Manchester City have won their third Premier League title in the past four seasons, also making it a hat-trick of triumphs in England's top flight for manager Pep Guardiola.

Even more so than when City racked up remarkable 100 and 98-point totals in their back-to-back 2017-18 and 2018-19 successes, this has been a tale of collective endeavour.

After a November defeat at Tottenham left Guardiola's men languishing in 11th, with 12 points from eight games, a steady turnaround occurred, with City establishing irresistible momentum by the early weeks of 2021.

This version of City might not be as freewheeling and freescoring as in previous years – they are set to fall well short of the 102 goals they managed despite coming a distant second to Liverpool last term – but they have proved no less effective.

Here, we look at some of the key figures in their revival.

Ruben Dias

There were a number of factors that helped Guardiola to put the pieces back together after a crushing 5-2 defeat in City's first Premier League home game of the season versus Leicester City, but the fact they secured Dias as a club-record signing from Benfica two days later feels heavily symbolic.

The Portugal centre-back instantly provided the defensive leadership City have lacked since Vincent Kompany's departure in 2019 and shoring things up at the back took the pressure off an attack struggling to adjust to Sergio Aguero's more marginal role.

In Dias' 30 Premier League appearances, City have conceded 18 goals, four of which were penalties, set against an expected goals against (xGA) figure of 21.3. In the 30 games prior to his debut, Guardiola's men conceded 32 goals, including six penalties, from 29.5 xGA against.

The 23-year-old has unquestionably added a layer of steel that City previously lacked - something that was emphatically demonstrated by his heroic midweek showing against Paris Saint-Germain - although he is not the only player responsible for this development.

John Stones

Forlorn battles with form and fitness in 2019-20 left Stones at a career crossroads. Had Eric Garcia signed a new contract instead of running his deal down in order to join Barcelona on a free, his race might have been run at the Etihad Stadium.

Despite a lengthy chase for a senior centre-back – Dias having not been City's first choice – and Nathan Ake's arrival from Bournemouth, Stones chose to buckle down to rich rewards.

He impressed in City's opening 3-1 win over Wolves but then had to bide his time as a rotation option. Those midweek performances persuaded Guardiola to install him at Dias' first-choice partner after some unsteady outings from pervious mainstay Aymeric Laporte.

A goal-costing error on his return to England duty in March and a recent red card at Aston Villa showed some of the old frailties remain, but bravura showings in the Champions League wins at Borussia Dortmund and PSG demonstrated how far the 26-year-old has come.

With Stones on the pitch this season, City have conceded one goal every 195 minutes. Among defenders to have played at least 1,000 minutes in 2020-21, only Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger (219) has a better rate.

Joao Cancelo

Dias' compatriot Cancelo has typified two familiar elements when it comes to Guardiola teams – players often fare far better after a mixed initial season getting used to the Catalan tactician's demands, while innovation and excellence in the full-back areas is usually a sign of things being in very good working order

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning, he expected something we could not offer him but he is a nice guy with a great heart," Guardiola said in January, by which time it had become apparent how effective the former Juventus man was in his hybrid full-back/midfield role.

When City motored clear of the pack during 21-match winning run in all competitions that spanned December to March, Cancelo was key in helping to provide the numerical superiority in midfield Guardiola desires, while also proving versatile enough to operate both inside and outside from right-back or left-back.

Cancelo is the first Premier League player to average more than two tackles (2.7), 1.5 chances created (1.7) and 50 successful passes (61.5) per 90 minutes since Cesc Fabregas in 2017-18. To perhaps underline his unique interpretation of the full-back position, Cancelo is the only defender among the previous 10 players to hit these combined marks, going back to Aaron Ramsey in 2013-14.

Ilkay Gundogan

Particularly this season, everything in a Guardiola team is noticeably connected. The Dias-Stones axis has shored things up to the extent Cancelo can provide both extra midfield protection and an additional creative outlet.

A knock-on from this is Gundogan being able to make hay further up the field. When City last won the league in 2018-19, he performed with distinction in a holding midfield role during the run-in.

This term, the Germany playmaker has been unleashed to devastating effect, hitting a particular purple patch in front of goal as City swept all before them in January and February – netting braces to sink Liverpool and Spurs in the latter month.

In 26 appearances, Gundogan has scored 12 times. His 11 non-penalty goals are three better than any other midfielder in the division.

Gundogan's contributions have been particularly valuable give City's lack of a reliable goalscoring attacker, while also helping Guardiola's now go-to striker-less formation to flourish.

He could still finish the campaign as the lowest scoring top-scorer from a Premier League champion, a distinction presently held by Frank Lampard, who scored 13 times when Chelsea claimed glory in 2004-05.

Kevin De Bruyne

De Bruyne was named PFA Footballers' Footballer of the Year last season and has not stolen the limelight in quite the same way this time around. However, that is perhaps down to his team-mates not leaving him to fight a lone hand as he did for much of the previous campaign.

The Belgium maestro's contribution has still been very impressive. He has five goals and 11 assists in the Premier League, while he has now scored in City's past five Champions League knockout ties.

He has created 74 chances in 24 appearances, averaging 3.44 per 90 minutes – the best rate of any player in the Premier League, albeit down on his remarkable average of 4.37 last season.

Phil Foden

For club and country, Foden has enjoyed the kind of breakout season that seems to have been craved for some time, despite the fact he is still a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday.

A central midfielder as he came through the ranks at City, Foden has largely been deployed as a wide attacker and to devastating effect.

His 12 goal involvements (seven goals, five assists) are more than any under-21 player in the Premier League, while his performance and stunning solo goal in a 4-1 win at Anfield showed his taste for the big occasion – a priceless facet again demonstrated as the England international scored the winner in each leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Dortmund.

Having faced frequent calls to give Foden more game-time, Guardiola now counts the youngster as a practically locked-in selection for big games. As in each of his four seasons in senior football, Foden has featured more regularly, with 26 Premier League appearances and 15 starts to his name.

Gianluigi Buffon has confirmed he will leave Juventus but the Italy great says he might not be ready to retire.

The 43-year-old returned to Juve in 2019 following a season away at Paris Saint-Germain and has been second choice to Wojciech Szczesny since.

Buffon's announcement on Tuesday arguably did not come as a surprise; however, the fact he is still contemplating playing on may have raised some eyebrows.

If he does continue his playing career, whoever his next employers are will certainly be able to count on plenty of experience and knowhow.

Buffon is one of the sport's few stars who have played top-level football into their fifth decade.

Here are seven other legends who set an example for Buffon to follow with their remarkably long careers in the game.

 

RYAN GIGGS

The ultimate one-club man, Ryan Giggs stayed at Manchester United for the entirety of his glittering career. He managed to slowly transform himself from a rapid, tricky winger into a cultured central midfielder in the latter years of his playing days, helping to extend his time on the pitch beyond the age of 40. Giggs won an extraordinary haul of medals at Old Trafford, including 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and a pair of Champions League crowns. He played in 632 Premier League games, scoring 109 goals, with only Gareth Barry topping his appearance tally. Giggs worked as Louis van Gaal's assistant at United, having taken charge on an interim basis following the sacking of David Moyes, before going on to take charge of his country in 2018. He has been temporarily replaced as Wales boss after he was charged with assaulting two women last year, allegations that Giggs denies.

PAOLO MALDINI

Paolo Maldini was still going strong for Milan beyond his 40th birthday and, like Giggs, he only ever played for one club. Seven league titles and an incredible five European Cup/Champions League wins headline a litany of honours that Maldini helped marshal at San Siro, playing across their near impenetrable back four for almost 25 years. Maldini, son of another Milan legend, Cesare, is one of a select group of players who made over 1,000 appearances in all competitions during their career. Today, the former Italy man is back at Milan, acting as their technical director.

KAZUYOSHI MIURA

Kazuyoshi Miura is still playing, at the age of 54. That the Japanese striker made his debut almost 10 years before Buffon begins to tell part of his incredible tale. Known as King Kazu, Miura plays for Yokohama FC in Japan's top flight, becoming the club's oldest ever player at 53 in September last year. The oldest player and goalscorer in the history of global professional football, Miura is regarded as one of the finest Asian players never to have featured at a World Cup, although he made 89 appearances for his country.

 

STANLEY MATTHEWS

Before Miura snatched them off him, Stanley Matthews held the records for being both the oldest professional footballer and the oldest goalscorer in the game. Matthews - the Wizard of Dribble - made nearly 700 league appearances for Stoke City and Blackpool in a career that spanned three decades. The 1953 FA Cup final is regarded as the Matthews Final, even though Blackpool's Stan Mortensen scored a hat-trick. Matthews won the first European Footballer of the Year award, while he was officially capped for England 54 times, although he also played a host of unofficial wartime games for his country.

DINO ZOFF

Goalkeepers often play deep into their thirties, but not many captain their country to World Cup glory at the age of 40. But that is exactly what Dino Zoff did at the World Cup in 1982. He made 40 appearances in World Cup finals and qualifiers in total, while as a coach he led Italy to the final of Euro 2000. It must be something about Juventus, as Buffon's current club is also where Zoff spent the best years of his career, winning six Serie A titles.

