The Philadelphia 76ers' trip to the Los Angeles Lakers is not quite the blockbuster clash it might have been, but Thursday's game should prove no less intriguing.

Rather than seeing MVP candidates Joel Embiid and LeBron James battle it out at Staples Center, the Sixers and the Lakers will attempt to show how they can cope without their leading men.

Embiid has been on the sidelines since March 12, over which time Philly have gone 5-1, but they crucially have the benefit of Ben Simmons, their second All-Star now fit and firing.

LA do not have the same luxury, as Anthony Davis is also out, with the team beaten by the Atlanta Hawks as James went down and again in his absence in Tuesday's game with the New Orleans Pelicans.

This could still be an NBA Finals preview, though, and the matchup will undoubtedly draw plenty of interested eyes...
 

TOP PERFORMERS

Los Angeles Lakers - Dennis Schroder

Schroder was a Sixth Man of the Year contender last year - missing out to now team-mate Montrezl Harrell - but now finds himself as the most important player in the champions' team with both James and Davis out.

The point guard has started all but four of LA's games this season, his absence coinciding with a four-game losing streak.

Defeat on Thursday would mean another stretch of four straight defeats and it will be up to Schroder to ensure that does not happen.

Coach Frank Vogel talked up Schroder's importance after the Hawks game and his 15 points against the Pelicans maintained his seasonal average at the same mark, third-most for the Lakers behind their big two.

Philadelphia 76ers - Ben Simmons

As the only remaining All-Star in this clash between two of the league's top teams, Simmons will be expected to make the difference.

The former first overall pick has previously been tasked with guarding James but should be freed in the absence of superstar opponents, perhaps able to focus his efforts instead on scoring and creating shots for others.

In a strange quirk, Simmons' four best scoring games this season have come in defeats. Fifth on that list, however, is the win against the Golden State Warriors last time out when he put up 22.

One of his four triple-doubles this season came in the previous game against the Lakers.
 

KEY BATTLE - CAN LAKERS HALT HARRIS?

That sole other matchup between the teams this season was settled by Tobias Harris' 15-footer with three seconds remaining as he switched onto the more diminutive Alex Caruso.

Harris' 10-for-16 shooting in that game was vital and the Lakers, without their best defender in Davis, must more effectively guard the forward.

While Simmons is the star name in this encounter, Harris is second only to Embiid on the Sixers with a career-high 20.8 points per game this year.

The Lakers will at least know to pay attention to Harris in 'clutch' moments, his two points in February among 71 this season that have him 18th in the league in such situations.
 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers have the slight edge in the teams' all-time regular season record with 146 wins to the Sixers' 138 going back to their respective beginnings in Minneapolis and Syracuse.

Philly's dramatic 107-106 success earlier this year was their fifth meeting with LA since James moved to the Western Conference outfit, in which time the Sixers are 4-1 - albeit the four-time MVP missed the first defeat.

Embiid has only faced the Lakers six times, with a 4-2 record. LA are 4-3 in the seven Philly's main man has missed in his time in the league.

Few individuals have had such an enduring impact upon what we think constitutes beautiful football than Johan Cruyff.

As a playmaking forward in the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s, Cruyff oozed inimitable style as he bent games to his will and thrilled the world with his eponymous turn.

An icon of his era and arguably the greatest European footballer ever to play the game, Cruyff's impact as a coach was somehow even more profound.

The irresistible approach of his Barcelona "Dream Team" in the early 1990s brought a maiden European trophy to Camp Nou along with four consecutive LaLiga titles. It is a legacy that sets the standard for the Catalan giants to this day

Beyond that, he switched on a generation of fans to the frictionless wonder of Barca's positional play, not to mention a host of tacticians whose deeds continued to burnish his considerable reputation.

On the fifth anniversary of his death, we look at five of Cruyff's most notable disciples.

FRANK RIJKAARD

"He is like the Godfather of Dutch football," Frank Rijkaard said of the man who coached him at Ajax in the mid-1980s before his tactical reputation was firmly established at Barcelona, while Cruyff's great mentor Rinus Michels also coached Rijkaard with the national team

Even though Rijkaard was not associated with Cruyff's most famous team, he followed in his old boss' footsteps by taking over as Barcelona head coach following a relative fallow period in 2003.

The arrival of Ronaldinho revitalised the ailing Blaugrana and Rijkaard enjoyed the fruits of La Masia's finest generation, as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi came to the fore.

Back-to-back LaLiga titles and the 2005-06 Champions League were the highlights of a 273-game reign. Only Cruyff (421) has led Barca more often in all competitions.

PEP GUARDIOLA  

After the Rijkaard era ambled to a bloated end, Barca turned to the man who has done more than any other to keep Cruyff's vision at the forefront of world football.

"Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it," said Pep Guardiola, whose restoration sparkled beyond all reasonable expectations.

Barca won three consecutive LaLiga crowns and two Champions Leagues – the first as part of a 2008-09 treble.

Unlike Cruyff, who never coached again after leaving Barca, and Rijkaard, who maybe should have followed suit and not endured underwhelming stints with Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia, Guardiola spread the gospel far and wide.

His Bayern Munich won three out of three Bundesligas, while Manchester City have set a record 100-points margin in the Premier League and are closing in on the third top-flight title of Guardiola's trophy-laden tenure.

ERNESTO VALVERDE

One of Guardiola's legacies after leaving Barcelona was any potential successors would have a stronger chance of getting the job if they had a link to Cruyff, La Masia or both. Luis Enrique followed Guardiola's path from Barca B to first team and even emulated the treble.

As a back-up forward at Camp Nou between 1988 and 1990, Valverde was an unflashy squad member of Cruyff went about empire building, a description that could also be applied to a strong coaching career as he earned respect during spells in charge of Espanyol, Olympiacos and Athletic Bilbao.

His Cruyff association, as much as those efforts in the dugout was a factor in him being appointed to replace Luis Enrique in 2017.

Despite inheriting the saga of Neymar's departure and an increasingly muddled sporting policy, Valverde won back-to-back LaLiga titles and helmed a record 43-match unbeaten run in LaLiga between April 2017 and May 2018 that began under his predecessor.

RONALD KOEMAN

The shambles that followed under Quique Setien, culminating in a shambolic 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in last year's Champions League quarter-finals, spoke well of the tight ship Valverde ran. After that failed experiment, Barca reverted to a familiar type.

Ronald Koeman became the club's fifth Dutch head coach after Michels, Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Rijkaard.

Despite outstripping Mauricio Pochettino's win percentage at Southampton by 47.4 to 35.2, Koeman's work in the Premier League did not have other elite clubs beating down his door – much less his spell at Valencia.

His first season in the job he craved has not been without considerable turbulence, but a recent switch to a particularly Cruyffian 3-4-3 (hello, Frenkie de Jong in the middle of the back three!) and the apparent backing of recently elected president Joan Laporta suggests brighter days ahead.

JULEN LOPETEGUI

Even less prominent than Valverde as a Cruyff player, Julen Lopetegui was Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper between 1994 and 1997. But again, an unshakeable impression was made.

"As soon as I had the first training session with Johan I thought 'this is different to all other coaches', he was brilliant," he told BBC Sport in 2019.

"He planted the seed for other coaches to take on his ideas and develop those ideas. He was one step ahead of the rest."

The same could not be said for Lopetegui as he exited two dream jobs with Spain and Real Madrid in the space of a nightmare six months, but a cathartic Europa League triumph with Sevilla last season showed a coach impressively rebuilding his reputation.

Among coaches to have managed at least 40 Sevilla games in LaLiga, none can better Lopetegui's 54.5 per cent win percentage.

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

It's entirely possible the staging of the 2021 European Under-21 Championship will have passed many people by, given the fact it's taken on a somewhat peculiar format of a mid-season group stage with the knockout phase following two months later.

Originally due to take place solely in June, organisers were forced into a re-think following last year's postponement of the senior competition. It was decided to split the Under-21s' event in two, therefore avoiding a clash.

Despite the rather unconventional format, the competition will see many of the continent's most-promising prodigies on display.

The tournament, based in Hungary and Slovenia, begins on Wednesday with the Magyars hosting Germany, and we have identified some high-potential talents to keep an eye on.

