Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confirmed on Friday that teenagers Shola Shoretire and Hannibal Mejbri will be promoted to Manchester United's senior squad.

The young attackers have been playing for United's Under-23s this season and blossomed in Neil Wood's free-scoring team.

Still just 17 and 18, respectively, Shoretire and Mejbri are seemingly now considered a level above that which United's second team play, with both looking destined for big futures.

Shoretire was spotted training with the United first-team squad last week and Mejbri is set to join him, with Solskjaer confirming it is his plan to integrate both into the senior group.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Solskjaer said: "Yeah, we've moved Shola up with us, Hannibal will probably join us, and we'll keep them with us for a while.

"Of course, it's a decision we have to make – are they going to train with us and travel by themselves and not be a part of the Under-23s group?

"We felt, with Shola, it was time for him to train with us. In the Under-23s games, he's just got to travel by himself; he can't be in the dressing room, but we felt it was the right thing to do for him.

"I think it's the next step in their development and we've just got to take the hit on them when they play in the Under-23s – that they've got to travel by themselves, because they're in our [first-team] bubble."

Shoretire and Mejbri have long been considered among the best prospects in United's academy, but what can they offer?

 

HANNIBAL MEJBRI, 18 – ATTACKING MIDFIELDER

Many will have had an eye on Mejbri's development ever since he joined the club from Monaco in August 2019 in a deal that could potentially cost €10million (£8.75m).

A France youth international, Mejbri quickly progressed to United's Under-23s last term despite only being 17 and has become a regular.

A technically gifted attack-minded midfielder, Mejbri has impressed not only with his ability on the ball, but his knack of crafting opportunities for team-mates.

In Premier League 2 Division One, his 42 chances created in 13 games is more than any other player, while his six assists is a joint-best for the league.

He has combined his creativity and comfort in possession to good effect as well, as evidenced by the fact seven of his carries (a movement of more than five metres with the ball) have led to chances created, a figured bettered by only five.

Mejbri has also attempted 49 dribbles, the fourth-most in the division, and won a remarkable 94 fouls – almost three times as many as anyone else – two of which secured penalties in the recent 6-3 win over Liverpool's Under-23s.

In fact, Wood recently urged referees to do more to protect him from such rough treatment, concerned Mejbri will suffer a serious injury if it continues.

He can expect similar attention if he does get minutes in the top flight, though Wood is adamant Mejbri does not let it get to him, saying: "I think he's the type that he wants the ball all the time, he's not going to shy away from it and that's what we want, you don't want your top players being worried, he just needs a bit of protection or it could result in him being badly injured."

SHOLA SHORETIRE, 17 – FORWARD

Shoretire joined the United academy in 2014 having previously played for Newcastle United, and for several years now he has looked like one of the next high-potential kids to come off the Old Trafford production line.

He made his debut for the club's Under-18s in 2018, in doing so becoming the youngest player to ever feature in UEFA's Youth League at 14 years and 314 days.

Shoretire – whose name is pronounced 'Shor-ay-ti-reh' – is most-often used as a winger (on either flank) for the Under-23s, but given his excellent dribbling, vision and finishing abilities, he could potentially have a future as a more central striker.

He signed his first professional contract on Monday, just three days after netting a hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers' Under-23s.

That took him to five goals in 13 appearances this term, while he also has four assists from 22 chances created.

Where he comes out particularly well is with regards to goal-ending passing sequences, of which he has been involved in 13 – only Mejbri (14) has a better record here.

Like Mejbri, Shoretire also has a penchant for taking the game to his opponents, as showcased by the fact he has created eight chances at the end of ball carries, the fifth-most in the league.

Given United's packed schedule over the next few weeks, with their European campaign set to resume, it wouldn't be a surprise to see these two make their first-team bows.

Even if they don't this season, it is surely only a matter of time.

Three weeks ago, it appeared this season was shaping up to be like each of the previous 14 for the Sacramento Kings.

A 115-96 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on January 20 marked the sixth defeat in seven games for the Kings and dropped their record to 5-10 – third worst in the Western Conference.

A month into the season and it was already looking like Sacramento would match the Clippers' dubious record of 15 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth from 1976-77 to 1990-91 for the longest playoff drought in NBA history.

Now one-third of the way into their season, however, the Kings have pulled within a half-game of the eighth-placed Golden State Warriors in the West on the heels of a 7-2 stretch. on Friday night, they take on the Orlando Magic.

The turnaround began two nights after the blowout loss to the Clippers with a 103-94 victory over the New York Knicks. The Kings' performance that night was emblematic of how they've managed to climb back into the playoff picture, but is their formula for winning sustainable?

Against the Knicks, the Kings found themselves up 89-87 with just under four minutes remaining after New York went on an 8-0 run. Sacramento then went on a 7-0 run of their own, punctuated by a Tyrese Haliburton three-pointer with 2:35 to play to put the game away.

The Kings ended up scoring 14 of the game's final 21 points, and over the next few weeks displayed a proficiency for closing out tight games.

Prior to January 22, the Kings had the NBA's third-worst fourth-quarter point differential at minus-2.8 while ranking 23rd in fourth-quarter scoring with an average of 25.5 points. Since then, they are averaging 28.1 points over the final 12 minutes of games.

It's been in the game's final moments, however, that the Kings have really excelled. Their 10.0-scoring average in the final three minutes since January 22 is the best in the NBA.

The Kings are finding ways to grind out victories and have a league-high eight wins this season by five points or less, but this typically is not a blueprint for success in the NBA.

The Kings' 5.9-point differential in their wins is the lowest in the NBA, and no team have finished a season with a point differential of less than 6.0 in their victories since 2005-06, when the Portland Trail Blazers were at 5.6 and the Atlanta Hawks were at 5.8. Sacramento, however, do not want to be too closely linked to those teams, as Portland were a league-worst 21-61 while Atlanta were not much better at 26-56.

Winning close games rarely leads to long-term success, seeing as only one team in the last 30 years have reached the playoffs while having a point differential of less than 8.0 in their wins – the 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers at 7.8.

In fact, in NBA history only two teams have reached the playoffs while outscoring their opponents by fewer than 7.0 points in their wins and those instances came well before man even walked on the Moon – the 1954-55 Rochester Royals at 6.6 and the 1948-49 St Louis Bombers at 6.8.

Grinding out wins over the long haul of a full season takes its toll and it may have caught up with the Kings in their last time on the court.

