Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says he can fully relate to Donny van de Beek's unhappiness after being used sparingly during his time at Old Trafford.

The Netherlands midfielder has made nine starts for United since arriving from Ajax for a reported £40million in the close season, just two of those coming in the Premier League.

He has not featured at all in United's last three games since the 1-0 FA Cup win over Watford on January 9, but he will play a part in Sunday's fourth-round tie against Liverpool.

Solskjaer himself found regular starts hard to come by during his playing days at the club under Alex Ferguson and has praised Van de Beek for remaining professional.

"I wouldn't say that Donny is happy," he said. "Of course, he wants to play more, but he gets about his job in the right manner.

"He reminds me a lot about myself, when I first came in, that he understands my difficulties and challenges

"We are doing well and have got players who are playing really well in his position.

"I was the same with Sir Alex. When he left me out I understood and I was happy for the team to win – and Donny is that type of guy."

Van de Beek has made 10 Premier League appearances for United in total and scored his only goal in the 3-1 win over Crystal Palace in September.

The 23-year-old has yet to assist a goal and has created just two big chances for his team-mates across those 10 matches.

His average of 50.2 passes per 90 minutes ranks below fellow midfielder Bruno Fernandes (60.17), Paul Pogba (62.02), Fred (62.85) and Nemanja Matic (76.08) but above Scott McTominay (48.37).

Van de Beek ranks higher for dribbles completed (1.43), however, with Pogba (1.75) the only midfielder above him in that metric.

Solskjaer continued: "He knows he is important for us and knows he is going to play many games.

"He will definitely be involved in this game against Liverpool and he might be the deciding factor in the game.

"He trusts his own quality. He is a quietly confident guy who deep down knows he is good enough and is just waiting for his opportunity."

Having been used in a variety of roles in United's midfield, Van de Beek – utilised as a box-to-box threat during his Ajax days – scored 28 goals in total in the Eredivisie. 

Arguably his most impressive form for Ajax came in the 2018-19 Champions League campaign, with his four goals helping the Dutch giants to the semi-finals.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic feels Milan have become "fragile" and is seeking an instant response to Saturday's 3-0 thrashing against Atalanta when they take on fierce rivals Inter next.

Previously unbeaten in 27 league matches stretching back into the 2019-20 season, Milan have now lost two of their last four games - they also went down 3-1 to Juventus earlier this month. 

Goals from Cristian Romero, Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata condemned Stefano Pioli's side to their latest defeat, but they are still top at the midway point of the season as closest challengers Inter could only manage a 0-0 draw with Udinese. 

However, Ibrahimovic accepts being winter champions will count for little unless Milan regain some consistency and end their decade-long wait for Scudetto success. 

"We lost two games after more than 30 matches that we didn't lose," he told Sky Sport Italia.  

"The team is a bit fragile because when certain players are missing, we lack a bit of experience. They are replaced by young players, but this is no excuse.  

"We make many sacrifices; we work and we are first for a reason.

"But being top at this stage does not matter. We are halfway through the championship, so far we have done well but still nothing this is the most difficult period because there are so many games and now we just have to continue." 

Asked if Tuesday's Coppa Italia quarter-final with Inter has now taken on even more importance, Ibrahimovic said: "We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat.  

"We have the chance to do it in a few days and then against Inter. That will be a good match." 

Milan's club-record run of scoring in 38 successive league games was ended in Saturday's loss at San Siro, a game in which the Rossoneri managed only two shots on target. 

Ibrahimovic was unable to test Pierluigi Gollini with any of his five efforts, while his 36 touches of the ball were the fewest by any home player to take part in the entire game. 

The veteran striker, who has 12 goals in nine league outings this term, admitted afterwards that he felt isolated up front. 

"In the first half I was too alone in attack," he said. "I didn't have anyone close to support me, but it could also be because of the pressure from Atalanta that put us in trouble.  

"Today many things were missing, it was not our day. Now the important thing is to recover and think about the next match to redeem ourselves."

Jurgen Klopp is not feeling the pressure despite Liverpool's worrying form, believing the shock home defeat to Burnley can act as a catalyst to "change things properly". 

The reigning champions were downed by a late Ashley Barnes penalty as their 68-game unbeaten run at home in the Premier League come to a stunning end on Thursday. 

Klopp watched on as his team endured a fourth successive league outing without scoring, leaving them six points off the pace in the title race. 

