The search is on for a successor to Joachim Low after Germany's long-serving national team boss announced he would step down after Euro 2020.

Low will complete a 15-year tour of duty as head coach when he leads Die Mannschaft into this year's tournament, delayed a year by the COVID-19 crisis.

His contract had been due to run until after Germany's Qatar 2022 World Cup campaign, but 61-year-old Low has decided the time will be right to step aside before then.

That means the Germany Football Association (DFB) must spring into action and find the right coach to take over from Low, a World Cup winner in 2014.

DFB president Fritz Keller said: "The fact that he informed us about his decision at an early stage is very decent. He gives the DFB consequently the necessary time, calm and a sense of proportion to name his successor."

Germany is enjoying a golden era of producing world-class coaches, and here are five the DFB may consider.

Hansi Flick: Brilliant as Bayern boss, and Low's former right-hand man

Bayern have flourished under Flick's leadership over the past 18 months, having promoted him to the top job when Niko Kovac struggled to get the best from a talented group.

Club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has noisily shot down the prospect of Flick leaving to become Germany boss, saying the coach will remain at Bayern for next season.

However, Rummenigge himself will step down from his position at Bayern at the turn of the year as Oliver Kahn replaces him, and Flick may see the Germany job as offering greater long-term security.

He served as assistant to Low from 2006 to 2014 so knows the job as well as any contender.

Jurgen Klopp: Could Liverpool adventure be coming to an end?

Liverpool's steep decline in 2021 has led to the first rumblings about Klopp's Anfield future among supporters of the club.

At board level, there has been no indication Liverpool would be happy to lose the man who has led them to Champions League and Premier League title success.

It seems the former Mainz and Borussia Dortmund boss has enough goodwill in the bank to be trusted to turn around the team's fortunes, so if Klopp is to be a contender for the Germany job it would be on him to make a major career decision.

At the age of 53, could he take the methods that have served him so well in the club game onto the international stage?

Stefan Kuntz: Ready to step up?

As coach of the Germany Under-21 team, former national team midfielder Kuntz is already working in the DFB system.

To appoint him would seem an easy option, which is not to suggest it would be the wrong option.

Kuntz's young Germany team won the UEFA Under-21 Championship in 2017 and were runners-up two years later, with the likes of Thilo Kehrer, Luca Waldschmidt and Serge Gnabry all enjoying early international experience under his leadership.

Kuntz is highly regarded as a coach by his fellow Euro 96 winner Oliver Bierhoff, who is Germany's national team director, and that could be a significant factor.

Julian Nagelsmann: Too much, too young?

Nagelsmann, who does not turn 34 until July, seems a long shot for this job.

He has greatly impressed as head coach of Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig and his next calling point is likely to be a bigger club job, perhaps in Spain or England.

Nagelsmann distanced himself from the Germany job within minutes of Low's departure being announced, so it would take a change of heart for him to come into the equation.

If the DFB makes a determined play for him, however, Nagelsmann would have to decide whether he could refuse to serve his country.

Ralf Rangnick: Tactical master could be perfect pick

Veteran Rangnick looked set to join Milan last year, until the surprise element of Stefano Pioli turning the Rossoneri into a winning machine knocked that on the head.

The 62-year-old has been cited as a major influence on the generation that followed him into coaching, with Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Schalke and Leipzig among the teams he has led.

His tactics typically lean on a high-intensity pressing game, with swift counter-attacking, and Rangnick would surely relish the prospect of leading Germany into a World Cup.

Whether being out of coaching for two seasons might be a hindrance would be a matter for the DFB, with Rangnick currently employed by Red Bull's sporting division.

A new era begins in earnest for Barcelona, with Joan Laporta's second spell as president confirmed on Sunday following his victory in the election.

Regarded as arguably the most important political event at the club in a generation, much was said to be riding on the collective decision of the socios, or members, who voted.

Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font had spent months outlining their plans in public, with La Masia, the club's crippling debt and the tumult caused by the previous administration among the main focuses.

But outsiders can be forgiven for thinking the election essentially boiled down to which candidate stood the best chance of convincing Lionel Messi to stay.

Laporta's first spell as president, from 2003 to 2010, coincided with Messi's rise from the youth ranks to global star, while he was also in charge when Pep Guardiola was promoted to the top job 2008.

While nostalgia may have played a strong part in Laporta's ascension, 54 per cent of voters feel he is the best man to navigate a challenging period – but what are the most important tasks facing him?

Messi – Should he stay, or should he go?

Laporta stopped short of insisting Messi will definitely stay put under his administration, which was probably wise given he only has a few months left on his contract. Fans would have surely seen through such a promise.

However, what he did throughout his campaign was emphasise his relationship with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner, while also pointing out Messi's lack of familiarity with his rivals.

"I am the only one who can ensure his continuity. If I don't win, I'm sure Leo won't continue at Barca," Laporta said at last week's debate. "He was not very happy with Freixa's time [Laporta's rival was an ally of the discredited Josep Maria Bartomeu], when they let him see that he was expendable."

Of course, Messi attempted to force an exit last year, but his refusal to drag the issue through the courts meant Barca managed to keep hold of their prized asset.

Since then he has insisted his future is tied to the competitiveness of Barca. Laporta's discussions with him will be key, but they could be undermined should Ronald Koeman's men collapse in the latter stages of the season.

Make La Masia a force again

For years Barcelona's La Masia academy was the jewel of the club, the inspiration behind many hugely successful teams and the school that developed some of the finest players to play the game.

Even though a significant portion of the current squad have come through the ranks, La Masia's standing isn't quite what it once was and the likes of Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique are all into their thirties.

But Laporta emphasised the importance of the academy during his campaign, adamant he would look to restore it to its former glory, previously saying: "It will be our pillar, the backbone of the club's values."

Nevertheless, with Ansu Fati emerging as a ready-made star and Ilaix Moriba recently establishing himself as one to watch, La Masia's reputation is already receiving a timely boost.

Sell high-earning fringe players

Eric Abidal's spell as sporting director was ill-fated, to say the least. A day after sacking Quique Setien in August, the Frenchman was unceremoniously dismissed as well, with his overseeing of transfers making him a contentious figure long before he was eventually shown the door.

Among his purchases were the likes of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Malcom, Jeison Murillo, Junior Firpo and Antoine Griezmann – it'd be difficult to consider any of those successes.

Granted, not all of his signings have been poor, with Pedri, Clement Lenglet and Frenkie de Jong brought in under his watch, but over the past few years the club has spent a significant amount of money on sub-standard players or underperforming so-called 'superstars'

As such, the Barca squad is bloated in terms of its wage expenditure and many of the back-up players are expected to be put up for sale, easing the financial strain and boosting revenues.

But before Barca can begin outlining transfer plans and a potentially revised recruitment strategy, Laporta needs to do something else…

Establish a new sporting department

Laporta is expected to bring his own people in to manage the club's sporting structure, and Jordi Cruyff – of course, the son of Barca icon Johan – is among the frontrunners for the sporting director post.

Cruyff is still thought to have significant influence and respect inside the club due to his family name, with the former Manchester United player recently affirming to Cadena Ser that he believes his father would have always backed Laporta in an election.

Mateu Alemany, former Valencia general manager, is also widely reported to be on his way in.

Alemany had played a major role Valencia's resurgence during the previous decade but left under something of a cloud in November 2019, with the Frenchman and club owner Peter Lim at odds.

