Antonio Conte has plans to utilise Christian Eriksen in a deeper role for Inter, despite speculation linking the midfielder with a return to former club Tottenham. 

Eriksen looked poised to leave Inter after the club's CEO Giuseppe Marotta revealed he had been placed on the transfer list before the mid-season break. 

That followed a difficult start to the season for the Denmark international, which saw him start just four league games and fail to claim an assist. 

Reports suggest a reunion with Spurs, where he scored 51 goals in 226 Premier League matches, could yet happen during the January transfer window, but it appears there may still be a future for the 28-year-old at the Nerazzurri. 

Deployed at the base of Inter's midfield for Wednesday's Coppa Italia win over Fiorentina, Eriksen enjoyed a fruitful outing. 

No player on the pitch made more than his four key passes, while he completed the most passes in the opposition half of any Inter player (45) and gained possession a team-high nine times. 

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While Marcelo Brozovic is likely to return to that position for Sunday's Derby d'Italia with Juventus, Conte suggested he could look to use Eriksen there more frequently. 

"We must get the best out of our squad," Conte told a media conference. "It is inevitable to have him [Eriksen] behind Brozo [Brozovic] because we do not have this kind of player in the squad who can be a playmaker in front of the defensive line. 

"We are trying to get the best of Christian in that position, even if he played both as an attacking and an inside midfielder already. 

"It is good for the team and myself having the opportunity to use him in different roles in the midfield."

Second-place Inter go into Sunday's clash four points ahead of Andrea Pirlo's Juve, who are fourth. 

Mason Mount scored a late winner as Chelsea scraped to an unimpressive 1-0 win at a struggling Fulham side that played half the match a man light. 

Frank Lampard's side went into the match without a win in any of their three previous Premier League games, a run that had seen their coach come under increased pressure. Although they were able to end that streak, the performance was by no means vintage. 

Chelsea had the better of the first half but did not begin to exert genuine control until after Antonee Robinson's dismissal in the 44th minute left the Blues with a numerical advantage. 

They had great difficulty making the most of that sending off, but eventually Mount struck 12 minutes from time to move Chelsea back up to seventh in the table. 

Chelsea briefly appeared to find their groove when they created a flurry of chances in quick succession before the half-hour mark of the contest. 

Alphonse Areola had to be alert twice, saving from Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger either side of Mount striking the crossbar during what was a promising three-minute spell from the visitors. 

While that was not the start of a prolonged onslaught, Chelsea's chances were helped just before half-time when Robinson was shown a straight red for a wild tackle on Cesar Azpilicueta that completely missed the ball and sent the Spaniard flying. 

Despite having an extra man, Chelsea's chance creation frequency did not appear to increase, two of their better opportunities ultimately resulting in offside calls. 

A defensive calamity just past the hour then almost saw Chelsea fall behind, as Azpilicueta's poor pass forced Edouard Mendy to stretch and nudge the ball to Ivan Cavaleiro, but luckily Thiago Silva was in attendance to block his shot in front of an empty goal. 

Chelsea finally found a way through in the latter stages, Mount drilling a volley low past Areola after the Frenchman had diverted a left-wing cross right to him.

Juventus may not be leading the way in Serie A but they continue to be the benchmark in Italian football, according to Inter boss Antonio Conte.

Juve have secured the title for nine successive seasons in the top flight but face a battle to stretch that streak into double figures under Andrea Pirlo's leadership.

Milan lead the way in the table having lost just once in 17 league games so far, while Inter and Roma also sit above the reigning champions in the table.

However, as far as Conte is concerned, the Bianconeri remain the team to beat in the competition.

"We know Juventus are a benchmark. They are the side we must look to, one that have dominated in Italy," he told the media ahead of Sunday's showdown with Juventus at San Siro.

"They are a side that could show us where we are at - Juve are a reference point for us."

A former player for Juve who went on to win Serie A three times while in charge in Turin, Conte praised the way his old club have always looked to build from a position of strength.

He pinpointed the additions made in the transfer market - including Alvaro Morata and Dejan Kulusevski - as a major reason for Juve continuing to set the standard.

"The gap has been narrowed but no one has done it definitely in Italy," Conte said.

"In the past nine years they have dominated. They have done well in all areas. They have managed to change and adapt, they have made the squad younger and fresher.

"This year they have a structure which has always won. Plus they have added Morata, for example. Each year they do a great job of trying to improve.

