Melbourne City enjoyed one of their finest A-League wins on Saturday as they destroyed Melbourne Victory 6-0 in the derby.

A run of four defeats in five home games in the top flight ensured Victory were certainly the underdogs coming into the contest, but the one-sided nature of this loss will pile further pressure on head coach Grant Brebner.

City were looking to win back-to-back games against Victory for the first time in A-League history, but a dominant start faltered when Jamie Maclaren missed a penalty after 18 minutes.

Victory held out until nine minutes before the break, when Maclaren steered home following a Nuno Reis corner.

Two goals in four minutes after the break from Florin Berenguer and Rostyn Griffiths put the visitors in charge, and it got worse for Victory in the final quarter of an hour.

Connor Metcalfe struck twice in three minutes, blasting in off the post before tapping in a Maclaren cut-back, before Stefan Colakovski's precise low strike with effectively the last kick of the game triggered boos from the home fans.

Victory ended the match, the 2,000th in the competition's history, without even a shot on target as they stay rooted to the bottom of the table. City are into fourth.

In the earlier game, Sydney FC recovered to draw 1-1 with Brisbane Roar at Moreton Daily Stadium.

Substitute Bobo scored his first goal of the season for the Sky Blues 71 minutes in after Dylan Wenzel-Halls had put Brisbane ahead.

They remain three points ahead of Sydney in the table, with the reigning champions eighth after winning just three of their opening nine games.

The last derby was a rare off-day for Atletico Madrid – and for Luis Suarez.

On a run of seven wins in a row and two goals conceded, with no LaLiga defeats all season, Diego Simeone's men were second best in a 2-0 defeat last December. As for Suarez, his 73 minutes on the pitch yielded a single, wayward shot.

Still, that result turned out to be an aberration. Three months on, Atleti head into Sunday's game at the Wanda Metropolitano with a five-point lead over Real Madrid and Barca at the top of the table, and with a game in hand. Suarez, meanwhile, has scored 11 of his 16 LaLiga goals this term since that chastening day at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Suarez's form for Atleti has made a complete mockery of Barca's decision to cast him aside last year, the suggestion the striker was "too old" to be relied upon looking more foolish by the week as he spearheads their charge for a first league title since 2014.

Indeed, given his record against Madrid and the state of the league table, this weekend could be the moment Suarez tips the balance of the title race inexorably in Atletico's favour.

OLD HABITS

It wasn't simply being told to leave by Barca that left Suarez so incensed; it was being made to feel he was no longer good enough for "a great team".

"That's what I did not like," he told France Football. "If I hadn't done anything at a club like Barca for three or four seasons, I would have understood.

"But, every year at Barca, I scored more than 20 goals per season. I have always had good statistics, just behind Leo [Messi]."

So he is again. Suarez's 16 goals in 21 league games this term puts him second in the top-scorer standings, three behind Messi. Add in assists, and only his old team-mate (23) has had more direct goal involvements than Suarez (18) in LaLiga this season.

While Suarez is no longer as explosive as he was at Liverpool and in his earlier Barca years, he has lost little of his ruthlessness. Discounting the two penalties he has converted this term, Suarez has scored 14 times from an expected goals value of just 9.6. That differential of 4.4 is the biggest in the division, save for that of 'El Comandante', Levante's 33-year-old star striker Jose Luis Morales (5.0).

It follows that Suarez has a shot conversion rate (including blocked shots) of 23.9, the fourth-highest figure for any LaLiga player with at least 10 goals this season, the best being Roger Marti with 31.3.

The Uruguayan also boasts a big chance conversion rate of 63.2 per cent, having scored 12 out of 19 this term. No player to have scored from at least 10 big chances can match that success rate. That cutting edge in a team that has conceded just 16 league goals in 24 matches is a potent combination.

CAN SUAREZ STOP THE DERBY ROT?

Atleti followed December's derby defeat by winning 10 of their next 12 games, the only slip-ups being a Copa del Rey shock at Cornella and a 2-2 home draw with Celta Vigo on February 8 (in which Suarez scored twice).

However, including that result, they have won only twice in their past five league matches, a run that has emboldened Barca and Madrid's title hopes and left fans wondering whether 'Hay Liga' after all.

A dip in form before a derby is never positive, but Atleti in particular need no extra pessimism. They have not won any of the most recent nine league meetings with Madrid, their longest run without a victory under Diego Simeone, and they have not even scored in the previous three. Only once in their history have they gone four league derbies without a goal.