RIVALDO

Best known for his spell at Barcelona in club football, Brazil great Rivaldo was still playing beyond his 40th birthday, albeit only briefly. Rivaldo came out of retirement to sign for Mogi Mirim, the club where his son Rivaldinho was also on the books. Rivaldo picked up two LaLiga titles at Barcelona before continuing his European adventure with Milan, winning the 2002–03 Champions League with the Rossoneri. But it is as a Brazil international that Rivaldo is best remembered, having been a key part of the side that won the World Cup in 2002.

 

ROGER MILLA

Roger Milla became the World Cup's oldest scorer when he hit the net for Cameroon in 1994 at the age of 42, having announced himself at the same tournament four years previously with his famous corner-flag dance. Milla's four goals at the 1990 World Cup helped Cameroon to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament and he is fondly regarded as one of Africa's greatest ever players. Remarkably, Milla regained the African Footballer of the Year title 14 years after he first won the award.

When Manchester United confirmed the signing of Edinson Cavani on a free transfer last October, it's fair to say there was by no means universal praise for the deal.

The announcement, which came on transfer deadline day, smacked of desperation to many. United hadn't been able to sign their primary target, Jadon Sancho, but couldn't face the prospect of heading into the new season without strengthening the frontline.

Granted, failing to add reinforcements wouldn't have been a good look for the club, but Cavani's signing wasn't exactly much of a consolation in the eyes of supporters.

Doubts over his age, form during his final season at Paris Saint-Germain and the simple fact he was still without a club at the start of October all appeared to be valid concerns, particularly given his one-year deal (with the option for an extra 12 months) was a kind of short-termism not associated with the previous signings made by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

But such concerns quickly evaporated once he was fit, his class and striker's instinct still undeniable as the Uruguayan gallops across the United attack as if he was still in his twenties.

In recent weeks Cavani's form has hit another level and, for a while at least, it seemed a possibility that United were going to rue not signing him to a two-year deal, rumours of a move to Boca Juniors making officials at Old Trafford a little tense.

But on Monday, United confirmed Cavani will be staying put for another year at least, his renewal a just reward for an excellent first season in England.

Golden oldie

Ryan Giggs played Premier League football into his forties, owing much of his longevity to conditioning aiding by yoga, as the story goes. Perhaps then Cavani's seamless adaptation to the league isn't as surprising as many have suggested.

After all, the 34-year-old is known to do yoga and ballet in an effort to keep himself fit and nimble, elements of his game that have certainly been notable this season, even after injury absences.

Of course, Solskjaer has been eager to restrict Cavani's minutes, stressing early in the season that he didn't want to put him under too much physical strain as he joined the club having not played competitively since March due to Ligue 1's cancellation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That approach has been adopted throughout the season, as demonstrated by Cavani's 18 starts from 35 appearances, and it seems to have paid dividends as he's really hit his stride since the start of April, scoring eight goals in seven appearances across all competitions.

This run has helped him to a minutes-per-goal ratio of 124.1. The only Premier League forwards (five or more goals) who can better than are Gareth Bale (110.2 minutes per goal), Kelechi Iheanacho (110), Olivier Giroud (106.3) and Carlos Vinicius (97.7), though the latter's record is clearly warped by a hat-trick he scored against non-league side Marine in January.

Anthony Martial still seemingly had credit from his form in the latter part of 2019-20 earlier this term, given Cavani was largely used as a backup option while the Frenchman was fit, but it's difficult to see him getting his place back at the start of 2021-22 given what we know now.

The end for Martial?

After the Premier League's resumption last season, Martial was one of the standout performers – his six goals from nine games was only bettered by Danny Ings, Harry Kane (both seven in nine), Michail Antonio (eight in nine) and Raheem Sterling (nine in nine).

It seemed that, finally, he was reaching the level many had expected of him when he joined from Monaco five years earlier. He'd seemingly cemented his place as United's first-choice central striker and looked comfortable for arguably the first time since his first season.

But, prior to his injury, Martial had been underwhelming this term. It brought to light a theory previous speculated about: the idea that he doesn't react well to competition. First there was Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Romelu Lukaku. He outlasted both, found his niche, and then, all of a sudden, Cavani arrives.

Only Martial knows what is to blame for his drop-off, but it's undeniable that there has been one. His six non-penalty goals comes from an xG (expected goals) value of 9.7, meaning he was wasting more chances than the average player ordinarily would.

The fact that his xG per 90 minutes dropped from 0.42 to 0.36 shows the quality of chances coming his way weren't as good, while last season he massively outperformed this, scoring 0.58 goals per game.

Before his injury this season, Martial was averaging just 0.26 goals every 90 minutes, highlighting his wastefulness or a perhaps lack of confidence – it's certainly not down to playing a different role, as he averaged the same amount of touches in the box (6.9 per 90 mins) as in 2019-20.

When we bring Cavani into the equation, the data shows how much of a gulf there is between the two with regards to their ability to make chances with clever movement, or instinct.

Cavani's xG per game of 0.64 is a significant improvement on Martial, and he's even outperforming that (0.73 goals per 90 mins), finding the net almost three times as frequently as the France international.

"He [Cavani] has got all the attributes of a top-class footballer and human being," Solskjaer said last November. "He's had a great career, scored goals wherever he has been. He's so professional, meticulous with his preparation, with his recovery, what he does at mealtimes, before the game, during the game.

"But also to have a focal point in the box is important for us because we've not really had that since Romelu [Lukaku] left."

And there lies a key issue: Solskjaer seems to have accepted Martial cannot play that role. You have to wonder whether he'll get another opportunity.

Facilitating the succession

In the eyes of most United fans, if any of their current forwards are the long-term heir to Cavani in the central role, it's Mason Greenwood.

Granted, the jury may still be out on him in that position, but his ability in front of goal would suggest he is the best man for the job, particularly given he's showing that quality at such a young age.

2020-21 hasn't been the easiest of seasons for him. He had to cope with the death of a close friend and was at the centre of controversy while away on international duty with England.

But since the start of April he's scored five times in the Premier League, a haul bettered by no one. It's form that's reminiscent of his breakthrough campaign in 2019-20, when he scored 10 league goals from an xG value of just 2.9. Excluding penalties, no player in the division could rival such a differential.

Figures like that are rarely sustainable because they suggest either a player's been extremely lucky, they're remarkably good, or perhaps a combination of both. After all, Greenwood scored just once from an xG of 2.7 between the start of this season and the end of March.

But his recent purple patch has seen him score three goals more than he'd be expected to (1.95 xG). He's finding his feet again, and another season learning alongside Cavani can surely only benefit Greenwood in the long run.

The one area of Greenwood's game that has been questioned in rare opportunities through the middle is his off-the-ball movement, arguably Cavani's greatest strength.

There's no question Cavani is an asset to United in terms of his on-field ability – the data proves just how effective he's been, but his importance goes beyond that.

Greenwood is probably the best talent to come out of the United academy since Paul Pogba, and if some of Cavani's wisdom rubs off him over a two-year period together, what a player he could become.

Manchester City's wait for a third Premier League title in four years went on after they suffered a 2-1 defeat against Chelsea at the weekend.

Pep Guardiola's side do have an unwanted statistic to their name in that ratio, however, having now lost three of their past four league outings at the Etihad Stadium.

Another trend to continue was Manchester United falling behind before beating Aston Villa 3-1.

As the season reaches its final stretch, players will be well aware it's a marathon not a sprint. Indeed, one of the division's most noted pace merchants has proved again he is adept at lasting the course.

Using Opta data, we take a look at these talking points from the most recent round of Premier League fixtures.

Aguero's Panenka woe continues City's penalty torment

Sergio Aguero knows a thing or two about scoring the goal to clinch a Premier League title, so City probably felt they had the perfect man standing over Saturday's penalty against Chelsea, with Guardiola's much-changed side 1-0 up thanks to Raheem Sterling.

But Aguero's awful chipped effort gave Edouard Mendy chance to go to ground, stand up again and catch the ball – a moment of complete embarrassment for the Premier League's all-time leading overseas goalscorer.

None of the misses have been quite as, well, hilarious as the one Aguero conjured up, but he joins Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Sterling in having failed from 12 yards this season.

These are not new problems, with those misses making City the first team since Tottenham in 1993-94 and 1994-95 to fail from four or more penalties in consecutive seasons.

Overall, City have missed 32 of 130 Premier League penalties, with Spurs (33), Liverpool, Aston Villa (both 34), Arsenal (36) and Manchester United (40) the only teams more profligate.

Of teams to have taken at least 50 Premier League penalties, Villa's 67.6 conversion percentage (71 from 105) is the worst. City have scored 98 out of 130 (75.4 per cent).

Marcos the marksman

When wing-back Marcos Alonso scuffed home Chelsea's winner at the Etihad Stadium, the inclination was to celebrate an "unlikely hero". However, the Spain international is no stranger to the scoresheet.

Alonso has now netted 24 goals for the Blues – the same number as Alvaro Morata and Daniel Sturridge and three more than Andriy Shevchenko.

In the Premier League era, only John Terry (61), Branislav Ivanovic (34) and Gary Cahill (25) have scored more often as Chelsea defenders.

Among his current team-mates, strikers Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham, with 39 and 30 respectively, are the only players with more goals for the club.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the forthcoming transfer window sees Alonso go into next season as Chelsea's leading club scorer.

Premier League record in sight for Solskjaer's comeback kings

When Bertrand Traore put them ahead on Sunday, Villa might have been forgiven for fearing the worst.

