Tom Brady may or may not retire. Despite the backlash at seemingly premature reports of the end of his career, there is a strong chance the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be looking to replace the greatest of all time this offseason.

The Buccaneers do have an in-house option but, if head coach Bruce Arians stays on board as expected, it is likely he will want a quarterback who can help an extremely talented team, albeit one that could lose some of that talent in free agency, contend for further Super Bowls.

So who could be in line to take the reins under center from Brady?

Stats Perform looks at the young gun who may have the substantial challenge of stepping into Brady's shoes and, with free agent options thin on the ground, three players they could target in a trade to run the offense.

 

Kyle Trask

The Buccaneers selected Trask, a Heisman Trophy finalist in his final year at Florida in 2020, in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Tampa Bay probably would have liked him to have another year of seasoning before throwing him in at the deep end, but they may now have to consider whether he is ready to make the leap to the starting role in the pros.

Trask led the FBS in passing touchdowns with 43 in his final season with the Gators and, though there should be cause for concern over an elongated throwing motion and his decision-making, his play under pressure in college in 2020 was encouraging.

Indeed, Trask delivered a well-thrown ball on 74.56 of his pass attempts when under pressure – only three Power 5 quarterbacks (min. 50 attempts under pressure) fared better.

Jimmy Garoppolo

Garoppolo is almost certain to be on the trade market after he crumbled in the fourth quarter of the San Francisco 49ers' NFC Championship Game defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. 

With Trey Lance waiting in the wings, the Niners will likely look to recoup what they can for a quarterback who helped them reach Super Bowl LIV in the 2019 season.

Despite his 31-14 record in the regular season with the 49ers, the Buccaneers may be reticent to strike a deal for a quarterback whose skill set would not appear to mesh well with Arians' aggressive downfield passing attack.

Garoppolo averaged just 7.51 air yards per attempt in 2021, the eighth-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts.

Russell Wilson

If you want downfield aggressiveness, look no further than Wilson.

Only Justin Fields (10.02) averaged more air yards per attempt than Wilson (10) in 2021, while another rookie, Davis Mills (114.6) was the sole quarterback to have a higher passer rating on attempts of 21 air yards or more (114.0) among signal-callers with at least 25 attempts of that distance.

The stylistic fit is obvious, and the Buccaneers critically have the offensive line to satisfy Wilson's main issue with the Seattle Seahawks, a lack of pass protection.

But, with an aging core, it is debatable at best whether the Bucs would consider mortgaging their future in a blockbuster trade for Wilson, and it's still not clear whether Seattle would even come to the table.

Aaron Rodgers

The potential biggest prize out there on the trade market seems like the largest long shot for the Bucs.

Rodgers would no doubt be able to adapt to Arians' offense and, if the Bucs keep hold of Chris Godwin, he would be thrilled with the receiving corps he would have at his disposal.

Yet there are signs of an improving relationship between Rodgers and the Packers' brass and perhaps a willingness to give it another go even after this season's playoff failure.

If Rodgers does decide he wants to go elsewhere, the Denver Broncos would be the favourites to land him having hired former Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as their new head coach. The Bucs may have to give it the hard sell to land Rodgers.

It's not how you start, it's how you finish. The old adage rang true for the victorious defenses on Conference Championship weekend.

A stunning upset pulled off by the Cincinnati Bengals appeared extremely unlikely when they fell 21-3 behind to the Kansas City Chiefs.

But the Chiefs scored just three points across the second half and overtime, with Patrick Mahomes intercepted twice as the Bengals fought back to claim an improbable 27-24 win.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Rams looked to be on the ropes at 17-7 down to the San Francisco 49ers when Jimmy Garoppolo hit George Kittle for a 16-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.

Yet the Rams outscored the Niners 13-0 in the fourth, Garoppolo and the San Francisco attack collapsing when the pressure was at its highest.

So how did both the Bengals and the Rams stymie their opponents when it mattered most and punch their tickets to Super Bowl LVI?

The name's Hubbard, Sam Hubbard

Arguably as important to stopping Mahomes through the air was the move the Bengals made to prevent him from doing damage with his legs.

The Bengals deployed defensive end Sam Hubbard as a de-facto spy of Mahomes, protecting against him rolling out and making throws on the move, as he did twice for touchdowns in the first half, or picking up yardage on the ground.

That meant relying on their coverage to hold up while sending only three-man rushes up front. The Bengals rushed three on 23.9 per cent of their defensive snaps, and the results speak for themselves.

Mahomes attempted just six passes on the move and had five scrambles for an average of just one yard per carry. In other words, when there was not a clear option for Mahomes when operating from the pocket, the possibility to escape and extend the play was taken away.

Travis Kelce had 10 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown while Tyreek Hill registered seven catches for 78 yards and a score. However, Hill did not have a catch after the first half and Kelce only had one across that second half and overtime that went for double-digit yardage, the Bengals' ploy of sporadically bracketing both working perfectly.

The combination of Hubbard's deployment in an unfamiliar role and the attention paid to both Kelce and Hill led to the sight of a quarterback who was unstoppable in the Divisional Round running backwards as the pocket collapsed in a vain effort to produce explosive plays that were not there.

Mahomes had done an excellent job down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs of being patient and taking what the defense gave him. In the second half against Cincinnati, the Bengals afforded him no options, and that patience ran out.

Rams give no room to run

The Rams did not need to lure Garoppolo into the bad decision, as Los Angeles knew that, with enough pressure on the much-maligned 49ers quarterback, a mistake is always on the horizon.

Los Angeles only pressured Garoppolo 12 times, but the pass rush came at the ideal time in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter as Aaron Donald and Co. took advantage of a banged-up offensive line when it mattered most.

The level of joy the Rams enjoyed late on was in part a result of their success in defending the run.

With the scoreboard turning rapidly in Los Angeles' favour, San Francisco became one-dimensional having been consistently stymied by the Rams' run defense.

The often dominant 49ers running game was held to 2.5 yards per carry, putting the emphasis on Garoppolo and his O-Line to deliver.

Niners tight end Kittle explained San Francisco's struggles running the ball were down to the Rams employing a new wrinkle in blitzing the A and B gaps when the 49ers went in motion, leading to stacked boxes.

As Kittle put it: "It's hard to run the ball when there are nine guys in the box."

After erasing the Niners' 10-point lead, the Rams' defense could go in attack mode with the ground game shut down and no reason to fear the opposing quarterback.

Given the struggles of the Bengals' offensive line, a similar approach could well be used in the Super Bowl.

Rafael Nadal was on the brink of another Australian Open final defeat before a remarkable turnaround against Daniil Medvedev.

Trailing by two sets to love, Nadal found himself staring at three break points midway through the third set on Rod Laver Arena.

But he recovered and stepped up his game, clinching a record-breaking 21st grand slam title with a 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 7-5 victory over Medvedev in an enthralling encounter that lasted five hours and 24 minutes.

Medvedev had his chances, but the US Open champion suffered his third defeat in four major finals.

Stats Perform looks at some of the key moments.

Nadal serving at 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 2-3

Medvedev looked on his way to a deserved and resounding win when Nadal – who had lost four Australian Open finals previously – found himself in a 0-40 hole.

But a drop shot winner from Nadal was followed by a long Medvedev backhand, with the Russian trying a drop shot that the Spaniard returned too well on his final break point chance. It would prove a decisive hold for Nadal.

"Yeah, that was a good moment when I had the triple break point," Medvedev said afterwards. "Actually, I don't remember all of them in detail, but I remember that all of three returns I made it in. I just got a little bit tight. But, again, that's tennis. I should have done better. I should have hit a winner. I maybe would have won the match.

