Real Madrid are LaLiga champions for the second time in three seasons – and a 35th time overall – after beating Espanyol 4-0 on Saturday to clinch top spot.

Los Blancos have led the way pretty much throughout a campaign that has seen erstwhile champions Atletico Madrid and a Lionel Messi-less Barcelona struggle for consistency.

Indeed, Sevilla proved Los Blancos' biggest threat for large parts of this season, but Carlo Ancelotti's men never truly looked in danger of relinquishing their grip on another title.

Madrid's latest triumph came in Ancelotti's first season back at the club, with the Italian becoming the first head coach to win each of Europe's top five leagues.

While Ancelotti deserves plenty of credit, the title stroll would not have been possible if not for Karim Benzema and Thibaut Courtois at opposite ends of the pitch.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind Madrid's latest title romp, which they could still yet add to with the Champions League in the coming weeks.

 

Madrid masterclass

Not only have Madrid won more European Cups than any side, their 35th LaLiga crown sees them overtake Juventus for the most titles among the top five European leagues.

Their two titles in three seasons, with the other coming under Zinedine Zidane in 2019-10, is as many as they won in the previous 11 campaigns.

Ancelotti's men have done so in style, too, having clinched top spot with four matchdays left, surpassing 2007-08 (three matchdays) for their earliest title win this century.

 

Carlo completes the set

Ancelotti won five trophies during his previous spell in charge of Madrid but the LaLiga title eluded him.

However, the 62-year-old can now lay claim to having won the title in Italy, England, France, Germany and indeed Spain – the first head coach to have ever achieved a sweep.

He is also the oldest coach to have won the Spanish top flight, some two years more senior than Fabio Capello was when also tasting success with Madrid in 2006-07.

Incidentally, Ancelotti and Capello are the only two Italian coaches to have reigned in Spain, with the latter having done so twice.

 

Karim the Dream

Benzema has led the way for Madrid with this his fourth LaLiga conquest, adding to the titles won in 2012, 2017 and 2020.

The France international has scored 26 goals in 30 league games this season, making this his most prolific campaign across his 13 years in Spain's top flight.

Not only does Benzema lead the LaLiga scoring charts, his 11 assists are also level with Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele as the most in the division.

Just to further underline the striker's importance this season, with 37 direct goal involvements he has played a part in 51 per cent of Los Blancos' 73 league goals.

Courtois a calming presence

For all of Benzema's goals, Madrid have so often called upon goalkeeper Courtois to rescue them this campaign.

The former Chelsea stopper has conceded 29 goals across 34 matches, keeping 14 clean sheets in the process.

Real Sociedad's Alex Remiro (18) can hold claim to keeping more shutouts, but a separate metric shows just how good Courtois has been in 2021-22.

The 29 goals Courtois has conceded have come from 33.4 expected goals on target conceded, meaning he has prevented 4.4 goals based on the quality of his shot-stopping.

To put that in some perspective, no goalkeeper in LaLiga has prevented more goals this season, while only five others across Europe's top five leagues have prevented more.

Benzema and Vinicius Junior may get most of the plaudits, but Courtois' influence has undoubtedly been significant.

 

Narratives are being readied all over the place to make this season's NBA playoffs potentially one of the most exciting of recent times.

The first round may not have provided quite as much drama as hoped, with none of the eight clashes going to a Game 7, but looking at the contests in prospect in the Conference semi-finals, we should not be far away from some.

The top four seeds in both Conferences ultimately made it through, though that's not to say some were not given a bit of a fright, and the semis were set after the Memphis Grizzlies eventually put away the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday in Game 6.

There are stories to be written when it comes to the star players in the league, though, with some excelling as they look lead their team to glory, while others are struggling to stay on the court and off the injured list.

This leads us into some potentially fascinating encounters in the final eight, and Stats Perform has taken a look at what we can expect over the next two weeks.

Eastern Conference

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks

Frankly, these two should be perfectly fresh heading into this one.

The Celtics whitewashed the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, barely breaking a sweat in the process, while the Bucks dropped just one game in overcoming a depleted Chicago Bulls.

Jayson Tatum has unsurprisingly been the star so far for Boston in the postseason, averaging 29.5 points per game, including 39 in Game 3, as well as averaging 7.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.

Equally unsurprisingly, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been leading the way for the defending NBA champions, averaging 28.6 points per game from five postseason outings so far for the Bucks, as well as 6.2 assists and 13.4 rebounds.

The continued absence of Khris Middleton will be a blow for Mike Budenholzer, with the swingman still recovering from a knee injury suffered in the first round, and reports suggesting he will miss the entirety of this round as well.

These two beat each other twice during the regular season, with the Bucks getting the final win just over three weeks ago at Fiserv Forum, so it promises to be a much tighter affair than either experienced in round one.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers

The number one seeds in the East were barely inconvenienced by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, with the Heat winning 4-1.

Jimmy Butler is bringing it in the playoffs so far, averaging 30.5 points, with an additional 5.3 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game. He missed Game 5 against the Hawks with a knee inflammation, but it is hoped he will return for Game 1 against his former team.

Kyle Lowry's participation is more of a question mark, with the 36-year-old missing since suffering a hamstring injury in Game 3.

There is an arguably worse injury situation in Philadelphia, though, with Joel Embiid out "indefinitely" with a right orbital fracture and mild concussion. The Cameroonian was averaging 26.2 points across the 4-2 first round win over the Toronto Raptors.

Despite playing with an injured thumb, Embiid was dominant as the Sixers took out Game 6, putting up 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the floor and nine-of-10 from the free-throw line, as well as adding 10 rebounds and three blocks, but it is unclear when he will play a part in this round.

Tyrese Maxey, along with James Harden, will need to step up even more in the absence of Embiid if the Sixers are to dump out the top seeds.

Like the Celtics and the Bucks, these two traded two wins apiece in the regular-season meetings, with the Sixers winning 113-106 at Wells Fargo Center in March without Embiid, with Maxey top-scoring with 28 points.

 

Western Conference

Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies

Despite the best efforts of Nikola Jokic, the Warriors strolled past the Denver Nuggets 4-1 in the first round, but can expect a sterner test here from the Grizzlies.

Stephen Curry is on his game, averaging 28 points across those five outings, although only 3.8 three-pointers per game so far, being outshone in that metric by team-mate Klay Thompson, who has averaged 4.4.

Curry and Thompson combined to great effect in Game 5 against the Nuggets, scoring 33 and 32 points respectively.

Memphis probably struggled more than they thought they would against the Timberwolves, securing a 4-2 win in the end but being made to work for it.

Ja Morant recorded 30 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and three steals in Game 5. Only five players in the last 35 seasons have recorded such a stat line in a playoff game, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Morant himself.

Morant has continued his great form, but Desmond Bane is also shining in the postseason, with the top average point score for the Grizzlies of 23.5, and 4.5 three-pointers made per game.

The Grizzlies could have a psychological edge in this contest, having won all of their last three meetings in the regular season, with the 28-point difference in the 123-95 win at FedExForum in late March the largest defeat of the Warriors' season.

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks

Although ultimately through with a game to spare, it was surprising to see the Suns struggle as much as they did against the eighth-seed New Orleans Pelicans.

The outstanding Suns, who won 64 regular-season games, eventually prevailed 4-2 against the Pelicans, who by comparison won just 36 in the regular season, but that is what the playoffs bring, the threat of upsets.

Monty Williams and his team will have hardly been panicking, though, even when they were tied at 2-2 after Game 4, with a Chris Paul-inspired win in New Orleans in Game 6 sealing their passage through.

Having Devin Booker back is a big boost for West's number one seeds, with the 25-year-old returning from a hamstring injury for Game 6 that ruled him out of Games 3-5, having registered a combined 56 points in Games 1 and 2.

The Mavericks made it through the first round for the first time since they won the championship in 2011, seeing off the Utah Jazz 4-2, in a series that was also previously tied at 2-2.

It was made all the more impressive considering Luka Doncic could only play in three games, though still averaging 29.0 points in those he did, as well as 5.7 assists and 10.7 rebounds.

