Week 1 didn't go to plan for a host of NFL teams expected to contend to go deep into the postseason.

As a result, fantasy owners who picked players from those apparent contenders may have seen their line-ups fail to deliver the points needed for victory.

But in many cases, Week 1 is not indicative of how a team's season will pan out, with the opener often seen almost as an extension of the preseason.

There is plenty of time for teams to get back on track, especially following the advent of the 17-game season, and the four players and a defense selected as this week's fantasy picks all come from teams who will be looking to bounce back from defeat in Week 1 on Sunday.

Quarterback: Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams vs. Atlanta Falcons

Is it time to worry about Stafford after his and the Rams' opening night shocker against the Buffalo Bills?

Probably not, but it may well be if those struggles are repeated against the Falcons.

The Falcons allowed the ninth-most yards per play in the NFL last season and conceded 16 fourth-quarter points in their collapse versus the New Orleans Saints last week.

Stafford should have no problems exploiting their defense and rebounding in style with a performance to delight fantasy owners.

Running Back: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals @ Dallas Cowboys

Mixon struggled to get going against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Bengals' remarkable overtime loss last week. He should not have the same difficulty against the Cowboys, who were gashed for six yards a carry by Leonard Fournette of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1.

With Mixon also making seven catches and winning his matchup with a defender on six of his nine targets against Pittsburgh, according to Stats Perform data, he should also be in line for plenty of touches through the air as Joe Burrow and the Bengals look to frustrate a Dallas pass rush that should have plenty of success against their offensive line.

Mixon likely won't come close to the 34 touches he had last week, but he will still be heavily involved and will be expected to have much more success on the touches he does receive against a defense that showed scant resistance to the ground game in its opener.

Wide Receiver: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks

With the 49ers' starting running back, Elijah Mitchell, going down with a knee injury in Week 1, the lion's share of the carries in the backfield are up for grabs.

Chances are they won't go to Mitchell's backups in the running back room, but to Samuel, San Francisco's 'wide back'.

The versatile wide receiver was the heartbeat of the 49er offense down the stretch in their run to the NFC Championship Game last season and had eight carries for 52 yards and a touchdown in San Francisco's surprise Week 1 loss to the Chicago Bears.

With Mitchell on the sideline, Samuel should see a much larger workload against a Seahawks defense that surrendered 5.2 yards per rush on Monday against the Denver Broncos.

Through the air last season, Samuel racked up 156 yards and two touchdowns in his lone game against the Seahawks. With the prospect of additional running back work on top of his receiving targets, Samuel could be the difference for the Niners and for scores of fantasy players in Week 2. 

Tight End: Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders vs. Arizona Cardinals

After giving up 121 yards and a touchdown to Travis Kelce in their blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cardinals draw another of the game's top tight ends in Week 2.

Waller was held to 79 yards receiving in the Raiders' loss to the Los Angeles Chargers but won his matchup with his defender on five of his six targets.

Look for Waller to emulate Kelce in taking advantage of a Cardinals back seven seemingly ill-prepared for the challenge of facing an elite tight end and putting a together an impressive statistical performance. 

Defense/Special Teams: Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears

It may be easy to be concerned about the Packers after their opening 23-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, but such worries are likely to alleviated against the Bears.

Even with Justin Jefferson exploding for 184 receiving yards and two touchdowns, the Packers' defense still produced what should have been a winning effort in Week 1.

Green Bay gave up fewer first downs than Minnesota and held the Vikings to 4-13 on third down, but the Packers' defense received little support from the offense.

That will not be the case versus Chicago. The Bears stunned the 49ers in Week 1 with 19 unanswered points, but they turned the ball over twice while Justin Fields completed just eight passes. A Packers defense that has talent at every level should have similar success forcing Chicago into negative plays and generating fantasy points in a bounce-back win for Green Bay.

Manchester City bought Erling Haaland to be the difference on nights like this.

In cagey Champions League matches, against Europe's top sides, the striker was the player who could turn possessional dominance into victory.

Yet for 84 frustrating minutes against his former club Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, Haaland toiled. World-class players – strikers especially – only need a moment, a split-second, however, to do the damage.

And so it proved, when Joao Cancelo lofted in a left-wing cross to the back post that mere mortals could not have reached. But Haaland, now the youngest player in Champions League history to score for and against the same side in the competition, is no mere mortal.

Nico Schlotterbeck had told the press he "knew how to stop Haaland". The centre-back, named on the bench after playing in a 3-0 Bundesliga defeat to RB Leipzig at the weekend, had been on the pitch just six minutes when Haaland somehow met Cancelo's delivery and, in mid-air, prodded a finish beyond Alexander Meyer. His 13th goal of the season. It is mid-September.

It completed a four-minute City turnaround, from 1-0 down to 2-1 up – John Stones having cancelled out Jude Bellingham's opener with a rocket from the edge of the area, albeit one Meyer might have done better with.

Not that this was a vintage City display, by any means. Up until Stones' equaliser, they had laboured, failing to test Meyer. Indeed, the loudest the home crowd had been before then was after Haaland had struck the outside of the post from a near-impossible angle with his first true sighting of goal, and prior to that, it was a chorus of "you're just a s*** Bayern Munich" directed at the vociferous visiting fans, who were in great voice throughout.

Bellingham's opener did not come against the run of play, either. City had 64.1 per cent possession in the first half but managed just four attempts. None were on target and three, from Jack Grealish, were easily blocked.

Pep Guardiola cut a frustrated figure, but whatever he said to his side at half-time did not have the desired impact. Dortmund came out of the blocks, Marco Reus slicing just wide before he provided the cross-shot for Bellingham to nod home, becoming the highest-scoring English teenager in the Champions League in the process.

Bellingham scored one of his other three Champions League goals on the last occasion these sides met, in the 2020-21 quarter-finals. Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden scored in a 2-1 win for City, sealing a 4-2 aggregate victory. 

Haaland, then in a Dortmund shirt of course, had 25 touches on that occasion. Only one of those came in the box, and he had just one attempt, failing to hit the target with it. He finished with 26 touches before being taken off to a standing ovation this time out, but 14 of those were in BVB's area.

Ilkay Gundogan, another ex-Dortmund star, had suggested in his pre-match press conference that City had to show more patience in regards to getting the ball into their number nine, but there is a fine balance to be struck and it was only when Foden came on – as part of a treble substitution in the wake of Dortmund's goal – that the hosts started to click into gear.

Whereas Grealish looked to chop inside, Foden's directness offered City a different dimension, putting Thomas Meunier on the back foot. Indeed, only a brilliant Mats Hummels intervention prevented Haaland getting on the end of a sharp Foden cross.

And it was getting the ball in sharply that finally set the stage for Haaland to prove the difference, to back up the reason City bought him. For nights like this. So well-shackled by his former club, one quick ball – from a situation where Cancelo had been far too content to play the safe option previously – provided the Norway international with the ammunition.

He does not miss. And for City, it means even on an off-day, they got the job done. Come the season's end, it might just prove to be the factor that ends their hunt for European glory.

To measure the scope of the Presidents Cup, a suggestion is to travel back in time – 28 years, to be exact – to when this international team golf tournament was introduced.

It was the brainchild of Tim Finchem, back when he was a deputy for PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman. But when Beman handed the reigns over to Finchem early in the summer of 1994, going full throttle on the debut of Presidents Cup consumed him.

The naysayers were lined up, but Finchem was steadfast in his belief that great players from beyond the borders of the United States and Europe deserved to compete on a global stage in an international team match. Should you point to the lopsided results – the Americans are 11-1-1 and have won eight in a row – you would be an egregious point-misser.

The Presidents Cup was about bringing the game a little closer together, because global golf, Finchem insisted, was here to stay. He knew it would be a somewhat awkward fit at first, but he begged for patience and offered a vision that a lot of folk struggled with.

To wit, there would be a day when the world's best players competed in the same tournaments dozens of time per year and American golf fans would know the international stars quite well.

If he were the type to seek the limelight, Finchem could take a bow. But instead, let's take a measurement to indicate how his vision has played out beautifully.

In 1994, half the International Team needed to introduce themselves to their American counterparts at the Robert Trent Jones Club in Gainesville, Virginia. Aussie Bradley Hughes had only played in six PGA Tour tournaments that season, while Mark McNulty of Zimbabwe (five), Peter Senior of Australia (three) and Frank Nobilo of New Zealand (two) attended even fewer. As for Robert Allenby of Australia and Tsukasa Watanabe of Japan, they hadn't played at all.

In all, the 12 International Team members had combined for just 141 PGA Tour tournaments in 1994, which is not an indictment of them whatsoever. It is a reminder of the era, when global traffic was limited to the world's very elite names and, while the Presidents Cup perhaps appealed back then to those who are intrigued by players they know little about, Finchem was convinced the stature of the competition would grow as American fans became educated about the Aussies and South Africans, the South Americans and the Canadians.