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

Lafont has been a regular at this age-group level with France for many years, but a brief stint at Fiorentina in 2018-19 did not go to plan, with the Toulouse youth product freely admitting his performances "were not the best" as he secured to a loan move to Nantes ahead of last season.

Only Andrea Consigli (six) made more than Lafont's four errors leading to shots in Serie A two seasons ago, but his dependability appears to have improved considerably since returning to France, with no shots occurring because of errors by him in 57 Ligue 1 matches.

He also produced a particularly strong performance in the shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, making four saves including a couple of eye-catching stops to thwart Angel Di Maria.

 

A closer at Lafont’s performances for a struggling Nantes side in 2020-21 reveals he has not had the greatest campaign. When discounting own goals and penalties by the opposition, Lafont has allowed 3.5 goals more than the ‘average’ goalkeeper would have been expected to concede in Ligue 1 this season (37 conceded, 33.5 xG on target).

The metric ‘Goals Prevented Rate’ can account for different goalkeepers facing a different volume of shots through a period of time. An example of this is that PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas has a goals prevented rate of 1.37 this season, meaning for every non-penalty goal that Navas has conceded (excluding own goals), the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 1.37. Lafont’s rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers to have played 1800 minutes of French top-flight football in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, France's regular at this level knows he has a very capable understudy in Illan Meslier breathing down his neck.

Prior to his 21st birthday earlier in the month, Meslier broke the record for the most clean sheets by an under-21 goalkeeper in a single Premier League season (eight) and has since added another to that figure.

That means he has three times as many shutouts as Lafont, which is intriguing because it raises the question of why then has Meslier not conceded fewer goals?

For starters, it suggests Lafont is more consistent but also highlights that when Leeds concede, the floodgates can really burst open. With those 46 goals spread across 19 matches, it means Meslier is conceding on average 2.5 goals per game when he doesn't get a clean sheet – this drops to 1.7 for Lafont.

 

On top of that, Meslier's seven errors leading to shots is more than any other player in the Premier League this term, perhaps showing he's still in the inexperienced, nervous phase that Lafont has seemingly left behind.

Meslier's superior save percentage of 71.1 compared to 65.7 speaks to the former Lorient youngster's shot-stopping abilities, though for the time being Lafont's greater consistency looks set to keep him first-choice.

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

A promising loan spell with Heerenveen last season alerted Lille to the talents of Ajax-owned Botman and he has been a real hit for Les Dogues since a reported €8m move, helping them to mount a serious Ligue 1 title challenge.

Lille's 19 goals conceded is the fewest in France's top tier and, while not necessarily entirely down to Botman, there's no doubt he's made his presence known as a reliable powerhouse at the back.

 

Of the 856 players across Europe's top five leagues to have engaged in at least 150 duels, Botman's 71.4 per cent success rate is the best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess.

Only four of the 157 players in the continent's elite divisions to have been involved in 100+ aerial duels have a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (72.5 per cent).

While his impressive physical attributes might lead to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 452 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

 

Of course, there is likely to be a glaring absence from the senior Dutch side at Euro 2020. with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp not expecting Virgil van Dijk to be ready for the tournament.

That means there is potentially a spot up for grabs in the centre of the Netherlands defence, and Botman's combination of power and elegance suggests he could be a good fit as Van Dijk's deputy.

Granted, the young defender – who hasn't been capped at senior level yet – still has a way to go to match up to the Reds star, but in the context of young defenders of a similar ilk, Botman certainly compares well and his strengths are similar to those of Van Dijk.

His aerial stats prove he's an excellent physical specimen, and his effectiveness in duels reflects the fact he's a difficult defender to beat. A strong showing here might just help convince Frank de Boer that Botman's ready to step up later this year.

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

Les Bleus are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in most areas, but the fact Kounde is turning out for the Under-21s in this tournament instead of the senior side exemplifies their depth in quality at the heart of the defence.

In his second full season with Sevilla, Kounde has kicked on following a hugely encouraging second half to 2019-20, so much so that he's arguably the first name on the team sheet for Julen Lopetegui.

 

His forward-thinking nature has made him key to the coach's 'Lavolpiana build-up' defensive structure, a setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward from a three-man backline.

Only two central defenders in La Liga have bettered Kounde's rate of 19.2 carries per 90, while there are just three who have covered more distance carrying the ball further up field than the Frenchman this term (2,774 metres).

This positivity is generally offset by Fernando dropping in to form a faux back three, while Kounde's movement up the right can often create overloads as he teams up with Jesus Navas, Sevilla's biggest chance creator (44).

 

But evidence of his progressive mentality doesn't stop there. While possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs, given the sheer number of simple short balls played between defensive colleagues, Kounde is clearly looking ahead, and often.

No defender has been successful with more forward passes in open play than Kounde this season in LaLiga (507), with the 22-year-old completing an impressive 79 per cent of these. Therefore, perhaps it's not surprising to learn no Sevilla player has been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences than he has (53), demonstrating his value to their forays forward, despite not attempting the shots or making the final pass in that move.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he is developing into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who would have looked at home in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

It's fair to say that, when Sporting CP set out to replace Bruno Fernandes, never in their wildest dreams would they have expected what they got. Pedro Goncalves had been a key figure for Famalicao in 2019-20, but to say he's surpassed expectations in Lisbon would be an understatement.

Goncalves operates in similar spaces to Fernandes, albeit drifting towards the right a little more, and his hot streak in front of goal has helped put Sporting on course for a first league title since 2001-02.

 

In 22 Primeira Liga matches, the attacking midfielder has scored 15 goals – none of which were penalties. The 22-year-old's xG total is just 6.9, meaning his over-performance of 8.1 is the biggest across Europe's top six leagues, aside from the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (9.3).

Of course, the chances of him being able to sustain such a run in the long-term are low, but it still highlights what a danger the former Wolves youngster poses in his current form.

 

Comparisons with Fernandes have been rife, for obvious reasons, but they show many different traits to their game.

In Fernandes' final 50 league games for Sporting, he averaged 3.4 shots per 90 minutes and 2.3 of those non-penalty shots came from outside the box – Goncalves attempts 2.6 on average each game, with only 1.1 coming from beyond the penalty area.

As such, the average quality of Fernandes' shots in his final 50 games for Sporting weren't outstanding, with his xG per non-penalty shot equating to 0.07. Goncalves' is almost double that at 0.13, suggesting he picks his moments more selectively while also taking fewer attempts.

Nevertheless, despite Fernandes' penchant for a long-range effort, he only scored four times from outside the box in his final 50 league matches for Sporting – Goncalves already has three this term from 28 fewer games.

 

The biggest difference between the pair is assists. Fernandes' 20 in his final 50 outings for Sporting dwarfs Goncalves' three in 2020-21, but interestingly their expected assists per 90 minutes isn't hugely dissimilar. Fernandes is ahead 0.29 to 0.20 in this area, but a potential explanation for this potentially lies in the respective teams they've played in.

 

The next highest-scorer for Sporting this season after Goncalves himself is Nuno Santos with six – they don't have a prolific centre-forward, whereas Fernandes was supplying Bas Dost, who netted 76 times in 84 league games for the club between 2016 and 2019.

As we all know now, Fernandes was on the trajectory of an elite-level player. He's proven this at Manchester United, though there were certainly those who were sceptical about him prior to his move.

It'll be a tough ask, but why can't Goncalves continue to defy expectations?

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

Russian striker Fedor Chalov is undoubtedly one of the most experienced players involved at the tournament, with the 22-year-old having already played 115 Russian Premier League matches in addition to his 11 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Chalov burst on to the scene in Russia with CSKA Moscow at 18 years old back in November 2016 and scored in just his fifth top-flight appearance for the club versus Ural a month later.

After scoring six goals in each of his opening two league seasons at CSKA, 2018-19 was when he really began to make a name for himself in Russia - winning the league's top scorer award with 15 goals, while also posting his best-ever season tally for assists (7).

But Chalov's career hasn't kicked on as expected since then, scoring just 13 goals in 50 top-flight appearances over the past two seasons, but his performances have been stirring enough to attract the attentions of multiple Premier League clubs during the January transfer window.

 

Despite this, Chalov's numbers domestically at top-tier level are mightily impressive for a player so early in his career. Despite only being 22, Chalov's tally of 60 goal involvements since his Russian Premier League debut are the third most by a player in the competition.

