The 18th and final round of the NFL regular season is upon us and there remains plenty of intrigue in a frantic scramble to make it to the playoffs.

Five teams from the AFC are competing for two postseason berths, while one spot is up for grabs in the NFC. 

Away from the Super Bowl picture, there are a number of other intriguing subplots ahead of an action-packed weekend.

Stats Perform previews some of the standout games and the best of the rest.


Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) @ Las Vegas Raiders (9-7)

The winner of this contest is guaranteed a playoff spot, while there is also a scenario whereby a tie could see both advance. Interestingly, six of the previous seven games in Oakland/Las Vegas have been decided by three points or fewer.

The Raiders beat the Colts on a last-second field goal last week to prevail 23-20 – their fifth win of the season by four points or fewer, tied with the Packers and the Titans for the most in the NFL.

Justin Herbert set the single-season passing touchdowns record for the Chargers last week with his 35th of the campaign. He now requires 172 yards this week to also take the passing-yards record.

The Chargers' 34-13 win against the Broncos was their fourth victory in a win while scoring 30 points or more. They have averaged 33.9 points per game in wins this season, second most in the NFL behind the Bills (35.1).

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) @ Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

The Steelers have won three in a row against the Ravens, with all three of those victories being decided by less than a touchdown, the most recent coming by a 20-19 scoreline last month.

Last week's 12-point win over the Browns was the Steelers' largest of the season, though not since 1969 have they gone a full campaign without winning by at least 13 points.

The Ravens are coming off the back of a 20-19 loss to the Rams, their league-leading eighth game decided by three or fewer points this season – no team in NFL history has had more than nine games decided by three or fewer points.

Najee Harris rushed for 188 of the Steelers' 190 rushing yards against the Browns and accounts for 77.9 per cent of his side's rush yards this season, the highest share of any player in the NFL.

 

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) @ Denver Broncos (7-9)

The Chiefs will be looking to respond to their defeat against the Cincinnati Bengals in week 17 when they take on the Broncos, whom they have defeated in 12 successive meetings – the league's joint-longest active winning streak along with the New England Patriots against the New York Jets.

Despite last week's defeat, the Chiefs have scored at least 30 points in four successive games, which is the longest-running streak in the NFL and one short of their all-time record of five set in 2004 and 2018.

Kansas lead the way in the NFL with 391 first downs this season and, with nine more this weekend, will become the fifth team in the last 70 years with 400 or more first downs in a season.

The Broncos were defeated by the Chargers last time out to ensure a losing season for the fifth straight year, an unwanted run they last went on from 1963 to 1972 with 10 straight losing seasons.

Elsewhere...

The Jaguars require a victory against the Colts to avoid becoming the fourth team in the last 30 years to have consecutive seasons with two or fewer wins. The Colts have lost three games this season by exactly three points – the Seahawks are the only team this season that has failed to win a single game by three or fewer points with more losses in such games (0-5).

The Rams can clinch their third NFC West title in six seasons season since moving back to Los Angeles with victory over the 49ers. However, the Niners have won each of their last five meetings with the Rams.

The Falcons have three successive wins against the Saints in Atlanta and are seeking a fourth in a row for the first time since between 1991 and 1994. Following defeat to the Bills last week, the Falcons have alternated between wins and losses over their last seven games.

The Bills can clinch their second consecutive division title with victory against the Jets, following on from a previous run of 24 straight seasons without finishing top. All 10 of Buffalo's wins this season have come by 12 points or more.

Premier League managers are already feeling the strain amid cascading numbers of COVID-19 cases and mid-season injuries. Now many top bosses stand to lose stars to the Africa Cup of Nations.

Africa's greatest football show – now commonly known as AFCON – gets under way on Sunday in Cameroon.

Although the 2019 edition was held in June and July, it has historically been a January-into-February tournament and has returned to that place on the calendar.

A host of Premier League big names are hoping to make an impact during the four-week tournament, which falls slap-bang in the middle of European club campaigns, causing a major clash of competitions.

Premier League clubs certainly cannot complain of a lack of fair warning. It was June 2020 when African football chiefs decided the 2021 edition of the tournament would have to be pushed back by 12 months to a January 2022 start, in the hope the coronavirus crisis would have eased.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at which teams from the English top flight might feel its impact the most.

Can Reds cling on in title battle?

If Liverpool lose no further ground on leaders Manchester City by the time their stars return from AFCON, then Jurgen Klopp would surely settle for that.

The 2019-20 Premier League champions have taken two points from a possible nine to leave the title as effectively City's to lose, and now Klopp is going to have to get by without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita.

Egyptian striker Salah is the Premier League's leader in goals (16) and assists (9, level with Trent Alexander Arnold) so far this season. He has taken 80 shots in 20 games (38 of these have hit the target), played 12 throughballs and created 40 chances from open play: in each of those categories he is at the top of the Premier League charts for players defined by Opta as forwards.

How do you cope without such a contribution? Having Mane on hand would help, but Mane will be turning out for Senegal, a team who, like Salah's Egypt, are firmly in the mix as serious trophy contenders. Don't expect either back at the end of the group stage.

Mane has eight Premier League goals this term, including the opener at Chelsea recently. That goal return puts Mane joint-second among African scorers in the Premier League this season, level with Watford's Emmanuel Dennis, who is not in Nigeria's squad.

Mane has played 19 throughballs and has made 23 tackles to boot, which is the seventh highest number of tackles by a forward in the league this season, a rarely mentioned attribute of his game. He does not always tackle with his elbow, either.

Keita will presumably be less of a miss, with the Guinean's Anfield contribution remaining underwhelming, but Liverpool have been so hard hit by absentees recently that to lose anybody for up to five weeks is an inconvenience.

They are at least assured of Joel Matip's presence this month. The centre-back last played for Cameroon in 2015 and has retired from international duty. That is bad news for the AFCON hosts but helps Liverpool, given Matip remains a sturdy presence, with a duel success of 69.47 per cent this season ranking him third among Premier League defenders with 10 or more appearances, and a passing accuracy of 88.89 per cent putting him eighth in that metric.

Liverpool only have two league games inked in between now and the end of AFCON, against Brentford and Crystal Palace, but the Reds also have two postponed fixtures to be slipped in somewhere along the line.

Wintertime Blues?

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City hold a 10-point lead over second-placed Chelsea, with Liverpool a point further back but possessing a game in hand on the top two. Reigning champions City have won 11 straight Premier League games and the Citizens have the resources to be able to cope with the short-term loss of Riyad Mahrez, who will captain Algeria.

Mahrez's six goals and four assists this season have come at a startling rate. Given the depth in City's squad, he does not always start, so to appreciate his contribution it is worth looking at his numbers per 90 minutes on the pitch.

The former Leicester City forward is averaging 0.64 goals and 0.43 assists per 90 minutes – impressively close to Salah's return of 0.81 and 0.45 in those categories – and is one of only four Premier League players with 10 or more appearances to average at least 1.00 goal involvements per 90 (Michael Olise 1.43, Salah 1.26, Roberto Firmino 1.24, Mahrez 1.07).

The Blues of Chelsea may have concerns over the absence of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, given the Senegalese's stabilising influence at the back. His save percentage of 77.14 has only been beaten this season in the league by Wolves' Jose Sa (80.82) and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsdale (77.46).

Spaniard Kepa Arrizabalaga struggled in the early stages of his Chelsea career and is now the undoubted understudy.

Yet Kepa's form when given an opportunity this season has not given such cause for concern. The former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper has been chiefly used in cup action, and he has achieved a remarkable save percentage of 81.48, suggesting that for a short run of games, he could be a perfectly able deputy.

Can an exodus to Africa affect the race for Europe?

Will fourth-placed Arsenal miss Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? It seems unlikely now, given he was dropped and stripped of the captaincy after a disciplinary breach before heading off to join Gabon. He has not played for a month. The Gunners won five games in a row without him, including four in the league, before being unlucky to lose to Manchester City.

Cold facts tell us Arsenal have a points average of 1.9 per Premier League game when Aubameyang has started games this season, and 1.5 when he has been either a substitute or out of the team, but those figures may not be significant given the momentum Mikel Arteta's players have built in the recent absence of the 32-year-old. His continuing exile from the first team seems unlikely to cause much consternation.

For manager Arteta to lose Thomas Partey (Ghana) at this point is a blow though, with the former Atletico Madrid player having been excellent in the 2-1 defeat to City, having been slowly building up to such a performance. He had more touches, won more duels, made more tackles and played more successful passes than any other Arsenal player.

Arsenal have a big derby at Tottenham coming up on January 16, and they might feel Partey's absence that day, particularly given Spurs, who currently sit sixth, are sending no current first-teamers away to AFCON.

Splitting the north London rivals for now are West Ham, in fifth, and it will surely have hurt David Moyes to wave off Said Benrahma for a month of Algeria duty. The playmaker has five goals and four assists in the league this season, as well as making 83 ball recoveries and creating 21 chances in open play. That makes him one of only 13 players in the competition to top both 80 recoveries and 20 open-play chances created, and one of only five Premier League stars to tick both boxes and score at least five times. Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha, away with Ivory Coast, is another member of that small group.

