After three long years, the wait for another Ryder Cup ends this week as the United States and Europe take to the fairways and greens of Whistling Straits. 

Europe are the holders but the USA start as favourites for many observers, with home advantage and a formidable-looking team. 

There will be shocks along the way and there will be some expected stars of the show who end up taking a back seat as unlikely heroes emerge. 

Captains Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington will have their own ideas of who might be best placed to make a telling impression. 

Here, Stats Perform looks at four players who could make a huge impact across the weekend in Wisconsin. 

UNITED STATES: Super Spieth ready to show his teeth

Jordan Spieth has been a resurgent force this year, finishing second at the Open Championship and in a tie for third at the Masters, while at the other two majors he finished a respectable 19th and 30th. 

The American also ended a four-year wait for a victory on the PGA Tour with a sweet win in his home state at the Texas Open in April and is primed to cap a fine year with a strong Ryder Cup. 

Spieth has mentioned in the build-up that he loves the course set-up at Whistling Straits, which he feels provides scoring opportunities on almost every hole. 

The 28-year-old also referenced his previous Ryder Cup success. He has collected eight points from a possible 11 in fourballs/foursomes, a 73 per cent scoring rate. Only Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have a better ratio among USA players in the team format. 

UNITED STATES: Nice guy Finau just the man for Stricker's superstars

American teams in the past have been accused of…well…not exactly getting along. Having the ultimate good guy in the team is sure to boost morale and Tony Finau certainly fits that mould. 

But make no mistake, Finau is a guy with real pedigree – even if sometimes he hasn't quite been able to convert that into wins (his triumph at the Northern Trust last month was only his second PGA Tour title and first in five years). 

On his Ryder Cup debut, he was one of few bright notes for Team USA, with Finau winning two of his three matches – including a singles win over the otherwise unflappable Tommy Fleetwood, setting the second-best points ratio (66.7 per cent) in the American team after Justin Thomas (80 per cent, four points out of a possible five). 

Moreover, at the 2015 US PGA Championship, Finau finished 10th having shot four sub-par rounds at Whistling Straits. Finau is the sort of character who can really flourish at a Ryder Cup, particularly with home support behind him. 

 

EUROPE: Europe eye trophy Rahm raid

Jon Rahm is the man for the big occasion. He is the only player to have secured a top-10 finish at all four majors this year, while he is also Europe's most recent victor at one of the leading events, having won the U.S. Open. 

The world number one's Ryder Cup debut did not go entirely to plan in 2018, as he won only one of his three matches, but that triumph was in a singles match-up with Tiger Woods – only Tiger's second loss in the format. 

Now established at the forefront of the sport, Rahm will expect to be the man to lead Europe to glory with an improved all-round showing, justifying his status as the bookmakers' favourite to be the leading points scorer at Whistling Straits. 

EUROPE: Viktor sounds like a winner

Belgium's Thomas Pieters was the top points scorer five years ago at Hazeltine, scoring four points but ending on the losing side. With Norway's Viktor Hovland relishing his debut on the team, could there be another surprise leader on the points board? 

Hovland played college golf for Oklahoma State and has been a familiar figure on the PGA Tour, so playing in America is second nature. He was low amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open in 2019, won the U.S. Amateur, and has come of age since, jumping to a career-high world ranking of number 10 in August. 

Eight top-10 finishes and just one missed cut since the turn of the year show what he brings, and that level of consistent play is bound to appeal to captain Harrington. 

"I'd like to think I have some fans out there that maybe won't necessarily boo against us," Hovland said this week. "But if they do end up doing that, that's what they're going to do. We're still going to play golf, and if they do end up doing that, that means we're doing something good." 

For so long, Juventus dominated Serie A and Milan. 

Juve won nine successive Scudetti before being dethroned by Inter last season. Gianluigi Buffon was involved in eight of them. 

But it's a period of change in Turin, where Wojciech Szczesny is well and truly under the microscope after an error-riddled start to the 2021-22 season. 

As Juve struggle defensively, form could hardly be more contrasting heading into Sunday's blockbuster showdown in the northwest of Italy. 

Milan have continued to be a solid defensive outfit, winning their opening three league fixtures, and the resurgent Rossoneri could strike an early dagger to the heart of the Old Lady.

 

Woeful Woj as Allegri tries to avoid unwanted record 

"I think Juventus will regret not signing Donnarumma for a long time." 

That was Mino Raiola – the agent of Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma – speaking to Rai Sport on Friday. Based on what has transpired so far, he is right. 

The star Italy goalkeeper had been tipped to swap Milan for Juve in the off-season before moving to the French capital on a free transfer. Juve must be shaking their heads after watching Szczesny's torrid start to the season under Massimiliano Allegri. 

Allegri has had his hands full since returning to Allianz Stadium after two seasons away, replacing Andrea Pirlo. The title-winning boss is trying to navigate the exit of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. If the departure of the almost-irreplaceable Ronaldo was not hard enough, Szczesny has made life even more difficult. 

The former Arsenal keeper has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, his two howlers against Udinese and Napoli the catalyst for Juve's winless start to the campaign. 

The Bianconeri could go without a victory in their first four Serie A seasonal matches for the fourth time in their history, after 1961-62, 1955-56 and 1942-43. In those campaigns, Juve did not go on to win the title. They have never lost three of the first four Serie A games in a season. 

They have conceded five goals in three matches and are yet to keep a clean sheet domestically, shipping goals in each of their past 17 league games – only twice have Juve conceded in more consecutive Serie A fixtures (19 in 2010 and 21 in 1955). That 17-game run is the worst of its kind across the top-five European leagues since March. 

 

Szczesny's numbers do not make for pretty reading.

Since 2018-19, the Poland international has conceded 90 goals in 90 Serie A appearances with expected goals against (xGA) of 99.88, suggesting he should have let in nearly 10 goals more. For some comparison, Buffon's xGA-goals conceded difference – goals he prevented, in other words –was 2.62 from 17 matches, so Szczesny holds his own there.

The numbers do not get much better, though. A maligned figure from his days at Arsenal, Szczesny has shipped 99 goals in 107 Serie A games for Juve. Since 1994-95, his average of 0.93 goals conceded is worse than ex-Juve goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar (0.70 from 46 goals conceded in 66 games), Buffon (0.76 from 373 conceded in 489 matches), Michelangelo Rampulla (0.85 from 33 conceded in 39 fixtures) and Angelo Peruzzi (0.85 from 120 conceded in 141 appearances).

Szczesny – with a save percentage of 72 and an average of 2.49 stops per 90 minutes – has committed three errors leading to goals during his time with Juve in Serie A. Since 2004-05, only Buffon managed more (13), albeit in 391 games.

This season, Szczesny's expected goals against is 5.86 through three matches. Milan counterpart Mike Maignan's figure stands at 2.33.

When Milan refused to meet Donnarumma's demands, they wasted little time turning to Maignan, who had just led Lille to a shock Ligue 1 title after upstaging PSG.

Maignan has been a steady presence in Milan with a joint-league-high two clean sheets, while the France international tops the list in save percentage (90), well ahead of Szczesny (66.67).

 

Kjaer spearheading Milan back to summit

While Juve duo Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt lick their wounds, Simon Kjaer and Fikayo Tomori continue to flex their muscles at San Siro.

In the era of three points per win, Milan have won each of their first four Serie A seasonal games only twice: in 1995-96 under Fabio Capello and last season with Stefano Pioli at the helm. The Rossoneri won the title in 1996, while they finished second to Inter in 2020-21.

High-flying Milan are on the cusp of matching that feat thanks to the help of Kjaer and Tomori and perhaps even more than that as the resurgent powerhouse dream of a first Scudetto since 2011.

Kjaer and Tomori have formed an unlikely but rock-solid partnership at the heart of Milan's defence. Pioli's side have only conceded one goal to start the Serie A season. Since last May, Milan have the most clean sheets in the big five European leagues (seven in eight matches).

The pair's form has left captain Alessio Romagnoli sidelined and considering his future – not something you would have anticipated when Kjaer arrived following a brief spell at Atalanta, initially on loan in 2020.

