The Golden State Warriors' 2020-21 season ended in heartbreaking fashion, but you might not know that reading head coach Steve Kerr's most recent comments.

Golden State rode an MVP calibre season from Stephen Curry to eighth spot in the Western Conference and a place in the play-in tournament.

Yet that was where it all fell apart.

They missed out on the seventh seed as a miracle LeBron James three-pointer helped the Los Angeles Lakers to a dramatic victory, and the Warriors were then outplayed by the Memphis Grizzlies in the final play-in game to ensure they would be watching the postseason from home.

Despite that bitter end, Kerr was left extremely encouraged after seeing his team win 16 of their last 22 regular-season games despite playing a second successive season without Curry's backcourt running mate Klay Thompson, who suffered a torn Achilles before the campaign.

"I'm really excited. I feel like we got our mojo back at the end of the year," Kerr told The Athletic. 

"The offseason has been productive in terms of Klay now breaking through. He's on the court, he's running, he's feeling really good. I talked to him last week. He's just in a completely different mindset. The light's at the end of the tunnel.

"Steph and Draymond [Green] are both in a great place after that close to the season, feeling like they are on top of their games. Andrew [Wiggins] had a really good season for us. Jordan Poole emerged. Juan [Toscano-Anderson] has turned himself into a rotation player, perfect for our style.

"Now we get a training camp with James [Wiseman], a whole season of development, plus [picks] seven and 14 in a deep draft."

However, Kerr's excitement for the new season being vindicated hinges on what they do with those picks and how they stack the roster to help the core of Curry, Thompson and Green contend for at least one more championship.

Use those prime draft selections and continue to develop Wiseman with a view to building sustainable long-term success, or trade the picks and young assets for another star? It's truly a case of evolution or revolution for the Warriors this offseason and, with Kerr in Japan with Team USA, he won't be in the building to influence the final call.

Curry cooks up a storm

Curry's was a season that merited more than the five first-place votes he received in the MVP race.

His points per game average of 32 was the highest of his career, topping the 30.1 ppg he produced in 2015-16 when Curry was named unanimous MVP and the Warriors broke the single-season wins record by going 73-9.

Per 100 possessions, Curry's ppg of 32.1 was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9) as he continued to embellish his resume as the greatest shooter of all time.

Curry's 5.3 three-pointers made per game was a league record, the 2020-21 season his third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He remains the only player to achieve the feat even once.

He had seven games with 40 plus points and at least 10 threes last season. No other player has registered more than three such performances in their career.

Becoming the first player to post three 50-point games in a season aged 32 or older and producing a scoring average that was the highest by a player of that age in league history, Curry is clearly showing no signs of slowing down.

Still, his usage rate of 34.8 per cent is probably not sustainable for the long term, but if the Warriors are to allow Curry more rest in 2021-22, they must solve the problem of what happens when he comes off the floor.

A damaging drop-off

The most dramatic illustration of the Warriors' struggles without Curry came back in April. With Curry and Green each on the sideline, they were thrashed 130-77 by the Toronto Raptors.

The 53-point reverse was the second-largest defeat in franchise history, though it can be argued it was a necessary low point for Golden State. The Warriors subsequently lost to the Atlanta Hawks before embarking on that 16-6 surge.

And the numbers from across the season paint a telling picture of Curry's importance to the Warriors' cause.

With him on the court, the Warriors scored 112.8 points per 100 possessions, compared to 101.9 when he was off the floor, while their effective field goal percentage dropped from 57.1 to 51.6.

The Warriors effectively lost 8.8 points per 100 possessions when Curry was absent. Their point differential was plus-4.3 with him on the court compared to minus-4.5 when he played the role of spectator.

 

Ensuring that disparity is not as severe in 2021-22 will be a key focus of the Warriors' offseason, yet there were still some encouraging performances from those not named Curry to build hope that Golden State can contend to go deep into the postseason again.

Andrew Wiggins set career-highs in field goal percentage (47.7) and three-point shooting (38 per cent) while Jordan Poole established himself as a productive option off the bench, shooting 42.2 per cent over those final 22 games.

Perhaps the best find of the season was Bay Area native Juan Toscano-Anderson who, having been signed to a two-way contract in December, saw that converted to a full-time deal in May.

Toscano-Anderson was seventh in effective field goal percentage (66.7) and eighth in true shooting percentage (67.6), deservedly earning a spot in the frontcourt rotation. Yet, for all the positives that emerged as the Warriors got hot late in the campaign, their ability to take a step towards vying for the title may be contingent on what they decide to do with last year's most high-profile addition.

The Wiseman conundrum

The Warriors have the capital to stack the deck in Curry's favour with the addition of either seasoned pros or promising prospects. They were one of the winners of the NBA lottery as the top-three protected pick the Minnesota Timberwolves sent them in the Wiggins-D'Angelo Russell trade became the seventh selection in this year's draft.

That gives them the flexibility to pursue a trade for more experienced help, but whether they go down that avenue depends on what the Warriors elect to do with Wiseman, whom they took second overall in 2020 despite him having only three games of collegiate experience.

And they were not granted a full season's evidence to aid their decision about the 20-year-old center as a meniscus injury brought his rookie campaign to a premature end.

There were signs that Wiseman could blossom into the athletic big man who can make a difference at both ends, with center long since a position of concern for the Warriors even at the height of their dynasty.

He posted double figures in points in 24 of his 39 games but a net rating of minus 10.1 spoke to a player who still needs time to acclimatise to the challenge of playing at the highest level.

That is no surprise given Wiseman's inexperience, and Kerr is hopeful he will make strides with the chance to get a full offseason under his belt, however, with the front office reportedly exploring trade options, will the Warriors have the patience to stick with him with potentially more immediate contributors available?

Golden State would surely have to include Wiseman in any potential blockbuster trade, with the Warriors mentioned as a potential destination for Oakland native Damian Lillard, the increasingly maligned Ben Simmons and Raptors star Pascal Siakam

Bradley Beal, whom Curry beat to the scoring title, is reportedly viewed as the Warriors' top option in a trade, but there have as yet been no signs that any deal is on the horizon.

After another year with no postseason play, Golden State's big three will want the talent around them to improve in a hurry but, if the Warriors do not identify a player whom they deem worthy of a price that includes Wiseman, they may need to be patient in awaiting the dividends a player of his obvious physical gifts can deliver.

Verdict: Evolution

The Warriors are the team to watch in the draft as reports of trade discussions continue to swirl.

Despite being flush with capital, it is appearing more and more likely that if they do send some of their resources to a rival, it will not be as part of a trade that changes the complexion of the league.

Instead, the more feasible outcome is that the Warriors do a deal to supplement the core that initially shook up the NBA in 2015 by jump-shooting their way to the title, rather than reshaping it with the addition of another star.

Myles Turner is said to have been the subject between the talks between the Warriors and the Indiana Pacers, and his arrival would give the Warriors a difference-making big on both ends of the floor.

Turner missed the final 18 games of last season with a sprained toe but still led the NBA with a block percentage of 8.8 and was seventh among centers that played a minimum of 25 games with an average of 1.5 made threes.

In the draft, the reported urging from Curry, Thompson and Green for the organisation to get players who can help them now may force the Warriors to target more experienced rookies having gone young with Wiseman last year.

Oregon guard Chris Duarte is 24 and was named to the Pac-12's All-Defensive Team last season while finishing third in the conference with a field goal percentage of 53.2.

 

Davion Mitchell turns 23 in September and led the Big 12 in three-point shooting, converting on 44.7 per cent of his efforts from beyond the arc, and James Bouknight of UConn is thought to be in the mix as a younger shot-creator who was second in the Big East in 2020-21 with 23.7 points per 40 minutes.

The Warriors' front office is seemingly facing external and internal pressure to utilise their draft capital to land a premier player who can propel them back to the top of the Western Conference and firmly open the window for Curry, Thompson and Green to polish their resumes further.

Yet a team led by a player who has spent his Hall of Fame career redefining limits with his remarkable shooting range may find their trade possibilities restricted, and Curry and Warriors fans alike might have to reconcile themselves with an offseason that only slightly improves Golden State's odds of winning now but sets them up to stay relevant once his days of carrying their hopes are in the past.

Even in the absence of spectators at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre there was still a palpable tension when Simone Biles left the arena after finishing just one event in the women's team final on Tuesday.

An eager press tribune ready to witness the star attraction of these Games fell flat in concern when Biles, after one unconvincing performance on the vault which yielded the lowest score of the first rotation, headed to the back with a trainer while the team were involved in frantic discussions.

The warning signs had been there during the warm-up when Biles failed to complete an Amanar, a difficult vault but routine for someone of her immense talent. When it happened again in competition there was almost a stunned silence, Biles seemed to be nearing tears and her team-mates flabbergasted by what had transpired.

She would return but, donned in a tracksuit, it was announced Biles would take no further part and the team of Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum would complete the night for Team USA. The United States could only take silver, marking their first team defeat at a Worlds or Olympics since 2010.

