The dust is settling following the 2022 World Cup draw, which has provided a number of subplots and talking points aplenty to discuss between now and the opening set of games on November 21.

France, placed in a group that contains Denmark, Tunisia and one of Peru or Australia, will look to avoid becoming the fifth defending champions in the past six tournaments to exit at the first hurdle.

Spain and Germany, the winners of two of the past three World Cups, face off in arguably the pick of the group games in what will be their fifth meeting in the competition and the first since La Roja's 2010 semi-final triumph.

There are some good omens for England, who are in action on the opening day of the tournament – the last time that was the case they went on to lift the trophy on home soil in 1966.

As the debate rumbles on as to which is the most interesting group this time around, and supporters of participating nations plot out their route to the latter stages, Stats Perform picks out a key stat for each team.

GROUP A – Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands

Qatar are competing in their first World Cup and will aim to avoid becoming only the second host nation to be knocked out in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

They will begin their campaign against Ecuador, who have not faced a nation from outside of the UEFA or CONCACAF regions in their previous 10 World Cup matches.

Senegal are participating in the event for a third time and are the third African Cup of Nations title holders to qualify this century after Cameroon in 2002 and Nigeria in 2014.

However, the heavyweights of the group are the Netherlands, who have won 11 of their last 14 World Cup matches when not factoring in penalty shoot-outs. Three times Oranje have reached the final; three times they have been beaten. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, of course.

GROUP B – England, Iran, United States, Scotland/Wales/Ukraine

England have progressed past the quarter-finals just once since 1966, although the most recent occasion came four years ago when losing in the semi-finals.

First up for England are Iran, who have scored nine goals in 15 World Cup matches – that goals-per-game average of 0.6 the lowest of any side to have played at least 10 times.

Back involved after missing Russia 2018, the United States will be looking to reach the knockout stages for a fourth time in their past five participations in a World Cup.

Should Wales reach the finals, the gap of 64 years between their only two finals appearances will set a record.

Scotland, who meet Ukraine in a play-off for the right to face Wales, have made more World Cup appearances (eight) without making it past the first round than any other nation.

 

GROUP C – Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland

One of three South American teams to have lifted the trophy, Argentina have made it past the first round in 12 of their past 13 appearances, the only exception being in 2002.

It would be an understatement to say that Saudi Arabia have had less success in the finals, having won only three of their previous 16 World Cup matches – albeit one of those coming against Egypt in the 2018 edition.

Mexico have reached every World Cup since missing out in 1990 and tend to do well in the group stage, having advanced to the last 16 in each of their last eight appearances.

Whereas Mexico have won five of their past six opening games, first opponents Poland have won just one of their previous eight curtain-raising fixtures and have lost the last three.

GROUP D – France, Peru/Australia/UAE, Denmark, Tunisia

France are out to become the third team, after Italy (in 1938) and Brazil (in 1962) to retain the trophy. However, the last three defending champions have fallen in the group stage.

Denmark boasted the best defensive record of any side in European qualifying and have made it out of the group stage in four of their five World Cup appearances.

That is in contrast to Tunisia, who have not made the knockout rounds in six previous attempts. The Eagles of Carthage have also not beaten a European side in 10 World Cup games (D3 L7).

Tunisia have lost 60 per cent of their World Cup games, the third-highest by a team to have played 15+ games behind Saudi Arabia (69 per cent) and possible Group D opponents Australia (63 per cent).

 

GROUP E – Spain, Costa Rica/New Zealand, Germany, Japan

Spain won the World Cup in 2010, but that is the only occasion they have reached the semi-finals in their last 13 participations. However, they have won the group in four of their last five appearances.

Germany, champions in 2014, were the first side to reach Qatar 2022 aside from the hosts, and have made it to the semi-finals in four of the five World Cups this century – the best record of any side.

After reaching the last 16 in 2018, competition regulars Japan will aim to book a place in the knockouts in back-to-back editions for the first time.

Completing arguably the toughest group is either Costa Rica or New Zealand, who meet in a play-off in June. Costa Rica have appeared at five previous World Cups, while the All Whites have made it to the finals twice before.

GROUP F – Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia

Belgium have qualified for more World Cups without winning it than any other European team, with this their 14th appearance. With much of their 'golden generation' either 30 or close to it, however, this is realistically the final chance for that batch of players to cement their names in the history books, after a third-place finish in 2018.

Roberto Martinez's team might meet Spain or Germany in the last 16 but should have little trouble in getting out of their group.

Canada are competing in the global showpiece for the first time since 1986, when they lost all three matches and failed to score.

Morocco have won just one of their last 10 World Cup games, with that coming against Scotland in 1998, while their last knockout-round appearance was in 1986.

Beaten finalists in 2018, Croatia have had a mixed time of things in the finals, having been eliminated in the group stage (three times) or reached the semis (twice) in their past five appearances.

 

GROUP G – Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon

Brazil are the competition's most successful side with five trophies and are unbeaten in their last 15 World Cup group games, winning 12 of those. Their last such defeat was against Norway in 1998.

The next side with a chance to end that long run are Serbia, who have lost seven of their last nine World Cup matches, which is the most of any European nation since 2006. They also met Brazil in the 2018 group stage.

Another team to have been drawn with Brazil and, indeed, Serbia in Russia was Switzerland. History has repeated itself this time around. The Swiss finished above Italy in qualifying to make it to their fifth successive finals. Including the European Championships, they have reached the knockout stages in their last four major tournaments, a record only Belgium and France can match.

Cameroon make up Group G. They have played more matches at the World Cup than any other African nation (23), but they have lost the last seven of those – only Mexico (nine) have ever lost more in a row.

GROUP H – Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea

Heavyweights they may be, but Portugal have won only three of their last 14 World Cup matches, each of those in the group stage. Their last knockout-round win was in the last 16 against the Netherlands in 2006. 

All being well, Cristiano Ronaldo will be featuring in a record-equalling fifth World Cup. It will almost certainly be his last, though.

Ghana's quarter-final appearance in 2010 remains the joint-best finish for an African side, alongside Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990, and they have scored in their last five World Cup games.