"In 20 years," he told reporters back then, "we can have an event of really premier quality."

Critique Finchem's statement as much as you'd like, there is an argument to be made that he's been proven correct. Three of the past five competitions have been close (16-14 in Australia in 2019; a one-point match in South Korea in 2015; a closer-than-it-looks 18.5-15.5 decision at Muirfield Village in 2013), and then there is the familiarity aspect: whereas 28 years ago the 12-man International Team combined for just 141 PGA Tour starts, in 2021-22 the 12 members of this year's Presidents Cup team totalled 282 starts.

That is a growth of 100 per cent, and the difference can be seen up and down the line-up. Eleven of the 12 members of this year's International Team made 20-plus Tour starts this year – Tom Kim appeared in 11 events as he eventually earned his card by the end of the season – while seven of them made 25 starts or more.

Budding stars from Chile (Mito Pereira, 27 starts) and South Korea (Lee Kyoung-hoon, 28) head the list of workhorses. Lee's fellow countryman, Kim Si-woo, will join him in Charlotte for his second Presidents Cup after a team-leading 29 starts this season.

Corey Conners made his first team after a year of admirable consistency, as did fellow Canadian Taylor Pendirth (21 starts). Aussie Cam Davis (25), South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout (24), Colombian Sebastian Munoz (25) and Japanese Hideki Matsuyama (21) also help comprise the roster.

Round out the team with South Korean Im Sung-jae, who with 'only' 26 starts this season is almost slacking off, and you have an International Team that is getting more and more comfortable in the US by the week. That, in turn, is why optimism continues to be an International strong suit.

"We're still talking about 18 holes of match play, and we've got to remember anything can happen in an 18-hole match," Adam Scott told reporters at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in late July.

"Momentum plays a big deal in these things. We saw that at the last one. We kind of got up early and we nearly hung on [to win]."

Veteran that he is, Scott would tell you that even as he and his mates have become more comfortable in the US thanks to a full complement of PGA Tour tournaments, another aspect of this biennial affair continues to make matters difficult.

That is an American team that is constantly deep and consistently young.

How deep? Ten of the 12 players on the US team are ranked in the top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and the only two who aren't check in at numbers 22 (Max Homa) and 26 (Kevin Kisner). The team features number one Scottie Scheffler and four others in the first 10 – Patrick Cantlay, number four; Xander Schauffele, number five; Justin Thomas, number seven; and Collin Morikawa, number nine.

How young? Two are just 25 years old (Morikawa and Cameron Young) and five others are in their 20s. As for the 'old' guard, we're talking Cantlay, 30; Max Homa, 31; Tony Finau, 32; and Billy Horschel, 35.

That's deep, that's young, and that's one potent group teeing it up next week at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.

It's an indication that the Americans will likely be heavy favourites to win for a ninth straight time. Then again, being the underdog is news to the Aussies, the South Africans, the Fijians, the Kiwi, the Canadians, the South Americans, the Japanese and the Koreans.

True, they've not yet come up with an answer to this biennial puzzle, but you'd be doing them a massive disservice if you sold them short. The big picture does them justice as you look at the 2021-22 season: four of their players (Matsuyama, Im, Lee and Kim) combined for five wins on the PGA Tour this season.

True, the Americans have bigger numbers (they combined for 18 victories this season), but Finchem's vision has played out as he predicted. International players have established global stature thanks to a high level of play on the PGA Tour and that will be prominently displayed in this year's Presidents Cup.

Focus on the individuals who'll make up the two line-ups, and not the past results, and you'll likely find 15 of the world's top 20 names. As promised more than 20 years ago, the Presidents Cup has reached a level of premier quality.

The penultimate round of Rugby Championship fixtures are upon us and it is all to play for with every side having won two and lost two of their opening four games.

An inconsistent New Zealand side are a point better off than Argentina, South Africa and next opponents Australia by virtue of picking up two bonus points.

Despite a thumping win over Argentina last time out, the pressure still remains on head coach Ian Foster heading into Thursday's contest with great rivals Australia in Melbourne.

The hosts are looking to bounce back from a 16-point loss against South Africa, who make the trip to Buenos Aires in the second of this week's fixtures on Saturday.

Here, Stats Perform previews both clashes in round five of the championship using Opta data.



New Zealand may lead the way at the top, but their form this year has been very poor by their usual high standards. The All Blacks have lost four of their seven Tests in 2022 – only in 1998 (five) and 1949 (six) have they ever lost more in a calendar year.

Back-to-back victories would provide a major confidence boost for Foster's charges, and they have a good record in this fixture. Of the past 20 Tests meetings between the sides, New Zealand have won 16 and lost only three, a run that includes three wins in a row.

Australia have not lost back-to-back Tests with New Zealand since August 2017, however, and their return of three wins from their past six matches against the All Blacks on home turf is more than they managed in the previous 13 such encounters.

The Wallabies have won the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup – which New Zealand have dominated for the past two decades – only twice in the past 13 years. However, one of those victories came when they last hosted the opening game three years ago.


Australia will have to watch their discipline in what is a highly charged fixture. Skipper James Slipper has conceded 11 penalties so far in this year's Rugby Championship, which is four more than any other player in the competition.

All Blacks centre Rieko Ioane continued his good form last time out by scoring a try and setting up another in the 50-point win against Argentina. That could spell bad news for Australia, against whom he has been directly involved in 13 tries across 12 Test appearances.



Argentina fell short of registering three wins in a row in this competition for the first time ever when falling heavily to New Zealand two weeks ago. 

Los Pumas will take great confidence from beating Australia last time out at home, though, and are now seeking successive wins on their own patch for the first time since 2012.

South Africa may not be in full flow, but they have won 28 of their 32 Tests against Argentina, including the past four in a row. In fact, only against Italy (93 per cent) do they have a better win percentage than they do against Los Pumas (88 per cent) among teams they have faced at least 10 times.

The Springboks did manage to build a little momentum with their win over Australia two weeks ago, yet that was one of only three victories in their past eight games in the championship after winning six of the previous eight.


Matias Moroni has put in some strong displays to keep Argentina in the hunt for the title, his five dominant tackles more than any other player in the competition. The centre has also won five turnovers, a tally only Malcolm Marx (six) – who he will face off against this weekend – can better.

South Africa are the lowest points scorers after four rounds of matches. Willie le Roux could hold the key to finding a way through Argentina this weekend as he leads the way for try assists this tournament with three, while also providing six assists in his past six meetings with Argentina.

Todd Boehly's suggestion for the creation of a Premier League 'All-Star' game attracted plenty of ridicule, but he certainly can't be accused of a lack of vision or creativity.

The new Chelsea co-owner – and chairman and interim sporting director – was speaking at a conference on Tuesday when he proposed the Premier League 'Americanised' (or should that be 'Americanized'?) itself a bit.

A relegation play-off tournament between the bottom four teams was one idea; but the other, which attracted most of the headlines, was for a North v South 'All-Star' game, pointing out Major League Baseball (MLB) in his native United States made $200million from such an event this year.

A potential Premier League 'All-Stars' game was the talk of football media on Tuesday, so at Stats Perform we decided to have a look at who might line up for the North and South.

It was decided the north-south cut-off point would see Nottingham Forest qualify for the North, ensuring each All-Stars team had 10 clubs to select from.

First up, we have unrestricted squads, so essentially the very best teams possible; then, we have squads that are limited to three players from each club and every single Premier League must have at least a single player selected. So, without any further ado, let's see who made the cut…

NORTH ALL-STARS (unrestricted)

4-3-3: Ederson (Manchester City); Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Ruben Dias (Manchester City), Andrew Robertson (Liverpool); Rodri (Manchester City), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Phil Foden (Manchester City); Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Erling Haaland (Manchester City), Luis Diaz (Liverpool).

SUBS: Alisson (Liverpool), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Raphael Varane (Manchester United), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Fabinho (Liverpool), Casemiro (Manchester United), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United).

You knew the starting XI was going to look like that even before reading, didn't you? Manchester City and Liverpool obviously dominated the first team here, but it feels difficult to argue with almost any selection here.

The goalkeeper choice was probably the toughest, but only because Ederson and Alisson are both so strong and simultaneously significantly better than any other eligible shot stoppers in terms of their all-round game – Ederson ultimately got the nod owing to 13 more clean sheets over the past three-and-a-bit years, but either could've got the gig.

Similarly in defence, many of the North's options pick themselves. The centre-backs, Van Dijk and Dias, have each won the Premier League Player of the Season award in the past four years, while Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have at least 12 most assists than any other defender since the start of the 2019-20 season.

While the defence had a distinctively Liverpool look to it, City dominate the midfield because… well, they tend to dominate the midfield. Rodri provides the control and defensive protection, while Foden and De Bruyne can wreak havoc going forward and towards the flanks.

