midweek, Sterling revelling in tormenting those who send vile abuse his way.

An inspirational figure with improvement still in him – as evidenced by a couple of second-half attempts against Palace – Sterling's chipped pass over the top of the home defence was a string on his bow drawing the sweetest sound.

It was a pass worthy of David Silva, who on this occasion watched the whole picture unfold and found himself on the end of it. For all their discomfort over the early weeks of this campaign, operating without their long-time creator and magician will really sting City this time next year.

His clinical over-the-shoulder volley through Wayne Hennessey's legs was equal to many of his finest moments over a wonderful decade in the Premier League and crowned a little masterpiece. 2-0 was enough for the three points.

Second-half wastefulness and Ederson's athletic stops from Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha showed City will have to be sharper in their next Premier League away game. That's at Anfield next month, but after talking about putting his players in the fridge over Christmas, Guardiola will have seen enough in a cool, calculated gem of a goal to suggest there is life in this title race.

Prior to the home game against Watford, Mauricio Pochettino had pointed to a dinner invite from his Tottenham players as an indication of their continued support.

The offer was less about attending his last supper and instead a sign they remained strong as a unit, determined to turn around a campaign that had started unravelling rapidly prior to the international break, according to the defiant Spurs boss.

Against the Hornets, there was certainly no sign of a lack of effort from the team. The problem was more to do with the lack of a cutting edge, culminating in a 1-1 draw that stops the rot but offers little in the way of long-term optimism.

The fixture list had seemingly served up an appetising offer for Spurs to move on quickly from back-to-back defeats earlier in the month, too. If the 7-2 result against Bayern Munich in the Champions League was a shock to the system, going down 3-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion was tough to digest. They were better on Saturday, admittedly, but then that was hardly a tough bar to clear.

Watford arrived bottom of the table and without a win to their name. On six previous Premier League trips to Spurs – albeit at differing venues from their opponents' impressive new home – they had failed to collect a solitary point.

Yet had it not been for a late mix-up between goalkeeper Ben Foster and substitute Kiko Femenia, the visitors may well have departed Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with all three.

Dele Alli capitalised on the gift to deliver a much-needed equaliser for Spurs. The goal was subsequently checked for handball, with VAR ruling the contact was high on his chest, rather than left arm. Even then there was further drama, the big screen displaying 'Decision No Goal' while the score read 1-1.

The confusion over their goal rather summed up Spurs' performance, though. They seemingly have all the required ingredients - remember they sprinkled in some new faces during the transfer window - but cannot quite find the recipe for success, particularly in attack.

Pochettino made seven changes to the starting XI – the most for the club between two Premier League games in a season – but saw the new-look line-up concede early, as was also the case against Brighton, in a listless first half.

Son Heung-min's half-time introduction added some much-needed life to proceedings, though they still required a helping hand – albeit not Alli's, according to VAR – for the equaliser.

Worryingly, Harry Kane had just 28 total touches in a game where his team enjoyed 69.6 per cent of possession. There were no shots on target either, as was also the case on that forgettable trip to the south coast a fortnight ago.

Goals are missing from the menu for Kane and Spurs in general - they have averaged one a game in their last six outings in all competition, and that includes an EFL Cup tie against League Two Colchester United.

"We're not panicking. We know the quality that we’ve got in this team, we believe in ourselves and the coaching staff are working hard every day. We’ve just got to make sure we show our character to get out of this patch we're in," Alli said to the club's website.

Spurs' determination to keep going against Watford suggests Pochettino was right to declare his squad remain firmly behind him.

Dinner may be a little more appetising for the Tottenham boss on Saturday night having avoided another embarrassing defeat, but a point against the competition's bottom side is still tough to stomach.

Callum Hudson-Odoi produced something on Saturday not seen at Stamford Bridge in seven years.

In his 92 minutes on the pitch, shortly before he was substituted to a rapturous reception, the winger created five goalscoring chances for the home side.

It made him the first teenager to create as many chances in a Premier League match for Chelsea since Romelu Lukaku in May 2012, when the Blues battled to a 2-1 win over Blackburn Rovers.

Hudson-Odoi was 11 at the time, four years short of his debut for the Under-18s, which highlights the impressive rise to prominence of a young player who is fast becoming the real star of Frank Lampard's Chelsea.

He missed the first six league games of the season as he worked his way back from a serious Achilles tendon injury. Chelsea won just two of those games, against Norwich City and Wolves.

In their three matches since, they have taken nine points, and Hudson-Odoi has provided three assists, the most recent a cushioned pass that allowed Marcos Alonso finally to find a way past the excellent Newcastle United goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. That made him the second youngest player in Premier League history – after Michael Owen – to set up goals in three successive games.

Lampard has won plaudits for a commitment to Chelsea's young English talent - even if his hand has been forced by the club's transfer ban - and Saturday's defeat of Newcastle saw them start five English players in a league game for the first time since February 2013. All of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Ross Barkley and Fikayo Tomori have repaid their boss' faith with performances that have helped Chelsea climb to third in the table since that opening-day 4-0 defeat to Manchester United.

It was Hudson-Odoi who stood out above the rest, though. Every touch near the packed Newcastle penalty area was assured, every pass intelligent and forward-thinking and, 80 per cent of the time, right on the mark. After they had been thwarted and frustrated for so long by Steve Bruce's men, Hudson-Odoi maintained composure to tee up Alonso for the breakthrough.

Chelsea are on a five-game winning run in all competitions and Hudson-Odoi has either scored or assisted a goal in each of them. Little wonder Chelsea fans were so relieved to see his proposed switch to Bayern Munich fall through at the beginning of this year. Lampard is cultivating a young, vibrant side and Hudson-Odoi is its undisputed creative heartbeat.

