Cristiano Ronaldo's time at Manchester United is surely up. 

Following an explosive interview with Piers Morgan in which the superstar forward said he feels "betrayed" by senior figures at Old Trafford and does not respect manager Erik ten Hag, Ronaldo's departure seems certain.

Having tried and failed to join a new club in the past transfer window, Ronaldo may be granted his wish in January once the World Cup is done and dusted.

If that is the case, there are only a few likely destinations for the Portugal international, who is reportedly eager to continue his career at the highest level despite turning 38 in February.

 

Napoli

A return to Serie A has been touted for Ronaldo, with Napoli being named as potential suitors earlier this year after losing attacking spearheads Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens. Whether the that remains the case, with Luciano Spalletti's side eight points clear at the Serie A summit, remains to be seen.

But in Ronaldo's three years in Italy with Juventus, no player scored more Serie A goals than his tally of 81 and, despite spending the past year and a half with United, only Ciro Immobile (117) has scored more Serie A goals since 2018.

Napoli would certainly match Ronaldo's aspirations, with Champions League football post-Christmas to look forward to and a first Scudetto since the glory days of Diego Maradona a realistic target. However, the club's finances and the forward's wage demands may prove to be restrictive.

Chelsea

Finances will certainly not be a problem for Chelsea, who are at somewhat of a crossroads following Todd Boehly's takeover earlier this year. The American billionaire is said to have previously met with Ronaldo's agent Jorge Mendes, but no transfer went through in August.

Thomas Tuchel has since been replaced by Graham Potter in the Stamford Bridge dugout, though, and while the Englishman may not be on board with the idea of signing another ageing attacker, Boehly will very much have the final say.

Whether Ronaldo would accept a move to a Premier League rival, even if his reputation at Old Trafford has plummeted in recent months, is the biggest question regarding any hopes the Blues may have in signing the Portuguese. There is also then the small matter of United agreeing to offload to a domestic rival midway through the campaign, with both sides battling for a top-four finish.

Sporting CP

With a United homecoming already under his belt, could Sporting secure a sensational return of their own and bring Ronaldo back to where it all began? It's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility – especially as he enters the final six months of his United contract.

Ronaldo had just a single season in the senior squad with Sporting before he moved to United, so he may feel he has unfinished business – and it is a side that can definitely compete, having ended a 20-year barren spell without a league title in the 2020-21 season.

That said, Sporting have endured a difficult campaign this time around as they sit fourth in the Primeira Liga and have exited the Champions League. As head coach Ruben Amorim recently stated, however, there is no harm in dreaming of seeing CR7 in the famous green and white strip once again.

 

Real Madrid

Another possible return destination... could Ronaldo wind back up in the Spanish capital?

The Champions League winners are hardly in need of another superstar forward, given they already have the world's best player in Karim Benzema, but bringing Ronaldo back to the club where he scored 450 goals would surely appeal to president Florentino Perez, who is never shy in his attempts to make statement signings.

Madrid missed out on Kylian Mbappe earlier this year, much to their frustration, and having Ronaldo in their side would undoubtedly provide some depth up top until the PSG forward is further into the new, three-year contract he signed with the French club in May.

MLS

Champions League football has been documented as the reason for Ronaldo's strong desire to leave United but, if such offers are not forthcoming, could a move to MLS be on the cards? 

Financial rules and designated player spots would make a switch complicated, with there only being a handful of teams likely to be able to make a move possible – likely to be those in Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

With the 2026 World Cup taking place in North America, bringing Ronaldo to MLS would raise the profile of the league further – and would undoubtedly be the biggest acquisition for the league since David Beckham's move to LA Galaxy in 2007.

That move marked the start of a new era of soccer in the US and has evolved considerably since, though Ronaldo's arrival would send things to a completely new level.

In recent years, the notable absentee at the ATP Finals has been Roger Federer, with his last appearance in the tournament coming in 2019.

The lack of Federer at the showpiece event will be felt even more apparent this year after the Swiss maestro retired from tennis in September, though it is the absence of a player at the other end of his career that is more relevant in Turin.

World number one Carlos Alcaraz had to withdraw from the tournament after suffering an abdominal tear, which means his status at the top of the men's game is in jeopardy.

Rafael Nadal has spoken well of his 19-year-old compatriot in the past, but is not ready to pass the torch just yet, and could even topple Alcaraz from his number one spot.

The 22-time grand slam champion has finished as year-end number one five times previously, most recently in 2019. Should he accomplish the feat again this year it would put him in joint-second for most year-end finishes at the top of the ATP Rankings (since 1973) along with Pete Sampras (six).

In order to do so, Nadal will need to win the tournament, something he has never done before.

However, he comes into his 11th appearance in good form, and has won 32 per cent of his return games in 2022, the highest percentage by any player this year, and has converted 43.8 per cent of his break points in 2022, the third best amongst all players.

 

Stefanos Tsitsipas, meanwhile, is the other competitor who can knock Alcaraz off top spot, though his task to do so is a little more complicated as he needs to win every match on the way to the title in Turin. 

No player has played more matches in 2022 than Tsitsipas (80), 21 on clay, 11 on grass and 48 on hard courts; he has won 59 of them and lost 21.

Should neither man win at the Pala Alpitour, Alcaraz will breathe a sigh of relief and earn his first year-end number one finish, having taken his place after winning the US Open in September.

Nadal has been drawn into the Green Group with Casper Ruud, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Taylor Fritz, while Tsitsipas will be in the Red Group alongside Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev and Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic can equal Federer record

One man surprisingly unable to end the year as number one is Djokovic, despite having done so on more occasions than anyone else in history (seven).

However, the 21-time grand slam champion can still make his mark in Italy.

Djokovic has had an up-and-down year, only playing in two of the four grand slams due to his vaccination status, though he was able to win Wimbledon for the seventh time, beating Nick Kyrgios in the final.

Should the Serbian go all the way and lift what would be his sixth ATP Finals title, he will go level with Federer for most victories since the tournament began in 1970.

Among the eight participating players in this year's tournament, Djokovic has won 87 per cent of his service games in 2022, the best percentage among these players and the sixth overall.

It would be quite the ending to the year for Djokovic, who finds himself in the unusual position of sitting eighth in the world rankings, and at the age of 35, who knows how many more appearances he will make at the event?

 

Strong field promises fireworks

As is the intent of the format, the ATP Finals should be a tightly-contested few days as the best men's players in the world come together.

Ruud will be looking to add to an already impressive season, having reached two grand slam finals and winning three tour-level titles, while Fritz is aiming to carry on the fine lineage of American players to have won the tournament.

Players from the United States have won the ATP finals 16 times, with Sampras and Ivan Lendl winning five of them each. It is the most by any country and 10 more than next best Switzerland (six, all Federer) and Germany (also six, three wins for Boris Becker, one for Michael Stich and two for last year's champion, Alexander Zverev).

Auger-Aliassime has had a strong end to the year, beating Djokovic at the Laver Cup before winning three titles in as many weeks in Florence, Antwerp and Basel.

Only John Isner (895) has recorded more aces in 2022 than Auger-Aliassime, who has registered 852 in total, averaging 10.9 per match.

"All the players who participate [at the ATP Finals], I have already faced them, I have beaten them," the Canadian recently said. "So for me, there's no reason why I can't show up to this tournament with the aim of winning it."

Medvedev was world number one as recently as September but enters this tournament in fifth, though he did win the Vienna ATP 500 event last month, while his first opponent in Turin, Rublev, enters with a 2022 record of 49-18, looking for his second straight 50-win season.

Whoever comes out on top at this year's ATP Finals, the race for supremacy in 2023 promises to be as delightfully chaotic.

Nearly a month into the NBA season, Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane has continued his ascent into one of the best shooters in the sport, and he headlines the early candidates on breakout-watch.

The six-foot-five, third-year product out of TCU was considered a steal by avid college basketball fans when the Grizzlies selected him 30th overall in the draft, as he profiled as an elite shooter and stout defender from day-one.

As a 21-year-old rookie he averaged 9.2 points and 1.7 assists per game while shooting 43.2 per cent from three-point range, starting in 17 of his 68 appearances, before graduating to a full-time starter in his second season.