Russia are certainly one of the underdogs for the 2021 Under-21 European Championship and are unlikely to top their group, having been drawn alongside favourites France. However, if Chalov can find form in the first stage of the tournament then he could be the linchpin to Russian hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages in May.

The international break might bring respite from the packed club calendar, but with Qatar 2022 now just 20 months away, top players have little chance for rest.

Still, the start of the European World Cup qualifiers brings an opportunity for the new names on the international scene to impress, particularly with more established stars unlikely to be involved in every minute of matches over these two weeks.

Several of the continent's top teams have offered first-time call-ups to those enjoying fine form and, while some were anticipated, others have left even the players themselves surprised.

We have picked through a selection of the new faces to look out for, with a sprinkling of Opta data to highlight why they deserve a chance to impress for their country.

 

Belgium: Orel Mangala and Albert Sambi Lokonga

Stuttgart's Orel Mangala has been linked with Arsenal and RB Leipzig due to his performances for Stuttgart this season. Only three midfielders have regained possession more often in the Bundesliga than the 23-year-old (166).

Also hoping to make his senior Belgium debut at the heart of midfield is Albert Sambi Lokonga, who assumed the captain's armband at Anderlecht less than a month after turning 21.

Lokonga, who could get a chance in place of the injured Axel Witsel, has regained possession 35 more times than any team-mate this season (157) and is also fourth for chances created (22).

Croatia: Kristijan Lovric

With Ante Rebic and Bruno Petkovic injured, the coming matches could offer a real chance to impress for Kristijan Lovric.

The HNK Gorica star is second in the top scorer standings in Croatia's top flight, with 15 goals in 24 appearances. With four assists also to his name, Lovric is behind only Tottenham's Europa League slayer Mislav Orsic and Ramon Mierez (both on 20) for direct goal involvements this season.

It's a seriously impressive return for the 25-year-old, particularly as he plays predominantly wide on the left of the Gorica attack.

England: Ollie Watkins

West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone may get the chance to win a first senior England cap, but a man almost certain to be given a chance in attack is Ollie Watkins.

The Aston Villa forward became the 10th Premier League player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool, and the first in a decade, in October's extraordinary 7-2 win over the reigning champions.

He has 10 in the top flight this term, while only captain Jack Grealish (17) has had more direct goal involvements than Watkins (15) in all competitions for Villa this season. Not bad for a man who was playing in England's sixth tier just six years ago.

 

Germany: Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala

Rising Bayern Munich star Jamal Musiala was expected to be named in Joachim Low's squad after he pledged his international future to Germany rather than England.

The 18-year-old, who only signed his first professional contract this month, is Bayern's youngest ever Champions League goalscorer and has already played 18 times in the Bundesliga this season.

Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz has also earned the right to shine on the senior stage. He is one of just two players under the age of 20 to be directly involved in at least eight goals across the top-five European leagues this season.

Italy: Rafael Toloi and Matteo Ricci

Brazilian-born Rafael Toloi has made it to the age of 30 without a senior international appearance, but his performances for Gian Piero Gasperini's outstanding Atalanta side made him hard to overlook.

Toloi averages seven possession regains per match for Atalanta this season and is comfortable when using the ball, completing 493 passes in the opposition half, the most of any Atalanta defender barring Berat Djimsiti.

Spezia midfielder Matteo Ricci, meanwhile, boasts 19 chances created in Serie A this season as well as 151 times winning back the ball, by far the highest tally for his team.

Netherlands: Jeremiah St Juste

Jeremiah St Juste has impressed at the back for Mainz this season, despite their involvement in a tense battle to avoid the drop.

There are only five Bundesliga defenders to win more tackles and duels combined than the 24-year-old this season (he has managed 165).

Previously a full-back with Feyenoord, St Juste brings a vital commodity to modern central defending: speed. Last season, he clocked a sprint of 22.1 miles per hour, bettered only at the time by Bayern winger Kingsley Coman.

Poland: Kacper Kozlowski

A relative unknown outside Poland, even Kacper Kozlowski himself was shocked to be called up to Paulo Sousa's squad this month.

Clearly, though, he has caught the eye for some all-action displays in the top flight for Pogon Szczecin. The 17-year-old averages 8.3 duels won and 17 passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes, each the most of any teenage midfielder in the competition.

Kozlowski, who is also renowned for a fierce long-range shot, has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs since making his senior debut at just 15, with Manchester United said to be among them.

 

Portugal: Joao Palhinha and Nuno Mendes

Linked with Manchester City (among others), Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes has been described as the standout young talent in Portugal's top flight.

Only Wilson Manafa (49) has completed more dribbles among defenders this season than Mendes (29), who has played in all but four of the unbeaten leaders' league matches.

The 18-year-old is joined in the Portugal squad by team-mate Joao Palhinha, a robust midfielder who has won 208 duels in the Primeira Liga in 2020-21 – no player in his position has won more.

Spain: Bryan Gil and Pedri

Pedri has been a revelation for Barcelona in his first season at Camp Nou, establishing himself as a key part of Ronald Koeman's midfield despite only turning 18 last November.

He has played 42 times already in 2020-21, the most of anyone at the club, and became the youngest player to record 100 touches in a single LaLiga game for at least 15 years against Osasuna this month.

Bryan Gil, meanwhile, has been thriving on loan at Eibar from Sevilla and in January became the second player born this century to score twice in the same LaLiga match, following in the footsteps of Ansu Fati.

 

Kevin De Bruyne's scintillating long-range strike against Borussia Monchengladbach last week was Manchester City's 100th goal of the season and maintained Pep Guardiola's record of his sides reaching a century in each of his 12 seasons in top-flight coaching.

At Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now at Manchester City, Guardiola the tactician is loath to go on the defensive.

However, whenever he feels the quality or worth of one of his players might have been called into question during a news conference, that position is second nature.

"He's an incredibly important player for us," the Catalan snapped back unequivocally when Raheem Sterling's declining output in front of goal was raised this year, two days after he put a penalty against Brighton and Hove Albion into orbit to prolong a lean spell of three goals in 18 games.

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

Quite simply, that is a whole lot of everything.

Under Guardiola, City have won six major honours. They became the first team to reach the 100-points landmark when lifting the Premier League in 2017-18 and retained the title as part of an unprecedented domestic treble the following season.

A 14-point lead at the top of the table and next month's dates in the EFL Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals mean a clean sweep in England is once again a possibility as Borussia Dortmund await in the last eight of the Champions League.

One of the points of difference this time around is Guardiola's apparently assertion the past couple of weeks that more of the success he craves might be possible with Sterling confined to the margins.

After being defended by his manager in January, Sterling embarked upon a run of six goals in nine games across all competitions, including one in a deeply cathartic 4-1 win over former club Liverpool at Anfield and concluding with an early winner at Arsenal in February.

He has not added to a 13-goal haul in 2020-21 since and after, wasting two glorious late chances in the 2-0 derby defeat to Manchester United, Sterling was an unused substitute for the subsequent 5-2 win over Southampton.

That decision apparently prompted a row denied by both men – "nothing happened" said Guardiola, "FALSE" tweeted Sterling – after the England international was omitted from the travelling squad for a 3-0 win at Fulham.

It means, as Wednesday marks the ninth anniversary of the 26-year-old's top-flight debut, that one of the most impressive Premier League careers of the past decade has encountered some unusual on-field turbulence.

 

Chasing Shearer and Rooney

Aside from a tempestuous end to his final season at Liverpool as Sterling sought to leave and a patchy start at City as Manuel Pellegrini's tenure spluttered to an end, the winger's trajectory has aimed relentlessly upwards since Kenny Dalglish introduced him as a substitute against Wigan Athletic on March 24, 2012, aged 17 years and 107 days.

He has 144 direct goal involvements in 284 Premier League games, with 95 goals and 49 assists. Ranking all players in Premier League history before their 27th birthdays, this puts Sterling eighth – one place above David Beckham (128 goal involvements).

Wayne Rooney leads the way (215) from Alan Shearer (172), Harry Kane (163), Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler (both 162), Michael Owen (156) and Romelu Lukaku (148), meaning a few of that esteemed group are within reach for Sterling before he turns 27 on December 8.

