There was a handy demonstration of the depth of quality Italy have on their bench early in the first half at the Stadio Olimpico.

Wales defender Ethan Ampadu – in what would prove not to be his worst contribution to a 1-0 defeat – booted a pass out of play near the halfway line. As it bounced past Roberto Mancini, the Azzurri coach flicked an expensively leathered heel behind him to bring the ball under control.

The crowd roared, in the palm of Mancini's hand and the lap of a feelgood factor engendered by the standout team of the group stage. It was a reminder of the velvet touch that defined Mancini's playing days at Sampdoria and Lazio and there is plenty of that sort of thing to go around in his squad.

Nicolo Barella starred in the back-to-back 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland, showing plenty of the form that led Mancini to label him a "complete player" and one of the potential stars of Euro 2020.

Then Manuel Locatelli enjoyed a night he can dine out on for the rest of his days, scoring a stylish brace against Switzerland to set Europe's big hitters on high alert for the Sassuolo midfielder.

Injury robbed Mancini of the lavishly gifted Lorenzo Pellegrini, but even if the Roma playmaker had been available, it would have been tricky to imagine a situation where Marco Verratti would have a fight on his hands to win a place in the starting XI for the knockout stages.

 

Fitness woes are a near-permanent feature of Verratti's career and he headed into the tournament with work to do. A knee complaint was his 10th setback of the 2020-21 season, including two positive tests for coronavirus.

In the Paris Saint-Germain star's absence, Barella and Locatelli made hay. A rotated line-up for Sunday's final Group A assignment gave Verratti a chance to shine and he made sure not to let it slip by.

A twinkled-toed shuffle around Aaron Ramsey drew a fitting "oohhhh" from the crowd, who had been content to boo any previous involvement from Wales' Juventus man.

Of course, when Verratti is at his best, opposition midfielders can feel as meaningfully involved as those in the stands.

There was some lovely tight control and a fizzed shot wide before the half hour, belying the tell-tale blue tape on his right knee. Joe Allen got close enough to Verratti to foul as half-time approached and he clipped a delightful free-kick to the near post, where Matteo Pessina found a finish to match for the decisive goal.

After Amapdu's red card for a stamping 55th-minute challenge on Federico Bernardeschi, Wales dug in manfully – Joe Rodon again superb at the heart of defence with a team-high six clearances and two interceptions – to avert the threat of Switzerland overhauling them in the second automatic qualifying spot on goal difference.

Gareth Bale even flashed a glorious chance to equalise narrowly over on the volley, after which Verratti slid in to win possession inside his own half and launch another Italy attack, one of his four successful tackles.

By full-time, he had created five chances, including the goal, and completed a fairly absurd 103 out of 110 passes (93.6 per cent) – 70 of those coming in the opposition half, while three of Verratti's four crosses were successful.

 

Reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu replacing Gianluigi Donnarumma for the final minutes was another demonstration of the close bond and team spirit fostered by Mancini in his Italy camp, as were the now familiar mass celebrations on the sidelines for Pessina's winner.

That atmosphere might mean a player of Verratti's ample talents can accept a return to the bench with good grace, after a performance that made sure of three wins out of three and gave Mancini a useful problem. For everyone else in the tournament, an Italy side on a record-equalling 30 game unbeaten run just look like a problem.

It all seemed too perfect. Just moments after Robert Lewandowski had dragged Poland back into it at the other end, Alvaro Morata had the chance to once again prove his critics wrong.

But with the goal gaping, Morata was unable to convert, as Spain followed up a 0-0 stalemate with Sweden with a 1-1 draw against Poland, La Roja failing to win their first two group games of a European Championship since Euro 1996.

Yet it had all been going well for Morata, who opened the scoring in the 25th minute when he prodded in from Gerard Moreno's cross-shot, with VAR awarding the goal after the linesman's incorrect offside flag.

Morata had charged off to celebrate with Luis Enrique, who came to the defence of Spain's forward after Monday's frustrating draw with Sweden in their Group E opener. 

He wasted Spain's best chance when he failed to beat Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen one-on-one – his attempt one of three the Juventus forward, who is on loan from Atletico Madrid, sent off target in that match.

But it was a Saturday night which ultimately, for both Morata and his Spain team-mates, ended in frustration once more in Seville.

It could easily have been very different. Lewandowski, who had squandered Poland's best chance of the first half when he struck straight at Unai Simon from point-blank range after Karol Swiderski had hit the post, making no mistake with what was just his second, and final, touch in the box within the width of the goal.

Lewandowski's towering header from Kamil Jozwiak's cross brought up his third major tournament goal – he is just the third Polish player to net in three separate major competitions, after Grzegorz Lato and Andrzej Szarmach.

His goal keeps Poland's last-16 hopes alive in a group that remains wide open, though Spain should have been back ahead four minutes later.

Moreno was fouled by Jakub Moder, the offence spotted on a VAR check and referee Daniele Orsato pointing to the spot.

Unlike the composure he showed in the penalty shootout win over Manchester United in Villarreal's Europa League final triumph last month, Moreno missed the target, his low shot hitting the base of the left-hand upright.

 

Yet there was Morata, charging in to meet the rebound, the goal wide open in front of him. The net should have been rippling. Instead, Morata was looking at the sky in anguish, his shot having sliced off his in-step and well wide.

Two more big opportunities followed for Morata, who finished with a game-high four attempts – three of them on target – but on neither occasion could he beat the final Poland block.

Only Fernando Torres (five) has scored more Euro goals than Morata (four) for their country, but when he trudged off in the 87th minute it was his miss which lingered in the Andalusian air as Poland held on for a hard-earned draw, and Spain must beat Slovakia next week to ensure they are not a group-stage casualty. 

Few coaches have received quite as much scrutiny as Joachim Low in the elongated run-up to Euro 2020.

Castigated after Germany's stunning group-stage exit at the 2018 World Cup, Low kept his job on the proviso of him starting a new phase for Die Mannschaft, with many of the old guard who helped inspire them to glory four years earlier in Brazil cast aside and their next generation of stars pushed to the fore.

Transitions, though, are rarely straightforward and Germany's bumps on the road to the European Championship were severe. They would have been relegated from League A of the Nations League if not for a restructuring following the inaugural edition and a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Spain in the same competition last November prompted an inquest that eventually led to his March decision to step down after the Euros.

A World Cup qualifying defeat to North Macedonia likely influenced Low's call to end the exiles of Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels for the Euros but, after the latter put through his own net in Germany's 1-0 loss to France in their opening Group F fixture and Cristiano Ronaldo then put Portugal ahead in Munich on Saturday, the coach would have been forgiven for wondering if this was just simply one tournament cycle too far.

Yet that dark moment amid the late evening sunshine at the Allianz Arena quickly gave way to belated vindication for Low, whose team rose to the occasion to claim a superb 4-2 victory in the game of the tournament so far.

Staring the prospect of taking no points from two games in the face, it was not Muller who turned the tide in Germany's favour but a member of that new generation they look set to rely on for years to come under Hansi Flick.

Robin Gosens won only his ninth cap for Germany against Fernando Santos' men, but his performance was that of a player vastly more experienced on this stage.

Schooled in the art of expansive attacking football through playing for a relentless Atalanta side that led Serie A with 90 goals in 2020-21, Gosens ruthlessly made the most of the inexplicable freedom given to him by Portugal right-back Nelson Semedo.

