"You want to speak about my mother?"

Romelu Lukaku was seething. A yellow card and a stern talking to from referee Paolo Valeri having done nothing to lift the red mist.

Inter's diminutive playmaker Nicolo Barella attaching himself to Lukaku's torso in a bid to calm the powerhouse striker was one of the more memorable sights of an action-packed first 45 minutes in this Milan derby for a place in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.

Or the Derby della Madonnina, to give the game its full, grander title. A game that takes its name from a pristine golden statue of the Virgin Mary.

It seemed for all the world that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had not spoken about Lukaku's mother with such reverence.

Here was Milan's 39-year-old talisman, who suggested the youthful make-up of the Serie A leaders' XI was a factor in their 3-0 weekend defeat to Atalanta, deciding to display his own brand of leadership in the guise of juvenile schoolyard bully.

Ibrahimovic's crowing chuckle as mayhem unfurled around him (Arturo Vidal got involved - of course he did - for no apparent reason) was one of a player who had recently enjoyed a familiar feeling for the 499th time in his career.

Freed from shackles of their knife-edge Scudetto battle, both teams played with freedom and the intent to land a psychological blow. The fact each team had the same idea appeared to irritate all concerned, but it made for great entertainment.

It is doubtful Antonio Conte would consider such a cavalier selection in league combat as he rolled out on Inter's left flank here. Ivan Perisic was at wing-back, paying as much attention as you'd expect to the part of his position lurking after the hyphen.

That increased the defensive burden on Aleksandar Kolarov on, a defender who has worn 11 for the bulk of his career. Kolarov's shirt number is a statement of particular intent.

Ibrahimovic showed he recognised that point of weakness in the 13th minute, when he leapt athletically to meet a Rafael Leao cross, knocking Perisic and Kolarov to the ground in the process. Brahim Diaz was just unable to turn home.

Kolarov still seemed distracted when he backed off enough for the former Sweden international to fire though his legs and beyond Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.

The script seemed written, goal 500 was surely on the way to take Ibrahimovic closer to yet another piece of silverware. Why not have some fun and wind up the opposition's star man.

Ibrahimovic's language and his message seemed appalling, with ESPN footage showing him at one point appearing to yell: "Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey."

A flaw in the plan to rile Lukaku was the yellow card that Ibrahimovic received for his part in the spat. Not a problem in itself, but in the 58th minute he clumsily and needlessly fouled Kolarov to collect a second booking.

Displaying none of his vast experience, Ibrahimovic had gone from hero to villain to idiot within half an hour of playing time.

And so, it was over to the youngsters and backup players who the star striker sometimes seems to consider walk-on extras in his one-man show.

First there was on-loan defender Fikayo Tomori, who was quickly disabused of the notion he had escaped chaos by leaving Chelsea this week. Thrust into a debut by Simon Kjaer's first-half injury, he made a brilliant last-ditch block to deny Lukaku.

Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez defended heroically down the Milan left but reduced numbers forced willing attacking players back to man unfamiliar barricades. Leao was pressed into action and brought down Barella. After consulting the pitchside monitor Valeri pointed to the spot.

Lukaku has been known to roll his penalties home. On this occasion, he tested the structural integrity of the crossbar and the ball ricocheted into the turf and home. Then there was a shouting match with a team-mate (Yes, Vidal; nope, no idea).

Enough mayhem? Nonsense. Valeri had to limp out of the action injured. Fourth official Daniele Chiffi looked like he was putting on the microphone and headset for the first time in his life and 10 minutes of stoppage time were required.

In the seventh of those, wantaway midfielder Christian Eriksen curled home a sumptuous free-kick, leaving Ciprian Tatarusanu no chance to add to his fine catalogue of eight saves.

Last act for Eriksen? Maybe. Definitely last laugh for Lukaku.

Ibrahimovic likes to call himself a lion but Tatarusanu and the Milan players he left behind were the lions here, roaring defiantly at wave after wave of Inter attacks before buckling at the last. Nine of Inter's 27 shots were blocked.

After fatefully dwelling too long in self-parody at the end of the first half, Ibrahimovic owes them an apology, and surely Lukaku is also due one. Perhaps they shouldn't hold their breath.

Thomas Tuchel's appointment as the new Chelsea head coach was confirmed on Tuesday - and the new man does not have a lot of time to get settled.

Frank Lampard was sacked on Monday, with Tuchel's widely anticipated arrival promptly following.

The former Paris Saint-Germain coach took charge of training on his first day and will be thrust straight into the spotlight when Chelsea host Wolves on Wednesday.

The Blues entered the latest round of Premier League fixtures sitting ninth in the table and Tuchel will be looking for an immediate impact.

But there are long-term tasks to complete, too, if the German is to stay at Stamford Bridge beyond the end of his initial contract, which runs to 2022.
 

HELP WERNER AND HAVERTZ

Having worked with the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar during his time at PSG, Tuchel knows all about the challenges of motivating some of the world's top talents.

At Chelsea, that will mean eliciting an improvement in the performance of his much-criticised compatriots Timo Werner and Kai Havertz.

Werner, for whom Chelsea paid RB Leipzig close to £50million, scored 28 Bundesliga goals in 34 appearances last season but has mustered just four in 19 in the Premier League, the most recent of which came on November 7.

Meanwhile, Havertz arrived from Bayer Leverkusen with a price tag in the region of £70million and a reputation as one of Europe's most creative young stars but has one goal, two assists and just 11 key passes to date.

Tuchel will be asked to get more from the Germany pair to boost a Chelsea team who have scored only four goals in their past five league outings.
 

KEEP ACADEMY ACES INVOLVED

Hindered by a transfer ban in his first season in charge, Lampard at least made use of Chelsea's impressive academy to bring a number of young talents into the team.

Perhaps most exciting among those were Mason Mount and Billy Gilmour.

Both Mount, 22, and Gilmour, 19, started Lampard's final game in charge against Luton Town and formed a creative double-pivot in an attack-minded side, earning praise from the coach for their discipline and movement.

Mount will surely feature in Tuchel's immediate plans, but Chelsea will hope both the England midfielder and team-mate Gilmour can continue to develop over the coming years.
 

SETTLE ON HIS BEST SIDE

Between the big spending ahead of this season and the promotion of a number of academy talents, Lampard was certainly not short of options. But that might have been to his detriment.

Looking to pack an array of star names into a first XI, the team too often lacked balance.

Juggling club captain Cesar Azpilicueta and Reece James proved tricky, while Thiago Silva and Kurt Zouma - seemingly Lampard's preferred centre-back pairing - have started together in only 14 of the 29 games so far this season in all competitions.

There has been concern regarding the form of N'Golo Kante, perhaps played out of position, while Lampard struggled to work out the best fit up front in his 4-3-3.