Antoine Griezmann's sense the pass from Clement Langlet would coming was intuitive, his run that caused Eibar defender Pablo De Blasis to panic and clumsily fall instinctive.

But then, reality and the weight of the moment briefly seemed to afflict Barcelona's €120m forward.

This was the second time Griezmann, again lining up in a left-sided attacking role that does not come naturally to him, had started a LaLiga match alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

All three were on the field for the final half hour of Barca's 0-0 Champions League draw at Borussia Dortmund, along with the second half of the 2-0 loss at Granada. On their previous starts together, Messi made it way halfway through a 2-1 win over Villarreal, while victory against Inter was only secured after Griezmann's withdrawal.

The former Atletico Madrid favourite was an unused substituted for the 4-0 win over Sevilla that preceded an international break when he failed to find the net for France. And, at Eibar's wonderfully idiosyncratic Ipurua home, the signs up until the 13th minute had not been great.

               **************************

Suarez is playing with a level of sharpness rarely spotted over the past 18 months, which is bad news for any designs Griezmann might have for operating in the middle of Barca's front three.

In the fifth minute of a lively opening to the contest, the Uruguay striker effortlessly spun Anaitz Arbilla to open up 45 yards of open space and possibilities, including Griezmann to his left.

Suarez instead opted for an audacious and poorly executed shot from a fanciful distance. Would a pass to Griezmann not have been a better option? True, an early dart from Barca's newest attacking recruit had already been headed off by Arbilla but it was hard to imagine seeing something so wild during the MSN days.

Messi. Suarez. Neymar. The trident to which the Blaugrana's latest all-star configuration is always likely to be compared. Messi has made no secret of the fact he wanted a reunion during the close season when it was clear Neymar's Parisian adventure had turned sour.

Three supreme soloists who slotted together irresistibly at their best. The clunk of Suarez swapping positions with Griezmann, only for Arthur's attempted pass to miss them both jarred by comparison.

                **************************

It is worth remembering it was not instantly all milk and honey for Barca's South American superstars in 2014-15.

While Griezmann, Messi and Suarez will be able to iron out the kinks for a few more weeks before meeting Real Madrid, following Friday's El Clasico postponement, MSN made their collective debut at the Santiago Bernabeu and lost 3-1.

Next time out, there was a 1-0 defeat to Celta Vigo. Only in their third game together, where a Messi brace sealed a 2-0 win over Ajax in Amsterdam, did things start to click.

They were in full flight by the turn of the year, their early struggles eventually a forgotten blemish upon a magnificent treble. Those are lofty standards for a signing whose worth has already been extensively disputed to live up to.

                ***************************

And so, with Arbilla helpfully on his backside, Griezmann came over somewhat jittery. His feet, not quite sorting themselves out the other side of an anxious glance backwards to locate the rest of the Eibar defence.

He dug out a left-footed finish that lacked conviction but ended up in the net via goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic and the inside of his post. Suarez was the first to embrace his team-mate. Job done. Relief palpable.

From that point, Artur, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets gradually drew the sting from Eibar before squeezing the life from them. After the interval, it was time for the headline acts to have some fun.

In the 58th minute, Suarez twisted in a tight spot inside the Eibar area and shifted the ball inside to Griezmann, who saw and heard Messi darting around him. A deft one-touch lay-off left the mercurial Argentine with a simple finish.

In the 66th minute, it was Messi's turn to leave it on a plate for Suarez, having raced clear onto a throughball from Griezmann, who often roved slightly deeper to fine effect after the break.

That was 3-0 and game over. There will be tougher tests of their newly established union, but MSG showed enough at Ipurua to make Spain and Europe take note.

In an interview with Omnisport last April, the great Brian O'Driscoll acknowledged Ireland would prefer the 2019 Rugby World Cup to be held 12 months earlier than scheduled.

How Joe Schmidt's men must have wished that had been the case on Saturday, as they suffered a humbling 46-14 defeat to a rampant New Zealand and exited the tournament at the quarter-final stage yet again.

In 2018, Ireland were almost unstoppable, racking up 11 wins from 12 Tests - including a Six Nations Grand Slam and an historic maiden home win over the All Blacks in November.

Their only defeat, at the hands of Australia in June, was swiftly avenged, as they followed up that loss in Brisbane with victories in Melbourne and Sydney to earn a first series victory in Australia since 1979.

Before that tour and the triumph over the All Blacks, though, O'Driscoll delivered an assessment that can now be viewed as startlingly prophetic. 

In the wake of Ireland's Grand Slam success, the former British and Irish Lions centre said: "Would we prefer to have the World Cup this September? Yes, we would, because of where we feel we're at versus the rest of the world.

"But 18 months is a long time in international rugby. It will give other teams an opportunity to build on the work they've done.

"South Africa won't be the side that they currently are in 18 months' time; they always get it together for a World Cup. France seem to be a side that will definitely improve. Wales have a lot of injuries [and will be stronger in future]. England are not going to be as disappointing as they were in this year's Six Nations.

"So there's lots of teams that have time to be able to right their wrongs in terms of recent form and make sure that they peak come Japan 2019."

Unfortunately for O'Driscoll and his countrymen, while several nations have improved significantly, Ireland's recent peak has undeniably passed.

A week on from last November's triumph over New Zealand, Ireland swept the major honours at the 2018 World Rugby awards, scooping the team of the year prize as Schmidt and Johnny Sexton were named coach of the year and player of the year respectively.

The following day, Schmidt announced his intention to stand down and end his coaching career after the World Cup. Ireland's fortunes have declined sharply ever since.