Kjaer has come into his own in Milan, establishing himself as a key member on and off the pitch under Pioli, tallying 178 clearances in the league since January 2020 – a number only behind Torino's Bremer (219), Omar Colley of Sampdoria (214), Fiorentina star Nikola Milenkovic (205), ex-Viola centre-back German Pezzella (191) and Lazio's Francesco Acerbi (190) among defenders.

 

The 32-year-old Denmark international has also provided security in the air, with his 93 headed clearances the fourth most among defenders since January 2020, after Milenkovic (122), Bremer (119) and Colley (103).

"It happens a lot with defenders that they kind of find their own style later on. That has happened with Simon," former Denmark international Jesper Olsen told Stats Perform.

"You're playing at a top team and expected to do really well. We know your last game played doesn't count anymore, it's the next one. He just seems very settled."

Tomori, who completed a permanent switch from Champions League holders Chelsea in July after impressing on loan, scored the last time these two teams met – a 3-0 victory in Turin in May.

Milan have won two of their most recent three Serie A matches against Juventus, as many as in their previous 17 (D1 L14).

Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez had the biggest moments of their careers – their lives, surely – coming up in a matter of moments, but both of the teenage sensations seemed calm and collected as they fulfilled some final media duties prior to heading out onto court at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"I can't wait to get stuck in," said Raducanu, the first qualifier in history to reach a grand slam final. "I think we're just going to go out there and have fun," said Fernandez, vanquisher of US Open champions past over the course of the last two weeks.

Those questions were preceded by a commemoration of an event that occurred in New York 20 years ago to the day, the players waiting in the tunnel as tributes were paid to the lives lost on September 11, 2001, when the towers fell and the world changed.

Neither Fernandez nor Raducanu were born. Indeed, the latter does not turn 19 until November, and her opponent celebrated her 19th on Monday, a day before beating Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals.

Whether down to youthful exuberance, or the fearlessness that inexperience can bring, both players – who last met in the second round of the juniors at Wimbledon in 2018 – lived up to their promises in the pre-match interviews, to the benefit of an audience that can only have been glued to whatever screen they watched on, not to mention the 23,000-strong crowd in attendance at Flushing Meadows.

It was a final that could have gone either way, yet ultimately in the moments it really mattered most, it was Raducanu who came out on top, a 6-4 6-3 victory sealing one of the most unlikely successes of all time.

The tone was set immediately in the first women's slam final between two unseeded players. Raducanu applying pressure and breaking serve to edge ahead.

But Fernandez has had to battle back against the odds throughout her incredible run, beating defending champion Naomi Osaka, former world number one Angelique Kerber and current number two Aryna Sabalenka. The scores were level two games later.

Raducanu had not dropped a set throughout her run, but at 30-0 down in the fifth game, it appeared to be swinging in Fernandez's favour. Four straight points from the Briton ensured that was not the case.

Special tennis was on show. Quality, control and poise worthy of players way beyond their years. After an hour, something had to give, and it was Raducanu who, at the fourth time of asking, broke serve to seal the set.

What did Fernandez have left? Was this the beginning of the end for the youngest player to beat more than one top-five opponent at the same slam since Serena Williams saw off Monica Seles, Lindsay Devenport and Martina Hingis in 1999?

Yet Raducanu found herself 2-1 and a break down three games into set two.

Fernandez could not capitalise and Raducanu returned from an 82 mile-an-hour serve to get back on the front foot. An exquisite forehand winner saw her break for 4-2.

Raducanu's Wimbledon came to an end in tears at the fourth-round stage. When she moved to within a game of grand slam immortality, there was hardly a flicker of emotion.

Fernandez said she was out to have fun, though, and a smile was back on her face as two championship points went begging for Raducanu, who then skidded across the baseline, cutting open her knee in the process.

A medical time out was required and Fernandez's joy turned to frustration. It might have been crucial, Raducanu saving two break points before an outstanding ace secured her place in history.

Ten matches, no sets dropped – Williams was the last player, in 2014, to win the US Open without dropping a set. Raducanu is also now the first woman to win a title so early in her slam career, in just her second major appearance. 

Nine years and one day since Andy Murray won his first major on the same court, a new British hero emerged.

Virginia Wade, the last British woman to reach the Flushing Meadows final in the Open Era and the 1968 champion, watched on as the iconic Billie Jean King handed the trophy over to a superstar in the making.

Big names were absent from Flushing Meadows this year, but Raducanu and Fernandez served up a final, and a result, for the ages.

Kylian Mbappe remained at Paris Saint-Germain beyond the end of the transfer window, but his long-term future may not lie in the French capital.

The World Cup winner is a free agent at the end of the season and is reportedly ready to move.

Real Madrid, who bid for Mbappe at the start of this campaign, appear his most likely destination, but far less predictable is his potential replacement at PSG.

The Ligue 1 giants have months to plan their next move, so Stats Perform breaks down the possible options to fill Mbappe's big boots.

 

ERLING HAALAND

Borussia Dortmund remained firm in their stance of keeping hold of Haaland in the most recent transfer window, despite some heavyweight clubs reportedly showing an interest as deadline day approached. That interest will only increase in 2022 as the Norwegian has a widely reported €75million release clause that comes into effect at the end of the season. 

Landing Haaland would mean PSG replacing one of the world's best young goal-getters with another player of equivalent standing, the 21-year-old having scored 63 goals in 64 games since his Dortmund debut in January 2020, compared to 54 in 66 matches for Mbappe in all competitions.

HARRY KANE

Following Manchester City's failed pursuit of his signature, Kane announced towards the end of the transfer window he was staying put at Tottenham. City's loss – assuming they are not prepared to go back in for the England captain, as Pep Guardiola recently hinted at – could be PSG's gain.

A reunion with his former Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino in Paris would appear to make a lot of sense, if PSG could stump up the huge fee that Tottenham would still insist upon next year. Having finished as Premier League top scorer in three separate campaigns – one of only three players to do so along with Thierry Henry (four times) and Alan Shearer – he will feel he deserves his move to an elite club that can challenge for major honours.

 

LAUTARO MARTINEZ

Lionel Messi and Pochettino will know all about the qualities of their fellow Argentinian, who has shone brighter by the season for Inter over the past three years. At the age of 24 and having been linked with the likes of Barcelona, Tottenham and Man City, Martinez is reportedly on the brink of signing a new deal with the reigning Serie A champions, which could make PSG's life a lot more difficult when it comes to any negotiations.

Whether he is quite of the level to take the place of Mbappe is debatable, and this year should prove telling, with Martinez facing a greater onus to score heavily after Romelu Lukaku's departure from Inter. He has one goal in one appearance this term, a goal-per-game return he will be looking to maintain over the course of 2021-22.

ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI

While the likes of Messi, Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann all changed clubs during the transfer window, Lewandowski stayed put at Bayern Munich despite suggestions he was seeking a new challenge elsewhere. With Bayern under no pressure to sell, and the prolific striker having two seasons to run on his contract, a move away this year never seemed a realistic prospect.

But it will be a different matter in nine months' time and PSG could do a lot worse than go all out for the Poland international, even if he is now 33 years of age. Having last term scored 41 times in the Bundesliga – breaking Gerd Muller's single-season record – Lewandowski has maintained his lofty standards in the opening weeks of the new campaign with 10 goals in his first six matches for club and country, going a long way to strengthening his argument of being the best out-and-out striker around.

MOHAMED SALAH

Salah is in an identical position to Lewandowski insofar as the Egypt forward will be about to enter the final 12 months of his contract come the end of the campaign. After previously flirting with LaLiga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, PSG have their work cut out persuading Salah to make the move to Ligue 1 instead.

Should they manage that, though, they will have one of Europe's top attacking talents from the past four years. Indeed, since joining Liverpool from Roma ahead of the 2017-18 season, the 29-year-old's tally of 97 goals has been bettered by only four players in Europe's top five leagues: Ciro Immobile (104), Ronaldo (107), Messi (125) and Lewandowski (131).