Seventh-placed Manchester United will lose Eric Bailly to Ivory Coast too. But with Phil Jones back in the first team, will Bailly be missed? The former Villarreal centre-back has played just 217 minutes in the Premier League this season. United youth prospect Hannibal Mejbri is also away, in his case with Tunisia.

Further into mid-table, Wolves must find an alternative to the excellent Romain Saiss (tackle success rate 72.73 per cent) on the left side of their defence, after he joined up with Morocco. Brighton and Hove Albion powerhouse Yves Bissouma has the highest tackle success rate among midfielders to have made more than 40 such challenges in the Premier League this season (50 attempted, 35 won: 70 per cent hit rate) and he will line up for Mali after ending an international exile.

Leicester City sent away striker Kelechi Iheanacho (2 goals, 4 assists this season) for Nigeria service at a bad time for the Foxes, given injured Jamie Vardy faces several weeks out of action.

Palace are firmly in favour of players heading away to represent their countries, but the Eagles never particularly like to be without Zaha (5 goals, 1 assist, 86 dribbles). Since his return from Manchester United in August 2014, Palace have averaged 1.2 points and a 32.9 per cent win percentage with Zaha in their starting line-up, and 0.9 points and a 24.5 win percentage when he has not been in that matchday XI. The loss of Cheikhou Kouyate (80.56 per cent success rate from 36 tackles) to Senegal duty may also diminish the sturdiness of Patrick Vieira's Eagles spine.

Can Clarets cope without Cornet?

The relegation scrap seems more likely to be affected by transfer market activity than departures to AFCON.

Newcastle United and Norwich City, the league's bottom two, are sending nobody away, while fourth-bottom Watford have kept Dennis (8 goals, 5 assists) and it remains to be seen what happens to Ismaila Sarr (5 goals), who has been absent with injury of late but has headed for checks with Senegal doctors.

Burnley, who sit 18th, are seemingly the team to watch carefully here. Maxwel Cornet, now away with Ivory Coast, has scored six Premier League goals from just 10 shots on target, and Sean Dyche must find a way to make the Clarets impactful without the former Lyon man.

If Thomas Tuchel is after any advice on how to deal with the Romelu Lukaku issue, the Chelsea head coach could do worse than to have a brief word with the man he will come face-to-face with on Wednesday.

Under now-Tottenham boss Antonio Conte across two seasons with Inter, Lukaku enjoyed the best form of his career, scoring and assisting a combined 81 goals in 95 appearances.

Lukaku has not been as prolific since returning to Stamford Bridge in August, finding the net seven times in 18 games, and already his future at Chelsea has been called into question following an explosive interview in the Italian press that was published last week.

The Belgium international was subsequently dropped for Chelsea's crucial clash with Liverpool on Sunday but is in line return for the EFL Cup semi-final first leg with Spurs after holding clear-the-air talks with his manager, meaning a possible reunion with Conte.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how Conte got Lukaku out of the "deep hole" he found himself in at Manchester United, as the striker himself put it, and explores how Tuchel can go about getting the most out of Chelsea's all-time record purchase.


ROM AMONG EUROPE'S ELITE

As well as declaring an unhappiness with his role at Chelsea and expressing a desire to return to Inter as part of his 30-minute chat with Sky Sport Italia, Lukaku also opened up on the "hurt" he felt when Conte departed San Siro.

That is no surprise given the Belgian's form between arriving at Inter in August 2019 and departing two years later. 

The 47 Serie A goals scored by Lukaku in 72 games under Conte is his best return under any of the 11 managers he has played for at club level, followed by the 43 netted in 103 Premier League games when working with now-national team coach Roberto Martinez at Everton.

That includes a return of 24 goals in 2020-21 alone, on top of 11 assists, as he became the first player to score 20-plus goals and set up 10 or more in a single Serie A season since Opta started to record such data in 2004-05.

Indeed, only Cristiano Ronaldo (83), Kylian Mbappe (97), Lionel Messi (106) and Robert Lewandowski (121) were directly involved in more goals in all competitions among players from Europe's top five leagues than Lukaku's 81 across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

 

FLOPPED IN FAVOURED FORMATION

That impressive form helped Inter end their 11-year wait for Scudetto success last time out, a year on from falling just short in the Europa League with defeat in the final, but Lukaku was not alone in inspiring the Nerazzurri to glory.

Alongside him was Lautaro Martinez, who was very much the perfect foil in Conte's preferred 3-5-2 formation, which the Italian used 31 times in 38 league matches last season.

It is a formation Tuchel has used on only two occasions in the Premier League this term – in September's 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City and the 1-0 victory at Brentford three weeks later. 

Lukaku started both games alongside Timo Werner and Chelsea's tally of five shots against City and five against Brentford are the fewest the Blues have managed in any league game this term – Lukaku responsible for just one of those – as were the four and two chances created respectively.

While City's quality and dominance of the ball must be factored in, Lukaku's minimal involvement against Brentford was surprising – and surely no coincidence.

That west London derby blank came in the midst of a 10-game run without a goal for Lukaku, not helped by niggling injuries and a COVID lay-off, which he has since put an end to with three goals in four matches.

Chelsea's formation in those three most recent games Lukaku has scored in, incidentally, came with three attackers spread across the frontline. And there was one other common denominator, too: Mason Mount being on the field.

 

MOUNT TO PLAY THE MARTINEZ ROLE?

Mount assisted Lukaku's most recent goal in a 1-1 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion from a corner and the pair have combined to create nine chances in total for one another in the league this term, making it easily Chelsea's most dangerous partnership.

No Chelsea player has combined more regularly with Lukaku than Mount, with the pair linking up 10.06 times per 90 minutes so far this season. While that may not appear a huge amount on the face of it, next on that list is Mateo Kovacic with 6.45 combined passes between himself and Lukaku per 90.

However, Mount still has some way to go if he is to match the 54 combined chances created for each other in Serie A by Lukaku and Martinez in their two seasons used in tandem at Inter, which equated to nine assists.

Lukaku's relationship with Mount does provide some promise, though, as does the Anderlecht academy product's goalscoring performances in his most recent two outings prior to being dropped against Liverpool, showing Chelsea do not necessarily have to replicate Inter's system to help their main man thrive.

 

TUCHEL WILL NOT SHIFT

Lukaku is averaging fewer passes, overall touches and touches in the opposition box this season compared to last, while also shooting less frequently, dribbling less and creating fewer chances for others.

Yet instead of attempting to find the perfect formula and personnel for Lukaku, Tuchel will not shift from his own way of thinking.

"We cannot just play like Inter in the hope that will bring the most out of Lukaku. The system they played not only suited Romelu but also Lautaro Martinez and others. If you don't have five players you can't play five defenders," Tuchel said on the eve of the Tottenham tie.

"It works both ways. It is more about principles of how we play. I feel he is more impatient than anything else. He wants to be involved more, wants more big chances. 

"Like with every transfer, you have to accept there is a change of environment, culture, team-mates, playing style, belief. He's not the first player to take time, but even while doing it he was scoring goals."

And maybe Tuchel has a point. After all, for all the talk of Lukaku's struggles and unhappiness, he is scoring at an almost identical rate to Cristiano Ronaldo (0.54 goals per 90 minutes compared to 0.56), and remains one of Europe's most prolific strikers of the past decade.

Now back from injury and a team exile brought on by his own actions, only Lukaku can ensure he avoids falling down another deep hole that he may this time be unable to escape.

The first heavyweight tussle of the new year in the Premier League did not disappoint as Chelsea and Liverpool played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.

The Blues were held at home for the fifth time in six league games, a run that includes three straight draws in the top flight for the first time since February 2016.

But Thomas Tuchel's side can be happy with a point after recovering from two goals down as they extended their unbeaten run against the Reds in the league to four matches.

While there was nothing to separate the sides sitting second and third, Brentford, Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds United were all victorious on Sunday.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the Opta data from another eventful day in the Premier League.

Chelsea 2-2 Liverpool: Blues hit back after Salah strikes again

Sadio Mane opened the scoring in a Premier League game for the 37th time since joining Liverpool in 2016-17 – only Tottenham's Harry Kane (40) has done so on more occasions.

However, some will argue that Mane was fortunate to be on the field at that point after catching Cesar Azpilicueta with his elbow after just six seconds.

Mane was instead issued a yellow card with 15 seconds on the clock, making it the earliest booking in a Premier League game since Opta started recording such data in 2006-07, nine seconds faster than the previous quickest caution for Scott McTominay against Newcastle United in December 2019.

Mohamed Salah went on to double Liverpool's lead with his fourth league goal against Chelsea, which is the joint-most any player has scored against the Blues after playing for them, along with Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne.