Defeats to England and Wales in this year's Six Nations saw the team finish third 12 months on from their Grand Slam glory.

If that represented a concerning dip, the alarm bells were certainly ringing by the time Schmidt's side were trounced 57-15 by England at Twickenham in August.

Skipper Rory Best said he and his team-mates were "nowhere near where we need to be", adding: "The only upside is that it is the middle of August not the middle of September."

Ireland won their remaining warm-up games against Wales and further much-needed optimism was provided when they recorded a comprehensive 27-3 win over Scotland in their opening Pool A fixture.

Yet it proved a false dawn.

A shock loss to hosts Japan six days on laid bare Ireland's issues once more and ultimately pressed Best and Co into the least enviable quarter-final slot, as opponents of the All Blacks.

Had the game taken place in 2018, Ireland would surely have fancied their chances.

Instead, this contest felt like a foregone conclusion from the outset and so it proved as a glittering era under Schmidt came to a painful end.

Thank goodness that's over, and Michael Cheika can get back to just being a "good old mate" of Eddie Jones again.

How it must have pained the old scrum colleagues from their Randwick days to be jostling against each other at a Rugby World Cup.

From being on the same side, dressing-room besties in the 1980s, to being sworn enemies at least for a week. It can't be good for anybody's health.

It sure as hell looked like being a grim state of affairs for Cheika, who whenever the television cameras honed in on him in the stands at Oita Stadium, looked to be living out a personal nightmare.

A thump of the desk here, a look of desperation there. Surely he'll be on his way to pastures new once the dust settles on this thumping 40-16 England victory over Australia.

He dramatically called for "compassion" from a journalist after the match, when asked if he would be moving on.

But the Wallabies are going home. They have lost seven straight games to England. Cheika's contract is up. You do the maths.

"I was supposed to get this done for the people here and for Australians. I'm so disappointed," Cheika said, seemingly close to tears.

Cheika clobbered the table in front of him early in the game after Australia gave away a scrum inside their own 22, and five minutes later his team were two tries behind, the estimable Jonny May marking his 50th cap with a double.

As Brexit debating went into overdrive in the UK Parliament, England certainly needed no left-wing amendment. They were happy, too, for this particular May to crack on with getting a deal done.

The Leicester flyer dashed in by the corner flag both times, firstly from close range after a patient build-up and on the second occasion when David Pocock handed over possession and Henry Slade charged from midfield before kicking through for England's bolting number 11 to gather.

Australia had an 11 who could dash for the line too, and when Marika Koroibete took advantage of tremendous work from Reece Hodge and Jordan Petaia to bound down the left for a try that Christian Lealiifano converted, it was a one-point game early in the second half. Hope for Cheika and his men, but not for long.

Prop Kyle Sinckler exploited a gap in Australia's defence to trundle through for a swift riposte, and Australia were then booted out of the game by the outstanding kicking game of England captain Owen Farrell. Anthony Watson piled on the agony with another try. Mercifully the TV cameras allowed Cheika to wallow in private grief this time.

With Jones and Cheika, there was a sense of soap-opera histrionics about their pre-match sparring, the possibility that this apparent long-standing great friendship - Jones described Cheika as "my good old mate" ahead of this game - may not be quite all it was cracked up to be.

Australians have made a roaring trade from exporting soap operas for global consumption, of course, and it was no great stretch to imagine Jones and Cheika squabbling over day-to-day mundanities in, say, the long-running Neighbours saga.

Mulish to a fault, you could equate them to that garrulous hepcat Lou Carpenter and Salvation Army field marshal Harold Bishop, long-time "good old mates" whose own friendship was put under intense pressure by another rivalry for the ages.

Just as Carpenter and Bishop fought tooth, nail and tuba solo for the affections of Madge Ramsey, so there was one thing standing between Jones and Cheika’s old pals' act on Saturday: it was a day to go hard or go home.

Erstwhile team-mates, Cheika had a beef this week about Jones bringing Aussie Ricky Stuart into the England camp over the past week. Why, Cheika seemed to question, are so many leading Australian coaches working with England teams, whether in rugby, cricket, indeed anywhere across the sporting spectrum?

The swaggering, wily Jones had struck another blow at the heart of Australia. Cheika was rattled by the master wind-up merchant, ensnared by another supremely executed trap.

The irony amid Australian post-match hand-wringing is that Jones is fancied in some quarters to take over from Cheika for what would be a second stint with the Wallabies. He was described as "the obvious solution" - as well as an "arch little pinprick" - in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial on Saturday morning.

Jones has often said he fancies retiring to Barbados once his time with England is up, yet he said the same during his Japan tenure.

The reality is that he lives for days such as this.

Australia need the sort of rebuilding job England faced after the last World Cup. They have lost to England and Wales, where four years ago hosts England were beaten by Australia and Wales.

Whether Australia could tempt 59-year-old Jones again is a different question. They need him surely more than he needs them.

With a Cheshire cat grin for the cameras and a brief pat on the back for Cheika, Jones is all about England for now as he turns his focus to Yokohama and a semi-final next Saturday, another coach and another team in his sights.

Such was the scale of Japan's Rugby World Cup victory over South Africa four years ago, they made a movie - 'The Brighton Miracle' - to commemorate one of the great sporting upsets.

There will surely be a sequel on the way after this year's Brave Blossoms reached the quarter-finals for the first time by beating Scotland, and box-office sales could soar through the roof if history repeats itself on Sunday when they face the Springboks again.

South Africa will start the last-eight contest as overwhelming favourites to gain revenge, with their star-studded cast including Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Japan also have no shortage of talent to play leading roles and will be backed by a raucous crowd when they attempt to break new ground once again on home soil.

