When FIFA last year announced they were set to introduce limits on the number of players teams could send out on loan, unsurprisingly many people's first thoughts turned to Chelsea.

At the time, the Blues remarkably had 28 players at other clubs, though this was by no means a recent trend: in 2018-19 that figure was 41.

The 'hoarding' of talent might be a solid ploy when looking to stunt the growth of a rival team or generate long-term revenue on Football Manager, but in the real world it was a practice that had long attracted criticism.

While by no means the only club in the world to have lots of young players out on loan, Chelsea have – rightly or wrongly – arguably been the most synonymous with it.

Some feel this has directly contributed to the club's struggles in developing homegrown talent because they have so many players, whereas others believe it offers a greater number of individuals the chance to play first-team football at a higher level than the Under-23s.

Putting aside some of the moral issues, Mason Mount falls into the latter category and proves there is a route to the first team through the fog of war for Chelsea's loan army.

By his own admission Mount needed an extra kick when he was in Chelsea's Under-23s as an 18-year-old, and that led to his temporary switch to the Eredivisie with Vitesse Arnhem, where he won the club's Player of the Year award.

But it's unlikely even he realised how important his next move would be as he linked up with Chelsea great Frank Lampard.

In at the deep end

Mount made 44 appearances across all competitions for Derby County in 2018-19 as they missed out on promotion in the play-off final, but regardless of that ultimate disappointment it proved a massive year for both he and Lampard.

With Maurizio Sarri departing Stamford Bridge to join Juventus despite Europa League success, Lampard was brought back to the club as head coach. Given his status and the trust he placed in young players – and, more pertinently, young players owned by Chelsea – at Derby, Lampard was seen as the ideal candidate to guide the team through a transfer embargo by bringing through homegrown talent.

Whether or not Lampard was a success as Chelsea coach is a discussion for another time, but his faith in Mount was unquestionable, chucking him straight into the team on the first day of the 2019-20 season.

 

The Blues suffered a rather harsh 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, but Mount didn't look out of his depth in the Premier League, playing four key passes over the course of the match.

He never enjoyed a more productive Premier League game in terms of chances created in 2019-20, while he finished the season with 12 goal involvements (seven scored, five set up), a figure bettered by only Tammy Abraham (18), Willian (16) and Christian Pulisic (13) in the Chelsea squad.

Similarly, Willian (76) was the only Chelsea player to lay on more key passes over 2019-20 than Mount's 52 and he appeared in more league games than any of his team-mates (37).

But those points don't quite tell the whole story. To say he was consistent throughout the season would be a lie, as after the turn of the year there was a growing sense of frustration regarding his form. Between the start of November and the final day of the season, his three assists amounted to a couple of corner deliveries for Antonio Rudiger to head home, and a free-kick against Arsenal that Bernd Leno made a mess of. Mount's one open-play assist of 2019-20 came on the final day of the season against Wolves.

 

Some felt Mount was being over-worked by Lampard, others put his issues down to being used in a variety of roles – one week he'd occupy a central midfield position, the next he could be deployed as a winger and then he might play as a No.10.

The "teacher's pet" tag began to raise its head, with Lampard's almost incessant use of Mount leading to suggestions of preferential treatment. 

A star of his own merit

When Thomas Tuchel was hired as Lampard's replacement in January, there wouldn't have been too many particularly worried for Mount's future given he had been a fixture in the team.

But when Mount was dropped for the German's first game in charge, Tuchel's decision certainly made people sit up and take note.

While he explained it away as opting to go with experience, dropping Mount suggested for arguably the first time since his return from Derby that he had a fight on his hands.

But it would be fair to say he's risen to the challenge.

"I understood and wanted to get back into the team, so that motivation and that fire that I have inside me came out," Mount said at a news conference last month. "I really tried to push to get back into the team. It's been brilliant."

Since then, he's become more productive almost across the board in the final third under Tuchel than he had been for Lampard in 2020-21.

 

Seemingly one of the main contributing factors is his role. While Lampard used Mount in numerous positions, Tuchel has largely deployed him further up the pitch in an attempt to get him closer to the opposition's penalty area – activity maps show a significant change between the two coaches' usage of the 21-year-old.

Not only is he involved in passing moves more often as a result, he's contributing to sequences that end in a shot with greater frequency as well. His 72 (7.8 per 90 minutes) during Tuchel's 12 Premier League matches is the second highest in the division since the German's appointment, while his 96 (5.6 per 90 minutes) involvements in Lampard's 18 top-flight games this term was the eighth most.

The expected goals value from these sequences has increased too, going from 0.43 to 0.65 per 90 minutes, meaning Chelsea are creating greater quality chances with Mount further up the pitch.

Furthermore, there's been a considerable improvement in his own productivity. While his chance creation record in the past may have been skewed by set-pieces, he's moved up the rankings in terms of open-play key passes per 90 minutes. With 1.5 each game, only 12 others have done better than Mount since Tuchel's arrival – beforehand, his 1.2 per 90 minutes had him 43rd in those rankings.

 

While he may still be without a single open-play assist in 2020-21, it's clear to see that Mount's strong associative talents and ability to play tidily in busier areas of the pitch make him a real asset to Tuchel, who has acted quickly to shift the England international into a position that seemingly suits him better.

Scoring has been an issue for them, with the likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz continuing to struggle, and this has undoubtedly impacted Mount as his expected assists from open play is 3.5 - with more clinical finishing he wouldn't still be sat on zero.

 

Mount's form lately seems to suggest that once Chelsea begin to click in front of goal, he'll be key to much of their build-up.

A homegrown beacon of hope

Throughout Roman Abramovich's time as Chelsea owner, the club has often found itself in a sort of purgatory – while they've undoubtedly wanted success and a first-team full of homegrown talents, it's difficult to say they've truly struck a balance between the two.

After all, since the start of the century, Chelsea products reaching 100 Premier League appearances for the club have been a rarity.

John Terry, of course, leads the way, but beyond him it becomes a bit murky. John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic perhaps come closest to fitting the bill, though both did play senior football elsewhere before joining the club as teenagers.

Granted, Mount remains a little way off yet as well having played 67 times in the top-flight for Chelsea, but he's quickly making up ground.

Not too far behind him are Tammy Abraham (56), Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (both on 54), while Andreas Christensen – at Chelsea since 2013 – has featured 70 times.

What's in store for their long-term futures at Chelsea remains to be seen – they are far less certain than Mount.

But Mount especially shows that where there wasn't much hope for young talent coming through at Chelsea in the past, now there is for arguably the first time in the Abramovich era.

Harry Kane continues to be linked with a move away from Tottenham and, after last week's defeat to Manchester United, his Spurs future looks little brighter.

Still, the England star has rarely allowed off-field rumours to influence his form, and he happens to be preparing to face one of his favourite opponents in Everton.

Liverpool forward Diogo Jota is another forward we are encouraging Fantasy Football players to select for this week, as the champions get ready for a tricky test at Leeds United.

Is there anyone else who offers good value for this week, we hear you ask? Read on for a handful of suggested picks, as powered by Opta data...

 

RUI PATRICIO

Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio has kept five clean sheets in his most recent 13 Premier League games. That might not sound like a lot, but he went 12 matches before there without keeping the ball out of the net.

Those shut-outs have come against some strong opposition, too: Chelsea, Leicester City, Leeds United, Aston Villa and Fulham have all failed to find a way past the Portugal international.