"Tactically nothing changed. I feel like I was playing right. But Rafa stepped up. The only thing that physically was a little bit up and down, and yeah, he was I think stronger than me physically today. Starting from the third set, there were some shots and points where I was a little bit on the back foot, let's call it like this. And Rafa takes control of these moments.

"But again, yeah, I have to work harder."

Medvedev serving at 6-2 7-6 (7-5) 4-4

The vocal and enthusiastic crowd was beginning to impact Medvedev, and Nadal's level was improving.

A long forehand at 15-15 was followed by an inexplicable overhead drop shot attempt by Medvedev that hit the net, leading to sarcastic clapping of the crowd.

Nadal clinched the break with a wonderful backhand winner down the line.

Medvedev serving at 6-2 7-6 (7-5) 4-6 2-2

Medvedev had already recovered from being a break down in the fourth set when Nadal struck again after a lengthy fifth game.

An excellent return saw Medvedev net a backhand and Nadal converted his seventh break point of the game with a backhand cross-court passing shot winner.

Medvedev serving at 6-2 7-6 (7-5) 4-6 4-6 5-5

Medvedev had stopped Nadal's momentum in the previous game when the Spaniard was attempting to serve out the match.

But Nadal broke again when Medvedev pulled a backhand wide before sending a forehand long.

Nadal serving at 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 6-5

Nadal was never going to let a second chance go begging.

Medvedev put a running forehand into the net and a backhand return long before an ace from Nadal set up three championship points.

He only needed one, making a backhand volley to become the first player in the Open Era to win an Australian Open final from two sets to love down.

Rafael Nadal made history by clinching a record-breaking 21st grand slam title with an extraordinary win in the Australian Open final.

The Spaniard became the first man to win 21 majors, breaking his tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal edged Daniil Medvedev 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 7-5 in an incredible final that lasted nearly five and a half hours on Rod Laver Arena.

We take a look at each of Nadal's grand slam successes.

2005 French Open
Nadal's maiden major was largely unsurprising. Then 18, Nadal carried a 17-match winning streak to Roland Garros. Ranked fifth in the world after starting the year outside the top 50, Nadal beat Federer in the semi-finals before getting past Mariano Puerta in the decider. He became the first man to win the tournament on debut since Mats Wilander in 1982.

2006 French Open
That would be the start of an almost unstoppable run in Paris. Lleyton Hewitt and a young Djokovic were unable to halt his run in 2006 before he again overcame Federer, this time in the final, after dropping the first set. It was the Swiss great's first loss in a grand slam decider.

2007 French Open
Federer's win over Nadal in the final in Hamburg heading into the French Open gave the Swiss hope after ending the Spaniard's 81-match winning streak on clay. But after beating Hewitt, Carlos Moya and Djokovic on his way to the decider, Nadal again proved too good for Federer in four sets.

2008 French Open
Nadal made it four in a row in 2008 in ruthless fashion. He lost just 25 games on his way to the semis before beating Djokovic. Federer again stood between him and the title, and the Spaniard handed his great rival a 6-1 6-3 6-0 thrashing.

2008 Wimbledon
The next meeting between the greats would prove far closer, far more entertaining and land Nadal his first grand slam title away from Roland Garros. After an epic lasting almost five hours, Nadal edged Federer 9-7 in the fifth set on Centre Court to win the Wimbledon final in near darkness.

2009 Australian Open
Having risen to world number one for the first time in his career in August of the previous year, Nadal celebrated the top ranking by winning his first hard-court major. After a comfortable run to the last four, he edged Fernando Verdasco in an epic semi-final that lasted five hours, 14 minutes. Another four-plus hours and five sets were needed to get past Federer in the decider.

2010 French Open
Nadal suffered a first ever loss at Roland Garros the year prior, going down to Robin Soderling in the fourth round. But he reclaimed the title in 2010, beating Soderling in straight sets in the final. He did not drop a set on his way to the crown.

2010 Wimbledon
It would be a memorable 2010 for Nadal, who would win three majors in a single year for the only time in his career so far. His biggest test at the All England Club came from Philipp Petzschner in a five-setter in the third round before wins over Soderling, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych from the quarter-finals onwards.

2010 US Open
Nadal had never been beyond the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows before his first success in New York in 2010. It was a comfortable run before a four-set victory over Djokovic in the final completed his career Grand Slam.

2011 French Open
Djokovic was too good for Nadal in the Rome final before the French Open, but the Serbian fell to Federer in the semi-finals in Paris. Nadal survived a surprise five-set battle against John Isner in the first round before again beating Federer in the decider.

2012 French Open
Nadal had lost three consecutive major finals – all to Djokovic – before he turned that around at Roland Garros. After a comfortable run to the decider, he needed four sets to get past the Serbian for his record seventh French Open crown.

2013 French Open
Nadal and Djokovic met in a Paris epic the following year, this time in the semi-finals. Nadal edged a classic encounter 9-7 in the fifth before cruising past countryman David Ferrer in the decider.

2013 US Open
Djokovic would get his chance on his preferred surface in New York later that year, but Nadal proved too strong in four sets in the decider. Nadal dropped just two sets on his way to the title.

2014 French Open
Djokovic had again beaten Nadal in the Rome final, but again was unable to stop the Spaniard in Paris. Nadal was untroubled on his way to the decider before recovering from a set down in the final to again beat Djokovic. The 14th grand slam of his career saw him draw level with Pete Sampras on the all-time list.

2017 French Open
After going two years without a grand slam title, Nadal ended his 'drought' in Paris in 2017, claiming 'La Decima'. He did so without dropping a set, rushing past Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka in his final two matches. Nadal became the first man to win a single grand slam 10 times – and he remains the only one to manage that feat.

2017 US Open
More success would follow in New York in what was arguably one of the easiest runs to a major crown of Nadal's career. The highest ranked player Nadal faced was world number 28 Juan Martin del Potro in the semis before cruising past Kevin Anderson in the decider.

2018 French Open
Nadal was at it again in Paris the following year. He lost a set to Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals but was otherwise relentless on his way to an 11th Roland Garros crown.

2019 French Open
Nadal was developing a new rivalry at the French Open, but it was not one to stop his success. He was again ruthless on his way to the final and for the second year in a row was too good for Thiem in the final.

2019 US Open
His run in New York was again comfortable, at least until he reached the final. Medvedev put up a huge fight in the decider, which eventually went Nadal's way after almost five hours on Arthur Ashe Stadium, as he closed to within one of Federer's 20 grand slams.

2020 French Open
Another year, another French Open title for Nadal. There was again no stopping the Spaniard as he romped through without losing a set, including demolishing Djokovic in the final.

2022 Australian Open
Nadal became the first man to win 21 grand slam titles with the unlikeliest of major crowns. Just months earlier, he had doubts over his career due to a foot injury. After reaching the final, a five-set quarter-final win over Denis Shapovalov his biggest test, Nadal produced an extraordinary comeback. After nearly five and a half hours, he came from two sets to love down against Medvedev to win the decider. He became the second man in the Open Era to win every grand slam at least twice, and was the first in the same period to come from two sets to love down and win an Australian Open final.

Already shaping as the unlikeliest grand slam success of his illustrious career, Rafael Nadal ensured it was just that after an extraordinary Australian Open final.

And what a time to deliver it, clinching a record-breaking 21st major title by beating Daniil Medvedev, breaking his tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for the most grand slams won by a man.

Nadal himself admitted reaching the final in Melbourne was unexpected, having ended his 2021 in August and doubted his career due to a persistent foot injury.

That injury is not going away, making the success even more remarkable. After five hours and 24 minutes on Rod Laver Arena, history was made as Nadal secured a 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 7-5 victory.

From two sets to love down against a man 10 years younger, wrapping up at 01:11 local time (14:11 GMT).

