As soon as the December draw for the Champions League round-of-16 threw out Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, all eyes were on a certain French striker.

And for a long time Kylian Mbappe looked set to be the difference-maker between two European giants who are also in a tug-of-war for the forward's future.

His excellent goal in the first leg at the Parc des Princes was decisive then, and he terrorised Los Blancos further in Madrid.

But almost out of nowhere the tie was turned on its head, with Karim Benzema once again proving his master status with a truly exceptional display of ruthlessness as Madrid won 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu to secure their passage to the quarter-finals 3-2 on aggregate.

This was anything but predictable. After all, the tie was all set up perfectly for 'The Narrative' to settle things in this clash of titans.

For months, maybe years, Madrid have flirted with the idea of bringing Mbappe to the Spanish capital, even going as far as submitting huge bids for him last August.

Carlo Ancelotti is asked about him at pretty much every pre-match news conference, such is the obsession in the Spanish press, but PSG's resolve in August seemed to be paying dividends just over six months later, with Mbappe crucial last time and in the mood here.

Ahead of the trip to Madrid, PSG communicated how the Frenchman was a doubt due to a training knock. Whether that was the truth or subterfuge can only be confirmed by Mauricio Pochettino, but one thing's for certain, Mbappe looked as sharp as ever.

The warning signs were there – twice – inside the first 13 minutes. On both occasions, Mbappe managed to get in behind Madrid's riskily high defence, but he let the hosts off the hook each time.

Despite worrying signs for Madrid, at no point did you expect a tactical change from Ancelotti given Madrid's desperate need to get at least one goal.

As such, the Mbappe 'cheatcode' was seemingly always going to be a possibility for PSG as long as the other 10 remained focused. For all the obsession over tactics, Pochettino's approach seemed to resemble that of millions of FIFA video game players from down the years: kick the ball beyond the defence for the really, really fast chap.

And that was exactly how the breakthrough came. PSG defended a corner and Neymar picked up possession deep inside his own half. Mbappe was already on the charge and the Brazilian clipped a first-time ball over Dani Carvajal.

Mbappe surged forward, shaped to curl his shot around Eder Militao and then picked out the near corner instead, usurping Zlatan Ibrahimovic as PSG's all-time leading scorer in the process.

The offside flag then cruelly, but crucially correctly, denied Mbappe what would have gone down as a classic Champions League goal early in the second, latching on to a throughball and beating Thibaut Courtois with an exquisite stepover before he'd even touched the ball and slotting into an empty net.

And almost instantly PSG's performance went stunningly awry.

Gianluigi Donnarumma's dawdling on the ball gifted Madrid an equaliser as Benzema charged down his clearance and then stabbed in from Vinicius Junior's cut-back.

Suddenly Madrid were like a pack of rabid wolves. Donnarumma's hesitancy and indecision began to overcome the rest of his back four, with PSG almost in a flash going from in control to utterly terrified.

Just 15 minutes later, 1-1 turned into 2-1, with Luka Modric doing brilliantly in midfield to pick out Vinicius, who had the presence of mind to patiently wait for the Croatian to appear on the edge of the box, and he slotted the ball through to Benzema to steer home.

Then, within seconds of PSG restarting the game, Marquinhos panicked in his own area, flicking the ball into the path of Benzema who unleashed an impossibly cool finish into the bottom-right corner, picking it out with the outside of his foot without breaking stride.

It sparked bedlam in the stands of the Santiago Bernabeu as it quickly dawned on the Madrid faithful and players that the tie was theirs. While PSG had the best part of 15 minutes to fight back, their mystifying lack of composure since the hour mark had already sapped them of belief.

Mbappe looked on, having gone from unstoppable to helpless in the space of just a few second-half minutes.

Of course, a key difference between the goalscorers was their respective supporting casts. While Lionel Messi, Marco Verratti and Neymar looked impressive in the first half, they were nowhere to be seen after half-time.

Madrid, on the other hand, had already looked a threat with Vinicius up top alongside Benzema. The Brazilian excelled where his compatriot Neymar could not – the young winger was relentless, working exceptionally hard throughout to ensure Benzema didn't have to do it alone, even if the headlines will suggest it was all him.

There is a school of thought that this tie will ultimately determine where Mbappe ends up next season. On the evidence of this, a front three of him, Benzema and Vinicius will be mouthwatering.

Mbappe has so far been very calm and unequivocal when asked about his future, but Madrid have given him a glimpse of what awaits.

In the build-up to Liverpool's clash with Inter at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp went to great lengths to spell out the fact that he and his team were taking nothing for granted.

Leading 2-0 from the first leg in Milan, the Reds were the clear favourites for progression in the Champions League last 16.

But, at his pre-match press conference, their manager warned: "The danger everybody knows about. It's 2-0, the lead I think which got turned over most often in the history of football."

And he struck a similar chord in his programme notes, telling supporters: "If anyone has even a tiny percentage of complacency or entitlement, please stay away."

Of course, Klopp would have loved nothing more than for Liverpool to have produced a vintage performance that made his cautious tone seem unnecessary.

Instead, he was proven completely right about the threat posed by Simone Inzaghi's side, who had in truth been rather unfortunate to suffer a two-goal defeat in the first leg.

It is not that Inter came out all guns blazing on Merseyside, of course; this is the Italian champions in European competition we are talking about.

But their ability to play through Liverpool lines was eye-catching from the off, with the impressive Hakan Calhanoglu key to that.

And the calm manner in which the visitors' back three dealt with the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane also bred confidence, with Milan Skriniar's game-high nine clearances marking him out.

As such, while Inter's best opportunity of an evenly matched first half saw Calhanoglu test Alisson from a free-kick, they had shown enough to suggest that something special could be in the offing in the second period.

You could clearly see those hopes growing close to the hour mark as Lautaro Martinez struck just wide after a beautiful back-to-front move had played him in on goal.

And so it was no surprise the Argentine made no mistake in firing home a beauty from the edge of the box moments later to bring the tie to life and put the fear into Liverpool.

 

It was at this point, however, that events brought to mind the popular expression which states it is better to be lucky than good when it comes to sport.

Yes, you could argue that Alexis Sanchez was fortunate to still be on the pitch having clearly caught Thiago Alcantara with a studs-up challenge in the opening 45 minutes.

But he probably did not deserve to see a second yellow for a light nick on Fabinho after winning the ball, under two minutes having passed since the Chile forward had set up Martinez's strike.

Coming so shortly after the opening goal, that blow sucked all momentum out of Inzaghi's men, effectively handing Liverpool passage into the quarter-finals on a platter, with Inter not registering another attempt on goal from that point on.

Still, even if the circumstances were somewhat fortuitous, it is hardly likely to have taken the shine off the result for Klopp, whose team have now reached the Champions League last eight in four of the last five seasons.

He would no doubt have preferred to have witnessed a more convincing performance that struck fear into Liverpool's rivals for European glory this season.

But perhaps what he got was in some ways better: another reminder that this team can see off even elite teams when not at their best. 

As this manager and players are all too aware, you need a combination of quality, mentality and luck to go all in the way in the Champions League, and Liverpool called on all three at various stages of what was a fascinating tie.

Much has changed in European football in the past five years – and few clubs illustrate that greater than fallen giants Barcelona.

On this day in 2017, Barca were thrashing Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the most remarkable Champions League turnaround ever, becoming the only side in the competition's history to overturn a four-goal first-leg deficit.

Now, Neymar and Lionel Messi – the two stars of that Blaugrana side – are preparing to play Real Madrid as PSG players.