Sure enough, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani were on target after Bruno Fernandes equalised from the penalty spot.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side now have 31 points from losing positions, bettering their previous best of 29 in 2012-13, when Alex Ferguson rounded off his celebrated tenure with one last title success.

In their four remaining games this term, United could overhaul the Premier League record of 34 points gained after falling behind, set by Bobby Robson's Newcastle United in 2001-02. Their 10 wins after conceding first in 2020-21 is already a competition best.

The Red Devils also claimed 24 points after going behind in 1999-00, when they retained the title. Arsenal emulated that feat in the same season, also doing so in 2011-12.

The equivalent of eight wins from behind has also been achieved by Everton in 2002-03 and Tottenham in 2010-11, the same campaign when West Brom turned deficits into 27 points.

Game of two halves for Traore

Coming from behind to win obviously requires a certain level of collective improvement throughout games. Individually, Adama Traore certainly seems to warm to his task as matches progress.

The Wolves winger netted the equaliser before Nuno Espirito Santo's men beat Brighton and Hove Albion 2-1.

That was his seventh career goal in the Premier League – all of which have been scored in the second half.

Traore's haul is the highest of exclusively second-half goals in the competition's history. His old Villa team-mate Rudy Gestede, former Middlesbrough midfielder Phil Stamp and ex-Newcastle and Ipswich Town forward Alex Mathie each have six.

Karel Poborsky, Gerald Sibon, Emre, Craig Fagan, Pablo Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Jose Holebas and Adam Smith all have five second-half Premier League goals, having never troubled the scorers before half-time.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the real deal. The question is, can he match or even surpass the career of his Hall of Fame father?

Vladimir Guerrero is a name synonymous with baseball. Guerrero Sr. was voted one of the most feared hitters following a stellar career spanning 16 seasons that included an American League (AL) MVP, nine All-Star selections and eight Silver Slugger Awards.

Powerful just like his dad, Guerrero Jr. is now flying the family flag in living up to the hype, spearheading the Toronto Blue Jays' exciting young core in a bid to end their World Series drought, which dates back to 1993.

 

From prospect to star

Guerrero Jr.'s success is no surprise. He had long been on the radar when the Blue Jays signed the top international free agent in 2015. Before making his major league debut in 2019, he worked his way through the minor leagues – initially with the Rookie Advanced Bluefield Blue Jays before opening the 2017 season with the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts. He then joined the Advanced-A Dunedin Blue Jays later that year.

John Schneider – part of Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo's coaching staff – was manager of the Dunedin Blue Jays that year, a roster which also boasted Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Danny Jansen, as Guerrero Jr. had 56 hits, 31 runs, six homers, 31 RBI and a .333 batting average.

"Everyone sees the talent and the name obviously because of his dad and all that kind of stuff. But just how intelligent he is… and him as a team-mate and person," Schneider told Stats Perform News. "His team-mates love him. He loves coming to the yard and playing every day, having fun.

"It's been cool to watch him transform himself from a young kid with a ton of talent and having fun to a really established, difference-making major league hitter right now."

Guerrero Jr. – born in Montreal – has 35 hits, 24 runs, seven homers and 23 RBI with a .310 average this season, while boasting a .447 OBP, .549 SLG and .995 OPS – all career highs through 33 games in his third season in the majors. His 456-foot moon shot against the Kansas City Royals has put him in esteemed company in terms of distance this season, while his max 116.1 exit velocity is a number not many in the sport can even dream of matching.

A popular player in the team with an infectious smile, Guerrero Jr. also celebrated an accomplishment beyond even his famous Dominican father achieved – a three-plus homer and seven-plus RBI game last month against Max Scherzer's Washington Nationals as the 22-year-old became the youngest player in MLB history to achieve that feat.

The matchup against the Nationals also featured his third career grand slam. Aged 22 years and 24 days, Guerrero Jr. became the youngest player since Alex Rodriguez (20 years and 345 days in 1996) at the time of his third slam.

"People are drawn to him – players, staff. It's fun to be around him. He comes to the field with a smile every day and he comes every day having fun. It rubs off on guys. It's cool to have him go through the minor-league system with Bo, Cavan, Gurriel and those guys," Schneider said. "They know each other very well, they're comfortable with each other and it's something they've always done. It's easier for them to be themselves now and Charlie does a good job allowing everyone to do that. He has an infectious personality."

In his first 33 games of his third MLB season in 1998, Guerrero Sr. tallied more hits (39), fewer runs (19) and the same number of homers (seven), while he was inferior to his son when it comes to batting average (.307), OBP (.350) and SLG (.535).

"You forget how young he is because of how good he is," Schneider said. "He is always working on things whether it's offensively, defensively or game-planning wise. It's an adjustment period between the minor leagues and the big leagues.

"We've always kind of seen him as a hitter, being this talented and hitting the ball hard. But being able to watch him and look at advanced reports, have a much better plan going into every game has been a big difference. Watching him evolve at first base and third base for that matter has been great. You get the exceptional offense and forget that he is 22 years old and there is always going to be continued development throughout the course of his career."

 

Hard work pays off

During the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, Guerrero Jr. finished with 58 hits, 34 runs and nine homers with a .262 batting average as the Blue Jays returned to the postseason for the first time since 2016. He had one hit as Toronto bowed out in the Wild Card Round at the hands of eventual World Series runners-up the Tampa Bay Rays.

Guerrero Jr. is now reaping the rewards after an intense offseason – shedding the pounds between the playoffs in October and Spring Training in February. He is gliding around the bases and making a mockery of major league pitching.

His walk percentage has rocketed from 8.2 in 2020 to 17.7 this season – a differential of plus 9.5, the largest increase in 2021, ahead of the Houston Astros' Yuli Gurriel (+7.7), Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Max Muncy (+7.5), Detroit Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman (+7.5) and Nationals outfielder Victor Robles (+6.7).

In terms of OPS, his increase from .791 in 2020 to .995 (+.205) is the fifth-largest this season, behind only the Boston Red Sox's J.D. Martinez (+.396), Gurriel of the Astros (+.301), Chicago Cubs star Javier Baez (+.208) and Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout (+.208).

Guerrero Jr. has also reached base on 63 occasions through Toronto's first 33 games of the 2021 season. That number ranks eighth all time in franchise history – Jose Bautista (70 in 2014) is first.

"Throughout the course of his career, in the minors, he was always finding himself in good counts," Schneider said of Guerrero Jr's patience at the plate this year. "Part of it was people were very careful with him and I think it's a little bit different in the minors command wise. Now, the biggest thing is that he's doing the same thing – you look up and it's 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 and he is laying off of borderline pitches where I think in his first two years he was putting in play.

"He is laying off those pitches knowing he can put them in play but maybe can't do damage with them. He has the very rare ability to be looking for a heater and get the hanging breaking ball and hit it out. He has better command of his strike zone with the combination of understanding how a pitcher is going to attack him."

Guerrero Jr. is fast becoming one of the elite first basemen in MLB. He is also forming a formidable partnership with team-mate and shortstop Bichette in the field.

In 2021, Guerrero Jr. and Bichette rank eighth for most direct assist-putout combinations by duos with 58 – Texas Rangers pair Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Nate Low (86) top the list, which only counts direct throws from one player to the other.

Guerrero Jr. is also fifth for the most total fielding chances in the majors without committing an error (228) this year.

"He has worked tirelessly with Luis Rivera our infield coach at first base but he always been a very, very good athlete," added Schneider. "Getting himself into really good physical condition has really helped him on both sides of the ball. Last year was kind of a crash-course at first base in a shortened season with a long lay-off due to COVID but he has taken it head-on and learnt new things.

"Just little things like when to get a ball to his right and when to go to the bag. It's just coming at you in a different angle than what he was used to last year. He's been doing a ton of reps and has always had the physical ability."

With 216 career games to his name, Guerrero Jr.'s stat line reads – 219 hits, 110 runs, 31 homers, 125 RBI, a .274 batting average, .353 OBP, .457 SLG and .810 OPS. It is not far off his father at the same stage of his career – 258 hits, 129 runs, 39 homers, 125 RBI, .317 average, .361 OBP, .541 SLG and .903 OPS.

Guerrero Jr.'s numbers also stuck up well against some Hall of Fame first basemen, including Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, Eddie Murray, Jeff Bagwell and Jim Thome.

Cepeda: 279 hits, 136 runs, 40 homers, 153 RBI, .319 batting average, .350 OBP, .538 SLG and .888 OPS
Perez: 144 hits, 66 runs, 16 homers, 88 RBI, .254 batting average, .303 OBP, .412 SLG and .715 OPS
Murray: 232 hits, 108 runs, 36 homers, 119 RBI, .280 batting average, .332 OBP, .463 SLG and .795 OPS
Bagwell: 216 hits, 110 runs, 23 homers, 120 RBI, .277 batting average, .372 OBP, .426 SLG and .798 OPS
Thome: 180 hits, 104 runs, 30 homers, 98 RBI, .256 batting average, .346 OBP, .449 SLG and .794 OPS

In the grand scheme of things, Vladdy's career is still in its infancy and he has barely scratched the surface of his potential, but he is on track to follow in his dad's footsteps, and then some.

The NBA is nearing the end of its regular season.

Soon the fight for playoff positioning will give way to the drama of the play-in round and the subsequent seven-game series that will decide the destination of the title.

In other words, it is time for the league's elite to find their best.