 

Nadal had only won the Australian Open once before, in 2009. Now, he is the only champion to have ever come from two sets to love down to win in an Australian Open final in the Open Era.

Not only was Nadal two sets to love down, he faced 0-40 in the sixth game of the third set. He was also staring down an in-form opponent as Medvedev aimed to become the first man to follow up his maiden major title with another grand slam at his next event. But, spurred on by a vocal and enthusiastic Rod Laver Arena crowd, Nadal found a way. He found another level, as he has throughout his career. In fairness, Medvedev took his game up a level, too, at least until some madness in the ninth game of the third set.

That concentration lapse had cost him one set, and Medvedev was unable to deal with an increasingly excited – and sometimes disrespectful – crowd in the fourth, as well as a surging Nadal.

As Sunday ticked into Monday with the deciding set underway, Nadal broke the Medvedev serve with a forehand winner down the line in the fifth game. Even the best get nervous, though, and he relinquished that advantage when serving for the title. Yet like a typical champion, Nadal responded instantly, breaking again before serving it out to love.

In sets one and two, Nadal had 21 winners and 36 unforced errors, turning that into 48 and 32 respectively in the final three.

For just the third time in his illustrious career, Nadal had completed a comeback from two sets to love down at a grand slam. And he has now won every grand slam at least twice, becoming just the second man in the Open Era to manage that, alongside Djokovic.

Such a moment had seemed unlikely just months ago, when Nadal and his team had doubts over whether he would ever return to the ATP Tour due to his foot injury.

Nadal says those doubts remain, but his start to 2022 suggests he is, as ever, a contender as long as he remains on the court. However unlikely, even if looking impossible, Nadal is still capable of the absurd.

Tom Brady looks to have played his last Super Bowl.

The quarterback extraordinaire has decided to retire after completing a second year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ESPN reported on Saturday.

It means there will be no farewell season for Brady, no lap of honour, and he has declared on seven Super Bowls and out.

Brady could have walked away after capturing a sixth Lombardi Trophy with the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII three years ago with his legacy as the greatest of all time secured.

But whether it was down to a desire to outstrip Michael Jordan's six NBA titles, win a Super Bowl without Bill Belichick or simply because of his love of competing and winning, Brady felt the need to keep going further into his 40s in search of a seventh.

That came in emphatic fashion in his first season since leaving Belichick and the Patriots, as the Buccaneers routed the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 at Raymond James Stadium 12 months ago.

The man who entered the NFL as a skinny sixth-round pick in 2000 proved yet again that it is foolish to doubt him, and now he has gone about surprising everyone again by deciding time is up. At the age of 44, Brady is done with throwing touchdown passes.

Here, we rank Brady's seven wins on the grandest stage.

7. Super Bowl LIII

Brady's last triumph with the Patriots was probably his least impressive, at least in the vacuum of the game itself.

An uninspiring defensive struggle with the Los Angeles Rams unsurprisingly fell in Belichick's favour as he outcoached Sean McVay in a 13-3 win. Brady did, however, connect with Rob Gronkowski for the telling blow, a 29-yard pass that set up Sony Michel for the game's only touchdown. 

Boosting Brady here is the fact he led the Patriots to victory over Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, but that's not enough to move it off the bottom of the list.

6. Super Bowl XXXIX

Last year's Super Bowl was the second in which Brady dealt a defeat to Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, but the 39th edition of the Greatest Show on Earth was a much tighter affair as Brady guided the Patriots to back-to-back Lombardi trophies.

But Reid, who in this February 2005 game was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles, perhaps bore as much responsibility for the Patriots' victory as Brady. Reid was significantly criticised in the aftermath of the Eagles' 24-21 loss for a lack of time management, their final scoring drive taking up nearly four minutes and making New England's task in closing out the game much easier.

Reid's shortcomings in that regard do not take away from Brady's performance or the achievement in winning successive Super Bowls, one that has not since been repeated. But, in terms of memorable performances, this is not one that ranks highly.

5. Super Bowl XXXVIII

Brady's second Super Bowl win is one that deserves more recognition than it gets as the Patriots held off an underdog Carolina Panthers team that refused to lie down. 

After the Panthers overturned a 21-10 deficit to lead in the fourth quarter, Brady led an 11-play drive to restore the Patriots' advantage and, after Carolina responded in kind, orchestrated a game-winning field goal in the final 58 seconds of regulation to secure a 32-29 triumph.

It was a perfect encapsulation of Brady's ability to deliver when the moment is the biggest, one which he has demonstrated time and again with all the marbles on the line.

4. Super Bowl LV

Brady's first Super Bowl win outside of New England may have been one of the most unexpected, but it doesn't quite crack the top three.

There is so much Brady deserves credit for. From taking the chance to leave his familiar surroundings and successfully adapting to a new offense to the manner in which he dissected the Chiefs defense in the first half.

But the Buccaneers' victory was a team performance built as much on a swarming defense that continually had Patrick Mahomes running for his life as it was on Brady's prowess leading the offense.

Brady was a deserved winner of the Super Bowl MVP but, without the Bucs' pass rush, this would have been a very different game, one in which the Chiefs' offense may have been able to change the outcome.

3. Super Bowl XXXVI

Brady was not close to being the quarterback he would become, and that is what makes his first Super Bowl still so incredible.

In his second season in the NFL, Brady came in and successfully filled the void after starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a chest injury in Week 2 of the 2001 season and led them to an 11-5 record, but he was not expected to go blow for blow with the vaunted St. Louis Rams offense.

As it happened, he received significant help from an excellent defensive display by New England, but the defining moment came in the final 90 seconds, with legendary commentator John Madden calling for the Patriots to play for overtime. Belichick had the faith in Brady to go the opposite route.

He promptly delivered a nine-play, 53-yard drive that began the legend, setting up Adam Vinatieri for a 48-yard field goal that clinched a 20-17 win for the Patriots and their first title. For a player of his relative inexperience to deliver in a situation of that magnitude, it remains one of Brady's most remarkable achievements.

2. Super Bowl XLIX

It gets lost with the fact that Brady and the Patriots would have lost this game to the Seattle Seahawks if not for Malcolm Butler's goal-line interception, but his fourth quarter in a 28-24 classic was one of the finest periods produced by any quarterback in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots trailed by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, but Brady fearlessly and precisely led them on two touchdown drives against one of the best defenses in NFL history to turn the tide in their favour.

Of course, this game will always be remembered for the Seahawks' inexplicable decision to attempt a pass on the one-yard line with victory in their grasp, but the game never gets to that point without what was at the time Brady's greatest comeback effort in the Super Bowl.

1. Super Bowl LI

It was always unlikely Brady would ever top this performance, his Super Bowl piece de resistance.

All seemed lost for Brady when the Patriots trailed 28-3 to the Atlanta Falcons in the third quarter, but what followed was an accumulation of all the clutch moments he has produced in his unparalleled career.

The Falcons were reduced to near helpless spectators as Brady masterfully instigated the biggest fightback in Super Bowl history.

When the Patriots won the coin toss to start overtime, their 34-28 triumph was inevitable. Everyone knew what was about to happen, with the Falcons as powerless to stop it as the Chiefs were last year.

It was a revival that added immeasurably to Brady's aura, his desire to collect Super Bowl rings unsurpassed in the sport's history.

The NBA's Western Conference has dominated the East in recent memory, possessing most of the league's superstars for over two decades.

West teams have had a winning record head-to-head against East teams in each of the previous 12 full seasons, and the East has only had a winning record against the West once in the last 22 full seasons (2008-09).

Since 1999-00, the NBA champion has come from the Western Conference in 14 of 22 seasons.

The imbalance of power had grown significant enough by the 2013-14 season, when the West sported a .631 head-to-head win percentage, that some pundits called for a restructuring of the playoff system to stop giving postseason opportunities to below .500 East teams.