"I do not think in Italy there is anyone at that level yet. Sides have improved but not cut out the gap to Juventus. We cannot think anything else than that."

Inter have achieved five consecutive home Serie A wins – the last time they managed six in a row was back in December 2018 - but have not beaten Juve at San Siro in the league since September 2016.

Conte has yet to register a Serie A win in games against his former employers, losing all three past meetings.

Andrea Pirlo says Antonio Conte is the person who inspired him to move into coaching and is fully aware of the mind games being used by the Inter boss ahead of Sunday's Derby d'Italia.

Midfield great Pirlo worked under Conte for Juventus and Italy during his illustrious playing career before retiring in 2017 and taking up his first managerial role with Juve last August.

Pirlo has made an inconsistent start to life in the Allianz Stadium dugout, but his side have won their last three league games to move to within four points of second-place Inter with a game in hand.

Despite being a further three points behind leaders Milan, Conte suggested ahead of Juve's trip to San Siro that the reigning champions remain the Scudetto favourites given they have won it nine years in a row.

The first of those title wins came with Conte in charge and Pirlo a regular in midfield, and the latter is not reading too much into the comments of his former head coach, who he still admires greatly.

"He likes to do this, I know him well," Pirlo said at Saturday's pre-match news conference. "He tries to take the pressure off his team and put it on us. 

"We have no problems, we are Juventus, we have been winning for nine years and it is normal that we have more pressure. 

"But they too have been built to win, and they are no less than us. It will be a great match between two teams that have the same ambition."

Pirlo previously described Conte as "the best coach he has ever worked with" and has opened up on the part the 51-year-old has played in his career.

He said: "Antonio was the first one who made me think about studying as a coach. I am grateful to him because he taught me so much as a player and from there I thought about a future as a manager. 

"He is making a career of the highest level and has a great human depth but tomorrow we will be opponents. We have two different characters and maybe that's why we get along.

"There is still great esteem and great affection. He gave me a lot and made history at Juventus."

Juve are the only team against which Conte has always lost as manager in Serie A (three out of three), with the Bianconeri unbeaten in nine of their last 10 away league meetings in this fixture.

However, Inter have won five in a row on home soil in the league - the last time they won six on the spin was in December 2018 - and Pirlo is anticipating a tough match against an expensively-assembled side.

"Initially I expect an aggressive Inter who will want to give rhythm to the match," he said. "We have prepared ourselves for this must not be afraid, even in such an important match. It will be a tactical match but we must also be free of our heads. 

"A victory can give us an important boost because it is Inter-Juventus. It is a game that goes beyond three points. It is not only important for the championship standings but for everything else. 

"There is great attention and great concentration because we compete against a great team with great champions. They have strengthened during the summer, while we have made a journey towards the future.

"They have put players in the team for the present. We are two teams that will fight until the end for the victory of the championship."

Matthijs de Ligt, Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado will play no part after recently testing positive for coronavirus but Aaron Ramsey, Giorgio Chiellini and Weston McKennie are all in contention to start.

Juve have yet to lose a league game in which De Ligt has not started this term, drawing four and winning three, and Pirlo is happy with the options available to him at the back.

"De Ligt is important but let's remember that we also have other champions behind us," he said. "We will field players of great depth who have been at this level for many years. 

"This is certainly an absence that we would have done less willingly but we feel even stronger with the return of Chiellini and with [Leonardo] Bonucci."

Mohamed Salah believes faltering Liverpool "need to win" against Manchester United because of the high stakes involved in Sunday's showdown.

Premier League top-scorer Salah expects the always hotly contested north-west battle to have an extra edge because both are chasing the title this season.

The Egyptian striker, who has 13 league goals this season, has scored only once in his five previous Premier League encounters with United.

He has also failed to hit the net in Liverpool's last three league games this term, during which time they have mustered just one goal and two points.

As a result of Liverpool's slump, United have bolted three points ahead of Jurgen Klopp's Reds at the top of the table, with nine wins from their last 11 league games sending Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men soaring.

"The game is really big at the moment, especially because now they are first and we are second," Salah told Norwegian broadcaster TV 2.

"They are playing well this season as well. It's a good game but at the end of the day we need to win that game, I think that's the most important thing.

"I always say it's just one game, it's only one game. But because this one, if they win they are going to be six points [ahead of Liverpool] and if we win we're going to be the same, it's a little bit special this game."

