Cristiano Ronaldo ripped off his shirt and celebrated as though he had netted the winner in a World Cup final, rather than a stoppage-time clincher at Udinese that was disallowed moments later.

That was his farewell moment at Juventus, the performative Portuguese signing off with a magical thumping header that counted for nothing and a yellow card for showing the world that torso once again.

Manchester City awaited him, so it seemed, but incredibly Ronaldo is heading back to the red half of the city, back to Manchester United, providing wages and fitness prove no obstacle. Terms for the transfer have been agreed with Juve.

United have swooped for Ronaldo twice now, as an 18-year-old and at the grand age of 36. Derby day on the first weekend in November is now a red-letter day.

Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid at the end of the 2008-09 season, just weeks before Carlos Tevez swapped red for blue, pointing to a swing in the balance of power in English football.

Twelve years later and he is back in the north west, United pinching him from under the noses of City to lead their attack and the pursuit of Premier League glory.

 

But none of this makes sense...

Ronaldo looked a banker for a City switch before United and Jorge Mendes, the player's agent, held discussions. The Manchester Evening News reported Ronaldo's former United boss and mentor Alex Ferguson spoke to the one-time Old Trafford boy wonder, and that involvement looks to have been a moment that helped sway the now veteran striker from blue to red. Perhaps Rio Ferdinand's phone call also helped.

Pep Guardiola was expected to be cautious about the prospects of Ronaldo joining his City squad when he held a lunchtime news conference, but only out of sensible circumspection. Rather than playing a straight bat, however, he was highly pessimistic, and that was an alert that something had changed dramatically.

The BBC soon reported City had ended their interest in Ronaldo, who had instead begun talks with United, and the hints that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dropped in United's earlier news conference grew in resonance. At shortly before 17:00 BST, confirmation arrived from United of an agreement with Juve. All this within hours of Ronaldo saying his goodbyes at Juve's training ground in the morning.

Why do United need him? They seem well stocked for strikers

Ronaldo is unmistakably in the diminishing returns stage of his career, much like Edinson Cavani whom he joins in the Old Trafford ranks. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are at the opposite end, striving to become United greats, and Anthony Martial, who should be nearing his peak years, is desperate for a run of games.

Into this battle for places walks one of the two greatest players of the past 20 years – some would say of all-time – and Solskjaer will discover his former team-mate Ronaldo still has a huge appetite for the game. His goal celebration antics at Udinese were easy to mock in light of the VAR outcome, but they showed his passion burns bright.

The data tells us Ronaldo is a fading force, but by most standards he remains a formidable footballer. He scored a decidedly healthy 36 goals for Juventus across all competitions last season, at one every 104.19 minutes. The minutes-per-goal ratio was a slight improvement on his first two campaigns with Juve, but in eight of his nine years at Real Madrid he scored at a rate better than one every 90 minutes.

He is also contributing far less in other areas of the pitch than during his prime years. Ronaldo won just six tackles last season, and only three in the league. Only five strikers with five goals or more in Serie A last season won fewer. In his 60-goal third season at Madrid, Ronaldo won 33 tackles.

Ronaldo also made 73 crosses in open play across all competitions, and 64 came in the league, the fifth-highest total of any five-goal-plus Serie A striker, but that number is far from what the former Sporting CP was producing at his career's peak. In his final season at United (2008-09) he put in 197 open-play crosses, and he topped 100 in each of his first three seasons at Madrid (2009-10 to 2011-12).

He continues to produce excellent figures, but he no longer vastly exceeds his expected goals (xG) totals and has instead almost exactly matched them in each season while at Juventus (2018-19: 28 goals from 28.3 xG; 2019-20: 37 goals from 35.84 xG; 2020-21: 36 goals from 35.34 xG).

At his best with Madrid, Ronaldo hit 55 goals in the 2012-13 season from an xG of 29.49, indicating he was far exceeding expected performance levels based on the quality of his chances.

He remains a tremendous penalty box predator and it would be surprising if he fails to hit 20 goals in the Premier League, but Ronaldo's contribution outside the 18-yard box has fallen away.

His style looked an awkward fit for City, who have sought flexibility from their front players, often favouring a 'false nine' system. Ronaldo has evolved from thrilling winger in his teens to feared targetman, and United's style is far more fitting to his game, so that aspect of the transfer makes sense.

United presumably also very much wanted him so that City couldn't have him.

What it means for United

Ronaldo gave United six years of his young career before being granted his wish to leave in June 2009, making a then world record £80million switch to Madrid.

He departed after a season where United won the Premier League and City finished 10th, with Ferguson's team also lifting the EFL Cup, reaching the FA Cup semi-finals and finishing runners-up to Barcelona in the Champions League.

Much has changed in English football, but Ronaldo is not blind to that. This represents a chance to end his career bathed in glory again in Manchester, with the Old Trafford crowd ready to worship him once more.

City won the Premier League by 12 points last season and they began this campaign as favourites to notch up another title. Signing Ronaldo would not only have hurt United deeply, but it would possibly have made this year's title race a procession.

Consider it game on now.

It was May 10, 2009, when Ronaldo last appeared in a United-City clash, scoring a deflected free-kick before being rested after 58 minutes by Ferguson as the Red Devils scored a 2-0 Old Trafford victory.

Ronaldo left the field in frustration, wanting to play for longer, but days earlier he had been the prime architect of the famous 3-1 win at Arsenal in the Champions League semi-finals, and Ferguson wanted to save his star asset for the tests ahead, particularly the European final against Guardiola's Barcelona.

Now the long-retired Ferguson's influence tells once more. He persuaded Ronaldo to take his United career into extra time during his first stint at the club, and now the man Jose Mourinho describes as Solskjaer's 'big boss' has struck again.


Messi v Ronaldo: The reunion's off!

The great rivalry between the standout players of their generation looked set to be rekindled in the Champions League group stage, with Ronaldo's City taking on Messi's PSG. Scrub that now though. Any such clash will have to wait for the knock-out rounds, with United having Villarreal, Atalanta and Young Boys to negotiate in their pool.

This announcement tells us United are craving Champions League success again. They have won the competition three times, while Ronaldo has done so on five occasions, once with United and four times at Madrid. In three years at Juventus, he could not drag the Old Lady of Italian football to European glory, however, a disappointment given that had been ostensibly why he was signed.

United's owners, the Glazer family, will expect the investment in Ronaldo to pay off handsomely, given his commercial appeal and United's global reach. And the  Glazers even stand to earn a little rare kudos from supporters who are bound to get misty-eyed at this deal.

Signing a five-time Ballon d'Or winner will be interpreted as taking a short-cut to glory. It is a gamble too though.

Two Scudetti in three years at Juventus was one fewer than Ronaldo may have expected to take away from Turin, given Juventus were on a seven-in-a-row streak when he joined, and the coach who delivered the second of those titles, Maurizio Sarri, recently spoke of the challenges involved in accounting for the Portuguese's imposing presence.

Sarri told Sportitalia in July: "The management of Ronaldo is not easy, he is a multinational that has personal interests to match those of the team. It is certainly a difficult situation to manage."

But Sarri ventured that there were "many positive aspects because at the end of the year Ronaldo brings important results".

The ego has landed, back in Manchester, back in red. It's one-nil to Solskjaer and his big boss in the season's first battle of Manchester, and the rest of the campaign should be a thrill ride.

Cristiano Ronaldo is heading back to Old Trafford.

Going into Friday, it seemed as though Manchester City would be signing one of United's all-time greats.

On Friday morning, the deal appeared to be edging closer – Ronaldo was pictured leaving Juventus' training ground before coach Massimiliano Allegri confirmed the 36-year-old was departing the club altogether.

Yet in the time it took for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Pep Guardiola to complete their pre-match news conferences, the deal had turned on its head.

By early afternoon in the United Kingdom, City had pulled out to leave United as clear front-runners and, just before 17:00 BST, Ronaldo's sensational return to Old Trafford had been confirmed.

United reached an agreement with Juve for the attacker, who scored 81 goals in 98 Serie A matches after joining from Real Madrid in 2018, nine years after his first spell in the Premier League ended.

The €23million (£19.7m) deal is subject to the completion of personal terms, a medical and the acquisition of a visa, but none of those are expected to cause issues.

So, with Ronaldo set to be back in the fold, Stats Perform assesses how United are likely to line up.

4-2-3-1: David de Gea; Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw; Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba; Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford; Cristiano Ronaldo.

GK: David de Gea

While he's probably no longer regarded among the world's very best goalkeepers, De Gea still edges out Dean Henderson for a place in this team at the moment, though he is sure to be pushed hard once the England international returns from injury. De Gea played 26 times in the league last season and conceded 32 goals from an expected goals against (xGA) value of 28.1, meaning he was culpable for the concession of nearly four goals over the course of the campaign. Henderson, on the other hand, outperformed his xGA figure of 13.8 by only conceding 12 goals in the 13 appearances he made, giving him a 'goals prevented' record of 1.8 – this suggests he was the more dependable of the two goalkeepers, and his save percentage of 76.5 was significantly better than De Gea's (65.2) as well.

RB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Wan-Bissaka made 34 league appearances last term. Of all defenders in the top flight, only Leeds United's Luke Ayling (61) registered more successful tackles than the former Crystal Palace full-back (54), though his success rate of 61.4 per cent was better than the former's (56.5 per cent). Wan-Bissaka also improved his contributions to United's attack with six goal involvements, a figure bettered by only six defenders, while just four kept more than the 13 clean sheets he recorded.

CB: Raphael Varane

Ronaldo will be joining up with one of his former Madrid team-mates, with World Cup-winner Varane having previously arrived to bolster United's defence. Out of LaLiga defenders to contest 20 or more aerial battles last term, Varane led the way with a 76 per cent success rate, which vastly improves on Victor Lindelof's 59.4 per cent aerial success rate from last season.