As the Boks plot to spoil the party for their hosts, we reflect on how Japan pulled off a monumental shock at the last World Cup in England, as well as looking at the prospects of lightning striking twice.

 

Hesketh and Goromaru rock Boks

Japan were not given a prayer in the opening Pool B match given Zimbabwe were the only team they had previously beaten in a World Cup match – and that win was way back in 1991.

Yet Eddie Jones' side humiliated a vastly experienced Springboks team with their exciting brand of rugby, coming from behind to secure the most dramatic and unlikely of victories.

Karne Hesketh crossed right at the death and Ayumu Goromaru claimed a 24-point haul to leave the two-time champions not knowing what had hit them following a 34-32 loss.

 

Meyer fronts up to 'Boklash'

Heyneke Meyer came under fire after his side lost the plot and rampant Japan made them pay.

The then-head South Africa coach said: "I have to apologise to the nation. It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility.

"Every game is going to be tough but there are no excuses."

 

Jones: I had to look at the scoreboard

Jones, who landed the England job after his success with Japan in 2015, was pinching himself after the underdogs snatched victory with their last throw of the dice. 

The Australian said: "Japan beating South Africa? I had to look at the scoreboard at the end just to see if it was true or not. We kept hanging in there. It looked at one stage when they got seven points ahead that they would run away with it.

"That would have been the normal scenario, like the horror story where the woman goes for a shower after midnight and you know what's going to happen. Normally they would score three or four, it ends up 50-20 and everyone says, 'Well done Japan, you tried hard, you were brave'. But we were more than brave."

 

What happened next?

Jones said the objective for Japan was to go on and reach the quarter-finals after downing the two-time champions, but they fell agonisingly short.

A heavy defeat to Scotland turned out to be crucial as Japan finished third in Pool B after failing to pick up any bonus points.

South Africa, Scotland and the Brave Blossoms all won three and lost one of their four games, but it was Japan who missed out.

 

Hope springs eternal for revenge-seeking Boks

Although Japan are riding on the crest of a wave as they prepare for their first World Cup knockout match, South Africa have looked formidable despite making a losing start against New Zealand.

Potent in attack and solid in defence, the Springboks have turned their fortunes around under Rassie Erasmus and dethroned the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship.

They also hammered Japan 41-7 in a pre-tournament warm-up match and is it hard to envisage them suffering another upset at the hands of their next opponents.

The MLS playoffs are here once more.

Los Angeles FC cruised to the Supporters' Shield title, but the path to MLS Cup glory is far from straightforward even for the league's outstanding team.

Since 2011, only Toronto FC have successfully followed up a regular season championship by conquering the postseason.

Will LAFC join them, or can Bob Bradley's men be stopped? We take a look at the key issues surrounding the leading contenders heading into the playoffs.
 

ARE LAFC AND CARLOS VELA THE BEST EVER?

The above statistic may make for uncomfortable reading for Shield winners LAFC, but no past regular-season champions have been able to match the standards set by Bradley's side.

Toronto broke a points record that had stood for 19 years when they earned 69 in 2017, yet the New York Red Bulls bettered that last year and the new benchmark of 71 was topped once more by LAFC, a late-season slump merely limiting the runaway leaders to 72 points.

Carlos Vela was key to the team's achievements this year and any side hoping to stop LAFC must somehow master the Mexican. He scored a record 34 goals, including a final-day hat-trick, and will aim to echo Josef Martinez, the previous record-holder in 2018, by making his mark in the coming weeks.
 

CAN ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC AND THE GALAXY STOP THEIR RIVALS?

Having missed out on the postseason last year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was rather bold - perhaps unsurprisingly - as he slammed the playoff structure in MLS earlier this term, believing it provides excuses for players not to deliver all year round.

The Swedish superstar has at least followed up those words by guiding LA Galaxy to the playoffs this time, while seemingly on a personal crusade to prove he is the greatest player in league history - sparking a rivalry with Vela.

Galaxy's style of play has not been particularly pretty since trading a potentially smart newly built side for long-ball-to-Zlatan early last year, but it has proved effective on occasion. Notably, LAFC still have not beaten their neighbours in five attempts and might fear another meeting.
 

HAVE NYCFC GOT WHAT IT TAKES WITHOUT BIG NAMES?

New York City made a big bang when they arrived in MLS, signing David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, but their star power counted for little in a desperate first season.

Club icon Villa then led NYCFC to the Eastern Conference semi-finals in three straight seasons, before departing at the end of 2018 with the team struggling to recreate the high level of performances under Patrick Vieira with new coach Domenec Torrent.

However, Torrent has got the Bronx outfit playing some of the best football in MLS this season, all without a standout star. The supposedly more modest talents of Anton Tinnerholm, Maxi Moralez, Alexandru Mitrita and Heber, among others, have fired City to the top of the conference, but the playoffs are a different beast.
 

IS THERE LIFE LEFT IN DEFENDING CHAMPS ATLANTA YET?

Despite failing to win the Shield, Atlanta United's class of 2018 might still have a case for being the best team in league history for the timebeing, but they then lost inspirational coach Tata Martino and star playmaker Miguel Almiron after MLS Cup.

Frank de Boer arrived and his infamously unconvincing record outside of Ajax looked set to continue early on, until a string of clean sheets steadied the ship. Even then, it took Martinez's sensational 15-game scoring streak to secure a comfortable playoff spot.

Pity Martinez has not really convinced and a late-season injury for Josef means Atlanta's preparation for their postseason title defence has not entirely gone to plan.
 

THE BEST OF THE REST...

Minnesota United have been a surprise package this year, having added experience last offseason, but a title push is surely beyond them. Rivals Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers both have experience of success at this time of year, however.