Meanwhile, Barca are not even in the Champions League knockout stages, instead facing Galatasaray in the Europa League last 16 while battling to return to UEFA's flagship competition next season.

Indeed, Barca's recent European past has found them on the wrong end of epic Champions League comebacks, but that PSG classic still ranks among the tournament's greatest two-legged recoveries – remembered by Stats Perform here...

2019: Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona (4-3 on aggregate)

One of a couple of examples Barca fans will not remember so fondly, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool had been well beaten at Camp Nou, with the 3-0 scoreline flattering the Catalans but making them clear favourites to complete their semi-final task at Anfield.

Liverpool were without injured forwards Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino for the second leg, yet two goals each from Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum saw the hosts defy the odds in sensational style.

Origi had the final word thanks to Trent Alexander-Arnold's quick thinking from a 79th-minute corner.

It meant a Barca side boasting Messi and former Liverpool stars Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez were left devastated, while Klopp's men celebrated reaching the final, where they would win a sixth title.

2019: Ajax 2-3 Tottenham (3-3 agg)

The night after Liverpool's win, Ajax looked certain to join the Reds in the final when they extended their 1-0 first-leg lead to 3-0 in Amsterdam with first-half goals from Matthijs de Ligt and Ziyech.

Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham took inspiration from Liverpool's stunning fightback 24 hours earlier, though, and Lucas Moura stepped up to emerge as their hero.

The Brazilian forward scored an improbable hat-trick in the second half, the vital third goal coming deep into stoppage time, as Spurs won on away goals.

2018: Roma 3-0 Barcelona (4-4 agg)

Barcelona were stunned in the Italian capital as Roma completed one of the most unlikely quarter-final turnarounds – another that benefited from an away goals rule that has since been scrapped.

Eusebio Di Francesco's side came back from a 4-1 first-leg deficit to progress to the last four after a thrilling 3-0 win in front of their home fans.

Edin Dzeko, Daniele De Rossi and Kostas Manolas secured the 4-4 aggregate draw and sent the Stadio Olimpico into raptures, as Barca fell to pieces.

2017: Barcelona 6-1 Paris Saint-Germain (6-5 agg)

Those humblings at the hands of Roma and Liverpool make for painful memories for those of a Blaugrana persuasion, but this remains the ultimate 'Remontada'.

Trailing 4-0 from the first leg of their last-16 tie with PSG, Suarez and Messi scored either side of a Layvin Kurzawa own goal, only for Edinson Cavani to grab what was expected to be the decisive away goal for the visitors.

However, two quickfire Neymar goals – the second a highly controversial penalty after an apparent Suarez dive – brought it back to 5-5, meaning Barca needed just one more.

Then, in the fifth minute of stoppage time, Sergi Roberto struck from Neymar's cross to create Champions League history.

2004: Deportivo La Coruna 4-0 Milan (5-4 agg)

Deportivo were among Spain's major forces just after the turn of the century and one of their finest moments in Europe came in April 2004 when, despite being 4-1 down from the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final with Milan, they stunned the Rossoneri at the Riazor.

Walter Pandiani, Juan Carlos Valeron and Albert Luque had Depor ahead on away goals before half-time, with veteran Fran Gonzalez scoring the fourth to make sure of their passage.

Depor were eliminated by eventual winners Porto in the semi-finals, but this comeback stood as arguably the very best in Champions League history until Barca went one better.

2000: Barcelona 5-1 Chelsea (aet, 6-4 agg)

Barca already had a history of Champions League fightbacks.

A 3-1 first-leg loss at Stamford Bridge – having trailed 3-0 – had the Blaugrana in danger of being on the wrong end of a major Champions League upset prior to Chelsea's Roman Abramovich era, but in the return match the Catalan giants showed their true class.

Tore Andre Flo's 60th-minute goal was sending Chelsea through despite Rivaldo and Luis Figo scoring before the break, but Dani Garcia headed home seven minutes from the end of regulation to force extra time.

Rivaldo atoned for an earlier missed penalty by converting from the spot after Celestine Babayaro was sent off, and Patrick Kluivert finished the game off, crushing Chelsea's dreams.

In many ways, patience isn't a virtue we can truthfully say is embraced in modern football, whether that's with respect to managers or players.

When someone's level dips, people – or specifically social media trolls – are quick to brandish them "frauds" or "finished" like rabid animals sated by black-or-white so-called "hot takes".

If there's one player on the planet who deserves that patience, it's surely Lionel Messi. But so accustomed has the world become to his usually incomparable excellence that any opportunity to humanise him with blinkered criticism was going to be gobbled up by those who are – bizarrely – so eager for him to fail.

While that's not to say Messi is above criticism, and there have certainly been times this season when questions were fairly asked of his performances, we have to keep in mind a host of extenuating circumstances.

For one, a 34-year-old not being quite as good as he was at 30 is perfectly normal. Then you have to consider he had no pre-season, had major upheaval in his life with the move from Barcelona and then struggled with fitness in the early weeks of the season.

But ahead of a Champions League last-16 second-leg trip to his old nemeses, Real Madrid, Messi appears in fine shape and will no doubt be eager to end his 695-minute goalless run against Los Blancos.

So, if he has been effective lately, what does the criticism of him relate to? And is Messi truly on a downward spiral?

The elephant in the room

Let's get this out of the way nice and early. Yes, it's unequivocal that Messi's output in front of goal is not what we're used to seeing from him.

He has scored just twice in Ligue 1 this season, which admittedly is absurd when you consider he's not failed to reach double figures for league goals since 2005-06 when he netted six times in 17 games.

But let's not forget, for the majority of his Barcelona career, their teams were built around him and, perhaps most importantly, many of those sides were exceptional. Are PSG?

Messi is unquestionably proving wasteful in front of goal, with this the first season since Opta began collecting expected goals (xG) data (2010-11) that he has underperformed in relation to that metric.

So far across all competitions in 2021-22, Messi averages 0.44 non-penalty (np) xG every 90 minutes, but his actual np goals output is 0.23.

There's no argument here – Messi should be scoring more than he has based on the quality of the chances that have fallen his way, but by no means does that mean he's been a liability.

Still creator in chief

While Messi may not be posting the kind of figures in front of goal that we are used to seeing from him, it's worth highlighting how he remains a key contributor on the creative side for PSG.

In fact, if he maintains his 2.65 chances created every 90 minutes (all competitions) for the remainder of the season, it will be his third-most productive campaign ever in that regard.

There is plenty of value in the chances he's creating as well. On a per-90 basis, Messi's expected assists (xA) is 0.38 this season, only a slight reduction on the past two seasons (0.43 and 0.42) when, let's remember, he was playing in a Barca team built entirely around him.

As such, his haul of 10 assists in Ligue 1 has him level at the top of the chart with Kylian Mbappe despite playing 698 fewer minutes than his team-mate.

Further to that, he continues to play an influential role in PSG's build-up play as well and has been particularly effective in recent weeks.

Since February 1, Messi (7.7) comes second to Mbappe (9.2) for the most shot-ending sequence involvements in Ligue 1 (minimum 180 minutes played). But when you only consider passages where they have not had the shot, Messi (6.4) is only behind Marco Verratti (7.0), demonstrating just how involved he is in their general build-up play.

Working in Mbappe's shadow

Mbappe has, of course, been at the fore of PSG's Ligue 1 title surge and progress in the Champions League. With 38 goals involvements, at a rate of one every 74.5 minutes, it's fair to say he has been the one consistently lethal weapon in their star-studded attacking arsenal.