In his sophomore season, Bane started all 76 of his games and found his footing in the league, raising his averages to 18.2 points and 2.7 assists, and while his three-point attempts went up from 4.0 to 6.9, his percentage also went up from 43.2 to 43.6. Teammate Ja Morant won the league's Most Improved Player, but he gifted the award to Bane (who ultimately returned it).

A player's ability to scale up their volume of shots while maintaining efficiency is a telltale sign of someone ready to assume a larger role (see: Mikal Bridges, De'Andre Hunter), and that has continued in Bane's third season.

His usage rate jumped from a supporting-role-level 15.5 per cent as a rookie, to a main-option-level 22.6 per cent in his second campaign, before ascending to a 26.9 per cent usage this season. 

 

For reference, that is the 27th-highest figure in the league for players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, putting him ahead of players like C.J. McCollum (26.3) and Anthony Edwards (26.3) and only narrowly behind DeMar DeRozan (27.8).

His three-point attempts have also jumped again from 6.9 to 8.8, and once again, his three-point percentage has inexplicably risen with it, up to a career-high 46.8 per cent. 

It has led to career-highs across the board in points (24.6), rebounds (5.0), assists (4.6) and minutes (32.7). His 4.1 made three-pointers per game is tied with Buddy Hield for second in the league, trailing only Stephen Curry (5.1).

With a two-plus season sample size now under his belt, it is now clear Bane is not just a good shooter, but one of the best in the world. His career three-point figure of 43.7 per cent is the second-highest among all active players, trailing only Seth Curry (43.8 per cent).

It would be disrespectful to the legendary, game-changing Stephen Curry to put anybody in his class as a marksman, but if he were to retire tomorrow, Bane would have an argument to be the game's best shooter.

It had been assumed in Memphis that Jaren Jackson Jr was the long-term running-mate their potential MVP in Morant, but Bane has become undeniable, and it is now easy to envision the Grizzlies treating Bane as the Klay Thompson to Morant's Stephen Curry in their macro team-building vision.

There will be one racing certainty when the WTA Finals gets under way: a new champion will be crowned.

Iga Swiatek heads the list of contenders to carry off the trophy in Fort Worth, Texas, having enjoyed a spectacular season.

Ascendant Americans Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff will be chasing a home victory, while Tunisia's Ons Jabeur has reached finals at Wimbledon and the US Open so loves the big occasion.

Ahead of the tournament getting under way on Monday, Stats Perform has taken a look at the eight-player field.

Swiatek still the player to beat

With no past winner in the line-up, there is every reason to look to the world number one, Swiatek, as favourite.

The 21-year-old Polish player has eight titles this year, lifting trophies at Doha, Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart, Rome, the French Open, the US Open and San Diego.

Indeed, she is the only grand slam singles winner in the draw, with Ash Barty having retired and Elena Rybakina absent after no ranking or race points were awarded at Wimbledon, where she was a surprise champion.

Rybakina's absence calls into question the meritocracy of this year's tournament, which is intended to showcase the top performers on tour, yet there can be no doubt the season's premier performer is in the draw.

French Open and US Open winner Swiatek's remarkable run of 10 straight-sets victories in finals (dating back to the 2020 French Open) was finally ended by Barbora Krejcikova, who sprang a shock by winning in Ostrava in early October.

But by getting back to winning ways a week later in San Diego, scrapping for a three-set victory over Donna Vekic in the title match, Swiatek produced a typically impressive response, beating Qinwen Zheng, Gauff and Pegula on her way through the draw to improve to 64-8 in her win-loss record for the year.

Here is a measure of her dominance this season: Swiatek headed the 'Race to the WTA Finals' rankings with 10,335 points, with the players in second (Jabeur) to eighth place (Daria Kasatkina) having tallies ranging between 4,555 and 2,935 points.

Is Pegula the chief rival to Swiatek?

She might not have been the player that would have sprung to mind even a month ago, but Pegula's victory at the Guadalajara Open this month was an eye-opener.

Beginning by saving match points in a thrilling three-setter against Rybakina, Pegula took down grand slam winners Bianca Andreescu, Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka before swatting aside Maria Sakkari in the final.

Pegula has reached quarter-finals at the Australian, French and US Opens in 2022, and she has a tour-high 39 wins in WTA 1000 events since the beginning of last year.

She is up to third in the WTA rankings, one ahead of Coco Gauff, with the United States now having two women in the top five for the first time since October 2010, when Serena Williams was number two and sister Venus sat fourth.

As Pegula said after the Guadalajara final: "I'm definitely a very ambitious person. A little bit of a perfectionist, as well. I don't think you could win if you weren't ambitious, especially at this level.

"I feel like it's going to give me more motivation going forward knowing I can win these big titles. I think it will give me a lot of confidence ending the year, going into next year."

These are spirited words. She heads into the tournament with a 0-4 record against Swiatek in 2022, however.

Who's in, who's out, what's it all about?

As well as Swiatek and Pegula, the field for the eight-day tournament includes Caroline Garcia, Aryna Sabalenka and Sakkari, who have all featured at the WTA Finals in the past.

Four players make their debuts, including Pegula, who is joined as a newcomer by Jabeur, Gauff and Daria Kasatkina.

Gauff, 18, has become the 14th player aged under 19 to reach the WTA top five since the rankings were introduced in 1975.

She would not be the youngest WTA Finals champion, were she to lift the title, as Monica Seles has a tight grip on that record, having triumphed at the age of 16 years and 11 months at the 1990 edition.

Last year's champion Garbine Muguruza is absent. The Spaniard was expected by many to push on and enjoy a stellar 2022 season, but it did not play out that way, with the former French Open and Wimbledon winner sliding to 57th in the world rankings after a dismal campaign.

It goes to show that whoever prevails in Fort Worth, we should be cautious about treating the outcome as an indication of what to expect in the new year.

Whenever Manchester United come up against a team managed by David Moyes, it provides the perfect opportunity to look back on the Red Devils' rather turbulent recent history.

Moyes was, of course, the original successor to Alex Ferguson. The 'Chosen One', as the infamous banner read, and, to many, a harbinger of mediocrity.

That's slightly unfair on Moyes as although United won the title just before he ascended the Old Trafford hot seat, he was left with an aging squad that needed replenishing, plus the club's deep reverence for Ferguson ultimately stopped them moving with the times.

For years, Ferguson essentially operated as a head coach, recruitment director and sporting director rolled into one. The Scot was so effective and influential that, once he'd left, United were suddenly unprepared to meaningfully challenge the best teams.

This past year has arguably seen that gap reach its widest point in the Premier League era, with United posting their worst points total (58) since the competition's foundation in 1992 last season.

But in Erik ten Hag, United might finally have the right manager at the right time.

The succession

While United's woes of the short-lived Moyes era weren't just down to him, nothing over the past eight years has suggested the club was wrong to get rid of him in 2014.

Nevertheless, Moyes and every other post-Ferguson United manager had their strengths.

Moyes had an intimate knowledge of the league; Louis van Gaal brought a defined 'philosophy' and vast experience; Jose Mourinho had the name recognition and a track record of winning trophies; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was already deified by supporters and his management style allowed players to be more expressive than under his pragmatic predecessor; Ralf Rangnick came in with 'club-building' expertise at a time when United's structure was spoken about as their biggest area of concern.

But none of them ever looked likely to be a long-term success for United. Obviously that was the hope for Moyes when he signed his five-year contract, though it quickly became apparent his personality was at odds with much of the team and his lack of tactical imagination made the side predictable, boring and ineffective.

Van Gaal did at least try to put a modern stamp on United, with his possession-based approach initially lauded upon his arrival after presiding over a fine World Cup campaign with the Netherlands. But again, the football was tedious to watch, with the Red Devils often accused of keeping possession for possession's sake rather than being able to work openings.

He's since been very critical of how United are run, perhaps casting light on why he was never quite right – maybe he would've been if there was a credible recruitment structure in place, but there wasn't.

Mourinho might argue recruitment issues were behind his downfall as well. Certainly, if you believe the media reports, United routinely missed out on players considered to be his primary targets.

