Inter have a chance to become the first Italian side to ever beat Barcelona twice in a Champions League campaign when they meet at Camp Nou on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Club Brugge are on the brink of their first trip to the knockout stages as they play Atletico Madrid.

Mohamed Salah can make history with one more Champions League goal for Liverpool on their trip to Scotland to take on Rangers, and Bayern Munich are one win away from their own record as they try to win an 11th consecutive group stage match.

Tottenham will look to break out of a scoring slump when they host Eintracht Frankfurt, while Porto and Bayer Leverkusen are battling it out in Group B.

With plenty of important matchups, Stats Perform has parsed through the data to preview the eight fixtures on Wednesday and shine a light on some of the more interesting angles.

Barcelona v Inter

Inter's 1-0 victory against Barcelona at San Siro last week was their first triumph over the Spanish giants since April 2010, with Barca collecting four wins and one draw since.

With another win, Inter can become the first Italian side to ever beat Barcelona twice in the same Champions League campaign, although they have lost all five of their away fixtures at Camp Nou – their most losses at any away venue in the competition.

In fact, Camp Nou has not been a happy hunting ground for Italian sides in general, with a 3-0 victory for Juventus in 2020 marking the country's only win at the venue in the last 17 tries (L13 D3).

It is not just Barcelona who have given Inter trouble on away days, with their last away win in the Champions League against a Spanish opponent coming back in 2004 against Valencia.

Working in Inter's favour is road warrior Lautaro Martinez, who has scored six of his seven Champions League goals away from home.

Tottenham v Eintracht Frankfurt

After banking four consecutive wins against Borussia Dortmund between 2017 and 2019, Tottenham are now winless in their past five Champions League fixtures against German sides (D1 L4).

On the other side, Eintracht have enjoyed success when travelling to England in European competition, winning both of their previous two attempts – against Arsenal in 2019, and West Ham in April this year – in the Europa League.

However, this is a clear step up from the Europa League, and after winning their first ever Champions League away game last month (1-0 at Marseille), Frankfurt will be looking to become the only German team to ever win their first two away fixtures in the competition.

The 0-0 draw between these two sides in Frankfurt a week ago was the second consecutive Champions League game where Tottenham have failed to score a goal – also losing 2-0 to Sporting. The last time they went three games in the competition without scoring was back in 2011.

Striker Harry Kane will be key, as he boasts the best minutes-per-goal figure – 20 goals in 27 appearances for a goal every 118 minutes – of any English player with at least 10 goals in the Champions League.

Atletico Madrid v Club Brugge

Not many, if any, would have tipped Club Brugge to top Group B ahead of Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Porto, but they have defeated all three to lead with a perfect nine points and zero goals conceded.

One more win for Brugge would see them progress past the group stage for the first time, in their 10th Champions League campaign. By defeating Atletico, they would become the first Belgian side since Anderlecht in 2000 to win four games in a row in the competition.

Brugge are also one goal away from matching their highest goal tally from a single Champions League campaign, with eight goals in 2020-21.

Surprisingly, Atletico have struggled at home in the Champions League, snapping a streak of eight games without a win (D5 L3) by defeating Porto this season.

Brugge's Ferran Jutgla has registered a goal and an assist in each of his past two Champions League games, and if he can manage to do it again, he will join Robert Lewandowski and Leroy Sane as the only players since 2003-04 to have a goal and an assist in three straight games in the competition.

Bayer Leverkusen v Porto

With Brugge seemingly cruising, Porto, Leverkusen and Atletico are likely fighting it out for one automatic qualification spot, and Leverkusen will feel good about their chances as Porto are winless in their last seven away games against German teams (D2 L5).

After defeating Atletico at home on the second matchday, Leverkusen will be looking to win consecutive Champions League home fixtures in the same campaign for the first time since 2014.

Patrick Schick is Leverkusen's focal point going forward, attempting more than twice as many shots (12) as any of his team-mates this Champions League season, but he is yet to score, having missed a penalty against Porto in last week's 2-0 loss.

Porto's Mehdi Taremi assisted both goals in the reverse fixture, marking the first time he has been involved in multiple goals in a Champions League game, while the sending-off of Jeremie Frimpong gave Leverkusen their 11th red card in their history in the competition, trailing only Bayern Munich (21) amongst German sides.

Other fixtures:

Napoli v Ajax

5 – Napoli beat Ajax 6-1 in the reverse fixture at Johan Cruyff Arena, with the five-goal margin marking the heaviest defeat Ajax have ever suffered in European competition.

10 – With one more win, Napoli would become the fourth Italian club to ever mount a 10-game unbeaten streak in the Champions League, with six wins and three draws from their past nine fixtures.

Rangers v Liverpool

5 – Rangers have failed to score in their past five European games against English competition, including a 2-0 loss against Liverpool last week.

35 – Mohamed Salah has scored 35 Champions League goals for Liverpool – only Didier Droga (36 for Chelsea) and Sergio Aguero (36 for Manchester City) have scored more for a single Premier League club in the competition.

Sporting v Marseille

9 – Marseille have lost their past nine away fixtures in the Champions League, and with one more loss they would become the sixth team to ever post 10 consecutive away defeats in the competition, and the first from France.

18 – It has been 18 years since Sporting lost a home fixture against a French side in European competition, with that loss coming against Sochaux in the 2004 UEFA Cup.

Viktoria Plzen v Bayern Munich

31 – Bayern Munich are undefeated in their past 31 Champions League group stage matches (28W 3D) – which is an all-time high – and with one more win they will set the new record for consecutive group stage wins with 11.

32 – Viktoria Plzen have faced 32 shots on target in their first three games of this Champions League campaign – more than any other side. In the reverse fixture, Bayern had 13 shots on target.

Kylian Mbappe's future with Paris Saint-Germain has come under scrutiny once again, with reports the French World Cup winner is pushing for an exit in January.

The 23-year-old signed a new three-year deal with PSG prior to the 2022-23 season, when he could have left the club on a free transfer, and made him the highest-earner in world football.

Just months after bringing the saga to a close, however, a new chapter in Mbappe's story looks to be opened, as his relationship with PSG is said to have broken down.

The list of clubs who could land Mbappe is a very small one, with PSG understandably ready to demand a world-record fee for his services, and Stats Perform has looked at his options.

Real Madrid

The frontrunners for Mbappe's services before he penned a new deal with PSG, Real Madrid will be firmly established as favourites for the France international should he be available – although securing a deal with the Ligue 1 champions will be difficult.

Madrid have a frosty relationship with their French counterparts, who were not included in the European Super League plans, still supported by Real's Florentino Perez, while LaLiga announced intentions to sue PSG after the European champions' approaches for Mbappe in the last transfer window fell flat.

Mbappe, meanwhile, is still reported to aspire to play for Madrid and will hope that player power triumphs, with any move adding to the strong French contingent currently on display in the Spanish capital.

The Santiago Bernabeu is already the home of Ferland Mendy, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Karim Benzema, to whom Mbappe would be a natural successor.

Liverpool

First linked with Liverpool three years ago, the Reds are reported to have explored the option of landing Mbappe had he become available for free.

Jurgen Klopp's side had little chance of such a deal, with Madrid the player's preferred option, but the sour relationship between the Spanish side and PSG may provide a boost to any hopes of the Frenchman arriving at Anfield.

Liverpool saw Sadio Mane depart for Bayern Munich and Roberto Firmino looks set to leave when his contract expires in 2023, while Mohamed Salah has struggled for form since penning a lucrative three-year deal in July.

A poor start to the season has seen Liverpool win just two of their opening eight matches, with the Reds already 14 points adrift of leaders Arsenal, while rivals Manchester City, who Liverpool have fought relentlessly in recent seasons, are enjoying the fruits of Erling Haaland's labour – so landing Mbappe could be the ideal response.

Chelsea

Todd Boehly's multi-billion-pound takeover prior to the start of the 2022-23 season saw a wealth of new additions, while a swift managerial change after a slow start led to Graham Potter arriving to lead the side.

It's no secret that the American owner is keen for a star addition to the squad, with Cristiano Ronaldo heavily touted for a move to Stamford Bridge from Manchester United. While that ultimately did not happen, Mbappe could be the answer to Boehly's prayers.

Landing Mbappe, arguably the biggest name in world football beyond Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, would represent a major coup and would also be a big hit with club sponsors Nike, who also have Mbappe among their list of clientele.

Chelsea's recent success in the Champions League would be appealing to Mbappe, who is yet to win Europe's elite competition, and a switch to the Blues could be the ideal fit for all parties.

Manchester City

City already have their mega-star well established in the side with Haaland but could an opportunity to partner him with Mbappe and boast a striking partnership that strikes fear into world football really be turned down?

Despite City's domestic dominance under Pep Guardiola, a Champions League title is yet to arrive at the club and Mbappe could get them over the line – particularly with Haaland already making his mark.

Few managers in world football have the pull that Guardiola does and Mbappe may feel he has not had the opportunity to work under an elite boss, with PSG's merry-go-round in the dugout yet to include a bona fide managerial great.

PSG would have no concerns that City do not have the money to secure such a transfer, with the Premier League side perhaps the only one in world football who undoubtedly have the full financial power to pull off a record-breaking move.

For years Robert Lewandowski was the main draw of Der Klassiker, then Erling Haaland joined him as Germany's biggest fixture became stylised as a shootout between arguably the world's finest number nines.

Of course, both players departed in pre-season meaning the build-up to Saturday's instalment needed two new poster boys.

And boys they are.

