Kevin De Bruyne's scintillating long-range strike against Borussia Monchengladbach last week was Manchester City's 100th goal of the season and maintained Pep Guardiola's record of his sides reaching a century in each of his 12 seasons in top-flight coaching.

At Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now at Manchester City, Guardiola the tactician is loath to go on the defensive.

However, whenever he feels the quality or worth of one of his players might have been called into question during a news conference, that position is second nature.

"He's an incredibly important player for us," the Catalan snapped back unequivocally when Raheem Sterling's declining output in front of goal was raised this year, two days after he put a penalty against Brighton and Hove Albion into orbit to prolong a lean spell of three goals in 18 games.

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

Quite simply, that is a whole lot of everything.

Under Guardiola, City have won six major honours. They became the first team to reach the 100-points landmark when lifting the Premier League in 2017-18 and retained the title as part of an unprecedented domestic treble the following season.

A 14-point lead at the top of the table and next month's dates in the EFL Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals mean a clean sweep in England is once again a possibility as Borussia Dortmund await in the last eight of the Champions League.

One of the points of difference this time around is Guardiola's apparently assertion the past couple of weeks that more of the success he craves might be possible with Sterling confined to the margins.

After being defended by his manager in January, Sterling embarked upon a run of six goals in nine games across all competitions, including one in a deeply cathartic 4-1 win over former club Liverpool at Anfield and concluding with an early winner at Arsenal in February.

He has not added to a 13-goal haul in 2020-21 since and after, wasting two glorious late chances in the 2-0 derby defeat to Manchester United, Sterling was an unused substitute for the subsequent 5-2 win over Southampton.

That decision apparently prompted a row denied by both men – "nothing happened" said Guardiola, "FALSE" tweeted Sterling – after the England international was omitted from the travelling squad for a 3-0 win at Fulham.

It means, as Wednesday marks the ninth anniversary of the 26-year-old's top-flight debut, that one of the most impressive Premier League careers of the past decade has encountered some unusual on-field turbulence.

 

Chasing Shearer and Rooney

Aside from a tempestuous end to his final season at Liverpool as Sterling sought to leave and a patchy start at City as Manuel Pellegrini's tenure spluttered to an end, the winger's trajectory has aimed relentlessly upwards since Kenny Dalglish introduced him as a substitute against Wigan Athletic on March 24, 2012, aged 17 years and 107 days.

He has 144 direct goal involvements in 284 Premier League games, with 95 goals and 49 assists. Ranking all players in Premier League history before their 27th birthdays, this puts Sterling eighth – one place above David Beckham (128 goal involvements).

Wayne Rooney leads the way (215) from Alan Shearer (172), Harry Kane (163), Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler (both 162), Michael Owen (156) and Romelu Lukaku (148), meaning a few of that esteemed group are within reach for Sterling before he turns 27 on December 8.

Overall, Shearer remains king, his all-time record haul of 260 Premier League goals among 325 goal involvements, ahead of Rooney on 311 (208 goals, 103 assists).

By all accounts, Sterling should be entering his peak years and is fractionally ahead of Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (92 and 91 respectively) in the race to become the 30th member of the Premier League's 100 goals club.

Along with having the chance to join Rooney and Frank Lampard as the third dual goals and assists centurion in league history, Sterling's overall output means he will get close to Shearer and Rooney's levels if he can maintain it.

All of which makes Sterling's absence from a certain conversation fairly curious.

 

From #TheHatedOne to Premier League great?

In recent years, Manchester City bade fond farewells to the first batch of superstars that propelled the club's transformation from also-rans to trophy collectors.

When they departed, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and David Silva were all acclaimed as being among the very best in their positions to grace the division. Similar talk will accompany Sergio Aguero if, as looks increasingly likely, he leaves the Etihad Stadium when his contract expires in June.

De Bruyne is very much in the midst of his prime years, having joined City in the same 2015 close-season as Sterling, and is already spoken of in such terms.

But the notion of Raheem Sterling: Premier League great? Despite the numbers outlined above, it is a consideration seldom made.

This can be partly attributed to the vitriolic reaction that followed his Liverpool exit, which embedded poisonous and unfair perceptions of an ambitious young footballer.

"It just winds me up and angers me to the pit of my stomach," said Kop favourite Jamie Carragher of Sterling's desire to leave Anfield. John Aldridge declared a then 20-year-old "too young to think for himself", despite middle age seemingly not opening up such a capacity for the former striker.

Carragher, Aldridge and numerous other ex-Reds within the pundit class were speaking passionately in defence of the club they loved, but unfortunately with no regard for the abuse – both insidious and explicit – they helped to normalise.

Sterling was infamously dubbed "footie Idiot Raheem" in a Sun article – still available online, as it happens – following England's Euro 2016 exit against Iceland, where the City player won a penalty in a 2-1 defeat.

Earlier in the tournament, he labelled himself "#TheHatedOne" on social media. The vibrant performer from his Liverpool days began to return on the field under Guardiola, but the attitude from the terraces made it feel like Sterling had a point.

At grounds such as Turf Moor, the Hawthorns and the King Power Stadium, he was booed, despite no obvious rivalry existing between City and their opponents. For many there was grimly familiar discomfort and unease: surely it's not about that, is it?

Then, at Stamford Bridge in December 2018, Sterling was targeted by a group of home supporters, their faces contorted in anger. The incident led Chelsea to banning a fan for life for using "racially abusive language".

The day after the match, Sterling addressed the unequal media coverage given to black and white footballers in a social media post, and what this means to those on the receiving end. He remains a powerful voice in the fight against racism in football and society as a whole.

Sterling's status as a role model and an inspiration played a part alongside his phenomenal performances for treble-winning City as he was named 2018-19 FWA Footballer of the Year.

 

The surrounding and frequently vile noise accompanying his career in England is not something shared by Sterling's City counterparts. The stand he took after the Chelsea match will remain a defining time in his career and, in terms of performance analysis, it might be seen as the moment where all other noise faded into the background and a rare talent was given his due. 

There is, however, another elephant in the room when it comes to assessing Sterling's elite credentials. Or, more accurately, an elephant in the six-yard box.

Floored by missed sitters

The 2019-20 season was the most prolific of Sterling's career as he scored 31 times overall and hit 20 in the Premier League.

Nevertheless, it concluded with him somehow blazing over from four yards with City 2-1 down to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The Ligue 1 club soon led 3-1 and City were out – a nadir of the Guardiola era.

For a player who scores so frequently, Sterling's finishing remains maddeningly unreliable at times.

During City's 100-point season, Guardiola hauled him off after an implausible miss at Burnley and a couple of botched clear openings in that April Manchester derby, where City led 2-0 and lost 3-2, were a huge factor in the ultimate bragging rights of claiming a league title with victory over their bitter rivals going begging.

Then, despite contributing tirelessly to the collective effort, Sterling failed to score as England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. It is impossible to imagine Rooney or Shearer doing likewise in similar circumstances, making that campaign an unhelpful anomaly in any pretentions to greatness.

So, is Sterling's finishing overall as bad as those forgettable moments suggest?

Since his debut, he is the fifth-highest scoring Premier League player on 95, behind Aguero (164), Harry Kane (159), Jamie Vardy (115) and Lukaku (113).

A shot conversion rate of 15.9 per cent tracks below that quartet, with Vardy the most efficient at 22.2 and Lukaku closest to Sterling on 16.7 per cent.

Of the 31 players to have scored 50 or more Premier League goals during that time, Sterling ranks around the middle of the pack, 15th overall in terms of shot conversion – Christian Benteke's tragicomic figure of 8.7 per cent conversion bring up the rear.

In terms of those defined by Opta as 'big chances', Sterling falls into the bottom third of the group in 22nd, having netted 66 and missed 83 over the course of his top-flight career for 44.3 percent.

This is perhaps what you'd expect from a man with a reputation for missing his share of high-profile sitters, but improvements over recent seasons show why he is still able to be on the trajectory of Shearer and Rooney for goal involvements.

The bulk of Sterling's Premier League goals came over the most recent three completed campaigns, with 18 in the 100-point season backed up by 17 to retain the title and 20 last time around – comfortably his three most prolific goalscoring seasons.

Each time, his shot conversion was above 20 per cent, with a high of 22 in 2018-19. The only other time he finished so efficiently was when scoring nine times from 45 attempts during Liverpool's surprise 2013-14 title tilt.

There has been a drop off this time around, with nine goals from 53 attempts amounting to a 17 per cent conversion rate, while he has missed two thirds of the big chances on offer (6/18).

On that metric, he tracked as high as 60 per cent in 2018-19, having registered 53.8 the season before – both success rates to rival any elite forward. Despite the overall strong returns of 2019-20, his big chance conversion rate dipped to 42.4 per cent.