Salah and Haaland were obvious picks in attack. The Egyptian has been involved in 96 goals (66 scored, 30 assisted) since the start of the 2019-20 season, more than anyone else, while Haaland is arguably the most in-form striker in world football, having already netted 12 times in seven games for City.

Luis Diaz was perhaps the most uncertain one, but he's quickly become a key figure at Liverpool. His ability to cut inside or head for the byline makes him an unpredictable asset, and he's something of a double threat in terms of goals and creativity.

Cristiano Ronaldo's appearance on the bench owes much to his solid goal-scoring form last season.

SOUTHERN ALL-STARS (unrestricted)

4-2-3-1: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham); Reece James (Chelsea), Cristian Romero (Tottenham), Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea), Oleksandr Zinchenko (Arsenal); Declan Rice (West Ham), N'Golo Kante (Chelsea); Raheem Sterling (Chelsea), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Son Heung-min (Tottenham); Gabriel Jesus (Arsenal).

SUBS: Edouard Mendy (Chelsea), Thiago Silva (Chelsea), Marc Cucurella (Chelsea), Jorginho (Chelsea), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Martin Odegaard (Arsenal), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace), Ivan Toney (Brentford).

This team has it all. A World Cup-winning goalkeeper, a defence with an ideal blend of youth and experience, a combative midfield and four world-class attackers.

Lloris gets the nod in net. He's been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the league since his arrival from Lyon 10 years ago, and based on Opta's expected goals on target (xGOT) conceded metric, Lloris has prevented 3.8 goals since the start of the 2020-21 season, significantly better than his South All-Stars back-up, Chelsea's Edouard Mendy (-3.8).

Chelsea star James is the right-back, with his 16 goal contributions (six goals, 10 assists) since the start of last season topping the charts for a defender. Koulibaly and Romero are a formidable centre-back pairing, while Zinchenko has four Premier League titles to his name from his time at Manchester City.

James and Zinchenko are brilliant attacking full-backs, but the defence will need screening, and that is where Kante and Rice come into their own. Both super ball-winners, Kante's relentless energy will be complemented by Rice's ability on the ball, as he has demonstrated at West Ham.

That midfield protection will be needed, with a four-pronged attack ready to lay waste to the North's defence.

Sterling might not have made a flying start at Chelsea but is the best pick on the right wing, with Son – who shared the league's golden boot award last season – on the opposite wing. Kane will play a slightly deeper role, behind Jesus, who has had more touches in the opposition box (66), attempted more dribbles (34), more dribbles in the box (8) and won more fouls (21) than any other player in the Premier League this season.


4-2-3-1: Jordan Pickford (Jordan Pickford); Kieran Trippier (Newcastle United), Vigil van Dijk (Liverpool), Ruben Dias (Manchester City), Andrew Robertson (Liverpool); Bruno Guimaraes (Newcastle United), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City); Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Pedro Neto (Wolves); Erling Haaland (Manchester City).

SUBS: Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa), Diego Carlos (Aston Villa), Lisandro Martinez (Manchester United), Renan Lodi (Nottingham Forest), James Maddison (Leicester City), Youri Tielemans (Leicester City), Jack Harrison (Leeds United), Antony Gordon (Everton), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United).

Our self-imposed restrictions of no more than three players from a given team gives the North All-Stars a distinctly different feel – nevertheless, Van Dijk, Dias, Robertson, De Bruyne, Salah and Haaland retain their places, for obvious reasons.

Probably the biggest casualty is Alexander-Arnold, but the North benefits from having another excellent forward-thinking option at right-back in Trippier, while Jordan Pickford starts between the posts – David de Gea was another option here, but the England international is better with his feet.

Bruno Guimaraes comes into the midfield, offering a valuable combination of bite and craft, while Fernandes will take up the number 10 position with De Bruyne dropping a little deeper – this shouldn't stifle the team's creativity too much given the Belgian is the only player with more chances created (239) than Fernandes (224) since the latter's Premier League debut.

The other new face in attack is Pedro Neto. Perhaps a wildcard choice, but the Portugal international is an exciting winger with lots of pace and trickery. While Salah will cut in off the opposite flank, Neto looks to get crosses into the box, and that could be an effective route to goal knowing the predatory instincts Haaland has.

Again, Ronaldo is held back in reserve.


4-3-3: Robert Sanchez (Brighton and Hove Albion); Reece James (Chelsea), Cristian Romero (Tottenham), Joachim Andersen (Crystal Palace), Oleksandr Zinchenko (Arsenal); James Ward-Prowse (Southampton), Declan Rice (West Ham), Mason Mount (Chelsea); Raheem Sterling (Chelsea), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Son Heung-min (Tottenham).

SUBS: Neto (Bournemouth), Ben Mee (Brentford), Tariq Lamptey (Brighton and Hove Albion), Joao Palhinha (Fulham), Lucas Paqueta (West Ham), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace), Gabriel Jesus (Arsenal), Ivan Toney (Brentford).

Robert Sanchez has been a standout performer for Brighton under the now Chelsea boss Graham Potter, and he replaces Lloris now the restrictions have come into play. He has kept 24 league clean sheets since making his debut in November 2020, which trails only four other goalkeepers.

James, Romero and Zinchenko all keep their places in defence, though Koulibaly does not. He makes way for Joachim Andersen, who has been excellent since signing for Crystal Palace in 2021.

We have switched to a midfield three for this side, with Rice staying in the team but playing a deeper, anchoring role. Alongside him are two new faces in the form of England team-mates Ward-Prowse and Mount. Both provide energy and creativity in abundance.

Ward-Prowse's set-piece quality – no midfielder has scored more goals or created more chances from set plays since the start of last season as the Southampton captain – is a huge threat, while Mount has contributed to 21 league goals since the beginning of 2021-22.

Jesus is the unlucky striker to drop out of the starting XI, though he is on the bench, with Sterling, Kane and Son leading the line.

It is fair to say La Masia is one of the more famous football production lines.

Barcelona have built legendary teams using many of the graduates to have come through their academy.

While the club may have gone for more of a transfer-based approach in recent years, there remains a romance about the idea of La Masia churning out more stars of the future.

With the announcement on Wednesday that the latest product, Gavi, has signed a new deal until 2026 after becoming a vital cog in Xavi's first team despite only turning 18 in August, Stats Perform has taken a look at other teen sensations who broke through over the years; those who flourished, and those who did not.

From promise to stardom

Lionel Messi

Let's start with the most obvious one. Great things were always expected of Messi, but surely no-one could have predicted quite the impact the little guy with the long hair would have when he made his Barca debut.

On October 16, 2004, Messi came off the bench against Espanyol as an 82nd-minute sub for Deco. After that, he took over the world.

The Argentina international went on to make 778 appearances for Barca, scoring 672 goals, and winning seven Ballon d'Or awards.

Messi and Barca fans were in tears when he left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, showing exactly how much his impact had meant to the club.


The Barca head coach has made a promising start in the dugout since arriving last season, but he had already more than established his place as a legend in the club's history as a player.

He made his LaLiga debut in 1998 under Louis van Gaal, before becoming an integral part of several Barca sides over the next 17 years.

Xavi was a midfield maestro, and in his 779 matches, he scored 87 goals and lifted eight LaLiga titles, three Copa del Rey trophies and four Champions League titles.

It feels appropriate that in the same way he dictated play on the pitch, he is now engineering a new Barca side to play his way and making the fans believe in the team's identity and direction once more.

Andres Iniesta

You cannot mention Xavi without also mentioning his partner in crime.

Iniesta was the yin to Xavi's yang during the club's most prosperous era, also playing a significant part in winning a copious amount of trophies under the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.

While Iniesta's most famous contribution to football will always be his winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, the fact that the club is still truly looking to find an adequate replacement for his role four years after he left says it all.

Overall, he made 679 appearances, scoring 57 goals, before moving to Vissel Kobe in Japan in 2018.

From promise to... Stoke, Ipswich and Brighton

Bojan Krkic

It is difficult to follow in any successful footsteps, but imagine being the next big thing after Messi.

The hype felt justified for Bojan though, after the diminutive striker broke all kinds of records at youth level, scoring 423 goals overall before he even reached the first team.

Being a central striker and goal poacher did not really tally with the Barca way at the time, though, and even though he did manage 41 goals in 164 games for the first team, he was ultimately sold to Roma in 2011.

Bojan struggled to establish himself anywhere, even at Stoke City in the Premier League after arriving in 2014, while at Montreal Impact, he made none, and he currently finds himself playing alongside Iniesta at Vissel Kobe at the age of 32.

Giovani dos Santos

Speaking of the next big thing, when Giovani came through, his comparison was to the great Ronaldinho. Again, no pressure.

Similarly to Bojan, it never really felt like the Mexico international suited Barca, a wrong place wrong time situation, but he still made 41 appearances, scoring eight goals.