Madrid are also the only team to play a league match at the Wanda Metropolitano without ever losing (one win, two draws), with Simeone having won only 12.5 per cent of league games against opposite number Zinedine Zidane, his worst return against any coach from at least four meetings.

But Suarez has happy memories of facing Los Blancos. Although he's gone two games without scoring against them, his goal record overall reads nine scored in 12 league appearances versus Madrid, the most of any player since his first season in Spain in 2014-15.

What's more, he has an all-important side-kick back in form.

JOAO, THAT'S IMPRESSIVE

Joao Felix's sublime strike against Villarreal secured a valuable three points for Atleti last time out and ended his own month-long goal drought. He responded with a stony-faced 'shushing' celebration, to which a delighted Simeone responded: "I love it when players rebel."

Simeone will be desperate to see his €126m man in a similar mood come Sunday. Not only is he Atleti's most exciting individual talent, but he's also the man who has brought the best out of Suarez this season.

Joao Felix has created eight chances for Suarez in LaLiga in 2020-21, more than any other Atleti player. Of his four assists, three have been for the former Ajax man; only Marcos Llorente has provided as many for Atleti's number nine.

Perhaps Suarez has found a kindred spirit in Joao Felix: supremely talented, decisive, and "rebellious". What better double act to deploy in the Atleti's most important LaLiga derby in seven years?

Manchester City will be aiming to open up a surely unassailable 17-point gap over Manchester United with a win in Sunday's derby, yet former Red Devils winger Nani insists the Premier League leaders are not stronger than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side. 

United have received plenty of negative press lately for their poor recent record when facing other members of the so-called 'big six', with last weekend's 0-0 draw at Chelsea the sixth successive game against such calibre of opponent in which they have failed to score. 

Five of those six matches ended 0-0, while the last time United managed to get a goal against the league's biggest clubs was the 6-1 humiliation by Tottenham in early October. 

Such omens do not offer a particularly bright outlook ahead of their trip to the runaway leaders, with City heading into the weekend just one match away from setting a new club record, having now gone 28 games unbeaten across all competitions.

But ex-United star Nani, who lost four of his eight games against City for the club, insists sheer ability alone is not the reason for the gap in the table. 

Speaking to Stats Perform News, Nani said: "What I have seen of this team and what I saw from last season, United are building a strong team. They are building a young, strong team, so that's very good. 

"Man United have a great coach now and it's a matter of time [before they challenge for honours]. I think some of the players need to get more experience, learning fast how they win certain games in certain moments, because I see moments where there is no chance of losing any points and yet they lost. 

"That's why now, if you see the top of the table, it makes a little bit of difference because otherwise they would be sharing the position in the table with Man City. 

"I don't see Man City stronger than Man United, I see they look more experienced, and they are in a good form. I think the next game will be important for the end of the season if they beat Man City, we have all the chance and I think we're going to win it because that is a different game. But they have to go with everything." 

Despite his confidence in United, Nani appreciates the job Guardiola has done in 2020-21 – after all, City took just 12 points from their first eight matches amid a sluggish start to the season. 

Yet, Guardiola turned things around and City have not dropped a single point since being held to a 1-1 draw by West Brom on December 15, Nani singling out the manager's influence in restoring the confidence of certain key performers.

"I think Guardiola has been doing a great job this season, to get the team together," Nani added. "They seem a very confident team when they play.

"He brought back some players whose confidence was down, like Bernardo Silva. He put Joao Cancelo [in] - Cancelo is doing fantastic for the team, and all the players at the front, they are not scoring so many goals as before, but they have been important.

"There are players who last season did not appear so much, like [Ilkay] Gundogan, who this season has been amazing. He scored so many goals and is giving so many assists. So, it's important when you don't have important players available, like Kevin De Bruyne, you can bring another player who can appear and help the team."

While Nani alluded to Silva's increased importance, it's another Portugal international who is seen as arguably the catalyst to City's improvement this season: Ruben Dias.

The centre-back fits in perfectly with Guardiola's philosophy of building from the back and has formed an outstanding partnership with John Stones – when playing together they have won 13 of 14 Premier League matches this term, keeping 11 clean sheets, and Nani believes Dias has proven himself one of the best around.

"Yes, he's proved already that he's one of the best in the world," Nani continued. "I think if people don't think that, then very soon they will change their mind because the way he's been performing for the team, the way he has been helping in a defensive way, that is one of the reasons in the second half of the season City is performing and conceding less goals.

"It's also partly [down to] John Stones. I think it's important when the defence of the team is solid, it's much easier for the ones who play at the front to perform and to be more relaxed to create the chances to score."