Jamal Musiala's exceptional start to the season has seen his already significant stock rise, while Jude Bellingham has elevated himself to become undroppable for BVB and almost similarly important at international level.

As it happened, Bellingham ended up being upstaged by the even younger Youssoufa Moukoko as the game became something of a 'Kids' Klassiker' – though it was ultimately 34-year-old Anthony Modeste who stole the limelight at the end of an eventually gripping 2-2 draw at Signal Iduna Park.

Frankly, though, it was difficult to rave about almost anyone during a rather frantic and chaotic first half that was sorely lacking quality.

 

Players seemed to be frequently miscontrolling the ball, falling over or bumping into each other. Scrappy, frustrating and largely devoid of goal-mouth action, it certainly wasn't what many a neutral might be accustomed to when watching the Klassiker.

At the break, Dortmund had accumulated just 0.47 expected goals (xG), while Bayern's was 0.09. Though perhaps typifying their historical ruthlessness, it was enough to give Die Roten a 1-0 lead at the interval.

Julian Nagelsmann will have felt particularly content in that regard given Bayern were unbeaten in their previous 72 Bundesliga games when leading at the break, and he'll have no doubt enjoyed seeing Musiala at the centre of things having channelled Pep Guardiola when calling him a "top-top-top player" pre-game.

The young forward was one of Bayern's brighter players in the first period and he more than played a part as the visitors opened the scoring.

He peeled into the left side of the box to receive the ball before showing admirable poise and composure to cut inside and tee up Leon Goretzka on the edge of the box, with the midfielder drilling into the bottom-left corner.

That took Musiala to nine Bundesliga goal involvements for the season, a figure bettered only by Niclas Fullkrug (10).

Those hoping for effectively a straight battle between Musiala and his former England youth colleague Bellingham will have been disappointed.

After a harsh early booking – for what appeared a fair albeit strong challenge on Musiala – the Dortmund talent struggled to impose himself as a creative influence and could even be accused of trying a little too hard in the second half, as he attempted to beat his man a second time in the area instead of feeding a team-mate when BVB caught Bayern on the break.

A few seconds later, he needlessly passed the ball out of play just outside his own area as Bayern players began to circle, with the 19-year-old – who by this point was wearing the captain's armband – subsequently showing frustration in his reaction.

On the other side of the 'Kids' Klassiker' battle, a few moments earlier Musiala had enjoyed another moment of decisiveness – if we can call it that. He broke behind the Dortmund midfield and played a pass that was nudged on by a defender to Leroy Sane, whose long-range strike found its way in even though Alexander Meyer got a firm hand to it.

 

Despite Musiala's clear impact, Moukoko had a claim to being the Klassiker's standout youngster on the day. The 17-year-old's decision-making may not have been perfect, but he worked tirelessly up front, his constant harrying and hassling kept the Bayern backline under pressure – his three tackles was second only to Emre Can (five) in the Dortmund team.

He then got Dortmund back in contention with an excellent finish. Modeste's pass into the centre of the box was ever so slightly behind Moukoko, but he still managed to get enough power to strike past Manuel Neuer despite the needing to dig the ball out from himself a little.

Modeste then went from provider to finisher with the last kick (header) of the game, nodding Nico Schlotterbeck's cross in at the far post as Dortmund piled on the pressure in stoppage time, sparking pandemonium in the stands and on the pitch – Bellingham's scream into the close-up camera presumably causing a few viewers to subconsciously jump out of their seats.

To be fair, there were few bums on seats in the Yellow Wall behind the Bayern goal as Modeste tucked his header away, with the Frenchman's double impact proving that, even around all the potential in the world, there's always space for good old experience and nous.

 

Most assumed after Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors in 2019 that their time atop the NBA mountain had come to an end.

There appeared to be significant evidence to support that school of thought when the Warriors spent the 2019-20 in the cellar as Stephen Curry joined Klay Thompson in being sidelined through injury, and an Achilles injury suffered by the latter helped leave Golden State ill-equipped to compete in 2020-21.

But after a season in which the Warriors meshed championship experience and difference-making youth, Golden State heads into the 2022-23 campaign back at the summit having seen off the Boston Celtics in six games in last term's NBA Finals.

Curry added the missing component of his Hall of Fame resume, winning Finals MVP for the first time in his illustrious career, and he and the Warriors are the bookmakers' favourites to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the fifth time in nine seasons.

Yet their build-up to the new campaign is a reminder of the many obstacles, including internal ones, that can scupper hopes of sustained success, with Thompson held out of exhibition games in his first preseason since 2018-19 and an altercation between Draymond Green and Jordan Poole in which the former punched his young team-mate, overshadowing Golden State's preparations for a push for a second successive title.

It is an extremely difficult situation to navigate with both Green and Poole looking to receive lucrative contract extensions, and whether the Warriors can overcome the discord between two key players will play a huge role in their ability to successfully defend their crown, but what will be the other key factors, and who will be their primary competition? Stats Perform looks at the Warriors' odds of fending off their rivals and improving their standing among the best dynasties in NBA history.

Staying strong on defense

Though Curry was the obvious centrepiece of the Warriors' championship push, they would not have regained the title without the defensive strength displayed throughout the campaign.

Golden State allowed 105.5 points per game, the third-fewest in the NBA, with opponents shooting just 43.8 per cent against them from the field. Only the Celtics (43.4 per cent) fared better in that regard.

Though those numbers ballooned to 111.9 points per game and a field goal percentage of 48 in the postseason overall, the Warriors' Finals performance was in part defined by four stellar defensive performances.

Indeed, in each of their four Finals wins, the Warriors did not allow the Celtics to score 100 points. Boston's average points total across those games was 92.25. For context, the lowest points per game total in the regular season was the Oklahoma City Thunder's 103.7.

Though his standing is likely at an all-time low after the incident with Poole, Green is still the heartbeat of the defense. His defensive rating of 102.8 was the sixth-best among players to have featured in at least 50 regular-season games last season.

Green never lacks for motivation, but the fact he does not have an extension from Golden State and likely lost a lot of leverage after his fight with Poole may add even more fuel to his eternal fire. Andrew Wiggins (defensive rating - 105.4), whose defense on Jayson Tatum in the Finals drew effusive praise will also be key to the Warriors' success to containing opponents, while Kevon Looney (107.2) and returning veteran Andre Iguodala (97 in 31 games) will be tasked with providing crucial support on the defensive end.

Yet with Gary Payton II (102.2) and Otto Porter Jr. (103.2) departing for pastures new in free agency, the Warriors must replace the impact they had off the bench if they are to remain one of the NBA's premier defensive teams. While the Warriors made a free-agent addition with their defense in mind, there will be a significant onus on recent high-profile draft selections to have a consistent influence on that end of the floor.

The kids are (hopefully) alright

The Warriors did move to address the departures of Payton and Porter by signing Donte DiVincenzo, a member of the Milwaukee Bucks' championship-winning team whose defensive rating of 108.9 since entering the NBA in 2018 is tied for 43rd among players to have featured in at least 200 games in that span.

But the Warriors will also have been comfortable letting Payton and Porter walk because of the faith they have in recent draft picks to contribute on the defensive end.

Jonathan Kuminga finished his rookie year level with Payton for rebounds per 48 minutes with 9.5, and he was fourth on the team with 7.3 defensive boards every 48 minutes. The Warriors will look for him to use his exciting athleticism to harness that same efficiency over a higher number of minutes in 2022-23.

Moses Moody, the second of the Warriors' two 2021 first-rounders, had five defensive rebounds per 48 minutes and is seen as a player who could thrive as a three-and-d player at the highest level.

The three-ball provided significant joy for rookie Patrick Baldwin Jr. in the Warriors' second of two games with the Washington Wizards in Japan, in which he went four of five from deep. Any first-year success for Baldwin would be a luxury for Golden State. By contrast, they will likely view third-year strides from former second overall pick James Wiseman as a necessity.

Wiseman did not feature in the Warriors' championship campaign due to setbacks in his recovery from the torn meniscus that ended his rookie year. He has played only 39 games in the NBA having featured in just three in college, but the flashes he produced in his first year and in this year's Summer League provided evidence he can blossom into a dynamic center at both ends of the court for a team that has long since lacked a definitive answer at the 5 spot.

The Warriors do not lack answers in the frontcourt. The question they face this season is how they will divide the minutes of the three players who produced pivotal play at guard last campaign.

Stick with the Splash Brothers or go to the Poole party?

The Splash Brothers finally reunited last season as Thompson made his long awaited return from injury after over two years on the sideline.

By the time he made his comeback, the Warriors already had a 29-9 record, with their success in large part down to the combination Curry had formed with Poole, the Warriors' 2019 first-round pick who blossomed into a key part of their rotation.

Poole averaged 30 minutes a game in his third season and a career-high 18.5 points per game despite giving his starting role back to Thompson.

Across a much smaller sample size of 32 games compared to Poole's 76, Thompson averaged 20.4 points in his comeback season, though there is a case to be made the Warriors were more effective with Poole on the court.

Poole had a plus-minus per game of 4.3 to Thompson's 2.1 and had a marginally better field goal percentage. Thompson shot 42.9 per cent from the field while Poole converted on 44.8 per cent of field goal attempts. 

As Thompson went cold in the NBA Finals, shooting at a 35.6 per cent clip, Poole shot 43.5 per cent against the Celtics and rattled through half of his field goal attempts in the postseason overall.

