On a day when Donny van de Beek hoped to show why he deserves more minutes for Manchester United, up stepped Bruno Fernandes to show why that simply isn't happening.

The eye-catching selection of Van de Beek ahead of Fernandes for this FA Cup clash of giants at Old Trafford was all about "rotation", according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United's manager clearly felt his team could combat a faltering Liverpool team without their star man, albeit leaving him on the bench in case of emergency.

"Donny needs to be playing games as well and it's a big game for Donny to come into," Solskjaer told the BBC.

Van de Beek has not started a Premier League game since he was hauled off with United trailing at half-time at West Ham in early December, and he might not be starting any soon either given how this game transpired.

A 66th-minute switch of the Portuguese for the underwhelming Van de Beek proved pivotal, and the delightful free-kick from Fernandes that settled an absorbing game 3-2 in United's favour was one that had been conceived on Saturday.

"I think he stayed about 45 minutes after training yesterday shooting free-kicks, so I was quite confident that he was going to hit the target," Solskjaer said.

Solskjaer, the erstwhile supersub, knew the calibre of replacement that was up his sleeve, and the rotation worked in a roundabout way. Are we looking at more proof that United's once-maligned Norwegian boss is actually a tactical master?

Liverpool's season, meanwhile, takes another negative turn.

Donny fluffs his big chance

With a mere 18 passes and 23 touches, Van de Beek was peripheral in a midfield where Paul Pogba shone and Scott McTominay fought for every ball.

The former Ajax man had a glorious early chance to stamp his mark on the game when he burst into space on the right and looked sure to dart towards the penalty area, as Edinson Cavani waited for a pass in the centre.

But no. Van de Beek paused and decided to go backwards, and the chance was gone.

This game was a world away from the Anfield snore draw seven days previously in the Premier League, yet Van de Beek largely let it pass him by.

By the time Fernandes cracked his sublime winner into the right corner, Van de Beek must have been wondering when such an opportunity will arise again.

Salah shows he must start

Like Fernandes, Salah has seen his form and contribution questioned in recent weeks, and just as United's match-winner dispelled such criticism, so did Liverpool's main man.

After all the talk about front threes, and which of these sides had the most deadly attacking trio, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp went with a two-man strikeforce, Salah and Roberto Firmino linking up and Sadio Mane on the bench.

Both Salah and Firmino had been substitutes on Thursday for the defeat to Burnley, but they were a combination that United struggled to contain at times here.

Salah struck twice, the first a sublime chip, and Firmino set up both. The Brazilian has now assisted Salah for 18 goals during their time together at Liverpool, the most any player has set up another during Klopp's reign.

Unlike Firmino and Mane, Salah has exceeded his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League this season, with eight non-penalty goals from an xG of 5.3, and if Liverpool are to resurrect their season, the bench is surely no place for the Egyptian.

Glorious Greenwood

Mason Greenwood has not scored in the Premier League since that West Ham game, when he helped United turn their half-time deficit around and earn a 3-1 victory.

Here he looked lively from the early stages, albeit with one too many lollipops and insufficient tasty final product until he cancelled out Salah's opener.

The way the 19-year-old ended an 10-game barren spell spoke volumes of his belief, with Marcus Rashford's sweeping pass over the Liverpool defence finding his wing twin on the right and allowing Greenwood to thump a low shot past Alisson.

With Rashford also on target, this was quite a day to savour for the hosts.

Even in these extraordinary times, Barcelona letting Luis Suarez go to Atletico Madrid is starting to look like the oddest decision of the season.

Suarez's double over Eibar on Thursday secured a 2-1 victory for the league leaders, who are seven points clear at the top with a game in hand over champions Real Madrid in second.

The Uruguay star, who has netted six in his past six league games for Atleti, is joint-top of the division's scoring charts alongside former team-mate Lionel Messi.

It seems increasingly likely that Suarez, and certainly Atletico, will be at the top of the tree come the end of 2020-21.

With the majority of sides having now played half of their matches, the Stats Perform AI team have run the numbers to simulate how the rest of the LaLiga campaign will play out – and it's good news for Diego Simeone.

 

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.

 

ATLETICO WIN AT A CANTER

Atletico have been given a 75.1 per cent chance of winning LaLiga, according to the model.

Simeone's men are predicted to finish on 86 points, nine clear of the rest of the field. They are given just a 17.8 per cent chance of coming second and dropping outside the top four is considered practically impossible.

Barcelona and reigning champions Real Madrid are predicted to end with 77 points apiece, with just a 12.4 per cent chance each of pipping Atleti to the title. Madrid have a 41 per cent chance of finishing second, slightly above Barca's 39.4, having beaten Ronald Koeman's side 3-1 in the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou last October.

Those two are, at least, very likely to end up in a Champions League place. They are expected to be joined there by Sevilla, who have a 47.8 per cent chance of finishing fourth on 65 points, just three above Villarreal and six clear of Real Sociedad. The remaining European spot is predicted to be a close battle between Granada, Getafe and Real Betis, with Diego Martinez's men odds on to snatch it.

Valencia fans might be enduring a difficult time (again), and our sim has Los Che missing out on European football once more, if only by four points. That said, they still have a 3.6 per cent chance of a Europa League spot, which is better odds than those given to Supercopa de Espana winners Athletic Bilbao.

 

WOE FOR HUESCA

At the other end of a relatively tight table, in which just 11 points will separate seventh from 16th, it looks like Huesca are in for a tough run-in. They are given a 59.7 per cent chance of finishing bottom of the pile and just a 5.1 per cent shot at avoiding relegation, having won only once so far this term.

Osasuna are predicted to end up just four points above them, with the bottom three likely to be completed by Deportivo Alaves, although Elche will also be right in the mix. In fact, with those two tipped to finish level on 39 points, survival could come down to their head-to-head record, making their showdown on May 11 potentially decisive. Elche have the advantage there, having won the reverse game 2-0 away from home.

Real Valladolid are expected to have just enough to stay out of trouble, although they have scant room for manoeuvre, with our predictor giving them an equal 15.1 per cent chance of finishing 17th and 18th.

Eibar and Cadiz are looking likely to stay safe; indeed, Jose Luis Mendilibar's men, along with Celta Vigo and Athletic, are given a 0.1 per cent chance of gatecrashing the top four. They might well have boosted those odds this week were it not for that pesky Suarez.

'Mystic Mac' is back!... and not for the first time.

Conor McGregor steps back into the Octagon having not fought since knocking out Donald Cerrone after just 40 seconds at UFC 246 over 12 months ago.

That was supposed to be the first of three fights in 2020 for a rejuvenated McGregor, who had spent 14 months away following the ugly melee that followed his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018.

Then, of course, a global pandemic caused chaos to the world of sport and, in June, McGregor announced he was retiring from fighting, citing he was just not excited about the MMA game.

Fans of McGregor and the UFC had been here twice before and the scepticism that met his announcement was justified when it was confirmed the big-talking Irishman would face off against Dustin Poirier for the second time in his career.

Ahead of that bout on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi this weekend for UFC 257, we take a look back at McGregor's past 'comeback' scraps.


August 20, 2016 – McGregor beats Diaz by majority decision

In March of the same year, McGregor suffered his first loss fighting in the UFC after submitting to a rear-naked choke from Nate Diaz at UFC 196.

McGregor was slated to have his rematch against Diaz at UFC 200 but in April posted on Twitter: "I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese."