CB: Harry Maguire

Alongside Varane, Maguire adds leadership and Premier League experience. The England man won 63.8 per cent of his duels last season, while his aerial prowess should help United dominate in both boxes. His ability with the ball often gets overlooked, and expect to see plenty of long diagonals from left to right, where Jadon Sancho or Mason Greenwood will no doubt be waiting.

LB: Luke Shaw

Shaw does have Alex Telles as quality competition but there is no doubting the 26-year-old's place in this XI. Of Premier League defenders, only Trent Alexander-Arnold (77) created more chances than Shaw (72) last term, while the left-back created an average of 2.4 opportunities per 90 minutes, the most in the league among defenders.

CM: Scott McTominay

Ronaldo's signing does mean one thing; Solskjaer has to be bold with his team selections. With so much attacking quality at his disposal, the Norwegian must, outside of the biggest games, dispense with a midfield duo of McTominay and Fred, and it is the Scotland international – who is currently out injured – who should get the nod.

CM: Paul Pogba

A long-standing issue with Solskjaer's preferred 4-2-3-1 is whether or not it gets the best out of Pogba, who starred for France at Euro 2020 in a midfield three. That has not been much of an issue so far this season as he's been filling in brilliantly on the left in Marcus Rashford's absence, with Pogba already registering five assists, becoming the first player in Premier League history to manage that tally across the opening two games of a campaign.

RW: Jadon Sancho

If Ronaldo is one for the here and now, then Sancho is a player for United's future, though the ex-Borussia Dortmund flyer is of course a star in his own right. He seems likely to alternate with Greenwood for a role on the right. He scored 38 goals and provided 45 assists in 104 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund; since his debut in October 2017, only Thomas Muller (91) and Robert Lewandowski (137) managed more direct goal involvements prior to the start of 2021-22.

AM: Bruno Fernandes

Ronaldo will not be the only Portugal star on show at Old Trafford. Solskjaer's team has been built around Fernandes, who created a league-high 95 shooting chances last season, assisting 12 goals and scoring a further 18. His hat-trick against Leeds on the opening day of 2021-22 also has him joint-top of the scoring charts after two games.

LW: Marcus Rashford

Rashford is currently recovering from surgery on a shoulder injury that plagued his 2020-21 campaign, with Pogba, Anthony Martial, Sancho, Greenwood and Daniel James – if he stays put – likely to battle it out for a place on the left in the meantime. Ronaldo, of course, can also play from the left, though it seems he will be much better utilised as the focal point in United's attack.

ST: Cristiano Ronaldo

United have Edinson Cavani, but there can surely be no doubt who will start in the majority of matches. Ronaldo is a bona fide superstar who has – alongside Lionel Messi – sustained his success at the highest level for almost 20 years. Ronaldo is the only United player to score 30+ goals in a season in Premier League history (31 in 2007-08), and while that record may seem out of reach, his arrival could have transformed the Red Devils into genuine title contenders.

Cristiano Ronaldo ripped off his shirt and celebrated as though he had netted the winner in a World Cup final, rather than a stoppage-time clincher at Udinese that was disallowed moments later.

That was his farewell moment at Juventus, the performative Portuguese signing off with a magical thumping header that counted for nothing and a yellow card for showing the world that torso once again.

Manchester City awaited him, so it seemed, but incredibly Ronaldo is heading back to the red half of the city, back to Manchester United, providing wages and fitness prove no obstacle. Terms for the transfer have been agreed with Juve.

United have swooped for Ronaldo twice now, as an 18-year-old and at the grand age of 36. Derby day on the first weekend in November is now a red-letter day.

Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid at the end of the 2008-09 season, just weeks before Carlos Tevez swapped red for blue, pointing to a swing in the balance of power in English football.

Twelve years later and he is back in the north west, United pinching him from under the noses of City to lead their attack and the pursuit of Premier League glory.

 

But none of this makes sense...

Ronaldo looked a banker for a City switch before United and Jorge Mendes, the player's agent, held discussions. The Manchester Evening News reported Ronaldo's former United boss and mentor Alex Ferguson spoke to the one-time Old Trafford boy wonder, and that involvement looks to have been a moment that helped sway the now veteran striker from blue to red. Perhaps Rio Ferdinand's phone call also helped.

Pep Guardiola was expected to be cautious about the prospects of Ronaldo joining his City squad when he held a lunchtime news conference, but only out of sensible circumspection. Rather than playing a straight bat, however, he was highly pessimistic, and that was an alert that something had changed dramatically.

The BBC soon reported City had ended their interest in Ronaldo, who had instead begun talks with United, and the hints that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dropped in United's earlier news conference grew in resonance. At shortly before 17:00 BST, confirmation arrived from United of an agreement with Juve. All this within hours of Ronaldo saying his goodbyes at Juve's training ground in the morning.

Why do United need him? They seem well stocked for strikers

Ronaldo is unmistakably in the diminishing returns stage of his career, much like Edinson Cavani whom he joins in the Old Trafford ranks. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood are at the opposite end, striving to become United greats, and Anthony Martial, who should be nearing his peak years, is desperate for a run of games.

Into this battle for places walks one of the two greatest players of the past 20 years – some would say of all-time – and Solskjaer will discover his former team-mate Ronaldo still has a huge appetite for the game. His goal celebration antics at Udinese were easy to mock in light of the VAR outcome, but they showed his passion burns bright.

The data tells us Ronaldo is a fading force, but by most standards he remains a formidable footballer. He scored a decidedly healthy 36 goals for Juventus across all competitions last season, at one every 104.19 minutes. The minutes-per-goal ratio was a slight improvement on his first two campaigns with Juve, but in eight of his nine years at Real Madrid he scored at a rate better than one every 90 minutes.

He is also contributing far less in other areas of the pitch than during his prime years. Ronaldo won just six tackles last season, and only three in the league. Only five strikers with five goals or more in Serie A last season won fewer. In his 60-goal third season at Madrid, Ronaldo won 33 tackles.

Ronaldo also made 73 crosses in open play across all competitions, and 64 came in the league, the fifth-highest total of any five-goal-plus Serie A striker, but that number is far from what the former Sporting CP was producing at his career's peak. In his final season at United (2008-09) he put in 197 open-play crosses, and he topped 100 in each of his first three seasons at Madrid (2009-10 to 2011-12).

He continues to produce excellent figures, but he no longer vastly exceeds his expected goals (xG) totals and has instead almost exactly matched them in each season while at Juventus (2018-19: 28 goals from 28.3 xG; 2019-20: 37 goals from 35.84 xG; 2020-21: 36 goals from 35.34 xG).

At his best with Madrid, Ronaldo hit 55 goals in the 2012-13 season from an xG of 29.49, indicating he was far exceeding expected performance levels based on the quality of his chances.

He remains a tremendous penalty box predator and it would be surprising if he fails to hit 20 goals in the Premier League, but Ronaldo's contribution outside the 18-yard box has fallen away.

His style looked an awkward fit for City, who have sought flexibility from their front players, often favouring a 'false nine' system. Ronaldo has evolved from thrilling winger in his teens to feared targetman, and United's style is far more fitting to his game, so that aspect of the transfer makes sense.

United presumably also very much wanted him so that City couldn't have him.

What it means for United

Ronaldo gave United six years of his young career before being granted his wish to leave in June 2009, making a then world record £80million switch to Madrid.

He departed after a season where United won the Premier League and City finished 10th, with Ferguson's team also lifting the EFL Cup, reaching the FA Cup semi-finals and finishing runners-up to Barcelona in the Champions League.

Much has changed in English football, but Ronaldo is not blind to that. This represents a chance to end his career bathed in glory again in Manchester, with the Old Trafford crowd ready to worship him once more.

City won the Premier League by 12 points last season and they began this campaign as favourites to notch up another title. Signing Ronaldo would not only have hurt United deeply, but it would possibly have made this year's title race a procession.

Consider it game on now.

It was May 10, 2009, when Ronaldo last appeared in a United-City clash, scoring a deflected free-kick before being rested after 58 minutes by Ferguson as the Red Devils scored a 2-0 Old Trafford victory.

Ronaldo left the field in frustration, wanting to play for longer, but days earlier he had been the prime architect of the famous 3-1 win at Arsenal in the Champions League semi-finals, and Ferguson wanted to save his star asset for the tests ahead, particularly the European final against Guardiola's Barcelona.

Now the long-retired Ferguson's influence tells once more. He persuaded Ronaldo to take his United career into extra time during his first stint at the club, and now the man Jose Mourinho describes as Solskjaer's 'big boss' has struck again.


Messi v Ronaldo: The reunion's off!

The great rivalry between the standout players of their generation looked set to be rekindled in the Champions League group stage, with Ronaldo's City taking on Messi's PSG. Scrub that now though. Any such clash will have to wait for the knock-out rounds, with United having Villarreal, Atalanta and Young Boys to negotiate in their pool.

This announcement tells us United are craving Champions League success again. They have won the competition three times, while Ronaldo has done so on five occasions, once with United and four times at Madrid. In three years at Juventus, he could not drag the Old Lady of Italian football to European glory, however, a disappointment given that had been ostensibly why he was signed.

United's owners, the Glazer family, will expect the investment in Ronaldo to pay off handsomely, given his commercial appeal and United's global reach. And the  Glazers even stand to earn a little rare kudos from supporters who are bound to get misty-eyed at this deal.

Signing a five-time Ballon d'Or winner will be interpreted as taking a short-cut to glory. It is a gamble too though.

Two Scudetti in three years at Juventus was one fewer than Ronaldo may have expected to take away from Turin, given Juventus were on a seven-in-a-row streak when he joined, and the coach who delivered the second of those titles, Maurizio Sarri, recently spoke of the challenges involved in accounting for the Portuguese's imposing presence.