The prospect of sliding six points behind their rivals from along the East Lancs Road is one that is hard to stomach for Liverpool.

When they beat United 2-0 last January, it took Liverpool 30 points clear of their great rivals, the title already in sight.

The narrative is distinctly different this season, and what is clear is that Liverpool's finishing must sharpen up.

In the 1-0 defeat at Southampton on January 4 - their last league outing - Liverpool had 56 touches in the opposition box, more than they have managed in any other Premier League game this season.

However, they had just one shot on target and 11 that missed.

In the same game, they had 79 ball recoveries, matching their season-high total which came against Leeds United on the opening weekend of their campaign. Liverpool put 61 passes or crosses into the Saints box - more than they have against any other side this term.

There is plenty that Liverpool are still doing right, but they are not finishing off sequences as they did during last season's championship-winning effort.

Salah knows many will be looking to him to put right the wrongs of recent games.

"When I'm scoring goals and can help the team, that makes me happier," he said. "When I don't score and the team doesn't win, that's a nightmare!"

Joe Root revealed how an in-depth review of his own technique - plus the chance to watch some of his peers in action - helped him start a busy 2021 in fine style. 

England's Test captain had failed to reach three figures in the format during the previous year, yet he put that lean spell behind him to deliver a double hundred in the series opener against Sri Lanka. 

The Yorkshireman made 228 - the second highest Test score recorded by an England player in Asia - to help his team seize control of the first Test in Galle, though the home side hit back when left to deal with a first-innings deficit of 286. 

While half-centuries from Kusal Perera and Lahiru Thirimanne, who ended day three on 76 not out, held up the tourists' push for victory, Sri Lanka still have plenty to do with the bat. 

For Root, though, the hard work has already paid off, as he explained the key was finding the right rhythm again at the crease. 

"I've changed quite a few things, to be honest," Root told the host broadcasters in Sri Lanka at the conclusion of play on day three.  

"I've tried to get a bit more rhythm back into my batting, just trying to find triggers and things I can do when the bowler is running in, or at the end of his mark, which might just give me a sort of rhythm to things.  

"It looks a bit different to previously, but it feels really good."

Root has now managed four Test double centuries - only Wally Hammond and Alastair Cook have managed more for England - while his 321-ball knock in Galle saw him pass a notable personal milestone. 

The 30-year-old became the seventh England batsman to reach 8,000 Test runs; he could rise several spots on the all-time list during the coming months too, as a hectic schedule provides plenty of opportunities to add to his career tally. 

After completing their two-Test trip to Sri Lanka, England have home and away series against India to come, while the end of 2021 sees an Ashes tour to Australia. 

The hectic schedule comes after 2020 was disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic, though Root made use of his time by analysing not just his own game but also the methods used by other players, including New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, now ranked as the best Test batsman in the world. 

"There was so much time to look back at things and watch other cricket from around the world, some of the best players," Root said about the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis. 

"Kane at the minute is playing unbelievably well, so [I was] watching him and how he goes about things. You've got to learn off your peers - I think it's important to do that - and try and advance your game as much as possible.  

"We've got some fantastic coaches as well. [I'm] Trying to tap into the likes of Jacques Kallis, Paul Collingwood and Graham Thorpe on a regular basis. 

"I'm very fortunate to have those guys to learn from and work with."

Thiago Alcantara could be just the option Liverpool need to kick-start their title defence as Jurgen Klopp ponders whether to hand the midfielder a first Anfield start against Manchester United.

The reigning Premier League champions are yet to see the best of the high-profile signing from Bayern Munich, Thiago having seen his early months on Merseyside hampered by illness and injury.

However, having recovered from a knee issue suffered on October 17 against Everton, the Spain international has featured in Liverpool's past three games, including playing the full 90 minutes of the 1-0 defeat away at Southampton on January 4.

Next up for the Reds is a clash with table-topping United, leaving Klopp to decide if he hands the 29-year-old a long-awaited home debut on Sunday.

"We will see," Klopp said on the possibility of Thiago being in the starting XI to face United. "The most important thing is he's fit, trained, all good.

"He had now 90 and 45 minutes in the last two games. So, we will see if he can play, which position he will play because there are obviously different options and all that stuff.

"But it's really good to have him around now because he's a really good guy and obviously an exceptional football player. It's like a new signing obviously.