Two days later, he clarified that he had not actually retired but had fallen out with UFC bosses over promotional work and the fight was pulled.

But the bout was eventually staged at UFC 202 in an absolute classic that saw McGregor avenge the defeat via majority decision.

McGregor floored his opponent in round one and Diaz was downed twice more in the second round, but the Irishman survived a series of brutal blows in the third.

Diaz scored a takedown late in the fifth but McGregor saw out the time with the three judges scoring it 48-47, 47-47, 48-47, leading to a famous declaration: "The king is back!"


January 18, 2020 – McGregor beats Cerrone by knockout

Five months on from the ugly aftermath of the Khabib defeat, McGregor announced, "I've decided to retire from the sport formally known as 'Mixed Martial Art'."

High-profile incidents away from the Octagon had plagued McGregor, while he also launched his 'Proper No. Twelve' whiskey brand.

Still, the lure of the UFC proved too much for one of the all-time greats and a focused McGregor was back to fight Cerrone in Las Vegas in a bout pitting two of the sport's most popular stars against one another.

McGregor put on an absolute clinic and a series of brutal blows led to the bout being waved off after just 40 seconds. It marked his first victory in the Octagon since November 2016 when he defeated Eddie Alvarez to win the UFC lightweight title and become the company's first ever dual champion.

After the fight, McGregor said: "I made history tonight. I set a new record. I'm the first fighter in UFC history to secure knockout victories at featherweight, at lightweight and now at welterweight - across three weight divisions, so I'm very proud of that."


January 23, 2021 – McGregor v Poirier?

"Hey guys I've decided to retire from fighting. Thank you all for the amazing memories! What a ride it's been!"

And with that McGregor was done... again.

But really we knew he wasn't, and once more McGregor will step into the Octagon against an opponent he is familiar with.

Almost seven years have passed since McGregor earned 'Performance of the Night' honours after the fight was stopped after one minute and 46 seconds of the first round when 'The Notorious' put Poirier on the back foot then caught his opponent with a huge left hook behind the ear.

So the question remains: how will McGregor fare on his latest comeback from 'retirement'?

Silvio Berlusconi, Adriano Galliani, Cristian Brocchi, Mario Balotelli, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Gabriel Paletta.

There is a real Milan vibe about Monza, who are nestled 15 kilometres north of the Lombardy capital, as the ambitious club stand closer than ever to achieving their goal of Serie A promotion after spending their entire existence in the lower leagues.

Monza are owned by former Milan president and Italy prime minister Berlusconi, who returned to football in 2018 after selling his beloved Rossoneri a year earlier.

After purchasing the club through his Fininvest company, Berlusconi turned to his trusted right-hand man Galliani – who was born in Monza – as CEO. Their partnership helped turn the Rossoneri into a superpower, with eight Serie A titles and five Champions League/European Cup crowns among the 29 pieces of silverware between 1986 and 2017.

Monza are also coached by former Milan midfielder and boss Brocchi, while the Serie B outfit also boasts ex-Rossoneri players Balotelli, Boateng and Paletta.

After completing their rise from Serie C to the second tier of Italian football amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2019-20, Monza are well and truly in the promotion mix – fourth and six points adrift of leaders Empoli, while they are only two points behind Cittadella, who occupy the final automatic spot through 18 games.

Moving up to Serie A would mean a Milan reunion for many of Monza's staff and players, as well as Brocchi – who won the Scudetto and two Champions League titles among other honours at San Siro between 2001 and 2008 before spending a brief period in charge eight years later.

"It is a dream that hopefully will come true. To have brought the Milan mentality coming from our board – always striving to build an important organisation similar to the Milan that won so much worldwide," Brocchi told Stats Perform News.

"Board, manager and some players have worn that shirt and the dream to recreate Milan here in Monza is beautiful and emotional."

"It is a tough season. There are many strong clubs, the ones relegated from A [in 2019-20] who have retained all the important players and those who last season had built up a squad for promotion and failed, so I think this year's Serie B is the hardest of recent times," he continued.

Monza – back in Serie B following a 19-year absence – are no ordinary second-tier team in Italy, with all eyes on the Bagai due to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi's presence has changed the landscape for Monza, who tried to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic before the star striker opted to return to Milan in January last year. However, Monza have since lured Balotelli and Boateng to the club.

"Working for Berlusconi and Galliani's club is grand because all media attention is on you. For sure everybody thinks Monza have to win every game because these two people have gone down in football history winning so much. And this is exactly our goal," Brocchi said.

"I know very well Berlusconi and Galliani's wish is to reach Serie A and win every game. We share the same mindset because I have grown up with them since I was nine. To me it is an honour to be the manager here.

"For sure it is beautiful and important for me to manage in a club like Monza that are very ambitious. It is not easy to take a club from Serie C to Serie A but it is emotional because you have a lot of responsibilities and adrenaline is always rushing. As I said, to face strong clubs with your own aim and manage to overcome them, would make this even better." 

Brocchi, who oversaw just seven matches as Milan coach before being replaced by Vincenzo Montella, continued: "Monza's aim is to improve. We started from C, we are in B and we want Serie A. The difference between us and other clubs is that once in Serie A we won't have the goal of avoiding relegation at the last game, but to rank in the top 10.

"Mr Galliani wants us to always be a strong team going for great objectives. This is what will happen should we win this league."

Balotelli and Boateng are set to play a key role in Monza's push for promotion following their high-profile arrivals.

Boateng has made an immediate impact, with the former Milan and Barcelona midfielder – on average – scoring a goal every 243 minutes in Serie B this season, the best average among Monza players with at least 90 minutes played.

Only Dany Mota has fired more shots on target than Boateng (23 to 10) among Monza players this term and the talented Portuguese forward has four league goals.

Balotelli – coming off a difficult spell at Brescia before their relegation from Serie A – scored with his first touch in Serie B on debut for Monza last month before being sidelined through injury.

"They [Balotelli and Boateng] arrived here in Serie B thanks to the acquaintance they had with Berlusconi and Galliani and even with me as a manager, since I trained them at Milan and we had a great relationship," said Brocchi, who was handed his first senior head-coaching role at Milan after replacing Sinisa Mihajlovic almost five years ago, having previously worked with the club's youth team.

"They settled in very well, they always train hard, they lead by example by showing the will to take me, Berlusconi, Galliani and Monza to Serie A. So far they have been important, let's hope they can give us even more in order to make this dream come true."

The experience of Balotelli and Boateng complements an exciting core of Monza players, including Mota and Brazilian full-back Carlos Augusto, as well as talented loanees Davide Frattesi (Sassuolo), Andrea Colpani (Atalanta) and Davide Bettella (Atalanta).

Both Balotelli and Boateng have tasted Serie A success in their careers to go with respective Premier League and LaLiga honours, with the latter part of the last Milan team to celebrate Scudetto glory in 2010-11.

The strategy of sporting director Filippo Antonelli and Brocchi to invest in promising young talent has continued to deliver results on the pitch.

Monza have allowed the fewest headed goals (one) in Serie B this season, while Brocchi's side have conceded 10 goals from inside the box – the least in the league, while they have scored five goals inside the opening 15 minutes of play – the joint most in 2020-21.

"Monza are a mix of experienced players and great young talents. The right mix to achieve our goals. Players like Balotelli and Boateng can help Mota, Carlos Augusto, Frattesi, Colpani or Bettella, all under-21 players for Italy and Portugal," the 44-year-old Brocchi said.