USA Gymnastics later announced Biles had been pulled due to an unspecified "medical issue" and that her condition for the other five events she is scheduled to appear at will be "assessed daily", while NBC Sports attributed a Team USA coach with saying Biles' withdrawal was not injury related and due to a "mental issue she is having".

Biles had opened up on the pressures the Olympics brings following Sunday's qualifying, during which she made some uncharacteristic mistakes in an error-strewn team performance that saw USA outscored by the Russian Olympic Committee in what proved an eerie prelude.

"It wasn't an easy day or my best but I got through it," Biles posted.

"I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me, but damn sometimes it's hard hahaha!

"The Olympics is no joke. BUT I'm happy my family was able to be with me virtually. They mean the world to me."

The concerns over Biles' well-being will stretch far beyond the watching press pack at the arena. Those tuning in around the world will greatly hope this is not the way this megastar's Games come to an end.

Moreover, so will the organisers of the Games, who are desperately relying on the biggest stars to bring some positive PR to an Olympics many never wanted.

Having already had cauldron lighter Naomi Osaka, who returned to represent Japan after a self-imposed two-month hiatus during which she opened up about her battles with depression and anxiety, beaten in the third round of the women's tennis earlier in the day, to see Biles not compete would represent another hammer blow.

The IOC had earlier described its digital audience figures for Tokyo 2020 as "very good", but as the only way for fans to watch these Games is from the comfort of their own homes, you would kind of expect that to be the case.

If you want an idea of how important Biles is to these Games, consider that IOC president Thomas Bach was seen in conversation with the star attraction before congratulating the gold medallists. Biles herself had shown her textbook humility by being among the first to congratulate the victors in a moment of sheer class.

For these Olympics, held in the midst of a deadly pandemic, to actually be remembered for the right reasons, Tokyo 2020 needs to showcase the successes of athletes securing their crowning glories despite the unthinkable challenges posed for over a year and a half.

Such concerns are of course secondary to the welfare of a 24-year-old woman, who confirmed she is not injured, carrying so many hopes and pressures, whose delivery of the message "put mental health first" is as, if not more, inspiring than her brilliance on the floor.

This was the first of six gold-medal opportunities for Biles. Her stacked programme includes what many predicted to be a routine defence of her all-around crown, while she is slated to appear in the finals of the beam, uneven bars, vault and floor exercise.

She has designs on winning the most gymnastic gold medals at a single Games (she already owns the co-record with four following her haul at Rio 2016), while three more would see her overtake Shannon Miller as America's most decorated Olympic gymnast.

Biles later said she is "dealing with something internally" and that things would be taken day by day for the rest of the Games.

Speaking at a news conference, she would elaborate on the issues she has been contending with.

"It's been really stressful this Olympic Games on the whole, with no fans, it's been a long process, a long year, and lots of variable," she said. 

"We're all a little bit too stressed out, we should be enjoying ourselves.

"Today was really stressful, we had a workout this morning, it went okay then that five-and-a-half-hour wait I was shaking, I could barely nap. I've never felt that way before a competition."

That we all hope she will compete again at this Olympics goes without saying. 

But, perhaps save for Osaka, there is arguably no athlete more important to these Games. And, as Osaka has gone to great lengths to demonstrate this year, protection of mental health and well-being must come before all else.

From trailblazer Luc Longley and his trophy-laden time alongside Michael Jordan in Chicago, to Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova and Ben Simmons. There has been a healthy contingent of Australian stars gracing the NBA.

Adelaide 36ers sensation Josh Giddey is set to join the growing list of Australians in the league when the 2021 NBA Draft takes place at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday.

After reigning NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball was taken by the Charlotte Hornets with the third pick of the 2020 Draft, a player from the NBL is projected to hear their name called early for the second consecutive year.

Giddey has emerged as a potential lottery pick and could be drafted anywhere between the seventh and 14th selections following his exploits for the 36ers.

The 18-year-old playmaker caught the eye of NBA executives in a season which saw him crowned the NBL's Rookie of the Year after leading the league with 7.6 assists per game, while averaging 10.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in 28 appearances.

Regarded as the best Australian prospect since three-time All-Star Simmons was drafted first by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016, 36ers head coach Conner Henry hailed the Melbourne-born point guard.

"It's really been a rewarding experience for me as a coach," Henry told Stats Perform. "It's the first time I've had the opportunity to coach an elite talent at such a young age.

"I didn't really know what I exactly had coming in. I had seen Josh on film and in the Chicago camp a year earlier, when he was just a young, fairly tall, skinny kid who didn't play all that well. Carried himself confidently. You could see he played at a pace and made others around him better, but it wasn't like he stood out.

"Then you fast forward five-and-a-half/six months, he walks in and is two inches taller, 15kg heavier and he has really started to grow into his body. Then I knew I had something pretty special.

"It became pretty evident after a month and a half that he was going to be able to play - and play at a high level against grown men. As we went down that path with him, we were able to keep throwing more and more systems at him. He was very open to listening, to understanding what we're trying to put in play.

"Having played the position before, I was able to talk to him about angles. 'Do you see this window of an opportunity here when you turn a corner', 'how do you read the floor initially when you rebound the ball and pushing out on the break', these little things. I think he was well ahead of me already when I brought those things up. Really rewarding to see his growth and confidence grow daily."

Since 2012, Giddey's assists per game figure is only second to Cairns Taipans point guard Scott Machado – who averaged 7.6 in 2019-20.

 

"Every player when they reach a certain level of recognition or professional ranks, they're always the best of the best as they keep going in advancing on their path. Josh wasn't satisfied. He was always pushing forward and trying to get better, always trying to connect with his team-mates and that's his greatest strength because he makes everyone around him better," Henry said.

"His offensive game will continue to grow; he will be able to score more and he is going to become a very good three-point shooter eventually - the mechanics are sound. The release off the hand has improved, he is under the ball more, the rotation has improved and it will only get better.

"At the end of the day, his true strength is his size, his feel for the game and ability to find his team-mates."

While Giddey only shot 43 per cent from the field, the teenager – who was surprisingly overlooked for Australia's Olympic Games squad – frequently demonstrated his playmaking ability, athleticism and high basketball IQ under Henry's guidance in Adelaide.

Henry – a former assistant with the Orlando Magic, having played for the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings in the NBA – likened Giddey to fellow Australian and sharp-shooter Joe Ingles.

Ingles has become an integral part of the Utah Jazz franchise since his arrival in 2014, ranking fifth in three-point percentage (45.1 – a career high) last season.

"He'll get to a point where he will have to play harder as he matures physically," Henry said of Giddey. "He won't be able to take periodic breaks in the game and that can be managed minutes wise of course. He will have to be switched on at both ends, even more so than he was with us.

"Even at 18, he was very good but there were moments when at both ends of the floor where either we had to teach or correct him on things. He'll be fine, he will be surrounded by fantastic coaches who will push him. He likes to be pushed as a player. He will have to improve on the defensive end. I think he will become a good defender.

"I look at some of the Aussies in the league right now, Ingles isn't this elite athlete that is running up and down, high flying and dunking on people. Josh is that similar kind of Ingles body type. Plays at a good, sound speed, has good strength, uses his length wisely on both ends of the floor and Josh will get better and better in that part of the game in how to adjust and play both offensively and defensively."

Henry added: "Josh has been used to be playing in FIBA rules. Now he will be playing in NBA rules. With the defensive rules in place with the NBA, you can't pack the paint like you can in FIBA, where you can really load up. That, coupled with the ability of the offensive players to have more freedom of movement, where in FIBA it's quite physical.

"In the NBL, freedom of movement can be impeded quite a bit with a hand check, body check or hold. Josh is going to have even more success in the pick-and-roll game at the NBA level. He had very good success with us.

"I think his height, ability to see the floor and ability to make team-mates better, in the NBA rules, are only going to compliment his game and help him grow."

Manchester United certainly can't be accused of standing still this year. A day after sealing the signing of Jadon Sancho, they confirmed a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until at least 2024.

But there's still plenty to press on with for Solskjaer and United. While the signing of Sancho addresses one area that has been a problem in recent years, it appears there are still two glaring weaknesses in the first-choice starting XI.

It would seem United have identified the man to take care of one of them, with Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane reportedly set to bolster their defensive options. In one sense it will have been a signing long in the making, given the club were supposedly close to buying him from Lens as a teenager only for Los Blancos to get the deal over the line in the end.

Although it took Varane a little time to truly establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, he's gone on to enjoy a hugely successful time in the Spanish capital, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns, among a host of other trophies.

Below, Stats Perform delves into the Opta data to see how Varane might improve United and where else they could do with reinforcements.

 

Physical dominance is the key

There are some obvious strengths that Varane would bring to United at the back – chief among them is his pace, which they arguably don't have a great deal of at centre-back.

While Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire may not be considered painfully slow, neither boasts the same kind of speed as the Frenchman and that would undoubtedly be a considerable asset for United.

Recent reports have suggested Solskjaer wants to play more attack-minded football in 2021-22, and having a faster centre-back could be crucial in that sense.

In theory, it would allow United to play slightly higher up the pitch. While they didn't exactly defend deep in 2020-21, their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams – Varane's pace could potentially provide them with a little more security in a high line.