While several of those stars are hitting form at exactly the right time, there are others enduring worrying declines ahead of the postseason.

Here we examine the performances of those excelling going into the playoffs, and those who need to turn it around in this week's edition of Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT

Kyrie Irving - Brooklyn Nets

Irving went into last week having failed to score 30 points in three straight appearances, but he was back to his best over the past seven days.

Having previously averaged 26.7 points for the season, Irving put up 38 points per game across three outings last week, with a 45-point display against the Dallas Mavericks sandwiched by a 38-point effort in defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks and a 31-point showing versus the Denver Nuggets.

Only the game with the Nuggets ended in victory, but the Nets will be encouraged by Irving's form with the playoffs approaching. He was excellent from beyond the arc, hitting 5.67 threes per game having entered the week averaging 2.63.

Irving converted 17 of his 32 three-point attempts last week, a percentage of 53.1 that ranks 10th among players to have attempted at least 20 last week.

Russell Westbrook - Washington Wizards

Westbrook made history on Saturday as he tied Oscar Robertson's record for triple-doubles with the 181st of his career against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

The way in which his athleticism has translated to success on the boards has been key to Westbrook's successful pursuit of Hall of Famer Robertson.

And his rebounding was nothing short of incredible over the past seven days. Having entered the week averaging 11.16 rebounds, Westbrook racked up 17.25 per game across his last three games, culminating with 19 in his record-equalling display in an overtime win over Indiana.

He'll hope for more success on the glass against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday to take him past Robertson.

Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors

The best shooter in the game had another stunning week from beyond the arc as he continues to fuel the Warriors' push towards the playoffs.

Curry's 5.2 made threes per game was already the gold standard in the NBA this season but he was even more devastating from deep in four games last week.

Indeed, Curry averaged 8.25 threes per game, with that jump fuelled largely by him hitting 11 on Saturday as he scored 49 points in 29 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As long as he continues his excellent form, the Warriors should have a great chance of coming through the play-in round and making it to the postseason.

GOING COLD...

Andre Drummond - Los Angeles Lakers

It was a rough week for Lakers big Drummond, who endured the largest drop-off in the NBA in both points and rebounds per game.

Drummond entered last week putting up 15.89 points per game but saw his average over four games dip to 5.75.

He failed to score double-digit points in any of those outings and was similarly ineffective on the boards.

His rebounds per game dipped from 12.37 to 6.25, Drummond having started the week by failing to record a single rebound in a game for only the third time in his career in a win over the Nuggets.

Luka Doncic - Dallas Mavericks

It is pleasing for the Mavs that they can win without Doncic delivering his best every night, as they did not get it last week.

Doncic was far from terrible, as he topped 20 points in three of his four outings, but he saw his points per game average drop from 28.64 entering the week to 21.50 in those appearances.

The Mavs won each of those contests, with Doncic contributing double-doubles in two, though he had an underwhelming 15-point game to end the week against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So, while he may be 'going cold' relative to his usual standard in scoring, Doncic is finding ways to help Dallas build momentum ahead of the playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard - Los Angeles Clippers

Leonard has been bothered by injury issues in recent weeks, with his best form eluding the two-time NBA Finals MVP.

For the season, Leonard was averaging 25.51 points per game going into the last week, but could only manage to put up 19 over the course of three games in the past seven days.

And that average was inflated by a 29-point effort in the Clippers' loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday.

Prior to that return to something like normal service, Leonard had failed to score 20 points in each of his last four games.

Even his effort against the Knicks came on an inefficient shooting performance where he went nine for 26, indicating Leonard is some way off the standard he will need for the Clippers to contend in the playoffs.

In this world, nothing is certain except death, taxes, Manchester United coming from behind and West Brom getting relegated from the Premier League.

It was not remotely surprising to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United bounce back from an early setback at Aston Villa, while West Brom's relegation confirmation was similarly expected.

On a day without a single draw, there were also wins for Wolves and Everton, who got one over former manager – and rival for European football – David Moyes.

Take a look at the key stats from Sunday's action.
 

Wolves 2-1 Brighton and Hove Albion: Seagulls rue reds as Traore ends drought

It was a day to forget for Brighton, who became the latest club to fall victim to Wolves' impressive bounce-back powers.

Nuno Espirito Santo's squad have now claimed 51 points from losing positions since their return to the Premier League in 2018, a figure bettered by only Manchester United (57).

They were certainly given a helping hand, however, as Lewis Dunk – the scorer of Brighton's opener – was dismissed for pulling back Fabio Silva as the last man, making him the third player to net and be dismissed in the same game this season.

Neal Maupay was then sent off as well after the full-time whistle, meaning Brighton are now level with Arsenal as the team with the most red cards this term, while Dunk is the only player in the division to receive two reds in 2020-21.

Adama Traore cancelled out Dunk's opener as he ended a 25-game home league drought that stretched back to December 2019 against Manchester City.

Meanwhile Wolves' match-winner, Morgan Gibbs-White (21 years, 102 days), became the youngest English player to score a 90th-minute winner in the Premier League since Marcus Rashford in November 2018 (21 years, 3 days).

Aston Villa 1-3 Manchester United: Red Devils enjoy customary comeback

When Aston Villa went into half-time 1-0 up on Sunday, there almost seemed to be an acceptance that their opponents were going to turn things around.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men certainly delivered in the second half, going on to win despite conceding first for the 10th time, a Premier League record.

They are now just three points behind the all-time record number of points recovered from losing positions, with Newcastle United having rescued 34 in 2001-02.

The victory also took Bruno Fernandes close to a Premier League record. He has not lost any of his first 25 away games in the division, one adrift of Gabriel Jesus' benchmark of 26.

Fernandes played his part in the turnaround by scoring a penalty, which took him to 27 goals across all competitions this term, the most by a midfielder for a Premier League club in a single season since Frank Lampard (27) for Chelsea in 2009-10.

That penalty came as a result of Douglas Luiz fouling Paul Pogba, the exact same scenario that led to a spot-kick when the two teams played earlier this season. It is the first time since 2001-02 (Olof Mellberg on Jermain Defoe) that an individual has conceded a penalty against the same opposing player in one campaign.

West Ham 0-1 Everton: Toffees at home on the road

A top-four finish for West Ham and David Moyes now looks desperately unlikely after defeat at home to Everton leaves them five points adrift of fourth-placed Leicester City with three games to go.

The fact that this was West Ham's first home league match without a shot on target since Moyes' first spell in December 2017 highlighted their issues.

As for Everton, Carlo Ancelotti's side have been impressive on the road and made it 14 away wins from 15 in which they have open the scoring under the Italian.

On top of that, this was Everton's 11th away win in the league this term, a haul bettered only by Manchester City (13) and the Toffees' best such record in a top-flight season since 1984-85 (12), when they won the title.

The winning goal came via Dominic Calvert-Lewin's 16th league strike of 2020-21, making it the joint-most by an English player for Everton in a single Premier League season.

Romelu Lukaku is the only Everton striker to score more across one season than Calvert-Lewin. The Belgian plundered 18 in 2015-16 and then 25 the following campaign.

Arsenal 3-1 West Brom: Big Sam's Baggies equal relegation record

It had been a long time coming. West Brom have looked doomed for most of the season, and their relegation was finally confirmed with defeat to Arsenal on Sunday.

In a way, this match was a microcosm of their issues as they actually finished with an xG (expected goals) value nearly double that of Arsenal, yet the Gunners scored triple the amount of goals.

While it suggests Arsenal perhaps got a little lucky, it also highlights West Brom's problem with scoring – pundits have claimed they would have had a better shot of survival with a more effective central striker, and this backs that up.

It's their fifth relegation from the Premier League, equalling a record set by Norwich City last year, but the first from the competition for Sam Allardyce in his managerial career.

West Brom have only once had their relegation confirmed with more games remaining than this term (three), having had four fixtures to play in 2002-03 when their fate was sealed.

The focus for Arsenal, however, was on their young guns.

Bukayo Saka's assist for Emile Smith Rowe's opener was his 19th for Arsenal since his November 2018 debut, more than anyone else for the club in that time.

Similarly, Smith Rowe became the fourth player aged 21 or under to score for the Gunners in the Premier League this season (along with Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Eddie Nketiah), a record no team can better.

Manchester City will have to wait to get their hands on a third Premier League title in four years after they fell to a 2-1 home defeat against Chelsea on Saturday.

Sergio Aguero in particular will want to forget the game in a hurry after a failed Panenka attempt, which he later apologised for on social media.

Liverpool kept their first home clean sheet in nine top-flight games as they overcame Southampton 2-0, while Leeds United cruised past Tottenham 3-1 at Elland Road.

Elsewhere in Yorkshire, Crystal Palace inflicted yet more misery on Sheffield United, running out 2-0 winners at Bramall Lane.

Stats Perform News uses Opta data to take a look at the best facts from the four games.


Manchester City 1-2 Chelsea: Aguer-woe for leaders as Blues hit back

City suffered more penalty woe as they missed the chance to be crowned Premier League champions.

It had started well for the hosts, however, with Raheem Sterling giving them the lead with his 10th Premier League goal of the campaign. The England international has now reached that total in four successive seasons, with only Aguero (nine) hitting double figures more regularly in the competition for City.

