The Western Force snatched a dramatic 16-15 victory over the Rebels on Friday as the home side failed to capitalise on their dominance at AAMI Park.

Despite enjoying 65 per cent of the possession and more than twice as many passes and carries, the Rebels were thwarted by their own lack of cutting edge against a rigid rearguard.

Force then made them pay with the only try of the contest in the 78th minute, Tim Anstee touching down after a rolling maul and Domingo Miotti adding the extras.

Matt Toomua's penalty had given the Rebels a 15-6 lead midway through the second half but a further kick that struck the upright proved a costly miss in an error-strewn contest.

Miotti also missed a kick prior to the visitors' critical try, before a last-gasp wayward drop goal attempt from Reece Hodge brought the contest to a frustrating end for the Rebels.

It was a 10th successive Super Rugby meeting between the sides decided by a single-digit margin.

And the Rebels are now just a point ahead in the Super Rugby AU standings as the battle for semi-final places hots up.

Jose Mourinho is confident his Tottenham side are ready for the challenge as they attempt to inflict a second major blow of the season on his former club Manchester United.

After a stunning 6-1 win at Old Trafford in October, Mourinho's Tottenham will bid to end United's 22-match unbeaten away run in the Premier League on Sunday.

United sit second in the table, with Spurs down in sixth, but five successive home wins in all competitions may give the hosts an edge ahead of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium clash.

Mourinho, sacked as United boss in December 2018, expects a game that is a world away from their earlier meeting this season.

"I think that 6-1 doesn't reflect the reality," he said. "It can happen sometimes between two big clubs, these crazy results, but they happen in an isolated way. I go much more in the direction of the other two previous matches between us and United.

"We lost 2-1 at Old Trafford with a penalty and we drew 1-1 at home last season also with a penalty.

"For me, this is more the reality. We are not far from each other. I think it's going to be a difficult match for both."

United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has said he expects his team to use their savaging at Spurs' hands as motivational fuel for the trip to north London.

Mourinho said: "If it was the opposite, my team losing 6-1 against them, I would say to my guys that it happened once but it's not going to happen twice, the game is going to be tight and we can win. But I don't know. Maybe Solskjaer thinks in a different way."

Tottenham were knocked out of the Europa League by Dinamo Zagreb last month, and Mourinho, though regretful of that result, says there has at least been the positive knock-on effect of being able to work extensively on the training pitch this week.

"I go with confidence because I believe in us, I believe in the work we are doing this week to try to prepare the match the best we can," he said.

"I don't want to go to the match with other things in mind other than we are ready.

"We are working well during this week, for the wrong reasons, which is that we were knocked out of the Europa League. For the wrong reasons, we were able to have a week to work - we didn't have many during the season.

"Now, we had it. And that makes me positive. I enjoyed the work this week and I'm positive."

United have had penalties against Tottenham in their past three Premier League meetings, but Mourinho brushed off that factor.

"I cannot go to a football match concerned, I don't think it's the right frame of mind," he said.

The Portuguese admires United's away form in the league but does not consider the visitors unbeatable this weekend, as Tottenham chase a first league double over United since the 1989-90 season, when Terry Venables was Spurs manager.

United have won just one of their past eight away Premier League matches against Spurs (D4 L3), a 1-0 win at Wembley in January 2019.

"I'm not going to comment on the record, apart from to say many congratulations," Mourinho said.

"I know that is very, very difficult for different reasons, but that record is not going to stop us to think and feel we can win, and it is not going to stop us to fight to win.

"At the end of the match, maybe the result is different and their record becomes even better. But it's not the record that is going to stop us thinking we can win."

United have not conceded more than seven goals - achieved by four clubs - against any opponent over their two meetings in the Premier League era, a record that could be broken on Sunday.

The last team to score more than seven against United in a top-flight season were Spurs, who netted eight against the Red Devils in 1962-63.

Thomas Tuchel says Chelsea retain "faith and trust" in struggling forwards Timo Werner and Kai Havertz.

Both players were substituted with 25 minutes left in the 2-0 Champions League win over Porto in Seville on Wednesday.

Tuchel said after the quarter-final first leg that the two players had not given him what he was looking for.

But ahead of the short trip to play Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday, he insisted both players remain a key part of his plans and that his substitutions were specific only to that match.

Tuchel accepts Werner is lacking in confidence but does not have any concerns over Havertz.

Werner has been directly involved in more Premier League goals this season than any other Chelsea player (11, with five goals and six assists). 

However, the Germany striker has scored with just one of his last 42 shots in the competition, a strike against Newcastle United in February.

"Look at the games Porto played in the Champions League," said Tuchel in defence of Werner and Havertz.

"If you can show me any nice, fluid and pretty games of any opponent we can talk again. I did not find it. 

"They make your life very tough, especially for offensive players. They went through the group with 13 points. You can ask in the group how easy it was to play against them. 

"They did not have the easiest task up front. They had a big impact defensively and they worked hard for us, both Kai and Timo. 

"It was difficult for them to find spaces and create something, so we changed after 65 minutes but we will not lose faith and trust. 

"We accept sometimes it's hard sometimes to have a big impact. Maybe Timo misses a bit of confidence in his finishing but Kai, I feel, is very self-confident. 

"There are no bigger concerns. It was just in this game we tried to change the momentum."

Chelsea are yet to lose on the road under Tuchel in the Premier League (W3 D2).

The Palace clash comes after a dramatic week for the Blues, with the Porto win following up a shock 5-2 home reverse against West Brom.

Tuchel is keen to ensure his players do not get too up or down based on one result.

He added: "It's my job to learn every day and from every game, from every situation we have to face. 

"I don't have a big conclusion after the two games with the down and up we had in terms of results. 

"It's important to share experiences and make my experiences with the team. It's the first time we lost, a big loss, an unexpected loss in a weird game. 

"We have a lot of positives together so we needed to adapt and react to it. 

"I'm very happy we bounced back immediately. We were unlucky in some situations in the game. It's important for us now that we went through this. 

"Hopefully we can start a winning streak again."

Palace have kept five clean sheets in the Premier League at Selhurst Park since the turn of the year, two more than in the entirety of 2020.

But manager Roy Hodgson has lost six consecutive Premier League matches against Chelsea. 

The only opponent he has lost seven consecutive games against as a manager in the competition is Tottenham in a run that lasted between 2011 and 2019.