 

The art of the tap-in merchant

This is another criticism some detractors like to level at Sterling: that he is a "tap-in merchant", who simply gorges on Guardiola's feast of football to pad his stats from close range.

But, as Gary Lineker is often keen to point out with a heavy helping of self-deprecation, if it were that easy then everyone would be doing it.

If the misses outlined above suggest a shortfall in Sterling's technique as a finisher, then his capacity to sniff out chances through intelligent and clinical movements stand as one of his main assets.

Throughout his City career, his shots-per-game average has ranged from between 2.3 to 3.3 when split by season. However, his expected goals (xG) figure per 90 minutes increased significantly in those three most prolific campaigns.

In 2017-18, his xG/90 was 0.56, set against 0.21 for Leroy Sane, City's other first-choice winger that year. Sane and Sterling had near-identical xG/90 scores of 0.28 and 0.27 during the previous season, Guardiola's first at the helm.

Despite averaging slightly more shots per game than Sterling in 2019-20 (3.4 to 3.3), Riyad Mahrez's xG/90 was 0.36 compared to his team-mate's 0.64.

This shows Sterling getting himself into notably better scoring areas, with a greater probability of finding the net, than team-mates playing in the same position. Even considering the fact Mahrez appears to have usurped Sterling in Guardiola's pecking order for now, his xG/90 is still half that of the England man in 2020-21 (0.21 vs 0.42).

If this suggests a notable tenacity and relentlessness around the opposition penalty area, Sterling's dribbling ability and productivity when carrying possession underlines the point.

Guardiola values forwards who can bring an unpredictable element to the possession-dominating foundations of his sides and Sterling certainly excels here, showing himself to be one of the most adept players in the division when it comes to running with the ball and making something happen.

Since joining City in 2015-16, he is ranked fifth (251) in the Premier League for shot involvements after a carry – meaning Sterling has either had a shot himself or set up a team-mate to do so.

As with his output in front of goal, Sterling's figures for carries and progressive carries are down this term, but a return to those levels seems comfortably within reach for a player of his age and ability.

At the risk of just loudly shouting, "KICK IT AT THE GOAL, RAHEEM!", he could also shoot more. An uneven return to the starting XI in Saturday's FA Cup win at Everton yielded four attempts on goal, a couple of them fairly wild.

That was up on his season average of 2.3 attempts per 90 minutes. And, if awful misses from close quarters is one of Sterling's main regrettable habits, taking too many touches and checking inside to be crowded out by defenders is another.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi average above five attempts per match. Obviously, there is a lot more to their majestic careers than just shooting a lot, but their continually handsome hauls show the value of a star forward backing themselves.

It feels like a relatively minor tweak that could take Sterling's game to the next level, when considering all his other demonstrable qualities.

A provocative newspaper interview with Marca last season, where he posed with a Real Madrid shirt, showed a man who thinks he belongs on the A-list and the returns of a nine-year Premier League career back that up. Being only the third player to score 100 goals under Guardiola after Messi and Aguero isn't bad, either.

With everything again possible for City on the other side of the international break, Sterling has the perfect platform to put a tricky couple of weeks behind him and step it up once more.

What shaped up to be a year of enormous positivity ended in disappointment and a dilemma for the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins were 5-11 at the bottom of the AFC East in 2019 before turning their fortunes around to finish 10-6 last year. That was not quite enough to make the playoffs, though.

Victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 would have clinched a postseason berth, as indeed would defeats for any of three AFC rivals. Every result went against Miami.

Worse than just being edged out of the postseason picture, they were beaten by 30 points in Buffalo as Tua Tagovailoa – the fifth overall pick supposed to be the Dolphins’ franchise quarterback – endured a dismal end to his rookie season.

The signs had been there prior to that desperate three-interception showing, which actually included a career-high 361 passing yards, but the costly defeat firmly formed Miami’s big offseason question: Do they need to make a move at QB?

There have been and continue to be interesting options, but the front office looks to be taking its time in making the right calls to turn this team into contenders.

Stats Perform data shows how far away they are right now.

Offense

Tagovailoa would likely have been given some respite in that fateful Bills game had backup Ryan Fitzpatrick not been ruled out after testing positive for coronavirus.

The Dolphins had turned to Fitzpatrick in Week 16 against the Las Vegas Raiders and he duly rescued a 26-25 comeback win, completing nine of 13 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown.

The change was evidence of coach Brian Flores’ faltering faith in Tagovailoa. The result was justification.

Among players to throw 200 attempts in 2020, only Washington pair Alex Smith and Dwayne Haskins Jr. trailed Tagovailoa’s 1,814 yards. Even when he put up big numbers in the Buffalo defeat, his 6.22 yards per attempt were 0.04 yards down on his extremely modest year average.

This plodding pace was the reason for Flores turning so often to Fitzpatrick, who was picked on eight of 267 passes (3.0 per cent) but gained 7.83 yards per attempt.

Neither quarterback was helped by the limited receiving options, with only wide receiver DeVante Parker (63 catches for 793 yards and four TDs) and tight end Mike Gesicki (53 catches for 703 yards and six TDs) offering any real quality in that sense.

The rushing offense was no better. Perhaps again partly due to a reluctance to trust Tagovailoa, they ran on 41.9 per cent of plays (14th-most in the league) but registered only 105.5 rushing yards per game (22nd-most).

Criticism of Tagovailoa was understandable, but the entire offense was shaky last year.

Defense

With the deficiencies on the other side of the ball, Miami’s defense had to be shoulder much of the burden in 2020. 

Although opponents racked up 251.5 passing yards per game, the Dolphins allowed just 315 points across the season, the fourth-fewest in the NFL.

The cornerback duo of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones were particularly effective. Howard had 10 interceptions after managing 12 across the first four years of his career.

Up front, Emmanuel Ogbah (9.0 sacks and 21 QB hits), Kyle Van Noy (6.0 sacks and 10 QB hits) and Shaq Lawson (4.0 sacks and 18 QB hits) were productive in pressuring the quarterback.

Firmly in the middle of the pack when it came to stopping the run, the Dolphins allowed 116.4 rushing yards per game, but theirs was a stingy defense that proved its upside by forcing a league-leading 29 total takeaways.

Offseason

Although the Dolphins have been busy in free agency already, their spending has been unexceptional.

Van Noy was released and re-joined the New England Patriots, with whom they swapped defensive linemen as Davon Godchaux and Adam Butler traded places.

Butler's contract with the Dolphins cost half as much as Godchaux's in New England, but the new acquisition had four sacks in 2020, more than the man he is replacing managed in his entire Miami career.

Those deals are indicative of what so far appears to be a cost-cutting one-in, one-out approach. Fitzpatrick left for the Washington Football Team, where he will collect $10million, while Jacoby Brissett – a new backup quarterback – arrived from the Indianapolis Colts on a contract worth $5m.

The biggest splash to date saw Will Fuller arrive after a career year catching Deshaun Watson passes, including eight touchdowns, in Houston.

The most significant development of the offseason is yet to play out, though, as the identity of the man throwing the ball to Fuller this year remains far from certain.

Fuller could serve as a pivotal boost to Tagovailoa's options and enable him to develop his game in year two, but the Dolphins also have the ability to put together a very enticing package for a prospective trade, as they possess the third and 18th picks in the first round of this year's draft.

Fuller’s wantaway former team-mate Watson is the most obvious possible target in a move that would change the complexion of the AFC.

The arrival of one of the league's elite quarterbacks could quickly turn Miami into contenders, but it would depend on the Texans taking back their own draft pick, sent to the Dolphins in return for Laremy Tunsil in 2019.

Whether they stick with Tagovailoa, make a blockbuster move for Watson or unexpectedly take one of the draft's top signal-callers, an intriguing offseason in Miami will be defined by a crucial decision at the game's most important position.

After going from first to worst in the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles decided to make wholesale changes. 

Doug Pederson departed, the head coach who steered the franchise to a first Super Bowl success just three years earlier deemed to no longer be the right man at the helm.   

"After taking some time to reflect on these conversations, I believe it is in both of our best interests to part ways," Eagles chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie said in announcing Pederson's departure. 

The Carson Wentz era is over too, the former second overall pick getting a fresh start to his NFL career in Indianapolis. Nick Sirianni has moved in the opposite direction, leaving his post as offensive coordinator at the Colts to take charge in Philadelphia. 

A 4-11-1 record led to the departures, particularly as they lost seven out of eight after their bye week. That solitary success during the run came with Jalen Hurts starting at quarterback, seemingly offering a window into the future.  

Sirianni's appointment gives an indication as to where exactly the Eagles want to improve, as shown when looking into the team's numbers during what was a difficult 2020 season.