Given Sheffield United have failed to score in 17 league matches this term, the highest number in the division, Patricio is an ideal man for the number-one spot.

PABLO MARI

Backing Arsenal defensively is rarely the safest of bets, but they do have a strong record against promoted teams in the top flight, having kept four clean sheets in their most recent six meetings with such opposition.

Of their four main centre-backs, Pablo Mari has the best rate for minutes per goal conceded: one every 103.

Having helped the Gunners ease past Sheffield United last week, he could be in line for another outing against struggling Fulham.

 

ANTONIO RUDIGER

Antonio Rudiger has only started 14 games in the league this season, but Chelsea have kept clean sheets in nine of those matches, including in five of the most recent seven.

In the most recent game in which the Germany defender did not start, the Blues shipped five goals at home to a West Brom side who were made to look like peak Barcelona.

After their FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City, Chelsea resume league duties against Brighton and Hove Albion – a team with a frustrating habit of failing to turn promising play into goals.

 

DIOGO JOTA

Liverpool might have fallen from the lofty heights of last season, but few could blame their decline on close-season signing Diogo Jota.

The Portugal forward has averaged a goal every 103 minutes in the league this term, the best rate of any Liverpool player. He has also netted in each of his past three away games.

With Leeds United boasting an expected goals against figure of 48.94, the fourth-worst in the division, Jota will fancy his chances at Elland Road.

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN

With a goal and an assist off the bench against Burnley last week, Allan Saint-Maximin proved just how valuable he could be to Newcastle United's survival hopes.

The winger has been involved in five goals (two scored, three assisted) in his previous six league matches, as many as he managed in 19 before then.

The Magpies face tough opponents in West Ham, but David Moyes' men have conceded nine goals in three league games - and each time after going 3-0 up.

 

HARRY KANE

Harry Kane cut a disconsolate figure after Spurs' loss to Manchester United, but this weekend could offer the chance for a pick-me-up.

Kane has scored nine goals in his past seven games against Everton in all competitions, including five in just three appearances at Goodison Park.

He also just one short of reaching 20 in the top flight in a single season for the fifth time.

KELECHI IHEANACHO

His two goals at West Ham were not quite enough to mount a comeback, but they did underline the red-hot form of Kelechi Iheanacho.

The striker has hit seven goals in five league games, as many as he managed in 63 previous appearances in the competition.

With eight league goals to his name in 2020-21, Iheanacho is just one short of his best ever return for a Premier League season. Next up for Leicester after their FA Cup final? Relegation-threatened West Brom.

Akil Baddoo is the name on everyone's lips.

Baddoo has shattered records from his very first pitch in MLB this month amid an incredible rise from unheralded Rule 5 pick to the biggest sensation in baseball.

The 22-year-old Detroit Tigers outfielder is already the first player in modern MLB history (dating back to 1901) to hit a grand slam, another home run and a walk-off hit in his first three career games.

But Baddoo's story is one of perseverance. Let's rewind back to May 2019. He was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery.

If sitting out the 2019 campaign was not bad enough, he missed last season when the minor leagues were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During the winter's Rule five draft in December, Baddoo was taken by the Tigers, having initially been drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in 2016.

The Rule 5 draft aims at preventing franchises from stockpiling too many young players on their minor league affiliate teams when other clubs would be prepared to play them in the major leagues. If chosen, a player must be kept on the selecting team's major league active roster for the entire season.

"If you think about it, he's gone through so much," Baddoo's mother Akilah said. "And then this opportunity came, and it was like, 'This can't be a joke. There's a plan for you. You got to know that'."

In the least likely of places, the Tigers appear to have landed a gem, and Baddoo is making the most of his opportunity, immediately becoming a cult hero in Detroit.

Baddoo had 233 career minor leagues games to his name, but none above Class A as he earned a place on the Opening Day roster after hitting .325 in Spring Training with five home runs. However, the Maryland native looked like a man for the big stage.

In his opening at-bat on April 4, Baddoo homered in a memorable maiden outing for the Tigers, driving to left field in the bottom of the third inning against the Cleveland Indians.

"I'm just living in the moment," Baddoo said post-game after becoming the ninth player in Tigers franchise history to hit a home run in his first major league at-bat and only the second to do so on the first pitch, following George Vico in 1948. "I got a good pitch to hit, and I was able to hit it in front of my family and everyone."

If that was not enough, Baddoo continued the fairy-tale week by hitting his first career grand slam against the Twins the following day. He became the first Tiger to homer in each of his first two MLB games and the first player in major league history to homer out of the ninth spot of the batting order in his first two career games. Baddoo was also the first player in franchise history to hit a slam within his opening two games.

Baddoo has continually showed maturity beyond his years as the rookie adds to his growing legend. Taking over Motor City, he then delivered a walk-off shot to sink his old team the Twins 24 hours later.

His game-winning hit saw him become the first Detroit player with a walk-off shot within his first three MLB games since 1998.

Baddoo is yet to drop off, his history-making season continuing with a homer against the Houston Astros on Tuesday. Through eight games, he took his tally to four home runs, a double and a triple. According to Stats Perform, his slugging percentage at the time – 1.043 – was the highest in American League (AL) history after eight games.

After his RBI double against the Astros on Wednesday, Baddoo has now driven in at least one run in seven of his first nine career games, the second Tiger in franchise history to do so, following Dale Alexander in 1929.

Since 1920, only George Shuba (eight) managed more RBIs in his first nine career games across MLB, according to Stats Perform.

As it stands, Baddoo's slugging percentage stands at .963 (which ranks eighth all-time through first nine career games since 1901) with 11 RBI. If you combine his RBI and SLG percentage, he is one of four players to have 11-plus RBI and a 900-plus SLG over his first nine career games, after Trevor Story (13/.974 – 38/39 in 2016), Taylor Teagarden (12/1.000 – 29/29 in 2008) and Dave Kingman (11/1.105 – 21/19 in 1971).

Baddoo was rated as Detroit's fifth outfielder before the start of the season, so how does he compare to his team-mates?

Counting only plate appearances while playing outfielder, Baddoo's .370 average, .379 on-base percentage, .963 SLG, 1.342 OPS, four homers and 11 RBI are more than the team's other outfielders combined –.190 AVG, .277 OBP, .330 SLG, .607 OPS, three home runs and nine RBI.

As for the team who left their prospect unprotected, Minnesota's outfielders have tallied a .263 AVG, .331 OBS and .474 SLG so far this season – numbers surpassed by Baddoo.

Baddoo is flying the flag for Rule 5 picks – Roberto Clemente is the only player out of that unheralded draft to earn Hall of Fame honours.

Following an 18-season career, Clemente – who died in a plane crash at the age of 38 in 1972 – was a 15-time All-Star, two-time World Series champion, 1966 National League (NL) MVP, World Series MVP and 12-time Gold Glove winner.

Is Baddoo destined for a Hall of Fame career?

At the same stage of their careers, Baddoo trumps Clemente in all categories: AVG (.370 to .316), OBP (.379 to .325), SLG (.963 to .500), OPS (1.342 to .825), home runs (four to one), RBI (11 to six) and runs (five to three).

"Obviously he has the talent to do a lot of different things, I knew he'd give me everything he's got," Tigers manager AJ Hinch has said previously. "That was evident from the beginning."

Dak Prescott's season-ending Week 5 injury ensured 2020 was a wasted year for the Dallas Cowboys.

