George North is looking forward to the day his children face the big choice: cycling or rugby.

North is also looking forward to the Six Nations Championship, starting this weekend, when Wales begin their title defence against Ireland in Dublin.

There is an awful lot for this 29-year-old to be looking forward to, now that his injury hell has passed.

For now, North is enjoying the freedom of being able to run again, after suffering an anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injury in his right knee last April, playing for the Ospreys.

It ended his year on the rugby pitch, ruining hopes of a starring role for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa and denying him a shot at the Springboks, Australia and New Zealand in the autumn internationals.

North would sooner have been healthy and active of course, but being sidelined has had its upsides. He and his wife, double Olympic cyclist silver medallist Becky James, welcomed their second son, Tomi, a brother for Jac, in October.

Rather than dividing his time between the family and Wales camps, North has been essentially a stay-at-home dad for months on end.

"It's been brilliant. Normally I'm away playing or touring or something," says North, who is a Land Rover ambassador.

"To have this time at home, it's priceless. But Becky's been a superstar. When I had my surgery to start with, I couldn't do much on crutches with Jac, and obviously Tomi's joined us now and he's class.

"I'm in that stage now where effectively I'm in pre-season again, and I'm absolutely battered when I come home from training. And I'm not much use to anyone, but she's been amazing through this whole process.

"It has been tough, but it's been amazing you know, the two boys are amazing. Thank goodness for Becky, because it'd have been a lot harder at one point, with one leg up and hopping around the place. Especially my surgery, it was very tough. But yeah, she's a superhero."

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years. Despite being holders, however, few are giving them much of a chance this time around.

After all, Wales have been up and down with results in the tournament. Across the last five years, they have trailed in fifth twice, as well as clinching a couple of championships, including the 2019 grand slam.

This time, they head into the tournament without a clutch of key players: North is absent, but so too is captain Alun Wyn Jones, with Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric also sidelined.

 

Head coach Wayne Pivac said his squad has lost around 680 caps' worth of experience, but Wales should still be no mugs.

The players Pivac has chosen for the tournament come with an average of 27.1 Test caps of experience, only topped by Ireland's 30.9 among the six teams.

Those that are missing are proven class, however. In last year's championship, Faletau had 66 carries, putting him in third place among all players, while Tipuric made the most tackles (82). Faletau was fourth on that list (74), and skipper Jones was sixth (72).

On the Six Nations all-time list, North, who has featured on the wing and at outside centre, ranks fourth for metres gained (2,548), third for defenders beaten (126), and third for most clean breaks (48).

Jones is top of the all-time tackles chart (719), with fly-half Dan  Biggar a different animal to the absent lock. Biggar sits second on the Six Nations' all-time try assists list, after setting up 17 five-pointers in the competition.

To lose a raft of proven top-level talent would hurt any team, and North is not blind to that. He has been in and around the Wales squad since his late teens, however, so is certain there will be no defeatist attitude in Pivac's camp.

"Obviously there are a number of players out missing, and I think Wayne's come out with a stat of something like 680 caps that he's lost," says North. "That's a tough place to be."

 

But can Wales kick on regardless? North says so.

"Well, that that's the only way you get better, isn't it? By pushing the standards up every time," North tells Stats Perform News.

"I think for us, as Wales, we're used to being the underdogs, and we're always used to being kind of like always wanting more, and I think that shows in the performances that we have and the results we have had of late.

"From the lads' point of view, that's something they will certainly be looking at: how they push on from last year. Obviously winning the championship [is one thing], but you know the next step is backing it up again and as we said, it's going to be incredibly tough for the boys."

In the 2021 Six Nations, Wales made the most tackles of all teams (871), were third for tackle success with a healthy 88.2 per cent record, ranked second for lineout success with 90.8 per cent, and matched France for the most scrum success with 96.2 per cent.

Pivac's side averaged 3.7 points per entry into the opposition 22, making them the only side to average over three points per entry. It is a hard act to follow.

The loss of veteran skipper Jones gives 32-year-old playmaker Biggar the opportunity to lead the team into the championship.

"Yeah, it's not easy following the most capped player in the world is it!" North says. "I wouldn't like to follow Alun Wyn, put it that way.

"But what you're getting with Dan is a fierce competitor who drives the squad from the front row, right the way back all the way through to the full-back.

"He expects high standards of everyone, and he expects those standards of himself. I'm excited to see Dan as captain because what you see on the field is a fierce competitor. And that's not just on the field, that's Monday to Friday, and that's in whatever jersey he is.

"He expects the best for himself, and also the best from others because you know he is a competitor and wants to win."

North has the most international tries of all current players in the world game, and he has spoken of hoping to be available to Pivac at the back end of the championship.  Wales have home games against France and Italy on March 11 and 19 to finish the campaign.