Sarri told Sportitalia in July: "The management of Ronaldo is not easy, he is a multinational that has personal interests to match those of the team. It is certainly a difficult situation to manage."

But Sarri ventured that there were "many positive aspects because at the end of the year Ronaldo brings important results".

The ego has landed, back in Manchester, back in red. It's one-nil to Solskjaer and his big boss in the season's first battle of Manchester, and the rest of the campaign should be a thrill ride.

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to be playing back at Old Trafford again in 2021-22 after Manchester United confirmed they have reached an agreement with Juventus for the transfer of the Portugal great.

While personal terms, a medical and visa are still to be sorted out for Ronaldo, it would take something remarkable to stop him from joining now after a deal reportedly worth up to €23million (£19.7m) was agreed with Juve on Friday.

For a short while it looked as though Ronaldo – who had asked to leave the Bianconeri – was heading to Manchester City after they missed out on the signing of Harry Kane.

But apparent interventions from Ronaldo's former United manager Alex Ferguson and old team-mate Rio Ferdinand may have swung the race in the Red Devils' favour.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed to open the door to Ronaldo during his news conference on Friday, and just a few hours later United confirmed a deal had been struck with Juventus.

Following confirmation of the deal, Stats Perform takes a look at greats who went back to their spiritual home, starting with the Portugal captain…

Cristiano Ronaldo – Manchester United

Ronaldo spent six years at Old Trafford during his last spell, arriving as a lanky teenager who probably averaged four stepovers per minute before leaving as a Ballon d'Or winner and an ice-cold finisher. His then-world record move to Real Madrid had been a long time coming and he spent nine years at the Santiago Bernabeu, becoming the club's all-time top scorer as he continued his transition from winger to out-and-out 'number nine'. There he won four Champions League titles before moving on to Juve, for whom he plundered 81 goals in 98 Serie A matches and picked up two Scudetti. But now he is all set for a return to England – whether he can match the standards he set last time remains to be seen, with his 31-goal haul of 2007-08 only bettered once in a 38-match season, though United fans will be convinced he can fire them to a first league title since Ferguson left.

 

Arjen Robben – Groningen

Robben's first retirement lasted just a single season, having announced last year he would be returning to his boyhood club Groningen for the 2020-21 campaign. Robben, now 37, initially brought an illustrious playing career to an end in July 2019 shortly after his 10-year spell with Bayern Munich finished. Although at the time he was linked with a potential return to the team that gave him his professional debut, Robben – who suffered with numerous injury problems throughout his career – opted to retire. He then caused something of a shock as he finally went back to the place where it all began, but once again injuries blighted his availability, restricting him to just seven Eredivisie appearances in 2020-21. Club director Mark-Jan Fledderus wanted him to stay on for another year, but when Robben said at the end of the season that he was going to have a long think about his future, the writing was seemingly on the wall. Another U-turn appears unlikely.

Juan Roman Riquelme – Argentinos Juniors

Perhaps more synonymous with Boca Juniors, where he made his professional debut and also spent most of his final years, Riquelme also had a strong affinity with Argentinos Juniors. He came through the club's academy in the early-to-mid 1990s, before then finishing his immense career at Estadio Diego Maradona in 2014, having also played for Barcelona, Villarreal and Argentina. Although the iconic attacking midfielder appeared close to joining Paraguay's Cerro Porteno the following year, the move never materialised.

Dirk Kuyt – Quick Boys

Kuyt briefly came out of retirement three years ago to help Quick Boys, with whom he spent 13 years as a youth. Playing in the Derde Divisie Saturday league, Kuyt was already working as assistant at the time, but made himself available for selection during a striker shortage and he made three appearances. The former Netherlands and Liverpool forward had retired the year before following a second spell with Feyenoord, where he had made his initial breakthrough in the mid-2000s, his form at the time earning a move to Anfield.

Rafael Marquez – Atlas

One of Mexico's greatest players, Marquez's longevity at such a high level was nothing short of incredible, as he accumulated 147 international caps. After breaking into the Atlas team as a teenager having come through their academy, the elegant centre-back enjoyed a sparkling career in Europe, winning 14 titles across spells with Monaco and Barcelona. Time with New York Red Bulls, Leon and Hellas Verona followed, before a final two-year stint back at the Jalisco ended in 2018. Although plagued by off-field allegations towards the end of his career, Marquez went on to become the club's sporting president, before standing down last in 2019 to focus on other areas of the sport. He was expected to be taking up a youth coaching role at Barca this season, but the deal ultimately fell through.

Henrik Larsson – Hogaborgs

While the Swedish club most may associate with Larsson is Helsingborgs, he actually made the breakthrough at a smaller side – Hogaborgs. It was here where he trained from the age of six, before eventually becoming a regular in the senior side and earning a move away. A trophy laden career followed, taking him to Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United. Although he retired in 2009, he returned to the pitch for Raa in the Swedish third tier three years later, before then finding himself back in the team at Hogaborgs in 2013, helping out due to an injury crisis despite him only previously being registered to a casual team for 'seniors'. This gave him the chance to play alongside his son, Jordan.

Carlos Tevez – Boca Juniors

The Tevez-Boca love affair has dominated most of the striker's successful and complex career. After coming through their youth ranks, the feisty forward was seen as the heir to Maradona. A brief stint in Brazil with Corinthians followed, but Europe had long since beckoned, even if West Ham was by no means the expected destination. He went on to play for Man Utd and City, increasing tension between the clubs, before then going to Juventus, but throughout this time Tevez seemed to long for a return to Boca. He went back to La Bombonera in 2015, his homecoming interrupted by a brief spell with Shanghai Shenhua in 2017 in the Chinese Super League, though even Tevez acknowledged he saw his time in China as a "holiday". "He filled Santa's sack with dollars and now he has returned to Boca," was Maradona's assessment upon 'El Apache's' return from the CSL. His third spell with Boca ended in June 2021 and it remains to be seen if he ever plays for another club.

Gianluigi Buffon – Parma

Buffon likes a comeback. Having returned for a second spell at Juventus in 2019, the goalkeeping great departed the club for a second time at the end of 2020-21. The Italy legend suggested he had not finished playing yet and Parma quickly emerged as a potential destination despite their recent relegation to Serie B. After a few weeks of contemplation, it was confirmed that Buffon was heading back to the club where he made his name. Now 43, the iconic stopper is wearing Gialloblu for the first time in 20 years, and he is set to remain with them until he turns 45, given he signed a two-year contract. What happens after that is anyone's guess but calling it a day with his first club could be a satisfyingly romantic conclusion to a remarkable career – that or he ends up at Juve again!

He is back where he belongs.
He is back home. #SupermanReturns @gianluigibuffon @Kyle_J_Krause @ParmaCalcio_en pic.twitter.com/bh2FO6P8YX

— Parma Calcio 1913 (@1913parmacalcio) June 17, 2021

Virgil van Dijk versus Romelu Lukaku reminds us of the irresistible force paradox: the immovable object in Liverpool's defence meeting the unstoppable might of Chelsea's centre forward.

It makes Saturday's clash at Anfield an unmissable prospect for fans of conflict between tall men from the Low Lands.

Van Dijk was sorely missed as he sat out almost all of Liverpool's title defence season last term, when a series of shattering injury blows to the Reds backline left Jurgen Klopp severely hamstrung.

The Dutch powerhouse has recovered from knee surgery and is back at the heart of manager Klopp's defence, striving for full match fitness, while Lukaku has returned to the Premier League after two years at Inter.

Their much-anticipated tussle this weekend could tell us a lot about the Premier League title prospects of Liverpool and Chelsea this term.


Is Van Dijk physically ready?

Lukaku seized on weakness in the Arsenal defence last weekend to get off the goalscoring mark in his Chelsea career, a decade on from making his debut in a short-lived first spell at Stamford Bridge.

He hit the crossbar with a header too, as the Gunners failed to contain his threat, the Belgian's intelligent movement and physical prowess proving more than Arsenal could contain. He had eight goal attempts, a single-match total that has only been beaten six times in the two years and two weeks between his move to Inter and his Premier League comeback.

It adds up to trouble for Liverpool if Van Dijk is short of his best, and if facing Burnley last week in his second Premier League game was a gauge of where he is at, then there might be questions to ask.

Van Dijk was involved in 12 aerial duels and won just five of those, or 41.7 per cent. That is way down on his league average of 74.3 per cent since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, his first full campaign at Liverpool, Van Dijk winning 393 of 529 such battles in the air.

His passing accuracy of 80.77 per cent was also significantly below par, with Van Dijk only ever having dipped below that 11 times in the league since joining Liverpool in the January 2018 transfer window. Curiously it had happened twice previously against Burnley, perhaps pointing to a certain discomfort when facing the Clarets.


How has United misfit become a hotshot?

Lukaku scored 16 Premier League goals for Manchester United in 2017-18 from an expected goals (xG) tally of 13.43, and 12 from an xG of 10.67 in the following season. He then took his trade to Italy and netted 23 times in Serie A from an xG of 18.85 in 2019-20 before striking 24 times (xG 23.75) in Inter's Scudetto-winning 2020-21 campaign.

His shot conversion rate has climbed incrementally from 18.5 per cent in 2017-18 to 25 per cent last season, and he is a player whose confidence is soaring.

A big chance conversion rate of 39.29 per cent across all competitions in his final season at United was Lukaku's worst since the 2012-13 campaign (37.5 per cent). By improving to 46.51 per cent and then 51.02 per cent in his two years at Inter he was not tucking away those big chances – defined by Opta as situations 'where a player should reasonably be expected to score' – at an outlandish rate, but those are healthy enough numbers.