Rather than bolster their defense, the Cowboys gave Prescott an exciting new weapon with the 17th overall pick in the NFL Draft last April.

But wide receiver CeeDee Lamb's impact was diminished after Dallas' quarterback sustained a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle.

Without their talisman, the Cowboys stumbled to a 6-10 record, only good enough for third in the poor NFC East.

However, Prescott is set to return in 2021 and has committed his future to the franchise following a long-awaited breakthrough in contract talks.

This year's draft also provides the opportunity for a re-do, which should address the key flaws highlighted here with the help of Stats Perform data.

Offense

Prescott's lay-off makes an assessment of the Cowboys' offense last year rather tricky, but the team showed enough in his limited time on the field to encourage optimism.

Dallas finished 17th in the league for total points scored with 24.7 per game, yet this average was 32.6 points across the five games Prescott played. Over the course of the season, the Green Bay Packers led the league with an inferior 31.8 points.

Likewise, for five weeks, Prescott threw a sensational 371.2 yards per game, the most of any QB in the NFL in 2020. It is an achievement even more impressive when considering he bowed out in the third quarter of his fifth outing.

To put the Cowboys' miserable results in perspective, backup QB Andy Dalton (197.3 yards per game) ranked 37th. In the NFC East, he outperformed only Philadelphia Eagles rookie Jalen Hurts (70.7 yards per game) among players with 100 attempts.

Even with Dalton applying the handbrake, Amari Cooper put up 1,114 yards from 92 receptions for five touchdowns. Lamb also had five TDs on 74 catches for 935 yards, while Michael Gallup's own five came from 59 receptions and 843 yards.

Cooper had contributed eight scores the previous season when paired with Prescott throughout, and Lamb will hope he can similarly profit from the starting QB's return.

The receiving corps could still be more efficient, however. Lamb dropped 8.1 per cent of the passes sent in his direction, while running back Ezekiel Elliott dropped 8.5 per cent - the Dallas pair ranking third and second-worst among players with 50 or more targets.

Behind an offensive line also ravaged by injury, Elliott - another former first-round pick on offense - led the way on the ground with 244 carries for 979 yards and six rushing TDs. The Cowboys' 111.8 rushing yards per game ranked 17th.

So there is still plenty of room for improvement but reason to believe Prescott's return will lift this offense into the upper echelons.

Liverpool, April 2018:

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hasn't scored for three months since he smashed home a long-range strike against Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola's Premier League champions elect are back at a bloodthirsty Anfield and Mohamed Salah already has the Reds in front, so why not have a go?

Oxlade-Chamberlain larrups it beyond Ederson and before the half hour Sadio Mane has made it 3-0.

There would be no way back for City, who would finish the Premier League season 25 points better off than Liverpool, as they threw caution to the wind in the second leg but lost 2-1.

Guardiola talked himself into a half-time red card when Leroy Sane had a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside before UEFA were using VAR. The competition the Catalan threatened to make his own at the start of the decade had already become a nagging irritation.

 

London, April 2019:

After losing three consecutive semi-finals at Bayern Munich, not to mention two out of four on the occasions his Barcelona didn't win it under his leadership, Guardiola is wary of a pressure-cooker Champions League night.

Embroiled in a titanic title battle with Liverpool, he rests Sane and Kevin De Bruyne and picks an unusually cautious line-up. Nevertheless, VAR intervenes to award them a dubious penalty against Tottenham, granting Sergio Aguero a punt at a priceless away goal.

Hugo Lloris saves from City's all-time record goals scorer and there will be no away goal as Son Heung-min gives Spurs a 1-0 win thanks to an Ederson mistake

At the Etihad, all hell breaks loose as the sides trade goals and Aguero puts City 4-2 ahead on the night to lead the tie for the first time. Then Fernando Llorente bundles home and survives a VAR examination for handball. Raheem Sterling has a stoppage-time winner ruled out because replays show Aguero's heel to be offside in the build-up.

Guardiola crumples to his knees. City are out on away goals to a team that would finish 27 points behind them in the Premier League.

 

Lisbon, August 2020:

No away goals to bother City this time, as the pandemic-delayed final stages of the Champions League take place as one-off matches in Lisbon.

After seeing off 13-time European champions Real Madrid, Guardiola has to reckon with Lyon – a team who finished seventh in Ligue 1 in 2019-20.

However, one point from two games against the same opponent in the previous season's group stage spooks the City boss into a rarely used 5-3-2.

They fall behind to a Maxwel Cornet goal, their attack disjointed. De Bruyne, who appears to be fighting a lone hand, equalises but Gabriel Jesus and Sterling miss glorious chances and Ederson is culpable as Moussa Dembele's brace ensures City's biggest European humiliation to date.

Phil Foden, so impressive in the second leg against Madrid, looks on as an unused substitute.

 

Dortmund, April 2021

The last time Guardiola won the Champions League, his present tormentor was seven years old.

Jude Bellingham's slick footwork and cool 15th-minute finish at Signal Iduna Park is the sort of thing City players do quite a lot but not on these occasions.

Here was the fear, it was happening again. Everyone just stay calm… no, Kyle Walker, don't shoot from all the way over there in Gelsenkirchen.

De Bruyne is in no mood for stage fright to kick in and tears at Dortmund, rattling the crossbar. Ruben Dias, unscarred by City's previous failures, is colossal in neutering Erling Haaland. Still, at half-time they are going out.

The big occasions do strange things to even the most seasoned performers, but Emre Can deciding to break out an elephant impression while heading a cross clear is a new one.

Handball. Penalty. VAR. Still a penalty.

Oh God, a penalty. City don't tend to be great at these, as Aguero showed at Tottenham.

Up steps Riyad Mahrez. Remember the Anfield loss? Well, the next time Guardiola's men visited the red side of Stanley Park, the Algeria winger put one into orbit from 12 yards.

Not this time. Having fought long and hard to become one of his manager's go-to attackers, Mahrez emphatically clatters home.

Nerves are dissipating but have never been a problem for Foden. They never are, as he showed with the winner after Dortmund equalised in Manchester last week. He and Bellingham might have a very exciting future together in their national team.

The boyhood City fan draws back his left boot to send home the decisive blow and makes a beeline for Guardiola in the dugout, grabbing his boss' head. It feels like an exorcism.

After sharing a post-match chat with the man of the moment, Haaland now towers in Foden's rear-view mirror. PSG and Kylian Mbappe are up next. Foden arguably belongs in their conversation, as an individual good enough to dominate for a decade.

Of course, such dominance is easier forecast than achieved. Guardiola's quarter-final problem is no more. Now, how is his Champions League semi-finals record?

The top two teams in the Eastern Conference do battle in Philadelphia on Wednesday as the 76ers host the Brooklyn Nets.

Philadelphia and Brooklyn are tied atop the conference going into a mouth-watering clash.

Yet the Nets will again be without their full complement of stars at Wells Fargo Center, with James Harden struggling due to a hamstring issue and Kyrie Irving having missed Tuesday's game in Minnesota for personal reasons.

But they do have Kevin Durant at their disposal for a contest in which the Nets must try to contain an MVP candidate.


TOP PERFORMERS

Joel Embiid - Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid is expected to miss out on the NBA's top individual honour, with Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets the firm favourite, but he has continued to present a strong case.

He is averaging a career-high 29.6 points per game and has been key to each of the 76ers' past four wins, scoring 24, 35, 27 and 36 points in those contests.