That meant someone else stepping up, and that someone else was Jalen Brunson, who scored 41 in Game 2 and a further 31 in Game 3, averaging 27.8 across the six games.

Dallas will need to do something about their record against Phoenix, though, having lost their last nine meetings with them, including three this season. The Mavs have not recorded a win against the Suns since November 2019.

As the 2021-22 Premier League season enters its final weeks, plenty remains for the taking – not least the thrilling title race between Liverpool and reigning champions Manchester City.

Both teams are in imperious form and, while City lead the way by a single point heading into the weekend, one slip might be all it takes.

Chelsea seem relatively secure in third place, but behind them the battle for the final Champions League spot is raging on. Just two points separate north London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, who meet in a potentially decisive derby in mid-May. 

Manchester United have played two games more than those two sides and look like they will have to settle for sixth, assuming they can fend off West Ham.

At the bottom, Everton are in real danger of losing their Premier League status for the first time but will hold out hope in their dogfight against Burnley and Leeds United, though Watford and Norwich City appear destined for the drop.

But just how will it all unfold? Well, using the Stats Perform League Prediction Model, we can try and forecast the final standings.

Created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, the model has analysed the division 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 rest of the matches are then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Let's take a look...

PEP PIPS KLOPP TO THE POST... AGAIN

City won the Premier League title by a margin of just one point in the 2018-19 campaign. The gap has been much wider over the past two seasons, with Liverpool triumphing in 2020 and City winning last year.

But just like in 2019, the model suggests Liverpool will fall just short once again, with City predicted to stay on top. It gives Pep Guardiola's team a 66 per cent chance of winning their fourth title in five seasons, with the Reds given a 34 per cent chance.

Neither side are predicted to drop out of the top two – that seems a safe bet. Liverpool have a tough trip to in-form Newcastle United on Saturday, while City face Leeds United.

Newcastle will then have the chance to have another say in the title race when they visit City on May 8, with trips to Wolves and West Ham coming for the leaders before they round off their domestic season against Steven Gerrard's Aston Villa. 

Liverpool, who also face Villa along with Spurs, Southampton and Wolves, will be wanting a favour from their club great on the last day of the season if they are to prove the model wrong.

GUNNERS CLINCH CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLACE

Chelsea, according to the model, have a 98.7 chance of staying in third place, and are certain to be playing in UEFA's elite competition next season.

Below them, it is predicted that Arsenal will just nip into the top four rather than Spurs. Mikel Arteta's team have a 75.2 per cent chance of qualifying for the Champions League, and just 24.8 of finishing in a Europa League place.

While Stats Perform AI only gives Arsenal a minuscule opportunity of taking third off Chelsea, they have a 73.9 per cent chance of securing fourth place and featuring in the Champions League for the first time since 2016-17.

It seems likely that much will be decided on May 12, when Spurs welcome Arsenal to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Antonio Conte's team are predicted to finish fifth (72.4 per cent), and only have a 24.7 per cent likelihood of clinching fourth.

United are forecast to finish sixth (65 per cent), albeit there is the possibility they could even end 2021-22 in seventh. That position, however, seems set to be filled by West Ham, who have to win against Eintracht Frankfurt next week to keep their hopes of a Europa League triumph alive – success in that competition would take them into the Champions League, regardless of where they finish domestically.

TOFFEES CHAMPIONSHIP-BOUND

It has been a dismal season for Everton, who head into Sunday's clash with Frank Lampard's former club Chelsea sitting in the bottom three for the first time since 2019 (when, ironically, they beat a Chelsea side managed by Lampard).

Lampard has taken 10 points from his 12 games in charge, and they are now predicted to finish in 18th place. The model gives them a 29.8 per cent chance of escaping the drop and finishing 17th and just a 17.4 per cent likelihood of coming 16th. Their run-in includes three away games, and Everton have the worst away record in the competition – 12 of their 19 defeats coming on the road and they have taken just six points on their travels all season.

Burnley sit two points clear of Everton in 17th after two successive victories and are given a 39.4 per cent chance of staying put, although the likelihood of the Clarets' finishing 18th is not dissimilar (36.5 per cent).

Leeds have tough fixtures against City, Arsenal and Chelsea coming up before they host Brighton and Hove Albion and visit Brentford, though Stats Perform AI gives them only a 12.9 per cent chance of relegation.

Watford are heavily predicted to stay put in 19th too, with Norwich given a 67.4 per cent probability of finishing bottom – the model reckons they have a 0.1 per cent chance of avoiding the drop.

We are approaching the home straight in the Premier League, which means the tension builds, the sweat pours, and the heart-rate increases...and that's just in our fantasy leagues.

Some matches mean more than others right now, but to fantasy managers, every game has the potential to get you those much-needed points to make a late run in your league.

If you want a bit of a helping hand with your decision-making this week, Stats Perform has you covered with some Opta-powered suggestions below.

Here are our suggestions for a new goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and striker for your consideration...

EMILIANO MARTINEZ (Aston Villa v Norwich City)

The Argentine goalkeeper has been impressive since making the move from Arsenal in 2020, establishing himself as number one for both Villa and his national team, winning the Copa America last year.

Martinez registered his 25th clean sheet for Villa last time out against Leicester City, and since the start of last season, only Ederson (37), Edouard Mendy and Alisson (both 29) have kept more than him.

With a home clash against bottom of the table and lowest scorers Norwich coming up on Saturday, it seems as likely a time as any for another game without picking the ball out of his net for Martinez.

MARC CUCURELLA (Wolves v Brighton and Hove Albion)

It is hard not to be impressed by Brighton, with Graham Potter getting a team with limited resources to play some of the best football on show in the Premier League, it's just a question of finding consistency.

With a trip to a stumbling Wolves side that has lost three of its last four games, Potter will look to produce the same magic that saw his team secure impressive recent away wins at Arsenal and Tottenham, with particular focus on one of his more potent performers at full-back.

Only Liverpool duo Trent Alexander-Arnold (47) and Andrew Robertson (36) have created more chances from open play among defenders this season than Cucurella, who has been one of the many success stories at the Amex Stadium since arriving from Getafe last year.

JAMES WARD-PROWSE (Southampton v Crystal Palace)

It would not be surprising in the slightest to see a suggestion at the next Premier League managers' meeting to extend VAR protocol to include free-kick decisions anywhere near the penalty area, but only for games involving Southampton.

When Ward-Prowse lines up a free-kick, it feels like watching Mohamed Salah taking a penalty, you just wonder which corner of the goal the ball will inevitably end up in.

After two strikes last time out against Brighton, one of course a free-kick, Ward-Prowse has now been involved in 13 goals (nine goals, four assists) in the Premier League this season, only ever managing more in 2020-21 (15 - eight goals, seven assists), with this his best season for goals. 

WOUT WEGHORST (Watford v Burnley)

Those of us who watch the Bundesliga and like to bring our hipster opinions to conversations were saying the same thing when Burnley signed Weghorst in January, that he was probably an improvement on the outgoing Chris Wood.

So of course, the big Dutchman managed just three goal involvements in his first 12 appearances for the Clarets (one goal, two assists) after arriving from Wolfsburg.

However, just as Burnley have turned their form around as they look to avoid relegation, Weghorst has stepped his game up too, having managed a goal and an assist in his last three games, and is about to come up against a very leaky Watford backline.

The 2021 NFL Draft was unreservedly the year of the quarterback. The 2022 draft is anything but.

A year on from quarterbacks going 1-2-3 in a first round that saw five taken in total, it is tough to make the case for any of the consensus best five from this year's uninspiring crop going in the top 10.

None of that quintet come without significant concerns that will make it hard for franchises to justify spending a premium pick to make them the quarterback of the future.

But there is a clear hierarchy among the group, with two players the standout choices for teams eyeing a potential day-one starter and one prospect standing alone as the home-run swing who brings as much risk as he does reward.

Quarterbacks inevitably get pushed up the board in the draft but, even with the top three members of this class, it may take some teams to get desperate for that to happen his year.

The pro-ready pair

Talk of Kenny Pickett going in the top 10, with the Carolina Panthers viewed as a landing spot due to his connections with head coach Matt Rhule, has raised plenty of eyebrows.

