It is set to be the biggest match the Premier League has seen since, well, since the last time these two met during a fierce title race.

In 2019, Manchester City and Liverpool were slugging it out at the top of the table when they met at the Etihad Stadium, with Pep Guardiola's men edging a tight encounter 2-1, ultimately winning the league by a single point, 98 to 97.

That clash came in the January, though. This time, with both teams again separated by just one point, and with only eight games to go, it feels like it could be all or nothing when they meet on Sunday.

Both behemoths have numerous players who could play a crucial role, with match winners all over the pitch in either sky blue or red shirts.

However, two players in particular could arguably be held up as representations of both their teams, their approaches and their identity.

The journeys from transition to world-class of these City and Liverpool teams did not happen overnight, just like it didn't for two players who are now among the best full-backs in the game.

It has been said that Joao Cancelo and Trent Alexander-Arnold are redefining the role in their own unique ways, and in doing so, becoming defining players in their respective teams.

It is strange to think that during his first season at City in 2019-20, there were doubts raised about Cancelo's signing, valued at around £60m as part of a swap deal for the outgoing Danilo, who replaced Cancelo at Juventus.

However, the Portugal international was a key part of his team's recovery from a poor start last season to eventually ease to the Premier League title, before featuring prominently again this time around as Pep Guardiola's men chase a treble.

Cancelo was signed as a right-back but has shown his quality further still by adapting to playing at left-back, which is where he has recently been most effective for City, despite being right-footed.

Alexander-Arnold came through Liverpool's youth ranks, interestingly enough as a central midfielder, only moving to right-back as it seemed the quickest route into the first team.

Some early teething problems due to inexperience and size were understandable, but by the age of 21, he had already won the Champions League and Premier League.

He recently received one of the ultimate compliments, with Barcelona legend Dani Alves listing him as one of his favourite right-backs in the modern game.

The Brazilian – who is back at Barca for a second spell – told FourFourTwo magazine: "I admire Trent Alexander-Arnold very much. He's a fantastic footballer – this guy has got world-class skills."

How do they compare, though?

In an attacking sense, per game this season in all competitions, Cancelo has taken more shots than Alexander-Arnold (1.90 to 1.54) as well as having more touches (106.87 to 98.44), more touches in the opposition box (2.67 to 2.26) and more passes ending in the final third (30.86 to 28.21).

The Liverpool man is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more creative, having twice as many assists (16 to eight), more chances created from open play per game (1.56 to 1.05), more successful long passes (6.37 to 4.05) and almost twice as many passes played into the box (12.07 to 6.82).

No player in the Premier League comes close to Alexander-Arnold when it comes to switching flanks and moving the opposition across the pitch, with the England international doing so 57 times in the league this season, 20 times more than anyone else (Ruben Neves of Wolves is second with 37). Cancelo is third in the league overall for this, having done so 32 times so far.

Going the other way, Alexander-Arnold gets more than his fair share of scrutiny for his defending, but the numbers suggest this is unfair, or at least that there are aspects of his game that are better than Cancelo, who is correctly considered to be a very capable defender.

No City player has made more tackles (63) or interceptions (49) than Cancelo in the Premier League this season.

Cancelo competes in far more duels than his Liverpool rival per game in all competitions (11.54 to 5.42), with a success rate only slightly lower (1.27 to 1.32), while also making more tackles per game (2.05 to 1.23) and interceptions (1.85 to 1.31).

However, Alexander-Arnold has won possession more often (7.32 times per game to 5.7), conceded fewer fouls per game (0.31 to 1.07) and been dribbled past by an opponent fewer times per game (1.06 to 1.2).

The statistic that most people associate with Cancelo is the amount of touches he takes, comfortably the most in the Premier League, currently at 3,070 this season.

Alexander-Arnold has taken the next most with 2,490, ahead of Rodri (2,489), Aymeric Laporte (2,453) and Virgil van Dijk (2,402).

The Liverpool right-back, on the other hand, is more known for his creativity, and like Cancelo, the numbers back him up again this season.

In all competitions and across the top five European leagues, no player has created more than his 23 big chances – which is an opportunity from which a player would be reasonably expected to score – while in Premier League games, no player has created more than his 77 chances.

It is not just these more obvious metrics where the two are influencing things, though.

In terms of open play sequences involved in – defined as passages of open play that belong to one team and are ended by defensive actions, stoppages in play or a shot – they both lead the way in the Premier League this season, with Cancelo on 1,737 (62.3 per 90) and Alexander-Arnold on 1,555 (60.5 per 90), ahead of Rodri in third place on 1,447 (59.4 per 90).

Cancelo has also been involved in more open play shot-ending sequences than any other City player this season (191, or 6.9 per 90), while Alexander-Arnold ranks third among Liverpool players (144, or 5.6 per 90), behind only Mohamed Salah (192, or 7.4 per 90) and Sadio Mane (150, or 6.0 per 90).

With numbers like this, it is tempting to suggest that both could play in midfield, but that would be to do a disservice to the roles they currently fill at full back. They dominate from there with ease, and where is the sense in meddling with that?

They impressed again in midweek as their teams secured leads in the first legs of their Champions League quarter-finals, with Alexander-Arnold playing an incredible long ball to Luis Diaz to set up Liverpool's second goal at Benfica.

Both men are at the top of their games, and will need to be again when they meet in one of the biggest games the Premier League has ever seen on Sunday.

Manchester City remain the likely Premier League champions and are on course to pip weekend opponents Liverpool to the title as the race reaches its home straight.

The top two each have eight games remaining and the first comes on Sunday when they go head-to-head at the Etihad Stadium in what many are billing a title decider.

That is hyperbole of course, but for City it is the last time they will face a team currently in the top five, so by that logical reasoning it is the game where they are most likely to slip up.

Arsenal are the team likeliest to snatch fourth place and a Champions League ticket for next season, while at the foot of the table it is almost too close to call between Everton and Burnley for the third relegation place, with Leeds United now standing just a 12.2 per cent chance of sliding down to the Championship.

Stats Perform AI analysis has given us a strong sense of how the standings might look come the season's final whistle on Sunday, May 22, but the figures also show us there remains plenty to play for.

PEP TO WIN THE TITLE BATTLE AGAIN?

Pep Guardiola's City head into the crucial contest with a one-point advantage over a Liverpool side who have been closing the gap since trailing by 14 points on January 15, albeit with Jurgen Klopp's Reds having played two fewer games at that time.

It is clear this remains a title race that could yet go either way, but City stand a 65.6 per cent chance of carrying off the trophy for a second season in a row, with Liverpool, their lone rivals for silverware, having a 34.4 per cent opportunity.

Diego Simeone described City as "an extraordinary rival" after Atletico Madrid's 1-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, and the second leg of that Champions League tie follows three days after the Liverpool game.

City's Premier League opponents for the remainder of the campaign will then be, in order: Brighton (home), Watford (home), Leeds United (away), Newcastle United (home), West Ham (away) and Aston Villa (home), with a trip to Wolves also to be arranged for a date to be confirmed.

Liverpool, also with Champions League commitments and an FA Cup semi-final against City to come, have what looks a more daunting Premier League run-in after this weekend, beginning with two huge Anfield games: Manchester United (home), Everton (home), Newcastle (away), Tottenham (home), Aston Villa (away), Southampton (away), Wolves (home).