He longs to make his children proud, even though both are much too young to understand his day job, or to understand their mother was a world champion.

From the routines of parenthood to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium, North is focused on pulling out all the stops. Jac and Tomi are keeping him grounded but also fuelling his ambitions.

"Obviously they don't know what Dad does. They don't know what Mum used to do," he says. "And I think that's something that's special.

"I am looking forward to the day that I'd be able to play and Becky can bring the boys to watch. I'm incredibly proud and honoured to be able to play rugby, but to be able to share that with the boys and, you know, show them more. Whatever they want to do in the future, there's always that conversation, is it a bike or a rugby ball?"

North, who during last year's Six Nations became the youngest player to reach 100 caps for any country, is targeting the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a long-range goal.

That could add up to over two months away from home, and given he will be 31 by the time that tournament comes around, it might be a last shot at global glory.

"I've got a fair few steps to cross off before we get back in any jersey. Certainly it's something I want to be able to put my hand up and be fighting for my selection there," he says.

"I've been very fortunate to go to a few now, and you know that's a big push. It's not too far away, and it's something that is certainly exciting."

There he goes again, always looking forward.


:: George North is a Land Rover ambassador. Visit landrover.co.uk

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

March 8 will mark 10 years since Manchester United suffered one of their most one-sided home defeats in the Alex Ferguson era.

The Europa League last-16 first leg finished 3-2 to Athletic Bilbao, but the scoreline belied the contest. United were comprehensively out-run and outplayed, dismantled by Marcelo Bielsa's bold, brilliant Basques. Ferguson went as far as admitting that David de Gea kept embarrassment levels to a minimum: "Our goalkeeper's made four or five terrific saves in the game, so really, it's not the worst result for us."

Athletic's performance was one of the finest by an away team against United in the past 30 years. That might sound an exaggeration, but it was clear to everyone present in Manchester that night, Ferguson included. Javi Martinez, Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente were four of the visitors' standout stars but there was barely a misstep from any of them.

And one man – one teenager, to be precise – looked like he was playing a different game to everyone else.

Iker Muniain scored what proved to be the winner in the closing minutes, capping a quite astonishing performance from a relatively unknown 19-year-old at the home of the reigning English champions and Champions League runners-up. He was beguiling, fearless, two steps ahead – everything you might expect from a player who had been a fixture in the first team from the age of 16.

Today, Muniain has 481 appearances for the club, the eighth-most in their history. He has played under seven coaches and been integral to the plans of each. He is Athletic's captain, their standard-bearer, the man who inspired them past Barcelona in the Copa del Rey last month with a powerhouse of a performance. He is probably playing the best football of his career.

As Athletic prepare to face Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, they will hope that form continues. Muniain has finished runner-up in this competition four times, including twice last year. He lost the 2012 Europa League final, too, and the Supercopa de Espana two weeks ago.

Now more than ever, he deserves a winner's medal.

 

San Iker

There is something unquantifiable about Muniain's importance to Athletic; after his two-goal performance in the 3-2 win over Barca, coach Marcelino grasped for the right words to describe his impact beyond mere numbers, eventually settling on "a huge presence" and "constancy". But the numbers are also pretty good.

In 23 games in all competitions this season, Muniain has scored four goals and set up a further six. He is on track to surpass his best return for direct goal involvements in a single season of 16, set in 2011-12. Back then, he averaged a goal or assist every 284 minutes; this term, that figure is down to one every 186. He's already created more chances this season than he did under Bielsa in the whole campaign a decade ago, in part because he has set-piece responsibility these days.

 

Muniain has created at least 10 more chances (60) than any other player in LaLiga this term, while his tally of 72 across all competitions is eight more than second-place Vinicius Junior among players from Spain's top tier. It puts him fifth among players across Europe's top five leagues, behind Benjamin Bourigeaud (73), Bruno Fernandes (79), Thomas Muller (82) and Dimitri Payet (105). He has completed at least 14 more dribbles (41) than those players and made at least two more interceptions (19) than them, just to remind you that he's not your average playmaker.

And yet, those assist numbers feel a little low for someone who creates quite so many attacking opportunities, even though the numbers add up (his five assists in LaLiga this season come from an expected assists figure of 4.65). The problem perhaps lies in Athletic's rather chronic lack of ruthlessness – something that has reared its head in recent years, including in those unsuccessful finals.

 

Marcelino's side have scored 21 goals from 30.9 expected goals in LaLiga in 2021-22, the biggest negative difference in the competition. Their top scorer is Inaki Williams with five goals in 22 games. There's no Telmo Zarra, Llorente or Aritz Aduriz these days. Nobody has managed more than 15 in a season in the league since Aduriz in 2016-17 (16).