Chelsea responded brilliantly with two goals in the space of 245 seconds through a Mateo Kovacic stunner and Christian Pulisic's well-taken strike, ensuring they remain a point above their opponents having played a game more.

This was the fourth occasion in this season's Premier League that a side has failed to win a game in which they have led by two goals, with Liverpool accounting for two of those occasions, having also drawn 2-2 with Brighton in October.


Leeds United 3-1 Burnley: More Maxwell magic not enough

Leeds scored three times in a Premier League game for the first time this season on their way to ending a four-game run without a victory, putting distance between themselves and Burnley in the final relegation spot.

Previously with just one win to their name in the competition since the end of October, Jack Harrison squeezed home for Leeds to open the scoring at Elland Road before Maxwell Cornet equalised through Burnley's first direct free-kick goal since Boxing Day 2017.

That was Cornet's sixth Premier League goal in 10 appearances, the most by an African player in their first 10 games since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Arsenal in April 2018 (also six).

Stuart Dallas restored Leeds' advantage on his 250th appearance for the club in all competitions, becoming the first United player to reach that tally since Lucas Radebe in November 2003.

The much-needed victory was sealed by Daniel James in added time, meaning Leeds are unbeaten in 10 Premier League games against sides starting the day in the relegation zone (W8, D2) since returning to the top flight last season.

As for Burnley, they have now won just one of their last 20 Premier League matches and are winless in 11 on their travels, their worst such run on the road since 17 without a victory between August 2016 and April 2017.


Everton 2-3 Brighton and Hove Albion: Mac Allister inspires soaring Seagulls

The highest-scoring game of the day in the Premier League took place at Goodison Park, where Everton suffered defeat in their opening league game of a calendar year for the fifth year running, their worst such streak since a run of seven between 1957 and 1963.

Brighton's opening goal via Alexis Mac Allister after two minutes and 43 seconds was the Seagulls' fastest-ever away from home in the competition, and their third-fastest overall.

Dan Burn doubled the visitors' lead on Merseyside, shortly before the returning Dominic Calvert-Lewin became the 22nd different player to miss a Premier League penalty for the Toffees – only Arsenal (23) have more.

Anthony Gordon scored his first senior goal to give Everton a bit of hope, only for Mac Allister to register for a second time as Brighton moved to 27 points after 19 games – their joint-best return at this stage of a top-flight campaign alongside 1981-82.

It was another afternoon to forget for Rafael Benitez, however, with Everton having now picked up only 19 points from 18 games, which is their worst return at this stage since accruing 17 from 18 matches in 2005-06.

Brentford 2-1 Aston Villa: Bees bounce back again

Comeback experts Brentford hit back to beat Villa late on thanks to goals from Yoane Wissa and Mads Roerslev after Danny Ings had opened the scoring in west London.

Only West Ham (12) and Everton (11) have won more points from losing positions in the Premier League this term than Brentford, who have now recovered nine points in total.

That is in complete contrast to a Villa side that have lost more games in the competition since the start of last season after scoring first than any other side (eight).

Ings has now opened the scoring in more different English top-flight games since the start of 2019-20 than any player (18), but that early strike was not enough for Steven Gerrard's men.

Wissa's equaliser was Brentford's first Premier League goal from outside the box and full-back Roerslev, who set up that strike, completed the turnaround to become the second Bees player to score and assist in the same game in the competition for the club after Ivan Toney.

It was a breathless game at Stamford Bridge on Sunday as Chelsea and Liverpool played out an entertaining 2-2 draw that saw Manchester City emerge as the biggest winners.

An exciting encounter that many will say was a great advert for the Premier League was in reality more an example of why there is unlikely to be any excitement in this year's title race.

Both teams showed immense quality at times, especially in scoring their goals, but also evidenced numerous weaknesses that simply do not exist at City, or at least not to the same extent, though it must be said that both were missing key players through suspension, injury and/or COVID-19 – or were just dropped for talking too much.

The headlines were already being written as the visitors took a 2-0 lead in the first half, with the Blues' star striker Romelu Lukaku missing from the squad after recent comments that displeased his manager Thomas Tuchel.

But Chelsea came back to level up before half-time without the Belgium international to prove that perhaps they are actually better off without him.

It is something that bears exploring more broadly across the game. Is the impact of number nine's slightly overrated? Tottenham have been unable to win a trophy despite having Harry Kane in their ranks, while Borussia Dortmund seldom look like troubling Bayern Munich even though they have the much sought after Erling Haaland to call on.

Also, for all the talk about how desperately they needed a superstar striker in the summer after Sergio Aguero left, City sit ten points clear at the top of the table with only Gabriel Jesus as a recognised number nine in their ranks, and he rarely plays there himself these days anyway.

Kai Havertz played the role of striker for Chelsea here, as he did for much of last season when they won the Champions League, and though he did not have much impact himself, Tuchel's fluid formation seemed to enable Mateo Kovacic and N'Golo Kante to dominate on the ball from deep in a way they sometimes struggle to when Lukaku is leading the line.

Chelsea have played 13 league games with Lukaku this season and eight without. While their win percentage is better with him (61.5) than without (50), they score 2.5 goals per game when he is not there compared to 1.9 when he is.

Despite two goals going in against Liverpool, they still only concede 0.5 goals per game on average when Lukaku does not feature, and 0.9 per game when he does.

When the former Everton and Manchester United striker said that Tuchel does not play in a way that suits him, it is almost certainly correct given how the team overall appears to function better without the striker, but also calls into question why Chelsea decided to spend close to nine figures on him in the first place.

As for Liverpool, boss Jurgen Klopp will have been watching from home after testing positive for COVID-19 satisfied with the score after 26 minutes, but concerned to see that once again, his men were unable to hold onto a lead.

It was the fifth time in the league this season that the Reds have dropped points from a winning position (also against Brentford, Manchester City, Brighton and Hove Albion and Tottenham) and it almost certainly extinguished any faint hopes they will have had of pegging City back in the title race, now sitting 11 points behind with a solitary game in hand.

Liverpool allowed 15 shots at their goal, with Irish stopper Caoimhin Kelleher making some excellent saves to keep his team in it after stepping in for Alisson Becker (COVID-19), and although Chelsea's goals from Mateo Kovacic and Christian Pulisic were expertly taken, they felt like they had been coming such was the visitors' inability to put their foot on the ball and calm things down.

This was something that set them apart when they ran away with the Premier League title in 2019-20, their penchant for killing a game off once they went ahead. They missed the influence of the injured Thiago Alcantara in the midfield, and arguably still have a bit of a Georginio Wijnaldum-shaped hole after the ever-reliable Dutchman left for Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

Up top, they were looking as good as ever, with early goals from Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah seemingly putting them in control. Mane did well to round Edouard Mendy and fire home seconds after Mason Mount had failed to do the same at the other end, while Salah was sumptuous as he dribbled past Marcos Alonso and caressed the ball in at Mendy's near post to make it two.

Klopp will undoubtedly miss the dynamic duo as they now head off to the Africa Cup of Nations, with Salah in particular in the form of his life, getting his 16th league goal of the campaign and his 150th in all competitions in English football.

Mane actually ended a dry spell here, having gone nine games without a goal in all competitions. Senegal will be pleased at least that he seemed to have his spark back at Stamford Bridge, but with back-ups Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi currently injured and Roberto Firmino out with COVID-19, Klopp will perhaps have to get quite creative to fill the huge void Mane and Salah will leave for the next few weeks.

Both managers have selection headaches on the horizon, but after another weekend in which everything possible went the way of Pep Guardiola, the likelihood is that those selection headaches will only be in an effort to ultimately clinch second spot in this year's Premier League.

Manchester City picked up from where they left off in 2021 by battling to a late 2-1 win over Arsenal, extending their lead at the Premier League summit.

A Riyad Mahrez penalty and a last-gasp strike from Rodri cancelled out Bukayo Saka's first-half opener after Gabriel Magalhaes received a needless red card for the Gunners in an action-packed game – the first top-flight match of 2022.

City's 11th league win in a row means they end New Year's Day with an 11-point advantage at the top, a tally bettered by only two clubs in the competition's history on January 1 – Manchester United in 1993-94 and City themselves in 2017-18 (both 12 points).

There were also victories for Tottenham and West Ham, the London pair seeing off Watford and Crystal Palace respectively to remain in firm contention for a top-four finish.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of Opta data from Saturday's action. 

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester City: Leaders recover to stretch winning run against Gunners

Saka's opening goal against City was only the second the Citizens have conceded in the first half of a Premier League game this season, and the first such goal they have shipped on their travels since May.

That was the England international's sixth league goal of the season and was the 36th goal scored by a player aged 21 or under for Arsenal in the English top flight since Mikel Arteta's first game on Boxing Day 2019 – eight more than any other team.

Mahrez converted a contentiously awarded penalty shortly before the hour mark at Emirates Stadium, the Algeria international scoring for a fifth game running in all competitions, and Gabriel's second yellow card – 78 seconds after his first – swung the game in City's favour.