Overall, Shearer remains king, his all-time record haul of 260 Premier League goals among 325 goal involvements, ahead of Rooney on 311 (208 goals, 103 assists).

By all accounts, Sterling should be entering his peak years and is fractionally ahead of Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (92 and 91 respectively) in the race to become the 30th member of the Premier League's 100 goals club.

Along with having the chance to join Rooney and Frank Lampard as the third dual goals and assists centurion in league history, Sterling's overall output means he will get close to Shearer and Rooney's levels if he can maintain it.

All of which makes Sterling's absence from a certain conversation fairly curious.

 

From #TheHatedOne to Premier League great?

In recent years, Manchester City bade fond farewells to the first batch of superstars that propelled the club's transformation from also-rans to trophy collectors.

When they departed, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and David Silva were all acclaimed as being among the very best in their positions to grace the division. Similar talk will accompany Sergio Aguero if, as looks increasingly likely, he leaves the Etihad Stadium when his contract expires in June.

De Bruyne is very much in the midst of his prime years, having joined City in the same 2015 close-season as Sterling, and is already spoken of in such terms.

But the notion of Raheem Sterling: Premier League great? Despite the numbers outlined above, it is a consideration seldom made.

This can be partly attributed to the vitriolic reaction that followed his Liverpool exit, which embedded poisonous and unfair perceptions of an ambitious young footballer.

"It just winds me up and angers me to the pit of my stomach," said Kop favourite Jamie Carragher of Sterling's desire to leave Anfield. John Aldridge declared a then 20-year-old "too young to think for himself", despite middle age seemingly not opening up such a capacity for the former striker.

Carragher, Aldridge and numerous other ex-Reds within the pundit class were speaking passionately in defence of the club they loved, but unfortunately with no regard for the abuse – both insidious and explicit – they helped to normalise.

Sterling was infamously dubbed "footie Idiot Raheem" in a Sun article – still available online, as it happens – following England's Euro 2016 exit against Iceland, where the City player won a penalty in a 2-1 defeat.

Earlier in the tournament, he labelled himself "#TheHatedOne" on social media. The vibrant performer from his Liverpool days began to return on the field under Guardiola, but the attitude from the terraces made it feel like Sterling had a point.

At grounds such as Turf Moor, the Hawthorns and the King Power Stadium, he was booed, despite no obvious rivalry existing between City and their opponents. For many there was grimly familiar discomfort and unease: surely it's not about that, is it?

Then, at Stamford Bridge in December 2018, Sterling was targeted by a group of home supporters, their faces contorted in anger. The incident led Chelsea to banning a fan for life for using "racially abusive language".

The day after the match, Sterling addressed the unequal media coverage given to black and white footballers in a social media post, and what this means to those on the receiving end. He remains a powerful voice in the fight against racism in football and society as a whole.

Sterling's status as a role model and an inspiration played a part alongside his phenomenal performances for treble-winning City as he was named 2018-19 FWA Footballer of the Year.

 

The surrounding and frequently vile noise accompanying his career in England is not something shared by Sterling's City counterparts. The stand he took after the Chelsea match will remain a defining time in his career and, in terms of performance analysis, it might be seen as the moment where all other noise faded into the background and a rare talent was given his due. 

There is, however, another elephant in the room when it comes to assessing Sterling's elite credentials. Or, more accurately, an elephant in the six-yard box.

Floored by missed sitters

The 2019-20 season was the most prolific of Sterling's career as he scored 31 times overall and hit 20 in the Premier League.

Nevertheless, it concluded with him somehow blazing over from four yards with City 2-1 down to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The Ligue 1 club soon led 3-1 and City were out – a nadir of the Guardiola era.

For a player who scores so frequently, Sterling's finishing remains maddeningly unreliable at times.

During City's 100-point season, Guardiola hauled him off after an implausible miss at Burnley and a couple of botched clear openings in that April Manchester derby, where City led 2-0 and lost 3-2, were a huge factor in the ultimate bragging rights of claiming a league title with victory over their bitter rivals going begging.

Then, despite contributing tirelessly to the collective effort, Sterling failed to score as England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. It is impossible to imagine Rooney or Shearer doing likewise in similar circumstances, making that campaign an unhelpful anomaly in any pretentions to greatness.

So, is Sterling's finishing overall as bad as those forgettable moments suggest?

Since his debut, he is the fifth-highest scoring Premier League player on 95, behind Aguero (164), Harry Kane (159), Jamie Vardy (115) and Lukaku (113).

A shot conversion rate of 15.9 per cent tracks below that quartet, with Vardy the most efficient at 22.2 and Lukaku closest to Sterling on 16.7 per cent.

Of the 31 players to have scored 50 or more Premier League goals during that time, Sterling ranks around the middle of the pack, 15th overall in terms of shot conversion – Christian Benteke's tragicomic figure of 8.7 per cent conversion bring up the rear.

In terms of those defined by Opta as 'big chances', Sterling falls into the bottom third of the group in 22nd, having netted 66 and missed 83 over the course of his top-flight career for 44.3 percent.

This is perhaps what you'd expect from a man with a reputation for missing his share of high-profile sitters, but improvements over recent seasons show why he is still able to be on the trajectory of Shearer and Rooney for goal involvements.

The bulk of Sterling's Premier League goals came over the most recent three completed campaigns, with 18 in the 100-point season backed up by 17 to retain the title and 20 last time around – comfortably his three most prolific goalscoring seasons.

Each time, his shot conversion was above 20 per cent, with a high of 22 in 2018-19. The only other time he finished so efficiently was when scoring nine times from 45 attempts during Liverpool's surprise 2013-14 title tilt.

There has been a drop off this time around, with nine goals from 53 attempts amounting to a 17 per cent conversion rate, while he has missed two thirds of the big chances on offer (6/18).

On that metric, he tracked as high as 60 per cent in 2018-19, having registered 53.8 the season before – both success rates to rival any elite forward. Despite the overall strong returns of 2019-20, his big chance conversion rate dipped to 42.4 per cent.

 

The art of the tap-in merchant

This is another criticism some detractors like to level at Sterling: that he is a "tap-in merchant", who simply gorges on Guardiola's feast of football to pad his stats from close range.

But, as Gary Lineker is often keen to point out with a heavy helping of self-deprecation, if it were that easy then everyone would be doing it.

If the misses outlined above suggest a shortfall in Sterling's technique as a finisher, then his capacity to sniff out chances through intelligent and clinical movements stand as one of his main assets.

Throughout his City career, his shots-per-game average has ranged from between 2.3 to 3.3 when split by season. However, his expected goals (xG) figure per 90 minutes increased significantly in those three most prolific campaigns.

In 2017-18, his xG/90 was 0.56, set against 0.21 for Leroy Sane, City's other first-choice winger that year. Sane and Sterling had near-identical xG/90 scores of 0.28 and 0.27 during the previous season, Guardiola's first at the helm.

Despite averaging slightly more shots per game than Sterling in 2019-20 (3.4 to 3.3), Riyad Mahrez's xG/90 was 0.36 compared to his team-mate's 0.64.

This shows Sterling getting himself into notably better scoring areas, with a greater probability of finding the net, than team-mates playing in the same position. Even considering the fact Mahrez appears to have usurped Sterling in Guardiola's pecking order for now, his xG/90 is still half that of the England man in 2020-21 (0.21 vs 0.42).

If this suggests a notable tenacity and relentlessness around the opposition penalty area, Sterling's dribbling ability and productivity when carrying possession underlines the point.

Guardiola values forwards who can bring an unpredictable element to the possession-dominating foundations of his sides and Sterling certainly excels here, showing himself to be one of the most adept players in the division when it comes to running with the ball and making something happen.

Since joining City in 2015-16, he is ranked fifth (251) in the Premier League for shot involvements after a carry – meaning Sterling has either had a shot himself or set up a team-mate to do so.

As with his output in front of goal, Sterling's figures for carries and progressive carries are down this term, but a return to those levels seems comfortably within reach for a player of his age and ability.

At the risk of just loudly shouting, "KICK IT AT THE GOAL, RAHEEM!", he could also shoot more. An uneven return to the starting XI in Saturday's FA Cup win at Everton yielded four attempts on goal, a couple of them fairly wild.