They are 64.7 per cent likely to finish as runners-up, the Stats Perform prediction shows, and 0.9 per cent likely to be caught by Chelsea for second place. City are 0.3 per cent likely to throw it away and finish third. Now that would be some story.

Of all teams in the top flight, third-placed Chelsea are the most likely to finish in their current position. That is calculated as a 94.5 per cent probability.

GO FOURTH AND PROSPER?

The last Champions League qualifying berth is the prize that looks to be a slug-off between north London rivals Tottenham and Arsenal, who will meet in a May 12 derby.

Both sit on 54 points heading into this weekend, with Tottenham fourth for now but Arsenal having played one fewer game.

Momentum could change considerably, but for now Arsenal are predicted to have a 59.1 per cent chance of taking fourth spot, with Tottenham given a 31.9 per cent shot (50.8 per cent to be fifth).

Who else might take fourth and secure the riches that come with Champions League involvement? Well, Chelsea are reckoned to have a 4.0 per cent prospect of slipping there (and a 0.3 per cent chance of nose-diving to fifth), while Manchester United are three points adrift of Spurs and the Gunners, sitting in seventh ahead of a weekend trip to struggling Everton, and are given a 4.2 per cent hope of finishing so high.

That would be a massive boost to United's next boss, but it remains a slim hope. In fact, United's most likely finishing position, according to the predictor, is sixth place (46.1 per cent).

Former Red Devils boss David Moyes has probably seen his West Ham side's hopes of a top-four finish slip away. The Hammers are also just three points behind Tottenham and Arsenal but have played more games than both and are given a trifling 0.7 per cent chance of coming home fourth.

GOING DOWN WITH THE NORWICH?

The Canaries of Norwich are so far down the relegation pit of despair they can surely smell Championship gas. They stand a 1.3 per chance of survival, and are 81.3 per cent likely to finish rock bottom.

Second-bottom Watford are given an 18 per cent chance of staying up by the predictor, and home games against Leeds, Brentford, Burnley, Everton and Leicester City mean that door to survival should be considered just slightly ajar.

Leeds could yet plummet, but if Norwich and Watford are the likeliest two sides to exit the Premier League, then Burnley and Everton are the two most obviously jostling to avoid joining them.

For now, after a bruising 3-2 defeat at Burnley on Wednesday, Everton are rated 49.4 per cent shots to finish inside the bottom three, compared to 53.2 per cent for Sean Dyche's Clarets.

It is knife-edge stuff, hardly the end of the table where Frank Lampard is at his most comfortable.

Come the final day, Lampard's Everton might need something from a trip to Arsenal, who in turn might need points in that fourth-place battle.

HOW THE NUMBERS ARE WORKED OUT

Stats Perform's League Prediction model simulates the outcomes of the remaining matches to estimate the likelihood of teams finishing in each position.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) from the latest available betting market odds data or, when not available, by using an internal win probability model that is powered by historical team strengths.

Based on these probabilities, the results of the remaining matches can be simulated. The outcome of the season is simulated 10,000 separate times in order to estimate the likelihood of each team finishing in each league position.

There will be plenty to play for when the Boston Celtics arrive at Fiserv Forum to take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.

Heading into the game, the Celtics (50-30) occupy the Eastern Conference two seed, while the Bucks (49-30) are a half-game back in third, holding the tie-breaker over the Philadelphia 76ers (49-30) in fourth.

Since the All-Star break, no team has a better winning percentage than the Celtics (16-4), while Milwaukee are fifth over that period (13-6); but while the reigning champion Bucks find their feet, Boston have gone to a new level.

For the season, the Celtics are number one in defensive efficiency, as new head coach Ime Udoka's switching system has maximised the physical gifts of defensive stalwarts Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III.

At this point, Boston's defense is a given, but post-All-Star break, they have also had the number one offense in the league, and are putting a gap on the rest of the field. Over that time period, the closest team to Boston's 122.2 points per 100 possessions have been the Minnesota Timberwolves, 2.7 points per 100 possessions behind at 119.5.

For context, that 2.7-point gap is greater than the 2.6-point margin between the Timberwolves and the 11th-placed 76ers (116.9) for the same period, and Boston's 12.9 net-rating since All-Star weekend is a number generally reserved for some of the greatest regular season teams in league history.

However, the team right behind the Timberwolves on the list, in third place, are the Bucks, and it is no hot streak as they boast the fifth-best offensive efficiency over the whole year.

These teams are both serious contenders to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – but they go about it in very different ways.

Primarily, that has a lot to do with the Celtics' switching defensive system.

The Celtics 'switch' screens – meaning instead of fighting over or under the screening player to recover back to your assignment, the player guarding the screener takes on the assignment of guarding the ball-handler, while the ball-handler's defender takes responsibility for the screener and his next movements.

The Bucks, on the other hand, play 'drop coverage', which means their on-ball defender tries to force the ball-handler on a predictable path around the screen, while the screener's defender peels off into a help position, with the aim of forcing the ball-handler to pull up for a mid-range shot with their defender contesting from behind.

Both systems are formed on sound logic. In switching schemes, the idea is to eliminate as much dribble penetration as possible by keeping the ball-handler in front on the perimeter, while trusting the smaller guard to be able to deny the screener an easy catch in the paint.

Drop coverage, on the other hand, forces teams to consistently attempt mid-range jump shots, which are statistically the least valuable shot in the game.

In theory, Boston's switching defense should perform well against Giannis Antetokounmpo, as the Bucks' two-time MVP thrives at attacking the rim, while Milwaukee should be able to bait Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown into mid-range jump shots that can go cold for extended stretches.

But the numbers show it may not be that simple.

Boston allow the second-fewest amount of points in the paint per game, and while Antetokounmpo lives at the rim, the Bucks actually come in last in the league with their percentage of points scored in the paint.

While that may indicate that the Celtics' defense is playing right into how the Bucks like to play, Boston also allow the second-lowest three-point percentage in the league.

It poses an interesting question about Boston – is their defense truly so good that teams can not score inside the key or from long range, or is their defense the top-ranked in the league because their opponents just keep missing threes?

Opposing three-point percentage can be a messy stat due to general shooting luck, and Boston allow opponents to get up a league-average amount of attempts, so if they are due for some regression to the mean, it means they are due to be on the wrong end of some hot shooting nights.

Boston's defense also allows the lowest amount of opposition assists per game, but Milwaukee are third-last in assist percentage, so how much are the Bucks actually trying to do the things the Celtics are built to stop?

Milwaukee play at the fifth-highest pace in the league, while Boston play at the fifth-lowest – all signs point to the fact that something has to give, and whoever can play the game at their tempo may just hold the keys.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart is not the best scorer on the Celtics, or the best ball-handler, but he excels in the areas that have made this Boston team great during the second half of this season.

He is the bookmakers' favourite to win Defensive Player of the Year due to his ability to switch off of point guards and bang bodies down low against the bigs, unlocking the true upside of a switching system as post players regularly fail to take advantage of their significant height advantage.

The Bucks are a big team, so for the Celtics defense to rise to the occasion once again against a true contender, Smart will need to hang with Jrue Holiday on the perimeter, as well as keep Antetokounmpo out of the lane.

