Pep Guardiola shrugged off the suggestion Phil Foden's sensational form proves he was right to slowly ease the youngster into first-team action, insisting football is only about the present.

Manchester City prodigy Foden made his Premier League debut in 2017-18, playing five times in total. While his talent was obvious, Guardiola was cautious with his development, opting to drop the attacker in and out of games, sometimes causing ire in the media.

A total of 13 league appearances followed in 2018-19 before Foden truly began to establish himself last season, making 37 appearances across all competitions.

Guardiola's cautious approach has seemingly paid off, with Foden one of City's most impressive players this campaign.

The 20-year-old has played 41 times in total, including 29 starts. He is joint-second – alongside Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling – in City's scorers' list with 13 goals, behind Ilkay Gundogan (16); Foden's latest strike coming against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday.

His tally of nine assists is bettered only by Kevin De Bruyne (16), with the Belgian (99) and Riyad Mahrez (75) the two City players to have created more chances than Foden (65).

But asked if he can take credit for Foden's development, Guardiola insisted the England international must continue to prove himself in every game.

"It's not about what we believed in the past, it's about what they show on the grass," Guardiola told a news conference ahead of City's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Saturday.

"So, footballers have to show every single day. The journalists will talk a lot about the past, or the future. In football it's about the present.

"In the present it doesn't matter what we have done, it's what we do today. Everybody is involved, talking and talking. The players have to talk on the grass.

"It's the only way they can protect their position and win in the present and in the future. It's as simple as that.

"Phil in that case, everything we get right now is on the grass, not in any other situations. He's going to continue being there depending on his performance, not on what he has done so far at a young age. You have to every game win something to stay in the position and playing every day."

While Foden is thriving, one player whose form has been called into question in some quarters is Sterling, who only came on for a brief cameo towards the end against Dortmund.

Guardiola, however, disregarded the suggestion it had to be a choice between Foden or Sterling for a spot on the left.

"If you know a bit the trajectory of this team selection, then the answer is obvious," said Guardiola, who also confirmed Sergio Aguero will not be fit to feature at Wembley.

"Of course they can play together, they have played many times together. Phil can play in five positions, Sterling in three positions. Everyone can play in a few positions, so it depends on them."

Sterling has created fewer opportunities than Foden this season (45), though he has the same amount of assists, having crafted the same number of Opta-defined "big chances" (12) and both are over-performing their expected assists to a similar degree.

 

Foden has a slightly better shot conversion rate – 16.1 per cent compared to 15.7 – though has attempted two fewer (81 compared to 83) attempts than the former Liverpool winger.

Despite playing in a disappointingly empty new SoFi Stadium, few teams managed to electrify more than the Los Angeles Chargers last season.

Even the most ardent Chargers fan would admit that, prior to 2020, there hadn't been much appetite for the franchise in Los Angeles.

It will be interesting to see to what extent that has changed if fans are allowed in stadiums in 2021, following a record-setting rookie season from Justin Herbert.

Herbert silenced all the doubters who questioned the Chargers for taking him with the sixth overall pick, delivering a remarkable campaign that earned him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

It still was not enough to stop the Chargers from enduring a season defined by gaffes and late-game heartbreak, head coach Anthony Lynn paying with his job despite a four-game winning streak to end the year 7-9.

Fuelling further optimism is the appointment of Brandon Staley as Lynn's replacement.

Staley earned widespread plaudits for what he did as the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams in 2020, building a reputation as one of the most innovative defensive minds in the game.

He will hope to get the most of a defense stacked with blue-chip talent while offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is tasked with helping Herbert to the next step in his development.

What can that duo learn from the Chargers' performances of last season? Using Stats Perform data we look back on a 2020 campaign that left Chargers fans excited about what this team could become.

Offense

Herbert went into his rookie season being seen as an inferior quarterback to Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. As a rookie, he outperformed both, becoming the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season having not played the opener.

He came in for Tyrod Taylor after the Week 1 starter had his lung punctured by a team doctor who was administering a painkilling injection.

That error proved serendipitous for everyone but Taylor, who had to play the role of the onlooker as Herbert racked up the second-most passing yards by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Herbert's 4,336 trailed only Andrew Luck, who racked up 4,374 with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012.

Herbert was also second all-time among rookies with his completion percentage of 66.6, falling shy of Dak Prescott who connected on 67.8 in 2016. Where Herbert did set rookie records was in completions (396), passing yards per game (289.1), passing touchdowns (31) and 300-yard games, of which he recorded eight.

Yet for all the remarkable exploits of the sixth overall pick, finishing drives and scoring points remained an issue for the Chargers.

They ranked 21st in red zone touchdown efficiency and in average red zone points, putting up 4.79 per trip inside the 20-yard line of their opponents.

Many will see the departure of Lynn, heavily criticised for his play-calling and game management in key situations, as a significant step towards the Chargers improving in that regard.

But Los Angeles will also look for more from the running game. An injury-affected season for Austin Ekeler hindered the ground attack, which was 30th in yards per rush (3.83) and tied 27th in touchdowns (12).

Too often Herbert led the Chargers into the red zone only to see the drive end in a field goal or a stop for the defense. While Ekeler being at full health would help, the onus will be on Lombardi to ensure their issues inside the 20 are less frequent in 2021.

Defense

As is so often the case with the Chargers, misfortune was a critical factor in their defense not realising its potential.

They lost Derwin James for the season before a ball had even been snapped, the All-Pro safety sidelined following torn meniscus surgery.