"You can't only field experienced players, you have to look for the right mix and this is what Antonelli and I looked for. I think experience helps youngsters and their exuberance helps the expert ones."

The list of Kobe Bryant's accomplishments during his 20 NBA seasons is almost too long to recount.  

Yet among his All-Star selections, championships and signature moments, his 81-point game stands out both for its historical significance and its representation of Bryant's personality and career.  

Friday marks the 15th anniversary of this astounding feat, the closest anyone has ever come to Wilt Chamberlain's NBA scoring record, a seemingly impossible 100 points.  

Chamberlain reached triple digits on March 2, 1962, in a much different NBA than the one Bryant faced. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game that season while playing every minute of every game. In scoring 100 points, he led the Philadelphia Warriors to a 169-147 win over the New York Knicks.  

Bryant's feat, while falling short of the century mark, remains the gold standard for scoring in the modern game.  

On January 22, 2006, the Toronto Raptors travelled to Los Angeles to face the Lakers and were gaining confidence. After a desperate 1-15 start, Toronto's season had stabilised, and the Raptors entered Staples Center having won 10 of their previous 16 games. But Toronto had just allowed 113 points in a win against Seattle and entered the game giving up 102.2 points per game, third-most in the NBA.  

Bryant went on to make history, making 28 of his 46 field goal attempts – including 7-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc – and hitting 18 of 20 free throws.  

Perhaps the greatest testament to Bryant's achievement is that no player over the 15 years since has come particularly close to scoring 81 points in a game, despite several factors working in their favor.  

In 2005-06, a team got 79.0 field goal attempts per game on average, the fourth-slowest pace of all time. Almost any other season in NBA history would have been more likely to have an astounding scoring outburst.  

In the 1961-62 season, when Chamberlain made history, teams averaged 107.7 shots per game and attempted 37.1 free throws per game, nearly 11 more than in 2005-06.  

The league has picked up its pace since Bryant's feat as well, with teams attempting 88.8 field goals last season, giving the modern player more opportunities than Bryant had.  

The other advantage that current players have in piling up stats is the three-point shot.  

Bryant's 7-for-13 performance from deep was dynamic in 2006. Twice in the 2005-06 season, Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon made nine three-pointers in a game to lead the league. Only four players made more than seven threes in a game that season. The average team attempted 16.0 threes per game.  

Teams are launching an average of 35.1 three-point attempts during this young season, on pace to be the 10th in a row with an increase in long-range shooting. Ten players have already made eight or more threes in a game this season, despite most teams having played about 15 games.  

Even with a faster pace and increased frequency of long-distance barrages in the modern game, Bryant's 81-point mark still appears virtually unobtainable.  

Since that date, Devin Booker's 70 points are the high mark. There have been 19 games in which a player scored 60 or more, four by Bryant himself.  

One integral element to Bryant's scoring explosion was the composition of that Lakers team. Bryant did have Lamar Odom, but LA's other starters on that historic night were Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Smush Parker. The Lakers finished that season 45-37, far from a bad team, but Bryant scored 35.4 points per game as the Lakers relied on him almost entirely for scoring.  

Bryant scored 34.7 percent of the Lakers' points that season, the fourth-highest scoring share of all time. Only Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have scored a higher percentage of a team's points in a season.  

Given that profile, there are a few players who stand out as possible candidates to make a run at a historical scoring game in the foreseeable future.  

Booker, James Harden and Kemba Walker all have at least one 60-point game in their careers but now find themselves on teams with better supporting casts, making it unlikely they could get enough shots to chase history.  

Damian Lillard, however, could fit the mould perfectly. Team-mates CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic will both miss significant time due to injuries, and Lillard has crossed the 60-point barrier three times, all within the past 15 months. Add his 36.2 minutes per game – top 10 in the league – and 10.1 three-point attempts per game, and Lillard seems as likely as anyone to produce a dazzling scoring total.  

Stephen Curry scored a career-high 62 points on January 3 and will be a constant centerpiece in the Golden State Warriors' offense without Klay Thompson. While Curry is 25th in the league at 34.4 minutes per game, his historic three-point shooting makes him a constant threat.  

League scoring leader Bradley Beal remains in the mix, despite the Washington Wizards acquiring ball-hungry Russell Westbrook in the offseason. Westbrook has often taken games off due to rest, and Beal scored 60 on January 6. He also carries the advantage of getting to the free throw line 9.5 times per game, fourth in the NBA this season.  

That list ignores perennial MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, as well as young dynamos like Trae Young and Luka Doncic.  

The fact that there are so many candidates to make a run at 81 points without anyone coming close in the past 15 years indicates just how phenomenal Bryant's accomplishment was.  

Whether Bryant's mark lasts forever or is eventually bested, it will always be a brilliant snapshot of an all-time great player. He won championships before and after his 81-point game, but Bryant's legacy is as a scorer and a relentless competitor, perfectly represented by that gaudy scoring total 15 years ago.  

Bryant wore number eight and number 24 during his decorated career, but 81 is just as important to his legacy.

George Springer is reportedly packing his bags and heading to the Rogers Centre.

Widespread reports claim the Toronto Blue Jays have agreed to a six-year, $150million contract with star free agent and MLB World Series champion Springer – the largest deal in franchise history, eclipsing Vernon Wells' $126m extension in 2006.

The emerging Blue Jays, who returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2016, had been looking to make a splash in free agency after recruiting ace Ryu Hyun-jin ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Toronto appear to have landed their number one target and one of the most coveted free agents this offseason, despite interest in the likes of Francisco Lindor and DJ LeMahieu, as they challenge the likes of the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox in the American League.

Springer – a World Series winner and MVP with the Houston Astros – brings a wealth of postseason experience to an exciting young core of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio in Toronto, where the Blue Jays also boast number one right-handed pitching prospect Nate Pearson.

Teoscar Hernandez also had a breakout season for the Blue Jays, resulting in his first Silver Slugger Award.

But what does Springer's arrival mean for the Blue Jays in their pursuit of a first World Series crown since 1993? We take a look using Stats Perform data.

Experience and lead-off ability

Springer led the Astros to ultimate glory in 2017.

The 31-year-old outfielder tallied a team-high 14 homers, 37 runs, 50 hits and 32 RBIs with a .265 average in 189 at-bats as the Astros reached the AL Championship Series (ALCS) last season.

Springer leads MLB with 136 home runs from the lead-off spot since 2015. The Blue Jays as a team have 129 homers from the lead-off spot over that time.

A two-time Silver Slugger, Springer has 39 lead-off home runs in his career – fourth most all-time behind Rickey Henderson (73), Ian Kinsler (48) and Brady Anderson (44).

Springer has recorded seven career World Series home runs – most from the lead-off spot all-time – and he is 19-for-56 (.339) in the World Series in his career. No other current Blue Jays player has a World Series hit in their career.

The three-time All-Star's 174 home runs since debuting in MLB via Houston are third most by an Astro in a player's first seven career seasons, behind only Jeff Bagwell (187) and Lance Berkman (180).

In 15 career games at the Blue Jays' Rogers Centre, Springer has slashed .358/.453/.604 with seven extra-base hits and 10 RBIs.

Springer to compliment Toronto's young star power

It has been a long time since Jose Bautista's memorable bat flip and back-to-back trips to the ALCS in 2015 and 2016.

But Guerrero, Gurriel, Bichette and Biggio have given Blue Jays fans a lot to be excited about.