Ahead of Sunday's FA Cup tie with league leaders Manchester United, Klopp explained how Liverpool have not used the right tools of late, something the Reds will work hard to correct as they look to get back to somewhere near their best.

"I don't feel the pressure from outside, I deal with the pressure I put on myself my entire life. I'm used to that already," Klopp told the media while previewing the trip to Old Trafford. 

"When you have had the success we've had, there are two directions then. One is you keep going exactly on the same level, which is difficult with the challenges you have around. The other one is it gets a little bit less. 

"At the moment, it feels like a lot less. That's what we have to change, we are not like this where we think that just because we try, we should get everything. We are really ready for the fight; we are ready for the battle, 100 per cent. 

"But, in the moment, we don't use the right tools. That is true as well. That is what we absolutely have to adjust and improve, and that's what we are doing. 

"The only problem is the tests we face are constantly in the public and on television, so everybody watches each little step in whatever direction. That is obviously nice when you have a good run, and when not in a good a run it's not exactly the same, you don't get the same joy with it." 

Liverpool are on a five-game winless streak in the Premier League and while the loss to struggling Burnley was disappointing, Klopp hopes it can be turned into a positive, offering something of a reset point during what is an arduous season amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The Reds had 27 attempts at goal on Thursday, six of which were on target, while they have now had 87 efforts since previously finding the net in the league, a run that started after Sadio Mane's early opener in the 1-1 draw with West Brom on December 27.

Klopp's side are the first English top-flight team since West Ham in 1967 to have failed to find the net in four successive league matches, yet still be the division's top scorers.

"In these moments, I'm not in doubt about us as a group at all," Klopp – who also confirmed Mohamed Salah is set to start against United – said. 

"But these moments are where you need the group to come close together and do the right things. That's what we do. 

"We lost that game [to Burnley] and it was a really low point. It was not like I thought, 'Oh, who cares?' – it was a game we lost.  

"When I think back, I cannot find a reason why we lost that game, but we lost it. With all the things that happened – the penalty, the chance we had, all these kind of things – but it happened. 

"Sometimes, you need a really low point to change things properly. That, for sure, is what we will try now, 100 per cent. 

"If we would have won in a bad game, somehow 1-0, the world would have said it's not the football that we usually play but it's a result. But, in the long term, it wouldn't be a real help. That game can be a real help, if we use it."

Liverpool have only reached the FA Cup fifth round once in Klopp's five previous seasons at the club, doing so last term before they were knocked out by top-flight rivals Chelsea.

Real Madrid returned to winning ways in style as Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard helped the defending champions to a 4-1 rout over Deportivo Alaves in LaLiga. 

Madrid were in desperate need of a victory after a Supercopa de Espana reverse to Athletic Bilbao and a shock Copa del Rey defeat to lower-tier Alcoyano piled the pressure on Zinedine Zidane, who was absent on Saturday after testing positive for coronavirus. 

Atletico Madrid's late victory at Eibar on Thursday had moved them seven points clear in the title race, though Los Blancos never looked in danger of failing to win on the road in LaLiga for a third successive game, Benzema and Hazard putting them in control after Casemiro's opener. 

Joselu's fifth league goal against Madrid gave Alaves hope, but Benzema's second meant the visitors had little trouble seeing out just their second win in 2021. 

Benzema seemed set to open the scoring when he latched onto Luka Modric's lofted pass, only to be denied first by Fernando Pacheco and then a deflection onto the right-hand upright. 

Madrid made the resulting corner count, though, with Casemiro rising high to head home from Toni Kroos' outswinger.

Madrid’s second goal should have followed in the 22nd minute, yet Ferland Mendy failed to tee up Benzema for a simple finish. 

Benzema had his goal 19 minutes later, sensationally picking out the top of the net with a wonderful, dipping effort from just inside the penalty box. 

Having curled wide earlier on, Hazard made it three on the stroke of half-time with a delicate finish over the onrushing Pacheco. 

Madrid are Joselu's favourite LaLiga opponent and the forward netted again when facing the capital club, this time sending a brilliant header beyond Thibaut Courtois. 

Alaves' comeback hopes were quashed with 20 minutes remaining, however, when Benzema cut in from the left to thump home and settle the contest.

Antonio Conte insists Inter will continue to focus on themselves and not Milan after missing out on the chance to leapfrog their rivals at the top of Serie A. 

A week on from beating fellow Scudetto contenders Juventus 2-0, Inter failed to get going as they were held to a goalless draw away at lowly Udinese on Saturday. 