 

Milwaukee Bucks – Brook Lopez

Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee's best and most valuable player. However, the centrepiece of the Bucks' drop coverage is Brook Lopez.

Lopez will be the biggest player, with the longest arms, for either team, and Milwaukee's entire defensive scheme will revolve around forcing players to take and make shots over his outstretched arms.

He also has the size, and the underrated post game, to make life miserable for whichever undersized guard gets caught in screening actions and needs to switch onto the seven-footer.

Smart will be able to hold up if he establishes good early position, but if the Bucks can get Derrick White or Payton Pritchard involved in the switch, it could be a long night inside for Boston's defense.

 

KEY BATTLES – Who can get the most 'easy' points?

In a game that will likely resemble a playoff atmosphere, the winning team may simply be the side who make life easiest on themselves.

Fast-break points and free throws limit the amount of possessions a team needs to grind their way through a set half-court defense, and provide the easiest avenues to uncontested points.

Milwaukee rank as the eighth-best team at getting to the free-throw line, and fourth-best at denying their opposition free throws, while Boston are 21st at getting to the line.

As mentioned, Boston like to play at a methodical pace, ranking 20th in fast-break points, while Milwaukee have the fifth-best transition defense in the league.

 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

These two sides have met three times this season – all before the All-Star break.

Boston won the first two home fixtures – including an overtime win where Dennis Schroeder scored a game-high 38 points, before being traded to the Houston Rockets – while Milwaukee won the last meeting, and the only one at Fiserv Forum, 117-113.

Real Madrid's plans for the transfer window before the start of next season are far from a secret. Their sole aim will be to ensure they do what many expect, and lure Kylian Mbappe from Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer after his contract expires.

If anybody was in any doubt of their ambitions, Karim Benzema reaffirmed them this week.

"Kylian Mbappe could be the third star with Vinicius and me? Yes, I say this a lot of times," Benzema told L'Equipe of his France team-mate.

"With Mbappe we get on well because we know what the other is going to do on the pitch. It's perfect."

But on Wednesday's evidence, Los Blancos may not even need to add Mbappe to their ranks to regain the Champions League.

Indeed, the argument for Madrid as a team ready to reclaim what they see as their rightful place atop European football is an increasingly compelling one after Carlo Ancelotti's men took a commanding 3-1 lead in their quarter-final tie with holders Chelsea.

It was the ruthlessness of Benzema that put the Blues to the sword at Stamford Bridge, Madrid clinically taking advantage of the passivity of opponents whose exertions in going seven games unbeaten in normal time in all competitions amid a club crisis appear to be rapidly catching up with them.

Madrid followed Brentford, 4-1 winners at the same ground last Saturday, in slicing through a Blues defence who had conceded just two goals in their last five games prior to being stung by the Bees.

Chelsea could take some solace in suffering at the hands or, in this case, the head of Benzema in the first half. His pair of deft headers to put Madrid 2-0 up inside 24 minutes were of the highest quality, coming from Vinicius Junior and Luka Modric crosses that were themselves worthy of great admiration.

And, with Kai Havertz halving the deficit, making this fixture the first Champions League knockout game to see three headers scored in the first half since Bayern Munich versus Porto in the 2014-15 quarter-final, Thomas Tuchel's men could afford reason for hope.

Chelsea's confidence may have been boosted further when Benzema skewed a gilt-edged chance for a hat-trick wide late in the opening period but, soon after the restart, he had his treble, courtesy of a huge inadvertent assist.

Edouard Mendy came way out of his goal to collect an innocuous punt forward and sent his attempted pass to Antonio Rudiger short. A grateful Benzema intervened and rolled a simple finish into an empty net.

It marked a second successive Champions League hat-trick from Benzema, following on from his remarkable second-half barrage against Paris Saint-Germain that knocked out Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi at the last-16 stage.

He became the fourth player to score a hat-trick in back-to-back Champions Leagues appearances after Cristiano Ronaldo (2017), Messi (2016) and Luiz Adriano (2014).

This latest prolific display, which took Benzema to 37 goals and 50 goal involvements for the season, was in part a product of his enduring brilliance and partly a mess of Chelsea's own making.

But it means he is now on a run of scoring at least two goals in each of his last four goals for Madrid. The only other player to score a brace in four consecutive appearances in the 'big five' European leagues this season? Yes, Kylian Mbappe.

There is no striker at this level in a richer vein of form than Benzema and, should he continue his incredible run, the mission for Mbappe if he does make the anticipated move to Madrid may not be to re-establish their European superiority, but to maintain it.

It is always fascinating when polar opposites collide. 

In the Premier League, Pep Guardiola's methodical Manchester City are leading the way, up against the juggernaut of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool.

While Guardiola and Klopp are by no means cut from the same cloth, they do share similarities in their approach; relentless pressing, rapid counter-pressing and machine-like efficiency.

Yet in Diego Simeone, it is difficult to imagine an elite-level coach that contrasts with Guardiola quite so much. On Tuesday, we will see just how the styles match up.

It has been almost six years since a team coached by Guardiola went up against Simeone's Atletico Madrid, when Bayern Munich faced Los Colchoneros in the Champions League semi-finals.

Simeone triumphed on that occasion, albeit on away goals. Atleti went on to lose to city rivals Real Madrid in the final, while Guardiola has only been further in UEFA's competition once since then – last season, when City lost to Chelsea in the final in Porto.

Indeed, only three times in total have Simeone and Guardiola gone up against each other. Pep holds the edge in terms of wins (at least on the night), 2-1, with his Barcelona side seeing off Atleti 2-1 in LaLiga in February 2012, during his final season at Camp Nou.

Another two games will be added to that head-to-head record over the coming weeks in a Champions League quarter-final tie that represents a true clash of styles.

Possession obsession

Guardiola's death by a thousand cuts approach has yielded unprecedented success. City are a joy to watch at their best. Slick, swift, sublime. Everything you would associate with a team at the very top of the game.

As has been the case throughout his managerial career, Guardiola wants to dominate possession, control the opposition by simply not allowing them to have the ball and, if they do have it, then you can bet his team will win it back within seconds, or commit a timely foul (Fernandinho, anyone?).

Just taking this season into account, City average 66.9 per cent possession across all competitions, while they have attempted 30,155 passes, completing 27,067 (at an average of 601 successful passes per game).

Simeone is far less concerned with his side having the ball, but instead the focus is on staying compact and robust defensively, drawing a mistake – a stray pass, a heavy touch – out of the opposition and pouncing. And in relative terms, his approach has been just as successful.

Not that this is Simeone's approach across the board. Atleti have played some wonderful football during his tenure too, and had some sensational attacking players. Indeed, their current frontline options of Joao Felix, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa and Matheus Cunha is the envy of most teams.

Yet this season, Atleti average only 48.8 per cent possession across 41 matches. They have completed 14,533 passes, with 7,317 of these coming in the opponents' half. In comparison, City have registered almost 16,000 successful passes in opposition territory.

However, the difference is not so stark when it comes to balls played into the box, with City's 1,730 accounting for 11 per cent of their passes in the opposition half. That value jumps to 16.5 per cent for Atleti (1,209).

Simeone's men get a higher proportion of their passes in the other team's half into the area, though City have had 1,870 touches in the opposition box, with Atleti managing 964.