Lim had dismissed popular head coach Marcelino Garcia Toral, of whom Alemany was a staunch backer, and that left the general manager's position looking untenable, particular after local reports claimed he wasn't even consulted about the subsequent appointment of Albert Celades.

Very little has gone right for Valencia since the exits of Marcelino and Alemany – their reputations, however, have remained firmly intact.

Strengthen the squad while managing debt

It's no secret that Barcelona's financial state is a mess – they have amassed €1.2billion in debt and that has unsurprisingly impacted their clout in the transfer market.

One of Laporta's main messages ahead of the election was that Barca needed a board and president with experience in such a tricky time, and that's certainly something he has in abundance.

In his first interview since being elected, Laporta stressed the need to make the club financially stable. He told Catalunya Radio: "The first thing will be to do an audit but first I will greet the workers. The club is in mismanagement and now we will finally be able to make the necessary decisions. We will do an audit and apply our shock plan so that Barca is economically sustainable."

Drastic changes could be on the cards, yet despite the financial state of the club, they will still need to work on improving the squad.

Juggling the two won't be straightforward, particularly when you add Messi's demand for competitiveness into the mix.

After weeks of delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Barcelona will at last hold their presidential elections on Sunday, March 7.

More than 111,000 members, or socios, will cast their vote either in person at polling stations or by mail to determine who will succeed Josep Maria Bartomeu in the top job.

Bartomeu stepped down last October, just days before a scheduled vote of no confidence against his board, but interim president Carlos Tusquets has hardly had an easy few months since.

As well as a delay in the hustings, which were initially set for January 24, Barca's off-the-pitch concerns have been exacerbated by official debt levels of more than €1billion and a legal investigation that involves Bartomeu, who was provisionally released under charges of unfair administration and corruption of business on March 3.

Meanwhile, the men's senior football team requires an overhaul made even more difficult by the economic damage wrought by COVID-19, with Ronald Koeman's men chasing Atletico Madrid in LaLiga and facing a likely Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.

The presidency has therefore become arguably the toughest job in elite football and could have a significant impact on the medium-term future of the club.

Who are the candidates?

There are three men in the race for the presidency: Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.

The favourite is Laporta, who previously held the post from 2003 to 2010, one of Barca's most successful periods that saw them win 12 major trophies, including their first treble under Pep Guardiola in 2009. He remains popular with a large part of the fan base and is arguably the candidate on best terms with Lionel Messi.

Freixa, who campaigned unsuccessfully in 2015, previously advised Laporta's board of directors and served as spokesperson under Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu, and has been involved with the club for 18 years. His knowledge and experience of working for different administrations at Camp Nou could be key.

Font, meanwhile, is banking on the support of those members who feel a fresh approach is needed. A successful entrepreneur, his expertise lies in telecommunication, media and technology, but his vision for Barca's future has been worked on since 2013 and perhaps represents the most prudent option available.

What do they promise?

The message from Laporta's camp is simple: "We are a group of Barca fans with ideas for the future and the experience to carry them out." He promises to focus on "social and human" results, as well as those on the pitch and in financial statements. He has vowed to put faith back in academy products from La Masia to complement the first-team stars, while he insists he is the best chance Barca have of convincing Messi to sign a contract extension.

Freixa's campaign – Fidels al Barca, or 'True to Barca' – is, he says, "a candidacy for the people, free of outside interests". Following a member-first approach, he has vowed to correct Barca's crippling €1.2billion debt levels without the need for outside investors. Freixa's focus is on weaponising the club's passionate supporters: he wants to pack out the stadium "with Barca fans, not tourists", with reward schemes in place for the most loyal followers, and make sure the planned Espai Barca redevelopment of the stadium and surrounding area does not compromise the club's image.

Font has been building his 'Yes to the Future' campaign for the best part of eight years. Founded on "new blood and good governance", his is an honest approach: accepting the club have reached "an historic crossroads" that requires professional experience to navigate, he says his project has the groundwork and the expertise to be by far the most viable for the club's future. His plan is "to revamp collectively the club and to ensure that Barca can contribute in a tangible way to making the world a better place".

Will they hire a new coach?

Ronald Koeman has rightly become fed up with questions over his future and will be glad when Sunday's elections are over and he can find out from the new president what his job prospects look like.

While there can be few guarantees for any coach – Barca could still win the treble this season, or end up with nothing – it feels unlikely Koeman will be in charge for 2021-22.

Laporta has reportedly considered offering the job to Arsenal's Mikel Arteta, having previously struck gold with former players when he gave the inexperienced Guardiola a shot back in 2008. Font, who has the valuable support of former club captain Carles Puyol, is believed to be eager to bring Xavi back to Camp Nou after the ex-midfielder's impressive spell with Al-Sadd in Qatar.

Freixa has at least offered Koeman a public show of support until the end of his contract next year, but he too has spoken of wanting Xavi back in Catalonia sooner rather than later, even if that would initially see him take over the B team.

What will happen with transfers?

Barca's dire financial situation makes star signings, the kind on which many past club elections in Spain have been based, a very difficult thing to expect.

Font has adopted by far the more prudent approach, warning fans that selling high-earning under-performers and restructuring the wage bill is essential to stave off a deepening financial crisis, but that is not a policy that will appease fans desperate to see Barca challenging for the Champions League again.

Freixa has gone for the Hail Mary, insisting signing Kylian Mbappe AND Erling Haaland would be perfectly possible and that he has an investor lined up who could bolster the club to the tune of €250m through a stake in Barca Corporate.

Laporta's priority is to build a competitive side around their club captain...

So, what about Messi?

As mentioned, Laporta claims electing him will give Barca the best chance of convincing Messi to stay. The Argentina star broke into the first team during Laporta's previous presidency and enjoyed great success in that spell, including winning the Champions League – the trophy he covets most – under Frank Rijkaard and Guardiola.

Font and Freixa, without any personal connection to call upon, have each admitted keeping Messi depends more on Barca's ability to sell the strength of their new project to the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

Again, Font is the real pragmatist. When El Mundo leaked details of Messi's massive contract, Font rejected the notion that paying such a salary was a financial burden too great to bear, insisting Messi was an asset who helped to generate as much money as he cost. However, he also told Onda Cero: "If [Messi] is not here in the future then it would not be the end of the world."

Bayern Munich have rarely been shy about coaxing players to cross the divide and make the move from Der Klassiker rivals Borussia Dortmund.

Their willingness to do so ensured Dortmund's last spell at the top of German football, when a vibrant young side gegenpressed their way to a Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double in 2011-12 and a Champions League final a year later, was an ephemeral one, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze each making the move to Bayern in 2013 and experiencing varying degrees of success.

And the build-up to the most famous fixture in Germany was partially defined by Bayern seemingly beginning a charm offensive to attract one of Dortmund's most prized assets, Erling Haaland, to eschew potential moves elsewhere in favour of following Lewandowski's path.

"Haaland is what a centre-forward has to be," Bayern coach Hansi Flick said in his pre-match media conference. "He has an enormous hunger for goals. The future could belong to him because he has everything he needs for it."

The Norway forward's agent, Mino Raiola, has claimed only 10 clubs in the world would be able to afford to sign Haaland, who has a release clause that does not become active until 2022.

But Bayern president Herbert Hainer told Sport1 this week: "We will go even more down our successful path of signing young players with outstanding skills. We are an economically very strong and healthy club.

