It wasn't the most celebrated or impactful trade of the Summer of 2019 – the newest gold banner that is waiting to be unveiled at the Staples Center answers that question.

Still, when browsing the current state of affairs in the Western Conference, it's hard to deny the significance of another deal that went down shortly after the franchise-defining blockbuster that landed Anthony Davis alongside LeBron James in Los Angeles and shifted the balance of power within the NBA.

With the aftershock of the Davis deal still reverberating, the Memphis Grizzlies were making a more under-the-radar move to set their own new course. Just days after the gigantic trade, Memphis sent the franchise's all-time leading scorer and arguably most popular player, Mike Conley, to the Utah Jazz, formally closing the door on the moderately successful 'Grit and Grind' era of the previous decade.

It's fair to say the trade is working out quite well for both teams, though. The Jazz presently sport the NBA's best record at 16-5 with Conley superbly manning the point following a somewhat trying first season in Salt Lake City. The Grizzlies currently stand as the surprise leader of a suspect Southwest Division and are seemingly well ahead of schedule on a rebuilding plan young general manager Zach Kleiman has so far orchestrated with a master stroke.

Memphis' swift rise to respectability was hard to see coming, and neither was the considerable effect so far generated by a trade centered around a player who has never made an All-Star team in 13 NBA seasons. That may change in Conley's 14th, however. The 33-year-old has been a major force on both ends of the court in what has been a terrific bounce-back campaign to date, as his 124.2 offensive rating is the highest of his career and his 2.35 steals per 48 minutes is his best mark since making the NBA All-Defensive Team in 2012-13. 

Perhaps most importantly, however, is how the Jazz have performed with Conley on the court as opposed to him off it. The veteran point guard's plus-minus rating of 11.0 per game trails only Clippers star Kawhi Leonard for the best in the league among players averaging at least 15 minutes per outing and who have appeared in at least half of their team's games, and the following chart illustrates how much better Utah has been when Conley is on the floor: 

JAZZ, WITH/WITHOUT MIKE CONLEY ON COURT, 2020-21 

With/Without stats (/100 = per 100 possessions) 

Points/100: 116.5/108.8 
Opp Points/100: 99.9/113.8 
Point Diff/100: +16.6/-5.0
FG Pct: .470/.444 
Opp FG Pct: .427/.475 
Turnovers/100: 13.4/16.6 

Conley's presence also allows Donovan Mitchell, Utah's leading scorer and their highest usage player, to play more off the ball where he is most effective, as the numbers demonstrate: 

DONOVAN MITCHELL, WITH/WITHOUT MIKE CONLEY ON COURT, 2020-21 

With/Without stats (/100 = per 100 possessions) 

Points/100: 35.0/32.9 
Rebounds/100: 6.8/5.5 
Assists/100: 5.4/8.1 
Turnovers/100: 3.5/5.7 
FG Pct: .451/.409 
3-Pt Pct: .446/.343 

With Conley playing at an elite level and a pair of All-Stars in Mitchell and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, the question can now be raised: Have the Jazz finally achieved the status of a legitimate challenger to the West's upper crust after four years of consistently winning in the regular season but never seriously threatening in the playoffs? 

Quite possibly. 

The Jazz are the only team that currently ranks in the NBA's top five in both offensive and defensive rating. They have never finished a season higher than ninth in the former category under coach Quin Snyder, but there is reason to believe this team differs from its predecessors. It has been hitting 3-pointers at a historic rate (16.9 per game) with both impressive efficiency (39.8 percent) and variety. Six of the Jazz's top seven scorers are shooting better than 38 percent from beyond the arc while taking at least four attempts per game, the most in the league. 

Only one team in NBA history has shot 40 percent or better from 3-point range while making 12 or more 3s per game, and that is the 2015-16 Warriors that set an NBA record with 73 regular-season wins. Granted, there are three other teams that currently fall under that category this season, and they are all pretty good as well: The Clippers, Bucks and Nets. 

So, we have discussed how the Conley trade has benefited the Jazz. How about the Grizzlies, who received Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen, a 2019 first-round pick and a future first-rounder in the deal? 

Korver was immediately traded to Phoenix in a swap that brought back De'Anthony Melton, Memphis' best wing defender, and a 2020 second-round pick that turned into center Xavier Tillman, who has quickly emerged as a solid rotational piece as a rookie.

Crowder was later shipped to Miami, with capable veteran Gorgui Dieng and the still-injured Justise Winslow the return.

Last year's first-rounder was ultimately used on Brandon Clarke, one of only five players from the 2019 class to average 12 points and 5.5 rebounds per game through his first season-plus.

All told, that is five viable contributors (Clarke, Allen, Dieng, Melton, Tillman) and a possible sixth if Winslow can ever get healthy. And Melton may have a chance to be something more than that if he continues to make strides with his still-developing shot.

And we have yet to mention the primary motive for moving Conley, which was to clear a path at the point guard spot for the electric Ja Morant. Though Memphis was able to go 4-4 in the eight games the 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year missed with a sprained ankle earlier this season thanks to the enviable depth Kleiman has assembled, there is no question the Grizzlies are a more dangerous team with the 2019 No. 2 overall pick in the lineup.

Here are the numbers to back it up: The Grizzlies average 117.4 points with him, compared to 103.1 in his absence. Their field goal percentage (.479 compared to .451) and 3-point percentage (.381 compared to .331) are also unsurprisingly better, while the turnovers drop by just over one per game (13.5 with him, 14.9 without).

If the Grizzlies could maintain that points-per-game average throughout the season, they would rank third in the league behind only the power-laden Nets and Bucks. Combine it with their other strengths, an opportunistic defense that leads the NBA in steals per game and a rotation that boasts a league-high 11 players averaging 8.0 points or more (min. 50 percent of team’s games played), and it is no stretch to proclaim they will be a formidable playoff foe for any team should they get in – especially if budding star Jaren Jackson Jr. makes it back from the knee injury that has sidelined him all season thus far. 

Memphis are still not ready to realistically threaten the league's championship contenders, but there is a lot to like about this team going forward. The Grizzlies have one bona fide star in Morant, a potential second in Jackson and a young and promising supporting cast – most of whom are under contract for at least two more years. They are also set up to be flush in cap space and a potential dark horse player in free agency come the 2021 offseason.

The Grizzlies have the NBA's third-youngest roster, its youngest GM in Kleiman and third-youngest head coach in 36-year-old Taylor Jenkins. It looks like their rebuild is maturing beyond its years , too.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets meet for the first time since last season's Western Conference Finals on Thursday.

A 4-1 series win for the Lakers paved the way for the franchise to win their first NBA championship since 2010 and they are the favourites to repeat the feat this season.

After a gruelling two-week road trip in which they went 5-2, they will be back in the familiar surroundings of Staples Center to start a five-game home stand.

The Lakers are 4-4 on their home court this season and the Nuggets have only dropped three of their 10 road games, while LeBron James and Nikola Jokic have started the campaign in form befitting MVP candidates.

The stage is set for an intriguing battle between two of the West's heavyweights.

