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

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

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

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

What a hopeless feeling that must have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover, Paul's teams simply win.

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

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

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

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

Belgium and the Netherlands joined Italy in booking their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 with victories over Denmark and Austria respectively.

The world's top-ranked side Belgium had to bounce back from a goal down to beat an inspired Denmark, with both teams paying tribute to Christian Eriksen after 10 minutes as the midfielder continues his recovery from a cardiac arrest.

Roberto Martinez's side need a point in their final Group B match to make certain of top spot, but the Netherlands are already through as Group C winners after seeing off Austria.

Ukraine also picked up all three points against North Macedonia in Thursday's action – just their second-ever victory at the European Championships.

Using Opta data, we take a look at some of the best facts from across the day's action.

Ukraine 2-1 North Macedonia: Shevchenko's men end losing Euros streak

Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk were on target for the second match running to end Ukraine's six-game losing streak at the European Championships.

With Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk's first-half goals, Ukraine became the first nation to have the same two players score in their first two games at a single Euros.

Ezgjan Alioski pulled one back at the second attempt after his penalty was saved, making it two goals in three games – as many as in his previous 17 for North Macedonia.

His penalty was given after a foul on Goran Pandev, who – at at 37 years and 325 days – is the oldest player to win a spot-kick in the Euros since data was first recorded in 1980.

Ruslan Malinovskyi failed to convert from 12 yards late on in a game which saw both sides win a penalty in the competition for the first time since England v France in 2004.

It means four of the six penalties taken at Euro 2020 have not been converted. The last tournament with more was Euro 2000 (five).

Denmark 1-2 Belgium: Red Devils bounce back from early setback

Belgium showed why they are ranked number one in the world as they recovered from an early setback to make it 11 wins from their last 12 group games at major competitions.

However, they had to do things the hard way after Yussuf Poulsen struck early on in Copenhagen.

Poulsen opened the scoring after 99 seconds – the second-earliest goal ever in the tournament, behind only Dmitry Kirichenko for Russia against Greece in 2004 (65 seconds).

The one shot on target Belgium managed in the first half came via Dries Mertens, who was earning his 100th cap for his country – the fifth Belgian to reach that landmark.

But the half-time introduction of Kevin De Bruyne for Mertens transformed the Red Devils, the playmaker setting up Thorgan Hazard's leveller and then drilling in the winner.

De Bruyne's fantastic strike was teed up by Eden Hazard, who joins the Manchester City star as the two European players to assist a goal at each of the last four major tournaments.

Belgium survived a nervy finish as they won their first two European Championship matches for the first time, while Denmark have lost their first two for the first time since 2000.

Netherlands 2-0 Austria: Faultless Oranje ease through

The Netherlands followed up their opening-game win against Ukraine with a routine victory against Austria in Amsterdam.

It is the third time the Oranje have won their opening two Euros matches, having previously done so in 2000 and 2008, when they exited the competition at the semi-final and quarter-final stage respectively.

Frank de Boer's men are now unbeaten in their last nine matches at major tournaments, which is the longest run by a European nation since Portugal went 12 without defeat between 2014 and 2018.

Memphis Depay opened the scoring for the Netherlands from the penalty spot, the Lyon forward's eighth goal for his country since De Boer took charge last September, with only Belgium's Romelu Lukaku scoring more (10) across all competitions for a European side over that period.

Denzel Dumfries added the second goal and is just the second Netherlands player to net in his first two appearances at the Euros after Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2004, this after the right-back failed to score in his first 19 senior caps.

One of the unsung stars for the hosts was Dumfries' fellow defender Matthijs de Ligt, who completed 100 per cent of his 40 passes – a record for a Netherlands player in a European Championship match since records began in 1980.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arjen Robben - Groningen

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

Juan Roman Riquelme - Argentinos Juniors

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

Dirk Kuyt - Quick Boys

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

Rafael Marquez - Atlas

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

Juan Pablo Angel - Atletico Nacional

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

Henrik Larsson - Hogaborgs

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

Carlos Tevez - Boca Juniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The biggest trouble with Celtic is trying to keep hold of Ange. In three or four years, you're going to have the same situation. He has won multiple titles and he will be trying to get a move to England or one of the big leagues. That is his pathway."

Ange Postecoglou is cut from the same cloth as Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri – an emphasis on a high-octane style of attacking football, with an unrelenting belief in their philosophy.

But his appointment as Celtic manager has caused a stir in Scotland. Fans have questioned his ability and credibility to make the step from Asian to European football.

Postecoglou has been tasked with leading an embattled Celtic back to the Scottish summit after the Bhoys were dethroned by bitter rivals Rangers in 2020-21.

There are some parallels to legendary manager Arsene Wenger. Like Postecoglou, the Frenchman had history in Japan, having spent a year with Nagoya Grampus before being brought to the UK by Arsenal in 1996.

Social media was not around at the time of Wenger's Gunners arrival, though it would be safe to assume he would have been subjected to similar criticism from a supporter base desperate to wrestle the trophy back to Celtic Park.

Those questioning Postecoglou's pedigree should look no further than his CV – the most decorated coach in Australian football history, having also transcended and changed the landscape of the sport Down Under.

From South Melbourne to Australia and Japan, Postecoglou has won it all – a pair of National Soccer League championships, back-to-back A-League titles, a record 36-match unbeaten streak at Brisbane Roar, plus a ground-breaking 2015 Asian Cup triumph with the Socceroos and a J1 League crown with Yokohama F.Marinos, while silencing his doubters.

A former Australia international, Postecoglou – who delivered two NSL trophies within three years of his tenure in charge of boyhood club South Melbourne – truly announced himself at the helm of 'Roarcelona'.

After a brief and unsuccessful stint in Greece in 2008, followed by a short spell in the semi-professional state league in Victoria which resulted in relegation, Postecoglou landed in Brisbane the following year.

Postecoglou oversaw a rebuild and after asking to be judged a year from the time he replaced ex-Socceroos boss Frank Farina, his project culminated in the development of arguably the greatest footballing side in the history of Australian football.