Ronald Koeman needs his whole Barcelona squad playing at their top level alongside Lionel Messi in Saturday's crucial Clasico, while he welcomed the return of Gerard Pique to his squad.

A patchy run of form from Atletico Madrid, in which the leaders in LaLiga have won only four of their past 10 top-flight matches, means Barca are only a point off top spot with Madrid just three back.

Saturday's contest, at Madrid's Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, could now have a huge bearing on the outcome of the title race in Spain this season.

Messi is the top scorer in El Clasico for all competitions (26) and in LaLiga (18) but has not scored in his previous six encounters against Madrid, matching his longest run without a goal in the fixture.

"Hopefully Messi will be decisive for us tomorrow," Koeman told a pre-match news conference.

"We need the best Messi, but above all we need the best Barca. And obviously we need Leo to have a good game, a good attack."

Barca's squad for the trip to Madrid has been boosted by the return of veteran centre-back Pique, who has been sidelined for just over a month since spraining his knee in the 3-0 win over Sevilla that secured a comeback 3-2 aggregate win in their Copa del Rey semi-final.

The versatile Sergi Roberto is also included in the squad having been out since February with a thigh issue.

"They are two important players due to their quality and personality," Koeman added.

"They lack rhythm but they are physically well, very excited to help the team, and it is important to have almost all the players available.

"For me, every player has to be in good physical and mental condition, so they all have a chance to play. 

"Every player has to prove this, and my role will be to pick the 11 best players to start the match."

Barca have been on a sensational run in LaLiga, going unbeaten in 19 matches and winning 13 out of the past 14.

The last time these sides met, Madrid ran out 3-1 winners at Camp Nou and Los Blancos are aiming for a third straight win in this match for the first time since 1978 and a first LaLiga double since the 2007-08 campaign.

But Koeman insists the outcome of this game will not be decisive in determining the end-of-season outcome at the top of LaLiga.

"The result in principle is not decisive because there are still many games to go and it will be difficult to win every game," Koeman said.

"But it is true that the team that wins will see their morale increased.

"El Clasico is a different game from the others, there is always a lot of emotion. Barca are having a great season, with many points achieved that allows us to fight for La Liga, but Madrid is still Madrid and we have to respect them and be at our best.

"We have improved a lot from the last Clasico. Although in the last Clasico, we played well, in my opinion. 

"We were better in the first half, but we lost in the second half with the intervention of the VAR. But we have improved in effectiveness."

Joe Burrow showcased enough in his Ohio homecoming to suggest he has a chance to be the Cincinnati Bengals' saviour at quarterback.

But, after the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft saw a promising rookie season snuffed out by a serious knee injury, there is as much tension as there is excitement surrounding the Bengals.

Burrow tore his ACL and his MCL in a Week 11 meeting with the Washington Football Team, the Bengals losing four of their six games with him on the sideline to finish 4-11-1.

The relatively smooth transition Burrow made to the pros should raise hopes he can be the man to eventually bring success to a franchise that has not won a playoff game since the 1990 season.

Yet recoveries from injuries as severe as that of Burrow's are far from guaranteed and the holes on a roster that still looks some way from legitimate contention could mean another year of struggle for Cincinnati.

That may spell trouble for head coach Zac Taylor, who heads into year three as head coach with just six wins to his name.

What do the Bengals need to do to produce more tangible signs of progress in 2021? 

We used Stats Perform data to look back on their 2020 and their offseason moves so far to identify areas of focus for the coming year.

Offense

The set-up in Cincinnati was not conducive to success for a rookie quarterback, and the numbers bore that out in 2020.

Cincinnati ranked 30th in yards per play with an average of 4.92 while they were 28th in yards per pass play (5.48).

Yet Burrow's individual numbers from his 10 games suggest he was the right pick for a team that has been nothing short of moribund since their trip to the postseason in 2015.

Burrow ranked seventh in the NFL in yards per game (268.8) across his 10 appearances for Bengals from Week 1 to 11, with his average impacted by his injury against Washington.

He had five 300-yard passing games and averaged a poor throw every 13.1 attempts, a better rate than Josh Allen (11.4), Deshaun Watson (11.9) and Lamar Jackson (12.5).

However, Burrow's numbers as a deep-ball passer were very disappointing. His 23 pass completions of 20 yards or more were two fewer than Dak Prescott, who played only five games, and he completed just eight of his 42 attempts of at least 21 air yards.

Burrow's passer rating on those throws was 53.9, 26th of 28 quarterbacks with at least 25 such passes.

He likely would have fared better going downfield had he benefited from greater protection. Burrow was sacked on 7.34 per cent of his dropbacks, the 10th-highest rate among quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks.

But Burrow can have confidence in his receivers. Tee Higgins' 908 receiving yards were the third-most among rookies in 2020 and both he and Tyler Boyd, who had 841 yards, proved dependable options on third down.

Twelve of Higgins' 14 third-down receptions went for a first down, while Boyd moved the chains on 15 of his 19 third-down catches.

Cincinnati's rushing attack was just as inefficient as the passing game, the Bengals ranking 27th with 4.06 yards per attempt.

Only four teams had fewer runs of 10 yards or more than the Bengals' 37, with Joe Mixon averaging only 3.6 yards per rush across his six games after signing a contract extension, his year prematurely ended by a foot injury.

Burrow and Mixon having their seasons curtailed cut short any intrigue surrounding the Bengals in 2020, and they won't be interesting in 2021 unless their signal-caller receives better assistance from the offensive line and a defense that ranked among the league's most porous last season.

Defense

The most complimentary thing you could say about the Bengals' defense last year was that it showed some signs of developing into a 'bend but don't break' unit.

Cincinnati allowed 6.10 yards per play in 2020, ranking 28th, yet they were closer to the middle of the pack in terms of points conceded.

The Bengals were 22nd in offensive points allowed (410), and 21st in opponent scoring efficiency, allowing a touchdown or field on 78 of 180 opponent drives.

While those numbers were far from the worst in the NFL, the Bengals defense still bent and broke far too often for Cincinnati to compete on a week-to-week basis.

Simply put, the Bengals did not do enough to put opposing offenses in difficult situations.

Cincinnati's tally of 67 negative plays forced was 30th in the NFL, with the negative play yardage of minus 208 yards the lowest in the league.