 

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers

An average of 25 points per game may not be on a par with previous prolific seasons, but James is enjoying a career year from beyond the arc.

He is shooting at 40.9 per cent from three-point range and is averaging over twice as many attempts per game (6.8 compared to 3.3) as when he set his previous high of 40.6 per cent in the 2012-13 season.

He has improved from downtown year on year with the Lakers but operates at 27.1 per cent from three against the Nuggets since his arrival in Los Angeles in 2018. He only made more than one three-pointer in one of their Western Conference Finals meetings last season.

Nikola Jokic – Denver Nuggets

Denver's Serbian center has made an incredible start to the 2020-21 season.

While tying his career high of 47 points and ending the Utah Jazz's 11-game winning streak, he registered his 20th straight double-double to start the season – Bill Walton is the only other player to have achieved that feat, though he went on to record 34 straight in the 1976-77 season.

The last team to deny him a double-double? That's right, it was the Lakers. Jokic only had one double-double in the Nuggets' 4-1 series loss to the Lakers in the bubble.

KEY BATTLE: CONTROL OF THE PAINT

Only Zion Williamson (173), Giannis Antetokounmpo (165) and Domantas Sabonis (157) have made more field goals in the paint than Jokic this season, with the centre averaging 14.8 points per game in the key.

However, for the Lakers, Anthony Davis and LeBron have each made 111 field goals in the paint, while Montrezl Harrell also places inside the top 20 with 107.

Through Davis and James alone the Lakers average 21.8 points per game in the paint and the former shoots at 69.8 per cent in that area – better than Jokic's 65.2 success rate and the fifth best in the NBA among players to have attempted at least 100 such shots.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nuggets have only won four of their 12 meetings with the Lakers in the regular season and playoffs since LeBron arrived at Staples Center.

Davis has particularly enjoyed playing against Denver since becoming a Laker too, averaging 30.3 points and 7.6 assists across nine meetings with the Nuggets. The only side he has averaged more points against in the same time frame – with a minimum of two games played – is his former team the New Orleans Pelicans (31.3).

Denver will therefore likely need Jamal Murray to shine alongside Jokic. However, he had one of his worst games over the past two seasons against the Lakers December 2019, when he had just six points on 3-of-17 shooting. Only once has he scored fewer in at least 24 minutes on the floor – he had four points against the Brooklyn Nets a month prior.

Joe Root is used to reaching milestones, but the batsman will bring up a special Test century when he leads England in the series opener against India.  

For Root, the game in Chennai – the first of four in the series – will see him make his 100th Test appearance. He will become just the 15th Englishman to get to the landmark in the format and the 69th overall. 

The fresh-faced 21-year-old who made his debut in India in 2012 is now a fresh-faced 30-year-old considered one of the best in the world, with his memories of that maiden outing still helping to shape the player he is.

"Walking out for the first time in an England shirt would probably be the proudest moment," he said.

"I look back at walking out to bat and seeing Kevin Pietersen at the other end, someone I watched as a teenager and as a kid growing up, and I just couldn't stop smiling. I was living my childhood dream and have been ever since.

"Whenever I'm going through a lean spell or things aren't quite falling for me, I try to look back at that moment and remember what that feeling was like – almost try and embrace that really excitable young lad and bring that into the current situation."

THE HIGHS AND LOWS AHEAD OF A BUSY YEAR 

To say 2021 will be a busy year for Root is an understatement. While not currently part of England's plans in Twenty20 cricket, meaning he seems set to miss out on the World Cup in India in October and November, there is plenty on the Test captain's plate.  

The tour to India will see England play four of their scheduled 17 Tests across the calendar year, a schedule that includes a home series against the same opponents, the visit of ICC Test Championship finalists New Zealand and, after that busy summer, the small matter of an Ashes tour.  

He made an outstanding start with 426 runs on the recent tour of Sri Lanka, helping England secure a 2-0 series sweep that extended their winning streak overseas to five matches, their best run away since 1914.  

Yet Root went into that tour off the back of a below-par year. His top score in 2020 was 68, though he still finished with an average of 42.2, narrowly better than 2018 (41.2) and 2019 (37). The right-hander managed as many three-figure scores in January as he recorded across the previous two years combined.  

If England are to prosper on what will undoubtedly be a long and tough road ahead, Root will need to lead from the front. Captaincy has seen his batting numbers suffer – he averages 45.7 as skipper, compared to 52.8 beforehand – but the signs are some tinkering during time off has allowed him to rediscover his best form at just the right time.

RUNS ON TOUR, FANTASTIC AT FOUR 

India has been a happy destination for Root on previous trips, including hitting 124 in the drawn series opener on the 2016 tour. It was also the country where he made his Test bow, four years earlier. Batting at six, an innings of 73 offered a demonstration of his undoubted skill. 

The Yorkshireman has had plenty of other good moments against India: they are one of five opposing nations he has scored over 1,000 Test runs against. Only Alastair Cook (seven) has managed it against more countries for England.  

Australia is also on that list for Root, who will be hoping to improve on a career average of 38 when he heads Down Under again later this year. His first tour there in 2013-14 was particularly tough, with a run of low scores leading to him being left out of the XI in Sydney. It was a rare low point, while also serving as motivation to make sure it never happened again.  

His 2017-18 tour was more productive, albeit without a three-figure score. Conversion rates are often used as a measurement when comparing the leading names, and Root’s numbers – 19 centuries but 49 scores between 50 and 99 – have been used against him when held up alongside Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson.  

The needs of the team have seen him moved up and down the order, away from his favoured place at four. That position has seen him score 10 of his Test hundreds, while only Kevin Pietersen (6,490) and Denis Compton (4,234) have amassed more runs when occupying that spot for England.  

"I know previous captains have preferred to get out there early and just get amongst it but I quite like to split the two and to really focus on my batting," he said in November 2019 during a tour to New Zealand. "I've found over time that, generally, I've consistently played better in that position."  

The numbers back up his statement; Root has a 52.2 average when listed at four in the batting order. Only at five (69.1) has he done better, albeit with a far smaller sample size.

ENGLAND EXPECTS AND THE PURSUIT OF TENDULKAR 

During his brilliant double hundred in the first Test in Sri Lanka, Root became the seventh Englishman to reach 8,000 runs in the format.   

By the end of the trip, he had moved past Geoffrey Boycott, Pietersen and David Gower on the all-time run-scoring list for his country – and it is unlikely he will have to wait long to overtake two more legendary names.  

Root’s tally after 99 Tests stands at 8,249 runs. Alec Stewart (8,463) and Graham Gooch (8,900) are firmly in his sights, particularly when you consider the number of games to come this year.  

However, Cook is well clear at the top. The opening batsman and former skipper finished with 12,472 runs in 161 appearances. Only four men in the history of the game have managed more, Sachin Tendulkar (15,921 runs in 200 Tests) leading the way.  

Could Root potentially chase Tendulkar down? He is about to hit the halfway point in terms of number of games in the head-to-head comparison, yet is ahead of schedule in terms of output. He has only missed two Test matches since his debut, while a decision at some stage along the line to focus solely on the longest format of the game could extend his Test career even further. 