 

Gosens exuded confidence in the 35th minute as he hit a first-time ball across goal after Joshua Kimmich switched the play. Ruben Dias, under pressure from the unwelcome sight of Champions League final hero Kai Havertz, inadvertently levelled matters. Four minutes later, Raphael Guerreiro, who benefited from a fortunate deflection in Portugal's opening 3-0 win over Hungary, followed Dias in bundling into his own net from a Kimmich pull-back after Gosens had cut the ball back for Muller to cross.

There was no doubt Havertz had the decisive touch after Gosens put the ball on a platter for the Chelsea playmaker to make it 3-1 six minutes into the second half. A remarkable showing was then capped by Gosens with a firm close-range header from another Kimmich delivery.

Portugal pulled a goal back through Diogo Jota and Renato Sanches rattled the frame of the goal with a long-range effort, but a team that appeared poised to secure a place in the last 16 must now recover from becoming the first defending champion to concede four times in a game. It was the second time Portugal have let in four in a major tournament, having also done so against Germany in 2014.

Few would have envisioned Gosens having a hand in every goal but, with his influence and Havertz becoming Germany's youngest goalscorer at the Euros at 22 years and eight days old, this was Low's 2018 vision coming to fruition.

It may not have been exactly how he pictured it, Muller playing two key passes and Real Madrid's Toni Kroos, another old hand, heavily involved. But through that blend of youth and experience, Germany's hopes of a successful swansong for Low have life going into the final group game with a surprisingly obdurate Hungary.

On the evidence of their 1-1 draw with world champions France, Gosens and Co. may need to work harder to break down Hungary than they did Portugal.

For the 'Group of Death' to deliver, Germany needed to put the trials and tribulations that followed their no-show in Russia behind them. They did so emphatically against the unusually fragile defending champions and, heading into the final matchday, who wins Group F is anyone's guess. 

With offseason programs in the books, NFL teams will next month turn their attention to training camp as preparations for the 2021 season ramp up.

Every coaching staff in the league knows that having a reliable offensive line will be crucial to their hopes of success in the coming campaign.

Too many holes in the trenches can doom a team's chances in a hurry regardless of the talent at quarterback and the offensive skill positions.

Reflecting the importance of strong play up front, five offensive linemen were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

And, using combined run block and pass protection data over the past three seasons, Stats Perform has produced projected offensive line rankings to see how each team stacks up in the trenches.

Here we look at which teams are in the best shape, which O-Lines could cause problems for their quarterback and which appear to ready to make the leap to the league's best in 2021.


THE ELITE

1. Dallas Cowboys

LT – Tyron Smith, LG – Connor Williams, C – Tyler Biadasz, RG – Zack Martin, RT – La'el Collins

Injuries decimated the Dallas O-Line in 2020 but, when healthy, it is tough to see another unit in the league that can match this group for overall talent.

That may be a substantial caveat but, should the Cowboys keep their starters in the line-up in 2021, Dak Prescott will have the benefit of excellent protection from several spots up front.

Tyron Smith missed all but two games last season but remains the top pass protecting left tackle in our projected ranks. Zack Martin is second in pass protection among right guards and, if he can return to his best after missing six games in 2020 and right tackle La'el Collins can stay on the field and play at a high level, a stacked Cowboys offense will be in an excellent spot to produce at an historic pace as they did last year before Prescott went down.

2. New England Patriots

LT – Isaiah Wynn, LG – Mike Onwenu, C – David Andrews, RG – Shaq Mason, RT – Trent Brown

The Patriots lost Joe Thuney in free agency but, despite the departure of one of the most dependable guards in football, New England heads into 2021 with an elite group hoping to help the offense bounce back from a dismal 2020.

Trent Brown's return should fortify the right side of the line while left tackle Isaiah Wynn shouldn't have to worry much about his inside shoulder with Mike Onwenu ranking as the second-best pass protecting left guard in the NFL after an excellent rookie season.

David Andrews grades out as the top run-blocking center in football -- he allowed a run disruption on only 5.3 per cent of his snaps in 2020, with Corey Linsley well adrift in second on 6.2 per cent -- while Shaq Mason is in the top three in that area at right guard.

Regardless of whether it's Cam Newton or Mac Jones under center in 2021, the O-Line is constructed in a way where the quarterback and a replenished set of skill-position players should have every chance to succeed.

3. Baltimore Ravens

LT – Ronnie Stanley, LG – Bradley Bozeman, C – Patrick Mekari, RG – Kevin Zeitler, RT – Alejandro Villanueva

Baltimore's presence in the top three may raise a few eyebrows given they traded right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, their lofty position is largely a testament to the play of Ronnie Stanley, the left tackle who will be looking to bounce back after seeing his 2020 season ended by an ankle injury.

Stanley ranks tied-fourth among left tackles and was stellar in pass protection prior to getting hurt, with his pressure rate allowed of 4.4 per cent bettered only by David Bakhtiari and Andrew Whitworth at his position.

Having given up a pressure rate of 11.9 per cent at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, Alejandro Villanueva will have a challenge replacing Brown, who allowed pressures on just 5.8 per cent of his right tackle snaps in 2020.

But the interior was the main issue for the Ravens last season and, with fourth-ranked right guard Kevin Zeitler arriving from the New York Giants, Baltimore should be confident of a noticeable improvement in the middle of their line.

THE STRUGGLERS

30. Chicago Bears

LT – Teven Jenkins, LG – Cody Whitehair, C – Sam Mustipher, RG – Germain Ifedi, RT – Elijah Wilkinson

After surprisingly allowing Charles Leno to leave, the Bears are banking on Teven Jenkins successfully making the switch from college right tackle to NFL left tackle as a rookie. That he will do so successfully is a dubious presumption to make and there is little to rely on at any spot on the trenches for Chicago.

Cody Whitehair at least provided a solid presence at left guard but the interior protection for Andy Dalton, or rookie first-round pick Justin Fields, will be suspect if Sam Mustipher cannot make strides at center.

Tied as the third-worst center in the NFL in the projected rankings, only Hroniss Grasu (2.8%) fared worse than Mustipher (2.3%) in terms of adjusted sack rate allowed in 2020.

31. Carolina Panthers

LT – Greg Little, LG – Dennis Daley, C – Matt Paradis, RG – John Miller, RT – Taylor Moton

Carolina looks set at right tackle, with Taylor Moton ranking as the fifth-best player at the position, but they have little in the way of solutions elsewhere up front.

The left side looms as a massive issue for the Panthers. Greg Little grades out as the worst left tackle in football and Dennis Daley is 30th among left guards in the projected rankings.

It is far from an ideal scenario for Sam Darnold to step into as quarterback, and he will hope center Matt Paradis can do a significantly better job snapping the football. Paradis' bad snap percentage of 3.49 was fourth-worst in the NFL in 2020.

32. Minnesota Vikings

LT – Christian Darrisaw, LG – Dru Samia, C – Garrett Bradbury, RG – Ezra Cleveland, RT – Brian O'Neill

Offensive line issues have long since plagued the Vikings, who invested a premium pick in a new left tackle by using their first-round selection on Christian Darrisaw of Virginia Tech.

Darrisaw named Trent Williams and Laremy Tunsil as his favourite linemen to watch prior to the draft. If he replicates their impact, he will be a success, but there are substantial problems on the interior.

Dru Samia is the worst left guard in the NFL in the projected rankings, and center Garrett Bradbury allowed pressure on 8.1 per cent of his pass protection snaps. Only two players to take snaps center had worse pressure rates in 2020.

READY TO MAKE THE LEAP

Kansas City Chiefs

LT – Orlando Brown Jr, LG – Joe Thuney, C – Austin Blythe, RG – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RT – Mike Remmers

The Chiefs completely remodelled their offensive line in the wake of giving up 33 pressures in the Super Bowl LV, and there is little doubt they head into 2021 with a much-improved group as they attempt to win back the Lombardi Trophy.