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is yet to concede the Premier League title to runaway leaders and neighbours Manchester City, while he talked up the club's progress.

Stuttering United are second and 14 points adrift of neighbours City ahead of Sunday's Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium.

United go into the fixture having won only two their previous eight Premier League matches, a run that has not only dashed their title hopes but left the Red Devils vulnerable in the top-four race.

Fifth-placed Everton are only five points adrift of United – who are through 27 games – with a match in hand.

Despite United's wobbling form and City's comprehensive advantage, Solskjaer has not given up hope on Premier League silverware.

"There are still 11 games to go in the Premier League," Solskjaer told reporters. "I have always said, let's get to at least March and April before we talk about a title race. You don't talk about title races after 18-19 games.

"We have given ourselves a very good chance of improving on last season by the position we're in. I'd rather be in the position we're in now, compared to the situation we were in last season. But of course, in the Premier League, there are lots of quality teams.

"What we can control is ourselves and if we do our jobs and get as many points as I think we can do, I'm sure we'll be up there."

United are unbeaten in 21 Premier League matches away from home (W13 D8). In top-flight history, only Arsenal have had a longer away undefeated streak, going 23 without defeat between August 2001 and September 2002 and 27 without defeat between April 2003 and September 2004.

Solskjaer's United are looking to win three consecutive away games in all competitions against City for the first time since a run of four between November 1993 and November 2000.

This week, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said the club have made clear progress under Solskjaer in 2020-21, and the Norwegian responded on Friday.

Solskjaer – looking to become the first manager in United's history to win each of his first three away meetings with City in all competitions – added: "Of course, you want to win every game of football, you do. But if we compare to last season, we're quite a bit higher in the league compared to the same stage. We're still through in Europe and the FA Cup.

"It's probably the league that you think, 'yeah, that's where we've shown the progress'. Hopefully, we can prove in the Europa League and the FA Cup that we have taken another further step.

"This team, the ambitions are there, of course. We have more experience to be in this position, compared to last season. We're gelling more as a team, they're fitter but at the moment, we look short term and that's Sunday, to get back to creating chances, taking them and scoring goals again."

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said the club must be realistic about their title chances in LaLiga.

Koeman's Barca are second and five points adrift of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, who have a match in hand, through 25 rounds ahead of Saturday's trip to Osasuna.

Barca – into next month's Copa del Rey final as they look to overturn a 4-1 deficit against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 – have struggled to convince this season.

While Koeman played down talk of the title, the Dutchman knows Barca have a chance to end the season on a high in the Copa final against Athletic Bilbao on April 17.

"As the coach and the players we have to be more realistic," Koeman told reporters. "We cannot change our minds and opinions about the team's chances to win something all the time.

"We know we have the [Copa del Rey] final and have a chance to win a big trophy in Spain. And depending on the results of the team we can fight for the title.

"We're several points behind Atletico Madrid and we can't lose any more points because then our objective will change and that's difficult.

"Hopefully at the end of the season we can say that, despite some problems, we have done well and that we have won a title. And that would be great."

Barcelona are undefeated in their last 15 games in LaLiga (W12 D3) – the second best current run of any team in the top five European leagues, only behind Premier League leaders Manchester City (19).

Lionel Messi has scored 19 goals in 23 LaLiga appearances this season and the six-time Ballon d'Or winner could reach 20 goals in a 13th consecutive campaign in the competition – a record.

Barca captain Messi has scored 23 goals in 19 LaLiga appearances against Osasuna, netting three braces in his last five games against them at El Sadar in the league.

Real Madrid star Toni Kroos said he is planning to retire at the LaLiga champions.

Kroos has enjoyed great success since joining Madrid from Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich in 2014, winning three Champions League trophies and two LaLiga titles among 13 honours.

The 31-year-old midfielder has made 309 appearances for Madrid across all competitions – the most by a German player at the Santiago Bernabeu, surpassing Uli Stielike.

Reflecting on the feat, Kroos – who has scored 21 goals since moving to the Spanish capital – told Real Madrid TV: "It's something special. When you look at the Germans who have played here you realise that they are big names: [Gunter] Netzer, [Bernd] Schuster or Stielike.
 
"Overtaking Stielike, who is a club legend, makes me really happy. It's a special record and I'm delighted to get to this point.

"As I've always said, my idea is to retire here and that's what I'm going to try to do."

Kroos has scored two goals and supplied six assists in 22 LaLiga appearances this season, while he has made 31 appearances across all competitions.

Madrid are third in LaLiga, five points adrift of neighbours and leaders Atletico Madrid ahead of Sunday's derby.