In the league alone, City have had 715 sequences involving 10 or more passes. In LaLiga, Atleti have had just 278.

City's possession does, of course, lead to shots – 837 of them this season in total. That dwarves Atleti's 490, though the Spanish side do have a better conversion rate (14.7 compared to 13.5).

Fierce off the ball

One similarity when it comes to Guardiola and Simeone is their desire to be aggressive in their approach to winning the ball back. While Guardiola's team will swarm an opposing player, Simeone's men will be tenacious and full-blooded.

So far this season, Atletico players have gone into 4,263 duels, while City have attempted 3,848. However, the success rate is closer, with the Spanish champions winning 52 per cent, and City 51.1.

Another major difference, however, is how City press.

In the Premier League, only Liverpool (354) and Brighton and Hove Albion (290) have forced more high turnovers than City (285), and Guardiola's side rank second when it comes to the average starting distance of their attacks from their own goal (45.1 metres).

When it comes to passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), a measurement to quantify the extent and aggression of high presses, City rank joint-second, along with Liverpool, in the Premier League, with their 9.9 only bettered by Leeds United's 9.5.

Atleti's 207 high turnovers ranks ninth in LaLiga. However, their seven goals from direct attacks is joint-best in Spain's top tier. City have scored four times from such breaks this term.

Solidity comes first

This season, admittedly, Atleti have been unusually sloppy at the back, conceding 50 times and keeping 12 clean sheets, which is 17 more and 10 fewer than City, respectively.

Tracked over the previous five full seasons, however (since Guardiola joined City in 2016), only once have Atleti conceded more times than City, in 2018-19 (44 to 39).

Guardiola's teams take more risks in possession and City have made 42 errors leading to goals across his time at the club. It's been worth the pay off, but Simeone's more conservative approach has yielded just 21 such mistakes in the same timeframe.

Defensive grit is the bedrock of Simeone's success, and since the start of 2016-17, Atleti have kept 144 clean sheets. Yet, it is City who top the charts across Europe's top five leagues, with an outstanding 152.

Given City have scored 113 goals already this season – 41 more than Atleti – perhaps this quarter-final will not quite be as even as it might have been in seasons gone by, and it is the side from Manchester who must be considered favourites.

But, as proved with their clinical display at Old Trafford in the round of 16, Atleti still have the ability to frustrate and pick their moments to shine in attack. 

This is further evidenced by Atleti's LaLiga-leading expected goals (xG) differential of +8.5 this season. In stark contrast, City have scored 6.2 goals fewer than the quality of their opportunities would have suggested.

However the tie plays out, it is sure to be an enthralling tussle.

With the final international break of the season done and dusted, it was back to Premier League action on Saturday as teams prepare for the all-important run-in.

Having not had any changes of leader since the turn of the year, it was a novelty to see it change twice in one day, albeit with a familiar look at the end as Liverpool and Manchester City both recorded wins.

Something far less routine happened at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea were clobbered by Brentford, while there was also a win for Wolves against Aston Villa and draws at Brighton and Hove Albion, Leeds and Manchester United.

Stats Perform takes a look at some key Opta facts from a selection of the day's games…

Liverpool 2-0 Watford: Jota the slotter strikes again

It was a nervy afternoon at Anfield as Liverpool looked to leapfrog City to the top of the table.

Despite a determined performance from Roy Hodgson's Hornets, a first-half header from Diogo Jota and a late penalty from Fabinho secured the three points for the Reds.

It sent Jurgen Klopp's men to the top of the Premier League for the first time since December, albeit they were back to second later on after City's own win.

Liverpool are back in the title race after having won 10 consecutive Premier League games, becoming just the second side to embark on such a run on five separate occasions after City (also five).

It was another goal for Jota, his 20th of the season, and since making his Liverpool debut in September 2020, the Portugal international has scored more headed goals (nine) than any other player for a Premier League club in all competitions.

Burnley 0-2 Manchester City: Citizens retain top spot

Despite being displaced by their rivals, City eased to victory against Sean Dyche's side to take back their top spot just a couple of hours after losing it.

First-half goals from Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan saw Pep Guardiola's men to the win, continuing their exemplary record against Burnley.

This made it 14 wins from their last 15 games against the Clarets in all competitions (D1), winning each of their last 10 by an aggregate scoreline of 34-1.

City are the only side yet to drop a single point from a winning position in the Premier League this season, winning all 23 games in which they have led. No side has ever gone through an entire Premier League campaign without dropping points when ahead before.

Aymeric Laporte made his 100th Premier League appearance, picking up his 82nd win – the most wins by a player in their first 100 games in the competition's history.

Chelsea 1-4 Brentford: Tuchel's men toppled

It has been a turbulent time for Chelsea off the field, but until now they had kept their on-field form in check.

Brentford had other ideas at Stamford Bridge as they came from 1-0 down to ease to their first victory in nine meetings against the Blues in all competitions since a 3-1 away win in the top-flight in February 1939.

Chelsea went ahead thanks to an Antonio Rudiger piledriver from 39.6 yards, which was Chelsea's longest range Premier League goal since Frank Lampard against Wigan in January 2007 (45.1 yards).

However, goals from Vitaly Janelt (two), Christian Eriksen and Yoane Wissa turned things around to make it just the second time Chelsea have conceded four or more goals in the Premier League at home to a newly promoted side (also under Thomas Tuchel in the 5-2 defeat against West Brom in April 2021).

Eriksen scored his first Premier League goal since December 2019. He has now been directly involved in eight goals (three goals, five assists) against Chelsea in the competition, with all three goals arriving at Stamford Bridge.

Manchester United 1-1 Leicester City: Ronaldo-less Red Devils' top four hopes dealt another blow

It felt like an ominous sign for United when Cristiano Ronaldo was ruled out of their game against Leicester through illness.

Ralf Rangnick's side ultimately rescued a draw having fallen behind to Kelechi Iheanacho's header, with Fred following in from a Bruno Fernandes shot, but it was still two points dropped in the race for the top four.

United have now won just one of their last six games in all competitions (D3 L2), after winning four and drawing three of the seven before that.

Fred is the seventh player to score on their 100th Premier League appearance for the Red Devils, and the first since Marcus Rashford did so, also against Leicester, in February 2019.

James Maddison laid on the assist for Iheanacho, and has now been directly involved in 21 goals in all competitions this season (13 goals, eight assists), four more than any other Leicester player; only in 2017-18 with Norwich has he been involved in more goals in a single campaign (26 – 15 goals, 11 assists).

Football is fickle. It doesn't take long for outlooks and perceptions to be flipped on their head, and nowhere is that truer right now than in LaLiga.

As recently as mid-February, Real Madrid's lead at the summit – which they have held since matchday three – was only four points over Sevilla, who themselves were 11 ahead of a Barcelona side languishing in fifth.

But as we head into Sunday's clash between Barca and Sevilla at Camp Nou, the Blaugrana know they will go up to second and above Julen Lopetegui's men in the table with a win, and they'd still have a game in hand.

Xavi has overseen a massive improvement and, following the 4-0 Clasico win prior to the international break, Barca have the opportunity to make another statement this weekend.

It's not over yet

While sympathy will be in short supply given what's been a largely excellent season for them in LaLiga, Sevilla have undoubtedly gone through a tricky period.