Neymar has been in and out of the team this season due to injury, while Messi's issues we have already gone over. Clearly, if PSG are successful at home – seemingly a certainty – and in Europe, Mbappe, the scorer of their excellent winner in the first leg against Madrid, will have been the catalyst.

But we shouldn't gloss over what Messi has contributed.

His record of 0.82 expected goal involvements per 90 minutes (all comps) is only marginally lower than Mbappe's (0.87). For the latter, this looks like to be his finest individual campaign to date – yet Messi, criticised by some for a perceived lack of output, is operating at a similar level of effectiveness.

Of course, the difference is that Mbappe is proving far more clinical in those goalscoring opportunities, but don't forget it was only last season that Messi scored 38 times in a fading Barca side. That ability doesn't vanish overnight.

It would be far fairer to judge him next season when he will presumably have a proper pre-season under his belt.

Patience. If anyone should be afforded the benefit of the doubt during a settling-in period, it's Messi.

It was deemed a pivotal match in the title race. Liverpool would have been able to go top of the Premier League table – or at least within a point of it – with a win in their game in hand if Manchester City slipped up in the Manchester derby.

But upon its conclusion at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, it was difficult to imagine Liverpool players doing anything but lifting their jaws off the floor after City blew Manchester United away in stunning fashion, beating Ralf Rangnick's side 4-1.

Not that it always looked likely to be so one-sided. A Cristiano Ronaldo-less United certainly made things interesting at the start, and the absence of the Portuguese forward – due to a hip injury – gave them an enigmatic aura, to some degree.

It emerged on Saturday night that Ronaldo was a doubt when reports began to suggest the Portugal captain had not been present with the rest of the squad at their team hotel.

City would surely have been preparing to face Ronaldo all week, and so United's set-up will have come as something of a shock – even more so when in the early exchanges it looked like the visitors were attempting to go punch-for-punch with the champions, something few teams survive.

In fact, early on there were signs of role reversal. United had spells of possession, City were playing for counters. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, counter-attacking became something of a staple for the Red Devils in these fixtures.

But in the absence of Ronaldo, it was as if United were finally playing with a full complement of players, such has been his lack of influence outside the penalty area – you could potentially include inside the area as well given his recent wastefulness.

With Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba supporting wide forwards Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga, United looked fluid, intricate and generally dangerous in attack, almost mimicking City's striker-less style for 2021-22, the hosts' fifth-minute opener from Kevin De Bruyne not appearing to upset the away side's flow a great deal.

Jadon Sancho's excellent equaliser showed precisely what United were capable of, as they cut through City and the England international exhibited great composure by skipping around Rodri and curling into the bottom-right corner.

Though by that point, in the 22nd minute, City had already started to get to grips with United's slightly surprising set-up, as Rangnick's men started to show cracks.

In the first 15 minutes, the share of possession was almost 50/50 – over the course of a derby during Pep Guardiola's time in Manchester, United haven't had more than 40 per cent at the Etihad Stadium. But over the following third of the first half, City's share increased to 72.5 per cent, and it was unsurprising to see them regain the lead through De Bruyne just six minutes after Sancho's leveller.

If United were trying to mimic City, the latter were proving themselves to be the real deal.

Pep Guardiola seemingly targeted Aaron Wan-Bissaka – or United's right flank in general – as the weak link, with the right-back struggling to cope as Joao Cancelo, Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva – even Phil Foden too at times – ganged up on him. City's first two goals originated from that area of the pitch and, in truth, even more could have.

United reached the break just one goal behind, and given their promising start and the open nature of the first period, there was reason to believe a way back wasn't out of the question.

But City were on a different planet after half-time.

Their control of the ball found another level, as did their cohesion when pressing, with United having immense difficulty passing through the City midfield.

Pogba faded into anonymity, Fernandes and Sancho too, while Grealish galloped with joy and De Bruyne ran the show, out-crafting and out-muscling his counterparts at almost every opportunity.

Adding to his brace, the Belgian also played the inch-perfect corner delivery that led to Riyad Mahrez's gorgeous half-volleyed third, which most would have accepted was game over for United. Though fans would have hoped the players weren't of the same opinion.

Yet the response to that 68th-minute goal was non-existent. City had 87 per cent of the ball between the 76th minute and full-time as United just seemed to throw in the towel – the concession of a late fourth to Mahrez was a just punishment for their reaction.

City's performance was a timely and fitting reminder that their superiority cannot be simply copied and pasted.

Rangnick said on Friday that City are an example because every decision in the club revolves around certain ideals and a joint-up philosophical approach to football – the second half on Sunday embodied that as they played United off the park playing the ferocious football they are known for.

Before this weekend, United had been reduced to the role of prospective party-poopers – it's a damning indictment of where they are now that even this was evidently way beyond their capacity.

Liverpool closed the gap on leaders Manchester City with victory over West Ham, while Chelsea tightened their grip on third place in Saturday's Premier League action.

The Blues saw off Burnley 4-0 at Turf Moor, a scoreline that was matched by Aston Villa in their statement victory against Southampton.

Newcastle United, Crystal Palace and Brentford also picked up wins, but it was a bad start to life under new management for Leeds in their early kick-off against Leicester City.

Following another eventful day of Premier League action, Stats Perform delves into the key Opta facts from each of the games.

Leeds United 0-1 Leicester City: New manager, same Leeds

Jesse Marsch's first game as Leeds boss ended in defeat to Leicester as United fell to a fifth successive league loss for the first time since April 2015, when they were in the Championship.

Leeds have failed to score in three straight league matches for the first time in a year, this despite registering 19 shots in their latest blank against Leicester.

United's expected goals (xG) return of 1.95 is their highest without scoring in a league game since June 2020, and the familiar failings were also on show at the other end.

Harvey Barnes' second-half winner means Leeds have gone 13 league games without a clean sheet, their longest-such run since 14 without a shutout ending in August 2016.

This was the fifth straight league game Barnes has scored against Leeds – four of those while playing for Leicester and one for West Brom, making them his favourite opponent.

 

Aston Villa 4-0 Southampton: Coutinho's home comforts

Villa are firmly back on track after registering back-to-back victories under Steven Gerrard for the first time since his opening two games in charge in November.

The Villans put four unanswered goals past Southampton at Villa Park for their biggest Premier League win since thrashing Liverpool 7-2 in October 2020.

Barcelona loanee Philippe Coutinho once again played a big part in the victory by scoring one and assisting another for Douglas Luiz.

Coutinho has now been directly involved in six goals in his first four home league games for Villa, scoring three of his own and setting up as many.

Ollie Watkins had earlier opened the scoring with his 21st Premier League strike since the start of the 2020-21 season, while Danny Ings added to his two assists with Villa's fourth goal.

 

Newcastle United 2-1 Brighton and Hove Albion: Fraser helps end Magpies' duck against Seagulls

For a while things looked incredibly bleak for Newcastle, even after their big-money takeover, but they now find themselves seven points above the relegation zone.

The Magpies held off Brighton to make it eight Premier League games without defeat – no team is on a better such run – with five of those matches ending in victory.

Ryan Fraser opened the scoring to make it two goals in five Premier League outings, matching his tally from his previous 70 appearances, before setting up Fabian Schar.

That was the earliest United have scored twice in a Premier League home game since January 2007 and, despite Lewis Dunk's header, Eddie Howe's side saw out the win.

It marks the first time Newcastle have defeated Brighton in the Premier League in their 10th such encounter, having previously failed to so much as score against them at home.

 

Norwich City 1-3 Brentford: Bees buzzing thanks to Toney treble

After a run of eight Premier League games without a win, Brentford bolstered their survival ambitions with a well-earned victory away at bottom side Norwich.