Yet for all the justifiable concerns about taking a quarterback whose ceiling at the highest level may be limited due to arm strength that can make deep throws outside the numbers a challenge for Pickett, the reality is that the former Pittsburgh quarterback is the most pro-ready player at the position in this class.

Last season, Pickett produced an accurate, well-thrown ball on 82.70 percent of his throws, the highest ratio of anyone in the draft. His pickable pass rate of 2.11 percent was also best in class.

Pickett excels at throwing with timing and anticipation, frequently hitting his receivers in stride to maximize their potential to create yards after the catch. He can make throws with pressure in his face and moves well in the pocket to escape pressure while also succeeding at breaking structure and creating with his legs.

Having displayed accuracy in throwing across his body on the run, Pickett will not enter the league with the "statue" concerns that Mac Jones faced last year.

And, though the ball does often die in the air when he goes deep, Pickett's completion percentage of 51.4 percent on 20-plus yard throws put him top of the class, while he was second in well-thrown percentage (68.06) on such attempts.

The upside of a top-10 selection may be absent from Pickett's game, but he should be the leading candidate if a team is looking for a rookie who can play right away, and the gap between him and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder is perhaps larger than many would believe.

Ridder will go into the league having had the benefit of succeeding while being asked to operate in a manner that should help him acclimatise to the NFL quicker than most. He showed calm under pressure, negating it through intelligent pocket movement, and consistently worked through his progressions before finding his checkdown.

Another impressive timing thrower who is a better athlete than he is given credit for and boasts a stronger arm than Pickett, deep accuracy will be the main concern surrounding Ridder at the next level.

His overall well-thrown percentage of 75.66 was the third-worst in the class and Ridder was the second-worst by that same metric on downfield throws as just 58.57 percent of his deep attempts were accurate.

Ridder can offer a baseline of quarterback play because of what he was asked to do at Cincinnati, but teams must decide whether that is worth the cost of a late first or high second-round pick when there is the possibility to swing for the fences on a higher ceiling quarterback who may take significantly longer to blossom into a starting-calibre player.

Talkin' bout Willis

Unquestionably the most divisive quarterback of the 2022 class is Liberty's Malik Willis, who between his elite-level arm and his remarkable proficiency running the ball in the open field has the highest upside of any signal-caller in this year's crop.

With his 27 rushing touchdowns tied with Malik Cunningham for the most by an FBS quarterback over the last season, Willis demonstrated speed, vision, elusiveness and contact balance as a runner, making him a threat with the ball in his hands from anywhere in the field. Willis led all quarterbacks in this class with a yards per carry average of 6.64 on scrambles and was second with 7.42 on designed runs.

Adept at completing off-platform throws and displaying unerring accuracy throwing on the move, it is extremely exciting to think about Willis could become, his ability to blend touch and velocity when going deep allowing him to post the fourth-best well-thrown percentage (61.11) in the class on throws of 20 yards or more.

Willis fits the role of modern-day NFL quarterback better than any of his contemporaries in the draft but harnessing his obvious potential will take time.

So little was asked of him by Hugh Freeze at Liberty that there are question-marks over whether Willis will be ready to start in the NFL even after a year on the bench.

Though he can get through his progressions and perform full-field reads, Willis struggles significantly as a processor. He plays far too slow in working through his reads, leading to him holding the ball too long and failing to hit open receivers underneath.

Playing too slowly at the NFL level is a recipe for disaster. A team will fall in love with Willis' traits, but they must be prepared to be ultra-patient in waiting for the right moment to maximize them.

A Rebel with a cause... for optimism?

Willis has remained in the QB1 discussion despite struggling in his only 2021 game that saw him go up against one of his quarterback counterparts in this class.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their respective supporting casts, Willis was outplayed when he and Liberty faced off with Ole Miss and their quarterback Matt Corral.

Yet Corral does not head into the draft in the first-round discussion even after a season in which he helped the Rebels to 10 wins and delivered a well thrown ball on 80.69 per cent of his pass attempts.

He displayed that accuracy while averaging the lowest air yards per attempt (8.20) of any of the top quarterbacks. A decisive thrower to the short and intermediate areas, Corral had the confidence to let it rip due to playing in an offense that relied predominantly on run-pass option plays that provided him with open looks.

When the throwing windows got tighter, Corral struggled to display the same accuracy and consistently risked turnovers on deep passing attempts. No quarterback in the 2021 class had a higher pickable pass rate on throws of 20-plus yards downfield than Corral's 9.80 per cent.

Corral, though, does have the arm to push the ball downfield with success, as reflected by his well-thrown percentage of 60.78 on deep attempts, which puts him less than a percentage point behind Willis.

Possessing the elusiveness in the pocket to evade pressure and the athleticism to be a viable threat on the ground, Corral ticks a lot of the boxes required for a quarterback to succeed in the modern NFL. However, after playing in such a simplified offense at Ole Miss, it would be a significant stretch to expect him to be able to helm an NFL attack early in his pro career.

The team that invests in Corral will likely initially view him as a high-end developmental backup and that is the role North Carolina's Sam Howell can also expect to fulfil for many of the same reasons.

Howell understandably struggled to adapt after losing NFL draft picks Dyami Brown, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams following the 2020 season and there was little in last year's tape to build a compelling case for him as a first-round pick.

Blessed with the arm strength to make throws to every level, Howell averaged more air yards per attempt (11.45) than any quarterback in the class.

But only Willis had a lower well-thrown percentage than Howell's 75.60 and that declined to 50 per cent on throws of 20 or more yards.

Simply put, the consistency throwing the ball was not there for Howell in his final season, in which he was reliant on one-read RPO throws and scrambles or designed runs.

He frequently ran the ball if his first read was not open, showing impressive contact balance to stay on his feet through attempted tackles when he did so.

Howell's 8.42 yards per carry average on designed runs was the highest among quarterbacks in the class. The blend of huge arm and intriguing running ability is likely to entice a team into taking a bet on him as a day-two project, but the road to Howell being a viable NFL starter will be a long one.

As Jurgen Klopp sat in front of a tremendously busy media room when he was being presented as Liverpool's new manager in October 2015, he said his mission was to "turn doubters into believers."

He felt Reds fans were a little too used to coming so near yet so far, having not won a league title since 1990 at the time, and only winning one trophy - the 2012 League Cup - since 2006.

Early on in his reign, after his new team had fallen 2-1 behind to Crystal Palace at Anfield, he was aghast at fans leaving the ground with almost 10 minutes to go, saying he felt "pretty alone" in that moment.

Fast-forward to April 2022, and having won the Champions League, the Premier League, a UEFA Super Cup, a FIFA Club World Cup and an EFL Cup since, it is safe to say that the Liverpool fans are now believers as they sang Klopp's name at the top of their lungs during the 2-0 Champions League semi-final first leg victory against Villarreal.

The Reds are still in with a shout of winning an unprecedented quadruple this season having already won the EFL Cup, with an FA Cup final against Chelsea to come, a lead in their Champions League semi, and sitting just a point behind leaders Manchester City in the Premier League title race with five games left.

News that Klopp had signed a two-year extension to his Anfield deal on Thursday, meaning his contract now runs until 2026, came as a huge boost to fans ahead of what promises to be an exciting run-in, and Stats Perform has taken a look at some of the important steps that took those doubters and filled them with such belief.

Darkest before the dawn

There was a lot to clear up in the squad left behind by the outgoing Brendan Rodgers. If you look at the team Klopp chose for his first game in charge against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, you will see names on the bench such as Jerome Sinclair, Joao Teixeira and Conor Randall, names not too familiar to many now.

"There were many full-throttle moments in the game. We need to improve but after working with the players for three days I am completely satisfied," Klopp said after the 0-0 draw, but he knew he had his work cut out.

Although ultimately it was a disappointing league campaign in 2015-16 for Liverpool, finishing eighth with just 60 points, behind both Southampton and West Ham, Klopp did manage to reach two finals, in the EFL Cup and the Europa League.

He ended up losing both of them, on penalties to Man City and 3-1 to Sevilla respectively. The players were despondent, but as detailed earlier this week by Reds captain Jordan Henderson, Klopp insisted his players not mope, but celebrate what they had achieved, and what he was sure was still to come.