Tuchel must be more decisive.
 

EFFECTIVELY MANAGE UPWARDS

An increasingly strained relationship with director Marina Granovskaia reportedly contributed to Lampard's demise, so keeping the Chelsea board onside will be crucial for Tuchel.

Dealings with the top brass at PSG in his previous job were not always straightforward for Tuchel and may have been a factor behind his departure from Paris, which came despite impressive results across recent seasons.

Criticism of PSG's transfer business did not go down well with sporting director Leonardo, who fired back at the coach, telling him he "must decide to respect the choices of the sports management".

Tuchel could hardly complain about the level of investment at Stamford Bridge over the past year, so similar comments towards Chelsea power-brokers would be unlikely to go down well.

A day after club great Frank Lampard was shown the door by Chelsea, Thomas Tuchel has been confirmed as the new head coach at Stamford Bridge.

Having departed Paris Saint-Germain in late December, the highly regarded tactician will now continue his coaching career in England.  

Former Borussia Dortmund boss Tuchel won two straight Ligue 1 titles and steered PSG to the Champions League final last season, yet ownership decided the time was right for a change in the French capital.

Mauricio Pochettino's status as a free agent arguably persuaded PSG to act fast and the boot is now on the other foot for Tuchel, whose availability has allowed him to step straight in at Stamford Bridge.

FROM PARIS TO LONDON

There was little Christmas cheer for Tuchel, who left PSG with a record similar to his predecessor in the job - Unai Emery. Both recorded an average of 2.37 points per game in Ligue 1 - tied for the best in club history.  

The German tops the list when it comes to top-flight win rate at 75.6 per cent (62 wins from 82 games), though that number dips slightly when taking into consideration all competitions, albeit only down to 74.8 per cent (Emery's was higher, at 76.3 per cent).

Like Lampard, Tuchel lost his job on the back of a convincing home win. PSG thrashed Strasbourg 4-0 in his final game and, while that result on December 23 left them third in the table, they were sitting just a point behind leaders Lyon. 

Only Laurent Blanc (173 games) was in the PSG post for longer than Tuchel in the time since Qatar Sports Investments purchased the French club. 

Tuchel averaged 2.67 goals per game in Ligue 1.

It helps to have a squad that contains stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, of course, though he was the first PSG boss to make it beyond the quarter-final stage of the Champions League, the one trophy that has so far eluded the owners.

An unconvincing start this term was enough to lead to change. Tuchel became the first PSG head coach to be fired during a season despite sitting in the top three of Ligue 1 since Antoine Kombouare, who lost his job during the 2011-12 campaign.


FAMILIARITY, PLUS A CASE FOR THE DEFENCE

Roman Abramovich made clear he has the "utmost respect" for Lampard in the statement released to confirm his departure. Still, there was no doubt left over the reason for making the change. 

"We are grateful to Frank for what he has achieved in his time as head coach of the club," the statement read from Chelsea.

"However, recent results and performances have not met the club's expectations, leaving the club mid-table without any clear path to sustained improvement." 

Chelsea have a home game against Wolves on Wednesday and Tuchel will get up and running by taking training on the eve of the match. He takes over a team in ninth place, though just five points off fourth in what is a congested league table. 

It will be hoped the new man can get the best out of compatriots Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, two of Chelsea's big-money recruits in the previous window who have yet to fire. 

However, Tuchel will also need to tighten things up at the back, particularly on the road. At PSG, his teams conceded 0.81 goals per game, while it should be noted they leaked just six in Champions League action in 2019-20.

Since the start of the previous season, only Newcastle (54) have conceded more away goals in the Premier League than Chelsea (50).

They kept a clean sheet in just 17 per cent of their away games under Lampard; among those to have taken charge of 10 or more such fixtures in the competition, this is the lowest percentage of any Chelsea boss. 

Tuchel will, of course, be able to call upon his old PSG captain Thiago Silva in trying to mastermind a defensive revival.

There will also be an expectancy to improve the team's fortunes against their major rivals, too. 

Since August 2019, Chelsea have won just 15 points against fellow 'big six' sides, a joint-low tally alongside Arsenal. During that run, they have scored 17 goals and conceded 28 times. 

At least Tuchel understands the demands of working for owners with lofty expectations. There is still time to turn this season around but, like his most recent Stamford Bridge predecessors, he will be expected to produce instant results.

Kobe Bryant was a man whose influence reached far further than the basketball court, though his extraordinary numbers in the NBA are what made him such a legendary figure.

The Los Angeles Lakers hero was tragically killed in a helicopter crash at the age of 41 on this day in 2020.

It was an event which led to an outpouring of tributes for one of the all-time greats.

"I don't think any of us will ever forget that day," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, reflecting on when his team were starting a practice as the tragic news broke.

"Everything stopped. The music stopped. The players stopped. Nobody said a word.

"A lot of guys dropped to the floor and started crying. Nothing happened for 10 minutes. We all just sat there in silence. It was one of the worst moments of all our lives."

Bryant's list of achievements over a 20-year career with the Lakers are the stuff of legend and his numbers stack up against the best to have played the game.

Here we take a look at Bryant's scarcely believable statistics with the help of Stats Perform data.

 

5 - Bryant won the NBA championship five times with the Lakers, in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010.

2 - He was twice named MVP in the NBA Finals, in 2009 and 2010.

18 - Bryant was a fixture in the NBA All-Star team, named to that side in 1998 and then each year from 2000 to 2016, the year that he retired. Those 18 appearances put him second on the all-time list, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing in 19 of the games.

4 - Bryant was four times the NBA All-Star Game MVP, in 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2011.

1 - He received his lone NBA MVP award for the 2007-08 season, during which he became the youngest player to reach 20,000 career points, at the age of 29 years and 122 days.

33,643 - He sits fourth on the NBA all-time list of points-scorers with 33,643 from 1,346 games. Only Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and LeBron James are ahead of him on the list.

35.4 - In the 2005-06 season, Bryant recorded his highest points-per-game average for a single campaign, with 35.4. He led the NBA in scoring in that season and in 2006-07.

81 - On January 22, 2006, Bryant scored 81 points in a 122-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center. That is the second highest individual score in an NBA game, behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100 for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks in 1962.

60  - In his final game, on April 13, 2016, Bryant scored 60 points for the Lakers in a 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz.

15 - Bryant received All-NBA honours in 15 seasons, being named in the first team on 11 occasions. Only LeBron, with 13 appearances in the first team, beats Bryant's total.

9 - He was named nine times to the NBA All-Defense first team, matching the all-time high. Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan and Gary Payton achieved the same total.

17 - Bryant was an NBA player of the month 17 times, and 32 times the player of the week.

2 - Bryant's success was not limited to NBA action either. He won Olympic gold medals with the United States in 2008 and 2012.