Ivan Toney was the hero for the Bees with three goals, two of those from the penalty spot, making Brentford the 40th different team to boast a hat-trick scorer.

The Brentford striker now has nine Premier League goals for the season, each of those coming via his right foot.

Teemu Pukki scored a consolation but it was another miserable day for Norwich, whose goal difference of -42 is the worst at this stage since Derby County in 2007-08 (-44).

Not that it will matter a great deal in the grand scheme of things, but Brentford are the first team Pukki has scored home and away against in a single Premier League season.

 

Wolves 0-2 Crystal Palace: Shaky Wanderers lose again

Wolves' European hopes suffered another blow as they fell to a third successive Premier League defeat, as many as they lost in their previous 13.

Bruno Lage's out-of-form side have now conceded six goals in their last four league games, after shipping just five in 12 before that.

Jean-Philippe Mateta came up with the breakthrough from close range for his fourth goal in eight Premier League starts, and Wilfried Zaha doubled Palace's lead from the penalty spot.

Ivory Coast international Zaha has now been directly involved in 83 goals in the competition, the joint-ninth best total for an African player, level with Nwankwo Kanu.

With this latest loss, it is the first time Wolves have lost three games in a row against Palace in their entire league history.

 

Burnley 0-4 Chelsea: Blues cruise at Turf Moor

It was business as usual for Chelsea as they won for a third Premier League game running without conceding in what proved to be a straightforward victory at lowly Burnley.

The Blues scored all four of their goals in the second half as they enjoyed their biggest away league win since October 2018 when also beating Burnley by the same scoreline.

This was the biggest margin of victory for an away side in a game that was goalless at half-time since Tottenham beat Aston Villa 4-0 in December 2012.

Reece James started the scoring and in the process became the first defender from Europe's top five leagues to both score and assist five goals this term in all competitions.

Kai Havertz also netted twice before Christian Pulisic added some gloss to the scoreline – his fourth goal at Turf Moor, matching a record for an away player set by Tottenham's Harry Kane.

 

Liverpool 1-0 West Ham: Reds roll on thanks to Mane

Sadio Mane's first-half goal made it seven wins in a row for Liverpool in the Premier League, their best such streak since a run of 18 when they claimed the title two years ago.

That close-range finish was Mane's 12th of the season in the league, nine of those coming at Anfield – no player has scored more home goals in the division this season.

Trent Alexander-Arnold played the ball into the box for Mane's goal for his 16th assist in all competitions this term, more than he has ever registered in a single campaign.

Liverpool were not at their best and that was particularly true of Mohamed Salah, who failed to score from six shots – only against Stoke in April 2018 (seven) has he fared worse.

Incredibly, Virgil van Dijk has never been on the losing side for Liverpool in 60 Premier League home games at Anfield, setting a new record in that regard.

 

Shane Warne, one of the greatest cricketers of all time, has passed away at the age of 52.

Warne's death has left the sporting world in shock. He was a genius with the ball, taking 708 Test wickets across a 15-year career for Australia, and his place among the all-time sporting greats is secure.

He enjoyed a wonderful rivalry with Australia's old enemies, England.

As first impressions go, Warne's in Ashes cricket was about as eye-catching as you could possibly get.  

It was June 4, 1993 and the second day of the series opener between England and Australia at Old Trafford. Having taken five wickets for 45 runs in the morning session to dismiss their rivals for 289, the home side's reply was progressing steadily enough at 80-1. 

However, Warne's introduction into the attack produced one of cricket's most memorable moments and changed the dynamic of the rivalry for over the next decade.

Mike Gatting will certainly never forget it, as the leg-spinner unfurled a delivery that flummoxed the England batsman.

"We understood he was a very talented sportsperson. He liked his surfing, he was a typical sort of Aussie larrikin, as they called them, who could spin the cricket ball," Gatting told BBC 5 Live on Friday, following the confirmation of Warne's passing.

"We didn't know much more about him than that, and in the match before they told him to just bowl his leg-breaks and he didn't bowl his flippers, and topples [top-spinners], and googlies, but when he got down the other end there, I was just trying to watch the ball.

"I knew it was a leg-break and I knew it was going to spin, you could hear it coming through the air from down the other end, and then just at the last yard or so, as a good leg-spinner does, it just drifted in, and it drifted just outside leg stump and just turned out of nowhere, a long, long way.

"I'm quite a wide chap and it got past me as well as everything else and just clipped the off bail, and I was just as dumbfounded as I am now to hear that he's died."

'The Ball of the Century', as it became known, was poetry in slow (bowling) motion. The initial drift appeared to make it look innocuous enough as it veered to pitch outside the line of the right-handed Gatting's leg stump, only to dip, rip and zip beyond his defensive prod, beating the outside edge of the bat before going on to hit off stump. 

It was a stunning opening statement. As if he had cast a spell that day, Warne would go on to dominate against England for the rest of his career. 

Gatting will famously be remembered as the first but plenty more would be mesmerised by Warne, who ended his international career with 708 Test wickets at 25.41. Only Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Sri Lanka's own spin king, has ever managed more. 

The variations – the wrong'uns, flippers, sliders and shooters, or whatever other name Warne came up with for the latest addition to his bowling repertoire – all helped add to his aura. So many batsmen were often done in the mind before he had even released the ball from his right hand.

England suffered more than any other nation. Warne claimed 195 wickets against Australia's greatest rivals at an average of 23.3. 

More than half of that tally came on English soil too (129 at 21.9 in 22 matches), with his numbers against them in Australia impacted by missing the majority of the 1998-99 series due to a right shoulder injury, as well as a further two Tests in 2002-03. In terms of wickets abroad, South Africa sit second on his hit list, Warne picking up 61 there in 12 Tests. 

The young, bright-blond bowler in 1993 went on to finish with 34 scalps during the six-match Ashes, though a strike-rate of a wicket every 77.6 balls was comfortably the highest for any of his four series on English soil.

He picked up four in each innings in Manchester – albeit none with such dramatic effect as the delivery that did for Gatting – then repeated the trick at Lord's in the next Test. While the returns dipped for the remainder of the trip, including just one wicket at Headingley, Australia eased to a 4-1 triumph to retain the urn. 


From that away success towards the end of Allan Border's reign through the captaincy eras of Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, the Australians would maintain their grip on the most famous prize in cricket until 2005, when Michael Vaughan's side worked out that attack was the best form of defence.

The competitive nature of that series – after a lop-sided opener at Lord’s that the tourists won, every other fixture provided sporting drama of the highest quality – seemingly inspired Warne to reach a personal Ashes peak.

No cause was lost when he had the ball that summer, as demonstrated when so nearly rescuing situations in eventual defeats at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, when his side's batting failures left them playing catch-up. In the end, though, his 40 wickets at 19.9 were not enough to spare Australia from slipping to a 2-1 defeat.  

Still, he became just the eighth bowler to take 40 wickets in a series – and the first since 1989 – while striking on average every 37.9 balls. England had managed to win the war despite coming out second best in their battles with Warne. 

His hugely successful English summer helped towards an overall haul of 96 wickets in 2005, comfortably the best return during a Test career that saw him take 70 or more in a calendar year on four occasions.

The last act was to help regain the urn at home in 2006-07, Andrew Flintoff becoming Warne's 195th Ashes scalp when stumped by Adam Gilchrist in Sydney.  The bowler who made the fading art of leg spin fashionable once again had bamboozled England for the final time.

Now, cricket mourns the loss of a rare talent and a true legend.