In the East, Wayne Rooney will hope to leave DC United on a high but the signs have not been promising late in the campaign. Philadelphia Union have impressed, while Toronto still have a very strong side on paper.

When Manchester United forked out a reported £80million to sign Harry Maguire, the comparisons to Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk started almost immediately.

Van Dijk has been credited as one of the best signings of Jurgen Klopp's tenure, with the Reds becoming Champions League winners and genuine Premier League title contenders with the towering centre-back at the heart of their defence.

The arrival of Maguire, whose breakout performances for Leicester City in the 2017-18 campaign coincided with Van Dijk's switch to Anfield, was supposed to have a similar effect on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Red Devils.

United have struggled badly for form this season, though, and the pressure is on the team and Solskjaer to deliver a performance against the table-topping Reds, who have won eight from eight in the Premier League this term.

Ahead of Sunday's clash at Old Trafford, Omnisport has crunched the Opta numbers behind Van Dijk and Maguire's statistics dating back to the former's move to Liverpool in January 2018.


VIRGIL'S A WINNING MACHINE

Prior to Van Dijk's arrival, pundits and fans alike were calling for Klopp to sign a commanding centre-back. Many baulked at the reported £75m Liverpool paid Southampton for his signature, but that fee looks a snip when you look at the impact Van Dijk's arrival has had. He has played in 60 Premier League games since signing, winning 45 of those and losing just four – giving him an astounding win percentage of 75. In the same time period, Maguire has played fewer matches – 56 – winning 19 and losing 25, with a win percentage of 34.


NONE SHALL PASS!

Earlier in the season, much was made of Van Dijk's astonishing run of Premier League games without being dribbled past. Arsenal's Nicolas Pepe eventually ended a stretch of 50 dating back to March 2018 and incredibly it has happened just three times to Van Dijk since January of the same year. Maguire has been caught on his heels nine times in the same period, but both players are remarkably consistent when it comes to errors leading to goals – each committing just one gaffe that resulted in the ball rattling the back of the net.


CLEAN SHEETS AND A CLEANER DISCLIPINARY RECORD FOR VAN DIJK

One statistic that really does leap out is Van Dijk's exemplary record when it comes to receiving yellow cards. Incredibly for a centre-back, he has been cautioned just twice since January 2018 and is yet to see red in the Premier League for Liverpool. Conversely, Maguire has 10 yellows and one red in the same period. Van Dijk is just shy of clean sheets in half of his games, keeping shut outs in 29 of 60 matches – with Maguire having 13 in 56. Teams Maguire has played in have also conceded double the amount those including Van Dijk have, 76 to 38. At the other end, each player has contributed but Van Dijk also holds the advantage in that regard with five goals and two assists to Maguire's respective three and zero.


HOW'S THIS SEASON SHAPING UP?

As you would expect, Van Dijk's numbers in the early stages of the Premier League campaign are pretty impressive. He has a flawless win percentage through eight games, although he has conceded in six of those. Encouragingly for Maguire and United, while the team are struggling his statistics compare pretty well to Van Dijk's with as many clean sheets and just two more goals conceded. Maguire has also only been dribbled past once compared to Van Dijk's two, while neither player has yet committed an error leading to a goal or even a shot.

Manchester United welcome Liverpool to Old Trafford on Sunday, with the great rivals separated by a mammoth gap after hugely contrasting starts to the season.

Unbeaten Liverpool have pulled away from United in recent times and are 15 points ahead of the Red Devils after the opening eight games.

Back in 2014, Liverpool finished the season with a 20-point advantage over United as they came second behind Manchester City in an engrossing title race.

Liverpool's superiority has been even more keenly felt this year and in the 2018-19 season they ended 31 points clear of United, with their squad set up to contend domestically and in the Champions League in the current campaign.

United, meanwhile, appear desperately short on the quality needed to challenge on any front.

How did the chasm between these two giants of English football become so vast? We look back at the ins and outs over the past five years for an insight into how United and Liverpool ended up so far apart.

2014-15

Manchester United

In: Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Radamel Falcao (loan)

Out: Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck

Liverpool

In: Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Emre Can, Lazar Markovic, Dejan Lovren, Divock Origi, Alberto Moreno, Mario Balotelli, Javier Manquillo (loan)

Out: Luis Suarez, Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Suso

League finish: United (4th), Liverpool (6th) - After going agonisingly close to ending a tortuous wait for a first league title since 1990, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool went backwards after a transfer window filled with missteps. Lallana, Lovren and Origi remain at the club, with the latter scoring in last season's Champions League final win, but their first season saw a Liverpool side shorn of Suarez overtaken by a United team that finished in the top four despite Louis van Gaal failing to get the best out of Di Maria and Falcao.

2015-16

Manchester United

In: Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Sergio Romero, Anthony Martial

Out: Tom Cleverley, Nani, Robin van Persie, Rafael, Angel Di Maria, Jonny Evans, Javier Hernandez

Liverpool

In: Joe Gomez, James Milner, Danny Ings, Roberto Firmino, Nathaniel Clyne, Christian Benteke, Marko Grujic (January)

Out: Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Rickie Lambert, Fabio Borini, Sebastian Coates, Iago Aspas

League finish: United (5th), Liverpool (8th) - Rodgers only lasted until October as Liverpool's new recruits struggled to make an immediate impact, with the void left by Sterling proving telling before Klopp came in to steady the ship. He led Liverpool to the final of the League Cup and the Europa League while Van Gaal finished his tenure with an FA Cup triumph, the only success of a stint in which his style of football was continually maligned despite the arrival of more big names at Old Trafford. The struggles of both clubs were overshadowed by Leicester City's remarkable season that ended with the Foxes winning the league.

