The Indian Premier League returns this weekend, with the creme de la creme of the sport in the United Arab Emirates for the marquee Twenty20 competition of franchise cricket.

Mumbai Indians, the defending champions, face Chennai Super Kings in Saturday's curtain-raiser, which is a repeat of the 2019 final.

Here, we take a look at the players who should light up the tournament.

 

VIRAT KOHLI (Royal Challengers Bangalore)

No man has more IPL runs than RCB captain Kohli, whose 5,412 have been accrued at an average of 37.84 across his 117 matches.

Key Stat: India superstar Kohli is the only batsman in the history of T20 internationals to average more than 50 (50.80) among those with a minimum of 20 innings.

MS DHONI (Chennai Super Kings)

He may have retired from international duty, but Chennai skipper Dhoni is not calling time on his IPL career just yet. You feel the 'finisher' will want to end with a flourish.

Key Stat: Dhoni has made the most runs as a captain (4,142) among the eight skippers. Rajasthan Royals captain Steve Smith is the only man to have a better win percentage (65.5 per cent) than Dhoni's 59.8 per cent too.

JASPRIT BUMRAH (Mumbai Indians)

Player of the match in the 2019 final, it was Bumrah's 2-14 that proved pivotal to Mumbai's success. The seamer has mastered the art of death bowling.

Key stat: No one bowled more balls at the death (overs 17-20) than Bumrah's 172 deliveries in 2019. He had an economy of just 7.7 during that period. 

ANDRE RUSSELL (Kolkata Knight Riders)

West Indian all-rounder Russell is a box office draw for Kolkata Knight Riders having averaged 56.7 with the bat last year.

Key stat: Russell made 510 runs in 2019, of which 85.5 per cent were made from boundaries. That was the biggest percentage for those to have made at least 20 runs.

ROHIT SHARMA (Mumbai Indians)

A record four-time winner of the IPL as Mumbai captain, Rohit made 52 fours last season - the most of his 12-year IPL career.

Key stat: Rohit is 102 runs away from becoming the third batsman to reach 5,000 IPL runs after Kohli and Suresh Raina.

DAVID WARNER (Sunrisers Hyderabad)

Last season Warner won the Orange Cap - awarded to the IPL's leading run-scorer - for a record third time after amassing 692 runs, 99 more than anyone else in the tournament.

Key stat: Warner has now accumulated at least 600 runs in three separate campaigns. Chris Gayle (also three) is the only other batsman to have done so more than once.

DEEPAK CHAHAR (Chennai Super Kings)

Chahar had a breakthrough campaign with the Super Kings last year, claiming 22 wickets - a figure only South African duo Imran Tahir and Kagiso Rabada could better.

Key stat: The seamer bowled 64.3 overs in 2019 and 49 per cent of his deliveries were dot balls - the highest figure among those who bowled at least 10 overs.

KAGISO RABADA (Delhi Capitals)

The Proteas quick made his mark in the IPL last season when he took 25 wickets in the Capitals' run to the semi-finals.

Key stat: Of those who bowled at least 10 overs, Rabada had the best average (14.72) while he and international team-mate Tahir were the only two bowlers to have more than one four-wicket haul.

The Indian Premier League season that many feared would never happen is about to get started.

Where there is a will, and where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, there is usually a way.

And IPL chiefs have taken extreme measures to ensure the 2020 campaign goes ahead, taking the league and its teams to the United Arab Emirates for the next eight weeks.

The tournament that brought new levels of razzmatazz to Twenty20 cricket is set to begin behind closed doors, with Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah staging the games.

Can defending champions Mumbai Indians defy the pattern of their previous odd-year successes and retain the trophy, and if not then who will come through?

Here is a look, using Opta numbers, at what we should be looking forward to during the 13th edition of the game-changing league.

The oddest of years is an even year. Does that spell trouble for Mumbai?

Mumbai Indians have become the IPL's dominant franchise, and it is they and Chennai Super Kings who are most widely fancied to take the silverware this year.

Saturday's opener between those sides is a re-match of last year's astounding final, when Lasith Malinga pinned Shardul Thakur lbw from the final ball to nail a one-run win for Mumbai.

Two statistics leap out ahead of the reunion: Mumbai have beaten Chennai in eight of their last nine IPL clashes, including the last five; however, Mumbai have lost their last seven season openers.

Mumbai's last season-opening win came in 2012 – an eight-wicket success against... Chennai Super Kings.

In the last seven IPL seasons, Mumbai have been champions four times, but each time they have followed a title success with a relatively fallow year, finishing fourth, fifth and fifth again between their 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 success. If the pattern of triumphing in odd years and missing out in even years holds, we are looking for another team to hoist the trophy in November.

Only one team have successfully defended the IPL title, with Chennai achieving back-to-back triumphs in 2010 and 2011.

Will we have new champions?

Of the five franchises to appear in every IPL edition, three of them are yet to win to the competition: Delhi Capitals, Kings XI Punjab and Royal Challengers Bangalore.

It is worth bearing in mind the IPL has visited the UAE before, when 20 games were moved to avoid a clash in 2014 with India's general election.

And Kings XI Punjab will look on that time fondly, having won all five of their matches in the UAE. Mumbai, in stark contrast, lost each of their five contests during that sojourn.

Delhi, as they prepare to begin their 2020 campaign, are three defeats away from becoming the first team to lose 100 matches in the competition.

Are there records on the line?

Sunrisers Hyderabad captain David Warner and Kings XI Punjab showman Chris Gayle are two of the most exhilarating players in the league. Warner last year matched Gayle's record feat of scoring 600-plus runs in three separate IPL seasons when he scored 692 in just 12 innings, so the race is on to see if either man can go above 600 for a fourth time.

Mumbai's Rohit Sharma is 102 short of becoming the third batsman to reach 5,000 runs in his IPL career, while Warner is 294 away from that landmark. The all-time leading run-scorers in the competition are Virat Kohli (5,412) and Suresh Raina (5,368).

Can you keep a tight line?

In a format known for its ferocious hitting, is it possible to stifle teams late in an innings?

Yorker specialist Jasprit Bumrah found a way for Mumbai in 2019, bowling a competition-high 172 balls at the death (overs 17-20) and recording a highly respectable economy rate of 7.7 in those games.

His figures of 2-14 from four overs in last year's final were testament to his talent for keeping run-hungry batsmen tied down. More of the same could keep Mumbai competitive in 2020.

It is 16 years since Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were all beaten to the Spanish title. Valencia were the victors then.