That was Arsenal's 100th red card in the Premier League era, making them the first side to reach that milestone, with Everton (99), Newcastle United (90) and Chelsea (82) next on the list.

Rodri completed the turnaround with City's latest winning goal in a league game since May 2018 (92:28) as the Citizens made it 10 successive top-flight victories over the Gunners, an opponent Pep Guardiola has yet to lose against in the league in 12 encounters.

Watford 0-1 Tottenham: Sanchez stings Hornets in late Spurs win

Tottenham also left it late to overcome Watford and make it eight Premier League games without defeat under Antonio Conte, extending the longest unbeaten start by a Spurs boss in league competition.

Davinson Sanchez made the breakthrough with 95 minutes and 45 seconds played, with that the latest winning goal Spurs have scored in the top flight since Opta started recording such data from 2006-07.

Watford dug deep but could not quite hold on for a valuable point, meaning they have now lost more Premier League matches (nine) since Claudio Ranieri took charge in October than any other side in the division.

Sanchez's goal was his second in five Premier League matches for Spurs, which is more than he had netted in his first 108 in the competition (one), with the defender heading in from a Son Heung-min free-kick.

Watford boss Ranieri has now lost each of his last five Premier League games against Italian managers, whereas compatriot Conte has never lost against a fellow Italian in the competition in six meetings, winning all but one of those.

Crystal Palace 2-3 West Ham: Hammers survive Olise-inspired scare

Palace fell just short of pulling off a remarkable comeback as they lost a home league match on New Year's Day for the first time in their history, with this their 14th such match.

Michail Antonio's close-range finish and a Manuel Lanzini double gave West Ham a commanding three-goal lead, the latter having now scored 52 per cent of his 25 Premier League goals in London derbies (13) – the highest percentage of any player to have scored at least 20 times in the competition.

Michael Olise made a huge difference from the bench by setting up Odsonne Edouard and then scoring a second for Palace late on, making him the first Eagles player to score and assist as a substitute in the Premier League.

But the visitors held on to ensure boss David Moyes made it six straight away league wins against Palace as a manager, defeating a different coach on each occasion during that perfect run (Alan Smith, Iain Dowie, Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and now Patrick Vieira).

The January transfer window is officially open for business, with most eyes pointing in the direction of Newcastle United following their takeover by a Saudi consortium earlier this season.

The long-awaited transaction was approved by the Premier League in October after it received "legally binding assurances" that the club would not be controlled by the Saudi Arabian government.

The takeover saw the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) take an 80 per cent stake in the club, ending Mike Ashley's 14-year ownership.

Replacing Steve Bruce with Eddie Howe in the dugout was the first move by the new owners, but the apparent richest club in the world are expected to really flex their muscles in the transfer market over the next few years, likely beginning this month.

Head coach Howe has already indicated he intends to dip into the significant amounts of cash available in an attempt to keep the Magpies in the Premier League, and Stats Perform has taken a look at where that money might be best spent.

Keylor Navas (Paris Saint-Germain)

In theory, the smartest thing for Newcastle to do would be to build for the future, so it may seem counter-intuitive to start by suggesting a 35-year-old, but the fact is they need results right now.

When trying to build stability, it almost always starts in goal where you must have a reliable figure to save the day when needed, but most importantly, to build confidence and reassurance through the spine of a team.

With all due respect to Karl Darlow and Martin Dubravka, Newcastle can do better, and with the position of the experienced Navas currently under threat in Paris thanks to the arrival of Gianluigi Donnarumma at the start of the season, this could be an opportunity to bring in a genuinely world-class option right now.

The Costa Rican was a near ever-present at PSG last season, making 45 appearances in all competitions, and boasted the best save percentage in Europe's top five leagues of goalkeepers who played at least 15 games (79.55).

Navas has still played 11 league games this season while Donnarumma is eased in, with his save percentage only slightly declining (77.27), and still comfortably ahead of Darlow (60.53) and Dubravka (58.33).

The former Real Madrid stopper would bring experience of succeeding at the top level, having won three Champions Leagues at the Santiago Bernabeu, and might consider it one last hurrah to be a regular at an ambitious Premier League project rather than staying put to watch from the bench at the Parc des Princes.

If Howe wants someone a bit younger, he could look at Sevilla's Yassine 'Bono' Bounou, who was second to Navas in save percentage last season (76.62) and has improved on that so far this campaign (78.26), with a significantly higher number of catches as well (18 to Navas' two), which suggests he might be more suited to the Premier League where crosses are more prevalent.

However, it is unlikely that Sevilla – who have the best defensive record in LaLiga this season – would countenance a move in January, and Bounou will be on Africa Cup of Nations duty for most of the next month with Morocco anyway, so would probably be one to revisit in the summer.

Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid)

Slightly easier to predict this one, as the former Tottenham right-back has been heavily linked with a move to St James' Park in recent weeks.

Trippier is seen as an upgrade on Javier Manquillo, which on the face of it, might not be such an obvious assumption based on this season.

The England international is yet to register a goal or assist in 14 games in all competitions, while Manquillo has one goal and two assists in 12 games, although Trippier has created seven chances to Manquillo's four.

Trippier has a slightly superior pass completion percentage in the opposition half (72.89 to 68.18) but the Spaniard has the edge on duel success percentage (63.73 to 58.16) and dribble success rate (53.33 to 46.15).

Although Trippier may not have excelled in this campaign yet, his prior record in England counts in his favour, particularly his last season at Tottenham.

In 2018-19, he created 49 chances in 27 Premier League games, the third highest for defenders behind only Lucas Digne (71) and Andy Robertson (51), having played eight and nine games fewer than both respectively, and more than Trent Alexander-Arnold (48) having played two games fewer.

If Trippier can rediscover that creativity, he could give Howe an extra dimension, including the possibility to utilise wing-backs, where he has played on occasion for his country.

Sven Botman (Lille)

The Dutch centre-back was being linked with some of Europe's top clubs at the end of last season after winning Ligue 1 with Lille, but ultimately stayed at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

However, he has been a name closely mentioned with Newcastle in recent weeks, with rumours of a £30million price being placed on his head, but how does the 21-year-old compare to the Magpies' current options?

This season, Botman has a better duel success rate (68.49) than each of Jamaal Lascelles (64.13), Federico Fernandez (62.50) and Fabian Schar (45.90), as well as more successful long passes (50) than all three, which could provide the likes of Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron with more immediate service.

He has also conceded only five fouls, compared to 11 each from Lascelles and Schar, which should mean fewer dangerous set-pieces around the box to defend.

Botman would be someone who could come in and make an immediate impact given his experience at Lille, but would also be one for the future, and someone that Howe could potentially build his backline around for years to come.

Boubacar Kamara (Marseille)

Like most other players with a pulse, Kamara has been regularly linked with a move to the Premier League, with his current contract at the Stade Velodrome expiring at the end of the season.

Kamara is primarily a defensive midfielder and could be another option for Howe to shore up what is currently a rather jellified spine at Newcastle.

The 22-year-old compares favourably to Isaac Hayden and Jonjo Shelvey in most metrics, having scored the same number of goals (one), while creating more open-play chances than both (10), having a better duel success rate (55.56), and making more interceptions (16) and more recoveries (63).

Like Botman, Kamara is a player who could come in and be an immediate improvement, while also being someone for the long term.

Some Newcastle fans might think that a creative midfielder would be a better investment at this stage, in which case you could look at the likes of out-of-favour duo Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona) or Todd Cantwell (Norwich City), or even outside shouts like Ligue 1 pair Benjamin Bourigeaud (Rennes) or Teji Savanier (Montpellier).

Having plenty of steel in the midfield seems more important for Howe when trying to develop teams though, as seen when he spent the vast majority of his budget at Bournemouth on signing Jefferson Lerma from Levante in 2018.

Ben Brereton Diaz (Blackburn Rovers)

Although starting to rebuild Newcastle should definitely start with Howe putting in a strong base, one area he simply has to address in January is up top, especially with Callum Wilson facing a spell on the sidelines with a calf injury.

Only Wilson (six) and Saint-Maximin (four) have scored more than once in the league for Newcastle this season, and Howe needs someone else to call upon who can find the net on a regular basis, which is something Brereton Diaz has been doing, especially after deciding to become Chilean.

The 22-year-old has been in ruthless form for Blackburn this season, bagging 20 goals in 24 Championship games for Tony Mowbray's side, putting him second only to former Newcastle forward Aleksandar Mitrovic (22 goals for Fulham).

It is a remarkable improvement for the Stoke-born striker, who only managed 17 goals in 133 Championship appearances prior to this season but has exploded since becoming a Chile international, even representing the country of his mother's birth at last year's Copa America.

He is a player who looks ready for the next level, while also potentially being in a position where he will be happy to rotate with Wilson once he returns.

Plus, Newcastle have had decent success in buying strikers from Blackburn in the past.