When Anthony Martial was brought in on loan from Manchester United in late January, it was initially seen as a move that would go one of two ways: the Frenchman was either going to be electric and give Sevilla the extra push they needed to challenge Madrid, or he would fail to get over the ineffectiveness that had begun to engulf him at Old Trafford.

Suffice to say Martial will not be back at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan next season – or at least not as a Sevilla player.

Lopetegui has had to contend with something of an injury crisis for much of the past three months, which to a certain degree makes it surprising they are only nine points off the top. Further to that, if Sevilla avoid defeat at Barca, they will set a new club record for their best unbeaten run in a single top-flight season (16 games).

 

But that stat flatters them, significantly. Of the most recent nine games in that run, Sevilla have won just twice. Five of their seven draws have come away from home against mostly mid-table opposition, plus struggling Deportivo Alaves. They've not scored more than twice in any league game since October.

As such, it's difficult to see how they can contend with a reinvigorated and in-form Barcelona this weekend – but whichever way it goes, assuming it's not a draw, there's every reason to believe Sunday's showdown could genuinely reignite a title race.

Polar opposites

While victory for Barca would propel them up to second for the first time this season, they will also still have a game in hand on Los Blancos. A nine-point deficit won't be easy to turn around over nine matches, but Madrid do still have trips to Atletico and Sevilla to traverse, and they have the added 'distraction' of the Champions League, at least for the time being.

A win for Sevilla would be momentous, not least because they've failed to get a single league success at Camp Nou since December 2002.

Such a scalp over a team that has won seven more points (from one game fewer) in 2022 could be the boost a flagging Sevilla need to finish the season strong. It would surely improve their belief ahead of Madrid's visit next month.

But at this point, Barca look far more likely to offer a threat to Madrid in the final weeks of the season, with Sevilla's slide in the second half of 2021-22 threatening to completely derail their campaign.

Frustrated by a lack of goals and an almost chronic inability to convert draws into wins, Los Nervionenses have won just four league games this year. While their lack of defeats is commendable, they've scored more than only six teams in 2022 – a group that includes each of the bottom four in the table.

 

Lopetegui has been rightly praised throughout his time at Sevilla for building a team that is extremely difficult to break down, with only Manchester City (53) bettering their 49 clean sheets across the big five leagues since his appointment in 2019, and that's obviously played a part in their unbeaten run.

But there have been numerous times in the past few months where fans have been crying out for more attacking emphasis, and it's for this reason that it's hard to imagine Lopetegui was ever truly a candidate to take over at Manchester United before he ruled himself out, even if he was genuinely on their four-man shortlist.

Whereas Barcelona, whose dealings in January really ignited something in Xavi's squad, have scored 27 goals since the turn of the year and also been tight at the back, with their seven concessions only bettered by Sevilla.

Something has to give

A potentially key aspect of Sunday's showdown will be how well Barca press. No one has scored more goals (six) than them from high turnovers in LaLiga this season, with four of those coming since Xavi's appointment.

Playing into that is the fact Sevilla like to play out from the back. This is reflected by them seeing 222 high turnovers recorded against them this season, the third most in LaLiga, but only two have led to a goal – just three teams have conceded fewer goals from such situations.

This is evidence of how effective Sevilla are regrouping, but such an approach will be risky against a Barca side in such imperious goal-scoring form and clearly useful at winning the ball back in advanced areas – Osasuna (253) are the one team with more high turnovers than the Blaugrana (248).

Turning over Madrid's lead in LaLiga will be a rather different proposition, but success on Sunday certainly won't dampen Barca's outlook.

The dust is settling following the 2022 World Cup draw, which has provided a number of subplots and talking points aplenty to discuss between now and the opening set of games on November 21.

France, placed in a group that contains Denmark, Tunisia and one of Peru or Australia, will look to avoid becoming the fifth defending champions in the past six tournaments to exit at the first hurdle.

Spain and Germany, the winners of two of the past three World Cups, face off in arguably the pick of the group games in what will be their fifth meeting in the competition and the first since La Roja's 2010 semi-final triumph.

There are some good omens for England, who are in action on the opening day of the tournament – the last time that was the case they went on to lift the trophy on home soil in 1966.

As the debate rumbles on as to which is the most interesting group this time around, and supporters of participating nations plot out their route to the latter stages, Stats Perform picks out a key stat for each team.

GROUP A – Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands

Qatar are competing in their first World Cup and will aim to avoid becoming only the second host nation to be knocked out in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

They will begin their campaign against Ecuador, who have not faced a nation from outside of the UEFA or CONCACAF regions in their previous 10 World Cup matches.

Senegal are participating in the event for a third time and are the third African Cup of Nations title holders to qualify this century after Cameroon in 2002 and Nigeria in 2014.

However, the heavyweights of the group are the Netherlands, who have won 11 of their last 14 World Cup matches when not factoring in penalty shoot-outs. Three times Oranje have reached the final; three times they have been beaten. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, of course.

GROUP B – England, Iran, United States, Scotland/Wales/Ukraine

England have progressed past the quarter-finals just once since 1966, although the most recent occasion came four years ago when losing in the semi-finals.

First up for England are Iran, who have scored nine goals in 15 World Cup matches – that goals-per-game average of 0.6 the lowest of any side to have played at least 10 times.

Back involved after missing Russia 2018, the United States will be looking to reach the knockout stages for a fourth time in their past five participations in a World Cup.

Should Wales reach the finals, the gap of 64 years between their only two finals appearances will set a record.

Scotland, who meet Ukraine in a play-off for the right to face Wales, have made more World Cup appearances (eight) without making it past the first round than any other nation.

 

GROUP C – Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland

One of three South American teams to have lifted the trophy, Argentina have made it past the first round in 12 of their past 13 appearances, the only exception being in 2002.

It would be an understatement to say that Saudi Arabia have had less success in the finals, having won only three of their previous 16 World Cup matches – albeit one of those coming against Egypt in the 2018 edition.

Mexico have reached every World Cup since missing out in 1990 and tend to do well in the group stage, having advanced to the last 16 in each of their last eight appearances.

Whereas Mexico have won five of their past six opening games, first opponents Poland have won just one of their previous eight curtain-raising fixtures and have lost the last three.

GROUP D – France, Peru/Australia/UAE, Denmark, Tunisia

France are out to become the third team, after Italy (in 1938) and Brazil (in 1962) to retain the trophy. However, the last three defending champions have fallen in the group stage.

Denmark boasted the best defensive record of any side in European qualifying and have made it out of the group stage in four of their five World Cup appearances.

That is in contrast to Tunisia, who have not made the knockout rounds in six previous attempts. The Eagles of Carthage have also not beaten a European side in 10 World Cup games (D3 L7).

Tunisia have lost 60 per cent of their World Cup games, the third-highest by a team to have played 15+ games behind Saudi Arabia (69 per cent) and possible Group D opponents Australia (63 per cent).

 

GROUP E – Spain, Costa Rica/New Zealand, Germany, Japan

Spain won the World Cup in 2010, but that is the only occasion they have reached the semi-finals in their last 13 participations. However, they have won the group in four of their last five appearances.

Germany, champions in 2014, were the first side to reach Qatar 2022 aside from the hosts, and have made it to the semi-finals in four of the five World Cups this century – the best record of any side.