Only four teams produced fewer takeaways than their 17 turnovers, which produced a total of 47 points that ranked tied for 25th.

An anaemic pass rush was a critical reason for their inability to take the ball away. Cincinnati had the fewest sacks in the NFL (17) and the fourth-fewest quarterback knockdowns (66).

As was the case on offense, the running game provided little relief for Cincinnati, the Bengals continually gashed by opposing ground games.

Only the Houston Texans (5.20), allowed a higher yards per carry average than the 5.11 yards per attempt the Bengals gave up.

Additionally, opponents racked up 73 runs of 10 yards or more against the Bengals defense, 22 more than the league average of 51.

Despite a busy free agency, there isn't much to suggest Cincinnati will be drastically improved on that side of the ball in 2021.

Offseason

The Bengals lost their most disruptive pass rusher from last season as edge rusher Carl Lawson departed for the New York Jets in free agency.

Lawson had only 5.5 sacks but racked up 32 quarterback hits, with his combined hurries and knockdowns tally of 65.5 tied for ninth in the NFL.

Cincinnati immediately replaced Lawson by signing Trey Hendrickson to a four-year, $60million deal after his breakout season with the New Orleans Saints.

The Bengals are banking on Hendrickson being able to consistently replicate a 2020 season that saw him record 13.5 sacks, though that may be a more difficult task playing in front of a secondary that lost arguably its best player with William Jackson III leaving for Washington.

Jackson had double-digit pass deflections in three of his four seasons with Cincinnati and is coming off a year in which he had a burn percentage in coverage of 46.5, his lowest since his rookie campaign (34.7).

They filled the void he left by gambling on the athleticism of former Dallas Cowboy cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, whose burn percentage of 59.5 for his career is significantly worse than Jackson's 48.2.

Cincinnati can afford to have more confidence in Mike Hilton's reliability as a nickel cornerback. Hilton comes across from the Pittsburgh Steelers having posted a career-high three interceptions in just six starts last season.

The Bengals demonstrated their understanding of the need to better protect Burrow by signing left tackle Riley Reiff to a one-year deal after he allowed only two sacks and was penalised just once in 15 games for the Minnesota Vikings in 2020.

But Reiff is entering the latter half of his career at 32, meaning his arrival certainly should not prohibit the Bengals from targeting a top-tier offensive line prospect like Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater with the fifth overall pick in the first round.

With wide receiver A.J. Green ending his long association with Cincinnati by signing with the Arizona Cardinals, there may be a temptation to give Burrow, who has already endorsed the potential selection of former LSU team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, a dynamic third option to go with Higgins and Boyd.

However, after their failure to protect Burrow left him facing a lengthy recovery process to get back to the field, the Bengals must prioritise players who can give him a clean pocket from which he can put the franchise back on the road to prominence.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is "pretty, pretty sure" his Manchester United players will be looking to prove a point when they visit Tottenham on Sunday.

United lost the reverse fixture 6-1 at Old Trafford, their joint-heaviest Premier League defeat and worst since another home humbling in the 2011 Manchester derby.

Spurs looked like title contenders while United were marooned in the bottom half of the table, their hapless display - in which Anthony Martial was sent off - described by former captain Gary Neville as "spineless" and "absolutely pathetic".

But United have recovered to sit second in the table, albeit 14 points behind Manchester City, while Tottenham are sixth.

Jose Mourinho's men are desperate for points but will face motivated opponents at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Solskjaer suggested.

"I think the players will remember that game with a lot of pain," Solskjaer said. "Their pride has been hurt, their professional pride. The manner we lost is not ourselves and our team-worthy. We know that.

"We gave ourselves a difficult game by having 10 men, pre-season was short and we were not up to the standard required, but we were so poor.

"I'm pretty, pretty sure we'll see some players wanting to prove we're better than that."

United took the lead in that match through a second-minute Bruno Fernandes penalty, but that was one of just five shots while Spurs attempted 22.

Solskjaer felt his side's early-season fitness issues were a key contributing factor in that October defeat.

"The biggest thing that we've improved on is our fitness levels," he said. "We were way short of what [Tottenham] were at.

"It was our third game, was it? And we didn't look anything like [ready]."

While that is no longer an issue, there are concerns about the status of Marcus Rashford, who played through a persistent ankle problem at Granada on Thursday and scored a vital goal.

Across Europe's 'top five' leagues, no player has made more appearances in all competitions this season than Rashford (47 - tied with Fernandes).

Indeed, the three most-used players all represent United, with captain Harry Maguire third (46 appearances). Aaron Wan-Bissaka is in a tie for fourth (44).

With 3,466 minutes in the tank despite an injury issue that kept him out of the recent international break, Solskjaer was asked if England should be worried about Rashford ahead of the European Championship.

"I don't think you need to be concerned about his fitness, no - of course, barring any injury," Solskjaer said.

"His fitness is really good, he's an athletic boy, a fit boy, a strong boy. When he goes into headers and challenges, he can look after himself.

"But at one point, of course, you hope to get to a position where he doesn't have to play every game, every minute.

"At the moment, we have to take him off because he's a little bit sore. Hopefully that will improve as the season goes on."

Rashford has been relied on so heavily in part due to Edinson Cavani's limited involvement.

Widely linked with a move to Boca Juniors, Cavani has started only 14 games this term, playing 1,474 minutes, although his tally of seven goals is a match for Martial and outperforms Mason Greenwood (six).

"I've kept in touch with Edi, of course," Solksjaer said. "We keep an open dialogue. He's still unsure what he wants to do next season, which I find fine.

"It's not been an easy year either for him or the rest of the world, so he still wants time to make his mind up.

"I'm very sure that we'll get a good version of Edinson for the rest of the season. Hopefully we can keep him fit the next six, seven weeks."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has doubled down on his claims Jose Mourinho should not have been content with guiding Manchester United to second place during his Old Trafford reign.

Solskjaer and United again go head-to-head with Mourinho on Sunday as the Red Devils visit Tottenham looking to avenge their 6-1 home defeat earlier this season.

Mourinho is looking to become the first former United manager since Dave Sexton in 1981-82, then Coventry City boss, to complete a league double over the club following his departure.

The Portuguese won the EFL Cup and Europa League at Old Trafford but his best league finish was second in 2017-18.

