Every league seems to have those teams that just produce talent on an apparently non-stop basis, before those players inevitably get picked off by the bigger boys.

In Germany, you can't move for former Schalke or Stuttgart players. There's Lyon and Monaco in France, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia in Spain, Southampton and Aston Villa in England.

In Italy, that team is probably Fiorentina, who appear to be in the same position once again as La Viola are reportedly on the verge of selling star striker Dusan Vlahovic to Juventus for a deal believed to be in the region of €75million.

Stats Perform takes a look at some of the biggest names in Italian football who made a name for themselves with the team from Tuscany, and what they went on to achieve in the game.

 

Roberto Baggio

Having begun his career at Vicenza, The Divine Ponytail's move to Fiorentina saw his star rise as he spent five impressive years in the purple shirt.

However, after he helped Fiorentina to the 1990 UEFA Cup final, only to be defeated over two ill-tempered legs by their great rivals Juventus, salt was very much rubbed into the fans' wounds as the Bianconeri paid a then world-record fee to take Baggio.

Reports claimed that fans hurled bricks, chains and Molotov cocktails at Fiorentina's headquarters, and for the two days after the transfer was announced, club president Flavio Pontello took shelter in the stadium, with 50 injuries and nine arrests recorded.

Baggio would only improve his reputation further at Juve, winning the UEFA Cup in 1993, before securing a league and cup double two years later, scoring 115 goals in 200 games across five seasons before moving to Milan, where he won another Scudetto in his first year.

After being dismissed by Fabio Capello at San Siro in 1997, Baggio had an impressive season at Bologna where he scored a personal best 22 league goals, before moving back to the city of Milan with Inter.

Things did not work out at the Nerazzurri but he still went on to enjoy four final seasons in Serie A with Brescia, where he reached double figures in each campaign before retiring in 2004.

Gabriel Batistuta

There is arguably no more iconic player in Fiorentina history. A striker who football fans of a certain vintage remember banging in goals on Sunday afternoons during the nineties.

Unlike most of the players on this list, Batistuta actually spent the majority of his career at Fiorentina, staying for nine years before his big-money move to Roma.

The man affectionately known as 'Batigol' remains the club's record goalscorer with 159 goals in 198 games, though it does help his record that people like Vlahovic are usually sold before they can get anywhere near that total.

Though he had won a Coppa Italia, Batistuta wanted a Scudetto and moved to Roma in 2000 in order to get it. It was the highest fee ever paid for a player over the age of 30, a record which stood until Leonardo Bonucci moved to Milan from Juventus in 2017.

It seemed like a justified move when Batistuta scored 20 goals, including netting against his former club, on the way to winning the title in his first season in the Italian capital, but was unable to reach those heights again, scoring just 11 over the following season and a half before a loan move to Inter.

Rui Costa

The Portuguese maestro had made a name for himself at Benfica before moving to Italy in 1994 and making 230 appearances in seven years with La Viola, winning two Coppa Italia titles.

However, like Batistuta, Rui Costa was moved on for big money to try and help the club's finances, ending up at Milan for a then club-record fee of around £35m.

Rui Costa spent five years at San Siro where he won six trophies, including the Champions League in 2003 and Scudetto a year later. He moved back to Benfica in 2006 after the emergence of Kaka saw his minutes reduced.

Federico Bernardeschi

Bernardeschi came through the youth ranks at Fiorentina, with big things expected of him as he burst onto the scene after an impressive loan at Crotone in Serie B in the 2013-14 season.

During three years in the first team, Bernardeschi scored 23 goals in 93 games and registered 11 assists, which unfortunately for Viola fans saw old enemies Juve come swooping in again.

He has claimed three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italia trophies in Turin, as well as being a part of the Italy squad that won the rescheduled Euro 2020 last year.

Bernardeschi, who has scored just 11 times in 170 games for Juve, largely remains a squad player under Massimiliano Allegri, in part because of this next man...

Federico Chiesa

Another Fiorentina youth product, Chiesa had all eyes on him as soon as he broke through due to being the son of former Viola and Italy striker Enrico Chiesa.

Chiesa Jr made his first-team debut, somewhat ironically, against Juve at the age of 18, and over the next couple of years began to establish himself as the potential future of the club.

More suited to playing out wide than his father, who was a traditional central striker, Chiesa's managed 34 goals and 19 assists in 153 games at Fiorentina but it his tenacity, pace and skill that sets him apart.

That was enough to tempt – yes, you guessed it – Juve to come along and take him on a two-year loan, with an obligation to make it permanent at the end of the current campaign.

Chiesa had an impressive first season at Juve, including scoring the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta, before starring for Italy in their successful Euro 2020 campaign, scoring twice in seven appearances and making the team of the tournament.

He started 2021-22 in sharp form, only for a serious knee injury to end his season early.

 

There also must be honourable mentions for the likes of Luca Toni, whose emergence at Fiorentina earned him a lucrative move to Bayern Munich, and Francesco Toldo - he was sold to Inter at the same time that Costa was packed off to Milan to ease club debts.

Juan Cuadrado (now at Juventus) and Marcos Alonso were both sold to Chelsea for decent money two years apart, while Felipe Melo (Juventus), Stevan Jovetic (Manchester City) and Matias Vecino (Inter) continued Fiorentina's philosophy of buying low and selling high.

The path well-trodden out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi has often led to bigger and better things, and that bodes well for Vlahovic now that it appears he will be the next in line.

He seems to have all the tools to be the star striker this current, rather dour, edition of the Bianconeri require. Indeed, Vlahovic's 33 goals in Serie A last season matched the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo at Juve in 2020.

It might be tough to take (again) for Viola fans, but if history is anything to go by, their next hero won't be far away.

Of course, he'll probably also sign for Juve eventually, but that will just be a case of crossing the Ponte Vecchio when they come to it.

Chelsea once again downed Tottenham at Stamford Bridge in the headline clash of the weekend's Premier League fixtures.

Fellow title hopefuls Liverpool, who still have a game in hand, closed the gap on leaders Manchester City to nine points with victory over Crystal Palace in south London.

Staying in the capital, Arsenal were held to a goalless draw by lowly Burnley as they lost ground in the race for the top four, while Leicester City shared the points with Brighton and Hove Albion.

With the action all over for a couple of weeks, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the data from Sunday's fixtures.

Crystal Palace 1-3 Liverpool: Reds down Eagles again as Robertson delivers

Liverpool reduced Manchester City's advantage at the top to nine points after a 3-1 victory over Palace, who have lost each of their last 10 league meetings with the Reds.

Virgil van Dijk placed Jurgen Klopp's side in control after just eight minutes at Selhurst Park with his 10th headed goal in the competition – only Sami Hyypia (17) has scored more headers for the Reds in the Premier League.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain added a second after the half-hour mark as he scored in back-to-back top-flight matches for the first time since February 2020.

Both of those goals were created by Andrew Robertson, who now sits joint-second with team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold (both 43) for the most assists in the league since the start of the 2017-18 season, with only Kevin De Bruyne boasting more (52).