It is too early, though, to make the judgement that Thompson's best days are behind him and head coach Steve Kerr should lean more towards the energetic Poole. The challenge for Kerr is to find balance between relying on the spot-up ability of arguably the best catch-and-shoot player of the modern era and the young spark-plug with a well-rounded offensive game who can produce dazzling finishes at the basket and confound defenses with deep shooting.

 

Even if Kerr, who has suggested Thompson could play power forward this season, initially struggles to find that balance, it is unlikely to stop the Warriors from thriving, so long as Curry is available to Golden State. Curry's plus-minus per game of 7.9 was the second-best in the NBA last campaign, one that ended with him silencing any critics questioning his resume by averaging 31.2 points per game in the six games with the Celtics to win his first Finals MVP award.

The need for the right mix of Curry, Thompson and Poole will come if the former endures a drop-off, but having three players of their talents allows Kerr to be more experimental in the regular season and better preserve the two-time MVP for the postseason, when those looking to dethrone the Warriors will face the substantial challenge of trying to stymie his enduring brilliance.

West rivals flawed, but Bucks could set up mouth-watering Finals

The Warriors aren't short of challengers blessed with star power in the Western Conference, but it's tough to pick out many who have an overall roster that looks as strong as the one Kerr has as its disposal.

While the Phoenix Suns have an established but still youthful core that could allow them to push the Warriors, they are coming off an extremely chaotic offseason and will again be relying on 38-year-old Chris Paul as creator-in-chief. Curry's history of success against the 'Point God' suggests that is a matchup stacked firmly in Golden State's favour.

By contrast, Kawhi Leonard has consistently been a thorn in the side of the Warriors and he and Paul George will hope to lead a success-starved Los Angeles Clippers franchise to glory. However, such hopes rely on Leonard returning to his best in the wake of a long lay-off with a partially torn ACL. Similarly, the Denver Nuggets have the back-to-back MVP in Nikola Jokic, but his support comes from players in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. who are both returning from long spells on the sideline. Without that pair, the Warriors breezed to a 4-1 first-round win over the Nuggets last season.

That was also the margin in the Western Conference Finals as the Warriors beat Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. Simply put, the Slovenian superstar did not have enough around him, especially on defense, for the Mavs to compete with Golden State, and the Memphis Grizzlies were ill-equipped to upset the Warriors once Ja Morant went out with a knee injury in the previous round.

The problem is the same for so many teams in the West, who do not have the depth to beat the Warriors over seven games. The Los Angeles Lakers possess a star-studded lineup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook on the roster, but Darvin Ham has too many problems to fix surrounding their chemistry and even getting that trio on the court at the same time for the Lakers to be considered a legitimate threat to Golden State at this stage.

It is in the Eastern Conference where the teams that have the best shot of dethroning the Warriors reside. For all the drama in Brooklyn, the combination of Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons is still one that could deliver a title if their respective talents can be harnessed by Steve Nash, and former Net James Harden and Joel Embiid offer the Philadelphia 76ers a duo that could deliver a long-awaited championship.

Erik Spoelstra's coaching, Jimmy Butler's frequently tireless performances and the well-rounded nature of their roster makes the Miami Heat a tough team to rule out but, in terms of top-end talent and depth, it is the Celtics and the non-Miami team they beat in seven games last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, who stand as the Warriors' biggest threats.

The Celtics' offseason was overshadowed by the scandal surrounding suspended head coach Ime Udoka, but they are led by two stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who are both 25 or under and should be better for the experience of losing in the Finals.

Yet the argument could be made the Celtics never would have got beyond the second round had the Bucks had Khris Middleton available for Game 7.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's athleticism, length and all-round skill set still makes him the most physically fearsome player in the NBA and, when both Middleton and Jrue Holiday are healthy, the Bucks have a big three to rival any team in scoring, facilitation and defense.

Milwaukee had eight players average at least nine points last year and seven are still on the team. Plenty can and will change over the course of a long season but, heading into a year in which everyone will be desperate to knock them off, the team most likely to prevent the Warriors from retaining the trophy is the team that lifted it before them.

It is a long time since the winners of a Klassiker may not be sitting pretty at the top of the Bundesliga at the end of the game.

But even a ninth successive victory for Bayern Munich over Borussia Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park on Saturday may not be enough for the champions to be at the summit.

Bayern head into the first showdown with Dortmund this season in third place, level on points with Edin Terzic's fourth-place side as Union Berlin surprisingly lead the way ahead of Freiburg after eight matches.

It is the first time in 13 years that neither side have been in the top two when this fixture has kicked off.

Dortmund have already suffered three Bundesliga defeats this season, but they come into the game buoyed by a 4-1 Champions League victory at Sevilla.

Bayern hammered Viktoria Plzen in midweek after a 4-0 rout of Bayer Leverkusen, so there could be goals aplenty this weekend.

Stats Perform previews the 132st showdown between the two rivals in all competitions in the Bundesliga era by picking out some standout Opta data.

 

Dortmund desperate to end dismal Klassiker run

The last time Dortmund got the better of Bayern was back in August 2019, when they 2-0 winners in the German Super Cup.

Their two goalscorers in that game are no longer at the club, with Jadon Sancho at Manchester United and Paco Alcacer with Sharjah.

Dortmund have not beaten Bayern in the Bundesliga since winning a classic 3-2 in November 2018, Marco Reus – who is missing this weekend due to an ankle injury – claiming a double.

Only against Hamburg between 1982 and 1985 have Dortmund lost eight competitive games in a row, so another defeat this weekend would set an unwanted record.

 

Hummels could make timely return

Mats Hummels has missed the two games since the international break due to illness, but could return against his former club.

Nine of the 10 goals Dortmund have conceded in the Bundesliga this season have been when Hummels was not on the pitch.

They have shipped only goal in 512 minutes while the vastly experienced centre-back has been on the field, but let in one every 23 minutes without him.

Terzic said ahead of the match: "We would be very happy if he were an option. It's a case of seeing how he feels and how his body reacts to the workload."

 

Sane and Musiala firing for free-scoring Bayern

Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala have made great starts to the campaign for Julian Nagelsmann's side.

Sane endured a difficult start to life at Bayern after his move from Manchester City, but the winger has scored nine goals this season – four of those coming in the Champions League.

Only Gerd Muller has scored more than Musiala's five goals in eight matches at the start of a Bundesliga season as a teenager, the Bayern and Germany legend striking seven times at the start of the 1965-66 campaign.

Falling behind may not be a problem for free-scoring champions

The importance of starting strongly is stressed so often, but Bayern may not be too concerned if they go behind.

That is because Dortmund are the only team this Bundesliga campaign to lose twice after leading in games (3-2 v Werder Bremen and 3-2 at Cologne). 

Not that Bayern have been slow to get going, as they have scored 16 goals in the first half of Bundesliga games this season, with no other team scoring more than nine.

It is safe to say 2021-22 was a season to forget for the Los Angeles Lakers.

A record of 33-49 meant failure to even reach the play-in tournament, unthinkable at the start of the campaign.

The Lakers finished 11th in the Western Conference, and only managed a measly three wins from 13 against Pacific Division opponents.

They actually won five of their first eight games, but by the end of the season they had reached peak crisis-mode.

Heading into their final 10 games, the Lakers knew they needed to win several to get into the playoffs, before proceeding to lose eight in a row, with two consolation victories saving a minimal amount of face.

It was quite the failure, and yet LeBron James did not seem to think twice about signing a new two-year, $97.1million contract extension that includes a player option for 2024-25.

Before the new season gets underway, Stats Perform has taken a look at the Lakers' prospects to try and determine if there is cause for optimism, or if James could be left to carry the load on his own once again.

Can LeBron get Lakers out of a jam?

The man has four NBA championships, four Finals MVPs, four NBA MVPs, 17 All-Star selections and three All-Star MVPs to his name, but this could be his biggest challenge to date.

Basketball is clearly a team sport, but as James knows all too well, it's not unusual for one player to play so well that he can carry a team to success almost single-handedly.

That did not happen last season, despite his best efforts, which goes to show just how poorly the rest of the team performed.

James scored 1,695 points in just 56 games at an average of 30.3 points per game, his best regular season return since 2005-06, and only Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers averaged more (30.6).

He also reached a notable landmark in March, becoming the first player in NBA history to record 10,000 assists and 10,000 rebounds in a career.

Of course, one of the issues was that he only managed to play 56 games, and as James turns 38 in December, is he likely to be more involved this year?

Even if he is, his impressive numbers last season achieved little in terms of the team's outcome, so will he get more help this time round? Perhaps, if the new coach can make an impact.

 

Can Ham sandwich Westbrook into his team?

The dismissal of Frank Vogel was about the most predictable thing that happened at the end of last season.

Just as you thought the Lakers were pulling out of danger, the wheels would fall off again, which was a recurring theme throughout the campaign, with Vogel unable to maintain any consistency.

His replacement, Darvin Ham, comes highly rated and with a quiet confidence he can step up having impressed as assistant at the Milwaukee Bucks.

One of his first jobs will be to form a unit out of his key players, in particular finding a way to get James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook on the court together as often as possible.

While not perfect, the Lakers did win 11 of their 21 games last season when all three featured, but had losing records when only two, one or none of them played, including defeat all five games where only Westbrook played of the three.

Westbrook actually recorded his worst scoring season since 2009-10, failing to average over 20 points per game for the first time since then (18.5).

His rebound and assist numbers were also well down on those he produced at the Washington Wizards in 2020-21, with average rebounds falling from 11.5 to 7.4, and assists from 11.7 to 7.1.