But the league appears to be finding its equilibrium again.

East teams have a .491 record in interconference games this season, the highest since 2008-09, and the playoff race at the top of the conference is as competitive as it has been in recent memory. Six teams sit within two games of the East’s top record, laying the groundwork for a captivating battle for postseason positioning in the second half of the season.

1. Miami Heat (32-17)

The 2020 Eastern Conference champions appear to have recaptured the form of a contender after a middling 2020-21 campaign that ended in a first-round sweep.

Battling through lengthy absences from both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat have climbed their way to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, thanks largely to the growth of Tyler Herro.

Herro was a promising rookie two years ago when Miami made their run to the NBA Finals but has carried the Heat offensively at times this season. He is scoring 20.4 points per game this season, up from 15.1 last season, without a drop in efficiency. The result is an 11-2 record when Herro scores 25 or more points in a game.

Defensive issues, however, have led coach Erik Spoelstra to mostly leave Herro out of the starting lineup and use him to torch opposing benches. Miami ranks third in the NBA in bench scoring at 39.1 points per game while ranking tied for 19th in bench minutes per game.

Miami's starting units aren't nearly as imposing on the offensive end but are suffocating opponents on defense. With Butler, Adebayo and Kyle Lowry all on the court together, the Heat are allowing just 98.0 points per 100 possessions, and opponents are shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range.

Spoelstra may face challenges in the postseason in trying to decide between offense or defense-first lineups, but few coaches in the NBA are as qualified to find the correct balance.

As long as Butler is healthy and fresh, no team wants to face this rugged and experienced group in a playoff series, and a deep run is certainly possible.

2. Chicago Bulls (30-18), 1.5 games back

Chicago’s hot start was one of the league’s signature stories early in the season, but a recent swoon has some pundits wondering if a few of the roster’s flaws can be exploited.

From December 19 to January 7, the Bulls went on a season-high nine-game winning streak. They scored 120.2 points per game over that stretch and climbed to 16 games over .500.

The Bulls have gone just 4-8 since and have failed to reach 100 points in four of those 12 games.

Chicago went 1-5 during this lull playing without Zach LaVine, including a January 14 loss to the Golden State Warriors in which he played fewer than four minutes before leaving with a left knee injury.

The Bulls have won both their games since LaVine returned, soothing any burning concerns, but that stretch revealed Chicago's roster is too thin to absorb any major injuries.

Perhaps even more concerning is the Bulls' record against top teams, going just 3-7 so far this season against the other teams in the East's top six.

Billy Donovan will rightfully get plenty of buzz to win Coach of the Year, but the Bulls ultimately look like an excellent regular-season team that may not be properly equipped for playoff battles.

Power forward Patrick Williams played just five games before he underwent surgery on his left wrist, and he was initially considered lost for the season. While there has been some recent momentum towards him returning for a playoff run, the 20-year-old may still be too green to push the Bulls over the top.

Williams could fetch another playoff-ready piece if the Bulls decided to place all their bets on the current core of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic – all in the prime of their careers between the ages of 26 and 32 – but such a move could jeopardise the team's future.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (30-19), 2 games back

Just a year after going 22-50, the Cavaliers have far surpassed last season's win total before the All-Star break, and the success has gone on too long to be considered a fluke.

Even after losing veteran point guard Ricky Rubio to a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, the young Cavaliers have continued to be one of the East's top teams, thanks largely to a stifling defense.

Cleveland is 6-7 this season in games when scoring less than 100 points, the best record in the league. The other top teams in the East are a combined 7-44 when held under the century mark.

The Cavaliers are allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions, best in the Eastern Conference, and that number drops to 102.2 when rookie big man Evan Mobley is on the court.

Mobley is third among rookies in scoring at 15.0 points per game, but it is his ability to play next to center Jarrett Allen that has made Cleveland's defense so imposing.

A seven-footer, Mobley could be slated as a center for almost any team in the league, but his quickness and ability to guard multiple positions allows him to be on the floor at the same time as Allen.

Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro are all 23 years old or younger, so a deep playoff run seems unlikely, especially with high-scoring guard Collin Sexton out for the year.

But Cleveland has the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, with a combined opponents’ winning percentage of .463.

4. Milwaukee Bucks (31-20), 2.0 games back

The reigning NBA champions have yet to live up to the sterling regular seasons of their recent past but remain in position for a run.

The Bucks are 6-7 over their last 12 games, including a 115-99 loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday.

Milwaukee’s fortunes will be determined by its three biggest stars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. With all three on the court together, the Bucks are outscoring their opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions. All configurations that have two or fewer stars on the court have a net rating of +2.6.

This heavy reliance on the Bucks' top trio is evident in Milwaukee’s 29th-ranked bench, which is scoring just 27 points per game.

This accomplished core will be competitive in any series they play, especially now that it has championship experience, but the road through the Eastern Conference playoffs could be a very challenging one.

5. Brooklyn Nets (29-19), 2.5 games back

With so many unknowns and moving pieces, the Nets are probably the most difficult team in the league to analyse. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving makes them an automatic title contender, but the availability of Brooklyn's stars will ultimately decide their fate.

Irving is infamously banned from playing home games but can play in most road games, essentially giving Steve Nash two separate teams to coach. Any day, either Irving could change his mind and get a COVID-19 vaccine, or New York could change its rules about workers being vaccinated, but the possibility looms of the Nets entering a playoff series with a part-time player.

Durant remains a marvel, averaging 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists in his second season back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He suffered a sprained knee on January 15, however, and could be out until the end of February.

The Nets are just 5-7 this season without Durant, and his extended absence could cause them to lose ground in the race for a top seed in the East. Then again, Brooklyn might not care about playing extra postseason road games, allowing Irving to join in the fun and saving Durant for when the games count most.

The Athletic's Shams Charania surprised many fans this week by reporting that Harden's name remains involved in trade talks. While these rumors would likely be more relevant to a deal in the coming offseason, the reports added another layer of uncertainty to a bumpy season.

6. Philadelphia 76ers (29-19), 2.5 games back

The Sixers have the NBA's second-best record since Christmas Day at 13-3, and Joel Embiid has built a strong case as an MVP candidate.

The overpowering center has scored at least 25 points in 16 straight games, a run that includes single-game scoring performances of 50, 42 and 40 points.

Perhaps almost as significant as his gaudy production is the fact that Embiid has played in 20 consecutive games for Philadelphia, the second-longest run of his career after a 26-game stretch during the 2018-19 season.

Embiid has always been a monster when he's on the court, and if his current run of health continues, the 76ers will be a difficult playoff matchup for anyone.

Hanging over the whole season, of course, is the standoff with Ben Simmons, who has yet to report this season and is losing game paychecks every time his team-mates take the court. Simmons' camp maintains the position that he wants to be traded after being publicly blamed for last season's playoff failures, but the Philly front office insists on getting a star in return.

A possible Simmons trade might be the most pivotal move out there for any possible championship contender, but the deal has been difficult to find for a unique 25-year-old guard who refuses to shoot and has yet to play this season.

With the conference loaded six-deep with imposing teams, only the top two seeds will be heavy favourites in the first round. Gone, it appears, are the days when one or two teams could cruise to a conference championship in the East without sweating.

Ash Barty was staring at a nervy deciding set in the Australian Open final before she turned the second on its head to end the locals' drought.

Barty became the first local Australian Open singles champion in 44 years by beating Danielle Collins 6-3 7-6 (7-2) on Saturday.

Such a scoreline looked unlikely when Barty fell 5-1 behind in the second set in front of an electric Rod Laver Arena crowd.

But, as she had all tournament despite the pressure and expectations, Barty stayed calm. She turned it around, riding a wave of momentum to seal victory in straight sets.