"Now he's here and let's hope that it will stay like this for a long, long, long time."

Thiago played in a deep-lying role in Liverpool's midfield at Southampton, completing 89 per cent of his passes and creating one chance as the visitors dominated possession after falling behind early to a Danny Ings goal. The visitors finished with an xG of 1.5, yet managed just one attempt on target for all their dominance.

John Barnes believes Thiago's ability to pick a pass in tight spaces could be crucial in certain circumstances during the remainder of the campaign, particularly as Klopp's much-vaunted forward line has struggled of late when faced with opponents willing to cede territory and get players behind the ball.

Since putting seven past Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on December 19, Liverpool have mustered one league goal in three games. 

"He is very important because it gives us an option," Liverpool legend Barnes told Stats Perform News.

"You need a player like him. I always felt that as much as we've done really well, we've won the league and not lost many games, there are times when teams defend in numbers, get 10 men back behind the ball, and our three midfield players aren't as creative.

"And they don't have that. It's not even flair, it's the insight for the passes in really, really, tight areas, and being able to receive the ball in tight areas and be more creative.

"But that doesn't happen for 90 per cent of the time, as 90 per cent of the time our three midfield players are [Jordan] Henderson, [Georginio] Wijnaldum and Fabinho, those types of players. They stand us in good stead. Not that we've had to change anyway, because we've won the league and lost two games, it's not as if we needed that.

"However, there are the odd games when that's what we need, and therefore that's what he gives us.

"Now, that's not to say that he's going to play every week, or if we were going to play against Manchester City, who may dominate possession more than we do, would we rather play like Thiago Alcantara? Or would you rather have a player like Wijnaldum or Henderson or [James] Milner, who's going to get around and tackle because that's what we need?

"What he's done, though, is he's given us options. And Jurgen has used him wisely, because the games we have used him in is when he knows we're going to dominate possession, whereby he wouldn't be needed that much defensively."

Liverpool, who go into the United game three points behind their opponents, could have Joel Matip available following an adductor injury, Klopp admitting the centre-back is "close" to a return.

Urban Meyer's coaching career looked to be over when he bid farewell to Ohio State following victory on arguably college football's grandest stage, the Rose Bowl, on New Year's Day in 2019.

It appeared to be the perfect send-off for one of the most successful and influential coaches in the college game.

Yet despite health concerns that forced his apparent retirement, Meyer clearly still had a thirst for a new challenge during his brief stint as a TV analyst.

That has been quenched with a step up to the professional ranks nobody had seen coming, Meyer on Wednesday appointed the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It is a splash move from the Jaguars that comes with a clear risk, with Meyer never having coached in the NFL during his storied career.

His first job at the highest level will likely see him get the chance to coach Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson quarterback considered a lock for the number one overall pick, who is widely regarded as the best prospect at the sport's most important position since Andrew Luck.

But will Meyer be able to get the best out of Lawrence and overcome his lack of NFL experience to succeed in turning the Jaguars around? There's a lot of evidence to suggest his achievements in college should translate to the pros.

A natural winner

Though all Meyer's experience has come in college, the first obvious sign for Jaguars fans is his track record of success.

In 17 seasons in the college ranks, Meyer never had a losing season.

His career record of 187-32 puts him third all-time in winning percentage (.854), with only Knute Rockne (.881) and Frank Leahy (.864) ahead of him.

Meyer's two-season stint at Utah ended with the Utes ranked as a top-five team, while he won two National Championships at Florida.

A third national title came during his time with Ohio State, the Buckeyes consistently excelling under Meyer on the back of some excellent recruiting.

Constructing success

The Jaguars have a nice collection of talent at receiver and some intriguing young pieces on defense but, after a 1-15 season, the Jacksonville job is one that will largely require building from the ground up.

Thankfully in Meyer, they have hired a renowned program builder, whose talent for having his colleges near the top of the high school recruiting rankings was crucial to his consistency at that level.

Indeed, only once in his tenure at Ohio State did the Buckeyes fail to have a recruiting class in the top five in the country.

The challenge of luring free agents and drafting players is a very different one and the Jaguars still need to hire a general manager who will likely oversee most of those duties.

But Meyer will unquestionably have some influence on those proceedings and, having regularly lured the best high school athletes to Columbus, there is reason to believe those skills will translate and he will prosper at evaluating draft prospects and convincing free agents to join the Jags.

Tailor-made for Lawrence?