He joined Tottenham in 2008, but despite some brief flourishes at White Hart Lane, also struggled to establish himself, even moving on loan to Ipswich Town in 2009.

After some time back in LaLiga with Mallorca and Villarreal, Giovani moved to MLS with Los Angeles Galaxy, then after two years at Club America in his native country, has been without a club since 2021.

Gai Assulin

One of the original 'the [insert nationality here] Messi' prospects, Israeli youngster Assulin looked every bit a Barca player in the making.

As with the duo above, it most certainly did not work out that way. Across three seasons, Assulin played just twice for the first team, without scoring, before being moved on to Manchester City, where he also struggled for game time.

A loan move to Brighton and Hove Albion did not convince City to give him a chance, and since then he has hopped to a number of clubs, including Racing Santander, Hapoel Tel Aviv, and even Italian fourth division side Crema, whom he left in 2021.

The player who Thiago Alcantara apparently once described as "the most talented player I've ever seen in La Masia" was last seen playing five-a-side in Stockport as he prepared to find his next club.

Pep Guardiola does not like predicting the future.

Before a ball had been kicked this season, Manchester City's manager refused to solidify his team and Liverpool as favourites to push for the Premier League title again.

Based on Liverpool's underwhelming start to the campaign, perhaps Guardiola was right to hold off, and the City boss kept to the same tactic on Tuesday when asked if Erling Haaland – who has scored 12 goals in eight games in all competitions this season – could be the difference when it comes to the Citizens finally ending their wait for Champions League glory.

"I'm not able to know it," Guardiola said bluntly ahead of City's meeting with Haaland's former club Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday. "The team is playing well, so is he. But right now I don't know."

Where his manager had remained on the fence, Ilkay Gundogan – another former Dortmund star – was a little more forthcoming.

"We hope for it," City's captain told reporters when asked the same question. "Obviously having a proper number nine, proper striker, physically strong, determined is going to help us a lot, but we will see.

"Winning the Champions League is something incredible to achieve, a very tough competition; it's never easy and little details can decide the outcome. We'll try as hard as we can to go as far as possible."

Haaland's start to life in the Premier League has been nothing short of outrageous. He has netted 10 goals in six appearances, the joint-fastest player in the history of the competition to reach that tally, alongside Micky Quinn back in 1992. 

The 22-year-old wasted little time in transferring his domestic form to the European stage, too, scoring a double in City's 4-0 victory over Sevilla last week, and it is in the Champions League, not the Premier League, where City really need him to make the difference.

Only 36 players in Champions League history have scored more goals in the competition than Haaland, who has 25 from his 20 appearances in UEFA's flagship club tournament.

He is the first City player to score on both his Premier League and Champions League debuts for the club and the fourth player in the competition's history to score in his first appearance for three different teams (Salzburg, Dortmund and City), after Fernando Morientes, Javier Saviola and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Haaland's tally is the most by any player from their first 20 Champions League games, and should he score against Dortmund, he will be the second player to net in the competition both for and against the Bundesliga giants, after Ciro Immobile.

It was this kind of form that attracted City, who missed out on signing Harry Kane in 2021. 

With Sergio Aguero's availability becoming more limited as his time at City drew to a close, Guardiola enjoyed success without having to rely on a traditional striker. 

Although he enthused about Gabriel Jesus, who has made a blistering start at Arsenal, the Brazil international was often used out wide in the previous two campaigns, with Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling (now at Chelsea) and even Jack Grealish all filling in, at times, as a 'false nine' in Guardiola's fluid attack.

City won the league last season and the one before that. Indeed, four of the last five English titles have gone the way of Guardiola's side, and with or without Haaland, you'd have been brave to bet against them retaining the trophy this season.

Yet they have repeatedly fallen short in Europe. Having lost 1-0 to Chelsea – a team also utilising a false nine system – in the 2020-21 final, City last season had a plethora of chances to put their semi-final tie with Real Madrid to bed, only to lose after a remarkable comeback from Los Blancos in the second leg.

In Haaland, they have a player who should right those wrongs.

With De Bruyne, Silva, Foden and Co. providing the opportunities, Haaland was always bound to score, but his finishing has already exceeded expectations.

His 12 goals have come from shots with a cumulative expected goals (xG) value of 9.4. Essentially, he has scored close to three more goals than he would have been expected to, given the quality of chances he has been presented with.

Not that those opportunities have been particularly difficult ones, of course.

All of Haaland's 12 goals have come from 'big chances' – defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score. 

No other player in Europe's top five leagues has had as many 'big chances' as Haaland, who has had 20 come his way including the Community Shield match against Liverpool in July. Neymar, who is flying high at Paris Saint-Germain, ranks second with 14. More evidence, perhaps, that he is the final piece of the puzzle in this incredibly creative City side. The player to see them over the line when push comes to shove.

City's top scorer in Europe last season was Gabriel Jesus, with four goals from six appearances. Haaland managed three in three, with injury limiting his minutes. Since he made his Champions League debut, for Salzburg in September 2019, only Robert Lewandowski (33) and Karim Benzema (26) have scored more goals in the competition. Both of those players have won the trophy in that time.

Guardiola might rightly refuse to predict the future, but one thing is for certain – with Haaland, City's chances of finally ending their wait for European glory look better than ever.

That is just what they bought him for.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So that proved in Tuesday's Champions League clash at the Allianz Arena, a match billed as Robert Lewandowski's reunion with Bayern Munich, the club he left for Barcelona in a €50million deal just two months ago.

Yet in the end, the Poland international failed to make the impact many had predicted on his return to Bavaria, on a night of disappointment for Barca against opponents they must simply hate the sight of.

Two goals in the space of four minutes early in the second half from Lucas Hernandez and Leroy Sane proved the difference between the sides as Bayern made it five wins in a row against the Catalans by an aggregate 19-4 scoreline.

Going further back, this was Barca's ninth Champions League loss to Bayern, which is now more than twice as many as they have suffered against any other opponent in the competition (four v Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea).

Julian Nagelsmann had called on his Bayern side to "put on a show" amid growing doubts over his own future on the back of three successive league draws, Bayern's longest wait for victory in the Bundesliga in four years.

For 45 enthralling minutes, the hosts were second best and rather grateful that their former hero Lewandowski had stage fright on his first trip back to this ground.

The prolific striker had five shots alone in the first half, which was one more than the entire Bayern side, equating to an expected goals (xG) return of 0.5 compared to 0.3 for the hosts.

Lewandowski would have expected to capitalise during his time at Bayern – he scored 344 times in 375 appearances for the German giants – but this proved to be a rare off-day.

He also failed to get his head on Joshua Kimmich's delightful corner that was instead met by Hernandez for the opening goal of the contest. At that point, Barca had conceded 16 goals from the past 30 shots on target faced against Bayern in the Champions League.

That soon became 17 goals from 31 shots on target thanks to Sane's goal after the winger was played in by the ever-improving Jamal Musiala, who himself would not look out of place in the Barca side Xavi is desperately attempting to mould.

Going down 2-0 to Bayern is far from irreparably damaging from Xavi's perspective, even if it does end an unbeaten start to the season spanning six matches. If ever there was a game to truly gauge how far his side have come this season, this was very much it.

It was only a little over nine months ago that Xavi described a 3-0 loss in this fixture as "a harsh reality" for his side. Just weeks into the job, the club legend acknowledged Europa League-bound Barca could not consider themselves among Europe's elite clubs at that point.

The performance produced by Barcelona in the first half on Tuesday offered plenty of promise. They may not be back at their very best just yet, but the signs of improvement on the back of a busy transfer window are clear to see.

And while this game did not quite follow the script from Lewandowski's perspective, the former fan favourite – who finished the match with seven attempts and an xG of 0.8 – will have a second chance to inflict some pain on his old side when they face off again at Camp Nou next month.

Yet on the basis of this latest tussle between the heavyweight clubs, it seems no matter what ploy Barca take – even if that means nabbing their opponents' best player – the outcome will remain the same. Now that is a harsh lesson.

There was no shortage of thrills and spills on matchday one of the Champions League, and Wednesday's action promises more of the same as one of the world's most in-form strikers faces his former club.

Erling Haaland has made a spectacular start to his Manchester City career, hitting 12 goals in all competitions since his move from Borussia Dortmund, but how will he fare when his old team visit the Etihad Stadium? 

Elsewhere, Graham Potter will hope to have an immediate impact in his first game as Chelsea's head coach as they bid to bounce back from last week's 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb.

Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, meanwhile, are among the favourites to be crowned European champions, and will both be hopeful of making it two wins from two outings.

Ahead of another intriguing set of European ties, Stats Perform trawls through the Opta data to highlight the most noteworthy facts for each game.

Manchester City v Borussia Dortmund

City striker Haaland netted 15 times in 13 Champions League appearances for Dortmund, and few would bet against the Norwegian haunting his former team on Wednesday.