Manchester United have plenty of issues to solve ahead of next season, no matter where they end up in 2021-22.

It seems certain that Ralf Rangnick will not be in charge, with Mauricio Pochettino among the favourites to take over, though the former RB Leipzig boss is set to move into a consultancy role at Old Trafford, and certainly has an eye for picking a player.

United have requirements in central midfield, regardless of whether Paul Pogba stays or goes, but based on current evidence, they also need a striker.

Their problems up top have come back to bite them in recent games. In fact, against Watford last time out, United had 22 shots, finishing with an expected goals (xG) of 2.7, yet drew 0-0 at Old Trafford. Putting away chances has been a major area of concern.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the club at the end of the August transfer window, and while he has contributed 15 goals in all competitions, it could easily be argued that United's all-round play has taken a hit since the 37-year-old's homecoming.

Edinson Cavani has featured only sporadically this season and, like Ronaldo, is approaching the twilight of a glistening career. Both players may well not be at United heading into 2022-23.

Anthony Martial is out on loan at Sevilla, with his United future looking rather bleak. Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, seems to lack the clinical nature to lead a title-challenging line.

The last time United went out and signed a striker at their peak was the season in which they last won the Premier League – Robin van Persie proving the difference in Alex Ferguson's last campaign in charge.

On Sunday, United face rivals Manchester City. A team that has perfected playing without a recognised number nine.

That is testament to Pep Guardiola's genius, but it has proved that it can be done. So, looking further down the line, who is the forward that United need?

Here, Stats Perform assesses some standout options.

Harry Kane (Tottenham)

Kane has long been linked with a move to Manchester, to both sides of the red-blue divide. It appeared City would bring the England captain north last year, yet Tottenham refused to budge, and it would seem that particular ship has sailed – Kane turns 29 this year and, with Erling Haaland's reported €75million (£62.1m) release clause, City are reportedly prioritising the Borussia Dortmund star. 

That could that leave the door open for Kane to rock up at Old Trafford instead, especially if the option of linking up with Pochettino is on the table.

It has been a tough season for Kane by his lofty standards, though his brilliant performances against City and Leeds United in recent weeks showed the player that was at the top of his game last season is still there.

Alexander Isak (Real Sociedad)

Taking Kylian Mbappe and Haaland out of the equation, United might still look at the younger end of the spectrum. In that regard, Real Sociedad's Isak may fit the bill.

Isak scored 17 LaLiga goals last season and, while he has not reached quite the same heights in 2021-22, at 22 he is definitely one for the future. His tally of eight goals across all competitions is disappointing, though when looking at expected goals on target (xGOT) – a tool that can quantify the quality of a player's finishing – Isak is at 12.2 for the season, suggesting that the placement of his shots should have resulted in more goals.

Patrik Schick (Bayer Leverkusen)

While not among the elite, if United are looking for a goalscorer then they could do worse than Schick, who has carried over his fine form from Euro 2020 into this season, scoring 20 goals in 24 matches for Bayer Leverkusen, striking on average every 84 minutes, which is the third-best minutes per goal ratio of strikers in Europe's top five leagues to have already netted at least 20 goals in all competitions, after Haaland and Robert Lewandowski (more on him later).

 

Schick has already had something of a nomadic career but at 26 is about to enter his prime years. His shot conversion rate of 28.17 is superb, ranking fourth out of players from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1 to have scored at least 10 times.

The Czech's xGOT of 16.1, minus his xG of 14.4, gives him a shooting goals added (sga) figure of +1.7, meaning he is executing better quality shots than the quality of the chances he has attempted shots from. However, in contrast to Isak, he may also have benefited from goalkeepers failing to keep out attempts they would be expected to.

Lautaro Martinez (Inter)

One player who is among Europe's elite forwards is Inter's Martinez. The Argentine struck up a fearsome partnership with Romelu Lukaku in 2019-20 and 2020-21, and he has scored 12 goals already this season.

Martinez's aggression and pace could make him an ideal frontman for the Premier League, though his finishing can be erratic (he has had 102 attempts this season but has a conversion rate of just 11.76 per cent), while he has also underperformed his xG (17.1). The Argentine did only sign a new Inter contract last year, so he would be hard to prise away.

Robert Lewandowski (Bayern)

Before disregarding the option of Lewandowski as fantasy, take into account that he has not yet signed a new deal with Bayern Munich. The 33-year-old's contract expires in 2023.

Lewandowski is undoubtedly the best out-and-out striker in world football right now and, if Ronaldo and Cavani were to leave, United might prefer to go with experience. 

 

Not that experience is all Lewandowski would offer. He will go down as one of the best to grace the game and has 39 goals in 33 appearances this season, slightly overperforming his xG (37.6) in the process. He nets on average every 73 minutes and, like Van Persie a decade ago, would surely transform United into title contenders. That being said, the same was also said about Ronaldo.

Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid) 

Something of a wildcard option, Joao Felix is not the typical striker, but if United were to go down a Guardiola-inspired false nine route, then the former Benfica boy wonder might be the perfect fit.

It would be harsh to say Joao Felix has been a failure at Atletico Madrid, but it is fair to suggest he has not been a rip-roaring success under Diego Simeone either.

Yet the 22-year-old has shown flashes of brilliance. Indeed, he outshone compatriot Ronaldo in United's recent Champions League draw with Atleti and with the tactical nous he is sure to have got from Simeone, it would be intriguing to see him at Old Trafford.

Shane Warne, the Australia leg-spinner who was one of the greatest bowlers to ever grace a cricket field, has died aged 52 of a suspected heart attack.

The former Victoria and Hampshire player, widely regarded as one of the game's all-time greats, was found unresponsive at his villa in Thailand.

Across a 15-year Test career that stretched from 1992 to 2007, Warne cemented himself as the architect of a leg-spin revival.

His haul of 708 wickets across 145 Test matches is the second-highest number taken by any bowler and just one of several records set across his career. Here, Stats Perform looks at some of his finest feats.

708 - Only one bowler – Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan (800) – has ever taken more Test wickets than Warne, who amassed 708.

195 - Warne's haul of 195 Ashes victims means he holds the record for most Test wickets against England.

199 - The spinner had 199 Test innings at the crease as a batsman, hitting 3,154 runs overall at an average of 17.32.

14 - Alec Stewart was Warne's favourite opponent to bowl to in Tests, with the Englishman dismissed 14 times.

99 - Warne's highest score in Test cricket was 99 runs, while his best effort in one-day internationals was 55.

130 - After England, Warne took the most Test wickets against South Africa, with 130 in total.

96 - Warne's most successful year for bowling, numbers-wise, was in 2005 when he took 96 Test wickets, although an Ashes defeat took some shine off that haul. In ODIs, he took a career-high 62 wickets in 1999.

291 - He took 291 wickets for Australia across 193 ODI appearances.

319 - A hefty proportion of Warne's Test wickets came on home turf, with 319 coming his way while playing in Australia, including 15 five-wicket hauls.

129 - In 22 Tests in England, Warne took 129 wickets.

Roman Abramovich has decided to sell Chelsea.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Russian-Israeli businessman announced his decision to sell the London club, which he purchased in 2003.

Abramovich has said his decision is "in the best interest of the club", as it comes against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has put him under intense scrutiny.

The 55-year-old oligarch has been photographed with Russian president Vladimir Putin in the past, and while it was claimed last week that Abramovich has no involvement in politics, a spokesperson for the Blues' owner suggested to the Press Association on Monday that he was "trying to help" achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Russian businesses and high-profile individuals have been hit with crippling financial sanctions by nations all over the world since the attack began last Thursday, and there have been calls in the United Kingdom for Abramovich to be targeted next.