In terms of possession, there's not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt. The Sweden international averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests they are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies aren't hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

But it could be argued United don't need their right-sided centre-back to be forward-thinking all the time because that's one of Maguire's key strengths. If anything, having a dependable partner could allow for their captain to have even greater prominence going forward, as he may feel more relaxed about stepping up with better protection behind.

 

And that's where Varane could really shine as an upgrade on Lindelof. The Swede's effectiveness in physical duels has been routinely questioned since he joined from Benfica in 2017 – a prime example being when Mbaye Diagne bullied him as West Brom scored in their 1-1 draw with United in February.

While it's impossible to guarantee Varane wouldn't have also been dominated in that instance, he does have a better record in situations where physicality is important. In 2020-21, he won 2.4 aerial duels per game across all competitions compared to Lindelof's 1.8.

That equates to a 72.3 per cent success rate for Varane, as opposed to 59.4 for Lindelof. In fact, Maguire – the most dominant defender in that respect in the Premier League last season (100 duels or more) – only marginally edges the World Cup winner (72.9 per cent).

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire, and in Varane they may have identified a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

Is the Fred-McTominay axis necessary?

Centre-back certainly isn't the only area United fans would be eager to see an upgrade – there's little doubt they have room for growth in midfield, regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba leaves.

The Frenchman actually featured more from the left during the second half of 2020-21 and looked more comfortable out there with some creative freedom, rather than sitting behind Bruno Fernandes in the middle.

That meant Fred and Scott McTominay were, more often than not, the first-choice pairing at the base of the midfield.

Now, it must be said that both players have clearly improved significantly over the past couple of years and they do offer a lot to United in certain areas.

 

For instance, in the Premier League in 2020-21, Fred won possession more often than any other United player (228) and his 81 tackle attempts were only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka (88). McTominay ranked fourth for tackles (51) and joint-second for fouls won (42), which speaks to his improved ability on the ball as well as a knack for relieving defensive pressure in transition.

But neither are particularly creative. Fred laid on 25 key passes with an expected assists (xA) value of 2.1, while McTominay created 17 chances that combined to an xA total of 0.7.

Of course, you can't expect every outfield player to offer creativity. In many cases a player's productivity – or lack of – is intrinsically linked to the role they're playing or system they're part of, and Fernandes has done a lot of the heavy lifting. But United are a side who generally have more of the ball than their opponents – do they need two 'destroyers'?

 

If Solskjaer is to implement a more forward-thinking setup in 2021-22, he would be wise to finally ditch the Fred-McTominay axis. More often than not, it comes across as extremely conservative.

 

But the caveat to that is Solskjaer's rather limited options. Donny van de Beek endured a pretty dreadful first season as he showed very little authority whenever he played, Pogba was more useful towards the left so his lack of work rate off the ball wasn't exposed, and Nemanja Matic just isn't athletic enough anymore even if he is still a talented ball-player.

Pressure now on Ole

Who's to say if another midfielder, Varane and Sancho will be enough to overthrow Manchester City while also holding off a Liverpool side who promise to be back with a vengeance and defending European champions Chelsea.

But such decisive addressing of the team's weak points should at least give Solskjaer the right tools to work with. It'll then be on him to prove conclusively he's the right man for the job, because further under-achieving with such a strong squad won't be tolerated for long, regardless of his new contract.

Jose Mourinho was sacked less than a year after signing his renewal in January 2018.

Novak Djokovic has leapt from one bubble into another as he attempts to become the first man in tennis history to win all four grand slams and Olympic gold in the same year.

The only men to have won each of the singles majors across their careers, plus Olympic gold, are Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal, and now Djokovic aims to move to the brink of winning all five in his remarkable 2021 season.

Fresh from dominating at Wimbledon, and with the Australian and French Open titles already in the bag, Djokovic heads into the Tokyo Games as a red-hot favourite, seeking to set himself up to complete a historic campaign at the US Open.

Naomi Osaka will enter the Games with almost as much expectation behind her too, the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion eyeing glory for hosts Japan.

But tennis has thrown up a host of shock results in its short Olympic history. Here, Stats Perform looks at the sport's place in the Games.

 

WHO'S IN, WHO'S OUT, AND WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have all opted out of the Olympics.

Williams made her mind up prior to suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon, although she is already a member of the career Golden Slam club.

Federer reached his decision after revealing he also suffered a physical setback at the All England Club, and Nadal elected to take a two-month break after relinquishing his French Open title.

Don't expect to see them again at the Olympics, given Williams and Federer will be pushing 43 by Paris 2024, and Nadal will be 38. Federer won a doubles gold with Stan Wawrinka in 2008, but his singles peak was the silver medal he earned in 2012, Andy Murray crushing Swiss hopes in the final at Wimbledon.

Dominic Thiem, Bianca Andreescu, Nick Kyrgios, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Denis Shapovalov are among other confirmed absentees, with fitness issues a factor for some, less so for others.

The COVID-19 crisis is a mitigating factor in why so many stars are staying away, and directly responsible in the case of some players, such as Britain's Johanna Konta and Dan Evans, who both tested positive recently.

But tennis was only fully restored to the Olympic programme in 1988, after being dropped post 1924, and if players are seen to be favouring the grand slams over the Games, that is not such a great look for the sport.

At a time when the International Olympic Committee has shown it is willing to shake up the sports on its programme, tennis could perhaps do with a headline-making Tokyo 2020.

Murray, the two-time defending men's champion, will target an improbable hat-trick. A hat-trick for the injury-hit former world number one would be a sensation, and Osaka landing gold in the women's tournament would surely be one of the great moments of the Games.

 

DJOKOVIC FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GRAF

When Steffi Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini in the women's singles final at Seoul, it completed what we know now as the calendar 'Golden Slam'. She had already won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, and the feat of the then 19-year-old West German has yet to be repeated.

Now Djokovic is three-fifths of the way to a similar clean sweep of the majors and the Olympics, with the US Open getting under way on August 30 in New York.

He teetered on not going to Tokyo, and perhaps he is to some extent endangering his chances at Flushing Meadows by spending more time travelling and enduring bubble life, while others rest up.

But Djokovic is a fiercely proud Serbian and could not resist a great chance of winning gold for his country. He landed bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing but in 2012 he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the bronze-medal match, and a cruel draw at Rio four years later saw him assigned Del Potro in the first round.

Top seed Djokovic bowed out in two tie-breaks to the powerful Argentinian, describing the outcome as "one of the toughest losses in my career".

There is no danger of a hat-trick of defeats to Del Potro, which may help Djokovic. Del Potro has been battling for two years to get back to fitness, undergoing four rounds of right knee surgery in a bid to get back on tour.

 

RAISING THE BAR AT THE OLYMPICS

How the Olympic village functions in Tokyo will be distinctly different to at previous Games, given the pandemic restrictions in place that could be a real buzzkill.

But in the past there have been countless cases of athletes becoming inspired by their surroundings and going on to perform above their usual level.

It can be a party village, and it can also be an eyebrow-raising experience as global superstars rub shoulders with competitors who might struggle for recognition in their home towns. More than anything, the shared team experience, fighting for a collective cause, can make a middling athlete believe they can be great.

Monica Puig was a massive tennis outsider in 2016 but the then world number 34 won the women's singles, stunning Angelique Kerber in the final after beating Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza en route. That gave Puerto Rico their first ever Olympic gold medal.

In 1992, a tournament that featured the likes of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker finished with a staggering final match-up of Marc Rosset versus Jordi Arrese, who in his home city of Barcelona was edged out 8-6 in the fifth set by the Swiss world number 43. Nobody would have predicted that head to head for gold.

Similarly, at Athens 2004, Nicolas Massu beat Mardy Fish in the gold medal match of a tournament that featured Federer, Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya and Tim Henman.

In the 1996 Atlanta Games, Lindsay Davenport, who had just turned 20, took inspiration from being the daughter of an Olympian, with dad Wink having played volleyball for the United States at Mexico City in 1968.

Davenport was beginning to make an impact on the WTA Tour but was only the ninth seed at the Olympics, yet she swept through the rounds before sinking Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 7-6 (10-8) 6-2 in the final.

"It's like one of those things I look back on and I'm like, 'Was that me?'," Davenport told The Tennis Podcast last year.

"It doesn't seem like it was real. I'd made the transition to the pro tour pretty well, but I liked hanging out between eight and 16 in the rankings. I was very insecure, unsure of what could I do. I liked doing well but I wasn't sure I wanted to do too well because it seemed really overwhelming to be one of those top players.

"Here I go at 20 years old to Atlanta for two or three weeks, in a setting that seemed so comfortable. Look at all these athletes, you have all different shapes and sizes, you have players that are really working hard but have so much in common and you get to hang out with them, breakfast, lunch, dinner in the village."

Davenport was a future world number one and three-time grand slam singles champion, but at this point in her career being an American at an Olympics in the United States was just a thrill.

"You're sharing this with your team-mates who are some of my best friends in Mary Joe Fernandez, Monica Seles. It was the best time ever," she said.