Uruguay controversially eliminated Ghana in the quarter-finals 12 years ago but the Black Stars have a chance for revenge here in the final round of fixtures.

First up for Uruguay, meanwhile, are South Korea, but the South American side have won their opening match at just one of their last seven World Cups.

That is good news for Son Heung-min and Co. as South Korea look to win successive finals matches for just the second time ever, having knocked out Germany four years ago.

There are just days remaining in the 2021-22 NBA regular season, but plenty is still on the line.

While the red-hot Phoenix Suns have long since secured the top seed in the Western Conference, four teams retain realistic hopes of leading the East.

Which of their superstar players are in the best shape heading into April, though?

Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check highlights the standout performers of the past month...

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

Only the Suns (.867) had a better winning percentage in March than the Boston Celtics (.786, tied with the Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks) – and much of that was due to an outstanding month from three-time All-Star Tatum.

His 32.8 points per game in March ranked third behind LeBron James (34.3) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (33.3) but significantly appeared to represent a major leap, having averaged 25.7 to that point. It was the fourth-largest increase in scoring across the NBA last month.

It figures that Tatum's three-point shooting should also be up, as he made 4.2 threes per game in March, compared to 2.8 previously.

Tatum actually saw the fourth-largest decrease in rebounding, from 8.3 per game to 6.6, but the Celtics were down in this regard across the board and it did not seem to hamper them.

Jordan Poole

As the Celtics climbed in the East, the Golden State Warriors fell in the West – but Poole did more than most to keep them competitive.

Stephen Curry's absence for the second half of the month was the chief factor in the Warriors' fading form, yet Poole is increasingly proving he can be the man to fill the void when the team's superstar guard is out.

Poole was the sole player to see a greater increase in threes made than Tatum in March (2.3 per game to 4.2), while his scoring improved from 16.1 points per game to 25.4 – second only to Drew Eubanks in this regard (4.8 to 15.0).

Those are stunning statistics but remain in line with how Poole has played all season long when Curry has been out. He has started all 12 games he has played without Curry, averaging 35.7 minutes (up from 28.6), 10.7 three-point attempts (up from 6.8), 4.3 three-point makes (up from 2.4), 5.2 assists (up from 3.5) and, admittedly, 3.3 turnovers (up from 2.2).

While taking more shots, Poole's field-goal percentage decreases slightly without Curry, yet his three-point shooting and free-throw percentage are both up, perhaps showing Golden State a future beyond the two-time MVP.

Cade Cunningham

The Detroit Pistons are nowhere near the playoff picture, but March did wonders for Cunningham's Rookie of the Year hopes.

While Evan Mobley suffered an ankle sprain that makes another appearance before the end of the regular season far from certain, Cunningham averaged 22.9 points, up on 16.0. The number one overall pick is up to 17.6 for the year, leading all rookies.

GOING COLD...

D'Angelo Russell

Russell is merely the third man on the Minnesota Timberwolves, but that looked to be evidence of the team's depth of scoring options at the start of March.

Although the T-Wolves remain one of only five teams to have had three different players average 18 or more points while playing in at least 60 games, Russell's scoring has dipped significantly from 19.4 at the end of February to 18.0 now.

Having scored just 13.1 points per game in March, Russell saw the largest decrease in the league, while his fall in three-point shots made (3.0 to 1.7) was also the greatest.

The former Warrior has too often struggled for consistency this season, but his four-point performance in the face of intense Celtics defense last weekend was especially alarming.

The draw is out, and the World Cup suddenly feels a lot closer, with the elite preparing to go for glory at Qatar 2022.

A likely last hurrah on the World Cup stage awaits superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while new names will break through and rising talent will be put to the test.

Eight nations have been champions of the tournament that was first staged in 1930, and it will be France looking to defend the title this time.

Many of us pride ourselves on remembering World Cup trivia from past tournaments, but just how good is your knowledge?

These Opta-assisted 20 questions should sort the group-stage flops from the champions of World Cup quizzing. The answers are below, but don't cheat!

The first...

1. Name the English boss who at Qatar 2022 will become the first to coach a team at both the men's and women's World Cups?

2. Gregg Berhalter will become the first man to serve as player and manager of the USA at the World Cup. He appeared at the 2002 tournament and is now boss of the American side. To which present-day Premier League club did Berhalter then belong, becoming their first World Cup player?

3. Who became the first player to score a Golden Goal winner at the World Cup when he netted for France against Paraguay in a 1998 last-16 clash?

4. In the 2018 showdown between France and Croatia, who became the first player in World Cup final history to score for both teams?

5. Qatar will attempt to become the first nation from the AFC confederation to win their first World Cup finals match. Ten of the previous 11 have lost (including Israel in 1970), but who were the team who in 1982 managed a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia?

 

The last...

6. There have been 52 hat-tricks in the tournament's history, but who was the last player to score a treble in the knockout stages of the World Cup?

7. A goalkeeper won his 159th and final international cap at the 2018 finals, when he became the oldest player to appear at the World Cup, at the age of 45 years and 161 days. He saved a penalty in a 2-1 defeat for his team against Saudi Arabia. Who was that goalkeeper and what team did he play for?

8. Ghana reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 and Senegal did so at the 2002 finals. But who were the first team from Africa to make it to the last eight, doing so at the 1990 finals in Italy?

9. Brazil last lost a group game at the World Cup in 1998, since when they have won 12 and drawn three games at the first-round stage. Which team beat them in that 1998 tournament?

10. Cameroon have lost each of their past seven games at the World Cup (between 2002 and 2014). Only one team have ever lost more games in a row in the competition's history – nine between 1930 and 1958. Who were that team?

The most...

11. Just Fontaine scored his 13 World Cup goals in just six games for France. The competition's all-time record scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose, who netted 16 times for his country in how many appearances: 22, 23 or 24?

12. Who will become the only team to have appeared at all 22 editions of the World Cup when they take part in Qatar 2022?

13. Iran will be making their sixth appearance at the World Cup and have never gone beyond the group stage. Which country has made the most appearances (eight) without making it past the first round?