Odsonne Edouard halved the deficit in the second half, but Fabinho secured three points with Liverpool's 169th Premier League spot-kick – the joint-most awarded to a team in the competition's history along with Manchester United.

Arsenal 0-0 Burnley: Gunners fail to fire against Clarets

Arsenal have failed to win any of their opening five games of a calendar year for the first time since 1995 after being held to a 0-0 draw by Burnley.

Nick Pope was in excellent form, while Alexandre Lacazette spurned a glorious open-goal opportunity, as the Clarets conceded 20 shots – the most they have faced in the Premier League without conceding since May 2021 (21 versus Fulham).

Lacazette's profligacy meant the Gunners have failed to score in four consecutive matches across all competitions for the first time since December 2005.

Arsenal will be desperate to improve upon their torrid run of form to challenge for the top four, with this stalemate being the first time the Gunners have failed to beat the team starting the day bottom of the table at home for the first time since October 2008.

Leicester City 1-1 Brighton and Hove Albion: Foxes tamed by away specialists

Leicester remained unbeaten at home to Brighton in the Premier League, though Brendan Rodgers may feel they should have claimed victory after a 1-1 draw.

Patson Daka broke the deadlock as he became just the second Foxes player to score in each of his first three home starts in the competition, after Leonardo Ulloa in the 2014-15 season.

The Zambia striker found the net just 26 seconds after the interval, the quickest goal scored in the second half of a top-flight game since February 2020.

However, Danny Welbeck levelled things up as he scored his fourth goal against Leicester in the Premier League, only bettering that haul in games with Aston Villa (five).

Neither side could find a late winner, ensuring the Foxes remain unbeaten at home to the Seagulls in the top flight since December 1980, while Graham Potter's side have only lost one of their last 11 away leagues games – a joint-low with Manchester City.

Chelsea 2-0 Tottenham: Blues make London derby history  

Chelsea registered their fourth win in all competitions this season – and third in January alone – over London rivals Tottenham with a 2-0 triumph at Stamford Bridge.

Harry Kane thought he had struck first before the break but a slight push on Thiago Silva saw his finish ruled out before Hakim Ziyech expertly curled in his fifth league goal for Chelsea – all five of those having come at different venues.

Silva added a second soon after as he became the oldest player (37 years, 123 days) to score in the Premier League since February 2013 to condemn Antonio Conte to his first top-flight defeat as Spurs head coach.

The defender's header was set up by a free-kick from Mason Mount, who provided his 20th assist since the start of the 2019-20 campaign – the most by any Chelsea player across all competitions in that period.

Spurs were unable to breach the Blues' goal, meaning they have now gone six matches across all competitions since last scoring against Chelsea, who became the first side to collect 500 points in Premier League London derby matches (501 points from 272 derbies).

A big week now approaches for Tottenham – while no manager will ever admit to being happy about losing, Spurs' 2-0 defeat to Chelsea on Sunday may actually do Antonio Conte a favour.

The Italian has hinted at his desire to bring in reinforcements this month. Until this point, Spurs have not given into his apparent demands, but another loss to Chelsea might force their hand.

The last week of the transfer window is about to begin and there is every reason to think it could define Spurs' season given the clues on show at Stamford Bridge.

This contest arguably lacked the usual lustre in the build-up given how recently they tussled in the EFL Cup, a two-legged semi-final that left the two clubs looking worlds apart.

Even Conte himself was damning in his appraisal of their respective outlooks, suggesting there was no comparison between his side and the team that won the Champions League last season.

Chelsea won their EFL Cup tie 3-0 on aggregate, thus Conte knew changes were going to be required here.

He returned to his former club with a plan, but perhaps few expected him to go – for want of a better phrase – 'full Mourinho'.

The 'Special One' built much of his reputation on being tough to beat, and Conte certainly made several decisions that were Jose Mourinho-esque, not least the fact he deployed full-backs in front of full-backs on the flank as the Italian seemingly set his side up to be functional rather than entertaining.

That's not to say Chelsea didn't find some joy. Mason Mount proved a nuisance with his movement in the half spaces in attack, with Spurs struggling to pick him up as he seemed to fall outside of the jurisdiction of everyone in defence and midfield.

That was evident as early as the first minute as his cross found Romelu Lukaku, who volleyed over – later, they combined in exactly the same way but the Belgium striker completely missed his kick.

Eventually Spurs reacted to Mount's presence with another Mourinhoism, as Pierre-Emil Hojbjerg slotted in to plug the gap in that area, something Mourinho's central midfielders often used to do in his classic Chelsea sides that went with two banks of four.

With Harry Kane accompanied by Steven Bergwijn in the Lucas Moura role up top, Spurs' grand plan was pretty clear as they hoped to be able to capitalise on any rare forays forward – it looked as though they had as well, with the Dutchman picking out the England captain to net just before half-time, only for the goal to be wiped out for a slight push on Thiago Silva.

But there was seemingly an ulterior motive surrounding Conte's selection and tactics as well, as he appeared to be sending message to sporting director Fabio Paratici.

Three viable and available central attacking players were completely left out, with Dele Alli, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso all missing – the latter even confirmed on social media that he was fit.

Harvey White, still awaiting his Premier League debut, and Dane Scarlett, a 17-year-old, were selected ahead of them on the bench, with Conte's decisions here a not-so-subtle evaluation of the attacking midfielders available to him.

The fact is, this came just two days after Conte said he hoped "the club will listen to me" regarding their transfer dealings before the end of the month – he didn't reveal what he had put across to his employers, though these exclusions were surely a hint at the very least.

Given the options otherwise available to him – as in the players he trusts in midfield – Conte perhaps didn't actually have much of a choice to deploy this set-up.

But can Spurs realistically hope to qualify for the Champions League with their only trusted central midfielders being Hojbjerg, Harry Winks and Oliver Skipp? You would think not, and certainly not on the evidence of this match, with Spurs barely laying a glove on Chelsea bar the disallowed Kane goal as the hosts were allowed to control the midfield.

Of course, it's worth saying Spurs were also a little unfortunate. Whichever way you look at it, the disallowing of Kane's goal was harsh, and Hakim Ziyech's gorgeous opener was a moment of magic. 

Silva's second was controversial as well because the foul that was awarded from which Mount set up the Brazilian appeared to be questionable.

Yet even if they had still been within touching distance of Chelsea heading into the latter stages, a quick glance at the benches showed an incredible gulf in talent available to the managers.

There's a lot of work to be done with Spurs' squad and the next week could make or break their season.

Despite claiming the number one seed in the AFC, there has not been much hype around the Tennessee Titans ahead of the start of their playoff campaign.

After they each exploded for five-touchdown performances in the Wild Card Round, most of the attention on the AFC side of the postseason has focused on the rematch between Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Kansas City Chiefs counterpart Patrick Mahomes.

Yet there is a 6ft 3in, 247-pound reason to pay attention to the Titans as they face Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round.

Running back Derrick Henry's season appeared to be over when he suffered a Jones fracture in his foot in the Titans' Week 8 clash with the Indianapolis Colts.