First step in the evolution

After adding Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum prior to his first full season in charge, many people were a bit underwhelmed, but those fears were soon allayed as Liverpool set about playing the sort of football they have since become synonymous with.

A 4-3 win at Arsenal on the opening day of the season set the tempo, albeit that was tempered by a 2-0 defeat at Burnley straight after in which Liverpool could do nothing with their 80 per cent possession at Turf Moor.

However, as the season progressed, Klopp was able to get a tune out of a potent front three of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, with Mane and Coutinho scoring 13 Premier League goals each, while Firmino added 11 more.

A 3-0 win against Middlesbrough at Anfield on the final day of the season sealed a Champions League spot, but the question was, could Liverpool stay competitive in the league while also navigating through a European campaign?

 

No player is bigger than the club

Liverpool had made an addition to their already potent attack by bringing in Mohamed Salah from Roma, but the 2017-18 season looked to be thrown into turmoil before it had begun, with Coutinho handing in a transfer request the day before the opener at Watford.

The Brazilian was forced to stay until the January transfer window before being allowed to move to Barcelona, but it did not exactly slow Klopp's men down, largely thanks to the revelation that was Salah.

The Egyptian plundered 4e goals in all competitions in his debut season with the Reds, and coupled with the addition of Virgil van Dijk in January, led to Liverpool making it all the way to the Champions League final in Kyiv.

They were ultimately beaten by Real Madrid thanks to some odd goalkeeping from Loris Karius and a stunner from Gareth Bale, but it felt like the start of something, rather than the end.

 

Righting wrongs

After adding Alisson and Fabinho to an already strong team, it seemed that Klopp had addressed his two biggest weak points, and so it proved as Liverpool became a near unstoppable force.

They went toe-to-toe with a rampant Man City in the title race, while also showing a determination to avenge their Champions League heartbreak.

They did just that after a remarkable 4-3 aggregate win against Coutinho and Barcelona in the semi-finals, before beating Tottenham 2-0 in Madrid to give Klopp his first trophy at the club, arguably the biggest one of all.

However, in some people's eyes, the biggest one was the Premier League, which they missed out on to City by a single point, despite amassing an incredible 97 themselves. Only City that year and when they achieved 100 the year prior had ever won more points in England's top flight, but it still didn't result in a league title.

Righting wrongs: Part two

Just as they had done in the Champions League, Liverpool had a sense of purpose to go one better in the league in 2019-20, and that led to the title race being over pretty much before it had begun.

A 3-1 win against City at Anfield in the November put the Reds nine points clear of Pep Guardiola's men, and they never looked back, until they were forced to stop their relentless pursuit.

After a break of several weeks following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Liverpool returned to finish the job and seal their first league title in 30 years after going two points better than the year previous, ending the campaign with 99 to their name.

 

The beginning of the end?

The pandemic meant every club had lost their fans, with no-one allowed in grounds. While the increasingly believing Kop was missed, it was not until Klopp started losing his defence that problems emerged in 2020-21.

By mid-November, he had lost Van Dijk and Joe Gomez to long-term injury, and Joel Matip completed the set in January, meaning Liverpool had to play a significant chunk of their campaign with either midfielders, or rookie defenders at centre back.

This led to a downturn in results that had people questioning if the ride was over. Had Klopp's relentless Reds finally run out of steam, and was this the inevitable consequence of shining so brightly?

Thanks to some very hard-earned wins, including a remarkable stoppage time winner from Alisson at West Brom, Liverpool scraped third place and a crucial Champions League spot. Had stories of their demise been greatly exaggerated?

 

The quadruple chasers

Yes, yes they had. With their defenders all back, and Ibrahima Konate added from RB Leipzig, Liverpool have, if anything, found new levels of excellence this season. They have gone right back to challenging City, and have proven themselves to be one of the teams to beat in Europe too.

They are currently the top scorers in the Premier League with 85 goals in 33 games, and have won 13 of their last 14 league games, with a 2-2 draw at City their only blemish in that time.

Can they go all the way and make history by winning a quadruple? It still seems unlikely, but whether they do or they don't, the news that Klopp's story with Liverpool has been extended by two more years can only be positive.

You better believe it.

Jurgen Klopp is staying on at Liverpool for an extra two years after signing a new contract that keeps him at Anfield until June 2026.

Rumours had started to circulate suggesting the German and his coaching staff agreed fresh terms, and the club made it official on Thursday.

The announcement came as Liverpool chase an unprecedented quadruple. Having already won the EFL Cup this season, they are into the FA Cup final, sit just one point behind leaders Manchester City in the Premier League and hold a 2-0 lead over Villarreal ahead of the second leg of their Champions League semi-final.

Injury-ravaged Liverpool finished 2020-21 third in the Premier League, 17 points behind Pep Guardiola's City, but Klopp has proven that to be a minor blip with the Reds back in devastating form this term.

Following confirmation of his new contract, Stats Perform looks back at some of the best and most notable victories from Klopp's five and a half years at the helm…

Liverpool 4-3 Borussia Dortmund, April 2016

Klopp surely felt he had a point to prove when going up against his former club in the Europa League quarter-finals, though it all looked to be going horribly wrong. After drawing 1-1 in the first leg, the Reds then trailed by two goals twice at Anfield and found themselves needing at least three goals in the final 25 minutes – somehow, they managed it. Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren all struck, with Liverpool incredibly netting with all four of their shots on target in the game.

Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City, January 2018

Although Liverpool still trailed leaders City by 15 points in the Premier League after this victory, in hindsight, there is a degree of this win being a watershed moment for Klopp's Liverpool. City were unbeaten in the league at this point, yet for much of the game Liverpool looked every inch their equal. While two late goals from City ensured a tense finish, the Reds were well worth the three points in what went down as a modern classic.

Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona, May 2019

The Reds seemed to have little hope here. Lionel Messi inspired a 3-0 dismantling of Liverpool in Camp Nou in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final clash, seemingly putting one foot in the final. But Klopp's side were in sensational form for the return at Anfield, with Divock Origi providing some early hope with a seventh-minute opener. Georginio Wijnaldum then laid on a second-half brace to restore parity, before Origi completed the turnaround 11 minutes from time. It was the first time since 1986 that a team wiped out a three-goal first-leg deficit to win a Champions League/European Cup semi-final.

Tottenham 0-2 Liverpool, June 2019

It may not have been a classic as a spectacle, but Liverpool fans – and Klopp – won't have cared. After falling at the final hurdle the year before, the Reds were European champions for a sixth time in 2019 as they beat Tottenham 2-0 in Madrid, with Mohamed Salah and Origi getting the goals.

Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United, January 2020

The 2019-20 title triumph was Liverpool's first league championship in 30 years – in that time, their bitter rivals United had won it 13 times to become the most successful club in the English top flight. While Klopp's side were already well clear at the Premier League summit when the ailing United came to Anfield in January 2020, there was a sense that their procession began with this 2-0 victory that left them 16 points clear at the top with a game in hand.

Manchester United 0-5 Liverpool, October 2021

Liverpool heaped the misery on United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer again in October. Paul Pogba's sending off certainly helped the visitors, but even before then the gulf was clear. This was the Red Devils' biggest losing margin to their fierce rivals since 1895 (Liverpool won 7-1 at Anfield), and worst ever at home. Mohamed Salah led the way with a hat-trick, in the process becoming the highest-scoring African player in Premier League history. The Reds went on to hammer United again six months later, winning 4-0 on Merseyside.

The Premier League's longest-serving manager is to remain in his post until 2026 after agreeing a two-year contract extension to his deal at Anfield.

Having already led the Reds to their first ever Premier League title, ending a 30-year wait for top-flight glory, and a sixth European crown since arriving in England in 2015, Klopp is looking to become the first boss to win a historic quadruple in another fine campaign.

Liverpool finished eighth when Klopp replaced Brendan Rodgers during the 2015-16 season but the German's canny recruiting has helped restore the club to one of the game's global powerhouses.

And Stats Perform has used Opta data to run through the club's best signings of the Klopp era.

