It had long felt inevitable that Xavi would return to Barcelona at some stage and the time has finally come.

The former midfielder will take charge of his first match in Saturday's derby clash with Espanyol after replacing Ronald Koeman during the international break, having embraced both a financial and sporting crisis at Camp Nou that sees the team ninth in LaLiga and more than €1.2billion in debt.

Given his pedigree as a player for the club, where he won 25 major trophies, and the fact he delivered three cups and a Qatar Stars League title during his time in charge of Al Sadd, you would be forgiven for thinking Xavi could have chosen to bide his time and wait for a more opportune moment to take the job.

Yet here we are, with another of Europe's grandest sides appointing a club legend. It's a move that often resonates well with a disillusioned fan base, but recent history tells us a star playing career often counts for little when it comes to life in the dugout at the elite end of football.

There are a fair few examples of ex-players heading back to their old clubs in the past few years – and to different levels of success...

Mikel Arteta (Arsenal): Jury's out

When Arsenal lost their first three league games of the season without scoring a goal, it looked like the Arteta experiment might have run its course.

Now on a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions, buoyed by a derby defeat of Tottenham and a manager of the month award for September, it's beginning to look as though the former captain might just have got things on track at Emirates Stadium.

Winning the FA Cup last year was also a big feather in Arteta's cap, but there's still a sense that the next bad result is just around the corner. After all, he lost 20 of his first 60 league games in charge; it took Arsene Wenger 116 matches to reach that number.

Ronald Koeman (Barcelona): Failure

There is no question Koeman stepped into the breach at Barca at a terrible time, with an institutional crisis ongoing and the team having lost 8-2 to Bayern Munich in Quique Setien's final game in charge. He was chosen for his estimable record as a player at the club, and he did at least deliver Copa del Rey success last term.

Yet as soon as new president Joan Laporta admitted before this season that he was basically only keeping Koeman because there wasn't another option, the writing was on the wall.

Uninspiring football and a troubling run of results that culminated in a first loss to Rayo Vallecano since 2002 forced Laporta into action – he sacked Koeman on the flight home, if reports are to be believed. In the end, his contribution as a player offered little protection.

 

Niko Kovac (Bayern Munich): Short-term success

Kovac took over from Jupp Heynckes before the start of the 2018-19 season, becoming only the fourth former Bayern Munich player to become head coach (after Soren Lerby, Franz Beckenbauer and Jurgen Klinsmann).

Trophies were not a problem: Kovac won the DFL-Supercup 5-0 against old club Eintracht Frankfurt in his first match in charge, and the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal followed. Nobody at Bayern had ever won the double as both player and coach before.

It all turned a bit sour in 2019-20, though. Bayern won just five of their opening 10 league games and were thrashed 5-1 by Frankfurt in November, at which point Kovac and the club agreed the time was right to part ways.

Frank Lampard (Chelsea): Failure

Chelsea's record goalscorer only had one season of experience at Championship side Derby County before being entrusted with the big job at Stamford Bridge.

Losing 4-0 to Manchester United in his first game wasn't exactly a strong start, but Lampard did guide the Blues to fourth in the Premier League and an FA Cup final, all while navigating the difficulties of a transfer ban.

However, after a squad investment of close to £250million before 2020-21, Chelsea's progress stalled and a run of two wins in eight league games saw Lampard replaced by Thomas Tuchel. His points-per-game average of 1.67 was the fourth lowest of any permanent Chelsea manager in the Premier League era.

Andrea Pirlo (Juventus): Failure

Compared with Pirlo, Lampard was a seasoned veteran in managerial terms. Juventus handed the top job to their former star midfielder when his only coaching experience was nine days of looking after the Under-23s.

Pirlo's swaggering style as a player did not translate itself to the dugout: Juve lacked cohesion and creativity and were embarrassed when 10-man Porto knocked them out of the last 16 of the Champions League, a result that did more damage to Pirlo's position than any other.

The former Italy man delivered Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia success, and managed to drag Juve back to a fourth-placed finish on the final day of the season, but Inter had already marched to the title by then. In the end, Pirlo lasted less than a year.

 

Mauricio Pochettino (Paris Saint-Germain): Slow progress

Pochettino is a little different to the others on our list given his coaching experience covered Espanyol, Southampton and a memorable five years at Tottenham before he went to PSG, the club where he spent two seasons as a player.

The 49-year-old has won renown for getting his teams to play high-tempo, exciting football, but this has yet to be consistently evident in Ligue 1 even if results are mostly going his way.

Ten wins from 12 games have them comfortably top of Ligue 1, while wins over Manchester City and RB Leipzig stand them in good stead in the Champions League, but it feels like PSG are too often being rescued from mediocre performances by a moment of inspiration from a star player – and that's rarely been the Pochettino way.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Manchester United): Who knows?

Manchester United have become one of the most singularly baffling football teams in the world under Solskjaer, the man who won six Premier League titles as a player and scored arguably their most famous goal: the winner in the 1999 Champions League final that secured the treble.

Hired as an interim coach in December 2018 to repair the damage of Jose Mourinho's final months, Solskjaer rebuilt United's morale through sheer goodwill and a heady dose of nostalgia, both of which have kept him in the job ever since.

They finished second in the Premier League last term but lost the Europa League final, and seem to have gone backwards in 2021-22, with that 5-0 hammering by Liverpool almost sounding the death knell for Solskjaer. However, the talents at his disposal – not least Cristiano Ronaldo – seem to do just enough to keep Ole at the wheel on a weekly basis.

 

Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid): Resounding success... but walked away (twice)

Many of these clubs hoped to discover the next Pep Guardiola: the famous ex-player who could turn his first senior coaching job into something not just successful, but era-defining, unforgettable. Zidane at Real Madrid is the closest we have seen.

After spells as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti and coach of the Castilla, Zidane replaced the unpopular Rafael Benitez in January 2016 and led them to Champions League glory. He did the same for the next two seasons as Madrid became the first side in the tournament's modern era to win successive trophies.

Zidane also won two LaLiga titles: in 2016-17, in which he oversaw a club-record 40 games unbeaten in all competitions, and in 2019-20, when he had returned to club after walking away in May 2018. He left again at the end of 2020-21, the only season in which he did not win a trophy.

 

The 2022 World Cup is now just 12 months away, with qualifying entering its closing stages following a series of crunch November clashes.

Difficulties still await Italy and Portugal – the past two European champions – in the play-offs, but most of the other big names are well on their way if they have not already confirmed their place in Qatar.

So, how are the expected contenders shaping up? Stats Perform investigates.

Argentina

Having finally ended his long wait for a senior international honour at this year's Copa America, Qatar looks like Lionel Messi's last realistic chance to guide Argentina to World Cup glory. They last triumphed in 1986, in the days of Diego Maradona.

But the brilliant Barcelona form that has been the bedrock of Messi's outstanding career is no more. Since clinching the Copa, the forward has left Camp Nou for Paris Saint-Germain and played just 595 minutes across eight games at club level, scoring three goals and assisting none. Heading into this weekend, he had yet to net in Ligue 1.

At odds with the rest of his career, Messi has briefly become one of those players who performs better for country than for club, scoring four goals in seven games for Argentina in the same period, even allowing for the minutes spent regaining fitness in November. But the national team must be concerned Messi's unconvincing displays and shaky recent fitness record hint at a decline that could continue for another year before he gets an opportunity to lead a global title charge.

Although Argentina undoubtedly have other highly talented players – Messi was one of four to make the Team of the Tournament as they become South American champions – it is tough to imagine a successful Albiceleste side without the great number 10 at the heart of it.

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez's Belgium remain the world's top-ranked team, but it feels like their window for a first major title might now have passed.

Martinez took charge after Euro 2016, where a stacked squad lost to Wales in the last eight, yet he has found a glass ceiling, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and fourth at the 2020-21 Nations League either side of another quarter-final exit at Euro 2020. Since a disappointing performance at the Nations League Finals, Martinez has been linked to a host of club roles – albeit he is expected to stay put until Qatar.