It makes you wonder how high that Muniain assist count would be had he been tempted away by another club to play alongside a Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappe. Of course, it's not something the man himself has ever really considered. "San Mames is magic, magic," he said recently. "I'm lucky to play here, to have that feeling that runs over your whole body."

 

Captain Maravilloso

Compared with many star number 10s, Muniain has what you might call an atypical view of his football career (when he signed his latest contract in 2018, it contained no release clause – why would he ever want to leave?). Then again, he is far from what might be called a traditional player to wear that number, the kind of static central playmaker whose primary task is to get the ball to others to do damage.

One thing that sets Muniain apart is his movement with the ball. Whether working space in attack or simply keeping possession, as he did to brilliant, game-killing effect in the 120th minute against Barcelona, Muniain is devilishly difficult to dispossess. There's a reason he was once called the Spanish Messi.

Muniain is joint-11th among attacking players in LaLiga with the most take-ons in the opponents' half (57) this season, completing just over half of his overall attempts across the pitch; among that group, only Lucas Boye (68 per cent), Oscar Trejo (64 per cent) and Nabil Fekir (58 per cent) have better success rates.

That dribbling tends to yield results, too: Nico Gonzalez (five) is the only player in LaLiga this season with more take-ons ending in a chance created than Muniain (four).

 

Among LaLiga's forwards this season, only Vinicius (427), Nabil Fekir (302) and Goncalo Guedes (283) have tallied more carries – a run of five metres or more with the ball – than Muniain (241), while Vinicius is the only man in that list to create more chances at the end of a carry (19 to Muniain's 14). If you look at those chances in which the creator was also earlier involved in the build-up (nine), Muniain ranks joint-fourth in the division, again proving his importance to Marcelino's plans goes well beyond the final pass.

Athletic want their captain on the ball, and he rarely disappoints when he gets it, whether it be through bringing others into play or retaining possession until the optimum moment. As Marcelino said after the Barca match: "His decision-making, the technical ability... brutal."

And final-ly...

Athletic's policy of fielding only Basque players, the vast majority of them products of their own academy, is a laudable one. It's also an ethos that sets them at a disadvantage compared to rival teams.

In that context, their successes are remarkable: one of just three teams never to be relegated from Spain's top flight, along with Barca and Real Madrid, Athletic have won eight league titles, 23 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. Additionally, they lifted the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

It also means they have spent much of the past three decades playing catch-up to their own illustrious past. Since the double-winning side of 1983-84, they have lifted just two trophies, both Supercopas, in 2015 and in January last year. Their best league finish since 1998 was fourth place in 2013-14, and this is their fourth successive season without European football. 

Yet it's the final defeats that have hurt most. Barcelona (five times), Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad (boy, that one stung) have beaten Athletic to a trophy since 2009. Muniain has been at the club for all of them.

There is little shame in those defeats. Two of them came at the hands of Pep Guardiola's Barca, and the third was in Luis Enrique's first term in charge at Camp Nou. Two of those Barca teams won those finals en route to the treble, and all three ended those seasons as champions of Europe. Athletic also lost to Diego Simeone's Atletico in the Europa League final in 2012 and the runaway league leaders most recently in the Supercopa. They deserve recognition just for competing with these sides for so long.

 

Markel Susaeta told Stats Perform last year: "It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world.

"To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Muniain has lived it. He deserves to do so again, and this time, to lift a trophy: first for the fans at the stadium, and then on the famous Gabarra down the Nervion river. If that sounds romantic... well, this is a player who makes you love the game.

Opinions on this 2021-22 NBA season are being firmly formed as we enter February.

Last month saw the All-Star starters announced, while the MVP race hotted up – or cooled down, with several early contenders struggling with form and fitness.

But who really lit up the league in January? And whose bright end to 2021 did not carry over into the new year?

Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check looks at the best and worst performers of the month...

RUNNING HOT...

RJ Barrett

Now in his third year with the New York Knicks, Barrett's has been a season of peaks and troughs. In the month of November, he averaged 12.8 points per game; in January, that mark was a mightily impressive 21.8.

Such inconsistency leaves the guard just below last year's average of 17.6 at 17.3, but he is now a man in form, scoring double-figures in 17 straight games – including all 15 in January.

Barrett's 31 points against the San Antonio Spurs on January 10 were followed by 32 against the Dallas Mavericks on January 12 in consecutive wins, before the Knicks traded for Cam Reddish, his old Duke team-mate, the next day. As stretches go, this was a good one.

Reddish is yet to find his feet in New York but at least finds a familiar face full of confidence in the locker room.

Kyle Kuzma

January finished with the Washington Wizards on a five-game losing streak that was extended to six on Tuesday, but it was a month of progress for Kuzma.