Sadio Mane

Having led the Reds to EFL Cup and Europa League finals after inheriting a squad built by predecessor Brendan Rodgers, Klopp went about remodelling his team in 2016, with then-Southampton forward Mane representing the biggest arrival ahead of his first full campaign at the helm.

Mane registered 13 goals and seven assists in his debut season, with only Phillipe Coutinho managing more goal contributions for the Reds (14 goals and nine assists). The Senegal forward managed his best campaign to date when scoring 26 goals in all competitions two years later, also winning a vital penalty in the opening stages of their Champions League final win over Spurs.

Including this season, Mane has hit 20 goals in four of his last five campaigns at Anfield, more than paying back his £30million price tag.

Mohamed Salah

If Mane's arrival was a success, where do you start with the debut campaign of Salah, who joined Mane and Roberto Firmino to form a fearsome Reds front three in 2017?

In all competitions, Salah scored an unbelievable 43 goals and registered 14 assists during his first season with the club as Liverpool finished as Champions League runners-up. Salah has hit 117 goals in 176 Premier League appearances for the Reds, has scored in a Champions League final victory and won two Premier League golden boots to date, with another extremely likely to follow this term.

Not bad for a player Chelsea let go for a reported £13.5million back in 2016…

Virgil van Dijk

While Salah and Mane have arguably provided the most magical moments for Klopp's Liverpool, would any of their incredible successes have been possible without the acquisition of Van Dijk in January 2018?

With former club Southampton receiving a reported £75million for his services, Van Dijk certainly did not come cheap, but it could be argued no other player can rival his impact at Anfield. Having conceded 38 league goals in 2017-18, Liverpool shipped just 22 in Van Dijk's first full season with the club as they were crowned European champions and narrowly missed out on the Premier League title.

Indeed, after racking up 97 points that season, Liverpool earned 99 when winning their first Premier League title in 2019-20, 30 more than they earned in the 2020-21 campaign when Van Dijk was sidelined by an ACL injury.

Allison 

The 2018 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid was a turning point for Klopp's Liverpool. The heavy metal football that propelled Klopp to stardom had gotten the Reds so far, but Loris Karius' costly errors demonstrated their need for a safer pair of hands.

For all that Van Dijk's brilliance contributed to Liverpool's incredible defensive record in 2018-19, Allison's arrival must also be credited after he kept 21 clean sheets and recorded a save percentage of 77.08 per cent that term. The Brazilian could yet better those statistics this season, posting 19 Premier League clean sheets to date.

Liverpool's shot-stopper even popped up with a vital goal against West Brom last season to help secure Champions League qualification.

The Hull City left-back, the silky Spaniard and Liverpool's next great attackers: The best of the rest…

Klopp's Liverpool have generally recruited brilliantly since his arrival, and while the aforementioned quartet have arguably had the greatest impact on the team's development, there are numerous others who warrant a mention.

In terms of pure value-for-money, no signing can match the £7million purchase of Andrew Robertson, with only Trent Alexander-Arnold (17) beating the Scot's 15 assists in all competitions this season.

Thiago Alcantara, who arrived from Bayern Munich ahead of lasts season, took a while to convince some doubters, largely owing to the silky midfielder's bad fortune with injuries, but the Barcelona man has been inspirational in recent weeks and no regular Reds midfielder can match his passing accuracy of 89.56 per cent this term (all competitions).

If Liverpool could be said to have had one weakness in recent seasons, meanwhile, it was a lack of reliable back-ups for Salah and Mane.

However, the form of Diogo Jota and January arrival Luis Diaz has been crucial to Liverpool's quadruple bid. With Jota averaging a goal every 134.6 minutes in the Premier League this term, and Diaz recording five goal contributions (three goals, two assists) in just seven league starts, the duo could be crucial in Klopp's next cycle.

For a number of years, a clash between Manchester United and Chelsea with less than a month of the Premier League campaign remaining would often be a defining one.

United's days of competing for – and regularly winning – the title are over for now, though, with the Red Devils languishing down in sixth place.

Indeed, following Saturday's 3-1 loss to Arsenal – their third defeat in four games – the Red Devils are also now effectively out of the race for a top-four finish.

While there is little to play for on the face of it, the remaining four matches at least provides Ralf Rangnick a chance to experiment before being replaced by Erik ten Hag.

Rangnick has admitted United need a huge squad overhaul if they are to compete for major honours again, but the club must also look to get more out of their academy products.

With that in mind, Stats Perform looks at some of the youngsters who may get a chance to shine when United welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford on Thursday.


Experience favoured over youth

Whether it be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or temporary successor Rangnick in charge, United have tended to avoid picking younger players this season.

The average age of United's starting XI in the Premier League in 2021-22 is 27 years and 200 days – only seven sides, Chelsea among them, have named older line-ups.

Once famed for giving youngsters an opportunity, United have used just four players aged 21 or under in the league this campaign, and one of those was a £73million signing in the form of Jadon Sancho (who turned 22 in March).


Hannibal hungry to impress

Hannibal is highly regarded at Old Trafford but has just six minutes of playing time to his name this season, coming late on in the recent 4-0 defeat to Liverpool.

That was the first indicator Rangnick had thrown in the towel and was ready to look to the future, and Hannibal certainly left his mark – albeit on a couple of Liverpool players.

The tenacious midfielder committed as many fouls as any United player at Anfield, despite being introduced late on, and was one of two players to be cautioned.

With fellow midfielders Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard all soon to make way, and Fred not fully fit, Hannibal may well get another opportunity against Chelsea.

Already capped 12 times by Tunisia at senior international level, now is the time for United to unleash the teenager's full potential while they have an opportunity to do so.


Shoretire set to star

Hannibal was one of four academy players that took part in training ahead of the Chelsea match, along with Alvaro Fernandez, Shola Shoretire and Will Fish.

Winger Shoretire is the most well-known of those youngsters, having made four appearances for United in all competitions.

He became the youngest player to represent United in European competition last year when featuring against Real Sociedad in the Europa League at 17 years and 23 days.

Appearances have been pretty fleeting since, though he also had a 22-minute run-out against the (appropriately named for this focus) Young Boys in the Champions League four months ago.

While others may have garnered more attention of late, Shoretire has continued to showcase his talents consistently for the Under-23s side and deserves a promotion.


Fish ready to scale new heights

The fact that Fernandez and Fish also took part in training with the senior players this week suggests that they will be part of the squad to face Chelsea at the very least.

Left-back Fernandez has been made to bide his time for a senior debut, whereas centre-back Fish made a cameo appearance in the Premier League under Solskjaer last year.

He was subsequently loaned to Stockport County ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, only to be recalled in January, though his time since has been spent with the reserves.

Tipped as a future star at the back for United since making his Under-23s debut at the age of just 16, Fish now needs the platform to showcase his talents at the highest level.


Garanacho grabbing attention

Unsurprisingly given their status as one of the biggest clubs in the world, United have a whole raft of talented teens that have been heralded as the next big thing.

Look no further than Alejandro Garnacho, who has been an unused substitute for the senior side's last three matches.

The winger is still aged just 17 and therefore has time on his side, but the early indications are that he could be a first-team regular in the next couple of seasons.

Charlie Savage, the son of one-time United academy product Robbie, is also on the cusp of being a first-team squad regular and has featured once already this season.

Zidane Iqbal was also given his first-team breakthrough under Rangnick in December, but has frustratingly – albeit understandably – had to bide his time for more senior minutes.

With nothing left to salvage in what has been another dire season, Rangnick could do a lot worse than turn to the next generation of talent to give supporters hope for the future.

It has been five years since a defensive lineman was last taken first overall in the NFL Draft.

Back in 2017, Myles Garrett's name had been written in pen next to the number one slot for a long time before the Cleveland Browns officially gave him the distinction of being the first player off the board.

Garrett was seen as a can't-miss prospect, and he has lived up to that billing, with his 361 career quarterback pressures the fourth-most in the NFL since 2017.

All the signs are pointing to an edge rusher going first overall again in 2022. However, while Garrett was a sure thing, the Jacksonville Jaguars appear set to select a player who is anything but.

Talk of Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux going number one has given way to the belief Georgia's Travon Walker will be hearing his name called first in a class filled with more divisive prospects than clear-cut stars.