He was, at least, available though, making 78 appearances, while James played 56 times, and Davis just 40.

 

AD's lack of availability could potentially the biggest issue, as he also only managed 36 outings in 2020-21, meaning he has played less basketball in the last two years than Westbrook did last season.

However, he is – for the time being – fit now, and after the Lakers' opening preseason encounter with the Sacramento Kings on Monday, Ham said of the trio: "They allowed themselves to help one another… we have a three-series that involves all three of them, a half-court play call, and I think they're gonna thrive."

There have been persistent rumours the Lakers will trade Westbrook, but Ham is seemingly working towards life with the 33-year-old, also saying on Monday: "I have a plan for him. That plan included him when they gave me the job."

Keeping them fit is one thing, albeit mostly out of Ham's hands, but if he can find a way of getting the most out of them when they are available to him, and can coax the Wizards form out of Westbrook, that could be the support James so badly needs.

A new face and a familiar one

The consensus was that the Lakers needed fresh blood, rather than relying on older players to rediscover their magic.

So naturally, they brought in 34-year-old Patrick Beverley and re-signed nine-year NBA veteran Dennis Schroder.

In fairness, there does appear to be method in the two acquisitions. Beverley was crucial for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they returned to the playoffs last season, averaging 9.2 points in his 54 games, as well as 4.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 34.3 per cent of his three-pointers.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka also pointed to his "toughness" and "competitive spirit", possibly suggesting Beverley has been signed as much to inspire his team-mates as much as what he can do with the ball in hand.

Schroder was an interesting pick-up given the German shooting guard's struggles in the playoff exit to the Phoenix Suns in 2020-21, before leaving for the Boston Celtics.

Overall though, he had a good record of 15.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.1 steals in 61 games that season, and rumours are that James played a key role in getting him back to LA.

Just make the playoffs and go from there

There are definitely things to work with for Ham, but it is also far from a simple job.

While he was pleased with the showing from his main men against the Kings, he will have been alarmed to see the drop-off once he made changes in the second half.

Leading by five points at half-time, the Lakers went on to lose by 30 at the Crypto.com Arena.

They tip off with the hardest possible job of stopping Stephen Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors on October 18, but an NBA season is a marathon and not a sprint.

The Lakers do not need to be perfect, but Ham has the regular season to find the right formula and as a minimum, reach the playoffs.

Then just see where James can take them in the situation he has so often thrived in, assuming he gets more help this time.

The NHL season is just days away from dropping the first puck, and last year's playoffs planted the seeds for some intriguing storylines to watch.

After back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, the Tampa Bay Lightning were dethroned by a Colorado Avalanche side that looked nearly unbeatable. Both teams return similar casts with small alterations, and it would be no surprise to see these sides as the last two standing when it is all said and done.

Meanwhile, young phenom and arguably the new face of the league, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, showed he is more than a regular season performer as he took his team to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. 

McDavid, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews and the Minnesota Wild's Kirill Kaprizov look set to be leading the charge for the league's most valuable player, and all three are yet to turn 26, indicating this season could be a changing of the guard as the next generation takes over.

Can the Avalanche repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

The Avalanche were just too good in last season's playoffs. They were completely dominant, amassing a 16-4 record without losing consecutive games at any point. 

Their Stanley Cup Finals win against the then-reigning back-to-back champions Tampa Bay included a 7-0 thrashing at home, and two gutsy road wins with goaltender Darcy Kuemper was named player of the game.

It is undeniable that Kuemper was a massive part of the Avalanche's success during his breakout season, but with his rapid ascension came a rapidly rising price tag, and he cashed in with a five-year, $26million free agent deal to the Washington Capitals.

Replacing him is last year's backup Pavel Francouz – who performed admirably in games Kuemper missed – as well as new signing Alexandar Georgiev, who was Igor Shesterkin's backup with the New York Rangers.

With offensive stars Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon returning, as well as elite defenseman Cale Makar, the frightening core of the Avalanche remains intact. 

The third-highest scoring team in the NHL last season (312, behind Toronto's 315 and the Florida Panthers' 340), there is no reason to believe Colorado will not remain in the top echelon of offensive teams.

But ultimately seasons can be decided by the man you trust to protect your net, and the Avalanche will need to be proactive in addressing the issue if Francouz and Georgiev are not up to the task.

Is the Lightning dynasty still alive?

Tampa Bay have now reached three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals series, collecting titles in 2020 and 2021 before falling short against the Avalanche.

As history shows, sustaining that level of success deep into the playoffs in consecutive years is one of the hardest feats, largely due to the fact teams are playing 100-game seasons and absorbing so much extra physical wear-and-tear.

Their seemingly impenetrable defense and future Hall of Fame goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy looked vulnerable in the finals, and they started preseason with a combined losing margin of 14-2 in their first three games.

But this is the Lightning, and they still boast one of the best goalies in the sport, as well as a core of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman still in their prime.

They have earned the benefit of the doubt, and are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

Will this be the year for McDavid and the Oilers?

The best player in hockey and two-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP, McDavid enjoyed his first taste of playoff success as the Oilers won two series before being knocked out by the Avalanche in the Western Conference finals.

Prior to that, McDavid only had one series win in his first six seasons in the league, but he has led the NHL in points now on four occasions and it took an unbelievable 60-goal season from Toronto's Matthews to deny the 25-year-old his third Hart Trophy.

The trio of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl (who won the 2020 Hart Trophy and scored 55 goals last term) and Evander Kane constitute one of the best offensive units in the league, and they had won six of their past seven playoff games before being swept by the Avalanche.

With McDavid, the Oilers have one of the most talented players in the history of the sport who still may have his best hockey ahead of him. After falling just short last season, it would be no surprise to see him carry his team another step further.

Who are the Hart Memorial Trophy contenders?

McDavid will enter the season as the favourite, as alongside fellow 25-year-old and former top overall draft pick Matthews, he figures to reign over the league for the foreseeable future.

If he was on another team, Draisaitl would have to be considered a true contender, having already won the award in 2020, but playing next to McDavid limits the number of votes he can receive.

The Wild's Kaprizov is on an ascending trajectory, having won the 2021 Calder Memorial Trophy for Rookie of the Year before rising to All-Star status this past campaign, and could be a dark horse.

There has only been one goaltender to win the award since 2002 – Carey Price with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015 – but Shesterkin from the Rangers and Vasilevskiy from the Lightning both possess the ability and the star power to enter consideration if their teams put together outlier defensive seasons.

The NBA is back, which means excitement for most fanbases – but anxiety for others.

The new season should ensure a clean slate for everyone, but some situations have been allowed to fester in recent months without the distraction of on-court action.

Now, even with basketball returning, developments around Kevin Durant's future might prove every bit as intriguing to the neutral as anything that happens in the regular season.

And Durant and the Brooklyn Nets are not the only player-team combo in a tricky spot heading into the year...

Everyone at the Lakers

Before considering the wide-ranging implications of Durant's trade request, let's check in on last year's team in crisis.

Plenty of outsiders could have forecast difficulties for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2021-22, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis joined in a 'big three' by Russell Westbrook – at this stage in his career, consistent only in using up a huge number of possessions.

Westbrook had averaged a usage rate above 30 per cent in every season between 2014-15 and 2020-21, with his average over the seven seasons (34.6 per cent) only narrowly trailing James Harden's league-leading 34.7 per cent (minimum 500 possessions). A ball-dominant player on often mediocre teams, Westbrook's winning percentage of 59.2 ranked 109th over this period among those to play 100 or more games. Harden (66.2) was a far more respectable 29th.

Although his usage dipped to 27.5 per cent around better players in LA, Westbrook remained every bit as erratic as expected and, unfortunately for the Lakers, played more than 500 more minutes than any team-mate – comfortably ahead of an ageing James and bulkier Davis.

The three superstars started just 21 games together and even then only scraped a winning record at 11-10.

Having missed the playoffs – and even the play-in – in 11th in the West, the Lakers fired coach Frank Vogel, perhaps optimistically hoping he alone was the problem, and brought back each of James, Davis and Westbrook.

Seemingly determined to further upset a team who won the title just two years ago, the Lakers were also linked with a move for Kyrie Irving before settling instead on Patrick Beverley, who might prove only marginally less disruptive.

Westbrook and Beverley have repeatedly clashed in the past, although the new Lakers signing has described his team-mate as "someone I always wanted to play with", praising his "competitive spirit, that fire, that will, that dog, that nastiness, that grit".

New coach Darvin Ham thinks the pair can work together, but the potential for fireworks is considerable even before taking into account James' own "competitive spirit".

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at the Nets

The 2019 free agency moves for Durant and Irving certainly made the Nets relevant. But they haven't yet made them successful. And right now, Brooklyn might be the most explosive environment in the NBA.

Durant missed their first year together with an Achilles injury sustained playing for the Golden State Warriors, yet the Nets have still only won seven playoff games in the past three postseasons – all seven of those wins coming in a short-lived 2020-21 run.

Last season, as they had been in their first season with Durant and Irving, Brooklyn were swept in the first round. It concluded a miserable campaign that was not about to get better in the offseason.

With Irving unvaccinated and so unable to play in New York City until March, he and Durant started only 17 games together in the regular season. The Nets had started the season with their own 'big three', but Harden – much to his frustration – appeared just twice alongside the star pairing before he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons came in the other direction and did not play once.

Far from a happy camp, when Irving then opted in to the final year of his contract in late June, the Nets were vulnerable to a trade request from Durant, which quickly followed.