Such talk of individual records is likely to be of little concern for the man himself, though. Reaching 100 Tests is an impressive achievement for Root, who will hope it is not his last century in the months to come. 

Manchester United matched their own record for the biggest home win in Premier League history as Southampton suffered the unprecedented ignominy of 9-0 defeats in consecutive seasons.

Ralph Hasenhuttl's men saw their outing at Old Trafford unravel from the moment Alexandre Jankewitz was shown a second-minute red card for an ugly lunge on Scott McTominay.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka began the rout and efforts from Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani either side of a Jan Bednarek own goal made it 4-0 at half-time.

Anthony Martial and McTominay made it 6-0 inside the final 20 minutes before a Bruno Fernandes penalty, Martial's second and a closing goal from Daniel James left Southampton – who also saw Bednarek sent off – in an unsightly heap.

From nine goals to nine men, Arsenal had David Luiz and Bernd Leno dismissed as they lost 2-1 at Wolves.

That scoreline was repeated in victories for Sheffield United and Crystal Palace that could have repercussions at the bottom of the table.

Manchester United 9-0 Southampton: Record-equalling joy and despair at Old Trafford

James' goal deep into stoppage time meant United won 9-0 for the first time since thrashing Ipswich Town in March 1995. It is only the third instance of this scoreline in the Premier League, following Southampton's thrashing on home turf against Leicester City in October 2019.

This fixture is not always anything like as kind to United. In fact, they have won home and away against Saints for the first time since 2012-13 – the last time they lifted the title.

Southampton's fourth consecutive Premier League defeat is also their biggest ever away loss in any competition.

United's efforts to share the goals around, with only Martial hitting a brace, means they are the second side to have seven different scorers in a Premier League match following Chelsea against Aston Villa in December 2012.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seen his side utterly transform their home performances. They won only one of six at Old Trafford at the start of this league season, scoring three times. A run of four wins out of five, with one defeat, has yielded 19 goals.

The late flurry was aided by Bednarek adding a red card to his own goal, while it could have been so different were it not for Jankewitz's rash tackle. The teenager is the first player to be sent off on his first Premier League start since Serge Aurier for Tottenham in September 2017 and the fourth man to be dismissed inside two minutes in a Premier League game.

Wolves 2-1 Arsenal: David Luiz and Leno leave Arteta's men short

Arsenal took a deserved lead at Molineux through Nicolas Pepe, who now has three goals in his past four league starts – as many as he managed on his previous 16 starts.

Mikel Arteta says he will appeal David Luiz's punishment but the Brazilian defender's foul on Willian Jose means he has been sent off three times and conceded six penalties since his Arsenal debut in August 2019, more than any other player in the division during that time.

Ruben Neves converted from the spot before fellow Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho hammered in a fabulous 30-yard effort. Very much a collectors' item, it was the first home goal of his Wolves career at the 61st attempt.

When Leno charged from his area to handball in a wretched misjudgement, Wolves' first league double over Arsenal since 1978-79 was virtually assured and the Germany international became the second Gunners keeper to be sent off in the Premier League – and the first since David Seaman against West Ham back in 1993.

Whether largely down to indiscipline or misfortune, Arsenal have been shown nine red cards since Arteta took charge on Boxing Day 2019 – six more than any other side.

Sheffield United 2-1 West Brom: Blades sharpen survival chances

Bottom club Sheffield United are now just a point behind West Brom in 19th, even though they fell behind to Matt Phillips' close-range finish before half-time.

Phillips has now found the net in each of the past 13 seasons in English league football, a run that goes back to 2008-09.

Jayden Bogle brought the hosts level before captain Billy Sharp stepped up to net another crucial goal.

Since Chris Wilder's first game in charge of United in August 2016, Sharp has scored 76 goals in all competitions – 44 more than any other Blades player during that period.

Sam Allardyce's much-vaunted reputation for making his teams hard to beat is not doing West Brom much good at the moment. The Baggies have conceded 26 goals in nine Premier League games under the ex-England boss, as many as they let in during 13 matches under Slaven Bilic this term.

Newcastle United 1-2 Crystal Palace: Eagles soar clear of trouble

Newcastle remain eight points above the drop zone but are now seven shy of Palace, despite enjoying a dream start.

Jonjo Shelvey's long-ranger after 71 seconds was the quickest goal the Eagles have conceded in a Premier League match since Ian Taylor scored for Aston Villa inside a minute in March 1998.

Roy Hodgson's side had not won away from home after conceding first since overcoming West Ham in October 2019, drawing two and losing 12 of such games since.

But Jairo Riedewald's venomous hit saw them level in style as he ended a run of 13 games without a goal in the Premier League.

Gary Cahill then became Crystal Palace's oldest ever goalscorer in the Premier League at 35 years and 45 days. He is also the oldest Englishman to score in the Premier League at St James' Park since Alan Shearer last did so.

Antonio Conte muttered to himself and looked rather resigned as Arturo Vidal angrily gestured towards him while being replaced by Christian Eriksen on Tuesday. Perhaps he realised his errors had already done irreparable damage.

Juventus went on to put one foot in the Coppa Italia final with a 2-1 win at Inter in their semi-final first leg, with Conte seemingly made to rue a tactical set-up that invited pressure in the absence of talisman Romelu Lukaku.

While Inter's second-half display in San Siro showed evidence of Conte wising up to his team's problems, it was too little, too late as the Nerazzurri were unable to rescue a game lost in the first half.

A chief component of Inter's struggles here was rooted in last week's quarter-final win over bitter rivals Milan, as Lukaku's much-discussed altercation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic resulted in a yellow card for the Belgian.

The pair went head-to-head in ugly scenes that were accentuated by the lack of a crowd, every word of Ibrahimovic's questionable antagonising audible thanks to the television cameras and microphones.

Whether Lukaku's reaction was justified is a discussion for another day, but beyond doubt is the fact he was sorely missed by Conte's men, whose lack of an out-ball left them without options.

Alexis Sanchez, who ultimately remained with Inter at the end of the transfer window despite links to Roma, was the man chosen to partner Lautaro Martinez and the Chilean initially showed reason for optimism.

After holding the ball up admirably and working space on the break in the ninth minute, Sanchez fed Nicolo Barella up the right flank and his low cross was turned home by Martinez – his shot creeping under the hand of Gianluigi Buffon's hand.

It wasn't the ideal way to celebrate the 43-year-old's 1,100th professional game, but the Inter defence ensured the spotlight wouldn't be on Buffon's error for long.

First, Ashley Young took centre stage a little over 15 minutes later, bizarrely opting to haul back Juan Cuadrado in the box despite Federico Bernardeschi's cross always looking incapable of doing any damage, and Ronaldo slammed the resulting penalty right down the middle.

Ronaldo then capitalised on a mix-up between Alessandro Bastoni and Samir Handanovic, robbing the defender and slotting in from a tight angle outside of the box with the goalkeeper stranded.

Inter dug their own hole with their poor decision-making, and without Lukaku they were without the means to haul themselves out.