Kansas City will need an improvement from Brown following his trade from Baltimore. In his 221 pass protection snaps at left tackle after Stanley's injury, Brown gave up a pressure rate of 10.9 per cent. Having campaigned to play on the left side, Brown's performance figures to come under significant scrutiny.

He will be helped by the presence of Thuney, second among all left guards in the projected rankings after allowing pressure on just 4.3 per cent of his snaps in his final season in New England.

With Laurent Duvernay-Tardif returning to man the right guard spot, the Chiefs' line has an air of solidity about it. Eleventh in the projected ranks, the Chiefs could jump into the top 10 if not the top five should their additions perform to their potential.

Los Angeles Chargers

LT – Rashawn Slater, LG – Matt Feiler, C – Corey Linsley, RG – Oday Aboushi, RT – Bryan Bulaga

Staying in the AFC West with a Chargers team many will be backing to surge towards postseason contention after an Offensive Rookie of the Year season from Justin Herbert, for Los Angeles much hinges on the performance of rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater in his first season in the league.

That is a lot of expectation to place on a player who did not feature in the 2020 college season, but the optimism should come from Slater's 2019 performance for Northwestern, which saw him give up just six pressures on 220 pass protection snaps.

Yet the most important addition for Herbert may be that of center Corey Linsley, who arrived from the Green Bay Packers. Just three centers graded above Linsley in the projected ranks and his ability to quickly develop a rapport with Herbert will be pivotal to the Chargers realising their potential. History suggests the 2020 first-team All-Pro should succeed in doing so.

Arizona Cardinals

LT – D.J. Humphries, LG – Justin Pugh, C – Rodney Hudson, RG – Brian Winters, RT – Kelvin Beachum

The Cardinals must be strong up front if Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury are to have a chance of inspiring Arizona to a successful season in an NFC West loaded with pass-rushing talent, and they made an astute addition on the interior this offseason in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders that saw them acquire three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson.

Tied for fourth with Linsley among centers in the projected rankings, Hudson's experience will be a valuable asset to Murray as he looks to take a step forward in year three, the former Kansas City Chief recording a pressure rate allowed of 1.7 per cent that was the second-best in the league at his position.

Kelvin Beachum is a substantial asset to the ground game. His run disruption percentage of 5.9 per cent was third among right tackles in 2020 and, with D.J. Humphries allowing only 28 pressures on 450 pass protection snaps last season, Murray will have three dependable players at the most important positions on the line in a year where another underwhelming campaign will not be acceptable.

When Cristiano Ronaldo limped out of the Euro 2016 final, Portugal had to bide their time and turn towards an unlikely hero.

Eder, a flop in the Premier League with Swansea City who had been sent out on loan to Lille, enjoyed the most memorable moment of his time in France – and, indeed, his career – when he drove home a brilliant winner to down the hosts 1-0 in extra time at the Stade de France.

It felt like an entirely fitting way for Fernando Santos' team to win a tournament they slogged their way through.

Quickfire goals from Ronaldo and Nani early in the second half of a 2-0 semi-final win over Wales accounted for Portugal's only victory inside 90 minutes.

There were three draws during the group stage, including a 0-0 scoreline remaining intact when their talisman missed a penalty against Austria. The last-16 encounter with Croatia also reached full-time goalless before Ricardo Quaresma struck during the additional period.  

 

Quaresma and Nani provided dutiful support as their careers at the top level ticked down, but the cupboard was fairly bare for Santos once injury struck during the first half in Paris and Ronaldo was reduced to barking encouragement and instructions from the touchline.

Should a similar fate befall Portugal's all-time leading scorer this time around, the replacement goal threat would not be so obscure.

In Andre Silva, there is a natural stand-in at centre-forward, buoyed by 28 goals in 32 Bundesliga outings for Eintracht Frankfurt this season.

The burden could also be shouldered by Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes, an ideal candidate for penalty duties, while Diogo Jota's threat would remain.

Let's not forget that Bernardo Silva played a decent amount of Manchester City's triumphant Premier League title campaign and run to the Champions League final as a false nine, while Joao Felix remains an outstanding talent despite not yet justifying his €126million transfer fee to Atletico Madrid.

None of that quintet were involved at Euro 2016.

 

In short, Santos now has a squad overflowing with attacking firepower, having masterminded a route to glory when such options were far more scarce – save for one ludicrously prolific exception – five years ago.

However, as they prepare to face Germany, they remain a target for some of the criticism that came France's way after their opening 1-0 win in Munich.

Like Didier Deschamps, Santos has been accused of lacking imagination, providing a solid base for his attacking creatives and not much else.

"We are different from France. Let's see what Germany does and we'll try to control Germany too. One thing's for certain, we have to have a ball," Santos told reporters on Friday, insisting his team would look to take the initiative.

"We are not going to defend man to man. We're going to maintain our defensive pattern to be able to have the ball, as we did against Hungary, whom we forced to run."

 

The Hungary game was goalless until the 84th minute, as Ronaldo bagged a brace and superior quality – along with all that enforced running – eventually told in a 3-0 win.

But, with two heavyweight encounters to come before the end of the group stage, the question remains over whether Santos can make his team of winners a team people love to see win.

In the period from the end of the Euro 2012 up until their trudging triumph in 2016, per game Portugal averaged 1.6 goals form 17.2 shots and 5.9 on target at a shot conversion rate of 9.5 per cent.

Since Euro 2016, all of those numbers are up. They average 2.3 goals per game, 18.1 shots and 6.6 on target, converting 12.7 per cent. Their passing accuracy has improved from 83.2 per cent to 86 per cent, while an average of 172.9 passes ending in the final third in every match – up from 145.7 – also suggests a more progressive approach.

Far from waiting around for things to happen, Portugal imposed themselves against Hungary and a partisan Budapest crowd, enjoying 70 per cent possession and making 19 high turnovers – ranking them third overall in the tournament for teams winning the ball back 40 metres from the opposition goal, despite being one of sixes sides to have only played once so far.

 

For context, Santos' men made 27 high turnovers over the course of their six matches in France five years ago.

Ronaldo is reaping the benefit of this increased output of the attacking unit around him. Six of his nine international hat-tricks have come since lifting the European Championship.

If Portugal and the affable curmudgeon Santos are to mimic their neighbours Spain, who went back-to-back in 2008 and 2012, they might just capture hearts and minds along with winners' medals this time around.

It was an underwhelming day for England as they could not seal their place in the next round of Euro 2020, though Sweden moved a step closer to at least ensuring they do not go home early.

Nevertheless, Friday was not a day of great entertainment in the European Championship, with no team managing more than one goal among the three matches.

Only one of the three goals on the day was not a penalty, as Ivan Perisic made history when sealing a point for Croatia.

While the matches may not have set pulses racing, there was still plenty to talk about.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform takes a look at some of the best facts from across the day's games.

England 0-0 Scotland: Kane tame as Three Lions rendered toothless in rare draw

England failed to make sure of their qualification for the knockout phase as they were held to a 0-0 draw by Scotland, only the fourth goalless game in 115 official fixtures between the old rivals.

It was the first 0-0 draw between them since 1987, and the only one in 33 clashes at Wembley.

Similarly, England had only ever slumped to one other goalless draw at the new Wembley, that stalemate as far back as October 2010 when Fabio Capello's side were held by Montenegro.

Accentuating England's toothlessness was the fact Harry Kane managed only 19 touches of the ball, the fewest he has ever managed for the Three Lions in a game in which he has featured for more than 45 minutes.