It was also another year in which edge rusher Joey Bosa did not play a full season. Had both of those stars been available for the entire year, the Chargers might not have ranked so poorly in opponent scoring efficiency.

The Chargers ranked 23rd in that respect and 21st in opponent touchdown efficiency, with an inability to create turnovers playing a role in their issues.

They generated 19 takeaways in 2020, putting the Chargers tied for 22nd in the NFL, though that number was only three fewer than Staley's Rams defense registered last season.

However, the Rams scored 15 more points off takeaways than the Chargers and were significantly better at creating negative plays for opposing offenses overall.

The Rams forced 88 negative plays for minus 441 yards, ranking seventh in the league, while the Chargers were 30th with 72 negative plays for minus 222 yards.

Yet Staley should be confident he can create a similar formula to what he had with the Rams, with Aaron Donald wreaking havoc up front and Jalen Ramsey an eraser in the secondary. Bosa and James are excellent candidates to fill those roles for the Chargers.

Los Angeles will need to add talent around that duo for this defense to realise its potential, but the Chargers do possess the resources with which to do that.

Offseason

The Chargers used what financial resources they had, in a year where the salary cap was reduced, to beef up the offensive line and ensure Herbert will have the benefit of better protection.

Corey Linsley was signed to a five-year, $62million deal that was more than justified after a 2020 season in which he was named first-team All-Pro, having allowed a pressure rate of 2.8 per cent last season (NFL average: 4.9).

The versatile and underrated right tackle Matt Feiler arrived on a three-year deal from the Pittsburgh Steelers while another tackle, Oday Aboushi, was brought in on a one-year contract.

Los Angeles will hope Jared Cook can help fill the void left by tight end Hunter Henry’s departure to New England. Cook produced a big play on 31.6 per cent of his targets in 2020. The league average for tight ends is 26.1 per cent.

Further help for Herbert, who suffered the ninth-most sacks in the NFL (32) last season, may come with pick 13 in the draft if the Chargers choose to spend it on a long-term solution at left tackle.

However, with Casey Hayward and Melvin Ingram still on the open market and Rayshawn Jenkins having left for Jacksonville, cornerback, edge rusher and safety are all areas Los Angeles could target.

After hiring a defensive mastermind at head coach, better support from that unit and cleaner pockets for their franchise quarterback will be the keys to the Chargers going from upstart to playoff team in Staley's first season.

Ibrahima Konate has cast fresh doubt on suggestions he will leave RB Leipzig to join Liverpool at the end of the season.

The 21-year-old French defender is said to have a €40million (£34.8m) release clause in his contract and reports have claimed the Reds may activate that.

However, Leipzig sporting director Markus Krosche last month told Stats Perform News the move was "not an option" for Konate to consider.

Now, Konate has spoken on the matter, telling German newspaper Bild: "I have a contract until 2023. And contracts are there to be fulfilled.

"There are often rumours in football and many believe them immediately. I or my agents did not get a call from Liverpool.

"I also have big goals with RB Leipzig: to get the best possible result in the Bundesliga, reach the cup final and the Under-21 European Championship with France."

Leipzig, sitting second in the Bundesliga, were facing a home assignment on Friday against Hoffenheim as they looked to put pressure on leaders Bayern Munich.

Unlike Liverpool, whose hopes hang in the balance, Leipzig appear certain to be in the Champions League next season.

Yet they will lose one star French defender when Dayot Upamecano defects to Bayern Munich at the end of the campaign, and to see another depart might be considered a body blow.

Konate is already thinking about life at Leipzig after Upamecano leaves, insisting he wants to be appraised on his own merits rather than compared to the future Bayern star.

"I don't want to be Dayot's successor. I'm me," said Konate. "We both came to Leipzig in 2017 and played well together here. Unfortunately, our paths are now parting. I'll let Dayot have his new job and continue doing my thing here."

Injuries have got in the way of Konate's progress and he has played in just 11 Bundesliga games this season, starting five times in the competition.

In that time he has achieved a duel success rate of 68.66 per cent, which is the third highest among defenders with more than 500 minutes on the pitch this season in Germany's top flight. Opta defines a duel as a '50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides'.

Konate has also won 23 of his 26 aerial challenges in the Bundesliga during the current campaign, and three of four tackles.

On the tackles front, Konate has good examples to follow in the Leipzig ranks of players with strong success rates. Among defenders with over 500 minutes of action in the Bundesliga this term, Lukas Klostermann ranks first in the league with a 92.31 per cent rate (12 of 13 tackles won), while Upamecano is fourth with 81.82 per cent (27 of 33 won).

Pep Guardiola had a simple message for the fans after becoming Barcelona head coach in 2008: "Fasten your seatbelts."

In April 2011, the Catalan press recalled that promise of excitement as they previewed a once-in-a-generation event: four matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid, with three trophies at stake, in 17 days. A Clasico World Series. A defining run of fixtures where winning was everything and losing was unimaginable, with each side dreaming of celebrating a treble and terrified of watching the other do the same.

More like fasten your bandoliers. This was war.

On one side, the Barca of Guardiola, the man taking the coaching world by storm in his first senior post-playing job. A team built from La Masia, boasting some of the academy's greatest ever products: Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi. With the ball on their 'carousel', they were the pinnacle of possession-based attacking play, proof that technical accomplishment could triumph over brute force. They were chasing a second treble in three seasons, and under Guardiola, they had never lost a final.

