Andrea Pirlo is hopeful Juventus can use this week's Supercoppa Italiana success to get their Serie A title defence back on track.

Juve saw off Napoli 2-0 in Reggio Emilia on Wednesday through goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata as Pirlo claimed his first piece of silverware as a coach. 

The nine-in-a-row Scudetto champions have struggled in the league this term, however, and sit 10 points adrift of pace-setters Milan with a game in hand on the leaders.

After losing 2-0 away to Inter last time out in the top flight, Pirlo accepts that Juve must start showing more consistency if they are to retain their title.

"All matches are different but we need to continue entering the field with the attitude we had the other evening," he said at a news conference ahead of Sunday's home meeting with Bologna.  

"If we have this desire and concentration, positive results will come. Winning a trophy doesn't change my enthusiasm for the job. I have felt the same since day one.

"Winning a trophy does not change anything – I want to win others. I know we have to improve and continue growing as a team.

"We have had many ups and downs already, like many other teams. It's down to the number of games and not having the right preparation ahead of the season.

"It's hard to stay focused for the full 90 minutes every three days. It's something we are working on and know we have to improve on. It's our Achilles heel."

Juve's return of 33 points is their joint-lowest at this stage of a Serie A campaign in the last 10 seasons, equal to their tally after 17 games in 2015-16.

The Bianconeri have gone league games without a clean sheet, conceding eight goals during that run - including a 3-0 home reverse at the hands of Fiorentina.

Among Juventus coaches with at least 17 league games under their belt, only Alberto Zaccheroni (two) managed fewer shutouts than Pirlo after as many matches.

And Pirlo acknowledged the importance of tightening up at the back if his side are to climb up the standings.

"You always have to work on aspects," he said. "There are so many teams that want to play football and develop their game.

"Maybe teams tend to attack more and defend less, leading to more open games. But if you have the best defence, you often win championships."

Pirlo attempted to freshen up his attack against Napoli by using Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski either side of Ronaldo, with Weston McKennie providing further support.

The rookie coach is pleased with the tactical versatility of his players and reserved special praise for McKennie, who created more chances in the Supercoppa clash (three) than any other player on the field.

"McKennie is an important player for us," Pirlo said. "He has strength and dynamism, can play between the lines and gives us a lot in attack.

"Each of these players can exchange positions with Cristiano, as we saw the other night. Chiesa is another who can player on the left if he has to.

"As for Kulusevski, he can cover a number of positions. Perhaps in this period of his career, a second striker allows him to be freer so that is perhaps the best solution for him."

The matchup for Super Bowl LV will be known by the end of this weekend as the two Conference Championships are decided.

Probably the strangest season in NFL history has delivered a semi-final line-up to savour.

There is a matchup between two future Hall of Famers in Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.

The AFC Championship Game features two signal-callers well on their way to securing Hall of Fame status, with Patrick Mahomes recovering from a concussion to lead the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.

Mahomes being available means the Chiefs remain the favourites to retain the trophy, but here Stats Perform's team of NFL writers make their picks as to who will emerge from the final four and prevail at Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

Ben Spratt - CHIEFS TO CONQUER ALL ONCE MORE

With Mahomes, the best quarterback in football, fit to play, it seems foolish to back against the Chiefs.

The fourth-year superstar has the best career passer rating in playoff history (106.6), with his only two postseason interceptions coming in last year's Super Bowl when he subsequently led Kansas City to victory in a record-equalling 21-point fourth quarter.

And yet this team is not just about Mahomes, as their QB has the luxury of targeting tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ranked second and eighth for receiving yards this season.

Even when Mahomes was out against the Cleveland Browns, the Chiefs had a coach in Andy Reid ready to make the big calls to guide them through.

Chris Myson - SEVENTH HEAVEN FOR BRADY

The meeting of the minds between Bruce Arians and Brady was never going to be plain sailing in their first season, as two demoralising regular-season division losses to the New Orleans Saints showed.