But he was activated from injured reserve this week and is in line to make his return for the visit of the Bengals as the Titans look to reach the AFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.

A two-time rushing champion, on the surface Henry's value to the Tennessee offense is obvious as an explosive powerhouse back who when healthy this season was threatening Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing yards record.

However, with the Titans continuing to excel on the ground even after Henry's injury, it is fair to ask: how much does his return actually matter?

A slight drop-off

If you looked solely at the raw numbers, it would be easy to answer that question in the affirmative.

Between Weeks 1 and 8, when Henry was on the field, the Titans were fourth in the NFL with 147.6 rushing yards per game.

After he went down injured, that average dropped to 135.9 yards per game, though that was still good enough to put them sixth in the league.

In other words, Henry was worth nearly 12 extra rushing yards - or one explosive run - a game to the Titans.

But in the grand scheme of things, that is a negligible difference and the counting statistics point to Tennessee still possessing an elite rushing attack even without Henry.

And a more granular look at the performance of Henry and the two backs that assumed the bulk of the workload in his absence, D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard, also suggests there was not much of a drop-off when he left the lineup.

Henry low on power?

Henry's fearsome reputation as the most overpowering running back in the NFL is one earned off the back of a string of highlight-reel runs comprising brute force and remarkable open-field speed for a man of his size.

More than simply bouncing off defenders, Henry is a back who can run them over at will.

That makes his numbers in terms of after-contact yardage this season extremely surprising.

Henry averaged 1.87 yards after contact per attempt in the regular season, below the league average of 1.95, with Foreman (1.92) outperforming him.

His average of 3.05 yards per rush attempt on carries where then was a run disruption by a defender was on the right side of the ledger. The league average in the regular season was 2.88 yards per carry.

Yet his efforts in that regard were inferior to those of both Foreman and Hilliard. Foreman averaged 3.40 yards per attempt when faced with a run disruption and Hilliard went beyond that with 4.03 yards per carry in those situations.

Their efficiency in that area is in part down to a smaller sample size, Henry carried the ball 219 times this season compared to 133 rush attempts for Foreman and 56 for Hilliard.

Still, Foreman and Hilliard got enough run in his absence to indicate that they were actually superior to Henry when it came to turning potential negative plays into gains for Tennessee.

In fact, Henry's most substantial contribution may not be what he does with the ball in his hands, but the influence the threat of him carrying it has on opposing defenses.

A play-action asset

He might not have been overly effective in gaining yards after contact in the regular season, however, it is obvious defenses still very much respect his ability to do so.

Indeed, Henry was consistently faced by defenses who committed an extra man to the box. Among running backs with at least 100 carries, Henry was fifth in the NFL in percentage of snaps where the opponent had one more man in the defensive box than the offense had in its box.

Per Stats Perform data, Henry encountered a 'bad box' on 58 per cent of his snaps compared to 48.2 per cent for Foreman. Additionally, on bad box plays where Henry was on the field, the Titans gained 6.05 yards per play but only 5.09 yards when he was off the field in those situations.

And the Titans excelled at using their opponents' aggressiveness in committing to stopping Henry against them.

The Titans sold the run to throw a pass on play-action or a quarterback bootleg on 25 per cent of their passing plays in the regular season, the second-highest rate in the NFL and well above the league average of 19 per cent.

Without Henry, they averaged 7.06 yards per play on play-action and bootleg passes, below the league average of 8.1. With Henry on the field, that figure ballooned to a remarkable 9.94 yards per play.

Henry's impact as a runner may be somewhat overstated, but his influence on the Titans' offense is not.

As a player whose reputation precedes him, Henry's mere presence forces defenses to commit more men to the box and helps set up play-action passes on which the Titans averaged almost enough yardage for a first down on every such play when he was healthy in 2021.

It remains to be seen how effective Henry can be after his lengthy spell on the sidelines, yet the numbers leave no doubt his return does matter. However, he is less important to what has been a consistent rushing attack than he is to a passing game that may need to go blow for blow with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to avoid a swift playoff exit.

January has so far been a quiet month for Milan – not that the Rossoneri will necessarily complain.

While technical director Paolo Maldini has failed to this point in his pursuit of a new centre-back – Lille's Sven Botman was a target – he has crucially kept together a Milan team who are again contending for the Serie A title.

The side's progress under Stefano Pioli has prompted links between a number of their players and super-rich suitors, with each possible departure having the potential to derail Milan's season.

Indeed, Theo Hernandez's future could so easily have been the subject of a mid-season soap opera, such is the demand for superstar full-backs in the modern game. 

Hernandez certainly falls into that bracket. Just three defenders in Europe's top five leagues – Trent Alexander-Arnold (38), Achraf Hakimi (36) and Robin Gosens (35) – have registered more goal involvements than Hernandez's 30 (tied with Raphael Guerreiro) since he joined Milan in 2019. In 2021-22, the France international's nine (matched by Reece James) are topped only by Alexander-Arnold (12) and Jonathan Clauss (11).

 

Murmurs of a Chelsea bid were inevitable this month with Ben Chilwell out for the season, while Manchester City – playing right-back Joao Cancelo at left-back – and Paris Saint-Germain – never afraid to splash out at any position – have been credited with an interest in the past.

Instead, Hernandez looks to be staying at San Siro.

Hernandez happy at San Siro

Hernandez, whose existing contract expires in 2024, is widely expected to agree an extension, snubbing the prospect of a big move. Of course, the player, who came through Atletico Madrid's academy, has already had one such transfer.

Having impressed on loan at Alaves, Hernandez headed to Real Madrid in 2017 for an unsuccessful stay at the Santiago Bernabeu. In a single season in the Madrid first team, the defender was restricted to 13 league appearances (10 starts) and failed to contribute either a goal or an assist, creating a meagre eight chances.

A return to some sort of form with Real Sociedad was followed by a permanent switch to Milan and at last certainty and a clearly specified role, leading the attack from left-back.

Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (42), Ante Rebic (32) and Hakan Calhanoglu (31) have since registered more Milan goal involvements in Serie A; Calhanoglu (168), now at Inter, alone has created more chances (107).

"At Real Madrid, I lacked the confidence to play more loose and drive forward," Hernandez told The Athletic this week. "But at Milan, I've got it.

"I can link up better with the strikers and forwards. What is it that I like? Attacking and going up the pitch. I play with more freedom to score goals and assist more."

Perfect fit for Pioli's side

While these attacking contributions are no doubt what has caught the attention of Chelsea and Co., Hernandez is unlikely to enjoy that same freedom in another side.

At Milan, the 24-year-old's initial task is often simply to get the team up the pitch and into the final third – something he does exceptionally well; no team-mate since 2019 has carried the ball further (231.7 metres) or progressed further up the field (161.7m) per 90. With the license then to orchestrate the play as he sees fit, Hernandez does not always hug the touchline like other players in his position, preferring instead to come inside and use his close control to beat defenders, taking on opponents with 9.7 per cent of his carries.