However, with four years remaining on his own deal and Brooklyn asking for a huge price in trade talks, it was reported Durant had returned to the Nets and promised to stay if head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks were replaced.

Ultimately, Durant "agreed to move forward with our partnership" – as Marks phrased it – regardless, with Nash saying in September his relationship with the superstar was "good".

"I love the guy," added Nash, who understood Durant being "seething" at the end of the season. "Families have issues. We had a moment, and it's behind us. That's what happens."

In theory – especially if Simmons can return to his two-time All-Defensive First Team best – the Nets could have a great team in 2022-23.

Yet based on how this project has gone so far, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Brooklyn endure another desperately disappointing season and are again left attempting to convince Durant to stay.

James Harden at the 76ers

The 76ers moved one miserable superstar in Simmons for another in Harden, which was only enough to take them as far as the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year.

And en route to that unsatisfactory conclusion, team-mate Joel Embiid was not shy in criticising Harden, repeatedly calling on him to be more aggressive while recognising he is no longer "the Houston James Harden".

It was an understandable complaint; Harden attempted only 13.6 field goals per game for the Sixers in the regular season – little more than half the number of shots he was taking in 2018-19 for the Houston Rockets (24.5), when he scored a career-high 36.1 points per game. He was also only making 40.2 per cent of his field goal attempts in Philly, down on every other season in his career.

So far, it is fair to say this has not worked. Doc Rivers, in a training camp clip published by the NBA, told Harden he and Embiid needed to "listen to each other" and acknowledged the partnership needed work as it was "unnatural".

Echoing some of Embiid's complaints, coach Rivers said: "You can't just say you're a facilitator. I need you to be a scorer and a facilitator."

Rivers for now believes it can still be fixed. "When it clicks, James, we're going to be unbeatable," he told a player who, for his part, agreed to a restructured contract that allowed Philly to bolster their roster in the offseason.

But this team – and certainly Embiid – might argue more help would not be required if Harden played in the manner he is capable.

"We've got to establish Joel and you – it's a pecking order," added Rivers. "This ain't a democracy."

Embiid may not believe this is "the Houston James Harden", but the team and Harden himself seemingly do, with the former Rocket announcing: "If my conditioning can be level with my skill set and my IQ and the work that I put in, it's MVP – and I feel like my conditioning is where it needs to be."

Harden needs to start showing that, or this time his team might tire of him, rather than the other way around.

Jaylen Brown at the Celtics

Little has gone to plan for the Boston Celtics since winning Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Finals, as they lost the next three to the Warriors and then saw preparations for a bounce-back season in 2022-23 rocked by a number of key absences.

Boston will begin the year without new signing Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL playing for Italy, Robert Williams, who has also undergone knee surgery, and, crucially, coach Ime Udoka.

Udoka had turned around his first season as a head coach spectacularly, with the Celtics tied for ninth in the East at the turn of the year after a 17-19 start before leading the conference the rest of the way (34-12) to take the second seed.

But a year-long suspension for Udoka "for violations of team policies" was announced by the team last month.

And even between the ultimately disappointing postseason and repeatedly disrupted preseason, not everything was rosy, with Boston also impacted by the Durant saga.

When Durant looked to be on the move, reports claimed the Celtics had offered the Nets a package that included Jaylen Brown. That trade did not materialise, of course, but it is difficult to imagine Brown was too impressed.

In recent seasons, Brown has been hugely valuable to the Celtics – not least because he is being paid below his value.

Brown is one of only 11 players who has scored at least 1,400 points at an average of at least 23.5 per game in each of the past two seasons. Of the other 10, four have current or future contracts with an average annual value of more than $50m, another four are being paid over $40m per year, and the final two are bringing in a salary in excess of $30m a season.

Brown's deal, which ranks outside the top 50 contracts in the NBA in both total value and average annual value, earns him $26.6m each year.

And the rules around NBA extensions will prevent Brown being paid on par with his contemporaries unless he makes All-NBA in one of the two seasons remaining on his contract.

In theory, that carrot should encourage Brown to enjoy another big season, but at a franchise as fractured as the Celtics have suddenly become, focus could understandably drift instead towards free agency in 2024.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the Thunder

Unlike the other teams on this list, the Oklahoma City Thunder do not have the pressure of needing to win now – but that is part of the problem.

OKC moved on their ageing stars, loaded up on draft picks and put together a young core that includes Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That is all very exciting... or at least it will be.

Rookie Holmgren is down for the year, seemingly making this another season in which the Thunder will lose games and then see what they can do in the draft.

That is no great issue for 20-year-old Holmgren or 19-year-old Giddey, but it does not suit Gilgeous-Alexander, now 24 and entering his fifth year, quite so much – even if he also starts the year injured.

Among the 63 players to score 2,000 or more points across the past two seasons combined, Gilgeous-Alexander ranked 18th for points per game (24.2). He ranked 61st for wins (32).

This is not a case of an average player stat-padding on a bad team; he is simply too good to be in this situation.

And having agreed a five-year extension in August ahead of Holmgren's injury, it appeared Gilgeous-Alexander had unknowingly signed up for more of the same.

He disagrees, insisting: "I know what I signed up for when I signed a five-year extension. I don't think we're going to be losing for much longer. It's not like I signed up to lose."

But lose they will, if they have any sense – and past experience suggests they do.

Without Holmgren, the Thunder are not going to be in any position to seriously compete, which opens up the possibility to pick high in a draft that includes a potentially generational talent in Victor Wembanyama.

At some stage, OKC will be ready, but that is not now, and Gilgeous-Alexander could be forgiven for finding his patience waning.

Gabriel Jesus is setting the standard that is driving Arsenal's early-season charge at the top of the Premier League, and he came up trumps in his first north London derby.

Arsenal's win over Tottenham came in Saturday's early game and was followed by plenty of drama later, as Liverpool were held by Brighton and Hove Albion in a rip-roaring match at Anfield featuring a Leandro Trossard hat-trick.

Newcastle United earned a second win of the season, brushing off Fulham at Craven Cottage, while Graham Potter's Chelsea had substitute Conor Gallagher to thank for their late winner at Crystal Palace.

With goals and drama in abundance, here Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the data.

Arsenal 3-1 Tottenham: Ton up for Kane, but it's Partey time for Arsenal after derby win

Harry Kane became the first Premier League player to reach 100 away goals in the competition, but that was scant consolation for Tottenham after this derby defeat.

Arsenal were able to celebrate a third successive home league win over Spurs – the first time that has happened since 2013 – and they are unbeaten at home in this fixture for 12 games now (W8 D4).

It was a win to savour for Arsenal, with Thomas Partey's opening goal rounding off a 21-pass move, going down as the Gunner's sixth goal since December 26, 2019 to have come from a sequence of 20 or more passes. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have had more in that time. 

Jesus restored the Gunners' lead after Kane's penalty brought Spurs level, with Arsenal's close-season signing from City having managed five goals and three assists already in the Premier League. Only Erling Haaland (12) has had more goal involvements in the early weeks of this season.

It fell to Granit Xhaka to put the seal on the win, after Emerson Royal was sent off. The Arsenal midfielder grabbed his second Premier League goal of the season, with this the first campaign where he has managed more than one league strike since he netted four times in the 2018-19 season.

Liverpool 3-3 Brighton and Hove Albion: Trossard heroics stun Reds

Leandro Trossard became just the third opposing player to score a Premier League hat-trick at Anfield, joining former Coventry City winger Peter Ndlovu and ex-Arsenal forward Andrey Arshavin in that curious club. Arshavin famously hit four in a 4-4 draw in April 2009, the highest-scoring Premier League draw at Liverpool's home ground.

Saturday's feat meant Belgium international Trossard became the first Brighton player to score a Premier League hat-trick, and it left Liverpool four points behind the Seagulls after seven games each, with this game quite the baptism for new boss Roberto De Zerbi.

Liverpool have just two wins from seven games, and they were thankful for Roberto Firmino's sharp finishing as he scored twice, taking his tally for the season to five Premier League goals, all coming at Anfield. He scored five across the 2021-22 season, all away from home.

Mohamed Salah remains stuck on two goals in this campaign but he marked his 200th Premier League appearance with a 50th assist when he set up Firmino to trim Brighton's lead to 2-1 in the first half. Salah becomes just the third African player to reach 50 assists in the competition, after Didier Drogba (55) and Riyad Mahrez (51).

 

Crystal Palace 1-2 Chelsea: Gallagher returns to rock Eagles

Conor Gallagher came off the bench to deliver a 90th-minute knockout blow with Chelsea's winner against the side they loaned him to last season.

It meant Crystal Palace's losing run against Chelsea extended to 10 Premier League matches, and also boosted the Blues' record to nine wins in their last 10 away London derbies against all teams.

New Chelsea boss Graham Potter watched on in his first Premier League game since joining from Brighton, and he saw former Barcelona and Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang mark his league debut for the visitors with a first-half equaliser. Aubameyang also scored in his first game for Arsenal (against Everton in February 2018).

Odsonne Edouard's opener in the seventh minute was the earliest goal Chelsea have conceded in a Premier League away game since January 2021, when Wilfred Ndidi scored for Leicester City in the sixth minute.

Fulham 1-4 Newcastle United: Magpies take flight thanks to Almiron's capital double

Miguel Almiron had been Newcastle's home boy of late, with his last seven Premier League goals coming at St James' Park, so Saturday's double at Craven Cottage bucked a trend.