But the Buccaneers have gradually worked through their problems and are now riding a five-game winning streak, having seen off the Washington Football Team by eight points and the Saints by 10 in the postseason.

At 43, Brady exceeded expectations in his first year in Arians' system, with 40 passing touchdowns being the second-best tally of his storied career, only the record-breaking 50 he got in 2007 topping that.

It has historically proven wise not to bet against Brady in the playoffs, a case strengthened with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and many more weapons representing the best supporting cast he has had in years.

Rob Lancaster - WE BILL-IEVE!

The Bills believe again. A franchise that has suffered more than their fair share of Super Bowl heartache in the past, losing four straight in the early 1990s, has high hopes that this could finally be their year.

Allen holds the key for Buffalo; he finished in the top five for quarterbacks in terms of passing yards, touchdowns thrown and yards per attempt in the regular season.

With his team rather abandoning the run in the playoffs – they posted a season-low 32 yards on the ground in the Divisional Round triumph over the Baltimore Ravens – the 24-year-old has the chance to excel against elite competition and, by lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, write his name into Buffalo folklore.

Nicholas McGee - BACK THE PACK

In last year's NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers were crushed by a San Francisco 49ers team that ran them over on offense and used their defense to swarm Aaron Rodgers and condemn him to another chastening playoff loss. 

The Packers were seen as a regression candidate in 2020, but those who expected them to take a step back perhaps underestimated how much of an achievement it was for them to reach this stage last season in Rodgers' first year in Matt LaFleur's offense.

His second year in the scheme, built around the same principles that form the basis of Kyle Shanahan's 49ers attack, has seen Rodgers take an offense widely regarded as the most creative in the game to new heights.

A near-lock for the MVP award, Rodgers completed 70.7 per cent of his passes in the regular season for 4,299 yards, an incredible 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Behind only Deshaun Watson and Allen with a completion percentage over expectation of 4.4, according to NextGen Stats, Rodgers led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt, his average of 8.89 well clear of Mahomes (8.33) in second. 

Possessing a near-telepathic connection with Davante Adams, Rodgers is playing at a level where he can outduel Brady, Allen or Mahomes, while the Packers defense is rounding into the kind of form where Green Bay can do what San Francisco couldn't last year, and make enough plays to stop the Chiefs from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

Paul George feels the Los Angeles Clippers are learning to "weather the storm" after their impressive win over his former team the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Clippers moved to 12-4, the NBA's best record along with city rivals the Lakers, with a 120-106 home win on Friday.

Their sixth consecutive win came courtesy of 31 points and eight rebounds from Kawhi Leonard.

George added 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists, while Serge Ibaka (17 points, 11 rebounds) contributed a double-double.

A run from the Thunder saw the Clippers' 27-point advantage reduced to 10 in the third quarter, but six straight points from Leonard ended that comeback attempt.

"Teams are going to make runs, regardless of if it is a top team or a young team," George, who connected with three of his seven attempts from behind the arc said, per ESPN.

"You got to learn how to win in adversity and learn how to weather the storm. 

"It's more so about us withstanding that and executing down the stretch."

The teams will play again at Staples Center on Sunday, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander requiring special attention from his former team after an impressive 30-point, eight-assist outing for the Thunder.

"He was amazing - he had some great moves, great finishes around the basket as always," team-mate Mike Muscala said when asked about Gilgeous-Alexander. 

"He makes the game easier for everybody on the court."

But the Thunder have now lost four of their last five games, falling to 6-8 ahead of the rematch.

Meanwhile, the Clippers are 7-2 on home court and have won five consecutive home games in meetings between the two teams.

Stats Perform data shows their last home winning streak of five or more games against the franchise was a six-game home run against the Sonics from January 1990 to January 1992.

Oklahoma City have broken the 110-point mark only three times this season (3-0 in those games), fewest in the NBA, a run which will likely need to end for them to halt that streak and their recent slump.

Pep Guardiola did not see the point in sugar coating the news that Manchester City will be without Kevin De Bruyne for between four to six weeks with a hamstring injury.