Walker has emerged as the favourite despite finishing his college career with Georgia, which ended with the Bulldogs winning the National Championship, with just 9.5 sacks.

His stock has risen sharply in the wake of stunning athletic performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, yet given his mediocre production compared to his contemporaries in the edge class and the role he played for Georgia, selecting Walker would represent a substantial gamble by the Jags.

A year on from selecting Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick, it is a gamble Jacksonville cannot afford to backfire.

Walker's production woes

Any conversation about Walker must begin by addressing the elephant in the room: the production, or lack thereof.

Walker had 3.5 sacks over his first two seasons before displaying a marked improvement in that regard as Georgia's dominant defense laid the foundation for their National title.

Indeed, he registered six sacks, 17th among all defenders in the SEC, yet his pressure numbers are illustrative of a player who failed to impact the quarterback on a consistent basis.

Walker registered 31 pressures on 259 pass-rush snaps for a pressure rate of just 12 per cent, which is in stark contrast to the player he appears to have usurped as the number one pick, Michigan star Hutchinson, who had a pressure rate of 30.8 per cent in 2021.

Only 16 of Walker's pressures involved him beating a pass blocker. Hutchinson beat a pass protector on 72 of his 85 quarterback pressures.

Yet the paucity of pass rush production is in part a reflection of how Walker was utilised by the Bulldogs.

Though Walker played 96 more snaps as a pass rusher than a run defender, his goal in attacking pass protectors was not always to get to the quarterback but to soak up attention from the offensive line and open rush lanes for second-level defenders.

As a result, teams evaluating Walker only saw flashes of his potential as a pass rusher, but it is the combination of those flashes and his astounding athletic profile that appears to have enticed the Jaguars into taking a significant risk.

Crushing the Combine

Though his Georgia defensive line mate Jordan Davis stole the show at the Combine with his remarkable performance in the 40-yard dash, Walker's pre-draft workout stands among the finest in NFL history.

Measuring at 6ft 5in and 272 pounds, Walker tore down the track in 4.51 seconds, putting him in the 98th percentile for defensive ends. His 10-yard split of 1.62 seconds was not quite as impressive but was still good enough for the 70th percentile.

Walker's arm length (35 and a half inches), hand size (10 and three-quarter inches) and wingspan of over seven feet (84 and a quarter inches) all measured in the 95th percentile for his position.

In the vertical jump and broad jump, which gauge lower-body explosiveness, Walker was in the 80th and 87th percentile respectively. In the three-cone drill, used for edge players as an assessment of their flexibility to turn the corner and beat an offensive tackle to the outside, Walker posted a time of 6.89 seconds that put him in the 93rd percentile.

Walker's testing suggests he has the physical skill set to blossom into an explosive and bendy pass rusher whose arm length should allow him to win hand fights with offensive linemen, with half the battle for pass rushers being the ability to make contact before the pass protector.

Evidence of his potential to develop into that player was sporadic during his college career, but the glimpses of that promise were undoubtedly tantalising.

A home-run swing

With Georgia frequently mixing up their defensive fronts, Walker played in a variety of roles. He was used as a defensive end in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts and also played as a 3-technique defensive tackle lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard.

As such, it is difficult to know what Walker's best position is, though his versatility is undoubtedly part of his appeal.

Walker's athleticism clearly makes him a mismatch problem for guards when pass rushing from the inside. He had 13 pressures from the defensive tackle spot, with nine of those seeing him beat a pass protector, his quickness off the snap extremely tough for interior offensive linemen to react to and posing them significant issues when Walker was used in a stunt by the Georgia defensive line.

That same burst has facilitated his – albeit limited – success on edge. Though he needs to do a better job of translating his speed to power, when he does do so and gets his long arms into the pads of blockers, he can produce an impressive bull rush to help collapse the pocket.

On the top of that, Walker has fleetingly displayed the ability to get around the corner and flatten to the quarterback, with the acceleration he demonstrated on the 40 track showing up in the closing speed he displays when he has a path into the backfield and an opportunity to force a negative play.

Such closing speed can also be a substantial asset in the run game, in which Walker's arm length and power in his hands come into play in helping him disengage from blocks, freeing him to hunt the ball carrier.

Defending the run was certainly Walker's strength statistically last season, with only UAB's Alex Wright (18.7 per cent) and Hutchinson (17.9 per cent) recording a better run disruption rate among edge rushers than Walker's 12.9 per cent.

Of course, excelling as a run defender is a long way from being enough to justify a number one overall selection and, to make such a decision, the Jaguars must believe they can harness the untapped pass rush potential and refine a limited set of moves, with the rip move and the push-pull the only two with which Walker has enjoyed anything resembling consistent success.

The Jaguars do have a highly experienced defensive line coach who would be tasked with developing Walker. Brentson Buckner has worked with the likes of Chandler Jones and Jason Pierre-Paul during his career and was the defensive line coach for the then Oakland Raiders in 2019 when Maxx Crosby had 10 sacks as a rookie fourth-round pick.

Crosby, however, did not have the massive burden of expectation of being the number one overall pick.

Too often the Jaguars have seen top-five picks go to waste. Between 2012 and 2017 they picked in the top five for six consecutive drafts and only one of those selections, now Los Angeles Rams star Jalen Ramsey, even made a Pro Bowl.

In an era that will be defined by whether they take advantage of the gift of having Lawrence fall into their lap with the top overall pick last year, they cannot afford to miss on premium draft picks.

By likely taking Walker over Hutchinson, the Jags are going with the home-run swing over the prospect most believe to be a pro-ready day-one contributor. If they are to turn their fortunes around and contend with Lawrence, that swing must make contact.

On April 26, 2016, Manchester City and Real Madrid played out a tepid 0-0 draw in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final at the Etihad Stadium. 

Back at the same ground, in the same round of the same competition six years later, they produced a spectacle that had the contrast cranked up to the maximum.

It was the joint-highest scoring semi-final in the competition's history, and it was a story that twisted and turned from the first minute until the last.

But the opening chapter reached its conclusion with City holding a 4-3 advantage after an enthralling 90 minutes.

A start for the history books 

City pressed Madrid high from the off and it was shortly after regaining possession in the final third that Kevin De Bruyne made a phenomenal dart into the box to head home Riyad Mahrez's pinpoint delivery. 

There were just 95 seconds on the clock, making it the quickest goal in Champions League semi-final history. The previous mark was 2 minutes 44 seconds, which was set by Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich against Madrid in May 2018. 

It did not stop there, though. De Bruyne picked out Gabriel Jesus, who, after a somewhat fortuitous first touch, guided a cool finish beyond Thibaut Courtois to make it 2-0. 

Madrid had never before conceded twice in the first 11 minutes of a Champions League match and it looked like they could be seriously up against it with Mahrez, Phil Foden and Oleksandr Zinchenko all going close. 

Benzema brings it back 

It has already been the best season of Karim Benzema's career and he showed just how important he has become to Madrid in his 600th appearance for the club – the most by a non-Spanish player. 

He got in front of Zinchenko to steer home a brilliant volley from the edge of the box in the 33rd minute for his 40th goal of the season. The Frenchman now belongs to an exclusive club of just five players to hit that mark in a single campaign for Los Blancos, joining Cristiano Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugo Sanchez. 

No let-up 

Madrid lost their best defender in David Alaba at half-time and the momentum they had built before the break quickly dissipated. 

Los Blancos concede an average of five more shots per game when Alaba does not feature and City had already had four efforts on goal – two of which came when Mahrez hit the post and Foden saw his goal-bound follow-up blocked by Dani Carvajal – before restoring their two-goal cushion through Foden in the 53rd minute. 

Makeshift right-back Fernandinho, who replaced the injured John Stones in the first half, set up Foden with an excellent cross but his defending belied his years of experience just two minutes later. Vinicius Junior got the better of his fellow Brazilian with a clever dummy by the halfway line, and no one could catch him before he tucked the ball into the bottom-right corner. 

It was the first time two players aged 21 or younger had scored in the same Champions League semi-final match.  

Don't look away

The drama was far from over, though. Bernardo Silva capitalised when referee Istvan Kovacs wisely played the advantage following Toni Kroos' challenge on Zinchenko by slamming the ball into the top-left corner in the 74th minute.