1 - He won an Oscar too, after his playing career ended, landing the Best Animated Short Film prize at the 2018 Academy Awards for Dear Basketball.

Ever the man for the big occasion, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be eyeing a looming landmark heading into Tuesday's Coppa Italia Derby della Madonnina.

Ibrahimovic enters the latest crunch clash between Inter and his Milan just two goals shy of 500 in club football.

The former Sweden striker drew a blank against Atalanta on Saturday, ending a run of scoring in nine consecutive Serie A starts, but will be determined to bounce back in this mammoth fixture.

"We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat," Ibrahimovic said after the 3-0 loss to Atalanta. "We have the chance to do it in a few days against Inter. That will be a good match."

A MILAN MAN

Enjoying a fine second spell with Milan now at the age of 39, Ibrahimovic's goals have fired Stefano Pioli's side back into title contention - despite the Atalanta setback.

The Rossoneri have not won the Scudetto since 2011 - in Ibrahimovic's first stint at the club - and are without any silverware since the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana.

Inter's own trophy drought spans back to 2011, making this season - with the Milan clubs first and second in the table - and this quarter-final encounter huge.

Ibrahimovic has 13 goals in all competitions this term, including 12 in the league, swelling his Milan total to 80.

That far surpasses the 66 he scored in his time with Inter, while his total number of appearances for the Rossoneri has also nudged past his Nerazzurri tally, 119 to 117 after the Atalanta reverse.

Ibrahimovic will hope to be able to celebrate a 69th victory in Milan colours when they face their neighbours.

DERBY DELIGHTS

Derbies tend to be enjoyable occasions for Ibrahimovic, who has scored seven times for Milan against Inter - including a strike in his only prior such match outside of Serie A, inspiring a turnaround in the 2011 Supercoppa.

A goal and an assist in the first meeting with Inter following his return to Milan last year were in vain as the Nerazzurri won 4-2, but his brace this season secured a 2-1 win for the Serie A leaders.

Only once, in a 1-0 defeat in 2012, has Ibrahimovic failed to score for Milan against Inter, while he also netted twice in four matches for Juventus in the Derby d'Italia.

Yet the striker's Milan derby history goes back to before his arrival at the Rossoneri due to his previous allegiance to Inter.

He scored in his first two Inter appearances against Milan, meaning he has nine strikes in this famous rivalry - trailing only Andriy Shevchenko (14), Giuseppe Meazza (13), Gunnar Nordahl, Istvan Nyers (both 11) and Enrico Candiani (10).

Ibrahimovic has won six and lost four of his 10 Serie A derbies, also triumphing in that Supercoppa clash.

Fortune favours the bold. It is a phrase has been used so often that it has become a worn-out cliche. But cliches are cliches because they consistently ring true, and that famous Latin proverb applied at Lambeau Field on Sunday as the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers suffered more playoff heartache.

Their forlorn efforts in last year's NFC Championship game rout at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers still fresh in their minds - defensive coordinator Mike Pettine showed the game to his group last week in an attempt at motivation - the Packers reached the same stage this season seemingly well placed to put those memories behind them and reach Super Bowl LV.

The top seed in the NFC, the Packers matched up significantly better with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than they did the Niners last year and had the potentially crucial advantage of playing in freezing conditions at Lambeau Field in front of 8,500 fans.

And yet, with the chance to force a compelling back-and-forth encounter into overtime, the Packers - specifically their head coach Matt LaFleur - shied away from the opportunity, taking a conservative approach that ultimately proved their undoing.

LaFleur's costly caution

Green Bay faced a fourth and goal from the Tampa Bay eight-yard line trailing 31-23 with a little over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

If LaFleur had needed evidence of how to approach this situation, it came at the end of the first half when, rather than punting and settling for a 14-10 half-time lead, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians went for it on fourth down and, a play after converting to keep the drive alive, gave Tom Brady the green light to launch a 39-yard bomb to Scotty Miller that put Tampa Bay 21-10 to the good.

Rodgers and the Green Bay defense helped the Packers recover from a 28-10 third-quarter deficit and move into striking distance. However, when it came time to make a crucial decision, LaFleur ignored the old axiom and instead opted for caution, taking the ball out of the hands of his best player as he elected to kick a field goal and trust his defense to get the ball back.

It was a task that proved beyond them as a contentious pass interference penalty gave Tampa a game-sealing first down, leaving Rodgers to reflect on another year in which the Packers came up short.

Wondrous Rodgers

LaFleur's rejection of the aggressive approach that served Arians well at the end of the second quarter ensured that one of the best seasons of Rodgers' Hall of Fame career was wasted.

Rodgers is a near-lock to win the third MVP of his career after a season in which he took an offense of the Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay ilk to new heights.

He led the league in completion percentage 70.7, threw for 4,299 yards, a league-leading 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

His TD-INT ratio of 9.60 was the sixth-best in NFL history and second among quarterbacks to have played 16 games in a season, behind his 2018 mark of 12.50.

Tied for third in the NFL with 37 passing plays of 25 yards or more, few offenses were more explosive than that of the Packers in 2020, with Rodgers' adjusted net yards per attempt figure of 8.89 tied for sixth of all-time.

That is the same number Patrick Mahomes posted in his 2018 MVP season and, just like the Kansas City Chiefs that year, the end result for the Packers was a devastating loss.

Unlike the Chiefs, the Packers now face the prospect of significant changes in the offseason that could impact their ability to continue to contend in the NFC.

A challenging offseason

In an offseason where the salary cap could shrink to $175million, the Packers may lose center Corey Linsley and running back Aaron Jones to free agency, while Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) and yards per game (98.1) in the regular season, is a candidate for a lucrative contract extension.

The Packers, therefore, face some tough decisions in the offseason and it is the lack of clarity over how the team will look in the immediate future that seemingly led Rodgers to describe his own future as "uncertain" in his post-game media conference. 

Rodgers may have been over-dramatic in the heat of the moment and another season with the Packers appears more likely than a move elsewhere or his retirement.

But the downcast attitude Rodgers presented after the game was indicative of a quarterback who knows that Super Bowl windows are, for most teams, ephemeral by their nature.

With his fourth-down call, LaFleur ensured another year of the Packers' window slipped through their fingers. If they now struggle to keep a formidable team together and Rodgers' career ends without a second Super Bowl ring, LaFleur's rejection of the bold will be remembered as a key reason why.

Inter beat Juventus. Juventus beat Milan. Milan beat Inter. For once it has been tough to predict the title race in Serie A.

Winning the Scudetto was not enough for Maurizio Sarri to keep his job at Juve last season, meaning Andrea Pirlo is under significant pressure as the Bianconeri chase a 10th straight league crown.

However, they have struggled to convince under the former midfield metronome and sit seven points adrift of leaders Milan in fourth, although they hold a game in hand.