The big-hitting quartet took the MLB by storm during last season's coronavirus-shortened campaign, lighting up the league and helping Toronto to a 32-28 record before losing to eventual World Series participants the Rays in the AL Wild Card Round.

Bichette is the first shortstop in MLB history to have a .300-plus batting average and a .500-plus slugging percentage in each of his first two seasons (minimum 125 plate appearances in both seasons).

Blue Jays team-mate Biggio became the first player in league history to have at least 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 100 walks through his first 159 career games (that is how many games he has played so far).

As for Guerrero, he is the only MLB player currently 21 or younger who has at least 100 career RBIs.

Of players aged 25 or younger, the Blue Jays topped a number of categories last season.

Based on age at the time of games, the Blue Jays had the most hits (234), runs (148), home runs (38), RBIs (137), XBH (93) and BB (103) in 2020.

A goalless first-half in the Supercoppa Italiana started and finished with Cristiano Ronaldo thumping speculative efforts into the deserted stand behind the goal as he chased a record. Or was it a record?

The most notable Juventus contribution in between was Wojciech Szczesny's incredible point-blank save to stop Hirving Lozano giving Napoli the lead with a flying header.

It was far from the rousing response to Sunday's sound 2-0 defeat at Inter that Andrea Pirlo would have hoped for, even if the same scoreline eventually fell in his favour for the first silverware of a fledgling coaching career.

Gennaro Gattuso, manning the other technical area with his typical demeanour of an overworked nightclub bouncer (remember nightclubs?), is famously firm friends with Pirlo.

After falling short as the overmatched apprentice against a masterful Antonio Conte at the weekend, the hirsute Juve boss would probably have preferred to pit his wits against anyone but the man who arguably knows him better than anyone in football.

They were an irresistible combination of silk and steel in the midfield as Italy won the 2006 World Cup and Milan lifted major prizes at home and abroad, while Pirlo's often cerebral autobiography is peppered with stories of juvenile practical jokes played at the expense of an easily riled Gattuso.

The playmaker was infamously allowed to joined Juventus on a free transfer in 2011, launching a dynasty alongside Conte that he is now charged with preserving,

Pirlo's glorious autumn of his playing career led Gattuso to play down his own influence upon his mate's earlier success in inimitably forthright terms.

"Don’t talk nonsense," he baulked in a 2017 interview when asked if he helped to make Pirlo a better player. "Let’s not confuse Nutella with s***"

Wednesday's encounter in Reggio Emilia was frequently closer to the undesirable end of that Gattuso spectrum, although any goalkeeper would gladly smear Szczesny's intervention to deny Lozano all over their pancakes.

Too often, Pirlo's Juve look like they're wading through a giant tube of chocolate and hazelnut spread. The are stodgy and lack flow - the notion that this team is more attractive than Massimilano Allegri's all-conquering side is fairly laughable.

But after half-time, they rolled up their sleeves in a manner in which Gattuso would have grudgingly approved.

Federico Bernardeschi, on for the ineffective Federico Chiesa, nearly scrambled home untidily shortly after the restart.

Kostas Manolas almost put through his own goal in the 64th minute and, from the resulting corner, Napoli played a crueller prank on their coach than anything Pirlo ever subjected him to. They failed to mark Ronaldo in the six-yard box.

Of course, the master marksman made no mistake and rammed home left footed for the 760th goal of his career. That puts him ahead of the great Josef Bican in some all-time rankings, although FIFA say the Austria and Czechoslovakia great has an "estimated" 805 to his name.

By most observers' best estimates, Lorenzo Insigne was surely going to send the game into extra time by converting an 80th-minute penalty after Weston McKennie's clumsy bundle into substitute Dries Mertens.

Insigne was one of the bright sparks in a drab a game and faced up to his own landmark of 100 Napoli goals. But, in another act worthy of the Pirlo-Gattuso slapstick scrapbook, he scuffed a woeful spot kick wide.

Further Szczesny heroics were required before Juan Cuadrado streaked clear to tee up Alvaro Morata to make it 2-0 win the final kick of the game.

Juventus are not playing beautiful football in their coach's image, far from it. But they celebrated with gusto at full-time having banished the end-of-empire stench that accompanied their efforts against Inter.

Have they turned the corner? Will this spark them into a convincing title defence in Sere A? Much like whether or not Ronaldo has broken another record, plenty of questions remain.

Willy Boly had an eventful derby and there was a penalty double for Matheus Pereira as West Brom boss Sam Allardyce maintained his unbeaten record against the team he used to support as a boy.

Albion claimed a huge victory in their bid to avoid relegation from the Premier League at Molineux on Saturday, beating bitter rivals Wolves 3-2.

There was no such entertainment at Anfield on Sunday, with a hugely hyped clash between Liverpool and leaders Manchester United ending goalless, while Antonee Robinson's red card was costly as Fulham were beaten by Chelsea.

Ilkay Gundogan matched his best Manchester City goal tally for a season in a 4-0 rout of Crystal Palace, while Tottenham captain Harry Kane made his mark in Yorkshire yet again 

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

 

Boly in thick of the action as Wolves pay the penalty 

West Brom ended an eight-match winless run to claim three precious points against their big rivals Wolves.

Defender Boly became the first Wolves player to concede a penalty, provide an assist and score in a Premier League game since Adlene Guedioura in May 2011 - which was also against West Brom at Molineux.

Baggies midfielder Pereira was on target with two spot-kicks, becoming the fifth player to score a brace of penalties in a top-flight game this season. The last time there were so many penalty doubles was back in the 2010-11 campaign.

Allardyce was a Wolves fan as a youngster, but his allegiances have long gone out of the window, as the Albion head coach has not lost in 12 Premier League games against Wanderers - his longest unbeaten streak against any side.

 

Gun firing on all cylinders

Kevin De Bruyne sparkled once again as in-form City hammered Palace to go second in the table.

The midfield maestro laid on one of two goals for John Stones, taking his tally of assists for City to a landmark 100.

Gundogan is another midfielder who has caught the eye this season and the Germany international was on target with a sublime long-range finish at the Etihad Stadium.

The former Borussia Dortmund playmaker has scored four goals in his past six Premier League games, as many as he could muster in his previous 55 matches in the top flight. His tally of six for the season is the joint-most he has scored for City.

 

Kane comes up smelling of White Roses again

Prolific Spurs skipper Kane led by example yet again in a 3-1 win at bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.

Kane scored his 19th goal of what is proving to be another outstanding season in Tottenham's first league win at Bramall Lane since 1975, having failed to secure maximum points in their previous seven visits.

England captain Kane has scored in each of his past six Premier League games in Yorkshire, a run that former Leeds United striker Mark Viduka was the last to achieve in 2003.

Leeds will have to be wary of the talismanic striker when Jose Mourinho's men return to the White Rose county for a clash at Elland Road on May 8.

 

Dire States: Rash Robinson costs Fulham

Fulham full-back Robinson was sent off late in the first half of the London derby at Craven Cottage for a rash lunge on Cesar Azpilicueta.

Chelsea had to be patient as they pushed for a winner, but Mason Mount struck to consign Scott Parker's relegation-threatened side to a 1-0 defeat.

Robinson was the eighth player from the United States to be given his marching orders in the Premier League.

The former Wigan Athletic left-back's dismissal also made Fulham the first club to have two players from the USA see red, Carlos Bocanegra being the other.

If Juventus are "a benchmark" and "a reference point", as Antonio Conte suggested pre-match, the Inter head coach can now feel much more positive about his side's Scudetto hopes after a superb 2-0 win.