Comparing output for the past month to the rest of the season, Kuzma ranked second in the league for an increase in both scoring (up from 13.4 to 22.5) and rebounding (up from 8.0 to 11.1).

While this form is clearly not doing enough to get the Wizards' year back on track, it is at least providing the Los Angeles Lakers with a reminder of what they gave up in a trade for Russell Westbrook.

Kuzma was one of three players, along with a first-round pick, sent to Washington in exchange for Westbrook, who has again flattered to deceive and appears to be back on the market with the Lakers toiling at 24-27.

Anfernee Simons

One place behind the Lakers in the West, the Portland Trail Blazers are similarly out of sorts, with Damian Lillard falling below his usual standards and the rest of the team struggling to pick up the slack.

The Blazers have still had some breakout stars, however, with Simons the most obvious of those in year four after a dazzling January.

Already averaging double-figures at 11.9 heading into 2022 – something he had failed to do in his previous three campaigns – Simons was the most improved scorer last month, scoring 23.1 points across 15 games. He made 4.5 three-pointers per game over that period, also a league-leading improvement on his prior 2.0.

Third-year forward Nassir Little (13.1 points and 2.1 threes in January) ranked seventh and fifth by those metrics, only to sustain a season-ending labrum tear – a setback that just about summed up Portland's season.

GOING COLD...

Stephen Curry

Curry's 26.0 points per game this year are up on two of his three title-winning campaigns with the Golden State Warriors but significantly down on last year's 32.0 – enough to win the scoring title – and falling rapidly from his early-season standards.

The two-time MVP made a hot start with 28.7 points in October and was still operating at 27.7 come the end of 2021. In January, however, he scored only 22.3 points – the biggest drop in the NBA.

Curry also led an unwanted chart in seeing his 5.4 made threes per game decrease massively to 3.5, a career 42.9 per cent three-point shooter and 47.3 per cent field-goal shooter slumping to 32.9 per cent and 38.5 per cent.

Such is the depth of talent on the Warriors' roster – in Kevon Looney and Jonathan Kuminga, they had two of January's three most-improved rebounders – they have been able to ride out Curry's rough patch. However, Jordan Poole had also been struggling to maintain his high standards (fifth for scoring decrease in January), though a 31-point effort in Tuesday's win over the Spurs hinted at a return to form.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's move to Barcelona belatedly confirmed on Tuesday, transfer business in Europe's top five leagues is now over until the end of the season.

Not every leading club traded in January – Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and, not for want of trying, Milan were all quiet – but there were plenty of deals done that may yet alter the landscape of this campaign.

So, who boosted their title bid or European push? And whose hopes took a hit after failing to make the most of the past month?

Stats Perform picks out the winners and losers of the transfer window, starting with the biggest move of all...

WINNERS

Juventus

This has been another tough season for Juve, who enter February on the outside looking in at Serie A's top-four race. But they could have done little more in the window to address their issues, plugging the hole left in their attack by first Cristiano Ronaldo's departure and then Federico Chiesa's injury by bringing in Dusan Vlahovic, Serie A's leading marksman, for €75million – the biggest buy of 2022 so far.

There were departures, but Dejan Kulusevski has hardly been a key man and Rodrigo Bentancur's exit was offset by the bargain capture of Denis Zakaria, while the Bianconeri will no doubt be grateful to get at least part of Aaron Ramsey's salary off the books.

Barcelona

Another struggling European Super League advocate, Barcelona's finances are tighter than Juve's, but they got creative to bolster a squad still coming to terms with Lionel Messi's absence. Ferran Torres appeared to be the replacement for the retired Sergio Aguero, only for Aubameyang to also arrive right at the last, surely bringing to an end Luuk de Jong's short, unsuccessful stint as the Blaugrana's leading man.

Dani Alves and Adama Traore each returned to Camp Nou, too, as Philippe Coutinho and a chunk of his wages headed out on loan.

Aston Villa

Coutinho may have been unwanted at Barca, but his signing represented a major coup for former team-mate Steven Gerrard at Villa. A goal on his debut against Manchester United suggested the one-time Liverpool superstar may yet have what it takes to shine in the Premier League.

Lucas Digne's arrival at left-back significantly upgraded that position, meanwhile, and ensures Villa are looking up the table, not down. Although this feels a little like a lost season – 12 points from the top four, 11 from the bottom three – two eye-catching deals should at least give fans plenty to shout about.

Sevilla

If Villa lack any obvious short-term objective, the same is not true of Sevilla. Julen Lopetegui's men are second in LaLiga, firmly in a title fight with Madrid, and targeting a Europa League final at their home stadium. Persistent talk of a departure for defender Diego Carlos, targeted by Newcastle United, therefore represented a concern, but director of football Monchi stood firm – and then landed a stunning signing, too.