Before last season's College Football Playoff, Meyer labelled Lawrence the best college quarterback ever.

The expectation is he will now get to work with Lawrence, but will he get the best out of the Clemson phenom?

Judging Meyer by what he did in the college ranks, the indication is he will.

Meyer had a top-five offense at least once in each of his stops at Bowling Green State, Utah, Florida and Ohio State.

At Utah, his option-based attack had the Utes ranked third in total offense in 2004, and helped Alex Smith blossom into a prospect picked first overall in the 2005 draft.

His two National Championships at Florida saw him turn Chris Leak, who never played an NFL snap, into MVP of the 2007 title game before he then built the offense around the athletic abilities of Tim Tebow, whose deficiencies as a signal-caller were exposed at the highest level.

Meyer's lone National Championship triumph at Ohio State came with Cardale Jones replacing an injured J.T. Barrett at quarterback for the final three games. Both Barrett and Jones failed to make the grade in the NFL.

The Buckeyes were eighth in total offense in 2018, Meyer's final year, with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. Haskins was picked in the first round but was cut by the Washington Football Team this season.

In other words, Meyer has consistently gotten excellent production out of quarterbacks nowhere close to Lawrence's level.

It will be a very different challenge in the NFL, where the speed of the game and the standard of defense is significantly higher and there is much greater parity than in the college ranks.

Yet Meyer's acumen as a talent developer is illustrated by the fact Ohio State had multiple players taken as first-round picks in all but one draft from 2014 to 2019. They had three in 2020 after successor Ryan Day's first season as coach.

Meyer has proven himself an outstanding coach who can attract players to his teams, get the best out of his players and tailor systems around the strengths of his quarterbacks.

There are few areas that are not considered strengths for Lawrence. There may be growing pains for both Meyer and Lawrence, however, the combination of their respective talents should win out as they adapt to the increased level of competition. Meyer is a risk, but he has what it takes to turn the Jags into a force in the AFC.

Jurgen Klopp insists Manchester United can never be considered underdogs despite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer making that pre-match claim.

United boss Solskjaer takes his side to Anfield on Sunday with a surprise three-point lead at the top of the Premier League.

The last time they sat top at this stage of the season was in Alex Ferguson's final year at the club.

Amid his opponents' impressive 11-match unbeaten run in the top flight, Liverpool manager Klopp was surprised to see Solskjaer suggest a United win would represent a "shock" and an "upset".

"I have been five years in England and United was never an underdog," said Klopp. "They cannot be. It is just like it is.

"They are always a good team, always great players, always really good managers and coaches. It was always there and now they are top of the table. That is how it is.

"They cannot be underdogs."

Champions Liverpool have failed to win their past three league matches since thrashing Crystal Palace 7-0 a month ago.

But Klopp is confident they are over their slump as the chance to return to the summit presents itself, while he also replied to another Solskjaer remark that caught his attention.

He continued: "I'm really looking forward to this game, to be honest. I know Ole said that this is the best moment to play against Liverpool - yeah? Let's see!

"We are now in a place where we want to be. We know what we have to do and what went wrong. We want to change. Now, we have to put that in place on the pitch. That is the situation.

"These boys did not go for an excuse in one second that I was here. Not for one second. But that does not mean things cannot go wrong.

"Obviously we did not do outstandingly well since mid-November. But who cares? We still have 33 points.

"We have learned a lot from this season. The circumstances, dealing with the situation. It is not because of the boys' attitude. It's just because it didn't work out.

"Still, we have scored the most goals in the league, which is absolutely crazy.

"We just had to step a little bit back, work on the basics and get strong – as strong as we can be again. That's what we did. That is what we will do. I think that can work."

Returning his focus to United, Klopp added: "Usually they change system against us. 

"They played 10 times with four at the back and against RB Leipzig they played with five at the back, so maybe they will change that.

"Those are things we have to think about - not who is the outsider. It is Liverpool versus United and that in itself is a massive game.

"Wherever I would be in the world I would watch it definitely. This is the game!"

Manchester United's record against the so-called 'big six' of the Premier League this season reads zero wins, two defeats and two draws.

They have conceded seven goals, six of them at home to Tottenham, and scored just once – a Bruno Fernandes penalty two minutes into that 6-1 hammering in October.