Offense 

Perhaps surprisingly for a team named the Eagles, there was an issue airing the ball out. Their average of 6.23 yards per pass attempt ranked dead last in the league, while they were also bottom of the pile in terms of completion percentage (55.9).  

Only the Broncos had more interceptions than Philadelphia's total of 20. Wentz was responsible for 15 in just 12 games, while a disposition to hang onto the ball led to him being on the wrong end of 50 quarterback sacks.  

Hurts was sacked 13 times, too, suggesting pass protection was a problem in general. 

Injuries did not help in that regard, admittedly, as they were without guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Andre Dillard for the entire season. They also had issues at receiver, Greg Ward finishing top for receptions with 53, hardly surprising considering he was the solitary wideout to appear in all 16 games.  

Despite the offensive line becoming a case of shuffling the pack on a weekly basis based both on form and fitness, they were still able to run the ball effectively, averaging 5.03 yards per attempt and 126.7 yards per game. 

Still, new offensive coordinator Shane Steichen will know the importance of re-establishing a consistent passing game.

Defense 

Creating pressure was not a problem for the Eagles, who finished behind only the Steelers and Rams with an impressive total of 49 sacks. 

Brandon Graham led the way with eight, while Fletcher Cox was again a factor in helping disrupt opponents on passing plays. 

And yet Philadelphia still allowed teams to complete at a rate of 68.7 per cent when throwing the ball, working out at 7.8 yards per attempt. If the pass rush failed to get home, the secondary was too often exposed. 

They also struggled when it came to stopping teams moving the ball on the ground, giving up an average of 125.8 yards per outing. 

Their cause was not helped by allowing 13 running plays of 20+ yards, as well as 20 rushing touchdowns. 

There were problems in the secondary, too. The Eagles managed only eight interceptions, making them one of just four franchises to fail to reach double digits. That low number led to a +/- takeaway deficit of -10.

Offseason

General manager Howie Roseman has holes to fill on both sides of the ball, yet not a lot of money available to find solutions. 

The Eagles' salary cap situation is not aided by having just over $40million in dead money weighing them down. It is not the table you want to top, though was deemed a necessary situation to move on from Wentz.  

Hurts tops the depth chart at quarterback for now; he will be helped by having the chance to get to grips with a new offense while getting the vast majority of reps, though that also means there is less wiggle room in terms of the level of his performances in year two.  

Philadelphia will also be hoping Jalen Reagor – selected with the 21st pick in the previous draft – can make a leap, particularly with Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson gone after barely making an impact in 2020.  

There are building blocks elsewhere on the roster, plus it can only be hoped the injury issues that weakened the offensive line do not strike again.  

Darius Slay is the number one cornerback, but there is a distinct lack of depth beneath a player who found the going tough at times in his first season in Philadelphia. 

With limited resources to spend in free agency, Roseman will have to lean heavily on the draft. The Eagles have 11 picks in total, albeit five of those are in the final two rounds. They will pick sixth overall, which opens up a number of opportunities, including trading back to gain more selections should the right offer come their way. 

An ageing roster appears to need a major overhaul, rather than attempting to paper over the cracks.

The 2021 season cannot play out like the last one did for the Minnesota Vikings.

A team that had gone 10-6 in 2019 was looking to return to the playoffs for a second straight year, led by an impressive array of offensive talent.

Those stars certainly were not the issue.

"I do believe, offensively, we've got to the point where we have a chance to be a really, really good football team," head coach Mike Zimmer said at the end of last season.

"For the first time in my seven years, I thought we had a very, very explosive offense."

Unfortunately, as Stats Perform data shows, an awful defensive unit left Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and Co. high and dry.

There is work to do to ensure the coming campaign is not another wasted year.

Offense

The numbers back up Zimmer's comments, making it all the more frustrating for the Vikings' offensive players that they limped to a 7-9 record.

Minnesota ranked fourth for yards per game (393.3) and fifth for yards per play (6.15). Only the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans were ahead of them in both categories.

Quarterback Cousins showed signs of progress as he produced a career-high 35 passing touchdowns and increased his passing yards per attempt to 8.3 from 8.1, albeit while throwing 13 interceptions, as many as in his final year in Washington.

Cousins was aided by the success of rookie Justin Jefferson, who provided an effective deep passing option. Four of the wide receiver's seven touchdowns came on passes of 20 yards or more, as he tied Travis Kelce and Calvin Ridley for the most 20-yard catches in the league (23) and led the way in 25-yard receptions (16). Jefferson's receiving average of 15.9 yards ranked eighth.

The ever-consistent Adam Thielen provided substantial support to Cousins and his less-experienced team-mate, posting 74 catches for 925 yards and 14 TDs.

And yet Cousins looked for wide receivers with just 55.2 per cent of his passes. Although Kyle Rudolph's final season with the team was surely his most forgetful - recording just 28 receptions before a foot injury - second-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. chipped in with five receiving touchdowns, while there was a single score through the air for Cook.

Of course, the running back's best work came on the ground, where he trailed only Derrick Henry for carries (312), total rushing yards (1,557) and rushing TDs (16), almost singlehandedly giving the Vikings the fifth-best running game in football.

Defense

So how did that offense finish the year with only seven wins?

Unfortunately, the defense gave up 433 offensive points to finish 2020 with the sixth-worst such record.

It was a unit hamstrung by departures and then injuries, with a host of young prospects left to hold the fort.

Minnesota certainly could not have planned for an entire year without Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce. Hunter, who had 14.5 sacks and 22 QB hits in 2019, was placed on injured reserve going into Week 1, while new signing Pierce opted out of the year due to COVID-19.

They were always likely to be short at cornerback after losing Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, but Mike Hughes and Holton Hill each played just four games to exacerbate the issue.

Even star linebacker pairing Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr played together for only two weeks before the latter suffered a shoulder injury.

Simply getting these players back on the field again will go a long way to improving the Vikings' hopes.

It will also come as welcome relief to Cousins and his offensive colleagues, as the quarterback should expect to have the ball in his hands more often, having seen the defensive class of 2020 struggle to get stoppages.

Minnesota's opponents converted 70.8 per cent of their fourth downs and 86.7 per cent from fourth and short (four yards or less).

Offseason

Scarred by 2020, the Vikings have focused their efforts on defensive stars in free agency, boosting their depth even further as a host of injured stars prepare to return.

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has arrived on a two-year, $21million contract having posted 3.5 sacks for the New York Giants last year, as many as any Minnesota player besides Yannick Ngakoue (5.0), who left less than halfway through the season.

Patrick Peterson boosts the cornerback ranks, meanwhile, after his three interceptions and eight passes defensed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020.

The need to recruit a pass rusher was outlined by Zimmer and the first move on that front brought Stephen Weatherly back to Minnesota following a single season in Carolina.

But considering this team missed the playoffs, other areas of need are relatively scarce, although free safety Anthony Harris has left for the Philadelphia Eagles and will be a miss.

They have just over $3million in cap space and the 14th pick in the draft, but the Vikings look to be in a solid position to contend for the postseason – so long as that injury curse does not strike again.

This has not been a fun season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who remain at the foot of the Western Conference.

Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell have both missed extended periods and the team have a miserable 10-32 record, the worst in the entire NBA.

But three of those wins have come since the All-Star break, a period in which the T-Wolves are actually operating at .500.

They were 1-2 over the past week but faced a daunting schedule and appear to belatedly have some cause for optimism.

Rookie Anthony Edwards is finally cooking and leads our NBA Heat Check for March 15-21, powered by Stats Perform data.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns

If this young Minnesota team is to develop into a competitive NBA outfit, they need to have both guard Edwards and center Towns fit and firing. That was belatedly the case last week.

Edwards, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, hinted at what was to come at the end of the previous week when he put up 34 points in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers, a career-best tally at that stage.

The benchmark was swiftly raised higher, though, as he followed up 29 points against the Los Angeles Lakers with 42 in a victory at the Phoenix Suns. That was a new T-Wolves rookie record and made Edwards the third-youngest NBA player ever to put up 40 points, after LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

The 19-year-old was not alone in passing 40 either, with Towns contributing 41 in only the second ever Minnesota game to feature two 40-point performances.

Towns' weekly average of 31.3 points - up on his prior seasonal tally of 21.8 - provided a timely reminder of his talents, while Edwards - up from 15.6 to 27.3 - will hope he has set a new standard with Rookie of the Year honours perhaps now in his sights, the race blown open by LaMelo Ball's injury.

Luka Doncic

The ROTY chase followed the same trend as the MVP hunt, with Joel Embiid and LeBron James both facing spells on the sidelines and encouraging other contenders. Doncic is not among the frontrunners quite yet, but do not bet against the Dallas Mavericks sensation.