Aguero should have doubled their advantage before the interval, but his woeful Panenka attempt from the spot was comfortably gathered by Edouard Mendy. City have now failed to score more penalties (four) than any other side in the Premier League this season, while they are the first to miss at least four spot-kicks in consecutive top-flight seasons since Tottenham in 1993-94 and 1994-95.

Hakim Ziyech made the most of that reprieve, levelling with his first Premier League goal in 18 appearances since scoring against Burnley in October.

There was worse to come for Pep Guardiola, who has now lost four home league games this season – twice as many as he had lost in any other campaign in his managerial career.

At 91 minutes and 54 seconds, Marcos Alonso's scuffed finish was the latest winning goal scored by the visitors in a Premier League game at City since Paul Scholes for Manchester United in April 2010 (92:41).

Liverpool 2-0 Southampton: Mane helps sink former employers

Liverpool kept their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League alive with victory at Anfield in the late kick-off.

Sadio Mane opened the scoring in the first half with his second goal in three Premier League games, having found the net just once in his previous 14 outings in the competition before that.

He was teed up by Mohamed Salah, marking the first time the pair have combined for a top-flight goal this season.

Thiago Alcantara added a second in the 90th minute to become the 140th player to score a Premier League goal for Liverpool, though the first to get off the mark for the Reds from outside the box since Divock Origi in December 2015.

Southampton, meanwhile, have now earned just 11 points from their 18 Premier League games in 2021, fewer than any other side this calendar year.

Leeds United 3-1 Tottenham: VAR bars Kane as Spurs suffer

Leeds' superb record against the Premier League's 'big six' continued.

Marcelo Bielsa's side became the first to remain unbeaten at home in the top flight against each of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs in a season since West Ham in 2015-16, and only the third newly promoted team to do so, after Ipswich Town in 2000-01 and Birmingham City in 2009-10.

Stuart Dallas broke the deadlock to become the first Northern Ireland player to score as many as eight Premier League goals in a season since Chris Brunt in 2008-09.

Son Heung-min equalised for the visitors, but Patrick Bamford restored Leeds' advantage to move onto 22 Premier League goal involvements this term (15 goals, seven assists). Harry Kane is the only Englishman to have been involved in more (34).

Rodrigo then added a third late on as Spurs suffered a fifth defeat in 10 top-flight away games in 2021 – more than they experienced in the entirety of 2020.

Sheffield United 0-2 Crystal Palace: Benteke helps Eagles deal with blunt Blades

After a run of three consecutive defeats, Palace could not have wished for more accommodating opponents than the already relegated Blades.

Christian Benteke opened the scoring after just 66 seconds, registering the club’s earliest Premier League goal since James McArthur's strike against Everton in November 2017 (51 seconds).

Benteke has now scored more goals this season (seven in 27 appearances) than he managed in his previous three Premier League campaigns combined (six in 71).

Eberechi Eze continued his impressive season with a second late on. Only Wilfried Zaha (12) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals for Palace this season than Eze (four goals, five assists), while no Eagles player has laid on more goals than the former Queens Park Rangers man.

The result meant United have failed to score in 20 matches within a single league season for the first time in their history, while in terms of the Premier League, only Derby County in 2007-08 (22), Leeds United in 1996-97 (21) and Huddersfield Town in 2017-18 (21) have failed to score in more games in a single campaign.

Neymar finally committed his future to Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday as his contract extension was announced by the club.

The world's most expensive footballer has been the subject of transfer speculation almost since he signed in Paris in 2017.

But PSG have worked hard to get their key men to agree new terms and they will now hope team-mate Kylian Mbappe follows suit.

To mark Neymar's new deal, we used Opta data to look at his outstanding PSG career so far.

Setting the standard

In 112 matches for PSG, Neymar has scored 85 goals – averaging out at one every 111 minutes.

The forward has also created 2.8 chances per game to supply 45 assists for 130 goal involvements, which have occurred every 73 minutes.

That total of 130 is short of Mbappe's 182 in a PSG shirt over the same period, but Neymar is actually more prolific than his colleague.

His 84 Ligue 1 goal involvements have come every 68 minutes, the best rate in the competition since Opta first began collecting such data in the 2006-07 season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic ended his PSG career at the same rate with 151 goal involvements.

Matching PSG partner

Mbappe is third on that list, behind Neymar and Ibrahimovic, with a goal involvement every 71 minutes in Ligue 1 – including his Monaco career.

That is only a marginal deficit, though, and there is not much to split PSG's two leading superstars.

Since Neymar's PSG debut, the former Barcelona man has scored and assisted in the same Ligue 1 game on 19 occasions. The only player to match that return is Mbappe.

Mbappe has not been able to equal Neymar's single-game benchmark, however.

The 29-year-old was involved in six goals – four goals and two assists – against Dijon in January 2018, the most in one Ligue 1 match since Opta records began.

Neymar's importance to PSG is further evidenced by their record in games he has scored in. Only three of those 65 matches in all competitions – against Guingamp in the Coupe de la Ligue in January 2019, Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League in February 2020 and Lorient in Ligue 1 in January 2021 – have ended in defeat.

Still a top target

This deal might warn off potential suitors after several years of links with a return to Barca, but Neymar can still expect plenty of attention from opponents.

The Brazilian's sensational footwork draws defenders in, as he averages 10.2 dribbles per game in a PSG shirt with a 54.3 per cent success rate.

That average increases slightly to 10.5 dribbles per game in the Champions League, the most of any player since the start of the 2017-18 season.

But Neymar's talents often frustrate his markers, leading to him winning 4.4 fouls per game in all competitions for the French club. That mark increases slightly to 4.7 in the Champions League, but even the 4.2 in Ligue 1 is a competition high.

He can now expect at least four more years of rough treatment in Paris.

Recent upheaval might have leant a touch of anti-climax to Bayern Munich's latest title win but 2020-21 has shown their total dominance of the Bundesliga does not look likely to end anytime soon.

A thrilling quarter-final tie against Paris Saint-Germain saw Bayern's reign as European champions end as they were eliminated on away goals.

The aftermath of that dramatic Champions League showdown saw speculation mount over Hansi Flick's future and the Bavarian giants were in the unusual position of naming the coach of their nearest rivals, RB Leipzig's Julian Nagelsmann, as their next boss before domestic glory had been rubber stamped.

However, familiar celebrations can now begin after rivals Borussia Dortmund beat second-placed RB Leipzig 3-2, with the prints of some familiar faces all over this latest success.

FC Hollywood on cloud nine

Continuing a streak started by Jupp Heynckes' treble winners in 2012-13, Bayern have now won the Bundesliga for nine seasons in a row. Much as this statistic can draw mirth in some quarters over the competitiveness of Germany's top flight, it certainly did not always used to be this way.

Previously, the longest stretch of consecutive titles in a row was three, although on three of the four occasions this occurred, Bayern were the team responsible.

Indeed, Die Roten's 30th crown overall means they have won 52 per cent of the championships on offer since the Bundesliga was founded in 1963. The picture was a little more even before the turn of the century, with Bayern having now won 16 this millennium.

Bayern have equalled the record established by Juventus in Europe's top five leagues and can go clear on their own with 10 in a row next term, given the collapse of Andrea Pirlo's men in Serie A this season.

This era of success is built upon a number of mainstays. Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and outgoing trio David Alaba, Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez have been present for all nine of the title wins.

Muller and Alaba now have 10 overall, setting a new player record in Germany, while Martinez is the only player in Bundesliga history to win the title as many as nine times without ever failing to do so in any season.

 

Hansi off with incredible record

Flick's involvement with Bayern has been more fleeting than the stalwarts above, but he has nevertheless left an indelible impression upon one of Europe's great clubs.

His record overall is 68 wins from 83 games, with eight draws and seven defeats. That amounts to an 82 per cent win percentage – a record for any Bayern coach.

Similarly, a goals-per-game average of 2.9 is better than any of his predecessors, numbers that were enhanced during the German record-breaking run of 23 straight wins in all competitions between February and September 2020.

Consequently, the trophies stacked up and Flick's six major honours amount to one every 14 games.

He averages 2.45 points-per-game from 55 Bundesliga outings, a figure only bettered by Pep Guardiola (2.52 PPG from 102 matches).

 

Hail King Lewy

Flick is likely to reflect fondly upon the fact his brief Bayern tenure has coincided with Robert Lewandowski taking his phenomenal goalscoring exploits to another level.

Even though the Bundesliga boasts the sought-after talents of Erling Haaland and Andre Silva, each of whom have managed 25 top-flight goals this season, the race for the Torjagerkanone has not even been particularly close.

Despite spending a spell on the sidelines recently, arguably decisively when it came to Bayern's derailed Champions League hopes, Lewandowski has scored an astounding 36 goals in 26 appearances, leaving him in direct competition with Gerd Muller's celebrated all-time mark of 40 goals in a single campaign, rather than his contemporaries.

The Poland superstar's haul comes from 112 shots overall and 55 on target. Lewandowski's goals-per-minute average of 60.9 is the best of any Bundesliga player to have scored multiple goals this season.

Among players with 10 goals or more, only Max Kruse (37.04 per cent) has a better shot conversion rate than Lewandowski's 32.14.

He has 30 non-penalty goals, outstripping an expected goals (xG) figure of 21. By way of comparison, Haaland's non-penalty goals to xG comparison is 23 to 19.8 and Silva's is 19 to 18.1.

Like most great strikers, Lewandowski has a fine foil in Thomas Muller, whose 17 assists are comfortably a Bundesliga best this season, placing him five clear of Eintracht Frankfurt's Filip Kostic on 11.