In Tuesday's 119-111 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Kings seemed to tire down the stretch, missing seven straight shots over a three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter as the Sixers went on a 10-0 run to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead with just over four and a half minutes to play.

Sacramento were playing for the third time in four days, so they were playing on tired legs, but it's also possible fatigue was setting in because each of their previous three games went down to the wire and the minutes are piling up for their stars.

De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield each played the entire fourth quarter on Tuesday and have regularly been playing in crunch time.

Since January 22, the Kings have four players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes – Haliburton (1st, 10.7), Fox (11th, 9.9), Hield (12th, 9.7) and Harrison Barnes (18th, 9.4).

The Nets are the only other team to have more than two players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes in that period.

Sacramento have counted on Fox down the stretch, as his 11 field-goal attempts in late and close situations since January 22 trails only the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (15) and the Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul (13) for the most in the NBA. Late and close situations here are defined as the last two minutes of the final quarter when the game is within four points.

Fox's shots, however, weren't falling on Tuesday.

Over a five-game stretch from January 30 to February 7, Fox led the league with an average of 13.2 fourth-quarter points (minimum three games) while shooting 57.8 per cent. He misfired on 10 of 13 shots, though, while scoring seven points in Tuesday’s fourth quarter.

Haliburton's fourth quarter – as well as his third quarter for that matter – was even more forgettable. His final points on Tuesday came on a three-pointer with 2:00 remaining before halftime.

It was a sub-par showing for someone who is shooting at a staggering clip when the game moves to the fourth quarter.

The 20-year-old rookie is making 60.6 per cent (40-of-66) on all fourth-quarter shots – tied for fourth in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 109 players with at least 50 shot attempts in the fourth – and has been connecting at an even higher percentage from beyond the arc.

Shooting an absurd 61.5 per cent on three-pointers (24-of-39) in the fourth quarter, Haliburton is on track to become the only player seeing regular minutes to shoot at least 60 per cent from deep in the final quarter in the last 15 seasons. Since 2005-06, Kyle Korver for the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks has the highest fourth-quarter shooting percentage on three-pointers at 57.4, among players with at least 50 3-point attempts.

Haliburton has also made seven clutch three-pointers this season to trail only James (11), the Charlotte Hornets' Devonte’ Graham (eight) and the Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (eight) for most in the league. Here, clutch is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when a game is within six points.

Considering Haliburton is knocking down 44.1 per cent of his shots in the game's first three quarters, his fourth-quarter shooting has been especially baffling. His increase in shooting of 16.5 per cent from the first three quarters to the fourth is the biggest in the NBA this season (minimum 125 field goal attempts in first three quarters and 50 in fourth).

His shooting has been exceptional but hitting a rookie wall could be a concern. Tuesday marked the 22nd game of the season for Haliburton – the exact same number of games he played all of last season collegiately at Iowa State.

The fourth-quarter exploits of Haliburton and Fox have played a big role in Sacramento's climb in the standings, but the climb is just beginning. The season is only a little more than seven weeks old and time will tell if the Kings have the strength to continue their playoff push.

Bayern Munich completed a year of dominance by collecting the Club World Cup on Thursday, beating Tigres UANL 1-0 in the final.

Victory in Qatar, courtesy of Benjamin Pavard's scrappy second-half goal, clinched a sixth trophy in under 12 months.

Bayern started a 23-match winning run in all competitions this time last year, winning the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal, Champions League and UEFA Super Cup in this time.

They added the DFL-Supercup immediately after seeing that streak ended in September, then completed the set by beating Tigres.

Hansi Flick's side went one better than Bayern's 2013 team, who collected five titles - losing to Borussia Dortmund in the domestic Supercup.

The Bavarian giants were dominant last season and have continued to collect results this term, led by a star-studded cast, as we can see with Opta data.
 

FLICK'S MEN ALMOST FLAWLESS

Going back 12 months to the start of that remarkable winning stretch, Bayern have played 53 matches in all competitions, winning 46 of them.

In fact, they lost games just twice in the last year, to Hoffenheim 4-1 and Borussia Monchengladbach 3-2, both in the Bundesliga, although there was also a penalty shootout defeat to Holstein Kiel that ensured they will not defend their Pokal crown this season.

While dominating, Bayern have mainly been a great watch, scoring 157 goals (2.96 per game) and conceding 51 (0.96 per game). Indeed, those 53 games yielded only 21 Bayern clean sheets.

The standout results were obvious, scoring eight in games against both Barcelona and Schalke, but they also netted six versus Hoffenheim and Salzburg, plus five in clashes with Eintracht Frankfurt (twice), Fortuna Dusseldorf and Mainz.
 

OLD GUARD THE STANDOUT STARS

Bayern have a wealth of exciting young talents, but they relied heavily on their experienced campaigners over this glorious stretch.

Thomas Muller (51), Manuel Neuer (50) and David Alaba (48) led Bayern in appearances over the past year. Neuer was named in the starting XI on the most occasions - every time he played.

Robert Lewandowski has been unsurprisingly the leading marksman with his 49 goals in 45 games, but Joshua Kimmich came to the fore in terms of assists, his 23 - along with nine goals - coming from 43 matches.

Kimmich had one more assist than Muller, despite the forward creating 141 chances to his team-mate's 108.

With Neuer playing all but three of the 53 matches, he accounted for 20 of Bayern's 21 clean sheets - Alexander Nubel earned the other - and made 139 saves.

Niklas Sule, at 91.9 per cent of 1,656, was the most accurate passer to start a game, although he trailed the team's most prominent passers by some distance; Alaba played 3,743 at 88.2 per cent accuracy.

Alaba (4,210) also led the way in terms of touches ahead of Kimmich (4,089), who was beaten in terms of tackles by the slightly surprising figure of Serge Gnabry (76).

For 12 months, Bayern Munich have won and won again.

This time a year ago, Bayern were just a point clear at the top of the Bundesliga with the knockout stages of the Champions League still to negotiate.

But an outstanding, record-breaking 23-match winning run – the longest by a German club since the formation of the Bundesliga – took in four titles: the league, the DFB-Pokal, a sixth European crown and the UEFA Super Cup.

Since the conclusion of that remarkable stretch, which started on February 16 and ended with defeat on September 27, Bayern have added the DFL-Supercup, three days after the Hoffenheim loss, and now, with victory over Tigres UANL on Thursday, the FIFA Club World Cup.