To take the example of his final season at Everton, the 2016-17 campaign, Lukaku had a big chance conversion rate of 73.08 per cent. That is his capability, which few can hope to match.

Lukaku certainly believes he has returned to England an improved player, and his 11 assists in Serie A last season reflect well in that aspect. In 2018-19 at United, he had no assists, although in the previous campaign he managed seven.


Dribble trouble for Van Dijk?

Lukaku has found his dribbling boots again too, and that has to be bad news for Premier League defences. In his three dazzling seasons at Everton, Lukaku chalked up 105, 87 and 104 attempted dribbles while on Premier League duty, but his totals fell away to 63 and then 41 while at United. Stymied either by the role he was being asked to play, or by his waning spirits, an important part of Lukaku's game went AWOL.

He attempted just 45 dribbles in his first Serie A campaign too, but that shot up to 103 in 2020-21, and the sight of an eager Lukaku with the ball at his feet is a worry for any defender, even one Van Dijk's pedigree.

Famously, Van Dijk is rarely dribbled past by opponents. Since his Liverpool debut in January 2018, he has only been beaten in such a way eight times in the Premier League, the fewest of all defenders with at least 50 games behind them over that time.


Still the full package?

"The package of Virgil van Dijk is really helpful," said Klopp after Liverpool battled to their 2-0 win over Burnley.

Unmistakably true, and the centre-back belongs to the calibre of player that can raise their game to another level when presented with a major challenge. It is why Liverpool spent £75million to bring him in from Southampton. When many thought they were paying over the odds, Liverpool were certain he would take them up a level, and duly he has.

The character and presence of the 2019 Ballon d'Or runner-up can influence those around him, even when the data suggests he is performing, act for act, below his peak levels.

There is no doubt Van Dijk will relish the challenge presented by Lukaku, despite having played on a losing team against Chelsea's new number nine before, notably when United edged Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford in March 2018, as Marcus Rashford's double made the difference.

Saturday's tussle is one between elite-tier Premier League stars, and immovable versus unstoppable is an absurdity that adds up to stalemate.

That may be how Lukaku versus Van Dijk plays out, the match won or lost elsewhere while they scrap out their own spectacular sideshow, two colossi on whom so much will depend over the next nine months.

This weekend is the final round of Premier League action before the international break – who wouldn't want to go into the pause top of their fantasy football league?

Well, hopefully that's where Stats Perform's Opta-powered Fantasy Picks can come in handy and give you the edge over your mates.

You've all presumably already got Bruno Fernandes and Mohamed Salah, so don't expect any more oh-so-obvious tips.

Without any further ado, here are the picks that could hand you the advantage ahead of matchday three of the 2021-22 season…

 

EMILIANO MARTINEZ (Aston Villa v Brentford)

Argentina goalkeeper Martinez was one of the buys of the season in 2020-21 and has established himself as one of the Premier League's best in that time.

Since the start of last term, his tally of 16 clean sheets has been bettered by only Ederson and Edouard Mendy. Those equate to 40 per cent of his Premier League appearances for Villa, a club record among goalkeepers to make at least 10 starts for them.

While Saturday's opponents Brentford enjoyed a strong start against Arsenal, it is fair to say Villa will be more confident of keeping promoted opposition at bay than certain other opponents.

MATT RITCHIE (Newcastle United v Southampton)

Admittedly, picking a Newcastle defender any weekend could be something of a risk given only Leeds United (seven) and Norwich City (eight) have conceded more goals than the Magpies (six)

But Ritchie has enjoyed a bright start to the season as a creative source for Steve Bruce's men, creating nine goalscoring opportunities – only Trent Alexander-Arnold can better that.

While Ritchie may have been a midfielder in past years, he's classed as a defender this time around, and his early-season craftiness could lead to some assist points, which are always something of a bonus among backline options.

JAMES TARKOWSKI (Burnley v Leeds United)

Maximising points from your defenders can be key in fantasy football, particularly considering they're among the least likely to score, but one way to potentially give yourself the edge in that respect is, of course, by picking centre-backs who carry a threat at the other end.

Tarkowski has had more touches in the opposition's box (73) than any other centre-back since the start of last season, while his 4.2 expected goals is the highest xG over the same period among all defenders.

Granted, the fact he's only scored twice from those chances suggests a degree of wastefulness, but who's to say he won't improve in that regard this season? He got one against Brighton and Hove Albion, after all.

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Watford)

Spurs have enjoyed an encouraging start to the season under Nuno Espirito Santo in spite of Harry Kane's situation. Now he is seemingly staying put, a return to the starting XI may be on the cards, and that could play into Son's hands.

The two are known for their strong relationship on the pitch, and Son boasts a fine record against Sunday's visitors Watford, having scored five times against them – that makes the Hornets his second favourite Premier League opposition after Southampton (nine goals).

Son has looked sharp without being spectacular so far this term. Perhaps this weekend is when he really finds his groove...

RAPHINHA (Burnley v Leeds United )

Raphinha has been a revelation at Leeds since joining from Rennes last year, with his form over the past 12 months recently seeing him called up to the Brazil squad for the first time.

He poses something of a double threat in terms of goals and assists, though it is the latter where his strengths lie. Only Bruno Fernandes (7.7) and Alexander-Arnold (7.6) have a better expected assists record than Raphinha (6.9) since he made his first start in November 2020.

However, no one can better his nine assists, which is level with Fernandes and Kevin De Bruyne, and he'll fancy his chances of doing some damage at Burnley this weekend.

MICHAIL ANTONIO (West Ham v Crystal Palace)

After being used as something of a utility man for years, Antonio has seemingly nailed down a spot in West Ham's attack and it's paying dividends.

In his past nine Premier League outings, he's been involved in 10 goals (six scored, four assisted) and the forward has started 2021-22 in irresistible form.

He has already got three goals and two assists this term, with his brace against Leicester City last time out seeing him surpass Paolo Di Canio (47) as West Ham's record goalscorer in the Premier League and leaving him one away from 50.

Given his form, Antonio could be a good bet for the captain selection this weekend.

RICHARLISON (Brighton and Hove Albion v Everton )

He may frustrate on occasion, but few would try to downplay the impact Richarlison has had on Everton since joining from Watford in 2018 and he looks set for a big 2021-22.

No one has as many goal involvements as him (42 – 34 goals, eight assists) during his time at the club and he was a real livewire last time out against Leeds, with his five shots and three key passes the most among Everton players.

Brighton have impressed early on this season, but Richarlison has the ability and confidence to be a real problem.

Liverpool fans enjoyed their return to Anfield for Saturday's 2-0 win over Burnley, and Jurgen Klopp's subsequent comments ensured the focus remained on the Reds.

Discussing Burnley's approach, Klopp said: "Watch wrestling if you like that kind of thing."

Indeed, the Clarets' physicality is "too dangerous", according to the Liverpool manager.

Some of the most intriguing Opta facts from the Premier League weekend emerged from that feisty encounter, while there were predictable developments as Manchester United visited Southampton...

No reds against Reds despite 'wrestling' claims

The clash at Anfield was not quite WWE, but there was also limited football on display. The ball was in play for just 49 minutes and 47 seconds.

That was the second-shortest such length of time for a Liverpool league game under Klopp, longer only than the 48 minutes and 46 seconds against Watford in 2015.

The Hornets won that game 3-0, so it can be an effective stifling tactic, but it did not work on this occasion as Liverpool scored in either half through Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane.

Klopp's men have now won seven consecutive Premier League games while scoring in both halves in each of them. Liverpool's own run of 11 victories with goals before and after half-time in 2014 was the last longer streak.

Burnley are on their own impressive run, though – one at odds with Klopp's frustrations.

Sean Dyche's side are now 95 Premier League matches without a red card since Robbie Brady's late dismissal against Huddersfield Town in January 2019, surpassing the previous competition record that saw Ipswich Town go 94 games without having a player sent off prior to December 1994.

Home comforts at last for City star Laporte

In Manchester City's 5-0 demolition of Norwich City, Aymeric Laporte scored his ninth goal for the club but first at the Etihad Stadium.

Laporte had turned out at City's home stadium 44 times previously without hitting the net, with each of his eight prior strikes coming at different grounds.

The Spain centre-back had goals at the AMEX, Emirates Stadium, Goodison Park, Groupama Stadium, Metalist Stadium, Molineux, Wembley and Vicarage Road before finally celebrating in front of the Etihad supporters.

Another Villa pen makes for Premier League first

Danny Ings' outrageous overhead kick lit up a tight affair between Aston Villa and Newcastle United, but it was a controversial second from the penalty spot that put the game beyond the Magpies.

Ings had scored from 12 yards on his debut against Watford – his volley against Newcastle making him the fourth Villa player to net in each of their first two Premier League games for the club – and so was expected to step up again when Jamaal Lascelles was adjudged to have handled.

Instead, Anwar El Ghazi grabbed Villa's second, maintaining his perfect penalty record in the competition with six from six.

Ings was overlooked despite missing just one of his nine attempts, meaning Villa became the first side in Premier League history to have two different players score spot-kicks in the first two games of a season.

There had been previous examples of two team-mates converting penalties in the same game – Fulham's Louis Saha and Steve Marlet on the opening day in 2002-03, and Southampton pair Dusan Tadic and Charlie Austin on matchday two in 2017-18 – but never in different matches at the start of a campaign.

Dom spot on at Leeds as Gray makes amends

There was a personal penalty first at Elland Road, as Dominic Calvert-Lewin kickstarted Everton's 2-2 draw with Leeds United. It was the England striker's 55th Toffees goal but his first from the spot.

Demarai Gray had Everton in front for a second time in the second half with his maiden strike for the club. Having netted in a 2-0 Leicester City win in 2017, he became the 34th player to score for and against Everton in the Premier League.