A fine volley followed by a close-range finish from the Paraguayan helped Newcastle to their joint-biggest victory under Eddie Howe in the Premier League (also 3-0 vs Norwich City in April), and a biggest league win in London since beating Fulham 4-0 in May 2019.

Almiron last scored away from home in the Premier League in another 4-1 win for Newcastle – against Howe's Bournemouth in July 2020.

Fulham were hindered by a red card for Nathaniel Chalobah after seven minutes and 26 seconds, the earliest a player has been sent off for the club in the Premier League since Ian Pearce against Palace in October 2004 (sixth minute).

The final round of Rugby Championship fixtures are upon us and two teams are realistically left standing in the battle to be crowned 2022 champions.

In what has been the most competitive tournament since Argentina joined a decade ago, all four teams have at one point looked good value to finish top.

New Zealand are level with South Africa at the summit, but they have the advantage in terms of the sides' net points difference, which may be used as a deciding factor.

The All Blacks therefore know a bonus-point win over Bledisloe Cup rivals Australia in a repeat of last week's classic will all but land them an eighth title in 10 years.

South Africa play Argentina, the only side entirely out of the running, later on Saturday and will know what they have to do to have a chance – if any – of overtaking New Zealand.

Here, Stats Perform previews the weekend clashes in round six of the championship using Opta data.


NEW ZEALAND v AUSTRALIA

FORM

New Zealand beat Australia 39-37 in last week's thrilling Test in Melbourne through a hugely contentious late try to make it four wins in a row in this fixture – their best such run since winning seven on the bounce between August 2015 and August 2017.

The All Blacks' record on home soil against Australia is even better, having won each of the last 22 Tests in Auckland by an average margin of 18 points per game. The last time Australia got the better of their neighbours in that city was in September 1986.

Australia therefore have a huge task on their hands at Eden Park as they aim to avoid losing three Tests in a row in the Rugby Championship for the first time since September 2013, with this current run following a streak of six wins from their previous seven matches in the competition.

The Wallabies, who need a bonus-point win and would then hope South Africa fail to get the result required against Argentina, will look to exploit any ill-discipline from their rivals. Their goal-kicking accuracy of 92 per cent on place-kicks this year (33/36) is some 11 percentage points higher than any other Tier One nation.

ONES TO WATCH

Will Jordan has made 10 line breaks for New Zealand across 2022, which is the most of any player from a Tier One nation. To put that into some further perspective, it is double the tally of Tom Wright (five), Australia's best performer in that area.

Australia wing Marika Koroibete could hold the key to breaking down the hosts. The 30-year-old has beaten 23 defenders in 2022 – the most of any player from a Tier One nation and two more than New Zealand's best Rieko Ioane.

 

SOUTH AFRICA V ARGENTINA

FORM

Following last week's 36-20 bonus-point triumph in Buenos Aires, South Africa have won their past five Tests against Argentina. However, a win alone may not be enough on Saturday and the Springboks could find themselves going all out for an emphatic victory in pursuit of New Zealand.

The Boks have some much-needed momentum on their side thanks to two wins in a row – matching the number they managed in their previous seven games in the competition – with those victories coming by a margin of exactly 16 points.

Argentina cannot be written off, though, having already defeated New Zealand and Australia during the first half of their championship campaign. Los Pumas have lost back-to-back matches since then, as many as they lost in their six games prior.

Turnovers could be a huge factor in this contest as Argentina and South Africa have won the most of any teams in this year's tournament with 22 apiece, while also making the most and second-most tackles with 706 and 600 respectively.

ONES TO WATCH

Springbok lock Lood de Jager has played a big part for his country this campaign and is second only to Italy's Federico Ruzza for line-outs won among players from Tier One nations in 2022 with 36.

Matias Moroni was among the try scorers for Argentina in last week's loss when finishing off a well-worked set-piece and is among the starters for this latest tussle. He has made dominant contact on seven tackles this year, placing him second only to Italy's Monty Ioane (eight) among elite nations.

Everyone is presumably looking forward to more talk of football "coming home" when the World Cup kicks off in November, with England among the favourites to win the tournament for the first time since 1966.

However, the Three Lions have had a stinker of a Nations League campaign in 2022, having failed to win any of their four games in June.

A 1-0 defeat in Hungary was followed by a draw in Germany thanks to a late Harry Kane penalty, before a dull 0-0 at Molineux against Italy and an abysmal performance in their 4-0 defeat to Hungary at the same venue.

Three months on from that chastening loss in Wolverhampton, manager Gareth Southgate picked his squad for the final two Nations League games against Italy and Germany, and while there was a new face in Brentford striker Ivan Toney, it was otherwise more of the same, with some notable absentees too.

In February, Southgate said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph: "I'm very conscious I've got to get the balance right because ultimately my responsibility is to produce a winning England team.

"I never pick on reputation; form has to come into it. You have to look at the opposition and the type of game you're expecting and select the players best suited to that."

It therefore raised some eyebrows when some players who have subjectively been somewhat out of form in the opening weeks of the season, and who were at the scene of the crime in previous disappointing England results, kept their places ahead of others who have stepped up their game domestically in recent weeks.

Stats Perform has taken a look at some who were perhaps lucky to get another call, and others unfortunate to miss out in the last Three Lions squad before the World Cup.

Who made it?

Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw

It makes sense to pair the two Manchester United defenders, as the reasons why they can consider themselves lucky to keep their international places are essentially the same.

Maguire and Shaw received their fair share of blame for United's poor showings in recent years, and it came to a head in the 4-0 defeat at Brentford in the second game of this season's Premier League campaign, having already lost at home to Brighton and Hove Albion.

New boss Erik ten Hag dropped both after that, and United have won four from four in the league since.

Left-back Shaw has been reduced to occasional substitute appearances after losing his starting spot to young Dutchman Tyrell Malacia, while Maguire has been ousted by France centre-back Raphael Varane.

The only game in the past five Maguire has started was at home to Real Sociedad in the Europa League, which United lost 1-0.

That is not to say the duo are solely responsible for the insipid showings from their team, but it also doesn't feel like purely coincidence Ten Hag's men's results immediately improved without them.

 

Jarrod Bowen

This might be a little harsh as Bowen was being championed by everyone to be included on form last season, which he was, featuring in all four Nations League games in June.

However, having scored 18 goals in 51 games in all competitions last season for West Ham, Bowen has managed just two in 10 this season, both of which have come in the Europa Conference League.

The Hammers have struggled for form this season, sitting in 18th place after seven games, so it would be unfair to blame Bowen, but he also failed to make much of an impact in any of his England appearances.

The door certainly should not be shut on an undoubtedly talented player, but it seems odd to see him back with the national team after a noticeable drop in form at a time when others in his position are excelling.

Jack Grealish

Arguably the player who causes most debate in England, Grealish will always feel too talented to leave out.

Comparisons to Paul Gascoigne seem lazy, but it's hard not to resort to them when you see him at his best, able to turn a game on his own if he finds that spark almost all other players lack.

Grealish had a poor first season at Manchester City, though, recording just 10 goal involvements (six goals, four assists) in 39 games.

He scored and played well in the 3-0 win at Wolves last weekend, but it was his first goal involvement in six appearances this season, and while he is clearly capable of being a key part of Southgate's team on his day, his form arguably does not justify inclusion at the moment.

 

Who missed out?

Ben White

The Arsenal defender is a difficult one to champion, frankly, because it's not clear what position you would be arguing for.

White did not really blow anyone away at centre-back in his first season with the Gunners but has thrived at right-back in Mikel Arteta's system so far this campaign.

If Southgate is to go back to his favoured three-at-the-back formation, White on the right of that would make sense, albeit Kyle Walker probably has the shirt right now.

White is improving all the time, though, and has played a big part in Arsenal winning six of their first seven Premier League games, and his versatility would be a bonus.

James Maddison

Possibly the man most justified in feeling miffed at missing out as, unlike the other three in this list, Maddison is rarely ever seen in an England squad, despite his output at club level.

Although he has been named in squads before, Maddison has just one cap, which came when he played 35 minutes against Montenegro in November 2019.

Like Grealish, Maddison can be seen as enigmatic, but his recent form for Leicester City speaks for itself.

He has been directly involved in 24 Premier League goals since the start of last season (15 goals, nine assists). The only English player with more in this time is Harry Kane (33) having made three more appearances than Maddison (44 to 41).

Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford

As their United team-mates were paired up, it makes sense to do the same here, and because their turn around in form has synced up as the Red Devils have won five of their past six games.

Sancho struggled to make an impact in his first season back in England, with just eight goal involvements (five goals, three assists) in 38 games.

However, this season he already has three goals in eight matches, showing glimpses of his Borussia Dortmund form.

Rashford ended a run of 997 minutes without a goal in all competitions for Manchester United when he scored against Liverpool in August, and netted another two against Arsenal as his scoring touch returned at Old Trafford.

The duo were a part of England's squad that reached the final of Euro 2020, but both also played a part in the penalty shoot-out loss to Italy.

That does not mean they cannot be of use in Qatar, and it would seem foolish of Southgate to ignore players already proven at international level who seem to be peaking at just the right time for a mid-season tournament.

 

Ultimately, as Southgate said, it is his job to build a team he thinks can win games. It is hard to argue with a record that has seen England reach the final four of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020.

He also said "form has to come into it" rather than it being the be all and end all.

Rather than "reputation", perhaps Southgate is just picking players he knows, therefore allowing him full awareness of what he is going to get if he selects them. Heading into a World Cup is not really the time to be introducing unknown quantities.