Hansi Flick's side have bettered the efforts of their class of 2013, who won a meagre five trophies, losing Pep Guardiola's first game in charge to Borussia Dortmund in the domestic Supercup.

Indeed, this Bayern team, beaten 5-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt last season prior to Flick's appointment, have set a standard never previously seen in German football.

Champions of Germany, of Europe and on top of the world, the challenge now is to stay there.

David Alaba would appear set to leave and there is uncertainty, too, surrounding Flick, while the team have not evolved on the pitch.

It has been easy, of course, for Flick to set his side out to do the same again, having swept past Tottenham, Chelsea, Barcelona and Lyon before edging Paris Saint-Germain in last season's Champions League.

They lost Thiago Alcantara and signed Leroy Sane, who started and struck the crossbar with the best effort of the first half on Thursday – Joshua Kimmich's disallowed goal aside – but Bayern might well have shown only one change from the win against PSG if not for Leon Goretzka's recent coronavirus battle, Thomas Muller's positive test and Jerome Boateng's grave personal matters.

Even then, Benjamin Pavard, only absent due to injury last term, would have replaced Thiago, with Kimmich now back in midfield.

Bayern are attempting to repeat last season; they have three trophies to their name, boast a seven-point advantage in the Bundesliga and are through in Europe, but the swagger is not quite there at this stage.

Falling short of the level of dominance in 2019-20, Bayern are averaging 16.8 shots per match, 6.7 shots on target, 615.8 passes and 62.2 per cent of the possession – across the board the lowest marks since Guardiola arrived in Bavaria.

Continuing at the helm, unlike Jupp Heynckes after Bayern's previous Champions League triumph, Flick has not followed Guardiola in boldly transforming the team.

The Catalan coach shifted Philipp Lahm into the middle of the pitch, where he was joined by a fit-again Toni Kroos and new signing Thiago. Bayern averaged 572.2 passes per game and 61 per cent of the possession in 2012-13 and 727.9 passes per game and 71 per cent of the possession the following year – complete control.

This time, Sane was supposed to take Bayern to another level but has struggled to build on a fine debut against former club Schalke. Alaba's exit would rob them of a more valuable asset.

And given the swashbuckling style of last season's success, even with their trophy haul still growing, anything other than a serious tilt at the Champions League would surely be considered a failure. The bounce of a ball in one of sport's most unpredictable competitions could well dictate the mood music in Munich.

Bayern were value for their victory on Thursday, even if it ultimately relied on a scruffy Pavard strike, and have enjoyed a truly historic year.

However, if they are to prolong their peak and make this more than a 12-month merriment, they might need to again show a little more. Another 23-match winning run ought to ease any concerns.

Manchester City made history on Wednesday as they cruised to a routine 3-1 FA Cup fifth-round victory at Swansea City.

It was the 15th consecutive win across all competitions for Pep Guardiola's Premier League leaders – setting a new record for any top-flight team in English football.

Sunday's comprehensive 4-1 triumph over Liverpool at Anfield brought them level with Arsenal's 1987 vintage and Preston North End back in 1892, who won 14 in a row.

Goals from Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus in Wales ensured City now hold the record outright.

In 2017-18, they prevailed in 20 consecutive matches, although there was a penalty shoot-out win over Wolves in the EFL Cup during that run and Opta classifies such matches as draws.

Given their recent record from the spot, it is perhaps handy that City have not required penalties in their current streak.

Here, we look at the numbers behind a dominant run unprecedented in scope.

Gundo in the goals

Sterling scored the goal that set City on their way into the record books, netting decisively in a 1-0 win at Southampton on December 19.

His goal at Swansea takes him to six in 10 starts during the period in question, the same as England colleague Phil Foden, who has played 905 minutes to Sterling's 856.

But it is Ilkay Gundogan who leads the way. The Germany international's brace against Liverpool improved upon what was already the most prolific season of his professional career.

In 13 appearances and 12 starts during the winning run, Gundogan has eight goals at an average of one every 124.5 minutes.

Jesus had to reckon with a positive coronavirus test during City's prolific stretch, although he now has five goals from seven starts, with a strike every 139.8 minutes second only to Gundogan in terms of frequency.

Kev the creator

PFA Players' Player of the Year Kevin De Bruyne was typically influential before suffering a hamstring injury during last month's 2-0 win over Aston Villa.

Despite being restricted to eight appearances and 621 minutes on the field, his five assists are more than any of his team-mates have managed during this period.

Foden, Bernardo Silva (who also has three goals) and defensive midfielder Rodri are up next on three assists.

Extra time on the pitch has allowed Foden to rack up 28 chances created, ahead of De Bruyne with 24.

Gundogan's all-round importance is highlighted by his 21 opportunities laid on for others, while Joao Cancelo and Riyad Mahrez have crafted 18 and 17 respectively. All three have two assists apiece.

 

Dominant Dias

Ruben Dias was the only ever-present during the winning run until Guardiola allowed him to sit out the trip to Swansea.

The Portugal centre-back has been a transformative presence since joining for a club-record £62million from Benfica last September and was involved in nine clean sheets over the course of the 15 matches – one more than his centre-back partner John Stones and first-choice goalkeeper Ederson.

Dias' 21 interceptions are the most during this time from any City player, as are his 1,141 passes at a completion rate of 92.81 – better than any colleague to have played three games or more.

Headed clearances and aerials won are also categories where Dias performs strongly, although Rodri leads the way here with 18 and 41 respectively.

The Spain international has won 31 one of his aerials, level with Aymeric Laporte and no one can better his 27 tackles – a stock in trade for a man operating at the base of the midfield.

Rodri's importance to the cause means the sight of him limping off during the second half at the Liberty Stadium could compromise City when the look to swagger on this weekend against Tottenham – the last side to beat them competitively, 23 matches ago.

Julen Lopetegui wasn't instantly won over by Jules Kounde following his 2019 arrival at Sevilla from Bordeaux, unlikely as that seems currently.

He had only made four LaLiga starts by the end of October in his first season, and although that was followed by a more prolonged run in the team, a rocky performance against Osasuna in December saw him back on the bench.

As it was, Osasuna weren't able to punish Kounde's struggles on that occasion – the closest they came was hitting the post after his misjudgement of a bouncing ball led to a clear opportunity.

He was withdrawn soon after and only made another two league starts – a defeat at Real Madrid and underwhelming 1-1 home draw with Deportivo Alaves – before the start of February.