That was up on his season average of 2.3 attempts per 90 minutes. And, if awful misses from close quarters is one of Sterling's main regrettable habits, taking too many touches and checking inside to be crowded out by defenders is another.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi average above five attempts per match. Obviously, there is a lot more to their majestic careers than just shooting a lot, but their continually handsome hauls show the value of a star forward backing themselves.

It feels like a relatively minor tweak that could take Sterling's game to the next level, when considering all his other demonstrable qualities.

A provocative newspaper interview with Marca last season, where he posed with a Real Madrid shirt, showed a man who thinks he belongs on the A-list and the returns of a nine-year Premier League career back that up. Being only the third player to score 100 goals under Guardiola after Messi and Aguero isn't bad, either.

With everything again possible for City on the other side of the international break, Sterling has the perfect platform to put a tricky couple of weeks behind him and step it up once more.

After an unpredictable 2020 Formula One campaign ended in wholly predictable fashion, the world's best drivers are back for more in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start to last season and prompted serious surgery to the planned race calendar.

At the end of it all, though, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walked away on top of the pile.

As so often in recent years, the task for the rest of the grid this coming year is simply to stop the reigning champion and his Silver Arrow.

While that is easier said than done, of course, the signs in pre-season are promising.

Will testing preparations derail Mercedes in the opening weeks? We are about to find out, as the Bahrain opener is just days away...

 

MORE HAMILTON AND MERCEDES DOMINANCE?

Hamilton's title in 2020 was his seventh, tying Michael Schumacher's competition record. A new benchmark is on the horizon if the Briton can repeat his success.

That is not the only landmark in Hamilton's sights, either: with 95 wins and 98 pole positions – both F1 highs – he can surely look forward to a pair of century celebrations this year.

But even if this is to be another sublime season for the 36-year-old, he surely will not find it as straightforward as last year.

Hamilton shut out the noise surrounding his future to claim 11 victories in 2020, yet the new contract he belatedly signed at the end of the campaign keeps him with Mercedes only until the end of 2021.

That spells another 12 months of uncertainty for the sport's premier driver, who also does not yet appear entirely at home in the new W12 car.

The Silver Arrows recorded only 304 test laps in pre-season – the fewest of any team – and may require Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to learn on the job if they are to extend their record-breaking streak of seven straight constructors' championships.

 

WHO CAN CHALLENGE THE DEFENDING CHAMP?

Mercedes team-mate Bottas has finished second to Hamilton in the past two seasons, but it would be a tough ask to expect him to outperform the 'GOAT' in the same car – even before considering potential issues with that machine.

No, if Hamilton is to be dethroned, Red Bull look the best bet.

Max Verstappen is undoubtedly the chief threat at the Austrian outfit, having qualified ahead of his team-mates on 36 of 38 occasions since Daniel Ricciardo departed (including a 17-0 record against Alex Albon in 2020).

Indeed, Verstappen – third last year – had the fastest lap time in testing, his effort of a minute and 28.960 seconds in Bahrain putting Red Bull on top in pre-season for the first time.

The Dutchman is pessimistic, though, saying: "[Testing] doesn't say anything about pure performance.

"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites. How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"

Ferrari can never be counted out, but they are starting a season with two drivers yet to win a world championship (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz) for the first time since 2007, when Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen lined up for the Scuderia. Of course, that year ended with Raikkonen being crowned champion.

 

ELSEWHERE...

There is no shortage of intrigue away from the top teams, with two big names returning to F1 – albeit only one of the two drivers having previously raced at this level.

Former champion Fernando Alonso is back, joining the rebranded Alpine team, formerly Renault – where the Spaniard won two titles.

Alonso's most recent race win came in Ferrari colours at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, since when he has gone 110 events without victory.

If Alpine can be competitive and Alonso belatedly returns to the top step of the podium later in the season, he could break Raikkonen's record of 114 grands prix between triumphs (2013 to 2018).

The 39-year-old needs only three podiums to reach 100 in F1.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Schumacher is the familiar name but new face at Haas, forming an all-rookie line-up alongside Nikita Mazepin, his F2 title rival last year.

Schumacher, who won that championship, will debut at Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final race in Brazil in 2012.

Michael was also 22 when he made his F1 bow, although Mick will be seven months and 16 days younger.

Ricciardo has joined McLaren, who are 12 podiums shy of 500, and Aston Martin are back for the first time since 1960, replacing Racing Point and bringing in Sebastian Vettel.

Meanwhile, there will be increased attention paid to Williams' George Russell, who impressed when given a chance with Mercedes at Sakhir 2020, qualifying second and finishing ninth.

This has not been a fun season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who remain at the foot of the Western Conference.

Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell have both missed extended periods and the team have a miserable 10-32 record, the worst in the entire NBA.

But three of those wins have come since the All-Star break, a period in which the T-Wolves are actually operating at .500.

They were 1-2 over the past week but faced a daunting schedule and appear to belatedly have some cause for optimism.

Rookie Anthony Edwards is finally cooking and leads our NBA Heat Check for March 15-21, powered by Stats Perform data.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns

If this young Minnesota team is to develop into a competitive NBA outfit, they need to have both guard Edwards and center Towns fit and firing. That was belatedly the case last week.

Edwards, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, hinted at what was to come at the end of the previous week when he put up 34 points in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers, a career-best tally at that stage.

The benchmark was swiftly raised higher, though, as he followed up 29 points against the Los Angeles Lakers with 42 in a victory at the Phoenix Suns. That was a new T-Wolves rookie record and made Edwards the third-youngest NBA player ever to put up 40 points, after LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

The 19-year-old was not alone in passing 40 either, with Towns contributing 41 in only the second ever Minnesota game to feature two 40-point performances.

Towns' weekly average of 31.3 points - up on his prior seasonal tally of 21.8 - provided a timely reminder of his talents, while Edwards - up from 15.6 to 27.3 - will hope he has set a new standard with Rookie of the Year honours perhaps now in his sights, the race blown open by LaMelo Ball's injury.

Luka Doncic

The ROTY chase followed the same trend as the MVP hunt, with Joel Embiid and LeBron James both facing spells on the sidelines and encouraging other contenders. Doncic is not among the frontrunners quite yet, but do not bet against the Dallas Mavericks sensation.

Doncic headed into last week having missed two of the Mavs' prior four games, scoring 22 and 21 points in two wins when he did feature. By the Slovenian's lofty standards, this was a lean spell.

The 22-year-old point guard was soon back to his best, though. He averaged 35.5 points across the subsequent four games, with 42 against the Los Angeles Clippers a clear high point.

Doncic made 5.5 threes per game from 11.5 attempts for 47.8 per cent, a mark that would across the whole season rank him fourth in the league.

Joe Ingles

One of the three players with a better three-point percentage is Utah Jazz forward Ingles, who is shooting 49 per cent from beyond the arc after a week in which that figure was boosted considerably.

Having made 2.4 threes across his first 34 games of the season, Ingles converted an outstanding 5.7 over the next three.

His weekly points per game return was a hugely impressive 22.3 - up 11 on his prior average - after a career-high 34 points against the Washington Wizards, the only game the Jazz have lost this season with Ingles in the lineup.
 

GOING COLD...

Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk

Ball's injury brought a miserable end to a tough week for the Charlotte Hornets, in which they started with a win over the Sacramento Kings before losing three straight.

And Ball will be an even bigger miss than already feared if Hayward and Monk perform as they did over those four games.

Hayward started strongly but scored seven on back-to-back nights and averaged 14 points for the week, while Monk saw his minutes cut and contributed just six points per game - including none at the Lakers - as he made only two of nine threes.

Stephen Curry

Curry is another who might not be a million miles away from the MVP race, but he is trending in the wrong direction.

The Golden State Warriors great has had 62- and 57-point games this season, yet his average for the year is down to 29 after scoring 22.5 per game in meetings with the Lakers and the Houston Rockets last week.

Curry, who made six of 18 threes, then missed consecutive games with a tailbone injury.

While a slight decline in scoring is not a huge concern for the Warriors, they certainly need their main man healthy.

Trae Young

The Atlanta Hawks are enjoying a superb eight-game winning streak, but their leading scorer actually endured a tougher week shooting the basketball.