Anthony Martial blew hot and cold at Manchester United but should be the main man in Spain, where he offers far more than Sevilla's other striking options. With his goals at one end and Diego Carlos' enduring partnership with Jules Kounde at the other, this could yet be a sensational season.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool could easily have let January pass without doing business, having no real need to improve their side in the short term. But then Tottenham agreed a deal with Porto for Luis Diaz, and the Reds sensed an opportunity, swooping in to secure his £33.3m signing. Liverpool have the luxury of not needing Diaz to hit the ground running, with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah soon returning from international duty, yet he appears an ideal long-term replacement in one of the attacking positions.

LOSERS

Arsenal

Mikel Arteta must fear Arsenal's momentum has been lost. The Gunners headed into January on a five-match winning run in all competitions, only to fail to add another victory in five games before February, crashing out of both domestic cups and falling out of the top four. New signings could have righted the ship, yet Arsenal ended the month with Colorado Rapids defender Auston Trusty – loaned back to MLS – as their only done deal.

A move for Vlahovic was dismissed by the player and trumped by Juve, while long-standing interest in Bruno Guimaraes did not materialise into a transfer, as the Brazil midfielder instead joined Newcastle. Arteta trimmed the squad in securing temporary and permanent departures for Aubameyang, Calum Chambers, Sead Kolasinac, Pablo Mari, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Folarin Balogun, but Arsenal did not raise a fee for any of them.

West Ham

Flush with cash and without the serious threat of losing star performer Declan Rice, January brought opportunity for West Ham, joining modest spenders Arsenal, United and Tottenham in a top-four tussle. However, despite reports of increasingly wild big-money bids, the Hammers did not make a single recruit.

Interest in Leeds United pair Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha seemed optimistic at best, but failing to land either was not as costly as the inability to provide competition up front. Although Hugo Ekitike and Darwin Nunez were both discussed, the club remain a Michail Antonio injury away from a crisis.

Roger Goodell's description of Tom Brady on Tuesday as merely "one of the greatest to ever play in the NFL" felt a little generous to the competition. 

In the period of claim and counter-claim between reports of his retirement on Saturday and confirmation on Tuesday, the verdict had been cast – not that it was ever in doubt. 

Among others, Patrick Mahomes, better placed than most to consider quality quarterback play, told ESPN: "His career is one of a kind. That's why he's the GOAT." 

There is no dispute, no debate: Brady is the greatest. 

The 44-year-old leads the way by most metrics, including the most important one, with an unprecedented seven Super Bowl championships. 

Yet the stunning nature of some of those successes mean the emotional argument in Brady's favour is as convincing as the statistical one. 

Unmoved by his NFL-record 84,520 passing yards? Try the Super Bowl LI comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. 

This career had it all, and most dissenting voices had long since disappeared by the time Brady arrived in Tampa in 2020 "as the greatest football player of all time", as Bruce Arians put it. He still had another title in him. 

But Brady has not just set the standard in the NFL for the past 22 years; his achievements are surely unmatched across the entire sporting world. 

BEATING THE BEST

Wrestling with past legacies is never easy for an elite sports star. Even as the best of their generation, comparisons will be drawn with those who have gone before. 

In the case of LeBron James in the NBA, Michael Jordan casts a long shadow. 

James may now widely be considered the second-greatest player in the history of the league, but the gap to the number one spot scarcely seems to be closing, even now with titles and Finals MVP recognition on three different teams – and his own Space Jam sequel. 

Elsewhere, Formula One's Lewis Hamilton has done what James could not with Jordan in matching Michael Schumacher's haul of titles. 

But when Hamilton closed in on a record-breaking eighth drivers' championship in 2021, rival Sebastian Vettel scoffed: "Even if Lewis wins, to me Michael is still the greatest. Lewis can win one more, two more, three more, five more championships, but it doesn't change anything for me." 

The combination of being unable to see two athletes side by side and having memories tinged with nostalgia makes life hard on the modern great. 

For Brady, Joe Montana was the closest thing to a Jordan or Schumacher figure at quarterback. 

Although Montana ranked sixth for all-time passing yards – Dan Marino, the 20th century's passing yards leader, never won a title – his four Super Bowls had matched Terry Bradshaw's benchmark and were still fresh enough in the memory in 2000, the last coming in the 1989 season. 

Yet that was a gap Brady was swiftly able to bridge. By August 2005, with three rings already in his collection, the headline of a GQ profile asked if the Patriots passer was "the best there ever was". 

At 27, 10 years younger than James and Hamilton are now, there appeared little doubt Brady would leave Marino behind. 