Indeed, it arguably wasn't until LaLiga's resumption after the coronavirus lockdown that Kounde truly nailed down a place and found genuine consistency in his performances, but now he is probably the first name on the team sheet.

Sevilla's 'selling club' business model is no secret, and by that logic it is unlikely that Kounde will remain at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan long-term – after all, Manchester City were keen in pre-season.

In years gone by Barcelona would've been not only a likely destination for him such has been their affinity for Sevilla-developed talent, it would have also been a stylistically ideal place for him to play. But ahead of the two teams' Copa del Rey semi-final tie, the archetypal Barca defender appears to be well out of their reach financially.

The 'false right-back'

In 2006, two years before he came Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola wrote a column for El Pais in which he discussed what has become known as the 'Lavolpiana build-up', a defensive setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward.

While La Volpe's Mexico side used a back three, the key ball-playing and forward-thinking elements of this system are still evident in the four-man defensive structure at Guardiola's City now – it is also identifiable in Lopetegui's Sevilla.

Kounde is a massive part of that, with the young Frenchman a fine player technically, both on the ball and when distributing.

The attack-minded nature of Sevilla right-back Jesus Navas leaves a lot of space for Kounde to operate in, and he often helps create overloads on the right flank – his positional map shows how he essentially works as a secondary right-back when in possession, while Fernando drops back into central defence to form a back three.

 

The recent 3-0 win over Getafe show this perfectly, with Kounde almost spending as much time in the attacking half as he did his own.

While the 'Lavolpiana build up' is a risky strategy, the right players can ensure it brings greater incisiveness particularly when playing through a press, and Sevilla have clearly adapted well – they are one of just two teams to not concede a goal as a result of a high turnover this term.

At no point this season has Sevilla's ability to play through the press been more prevalent than when remarkably stringing together 37 passes leading up to Luuk de Jong's second goal in the 3-0 Copa win over Valencia last month. Kounde more than played his role in that.

 

The defensive playmaker

This setup suits Kounde down to the ground. It's no wonder City were interested in him before going for Ruben Dias, and by extension he would clearly suit the ethos cultivated at Barcelona.

In 2019-20, Kounde showed glimpses of his undoubted ability but it was his partner Diego Carlos who arguably attracted more acclaim.

But this season, building on his positive development post-lockdown last term, Kounde has stepped things up a notch and seemingly relished that forward-thinking ball-playing role.

That is most notable with respect to how often he has carried the ball – his 331 carries (defined as a movement of five metres or more in possession of the ball) is bettered by only six players in LaLiga this term, three of whom are Frenkie de Jong, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric.

Of those 331 carries, 205 have been progressive, so moving Sevilla up the pitch. This gives him another very high ranking, with Pau Torres (321), De Jong (288), Messi (252) and Raul Albiol (246) the four individuals to boast more.

 

Kounde ranks in the top 10 for several other carry-related metrics – last season he did not. In fact, his 338 carries in 2019-20 is only seven more than he has in 2020-21, which in itself highlights his development.

But his forward runs in possession aren't Kounde's only way of getting on the front foot. His passing is also very positive.

Possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs given many of the passes they make are simple short balls to their defensive colleagues, but Kounde is often looking ahead.

His 387 successful forward passes is more than anyone else in LaLiga, while his 486 attempted forward balls is second only to Torres (502), who has played 360 minutes more than Kounde.

The Sevilla talent's 79.6 per cent completion rate from such passes is also better than Torres' 74.5 per cent.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he has developed into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who wouldn't have looked out of place in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

While Sevilla and Lopetegui remain the perfect fit for Kounde, it is surely only a matter of time before his €80million release clause no longer appears a daunting figure for certain clubs – though Barca's perilous financial position means they won't be in the hunt.

He's come a long way from that shaky night in Pamplona.

After turning 36 last week, Cristiano Ronaldo felt compelled to remind fans that he cannot go on forever.

"I'm sorry that I can't promise you 20 more years of this," said the Juventus star, who looks every inch a man that could quite comfortably play professional football into his mid-fifties. "But what I can promise you, is that as long as I keep going, you'll never receive less than 100 per cent from me."

That much would never be in doubt from a man who, blessed with talent as he is, has built an extraordinary career on a foundation of boundless ambition and unyielding endeavour. He brings to mind Brad Pitt's turn as Achilles in Troy, the war-seeking warrior-hero who wins a skirmish singlehandedly before, abs a-glistening, he proclaims to a prisoner: "I want what all men want. I just want it more."

Achilles, as this version has it, knew Troy would bring about his death in a blaze of glory. Ronaldo, too, can already sense time's winged chariot hurrying near.

Which brings us to Gianluigi Buffon.

Juve's veteran goalkeeper, who celebrated his 43rd birthday less than two weeks ago, has for so long defied convention when it comes to a footballer's longevity. Even keepers rarely keep playing beyond the age of 40 and certainly not for Europe's grandest teams.

Buffon is not Juve's first choice these days, of course, but he remains the cup stand-in for Wojciech Szczesny and he duly kept his spot for Tuesday's Coppa Italia semi-final second leg with Inter. It was a day to celebrate, too, as a goalless draw earned him club clean sheet number 288 of his Juve career and sent his team into the final 2-1 on aggregate.

The game also showed why head coach Andrea Pirlo would do well to consider how much more his old friend has to offer.

A resolute defence meant he only had two saves to make throughout; in fact, the only time Juve looked especially anxious was when Buffon had the ball. There was one pass under pressure that went straight out for a corner, another in the second half that let Lautaro Martinez drive into the box only to foul Buffon after a heavy touch. There were three attempted punches while under pressure from Romelu Lukaku, all of which ended with Buffon clueless as to the ball's position as he landed, then grateful that it had already bounced away, and another positional mishap on which Martinez really should have capitalised.

The contrast with Samir Handanovic - himself no spring chicken at 36 - was stark. Handanovic made four saves to Buffon's two, a couple of which were exceptional stops to deny Ronaldo, who could have killed the tie long before full-time in Turin. Commanding in his penalty area, he gave quite a different impression to Buffon, who seemed like a doddering uncle at a family wedding trying desperately to keep up with the dance moves. Indeed, had Inter's attacking players showed the same level of laser-focus as Handanovic, perhaps they could have rescued this contest.

Pirlo's Juve have become supremely difficult to beat. They have won 10 of their 12 games in 2021, the sole defeat being a 2-0 Serie A loss to the Nerazzurri. Since that game on January 17, they had won six out of six games before this encounter and conceded only one goal: a close-range strike by Martinez in the first leg that squirmed into the net when Buffon, in game number 1,100 of his club career, was too slow to get to ground.