After reaching the last 16 in 2018, competition regulars Japan will aim to book a place in the knockouts in back-to-back editions for the first time.

Completing arguably the toughest group is either Costa Rica or New Zealand, who meet in a play-off in June. Costa Rica have appeared at five previous World Cups, while the All Whites have made it to the finals twice before.

GROUP F – Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia

Belgium have qualified for more World Cups without winning it than any other European team, with this their 14th appearance. With much of their 'golden generation' either 30 or close to it, however, this is realistically the final chance for that batch of players to cement their names in the history books, after a third-place finish in 2018.

Roberto Martinez's team might meet Spain or Germany in the last 16 but should have little trouble in getting out of their group.

Canada are competing in the global showpiece for the first time since 1986, when they lost all three matches and failed to score.

Morocco have won just one of their last 10 World Cup games, with that coming against Scotland in 1998, while their last knockout-round appearance was in 1986.

Beaten finalists in 2018, Croatia have had a mixed time of things in the finals, having been eliminated in the group stage (three times) or reached the semis (twice) in their past five appearances.

 

GROUP G – Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon

Brazil are the competition's most successful side with five trophies and are unbeaten in their last 15 World Cup group games, winning 12 of those. Their last such defeat was against Norway in 1998.

The next side with a chance to end that long run are Serbia, who have lost seven of their last nine World Cup matches, which is the most of any European nation since 2006. They also met Brazil in the 2018 group stage.

Another team to have been drawn with Brazil and, indeed, Serbia in Russia was Switzerland. History has repeated itself this time around. The Swiss finished above Italy in qualifying to make it to their fifth successive finals. Including the European Championships, they have reached the knockout stages in their last four major tournaments, a record only Belgium and France can match.

Cameroon make up Group G. They have played more matches at the World Cup than any other African nation (23), but they have lost the last seven of those – only Mexico (nine) have ever lost more in a row.

GROUP H – Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea

Heavyweights they may be, but Portugal have won only three of their last 14 World Cup matches, each of those in the group stage. Their last knockout-round win was in the last 16 against the Netherlands in 2006. 

All being well, Cristiano Ronaldo will be featuring in a record-equalling fifth World Cup. It will almost certainly be his last, though.

Ghana's quarter-final appearance in 2010 remains the joint-best finish for an African side, alongside Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990, and they have scored in their last five World Cup games.

Uruguay controversially eliminated Ghana in the quarter-finals 12 years ago but the Black Stars have a chance for revenge here in the final round of fixtures.

First up for Uruguay, meanwhile, are South Korea, but the South American side have won their opening match at just one of their last seven World Cups.

That is good news for Son Heung-min and Co. as South Korea look to win successive finals matches for just the second time ever, having knocked out Germany four years ago.

There are just days remaining in the 2021-22 NBA regular season, but plenty is still on the line.

While the red-hot Phoenix Suns have long since secured the top seed in the Western Conference, four teams retain realistic hopes of leading the East.

Which of their superstar players are in the best shape heading into April, though?

Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check highlights the standout performers of the past month...

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

Only the Suns (.867) had a better winning percentage in March than the Boston Celtics (.786, tied with the Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks) – and much of that was due to an outstanding month from three-time All-Star Tatum.

His 32.8 points per game in March ranked third behind LeBron James (34.3) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (33.3) but significantly appeared to represent a major leap, having averaged 25.7 to that point. It was the fourth-largest increase in scoring across the NBA last month.

It figures that Tatum's three-point shooting should also be up, as he made 4.2 threes per game in March, compared to 2.8 previously.

Tatum actually saw the fourth-largest decrease in rebounding, from 8.3 per game to 6.6, but the Celtics were down in this regard across the board and it did not seem to hamper them.

Jordan Poole

As the Celtics climbed in the East, the Golden State Warriors fell in the West – but Poole did more than most to keep them competitive.

Stephen Curry's absence for the second half of the month was the chief factor in the Warriors' fading form, yet Poole is increasingly proving he can be the man to fill the void when the team's superstar guard is out.

Poole was the sole player to see a greater increase in threes made than Tatum in March (2.3 per game to 4.2), while his scoring improved from 16.1 points per game to 25.4 – second only to Drew Eubanks in this regard (4.8 to 15.0).

Those are stunning statistics but remain in line with how Poole has played all season long when Curry has been out. He has started all 12 games he has played without Curry, averaging 35.7 minutes (up from 28.6), 10.7 three-point attempts (up from 6.8), 4.3 three-point makes (up from 2.4), 5.2 assists (up from 3.5) and, admittedly, 3.3 turnovers (up from 2.2).

While taking more shots, Poole's field-goal percentage decreases slightly without Curry, yet his three-point shooting and free-throw percentage are both up, perhaps showing Golden State a future beyond the two-time MVP.

Cade Cunningham

The Detroit Pistons are nowhere near the playoff picture, but March did wonders for Cunningham's Rookie of the Year hopes.

While Evan Mobley suffered an ankle sprain that makes another appearance before the end of the regular season far from certain, Cunningham averaged 22.9 points, up on 16.0. The number one overall pick is up to 17.6 for the year, leading all rookies.

GOING COLD...

D'Angelo Russell

Russell is merely the third man on the Minnesota Timberwolves, but that looked to be evidence of the team's depth of scoring options at the start of March.

Although the T-Wolves remain one of only five teams to have had three different players average 18 or more points while playing in at least 60 games, Russell's scoring has dipped significantly from 19.4 at the end of February to 18.0 now.

Having scored just 13.1 points per game in March, Russell saw the largest decrease in the league, while his fall in three-point shots made (3.0 to 1.7) was also the greatest.

The former Warrior has too often struggled for consistency this season, but his four-point performance in the face of intense Celtics defense last weekend was especially alarming.

The draw is out, and the World Cup suddenly feels a lot closer, with the elite preparing to go for glory at Qatar 2022.

A likely last hurrah on the World Cup stage awaits superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while new names will break through and rising talent will be put to the test.

Eight nations have been champions of the tournament that was first staged in 1930, and it will be France looking to defend the title this time.

Many of us pride ourselves on remembering World Cup trivia from past tournaments, but just how good is your knowledge?

These Opta-assisted 20 questions should sort the group-stage flops from the champions of World Cup quizzing. The answers are below, but don't cheat!

The first...

1. Name the English boss who at Qatar 2022 will become the first to coach a team at both the men's and women's World Cups?

2. Gregg Berhalter will become the first man to serve as player and manager of the USA at the World Cup. He appeared at the 2002 tournament and is now boss of the American side. To which present-day Premier League club did Berhalter then belong, becoming their first World Cup player?

3. Who became the first player to score a Golden Goal winner at the World Cup when he netted for France against Paraguay in a 1998 last-16 clash?

4. In the 2018 showdown between France and Croatia, who became the first player in World Cup final history to score for both teams?

5. Qatar will attempt to become the first nation from the AFC confederation to win their first World Cup finals match. Ten of the previous 11 have lost (including Israel in 1970), but who were the team who in 1982 managed a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia?

 

The last...

6. There have been 52 hat-tricks in the tournament's history, but who was the last player to score a treble in the knockout stages of the World Cup?