"By the time the tournament actually started we were like, 'Yeah, I'll go play my match and then we'll go back to the village and we'll hang out', and everything went so fast in those few weeks.

"And there I was left standing, winning at the end because I was so incredibly happy and excited with everything that was going on. I kind of forgot what was my job.

"When it became a reality of even just making the team in '96, it was so huge also for my family with having a second generation Olympian."

While the future of Harry Kane looks set to be the dominant talking point among Tottenham fans for the remainder of the transfer window, there does at least appear to be positive news for Spurs on the horizon regarding a potential incoming.

Granted, it's probably not going to be the kind of deal that immediately has Kane thinking, 'Hang on, this is all the proof I need that I can win trophies here'. But ambition is certainly at the root of the latest developments.

According to Sky Italia, Spurs are close to the signing of Bryan Gil for £21.6million (€25m) plus Erik Lamela. Should it go through, it's arguably one of those rare deals that actually looks like good business for all involved.

For sure, if you consider Lamela to be worth somewhere between £15-20m, it's obviously a lot of money for a player barely out of his teens, particularly when you consider the transfer could reportedly involve an extra £4.3m and a percentage of any future transfer.

But Bryan is arguably among the top three under-21 players in Spain with Ansu Fati and Pedri, and like them has already been capped by Spain. Although there's no guarantee of success, the potential is there.

Bryan Giggs?

It was in Bryan's third Segunda B game for Sevilla's second team, Sevilla Atletico, that he truly announced himself in September 2018. Although he switched between the two flanks, he was at his liveliest on the left and his abilities caused chaos for the opposition, San Fernando.

Even at the age of 17, he was clearly a cut above everyone else on the pitch, his direct yet mazy runs conjuring up images of a young Ryan Giggs as he looked to weave his through the crowds in his way.

He got the first goal, an emphatic finish from the centre of the box, drew the foul that saw a San Fernando player sent off, and then brilliantly beat his full-back before darting along the byline and cutting the ball back to set up what proved to be a 90th-minute winner.

While that game saw Bryan grab the attentions of a few more Sevilla fans, those who had worked with him before were already well-accustomed to his ability.

Sevilla have a link-up with a local school, and their football team CD Altair has seen numerous players come through their side en route to Los Nervionenses' first team. Jose Campana, Antonio Luna, Sergio Rico, Carlos Fernandez and many others have made that journey, while Carlos Alvarez – their next potential homegrown superstar – featured for the first team in a recent friendly at the age of 17.

The technical secretary of Altair, Miguel Mora Lopez, considers Bryan to be one of the two standouts.

"Altair has had a good relationship with Sevilla for many years now," Mora told Stats Perform.

"Throughout our history there are countless professional players who have passed through our ranks in their early years, but it's true that Bryan or Carlos [Alvarez] are the most outstanding so far.

"We always thought that Bryan would succeed in professional football. He was with us only one season when he was 14 years old, but we liked his game. He was creative and very incisive in attack."

 

Talented but incompatible

January 2019 saw Bryan make his first appearance in LaLiga for Sevilla, and he went on to make 10 more before the season was up, becoming the first player born this century to get an assist in the top five European leagues. Everything pointed towards him potentially becoming a regular in 2019-20.

While the appointment of Julen Lopetegui has generally been extremely fruitful for Sevilla as a whole – a Europa League crown and back-to-back top-four finishes – it's difficult to not now see that as the beginning of the end for Bryan at his boyhood club.

Spurs fans might be inclined to see this as a red flag. 'If Lopetegui doesn't rate him then why are we signing Bryan?' It seemingly comes down to the style of player that he is.

Bryan is above all quite an old-fashioned winger. Though he is adept at coming inside even from the left – and a future as a number 10 certainly isn't outside the realms of possibility given his technical ability – a lot of his game is about running at his man, beating him and getting a cross into the box.

 

For example, his tally of 122 open-play crosses was the fifth-highest in LaLiga last term. He's certainly persistent, and in theory this should be perfect for the system Lopetegui likes to operate, with a big and physical centre-forward to get on the end of deliveries. After all, Youssef En-Nesyri came third behind Ante Budimir (seven) and Karim Benzema (six) for among the most headed goals in 2020-21.

But in reality, Lopetegui prefers to use inverted wingers while overlapping full-backs provide more of the 'traditional' wing play. Lucas Ocampos, Suso, Alejandro Gomez, Rony Lopes and Oussama Idrissi are all wingers signed since Lopetegui took over – all like to cut in from the flank and on to their stronger foot.

Bryan played just two league games in 2019-20 prior to joining Leganes on loan for the second half of the season and was then allowed to join Eibar for 2020-21. It proved to be a stroke of genius in some ways.

Although Eibar suffered relegation, Jose Luis Mendilibar's 4-4-2 setup helped bring out the best in Bryan. Their high-pressing system showcased his tenacity and work rate, while their two-man attack meant wing play was essential without a bona fide number 10.

He quickly blossomed into a key player.

Bryan the brave

Spurs fans looking to learn more about Bryan may see his goals (four) and assists (three) output in LaLiga as perhaps a little underwhelming, though that doesn't really give the clearest picture of his effectiveness.

 

For starters, we have to remember Bryan was playing in a team that finished bottom of LaLiga, with Getafe (28) the only team to score fewer goals than them (29).

It's fair to say that was more about those finishing the chances as opposed to Bryan's creativity. His 0.18 xA (expected assists) per 90 minutewas bettered by only five wingers/wide midfielders (minimum 1,500 minutes played) last term, while it was a fair bit higher than his 0.12 actual assists each game.

Similarly, among the same group of players, Bryan ranked fourth for the most open-play key passes per 90 minutes (1.4), which again makes him something of an outlier considering Eibar's relegation.

It's also worth pointing out relegation battles aren't generally the situations managers tend to chuck teenagers into without any consideration of their mentality and qualities – but Mora's assessment brings further credence to the idea that Bryan's just a bit different.

"He wasn't shy at all," Mora added. "Yes, he was a skilled player who moved the ball well and made very precise crosses, but he also added bravery on the field. He never avoided a 'melee' with any opponent."

That bravery can manifest itself in several ways. One of them is tenacity – his average of 12.7 duels per game is impressive for a wide player. Most of those who rank higher than him (minimum 1,000 mins played) are central strikers. For further context, Lionel Messi recorded 14.9 in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, Bryan won the ball back in the final third 1.2 times every match, a figure only two players could beat in 2020-21 (min. 1,000 mins).

And the other area where his courageous streak comes into play is with regards to dribbling, probably his biggest asset. Alberto Perea (6.1) and Ousmane Dembele (5.5) were the two individuals to attempt more take-ons per game than Bryan (5.2), while over the course of the season, he set up 16 chances following a ball carry. Among those considered by Opta to have played predominantly as a winger/wide midfielder in 2020-21, Bryan's 16 ranked only behind Goncalo Guedes (17) and Dembele (23).

 

System adaptation may be required

There's little doubt Bryan has a lot to offer, and although his rather scrawny stature might lead to concerns over his physical suitability, he's demonstrably a player who isn't shy or withdrawn.

But stylistically it will be intriguing to see how he settles into the team should the deal go through. At Eibar last season he played in a side that was almost characterised by its high press, their 363 high turnovers being more than any other side in LaLiga. By contrast, Spurs recorded just 228 while new coach Nuno Espirito Santo's Wolves managed just 205 – both were among the bottom three in that metric.

 

But Spurs' 68 direct attacks were 28 more than Eibar, and Bryan's pace, ability on the ball and eagerness to get in a cross could potentially suit that rather well, while Nuno tended to play with two genuine wingers at Wolves.

Of course, the deal does represent something of a gamble, but is there really such thing as a 'Premier League guarantee'? We've seen countless players do well at one Premier League club before tanking at the next. Alexis Sanchez, anyone?

The important thing here is that Bryan's undoubtedly an exceptional talent and his skillset – at least in theory – seems to lend itself quite well to the fast and furious Premier League.

The last winger to make his way from Sevilla to the Premier League was Jesus Navas. For all his critics, he didn't do too badly, and Bryan already appears rather more equipped.

Mark Cavendish delivered such an incredible comeback at the Tour de France that he sits alongside cycling royalty in the history books.

Cavendish had last featured at the Tour de France in 2016, and was not expecting to ride in the event this year. Indeed, he had even hinted retirement may be a possibility following a loss of form and several bouts of injury.

Yet, after a late substitution in for Deceuninck-QuickStep and four stage wins later, Cavendish had served up a welcome reminder of his excellence.

"I found out just a week before the Tour de France started and that was that," Cavendish said. "We didn't know what was happening with Sam Bennett's knee so I was just training as if I was going but with a 99 per cent probability that I wasn't going."

Belgian great Eddy Merckx's record of 34 stage victories had stood since 1975, but the flurry of wins for Cavendish over the past three weeks means he has matched that total.

There was to be no last hurrah on the final stage for Cavendish, as he gritted his teeth but could only cross the line third in Sunday's sprint on the Champs Elysees. Consolation came with green jersey glory for the second time in his career, the king of the sprinters in the 2021 Tour.