From Collins' 5-1 lead, Barty hit 13 winners and just four unforced errors. Collins was three and nine respectively. But what really hurt the American was making just three of 12 first serves in the two games she was broken in.

Stats Perform takes a closer look at what happened, with Collins two points away from forcing a third set on three separate occasions.

Collins serving at 6-3 1-5
Barty had served two double faults in the previous game to open the door widely to Collins. After the American missed a first serve, a loud cheer from the crowd was met by a disapproving finger wag from Barty, who followed that up with a forehand winner. Still, Collins found herself two points from the set at 30-30. But she sent a backhand well long before Barty forced another error with a powerful return. Collins made one of six first serves in the game.

Barty serving at 6-3 2-5
Barty raced into a 40-0 lead and, while Collins won the next two points, a long forehand helped her hold, putting pressure on the American.

Collins serving at 6-3 3-5
Collins again found herself two points from the set, leading 30-0. The response from Barty was phenomenal. Barty crushed a forehand return winner down the line before another forehand winner caught the back of the line to draw the game level at 30-30. Another big forehand return set up break point before Collins netted a backhand.

Barty serving at 6-3 4-5
Barty recovered from 0-15 to hold, with two big serves doing the damage, and Collins' momentum was well and truly gone.

Collins serving at 6-3 5-5
On the back of making four of five first serves, Collins steadied to end Barty's run of four straight games.

Barty serving at 6-3 5-6
For the third time, Collins found herself two points away from winning the set, with Barty in a 15-30 hole. But Barty came up big, delivering three consecutive unreturnable serves to force a tie-break.

Tie-break
Collins started the tie-break with a forehand that flew well long then returned a serve well long to fall 2-0 behind. That freed Barty up, the Australian crushing back-to-back winners, including a great smash, to open up a 4-0 lead she would not relinquish. Collins put a backhand return off a Barty second serve halfway up the net to fall 5-1 behind. A forehand cross-court passing shot winner sealed Barty's victory.

Ash Barty is a class above her peers right now – and 2022 is hers to dominate even further on the grand slam stage.

Barty ended Australia's wait for a singles champion in Melbourne after a 6-3 7-6 (7-2) win over Danielle Collins in the final on Saturday.

The world number one dealt with the pressure of such high expectations to become the first local Australian Open singles champion in 44 years.

Barty had already ended another drought – becoming the first Australian women's singles finalist in 42 years.

The composure she showed during that semi-final win over Madison Keys was again prevalent in the decider against Collins, who predictably threatened and looked certain to force a deciding set on Rod Laver Arena.

Despite the expectations, there was a constant sense of calm and almost inevitability to Barty's success in Melbourne in 2022.

In every moment, Barty seemed unfazed by everything around her, in a zone of her own, even at 5-1 down in the second set in front of an electric home crowd. Barty would have been excused for some panic, the fear of letting down the masses awaiting and anticipating a local Australian Open singles champion. But she didn't, and her calmness was mostly mirrored by those in the stands, who eventually got what they came for.

And Barty's confidence was well-founded. She was far too good for each of her opponents, losing just 21 games on her way to the decider before facing a tougher test against Collins.

Barty became the second active women's singles player to win a grand slam on every surface after adding the Australian Open to her 2019 French Open and 2021 Wimbledon titles, joining the great Serena Williams.

Her coach, Craig Tyzzer, warned on Australia Day that Barty had "played better at times" in her career. But there was a steely resolve about Barty, whose focus and concentration was even more impenetrable than her serve throughout the fortnight. The emotions were released after championship point was converted with a cross-court forehand pass.

The fact there could be more to come from Barty is a warning to the rest of the WTA Tour. That she managed all the pressure and expectation to win an Australian Open without dropping a set says a lot.

"She seems very focused, but she's playing very within herself, and it just seems like everything is really working for her right now without playing unbelievable tennis for her," said Keys after being crushed in the last four. "I think the rest of us are watching it thinking, 'Wow, this is incredible', but when you watch her, she seems completely in control of all of it."

Conquered by Barty in the quarter-finals, Jessica Pegula admitted the Australian was simply better than everyone else.

"Just to do it two out of three sets for somebody to beat her is tough because she just makes you play so much and does everything so well," she said. "Yeah, I think she's definitely living in everyone's head a little bit. I don't think anyone is going to feel great going out to play her because they know they have to play really well."

Barty has made history and delivered one of the iconic moments in Australian sport. She is a step above her opponents right now, and more history could await in 2022.

There wasn't much value in being the favourite in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.

Three of the four underdogs, the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, prevailed to progress to Conference Championship weekend.

An incredible overtime win over the Buffalo Bills saw the Kansas City Chiefs, the sole favourite to prevail, join them in moving one game away from the Super Bowl.

Despite a victory in a game many have already labelled as the best playoff game of all time, the Chiefs' position in the Super Bowl odds by Stats Perform's rest-of-season projection has gone down, with the Rams leapfrogging them and taking their spot as the team most likely to lift the Lombardi Trophy on February 13.

So how has a week of action in which the Chiefs were victorious flipped the odds against Kansas City?

Hollywood ending in store for LA?

Rest-of-season or, in this case, postseason projection, projects every future game to give a predicted win percentage for each team across its remaining games. Rather than being a simulator of future games, the projections are calculated by looking at each team's quarterback and QB efficiency versus expected – performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations – as well as team values for pass protection/pass rush, skill position players/coverage defenders and run blocking/run defense.

For the playoffs, the projection has been used to calculate each team's odds of winning a home game against every postseason team, with those predictions then used to forecast each franchise's chances of reaching and winning the Super Bowl.

Last week, prior to the Divisional games, the Chiefs were given a 27 per cent shot to win the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons, just ahead of the Rams on 26.3 per cent.

Following their respective victories, the Chiefs are viewed as having a 37.84 per cent chance of taking the silverware back to Missouri. The more likely outcome, at least according to ROS, is that the trophy stays at SoFi Stadium with the Rams, whose odds of winning it for only the second time in franchise history have ballooned to 38.21.

It is not a huge margin between the two, but the change at the top is enough to raise eyebrows given how devastating the Chiefs were on offense in defeating the Bills.

But the Rams' position as the new Super Bowl favourite is more a reflection of the potential opponents, rather than a commentary on the merits of the respective teams.

Another nail-biter for the Chiefs

Kansas City already has experience of one nerve-shredding Super Bowl with an NFC West opponent, coming back from 20-10 down in the fourth quarter to beat the 49ers two years ago in Super Bowl LIV.

And ROS expects either a meeting with the Rams or a rematch with the Niners to be similarly tense.

The Chiefs would not be considered favourites in a home game with the Rams, Kansas City given just a 45.2 per cent chance to triumph.

That number improves significantly in a matchup with the 49ers, against whom the Chiefs have 58.2 per cent odds of winning a home game.

It is still not an overly decisive margin, however, and pales in comparison to the Rams' prospects of beating the alternative AFC representative, the Bengals.

Cincinnati would have just a 16.8 per cent shot of winning a road game with Los Angeles, and those odds improve to just 19.8 per cent in a home game.

In other words, while a close game likely beckons for the Chiefs regardless of who wins the NFC Championship Game, an upset win for the Bengals in Kansas City would make the Rams or the Niners (72.1 per cent home game, 67.2 per cent away game) clear favourites to win the Super Bowl on the neutral field site at SoFi Stadium.

The Bengals' status as rank outsiders even after making it this far is in part based on the struggles of an offensive line that ranked 25th in Stats Perform's pass protection win rate and allowed nine sacks in the Divisional Round win over the Tennessee Titans.