Fernandes scored their previous goal in these encounters from the spot, too, in a 1-1 draw at Spurs last June. In fact, you have to go back to March 2020 and their 2-0 win at home to Manchester City, the last Old Trafford game played in front of a crowd, for the previous occasion that they scored a goal against a big-six team that wasn't a penalty.

They might be top of the league heading into Sunday's showdown with Liverpool but, for a manager that made an early habit of extracting big performances against the best sides, that stat should be of serious concern to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

 

BIG ZERO SIX

Since the end of the 2019-20 shutdown, United have played seven games against the big six and won none of them, if you include domestic cup losses to Chelsea and City.

In league football alone, they have drawn against Tottenham, Chelsea and City and lost to Spurs and Arsenal, with just two Fernandes penalties to show for it. All their previous three such games were at home and they have not scored in any of them.

In their first 14 league games against these sides under Solskjaer, United won six times and lost only four, scoring 16 goals and conceding 13 – a decent record given their real problems with consistency.

The strange thing is United's winless run against the best has coincided with a general upturn in form since the previous season restarted last June. Taking only results in that time into account, United have played 26, won 17, lost just three, scored 56 goals and conceded 30. That's the best record of any side in the league and seven points better than Liverpool.

In fact, narrow that down to results against teams in the top half of the table in the same time frame, and United have lost the fewest games (two) of any side, with 21 points taken from 13 games, just three behind Jurgen Klopp's side.

So, why the recent drop-off against the very best?

Solskjaer's most dependable attacking weapons have been Fernandes, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, all three of whom will almost certainly start at Liverpool, barring injury.

They were all involved in their last big-six contest in the league, a 0-0 draw at home to City in December. Rashford managed only one shot all game and created no chances for anyone else; Martial, a late substitute, created one chance but had no shots himself. Fernandes, ever the fulcrum of United's attack, had four shots and created two chances.

The previous game was a staid goalless draw with Chelsea that made the derby look positively thrill-a-minute. That day, with Martial banned, Rashford was more involved, with three attempts at goal and two chances created; he was outdone by Fernandes (three shots, four chances created).

They don't exactly look like imperious figures, but they actually fall in line with their per-90-minute numbers for this season. On average, Rashford attempts 2.7 shots per game and creates 1.3 chances; Martial has 2.9 shots and creates 1.2 chances; Fernandes musters 3.6 shots and creates 3.4 chances.

Put succinctly, based on this season's performances, Fernandes should be expected to create between three and four goalscoring opportunities in every league game he starts for United. In other words, he was bang on his average against City and Chelsea. Rashford's numbers are similarly close to the mean.

United's best attackers, then, are keeping their performance levels consistent against the big six. They're just meeting greater resistance. That becomes clearer looking at expected goals.

In their most recent three league games against these sides, United have had xG of 0.6 against City, 0.7 against Chelsea and a lowly 0.4 in a 1-0 loss to Arsenal. In those same fixtures in 2019-20, those figures were 1.6 (in a 2-0 win against City), 2.2 (in a 4-0 win over Chelsea) and 0.9 (in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal). Interestingly, though, Chelsea and Arsenal had higher xG numbers in those games last season, even though they suffered worse results, and City's only increased this term by 0.7.

This reflects a general balancing out in these matches. They are, for the most part, more attritional and less unpredictable affairs settled by fine margins – exactly the sort of contest you'd expect between true heavyweights. United are not significantly under-performing each time; they're just not quite tilting the odds in their favour.

How, then, might they change that against Liverpool? There is one simple way.

SLAB EXPERIMENT

United have one particular weakness, regardless of opposition: set-pieces. This season, they have conceded 11 goals from set-plays; only Wolves (12), Brighton and Hove Albion (14) and Leeds United (16) have a worse record. They have shipped four goals from corners, the same number as Liverpool, but the champions have only conceded eight times from dead-ball situations overall.

At the other end, United have scored 10 goals from set-pieces, a tally bettered by just four teams: Aston Villa and Southampton (11), and Chelsea and Liverpool (12). Only Chelsea (34) have created more dead-ball chances than United (31).

There is an argument to say they should have more set-piece goals than anyone else. It's an argument that centres around their captain – the man who might be the very thing United need to get back to scoring against, and winning against, big-six opposition.

Since the start of last season, Harry Maguire has won 73 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League. That's the best rate of anyone who has contested at least 300 in that time. In fact, he has lost only 98 of the 341 he has been involved in, which is the lowest number of losses across the same period within that elite group.