2016-17

Manchester United

In: Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba

Out: Victor Valdes, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay (both January), Bastian Schweinsteiger (March)

Liverpool

In: Joel Matip, Loris Karius, Sadio Mane, Ragnar Klavan, Georginio Wijnaldum

Out: Jose Enrique, Martin Skrtel, Jordon Ibe, Joe Allen, Christian Benteke, Mario Balotelli

League finish: United (6th), Liverpool (4th) - Klopp recently hailed the signing of Matip as one of the best pieces of business Liverpool have done in recent years and, along with Mane at the other end, was instrumental in securing a top-four finish for Klopp's side. The return of Pogba, for whom United paid a then world-record fee of €105million (£89.3m), and the appointment of Jose Mourinho did not inspire the Red Devils in the league but their success in the Europa League made sure of a place in the Champions League.

2017-18

Manchester United

In: Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic, Alexis Sanchez (January)

Out: Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (January)

Liverpool

In: Mohamed Salah, Dominic Solanke, Andy Robertson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Virgil van Dijk (January)

Out: Lucas Leiva, Mamadou Sakho, Philippe Coutinho (January)

League finish: United (2nd), Liverpool (4th) - Mourinho described his second-placed finish with United's 2017-18 vintage as "one of the best jobs of his career", so low was the Portuguese's opinion of his squad. Given the divergent paths of the two teams since, there appears to be significant credence to his argument. Salah, having failed to make the grade at Chelsea, fired in 44 goals in all competitions for Liverpool, whose astute signings of Robertson and later Van Dijk helped turn their defence into one of the best in Europe. They progressed to the Champions League final despite the loss of Coutinho to Barcelona but were beaten 3-1 by Real Madrid in a controversial clash defined by goalkeeping errors that forced Liverpool's hand in the subsequent transfer window.

2018-19

Manchester United

In : Diogo Dalot, Fred, Lee Grant

Out : Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Marouane Fellaini (February)

Liverpool

In: Naby Keita, Fabinho, Xherdan Shaqiri, Alisson

Out: Emre Can, Ragnar Klavan, Dominic Solanke, Lazar Markovic

League finish : United (6th), Liverpool (2nd) - Mourinho continually expressed his discontent at United's business in the window prior to the 2018-19 season, in which he only lasted until December as they endured a dreadful first half of the season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer inspired an upturn in fortunes, but they still finished well adrift of the top two as, five years on from Rodgers' near-miss, City again held off Liverpool. Keita, Fabinho and Shaqiri, who scored twice in the 3-0 win over United that ended Mourinho's tenure, proved superb additions to the midfield, while the signing of Alisson helped Liverpool keep 21 clean sheets in the league as Mane and Salah ran riot at the other end. That they missed out on the title with 97 points will continue to astonish, but they made no mistake in the Champions League final, winning a sixth European crown by defeating Tottenham.

2019-20

Manchester United

In: Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire

Out: Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia, Romelu Lukaku, Matteo Darmian

Liverpool

In: Harvey Elliott, Adrian, Andy Lonergan

Out: Daniel Sturridge, Alberto Moreno, Danny Ings, Simon Mignolet

League position: United (12th), Liverpool (1st) - Liverpool added little to last season's squad but they have picked up where they left off, winning all of their eight league games to take an eight-point lead over City into this weekend's clash. The contrast to United is substantial. Solskjaer's men, despite adding a trio of bright talents, have endured their worst start to a Premier League season, with the 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United last time out ratcheting up the scrutiny on the Norwegian.

The Rugby World Cup enters the knockout phase this weekend, with Ireland looking to finally reach a semi-final and Japan bidding to cause another upset.

Joe Schmidt's team may have beaten two-time reigning champions New Zealand in two of their previous three meetings, but Ireland have a rotten record in World Cup quarter-finals.

Hosts Japan face South Africa – the team they stunned in the pool stage four years ago – in their first World Cup quarter-final, while Wales meet France and England take on an Australia side they have an excellent recent record against.

Here, we take a look at the Opta data for the four quarter-final clashes.

 

England v Australia

6 - England have dominated the Wallabies of late, winning each of their previous half a dozen meetings since Australian Eddie Jones was hired as head coach in 2015.

7 - No player won more turnovers than Maro Itoje's seven in the pool stage and the England forward only featured in two of his team's three matches.

29 - Jones' side averaged 29 kicks in play per game during the pool stage – the most of any team – while Australia, with 13, averaged the fewest.

New Zealand v Ireland

7 - Ireland are in their seventh World Cup quarter-final and have lost all of their previous six matches at this stage – the joint most last-eight losses, along with Scotland.

17 - The All Blacks have won a record 17 consecutive World Cup games coming into this encounter – a run that dates back to a quarter-final defeat to France in 2007.

29 - New Zealand have scored a try in each of their last 29 World Cup matches, last failing to do so in 2003.

Wales v France

8 - In the eight meetings between these two nations since Les Bleus beat Wales in the 2011 World Cup semi-finals, Warren Gatland's team have won seven times. Only the All Blacks have beaten France more often in that span (10 times).

4 - Wales won all four of their pool-stage matches for the first time since 1987. They have never won five World Cup games in a row.

6 - Since the start of 2018, France have lost six Tests in which they have been leading at half-time – the most such defeats of any side in that time. One of those came against Wales when they were 16 points ahead at the interval.

Japan v South Africa

3 - Japan's 34-32 victory over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup was their first over a Tier One nation. Since then they have won two of their three games against such opponents, beating Ireland and Scotland in this tournament.

5 - Kotaro Matsushima is one of the leading try-scorers at this World Cup, along with Wales wing Josh Adams, having crossed five times.