The last time he had fewer touches for Spurs while playing for more than 45 minutes was against Manchester city in April 2018 (17 touches in 90 minutes).

Nevertheless, England can seal qualification with a point on Tuesday against the Czech Republic, and they can at least take solace in that this was their 14th clean sheet from their previous 18 matches, evidence that at least one area of the team is functioning properly.

 

Croatia 1-1 Czech Republic: Schick nets again as Perisic makes history with equaliser

Patrik Schick's bid for the Golden Boot received another boost as he scored a controversial penalty to open the scoring against Croatia, the Bayer Leverkusen striker subsequently becoming the first Czech Republic player to net three or more goals at a major tournament since Milan Baros (five) in Euro 2004.

Schick is also the first player to score each of his team's first three goals of a European Championship tournament since Mario Gomez for Germany in 2012.

But his spot-kick was cancelled out in the second half by Ivan Perisic, who made history in doing so.

The Inter winger became the first Croatian to score at four major international tournaments (2014 and 2018 World Cups, Euro 2016 and Euro 2020).

His powerful strike was his eighth in such tournaments, a figure that only Antoine Griezmann (10), Cristiano Ronaldo (10) and Romelu Lukaku (nine) can better among European players in the past four international events.

He is now just one behind Davor Suker's all-time record of nine goals across World Cups and the European Championship for Croatia.

Could he level the record in Croatia's pivotal final group game against Scotland?

 

Sweden 1-0 Slovakia: Isak a ray of sunshine in turgid encounter

St Petersburg was not treated to a classic as Sweden narrowly beat Slovakia at the Krestovsky Stadium, but Janne Andersson's men gave themselves a massive boost with respect to potentially reaching the knockout phase.

Emil Forsberg's second-half penalty ultimately proved decisive and ended a run of 365 minutes without a Sweden goal in European Championship tournaments, their most recent goal coming in their Euro 2016 opener.

That was their 23rd second-half goal in the history of the Euros, which equates to 88 percent of their total, the highest percentage of any side with at least three goals in the competition.

Once Sweden went ahead there looked to be little danger of a turnaround, as Slovakia – who had previously looked happy to settle for a point – failed to get a single shot on target, making them only the second team to fail in that regard after Turkey against Italy.

While it was by no means an exhilarating watch, Alexander Isak at least did his best to provide some entertainment.

The Real Sociedad forward completed six dribbles over the course of the match, the most by any player in a single Euro 2020 game and a figure unmatched by a Sweden player since 1992.

 

Had Euro 2020 actually started on time last year, it's fair to say Pedri wouldn't have been in the Spain squad.

Although he impressed for his country at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup, Pedri did not make a LaLiga appearance until September 2020.

Even earning a spot in Barca's first-team squad wasn't a given after he linked up with them from Las Palmas. It was initially expected he would either go on loan to a smaller LaLiga club, or feature for the B team.

But Pedri suitably impressed Ronald Koeman in pre-season and was fast-tracked into the senior side and he went on to play in all but one of their 38 LaLiga games.

The teenager then earned his first call-up to the Spain squad in March, and at that point few would have bet against him playing a leading role for the national team for the next 15 years.

Comparisons with Andres Iniesta have been prevalent ever since he broke into the Las Palmas team as a 16-year-old, such is his effortless ability on the ball, and for both Barca and Spain he is expected to carry out a similar function of bringing the team forward with the ball at his feet.

 

While Spain weren't exactly impressive in their 0-0 draw with Sweden, their inability to find the net despite dominating a worrying sign, Pedri's comfort in such a role on his major tournament debut was at least a reason for encouragement.

Aged 18 years, six months and 18 days, Pedri became Spain's youngest-ever player to feature at a European Championship, breaking a record that had stood for 41 years.

Though there was no hint of nervousness on his part, the midfielder getting on the ball with great regularity as Spain tried to plot a way through Sweden's packed defence.

The only non-defender to better his 113 touches was Koke (128), but in fairness the Atletico Madrid man often dropped into the right-back area to occupy the space vacated by Marcos Llorente, thus almost making him an orthodox full-back in possession.

But what was particularly notable about Pedri's display was his desire to keep hold of the ball.

 

His 60 carries – defined as movements of five metres or more in possession – wasn't bettered by any other player on matchday one.

Similarly, Frenkie de Jong (714m) is the only midfielder to better Pedri's 582.4m in terms of overall carry distance, while the youngster's 14 progressive carries of at least 10m is also second to just his Barca team-mate (15) among midfielders. The Netherlands star has played 180 minutes to his colleague's 90.

To add another layer of context to Pedri's work, Iniesta's 109 carries from four games at Euro 2016 was the seventh-most at the tournament.

Another outing like the Sweden game for Pedri against Poland on Saturday will see him surpass that figure posted by Iniesta. While the Barca great was 32 at the time, he was still very much among the world's best.

Firstly, this all highlights how much confidence Pedri has in himself, but it also shows the trust Luis Enrique and the rest of the squad have in the 18-year-old.

 

One area some may want to see an improvement in is his decisiveness in the final third, as he failed to make a single key pass against Sweden – though it's still perfectly arguable that Spain shouldn't have needed more creativity, given four players set up at least two shooting opportunities, while La Roja's 2.35 expected goals (xG) value shows they were let down by poor finishing rather than a lack of ingenuity.

Either way, Spain are likely to face similar tactics against Poland as they did versus Sweden, with an emphasis on Luis Enrique's side to pick a way through a rigid backline.

Pedri's maturity and positivity on the ball should at least ensure La Roja have the possessional nous to probe and test Poland's resolve at the back.

Chris Paul crumpled to the floor of Phoenix Suns Arena, grimacing and twisting with pain while he grasped at his right shoulder.

For all his regular-season accolades – 11 All-Star Games, nine All-NBA teams, four assists titles and six steals titles – deep playoff runs have been hard to come by for Paul.

Whether due to fate or disappointing failure, the future Hall of Fame point guard has only played in one Conference Finals series. After suffering a hamstring injury in 2018, Paul watched from the sideline as his Houston Rockets lost Games 6 and 7 to the Golden State Warriors, extinguishing his best chance to date to win a title.

Three years later, as Paul left the floor with a right shoulder injury during Game 1 of the Suns' first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, it must have felt as if the fates were conspiring against him again. After leading Phoenix to the NBA's second-best record in 2020-21, Paul got to face LeBron James and the defending champions as a reward. Then an injury less than 15 minutes into the postseason?

What a hopeless feeling that must have been.

Paul didn't miss a game in the series but looked like a shell of himself through Game 3, averaging 6.7 points on 38.1 per cent shooting as the Suns trailed 2-1 in the series. The tide turned in Game 4, however, with Anthony Davis succumbing to injury and with Paul's shoulder beginning to steadily improve.

After ousting the Lakers in six games, Paul was nearly flawless in a sweep of the Denver Nuggets and MVP Nikola Jokic. He averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists over four games and rose to the occasion in the clutch, scoring 17.0 points per game in the second half on absurd 78.8 per cent shooting. In fourth quarters that series, Paul was 16 for 19 from the field (84.2 per cent), including a perfect mark on his four three-point attempts.

Paul totalled 41 assists, the most since 1984-85 in a playoff series while committing five or fewer turnovers. For the third time in his postseason career, he had 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2, a feat that has only been done seven times in a playoff game since 1984-85.

At 36 years old, Paul painted one of the most memorable masterpieces of his career.