 

DUSAN VLAHOVIC

The 21-year-old Serbian came of age in Serie A in the 2020-21 campaign, scoring 21 of Fiorentina's 47 goals to finish fourth in the league's scoring charts and earn the division's Under-23 MVP award.

While not quite in the same category as some of the others on this list, Vlahovic may well be the hottest property around come next June as he already has three goals in three appearances for his club in all competitions this term. 

RICHARLISON

Neymar's Brazil strike partner is another who has been touted for a move to Paris since Madrid launched their Mbappe offensive last month. Everton made clear that they were not interested in selling Richarlison in August, but that may change should PSG be prepared to spend big once again.

Now into his fourth season at Goodison Park, Richarlison has yet to score more than 15 Premier League goals in a campaign for the Toffees, but at the age of 24, he has gained huge experience and was a key member of Brazil's recent Olympic gold medal-winning squad in Tokyo. 

The first international break of the 2021-22 campaign has arrived, and with it comes an opportunity for many national teams to start afresh.

Following the conclusion of the Copa America, Gold Cup and Euro 2020 in quick succession, all roads now lead to the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

For a number of players, the September qualifiers provide an opportunity to make an impression, while for others it is potentially a first taste of international football. 

With the games coming thick and fast over the next week or so, Stats Perform has looked at those in contention to make their senior international debuts.

Albert Sambi Lokonga (Belgium)

Belgium's golden generation of talent missed another opportunity to turn promise into something more tangible when losing to eventual winners Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals.

Roberto Martinez has decided against wholesale changes after that disappointment, with Lokonga the only outfield player in line for his first cap, having failed to get further than the bench – against Greece in June – after previous call-ups.

A product of the same Anderlecht youth system that oversaw the development of Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker, among others, Lokonga sealed a move to Arsenal in July after impressing in the Belgian top flight.

The £15million signing has not had the best of starts to life at Arsenal, the Gunners finding themselves bottom of the English top-flight table having played at least three league matches for the first time since October 1974.

Lokonga, noted for his ability to play in front of the defence, featured in just two of those games yet still trails Granit Xhaka alone in terms of passes (113 to 139) and successful passes (97 to 118) and is behind only Sead Kolasinac for interceptions.

 

Claudinho (Brazil)

Citing concerns over the availability of his European-based contingent due to clubs being reluctant to release players to red-list countries, Tite has named a bloated Brazil squad for this month's triple-header of World Cup qualifiers.

Those complications appear set to deny Raphinha a debut, having impressed during his first year in the Premier League with Leeds United. 

Raphinha ranks seventh in the division for dribbles attempted since the start of last season (142), completing 42.96 per cent of those. He also ranks in the top 10 for chances created over that period with 68.

But Claudinho remains in line to be capped for the first time, called up after helping his country secure Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

The midfielder, whose signing at Zenit was announced not long after the Olympic tournament had concluded, described his call-up as "a dream come true".

Theo Hernandez and Moussa Diaby (France)

It is out with the old and in with the new as far as France's first post-Euros squad is concerned – to an extent, at least, with Olivier Giroud one of nine players to make way from the previous group named by Didier Deschamps.

Injuries have also played a part in that, potentially giving a quartet of uncapped players the chance to impress in the upcoming qualifiers with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine and Finland.

Hernandez, a more natural left-back option than brother Lucas, will feel his first call-up is long overdue following back-to-back campaigns as a regular for Milan, whom he joined from Real Madrid. 

Since making his Rossoneri bow in September 2019, no defender in Serie A has completed more dribbles than Hernandez (133), while only Federico Dimarco (87) and Juan Cuadrado (107) have created more chances than his 86.

Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and Roma's Jordan Veretout may also feature during this international break, but perhaps the most exciting of the new additions is Bayer Leverkusen winger Diaby.

The Paris Saint-Germain product scored twice and assisted another in Leverkusen's opening two Bundesliga games of 2021-22, while Alphonso Davies is the only player in the division to have attempted more dribbles this term (24 to his 22).

Known for his blistering pace and ability to take on opponents, Diaby could well provide Deschamps with a different option in an attack already packed full of talent.

 

Otavio (Portugal)

Three new players have been called up by Fernando Santos, who is looking to the future after his Portugal side's reign as European champions came to an end in July.

Goncalo Inacio is injured, but Diogo Costa and Otavio could each make their senior debuts during this international window, with the latter the name on many lips right now.

Otavio has tallied 11 goal involvementss in each of the past two Primeira Liga campaigns for Porto and has made a fast start to the new season with two assists in his first four games.

Since the start of last season, only team-mate Mehdi Taremi has provided more assists (12) in the Portuguese top flight than Otavio's 10, coming from 51 chances created.

The Brazilian-born attacking midfielder was granted Portuguese citizenship earlier this year and will be eager to show that Brazil's loss is very much Portugal's gain should he get some minutes over the next week.

Ricardo Pepi (United States)

The dual-national drama surrounding Pepi appears to have reached a resolution as the FC Dallas forward has seemingly pledged his allegiance to the United States over Mexico.

After breaking into the Dallas side two years ago and featuring regularly last year, 2021 has been quite the season for the El Paso-born youngster.

Pepi, who does not turn 19 until next January, has 11 goals and two assists in 21 games this term and scored the decisive kick in last week's penalty shoot-out win for MLS against their Liga MX counterparts in the All-Star Game.

He has 13 MLS goals in total, the fourth-most ever by a teenager – ahead of Freddy Adu – and just nine short of the record held by Diego Fagundez.

On the basis of the past four months in particular, the USMNT could have a potentially world-class player to lead their line for a number of years to come.

 

Karim Adeyemi (Germany)

For the first time in 17 years, Germany will play a match without Joachim Low in their dugout either as assistant or head coach when they face Liechtenstein on Thursday.

Hansi Flick is tasked with ushering in a new generation of German talents, with help from the old guard, many of whom were key to his successful spell at Bayern Munich.

Away from regulars such as Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Manuel Neuer, Flick has included four uncapped players in his first squad – David Raum, Nico Schlotterbeck, Florian Wirtz and Adeyemi.

A technically gifted and supremely fast winger, Adeyemi has long been considered one of Germany's most promising young players, having cost Salzburg a reported €3m when he was 16.

Adeyemi, who left Bayern six years earlier, has been given the chance to spread his wings with Salzburg and has been strongly linked with Red Bull sister club RB Leipzig.

He already has six goals in six Austrian Bundesliga appearances this term, just one less than he managed in 29 top-flight appearances last time out – a return he will be looking to build on if he is given the nod by Flick.

Justin Bijlow (Netherlands)

The Netherlands are another European heavyweight going through a transitional period of sorts after turning to veteran coach Louis van Gaal for a third stint in charge.

Frank de Boer failed to get the most out of this talented Dutch squad and already Van Gaal has put his own mark on the team by calling up a few newbies.

There will be plenty of focus on the goalkeeping position as, with Jasper Cillessen not fully fit and Maarten Stekelenburg recently retiring, Joel Drommel and Bijlow can stake a claim to be the long-term number one.

Bijlow is considered one of the finest young goalkeepers in Europe and already has 45 Eredivisie games under his belt for Feyenoord, where he is a real fan favourite.

The 23-year-old has kept 15 clean sheets across those appearances and boasts a save percentage of 72.16. Van Gaal can seemingly rely on the young stopper, as he has made just one error leading to a goal.

Crack open the bubbly. In France's City of Kings, at the heart of the Champagne region, Lionel Messi made his Paris Saint-Germain entrance as footballing royalty arrived in the 'farmers' league'.

There's a new king in town and although we saw only half an hour of Messi at Reims' Stade Auguste-Delaune, you could hardly take your eye off the man.

Incongruous in the blue of PSG as he was, this is Messi's lot now, the future he has chosen since his Barcelona career ended in a flood of tears.

Ligue 1 gets a rough rap but Messi's arrival instantly makes it box office, and those beholding this spectacle were given a peak into what we should expect.