Playing an entertaining and possession-based brand of football, the Roar won the championship in 2010-11 and successfully defended their trophy the following season amid a 36-game unbeaten streak – an all-time Australian football code record for the longest undefeated run, surpassing rugby league outfit Eastern Suburbs' record set 74 years prior.

Postecoglou also coached Melbourne Victory before his Australia appointment in 2013. In the A-League, his teams scored 1.7 goals per game; only one head coach (minimum 30 games) has a higher average in the competition's history (Graham Arnold - 1.8).

The Greek-born boss left Australia's domestic competition with a 51 per cent win percentage as head coach – the joint-fifth best of any manager in the competition's history.

Erik Paartalu was one of Postecoglou's first signings as Roar coach and the ex-Australia international told Stats Perform: "He will be absolutely buzzing. He isn't the type to take a job on lightly. He would've researched beforehand. I'm sure he's probably been offered jobs of this calibre before but wasn't ready.

"Ange has always been ambitious. This guy just doesn't stop. Any other Australian coach that would've won the J.League would've just stopped there and chilled out in Asia. The guy is in his mid-50s. He would've researched this whole situation at Celtic, who is leaving and who is coming, who can I get in? I know he's already thought about his next step from here."

"With Ange, it was the tactical side of it where he explained and broke things down so easily on the pitch, whether that be playing 11-v-seven, so you would have a huge overload and confidence in possession. Or if it was in a video session, always pointing out the good things about people," said Paartalu as he reflected on his Roar days. "He always pumped up the smaller details of the team. His way to getting us to feel, you just felt so confident."

Postecoglou, like Manchester City's Guardiola and former Chelsea and Juventus boss Sarri, pushes the boundaries. Firmly set in his belief of how football should be played, Postecoglou's approach never waivers and success follows the 55-year-old in his pursuit of excellence.

"That's what we loved about him," Postecoglou said. "We went on that unbeaten streak and then lost five in a row. Never even mentioned getting close to the record. It was just like 'if we play the way we play, we'll wipe this team off the park'.

"In the first grand final [2011 against Central Coast Mariners], the goal I scored in the last couple of seconds [of extra time, 120th minute to force penalties after 2-2 draw], it was the build-up before that showed everything that we're about. [Michael] Theo had the ball and could've gone long, but he throws it to [Massimo] Murdocca and we build up from the back and get a corner. That was so typical of the way he wanted us to play. Even in training, it was like, 'don't put the ball above waist height or in the air'. If you did that, you had to give the ball to the other team. So we were drilled into knowing short passes, through lines, everyone in the right position, movement off the ball, entry points on the edge of the box, guys overlapping, 4-3-3 and don't cross the ball in if you're not sure. That was his blueprint. We were going to play his way all the way to the death. When we lost five in a row, he never got angry. He was so clear, saying keep doing it, be confident, keeping passing the ball.

"He definitely improves players' game intelligence when they work under him. You feel 10-feet tall and just know your job inside and out because of the way he prepares you."

Handpicked to introduce style and substance to the Socceroos in 2013, Postecoglou led Australia at the 2014 World Cup. Undaunted by the 'Group of Death', Australia left Brazil emptyhanded, but took it to Chile, the Netherlands and holders Spain in stunning fashion.

Postecoglou delivered a first Asian Cup to Australia in 2015, while he secured qualification for the 2018 World Cup before stepping down prior to the Russian showpiece.

The Socceroos scored 86 goals in A-Internationals under Postecoglou – the second most they have scored under any manager since the beginning of 1965 (Frank Farina - 197). Australia won 22 games during his tenure; only two managers have won more since the beginning of 1965 (Frank Farina - 34 and Holger Osieck - 23).

Postecoglou eventually landed at F.Marinos – part of the City Football Group – in 2018.

Physical performance coach Gregory King was part of the team Postecoglou put together to accompany him on his journey in Japan, where he ended F.Marinos' 15-year wait for league glory in 2019.

Postecoglou left F.Marinos with the highest winning percentage (49.2 – 58 victories in 118 games) in the history of the club. Since joining the Yokohama club, only two managers have a better winning percentage than Postecoglou; Toru Oniki (65) and Go Oiwa (50) from a minimum of 10 games.

Despite the language barrier, F.Marinos bought into the Postecoglou way. Since 2018, the team ranked first for passing accuracy (86.5) and possession (63.2), while they were second for goals per game (1.9), expected goals per game (1.8), shots per game (15.2), shots on target per game (5.3), shot conversion rate (12.6), shooting accuracy (47.2), chances created per game (11.4), passes per game (619.4), passing accuracy in opposition half (82.4), big chance total per game (2.4), big chance created per game (1.8) and big chance scored per game (1.1).

"He definitely has a really good understanding from conditioning, strength and sport-science point of view," King told Stats Perform. "His attention to detail is optimal. You know you can't pull the wool over his eyes. He knows everything going on within his team but he lets you run your own department. He gives you a license to achieve the objectives of the team in your own way."

During F.Marinos' triumphant season in 2019, Postecoglou's men covered the greatest distance in the J1 League (116.48), ahead of Oita Trinita (114.79km). They also tallied the most total sprints with 191, more than FC Tokyo (174).

As Postecoglou prepares to take pre-season training with Celtic, King said: "They're definitely in for a lot of hard work. Really quality football sessions based around the principles of how he wants to play. But, there's no holding back in terms of intensity.

"I think they will enjoy the sessions, however they will be pushed physically. The football we played in Yokohama was extremely high intensity. The physical qualities have to be at their peak. We expected our best players to play regularly, so to be able to do that, the players have to have a lot of good hard work behind them and to be able to cope with it."

"I'd be very surprised if he wasn't looking closely at injury history, how many games they've been able to play over the past seasons in terms of durability. Speed is obviously a massive factor from the forwards and also the centre-backs being able to play really aggressive and a high line. You can only do so much when you have them. We feel we can improve them all physically but from a conditioning point of view, you have to recruit players strong in those areas already to be able to play the way we did."

It was all looking rather good for Hungary. The Magyars, who held Portugal to gripping 3-3 draw five years ago, looked to be doing something similar in their Euro 2020 opener. Just without the goals.