"Although we're also suffering massively from the pandemic, we can always bring in players when we're convinced about them."

Bayern clearly have no doubts about their financial capability to sign Haaland, and they may be convinced to make a concerted push to do so after his first-half salvo in Saturday's Klassiker, which forced Flick's men to produce a stirring comeback.

Haaland had two games without a goal prior to Dortmund's trip to the Allianz Arena.

He ended that 'drought' in the space of a minute and 14 seconds, taking a few touches to steady himself on the edge of the Bayern box and power an effort that deflected off Jerome Boateng beyond Manuel Neuer and into the bottom-right corner.

Fewer than eight minutes later, he made it 2-0, his goalscorer's instinct again shining through with a much more simple finish as he popped up in the box to turn home Thorgan Hazard's pull-back from point-blank range at the end of a wonderful Dortmund move.

His double took his tally against Bayern for the season to four goals, but he would ultimately be denied the chance to become the first player since Cristiano Ronaldo (5) in 2016-17 to score more than four in a season versus Die Roten.

A second-half ankle injury forced Haaland off, the looming second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Sevilla likely playing a role in his withdrawal on the hour.

That blow followed a first-half fightback from Bayern, which was fuelled by a predictable source in Lewandowski, who diverted a shot-turned-cross from Leroy Sane into the net before rolling home a penalty after Mahmoud Dahoud's foul on the ever influential Kingsley Coman, taking his tally of Bundesliga goals against Dortmund to a league-record 19.

Dortmund's rearguard action in a one-sided second half looked set to frustrate Bayern and keep RB Leipzig top of the Bundesliga.

But their resilience wilted late on, Schalke product Leon Goretzka hitting home on the volley in the 88th minute and Lewandowski making it 20 against his former club by completing his hat-trick with an unerring finish from the edge of the area.

It was the kind of rapid collapse from Dortmund that illustrated why Haaland, having hastily adapted to life in the Bundesliga following his move from Salzburg last year, could be keen to make a swift departure to a team better prepared to compete at the sharp end of European football, even with the highly touted Marco Rose set to take over as coach next season.

Dortmund are four points behind Eintracht Frankfurt in the race for the top four, and have a fight on their hands if they are to secure Champions League qualification for next season.

Haaland appeared set to steal the show 10 minutes into this storied fixture, but his 20-touch contribution was ultimately overshadowed by the man who reigns supreme as the Bundesliga's most potent goalscoring threat.

With Lewandowski maintaining this kind of form, Bayern have no rush to find the successor for a player under contract until 2023.

But after Haaland produced two goals from a game where had four touches in the box, his supporting role in the latest thrilling episode of this classic rivalry could compel Bayern to open the chequebook and add to what is arguably European football's most extensive embarrassment of riches.

The last derby was a rare off-day for Atletico Madrid – and for Luis Suarez.

On a run of seven wins in a row and two goals conceded, with no LaLiga defeats all season, Diego Simeone's men were second best in a 2-0 defeat last December. As for Suarez, his 73 minutes on the pitch yielded a single, wayward shot.

Still, that result turned out to be an aberration. Three months on, Atleti head into Sunday's game at the Wanda Metropolitano with a five-point lead over Real Madrid and Barca at the top of the table, and with a game in hand. Suarez, meanwhile, has scored 11 of his 16 LaLiga goals this term since that chastening day at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Suarez's form for Atleti has made a complete mockery of Barca's decision to cast him aside last year, the suggestion the striker was "too old" to be relied upon looking more foolish by the week as he spearheads their charge for a first league title since 2014.

Indeed, given his record against Madrid and the state of the league table, this weekend could be the moment Suarez tips the balance of the title race inexorably in Atletico's favour.

 

OLD HABITS

It wasn't simply being told to leave by Barca that left Suarez so incensed; it was being made to feel he was no longer good enough for "a great team".

"That's what I did not like," he told France Football. "If I hadn't done anything at a club like Barca for three or four seasons, I would have understood.

"But, every year at Barca, I scored more than 20 goals per season. I have always had good statistics, just behind Leo [Messi]."

So he is again. Suarez's 16 goals in 21 league games this term puts him second in the top-scorer standings, three behind Messi. Add in assists, and only his old team-mate (23) has had more direct goal involvements than Suarez (18) in LaLiga this season.

While Suarez is no longer as explosive as he was at Liverpool and in his earlier Barca years, he has lost little of his ruthlessness. Discounting the two penalties he has converted this term, Suarez has scored 14 times from an expected goals value of just 9.6. That differential of 4.4 is the biggest in the division, save for that of 'El Comandante', Levante's 33-year-old star striker Jose Luis Morales (5.0).

It follows that Suarez has a shot conversion rate (including blocked shots) of 23.9, the fourth-highest figure for any LaLiga player with at least 10 goals this season, the best being Roger Marti with 31.3.

The Uruguayan also boasts a big chance conversion rate of 63.2 per cent, having scored 12 out of 19 this term. No player to have scored from at least 10 big chances can match that success rate. That cutting edge in a team that has conceded just 16 league goals in 24 matches is a potent combination.

 

CAN SUAREZ STOP THE DERBY ROT?

Atleti followed December's derby defeat by winning 10 of their next 12 games, the only slip-ups being a Copa del Rey shock at Cornella and a 2-2 home draw with Celta Vigo on February 8 (in which Suarez scored twice).

However, including that result, they have won only twice in their past five league matches, a run that has emboldened Barca and Madrid's title hopes and left fans wondering whether 'Hay Liga' after all.

A dip in form before a derby is never positive, but Atleti in particular need no extra pessimism. They have not won any of the most recent nine league meetings with Madrid, their longest run without a victory under Diego Simeone, and they have not even scored in the previous three. Only once in their history have they gone four league derbies without a goal.

Madrid are also the only team to play a league match at the Wanda Metropolitano without ever losing (one win, two draws), with Simeone having won only 12.5 per cent of league games against opposite number Zinedine Zidane, his worst return against any coach from at least four meetings.

But Suarez has happy memories of facing Los Blancos. Although he's gone two games without scoring against them, his goal record overall reads nine scored in 12 league appearances versus Madrid, the most of any player since his first season in Spain in 2014-15.

What's more, he has an all-important side-kick back in form.

 

JOAO, THAT'S IMPRESSIVE

Joao Felix's sublime strike against Villarreal secured a valuable three points for Atleti last time out and ended his own month-long goal drought. He responded with a stony-faced 'shushing' celebration, to which a delighted Simeone responded: "I love it when players rebel."

Simeone will be desperate to see his €126m man in a similar mood come Sunday. Not only is he Atleti's most exciting individual talent, but he's also the man who has brought the best out of Suarez this season.

Joao Felix has created eight chances for Suarez in LaLiga in 2020-21, more than any other Atleti player. Of his four assists, three have been for the former Ajax man; only Marcos Llorente has provided as many for Atleti's number nine.

Perhaps Suarez has found a kindred spirit in Joao Felix: supremely talented, decisive, and "rebellious". What better double act to deploy in the Atleti's most important LaLiga derby in seven years?

When Borussia Dortmund parted with a reported €20million to sign Erling Haaland from Salzburg a little over a year ago, they'll have been acutely aware of the coup they'd just struck – but whether they expected him to be quite this good is another matter entirely.