Zinedine Zidane's Madrid have not lost any of their three games at the Wanda Metropolitano in LaLiga (W1 D2), and remain the only team to have played in the new Atletico venue without losing in the league.

Zidane is unbeaten in his three away LaLiga fixtures against Atletico as a head coach (W1 D2) and could become the second Madrid boss to avoid defeat in his first four away derbies versus Rojiblancos in the history of the competition, after Luis Molowny in 1986 (W3 D1).

"I try to give my best in every game and every pass I make that doesn't reach my team-mate annoys me," Kroos added.

"I try to strive for perfection in this sense, although you can never be perfect.

"I practice it and I've been working on it continuously for many years."

The Utah Jazz's Mike Conley will participate in this weekend's NBA All-Star Game after Devin Booker withdrew due to injury.

Booker had replaced injured Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis for Sunday's game between Team Durant and Team LeBron, but the Phoenix Suns guard has succumbed to a left knee sprain.

It has paved the way for Conley to earn his first All-Star selection as chosen by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, with the 33-year-old Jazz point guard replacing Booker on Team Durant.

Conley is into his 14th NBA season – it is the latest into a career (by seasons played) that a player has ever made his first All-Star team, per Stats Perform.

He will also step in for Booker in the three-point contest, which will take place before the All-Star Game on Sunday.

Conley is averaging 16.1 points and 5.7 assists per game, while he is shooting a career-high 42.2 per cent from three-point range in 29 games this season as the Jazz (27-9) lead the NBA.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Washington Wizards sharpshooter Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics are the Team Durant starters.

The reserves drafted by Durant are James Harden (Nets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls), Julius Randle (New York Knicks), Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic) and Donovan Mitchell (Jazz), with Conley joining that list.

Team LeBron is headlined by Lakers superstar LeBron James, two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and the Denver Nuggets' MVP candidate Nikola Jokic.

Team LeBron's reserves are Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Ben Simmons (76ers), Chris Paul (Suns), Jaylen Brown (Celtics), Paul George (Clippers), Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers) and Rudy Gobert (Jazz).

Team LeBron have won the past three All-Star Games after topping Team Giannis 157-155 in Chicago last year.

Corey Conners holds a one-stroke advantage at the Arnold Palmer Invitational after moving clear in the second round as Rory McIlroy stayed within striking distance.

Conners and McIlroy were tied atop the leaderboard overnight, but the former earned the outright lead through 36 holes in Orlando, Florida on Friday.

Canadian golfer Conners, whose sole win on the PGA Tour came via the 2019 Texas Open, was almost flawless after carding a three-under-par 69 at Bay Hill.

Conners used an eagle, two birdies and just one bogey to improve to nine under – a shot ahead of Scotland's 2011 champion Martin Laird (67) – as the 29-year-old earned his second career 36-hole lead/co-lead on Tour.

"I haven't really been in this position a lot, but I have a lot of confidence in my game and feeling really relaxed the last few days, so try and keep that going,'' said Conners, who eagled the par-five 16th hole in each of the first two rounds – just the sixth player to do so at Bay Hill since 1992.

"I feel like I have a lot of energy. I had an off week last week and really excited for the weekend.''

Former world number one McIlroy lost his share of top spot at the halfway stage of the tournament, but the four-time major champion is only two strokes off the pace.

Winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2018, McIlroy shot a one-under-par 71 to be tied for third alongside Norwegian star Viktor Hovland (68) and Lanto Griffin (68).

McIlroy needed just 10 putts on the front nine, one shy of his Tour best on nine holes – the 2016 Players Championship. It marked the 14th time he required only 10 putts on nine holes.

"It could have been the round that I could have shot 74 or 75. I got in with 71 and pretty happy with that,'' McIlroy said post-round.

U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau is six under overall following his second-round 71.

Former world number one Jordan Spieth (69) – eyeing his first victory since 2017 – is a stroke further back and tied for seventh alongside Justin Rose (68), Paul Casey (69) and Im Sung-jae (70).

Defending champion Tyrrell Hatton completed a stunning turnaround as he avoided the cut.

After opening his title defence with a first-round 77, Hatton regrouped by shooting a 67 – a 10-stroke turnaround on Friday.

Patrick Reed was not so fortunate, the 2018 Masters champion's round of 73 and 74 seeing him finish three over, a shot above the cut line.

The Denver Broncos have placed the franchise tag on Justin Simmons as they aim to work out a long-term deal with the Pro Bowl safety. 

A third-round pick by Denver in the 2016 draft, Simmons has made 279 tackles and recorded 16 interceptions and two sacks in 74 games in his NFL career.