But Portugal, inspired by a hint of fortune, exploded into life and Cristiano Ronaldo took centre stage to show the doubters just how decisive he can be.

Fernando Santos' men sealed a 3-0 win with all of their goals coming from the 84th minute onwards, becoming the first side in European Championship history to net three times in the final 10 minutes of a game.

Raphael Guerreiro got things started, his effort taking a massive deflection of Willi Orban to finally end the resistance of Hungary, who themselves had a goal disallowed for offside only a few minutes earlier, and then Ronaldo took over.

With lively substitute Rafa Silva sent tumbling in the box by Orban, whose evening quickly descended into farce, Ronaldo stepped up to smashed the penalty beyond Peter Gulacsi in the Hungary goal.

He then rounded off a brilliant passing move with some outrageous play before tucking in Portugal's third – but that was just the tip of the iceberg on what was a momentous night for the Selecao's greatest ever player.

 

From frustration to flawless

Ronaldo flapped his arms around in dismay. Yes, you can picture it – you've seen it countless times before.

The game was just five minutes old when the Juventus superstar was screaming at Diogo Jota, who had opted for a 20-yard shot instead of slipping Ronaldo – in masses of space to his left – into the penalty area.

Given Ronaldo almost doubled up as Fernando Santos' assistant after being injured in the 2016 final, you had to wonder whether he would demand Jota be withdrawn immediately.

As it was, Jota stayed on and his presence again seemed a distraction just before half-time when he dangled a leg near Bruno Fernandes' smashed delivery, with Ronaldo only able to hammer over from a few yards out.

He didn't have another shot until the 87th minute – that's how quiet he was generally kept by Hungary's defence – but that next effort proved a historic one. As Ronaldo confidently drove his penalty past Gulacsi, he surpassed Michel Platini as the all-time leading scorer in the European Championship with 10 goals.

 

While the Frenchman got all nine of his in one tournament, Euro '84, and in just five games, Ronaldo has needed a little longer – this was his 22nd appearance.

But if reaching such a milestone with a penalty (we see you, users of the 'Penaldo' nickname...) wasn't going to be satisfying enough, he duly extended his new record with a lovely goal.

Ronaldo exchanged a glorious one-two with Rafa Silva, skilfully rounded Gulacsi and then tapped home – it was the kind of goal that could draw a hearty chuckle from anyone, so good was the build-up and subsequent composure from the veteran forward.

All 11 of his Euros goals have been from inside the box, though the record-breaker was actually his first successful penalty. His brace here means he now has four goals in the final 15 minutes of games, more than in any other period of matches.

His second goal also took a record from Andriy Shevchenko, as it made Ronaldo the oldest player to score twice in a Euros match.

 

More records on the way?

Don't expect this to be the last we hear from Ronaldo at this tournament.

More historic achievements and records are just a matter of a few goals away, and given his ruthless impact at the end on Tuesday, few would bet against him picking up where he left off next time.

Granted, Germany and France should prove sterner opposition than Hungary, but a player close to such records can be fancied to deliver the good against anyone.

His next landmark in sight is Miroslav Klose's haul of 19 in the World Cup and Euros – no European player has netted more at those tournaments, and Ronaldo is now just one behind him thanks to this brace.

But more importantly than that is Ali Daei's world record international haul of 109.

With two here, Ronaldo is now just three behind the former Iran striker, whose record looked insurmountable after his retirement in 2006.

It's only really been since he turned 30 that Ronaldo has looked likely to reach or surpass Daei. After all, his record since the start of 2016 for Portugal is 51 goals in 53 matches.

Perhaps we should have learned our lesson from watching Ronaldo over the years, however.. No goalscoring milestone is beyond him, it seems.

From chump to champ, bonehead to figurehead. What a difference a year makes.

On this weekend in 2020, Novak Djokovic was partying like it was, well, 2019, after the first leg of the Adria Tour, limbo-dancing in a Belgrade cabaret club, mask-free, carefree, some might say cluelessly.

Within days, he had tested positive for COVID-19, as had Djokovic's wife Jelena, along with Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Goran Ivanisevic. The tournament that Djokovic had organised was in disarray and plans to take it to five Balkan cities were abandoned when the second event in Zadar was called off before its final.

Nick Kyrgios, incredulous at home in Australia, called it a "boneheaded" decision to play the events, and Djokovic made a grovelling apology, saying he was "so deeply sorry" for the harm that had been caused.

The main tennis tours had ground to a necessary halt, but Djokovic could not resist moving, cavorting.

He might feel like hitting up a Parisian nightclub after Sunday's breathtaking comeback against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open final, the first time he has come from two sets down to win a grand slam final, but even if they were open, Djokovic has probably learnt his lesson. He taught Tsitsipas a thing or two in this Roland Garros epic, too, primarily this: however much a grand slam title match feels in your control, these major finals are not like any you have played before.

So now Djokovic has 19 major titles, one behind all-time leaders Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal heading into Wimbledon in two weeks' time. He is the first man in the Open Era to win two or more titles at each of the four grand slams.

When Tsitsipas followed a thrilling opening set here by breezing through the second against the world number one, establishing a two-set cushion, his maiden slam final was going as well as he could possibly have hoped. His serve was potent, his biggest shots were landing in, and he had the measure of Djokovic's delivery: the Serbian won just 35 per cent of points on his second serve over those opening two sets.

Nine winners to just two unforced errors from Tsitsipas in that second set showed who was in charge. Djokovic had taken an early fall in the match: was that a factor?

Yet in the fourth game of the third set, Djokovic landed a punch so loaded that it caused Tsitsipas to wobble for the next hour, saving three game points on the Greek's serve before snatching the break at his own fourth opportunity.

The 11-minute game evoked memories of how Djokovic took down Nadal in their magnificent semi-final, Tsitsipas flinging a despairing backhand just wide to slide 3-1 behind, his resistance broken, his momentum gone.

Djokovic has suffered in the past following marathon grand slam semi-finals, including in Paris last October when he battled past Tsitsipas in five and then won just seven games against Nadal.

Friday's four hours and 11 minutes of hard battle against Nadal was as draining as such matches come, so from where had Djokovic found this renewed energy? Tsitsipas, seeing the title slip away, needed a big sip from whatever well from which the Serbian was drinking.