Kevin Durant - Brooklyn Nets

Durant has had his fair share of injury issues this season, but the Nets' sole healthy superstar carried them in a rearranged meeting with the Timberwolves on Tuesday.

The two-time NBA Finals MVP shot 11 of 15, including four of six from three-point range, to rack up 31 points. He will need similar production if the Nets are to see off the Sixers on this unanticipated back to back.

KEY BATTLE - A DUEL BEHIND THE ARC

Durant's performance was indicative of how the Nets have thrived this season. Their three-point field goal percentage of 39.0 is the third-best in the NBA.

In the Sixers, however, they are coming up against a team that has done an impressive job of stopping teams getting hot from deep. Only six teams have allowed fewer three-point makes per game than Philadelphia (11.8).

HEAD TO HEAD

The Sixers came out on top in February's meeting with the Nets, prevailing 124-108 and they have dominated this matchup in recent times.

Philadelphia have won three of the previous four meetings between the two and have not lost a home game to the Nets since December 2018.

Fabian Cancellara is not one for looking back, but the Swiss great will always be able to afford himself fond reflections of a glorious Olympic swansong in Rio.

Cancellara turned 40 last month and while many struggle after retiring from professional sport, the man nicknamed 'Spartacus' has embraced new challenges in and out of the saddle.

The 'Chasing Cancellara' platform enables cycling enthusiasts - ranging from beginners to semi-professionals - to compete against and pick the brains of the legendary double Olympic champion.

Asked how life after professional cycling is treating him in an interview to mark 100 days before the Tokyo Olympics start, Cancellara told Stats Perform News: "I'm busy, I have nothing to complain about. 

"I'm enjoying meeting so many different people from different places and backgrounds. It is great the human connection you experience and it's not just about winning.

"I take great satisfaction from seeing people cross the line maybe hours after a winner, they have got a little lost or taken a different route but they have had a great time, they did not give up and that is what matters.

"It gives me goosebumps to see that. In life we need to challenge ourselves and I'm so happy to be part of getting people to do that. I love being able to give something back."

While crossing the finishing line first is no longer the objective for Cancellara, it was the only thing on his mind in his pursuit of a second Olympic gold medal five years ago.

The seven-time Monument winner had decided to quit at the end of the 2016 season and did not fancy his chances of even getting on the podium in his final Games in Brazil after returning from his last Tour de France devoid of confidence. 

Yet a phone call from his coach Luca Guercilena changed Cancellara's mindset and from then on he was a man on a mission - which was accomplished when he blew his time trial rivals away on the 54.5 kilometre course.

Cancellara recalls: "When I came back from the Tour de France I was not confident and it had a big emotional impact with it being my last Tour. I had tears in my eyes when I left the Tour.

"I was flat and lacking confidence. Luca Guercilena called me and said I must get ready, he said my data was good and all of a sudden I had changed my mind completely because I couldn't have reached these numbers if I was not there (at the level of performance required). I said I want to win gold and if I do that in August, I will finish.

"I wanted to end my career on a high note and everything came together. The data was there, I had experience, luck, will and support."

Cancellara, who had won time-trial gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a silver in the road race, vividly remembers the race and standing on the top step of the podium.

He added: "It's such a different race. It's huge and the Olympics can crack you. For 54.5 kilometres you are purely focused on the outcome, you know there cannot be any mistakes.

"It was going to be an hour to one hour and 15 minutes of pure effort. I remember the two laps clearly, after the first I was quite a way ahead and Luca said 'remember it's two laps'!

"I was able to gain even more time and I remember it was such an emotional moment when I knew I had won gold. You feel proud of yourself, proud for Switzerland and everybody who helped me to achieve it. 

"No words are needed for that moment you hear the anthem on the podium. That moment will never leave me. I don't look back in life, as you have to move forward.

"I know I am a two-time Olympic champion and all over the world people know about the Olympics."

Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund are preparing for home quarter-final legs knowing only victories will give them a chance of reaching the Champions League last four.

Jurgen Klopp's side were beaten 3-1 by Real Madrid in the Spanish capital last week, the scoreline matching that of the 2018 final, when Zinedine Zidane won the trophy for the third year running.

Of course, the Reds have history of famous Anfield comebacks, most notably two years ago when Barcelona were stunned on Merseyside after winning the semi-final first leg 3-0.

Dortmund are also in need of a spirited display. Marco Reus' away goal gave them a foothold in the tie against Manchester City, but a late winner from Phil Foden at the Etihad Stadium means the Premier League leaders have the advantage.

Still, if Dortmund repeat the result of the last time they hosted City in this competition, they will be going through...

 

Liverpool v Real Madrid (1-3 on aggregate): History on Zidane's side

Liverpool's unforgettable 4-0 win over Barcelona was one of two instances out of a possible 11 where they have progressed in a knockout tie after losing the first leg by two or more goals.

They beat Madrid by the same scoreline in March 2009 at Anfield, but Los Blancos' most recent visit to Merseyside ended in a 3-0 win in October 2014. They are now on a run of four consecutive wins over Liverpool.

Given Madrid have scored in each of their previous 23 Champions League knockout games, and the fact they have won 15 of the past 16 ties where they won the first leg by at least two goals, they would appear to be in a very strong position.

If Liverpool are to produce another turnaround, Mohamed Salah will almost certainly be key. His goal in the first leg means he has scored in each of his previous four appearances in the competition, and he could become only the second Liverpool player – after Steven Gerrard in 2007-08 – to do so in five.

Luka Modric is also chasing a small slice of history. The 2018 Ballon d'Or winner has provided an assist in three Champions League games in a row; since at least 2003-04, no Madrid player has ever managed to set up a goal in four consecutive games in this competition.

Borussia Dortmund v Manchester City (1-2 on aggregate): Haaland the main threat to Guardiola's record

Pep Guardiola lost three of his first five meetings with Borussia Dortmund but is unbeaten in his most recent seven, while City have only failed to progress twice in 15 European knockout ties after winning the first leg.

However, Guardiola endured the most recent of those eliminations, with Monaco upsetting City in his first season in charge in 2016-17. In fact, in Champions League history, the team to win the first leg 2-1 at home has been eliminated (15 times) more often than they have progressed (12).

It really could be a game of fine margins. If Dortmund repeat the scoreline from their only previous home game against City in December 2012 (1-0), that will be enough to send them through. However, City have kept clean sheets in four consecutive away games in the competition; another on Wednesday will guarantee their semi-final spot and see them become the first side to record shutouts in five games in a row since Manchester United a decade ago.

Inevitably, all eyes will be on Erling Haaland. The Norway star has only failed to score in three of his 15 Champions League appearances and has never drawn a blank at home for Dortmund, hitting seven in just four games.

Haaland has been tipped to replace Sergio Aguero at City next season, but this could be a chance for the Argentina striker to underline his legacy: a goal here will take him to 37 in the competition, the most of any player for a Premier League club. Aguero likes Bundesliga opposition, too: 11 of his 36 goals have come against sides from Germany, more than he has managed against teams from any other nation.

When Monaco and Manchester City embarked upon a sensationally riotous Champions League last-16 affair in 2017, a livewire forward with a combination of technique and pace to leave the most seasoned defenders utterly mortified scored in both legs as the Ligue 1 side went through 6-6 on away goals.

That young man was Kylian Mbappe. But it was also, in a losing cause, Leroy Sane.