Conte's side attempted just 10 shots at the Dacia Arena - their joint-fewest in an away league match this season - in a game that saw Conte sent off late on for dissent. 

Milan lost 3-0 to Atalanta on Saturday but Inter could only close the gap on the leaders to two points at the midway stage in the campaign. 

The Nerazzurri have now triumphed in only one of their last four Serie A matches, having won their previous eight in a row, and Conte accepts an improvement is needed. 

"As I always say, we need to think only of ourselves and not others, such as Milan. We just have to focus on improving our performances and results," he told Sky Sport Italia. 

"We just try to work and get the best out of ourselves. I think that amid the many, many difficulties we had this year, Inter are having their say and are real protagonists. 

"Inter deserve that for their history. The second half of the season is still to play, but what we've done for the last year and a half has been wonderful." 

Conte was issued a yellow card and then a swift red by referee Fabio Maresca as the game entered added time, while team manager Lele Oriali was dismissed after the final whistle. 

Explaining the touchline commotion during a game otherwise devoid of many talking points, Conte said: "We had a disagreement over the amount of stoppages awarded. 

"The referee booked me and then chose to send me off. I thought four minutes weren't enough to add on in the circumstances.  

"Then the referee makes his decisions and we have to accept them, even if we do not agree with those decisions." 

A number of visiting players had an off day against an Udinese side without a goal in six successive league games against Inter - their longest such streak against any side in the division. 

Achraf Hakimi in particular struggled, losing possession more times (23) than any other player, with Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku failing to get on the end of balls into the penalty box. 

"We could've been more precise today and lacked quality in the final ball," Conte admitted. "When we put crosses in, we usually have four players push into the box.  

"That's usually the intent, then it's about the accuracy of the cross. For instance, Nicolo Barella's cross was what created the goal for Arturo Vidal against Juventus.  

"You need both the cross and to get bodies into the box." 

Focus for Inter now switches to Tuesday's derby with Milan in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals, though Conte is prioritising the league over domestic cup success. 

"We know that Serie A represents something important for the club and on an economic level, so winning the Scudetto or qualifying for the Champions League is more important than the Coppa Italia," he said.  

"Having said that, we still respect the tournament and want to do well. Inevitably, we will evaluate the situation, see who has recovered and who needs more playing time.  

"Nobody is underestimating this match and we'll try to win, as we always do. We don't put limits on ourselves, but we must find the right approach to beat Milan and go into the semi-finals."

Luka Jovic continues to make an impressive impact back at Eintracht Frankfurt after scoring again for the Bundesliga club – meaning the striker has already surpassed his goals tally for Real Madrid.  

The Serbia international departed Frankfurt after a hugely productive 2018-19 season, during which he scored 27 times in all competitions.  

Madrid paid €60million to sign him, though the move has failed to work out as hoped. During his 18 months in the Spanish capital, Jovic managed just two goals in 32 appearances, albeit he started on just 11 occasions.  

However, a return to familiar territory has helped the 23-year-old - who will spend the rest of the season on loan in Germany - quickly rediscover his form. 

He scored twice in his first game back, a 3-1 triumph over Schalke, and while unable to find the net as a substitute against Freiburg, he was on the scoresheet once more on Saturday.  

On as a second-half substitute once again, Jovic rounded out the scoring for Adi Hutter's in-form side as they thrashed Arminia Bielefeld 5-1 on the road.  

It means the former Benfica player has now managed three goals from four attempts in just 76 minutes of action for Eintracht - and he is also having a big impact on one of his team-mates.

Filip Kostic provided two assists against Bielefeld and, according to Hutter, has been rejuvenated by the arrival of his countryman.

"I do think that his improvement has a lot to do with the return of Luka, because they got along really well and are friends off the pitch, as well as in the Serbia national team," Hutter told the media. 

"So, I think that played a part in it, too. But I felt that when Luka came, Filip's confidence went up a lot." 

Andre Silva was the beneficiary of Kostic's work, the Portuguese forward grabbing a first-half brace to take his tally to 14 in 18 league games, equalling a club record previously set by Theofanis Gekas. 

"We worked hard for this win and we deserved it," Silva said. "I was in the right place with the first goal, and with the second I hit the ball really well.  

"Luka is a great player. We can get even better together and help the team even more."

Stefano Pioli insisted Milan had "nothing to be ashamed of" after an imperious Atalanta side condemned them to a second Serie A defeat of the season.

Having seen their unbeaten start to the campaign ended by Juventus on January 6, the Rossoneri suffered a second loss in four league games as they fell 3-0 to Atalanta at San Siro on Saturday.