14. Which forward had the most goal involvements of all players in European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, scoring 12 and assisting six times in 10 games?

15. Since 1966, only three players have completed more than 12 dribbles in a single World Cup game, with Brazil's Jairzinho achieving 13 against Paraguay in 1970 and Paul Gascoigne matching that total for England against Cameroon in 1990. Who managed the most – 15 in a game against Italy at the 1994 tournament?

 

The GOATs...

16. Which superstar, who scored eight times and provided eight assists in 21 World Cup games, also holds the record for the most handball decisions given against a player at the tournament (seven) since records began?

17. Who holds the record for the most minutes played in World Cup history, having featured in 2,216 minutes of finals action?

18. Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo is one of only four players to score in four different World Cup tournaments. He will attempt to go one better this year, but Ronaldo currently sits alongside Pele, Klose and which other player?

19. Between them, Ronaldo (seven) and Lionel Messi (six) have managed 13 World Cup goals. How many of those goals came in the knockout rounds?

20. Ronaldo is one of just two European players to have either scored and/or assisted a goal in each of the last five major international tournaments (World Cup/European Championship). Who is the other player to have managed the feat?

 

Answers:

1. John Herdman (Canada – he managed Canada Women at the 2015 Women's World Cup)
2. Crystal Palace
3. Laurent Blanc (France)
4. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)
5. Kuwait.
6. Tomas Skuhravy (for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica, last 16, 1990)
7. Essam El Hadary (Egypt)
8. Cameroon
9. Norway
10. Mexico
11. 24
12. Brazil
13. Scotland
14. Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
15. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
16. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
17. Paolo Maldini (Italy)
18. Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
19. Zero
20. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

It wasn't so long ago that voicing the idea of Juventus challenging for the Scudetto this season would have seen you laughed out of the room.

Yet, remarkably, they could potentially end the weekend just four points off the summit, and a victory over defending champions Inter would be a decent barometer of just how emphatic their late push is going to be.

Serie A's standout match this week is undoubtedly the Derby d'Italia between Juve and Inter in Turin, with Italy's top flight essentially establishing a pretty firm top four ahead of the international break.

But Massimiliano Allegri's Juve surely won't be content with just settling for fourth spot, and a win on Sunday will show they mean business.

A bedrock for improvement

Even if Juve do end up winning Serie A, Allegri will still have to contend with plenty of critics given their shock Champions League exit to Villarreal.

However, there's little doubt he has presided over a significant improvement since Andrea Pirlo's exit, even if the Old Lady remains more functional than fun.

 

The most notable aspect of their improved form is Juve's unbeaten streak. They have not lost any of their previous 16 league games, making them only one of two teams across the big five leagues to not suffer a domestic defeat in the past four months, the other being Sevilla in LaLiga.

The omens are good for Inter's visit as well: the Nerazzurri have won just once in 15 trips to Juve and that came way back in November 2012.
 

Timely break

Simone Inzaghi must have been concerned about Inter's form prior to the international break, which seemingly came at a good time for them.

Over their previous nine Serie A matches, Inter have gained just 11 points and won only two matches – sure, victory on Sunday and another in their game in hand will put them within three points of the summit, but that previous run is hardly a hallmark of champions.

By comparison, Juve have hit the accelerator at arguably the perfect time. Over the same period, Allegri's men have taken 21 points.

The Bianconeri have rocketed into contention by finding consistency when, for the most part, the top three have wobbled, and if they continue their run, Juventus will be hard to ignore in the title race.

Juve, beware!

For all of their recent woes, Inter of course remain a dangerous opponent with a particularly threatening tail.

That's to say Inter do have a habit of finishing strong and not knowing when they're beaten.

In Serie A this season, Inter's 19 points won from losing positions is more than any other team, while they have scored 22 times in the final 30 minutes of games – that's a joint-high with Atalanta, Lazio and Hellas Verona.

Juve ought to heed such a warning – don't get complacent with a slender lead in the latter stages.
 

A tight affair?

While Inter are the league's top scorers with 62 goals, there's reason to suggest this won't be an unrelenting goalfest… *cue eight-goal thriller*.

These are two of the league's best three defences, while no team has kept more clean sheets than Juve's 13 this term.

 

On top of that, Juve have proven rather miserly when it comes to allowing goalscoring situations, with their average of 3.1 shots on target concede per 90 minutes being bettered only by Torino.

Inter aren't much worse in that respect, with their average at 3.6 – that's the sixth best in Serie A. Of course, a clinical display in that regard could still lead to plenty of goals, but clearly if there's any area both of these sides have excelled in domestically this term, it's defensively.

 

Bruno Fernandes has signed a new deal with Manchester United to stay at Old Trafford for at least the next four years.

The 27-year-old has more than justified United's initial outlay of £47million (€55m) to sign him from Sporting CP two years ago, even if his form has dipped this campaign.

Fernandes was already tied down until the end of 2024-25, though his new contract – on substantially higher wages – is considered a reward for his performances.

He has signed until June 2026, with the option for another year on top of that.

And while uncertainty remains over the managerial position at Old Trafford, whoever is in charge from next season can build around Fernandes.

Here, Stats Perform looks at just how important Fernandes has been for United over the past two years.


UNITED'S GO-TO GUY

Fernandes' debut for United was nothing to write home about, with the Portugal international unable to inspire his side in a goalless Premier League draw at home to Wolves.

That run-out on February 1, 2020 was the first of 117 United appearances for Fernandes, which is the most of any player during this time, followed by Harry Maguire (105).

Fernandes has also started more games (106) for the Red Devils in the same period and played more minutes (9,470) than anyone else.

Indeed, no player has featured as often as Fernandes in Europe's top five leagues over that timeframe when taking all competitions into account.

CREATOR-IN-CHIEF

Fernandes has scored 49 goals for United and assisted 39, with those 88 direct goal involvements almost double that of next-best Marcus Rashford (46) within the Red Devils ranks.

In fact, the former Sampdoria star is in esteemed company as only five others have scored and assisted more in all competitions among teams from Europe's top five leagues.

He leads the way in that regard among Premier League players, closely followed by Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (86 goal involvements).