Four years on from a knockout tie that marked out both players as potentially dominant figures for the decade to come in European football, each had points to prove at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday.

Mbappe was looking to add to the argument that he is the finest player in the world right now, Paris Saint-Germain's talisman in their quest for elusive continental supremacy. Sane was trying to prove he belongs at Bayern Munich.

In all competitions this season, Mbappe has 33 goals and 10 assists, following up his brace as PSG edged Bayern 3-2 in the quarter-final first leg by scoring one and setting up another in a 4-1 win over Strasbourg. Only Robert Lewandowski (50) – oh, how heavily his absence weighed upon the Bavarian giants' eventual exit – and Harry Kane (45) have more than Mbappe's 43 goal involvements among players in Europe's top five leagues.

Sane has scored four times in the Bundesliga and not at all in the league since January 3. If Serge Gnabry was not undergoing a period of coronavirus isolation, it is doubtful the winger would have had the chance to atone for an ineffective first-leg showing.

It pays not to be ineffective when the remaining array of attacking talent are cranking merrily through the gears. Mbappe and Neymar grab the limelight but, flanked by Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler, the entire PSG forward line was irresistible during the first half.

One piece of skill to humiliate Benjamin Pavard might mean Mbappe apologising profusely the next time France's national team gets together. However, as in the first leg, Bayern were in no mood to drop deeper and rob Sane, Kingsley Coman and the rest of a platform to lay siege to the PSG goal.

Similarly, the hosts would not instantly go long. They would play through the ravenous press because Mauricio Pochettino says so and Leandro Paredes – both as easy on the eye and robust as a polished marble slab – relished the challenge in holding midfield.

When it worked, their magnificent forwards were away; when it didn't, PSG were incredibly vulnerable. The opening 20 minutes felt like two heavyweights swinging big punches while balancing on highwires.

Neymar's soft feet and underestimated hard edges were at the heart of some of the most eye-catching moments. A wonderful body swerve left David Alaba in his wake and he curled against the bar. Then he hit the post.

The tempestuous Brazilian superstar often seems to think the fates are conspiring over the course of 90 minutes. When Bayern bounced off the ropes for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to scramble home against his former club, making it 3-3 on aggregate, it was tempting to think Neymar might actually have a point.

Sane forced Keylor Navas into a sharp save in first-half stoppage time and he threaded a superb ball through for Thomas Muller to almost put Bayern ahead in the tie after the hour.

By that time, Neymar had produced more outrageous skill and agonisingly failed to turn home with the goal gaping. Jerome Boateng nonchalantly backheeled the loose ball behind for the corner, apparently so mesmerised by the fancy footwork that he had to join in.

Boateng wasn't the only jack of all trades as Neymar tore back into his own half after Sane skipped past Paredes. He didn't tackle him. Mbappe did.

It was an utterly colossal contest. Mbappe strayed just offside before he throttled one into Manuel Neuer's net, the Germany goalkeeper somehow seeing out a clean sheet that will be scant consolation.

Then, in stoppage time came Sane's moment. He had found PSG replacement left-back Mitchel Bakker very much to his liking during the final half hour and darted into space down the right channel. There was time to cut back on to his favoured left foot and pick the pass for the winning goal.

Sane mishit the cross, the unflappable Keylor Navas grasped it and PSG were out of the woods. After another Champions League classic settled on away goals, he and Mbappe remain on very different trajectories.

Paris Saint-Germain are 90 minutes away from avenging their Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich.

The Ligue 1 champions go into the return leg of the quarter-final with Bayern at the Parc des Princes with a one-goal advantage and with their talisman eyeing a slice of history in Europe's elite club competition.

If PSG complete their task and ensure there is to be a different name on the trophy this year, then in-form Chelsea will fancy their chances of lifting club football's most sought-after prize.

Led by the man who guided PSG to the showpiece last season, the Blues hold a comfortable lead in their last-eight encounter with Porto.

All the evidence points to Chelsea going through to the semis as they look to replicate their team of 2011-12, who overcame Bayern in a penalty shoot-out in the final.

Here we look at Tuesday's quarter-final clashes with the help of Opta numbers.

 

Paris Saint-Germain v Bayern Munich - Omens against holders as Mbappe eyes record

The holders must score at least twice if they are to keep their hopes of retaining the trophy alive, having lost the home leg of this rematch of last season's final 3-2 at the Allianz Arena.

And history is against Hansi Flick's side turning it around. 

PSG have won all four previous games when they have hosted Bayern in European competition between 1994 and 2017.

Bayern have been eliminated on each of the most recent four occasions they have lost the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie, while only three of the past 50 teams to lose the first leg at home in the competition have progressed.

However, one of those teams did so against PSG, Manchester United coming from behind to knock out the Ligue 1 side at the Parc des Princes in the last 16 in 2018-19.

If PSG are to unseat the champions, they will likely look to Kylian Mbappe.

Mbappe was on target twice in the first leg and has eight goals in as many appearances for PSG in the Champions League this season. If he nets again on Tuesday, he will set a new record for the most goals by a French player in a single Champions League campaign, surpassing David Trezeguet in 2001-02 and Wissam Ben Yedder in 2017-18.

Should he score against Bayern once more, he will have netted in four consecutive knockout appearances for the second time in his career, having done so with Monaco in 2017, and would become the first PSG player to achieve that feat. 

 

Chelsea v Porto - Seville shock unlikely to be on the cards

Thomas Tuchel's Blues will not have the benefit of any home comforts when Chelsea attempt to finish the job and reach the last four having won 2-0 in the first match.

As with the opening leg, Chelsea and Porto will do battle in Seville due to coronavirus restrictions, with the odds firmly in the London club's favour.

Indeed, there have been only four previous instances of a team progressing after losing the home leg of a Champions League knockout tie without scoring – Ajax in 1995-96 v Panathinaikos, Inter in 2010-11 v Bayern, United in 2018-19 v PSG and Tottenham in 2018-19 v Ajax.

Porto pulled off one of the shocks of the Champions League when they knocked out Juventus in the last 16, however, they will need to reverse a worrying trend if they are to do the same to Chelsea.

Since beating Leicester City 5-0 in the group stages of this competition in December 2016, Porto are winless in seven matches against English sides in the Champions League (D2 L5), scoring only twice while conceding 16 goals themselves.

The smart money is on that streak continuing, with Chelsea unbeaten in the Champions League this season (P9 W7 D2 L0).

They could become the first Premier League team to go unbeaten across their first 10 games in a season in the competition since Liverpool in 2017-18 (11 games).

A solid defence has been key to their success in Europe this term, as Chelsea have kept seven clean sheets in nine Champions League matches this season, the joint-most along with Manchester City; the last side to keep more clean sheets in a single campaign in the competition was Juventus in 2016-17 (nine).

The Blues are looking to keep a clean sheet in four consecutive matches in the tournament for the first time since a run of six ending in March 2008. 

Great credit for that run must go to goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, who can tie the record of Fabian Barthez (eight with Manchester United in 2002-03) for the most consecutive Champions League games won by a goalkeeper for an English club with another triumph over Porto.

Bayern Munich will approach Wednesday's quarter-final second leg against Paris Saint Germain with the confidence expected of Champions League holders.

Sure, they lost 3-2 in an enthralling meeting at the Allianz Arena last week and are without star striker Robert Lewandowski, but Hansi Flick's men had more than enough chances to have emerged victorious and face up to a PSG defence likely to be without the influential Marquinhos.