Mourinho claimed that performance, behind record-breaking rivals Manchester City, as one of his "greatest achievements".

But Solskjaer, at the time in his previous role as Molde coach, responded: "I don't think any of the Man United supporters, ex-players or players are happy with second place."

Solskjaer subsequently took charge of United in late 2018 and has only now guided them back to second, again behind City.

Given the opportunity to backtrack and hail both his own and Mourinho's achievement ahead of the Spurs match, Solskjaer refused.

While United have shown signs of progress this season, their manager wants more.

"We should never settle for second place at Man United," he said. "We'll never settle for second place.

"That's the point here - we have seen the heights and know what this club is capable of.

"For me, I've been here now a little while myself and it's taken time for us to be in this position. Hopefully we can be better next season, because this is below our ambitions."

Tottenham could become the first team to record a Premier League double over Solskjaer's United. The ex-Molde coach was last beaten twice by the same side in a league season by Ranheim in the 2018 Norwegian Eliteserien.

In fact, Spurs have never claimed a Premier League double over United, last doing so in the league in the 1989-90 campaign under Terry Venables.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel acknowledges it is "a rough time" for out-of-favour striker Tammy Abraham.

Abraham's chances of being selected for England at Euro 2020 appear to be slipping away, but Tuchel insists he cannot pick players on that basis.

With Chelsea away to Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday, the prospect of a recall to the starting XI for Abraham seems slim.

The former Aston Villa loanee has not played for Chelsea since February 20 and has been subbed off by half-time the last three times he started in the Premier League.

Ahead of the Palace clash, Tuchel was asked about whether Abraham's recent return from injury and his hopes of representing England at the Euros meant he would play more before the end of the season.

"I cannot do a decision on the personal goals of players," replied Tuchel. "I've got to do what I believe is best for Chelsea. 

"Kepa has the goal to play for Spain but this can't influence my decisions. 

"Tammy has had a rough time. He started twice or three times and substituted for tactical reasons at half-time. 

"He's not had the impact we wish and demand from him. 

"He then got injured, lost the connection and possibility to play for his place the squad. Now suddenly we are in the decisive part of the season, where it's not so easy to bring injured players into the shape. 

"We've only got three changes and a big handicap. It's up to Tammy to do everything possible. 

"We have 22 players on the pitch and it's very hard to select 18 for Premier League matches. 

"In the offensive position, it's possible to have a huge impact in small minutes. We demand a lot of Tammy, he demands a lot of himself."

Chelsea lost 5-2 to West Brom in their last league outing, a first defeat under Tuchel after the German had made a fantastic start to his reign.

They bounced back well with a 2-0 win over Porto in their Champions League quarter-final first leg and now look to continue a strong recent run against Palace.

Palace have lost their past six Premier League matches against Chelsea, their worst ever losing run against the Blues in league football.

Tuchel added: "Crystal Palace are a physical team with two key players up front that we need to take care of. 

"It's a pleasure to be on the sideline with Roy Hodgson on the other side. It means a lot to be there. 

"We'll do everything we can to beat them but we expect a tough away game.

"I met him once years ago. He is a gentleman and open to sharing his experience in coaching. His teams are calm, experienced and very, very solid." 

Chelsea have won 1.82 points per game in Premier League London derbies, the best ratio amongst sides from the capital. 

By contrast, only Fulham (0.81) have averaged fewer points per game in such matches than Palace (0.93).

None of the past 19 Premier League meetings between Palace and Chelsea have ended as a draw. 

Luka Jovic will return to Real Madrid at the end of his Eintracht Frankfurt loan before considering his long-term future.

Los Blancos forked out a reported €60million fee in June 2019 to bring the Serbian striker to the Santiago Bernabeu from Frankfurt, who had only exercised an optional fee on Jovic's loan move from Benfica a couple of months earlier.

But the switch to the Spanish capital did not bring much success for Jovic, who started just 11 times, scoring twice and assisting two more across all competitions.

That gave Jovic a ratio of 0.18 goals per 90 minutes, while he averaged 0.62 shots on target before being shipped out on loan back to Frankfurt in January.

Jovic has shown glimpses of form back in the Bundesliga, scoring three goals from 12 appearances in all competitions – of which only four have been as part of the starting XI.

Asked by Bild about his long-term plans, Jovic replied: "Eintracht is a special club for me in every aspect but everybody knows that officially I am a Real Madrid player. 

"And that's where I will return to at the end of the season. 

"It's logical that I will only be able to talk about the next steps of my career in a few months' time."

Prior to his move to Madrid, Jovic scored 36 goals in 75 games during his first spell at Frankfurt, providing eight assists.

That measures at 0.73 goals per 90, while he also averaged 1.68 shots on target.

Paul George enjoyed leading the Los Angeles Clippers to a 113-103 win over the Phoenix Suns, who he again accused of "chirping" in a heated encounter.

The Clippers and the Suns are each in contention in the West, but Phoenix's hopes of reeling in leaders the Utah Jazz were hit by Thursday's defeat.

This was the teams' second meeting of the season and the Clippers' second win, with George influential in both.

The seven-time All-Star had a season-high 39 points back in January, after he which he claimed the game had seen "a lot of chirping and people just living in the past".

And the same phrase came up again on Thursday after 33 points on 12-for-19 shooting.

It was a third straight Clippers win against a team in the playoff places in the West, with George also scoring 39 against the Portland Trail Blazers, but the in-form forward was especially motivated for this game.

"We focused on us," George said. "I don't know what that chirp is about. We focused on us.

"I don't care what they're doing over there. I don't care who they are or what they're doing.

"I'm locked in. They can do the chirping, I let them have it tonight. I just stayed in my zone, stayed in my place, I don't know.

"I don't care what they're doing. We're focused on us over here. We're focused on getting better. Tonight was a fun matchup, and we appreciate the challenge."

Suns star Devin Booker had both a flagrant foul and a technical foul on Thursday, while Patrick Beverley (one flagrant) and Marcus Morris Sr (two technicals) were both ejected for the Clippers.

Booker and George each had technicals in the first game – one of only two for the latter all season.

Clippers coach Ty Lue said: "I don't have any concerns. I love it.

"When you are competing at a high level against one of the best teams in the league, do what you've go to do to win. And I thought our guys were physical. We competed, we fought.