The 302 chances created by Fernandes since arriving at United is more than any other player from the elite leagues, with Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (286) next on the list.

SHINING LIGHT IN DISAPPOINTING CAMPAIGN

Fernandes unsurprisingly leads the way among United players for goals (35), assists (25) and chances created (201) in the Premier League in his time at Old Trafford.

That form has helped Fernandes to four Player of the Month awards in the competition, level with Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes, and a tally bettered by only six others.

Each of those awards came in 2020, though, and the Portuguese playmaker's attacking figures this season are down on the past two campaigns.

He is contributing to 0.58 goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League this term, compared to 0.87 last season and 1.13 in his first half-season at Old Trafford.

Yet even in what has been a slightly underwhelming campaign, Fernandes is creating more chances on average (2.96 per game) than any player on United's books to have started a Premier League game this season.

It's matchday 31. The run-in requires points, and lots of them.

Of course, picking the players who earn surprise points is a big part of fantasy football, but at this point of the season, do you really want to be taking risks?

With that in mind, let Stats Perform lead you by the hand with Opta data as we pick four players who might just give you those precious extra points in the latest Premier League gameweek.

EDOUARD MENDY (Chelsea v Brentford)

Edouard Mendy provides value, given Chelsea have won their previous five matches and will be facing a Brentford severely down on form, having won only two in 11 (against Norwich City and Burnley).

Despite the turbulent circumstances the Blues have faced of late, they powered into this past international window, with four clean sheets in their past five league games.

Among all Premier League goalkeepers with a minimum of 450 minutes played in 2022, only Alisson has kept more clean sheets and conceded fewer goals per 90 than Mendy.

BEN WHITE (Crystal Palace v Arsenal)

Aside from their loss at home to a Liverpool side that is rolling at present, Arsenal have been in otherwise solid form of late.

Clean sheets against Aston Villa and Leicester City sandwich the Liverpool defeat, and Ben White has been a pivotal figure in the Gunners' defensive output.

Among Premier League central defenders this season, Ben White has the second-highest tally of clean sheets with 13, behind only Virgil van Dijk's 17. The last time Arsenal kept more in a single campaign was in 2015-16 (18).

MOHAMED SALAH (Liverpool v Watford)

This might be stating the obvious, but if you can afford Salah, bring him in and make him your captain straight away like he's an old professional playing Sunday League.

Mohamed Salah has been in intimidatingly great form this season, and in the thick of a Premier League title race, rotation from Jurgen Klopp coming out of an international break is unlikely.

The Egyptian attacker averages a goal or assist every 57 minutes against Watford, the fourth-best ratio one player has against a club in Premier League history, with a 600-minute cut-off.

With nine goals and two assists in seven games against the Hornets, only versus West Ham (12 goal involvements) has Salah been more productive since he arrived in Liverpool.

SON HEUNG-MIN (Tottenham v Newcastle United)

Despite Tottenham's somewhat volatile form in the New Year, Son Heung-min has been one of the few constants for Spurs since his return from a hamstring injury.

In the nine games since his February return, the 29-year-old has provided five goals and two assists. He has come to life under Antonio Conte in 2022, with his eight Premier League goal involvements this calendar year bettered by only Harry Kane (12).

Meanwhile, of the Premier League's top ten players in goal involvements, only Bruno Fernandes (29) and Kevin de Bruyne (23) have created more chances than Son (21), which is all the more impressive given he's not Spurs set-piece taker.

Qatar 2022 is fast approaching and the anticipation will surely be at its most intense so far when Friday's draw for the group stage is completed.

The Doha Exhibition and Convention Center plays host to the milestone event, which will see eight groups drawn from pots as the eventual storylines of the World Cup begin to unfurl.

Among the narratives that will start being mapped out on Friday is France's title defence, with Les Bleus hoping to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

Ahead of the draw, Stats Perform provides a lowdown of all the key information…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, the draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section ahead of Mexico and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

The 2022 World Cup is now less than eight months away and the excitement will ramp up another notch on Friday when the draw takes place in Doha.

Qatar will become the first Arab country to host the global showpiece, 92 years after the inaugural event in Uruguay, in what is the 22nd edition of football's biggest tournament.

It will become the smallest host nation by area, with matches to be spread across five different cities, making this the most concentrated edition since Argentina 1978.

Twenty-nine nations have already booked their finals spot, 22 of which competed at the 2018 edition, with the automatically-qualified hosts the only side to make their debut.

Due to the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the fate of eight teams remains in the balance – only three of whom can still advance.

Wales will face the winners of the Scotland versus Ukraine play-off in June, while New Zealand take on Costa Rica and Peru meet either Australia or the United Arab Emirates.

To further whet the appetite ahead of Friday's draw, Stats Perform looks at some key questions to be answered with the aid of Opta data.

 


Will Europe continue to dominate?

The past four World Cups have been won by European teams: Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, Germany in 2014 and France in 2018.

That is the longest run of victories for a single continent in the tournament's history, with only one defeated finalist – Argentina in 2014 – coming from outside of Europe.

Indeed, a European team has triumphed in 12 of the previous 21 editions, with South America responsible for the other nine victors.

France are the reigning champions and are aiming to become the third team to retain the trophy after Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962).

However, a word of warning for Les Bleus – the past three defending champions have been eliminated in the group stage (Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018).

 


No Italy, but will it be a familiar winner?

Despite that, France will be fancied by many having reached the final in half of the past six World Cups –1998, 2006 and 2018 – which is more than any other country.

Another World Cup heavyweight will not be present in Qatar, though, as four-time winners Italy – only Brazil (five) have won more trophies – missed out in the play-offs.

Speaking of Brazil, they are taking part in their 22nd World Cup, making them the only team to have featured in every edition of FIFA's showpiece competition.

Like Italy, Germany have won four titles and they have reached the semi-finals on four of the past five occasions, which is double the number of any other team in that period.

No matter how strong a side, a perfect tournament is tough to come by – only Brazil in 1970 and 2002 have achieved that since the 1930s, when teams played just four games.


Or is it a chance for someone new to shine?