Although Belgium's 'Golden Generation' have maintained their position at the top of the game despite an ageing defence, there are worrying signs their key attacking players could also be on the wane.

Through a combination of injuries and poor form, Eden Hazard has not looked the same player since he left Chelsea for Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, also beset by fitness issues and below-par outings of late, will hope not to follow the same path. Both he and Romelu Lukaku must still be at their peak to give the Red Devils a chance.

Brazil

Brazil were outclassed by Belgium in the quarter-finals in Russia but have lost just three matches since then. One of those was in this year's Copa final against Argentina, although the Selecao also won the competition in 2019.

Unlike previous Brazil teams, Tite's side are built on the strength of their defensive record. They have kept 28 clean sheets since the 2018 World Cup, conceding just 16 times in 42 games, with 11 shutouts in 2021 alone.

However, that solidity comes at a price. Brazil are scoring at a relatively unspectacular rate of 2.0 goals per game, including netting only two in their three Copa knockout games in July and just one across two November qualifiers.

Neymar will have a key role in producing those timely moments of magic and should not be short of motivation heading to Qatar, having suggested this will be his last World Cup. The forward has excelled on the world stage before without taking Brazil all the way.

England

As so often, England have qualified with relative ease, benefiting from a kind draw, but will not face a true test until the tournament comes around.

That means a wait to see if Gareth Southgate can make the necessary tweaks to turn the Three Lions from nearly men into champions, with the midfield a key area of focus having ceded 65.4 per cent of the possession to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, 53.2 per cent to the Netherlands in the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals and 55.5 per cent to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semis. The continued development of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham should encourage optimism.

But England also find themselves in a position, like Argentina, where the performances of their talismanic captain are suddenly a concern – at least at club level.

Harry Kane has so far this season used the international breaks as sweet relief, quickly closing on Wayne Rooney's record goals tally by scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers up to September and notching seven in November alone, but there is a break now before March's fixtures and the forward simply must rediscover some sort of form for Tottenham and add to his single Premier League goal in order to return to the England fold in good nick.

 

France

Welcoming Karim Benzema back into a frightening front line, France appear to have an even more impressive line-up than at the previous World Cup, where they emerged as champions.

Benzema has already directly combined for five goals with Kylian Mbappe and one with Antoine Griezmann, who has in turn linked up once with Mbappe. The trio netted nine of France's 10 goals this month, while Mbappe had assists for each of Benzema's strikes at the Nations League Finals as both players scored in both matches and Les Bleus twice came from behind to take the title.

Yet those prior deficits and the six goals conceded at the Euros hinted at the weaknesses in this France side, as Didier Deschamps is still working on his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

The composition of the midfield in that team is crucial, and N'Golo Kante was missing against Belgium and Spain before Paul Pogba suffered an injury prior to the November fixtures. France have no shortage of quality but may not head to Qatar as the most settled unit.

Germany

It was clear Joachim Low's Germany tenure was reaching its natural conclusion before he announced his departure plans in March. That the team followed up a group-stage exit at the World Cup by stumbling through their pool at the Euros before exiting to England only further illustrated that this was the right decision.

But Germany know all about recovering quickly from such setbacks; they seemed to reach rock bottom at Euro 2000 and were in the World Cup final two years later.

Now Hansi Flick, having set Bayern Munich back on course, is excelling again with the national team, becoming the first Germany coach to win his first six matches in charge – a sequence that now stands at seven and counting. The team's last longer winning run ended at 12 games in 1980.

Germany were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe during qualifying, this despite naming their oldest XI in more than 21 years in a recent qualifier against Liechtenstein. Striking this same balance between energy and experience will be key in Qatar.

Spain

Spain have come a long way since the last World Cup, where they appeared to be in crisis from start to finish, eventually exiting to hosts Russia on penalties.

Luis Enrique's subsequent work across two spells has made them contenders again, reaching the last four at the Euros – only to again fall foul of a shoot-out – and briefly leading France in the Nations League final. The emergence of Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi over the course of these campaigns provides a major cause for long-term optimism, too.

However, injury issues have kept that trio from ever featuring together for their country; in fact, Fati, Pedri and Gavi are yet to play a single minute together for Barcelona.

They were three of 39 players to appear for Spain in qualifying, showing the depth of talent at Luis Enrique's disposal. Within that group, however, there is not a prolific goalscorer – a major concern with 12 months to go.

International football is officially over for another year. *Pauses for cheers or jeers*

With the November international break done with, we turn our attention back to domestic football, with a hectic period set to begin in the Premier League.

More fantasy points will be available over the next seven weeks or so than at any other period in the season, such is the jammed nature of the schedule, and there's no better time to get ahead of the curve.

Stats Perform has delved into the Opta data to pick out seven picks for this week, hopefully giving you the edge...

EDOUARD MENDY (Leicester City v Chelsea)

Leicester City may represent a tricky opponent for any team, particularly given their good options going forward, but if anyone can keep them at bay, it's Mendy.

Not only has the Senegal international conceded the joint-fewest goals (four, excluding own goals, minimum of three appearances) in the Premier League, he also leads the way with 3.4 goals prevented, according to expected goals on target data.

In terms of form goalkeepers this season, Aaron Ramsdale runs him close, but Mendy is the outstanding candidate.

JOAO CANCELO (Manchester City v Everton)

City's versatile Portuguese full-back enjoyed an exceptional 2020-21, but he seems to have stepped things up even further this term.

In 17 games in 2021-22 across all competitions, Cancelo has already reached seven goal involvements (two goals, five assists), just one fewer than his haul of eight in 43 outings last term.

He has been hugely influential at City, while it would also hardly be a surprise if they keep a clean sheet against an out-of-sorts Everton.

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Liverpool v Arsenal)

Liverpool's right-back became something of a scapegoat – fairly or not, that's a discussion for another day – in 2020-21. It is safe to say his critics are rather quieter at the moment.

Only Bruno Fernandes (37) can better Alexander-Arnold's 30 chances created in the Premier League this term, while no defender has more than his four assists.

A resurgent Arsenal could cause Liverpool issues, so a clean sheet is no guarantee, but there is no defender more likely to nab you an assist or two.

CONOR GALLAGHER (Burnley v Crystal Palace)

On-loan Chelsea youngster Gallagher has been a revelation for Palace this season, with his all-action style proving a great addition to Patrick Vieira's team.

He has also provided plenty of quality in the final third, having a hand in a team-high six goals (four goals, two assists).

Gallagher has already beaten his combined tally (two goals, two assists) from 2020-21 when he was on loan at West Brom, and he won his first England cap against San Marino earlier this week.

BRUNO FERNANDES (Watford v Manchester United)

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men have seemingly hobbled from 'crisis' to 'crisis' this season, and while Fernandes arguably has not been as impressive as last season, he is still essential to the Red Devils.

He leads the way with the most chances created (37) in the league this term, and that fits into his wider excellence ever since joining United, a period that has seen him supply the most assists (22) and craft the most goal-scoring opportunities (162) of anyone in the competition.

Additionally, only Mohamed Salah (55) has been involved in more goals than Fernandes (52) in the same period. Regardless of perceptions of his form, the Portugal star is a must-have, particularly given United will fancy their chances of bouncing back at Vicarage Road.

GABRIEL JESUS (Manchester City v Everton)

While he may not be playing in the striker role many might have expected before the season started, instead featuring largely as a right-sided winger, Jesus has made a strong start to 2021-22.

With the South American World Cup qualifiers not extended to a triple-header this month, Jesus is also less of a selection risk than he was after the international breaks in September and October.

But above all, he loves playing Everton. In eight Premier League games against them, Jesus has scored eight times, or roughly one every 69 minutes, and he will be aiming to give the Toffees plenty to chew on yet again this weekend.