 

In the final third, as Alexander-Arnold – perhaps far more akin to what was traditionally expected of an attacking full-back – delivers 5.9 open-play crosses per 90, Hernandez opts for this route just 2.3 times over the same period. In fact, the Milan man takes shots himself (1.5 per 90) more often than he creates chances for others (1.3).

Hernandez has similarities with Gosens (1.9 shots, 1.2 chances created per 90) in this sense, with both posting higher figures for expected goals (Hernandez – 0.17, Gosens – 0.25) than for expected assists (Hernandez – 0.15, Gosens – 0.12). However, unlike Gosens, very much a wing-back at Atalanta, Hernandez is typically playing in a back four.

The signing of a strong left-sided centre-back like Botman – or Diego Carlos of Sevilla, another mooted option – would therefore appear to represent a commitment to Hernandez and his carefree approach.

Hernandez's nine errors leading to shots in the past three seasons have resulted in three goals, as many as from errors by Alexander-Arnold (two), Guerreiro (one), Gosens, Hakimi and Clauss (all zero) combined. Such mistakes would surely be less costly with a reliable colleague providing back-up, allowing the full-back to continue attacking effectively.

The leader from left-back

Although "a complete defender" in the middle – as Pioli describes the blueprint for Milan's ideal signing – would help, Hernandez is determined to play his part in defensive improvement.

"A full-back firstly has to defend and then has to attack," he told The Athletic. "That is what I'm improving on, little by little. I'm young still, I have many years of football left, and I'm improving on that defensive phase that I was missing."

The need for improvement was evident in September's reverse fixture against Juventus, Sunday's visitors, when Hernandez's slack early header in the attacking half allowed the Bianconeri to break and, with the defender unable to recover, score through Alvaro Morata.

Hernandez could still have teed up a winner at the end of that 1-1 draw when a drive through the middle of the pitch found him in position to slide in Pierre Kalulu for a chance the 21-year-old would like to have back.

Indeed, Hernandez is far from the youngest, rawest talent in the Milan squad and has increasingly established himself as a leader since the game in Turin, wearing the captain's armband in the team's most recent league win at Venezia and marking the occasion with two goals.

How he and Milan, stunned by Spezia in midweek, when Hernandez missed a penalty, would love to be celebrating again this weekend. With a contract extension on the horizon, Rossoneri fans soon will be regardless.

Professional sports are usually cyclical with teams rising and falling at one point or another. Some franchises, however, seem to be stuck in a never-ending loop of nothingness.

That is where the Sacramento Kings have resided for far too long. 

The Kings own the NBA's longest active playoff drought at 15 seasons with the next closest team (Charlotte Hornets) at just five years. At 18-29 and 11th in the Western Conference, it doesn't appear likely that Sacramento will end that run of futility this year with the 16-season drought becoming the longest in NBA history. The Clippers went 15 seasons without a playoff appearance from 1977-1992.

Those Clippers at least had a winning season during their dearth of postseason basketball, going 43-39 in 1978-79. The Kings' best record in their sad stretch was 39-43 in 2018-19. Sacramento's last winning season came in 2005-06 (44-38), at the end of a streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances that included the league's best record in 2001-02 (61-21). 

That success must seem like a century ago to the Kings' beaten-down fanbase.

The Kings have been something of a vagabond franchise throughout their history, starting as the Rochester Royals in 1948 and winning their only championship two seasons later. 

The team moved to Cincinnati in 1957-58 and then was shifted to Kansas City-Omaha in 1972, when they were renamed the Kings. Finally, they became the fourth NBA team in the state of California with the move to Sacramento in 1985. 

Over the last five seasons, including the current one, the Kings rank 24th in winning percentage (.411). Trailing them are Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Orlando, all teams that have experienced the playoffs in that span except for the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls who are headed there this season. 

That Sacramento have only been moderately awful lately is one of the franchise's biggest problems. While other teams have bottomed out and rebuilt (Cavaliers, Hawks and Bulls), the Kings have wallowed near the bottom without much of a plan to lead them back to their long-forgotten glory days.

There is a myriad of reasons why the Kings have been unable to reach the playoffs since George Walker Bush was in the White House, but chief among them is an 11-man coaching carousel.

David Joerger (2016-17-2018-19) coached the most games in that span (246) and had the most wins (98), recently fired Luke Walton had the best winning percentage (.422) and Kenny Natt had the worst (.190).

Walton was fired on November 21, 2021, after a 6-11 start and a 68-93 record, and replaced on an interim basis by Alvin Gentry. That move hasn't provided much of a spark with Sacramento going 12-18 under Gentry.

While coaching, of course, plays a major role in any team's fortunes, players are truly what defines a franchise. Because impact free agents aren't flocking to Sacramento the way they do to Los Angeles or Miami, the Kings must hit on their draft picks, and they simply have had too many misses. 

It can be unfair to look at a specific team's drafts and pick apart what they should or shouldn't have done in hindsight, but in Sacramento's case, the misses have contributed to a lack of stars and therefore success.

The most egregious mistake came in 2018, when the Kings picked Marvin Bagley III second right before Dallas selected Luka Doncic and three picks before Trae Young went to Atlanta. While Bagley is a decent player, he's never averaged more than 14.9 points and is down to 9.4 this season as a part-time starter.

Doncic, meanwhile, was a star right from the jump and has ascended into one of the greatest players of his generation, while Young's career has followed a similar path. 

 

Other big blunders were taking Thomas Robinson fifth overall in 2012, one spot ahead of Damian Lillard, choosing Nick Stauskas eighth in 2014 instead of Zach LaVine, who went 14th to Minnesota, and picking Willie Cauley-Stein sixth the following year while Devin Booker lasted until pick number 13. 

Scoring points hasn't been a big problem for the Kings over the years, ranking 10th in points per game (103.5) since 2006-07. The opposite end of the court is where they have failed. During that span, Sacramento is last in defensive scoring (107.6), 29th in opponent field-goal percentage (47.0) and 29th in opponent three-point percentage (36.5).

Even more so than the defensive failures, the Kings have lacked an identity for what seems like forever. It's impossible to say what exactly is Kings basketball and what is it supposed to look like. The lack of star power, draft misses and a never-ending run of coaches has largely been responsible for that.

The franchise's best player over the past decade and a half was DeMarcus Cousins, selected fifth overall in 2010. Cousins wasn't only the Kings' best player for several years but was among the league's elite for a while, particularly from 2014-17 before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in July 2017.

From 2014-2017, over a 196-game span, Cousins ranked fifth in the NBA in both scoring (26.1) and rebounding (11.7) while also adding 3.9 assists and 1.47 blocks with five triple-doubles. He was named to the All-NBA Second Team in consecutive seasons (2014-15, 2015-16) and was an All-Star in three straight years. 

Cousins, though, had several incidents with the Kings, including being suspended from the team for unprofessional behaviour and conduct detrimental to the team in 2012. By 2017, the relationship had run its course and he was traded to the Pelicans for three players and two draft picks. Buddy Hield remains from that deal and the 2017 first-round pick turned into Zach Collins, who was dealt to Portland. 