The main problem for Bayern is Kylian Mbappe's apparent bid to turn the competition into his own personal playground.

Having put Barcelona to the sword with a hat-trick at Camp Nou in the previous round, the France forward was PSG's match-winner once more with a brace in Bavaria.

When the second leg gets under way, Mbappe will be 22 years and 115 days old. No player has scored more than his 27 goals in the Champions League by that age. For reference, Lionel Messi had 18, Raul 12, Wayne Rooney 12 and Cristiano Ronaldo three at the same vintage.

A place among the Champions League greats looks to be Mbappe's for the taking and we've decided to compare his Barcelona and Bayern performances to some of the most memorable goalscoring outings of recent years on the biggest stage.

Lionel Messi – Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal: April 6, 2010

A second-leg penalty from Mbappe as PSG overcame Barcelona 5-2 on aggregate in the round of 16 made him the youngest player in Champions League history to reach 25 goals at 22 years and 80 days, usurping the great Messi.

Of course, Mbappe still has plenty more to accomplish if he is to get close to Messi's deeds in the competition. The six-time Ballon d'Or winner has won Europe's top competition four times. Barca were triumphant finalists in 2009 and 2011, with Messi netting in each game against Manchester United. They fell short in 2009-10, but a dominant quarter-final win over Arsenal that season found him at his very best.

The Gunners battled to a thrilling 2-2 draw at Emirates Stadium and led at Camp Nou through Nicklas Bendtner, but the tie was as good as over before half-time as Messi compiled a blistering hat-trick – smashing in from the edge of the area, finding the roof of the next with an opportunistic effort and then racing clear to sublimely lob Manuel Almunia.

He nutmegged the Arsenal goalkeeper having dribbled through a bedraggled defence for his and Barcelona's fourth. Messi's haul came from eight shots overall, with six on target. Three goals came from his impeccable left boot, with the second right footed. He stamped his mark all over the contest, completing 46 of 52 passes and making 77 touches – a greater level of overall involvement than any other performance on this list.

Robert Lewandowski – Borussia Dortmund 4-1 Real Madrid: April 24, 2013

Injury has robbed us of the Mbappe v Lewandowski showdown we crave and the quarter-final first leg might have panned out differently if Bayern had been able to call upon their attacking talisman.

Lewandowski's deadly finishing has been a constant over the past decade and he produced a breakout performance in the 2013 semi-finals against Real Madrid, while still at Borussia Dortmund.

The Poland striker reached to volley home Mario Gotze's eighth-minute cross and controlled Marco Reus' mis-hit shot to finish smartly early in the second half – prompting a run of three goals in 16 minutes as Lewandowski showed immaculate close control to rifle into the top corner before converting a penalty in similarly emphatic fashion.

All Lewandowski's goals came from inside the area, all with his right foot as he netted four of five attempts on target (seven in total) to fire Dortmund towards an all-Bundesliga final against his future employers.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid 4-2 Bayern Munich (aet): April 18, 2017

Mbappe has the opportunity to build on eight goals in this season's competition in the return against Bayern – the joint-most by a French player in a single campaign alongside Wissam Ben Yedder (2017-18) and David Trezeguet (2001-02).

In terms of huge one-season hauls, Ronaldo sets the gold standard. His 17 en-route to glory with Real Madrid in 2013-14 were followed by 16 in 2015-16 and 15 in 2017-18 as Los Blancos claimed three in a row.

In between, when Madrid went all the way in 2016-17, Ronaldo's personal total was – by his own remarkable standards – a relatively meagre 12. However, six of these came in quarter-final and semi-final hat-tricks versus Bayern and Atletico Madrid.

The Bayern treble was the most dramatic as Madrid diced with elimination. They lost 2-1 in 90 minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu but Ronaldo would not be denied, netting in the 76th minute and then twice more in extra time to complete a perfect hat-trick from nine attempts, five of which were on target.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Juventus 3-0 Atletico Madrid: March 12, 2019

Ronaldo's ambition of winning a sixth Champions League at a third club looks set to come up short after Juventus's meek exit against Porto last month. But during his first season in Turin, everything appeared to be falling into place against a familiar foe.

Atletico Madrid won the first leg of the last-16 encounter 2-0, but the writing was on the wall from the moment Ronaldo powered in a towering back-post header in the 27th minute.

Early in the second half, Jan Oblak could only claw away another headed Ronaldo attempt from behind the goal line and the Atlei goalkeeper had no chance when faced with penalty from the Portugal great five minutes from time.

Ronaldo netted with all three of his attempts on target, while his five efforts overall on the night had an xG value of 1.39.

Lucas Moura – Ajax 2-3 Tottenham: May 8, 2019

The 2018-19 season provided relentless drama when it came to improbable comebacks and Tottenham were surely down and out when 2-0 behind after 35 minutes Amsterdam, nursing a 3-0 semi-final aggregate deficit against an Ajax side who had already seen off Real Madrid and Juventus. Enter Lucas Moura.

The Brazilian forward, leading the line for Spurs in Harry Kane's injury absence, streamed into the Ajax penalty area to pull one back early in the second half and by the time he engineered space to dispatch a fine left-footed finish in the 59th minute, the whole complexion of the contest had changed.

Five minutes of stoppage time had just expired when Lucas clipped a third with his trusty left boot to break Ajax hearts. Opta began collecting xG data in the Champions League in 2013-14. Of the hat-tricks on this list with those figures available, Lucas' is the only one with an overall shot value (0.88) below an xG of one.

Kylian Mbappe – Barcelona 1-4 Paris Saint-Germain: February 16, 2021

Despite Messi putting Barcelona ahead with a first-half penalty, Mbappe soon took charge. Magnificent close control, nimble movement and a thumping finish with his left brought PSG level.

Mbappe was again happy to crash home with his weaker foot on the other side of half-time and curled in a majestic strike on the counter-attack after Moise Kean made it three. Four of his six attempts (xG 1.84) were on target in an all-action display.

It made Mbappe the third player in Champions League history to score a hat-trick against Barcelona after Faustino Asprilla for Newcastle United and Andriy Shevchenko for Dynamo Kiev in 1997.

Kylian Mbappe – Bayern Munich 2-3 Paris Saint-Germain: April 7, 2021

Mauricio Pochettino's men overwhelmed Barcelona at Camp Nou but were forced to play a different game against Bayern last week, spending long spells on the back foot.

This gave Mbappe the chance to show his ruthless side as he scored from each of his two shots, albeit helped by an error from Manuel Neuer for the opener. A fit-again Neymar laid on that goal and he and Mbappe have assisted one another 10 times in the Champions League since joining forces in 2017-18 – at least three more than any other pair during this period.

Neymar also set up compatriot Marquinhos to make it 2-0 before Eric Maxim Choupo Moting and Thomas Muller brought Bayern level.

Mbappe's electrifying pace and unerring poise were again on display when he cut inside Jerome Boateng to send the winner fizzing past Neuer at his near post. His five away goals in the knockout rounds is already a single-season record in the Champions League. To earn the chance to add to that number, there is first some mouth-watering business to attend to at Parc des Princes.

Manchester United kept up their extraordinary form for coming from behind as they defeated Tottenham in Sunday's big Premier League match.

Earlier, West Ham continued their push for a Champions League spot with a second straight 3-2 victory, this time over fellow top-four contenders Leicester City.