However, in an attacking sense, the world's most expensive defender doesn't seem to have his head on straight. Since the start of 2019-20, he has attempted 27 headed shots, hit the target with just nine of them, and scored with two. Of players with at least 20 headed shots in that time, only four have hit the target less often.

On Sunday, Maguire will face a Liverpool side without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and possibly Joel Matip. He will rarely have a better chance of stealing a march at set-plays and, if he does, he could well end United's wait for a goal – and a win – against the best. Sometimes, those fine margins are the width of a forehead.

Steve Nash is eyeing a championship with the Brooklyn Nets after the arrival of James Harden, but the head coach warned his team they needed to improve.

Harden, an eight-time All-Star, was traded to the Nets from the Houston Rockets on Thursday, joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn.

The Nets (7-6) are set to contend for a first NBA championship and Nash said there was a huge opportunity ahead.

"We want to win a championship, for sure. That's why we made the deal, that's what we're setting out to do," he told a news conference.

"Having said that, we're so far from that right now so our expectations are to grow every day, to get better, to figure out who we are and what we are and how we fit together and where we can improve. It's a process.

"You have to earn the right to play for a championship through the regular season and playoffs so those steps are still in front of us before we can say we're a championship team.

"We're not a team that's running it back that's been to the Finals or Conference Finals even, we're a brand new entity that has to figure it out but that is the end goal and if we take the necessary steps and continue to improve and work towards that and commit to that process, why not? We have a great opportunity here with the players we have."

With Durant and Harden, the Nets now have two players who have won seven of the past 11 NBA scoring titles. No Brooklyn qualifier has ever finished higher than fifth.

Irving, Harden and Durant all rank in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring average (minimum 500 games) since the former's rookie season in 2011-12.

Harden could make his Nets debut against the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

The Los Angeles Lakers cruised to a victory in the NBA, while the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics also extended their winning streaks.

LeBron James had a double-double of 21 points and 11 assists as the Lakers recorded a comfortable 112-95 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday.

Kyle Kuzma contributed 11 points and 13 rebounds off the bench, while Anthony Davis struggled from the field, shooting five-of-16 for his 17 points.

Pelicans star Zion Williamson finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, but the Lakers extended their winning streak to five.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's 31 points and nine rebounds helped the Bucks overcome the Dallas Mavericks 112-109.

Luka Doncic fell just short of a triple-double, contributing 28 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds in the Mavericks' loss.

The Bucks (9-4) have won four straight to sit behind the Celtics (8-3) in the Eastern Conference.

Brown leads returning Celtics, Drummond stars

Jaylen Brown had 21 points and eight assists in the Celtics' 124-97 win over the Orlando Magic. It was Boston's first game in a week.

A huge double-double of 33 points and 23 rebounds from Andre Drummond saw the Cleveland Cavaliers edge the New York Knicks 106-103.

The Los Angeles Clippers thrashed the Sacramento Kings 138-100 thanks to 27 points, six assists and four rebounds from Kawhi Leonard.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander posted 33 points and 10 assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 127-125 victory over the Chicago Bulls.

Bulls' narrow losses continue

The Bulls are on a four-game losing streak, with those defeats coming by four, two, three and two points. It is the first time in team history they have lost four in a row with each loss by four points or fewer, as per Stats Perform. The last team with a streak that long was the Washington Wizards in 2009 (six straight).

 

Drummond dynamite

Drummond produced a huge performance for the Cavs. He was 10-of-18 from the field and 16 of his 23 rebounds were on the defensive end.

Friday's results

Boston Celtics 124-97 Orlando Magic
Cleveland Cavaliers 106-103 New York Knicks
Milwaukee Bucks 112-109 Dallas Mavericks
Oklahoma City Thunder 127-125 Chicago Bulls
Utah Jazz 116-92 Atlanta Hawks
Los Angeles Lakers 112-95 New Orleans Pelicans
Los Angeles Clippers 138-100 Sacramento Kings

 

Magic at Nets

James Harden is set to make his debut for the Brooklyn Nets (7-6) against the Orlando Magic (6-6) on Saturday. Harden's trade from the Houston Rockets to the Nets was confirmed on Thursday.

Nick Taylor climbed into a two-stroke lead at the halfway mark of the Sony Open in Hawaii after carding an eight-under 62 on Friday.