There has seemingly never been a better chance for Inter, who are two points off top in second, and Milan to end Scudetto droughts that date back to 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively.

Fans and pundits will continue to have their say on who will sit top come the end of the season, and the Stats Perform AI team have also crunched the numbers to predict the champions for the 2020-21 campaign.

With the majority of the 20 teams having reached the halfway stage of the league campaign, they have simulated how the rest of the season may play out.

 

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

 

INTER END JUVE'S REIGN

Although they sit second at the halfway stage, our model predicts Inter will end Juve's dominance of Serie A.

Inter have a 35.7 per cent chance of topping the table for the first time since their treble-winning campaign of 2009-10 and it is projected they will do so by a two-point advantage.

Not only do Milan surrender top spot to the Nerazzurri, they slip behind Juve into third with the top three separated by just three points. It would still represent their best finish since 2012-13.

Juve's chance of retaining the title is deemed to be 23.1 per cent, marginally better than Milan's 21.6 per cent.

ATALANTA RETURN TO CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Gian Piero Gasperini steered Atalanta to Champions League qualification for the first time in their history in 2018-19 and made it back-to-back top-three finishes last season.

They are predicted to return to Europe's premier club competition by finishing fourth, edging out Napoli – they even have a 6.8 per cent chance of pulling off an unlikely title win.

Gennaro Gattuso's side have a 17 per cent probability of snatching the final Champions League qualification berth, with Atalanta's prospects narrowly superior at 17.4 per cent.

Roma are predicted to fall from their current position of third down to sixth but that is still good enough for them to deny arch-rivals Lazio qualification to the inaugural Europa Conference League.

The top six may need to beware of Sassuolo, Hellas Verona and Sampdoria, however. Sassuolo have a 0.3 per cent likelihood of finishing inside the top four, while Verona (0.6 per cent) and Sampdoria (0.3 per cent) also have an outside chance of stealing European qualification, though our predictor suggests Lazio will finish 12 points clear of Sassuolo in seventh.

 

GENOA AND TORINO ESCAPE DROP

At the turn of the year Torino were rock bottom with one win from their opening 14 games and Genoa were in the relegation zone with them.

However, Torino and Genoa have both moved out of the bottom three by claiming six points and eight points respectively over their past five games.

The two sides are predicted to maintain strong enough form to stay out of the drop zone, with Crotone (20th), Parma (19th) and Cagliari (18th) projected to suffer relegation to Serie B.

It is by no means a guarantee, though. Genoa are only 0.2 per cent more likely to come 17th than they are to suffer relegation by finishing 18th, while Torino's differential between 15th – where they are predicted to place – and third-bottom is 2.7 per cent.

Frank Lampard has been sacked as Chelsea head coach after 18 months in charge. 

The Blues great qualified for the Champions League and reached the FA Cup final in his first season at the helm but failed to build from a position of strength, departing in ninth in the Premier League despite significant spending in the transfer market. 

Defeat at Leicester City last week left Chelsea with just two wins from their past eight league games and, although he oversaw Sunday's FA Cup win over Luton Town, it proved sufficient to end Lampard's reign. 

That Leicester reverse was merely the latest sign Lampard was struggling as a young coach in a huge role, however. 

We look at five games from his tenure that suggested Lampard was not cut out for the top job at Stamford Bridge.


Chelsea 0-2 Southampton - December 2019

In the early days of Lampard's time in charge, Chelsea were a force to be reckoned with away from home, losing 4-0 at Manchester United on the opening day of the season but winning their next seven games on the road in all competitions. Bobby Campbell, in 1989, was the only previous Chelsea boss to oversee such a run.

But the Blues' problems persisted on home soil and were particularly evident over the course of a month late in 2019 when they lost to West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton at Stamford Bridge. 

Defeat to Saints, just four days after a brilliant win at Tottenham, saw Chelsea lose consecutive home league matches for the first time since November 2011. 

Already their seventh top-flight loss of the campaign, there was little sign of progress, with Maurizio Sarri having only lost eight times in the entirety of the previous season. 

Chelsea 0-3 Bayern Munich - February 2020

Chelsea again got the better of Jose Mourinho's Spurs in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge, yet that victory was followed by another damaging home defeat, this time in the Champions League. 

The Blues met Bayern for the first time since their 2011-12 Champions League final triumph – when Lampard was captain – but were completely outclassed by the eventual title winners. 

The first leg of their last-16 tie saw Chelsea suffer their heaviest home European defeat, going down 3-0 to a Bayern team who had 16 attempts and bossed 63 per cent of the possession. 

The gap between Lampard's men and Europe's best was never more prominent.

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea - August 2020

A testing first season, disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, could still have ended on a high had Lampard masterminded an FA Cup final victory over Arsenal. 

The Blues beat Liverpool, Leicester and United en route to the delayed August showpiece but came up short as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored twice in a 2-1 Arsenal success.

Unlike against Bayern, Chelsea had control of the ball with 60 per cent of the possession. However, they were out-shot 11-9 as the Gunners were clinical on the counter. 

Silverware last term might have given Lampard a firmer grasp on his role during the recent rocky patch.

Wolves 2-1 Chelsea - December 2020

Chelsea led the Premier League early in December having beaten Leeds United, but their season – and Lampard's tenure – really fell apart either side of Christmas. 

Having lost at Everton after facing Leeds, the Blues conceded a last-gasp winner to Wolves to suffer consecutive league defeats for the first time in a year. 

Lampard's side were poor at both ends of the pitch, failing to muster a single shot on target in the first half before being caught on the break in the 95th minute. 

The Chelsea coach told his players to "wake up to what this is about right now", but it was not a warning they heeded. 

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea - December 2020

A scarcely deserved 3-0 win over West Ham appeared to get Chelsea back on track and they should then have been able to build some momentum against struggling Arsenal. 

But Mikel Arteta's side, winless in seven in the league, arrested their own slump in a deserved success as they took control with a flurry of goals either side of half-time. 

Chelsea had again been unable to test the opposition goalkeeper before the break and left it far too late to attempt to stage a comeback, scoring in the 85th minute through Tammy Abraham but then seeing Bernd Leno save Jorginho's penalty.

With defeats to Manchester City and Leicester following in the final weeks of Lampard's reign, this represented a huge missed opportunity to relieve pressure.

It did not take long for Chelsea to run out of patience with Frank Lampard following significant investment in their first-team squad during the close season.

Chelsea spent in excess of £200million on reinforcements for the 2020-21 campaign but with the club ninth in the Premier League and 11 points off top at the midway point, they dispensed with the services of their head coach on Monday.

Lampard arrived just 18 months ago with the club under a transfer embargo and was lauded for his faith in youth during a debut campaign that yielded a top-four finish and an FA Cup final appearance.