Neither Young nor Matteo Darmian on the flanks – the latter in for the absent Achraf Hakimi – could offer any kind of attacking support in the first half, with both failing to deliver a single cross before the interval.

Then, with Sanchez and Martinez largely unable to impose themselves against the physically dominant Merih Demiral and Matthijs de Ligt, Inter's options when looking to move out from the back were minimal.

And that was another issue – in the first half, Inter were very deep and endured great difficulty trying to play through Juve's press. It might have been effective with players potentially trying to get in behind the visitors' defence, but Andrea Pirlo's side subjugated their hosts virtually throughout the opening half.

Conte's tweaks at the break saw Inter's backline move further up the pitch and that certainly seemed to improve their standing in the match – Juve's share of the possession going from 63 per cent in the first half to just 40 in the second.

Similarly, Inter's shot count rocketed from two at half-time to 11 at the end, and, to be fair, Sanchez should have taken one of those when his goal-bound effort was stopped on the line by Demiral.

Additionally, Buffon made amends for his first-half error by making a crucial stop to deny Darmian, but otherwise there were few moments when Juve looked especially worried defensively.

On another day perhaps Inter would have done enough to at least keep themselves on level terms ahead of the second leg, but Conte's negative set-up left them at a disadvantage right from the off.

Lukaku will return for the next game, but Juve's away goals advantage gives them a significant edge – Conte has much work to do.

Tottenham lost another battle on the same day as the Royal Rumble and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain reached a Premier League landmark he will not be boasting about on Sunday.

Leandro Trossard scored the only goal of the game as Brighton and Hove Albion beat Spurs to ease their relegation fears, inflicting what looks like a finishing move on Jose Mourinho's side in the title race.

Oxlade-Chamberlain came off the bench for the 100th time in a top-flight game late in Liverpool's 3-1 victory at West Ham, while leaders Manchester City broke a record on Saturday.

With the help of Opta data, we take a look at some of the quirkiest stats from the Premier League action over the weekend.

 

Trossard wrestles the initiative

Tottenham made the journey to the south coast reeling from a painful midweek defeat to Liverpool in which they lost captain Harry Kane to injury.

Trossard delivered the knockout blow at the Amex Stadium, leaving Mourinho's men 11 points behind leaders City in sixth place.

Spurs fans who follow WWE may have been fearing the worst, as they have lost nine times when playing on the same day as the Royal Rumble was staged - more than any English league club.

Edge and Bianca Belair came out on top in the extravaganza at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida after Spurs were seemingly eliminated from the title race.

Sub century for Ox

Midfielder Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Divock Origi 10 minutes from time in the Reds' victory at previously in-form West Ham.

The former Arsenal man became the 15th player to make 100 top-flight appearances off the bench.

Peter Crouch (158) did so on the most occasions, with Oxlade-Chamberlain's team-mate James Milner (154) second on the list and Jermain Defoe (149) completing the top three.

Happy new year for irrepressible City

City extended their winning streak to 12 matches at the expense of bottom side Sheffield United on Saturday, Gabriel Jesus scoring the only goal of the game.

Pep Guardiola's side will take some stopping in their bid to regain the title, as they lead neighbours Manchester United by three points with a game in hand.

That early strike from Jesus made it nine wins out of nine for City in January, more than any side has achieved in a calendar month since the formation of the Football League in 1888.

Shot-shy Clarets

Chelsea eased to their first win under Thomas Tuchel on Sunday, seeing off Burnley 2-0 at Stamford Bridge.

The Clarets arrived in London on a three-match winning run, including a shock 1-0 triumph at Anfield and a 3-2 thriller against Aston Villa.

Sean Dyche's men barely laid a glove on Chelsea, though, and went the longest any side has gone without an attempt at goal in the Premier League this season.

They looked set to become the first team not to have an attempt in a game since Bournemouth against Manchester City in March 2019 until James Tarkowski's header in stoppage time. Better late than never? Dyche might not see it that way.

Manchester United's 2-1 defeat at home to rock-bottom Sheffield United provided a stark warning to any Red Devils players who were potentially starting to believe the hype, but Saturday offers the chance to bounce back against an old rival and make club history.

In years gone by, United against Arsenal was arguably the most anticipated fixture in the Premier League calendar – two teams stacked with talent and fierce competitors, and led by two managerial greats.

While the outlook is perhaps a little different now to what it was at the height of the Arsene Wenger-Alex Ferguson rivalry, United head to Emirates Stadium aiming to break a record set by 'Fergie's' greatest team.

Earlier this month, United's 2-1 win at Fulham extended their unbeaten Premier League away run to 17, levelling a club record.

While the 2-1 loss to the Blades at Old Trafford might have dented the confidence of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men, the data doesn't lie – they are at home on the road, so to speak, and another point will prove momentous.

EMULATING THE TREBLE WINNERS

Ferguson's famous treble-winning side is the United team that set the club record of 17 away Premier League games unbeaten.

United's run started on December 5 and lasted until the following September, therefore playing a major role in the Red Devils securing the Premier League title ahead of Arsenal, pipping Wenger's men to the crown by a point.

They scored 34 goals and claimed nine wins in those 17 games, conceding 16.

Statistically United's existing run is already an improvement on that of the 1998-99 team, as the current crop have scored 38, conceded just 14 and won 13 before going to Arsenal.

But even if they ultimately fall at the final hurdle this weekend, they can perhaps take solace in the fact no other post-Ferguson United side registers in the top seven for the club's all-time top-flight unbeaten away streaks.

Whether or not this run would have occurred if fans were in the stadiums is another matter, but it's unquestionable that progress is being made at Old Trafford – or, you know, away from Old Trafford...

RESILIENT REDS

A key factor in United's impressive run has been the character and resilience shown by them.

They have rescued 21 points from losing positions on the road in 2020-21, which is already a record for a single Premier League season, bettering the 17 accumulated by Aston Villa (1993-94) and Newcastle United (2001-02). The previous best posted by United was 16 in 2002-03.

Certainly, the pick of United's away comebacks this season was the 3-2 win at Southampton on November 29, as they fell 2-0 down before Edinson Cavani inspired a brilliant turnaround with two goals and an assist off the bench.

To give an idea of just how anomalous United's record is this term, Liverpool have recovered the second most amount of points from losing positions – 10, but that accounts for home and away.

Solskjaer's side are yet to win a point from behind at Old Trafford in 2020-21.

A WAYS TO GO

As laudable as United's away form is, they are still some way off matching the Premier League's all-time record, however.

Arsenal's 'Invincibles' hold that honour, having gone 27 matches unbeaten away from home in the top flight.

That stretched from April 2003 to September 2004, spanning well over a full season as they comfortably beat the 23-game record they themselves set between August 2001 and September 2002.

The closest any team has got to either streak is Liverpool, who between January 2019 and February 2020 went 21 away games without defeat before they suffered a shock 3-0 loss at Watford.

No player's journey to the NBA has ever been easy. Christian Wood's may just have been the hardest. 

An undrafted player that was waived several times, including by a team in China, Wood has remarkably ascended into the upper echelon of the league behind a stellar first season in Houston.  