There was a word in the ear from Mauricio Pochettino and then a hug for Neymar, as Messi replaced the world's most expensive footballer midway through the second half, moments after Kylian Mbappe scored his and PSG's second goal of what turned out to be a 2-0 win.

There was to be no Messi goal, as much as it appeared many inside the stadium were willing there to be one, particularly the pogoing PSG ultras.

His entrance and then his first touch, a simple 10-yard pass deep inside his own half, were cheered loudly, and it was not long before Messi was collecting the ball and charging forward, driving at pace through midfield and darting towards the penalty area.

Such a familiar sight, and here Messi had the luxury of being able to offload to Mbappe on the right. Mbappe, the player Real Madrid desperately want and might yet get before transfer window closes.

Then came notice from the union of Ligue 1 hardmen that Messi would not have it easy in France.

As Mbappe collected the pass, Messi was given the no-nonsense treatment twice by backtracking Reims players as he sought the return ball, Marshall Munetsi practically grabbing the six-time Ballon d'Or winner around the collar in a fruitless effort to halt his progress.

Mbappe could not quite pick the pass, with Messi surrounded, but it was a moment where you wondered what a rich harvest of goals that combination might produce, and whether we might see its potential come to fruition this season.

 

Munetsi hacked down Messi again later as the game reached stoppage time. Naturally, Messi has seen it all before. It was handshakes all round at the end.

It might be a different shirt, but this was the same old Messi. There was the thrill of one of those delicious give-and-go movements, and referee Francois Letexier played six minutes of stoppage time too. Why not see a little more?

Deep beneath the streets of Reims lie 200 kilometres of cellars and tunnels housing the finest bottles of bubbles, produced in these parts and maturing underground before being dispatched worldwide.

It pays to be patient, the subterranean conditions bringing the best out of the local delicacy before it reaches its fullest flavour. Bring a bottle out too soon and the product will fall short of the exacting standards 

Messi's 65 minutes on the bench allowed him to size up the pace of the French game at close quarters, and then he was ripe to be released. The cork is out of the bottle now though, and the thrill of Messi at provincial stadiums such as this is one fans will drink in for as long as this stop-off lasts.

He was fouled three times in all, a joint team high alongside Neymar, had 26 touches, and made 95.2 per cent of his passes (20 of 21). He won four of his five duels – those within the laws of the game – and no doubt delighted Pochettino and his Qatari paymasters.

PSG brought their imported grandes marques to a city that exports its homegrown fizzy finery, where the cathedral has witnessed 31 coronations, and they won with goals from a young player they might be dispatching to foreign climes within a matter of hours in return for a king's ransom.

Perhaps Mbappe might just fancy a full season of this, though. Will his partnership with Messi really be a one-night stand?

As jarring as watching this all unfold must have felt in Barcelona, as bitter an aftertaste as it must have left, all it lacked for the Parisians was the crowning glory of a Messi goal, and they will soon be flowing.

Novak Djokovic is a strong favourite to become only the third man to complete a calendar Grand Slam and make history at the US Open.

Djokovic has won all three majors this year and can complete a 2021 clean sweep at Flushing Meadows.

The irrepressible world number one would also go beyond Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – both absent due to injury – with 21 grand slam singles titles if he triumphs in New York.

There will be no elusive record-equalling 24th major singles crown for Serena Williams, who has not recovered from the hamstring injury she suffered at Wimbledon.

With Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka the leading contenders to take the women's singles title, Stats Perform use Opta data to preview the final grand slam of the year.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES FOR DOMINANT DJOKOVIC

Djokovic was thrown out of the US Open last year after accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball.

The 34-year-old arrived in New York in far better spirits than when he left last September, having taken on all comers this year.

Djokovic missed out on a Golden Slam when he failed to win Olympic gold in Tokyo, but he could join Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) as the only men to win all four majors in the same year.

Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (970) and Steffi Graf (1988) are the only women to achieve the incredible feat.

 

BARTY TO GO BACK-TO-BACK?

Barty became the first Australian woman to win a Wimbledon singles title for 41 years in July.

Not since Williams in 2012 has a player claimed back-to-back women's singles major crowns in the same year, but Barty could take some stopping.

She could become the ninth woman in the Open Era to win Wimbledon and the US Open in the same season. 

Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Serena Williams can boast that achievement.

OSAKA BACK TO DEFEND TITLE

Japanese sensation Osaka won her third grand slam title at Flushing Meadows last September and went on to add a fourth at the Australian Open this year.

Osaka returns to grand slam action for the first time since withdrawing from the French Open, citing struggles with her mental health.

The world number three could be the first woman to win consecutive titles at Flushing Meadows since Serena Williams claimed three in a row from 2012 to 2014.

Osaka is the only woman to win at least one major title over the past four seasons, winning the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, as well as the US Open in 2018 and last year.

 

ZVEREV BIDS TO BANISH PAINFUL MEMORIES

Alexander Zverev was beaten by Dominic Thiem in his maiden grand slam final in New York last year after the German had been two sets up.

He will not have to face Thiem this time around as the defending champion is sidelined due to injury.

Zverev was the only player to serve 100 or more aces during the tournament last year, firing down 131 but also racking up more double faults (64) than anyone else.

The world number four won his fourth title of the year in Cincinnati last week but Djokovic is undoubtedly the man to beat at Flushing Meadows.

Novak Djokovic has history in his sights as he begins his US Open quest; after three grand slam titles in 2021, a fourth beckons at Flushing Meadows.

Rod Laver was the last man to achieve a sweep of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open singles in the same year, all the way back in 1969.

Steffi Graf won all four on the women's side in 1988, and it seemed a knock-in that Serena Williams would do likewise in 2015 when she headed to the US Open with three majors already bagged.

But winning any title at that level is never easy, and Williams famously came unstuck when she faced Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals.

Djokovic will be mindful that what seems an inevitability to the outside world remains very much still only a possibility. After his US Open tribulations last year, and a recent jolt at the Olympics, he will know anything can happen.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how Djokovic's situation at Flushing Meadows carries most of the hallmarks of Serena's own position as she headed into the tournament six years ago.

 

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SLAMS

It was not always this way, but Djokovic has reached the point in his career when he can choose targets, decide which records he wants to break, and throw everything at those goals.

At the start of the year in Australia, he savoured triumphing at Melbourne Park for a ninth time and pointed to how Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Williams and Margaret Court had achieved so much.

"They've made history already," Djokovic said. "They made a tremendous mark in our sport. I'm trying to build that and develop that myself in a very unique, authentic way that is suitable to me.

"Whether I think about winning more slams and breaking records, of course. Of course, I do. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies."

It had very clear echoes of Williams in 2015, also in Australia, setting out her own ambitions for the year and specifically targeting the French Open and Wimbledon.

"Those are the two I really have my eye on, because I would like to do better at those. And I know I can do better," she said.

Williams set her heart and mind on that twin challenge and won both.

"I definitely am not going to play as much this year, and I'm just going to go for everything when I do play," said Williams.

 


BUILDING UP

When Williams reached New York in August 2015, she had delivered a 48-2 win-loss record for the season, landing each of the majors alongside the Miami Open and the Western and Southern Open. Petra Kvitova in Madrid and Belinda Bencic in Toronto had been the only two players to get the better of the 33-year-old Williams.

Djokovic has a 38-5 record for the year, albeit it has the feel of a more dominant year for the 34-year-old Serbian. Two of those losses came at the Olympics, in a semi-final and bronze medal match, and the other three came in his first three events on clay, losing to Dan Evans in Monte Carlo, Aslan Karatsev in Belgrade and Nadal in Rome.

When it mattered on clay, though, Djokovic majorly turned up in Paris, gutsily beating Lorenzo Musetti from two sets down in the fourth round, ending Nadal's streak of four Roland Garros titles by sinking the Spaniard in the semi-finals, and then leaving Stefanos Tsitsipas devastated in the final, with another fightback after dropping the first two sets.

Wimbledon followed, and Djokovic by then was openly targeting a Golden Slam – each major and the Olympic title.