TOP OF HIS CLASS

Perhaps Brady benefited from the standard of the competition. His career overlapped with Brett Favre at the start, Mahomes at the end and met with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers somewhere around the middle, all of them forcing him to raise his game. 

But such depth of talent can so easily muddy the waters. 

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have matched each other stride for stride, meaning there remains no consensus pick for football's 'GOAT'. Both merit the position, yet neither have dominated an era like Pele or Diego Maradona. 

In tennis, the tussle is even more intense. Until Rafael Nadal's Australian Open triumph on Sunday, three men were tied on a record 20 grand slam titles. 

Injuries to Roger Federer and coronavirus complications with Novak Djokovic may be enough to keep Nadal at the summit, but personal preference dictates the all-time rankings when the margins are so fine. 

Again, however, Brady came through. None of those modern-day rivals have won three Super Bowls, let alone matching Montana's four or Brady's staggering seven. 

Mahomes had appeared the most likely to challenge that mark in the years to come, but four seasons as a starter have now yielded one title. At the same point, Brady had three and that GQ headline. 

"To win that many Super Bowls and win that many games, it's hard," Mahomes said after losing Sunday's AFC Championship Game. "I understand that. The years that I've had, I've been close a lot.  

"I've only been there twice, and I've only won once. I understand it takes a special player ... for that to happen." 

In Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert, Mahomes will not have it easy going forward either – an exciting new generation guarding Brady's legacy, not that he could not have done it himself had he chosen to play on. 

Brady, in the regular season and playoffs, holds a 3-2 record against Mahomes, 4-0 against Allen and 1-0 against Herbert. He never faced Burrow, potentially the next Super Bowl-winning QB. 

Instead, the perennial winner departs not as a champion – he has been that enough times – but as undoubtedly the best player his sport has ever seen. A rare phenomenon indeed. 

Tom Brady has called time on his NFL career after 22 seasons, at the age of 44.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback officially announced his decision on Tuesday after days of speculation, with the news initially having been reported on Saturday.

It means Brady's final game in the sport was the dramatic Divisional Round loss to the Los Angeles Rams, in which he had led the Bucs in a remarkable late comeback.

That display, at the end of a season in which Brady led the league in passing yards (5,316) and touchdown passes (43), had elements of everything that made him the greatest of all time.

Brady's legacy has long been unmatched but will not now be added to, as he watches the 2022 season from his sofa.

There is little prospect of any other QB coming close in the near future, however, as Stats Perform examines the stunning numbers behind his record-breaking career.

THE BREES BATTLE

Brady's seven Super Bowls counted for more than any other statistic ever could, but there was still intrigue around his battle with Drew Brees for a number of all-time passing marks.

Brees was drafted by the San Diego Chargers the year after Brady was selected by the New England Patriots, forever pitting the pair against one another.

But the long-time New Orleans Saints QB did not quite have Brady's longevity, retiring a year earlier, and allowed the gap between the two men's achievements to widen in 2021.

Brady leads the NFL with 84,520 passing yards, ahead of the second-placed Brees and his 80,358.

In terms of touchdown passes, it is a similar story. Brady's 624 top the charts, with Brees his nearest challenger on 571.

Brees also ranks second for seasons with 20 touchdown passes (17) and team points per game among quarterbacks with at least 100 starts (27.4). Brady (19 and 28.3) is the main man in both categories.

WINS, WINS, WINS

There is an enduring debate over whether wins are a quarterback statistic, but one would have a hard time arguing otherwise in Brady's case. Even after benefiting from Bill Belichick's coaching for 20 years, the veteran headed to Tampa and won right away.

Brady finishes with 243 QB wins, meaning an incredible margin to second-placed pair Peyton Manning and Brett Favre on 186.

In fact, Brady has 69 wins in the month of December alone. In terms of a single month, Favre is next, with 52 wins also in December.

It should come as no surprise then that Brady has the best record among QBs with at least 100 starts, his .769 again comfortably ahead of the next-best performance, Roger Staubach's .746.

Of course, Brady has kept winning as each season has extended into the postseason.

He has 35 playoff wins, too many to compare to one rival QB alone. Among all NFL teams excluding Brady's Pats and Bucs, the Baltimore Ravens have won the most playoff games since 2000. They are on 16.

STILL GOING STRONG

Brady's 2021 performance made his decision to quit at this stage something of a shock. Even in his mid-40s, there have been no signs of slowing.

This was Brady's 19th different season with 3,000 passing yards – clear of Favre's 18 – and his fifth 4,000-yard season just since he turned 40.

Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Staubach and Steve Young combined for three seasons with 4,000 passing yards for their careers.

Tom Brady has officially retired.

After premature reports at the weekend prompted backlash, the decision was confirmed on Tuesday, leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to replace the greatest of all time this offseason.