"There are going to be games like this where it is going to be chippy. They are fighting for something, we are fighting for something, so it is going to happen and I am okay with it."

It was billed as one of the most important Clasicos in years. The outcome, it was said, could set the tone for the entire season and, by extension, the future of Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian's revelation he wanted to leave was still ringing in the ears of Barca directors two months on in October last year. While they'd managed to keep hold of him, owing to Messi's reluctance to drag his club through the courts, his form on the pitch hardly suggested he was at peace.

One goal in four LaLiga matches heading into that October 24 Clasico was his slowest start to a season since 2005-06 when he was a fresh-faced teenager still trying to establish himself.

What followed at Camp Nou on that Saturday looked set to plunge Barca further into crisis, as the Catalans lost 3-1 to Madrid despite dominating much of the match. It was a bad look for new coach Ronald Koeman – already under-fire – as well as Messi, whose failure to score took him to 515 minutes without a goal against Los Blancos in LaLiga, just seven shy of his worst ever barren run in El Clasico.

Messi's proviso for staying beyond the end of 2020-21 was that Barca had to look capable of winning titles; while supporters felt hard done by given Sergio Ramos' theatrics when winning a penalty, there was little in the Blaugrana's performance to suggest a title tilt was realistic.

But here we are, a little over five months later, and the outlook is rather different.

Koeman gets to know his squad

"Koeman explodes," read the front page of Mundo Deportivo the next day. "A Clasico robbery," declared Sport. Both publications listed their grievances with the result but largely glossed over Barca's issues.

This was more than just a one-off defeat in a Clasico, it was the second of four league losses in a run of just seven games. That run, culminating in a shock loss to promoted Cadiz in December, saw them suffer at least four defeats in the first 10 LaLiga matches of the season for only the second time since 1988.

 

Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Koeman.

His decision to implement his favoured 4-2-3-1 system wasn't necessarily surprising, but given Barca's attachment to 4-3-3, it was certainly seen as a bold move.

To say that it flatly didn't work wouldn't be entirely accurate, but Koeman's subsequent search for alternative set-ups speaks to the fact Barca weren't convincing.

Since suffering back-to-back defeats to Cadiz and Juventus at the start of December, Koeman has largely – depending on personnel and opponents – switched between 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1.

While their form hasn't been perfect across all fronts, they've not lost a LaLiga game since. The move to a back three in particular has appeared to resonate with the Barca squad, winning six of seven league – and conceding just three goals – matches when operating with such a defensive structure.

That 85.7 per cent win ratio is a significant improvement on the 63.6 per cent recorded in games where they've deployed a back four, suggesting the three-man defence allows for greater harmony across the team.

Frenkie finds his feet

Koeman's tinkering has helped bring the best out of several areas of the team, but most notably the centre of midfield. While Sergio Busquets has received widespread praise, arguably the two main benefactors have been Frenkie de Jong and Pedri.

De Jong's first season at Barca, while by no means bad, was hardly scintillating, and Koeman's arrival initially saw him placed in a double pivot, though activity maps show he often got drawn out to the left.

But over the season as a whole, compared to 2019-20, De Jong has clearly made good strides and is enjoying greater attacking freedom.

As across the entirety of last season, the former Ajax man has made 29 league appearances in 2020-21, but his goal involvements have enjoyed a boost (two goals, two assists in 2019-20, three goals and four assists in 2020-21). Added to that, he's averaging 1.1 key passes per game, up from 0.9.

 

But it's De Jong's general influence that has increased most, with his 87.1 touches per game up considerably from 66.2, while he averages 25.3 carries per game, as opposed to 17.7 last term.

Not only have De Jong's team-mates seemingly placed greater trust in him, but he's relishing the added responsibility. The Netherlands midfielder is seeing much more of the ball and using his increased influence effectively.

No player in LaLiga has covered more distance carrying the ball upfield than De Jong (4,375.8 metres), while he also leads the league in total progressive carries (405) and is second only to Pau Torres on progressive carries of 10 yards or more (168).

Indeed, De Jong ranks towards the top of almost every metric relating to ball carries, highlighting just how important he is to Barca getting up the pitch.

The heir apparent

It quickly became clear Pedri was going to establish himself in the Barca first-team squad following his move from Las Palmas, convincing the club they would be better served keeping the teenager around than sending him out on loan.

But it's only been since Koeman altered his position that he's really come to life, essentially nailing down a place in the starting XI.

For the first few months of the season, Pedri often operated from a slightly wider position, cutting in from the left onto his right foot. Now, while he still often drifts out to the left flank, the Spain international is spending more time in the central zone outside the opposition's penalty area.

 

He is averaging 26.9 more touches per game since the first 10 matches of the season – understandable given he's operating closer to the thick of the action – and that in turn has helped him create 1.4 chances per game, up from 0.8.

But to focus solely on that would be to do Pedri a disservice. His talent as a fine passer and nimble mover make him the ideal attacking conduit, as evidenced by his 132 shot-ending open-play sequences – ranking third among LaLiga midfielders to have played 900 minutes or more this term.

In fact, of these players, Pedri is involved in the most shot-ending open-play sequences per 90 minutes (6.2).

Andres Iniesta comparisons might be considered a little over the top at this point, but there's certainly no doubt the teenager is thriving. Maybe he could be the World Cup winner's heir...

Messi's miraculous revival

The chief instigator in Barca's revival has, of course, been Messi himself. Having only scored four times, with no assists, in Barca's first 10 league games this term, he's netted 19 and laid on eight in 17 since.

It has been a remarkable resurgence and central to Barca's climb up the table, with the Blaugrana's unbeaten run undoubtedly inspired by their talisman.

Messi's improvement has been almost inexplicable because his shooting habits haven't changed massively. After all, his shots per game are only up slightly from 4.9 to 6.0, with this increase spread across his efforts from both inside the box (2.9 shots per 90, up from 2.4) and outside the area (3.4 shots per 90, up from 2.7).

Again, there's not a huge difference in his expected goals (xG) value per shot, with his efforts worth 0.11 on average until December 6 and 0.13 since, yet Messi has gone from underperforming his overall xG (four goals, 5.6 xG) to massively overperforming (19 goals, 12.9 xG).