Much like with Williams and her loss to Bencic in the Toronto semi-finals six years ago, however, Djokovic showed he was fallible as history beckoned. From a set up, he lost to Alexander Zverev at Tokyo 2020, a blow that was compounded by missing out on bronze when Pablo Carreno Busta sprang another shock.

 


HISTORY CAN BE A FIERCE OPPONENT

Williams and Djokovic have won non-calendar Grand Slams before, winning four in succession spanning two seasons.

Williams first achieved that from the French Open in 2002 to the Australian Open in 2003, and in 2015 she was aiming for five slams in a row at the US Open, having begun her dominant streak at her home grand slam the previous year.

She won the first set of the semi-final against Vinci, the world number 43, but was then second best to the Italian, with Williams saying her conqueror "played literally out of her mind".

But the disappointment was stark, underlined by Williams' terse response to the question of how disappointed she felt by the result.

"I don't want to talk about how disappointing it is for me," she said. "If you have any other questions, I'm open for that."

The four-in-a-row feat has only been performed once by Djokovic, from Wimbledon in 2015 to the French Open in 2016. Had he not been disqualified during the US Open last year for carelessly hitting a ball that struck a line judge, he would most likely currently be on a four-slam streak.

Those who win the first three slams of the year often do complete the set, but there are four instances of singles players falling one short by failing in the year's last major.

Before Williams, the most recent case was Martina Navratilova in 1984, when the imperious left-hander headed to the Australian Open – then played at the end of the year rather than the start – in pursuit of the Grand Slam. She lost to Helena Sukova in the semi-finals, and said: "If I'd have won, I'd have done it all. If I lost I had to start from scratch. Both are hard to cope with."

Navratilova had won 74 consecutive matches until that loss and ended the season with a 78-2 record.

In the men's game, Jack Crawford (1933) and Lew Hoad (1956) also fell short, both losing in finals of the US National Championships, the tournament that became the US Open. Don Budge (1938) and Laver (1962 and 1969) are the only men to have won a calendar Grand Slam in singles.

The weight of expectation is immense for Djokovic as he pursues what would be his crowning glory, not only sealing the Grand Slam but reaching 21 majors, one ahead of Nadal and Federer and into the outright lead in the men's game. The prospect cannot be ignored, and it will be a heavy burden to carry over the coming fortnight.

As Djokovic said on Friday: "I would be lying if I said that’s not something that I’m thinking about or that my attention is not going that way.

"I’m very motivated to play my best tennis. But I have to hit one ball at a time, as they say, try to be in the moment, have a guiding star in a way, a dream to win a slam here."

Barely a month has passed since Giorgio Chiellini lifted the European Championship trophy at Wembley, and it would seem logical to expect Serie A to begin amid high fanfare.

This may prove to be the case, as the opening weekend of the season arrives, but a major talent drain from the Italian league since last term cannot be ignored.

Romelu Lukaku, Cristian Romero and Gianluigi Donnarumma have all moved on, swapping Inter, Atalanta and Milan respectively for Chelsea, Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain.

To put those losses into greater context, of the 2020-21 Serie A end-of-season award winners, that is the MVP, the top defender and the leading goalkeeper all exiting the league.

Sweeping changes on the coaching benches also add to uncertainty as the new campaign begins, with a much-changed Inter hoping to successfully defend their title.


JUVE ON A SCUDETTO MISSION

After the folly of handing dugout rookie Andrea Pirlo the reins before last season, Juventus look to be on firmer ground this time with Massimiliano Allegri back as head coach.

They have brought in Manuel Locatelli from Sassuolo, primed to play a Pirlo-like role on the pitch, and it seems Cristiano Ronaldo will hang around for the final year of his contract.

Rumours continue to encircle the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, but Allegri can likely count on his reliable flow of goals, just as he did for the 2018-19 season – Ronaldo's debut campaign in Turin and the end of the line for Allegri in his first stint as coach.

A six-time Scudetto winner, Allegri will look to get the best out of wingers Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa as they enter their second seasons with the Bianconeri, while it remains to be seen how Paulo Dybala performs as he enters the final year of his deal.

Plagued by injury last season, Dybala started just 14 Serie A games, but results were often perkier when he played. Of those 14 games, Juventus won 10, drew three and lost one, with a points-per-game average of 2.4 when he played from the off, compared to 1.9 when he was absent or a substitute. The win percentage of 71.4 per cent when Dybala was in the starting XI (compared to 54.2 per cent when he was not) is in the ball park that Allegri will be eyeing.

 


INZAGHI STEPS INTO CONTE SHOES

Social media tells us Antonio Conte has been thoroughly enjoying his summer, topping up his tan and seemingly showing no regret over his Inter exit, which came in May, just weeks after he guided the Nerazzurri to title glory.

Conte reportedly left amid concern the club planned to raise funds with sales that have duly come to fruition. The loss of striker Lukaku feels like a body blow, given his influence, and persistent rumours suggest Lautaro Martinez could also move on. Achraf Hakimi is another big loss, but, as with Lukaku, a big fee was banked as the right-back proved a one-season wonder in Italy.

In have come coach Simone Inzaghi, who impressed at Lazio, while Edin Dzeko will be a straight swap for Lukaku in the forward line, albeit unlikely to carry quite the same threat. Former PSV star Denzel Dumfries can replace Hakimi in the attacking right full-back role, and Inter will hope his Euro 2020 form transfers to Serie A duty.

It is hard to see Inter repeating last season's success, and the comedown could be painful. They exceeded their expected goals total last season, scoring 84 goals against an xG of 75.3, and Inzaghi will look for more of the same.

They possess plenty of quality still, but they have likely lost Christian Eriksen for the long term too after his cardiac arrest on Denmark duty at Euro 2020. His survival was everything in June, and now his recovery is all-important. The knock-on effect is that Inter have lost a player who became important over the second half of the season.

So much has changed since that title was secured. Landing Hakan Calhanoglu on a free from Milan looks like great business, but consolidation with a top-four finish may be their limit in the new campaign. That, and being sure to secure city bragging rights again.

 


MOURINHO'S BACK AMID MERRY-GO-ROUND

Never mind Inzaghi and Allegri at Inter and Juve, now is the time to get used to the sound of Maurizio Sarri's Lazio, Vincenzo Italiano's Fiorentina, Luciano Spalletti's Napoli ... and Jose Mourinho's Roma. Milan rather feel like the odd ones out, keeping faith with Stefano Pioli.

A whirlwind of change has swept through Serie A, and it will be worth watching to see quite what impact Mourinho can have on a side who finished 16 points short of the Champions League places last term.

His 'Special One' reputation was enhanced the last time he coached in Italy, guiding Inter to a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League in the 2009-10 campaign.

Spells at Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham have followed, but Mourinho's cachet has diminished over the past decade.

Tammy Abraham has followed him in swapping London for Rome, with the Chelsea striker arriving, along with Eldor Shomurodov from Genoa, to pep up an attack depleted by the loss of Dzeko. Rui Patricio has joined fellow Portuguese Mourinho, and the goalkeeper's arrival from Wolves could prove a fine signing.

Roma won just five Serie A away games last term, and have only had fewer once in a season beginning in the 20th century (4 in 2002-03), while their shot conversion rate of 41.35 per cent can be improved upon, given they topped 50 per cent twice in the 2010s.

Most important for Mourinho, perhaps, will be to build on Roma's poor duel success rate (48.97 per cent) and cutting out the errors leading to goals (10 in 2020-21 in Serie A).

The duel figures are important and were the worst Roma had managed in at least 15 years, while the error count will be simply intolerable to the new boss. Only Bologna committed so many costly errors (also 10). Mourinho has his work cut out.

Paris Saint-Germain had last played in front of a full Parc des Princes on February 29 last year, a 4-0 win over Dijon. It's unlikely many fans in attendance on that day would have contemplated the idea of Lionel Messi being present upon their next visit.

Yet despite Messi not actually being involved, his presence was certainly felt.