Conte, formerly the main man in Turin, had good reason to be pessimistic even as the Nerazzurri entered the Derby d'Italia four points ahead of the champions.

Juve were the only Serie A opponents against whom Conte possessed an 100 per cent losing record, beaten in each of his prior three matches against his former club.

And Inter's misery in this fixture extended beyond the start of Conte's reign, going seven without a win as Juve used meetings with the Nerazzurri to consolidate their domestic dominance.

Indeed, there was little reason heading into this match to doubt Juve's credentials, with Andrea Pirlo's side seemingly building up a head of steam in his rookie season.

The Bianconeri had followed up a shock December defeat at home to Fiorentina with four straight successes in all competitions, scoring 13 times in the process.

Among those victories was a deserved triumph at league leaders Milan. Juve had not won at both Milan and Inter in the first half of a Serie A season in 80 years; they now had the opportunity to do so in consecutive away games.

But preparations were not ideal. Cristiano Ronaldo, like opposite number Romelu Lukaku, had not been able to enjoy the week of rest he had set aside, instead called from the bench in a midweek Coppa Italia tie and forced to see out extra time.

Ronaldo played on the fringes at San Siro, his most notable involvement an 11th-minute tap-in ruled out for offside, with the clash between two of Serie A's foremost scorers not panning out as many would have imagined.

Lukaku was as influential as ever in the Inter attack, running Giorgio Chiellini ragged as he contested 15 duels, winning nine, earned three fouls and conceded two, and created three chances.

There was no goal for the forward, though, as the game was decided in the midfield, where Inter were even more impressive, setting the tone right from the outset.

Marcelo Brozovic anchored the side, Nicolo Barella buzzed all over the pitch, and Arturo Vidal - the subject of a clip on social media that appeared to show him kissing the badge of former club Juve pre-match - made clear where his loyalties now lie.

Conte had failed to offer an explanation for some slow starts so far this season but certainly had no need to worry about that issue on this occasion. By half-time, Inter's only concern could have been their failure to add to a lead secured by Vidal.

The midfielder, whose previous Serie A goal back in 2015 had won Juve the title, spread the ball wide to Barella moments after Ronaldo's disallowed goal and then ran onto the subsequent cross, towering over Danilo to nod beyond Wojciech Szczesny and offer a muted celebration.

That was one of 11 first-half Inter efforts, their joint-high this season. Juve mustered just three before the break, a joint-low for them.

But this unpredictable Inter side had led 4-1 and trailed 2-0 respectively on the previous two occasions they had attempted 11 shots in the opening 45 minutes this term.

Juan Sebastian Veron, a former Inter star, told Stats Perform News prior to this game the Nerazzurri would "need to be decisive". Despite the opener, they were anything but.

Vidal's wait for his next Serie A strike should have lasted only three minutes, but he blazed over. Then so too did Lautaro Martinez after Szczesny saved from Lukaku.

Martinez shot wide and Szczesny again denied Lukaku, before scrambling to retrieve Barella's deflected drive. A one-goal first-half deficit felt like an escape for Juve.

But if the Bianconeri were going to make their hosts pay, a swifter start to the second period would have to follow.

Instead, Inter scored with their very first shot after the break and finally the game was beyond Juve. A slipping Alessandro Bastoni's low, long pass somehow tore a gaping hole through the visiting defence and Barella, a deserving scorer, held off Chiellini and Gianluca Frabotta to finish high into the net.

Rather than call on Weston McKennie and Dejan Kulusevski to build on an advantage, as against Milan, Pirlo turned to the pair in a desperate, failed rescue bid.

Juve still had 32 minutes to forge a response after reinforcements arrived, but one strong Samir Handanovic save from Federico Chiesa was all they had to show for a period of pressure.

Inter could have added further goals on the counter yet will worry not. Indecisive, perhaps, Conte's side ended the weekend level on points with Milan. It is now for Pirlo and Juve, seven points back, to rise to this benchmark.

A little before the midway point of the season, heading into Sunday's Derby d'Italia, you could argue Inter have Juventus just where they would have wanted them.

Antonio Conte was brought to San Siro in 2019 and strongly backed in the transfer market with the primary aim of ending the dynasty he launched back in 2011-12 in Turin.

Juve have won every Scudetto since then but are four points behind Inter having played a game less.

Unfortunately for Conte, the Nerazzurri aren't the only side with designs on ripping away the Bianconeri's long-held crown.

Milan remain top of the table despite succumbing to a 3-1 defeat to Juve earlier this month, where they were subjected to arguably the most authoritative display of the fledgling Andrea Pirlo era.

Nine points separate Milan from Atalanta, Napoli and Lazio in fifth, sixth and seventh. Like fourth-place Juve, the former two have a game in hand on the leaders.

Inter are their local rival's nearest challengers, three points from the top and three better off than third-place Roma, who were left with wounded pride by Friday's 3-0 derby defeat to Lazio.

Struggles for consistency and congested title races can be seen across Europe as the effects of truncated pre-seasons and packed schedules continue to shake out.

However, the firepower up front for Inter and Juve provides a strong case for both breaking clear of the pack, while promising a thrilling high-stakes shootout at San Siro.

Lukaku-Martinez partnership brings joy

Conte's second and final season in charge of Chelsea in 2017-18 was soured before kick-off as Manchester United beat him to the signature of Romelu Lukaku.

It was clear that state of affairs did little for either man by the time they finally came together at Inter before the start of last season.

Had Lukaku ranked himself as being among the top five strikers in world football, as he did last month, during the 2019 transfer window, plenty would have sniggered.

But the big Belgian has put a patchy spell at Old Trafford behind him to shine at San Siro.

 

Since the start of last season, Lukaku has 51 goals in all competitions - placing him fourth among players across Europe's top five leagues during that period, in between Lionel Messi in fifth and a certain prospective weekend opponent who is five goals better off.

While not quite as prolific, Argentina international Lautaro Martinez has been a more than able accomplice, racking up 31 in 73 matches over the past season and a half.

Nevertheless, despite this mountain of goals and Inter being Serie A's top scorers, there is a sense that Conte's front two could be more clinical.

No player in the big five leagues with 25 goals or more to their name since the beginning of 2019-20 has a lower shot conversion rate than Martinez's 12.4 per cent.

While Lukaku's conversion rate in 2020-21 is comparatively healthier at 27.9 per cent, in Serie A alone his nine goals from open play come in below an expected goals (xG) figure of 9.8 (Lukaku's three converted penalties do not figure in Opta's xG calculations).

The concern for Conte is that this relative wastefulness takes a heavier toll on the big occasion.

Inter crashed out of the Champions League after winning a solitary group match and have failed to win any of their four Serie A matches so far against last season's top six - a run continued by the raucous 2-2 draw with Roma last time out.

Ronaldo finds ideal foil in Morata

An obvious fear from an Inter perspective is that issues Martinez and Lukaku might have on the grandest stages will only be magnified by comparison to who they face this weekend.

No man in the 21st century has hit the heights of goalscoring obsession known by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Even if Juventus do not have the rampaging version that thrilled at Manchester United and Real Madrid, Ronaldo is raging against Father Time with utter conviction when it comes to putting the ball in the net.

Only Robert Lewandowski - way out in front on 78 - has more than the Portugal great's 56 in the big five leagues from August 2019 onwards.

Among that group of attackers with 25 goals or more, Ronaldo has fired off the most shots with 354. Messi (329) and Lewandowski (297) are not particularly close behind.