 

Kimmich the man in control

The foundations for Lewandowski's incredible exploits come from Bayern's smooth control of matches and no one has been more responsible for that in 2020-21 than Joshua Kimmich.

A defensive utility man when he broke into the Bayern team under Guardiola, Kimmich is now one of the premier midfielders in world football and at the heart of his club's considerable achievements.

Among Bundesliga midfielders, Kimmich has completed the second-most passes – behind Stuttgart's Wataru Endo (1,479) – with 1,465 at an accuracy of 87.8.

He has supplied 10 assists from 59 chances created, with Kostic (80), Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho (65) and Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku (63) the only players among those classed as midfielders by Opta to have crafted more openings for team-mates.

Kimmich has made 32 interceptions, 35 tackles and is joint-seventh among Bundesliga midfielders when it comes to his 184 recoveries.

 

Time for a Neu last line of defence?

Neuer is now the first goalkeeper to win nine Bundesliga titles, putting him one clear of Oliver Kahn.

However, it might be fair to ask whether his position as Bayern number one might come under renewed threat from understudy Alexander Nubel once Nagelsmann is in position.

Of goalkeepers to have played 20 or more Bundesliga games this season, five – Peter Gulacsi, Lukas Hradecky, Koen Casteels, Alexander Schwolow and Andreas Luthe – have conceded fewer than Neuer's 40.

Similarly, eight clean sheets have him fourth overall behind Gulacsi, Casteels and Stefan Ortega Moreno.

Neuer's 77 saves from 116 shots on target faced give him a save percentage of 65.52 – leaving him around the middle of the pack when it comes to the Bundesliga's elite stoppers. Florian Muller of Freiburg leads the way, repelling 71.07 per cent of shots to have threatened his goal.

Bayern's skipper has an expected goals on target (xGOT) against figure of 40.6. Having conceded 39 non-penalty goals, Neuer has conceded fractionally fewer goals than he would be expected to, given the quality of chances coughed up by a backline lacking its previous assurance. 

 

Nagelsmann could bring fresh solidity to Bayern that would be welcomed by the 35-year-old Neuer, whose aptitude outside of his penalty area enabled Flick to operate with such a daringly high defensive line, sometimes at the expense of the goalkeeper's personal statistics.

Leipzig's number one Gulacsi has only been breached 28 times, but has faced 41 fewer shots on target than Neuer this term, actually giving him a lower save percentage (62.67). His 25 non-penalty goals conceded align with an xGOT of 25.62.

The arrival of Nagelsmann and Leipzig's best defender Dayot Upamecano might well be great news for Neuer, one of the few Bayern players to emerge from this latest success with a few question marks over their form.

Four rounds remaining, four teams involved, and just six points to separate them.

The end of the LaLiga title race looks to be the most gripping to any of the top five European leagues this term, and almost certainly the least predictable finish in Spain since 2006-07.

Back then, there were three teams in with a chance of taking home the title on the final day of the season: Real Madrid and Barcelona, of course, plus Juande Ramos' Sevilla.

As it was, Madrid and Barca won on the last day whereas Sevilla – who needed a win and for the other two to lose – lost at home to Villarreal.

Madrid finished top by virtue of a better head-to-head record over Barca, who were essentially denied the title by their local rivals Espanyol, slumping to a 2-2 draw with them on the penultimate day to hand Los Blancos the initiative.

For the first time since then, Sevilla are again in with a shout of upsetting established order – albeit they trail the leaders by six points – though on this occasion Atletico Madrid are most prominently in the mix.

Diego Simeone's side looked certainties for the title not too long ago: at the start of February, they were 11 points clear, but they've won only seven of their 15 league games since, including a defeat to Sevilla in early April.

Yet, remarkably, it's still in Atletico's hands thanks to Barca's surprise loss at home to Granada last week.

 

What made that defeat even more incredible was the fact Granada had just 18 per cent of the ball and scored twice from an xG (expected goals) value of just 0.69. This means they netted more than two times as many as they should have, which speaks to how stunningly clinical they were.

Interestingly – or, infuriatingly, if you're a fan – it was Barcelona's second-highest share of the ball in a league game this season, behind only 82.1 per cent against Cadiz. They lost both games.

It's all shaping up for potentially decisive blows to be struck across May 8 and 9, when the top four all play each other – Barca host Atletico on Saturday, with Sevilla going to Madrid the next day.

But what does our prediction model say about the most likely outcome in the title race?

How does the predictor work?

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly. All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Let's say how the model now predicts the final league table will look...

 

Atletico take the crown

Atletico Madrid are now given a 40.6 per cent probability of winning the title, up from 38 per cent a week ago.

It essentially looks like it will come down to their showdown with Barca. Atletico hold a slight advantage, having beaten the Catalans 1-0 in Madrid in the reverse fixture, and our predictor seemingly doesn't expect Ronald Koeman's men to overturn that at Camp Nou, as the model sees Atletico winning the title by virtue of their head-to-head record.

Barcelona's chances have increased from 32.6 per cent to 35.1, with that surprise defeat to Granada preventing any bigger jump despite their 3-2 win at Valencia.

After drawing 0-0 twice in three games, Madrid's chances dropped from 34.4 per cent to 26.6 per cent last week, and they now sit at 24.3 per cent despite their most recent 2-0 win over Osasuna.

Sevilla, who conceded an injury-time winner to Athletic Bilbao last time out, remain distant outsiders. Our prediction model only gives them a 0.1 per cent probability of winning their first league title since 1946.

As we head into the decisive matchdays in the Premier League season, match-winners will become worth their weight in gold to all 20 sides in the division.

With that in mind, our latest suggestions for fantasy football enthusiasts include a good number of forwards who will be expected to chip in with goals.

There are also two of the league's most in-form defenders and a goalkeeper who might just have won himself the number one spot.

Our tips for this week – powered by Opta, as always – are below...
 

DEAN HENDERSON

Since taking over Premier League duties while David de Gea was in Spain for the birth of his daughter, Dean Henderson has made it clear he does not intend to relinquish the Manchester United starting spot.

The former Sheffield United loanee has the best save percentage (82.4) in the competition this season, while he has conceded just 0.6 goals per game on average – the best rate of any keeper to play at least 200 minutes.

Henderson will likely keep his spot for the trip to Aston Villa, a team who have beaten United just once in their previous 44 Premier League meetings.

BEN CHILWELL

Fresh from celebrating reaching the Champions League final, Ben Chilwell will be looking to keep up his strong league form for Chelsea.

The left-back has been directly involved in seven goals this season (two scored, five assisted) – no defender in the competition has been involved in more.

Expect him to provide his customary threat on the break when Chelsea take on Manchester City.

AARON WAN-BISSAKA

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer challenged Aaron Wan-Bissaka to improve his attacking output, and the tough-tackling right-back appears to have heeded the call.

Three of his four goal involvements (75 per cent) and 21 of his 26 chances created (81 per cent) have come since the turn of the year.

The United man also boasts 13 Premier League clean sheets this season; among defenders, he is behind only Ruben Dias and Matt Targett (14).

MOHAMED SALAH

Liverpool might have struggled for consistency this season, but Mohamed Salah's goal output has remained impressively high; he has 20 in the league, behind only Harry Kane (21).

On Saturday, he will meet some of his favourite opposition in Southampton, a team against whom he has scored seven goals in seven league appearances, including five in three at Anfield.

Saints have also lost their past three league games away to Liverpool by an aggregate score of 10-0.

GARETH BALE

With a hat-trick against relegated Sheffield United, Gareth Bale proved he could still be a vital asset in Tottenham's European chase.

Bale has scored nine goals in 727 minutes in the division this season, averaging a goal every 81 minutes, which is the best record in the competition in 2020-21.

Should he take his tally to 10 against Leeds United, Bale will set a new record for the longest gap between 10-goal seasons in Premier League history (eight), overtaking Paul Scholes and Nwankwo Kanu (seven).

MASON GREENWOOD

Mason Greenwood has recaptured some of his better form in recent weeks to help United... well, if not catch Manchester City, at least consolidate second place.

The forward has four goals and one assist in his most recent four league games, which is more direct goal involvements than he managed in his previous 28 appearances.

Solskjaer will likely have to rotate given the hectic week ahead, but expect Greenwood to be involved at Villa Park, even if it's as a substitute.

KELECHI IHEANACHO

Speaking of rediscovering form, nobody in the league has done so quite as spectacularly in recent weeks as Kelechi Iheanacho.

The Leicester City striker has scored nine goals and assisted two in his most recent eight league appearances – that's one more direct goal involvement than he managed in his previous 57 league games.

The Foxes are also on a run of eight wins in 10 league games against Friday's opponents Newcastle United.

When Sevilla defeated Inter in their gripping Europa League final clash last August, there was a sense of deja vu for Los Nervionenses. Not only because they were winning that trophy for the sixth time, but also that talk quickly turned to "the next step".

Sevilla had been here before: Their back-to-back UEFA Cup successes under Juande Ramos were supposed to transform them into a new power in Spanish football, but it didn't quite happen.

Then the Europa League three-peat with Unai Emery was supposed to elevate them, but in the 13 months that followed the hat-trick-clinching win over Liverpool, Sevilla lost two coaches (Emery and his popular successor Jorge Sampaoli), revered sporting director Monchi and some of their best players.