With 34 assists across three games, Young averaged a double-double, yet he scored only 16.7 points and made 0.5 threes per game. His 9.7 points per game decline on his seasonal tally was the second-worst of the week across the NBA.

Fortunately, Danilo Gallinari and John Collins stepped up, so the Hawks will now hope they can get all their stars firing at once.

Kylian Mbappe has reached another milestone, with the Paris Saint-Germain star moving onto 100 goals in Ligue 1.

Mbappe initially opened the scoring on Sunday and then got his landmark goal to make it 4-0 in the second half, racing on to a gorgeous pass from Marco Verratti and coolly converting.

The 22-year-old started his career with Monaco, making his debut in 2015-16 before going on to star as the principality club charged to the title the following season.

Having earned his move to PSG, Mbappe has gone from strength to strength, and scored his 100th goal for the club in all competitions when he netted in a 3-1 win over Montpellier in December.

Mbappe is now a Ligue 1 centurion and, using Opta data, here is a breakdown of his 100 strikes in France's top tier.

Mbappe's 100 Ligue 1 goals 

2015-16

Mbappe opened his Ligue 1 account in February 2016, scoring a stoppage-time goal in Monaco's 3-1 triumph over Troyes. It was the only "big chance", as per Opta metrics, that the youngster had that season, while he also crafted four chances across 11 league appearances in total.

2016-17

As far as breakthrough seasons go, Mbappe's 2016-17 performance is up there with the very best. From 29 Ligue 1 appearances – 17 of them coming as starts – Mbappe scored 15 goals, created 31 chances and missed only five big opportunities. He scored his final top-flight goal for Monaco in a 2-0 win over Saint-Etienne. 

2017-18

Arriving at PSG alongside Neymar, Mbappe managed 13 Ligue 1 strikes from 28 appearances in his first season in Paris. Eight came with his right foot, while five came from his left, with just one of his efforts having come from outside the 18-yard box. His creativity also came to the fore, with the prodigy teeing up 52 opportunities in total.

2018-19

Having starred as France won the 2018 World Cup, Mbappe carried his sensational form into the following season, scoring a spectacular 33 Ligue 1 goals. Remarkably, 30 of these came from his right foot, and none with his head, while his total would have been even better had he put away the 27 big chances that he missed.

2019-20

Injury hampered Mbappe in his third season at PSG, limiting him to just 20 appearances in the league. He still managed 18 goals, none of which came from penalties, and crafted 40 opportunities for his team-mates.

2020-21

It is now 20 Ligue 1 goals for Mbappe this term. After a relatively slow start to the campaign by his standards, he has been in fine form lately, with his sparkling efforts against Barcelona in the Champions League cementing his place at the very top of the game.

Joel Embiid's injury last week appeared to clear a path for LeBron James to collect his fifth NBA MVP award.

Philadelphia 76ers big man Embiid - averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, as well as 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals - had already missed seven games this season before he went down with a knee injury against the Washington Wizards.

But Los Angeles Lakers superstar James did not see his clear run at the league's top individual honour last long.

James, who has 25.9 points, 7.9 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game, has carried the Lakers in Anthony Davis' absence but faces his own spell on the sidelines after an ankle sprain on Saturday.

That setback, in a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, means this year's two leading MVP contenders face an uphill task to remain in contention as they sit out a key stretch of the regular season.

Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets center, appears the man most likely to profit and has quickly been installed as the bookmakers' favourite.

But with several twists already in the race to succeed back-to-back winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic's standing is not yet safe.

With the help of Stats Perform data, we run through four potential winners ahead of Sunday's action - including Denver's 'Joker'.
 

NIKOLA JOKIC

The case against Jokic earlier in the season was his displays had not been able to lift the Nuggets into serious contention in the West. With 13 wins in their past 18 games to improve to 25-16, that is no longer the case.

While team-mate Jamal Murray has not been able to consistently perform at the standard he set in the 2019-20 playoffs - averaging 26.5 points in the 'bubble' but 21.1 this season - Jokic has taken his game to another level.

The Serbian's stat line for the year - 27.0 points, 8.6 assists, 11.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals - has never previously been achieved in league history, nor has any player in the past attempted at least 30 field goals across a season while shooting 56.6 per cent from the field, 41.6 per cent from three and 86.6 per cent of free throws.

This is an unprecedented campaign.

DAMIAN LILLARD

Tied with Denver at 25-16 in the West are the Portland Trail Blazers. Considering CJ McCollum has only played 16 games and Jusuf Nurkic 12, that is a quite remarkable achievement, led, of course, by Lillard.

Understandably, Lillard's usage rate is at a career-high 33 per cent, but he is making the most of those extra touches. Only Bradley Beal (32.5) has outperformed his 30.6 points per game - another career benchmark - and the Blazers star leads the league with 1,225 total points. Of those, 136 have come in 'clutch' situations, again putting Lillard at the top of the standings.

Taking a break from Portland's playoff push, Lillard even preserved enough energy to score 32 points in the All-Star Game, just ahead of Team LeBron team-mate and rival Stephen Curry (28). An MVP triumph would certainly see Portland's finest emerge from the shadow of the Golden State Warriors great.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

Antetokounmpo beat James Harden to this award in 2018-19 and then LA's James last season, so a case of voter fatigue was always set to make him an unlikely winner for a third straight year, regardless of performances.

But with Embiid and James both hit by injuries, the 'Greek Freak' surely has to come into consideration. Once again, his numbers are seriously impressive.

The only man to outscore Lillard at the All-Star Game, putting up 35, Antetokounmpo is slightly down on last year's points (29.0 versus 29.5) and rebounds per game (11.7 versus 13.6) but has improved in all of the other key metrics with 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks.

The Milwaukee Bucks forward should be in the picture to retain both his MVP and Defensive Player of the Year titles.

JAMES HARDEN

Surely voters will not reward Harden in the year he forced his way out of the Houston Rockets? On performances alone, though, he deserves to be in the conversation.

The 2017-18 winner is not contributing the same number of points for the Brooklyn Nets as he was in Houston, but then his usage is down to 28.7 per cent for the year (28.1 in Brooklyn), by far the lowest it has been since the statistic was first tracked in 2014-15.

And Harden, still scoring an impressive 25.4 points since joining the Nets, is more than making up for this slight decline elsewhere.

So far the most prominent member of the team's 'big three', with Kevin Durant too often injured and Kyrie Irving absent for a spell, Harden leads the league in 2020-21 for assists (11.2) and is second for triple-doubles (11), making him an unpopular but worthy candidate.

So near and yet so far for Wales, who saw a Six Nations Grand Slam slip from their grasp when France conjured up a magical finish in Paris to keep their tournament hopes alive.

Les Bleus looked dead and buried when they trailed 30-20 in the second half, only to produce a late, late show that means the identity of the 2021 champions remains unknown, at least for a few more days.

Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that a crazy contest in the French capital ended in such astonishing fashion, though.

The two teams had played the game as if it was on fast forward in the opening quarter, sharing four tries during a frenetic first half that finished all-square, allowing all – playing and watching – to draw breath.

Wales, however, seized control after the break, Josh Adams' try – along with the boot of Dan Biggar – helping establish a double-digit lead. Another Six Nations sweep seemed a sure-fire certainty when Paul Willemse was sent off, the lock punished for making contact with an opponent's eyes.

The dismissal left France down to 13 at the time, prop Mohammed Haouas already sitting watching from the sidelines while spending 10 minutes in the sin bin.

Yet rather than accept the inevitable, the red card instead galvanised Les Bleus. As Wales became the team to lose their discipline, leading to yellow cards for Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams, the hosts worked up a head of steam to come roaring back.

Charles Ollivon's converted try cut the gap to three and, on the final play with the clock having ticked beyond the 80th minute, France retained and recycled possession long enough to eventually create space out wide for Brice Dulin to dart over, in the process breaking Wales' hearts.

A championship devoid of fans due to the coronavirus pandemic had served up a visual treat for all those watching on from afar.

"I thought we were pretty good for 80 minutes, it was just those dying seconds," Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones told BBC Sport.

"Our ill-discipline probably brought a lot of pressure on. Credit to France for the way they played in the last 15 minutes, but when we look back at it, probably the ill-discipline brought all that pressure on, as well as good French play."