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Leeds United)

Among the players Antonio Conte will be hoping to get more out of after a slow start to the season, Son is surely near the top of the list.

Since the start of last season, no player has outperformed their expected goals (xG) tally by a greater margin than the South Korean (8.2), with 21 goals from 12.8 xG.

Obviously that can suggest a degree of unsustainable fortune on Son's part, but we all know he is an exceptional player capable of the extraordinary. Leeds are a side who let other teams play, and that might be just what the doctor ordered for Son and Spurs.

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

After two weeks on the training ground, Eddie Howe returns to the Premier League arena as head coach of Newcastle United on Saturday.

Now working for Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, the world's richest football club owner, Howe needs results fast with Newcastle second from bottom and five points from safety.

Indeed, the Magpies have endured the worst start to a league season in their history after a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion prior to the international break extended their winless run to 11 matches.

For all the talk of exciting January moves for Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele or Marc-Andre ter Stegen – Barcelona's expensively assembled squad, reports say, is ripe for picking – there is a job to do first, and that starts at home to Brentford.

Burnley and Norwich City, the previous two teams to break winless starts before Newcastle, got their first victories against Brentford, yet just one of the Magpies' past eight bosses has won his first Premier League match in charge of the club (Alan Pardew versus Liverpool in 2010).

Has Howe, who rescued Bournemouth from relegation out of the Football League and took them all the way to the top flight, already had an impact on Tyneside?

Saturday's encounter at St James' Park should tell us plenty – and these are the key themes to look out for...

Fix the defence

The biggest worry around both Newcastle and Howe relates to their defensive records.

Only Norwich (26) have conceded more goals than Newcastle (24) this season, while the Magpies' opponents have had a league-high 21.6 expected goals. That back line clearly needs attention.

But Howe's Bournemouth conceded at least 61 goals in each of their five seasons in the top flight, making him far from an obvious candidate to address Newcastle's biggest need.

There is a lack of quality options within that defence, but Graeme Jones, the interim coach who has taken a role on Howe's staff, attempted to stem the tide during his short reign as the main man.

At odds with the more aggressive pressing approach Howe is likely to adopt, Jones' side sat deep. Across games against Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Brighton, Newcastle had the highest PPDA (an incredibly passive 22.6 opposition passes per defensive action) and the second-deepest average starting position (just 37.5 metres from their own goal) in the league. The Magpies still conceded five times and earned only two points.

Regardless of what changes Howe makes at the back – and there have to be changes – those in front also require greater co-ordination.

In Sean Longstaff (52.9), Joe Willock (49.9) and Miguel Almiron (49.7), Newcastle have players who rank first, fifth and sixth among central midfielders for pressures per 90 minutes this season. Their haphazard pressing, lacking any clear cohesion, has succeeded only in leaving gaps behind them, however.

Neither Longstaff nor Willock featured at Brighton, while Almiron played on the right flank and was taken off after 74 minutes.

Keep the ball

The pressure on Newcastle's defence would be relieved by an ability to keep the ball for any extended period. Their average possession of 37.3 per cent is comfortably the lowest in the division this season.

But that is nothing new; Newcastle have ranked in the bottom three in this regard in each season since they were promoted in 2017.

"We hopefully have nudged it along a little bit this week," Jones said before the Brighton game, where Newcastle had just 34.1 per cent of the ball. "You can't go from how we played against Chelsea and Crystal Palace to being Barcelona overnight. It's impossible, so it needs to be small steps."

Howe, Newcastle will hope, should be able to help with those steps. Since Bournemouth were first promoted, only Leeds United last season (57.8 per cent) have averaged more possession in their first year in the Premier League than the Cherries in 2015-16 (51.1 per cent).

Although Bournemouth's possession figures then dropped with each campaign until they were relegated with 43.4 per cent of the ball, Howe has the opportunity to make a strong start against a Brentford side who rank 15th in the division for possession (44.9 per cent).

Feed the forwards

Having more possession should fit hand in hand with getting Newcastle's dangerous attacking players on the ball more often. Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin have too often been isolated.

"We have been a lot further from the goal than we'd like to be," Wilson told Chronicle Live this week.

The certainty of a full-time appointment should at least allow Newcastle to settle on a system that suits both players after drastically shifting their approach following each miserable run of Steve Bruce's tenure. Tactical flexibility, as Howe should show, is one thing, having no proven plan to fall back on is another. At Bournemouth, that was some variation on a 4-4-2.

Even with Newcastle struggling, Wilson has managed to score 16 goals since the start of last season. Among the 14 players to net 15 or more in that time, only Mohamed Salah (127), Harry Kane (163) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin (164) have averaged fewer minutes per goal than the Magpies' number nine (167).

"A fit Callum Wilson is as good as anybody in the Premier League," Jones said.

Of course, Howe has experience with Wilson and with Ryan Fraser, both of whom he brought to Bournemouth.

Under Howe in 2018-19, Wilson and Fraser combined for 12 Premier League goals – at that time, the second most of any duo in the competition's history in a single season, behind Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton (13 in 1995-96).

Wilson added: "I am exactly the same as the manager coming in – he's got this attacking style of play. As a striker, you are licking your lips knowing you are going to get more opportunities."

If Howe can help the ex-Bournemouth pair reprise that form and build some sort of platform behind them, Newcastle should yet have enough to survive – perhaps boosted by a winning start against Brentford.

Music echoes through State Farm Arena and the crowd cheers as Trae Young dribbles the ball up the court for the Atlanta Hawks.

Like so many possessions in the NBA, the action begins with a team-mate – in this case, John Collins or Clint Capela – screening the on-ball defender, the man guarding Young.

Young is a good three-point shooter, so his defender must go over the screen. Young has seen this kind of defence countless times before and immediately dashes towards the hoop on the opposite side of the screener of his defender.

This leaves Young’s man mostly behind him, sprinting to get back into a better guarding position. Feeling his advantage, Young stops suddenly – or even pounces backward a bit – creating contact with his defender and launching a shot while flailing his limbs to exaggerate the contact.

Only, this season, NBA officials aren’t blowing the whistle.

The league placed an emphasis this offseason on reducing “overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves” that are employed specifically used to draw fouls, commonly known as foul-baiting.

While drawing fouls has always been a skill in basketball, the NBA felt that certain players were warping their movements in unnatural ways to get to the free-throw line and making the game less enjoyable to watch for most fans.

The changes have been dramatic league-wide, with teams averaging 19.6 free throw attempts per game, on pace to be the lowest in league history. Each team is committing just 18.8 fouls per game, on pace to be an all-time low.

And while free throw attempts have been down in the last decade due to the three-point shooting boom, an NBA game this season averages 4.4 fewer free throw attempts than one last season.

Young, fairly or not, has become the poster child for foul-baiting and has struggled to adjust early in the 2021-22 season. In an October 30 press conference, Young said he thinks the rule changes have gone too far.

“I don’t want to get fined too much, but this is frustrating,” Young said after a loss.

“When guys are driving straight and getting knocked off balance, it’s still a foul. There are a lot of things that they took out that were necessary – veering back and jumping into guys – that’s different. There’s certain things I agree with in the rule changes and there are things that are still fouls.

“Guys are going to get hurt, especially a little guy like me who is going up against bigger and stronger defenders.”

This season, Young is getting to the line 3.1 fewer times per game, on average, compared to last season. The fourth-year guard has kept his scoring average steady, though, by shooting career highs from the field and from three-point range.

Other stars have fared not quite as well.

Among qualified players, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazer has seen his opportunities at the line drop the most in the NBA, a reduction of 3.8 attempts per game. Lillard has struggled in general this season, with his scoring average down more than eight points and with career-low shooting efficiency.

The Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal has lost 3.7 free throw attempts from last season, the second most in the league, and has also seen his scoring drop eight points per game.