The likes of White and Maddison will be well within their rights to blame the former Middlesbrough boss for them continuing to be relatively unknown to him, though.

It's not often Real Madrid get painted as the good guys, but Sunday's derby clash with Atletico was one of those few occasions.

As Carlo Ancelotti's Los Blancos left the Civitas Metropolitano with a 2-1 win, there was little doubt that they were the better side on the day.

But, strangely for a fixture of such magnitude, the actual football was sadly almost a sideshow as Spanish football's racism problem reared its head once again.

Through no fault of his own, Vinicius Junior had been the chief focus in the build-up after Pedro Bravo, an agent who appears on Spanish football show El Chiringuito, made a racially insensitive comment while on TV.

Referencing Vinicius' harmless tendency to celebrate goals with a little dance, Bravo suggested the Brazilian should "respect your mates and stop playing the monkey", comments that unsurprisingly drew criticism from all over the football world.

It was heart-warming to see how many people rallied around Vinicius in the wake of Bravo's ridiculous outburst. Many of his international team-mates and Brazil great Pele issued messages of support urging him to dance on.

Vinicius himself made a statement vowing to keep dancing, and Arsenal star Gabriel Jesus dedicated a similar celebration to his colleague earlier on Sunday.

That should have been the end of all the pointless debating about whether the celebration is disrespectful or not (it clearly isn't), but unfortunately it wasn't.

As Atletico 'ultras' queued on their way into the stadium before kick-off, offensive chants targeting Vinicius were being sung by hundreds of fans. Not a few, hundreds, and video footage brought the scenes to attention on social media.

What makes those chants even more disappointing is that few would've been hugely surprised. Atletico ultras have a history of disgracing their club. In 2018, 30 of them were apprehended in Bruges for making Nazi gestures, according to Marca; and as recently as April, they were hit with a partial stadium closure in the Champions League due to similar behaviour from fans against Manchester City.

Ultra group Frente Atletico were banned from the club's old stadium the Vicente Calderon in 2014 after clashes with Deportivo La Coruna fans led to the death of 'Jimmy', a member of the latter's Riazor Blues, who was attacked and thrown into the Manzanares river.

Despite that ban, the group's attitudes were never completely banished, and Sunday's pre-match scenes were a grim reminder of Atletico's failure as a club to stamp out far-right ideologies within its fanbase.

Thankfully, though, Vinicius is a brave young man who wasn't about to suppress his personality and mentality to appease some Neanderthals.

As the pre-game chants foreshadowed, Vinicius' first touch was vociferously jeered by Atletico fans. But the Brazilian amusingly responded with the most extravagant six-yard pass he could think of, dragging the ball back with his right foot before flicking it back down the flank to Ferland Mendy with his left all in one motion. Essentially, it was as close to dancing as he could've got in that moment.

It wasn't long before he was dancing for real, though. Vinicius wasn't even involved in the goal, as Rodrygo produced an emphatic finish from Aurelien Tchouameni's gorgeous pass – the scorer then darted towards the corner flag and began to strut his stuff.

Vinicius was quickly on the scene, gyrating with extra exuberance as Atletico fans threw objects on to the pitch around the celebrating Madrid players, most of whom embraced the former Flamengo talent with greater vigour than they did Rodrygo.

There was no mistaking Vinicius' influence just after the half-hour mark, however. The winger left Marcos Llorente in his dust and darted into the left side of the penalty area before prodding an effort goalwards. It fell kindly to Federico Valverde, who smashed in from close range.

Atletico players dished out rough treatment to Vinicius, perhaps as you might have expected as their biggest attacking threat in the absence of Karim Benzema, though he continued to play his natural game, toying with Llorente on several occasions and even attempting an audacious rainbow flick over Axel Witsel, which certainly angered the home support.

In the end he never quite got the moment of personal jubilation many might've hoped he'd have, with Atletico spending much of the second half on top as they tried to produce a comeback.

But Mario Hermoso's shouldered late goal proved only a consolation as Atletico failed to rise to the occasion, with Madrid holding firm enough to continue the excellent start to their title defence.

The action, and even the result, won't be the post-match focus, however. The vile scenes from earlier in the day will be what this match is remembered for – Atletico's response to that is far more important than how they ultimately react to this defeat.

It's a bit early in the season to call Napoli's trip to Milan a "title clash" given we're only six games in, but for the Partenopei it is clearly an opportunity to make a statement.

Luciano Spalletti, a former Milan coach, has guided Napoli to 14 points from their first six matches, and they sit top of the fledgling table ahead of Atalanta and the Rossoneri on goal difference.

While Milan have already beaten bitter rivals Inter this term, Napoli haven't had the chance for such a signal of intent – at least, not in Serie A.

But neither Spalletti nor Stefano Pioli will be able to rely on their star men in San Siro on Sunday, adding to the unpredictability of a match that promises excitement.

Sorely missed

Rafael Leao and Victor Osimhen will miss this contest due to suspension and injury, respectively. Both absences are bitter blows to not only the teams, but fans tuning in.

Leao has been an especially key figure for Milan over the past year or so. Since the start of last season, he has played in 40 out of a possible 44 matches, with only Alexis Saelemaekers and Sandro Tonali (both 41) appearing more regularly.

Their win percentage with him stands at 70, while they average 2.3 points with Leao on the pitch. Of the four games he has missed, Milan have only won two.

Over the same period, Osimhen has missed 12 league games for Napoli. Their win rate increases from 58.3 per cent to 65.6 per cent when he plays, and their goals average goes up to 2.2 from 1.5 per game. Similarly, he's the only current Napoli player to score 10 or more Serie A goals (16) in that time.

The opportunity is there for others to step up in their absence.

 

At home on the road

As their position at the Serie A summit suggests, Napoli have enjoyed a fine start to the season, and their Champions League demolition of Liverpool made even more people sit up and take note.

Any successful team cannot just rely on a vociferous home support, however, and Napoli have made decent early strides in that regard, amassing seven points from their first three away Serie A games.

If they can avoid defeat on Sunday, they'll be unbeaten after the first four away games in an Italian top-flight season for the third campaign in succession, a feat no team has ever achieved before.

Granted, Milan's recent home form is decent, having won six on the trot in San Siro, which is their best run since 2013 (eight successive wins). But it was Napoli who ended that run, and the Partenopei are also hoping to rack up three consecutive away league victories over Milan for the first time in 43 years.

Party up front, business in the back

Yes, that's not quite how the saying goes, but this altered phrase is more applicable to Napoli. They have been exciting to watch going forward this term, with Osimhen, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Andre-Franck Zambo Aguissa and Piotr Zielinski all catching the eye on the offensive.

But credit where it's due to Spalletti's side when they're not on the attack, as Napoli have been solid defensively.

Stretching back into last season, they have kept six clean sheets in their past nine Serie A games, including three in six this term.

Even when they have conceded, Napoli possess the necessary mentality – and ability – to fight back, with their six points gained from losing positions second only to Milan's seven in 2022-23.

 

Milan unbeaten, Napoli with everything to prove

Milan's title success last season was helped massively by their exceptionally strong end to the campaign.

They finished 2021-22 with six successive wins and went on an undefeated run that stretched back to January 17 when they suffered a shock 2-1 loss at home to Spezia.

Milan have since stretched that unbeaten streak to 22 league games, which is their longest such run since a 27-match undefeated run ended in January 2021.

That form highlights the task that Napoli face on Sunday, though by the same token, being the team to halt such a sequence would surely show Spalletti's team mean business.

With a security detail to rival that of a president, Roger Federer strode along St Mary's Walk and into Court 14, crowds on the concourses urged to clear a path for a man rarely seen in such parts of the All England Club.

This was the king among his people, out in the boondocks by his standards. With a mighty swish of his racket, he might just be able to launch a tennis ball onto Centre Court's roof from down here.

It was day two of the 2015 Wimbledon championships, a warm Tuesday morning, and Federer needed a warm-up before his opening match against Bosnian Damir Dzumhur, a player that later in the day he would trounce for the loss of just seven games. That would of course be a Centre Court assignment. Invariably all of Federer's matches get centre stage.

The tiny Court 14 seats a couple of hundred spectators, maybe a handful more at a push, and whispers had spread to mean many were occupied for what was an unadvertised practice session, a Federer guerrilla gig. The media had been given a little advance notice, and a glimpse of Federer at close quarters is hard to turn down.

There was a hefty hint Federer would be arriving when Stefan Edberg - his coach and childhood idol - showed up several minutes ahead of his charge and began to limber up, while Rob Walker of Wimbledon TV stood patiently with a camera crew and a stack of notes, ready to tell the story of the day Federer played where only mere mortals usually tread.

Suddenly more news crews appeared, a stream of day-trippers strolling past the inconspicuous court became more like a scrum, and out came the camera phones, ball boys and ball girls craning for a view, making sure of a close-up shot. A woman working for IBM grinned ear to ear. And in walked Federer, dressed head to toe in white Nike gear, carrying a couple of Wilson tennis rackets and a cap bearing his RF insignia.

A G4S security man practically bit off his bottom lip while attempting to keep a straight face and simultaneously enforce crowd control as Federer passed by him. Thou shalt not smile.

Applause rang out, fans with cheap-rate ground passes cooed at the sight of the then seven-time champion. Federer acknowledged the swelling crowd.

And for the next half-hour or so he and Edberg gently put in a light session, rallying from the baseline, these great champions going through the motions that on another day might have taken place out of public sight. It amounted to little more than a balm to the ego before lunch.