Wyn Jones knows what it is like to secure Grand Slam glory, having done so three times previously in his international career. Now he has experienced the disappointment of coming up just short. A game that was under control got out of hand, a situation that is never good to be in when France are the opponents.

The second-rower completed all 22 attempted tackles in the game, making him the first player with 20 or more in a Six Nations match this year with a 100 per cent success rate. He so nearly had the perfect outcome, too.

"We have been privileged to get on with the tournament and get a triple crown, but there was obviously more at stake today," he added.

They still may be crowned winners yet, with France – who scored four tries against Wales for the first time in the Six Nations – needing another bonus-point triumph in their rearranged game against Scotland to have a chance of leapfrogging into top spot.

Wales will watch on with great interest but, whatever the outcome at Murrayfield, they have come a long way in the campaign, one that followed on from a tough 2020 which included a six-Test losing streak, leaving coach Wayne Pivac under pressure.

Still, that will be little comfort in the immediate aftermath. A Grand Slam was seemingly theirs, only for Dulin to touch down and hand the Welsh with a result that will be tough to stomach.

For the first time since 2005, neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo will be involved in the Champions League quarter-finals.  

While Barcelona's exit to last season's runners-up Paris Saint-Germain was perhaps not too much of a surprise, few saw Juventus coming out on the wrong end of an upset against Porto in the last 16.  

So, could we be witnessing a changing of the guard in the competition? Is it a case of out with the old, in with the new? 

While Messi and Ronaldo have dominated in Europe through the years, a collection of some of the most promising talents in the world game have the chance to take centre stage now.

 

Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)

Even by his own prolific standards, Haaland has been in sensational scoring form in the tournament so far.

His 10 goals in six games includes scoring a brace in each leg of the last-16 tie with Sevilla, helping Borussia Dortmund progress to the quarters.  

The Norwegian striker managed the same number in a Champions League campaign last season that saw him represent both BVB and Salzburg. Forget just breaking the record as the fastest to 20 goals, he has shattered it. Harry Kane was previously the quickest to reach that number, doing so in 24 games – Haaland managed it in just 14. 

His big chance conversion rate this season sits at a clinical 81.9 per cent, while he has also demonstrated his all-round impact by creating eight chances for his BVB colleagues.  

Next in his sights is Manchester City, a team with family ties as his father, Alf-Inge, played for the English club in the early 2000s. Haaland has been linked with them too, along with plenty of other clubs, and Pep Guardiola has been suitably impressed by a player who does not turn 21 until July.  

"The numbers speak for themselves, of course he is one of the best strikers in the world right now at his age," said Guardiola, who will be well aware that Haaland has the potential to ruin City's hopes of European glory. 

 

Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)

Mbappe has six goals to his name in European outings in 2020-21, the same tally team-mate Neymar has managed for a PSG squad aiming to go one better than last year.

The France international hit a hat-trick in a 4-1 thrashing of Barcelona at Camp Nou, joining Faustino Asprilla and Andriy Shevchenko as the only players to record a Champions League treble against the Spanish heavyweights.  

He was also on target when scoring a penalty in the drawn second leg, in the process becoming the youngest player to reach 25 goals in the competition, aged 22 years and 80 days. Messi was on the same pitch at the time his record was broken. 

Mbappe has also demonstrated how he can provide for others, too. No forward from any of the teams still in contention can top his three assists, while only Karim Benzema (15) has bettered his total of 14 chances created. 

PSG will be hoping the forward can continue his fine form when they take on Bayern Munich in a repeat of last year's final.

Phil Foden (Manchester City)

After three starts in the Champions League last season, Foden has risen from the periphery to become a prominent figure for Guardiola.  

Only goalkeeper Ederson has played more minutes in the campaign so far for City than the versatile 20-year-old, who has contributed a goal and two assists to help ensure smooth progress to the last eight.  

Foden has created the most chances for City during his appearances, his tally of 12 putting him just ahead of Kevin De Bruyne (11), while he has also been successful with 64.7 per cent of his attempted dribbles.  

The playmaker is set to feature in the Champions League knockout stage for a fourth season before turning 21 – a feat only previously achieved by Cesc Fabregas (2004-05 to 2007-08) and Theo Walcott (2006-07 to 2009-10).  

In the Premier League, Foden's 20 goal involvements (11 goals, nine assists) is comfortably the most by anyone aged 21 or under, showing just why he is no longer one to watch for the future but a player for the present, both for club and country.

Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)

It is not often a full-back catches the eye to the level that Davies managed during Bayern's triumphant Champions League run in 2019-20.  

The most eye-catching moment of all surely came in his side's 8-2 rout of Barcelona in a quarter-final result that sent shock waves across European football, as he initially beat two opposing players before breezing beyond poor Nelson Semedo to set up a goal for Joshua Kimmich, one of his three assists in the competition.  

Having arrived at the Bundesliga club as a left winger, the conversion to defence was made as quickly as he sprints up and down his flank (he clocked a top speed of 36.51 kilometres per hour in a Bundesliga game against Werder Bremen last year, the quickest speed recorded since such data began to be collected).  

His participation in the group stage this season was limited by an ankle injury, with the 4-1 first-leg victory over Lazio in the last 16 just his second start.  

However, the Canada international had no problems upon his return, having 101 touches (second only to team-mate David Alaba) while topping the list for Bayern in terms of tackles (four) and number of times possession was gained from the opposition (seven).

The NBA's top-ranked defense will be aiming to slow down the leading offense when the New York Knicks make the short trip to play the Brooklyn Nets. 

The in-form Nets have won 12 of their previous 13 games to rise up the Eastern Conference, the impressive run of form leaving them just a game back of the Philadelphia 76ers, who lead the way in the standings. 

But while they were always expected to be near the summit, particularly following the arrival of James Harden from the Houston Rockets, the Knicks have been one of the surprise packages so far. 

A first playoff appearance since 2013 is a distinct possibility, with coach Tom Thibodeau building solid foundations for a franchise that has chopped and changed in the hope of finding success.

TOP PERFORMERS

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

Randle has excelled since moving to the Big Apple, leading to a first All-Star appearance this year. The seventh overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014 averages 22.9 points and 11 rebounds through 39 games, as well as 5.7 assists.  

His 375 defensive rebounds puts him inside the top three in the league, while he has also contributed 31 steals as the Knicks have tightened up under Thibodeau.  

Having registered a season-low seven points as the Knicks returned from the All-Star break with a lopsided loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Randle bounced back with 26 in a resounding triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Since joining the Nets, Harden has recorded nine triple-doubles, the latest of them coming in a 100-95 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday that saw him score his team's final 10 points of the contest.  

While he was the focal point for Houston, the two-time MVP no longer has to carry the offensive burden in the same way for star-studded Brooklyn. He is shooting at a career-high 48.9 per cent from the field though, while his improved success from deep (39.7 per cent) has been noticeable.  

Harden has also demonstrated his ability as a passer too, his tally of 363 assists comfortably the most by any player, averaging out at a whopping 11 a game.

KEY BATTLE - A CASE FOR THE DEFENSE

The continued absence of Kevin Durant has not prevented the Nets from putting up points. They average 120.6 a game, while their combined field goal percentage of 49.9 is also the best by any team in the NBA.  

However, the Knicks have given up a league-low 105 points per outing. Randle and his fellow big men will look to dominate when it comes to rebounding, while the visitors will hope to get better at capitalising on turnovers – their average of 14 points when gaining possession in such circumstances ranks them 29th out of 30 teams.  

"It starts with our effort, our defense, those are the most important things," Immanuel Quickley, who has impressed in his rookie season, averaging 12.5 points, said ahead of the game. 

"We try to have that defensive mindset coming into games, then let everything take care of itself. The little things – defense, rebounding, energy, effort – give you a chance to win every night." 

HEAD TO HEAD 

These neighbours have met in 200 regular-season games, the Knicks narrowly leading 101-99 overall. 

Last season's four-game series was split 2-2, while the Nets prevailed 116-10 in January of this year, Durant – who has missed Brooklyn's last 11 games due to a heal issue – leading the way with 26 points in the absence of Kyrie Irving and with the Harden trade yet to be completed.  