"It is [a huge blow] but we have to move forward," he said after confirming the extent of the setback for the Belgium international.

"He has an important part of the season out and we have to find a solution."

Handily for Guardiola, having the likes of Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden to choose from within his creative department means such solutions are - in theory at least - close at hand.

Here, we will examine how well equipped City are to face a run of fixtures including games against Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Borussia Monchengladbach and possibly Manchester United without their star midfielder.

Kevin the kingpin

Even when acknowledging City's enviable squad depth and Guardiola's career-long emphasis on the importance of the collective, De Bruyne's individual contribution throughout the Catalan's Etihad Stadium tenure is a heavy one.

Across 204 appearances since Guardiola took over at the start of the 2016-17 season, De Bruyne has supplied 88 assists - one every 2.3 matches.

Those come from 592 chances created, an average of one per 26.3 minutes.

David Silva is next with 365 opportunities created, with his 47 assists over the period in question second to Raheem Sterling (54).

Basically, daylight is second to De Bruyne in those and a host of other categories.

He has created 138 "big chances", according to Opta, with Sterling (73) and Silva (47) up next.

De Bruyne's 2,015 passes into the penalty area, including crosses, are more than double the amount attempted by any other player during the Guardiola era.

Keeping standards high

Although City finished a distant second to Liverpool in the Premier League last season and bowed out of the Champions League with a dispiriting quarter-final loss to Lyon, De Bruyne was named both PFA Players' Player of the Year and UEFA Midfielder of the Season.

He equalled the Premier League record of 20 assists in a season in 2019-20 and already has 10 this time around, with that figure rising to 15 in all competitions.

Once again, he leads the way for City in terms of chances created (73), big chances created (21) and passes into the penalty area (209).

Sterling (six assists), Riyad Mahrez (45 chances created and 106 passes into the box), are next best in those categories, again demonstrating the how central De Bruyne is to City as an attacking force.

Had De Bruyne been struck down when Guardiola's men were limping through the early weeks of the season, it might have cut off any title bid in its infancy.

However, the manager now has a number of other midfielders stepping up in impressive fashion.

Bernardo is back

Perhaps the most reassuring development for City this week came in the immediate aftermath of his injury.

The game was all square at 0-0 when he departed, Bernardo Silva dropped back to his team-mate's role on the right of the midfield three and promptly thrashed into the top corner to break the deadlock.

"He's back," Guardiola said defiantly of the Portugal playmaker on Friday.

"He struggled last season - maybe for the lack of minutes I gave him or maybe because he was not like him. Always he has been so important for me, for all of us."

Bernardo being "back" is a message understood loud and clear by regular City observers. It means the player who scooped the club's player of the year award when they won an unprecedented domestic treble in 2018-19; a player who has been difficult to spot for much of the subsequent 18 months.

Arguably the most impressive element of that trophy-laden campaign, when City pipped Liverpool to Premier League glory with 98 points to their rivals' 97, is they were without De Bruyne for large chunks of it.

The former Wolfsburg man twice sustained knee ligament damage before a calf strain kept him out for a key stretch of the run-in.

Bernardo's versatility is what makes him a Guardiola favourite, but playing for much of the season in De Bruyne's midfield berth, he registered 13 goals and as many assists in all competitions - a career best return for the ex-Monaco favourite.

The goal against Aston Villa was the 26-year-old's first in the Premier League this year and another drought would be deeply unhelpful as De Bruyne looks on, even though midfield goals have been flying in from elsewhere.

Gundogan and Foden in the goals

Gundogan rounded off the scoring from the penalty spot in midweek and will probably retain duties from 12 yards with De Bruyne out, having scored four out of five at City.

The Germany international is on a hot streak in front of goal since a torpid 0-0 draw at Manchester United in December persuaded Guardiola to tweak his formation and allow Gundogan more attacking license from central midfield.

Five in his past seven Premier League games is part of an all-competitions tally of seven - already the best single-season return of the 30-year-old's career.