Doncic headed into last week having missed two of the Mavs' prior four games, scoring 22 and 21 points in two wins when he did feature. By the Slovenian's lofty standards, this was a lean spell.

The 22-year-old point guard was soon back to his best, though. He averaged 35.5 points across the subsequent four games, with 42 against the Los Angeles Clippers a clear high point.

Doncic made 5.5 threes per game from 11.5 attempts for 47.8 per cent, a mark that would across the whole season rank him fourth in the league.

Joe Ingles

One of the three players with a better three-point percentage is Utah Jazz forward Ingles, who is shooting 49 per cent from beyond the arc after a week in which that figure was boosted considerably.

Having made 2.4 threes across his first 34 games of the season, Ingles converted an outstanding 5.7 over the next three.

His weekly points per game return was a hugely impressive 22.3 - up 11 on his prior average - after a career-high 34 points against the Washington Wizards, the only game the Jazz have lost this season with Ingles in the lineup.
 

GOING COLD...

Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk

Ball's injury brought a miserable end to a tough week for the Charlotte Hornets, in which they started with a win over the Sacramento Kings before losing three straight.

And Ball will be an even bigger miss than already feared if Hayward and Monk perform as they did over those four games.

Hayward started strongly but scored seven on back-to-back nights and averaged 14 points for the week, while Monk saw his minutes cut and contributed just six points per game - including none at the Lakers - as he made only two of nine threes.

Stephen Curry

Curry is another who might not be a million miles away from the MVP race, but he is trending in the wrong direction.

The Golden State Warriors great has had 62- and 57-point games this season, yet his average for the year is down to 29 after scoring 22.5 per game in meetings with the Lakers and the Houston Rockets last week.

Curry, who made six of 18 threes, then missed consecutive games with a tailbone injury.

While a slight decline in scoring is not a huge concern for the Warriors, they certainly need their main man healthy.

Trae Young

The Atlanta Hawks are enjoying a superb eight-game winning streak, but their leading scorer actually endured a tougher week shooting the basketball.

With 34 assists across three games, Young averaged a double-double, yet he scored only 16.7 points and made 0.5 threes per game. His 9.7 points per game decline on his seasonal tally was the second-worst of the week across the NBA.

Fortunately, Danilo Gallinari and John Collins stepped up, so the Hawks will now hope they can get all their stars firing at once.

Tottenham bounced back from a dreadful week to keep their hopes of a top-four Premier League finish alive. 

A north London derby defeat to Arsenal was followed by a shocking Europa League exit at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb, but Jose Mourinho's men comfortably swatted aside Aston Villa 2-0 to move to within three points of fourth-placed Chelsea.

The Gunners, meanwhile, produced a stirring comeback to seal a 3-3 draw against West Ham, David Moyes' side giving them more than a little assistance. 

There were also wins for Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds United over Newcastle United and Fulham respectively. 

Using Opta data, we look at some of the more quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action.

 

Spurs bounce back from European nightmare

Jose Mourinho demanded a positive response from his side after their dismal Europa League exit to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday and they duly delivered. 

Goals in either half from Carlos Vinicius and Harry Kane sealed a fourth win in five Premier League games for Spurs, while they became the third side to win six consecutive top-flight away games against Villa, after Manchester United (2003-2007) and Liverpool (2011-2019). 

Vinicius has now scored nine goals in his nine starts for the club across all competitions, the Brazilian needing just 12 shots to do so.

That kind of accuracy is familiar to Kane, who has been directly involved in 30 goals in the Premier League this season (17 goals, 13 assists). The England captain is the first player to reach that total in the 2020-21 competition, while it is the first time he has achieved this since 2017-18 (30 goals, two assists).

Villa might point to the absence of the talismanic Jack Grealish as a contributing factor to their poor display. The Villains have a 17 per cent win ratio in the Premier League games without the England international, which rises to 50 per cent when he is in the side.

Hammers give Arsenal a helping hand

West Ham players scored five goals in their clash against Arsenal at the London Stadium, yet David Moyes' side had to make do with a 3-3 draw. 

The Hammers took a 3-0 lead against Mikel Arteta's men, but ended up with just a point after Tomas Soucek and Craig Dawson put into their own nets before Alexandre Lacazette's late leveller. 

It meant Moyes' outfit became the first team to score two own goals in a Premier League game since Swansea (also against Arsenal) in January 2017, while Soucek became the first player to score at both ends of the pitch in the same home top-flight game for West Ham since Frank Lampard against Leicester City in November 1998.

The collapse meant West Ham failed to win after being three goals ahead in a Premier League game for the first time since September 1998 when they lost 4-3 to Wimbledon. 

Following their 3-3 draw with Tottenham earlier in the season, the result meant the Hammers have been involved in two of the Premier League's three three-goal comebacks this season – the most instances in a single campaign since 2010-11 (also three). 

There is nothing boring about them these days. 

Leeds return to Yorkshire with capital gains

Leeds' trips to London have largely been fruitless affairs in recent years, but they returned to winning ways in the capital with a slender triumph over Fulham. 

Patrick Bamford and Raphinha were on target as Marcelo Bielsa's side sealed a first win there in 17 games across all competitions, with their previous success coming in the shape of a 3-1 win against QPR in 2017. 

Bamford brushed off his disappointment at not being included in Gareth Southgate's England squad to become the first Leeds player to score in four straight league appearances against a single club since Luciano Becchio against Middlesbrough between 2010 and 2012. 

Joachim Andersen had given the Cottagers hope of securing at least a point when he joined Bjarne Goldbaek and Claus Jensen as the only Danish players to score for the club in the Premier League. 

Raphinha brought home the bacon for Leeds, though, scoring his sixth goal since his first top-flight start in November – only Bamford has scored more (seven) in that period.

Magpies' rotten run against Brighton continues

Brighton could scarcely have handpicked more accommodating opponents than Steve Bruce's sorry Newcastle.

The Seagulls' comfortable victory was their second at the Amex Stadium in 2021 – double what they achieved at home in 2020. 

Leandro Trossard, Danny Welbeck and Neal Maupay were on target for the hosts, with the former pair's strikes both coming from outside the penalty area – the first time Brighton have scored two such goals since a clash with QPR in April 2017.

They have now played more Premier League games against Newcastle (eight) without losing than against any other side in the competition, Graham Potter's side winning four and drawing four. 

The Magpies have scored just one goal in those games, with only Sheffield United having faced a side more often while netting just once in the competition, the Blades hitting the back of the net on a solitary occasion in 10 games against Manchester City.

From "Arsene Who" to "The Invincibles", via all those things he did not see, Arsene Wenger brought a whole new lexicon to English football.

He also changed the way the game is viewed in England, completely altering the horizons of a largely closed-off football culture to turbo-charge its transformation into the home of the most diverse, globally respected and richest domestic league on the planet.

Wenger's legacy in the Premier League is beyond question and compare, and will continue to be celebrated on happier occasions than Monday's anniversary of his 1,000th game at the helm (eek! More on that below, if you can bear it).

Across more than two decades, Wenger's Arsenal broke records, moved homes and changed their image forever. Here we look back at some memorable moments and the numbers behind a towering sporting era.

Ton-up strikers

Wenger's initial years in north London saw him skilfully combine the rugged English core of a team that previously enjoyed trophy success under George Graham with his more pioneering ideas – a blend that found full realisation with the 1997-98 double success.

"One of my jobs was to keep faithful to the qualities I had found here. I tried always to maintain the tradition and values of this club," Wenger said on the eve of his final game at Huddersfield Town in May 2018.

That was game 1,235 and game one took place on the other side of the Pennines against Blackburn Rovers on October 12, 1996.

Foremost among the qualities Wenger found at Arsenal were those of the man who would become the club's record goalscorer on his watch.

Ian Wright scored both goals to get the brave new era up and running with a 2-0 win over a club who had been champions of England a little over a year earlier.

Wright was 33 when Wenger arrived and injury curtailed his involvement in the glorious 1997-98 run-in. However, earlier in that season he broke Cliff Bastin's long-standing Arsenal club record and concluded his Gunners' career with 185 goals in 288 appearances.

The England striker's best mark would, of course, be surpassed by the great Thierry Henry, whose phenomenal haul of 228 all came on Wenger's watch.

Overall, there were five goalscoring centurions during the Wenger era, with Robin van Persie next on the list with 132 before his acrimonious departure to Manchester United in 2012.

Theo Walcott (108), Olivier Giroud (105) and Wright's one-time strike partner Dennis Bergkamp (102) were the other men into three figures.

Glory days at Old Trafford

That first taste of victory was one of 10 wins in 17 visits to Ewood Park, a win percentage of 58.8 per cent. Of the away or neutral venues Wenger's Arsenal played at in Britain, that ratio was only bettered by seven wins from 11 at Fulham's Craven Cottage (63.6 per cent).