It could be said Madrid were afraid of this new Barca, and in their fear, they made a deal with the devil. In came Jose Mourinho, the man whose Inter thwarted Barca's attempts to play a Champions League final at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2010. His task was not so much to knock the Catalans off their perch, but to raze the perch to the ground. A league champion in Portugal, England and Italy, the mastermind of Inter's historic treble, with two of history's most expensive signings in Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka at his disposal, Mourinho's task was clear: stop Barca at all costs.

For some, this went beyond the two best teams in the world going head-to-head for trophies. This was a meeting of minds, a clash of styles, a fight for football's very soul. And so, in the spring of 2011, the battle lines were drawn. On April 16, Barca were to host Madrid in La Liga. Four days later, they would meet neutrally at Valencia's Mestalla in the Copa del Rey final. Then came the biggest of all: a two-legged Champions League semi-final for the right to face Manchester United at Wembley.

Seven goals, 167 fouls, 24 yellow cards and four reds later, Barca emerged as Champions League finalists and shoo-ins for the La Liga title. Madrid held the Copa del Rey.

And neither team, nor coach, would ever be quite the same again.

April 16, 2011: Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona

The opening skirmish.

With Barca leading La Liga by eight points heading into the match, having won 26 and drawn three of their previous 29 top-flight games, few realistically believed a defeat would see them throw away the title. This was more of a warm-up act for what was to come, and the chance for Madrid – and Mourinho – to prove they had learned from the reverse fixture: a 5-0 evisceration at Camp Nou in November.

Certainly, there were changes. Madrid had just 33 per cent of the ball in the first game and that dropped to 24 per cent here, as they completed 234 passes to Barca's 791.

And yet they carried a much greater threat than before: They had more shots than Barca (13-11) and six on target, both the most they managed in any Clasico that term. Even after going a goal and a man down – Messi scoring a penalty after Raul Albiol was sent off for fouling David Villa – they salvaged a point after Ronaldo buried a spot-kick of his own.

Mourinho was starting to make his mark. Madrid committed 22 fouls, with Pepe accounting for five of them. Only Lassana Diarra conceded more free kicks in any of the four matches. There were seven bookings, five of them for Barca, whose frustrations with the Madrid approach were summed up neatly when Messi booted the ball into the stands. Only three players created more than one goalscoring chance: Xavi, Angel Di Maria… and Pepe.

For Mourinho, Albiol's red card was key. Although his side snatched a draw, they seemed at the mercy of the Barca circulation machine: 10 of Guardiola's players managed more than 30 passes, including substitute Seydou Keita, while only Sami Khedira (31) did so for Madrid. Xavi, who made 144 on his own, would average 139 per game across the four encounters.

"Eleven against 10 and it was practically mission impossible," said Mourinho. "Especially against a team that – with possession of the ball – are the best in the world."

The title race was out of Madrid's hands. However, in a one-off contest, things looked different…

 

April 20, 2011: Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid

"We knew that whoever scored first would win it," said Mourinho. "And so it proved."

Ronaldo's 42nd goal of the season, a towering header from Di Maria's cross, was enough to decide a cup final spanning 120 gruelling minutes in Valencia. It was Ronaldo and Mourinho's first Madrid trophy, Guardiola's first final defeat, and an end to his dreams of a second treble.

It was also a doubling-down by Mourinho on his pervading methods. Madrid allowed Barca 79 per cent of the ball with the Catalans' 901 passes nearly four times as many as their opponents managed. Concrete opportunities, again, were scarce: there were just four shots on target each from a total of 27.

This time, Barca got sucked into the fight. They committed 24 fouls, their most in any Clasico that season, with each side earning three bookings apiece, and Di Maria was sent off in the dying moments. Their more combative approach neither improved Barca's play nor disrupted Madrid further; however, Los Blancos created nine chances in the contest, only one fewer than Barca, despite yielding so much of the possession.

"Life is like that – you can't always win," Guardiola rued. "We can take them on over two games – we've just done that," goaded Mourinho. And the world waited for what would come next.

April 27, 2011: Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona

The drama started on the eve of the match when Guardiola finally snapped.

His rant at Mourinho, "the f****** boss," was his most public display of anger, his patience exhausted by his opponent's needling. The final straw had been Mourinho describing Pep as a unique coach "that criticises referees when they get decisions right".

In that explosive news conference delivered mostly to "Mourinho's camera", Guardiola promised: "Tomorrow, 8.45 p.m., we will take to the field and we will try to play football as best as possible."

One man certainly did.

Messi had struggled to exert huge influence in the first two games. He had only one shot on target in the cup final, for instance. He was harried, kicked and crowded out at the Santiago Bernabeu this time, and yet won only two free-kicks as Barca committed more fouls than their opponents for the first time. It seemed Mourinho's mind games were paying off.

This, perhaps foreshadowed in the pregame build-up involving their managers, was the most ill-tempered, poisonous game of the lot. There were three red cards shown: one to Barca substitute Jose Pinto, one to Pepe for a foul on Dani Alves, and one to Mourinho for his sarcastic praise of the officials. Again, though, Madrid's 10 men looked capable of salvaging a result, until Messi was unleashed at last. His first was a relative tap-in, a close-range finish from Ibrahim Afellay's cross. It is a goal that is easily forgotten due to what came after. Busquets rolled the ball into his path, and Messi was off – away from Diarra, away from Albiol, beyond Marcelo, before squeezing a low finish past Iker Casillas.

It was his 11th goal in 11 Champions League games, his 52nd of the season, and perhaps the greatest he has ever scored: for the occasion, the speed, the execution, the kicks that failed to stop him.

May 3, 2011: Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid

Everyone, it seemed, felt the tie was already over. Madrid decided to prioritise chasing Barca players over chasing the game, committing 30 fouls for the return of a single shot on target. At least nobody was sent off.