That puts Everton fourth in that regard, behind West Ham (46), Aston Villa (42) and Liverpool (39). Villa's Ings and Liverpool's Mane are both included.

Saints brush off Fred the Red's helping hand

It is a fixture best known for a famous grey-clad Manchester United loss, but Southampton's slip-up against a Red Devils side unmistakably dressed in blue and yellow went entirely to script.

Saints led through a Fred own goal, the fourth time United have netted for Southampton in the competition. Only against Newcastle (five) have United scored more own goals.

But Mason Greenwood's equaliser ensured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are now unbeaten in a record-equalling 27 away league fixtures.

For Southampton, this was nowhere near as bad as last season's clash when they collapsed from 2-0 up to lose 3-2 – or, of course, the 9-0 Old Trafford humiliation – but it was still painfully familiar. They have now dropped 42 points from winning positions against United in the Premier League, fewer only than Tottenham's 45 against Arsenal.

Since the start of last season, Saints top the charts for squandering leads, giving up 28 points – three ahead of second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion.

"Dream? I'm not dreaming. One day I'll play here, you'll see."

One cannot have escaped the viral clip shared by former club Anderlecht, as he completed his £97.5million transfer, of Romelu Lukaku visiting Chelsea's Stamford Bridge as a child.

Of course, Lukaku kept that promise in 2011 when he replaced Fernando Torres for the final seven minutes of a 3-1 home win over Norwich City. That was among eight outings at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea blue, but few could blame the forward for feeling a little unfulfilled.

One of the world's best strikers left the club he supported as a boy after 15 games, 466 minutes, 19 shots and zero goals.

There was more to Lukaku's desire to turn out for Chelsea than the badge on the chest, though; he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Didier Drogba, the Blues legend whose shirt he wore in that Anderlecht clip.

That second Stamford Bridge bow is still to come, but Lukaku needed only 15 minutes of his Chelsea return to emulate Drogba.

Of the 164 goals Drogba scored as a Chelsea player, 13 came against Arsenal – four more than he mustered against any other side. There were braces in triumphs in the 2005 Community Shield and 2007 EFL Cup final, as well as a winner in the 2009 FA Cup semi-final, on top of his eight Premier League strikes.

Drogba bullied Arsenal; therefore on Sunday, determined this time to take his chance at Chelsea, so did Lukaku.

Nine years and 360 days after that debut against Norwich, Lukaku made up for lost time with an opener that displayed many of the talents that look set to make Chelsea genuine challengers for the Premier League title.

The 28-year-old was allowed to face the goal at Inter far more often than during an ultimately frustrating spell at Manchester United, carrying the ball 3,040 metres in Serie A last season, but he also continued to link the play, involved in 34 goal-ending open play sequences. He was the beneficiary this time.

Mateo Kovacic fired a pass into Lukaku's feet 30 yards from goal and he held on to the ball just long enough to have four Arsenal players around him by the time he offloaded it back to the former Real Madrid midfielder.

Thomas Tuchel had spoken of how Chelsea wanted a replacement for Olivier Giroud with "the kind of profile who likes to play with his back to goal, who likes to hold up balls, who creates space for Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, who is ready to fight physically with defenders". It was Reece James, rather than Werner, Havertz or Pulisic, who found himself all alone thanks to Lukaku's distraction.

When Kovacic snapped a pass outside to James, the race was on in the middle and there was only going to be one winner. After Arsenal's awful defeat at Brentford, there had been debate about how Ben White would deal with Lukaku's physical presence. With White laid low by COVID-19, it was Pablo Mari who was swatted aside by Lukaku to leave a simple finish.

Arsenal sought to learn their lesson, challenging Lukaku as quickly as possible thereafter, but even that went against them. Granit Xhaka's lunge on Lukaku 10 minutes before half-time saw the ball run instead for Mount, who found James unmarked again to score himself.

As with Drogba, Arsenal never looked comfortable attempting to contain Lukaku, who did not add to his early goal but created three chances, contested 15 duels, won two fouls and counted a 77th-minute header that Bernd Leno instinctively touched onto the crossbar among eight efforts.

The last Chelsea forward to have seven or more shots against Arsenal in a league encounter was, of course, Drogba (in 2006).

Tuchel has spoken at length about how Lukaku's signing can benefit Werner. Up first was a lesson from the sidelines, however, with the much-maligned Germany attacker dropped for the new man and only introduced in the final minute of the 90, providing just a fleeting glimpse of a fearsome front two.

For Arsenal, meanwhile, the scant positives largely came from the same men as last season – Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Kieran Tierney, at least in an attacking sense before his injury – when they stunned Chelsea 3-1 on Boxing Day, having entered the game 15th in the table and winless in seven.

That result inspired a vastly improved run of form, but their progress pales next to Chelsea's under Tuchel. Their signings do not compare to Lukaku either.

"We are trying to bring the players that we can afford, that in this moment can help us to achieve what we want," Mikel Arteta said this week, asked if Arsenal were operating on a "lower level". "Chelsea would have a different plan," he added.

The goal was Lukaku's fourth against Arsenal, but he will back himself to add to that total based on the apparent trajectory of the two teams.

Only two years older than Drogba was when he arrived in England, there is plenty of time to close on his idol's tally in a fixture he dominated.

Have we seen Manny Pacquiao fight for the final time?

The Filipino legend announced he will rest, relax and reconsider his future plans after surprisingly losing to Yordenis Ugas in Las Vegas. Time, however, is not on Pacquiao's side.

The eight-division world champion, who had been due to fight Errol Spence Jr but instead faced a late stand-in, turns 43 in December. It may well be the end of the road for one of boxing's biggest superstars who, after 72 bouts and numerous titles, has little left to achieve between the ropes.

He has demonstrated age is just a number in recent years, producing some outstanding wins ever since losing in the 'fight of the century' against long-time rival Floyd Mayweather Jr in May 2015.

If it is all over, Pacquiao bows out as one of the all-time greats, an undoubted national hero who continued to produce when so many thought his best days were long behind him.


THE LAST HURRAH...OR NOT

Nearly a year after the long-overdue Mayweather fight, Pacquiao returned to action to face a familiar foe in what he claimed beforehand would be his boxing swansong.

"I'm so happy to be hanging up the gloves after this fight because of what I have done," he told the media ahead of facing Timothy Bradley for a third time. "I'm sure I will be sad after that fight. That's life."

Pac-Man had his eyes on becoming a senator in the Philippines at the time, but did not look beyond Bradley, who had won their first meeting via a controversial split-decision verdict, back in 2012.

Pacquiao had prevailed in a 2014 rematch and would also come out on top in the final episode of the trilogy, dropping his opponent twice on his way to a points triumph.  

That was meant to be that, according to the man himself, except before the end of 2016 he was back in action again. Jessie Vargas was no match as Mayweather watched his former opponent from close quarters at ringside, adding fuel to talk of a rematch.

Victory secured the WBO welterweight title for Pacquiao, who demonstrated that despite being just shy of his 38th birthday, he still had plenty left to give. "He's not done fighting yet," said trainer Freddie Roach – and he was right.
 

AN ALMIGHTY UPSET

Jeff Horn was due to be nothing more than a stepping-stone to bigger things. The Australian nearly missed his big opportunity – Pacquiao at one point seemed set to face former gym-mate Amir Khan instead – but had the benefit of home advantage. It was about all most experts felt the underdog had going in his favour ahead of the bout in Brisbane.

However, Suncorp Stadium witnessed the mother of all upsets in July 2017, in part thanks to some questionable scoring.

Horn did more than just surpass pre-fight expectations just by making it to the final bell, though. He showed a willingness to stand and trade with a legendary name, as well as coming through a ninth-round storm that looked at one stage certain to sweep him away.

He finished strongly too, but it was still a surprise to most when the challenger was declared a unanimous winner on all three cards. The verdict raised questions over the judges' scoring, as well as Pacquiao's future in the sport.

The WBO conducted a review into the outcome at the behest of the Philippines government, but a secondary check only vindicated the original outcome. Was Pacquiao done?

The 2021-22 Serie A campaign commences on Saturday following a busy close season that saw more than half of the 20 teams change head coach.

Antonio Conte departed Inter after guiding the club to their first Scudetto in more than a decade, with Simone Inzaghi being plucked from Lazio, who in turn turned to Maurizio Sarri.

Sarri's former club Juventus decided to end the Andrea Pirlo experiment after just a year and opted for a familiar face in six-time title winner Massimiliano Allegri as his replacement.

Luciano Spalletti is back in Serie A with Napoli, meanwhile, and Jose Mourinho has returned to Italy with Roma some 11 years on from his hugely successful stint with Inter.

There will be just as much focus on the dugouts as the field when the new season gets up and running this weekend, then, and some coaches are facing a tougher challenge than others.

Stats Perform looks at what the managerial changes could mean for some of Serie A's biggest clubs.


Inter 

In: Simone Inzaghi

Out: Antonio Conte

Conte will go down in Inter folklore as the man who ended the club's 11-year wait to return to the top of Italian football.

In an ideal world, one in which the Nerazzurri were not in a position whereby they had to sell star players to balance the books, Conte would still be in charge at San Siro.

As it is, though, Inzaghi will be at the helm this coming season and is in a rather unenviable position of having to pick up where Conte left off, minus the goals of Romelu Lukaku.

Inzaghi has his own vision but does not differ too much from Conte in terms of tactics, both coaches favouring a 3-5-2 formation of sorts throughout their careers.

Moving the ball forward quickly will be the aim, with Milan (90) the only side in Serie A last term to register more direct attacks than Inzaghi's former side Lazio (89). By comparison, Inter were third on that list with 80.