City consequently became the first English side to score four against Madrid in the Champions League since Liverpool in March 2009. It would have been five had Mahrez been able to add a finish to his coruscating run.

But Aymeric Laporte inexplicably handling a cross enabled Benzema to score his ninth goal of the knockout stages – a Panenka from the penalty spot moving him one adrift of Ronaldo's record (10) from Madrid's triumphant 2016-17 campaign. The Portugal captain (13) is also the only player to have scored more Champions League semi-final goals than Benzema's seven.

Madrid were unable to stop Pep Guardiola claiming a 12th win in his 20 meetings with them across his entire coaching career, though. The Catalan's record in the semi-final has been met with a lot of questions, but he has never been eliminated after winning a first leg at this stage.

He will hope to get the job done at the Santiago Bernabeu and get a chance at redemption after last season's final defeat to Chelsea.

It seems bizarre to suggest that in a contest between a club that has never won the European Cup or Champions League and another that has won 13 of them, it is the latter who will go into it as the underdog.

That is the case this week, though, with Manchester City and Real Madrid set to go head-to-head for a place in this season's Champions League final.

There is obviously reasoning behind this, with Pep Guardiola's side winning every other trophy available to them in recent years and breezing through their European campaign up to this point, a few scars from their quarter-final with Atletico Madrid aside.

Carlo Ancelotti's men have had a tougher road to get here, having to get past newly crowned French champions Paris Saint-Germain and reigning European champions Chelsea so far in the knockout stages.

They had to produce stirring comebacks in both ties, but City are an altogether different prospect, having finished above PSG in the group stage and beaten Chelsea home and away in the Premier League this season.

The English side have very few obvious weaknesses, but perhaps there is one area where Ancelotti can focus ahead of the first leg in Manchester.

Guardiola has recently been slightly overstating his lack of options, saying before the game with Watford at the weekend that City were suffering an injury crisis, before using 14 players that cost approximately £695million (€825m) (according to Transfermarkt.co.uk) to beat the Hornets 5-1.

However, one of his star performers this season has undoubtedly been Joao Cancelo, and the Portuguese full-back is suspended for the first clash with Madrid, while Kyle Walker remains a doubt with an ankle injury.

"They are doubts," the City manager said at a news conference on Monday when asked about Walker and John Stones. "They didn't train for the last week, 10 days... We will see how they feel and take a decision tomorrow."

This could lead to Guardiola having to get a bit creative at right-back, with Oleksandr Zinchenko presumably getting the nod on the left.

Most eyes will be on the likes of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric to lead the visitors, with both producing their usual big-game performances to make the difference against PSG and Chelsea, but the key at the Etihad Stadium may be another slightly unsung hero.

It's not that Vinicius Junior is not highly rated. This season he has exploded into one of the most potent attackers in world football, but this could be the perfect time for him to cement his name as a star of Real Madrid's present and future.

The Brazilian has always been considered a talent but could never quite put together the consistent run of form expected of regular starters in the famous all-white kit, until this season.

Vinicius has registered 31 goal involvements (17 goals, 14 assists) in 45 games in all competitions (42 starts), and has created 94 chances from open play.

Compare this to last season and you can see his significant improvement, managing just 10 goal involvements (six goals, four assists) in 49 appearances (31 starts) in 2020-21, with just 43 chances created from open play.

His numbers are now up there with the best in Europe. In terms of chances created from open play in the top five European leagues this season, only Bruno Fernandes (101) and Thomas Muller (100) have created more than his 94.

No-one has attempted more than his 303 dribbles this season, while only Adama Traore, Kylian Mbappe (both 137) and Allan Saint-Maximin (136) have completed more dribbles than his 127.

Vinicius is well established as a standout performer in LaLiga this season as well, with only Benzema (25), Enes Unal and Raul de Tomas (both 15) having scored more than his 14, while only Benzema (36) has more goal involvements than his 22.

Speaking of Benzema, his partnership with the 34-year-old marksman is developing into one of the most potent in the game, with the duo having provided the most goals for each other in the Champions League this season (six), ahead of Ajax's Antony and Sebastian Haller, and Bayern Munich's Leroy Sane and Muller (both four).

Vinicius is always a threat, as shown against Chelsea at the Santiago Bernabeu in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final. Blues right-back Reece James had been doing a good job of containing him, until one switch off in extra time allowed the 21-year-old down the left, and he played a perfect cross in for Benzema to score what proved to be the winning goal in the tie.

There is another Brazilian winger for City to potentially watch out for, though, in Rodrygo, who also played a crucial role in dumping out Chelsea by scoring moments after coming off the bench in the second leg.

While he has certainly not emerged like Vinicius just yet, the former Santos player has been making himself a more integral part of Ancelotti's squad, with 41 appearances in all competitions so far this season (19 starts), which is already more than the 33 (13 starts) he managed in 2020-21.

He has 12 goal involvements (four goals, eight assists) this season, up from nine last year (two goals, seven assists), and the youngster recently told Real Madrid's official website that he is looking forward to the test of City.

"They'll be tough opponents," he said. "We know the way they play and how good they are. If they've made it to the Champions League semi-finals, it means they're good, and it's down to the way City like to play, with a lot of possession.

"We're expecting a tough match and we have to make sure we keep playing like we have been and try to make it through."

Rodrygo might be under more pressure to perform given recent rumours that he may be one of the players who will have to make way for Mbappe should the club finally land the PSG star at the end of the season.

That being said, arguably Mbappe's best position is where Vinicius is currently doing his damage, which leads you to wonder if he too might be playing for his long-term future.

Of course, the Frenchman can play through the middle but there's another significant obstacle in the way there too in the form of his compatriot Benzema.

If Vinicius and Rodrygo want to make a case for maintaining their roles at the club, they have the perfect opportunity to do so by taking Madrid to a first Champions League final since 2018, and we will see just how ready for the challenge they are at the Etihad.

In 2022, safeties are not players who can get NFL fans out of their seats.

Gone are the days of the ultra-physical safeties whose careers are defined by compiling highlight reel hits.

The NFL's continued development as a passing league built on the foundation of a seemingly ever-expanding number of athletic dual-threat quarterbacks has facilitated the implementation of more malleable defenses with a variety of pitches in their arsenal to help them rise to the increasingly difficult challenges they face.

This is not an era where defenses can have one safety to play the role of enforcer and one with the range to play the deep middle. Teams ideally need both safeties to have the skill set to play the deep middle and down in the box while also possessing the ability to match up with wide receivers and tight ends in the slot.

In essence, teams must have safeties to enable them to effectively play the two-high zone coverages that were, last season at least, the most widely used solution to the explosive passing games proliferating around the NFL but also provide them with the personnel to stop the run while operating from those shells.

The 2022 NFL Draft may not have the same star quality as previous rookie classes. However, what it does boast is several of those multi-faceted safety prospects, with the headliner among that group Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton.

Were the league still dominated by single-high safety defenses, Hamilton would not have found himself in the discussion to be the first overall pick in the draft. 

He doesn't have the range of a baseball center fielder that is required to be an elite single-high safety, but his combination of versatility and college production had many asking whether he could be the first name off the board in Las Vegas despite playing a position that has typically not seen its importance reflected by high draft selections. 

Hamilton has the athleticism and awareness to make game-changing plays when lined up deep in two-high looks, while he also possesses the downhill speed and physicality to be an asset against the run and the coverage ability and build to excel matched up against tight ends and receivers.

As a modern-day NFL safety, Hamilton ticks all the boxes, and every team in the league could use him. There is not one defense he would not fit. 

Still, he is unlikely to go number one to the Jacksonville Jaguars but, during a time in league history where safeties do not command the exposure they certainly deserve, Hamilton is a candidate to revitalise the fortunes of the two teams from the NFL's biggest market who each have a pair of top-10 picks.

A flexible turnover machine

Hamilton was deployed all over the field during his time with the Fighting Irish. In 2021, he played 222 snaps as a deep safety, 137 as a slot cornerback and 53 as a box safety.

And, as his numbers illustrate, Hamilton was extremely effective at influencing the game regardless of where he lined up.