Gonzalo Higuain thought he had given Madrid the lead, but it was disallowed for a foul by Ronaldo in the build-up. Marcelo cancelled out Pedro's eventual opener, but it was Barca who went through – and Madrid who went apoplectic.

"We feel tricked by the officials," Casillas said afterwards.

"Next year, they might as well give the cup to Barcelona," complained Ronaldo.

Mourinho was facing possible punishment for suggesting referees favoured the Blaugrana, while both teams vowed to make official complaints to UEFA about the other.

The battle was done, the hostilities over (on the pitch, at least). Crucially, though, the events of these matches hardened Mourinho's resolve. "Now I have more willingness to continue in charge of Real Madrid for what this means," he said. "This jersey is white, and white now has more significance."

 

The aftermath

Over those two spectacular weeks, the teams shared two draws and one win apiece. Barca, though, were the victors: a third league title in a row and a second Champions League triumph under Guardiola easily made up for losing the Copa final.

Mourinho, however, would not lose the war.

These games, and the 5-4 two-legged Supercopa de Espana defeat in August – one made infamous by Mourinho poking Barca assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye – showed the Portuguese the way to conquer Spain: disrupt Barca and destroy the rest. His players seemed galvanised, and they proved it.

In 2010-11, Barca finished on 96 points, four ahead of Madrid. Interestingly, they only scored 95 goals to their rivals' 102, while conceding 12 goals fewer. They lost just two games to Madrid's four.

Mourinho's response was to develop Madrid not into a team impossible to beat, but one that could barely stop winning. Records tumbled in 2011-12: 32 victories from 38 games, 121 goals scored, 100 points accrued. His Faustian pact with Madrid had paid off, but those vitriolic two campaigns took their toll. He has had three times as many job changes as league titles in the decade since.

Barca also scored more that season: 114 times in the league overall, 50 of which came from Messi. Overall, though, their exceptional standards had slipped just enough. After three intense seasons under Guardiola and the brutality of El Clasico's rivalry, they just couldn't sustain it any longer. At the end of the season, Guardiola announced he was stepping down, admitting: "Four years is an eternity as Barca coach… I have nothing left."

Paul Pogba cannot explain why his relationship with Jose Mourinho turned sour at Manchester United, but claims to have a much different bond with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Pogba was United's marquee signing for 2016-17 – Mourinho's first season in charge at the club – and helped the Red Devils to a Europa League title that campaign.

Yet Mourinho's second term failed to live up to expectations and, after a difficult start to the 2018-19 season, the former Chelsea and Real Madrid manager was dismissed, with Solskjaer replacing him, initially on an interim basis before taking up the role full time.

Mourinho's relationship with members of United's squad was said to have deteriorated, with an apparent training ground argument with Pogba coming after the France star was stripped of a vice-captaincy role in September 2018.

Though Mourinho has since left United, Pogba's future remains unclear. His agent, Mino Raiola, has made several claims that the 28-year-old wishes to leave the club, and the midfielder's contract is up at the end of next season.

For Pogba's part, he revealed he enjoys his relationship with Solskjaer, while still being none the wiser as to why he and Mourinho failed to get along, though hinted he does not believe the Portuguese's man-management style is correct.

"What I have now with Ole is different, he wouldn't go against the players," Pogba told Sky Sports. "He wouldn't go against the players.

"Maybe Ole wouldn't pick them, but it's not like he puts them on the side like they don't exist anymore. That's the difference between Mourinho and Ole.

"Once I had a great relationship with Mourinho, everybody saw that, and the next day you don't know what happened. That's the strange thing I had with Mourinho and I cannot explain to you because even I don't know."

Pogba's numbers – then and now.

While Pogba's relationship with Mourinho ultimately failed to last, he did make more appearances (108) and starts (100) than any other United midfielder between August 2016 and December 2018.

Indeed, Pogba's goal tally from that time span is 20, joint-most among United midfielders, alongside Jesse Lingard, while the former Juventus man also registered 22 assists in all competitions. 

No United midfielder created more chances than Pogba (168) under Mourinho, while he also led the charts for minutes played (8,825).

In comparison, Pogba has played 6,240 minutes in all competitions under Solskjaer, ranking second for midfielders behind Fred (7,595) while he has made the third-most appearances (83) and starts (67).

Pogba's 17 goals in that time pale in comparison to Bruno Fernandes' 36, with his 15 assists seven fewer than the ex-Sporting CP playmaker's tally of 22.

An impressive tackle success rate of 62.18 per cent from 119 challenges does show a different side of Pogba's game, perhaps proving the more defensive role which has been asked of him during Solskjaer's stint.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich described LaMarcus Aldridge as a "consummate professional" after the veteran retired due to a health issue.

Aldridge played while dealing with an irregular heartbeat in the Brooklyn Nets' 126-101 defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday, a problem that became worse after the game.

The seven-time All-Star was listed as out with a non-COVID related illness for the Nets' next two games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Philadelphia 76ers.

On Thursday, the 35-year-old announced he was putting his health and family first and calling it a day.

Aldridge had only joined the Nets as a free agent in March and averaged 12.8 points in five games after agreeing a contract buyout with the Spurs.

He was signed by the Spurs ahead of the 2015-16 season, helping San Antonio reach the Western Conference Finals in 2017 where they were swept by the Golden State Warriors.

"LaMarcus Aldridge enjoyed a wonderful NBA career. He was a consummate professional with a unique skill set and a deep respect for the game," Popovich said in a Spurs statement.