San Francisco (first), Los Angeles (second) and the Chiefs (15th) each ranked in the top half of the NFL in pass-rush win rate, meaning Cincinnati will be at a clear disadvantage in the trenches in the AFC Championship Game and in a potential Super Bowl matchup.

The 2021 NFL season has been full of surprises, but the numbers clearly point to the Rams playing in a home Super Bowl against the Chiefs. 

So, is everybody ready for Niners-Bengals?

It wasn't so long ago that the notion of Juventus hoovering up talent from Serie A rivals would have been seen in a negative light by most Italian football fans.

But while their domination of Italy's top division only really ended last season when Inter brought the Bianconeri's nine-year subjugation of Serie A to a halt, their current situation would make you think it was far longer since they were a challenger.

When the season resumes after this international break, Juve will go into their next fixture at least 11 points off the top, down in fifth. For years their recruitment has been muddled and misguided, with Aaron Ramsey's fringe squad status the perfect embodiment of that.

But Dusan Vlahovic's arrival shows there is life in the Old Lady yet, and given the striker's rise to prominence, this move is also potentially massive for Serie A in general.

Fiorentina hadn't been shy about their desire to cash in on the Serbian, who turned 22 on Friday. They have been very public about how they simply could not afford to lose out on a transfer fee, a situation that was quickly threatening to become a real issue given his contract was due to expire in 2023.

Pretty much all of Europe's biggest clubs were linked with Vlahovic at some point over the past 12 months, and for a while most people's money would have been on him moving to England.

"Oh, another emerging talent scurrying off to chase the big bucks of the Premier League, how predictable," many 'calcio' fans were presumably muttering to themselves as… *checks notes*… Arsenal and Tottenham circled.

As the story reportedly went, Vlahovic's agent didn't seriously consider those two in the end. Whether it might have been a different story for Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United or even Chelsea is unclear, but a coup it remains for Juve.

Vlahovic's impact on Italian football, particularly over the past 18 months, has been significant. Some have suggested he's Serie A's answer to Erling Haaland – perhaps a slight exaggeration, but there's a reason Juve are investing in a guy who in 2021, let's not forget, became only the second player in the past 60 years to net 33 Serie A goals over a single calendar year.

Juve's attraction to him makes absolute sense when you consider a metric as reductive – yet, crucial – as goals. Following Cristiano Ronaldo's exit last year, the Bianconeri were left with a gaping maw in terms of finishing ability. The faith placed in Alvaro Morata to pick up the slack was as optimistic as it was naive, as the Spaniard has five in 22 Serie A games.

Vlahovic should, in theory, provide them with a number nine who is dedicated to goals. As Fiorentina's focal point this term, he has recorded 87 shots (second-most among Serie A players) and scored 15 non-penalty goals across all competitions.

Some might point to the fact those 15 strikes are a considerable increase on his non-penalty xG (expected goals) of 10.2, and there's obviously a chance he won't prove to be quite so clinical for Juve, but it clearly shows they are buying a player brimming with belief.

Similarly, being surrounded by better players in Turin may mean Vlahovic doesn't have to try as many low-xG shots. A quick look at his shot map in Serie A this season shows a significant variation in goal distances, which obviously has an impact on his xG per shot, which is 0.11 (excluding penalties).

That may not mean anything in isolation, but when you compare that to Tammy Abraham's 0.18, there's quite a gulf. The England striker seems to be better at getting into clear-cut goalscoring situations, but if Vlahovic is already proving this deadly from worse positions, imagine what he could do if he improves.

It's worth noting that by no means does Vlahovic only have eyes for goal. In fact, among 'conventional' strikers in Serie A this season, only four – and Paulo Dybala, nominally a creator anyway – have had more involvements in shot-ending sequences without taking the shot (45).

That speaks to Vlahovic's link-up play and his effectiveness at knitting attacks together in the final third, a skill that is not to every striker's liking. Yet he manages to fulfil this function without it being to the detriment of his goals output.

At Juve, assuming he links up in attack with Dybala, there may be less need for him to get as involved and that could potentially be how he improves his record of getting into higher xG situations.

It's fair to assume Juve would see that pay dividends on the goals front, given he already only averages 2.2 touches per shot inside the box – that's only fractionally more than Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo and Haaland (all 2.0), showing how he's more of an instinctive finisher than the likes of Mohamed Salah (3.1) and Kylian Mbappe (3.3), who are more about dribbling and beating defenders.

The fact is, Vlahovic still has elements to his game that could still improve, yet he's already performing at a high level. He may be young, but Juve have signed a player who can go straight into the team, which will presumably start being built around him.

Whether Massimiliano Allegri is the right coach for this new Juventus is another debate, but the acquisition of Vlahovic could be a game-changer.

At the very least, it's a genuine boost for Serie A to keep arguably its finest young player in the league despite the Premier League waving its vast sums in his direction.

With Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku gone, Vlahovic is surely primed to be Serie A's new poster boy.

Every league seems to have those teams that just produce talent on an apparently non-stop basis, before those players inevitably get picked off by the bigger boys.

In Germany, you can't move for former Schalke or Stuttgart players. There's Lyon and Monaco in France, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia in Spain, Southampton and Aston Villa in England.

In Italy, that team is probably Fiorentina, who are in the same position once again after La Viola sold star striker Dusan Vlahovic to Juventus in a €70million deal.

Stats Perform takes a look at some of the biggest names in Italian football who made a name for themselves with the team from Tuscany, and what they went on to achieve in the game.

 

Roberto Baggio

Having begun his career at Vicenza, The Divine Ponytail's move to Fiorentina saw his star rise as he spent five impressive years in the purple shirt.

However, after he helped Fiorentina to the 1990 UEFA Cup final, only to be defeated over two ill-tempered legs by their great rivals Juventus, salt was very much rubbed into the fans' wounds as the Bianconeri paid a then world-record fee to take Baggio.

Reports claimed that fans hurled bricks, chains and Molotov cocktails at Fiorentina's headquarters, and for the two days after the transfer was announced, club president Flavio Pontello took shelter in the stadium, with 50 injuries and nine arrests recorded.

Baggio would only improve his reputation further at Juve, winning the UEFA Cup in 1993, before securing a league and cup double two years later, scoring 115 goals in 200 games across five seasons before moving to Milan, where he won another Scudetto in his first year.

After being dismissed by Fabio Capello at San Siro in 1997, Baggio had an impressive season at Bologna where he scored a personal best 22 league goals, before moving back to the city of Milan with Inter.

Things did not work out at the Nerazzurri but he still went on to enjoy four final seasons in Serie A with Brescia, where he reached double figures in each campaign before retiring in 2004.

Gabriel Batistuta

There is arguably no more iconic player in Fiorentina history. A striker who football fans of a certain vintage remember banging in goals on Sunday afternoons during the nineties.

Unlike most of the players on this list, Batistuta actually spent the majority of his career at Fiorentina, staying for nine years before his big-money move to Roma.

The man affectionately known as 'Batigol' remains the club's record goalscorer with 159 goals in 198 games, though it does help his record that people like Vlahovic are usually sold before they can get anywhere near that total.

Though he had won a Coppa Italia, Batistuta wanted a Scudetto and moved to Roma in 2000 in order to get it. It was the highest fee ever paid for a player over the age of 30, a record which stood until Leonardo Bonucci moved to Milan from Juventus in 2017.

It seemed like a justified move when Batistuta scored 20 goals, including netting against his former club, on the way to winning the title in his first season in the Italian capital, but was unable to reach those heights again, scoring just 11 over the following season and a half before a loan move to Inter.

Rui Costa

The Portuguese maestro had made a name for himself at Benfica before moving to Italy in 1994 and making 230 appearances in seven years with La Viola, winning two Coppa Italia titles.