The season before saw Real Sociedad push Madrid all the way in the title race; Sevilla entered the final day of the 2006-07 campaign with a chance of an unlikely success, while Villarreal finished second the following year.

In more ways than one, it feels like a bygone era. As the money in football grew exponentially, so did the margin for error for the biggest clubs.

Atletico managed to buck the trend, re-establishing themselves as a top club through smart recruitment, plenty of money and finding a coach in Diego Simeone who was not only able to get the best out of players, but improve them.

Although they haven't quite kicked on in the manner many might have expected, stagnating perhaps, Atletico have finished in the top three every season since 2011-12.

But ahead of 2020-21's kick-off on Saturday, there is a feeling there might finally be the possibility for other clubs to join the party again.

With Madrid, champions though they are, by no means spectacular and seemingly reluctant to spend, Barcelona tearing themselves apart from the inside and Atletico in stasis, now seems to be as good a time as any for a challenge to come from elsewhere.

Sevilla and Villarreal will hope it's their time.

"Why can't we dream?"

In the past 14 years, if any club has mastered knockout football, it's Sevilla. Six UEFA Cup/Europa League trophies now fill the museum at their atmospheric Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan home – no other team have won as many titles in UEFA competitions in that time.

So far they have failed to elevate themselves to the next level, though, with only one genuine title challenge in the same period – it's difficult to even consider them Champions League regulars either.

But their most recent Europa League success felt a bit different. Their route to the final was tricky, beating Roma, Wolves and Manchester United, before winning 3-2 against a resurgent – and expensively assembled – Inter in the showpiece.

It was a statement of intent, a declaration of ambition – it was the Europa League, but they beat Champions League-level opponents to win it.

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly impacted upon the transfer market, and that has hampered the way Sevilla usually work. Sporting director Monchi makes no secret of the fact the club must sell every year in order to build a squad they otherwise would not be able to afford.

But the flipside to that is, for arguably the first time since Monchi first took up his role in 2000, Sevilla will begin the season with a settled squad. Sergio Reguilon and Ever Banega are the only major departures, while Oscar Rodriguez and Ivan Rakitic are fine acquisitions to replace the latter.

Coach Julen Lopetegui took a while to win over supporters, but by the end of the season he had Sevilla looking consistent and difficult to beat, setting a new club record of 21 matches unbeaten in all competitions.

That being said, Lucas Ocampos aside, the jury is out on their attack. Youssef En-Nesyri and Luuk de Jong failed to reach double figures for goals in LaLiga, and one gets the impression Sevilla will struggle to reach the next level without a deadlier finisher in the squad – their haul of 54 in 2019-20 was not especially remarkable.

But at the back Sevilla were frequently excellent, their 34 goals conceded being the third-fewest in the league and the lowest – by 13 – they have managed over the past five years.

The transformation in the team's style of play has been significant. They went from 35 fast breaks in 2018-19 to 19 last term, made almost 3,000 more passes and became increasingly direct, with headed attempts on goal up to 93 from 75.

But again, their main problem comes back to goals – they dropped 20 points from winning positions, and when you look at their 13 draws, seven were in matches where Sevilla netted first, and five of those finished 1-1. An extra goal in each of those five games would equate to 10 more points across the season.

Enough to win then the title? Not quite, but it highlights the fine margins - clubs like Sevilla don't have the room for error that Barca and Madrid do. They have to be more ruthless, and if they are, who's to say where they'll end up.

"Why can't we dream [about winning LaLiga]?" asked club president Jose Castro, quoted on the front cover of Marca recently. Challenging for the title is the next step and they look readier now than they have in 13 years.

Yellow Submarine ready to make a splash

The mess at nearby Valencia has proven particularly beneficial for Villarreal. Los Che are financially crippled, not in Europe this season and the whole club appears to be at odds with itself.

But few expected to see certain key players leave.

Captain Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin headed for the Ceramica, joining Villarreal for a combined figured of just €8m – the former was a free transfer.

Landing Spain international Parejo represents a remarkable coup for Villarreal. He had been a long-term servant at Valencia, spending nine years there and developing into one of LaLiga's most complete midfielders.

His arrival at Villarreal could be a game-changer, while Coquelin has also proven himself dependable in LaLiga. Add to that pair the precocious talents of Takefusa Kubo, a loan arrival from Madrid, and there's plenty of cause for optimism.

The Yellow Submarine finished fifth last term, 10 points adrift of Sevilla in fourth, but until the latter stages they had pushed Lopetegui's men - and Atletico - hard.

Villarreal's end-of-season struggles led to the sacking of Javi Calleja as coach, but in Unai Emery they have a replacement with pedigree, who also has a point to prove.

No one is expecting Villarreal to challenge for the title, but given the positives of 2019-20 and their impressive business off the field, there's certainly reason for optimism regarding a top-four push. Whether that also puts them in touch with the leaders depends on the form of Barca, Madrid and Atletico.

Defensively they will need to improve – 49 goals conceded meant only two teams in the top 10 let in more. At the other end of the pitch, they netted 63, making them the third-highest scorers in the division.

With Paco Alcacer, Gerard Moreno and Samuel Chukwueze all still there, it seems unlikely they will suddenly have problems in attack this term.

Their mentality was also questioned at times and it's easy to understand why when you consider they gained just four points from losing positions, while they also spurned 52 big chances. Although a slight decrease from the season before (54), those totals of big chances gone begging in each of the last two years were a significant increase on the previous three campaigns.

One of the main differences between Villarreal and Sevilla last season was the latter's superior resilience, as they gained three times as many points (12) from losing positions, but the right coach can inspire changes in such areas – Emery had the very same effect on Los Nervionenses in their run of three successive Europa League wins from 2014 to 2016.

He may have been criticised back then for not doing better in LaLiga, but in Europe Emery's Sevilla never knew when they were beaten and always seemed to have immense belief.

Villarreal will do well to mount a title challenge, that much is clear, but they look set to be a force to be reckoned with. The Yellow Submarine can summon everything necessary to make a splash in 2020-21.

Liverpool ended their 30-year wait for a top-flight title last season by comfortably finishing top of the Premier League.

After coming agonisingly close numerous times in the three decades since their most recent success, the Reds finished at the summit with an incredible 99 points.

The Merseyside club had hardly been starved of major trophies in that time, having won a couple of European Cups, three FA Cups and various other honours.

But for plenty of Liverpool supporters - many of whom would never have witnessed their side winning the title - last season's coronation was seen as a hoodoo being lifted.