The 6-foot-10 center is averaging 23.5 points and 10.8 rebounds in 12 games, and while he hasn't made Rockets fans forget James Harden, he's certainly offered a ray of optimism in a difficult season.  

Through January 20, Wood had seven games this season with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Only Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Vucevic had more with eight apiece during that span. 

Wood and Philadelphia's Joel Embiid are the only players (minimum 10 games) currently among the league's top 25 in points, rebounds and blocks per game.  

All signs point to stardom for Wood, who is a leading contender for the Most Improved Player award and is even receiving consideration for the 2021 United States Olympic team. None of this could've been predicted early in Wood's career when he had trouble just holding onto a roster spot and was a G League regular.  

Undrafted in 2015 after two seasons at UNLV, Wood, 25, was given a chance by the Rockets but was never offered a contract. He made his NBA debut with the 76ers in 2015-16, averaging 3.6 points in 17 games but spent most of the season with Delaware in the G League. 

Wood appeared in 13 games for Charlotte in 2016-17 but was let go after that season and then played for the Mavericks' and Suns' summer league teams in 2017.  

With no NBA team willing to sign him, Wood accepted an offer from the Fujian Sturgeons of the Chinese league. He would never play for them and was waived after the Sturgeons signed another former NBA player, Mike Harris.  

Despite putting up impressive numbers in the G League for Philadelphia in 2017-18 and then Milwaukee the next season, Wood only played in 13 games for the Bucks and averaged 2.8 points.  

Signed as a free agent by New Orleans in March 2019, Wood finally began to offer glimpses of his potential. He averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in eight games, but the Pelicans decided to waive him on July 15, 2019. 

Picked up three days later by the Pistons, Wood beat out veteran guard Joe Johnson for the final spot on Detroit's 2019-20 roster. A solid reserve most of that season with averages of 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds, Wood's career truly took off when he was inserted into the starting lineup in early February following the trade of center Andre Drummond to Cleveland.

In the final 13 games that season, Wood averaged 22.8 points on 56.8 per cent shooting and 9.9 rebounds. He even connected on 22 of 55 from three-point range, proving he can be an effective offensive player in a myriad of ways.

Though Detroit hoped to retain Wood, the Rockets offered a three-year, $41million contract and the teams worked out a sign-and-trade deal. That contract looks like a stroke of genius now for Houston since they have no choice but to undergo a transformation with the trade of Russell Westbrook followed by Harden's blockbuster move to Brooklyn.  

Wood is currently dealing with a sprained right ankle and has missed the past three games, but his first 12 have left quite an impression.  

Wood is just one of five players since 1985-86 to accumulate at least 280 points and 125 total rebounds in his first 12 games with a team. The others on that list are Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers, 1996), Zach Randolph (Clippers, 2008), Charles Barkley (Suns, 1992) and Moses Malone (Washington Bullets, 1986). 

Only Elvin Hayes (326 in 1968) and Harden (294 in 2012) have more points than Wood (282) in their first 12 games with the Rockets. That's a more productive start than Westbrook, Ralph Sampson, Tracy McGrady or even Hakeem Olajuwon had in their first few weeks with the franchise.  

Missing time in an abbreviated season won't help his case for Most Improved Player but Wood is one of only two qualified players (appeared in 70 per cent of team's games both seasons) to have raised his scoring average by at least 10 points from last season.  

Wood (+10.4) trails only Detroit’s Jerami Grant (+12.4) in scoring and leads in improvement in rebounds per game (+4.5) and ranks third in blocks (+0.88). 

Among undrafted players, Wood (23.5) leads the league in scoring by a wide margin over Toronto's Fred VanVleet (18.9) and in rebounding (10.8) over JaMychal Green (6.7) of the Nuggets. 

In matchups this season against Jokic, Vucevic and San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge – some of the game's best big men – Wood has averaged 24 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. 

A lack of maturity certainly contributed to Wood's difficulty in landing a regular NBA role early in his career, as did a lack of on-court focus at times. But those issues seem to be a thing of the past and Wood's future is very bright given his youth, athletic ability and skill set that seems tailor made for the modern NBA. 

Wood will have a difficult time becoming an All-Star in a stacked Western Conference but that his name is even being mentioned among the NBA's elite is rather incredible for a player that the mighty Sturgeons had no use for. 

Martin Odegaard's Real Madrid career was being set up to fail right from the start, when he joined the club just over a month after his 16th birthday back in January 2015.

The fact he remains their player six years on is testament to the Norwegian's talent, persistence and level-headed attitude, as his first couple of years at the club seemingly had people willing him to fade into obscurity.

From unnecessary speculation relating to his wages and exaggerated suggestions that his presence threatened the future of Madrid's academy, to murmurings that his arrival upset the harmony of Real Madrid Castilla's squad – life wasn't made easy for him early on.

For the most part he has managed to keep his career on track and has shown why he was so highly rated as a 15-year-old bursting on to the scene at Stromsgodset, impressing in a series of loan spells, but Odegaard now has another challenge in front of him.

He joins Arsenal on loan for the rest of the season in a move that will surely shape the next major step he takes in his career, whether that is kicking on at Real Madrid or moving elsewhere permanently.

While first-team football has been difficult to come by at Madrid this term, it's easy to see why Arsenal made their move for the attacking midfielder.

A REAL GEM

If there are any Arsenal fans questioning why they have moved for a player who has made just three starts for a – let's be frank – unspectacular Madrid side this season, it's worth recalling the amount of talent Zinedine Zidane has struggled to incorporate and subsequently discarded in recent years.

Marcos Llorente, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguilon, Theo Hernandez, James Rodriguez – you could potentially even add Isco to that list in the not-too-distant future. All are fine players generally thriving elsewhere, but Zidane was seemingly unconvinced by them.

Injuries haven't helped Odegaard's cause this term, but his form with Real Sociedad on loan last season demonstrated just how impressive he is when given consistent opportunities – and it was revealed in July that he had been suffering with a chronic knee issue for most of 2019-20.

The 22-year-old created 62 chances in LaLiga last term, a tally only beaten by five other players, one of which was predictably Lionel Messi. 

 

That gave him a key pass frequency just under 0.5 every 90 minutes, which again ranked very highly among players with more than 30 chances created – six had better records, though his 6.8 xA (expected assists) rating was third only to Messi and Jesus Navas.

He also offers a great threat from set-pieces, with 27 of his key passes coming from dead-ball situations. This is an area Arsenal have struggled, as their 20 chances created from set plays is the fourth-fewest in the Premier League this term.

Odegaard was a major catalyst for La Real's largely impressive campaign, as they reached the Copa del Rey final – which is still due to be contested later this year – and finished sixth in LaLiga.

Arsenal fans will hope he can have a similar impact in the second half of the 2020-21 season, particularly given their lack of creativity at times this term.

WHERE WILL HE STRENGTHEN ARSENAL?

At La Real, Odegaard was often deployed from the right side of the attack in a 4-3-3, but given he is most comfortable on his left foot, he would routinely cut inside and wreak havoc in the middle.