The important thing for Newcastle is to not run before they can walk. There has been a noticeable improvement in performances if not results since Howe arrived, but getting from where they are to where they want to be is certainly not going to happen overnight.

Using their newfound wealth to build slowly and sensibly should ensure that whatever happens down the line, they can at least put the foundations in for sustained success rather than going for the biggest and flashiest names right away.

Staying in the Premier League is the primary goal for the remainder of this season, then at the end of the campaign they can perhaps look to progress to the next level.

Then again, if they can sign Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe then frankly, have at it lads.

2021 is dead – long live 2022.

It's a new year, and while the one changing to a two literally overnight may seem arbitrary, it gives us an excuse to look ahead and what's on the horizon.

Of course, we're now into a World Cup year – 12 months from now, we'll have newly crowned world champions and, who knows, maybe a new superstar or two will have emerged.

While there's no guarantee about a player's trajectory, Stats Perform have at least put together a list of 22 under-22 players who could be worth keeping an eye out for in 2022.

GOALKEEPERS

Etienne Green, 21, English – Saint-Etienne

Honestly, he's not included just because of the perfection of a player called Etienne Green playing for Les Verts, Saint-Etienne – though that certainly warrants a mention. Colchester-born Green has played 23 times in Ligue 1 for the club, making Leeds United's Ilan Meslier the only goalkeeper born after 2000 to play more often (53) across the top five leagues. In April he became the fourth Ligue 1 keeper since Opta records began (2006-07) to save a penalty on his debut and he's since gone on to nail down a starting spot. Having recently declared for England over France, Green could be an outside bet for Gareth Southgate's squad at Qatar 2022.

Maarten Vandevoordt, 19, Belgian – Genk

In 2019, Vandevoordt became the Champions League's youngest ever goalkeeper at 17 years and 287 days old – it proved to be a bit of a nightmare as Genk lost 4-0, with youngster at fault for two goals. It would've been enough to shatter the confidence of most young players, but Vandevoordt's since gone on to become first-choice, playing 16 league games in 2020-21 and all 21 this term.

DEFENDERS

Kaiky, 17, Brazilian – Santos

If there's any area of the pitch that one might consider to be the hardest to establish yourself in as a young player, most would say centre-back. Yet, despite not turning 18 until January 12, Kaiky has racked up an impressive number of appearances there for Santos. He played more minutes in the 2021 Brasileirao (1,334 minutes) and the Libertadores (495) than any other under-19 player and has impressed with his comfort in possession, aerial ability and demonstrable appetite for defending. He has a long way to go, but he sure has made a promising start.

Becir Omeragic, 19, Swiss – FC Zurich

Omeragic is among the most highly rated young centre-backs in Europe and was in Switzerland's Euro 2020 squad – despite still being only 19, he's already played 71 Swiss Super League games for Zurich. This season he ranks highly in numerous metrics among defenders, such as tackle attempts (29, fifth-highest), interceptions (26, seventh-highest) and possession won (105, fifth-highest), while he offers good progression on the ball, his carry progress of 1,796.6m upfield being the fourth-best among all defenders – two of those are full-backs. Expect to see him in one of Europe's biggest leagues fairly soon.

Ilya Zabarnyi, 19, Ukrainian – Dynamo Kiev

Previously linked with Chelsea, among other major clubs, Zabarnyi caught the eye at Euro 2020 with some mature displays. Despite being the joint-youngest player in the squad, Zabarnyi was one of the five players to play every minute for Ukraine, and among those to feature for at least 100 minutes, he ranked in the top three for touches (72.8) and passes (60.6) on a per-90 basis. Similarly, only four played more passes into the final third than him (4.7), and three of those were midfielders. A move to a bigger league will give us a better idea of just how good Zabarnyi is, but the promise is there.

Ethan Laird, 20, English – Swansea City (on loan from Manchester United)

Manchester United have rated right-back Laird highly for a while – he actually made his senior debut for them as far back as November 2019 in the Europa League. Since then, he showed great promise at Milton Keynes Dons and then followed coach Russell Martin in making the jump to the Championship with Swansea City, where he's continued to impress. Only three defenders in the division have created more chances than him in open play (23), while his five big chances created is the second-most in the Swans squad. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka seemingly unable to kick on at United, Laird's opportunity may arrive in 2022.

Alex Balde, 18, Spanish – Barcelona

Barcelona have seemingly once again become great trusters of youth – not that their situation has given them much of a choice. Balde's not yet one of those to become a regular, and you'd think he will struggle to dislodge Jordi Alba at left-back, but in his four LaLiga appearances the 18-year-old has shown real promise with his ability on the ball and pace. Given his skillset and Xavi's desire to play with classic wingers, he may find himself used further up the pitch – either way, he's definitely one to watch.

George Bello, 19, American – Atlanta United

Nigeria-born Bello may not be 20 until late January, but he's already made a strong impression in MLS, so much so that he became a regular part of the USA's senior side in 2021. Added to that, his 2,433 minutes played was the most of any MLS player to end the season as a teenager. An attack-minded left-back, Bello is excellent on the ball and possesses great pace, and he may well be on the move soon given his contract expires at the end of 2022. If anyone takes a punt, they could be rewarded handsomely.

MIDFIELDERS

Yacine Adli, 21, French – Bordeaux (on loan from Milan)

Milan fans have every reason to be excited about Adli. The kind of silky playmaker that makes almost everything look effortless, he has created more chances after a carry (11) than any other midfielder in Ligue 1 this term. He may not be a great goal threat himself, but his six assists is the second-most among the same group of players (Dimitri Payet has seven) – all of Adli's were from open play, however, which is the most the league's midfielders. Whether he can keep that up at Milan is unclear, but if he can, they'll have a real asset on their hands.

Unai Vencedor, 21, Spanish – Athletic Bilbao

Athletic are one of LaLiga's stranger teams in that they don't win, lose, score or concede very often, yet that's not stopping Vencedor from thriving. A controlling presence with satisfying calmness on the ball in centre midfield, Vencedor is mature for his age and already has significant influence over Athletic's play. Just Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams have been involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences than Vencedor (47) among Athletic players, while the former (eight) is the only one with more instances of being involved in build-up and taking the shot (five) at the end, highlighting his importance to not only keeping them on the ball but also posing an attacking threat.

Nicolo Rovella, 20, Italian – Genoa (on loan from Juventus)

Granted, Rovella's hardly a hidden gem given Juve signed him in a deal potentially worth €20m last January, but he's still not quite a household name. Nevertheless, he looks a real prospect. A deep-lying midfielder, Rovella is elegant on the ball, hard-working without it and excellent at set-pieces. For struggling Genoa this season, his 4.0 possession wins every 90 minutes in the middle third is the 15th highest among Serie A midfielders (min. 500 minutes played), as is his 1.4 successful tackles – though only four players from the same group who have attempted at least 20 boast a better success rate than him (71.4). There's talk he could be recalled by Juve in January, which highlights the impression he's making.

Caden Clark, 18, American – RB Leipzig

With goals against Atlanta United and then Toronto four days later in October 2020, Clark became the youngest player MLS history to score in each of his first two games – the second was an absolute scorcher as well. The 18-year-old agreed a move from New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig in 2021 and he officially makes the switch in January, with no return loan planned. The technically gifted midfielder has his chance to make it in the big-time, and the Bundesliga has previously been a good next step for MLS stars.

Hannibal Mejbri, 18, Tunisian – Manchester United

Some United fans are disappointed Hannibal didn't get more opportunities under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he's been restricted with Ralf Rangnick because of his involvement in the Arab Cup and the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations. But when he returns, there's every indication he may get more chances, or at least that's what Rangnick recently intimated. A silky and creative midfielder, but one who has a tendency to lose his head, Hannibal might be able to provide the extra injection of craft often missing from United's midfield.

WINGERS

Kayky, 18, Brazilian – Manchester City

There's every chance Kayky and Angelo could be challenging each other for a spot in the senior Brazil team one day. Now at Manchester City after joining from Fluminense in a deal apparently worth an initial £8.4million, Kayky's development is going to be fascinating to watch. With Flu, the talented winger became the club's youngest player and goalscorer in the Libertadores before making the switch to England in pre-season. He was on the bench for the Boxing Day win over Leicester City, and with COVID-19 cases proving an issue across the Premier League, there's every chance we may see a bit more of Kayky in the near future.

Angelo Gabriel, 17, Brazilian – Santos

Every year it seems there's a new Brazilian teenager causing a stir and subsequently being linked with a big move to Europe – the latest is Angelo Gabriel. The newest 'new Neymar', Angelo is actually a left-footed right winger but the similarities in style of play are at least comparable in that he's a good dribbler, skilful and likes to cut inside off the flank. Angelo's made the jump up to the first team a little earlier than Neymar, though – he only turned 17 in December but already has 51 first-team appearances to his name. In April, he became the Copa Libertadores' youngest-ever scorer (16 years, 105 days old) and was also the only under-17 player to feature in the 2021 Brasileirao.