Jurgen Klopp is now tasked with making it back-to-back triumphs, though, as history shows, it is not always so easy to push on from such a success.

Here, we look at some previous examples of what happened next after other sports teams ended their long-running title droughts.


Chicago Cubs (MLB) - 108-year wait

The Cubs ended MLB's longest-such drought by winning the World Series in 2016 with an 8-7 Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians in 10 innings.

The following season did not turn out to be quite so memorable as, after winning the division title, they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the League Championship Series.


Chicago White Sox (MLB) - 88-year wait

Not quite as long a wait as their city rivals, but a painful one all the same. The White Sox swept the Houston Astros in four games for their third World Series championship in 2005.

They finished third in the American League Central a year later with a record of 90-72 and are still on the hunt for their fourth crown.


Boston Red Sox (MLB) - 86-year wait

After years of falling just short, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and vanquished the 'Curse of the Bambino' in the process.

Disappointment followed in 2005 as they finished second in the American League East before being swept by the White Sox in the American League Division Series.


Kansas City Chiefs (NFL) - 50-year wait

A more recent example of a team ending years of hurt, the Chiefs - led by the incredible Patrick Mahomes - recovered from 10 points behind to beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-20 in Super Bowl LIV earlier this year.

Seven months on from that famous win, they will enter the much-anticipated season as the favourites of many to match their recent success, much like Liverpool.


Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) - 49-year wait

Patrick Kane was the hero for the Blackhawks, scoring four minutes and six seconds into overtime of their decisive Game 6 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

The Blackhawks lost several players due to salary cap restrictions and succumbed to the Vancouver Canucks in seven games in the first round of the following season's play-offs.

 
Golden State Warriors (NBA) - 40-year wait

A first NBA title in four decades for the Warriors was secured thanks to a 4-2 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals, Steve Kerr's team winning the last three games of the series.

Among other records, they set the best-ever regular season return of 73-9 the next campaign but went on to lose to the Cavs 4-3 in the Finals as their opponents gained revenge.


Indianapolis Colts (NFL) - 36-year wait

The Colts got their hands on the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2006 season with a 29-17 Super Bowl XLI victory over the Chicago Bears after ending the regular campaign with a record of 12-4.

Despite improving on their regular season record the folllowing year en route to winning a fifth straight AFC South divisional title, they lost to the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs.

While the idea of seeing super clubs such as Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain lose out to RB Leipzig or Lyon – in the semis or the final – was a tantalising, even amusing, prospect, it's fair to say that Sunday's finale is one that's certainly captured the imagination of the neutrals.

From Bayern's perspective, since the promotion of Hansi Flick to succeed Niko Kovac, a host of their players have elevated themselves to world-class levels, some even beyond that.

Alphonso Davies, David Alaba, Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry – they have all benefited massively from Flick's management and, as a result, Bayern have been practically unplayable.

But Robert Lewandowski deserves special focus. His quality is nothing new – the Pole has been among the best strikers in the world for almost a decade.

This season, however, it is difficult to think of a player anywhere in the world who has been as impressive, as consistently deadly, as Lewandowski.

Bouncing back to emulate Ronaldo

When France Football announced a little over a month ago that the 2020 Ballon d'Or had been cancelled due to the "lack of a sufficiently level playing field" brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, much of the reaction focused on Lewandowski.

The 32-year-old was seen as the most hard done by following that decision – after all, he'd scored 40 goals in 36 matches en route to helping Bayern to Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal success, while he still had real shot at the Champions League.

Since then, he has taken his tally in Europe's elite competition to a remarkable 15 goals in nine matches, while he's also on five assists.

Lewandowski became only the second player after Cristiano Ronaldo to reach that goals tally in a single Champions League campaign, while in the remarkable 8-2 quarter-final demolition of Barcelona he reached 50 Champions League goals for Bayern in just his 60th outing for the club in the competition.

Again, only Ronaldo can better him in that regard, as he got to the landmark for Real Madrid in 50 games.

Even without Champions League success, it would have been difficult to look beyond Lewandowski for the Ballon d'Or this year.

Lewy way ahead of Ronaldo and Messi

Lewandowski's exploits in this season's Champions League have been mightily impressive.

His 15 goals have come from 49 efforts, giving him a shot conversion rate of 37 per cent. While that may not be as high as Erling Haaland (53 per cent) or Josip Ilicic (46 per cent), they had significantly fewer attempts at goal (21 and 15).

Lewandowski's shooting accuracy comes in at 78 per cent, dwarfing the respective records of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at 56 and 68 per cent respectively.

Ronaldo's total goal involvements was just four, Messi's was six, Lewandowski's is 20.

Of course, football boils down to more than just the individual – these players are all directly influenced by the exploits of their team-mates, and few would claim Juventus and Barcelona have been more cohesive and structurally organised sides than Bayern.

Flick has turned Bayern into a team that presses effectively as a unit, which in itself helps to overload the opposition and create openings, while also making counter-attacking chances trickier to come by.

The consequence is more goals and fewer concessions – Lewandowski has certainly benefited in this regard, but it is not all on him.

Better service?

Of Lewandowski's 34 Bundesliga goals in 2019-20, 27 were scored in the space between the six-yard box and the edge of the penalty area. A further five were from inside the six-yard box.

While many of these goals are certainly examples of Lewandowski's elite marksmanship skills – like when he showed the awareness to chest down a Jerome Boateng pass and finish clinically rather than taking it first time against Werder Bremen – hitting such numbers requires good service.

Lewandowski and Thomas Muller appear to have a particularly effective understanding, with the German setting up Bayern's talisman 10 times this season, with eight of those coming in the Bundesliga.

It seems unlikely that the increase in consistency both players have shown this season is a coincidence, though Flick's ability to get the best out of Muller is arguably the greater achievement given he appeared to be on a downward slide in previous years.

Muller set a Bundesliga record with 21 assists in 2019-20, 12 more than the previous campaign, while Lewandowski's goal haul increased by 12.

Similarly, Lewandowski's expected goals (xG) in the league in 2018-19 was 31, suggesting that he should have scored nine more than he did. This term Lewandowski has scored four more than he would otherwise expect to across the Bundesliga and Champions League – not only is the service better, the Poland star is also taking his chances like never before.

PSG will almost certainly offer a much greater threat than Lyon could, but a team like Bayern shall always create opportunities and at the moment there is no one better in Europe at converting them than Lewandowski, who is hoping to net in his 10th successive Champions League appearance.