Of course, there are other grounds far more synonymous with his reign, not least the home of Manchester United and his great rival Alex Ferguson.

Other than Highbury and the Emirates, Wenger managed his biggest number of Arsenal games at Old Trafford – 31 in total.

It was often an unhappy hunting ground, the scene of an 8-2 defeat in August 2011 that was his worst in terms of goals conceded and joint-heaviest by margin.

Only at Stoke City's Bet365 Stadium (18.2 per cent) and Tottenham's White Hart Lane (24 per cent) was Wenger's win ratio lower than at Old Trafford (W8 D6 L17 for 25.8 per cent). But when the wins came, they were seismic.

In March 1998, Marc Overmars nodded Nicolas Anelka's flick-on into his own path and steered beyond Peter Schmeichel for a 1-0 victory that proved pivotal in that season's title race.

Another iconic Arsenal moment came in May 2002, when Sylvain Wiltord pounced to beat compatriot Fabian Barthez and the Gunners secured Premier League glory on United's own patch.

There were more recriminations than celebrations in September 2003 after an ill-tempered 0-0 draw between the sides. However, had Ruud van Nistelrooy not crashed a penalty against the crossbar – much to Martin Keown's contorted, vein-popping satisfaction – Arsenal would not have been Invincibles.

7-up and springing Prague

An away ground not quite as synonymous with Wenger is the Madejski Stadium.

Nevertheless, Reading are the opponent Arsenal played most often while maintaining a 100 per cent record under the Frenchman, winning 10 out of 10.

The most famous of these wins was a 7-5 triumph in Berkshire in October 2012, where Arsenal averted EFL Cup embarrassment in utterly berserk fashion.

After 35 minutes, Reading were 4-0 up thanks to Jason Roberts, a Laurent Koscielny own goal, Mikele Leigertwood and Noel Hunt. Afterwards, their manager Brian McDermott, a former Arsenal player, would reflect upon the "worst" defeat of his career.

Walcott reduced the arrears before the interval and the England winger's second of the match deep into injury time, after a goal from Giroud and one at the right end from Koscielny, forced an additional half hour.

Marouane Chamakh put Arsenal ahead for the first time in the tie and, although Pavel Pogrebnyak made it 5-5, the Moroccan forward scored his second after Walcott completed his hat-trick to crown what Wenger dubbed "maybe my greatest comeback", with a touch of understatement.

It was not the only time Arsenal scored seven under Wenger and the biggest wins of his tenure came when they kept the back door shut, with Everton, Middlesbrough and Slavia Prague all beaten 7-0 in a spell spanning May 2005 to October 2007.

Coincidentally, Slavia's neighbours Sparta are next on Wenger's perfect record list after Reading, losing six out of six against Arsenal in the Champions League.

Mourinh-woe

Over time, an underlying warmth revealed itself in the Wenger-Ferguson rivalry. It was hard to say the same when it came to his jousts with Jose Mourinho.

Wenger was a "voyeur" and a "specialist in failure" according to Mourinho's acidic tongue and the older man could be similarly biting.

"When you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid sometimes and not more intelligent," he witheringly observed after Mourinho announced himself in English football with his 2004-05 Chelsea sweeping all before them.

It will therefore have stung deeply when Wenger's 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal saw them ransacked in a 6-0 demolition at Stamford Bridge on March 22, 2014.

If the manner of the loss was humiliating, the defeat itself was one to be expected. In 19 encounters with Mourinho, Wenger won two – a 10.5 per cent win ratio that is by far his worst against another manager, with 30.6 percent thanks to 15 victories from 49 attempts versus Ferguson next on the list.

Those paltry returns against the self-styled 'Special One' mostly come within a wider context of decline.

Wenger's first decade at Arsenal – spanning 1996-97 to 2005-06, their last at Highbury – yielded 11 trophies out of the 17 he won overall in north London, including all three Premier League titles.

However, Arsenal's win percentage held up after the move to Emirates Stadium, dipping fractionally to 57 from 57.6 per cent. They also scored slightly more often, with their goals-per-game figure up from 1.8 to 1.9 in the latter period.

By this point, Wenger was joined in the Premier League by the finest coaching talents from across Europe. It was a far cry from his own appointment, when he became only the fourth manager in England's top flight to hail from outside the British Isles.

Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and others had all come along to raise the bar Wenger set to even greater heights, although he would enjoy one last defining triumph at the expense of one of their contemporaries.

FA Cup specialist

Chelsea entered the 2017 FA Cup final as hot favourites to complete the double after romping to Premier League glory in Antonio Conte's first season in charge.

A 3-0 defeat to Arsenal the previous September inspired Conte to revert to his favoured 3-4-2-1 system and was the catalyst for a dominant revival.

This turn of events seemed to encapsulate the futility of the late Wenger years, when every small success appeared only to serve as a precursor for a greater disappointment.

You could even say the same for his last final in the competition he dominated, give it preceded his lowest ever Premier League finish of sixth in his farewell campaign.

But Arsenal were stirringly brilliant that day at Wembley. Per Mertesacker was wheeled out of cold storage to put in a colossal display at centre-back as Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey sealed a deserved 2-1 win.

Ramsey ranks 10th among Arsenal's top scorers of the Wenger era with 58 and two of those were FA Cup final winners, the Wales midfielder also netting decisively against Hull City in 2014.

Those were Wenger's fifth and seventh successes in a competition he has won more than any other manager in history, where his incredible Arsenal tenure means his position is ensured for posterity.

Kylian Mbappe has reached another milestone, with the Paris Saint-Germain star moving onto 100 goals in Ligue 1.

Mbappe initially opened the scoring on Sunday and then got his landmark goal to make it 4-0 in the second half, racing on to a gorgeous pass from Marco Verratti and coolly converting.

The 22-year-old started his career with Monaco, making his debut in 2015-16 before going on to star as the principality club charged to the title the following season.

Having earned his move to PSG, Mbappe has gone from strength to strength, and scored his 100th goal for the club in all competitions when he netted in a 3-1 win over Montpellier in December.

Mbappe is now a Ligue 1 centurion and, using Opta data, here is a breakdown of his 100 strikes in France's top tier.

Mbappe's 100 Ligue 1 goals 

2015-16

Mbappe opened his Ligue 1 account in February 2016, scoring a stoppage-time goal in Monaco's 3-1 triumph over Troyes. It was the only "big chance", as per Opta metrics, that the youngster had that season, while he also crafted four chances across 11 league appearances in total.

2016-17

As far as breakthrough seasons go, Mbappe's 2016-17 performance is up there with the very best. From 29 Ligue 1 appearances – 17 of them coming as starts – Mbappe scored 15 goals, created 31 chances and missed only five big opportunities. He scored his final top-flight goal for Monaco in a 2-0 win over Saint-Etienne. 

2017-18

Arriving at PSG alongside Neymar, Mbappe managed 13 Ligue 1 strikes from 28 appearances in his first season in Paris. Eight came with his right foot, while five came from his left, with just one of his efforts having come from outside the 18-yard box. His creativity also came to the fore, with the prodigy teeing up 52 opportunities in total.

2018-19

Having starred as France won the 2018 World Cup, Mbappe carried his sensational form into the following season, scoring a spectacular 33 Ligue 1 goals. Remarkably, 30 of these came from his right foot, and none with his head, while his total would have been even better had he put away the 27 big chances that he missed.

2019-20

Injury hampered Mbappe in his third season at PSG, limiting him to just 20 appearances in the league. He still managed 18 goals, none of which came from penalties, and crafted 40 opportunities for his team-mates.

2020-21

It is now 20 Ligue 1 goals for Mbappe this term. After a relatively slow start to the campaign by his standards, he has been in fine form lately, with his sparkling efforts against Barcelona in the Champions League cementing his place at the very top of the game.

Ronald Koeman and new president Joan Laporta will map out Barcelona's future during the international break, and going Dutch would be in keeping with Camp Nou tradition.

The club which has been a magnet to Netherlands greats of the past may see more Oranje stars arriving, with Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said to be a prime target.

According to the Sunday Times, Wijnaldum has a pre-contract agreement to move to Barcelona when his Anfield deal expires at the end of the season.

Reuniting with former national team coach Koeman would hold obvious appeal to Wijnaldum, who has been circumspect about his Liverpool future.

But what would Wijnaldum bring to a team already in the hunt for a domestic double? At the age of 30, would this signing make sense for Barca?


What options do Barcelona already have?

It may not be a vintage midfield of the type Pep Guardiola was blessed with, Sergio Busquets being the last survivor of that era in the centre of the pitch, but Barca are not badly off for talent.