The 27-year-old has been an ever-present in the Broncos' defense for the past three seasons, playing all 16 games in those campaigns, while he was voted second-team All-Pro in 2019. 

It is the second successive year where Simmons has received the tag, a move that stops him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. 

However, Broncos general manager George Paton has made clear his determination to agree terms on an extension that will keep the player with the team "for many years to come". 

"Designating Justin with the franchise tag is a procedural move that allows us to continue working on a long-term deal," Paton said in a statement released on Friday.  

"We are completely focused on making sure Justin remains a big part of the Denver Broncos for many years to come." 

Denver finished last season with a 5-11 record, not aided by the absence of edge rusher Von Miller for the entire campaign due to injury. 

Their defense under head coach Vic Fangio gave up 6.54 yards per play, though they ranked 13th in the league against the pass. 

The Denver Broncos enter the offseason surely casting envious glances at the rest of the AFC West.

Still searching for the solution at quarterback, an uneven season for Drew Lock did not provide satisfactory answers about their second-round pick from 2019.

Denver endured a 5-11 season with Lock in and out of the line-up as Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance, Justin Herbert surged to Offensive Rookie of the Year honours with the Los Angeles Chargers and Derek Carr made strides for the Las Vegas Raiders.

This offseason will therefore be defined by what the Broncos decide to do at quarterback, with the heat set to turn up on head coach Vic Fangio as he heads into year three after two successive seasons without a playoff berth.

Using Stats Perform data we look back at another year of disappointment in Denver and assess what they can do this offseason to ensure a five-season exile from the postseason comes to an end in 2021.

Offense

A switch at offensive coordinator from Rich Scangarello to Pat Shurmur did not yield the desired results for the Broncos, who ran one of the least efficient offenses in football.

Denver averaged 5.21 yards per play, putting the Broncos 25th in the NFL. The Broncos' paltry 5.87 yards per pass play illustrated the lack of progress made by Lock, who missed three games last season, with Denver also ranking 25th in that metric.

For a player who came out of college with a reputation for having an elite arm, Lock's tally of 38 completions of 20 yards or more was disappointing. He ranked 19th in that regard but his average distance on such completions of 32.9 yards was ninth among quarterbacks to have completed at least 10.

More worrying for Denver were Lock's numbers on throws of at least 21 air yards. He completed 15 of 63 such attempts for 597 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 49.4 that ranked second last among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts of 21 air yards or more.

Lock did not provide the downfield upside some expected of him when he was drafted in 2019 and a tendency to commit turnovers that was all too evident in college has remained in the NFL. His 15 interceptions in 2020 were tied for the most in the NFL.

The absence of Courtland Sutton, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 1, did not help Lock's cause, with first-round rookie Jerry Jeudy committing the second-most drops (nine) in the NFL.

However, 23 incomplete targets thrown Jeudy's way were deemed poor throws - only three receivers were on the end of more - that number pointing to below-par play under center as the primary reason for Denver's passing game struggles.

Denver's running game fared slightly better, finishing the year tied-14th for rushes of 10 yards or more with 51. The Broncos were tied for sixth with 13 runs of at least 20 yards.

Melvin Gordon proved a useful addition as he contributed 26 rushes of at least 10 yards. Philip Lindsay had 13, with six of those going for 20 yards or more.

Defense

The Broncos' talent on defense paired with Fangio's acumen on that side of the ball should have theoretically produced a strong season on defense.

However, Denver finished the year a disappointing 20th in the NFL with 5.64 yards per play allowed.

They were 13th against the pass (6.25) but 29th against the run (4.79), with their efforts in stopping opposing attacks not helped by Lock's propensity for turnovers.

A freak injury to Von Miller before the season robbed Denver of one of the most dominant pass rushers of his generation, but the Broncos still finished tied-10th in sacks (39) and 10th in total negative pass plays forced (50).

By contrast, they only forced 83 negative run plays, that total putting them 23rd in the NFL.

The pressure the Broncos created last season did not translate to takeaways, with just three teams producing fewer than Denver's 16.

A lack of a settled line-up at cornerback was a significant reason for their struggles stopping the pass and taking away the football.

Kareem Jackson and Michael Ojemudia were the only Broncos cornerbacks to play in all 16 games, with the latter enduring a difficult rookie year.

Ojemudia had a burn percentage of 63 in 2020. A burn occurs when the receiver is open for a number of yards that take up a certain percentage of yards to go for a first down, depending on the down, with the defender credited with giving up burn yardage regardless of whether the ball is caught.