However, like Batistuta, Rui Costa was moved on for big money to try and help the club's finances, ending up at Milan for a then club-record fee of around £35m.

Rui Costa spent five years at San Siro where he won six trophies, including the Champions League in 2003 and Scudetto a year later. He moved back to Benfica in 2006 after the emergence of Kaka saw his minutes reduced.

Federico Bernardeschi

Bernardeschi came through the youth ranks at Fiorentina, with big things expected of him as he burst onto the scene after an impressive loan at Crotone in Serie B in the 2013-14 season.

During three years in the first team, Bernardeschi scored 23 goals in 93 games and registered 11 assists, which unfortunately for Viola fans saw old enemies Juve come swooping in again.

He has claimed three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italia trophies in Turin, as well as being a part of the Italy squad that won the rescheduled Euro 2020 last year.

Bernardeschi, who has scored just 11 times in 170 games for Juve, largely remains a squad player under Massimiliano Allegri, in part because of this next man...

Federico Chiesa

Another Fiorentina youth product, Chiesa had all eyes on him as soon as he broke through due to being the son of former Viola and Italy striker Enrico Chiesa.

Chiesa Jr made his first-team debut, somewhat ironically, against Juve at the age of 18, and over the next couple of years began to establish himself as the potential future of the club.

More suited to playing out wide than his father, who was a traditional central striker, Chiesa's managed 34 goals and 19 assists in 153 games at Fiorentina but it his tenacity, pace and skill that sets him apart.

That was enough to tempt – yes, you guessed it – Juve to come along and take him on a two-year loan, with an obligation to make it permanent at the end of the current campaign.

Chiesa had an impressive first season at Juve, including scoring the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta, before starring for Italy in their successful Euro 2020 campaign, scoring twice in seven appearances and making the team of the tournament.

He started 2021-22 in sharp form, only for a serious knee injury to end his season early.

 

There also must be honourable mentions for the likes of Luca Toni, whose emergence at Fiorentina earned him a lucrative move to Bayern Munich, and Francesco Toldo - he was sold to Inter at the same time that Costa was packed off to Milan to ease club debts.

Juan Cuadrado (now at Juventus) and Marcos Alonso were both sold to Chelsea for decent money two years apart, while Felipe Melo (Juventus), Stevan Jovetic (Manchester City) and Matias Vecino (Inter) continued Fiorentina's philosophy of buying low and selling high.

The path well-trodden out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi has often led to bigger and better things, and that bodes well for Vlahovic now that it appears he will be the next in line.

He seems to have all the tools to be the star striker this current, rather dour, edition of the Bianconeri require. Indeed, Vlahovic's 33 goals in Serie A last season matched the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo at Juve in 2020.

It might be tough to take (again) for Viola fans, but if history is anything to go by, their next hero won't be far away.

Of course, he'll probably also sign for Juve eventually, but that will just be a case of crossing the Ponte Vecchio when they come to it.

Just months ago, there were doubts over Rafael Nadal's future. Now, he is a win away from a record-breaking major triumph.

Nadal overcame Matteo Berrettini 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-3 in the Australian Open semi-finals on Friday, reaching his 29th grand slam decider.

The Spaniard is a win away from a 21st grand slam title, which would break his tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for the most won by a man.

Such events looked incredibly unlikely just months ago.

Nadal ended his 2021 season in August after playing just seven events, a persistent foot injury not only derailing his season but threatening his career.

"Everybody around me, me included, of course, but everybody around me had a lot of doubts. Not about the Australian Open, no, but about coming back on the Tour because the foot was bothering me a lot of days," Nadal said after his third-round win over Karen Khachanov.

"Of course, still today there are doubts because the foot, as I said the other day, is an injury we cannot fix … so we need to find a way that the pain is under control to play, to keep playing. That's the goal.

"Honestly, I was not able to practice very often. But when I was practising, the feeling on the ball was quite good. There have been a lot of months without competing. The movements, all this stuff, you need to recover day by day. There is no way to recover those things without competing. That's what I need, keep playing. Already three and three, so six matches on my back, and positive ones. Every day a little bit better, so I'm happy for that."

 

After a four-month absence, Nadal made his return at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi in December. Days later, he tested positive for COVID-19.

Still, he made the trip to Australia, winning his 89th ATP Tour title at the Melbourne Summer Set, his first hard-court crown since February 2020.

That success was incredible, given Nadal played just 14 tournaments in total in 2020 and 2021.

"Of course, when you are getting a little bit older, all the comebacks are tougher," Nadal said after beating Marcos Giron in the opening round. "This has been especially, well, difficult because it's not only a comeback from an injury, it's a comeback trying to be back on the Tour after almost two years playing not many events with the virus.

"If you remember in 2020 I only played here and Acapulco, then I just played in Rome, Roland Garros, Paris and London. Six events.

"In 2021 I played just here and then [it] was clay, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros. Washington, yeah. Another six events – 12 events in two years are not many. If we add that I was not able to practice very often, too, it's a really tough one, no?

"But here I am. I am super happy about all the work that we have done to try to be back. We are here enjoying the tennis, and that's it. We're going to keep trying hard."

Nadal is back. Not just back playing, but back fighting his way into grand slam finals, and back in position to make more history.

Australia expects as Ash Barty faces Danielle Collins in Saturday's grand slam final at Melbourne Park.

The world number one, from Ipswich, Queensland, will be bidding for her third grand slam singles title but a first at the Australian Open.

The wait for a home champion has been a long one, but it could soon be over.

Chris O'Neil was the last Australian winner of the women's singles, way back in 1978, while the last men's singles champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

Australia has hardly been starved of tennis talent over the past 40 years, but for one reason or another, the home slam has been beyond their reach.

Here, Stats Perform remembers the household names who have seen their hopes dashed in Melbourne.

Jelena Dokic

Dokic never came close in Melbourne, truth be told. Which is not to say she lacked the ability, having reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2000 and climbed as high as number four in the WTA rankings two years later. Dokic's career was blighted by a traumatic relationship with her overbearing and violent coach and father, Damir, whom she alleged physically abused her on many occasions. Her best performance at Melbourne Park came against all expectations, at the outset of a tour comeback in 2009 when she reached the quarter-finals, losing out there to Dinara Safina. Dokic, who is now 38 and retired from the tour, has been conducting on-court interviews during this year's Australian Open.

Lleyton Hewitt

'Rusty' won Wimbledon and US Open titles at the peak of his powers, and reached number one in the world at the age of 20. Before Roger Federer came along with different ideas, it seemed Hewitt might rule the roost in the men's game for years to come. He reached one Australian Open final, and in 2005 that was a glorious chance to secure a home major as he faced Russian Marat Safin in the final. Hewitt won the first set, but then Safin took command, winning in four. Incredibly, it would be the last grand slam men's singles final not to feature Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic until the 2014 US Open (Nishikori v Cilic).

Pat Cash

Cash's career peak came at Wimbledon in 1987, when he beat Ivan Lendl to capture the title before famously climbing up to the players' box. At the start of that year he almost won the Australian Open, too, when that tournament was staged on grass at Kooyong, in Melbourne's suburbs. He lost a five-set thriller to Stefan Edberg, another grass-court master, and when the tournament moved to Melbourne Park a year later, shifting to hardcourts, Cash was a finalist once more. Again, he suffered heartbreak in a deciding set, Mats Wilander denying Cash home glory, and he would never play a grand slam final again.

Samantha Stosur

Stosur, who called time on her singles career after a second-round defeat in Melbourne this year, was Australia's most recent women's singles grand slam champion until Barty came along. She triumphed at the 2011 US Open, sensationally beating Serena Williams in the Flushing Meadows final, and got to as high as number four in the world. She also reached the 2010 French Open final, but Stosur was never a factor in the business end of her home major, at least in singles. The fourth round was the furthest she ever went, but it was a different story in doubles, as she won an Australian Open mixed title in 2005, alongside fellow Australian Scott Draper. In the twilight of her career, in 2019, she teamed up with Zhang Shuai to win the women's doubles, a poignant success after so much singles frustration.