Those explosive first few months of the 2019-20 season at Salzburg left most of Europe's biggest clubs clamouring for the Norwegian, but Bayern were seemingly not among them. At least, not in the final straight.

While you can't necessarily have too many great players, few at the time or since have decried Bayern's lack of interest in the striking sensation, and that purely comes down to the presence of Robert Lewandowski.

Eleven months on from Haaland's Dortmund debut, Lewandowski won the FIFA Best Men's Player award having scored 60 goals across the qualifying period and led Bayern to a treble.

But the fact Haaland - named the Golden Boy soon after - was seen as unfortunate not to be nominated for the major gong ultimately won by Lewandowski is testament to the former Molde youngster's frightening potential.

Saturday's Der Klassiker is unlikely to have much bearing on Dortmund's Bundesliga title hopes given they'll still be 10 points behind Bayern even if they win, but the game does provide the opportunity to see the two sharp-shooters pitted against each other, like gunslingers in an old Western movie.

Haaland, along with Kylian Mbappe, is being outlined as the world's next great number nine, but is he already ahead of even Lewandowski?

LEWY'S LONG ROAD

It's easy to forget Lewandowski's backstory and route to the top, simply because he has been one of Europe's most-feared strikers for so long.

But Lewandowski's tale is one of rejection, perseverance and mastery – to say he always looked destined to reach the level he has would be revisionist. After all, the early years of his career in Poland were impacted by the death of his father, being cast aside by Legia Warsaw, a serious injury and failed transfers.

Sporting Gijon turned him down and the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull resulted in the collapse of a move from Lech Poznan to Blackburn Rovers.

 

He joined Dortmund in June of that year, a couple of months before his 22nd birthday – by comparison, Haaland was still six months from turning 20 when he signed for BVB.

On top of that, Haaland's early impact on the Bundesliga has been far superior to that of Lewandowski, whose first season yielded only nine goals in 42 games across all competitions. The Norwegian managed 24 in 27 matches.

Looking at that alone, it's easy to make the assumption that Haaland is destined for even greater things than Lewandowski, but it's worth pointing out the Pole was played out of position a lot in his first campaign.

"I was annoyed having to play as a number 10 instead of playing up front as the number nine," Lewandowski told the Daily Mail in 2016. "I played the whole season as number 10. The following season I thought about why I was in that position, then I realised my game had improved. I learned a lot and, when I played up top again, I realised playing as a number 10 had made me a better player."

The data backs him up as well. Not only did his overall productivity in front of goal improve from nine goals to 30, he was proving more consistent generally in those decisive moments, his conversion rate increasing from 8.5 per cent to 19.5.

DIFFERENT BEASTS

When looking at – or comparing – any player in relation to Lewandowski, you have to consider the two different versions of him; pre-26 and post-26.

It was around this age that Lewandowski began to harness the fitness and nutrition expertise of his wife Anna, and it's quite easy to spot when that appeared to start paying dividends, as his goals haul rocketed from 25 to 42 in 2015-16.

He has not gone below 40 in any full season since then and already has 34 to his name in 2020-21 (32 appearances) – he is also just four behind Klaus Fischer (268), the second most-prolific player in Bundesliga history.

Haaland's long-term future isn't at Dortmund and, by extension, doesn't appear to be in the Bundesliga, so matching Lewandowski's record in Germany's top-flight looks unlikely.

But what's clear is he has found this 'world-class' level much earlier than Lewandowski – Haaland has more goals (55) across all competitions than any other current under-21 player in Europe's top five leagues despite playing just 57 games. Jadon Sancho is his closest rival with 46 in 130 appearances.

 

Haaland's first Bundesliga season with Dortmund saw him score 13 times, outperforming his expected goals (xG) by 4.2 – that's a greater differential than Lewandowski has recorded since 2016-17 (7.8), though the youngster's figure here has dropped to 2.5 in 2020-21.

While that is 0.7 less than Lewandowski's 3.2 xG differential, either way he's scoring a lot of goals and more than he would ordinarily be expected to over a long period of time, which speaks for his clinical nature.

Further to that, Haaland – who earlier this term became the youngest player to net four in one Bundesliga game (20 years, 123 days) – boasts a stunning conversion rate at Dortmund. Last season's 41.4 per cent (all competitions) is better than Lewandowski has ever managed, though it was of course limited to half a season.

In 2020-21 he hasn't quite found the same standard, yet his 29.7 conversion rate in all competitions is still better than any other Bundesliga player with 10 goals or more. By comparison, Lewandowski's 28.3 per cent will be a career-high for a single season if he maintains it.

BRILLIANCE IN LONGEVITY

At the very least, Haaland is already a contemporary of Lewandowski's – his effectiveness in front of goal is utterly devastating and, as demonstrated, seemingly a level above that of the Bayern talisman during his early Bundesliga days.

But the challenge for Haaland is to maintain that level and keep kicking on, as Lewandowski clearly did around the age of 26 when analysing what he could do better, taking himself from an excellent number nine to arguably the best of his generation.

Haaland is building from a higher platform than Lewandowski ever was, therefore one has to suspect he has the potential to surpass his exploits.

Maybe he could be this generation's standard-bearer. If he has half the amount of perseverance as Lewandowski, that'd be a good start.

As for whether he's already better than Lewandowski – well, part of the Bayern man's brilliance is his longevity and consistency, how he seems to be getting better with age. But for Haaland to be rivalling the world's best before he's even 21 is an achievement in itself.

It is not normally a mood he has to strive too hard to locate but, after Barcelona's restorative 2-0 win over Sevilla at the weekend, Gerard Pique was bullish.

On Wednesday, Ronald Koeman's side will seek to overturn the same deficit in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final against the Andalusian club.

The chastening 4-1 Champions League loss to Paris Saint-Germain, where Pique's return from three months out with a knee injury was entirely ruined by him having to try to mark Kylian Mbappe, left Barca's hopes of averting a second trophy-less season hanging by a thread.

But goals from Ousmane Dembele and Lionel Messi made it back-to-back LaLiga wins last time out, while there is the prospect of one or both of the Madrid clubs dropping points when they meet on Sunday.

"We've seen much worse things and the team, despite those two games, is one to believe in this year," Pique said.

"It's not an ideal situation, but I'm confident in the team. Everything is in our head. If we turn it around on Wednesday, the season changes completely."

Wind the pre-match build-up forward a few days and Barcelona's offices have been raided, their ex-president has been arrested, candidates for this weekend's presidential election are lambasting one another in public and Koeman is fielding questions about his future.

It's not an ideal situation.

Of course, this is the state of perma-chaos in which Barcelona reside nowadays. It is a state that persuaded Messi to try to force his exit from the club and it is a state within which they must now convince him to remain when the great man's contract expires in June.

Even more so than in the trophy-laden days that have dominated his record-breaking career, everything at Barca is shot through an unblinking Messi lens.

Take the dramatic off-field developments of recent days.

Josep Maria Bartomeu was the president who drove Messi to the brink of leaving. In fact, the superstar forward was only forced to stay because he claimed Bartomeu went back on a promise to let him walk away if he chose to do so at the end of 2019-20 – a season that, of course, concluded with that implausible 8-2 humiliation against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

Bartomeu's arrest by Catalan police to face charges of unfair administration and corruption of business was reportedly related to the "Barcagate" scandal, when social media company 13 Ventures were allegedly paid to smear club greats, including Messi. Pricewaterhouse Coopers were commissioned by Bartomeu to investigate the matter and found in Barca's favour.