Monchi returned in 2019 following a well-publicised split with Roma, his reputation having taken a significant hit. The damage has been impressively repaired, however, building a Europa League-winning squad straight away and appointing Julen Lopetegui, the man who got them back into the Champions League.

Looking back, his hiring of Lopetegui was a bold one. Here were two men, both of whom had taken significant flak in their previous jobs, with their own points to prove.

Regardless of Monday's shock home defeat to Athletic Bilbao, it's arguable that Sevilla have already taken "the next step" that Monchi spoke about 15 months ago. Never before in a 20-team LaLiga season had only three points separated top from fourth with five games to go, yet Sevilla were one of them.

A draw between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona coupled with a Sevilla win over Real Madrid the following day could yet see Lopetegui's side get themselves back in the hunt for the title. Even if they don't, 2020-21 has proven Monchi still knows how to find a player and a coach.


Thinking From the Back

Lopetegui came in with his own ideas. Many Sevilla teams over the past 20 years have been exciting to watch with an attacking brand of football. This team are arguably not one of them.

The first thing regular watchers of Lopetegui's Sevilla will say when summarising this team's style of play is that they're not exactly LaLiga's great entertainers. In fact, the 34 matches they've played this term have yielded just 76 goals. Only Osasuna, rock-bottom Eibar (both 72) and Getafe (66) have been party to fewer.

 

Key to this is Sevilla's effective defence, which has conceded only 27 times. Atletico (22) and Real Madrid (24) are the two sides with better records. And looking at expected goals conceded in the table above shows that Sevilla's defence is the most miserly in LaLiga. Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde have proven a hugely successful pairing at the base of the defence for well over a year now, but while it was the Brazilian attracting more of the plaudits last term, it's his young colleague who is capturing the imagination in 2020-21.

While he may not look it when standing next to the supreme physical specimen that is Diego Carlos, Kounde is an impressive competitor in the air. At just 5-foot-8 he has a great spring and his 93 successful aerial duels is bettered by only three other defenders this term.

But given Sevilla generally spend more time on the ball than their opponents, it's Kounde's progressiveness in possession that helps him stand out the most. Lopetegui's flexible 4-3-3 formation often morphs into more of a 3-4-3 as Fernando drops back, and this allows Kounde to push out from the back, in what has become a key aspect of their system.

The Frenchman makes his influence known in two ways. Firstly, he's attempted more forward passes (801) than any other outfield player in LaLiga, and only central midfielder Dani Parejo (624) can better his 623 successful ones.

This speaks to Kounde's positive nature when in possession and his contribution to Sevilla's attack can be highlighted by our sequences framework. Of all centre-backs in the league, only Clement Lenglet (108) has been involved in more open-play sequences that have resulted in a shot than Kounde's 88. Team-mate Diego Carlos is fourth on the list with 73.

 

This forward-thinking approach is aided by Kounde's extreme comfort on the ball. His 12 ball carries (dribbling with the ball for five metres or more) followed by a take-on is third best among centre-backs, and just three other central defenders have carried the ball further up-field across the season than him (5,532 metres).

The confidence of Kounde – and Diego Carlos – on the ball helps explain why Sevilla's 396 pressed sequences against (instances where they have three or fewer passes and the move ends within 40m of their own goal) is the fifth-lowest in LaLiga, while they are the only team not to concede a goal as a result of a high turnover by the opposition.

 

Sevilla are very effective at playing through a press, best demonstrated by their remarkable 37-pass goal against Valencia in the Copa del Rey in January, and Kounde is essential to that, operating as a kind of defensive playmaker in the backline.

 

While they managed to keep hold of him despite interest from Manchester City last year, they might struggle to shoo away potential suitors this time around.

Filling the Void

The one area where Sevilla have perhaps been weaker in 2020-21 than 2019-20 is in midfield. Losing Ever Banega was always going to be a blow, but replacing him has proven especially difficult.

Ivan Rakitic received something of a hero's welcome as he returned from Barcelona and, perhaps through nostalgia-tinted glasses, was billed as Banega's initial replacement with Oscar Rodriguez seen as the long-term heir.

While Oscar has hardly featured, Rakitic has at least been a fairly regular part of the team, often filling the third midfield spot alongside the first-choice pair of Fernando and Joan Jordan.

But despite his adulation, Rakitic's influence simply hasn't been anything like that of Banega, who offered far more across the board last season than the Croatian has at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in 2020-21.

Instead, it's been Jordan who has courted praise after kicking on from an encouraging first campaign at the club. The fact he’s now seemingly in the thoughts of Spain coach Luis Enrique speaks volumes about his progression this year.

A dynamic midfielder, Jordan sets the tempo for Sevilla but also contributes off the ball in a role not too dissimilar to that of Koke at Atletico Madrid, who is only of only six midfielders to have completed more passes than the former Eibar man (2,161).

His 1.97 tackles per 90 may not be remarkable, but among midfielders with at least 15 appearances, it is above the average of 1.65. Tackle numbers are always likely to be lower for players of teams who tend to see more of the ball anyway, but it proves Jordan is by no means only of use on the ball.

That is, however, when he's at his most comfortable. Granted, he has on occasion been accused of being a sideways-pass merchant, perhaps explaining why as many as 11 central midfielders have been involved in shot-ending sequences with a better cumulative xG value than Jordan (10.4).

However, this is likely down to how Sevilla's midfield trio all sit quite deep rather than any inherent lack of creativity. After all, Jordan has played a role in 10 shot-ending sequences where he has both created a chance and been involved in the build-up, behind only Frenkie de Jong, Luka Modric, Pedri and Toni Kroos.

He may not be the flashiest of midfielders, but Jordan has proven himself effective and clearly has the trust of both Lopetegui and the rest of the squad.

While replacing Banega will probably be on the agenda for Monchi again at the end of the season, Jordan's shown he could be worth a shot in a more advanced position.


En-Nesyri Defying the Doubters

When Sevilla shelled out roughly €20 million in January 2020 on a striker who had scored just 18 LaLiga goals in his first 77 matches, it's fair to say eyebrows were raised.

Although only 22 at the time, it felt as though Youssef En-Nesyri had already been around for quite a while, but he'd rarely stood out as a particularly outstanding player. Hard-working, sure, but a Champions League-level striker? There were many who had their doubts.

Rather gangly, just as likely to trip himself up as he was to beat his man, the Moroccan scored four goals in his 18 league appearances last term following his mid-season move and he failed to truly dislodge Luuk de Jong, who was widely derided until his Europa League final heroics.

But En-Nesyri has proved a lot of people wrong this season, his haul of 17 league goals so far is the same as his total for the previous two campaigns combined.

Even more impressive is the fact none of them have come from the penalty spot.

 

He really has led the line in excellent fashion, and his non-penalty xG of 15.1 is the third highest in LaLiga, suggesting he is frequently getting into high-quality scoring locations. When he does get those opportunities, the Sevilla striker is putting them away. Of players to have scored at least 10 goals this season, his 24.3 per cent shot conversion rate is a record that only Marcos Llorente can better.

 

Playing consistently alongside better players and in a system that seems to accentuate his pace and aerial strength is seemingly paying off. And it's in the air where he really comes into his own, which marries up well with Sevilla's most regular source of chances.

Jesus Navas may not be to everyone's liking, but he's been reborn as a right-back for Lopetegui, getting himself back into the Spain squad when his career looked to be petering out upon returning from Manchester City in 2017-18.

Navas has created 59 chances from open play this season – the highest number of any player. Only twice before in La Liga has he managed more over a full season, back in 2011-12 and 2012-13 when he played exclusively as a winger.

Navas' bombing forward from right-back – aided by Kounde's effective covering behind – is a key facet of Lopetegui's system. He's attempted (160), and completed (52), the most open-play crosses in LaLiga. Similarly, his 32.5 per cent crossing accuracy is better than anyone else to have attempted at least 50.

This is where En-Nesyri's aerial strength comes in. He's only behind Rafa Mir (13) for headed shots on target, while Karim Benzema (six) is the only player with more headed goals than the Sevilla striker (five).

It remains to be seen how much more En-Nesyri has to give, and the same can be said generally for Sevilla, with their 1-0 loss to Athletic raising questions of their ability to break down stubborn opposition.

Ahead of Sunday's trip to Madrid, our AI predictor gives them a minuscule 0.1 per cent chance of upsetting the established order and clinching their first LaLiga title since the 1940s.

But Madrid aren't going to set themselves up to nullify Sevilla, they need the win too and will surely look to put as much pressure on their visitors as possible.

But with capable ball players such as Kounde and Jordan in the side looking to break the lines, such a situation could be conducive to giving En-Nesyri, Lucas Ocampos and Papu Gomez space on the break.

Sevilla couldn't, could they?

So we come to it: the biggest LaLiga game between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid for seven years.

Forget the Champions League disappointments, the off-the-field murmurings about money problems and the lingering toxic cloud of the Super League, and get ready for a title showdown.

League leaders Atletico are two points clear of Real Madrid and Barca with four games to go. If the match produces a winner, that team will have the power to decide their own fate. A draw could be enough for Atleti. A defeat for either may prove fatal to their chances.

The last time these two teams met this late in the season with the title still on the line for both was on that famous final day in 2013-14, when Atleti went to Camp Nou knowing they would win the league if they did not lose the match. Alexis Sanchez broke the deadlock, Diego Godin equalised, and Atleti were crowned kings of Spain for the first time in 18 years.