While the structure will remain largely the same, losing Lukaku and influential wing-back Achraf Hakimi – albeit with Edin Dzeko and Denzel Dumfries arriving – means Inzaghi will need to get more out of others if Inter are to retain their crown.

 

Lazio

In: Maurizio Sarri

Out: Simone Inzaghi

The man tasked with replacing Inzaghi at Lazio is Sarri, who endured mixed fortunes during his most recent two stints in Serie A with Napoli and Juventus.

Having come so close to ending Juve's stranglehold on the title in 2017-18 while at Napoli, the 62-year-old won the Europa League in his solitary season at Chelsea and was then given just 14 months at the Allianz Stadium.

His stint in Turin came to an early end despite leading Juve to top spot, his style of play – coined 'Sarriball' – deemed too distant from what Juventus typically expect from a head coach (more on that later!).

At the Stadio Olimpico, Sarri will have more freedom to put his spin on things as he looks to build or improve upon last season's sixth-placed finish. A back four, rather than the three-man defence Inzaghi favoured, can be expected.

Sarri teams are known for their verticality, meaning they like to move the ball forwards. Lazio, as already touched upon, are a good fit in that regard.

They ranked lowest in the top eight last season for build-up attacks (83), which is defined as the number of open play sequences that contain 10 or more passes and either ends in a shot or has at least one touch in the opposition box.

The big question, though, is whether Sarri has the personnel to turn Lazio into top-four regulars in the same way he did at Napoli. With Immobile taking on the Gonzalo Higuain role up top, it might just be a possibility.

Juventus

In: Massimiliano Allegri

Out: Andrea Pirlo

While a lot of clubs mentioned are entering the unknown with their managerial appointments, Juve know exactly what they are getting in Allegri.

The 54-year-old guided Juve to five straight Serie A titles and two Champions League finals between 2014 and 2019, having also previously lifted the Scudetto at Milan.

Only one coach in the Bianconeri's history, Giovanni Trapattoni, has overseen more league games than Allegri's 190, while Juve's two highest-scoring seasons dating back as far as 1930 have both come under the stewardship of the returning favourite.

This Juve side has changed since Allegri's first stint, though, and it may take him time to make this team his own again following the aforementioned reigns of Sarri and Pirlo.

Whereas Sarri and Pirlo were a little complex with their tactics and what they expected from players, Allegri will take a different approach. That is not to say Juve will not be able to chop and change things under Allegri, as they did in his previous spell.

One aspect that will surely differ from last season is the number of goals Juve score. They found the net an underwhelming 56 times from open play last season from an expected goals return (xG) of 54.3.

By comparison, champions Inter scored 65 open play goals from a near identical xG as Juve of 54.6. With the prolific Cristiano Ronaldo set to stay at the club for at least one more season, there is hope of reclaiming the title this time around.

 

Roma

In: Jose Mourinho

Out: Paulo Fonseca

The highest-profile of the incoming coaches in Serie A this season, Mourinho arrives with his 'Special One' status still intact in Italy thanks to his success at Inter a little over a decade ago.

Mourinho won as many league titles in two seasons at San Siro (two) as he has in the 11 years since (one), while also lifting the second of his Champions League crowns, the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana during that trophy-laden stay.

The Portuguese won 62 per cent of his matches at Inter but that win rate has steadily declined and he won just 51.2 per cent of his games with Tottenham, leaving the club in April after just 17 months in charge.

Mourinho's sides were so often hard to beat, but Spurs lost 13 times in 2020-21 under him, making it his worst ever season in that regard and he did not even see it all the way through.

But could his career take a turn in the right direction in Rome? Mourinho's tactics have remained largely consistent throughout his career, no matter the club or country he is coaching in.

The back three largely favoured by Paulo Fonseca will become a back four and there will be particular emphasis on Bryan Cristante, a typical Mourinho player in many ways, to shield the defence and get the ball forward.

The addition of Tammy Abraham from Chelsea is clearly a Mourinho signing, helping the fill the void left by Edin Dzeko, but Mou's pragmatic approach is surely a concern for a Roma side that looked better offensively than defensively last season. 

Finding the correct balance will be key, and that ultimately depends on whether Roma have hired the pre-2015 Mourinho or post.

Napoli

In: Luciano Spalletti

Out: Gennaro Gattuso

With spells at seven different Italian clubs under his belt, including two years at Inter, Spalletti certainly does not lack of experience. After two years out of the game, however, the 62-year-old has to quickly prove he is not yesterday's man.

Spalletti made clear when he took over from Gennaro Gattuso that he will look to operate with a 4-3-3, though on the basis of pre-season it may well be a more familiar 4-2-3-1 come the opening day.

He inherits a talented squad that includes the likes of Piotr Zielinski, Victor Osimhen, Dries Mertens, Hirving Lozano and Lorenzo Insigne – for now – in attack.

Napoli had no problems scoring goals last time out, with no team managing more shots from open play than their 493 and only Atalanta (77) and Inter (65) scoring more from non-set-piece situations than their 64.

Pressing is a big part of Spalletti's game and that makes Napoli a good fit as they ranked joint-second in Serie A last season for goals scored from high turnovers (nine), behind only Atalanta (10).

There are already a few rumblings of discontent behind the scenes with regards to transfer activity, but a kind fixture list ensures that Spalletti can hit the ground running in his quest to guide Napoli back into the Champions League.

Barely a month has passed since Giorgio Chiellini lifted the European Championship trophy at Wembley, and it would seem logical to expect Serie A to begin amid high fanfare.

This may prove to be the case, as the opening weekend of the season arrives, but a major talent drain from the Italian league since last term cannot be ignored.

Romelu Lukaku, Cristian Romero and Gianluigi Donnarumma have all moved on, swapping Inter, Atalanta and Milan respectively for Chelsea, Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain.

To put those losses into greater context, of the 2020-21 Serie A end-of-season award winners, that is the MVP, the top defender and the leading goalkeeper all exiting the league.

Sweeping changes on the coaching benches also add to uncertainty as the new campaign begins, with a much-changed Inter hoping to successfully defend their title.


JUVE ON A SCUDETTO MISSION

After the folly of handing dugout rookie Andrea Pirlo the reins before last season, Juventus look to be on firmer ground this time with Massimiliano Allegri back as head coach.

They have brought in Manuel Locatelli from Sassuolo, primed to play a Pirlo-like role on the pitch, and it seems Cristiano Ronaldo will hang around for the final year of his contract.

Rumours continue to encircle the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, but Allegri can likely count on his reliable flow of goals, just as he did for the 2018-19 season – Ronaldo's debut campaign in Turin and the end of the line for Allegri in his first stint as coach.

A six-time Scudetto winner, Allegri will look to get the best out of wingers Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa as they enter their second seasons with the Bianconeri, while it remains to be seen how Paulo Dybala performs as he enters the final year of his deal.

Plagued by injury last season, Dybala started just 14 Serie A games, but results were often perkier when he played. Of those 14 games, Juventus won 10, drew three and lost one, with a points-per-game average of 2.4 when he played from the off, compared to 1.9 when he was absent or a substitute. The win percentage of 71.4 per cent when Dybala was in the starting XI (compared to 54.2 per cent when he was not) is in the ball park that Allegri will be eyeing.

 


INZAGHI STEPS INTO CONTE SHOES

Social media tells us Antonio Conte has been thoroughly enjoying his summer, topping up his tan and seemingly showing no regret over his Inter exit, which came in May, just weeks after he guided the Nerazzurri to title glory.

Conte reportedly left amid concern the club planned to raise funds with sales that have duly come to fruition. The loss of striker Lukaku feels like a body blow, given his influence, and persistent rumours suggest Lautaro Martinez could also move on. Achraf Hakimi is another big loss, but, as with Lukaku, a big fee was banked as the right-back proved a one-season wonder in Italy.

In have come coach Simone Inzaghi, who impressed at Lazio, while Edin Dzeko will be a straight swap for Lukaku in the forward line, albeit unlikely to carry quite the same threat. Former PSV star Denzel Dumfries can replace Hakimi in the attacking right full-back role, and Inter will hope his Euro 2020 form transfers to Serie A duty.

It is hard to see Inter repeating last season's success, and the comedown could be painful. They exceeded their expected goals total last season, scoring 84 goals against an xG of 75.3, and Inzaghi will look for more of the same.

They possess plenty of quality still, but they have likely lost Christian Eriksen for the long term too after his cardiac arrest on Denmark duty at Euro 2020. His survival was everything in June, and now his recovery is all-important. The knock-on effect is that Inter have lost a player who became important over the second half of the season.

So much has changed since that title was secured. Landing Hakan Calhanoglu on a free from Milan looks like great business, but consolidation with a top-four finish may be their limit in the new campaign. That, and being sure to secure city bragging rights again.

 


MOURINHO'S BACK AMID MERRY-GO-ROUND

Never mind Inzaghi and Allegri at Inter and Juve, now is the time to get used to the sound of Maurizio Sarri's Lazio, Vincenzo Italiano's Fiorentina, Luciano Spalletti's Napoli ... and Jose Mourinho's Roma. Milan rather feel like the odd ones out, keeping faith with Stefano Pioli.

A whirlwind of change has swept through Serie A, and it will be worth watching to see quite what impact Mourinho can have on a side who finished 16 points short of the Champions League places last term.

His 'Special One' reputation was enhanced the last time he coached in Italy, guiding Inter to a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League in the 2009-10 campaign.

Spells at Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham have followed, but Mourinho's cachet has diminished over the past decade.

Tammy Abraham has followed him in swapping London for Rome, with the Chelsea striker arriving, along with Eldor Shomurodov from Genoa, to pep up an attack depleted by the loss of Dzeko. Rui Patricio has joined fellow Portuguese Mourinho, and the goalkeeper's arrival from Wolves could prove a fine signing.