Perhaps next year he will be back with a 35th win in his sights. Here, Stats Perform looks back at Cavendish's stage triumphs so far.

2008

In his first professional season, Cavendish started as he meant to go on at Le Tour, winning four stages. His first came in stage five at the culmination of a 232km route. He followed that up with successes in stages eight, 12 and 13 before he abandoned the tour ahead of competing at the Beijing OIympics.

2009

After becoming the first British rider to wear the general classification leader's pink jersey at the Giro d'Italia, Cavendish's dominance of the sprints in grand tours really clicked into gear. He won a sensational six stages of Le Tour in 2009, including his first of four on the bounce on the Champs-Elysees. In the process, he also set a new record for Tour de France stage wins by a British rider.

2010

Five stage victories followed in 2010, even though Cavendish crashed out of the final sprint on the opening day. The Manx rider won stages five, six, 11, 18 and 20 to take his total to 15 over three appearances at Le Tour, though his efforts were not enough to claim the green jersey.

2011

Cavendish did clinch the green jersey the following year, despite being docked 20 points for finishing outside the time limit after stage nine and again after 18. Triumphant efforts in stages five, seven, 11, 15 and 21 took his career total to 20.

2012 

Wearing the world champion's rainbow jersey, Cavendish crossed the line first on the Champs-Elysees for the fourth year running, earning his third stage win of the 2012 Tour. He became the most successful sprinter in Tour history with 23 wins, as well as being the first rider to win the Paris stage while wearing the rainbow jersey.

 

2013

Cavendish won stage five in Marseille, though he had to withstand being drenched with urine by a spectator on stage 11 – cycling is not a sport for the faint-hearted, after all. The 28-year-old also went on to win stage 13, though a fifth straight triumph in Paris eluded him.

2015

The 2014 Tour ended quickly for Cavendish as, in the sprint finish in Harrogate – Yorkshire having hosted the Grand Depart – he crashed out and suffered a shoulder injury. He bounced back in 2015 to win his 26th stage, nipping in ahead of Andre Greipel in Fougeres.

2016

After three quiet years at Le Tour by his standard, Cavendish was back at his blistering best in 2016, and completed his set of overall classification lead jerseys in Grand Tours when he clinched the opening stage in Normandy. A victory in stage three saw him equal Bernard Hinault's tally, with further celebrations following in stage six and 14, before he went on to claim his first Olympic medal with silver in the Rio omnium.

2021

Back from five years in the wilderness, when Merckx's record must have seemed cruelly so close yet so far away, Cavendish reminded everyone of his talent with a win in stage four, and two days later, he had scooped his 50th stage success at a Grand Tour. The win in Valence on stage 10 ensured that no, this was no joke and, after he matched Merckx in Carcassonne, Cavendish had 34 victories. He was terribly close in Paris to what would have been a glorious 35th, but for now he must settle for sharing illustrious company.

It is a new era under Ange Postecoglou at Parkhead.

Tasked with leading an embattled Celtic back to the Scottish summit, having been dethroned by bitter rivals Rangers last season, Postecoglou is slowly putting his stamp on the club.

Prised from Yokohama F.Marinos after ending the club's 15-year J1 League title drought in 2019, Postecoglou has returned to Japan to raid Andres Iniesta's Vissel Kobe for Kyogo Furuhashi.

Postecoglou knows Furuhashi well from their time together in Japan, where the 26-year-old forward has starred since arriving from second-tier outfit FC Gifu in 2018.

Regarded as one of the country's most exciting talents, the Japan international brings plenty of goals, pace, creativity and dribbling ability to Glasgow, with Celtic fans hoping he can follow in the footsteps of country great Shunsuke Nakamura - who won six trophies during his time in Scotland.

Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind Furuhashi, using Opta data.

Endorsed by Barca great

If there is one player who knows a thing or two about succeeding in Europe, it is former Barcelona captain Iniesta.

Iniesta - the most decorated Spanish footballer of all time thanks to 35 trophies at Camp Nou - was lured to Japanese club Vissel in 2018, the same year as team-mate Furuhashi.

Furuhashi tops the league's scoring charts this season with 15 in 21 appearances for third-placed Vissel, three more than ex-Brazil international Leandro Damiao (Kawasaki Frontale), Anderson Lopes (Consadole Sapporo) and Ado Onaiwu (F.Marinos).

He scored in his farewell appearance for Vissel on Saturday, the opening goal in the 1-1 draw with Cerezo Osaka.

Only Kawasaki's Yu Kobayashi (44) has scored more goals in J1 League than Furuhashi since his first appearance in the competition (August 5, 2018).

"To be honest, Kyogo absolutely has the talent to play in Europe," Iniesta said previously. "He's leading the J1's scoring chart, but it's not just that. He's got strong technique, and I believe he can succeed in Europe."

Since his J1 League debut three years ago, Furuhashi has been involved in 58 goals (42 goals and 16 assists), the most number in this period.

"I'm sure he's got scouts watching him already, but it's going to be tough for us because he scores a lot of goals," Iniesta added.

"It'll be tough but if he goes to Europe, I'll be incredibly happy for him, because for Japanese players it's a dream to play in Europe."

Ange turns to familiar face as Celtic rebuild

Furuhashi evidently left his mark on Postecoglou in Japan.

Coming up against Postecoglou's F.Marinos, Furuhashi scored three goals across all competitions.

On paper, Furuhashi seems to be the perfect fit for Postecoglou's high-octane, attacking style of football, having been involved in 106 shots (82 shots himself and 24 chances created) - the highest figure in J1 League this season.

Before his farewell appearance on Saturday, Furuhashi had the highest non-penalty expected goals (10.9), best non-penalty xG per shot (0.14), most shots following a carry (30) and most shot involvements following a carry (37) in the competition in 2021.

"We are delighted to bring Kyogo Furuhashi to Celtic. He is a player of real quality and clearly someone I know well," Postecoglou said after a four-year deal was agreed following the arrivals of Liam Shaw, Joey Dawson, Osaze Urhoghide, Liel Abada and Bosun Lawal.

Furuhashi - who has managed three goals in six appearances for Japan, with only two starts - will now test himself in Europe.

He has won the most points thanks to his goals and assists in the league this season (16 points).

Points won thanks to a player's goal is based on how many points a team would have accrued had a certain player not scored in that game at all. For example, a hat-trick in a 6-1 win gains no points, whereas one in a 1-1 draw gets one, two in a 2-1 win gets three, two in a 2-0 win gets two and so on.

"I think he will add something special to our squad and I am sure the way he plays will excite our supporters," Postecoglou said. "We look forward to welcoming him to Celtic."

When we look ahead to the Olympics, we usually think about track & field sports, swimming, cycling, maybe even wrestling and boxing.

Given it dominates so much of the sporting agenda for the rest of the year, football may not be among those sports we initially associate with the Olympics, but it has offered numerous stars the opportunity to show their talents to a global audience and to potentially take home a coveted medal.

Of course, the Olympic football tournament is geared more towards lesser-established players, given the age-restriction rules in place.

While teams are usually allowed no more than three players over the age of 23, that age limit has been increased to 24 so not to penalise those around the cut-off who may well have missed out as a result of the 12-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Superstars such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi may be missing, but there are still plenty of familiar faces. Barcelona's Pedri will be involved after starring for Spain at Euro 2020; Brazil great Dani Alves is joined by Arsenal and Everton forwards Gabriel Martinelli and Richarlison; and dynamic Milan midfielder Franck Kessie will be the Ivory Coast's go-to man.

But there are plenty of other relatively unheralded talents ready to make you sit up and take note. Below, Stats Perform takes a look at 10 of them.

Facundo Medina, 22, centre-back – Argentina

It's fair to say Lens defender Medina has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence. The French side brought him in from Club Atletico Talleres just last July and he's already being mentioned as a potential target for clubs like Manchester United.

While he may not be the most physically imposing central defender, he's a good technician, which is demonstrated by his ease on the ball – only three Ligue 1 centre-backs (more than 1,000 minutes played) embarked on more ball carries per 90 minutes (20) than Medina, while his average of 56 successful passes per game was more than any of his team-mates.

Bryan Gil, 20, winger – Spain

La Roja's squad is packed with familiar names – as many as six were at Euro 2020, and that doesn't include the likes of Marco Asensio, Carlos Soler and Dani Ceballos. But of the players with less global recognition, old-fashioned left-winger Bryan is arguably the most exciting.

He just completed a very encouraging loan spell away from Sevilla with Eibar, where his direct and brave style of play was frequently on display, with only Lionel Messi, Javi Galan and Yannick Carrasco attempting more dribbles than him (132). In January he became only the second player born this century to score a LaLiga brace, and he won his first senior Spain caps this year.

 

Diego Lainez, 21, winger – Mexico

It feels like Lainez has been tipped for a big future for a long time now – after all, he first burst on to the scene with Club America four years ago. Two-and-a-half years into his time in LaLiga with Real Betis, he's yet to really establish himself with only 13 of his 48 league appearances coming as a starter. He's still not scored a goal.