Cristian Romero, Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata scored in a one-sided victory that stretched Milan's winless run against Gian Piero Gasperini's side to seven in the top flight.

However, Milan were confirmed as winter champions as Inter's 0-0 draw at Udinese means they will be top of the table even after each side in the league has played 19 games.

Pioli watched his team muster just two shots on target as a club-record run of scoring in 38 consecutive league games came to an end.

But the coach sees little reason to be overly concerned about losing to the reigning champions and an Atalanta side who have recorded 36 points from their first 19 matchdays, their best return in a 20-team division.

"We started well, with a lot of players in attack," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"They played very well. I'm disappointed with how we conceded the first goal from a dead ball, and the second one killed the game.

"It wasn't supposed to be like that, we could have done more, but we didn't manage it. Atalanta's strong points were evident, but we had to play better from a technical point of view.

"They were stronger than us tonight, but we're strong regardless. A game like this can happen. We know the league is competitive and difficult.

"I think defeats to Juventus and Atalanta are nothing to be ashamed of. Atalanta were physically superior, more intense, winning all the duels and the second balls as well.

"It's tight when you reach this level. We'll analyse the defeat, try to see where we can improve and focus on the next match."

Milan face Inter in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals on Tuesday before heading to Bologna next Saturday in Serie A.

Antonio Conte saw red as Inter were held to a goalless draw by Udinese and missed out on the chance to overtake Serie A leaders Milan at the midway point of the season

Inter beat Juventus 2-0 last weekend to enhance their title credentials but could not follow that up with another win in Saturday's stalemate at the Dacia Arena.

Relegation-threatened Udinese entered the game winless in eight but they restricted Inter to minimal chances, the best falling to Lautaro Martinez in the first half.

Conte's frustration boiled over late on, the Inter coach receiving his marching orders due to dissent, though the Nerazzurri at least gained a point on their bitter rivals Milan, who were beaten 3-0 by Atalanta ahead of the sides' Coppa Italia quarter-final on Tuesday.

Bayern Munich are the only side to have scored more goals in Europe's top-five leagues than Inter this season but the visitors could not get going against Udinese.

Martinez had a goal correctly ruled out for offside from Inter's first meaningful attack and was denied by a superb one-handed Juan Musso save 15 minutes later.

Udinese otherwise kept their opponents at bay in a low-tempo first half, with Arturo Vidal and Ashley Young failing to truly test Musso from weak attempts.

Inter continued to lack ideas as the match wore on and were almost dealt a sucker punch when first Roberto Pereyra and then Rodrigo de Paul fired just wide of the target.

Achraf Hakimi lashed across the face of goal and a bad day for Conte got worse when he was booked and then sent off for protesting a decision that went against his side as Inter fired a blank for the first time in 22 league games.

Atalanta struck a blow to Milan's Serie A title hopes after winning 3-0 against the league leaders at San Siro on Saturday.

A first-half header from Cristian Romero and a penalty after the break from Josip Ilicic set the Rossoneri on course for just a second league loss of the season.

Stefano Pioli's side secured the title of winter champions by staying top at the halfway stage of the season, but Inter have closed the gap and the rest of the chasing pack will feel emboldened by the result.

Duvan Zapata struck a clinical third goal on the break to make certain there would be no comeback from Milan, who are now winless in seven home league matches against Atalanta stretching back to January 2014.

New signing Soualiho Meite almost marked his debut with a goal three minutes in, the midfielder sending a header high and wide from Sandro Tonali's corner.

Atalanta began to build some pressure and found the breakthrough 26 minutes in, Romero stooping to nod the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma from Robin Gosens' delivery.

The visitors doubled their advantage just seven minutes into the second half, Ilicic firing a penalty beneath Donnarumma after Franck Kessie had caught him in the face with a raised arm.

It should have been 3-0 on the hour mark, Zapata heading over after being picked out by a brilliant Ilicic cross from the right.

Pioli handed a debut off the bench to Mario Mandzukic, and he nearly marked his Serie A return with an immediate impact, Pierluigi Gollini doing well to get a hand down and claw away his shot.

As Milan sought a lifeline, Atalanta hit them on the break in ruthless fashion.

Romero slipped in Zapata - who had hit the post with a header in his side's previous attack - and the forward rifled a left-footed shot beyond Donnarumma.

What does it mean? Milan are winter champions but Scudetto battle is on

Inter's goalless draw at Udinese means Milan stay top of the table at the midway point of the season despite this defeat.