Only five of the league’s 30 teams have increased the number of free throw attempts per game over last season, led by the Chicago Bulls, who appear to be thriving under current rules with a new roster.

The Bulls are shooting an average of 2.5 more free throws per game than last season, thanks largely to the red-hot start of DeMar DeRozan, whose 7.9 free throw attempts per game are his highest since 2016-17 (8.7).

The Bulls as a whole rank eighth in the league in scoring defence this season, allowing 103.3 points per game after giving up 111.6 per game last season.

Largest improvement in points per game allowed Rank Team 2020-21 2021-22 Diff 1 Washington Wizards 118.5 103.0 -15.5 2 Denver Nuggets 110.1 98.9 -11.2 3 Golden State Warriors 112.7 101.6 -11.1 4 Cleveland Cavaliers 112.3 101.6 -10.7 5 Minnesota Timberwolves 117.7 107.4 -10.3 6 Brooklyn Nets 114.1 104.1 -10.0 7 Oklahoma City Thunder 115.6 105.9 -9.7 8 Indiana Pacers 115.3 106.8 -8.5 9 Chicago Bulls 111.6 103.3 -8.3 10 Sacramento Kings 117.4 110.5 -6.9

Teams are scoring 5.3 fewer points per game compared to 2020-21, and some of the league’s more defensive-minded players are finally feeling like they have a fair chance.

When asked about the officiating changes, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green couldn’t help but express his elation.

"Can I say how satisfying it is to watch the game without all those terrible calls? Guys cheating the game and grabbing guys and getting the foul," said the six-time All-Defensive Team honoree and 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year.

"I've been really enjoying watching basketball this year. I kind of had stopped watching the NBA a bit because it was just too flailing and flopping and guys cheating the game and getting free throws. So I think that's been great."

Former center and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, who built a 14-season NBA career as a defensive enforcer, has been among the media personalities who are most supportive of a more physical league.

“I love the rule change. I think it’s great for basketball. Now the older generation doesn’t have a reason to call us soft – the league is getting back to that point,” Perkins said on ESPN’s NBA Today.

“I’m a huge fan of Trae Young, but some of the calls are just not fouls, and he’s just going to have to fight through.”

Some players may already be adjusting to a different style of basketball, including infamous flailer James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets. Through his first 12 games of the season, Harden was averaging just 18.2 points and attempting 4.7 free throws per game.

Over his last four games, however, Harden is scoring a more typical 26.5 points per game and getting to the line an average of 10.8 times.

As the league starts to adjust, some in NBA circles are sceptical that scoring numbers will remain suppressed.

Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins has commented that the league’s dip in scoring could be attributed to players “trying to find rhythm and chemistry” and added that over the course of 82 games, the scoring totals “will definitely change league-wide.”

While players may adjust, the NBA appears adamant about keeping the emphasis in place as-is. In fact, teams are averaging even fewer free throw attempts in November than they did in October.

One unintended consequence of the change could be less willingness to drive into traffic, leading to more three-point attempts. While teams are launching an all-time high 35.7 attempts from deep per game, that trend has long been established, with the league breaking the record for three-point attempts per game in 10 straight seasons.

Whether it’s with deep shooting or another tactic, offences are sure to counter with new ways to find good shots.

"The league is an efficient market and is going to make adjustments," said Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. "As offences boom, you figure out new ways to defend. It's a constant ping-pong game between both ends of the floor."

Trying to predict the 2021 NFL season has seemed like an exercise in futility.

It is a year that has served as a perfect illustration of the NFL being a 'week-to-week league'; upsets have been frequent, making the elite teams tougher to discern, even with 10 weeks in the books.

Only four teams in the AFC are below .500 while, of those currently outside the playoffs in the NFC, every team aside from the winless Detroit Lions is at worst a game back in the loss column of the final Wild Card berth.

It sets the stage for a fascinating stretch run in the regular season and, for fantasy purposes, can sow doubt around players who would otherwise be considered sure things.

But, in Week 11, there are some clear standouts who look primed for highly productive performances. Once again, Stats Perform has identified four offensive players and a defense that deserve starting spots this week.

Quarterback: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals @ Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders were shredded by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs last week as their commitment to playing coverage looks featuring a single-high safety backfired spectacularly.

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley seems steadfast in sticking with such coverages and the evidence suggests it will prove the Raiders' downfall again versus the Bengals.

Though the Bengals enter the game on a two-game losing streak, they can afford to have confidence in Burrow flourishing in Las Vegas.

Burrow is delivering a well-thrown, accurate ball on 84.4 per cent of his pass attempts against Cover 1 robber looks and on 90.2 per cent of throws versus Cover 3 zone.

The Raiders, therefore, represent the ideal matchup as the Bengals and Burrow look to bounce back. 

Running Back: A.J. Dillon, Green Bay Packers @ Minnesota Vikings

The Packers will be without starting running back Aaron Jones because of a knee sprain, however, Dillon has proven himself an impressive complement and should excel filling the void while Jones is on the sideline.

Dillon was not efficient in the Packers' win over the Seattle Seahawks last time out, averaging only 3.1 yards per carry while finding the endzone twice.

However, he has averaged at least 4.9 yards per rush in the three other games where he has received at least 10 carries this year.

Against a Vikings defense giving up the third-most yards per rush in the league (4.74), Dillon will have the workload and the matchup to enjoy a career day in Jones' absence.

Wide Receiver: CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys @ Kansas City Chiefs

The second-year wideout is on a tear, Lamb having racked up 378 receiving yards and four touchdowns over the last four games.

He is establishing himself as Dak Prescott's top target on a loaded offense few have managed to slow down in 2021.

The Chiefs have improved on defense of late but theirs is a unit allowing the third-most pass yards per play in the NFL (7.41). It is tough to have faith in Kansas City to slow down a receiver in Lamb's vein of form.

Tight End: Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills vs. Indianapolis Colts

Returning from a fractured hand, Knox was targeted just once in the Bills' blowout win over the New York Jets.

The game script did not really call for Knox to be heavily involved as Buffalo built an insurmountable lead.

However, things are likely to be closer against the Colts, meaning Knox may need to reproduce the breakout form he delivered earlier in the season.

Knox has a touchdown in four of his seven games in 2021. Against a Colts defense allowing the seventh-most TD drives in the NFL (27), he's a strong bet to find the endzone again.

Defense: Miami Dolphins @ New York Jets

Miami's ultra-aggressive defense created havoc in their stunning win over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 10. The Dolphins sacked Lamar Jackson four times, their commitment to relentlessly blitzing defensive backs derailing Baltimore's passing game, intercepted him once and forced two fumbles, with one returned for a touchdown.

Now they face a Jets team that has turned the ball over 22 times this season, committing 13 giveaways in their last four games.

They have turned to Joe Flacco in the belief the veteran, and not ailing second overall pick Zach Wilson or Mike White, gives them the best chance to win. However, Flacco threw an interception in each of his previous three appearances for the Jets last season. Despite the quarterback change, the signs still point to Miami's defense enjoying another disruptive day.

Kevin Durant and the Warriors have already renewed acquaintances since his trophy-laden spell with the team concluded, but Tuesday sees Golden State meet his Brooklyn Nets with both harbouring realistic championship ambitions.

Durant's departure, coupled with injuries to other stars, most significantly Klay Thompson – who has missed the last two seasons – have seen the Warriors fall short of the playoffs in successive campaigns.

However, the team that reached five successive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, winning three titles, are seemingly back among the NBA's elite having made an 11-2 start to the campaign.

With Steph Curry once again at his brilliant best after an MVP calibre campaign in 2020-21 and squad depth substantially improved from recent years, the Warriors, who hope to welcome Thompson back to the team for the second half of the season, look to have a roster capable of returning to the Finals.

Their championship mettle figures to be sternly tested by the Nets, who have won eight of their last nine to move to 10-4, a half-game back on the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Wizards.

Unsurprisingly it is Durant, the MVP of both his victorious Finals series with the Warriors, who is leading the Nets' charge.