However, Chelsea have not managed to maintain an upward trajectory this season and after a run of two wins in eight Premier League games the decision was taken to cut ties with the club legend.

It is fair to say some of Chelsea's new arrivals have not lived up to expectations this term and we look at the numbers behind their performances.

Timo Werner – £45m from RB Leipzig

Werner arrived from Leipzig with big expectations having been involved in 36 league goals (26 scored, eight assisted) in 2019-20 – a tally only bettered by Robert Lewandowski (38), Ciro Immobile (45) and Lionel Messi (46).

He did not take long to find his stride, having a hand in 11 goals (eight scored, three assisted) in a 10-game stretch in all competitions between September and November.

However, the only goal he has scored in 15 appearances since the end of that streak came against Morecambe in the FA Cup third round – it ended an 827-minute drought in all competitions.

He is without a goal in 11 Premier League outings and his difficulties in front were compounded by his failure to convert from the penalty spot against Luton Town on Sunday.

 

Kai Havertz – £71m from Bayer Leverkusen

Alongside Werner (14) and Tammy Abraham (15), Havertz (10) is one of just three Chelsea players to have been involved in at least 10 goals in all competitions this season.

However, half of those have come against lower-league opposition – he scored the first hat-trick of his senior career against Barnsley in the EFL Cup in September, and versus Morecambe in the FA Cup this month had a goal and an assist.

When looking at his figures from the Premier League, he has just one goal and one assist in 16 appearances – 11 of which have come from the start.

Lampard seemed to struggle to figure out how to get the best out of versatile forward Havertz and given his price tag that will be high on the agenda for his replacement.

Ben Chilwell - £45m from Leicester City

A plantar fascia injury delayed Chilwell's Chelsea debut but he was quick to make an impact, becoming just the third Blues player to both score and assist on their Premier League debut, joining Deco and Alvaro Morata.

Within 13 games he had already matched his career best of four Premier League assists in a single season, while his six goal involvements in that time frame was the same as he managed across the entirety of 2019-20 for Leicester.

Crosses from the full-backs were a key part of Lampard's approach and Chilwell's 82 in open play is second to Reece James' 97.

But while 24.7 per cent of James' deliveries were accurate, only 13.4 of Chilwell's were - the third-worst rate of any Blues player to find a team-mate with at least one cross in open play.

Hakim Ziyech – £33.3m from Ajax

An assist for Werner in a pre-season friendly against Brighton provided promising signs, but a knee injury meant his competitive debut did not arrive until October.

He has registered two goals and four assists in 17 appearances in all competitions, but only Mason Mount (2.5) has created more chances per 90 minutes than Ziyech (2.4) this season (all comps).

Furthermore, he creates 0.8 Opta-defined 'big chances' per 90 minutes, which is the most of any Chelsea player to have featured in more than two games.

His expected assists in open play per 90 minutes of 0.21 ranks joint-seventh alongside Kevin De Bruyne (among players to have played at least 450 minutes), so with some better finishing his impact may look more impressive on paper.

 

Edouard Mendy – £22m from Rennes

After Kepa Arrizabalaga committed three errors leading to goals in as many Premier League appearances to start the season, bringing in Mendy from Rennes appeared an astute decision.

He kept nine clean sheets in his first 12 appearances in all competitions, but in his subsequent nine outings he has shut out the opposition just twice and conceded 13 goals.

In the Premier League, Mendy has let in 12 goals from an expected goals on target (xGOT) of 10.8, meaning he has let in one more goal than would have been anticipated from the chances he has faced.

That is the joint-eighth worst in the league among keepers to have played over 900 minutes.

 

Thiago Silva – free transfer

Although he became the first outfield player to make an error leading to a goal on their Premier League debut in two years when his loose control was seized upon by Callum Robinson in a 3-3 draw with West Brom in September, Silva's experience seemed to significantly improve Chelsea's defence.

Only Kurt Zouma (64.6 per cent) has a better duel success rate than Silva's 63.5 among players to have played at least 10 games in all competitions, and he has helped them tighten up when defending set-pieces.

Excluding goals scored directly from free-kicks, Chelsea conceded 13 times from set-pieces in the Premier League in 2019-20, while this term they have only shipped five from dead balls and one of those came when Silva was not in the side.

The Brazilian has also made them more of a threat from set-plays, providing two of the nine goals Chelsea have scored in such situations.

Frank Lampard's appointment as Chelsea head coach was widely heralded by the club's fanbase, who were desperate for a returning hero to succeed in the dugout.

Just 18 months later and Lampard – the club's record all-time leading goalscorer who won 11 major honours at Stamford Bridge – has been sacked.

The Blues have proven in the past there is little time for sentimentality or to dwell on past successes and not even a player with the stature Lampard holds at the club has been granted extra time.

Lampard's first season in charge brought a top-four finish and an FA Cup final but a run of just two wins in eight league matches saw Chelsea wield the axe with the team ninth and 11 points off top.

A huge close-season recruitment drive that saw the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell arrive perhaps gave the Blues hierarchy itchy feet and brought about the end for Lampard.

With that in mind, we have looked at some hits and misses when players have returned to a club as boss.

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping down in May 2018, only to return 10 months later. He has already won LaLiga and the Supercopa de Espana in his second stint, though a slump this term has left his long-term future shrouded in doubt.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job in 2014. Conte is now battling to end the Bianconeri's domestic dominance as head coach of Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try to save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning just 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league position in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a relegation play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

JURY'S OUT

Mikel Arteta

Arteta served Arsenal with distinction as a player between 2011 and 2016, captaining the club and winning the FA Cup twice. Success in football's oldest cup competition followed last term, with Arteta having replaced Unai Emery in December 2019. After finishing eighth, Arsenal defeated Liverpool on penalties to win the Community Shield but eight defeats from 19 league games in this campaign have left Arsenal 11th and 13 points off top spot.

Andrea Pirlo

Lampard's opportunity at Chelsea arrived when Maurizio Sarri departed for Juventus, but his stint in charge at the Bianconeri lasted just one season despite winning the Serie A title. Pirlo won four Scudetti, the Supercoppa Italiana twice and the Coppa Italia during a four-year stint as a player in Turin and was appointed head coach just a week after being installed as Under-23 boss. So far it has been a mixed bag in Juve's hunt for a 10th straight title, with six draws and two defeats in 18 matches leaving them seven points back of league leaders Milan – albeit they do have a game in hand. Pirlo also collected a first trophy courtesy of victory over Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana last week.

Liverpool's shock home defeat to Burnley was sort of emblematic of the odd times football, and indeed wider society, continues to live through.

The Reds had not suffered defeat in a Premier League fixture at Anfield since April 2017 – a staggering run of 68 home matches – prior to Ashley Barnes' penalty securing a famous three points for the Clarets.