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

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

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

 

Kyle Trask

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Garoppolo

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

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

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

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

Russell Wilson

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

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

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

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

Aaron Rodgers

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

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

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

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

In the NFL, it is very difficult to go out on top.

Parity reigns supreme in North America's dominant league, with no team since the 2004 New England Patriots achieving the feat of winning back-to-back Super Bowls.

As such, the task of winning the Super Bowl in your final season as a player is an extremely challenging one, especially in an era where there is an apparent production line of young quarterbacks rapidly ascending to the top of the sport.

John Elway and Peyton Manning both did it, in the 1998 and 2015 seasons respectively, both signing off with Super Bowl victories for the Denver Broncos. 

But neither nor Elway nor Manning could be considered at the top of their game, with both arguably carried to the title by an extremely talented roster.

Tom Brady could not replicate their achievement but, though he and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came up short against the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in what proved his final game, the case can be made his farewell was superior even without it coming on the Super Bowl podium.

Brady will, of course, look back on his Super Bowl-winning seasons with the greatest fondness. However, his 2021 numbers compare favourably with those from a 2007 campaign most consider his finest, another year in which he did not lift the Lombardi Trophy.

In 2007, Brady threw for 4,806 yards, 50 touchdowns and averaged 300.4 yards per game. That touchdown tally trails only Manning in 2013 (55) for the most in a single season, Brady forming a devastating combination with wide receiver Randy Moss in a Patriots offense that is regarded as one of the greatest in NFL history

The yardage total was topped in 2011 (5,235) and 2012 (4,827), yet the zenith in that sense came in 2021, Brady racking up a league-leading 5,316 passing yards at an average of 312.7 yards per game while also leading the NFL with 43 touchdowns.

Those numbers served as a further testament to his ability to adapt to Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians' aggressive downhill passing game following his switch from the New England Patriots after the 2019 season.

His 42 passing plays of 25 yards or more were the most in the 2021 regular season, Brady continuing to produce explosive plays in a year that saw him shorn of the services of Chris Godwin through injury and, later in the year, Antonio Brown following the All-Pro wide receiver's very public split from the Bucs.

Delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on 79.2 per cent of his attempts in 2021 – the average among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts was 78.3 – and throwing a pickable pass on only 2.56 per cent of passes, third-best for signal-callers to meet that threshold, there was no sign of a drop-off in terms of accuracy or decision-making from Brady in his final year.

The combination of accuracy and an arm clearly still strong enough to make throws to every level of the field came to the fore as Brady pounced on a collection of Rams errors to help the Bucs fight back from 27-3 down to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, his 55-yard bomb to Mike Evans to cut the gap to seven points encapsulating his ability to still produce the remarkable even with a depleted receiving group and his offensive line being bullied by Los Angeles.

That the Rams recovered to kick the game-winning field goal is almost immaterial. Brady's send-off was still a thrilling one and a scarcely needed reminder that, in his unprecedented two-plus decades of dominance, no lead was ever safe.

For Elway and Manning, their career-ending Super Bowl triumphs were legacy-defining. Brady did not need to pad his legacy any further but still threw for over 4,000 yards for the fifth time since turning 40 and delivered one final bewitching rollercoaster.

Brady did not go out on top but, rather than being carried to victory, he exited the stage still arguably at the peak of his powers having narrowly missed out on lifting his team to an astonishing comeback win. It wasn't a winning farewell but, in every other sense, it was the perfect Brady goodbye.

Rewind to January 2020. At the time, Bruno Fernandes just seemed like he was becoming the latest in a long list of players who had been linked with Manchester United but ultimately never set foot in Old Trafford.

Remember Nico Gaitan?

But, as it happened, United did get a deal done for the Portugal midfielder, who – on the evidence of his time at Sporting CP – was going to bring goals, craft and fire to the Red Devils' engine room.

It would be fair to say he has surpassed the expectations of many fans and neutrals alike. While he undoubtedly has the capacity to frustrate, anyone who doubts his ability is surely just being contrarian.

Tuesday marks two years since his United debut, a disappointing 0-0 draw with – fittingly – Portugal Lite, or Wolves as they are known in the Midlands.

During his two years at United, Fernandes has become arguably their key man, best player and general lynchpin, the individual who most things are built around.

Yet, the noise around him this season would suggest United's wider issues have started to catch up with him – but just how accurate is that? Has his level truly dropped?

Over-reaction or justified criticism?

Regardless of your opinion on Fernandes' form, we can all agree he has been largely an excellent addition for United. Even when you take away the penalties, his 44 Premier League goal involvements since his debut is bettered only by Mohamed Salah (55), Harry Kane (46) and Son Heung-min (45).