Roma won just five Serie A away games last term, and have only had fewer once in a season beginning in the 20th century (4 in 2002-03), while their shot conversion rate of 41.35 per cent can be improved upon, given they topped 50 per cent twice in the 2010s.

Most important for Mourinho, perhaps, will be to build on Roma's poor duel success rate (48.97 per cent) and cutting out the errors leading to goals (10 in 2020-21 in Serie A).

The duel figures are important and were the worst Roma had managed in at least 15 years, while the error count will be simply intolerable to the new boss. Only Bologna committed so many costly errors (also 10). Mourinho has his work cut out.

The wait is over. A week-and-a-half after joining Paris Saint-Germain, Lionel Messi could be set to make his debut against Brest on Friday.

Following his shock exit from Barcelona as a free agent, Messi became the Ligue 1 giants' fifth major signing of the transfer window, joining the superstars Mauricio Pochettino already had at his disposal.

Messi, alongside his former Barca star Neymar, has been training this week, and though Pochettino refused to confirm his squad during Thursday's news conference, it is expected the duo will play a part.

With Kylian Mbappe already back, here's how Pochettino could set out at Brest.

 

GK: Keylor Navas

Navas has been one of Europe's outstanding goalkeepers in recent seasons, ranking third for goals prevented (8.1, using expected goals on target data) in the top five leagues in 2020-21. Gianluigi Donnarumma – the Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020 – did not leave boyhood club Milan just to sit on the bench and, at 22, represents the long-term option, but after only just returning to training, it is likely Pochettino will stick with the former Real Madrid goalkeeper for Friday's game, though the ex-Spurs boss did suggest Donnarumma may be available. 

RB: Achraf Hakimi

Alessandro Florenzi headed back to Roma at the end of his loan, but PSG identified just about the best replacement on the market. Over the previous two seasons, Robin Gosens (34) was the only defender with more goal involvements than Hakimi (30), who scored on his first Ligue 1 appearance.

CB: Marquinhos

PSG won 72.5 per cent of the games Marquinhos played last season in all competitions, conceding 0.7 goals on average. Those numbers altered significantly in his absence, with a winning percentage of 52.9 while shipping 1.1 goals per game. Even with the club's superstar signings, their captain remains one of the key men. Even though he has just returned from an extended break following Brazil's Copa America exploits, it would not be surprising to see the former Roma man thrown straight back into the fray given PSG have conceded three times across their opening two matches.

CB: Presnel Kimpembe

Sergio Ramos, another freebie, may no longer be able to play every game – he appeared only 15 times in LaLiga for Real Madrid last term – but PSG better hope he is there for the big ones. However, the 36-year-old will not be available until September, meaning France defender Kimpembe is likely to continue in the heart of defence for now. He made a game-high four clearances in last week's 4-2 home win over Strasbourg.

LB: Abdou Diallo

This is perhaps the one position on the pitch where PSG lack a genuine world-class option. Even if Pochettino were to bring in Kimpembe as a third centre-back, there is no outstanding left-sided wing-back. Diallo, a defensive full-back in an attacking team, gets the nod by virtue of starting the season fit and ahead of Layvin Kurzawa in the pecking order, while he also assisted Mauro Icardi's opener against Strasbourg.

CM: Ander Herrera

At the end of a season in which Marco Verratti was restricted to only 16 Ligue 1 starts, Euro 2020 provided a reminder of his talents. The Italy midfielder created a tournament-leading 14 chances across just five games while still completing 93.1 per cent of his 417 passes. However, it seems likely we will have to wait to see the playmaker link up with Messi, as he too is only just easing his way back into training. In his place, Herrera seems set to carry on in midfield and, in truth, is a more than able back-up. He attempted 100 passes on matchday two, completing 94 of them.

CM: Danilo Pereira

Leandro Paredes, Messi's international colleague, was trusted for the big occasions in the Champions League. However, he has just returned to training after helping Argentina win the Copa America, while Idrissa Gueye has been out due to COVID-19 protocols. Youngster Eric Ebimbe started against Strasbourg but was replaced by Pereira after an hour, and the towering Portuguese would add some presence in the middle of the park.

CM: Georginio Wijnaldum

Angel Di Maria would be very unfortunate to miss out on a full-strength XI and undoubtedly still has a part to play even with Messi in place, but he too is only just back from international duty. Wijnaldum has featured in both of PSG's Ligue 1 games so far and across his Liverpool Premier League career, led all Reds midfielders in recoveries (951) and duels won (645) and ranked second in interceptions (115) and third in tackles (181).

RW: Lionel Messi

Of course, Messi can play across the front three, but starting from the right – with Hakimi in the Dani Alves role outside him – will bring back memories of Barca teams of old. It is the role he occupied in 2014-15, forming part of perhaps the Blaugrana's most exciting attacking trio, which of course Neymar was also part of.

CF: Kylian Mbappe

Mbappe has the Luis Suarez role, providing the direct runs in behind that create space in front of the defence for Messi and Co, and a video of the two stars linking up in training went viral this week. Last season's 53 goal involvements did not quite match the forward's career-high of 54 in 2018-19, but Mbappe can expect to break all sorts of records in this thrillingly creative line-up this term. He already has two Ligue 1 assists to his name this season, and that is without playing alongside two of the world's best players.

LW: Neymar

Still the world's most expensive player if no longer the biggest name in his own dressing room, Neymar was the third member of that 2014-15 front three. Having decided to step out of Messi's shadow, the Brazil superstar wanted his old friend back. During their four years together at Barca, Neymar assisted Messi 22 times, while the six-time Ballon d'Or winner returned the favour on 20 occasions, and surely the chance to have this sensational front three starting together will be too tempting for Pochettino to turn down – even if it is harsh on the in-form Icardi.

It has been another off-season of change in Italy, but Serie A returns this week and another intriguing campaign awaits.

Inter were champions last term, ending Juventus' run of nine straight Scudetti, but they have not been able to keep their title-winning side together.

Romelu Lukaku is gone, as is coach Antonio Conte, while Massimiliano Allegri has returned to Juve to tee up another tilt.

So, what does that all mean for the coming season? Stats Perform attempts to find out.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Read on to see who can realistically compete with Inter and who should be looking over their shoulders...

THREE FIGHTING FOR TITLE

Inter might have lost some key men, but the model is backing a team that finished second and then first to lead the way again.

The Nerazzurri are given the best chance of taking the title (45.1 per cent), while they certainly should make the top four even without Lukaku and Conte, rated as a 94.2 per cent likelihood.

Unsurprisingly, Juve are the closest challengers to Inter's crown, with a 21.5 per cent shot.

It is not set to be a two-horse race, though, as Atalanta are the third and final team to be given a substantial chance at 19.6 per cent.

In fact, Atalanta's lowest probable finish of ninth is higher than Juve's 10th, with another exciting season expected for La Dea.

 

TOP FOUR SETTLED?

There is strength in depth in Serie A this season, but the model has identified a clear frontrunner for the fourth Champions League place.

Napoli, with a 9.4 per cent title chance, have a 68.6 per cent likelihood of making the top four, putting them well clear of the rest despite finishing fifth in 2020-21.

That means disappointment for big names like Milan, Lazio and Jose Mourinho's Roma.

Milan do have a 44.0 per cent shot at Champions League qualification, but that is a modest opportunity given they were second last term and led the league for half the season. A Scudetto triumph is rated at 3.6 per cent.

Lazio, under Maurizio Sarri, have a 14.9 per cent hope of a top-four place, while Mourinho clearly has work to do as rivals Roma are only given an 8.2 per cent likelihood.

Besides those sides, only Sassuolo – 1.1 per cent for the Champions League, 2.6 for the Europa League and 8.2 per cent for the Europa Conference League – are realistically also in the European picture.

STRAIGHT BACK DOWN AGAIN

The model does not make for pretty reading for the three promoted sides, who are all expected to spend only a single season in the top flight before returning to Serie B.

For Salernitana and Venezia, a particularly brutal campaign could be in store. They are highly likely to go down, rated at 95.9 per cent and 94.8 per cent respectively.

Empoli are given a slightly improved chance but are still expected to be relegated, at 79.3 per cent.

Torino's awful season, finishing 17th in 2020-21, should not be repeated, with merely a 4.3 per cent likelihood of demotion.

That still makes them sixth favourites for the drop, also behind Spezia (6.0 per cent) and Hellas Verona (5.4 per cent).

This should have been a season for Inter fans to enjoy, on the back of a title triumph and with European football returning to some semblance of normality.

Instead, they have lost coach Antonio Conte, top scorer Romelu Lukaku and standout wing-back Achraf Hakimi. Talk of a Tottenham move for Lautaro Martinez – seemingly linked to Harry Kane's future – has not been ruled out entirely.

It leaves the reigning Serie A champions picking up the pieces, with the club's dire financial situation dampening hopes of a successful title defence.

Although there have also been new arrivals, Simone Inzaghi and a 35-year-old Edin Dzeko clearly are not in the same class as Conte and Lukaku.

Inter will be slightly different this season and it is highly likely they will be slightly worse for it.

Downgrade to Dzeko

In Lukaku, Inter have sold a player in his prime coming off his best campaign to date. In Dzeko, the Nerazzurri have brought in a veteran whose Serie A career just plunged to new depths.

Lukaku netted 24 times en route to Inter's Scudetto, while Dzeko's final year with Roma brought only seven league goals.

The Bosnia-Herzegovina international did play a mere 1,825 minutes, but it was his poor form while on the pitch that saw him limited to 20 starts despite featuring in 31 matchday squads.

Dzeko's shot conversion rate of 10 per cent was higher than in two of his seasons in the capital and only margainally lower than 2017-18's 10.5 per cent when he scored 16 times. The decreasing frequency of his attempts was an issue, managing just 3.5 shots per 90 minutes, a trough to contrast to the 2016-17 peak of 5.3.