In the late match, Arsenal moved up to ninth thanks to a routine 3-0 dispatching of lowly Sheffield United.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin returned to boost Newcastle United to a potentially crucial 2-1 win at Burnley, and we take a look at the best facts from Sunday's games, courtesy of Opta data.

Burnley 1-2 Newcastle United: Super-sub Saint-Maximin snatches vital points

Newcastle picked up their first win in eight Premier League games – since beating Southampton 3-2 at the start of February – as they came from behind to beat Burnley.

Matej Vydra's third goal in his last five league appearances, as many as he had across his previous 53 appearances in the competition beforehand, put Burnley ahead, but Saint-Maximin proved the difference after the break.

Coming on in the 57th minute alongside the returning Wilson, Saint-Maximin swiftly set up Jacob Murphy's equaliser – all three of the winger's league strikes have come away from home.

Saint-Maximin scored himself five minutes later, becoming only the fifth player to both score and assist a goal as a substitute in a Premier League match for Newcastle, and first since Rolando Aarons against Tottenham in May 2016.

In all competitions, Newcastle have failed to win any of the four matches in which neither Wilson nor Saint-Maximin have featured.

With both of them playing, Newcastle have six wins from 13 matches, while without at least one of their star attacking duo, the Magpies have registered just two victories.

West Ham 3-2 Leicester City: Lingard at the double as Hammers knock at the door

West Ham have recorded their first Premier League double over Leicester since the 1999-2000 season, after Jesse Lingard inspired them to a 3-2 victory at London Stadium.

Leicester have suffered consecutive league defeats for the first time since November, when they lost to Liverpool and Fulham, with Kelechi Iheanacho's double not enough to inspire a comeback.

Iheanacho has scored 14 goals in all competitions this season, equalling his best tally in a single campaign; the Nigerian scored 14 for Manchester City in 2015-16.

However, the damage was already done for Leicester, with Lingard's first-half double making him the first West Ham player to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances since Michail Antonio in September 2016.

In only his his ninth Premier League appearance for West Ham, Lingard reached double figures for goals and assists combined (eight goals, three assists). It is the quickest a Hammers player has ever done so, with Paul Kitson previously reaching double figures the fastest (12 games in 1997).

Jarrod Bowen scored what was ultimately the decisive goal, putting West Ham 3-0 up early in the second half at the culmination of a slick attack in which Lingard and Tomas Soucek combined.

In 2021, only Man City (16) have won more Premier League matches than West Ham (10), who have picked up 32 points from a possible 45 this calendar year (W10 D2 L3).

Tottenham 1-3 Manchester United: Greenwood closes in on Rooney record as Spurs give up another lead

Jose Mourinho is now winless in his last five home matches in all competitions against sides he has previously managed (D2 L3), having won 12 such matches in a row between 2002 and 2018.

Tottenham led in Sunday's headline fixture – Son Heung-min becoming the first player to score three or more goals against United in a single Premier League campaign since Sergio Aguero in 2014-15.

Edinson Cavani had a goal harshly disallowed after a VAR check prior to Spurs' opener, but the Red Devils hit back in the second half. Spurs have dropped 18 points from winning positions in the Premier League this season, second only to Brighton (20).

Mason Greenwood proved decisive, coming on from the bench to set up Cavani and then score one himself after Fred had restored parity.

Only Wayne Rooney (15) has scored more Premier League goals for Manchester United as a teenager than Greenwood (13).

United have gained 28 points from losing positions in the Premier League this season – in the competition's history, only Newcastle in 2001-02 (34) and United themselves in 2012-13 (29) have earned more points from such positions.

Meanwhile, in English top-flight history, United's current 23-game unbeaten run away from home in the league (W15 D8) is bettered only by a 27-game run from Arsenal between April 2003 and September 2004.

Sheffield United 0-3 Arsenal: Lacazette at the double as Gunners hunt Europe

In Premier League history, only Chelsea (42) have beaten the side starting the day bottom of the table more than Arsenal, with this win the Gunners' 37th such victory (alongside Spurs).

It was a comfortable win for Mikel Arteta's team, with Sheffield United having suffered their 25th league defeat of the season, the most by a non-newly promoted side since Huddersfield Town in 2018-19 (28). 

Arsenal are now unbeaten in their last four away games in the Premier League (W2 D2), their longest such run of the season. Indeed, the Gunners have earned more victories on the road (seven) than they have at the Emirates this season (six).

Paul Heckingbottom has seen his Blades side concede 10 goals during his three Premier League games in charge, the joint-most after a manager's first three games in the competition, alongside David Moyes (2002, Everton) and Christian Gross (1997, Spurs).

Gabriel Martinelli's strike was his first Premier League goal of the season for Arsenal, and his first in 446 days since netting against Chelsea in January 2020.

It came in between Alexandre Lacazette's double. He is the sixth Frenchman to score 50 Premier League goals for a single club, with four of the six doing so for Arsenal.

"Game's gone."

In the English-speaking football world, there are few better means to share your deepest frustrations than those two-and-a-bit words. Defending, diving, transfer fees, haircuts – there is not a pet peeve in the modern game that can escape that withering proclamation, even if nobody knows how far away 'gone' really is.

Still, nothing triggers the 'game's gone' gag reflex quite like VAR. That may prove to be the system's defining contribution: the rallying point for fans and professionals determined to bring football 'back' from this sanitised circus, where the clowns clean up the stalls mid-show while the ringmaster reminds the kids to keep fun to a minimum.

By half-time of Sunday's Premier League game between Tottenham and Manchester United, "game's gone" was cried, broadcast and tweeted with the gusto and impact you might expect. It wasn't really necessary, of course. We know the game is 'gone'. VAR has been pushing it 'gone' for months. It's a long, long way 'gone'. In fact, since it's practically a sitcom anyway: the game is so far gone that you can't even see the game. The game is a dot to you!

Edinson Cavani presumably felt like that. The Manchester United striker, already weighing up whether another season in England is worthwhile, saw his first league goal since February 6 disallowed for a foul by Scott McTominay on Son Heung-min in the build-up. Son tried and failed to grab McTominay's shirt, and the United midfielder caught him in the face with a flailing finger. Several replays in Stockley Park and on the sideline at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium convinced referee Chris Kavanagh that the contact was severe enough to merit disallowing the goal, but not to show McTominay what would have been a second yellow card. Five minutes later, Son made it 1-0 to the home side.

Predictable incandescence followed. "I'm amazed, really. If this is a foul, we should all go home. It's really bizarre," said former United captain Roy Keane on Sky Sports. Ex-Manchester City defender Micah Richards said football was beyond recognition, adding: "It's embarrassing. This is not football anymore. I know we have a laugh and joke, but it's spoiling our game."

Perhaps Jose Mourinho said it best: "I don't understand anything anymore." As for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, ever the populist: "The game is absolutely gone."

Rio Ferdinand added his fury to the frothing vitriol of social media. "Scrap VAR... an absolute shambles! The fella at Burnley volleyed Longstaff in the face earlier and wasn't a foul... now this! My tv is moments away from being on the patio in 100 pieces," the former United centre-back tweeted.

Ferdinand was comparing the Son incident to one in Newcastle United's earlier win at Burnley, when James Tarkowski was not penalised by VAR for kicking Sean Longstaff in the face while trying to clear from his own box. The message seemed to be that McTominay's errant pinkie was the more egregious, "unnatural" movement. The half-and-half screenshot memes bellowed their disapproval.