Canada will play in their first World Cup since 1986; that gap of 36 years the longest between appearances among teams confirmed to be taking part in this year's event.

Egypt and Norway had the longest gap at 56 years, though Wales will break that should they advance from their play-off to qualify for the first time since 1958 (64 years).

Qatar are the only new face and will aim to avoid becoming just the second hosts to be eliminated in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

Mexico will also have their sights set on the knockout stages, though no side has played as many games (57) as them without reaching the final.

Netherlands, meanwhile, have reached the final on more occasions (1974, 1978 and 2010) without lifting the coveted trophy than anyone else.

 


Can Ronaldo and Muller set new records?

Cristiano Ronaldo will appear at a record-equalling fifth World Cup and is out to become the first player ever to score in five different editions.

The Portugal forward has seven World Cup goals in total, nine short of the record held by Miroslav Klose, who netted all 16 of his goals from inside the penalty area.

Thomas Muller has an outside chance of catching countryman Klose in Qatar, having scored 10 times across his three previous participations – no active player has more.

The top scorer in a single World Cup is Just Fontaine, who scored 13 times in 1958, including a goal in all six of France's games.

Not since Gerd Muller in 1970, with 10 goals for Germany, has a player reached double figures in a single edition. Brazil great Ronaldo's eight in 2002 is the highest since then.

It's nearly four years since Didier Deschamps became only the third man to win the World Cup as a player and coach, as he guided France to their second success on football's grandest stage.

The target now for Les Bleus is to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to retain their crown, and that journey begins on Friday with the draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022.

Four years is a long time to wait for anything, but the draw for the World Cup is always a milestone event that sees the anticipation taken up a notch.

The eyes of the football world will be on the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, where the eight groups will be drawn and potential routes to December's finale can start being plotted.

But there is a little more to the draw than that…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, Friday's draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

It's almost taken for granted that the best players in football appear at the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup.

But look a little closer, and we can see that is just not the case. Every four years there are a handful of big names who miss out, usually those born to countries without the same footballing pedigree as the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain.

There are even countless greats who, down the years, have failed to register a single appearance at a World Cup finals. Either they've been something of an anomaly in terms of the quality available to their country at a given time, injury has struck, or the coach simply hasn't picked them. Alfredo di Stefano, Ryan Giggs, George Best, Eric Cantona all enjoyed illustrious careers without playing in a World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski have at least all appeared at previous editions of the tournament, so this week's qualifying climax in Europe isn't exactly the only opportunity they have to ensure they represent their respective countries on the grandest stage.

But, given their ages, it has to be considered likely that Qatar 2022 will be the last World Cup at which any of them appear.

Waiting to make their mark

Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski have, obviously, enjoyed incredible careers. At club and international level, both have titles and records practically coming out of their ears.

Lewandowski already has more caps (128) and goals (74) for Poland than anyone else ever, while Ibrahimovic is Sweden's all-time top scorer (62).

Historically, both strikers are their respective nations' most-recognisable footballers, and surely the most talented they've ever produced.

Yet, one cannot say either of them has ever caused much of a stir at a World Cup.

Of course, neither Ibrahimovic nor Lewandowski has ever played in a senior international team that would be considered a challenger for major honours – in fact, each of them has only ever featured at one World Cup.

Ibrahimovic was a part of the Sweden team that got to the last 16 of the 2006 edition, while Lewandowski made his World Cup bow four years ago in Russia.

Sweden coach Janne Andersson opted against offering Ibrahimovic a way out of international retirement ahead of the 2018 World Cup, but he did eventually return in March last year. He will be 41 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around in November.

Lewandowski will be 34, so it's by no means outside the realm of possibility that he'll make an appearance in 2026, particularly if we look at Ibrahimovic's longevity.

But there won't be room for both of them in Qatar. Tuesday's play-off final in Chorzow pits Poland and Sweden against each other for the right to secure passage to the finals and what could be a last World Cup appearance for one of these two all-time greats.

No one will be expecting Sweden or Poland to go deep into the tournament, given neither has been beyond the last eight since 1994. But it would seem a travesty if players as good as Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic never managed to score at a World Cup.

Primed for World Cup number five, unless…

While Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski are still waiting to make a memorable impact at a World Cup, Ronaldo will be featuring at a fifth assuming he and Portugal qualify.

Ronaldo first appeared at the 2006 World Cup, something few England fans will forget given his role in Wayne Rooney's sending-off during their quarter-final tussle. Portugal went on to win 3-1 on penalties after a 0-0 draw, with Ronaldo netting the decisive spot-kick.

They finished fourth that year, but in the three tournaments since, Portugal haven't got beyond the last 16.

While Portugal's success at Euro 2016 means Ronaldo should never have his international legacy questioned in future, that World Cup record must be something he is keen to improve.

Additionally, Qatar 2022 looks likely to be the last time a certain rivalry can dominate headlines in a major tournament.

Lionel Messi has already helped Argentina secure a place and, given their 30-match unbeaten run and the fact they head to Qatar as South American champions, there's every reason to expect La Albiceleste will be an entirely different proposition compared to the team at Russia 2018.

While Messi and Ronaldo have shown signs of decline this term at club level, they remain fundamental for their respective national teams – but this surely won't be the case in 2026.

Qatar 2022 should offer Ronaldo the chance to boost his World Cup goals record of seven in 17 games. While by no means poor, a player of such self-belief will surely be aiming for more.

 

Those leading the way appear out of reach, barring an utterly freak showing from Ronaldo. Miroslav Klose (16) holds the record for most World Cup goals, while the 'other/original/Brazilian' Ronaldo is just behind on 15. Then there are other greats Gerd Muller (14), Just Fontaine (13) and Pele (12).

Reaching double figures would seem a realistic target and at least put him in great company, with only 13 players reaching 10 World Cup goals in the tournament's history.

Similarly, that would also make him Portugal's most-prolific World Cup player, with Eusebio currently holding that record thanks to his nine strikes, all of which came in 1966.

Of course, it's by no means a given that Ronaldo or Portugal will make it. Up next for them on Tuesday in their play-off final are North Macedonia.