No Denver cornerback allowed more yards per burn than Ojemudia's 18.1, with corner featuring prominently on a long list of offseason issues the Broncos must fix.

Offseason

New general manager George Paton has a lot of significant decisions to make to try to inspire a turnaround in fortunes.

The Broncos' future at quarterback casts a large shadow over their plans for the rest of the roster. Picking ninth in the draft, they are in a decent spot to land one of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, the three quarterbacks seen as the cream of the crop after presumptive number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence.

Denver must decide whether to stick with Lock or cut him loose in favour of one of that trio, with a possible trade for Deshaun Watson appearing unlikely at this point.

There is a similarly significant decision to make concerning Miller, who will be 32 come the 2021 season and has a contract option the Broncos could decline, eschewing a salary cap hit of $22.25million and making him a free agent.

The Broncos are projected to have $48m in cap space, assuming a cap of $185m, even with Miller on the roster, and a large portion of that may go towards re-signing Pro Bowl free safety Justin Simmons, who played on the franchise tag in 2020.

If they can keep hold of Simmons and find dependable reinforcements at corner, the Broncos defense will be well-placed to make a return to the top half of the league in 2021.

Yet the fate of next season's Broncos likely rests on Paton's ability to succeed where predecessor John Elway consistently failed, and come to a definitive and correct answer under center.

Lionel Messi's inspirational form through February has seen the Barcelona captain collect his first Player of the Month award of the season.

February was Messi's most fruitful month of the 2020-21 campaign to date as he scored seven goals, two more than he managed in January.

No player scored more than him, while Real Sociedad's Alexander Isak was the only other individual to net more than four times in the month.

Messi's goalscoring habits helped Barca win four of their five games in the qualifying period, all of which saw him score at least once.

As such, Barca have improved their chances of potentially sparking a genuine title scrap in the final months of the season, with the Blaugrana only five points adrift of the leaders Atletico Madrid.

 

While Diego Simeone's men do still have a game in hand, Los Colchoneros also have the tricky test of a derby clash with Real Madrid to look forward to this weekend.

Messi's commitment to the cause was questioned earlier in the campaign after he rocked the club in pre-season with his transfer request.

He had only scored four times heading into December, when he added a further three – he already has 12 in 2021 and sits atop the 'Pichichi' standings with 19, three clear of nearest rival and friend Luis Suarez.

Messi is only the second Barcelona player to win the award this term, with Ansu Fati – who has missed much of 2020-21 through injury – claiming it for September.

Ronald Koeman's captain saw off competition from Isak, Yassine Bounou, Thibaut Courtois, Alex Berenguer, Nabil Fekir and Jose Luis Morales to win the prize.

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera praised Alex Smith for his impact on a young roster after the franchise confirmed the departure of the veteran quarterback.

Friday's announcement came as no surprise, considering there had been widespread reports of Smith's impending release at the start of the week.

The 36-year-old was pivotal in helping Washington rally from a 2-7 record to win the NFC East and qualify for the playoffs, throwing for 1,582 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions after stepping in to take over as starter from Kyle Allen.

However, the former number one overall pick was sidelined by a calf issue for the Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Taylor Heinicke started instead and, having done well in his limited opportunities at the back end of the season, was handed a new two-year contract in February. 

Smith was voted as the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press having recovered from a career-threatening leg injury to resume his career, though he is now looking for a new home after Washington agreed to cut him.

"I had a chance to meet with Alex Smith this week and we had a very honest and real discussion," Rivera said in a statement released by Washington. "We had the chance to reflect on the 2020 season and talk about moving forward into the next year. 

"After the conclusion of that meeting, we decided that it would be best for both parties to move on, and we will be granting Alex his request to be released. 

"I want to thank Alex for his contributions this past year. He made such an impact on our young roster and his leadership was one of the key factors in our late-season success, and in making the playoffs for the first time since 2015. 

"Everyone here in Washington wishes Alex and his family the best going forward and appreciates all that he gave to our organisation."

Smith, who previously played for the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, made clear in an interview with GQ last month that he intends to carry on playing in 2021, insisting he had "got more left" following his long road to recovery.

He underwent 17 operations and overcame sepsis after suffering a compound fracture injury to his right leg in a game against the Houston Texans in November 2018.

There's a new era in Atlanta and, following the hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach, there is plenty of cause for Falcons fans to be hopeful of better days ahead. 

Things can hardly get much worse than in 2020, when the Falcons slumped to a 4-12 record, with head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff fired after an 0-5 start. 