An astonishing angled drop shot from Djokovic in the third game of the decider showed his scrambling, sprinting energy was only heightening in its intensity, and he backed up that effort with a break moments later.

Tsitsipas had largely rediscovered his game, but the prospect of a pair of first-time singles champions at Roland Garros, for the first time since the Gaston Gaudio-Anastasia Myskina double in 2004, was ebbing away. It was soon all over.

After the Adria Tour howler and his US Open disqualification clanger, Djokovic began his 2021 season on a positive note with a ninth Australian Open title. Now he has a second French Open, and we can seriously start to think about a calendar year sweep of the grand slams. He has won seven of his majors since turning 30, the most by anyone in the Open Era, and it feels safe to say there are more to come.

Twelve months ago, it was a case of 'how low can you go?' as Djokovic dipped under that limbo pole.

Suddenly we can start to ask: are there no limits to the heights this remarkable man might scale?

A look to the sky, a wide smile, and a kiss. I did it, Jana. We did it.

Barbora Krejcikova is a grand slam singles champion, barely eight months after she first cracked the world's top 100, and the first instinct is to suggest this will be a one-off.

Ladies and gentlemen, a pandemic champion, an asterisk champion.

Jana Novotna, her former coach and mentor, who died in November 2017, won just one singles slam too, but she was a long-time force in the women's game. Indeed, Krejcikova left no doubt about her influence on Saturday's success.

But for those doubting Krejcikova's credentials, a little pause for thought.

Novotna won 14 of her 16 grand slam doubles titles before landing that elusive singles crown in 1998 at Wimbledon, and Krejcikova landed five doubles majors ahead of her own remarkable singles breakthrough.

Martina Navratilova, who handed Krejcikova the trophy, also won doubles titles at the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open before she ever landed a singles major.

This is, to some extent, a well-worn path by Czech players. So there is more nuance here. And stuff first instincts. Perhaps, like Novotna and Navratilova before her, this Czech player might he here to stay at the highest level.

The 25-year-old from Brno has joined the ranks of those few champions who have won grand slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles, and she will be up to 15th in the WTA rankings on Monday.

Krejcikova might be back at number one in the doubles rankings too, as she and partner Katerina Siniakova have a Roland Garros final on Sunday against Iga Swiatek – last year's singles champion – and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Win that, and Krejcikova will be on top of the world once more in the discipline where she has honed the tools that brought her glory at Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova's expense in what proved a thoroughly absorbing singles final.

The slices, the drop shots, the lobs and the net approaches, and the double-handed backhand that flits between being weapon and weakness: all those shots were honed in doubles, mostly alongside Siniakova.

Krejcikova spoke at the trophy presentation of her giddy amazement that Justine Henin, the four-time French Open winner, knew who she was when they bumped into each other behind the scenes in Paris.

Navratilova chipped in.

"In 2014, when you found out Jana moved back to Brno, you had the courage to go knock on her door and ask her for help. What gave you that courage?" asked the player who won 59 majors, including 18 singles slams.

Krejcikova's reply? "My mum."

Bravo Mrs Krejcikova.

Krejcikova has spoken often about Novotna but here she opened up to explain how she had spent so much time with the great champion before her death.

Novotna had kept news of her cancer out of the public consciousness, but Krejcikova not only knew, she felt she owed her driving force to stay by her side throughout the illness.

"I was going through a really hard time when Jana was passing away," Krejcikova told the crowd.

"I was most of the time with her and I really wanted to experience this, because I thought this was going to make me really strong.

"And pretty much her last words were just, 'Enjoy and just try to win a grand slam'.

"I know that from somewhere she's looking after me and all of this, this two weeks, is pretty much because she's looking after me from up there.

"I just want to thank her. It was amazing I had a chance to meet her and she was such an inspiration to me. I just really miss her. I hope she's happy right now. I'm extremely happy."

Three mixed doubles titles – one with Nikola Mektic and two with Rajeev Ram – plus two women's doubles with Siniakova, and now a singles triumph.

Except we know Krejcikova does not feel alone on the court. She senses Novotna's guiding hand. This is a doubles partnership dressed up as a singles player.

Novotna, weeks after winning Wimbledon, her destiny ever since she wept on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after losing to Steffi Graf in the 1993 final, shed some light on what it meant for her.

"I felt enormous relief and I felt that now it seems like this would be a new beginning for me," Novotna said.

This is a new beginning for Krejcikova too. Never a factor in singles previously, she has properly arrived now. Like you always had to with Novotna, watch out for her at Wimbledon.

Before every major tournament, eyes are trained on the next generation of stars set to take the football world by storm.

This year's rescheduled Copa America is no different with the likes of Ecuador midfielder Moises Caicedo, Brazil right-back Emerson Royal and Colombia forward Jaminton Campaz on the scene.

But there is still no changing of the guard as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, among others, continue to dominate on the international stage.

Stats Perform looks at six players above the age of 30 and their eye-catching numbers heading into the 47th edition of the Copa America.

 

Lionel Messi, 33, Argentina

Messi enters the showpiece South American tournament on the back of another impressive club campaign. With 30 league goals in 2020-21, Barcelona superstar Messi has now recorded 25-plus goals in each his past 12 league seasons. Craving senior international silverware with La Albiceleste following runners-up appearances at the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016 and the World Cup in 2014, Messi scored 11 LaLiga goals direct following a ball carry last season – the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues. Following a third-placed finish in 2019, Messi – the country's all-time leading scorer with 72 goals, while only Javier Mascherano (147) has earned more caps than the six-time Ballon d'Or winner (144) – will be hoping this year's tournament delivers that much-coveted international prize. Argentina are in Group A alongside matchday one opponents Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Luis Suarez, 34, Uruguay

Suarez upstaged close friend Messi in 2020-21 after swapping Barca for Atletico Madrid. Having been forced out of Camp Nou amid concerns his best years were behind him, veteran forward Suarez found vindication and the ultimate revenge by leading to Atletico Madrid to LaLiga glory. His 21 goals were worth 21 points last season – the most of any player in the competition. Since 2011-12, only Messi (492) and Cristiano Ronaldo (411) have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top-five leagues than Suarez (325 – 233 goals and 92 assists). Uruguay's all-time leading goalscorer (63), Suarez is far from a spent force as Oscar Tabarez's side – who are scheduled to open their campaign against Argentina – fight to win a first Copa America crown since 2011. Suarez has been directly involved in nine goals in 10 games at the Copa America (six goals and three assists).