Then came another devastating blow, when Paul was sidelined in accordance with the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols on Wednesday morning, keeping him in quarantine indefinitely. It has not been specified whether Paul has tested positive for the coronavirus, or exactly why he has entered the protocols.

Going forward, the Suns' road only gets tougher, facing either the top-seeded Utah Jazz or Paul's former team – the Los Angeles Clippers – in the Western Conference Finals, and Phoenix could be forced to start the series without their star point guard.

Despite the challenge ahead, it is tempting to consider what a first career NBA Finals appearance – or first career title – would do for the legacy of one of the most underrated players of his era.

Paul's brilliance can sometimes go unnoticed, especially in a league full of talented scorers who appear ready to drop 50 in any given game. His career high is 43 points, and the last time he hit 40 was in 2016.

But what's set Paul apart since the day he entered the league are his abilities to command an offense and distribute to team-mates. He is one of six players with over 10,000 career assists and, all things being equal, will move into third on the all-time helpers list next season, trailing only John Stockton and Jason Kidd.

Among the five players with the most assists in NBA history, Paul's 18.3 points per game is the highest mark, out-pacing Steve Nash's 14.3 by a healthy margin.

Paul is also fifth all-time with 2,332 career steals and could move up a spot or two on that list in two years' time.

But Paul's true impact defies traditional box score statistics. This postseason, the Suns have a scoring differential of plus 13.0 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court, and Phoenix are shooting nearly 50 per cent from the floor with their conductor in the game.

Moreover, Paul's teams simply win.

His teams have a record of 698-392 when he plays, or an average of 53-29 over an 82-game season. Paul has played for five teams in his career, and each have improved their record in Paul's first year over the previous season. On average, a team adding Paul to the roster increase their win percentage by .168, the equivalent of 14 added wins over an 82-game season.

If Paul never played another game, he would still be a guaranteed Hall of Famer. And after this latest disruption, perhaps the 2021 playoffs will be yet another chapter in a book of postseasons gone wrong for an otherwise legendary player.

But almost every team remaining in this year’s playoffs is dealing with attrition, including both the Suns' potential opponents in the next round. Phoenix are rated by bookmakers as the second favourites for the championship, trailing only the Brooklyn Nets.

Paul's legacy should be able to stand alone, with or without a title. But adding a championship ring would go a long way towards forcing his detractors to finally acknowledge his consistent brilliance.

Despite plenty of doubts heading into Euro 2020, Frank de Boer's Netherlands side could well just be a surprise package.

The Netherlands joined Belgium and Italy in qualifying for the last 16 as they claimed a 2-0 victory over Austria in Amsterdam on Thursday, ensuring they will top Group C.

In truth, they came up against an Austria team who are failing to get the best from the talent Franco Foda has at his disposal, though that will not dispel the positivity surrounding the Oranje after two vibrant attacking displays.

With Matthijs de Ligt back at the heart of their defence and Frenkie de Jong commanding midfield, the Netherlands looked solid at the back, and this encounter seemed to pit a team with a set system – if sometimes overly offensive – against a side with little idea as to how they want to play.

 

Austria wasting Alaba's talent

David Alaba is a player whose versatility has always come in handy both for Bayern Munich and Austria. Indeed, he has more often than not played in midfield for his country.

He managed to advance forward from a position on the left of a back three in the 3-1 win over North Macedonia on Sunday, providing the assist for Austria's second goal, but in Amsterdam, stationed in the middle of the defence, he looked a shadow of the world-class talent he truly is.

While still managing to create two chances – matching his total from game one – he was too often forced to stay deep and marshall Austria's line, subsequently becoming a victim of the Netherlands' press. It was only at 2-0 down that Foda made the decision to move his talisman into a more advanced position, from which the Real Madrid-bound left-footer went close to a stunning goal which would have set up a grandstand finish.

It rounded out a frustrating night for the 28-year-old, whose rash lunge on Denzel Dumfries led to Austria falling behind.

 

De Jong serves up midfield masterclass

As Alaba became bogged down in defence, De Jong had free rein in midfield. The Barcelona man sure made the most of it.

The Netherlands actually had less possession (46.9 per cent) than their visitors, but they always looked to have the match under control and De Jong, whose 77 touches was a team-high, was crucial.

No player made more tackles (three) or regained possession on more occasions (12) than the former Ajax star, who was at his silky best when on the ball, effortlessly gliding through midfield and picking out his team-mates 49 times, out of 58 attempts, giving him a passing accuracy of 84.5 per cent.

With the bombarding Dumfries stretching the pitch down the right, De Jong was afforded the time and space to run the show.

Depay shows his best... and worst

Memphis Depay had five of the Netherlands' six efforts at goal in the first half, with his penalty – won by the excellent Dumfries – putting the hosts ahead after 11 minutes.

Depay has scored 27 goals for his country, five more than any other Dutch player since his debut, with Georgino Wijnaldum (22) his closest challenger.

He really should have had added more to that total. Depay lashed into the side-netting in the 24th minute, but his glaring miss came when he sliced over with the goal gaping just before half-time.

Nevertheless, his talent is there for all to see, with his six efforts a game-high – albeit the only one which hit the target was his goal.

It helps that Depay has found support in the goalscoring stakes, Dumfries putting the seal on victory in this game and becoming only the second Dutchman to score in his first two appearances at the Euros, after Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Sabitzer crowded out as Arnautovic's absence felt

Marko Arnautovic's suspension for his over-zealous celebration against North Macedonia left Austria short of one of their best options in attack, but Foda is also struggling to find a way to bring Marcel Sabitzer's creativity to the fore.

The RB Leipzig midfielder showed quality with a supreme cross for the opener against North Macedonia, yet he failed to create any chances for others throughout Thursday's match, only managing one shot himself.

Sabitzer scored eight Bundesliga goals in 2020-21 for Leipzig, setting up a further three, but like Alaba, it feels as though his ability is not being sufficiently harnessed by a coach who has guided his team to just two wins in their last eight games.

Belgium planned to kick the ball out of play after 10 minutes against Denmark to pay their own mark of respect to Christian Eriksen. The world's top-ranked football nation were perhaps not anticipating, however, that they would be chasing the game – and indeed Danish shadows – at that early stage in the match.

In the end the referee, Bjorn Kuipers, seemingly had to remind the Belgium players to bring the contest to a temporary halt, sparking emotional scenes as supporters and players - Eriksen's current and former club-mates Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld among them – applauded in unison.

It was that type of occasion and that type of start for Denmark as they produced a fitting tribute to stricken team-mate Eriksen, who was likely to have been watching on from his hospital bed barely 400 yards away, where he continues to recover from a cardiac arrest.

Football was put into perspective the moment Eriksen went to ground in the Danes' opening Group B defeat to Finland – he was "gone", in the words of team doctor Morten Boesen – but thankfully updates in the five days since the incident have been largely positive.

Whether we will see the Inter playmaker on a field again remains to be seen; that he is able to smile and laugh once more with his colleagues is a huge victory in its own right. A bigger victory, indeed, than Denmark were on course for against Belgium until the Kevin De Bruyne show ensued.

 

Long before the Manchester City playmaker's half-time arrival, just 99 seconds into the game at a raucous Parken Stadium, Yussuf Poulsen finished expertly into the bottom-left corner for the second-quickest goal in European Championship history.

Poulsen profited from a Jason Denayer error, the Lyon defender looking rusty in the early stages after returning to the side in place of Dedryck Boyata at the back following a rare day off in the 3-0 win over Russia.

Roberto Martinez's Belgian charges lived up to their tag as the world's number one side in their previous match against Russia, and the professionalism of this performance – as bad as they were in the first half – will arguably heighten expectations that they can go all the way when at full strength.