The Barcelona great – like the rest of PSG's new signings – was paraded on the pitch before kick-off of Saturday's visit of Strasbourg, simultaneously setting fans' tongues wagging and surely leaving Ligue 1 defenders quaking in their boots, if they weren't already.

As Messi stood there with a big grin on his face, arm around Sergio Ramos of all people, the sheer nonsense of the situation just set in a little more. Previously two pillars of arguably the most famous rivalry in world football, now they're both party to the same 'galactico' project in Paris.

Understandably, the pre-match show helped stir up an incredible atmosphere, and it all seemed to rub off on the players as well, with PSG 3-0 up inside 27 minutes.

But if there was one thing PSG's eventual 4-2 victory suggested, it was that Ramos' arrival is arguably the more important of the two transfers.

After all, Messi wasn't the only one of their soon-to-be first-choice front three absent; Neymar was sat up in the stands next to him, owing to lack of fitness following his Copa America exploits.

But they still had Kylian Mbappe out strutting his stuff, seemingly relishing all eyes being on him, the France superstar tormenting the Strasbourg defence relentlessly with his direct running and astonishing pace.

Perhaps it was a taste of what life might be like at Real Madrid should he choose not to renew in Paris; he was the main man and the star of the show, whereas he'll soon have to share the spotlight with not just Neymar but his old Barcelona pal as well.

That's not to say Mbappe looked anything other than focused on where he was, in what was his 150th Ligue 1 appearance.

 

Soon after Mauro Icardi – another big name, though one who'll likely be reduced to a back-up role – nodded PSG in front in just the third minute, Mbappe carved open the Strasbourg defence with a disguised pass in from the left, though it was ultimately a little too deceptive as it even caught Georginio Wijnaldum flat-footed.

He was then in the thick of the action as PSG went 2-0 up, cutting in from the left and hammering a ferocious effort that went in off Ludovic Ajorque, and Mbappe did much of the damage to make it 3-0, too.

Stepover. Shimmy. Another stepover and then an explosion of pace. He made himself the tiniest bit of space to squeeze a left-footed cross into the danger zone and Julian Draxler was on hand to tap in.

Mbappe somehow failed to add another himself, shooting at Matz Sels twice after the break. The second of which, in the 62nd minute, was a particularly strong opportunity with an expected goals (xG) value of 0.35 – the one he created for Draxler was 0.90.

By that point Strasbourg had already been given some encouragement, with Kevin Gameiro capitalising on the shoddy awareness of Achraf Hakimi and Thilo Kehrer in the 53rd minute to ghost between them and head in.

Then, swiftly after Mbappe's second miss, Ajorque made a mockery of Presnel Kimpembe as he slashed the deficit to one goal with an emphatic header that also left Keylor Navas helpless.

 

For a significant part of the second half, Strasbourg looked the better team. PSG had seemingly become comfortable with their lead and that complacency was being capitalised on by the visitors.

But two yellow cards in quick succession for Alexander Djiku essentially spelled game over for Strasbourg, and PSG made it 4-2 soon after through Pablo Sarabia.

Majeed Waris should have pulled one back, his shot into the side-netting seeing him waste a chance with an xG value of 0.38, making it the worst miss of the day.

 

Mauricio Pochettino's men ultimately survived this scare, but their second-half drop-off will have been a real worry for the head coach and his staff – had Strasbourg got the score back to 3-3, it would have been utterly humiliating.

While this was of course a PSG without Marquinhos, their defensive frailty and seeming arrogance when thinking the game was won had Ramos' signing looking like an absolute necessity.

LaLiga has seen a lot of upheaval over the past few months, none more so than since the start of August as Lionel Messi's future unravelled.

This will be the first season that LaLiga has been without Messi since 2003-04, and as such there are plenty of people suggesting Spain's top tier has subsequently lost much of its appeal.

Be that as it may, even with spending significantly limited among clubs this year, there are still some interesting new arrivals to LaLiga.

Below, Stats Perform uses Opta data to look at five of them…

Memphis Depay, forward - Barcelona, free transfer from Lyon

Granted, Barcelona's rocky financial situation means it is yet to be confirmed if Depay will be registered for the start of the season.

But assuming Depay is involved as Barca begin the campaign against Real Sociedad, he will be under pressure to help make up for the loss of Messi.

His record at Lyon at least shows he should carry a threat, and in theory he will be surrounded by better players at Camp Nou.

Depay scored 76 goals in 178 appearances for Lyon after joining from Manchester United in January 2017 and enjoyed a particularly impressive final season in Ligue 1, finishing with 20 goals to trail only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27).

 

The former PSV youth product's 12 assists and 94 chances created were more than any other player managed in France's top flight in 2020-21.

In all competitions, meanwhile, Depay scored 22 goals last term at an average of one goal every 141.5 minutes, making it his second-best season since arriving.

He massively exceeded his expected goals (xG) tally of 12.38, so perhaps he shouldn't be expected to be quite as prolific, but if he can reach double figures in goals and assists once again, Depay would have to be considered a shrewd signing.

David Alaba, centre-back - Real Madrid, free transfer from Bayern Munich

It has been a difficult few months for Madrid. While caught up in plenty of off-field controversy, they have also lost the centre-back partnership that guided them to so much success. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, as well as their former head coach Zinedine Zidane, are no longer around.

The one signing Madrid have managed to bring in does at least offset one of those losses, as Alaba will offer experience, versatility and all-round quality at centre-back. After all, he made 298 Bundesliga appearances for Bayern, and a player does not reach such figures without being excellent.

 

He helped Bayern keep 111 clean sheets across those games, did not receive a single red card in the league, and made only two errors leading to goals in the competition, according to Opta data.

Bayern team-mate Thomas Muller is the only other player in Bundesliga history to have won 10 titles, and Bayern had counted on Alaba as their Mr Dependable. Carlo Ancelotti will hope he can form a great partnership with Eder Militao.

Rodrigo De Paul, central midfielder - Atletico Madrid, €35m from Udinese

While Diego Simeone has perhaps been a bit hit and miss when it comes to making the most of creative talents, De Paul appears to be ideal schemer for his new coach.

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A.

Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

 

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area which highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

Jose Macias, striker - Getafe, on loan (with purchase option) from Guadalajara

It is fair to say Getafe are not particularly one of LaLiga's most-fashionable sides. Under Jose Bordalas they were more renowned for their aggression and physical style of play, though new boss Michel has significantly different ideas.

In theory, that should immediately make them a more likable proposition for the neutral, and the signing of Macias will only add to the intrigue.

The 21-year-old Mexico international had been linked with numerous clubs with greater status than Getafe, such as Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla, but Los Azulones pulled off something of a coup in bringing him to the Coliseum Alfonso Perez on loan with an option to buy.

 

Macias is the first forward that Guadalajara have sold to a European side since Javier Hernandez left for Manchester United in 2010 and he heads to Spain having netted 12 times in the most recent Mexican Apertura and Clausura campaigns.

His 20 shots on target in the 2021 Clausura was the most by a Mexican player, though it was during a loan spell with Leon where Macias really announced himself, netting 24 times in 38 Liga MX matches.

He didn't quite hit those heights again upon returning to Guadalajara, so the jury is still out to a degree, but there is lots of potential for Getafe to tap into.

Yusuf Demir, winger - Barcelona, €500k loan fee (€10m purchase option) from Rapid Vienna

Barcelona fans need not fear life without Messi, for they have signed the 'Austrian Messi'… or something like that.

Obviously that is a fair bit of pressure for an 18-year-old to have, particularly given he was initially signed for the B team, but he's produced some positive performances in pre-season for the senior side and arrived from Rapid with a burgeoning reputation.

While Demir only started in six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga appearances (825 minutes) last season, he finished the campaign with a highly respectable seven goal involvements, which averages out at one every 117.9 minutes – only 10 players to play at least 825 minutes had a better record.

Despite only getting the one assist, Demir was a regular source of creativity when he did feature, as highlighted by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth highest among those to play at least 825 minutes.

 

But arguably his most notable asset, and the one that inspires the comparison with Messi, is his ability on the ball.