Alan Velasco, 19, Argentinian – Independiente

Showing quality in Argentina's domestic league isn't always a guarantee of future greatness, but doing well as a tricky youngster does speak to a certain degree of bravery and resilience given the brutal reputation of the top flight. Velasco is among the league's most-promising young players, a skilful, quick and dangerous left winger. His 62 chances created this season is the fifth most in the division, while no player can better his 198 dribbles completed. Could he be a wildcard choice for Argentina at the World Cup? Don't rule it out.

Rayan Cherki, 18, French – Lyon

It feels like 2022 could be a massive year for Cherki. The versatile attacker is still nowhere near being a regular at Lyon, despite many feeling Peter Bosz's appointment might prove a boost to the teenager – after all, he played an important role in developing Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz. Yet, the raw ability is undoubtedly there for Cherki – whether he'll be able to harness that properly at Lyon remains to be seen, with suggestions growing that he might seek a move away in the next year.

FORWARDS

Yuri Alberto, 20, Brazilian – Internacional

Yuri Alberto looks likely to be 'one who got away' for Santos. He left for Internacional in 2020 after initially showing promise at Vila Belmiro and has been a shrewd acquisition, scoring 22 times in 56 Brasileirao appearances, the most of any player currently 24 or younger. His 12 in the 2021 season was only bettered by four players and he scored more hat-tricks than anyone else (three) during the calendar year – one of those being netted in the late-finishing 2020 campaign.

Mohamed-Ali Cho, 17, French – Angers

A dynamic, exciting forward who is most comfortable out wide at the moment, Cho may only be 17 but he already has 39 Ligue 1 appearances under his belt. Where France seem to have lost out to England with Green, Les Bleus look to be winning the battle for Cho, who spent five years at Everton until 2020. Now a France Under-21 international, Cho is the youngest player to have scored in Ligue 1 this season having netted against Rennes back in August when he was aged 17 years and 222 days.

Ricardo Pepi, 18, American – FC Dallas

Yes, another American. While Clark may not make it into the United States' World Cup squad, Pepi almost certainly will. A very well-rounded striker who is tall, agile and hard-working, Pepi has also – perhaps most importantly – proven an able finisher, with his 13 MLS goals in the 2021 season being the joint-most ever managed by a teenager in the competition. Similarly, he's also the youngest player to ever score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers for the USA. He has a long-term contract at Dallas, but no one would be surprised to see him leave for Europe in 2022, with Germany a likely destination. Expect him to fetch the largest ever fee for an American leaving MLS.

Matias Arezo, 19, Uruguayan – River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo. He scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he surpassed that haul with 15 from six fewer appearances in 2021. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe. A well-built striker, he's definitely one to watch ahead of the World Cup – assuming Uruguay get there.

Julian Alvarez, 21, Argentinian – River Plate

A sensational last couple of months in 2021 elevated Alvarez to a new level, one which has seen him mentioned regularly in transfer gossip columns – United are apparently especially keen. The striker, now an Argentina international, scored a total of 24 club goals across 2021, while also setting up a further 12 in the league, showing both his ability to finish chances and create them. A move abroad seems highly probable – where that takes him and how he does will be intriguing to watch, particularly ahead of the World Cup.

Moreso than any other team in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers have lived at opposite ends of the league over the last two decades. 

Since 2002-03, Cleveland has finished with 25 or fewer wins in seven different seasons, tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the most in basketball.

But those seven dreadful seasons have also yielded some generational talents in the NBA Draft, most notably LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, leading to eight seasons with 50 or more wins over that span, the most in the Eastern Conference and the fourth most in the NBA. 

In the three full campaigns since James left Cleveland for the second time, the Cavs have gone an NBA-worst 60-159, but fans in Ohio are hopeful that this season's 20-15 start is evidence that those lean years have produced enough talent to fuel a franchise turnaround yet again.

Last season the Cavs accrued 34 losses before earning their 20th win, but their improvement runs even deeper. 

Cleveland has improved in almost every significant statistical category, but the growth on defense has been dramatic. Last year's squad had one of the league's five worst defenses, allowing 112.1 points per 100 possessions. This year, the Cavaliers are allowing 102.2 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the league and the top in the East.

When combined with an offense that has shown incremental improvement, the Cavaliers have a net rating of +5.2 per 100 possessions, the fourth best in the NBA and ahead of fellow Eastern contenders like the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks.

All of this has come with Cleveland facing the NBA's third-toughest schedule so far, with an average opponents' win percentage of .526. 

While some predicted that the Cavs' hot start would fizzle out into another losing season, the team has maintained its wining ways through nearly half the season and looks to be in position to continue.

Despite playing in a division with the Bucks and surprisingly good Chicago Bulls, Cleveland's remaining schedule is the easiest in the NBA by opponents’ average win percentage, with a majority of the upcoming being played at home.

Rookie Evan Mobley, selected with the third overall pick in July's draft, has been the catalyst for Cleveland's transformation this season. The 20-year-old big man is fourth in rookie scoring at 14.3 points per game but has made an all-around impact more typical of a veteran than a player who was in high school two years ago.

 

The Cavs' selection of the seven-footer Mobley was criticized by some pundits as redundant after the franchise had just re-signed center Jarrett Allen to a contract worth $100million earlier last offseason. 

Mobley and Allen have answered critics by forging one of the most formidable frontcourt defenses in the NBA. When Mobley and Allen are on the court together, the Cavaliers have a preposterous 95.3 defensive rating and opponents are shooting just 40.7 percent from the floor.

In a league that continues to downsize, Mobley has started most of his games at power forward, but the Cavs have found they do not sacrifice much offensively because their young star is so skilled and versatile.

While Allen has thrived around the rim this season, Mobley has the skill and athleticism to play everywhere, spacing the floor and keeping the ball moving on offense while smothering all sizes of players on defense.

Credit is due to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who identified early on that his frontcourt players were talented enough that he could buck the league's small-ball trend by starting his twin towers lineup.

Bickerstaff also had the courage to tell Kevin Love, the team's highest-paid player, that he would be coming off the bench. Love, who has been openly disgruntled about Cleveland's losing records in previous years, has embraced his new role and has seen a resurgence in both enthusiasm and efficiency.

The Cavaliers have been so pleased with Bickerstaff's leadership, in fact, that the parties agreed to a multiyear extension last week that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season.

Bickerstaff, Mobley and Allen – who is still just 23 years old – form a foundation that Cleveland intends to build upon for the next several years.

The Cavs' other unquestioned franchise staple is point guard Darius Garland, who has continued to improve in his third year. Garland is on pace for career-highs with 19.5 points per game, 7.3 assists per game and 47.9-percent shooting from the field. 

 

Garland has been forced to shoulder a heavy offensive burden and will be an even more vital player as the Cavs entered the second half of the season.

Backcourt mate and last year's leading scorer Collin Sexton was lost for the season after tearing cartilage in his left knee on Nov. 7.

Sexton's injury forced veteran guard Ricky Rubio into a more prominent role, a combination that worked very well for several weeks until Rubio suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Tuesday, ending his season as well.

The thinning of their backcourt led to the Cavs trading for the 16th-year veteran as an experienced floor general just before the calendar flipped to 2022.

It looks as if the 2021-22 season will be one of attrition, and a lack of depth may ultimately prevent the Cavaliers from maintaining an elite point differential in the East. But with a team so young, the franchise would have to be pleased just to play in the postseason again.

Going forward, however, Cleveland faces a crossroads decision in the coming offseason with Sexton's contract. The fourth-year guard is in the final year of his rookie deal, and the front office must decide if the Garland-Sexton backcourt combination is the best long-term option.

Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game last season, making it seem like offering him an extension would be the obvious solution. But high-scoring numbers like that typically demand a maximum contract – in this case, $173million over five years.

Garland and Sexton both stand just 6ft1, creating some flexibility issues. Since the latter was drafted in 2018, the Cavaliers have been wiling to live with a defensive liability in the backcourt as they focused on collecting talent and developing young players.

But now that Cleveland appears ready to make a run at the playoffs, more serious questions must be answered.

During Sexton's four-season tenure, the Cavs have allowed a staggering 115.5 points per 100 possessions while he is on the court versus 107.2 when he sits.

And despite Sexton's impressive scoring numbers, Cleveland's offensive numbers while he his on and off the court are virtually identical – over a sample size of over 12,000 minutes.

Paying Sexton long-term could lock in a future where the Cavs have the league's smallest backcourt and largest frontcourt, making them vulnerable to perimeter shot creators with size, the kind that has proven to be invaluable in postseason play.

All of that said, any team would be foolish to surrender a talented scorer like Sexton for nothing. A small-market team like Cleveland would be outright negligent. He is likely to get his extension, especially with the entire core being so young.

Garland, Sexton, Mobley and Allen have played less than 120 minutes on the floor together, and Cleveland's brass is likely to want to see them grow a bit more together.

Plus, teams in markets that are not free agency destinations simply do not have the luxury of being so choosy about trying to construct the ideal roster.