Goalscoring is one area where De Bruyne has been under par this year. Two of his three Premier League goals are penalties, and his solitary strike from open play is the yield from 57 shots with an expected goals (xG) value of 5.1.

Gundogan (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.7) is out-performing his xG almost as impressively as Foden (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.5).

The England playmaker is level on eight with Raheem Sterling as City's top scorer in all competitions this season and has excelled in a left-wing role over recent weeks.

Like Bernardo, Foden's preference would probably be to operate in De Bruyne's favourite position but he has repaid both the faith of Guardiola and the clamour from City fans for him to start Premier League games more regularly.

City's overall statistics in the eight top-flight matches where Foden has made the XI this season are similar to the 10 when he did not, with a 62.5 per cent win ratio set against 60 per cent falling slightly in the hometown hero's favour.

However, they are considerably more active in front of goal when Foden starts, averaging 19.3 shots per game as opposed to 13.7.

The man himself has plenty to do with such an upturn if his five shots and six chances created against Villa are anything to go by - his most shot involvements in a single Premier League game.

Replacing De Bruyne's similarly weighty numbers in other areas is a task almost certainly beyond any individual at City but, with Bernardo, Gundogan and Foden among the collective, Guardiola has ample talent to keep his team's title challenge on track.

Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers said he is relishing his first NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field.

For the first time in his stellar career, Rodgers will play a conference title game at home when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit on Sunday, with his four previous NFC deciders coming on the road.

Tom Brady's Buccaneers stand in the way of MVP favourite Rodgers and the top-seeded Packers reaching their first NFL showpiece since winning Super Bowl XLV in the 2010 season.

It is set to me a memorable matchup for Super Bowl champion and two-time MVP Rodgers, who told reporters on Friday: "It's historic, it's definitely historic, there's nothing like it.

"I've played in just about every stadium now and been a lover for the NFL for most of my life, definitely most of my life that I remember and dreamt about it, playing in this stadium, since I watched those VHS tapes of the Green Bay Packers and the Ice Bowl, Bart Starr, Max McGee, Paul Hornung, Fuzzy, Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke, that's what I dreamt about, being a part of an organisation with that kind of excellence.

"Vince Lombardi, all the quotes that he has that still resonate to this day. The trophy is named after him for a reason. Our city is nicknamed 'Titletown' for a reason. It's a special place to play. I've never lost that perspective. I think my perspective is slightly adjusted on some other things this year but I've never forgotten where I play, where I live and I'm very proud of that."

Rodgers recorded his 12th career playoff game with 250-plus passing yards and two-plus passing touchdowns against the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round.

According to NFL Research, the only other payers in NFL history with 10-plus such games are Brady (17), Joe Montana (12) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (10).

The 37-year-old Rodgers also eclipsed Brett Favre for most playoff completions (439) in Packers history.

Per Stats Perform, Rodgers has thrown for multiple passing TDs in eight consecutive postseason games, tied with Joe Flacco for the longest streak in history. Now with 233 in his career, Rodgers also passed Favre for the most touchdown passes thrown at Lambeau Field (regular and postseason).

The Packers, meanwhile, are 15-1 in home games against the Buccaneers since 1990 – including postseason encounters.

According to Stats Perform, the Packers are in the midst of their longest streak in NFL history without a takeaway (four successive playoff games), while a win would see Green Bay tie the New England Patriots for most all-time postseason wins with 37.

Green Bay is notorious for cold weather and snow, and Rodgers was asked about the difficulty of playing in such conditions as he ages.

"I can say this year, based on the games we've had and the practice outside it hasn't felt any different than years past," Rodgers said. "The cold is still cold. It's bone chilling - not maybe as miserable as Chicago. That weather, when that bone chilling like effect happens, that's tough, that's really tough. But Green Bay ... we embrace our cold weather.

"I haven't noticed any big difference now. I almost enjoy it more, you've heard me say it, authentically. Man, I want it as cold as possible. I don't feel like it's an issue the older you get. We'll see if it gets down to minus 20 at some point. - maybe I can give you a better answer!" 