The best player on the current Kings is De'Aaron Fox, who is in his fifth season with the team after he was drafted five picks before Collins. 

Fox had a breakout campaign in 2020-21 with 25.2 points and 7.2 assists but has dropped off to 21.0 points and 5.2 assists this season while his three-point percentage is down to a career-worst 24.8.

Fox has a world of talent but has been plagued by inconsistency, and his disappointing play surely played a role in Walton's firing. The idea of trading him for a package of picks and players can't be completely dismissed anymore.

Trading Fox would signal that the Kings are ready to do a complete rebuild, and if that was the case, why not also deal Bagley, Harrison Barnes and others?

Second-year point guard Tyrese Haliburton has a very bright future and rookie guard Davion Mitchell has elite defensive skills, but neither is ready to lead a team without ample veteran help. Hield is a terrific shooter but doesn’t offer a whole lot more so likely has more value on a contending team. 

The Kings are at a crossroads right now because they aren't competing for championships anytime soon and even making the playoffs soon seems unlikely. It could be time for a total rebuild similar to what Detroit and Houston are doing now, but that could be a hard sell for a fanbase that hasn't seen a playoff game in forever. 

With the franchise teetering on the edge of basketball irrelevance, the worst thing the Kings could do now is nothing. Continuing down the same path would be foolish, and general manager Monte McNair, who has only held the position since September 2020, needs to go in a discernible direction to end the perennial losing.

Two teams in the NBA are on league-leading four-game winning streaks heading into Thursday's schedule. The pair face one another at American Airlines Center.

The Phoenix Suns have pulled clear of the Golden State Warriors at the top of the West, their league-best record improving to 34-9 while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Co are .500 across their past 10 games.

But this latest Suns run has been matched by the Dallas Mavericks, who are again recovering from a slow start.

The Mavs have won 10 of their past 11 outings after a 16-18 start. In 2020-21, Dallas recovered from an early 8-13 record to take the fifth seed – the same position they again occupy.

Dallas' problems prior to these recoveries have undoubtedly been linked to Luka Doncic, their sensational superstar who has tended to end seasons in more impressive fashion than he begins them.

Doncic has been the preseason MVP favourite in consecutive years but each time showed up looking a little out of shape.

The Slovenian is not denying that, saying in December: "I had a long summer. I had the Olympics, took three weeks off and I relaxed a little bit. Maybe too much. I've just got to get back on track."

But there are signs now that Doncic is delivering as promised. Having returned from an ankle injury to feature in nine of the Mavs' past 10 games, he had a year-high 41 points last time out against the Toronto Raptors. Three of his five triple-doubles for the year have come in this period, too.

Will this improvement continue against Phoenix, though?

The Suns are 5-0 against Dallas across the past two seasons, albeit all five meetings (three last year, two this year) have come during those tricky starts for the Mavs.

Since themselves returning to contention, Phoenix have not yet played a Mavs team in their groove.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Dallas Mavericks – Kristaps Porzingis

The Suns have a wealth of talent, while Dallas too often have only had Doncic. The need for a second man to step up and help the two-time All-NBA First Team selection is evident. Porzingis is the obvious candidate.

While the Mavs struggled while Doncic was out, Porzingis has shown that he can play the role of leading man when required.

His usage rate of 28.6 per cent this year is the highest it has been since he moved to Dallas – explained by Doncic's lay-off – and the knock-on effect is an increased offensive output when the simple option of passing the ball to his team-mate is removed.

Porzingis has scored 22.8 points per game Doncic has missed this season, versus 18.6 when he has played. Even including those the pair have played together, Porzingis' offense improves from 29.8 points per 100 possessions with Doncic to 35.4 without.

Doncic's high usage (36.3 per cent, the highest in the NBA among those involved in 250 or more possessions) reduces Porzingis' role significantly at times, but Dallas need both to fire against a team like the Suns.

Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

Nominally a point guard, Doncic is more of a point forward, hogging most of the shots himself. In truth, there are few genuine point guards remaining in the NBA. Paul is one of them.

Even at 36, Paul has started all 43 games – ranking 21st in the league for minutes (1,383) – and leads the NBA in assists (429), well clear of second-placed James Harden (390). Not since 2015-16 has he averaged this rate of 10.0 assists per game.

Given the frequency with which Paul is creating shots for team-mates, his assist-to-turnover ratio is even more impressive, ranking second with 4.38 dimes per turnover.

With Curry and the Warriors slightly on the wane, Paul could soon be in serious consideration for the MVP award. A big performance in a big game such as this one would aid his cause.

KEY BATTLE – Doncic to deliver in Ayton's absence?

The Suns will be without center Deandre Ayton, the player they selected first overall in 2018 before Doncic went two picks later.

Ayton, who has an ankle injury, was a little slower than Doncic to truly establish himself but has never struggled against the Mavs, enjoying a 10-1 record in such matchups.

Doncic missed Phoenix's first two wins against Dallas this season and has only three victories in the 11 games he has played versus the Suns.

With Ayton's role in Phoenix's recent success starting to alter the narrative around the 2018 draft, in which Doncic was quickly considered the most talented young player, the Dallas man may see this as an opportunity to send a message.

HEAD TO HEAD

This had been a closely fought rivalry until the Suns' dominance in the Ayton-Doncic years. Now, Phoenix boast a 93-74 record against the Mavs and will hope to improve that further on the road.

Dallas are a more impressive 47-36 in home games against the Suns.

Nick Kyrgios is box office whenever he plays – and the Australian Open gets a first-week gift in the form of a second-round blockbuster against Daniil Medvedev.

Kyrgios still managed to bring John Cain Arena to life even during a relatively straightforward 6-4 6-4 6-3 win over Liam Broady on Tuesday.

The Australian, who has dropped to 115th in the rankings after not playing since last year's US Open, is arguably the must-watch player in the men's draw.

Anything can happen when Kyrgios is in action. For all the frustrations about a thus far unfulfilled talent, Kyrgios – a two-time grand slam quarter-finalist – is box office.

On Thursday he faces the highest ranked player in the men's draw, last year's US Open champion Medvedev, in what shapes as being a thrilling contest.

Kyrgios has won both of his previous meetings with the Russian second seed, who is among the favourites to win the title at Melbourne Park.

With Roger Federer absent and Novak Djokovic having been deported from Australia, tournament officials have been gifted a contest that belongs in the second week.

All eyes will be on Thursday's schedule, with Kyrgios seemingly likely to miss out on playing on his preferred court – John Cain Arena – in a match that undoubtedly belongs on Rod Laver Arena.

"I mean, obviously either way it's going to be a hell of an experience for me. He's probably the best player in the world at the moment. So I'm pretty excited, I'm excited for that moment. That's why I play the game," Kyrgios said after beating Broady.

"I feel like those matches still excite me, to go out there and play the best in the world. That was always something I wanted to prove to people that someone like me could do, win those matches. I'm not going to go into it with a lot of expectation. I'm going to go out there, have some fun, play my game. I have a pretty set-in-stone game plan of what I need to do to have success.