Haaland helped himself to a brace at Sevilla last time out, bringing him to 25 Champions League goals in just 20 appearances – the highest tally managed by any player in their first 20 games in Europe's premier club competition. 

The visit of BVB will represent a landmark outing for City boss Pep Guardiola, taking him to 150 Champions League games. Only five other coaches have reached that tally, while only two have earned more victories than Guardiola's 94 – Alex Ferguson (102) and Carlo Ancelotti (99).

The omens are certainly good for the Premier League champions, who are unbeaten in their last 20 Champions League home games, winning 18 and drawing two. That represents the longest such sequence by an English side since Chelsea's run of 21 without defeat between September 2006 and December 2009.

Dortmund, meanwhile, have not won at an English side in the competition since beating Arsenal 2-1 in October 2013.

Chelsea v Salzburg

Defeat to Dinamo Zagreb spelled the end of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea reign last week, and Potter is the man entrusted to ensure they avoid back-to-back continental defeats when Salzburg visit.

Chelsea have never previously lost their opening two games of a Champions League campaign, and last lost consecutive games in the competition in 2019-20, when they were beaten by Bayern Munich in both legs of a last-16 tie.

This will be the first meeting between Chelsea and Salzburg, with the Blues only losing one of their previous four European ties against Austrian teams (W1 D2). Salzburg, meanwhile, have never beaten an English side in European competition in six attempts (D1 L5).

But the Blues will have to be wary of Matthias Jaissle's young guns at Stamford Bridge, and may need to keep a particularly close eye on Noah Okafor. 

The 22-year-old has four goals in his last five Champions League outings for Salzburg – only Haaland (eight) has ever scored more for the club in the competition.

Real Madrid v RB Leipzig

Holders Madrid are looking to secure consecutive wins when they host RB Leipzig at the Santiago Bernabeu, and are unbeaten in their last 11 Champions League games against German opponents, scoring at least two goals in all of those matches (27 in total).

Leipzig, however, are unbeaten in their three European clashes with Spanish sides (W2 D1) and will be looking for a result comparable to their 2-1 quarter-final win over Atletico Madrid in 2019-20.

Los Blancos possess a remarkable amount of experience at the highest level; should Luka Modric feature, he will become the first 37-year-old outfield player to play a European Cup/Champions League game for Madrid since Ferenc Puskas in November 1965 against Kilmarnock.

Coach Ancelotti, meanwhile, is on the brink of his 100th win in the Champions League, and could become just the second boss to bring up such a century in the competition (after Alex Ferguson with 102).

Maccabi Haifa v Paris Saint-Germain

Kylian Mbappe scored a terrific brace to get PSG's European campaign off to a flying start against Juventus, and a trip to Maccabi Haifa gives him the opportunity to make club history.

The striker has scored 29 goals in 45 Champions League outings with PSG, scoring against 14 of the 17 opponents he's faced with the French champions. One more goal will see him level Edinson Cavani's record of 30 goals in the competition for the Ligue 1 side.

He could be aided by the in-form Neymar, who has provided eight assists for Mbappe in the Champions League, more than any player has assisted another in the competition since the start of 2017-18.

The final member of their revered forward trio, Lionel Messi, also has his eyes on making history.

Messi has scored against 38 different teams in the Champions League, the same amount as his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo, and will be keen to claim the record outright when he faces Maccabi for the first time on Wednesday.

Other fixtures:

Rangers v Napoli

1 – Wednesday's rearranged match will be the first competitive meeting between Rangers and Napoli. The Serie A side have only faced a Scottish team in European competition once before, exiting to Hibernian in the Fairs Cup in November 1967.

3 – Piotr Zielinski was directly involved in three of Napoli's four goals as they thrashed Liverpool last week (two goals, one assist). This is already his best campaign for goal contributions in the competition since joining Napoli.  

Milan vs Dinamo Zagreb

6 - Milan have failed to win any of their last six home games in the Champions League (D3 L3), their longest run without a home victory in the competition.

31.8 – Dinamo Zagreb had just 31.8 per cent possession against Chelsea on matchday one, the lowest of any team who managed to avoid defeat in their opening game.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Celtic

3 – Shakhtar's Mykhailo Mudryk was one of three players to be directly involved in three goals on matchday one (one goal, two assists), along with Robert Lewandowski and Zielinski.

1/13 - Celtic goalkeeper Joe Hart has only kept one clean sheet in his last 13 away Champions League games, with his last coming at Roma in December 2014 (for Manchester City).

Copenhagen v Sevilla

8 - Spanish sides are unbeaten in all eight of their Champions League games against Danish clubs (W6 D2) – only against sides from the Czech Republic (13) have Spanish teams appeared more often without defeat.

3/4 - Sevilla have lost three of their last four Champions League group-stage games (W1), as many as they lost in their previous 22 such matches (W10 D9).

Juventus v Benfica

2 - Juventus have lost their last two Champions League games. Only once in the history of the European Cup/Champions League have they lost three in a row, doing so between May 1968 and September 1972.

4 – Benfica's Alejandro Grimaldo has been involved in four goals in his last four Champions League games (one goal, three assists), more than he was in his first 27 games in the competition (two goals, one assist).

It is not a reunion that any Bayern Munich fan will be relishing when Robert Lewandowski returns to the Allianz Arena on Tuesday.

Just a few months ago they were cheering goal after goal the Poland striker was scoring for their team, something he had done with tremendous consistency ever since arriving from Borussia Dortmund.

Then came the news none of them will have wanted to hear, that Lewandowski wanted a new challenge.

After a surprising amount of unpleasantness between player and club during the transfer window, the 34-year-old got his wish and made the move to Barcelona for a reported fee of €50million.

With a sense of inevitability as the balls were opened by former Barca midfielder Yaya Toure during the draw for the group stage of the Champions League, who should Bayern be joined by in Group C along with Inter and Viktoria Plzen? Of course, Barcelona.

Ahead of Lewandowski lining up on the opposing side in Munich, Stats Perform has taken a look at what he achieved at Bayern, and how both parties have adapted in the early stages of the new campaign.

The man they called "Lewan-goal-ski" (well, Thomas Muller did)

Of course, Bayern could not feel too bad about having their main goalscorer taken from them, considering that is exactly what they did to chief Bundesliga rivals Dortmund when they signed Lewandowski on a free transfer in 2014.

Inevitably, it turned out to be a key move as BVB fell away after struggling to replace him, while Lewandowski went on to score an exceptional number of goals at his new home.

Overall, he scored 344 goals and recorded 57 assists in 375 appearances for Bayern, and in the 2020-21 campaign, he broke Gerd Muller's long-standing Bundesliga record by scoring 41 times in a single season, while his 43 league goals in 2021 serve as the record for a calendar year in Germany's top tier.

Last season, Lewandowski scored 50 goals across all competitions, the most across Europe's top five leagues, as Bayern lifted their 10th Bundesliga title in a row.

In all, he won eight league titles, three DFB-Pokal's, as well as a Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

After that, it was 'Lewan-gone-ski', as team-mate Thomas Muller may well have called him after his departure, before holding far too long for applause.

What is 11 minus a nine?

With arguably the best number nine in the game gone, Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann wanted to evolve his team, making them less reliant on one figure for so many goals and spreading the responsibility.

Sadio Mane joined from Liverpool as the de facto replacement, and before the DFL-Super Cup win against RB Leipzig, Nagelsmann admitted: "When we agreed to Barcelona's offer [for Lewandowski], it was planned that we might not sign anyone else for this position."

The theory was that the likes of Mane, Leroy Sane, Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry, fresh from signing a new contract, could increase their output in front of goal, while the ever reliable Muller and the increasingly promising Jamal Musiala would also be potent sources.

Things certainly started well enough with a 5-3 win against Leipzig, followed by a 6-1 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt in their opening Bundesliga game.

After a 2-0 victory at home to Wolfsburg, Bayern put seven past Bochum and talk of a lack of goals could not have been further from anyone's lips.

However, three draws in a row in the league against Borussia Monchengladbach, Union Berlin and Stuttgart have followed, which has seen Union emerge as the surprise Bundesliga leaders after six games.

In those games, Bayern have scored a total of 19 goals, with 10 different scorers, registering 12 points in the Bundesliga.

By comparison, in their first six league games last season when Lewandowski was still front and centre for them, they scored 23 goals, though with only seven different scorers, and the Pole providing seven goals of his own, and had 16 points after five wins and just one draw.

In their opening Champions League game, though, Nagelsmann's men put in a terrific performance as they beat Inter 2-0 at San Siro, with their second goal in particular showcasing the sort of passing and moving around the box that feels more possible when you don't have an orthodox number nine as the obvious target.

Lewandowski picks up in Spain where he left off in Germany

Though it took a bit of, shall we say, moving things around so Barcelona could register their new star striker, along with a number of other signings in the transfer window, there has been very little adaptation needed for Lewandowski in LaLiga.