Luuk de Jong's unlikely heroics, Diego Carlos controversially escaping a red card, Romelu Lukaku losing focus at the decisive moments – much will be analysed and discussed in excruciating detail following Sevilla's latest Europa League success, but Julen Lopetegui deserves all of the attention.

This is a tale of redemption, from a man who was lambasted and derided in equal measure over the past two-and-a-bit years, to a coach who masterminded a European success against a sleeping giant that was ready to awaken.

Lopetegui's history is well-known – on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, he was unceremoniously given the boot by Spain for agreeing to join Real Madrid, for whom he had previously worked in the youth team, after the tournament.

It was an ugly affair that, rightly or wrongly, led to Lopetegui harbouring the blame for Spain's disappointing campaign, for which Fernando Hierro ultimately took charge.

Lopetegui's Real Madrid dream then lasted only until October, his sacking coming after a humiliating 5-1 Clasico defeat to Barcelona.

The Basque coach, a former goalkeeper for both Clasico clubs, disappeared from the limelight, and who could blame him?

That was until Monchi came calling in June 2019.

Sevilla's sporting director will rightly receive acclaim from far and wide for this triumph – after returning from an underwhelming spell with Roma last year, he built a squad that has got the club back into the Champions League via a fourth-placed LaLiga finish, and now possesses yet another Europa League crown.

But Lopetegui is the true hero of this success. To further understand Lopetegui's fight, we must go back to February.

Sevilla scraped past Cluj in the Europa League last 32. A 1-1 draw in Romania was followed by the cagiest of return legs, as Los Nervionenses were dominated for long stretches.

Their European quest appeared to be over when Cluj scored late on… But VAR bailed them out.

Real discontent from the fans swirled around the team and Lopetegui at that point – they haven't lost a game since, embarking on a club-record 20-match unbeaten run.

Aside from some of their players attracting negative headlines due to their lack of social distancing, the coronavirus-enforced hiatus served Sevilla well.

After securing fourth in LaLiga, they came into the Europa League knowing they were likely to face an extremely difficult route to winning the tournament – Roma came first, then Wolves, Manchester United and now Inter. They all failed to end the club's remarkable record in European finals.

But there's no doubt they rode their luck in Cologne on Friday.

It looked like being a long night for Sevilla right from the off – a rare lapse from Ever Banega on the edge of the Inter box allowed the Italians to break, and pantomime villain Diego Carlos then took centre-stage.

The highly rated Brazilian, who conceded penalties against both Wolves and Manchester United, continued his bizarre streak as he found himself the wrong side of Romelu Lukaku, who he eventually hauled down in the area.

Quite how Diego Carlos remained on the pitch is a mystery. He clearly made no attempt to get the ball, but referee Danny Makkelie only produced a yellow. It would prove decisive, but initially Lukaku made the most of the spot-kick and at that point one had to fear for Sevilla.

A resilience swiftly shone through, however. Luuk de Jong, one of the most heavily criticised players in Spain this season, again showed his worth as he did with the winner in the semi-final.

A clever stooping header from Jesus' Navas' cross gave Samir Handanovic too much to do, and he soon followed that up with an even better goal – again with his head – as he met a marvellous delivery from the exceptional Banega.

Given he had previously lost his place in the team to Youssef En-Nesyri, being restored to the line-up was a big call by Lopetegui, but the Dutchman – scorer of just eight goals before this game – vindicated the decision.

Diego Carlos was again under the microscope for the equaliser. His needless foul led to Marcelo Brozovic's free-kick, and Diego Godin lost the former Nantes defender to nod home.

The second half was a much tenser occasion – Sevilla continued to see more of the ball, but Inter appeared to have the greater threat in attack.

Lukaku failed to beat Yassine Bounou when one-one-one and Sevilla took full advantage.

Inter failed to clear a corner and Diego Carlos unleashed an overhead-kick, which Lukaku turned into his own net with 16 minutes to go.

And that was that.

Inter's chance to end a nine-year wait for silverware ended with that incident, as Sevilla clinched the trophy, remarkably, for a sixth time in just over 14 years.

As was the case all of those years ago when they won their first against Middlesbrough, much of the spotlight will fall on Monchi, the transfer guru, but Lopetegui fought back from the brink to mastermind this triumph.

From moulding together what was essentially a brand new squad, to establishing a new style of play that secured Champions League football and another European success for Sevilla, Lopetegui answered his critics resoundingly.

This was a tale of redemption.

RB Leipzig's rapid rise to prominence in the Champions League has left them on the brink of a European final, with Paris Saint-Germain standing in there way.

Though star striker Timo Werner has departed for Chelsea, Julian Nagelsmann still has plenty of quality players at his disposal, and chief among them is Dayot Upamecano.

The centre-back, who has a brilliant turn of pace and plenty of power, has drawn interest from some of Europe's biggest clubs in recent seasons.

However, for the time being at least, Leipzig have fended off any approaches, with Upamecano having signed a new deal, which runs until 2023, in July.

With his immediate future settled, Upamecano has the chance to prove he truly is worth the hype as Leipzig take on PSG – spearheaded by two of the world's greatest attackers in the form of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar – in Lisbon.

The story so far

Despite supposed interest from Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal at the time, Upamecano opted for Salzburg in 2015 and soon got a taste for first-team football at feeder club Liefering.

Given the links between the clubs, it came as little surprise when the centre-back chose Leipzig in January 2017, quickly adapting to a new country and league with 12 Bundesliga appearances over the rest of the campaign.

Upamecano's displays over the next year saw him nominated for the 2018 Golden Boy award, won by then-Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt, but his game has since gone up another level under the stewardship of Nagelsmann.

He has been a mainstay at the back, making 37 appearances in all competitions so far in 2019-20.

What have they said?

A number of current and former stars have heaped praise on the 21-year-old, with former team-mate Werner comparing him to Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng, and during the enforced break in action amid the COVID-19 outbreak, German football legend Lothar Matthaus talked up the youngster.

But for now, Upamecano seems perfectly happy where he is. 

"I feel right at home here in Leipzig - the overall package is perfect," said Upamecano after signing his new contract.

"We had good conversations with [chief executive] Oliver Mintzlaff, [sporting director] Markus Krosche and [head coach] Julian Nagelsmann, which showed to me that extending my contract was the right decision for me to make.

"Our young and hungry team is part of an ambitious club. I want to take the next step with Leipzig and reach our aims, because I'm convinced by the way we play our football.

"I have been in Leipzig for over three years and I have continued to improve alongside the team's development. I want to carry on developing personally, and I think Julian Nagelsmann is a coach that can bring me to the next level."