But fans called his exit two years in advance. The prediction was that he'd be in charge for two seasons and then get the boot in his third, which of course came to pass.

Solskjaer arguably got the most freedom to build a team in his image, which was ironic given he was by far the least experienced of the managers to arrive after Ferguson. Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho were all desired by the Norwegian and they duly arrived, but the manager's coaching methods were widely derided from outside the club with few players appearing to improve under his tutelage.

Then the Rangnick-led rebuild ended up being a red herring. Results and performances weren't much better than under Solskjaer, and while his honest appraisals of the club's structure were appreciated by fans, the hierarchy clearly felt differently and swiftly ended his two-year consultancy shortly after Ten Hag's appointment.

Ten Hag's impact

So, what's changed?

Well, in reality we're obviously only going to really know how much United have changed in terms of the general running of the club a few years down the line.

They do at least now have a genuine sporting structure. Granted, it was questioned in pre-season when Ten Hag came in and immediately started demanding players he knew or had previously coached, but all pre-season signings have at least looked encouraging.

As for Ten Hag's management, there have been plenty of examples of him avoiding the mistakes of his predecessors.

Like Van Gaal, Ten Hag has looked to implement a more possession-focused style of play, but this United seem to be playing more on the front foot when out of possession than the LVG vintage.

And yet, Ten Hag's shown the sort of adaptability the likes of Solskjaer and Mourinho were accused of failing to embrace. He's already ditched the insistence on playing out from the back with David de Gea after the Spaniard's struggles in their first two games of the season, while the experiment of playing Christian Eriksen in defensive midfield didn't last long either.

But, arguably most important of all, Ten Hag's shown he's not shy about making tough calls. He dropped Luke Shaw and captain Harry Maguire after two games, and his exclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo from the squad to face Chelsea last weekend after the striker's refusal to come on against Tottenham was a real show of conviction and leadership.

Ronaldo was welcomed back into the starting XI against Sheriff on Thursday, though, evidence of Ten Hag finding the balance between authority and forgiveness, areas that Solskjaer, Mourinho and Rangnick all seemed to fall short in in different ways.

Of course, results are key. While it's still too early to draw any major conclusions here because who's to say they don't lose every game between now and the World Cup, there have undoubtedly been positive signs with wins against the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham. Even the draw at Chelsea was morale-boosting.

Crucially, United need to give Ten Hag time. If Solskjaer can be given three years, Ten Hag surely needs at least that long as well.

The first few months of his reign have certainly suggested United are on the right track with their latest 'Chosen One'.

A question we've likely all been asked in job interviews is: "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Admittedly, it's difficult to imagine Roman Abramovich adding that to his list of essential questions ahead of meeting prospective Chelsea managers during his time as owner. After all, no head coach even reached three and a half years in one go under the Russian's ownership.

But Luiz Felipe Scolari went into his ultimately brief stint as Chelsea boss with a fairly clear vision for his future. Attending his first Chelsea press conference in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where he was based with his Portugal team for Euro 2008, 'Felipao' – 59 at the time – gave himself another five years in management.

"I will be 60 soon and I don't want to be technical coach forever. I want to work for five more years and then I want to retire."

More than 14 years later, Scolari is at long last about to call it a day. But first he has one last shot at glory with Athletico Paranaense in Saturday's Copa Libertadores final, a success that he believes would be the "pinnacle" of 40-year coaching career.

The catalyst

The vast majority of Athletico's squad weren't even born when Scolari took charge of his first Libertadores final in 1995.

He led his beloved Gremio – the team he supported growing up – to their second continental crown on that occasion thanks to a 4-2 aggregate defeat of Colombia's Atletico Nacional in August 1995.

A comical Victor Marulanda own goal – a sliced lob over 'scorpion-kick' visionary Rene Higuita – sent Gremio on their way, before Mario Jardel pounced on a spill by the eccentric Atletico goalkeeper to make it 2-0 before half-time in the first leg.

Paolo Nunes slammed in from close range early in the second half after Higuita again failed to hold the ball. Juan Pablo Angel's clever finish at least ensured Atletico returned home with something to fight for in the second leg, and Victor Aristizabal's early goal back in Medellin stoked the belief, but Dinho finished them off from the spot in the 85th minute.

That Gremio side was a pure embodiment of the ethos that eventually defined Scolari's playing style. It may not have been a team full of superstars, but they were tough and hard-working. It wasn't quite 'jogo bonito', yet they were a clinical attacking force and Scolari guided them to six trophies in three years.

Nevertheless, Scolari's second Copa Libertadores success in 1999 – with Palmeiras – was arguably the precursor to his most famous achievement.

For starters, it was Palmeiras' first Libertadores title. Secured with a 4-3 penalty shootout win over Deportivo Cali after the two were locked at 2-2 at the end the two legs, the success elevated Scolari to an altogether different standing in management, proving his Gremio spell was no fluke.

"I cemented my career on that title, I really expanded my horizons and had the opportunity to grow. This was made possible by Palmeiras."

Global recognition

Less than a year after leaving Palmeiras for Cruzeiro in June 2000, Scolari landed the biggest job of them all.

With Brazil's World Cup qualification campaign in danger of failure, Scolari was brought in to get them over the line. He certainly achieved that.

 

The Selecao actually lost to Uruguay in Scolari's first game and they were humiliatingly knocked out of the 2001 Copa America by Honduras.

But they got the results to take them to Japan and South Korea, where they flourished.

Scolari's exclusion of Romario from the squad for the finals was contentious but soon forgotten once the tournament started, with Brazil inspired by the legendary trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.

They were comfortably the best team on display at the 2002 World Cup, winning all seven games – the first side to win 100 per cent of their games at a single edition of the tournament since 1970 – as they claimed a record-extending fifth title.

 

Scolari's career was made. He helped right the wrongs of 1998, and there was an acknowledgement he could do no more for the team as he left his post after the World Cup.

He subsequently took over Portugal and led them to the final of Euro 2004 before bowing out at the semi-final and quarter-final stages at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 respectively.

Scolari couldn't recreate his Brazil success with Portugal, but he was a World Cup winner and nothing could take that away.

The greatest achievement of all?

That five-year spell in charge of Portugal was something of an anomaly – Scolari had never even managed four years in one job and he's enjoyed a fairly nomadic career ever since his Chelsea exit in early 2009.

But in this period was a gutting low that even threatened to overshadow his 2002 World Cup success.

Of course, Scolari was in charge when Brazil were demolished on home soil by Germany at the 2014 World Cup, with the eventual champions remarkably winning their semi-final encounter 7-1 in Belo Horizonte in one of the most infamous games in tournament history.

 

Brazil players left the pitch in tears, Scolari went on to resign, and many would suggest Brazil still haven't healed from that nightmare.

"I need a hug," Scolari said as he returned to Gremio later that month. "I came back at this moment because I need a hug, some affection."

He may not have brought success back to Gremio, but he did go on to enjoy a trophy-laden spell in China with Guangzhou Evergrande, and he even guided Palmeiras to Brasileiro glory as recently as 2018.

But there's something considerably more remarkable about the situation he now finds himself in at Athletico – yes, that's Athletico rather than Atletico after the club reverted to their founding name in 2018.

Scolari was hired in May as a technical director and he also took the reins as coach until the end of the season, given the task of steadying the ship after Athletico hit a difficult patch that culminated in an embarrassing 5-0 Libertadores defeat to Bolivia's The Strongest, costing Fabio Carille his job.

No one can argue with Scolari's impact, leading Athletico – whom he claims have only the 13th-biggest budget in Brazil – to just their second Libertadores final. Flamengo await and are favourites, but Scolari has presided over a shock by even getting his team this far.

 

"This career is coming to an end indeed," he told the Associated Press. "If we win the Copa Libertadores, it will be the pinnacle of a career for which I worked a lot. I never expected this much, winning all that I have won."

It would've been easy for Scolari to walk away for good in 2014, punishing himself for Brazil's humiliation by disappearing into a retirement brought about by self-deprecation.

But he fought on and stands on the precipice of an achievement he believes will outshine all that have come before.

Until now, Napoli have pretty much risen to every challenge this season as they aim to win the Scudetto for the first time since 1990.