 

One potential explanation comes from looking at his shot maps over the two periods in question. Messi does now appear to be getting into the centre of the box more often, with as many as 10 of his 18 goals (excluding penalties) coming from this part of the pitch.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that Messi, without a significant pre-season, saw his preparations for the new campaign interrupted heavily by the off-field controversy. That period of turmoil will surely have taken its toll mentally, perhaps making it inevitable that his focus should drift and his form suffer.

Whatever the reason, Koeman has got Messi back on track and his team-mates able contributing in recent months, seemingly ensuring the coach will be safe for another season.

But the job is not done yet. Messi wanted Koeman and Barca to prove that winning titles was possible. They've more or less done that and now need his brilliance to guide them through a do-or-die Clasico.

The Milwaukee Bucks lost again without Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday, but coach Mike Budenholzer believes the two-time MVP's absence can benefit his team.

The Bucks completed a six-game road trip against the Dallas Mavericks, going down 116-101 at American Airlines Center.

Antetokounmpo featured in the first three of those games, yet he missed the next three after scoring a season-high 47 points against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The 'Greek Freak' leads Milwaukee in points (28.8), assists (6.2) and rebounds (11.4) per game, while also contributing 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals.

Knee soreness is impacting Antetokounmpo's bid for a third straight MVP triumph, but it is also hindering the Bucks. The team are 29-16 when their superstar plays but just 3-3 without him.

Milwaukee were not helped against the Mavs by poor shooting displays from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, their second and third men.

Middleton was an alarming 6-for-27 from the field for 14 points – 22.2 per cent, his second-worst outing of the year – as Holiday, who signed a lucrative contract extension last week, was 6-for-16 for 13 points.

Budenholzer acknowledged both players must perform better as he suggested the Bucks needed to adapt to playing when Antetokounmpo is not on the floor.

The 26-year-old forward played just 30.4 minutes per game last season when Milwaukee led the East, but he has been relied on for 34.0 minutes in 2020-21.

"The guys are getting more opportunities," Budenholzer said. "There's a little bit more of a load on both Jrue and Khris. I think they're learning to take that.

"We didn't make enough shots tonight; Khris, Jrue didn't make enough shots. We're getting better. We'll learn from these things.

"Playing without Giannis, he can't play 48 minutes, so I think there's going to be good stretches for us when Giannis doesn't play and we'll grow from these experiences playing without him."

While the Bucks struggled without their big name, Dallas got 27 points, nine assists and nine rebounds from Luka Doncic.

But the Slovenian also earned his 12th technical foul of the season. That tally has steadily increased over his NBA career – five in his rookie year, nine last year – and he is now just four shy of a one-game suspension.

"He's aware," coach Rick Carlisle said. "My level of concern is there. But look, he's an emotional competitor. It all comes from the right place.

"He's smart, he knows where the count is. If he's going to get his 16th, he'll get it in a situation where it's time for a day of rest anyway. I'm not really that worried about it."

It was a big win for the Mavs, who returned to winning ways after a shock defeat to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday ended a run of five successive victories since Doncic returned from a short lay-off due to illness.

"This was a playoff-type game [against the Bucks], playoff-calibre in terms of intensity and competitiveness and the talent on the floor," Carlisle said. "We did a much, much better job, top to bottom, than we did last night."

Dallas also got 26 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks out of Kristaps Porzingis. Eleven of his points came in the fourth quarter on 4-for-4 shooting after failing to attempt a single field goal in the final 12 minutes against the Rockets.

Porzingis said of his relationship with Doncic: "We're trying to play together and help each other. We want to win – at the end, we all want to win here.

"We have to keep playing, keep playing together, playing well and helping each other."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not alone in facing a conundrum as he decides on who will play in goal for Manchester United against Tottenham.

Fantasy football players across the globe may also be wondering who to back between the sticks this weekend. Well, we might just be able to settle the debate.

As the Premier League season enters its decisive final weeks, we've got a handful of suggestions to give you the edge when it comes to your fantasy leagues, and one or two may just surprise you.

Without further ado, here are our picks for matchday 31, based on Opta data.

 

DEAN HENDERSON

Since taking over the number one spot with United while David de Gea was on parenting duties, Henderson has given little reason to suggest he should be dropped.

The England man might only have made four appearances in the top flight in 2021 but, of the 11 shots he has faced, he has saved all but one of them. That gives him a save percentage of 91, the best in the competition among keepers to play at least twice.

He could well be entrusted to keep Harry Kane and company at bay when United face Tottenham.

ANDY ROBERTSON

Even during a much more difficult season at Liverpool, Robertson continues to offer value as a defender given his undiminished attacking proclivities.

Only Aaron Cresswell (seven) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals among defenders this season than Robertson (six).

The Scotland left-back has had 80 touches in the opposition box, by far the most for a defender this term. He's an attacking threat to rely on.

 

JOHN STONES

Not only has Stones won back his place in Pep Guardiola's first-choice defence, he's even started proving a menace in the opposition box this year.

The centre-back has scored four goals in 2021, the most of any Premier League defender, having only managed one in his first 170 games in the top flight.

Given he already has eight clean sheets this year, behind only Cesar Azpilicueta (nine) among defenders, he should practically walk into fantasy teams at present.

JESSE LINGARD

He's been talked about pretty much every week since joining West Ham on loan – and for good reason.

Since his league debut for the Hammers in February, Lingard has been directly involved in nine goals (six scored, three assisted), matching Kane (seven scored, two assisted) for the most involvements of any player in the competition in that time.

West Ham face a tough test against Leicester City on Sunday, but Lingard has good recent memories of facing the Foxes: he scored the second goal when Manchester United won 2-0 at the King Power Stadium on the final day of last season.

 

RAPHINHA

Patrick Bamford has enjoyed a strong first Premier League season for Leeds United, but few would deny that Raphinha has been their standout attacking performer.

No Leeds player has created more chances (55) or provided more assists (six) than the Brazilian, who has also scored six goals of his own in 2020-21, most recently in the 2-1 win at Fulham on March 19.

If anyone can cause problems for Manchester City on Saturday, it's him.

DANNY WELBECK

Welbeck is enjoying a decent run of form for Brighton and Hove Albion, with goals in his previous two games against Newcastle United and boyhood club Manchester United.

The 30-year-old hasn't managed to score in three in a row in the Premier League since January 2014, but Everton might just be the ideal opposition for him to do just that.