Smith's arrival will foster optimism the offense can scale new heights in 2021, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator having played a pivotal role in revitalising Ryan Tannehill's career.  

But he and new GM Terry Fontenot have some significant decisions to make in a challenging offseason if their partnership is to hit the ground running in 2021. 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on the year that was for the Falcons and look at what they will need to do to improve on a rather forgettable campaign. 

Offense 

You will find few quarterbacks who experienced more frustrating seasons than Matt Ryan, who continued to serve as one of the most productive signal-callers in the NFL in 2020. 

He was fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,581 and was tied seventh in big plays, delivering 32 completions of 25 yards or more. 

The big-play element that was clearly present in the Falcons' offense contributed to them finishing the year ninth in scoring efficiency. 

Despite Ryan's performances in leading a prolific group, the Falcons never threatened to contend. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the running game should take a large portion of the blame for that failure.

The Falcons were not a balanced offense, with Atlanta averaging just 3.75 yards per run play. The Pittsburgh Steelers (3.62) were the sole team to fare worse on the ground.

Atlanta's 34 rushes of 10 yards or more were tied for 30th in the NFL, the production from running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill not living up to that of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in the passing game.

Ridley was tied-fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,374 while no pass-catcher had more than his 23 receptions of 20 yards or more.

While the running game needs to improve, the primary reason for the stellar efforts of Ryan and Ridley being wasted was the dismal play of a porous defense.

Defense

Worryingly for a Falcons franchise that invested a great deal in the defense in last year's draft, opponents moved the ball and scored on Atlanta at will in 2020. 

Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive points allowed, giving up 414, with opposing passing games racking up 7.18 yards per play against the Falcons. 

Just three teams - the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings - were more susceptible to the pass by that measure. 

The Falcons will hope for better out of last year's first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who was consistently exploited by quarterbacks and receivers in a trying rookie season. 

Terrell was targeted 95 times, the fourth-most of any player in the league, and gave up the third-most receptions (64) and joint-most yards (848).

In addition to the secondary struggling, the defensive front did not produce the desired pressure on opposing signal-callers, Atlanta finishing tied-23rd with 29 sacks.

The run defense was a little more of a bright spot, the Falcons 14th in yards per rush allowed with 4.41.

But the fact they still gave up 49 touchdown drives, the joint-eighth most in the league, despite their relative strength against the run, is indicative of the ground game's decreasing influence on offensive production and the issues in the secondary.

Simply put, for the Falcons to have a chance of even challenging the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, the pass defense must make significant strides. The problem, however, is that the Falcons do not have a great deal of resources with which to make sure it does that.

Offseason

There is increasing talk of the Falcons using the fourth overall pick in this year's draft to select Ryan's successor, with Ohio State's Justin Fields, a native of Georgia, a popular choice for them in mock drafts.

Having the option to rid themselves of Ryan's contract, which will see him carry cap hits of over $40million in 2021 and 2022, and instead start a rookie on a significantly cheaper deal, is something that should appeal to the Falcons.

But, regardless of the merits of Smith as a play-caller and the talent the Falcons have on offense, Fields or any other eventual replacement for Ryan will not be set up for success until the Falcons fix the defense.

The issue in that regard is the Falcons are set to be over $12m above an assumed salary cap of $185m.

That may prohibit them from keeping many of the 11 unrestricted free agents they have on defense, or aggressively pursuing potential signings on that side of the ball.

Compensatory picks are still to be revealed, but the Falcons are at present set to have just six selections in the 2021 NFL Draft.

If they do go with a quarterback in the first round, 2021 will likely be Ryan's last as a Falcon. And, should Atlanta prove unable to use their remaining capital to sufficiently improve the defense, the smart money will be on it being another of frustration for the quarterback who came agonisingly close to delivering the franchise its first Super Bowl crown.

N'Golo Kante has put fitness worries behind him and is back to doing the work of two people at Chelsea, winning the approval of new boss Thomas Tuchel in the process.

Kante did not start any of Tuchel's first five Premier League games in charge at Stamford Bridge and was also restricted to a 16-minute cameo in the 1-0 Champions League win at Atletico Madrid.

However, Thursday's victory by the same scoreline over Liverpool was Kante's third straight appearance in a Premier League XI and he turned in a typically all-action display.

The 29-year-old France international gained possession 11 times at Anfield, more than any other Chelsea player, while his 14 duels contested were only bettered by Jorginho and Timo Werner (both 16).

"Super big," Tuchel replied when asked how important it was to have Kante back to his best.

"It was clear from the first second in training what this guy is capable of doing. It's unbelievable.