Joan Laporta, president during those glory years when Messi blossomed under Guardiola, is favourite to be elected for a return to the top job. On Tuesday, he debated opponents Victor Font and Toni Freixa, and Messi was obviously on the agenda.

Laporta believes he is the only candidate who can "ensure" a Messi stay, boasting of "a great relationship with Leo" and using this as a point of difference between himself and Bartomeu ally Freixa.

Font believes he has the best proposition for Messi, namely bring back his old team-mate as head coach. Which is a lovely idea, if not a lovely subject for Koeman to address a couple of hours later at his news conference to preview a potentially season-defining game.

Maybe this is why Messi continues to hold his cards close to his chest. So long as only he knows his intentions over his future, he is in control. Soon enough it will become a matter of public debate, blame, recriminations and conspiracy.

The other thing he still controls masterfully is events on the field.

Much of the talk around Messi's future increasingly centres on his age. Next season he'll be 34. Would he enhance the destructive power of the PSG forward line that wrought such havoc at Camp Nou? Do City need another twinkle-toed creator sauntering in off the right flank?

To dismiss Messi as being over-the-hill, as some would have you believe, needs a little evidence to back it up. He has been most unhelpful in that regard.

In 2021, no player in Europe's top five leagues has more than his 14 goals (level with Robert Lewandowski) across all competitions.

Messi rounded off an all-action showing against Sevilla on Saturday with his 30th goal against them in LaLiga. He has never scored more often against a single opponent.

He supplied the assist for Dembele and completed 41 of 45 passes in the opposition half (91.1 per cent). Additionally, the Argentina international has attempted 100 dribbles this season – putting him second to Adama Traore in the top five leagues.

"What he wants is to win again," Laporta said, before casting himself ambitiously at the heart of this story. "If I don't win, I'm sure Leo won't continue at Barca."

It is hard to imagine Messi pouring over Sunday's election results with any great concern. He feels like a man on a mission and in the mood as events clatter on ominously all around him. On the pitch he remains in charge, about the only guarantee an embattled Barcelona have left.

The past week in the NBA saw the Brooklyn Nets do something they hadn't previously done since February 9... lose a game.

Brooklyn's defeat to the Dallas Mavericks gave a boost to their rivals for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, headed by the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Milwaukee Bucks, another of those competitors, enjoyed a superb week with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo unsurprisingly coming to the fore.

Meanwhile, out west, Devin Booker strung together a series of performances that justified his place in the All-Star game.

By contrast, two players significantly more familiar with that contest suffered dips in form.

Here we take a look at some of the best and worst performers across the past week, aided by Stats Perform data.

 

RUNNING HOT...

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks are firmly back in contention for the top seed in the East after stretching their winning run to five games, with three of those victories coming in the past week.

Antetokounmpo was predictably pivotal to their success, tallying over 30 points in each matchup to extend his streak to four games in that regard.

He finished the week with back-to-back double-doubles against the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers, scoring 36 points in the latter game.

His points per game average jumped from 28.37 to 37, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks sending a message that they are still very much a contender for the title.

Devin Booker

The All-Star snub who was later added as a replacement showed why he deserves his place in the showcase this past week.

Booker averaged 33 points across the Phoenix Suns' three games, an impressive improvement on his previous season-long average of 24.28.

He capped it in stunning fashion, dropping 43 in the win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, which saw him go 15 for 26 from the field.

At 22-11, the Suns will loom as a dangerous playoff team should he continue that kind of form.

James Harden

Brooklyn may have finally seen their eight-game winning streak come to an end, but it was a positive week for Harden individually.

Absent the other two members of the Nets' big three, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Harden could not prevent them from falling to defeat to the Mavericks.

However, he was more prolific from beyond the arc this past week, averaging 4.67 made threes having entered the week putting up 3.08 per game.

Harden is converting threes at the highest rate of his career. He is shooting 39.7 per cent from beyond the arc and 41.8 per cent since his trade to Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets.

But he is attempting only 8.2 a game, the fewest since the 2015-16 season (8.0). If he continues to shoot more from deep and maintains his consistency in converting those attempts, a loaded Nets team will have yet another dimension.

GOING COLD...

Paul George

An up-and-down week for the Clippers started brilliantly for George, who racked up 30 points in a win over the Washington Wizards, going six of seven from three-point range.

But he tailed off thereafter, following up two 13-point efforts against the Memphis Grizzlies with a mediocre 16-point display in the loss to the Bucks.

His points per game average fell from 24.36 entering the week to 18 over the past seven days, and the Clippers will need a lot more from him if they are to earn a top-two seed in the West.

Terry Rozier

The man known as 'Scary Terry' did little to terrify opponents over the past week.

Rozier entered the week averaging a career-high 21.15 points per game but that dipped to 13.5 over the four games the Charlotte Hornets contested in the last seven days.

He put up 24 points in a loss to the Golden State Warriors but could not manage more than 12 in his other three outings.

Still averaging 20.2 a game for the season, the Hornets will want Rozier to deliver the kind of performance he did against Golden State consistently as they seek a first playoff berth since 2015-16.

Stephen Curry

Among the players to suffer the biggest decline in three-point shooting this past week was the man most consider the greatest shooter of all time.

Curry had been converting 5.03 three-pointers a game for the season but hit on an average of 3.25 a game as the Warriors won three of four last week.

He still enjoyed a 37-point outing against the New York Knicks, scoring seven triples in that triumph, but was one for 11 from deep versus the Indiana Pacers and two for seven in Sunday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, with Curry experiencing a season in which he is averaging his highest points per game tally (29.5) since his unanimous MVP season of 2015-16 (30.1), the smart money says he will soon return to form from beyond the arc.

There was an enticing Italian appetiser to Chelsea and Manchester United's lukewarm main course on Sunday.

Antonio Conte's Inter stretched their lead at the top of Serie A to seven points, beating Genoa 3-0 at San Siro thanks to goals from three former United players. They've now won 14 of their previous 17 league games and failed to score just once in that run. They will more than likely become champions for the first time since 2010 under Jose Mourinho, the last manager to deliver trophies at United and the most successful modern coach Chelsea have had.

Assessing the match at Stamford Bridge through the lens of another game in another country probably tells you enough about the quality of the contest.

With Leicester City having lost to Arsenal and Manchester City beating West Ham, this was a chance for United to consolidate second place in the table, and just maybe keep their title hopes from sputtering into ash. For Chelsea, earlier results meant this represented an opening into the top four and a means to close the gap to the Red Devils to three points, all while prolonging the Thomas Tuchel unbeaten streak to nine games.

They may not sound like the loftiest of ambitions, but this was not a game of ambition, or excitement, or precision. It was the coronavirus football calendar made flesh: frenetic, apprehensive, with a permeating feeling that things would, eventually, get better.

That Inter reference was not meant as a 'what if'. Conte's time at Chelsea was a success but the relationship had soured long before they parted ways. As for United, nobody could honestly claim they should have kept Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez, scorers of Inter's second and third goals. And while Romelu Lukaku continues to rampage through Serie A defences, United have become leading goalscorers in the Premier League this season without their old number nine, who had wanted to leave anyway.