The point of retelling this story, at the end of a gripping game where United once more fought back to win away from home, is that that is what VAR is: the story. Everything else in football matches is a subplot. Spectators, who are still confined to watching at home, tune in expecting not the first goal, but the first visit to the pitchside monitor. 'The game' is played out on TV screens, in houses and stadia alike.

So what that Cavani recovered to force Fred's equaliser and then put United ahead? Who cares that Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba, lightning rods for Mourinho jibes in his United days, were standout performers? What does it matter that Spurs are now six points behind the top four and United are getting closer to Manchester City? The game's all the way over there!

To borrow a line from Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad for Real Madrid. 

A 2-1 triumph over Barcelona sees Zinedine Zidane's side take over at the top of the table. Their stay at the LaLiga summit could only last 24 hours - long-time leaders and noisy neighbours Atletico can go back above them if they take a point from their game in hand - but, make no mistake, Los Blancos are in the thick of a three-way title race.

A Clasico win - meaning they have won both league meetings in a season for the first time since 2007-08 - followed on from a 3-1 result against Liverpool in the Champions League. 

Just like in their midweek success in European action, Madrid scored twice before half-time to seize control. Barca will rue the deflection on Toni Kroos' free-kick that doubled the advantage, but they were undone for the opener by an audacious finish that capped a flowing attack.

Karim Benzema's 13th-minute goal continued a hot streak for a striker who keeps on scoring while seemingly waiting to see which rival will turn up to try and take his job.

His back-heeled finish to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen at the near post made it seven league games in a row where he has found the net. He becomes the fourth player for the club to manage such a streak in LaLiga: Cristiano Ronaldo achieved the feat four times, while Ruud van Nistelrooy (2007) and Gareth Bale (2018) are the other names on the list.

Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland have been heavily linked with Madrid, but Benzema remains the man right now.

Since Ronaldo departed the club in 2018, the Frenchman has stepped up to become the focal point in the front line. He has scored 21 LaLiga goals in each of the previous two seasons, while this term he is already up to 19. With plenty of games remaining, his career-best tally of 24, managed in 2015-16 despite making just 27 appearances, is well within his sights.

If Madrid were to retain their title, his role was always going to be significant, despite the transfer speculation. Hopes of a second successive crown appeared distant, however, when they suffered a 2-1 defeat to Levante on January 30, at which stage the champions sat seven points behind Atleti, who also had two games in hand.

Eder Militao was sent off in that Levante loss, dismissed after just eight minutes and 12 seconds. It was a short-lived third start in LaLiga this term, while the Brazilian defender had also been in the Madrid team that suffered a shock Copa del Rey exit to Alcoyano 10 days earlier.

The big-money signing from Porto in 2019 had yet to convince in the Spanish capital, to put it nicely.

His role may have remained as someone on the periphery of the first-team picture, too, had Zidane not suddenly been faced with a shortage of options to line up at the heart of his defence. However, with captain Sergio Ramos again sidelined and Raphael Varane self-isolating after testing positive for COVID-19, Militao stepped up to show his value during a critical stretch for his club.

The centre-back made a game-high six clearances on Saturday, as well as three blocks. Forget the heavy rain that beseiged Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano throughout the second half; a Barca tide came his way, yet - alongside Nacho - he made sure Madrid did not go under.

Just like against Liverpool, the makeshift pairing defied expectations. A potential point of weakness has instead helped fortify the team, with a partnership born out of necessity helping to change the outlook ahead of the run-in. If they can do something similar in the second leg at Anfield on Wednesday, a double remains distinctly doable.

Perhaps, too, Militao has shown that there can be life after Ramos, whose contract is fast running out at Madrid, just as there has been since Ronaldo said his farewells and headed for Turin.

At half-time in Saturday's Clasico, Barcelona had out-passed Real Madrid by 390 to 172 and enjoyed 69 per cent of the possession. A fat lot of good it did them.

Madrid were 2-0 up having had more shots on goal, with eight to Barca's six and more on target (3-1). Federico Valverde had also hit the post as things threatened to get truly ugly for the Blaugrana.

Ronald Koeman has seen a remarkable turnaround since the new year, with Barca transformed from also-rans to many people's title favourites heading into this 2-1 defeat to their bitter rivals.

But against elite opponents, as in painful reverses earlier this season at the hands of Madrid, Atletico, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, they again came up short. For that, their coach must take his share of the blame.

During a prior run of 13 wins and one draw in LaLiga in 2021, Koeman frequently deployed a 3-4-2-1 formation and the result was some swashbuckling performances, most notably a 6-1 routing of Real Sociedad before last month's international break.

This week's last-gasp 1-0 victory against Real Valladolid was far more laboured and Koeman blinked. Antoine Griezmann, having formed a free-flowing forward trident with Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, was consigned to the bench at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Dembele was the match-winning hero against Valladolid but here cut an isolated figure as a lone striker, with Messi dropping deeper and deeper into midfield, trying to make something – anything – happen.

For all their numbers in the middle, Barcelona could not turn their possession into clear chances, nor could their apparent control prevent them from being eviscerated time and again on the break.

Karim Benzema's backheel finish for the opener was of the highest class, but Barca looked clueless as the white shirts rushed towards them.

Perhaps mindful of his poor record in big games this season, Koeman abandoned his successful formula for an approach that left Barca painfully between two stools.

 

Messi audaciously shot directly from a corner just before half-time, outfoxing Thibaut Courtois with vicious dip to hit the post. It was the latest of countless demonstrations of his genius in this fixture, but it was also a shocking indictment of Barca's overall play that it felt like a legitimate ploy.

The enduring and repeated image of the first period was Oscar Mingueza sprinting back towards his own goal wearing an anguished look as the effervescent Vinicius Junior showed him a clean pair of heels. Madrid's Brazilian forward enjoyed a career-best outing against Liverpool this week and was in no mood for the fun to stop.

Mingueza tired of that torment and took himself off to the Madrid box in the 60th minute to shin one in after Griezmann – on at half-time – dummied a cross from Jordi Alba, the full-back who was all at sea on the first goal before failing to head Toni Kroos' deflected free-kick off the line

Having made defenders look silly earlier on, it was Vinicius' turn to revert to slapstick as he broke clear with a chance to seal the points, only to botch a pass to Benzema where the idea was bad and the execution was worse.

To add to a mounting sense of chaos in torrential rain, Zinedine Zidane started taking off all his best players with an eye on Anfield.

The concluding moments were an encapsulation of this undulating LaLiga title race – hard to predict, full of errors and utterly captivating. Martin Braithwaite had a soft penalty appeal rejected amid great fury, Casemiro clumped into Mingueza and his perpetual mayhem to earn a second yellow card.

Top since November, Atletico Madrid will go back above their neighbours at the summit if they beat Eibar on Sunday. All three heavyweights will still fancy their chances, including Barca on account of their form leading into this weekend.

That is why this felt like such a missed opportunity for Koeman. His team have been the best in the country since January but he decided not to be bold when the stakes were highest.

For all the bridges built with a distant fanbase, turbulent boardroom and a star player whose future remains in the balance, this was a damaging backwards step.

And what of Messi? As things stand, his last act in this eternal rivalry will be delivering a free-kick for Illaix Moriba to hit the crossbar before a roving Marc-Andre ter Stegen hacked away at the rebound and booted the ball up Trincao's backside.

Perhaps he'll hang around after all.

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