His arrival introduced some much-needed creative consistency to the United midfield. Paul Pogba didn't quite provide that – whether that's entirely his fault is a debate for another time, but Fernandes has shown an ability to habitually unlock defences, with his 148 chances created in open play at least 18 more than any other player since February 1, 2020.

But in a season that has proven so tumultuous at Old Trafford, not even Fernandes has escaped criticism, which appears to be levelled at him now more vociferously among fans than at any other point in his two years there.

His off-the-cuff style undoubtedly feeds that. If a player is trying the killer ball at every opportunity and it frequently fails, that's obviously going to feed fan frustrations.

And, to be fair, there has been a slight drop-off in his creative threat. He averaged 0.25 expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes across his Premier League career before 2021-22, the fourth-highest among players to play at least 1,000 minutes, and that's at 0.21 for the current season – though that's still only bettered by six players (minimum 1,000 minutes).

He's never just been about threatening with his passing ability, though. Fernandes has been the club's best source of goals from midfield in years – his nine non-penalty (np) top-flight goals last season has only ever been bettered twice by a United central midfielder in the Premier League era: Paul Scholes in 1995-96 (10) and 2002-03 (14).

To his credit, Fernandes already has seven this season despite his np-xG slipping from 0.17 to 0.24 per 90 minutes. So, although he's not getting into as good goalscoring positions, he remains a potent weapon, which highlights the class he possesses. Of course, some might suggest that goals haul is somewhat skewed by his hat-trick against a notoriously open Leeds United on matchday one, but he still deservers his dues for that performance.

Furthermore, his average of 2.9 chances created every 90 minutes in 2021-22 is actually up slightly on his record for his first 18 months at Old Trafford (2.6) – so, while certain factions of the United support might be growing frustrated by particular aspects of Fernandes' game, it's clear to see he still offers a lot.

Out of his comfort zone

Another key element to be taken into consideration is the overarching institutional mess that has been Manchester United in 2021-22. The club is enduring a difficult season, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign coming to an end and Ralf Rangnick coming in.

There have been considerable changes to the backroom staff and the team is undergoing a significant philosophical shift, both in terms of tactics and formation. Solskjaer's plight came down to a collective failing, with so many players suffering a dip in form, and Rangnick's introduction may well have been something of a shock to the system – he and the Norwegian are hardly cut from the same cloth.

This has clearly impacted Fernandes, given his usual 'number 10' role suddenly became less assured. While Rangnick has shown a certain degree of tactical flexibility, with United appearing to operate with a 4-2-3-1 against Brentford, for the most part they have played 4-2-2-2 or 4-3-3.

As such, Fernandes has had to adapt and that's meant becoming something more closely resembling a roaming number eight, but with greater emphasis on operating towards the left.

As his touch locations map shows, Fernandes is averaging as many as 9.8 touches more per 90 minutes on the left flank under Rangnick than he was with Solskjaer this season. While his touch frequency through the middle hasn't changed massively, his numbers are down slightly except for in the zone just past the halfway line, where they have increased.

Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that Fernandes is having fewer shots (1.9, down from 2.5) and creating fewer chances (2.4, down from 3.1) under Rangnick than he was for Solskjaer, but there is every chance this is deliberate.

Rangnick may have felt Fernandes wasn't having enough influence in United's general play, with his touches per 90 minutes averaging at 69.1 this season under Solskjaer and Michael Carrick. That was well below his average pre-2021-22 (81.8) but it has since been boosted to 78.7.

Similarly, Fernandes – perhaps owing to operating more in less congested areas of the pitch – is playing 10.4 passes into the box on average every 90 minutes, which is 2.6 more than before.

Again, this may be a deliberate ploy to try to make the most of Fernandes' passing abilities, but it could also be argued this is where he's at odds with the new role and system. With his xA average slipping to 0.19 (per 90) for Rangnick, those extra passes into the box aren't – seemingly – hugely reliable in terms of good chance creation, meaning they are likely more hopeful than expectant.

Given Rangnick's desire for "control", one would think he'd want fewer hopeful deliveries into the box, favouring a more careful approach to attacking, but this could feasibly be put down to Fernandes still requiring time to adapt to a new function, which would be reasonable.

What's clear is the fact Fernandes' two-year anniversary arrives at a time when he's personally going through probably the most testing period of his United career, with the spotlight being shone directly on his contributions amid the wider narrative of team's general woes.

Maybe his levels have dropped slightly, but that's a common theme across this United squad. Either way, he's still proving effective, and it remains difficult to imagine them being a better attacking unit without him.

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

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

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

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

 

Kyle Trask

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Garoppolo

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

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

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

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

Russell Wilson

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

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

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

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

Aaron Rodgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The name's Hubbard, Sam Hubbard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams give no room to run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stats Perform looks at some of the key moments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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