Edinson Cavani, 34, Uruguay

Cavani and Suarez are the face of a generation that delivered the 2011 title, finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup and reached the quarter-finals at Russia 2018. Cavani joined Manchester United on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain at the beginning of 2020-21 and made an immediate impact at Old Trafford, finishing the season with 10 Premier League goals and 17 across all competitions – his minutes per goal ratio both in the Premier League and in all competitions the best among his team-mates (137 and 128). In the Europa League final loss to Villarreal, Cavani became just the third player aged 34 or above to score in a major European decider for an English club, after Gary McAllister (36) for Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final against Deportivo Alaves in 2000-01 and Didier Drogba (34) for Chelsea in the Champions League final versus Bayern Munich in 2011-12. Only Suarez has scored more goals for Uruguay than Cavani (51 in 118 appearances), who earned a new deal in Manchester.

Alexis Sanchez, 32, Chile

Sanchez's club career had been on a steep decline since he left Arsenal for Premier League rivals United in 2018. But the Chile star has enjoyed success at Inter. Although a squad player under former Nerazzurri coach Antonio Conte, Sanchez – who joined Inter permanently last year – scored seven goals and supplied five assists in just 12 starts last term. An option in place of regular starting duo Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, Sanchez ranked better in shooting accuracy excluding blocks (69.6 per cent), passing accuracy (80.0), passing accuracy ending in the final third (73.5) and dribbled success rate (60.0) than both men. His big chance conversion rate (50.0) was only second to Lukaku, likewise his shot conversion rate (24.1). At international level, there is no disputing his role for Chile after leading La Roja to Copa America success in 2015 and 2016. Chile's most capped player (138) and leading goalscorer (46), Sanchez will once again carry the weight of his country this month.

Marcelo Martins, 33, Bolivia

The heart and soul of a nation? Look no further than Martins. The iconic forward stands alone as Bolivia's record holder for goals (25 in 83 appearances). Of those, 18 have come in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, also making Martins Bolivia's top scorer in that competition. Currently playing his football for Cruzeiro in Brazil, Martins scored three goals in the two qualifiers immediately prior to the Copa America, helping his side to earn four points. With their talisman leading the line, Bolivia – who won their only Copa America title on home soil in 1963 and lost the final when they hosted again in 1997 – are seeking to advance from the group stage for the first time since 2015. They start against Paraguay.

Paolo Guerrero, 37, Peru

Like Martins in Bolivia, Guerrero epitomises Peruvian football. The success of Peru has long been linked to the striker, who is in the history books for the most goals (38) for La Blanquirroja. Having debuted in 2004, this will be the captain's sixth Copa America appearance, having guided two-time winners Peru to third place in the 2011 and 2015 editions before securing a runners-up medal in 2019 – finishing as top scorer in all three of those tournaments. Guerrero is now the leading Copa America scorer in among active players (14) and only three shy of the all-time record (Norberto Mendez and Zizinho, both 17). While in the twilight of his career, Ricardo Gareca and Peru – who will come up against Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela – will be leaning on his experience across the border in Brazil.

Thiago Silva, 36, Brazil

There were some doubts about Silva's suitability to the Premier League when he saw out his PSG contract and opted to test himself with Chelsea. But the star centre-back did not look out of place in England, despite his advancing years, ending the campaign as a Champions League winner for the first time in his career. In all competitions in 2020-21, Silva led Chelsea in passing accuracy (93.0 per cent). He became Chelsea's oldest player (36 years and 249 days) to appear in a major European final, overtaking Claude Makelele against United in the 2008 Champions League decider (35 years and 93 days) as the Blues trumped Manchester City in Porto. The Selecao captain now turns his attention to Brazil's bid to claim back-to-back Copa America trophies. They have won five of the past nine.

It was hard to think of a way to top the spine-tingling gravitas of Andrea Bocelli performing Nessun Dorma on a balmy Rome evening.

The organisers of Euro 2020 clearly felt it best not to try not to compete, so sent the matchball for Italy's 3-0 win over Turkey out to the Stadio Olimpico pitch via a remote-control car.

The restricted 16,000-crowd cheered the presence of UEFA's questionable accessory – the sort of thing a "fun" uncle might stick under the tree at Christmas – but then they gave full-throated appreciation to everything. After a 12-month delay and unimaginable heartache in the wider world, Euro 2020 was here.

Especially during those dark early months of the coronavirus pandemic when sport stopped, we all took solace in nostalgia and re-runs of great deeds from the past. The 25th anniversary of Euro 96 resonates particularly loudly in England as Gareth Southgate's Three Lions prepare to start their campaign against Croatia on Sunday.

In Italy, and also in the wider world's romantic view of Italian football, Italia 90 still frames an era. Yes, they reached the 1994 World Cup final and won their fourth world title in 2006, but for supporters of a certain generation, the Azzurri are indelibly linked to that fondly remembered World Cup on home soil.

Italy won all five of their games at the Stadio Olimpico in the 1990 World Cup before suffering semi-final heartbreak against Argentina on Diego Maradona's Stadio San Paolo stomping ground in Naples.

This was the beginning of a period when the Italian game reigned supreme. Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan side were in their pomp and the cream of global talent made for the glamour and riches of Serie A.

Mancini's revolution

It is safe to say Roberto Mancini inherited a fairly different situation in 2018. Italy had failed to qualify for Russia 2018. Far from ruling the world, this was simply the end of the world for a proud footballing nation.

In the former Inter and Manchester City boss, though, they happened upon the ideal figure to lead a redemption tale. A lavishly gifted forward during his playing days at Sampdoria and Lazio, Mancini's international career was one of frustration and fallouts. He spent most of Italia 90 as an unused substitute, having had the misfortune of sharing an era with the masterful Roberto Baggio.