Welbeck has more direct goal involvements (eight – four scored, four assisted) against the Toffees than he does against any other top-flight team. His goals have come for three different teams, too: United, Arsenal and Sunderland.

 

AYOZE PEREZ

Perez is another man with fond memories of his coming opponents.

The forward has managed three goals and three assists in his previous seven league games against West Ham, making them his most profitable opponents after Southampton.

Kelechi Iheanacho is the man in form at Leicester City, but Perez could well be a safe bet to make a decisive impact against the Hammers.

Few would forget the previous meeting between Tottenham and Manchester United – least of all Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The Red Devils manager described the 6-1 battering at Old Trafford as "my worst day ever", and "very embarrassing" as he tried to come to terms with United's heaviest defeat since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and some deeply worrying performance levels from his players.

It marked the first time since 1986-87 that United had lost their first two league games of a season, with Crystal Palace having humbled them 3-1 on matchday one. The intervening match was a borderline miraculous 3-2 win at Brighton and Hove Albion, when Bruno Fernandes scored a penalty in the 100th minute after the hosts had hit the woodwork five times.

While Jose Mourinho could celebrate vengeance on his old club, fans and pundits feared for his successor. Gary Neville blasted the "spineless" players as "absolutely pathetic"; Patrice Evra, sitting shellshocked in a Sky Sports studio, told the United stars: "Look in the mirror and be honest – you're an embarrassment."

In fact, it seemed Solskjaer was alone in promising United would bounce back. His vow to fight to turn things around sounded almost blindly optimistic, as Spurs suddenly looked the most obvious dark horse to challenge Liverpool and Manchester City in the title race.

And yet, ahead of Sunday's match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, only one manager is facing serious, persistent questions about his future – and it's not the man from Norway.

Now, it's Spurs who look to be going backwards, as the clamour for a change in the dugout grows and the incumbent looks increasingly unable to fix the problems.

ROLE-REVERSAL

Spurs' 6-1 win moved them to seven points from their first four matches and left United four points and 11 goals behind in the table.

Since that game, the two teams' trajectories have been very different. United have taken 57 points from their most recent 27 matches, 15 more than Spurs, who have played a game less. Solskjaer's men in that time are behind only Man City when it comes to most points, most wins (16), most goals scored (53) and fewest conceded (22), with each side suffering a league-low two defeats.

Spurs, by contrast, have won 12 and lost eight since that Old Trafford visit, scoring 39 goals (the second-lowest in the top seven) and conceding 27 (the joint-most in the top seven). They have lost more times in home games since then (three) than United have in total (two), while the Red Devils have won eight of their most recent 14 away league matches as part of a club-record run of 22 on the road without defeat.

Goals have been a particular concern for Spurs despite the spectacular form of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Spurs outperformed their expected goals by nearly a factor of two in the win over United and have surpassed their seasonal xG in the Premier League by eight, showing the benefit of their ruthless centre-forwards. Such figures are always likely to even out eventually: in their most recent game at Newcastle United, xG suggests a 2-2 draw was just about the best result they could have hoped for on the day given the quality of chances they created and conceded.

'A BRITTLE HORSE'

Arsenal loanee Joe Willock's 85th-minute equaliser for Newcastle saw Spurs drop yet more points due to late drama. This season, they have given up 11 points thanks to goals conceded in the final 10 minutes of matches, the most of any side in the division.

Kane's double meant they had been winning at half-time, making that game at St James' Park the sixth in 2020-21 in which they have failed to win after leading at the break – again, the worst such figure in the top flight.

It has become a worrying habit for Mourinho's teams. During his first 120 Premier League games in charge of Chelsea, Mourinho saw his side drop only 14 points from winning positions and just six in their title-winning seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06. His United side gave up 18 points from winning positions in 93 matches; in 56 games at Spurs, he has watched his players surrender 26 points.

By contrast, United have become better at holding onto results. After giving up 14 points from winning positions last season, they have only surrendered seven in 2020-21, the same number as leaders City. Crucially, they have gained more points from losing positions (25) than any other Premier League side this term, underlining Solskjaer's demands for more "robustness" from his players.

That difference in holding onto points between Mourinho's old and present team has little to do with luck, or 'Spursyness', or even Bruno Fernandes penalties (he's scored four in 17 league games in 2021). Rather, it seems a natural result of stylistic differences, of percentages (mostly) playing out in United's favour.

THE 'UNITED WAY' IS WORKING

While United have scored 53 goals in 27 league games since losing to Spurs – fewer only than Man City (60 in 28) – Mourinho's men have scored 39 in 26, the sixth-best tally in that time frame.

Like Spurs, United are outperforming their xG for this season (by seven), but their superior goalscoring – and results – have emerged from what appears to be a broadly more attacking attitude since that October hammering.

United have attempted 390 shots since that defeat, fewer only than Man City (424). Of those shots, 163 have been on target, just one down on the league leaders. As for Spurs, they have attempted 268 shots in their most recent 26 games – that's the sixth-lowest figure in the league, and three behind Steve Bruce's much-maligned Newcastle United.

It follows that their chances created (186) is also the sixth-lowest number in the division in that time, and 124 behind United, who are again second only to Man City in this category.

The best Mourinho teams have been famously intransigent when it comes to giving up chances to their opponents, but again, Spurs do not fall into such a category. Since beating United, Spurs have faced 337 shots, more than 11 other clubs including north London rivals Arsenal (298), struggling Fulham (297) and Southampton (285). They have conceded 27 goals in that time; only West Ham (33) have let in more among sides currently in the top seven in the table.

In the same time period, United have faced 284 shots – that may only be the sixth-best in the league, but it's a major improvement on Spurs' tally – with only 22 finding a way in.

United are not the finished article, of course, and Spurs could yet end this troubled season with a top-four finish and an EFL Cup. Still, Solskjaer is making much stronger progress than Mourinho – something that seemed implausible six months ago.

At the onset of the season, the Atlanta Hawks were a trendy pick to be a team that could fight their way into the playoffs and be tough to eliminate in a postseason series. 

Sure, they finished mere percentage points ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season, but with the returning core of All-Star Trae Young, John Collins and De'Andre Hunter, plus the offseason additions of Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo, there was plenty of reason to believe the Hawks could capture their first playoff berth since 2017 in a top-heavy yet mostly mediocre Eastern Conference.