And this was just another day in the life of Roger Federer, who has now announced his retirement. He has probably forgotten all about it. Some will remember it for the rest of their lives.

 

Edberg takes on a real relevance in the story of Federer's retirement because they spoke together about how to go through the process.

Swedish great Edberg announced his own decision to quit in December 1995, a month before his 30th birthday, and the 1996 season became his farewell tour, feted everywhere he went.

But Edberg struggled with his form in that year of goodbyes and glad-handing, reaching only one final, losing to Boris Becker in the Queen's Club title match, and he ultimately regretted the hoopla that followed him around.

Speaking to The Tennis Podcast in 2020, Edberg explained how he warded Federer off following his example.

"We actually talked a little bit about it and I would not recommend it to anybody actually, even if it's a nice thing to do, because it does put too much pressure on yourself and there would be too many things going on in your mind," Edberg said.

"So if you're going to announce it, I would do it just before my last tournament or have it in my mind, but not for anybody else to know. It's very tough to handle, but at the same time it was a very memorable year, but I would not recommend it."

Federer only worked in tight tandem with Edberg for two years, but he has so much respect and admiration for the man that such advice was sure to have registered.

And now the 20-time grand slam winner is retiring. Let that sink in.

It will take some getting used to, tennis without Federer. Without his ritual beastings of young upstarts on tour, without his perfect manners, quasi-aristocratic foibles, and those multilingual, exquisitely delivered, post-match news conferences. Without Anna Wintour gazing down adoringly from the Royal Box. Without Mirka.

"I wanted to be a tennis player or a soccer player from a very young age," Federer said at Wimbledon some years ago.

Was there a Wimbledon final that tilted him the way of tennis?

"I think the Becker-Edberg final. I don't remember which year because they played a few times. I was sitting at home in the living room, watching them play, thinking hopefully one day I can be like them, you know," Federer said.

Edberg and Becker met in consecutive Wimbledon finals from 1988 to 1990, the Swede winning the first and last of those matches. Theirs was a great rivalry.

"That's I guess where idols and inspirations are good. They push you forward," Federer said. "Then along the way you joke around and say it's coming closer. When you win a practice match, you just fake like you've just won Wimbledon. All of a sudden it's really happening."

 

It was "really happening" for Federer by the late 1990s, as he won the boys' singles at Wimbledon in 1998, beating Georgia's Irakli Labadze, and barely 12 months later he was a top 100 player on the men's tour.

But he was a firebrand too as a teenager, something he was compelled to explain at Wimbledon in 2001, when the 19-year-old Federer became the centre of attention for the first time after defeating Pete Sampras, champion for the previous four years, in the fourth round.

Federer had been a picture of composure in that match and was asked whether he modelled his approach on ice-cool Pistol Pete.

"Not at all actually. I was throwing around my racket like you probably don't imagine," Federer said. "I was getting kicked out of practice sessions non-stop when I was 16. Now since maybe I think this year, I started just to relax a little bit more on court.

"I'm not smashing as many rackets as before. I realised that the racket throwing didn't help my game because I was always getting very negative."

When Federer got his hands on a grand slam trophy for the first time, it was Wimbledon in 2003 and he was lobbed a prescient question by a reporter who asked whether he might one day emulate seven-time champion Sampras at Wimbledon.

"This is one of his seven, you know. I'm so far away," he said. "I'm just happy to be on the board. If I look at all the players who have won here, a lot have been idols to me. Just to be on the board with (Bjorn) Borg and these people, it's just nice to be a part of history at Wimbledon."

Nevertheless, that was the first of five consecutive Wimbledon triumphs for Federer, matching a Borg record. Around such feats are legends created; because of the vicarious pleasure he provided to so many, crowds will forever flock around Federer, whether on Centre Court, Court 14 or his local food court.

As Federer's slam stack grew, and he nudged nearer Sampras' hauls of seven Wimbledon titles and 14 majors, the American great made his Swiss successor a promise: he would be there when those records began to fall.

When Federer fended off Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set of the 2009 Wimbledon final to go to 15 slams, Sampras indeed was there, albeit he arrived late.

"It was a bit special," Federer said. "When he walked in and I saw him for the first time, I did get more nervous actually. I said hello to him, too, which is unusual. But I thought, I don't want to be rude."

And in 2017, nudging 36, Federer triumphed at Wimbledon for an eighth and final time, beating an injury hampered Marin Cilic.

"Winning eight is not something you can ever aim for, in my opinion," he said afterwards. "If you do, you must have so much talent and parents and the coaches that push you from the age of three on, who think you're like a project," he said. "I was not that kid. I was just really a normal guy growing up in Basel, hoping to make a career on the tennis tour."

At the beginning of 2018, he added a sixth Australian Open title to reach 20 slam crowns, a figure beyond the wildest dream of anyone in men's tennis before the Big Three showed up.

 

The argument rages on about who has been the greatest men's tennis star of all-time, and whether it should be Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal from this era who is the prime contender for such a nebulous crown.

Federer has a losing head-to-head against both his younger rivals, there is no escaping that fact. He trails Nadal 24-16 and Djokovic 27-23. Both have been whittling away at his records, taking their fair share. Yet Federer still has the most Open Era match wins among men at Wimbledon (105) and the Australian Open (102), the most wins in slams overall by a man (369), and the most grass-court singles titles in ATP tour history (19).

He won 103 tournaments, second only to Jimmy Connors (109). He underwent knee surgery twice in 2020 and returned to seek more silverware, because he believed he could still win, even as his 40th birthday approached.

Federer is the man who recalibrated the levels that players can reach in men's tennis, the game-changing figurehead that Nadal and Djokovic have been chasing from the outset of their own magnificent careers.

Without Federer to aim for, perhaps Nadal and Djokovic would not have scaled such great heights.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...

What is certain is that the Federer era is ending. And that's the thing about eras, they always end. Sometimes, you've just got to be grateful to have lived through them. Roger that?

Remco Evenepoel rubber-stamped his Vuelta a Espana title on Sunday, safely negotiating the procession into Madrid.

The 22-year-old joins an illustrious list of names from his native Belgium to have won a Grand Tour, albeit his triumph in Spain marks the end of a long drought for the nation.

Evenepoel's success, however, came at the expense of Primoz Roglic's shot at history.

Roglic was hunting an unprecedented fourth straight Vuelta title, and looked set to overtake Evenepoel in the general classification in stage 16, only to suffer a crash 100 metres from the line.

The Slovenian was unable to carry on due to the injuries he sustained and abandoned La Vuelta for the first time in his career. Roglic has had awful luck in recent Grand Tours, having had to abandon three of the last four he has appeared in.

There were 49 withdrawals across this edition of La Vuelta, the highest number since 2013.

But of the riders that did finish, there were plenty of records and statistics to dive into, courtesy of Opta data.

Belgium's long wait is over

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen shrugged off the jeers and boos he received after triumphing at The son of former pro cyclist Patrick Evenepoel, a young Remco actually started his sporting career in football, with one of his old clubs – Dutch giants PSV – among those to offer their congratulations as he became Vuelta champion.

It marks Evenepoel's first Grand Tour crown, in what was his first appearance at La Vuelta. He led the race for a remarkable 16 stages, which is more than any other rider has led it for since two-time champion Chris Froome managed 19 stages in red back in 2017.

Belgium has produced some fantastic riders, not least the great Eddy Merckx, who counts one Vuelta crown among his 11 Grand Tour titles, yet shockingly Evenepoel is the nation's first GT champion since 1978, when Johan de Muynck won the Giro d'Italia.

Evenepoel is the eighth Belgian to win the Vuelta – the first since Freddy Maertens in 1977. Only Spain (32) and France (nine) have produced more Vuelta champions than Belgium (eight).

Out with the old...

Alejandro Valverde won La Vuelta in 2009, but on his farewell appearance at his home Grand Tour, the 42-year-old was never going to compete for top honours.

Instead, this was his goodbye lap, as Valverde completed his 14th Vuelta, matching the record tallies of Federico Etxabe, Chente Garcia Acosta and Inigo Cuesta.

Spain did have a GC contender to cheer on in the form of Movistar's Enric Mas, but after Roglic's crash, he was unable to close the gap on Evenepoel, finishing over two minutes back. No Spaniard has now won it since 2014, which is the longest streak in the race's history without a home champion.

 

Mas has finished second in three of his four Vuelta appearances, and came in ahead of Juan Ayuso, with two Spanish riders finishing in the top three for the first time since 2014, when Valverde joined champion Alberto Contador on the podium.

Ayuso, who contracted COVID-19 early in the race but carried on, is the youngest rider to achieve a podium finish at La Vuelta (19 years and 360 days). Spain's future seems in good hands.

Carapaz caps personal best, Pedersen a rising star

The red jersey was, of course, not the only one up for grabs. Richard Carapaz and Mads Pedersen both finished with three stage victories to their name.

Carapaz became the first cyclist from the Americas to win the mountain classification since Felix Cardenas of Colombia in 2004, while the INEOS Grenadier rider also marked his best effort at a Grand Tour, surpassing the two stage wins he managed at the 2019 Giro d'Italia.

Vuelta debutant Pedersen, meanwhile, became the first Dane to win the points jersey in any Grand Tour.

It has been a brilliant year for Denmark, with Jonas Vingegaard having claimed the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, and Pedersen is among their best riders. Indeed, the only Dane to have won more stages at La Vuelta than the sprinter is Magnus Cort (six), though the latter has made three appearances in the race.

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