"As I said, he's probably the best player in the world, he does everything extremely well. He's a hard worker, ticks all the boxes. I'm not going to even think about that now. To play it on John Cain would be – I'm just going to call it the Kyrgios Court – would be fun."

Kyrgios and Medvedev played twice in 2019, the Australian winning two tie-breaks in their most recent meeting in the final in Washington in August of that year.

 

Medvedev was a top-10 player then, but it would be later in that year that the Russian would truly make an impact, edged by Rafael Nadal in the US Open final.

He went 20-3 at majors last year, winning the title at Flushing Meadows, reaching the final in Melbourne and the French Open quarter-finals.

When he met Kyrgios in Washington, Medvedev had won four ATP titles. He now has 13 to his name.

"Yeah, I just became a different player in terms of ranking and titles. It gives you experience. That's where you can try to win matches which you have lost before, opponents which you have lost before," Medvedev said following his opening-round win against Henri Laaksonen.

"I think there are still some guys on tour who I haven't beat. So can stay like this. I think our last match was so long ago and we are both so different and a different momentum of our careers that it's really tough to count it. As I say, win or lose, I don't think these two matches gonna count into this one, so yeah."

The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

False promises

From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

"You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

Falling outs

With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

Moshiri mayhem

Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

Newcastle United plugged one of the two gaping holes in their side in time for last Saturday's huge game against Watford.

Chris Wood made his debut as the club's only fit senior striker following his £25million move from relegation rivals Burnley.

However, at centre-back, Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar were again paired, prompting an all too predictable finale in which the former – Newcastle's captain – was beaten in the air for a dramatic Watford equaliser.

Newcastle have been pushing hard for defensive reinforcements to fit in alongside Kieran Trippier, but Lille insist Sven Botman will not be sold in January and a pursuit of Sevilla's Diego Carlos is also dragging on, while interest in Benoit Badiashile of Monaco – another mooted option – has been complicated by his injury.

Regardless, the Magpies' bottomless budget simply must deliver a centre-back in the coming days, for Eddie Howe's men – still with only a single win this season – risk being cut adrift, as the world's richest club or otherwise.

Fine margins foiling Magpies

Wood did not have an immediate impact, and Newcastle's attackers have struggled to aid their defensive colleagues this season, never once forging a two-goal lead in a game.

But when they have been able to net first, doing so in 10 different matches, including against Watford, that back line has failed miserably to protect their advantage.

Newcastle have dropped a league-leading 21 points from winning positions. With 18 matches to play, an unwanted club record of 31 (in 2004-05) is coming into view.

This dismal trend has resulted in nine draws through 20 games, their most at this stage of a season in the competition's history (beating eight in 20 in 2003-04).

Having lost fewer games (10) than 13th-placed Aston Villa (11) and trailed for only 35 per cent of their time with the ball in play (the same proportion as 10th-placed Leicester City), it will be these draws that relegate Newcastle, with such fine margins deciding their destiny to this point.

Newcastle have missed at least one 'big chance', from which Opta would expect a player to score, in six of their nine draws – including Joelinton on Saturday and each of Sean Longstaff, Ciaran Clark and Jacob Murphy in the reverse fixture at Watford (another 1-1) – while their opponents have been far less profligate with the opportunities afforded by some generous defending.

Generous Geordies giving up gifts

Newcastle have gifted away a league-high 10 goals this term through errors leading to goals (four), penalty goals (five) and own goals (one), representing 23.3 per cent of the alarming total of 43 in the goals against column.

It is a statistic that reflects slightly harshly on the St James' Park outfit, given Newcastle have given up just eight chances through errors. Only Everton (six goals from eight errors) have been punished more ruthlessly.

But there can be no doubt Howe needs upgrades in that area of the pitch.

Not content with squandering opportunities at one end, Clark is the only player in the Premier League to make an error leading to a goal, concede a penalty and be sent off this season – all in the space of 993 minutes. In fact, his error against Manchester City came inside five minutes on his return to the team having been dismissed after nine minutes against Norwich City.

Long-term colleague Lascelles has been little better. He alone has conceded three penalties this term, more than any other player in the division. Meanwhile, Schar is the sole Newcastle player to have committed multiple errors leading to shots.

There are only weak links in the middle of that defence right now.

No Botman and Robin but a DC superhero?

With Trippier already on board, Newcastle could yet recruit an entirely new defence this month, with Howe said to want two centre-backs – Botman and Diego Carlos appear the top targets – alongside a left-back.

Robin Gosens was the latest name to emerge and be dismissed as an option by his current employers, Atalanta, over the weekend, but Newcastle surely have to land at least one of these ambitious targets in time for another vital fixture at Leeds United on Saturday.

Botman showed on Sunday why he is so sought after and why Lille are so keen to keep hold of him, scoring at Marseille while also contributing 12 clearances and three blocks as the 10-man champions earned a draw. It is only the second example in Europe's top five leagues this season (also Dante versus Rennes in December) of a player making at least 12 clearances and three blocks.

Diego Carlos, it would appear, is a more realistic buy in January, despite his importance to a Sevilla team who have conceded only 13 goals in 20 league games this term – a joint-low alongside Manchester City across Europe.

The Brazil Olympic champion has started 19 of those games and leads LaLiga in blocks (21); interestingly, Burnley's James Tarkowski, another player of interest to Newcastle, tops the Europe-wide charts with 29.

Diego Carlos should also bring some calm in possession, with his passing accuracy (88.4 per cent) dwarfing that of Clark (79.0), Lascelles (78.2) and Schar (67.3). The Sevilla man ranks second in LaLiga for passes (1,298) and sixth for forward passes (411), fitting with Howe's more progressive approach.

Yet Newcastle's willingness to push their bid up towards a club-record fee may well be questioned in some quarters due to the more concerning similarities with his potential new team-mates.

No player in Europe has made more errors leading to shots than Diego Carlos, with two of the five resulting in goals. Meanwhile, since joining Sevilla in 2019, he has conceded 10 penalties in all competitions – including three for fouls on current Premier League players in Adama Traore, Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku.

Sevilla have only lost one of those 10 games, peculiarly, perhaps showing the difference Diego Carlos can make outside of these rash moments.

Ideally, Newcastle would not introduce more chaos into this defence, but they certainly cannot afford to do nothing. If Diego Carlos is the man they want, the pressure is on to deliver him in time for Saturday.

The tennis season has begun with Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, Paula Badosa and Thanasi Kokkinakis among the champions at small-scale events in Australia.

Yet there has been one dominant story in the sport and little else has had a look-in in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

Now that Novak Djokovic knows his fate, there is the welcome prospect of eyes turning to matters on the tennis court, rather than the Federal Court.

With the action getting under way in Melbourne on Monday, Stats Perform looks at the main protagonists and what the numbers tell us about another high-stakes grand slam.

Djokovic absence blows open men's draw

As defending champion Djokovic heads for home, it is worth a reminder of how he has dominated this tournament.

Nine of his grand slam titles have come in Melbourne, and he has taken the trophy in each of the last three years, helping him cosy up alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 majors, an all-time record they share. Of the 'Big Three', only Nadal is in the draw this year, with Federer currently on the injured list.