Nothing will be decided this season on Saturday, of course, and as any LaLiga coach will tell the media at any given opportunity, "every game is a final". But this one feels a bit different. With Madrid and fourth-place Sevilla meeting this weekend, too, Barca and Atleti must sense this is a massive chance to get a hand on the trophy.

 

FORM IS TEMPORARY...

For the neutral, the fact we even have a title race in early May is something to celebrate. So dominant were Atleti in the first half of the season – 16 wins, two draws and one defeat from their first 19 games – that the rest were struggling to keep up.

In fact, according to Stats Perform AI, on January 22 Atleti had a 75.1 per cent chance of winning the title based on predicted results, while Barca's chances were just 12.4 per cent. As of April 30, however, that same predictor model gave Atleti a 38 per cent chance of winning the league, with Barca just behind on 32.6.

While Atleti have won only half of their past 16 league games, Barca have been one of Europe's most in-form sides in 2021, winning all but three of their 19 league matches since the turn of the year – and lifting the Copa del Rey. They have collected 49 points in 2021, the most in the division and eight more than the leaders.

History is also on their side in this fixture: the 1-0 defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano in the reverse game, when Yannick Carrasco grabbed a first-half winner, was their only league loss to Atleti in their most recent 21 meetings. They have not lost at home to them since Pepe Murcia's side ran out 3-1 winners in February 2006. Diego Simeone has drawn three and lost five of his league games in charge of Atleti at Camp Nou, making it his least favourite opposition ground as well as the scene of arguably his greatest coaching achievement.

 

OUTPERFORMING

This weekend's game is also the meeting of the best defence and attack in the division. Barca have scored 80 league goals, at least 19 more than anyone else, but Atleti have conceded a miserly 22. Attacks win games, defences win titles, as the adage goes.

Barca have actually faced the fewest shots (280) of any team in LaLiga this season, 40 fewer than Atleti, who are sixth best. However, the Blaugrana have conceded 33 goals from an Expected Goals Against figure of 37.0, whereas Atleti's 22 have come from an xGA of 33.7.

That highlights perhaps Atleti's greatest asset: based on Expected Goals on Target – an indicator of the quality of shots faced by a goalkeeper – Jan Oblak has prevented 7.1 goals this season, the highest figure in LaLiga. For teams in Europe's top-five leagues, no goalkeeper who has played more than 10 games this season has a better save percentage (79.1) than Atleti's Slovenian sensation.

 

MESSI V SUAREZ: BEST OF ENEMIES

Having missed the reverse fixture, this will be the first time Luis Suarez has faced Barca since his rather acrimonious departure at the end of last season. To date, the Uruguay striker – who has 166 career goals in LaLiga – has scored against all 30 of the teams he has faced in Spain's top flight.

Suarez has been a driving force of Atleti's title charge, even though he has only managed three goals in his most recent 11 games. With 19 goals in 28 league appearances overall in 2020-21, Suarez is averaging 0.79 per 90 minutes. Only one player has a better rate: Lionel Messi (0.92), the top scorer in the league with 28 and perhaps the most in-form player since the turn of the year.

Since January 1, Messi has scored 21 goals in 18 games, more than anyone else in Europe's top five leagues. Excluding one penalty scored, he has plundered 20 from an xG of just 11, giving him the biggest positive differential for anyone in those top five leagues in 2021. He is a man on a mission – perhaps his final mission for the club, if he doesn't agree to extend his contract.

Prevailing wisdom would suggest one of these former team-mates will decide this contest and, in turn, the fate of the title race. Barca and Atleti have waited seven years for a battle like this – who will hold their nerve?

 

A 103-101 loss to the Toronto Raptors on a buzzer-beating three-pointer just over a month ago on April 5 seemed to encompass the Washington Wizards' season perfectly.

Washington blew a 19-point, third-quarter lead en route to dropping to 0-11 when failing to score more than 102 points. It was a fourth straight loss for a team playing their fifth game in a row without 2020 scoring leader Bradley Beal, and the defeat dropped the Wizards to 17-32 – the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference and 3.5 games out of 10th place for the final spot in the play-in tournament.

The Russell Westbrook experiment was looking like a disaster and very little suggested a playoff push was possible over the season's final five and a half weeks given the team's struggles over the season's first three months when Beal was healthy.

Surprisingly, however, the Wizards didn't fold.

They showed some reserve two nights later with Beal back in the lineup, finishing strong in a 131-116 victory over the Orlando Magic after nearly blowing all of a 21-point, third-quarter lead, then escaped with a 110-107 road win over the Golden State Warriors on April 9 with Beal scoring six points in the final 6.1 seconds.

The win streak ended the next night but that was no big surprise as they were on the road against a Phoenix Suns team that is currently battling for the best record in the league, not to mention Beal sat out the second half of a back-to-back.

Since then, though, Washington has compiled the league's second-best record at 11-3, racking up 115 points or more in all 14 of those games. The only other team in the past 30 years to have a streak like this was a 20-game run by the 2018-19 Oklahoma City Thunder – a team also quarterbacked by Westbrook.

Since April 12, the Wizards are averaging an eye-popping 126.0 points per game to lead the NBA, and while Westbrook and Beal have played a big role in the scoring explosion, the offense is getting a boost from some unlikely sources thanks to a somewhat unconventional approach.

In this age of players regularly hoisting up three-point shots, the Wizards are instead focusing on pushing the ball inside.

Washington are attempting 7.1 fewer three-point attempts in their most recent 14 games compared to their first 52 contests, with their 23.4 three-point attempts since April 12 ranking fewest in the league – 3.7 attempts fewer than the next-closest team (San Antonio Spurs) and 20.1(!) fewer than the club with the most tries (Utah Jazz).

The results? An offense that ranks fourth in efficiency since April 12 at 115.4 points per 100 possessions after ranking 23rd at 106.7 through games played on April 11.

The backcourt tandem of Westbrook and Beal, the league's No. 2 scoring duo with 3,068 points – 29 behind the New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram – have been the driving force of Washington's recent surge, which should obviously come as no surprise.

Prior to April 12, the Wizards averaged 99.8 points per 100 possessions when neither Westbrook nor Beal were on the court, and 109.9 points when they were playing together. Since April 12, Washington's efficiency without Westbrook and Beal dipped a smidge – 98.9 points per 100 possessions – while its production with both of them on the court has jumped significantly – 117.9 points per 100 possessions.

The offense is running smoother in part because Westbrook is taking smarter shots.

For all the great things the nine-time All-Star and 2016-17 MVP does on the court, shooting three-pointers isn't one of them. Of the 125 players with at least 225 3-point attempts, Westbrook's 31.2 per cent shooting ranks 121st.

Attempting fewer shots from beyond the perimeter would seem to behove Westbrook and the Wizards, and he's complying. After averaging 4.3 three-point attempts in his first 45 games, he's attempting an average of 2.8 three-pointers in the previous 14.

He's done some of his most damage recently from the elbow, where he's shooting 47.9 per cent and has made 35 field goals – second only to Ingram's 41 since April 12.

He made six shots from the elbow in Wednesday's 135-134 road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, when he finished with 29 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds for his 19th triple-double in his past 23 games. With 179 triple-doubles in his career, he is now within two of Oscar Robertson's all-time record.

Beal has also cut down a bit on his three-point tries in the past 14 games – 6.4 to 5.5 – but the biggest change to his game in the last three and a half weeks has been he's driving even more to the basket.

Since April 12, his 10.0 field goal attempts on dunks and layups trails only Williamson's 15.1 per game for the league lead. The six-foot-three Beal is making 6.0 of these attempts after making 4.3 and attempting an average of 7.0 dunk and layups through April 11.

While Westbrook and Beal are considered two of the league's top guards, Robin Lopez's name usually isn't mentioned when discussing the NBA's top big men. Heck, he isn't even considered to be the best seven-footer in his own family, but he's been automatic from close range recently.

Among the 173 players with at least 30 shots from within five feet of the basket since April 12, Lopez's 78.4 per cent shooting (29 of 37) ranks sixth in the league. Prior to this stretch, Lopez was shooting 66.5 per cent on all shots within five feet of the hoop – just a tick behind brother Brook at 67.5 per cent.

Lopez isn't the only big man that has stepped up off the bench recently for Washington.

The three-team trade that sent Daniel Gafford from the Chicago Bulls to the Wizards didn't really move the needle on the day of the trade deadline, but it's one that has helped Washington turn their season around.

Of the 199 players with at least 75 field goal attempts since April 12, Gafford ranks fourth in the NBA in eFG per cent at 69.2, just behind Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant, whose third on the list at 69.7 per cent.

Gafford has also become one of Westbrook's favourite targets, as Westbrook has fed him on 31 made baskets since April 12. That's the most by any guard to a centre and third by any player to a team-mate behind Westbrook to Beal at 39 and the Warriors' Draymond Green to Stephen Curry at 46.

The recent surge in the standings has Washington on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2018, as they sit in 10th place in the East, one-half game back of the ninth-place Indiana Pacers and a comfortable three games ahead of the Toronto Raptors.

Not only are the playoffs within their grasp, with the way Westbrook, Beal and company are playing, the high-octane Wizards have a look of a team nobody would like to face in the postseason.

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