He is first in the NBA in points per game with 29.6, just ahead of Curry (28.1), shooting 58.6 per cent from the field and 42.4 per cent from three-point range.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr believes this is a matchup of the two MVP frontrunners in Curry and Durant.

"Yeah, no doubt, to me they've been the two best players in the league so far," Kerr told reporters on Monday.

But Durant sought to downplay the significance of the high-profile clash.

"It's just another game," Durant said. "It's 15 games into the season and obviously they're the best team in the league and they're playing at an elite level, but it's a regular-season game.

"We obviously want to go out there and win in front of our home crowd, but we don't want to put too much pressure on ourselves and call this a Finals [preview]. We just want to build on who we are, figure out what we want to do out there and keep pushing."

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Golden State Warriors - Andrew Wiggins

It's easy to look to Curry here. After all, he is fifth in the NBA with 41 points/assists/rebounds per game.

But similarly crucial to Golden State's early-season surge has been former first overall pick Wiggins.

He is shooting a career-high 47.8 per cent from the field, while his recent aggressiveness in getting to the basket has been rewarded with a 35-point performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves and a 28-point effort in the loss to the Charlotte Hornets last time out.

Going against Durant and Co, the Warriors will need him to maintain that aggression.

Brooklyn Nets - Patty Mills

Mills exploded for 29 points in the Nets' win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, going nine of 12 from three-point range.

For the season, Mills is shooting 48.1 per cent from beyond the arc, putting him tied second in the league behind only Jonas Valanciunas (59.3).

In a meeting with the greatest shooter of all time in Curry, a continuation of that form from Mills would be extremely welcome for Brooklyn.

KEY BATTLE – KD to go at Green again

Durant and Draymond Green look to be friends again. A feud between the pair during the 2018-19 season appeared to contribute to Durant's departure at the end of that year, although the Nets superstar has since suggested – in an interview with Green – that the Warriors were to blame for mishandling the incident.

Green agreed; as he put it: "They f***** it up."

Still, all eyes will be on the duo every time they meet on the floor and with good reason. Green is among the best defenders of his generation; Durant is one of the very best scorers.

"Nobody is impossible to guard, but he is as close to impossible as it gets," Green said of Durant this year. Of course, it is not a matchup the forward will enjoy, but as Golden State's premier performer on that side of the ball – his defensive rating below 100 (97.8) for the first time since his Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2016-17 – Green will have to play his part.

 

 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nets won both meetings at a canter last season, even with Durant contributing – by his standards – a modest 42 points combined.

Unsurprisingly, the Warriors have the edge in the all-time series, up 54-39 – boosted by six wins in six in Durant's three seasons with Golden State.

Having raised eyebrows across the NFL universe by trading up for Jordan Love in the first round, the Green Bay Packers sprung another surprise in the second round of the 2020 draft, with the selection of a power running back by the name of A.J. Dillon.

It was a pick that prompted a variety of reactions, ranging from anger and bemusement to outright hilarity from those astonished the Packers, with Aaron Jones already established as their top running back and an obvious need at wide receiver, would take the Boston College star so high.

Yet as Green Bay prepare for potentially two weeks without Jones due to a knee sprain, the primary feeling in the Packers' front office may be vindication.

The Packers moved to 8-2 on Sunday with a hard-fought shutout win over the Seattle Seahawks in the snow at Lambeau Field.

With Aaron Rodgers looking rusty at best following his coronavirus-enforced absence, Dillon thrived in the kind of game for which he was made.

He ploughed in for the game's only two touchdowns to secure a 17-0 triumph for Green Bay, finishing with 66 yards on 21 carries.

That average of 3.1 yards per attempt is not an impressive one, but Dillon's performances in his second year in the league have been increasingly eye-catching.

Having averaged 5.3 yards per rush as a rookie on 46 carries, he is racking up 4.3 yards per carry on the significantly larger sample size of 97 attempts.

A slightly more granular look at his production reveals that Dillon is doing precisely what Green Bay drafted him for as a complementary piece to Jones.

Dillon is averaging 2.38 yards after contact per attempt, above the league-wide average of 1.91 yards for running backs. In essence, he is allowing the Packers to mix downhill thump into a scheme that has traditionally focused on wide zone runs.

Ahead of Week 10, Dillon had 20 iso runs, a staple power running play. On those attempts, Dillon had an average of 3.58 yards after contact on runs to the left tackle side (league average – 1.99) and 2.63 yards after contact on carries to the right tackle side (league average – 1.76).

Yet Dillon has also enjoyed success when asked to run outside zone, averaging 4.75 yards per attempt, 2.50 yards after contact and 3.80 yards on such carries where there was a run disruption by a defender prior to this Sunday.

Those numbers suggest Dillon, who also made an impact in the passing game against the Seahawks with two catches for 62 yards, is transcending the 'power back' label assigned to him coming out of college and making himself at home in Matt LaFleur's offense.

That apparent ability to excel on both power and zone runs will be a necessity if the Packers are to stay on course to be the NFC's number one seed over the coming weeks without Jones, as they face division rivals the Minnesota Vikings on the road before welcoming the Los Angeles Rams to Lambeau in a rematch of last season's NFC Divisional Round clash.

Those are two different beasts in terms of run defense. The Vikings rank 30th in rush yards per carry allowed, giving up 4.74 yards per rush, while the Rams (4.15) are ninth going into their Monday Night Football clash with the San Francisco 49ers.

The formulas for winning those battles with two extremely talented offensive teams may therefore be different. Yet if Jones is out for both games, then Green Bay may need Dillon to make the most of a skill set that is more versatile than most thought to ensure the Packers do not become overly reliant on reigning MVP Rodgers.

Green Bay's process in picking Dillon so early remains questionable but, should he succeed in that aim in Jones' absence, you will not find many questioning the results.

The past seven days for the San Francisco 49ers have been rough.

A defeat to an Arizona Cardinals team missing Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and J.J. Watt ensured the Niners would enter Week 10 with a sour taste in their mouth having fallen to 3-5 on the season.

In a game viewed as a golden opportunity for the Niners to put themselves firmly in the playoff picture, they produced one of their worst performances of the year, and most expect their profligacy in failing to take that chance to be punished further against the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football.

San Francisco's mood going into a contest with a Rams team also smarting after throwing in a clunker against the Tennessee Titans will not have improved with the news that came down on Thursday when Los Angeles signed three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. following his release by the Cleveland Browns.

Beckham is expected to make his debut at Levi's Stadium, where edge rusher Von Miller could also make his Rams bow having landed with Los Angeles in a trade from the Denver Broncos on November 1.

It is Beckham and Miller who will grab all the pre-game attention as the Rams look to pile the misery on the 49ers and improve to 8-2 in their bid to win the Super Bowl at their home stadium in February.

However, it is how each team deals with their absentees, rather than the performances of Beckham and Miller, that is likely to decide a potentially high-scoring matchup out west.

How will Woods loss impact run game?

The addition of Beckham initially appeared to be a luxury one for the Rams, whose receiver depth allowed them to recently part with veteran DeSean Jackson.

Yet, a day after Beckham's arrival, his signing was revealed as a much more necessary move with the news Robert Woods had suffered a torn ACL, ending his season.

Woods has long since been an integral part of the Rams' offense, not just for what he does as a receiver but also for his impact in the blocking game.

Per Stats Perform data, Woods' had an adjusted run-block win percentage of 88.89, the wideout comfortably outperforming the average for tight ends and fullbacks of 71.48.

The Niners rank 19th in opponent rush average allowed, giving up 4.37 yards per carry, but the Rams may struggle to take advantage of that fragility if they cannot replace Woods' influence in that regard.

With D.J. Jones (56.70), Nick Bosa (40.04) and Arik Armstead (48.84) all above average in double-team adjusted win rate on run defense, the Niners do have the talent up front to magnify any run game struggles for Los Angeles.