 

While he spent more time on the right flank, with 38.3 per cent of his touches occurring in the right third of the pitch between the halfway line and the edge of the opposing area, much of his best work was carried out more centrally.

Indeed, 31.1 per cent of his key passes and assists came from the middle third of the pitch just outside the box.

 

Arsenal have been much less active centrally and on the right flank, with just under 12 per cent of their assists and chances created stemming from play in the middle of the attacking half. They aren't much more effective on the right, which will likely not come as a surprise to Gunners fans given the largely underwhelming form of Willian and Nicolas Pepe.

 

Odegaard's display in the September 2019 defeat at Sevilla was something of a microcosm of much of what he was good at last season, with his late assist for Portu seeing him come in off the right and play a disguised pass into the right side of the box for his team-mate to finish. Earlier on, he had taken up possession in a central area and sliced open the Sevilla backline only for Willian Jose to skew wide.

In both situations he showed great poise, a trait he has combined with his wonderful ability on the ball, as demonstrated by the fact he played 19 key passes after ball carries – Messi (30) had the most and was one of only five players to better the Norwegian in this area.

 

THE RISK OF SHORT-TERM LOANS

The addition of Odegaard will add some welcome creativity to Mikel Arteta's squad, the Gunners having managed 23 goals from 230 attempts (excluding penalties) - slightly below their 25.2 xG - so far in what has been a topsy-turvy 2020-21 season. 

Arsenal players have collectively created 26 Opta-defined "big chances", well adrift of the league-high 43 recorded by Manchester City in 2020-21. While this only includes shots that have been specifically assisted by a pass, it does highlight a creative deficiency.

 

Emile Smith Rowe has impressed of late, contributing three assists in open play, but no individual has created more chances for them in the Premier League than Bukayo Saka, his total of 23 putting him one above Kieran Tierney. It is clear they need greater threat in central areas, and Odegaard should offer that.

But, while he is undoubtedly a fine talent, Arsenal fans should be wary and patient – Odegaard hasn't featured regularly this season so cannot be expected to be sharp, and this move is another instance of upheaval in a fairly short period of time after leaving La Real for a return to Madrid. It would unfair to assume he will find his stride immediately.

Short-term loans in the second half of a season are often risky and Odegaard will likely take a little while to get up to speed. If he adapts quickly, his arrival could be a masterstroke – but if he doesn't it could be a wasted few months for both parties.

Arsenal will hope he's not another Denis Suarez.

"You want to speak about my mother?"

Romelu Lukaku was seething. A yellow card and a stern talking to from referee Paolo Valeri having done nothing to lift the red mist.

Inter's diminutive playmaker Nicolo Barella attaching himself to Lukaku's torso in a bid to calm the powerhouse striker was one of the more memorable sights of an action-packed first 45 minutes in this Milan derby for a place in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.

Or the Derby della Madonnina, to give the game its full, grander title. A game that takes its name from a pristine golden statue of the Virgin Mary.

It seemed for all the world that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had not spoken about Lukaku's mother with such reverence.

Here was Milan's 39-year-old talisman, who suggested the youthful make-up of the Serie A leaders' XI was a factor in their 3-0 weekend defeat to Atalanta, deciding to display his own brand of leadership in the guise of juvenile schoolyard bully.

Ibrahimovic's crowing chuckle as mayhem unfurled around him (Arturo Vidal got involved - of course he did - for no apparent reason) was one of a player who had recently enjoyed a familiar feeling for the 499th time in his career.

Freed from shackles of their knife-edge Scudetto battle, both teams played with freedom and the intent to land a psychological blow. The fact each team had the same idea appeared to irritate all concerned, but it made for great entertainment.

It is doubtful Antonio Conte would consider such a cavalier selection in league combat as he rolled out on Inter's left flank here. Ivan Perisic was at wing-back, paying as much attention as you'd expect to the part of his position lurking after the hyphen.

That increased the defensive burden on Aleksandar Kolarov on, a defender who has worn 11 for the bulk of his career. Kolarov's shirt number is a statement of particular intent.

Ibrahimovic showed he recognised that point of weakness in the 13th minute, when he leapt athletically to meet a Rafael Leao cross, knocking Perisic and Kolarov to the ground in the process. Brahim Diaz was just unable to turn home.

Kolarov still seemed distracted when he backed off enough for the former Sweden international to fire though his legs and beyond Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.

The script seemed written, goal 500 was surely on the way to take Ibrahimovic closer to yet another piece of silverware. Why not have some fun and wind up the opposition's star man.

Ibrahimovic's language and his message seemed appalling, with ESPN footage showing him at one point appearing to yell: "Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey."

A flaw in the plan to rile Lukaku was the yellow card that Ibrahimovic received for his part in the spat. Not a problem in itself, but in the 58th minute he clumsily and needlessly fouled Kolarov to collect a second booking.

Displaying none of his vast experience, Ibrahimovic had gone from hero to villain to idiot within half an hour of playing time.

And so, it was over to the youngsters and backup players who the star striker sometimes seems to consider walk-on extras in his one-man show.

First there was on-loan defender Fikayo Tomori, who was quickly disabused of the notion he had escaped chaos by leaving Chelsea this week. Thrust into a debut by Simon Kjaer's first-half injury, he made a brilliant last-ditch block to deny Lukaku.

Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez defended heroically down the Milan left but reduced numbers forced willing attacking players back to man unfamiliar barricades. Leao was pressed into action and brought down Barella. After consulting the pitchside monitor Valeri pointed to the spot.

Lukaku has been known to roll his penalties home. On this occasion, he tested the structural integrity of the crossbar and the ball ricocheted into the turf and home. Then there was a shouting match with a team-mate (Yes, Vidal; nope, no idea).

Enough mayhem? Nonsense. Valeri had to limp out of the action injured. Fourth official Daniele Chiffi looked like he was putting on the microphone and headset for the first time in his life and 10 minutes of stoppage time were required.

In the seventh of those, wantaway midfielder Christian Eriksen curled home a sumptuous free-kick, leaving Ciprian Tatarusanu no chance to add to his fine catalogue of eight saves.

Last act for Eriksen? Maybe. Definitely last laugh for Lukaku.

Ibrahimovic likes to call himself a lion but Tatarusanu and the Milan players he left behind were the lions here, roaring defiantly at wave after wave of Inter attacks before buckling at the last. Nine of Inter's 27 shots were blocked.

After fatefully dwelling too long in self-parody at the end of the first half, Ibrahimovic owes them an apology, and surely Lukaku is also due one. Perhaps they shouldn't hold their breath.

Kobe Bryant was a man whose influence reached far further than the basketball court, though his extraordinary numbers in the NBA are what made him such a legendary figure.

The Los Angeles Lakers hero was tragically killed in a helicopter crash at the age of 41 on this day in 2020.

It was an event which led to an outpouring of tributes for one of the all-time greats.

"I don't think any of us will ever forget that day," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, reflecting on when his team were starting a practice as the tragic news broke.

"Everything stopped. The music stopped. The players stopped. Nobody said a word.

"A lot of guys dropped to the floor and started crying. Nothing happened for 10 minutes. We all just sat there in silence. It was one of the worst moments of all our lives."