Inter's new forward fell some way short of his expected goals (xG) total of 13.3 – a failing only partially explained by the expertise of opposition goalkeepers, who prevented 3.6 Dzeko goals according to expected goals on target (xGOT) data, which analyses the quality of the shot rather than the quality of the chance.

Lukaku, on the other hand, outstripped his xG figure of 23.8, even if his attempts were only worth 22.9 xGOT.

It is not only as a scorer that Dzeko slips below Lukaku's standards either. Chelsea's latest record buy was a creative force last term, providing 11 assists. Dzeko had three.

 

Indeed, Lukaku crafted a team-high 52 chances – or 9.4 per cent of Inter's 552 shots across the campaign – while Dzeko laid on 29 (5.3 per cent of Roma's attempts). Dzeko was more involved in build-up play than Lukaku, averaging 49.7 open play sequences per 90 to his predecessor's 44.4, but he could not match Lukaku in terms of passing accuracy (68.8 per cent), passing accuracy in the opposition half (64.8) or passing accuracy in the final third (58.5).

Unsurprisingly, the former Giallorossi favourite also cannot play at the same pace as Lukaku. Dzeko was involved in only six fast breaks to Lukaku's league-leading 17, although he did score twice from such situations. Roma were second in the league in this regard – behind Inter.

But even if the Nerazzurri do slow slightly with Dzeko in the side, his work in moving the ball up the field is still comparable to Lukaku's. He had more carries (7.9) and progressive carries (4.5) than Lukaku last term, while operating in the same ballpark for carry distance (92.6 metres), attempted dribbles (2.9) and completed dribbles (1.3) – all numbers per 90.

The percentage of his touches Dzeko took in the opposition box (17.3) tallied closely (18.3 per cent for Lukaku), too, with the previously prolific attacker's game peculiarly now suited to work away from goal.

An aerial force

As part of his link-up play, Dzeko offers a clear focal point. His 60.4 per cent success rate in aerial duels ranked fourth among Serie A forwards with 100 or more such tussles. Lukaku won only 42.9 per cent in a category led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic (65.7 per cent). Dzeko's 52 flick-ons also put him fourth.

But Dzeko's heading ability does also give Inter a greater threat inside the penalty area. The striker was joint-third for headed attempts (20, excluding blocks), with his 1.0 per 90 double Lukaku's 0.5. As with his feet, Dzeko was wasteful in this regard, scoring only one header while new Inter colleague Martinez nodded in four goals, but a greater sample size shows the danger he can pose. Since his 2015 Serie A debut, Dzeko leads the way for headed attempts (203, excluding blocks) and his 16 goals – making up 18.8 per cent of his total of 85 – are tied for third.

Dzeko therefore looks a good fit in an Inter side who last season topped the charts in succeeding with 24.6 per cent of their open play crosses, leading to a joint-high 92 headed shots and 14 headed goals.

Whether that crossing quality is still at the club is another matter.

Inter's wings clipped

Only nine defenders in Serie A last term attempted 100 crosses, but Hakimi, marauding up the right, was one of them. Within that select group, his crossing accuracy of 23.9 per cent ranked third – just ahead of Leonardo Spinazzola, another exciting wing-back and Dzeko's former Roma team-mate (23.5 per cent).

Hakimi's departure for Paris Saint-Germain robs Inter of that quality and the 36 chances he created. There is pressure on Denzel Dumfries, a €12.5million recruit, to fill that void. He created 41 chances in the Eredivisie last season, yet only five of his 50 crosses were successful.

That ability to deliver from wide positions is merely one of Hakimi's array of attributes, too, with the €60m man carrying the ball 22.7 metres further per 90 than Dumfries while also contributing a goal or assist every 178.1 minutes, compared to the Netherlands international's 308.5 minutes.

 

Inter should at least have increased creativity from midfield, where free signing Hakan Calhanoglu offers an upgrade on the recuperating Christian Eriksen. Calhanoglu, playing for rivals Milan, had league highs in chances created (98) and chances created from set-pieces (50) in 2020-21. Milan led Serie A in goals from set-pieces (16, excluding penalties), but Inter ranked joint-fourth (16) and will surely now improve.

Trying to run it back

If mixed results are anticipated from direct replacements for Lukaku, Hakimi and Eriksen, those moves at least indicate some unlikely joined-up thinking in spite of the chaotic nature of this off-season. Inzaghi's appointment also suggests Inter plan to change little from last season, even with the numerous notable departures.

Like Conte and Inter, Inzaghi's Lazio consistently lined up with a 3-5-2 formation in 2020-21, with their approaches also not dissimilar.

Lazio's press was a little more aggressive, allowing 11.6 passes per defensive action to Inter's 12.8 and also engaging in more pressed sequences (543) despite having slightly more possession (52.9 per cent) than Inter (52.0 per cent). Lazio also scored eight goals from high turnovers.

However, between the replacement of a speedy Lukaku with a slower Dzeko and Inter's pre-existing preference for build-up attacks (119) over direct attacks (80), Inzaghi's playing style might have to be a little more patient this term, even if the new number nine's physical presence will give them an outlet.

These are minor tweaks, though, that should mean Inzaghi can adapt to Inter or Inter to Inzaghi.

Defending champions have rarely had it so tough when preparing for a new campaign, but Inter have done all they can to ensure a new-look side can continue to find success.

Bayern Munich were not the biggest club in their own city, let alone the country, when Gerd Muller signed in 1964.

The Bavarians' major trophy haul at that time consisted of a single league championship in 1932 and a maiden DFB-Pokal success 25 years later. Muller joined a second-tier side.

On Tuesday, two days after the club great's passing, Bayern celebrated his life in fitting fashion with a record-extending ninth DFL-Supercup triumph – a competition they have to win silverware simply to enter.

The Bundesliga dominance, cup after cup and six European crowns... all that history can be traced back to Muller's decision to head for Bayern rather than rivals 1860 Munich.

He was there for the first four Bundesliga titles – the top scorer on each occasion – and for three European Cups in three years, Muller's standards slipping as Jupp Heynckes was the leading marksman in the third season.

In 15 years, the remarkable forward tallied 566 Bayern goals, a benchmark that stands to this day. Muller's Bundesliga total of 365 is also unsurpassed.

As those numbers show, breaking a Muller record is no simple task, but Robert Lewandowski finally did so last season when scoring 41 goals in a single Bundesliga campaign, edging beyond the legend's 40 in 1971-72.

"I achieved a goal that once seemed impossible to imagine," Lewandowski wrote on his Twitter page in May. "I'm so unbelievably proud to make history for Bayern, and to play a part in creating the stories that fans will tell their children – following in the footsteps of legends like Gerd Muller."

 

It made sense then for Lewandowski to be front and centre again at Signal Iduna Park as Muller was remembered.

He clutched a number nine shirt ahead of kick-off as a moment's silence broke into applause, the Borussia Dortmund fans recognising a legacy that goes beyond club lines.

It was a lovely tribute, but Muller would have been more familiar with Lewandowski's subsequent nods to his greatest predecessor.

Muller was the ultimate 18-yard box centre-forward, a mantle Lewandowski has taken on and exhibited expertly against his former side.

Manuel Neuer, another of the Bayern players carrying a Muller shirt, kept Dortmund at bay at one end – finishing with four saves – before his club's latest outstanding number nine showed Erling Haaland and BVB's team of young pretenders how it is done at the other.

"Lewandowski has proven over several years now that he is a world-class striker," coach Julian Nagelsmann said before the game. "Erling hasn't been in the league that long, although his scoring rate is great."

That proven Lewandowski class brought a brutal, brilliant opener, his header from Serge Gnabry's left-wing cross thumped into the bottom-left corner. The outcome of a chance that was worth a moderate 0.29 expected goals (xG) was never in doubt.

And Lewandowski was involved again, in the box again, when Bayern appeared to put the game beyond doubt four minutes after half-time, waving a leg towards Alphonso Davies' low cross in an attempt at a flick that ran instead for Thomas Muller's tap-in, the late Bayern superstar's namesake having been the third visiting player to hold up a red shirt in a pre-match show of respect.

Perhaps the linesman was a Gerd Muller fan, too, twice ruling in Bayern's favour when Youssoufa Moukoko and Haaland each ran away to score – the second call considerably closer than the first.

There was no ruling out a blistering Marco Reus strike, which briefly threatened Bayern's control, but Manuel Akanji's dallying let Lewandowski in again and the Dortmund fans know exactly how that tends to go. This time with an xG of 0.25 – merely the fifth-best chance of the match – the 32-year-old made it look routine.

A seventh Supercup strike, Lewandowski extended another record that is all his own – albeit in a competition Muller never graced.

The Poland international is Muller's nearest challenger in Bundesliga terms, with 278 goals, and deserves to be counted in such company, even if he has just added to Bayern's reputation rather than transformed it. Lewandowski has also now scored in 14 successive matches for Bayern, which means he needs to score in just two more consecutive games to match another of Muller's all-time records (16, in 1969-70).

Meanwhile, this was not Haaland's night, but he too could have one eye on the sort of standards Muller set. Still just 21, Haaland has 42 goals in 44 Bundesliga games – or one every 84.8 minutes – and Hasan Salihamidzic has acknowledged Bayern would be "amateurs" not to consider signing the striker.

Given the apparent inevitability of a transfer at the end of this campaign, the BVB sensation would seemingly have to join Germany's powerhouse to stay in the Bundesliga and close on Muller or Lewandowski.

Bayern do not need a replacement up front just yet, though, after their latest legend ensured 2021-22 would continue an almost constant theme since Muller broke all barriers, with silverware heading back to Bavaria.

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