Still, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, United have swapped potency for pragmatism when it comes to facing the 'big six'. It's made for soporific viewing: 0-0 twice against Chelsea, 0-1 and 0-0 against Arsenal, 0-0 against Liverpool, 0-0 and 0-2 (in the EFL Cup) against City. All their previous four such games have ended goalless. At least that 6-1 battering at home to Tottenham in October saw them score a penalty.

Solskjaer highlighted the need for more in "tighter games" in the build-up, but his message – and Tuchel's – was still contain first and attack later. Marcus Rashford's whirligig of a free-kick was as close to a goal as they came in the first half, beyond a penalty shout for a Callum Hudson-Odoi handball. Chelsea were scarcely more enterprising, but at least Olivier Giroud was a centimetre or two of scalp from heading a Hudson-Odoi cross on target.

There were flashes after the break. Mason Greenwood cracked a shot narrowly over, Scott McTominay planted one in Edouard Mendy's midriff, a curling right-foot shot from Fred drew an amused thumbs-up from his manager. At least he was smiling; even a grin seems beyond Anthony Martial at the moment, the striker touching the ball six times in his 11 minutes on the pitch.

Perhaps a goalless draw really was Solskjaer's plan all along: perhaps even the baby-faced assassin accepts City have long since killed the title competition. In that sense, moving a point above Leicester, maintaining the gap to Chelsea and stretching the club-record unbeaten away run to 20 league games is no disaster.

But is this the way to win titles again? The way to get at City at the Etihad Stadium next week? The so-called United Way?

As ruthless Wales celebrated winning the Triple Crown, Eddie Jones might have been regretting saying the pressure would be on referee Pascal Gauzere in Cardiff.

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac endured a difficult start to his reign after succeeding Warren Gatland, but his side are two victories from a Grand Slam after beating the defending champions 40-24.

England, on the other hand, saw the Six Nations title all-but slip through their fingers as they were left to rue poor discipline and two controversial first-half tries for Wales.

Red Rose boss Jones has previous with Gauzere and spoke to World Rugby about an incident involving the French official during Wales' win over Scotland in 2018.

The Australian was his usually outspoken self ahead of Saturday's clash at the Principality Stadium.

He said: "Unfortunately, there are no fans but the intensity of the clash I think over the last four or five years, the games I have been involved in, the points difference is six points. They always go down to the wire, so the pressure is going to be on the referee to make the right decisions."

So when Gauzere twice took centre stage in the first half by awarding tries for Josh Adams and Liam Williams, Jones may have been thinking he had made the wrong decision by putting the spotlight on the referee.

Jones should also be pointing the finger at his players, who he said had become more "street-smart" than they were when losing to Wales at the same stadium two years ago.

They were their own worst enemies, conceding 14 penalties as they lost for the second time in three matches, but Gauzere left them up against it and resurgent Wales took full advantage.

Owen Farrell has come in for criticism for having too much to say to referees, but he was understandably aggrieved when Adams was awarded an opening try 16 minutes in.

Gauzere had called time out after instructing the skipper to warn his team-mates about their indiscipline, only to give Dan Biggar the green light to pick out Adams with a pinpoint cross-field kick soon after with the majority of Red Rose caught out in a huddle.

Farrell exchanged words with Gauzere before reducing the deficit to 10-6 with his second penalty, yet the French official took centre stage once again when he raised his arm to signal a try for Williams with half an hour on the clock.

Louis Rees-Zammit was shaking his head in frustration after knocking the ball forward prior to Williams dotting down, but Gauzere opted against changing his decision after consulting the TMO as the ball struck the wing's leg prior to hitting the ground after he knocked it forward.

Rees-Zammit raised eyebrows over the verdict and England responded with a well-finished try from Anthony Watson before Farrell made it 17-14 just before the break.

Kieran Hardy caught England napping early in the second half with a sharp turn of foot to score a third Wales try but Farrell made it a seven-point game when he was on target with the boot again.

England were showing the sort of inventive play they were so badly lacking in the defeat to Scotland and the quick-thinking Ben Youngs nipped in for a superb try, which Farrell converted to level at 24-24 with 17 minutes to go.

The Red Rose continued to give away far too many penalties, though, and Callum Sheedy punished them on three occasion to put Pivac's men 33-24 up with six minutes remaining.

Cory Hill put the icing on the cake as it was Wales who proved to be more "street-smart”, with Pivac celebrating gleefully as his side took a big stride on the road towards another title.

It was another special day for Ravichandran Ashwin as the India all-rounder claimed his 400th Test wicket at the stunning Narendra Modi Stadium. 

Ashwin dismissed Jofra Archer during a short-lived day-night match against England in Ahmedabad, in the process becoming only the fourth India bowler to reach the landmark. 

The spinner joins compatriots Anil Kumble, Kapil Dev and Harbhajan Singh in the 400 club, while he is the 16th player to achieve the feat in the longest format. 

Ashwin brought up the milestone in only his 77th match; there will surely be plenty more to come for the 34-year-old, too. 

His standout numbers with the ball in the Test arena since making his debut versus West Indies in November 2011 make for impressive reading.


A five-star performer

Ashwin has taken 29 five-wicket Test hauls, a tally only six players have bettered: Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Richard Hadlee, Kumble, Rangana Herath and James Anderson. 

The in-form Ashwin is just one shy of England seamer Anderson's total of 30, having taken 6-61 in the second innings of the first Test and 5-43 in the first innings of a second match India won emphatically to level the series. 

While not quite able to add to the collection in Ahmedabad, he still finished the game with impressive match figures of 7-74. 

Ashwin has taken six five-wicket hauls in as many Tests against New Zealand - more than any other side.  He has claimed 10 scalps in a Test on seven occasions and seven in an innings five times.


A thorn in Australia's side

Ashwin has racked up 89 of his wickets against Australia, more than any other side.

They were taken in 18 matches at an average of 31.5, while he has also thrived against England over the years - taking 73 wickets at 32.2 apiece.

Ashwin has 39 Test wickets in Australia, more than any nation other than his homeland.

His best performance came in October 2016 against New Zealand in Indore, helping himself to match figures of 13-140 - including 7-59 in the second innings of a crushing 321-run win.


A liking for left-handers

Ashwin has had great success bowling at left-handers over the years. 

He has dismissed a left-hander on 205 occasions, with his average against them at 19.5 compared to 31.2 against right-handers before play began in the third Test.

Ben Stokes is among the batsmen who has suffered at the hands of Ashwin the most; he has dismissed the England all-rounder 11 times in total.

Only Muralitharan managed to make it to 400 in fewer Tests and while Kumble's final total of 619 may be an ambitious target, it seems certain that by the time Ashwin decides to retire, India's newest member of the prestigious club will occupy at least second place on their all-time list for wickets.

Of all the hotly debated topics of the sports world, perhaps none is harder to reach a conclusion on than what exactly constitutes an MVP.

Whether discussing NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, there has never been a definitive answer on what someone needs to do to win a sport's most coveted individual award.  

Clearly, putting up impressive numbers is a must, that much is obvious. But can a player truly be an MVP for example if his team doesn't reach the playoffs? Or what if that player, regardless of statistics, is surrounded by all kinds of talent, should his chances then be diminished? And where does leadership come in? Shouldn't a candidate judged to be the best in the league be not only a scoring or offensive leader, but also a motivational force for his teammates to follow?  

This NBA season is bringing that debate back around, as several players have legitimate cases to take home the award.   

LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry are all worthy of being named MVP, but another player is doing even more with less and is truly defining what it means to be most valuable: Damian Lillard.  

Lillard is a seven-time All-Star and has been voted first or second All-NBA four times but has never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting. Lillard is having the best of his nine NBA seasons while almost single-handedly pushing the Trail Blazers to the upper reaches of the Western Conference.  

It's far from just scoring a bunch of points, though the Blazers star is doing plenty of that. He ranks fourth in the NBA with 29.6 points per game and is eighth with 8.0 assists. His 124 three-pointers trail only Curry, and he is fourth in free throws made (211). Lillard is tied with Bradley Beal (18) for the most 30-point games this season and is tied for the league lead (Curry) with 14 games of 30 points and five three-pointers. 

Where Lillard really separates himself from the pack is his continued performances in late and close situations (defined as the last two minutes of games separated by four points or fewer).   

Lillard has always been electric in high-stakes spots but he has taken it to a new level this season. He leads the NBA in points (52), is tied for the lead in field goals made (15) and hasn't missed a free throw (17 for 17) in late and close situations. He's also 15 for 20 (62.5 percent) from the field and five for eight from three-point range.   

The only other players in double figures in field goals made in late and close situations are James and Zach LaVine. James, however, is 14 for 31 (45.2 percent) from the floor and LaVine is 15 for 35 (42.9). 

To further illustrate Lillard’s clutch play, he's made nine of 13 shots (69.2 percent) in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within four points. LaVine is the only other player with as many as nine field goals in that situation but he's nine for 23 (39.1 percent).  

During Portland's 6-1 surge from February 9-20, Lillard was sensational. He averaged 32.7 points and 9.6 assists while shooting 38.8 percent (33 for 85) from three-point range.  

He tallied at least 30 points and 10 assists in four consecutive games during that stretch, the second straight season he's done that. The only other players to accomplish that since 1985-86 are Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Doncic.  

In a 126-124 win at New Orleans on February 17, Lillard became just the third player since at least 1985-86 to record 43 points and 16 assists in a game, joining Harden (twice) and Trae Young. Lillard had 11 fourth-quarter points in that win, including a go-ahead three-point play with 16.5 seconds remaining.  

Three nights earlier in a 121-118 win at Dallas, Lillard drilled a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 32 seconds remaining for the last of his 34 points.  

It should be mentioned that the other starters in those games for Portland were Robert Covington (waived, traded three times), Derrick Jones Jr (undrafted, waived), Enes Kanter (waived, traded three times) and Gary Trent Jr. (second-round draft pick).   

Sure, the Blazers also had the promising Anfernee Simons in that game, and 54-year-old Carmelo Anthony (not his real age but he's been around a while).  

Lillard is without question doing remarkable things with a very pedestrian supporting cast. And Portland (18-13) is doing far more than just getting by, winning eight of 12 to move up to second in the Northwest Division and fifth in the super competitive Western Conference.  

One big reason for Portland's success is its record in close games and Lillard has everything to do with that. After going 18-21 last season in games decided by nine points or fewer, the Blazers are 11-5 (.688) this season. Only Philadelphia (.765) has a better winning percentage. 

Portland's rise is remarkably coming without starting guard CJ McCollum, who has been out since January 16 with a broken foot, and starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a broken wrist two days earlier.  

Since January 18, when the Blazers began playing without McCollum and Nurkic, Lillard ranks third in the NBA in points per game (31.2) and fifth in assists (9.0). He's also third in 3-pointers made (196) and sixth in free throws made (119).  

With McCollum and his 26.7 points per game on the sidelines, Lillard has needed to carry perhaps the greatest offensive load of any player, and that can be a challenging proposition for any point guard.   

Curry, for example, while also a point guard, has Draymond Green to facilitate the offense, leaving him free to look for ways to score. James for all his incredible exploits isn't solely responsible for making sure Anthony Davis (when healthy) gets his touches and Embiid has Ben Simmons to distribute and score. Even the mega-talented Doncic has 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis to attract attention from opposing defenses.  

No team playing Portland this season has been too concerned with anyone on the floor other than Lillard, particularly now with McCollum out. Covington, Jones and Kanter are solid players but no team has ever installed a game plan designed to keep the ball out of their hands.  

Portland are 12.3 points per 100 possessions better when Lillard is on the floor. By comparison, the Lakers are 8.3 points better with James on the court and the Warriors score 9.9 more when Curry is in the game. 

While there clearly are other factors at play in these numbers, it's not difficult to make a case that no other player in the league is more valuable to their team than Lillard to the Blazers right now.  

Tiger Woods is no stranger to comebacks.

Between 2014 and 2017, when an injury-plagued Woods was barely able to compete at the highest level, let alone seriously contend for honours, there were plenty of compelling storylines in golf's major championships.

Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth each won two in succession to suggest a glorious new rivalry was in prospect, while the latter sensationally threw away the Masters in 2016 before producing a remarkable recovery to win the following year's Open. In addition, there were two truly memorable final-day duels, Henrik Stenson edging out Phil Mickelson to win the 2016 Open Championship and Sergio Garcia pipping Justin Rose at Augusta nine months later.

By the time Garcia finally earned major glory at the 74th attempt, it was becoming easy to view Woods' career as a top-level player in the past tense. 

Little more than a month later, the former world number one was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in Florida, following an unexpected reaction to prescription medicine, and a humiliating mugshot of Woods made headlines around the world.

In light of that embarrassing episode and Woods' continued back problems, it was truly incredible to see a resurgent Tiger threaten to win two majors in 2018 before he then ended a five-year victory drought at the Tour Championship.

Yet it turned out the best was still to come. And there can be no doubt that the events of April 14, 2019 at Augusta comfortably trump all of the aforementioned major narratives. If golf was good in Woods' absence, it got a whole lot better when he returned, and the world will hope he has another comeback in him after Tuesday's car accident in Los Angeles.

In winning the Masters for a fifth time, Woods not only added the most remarkable chapter to his stunning career, but he once again proved he is the one athlete who moves the needle like no other.

While the likes of Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Tom Brady, and LeBron James are all rightly recognised as masters of their respective crafts, none of those superstars can match Woods when it comes to the impact they have on their sport.

When Woods is successful, interest in golf is taken to a whole new level, for one simple reason.

As Williams herself tweeted at the time of his Masters triumph, to watch his success was to witness "greatness like no other".

It is essentially impossible to quantify whether Messi is better than Federer, or whether Serena is superior to James, given they are competing in different fields.

Yet it is hard to envisage any active sportsperson commanding more attention than a successful Woods. More than a decade after his period of outrageous dominance in golf ended, he once again reprised his role as sport's most captivating figure, one who somehow regained a majestic aura after it appeared he was a busted flush.

When he secured victory at the 2019 Masters, it felt like the whole world was watching, and doubtless they are watching now – hoping for another miracle comeback.

Tiger Woods was taken to hospital with "multiple leg injuries" sustained in a car crash in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Woods was the sole occupant of a vehicle which rolled over on the border of Rolling Hills Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes.

Mark Steinberg – the 15-time major champion's agent – confirmed Woods underwent surgery following the accident.

Woods was already recovering from his latest back surgery ahead of April's Masters, a long-standing issue requiring five procedures in recent years.

The 45-year-old American superstar has enjoyed a remarkable career, winning 82 PGA Tour titles among other honours.