Busquets and Miralem Pjanic bring the experience, Pedri the youthful exuberance and Frenkie de Jong is proven quality as he approaches his mid-20s.

They have the attacking option of Philippe Coutinho – who has been out injured since December – while Riqui Puig is a talent who Koeman appears unsure about.

Busquets and De Jong look a strong midfield pair, covering plenty of the pitch, with De Jong the likelier to roam away from the central channel.

 

What difference would Wijnaldum make?

At the age of 30, 'Gini' would not be bringing down the average age, even though that must surely soon become a priority for Koeman.

The head coach knows all about Wijnaldum's game from their time together in the Dutch national set-up, so there is a trust factor there, and to get an international player on a free transfer, albeit with high wages, could be seen as a good deal.

Yet to delve into this season's data, there appear to be very few areas where Wijnaldum excels above Barcelona's current crop.

Three goals and zero assists in 40 matches from Wijnaldum pales against what Pedri (three goals, six assists) and De Jong (six goals, five assists) have achieved from a similar number of games; however, it puts him ahead of Busquets (no goals, two assists) and Pjanic (no goals, no assists).

Wijnaldum's 18 chances created is fewer than what each member of that Barcelona quartet has achieved (Pedri 49, De Jong 38, Busquets 30, Pjanic 20), and although he is considered strong in the air, his 36 aerial battles won is bettered by De Jong and Busquets (both 45).

The former Newcastle United and PSV man has taken more shots (31) than any of that Barca midfield four, with Pedri (27) leading the way among those Blaugrana players, but he has too often failed to be clinical.

There are defensive qualities to Wijnaldum's game, and he has made 201 ball recoveries for Liverpool. Busquets (203), De Jong (234) and Pedri (173) suggest Barca are already handily equipped on that front.

If Wijnaldum is being signed as a replacement – say, if Pjanic is moved on to bring in such much-needed funds – then there could be merit in his arrival.

Otherwise, he looks to be just extra midfield stock.

 

Tackling a big issue

Wijnaldum's tackle success rate has nosedived in the 2020-21 season, having already been on a gradual decline during his career in England.

During his year at Newcastle in the 2015-16 season, Wijnaldum won 84.21 per cent of his tackles, and after three seasons of 60-plus percentage success with Liverpool, his rate dipped to 53.19 last term, though in a championship-winning campaign that hardly felt significant.

This season, however, it has crashed to 29.63 per cent, with his performance indicative of Liverpool's lame follow-up to their Premier League title triumph.

Such a rate would not cut it at Barca, where Puig (37.5 per cent) is the only midfielder with tackling success under 50 per cent this season. Busquets (58.46 per cent), De Jong (58.33) and Pedri (57.89) are the engine room players who have done most of the heavy lifting, setting the sort of standard any newcomer must expect to achieve.

Koeman favourite he may be, but Wijnaldum, a Champions League and Premier League winner with Liverpool, cannot live off past glories.

Barcelona will need an upswing to follow that downswing. After all, when Koeman said he wanted to bring a lad in, he really meant a Gini with bottle.

For the first time since 2005, neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo will be involved in the Champions League quarter-finals.  

While Barcelona's exit to last season's runners-up Paris Saint-Germain was perhaps not too much of a surprise, few saw Juventus coming out on the wrong end of an upset against Porto in the last 16.  

So, could we be witnessing a changing of the guard in the competition? Is it a case of out with the old, in with the new? 

While Messi and Ronaldo have dominated in Europe through the years, a collection of some of the most promising talents in the world game have the chance to take centre stage now.

 

Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)

Even by his own prolific standards, Haaland has been in sensational scoring form in the tournament so far.

His 10 goals in six games includes scoring a brace in each leg of the last-16 tie with Sevilla, helping Borussia Dortmund progress to the quarters.  

The Norwegian striker managed the same number in a Champions League campaign last season that saw him represent both BVB and Salzburg. Forget just breaking the record as the fastest to 20 goals, he has shattered it. Harry Kane was previously the quickest to reach that number, doing so in 24 games – Haaland managed it in just 14. 

His big chance conversion rate this season sits at a clinical 81.9 per cent, while he has also demonstrated his all-round impact by creating eight chances for his BVB colleagues.  

Next in his sights is Manchester City, a team with family ties as his father, Alf-Inge, played for the English club in the early 2000s. Haaland has been linked with them too, along with plenty of other clubs, and Pep Guardiola has been suitably impressed by a player who does not turn 21 until July.  

"The numbers speak for themselves, of course he is one of the best strikers in the world right now at his age," said Guardiola, who will be well aware that Haaland has the potential to ruin City's hopes of European glory. 

 

Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)

Mbappe has six goals to his name in European outings in 2020-21, the same tally team-mate Neymar has managed for a PSG squad aiming to go one better than last year.

The France international hit a hat-trick in a 4-1 thrashing of Barcelona at Camp Nou, joining Faustino Asprilla and Andriy Shevchenko as the only players to record a Champions League treble against the Spanish heavyweights.  

He was also on target when scoring a penalty in the drawn second leg, in the process becoming the youngest player to reach 25 goals in the competition, aged 22 years and 80 days. Messi was on the same pitch at the time his record was broken. 

Mbappe has also demonstrated how he can provide for others, too. No forward from any of the teams still in contention can top his three assists, while only Karim Benzema (15) has bettered his total of 14 chances created. 

PSG will be hoping the forward can continue his fine form when they take on Bayern Munich in a repeat of last year's final.

Phil Foden (Manchester City)

After three starts in the Champions League last season, Foden has risen from the periphery to become a prominent figure for Guardiola.  

Only goalkeeper Ederson has played more minutes in the campaign so far for City than the versatile 20-year-old, who has contributed a goal and two assists to help ensure smooth progress to the last eight.  

Foden has created the most chances for City during his appearances, his tally of 12 putting him just ahead of Kevin De Bruyne (11), while he has also been successful with 64.7 per cent of his attempted dribbles.  

The playmaker is set to feature in the Champions League knockout stage for a fourth season before turning 21 – a feat only previously achieved by Cesc Fabregas (2004-05 to 2007-08) and Theo Walcott (2006-07 to 2009-10).  

In the Premier League, Foden's 20 goal involvements (11 goals, nine assists) is comfortably the most by anyone aged 21 or under, showing just why he is no longer one to watch for the future but a player for the present, both for club and country.

Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)

It is not often a full-back catches the eye to the level that Davies managed during Bayern's triumphant Champions League run in 2019-20.  

The most eye-catching moment of all surely came in his side's 8-2 rout of Barcelona in a quarter-final result that sent shock waves across European football, as he initially beat two opposing players before breezing beyond poor Nelson Semedo to set up a goal for Joshua Kimmich, one of his three assists in the competition.  

Having arrived at the Bundesliga club as a left winger, the conversion to defence was made as quickly as he sprints up and down his flank (he clocked a top speed of 36.51 kilometres per hour in a Bundesliga game against Werder Bremen last year, the quickest speed recorded since such data began to be collected).  

His participation in the group stage this season was limited by an ankle injury, with the 4-1 first-leg victory over Lazio in the last 16 just his second start.  

However, the Canada international had no problems upon his return, having 101 touches (second only to team-mate David Alaba) while topping the list for Bayern in terms of tackles (four) and number of times possession was gained from the opposition (seven).

Wales need a victory against France in Paris to reclaim the Six Nations crown, and complete a Grand Slam in the process.

Wayne Pivac's team have enjoyed a sensational turnaround in fortunes this year and last week's 48-7 thrashing of lowly Italy made it four wins from four.

With France subsequently losing to England at Twickenham, Wales will wrap up the title with a win on Saturday, while even a losing bonus point could be enough, though that may still leave the door open for Les Bleus to snatch glory should they win their postponed fixture against Scotland.

England are well out of the race, but their captain Owen Farrell is eyeing up a points landmark when the 2020 champions take on Ireland in Dublin.

Scotland, meanwhile, round off what will ultimately go down as a frustrating campaign against Italy.

We use Opta data to preview the round-five, Super Saturday encounters.

 

SCOTLAND V ITALY

FORM

Scotland have won their last five Six Nations games against Italy – the previous 10 clashes between the sides had seen them share five wins each.

Italy have lost 52 of 54 away games in the Six Nations, with their only two victories on the road coming in Scotland in 2007 and 2015.

That victory at Murrayfield in 2015 was Italy's last in the competition. Their losing streak now stands at 31 games, and they will pick up the wooden spoon for the 16th time in Six Nations history.

ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have the best tackle success rate (92 per cent) of any side in this year's competition. Hamish Watson leads the way in that regard, completing all 44 of his attempted tackles – he has made 133 consecutive tackles in the tournament without missing one, the second-longest such run in Six Nations history, behind Lionel Nallet's 154 for France.