Djokovic has the highest win percentage in the Open Era (since 1969) at the Australian Open, among players with 20 or more wins (91.1 per cent – W82 L8). He was hoping to join Nadal (13 French Opens) and Margaret Court (11 Australian Opens) in the exclusive club of players to reach double figures for singles titles at one slam.

The Serb was also aspiring to become the first man in the Open Era to win four consecutive Australian Opens. It happened once before the tour turned professional, with Roy Emerson winning five in a row from 1963 to 1967. Djokovic has left Melbourne with the title every time that he has made it through to the semi-finals.

 

So who takes the title now?

Only Bjorn Borg (89.2 per cent) has a higher winning percentage in grand slam matches than Nadal (87.7 per cent) and Djokovic (87.5 per cent) in the Open Era, among players with 100 or more wins. So why not Nadal?

The 35-year-old and Djokovic have carved up 12 of the last 14 grand slam titles, Nadal winning four of those (three French Opens, one US Open). He is battling back from a foot injury lay-off and coronavirus, and might need to get the early rounds out of the way without undue stress to stand a chance at the business end.

The two exceptions in the Nadal-Djokovic sequence of slam dominance have come at the US Open, with Dominic Thiem winning in New York in 2020 and Daniil Medvedev triumphing at Djokovic's expense in last year's Flushing Meadows final. Thiem is not in Australia, but world number two Medvedev is, looking to become the third Russian man to win two slams, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.

The last man other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back slam singles title was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000), but that is Medvedev's objective now, and he has the game to pull it off.

Nadal has reached at least the quarter-final stage in 15 of his last 16 grand slam appearances, winning six of those majors (four French Opens and two US Opens), so he may well be a factor.

Who else is in the frame? Alexander Zverev probably, having reached the quarter-finals in Australia in the last two seasons (SF in 2020 and QF in 2021). He won the Olympic Games and ATP Finals titles last year, so a grand slam is an obvious next step. He might want to keep double faults in check though, having served a tour-high 113 in slams last season.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Australian semi-finals in 2019 and 2021, so throw him into the mix too, and Matteo Berrettini might be a threat. The Italian, a runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon in July, served more aces than any other player in grand slams last year (311 aces, 16.4 on average per match).

 

Others have more modest ambitions

Andy Murray is back at the Australian Open for the first time since 2019, when he lost in the first round against Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets and was more or less given his last rites as a tennis pro after the match, having indicated he was close to retirement.

The five-time Australian Open runner-up last won a match in this tournament in 2017, when he reached round four. A tough opener against Nikoloz Basilashvili awaits.

Spanish 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez will make his 80th appearance in a grand slam and become the second man in the Open Era with 80 or more appearances at the four majors, after Federer (81).

Do not expect an Australian to be men's champion, by the way. The last time an Australian reached the men's singles final was 2005, when Lleyton Hewitt lost against Safin, and the last home champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

Barty backed in stacked women's draw

For the first time since 1997, neither Serena nor Venus Williams will take part in the Australian Open. Yet the women's tour is in rude health, even without those great bastions.

Ash Barty is world number one and a standout pick for many, only enhancing her claims after winning an Adelaide International title in the run-up to this fortnight.

But there is staggering depth on the women's side at present, and Barty will face stiff competition.

Incredibly, the last five grand slam finals have featured 10 different women, and teenager Emma Raducanu's against-all-odds US Open triumph in September shows best of all that new stars are emerging.

Yet since 2000, only three non-seeded players have reached the women's singles final at the Australian Open: Serena Williams in 2007, Justine Henin in 2010 and Garbine Muguruza in 2020. 

Barty could become the first Australian to be women's champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978, and the first to reach the final since Wendy Turnbull lost to Hana Mandlikova in 1980.

The Queenslander is the top seed, and the last time the number one failed to reach at least the fourth round at Melbourne Park was in 1979, when Virginia Ruzici lost her opening match. Barty ended a long wait for an Australian winner of the women's title at Wimbledon last year, so why not closer to home as well?

 

Naomi Osaka is back, so what should we expect?

Truth be told, that's hard to know. Osaka took time out from tennis after the US Open to focus on her mental health and enjoyed hanging out with friends, before deciding she missed tennis enough to go back on tour.

She had three wins at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament recently before withdrawing from a fourth match, saying her body had "got a shock" from the intensity. As defending champion in the season's first major, she has a target on her back and will need to find a way to handle that.

Over the past six seasons, only Osaka has managed to win back-to-back grand slam singles titles among the women, and she has done so twice (US Open 2018 and Australian Open 2019, plus US Open 2020 and Australian Open 2021).

The last player to win back-to-back women's Australian Open singles titles was Victoria Azarenka (2012 and 2013), so it does not happen regularly.

Osaka has an 85 per cent win rate at this tournament: since 2000, only Jennifer Capriati (90 per cent) and Serena Williams (89 per cent) have had a higher win percentage in the main draw.

 

You want challengers to the big two? Try sticking a pin in the draw

The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which goes to the champion, is a trophy that upwards of a dozen women will seriously believe they can win.

Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semi-finals of the last two slams but is mired in some kind of hellish serving groove, having made 74 double faults in her last four matches and lost the last three in a row.

Anett Kontaveit won a tour-high 39 matches on hard courts last year but has only been to one grand slam quarter-final – last year in Australia, losing to Simona Halep.

What about Ons Jabeur, who matched Kontaveit for a tour-high 48 wins across all surfaces last year? The Tunisian is queen of the drop shot, making 147 successful such plays on tour last year, more than any other player, and recently reached the top 10 in the WTA rankings for the first time.

Maria Sakkari reached two slam semi-finals last year, the first of her career, and the form of Barbora Krejcikova and Badosa in the past week in Melbourne marks them out as contenders. Both are recent fast-risers, Krejcikova already with a French Open title to show.

WTA Finals champion Muguruza could be the second Spaniard to twice reach the Melbourne title match, after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (1994 v Steffi Graf and 1995 v Mary Pierce). Spain has never had an Australian Open women's singles winner: former French Open and Wimbledon champ Muguruza is an authentic contender.

Halep was runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018, a semi-finalist in 2020 and quarter-finalist last year, and a Melbourne Summer Set title was a handy warm-up for the Romanian. Consider her, too.

Monica Seles, in 1991, was the last player to triumph on her debut in the main draw, but she was already a grand slam winner (1990 French Open). Given the strength of the line-up, the prospect of a bolter coming through this field is unlikely, even if the example of Raducanu tells us anything is possible.

Kevin De Bruyne came back to haunt his old club as his fine strike handed Premier League leaders Manchester City a 1-0 win over Chelsea on Saturday.

Against no side has De Bruyne scored more Premier League goals than he has against the Blues (five), with this total the most against Chelsea by any player who has previously played for them in the competition.

Elsewhere, Manchester United threw away a two-goal lead at Aston Villa to draw 2-2, with Philippe Coutinho sealing a point on his debut following his loan move from Barcelona.