Areas of weakness?

Upamecano is quick and strong, a fine player to progress the ball out of defence – he has made more vertical runs with the ball in the Champions League this season than any other player left in the competition – and is excellent in the air.

The Frenchman is still developing, though, and there is certainly room for improvement in terms of his temperament. 

This was evidenced in June, when Upamecano allowed frustration to get the better of him and he received a second booking two minutes before half-time in a Bundesliga clash with Paderborn.

Leipzig were in front at that stage yet Paderborn ultimately claimed a dramatic point when captain Christian Strohdiek struck in the 92nd minute, and team-mate Kevin Kampl was far from happy.

"It was completely unnecessary," Kampl said to Sky Germany about defender Upamecano's sending off. "We lead 1-0, have the game under control and then we weaken ourselves."

Fortunately for Leipzig, the draw did not ultimately cost them a place in the Bundesliga's top four.

The biggest challenge yet?

Though Upamecano has faced the fearsome attacks of Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, he is about to come up against two of the world's finest forwards.

Neymar missed some golden opportunities in PSG's quarter-final tie against Atalanta, but ultimately played a key part in both of their goals as the Ligue 1 champions snatched a late win.

Meanwhile, his partner in crime Mbappe is sure to start after coming on as a substitute in that win – with the youngster, who had been recovering from an injury sustained in July, going on to provide the assist for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting's winner.

Leipzig switched to a back four against Atletico Madrid, with Upamecano tasked with marking Diego Costa and, subsequently, Alvaro Morata – and putting in a brilliant display.

But with the trickery and guile of Neymar, and the pace of Mbappe – not to mention the poaching ability of Mauro Icardi – PSG will present an altogether different challenge.

However, if he manages to marshall Leipzig's defence against some of world football's most clinical finishers, then Upamecano may well confirm his status as one of the best defenders in world football.

Football, arguably more so than any other sport, has a compulsive need to compare young talents with those who have come before. There's no getting away from it, and it's likely everyone has made such observations.

It has become so ingrained in debates about the sport and players that perhaps we don't even realise anymore, and many of 'the greats' will have been subject to precisely this phenomenon when setting out to establish themselves.

Lionel Messi is an obvious one – one of many Argentinian players to be dubbed the next Diego Maradona in his youth, it's certainly arguable that the Barcelona great has gone on to surpass his compatriot.

But for every Messi there are hundreds of players who, for whatever reason, cannot live up to their early promise and the expectations dumped on their shoulders.

It seems such a harmless occurrence, to suggest an emerging player is comparable – at least stylistically – to an established superstar in conversation with friends, or even over Twitter.

But what we don't tend to see is the other side, how those comparisons take root and spread, eventually spiralling out of control and impacting on the very player being discussed.

Ryan Gauld can attest to that.

'Mini Messi'

Now 24 and playing for Farense, who've just been promoted to Portugal's Primeira Liga, Gauld is very familiar with such player comparisons and the adverse effect they can have.

Before joining Sporting CP on a long-term contract in 2014, Gauld had broken into the first team at Dundee United where he was first dubbed 'mini Messi' for his stature, dribbling ability and the fact he was left-footed. The comparisons began and ended there, but that was all it needed.

"To be honest, I wish it was never written," he explains to Stats Perform News from his home in the Algarve. "What are the similarities between us? We're small and left-footed, that's about as far as you can go. I would've been more relaxed than I already was if it wasn't a thing."

For Gauld, the 'mini Messi' label became a stick to beat him with more than anything, ramping up the pressure after moving to Sporting – he was always expecting it to be tough to breakthrough in Lisbon, but being compared to an all-time great took its toll.

"I would be lying if I said it didn't crop up in my head a couple of times. Like, as soon as people see me as that, they weren't caring what I could do, what I was good at, they were looking to see why I was like Messi, and then if I couldn't do something he could do, they'd say, 'He's rubbish, he's not a mini Messi, he's not worth that tag', or whatever."

The prominence of the 'mini Messi' tag grew to such an extent that Gauld doesn't even think most people knew his actual name for his first two years in Lisbon.

"If they saw me walking about Lisbon or in a shopping centre, Sporting fans who wanted a photo or something, they'd shout 'mini Messi', they wouldn't shout 'Ryan'," he recalls with an exasperated smile. "It makes you think how many people actually know your name – I was known as 'mini Messi' for about two years."

A career interrupted

In the eyes of some, especially those who actually referred to him as 'mini Messi', Gauld's career hasn't quite panned out as might have been expected – he only managed two league appearances for Sporting's senior side in five years, while loans with Vitoria Setubal, Desportivo Aves and Hibernian yielded little.

While he believes his struggles with certain expectations didn't help, Gauld also harbours grievances with Sporting regarding his development, specifically their decision to terminate his loan with Setubal just when he had started to find his groove.

"It was my first shot in the top division. I found it difficult in the beginning to get a place in the team because they started really well and I didn't start the season with the them, and then, I got an opportunity," he said. "The manager was really happy with how I did and I think I played six or seven games on the bounce, and then we had Sporting in the cup.

"I was cup-tied, so couldn't play, but we beat Sporting with a last-minute penalty to knock them out. The next day I received a call from one of the directors to say they were cancelling my loan agreement because we beat them. I think they took the huff a bit, so that was really frustrating."

Another loan was set up, but after spending a month waiting up in the north of the country for clearance to begin training with his new team, he was told Setubal wouldn't sign release papers – a return to Sporting's B team beckoned. "That was the most frustrating part of my whole time here. I would've thought Sporting could have done more to make sure it went through, but no, nothing happened, no one apologised for anything that happened or gave any explanations. It wasn't a very good time."

A social media hiatus and a brighter outlook

After a disappointing return to Scotland with Hibs in January 2019, Gauld's time with Sporting ended – a spell that promised so much finished with the former Scotland youth international barely making a splash.

But he wasn't done with Portugal yet. While many would have expected him to head back to Scotland permanently, Gauld took the eyebrow-raising decision to drop a division, joining Farense on a two-year deal after the two parties left a strong impression on each other during a short loan spell in 2018.

His new-found happiness hasn't only been influenced by on-field matters, though – turning his back on social media played a major role, particularly with respect to being able to detach himself from his 'mini Messi' demons.

"A year, a year and a bit I've been off social media, it's made such a difference," he explains. "You're not seeing it [criticism], you're not looking for it, looking for the negative energy that comes from it. I think that's played a big role in me not thinking about it [the 'mini Messi' label] too much.