The Bianconeri are on course for more silverware this season and Buffon will deserve any more medals he can add to his impeccable collection. He may well start the final, too - one more turn in the limelight. But there is no shame in admitting that, in the 26th year of his professional career, the time is approaching when he should graciously step into the wings.

Hansi Flick's Bayern Munich reign went from 0-60 at break-neck speed, as within 11 months of being appointing as caretaker boss, he'd essentially won everything.

It was the kind of impact that makes managers club legends, his influence all the more notable given the how underwhelming performances had been during Niko Kovac's ultimately ill-fated spell at the helm.

All that remains for Flick to win now of course is the Club World Cup, which Bayern will make their return to for the first time since 2013 when they go up against Al Ahly in the semi-finals on Monday.

While Bayern's preparations for the tournament haven't been ideal, given they were only in Bundesliga action on Friday and had their departure significantly delayed, they've arrived in Qatar as clear favourites.

It may well prove a welcome distraction for the time being, with talk over Flick's future beginning to become a minor irritant for all involved.

While the outcome of their efforts in this tournament won't directly lead to Flick leaving, failure will surely see the issue thrust into the spotlight.

An ally's departure

It seems astonishing that there is even a hint of doubt regarding Flick's future at Bayern given the trophies he's won and the swift implementation of a vibrant brand of football.

But with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the club's chairman, set to vacate his position at the end of the season, reports in Germany suggest Flick will lose his closest ally in the hierarchy.

Additionally, Rummenigge's incoming replacement – Oliver Kahn – is not someone Flick is said to be particularly close with, while his relationship with sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has been called into question.

Flick eased links with the Germany job last week when he insisted he wouldn't leave Bayern "for that", but considering his strong impact on Bayern in a short period of time, the German Football Federation won't be the only interested party if the 55-year-old decides to move later this year.

Clashing over signings

Much of the speculation relating to Flick's supposedly poor relationship with those above him is centred on Salihamidzic, the man in charge of the signings. Even if the rumours are wide of the mark, it's easy to see why there might be disagreements.

None of Bayern's pre-season signings can claim to have tied down a regular place in the starting XI this season, not even Leroy Sane, who has made just nine Bundesliga starts.

Marc Roca and Bouna Sarr have played just six times between them, Douglas Costa has started three league games and Alexander Nubel – perhaps unsurprisingly – hasn't ousted Manuel Neuer between the posts.

But it goes back further than that. Lucas Hernandez, an €80million purchase in 2019, is still not a regular pick in defence (10 starts this season) despite such a significant outlay.

In the case of Sane, he is proving to be less effective as a creative outlet than all of his fellow wingers in the Bayern squad, with his 1.6 chances created per 90 minutes fewer than Costa (1.7), Serge Gnabry (1.9) and Kingsley Coman (2.4).

If Rummenigge's departure leaves Flick without significant backing higher up, perhaps he'll opt to jump before he's pushed.

The distraction

Regardless of what happens in Qatar, or in the remaining months of the season for that matter, Flick will have a CV unlike many other managers in the game should he take the opportunity to follow Rummenigge out of the door.

They enjoyed a clean sweep last season with their Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League treble, before adding UEFA Super Cup and DFL-Supercup at the start of 2020-21.

The Club World Cup is the only one that remains, and if they manage to lift the trophy it will be Flick's sixth title in 68 champions – that's one every 11 matches on average.

It's hardly make or break, with this competition arguably inconsequential when it comes to Bayern's major targets at the start of the season.

But from Flick's perspective, the opportunity to complete the set is one he won't want to pass up.

Pep Guardiola noticeably bristled when asked in his pre-match broadcast interview whether Manchester City would ever have a better opportunity to break their Anfield hoodoo.

Not since 2003 had City claimed all three points at this ground, but this time they arrived on a 13-game winning streak to face opponents who have not looked themselves of late. 

Still, their manager did not wish to tempt fate ahead of his side running out at a stadium that has been far from a happy hunting ground for him.

Not only had City never won here under his stewardship, they had been regularly dismantled across meetings in the Premier League and Champions League.

And it was fear of a repeat that no doubt accounted for a cautious start from the visitors that did not reflect the form book.

When the first real chance of note arrived late in the first half, it came for City from the penalty spot, but Ilkay Gundogan could only blast the ball into the Kop from 12 yards. 

Since the start of last season, the Blues have only scored nine out of their 17 penalties – a 53 per cent conversion rate – and this latest miss must have had Guardiola fearing it would be another forgettable visit to Merseyside.

But, as has been the case across a season that started in less-than-ideal fashion for the visitors, both team and player grew from that moment forth.

As such, it was no surprise to see Gundogan on hand to smash the ball home from close range with the first of three shots across the 90 minutes following the restart.

And, though a rare error from Ruben Dias – a figure who has had a transformative effect on City's defence this term – allowed Mohamed Salah to level things shortly after, the idea that it might inspire the hosts on to victory looked fanciful.

So it proved, with Gundogan restoring the lead after Phil Foden showed lovely feet in the aftermath of a poor Alisson Becker kick before Raheem Sterling capitalised on another questionable moment from the Brazilian goalkeeper.

The scoreline then got the gloss it deserved as Foden smashed in powerfully to underline his new-found status as a key man in a refreshed City side which now looks destined to be win the league.

Guardiola and his squad spent last season fending off the critics as Liverpool marched off into the distance to clinch the title in record time.

But, having added Dias and found new heroes in the likes of Gundogan and Foden, it looks like they who will cruise to silverware this time around.

Perhaps Jurgen Klopp can cling to that idea as he reflects on a poor performance that got the result it deserved and ended any hopes of his team taking part in a title challenge this term rather than a scrap for a top-four finish.

Having gone 1,369 days and 68 games without a Premier League defeat at Anfield, Liverpool have now lost three on the bounce at home for the first time since 1963.

Injuries no doubt account for that historic run in some way, evident as they were in the Reds once again naming two midfielders at centre-back.

Yet waiting until deadline day to sign the two defenders they desperately needed looked particularly ill-advised when Klopp revealed ahead of kick-off that neither was considered ready to feature in this game.

And the German will surely have been concerned by the fact that September signing Thiago Alcantara in no way showed himself to be capable of picking up the midfield slack as he put in an unimpressive showing.