Italy's Sebastian Negri has made 127 post-contact metres in the 2021 Six Nations, the most of any forward in the championship.

IRELAND V ENGLAND

FORM

England have won their last two meetings with Ireland in the Six Nations and could win three in a row against them for only the second time, after doing so between 2012 and 2014.

Ireland lost to France in their last home game, only once before have they suffered defeat in back-to-back home games in the Six Nations – in 2010 versus Scotland at Croke Park and 2011 versus France at the Aviva Stadium.

Jones' England have won their last four Tests against Ireland, preventing them from scoring any first-half points in their last two meetings and scoring an average of 4.3 tries per game in that run.

ONES TO WATCH

CJ Stander announced his retirement this week, with the 31-year-old set to hang up his boots at the end of the season. This will be his final appearance for Ireland, having won his 50th cap in the 27-24 win over Scotland in round four.

Owen Farrell, son of Ireland coach Andy, is the top scorer in the Six Nations this year (44) and is just six points away from 500 in the championship. Only Ronan O'Gara (557) has reached that milestone exclusively in the Six Nations (since 2000).

FRANCE V WALES

FORM

Wales are bidding to win a sixth Six Nations title (since 2000), only England (seven) have won the championship more often. If they win this match it would be their fifth
Grand Slam – no other side has more than three.

Recent history is on Wales' side heading to the Stade de France. They have won three of their last four away games against Les Bleus in the Six Nations (L1), triumphing in their last trip to Paris (24-19 in 2019) despite trailing by 16 points at half-time – the biggest comeback for a team in the competition. 

Indeed, pre-tournament favourites France have won only two of their last nine Six Nations games against Wales (L7) after winning nine of the previous 12 (L3).

ONES TO WATCH

Antoine Dupont already has four try assists in this Six Nations, only five players have ever recorded more in an edition of the championship, with Frederic Michalak
(seven in 2006) the only Frenchman to do so.

Louis Rees-Zammit is the joint top try scorer in the 2021 Six Nations (four, level with England's Anthony Watson). Shane Williams (six in 2008) is the only Welsh player to score more than four in an edition of the tournament.

As the Premier League season heads towards the home straight, so too do your fantasy football leagues.

Hurt by captaining Raheem Sterling last week before he twice missed out for Manchester City? Or wondering how to replace the injured Son Heung-min?

Time is of the essence when making these big calls, especially when there are only four league fixtures this weekend.

Fortunately, you can consider our weekly Opta-powered picks, this time featuring two of Son's Tottenham team-mates.
 

EMILIANO MARTINEZ

If your confidence in Spurs is wavering, with Son out and a north London derby defeat fresh in the memory, you might prefer to hedge your bets.

Aston Villa, Tottenham's opponents, have the standout goalkeeper in action this week in the form of Martinez, who is a reliable source of frequent clean sheets. His 14 is a total only topped by Ederson (16) this season.

Among keepers to play 500 minutes in the Premier League this term, ex-Arsenal man Martinez has the best save percentage (77.6).

LEWIS DUNK

The big battle at the bottom sees Brighton and Hove Albion host Newcastle United on Saturday, in a match that is unlikely to provide a wealth of goals based on the form of both sides.

However, defender Dunk is perhaps as likely a scorer as any. He has four in the league this season, making this his best top-flight campaign for goals, while only Neal Maupay (seven) has more for Brighton in 2020-21.

Add in the potential boost of a clean sheet and Dunk could be a real difference-maker.

STUART DALLAS

The versatile Dallas is listed as a defender, allowing him to accrue additional points for attacking contributions despite spending large parts of his career in midfield.

Indeed, no defender in the division has netted more goals than the Northern Ireland international (five) this season.

Dallas, set to face struggling Fulham with Leeds United on Friday, also has two assists for seven total goal involvements.

JESSE LINGARD

Midfield loanee Lingard was kept on the sidelines last weekend as West Ham visited Manchester United, his parent club.

But this week has already improved for the Hammers star following his return to the England fold, earning a recall following four goals and an assist in six league appearances since his temporary move. He has been on target in his past two London Stadium outings.

Now Lingard has Arsenal in his sights, and he has a great record against the Gunners. Indeed, he has not scored more against any other team in English football, having managed four goals in seven starts in all competitions against the north London giants.

GARETH BALE

Still fancy Tottenham to beat Villa? Great, we have some options for you - starting with Bale.

The winger was quiet against Arsenal but has still been involved in six goals (four goals, two assists) in his past five Premier League games, having netted just once in his first seven on his return to the competition this season.

Bale's previous meeting with Villa, back in December 2012, saw him score his first career league hat-trick in a 4-0 Spurs win.

HARRY KANE

If not Bale, then why not Kane? Or pair the two, as they are each likely to be heavily involved if Tottenham turn in a much improved performance from the Arsenal match.

Kane has six goals in six Premier League games against Villa, including five in his past three.

His most recent two meetings with Villa have seen the England captain net braces - in March 2016 and August 2019.

ALEXANDRE LACAZETTE

While Bale and Kane cannot again perform as poorly as they did in the north London derby, Lacazette will hope to match the standard he set.

Handed the captaincy and the central striking role from the start as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was disciplined, the Arsenal number nine netted the winner and is now the club's leading marksman in the Premier League this season with 10.

West Ham should be especially wary of Lacazette, who has scored six goals in his past eight league London derbies. He has been on target in four of those encounters this term and Arsenal have won all of them.

When the Brooklyn Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the 2019 offseason, it was apparent that the team were destined to eventually become a juggernaut.

With two stars and the talent behind them to either keep a deep bench or trade for a third star, the Nets were always in position to become a contender, even with Durant sitting out last season to rehabilitate his ruptured Achilles.

Because of Brooklyn's pedigree, Steve Nash – the former two-time MVP turned first-year head coach – will not be considered for Coach of the Year.

But Brooklyn's road to title contention has been a bumpy one, and Nash has helped guide the Nets to the top of the Eastern Conference – alongside the Philadelphia 76ers – despite challenging circumstances.

The Nets have won six games in a row to climb to 28-13, tied with the 76ers for the best record in the East, but it can be easy to forget the obstacles Brooklyn have faced in the first half of the season. 

One look at the Nets' first game of the season, a 125-99 win over the Golden State Warriors, serves as a reminder of this team's dramatic metamorphosis.

Spencer Dinwiddie started in the backcourt alongside Irving to open the season but played just three games before suffering a ligament tear in his right knee, ending his season.

Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Landry Shamet and Taurean Prince combined to play over 80 minutes in the season opener and only now remains in Brooklyn after the James Harden trade – Shamet.

Since the Nets traded away much of their depth, Nash has tinkered with line-ups and found gems further down the bench to supplement the team's star-power.

Bruce Brown, who was acquired in November for virtually nothing, has morphed into a versatile role-player who is very efficient from the floor.

Brown played a total of 13 minutes in the Nets' first seven games this season but has become a key member of the team's rotation, starting in 23 games and guarding much taller players in Brooklyn's smaller line-ups. Brown is shooting 55.5 per cent from the floor this campaign and averaged 18.0 points during a six-game stretch before the All-Star break. Brooklyn are 11-2 when Brown scores in double figures this season and 7-0 when he scores at least 15.

Tyler Johnson was also an afterthought to start the season, appearing in just seven of Brooklyn's first 24 games. Since then, Johnson has played just under 20 minutes per game while developing into a reliable floor-spacer, shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the three-point arc this term and going five for eight from deep in his only start.

Journeyman Jeff Green is scoring 11.9 points per game since the Harden trade – compared to 6.1 before the deal – and has even started at center when DeAndre Jordan has been forced to miss games.

While Nash has been blessed with three star players on his roster, even the trio of Durant, Irving and Harden has faced hardships.

Irving took an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons in early January without communicating with the team first. While he only missed seven games, the mystery of Irving's absence left the Nets in a state of uncertainty and left Nash to answer for his star guard amid a barrage of media questions.

Nash showed the savvy of a veteran head coach and the sensitivity required in the new-age NBA by not vilifying Irving. A more authoritarian coach could have used the media to force Irving back, a move that may have jeopardised a relationship with a star player and eroded the trust of the entire team.

Irving returned with back-to-back 30-point games and is averaging career highs with 27.6 points per game, 52.0-percent shooting from the field and 41.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Then there is Durant, who has reminded the world that he may have been the best player in the NBA before rupturing his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals, but the former MVP has missed more games than he has played this season.

After two stints in league COVID-19 protocols, Durant has been sidelined for over a month with a hamstring strain and is expected to be out another week or two after having a routine MRI to track progress.

In all, the Nets have had 21 different starting line-ups this season, second only to the Houston Rockets' 26. That number is likely to increase soon, once Blake Griffin is ready to make his Brooklyn debut.