The Canadian kick-started his second round with an eagle at the 18th hole – his ninth – before getting to 12 under at Waialae Country Club.

Taylor was one under through eight holes in his round before chipping in for the eagle, and he picked up another five shots on the back nine.

A two-time winner on the PGA Tour, Taylor is two shots clear of Stewart Cink (63), Webb Simpson (65), Russell Henley (64), Vaughn Taylor (66) and Chris Kirk (65).

Henley is a former champion of the event, lifting the trophy in 2013, while Kirk was runner-up a year later.

On what is a congested leaderboard, another eight players are just a shot further back.

Joaquin Niemann (69) and Peter Malnati (69), who shared the overnight lead with Jason Kokrak (71), are among them, alongside Charley Hoffman (65), Collin Morikawa (65), Marc Leishman (65), Hideki Matsuyama (65), Billy Horschel (66) and Brendan Steele (66).

Steele was runner-up last year and is again well-placed to contend after posting rounds of 65 and 66.

Horschel, meanwhile, is the only player in the field bogey-free through 36 holes. It is the third time in his PGA Tour career he has been bogey-free through two rounds.

Defending champion Cameron Smith carded a four-under 66 to sit at seven under – in a tie for 19th in a group that includes Kokrak.

James Harden believes he will combine well with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at the Brooklyn Nets, talking up the "sacrifice" that would be required.

Harden, an eight-time All-Star, was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Nets in a move that was confirmed on Thursday.

Amid questions over how Harden will fit alongside Durant and Irving, the Nets recruit is confident – and said there would need to be sacrifices.

"Chemistry, sacrifice and like you said we're all elite so depending on the game, depending on what's going on throughout the course of the game, that's going to determine who gets the ball and who makes the plays," Harden told a news conference on Friday.

"We're all unselfish, we're all willing passers and we play basketball the right way and that's all that matters."

Asked what the Nets fans were getting, Harden said: "An elite player, an elite team-mate, an elite leader and just a guy that is willing to do whatever it takes to rack up as many wins as we can, sacrifice."

Harden's arrival enhances the Nets' championship hopes as the 31-year-old looks to win a maiden NBA title.

With Durant and Harden, the Nets now have two players who have won seven of the past 11 NBA scoring titles. No Brooklyn qualifier has ever finished higher than fifth.

Irving, Harden and Durant all rank in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring average (minimum 500 games) since the former's rookie season in 2011-12.

Harden said the Nets (7-6) were in position to contend.

"Obviously you've got Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the team and then surrounded by those guys you have really good pieces in DeAndre [Jordan], Jeff [Green], shooters in Joe [Harris], Landry [Shamet]," he said.

"You just look at this entire roster and it's built for any style of basketball you want. And then the coaching staff who know the game of basketball at a high level.

"You just add that all together and that's a legit chance right there. It was a no-brainer for me."

Bruno Fernandes hit back at Jurgen Klopp after the Liverpool manager complained about the number of penalties awarded to Manchester United.

Klopp was unhappy his side were not given a penalty during a loss to Southampton earlier this month and the German pointed to the number of spot-kicks United had been awarded.

Since the start of last season, United have won 20 penalties in the Premier League compared to Liverpool's 10.

Fernandes, who has scored five penalties in the Premier League this season, insisted he was unfazed, also suggesting Klopp was trying to put pressure on referees ahead of United's trip to Anfield on Sunday.

"You always see what people say, but I really don't care. I'm not focused on what they're saying. We have really quick players up front," he said.

"Anthony Martial is one of the best players one against one in the box, Marcus Rashford is another one who is quick and has quick feet, who can take the ball away from the defender at any moment.

"It's normal that sometimes, because of that, they will be tripped and will fall and they gain penalties.

"People can talk and say what they want, but for me and the team, the main point is continuing to do the right things and when we get a penalty, just scoring.

"I played in Portugal and when you play for Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and Porto are always talking about that kind of stuff – sometimes to put pressure on the referee."

United visit champions Liverpool with a surprise three-point lead atop the table.

Liverpool claimed their first top-flight title since 1990 last year, moving onto 19 in total – one shy of United's record.

Fernandes said the players were aware how much such records meant to supporters.

"You don't want your rivals at the same level as you, or with the same amount of trophies as you," he said.

"So it's clear for everyone here at the club and in the dressing room, everyone knows what it means for the supporters.

"It would be a lot more fun with 21 titles and Liverpool still on 19, of course."

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