Although such echoes of the past will always sound when Italy play on the biggest stages, Mancini has propelled a team injected with youthful exuberance into the modern era, playing high-tempo, high-pressing football – all slickness and angles in possession.

They had to look for the most acute pockets during a first half of one-way traffic against a packed defence. Turkey, tipped by many as dark horses before the tournament, turned up as the stable doors.

 

By the interval it remained bolted, despite Italy managing 14 shots to their opponents' zero. Turkey striker Burak Yilmaz, the talismanic hero of Lille's Ligue 1 title success was reduced to seven touches in the opening 45 minutes and a comedic dive that brought something approaching a look of pity from Giorgio Chiellini.

Great centre-backs of previous Italian vintages have been the foundation stone, but Mancini's Azzurri are built on cute midfielders who treasure the ball. Jorginho (76 of 81 passes completed) was at his metronomic best as Nicolo Barella (56 passes in the Turkey half second only to Jorginho's 59) and Manuel Locatelli probed for openings.

They combined to establish a relentless supply line to Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne. Either side of striker Ciro Immobile, the two wide attackers chipped away at the red wall until it came crashing down just before the hour when fatigue took hold of Senol Gunes' painfully unambitious side – perhaps not the last time we will see such an approach in a tournament that rewards third-place finishers in the group stage.

Azzurri winging it

Left-back Umut Meras took a tired stumble when Berardi – whose five chances created were more than any other Italy player – ran at him again in the 53rd minute. The Sassuolo winger's uncompromising thump across the goalmouth thudded into Merih Demiral and in. OWNGOLAZO! It almost looked as silly as a ball on a remote-control car.

Immobile was the intended recipient of Berardi's work but Lazio's master poacher was not about to be denied in his house, snaffling the rebound from Leonardo Spinazzola's shot to score in a third consecutive Italy appearance. His first goal in a major tournament was one very much out of the Salvatore Schillaci handbook.

 

Of course, it would not be a vintage Italy performance without the number 10 coming to the party. Insigne collected Immobile's pass after a poor clearance from bedraggled Turkey goalkeeper Ugurcan Cakir to find a crisp finish and the goal his shimmering efforts deserved.

If a pre-match serenade from Bocelli laid it on thick, how about a last-ditch, fist-pumping tackle from an Italy centre-back? Naturally, Chiellini found one of those to thwart Yilmaz in stoppage time, revelling in his work and another clean sheet earned.

But Mancini's Azzurri do not need to linger on a celebrated past. This was an authoritative statement from a team for the here and now.

At long last, after a 12-month delay and then so much uncertainty over the past few weeks, Copa America will start this weekend.

While the fact it is going ahead remains a bone of contention, with even Brazil players suggesting they are reluctantly playing it, Copa America is a tournament that rarely disappoints in terms of entertainment.

A bevvy of world-renowned stars such as Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi will be hoping to make the difference.

There will also be some less-familiar faces hoping to either establish themselves or introduce their names to a wider audience.

Stats Perform has identified seven players worth keeping an eye on over the next month.

Rodrigo de Paul, 27, central midfielder - Argentina

Perhaps the odd one out here given his age, but De Paul is certainly one to keep tabs on. Having just enjoyed a wonderful individual campaign with Udinese, the creative midfielder is eager on a move and will surely be keen to impress.

He had a hand in 18 Serie A goals this term (nine goals, nine assists), while his xA value (expected assists) of 10.3 was the best in the division, the 1.3 differential suggesting De Paul was occasionally let down by poor finishing.

Further to that, he also attempted (191) and completed (122) more dribbles than anyone else, so Argentina will look to him to drive them forward from midfield.

Moises Caicedo, 19, central midfielder - Ecuador

Caicedo joined Brighton and Hove Albion in January to much fanfare from South American experts, who assured Seagulls fans they were getting a future superstar.

He's yet to make a senior appearance in England, with Graham Potter patient regarding his adaptation, but the Copa America could give fans a chance to see him in action.

A well-rounded, all-action midfielder, Caicedo was the teenager with the most goals (four), shots attempted (24), chances created (19), successful passes (748) and dribbles completed (23) in Ecuador's top flight in 2020, while his passing accuracy of 90.1 per cent was the highest among players to attempt 500 or more.

Emerson Royal, 22, right-back - Brazil

An impressive two-year spell at Real Betis has persuaded Barcelona to bring Emerson back to Camp Nou after a complicated three-way transfer in 2019.

He has proven himself to be both a dependable defender and a capable attacking outlet, his 10 assists over the past two seasons bettered by only one LaLiga defender (Jesus Navas, 13), while his 853 duels over the past two years is nearly 200 more than any other defender.

This paints a picture of an all-action defender who will work tirelessly up and down the right flank, and on the evidence of the past couple of years, it shouldn't take him too long to usurp Danilo as Brazil's primary option.

Yangel Herrera, 23, central midfielder - Venezuela

A long-term future for Herrera and parent club Manchester City looks unlikely, but he enjoyed a promising season with Granada in LaLiga – that coupled with a breakout tournament in Brazil could lead to promising suitors making their feelings known.

Herrera's a hard-working midfielder who made more tackle attempts (59) than any other Granada player this term, while it was a similar story with regards to duels (509) and duels won (261). Don't expect him to create much, but he's not shy about getting stuck in.

Jaminton Campaz, 21, left-winger - Colombia

Arguably the next big hope of the Colombian national team, Campaz only received his first call-up this month for the recent World Cup qualifiers. Although he did not get on the pitch, his inclusion in the squad was well-received among fans.

Colombia great Carlos Valderrama was among them as he urged the 21-year-old to grasp the opportunity in a post on his official Twitter account.

A livewire on the left flank, Colombia may look to his explosiveness and trickery should games remain tight in the latter stages.

Julio Enciso, 17, attacking midfielder - Paraguay

The youngest player at the 2021 Copa America, Enciso has already played 24 top-flight matches back home for Libertad and was briefly the youngest player to score in the Copa Libertadores this century with his goal against Jorge Wilstermann last year when still 16.