But there's no doubting he's a talent. In 2020-21, he attempted a dribble every 17 minutes, which was a record among Betis players and ahead of even Nabil Fekir (21 mins). Lainez is an entertainer and clearly gifted, but perhaps lacking consistency in his end product. Who knows, as one of the more talented players in the Mexico squad, being seen as a go-to player may aid his quest for maturity.

Teji Savanier, 29, central midfielder – France

Savanier is the odd one out in this list, given he's the only one who actually counts towards an over-age quota, though it could be argued that it's to players like him that playing at the Olympics may matter the most. Savanier's never even played for France's youth teams, let alone the senior side, and he only made his top-flight bow as recently as 2018, but he's one of those central midfielders that's a joy to watch with his wonderful ability on the ball.

He has completed 58.4 per cent of his 279 dribbles in Ligue 1 since July 2018, which is bettered by only three players (more than 150 attempts) in the same period. For greater context, Neymar's completion rate in that time is 52.5 per cent. Savanier should also provide France with a threat at set-pieces, as only Benjamin Bourigeaud created more chances (40) from such situations than the Montpellier star (37) in 2020-21.

 

Thiago Almada, 20, attacking midfielder – Argentina

La Albiceleste's squad boasts numerous talented young attacking players – Ezequiel Barco, Pedro de la Vega, Ezequiel Ponce, but Almada's arguably rated highest of the lot.

A diminutive attacking midfielder from Carlos Tevez's old neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, Fuerte Apache, Almada is skilful, explosive and creative. Among players born this century, Almada boasts the best chances created per game frequency (two) in the Copa Libertadores (at least two games played) this season, as well as being the youngest player to have netted at least twice in the competition in 2021.

Claudinho, 24, forward – Brazil

All roads point to Europe for Claudinho, who looks poised to be the first major export of Red Bull Bragantino, the energy drink giant's Brazilian club. While no move has been confirmed yet, it seems only a matter of time before RB Leipzig look to bring him over to Germany.

 

After all, he was the joint-top scorer in the 2020 Brasileirao (18 goals), with his finishing abilities highlighted by the fact a league-high seven of those were scored from outside the box. Claudinho also created 25 more chances than anyone else in the division, and scooped both the Young Player of the Year and MVP awards.

 

Nathanael Mbuku, 19, winger – France

He may not necessarily be a starter for Les Bleus, given they've plenty of attacking talent in the squad, but at the very least left-winger Mbuku could be an interesting option from the bench. Reims are reported to already value him at €15million, and he has previous when it comes to excelling in national team colours – he netted five goals in six games as France finished third at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup.

Mbuku enjoyed a smattering of Ligue 1 appearances that season, though it was in 2020-21 that he truly established himself, making 28 starts – that was tied with Eduardo Camavinga for the most by a player born in 2002 or after. He caught the eye with his ability to beat a man, completing a highly respectable 58.1 per cent of his 74 dribbles last term, a completion rate bettered by only 10 players who attempted at least 70.

Felix Uduokhai, 23, centre-back – Germany

Wolfsburg plucked Uduokhai from 1860 Munich in 2017 with much expected of him. He fell well out of favour in his second season before moving on loan to Augsburg, who triggered their purchase option on him last year. Since moving to Bavaria, he's hardly looked back.

He earned his first senior call-up to the Germany team in November and now there is chatter that some of the Bundesliga's biggest clubs are circling for him again. Whoever gets Uduokhai will land an imposing centre-back whose 102 aerial wins was the fourth-highest in the league last term, while only Amos Pieper (160) bettered his 157 clearances.

 

Brenno, 22, goalkeeper – Brazil

For years, goalkeeper was considered the only position where Brazil struggled to develop world-class players, though Alisson and Ederson have firmly disproved that notion and Brenno could be another to keep an eye on.

In the 2021 Brasileirao, Brenno is averaging the fourth-most amount of saves per 90 minutes (3.5) among those to have played at least four times, and is reportedly interesting Portuguese clubs. A solid showing in Japan might see a potential transfer sped up.

Amad Diallo, 19, winger – Ivory Coast

Manchester United fans will be eager to get a good look at Amad during the Olympics, given they only got glimpses of him in 2020-21 after joining from Atalanta. Amid those eight appearances, he certainly showed flashes of his exciting ability and silky footwork, but they will hope to see some performances of a little more substance.

As much as anything, it could be an opportunity for Amad to earn himself a loan move or prove to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he's worth keeping around. Jadon Sancho's arrival will likely further impact his exposure to first-team football, but impressing in Japan might encourage his manager to use him as a regular back up to the England international, with Mason Greenwood moved into a central position.

Arjen Robben's playing days are officially over (again), with the Bayern Munich and Netherlands great confirming on Thursday that he is hanging up his boots.

Of course, this is not the first time Robben has made such a decision – he initially retired in 2019 after a decade with Bayern before returning to his first club Groningen.

Although the fairy-tale conclusion he may have hoped for never quite materialised, ending his career where it all began has seen his playing days come full circle.

In honour of Robben's retirement, Stats Perform takes a look at greats who have gone back to their spiritual home in the twilight stages, starting with an overview of the king of inverted wingers…

Arjen Robben - Groningen

Robben's first retirement lasted just a single season, having announced last year he would be 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 availability, restricting him to just seven Eredivisie appearances. Club director Mark-Jan Fledderus wanted him to stay on for another year, but when Robben said at the end of the season that he was going to have a long think about his future, the writing was seemingly on the wall. Another U-turn appears unlikely.

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.

Gianluigi Buffon - Parma

Okay, he is not technically retired yet, so perhaps Buffon does not strictly qualify here. However, after departing Juventus for the second time at the end of 2020-21, the Italy great suggested he had not finished playing just yet. Parma quickly emerged as a potential destination despite their recent relegation to Serie B, and after a few weeks of contemplation, it was confirmed that Buffon was heading back to the club. Now 43, the iconic goalkeeper will wear the Gialloblu for the first time in 20 years, and he is set to remain with them until he turns 45, given he signed a two-year contract. What happens after that is anyone's guess but calling it a day with his first club could be a satisfyingly romantic conclusion.

He is back where he belongs.
He is back home. #SupermanReturns @gianluigibuffon @Kyle_J_Krause @ParmaCalcio_en pic.twitter.com/bh2FO6P8YX

— Parma Calcio 1913 (@1913parmacalcio) June 17, 2021

Roberto Mancini has overseen arguably one of the all-time great transformations in international football, not only turning Italy into a team that has a clear and fresh identity, but also a side that is successful.

When they lost 1-0 to Portugal on September 10, 2018 in the Nations League, who'd have thought that by the next time they suffered defeat they'd have won the European Championship? The fact that's the case despite Euro 2020 being delayed for 12 months is all the more impressive.

While the Azzurri required a penalty shoot-out against England in Sunday's final at Wembley, it's fair to say Italy were worthy victors in the end, with their hosts' caution only taking them so far.

In fact, England's pragmatism was arguably akin to the philosophy historically associated with Italy, but under Mancini they've truly embraced a tactical fluidity that has seemingly altered the perception many have of them.

Press smart, work smart

Intense off-the-ball work and a high press have almost become mainstream in modern football. While they aren't necessarily prevalent aspects of every team, not even every great team, many of the world's finest coaches try to implement them to a certain degree.

At Euro 2020, it's been a core strength of Italy – but it's not just a case of chasing down opponents like headless chickens. They've proven themselves to be smart.

 

The average amount of passes Italy allow their opponents to have in their own defensive third before initiating a defensive action is 13 (PPDA). Seven teams at the tournament pressed with greater intensity, but none were as effective as Italy.

Their 56 high turnovers were matched by Denmark but Italy boasted a tournament-high 13 that led to a shot, while three resulted in a goal – that too was bettered by no other team.

It suggests that, while other sides such as Spain (8.1 PPDA) pressed higher, Italy were better at picking their moments and knowing when to up the intensity.

Italy still managed to remain well balanced, too. Their average starting position of 42.9 metres from their own goal was deeper than six other teams, an important factor considering Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci aren't the quickest.

Yet they still pressed to greater effect that any of the others.

Establishing control

If there was one area of the pitch that you might point out as most crucial in Italy's Euro 2020 success (if we ignore Gianluigi Donnarumma's shoot-out saves), it would be their midfield.

Nicolo Barella, Marco Verratti and Jorginho were largely excellent as a trio, though the latter pair have attracted most of the acclaim.

In Verratti, Mancini seems to have a player who truly embodies their style of play – an excellent creator, he also does more than his fair share off the ball as one of the most complete central midfielders in the game today. He puts the fun in functional.

Verratti played the most key passes (14) of anyone at the tournament and ranked fourth for successful passes (87.1) and fifth for tackle attempts (4.0) per 90 minutes (at least 90 mins played).

 

The Paris Saint-Germain star also provided drive from the centre, with his 23 ball carries per 90 minutes bettered by just five midfielders, though only Pedri moved the ball between five and 10 metres upfield more often than Verratti (47), highlighting his progressive mentality.