Chillingly for opponents, he has found much greater efficiency this season. Ronaldo's shot conversion rate is 23.5 per cent in 2020-21 so far, a 10 per cent increase on the prior campaign. His 11 open-play goals in Serie A have an xG value of 7.9.

 

If there is a new level of serenity to Ronaldo's play, part of the credit can perhaps go to the man alongside him. 

Alvaro Morata was the third corner of the tangled Lukaku-Conte transfer triangle back in 2017, his time at Chelsea proving to be as sapping as Lukaku's at United. A loan to Atletico Madrid arrived midway through 2018-19. 

Despite that move being made permanent, another loan back to Juventus came prior to the current campaign. 

Under his old team-mate Pirlo, Morata looks like a player reborn, scoring 11 times in all competitions. Only four of those have been in Serie A but his seven assists over the course of the campaign are already more than he managed in the past two completed seasons - casting him as the ideal supporting act to Juve's indisputable lead performer. 

One of the best five in the world, one of the greatest of all time, Argentina's next superstar striker or the quiet man from Madrid. On Sunday, one of them is set to step forward and add a key twist to a gripping Scudetto race.

Over the past couple of seasons, Trent Alexander-Arnold has essentially set the standard for full-backs in the Premier League.

Not only has he been a dependable part of a generally mean defence, but his effectiveness in the final third has helped mark him out from the rest.

A dead-ball specialist, comfortable on the ball and a fine passer, many have even suggested his long-term future could be further up the pitch in midfield – comparisons in this regard with the likes of Philipp Lahm are understandable.

But the adulation has been rather quieter this season. Indeed, he has even been the target of criticism on occasion, which is an awkward position to be in ahead of a huge top-of-the-table clash with bitter rivals and league leaders Manchester United on Sunday.

So, is Alexander-Arnold genuinely having a poor season? Or is he just the victim of his own high standards?

THE KNIVES ARE OUT

With Liverpool not running away with the Premier League title this term, perhaps it was inevitable that certain players were going to start being targeted with harsh words.

The focus on Alexander-Arnold seemingly became most intense after the Reds' 1-0 defeat to Southampton at the start of January.

Many sections of the British media zoned in on the fact Alexander-Arnold lost possession 38 times in the match, more than anyone else, yet virtually all coverage neglected to mention that such statistics are heavily skewed when relating to creative players who are far more likely to lose the ball due to the greater risk involved in their roles.

In isolation, such a statistic proves little. For example, Kevin De Bruyne lost possession 34 times in a game against Watford last season, yet he also had a telling impact with an assist from six chances created. In his entire Premier League career, the Belgian has only ever made more key passes in a single match eight times.

Although focusing on that part of his game may have been unfair, former Liverpool full-back Jose Enrique acknowledged Alexander-Arnold does appear to be a little short of his best, though he is adamant dips in form are normal and could even be explained by fatigue in a packed schedule.

"All of us are humans, you all have up and downs, we don't know what's going on in his life," Jose Enrique told Stats Perform News. "It's probably going amazing for him but at some point, your performance goes up and down. It's very difficult to do what [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo have done [in terms of consistency], it's just them, no one else [can be at such a level for so long].

"At some point in the season, you always underperform. It's normal. At the end [of games] you are more tired, you have many games under your legs. We are talking about international players, players playing at international level as well, Champions League, so it's many games."

STATS SUGGEST A SLUMP

The fact is, Alexander-Arnold has been less effective for Liverpool this season, and the stats back it up.

 

Across all competitions, the England international has four assists in 19 games at a rate of one every 392.8 minutes. Last term, he laid on 15 in 49 games, or one every 266.1 minutes.

In the Premier League, his frequency drops to 609.5 minutes per goal involvement, having been at 186.8 last term. On the opposite side of Liverpool's defence, Andy Robertson is proving a greater threat (one assist or goal every 255 minutes).

If we look a bit deeper, Opta data tells us Alexander-Arnold is playing fewer passes into the box per 90 minutes (12) than last term (14.4), while his open-play crosses are also down to 5.2 each game from 6.7 despite average position maps showing very little change in his role or the areas he operates in this term.

 

But, when considering his attacking output, it is worth noting that seven of his 13 Premier League assists last season came from set-pieces – this could partly explain his shortfall in productivity.

After all, he is taking almost 50 per cent fewer corners per game (down from 4.6 to 2.7) in 2020-21, while his key passes from set-pieces is 0.9 per 90 minutes after being 1.1 in 2019-20.

One might expect this to be a reflection of Liverpool simply having fewer corners, but that isn't the case – in fact, their average of 6.7 per game is identical to last season, he just is not taking them as often.

SUFFERING FROM A LACK OF COMPETITION?

Remember, though, this is comparing Alexander-Arnold to a time when he was in an almost unstoppable side that scored for fun and did not have something of a defensive injury crisis.

If we look at his form in the context of his Premier League contemporaries this term, his critics might be a little surprised.

Indeed, his 25 chances created and 162 passes into the box are second only to Robertson (32 and 169 respectively) among defenders, while Harry Maguire is the sole defensive player with more efforts on goal (21) than Alexander-Arnold (20).

 

It's a similar story with respect to crosses, as his tally of 70 is the fourth highest for a defender. Again, Robertson – who seems to be thriving even more this season – tops the list with 92.

Clearly Alexander-Arnold is still performing at a high standard, though Jose Enrique suggests a lack of competition in the right-back role could be another factor in his slight dip in form.

"I believe he's 22 now, he's won everything he can win as a player but maybe he needs more competition," the Spaniard added. "I believe Neco Williams is a good player, but obviously you can't compare. That's the reality. Neco is still growing, we don't know in the future how he's going to be. That's why he [Jurgen Klopp] puts [James] Milner there sometimes, I believe, to make a point.

"Sometimes it happens as well in players, and he will come back to his best. He's so important for us. Apart from De Bruyne, I don't see any other right foot like his. He puts the ball wherever he wants with his right foot, he's incredible. But like I said, he's a human being and he's not his best right now, but I'm sure against United he will sort out everyone, I'm sure."

There's no time like the present.

LaMelo Ball's NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets got off to a subpar start. 

In fact that might just be a generous description of his NBA debut. It was downright brutal. 

The third overall pick of this year's draft played a scoreless 15 minutes in his first game, missing all five of his field-goal attempts in Charlotte’s 121-114 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 23. 

Not only did he fail to score, the highly-touted playmaker also turned the ball over three times, becoming only the second player in the last 35 years to finish without a point while taking at least five shots with three or more turnovers in 15-plus minutes in their NBA debut, joining the Golden State Warriors' Brandon Williams in 1998. 

While he got off to a shaky start, things have since gone much better. 

Better actually might not be kind enough in describing his recent play. He's been outstanding. 

On the onset of the 2020 draft, the 6-foot-7 point guard was widely considered to have the highest ceiling of all the prospects. An adept ball-handler, scouts marvelled at his passing, court vision and his ability to push the ball up the court. 

Though Ball possesses an immense skillset and has a comprehensive understanding of the game, making the jump from Australia's National Basketball League to the NBA would admittedly take time. 

It took him all of one week. 

With 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists in a win over the Dallas Mavericks on December 30, he became the first player in the last 35 years to reach those numbers in just his fourth game, and he's continued to stuff the stat sheet with impressive numbers. 

Since then, he's had two more games with 15 or more points, eight or more rebounds and five or more assists. Only four other players have had more such games in that span – the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (six), Mavericks' Luka Doncic (five), New York Knicks' Julius Randle (five) and Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (four). 