In fairness, a lack of both fight and quality was not just a midfield issue for Liverpool, it has spread throughout the team during a run of results that has wrecked their season.

The only hope for the Reds this campaign is that the imminent return of Diogo Jota and the opportunity to restore Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to the centre of the park can help fend off potential challengers for a top-four spot.

Should that happen, Klopp will believe his side is capable of following City in immediately bouncing back into title contention next term with the help of a few tweaks.

If not, then Europa League football and a far trickier rebuild job surely awaits.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was kept waiting but finally scored his 500th career club goal for Milan against Crotone on Sunday.

The 39-year-old reached 499 on Tuesday with the opening goal against rivals Inter in the Coppa Italia, but he was later sent off in a 2-1 defeat.

Ibrahimovic should have netted the milestone goal in the first half against Bologna last weekend, only to miss a 26th-minute penalty, although Ante Rebic scored the rebound.

But the former Sweden striker's moment came at San Siro when he played a one-two with Rafael Leao.

Ibrahimovic fed Leao on the edge of the box and the young Portuguese slotted a perfect return ball behind the Crotone defence for his veteran strike partner to drive into the far right corner, securing another milestone for one of the greatest goalscorers of the modern era.
 

MILAN'S MAIN MAN

Enjoying a fine second spell with Milan now at the age of 39, Ibrahimovic's goals have fired Stefano Pioli's side back into title contention.

The Rossoneri have not won the Scudetto since 2011 - in Ibrahimovic's first stint at the club - and are without any silverware since the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana.

With Saturday's strike, Ibrahimovic now has 15 goals in all competitions this term, including 13 in the league, swelling his Milan total to 82.

His 122 appearances are his most for any Italian club - having also represented Juventus and Inter - while this goal set Milan on course for a 71st victory with Ibrahimovic in the side.

GLOBAL SUPERSTAR

Ibrahimovic has been one of Italian football's biggest names in the 21st century, but he has proven his worth worldwide between his spells in Serie A.

Indeed, the greatest share of his 500 goals came in the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, 156 in just 180 matches.

Ibrahimovic's Inter tally of 66 is third on the list after his Milan haul, with LA Galaxy next after he netted a remarkable 52 goals in only 58 games.

As well as scoring 26 times for Juve, Ibrahimovic has plundered goals in the Netherlands (48 for Ajax), England (29 for Manchester United), Spain (22 for Barcelona) and his native Sweden (18 for Malmo).

Eddie Jones questioned whether Scotland could handle the "weight of expectation" and they provided the sweetest of answers by ending a 38-year wait for a win at Twickenham.

Time and again Scotland had failed to beat their fierce rivals in their own backyard, but that elusive victory finally came as they regained the Calcutta Cup on a wet Saturday evening in London.

Gregor Townsend's side dominated the Six Nations champions on the opening day of the tournament, winning 11-6 to leave England head coach Jones with a face like thunder.

Jones will be asking why his ill-disciplined side started the defence of their title with such a flat, insipid performance in a game that marked the 150th anniversary of rugby's oldest fixture

Scotland had produced a sensational fightback to draw 38-38 at the same venue two years ago, before being denied an astonishing victory late on.

They never looked like suffering more heartbreak on this occasion, Stuart Hogg leading by example as they won at the famous stadium for the first time since 1983 to leave England shellshocked.

Scotland certainly did not resemble a team who might be feeling the pressure as they bossed the game from start to finish.

The Red Rose, starting the tournament with a depleted pack, were guilty of indiscipline time and again, with referee Andrew Brace losing patience when he sent Billy Vunipola to the sin bin.

Finn Russell deservedly put Scotland in front with a penalty early on and almost set up a try for Duhan van der Merwe with a clever kick, but the leaping wing was unable to grab a high bouncing ball and touch down.

Van der Merwe was not to be denied soon after, fending off Mark Wilson's tackle to put Scotland 8-0 up on the half-hour mark, but Scotland suffered a blow when Russell was yellow-carded just before the break for tripping Ben Youngs.

The boot of Farrell reduced the deficit to two points at the interval, with Scotland surely heading to the dressing room thinking they should have been further ahead after being frustrated by resolute England defending.

Russell returned with Scotland still leading and they continued to boss possession, managing the game superbly, and the fly-half's second penalty put them 11-6 up before he missed another shot at goal.

A furious Jones marched from the stands to the touchline to try and turn the tide, replacing Jamie George and Youngs with Luke Cowan-Dickie and Dan Robson before the hour-mark.

The excellent Hogg kept them on the back foot with a sublime, mammoth kick into the corner - not for the first time - and England were warned over their penalty count again, but more desperate defence denied Scotland a second try as they continue to hammer at the door.

Lacklustre England's day was summed up when Jonny May knocked on under no pressure in the closing stages.

Hogg said Scotland felt ready to "create a little bit of history" and start a "new chapter" this weekend and, as they finally celebrated on the Twickenham turf, it was evident the Red Rose had failed to live up to expectations.

Rafael Nadal has history in his sights, but Novak Djokovic stands in his way at an Australian Open he has almost made his own.

With Roger Federer absent from the year's first grand slam, all eyes in the men's draw will be on Nadal and Djokovic.

As the fight between the 'Big Three' continues as to who will finish their career with the most majors, Melbourne shapes as again playing a key part, particularly amid the ongoing uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic. After winning his 13th French Open last year, the equation is simple for Nadal. His success at Roland Garros drew him level with Federer on 20 majors, the most by a man all-time.

But with the GOAT debate sure to continue for decades to come, a second title in Melbourne would also lift the Spaniard into uncharted territory. Nadal has the chance to become the first man in the Open Era to win every grand slam at least twice. Federer and Djokovic are both missing a second crown at Roland Garros.

For all his dominance in Paris, that would add another feather to the cap for 34-year-old Nadal. Most of Federer's major success has come at Wimbledon (eight titles), while Djokovic's has been at the Australian Open (also eight titles) – both establishing men's records at those tournaments. Nadal has been runner-up four times in Melbourne since his only title in 2009, while he has reached at least the quarter-finals in the past four years.

But just as Nadal, who is dealing with a back injury ahead of the tournament, stands in the way at the French Open, he will need to get past Djokovic – or have some luck – in Australia.

The Serbian has a 75-8 win-loss record at the tournament, including winning the past two titles. He has won the crown every time he has reached the semi-finals. Djokovic's previous blip in Melbourne came in 2017 and 2018, surprisingly beaten by Denis Istomin (second round) and Chung Hyeon (fourth round) respectively.