Collin Sexton made history after helping the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Brooklyn Nets for the second time in three days, 125-113 in the NBA on Friday.

After scoring 42 points in a double-overtime upset of the Nets on Wednesday, Cavaliers star Sexton was at it again with 25 points and nine assists against Brooklyn in Cleveland.

Sexton became the first player in Cavs history to post 20-plus points in each of his first 10 games of the season.

It was another tough outing for the star-studded Nets, who crashed to a second consecutive loss since Kyrie Irving returned following a seven-game absence.

In the absence of Kevin Durant (Achilles rehab), Irving had a game-high 38 points, while James Harden put up 19 points and 11 assists – his fourth double-double in four games since joining the Nets in a blockbuster trade from the Houston Rockets.

Joel Embiid produced another MVP-calibre performance as the Philadelphia 76ers overcame Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics 122-110.

Embiid dominated with 38 points and 11 rebounds, after his 42-point double-double against the Celtics midweek. The three-time All-Star was 11-of-15 from the field, while he made both of his three-point attempts.

Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with a game-high 42 points in Philadelphia.

 

Young and Capela soar for Hawks, Kawhi fuels Clippers

Trae Young posted a season-high 43 points and Clint Capela recorded 13 points, 19 rebounds and 10 blocks to guide the Atlanta Hawks past the Minnesota Timberwolves 116-98. Capela became the third player in Hawks history with 10 blocks in a game, joining Dikembe Mutombo and Josh Smith.

The Los Angeles Clippers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-106 for their sixth straight win behind Kawhi Leonard's 31 points in LA. Paul George added 29 points of his own for the in-form Clippers, who are tied with defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA's best record at 12-4.

Another game, another double-double for Nikola Jokic. The Denver Nuggets star tallied his 15th double-double (31 points and 10 rebounds) in 15 games this season to help secure a 130-126 OT victory at the Phoenix Suns.

Luka Doncic fell just short of a triple-double after posting 36 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds in the Dallas Mavericks' 122-117 win against the San Antonio Spurs.

Gordan Hayward finished with 34 points but the Charlotte Hornets still lost 123-110 at home to the Chicago Bulls.

 

Collin in Young's shadow

Hawks power forward John Collins has reportedly been unhappy with Young running the team's offense, but he did little to stake his own case. Collins was just two-of-eight shooting from the field for four points in 28 minutes. The rookie has been averaging 15.9 points per game this season.

The Miami Heat boast some great three-point shooters in Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, but last season's NBA Finals participants struggled from beyond the arc in their 101-81 rout at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. Miami were just 22.6 per cent from three-point range – three of 31.

 

Brogdon calls came

Trailing 118-117, Malcolm Brogdon nailed a three-pointer with 2.8 seconds remaining as the Indiana Pacers topped the Orlando Magic 120-118 in overtime.

 

Friday's results

Chicago Bulls 123-110 Charlotte Hornets
Houston Rockets 103-102 Detroit Pistons
Indiana Pacers 120-118 Orlando Magic (OT)
Cleveland Cavaliers 123-115 Brooklyn Nets
Philadelphia 76ers 122-110 Boston Celtics
Toronto Raptors 101-81 Miami Heat
Atlanta Hawks 116-98 Minnesota Timberwolves
Dallas Mavericks 122-117 San Antonio Spurs
Denver Nuggets 130-126 Phoenix Suns (OT)
Los Angeles Clippers 120-106 Oklahoma City Thunder
Sacramento Kings 103-94 New York Knicks
Washington Wizards-Milwaukee Bucks (postponed)
Memphis Grizzlies-Portland Trail Blazers (postponed)

 

Heat at Nets

The Nets (9-8) will look to snap a run of back-to-back defeats when they host Eastern Conference rivals the Heat (6-8) on Saturday.

Tom Brady is braced for a "big test" against Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers eye a home Super Bowl.

It will be a battle of the titans when six-time NFL Super Bowl champion Brady and the Buccaneers travel to Lambeau Field, where they will face Rodgers' Packers in the NFC decider on Sunday.