Mark Philippoussis

Philippoussis, aka 'Scud', was a US Open runner-up in 1998 and also reached the 2003 Wimbledon final, where he was the sacrificial lamb as Federer scooped the first grand slam title of his career. In Australia, though, just like Stosur, his slam peak was round four, a disappointment considering his talent and weaponry. In 1996, Philippoussis stunned the then world number one Pete Sampras in the third round in Melbourne, only to lose to lowly ranked compatriot and doubles expert Mark Woodforde in his next match. Arguably the most famous story concerning Philippoussis and the Australian Open is the widely reported rumour he was spotted kissing Anna Kournikova in an underground car park at the 2000 tournament. Both denied it. "Just good friends," was Kournikova's verdict.

Pat Rafter

Rafter won back-to-back US Opens in 1997 and 1998, as well as reaching consecutive Wimbledon finals in 2000 and 2001. A semi-final run in Melbourne in 2001, which proved to be the serve-volley master's last year on tour, was Rafter's best performance at his home slam, eventual champion Andre Agassi coming from two sets to one down to deny him a place in the title match.

Nick Kyrgios

All the talent in the world, but Kyrgios appears to be happy enough ploughing a unique furrow though his tennis career. Top five in the shot-making stakes, Kyrgios turns 27 in April and his ability has taken him to just two slam quarter-finals to date, including at the 2015 Australian Open. He was a junior champion at Melbourne Park in 2013, and has also reached the fourth round twice in the seniors. It is up to Kyrgios whether he wishes to make optimum use of his remarkable racket skills or carry on entertaining with virtuoso, but short-lived, singles runs. You wonder whether a Barty triumph could ignite this firecracker of a player.

Every league seems to have those teams that just produce talent on an apparently non-stop basis, before those players inevitably get picked off by the bigger boys.

In Germany, you can't move for former Schalke or Stuttgart players. There's Lyon and Monaco in France, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia in Spain, Southampton and Aston Villa in England.

In Italy, that team is probably Fiorentina, who appear to be in the same position once again as La Viola are reportedly on the verge of selling star striker Dusan Vlahovic to Juventus for a deal believed to be in the region of €75million.

Stats Perform takes a look at some of the biggest names in Italian football who made a name for themselves with the team from Tuscany, and what they went on to achieve in the game.

 

Roberto Baggio

Having begun his career at Vicenza, The Divine Ponytail's move to Fiorentina saw his star rise as he spent five impressive years in the purple shirt.

However, after he helped Fiorentina to the 1990 UEFA Cup final, only to be defeated over two ill-tempered legs by their great rivals Juventus, salt was very much rubbed into the fans' wounds as the Bianconeri paid a then world-record fee to take Baggio.

Reports claimed that fans hurled bricks, chains and Molotov cocktails at Fiorentina's headquarters, and for the two days after the transfer was announced, club president Flavio Pontello took shelter in the stadium, with 50 injuries and nine arrests recorded.

Baggio would only improve his reputation further at Juve, winning the UEFA Cup in 1993, before securing a league and cup double two years later, scoring 115 goals in 200 games across five seasons before moving to Milan, where he won another Scudetto in his first year.

After being dismissed by Fabio Capello at San Siro in 1997, Baggio had an impressive season at Bologna where he scored a personal best 22 league goals, before moving back to the city of Milan with Inter.

Things did not work out at the Nerazzurri but he still went on to enjoy four final seasons in Serie A with Brescia, where he reached double figures in each campaign before retiring in 2004.

Gabriel Batistuta

There is arguably no more iconic player in Fiorentina history. A striker who football fans of a certain vintage remember banging in goals on Sunday afternoons during the nineties.

Unlike most of the players on this list, Batistuta actually spent the majority of his career at Fiorentina, staying for nine years before his big-money move to Roma.

The man affectionately known as 'Batigol' remains the club's record goalscorer with 159 goals in 198 games, though it does help his record that people like Vlahovic are usually sold before they can get anywhere near that total.

Though he had won a Coppa Italia, Batistuta wanted a Scudetto and moved to Roma in 2000 in order to get it. It was the highest fee ever paid for a player over the age of 30, a record which stood until Leonardo Bonucci moved to Milan from Juventus in 2017.

It seemed like a justified move when Batistuta scored 20 goals, including netting against his former club, on the way to winning the title in his first season in the Italian capital, but was unable to reach those heights again, scoring just 11 over the following season and a half before a loan move to Inter.

Rui Costa

The Portuguese maestro had made a name for himself at Benfica before moving to Italy in 1994 and making 230 appearances in seven years with La Viola, winning two Coppa Italia titles.

However, like Batistuta, Rui Costa was moved on for big money to try and help the club's finances, ending up at Milan for a then club-record fee of around £35m.

Rui Costa spent five years at San Siro where he won six trophies, including the Champions League in 2003 and Scudetto a year later. He moved back to Benfica in 2006 after the emergence of Kaka saw his minutes reduced.

Federico Bernardeschi

Bernardeschi came through the youth ranks at Fiorentina, with big things expected of him as he burst onto the scene after an impressive loan at Crotone in Serie B in the 2013-14 season.

During three years in the first team, Bernardeschi scored 23 goals in 93 games and registered 11 assists, which unfortunately for Viola fans saw old enemies Juve come swooping in again.

He has claimed three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italia trophies in Turin, as well as being a part of the Italy squad that won the rescheduled Euro 2020 last year.

Bernardeschi, who has scored just 11 times in 170 games for Juve, largely remains a squad player under Massimiliano Allegri, in part because of this next man...

Federico Chiesa

Another Fiorentina youth product, Chiesa had all eyes on him as soon as he broke through due to being the son of former Viola and Italy striker Enrico Chiesa.

Chiesa Jr made his first-team debut, somewhat ironically, against Juve at the age of 18, and over the next couple of years began to establish himself as the potential future of the club.

More suited to playing out wide than his father, who was a traditional central striker, Chiesa's managed 34 goals and 19 assists in 153 games at Fiorentina but it his tenacity, pace and skill that sets him apart.

That was enough to tempt – yes, you guessed it – Juve to come along and take him on a two-year loan, with an obligation to make it permanent at the end of the current campaign.

Chiesa had an impressive first season at Juve, including scoring the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta, before starring for Italy in their successful Euro 2020 campaign, scoring twice in seven appearances and making the team of the tournament.

He started 2021-22 in sharp form, only for a serious knee injury to end his season early.

 

There also must be honourable mentions for the likes of Luca Toni, whose emergence at Fiorentina earned him a lucrative move to Bayern Munich, and Francesco Toldo - he was sold to Inter at the same time that Costa was packed off to Milan to ease club debts.

Juan Cuadrado (now at Juventus) and Marcos Alonso were both sold to Chelsea for decent money two years apart, while Felipe Melo (Juventus), Stevan Jovetic (Manchester City) and Matias Vecino (Inter) continued Fiorentina's philosophy of buying low and selling high.

The path well-trodden out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi has often led to bigger and better things, and that bodes well for Vlahovic now that it appears he will be the next in line.

He seems to have all the tools to be the star striker this current, rather dour, edition of the Bianconeri require. Indeed, Vlahovic's 33 goals in Serie A last season matched the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo at Juve in 2020.

It might be tough to take (again) for Viola fans, but if history is anything to go by, their next hero won't be far away.

Of course, he'll probably also sign for Juve eventually, but that will just be a case of crossing the Ponte Vecchio when they come to it.

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