Belgium mustered just one attempt in the first half – a flicked effort from Dries Mertens on his 100th cap.

The last time they managed only one effort in the opening 45 minutes was in a 2-0 loss to Spain in September 2016, Martinez's first at the helm, which preceded a run of just three defeats in their next 56 matches.

Denmark could not quite add their name to that rare list of nations to have conquered the Red Devils over the last five years, with the visitors' quality eventually shining through. Make that De Bruyne's quality.

Still recovering from a facial injury sustained in Manchester City's Champions League loss to Chelsea last month, the playmaker was introduced for the start of the second half and made an instant impact.

Against the run of play, Lukaku turned his marker and pulled the ball back for De Bruyne to tee up the unmarked Thorgan Hazard. The finish from six yards was simple, the build-up to it anything but.

That assist made De Bruyne the only European player to set up a goal in each of the last four major international tournaments and he added his own name to the scoresheet 16 minutes later.

Another flowing team move culminated in De Bruyne driving a low shot past Kasper Schmeichel. A broken nose and a broken eye socket for De Bruyne; broken dreams for Denmark as their tournament hopes are now perhaps as good as over.

This game was never solely about the result, though – one that ensures safe passage through to the knockout stages for Belgium with a game, against Finland, to spare.

The defining moment was not Denayer's error, De Bruyne's match-changing introduction or Martin Braithwaite skimming the crossbar at the end, but rather the moment when all within the stadium united to pay respect to the popular Eriksen.

"All of Denmark is with you, Christian," a banner in one of the stands read. And boy did Denmark's players show that as they gave Belgium's hugely talented squad a run for their money.

In a move that football purists, romanticists and aficionados of 1990s Serie A will be excited by, Gianluigi Buffon is returning to Parma after 20 years away.

Buffon came through the club's academy in the early '90s and made 220 appearances for them in all competitions, winning the Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana and UEFA Cup during a six-year spell in the first-team.

Juventus made Buffon the world's most-expensive goalkeeper at the time when they paid €52million for him in 2001 and he played 685 times for them across two spells, 20 short of Alessandro Del Piero's club record.

Nevertheless, Buffon's longevity has ensured he is the record holder for the most Serie A appearances (657) and titles (10) in the league's history.

After leaving Juve at the end of the 2020-21 season, it was unclear what would be next for Buffon, but links with Parma began to stir despite their relegation to Serie B.

And on Thursday the club confirmed Buffon is back. While the days of challenging for major honours are long gone for Parma, the goalkeeping great represents a coup and the kind of transfer that tugs at heartstrings.

In honour of Buffon's momentous return, Stats Perform takes a look at other greats who've gone back to their spiritual home to close out their career.

Arjen Robben - Groningen

Arjen Robben's retirement lasted just a single season, as the Netherlands and Bayern Munich great announced last year that he was returning to his boyhood club Groningen for the 2020-21 campaign. Robben, now 37, initially brought an illustrious playing career to an end in July 2019 shortly after his 10-year spell with Bayern finished. Although at the time he was linked with a potential return to the team that gave him his professional debut, Robben – who suffered with numerous injury problems throughout his career – opted to retire. He then caused something of a shock as he finally went back to the place where it all began, but once again injuries blighted his season, restricting him to just seven Eredivisie appearances. It's unclear if he'll play on into 2021-22, though either way it's safe to assume Groningen will be where he retires once and for all.

Juan Roman Riquelme - Argentinos Juniors

Perhaps more synonymous with Boca Juniors, where he made his professional debut and also spent most of his final years, Riquelme also had a strong affinity with Argentinos Juniors. He came through the club's academy in the early-to-mid 1990s, before then finishing his immense career at Estadio Diego Maradona in 2014, having also played for Barcelona, Villarreal and Argentina. Although the iconic attacking midfielder appeared close to joining Paraguay's Cerro Porteno the following year, the move never materialised.

Dirk Kuyt - Quick Boys

Kuyt briefly came out of retirement three years ago to help Quick Boys, with whom he spent 13 years as a youth. Playing in the Derde Divisie Saturday league, Kuyt was already working as assistant at the time, but made himself available for selection during a striker shortage and he made three appearances. The former Netherlands and Liverpool forward had retired the year before following a second spell with Feyenoord, where he had made his initial breakthrough in the mid-2000s, his form at the time earning a move to Anfield.

Rafael Marquez - Atlas

One of Mexico's greatest players, Marquez's longevity at such a high level was nothing short of incredible, as he accumulated 147 international caps. After breaking into the Atlas team as a teenager having come through their academy, the elegant centre-back enjoyed a sparkling career in Europe, winning 14 titles across spells with Monaco and Barcelona. Time with New York Red Bulls, Leon and Hellas Verona followed, before a final two-year stint back at the Jalisco ended in 2018. Although plagued by off-field allegations towards the end of his career, Marquez went on to become the club's sporting president, before standing down last in 2019 to focus on other areas of the sport. He is expected to be taking up a youth coaching role at Barca next season.

Juan Pablo Angel - Atletico Nacional

Angel perhaps never quite lived up to the expectations he set during his early days as part of River Plate's so-called 'Fantastic Four' with Javier Saviola, Ariel Ortega and Pablo Aimar, having joined from Colombia's Nacional. Nevertheless, he became a fan favourite at Aston Villa in the Premier League, before spending six years in MLS with New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA. In 2013 he returned to Nacional for two seasons, having left them in 1997. He called it quits in late 2014, just a few days after losing to his former club River in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. "I am ending my career with a final between the two clubs I love the most," he said.

Henrik Larsson - Hogaborgs

While the Swedish club most may associate with Larsson is Helsingborgs, he actually made the breakthrough at a smaller side – Hogaborgs. It was here where he trained from the age of six, before eventually becoming a regular in the senior side and earning a move to Helsingborgs. A trophy-laden career followed, taking him to Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United. Although he retired in 2009, he returned to the pitch for Raa in the Swedish third tier three years later, before then finding himself back in the team at Hogaborgs in 2013, helping out due to an injury crisis despite him only previously being registered to a casual team for 'seniors'. This gave him the chance to play alongside his son, Jordan.

Carlos Tevez - Boca Juniors

The Tevez-Boca love affair has dominated most of the striker's successful and complex career. After coming through their youth ranks, the feisty forward was seen as the heir to Maradona. A brief stint in Brazil with Corinthians followed, but Europe had long since beckoned, even if West Ham was by no means the expected destination. He went on to play for Manchester United and Manchester City, increasing tension between the clubs, before then going to Juventus, but throughout this time Tevez seemed to long for a return to Boca. He went back to La Bombonera in 2015, his homecoming interrupted by a brief spell with Shanghai Shenhua in 2017 in the Chinese Super League, though even Tevez acknowledged he saw his time in China as a "holiday". "He filled Santa's sack with dollars and now he has returned to Boca" was Maradona's assessment upon 'El Apache's' return from the CSL. His third spell with Boca ended in June 2021, though it remains to be seen if he ever plays for another club.

There were two main winners from England's defeat of Croatia in their Euro 2020 opener: England themselves, obviously, and Kalvin Phillips.

The Leeds United midfielder received widespread praise for his role in the victory, with pundits such as Alan Shearer, Gary Neville and even Jose Mourinho applauding the man dubbed by fans on social media as the 'Yorkshire Pirlo'.

Now, this isn't going to be a straight comparison between Phillips and Andrea Pirlo because that just wouldn't be fair on the 2006 World Cup winner.

No, instead our goal here is to understand whether Phillips always plays in the manner of his showing against Croatia – have many people been sleeping on his talents for too long?