A year younger than Nadal, Djokovic is a 17-time grand slam champion, and he has made no secret of his desire to hold the record for most majors won by a man. Djokovic and Nadal have claimed nine of the past 10 majors, although the other one came recently as Dominic Thiem clinched last year's US Open, where the Spaniard and Federer were absent.

With preparations impacted by COVID-19, perhaps Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev or Andrey Rublev could threaten as the wait goes on for a changing of the guard in men's tennis.

But all eyes are unsurprisingly on Nadal and Djokovic as history again beckons.

With a double over Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-final first leg, Cristiano Ronaldo took his tally to 22 goals in 23 appearances for Juventus this season.

The Portugal star is the leading goalscorer across all competitions from within Italy's top flight, two above Romelu Lukaku and four clear of Ciro Immobile, the winner of last season's European Golden Shoe.

Not bad for a man who turns 36 on Friday.

Of course, Ronaldo is far from your average goalscorer and few would discount him from continuing to break records even as he approaches his 40th birthday.

He has already made history in his two and a half years in Serie A and will be gunning for more before he leaves Turin.

 

OLD HABITS DIE HARD

Since his €112million move from Real Madrid in 2018, Ronaldo has scored 67 goals in 80 Serie A games, more than any other player in that time (Immobile is next on 64).

His rate of 0.84 goals per game puts him joint-top among players in their 30s to play in Italy's top division since 1994-95, level with Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has 49 in 58 appearances.

In 2019-20, Ronaldo set a new record for goals scored by Serie A stars over 30 as he became the first such player to net at least 30 goals in a season (he finished on 31).

The previous best such figure was 29, achieved by Edin Dzeko for Roma in 2016-17 and Antonio Di Natale in 2009-10. And Ronaldo might just have another milestone set by the Udinese great in his sights.

 

A RECORD FOR THE AGED

There are 14 players in Serie A history to score more goals in their 30s than Ronaldo, and only one of them – Dzeko, who has 78 – is still playing.

Should he stay at Juve, Ronaldo will fancy his chances of becoming only the fifth player to score at least 100 times in the division in his 30s.

Still, the top four are some distance ahead. Roma great Francesco Totti is on 125, revered former Milan striker Gunnar Nordahl scored 137, and top of the tree is Di Natale with a remarkable 162.

It sounds a tall order for even Ronaldo to catch the former Italy striker, who called time on his career in 2016 at the age of 38. However, if he continues scoring at an average of 32 goals per season, he would reach Di Natale's tally in the latter part of the 2023-24 season, when he would have just turned 39.

And would you really bet against him?

One in eight women in the Australian Open draw have already won a grand slam title.

One in eight. It is staggering that of the 128 players who set out in the hope of singles glory at Melbourne Park, there are 16 major champions among them, and perhaps never has it been so difficult to predict who will carry off the title.

Compare it to the men's draw, where there are just five grand slam singles winners, and where you would struggle to make a compelling case for any more than three of those this year, with apologies to Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic.

As long-running dynasties near their end on the men's and women's tours, the WTA is a lengthy step ahead of the ATP with a cast of appealing characters already assuming leading roles.

The leader of the pack

Three-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka is at the forefront of a school of rising stars, but she has impressive rivals for company.

The last four years have seen the 15 women's majors won by 12 different players, whereas in the men's game, Rafael Nadal (6), Novak Djokovic (5), Roger Federer (3) and Dominic Thiem (1) have creamed off all the top prizes in the same period.

Often criticised in the past for a perceived lack of depth, in the years when Serena Williams won seemingly at will, the women's tour has exploded with a rush of bright and young talent.

Osaka is a revelation and a leader, on and off the court. Twice a US Open champion now, and a winner in Australia two years ago, the 23-year-old Japanese star took a powerful stance for racial equality at Flushing Meadows back in September, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests. She wants to achieve even more off the court than on it, where she looks assured of one day leaving an impressive legacy.

If there is any area where Osaka's game falls down it is consistency. She has surprisingly not passed the fourth round in 14 of her 17 grand slam appearances, but on every occasion she has gone beyond that stage it has been en route to lifting a trophy.

In hot pursuit

Last year's three slam champions were, at the times of their triumphs, just 21 (Sofia Kenin - Australian Open), 19 (Iga Swiatek - French Open) and 22 (Osaka - US Open).

The women's game has not seen anything comparable in terms of youthful winners of its blue riband tournaments since 2004, when the 21-year-old Justine Henin won in Australia, Anastasia Myskina landed the Roland Garros title at 22, Maria Sharapova was a 17-year-old bolter to Wimbledon glory and 19-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova scored a stunning Flushing Meadows victory.

Last year does not touch the 1997 season, when a 16-year-old Martina Hingis won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open, denied a grand slam clean sweep by 19-year-old Iva Majoli's shock French Open final win over the Swiss.

But women's tennis is still seeing a remarkable shift to relative youth.

The 2019 season saw a then 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu scoop a stunning US Open win, while Ash Barty took the French Open.

Andreescu has been sidelined with a knee injury since the 2019 WTA Finals, but she is back for Australia, where Queenslander Barty, now 24, is the home hero.

Brace for the prospect of Andreescu and Barty joining Kenin, Swiatek and Osaka in a group of five who can take the women's game boldly into the post-Williams era.

But the Williams era isn't over

This is true, and again Serena will make another attempt to land that elusive 24th grand slam, the one that would move her level with Margaret Court on the all-time list.

She remains, at the age of 39, a magnificent competitor and a beguiling player, as does sister Venus, who turns 41 in June.

Serena has lost her last four grand slam finals, however, and the most recent run to a title match came almost 18 months ago in New York, where Andreescu had her number.

As the new gang of five threaten to pull away from the old establishment, perhaps Williams is now in the next group, along with the likes of Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova: still perfectly capable of winning another slam or even multiple slams, but it feels important to strike now.

Serena has not won any of her last 10 slams, making it the longest span in her professional career without winning a major.

Barty party, or Sofia the second?

Osaka begins the Australian Open as favourite with bookmakers, but world number one Barty will have home support and could make that count. How she performs will be keenly watched, given she chose not to travel once the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, sitting out 11 months.

Should Barty get on a roll, hopes will be high she can become the first Australian woman to take the title since Chris O'Neil in 1978. Last year, Barty fell in the semi-finals to Kenin, and she will be eager to land a second slam title.