Still, their lead over the Nerazzurri is now down to two points as they have now lost twice in their previous four league games.

Atalanta are up into fourth, although they have played two games more than Napoli and Juventus below them.

Ilicic shines at San Siro

With Alejandro Gomez almost certain to leave this month, Atalanta's creative burden is firmly on Ilicic's shoulders, and he did not disappoint here.

He created five openings from crosses, one of which set up Romero's opener, and ended with more shots (seven) and more on target (three) than anyone else.

No milestone magic from Zlatan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was making the 600th appearance in regular-season league competition of his storied career, but this was not much of a way to celebrate.

The 39-year-old played the whole game but had just 35 touches of the ball, completed only 15 passes and did not muster a shot on target.

What's next?

Milan face Inter in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals on Tuesday before heading to Bologna in Serie A next Saturday. Atalanta meet Lazio twice next week, in the cup and then the league.

The Toronto Blue Jays have confirmed the signing of star free agent and MLB World Series champion George Springer on a six-year deal.

Reports emerged earlier this week that Springer, one of the most coveted free agents this offseason, was set to sign a lucrative, long-term, $150million contract with Toronto.

The emerging Blue Jays, who returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2016, have been looking to make a splash in free agency as they seek to add experience to an exciting young core of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.

And in a boost to their hopes of clinching a first World Series success since 1993, Toronto on Saturday confirmed the deal for Springer – a World Series winner and MVP with the Houston Astros in 2017.

Springer tallied a team-high 14 homers, 37 runs, 50 hits and 32 RBIs with a .265 average in 189 at-bats as the Astros reached the AL Championship Series (ALCS) last season.

Having made his Astros debut in 2014, 31-year-old Springer amassed 174 home runs – the third-most by a Houston player in their first seven career seasons – 567 runs, 832 hits and 458 RBIs with a .270 average in 3,087 at-bats.

A three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger, Springer has hit 19 postseason home runs from 63 games, tied for fourth on the all-time list, behind Rickey Henderson (73), Ian Kinsler (48) and Brady Anderson (44).

The New York Mets had been Toronto's main competition for Springer's signature, but the Blue Jays were able to offer the best deal.

According to league sources, the Mets' final offer came in at $120m to $125m over six years.

The Blue Jays and Mets had been the two finalists for Springer for much of this offseason, but New York’s additions of star shortstop Francisco Lindor and others put the Blue Jays in the driver's seat, where they could use the payroll flexibility that comes with such a young team.

Mikel Arteta was unsure when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would return as he reflected on a "really sad" FA Cup elimination for Arsenal.

The Gunners went down to a 1-0 defeat at Southampton on Saturday, their hopes of retaining the trophy ended in the fourth round.

Arsenal played without captain Aubameyang, who had to leave the team in the hours before kick-off for personal reasons.

Amid reports attacking midfielder Martin Odegaard is set to join from Real Madrid, Arteta expressed regret at his side's exit. 

"Really sad to be out of the competition," he said to BT Sport. "Disappointed to be out and the way we conceded.

"We are looking in the market and will see what we can do."

The teams meet again at St Mary's on Tuesday for a Premier League clash and Arteta is unsure whether Aubameyang will be back.

"I don't know, he needs to address that issue and see how it evolves," the Arsenal boss said at his post-match news conference.

"We are here, we will have to support him. He needs to take the time that is needed because that is a priority at the moment."

Gabriel Magalhaes' first-half own goal settled a scrappy contest where Arteta felt Arsenal had improved after the break.

Arteta added: "We had issues in the first half and unforced errors as a result of the high-press they do. 

"In the second half we had two or three big chances but not enough. It was an even game.

"In the first half they won a lot of second balls. In the second half we added more quality. We became more dominant and created chances but it wasn't enough."

Arsenal have conceded four own goals in all competitions this season.

Opta statistics show this is more than any other Premier League side and the most they have conceded in a single season since 2015-16 (five).

Asked if Gabriel had been rusty, Arteta said: "Maybe. He hasn't played enough minutes in the last month or so since he had the Covid. 

"He had to stay at home, he hasn't trained as much as we would like him to. He is a player that has done so well since he has joined us. Credit to Southampton because they make it really hard for you."

Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl was impressed with the way his team played, though suggested it had not been a perfect display.

"It was a good team performance," he said. "In general our work without the ball was good.

"We had in the first half more punch and more power. In the second half it's normal they have a lift. We must make the second goal. 