Should Abramovich secure a sale, he leaves Chelsea as a footballing superpower...

The trophies

Chelsea have won 19 major trophies since Abramovich bought the club, with the Blues succeeding in every single available competition at least once.

Their haul includes five Premier League titles (2004-05, 2005-06, 2009-10, 2014-15, 2016-17) and two Champions League triumphs (2011-12, 2020-21).

The Blues have won the FA Cup on five occasions since 2003, last doing so in 2018, while they have added a further three EFL Cup titles to their honours list, too.

Chelsea's success in Europe has not just been restricted to the Champions League. They won the Europa League in 2012-13 and 2018-19, and the Super Cup last year.

February brought Club World Cup glory for the first time, completing the set under Abramovich.

Since the owner arrived in 2003, Chelsea have accumulated 1,449 points in the Premier League, more than any other side.

Of the 709 top-flight games during Abramovich's ownership so far, they have won 432, drawn 153 and lost 124, scoring 1,309 goals and conceding 621 for a hugely impressive goal difference of 688.

The managers

Chelsea have flitted through managers during Abramovich's tenure. Indeed, current incumbent Thomas Tuchel is the 15th different coach (including caretakers and interims) to work at Stamford Bridge since 2003.

After dismissing Claudio Ranieri in 2004, Abramovich landed a superstar manager in Jose Mourinho, who would go on to lead Chelsea to their first top-flight crown since 1955 and defend the title the following season.

Mourinho's first stint really was special. He won 124 games, losing just 21 times, and turned Chelsea from pretenders into a true superpower. Of any permanent manager during Abramovich's ownership, the Portuguese's first spell produced the best win ratio (67 per cent).

Yet past success means little as soon as things turn sour for Abramovich, and Mourinho was replaced in 2007-08. His successor, Avram Grant, led Chelsea to their first Champions League final, but John Terry's penalty shoot-out slip proved costly.

Luiz Felipe Scolari proved a bust but Guus Hiddink, in his first, more successful interim spell, subsequently delivered FA Cup joy in 2009, and a 72.7 per cent win rate from his 22 matches in charge (16 victories). 

Carlo Ancelotti was next through the door. He claimed a Premier League and FA Cup double in 2009-10, while Roberto Di Matteo secured the club's first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out defeat of Bayern Munich.

Mourinho's return yielded a fourth Premier League success, but the Special One's second spell deteriorated quickly and he was sacked in December 2015 with Chelsea sitting 16th. Hiddink came in for a second interim spell but won just 10 out of 27 matches (a 37 per cent win ratio).

Chelsea won a trophy in each season under Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri. Club great Frank Lampard was given the job in 2019 but lasted just 18 months, finishing with the lowest win ratio of any permanent Chelsea boss under Abramovich (52.4 per cent). Tuchel took the same side to Champions League glory.

The players

Superstar managers must have superstar players to manage, and Chelsea have certainly had their fair share of those during Abramovich's time at Stamford Bridge.

Lampard made 354 league appearances from 2003 to his departure in 2014, scoring 136 goals, but John Terry tops the top-flight appearances list during Abramovich's reign, with 411.

Petr Cech was arguably the best goalkeeper in world football in his prime, and he ranks third on that list (333), while current captain Cesar Azpilicueta will go down as a club great, even if he will never be considered among world football's true elite.

Eden Hazard scored 85 league goals in 245 games across his seven years with the Blues. Michael Essien was a superb player for Chelsea after joining in 2005, while Claude Makelele, signed in 2003, was crucial to Mourinho's initial success.

Only Lampard scored more goals than Didier Drogba (104), though Diego Costa was brilliant in Mourinho's second spell. Jorginho, Antonio Rudiger, Edouard Mendy and N'Golo Kante have proved superb signings in recent years.

There have been flops, perhaps none more so than Fernando Torres, while the world-record fee for a goalkeeper splashed out on Kepa Arrizabalaga does not seem so wise and Timo Werner has struggled since his move from Germany in 2020. Romelu Lukaku could well be added to that list if he does not discover his best form.

What do Dusan Vlahovic, Dodi Lukebakio and Gaetan Laborde all have in common?

As of this moment, not much – aside from having been touted as the next Newcastle United signing. But if Vlahovic gets a goal for Juventus against Fiorentina on Wednesday, he will join Wolfsburg's Lukebakio (who joined on loan from Hertha Berlin) and Rennes' Laborde (who signed from Montpellier) as the only players in Europe's top five leagues to score for and against the same team this season.

Vlahovic said his feelings were "a bit mixed" as he contemplated facing the Viola at the Artemio Franchi, where he spent four years after joining as an 18-year-old from Partizan. "It's a bit strange," he told DAZN, to prepare for a game against the team for whom he scored 33 times in Serie A in 2021, equalling the competition's calendar-year record set by Cristiano Ronaldo – the man he was bought to replace in Turin.

The sentiment among Fiorentina's faithful will be a bit more, well, partisan. Vlahovic's January transfer, completed on his 22nd birthday for an initial fee of €70million, sparked levels of fury among the fan base arguably not seen since the Roberto Baggio riots of the early 1990s. Fiorentina ultras vented their anger not just at the player, but at the club itself, lambasting president Rocco Commisso for doing deals with "the ultimate evil" after previously promising never to sell their best players to the hated Bianconeri.

Meanwhile, Vlahovic has got on with the day job of scoring goals, and with three in his past two games, Juve are beginning to hope of a surprise late challenge for the Champions League and Serie A titles. Before then comes the small matter of a Coppa Italia semi-final in Florence, and the chance for Vlahovic to take a step closer to a first trophy outside Serbia by knocking out his old employers.

And he wouldn't be the first Juve player to return to haunt Fiorentina...

Roberto Baggio

Baggio isn't the sole reason Fiorentina don't like Juventus, but ask someone to explain the rivalry and his name will likely come up pretty quickly.

The pony-tailed posterboy of Italian football developed into a star in his five years in Tuscany even before his rise to global fame at the 1990 World Cup on home soil. It was in that same year that Juve signed him from Fiorentina for an approximate fee of £8million, smashing the world transfer record and sparking furious Fiorentina fans to take to the streets in protest.

Baggio claimed he never really wanted to leave and, when he returned to face them in Bianconeri colours on April 7, he refused to take a penalty ostensibly out of concern that goalkeeper Gianmatteo Mareggini would know where he would put it. Luigi Di Biagio stepped up instead, missed, and Juve lost. Picking up a Fiorentina scarf didn't help Baggio to endear himself to the Juve faithful, either.

Still, over the next five years, Baggio would fire them to Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup glory and become the first Italian since Paolo Rossi in 1982 to win the Ballon d'Or (it would be 13 more years before another, Fabio Cannavaro, did the same).

Giorgio Chiellini

If Baggio's transfer sparked a riot, Giorgio Chiellini's permanent move to Juve in 2005 prompted more of a quiet grumble. He spent 2004-05 with the Viola after they and Juve reached a co-ownership deal, so it was always anticipated the suits in Turin might stump up the full amount for his registration rights.

Of course, watching Chiellini win nine Scudetti, five Coppa Italia crowns and Euro 2020 as part of a glittering Azzurri career has left plenty of Fiorentina fans with an unshakeable sense of 'what if'.

In December 2005, Chiellini started against Fiorentina in a frankly unfair back four that also featured Lillian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta, with Juve claiming a 2-1 win thanks to Mauro Camoranesi's 88th-minute goal. 