"There was a game on TV, and I played terrible, it'd be in my head, 'Oh no, what are people going to be saying about me now?' I don't care what anyone says, it's difficult if that comes up on your phone, it's difficult to not read it."

In 2019-20, Gauld scored nine league goals in 21 matches for Farense, making him their top-scorer as they secured a return to the top flight for the first time since 2001-02 – in the intervening seasons, they have sunk as far as the sixth tier.

Sporting will be the first match he looks out for when the fixture list is announced - like the returning Farense, Gauld has a score to settle in the Primeira Liga.

In what should have been the opening week of Wimbledon, Stats Perform News revisits an interview with analyst Craig O'Shannessy.

 

"By the end of that match, Rafa's mind was scrambled eggs."

Craig O'Shannessy was part of Dustin Brown's coaching team when the German qualifier sensationally eliminated two-time Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal at the All England Club in 2015.

Through numbers, patterns and data, Australian pioneer O'Shannessy orchestrated the gameplan to send Nadal packing in the second round almost five years ago.

"After the match, I described that as organised chaos," O'Shannessy told Stats Perform News prior to the Australian Open in January. "A lot of times with Dustin it's pure chaos. Sometimes he wins with it, sometimes he loses. What gelled was we organised his chaos so that people didn't know him, would've looked at that thinking all hell is breaking loose. Whereas I'm watching the match going 'he is running the patterns that we talked about perfectly'.

"It's about taking away what Rafa wanted to do. It's about attacking him early on the point, it's about attacking him wide of the forehand, going after returns simply because you know where the serve is going, about drop shots and bringing him in. It's just about messing with his mind and making it very unclear."

O'Shannessy – recognised as a world leader in teaching and analysis – has continued to transform the sport. He teamed up with Novak Djokovic as his chief strategist in 2017 and helped the Serb rise back to the top with four grand slams in three years.

Now working with 2019 US Open semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini, Jan-Lennard Struff, Alexei Popyrin and Tennis Canada, O'Shannessy crunches the numbers for his players.

Struff – with mastermind O'Shannessy in his box – threatened to derail Djokovic's quest for a record-extending eighth Australian Open title before the defending champion fought hard to survive in the opening round in Melbourne, where he eventually hoisted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup aloft.

"Every single match the player receives a pre-match report that has text, specific details about what the players like to do, I'll put in a bunch of numbers, tables and graphs particularly on serve patterns and rally length, then video," he said. "You just keep hammering away and supporting the winning strategy in as many different ways as you can."

At the forefront of analytics in tennis, how further can data go?

"Still a long away. We're only scratching the surface," O'Shannessy said. "There's a lot of numbers and data that we see but still don't know exactly what it means. The next five years will be incredibly important and we'll know way more than we do now. We're just at the start of the journey."

On data and patterns, O'Shannessy added: "For example, when you're returning, you can't cover everything. Players that try to cover everything, basically end up covering nothing. You look at it by the point score, if a player is at 30-30, they really need the point. If they're at 40-15, they don't necessarily need the point.

"So the players will have the tendency to gravitate to certain locations when they need that point and if you're sitting there waiting for it, all of a sudden the advantage of that point gets completely turned around. Instead of the returner being unbalanced, the server is off balance because the return is coming back harder and faster. They're on defence instead of offence.

"Early in my coaching career, I naturally put a big emphasis on the opponent, the idea being you're going to play 50 matches in a year and you may only play two or three where you think you've played incredible. The other 47 it's going to be your B or C game that triumphs, so the more you can understand it's not about you playing phenomenal tennis, it's about making them play bad. That mentality takes the pressure off and delivers it to the other side of the court."

Then there is artificial intelligence. Stats Perform harnesses the true power of sports data by leveraging advancements in AI to generate the industry's richest insights, though it is relatively untapped in tennis.

"AI is able to crunch some very big data and make sense of it," O'Shannessy added. "The ability to do forecasting through there about percentages and situations. I'm already looking at the best way to incorporate AI and the end result to basically help players win more matches."

World number 34 Struff also shared his thoughts on AI and numbers in an interview with Stats Perform News in April.

"Yes of course," Struff said when asked if AI will become more important in tennis. "I don't know exactly what the other players are doing on that area. You are always trying to hide these things. Nobody wants to talk about what he is doing, how his fitness training looks like and such things.

"Everybody is trying to hide himself, so the opponents don't see if certain things are working out or not. This is to prevent the other guys from copying certain things and actually catching up. But this is definitely going to come."

Gianluigi Buffon broke Paolo Maldini's record for Serie A appearances in Saturday's Turin derby, playing for the 648th time in Italy's top flight.

Buffon, 41, was an Italy team-mate of former Milan defender Maldini, who retired in 2009 at the age of 40.

The iconic goalkeeper broke in the Parma first team as a teenager before joining Juve in 2001 in a £32.6million deal, making him the world’s most expensive goalkeeper at the time.

It proved to be money well invested as he spent 17 years in a first spell with the Turin giants, staying at the club following relegation amid Italian football's Calciopoli scandal and helping Juventus reel off seven successive Scudetti before leaving for Paris Saint-Germain in 2018.

After a year in France, Buffon returned to Juventus last July, competing with Wojciech Szczesny for the starting role in Maurizio Sarri's team since then.

Below, we have used Opta data to highlight the remarkable longevity of Buffon's career.

17 – Buffon made his Serie A debut for Parma on November 19, 1995 at the age of 17 years and 295 days. It was a 0-0 draw against Milan.

648 – Since then, Buffon has gone on to rack up 648 appearances in Italy's top flight, including Saturday's clash with Torino that has seen him break Maldini's record.

42 – Buffon is the third-oldest player to feature in Serie A during the three-points era, behind only Marco Ballotta (44 years, 38 days) and Francesco Antonelli (42 years, 235 days).

23 – This is Buffon's 23rd season in professional football. Having signed a new contract, he will play a 24th campaign in 2020-21.

247 – Giorgio Chiellini signed a new contract at the same time as Buffon. The centre-back is the player Buffon has most regularly played with in Serie A, 247 times.

480 – No one has played more Serie A games for Juventus, with Buffon's 480 two more than Alessandro del Piero's haul.

9 – Buffon has won nine Serie A titles, more than any other player. He could yet add a 10th later this month.

285 – The veteran had kept 285 clean sheets in 647 Serie A matches prior to the Turin derby, which is a record.

At long last, the 2020 Formula One season will finally begin this week.