"We made one or two chances - Shane Long should have got a penalty. We had early ball wins, but our last decision-making was not always the best." 

Arsenal have now failed to make the fifth round of the FA Cup in three of the last four seasons.

Andrea Pirlo is hopeful Juventus can use this week's Supercoppa Italiana success to get their Serie A title defence back on track.

Juve saw off Napoli 2-0 in Reggio Emilia on Wednesday through goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata as Pirlo claimed his first piece of silverware as a coach. 

The nine-in-a-row Scudetto champions have struggled in the league this term, however, and sit 10 points adrift of pace-setters Milan with a game in hand on the leaders.

After losing 2-0 away to Inter last time out in the top flight, Pirlo accepts that Juve must start showing more consistency if they are to retain their title.

"All matches are different but we need to continue entering the field with the attitude we had the other evening," he said at a news conference ahead of Sunday's home meeting with Bologna.  

"If we have this desire and concentration, positive results will come. Winning a trophy doesn't change my enthusiasm for the job. I have felt the same since day one.

"Winning a trophy does not change anything – I want to win others. I know we have to improve and continue growing as a team.

"We have had many ups and downs already, like many other teams. It's down to the number of games and not having the right preparation ahead of the season.

"It's hard to stay focused for the full 90 minutes every three days. It's something we are working on and know we have to improve on. It's our Achilles heel."

Juve's return of 33 points is their joint-lowest at this stage of a Serie A campaign in the last 10 seasons, equal to their tally after 17 games in 2015-16.

The Bianconeri have gone league games without a clean sheet, conceding eight goals during that run - including a 3-0 home reverse at the hands of Fiorentina.

Among Juventus coaches with at least 17 league games under their belt, only Alberto Zaccheroni (two) managed fewer shutouts than Pirlo after as many matches.

And Pirlo acknowledged the importance of tightening up at the back if his side are to climb up the standings.

"You always have to work on aspects," he said. "There are so many teams that want to play football and develop their game.

"Maybe teams tend to attack more and defend less, leading to more open games. But if you have the best defence, you often win championships."

Pirlo attempted to freshen up his attack against Napoli by using Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski either side of Ronaldo, with Weston McKennie providing further support.

The rookie coach is pleased with the tactical versatility of his players and reserved special praise for McKennie, who created more chances in the Supercoppa clash (three) than any other player on the field.

"McKennie is an important player for us," Pirlo said. "He has strength and dynamism, can play between the lines and gives us a lot in attack.

"Each of these players can exchange positions with Cristiano, as we saw the other night. Chiesa is another who can player on the left if he has to.

"As for Kulusevski, he can cover a number of positions. Perhaps in this period of his career, a second striker allows him to be freer so that is perhaps the best solution for him."

The matchup for Super Bowl LV will be known by the end of this weekend as the two Conference Championships are decided.

Probably the strangest season in NFL history has delivered a semi-final line-up to savour.

There is a matchup between two future Hall of Famers in Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.

The AFC Championship Game features two signal-callers well on their way to securing Hall of Fame status, with Patrick Mahomes recovering from a concussion to lead the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.

Mahomes being available means the Chiefs remain the favourites to retain the trophy, but here Stats Perform's team of NFL writers make their picks as to who will emerge from the final four and prevail at Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

Ben Spratt - CHIEFS TO CONQUER ALL ONCE MORE

With Mahomes, the best quarterback in football, fit to play, it seems foolish to back against the Chiefs.

The fourth-year superstar has the best career passer rating in playoff history (106.6), with his only two postseason interceptions coming in last year's Super Bowl when he subsequently led Kansas City to victory in a record-equalling 21-point fourth quarter.

And yet this team is not just about Mahomes, as their QB has the luxury of targeting tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ranked second and eighth for receiving yards this season.

Even when Mahomes was out against the Cleveland Browns, the Chiefs had a coach in Andy Reid ready to make the big calls to guide them through.

Chris Myson - SEVENTH HEAVEN FOR BRADY

The meeting of the minds between Bruce Arians and Brady was never going to be plain sailing in their first season, as two demoralising regular-season division losses to the New Orleans Saints showed.

But the Buccaneers have gradually worked through their problems and are now riding a five-game winning streak, having seen off the Washington Football Team by eight points and the Saints by 10 in the postseason.

At 43, Brady exceeded expectations in his first year in Arians' system, with 40 passing touchdowns being the second-best tally of his storied career, only the record-breaking 50 he got in 2007 topping that.