Hamilton registered eight interceptions between 2019 and 2021, the fifth-most among FBS safeties during that period.

He also added 16 pass breakups, Hamilton's on-ball production a testament to his blend of instincts and athletic ability.

Hamilton excels at reading the eyes of the quarterback to drop into throwing lanes and make plays on the ball, with his eye discipline and efficiency in changing direction enabling him to pick up new assignments in coverage on the fly.

Using his 33-inch arms to stay in tight man coverage and disrupt passes at the catch point, Hamilton has additionally demonstrated prowess for recovering separation and jumping the routes of receivers, showcasing another gear to help him get to the ball when he has a chance to take it away.

While the downhill thump he offers and his long speed in pursuit are significant parts of Hamilton's skill set, it is the fact his versatility is supplemented by turnover production that makes him so appealing, particularly to teams like the New York Jets who have found takeaways extremely hard to come by.

The final piece of Saleh's secondary puzzle?

The Jets, who own selections four and 10, managed just 14 takeaways last season, putting them 31st in the NFL, with the Jaguars (nine) the only team to record fewer.

Pass rush plays a substantial role in a defense's ability to force turnovers, but the Jets – even with Carl Lawson missing the entire season through injury – ranked third in pass rush win rate last season, perhaps indicating that their struggles taking the ball away were a result of the performance of the secondary and a lack of luck.

Hamilton has the talent to significantly influence the former, and he would join a secondary that is in better shape than it is perhaps given credit for.

Starting cornerback Bryce Hall had the lowest combined open percentage (14.61) allowed across man and zone coverage of all corners in the NFL with at least 100 coverage matchups in 2021.

The Jets also added strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who during his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed his prowess for making plays in coverage and down near the line of scrimmage.

Whitehead registered eight pass breakups and two interceptions in 2021 while his tally of 14 tackles for loss over the last two seasons is bettered only by Jamal Adams among safeties (15).

Not short of talent up front, infusing Hamilton into the secondary could give Jets coach Robert Saleh the back seven he needs for his defense to take a leap to help them compete in the AFC East, and the team with whom they share a stadium may also have designs on him elevating their defense to the NFL's elite.

Safety could be Giant strength for Martindale

There wasn't much good about the New York Giants in 2021, yet their defense did rank 11th in yards per play allowed (5.31).

That defense will be run by Don "Wink" Martindale in 2022, and there is no doubt a respected defensive mind of his calibre would relish the chance to get to work with a chess piece like Hamilton. The Giants are in a great spot to give him that opportunity, picking fifth and seventh.

At the safety position, the Giants already possess one versatile and seemingly quickly improving player in Xavier McKinney. 

McKinney spent 838 snaps lined up as a deep safety last season but did play 96 in the slot, with his combined open percentage allowed of 17.07 the third-best among safeties with a minimum of 100 matchups.

The Giants' secondary will likely lose a veteran player with cornerback James Bradberry expected to be traded, yet by pairing McKinney with Hamilton, they would immediately boast one of the most multi-faceted defensive backfields in the NFL, one which would offer Martindale the opportunity to decrease his dependency on single-high looks, having predominantly leaned on Cover 3 shells in his final year as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens.

As is the case with the Jets, the Giants still have a lot of questions to answer, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where there are doubts over two first-round selections at quarterback at different points of their career and a clear need for a further infusion of talent among both groups of wide receivers.

In an offense-driven league, it is the answers to those questions that may determine how quickly two teams that have spent far too long in the mire can ascend back to contention.

But neither franchise is in a spot to thumb its nose at a defensive building block who fits exactly where the game is going and has the potential to become an elite player at his position. Safety has historically not been a highly valued position in the draft, but Hamilton's ceiling is such that he could eventually be regarded as a franchise-changing selection for the team that is willing to put history to one side, and the Jets and Giants have the positional need and the potential opportunity do just that.

Manchester City and Liverpool will put their epic Premier League title race on hold for a few days, as they have the small matter of the Champions League semi-finals to think about.

City are hoping to go one better than last year after losing in the final to Chelsea. Standing in their way in the last four are Real Madrid, who eliminated the holders in the quarter-finals and boast a striker in Karim Benzema who has 12 goals in nine Champions League appearances this season.

Also facing LaLiga opposition are Liverpool, though Villarreal are unlikely to be a team they expected to meet at this stage of the competition.

Led by a knockout football specialist in Unai Emery, Villarreal cannot be taken lightly by the Reds, even with Emery's men historically struggling in games in England.

Ahead of the first legs, Stats Perform digs into some of the best Opta numbers around the two semi-final ties.

Manchester City v Real Madrid

Madrid might just be beginning to feel it is their year after progressing from remarkable knockout ties against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.

However, the omens are against them ahead of their first leg with City. Los Blancos haven't won on any of their previous three trips to face Manchester City in European competition (two draws, one defeat), with the most recent two coming in the knockout stages of the Champions League – a 0-0 draw in the 2015-16 semi-final first leg and a 2-1 loss in the 2019-20 last-16 second leg.

Pep Guardiola won't need any additional motivation as he looks to finally end his wait for a Champions League triumph with City, and the Barcelona legend can complete a historic hat-trick by overseeing an elimination of Madrid.

Indeed, Guardiola has eliminated Madrid from the knockout stages of the Champions League on two previous occasions, beating them 3-1 on aggregate in the 2010-11 semi-finals with Barcelona and 4-2 on aggregate in the 2019-20 last-16 with City. He is looking to become the first manager to eliminate Madrid from the competition on three occasions.

Madrid won away from home in the first leg at Chelsea in the quarter-finals, their only victory in their last six away games against English teams in the Champions League. No team has ever beaten two different English sides away from home in the knockout stages in a single Champions League campaign.

Champions League history between the two managers, however, is with Madrid's Carlo Ancelotti. He and Guardiola have faced each other six times, with the City boss claiming four wins to Ancelotti's two.

However, all four of Guardiola's wins came with City against Ancelotti's Everton, while the Italian saw his Madrid side beat Guardiola's Bayern Munich in both legs of the 2013-14 Champions League semi-finals, claiming a 5-0 aggregate triumph. Such a one-sided tie is unlikely this time around.

Liverpool v Villarreal

Villarreal are arguably the story of the 2021-22 Champions League, having sensationally knocked out Juventus and Bayern Munich to reach this stage.

However, games in England have historically been a problem for the Yellow Submarine. Since a 2-1 victory over Everton back in August 2005, Villarreal haven't managed to win any of their last eight away games in England in all competitions (three draws, five defeats), tasting defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford in the group stages earlier this season.

Despite Villarreal's well-organised defensive set-up, a high-scoring game could well be in the offing. During his managerial career, Villarreal boss Emery has faced Liverpool five times (once with Sevilla and four times with Arsenal), with those matches producing 26 goals (5.2 per game on average), and both teams netting in each.

Liverpool will be the clear favourites to do the majority of that goalscoring. Of the 12 sides to have reached the semi-finals of the European Cup/Champions League on at least five occasions, only Benfica (seven wins from eight) and Milan (10/12) have a higher ratio of progressing to the final than Liverpool (82%), who have managed to reach the final on nine of their previous 11 semi-final appearances.

Although Liverpool possess serious depth in attack with Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz playing significant roles, Mohamed Salah is still the obvious candidate to be their talisman.

Only in 2017-18 (10) has Salah scored more Champions League goals in a single campaign than the eight he has scored this season, moving his tally for the club onto 33. The Egyptian is just three behind both Didier Drogba (Chelsea) and Sergio Aguero (Man City) for the most goals netted in the competition for an English side (both 36).

Yet Emery's track record in Europe should have Liverpool fans nervous that he could be the man to dash their quadruple dreams.

The only European meeting between Emery and Liverpool was the 2016 Europa League final, in which Emery's Sevilla side beat Klopp's Reds 3-1. On top of that, since the start of the 2009-10 season, the year of the inaugural UEFA Europa League campaign, Emery has progressed from 84 per cent of his Europa League/Champions League knockout ties (31/37).

That is second-best ratio of any manager to have taken charge of at least 10 ties, after only Zinedine Zidane (14/16 – 88%).

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