The shield becomes the weapon

The short answer to whether that was a typical Phillips display is, technically, no.

For Leeds, Phillips tends to act as the screen in front of the defence, taking the ball off those at the back and distributing it further forward to get Leeds on the front foot.

He fits the role perfectly for Leeds because his excellent athleticism lends itself ideally to Marcelo Bielsa's intense pressing setup, which is identified by the fact they allowed the opposition fewer passes per defensive action (PPDA) in 2020-21 (9.3) than any other team, meaning they commit bodies to winning possession back earlier than everyone else in the Premier League.

But there is much more to Phillips than his ability to run – he also has significant destructive qualities and is a fine passer of the ball.

Some England fans might've been frustrated to initially see Phillips named in the starting XI alongside Declan Rice. The optics of such a duo based on their club roles would have led to some worrying Southgate was being excessively cautious – again – and creativity would subsequently be missing.

Former England midfielder Darren Anderton was among those concerned in that sense.

"I think, sometimes when you look at that, it looks like it's two defensive midfielders, and I don't like that too much," Anderton told Stats Perform. "I think it makes it a little bit one-dimensional. I think central midfielders should be able to make those good passes forward as well, but I think he can do all of that.

"And his energy as well was outstanding on the day. He was the best player for England."

As it happened, Phillips created the winning goal, and it was in this action that you got the clearest glimpse of just how different a role he was playing, much to Anderton's satisfaction.

"His moment of quality is what won the game for England," he continued. "He's a great player, he was the difference on the day, there's no doubt about it. He made the surging run forward and he also made the perfect pass for Sterling.

"But he still had a great game getting around the pitch, breaking play up, and was good going forward as well."

 

Unleashed

As touched upon by Anderton, the main difference between how Phillips was deployed against Croatia and how Marcelo Bielsa uses him for Leeds is that Southgate encouraged him to play a more advanced role.

There was much less emphasis on Phillips to get on the ball and dictate the play. After all, with Rice alongside him and seemingly having a slightly less well-rounded skillset, why would you have Phillips playing deep as well?

Of course, that will have been the concern of many England fans pre-game, but the fact Phillips' total passes (33) and touches (44) were actually significantly down on his Premier League per-90 minute averages (52 passes, 69.8 touches) highlights just how different Southgate was asking him to play.

But it doesn't end there.

Granted, his 20 passes in the opposing half was also down on his average for 2020-21 (23.8), but those were from a much smaller total. When you consider that those 20 equate to 61 per cent as opposed to his usual 46 per cent, the picture becomes clearer still.

Similarly, his tackles and interceptions (one each) were down on his Leeds numbers (2.7 tackles per 90 mins, 1.7 interceptions) because he wasn't being used to screen the back four, he was operating higher up the pitch.

On top of that, his five recoveries in the middle third of the pitch was a major increase on the 3.6 he records each game for Leeds, while his one in the final third set against the 0.3 he averages in that area normally again showcases a significant change.

It's also worth pointing out that Phillips was actually caught offside against Croatia, something he hasn't ever done in 116 matches under Bielsa.

Now, of course a single match is a small sample size to consider, but the data does go some way to showing how smart Southgate's selection was, and Phillips' assist for Sterling hasn't even been the focus here.

However, his work in that instance certainly warrants praise as the move was 90 per cent him – his progressive off-the-ball run into space showed his exceptional spatial awareness, before then beating a defender with a lovely touch and offloading the inch-perfect pass.

It encapsulated his performance perfectly, but it'll be intriguing to see whether these trends continue or if Phillips thriving in a more advanced role was a fluke.

Those who've seen him play regularly won't have any concerns about him repeating certain feats against Scotland in what promises to be an intense and high-octane rivalry clash, when his all-action approach will surely be vital.

Sergio Ramos is leaving Real Madrid, the Spanish giants confirming on Wednesday that the 35-year-old defender will hold a farewell event on Thursday.

Ramos joined Madrid from Sevilla in 2005 and went on to cement his name as a legend at Santiago Bernabeu.

During his 16-year stint with Los Blancos, Ramos has won LaLiga five times and helped Madrid to four Champions League titles.

Diminishing returns last season, mainly due to injury, mean he does not quite go out on a high, but he will nevertheless be considered as one of the club greats.

BRILLIANT IN BOTH BOXES

It is not often that a defender is known for his goalscoring exploits, but Ramos certainly bucks the trend.

Indeed, he is the only defender to score 100 goals while playing in one of Europe's top five European leagues since the turn of the century.

His total of 101 goals is split between Sevilla and Madrid, though he only scored three times for the Andalusian club before his move to the Spanish capital.

In fact, his tally of 98 Madrid goals mean that, since the turn of the century, the only players to outscore Ramos – who also takes a mean penalty – for the club in all competitions are Cristiano Ronaldo (450), Karim Benzema (279), Raul (225), Gonzalo Higuain (119) and Gareth Bale (105).

Ramos first hit double figures for goals in the 2016-17 campaign, scoring 10 times. He improved on that in 2018-19, registering 11, before netting 13 times in his penultimate season with Madrid, albeit seven of those came from the penalty spot.

Defending, of course, still comes first. Ramos played in 206 games in which Madrid kept a clean sheet. It is a figure beaten for the club only by Iker Casillas (243) since the 1998-99 campaign.

A FULL-BLOODED WINNER

There are no half-measures when it comes to Ramos, who tallied up 214 yellow cards in 659 Madrid appearances, seeing red on 25 occasions. Remarkably, four of those dismissals came in his first season at Madrid.

Since making his Sevilla debut, Ramos has 452 wins under his belt, with 430 coming during his time with Los Blancos.

His trophy count speaks for itself, and his mastery of the dark arts – as Liverpool fans will cite from the 2018 Champions League final – is second to none.

A consistently reliable figure in Madrid's team, he played over 40 times in all but two of the last 16 seasons. His lowest total of appearances came last term, when he managed just 21 games, all of which were starts.

He leaves Madrid as the player with the fourth-most LaLiga appearances for the club, with 469, while only Paco Gento (23) has won more than Ramos' haul of 22 trophies.

SPAIN SNUB

Luis Enrique explained Ramos "has not been able to compete since January in the right condition, or even train with group", meaning he could not be included in Spain's squad for Euro 2020, despite the former Barcelona boss picking only 24 players, and that was before a coronavirus outbreak affected their preparation. 

Knee, calf and hamstring complaints limited the World Cup winner's involvement in 2021, but he had also already missed more matches than Madrid would have liked in the first half of the campaign.

Those 21 games and 1,790 minutes are by far the fewest Ramos has played across a season since joining Madrid in 2005, undercutting the previous low marks of 33 and 2,843 in 2015-16.

Had Ramos been able to get on the pitch more often, his performances would surely have seen him included by Luis Enrique, as he was second behind only Diego Llorente (of defenders called up) in terms of interceptions and recoveries in 2020-21.

However, he could not prove his fitness, and his last appearance in a Madrid shirt will ultimately be the disappointing Champions League semi-final defeat to Chelsea last month.

Now, the onus will be on Carlo Ancelotti to restructure Madrid's defence without the presence of a club stalwart.

Roberto Mancini took over Italy's national team with the Azzurri at their lowest ebb. Absent from the 2018 World Cup after failing to qualify for the first time since 1958, Italy required a rebuild, with Mancini trusted to be the architect.

To use perhaps the most exhausted of cliches, Rome wasn't built in a day. But, at the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday, Mancini saw his efforts in reconstructing this perennial power of international football bear fruit as Italy became the first team to book their place in the last 16 of Euro 2020.