"We're grateful for his contributions, both on and off the court, during his time here in San Antonio.

"I'm proud of him for making this difficult decision and we wish him and his family all of the best in the future."

Selected second overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 2006 draft, Aldridge spent the majority of his career with the Portland Trail Blazers, scoring 12,562 points to sit third on the franchise's all-time list.

Aldridge played in 1,029 NBA games and finishes up averaging 19.4 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Steph Curry aims to bring "joy and a competitive fire" to a developing Golden State Warriors unit, after he netted 30 points for a career-best ninth straight game.

Curry was instrumental as the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 119-101 on Thursday to make it four wins from four – the team's strongest streak this season.

The 33-year-old scored 33 points, registered five assists and four rebounds, completing four of 13 attempted three-pointers, while Curry is the first Warrior since Rick Barry in 1966-67 to score 30-plus points in nine consecutive games.

Golden State's run has taken them onto the verge of the playoff positions in the Western Conference, and Curry is delighted with how the team is coming together.

"I just try to bring the team joy and a competitive fire," Curry said, as reported by ESPN.

"We've got a way to go, but developing different ways to win games is a good thing."

"He's been incredible lately, even by Steph standards," Warriors coach Steve Kerr added of Curry's superb individual display. 

"It's the result of a lifetime of training and hard work, but he just does it night after night. We're in a very good place right now. The guys feel good about themselves."

Curry was ably supported by Andrew Wiggins (23 points), Juan Toscano-Anderson (20) and Draymond Green, whose tally of five points was boosted by 10 rebounds and eight assists.

Indeed, Green's partnership with Curry received particular praise from Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who said:  "Steph and Draymond are so good and with their experience, they're just deadly, and the other guys play their role to a T."

One negative for Golden State is the news of a season-ending knee injury for rookie James Wiseman, the number two overall draft pick.

"It's tough because he was headed in the right direction, but I told him he needs to think big picture," Curry said.

"He can use this to try and turn a negative into a positive."

When FIFA last year announced they were set to introduce limits on the number of players teams could send out on loan, unsurprisingly many people's first thoughts turned to Chelsea.

At the time, the Blues remarkably had 28 players at other clubs, though this was by no means a recent trend: in 2018-19 that figure was 41.

The 'hoarding' of talent might be a solid ploy when looking to stunt the growth of a rival team or generate long-term revenue on Football Manager, but in the real world it was a practice that had long attracted criticism.

While by no means the only club in the world to have lots of young players out on loan, Chelsea have – rightly or wrongly – arguably been the most synonymous with it.

Some feel this has directly contributed to the club's struggles in developing homegrown talent because they have so many players, whereas others believe it offers a greater number of individuals the chance to play first-team football at a higher level than the Under-23s.

Putting aside some of the moral issues, Mason Mount falls into the latter category and proves there is a route to the first team through the fog of war for Chelsea's loan army.

By his own admission Mount needed an extra kick when he was in Chelsea's Under-23s as an 18-year-old, and that led to his temporary switch to the Eredivisie with Vitesse Arnhem, where he won the club's Player of the Year award.

But it's unlikely even he realised how important his next move would be as he linked up with Chelsea great Frank Lampard.

In at the deep end

Mount made 44 appearances across all competitions for Derby County in 2018-19 as they missed out on promotion in the play-off final, but regardless of that ultimate disappointment it proved a massive year for both he and Lampard.

With Maurizio Sarri departing Stamford Bridge to join Juventus despite Europa League success, Lampard was brought back to the club as head coach. Given his status and the trust he placed in young players – and, more pertinently, young players owned by Chelsea – at Derby, Lampard was seen as the ideal candidate to guide the team through a transfer embargo by bringing through homegrown talent.

Whether or not Lampard was a success as Chelsea coach is a discussion for another time, but his faith in Mount was unquestionable, chucking him straight into the team on the first day of the 2019-20 season.

 

The Blues suffered a rather harsh 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, but Mount didn't look out of his depth in the Premier League, playing four key passes over the course of the match.

He never enjoyed a more productive Premier League game in terms of chances created in 2019-20, while he finished the season with 12 goal involvements (seven scored, five set up), a figure bettered by only Tammy Abraham (18), Willian (16) and Christian Pulisic (13) in the Chelsea squad.

Similarly, Willian (76) was the only Chelsea player to lay on more key passes over 2019-20 than Mount's 52 and he appeared in more league games than any of his team-mates (37).

But those points don't quite tell the whole story. To say he was consistent throughout the season would be a lie, as after the turn of the year there was a growing sense of frustration regarding his form. Between the start of November and the final day of the season, his three assists amounted to a couple of corner deliveries for Antonio Rudiger to head home, and a free-kick against Arsenal that Bernd Leno made a mess of. Mount's one open-play assist of 2019-20 came on the final day of the season against Wolves.

 

Some felt Mount was being over-worked by Lampard, others put his issues down to being used in a variety of roles – one week he'd occupy a central midfield position, the next he could be deployed as a winger and then he might play as a No.10.

The "teacher's pet" tag began to raise its head, with Lampard's almost incessant use of Mount leading to suggestions of preferential treatment. 

A star of his own merit

When Thomas Tuchel was hired as Lampard's replacement in January, there wouldn't have been too many particularly worried for Mount's future given he had been a fixture in the team.

But when Mount was dropped for the German's first game in charge, Tuchel's decision certainly made people sit up and take note.

While he explained it away as opting to go with experience, dropping Mount suggested for arguably the first time since his return from Derby that he had a fight on his hands.