A dynamic and exciting player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles per 90 minutes on average, a figure matched by no one who featured for more than 108 minutes last term.

Similarly, he was successful with 3.8 dribble attempts per game, which was also a league high. It was that kind of flair that helped him realise a childhood dream by moving to Camp Nou, and he could have a more prominent role than he may have initially predicted upon his arrival.

LaLiga is arguably harder to call than ever before heading into 2021-22 – Barcelona no longer have Lionel Messi to guide the way and Real Madrid have seen significant upheaval, so surely the smart money is on defending champions Atletico Madrid?

Diego Simeone's men won the title in 2020-21 after watching Barca and Madrid trade success for seven years and look in good shape given they've not lost any major players. But can you really write off the 'big two'?

Well, you shouldn't, according to Stats Perform predictions.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Without further ado, let's look at what could occur over the 2021-22 LaLiga season.

 

ANCELOTTI DELIVERS THE GOODS

Carlo Ancelotti's back at the Santiago Bernabeu, and so – it seems – will the Spanish title. The Stats Perform model calculates Madrid have a 42.3 per cent chance of taking the crown back from their local rivals.

In fact, if the model proves accurate, Atletico may not even finish in the top two, as their 18.7 per cent chance is a fair bit smaller than Barca's 30.4 per cent likelihood of winning LaLiga.

However, it's worth pointing out that, because the model is based on historical data points and results, the Barcelona that appears here is one that has had Messi in the team for past 17 years.

It's entirely reasonable to expect Barca to see a significant drop-off given they'll no longer have the greatest player of all time on their books – as such, a 30.4 per cent chance of winning the title might actually be quite generous.

THE BIG FOUR?

The 2020-21 season was the tightest LaLiga title fight in recent memory. Although Atletico were 11 points clear at one point, with five matches left there were just three points separating first from fourth.

In that respect, it was the closest title race LaLiga had ever seen in a 20-team campaign (1987-1995, 1997-present) and the least predictable since 2006-07, when Madrid, Barca and Sevilla could all win the league on the final day of the season.

Sevilla's challenge ultimately faded before that stage in 2020-21 but they've managed to keep Julen Lopetegui, their coach, and their squad is largely unaltered for the time being.

The prediction model makes them fourth favourites for the title (6.8 per cent) and far better placed to take the final Champions League spot (69.4 per cent) for the third year in a row than their likeliest challengers Villarreal (36.2 per cent).

There was a 15-point gap between fourth and fifth last season – this is the closest to a 'big four' Spain has had in years.

 

FOUR TIPPED FOR RELEGATION TUSSLE

Rayo Vallecano, Real Mallorca and Espanyol were the three to come up from the Segunda last season. While most people would ordinarily point to the promoted sides as the most likely to be relegated, the prediction model disagrees.

It gives Mallorca a 30.7 per cent likelihood of going straight back down, and Espanyol are at 17.6 per cent – neither of those are among the bottom three, though Rayo (45.9 per cent) are seen as the second favourites to head back to the second tier.

But it's Elche (57.9 per cent) who are the clear front-runners in this regard, and then it looks agonisingly close for the third and final relegation spot.

According to the predictor, it's likely to be neck-and-neck between Deportivo Alaves (41.1 per cent) and Cadiz (41.9 per cent).

Romelu Lukaku's final kick of his first spell at Chelsea came in a Super Cup.

On August 30, 2013, the Belgian – then 20, still young, albeit one with the physical stature of a player much further on in his career – missed the decisive penalty as Chelsea became the first team to lose successive Super Cup fixtures, going down in a shoot-out to Bayern Munich.

Not long after that game, Lukaku headed to Everton, initially on a loan deal before he made a permanent move to Goodison Park a year later. A return to Chelsea, however, has always seemed a possibility for the striker who stormed onto the scene with Anderlecht in his teens.

Whereas a Super Cup marked the end of his first spell in London, Wednesday's meeting with Villarreal showed just why the Blues are set to break their transfer record to sign the 28-year-old, who arrives back at the club a Serie A winner and one of Europe's leading forwards.

This time, Lukaku watched on from afar as Chelsea, defeated on penalties by Liverpool in the 2019 edition, clinched victory in the shoot-out after a 1-1 draw in Belfast – Kepa Arrizabalaga coming on to be the hero.

 

ROM THE REMEDY

It seems wrong to be too critical of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea, given their remarkable success in his short time at the club. They went unbeaten in their first 14 games under the German, secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and, of course, won the Champions League.

Yet from Tuchel's appointment until the end of last season, Chelsea scored only 38 goals in all competitions.

The chances were being created - it would be difficult for players such as Mason Mount, who crafted the second-most opportunities in the Premier League last season, Hakim Ziyech, who opened the scoring in Belfast before going off injured, Christian Pulisic and Champions League final goalscorer Kai Havertz not to fashion their fair share.

Much was made of Timo Werner's first season at the club too, as the former RB Leipzig forward fluffed his lines time after time. He finished with six league goals but from 79 attempts, registering a shot conversion rate of just 7.59 per cent, while he only netted five of the 23 'big' chances, as defined by Opta, that came his way.

Up until the 27th minute at Windsor Park, when Ziyech tucked in from Havertz's centre, it was all Chelsea, but the same issues which had plagued their frontline last season were present once more.

In the sixth minute, Marcos Alonso's brilliant cross caught Werner on his heels. It would have been a gift for Lukaku. Werner forced a great save from the resulting corner, though that was the only shot he managed in his 65 minutes on the field.

More issues came after Ziyech's opener, as Chelsea (who had 67.9 per cent possession before the break) failed to add to their lead and let Villarreal – who levelled through Gerard Moreno – claim control.

Lukaku's imminent arrival, however, should ensure this profligacy, demonstrated again by Pulisic's 100th-minute miss from close range, is not repeated throughout the coming campaign.

Chelsea ended the game against Villarreal with 20 attempts, of which seven were on target. Had Lukaku's signing come in time, it is hard to imagine penalties would have been required at all to decide the outcome.

KEPA THE HERO

While Chelsea's forwards toiled, it was forgotten man Kepa who came on to be the difference.

In the 119th minute, Edouard Mendy made way for the former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper – just over 17 minutes after that change, Kepa dived low to his right to keep out Raul Albiol's weak effort and ensure the Champions League holders have now lifted the Super Cup in eight of the past nine seasons.

It was a brave call by Tuchel, who follows in the footsteps of compatriots Jurgen Klopp and Hansi Flick in winning the Super Cup – German coaches having triumphed in the last three editions.

With Lukaku soon to be back on board, it could – and perhaps should – be the first trophy of many for the Blues this term.

For now, though, this was just a nice story for Kepa, the keeper who once refused to be taken off in a cup final had come on late to help decide the outcome in his team's favour.

Romelu Lukaku's final kick of his first spell at Chelsea came in a Super Cup.

On August 30, 2013, the Belgian – then 20, still young, albeit one with the physical stature of a player much further on in his career – missed the decisive penalty as Chelsea became the first team to lose successive Super Cup fixtures, going down in a shoot-out to Bayern Munich.

Not long after that game, Lukaku headed to Everton, initially on a loan deal before he made a permanent move to Goodison Park a year later. A return to Chelsea, however, has always seemed a possibility for the striker who stormed onto the scene with Anderlecht in his teens.

Whereas a Super Cup marked the end of his first spell in London, Wednesday's meeting with Villarreal showed just why the Blues are set to break their transfer record to sign the 28-year-old, who arrives back at the club a Serie A winner and one of Europe's leading forwards.

This time, Lukaku watched on from afar as Chelsea, defeated on penalties by Liverpool in the 2019 edition, clinched victory in the shoot-out after a 1-1 draw in Belfast – Kepa Arrizabalaga coming on to be the hero.

 

ROM THE REMEDY

It seems wrong to be too critical of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea, given their remarkable success in his short time at the club. They went unbeaten in their first 14 games under the German, secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and, of course, won the Champions League.