A good dribbler and not shy to take a shot, Enciso has been used almost everywhere across the front for Libertad and could be an interesting wildcard option for Paraguay.

Carlos Palacios, 20, right-winger - Chile

Earlier this year, Palacios made the jump to Brazil when he joined Internacional on loan from Union Espanola, where he had developed into one of Chile's most-promising young players as a lively winger.

While he's yet to score for his new club, he proved in Chile that he has a penchant for a spectacular goal one or two, while his regular appearances for Internacional have exposed him to a far greater standard of football.

In theory, the Milwaukee Bucks appeared to be the biggest obstacle on the Brooklyn Nets' path to an NBA championship.

To stand a chance of winning a seven-game series against the NBA’s premier trio of team-mates – Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving – you've got to be able to score points, and a whole lot of them.

Despite a recurring run of injuries that often rendered their Big Three to a Big Two – or many times a lonely One – the Nets were a remarkable 27-2 when allowing 112 or fewer points in a game during a regular season which they finished as a de facto 1A to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

The true magic number when it comes to facing Brooklyn, however, is 120, as the Nets were a pedestrian 8-13 when opponents scored above that mark. So, how many teams averaged 120 points per game this season?

Just one, as a matter of fact. That would be the Bucks.

And what team had the most games this season totalling 120 or more points? Again, the answer is Milwaukee, whose 39 games hitting the mark was six more than the next closest competitor – which, you guessed it, would be the Nets.

Well, after two games of the most anticipated series of this year's conference semifinals, Brooklyn's perceived greatest threat had offered no challenge whatsoever.

After comfortably winning Game 1, even with Harden playing a mere 43 seconds after aggravating a previous hamstring injury, the Nets unequivocally justified their status as the favourites to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy with a 125-86 Game 2 thrashing that came with Harden cheering on his fellow well-paid team-mates in street clothes.

In hindsight, those results were ones we maybe could have seen coming. Sure, the Bucks effortlessly disposed of the reigning East champion Miami Heat with a first-round sweep, but it came without their offense performing at its usually potent level.

Milwaukee shot just 32.7 per cent from three-point range for the series, well below their 38.9 per cent success rate for the season, and they had at least 15 turnovers in three of the wins. The Bucks advanced mostly on good defense, coupled with an unquestionably abysmal shooting performance from the Heat over the four games.

In the Brooklyn series, the Bucks haven't been able to hit water from a boat, going into Game 3, having shot a paltry 24.6 per cent from beyond the arc over the first two clashes.

The early stages of the series also exposed Milwaukee's greatest weakness during what was otherwise another splendid regular season under Mike Budenholzer – an inability to adequately defend the three. The Bucks permitted opponents to make 38.4 per cent of their trey attempts over the 72-game schedule, with only the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves yielding a higher percentage.

Against a locked-in team like the Nets, that can be – and has been – a recipe for disaster. The first team in league history to make 15 or more three-pointers in six straight games during a single postseason, Brooklyn have connected at an incredible 43 per cent rate from long distance so far in these playoffs, going into Thursday evening's third clash with the Bucks.

If the Nets could even come close to keeping that pace the rest of the way, that likely spells doom for the rest of the NBA. The three-point shot has been a strong indicator of success in this postseason, as teams have won at a 70 per cent clip (35-15) when recording a higher three-point percentage than their opponents and are 25-7 when hitting 15 or more triples in a game.

Moreover, teams that have shot better than 40 per cent from three-point range are 24-5 this postseason, and the five teams that lost each faced an opponent that also eclipsed the 40 per cent mark in that game.

So, assuming the Nets don't do the unthinkable and somehow lose this series, is it a fait accompli they'll represent the East in the Finals?

They did lose two of their three match-ups with the 76ers during the regular season, though it's hard to put much stock in those outcomes considering Brooklyn were without at least two of Durant, Harden and Irving in all of those games.

Philadelphia getting past the upstart Atlanta Hawks cannot be considered an absolute given either, but the Sixers will provide an interesting test provided they do get past their pesky second-round foes.

They have the lowest ratio of three-point attempts to total field-goal attempts of any of the eight remaining teams, not too surprising for an offense centred around MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and the perimeter-averse Ben Simmons. But while the Sixers generally aren't bombing away with the same frequency as those still left standing, it could be argued that outside shooting may be the single biggest factor in determining how far they ultimately go this summer.

Next to Embiid's ever-present fitness concerns, Seth Curry might just be the X-factor when it comes to determining whether the 76ers can end a 20-year Finals absence. When Curry is going well and Embiid is healthy, Philadelphia are awfully difficult to beat. And Steph's little brother is certainly doing just that right now, having averaged 24 points while shooting 61.9 per cent (13 of 19) from three-point range over his last three games.

The 76ers went 20-3 during the regular season when Curry made three or more three-pointers in a game, and they've hit the all-important 120-point mark in five of their seven playoff games thus far. If it comes to fruition, a Philly-Brooklyn match-up in the East Finals would surely be a treat.

As for the West, the Clippers could represent the most imposing roadblock to the Nets' first NBA title in franchise history – on paper, at least. No team shot above the coveted 40 per cent standard from three-point range more times during the regular season than Tyronn Lue's group, whose 42 such games were seven more than the team second on that list (again, the Nets). The Clippers also led the league in three-point percentage at 41.1 per cent.

There's no questioning the Clippers' talent and depth. Trust, however, is another matter. This is largely the same cast that famously blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in last year’s West semifinals, and they couldn't hold on to a 13-point half-time advantage in losing Tuesday's series opener to a Utah team playing without starting point guard Mike Conley.

History isn't on the Clippers' side either, as they've never advanced past the conference semis in eight previous tries.

And what about the Jazz, for that matter? Utah may not possess the Nets' overall star power and haven't displayed the same level of recent dominance as their potential Finals foes, but they did lead the league in wins this season, are capable of shooting their way out of any deficit and haven't lost a game when Donovan Mitchell has taken the court since April.

That is only a seven-game winning streak since Mitchell missed over a month with a sprained ankle, but has there been a better postseason performer than Utah's All-Star guard over the last two years?