Fernando Santos' side will undoubtedly favour themselves, but North Macedonia have already shocked European champions Italy – who's to say they can't stun Portugal as well?

The new Formula One season is only a single race old, but Charles Leclerc has already matched the achievement of one title-winning former Ferrari star.

Now, ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Leclerc is out to try to repeat a Michael Schumacher feat and set a championship charge in motion.

The Monegasque driver led a Ferrari one-two in Bahrain last week, holding off Max Verstappen before the defending champion's mechanical woes ensured Carlos Sainz joined his team-mate on the top two steps of the podium.

It was the Scuderia's first race win since the 2019 Singapore GP, another one-two when Leclerc finished second to Sebastian Vettel.

The Leclerc-Sainz one-two was Ferrari's 85th in F1 – a record – and signalled a return to form, coming at the end of a weekend they had dominated, with the race winner also qualifying fastest to start from pole position.

Heading into the rest of the season, that should certainly provide Leclerc with encouragement, given the last Scuderia driver to start the season with a win from pole was Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. That was the most recent season in which a Ferrari driver won the title.

Indeed, should Leclerc convert pole again in Saudi Arabia, he would become the first Ferrari man to do so in the first two races of a campaign since Schumacher in his final title-winning season in 2004.

Leclerc and Sainz each discussed their title ambitions following Bahrain, so last week's runner-up will hope to go with his colleague again.

Ferrari have never had a one-two in each of the first two grands prix of a season, while Raikkonen and Felipe Massa in 2008 were their last duo to achieve such a result in consecutive races at any stage of the year.

Meanwhile, if Leclerc hopes to follow in Schumacher's footsteps, Mercedes rival George Russell does not.

Schumacher in 2010, then in the twilight of his legendary career after coming out of retirement, was the only Silver Arrows driver to this point fail to make the podium in his first three races with the team.

A pit-stop error and a puncture saw Russell finish his Mercedes debut in ninth when deputising for Lewis Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir GP, while he was fourth behind his new team-mate last week.

The Red Bull woe that boosted Ferrari also rescued that three-four result for Mercedes, but team principal Toto Wolff said: "It's too early to look at the championship as it stands. If you look at the pecking order today, it seems a long shot to even be in contention for any of the championships.

"If I look at [Bahrain] as a single race weekend, we probably scored the maximum of points that we could have. And we need to take it from there.

"Every weekend counts and, at the moment, it's singular events because, realistically, when you're third on the road, you can't think about winning it."

Derek Carr has spent his entire career trying to convince the Raiders, and indeed the wider NFL universe that he is good enough.

Few quarterbacks to have been as consistent as Carr have inspired such little confidence, his name rarely mentioned among the top players at the NFL's most important position despite him compiling some impressive numbers since arriving in the league.

Drafted in the second round in 2014, Carr has thrown for 31,700 yards in his career, the fourth-most in the league in that span. His 247 passing plays of 25 yards or more is a tally bettered by only four quarterbacks over the same timeframe.

Yet there are plenty of quarterbacks who excel at compiling stats and, for as tedious as the debate around whether wins should be considered a quarterback stat (they shouldn't) is, part of the reason for Carr's lack of recognition comparative to his contemporaries is that he has not been able to elevate the Raiders, either in Oakland or now Las Vegas, to a playoff win.

In efforts to end that wait, there have been reported dalliances with other quarterbacks by the Raiders, most notably with Tom Brady before he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020.

Las Vegas has also previously been seen as a destination for Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson but, while the Raiders will get to see new Denver Broncos quarterback Wilson up close twice a season, they are firmly tied to Carr, and have this offseason done an excellent job of setting him up for success.

In Josh McDaniels, they have paired him with one of the league's premier offensive minds and, by spectacularly acquiring college team-mate Davante Adams in a blockbuster trade with the Green Bay Packers last week, the Raiders have given Carr the wide receiver many consider to be the class of the league.

With Adams added to an already exciting cast of offensive weapons, Carr has all the tools to definitively prove that, for the Raiders, he has always been the best man for the job.

Carr reaching peak performance

The timing of Carr's reunion with his former Fresno State team-mate Adams could hardly be better, as he is coming off arguably the finest season of his career.

Among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts, Carr finished third in well-thrown percentage. Trailing only Joe Burrow and Ryan Tannehill, he delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 81.6 per cent of his passes.

None of the eight quarterbacks to average more air yards per attempt than Carr's 8.29 had a superior well-thrown percentage, his ability to blend ball placement and downfield upside further illustrated by his 67 completions of 20 yards or more in 2021. Brady (75) was the sole quarterback to end the season with more.

Carr achieved those feats despite tight end Darren Waller missing six games of the season and the Raiders losing wide receiver Henry Ruggs III after his November arrest.

He deserves great credit for continuing to thrive in a campaign that saw head coach Jon Gruden resign in disgrace, the Raiders playing the majority of the season under the interim leadership of Rich Bisaccia.

Now with McDaniels at the helm, Carr has a head coach to maximise his skill set and, with Adams joining Waller and Co. on offense, undoubtedly the most talented supporting cast of his career. 

A stacked receiver room

It is extremely difficult to overstate the importance of Adams' acquisition.

Over the past three seasons, only one player has racked up more receiving yards than Adams' 3,924. The man who represents his competition for the title of best receiver in the NFL, Cooper Kupp (4,082).

Adams' 34 receiving touchdowns in that span are second to Mike Evans (35), while no player has averaged more receiving yards per game than his 93.4 since 2019.

Producing a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 65.6 per cent of his targets, Adams was comfortably above the league average for receivers with at least 100 targets of 62. While his position as the NFL's top wideout may be up for debate, his status as one of its elite separators is not in question.

Only four receivers (min. 100 targets), one of which was Kupp (4), averaged more burn yards per route than Adams (3.5) in 2021.

Second (3.4) and first (3.9) in the same metric in 2019 and 2020, Adams' consistency in creating separation from coverage is unmatched, and he should benefit from playing in an offense stacked with bonafide weapons worthy of defensive attention.