It has historically proven wise not to bet against Brady in the playoffs, a case strengthened with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and many more weapons representing the best supporting cast he has had in years.

Rob Lancaster - WE BILL-IEVE!

The Bills believe again. A franchise that has suffered more than their fair share of Super Bowl heartache in the past, losing four straight in the early 1990s, has high hopes that this could finally be their year.

Allen holds the key for Buffalo; he finished in the top five for quarterbacks in terms of passing yards, touchdowns thrown and yards per attempt in the regular season.

With his team rather abandoning the run in the playoffs – they posted a season-low 32 yards on the ground in the Divisional Round triumph over the Baltimore Ravens – the 24-year-old has the chance to excel against elite competition and, by lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, write his name into Buffalo folklore.

Nicholas McGee - BACK THE PACK

In last year's NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers were crushed by a San Francisco 49ers team that ran them over on offense and used their defense to swarm Aaron Rodgers and condemn him to another chastening playoff loss. 

The Packers were seen as a regression candidate in 2020, but those who expected them to take a step back perhaps underestimated how much of an achievement it was for them to reach this stage last season in Rodgers' first year in Matt LaFleur's offense.

His second year in the scheme, built around the same principles that form the basis of Kyle Shanahan's 49ers attack, has seen Rodgers take an offense widely regarded as the most creative in the game to new heights.

A near-lock for the MVP award, Rodgers completed 70.7 per cent of his passes in the regular season for 4,299 yards, an incredible 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Behind only Deshaun Watson and Allen with a completion percentage over expectation of 4.4, according to NextGen Stats, Rodgers led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt, his average of 8.89 well clear of Mahomes (8.33) in second. 

Possessing a near-telepathic connection with Davante Adams, Rodgers is playing at a level where he can outduel Brady, Allen or Mahomes, while the Packers defense is rounding into the kind of form where Green Bay can do what San Francisco couldn't last year, and make enough plays to stop the Chiefs from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

Paul George feels the Los Angeles Clippers are learning to "weather the storm" after their impressive win over his former team the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Clippers moved to 12-4, the NBA's best record along with city rivals the Lakers, with a 120-106 home win on Friday.

Their sixth consecutive win came courtesy of 31 points and eight rebounds from Kawhi Leonard.

George added 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists, while Serge Ibaka (17 points, 11 rebounds) contributed a double-double.

A run from the Thunder saw the Clippers' 27-point advantage reduced to 10 in the third quarter, but six straight points from Leonard ended that comeback attempt.

"Teams are going to make runs, regardless of if it is a top team or a young team," George, who connected with three of his seven attempts from behind the arc said, per ESPN.

"You got to learn how to win in adversity and learn how to weather the storm. 

"It's more so about us withstanding that and executing down the stretch."

The teams will play again at Staples Center on Sunday, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander requiring special attention from his former team after an impressive 30-point, eight-assist outing for the Thunder.

"He was amazing - he had some great moves, great finishes around the basket as always," team-mate Mike Muscala said when asked about Gilgeous-Alexander. 

"He makes the game easier for everybody on the court."

But the Thunder have now lost four of their last five games, falling to 6-8 ahead of the rematch.

Meanwhile, the Clippers are 7-2 on home court and have won five consecutive home games in meetings between the two teams.

Stats Perform data shows their last home winning streak of five or more games against the franchise was a six-game home run against the Sonics from January 1990 to January 1992.

Oklahoma City have broken the 110-point mark only three times this season (3-0 in those games), fewest in the NBA, a run which will likely need to end for them to halt that streak and their recent slump.

Pep Guardiola did not see the point in sugar coating the news that Manchester City will be without Kevin De Bruyne for between four to six weeks with a hamstring injury.

"It is [a huge blow] but we have to move forward," he said after confirming the extent of the setback for the Belgium international.

"He has an important part of the season out and we have to find a solution."

Handily for Guardiola, having the likes of Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden to choose from within his creative department means such solutions are - in theory at least - close at hand.

Here, we will examine how well equipped City are to face a run of fixtures including games against Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Borussia Monchengladbach and possibly Manchester United without their star midfielder.

Kevin the kingpin

Even when acknowledging City's enviable squad depth and Guardiola's career-long emphasis on the importance of the collective, De Bruyne's individual contribution throughout the Catalan's Etihad Stadium tenure is a heavy one.

Across 204 appearances since Guardiola took over at the start of the 2016-17 season, De Bruyne has supplied 88 assists - one every 2.3 matches.