47 - The Springboks won 47 out of 47 lineouts on their own throw in the pool stage, the only side in the tournament to maintain a 100 per cent success rate.

Liverpool could equal an English top-flight record in grand fashion when their title assault takes them to a wounded Manchester United on Sunday.

The Premier League leaders are sure to target three points knowing victory against their bitter rivals would be the perfect way to level Manchester City's benchmark of 18 consecutive wins at this level.

Recent trips to Old Trafford have not been particularly profitable but the Red Devils, beaten 1-0 by Newcastle United last time out, look to be little more than a mid-table outfit at present.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men will not have won a match inside 90 minutes for a month in all competitions by the time the game kicks off, and the expected absence of David de Gea presents a further hurdle.

 

POTENTIAL BREAKTHROUGHS FOR KLOPP AND SALAH

Liverpool have won five Premier League matches at Old Trafford but none under Jurgen Klopp.

The German's three draws and single defeat in four attempts add up to his longest winless streak in away games against a Premier League opponent.

He might never have a better opportunity to halt the trend.

United are lurching from one bitter blow to another and have laboured in home games against Crystal Palace, Astana, Rochdale and Arsenal this season, losing to the Eagles.

Those subpar showings, coupled with Liverpool's own outstanding form, will have Klopp's men supremely confident of delivering victory for their manager.

But with the missed chance of last season's 0-0 draw still fresh in the memory, there will be pressure on the visitors to take the initiative in attack.

Mohamed Salah, who is recovering from an ankle injury, will hope to be fit as he, like Klopp, has something to prove in this fixture.

Though prolific since his arrival on Merseyside, the Egyptian has failed to either score or assist a single goal in each of his four Premier League appearances against United.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: SCOTT MCTOMINAY V FABINHO

Scott McTominay this week shared insights into his warm relationship with Jose Mourinho, and the Scotland international will hope to make his former manager proud in a key battle.

His opposite number, Fabinho, provides just the kind of shield United's defence will need if Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are to be kept quiet.

Liverpool's midfield anchor has won 12 tackles this term, five more than McTominay, at a success rate of 60 per cent.

McTominay's tackle success rate, at 44 per cent, is less impressive and, while the 22-year-old has certainly been one of United's best performers this season, his numbers lag behind Fabinho's in several departments.

The Brazilian has created three more scoring chances in 61 fewer minutes on the pitch and his passing accuracy of 87 per cent is comfortably superior to McTominay's 81 per cent.

FORM GUIDE

Liverpool's long Premier League winning streak dates back to March and includes away wins over Southampton, Burnley, Chelsea and Sheffield United this season.

James Milner's last-gasp penalty kept the run alive in a hard-earned 2-1 triumph over Leicester City at Anfield before the international break.

United, meanwhile, are searching for answers following a string of lacklustre performances since outmuscling Chelsea on the opening weekend.

The four goals scored that day hinted at a bright future but United have failed to net more than once in any of their subsequent 10 matches in all competitions.

HISTORY SAYS…

Victory will not come easily for Liverpool, who have not travelled to Old Trafford while top of the table since October 1996.

On that occasion, a David Beckham goal gave United a 1-0 win.

Results more recently have been similarly close, with four of the past six Premier League meetings ending level.

Liverpool, the heavy favourites, must snap a five-match winless streak in away games against United in order to preserve their perfect start in the league.

On October 16, 2004, Lionel Messi got his first taste of competitive senior football for Barcelona, coming on as a substitute for Deco against city rivals Espanyol.

Few watching at the time could have imagined quite what was to come from the Argentinian maestro, who has gone on to become arguably the greatest player of all time.

Messi's influence at Barca has become unrivalled, scoring 604 times to become their all-time leading scorer.

Fittingly, the 15th anniversary of his Barca debut comes on the same day he was presented with the European Golden Shoe for last season, and we have looked back at 10 of his very best goals in action for Barcelona.

Albacete (H): May 1, 2005

Even at 17, Messi had the confidence of a veteran. Having already had one goal wrongly ruled out for offside - an audacious chip from the edge of the box - Messi's focus was far from knocked and just a minute later he latched onto Ronaldinho's scooped pass before lobbing the ball over Albacete stopper Raul Valbuena from 16 yards. Some way to open your account for one of Europe's great clubs.

Getafe (H): April 18, 2007

In the 14 years since Messi first got on the scoresheet, one strike stands out as the best: his Diego Maradona-esque solo goal against Getafe. Messi picked up the ball in his own half and danced around two players before turning on the pace, beating two more defenders and going around the goalkeeper, capping it with a right-footed finish.

Real Zaragoza (A): March 21, 2010

Described by some as 'a defining goal' in his career, Messi's strike against Real Zaragoza seemed to take him from 'very good' into another class entirely. Messi displayed all he had to offer in this goal, which began when he won the ball from a tackle on halfway. From there, he shrugged off one challenge, raced towards the box and turned a defender inside out before drilling the ball into the far corner, leaving coach Pep Guardiola speechless.

Athletic Bilbao (A): April 27, 2013

Barca were in the midst of a Champions League semi-final shellacking from Bayern Munich when they arrived at San Mames. A goal down in a match that would eventually finish 2-2, Messi received possession from Thiago Alcantara, twisted past Mikel San Jose, Carlos Gurpegui and Ander Herrera with minimal space in which to operate before nonchalantly sidefooting home from just inside the penalty area.

Cordoba (H): December 20, 2014

Messi rounded off a 5-0 procession at Camp Nou with a frankly absurd piece of technique. Cordoba defender Jose Angel Crespo made glancing headed contact with Jordi Alba's searching cross from the left that might ordinarily have averted danger. But Barca's star man pulled the ball down with his left foot, swivelled 180 degrees and crashed right footed past Juan Carlos at the goalkeeper's near post.