San Francisco's primary defensive question concerns their personnel in the secondary.

49ers' secondary problems persist

The 49ers saw their secondary depth suffer a blow right off the bat as Jason Verrett tore his ACL in Week 1, and the way in which the coaching staff have managed the personnel in the defensive backfield has received criticism.

Despite impressing early, rookie fifth-round pick Deommodore Lenoir has been conspicuous by his absence since the Week 3 loss to the Green Bay Packers, with veterans Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick ahead of both Lenoir and fellow first-year corner Ambry Thomas on the depth chart.

Kirkpatrick is out on Monday with an ankle injury while Norman (ribs) is questionable, meaning both Lenoir and Thomas are likely to be in uniform, with one potentially set to start alongside Emmanuel Moseley and K'Waun Williams at corner.

Lenoir would appear to be the frontrunner to start if Norman cannot play, and the Niners may require an improvement on his generally solid play across the first three weeks for them to have a hope of containing Matthew Stafford and the Rams' passing attack.

The former Oregon corner's adjusted open percentage allowed of 35 is inferior to the average of 31.15 for cornerbacks and, beyond the threat posed by Beckham, Lenoir will also have to deal with the NFL's most productive receiver should he be thrust back into the starting line-up.

Cooper Kupp is on pace for over 1,900 receiving yards having already surpassed 1,000 through nine games. He is recording a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, 66.7 per cent of the time, with his average of 4.3 burn yards per route the best in the league among receivers with at least 20 targets heading into Week 10.

San Francisco's secondary can at best be described as being in flux. If the 49ers cannot find a combination that works, it could provide Kupp with the chance to deliver another hugely productive performance and leave Kyle Shanahan's men with the difficult task of keeping pace with the Rams' offense.

Moore thrown in at the deep end

The Niners can afford to have confidence of going blow for blow with the Rams, if they can avoid the turnovers that ultimately doomed them against the Cardinals.

Shanahan's offense has been moving the ball efficiently, with Jimmy Garoppolo producing his two best performances of the season over the last two games.

Garoppolo reached the 320-yard mark in the win over the Chicago Bears and the loss to the Cardinals, marking the second time in his career he has produced a streak of successive 320-yard games. The only other 49ers quarterbacks with multiple streaks of consecutive 320-yard games are Joe Montana (four) and Steve Young (two). 

His hopes of stretching that run to a third game may well hinge on the play of a rookie offensive lineman.

The Niners will be without right tackle Mike McGlinchey for the rest of the season after he tore his quad against Arizona. His replacement is expected to be rookie Jaylon Moore, who delivered an admirable showing in relief of left tackle Trent Williams versus the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7.

Moore is credited with winning nine of the 12 one-on-one pass protection matchups he has faced so far but, having spent his entire career to this point on the left side, looks set to flip to the right in extremely trying circumstances.

Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald's versatility should see him regularly shift from the interior and line up across from Moore on the edge, and the Rams will surely look to get Miller one on one with the rookie consistently.

Donald has won a remarkable 59 of his 91 one-on-one matchups and Miller's win rate of 43.94 per cent is still way above the average for edge rushers of 21.88.

The challenge for San Francisco will be to get Moore as much help as possible from tight ends and running backs to prevent that duo padding those numbers.

Leave him to fend for himself, and the Niners' hopes of keeping pace with Los Angeles could vanish in a hurry. After being embarrassed by a division rival last week, setting Moore, and in turn Garoppolo, up for success is crucial to them avoiding the same fate in the primetime finale to Week 10.

Week 9 saw the NFL world robbed of an extremely compelling quarterback matchup, Aaron Rodgers left to watch from home as the Green Bay Packers fell to defeat against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, Rodgers is set to return from his controversial coronavirus-enforced hiatus on Sunday at Lambeau Field, where he will face another likely future Hall of Fame quarterback set to return to the field.

Russell Wilson lived up to praise from head coach Pete Carroll, who described him as "one of the great healers of all time" after a finger injury suffered in the Week 5 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, surpassing expectations by recovering in time to lead the Seattle Seahawks against Green Bay as they bid to salvage their season.

The Seahawks are not dead at 3-5. Seattle enter the week just a game out of the final Wild Card berth; however, Wilson and Co. have little room for error ahead of a road game with a member of the NFC's elite.

It is a contest that may be decided by which quarterback can shake off the rust faster. Wilson has been on the sideline longer, but Rodgers will enter the game having missed two weeks of practice amid the fallout from his positive test and his comments around his vaccination status.

What other factors will play a role in determining the outcome of an enticing quarterback battle? Stats Perform digs into the numbers to answer that question.

Can Collins gash Packers on ground?

The Packers defense has quietly been one of the best in the NFL when it comes to limiting efficient production from their opponents.

Indeed, Green Bay rank fifth in opponent yards per play allowed, giving up just 5.27.

However, the Packers have proven susceptible to the run, with only six teams allowing more yards per rush than Green Bay's 4.55.

With Chris Carson still unavailable for the Seahawks, the onus will be on Alex Collins to take advantage of the Packers' apparent vulnerability on rush defense.

Collins has proven adept at making the most of his carries even on plays where the defense gets into the backfield. He is putting up 3.00 yards per carry on attempts where there is a run disruption, above the league average of 2.80.

His ability to excel in that regard could be key in getting the Packers' defense out of looks that have proven successful against Wilson.

Two-high looks could spell trouble for Wilson

In last week's loss to the Chiefs, the Packers played a significant amount of two-deep safety coverages to deal with the threat of Mahomes and a usually explosive pass game that has stuttered this season.

It worked as the Chiefs were held to just 13 points, and the numbers suggest Green Bay will lean on two-high looks again to try to slow down Wilson on his return.

When faced with Cover 2 this season, Wilson has delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball 80.0 per cent of the time; the league average is 83.4.

He has fared even worse against Cover 4 or 'Quarters', posting a well-thrown percentage of 72.4 (79.6 per cent is the average), and that number dips further to 62.5 per cent versus cover 6 (average 77.3 per cent).

Against Tampa 2, which is a variant of Cover 2 with a linebacker dropping into the deep middle at the snap, Wilson's well-thrown percentage is 75.0, again below the average of 82.7.

Wilson has already outperformed expectations by returning this quickly from injury and has made a career out of making the improbable possible. Yet, if Collins cannot succeed on the ground and force the Packers to bring a safety down into the box to stop the run, it could be a difficult day for Wilson facing coverages against which he has not excelled.

Seahawks must capitalise on Bakhtiari blow

The Packers had hoped to have David Bakhtiari back at left tackle, but he was listed as doubtful on the injury report as he attempts to make his return from a knee injury.

Bakhtiari's likely absence is a boost to a Seahawks defense that may see its best hope of slowing down Rodgers as being in their ability to get consistent pressure on the reigning MVP and magnify the impact of any potential rust.

While the Seahawks are a middle-of-the-road defense in terms of yards per play, in which they rank 16th (5.55), they are a top-half unit when it comes to creating pressure.

Their 139 pressures this season are 13th in the NFL and, in Rodgers, they are facing a quarterback who has proven particularly susceptible to opposing pass rushes in 2021.

Only team-mate Jordan Love (40.0) and Zach Wilson (53.7) have worse well-thrown percentages than Rodgers (55.2) when under duress among quarterbacks to have attempted 10 passes under pressure.

And Rodgers' pickable pass rate of 8.62 per cent under pressure is substantially worse than the average for quarterbacks (min. 10 attempts) of 4.82.

The spotlight will be firmly on Rodgers after a fortnight he will not forget in a hurry. It is the Seahawks, though, who enter the game with their backs against the wall, and it may take an instrumental performance from Collins and a potent pass rush to prevent Seattle slipping further towards playoff irrelevance.

Even at the midway point of the NFL season, it is difficult to make definitive judgments about many teams in the 2021 campaign.