Although this Cavs team has some quirks that might project into a playoff ceiling in the future, Cleveland's front office has organically built a fun team – and one that appears to be a winner.

That is something the Cavs haven't done without LeBron James since last century.

The Golden State Warriors won a potential Western Conference Finals preview on Christmas Day and will look to mark the New Year by prevailing in another on the road at the Utah Jazz.

Golden State are tied for the best record in the NBA at 27-7 and the Warriors beat the team level with them, the Phoenix Suns, in Arizona on their previous away trip.

Since then, the Warriors have paid the price for a slow start in a narrow home defeat to the Denver Nuggets and seen a return clash in Colorado postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within their opponents' camp.

That at least gave the Warriors the chance for extra rest ahead of a meeting with the red-hot Jazz, who are third in the conference with a 25-9 record and riding a five-game winning streak.

They maintained their winning run without star point guard Donovan Mitchell, who has missed the previous two games with a strained back, Rudy Gobert leading Utah to a 120-105 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers last time out.

Utah will hope Mitchell returns to set up a compelling matchup with the NBA's three-point king Stephen Curry, who became the first man to reach 3,000 career three-pointers in that defeat to the Nuggets.

Curry will predictably shoulder the scoring burden for the Warriors as the long-awaited return of his 'Splash Brother' Klay Thompson from a two-season-long absence grows closer.

With Draymond Green and Jordan Poole both in the NBA's coronavirus protocol, it may have to be a one-man show in Salt Lake City if the Warriors are to prevail, Golden State having scored under 90 points for the first time this season in the loss to Denver.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Golden State Warriors – Andrew Wiggins

Minus Curry's chief facilitator in Green and emerging young guard Poole, the primary support for the Warriors' main man must come from Wiggins.

The former number one overall pick has finally found a home with the Warriors and leads the team with an effective field goal percentage of 56.6.

Utah Jazz – Rudy Gobert

The man known as the Stifle Tower is enjoying a magnificent season.

France international Gobert leads the league in rebounds per game (14.9) and field goal percentage (71.6), while he is second for blocks per game (2.3). However, given Curry's tendency for feasting on centers, the Jazz will surely try to avoid getting him isolated on the Golden State star.

KEY BATTLE – Can Mitchell master Chef Curry?

Mitchell has been sensational when on the court this season. He is averaging 25.4 points per game while his plus-minus per game of 7.6 is the eighth-best in the NBA.

However, both those numbers are inferior to Curry, who is second in the league with 27.7 points and leads the NBA with an average plus-minus of 11.7.

Few players can claim to have come anywhere close to matching Curry's overall influence this campaign. Mitchell's ability to do so on New Year's Day could have a huge bearing on who eventually claims the one seed in the West.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Warriors have won their past two games against the Jazz, though both of those triumphs came at home. Golden State's most recent win in the Beehive state came back in October 2018. 

Only two weeks of the NFL's longest regular season remain, and the playoff picture could become significantly clearer during the penultimate slate of games.

Seven teams can clinch a postseason berth in Week 17, though a crowded fight for the Wild Card spots in both conferences makes the final playoff lineup difficult to predict.

That is where Stats Perform's rest-of-season projection comes in. It allows us to forecast what the playoff picture will look like come the end of Week 18.

Every future game is projected to give a predicted win percentage for each team across its remaining games. Rather than being a simulator of future games, the projections are calculated by looking at each team's quarterback and performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations as well as team values for pass protection/pass rush, skill position players/coverage defenders and run blocking/run defense.

The projected win percentages are then aggregated to produce the forecasted standings, which, if they come to pass, would produce a potential reunion of former New England Patriots quarterbacks in the opening round.

 

AFC

Division Winners: 1. Kansas City Chiefs, 2. Tennessee Titans, 3. Buffalo Bills, 4. Cincinnati Bengals

Wild Cards: 5. New England Patriots, 6. Indianapolis Colts, 7. Los Angeles Chargers

Week 16's results had no significant impact on the Chiefs' position as the favourite for the first-round bye, with Kansas City (12.6 projected wins) looking at a 13-4 finish that would see them claim the one seed by a comfortable margin ahead of two 11-6 teams in the Tennessee Titans (11.2) and the Buffalo Bills (10.6).

Tennessee's regular-season win over the Bills gives them the tiebreaker and two seed, setting up a matchup with a seventh-seeded Los Angeles Chargers team (9.1) predicted to squeak into the playoffs even after their meltdown against the Houston Texans.

The movement is in the AFC East, where the Bills' dominant win over the New England Patriots (10.3) has put them in an excellent position to claim the division title and a home playoff game. However, as the three seed, that would come against the surging Indianapolis Colts (10.0) and a ground game that gashed the Bills for 264 yards in Week 11.

New England, meanwhile, would face a road game with the Cincinnati Bengals (9.5) and arguably the hottest quarterback in football, Joe Burrow delivering a well-thrown ball on an astonishing 95.7 per cent of his passes in a Week 16 win over the Baltimore Ravens that saw him rack up 525 yards and four touchdowns.

The forecast has the Miami Dolphins (8.8) missing out despite their seven-game winning streak, though their superior record in common games means they would win a tiebreaker with the Chargers if both finished 9-8.

NFC

Division Winners: 1. Green Bay Packers, 2. Los Angeles Rams, 3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4. Dallas Cowboys

Wild Cards: 5. Arizona Cardinals, 6. San Francisco 49ers, 7. Philadelphia Eagles

The Green Bay Packers (13.4) appear to be surging towards the top seed in the NFC, though they are forecast to do so while dropping one of their last two games, against the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions, and winning a three-way tie with the Los Angeles Rams (12.5) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12.5).

Los Angeles' regular-season win over the Bucs would give them the second seed and a Wild Card matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles (9.3). Eagles signal-caller Jalen Hurts has the best well-thrown percentage (80.4) of any quarterback (min. 10 attempts) to average at least nine air yards per attempt.

A potential showdown between Tom Brady and the man formerly seen as his heir apparent with the Patriots, Jimmy Garoppolo – or Trey Lance depending on how his likely start against the Houston Texans goes – would beckon with the San Francisco 49ers (9.4) projected to end the year as the sixth seed and visit the Bucs despite their Thursday Night Football collapse against the Titans.

The Arizona Cardinals (11.0) have failed to score 20 points in each of their last two games and their recent slump is predicted to set up a road playoff game with a Dallas Cowboys (12.2) attack that exploded for 497 total yards and six touchdowns in their blowout Week 16 win over the Washington Football Team.

January 1 ushers the start of a new year and, for many, a chance for a fresh start. That is particularly true in the world of football as it signals the day the transfer window opens and some of Europe's top talents can plot a lucrative move elsewhere.

A number of the sport's top talents, including Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappe and Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, are due to be out of contract at the end of 2021-22 and can therefore open talks with teams abroad in January.

While the futures of Mbappe and Pogba will be heavily discussed in the coming weeks, other big names across the continent will also become that little more attractive to buyers given their availability on a free (notwithstanding their lucrative salaries, of course!).

Stats Perform looks at the best players soon to be out of contract and therefore available to sign pre-contract agreements elsewhere from January 1.

 

Hugo Lloris (Tottenham)

Where better place to start than with a goalkeeper potentially seeking a new destination. Lloris has spent 10 seasons with Tottenham and has captained the side for the past six years, while also skippering the France national team since 2012.

Spurs have historically been reluctant to offer long-term deals to players in their 30s and that policy could see them lose one of European football's finest goalkeepers from the past decade. He has racked up 392 appearances for Tottenham, keeping 131 clean sheets in the process.

Anthony Martial (Manchester United)

Martial did not quite transform into the superstar forward many were expecting upon joining United from Monaco six years ago, but neither has the France international been as big a flop as some would suggest.

Indeed, since making his Premier League debut in September 2015, only Marcus Rashford (57) has scored more goals for United than Martial's 56. Those goals have come from an expected goals (xG) return of 43, with that xG differential of 13 the largest of any player at the club in that timeframe.

 

Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)

Chelsea face the prospect of losing four defenders without receiving a fee of any sort at the end of the campaign, with Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva, Cesar Azpilicueta and Rudiger all nearing the end of their respective contracts.

Tying down Rudiger to fresh terms should be the priority, given there has arguably been no better defender in the Premier League since Thomas Tuchel first took charge of Chelsea on January 27, backed up by the centre-back's Premier League-leading 17 clean sheets over that period.

Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

No player has quite dominated the transfer column inches in the same manner as Pogba in recent years and, with no sign of a new contract being signed anytime soon, it now looks certain the 28-year-old will depart United for a second time.

Pogba may have struggled for consistency at Old Trafford, not helped by niggling injury issues, but he has averaged one assist per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season – a tally not matched by any player to have played more than once.

Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)

PSG rejected multiple offers from Real Madrid in 2020, but as it stands they are powerless to stop one of the game's leading lights departing at the end of the season.