But it would be fair to say he's risen to the challenge.

"I understood and wanted to get back into the team, so that motivation and that fire that I have inside me came out," Mount said at a news conference last month. "I really tried to push to get back into the team. It's been brilliant."

Since then, he's become more productive almost across the board in the final third under Tuchel than he had been for Lampard in 2020-21.

 

Seemingly one of the main contributing factors is his role. While Lampard used Mount in numerous positions, Tuchel has largely deployed him further up the pitch in an attempt to get him closer to the opposition's penalty area – activity maps show a significant change between the two coaches' usage of the 21-year-old.

Not only is he involved in passing moves more often as a result, he's contributing to sequences that end in a shot with greater frequency as well. His 72 (7.8 per 90 minutes) during Tuchel's 12 Premier League matches is the second highest in the division since the German's appointment, while his 96 (5.6 per 90 minutes) involvements in Lampard's 18 top-flight games this term was the eighth most.

The expected goals value from these sequences has increased too, going from 0.43 to 0.65 per 90 minutes, meaning Chelsea are creating greater quality chances with Mount further up the pitch.

Furthermore, there's been a considerable improvement in his own productivity. While his chance creation record in the past may have been skewed by set-pieces, he's moved up the rankings in terms of open-play key passes per 90 minutes. With 1.5 each game, only 12 others have done better than Mount since Tuchel's arrival – beforehand, his 1.2 per 90 minutes had him 43rd in those rankings.

 

While he may still be without a single open-play assist in 2020-21, it's clear to see that Mount's strong associative talents and ability to play tidily in busier areas of the pitch make him a real asset to Tuchel, who has acted quickly to shift the England international into a position that seemingly suits him better.

Scoring has been an issue for them, with the likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz continuing to struggle, and this has undoubtedly impacted Mount as his expected assists from open play is 3.5 - with more clinical finishing he wouldn't still be sat on zero.

 

Mount's form lately seems to suggest that once Chelsea begin to click in front of goal, he'll be key to much of their build-up.

A homegrown beacon of hope

Throughout Roman Abramovich's time as Chelsea owner, the club has often found itself in a sort of purgatory – while they've undoubtedly wanted success and a first-team full of homegrown talents, it's difficult to say they've truly struck a balance between the two.

After all, since the start of the century, Chelsea products reaching 100 Premier League appearances for the club have been a rarity.

John Terry, of course, leads the way, but beyond him it becomes a bit murky. John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic perhaps come closest to fitting the bill, though both did play senior football elsewhere before joining the club as teenagers.

Granted, Mount remains a little way off yet as well having played 67 times in the top-flight for Chelsea, but he's quickly making up ground.

Not too far behind him are Tammy Abraham (56), Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (both on 54), while Andreas Christensen – at Chelsea since 2013 – has featured 70 times.

What's in store for their long-term futures at Chelsea remains to be seen – they are far less certain than Mount.

But Mount especially shows that where there wasn't much hope for young talent coming through at Chelsea in the past, now there is for arguably the first time in the Abramovich era.

Harry Kane continues to be linked with a move away from Tottenham and, after last week's defeat to Manchester United, his Spurs future looks little brighter.

Still, the England star has rarely allowed off-field rumours to influence his form, and he happens to be preparing to face one of his favourite opponents in Everton.

Liverpool forward Diogo Jota is another forward we are encouraging Fantasy Football players to select for this week, as the champions get ready for a tricky test at Leeds United.

Is there anyone else who offers good value for this week, we hear you ask? Read on for a handful of suggested picks, as powered by Opta data...

 

RUI PATRICIO

Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio has kept five clean sheets in his most recent 13 Premier League games. That might not sound like a lot, but he went 12 matches before there without keeping the ball out of the net.

Those shut-outs have come against some strong opposition, too: Chelsea, Leicester City, Leeds United, Aston Villa and Fulham have all failed to find a way past the Portugal international.

Given Sheffield United have failed to score in 17 league matches this term, the highest number in the division, Patricio is an ideal man for the number-one spot.

PABLO MARI

Backing Arsenal defensively is rarely the safest of bets, but they do have a strong record against promoted teams in the top flight, having kept four clean sheets in their most recent six meetings with such opposition.

Of their four main centre-backs, Pablo Mari has the best rate for minutes per goal conceded: one every 103.

Having helped the Gunners ease past Sheffield United last week, he could be in line for another outing against struggling Fulham.

 

ANTONIO RUDIGER

Antonio Rudiger has only started 14 games in the league this season, but Chelsea have kept clean sheets in nine of those matches, including in five of the most recent seven.

In the most recent game in which the Germany defender did not start, the Blues shipped five goals at home to a West Brom side who were made to look like peak Barcelona.

After their FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City, Chelsea resume league duties against Brighton and Hove Albion – a team with a frustrating habit of failing to turn promising play into goals.

 

DIOGO JOTA

Liverpool might have fallen from the lofty heights of last season, but few could blame their decline on close-season signing Diogo Jota.

The Portugal forward has averaged a goal every 103 minutes in the league this term, the best rate of any Liverpool player. He has also netted in each of his past three away games.

With Leeds United boasting an expected goals against figure of 48.94, the fourth-worst in the division, Jota will fancy his chances at Elland Road.

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN

With a goal and an assist off the bench against Burnley last week, Allan Saint-Maximin proved just how valuable he could be to Newcastle United's survival hopes.

The winger has been involved in five goals (two scored, three assisted) in his previous six league matches, as many as he managed in 19 before then.