Stats Perform News looks at Woods' greatest moments.


Mastering Augusta

Having turned professional a year earlier, Woods – an already prodigious talent – earned the first of his major titles in sensational fashion at the Masters in 1997.

A record low score of 270 (later matched by Jordan Spieth), the biggest margin of victory at Augusta (12 shots) and the youngest Masters champion. Not bad going for a 21-year-old.


Gutsing it out against Garcia

Two years on and along came another player tipped for golfing superstardom in Sergio Garcia.

A 19-year-old Garcia, who started the final round of the US PGA Championship two shots adrift of Woods and Mike Weir, threatened to derail his rival's hopes of a second major by moving into a one-shot lead.

But Woods, not for the first time, pulled out all the stops – including a stunning escape from behind a tree en route to glory at Medinah.


Making history at Pebble Beach

By 2000, Woods' star was approaching its zenith and at that year's U.S. Open he produced the most dominant performance in major history.

Not only was his 15-stroke margin of victory the largest ever in one of golf's premier strokeplay events, he was the only player that weekend at Pebble Beach to finish under par.


Grand Slam complete

Just a month later and Woods was in dominant form again as he triumphed by eight shots to win The Open at St Andrews.

Of even more significance, the victory saw Woods become the fifth player to achieve the career Grand Slam and, at the age of 24, he was the youngest to do so.


Completing the 'Tiger Slam'

The accolades just kept on rolling and, by the following March, Woods achieved something no other player has done before or since.

By winning the Masters, Woods was in possession of all four major titles. As he did not do so in the same year, it was not recognised as a single-season Grand Slam, thus it became dubbed the 'Tiger Slam'.


That shot at Augusta

By going almost three years without winning one of golf's big four, Woods, by his own remarkable standards, suffered something of a drought during the mid-noughties.

But that changed at a dramatic 2005 Masters. Starting three shots ahead of Chris DiMarco on the Sunday, Woods endured a mixed round but pulled clear with one of the greatest moments in the tournament's illustrious history.

A chip from behind the green began well left of the pin, turned at 90 degrees and rolled towards the hole. Agonisingly, the ball stopped on the edge of the cup before dropping in after what felt like a lifetime.

Woods went on to bogey the next two holes, but eventually triumphed via a play-off.


An emotional Open victory

Woods went through personal tragedy in May 2006 after his father Earl passed away. 

Following the loss of his father, Woods played a reduced schedule but held off a star-studded cast – again including DiMarco – to win by two shots at The Open.

There were tears aplenty, not just from Woods, after the most emotional of victories.


Memorable Mediate battle

The most unlikely of Woods' 15 major victories, at least until this week, came when he somehow won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines despite being hampered by serious injuries to his left leg.

What is more, Woods even came through a 19-hole play-off with Rocco Mediate, an incredible feat given his lack of fitness. He took the rest of the year off after prevailing.


80 not out

Many, including Woods himself, questioned if he would play again, let alone win again, as he struggled badly with a succession of back injuries in recent years.

Yet you can never write off a competitor like Tiger and he ended a five-year winning drought in style at East Lake, sealing his 80th PGA Tour victory at the 2018 Tour Championship.

 

Five times a Master

If returning to the winner's circle was phenomenal enough, Woods was not finished there.

After contending at the U.S. Open and US PGA Championship in 2018, he sensationally won the Masters for a fifth time on Sunday, coming from behind for the first time in the final round of a major.

Francesco Molinari was two clear with 18 - and seven - to play, but the day belonged to Woods as he triumphed to spark jubilant celebrations.

 

Tiger matches Snead

He secured a record-equalling 82nd PGA Tour crown after winning the Zozo Championship in October 2019.

Woods sealed an historic three-stroke win to draw level with Sam Snead for the most victories on Tour.

The races for the top seeds in each conference in the NBA are getting more interesting.

It was a fascinating seven days of action in the NBA, which saw the Brooklyn Nets surge even with Kevin Durant on the sidelines.

They are on a six-game win streak and trail the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers by only half a game.

However, the Sixers can be encouraged by the form of their top two stars, who each enjoyed extremely productive weeks.

The Los Angeles Lakers are on a two-game losing streak and are two and a half games back of the Utah Jazz in the race for the top seed in the Western Conference.

They will be out to get back to their best this week, and an improvement in three-point shooting from the MVP frontrunner would be beneficial to them doing that.

Here we take a look at some of the best and worst performers across the past week, aided by Stats Perform data.

RUNNING HOT...

Ben Simmons

Simmons missed two games last week due to stomach flu but he was excellent in the pair of games in which he did feature for the Sixers.

He dropped 42 points in the loss to the Utah Jazz and, after a brief spell on the sidelines, was back with 28 in the defeat to the Toronto Raptors.

His points per game average for the week ballooned to 35, Simmons having entered the week putting up 14.13. Philadelphia will need more of the same the rest of the way if the Sixers are to clinch top spot in the East.

Jamal Murray

The Nuggets are in the thick of a crowded playoff race in the Western Conference, and their hopes of reaching the postseason will be boosted if Murray can maintain his form of the past week.

Having come into the week scoring 18.54 points per game, he averaged 35 last week, with that number inflated by a stunning 50-point game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which saw him shoot 84 per cent from the field and go eight of 10 from three-point range.

He went from putting up just over two triples per game to averaging five and, with a game against a Portland Trail Blazers team two and a half games ahead of them in the standings next up, Murray's success from deep will be pivotal.

Joel Embiid

Arguably the closest challenger to LeBron James for the league MVP award this season, Embiid was a monster on the boards for the Sixers this week.

His 50-point game in the win over the Chicago Bulls on Friday was also the first of two successive outings with 17 rebounds. 

Embiid's rebounds per game average jumped from 10.77 entering the week to 15 over the past seven days.

He will need to continue making that kind of all-round impact in scoring and rebounding if Embiid is to have any hope of denying LeBron the MVP.

GOING COLD...

Derrick Rose

Rose's second week as a New York Knick did not go to plan.

The 2011 MVP had come into the week registering 14.28 points per game, but that dropped to just 5.33 over the course of the last three games.

He endured a dismal week from the field, hitting just five of his 27 shots. Having gotten him out of a bad situation in Detroit, the Knicks will want a lot more from Rose in the coming weeks as they look to cement their grasp on a playoff spot.

Nikola Jokic

While Murray has been outstanding for the Nuggets, their MVP candidate had a down week in one key area of his game.

Denver lost three of their four games last week, and the Nuggets will look for improved play on the boards from Jokic as they target a reversal in fortunes. 

Jokic had been recording 11.5 rebounds per game but that dipped to 8.75 over his past four outings, failing to put up double-digit rebounds in back-to-back games against the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

He was back in double figures in each of Denver's last two games, and Jokic will aim to carry that momentum into this week and a key matchup with Portland.

LeBron James

This season has seen LeBron hit threes at his highest rate since joining the Los Angeles Lakers.

He has converted on 36.2 per cent of his attempts from beyond the arc but he suffered a decline from deep last week.

Having entered the week hitting 2.57 threes a game, he averaged just one over the course of the Lakers' last three matchups.

James has not made more than one three in a game since the second meeting in a back-to-back with the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 10.

With LeBron, though, drop-offs are only ever temporary. The MVP frontrunner should resume normal service from three-point range sooner rather than later.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.