Bayern Munich (H): May 6, 2015

Having already opened the scoring three minutes earlier to give Barca a 1-0 advantage over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, Messi doubled his tally with a sumptuous effort. Ivan Rakitic's pass sent Messi on his way, before the little maestro's trickery put Jerome Boateng on his backside and allowed the Argentine to casually lift the ball over the onrushing Manuel Neuer.

Athletic Bilbao (N): May 30, 2015

The second part of a treble-winning season for Barca came in the form of the Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao. With 20 minutes gone and the score deadlocked, Messi set off on a marauding run down the right wing and soon found himself trapped among three defenders. Naturally, Messi was able to float past the trio as if they were not there, before cutting into the box and beating Iago Herrerin at his near post.

Real Madrid (A): April 23, 2017

El Clasico rarely disappoints for football fans around the globe, and this edition was no different. Anything but a win would essentially hand Real Madrid the title and it looked to be headed for a 2-2 draw until Sergi Roberto's swashbuckling run in the 92nd minute gave Jordi Alba the chance to square it to Messi, who finished with aplomb from the edge of the area for his 500th Barcelona goal.

Real Sociedad (A): January 18, 2018

Over the past few years, Messi has really mastered the art of free-kick taking, with the skill being one of few to elude him in his younger days. This strike in a 4-2 LaLiga triumph at La Real last January showed just how far he has come, as he lined up a set-piece about 35 yards from goal and coolly curled it into the top-left corner, wrapping up victory for Barca, who had fallen 2-0 behind. 

Real Betis – March 17, 2019

We have become so accustomed to Messi's brilliance that he makes the extraordinary seem normal, but his hat-trick clincher in March's 4-1 win at Real Betis was pure genius. After receiving a cut-back from Ivan Rakitic, he caressed a first-time chipped effort over Pau Lopez and in off the crossbar from about 18 yards when shooting through a crowded penalty area looked an impossibility.

Manchester City's title defence has not started according to plan, with the champions already trailing Liverpool by eight points.

Jurgen Klopp's side have won eight from eight in the Premier League, while City headed into the international break on the back of a surprise home defeat to Wolves.

For Pep Guardiola, City's defence has to be a huge concern, even though the former Barcelona boss has insisted the club will not be looking to replace the injured Aymeric Laporte in January.

Laporte is set to miss the majority of the season after sustaining an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury in August, while Vincent Kompany has left a sizeable void in City's defence.

Nicolas Otamendi has been largely unconvincing, while John Stones has his own injury problems and Fernandinho – arguably the Premier League's best defensive midfielder – has had to fill in at the back.

Ahead of Saturday's trip to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace, we use Opta data to assess how Guardiola can patch up City's struggling defence.

 

RELIANCE ON OTAMENDI A CAUSE FOR CONCERN

Guardiola has not been helped by a spate of bad luck with injuries, especially with Laporte, who has been mightily impressive since his arrival from Athletic Bilbao in January 2018.

Stones, meanwhile, has been in and out of the side due to both injuries and form, with Kompany preferred for the run-in last season. Otamendi looked set to join Kompany in leaving the club in the off season, though has been a mainstay of City's back line, making seven league appearances and two more in the Champions League. 

The Argentine does boast a passing accuracy of 92.52 per cent, which is higher than Fernandinho or Laporte, while he has also lost possession 148 times fewer than the Frenchman.

While Otamendi has only featured in 25 Premier League matches since the start of last season, he does have a higher tackle, duel and aerial duel success rate than Laporte and only conceded 16 fouls.

However, the former Valencia man showed clear weaknesses in the defeat to Wolves, recklessly lunging in on Raul Jimenez in the build-up to the opener, while it was his mistake at Carrow Road which led to Norwich City's third goal in a 3-2 win for the Canaries.

Of the players who have played at the back for City since the start of 2018-19, only Otamendi (2) has made errors which directly resulted in a goal.

KOMPANY'S IMPACT UNDERESTIMATED?

City reportedly moved for Harry Maguire in the off season, only to baulk at Leicester City's asking price, which was eventually paid by cross-city rivals Manchester United.

However, the decision not to replace inspirational former captain Kompany, who scored a stunning goal against Leicester as he led City to the title last term, seemed a risky one.

City did not lose a single game in all competitions last season in which Kompany started, with the Belgian having been named in 13 Premier League line ups.

Kompany played 1,223 minutes in the top flight last term, making no errors resulting in a shot at goal, while managing an impressive pass accuracy of 93.07% behind only Stones in terms of City's defenders.

The 33-year-old lost possession 93 times, though, perhaps due to a lack of pace, did concede 17 fouls – more than Otamendi or Stones despite playing fewer games.

He was dribbled past by an opponent on only one occasion and, from the 18 matches he started in all competitions last season, City claimed 17 wins, conceding just 12 goals.

SETTLE ON STONES UNTIL JANUARY

The simple answer to City's problems is likely to get Laporte back fit and firing as soon as possible, given they have an 82 per cent win percentage with the 25-year-old starting in the Premier League since the start of last season, compared to 75% without.

However, for now Guardiola must find a defensive pairing he can stick with until January. Fernandinho and Otamendi have featured in the last three league matches, but against Wolves their lack of pace was exposed.

Stones should soon return to action and, though the England international's form has been criticised, his statistics make for promising reading.

The former Everton man has a tackle success rate of 75%, higher than any of City's other centre-backs, and has conceded just six fouls since the start of 2018-19.

If Stones can stay fit, he should be City's first-choice centre-back until the new year, with Otamendi and Fernandinho vying for the other spot.

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