"You see his intensity and in the physical report after matches, you think they maybe tracked two people and put them into one sheet.

"It's unbelievable in terms of what he delivers, in terms of intensity, in terms of ball recoveries and devotion to a group. This is world class, the highest level, and very, very happy that he's in our squad."

Despite not enjoying the most memorable season of his career, the two-time Premier League champion and World Cup winner has made more recoveries (200), tackles (76) and interceptions (57) than any other Chelsea midfielder across all competitions.

Tuchel has an enviable array of options to deploy in the deeper central midfield positions, with the passing accuracy offered by Mateo Kovacic (91.5 per cent) and Jorginho (89) outstripping the less-smooth Kante (86.6).

These figures widen from Tuchel's first game in charge against Wolves on January 27 onwards, with Kovacic and Jorginho almost identical on 91.5 and 91.3 respectively, while Kante is back on 82.5 per cent. Indeed, no Chelsea player ceded position more frequently than the former Leicester City man (18) against Liverpool.

However, Kante brings so much to Chelsea in those aspects more associated with his game.

Despite having restricted game time under Tuchel so far, his per 90 minutes average for recoveries (9), tackles (4.6), interceptions (2.5) and duels won (7.4) are the best of any Chelsea midfielder during this period.

For context, none of his other counterparts average more than one interception per game, while Jorginho's average of 2.7 tackles is the next best behind Kante.

"He comes from injury, he will not now play every game 90 minutes before we arrive at the international break," Tuchel said, adding a note of caution.

"We have to manage him, we do this together with our physical coaches. We have to take care of him so he arrives fit for the international break and, when he comes back, I hope we can rely on him in every game.

"I'm very, very happy to have him, Kova and Jorginho in defensive midfield. This is exactly the level we need in games of the highest level. I'm super happy with all of them."

This competition for places is something Tuchel has already seen to be paying dividends.

"I feel an unbelievable attitude towards training and towards games, I feel the bond between players that is necessary," he added.

"In the whole world where football is played, the teams that stand out are the teams that fight for each other, who are ready to sacrifice, who are happy for each other, who push each other from the bench. This is exactly what I found."

Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick made no secret of his admiration for Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland ahead of Der Klassiker, backing the Norway international to dominate the future of the sport.

Haaland has enjoyed a rapid rise since establishing himself as first choice at Salzburg for the start of the 2019-20 season, his remarkable haul of 28 goals in just 20 matches for the Austrians propelling him to top of many big clubs' transfer shortlists.

But, while the likes of Manchester United were keen on Haaland, Dortmund persuaded him to make the move to Signal Iduna Park, where he has been an overwhelming success.

In 45 matches across all competitions, Haaland has 43 goals, while he outperformed his xG (expected goals) by 4.2 in the second half of 2019-20 after joining Dortmund, meaning not only is he scoring frequently but he is also finishing more difficult opportunities – by comparison, Robert Lewandowski has not boasted such a strong xG differential since 2016-17 (7.8).

In three previous games against Bayern – two in the Bundesliga and one in the DFL-Supercup – Haaland has two goals, but he is yet to end up on the winning side against them with BVB.

Nevertheless, Flick is well aware of the threat posed by the Molde youth product, with Bayern facing the prospect of potentially being replaced at the Bundesliga summit by RB Leipzig if Dortmund leave the Allianz Arena with all three points on Saturday.

"Haaland is what a centre-forward has to be," Flick said.

"He has an enormous hunger for goals. The future could belong to him because he has everything he needs for it.

"He's fast, has a strong finish and the right mentality. When you see the intensity with which he puts on a sprint over 80 metres – it's great. He's someone you always have to watch out for.

"It's very important to close the spaces for him. We have to cut off those passes to him."

 

Flick was also asked about the situation of backup goalkeeper Alexander Nubel, who arrived on a free transfer from Schalke last year having established himself as one of the world's most-promising young goalkeepers.

It was always seen as a potentially risky move for Nubel given the presence of Manuel Neuer, who has gone on to put his injury nightmares behind him and once again cement himself as Bayern's number one.

Nubel's agent recently underlined his client's frustration with the situation and suggested he would look to secure a loan move away from Bayern if things did not change, and Flick showed little sympathy in his response.

"Those are things that we talk about internally – we will have an exchange," Flick said. "But we have no business talking about that here.

"His point of view is his right. Alex knew what he was getting into when he came to Bayern Munich. My job as coach is to pick the players who are currently the best team. He played two games and now he's injured.

"The clear number one is Manuel Neuer."

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