Kenin, whose intense concentration and steely resolve helped her pull off last year's shock Melbourne win, and follow up with a run to the French Open final, can be a match for anyone. She will be aiming to become the first woman to win back-to-back Australian Open titles since Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

Success on this level has come perhaps ahead of schedule for the American, and the same can be said for Swiatek, whose demolition of the field at Roland Garros in October made a mockery of her being ranked number 53 in the world.

The teenage Polish player became her country's first grand slam singles champion, and with that status comes the expectation she will follow it up. How that turns out for her will be one of the most intriguing of sub-plots in the new season.

Changing priorities

Halep said in a recent WTA interview that winning an Olympic medal was her "main goal" for 2021, although Osaka will also have the Tokyo Games firmly circled in her diary.

For the likes of those other players among the 16 slam winners in the Melbourne draw, there will be differing targets this year, too.

Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Jelena Ostapenko and particularly Garbine Muguruza may yet come good again on the big stage at some point this season.

For Venus Williams, Kuznetsova and Samantha Stosur, it may be a case of one final hurrah.

As the likes of Coco Gauff emerge as potential future big-stage winners, and fledgling ambassadors, the women's game looks in safe hands.

Anthony Martial's Manchester United debut is one of the club's most memorable in the modern era of the Premier League. His jinking run left Liverpool's defence in knots before he coolly slotted into the bottom-right corner to help secure a 3-1 win over his new team's bitter rivals.

It was a stunning start and one that promised much for the future, producing the ultimate response to the many pundits who had questioned his signing and reported £36million transfer fee.

Yet, five and a half years on, it's difficult to say Martial's debut resembles a microcosm of his United career, with those spectacular moments remaining fleeting rather than developing into sustained excellence.

Of course, 2019-20 was surely the closest he's come to finding consistency as he scored 17 times in the Premier League. Finally, the penny had seemingly dropped and Martial was developing the decisiveness he had previously teased in flashes.

But 2020-21 has been largely disappointing for the Frenchman and has fans wondering if he is their best option. Was last season just another false dawn?

 

THE REGRESSION

United fans will hope Martial's lively appearance off the bench in Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of Southampton is a sign of things to come – he got two goals and also won a penalty, albeit a questionable one.

There was certainly plenty to like about his performance, with both goals coming from the central zone of the penalty area, and the first saw him use his strength to see off a defender prior to finding the net. For a player whose suitability as a number nine has been questioned, it was a promising development.

But while there were undoubtedly reasons for optimism, we cannot disregard his previous struggles this season on the basis of that 9-0 win. Saints became subjugated essentially as soon as Alexandre Jankewitz was sent off after 82 seconds, and Martial's second came when Ralph Hasenhuttl's side were down to nine men.

Before Tuesday, Martial's shot conversion rate this season (5.9 per cent) had been lower than any of his previous campaigns with United. Even when you take into consideration his two latest goals, which lifts it to 13.3 per cent, he's still well down on 2019-20 (21.3 per cent) and 2018-19 (25.6 per cent).

His issues don't appear to come down to a lack of clear opportunities either, as prior to Tuesday he was actually averaging roughly the same amount of big chances per 90 minutes this season as in 2019-20 (0.7). However, he had been proving more wasteful from such situations, with Martial's big chance conversion rate of 0.15 per game down from 0.3.

Martial particularly excelled with regards to expected goals in 2019-20, with his xG rating of 11.3 meaning he netted six more than he would have been expected to – by comparison, ahead of the Southampton win, he had two goals from an xG of 4.5.

Positionally, Martial has generally occupied the same spaces as he did in 2019-20 but given his emphatic out-performing of xG was seemingly unsustainable, perhaps this is part of the problem.

A NEW THREAT

Edinson Cavani's signing, while initially criticised as a knee-jerk or 'panic' acquisition, was always likely to be a positive move for United as it offered them a new dynamic in attack. Martial may like to play at being a number nine, he may wear that shirt, but his characteristics are much different to those of Cavani.

Even though Martial has been regularly deployed as the focal point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's attack over the past 18 months, his positional maps still prove a predilection to operate from the left.

 

Being involved more towards the left than the right flank is understandable in one sense, given United carry greater threat there with Luke Shaw than they do on the opposite side with Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

But Cavani takes up central positions with greater regularity than Martial. As such, the Uruguayan's far greater goal frequency this term (one every 133 minutes, compared to one every 312.5 minutes for Martial) cannot be a surprise, even if Martial actually averages more touches of the ball in the area (7.6 per 90 mins, to 5.3).

There is also a school of thought that Martial's mentality becomes affected when he feels threatened. It's not a secret that he had long seen his future as a central striker, but Louis van Gaal felt he was better suited to playing on the flank and Jose Mourinho openly questioned his suitability to the number nine role.

The latter's arrival in 2016 coincided with the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who essentially killed Martial's chances of playing as a striker, and his form subsequently suffered almost across the board after a positive first season.

Although he showed signs of improvement in 2017-18 despite Romelu Lukaku's arrival, Martial was no more productive than when he first joined.

And now there's Cavani, who is out-scoring Martial five to four despite playing less than half the number of minutes in the Premier League this season. It seems he's treading on Martial's toes rather than keeping him on them.

CAVANI THE MORE DEPENDABLE OPTION?

For what it's worth, Martial's dip in form hasn't impacted United massively – after all, they've a better xG differential this term (5.7) than they did in 2019-20 (3.2) and are challenging at the top of the table, something they haven't really managed since Alex Ferguson's retirement.

 

Tuesday's mauling of Southampton might have been just what the doctor ordered for Martial, who had previously gone a month without a goal in all competitions, though few would have any complaints if Cavani was just starting out on a run as United's first choice in attack.

He may not possess the pace of Martial or indeed his ability on the ball, but he has proven more clinical as evidenced by his greater conversion rate of big chances (45.4 per cent, over 33.3), such as his nonchalant header against Southampton.

The experienced Uruguay international is also being presented with more big chances (1.5 per 90 minutes) than Martial (0.9), suggesting Cavani boasts a greater ability to create openings with his movement.

It is, of course, always handy to have players with varying skillsets and it offers Solskjaer the ability to choose individuals based on his set-up or the opposition on a given day.

But on current form, the more consistent talents of Cavani might just offer United the greater reliability they need if they're to sustain a title challenge.

At the very least, he would seem a smart choice on Saturday if fit having already netted three times in two games for United against Everton.

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