He's since gone on to face Fiorentina 17 times in Serie A, losing just twice. But, more importantly, Chiellini has become a Juve great – he is just two games away from putting himself third behind Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon on the club's all-time appearances list.

Federico Bernardeschi

Bernardeschi may have moved out of season, but that didn't stop Fiorentina fans venting their anger in response to his €40m switch. They hung a banner outside the stadium that made their displeasure fairly clear. It read: "Who wouldn't like to spit in your face… you s***** hunchback".

His move to the Old Lady came after a something of a breakthrough season as he scored 11 times in Serie A – that was an improvement of nine from the two he'd got the previous campaign.

Unsurprisingly he was jeered and targeted by banners on his first return to Florence in February 2018, though Bernardeschi had the last laugh, curling a free-kick in as Juve won 2-0. It's fair to say he didn't abstain from celebrating, letting out a huge scream.

"I celebrated when I scored because I believe a professional should respect the fans. I've always been grateful to Fiorentina, and always will, for the way they looked after me and helped me develop, but I made a career choice and now I play for another team," he told Sky Sport Italia at the time.

But Bernardeschi's struggled to have the same kind of importance to Juve, rather being used as more of a utility and back-up player, which is reflected by the fact he's scored just eight league goals for the club.

Federico Chiesa

If Fiorentina fans are upset on Wednesday, just wait until next season when Federico Chiesa is fit again and lining up alongside Vlahovic. The pair appeared together 41 times for the Viola before Chiesa's October 2020 departure for Turin.

Chiesa, who is out for the rest of the season following damage to his anterior cruciate ligament, will be a permanent Juve player in 2022-23. For now, remarkably, he is merely on loan from Fiorentina.

Such deals that appear to favour the buying club are not uncommon in Serie A, but Fiorentina supporters could be forgiven for being furious as their club again accommodated the transfer of a star player to their bitter rivals.

Chiesa – the son of former Fiorentina forward Enrico – dazzled in his final full season in Florence, with 11 goals and six assists, and has done likewise for Juve following a slightly tricky start. At the time of his injury – before Vlahovic's arrival – he was the Bianconeri's standout performer.

The third major final meeting between Chelsea and Liverpool proved to be a classic.

It was the Reds who triumphed at Wembley, where the crowd were treated to a tale of bad misses and, ultimately, a tale of two goalkeepers.

Caoimhin Kelleher, Liverpool's 23-year-old number two, was their hero, scoring what turned out to be the shoot-out winner as Kepa Arrizabalaga, brought on at the end of extra time by Thomas Tuchel specifically for penalties, blazed his effort high over the bar.

Kepa had proved Chelsea's hero in the Super Cup in August when he replaced Edouard Mendy for that shoot-out, yet history did not repeat itself. Nothing on Sunday went to plan for the Spain international, who had seemed all set to start, given he has been the Blues' regular cup keeper this season.

His strike may well not have been on target if two goals had been stacked on top of each other, and it meant Jurgen Klopp's side won 11-10 on penalties.

It was the highest-scoring penalty shoot-out between two English top-flight teams in history, and brought up a record ninth EFL Cup title for Liverpool, who have collected a fourth major trophy under Klopp, though their first domestic cup of his tenure.

Yet it could all have been very different. Kepa wouldn't have needed to be the butt of all jokes had his team-mates finished some glorious chances, while Liverpool passed up a fair share of their own in what was one of the most thrilling 0-0 draws you are likely to see.

Here are the biggest moments from a memorable showdown...

Pulisic, 6 (xG 0.52)

The first huge moment came within six minutes. Kai Havertz, who would go on to have a superb game, exploited space in midfield and slid a pass out to Cesar Azpilicueta. His low cross found Christian Pulisic in space but the forward clipped a first-time effort straight at Kelleher.

Mane, 30 (xG 0.58)

Having headed wide from an earlier, albeit more difficult, opportunity, Sadio Mane was left bewildered not to be celebrating a goal when Mendy justified Tuchel's selection, making a wonderful save to deny his compatriot from point-blank range.

Mount, 45 (xG 0.6)

Chelsea bookended the first half with another remarkable miss. This time it was Mason Mount who got on the end of Kai Havertz's centre, yet he volleyed wide when it seemed easier to score. Indeed, based on Opta's xG model, this was the best opportunity of a game packed full of golden chances.

Mount, 49 (xG 0.33)

While the xG for this opportunity would suggest Mount only had a 33 per cent chance of scoring, he really should have done better. Put through by a delicately lofted throughball, the England international set himself before sliding a low effort to Kelleher's right, only for the ball to clip away agonisingly off the foot of the post. 

 

Salah, 64 (xG 0.58)

Mendy was almost the master of Chelsea's downfall when he thumped an overhit pass straight out into midfield. Salah capitalised and raced through, lobbing the onrushing goalkeeper, yet there was not enough power on the chip, which may well have been heading wide anyway, and it was cleared.

Matip disallowed goal, 67-69 (xG n/a)

The deadlock seemed to have been broken when Joel Matip headed in from Mane's nod back across goal, only for the VAR to disallow Liverpool's goal due to Virgil van Dijk, who appeared to block Reece James, having been offside in the build-up.

Havertz disallowed goal, 78 (xG n/a)

Chelsea got a taste of the VAR medicine as Havertz's celebrations were cut short after he headed in from Timo Werner's cross, with the creator having strayed offside.

Van Dijk, 90+1 (xG 0.04)

Andrew Robertson and Luis Diaz went close in a scramble, but it was Van Dijk who almost won it for Liverpool in normal time. It was a brilliant header from the towering defender, but Mendy got down low to his left to parry it away.

Lukaku, 90+5 (xG 0.19)

Chelsea had a big moment of their own in stoppage time, but Kelleher – the youngest goalkeeper to start in an EFL Cup final since 2011 – reacted sharply to keep out Lukaku's clever flick at the front post.

 

Lukaku disallowed goal, 98 (xG n/a)

Lukaku showed flashes of his Inter form as he raced through, isolated a defender and slotted home at the near post early in extra time, only for the offside flag to go up again. The VAR checked the decision, but by the finest of margins the forward was indeed offside.

Havertz disallowed goal, 109 (xG n/a)

Havertz finished superbly across Kelleher in the second half of extra time, yet the Germany international was also stood in an offside position when he received Lukaku's pass.

Kepa's howler, penalties

In remarkable scenes, the shoot-out went all the way to 22 kicks, and it was the goalkeepers who had to step up. But having been brought on to save spot-kicks, Kepa did not seem ready to take one, and he lashed his effort way, way over the crossbar, sealing a Liverpool win in a classic final that, somehow, finished 0-0.

Will they? Won't they?

Real Madrid's own stuttering form over the past few weeks has at least helped to retain a hint of unpredictability at LaLiga's summit, but it's difficult to not think Sevilla keep blowing their opportunities.

It's not likely to get any easier on Sunday, either. They headed into this matchday six points behind Madrid, which in itself certainly isn't insurmountable.

But then Madrid beat Rayo Vallecano, and Sevilla's visitors are local rivals Real Betis, who are absolutely flying and chasing a victory that would lift them to within just two points of their neighbours.

Prior to Sevilla's slender – and ultimately irrelevant – 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday in the Europa League, the only side to have beaten them this year is Betis, who were 2-1 victors in the Copa del Rey in mid-January.

Since then injuries have played a significant role for Sevilla and they could conceivably be without Gonzalo Montiel, Diego Carlos, Jules Kounde, Lucas Ocampos, Erik Lamela, Suso, Anthony Martial and Karim Rekik on Sunday.