He has already scored six goals in his first five league games, making him the fastest player to reach that figure in the competition in the 21st century.

The forward also has two assists, which makes him the joint-fastest to have been involved in eight goals in the 21st century, alongside former Barca players Rafael van der Vaart in 2008 and Cesc Fabregas in 2011.

Lewandowski also added three more goals to his impressive total in the Champions League with a hat-trick in Barca's 5-1 win against Viktoria Plzen at Camp Nou last week.

That made him outright third in the competition's all-time leading scorers with 89 goals in 107 appearances, behind only Lionel Messi (125 goals in 157 games) and Cristiano Ronaldo (140 goals in 183 games).

Of course, Lewandowski has recent history of this fixture, playing for Bayern as they beat Barca 3-0 home and away in last season's Champions League group stage, scoring twice in the first game in Spain.

It played a big part in the Catalan giants being dumped out of the competition at that stage for the first time in over 20 years, but with Lewandowski on board, Xavi's side will be hoping he can fire them to the round of 16 and beyond, just as he did so regularly for Bayern.

Lewandowski has already started to do so with his treble against Plzen, but will he be able to make an impact again when he faces his former club, or will Bayern be able to prove they have started to move on without him?

The 2020 NFL Draft class was largely defined by the quality and the depth of the wide receivers available, and the two crown jewels of this point have been Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb. Both headed into this season as the obvious focal points of offenses hoping to provide the platform for postseason runs for two teams that were both reduced to the role of spectators by the Divisional Round last term.

However, just one week into the 2022 campaign, Jefferson and Lamb appear destined for vastly different seasons.

'It was only Week 1' serves as one of the most important caveats in the NFL. Poor results in the opening week of the season are often of no consequence to a team's fortunes come the end of the regular season.

Yet, between the performance of the Minnesota Vikings in their win over the Green Bay Packers, and the Dallas Cowboys' debacle in a primetime defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it is tough to think of two displays from the opening week that revealed more about the respective directions of the teams in question.

Jefferson and Lamb are primed to play critical roles in what could be two of the headline stories from the 2022 season, but they are set to be tales of significant contrast.

Jefferson and O'Connell's perfect marriage

Aaron Rodgers labelled Jefferson "the best player in the game today" after his masterclass in the Vikings' 23-7 victory over the Packers.

It's unclear whether Rodgers was referring to their Week 1 encounter or declaring the wideout the top player in the NFL.

Yet Jefferson may have a compelling case for the latter should he continue to perform at the level he produced on Sunday.

Weaponised by an excellent gameplan from new head coach Kevin O'Connell, Jefferson recorded nine receptions for a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns.

Jefferson now has 205 receptions in 34 career games, becoming the fourth-fastest player to 200 receptions. He tied Anquan Boldin and Reggie Bush (34) and is behind only Jarvis Landry (33), Michael Thomas (32) and Odell Beckham Jr. (30) on that list.

It was his fifth career game with at least 150 receiving yards and a touchdown reception, putting him tied with Randy Moss and Victor Cruz for the second-most such games by a player in his first three NFL seasons. Only Lance Allworth (six) has more.

Betting against Jefferson catching Allworth would seem a foolish move on the evidence of Week 1. His burn rate, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, of 63.6 per cent was far from the best of the opening week, yet no player did more when they did beat coverage.

Indeed, Jefferson's burn yards per target average of 16.73 was the fourth-best among receivers with at least five targets, illustrating the remarkable amount of separation he was able to create against Green Bay. None of the players above him (Julio Jones, Gabe Davis and Nelson Agholor) reached three figures in receiving yards.

Jahan Dotson (64.7) and Ashton Dulin (60) were the only receivers to end Sunday with a higher big-play rate - a measure of burns of over 20 yards and burns for a touchdown - than Jefferson's 55.5 per cent. The difference being that Jefferson hugely impressive performance in that metric came across 11 targets, while Dotson and Dulin received 11 targets combined.

Jefferson's showing was the product of a marriage between a player who has quickly catapulted himself to the gold standard at his position and a play-caller who knows exactly how to use him.

Once mistakenly seen as purely a slot receiver, Jefferson was deployed all over the field by O'Connell. Jefferson lined up in the backfield, in the slot, on the outside and was sent in motion, his array of different alignments keeping him away from the Packers' best cornerback Jaire Alexander and allowing the former LSU star to wreak havoc.

The versatile skill set of a true do-it-all receiver was harnessed to perfection and, in a week dominated by overreactions, it would not be a stretch to suggest the Vikings could be a force in the postseason and Jefferson an MVP candidate like Cooper Kupp a year ago if O'Connell and Minnesota continue in this vein.

Hours after Jefferson's talents were maximised, Lamb saw his considerable skills wasted on a depressing night for Dallas.

Cowboys predictably poor

With the Cowboys having shorn themselves of wide receivers behind Lamb, at least until Michael Gallup returns from injury, there was always a danger they would become predictable in the passing game and, through no fault of their star wideout, Dallas' offense was unsurprisingly turgid in a 19-3 loss to the Buccaneers.

A Dallas offense deprived of the services of left tackle Tyron Smith struggled to contain the Tampa Bay defensive front, with Prescott's snap to release time of 2.50 seconds -- slightly quicker than the average of 2.55 for Week 1 -- more a result of the pressure he was under rather than efficient processing from one of the game's most intelligent quarterbacks.

Dallas averaged just 3.8 yards per play, with their lack of efficiency not reflective of Lamb's individual efforts.

Like Jefferson, Lamb was targeted 11 times, but he finished with just two catches for 29 yards.

His burn rate of 63.6 was also identical to that of his fellow 2020 draftee and, though Lamb did not generate the same level of separation, his average of 12 burn yards per target was a over a yard above the Week 1 average of 10.75.

But Lamb's reasonable success in getting open was rendered completely immaterial as Prescott struggled behind a line ill-prepared for the challenge in front of them.

Prescott finished with 7.36 air yards per attempt, below the average of 7.75 for the week. Throwing short is not always an indicator of a poor performance -- Josh Allen averaged 7.26 air yards in Thursday's opener -- however, 96.8 per cent of Allen's passes well thrown compared to 78.6 for Prescott, who threw three pickable passes on 28 attempts compared to one on 31 throws for Allen.

Hurried and inaccurate, Prescott was never allowed to be the quarterback he is when at his best, one capable of forming a devastating connection with Lamb, who amassed 2,037 receiving yards over his first two seasons in the NFL.

And, when Prescott was then forced to leave the game with a thumb injury that will keep him out for six to eight weeks, Lamb's hopes of joining Jefferson in the NFL's elite at receiver this season went with him.

The Cowboys will now turn to backup Cooper Rush and most will expect Dallas' playoff hopes to quickly dwindle. Given the downgrade at quarterback, Lamb seems likely to consistently cut a bereft figure in what many thought would be a breakout campaign for the Cowboys' WR1.

These two marquee matchups helped produce a story of two disparate teams. One in Minnesota, underrated and blessed with a coach schooled in the league's pre-eminent offense who can put Jefferson in position to further his status as one of the most dangerous weapons in the game. The other, the Cowboys, overhyped and short of the talent or the diversity of thought to get the ball to their extremely gifted wideout.

Week 1 provided plenty of hope 2022 can be the year the Vikings earn the on-field success to match Jefferson's consistent brilliance, but it appears destined to be a season of frustration for Lamb and a thoroughly uninspiring Cowboys team.

Victory at Flushing Meadows on Sunday night saw Carlos Alcaraz anointed both the US Open champion and the new world number one.

The victor of the New York final between Alcaraz and Casper Ruud would climb to the top of the ATP rankings, and a four-set success for the 19-year-old made him the youngest ever men's number one.

That record had previously belonged to a 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt in November 2000.

Although Alcaraz's huge potential has long been public knowledge, the chances of him beating Hewitt's mark still seemed remote when he started 2022 ranked 32nd.

Even Juan Carlos Ferrero, the Spaniard's coach, did not anticipate a major breakthrough this soon, telling reporters after Sunday's win: "Of course, it comes very fast.

"It's a surprise for everybody except maybe to me, because I trained with him every day and I know [how] he's able to play on the court, [but] I was pretty sure that maybe it wasn't this year; it could be the next one."

By the time he took to Arthur Ashe Stadium against Ruud, however, Alcaraz's ascent to the top of the sport was a surprise to nobody.

Moving from number four to first place might have tied the biggest leap to number one in rankings history, but Alcaraz leads the ATP Tour in both match wins (51) and titles (five) in 2022.

There is little prospect of him slowing now, having become the first man in the Open Era to win the US Open title as early as in his second entry; the last to do so in any era was Pancho Gonzales back in 1948.

"Of course, I'm hungry for more," Alcaraz said afterwards. "I want to be in the top for many, many weeks. Hopefully many years.