They sit top of the Serie A table after 10 games and are one of just two teams to not lose a game, with Luciano Spalletti's men already beating Lazio and Milan away from home.

While their past three league games – wins over Torino, Cremonese and Bologna – would have always been expected to yield Napoli victories, a slightly trickier run begins this weekend.

Before the break for the World Cup, Napoli still have to face Rangers and Liverpool in the Champions League, plus high-flying Udinese, second-placed Atalanta, Sassuolo and, first up, Jose Mourinho's in-form Roma in Serie A.

Sunday's trip to the capital poses a real threat to a historic achievement that is…

… within touching distance

While Napoli's Champions League exploits – hammering Liverpool, Rangers and Ajax, twice – have attracted plenty of praise, the true extent of their form doesn't appear to have really registered outside of Italy yet.

However, they are undeniably on a remarkable run across all competitions.

 

Napoli have won each of their past 10 matches, meaning they are just one victory away from equalling the longest such run in the club's history.

That 11-game winning streak was recorded between April and September 1986, the Diego Maradona era.

Although the run ended in September, that was still the season Napoli won their first Scudetto.

Kvaradona

Napoli may not have a player of Maradona's ilk this time, though supporters have certainly taken to Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

The Georgia winger only joined in pre-season, but his impact has been phenomenal.

 

Already he has been involved in 13 goals in 14 appearances in all competitions, which is more than any other Serie A player.

He heads into the weekend on a particularly effective run, too, having registered one assist in each of his past four games. The last Napoli player to have a better run (five games) was club great Lorenzo Insigne in early 2016.

The 'Kvaradona' nickname is seemingly here to stay.

 

Napoli's versatile arsenal

As good as Kvaratskhelia has been for Napoli this term, it wouldn't be fair to say they're completely dependent on him.

In fact, the Partenopei have earned themselves a reputation for being adaptable and versatile.

For starters, they've had 15 different scorers in Serie A this season, which is the joint-most with Bayern Munich across the big five leagues.

And on top of that, Napoli's 35 goals from set-pieces (including penalties) since the start of last season is more than any other Serie A team.

 

Omens on Napoli's side?

Mourinho has Roma in good shape. They're fourth in Serie A and go into the weekend having won each of their past three league games – they last managed four successive top-flight wins in August 2020.

But their recent record – for what it's worth – against Napoli is pretty poor, having only won one of their previous eight Serie A meetings, a 2-1 victory in November 2019.

On top of that, Roma are winless in their past 12 home league games against teams in the top four at the beginning of the matchday, losing the three most recent examples.

A Roma win will put them just a point behind Napoli, however. Regardless of the latter's fine start to the season, they won't be expecting a straightforward contest.

In each of the past two seasons, there were periods where Sevilla could consider themselves genuine threats in LaLiga's title race.

That was perhaps more relevant in 2020-21, though it shouldn't be forgotten that Sevilla looked like the only team capable of stopping Real Madrid in the first half of the 2021-22 campaign.

But much has changed in 2022. They head to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday as bigger outsiders than they've been for years in this fixture.

That's certainly not to say they've ever been considered favourites against Madrid in recent memory, but there will be some Sevilla fans just hoping they can hold on to a respectable scoreline – it's a pretty significant come-down for a club that in the past three years felt they weren't far from establishing themselves as genuine title candidates.

Saturday's game will be new coach Jorge Sampaoli's first trip to either of the big two since his return, and it'll provide the clearest indication yet of what his team's ceiling is.

Jump before you're pushed

Julen Lopetegui should've left Sevilla in pre-season. It was clear even then that the team needed an injection of fresh ideas, and the departures of Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde – Sevilla's bedrock for three seasons – seemed like a natural indicator of the required change.

During Lopetegui's time at the club, Sevilla were solid at the back but fairly unremarkable in attack. He'll have known his go-to centre-back partnership – arguably the best of its kind in Europe – was going to be lost, so Sevilla would either need to sign another exceptional pairing – unlikely – or buy a dependable striker.

 

Granted, Lopetegui can only work with the group of players provided to him by sporting director Monchi, so it's not all on him. However, in the early weeks of the season there was no sign of an improvement in attack, and the insurance policy represented by a sturdy defence was no longer there.

The result? Sevilla's five points after the first seven league games of the season was their worst at that stage since 1996-97 (four points). They were relegated that campaign.

That was their record following a 2-0 home defeat by Atletico Madrid at the start of October, a loss that essentially ended Lopetegui's reign. A few days later, he was dismissed right after the 4-1 battering by Borussia Dortmund, though it was clear a decision on his future had already been made as he tearfully waved farewell to supporters from the middle of the pitch at full-time.

The 4-1 defeat to BVB was Sevilla's fourth loss by at least two goals this season, three more than in the entirety of 2021-22.

 

A Europa League title, three successive fourth-placed finishes, a new club-record points total for one season (77) – Lopetegui did a fine job on the whole, but their form in the second half of last season hinted at a decline.

Their haul of 32 points after the turn of the year (20 matches) was only the sixth-most in LaLiga and 13 fewer than Barcelona. Before January, they'd amassed 38 points in two fewer games – only Madrid (46, 19 matches) had more.

That hint of decline proved to be more like a foreshadowing.

Back to the Future

There aren't many players or coaches who return to Sevilla. Those that do generally fall into one of two categories: fan favourite returning to see out their later years in top-level football; individual whose 'big move' away didn't go as planned and is hoping to rebuild their reputation.

The latter category is more fitting for Sampaoli.

French football fans might suggest that's doing his Marseille work a disservice, and maybe it is. After all, he did guide them to only their second runners-up finish in nine seasons last term, steadying the ship after arriving at a time of great unrest.

However, even with that, it's fair to suggest Sampaoli's stock still hasn't fully recovered to where it was when he first left Sevilla in 2017. At that point, he'd been successful in three consecutive jobs with Universidad de Chile, Chile's national team and then Sevilla, whom he guided to a first top-four finish in seven years playing vibrant football – along the way, they were also the team to halt Madrid's Spanish-record unbeaten run of 40 matches.

 

Argentina came calling, and given the coach's reputation at the time, expectations were sky-high. But turbulence in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup showed Sampaoli and La Albiceleste weren't necessarily a good fit. He just about got them to Russia but their campaign was chaotic, with a 3-0 defeat to Croatia leading to an apparent confrontation between players and coaching staff.

A 2-1 win over Nigeria got Argentina out of the group, but eventual champions France were up next and Les Bleus edged a modern classic 4-3 in Kazan – unsurprisingly it was Sampaoli's final game in charge.

Whether the fiasco made Sampaoli a pariah in European football terms is difficult to prove. But in a little over a year he went from one of the most sought-after and promising coaches in the world to being virtually forgotten in Europe, with his next two jobs coming in Brazil with Santos and Atletico Mineiro.

The aforementioned bright spell with Marseille provided Europe with a reminder of Sampaoli's charms; his boisterous personality, his often-chaotic brand of football. In many ways he was the perfect man for Marseille, a club from a city that is unapologetically itself and intense.

Seville has some similar characteristics, particularly in its deep passion for its football clubs, and there's undoubtedly a sense Sampaoli has unfinished business in LaLiga and at Sevilla.

Four games in and he's yet to lose – a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu is no ordinary task, however. In fact, Sampaoli's last away game during his first spell at Sevilla was a 4-1 defeat to Madrid, who all but wrapped up the 2016-17 title with that victory.

Of course, what happens at the Bernabeu won't define Sevilla's season. They have a long road and rebuild ahead of them; let's not forget, this is a squad built for Lopetegui, yet he and Sampaoli are very different coaches.

Re-energising the team is Sampaoli's task, and if he succeeds, his reputation will be restored. Saturday provides an opportunity for a depleted Sevilla to show they're at least making positive strides. 

Siuuuu, it's come to this. The sidekick takes centre stage. The man who carried water for Cristiano Ronaldo gets his champagne moment.

Karim Benzema has gone from jeers to cheers at Real Madrid, with his 13-year odyssey in Spain having been a tale of survival at times.

How many times was he touted for a move to Arsenal during the Arsene Wenger era?