Over the course of three games from January 8-11, he racked up 42 points, 36 rebounds and 27 assists, joining Ben Simmons in 2017 and Lamar Odom in 2000 as the only rookies in the last 35 years with at least 40 points, 35 boards and 25 assists over a three-game span. 

In the middle game of that three-match stretch, Ball made history. At 19 years and 140 days, he became the youngest player ever to record a triple-double by notching 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in Saturday's win over the Atlanta Hawks. 

Despite stumbling out of the gate with his forgettable debut, he still reached the 10-game mark with 131 points, 63 rebounds and 59 assists. In the last 35 seasons, only two other rookies have reached those numbers after 10 games – James in 2003 and Simmons in 2017. 

Ball's passing has been as advertised. He's finding his open team-mates and setting them up for success. 

Among the 100 players with at least 30 assists, he has the league's 10-best assist rate – the estimation of percentage of field goals made by team-mates while he's on the floor. At 36.8 per cent, Ball sits just a bit back of James, whose eighth at 37.6. 

With 71 assists on the season, Ball has eight fewer assists than Devonte' Graham for the most on the Hornets. He does, however, lead Charlotte with 84 rebounds, and if he does surpass Graham and finish the season leading the team in both rebounds and assists, he'll join Michael Jordan in 1984-85 and Blake Griffin in 2010-11, as the only rookies in the last 40 years to lead their team in both categories. 

Not only is Ball flourishing in the part of his game many thought he would eventually excel in, he is also finding success in areas that were believed to be some of his biggest weaknesses – shooting and defense. 

After shooting a dreadful 24 per cent from 3-point range in Australia's NBL, Ball is making a respectable 33.9 per cent of his 3s. Nothing outstanding, but the league average on 3s is 36.6 per cent. 

He’s also showing a proficiency at knocking down shots just inside the arc. His 50 per cent shooting on mid-range jumpers is tied with seven others for 17th in the NBA among those with at least 100 field-goal attempts. 

Defense was another area that many expected would take Ball time to grasp and be competent in, but he’s already proven to be up to speed, leading all rookies with 22 defensive stops. 

Not only does he lead all first-year players in defensive stops, he also leads all rookies in points (143), rebounds (84), assists (71), as well as steals (18). 

If Ball continues to thrive on the court and finishes the season leading all rookies in points, rebounds and assists, he’ll become just the seventh player in NBA history to accomplish that feat, joining Elgin Baylor (1958-59), Wilt Chamberlain (1959-60), Oscar Robertson (1960-61), Walt Bellamy (1961-62), Alvin Adams (1975-76) and Michael Carter-Williams (2013-14). 

Not surprising, but each of the previous six won the Rookie of the Year Award. 

Playing at a level few rookies have before him, Ball is the early frontrunner to win this season's award. 

Good thing for him the trophy isn't handed out after one game. 

The New York Knicks are on the slide as they prepare to take on the Brooklyn Nets for the first time this season.

Knicks fans appeared destined to be casting envious glances across New York after the Nets beat them to the signatures of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in 2019, but the start of this season gave them a reason to feel slightly more content.

After finishing with a losing record for seven straight years, there was finally cause for optimism at Madison Square Garden early this season - the Knicks were above .500 through eight games for the first time since 2012-13, which was when they last made the postseason.

However, they have dropped their past three straight, losing by double figures on each occasion and failing to score more than 89 points, and concern has started to brew.

Things have not been straightforward for the Nets either, though.

While a 122-116 win against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday lifted them to a 6-6 record, Irving is said to be facing an NBA investigation following a video of him attending an event without a mask on.

Irving has missed four games due to "personal reasons", with the Nets refusing to elaborate on the situation. He is not expected to return to their line-up this week.

Durant has also missed time this season due to COVID-19 protocols and is set to feature in both games of a back-to-back for just the second time since returning from an Achilles tear.

TOP PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets – Kevin Durant

Durant has not taken long to start firing once again. He is averaging 29.9 points per game this season, second only to Bradley Beal (34.9) in the league.

Against the Nuggets he put up 34 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds, making him the first Nets player to have those numbers since the team moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey in 2012.

The last player to achieve that stat line for the franchise was Hall of Famer Jason Kidd in December 2006, when he had 38 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists against the Phoenix Suns.

Having sat out the previous campaign through injury, Durant is facing the Knicks for the first time since he snubbed them for the Nets.

Durant famously said "the cool thing right now is not the Knicks" after signing for the Nets and will be eager to show he made the right decision.

New York Knicks – Julius Randle

If the Knicks are to upset their local rivals they are going to need Randle to quickly get back on form.

He had season lows in points and rebounds (11 and five respectively) against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, while in only one game this season has he had fewer than the five assists he posted versus Charlotte (three against the Philadelphia 76ers).

Despite that lacklustre showing, he joined Oscar Robertson as the only two players in NBA history to register at least 200 points, 115 rebounds and 70 assists in their team's first 10 games of a season.

He leads the Knicks in points (22.1), rebounds (11.2) and assists (6.9) per game in 2020-21.

KEY BATTLE: KNICKS NEED DEFENSIVE BOOST

The Nets have been one of the best teams at shooting the three this season with an average success rate of 39.3 per cent, which is only bettered by the Milwaukee Bucks (41.1) and the Los Angeles Clippers (42.4).

They average 118.8 points per game, which is 18.7 more than the Knicks, so it is clear that New York's defense is going to have a huge role to play.

They had the seventh-best defensive rating in the league prior to their three game skid, with injuries to Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, Frank Ntilikina and Obi Toppin meaning coach Tom Thibodeau is demanding a lot from his key players.

RJ Barrett and Julius Randle are in the top five for minutes played this season, while they rank first and third respectively for minutes per game.

Thibodeau needs to strike a better balance to help boost his team's defense against one of the toughest and deepest opponents in the league.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nets have dropped their past two games against the Knicks, though they split the season series 2-2 last season.

Durant has not played against the Knicks for two years but averages 28.5 points with a 16-3 record since entering the league.

And so, after two head coach sackings, a torrent of boardroom upheaval and the most discussed transfer request of all time, Barcelona return to the scene of the crime.

The scene in terms of the tournament itself, of course. But even after swapping Saudi Arabia for Seville, the memory of last season's Supercopa de Espana semi-final will be enough to bring many a Cule out in a cold sweat.

Barca led 2-1 going into the final 10 minutes of their encounter with Atletico Madrid at King Abdullah Sports City, only to lose 3-2. Ernesto Valverde would never lead them again.

To say Valverde's sacking and its aftermath were shoddily handled would go some way to redefining the notion of understatement.

Club great Xavi was courted before deciding he would rather lead his boyhood club at a more agreeable time, one without mayhem spewing everywhere behind the scenes at Camp Nou.

Quique Setien took the reins and came to look out of his depth long before the 8-2 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich. Despite it being a game that caused shockwaves around world football, "8-2" still feels an utterly preposterous thing to type.

Sporting director Eric Abidal called out the squad for a perceived lack of effort during Valverde's final days, a somewhat belated show of solidarity with a coach he unceremoniously bundled towards the exit door.

Lionel Messi took umbrage and an unseemly public spat was still festering by the time LaLiga resumed following the coronavirus shutdown. Barca surrendered the title to Real Madrid before their night of shame in Lisbon.