7. A goalkeeper won his 159th and final international cap at the 2018 finals, when he became the oldest player to appear at the World Cup, at the age of 45 years and 161 days. He saved a penalty in a 2-1 defeat for his team against Saudi Arabia. Who was that goalkeeper and what team did he play for?

8. Ghana reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 and Senegal did so at the 2002 finals. But who were the first team from Africa to make it to the last eight, doing so at the 1990 finals in Italy?

9. Brazil last lost a group game at the World Cup in 1998, since when they have won 12 and drawn three games at the first-round stage. Which team beat them in that 1998 tournament?

10. Cameroon have lost each of their past seven games at the World Cup (between 2002 and 2014). Only one team have ever lost more games in a row in the competition's history – nine between 1930 and 1958. Who were that team?

The most...

11. Just Fontaine scored his 13 World Cup goals in just six games for France. The competition's all-time record scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose, who netted 16 times for his country in how many appearances: 22, 23 or 24?

12. Who will become the only team to have appeared at all 22 editions of the World Cup when they take part in Qatar 2022?

13. Iran will be making their sixth appearance at the World Cup and have never gone beyond the group stage. Which country has made the most appearances (eight) without making it past the first round?

14. Which forward had the most goal involvements of all players in European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, scoring 12 and assisting six times in 10 games?

15. Since 1966, only three players have completed more than 12 dribbles in a single World Cup game, with Brazil's Jairzinho achieving 13 against Paraguay in 1970 and Paul Gascoigne matching that total for England against Cameroon in 1990. Who managed the most – 15 in a game against Italy at the 1994 tournament?

 

The GOATs...

16. Which superstar, who scored eight times and provided eight assists in 21 World Cup games, also holds the record for the most handball decisions given against a player at the tournament (seven) since records began?

17. Who holds the record for the most minutes played in World Cup history, having featured in 2,216 minutes of finals action?

18. Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo is one of only four players to score in four different World Cup tournaments. He will attempt to go one better this year, but Ronaldo currently sits alongside Pele, Klose and which other player?

19. Between them, Ronaldo (seven) and Lionel Messi (six) have managed 13 World Cup goals. How many of those goals came in the knockout rounds?

20. Ronaldo is one of just two European players to have either scored and/or assisted a goal in each of the last five major international tournaments (World Cup/European Championship). Who is the other player to have managed the feat?

 

Answers:

1. John Herdman (Canada – he managed Canada Women at the 2015 Women's World Cup)
2. Crystal Palace
3. Laurent Blanc (France)
4. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)
5. Kuwait.
6. Tomas Skuhravy (for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica, last 16, 1990)
7. Essam El Hadary (Egypt)
8. Cameroon
9. Norway
10. Mexico
11. 24
12. Brazil
13. Scotland
14. Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
15. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
16. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
17. Paolo Maldini (Italy)
18. Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
19. Zero
20. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

It wasn't so long ago that voicing the idea of Juventus challenging for the Scudetto this season would have seen you laughed out of the room.

Yet, remarkably, they could potentially end the weekend just four points off the summit, and a victory over defending champions Inter would be a decent barometer of just how emphatic their late push is going to be.

Serie A's standout match this week is undoubtedly the Derby d'Italia between Juve and Inter in Turin, with Italy's top flight essentially establishing a pretty firm top four ahead of the international break.

But Massimiliano Allegri's Juve surely won't be content with just settling for fourth spot, and a win on Sunday will show they mean business.

A bedrock for improvement

Even if Juve do end up winning Serie A, Allegri will still have to contend with plenty of critics given their shock Champions League exit to Villarreal.

However, there's little doubt he has presided over a significant improvement since Andrea Pirlo's exit, even if the Old Lady remains more functional than fun.

 

The most notable aspect of their improved form is Juve's unbeaten streak. They have not lost any of their previous 16 league games, making them only one of two teams across the big five leagues to not suffer a domestic defeat in the past four months, the other being Sevilla in LaLiga.

The omens are good for Inter's visit as well: the Nerazzurri have won just once in 15 trips to Juve and that came way back in November 2012.
 

Timely break

Simone Inzaghi must have been concerned about Inter's form prior to the international break, which seemingly came at a good time for them.

Over their previous nine Serie A matches, Inter have gained just 11 points and won only two matches – sure, victory on Sunday and another in their game in hand will put them within three points of the summit, but that previous run is hardly a hallmark of champions.

By comparison, Juve have hit the accelerator at arguably the perfect time. Over the same period, Allegri's men have taken 21 points.

The Bianconeri have rocketed into contention by finding consistency when, for the most part, the top three have wobbled, and if they continue their run, Juventus will be hard to ignore in the title race.

Juve, beware!

For all of their recent woes, Inter of course remain a dangerous opponent with a particularly threatening tail.

That's to say Inter do have a habit of finishing strong and not knowing when they're beaten.

In Serie A this season, Inter's 19 points won from losing positions is more than any other team, while they have scored 22 times in the final 30 minutes of games – that's a joint-high with Atalanta, Lazio and Hellas Verona.

Juve ought to heed such a warning – don't get complacent with a slender lead in the latter stages.
 

A tight affair?

While Inter are the league's top scorers with 62 goals, there's reason to suggest this won't be an unrelenting goalfest… *cue eight-goal thriller*.

These are two of the league's best three defences, while no team has kept more clean sheets than Juve's 13 this term.

 

On top of that, Juve have proven rather miserly when it comes to allowing goalscoring situations, with their average of 3.1 shots on target concede per 90 minutes being bettered only by Torino.

Inter aren't much worse in that respect, with their average at 3.6 – that's the sixth best in Serie A. Of course, a clinical display in that regard could still lead to plenty of goals, but clearly if there's any area both of these sides have excelled in domestically this term, it's defensively.

 

Bruno Fernandes has signed a new deal with Manchester United to stay at Old Trafford for at least the next four years.

The 27-year-old has more than justified United's initial outlay of £47million (€55m) to sign him from Sporting CP two years ago, even if his form has dipped this campaign.

Fernandes was already tied down until the end of 2024-25, though his new contract – on substantially higher wages – is considered a reward for his performances.

He has signed until June 2026, with the option for another year on top of that.

And while uncertainty remains over the managerial position at Old Trafford, whoever is in charge from next season can build around Fernandes.

Here, Stats Perform looks at just how important Fernandes has been for United over the past two years.


UNITED'S GO-TO GUY

Fernandes' debut for United was nothing to write home about, with the Portugal international unable to inspire his side in a goalless Premier League draw at home to Wolves.

That run-out on February 1, 2020 was the first of 117 United appearances for Fernandes, which is the most of any player during this time, followed by Harry Maguire (105).

Fernandes has also started more games (106) for the Red Devils in the same period and played more minutes (9,470) than anyone else.

Indeed, no player has featured as often as Fernandes in Europe's top five leagues over that timeframe when taking all competitions into account.

CREATOR-IN-CHIEF

Fernandes has scored 49 goals for United and assisted 39, with those 88 direct goal involvements almost double that of next-best Marcus Rashford (46) within the Red Devils ranks.

In fact, the former Sampdoria star is in esteemed company as only five others have scored and assisted more in all competitions among teams from Europe's top five leagues.

He leads the way in that regard among Premier League players, closely followed by Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (86 goal involvements).