As well as breaking a number of goalscoring records, Mbappe's 215 direct goal involvements in all competitions since making his PSG debut in September 2017 – 147 goals of his own and 68 assists – is a tally bettered by only Robert Lewandowski (242) and Lionel Messi (246).

 

Marcelo Brozovic (Inter)

Inter have so far been able to persuade Nicola Barella and Lautaro Martinez to extend their stays at San Siro, but Brozovic's future remains unclear heading into the new year.

Brozovic was a key part of Inter's Scudetto-winning side last term, featuring in 33 of their 38 games, and has started all 19 of their matches this campaign. Only Ruben Dias (1,713), Joao Cancelo (1,803) and William Saliba (1,840) have played more successful passes than the Croatia international (1,681) among players from Europe's top five leagues in 2021-22.

Luka Modric (Real Madrid)

Gareth Bale and Isco are two high-profile Madrid players set to move on either in January or at the end of the season, but as well as trying to seal Mbappe's signing, Madrid's other priority might be ensuring Modric does not bring an end to his decade-long spell at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2022.

Proving that age is just a number, 36-year-old Modric has been as good as ever for LaLiga leaders Madrid this season. The six big chances created by the midfielder in 2020-21, leading to four assists, has been bettered by only four others in the division.

 

Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona)

Dembele has struggled to come close to justifying his hefty transfer fee, reported to be an initial €105million, but he was recently described as having the potential to be the best attacking player in the world by head coach Xavi.

Barca president Joan Laporta is also eager to keep hold of Dembele, who has managed 30 goals and 22 assists in 126 appearances since his debut in September 2017, meaning he has been directly involved in 0.6 goals per 90 minutes. For comparison, that is an identical number to Antoine Griezmann during his short-lived stint at Camp Nou.

Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach)

Strongly touted as a target for the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Zakaria will depart Borussia Monchengladbach in 2022 after confirming to the German club that he intends to run down his contract.

The defensive midfielder averages 52.3 passes every 90 minutes and 47.1 successful ones, the latter being the ninth-most this season among Bundesliga midfielders with at least 500 minutes played. Among the same group of players, only seven average more than his two successful dribbles every 90 minutes – all of those being more attack-minded players.

Paulo Dybala (Juventus)

Dybala has indicated that he wants to remain a Juventus player beyond this season but the longer talks over a new deal drag on, the more unlikely it appears he will still be in Turin six months from now – and that would be a major blow for the Bianconeri during an already difficult period.

The Argentina international has eight goals and four assists in 17 appearances this term, without being at what many would consider his best form – at least three more direct goal involvements than Juve's next most threatening player Alvaro Morata and double that of Federico Bernardeschi in third.

Crowds came flocking back in force, we had the full complement of golf majors and tennis grand slams, and sport almost ran smoothly over the past 12 months.

To boot, there were sensational moments, featuring both the biggest names in sport and some that few had heard of at this time last year.

Here, Stats Perform looks back at some of the biggest stories of the year, and the numbers that made them so remarkable.

Jacobs, the shock Tokyo Olympics sprint king

Entering 2021, Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs had a career-best of 10.03 seconds for the 100 metres. By most standards that is staggeringly quick, but at the very elite level of sprinting it ranks as only middling. To put it into some context, 34 men ran quicker than 10.03 seconds in 2021. Jacobs finished only 19th at the 2019 World Championship and few outside of athletics circles knew the name. The former long-jumper grabbed a little attention when he produced a world-leading 6.47 seconds to win the 60 metres at the European Indoor Championships in March, then he ran 9.95 for the 100m in Savona in May, but he still headed to the Tokyo Olympics as a big outsider, not expected to be a factor. Jacobs made a mockery of his lowly billing, as he powered to personal bests in the heats and semi-finals before doing so again in the final, dashing home first in 9.80 seconds to grab gold and leaving rivals gasping in astonishment. He led Italy to sprint relay gold too, a glorious double in that country's remarkable year of success.

Emma Raducan-who? From A level exams to US Open top marks

Twelve months ago – no, make that barely six – London-based Raducanu was simply not a factor in grand slam discussions. Fresh out of school, she had to fight to earn a wildcard for Wimbledon when organisers initially baulked at the idea, but they were persuaded and Raducanu went on to reach the fourth round. The teenager who was born in Canada and has a Romanian father and Chinese mother had arrived, but it was at the US Open that she roared into the history books. There was no wildcard in New York for the British youngster, but Raducanu won three qualifying matches and then raced through the main draw, defeating 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez in the title match. She did not drop a set in 10 matches and became the first women in the Open era to win 10 main-draw matches in her first two grand slams. It made her the first qualifier to win a slam and the first US Open women's singles winner since Serena Williams in 2014 to triumph at the tournament without dropping a set along the way. The $2.5million in prize money was followed by endorsement offers from across the world as Raducanu became an instant superstar. The tennis world waits to see what comes next.

No country for old men as US win Ryder Cup

The youngest Ryder Cup team ever assembled by the United States torched European hopes at Whistling Straits in September, scoring a 19-9 victory. That was the widest margin of victory by either side since Europe, rather than Great Britain and Ireland, became the USA's opposition in 1979. Dustin Johnson bounced back from losing four of his five matches in the 2018 edition to finish with a 5-0 record, just the third player in US v Europe battles to finish with a perfect record (after Larry Nelson in 1979 and Francesco Molinari in 2018). Johnson, at 37, was the oldest player on the team. European veteran Lee Westwood matched Nick Faldo's record of 11 appearances in the match, while Sergio Garcia stretched his points record from 25.5 to 28.5 as he and Jon Rahm combined well, but it was emphatically an event that belonged to the host Americans.

Veteran Mickelson still had his day 

He might have been absent for the US team's Ryder Cup triumph, but Phil Mickelson's name was up in lights again as he became the oldest winner of a men's golf major, landing the US PGA Championship title in May. At the age of 50, Mickelson caused a huge upset at Kiawah Island, scooping his sixth career major when he held off Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen on the final day. It was his only top-10 finish of the year on the PGA Tour.

Federer bagelled, Djokovic denied Golden Slam

Strange things happened in men's tennis in 2021, not least the sight of Roger Federer suffering a 6-0 'bagel' at the end of a straight-sets Wimbledon quarter-final defeat. That happened against Hubert Hurkacz in July, and it was the last match Federer played in the year. He wants to play again, and the 40-year-old believes he can, but knee surgery will keep him out of action until mid-2022 at the earliest, by his own reckoning, and that Centre Court defeat to Hurkacz could turn out to be how his eight-title Wimbledon career ends. Novak Djokovic joined Federer and Nadal on a joint-record 20 grand slam titles by cleaning up at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, and he has now spent a record 353 weeks at number one, passing Federer this year. But Djokovic could not make it a Golden Slam, losing to eventual champion Alexander Zverev in the Olympic Games semi-finals, and a Grand Slam was just beyond him too, Daniil Medvedev winning his first major when he swept the Serbian in straight sets in the US Open final.

Another year, more records for Brady

At the age of 43, Tom Brady was MVP in the Super Bowl as he led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their 31-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in February. He now has seven Super Bowl wins behind him, another outright record, and has been MVP in the game on an unmatched five occasions. Brady, having turned 44 in August, is in the hunt for another Super Bowl ring and perhaps outright NFL MVP honours this season, although Aaron Rodgers will likely deny him the latter accolade. Still, the records keep coming for Brady. He has moved in front of Drew Brees to have the most pass completions in league history (7,200 and counting), become the first ever 15-time Pro Bowler, and in December became the first quarterback to throw 700 career touchdowns.

England's Ashes surrender calls for Root and branch review

Joe Root became the first England captain – or player, indeed – to suffer nine defeats in Tests starting in a single calendar year, in a strange 12 months for the Yorkshireman. His form with the bat has been up there with the best of his career, the 31-year-old scoring 1,708 Test runs to go third on the all-time single-year list, with only Mohammad Yousuf and Viv Richards ahead of him. Even in the Tests that England have lost, Root has made a number of handy contributions with the bat, scoring 648 runs at an average of 38.11. Overall he has scored 26 per cent of England's Test runs across the year, the highest proportion of any player for their respective team in 2021. Yet the Ashes were lost by lunch on day three of the third Test, an outrageously dismal result. Root top-scored in England's two innings in Melbourne, typically, but he cannot get a tune out of many of his team-mates, so ends the year with his future as skipper in doubt.

Curry still hot as NBA records fall

In January, LaMelo Ball became the youngest player to post a triple-double in the NBA, as the 19-year-old Charlotte Hornets prospect grabbed 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in a win over the Atlanta Hawks. Come December, the Memphis Grizzlies set two records in the same game, scoring a franchise-high number of points and winning by the biggest margin in NBA history, as they handed out a 152-79 thrashing to the Oklahoma City Thunder. December was also the month when Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors set a new three-pointer record, becoming the first man to make 3,000 threes in a career after going past Ray Allen's previous NBA record of 2,973.

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