The Magpies face tough opponents in West Ham, but David Moyes' men have conceded nine goals in three league games - and each time after going 3-0 up.

 

HARRY KANE

Harry Kane cut a disconsolate figure after Spurs' loss to Manchester United, but this weekend could offer the chance for a pick-me-up.

Kane has scored nine goals in his past seven games against Everton in all competitions, including five in just three appearances at Goodison Park.

He also just one short of reaching 20 in the top flight in a single season for the fifth time.

KELECHI IHEANACHO

His two goals at West Ham were not quite enough to mount a comeback, but they did underline the red-hot form of Kelechi Iheanacho.

The striker has hit seven goals in five league games, as many as he managed in 63 previous appearances in the competition.

With eight league goals to his name in 2020-21, Iheanacho is just one short of his best ever return for a Premier League season. Next up for Leicester after their FA Cup final? Relegation-threatened West Brom.

Stephen Curry posted more than 30 points for a career-best ninth consecutive game as the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 119-101.

Curry starred for the Warriors on Thursday, scoring 33 points to lead the visitors past the Cavaliers in Cleveland and to their fourth successive win.

The two-time MVP – who is averaging 38.2 points amid his streak – became the first Warriors player to have at least 30 points in nine straight games since Rick Barry in 1966-67.

Andrew Wiggins added 23 points for the Warriors, while Juan Toscano-Anderson had his first career 20-point game with 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

The Cavaliers were led by Collin Sexton's 30 points and Jarrett Allen's double-double of 17 points and 14 rebounds.

 

Brown goes off against Lakers

The Boston Celtics took down injury-hit defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers 121-113 at Staples Center. Without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers were punished by Jaylen Brown, who fuelled the Celtics with 40 points on 17-for-20 shooting, making three of his five three-point attempts to go with nine rebounds and three assists. He became the first player in franchise history to score 40-plus points with a field-goal percentage of 85 per cent or better.

Deandre Ayton (26 points and 11 rebounds), Devin Booker (23 points) and Chris Paul (13 points and 11 assists) combined as the red-hot Phoenix Suns topped the Sacramento Kings 122-114. Phoenix won their 10th consecutive home game as they reached 40 victories for the first time since 2014.

Brook Lopez was efficient with 19 points and 12 rebounds on seven-for-10 shooting, while he was three-of-six from three-point range as two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo returned from a six-game injury lay-off in the Milwaukee Bucks' 120-109 success against the Atlanta Hawks.

 

Matthews and Caldwell-Pope struggle

It was not a memorable outing for Lakers pair Wesley Matthews (three points) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (two points), who were both one-for-seven shooting in 23 minutes as starters. Matthews made one of his six attempts from beyond the arc, while Caldwell-Pope missed all three of his efforts.

Kevin Love – an NBA champion with the Cavaliers – finished two-for-10 shooting against the Warriors. The veteran (five points) only nailed one of his seven three-point attempts on a rough day.

 

Tricky Tatum

Jayson Tatum had five assists against the Lakers, including a behind-the-back dime to tee up Celtics team-mate Tristan Thompson.

 

Thursday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 120-109 Atlanta Hawks
Golden State Warriors 119-101 Cleveland Cavaliers
Phoenix Suns 122-114 Sacramento Kings
Boston Celtics 121-113 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Clippers at 76ers

A blockbuster clash will see the in-form Los Angeles Clippers (39-18) visit the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers (38-17) on Friday. The Clippers have won seven straight, while the 76ers are in the midst of a three-game winning run.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes winning the Europa League title can be a catalyst for his team after they reached another semi-final.

United set up a semi-final showdown with Roma after Thursday's 2-0 victory over Granada at Old Trafford sealed a 4-0 aggregate triumph.

Solskjaer's United have reached four semi-finals and lost them all – the Red Devils beaten in last season's Europa League semi, having also missed out on trips to the FA Cup and EFL Cup deciders in 2019-20.

United – second in the Premier League standings – also fell to Manchester City in this season's EFL Cup semi-final, leaving Solskjaer hungry for that last elusive step.

Not since the 2016-17 season, when they claimed the Europa League, EFL Cup and Community Shield under former boss Jose Mourinho, have United won silverware.

"You know, when you get to a semi, that's the nature of the game," Solskjaer said during his post-match news conference after United advanced to their 18th semi-final in all European competition – only Liverpool (19) have appeared in more among English sides.

"You are playing against good teams. We've played against good teams but we relish the chance again to go to a final.

"I've seen the determination, the attitude in every player that we want to go one further because the disappointment of the defeats that we've had, they give us the motivation to go one step further and hopefully end the season on a high."

The first leg of the semi-final against Serie A side Roma will be played at Old Trafford on April 19, followed by a May 6 date at Stadio Olimpico in the Italian capital.

Since losing their first two home games in the Europa League in 2011-12, United have not lost any of their last 17 games at Old Trafford in the competition (W13 D4).

United – who have won three consecutive knockout-stage games without conceding in major European competition for the first time since 2008 – have kept five clean sheets in six Europa League games since the turn of the year, more than any other side in 2021.

"This season has been difficult with no pre-season. It's not been possible for us to practice anything really, since the pre-season of 19-20. That's one thing," Solskjaer added.

"I think the next step for the team, of course, is to get to a final, to win a trophy. I think that would give this group of players something extra.

"The motivation is there. I see it. The determination is there to improve all the time. I've seen before a catalyst for a team is often to win a trophy, to get over the line. That's what we're aiming to do at the end of the season."

Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis has been cleared to resume full on-court activities and could return for the upcoming series against the NBA-leading Utah Jazz.

Davis has been sidelined since exiting the NBA champions' game against the Denver Nuggets on February 14 as he recovers from tendinosis and a calf strain in his right leg.

The Lakers have also been without superstar LeBron James due to an ankle injury, but head coach Frank Vogel said the team are close to welcoming back Davis.

Davis missed Thursday's clash with the Boston Celtics, but Vogel did not rule out the eight-time All-Star from potentially returning in the Utah series across April 17 and April 19.

The Lakers are more hopeful Davis will be ready to face the Dallas Mavericks on April 22.

"Good news. He was evaluated again upon the return of this trip," Vogel told reporters on Thursday.

"He has been cleared for full on-court activity. Full practice, anything we want to do with him to begin his real ramp-up to begin his return to play.

"All the court work he's been doing until this point has been to get him to be fully cleared to participate in full practice.

"Obviously he's not playing tonight [Thursday]. It's unlikely he plays in the two Utah games, but not out of the question. Hopefully he is available after that."

Davis, who will return on a minutes restriction, was averaging 22.5 points per game this season before the injury – his lowest since his second year in the league with the New Orleans Pelicans (20.8).

The 28-year-old's average of 8.4 rebounds in 2020-21 is the lowest since his rookie season (8.2) in 2012-13.

Vogel's Lakers (34-21) are fifth in the Western Conference, seven games adrift of the high-flying Jazz (41-14).

James Wiseman's rookie season in the NBA has come to a premature end after the Golden State Warriors center underwent knee surgery on Thursday. 

Wiseman had a procedure in Los Angeles to repair a right meniscal tear, the NBA team announced. 

The 20-year-old is expected to be healthy for the start of the 2021-22 season.

Wiseman was the second overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft but had trouble staying in the line-up in his first season with Golden State, starting 27 of his 39 games and averaging 21.4 minutes along with 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. 

He ranks third among rookies in rebounding, fifth in scoring, fourth in field-goal percentage and fifth in blocks (0.92 per game).

Golden State's Wiseman missed much of February with a wrist injury before returning in a bench role for several weeks. 

Wiseman re-joined the starting line-up on March 23 and his play was inconsistent before a strong showing in what turned out to be his final full game of the season. 

He made nine of 11 field goals and scored 18 points against the Washington Wizards on April 9, but left the following day's game against the Houston Rockets in the second quarter after landing awkwardly on a dunk attempt. 

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told reporters earlier in the week that Wiseman was taking the injury news as well as he could. 

"He's just been through an awful lot this season," Kerr said. "And he has a really good way about him and he's at minimum putting up a good front, but I know he's really crushed, but he's hanging in there."

The San Diego Padres are "optimistic" star Fernando Tatis Jr. will return for Friday's showdown with MLB World Series champions the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Tatis – who signed an eye-popping 14-year, $340million contract extension with the Padres before the start of the season – has been on the injured list since suffering a subluxation of his left shoulder on April 5.

But the 22-year-old shortstop is poised to make his comeback, according to Padres manager Jayce Tingler.

"He took a live [batting practice] today," Tinger told reporters on Thursday. "Probably had his best day today as far as the at-bats.

"We have to go over a couple of things with the medical team.

"We're optimistic that he has a good chance to be ready to play tomorrow."

Tatis won a Silver Slugger award last season, having hit .277 with 17 home runs and 45 RBIs in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign.

He is the first player in MLB history to have at least 35 home runs and 25 stolen bases within the first 150 games of his career.

Tatis packs a punch with the bat – he led the majors in average exit velocity (95.9 mph), hard hit percentage (62.2), and balls hit 95-plus MPH (102) last season.

 

Cameron Smith carded a nine-under-par 62 to set the early pace by one stroke after the first round of the RBC Heritage.

Australian golfer Smith turned in a bogey-free round at Harbour Town on Thursday for the lowest score of his PGA Tour career.

The 2020 Masters runner-up birdied three of the last four holes, just missing an eagle at the last when his approach shot missed the hole by inches. 

Smith finished with nine birdies in the opening round, tying his career record for most birdies in a single round on Tour.

"Everything just came together," Smith told reporters. "It was a great day on the green. I was hitting my irons really good. I had lots of good looks, and I just took advantage of them."

Smith's score matched the lowest opening round in tournament history, joining Davis Love III in 2002 and Peter Lonard three years later. 

The 27-year-old has two career PGA Tour titles, the most recent in January 2020 at the Sony Open in Hawaii. 

"I just feel really comfortable," Smith said. "Mentally I feel very free out there. I feel like I can hit the shot that I need to hit and going ahead and trying to execute it. I just feel like every shot I'm hitting, I'm putting 100 per cent into it, and on a day like today, it's really rewarding."

Two-time champion Stewart Cink started early and was the clubhouse leader with a 63 before Smith's torrid closing stretch left him second on the leaderboard. 

Cink's score on Thursday was the American veteran's best in 75 career rounds at Harbour Town. 

"A round like this doesn't show you there is more out there," Cink said. "A round like this shows you what you're doing is already dead on, and why change anything?"

Matt Wallace and Collin Morikawa are three shots back at six under, followed by Charles Howell III, Billy Horschel and Harold Varner III – who are a stroke further adrift.

Masters runner-up Will Zalatoris shot a three-under-par 68, while world number one Dustin Johnson ended the day eight shots off the pace.

Defending champion Webb Simpson opened his bid for back-to-back titles with a first-round 71, leaving him tied for 67th. 

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.