It leaves Jurgen Klopp's defending champions six points adrift of the top at a time when rivals Manchester City and Manchester United – who beat the Reds in the FA Cup on Sunday – are absolutely flying.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic means this season has been another strange one, with congested schedules, hastily rearranged fixtures and empty stadia becoming the norm.

It has meant that the dominance City and Liverpool have had in their recent title wins has been difficult to replicate this term and thrown the race for the trophy wide open.

Fans and pundits will continue to have their say on who will sit top come the end of the season, and the Stats Perform AI team have also crunched the numbers to predict the champions for the 2020-21 campaign.

With the majority of the 20 teams having reached the halfway stage of the league season, they have simulated how the rest of the season may play out.

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model - with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

CITY TRIUMPH WITHOUT THE DOMINANCE OF PAST TITLE WINS

The results in our model show City have an 82.1 per cent chance of winning the title, and doing so with 84 points. 

By recent standards that would represent a rather modest total. City won back-to-back titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19, the former seeing them rack up a competition record 100 points and following up with 98 in the latter.

Indeed, it would represent the lowest tally since Leicester City's famous triumph in 2015-16 when the Foxes earned 81, but there have been eight occasions of teams topping the table with fewer than 84.

City are on a 17-match unbeaten run across all competitions and if they can continue that form, Guardiola's serial winners will take some stopping.

UNITED PIP REDS AND SPURS TO SECOND AS FOXES SLIP AWAY

While the model tips City to ultimately win the title relatively comfortably, the "race for second" is certainly not clear cut.

According to our predictor, Manchester United – currently top of the table having played a game more than City – will fall off the title pace but still finish second on 75 points (a 40.2 per cent chance).

Liverpool are in a poor run of form but are tipped to recover from their recent malaise to secure a third-place finish on 73 (while the simulator still gives the Reds a 26 per cent chance for second and a five per cent shot at retaining the title).

Interestingly, Jose Mourinho's Tottenham side came fourth in our outcome on 70 points, three above Brendan Rodgers' Leicester City side who are only two adrift of United in the real-life table.

Frank Lampard's future at Chelsea is sure to face more scrutiny if a predicted finish of sixth, 22 points adrift of City, comes to fruition.

Everton, Arsenal, West Ham and Aston Villa completed the top 10 in the sim.

BLADES NOT THE WORST EVER AS BAGGIES, FULHAM HEAD BACK DOWN

It has been a miserable first half of the season for Sheffield United, who have taken only five points from 19 matches.

Should Chris Wilder's side replicate that over the next 19 they would record the lowest tally ever in a Premier League season.

Our predictor has the Blades finishing rock bottom, but fans can take some solace from the fact they are tipped to do so on 24 points. Indeed, our sim still gives them a three per cent chance of finishing 17th and a 0.1 per cent of the dizzying heights of 15th...hey, you never know!

The reading is no better for two sides promoted from the Championship last term in West Brom and Fulham.

Sam Allardyce was the man drafted in by the Baggies to replace Slaven Bilic and continue his record of never being relegated from the Premier League, but under this model West Brom are headed for a 19th-place finish on 26 points.

In our league, Fulham – promoted by the playoffs last term – pick up 28 and return immediately to the second tier as well. That would at least be two more than the 26 they gained when relegated in the 2018-19 campaign.

West Brom's chances of reaching 17th and survival are rated at just 5.6 per cent, while Fulham are given a little more hope at 11.2 per cent.

Brighton and Hove Albion (37), Newcastle United (41), Burnley (42) and Crystal Palace (44) are all tipped to safely beat the drop, while Leeds United – champions of the Championship last term – are predicted for a 12th-place finish and 49 points.

On a day when Donny van de Beek hoped to show why he deserves more minutes for Manchester United, up stepped Bruno Fernandes to show why that simply isn't happening.

The eye-catching selection of Van de Beek ahead of Fernandes for this FA Cup clash of giants at Old Trafford was all about "rotation", according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United's manager clearly felt his team could combat a faltering Liverpool team without their star man, albeit leaving him on the bench in case of emergency.

"Donny needs to be playing games as well and it's a big game for Donny to come into," Solskjaer told the BBC.

Van de Beek has not started a Premier League game since he was hauled off with United trailing at half-time at West Ham in early December, and he might not be starting any soon either given how this game transpired.

A 66th-minute switch of the Portuguese for the underwhelming Van de Beek proved pivotal, and the delightful free-kick from Fernandes that settled an absorbing game 3-2 in United's favour was one that had been conceived on Saturday.

"I think he stayed about 45 minutes after training yesterday shooting free-kicks, so I was quite confident that he was going to hit the target," Solskjaer said.

Solskjaer, the erstwhile supersub, knew the calibre of replacement that was up his sleeve, and the rotation worked in a roundabout way. Are we looking at more proof that United's once-maligned Norwegian boss is actually a tactical master?

Liverpool's season, meanwhile, takes another negative turn.

Donny fluffs his big chance

With a mere 18 passes and 23 touches, Van de Beek was peripheral in a midfield where Paul Pogba shone and Scott McTominay fought for every ball.

The former Ajax man had a glorious early chance to stamp his mark on the game when he burst into space on the right and looked sure to dart towards the penalty area, as Edinson Cavani waited for a pass in the centre.

But no. Van de Beek paused and decided to go backwards, and the chance was gone.

This game was a world away from the Anfield snore draw seven days previously in the Premier League, yet Van de Beek largely let it pass him by.

By the time Fernandes cracked his sublime winner into the right corner, Van de Beek must have been wondering when such an opportunity will arise again.

Salah shows he must start

Like Fernandes, Salah has seen his form and contribution questioned in recent weeks, and just as United's match-winner dispelled such criticism, so did Liverpool's main man.

After all the talk about front threes, and which of these sides had the most deadly attacking trio, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp went with a two-man strikeforce, Salah and Roberto Firmino linking up and Sadio Mane on the bench.

Both Salah and Firmino had been substitutes on Thursday for the defeat to Burnley, but they were a combination that United struggled to contain at times here.

Salah struck twice, the first a sublime chip, and Firmino set up both. The Brazilian has now assisted Salah for 18 goals during their time together at Liverpool, the most any player has set up another during Klopp's reign.

Unlike Firmino and Mane, Salah has exceeded his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League this season, with eight non-penalty goals from an xG of 5.3, and if Liverpool are to resurrect their season, the bench is surely no place for the Egyptian.

Glorious Greenwood

Mason Greenwood has not scored in the Premier League since that West Ham game, when he helped United turn their half-time deficit around and earn a 3-1 victory.

Here he looked lively from the early stages, albeit with one too many lollipops and insufficient tasty final product until he cancelled out Salah's opener.