In 12 playoff games over that period, Mitchell has averaged 34.4 points on 50.6 per cent shooting, and a 45-point masterpiece against the Clippers on Tuesday was his fourth outing with at least 44 points during that stretch.

Of course, superlative individual efforts don't always coincide with championship glory. Just ask Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

Predicting the winner of a major international tournament is a natural part of being a football fan, even if it can sometimes be something of a fool's errand – as proven by Greece and Denmark.

But considering how integral statistics are to football these days, using data could potentially give you the edge, and that's where Stats Perform comes in.

Our Artificial Intelligence team have used Opta's extensive data reserves to quantify each team's chances of winning the entire tournament.

Every match has been run through the Stats Perform Euros Prediction model to calculate the estimated probability of the outcome (win, draw or loss). This uses odds from betting markets and Stats Perform team rankings, which are based on historical and recent performances.

It takes into consideration the strength of each team's opponents as well as the difficulty of their respective paths to the final, plus the make-up of the groups and any relevant seedings heading into the knockouts.

Then, the rest of the tournament is simulated 40,000 times and analysed, providing the AI team with a percentage for each nation, showing the probability of them ultimately lifting the trophy at Wembley on July 11.

Without any further ado, let's check out the results, some of which may come as something of a surprise…

MOST-LIKELY WINNERS: France (20.5 per cent)

Well, this one probably isn't much of a shock. Anyone who has looked through the squad at Didier Deschamps' disposal has likely come to the conclusion that Les Bleus will have to implode a la the 2010 World Cup if they're to be beaten.

Most of the key players from their 2018 World Cup-winning squad are present, and now they can call upon the services of Karim Benzema again, which is no small thing.

 

Our model also gives France a 46.8 per cent chance of finish top of the so-called 'Group of Death', which also includes defending champions Portugal and a Germany side desperate for redemption after World Cup humiliation in Russia.

If France are successful, Deschamps will become the first man in history to win the World Cup and Euros as both a player and manager.

2. Belgium (15.7 per cent)

Could this be the last-chance saloon for Belgium's 'Golden Generation'? Our predictor model certainly suggests they're still in with a great chance of winning the title, with their 15.7 per cent the second highest.

They have the joint-oldest squad at the tournament (29.2 years) along with Sweden, so while they're certainly not a young team, several of their best players are right at the peak of their powers, with Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku coming into the tournament arguably in the form of their lives.

 

They looked sharp in qualifying – for what it's worth – with a 100 per cent win record and a 40-goal haul that wasn't matched by any other team, while they will be strong favourites to win their group ahead of Russia, Denmark and Finland.

3. Spain (11.3 per cent)

Now, one thing our model cannot take into consideration is a coronavirus outbreak. La Roja had to field their Under-21s for the senior side's final pre-Euros warm-up game against Lithuania – while it means nothing for their chances at the tournament, they did ease to a 4-0 win.

It remains to be seen if there are any further consequences of Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente testing positive for COVID-19, but if we assume Luis Enrique is able to rely on a squad that's more or less the selection he initially picked, they will at least be strong options to reach the latter stages.

Although perhaps not blessed with the kind of 'superstar' talent they've had at other tournaments over the past 15 years or so, they do have a highly regarded coach and beat Germany 6-0 as recently as November. Nevertheless, their disrupted build-up to the tournament could be telling when their campaign starts.

4. Germany (9.8 per cent)

Joachim Low's going to have to upset the odds if he is to enjoy one last hurrah with Die Mannschaft. The World Cup-winner coach is stepping down a year early after the Euros, with Hansi Flick set to take over.

Having the likes of Thomas Muller back in the squad after a stunning couple of seasons with Bayern Munich will surely improve their chances – though our model doesn't take player data into account.

 

The predictor will see that Germany have failed to beat Denmark and North Macedonia in two of their three most recent games, while they also have a particularly hard group.

5. Portugal (9.6 per cent)

The other major footballing power from the 'Group of Death' – our predictor suggests Portugal are the least likely of themselves, France and Germany to win Euro 2020.

Nevertheless, La Selecao will surely feel good about themselves heading into the competition. Their squad is arguably significantly better than the one that won Euro 2016, while coach Fernando Santos is a shrewd operator.

They also have this chap up front called Cristiano Ronaldo, who is one away from setting a new record for the most goals (10) in European Championship history.

THE REST OF THE FIELD

According to our predictor, a resurgent Italy and Netherlands are the next most likely to win the tournament, which would represent a rather good turnaround from missing out on the 2018 World Cup – in fact, the Oranje weren't at Euro 2016 either.

At this point there are probably many of you pondering – assuming you've not just scrolled straight down to the list – about England's chances.

Well, the Three Lions' ranking here is a prime example of how a good draw can really pay. While they should – in theory, at least – have more than enough firepower to get out of a group that also contains Croatia, neighbours Scotland and Czech Republic, their route to the final would almost certainly see them come up against one – or more – of Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. They're also probably not helped by the fact they've played more Euros games (31) without reaching the final than any other team.

England's 5.2 per cent chance of success sees them behind Denmark (5.4 per cent), whose path to the final would likely be a little kinder, though the caveat is that the Three Lions could potentially play the vast majority of their matches on home soil at Wembley.

Tournament debutants North Macedonia are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the least likely to win Euro 2020, with their chances rated at 0.02 per cent.

 

6. Italy (7.6 per cent)

7. Netherlands (5.9 per cent)

8. Denmark (5.4 per cent)

9. England (5.2 per cent)

10. Switzerland (2.3 per cent)

11. Sweden (1.5 per cent)

12. Croatia (1.0 per cent)

13. Russia (1.0 per cent)

14. Poland (0.8 per cent)

15. Ukraine (0.8 per cent)

16. Wales (0.6 per cent)

17. Turkey (0.4 per cent)

18. Czech Republic (0.2 per cent)

19. Austria (0.2 per cent)

20. Finland (0.1 per cent)

21. Hungary (0.1 per cent)

22. Scotland (0.1 per cent)

23. Slovakia (0.04 per cent)

24. North Macedonia (0.02 per cent)

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 have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

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.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

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.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

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. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

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.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

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. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

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 does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

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

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual 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.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

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.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

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