Wenger's consistent message that he did not need Benzema because Arsenal already had plenty of quality forwards has not aged particularly well.

Today, we need to talk about Karim, because it would be hard to think of a worthier Ballon d'Or winner.

His 44 goals in 46 games last season came in a double-winning cause, with Real Madrid carrying off the Champions League and LaLiga trophies. Make it a treble if you're counting the Supercopa, where the final saw Benzema score from the spot against Athletic Bilbao.

He has spent much of the year skippering Los Blancos, given club captain Marcelo was just a fringe figure in Carlo Ancelotti's team before leaving at the end of last season.

You might ask yourself: is this the same Karim Benzema as the player heckled from the Santiago Bernabeu stands five years ago? The player whose five goals in 32 LaLiga games in 2017-18 had some supporters ready to wave him off?

What use was a 30-year-old five-goal striker?

 

Benzema backed himself then as he backs himself today, and with Zinedine Zidane and Ancelotti similarly convinced, the Frenchman has gradually moved into the spotlight, the last survivor of the BBC combination that rivalled Barcelona's MSN.

Just like Messi-Suarez-Neymar, the Bale-Benzema-Cristiano all-star trio was compelling, but there was often a sense it was two thoroughbreds and a workhorse, the latter constrained by the dutiful role he was asked to fulfil.

Benzema knew better than to be a neigh-sayer, swallowed the sugarcoated reassurances, and proved himself a champion stallion after all.

When Ronaldo trotted off to Juventus in 2018, and as Bale's contributions waned, for the first time Benzema found himself the talisman.

He had been overshadowed all the way back to his first week at the club, when his presentation followed three days on from Ronaldo's own first big welcome at the Bernabeu.

Ronaldo's unveiling came on July 6, 2009, in front of an 80,000 crowd. Some of those returned for Benzema's own bow, but most had other things on.

Benzema was signed for €35million from Lyon amid an extraordinary spree, one that saw Florentino Perez's second term as president begin with not only Ronaldo and Benzema coming in, but Kaka, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Negredo and Alvaro Arbeloa too.

An arduous first season (nine goals in 33 games) followed for Benzema, but in each of the next six campaigns he managed at least 20. Even in the Jose Mourinho era when he and Gonzalo Higuain would typically be fighting for one place.

Never mind that Ronaldo broke the 50-goal barrier in each of those seasons, Benzema was the magician's most trustworthy assistant.

In 2015, not long after losing his job at Madrid, Ancelotti told AS: "To me, Karim is the best player in the world in his position and not just as a goalscorer. Talking about whether he should score 30 goals is a false debate. He has great qualities; he is a complete player."

Ancelotti's short-lived successor, Rafael Benitez, made similar claims but also questioned Benzema's finishing and began to substitute him regularly, saying: "He is a phenomenon. Let him get mad. Next day, make sure you score twice instead of once."

It was tough love from Benitez, who was replaced in mid-season by Zidane. Benzema finished the season with 28 goals in 36 games across all competitions, scoring at a rate of one every 92.75 minutes.

In 2016-17, as the goals began to dry up, Zidane kept faith.

A poll conducted by sports daily AS showed that 88 per cent of Madrid fans preferred Benzema to start games as a substitute, but Zidane said: "We're not concerned, he's having a great season.

"We know what Karim can offer the side but the fans always want more from their players and that's something we must accept. He has the right character, he can accept the fans' point of view. He won't hide and he will always have my support."

In April 2018, Benzema spoke out in that great football bible, Vanity Fair, as he struggled to put the ball in the back of the net. All the while, Zidane had his back, and crucially another Champions League title was on the way that season.

"What I don't like is when people attack me when I play well, even if I don't score," Benzema said. "I play for the people who value what I do on the pitch.

"Those that come to the stadium to whistle, let them whistle. I'm not going to change their opinion."

In that season's LaLiga campaign, Benzema's five goals put him in a tie for fifth among the team's top scorers, alongside Casemiro and Toni Kroos. Ahead of him were Ronaldo (26 goals in 27 games), Bale (16 goals), Isco (7) and Marco Asensio (6).

Benzema was way behind his expected goals total of 13.22, which reflects the quality of his chances and likelihood of scoring.

When Ronaldo left, something clicked. In LaLiga alone, Benzema had not had consecutive 20-goal seasons while Ronaldo was at Madrid, but four followed in succession: 21, 21, 23, and last season's 27-goal league haul.

He was thriving not merely on responsibility, for that had always been there, but on prominence. Previously a glorified gofer, he has become the go-to man.

And now, with Ronaldo and Bale withering in Manchester and Los Angeles respectively, Benzema is flowering as his 35th birthday approaches.

He is club captain, and although Zidane has departed, it would have heartened Benzema to see Ancelotti recalled to Madrid last year, his old advocate returning.

By now five times a Champions League winner and four times a LaLiga champion, the individual accolades have been flowing for Benzema since Ronaldo headed over the horizon.

He was UEFA men's player of the year and Champions League player of the season for 2021-22, having finished as top scorer in Madrid's glory run. He took the Pichichi prize as LaLiga's leading goal-getter last term, too.

Despite intense lobbying from Madridistas, Benzema finished just fourth in Ballon d'Or voting last year, as Lionel Messi took the award for a seventh time.

There was ample reason for Benzema to be a strong contender in 2021, but his case has become utterly compelling since. In a sense this is a lifetime achievement award and a single-season accolade rolled up into one.

Everything has led to this moment. The wait has been overwhelmingly worth it.

The new NBA season is about to get underway, with narrative everywhere across the league.

The defending champions in Golden State are many people's favourites to go again, but the Warriors have not exactly prepared perfectly after two of their stars recently came to blows during the preseason.

The Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving saga seems to have ended with hope that the pair can fire the Brooklyn Nets to glory, especially if the team's third star in the form of Ben Simmons can finally join them on the court.

Will back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic lead the Denver Nuggets to glory? Or can Luka Doncic do the same for the Dallas Mavericks? Might Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks get back to the top again?

Stats Perform's experts give their predictions on who could thrive in the regular season, who might take the MVP crown and who will go all the way and lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June 2023.

 

Liam Phillips

East first seed: Milwaukee Bucks

West first seed: Denver Nuggets

MVP: Joel Embiid

Champions: Denver Nuggets

Simply put, the Nuggets will have a terrific regular season record as long as Jokic is healthy, and he is one of the most durable superstars of his era.

Jokic has played at least 73 games in six of his seven years, and the other season he played 72 out of 72 in the shortened 2020-21 season.

The Nuggets went 48-34 this past season with their second and third-best scorers being Aaron Gordon (15.0 points per game) and Will Barton (14.7).

With ascending talents Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. returning from long-term injuries to assume those roles and give the Nuggets three elite scoring options, they could ride the best offense in the league all the way through the Finals.

Ben Spratt

East first seed: Milwaukee Bucks

West first seed: Denver Nuggets

MVP: Luka Doncic

Champions: Milwaukee Bucks

There are no shortage of potential contenders in the West, with each of the Nuggets, the Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers looking strong candidates depending on injuries or – in the case of Golden State – off-court (or, rather, practice court) issues.

In the East, however, a fit Bucks team would appear to be clear of the rest, particularly given the Boston Celtics' tumultuous offseason.

The Bucks were a disappointing 13-13 in the regular season and playoffs last year when missing Khris Middleton, who did not play the final 10 games of the postseason as the Bucks narrowly lost to the Celtics.

With his return and the omnipresent threat of Antetokounmpo, it might be difficult to bet against the 2021 champions.

Nicholas McGee

East first seed: Philadelphia 76ers

West first seed: Golden State Warriors

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Champions: Golden State Warriors

Preseason fights, Klay Thompson being restricted to limited action in the exhibition schedule, key bench players leaving in free agency. Will any of it matter? No.

The Warriors have navigated discord before during title defences and will do so again in 2022-23. Even with the likes of Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. departing, the Warriors have excellent depth with several emerging talents complementing a core that reaffirmed their championship pedigree by beating the Celtics in six games last season.

Golden State will bank on Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody taking the next step in their second seasons, while Jordan Poole has the chance to ascend to stardom once the fallout from him being punched by Draymond Green dies down.