The AFC is a jumbled mess with no clear frontrunner, though the Tennessee Titans may feel differently after surging to the top of the conference with a 7-2 record. 

In the NFC, it is easier to discern the elite, but picking the teams who will claim the last two Wild Card spots from a crowded field is not a simple task.

What we can do, however, is look at the standings and see which teams are either over or underperforming.

Stats Perform has done just that by assessing the records of every team compared to their power rating, a model that, using X-info data, looks at seven different facets of each team: quarterback, offensive skill players, run blocking, pass blocking, pass rush, run defense and pass coverage, and the player rates associated with each.

These seven facets are weighted according to modelled importance, and then aggregated to a team-level rating.

And that process has produced some clear standouts who either have more wins than the model suggests they deserve or are failing to live up to its expectations.

Overperforming

New Orleans Saints – Power rating: 29th

If Sean Payton isn't getting Coach of the Year hype come the end of the season, something has gone severely wrong.

Payton has the Saints in position to claim an NFC Wild Card berth at 5-3 despite a quarterback situation most would struggle to overcome, with Trevor Siemian stepping in to replace the injured Jameis Winston.

The Saints' most pressing issue beyond signal-caller is at wide receiver. Their most targeted receiver, Marquez Callaway, is registering a burn – or, in other words, winning his matchup with his defender when targeted – 56.4 per cent of the time, below the average of 60.6 for wideouts (min. 10 targets).

That has led New Orleans to lean on running back Alvin Kamara and the defense.

Kamara is unsurprisingly making the most of his significant opportunities as a receiver, his big-play percentage of 23.6 fourth among backs with at least 10 targets.

The defense is allowing a league-low 3.19 yards per carry and leads the NFL in run disruption rate, but comparative struggles against the pass (6.92 yards per play) and in getting after the quarterback could spell trouble if Siemian cannot maintain a surprisingly strong start to his time under center.

Cincinnati Bengals – Power rating: 23rd

The Bengals have been brought back down to earth with a bump over the past two games, losing to the New York Jets before being blown out by the Cleveland Browns.

First in the AFC before that slump, they are now last in the AFC North but, with a 5-4 record, they can still be considered to be outperforming expectations.

The problem area for the Bengals continues to be the trenches. Joe Burrow has been sacked eight times over the past two games, Cincinnati's struggles up front reflected by a ranking of 21st in pass protection win rate.

Things have been worse up front on defense, the Bengals 30th in pass rush win rate despite the best efforts of Trey Hendrickson, who has beaten a pass blocker on 28 of his 43 pressures.

Burrow has the best percentage of well-thrown balls among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. He is delivering an accurate pass on 84.4 per cent of attempts.

His second-year leap is no mirage and has been aided by the outstanding rookie season of former LSU team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, eighth among receivers (min. 50 targets) with 3.5 burn yards per route. Yet, without improvement in other areas, elevating the Bengals back to the postseason could prove too much of a challenge for that truly dynamic duo.

Arizona Cardinals – Power rating: 16th

The Cardinals being this low down the list may be difficult to reconcile given they are 8-1 and just convincingly beat the San Francisco 49ers with their backup quarterback.

Yet holes have emerged on a defense now without J.J. Watt, whose addition had proven so critical to the interior of the D-line.

Arizona's defense is allowing 4.81 yards per rush, the second-most in the NFL, with the Cardinals in 22nd in run disruption rate.

Their pass rush win rate position of 24th belies the production of Markus Golden (nine sacks) and Chandler Jones (six), with those numbers suggesting the Cardinals' strength against the pass is more a product of the impressive play of a secondary that has surpassed expectations.

Though there is reason for doubt when it comes to the Cardinals' defense, this is a team that will go as far as Kyler Murray and the offense.

Murray is firmly in the MVP mix with a well-thrown percentage of 81.3, and receivers DeAndre Hopkins (80.9) and Christian Kirk (79.2) are each in the top five among wideouts (min. 10 targets) for burn rate.

With an offensive line ranked eighth in pass protection win rate doing an excellent job of keeping Murray clean, the Cards have an offensive recipe well suited to winning in 2021.

Yet their power rating and performance on defense indicates this team is not as complete as their record suggests.

Tennessee Titans – Power rating: 18th

Five straight wins, including victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams, and the Titans are only 18th?!

It may be difficult to believe, but Tennessee's position in the bottom half of the NFL by power rating is one mirrored by the Titans' spot in Stats Perform's Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE) rankings.

EVE looks at several factors to train a model to predict yardage output for any game situation and then compares the projected yards to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.

The Titans are a disappointing 17th in EVE, despite Ryan Tannehill enjoying a season that has seen him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 83.5 per cent of his passes.

But Tannehill is now without his security blanket with Derrick Henry, who was threatening Eric Dickerson's rushing record and averaging 3.05 yards per carry on disrupted runs, and is throwing to a receiving corps that has just one member, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (63.6), with a burn percentage above 60.

Their stunning primetime win in Los Angeles was largely a product of turnovers and a startling amount of pressure from the defensive front, and the latter appears unlikely to be sustainable.

In the bottom half of the league in pass rush win rate (31st) and run disruption rate (27th), the production the Titans have got from the likes of Harold Landry, Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons has not been the result of consistent dominance up front.

The story is the same for an offensive line ranked 29th in pass protection and 17th in run block win rate. Beyond Tannehill and Henry, areas where the Titans consistently excel are not obvious. The receivers will need to step up or the defense will need to prove a breakout performance against the Rams was not an anomaly for Tennessee to turn the doubters into believers.

Underperforming

Kansas City Chiefs – Power rating: 3rd

The uneven nature of the Chiefs' performances to this point makes them moving to 5-4 last week actually seem pretty impressive.

Yet, for all their issues on defense, and the doubts about an offense lacking the explosiveness of years gone by, the Chiefs should have fared even better over the first nine games, at least according to their power rating.

Though Kansas City only managed 13 points in their win over the Green Bay Packers, it is the Chiefs' offense that provides the most cause for optimism.

Patrick Mahomes' well-thrown percentage of 79 is above the league average of 78.5 for quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 attempts, and he is being well protected by the Chiefs' reworked offensive line.

The Chiefs rank fourth in pass protection win rate and first in run block win rate, with their rushing average of 4.62 yards per play the eighth-best in the NFL.

It is those game-changing downfield shots that are conspicuous by their absence for the Chiefs, with Tyreek Hill's underwhelming big-play percentage of 24.8 illustrating their struggles in that regard.

But this remains a team set up for offensive success, and if a defense that has not allowed a 300-yard passing game since Week 5 can continue making incremental improvements, Kansas City could yet enjoy the season many envisioned.

San Francisco 49ers – Power rating: 8th

A route to contention is not as easy to plot for the 3-5 49ers, who continue to beat themselves with mistakes that negate their overall efficiency.

The 49ers are eighth in EVE, with their position in offensive yards over expected (eighth) and yards allowed under expected (14th) painting the picture of a top-half team on both sides of the ball.

Yet a turnover differential of -9 that is superior to only that of the New York Jets (-12) makes a losing season a more realistic possibility for the Niners than a playoff push.

The offense is the primary source of hope. Deebo Samuel is on pace for over 1,800 receiving yards and his 4.1 burn yards per route are second for receivers with at least 50 targets, while George Kittle had a 100-yard game on his return from injury last week and ranks second among tight ends (min. 10 targets) with 3.1 burn yards per route.

With rookie Elijah Mitchell impressing at running back, Brandon Aiyuk emerging from Kyle Shanahan's doghouse and a line ranked in the top 10 in pass protection and run block win rate, the Niners theoretically have the offense to compete with anyone.

Poor execution has prevented them from doing so. If the Niners are to somehow stay in the hunt, the turnovers must stop, but change is also required on defense.