Following a dazzling performance in the tournament's opening fixture that saw them sweep aside Turkey 3-0 last Friday, Italy were similarly superb here, making light work of Switzerland as Manuel Locatelli's double sealed a triumph by the same scoreline.

The contrast between the team that progressed to the knockouts in front of a delighted if relatively small and socially distanced home crowd and the one that was held to a 0-0 draw by Sweden in the second leg of the World Cup qualification play-off in 2017 is stark.

Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Jorginho and Ciro Immobile were all in the starting XI on that chastening night at San Siro and were picked by Mancini to help Italy past Vladimir Petkovic's side, though Chiellini had to withdraw through injury in the first half shortly after seeing what looked to be the opening goal chalked off by VAR for handball.

Yet there are key differences in both personnel and system. Whereas Gian Piero Ventura played a 3-5-2 with wingbacks Alessandro Florenzi and Matteo Darmian asked to provide both defensive protection and attacking creativity from wide areas with Immobile paired with the often immobile Manolo Gabbiadini, Mancini continues to get results from a much more expansive 4-3-3.

In that set-up on Wednesday, Immobile thrived playing in a front three alongside the energetic presences of Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi, taking a game-high four shots and becoming the first player to score in Italy's first two games at a major tournament since Christian Vieri at the 2002 World Cup as he rounded off an excellent display.

Behind that trio, Jorginho -- who had patrolled the middle of the park along with two players in their 30s in Marco Parolo and Antonio Candreva against Sweden -- had the 24-year-old Nicolo Barella and 23-year-old Locatelli for company in midfield.

 

And it was Sassuolo team-mates Berardi and Locatelli who shone brightest on this latest showcase of Italy's credentials as contenders for the title.

That duo have been pivotal to one of the most entertaining sides in Serie A, Berardi creating 58 chances for Sassuolo while Locatelli teed up 38.

Their understanding was there for all to see when Italy did open the scoring after Switzerland's earlier reprieve. Locatelli volleyed the ball out to the right to Berardi, who surged down the flank before pulling back for his club-mate, whose desire to charge into the box from inside his own half was rewarded with a tap-in.

Berardi has now been involved in five goals in his last six appearances for Italy, but it was Barella who teed Locatelli up for one of the fiercest strikes of the competition so far as he powered into the bottom-left corner to become Italy's third-youngest scorer of a brace at a major tournament behind Giacomo Bulgarelli (v Switzerland in 1962) and Mario Balotelli (v Germany in 2012).

Immobile added the finishing touches, with help from poor goalkeeping from Yann Sommer, as Italy made it 31 goals without reply in all competitions, a 10th successive clean sheet never threatened by an uninspiring Switzerland team.

Those two statistics illustrate just how drastic the turnaround has been under Mancini. Italy could not muster a goal over two legs against Sweden in 2017, now they attack with verve and incisiveness that suggests they could score each time they go forward.

With the old guard still as dependable as ever at the back, Italy have a solid spine and a crop of talented playmakers that have helped revitalise a team that looked to be a fading force in international football. Turkey and Switzerland have offered little in way of a challenge to Mancini's men, but that combination could be one that makes this delayed European Championship worth the wait for the Azzurri.

Lewis Hamilton finds himself under significant pressure in the Formula One title race, so will be relieved to see the French Grand Prix next up in his schedule.

Mercedes have had two miserable races in Monaco and Baku, so they enter the seventh event of the 2021 season trailing Red Bull by 26 points in the constructors' championship.

Hamilton, meanwhile, is four points behind Max Verstappen – who was cruelly denied victory in Baku last time out – in the drivers' standings.

The Briton is hoping to avoid missing the podium in three straight races for what would be the first time in the Hybrid Era, having finished seventh in Monaco and outside of the points in Azerbaijan.

He and Toto Wolff are optimistic that a return to Circuit Paul Ricard, which the team boss described as "a more traditional circuit", will help them turn their campaign around.

Hamilton triumphed there in 2018 and 2019, the first races in France after a nine-year absence from the F1 calendar. On both occasions Mercedes were dominant.

Michael Schumacher holds the record with eight wins at the French Grand Prix, a race where this year Hamilton hopes to reboot his attempt to move above the German by claiming an eighth world title.

Veteran Fernando Alonso was the last driver to win for a French team in this grand prix, doing it for Renault (now Alpine) 16 years ago in the 2005 season when he claimed his first championship.

After Verstappen triumphed around the streets of Monaco and Sergio Perez claimed a blockbuster success in Baku, Red Bull now face a pivotal test of their title aspirations.

If they emerge from three races in as many weeks in France and Austria (which hosts two) still in front, it will be an impressive and significant statement to Mercedes.

LAST TIME OUT

Remarkable late drama at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw Perez grab victory after Verstappen crashed out and title rival Hamilton incredibly finished 15th.

Verstappen looked to be coasting to a second consecutive win and seventh straight podium – both career firsts, only to see a rear tyre blow out and end his race with five laps to go.

A red flag followed Verstappen's crash, meaning a standing start with Perez ahead of Hamilton on the front row of the grid for an incredible two-lap sprint finish following the delay.

In another twist, Hamilton – who had stressed on team radio the importance of staying cautious and having the long game in mind after Verstappen's retirement - looked to have seized an unlikely victory when he moved up the inside, only to make a mistake with his brake settings that saw him career off the circuit.

As well as Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly were the beneficiaries with impressive podium finishes for Aston Martin and AlphaTauri respectively.

Charles Leclerc, who had claimed pole for the second straight race, had to settle for fourth, while Valtteri Bottas was 12th as his desperately disappointing campaign continued.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN FRANCE

All eyes are on how Mercedes respond as they find themselves in a position they are not used to, as Red Bull relish their recent run and look to press home their advantage.

Hamilton missed a chance to reclaim the lead from Verstappen in Azerbaijan, but will like his chances to do so as he gets another opportunity at Le Castellet.

Bottas' woes this season have not all been his fault – he was unfortunate in Monaco – but he sits sixth in the standings and needs an immediate turnaround to save his Mercedes future.

Home hope Gasly comes into the race on form, with five straight points finishes and a podium in Baku, while another French driver – Esteban Ocon – is on a high having just signed a new deal with Alpine.

After watching Leclerc impress to claim back-to-back poles for a resurgent Ferrari, Carlos Sainz will race for the 125th time looking to end a run that has seen him appear in the most grands prix without winning or taking pole of any active driver. He has scored points in both his previous France races, while Leclerc made the podium in 2019.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Record in sight – Mercedes will again attempt to equal Ferrari as the team to have recorded the most one-twos in F1 qualifying ever (80). 

A first for Red Bull – Christian Horner's team come to this grand prix after winning two races in a row with a different driver for the first time in the Hybrid Era.

Perez pace – The Mexican is enjoying his best career streak of top-five finishes, having had four in a row including his Azerbaijan win.  

History made - Gasly was the first French driver to score a point in a French GP in this century when he came 10th in 2019, the first since the Jean Alesi finished fifth in 1997 at Magny-Cours. 

Poor conversion - Leclerc has recorded only two wins out of the nine pole positions in his F1 career (22.2%). If the Monegasque is on pole without claiming victory in this race, only Rene Arnoux (11.1%) and David Coulthard (16.7%) will have a lower ratio of victories from pole of drivers to have at least 10.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 105
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 101
3. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) – 69
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 66
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 52

Constructors

1. Red Bull – 174
2. Mercedes – 148
3. Ferrari – 94
4. McLaren – 92
5. AlphaTauri – 39

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