Everything revolves around Stephen Curry, though, and there is no sign of him slowing down or his game-tilting range reducing at 34 years old.

This is a team with an insatiable appetite for proving themselves all over again, and they have all the resources to do so once more. If James Wiseman stays healthy and blossoms into an impactful starting center, it will be difficult to envisage anyone stopping them.

David Segar

East first seed: Milwaukee Bucks

West first seed: Memphis Grizzlies

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Champions: Milwaukee Bucks

As Ben said, it is difficult to see a stronger contender in the East than Milwaukee, presuming their stars can stay fit.

With Ja Morant getting better all the time and the Phoenix Suns looking like they might fall away slightly, it would not be a huge surprise to see an ever-improving Grizzlies team top the West and perhaps even make it to the NBA Finals this time.

However, it feels like Giannis is ready for another big campaign and, in a team that includes the likes of Middleton, Jrue Holiday and new arrival Joe Ingles, he should have plenty of capable support.

Only Embiid (30.6) and LeBron James (30.3) averaged more points per game than Antetokounmpo's 29.9 last year, a career high for the Greek.

Anything can happen in the NBA, but of all the big teams who could threaten, Milwaukee feel like the one with the fewest issues heading into the season, and they will want to make up for their early playoff elimination at the hands of the Celtics last time out.

 

Karim Benzema should collect the Ballon d'Or trophy in Paris on Monday. The votes have been counted, and nobody seriously expects another outcome, even with football's propensity for surprise when it comes to a ballot.

But as if to emphasise his outstanding candidacy for France Football's coveted world player of the year award, Benzema scored and captained Real Madrid to victory over Barcelona in El Clasico, football's biggest domestic game.

One man does not make a team, but without Benzema it was a guileless Real Madrid that took a hideous 4-0 whacking by Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu in March.

It was back to normal service on Sunday, the skipper delivering the sort of accomplished centre-forward performance he has repeated time and again in recent seasons, playing a key role in a 3-1 win that sent Madrid three points clear of Xavi's upstart Barca at the top of LaLiga.

This is imperial phase Benzema, at the most revered and most productive stage of his career. Last season, he hit 44 goals in 46 games for Madrid, helping Carlo Ancelotti's team win not only the Spanish league but the Champions League.

Long gone are the days when he was a subordinate to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and even perhaps Gareth Bale for a time. In his 14th season now at Madrid, Benzema is the great survivor, the man who rises to the big occasions.

He came off in the 88th minute of this game to a standing ovation, having got the better of rival number nine Robert Lewandowski, whose Clasico debut was one to forget.

 

Barcelona's thumping win at this stadium was a curio in Madrid's 2021-22 season and rightly treated as such. With Benzema ruled out by a leg injury, Carlo Ancelotti deployed Luka Modric in a false nine position to which he was spectacularly ill-suited, and Barcelona ran the hosts ragged, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring twice in the rout.

El Clasico has not been Benzema's most productive fixture, and it has been the Frenchman's longevity as much as anything that means only Lionel Messi has had more goal involvements in such matches during the 21st century. Messi had 40 (26 goals and 14 assists), and Benzema now has 21 (12 goals and nine assists).

In LaLiga, Benzema had played in 25 of these games before Sunday's encounter, winning only eight (D5 L12) and scoring just seven goals – including just one goal since April 2016.

Considering his overall record for Madrid showed Benzema hitting 327 goals in 614 games, this represented a disappointing tally.

LaLiga newcomer Lewandowski, meanwhile, could point to six goals in eight games on Champions League duty against Madrid, four of those coming for Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of the 2012-13 semi-final. Nobody has scored more against Madrid in the history of that competition.

Would this be a shoot-out between Benzema and Lewandowski? If so, first blood went to Benzema. Toni Kroos, being grappled with by Sergio Busquets, prodded the ball into space for Vinicius Junior down the left, and the Brazilian's acceleration took him clear of the Barcelona backline.

Four Barcelona defenders gave desperate chase, and when Ter Stegen palmed away the winger's shot, it ran only as far as the unattended Benzema.

He had skilfully held his run, and from 12 yards side-footed through that thicket of defenders, who had all but forgotten about him.

Benzema tore away towards the corner flag, kissing the badge on his shirt, arms open wide, a familiar pose in these parts.

Barcelona had conceded just once in their opening eight LaLiga games. Here they were up against it, yet they should have been level in the 25th minute when Raphinha's low ball across goal from the right was scooped over by a stretching Lewandowski at the far post.

It was quite some miss, particularly by the standards of the man who scored 50 goals for Bayern Munich last term.

Madrid's second goal came in the 35th minute and was rather splendid, Federico Valverde slamming into the bottom-left corner from 20 yards for his fourth goal of the season, the most he has managed in a single LaLiga campaign.

Barcelona had twice as many shots as Madrid in the first half (8-4) and 62.3 per cent of possession, but they trailed 3-2 in attempts on target – and by two clear goals.

All the passing accuracy in the world is no assurance of goals (Barca led this metric in the first half too – 91.8 per cent to Madrid's 84.4).

Benzema thought he had added a third for Madrid when he struck in style early in the second half, but he had strayed offside before receiving the ball.

Barcelona had plenty of chances (they finished the game 2.26 to 1.44 ahead on expected goals), and Lewandowski had a strong case for a penalty in the 74th minute when Dani Carvajal barged him over, but that did not even go to a VAR check.

 

Finally, Barca got a goal when Ferran Torres tucked in from close range in the 83rd minute, but hopes of a point were scotched in stoppage time when Rodrygo's penalty, after Eric Garcia trod on his toes, wrapped up the home win.

Benzema by then had a comfortable seat at pitchside, resting up before heading off for what should be a coronation at the Theatre du Chatelet in his home capital city.

Barcelona's unbeaten start in LaLiga is over, and they face likely Champions League elimination before the World Cup rolls around.

This is sweet music to Madrid ears, Benzema conducting the orchestra with aplomb once again.

It feels like a golden era for great players spread across the NBA.

So much talent, so many game winners, and an almost endless amount of possibilities as the stars prepare to get the new season under way.

Despite this, the MVP award has been sealed off by Nikola Jokic for the past two seasons, so the rest will have to step up and take it from the Serbian this time around.

We all have our favourites, and anything can happen in the NBA, but ahead of the new campaign, three members of the Stats Perform team have made their picks for who they think can challenge Jokic in 2022-23.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers - Liam Phillips

After finishing second in MVP voting two years in a row, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid is in prime position to get over the hump this time around.

Embiid, 28, has been denied the past two awards due to historic seasons frotem Denver Nuggets talisman Jokic, where he established himself as arguably the greatest playmaking center in the history of the league.

Winning the MVP in back-to-back years is not as uncommon as one would think, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, LeBron James (twice), Steve Nash and Tim Duncan all achieving the feat this century.

However, Larry Bird is the only man to three in a row, from 1984 to 1986, since Wilt Chamberlain's three-peat between 1966-68.

Take into account that Jokic now has his two top team-mates returning to the line-up after Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr were sidelined for the entire season, and his numbers will almost have to take a dip to accommodate them.

With Jokic facing a big ask to land the gong again this upcoming season for those reasons, Embiid should be the favourite, as he just needs to emulate his performance from the past two seasons and voters will be clamouring to reward the seven-foot-two superstar.

His biggest opposition will likely come from the Mavericks' Luka Doncic, who finished sixth in 2021 and fifth in 2022, and is still only 23 years old.

A slightly better Mavericks team this season, combined with a small step forward in Doncic's shooting percentages, will have him right near the top of the voting by default.

But the difference is the 76ers could finish as the top team in the Eastern Conference, and the Mavericks have almost no chance of claiming the Western Conference one seed – and voters are suckers for a great record.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks - Ben Spratt

If voters rewarded Jokic for carrying the Nuggets, would they not do the same for Doncic? Already clearly the main man in Dallas, Jalen Brunson's departure will only give the Slovenian further opportunity to impress.

Doncic (28.4 points per game) was the Mavericks' leading scorer last season. With Brunson (16.3) following Kristaps Porzingis (19.2 before a trade to the Washington Wizards) through the exit door, they have lost numbers two and three on that list.