Bryant's list of achievements over a 20-year career with the Lakers are the stuff of legend and his numbers stack up against the best to have played the game.

Here we take a look at Bryant's scarcely believable statistics with the help of Stats Perform data.

 

5 - Bryant won the NBA championship five times with the Lakers, in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010.

2 - He was twice named MVP in the NBA Finals, in 2009 and 2010.

18 - Bryant was a fixture in the NBA All-Star team, named to that side in 1998 and then each year from 2000 to 2016, the year that he retired. Those 18 appearances put him second on the all-time list, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing in 19 of the games.

4 - Bryant was four times the NBA All-Star Game MVP, in 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2011.

1 - He received his lone NBA MVP award for the 2007-08 season, during which he became the youngest player to reach 20,000 career points, at the age of 29 years and 122 days.

33,643 - He sits fourth on the NBA all-time list of points-scorers with 33,643 from 1,346 games. Only Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and LeBron James are ahead of him on the list.

35.4 - In the 2005-06 season, Bryant recorded his highest points-per-game average for a single campaign, with 35.4. He led the NBA in scoring in that season and in 2006-07.

81 - On January 22, 2006, Bryant scored 81 points in a 122-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center. That is the second highest individual score in an NBA game, behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100 for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks in 1962.

60  - In his final game, on April 13, 2016, Bryant scored 60 points for the Lakers in a 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz.

15 - Bryant received All-NBA honours in 15 seasons, being named in the first team on 11 occasions. Only LeBron, with 13 appearances in the first team, beats Bryant's total.

9 - He was named nine times to the NBA All-Defense first team, matching the all-time high. Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan and Gary Payton achieved the same total.

17 - Bryant was an NBA player of the month 17 times, and 32 times the player of the week.

2 - Bryant's success was not limited to NBA action either. He won Olympic gold medals with the United States in 2008 and 2012.

1 - He won an Oscar too, after his playing career ended, landing the Best Animated Short Film prize at the 2018 Academy Awards for Dear Basketball.

Ever the man for the big occasion, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be eyeing a looming landmark heading into Tuesday's Coppa Italia Derby della Madonnina.

Ibrahimovic enters the latest crunch clash between Inter and his Milan just two goals shy of 500 in club football.

The former Sweden striker drew a blank against Atalanta on Saturday, ending a run of scoring in nine consecutive Serie A starts, but will be determined to bounce back in this mammoth fixture.

"We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat," Ibrahimovic said after the 3-0 loss to Atalanta. "We have the chance to do it in a few days against Inter. That will be a good match."

A MILAN 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 - despite the Atalanta setback.

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.

Inter's own trophy drought spans back to 2011, making this season - with the Milan clubs first and second in the table - and this quarter-final encounter huge.

Ibrahimovic has 13 goals in all competitions this term, including 12 in the league, swelling his Milan total to 80.

That far surpasses the 66 he scored in his time with Inter, while his total number of appearances for the Rossoneri has also nudged past his Nerazzurri tally, 119 to 117 after the Atalanta reverse.

Ibrahimovic will hope to be able to celebrate a 69th victory in Milan colours when they face their neighbours.

DERBY DELIGHTS

Derbies tend to be enjoyable occasions for Ibrahimovic, who has scored seven times for Milan against Inter - including a strike in his only prior such match outside of Serie A, inspiring a turnaround in the 2011 Supercoppa.

A goal and an assist in the first meeting with Inter following his return to Milan last year were in vain as the Nerazzurri won 4-2, but his brace this season secured a 2-1 win for the Serie A leaders.

Only once, in a 1-0 defeat in 2012, has Ibrahimovic failed to score for Milan against Inter, while he also netted twice in four matches for Juventus in the Derby d'Italia.

Yet the striker's Milan derby history goes back to before his arrival at the Rossoneri due to his previous allegiance to Inter.

He scored in his first two Inter appearances against Milan, meaning he has nine strikes in this famous rivalry - trailing only Andriy Shevchenko (14), Giuseppe Meazza (13), Gunnar Nordahl, Istvan Nyers (both 11) and Enrico Candiani (10).

Ibrahimovic has won six and lost four of his 10 Serie A derbies, also triumphing in that Supercoppa clash.

Inter beat Juventus. Juventus beat Milan. Milan beat Inter. For once it has been tough to predict the title race in Serie A.

Winning the Scudetto was not enough for Maurizio Sarri to keep his job at Juve last season, meaning Andrea Pirlo is under significant pressure as the Bianconeri chase a 10th straight league crown.

However, they have struggled to convince under the former midfield metronome and sit seven points adrift of leaders Milan in fourth, although they hold a game in hand.

There has seemingly never been a better chance for Inter, who are two points off top in second, and Milan to end Scudetto droughts that date back to 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively.

Fans and pundits will continue to have their say on who will sit top come the end of the season, and the Stats Perform AI team have also crunched the numbers to predict the champions for the 2020-21 campaign.

With the majority of the 20 teams having reached the halfway stage of the league campaign, they have simulated how the rest of the season may play out.

 

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

 

INTER END JUVE'S REIGN

Although they sit second at the halfway stage, our model predicts Inter will end Juve's dominance of Serie A.

Inter have a 35.7 per cent chance of topping the table for the first time since their treble-winning campaign of 2009-10 and it is projected they will do so by a two-point advantage.

Not only do Milan surrender top spot to the Nerazzurri, they slip behind Juve into third with the top three separated by just three points. It would still represent their best finish since 2012-13.

Juve's chance of retaining the title is deemed to be 23.1 per cent, marginally better than Milan's 21.6 per cent.

ATALANTA RETURN TO CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Gian Piero Gasperini steered Atalanta to Champions League qualification for the first time in their history in 2018-19 and made it back-to-back top-three finishes last season.

They are predicted to return to Europe's premier club competition by finishing fourth, edging out Napoli – they even have a 6.8 per cent chance of pulling off an unlikely title win.

Gennaro Gattuso's side have a 17 per cent probability of snatching the final Champions League qualification berth, with Atalanta's prospects narrowly superior at 17.4 per cent.

Roma are predicted to fall from their current position of third down to sixth but that is still good enough for them to deny arch-rivals Lazio qualification to the inaugural Europa Conference League.

The top six may need to beware of Sassuolo, Hellas Verona and Sampdoria, however. Sassuolo have a 0.3 per cent likelihood of finishing inside the top four, while Verona (0.6 per cent) and Sampdoria (0.3 per cent) also have an outside chance of stealing European qualification, though our predictor suggests Lazio will finish 12 points clear of Sassuolo in seventh.

 

GENOA AND TORINO ESCAPE DROP

At the turn of the year Torino were rock bottom with one win from their opening 14 games and Genoa were in the relegation zone with them.

However, Torino and Genoa have both moved out of the bottom three by claiming six points and eight points respectively over their past five games.

The two sides are predicted to maintain strong enough form to stay out of the drop zone, with Crotone (20th), Parma (19th) and Cagliari (18th) projected to suffer relegation to Serie B.