Yet from Tuchel's appointment until the end of last season, Chelsea scored only 38 goals in all competitions.

The chances were being created - it would be difficult for players such as Mason Mount, who crafted the second-most opportunities in the Premier League last season, Hakim Ziyech, who opened the scoring in Belfast before going off injured, Christian Pulisic and Champions League final goalscorer Kai Havertz not to fashion their fair share.

Much was made of Timo Werner's first season at the club too, as the former RB Leipzig forward fluffed his lines time after time. He finished with six league goals but from 79 attempts, registering a shot conversion rate of just 7.59 per cent, while he only netted five of the 23 'big' chances, as defined by Opta, that came his way.

Up until the 27th minute at Windsor Park, when Ziyech tucked in from Havertz's centre, it was all Chelsea, but the same issues which had plagued their frontline last season were present once more.

In the sixth minute, Marcos Alonso's brilliant cross caught Werner on his heels. It would have been a gift for Lukaku. Werner forced a great save from the resulting corner, though that was the only shot he managed in his 65 minutes on the field.

More issues came after Ziyech's opener, as Chelsea (who had 67.9 per cent possession before the break) failed to add to their lead and let Villarreal – who levelled through Gerard Moreno – claim control.

Lukaku's imminent arrival, however, should ensure this profligacy, demonstrated again by Pulisic's 100th-minute miss from close range, is not repeated throughout the coming campaign.

Chelsea ended the game against Villarreal with 20 attempts, of which seven were on target. Had Lukaku's signing come in time, it is hard to imagine penalties would have been required at all to decide the outcome.

KEPA THE HERO

While Chelsea's forwards toiled, it was forgotten man Kepa who came on to be the difference.

In the 119th minute, Edouard Mendy made way for the former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper – just over 17 minutes after that change, Kepa dived low to his right to keep out Raul Albiol's weak effort and ensure the Champions League holders have now lifted the Super Cup in eight of the past nine seasons.

It was a brave call by Tuchel, who follows in the footsteps of compatriots Jurgen Klopp and Hansi Flick in winning the Super Cup – German coaches having triumphed in the last three editions.

With Lukaku soon to be back on board, it could – and perhaps should – be the first trophy of many for the Blues this term.

For now, though, this was just a nice story for Kepa, the keeper who once refused to be taken off in a cup final had come on late to help decide the outcome in his team's favour.

Opportunism was the name of the game for Atletico Madrid in 2020-21 and, ultimately, it led them all the way to the title.

First, they pounced on the opportunity to sign Luis Suarez, then Diego Simeone's squad enjoyed a commanding start to the season that left their rivals playing catch-up.

Lionel Messi's situation at Barcelona contributed to the Blaugrana being slow out of the blocks, and although Atletico almost contrived to throw it all away in the latter stages of the season, they proved their resilience in seeing it out.

While opportunism led to success then, this season Atletico arguably find themselves on the cusp of a new, dominant era. Barca are in an even greater mess than 12 months ago and no longer have Messi to bail them out, while Madrid's only major signing has been David Alaba – in contrast, they have lost Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane is Manchester bound too. Add Zinedine Zidane's departure to that and it is very much a picture of transition at the newly refurbed Santiago Bernabeu.

Atletico, meanwhile, have not lost any key players and have even improved their midfield options with the signing of Rodrigo De Paul. It was not so long ago that Simeone's future seemed uncertain, but the past year has brought out a new side in him and that's helped Los Colchoneros reign in Spain.

Flexible Simeone turns over a new leaf

Throughout Simeone's time in charge of Atletico, there has been a common theme – you can either call it consistency or inflexibility, but it essentially depends on whether you are a critic or a fan.

However, it is difficult to say he was inflexible last season by any stretch of the imagination. Now, whether that was decisive in their title triumph is impossible to say, yet it does show Simeone is perhaps not the one-trick pony some insist he is.

For much of his decade at the helm, Simeone has almost religiously set his teams up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, or at least something not too dissimilar. A back four has been the cornerstone of his systems. According to Opta data, he only ever started a match with a back three or five six times before 2020-21.

Yet, in the championship-winning campaign, Atletico lined up with a back three or five in 23 of their 38 LaLiga matches. Simeone had amassed a group of players with wide-ranging skillsets that aided versatility, and he truly embraced that.

Yannick Carrasco's work-rate saw him turned into a wing-back; Kieran Trippier's arguably suspect defensive capabilities became less of a concern because he was stationed further up the pitch. In attack, Luis Suarez and whoever partnered him – usually Joao Felix or Angel Correa – offered unpredictable movement that often saw them push out wide to create space for Marcos Llorente to run into.

 

Of course, that didn't occur all the time, but it is notable how all 12 of Llorente's goals came from either positions in the box or central positions just outside the area despite a lot of his work coming down the right flank in tandem with Trippier.

This flexibility in the final third also seemed to contribute to their effectiveness off the ball. Their 43 shot-ending high turnovers was bettered by only Barcelona and Eibar, though that figure equated to 15.3 per cent of their total high turnovers (281).

That percentage was better than both of those teams above them in the category, suggesting Atletico were more effective at turning those situations into danger, despite their PPDA of 11.5 only being the 12th lowest in the league.

But the overriding feeling looking back at Atletico in 2020-21 was the only real ammunition Simeone's critics had – that he was inflexible – seems to have lost relevance.

 

De Paul is Simeone's ideal schemer

It was only a matter of time before De Paul sought a new home after an excellent five-year spell in Italy with Udinese. It was there that he got his career back on track after struggling to make much of an impact with Valencia during his previous attempt to succeed in Spain.

He was a regular throughout his five years in Serie A but enjoyed his finest campaign of all in 2020-21, displaying a skillset that looks an ideal fit for the requirements of a Simeone team.

Throughout Simeone's 10 years as Atletico coach, his signings of creative players have tended to be hit and miss, with it a common perception that his intense demands both in training and during matches can sometimes stifle more mercurial talents who are not used to such workloads.

But De Paul, who is comfortable playing both centrally and out wide, has shown plenty of evidence he should be up to the challenge.

 

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A. Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists (xA) records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area that highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

His creativity and dribbling abilities are two facets that Atletico don't necessarily have in abundance in their central midfield options, yet he balances those with a genuine work ethic. De Paul could well be an absolute triumph of a signing.

Joao Felix's time?

Joao Felix's 2019 arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano was met by the clamouring of Simeone critics suggesting this was the signing that would finally see the renowned pragmatist cut loose and suddenly become the entertainer many hoped he could be.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, their haul of 51 LaLiga goals in 2019-20 was the lowest they had managed since scoring just 46 in 2006-07 – they somehow became even tougher to watch.

This did not do much to convince those adamant Simeone was to blame for Joao Felix's form – many people called for the young talent to be given a "free role" that allowed him to play without the shackles normally associated with the coach's disciplined system.

But for a period in 2020-21, there were real signs that Joao Felix was beginning to find his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisioned, his role - being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left - in the first half of last season saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But it's fair to say the Portugal talent did not manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

Joao Felix's productivity was not as impressive as a result. He went from creating 1.5 chances per game to 0.9 and appeared far less willing to run with the ball, attempting 26 dribbles compared to 43 before January 1.

Sure, his assists count went up from two to three, though between January 1 and the end of the season his expected assists (xA) value was just 0.77, suggesting he benefited from some help from his team-mates.

Joao Felix's influence in build-up play did not change dramatically, only going down to 4.0 shot-ending sequence involvements from 4.9, which was not massively better than he managed in 2019-20 (4.64), but he lacked the sharpness to make the difference at the top end of the pitch as often.

Hopefully 2021-22 will have less upheaval for him and allow for greater consistency. With Messi gone, LaLiga needs a new headline superstar – Joao Felix has the talent, but whether Atletico and Simeone can truly harness it is another matter entirely.

Nevertheless, Atleti excelled even when Joao Felix was not hitting the heights expected. As they see Barca and Madrid appearing significantly weaker, Simeone and his players are heading into 2021-22 as the team to beat.

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