The way the 19-year-old ended an 10-game barren spell spoke volumes of his belief, with Marcus Rashford's sweeping pass over the Liverpool defence finding his wing twin on the right and allowing Greenwood to thump a low shot past Alisson.

With Rashford also on target, this was quite a day to savour for the hosts.

Mesut Ozil and Arsenal have officially gone their separate ways after seven and a half years together. 

What was once a seemingly ideal football marriage has come to an end. Long since removed from the pedestal where he was once placed by Arsenal fans, Ozil has cut short his stay with the Gunners.

Having coveted him for so long, Fenerbahce have got their man. The 32-year-old heads to Turkey, aiming to kick-start a career that had not so much stagnated of late but come to a complete standstill.

Left out of Arsenal's squads for domestic and European duties this season, his most telling contribution in the final months of his career at the club was seemingly offering to cover the wages of mascot Gunnersaurus.

The union had become broken to the point of no return in the closing stages, but there were plenty of good times before the inevitable break-up.

FALLING HEAD OVER HEELS

Ozil arrived at Arsenal in September 2013. The Gunners did not just break their transfer record to sign him from Real Madrid, they shattered it by paying around £42.5million.

"This is an exciting day for all of us. We have signed a world-class player who is one of Europe's brightest young talents," said Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal's chief executive at the time, when the deal was announced.

Gazidis was right: Ozil was 24, a Germany international and someone who had played regularly during three seasons in LaLiga. His departure from Madrid was not popular with players and fans alike in the Spanish capital, but a necessary consequence of a spending spree that included bringing in Gareth Bale from Tottenham.

Arsenal's big-name recruit did not take long to make an impact, setting up a goal for Olivier Giroud 11 minutes into his Premier League debut away at Sunderland. It would be the first of many laid on for the Frenchman, who benefited more than any other team-mate from the playmaker's abilities.

Ozil's eye for a pass and talent for producing subtle moments of skill saw him quickly enchant the club's fanbase. How could they possibly do anything but fall for him?

His opening year in England saw him score five goals and contribute nine assists in 26 league appearances. He won the FA Cup, helping Arsene Wenger's side rally from an early 2-0 deficit to defeat Hull City 3-2 in the Wembley final. Two months later, he was lifting the World Cup in South Africa.


THE GOLDEN YEARS

Ozil's second season included a lengthy spell on the sidelines, restricting him to 22 outings in the Premier League. He did help them retain the FA Cup though, this time with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Aston Villa.

However, the Gunners saw the best of him in the two years that followed. In 2015-16, he laid on 19 assists – one shy of Thierry Henry's record – and created 146 chances, the latter number the most by any player in the competition for a single season since 2003-04. He was also the subject of seemingly thousands of Twitter memes, too.

Arsenal ended up second in the final table, 10 points behind surprise champions Leicester City. The glass half-full type pointed to it being their best finish in 11 years, while the less optimistic sort strongly suggested it was more a missed opportunity.

The following season was Ozil's best in terms of Premier League goals – eight in 33 games – but another possible title challenge faded after the turn of the year, leading to a finish outside the top four. There was yet another FA Cup success to at least ease the pressure on Wenger, but their streak of participating in the Champions League was over.

Then, in February 2018, came Ozil's new contract. "I signed dat thing," he tweeted at the time, having committed through to 2021. Wenger was with him in the picture, though nobody knew at the time that the manager was coming towards the end of his tenure.

A lucrative deal handed out to ward off potential suitors and tie down one of the club's leading names appeared a necessity at the time but would quickly become a millstone around the player's neck. The reported weekly salary was referenced so often in the media it should have been added to his name by deed poll.

In terms of his future output, Ozil managed a mere six goals and five assists in 48 league games after the moment he put pen to paper for three more years.


DRIFTING APART AND THE INEVITABLE SPLIT

Relations became strained as Ozil shifted from eye-catching centrepiece to expensive luxury. The focus had switched from how much he produced on the ball to what he didn't do without it. The phasing-out process began during the Unai Emery reign, then led to him being completely ostracised by former team-mate Mikel Arteta.

Yet it is easy to forget that he did start in the Spaniard's first game in charge, away at Bournemouth. "To be fair, his attitude in training since the day that I walked in the building has been incredible," Arteta told reporters after the 1-1 draw on Boxing Day in 2019.

Still, six months later, when the Premier League returned following the coronavirus-enforced break, Arteta's tune had changed somewhat. After completely omitting Ozil from the squad to face Manchester City in June in the first game back, Arteta said: "I'm going to put him on the pitch when I think he can give his best.”

There were two more fixtures when Ozil made the bench, only to be an unused substitute on both occasions. The 2019-20 season saw him play 18 times in the league and he managed a solitary goal and two assists. His final outing for the club came on March 3, 2020 – a 1-0 home victory over West Ham.

Across his Arsenal career, Ozil provided 54 assists. Only Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne (75) and David Silva (62), plus Tottenham's Christian Eriksen (62), contributed more assists for their teams since Ozil's arrival in England. When it comes to chances created, only Eriksen (571) beats Ozil's total of 558 – and the Dane played over 40 games more.

And yet, as the divorce is confirmed, there is a sense of relief for all involved that it is all over. It was fun, for a while, but the time is right to move on.

Thiago Alcantara is a rather unique breed of footballer, the type of player who will be almost universally enjoyed such are his breath-taking technical attributes.

It's like he rolls the passing talents of Juan Roman Riquelme and first touch of Ronaldinho into a single player and saunters around the pitch ensuring the game is played at a pace dictated by him.

His Liverpool career feels a lot shorter than it actually has been because of his absence through injury, and he'll be hoping his recent return is the catalyst to kick-starting what is resembling a fairly meek title defence.

But while Thiago has shown flashes of his immense ability in his fledgling Liverpool career, it appears not all are entirely convinced.

Former Reds midfielder Dietmar Hamann expressed his reservations in an interview with talkSPORT on Tuesday, suggesting Thiago is detrimental to a key part of Liverpool's play; utilising a quick tempo with hard-working midfielders who look to get the ball forward to the front three as soon as possible.

Hamann urged Liverpool to be cautious about how much influence they let Thiago have, questioning his effectiveness when not in possession and suitability to the Reds' system, concerns that won't have been eased by Thursday's shock defeat to Burnley.

But does this give a fair reflection of Thiago?

An unnecessary luxury?

First of all, there are only so many conclusions you can make regarding Thiago and his time at Liverpool because he has not featured particularly often, as previously highlighted.

But the fact is, Liverpool's record in Premier League games he has featured in is quite poor, with only one of those six ending in a victory.

That win came in his Premier League debut, a 2-0 victory at Chelsea back in September – that's right, it was the game where he completed 75 passes despite only coming on at half-time, a record since Opta began recording such data in 2003-04 among players to play a maximum of 45 minutes.