Wolves beat Southampton 3-1 and Norwich City piled the pressure on Rafael Benitez with a 2-1 win over Everton, while strugglers Newcastle United and Watford played out a 1-1 draw.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the Opta data from another eventful day in the Premier League.

Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea: De Bruyne edges Guardiola's men closer to the title

City's seemingly unstoppable march towards the Premier League title continued with a 12th straight top-flight win.

It marked the ninth run of 12 or more victories in the competition's history, with Pep Guardiola's side now responsible for four of those.

The decisive goal came from Kevin De Bruyne, the Belgium international superbly whipping into the bottom-right corner from distance with 20 minutes remaining.

De Bruyne has scored 21 Premier League goals from outside the penalty area – the most of any player since his first season with City (2015-16), and the joint-most of any Citizens player in the competition's history (level with Sergio Aguero).

Chelsea scarcely landed a blow on their hosts, failing to register a single shot in the first half. Indeed, they had just seven touches in City's penalty area – their fewest in a single Premier League match since January 2015 (also seven vs Man City).

Aston Villa 2-2 Manchester United: Red Devils squander two-goal lead

A stirring late fight back from Villa meant United failed to win a Premier League away game in which they led by 2+ goals for the first time since January 2016 against Newcastle (3-3).

Bruno Fernandes' opener was the first Premier League goal United have scored from a set piece situation this season (excluding penalties), before the Portugal international doubled their advantage in the second period.  

Since making his United debut in February 2020, only Mohamed Salah (45) and Harry Kane (34) have scored more Premier League goals than Fernandes (33), while only James Ward-Prowse (seven) has scored more goals from outside the box in the competition during this period than the Portuguese (six).

Jacob Ramsey inspired a memorable comeback, though, the 20-year-old becoming the first Villa player to both score and assist against United in a single Premier League game since John Carew in April 2009, and the third-youngest player to do it against the Red Devils in the Premier League overall after Kelechi Iheanacho in September 2016 and Harry Kewell in November 1998.

Coutinho ensured the points were shared in what was his first Premier League appearance in 1477 days (for Liverpool vs Leicester City in December 2017).

Norwich City 2-1 Everton: Idah gets off the mark to put Benitez on the brink

The Canaries kick-started their bid for survival with a second win in six Premier League home games under Dean Smith – as many as they managed in their final 21 home games in the competition under previous manager Daniel Farke.

There were just 92 seconds between Michael Keane's own goal and Adam Idah's first Premier League strike, the hosts scoring as many times inside the opening 18 minutes as they had in their previous eight top-flight matches combined (one).

Idah's goal was his first in 27 Premier League appearances, while it was his first league goal since May 2021, when he scored in Norwich's final game of the Championship season.

The result meant Everton, who pulled one back through Richarlison, have won just 19 points from their 19 league games this season. Only twice previously have they had fewer at this stage of a Premier League campaign (17 in 1997-98 and 2005-06) and it looks as though Benitez's time may be up.

Wolves 3-1 Southampton: Traore off the mark as hosts' fine season continues

Wolves completed a top-flight double over Southampton for the first time since 1971-72, as well as winning three in a row against Saints in the top tier for the first time since October 1970.

Raul Jimenez and Conor Coady put them 2-0 up before the hour mark, with the latter's three Premier League goals coming from just four shots on target in 134 appearances.

Saints captain James Ward-Prowse scored his 12th direct free-kick goal in the Premier League to reduce the deficit – a haul bettered only by David Beckham (18).

However, Adama Traore's first goal in 22 top-flight appearances ensured Wolves picked up 31 points from their first 20 games of the season – their best return at this stage of a top-flight campaign since 1979-80 (also 31 points) when they finished in sixth place.

Chelsea already knew the odds were slim. No team that has been clear by at least 10 points at the top of the Premier League after 21 matches has ever failed to lift the trophy.

The Blues travelled to leaders Manchester City on Saturday exactly 10 adrift and desperate to improve on their showing against Pep Guardiola's men from earlier in the season.

But a familiar foe once again brought their downfall as City sealed a 1-0 win that further increases their lead at the summit and probably has them over the horizon in the title race – at least as far as Chelsea are concerned.

Thomas Tuchel spoke with great clarity and assuredness as he addressed the media on Friday, accepting Chelsea were far too negative in their 1-0 defeat to City at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season.

We say "defeat", but in reality it was as close to a 1-0 battering as they come. City tallied three times as many shots as Chelsea (15 to five), and it was a similar story in terms of touches in the opposition's box (34 to 11).

But there was little sign of a major improvement here. Tuchel flailed and flapped like a headless chicken on the touchline, his instructions ultimately powerless against a City side that smothered Chelsea with a high press that just seemed to suffocate them more as the game went on.

Initially, as much as anything, Chelsea just looked confused. Their bravery in playing out from the back was to be commended in some instances, but that mentality seemed to be completely at odds with almost everything else they did.

They would get into the midfield but then launch long balls out wide or to Christian Pulisic in the hole rather than for Romelu Lukaku to run onto. The moves would go nowhere.

 

There was no period of sustained pressure from Chelsea at all in the first half – in fact, they got to the interval without registering a single shot, the first time that's happened in a league game under Tuchel.

Lukaku, bar one early instance where he rolled John Stones before mucking up the final pass, cut a frustrated figure up top. While Chelsea's play in the build-up largely seemed unlikely to get the best out of him, his team-mates might have expected more attempts to run in behind the City defence.

The second half was just a few minutes old when such a situation did present itself, with Lukaku able to do what he's best at: running on to throughballs rather than acting as a target man.

Ederson produced a fine save to block Lukaku's effort, but it was the clearest evidence yet of how Chelsea were likely to hurt City – not that it was necessarily a sign of things to come for the visitors.

 

If anything, it served as a jolt for City, a reminder that, as good as they are, they weren't going to be able to sleepwalk to a win here.

City allowed Chelsea more of the ball, but Guardiola's men upped the intensity significantly with their pressing – the Blues started to find passing through the midfield rather trickier.

Eight of the nine times City won possession in the final third (Chelsea only did so once in the whole game) came in the second half, which was not only evidence of how they were able to impressively dig deep physically, but also highlighted how a team can take the game to an opponent even without the ball.

Of course, City relied on a moment of pure inspiration, which was somewhat predictably delivered by Kevin De Bruyne, who strode away from N'Golo Kante and saw his gorgeous curling effort find the bottom-right corner from 25 yards.

 

It was his fifth Premier League goal against Chelsea, making his old club his favourite opposition in that regard, and a figure bettered by no other former Blue in the competition.

In the context of the match, it also highlighted the differing fortunes of players with comparable pasts: both De Bruyne and Lukaku joined Chelsea as youngsters and ultimately failed to make an impression.

The midfielder now regularly lights up the Premier League, but his international colleague is back at Stamford Bridge and struggling again, albeit for different reasons.

But the fact of the matter is, Lukaku was brought back to turn Chelsea into title contenders – that now looks impossible thanks to another familiar face.

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