Several of those have been absent for other games in the last few weeks, and in the cases of Lamela and Suso, for much of the season. As such, since that defeat to Betis, Sevilla have won only two of seven games in all competitions.

But to many, a potential obstacle for Sevilla in their quest for an unlikely title triumph had long been identifiable, and it will only be made even more obvious against Betis.

Replacing the irreplaceable?

In 2020, Sevilla saw Ever Banega bring his second spell at the club to an end. Across his total six years at the club, either side of a single season with Inter, the Argentinian playmaker had been a fundamental part of the team.

A feisty competitor, excellent dribbler and possessor of wonderful vision and passing abilities, Banega's presence meant Sevilla always had a viable creative option in the middle of the pitch, even if using the flanks was a key concept for both Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui.

Since Banega departed for Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab, Sevilla simply haven't replaced him adequately. Ivan Rakitic, while still capable, isn't the same kind of player; Papu Gomez hasn't had consistency in any one position; and Oliver Torres has been unable to step into his former team-mate's shoes.

 

That creative role in midfield would be considered by most Sevilla fans as the final piece of the puzzle. The other two central positions are filled ably by Joan Jordan, an effective facilitator, and Fernando, who sits deeper to sweep up and help out with Diego Carlos and Kounde, something he's done to great success since joining.

But from a creative standpoint, Sevilla need only glance across town to see what they are missing in that area of the pitch.

Now, of course, the make-up of a midfield can have a major impact on other parts of the team, so were Sevilla to have a more penetrative central trio, there's every reason to suggest they'd not be as solid at the back.

But with Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir strutting their stuff for Betis, it's difficult to not at least wonder where Sevilla might be with a more positive outlook in midfield.

Sevilla's glaring weakness is Betis' biggest weapon

It cannot be overstated just how good a job Manuel Pellegrini is doing at Betis. Since the end of 2019-20, they have paid a transfer fee for just one player at €3.8million – in the same period, they've lost roughly €60m of talent, yet here they are, looking certainties for a Champions League spot.

Undoubtedly essential to Betis are Canales and Fekir, both of whom were exceptional and scored in the January Copa defeat of Sevilla.

Their influence makes Betis a real danger through the middle of the pitch, an area they are heavily reliant on.

We managed to isolate their key passes that have been played from the central column of the attacking third, and the outcome is impressive.

 

Betis are hugely active in this area, with as many as 36.7 per cent of their key passes being made from the zone in question. Only Real Mallorca (40.2 per cent) are busier here than Betis.

Sevilla, on the other hand, create just 25.2 per cent of their chances from the middle third, which is the lowest proportion of all 20 teams in LaLiga.

In fact, no Sevilla player has managed more than seven key passes in this section of the pitch – four Betis players have more than 10, with Fekir (14), Canales (21) and holding midfielder William Carvalho (12) accounting for 47 between them. That's only 11 fewer than Sevilla's entire squad.

 

Of course, a key element of Sevilla's setup is that they attack from the flanks, but it should be pointed out that Betis' proportion of touches out wide in the attacking half is only 2.2 per cent less, so they cannot be accused of neglecting the wings.

The difference is Sevilla are massively (too?) reliant on attacking from wide positions because they don't possess players with the kind of incisiveness that Betis do in midfield, both in terms of passing and ability on the ball.

 

It all comes back to an inability to replace Banega.

Failure to win at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on Sunday will surely end Sevilla's title hopes as they would be left nine points adrift of Madrid.

While injuries have many fans pessimistic anyway, few would be surprised if it's in midfield where Sevilla's dreams are crushed.

It was another frustrating day for Manchester United against Watford on Saturday, while their rivals – and next opponents – Manchester City left it late at Everton.

Watford were, of course, the team that inflicted the defeat that cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job at United in November, and Ralf Rangnick will have been similarly frustrated, even if he is safe in the knowledge that he will not be getting the sack.

The same cannot be said for Marcelo Bielsa, however, who looks destined to see his stay at Leeds United brought to an end after a crushing defeat to Tottenham.

Following Saturday's Premier League action, Stats Perform delves into the key Opta facts from some of the day's games.

Manchester United 0-0 Watford: Red Devils revert to type

Man Utd's 4-2 win at Leeds United last week was a little more tense than Ralf Rangnick would have liked, at least for a while, but it was also a rare example of them getting a big goals haul.

It seemed to say more about Leeds than it did United, however, as Rangnick saw his side struggle in front of goal once again despite dominating visitors Watford.

 

Chances weren't an issue: they had 22 shots, but only three were on target. Their opportunities amounted to 2.7 expected goals (xG), just no actual goals.

That was the highest xG accumulated by any side who failed to score in a Premier League game this term, and the biggest negative differential between goals and xG recorded in 2021-22.

It was the fifth time United have failed to score in 14 Premier League home games this season, their worst record since 2013-14 (six).

Up next? The Manchester derby.

 

Everton 0-1 Manchester City: Champions breathe sigh of relief as Toffees' points tally makes grim viewing

Phil Foden rescued City at Goodison Park on Saturday, scoring eight minutes from time to seal a 1-0 win over Everton.

That goal ensured Liverpool can only cut the gap behind City to three points if they win their game in hand, with Pep Guardiola undoubtedly relieved.

He surely always had faith, however, as Guardiola had won each of his previous nine games against Everton – this victory took him to 10 on the bounce, making it his joint-longest winning run against a single opponent in his managerial career.

Everton's outlook is rather bleaker.

Defeat leaves them with just 22 points from 24 Premier League games this term. It is their lowest tally at this stage of a league campaign (if we assume three points have been awarded throughout history) since 1929-30 (also 22), when they were relegated from the top tier.

Frank Lampard's men certainly showed enough spirit at times in this game to suggest their fate will not be the same, but their nine points since the start of October is the fewest of every team in the Premier League.

Leeds United 0-4 Tottenham: Defensive woes leave Bielsa on the brink

It would seem Marcelo Bielsa could well be on his way out at Leeds after another grim defeat, this time at the hands of Spurs.

This loss took Leeds to 20 goal concessions in February, which is the most any Premier League team has ever let in during a single calendar month and worst since any top-flight side since April 1986 (Newcastle United – 21).

As such, they became only the second side in Premier League history to three or more goals in five successive games – four of those have been defeats, making it their worst such run in the top tier since December 2003-February 2004.

For Spurs it was a welcome change of pace after losing to Burnley in midweek, a defeat that led to an emotional outburst from Antonio Conte that made it seem the Italian's days at the club were numbered.

A major highlight for them saw Harry Kane and Son Heung-min combine for the 37th time in the Premier League, overtaking Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard as the duo with most goal combinations in the competition's history.

 

Brentford 0-2 Newcastle United: Bees' woes continue but Eriksen return puts struggles into perspective

The form of Brentford and Newcastle could not be much more different.

Brentford are now winless in eight Premier League games, seven of which have been defeats – Newcastle are unbeaten in seven, their best such run since 2011 (14 games).

Josh Dasilva's red card certainly did not help matters for the home side, with his 11th-minute dismissal the second-earliest in a Premier League game this term after Newcastle's Ciaran Clark (ninth minute against Norwich City in November).

But the match did give all fans and neutrals a reason to smile as Christian Eriksen made his return to the football pitch.

The playmaker suffered a cardiac arrest while playing for Denmark at Euro 2020, and he came on in the second half for his first competitive appearance since his medical emergency.

It was also marked his return to the Premier League, having last appeared in the competition 766 days earlier for Tottenham.

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