The action will begin with the Austrian Grand Prix behind closed doors at the Red Bull Ring, with the Steiermark Grand Prix being held at the same track the following weekend.

Silverstone will also stage two races this year, with Hungary, Spain, Belgium and Italy the only other confirmed events as things stand.

The season had been due to get underway with the Australian Grand Prix in March, but it was cancelled after a member of the McLaren garage tested positive for COVID-19.

A lot of things have changed since then, so we have recapped the biggest stories during the four-month coronavirus hiatus.

 

Vettel decision sparks driver changes

Ferrari announced that four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel would not remain with the team beyond the end of this season.

The German has yet to find another seat in F1, with Carlos Sainz to replace him at Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo leaving Renault for McLaren.

Toto Wolff confirmed Mercedes are monitoring Vettel's situation, though Valtteri Bottas claims he was told by the Silver Arrows there is nothing to the story.

Renault are yet to disclose who will take Ricciardo's place in 2021, with a shock return for two-time champion Fernando Alonso mooted.

Regulation changes pushed back to 2022

The pandemic forced a number of teams to furlough staff or reduce the size of their workforce, while F1 brought its mandatory mid-season shutdown period forward and extended it.

Together with the reduction in income from the lack of racing, sweeping changes to the technical regulations that were expected to challenge Mercedes' dominance of the series have been pushed back.

Teams will now contest the 2021 season in the same cars as this year, with the new rules instead coming into effect from 2022.

Budget cap implemented and reduced

In a bid to level the playing field in F1, for the first time a cost cap will come into effect from the 2021 season. This will limit the amount teams can spend on their cars to $145million.

The cap had initially been set at $175m but was lowered to avoid the possibility of some constructors spending up to that limit while others found themselves incapable of doing so due to the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.

In 2022 the cap will be reduced to $140m, before dropping to $135m the following year and remaining there. This was done to make it easier for the bigger teams to adjust the size and scale of their operations.

Mercedes manoeuvring

A key member of Mercedes' six-year domination of F1 has left the team.

Managing director Andy Cowell, who had direct responsibility for the F1 power unit, helped establish Mercedes at the pinnacle of the sport in his 16 years with the team, but Hywel Thomas took over from him on July 1.

Mercedes team principal Wolff bought a stake in Aston Martin, which is controlled by Racing Point owner Lawrence Stroll.

Wolff insisted a personal investment "has nothing to do with Formula One", despite the fact Racing Point will be rebranded as Aston Martin on the 2021 grid.

A push for diversity

Six-time champion Lewis Hamilton criticised the Formula One community for its silence in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May, which sparked anti-racism protests around the globe.

The 35-year-old Briton subsequently partnered with the Royal Academy of Engineering to create The Hamilton Commission, looking at how more young people from black backgrounds can be brought into motorsport or be employed elsewhere in the field of engineering. F1 has also set up a new task force to increase diversity and inclusion in the sport.

Mercedes signalled their commitment to fighting racism and discrimination by unveiling an all-black livery in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, switching from their traditional Silver Arrows design.

Hamilton and Bottas will race in black overalls, while 'End Racism' will feature on the halo of both cars and the F1 initiative #WeRaceAsOne will appear on the mirrors.

Wimbledon should have been getting under way on Monday and the queue would have been building all weekend long, a tented village of flag-waving, gin-swigging tennis diehards doing whatever it takes to land a prized ticket.

The practice courts would have been bustling, news conferences with the world's elite players running all day Saturday and into Sunday, and the first bumper delivery of fresh strawberries would have arrived fresh from the fields of Kent.

Elite athletes and their entourages would have been milling around the grounds, before at 10.30am on Monday morning the paying spectators would have been released from their holding bay, many racing straight to the grass bank that is officially named Aorangi Terrace but better known as Henman Hill.

And at 11.30am, the first players would have been walking on court, the championships getting under way. To be there at such a time is a delicious thrill, the waiting over, the grounds teeming, the first points being played, and the anticipation escalating as to what might unfold over the next fortnight.

Yet this year Wimbledon was all quiet across the weekend; thousands did not queue for tickets; the line painters, the stewards, and the ball boys and ball girls stayed at home; and a whole lot more strawberry jam is being produced in England this year than last.

The 2020 championships were cancelled on April 1, the only reasonable decision available to the All England Club amid the coronavirus pandemic, but organisers are already preparing for next year's return.

And from the plot lines that are already emerging, it is clear we can expect a classic Wimbledon.

A farewell to great champions?

There is the very real prospect of tennis losing a huddle of its biggest stars practically all at once, with anyone that was considering bowing out this year surely now giving the glad eye to 2021.

Roger Federer will be just weeks short of his 40th birthday by next year's Wimbledon, and the same applies to Serena Williams, whose sister Venus will already be 41.

Andy Murray will be a relatively young 34 but his body has taken a battering, the Scot desperate to play more grand slams but also realistic enough to know there may not be many left for him. He longs for another Wimbledon, maybe just one more.

Between them, that quartet have won 22 Wimbledon singles titles, and all four could choose the 2021 tournament as their opportunity to bid farewell to the All England Club.

It's going to be an emotional tournament in any case, if we are back to normal, but if there are goodbyes to be said too, the championships promise to be one packed with indelible memories, and so many tears.

The magic numbers

Serena Williams has lost each of the past two Wimbledon women's finals and has been stuck on 23 grand slams since winning the 2017 Australian Open, agonisingly one short of Margaret Court's record.

Could Wimbledon be where Williams matches or even passes Court's total? The American remains the player to beat at Wimbledon, and her hunger for grand slam success has not remotely diminished over time.

There can be little doubt she is playing not purely for the love of it, but because of the thrill of the chase, and Williams might wind up disappointed at the end of her career, still marooned one adrift.

But what a story it would be if Williams were to win another Wimbledon, the last of her thirties. Don't put anything past her.

And the race to finish as the all-time leader on the men's side keeps rolling, a devil of a duty to predict who will come out on top between Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Another Wimbledon win for any of them could take on momentous significance in that respect.

A new men's Centre Court king, at last?

The last player to win the Wimbledon's men's singles, besides the 'Big Four' of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, was Lleyton Hewitt in 2002.

And while the era of those four great players dominating in SW19 has been one to treasure, seeing a new champion crowned would be rather special.

There have been nine winners of the women's singles over the same period of time, multiple champions among them but also terrific one-off stories such as Marion Bartoli's triumph, the 17-year-old Maria Sharapova's big breakthrough, Amelie Mauresmo's great achievement, and the unbridled joy of Simona Halep last year.