Despite missing time, Waller still ended the 2021 season fifth among tight ends (min. 50 targets) in burn yards per target (11.91) and fourth in burn yards per route (3), his size, athleticism and ability to line up at every receiving position on the field making him a mismatch nightmare for defenses when at his best. Only two tight ends, Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews, have more receiving plays of 20 yards or more since 2019 than Waller (43).

Carr also has an excellent rapport with Hunter Renfrow. They combined for nine touchdowns in 2021, with three of those scores for the diminutive wideout coming on third down.

Yet the nickname 'Third and Renfrow' may have been inappropriately applied. Not because Renfrow isn't great on third down (18 of his 33 third-down targets last year went for first downs), but because team-mate Bryan Edwards might be even better.

Targeted just eight times on third down, six of those throws from Edwards to Carr were completed for a first down. Overall, Edwards had 76.5 per cent of his catches result in a first down last season, the second-best ratio in the NFL.

At 6ft 3in and 215 pounds, Edwards is a still under-utilised physically imposing ball-winner. Between Adams, Waller, Renfrow and Edwards, Carr now has a receiving corps to stack up with any other in the NFL.

Throw in a running back in Josh Jacobs who displayed his ability to overcome substandard blocking by averaging 3.38 yards per carry on runs where there was a disruption by a defender, the sixth-most in the NFL, in 2021, and Carr appears to have everything at his disposal to helm an explosive and dominant offense in 2022. That is presuming, of course, that Carr can re-establish his college connection with Adams.

But there is a risk any potential offensive surge could be cancelled out by the improvements made by the Raiders' rivals in what now looks a hellish AFC West.

Carr’s 'prove-it' year

The trade for Adams was just the latest move in a series of blockbusters from AFC West teams. In respective offseason efforts to end the divisional superiority of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers each made significant additions to their rosters.

Denver hugely upgraded the quarterback position with a stunning trade for nine-time Pro Bowler Wilson, and the Chargers bolstered their defense with a deal to acquire edge rusher Khalil Mack while also signing cornerback J.C. Jackson and run-stuffing defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day. 

In essence, the Raiders now have to compete with three elite quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes, Wilson, and Justin Herbert, all of whom have seen their teams stack the deck around them.

Carr has previously gone blow for blow with both Mahomes and Herbert and won, most famously in Week 18 last season in the epic overtime game that almost ended in a tie that would have sent both the Raiders and Chargers to the playoffs.

However, with the Chargers pairing Mack with another fearsome pass rusher, Joey Bosa, and the Chiefs retaining Frank Clark on a defensive line that also features Chris Jones, Carr's hopes of getting the best of each of those signal-callers could be compromised by the play of his offensive line.

The Raiders' O-Line ranked 21st in pass block win rate last year, with Carr pressured 285 times, the third-most in the league behind Matt Ryan (319) and Josh Allen (312), and yet that area of the team has gone largely neglected in the offseason.

Great quarterbacks can overcome shortcomings at other positions and Carr did so last year in leading the Raiders to the playoffs. Though he may have improved help from a defense that looks better prepared to deal with the threat of opposing offenses after the hire of Patrick Graham as coordinator and the additions of veteran edge rusher Chandler Jones and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, the reality is Carr will likely have to raise his game again if the Raiders are to enjoy postseason success.

The Raiders may look to use what draft capital they have left to improve on the offensive side of the trenches yet, regardless of any further moves to come, the onus is firmly on Carr. His is a career that has been spent trying to prove he belongs in the conversation as a top-tier quarterback. He built a compelling case last season but, flanked by offensive talent ready-made to help him keep pace with Mahomes, Herbert and Wilson, 2022 is the year in which he must definitively win the argument.

Following an eventful, dramatic and – dare we say it – the best Formula One season to date, the 2022 campaign has plenty to live up to.

Lewis Hamilton is going in search of a record eighth world title at the second time of asking after missing out to Max Verstappen on the final lap of the final race in 2021.

Reigning champion Verstappen is himself seeking some personal history this coming campaign, which begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend.

Ahead of what will hopefully be an equally as gripping season this time around, Stats Perform picks out some of the key numbers.

 

Hamilton narrowly missed out on surpassing Michael Schumacher as F1's most successful driver, though he has not missed out on top spot in successive years since joining Mercedes in 2013.

Should he match his achievement from last year, Red Bull's Verstappen (25 years, two months) would surpass Fernandes Alonso (25y, 2m, 23 days) as the second-youngest multiple world champion, behind only Sebastian Vettel (24y, 3m).

Mercedes may have suffered disappointment last time out, but they still finished top of the constructors' standings for a record-extending eighth time in a row. They are one short of equalling Williams as the second-most successful team, though Ferrari (16) are still well out in front.

In terms of other team milestones, Bahrain will be the 250th GP Mercedes have competed in, while they are six fastest laps away from setting 100. McLaren, meanwhile, are seven podiums from reaching 500 in F1.

Joining Hamilton at Mercedes this season is compatriot George Russell, who along with McLaren's Lando Norris is aiming to become the first Briton other than Hamilton to win a race since Jenson Button in 2012.

Bottas is now at Alfa Romeo and is joined by Guanyu Zhou, who will be China's first ever representative on the grid, making them the 39th country to appear in F1. Indeed, it is the first time three Asian countries will be represented, with Alex Albon (Thailand) and Yuki Tsunoda (Japan) also featuring.

 

Now 14 years on from their most recent constructors' title, Ferrari will equal their worst-such streak – 15 years between 1984 and 1998 – if they again miss out this term.

Carlos Sainz is Ferrari's big hope and he has either matched or bettered his performance from the previous season – both in terms of points and position – over the past six years when racing for just one team.

While his title chances are slim at best, Fernando Alonso has the opportunity to become the driver with the biggest margin between F1 titles of all time, 16 years on from his most recent success. 

Twenty-two events are currently locked in the F1 calendar for this year, with Miami set to become the 77th different circuit used when it hosts its maiden GP in May. It will be the 11th different track used in the United States, which is the most of any country.

All eyes will be on the Stade de France on Saturday as the 2022 Six Nations comes to a conclusion when leaders France take on England.