The hype after that match was stratospheric – the champions had seemingly added the final string to their bow and they were seemingly set to overwhelm everyone, but it's worth bearing in mind that was a Chelsea side reduced to 10 men before Thiago had even come on.

Liverpool average just one point per game with Thiago, that more than doubles to 2.2 when he hasn't played – additionally, their win percentage rockets from 16.7 to 61.5 in games the Spaniard hasn't featured in.

Of course, it's a relatively small sample size, so perhaps take the facts with a pinch of salt – but there are metrics that can shine more light on Thiago's influence.

One of Hamann's major reservations related to Thiago's desire to dictate play and how he might, in the long run, negatively impact Liverpool's effectiveness off the ball.

"Liverpool were always good when they weren't in possession, won it and played quickly forward. He's not that type of player, so it will be very interesting when he does play more often now how it's going to change the dynamics of the team," Hamann said.

It's true, Liverpool do have more of the ball (65.7 per cent compared to 64.7) with Thiago in the side, but the difference is negligible and certainly cannot be pointed to as a cause for worry.

The supply line

Then there's the concerns relating to Thiago's style of play potentially impacting supply to the frontline. Well, the Reds average 18.7 shots per game when he plays (up from 14.9 without him).

There is also no damning evidence to suggest Thiago isn't looking to feed the forwards either, after all, he passed to Mohamed Salah 11 times (a joint high) against Manchester United last weekend.

He has picked out Salah 36 times in their 365 minutes on the pitch together – so, once every 10.1 minutes. Although that's less frequent than he passes to Trent Alexander-Arnold (once per every 8.2 minutes) and Andy Robertson (8.8 minutes), it shows he is supplying the Reds' most-threatening forward regularly.

And while the two full-backs had off days against Burnley, can you really blame Thiago for passing to them often? Since the start of last season, they are Liverpool's leading providers of shooting opportunities.

Additionally, his 14.9 passes into final third of the pitch per 90 minutes is second only to Jordan Henderson (16.2) among Liverpool players this term – Thiago beats him, and every other Red, in terms of successful passes in the attacking third every game, however (25.8, compared to Henderson's 20.5).

"He's not that type of player"

It's fair to say Thiago probably isn't best known for what he brings to teams off the ball, but despite some seemingly questioning him in this department, he appears to be at least pulling his weight.

In fact, he's averaging marginally more tackles per 90 minutes than Henderson (1.5 over 1.4), while no one in the Liverpool team is intercepting opposition passes as frequently as the Barcelona product (2.8 per 90 mins).

On top of that, he's ranked third in the squad for duel involvements (14.7 per 90 mins) – while not necessarily an indicator of excellence on its own, that should at the very least dispel any questions regarding his work rate.

On an individual level when you look at the data, Thiago doesn't appear to be out of place stylistically. While he may occasionally spend more time on the ball than some of his midfield contemporaries, he possesses the kind of technical wizardry that arguably no other Liverpool player has and that is surely a positive rather than a negative.

He's also clearly a hard-working player who offers plenty off the ball. So, while the Reds are going through a tricky patch at the moment, Thiago's abilities should be embraced rather than looked upon with suspicion.

The matchup for Super Bowl LV will be known by the end of this weekend as the two Conference Championships are decided.

Probably the strangest season in NFL history has delivered a semi-final line-up to savour.

There is a matchup between two future Hall of Famers in Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.

The AFC Championship Game features two signal-callers well on their way to securing Hall of Fame status, with Patrick Mahomes recovering from a concussion to lead the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.

Mahomes being available means the Chiefs remain the favourites to retain the trophy, but here Stats Perform's team of NFL writers make their picks as to who will emerge from the final four and prevail at Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

Ben Spratt - CHIEFS TO CONQUER ALL ONCE MORE

With Mahomes, the best quarterback in football, fit to play, it seems foolish to back against the Chiefs.

The fourth-year superstar has the best career passer rating in playoff history (106.6), with his only two postseason interceptions coming in last year's Super Bowl when he subsequently led Kansas City to victory in a record-equalling 21-point fourth quarter.

And yet this team is not just about Mahomes, as their QB has the luxury of targeting tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ranked second and eighth for receiving yards this season.

Even when Mahomes was out against the Cleveland Browns, the Chiefs had a coach in Andy Reid ready to make the big calls to guide them through.

Chris Myson - SEVENTH HEAVEN FOR BRADY

The meeting of the minds between Bruce Arians and Brady was never going to be plain sailing in their first season, as two demoralising regular-season division losses to the New Orleans Saints showed.

But the Buccaneers have gradually worked through their problems and are now riding a five-game winning streak, having seen off the Washington Football Team by eight points and the Saints by 10 in the postseason.

At 43, Brady exceeded expectations in his first year in Arians' system, with 40 passing touchdowns being the second-best tally of his storied career, only the record-breaking 50 he got in 2007 topping that.

It has historically proven wise not to bet against Brady in the playoffs, a case strengthened with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and many more weapons representing the best supporting cast he has had in years.

Rob Lancaster - WE BILL-IEVE!

The Bills believe again. A franchise that has suffered more than their fair share of Super Bowl heartache in the past, losing four straight in the early 1990s, has high hopes that this could finally be their year.

Allen holds the key for Buffalo; he finished in the top five for quarterbacks in terms of passing yards, touchdowns thrown and yards per attempt in the regular season.

With his team rather abandoning the run in the playoffs – they posted a season-low 32 yards on the ground in the Divisional Round triumph over the Baltimore Ravens – the 24-year-old has the chance to excel against elite competition and, by lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, write his name into Buffalo folklore.

Nicholas McGee - BACK THE PACK

In last year's NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers were crushed by a San Francisco 49ers team that ran them over on offense and used their defense to swarm Aaron Rodgers and condemn him to another chastening playoff loss. 

The Packers were seen as a regression candidate in 2020, but those who expected them to take a step back perhaps underestimated how much of an achievement it was for them to reach this stage last season in Rodgers' first year in Matt LaFleur's offense.

His second year in the scheme, built around the same principles that form the basis of Kyle Shanahan's 49ers attack, has seen Rodgers take an offense widely regarded as the most creative in the game to new heights.

A near-lock for the MVP award, Rodgers completed 70.7 per cent of his passes in the regular season for 4,299 yards, an incredible 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Behind only Deshaun Watson and Allen with a completion percentage over expectation of 4.4, according to NextGen Stats, Rodgers led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt, his average of 8.89 well clear of Mahomes (8.33) in second. 

Possessing a near-telepathic connection with Davante Adams, Rodgers is playing at a level where he can outduel Brady, Allen or Mahomes, while the Packers defense is rounding into the kind of form where Green Bay can do what San Francisco couldn't last year, and make enough plays to stop the Chiefs from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

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