The 302 chances created by Fernandes since arriving at United is more than any other player from the elite leagues, with Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (286) next on the list.

SHINING LIGHT IN DISAPPOINTING CAMPAIGN

Fernandes unsurprisingly leads the way among United players for goals (35), assists (25) and chances created (201) in the Premier League in his time at Old Trafford.

That form has helped Fernandes to four Player of the Month awards in the competition, level with Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes, and a tally bettered by only six others.

Each of those awards came in 2020, though, and the Portuguese playmaker's attacking figures this season are down on the past two campaigns.

He is contributing to 0.58 goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League this term, compared to 0.87 last season and 1.13 in his first half-season at Old Trafford.

Yet even in what has been a slightly underwhelming campaign, Fernandes is creating more chances on average (2.96 per game) than any player on United's books to have started a Premier League game this season.

It's matchday 31. The run-in requires points, and lots of them.

Of course, picking the players who earn surprise points is a big part of fantasy football, but at this point of the season, do you really want to be taking risks?

With that in mind, let Stats Perform lead you by the hand with Opta data as we pick four players who might just give you those precious extra points in the latest Premier League gameweek.

EDOUARD MENDY (Chelsea v Brentford)

Edouard Mendy provides value, given Chelsea have won their previous five matches and will be facing a Brentford severely down on form, having won only two in 11 (against Norwich City and Burnley).

Despite the turbulent circumstances the Blues have faced of late, they powered into this past international window, with four clean sheets in their past five league games.

Among all Premier League goalkeepers with a minimum of 450 minutes played in 2022, only Alisson has kept more clean sheets and conceded fewer goals per 90 than Mendy.

BEN WHITE (Crystal Palace v Arsenal)

Aside from their loss at home to a Liverpool side that is rolling at present, Arsenal have been in otherwise solid form of late.

Clean sheets against Aston Villa and Leicester City sandwich the Liverpool defeat, and Ben White has been a pivotal figure in the Gunners' defensive output.

Among Premier League central defenders this season, Ben White has the second-highest tally of clean sheets with 13, behind only Virgil van Dijk's 17. The last time Arsenal kept more in a single campaign was in 2015-16 (18).

MOHAMED SALAH (Liverpool v Watford)

This might be stating the obvious, but if you can afford Salah, bring him in and make him your captain straight away like he's an old professional playing Sunday League.

Mohamed Salah has been in intimidatingly great form this season, and in the thick of a Premier League title race, rotation from Jurgen Klopp coming out of an international break is unlikely.

The Egyptian attacker averages a goal or assist every 57 minutes against Watford, the fourth-best ratio one player has against a club in Premier League history, with a 600-minute cut-off.

With nine goals and two assists in seven games against the Hornets, only versus West Ham (12 goal involvements) has Salah been more productive since he arrived in Liverpool.

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Newcastle United)

Despite Tottenham's somewhat volatile form in the New Year, Son Heung-min has been one of the few constants for Spurs since his return from a hamstring injury.

In the nine games since his February return, the 29-year-old has provided five goals and two assists. He has come to life under Antonio Conte in 2022, with his eight Premier League goal involvements this calendar year bettered by only Harry Kane (12).

Meanwhile, of the Premier League's top ten players in goal involvements, only Bruno Fernandes (29) and Kevin de Bruyne (23) have created more chances than Son (21), which is all the more impressive given he's not Spurs set-piece taker.

Qatar 2022 is fast approaching and the anticipation will surely be at its most intense so far when Friday's draw for the group stage is completed.

The Doha Exhibition and Convention Center plays host to the milestone event, which will see eight groups drawn from pots as the eventual storylines of the World Cup begin to unfurl.

Among the narratives that will start being mapped out on Friday is France's title defence, with Les Bleus hoping to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

Ahead of the draw, Stats Perform provides a lowdown of all the key information…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, the draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section ahead of Mexico and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

The 2022 World Cup is now less than eight months away and the excitement will ramp up another notch on Friday when the draw takes place in Doha.

Qatar will become the first Arab country to host the global showpiece, 92 years after the inaugural event in Uruguay, in what is the 22nd edition of football's biggest tournament.

It will become the smallest host nation by area, with matches to be spread across five different cities, making this the most concentrated edition since Argentina 1978.

Twenty-nine nations have already booked their finals spot, 22 of which competed at the 2018 edition, with the automatically-qualified hosts the only side to make their debut.

Due to the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the fate of eight teams remains in the balance – only three of whom can still advance.

Wales will face the winners of the Scotland versus Ukraine play-off in June, while New Zealand take on Costa Rica and Peru meet either Australia or the United Arab Emirates.

To further whet the appetite ahead of Friday's draw, Stats Perform looks at some key questions to be answered with the aid of Opta data.

 


Will Europe continue to dominate?

The past four World Cups have been won by European teams: Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, Germany in 2014 and France in 2018.

That is the longest run of victories for a single continent in the tournament's history, with only one defeated finalist – Argentina in 2014 – coming from outside of Europe.

Indeed, a European team has triumphed in 12 of the previous 21 editions, with South America responsible for the other nine victors.

France are the reigning champions and are aiming to become the third team to retain the trophy after Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962).

However, a word of warning for Les Bleus – the past three defending champions have been eliminated in the group stage (Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018).

 


No Italy, but will it be a familiar winner?

Despite that, France will be fancied by many having reached the final in half of the past six World Cups –1998, 2006 and 2018 – which is more than any other country.

Another World Cup heavyweight will not be present in Qatar, though, as four-time winners Italy – only Brazil (five) have won more trophies – missed out in the play-offs.

Speaking of Brazil, they are taking part in their 22nd World Cup, making them the only team to have featured in every edition of FIFA's showpiece competition.

Like Italy, Germany have won four titles and they have reached the semi-finals on four of the past five occasions, which is double the number of any other team in that period.

No matter how strong a side, a perfect tournament is tough to come by – only Brazil in 1970 and 2002 have achieved that since the 1930s, when teams played just four games.


Or is it a chance for someone new to shine?

Canada will play in their first World Cup since 1986; that gap of 36 years the longest between appearances among teams confirmed to be taking part in this year's event.

Egypt and Norway had the longest gap at 56 years, though Wales will break that should they advance from their play-off to qualify for the first time since 1958 (64 years).

Qatar are the only new face and will aim to avoid becoming just the second hosts to be eliminated in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

Mexico will also have their sights set on the knockout stages, though no side has played as many games (57) as them without reaching the final.

Netherlands, meanwhile, have reached the final on more occasions (1974, 1978 and 2010) without lifting the coveted trophy than anyone else.

 


Can Ronaldo and Muller set new records?

Cristiano Ronaldo will appear at a record-equalling fifth World Cup and is out to become the first player ever to score in five different editions.

The Portugal forward has seven World Cup goals in total, nine short of the record held by Miroslav Klose, who netted all 16 of his goals from inside the penalty area.

Thomas Muller has an outside chance of catching countryman Klose in Qatar, having scored 10 times across his three previous participations – no active player has more.

The top scorer in a single World Cup is Just Fontaine, who scored 13 times in 1958, including a goal in all six of France's games.

Not since Gerd Muller in 1970, with 10 goals for Germany, has a player reached double figures in a single edition. Brazil great Ronaldo's eight in 2002 is the highest since then.

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