Only sharpshooter Joe Harris has played in every game for the Nets in 2020-21.

While Harden has been reliably excellent since moving to Brooklyn, Irving has missed 12 games and Durant has been absent for 22. The trio have been on the floor for just 186 minutes so far, less than 10 percent of Brooklyn's season.

Those minutes, however, have been transcendent, bucking a recent trend of power trios going through growing pains before hitting their stride.

With Durant, Irving and Harden on the floor at the same time, the Nets are averaging 120.6 points per 100 possessions. And while some pundits envisioned this offensive-minded trio taking turns in isolation plays, 64.8 percent of the Nets' field goals have been assisted when they all play together, more than when one or more of the stars is relegated to the sideline.

It is hard to deny Nash credit for the quick chemistry between Durant, Irving and Harden, and his ability to fill gaps with role players has kept Brooklyn playing well even when the stars are sitting.

The Nets' star-power makes Nash virtually ineligible to win Coach of the Year, an award that typically goes to an over-performing team that are good but not great. While Durant, Irving and Harden will receive accolades for the Nets' season, a lesser coach certainly could have derailed this runaway train given the numerous challenges.

Yes, the Nets have elite talent. But Nash has done plenty to maximise that talent while largely flying under the radar.

Not for the first time during his run as a Sky Sports pundit, Roy Keane looked like he might combust. 

Manchester City had raced into a 3-0 lead against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, piling more pressure on under-fire boss Frank Lampard, but Keane had an expensively assembled attack in his crosshairs. 

"The attacking players need to show up," he said of a line-up boasting big money close-season arrivals Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner. Kai Havertz could only make the bench. 

"We spoke before the game, we said they have a lot of quality, but to me they don't look like they're up to it. What do Chelsea need? 

"They need a miracle to get back into this game. They've been shocking, particularly the attacking players." 

Alongside him, former Liverpool great Graeme Souness had an issue with Ziyech's tracking back – or lack thereof – on Kevin De Bruyne's goal. 

"Just watch Ziyech, he takes the free-kick, he wanders in and watch him. Big players don’t act like that," he said. "Sprint back as fast as you possibly can, you don't stand and watch the game like this. 

"I'm sure when Frank sees that, he'll point out to Ziyech that you cannot do that in our football."

When Lampard was sacked a little over three weeks later, his uncle Harry Redknapp was similarly and more bluntly parochial about the biggest story in "our football".

"When you look at the players, people say he's spent all this money, did he bring the players in? Did he bring the Germans in?" he rhetorically asked on talkSPORT.

"The two German players have been massive disappointments, massive. I'm not even sure Timo Werner is cut out for Premier League football, the physical side is too much for him."

Perhaps it is a function of the frequent changes in Chelsea's dugout that narratives around goodies and baddies are so hastily constructed. Remember Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard as the "three rats" after Jose Mourinho's 2015 demise?

In that context, the role Ziyech and the two Germans played in Thomas Tuchel's Blues comprehensively downing Atletico Madrid gave a stark demonstration how much Werner and Havertz's compatriot has entirely changed the mood and trajectory of this talented team.

KAI HOPES

It said much of Havertz's woes since joining from Bayer Leverkusen for an initial £72million that Redknapp didn't actually use his name when he was the focus of his opprobrium. 

One Premier League goal set against 12 in his final Bundesliga campaign suggests there is still plenty of ground to make up, but in a couple of blurring seconds, Havertz showed exactly what made him one of the most sought-after talents in Europe. 

He was alert to move in front of Kieran Trippier and bring the ball under his spell. In that instant, Atleti were on the receiving end of the sort of lethal counter-attack that has become their Champions League calling card. 

Then it was time to marvel at the pace, power and poise as he approached halfway before shovelling possession into Werner's path. 

Under Tuchel, Havertz's shots per 90 minutes are up 2.3 from 1.4. The goals will surely come, but for now he had played his supporting role to perfection.

TURNING ON THE AFTER-WERNERS

However much Havertz will be keen to hit the back of the net, his desire must pale next to Werner's.

The former RB Leipzig star was simmering with intent from early on against Atleti, bustling in behind their defence early on.

That famous pace was put to its best use when he galloped onto Havertz's 34th-minute pass. Head up and on high alert, Werner assessed the scene, took a touch with the outside of his right foot and then lined up a low cross with his left.

The 25-year-old had fired wide a little earlier after Ziyech missed a kick, but he backed his team-mate to get it right this time.

Werner drew a brilliant save from Jan Oblak early in the second half and lashed into the side netting after his speed had again tormented Atleti.

Part of a collective also going at full tilt, he only has one goal under Tuchel so far, but 10 overall and seven assists this term are more goal involvements than any other Chelsea player in 2020-21.

There lies one of the joys of this 13-match unbeaten run for Tuchel. He has had a watertight defence in place from the get-go. Now, an all-star attack is just starting to shine.

HAKIM LIVING THE DREAM AGAIN

When he delighted on Ajax's phenomenal run to the semi-finals in 2018-19, Ziyech showed he loved this stage. 

He particularly loves to grace it with his sumptuous left foot, but Werner's cross was so immediate and so precise, he had to stick his weaker right on the end of it. 

Oblak could not keep the shot out and four of Ziyech's Champions League goals have arrived against Spanish opposition. Roll on Real Madrid in the quarters? 

The 27-year-old was evidently enjoying himself when he jinked into space on halfway and released Werner early in the second period – his three key passes in the match level best for Chelsea alongside Reece James, whose deliveries from right-back were majestic.

That was actually a touch under recent par for Ziyech, who is creating an average of 3.6 chances per game in the Tuchel era – taking his 2.4 under Lampard up a notch. 

By the time substitute Emerson Palmieri thundered home in stoppage time to seal a 3-0 aggregate triumph, there could be no question Chelsea's attacking stars had shown up. 

Maybe they could go all the way – a Champions League miracle form the rubble of the Lampard era. 

Atletico Madrid's main focus this term is arguably maintaining their position at LaLiga's summit, but prolonging their Champions League campaign might provide a psychological boost and Luis Suarez will be eager to play the leading role.

The Uruguayan striker's struggles in the Champions League have been well-publicised, but if his move to Atletico from Barcelona has proven anything, it is that he is not one to be written off.

Suarez will hope to be decisive as Atletico go to Chelsea chasing a one-goal deficit, while in Wednesday's other tie, defending champions Bayern Munich are practically already through.

We used Opta numbers to preview the two clashes.

Chelsea v Atletico Madrid (1-0 on aggregate): Suarez's Champions League misery

Thomas Tuchel's men are in the driving seat thanks to a commendable 1-0 win at the Spanish top-flight leaders last time, though Atletico do have previous experience of downing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – they beat them 3-1 in London to secure a place in the 2013-14 Champions League final.

Nevertheless, the Blues will take confidence in the fact they have never been eliminated in a two-legged knockout European tie after winning the first leg away from home.

If any team can overcome the odds, however, it is Atletico, whose 50 per cent progression rate from European Cup/Champions League knockout ties after losing the first leg is bettered by only one team to have played a minimum of five knockout ties: Reims (60 per cent, three out of five).

Their chances will surely be boosted if Suarez can finally sort himself out at this level. He is still to net in five Champions League games for Atletico and has not scored in any of his previous 24 away appearances in the competition despite having 70 shots amounting to an expected goals (xG) value of 9.6 over the course of a run that stretches back to September 2015.

By contrast, Chelsea's Olivier Giroud is averaging a goal every 38 minutes in the Champions League this term, the best single-season record of any player to feature for at least 200 minutes since the 1979-80 European Cup campaign (Ton Blanker, Ajax, one goal every 34 minutes).

Bayern Munich v Lazio (4-1 on aggregate): Italians face challenge of historic proportions

While Hansi Flick surely will not fall into the trap of complacency, it's fair to say Bayern are looking pretty rosy heading into the second leg having handed out a comprehensive thrashing in Rome.

Even if you forget they are facing the reigning European champions, the task at hand for Lazio is monumental – no side in the history of the Champions League or its predecessor has ever progressed from a knockout tie after losing the first leg by three goals or more at home.

Additionally, Lazio have not scored four times – the figure they are chasing in Munich – in an away Champions League game since 1999 when they beat Maribor 4-0.

Bayern's record at home in the competition under Flick has been almost flawless as well, winning each of their six matches by an aggregate score of 18-3.

Each of Lazio's previous 13 games in the Champions League has seen both teams score, the longest run the history of Europe's top competition, so they will at least fancy their chances of netting.

But keeping Robert Lewandowski at bay is improbable – after all, he boasts 14 goals and five assists in 12 appearances for Flick in this tournament and has won all of those games.

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