The 49ers have struggled to disrupt the run, and disappointing secondary play has limited the impact of a stellar season from Nick Bosa, whose adjusted pass rush win rate of 41.09 per cent is way above the average of 21.88 for edge rushers.

Time is running out for San Francisco to figure it out; if the Niners cannot do that, it will be another frustrating year for a team too talented to be struggling this much.

Minnesota Vikings – Power rating: 10th

It has been a typical Vikings season, with a talented and potent offense seeing their efforts go largely unrewarded as they have flirted with both triumph and disaster late in games on a near-weekly basis.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins might have an MVP case were the Vikings in a better position to contend. He has been extremely accurate, posting a well-thrown percentage of 81.8, and has generally avoided turnover-worthy plays, throwing just four pickable passes on 285 attempts.

Dalvin Cook's missed tackle per touch rate of 0.269 is the best among running backs with at least 50 carries, and Justin Jefferson is again one of the league's elite separators at receiver, as evidenced by his burn rate of 72.1 per cent.

Yet the Vikings are only 13th in offensive yards over expected, speaking to an issue that continues to hold this team back, with Minnesota again in the lower reaches of the league in pass protection win rate.

It has been a different story on the other side of the trenches, the Vikings seventh in pass rush win rate, though the absence of Danielle Hunter with a torn pectoral muscle may see them lose that position.

Soft against the run, allowing the third-highest yards per rush (4.77) in the NFL, the Vikings are a team whose lofty power rating is easily explained through a loaded passing game and a pass rush that has excelled through their first eight games.

But their 3-5 record is reflective of an incomplete team that maintains an obvious weakness in the trenches and lacks the defensive solidity to put games to bed. The Vikings may be a top 10 team on paper, but it is tough to trust them to perform to that standard consistently.

We're officially past the halfway point of the NFL season, meaning we are also heading into the home stretch of the fantasy campaign.

If you're in the cellar of your league, then it's probably time to take things a little less seriously, maybe find ways to have some fun with your lineup.

But if you're still firmly in the mix, then you can ill afford to make bad decisions as to which players to slot into the starting spots.

As always, Stats Perform is here to provide a helping hand with a look at four offensive players and a defense worthy of selection in Week 10.

 

Quarterback: Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Do not let the Chiefs' performance against the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers fool you.

Yes, the Chiefs have improved somewhat on defense of late, but they are still one of the league's worst at defending the pass.

They have given up 7.49 yards per pass play this season, while the Raiders are fifth in yards per pass play on offense (7.40).

No quarterback in the NFL has attempted more passes of 21 air yards or more than Carr (41), and he is averaging 16.4 yards per attempt on those throws.

Motivated to bounce back and claim a key win in the division after a shock loss to the New York Giants, expect Carr to be aggressive and, crucially, successful in attacking a vulnerable opponent.

Running Back: James Conner, Arizona Cardinals vs. Carolina Panthers

Conner leads the NFL in touchdowns with 11 after his hat-trick in the Cardinals' win over the San Francisco 49ers last week.

He will likely get the bulk of the workload in the run game for at least the next few weeks, Chase Edmonds having gone down with an ankle injury at San Francisco.

His next assignment is a Panthers defense that has given up 100 yards rushing in three of their past four games. Back him to produce and find the endzone again at home.

Wide Receiver: Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team

Back off the bye and ready to mount a charge for the one seed in the NFC, the Bucs could hardly ask for a better opponent.

Washington's pass defense has conceded 109 plays of 10 yards or more this season. Only the Indianapolis Colts (110) and Miami Dolphins (112) have been more generous in that regard.

Leading Tampa Bay with 69 targets so far this season and with Antonio Brown unlikely to feature, Godwin is the top candidate to be the latest wideout to capitalise significantly on Washington's unexpected defensive frailties.

Tight End: Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Detroit Lions

Freiermuth may be the answer to fantasy managers' prayers when it comes to the famously top-heavy tight end position.

He has emerged as a key weapon for Ben Roethlisberger in recent weeks, scoring three touchdowns in his past two games.

A matchup with a Detroit defense giving up the most yards per pass play in the NFL (8.28) could provide a recipe for a career day.

Defense: Cleveland Browns @ New England Patriots

The Browns defense did an excellent job frustrating Joe Burrow and Co. in their thumping win over the Cincinnati Bengals last week.

This week, they get a favourable matchup in the form of the Patriots. Yes, the Pats are 5-4, but they rank 20th in yards per play (5.46), are tied sixth for the most giveaways (14) and lead the league with 60 negative plays on offense.

Look for Cleveland's defense to enjoy another successful day on the road.

Europe's qualifying section for the 2022 World Cup reaches its dramatic climax over the next week, with eight more nations set to secure their places in Qatar.

There will be 50 matches played during this international window, during which the outcome of all 10 groups will be decided, with Denmark and Germany the only European nations to have already booked their tickets.

Indeed, the other eight group winners will seal automatic qualification for Qatar 2022, while another 10 nations will advance to March's play-offs as the runners-up.

The 10 second-placed teams will be joined by the two best group winners from the 2020-21 Nations League who have neither already qualified nor sealed a play-off spot via the group stage.

With plenty of excitement and drama guaranteed, Stats Perform takes a closer look at the most eye-catching fixtures, permutations and milestones.  

800 up for Ronaldo?

Another day and another milestone approaches for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is just two goals away from taking his career tally to 800.

The Portugal skipper could hit the landmark when his country face the Republic of Ireland on Thursday – failing that, they host Serbia three days later.

Should Portugal take maximum points at the Aviva Stadium, Fernando Santos’ men would then guarantee top spot in Group A by avoiding defeat against Serbia on Sunday.

 

Deja vu for Italy?

The reigning European champions missed out on the finals last time around, sparking a cultural reset that ultimately culminated in their brilliant Euro 2020 success earlier this year. But their place in Qatar is still far from secure.

Level on points with Switzerland at the top of Group C with two games remaining, the Azzurri must beat the Swiss when they face off on Friday and avoid defeat against Northern Ireland three days later to guarantee qualification. 

Four years ago they were fell to Sweden in the play-offs – failure this time around would be an even bigger shock.

Work to do for the Dutch

The Netherlands were also absent from Russia in 2018 and, despite leading Group G, they are not home and dry just yet.

Louis van Gaal’s side travel to Montenegro on Saturday while second-placed Norway host Latvia.

Just two points separate the top two, who lock horns at De Kuip on Tuesday in a game that will more than likely decide who wins the group.

Spain to avert Swede success?

The 2010 World Cup winners are not yet guaranteed a top-two finish in Group B, although they will be by avoiding defeat away to Greece on Thursday.

Spain are two points behind leaders Sweden, who travel to Georgia on the same day. They go head-to-head in what will surely be the group decider on Sunday, assuming they take maximum points three days earlier. 

 

France looking to avoid the Blues

The reigning world champions and recently crowned Nations League winners are not quite over the line in Group D, despite holding a three-point advantage and game in hand over second-placed Ukraine.

However, Les Bleus will secure top spot with a win over Kazakhstan on Saturday or, failing that, taking maximum points away to Finland on Tuesday. 

Who will top Group H?

Russia and Croatia are guaranteed top-two finishes in Group H, but with just two points separating them, the identity of the group winners is still very much up in the air.

After facing Cyprus and Malta respectively on Thursday, the two nations collide in Split on Sunday with one of them booking a place in Qatar and the other heading for the play-offs.

Second place up for grabs in Group J

Eight points clear of the chasing pack in Group J, Germany secured qualification with flying colours. But the battle for second place is not quite as straightforward.

Occupying second are Romania (13 points), followed closely by North Macedonia and Armenia (both 12), while Iceland (eight) still have an outside chance as well.

Armenia and North Macedonia face off on Thursday with Romania hosting Iceland.

The group then reaches its climax three days later as North Macedonia and Iceland lock horns, while Armenia host Germany and Romania travel to Liechtenstein – expect a rollercoaster ride in Group J!

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