Stephen Curry has "revolutionised basketball" as the point guard continues to show he is back to his best for the Golden State Warriors this season.  

Curry saw his 2019-20 campaign ruined by a hand injury, restricting him to just five games. Already without Kevin Durant, who had left to join the Brooklyn Nets, and Klay Thompson, the Warriors unsurprisingly went from NBA finalists to bottom of the pile in the Western Conference.  

However, the return of their talismanic point guard has helped improve fortunes for a franchise that has become accustomed to challenging for the title.  

Still without fellow 'Splash Brother' Thompson, who is sidelined again for another season, Curry has stepped up to carry the load.  

He is averaging 29.3 points while playing 34 minutes per game. His tally of 176 made three-pointers is comfortably the most in the league, and he is shooting an impressive 41.1 per cent from deep, even while having a target on his back as opposing teams focus on shutting him down.  

What makes it so hard to keep a lid on Curry, though, is his ability to get a bucket from anywhere, including from off the court during pre-game warm-ups.

Anderson Varejao believes his former Golden State team-mate has changed the game by extending the range for shooters, starting a trend that others have since followed in the league. 

"Steph Curry is a guy who trains so much," Varejao, who played for the Cleveland Cavaliers for over a decade before joining the Warriors, told Stats Perform News. 

"All that stuff he does, shooting the ball from mid-court, he revolutionised basketball.   

"In the past, if a player, in a counter-attack, stopped and shot, the coach would look at him, if not take him out.

"Many times, players left the game even after hitting the ball in the basket, like, 'hey, what are you doing? Are you crazy? We don't play like that'.   

"But nowadays he is a guy that shoots all the time, and you have to understand it, as a coach. He shoots three, four, five steps before the three-point line."

Curry turned 33 on Sunday and is fast approaching 750 regular-season games for the Warriors, a team who hit the jackpot when selecting the Davidson standout with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft.  

However, having had an enforced year off, there is little sign of him slowing down. Indeed, his numbers this season have seen him included in the MVP conversation, an award he won in 2015 and 2016.  

He celebrated his birthday with six three-pointers in the Warriors' impressive win over the Utah Jazz, finishing with 32 points and nine assists to help the team bounce back from a disappointing defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers following the All-Star break.  

"It's like that ageing wine, right? Keep it in the cellar and watch it get stronger and better. I'm just enjoying the ride," he told NBC Sports after silencing the Jazz, the last team to reach double digits for losses this season.  

Curry's play has the Warriors hovering around .500 and in the playoff picture. There is still a long way to go yet this season, but the face of the franchise is certainly all the way back after a lost year in his hall-of-fame career.

Whenever boxing's matchmakers put together a bout that promises fireworks and destructive drama from the opening bell, pundits and fans alike spit out the same three syllables.

Hagler-Hearns.

Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns shared seven minutes and 52 seconds of unfathomable brutality in Las Vegas in April 1985, setting an impossible bar for every all-action fight ever since.

Hagler and Hearns met in their primes as two stars of a golden age in the sport's middle weights. The celebrated "Four Kings" were completed by fellow greats 'Sugar' Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.

There were nine fights in all between the quartet, spanning 1980 to 1989. Leonard and Duran met three times, with both men going the distance against Hagler. Hearns and Leonard shared 26 rounds over the course of two enthralling bouts separated by almost eight years.

And yet, the comparatively brief period Hearns and Hagler spent in one another's violent orbit stands as the high watermark of the era for many.

After Hagler died aged 66 on Saturday, we look back at three rounds that shook the world.

 

ROUND ONE

An elongated promotional tour taking in 21 cities whipped up severe animosity between the two fighters, with long-reigning unified middleweight king Hagler brooding over the perceived higher public standing afforded to fellow Americans Leonard and Hearns, along with the latter's withdrawal from their proposed 1982 meeting with a hand injury.

Hearns had showcased terrifying power at welterweight and light-middleweight. He demolished Duran inside two rounds in 1984, at the same Caesars Palace outdoor arena that staged his clash with Hagler.

Therefore, the expectations were of a measured start from the older man, who would draw the sting from a 26-year-old Hearns at a then-unfamiliar weight before taking him into deep waters.

Hagler was not reading from that script.

After eyeballing his foe throughout the introductions, he tore out of his corner at the opening bell and unleashed a wild and winging right hand that Hearns just managed to duck. The tone was set and there would be no let-up.

Hagler's gameplan – insofar as it could be deciphered from underneath the red mist – was to negate Hearns' three-inch reach advantage by attacking the younger man to the body.

Initially, that was a march straight into trouble as Hearns caught him with a left hand coming in and followed up with a right hook to shake Hagler.

The champion held for the briefest of respites before leather began to fly in centre ring – Hagler unleashing his chopping left hook and locating Hearns' chin to force a retreat to the neutral corner.

Hurt, Hearns shot back under heavy fire to escape the peril Hagler had planned on the ropes.

There was a minute gone.

The hunter and hunted patter was established. Hearns clipped Hagler with a left off the back foot to draw him on to a short right. Worryingly for the 'Motor City Cobra', 'Marvellous' was entirely unperturbed.

Hagler's booming straight right was working effectively, but Hearns' blurring fists continued to punctuate a fight in fast forward. A pair of rights found the jaw, still Hagler came. A flashing uppercut, still he came. But there was blood. A lot of it.

"There's blood all over Marvin Hagler's face, I can't tell where it's coming from," yelped commentator Al Bernstein

Seemingly spurred on by the change in circumstances, Hagler forced Hearns into the red corner and got to work, pounding the body. Hearns was sharp in the eye of the storm, soaking up two crunching left hooks and fighting his way out of trouble.

Well, until that unerring Hagler straight right sent him tottering backwards with nine seconds left in the round. By the time the bell sounded, they were trading once more.

Hearns landed 56 of 83 punches in the first round as Hagler connected with 50 of 82. It still beggars belief.

ROUND TWO

"Don't worry about the cut, Marvin," said his cornerman Goody Petronelli, unknowing that there were bigger problems afoot on the other stood.

At some point in the fury of the first three minutes, Hearns had broken his wrecking ball right. This perhaps explained his willingness to begin the second on the jab – that tool of relative conservatism largely lost in the maelstrom of round one.

Hagler met this adjustment with a change of his own. The switch-hitter turned to an orthodox stance for the first time in the fight and landed with a left-right combination.

Regardless, there would be no backwards step from Hagler. Back he went to southpaw, a right jab leaving Hearns disorganised and opening up more opportunities to the body.

A straight right was Hearns' retort along with crisp lefts to head and body, but Hagler shrugged them off and continued to bore forwards with blood all over the place.

His left hook was working like a dream and shuddering rights had Hearns in trouble on the ropes.

When the bell sounded, Hagler's bloody mask and Hearns' exhausted body gave both men the look of beaten fighters.

ROUND THREE

"Just box him, stay away and box him," Emanuel Steward implored Hearns, although the great tactician had reason to sense the bout was slipping away.

Aghast, Steward found one of Hearns' entourage giving him a leg massage before the fight. Combined with the concussive head shots Hagler had landed at will, the result was rubbery limbs that did not convince as the Kronk Gym favourite looked to get on the balls of his feet and skip away at the start of round three.

Hagler's eyes never deviated from a moving target, but his problems were also stacking up.

Referee Richard Steele was increasingly zealous when it came to breaking the fighters up, preventing Hagler from doing the work he wanted to on the inside. After one of the official's interventions, he called the ringside doctor to have a look at the champion's increasingly gruesome cut.

Given Hearns opened the cut with a punch, a TKO defeat was on the cards for Hagler if he was deemed unfit to continue.

But no referee or no doctor was stopping this fight. Hagler decided it was time to take care of adjudication himself.

He had started to measure Hearns' increasingly predictable retreats, and a right to the side of the head saw his opponent stagger sidewards across the right, almost turning his back. Hagler knew the time was now.

A follow-up right to the temple robbed Hearns of any remaining equilibrium and another to the jaw saw him sag back before collapsing downwards, the breeze of Hagler's superfluous follow-up shots doing nothing to rouse him.

Flat on his back, Hearns tried valiantly to beat Steele's count, but a valedictory triumph belonged to Hagler after a cacophony of violent mayhem and savagery that remains celebrated to this day.

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