Yet he didn't do it all on his own – after all, Verratti missed the first two games through injury. No, Jorginho had a similarly important function as the chief deep-lying playmaker, playing 484 successful passes, trailing only Aymeric Laporte.

On top of that, Jorginho showed his innate ability to sniff out danger and get Italy back on the move, with his 48 recoveries the second-highest among outfield players.

Given the presence of these two, it's no wonder Italy strung together the third-most sequences of 10 of more passes (123), yet at no point did you feel they got in each other's way, which again is testament to Mancini's setup.

 

Turning a weakness into a strength

The fact Italy were successful despite not having a particularly convincing striker highlighted the effectiveness of other areas of the team.

Ciro Immobile was Mancini's pick to lead the line. He wasn't necessarily bad, as his goal involvement output of four (two goals, two assists) was only trumped by Patrik Schick and Cristiano Ronaldo.

However, the Lazio man was by no means deadly in front of goal, hitting the target with just three of 18 shots. Among players with at least 10 attempts, just four were accurate with a smaller percentage than Immobile (16.7 per cent).

 

But so fluid were Italy that it didn't really matter. Immobile was one of five Italy players to net two goals, something no team has achieved at the Euros since France did in 2000.

At Italy's Coverciano coach training facility, there is said to have been a growing focus on the development of what are essentially formation-less tactics, and the fact Italy carried a threat from so many different positions suggests such a future actually isn't that far away.

Further to this, Italy showed real flexibility in attack. Sure, they scored 10 times inside the box, a figure third only to Spain and England, but the difference is the Azzurri also netted three from outside the area – no team managed more.

While you might expect that to reflect significantly in their expected goals (xG), Italy still pretty much scored exactly the number of goals one would ordinarily expect from the quality of their chances (13 goals, 13.2 xG), albeit one of those was an own goal.

 

Whether Italy have enough talent coming through to sustain this level and establish the first international 'dynasty' since the Spain side that won Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 is another debate.

But there's little doubt Mancini has the know-how to make them the team to beat if the production line doesn't dry up.

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America had the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Italy and Argentina lifted the respective trophies at the weekend, with the Azzurri beating England in a penalty shoot-out and La Albiceleste seeing off bitter rivals Brazil at the Maracana to win the Copa for the first time since 1993.

Stats Perform has looked at 13 of the leading candidates to feature at either tournament to determine how their chances look heading into the new season.

Jorginho

Before Euro 2020, N'Golo Kante was the Chelsea midfielder seen to be within the best shot of scooping individual honours at the end of 2021, but a month on it's Jorginho who is the European champion at club and international level.

While he has perhaps been underappreciated or misunderstood at times with Chelsea, perhaps supporters will see him in a new light after playing a vital role in Italy's success as their deep-lying playmaker.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Lewandowski's Ballon d'Or hopes arguably aren't any worse now than before the Euros as no one will have expected Paulo Sousa's men to make much of an impact. He got three goals in as many games and was only out-scored by six players, which is a solid achievement.

 

Marco Verratti

Had he not been injured for the first two games of Euro 2020, there's every possibility it would have been Verratti being crowned as player of the tournament, with the Paris Saint-Germain star arguably the player who embodies the qualities of Roberto Mancini's transformed Italy side more than any other.

Not only did he create more chances than anyone else at Euro 2020 (14), but averaged more touches (114.5) than anyone, played the fourth-most passes (87.1) and ranked third for tackles (four) per 90 minutes among all players to have featured for at least 125 minutes. His all-action excellence set the tone for the Azzurri's vibrant and, ultimately, successful football.

 

N'Golo Kante

Kante inspired Chelsea to Champions League glory, named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final versus Real Madrid and the final against Manchester City.

But France's last-16 elimination by Switzerland will have done little to boost his chances, with Paul Pogba rather than Kante the standout figure for Les Bleus. While a nomination is almost a certainty, taking the gong home now looks beyond the all-action midfielder.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

His exceptional quality was further underlined by the fact only Verratti created more chances than him over the course of the tournament, an impressive feat given he started the tournament late due to injury and then had to play through another fitness issue in Belgium's final match, but that's unlikely to be enough to earn him the award.

Gianluigi Donnarumma

Generally, the player considered to be the best at a major international competition has a pretty good chance of winning further accolades, so in that case Donnarumma may have a reasonable opportunity after UEFA crowned him Euro 2020's Player of the Tournament.

Statistically there were numerous goalkeepers who were more important than him to their respective teams given he technically didn't prevent any goals according to Opta's xGOT metric – Tomas Vaclik's prevented a tournament-high 2.5. Nevertheless, Donnarumma wasn't guilty of any drops or errors that led to shots, and made crucial saves across two penalty shoot-outs, including a couple in the final.

 

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

A slow start to Euro 2020 followed, although Kane scored four times in the knockout phase as he played a key role in England's journey to the final. But when it mattered most he failed to have a single touch in the Italy penalty area. A talismanic performance in the showpiece may have put him firmly in the running, but it's difficult to see him being a major contender now.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

He certainly cannot be accused of failing to deliver for Belgium given he scored four times, but they came up short against Italy in the quarter-finals, with a partially injured De Bruyne unable to truly weave his magic. Lukaku's influence upon Inter shouldn't be overlooked, but the achievements of others on the international stage may overshadow his own.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it did put him right in the mix and he followed that up with a starring role in Argentina's Copa triumph, the first senior international trophy of his career. Given his lack of success with La Albiceleste was arguably the final barrier to clear in his career, a Ballon d'Or will surely follow later this year as he led Lionel Scaloni's men with four goals (joint-most) and five assists (the most).

 

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day, but it probably won't be in 2021. He was one of the biggest disappointments at Euro 2020, failing to score once despite his chances having an accumulative xG value of 2.02 – that under-performance was second-worst to Gerard Moreno (3.32).

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he only had an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or ahead of the Copa America, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

While his performances with Brazil would see him included in most people's team of the tournament, he wasn't dependable in front of goal, his one non-penalty strike coming from 5.3 xG, an under-performance unmatched by anyone in the tournament. He'll have to wait a bit longer for the prize he supposedly craves above all others.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

He definitely didn't do his chances any harm as he won the Golden Boot for most goals (five) – beating Patrik Schick by virtue of having more assists – after becoming the Euros' all-time leading scorer (11) and levelling Ali Daei's world-record haul of 109 international goals, but Portugal's failure to get beyond the last 16 won't help.

 

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

But he could only muster one goal at the Copa America as he and Uruguay had a minimal impact, meaning it'll take something special for Suarez to be a major candidate at the end of the year.

Italy were crowned European Championship winners for a second time after beating England 3-2 on penalties in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

The Azzurri fell behind to Luke Shaw's record-breaking strike inside two minutes, but Leonardo Bonucci hit back and the contest finished 1-1 at the end of 120 minutes.

Roberto Mancini's men held their nerve in London to stretch their unbeaten run to 34 matches and end their 53-year wait to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy – the longest-ever gap between championships in the tournament by a single nation, surpassing Spain's 44-year wait from 1964 to 2008. 

Only Germany (seven) have won more major titles among European sides than the six Italy have now managed, having also lifted the World Cup on four occasions.

On the back of another dramatic clash at Wembley, and the end of a thrilling tournament, Stats Perform looks at the key takeaways from Sunday's action.

Shaw gets England off to fast start

Shaw got on the end of a Kieran Trippier cross to volley England into the lead with one minute and 57 seconds on the clock, surpassing ​Chus Pereda for Spain against the Soviet Union in 1964 (05:04) as the fastest goal in a European Championship final.

That was the third goal scored in the opening two minutes at Euro 2020, which is as many as the previous 15 editions of the tournament combined.

Shaw's strike was also England's fastest ever in a Euros match, 17 seconds quicker than Alan Shearer's effort against Germany in 1996.

Bonucci inspires Italy comeback

England did not manage another attempt of any note until Harry Maguire headed off target in the 56th minute, by which time Italy had grabbed a foothold in the match.

Having trailed for 65 minutes at Wembley – compared to the 44 minutes they were behind in total during their previous 33 unbeaten matches – the Azzurri levelled up through Bonucci's close-range finish.

At the age of 34 years and 71 days, Bonucci is the oldest player ever to score in a Euros final, and the second-oldest ever for a European side at a major tournament after Nils Liedholm for Sweden against Brazil at the 1958 World Cup (35y 264d).

 

A familiar outcome at Wembley

With nothing to separate the sides in the remainder of normal time, this became the third major tournament final at Wembley  – along with the 1966 World Cup and Euro 96 – to go to extra-time.

Of England's last 10 major tournament games that went to extra-time before Sunday, eight went to a penalty shoot-out. So that proved for a ninth time in a row, with neither side showing enough quality to find a winner in the additional 30 minutes.

A dramatic shootout was eventually settled by Gianluigi Donnarumma keeping out Bukayo Saka's penalty, making Italy just the second side ever to win two shoot-outs at a single edition of the Euros, having also gone the distance against Spain in the semis.