Certainly there is so much to admire about the quartet that have ruled the men's singles, but a little novelty feels overdue.

Those queueing up to form a new dominant group need to push themselves forward, rather than play a waiting game.

Gauff gunning for major breakthrough

Gauff gunning for major breakthrough

What a revelation Coco Gauff became last year, defeating her great hero Venus Williams and reaching the fourth round, where it took eventual champion Halep to halt the 15-year-old's run.

She dramatically followed up by reaching the third round of the US Open and then round four of the Australian Open at the start of this year.

Between those two grand slams, Gauff also landed her first WTA title, in Linz, Austria, where she became the youngest winner on tour for 15 years.

The American teenager is the real deal, that much is clear, and she has a bright future.

Gauff demonstrated wisdom beyond her years off the court in early June with a terrific, powerful address at a Black Lives Matter rally in her Florida home town of Delray Beach.

May she return many times to Wimbledon.

With restaurants and bars shut, Manchester City did the best they could to mark Kevin De Bruyne's 29th birthday: they enjoyed a stroll in the park.

Presumably De Bruyne was presented with a king-sized sweet treat too, because City must be wise after Yaya Toure and cake-gate when plotting their star midfielders' celebration days.

There are more inviting, leafier parks in the north of England than Newcastle United's St James', but De Bruyne had a rum time with his chums.

The locals even presented him a gift, a first-half penalty after Fabian Schar foolishly pushed Gabriel Jesus in the back.

City's park strollers might have been surprised by whom they found waiting for them in the city centre park: mostly young 'uns who ran about skittishly, with vague purpose, at one end of the field, and a big lad with a funny beard who mainly stayed away from the others, taking social distancing to the extreme.

Naturally, City ran rings around them, on a day when their pink and yellow outfits against the locals' black and white made it look like a sweet-shop colour clash of fruit salads and humbugs.

And bah humbug for Newcastle, who never looked as though they could be competitive, certainly not until manager Steve Bruce saw sense after 64 minutes and realised big Andy Carroll was not the man to get them back into this FA Cup tie, turning to substitute Dwight Gayle.

Gayle, within two minutes of coming off the bench, showed he too was not the man to rescue the hosts, as he shovelled over a sitter from six yards after Allan Saint-Maximin fizzed a low cross his way.

Two minutes later and Raheem Sterling added the second goal City wanted to make the rest of their afternoon as much as a saunter as the first half had been. That made it 2-0: job done.

It was all too easy for City, while Newcastle were spectacularly low on ambition, most notably by picking Carroll, a player who has not scored a competitive goal all season and who indeed had not started a game since December, and giving him no service.

In the quarter-finals last year, Swansea made life desperately uncomfortable for City, to such an extent Pep Guardiola felt compelled to apologise after his team scraped a 3-2 win in south Wales.

City, on that occasion, came from 2-0 down to prevail 3-2, helped by a questionable penalty and an offside winner from Sergio Aguero.

But whatever the instructions Bruce fed his Newcastle side, the effect they had was allowing City to attack with impunity, raining in eight shots in the first 19 minutes.

A full St James', rather than this empty-seats version, would have surely been raging at Newcastle's plodding ways, particularly in the first half, when it took desperate defending to keep the score down.

Sterling's strike was a soother for City, and so Guardiola allowed De Bruyne to sit out the rest of the game, substituting the Belgian jewel in City's crown, the end of this cakewalk in sight.

Manchester United got there in the end. After a largely forgettable 120 minutes at Carrow Road, they will contest a record 30th FA Cup semi-final thanks to a 2-1 win over Norwich City, but victory failed to mask some of the problems facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United were particularly poor in what was a dire first half in the Norfolk sun. Neither side managed a single shot on target in the opening 45 minutes, with the match's creative players struggling to live up to expectations.

Those in red looked especially out of sorts.

Solskjaer had rung the changes, eight in total, from the side that cruised to a 3-0 win over Sheffield United in midweek.

While it was by no means a surprise to see Solskjaer make so many alterations – indeed, he highlighted pre-match there was only one difference to the team that took them into the quarter-finals – it brought to light some of the numerous issues with United's squad.

Odion Ighalo looked sharp up top, but in behind him there was precious little craft coming from Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, the latter of whom produced no key passes in his 63 minutes on the pitch.

Both constantly wanted to come inside and abandon their wide berths, but neither could do so to any real impact.

Bruno Fernandes' presence in the starting XI will have raised some eyebrows from supporters. Why not take the opportunity to rest him for the Premier League run-in? But without him their lack of craft would have been startling, with his central partners Scott McTominay and Fred not necessarily renowned for their creativity.

At times it even seemed like Fernandes' team-mates became complacent, sitting back under the impression the talented Portuguese midfielder would do the business on his own. He couldn't.

As it happened, the opening goal came about through sheer fortune on United's part – Luke Shaw's cross taking a kind ricochet off a defender and falling for Ighalo, whose improvised finish continued his strong impact as a back-up striker.

But generally, United never looked a dominant force, or even particularly threatening, until deep into the second half when Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba were among those to come off the bench.

The latter's introduction came shortly after Todd Cantwell's well-taken 75th-minute equaliser, and Pogba and Anthony Martial looked the most effective of those to come off the bench.

In a week where United's distance from Premier League champions Liverpool was largely unspoken but still glaring, the performance of Solskjaer's initial chosen XI was apt.

The fact United needed to turn to so many of the manager's strongest XI against a Norwich side that is bottom of the Premier League and played all of extra-time a man down due to Timm Klose's sending off says everything of their depth in attack.

While they have made good strides with the additions of Fernandes and Ighalo, Martial and Rashford continue to improve and Greenwood boasts undoubted potential, beyond them and Pogba there is a lack of quality in depth.

Lingard, Mata and Andreas Pereira, who was an unused substitute on the day, have had little impact this season, while Daniel James – not in the squad this time – has often struggled to be influential when using his pace on the break is less of an option.

In the end, United's victory at Carrow Road had an air of inevitability about it – it was surely only a matter of time until their hopeful pumping of deliveries into the box would pay off against the 10 men, and eventually captain Harry Maguire was the one to turn home.

But the difficulty Solskjaer's fringe players had should serve as a warning and a reminder of where improvements are needed ahead of next season.

They aren't far off having an excellent starting XI, but there's little doubt their supporting cast needs improving significantly if they are to begin bridging the gap to Liverpool.

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