Those come from 592 chances created, an average of one per 26.3 minutes.

David Silva is next with 365 opportunities created, with his 47 assists over the period in question second to Raheem Sterling (54).

Basically, daylight is second to De Bruyne in those and a host of other categories.

He has created 138 "big chances", according to Opta, with Sterling (73) and Silva (47) up next.

De Bruyne's 2,015 passes into the penalty area, including crosses, are more than double the amount attempted by any other player during the Guardiola era.

Keeping standards high

Although City finished a distant second to Liverpool in the Premier League last season and bowed out of the Champions League with a dispiriting quarter-final loss to Lyon, De Bruyne was named both PFA Players' Player of the Year and UEFA Midfielder of the Season.

He equalled the Premier League record of 20 assists in a season in 2019-20 and already has 10 this time around, with that figure rising to 15 in all competitions.

Once again, he leads the way for City in terms of chances created (73), big chances created (21) and passes into the penalty area (209).

Sterling (six assists), Riyad Mahrez (45 chances created and 106 passes into the box), are next best in those categories, again demonstrating the how central De Bruyne is to City as an attacking force.

Had De Bruyne been struck down when Guardiola's men were limping through the early weeks of the season, it might have cut off any title bid in its infancy.

However, the manager now has a number of other midfielders stepping up in impressive fashion.

Bernardo is back

Perhaps the most reassuring development for City this week came in the immediate aftermath of his injury.

The game was all square at 0-0 when he departed, Bernardo Silva dropped back to his team-mate's role on the right of the midfield three and promptly thrashed into the top corner to break the deadlock.

"He's back," Guardiola said defiantly of the Portugal playmaker on Friday.

"He struggled last season - maybe for the lack of minutes I gave him or maybe because he was not like him. Always he has been so important for me, for all of us."

Bernardo being "back" is a message understood loud and clear by regular City observers. It means the player who scooped the club's player of the year award when they won an unprecedented domestic treble in 2018-19; a player who has been difficult to spot for much of the subsequent 18 months.

Arguably the most impressive element of that trophy-laden campaign, when City pipped Liverpool to Premier League glory with 98 points to their rivals' 97, is they were without De Bruyne for large chunks of it.

The former Wolfsburg man twice sustained knee ligament damage before a calf strain kept him out for a key stretch of the run-in.

Bernardo's versatility is what makes him a Guardiola favourite, but playing for much of the season in De Bruyne's midfield berth, he registered 13 goals and as many assists in all competitions - a career best return for the ex-Monaco favourite.

The goal against Aston Villa was the 26-year-old's first in the Premier League this year and another drought would be deeply unhelpful as De Bruyne looks on, even though midfield goals have been flying in from elsewhere.

Gundogan and Foden in the goals

Gundogan rounded off the scoring from the penalty spot in midweek and will probably retain duties from 12 yards with De Bruyne out, having scored four out of five at City.

The Germany international is on a hot streak in front of goal since a torpid 0-0 draw at Manchester United in December persuaded Guardiola to tweak his formation and allow Gundogan more attacking license from central midfield.

Five in his past seven Premier League games is part of an all-competitions tally of seven - already the best single-season return of the 30-year-old's career.

Goalscoring is one area where De Bruyne has been under par this year. Two of his three Premier League goals are penalties, and his solitary strike from open play is the yield from 57 shots with an expected goals (xG) value of 5.1.

Gundogan (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.7) is out-performing his xG almost as impressively as Foden (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.5).

The England playmaker is level on eight with Raheem Sterling as City's top scorer in all competitions this season and has excelled in a left-wing role over recent weeks.

Like Bernardo, Foden's preference would probably be to operate in De Bruyne's favourite position but he has repaid both the faith of Guardiola and the clamour from City fans for him to start Premier League games more regularly.

City's overall statistics in the eight top-flight matches where Foden has made the XI this season are similar to the 10 when he did not, with a 62.5 per cent win ratio set against 60 per cent falling slightly in the hometown hero's favour.

However, they are considerably more active in front of goal when Foden starts, averaging 19.3 shots per game as opposed to 13.7.

The man himself has plenty to do with such an upturn if his five shots and six chances created against Villa are anything to go by - his most shot involvements in a single Premier League game.

Replacing De Bruyne's similarly weighty numbers in other areas is a task almost certainly beyond any individual at City but, with Bernardo, Gundogan and Foden among the collective, Guardiola has ample talent to keep his team's title challenge on track.

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