England have now won just two of their nine major tournament penalty shoot-outs, the lowest ratio of any European nation to have been involved in three or more.

In the 120th minute of the Euro 2020 final, Giorgio Chiellini decided it was time to race from his defensive station and give Italy a dashing overlap option on the left wing.

He does what he wants. And if this was his last stand for Italy, we witnessed classic Chiellini. What a captain: a nightmare to play against, a dream as a team-mate.

Glory went to his goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, for those saves from Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in the shootout, but Italy's success was founded on that Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci axis in the heart of defence.

When Donnarumma pushed away 19-year-old Saka's spot-kick to seal victory, Chiellini roared and grabbed the nearest man in a blue shirt, Manuel Locatelli getting the bear hug.

Moments later he went across to Harry Kane and attempted to console the England skipper, a player whose threat had been utterly blunted by the Italian defence.

The statistics show that Chiellini made just one tackle on the night, but he produced six clearances – four more than any other Italy player – and three interceptions, won more aerial duels (7) than anyone in blue and completed 95.7 per cent of his 115 passes. Just wow.

He turns 37 next month, but was indefatigable here, driving on his team throughout, helping the team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup become European champions.

The veteran Juventus star retired from international football when Italy failed to qualify for that World Cup, but soon rowed back on that decision. This might be the perfect way to bow out, having guided the Azzurri through grim times and on to triumph.

 

It is 34 games unbeaten now for them, Roberto Mancini's team worthy kings of the continent. Wembley was perhaps less than a third full by the time Chiellini got to lift the trophy, having emptied of most England supporters.

Football's come home to Rome. Chiellini had tears in his eyes as he lifted the trophy, and doubtless it was the same for millions of Italians at home, the first European country to truly feel the horrors of the COVID-19 crisis last spring being given enormous cause for national celebration.

Italy have never lost against England at a major tournament, but when Luke Shaw fired Gareth Southgate's men inside two minutes the locals sensed this time it might be different.

Yet Bonucci became the oldest player to score in a European Championship final as Italian pressure told midway through the second half, tucking in the rebound after Jordan Pickford pushed Marco Verratti's header against the left post.

It had felt that England, with their early lead, were trying to Catenaccio the life out of the Azzurri, beat them at their own game.

Italy had six shots in the first half to England's one. Jorginho, who completed just five passes in the Spain half during Tuesday's semi-final, had 27 such balls that found blue shirts in the first half here.

There was freedom for Italy to play, and even when they lost livewire Federico Chiesa to an ankle injury they continued to dominate and swarm, leading the shot court 14-4 at the 90-minute mark.

In stoppage time at the end of that 90, Chiellini cynically grabbed the shirt of Saka as the teenager looked to burst down the right. Because of course he did. He had the wit to swallow a yellow card for the greater good. A professional's 'professional foul'.

Into the extra half hour and Chiellini made an excellent block to turn Raheem Sterling's cross out for a corner.

Soon afterwards, just as Sterling looked set to shoot or perhaps deliver a killer pass across goal, out stretched a foot from Chiellini to solve Italy's latest problem.

Will Roberto Mancini try to keep him on for the World Cup campaign? A conversation for another day, probably.

 

This was a night of joy for Italy, and what a moment for Mancini, too.

Italy's head coach knows all about Wembley heartbreak, having been on the Sampdoria team that lost 1-0 to Barcelona under the old stadium's twin towers in the 1992 European Cup final, when Gianluca Vialli's misses proved so costly.

Mancini's Manchester City team were dealt a stunning defeat at the rebuilt stadium by Wigan Athletic in the 2013 FA Cup final, with the Italian sacked days later.

He has known magical moments too, delivering City's first trophy for 35 years in the 2011 FA Cup final with a 1-0 win over Stoke City. The semi-final win over Manchester United that year, also at Wembley, was perhaps far more important in terms of the shift of power in English football.

And then Wembley has served Italy well in this tournament, the tense win over Austria, the penalty shoot-out victory over Spain in the semi-finals, and now this latest spot-kicks success.

Chiellini, the oldest player to start as captain in a European Championship final at 36 years and 331 days, as intimidating as a centre-back can be, has been a rollicking thorn in the side of the opposition.

And after all those Scudetto triumphs in the nine-in-a-row Juventus side, Chiellini is a champion with Italy. An outlaw legitimised by his nation's finest footballing hour in many a year.

A golden age deserves a Golden Slam, and who would bet against Novak Djokovic achieving that now?

This extraordinary Serbian has chased down Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the grand slam race, joining them on 20 majors as he became the first $150million man in tennis.

When he raced up to the players' box and butted heads out of joy with Goran Ivanisevic, his coach, Djokovic was living out another magnificent moment in a career jammed with them.

This is now three successive Wimbledon titles and six in all at the All England Club for Djokovic.

More than that though, he is the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the first three grand slams of a season, and the Olympic Games and US Open are still to come.

Steffi Graf is the only player in tennis history to have won all four majors and an Olympic gold in the same year, the great German doing so in 1988. Graf could soon have company in the record books, because Djokovic looks unstoppable.

When Matteo Berrettini snatched the opening set here on a tie-break, there were omens that said it would be the Italian's day. The grand slam final newcomer had a 22-0 winning record from the times when he previously won the first set in grass-court matches.

Djokovic had other ideas.

The 34-year-old is a case study in triumphant self-improvement, forever seeking ways to bolster his chances of winning, whether it be veganism, meditation or relentless hard yakka on the training court.

He wound up many with his views on vaccinations, and triggered others, including Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray, last August by fronting a new Professional Tennis Players Association at a time when the sport's existing off-court leaders were battling to cope amid the pandemic.

And he will never be as loved on Centre Court as Federer, Nadal and Murray, those other members of the Big Four. It's something he is coming to terms with.

"He means well but sometimes he doesn't come across," said Boris Becker on the BBC.

But what Djokovic does on court remains wondrous and his achievements are reaching new heights.

In grand slam terms, it is now a three-man crowd on 20 titles. Tennis can throw up surprises, but Djokovic is a firm favourite to break away and finish alone on top of the pile.

"It means none of us will stop, that's what it means," Djokovic said, as he reflected on matching his great rivals. "They're legends of our sport and they are the two most important players that I ever faced in my career. They are the reason where I am today.

"They helped me realise what I need to do to get stronger mentally, physically and tactically."

Federer could yet decide the time has come to quit, perhaps even before the US Open comes around, while Nadal, when he returns from his mid-season hiatus, may rise to the challenge in New York.

Yet Djokovic made his intentions quite clear when asked about the prospect of sealing a clean sweep of 2021's biggest titles at Flushing Meadows.

"I could defijnitely envision that happening," he said. "I'm hoping I'm going to give it a shot. "I'm in great form, I'm obviously playing well, and playing my best tennis at grand slams is the highest priority I have at this stage of my career, so let's keep it going."

Twenty years ago, wild card Ivanisevic won this title behind some of the greatest serving ever witnessed.

Against Berrettini and throughout Wimbledon, Djokovic demonstrated how much that shot has become such a vital play for him too.

Djokovic came into this title match with the best percentage record of first-serve points won in the tournament (85 per cent). Berrettini had served the most aces, but Djokovic sat a healthy third on that list too.

Like Cristiano Ronaldo in football, Djokovic has found new ways to prolong his stay at the top of his profession, and Ivanisevic has had a big part to play in that over the past two years.

Djokovic had 209 aces from 30 matches this year before launching into his Wimbledon mission, and he has added 68 in seven matches over this fortnight.

That represents a big step-up from where he was five years ago, when in a year that saw him win the Australian and French Opens and reach the US Open final he served a modest 276 aces in 72 matches. He has gone from serving close to four aces a match to seven. And while he will never launches aces in the manner of an Ivanisevic, he is still finding ways to develop his game.

Ronaldo has become increasingly a penalty area predator rather than a player who causes chaos across the football pitch. From the 2008-09 season to the 2013-14 campaign, Ronaldo scored at least eight goals per season from outside the 18-yard box, but over the past four seasons the most he has managed has been three.

Where once many of his goals came from fast breaks out of defence, now those are collectors' items.

The greatest find a way to sustain greatness and Djokovic is similarly working on building up the weaponry that allows him to extend his career well into his mid-thirties.

He won 79 per cent of first-serve points against Berrettini, who had a success rate of 76 per cent. And although he was out-aced 16-5 on this occasion, it was Djokovic's consistency that won out.

His athleticism remains astonishing. Trailing 3-2 in the fourth set, Djokovic dashed from the baseline to the net to track down a drop shot that would have beaten most, but he clipped the ball across court for a winner that even had Berrettini smiling.

The game was not yet up, but in essence it was. How do you beat this guy?

Djokovic now owns a 20-10 win-loss record in grand slam finals. Only Federer, who has reached 31 of those matches, has played in more.

Djokovic has won seven of the past eight slam finals he has contested. He has triumphed in six of his seven Wimbledon finals – the exception being his 2013 loss to Murray.

Tokyo awaits now, and then New York.

All that prize-money, all that he has achieved already, and Djokovic remains ravenous for more.

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