While the visitors can finish no higher than third place, Eddie Jones' men will revel in being the ultimate party poopers in Paris.

Victory for France in 'Le Crunch' will seal a first Grand Slam since 2010, though Les Blues could still finish top and land a first title since then should Ireland fail to beat Scotland.

Saturday's other fixture sees Wales take on pointless Italy in Cardiff and, while there may be little riding on that game, it will be a milestone occasion for a couple of players.

Ahead of the final round of fixtures, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.


FRANCE V ENGLAND

FORM

The omens are good for France as two of their previous three Six Nations Grand Slams have been completed with victory over England in the final round, in 2004 and again six years later, while just one of the past nine games between these sides in the competition has been won by the visitors – England prevailing 31-21 in 2016.

Fabien Galthie's charges have lost just one of their past eight home games in the competition, with that solitary defeat coming at the hands of Scotland last year as they chased a big winning margin to pip Wales to the title.

England are aiming to avoid losing three matches in a single edition of the Six Nations for the third time in seven years playing under Eddie Jones, having also done so in 2018 and 2021, and for a fifth time overall. 


ONES TO WATCH

Damian Penaud, who has a joint-high three tries in this year's tournament, is back in France's starting XV after recovering from coronavirus, replacing the injured Yoram Moefana. France have scored seven tries from counter-attacks this year, which is at least three more than any other team, so pacey Penaud could cause some damage this weekend.

England will need to work incredibly hard if they are to stop arguably the world's top side right now and hope that their key players turn up. In Marcus Smith they boast a player who leads the way for points in 2022 with 63, 19 more than next-best Melvyn Jaminet.

 

IRELAND V SCOTLAND

FORM

Ireland must beat Scotland earlier on Saturday if they are to remain in title contention and they have a great recent record in this fixture, winning seven of their last eight Six Nations meetings.

That record is even better on home soil, meanwhile, having been victorious in 10 of the last 11 encounters in the competition, including each of the last five in a row. Scotland's only win in that run came at Croke Park in 2010.

Fourth-placed Scotland have won five of their last six away games in the tournament, however, which is as many as they had managed in their previous 43.


ONES TO WATCH

Ireland were made to work hard for their victory against an England side that played almost the entire 80 minutes with 14 men last week, but they did ultimately get the job done. Jamison Gibson-Park led the way for passes in that match with 59 – more than double any opposition player – and he has a joint-high three assists in this edition.

Finn Russell is level with Gibson-Park on three assists, but he has been surprisingly omitted from Scotland's squad for the match at the Aviva Stadium due to his growing indiscipline and poor form. Ali Price is next for Scotland on the assists list with two, and there will now be more focus on him on what is his 51st cap.



WALES V ITALY

FORM

Wales are aiming to climb two places and finish third and will be confident of fulfilling their half of the bargain by claiming a bonus-point win against bottom side Italy. The Dragons have won each of their last 14 in this fixture, last tasting defeat in 2007.

After losing at home to France in their most recent home match, Wales are aiming to avoid successive losses at the Principality Stadium in the competition for the first time in 15 years, when losing their final such game in 2006 and first in 2007.

Italy will claim the Wooden Spoon once again having lost all five games this year, stretching their record losing run in the tournament to 36 matches. The Azzurri's most recent win away from home came against Scotland in 2015.

ONES TO WATCH

This will be a special occasion for Dan Biggar, who is in line for his 100th cap, and Alun Wyn Jones, who returns for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury against New Zealand in October for his 150th appearance. That makes the Wales skipper the first player to win 150 or more caps for a single nation in history.

Ange Capuozzo has been handed a first Test start after making a big impression in an otherwise disappointing campaign for Italy. The Grenoble full-back has scored two tries in this year's Six Nations, accounting for half of Italy's total, with both of those coming in a 34-minute appearance against Scotland in round four.

Thomas Tuchel will expect Chelsea to mark his 50th Champions League game as a boss with a win at Lille and Juve will be favourites to knock Villarreal out on Wednesday.

There is huge uncertainty at Stamford Bridge after Roman Abramovich put the club up for sale before having his assets frozen by the United Kingdom government, but the London club have won four consecutive games.

The holders travel to Lille for the second leg of the round-of-16 tie with a 2-0 lead courtesy of goals from the in-form Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic.

Juve and Villarreal will start their showdown at the Allianz Stadium locked at 1-1 after Dani Parejo equalised following Dusan Vlahovic's early strike.

Stats Perform picks out the standout Opta data ahead of the two games.

 

Lille v Chelsea

Havertz has become the Blues' main man, scoring four goals in his past three matches and six in seven.

Chelsea head coach Tuchel has won 31 of his 49 matches and can set a record for the most victories in his first 50 games as a boss in the competition with another success in Lille, as he is currently level with Zinedine Zidane's tally.

Lille's chances of forcing their way back into the tie appear to be slim, as not only do they trail by two goals, they have lost their past three Champions League games against the Premier League club.

They have also been eliminated from each of their three previous European knockout ties after losing the first leg.

The last side to progress against Champions League holders after failing to score in the opening leg was Arsenal versus Milan in 2007-08, with the first leg a goalless draw.

Each of Chelsea's past 11 wins in the Champions League have come with a clean sheet, 10 of which have come under Tuchel in just 14 matches.

Juventus v Villarreal

January signing Vlahovic set a record for the quickest goal by a Champions League debutant when he was on target after only 32 seconds of the first leg.

Juve are without a win in each of their past seven first-leg games in the Champions League (D3 L4), going on to be eliminated from four of their previous five knockout ties in the competition. 

Villarreal have won their past two away games in the Champions League, the same number of victories as they managed across the 15 such matches beforehand.

Juve have only lost three of their previous 23 Champions League matches at home to Spanish sides in this competition, winning 12 and drawing eight.

This will be Villarreal’s first visit to Juventus in any competition as they scent a place in the quarter-finals.

Juan Cuadrado is in line to make his 50th appearance for Bianconeri in the Champions League. He has provided 11 assists for the Serie A giants in the competition, which is the most by any player in the period since he first joined the club in 2015.

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