Rather than source a like-for-like replacement for Brunson, the Mavs will presumably just ask Doncic to do more. His usage rate was already the highest in the NBA.

Doncic is one of the few players in the league with the ability to beat teams on his own – Jokic obviously being one of the others.

 

In the absence of his injured team-mates, Jokic improved on an MVP season in terms of points and rebounds, even allowing for a small dip in assists without Murray to give the ball to, and was not punished by voters for a decrease in win percentage.

If Doncic takes the same path, he is looking at averaging a 30-point double-double for the season. That will be very difficult to ignore.

Not that Doncic is readily ignored. He heads into the season as the MVP favourite yet again, having seen previous campaigns derailed by early-season struggles.

After playing in the Olympics last year, Doncic acknowledged he "relaxed a little bit", "maybe too much", and needed "to do better", drawing criticism from Reggie Miller for "plodding up and down the court".

Now, though, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd says Doncic is "taking his body serious", returning in top physical condition for – surely – a genuine MVP charge.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks - David Segar

The man who was denied the chance to win three on the bounce by Jokic in 2020-21 has a big job on his talented hands to lead the Bucks this year.

The 2021 champions are among the favourites to mount a strong challenge for the title, but have had a fruitless preseason, losing all five warm-up games in the past few weeks.

However, in Antetokounmpo, they have a man who is capable of dragging any team to success, and despite no longer being considered the league's leading player as he was in 2018-19 and 2019-20, the Greek's output has not really subsided.

In the first season he was awarded MVP, Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points per game in the regular season, with 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists, before recording 29.5 points per game, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists the following year.

Despite ultimately winning a championship, he was behind Jokic in the voting in 2020-21, though averaged 28.1 points per game, 11.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists.

Last season was the best of his career for average points from the 27-year-old, with his 29.9 per game only bettered by Embiid (30.6) and James (30.3), while he also averaged 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists.

It would be easy to argue that Antetokounmpo is a better player now than he was when he won his previous two MVPs, and like on those occasions, maybe he does not need to go all the way with the Bucks to reclaim his crown.

Though Greece were eliminated from EuroBasket by Germany at the quarter-final stage, Antetokounmpo still made the team of the tournament, and looks to be in good form heading into the season, even if his team-mates might need a little longer to get going.

It is a long campaign, though, which will give Antetokounmpo ample time to show that he has what it takes to become just the ninth player in history to win three MVP awards.

This might be the perfect time to play Paris Saint-Germain, or it could be the worst possible time to face them.

It's been a chaotic week for the Ligue 1 champions, with rumours of in-fighting, betrayal, and possible walkouts.

Kylian Mbappe apparently wants out, and that in turn led to speculation about the possibility of football consultant Luis Campos and head coach Christophe Galtier departing as well.

Everyone remains for the time being and they must all now turn their attention to Sunday's game, Le Classique.

Victory for Marseille will move them level on 26 points with PSG – victory for the Parisians at the Parc des Princes will likely have many already declaring them champions again even after just 11 games.

A rival emerging?

Throughout Qatar Sports Investments' (QSI) ownership of PSG, genuine title rivals have been few and far between.

Marseille certainly can't claim to be so competitive yet, though there's clearly some cause for optimism.

After all, this will be the third successive Classique that has been contested by sides in the top three, which is as many as in their previous 13 meetings.

That may not mean a huge amount in isolation and even Marseille's second-placed finish last term saw them 15 points adrift of PSG, but Igor Tudor's men do appear to be making progress, with 23 points after 10 games their third-best start in the top flight.

A shock win in the capital on Sunday might force a few people to sit up and take note.

Classique, c'est bleak

Any Marseille optimism is likely to be tempered by the recent history of this fixture, however.

PSG have only lost one of their previous 25 games against Marseille across all competitions, a 1-0 Ligue 1 defeat in September 2020.

 

In fact, PSG's nine wins from 11 home meetings with OM since the QSI takeover in 2011-12 is their joint-most against a single opponent.

To make matters worse for Marseille, PSG haven't lost any of their past 19 Ligue 1 games – which is their longest such run since 21 between May 2018 and January 2019 – and are unbeaten at home in 26 top-flight matches.

But, as the saying goes; the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Right?

Verratti closes on landmark

Marco Verratti is one of the players who is most synonymous with this ultra-successful era of PSG given he arrived in 2012.

He is now set to make Classique history as he will be the first outfield player to make 20 appearances in the famous fixture.

In fact, only one player has ever made more appearances in Le Classique; former Marseille favourite Steve Mandanda.

Marquinhos isn't too far behind the Italian, though, and unlike Verratti, the Brazil defender has remarkably never lost to Marseille in Ligue 1.

That's a run of 15 games without defeat – only three players have ever played more Ligue 1 games against one team without losing. Jean-Paul Bertrand Demanes (21 versus Laval for Nantes) holds that particular record.

Galtier's point to prove

The off-field circus of this week has undoubtedly had its toll on Galtier, with the PSG embarking on a bit of a rant during Friday's pre-match news conference.

Former Nice coach Galtier fumed about questions relating to off-pitch matters, barking that he just wanted to concentrate on football.

Clearly, then, Galtier will be more motivated than anyone to get a positive result and ensure the focus is on football again after Sunday – though he'll need to put a poor run behind him if he's to do so.

Galtier has only won four of 25 games against Marseille as a coach, giving him a measly win percentage of 16.

Only against Auxerre (no wins from five games) has he a poorer record.

 

"I got a new team since the last time I played," Zion Williamson said following his preseason debut at the start of the month.

This was scarcely an exaggeration; the New Orleans Pelicans only retain five players from when Williamson last played in the NBA in May 2021. Naji Marshall – a rookie in 2020-21 – was the sole other member of the starting five in the preseason win over the Chicago Bulls that Williamson would have been familiar with.

"I'm still learning some of the guys," he added.

Crucially, though, Williamson had left behind a losing team. Without him, the Pelicans learnt to win – and he must now fit into that.

Williamson was typically influential in his last regular season outing against the Golden State Warriors – his 23 points marking a 15th straight game in which he scored 20 or more.

Damian Lillard was the only other player to achieve two such streaks of 15 games or more in the 2020-21 season, with Williamson's 25-game sequence – which ended with 16 points against the Brooklyn Nets around a month earlier – the longest of the year.

Of Williamson's final 41 games of the campaign, he scored 20 or more points in 40 of them, averaging 28.7 per game over this stretch.

But the Pelicans lost marginally more of those games than they won (20-21) and were outside the 2020-21 Western Conference play-in places when he was ruled out with a fractured finger.

New Orleans still undoubtedly had a better team with Williamson in it, though, going 1-5 the rest of the way to remain in 11th in the West and miss the playoffs for a third straight season.

Over the two seasons that followed the Pelicans taking Williamson with the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, their winning percentage without the forward (35.6) was far lower than with him involved (47.1) – a sample size that was far bigger than they would have hoped, given Williamson missed 59 games.

Williamson's 2,187 points to date – equating to 25.7 points per game – rank second since the NBA-ABA merger for the most through 85 career games. The sole man ahead of him is Michael Jordan (2,387 – 28.1).

This is fine company to be keeping, but Jordan, despite a broken foot, played his 86th NBA game in his second season; Williamson's will come in his fourth.

 

With the Pelicans already struggling with such a talent in their ranks, the fractured foot Williamson himself sustained a year ago that ultimately kept him out for the entirety of the 2021-22 season was an obvious concern.

As it was, forced to accept Williamson's absence, New Orleans adapted. They were undoubtedly better for it, too, but have work to do to again incorporate one of the most talented players in the league.

Williamson's role on the Pelicans had understandably dominated the narrative around the team for two years. It took time for the Pels to work out how best to use a forward with the physical attributes to play center and the playmaking ability to play 'Point Zion'.

So, it took time again to adjust to the considerable hole his injury left in the line-up, with Williamson having led New Orleans in usage rate in both 2019-20 (29.9 per cent) and 2020-21 (also 29.9).

After a big opening-day loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, rookie Herb Jones was inserted into the line-up as Pelicans coach Willie Green named an unchanged team in five straight games. The Pels lost four of them.