"I'm going to work hard again after this week, this amazing two weeks. I'm going to fight to have more of this."

And Alcaraz will have to fight – Ferrero knows as much as that.

"The players now are going to play very motivated against him," the teenager's coach added. "Now he's number one. Before he was two or three.

"Even like this, it's like Real Madrid-Barcelona, there's a rivalry that gets you [to] increase your level. It's what is going to happen to him against his opponents. He has to be ready."

Since Roger Federer became the 23rd different men's number one in February 2004, the rankings have been dominated by the 'Big Three', with only Andy Murray and then, this year, Daniil Medvedev also leading the Tour in that time.

Now, as the 28th number one, Alcaraz – compared by Ruud to each of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – can set about securing his own long stay at the summit.

Remco Evenepoel rubber-stamped his Vuelta a Espana title on Sunday, safely negotiating the procession into Madrid.

The 22-year-old joins an illustrious list of names from his native Belgium to have won a Grand Tour, albeit his triumph in Spain marks the end of a long drought for the nation.

Evenepoel's success, however, came at the expense of Primoz Roglic's shot at history.

Roglic was hunting an unprecedented fourth straight Vuelta title, and looked set to overtake Evenepoel in the general classification in stage 16, only to suffer a crash 100 metres from the line.

The Slovenian was unable to carry on due to the injuries he sustained and abandoned La Vuelta for the first time in his career. Roglic has had awful luck in recent Grand Tours, having had to abandon three of the last four he has appeared in.

There were 49 withdrawals across this edition of La Vuelta, the highest number since 2013.

But of the riders that did finish, there were plenty of records and statistics to dive into, courtesy of Opta data.

Belgium's long wait is over

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen shrugged off the jeers and boos he received after triumphing at The son of former pro cyclist Patrick Evenepoel, a young Remco actually started his sporting career in football, with one of his old clubs – Dutch giants PSV – among those to offer their congratulations as he became Vuelta champion.

It marks Evenepoel's first Grand Tour crown, in what was his first appearance at La Vuelta. He led the race for a remarkable 16 stages, which is more than any other rider has led it for since two-time champion Chris Froome managed 19 stages in red back in 2017.

Belgium has produced some fantastic riders, not least the great Eddy Merckx, who counts one Vuelta crown among his 11 Grand Tour titles, yet shockingly Evenepoel is the nation's first GT champion since 1978, when Johan de Muynck won the Giro d'Italia.

Evenepoel is the eighth Belgian to win the Vuelta – the first since Freddy Maertens in 1977. Only Spain (32) and France (nine) have produced more Vuelta champions than Belgium (eight).

Out with the old...

Alejandro Valverde won La Vuelta in 2009, but on his farewell appearance at his home Grand Tour, the 42-year-old was never going to compete for top honours.

Instead, this was his goodbye lap, as Valverde completed his 14th Vuelta, matching the record tallies of Federico Etxabe, Chente Garcia Acosta and Inigo Cuesta.

Spain did have a GC contender to cheer on in the form of Movistar's Enric Mas, but after Roglic's crash, he was unable to close the gap on Evenepoel, finishing over two minutes back. No Spaniard has now won it since 2014, which is the longest streak in the race's history without a home champion.


Mas has finished second in three of his four Vuelta appearances, and came in ahead of Juan Ayuso, with two Spanish riders finishing in the top three for the first time since 2014, when Valverde joined champion Alberto Contador on the podium.

Ayuso, who contracted COVID-19 early in the race but carried on, is the youngest rider to achieve a podium finish at La Vuelta (19 years and 360 days). Spain's future seems in good hands.

Carapaz caps personal best, Pedersen a rising star

The red jersey was, of course, not the only one up for grabs. Richard Carapaz and Mads Pedersen both finished with three stage victories to their name.

Carapaz became the first cyclist from the Americas to win the mountain classification since Felix Cardenas of Colombia in 2004, while the INEOS Grenadier rider also marked his best effort at a Grand Tour, surpassing the two stage wins he managed at the 2019 Giro d'Italia.

Vuelta debutant Pedersen, meanwhile, became the first Dane to win the points jersey in any Grand Tour.

It has been a brilliant year for Denmark, with Jonas Vingegaard having claimed the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, and Pedersen is among their best riders. Indeed, the only Dane to have won more stages at La Vuelta than the sprinter is Magnus Cort (six), though the latter has made three appearances in the race.

New York City might not be Iga Swiatek's kind of place, but she has made an exception during this US Open fortnight.

The US Open balls, controversially lighter for the women than the men, might not be up Swiatek's street, but she made an exception for them too.

And if the match-up with Ons Jabeur in the Flushing Meadows final felt almost too close to call – most were forecasting three sets, flip a coin on the winner – well, perhaps Swiatek took exception.

Rising to the occasion of a grand slam final is what exceptional players do, making exceptions in times of need, taking exception to doubters, carrying off titles. If anyone was beginning to doubt Swiatek after her mid-summer dip, this Arthur Ashe Stadium triumph banished the thought she is anything other than exceptional.

At times her play was brilliant, and when her level dropped, as it did in the second set, she was gritty. In the end, she was not as clutch as she might have liked, unable to take a match point at 6-5 on Jabeur's serve and pushed into a tie-break, but a 6-2 7-6 (7-5) victory goes into the record books.

In the end, that's all that counts. Habitual winners find a way, down one path or another.

The second set was a curious confection, both players losing their fluency but fighting hard for every point, tenacity overriding talent at times as the high stakes involved often brought the level down.

Swiatek appeared distracted by a call from the crowd at one stage, that New York bustle again getting in her head.

On the eve of the tournament, Swiatek said of New York: "I wouldn't choose it as a place to live because I'm more of a person that needs a calm place with the proper environment to rest. New York is kind of always alive. That's not for sure my place."

So, Iga, how does New York feel now?

"It's so loud, it's so crazy," she said at Saturday's trophy presentation. "There were so many temptations in the city, so many people I've met who were so inspiring. It's really mind blowing for me and I'm so proud I could handle it mentally."

The 21-year-old has a third grand slam title and a first away from the French Open, where she was champion at the pandemic-delayed slam in October 2020 and again this year.

Swiatek is a Pole on a roll when it comes to the big occasions, having won 20 consecutive sets in finals, all tournaments considered, and remarkably she is the first woman to win two or more slams in a single season since Angelique Kerber in 2016.

These two women will be numbers one and two in the new WTA rankings, and there could be a real rivalry brewing. Or there might just be a slew of these trophies coming Swiatek's way.

She is the first women to win the French Open and the US Open in the same year since Serena Williams in 2013.

If Williams does not play again, as we now expect, then Swiatek will be a very different type of figurehead for the women's game, an introvert who goes about her business quietly, but purposefully.

She becomes just the ninth woman in the Open Era to earn a third singles slam before turning 22, joining an illustrious list also featuring Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf and Chris Evert.

As Jabeur came charging back at Swiatek in the second set, recovering from 3-0 and 4-2 adrift to take it to the tie-break, thoughts turned to what a victory for the Tunisian would have meant.

A tournament that began as the Serena Williams show, a celebration of a player who alongside sister Venus opened the door for so many black players, might have ended with the triumph of an African Arab woman, one whose driving force is to see more players from her continent, and of her ethnicity, make strides in professional tennis.

Jabeur's time will probably come, but this defeat will sting, just as losing to Elena Rybakina in the title match did at Wimbledon two months ago.

"I want to thank the crowd for cheering me on. I really tried, but Iga didn't make it easy for me," Jabeur said. "She deserved to win today. I don't like her very much right now but it's okay."

She vowed to "get that title sometime soon", but with Swiatek around that might be difficult.

Swiatek is the second woman since the slams opened themselves up to professionals in 1968 to win her first six sets in grand slam singles finals. For the record, Lindsay Davenport was the first.

This final came at the end of a tournament that Swiatek entered with low expectations. Defeat to Alize Cornet at Wimbledon halted her 37-match winning run, the longest on the women's tour this century, and it was followed by a string of results that saw Swiatek go no further than the quarter-finals in her next three events.

"Maybe I'm the kind of person who is never going to trust myself," Swiatek said, heading into the final.

She is a different model of champion, perhaps not the kind they are used to or particularly get behind in New York. There is no razzmatazz, no edge: just intense focus.

Swiatek is always doubting, but always looking for ways to improve, and now, when it comes to finals, always getting the job done.

The Trey Lance discussion has been an impossible one to escape during the NFL's long offseason.

That is largely because the circumstances in which he takes his first steps as a starter are unprecedented.

Lance was selected by the 49ers with the third overall pick in last year's draft after they traded three first-round selections for the right to move into that slot.

After a rookie year largely spent watching on the sideline, he now steps in to start at the most important position for a team who were minutes away from reaching a second Super Bowl in three years last season, which ended in heart-breaking defeat to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

Young quarterbacks have taken over Super Bowl-calibre teams in years gone by. Aaron Rodgers took over from Brett Favre in 2008 after the Green Bay Packers had agonisingly lost the NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants in overtime.