Setien was gone and newly installed boss Ronald Koeman decided Luis Suarez should follow him through the exit door, something that did nothing to improve Messi's mood as he sought to prise himself away from Barcelona before being forced to stay under contractual duress.

A 2-1 defeat to Cadiz on December 5 left Barca seventh in LaLiga with 14 points from 10 games, with Koeman's dream job turning rapidly into a nightmare.

A listless 3-0 Champions League loss at home to Juventus followed, ceding top spot in their group. But since then, Barcelona are unbeaten in eight LaLiga matches, winning six, and Opta data suggests they might be in better health ahead of Wednesday's semi-final against Real Sociedad than at this time last year.

Creating more under Koeman

In 24 games under Koeman in all competitions, Barca have scored 53 and conceded 22, averaging 2.21 and 0.92 per game respectively in all competitions.

Heading into the semi-final with Atletico, Valverde's team were top of LaLiga with 40 points from 19 matches. That betters the 34 from 18 that Koeman's men have to lie third this time around, but it should be noted that leaders Atleti have 41 points from just 16 outings so far.

The numbers behind Valverde's final half-season at the helm hint at comparative progress under Koeman.

When the former Athletic Bilbao boss led the Blaugrana during the period in question, they averaged 2.32 goals per game with 58 in 25.

However, that hugely out-performed an expected goals (xG) figure of 41.1, meaning they were getting out of jail a fair bit thanks largely to a certain special player. Koeman's Barca are in line with an xG of 53.66 this season, with shots per game up to 16.9 from 12.5 in the same period under Valverde.

Both men left their defences grateful for wasteful finishing, with an xG against of 30.37 for Valverde and 29.83 for Koeman.

 

Messi still the master, Pedri and Griezmann stepping up

Despite a slow start to the season after his attempted exit, Barcelona's main man looks to be back up to speed.

In 21 games this term Messi has 14 goals, closing on the 15 from 19 in his final stint with Valverde as boss, when he hugely out-performed an xG of 9.83.

His importance to Barca remains paramount, leading the way in chance creation (51) as he did in the first half of last season (47).

Suarez was next on that list with 29 last time around. Although no one has filled the breach of 14 goals scored in the period by a man now spearheading Atleti's title charge, youngster Pedri has stepped up to craft 29 opportunities for team-mates.

Frenkie de Jong has created 25 chances from midfield - up from 19. The often maligned Antoine Griezmann has made the same leap, despite being on the pitch for 396 fewer minutes compared to last season. However, until he lifts considerably his goal and assist contributions from seven and four respectively, unflattering comparisons to Suarez and Neymar will remain.

There are numerous shafts of light permeating the gloom that descended upon Barcelona a year ago. Enough to justify the chaos of the interim period? Of course not, but there might be legs in the fragile Koeman-Messi axis yet.

Nevertheless, as Barca face up to Sociedad and Real Madrid prepare to take on Athletic Bilbao, it is hard to escape who this week's real winner will be.

A clinical 2-0 win over Sevilla on Tuesday put Atletico four points clear at LaLiga's summit with two games in hand. Diego Simeone's men will have enjoyed the Barcelona demise they triggered; this time they get to put their feet up for eight days and enjoy their fellow heavyweights punching holes in one another.

 

When Javi Lopez sat down to speak to Stats Perform News, Adelaide United's star recruit could not hide his smile as the interview shifted to a familiar face – Mauricio Pochettino.

Pochettino was the man who gave Lopez his senior debut with Espanyol in 2009.

Lopez never looked back as he went on to captain Espanyol and, until 2020, spent his entire senior career with the Periquitos before their shock relegation from LaLiga last season.

As Lopez settles in Australia and Pochettino takes charge of Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain, the impact of the former Espanyol head coach is not lost on the versatile 34-year-old.

"What can I tell you about my experience with Mauricio Pochettino? He was the coach that made me debut in the first division, thanks to him afterwards I could have a great career in Espanyol for 11 years. I am thankful and I only have good words for him," Lopez told Stats Perform News.

"His evolution hasn't surprised me because I could see that he was going to be a top coach because his way of coaching, because he surrounded himself with great staff. He has no limits, he will coach the best teams in the world for sure."

Like former Espanyol team-mate and skipper Victor Sanchez – who is now playing for A-League outfit Western United – Lopez finds himself playing out of Europe for the first time and in Australia.

Adelaide have a rich history with Spaniards – Barcelona legend Guillermo Amor led a Reds team boasting countrymen Isaias, Pablo Sanchez and Sergio Cirio to the club's first A-League championship almost five years ago.

Lopez is the latest Spaniard to call Adelaide home, thanks to some help from ex-Reds captain Isaias.

"After many years of my career, I wanted to change, a big one. When the opportunity of coming here aroused I talked to Isaias, with Juande, who was playing for Perth Glory and is a great friend of mine," Lopez said. "I talked to my family and we decided to come here."

"I think that the A-League is a very strong league physically, quite unknown in Spain but people would be surprised of its great level, the matches are very entertaining, dynamic, physical," he continued. "From what I could see here, the club and the coach [Carl Veart] are doing a great job, the team is very good."

While Adelaide have won back-to-back FFA Cup titles, the club have fallen short in the A-League since reigning supreme in 2016.

Adelaide missed out on the finals last season, and that is something Lopez wants to change in 2020-21 – the veteran buoyed by four points from two games to start to the coronavirus-interrupted campaign.

"Expectations are clear: to be in the top six, to play play-offs and to finish as high as possible. Why not? I have said that before, the team is very well compensated and very competitive," Lopez said. "On the first match of the league against Western United I could confirm how well we work together thanks to the job of the coach.

"I loved the team's proposal, how they played, the intensity, how they fought for every ball, the pressure after losing the ball, I really liked it. Like [Atletico Madrid head coach] Diego Simeone says, his now worldwide famous sentence: 'We need to go match by match'. But the expectations are to finish in the top six, probably something difficult because in football all teams compete. If we keep performing at the previous level I think that is possible."

Lopez brings a wealth of experience to Adelaide – he ranks third for most Espanyol appearances across all competitions, only behind Raul Tamudo and Pochettino following 11 years at RCDE Stadium.

Wearing the captain's armband, Lopez featured in 17 LaLiga matches in 2019-20 as Espanyol were painfully condemned to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time since 1993-94.

"To talk about Espanyol makes me feel emotional, they are an historic club of LaLiga," Lopez said. "I might sound too romantic, but for me Espanyol is everything: my club, my house… I was there 13 years. I gained a feeling that will remain with me forever. If I say it is an honour I might be short, if I say that I am proud I might be short.

"It was a dream to play for Espanyol and to be able to take the captain's armband during many years. Even if I say that it was a dream, I am being short in the description, it has been more than a dream. I had to work really hard to reach that point. I always gave my best, my conscious is very peaceful on this regard. I cannot tell much more, except for that I would love that we would return to the first division at the end of this season."

Lopez also experienced the Derbi Barceloni – a derby dominated by Lionel Messi's Barcelona – and he added: "Sincerely it was one of the games that we wait with hunger. For all of us it was our game, we lived in a city where there is much difference in term of repercussion and media. Barcelona always gathers much more attention than Espanyol, so it was always a chance to reclaim ourselves as a great club.

"We are weapons, with our feelings to our colours, which allow us to compete with anyone. It's true that in the last decade there were very unbalanced derbies because of their great team, but still it was our chance to reclaim how proud we feel about us, our unique feeling. Our pride to be 'Pericos'." 

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