It is by no means a guarantee, though. Genoa are only 0.2 per cent more likely to come 17th than they are to suffer relegation by finishing 18th, while Torino's differential between 15th – where they are predicted to place – and third-bottom is 2.7 per cent.

It did not take long for Chelsea to run out of patience with Frank Lampard following significant investment in their first-team squad during the close season.

Chelsea spent in excess of £200million on reinforcements for the 2020-21 campaign but with the club ninth in the Premier League and 11 points off top at the midway point, they dispensed with the services of their head coach on Monday.

Lampard arrived just 18 months ago with the club under a transfer embargo and was lauded for his faith in youth during a debut campaign that yielded a top-four finish and an FA Cup final appearance.

However, Chelsea have not managed to maintain an upward trajectory this season and after a run of two wins in eight Premier League games the decision was taken to cut ties with the club legend.

It is fair to say some of Chelsea's new arrivals have not lived up to expectations this term and we look at the numbers behind their performances.

Timo Werner – £45m from RB Leipzig

Werner arrived from Leipzig with big expectations having been involved in 36 league goals (26 scored, eight assisted) in 2019-20 – a tally only bettered by Robert Lewandowski (38), Ciro Immobile (45) and Lionel Messi (46).

He did not take long to find his stride, having a hand in 11 goals (eight scored, three assisted) in a 10-game stretch in all competitions between September and November.

However, the only goal he has scored in 15 appearances since the end of that streak came against Morecambe in the FA Cup third round – it ended an 827-minute drought in all competitions.

He is without a goal in 11 Premier League outings and his difficulties in front were compounded by his failure to convert from the penalty spot against Luton Town on Sunday.

 

Kai Havertz – £71m from Bayer Leverkusen

Alongside Werner (14) and Tammy Abraham (15), Havertz (10) is one of just three Chelsea players to have been involved in at least 10 goals in all competitions this season.

However, half of those have come against lower-league opposition – he scored the first hat-trick of his senior career against Barnsley in the EFL Cup in September, and versus Morecambe in the FA Cup this month had a goal and an assist.

When looking at his figures from the Premier League, he has just one goal and one assist in 16 appearances – 11 of which have come from the start.

Lampard seemed to struggle to figure out how to get the best out of versatile forward Havertz and given his price tag that will be high on the agenda for his replacement.

Ben Chilwell - £45m from Leicester City

A plantar fascia injury delayed Chilwell's Chelsea debut but he was quick to make an impact, becoming just the third Blues player to both score and assist on their Premier League debut, joining Deco and Alvaro Morata.

Within 13 games he had already matched his career best of four Premier League assists in a single season, while his six goal involvements in that time frame was the same as he managed across the entirety of 2019-20 for Leicester.

Crosses from the full-backs were a key part of Lampard's approach and Chilwell's 82 in open play is second to Reece James' 97.

But while 24.7 per cent of James' deliveries were accurate, only 13.4 of Chilwell's were - the third-worst rate of any Blues player to find a team-mate with at least one cross in open play.

Hakim Ziyech – £33.3m from Ajax

An assist for Werner in a pre-season friendly against Brighton provided promising signs, but a knee injury meant his competitive debut did not arrive until October.

He has registered two goals and four assists in 17 appearances in all competitions, but only Mason Mount (2.5) has created more chances per 90 minutes than Ziyech (2.4) this season (all comps).

Furthermore, he creates 0.8 Opta-defined 'big chances' per 90 minutes, which is the most of any Chelsea player to have featured in more than two games.

His expected assists in open play per 90 minutes of 0.21 ranks joint-seventh alongside Kevin De Bruyne (among players to have played at least 450 minutes), so with some better finishing his impact may look more impressive on paper.

 

Edouard Mendy – £22m from Rennes

After Kepa Arrizabalaga committed three errors leading to goals in as many Premier League appearances to start the season, bringing in Mendy from Rennes appeared an astute decision.

He kept nine clean sheets in his first 12 appearances in all competitions, but in his subsequent nine outings he has shut out the opposition just twice and conceded 13 goals.

In the Premier League, Mendy has let in 12 goals from an expected goals on target (xGOT) of 10.8, meaning he has let in one more goal than would have been anticipated from the chances he has faced.

That is the joint-eighth worst in the league among keepers to have played over 900 minutes.

 

Thiago Silva – free transfer

Although he became the first outfield player to make an error leading to a goal on their Premier League debut in two years when his loose control was seized upon by Callum Robinson in a 3-3 draw with West Brom in September, Silva's experience seemed to significantly improve Chelsea's defence.

Only Kurt Zouma (64.6 per cent) has a better duel success rate than Silva's 63.5 among players to have played at least 10 games in all competitions, and he has helped them tighten up when defending set-pieces.

Excluding goals scored directly from free-kicks, Chelsea conceded 13 times from set-pieces in the Premier League in 2019-20, while this term they have only shipped five from dead balls and one of those came when Silva was not in the side.

The Brazilian has also made them more of a threat from set-plays, providing two of the nine goals Chelsea have scored in such situations.

Frank Lampard's appointment as Chelsea head coach was widely heralded by the club's fanbase, who were desperate for a returning hero to succeed in the dugout.

Just 18 months later and Lampard – the club's record all-time leading goalscorer who won 11 major honours at Stamford Bridge – has been sacked.

The Blues have proven in the past there is little time for sentimentality or to dwell on past successes and not even a player with the stature Lampard holds at the club has been granted extra time.

Lampard's first season in charge brought a top-four finish and an FA Cup final but a run of just two wins in eight league matches saw Chelsea wield the axe with the team ninth and 11 points off top.

A huge close-season recruitment drive that saw the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell arrive perhaps gave the Blues hierarchy itchy feet and brought about the end for Lampard.

With that in mind, we have looked at some hits and misses when players have returned to a club as boss.

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping down in May 2018, only to return 10 months later. He has already won LaLiga and the Supercopa de Espana in his second stint, though a slump this term has left his long-term future shrouded in doubt.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job in 2014. Conte is now battling to end the Bianconeri's domestic dominance as head coach of Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try to save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning just 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league position in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a relegation play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

JURY'S OUT

Mikel Arteta

Arteta served Arsenal with distinction as a player between 2011 and 2016, captaining the club and winning the FA Cup twice. Success in football's oldest cup competition followed last term, with Arteta having replaced Unai Emery in December 2019. After finishing eighth, Arsenal defeated Liverpool on penalties to win the Community Shield but eight defeats from 19 league games in this campaign have left Arsenal 11th and 13 points off top spot.

Andrea Pirlo

Lampard's opportunity at Chelsea arrived when Maurizio Sarri departed for Juventus, but his stint in charge at the Bianconeri lasted just one season despite winning the Serie A title. Pirlo won four Scudetti, the Supercoppa Italiana twice and the Coppa Italia during a four-year stint as a player in Turin and was appointed head coach just a week after being installed as Under-23 boss. So far it has been a mixed bag in Juve's hunt for a 10th straight title, with six draws and two defeats in 18 matches leaving them seven points back of league leaders Milan – albeit they do have a game in hand. Pirlo also collected a first trophy courtesy of victory over Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana last week.

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