But Rodgers had spent three years as Favre's backup in an era where spending an apprenticeship on the bench was de rigueur for highly drafted quarterbacks, and he had previously produced two seasons of stellar play for a Power 5 school during his college career with the Cal Bears.

Lance, by contrast, played just one full season of college ball at North Dakota State in the FCS – college football's second tier – back in 2019, losing the chance to add to his experience as the coronavirus pandemic wiped out his 2020 campaign with the Bison, save for one exhibition that essentially served as a pre-draft audition for the dual-threat signal-caller.

A quarterback of such little experience being given the keys to one of the best teams in the NFL is an objectively fascinating situation, one made even more intriguing by the Niners' decision to hang on to Jimmy Garoppolo, his predecessor, after failing to find a partner for a potential trade.

Rodgers did not have Favre looming as the backup in Green Bay. Favre retired, then came back, but was traded to the New York Jets, leaving Rodgers to plot his path to becoming one of the all-time greats.

Lance will be tasked with keeping a win-now team firmly in contention for a Super Bowl title while dealing with the possibility of the man who twice helped the 49ers to the cusp of the Lombardi Trophy stepping in should he struggle.

The flashes Lance produced in his two starts in relief of an injured Garoppolo last season were promising, but with the 49ers set to kick off their new era against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, can he immediately rise to the challenge of leading the NFL's most interesting team on a deep playoff run they hope will end with a sixth league championship? 

An ideal offensive ecosystem

In order to answer that question, it is important to look at just how strong Lance's supporting cast is.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have put together one of the most complete rosters in the NFL having taken over a team in need of a colossal rebuild in 2017.

Shanahan himself is a key reason for confidence the transition to Lance will work. No play-caller in the NFL does a better job of consistently putting his receivers in space and his quarterback in favourable situations, while his diverse running torments opposing defenses year in, year out.

The league's pre-eminent play-caller also has experience of building an offense around a dual-threat quarterback, having done so while working as offensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders under his father Mike as Robert Griffin III produced an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign.

Shanahan's play-calling acumen is a critical factor in the 49ers' ceaseless efficiency on offense. The 49ers' offense finished last season ranked first in Stats Perform's Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE) metric. EVE looks at down, distance, yards from goal, quarter, time remaining and score difference. Using those six factors, Stats Perform trained a model to predict yardage output for any game situation. From there, the projected yards are compared to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.

But San Francisco's superiority in that metric would not be possible without a star-studded cast of offensive skill-position players, which Stats Perform AI ranks as the sixth-best in the NFL coming into the year.

Between Deebo Samuel, whose ability to excel as a dual wide receiver-running back inspired the Niners' turnaround from a 3-5 team to one who came within a whisker of an eighth Super Bowl appearance, fellow wideout Brandon Aiyuk and All-Pro tight end George Kittle, Lance is not short of targets who will make his life much easier.

A run game that ranked eighth in explosive runs of 10 yards or more in 2021 with 58 – a tally Lance's presence will surely embellish – will also provide him with plenty of assistance, as will a defense that has a compelling case for being considered the league's gold standard.

Stellar defensive support

The 49ers' Divisional Round win over the Green Bay Packers last season perhaps provided the clearest evidence yet as to the value of their outstanding defense.

San Francisco shackled back-to-back MVP Rodgers, limiting Green Bay to one touchdown and field goal in an improbable 13-10 road win against the number one seed in the snow at Lambeau Field.

Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans called a masterful game as the 49ers' defensive front sacked Rodgers five times, and it is the seemingly endless supply of depth on the defensive line that makes Ryans' group arguably the league's most fearsome.

The 49ers led the league in pass rush win rate and did so while blitzing at the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL (20.4 per cent). That D-line now heads into 2022 arguably in an even stronger position. Nick Bosa, coming off a 15.5-sack season, leads an edge rusher rotation that is six players deep and includes a rookie, in second-round pick Drake Jackson, whose pressure rate of 24.2 per cent was fifth among draft prospects at his position last year. 

On the interior, the 49ers are hoping former first-round pick Javon Kinlaw, with his hulking 6ft 5in, 319-pound frame, can put it all together in his third season following knee surgery and form an imposing tandem with Arik Armstead, whose 2021 stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of 44.34 per cent was fifth among defensive tackles (min. 100 matchups).

Behind the D-line, the coverage versatility of a linebacker core headlined by the game's best in Fred Warner opens a wealth of options for Ryans, yet it may be the additions in the secondary that solidify his defense as the league's elite this season.

The 49ers are starting a fifth-round rookie at nickel corner. That is a frightening sentence on the surface, but Samuel Womack III allowed a burn rate – which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – of just 33.3 per cent in his final year with Toledo. That was tied for the best among draftable corners. He backed up those numbers with a preseason that saw him record two interceptions.

While the 49ers are hoping Womack's leap to the highest level is seamless, it is the performance of free-agent signing Charvarius 'Mooney' Ward that could determine the ceiling of this defense. Ward's burn rate of 39.8 per cent was the fourth-best among corners with at least 50 targets last year, with the former Kansas City Chief fifth in burn yards per target (7.96).

The acquisitions of Ward and Womack have significantly strengthened the cornerback room. Though there is justified concern about a lack of depth at safety, Ward's arrival may facilitate the 49ers leaning more on the man coverage in which he specialises, enabling San Francisco to blitz up front more often and perhaps even improve their pressure numbers from a year ago.

Regardless of whether the pressure statistics do get even better, it is clear Lance is entering an outstanding ecosystem for a young quarterback. The 49ers have the talent to survive the ups and downs he may experience. The unknown is whether Lance can take advantage of his environment to help this team realise their glaringly obvious potential by enhancing an already excellent offense.

Becoming the 'because of' QB

Lance is a substantial departure from what the 49ers are used to at quarterback, and there are upsides and downsides to that change in direction.

There is no question Lance will significantly increase the 49ers' threat on deep passes. Last season, Garoppolo completed just nine passes of 21 air yards or more across the entire 2021 season. Lance completed four in his 10 full quarters of play as a rookie.

On top of that, Lance's air yards per attempt average of 10.1 was the second-highest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts.

While the downfield passing game figures to be more explosive, Lance will need to improve in one area where Garoppolo has traditionally excelled.

Garoppolo has consistently done an impressive job of leading his receivers to the ball on throws over the middle, setting up regular opportunities for yardage after the catch.

Over the last three seasons, Garoppolo has averaged 6.7 yards after the catch (YAC) on his completed passes, almost a full yard more than his nearest challenger Patrick Mahomes (6.0).

The same sort of accuracy on throws where the receivers can relieve the burden on the quarterback with YAC was lacking from Lance during the preseason, and curbing a tendency to put those passes behind his intended target will be critical for him to realise his potential in Shanahan's vaunted offensive scheme.

But Shanahan is making a calculated trade-off in switching to Lance. The 'gimme' plays Garoppolo can hit with ease may not come as easy with Lance, but the 49ers will benefit from the 'second reaction' plays the new quarterback can make when the pocket breaks down.

Though Garoppolo can make throws on the move, the improvisation factor is significantly higher with Lance, who last season averaged a gaudy 13.06 air yards throwing on the run. 

On top of his threat as a downfield passer in such situations, Lance also put 8.45 yards per carry on scrambles in 2021. Only Jameis Winston (8.67) had more among quarterbacks with at least 10 scrambles.

Lance adds new dimensions to the 49er offense, but he also has shown substantial promise in a staple feature of the Shanahan attack.

Though it was on a small sample size, Lance displayed encouraging accuracy in the play-action game as a rookie. Ten of his 12 play-action throws were well-thrown, with Lance averaging 14.67 air yards on those attempts.

It is far too early to definitively say Lance will continue to be as accurate on play-action over the course of a full season. However, given the effectiveness of the 49er run game, the play-action should still continue to be extremely effective, with Lance's prowess on the ground giving defenders more to think about when he fakes the hand-off.

Former Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks head coach Chuck Knox once said: "There are two kinds of quarterbacks. There is what I call the 'because of' quarterback and the 'with' quarterback. You win 'because of' Joe Montana or John Elway. You win 'with' Phil Simms or Doug Williams."

Garoppolo has produced game-winning performances for San Francisco, but while he has operated the offense extremely efficiently, he is firmly in the 'win with' category. In the biggest games where the team has asked him to put them over the top, he has not delivered.

The 49ers moved up for Lance due to their belief he can be a 'because of' quarterback. He may not perform with the same efficiency as Garoppolo, but he has already delivered showings to suggest he can be the decisive factor for a team who have come agonisingly close to glory. Lance's ability to reproduce those flashes over the course of an entire season will determine whether the 49ers were right in their assessment.

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