That line-up did not start another game all season, but Green's attempts to find a quick fix were similarly fruitless, with the team 1-12 almost a month into the season and the coach explaining: "Until we get it right, we have to continue to make adjustments and see what works."

Eventually, on November 24, those adjustments led to a line-up showing only one change from those imbalanced early attempts – Josh Hart in for Nickeil Alexander-Walker – and the Pelicans beat the Washington Wizards by 25 points.

Between that game and a win at the Houston Rockets in early February – the final time that line-up was used – those five had a 12-7 record as starters versus 6-9 for all other New Orleans line-ups combined.

Yet even with center Jonas Valanciunas contributing handily, the Pelicans were still relying too much on Brandon Ingram's scoring, having lost not just Williamson but also the only three guards to have 10 or more 20-point games for the team over the previous two seasons combined (Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick).

Needing more from their back court, a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers, who New Orleans had just passed in the standings, saw both Hart and Alexander-Walker sacrificed for CJ McCollum.

It was a risk that was richly rewarded, as McCollum scored 20 or more points in 20 of his 26 games for the Pelicans, averaging a career-high 24.3. Meanwhile, Ingram sat for most of March through injury – a setback that would have been far more damaging without McCollum – but still averaged 22.0 following his new team-mate's debut.

The Pelicans had averaged 105.9 points per game before the trade; that shot up to 115.9 after McCollum's arrival, improving from 14th in the West in scoring to sixth. A 14-14 record was unspectacular but this time enough to make the play-in.

McCollum and Ingram combined for 59 points in a win over the San Antonio Spurs and then 49 to upset the Los Angeles Clippers, reaching a first-round series with the number one seed Phoenix Suns, who were taken to six games as Ingram averaged a series-high 27.0.

The Pelicans finished their season with a defeat but also with momentum. Williamson signed his five-year, $193million rookie max extension at the start of July.

If New Orleans were a .500 team without their best player, there is the potential for them to do something really special this year with him back on the court.

"I want to prove that I'm a winner, it's as simple as that," Williamson said as he signed his contract, outlining the "ultimate goal" to win a title.

More recently, Williamson has detailed a mentality shift during the offseason as he spent two months in Fort Lauderdale working with a strength and conditioning coach.

"The best way to describe it is I found true resolve within the game of basketball," he said. "Something mentally in me shifted, changed, and the game of basketball... that's it for me. That's my love, it's what I want to do.

"I'm just excited to get out there and show the world what I can do."

Ingram was injured again as preseason got under way, so Williamson will start the season still learning how best to share the ball with his fellow forward as well as new man McCollum, although few would doubt he has the talent and versatility to adjust with time.

Once that process is completed, finding a way to keep Williamson fit may be the Pelicans' biggest concern – just as it always has been.

The NBA season is finally here, with the Golden State Warriors looking to defend their title after defeating the Boston Celtics in this year's NBA Finals.

Golden State will have plenty of serious opposition in their way if they are to go back-to-back, as some powerhouses – like the Los Angeles Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks – return to full health.

The list of contenders this year may be as deep as it has ever been, with the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns all definitely believing they have what it takes, and young sides like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves going all-in with the cores they have assembled.

After one of the best rookie classes in recent memory last season, this year's draftees have plenty to live up to, so to preview the season, we will start at the top.

Who are the favourites?

Despite not making the NBA Finals this past season, any conversation about potential champions in 2022-23 begins with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

The Bucks took the Celtics to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals, and that was while they were missing their second-best player as Khris Middleton was sidelined for the entire series after suffering a knee injury in the first round. 

There is a convincing case to be made that they would have gone back-to-back with a healthy Middleton, but instead, the Warriors were able to take care of business in the Finals and collect the fourth championship of the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green era.

Golden State return almost their full team, and with even marginal improvement from second-year lottery picks Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga, they will be one of the deepest rosters in the league, and will have the ammunition to put together one of the better trade packages if a disgruntled star appears around the deadline.

The Celtics will likely remain one of the best defensive units in the league, and will therefore always have a chance in the playoffs, and if the Warriors are not to come out of the Western Conference, the Nuggets or the Clippers are finally healthy and poised to make some noise.

Who are the dark horses?

Despite winning the title in 2019, the Toronto Raptors will come into this season extremely under the radar in what is now a loaded Eastern Conference.

One of the biggest and most athletic teams in the league, the thing working in the Raptors' favour may also be the point working against them – they brought back almost the exact same team.

Focal points Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are still only 28 years old, while O.G. Anunoby profiles as a potentially elite wing at 25-years-old, and 21-year-old second-year point forward Scottie Barnes is the reigning Rookie of the Year.

They were the five seed last year despite all of their starters missing significant time, and with their championship experience and natural improvement, they will be in the mix by default.

Out West, it's hard to go past the New Orleans Pelicans, who will have one of the best starting fives in the NBA.

With C.J. McCollum, Brandon Ingram and surprise packet Herb Jones on the perimeter, along with Jonas Valanciunas and the returning Zion Williamson inside, that group will be a tough out if Williamson can remain healthy.

 

Who will win Rookie of the Year?

The clear favourite to take home the honour as the best first-year player is the Orlando Magic's Paolo Banchero, who was selected first overall in June's NBA Draft.

Banchero – who at six-foot-10 and 250lbs is the same size as prime DeMarcus Cousins despite playing on the perimeter – has essentially been tasked with being the saviour of the franchise, and will have significant playmaking and scoring responsibilities from day one.

He could realistically average somewhere in the range of 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game if the franchise truly decides to put the ball in his hands and let him run the show, and he is the only player in the class that can be said about.

His biggest competition – literally – was the Oklahoma City Thunder seven-footer Chet Holmgren, who was taken second overall, but will miss the entire season after suffering a fracture in his foot in the preseason.

Third pick Jabari Smith Jr will likely be more of an off-ball player in year one, limiting his ability to rack up massive counting stats, and fifth pick Jaden Ivey will be sharing the floor with last year's top overall selection Cade Cunningham with the Detroit Pistons, where Cunningham is unquestionably the star.

Keegan Murray, the fourth overall pick by the Sacramento Kings, profiles as one of the better all-around scorers in the draft and will have the opportunity to make his mark, and Shaedon Sharpe showed some intriguing flashes in the preseason after not playing a single game of competitive basketball since graduating from high school, still earning the seventh overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers.

 

Quick hitters:

Pelicans wing Herb Jones was never going to receive the credit he deserved last year as a 23-year-old second-round draft pick, but the rookie was quietly one of the best defensive players in the league last season.

As a rookie, he was guarding the best opposing perimeter player every night for the Pelicans, suiting up for 78 of the 82 regular season games and finishing top-10 in the league in deflections per game (3.1).

He is one of the only wings in the NBA who is tasked with carrying his side defensively, and health permitting, he will be honoured on the NBA All-Defensive teams this season.

– For those who do not play fantasy basketball, it must be a shock to hear Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton has emerged as a first-round pick, but the unbelievably efficient 22-year-old is in position to have an explosive breakout season.

After being traded to the Pacers last season, Haliburton averaged 17.5 points, 9.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 50 per cent from the field, 41 per cent from three and 85 per cent from the free throw line, putting him in the top echelon of efficient guard scorers and playmakers.

With established veterans Buddy Hield and Myles Turner both reportedly on the trading block as the Pacers enter themselves into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstake, their departure would only amplify the massive season coming from the former Sacramento draft pick.

– The Cleveland Cavaliers will have their sights set on the playoffs this season after their aggressive trade for former Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell – but he may not even be the best guard on the Cavs roster.

Last season was a coming out party for point guard Darius Garland, who appears to be next up in the archetype of deep-shooting, slick-passing, small initiators. 

He shot a career-best 46 per cent from the field this past season while attempting a career-high 6.7 three-pointers per game, and he was also one of the best passers in the league, averaging 8.6 assists and forming spectacular chemistry with fellow All-Star and alley-oop partner Jarrett Allen.

Mitchell will bring a level of perimeter scoring and playoff pedigree to the Cavaliers that is desperately needed to lower the demands on Garland late in games, but it will be Garland running this team for the first 46 minutes.

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