Injuries to Hunter, Gallinari and Bogdanovic, however, stunted Atlanta's growth, and the team sputtered over the season's first two months. And with another blown fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Southeast Division rivals the Miami Heat on February 28, the Hawks' record dropped to 14-20 as they slid into 11th place in the East, prompting team president Travis Schlenk to fire coach Lloyd Pierce less than halfway into his third season at the helm.

Schlenk believed the season could be salvaged and needed a new voice, promoting assistant Nate McMillan to interim coach.

The Hawks have responded.

They've since compiled a 13-5 record – behind only the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers among East clubs – to move into a virtual tie for the Southeast lead with the Charlotte Hornets, and into fifth place in the conference. They have also navigated around a recent injury to Collins, going 4-1 since he sprained his left ankle.

There are several reasons for Atlanta's surge, but it's no coincidence the turnaround under McMillan has coincided with the return of Bogdanovic.

Lured away from the Sacramento Kings on a four-year, $72million deal, Bogdanovic looked like a bust early, averaging 9.9 points on 38.5 per cent shooting and 36.2 per cent on three-point attempts in his first nine games, before missing the next 25 through the end of February with a sprained knee.

After working out the rust over a few games upon returning, Bogdanovic has found his shot and is thriving.

Since March 24, his 66.4 eFG (effective field goal) percentage ranks third in the NBA among the 99 players with a minimum of 75 attempts, while his 53.3 per cent shooting from beyond the arc ranks fifth among the 92 shooters with at least 35 three-point tries.

He was inserted into the starting lineup on March 26, and with Bogdanovic and Young together on the court, the Hawks have been lethal, averaging 117.1 points per 100 possessions, 49.4 per cent shooting and 45.7 per cent on three-pointers. Without them, they are averaging 102.7 points per 100 possessions, 41.7 per cent on field goals and 33.3 per cent on threes.

Bogdanovic has been especially deadly from the wing since McMillan tabbed him as a starter. Since March 26, his 21 three-pointers from the wing is just one fewer than Miami's Duncan Robinson for the league lead, while his 46.7 per cent shooting from the wing ranks fourth among the 47 players with a minimum of 25 attempts.

Young's scoring has dropped since Bogdanovic cracked the starting five (20.9 ppg since March 26 after previously averaging 25.8 ppg), but he's been distributing the ball to his teammates a little more (10.4 assists per game since March 26 after previously averaging 9.4 apg).

Since March 26, Young has assisted on 20 made baskets by Bogdanovic – the most by a guard to a single teammate – and 16 by Capela.

The Young-to-Capela show is nothing new, however, as Young has fed Capela on 99 made baskets on the season – fourth-most by any player to a teammate. Atop that list is Young’s 121 assists to Collins, and the Hawks are hopeful the two can add to this number as early as next week with Collins back practising.

Capela has had more opportunities inside with Collins sidelined, but really, he's been a beast in the paint all season.

The league's top offensive rebounder at 4.8 per game, Capela is third in the NBA in second-chance scoring at 4.6 points per game (minimum 20 games played).

His production in the interior has also increased with Bogdanovic starting, as he has been averaging 6.7 dunks and layups per game since March 26 – second in the league behind Zion Williamson's average of 10.6 per game. Prior to March 26, Capela averaged 5.5 dunks and layups per game.

Like Bogdanovic, Gallinari also got off to a sluggish start to the season and also dealt with an ailment, missing 12 games with multiple foot injuries. But also, similarly to Bogdanovic, he's found his stroke.

After averaging 11.2 points on 38.6 per cent shooting from the floor and 37.8 per cent from beyond the arc in his first 23 games, Gallinari is averaging 16.3 points on 47.6 per cent shooting – including 43.5 per cent on threes in his last 15. He's been one of the league's best at connecting on three-pointers from the wing since March 1, draining 47.1 per cent – the fourth-highest rate in the league among the 77 players with 50 or more attempts.

Gallinari hasn't been the only contributor off the bench for the Hawks over the last week.

At the trade deadline, the Hawks shipped Rondo to the Los Angeles Clippers for 16-year veteran Lou Williams to provide another scorer off the bench. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year Award winner is averaging 13.2 points and 3.4 assists in four games, rejuvenating the reserves since making his Hawks debut on April 1.

With Williams on board, Atlanta's bench ranks fifth in scoring (43.6 ppg), ninth in shooting (46.8 per cent) and second in three-point shooting (53.8 per cent) since the start of April. Prior to April, the bench ranked 27th in scoring (31.7 ppg), 30th in shooting (40.3 per cent) and 16th in three-point shooting (35.9 per cent).

While the Hawks have become healthier – despite the recent injury to Collins – and are getting more production from their bench, they are also showing a proficiency at closing out games. Instead of wilting late, they are now flourishing.

The loss to the Heat on February 28 marked the 11th setback of the season for Atlanta in a game in which they led in the fourth quarter, and only league-worst Minnesota had more through the end of February with 12. Since the beginning of March, however, the Hawks are 13-2 when holding a fourth-quarter lead, and only the Denver Nuggets (15), Brooklyn Nets (14) and Phoenix Suns (14) have more such victories.

The Hawks' recent fourth-quarter figures are startling. Their PPG average has been 27.7 since March 1 after being 27.1 previously, representing a small improvement. Yet in that same period their opponents have averaged just 24.3 fourth-quarter points compared to 29.0 in the first 34 games of the season, Atlanta's three-point percentage has switched from 34.8 per cent before March to 41.9 per cent during the games since, and their PPG differential has switched up from being minus 1.9 prior to the upturn to plus 3.4 in their subsequent outings.

That means in terms of fourth-quarter progression they have gone from being 15th in PPG in games before March to eighth since, from 29th to second in opposition PPG, from 19th to second in three-point percentage, and from 29th to first place in PPG/difference.

Atlanta have played their way into a playoff position, and now the trick is staying there. One advantage the Hawks have going for them, though, is they have a relatively easy path the rest of the way.

Through the end of February when the team fired Pierce, Atlanta had the eighth-toughest strength of schedule (.512 opponents' winning percentage). The Hawks then made their push since the beginning of March with a schedule that was the eighth easiest (.478), and now they have the sixth-easiest schedule through the rest of the season (.480).

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