Brady – who has as many playoff wins since turning 35 as any other quarterback in his career, while he has 32 in total, twice as many as any other QB – will start his 14th conference championship in the Buccaneers-Packers blockbuster.

The 43-year-old superstar and the Buccaneers, however, will come up against Rodgers – who is tipped to be crowned the NFL MVP.

Two-time MVP Rodgers will play a conference title game at home for the first time in his stellar career, with his four previous NFC Championship appearances coming on the road.

Rodgers – a Super Bowl champion in the 2010 season – eclipsed Brett Favre for most playoff completions (439) in Packers history en route to the NFC showpiece. Per Stats Perform, the 37-year-old has thrown for multiple passing TDs in eight consecutive postseason games, tied with Joe Flacco for the longest streak in history.

Now with 233 in his career, Rodgers also passed Favre for the most TD passes thrown at Lambeau Field (regular and postseason).

Sunday's winner will advance to February 7's Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium – home of the Buccaneers – and when asked about Rodgers on Friday, Brady told reporters: "He basically does everything well. He has great command and experience, leadership, players are playing hard.

"He has a great style of play. He obviously throws the ball as well as any quarterback. Gets rid of the ball quickly. Has great vision of the field. He is able to extend plays with his legs. He has a lot of explosive plays.

"A great football team. Top-scoring offense. It's a big test. We are going to have to play great football to beat them."

The Buccaneers head into the clash on the back of wins away to the Washington Football Team and New Orleans Saints.

Tampa Bay are also riding a seven-game winning streak on the road – the longest run in franchise history, while the Buccaneers have nine straight games with 24-plus points and five in succession with 30-plus points – both the longest in team history, per Stats Perform.

"Love working with my team-mates. We've all worked hard," Brady said. "To play in a championship game is a great experience. I love being able to do that with this group of guys who've worked hard to get to this point. We had some rough moments but we've won two road games and will have to win a third if we want to continue playing.

"It's a tough test. A great team we're playing. Not an easy task but we will have to figure out a way."

Brady, whose Buccaneers are looking to become the fifth team all-time to win three road games in a single postseason, added: "Everyone knows what's at stake. You don't get to this point, you don't get one game and get here, you gotta go through a whole process to do it and our team has done that… we have a chance to get back home for a home Super Bowl, which would be a cool thing."

Inter head coach Antonio Conte is convinced there are seven teams fighting for the Serie A title and a top-four spot as he insisted the Nerazzurri are not Scudetto favourites.

Conte's Inter are second and three points adrift of city rivals Milan, but full of confidence after upstaging nine-time defending champions Juventus 2-0 last week.

Inter outclassed Juve at San Siro to enhance their title credentials in Italy, where they have not claimed the Scudetto since their treble-winning campaign in 2009-10.

But Conte dismissed the favourites tag, with Napoli, Roma, Juve, Atalanta and Lazio also vying for silverware and a Champions League berth.

"I always said since the beginning of the season that I see seven teams fighting for the first four positions, either for the Scudetto or for a place in the next Champions League," Conte said ahead of Saturday's fixture away to Udinese.

"I think the first half of the season confirmed my opinion. We have seen some teams being more consistent than others but in the end this first Serie A round confirmed that there are seven teams able to play for the title until the end of the season."

Inter have won nine of their last 11 Serie A games against Udinese (D1 L1) and have not conceded a goal in their last five against the club.

The Nerazzurri have scored 45 goals in their first 18 league fixtures this season – only Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich have scored more (48) in the top five European leagues in 2020-21.

In a 20-team season, only in 1951-52 have the Nerazzurri scored more in the first half of a season (48).

Meanwhile, among coaches who have led Inter for at least 30 Serie A games in the era of three points per win, Conte has the joint-best points-per-game average (2.18 per match, level with Jose Mourinho).

A mouth-watering Coppa Italia quarter-final derby against neighbours Milan looms on Tuesday, but Conte said: "Our focus and our choices are only based on Udinese in this moment. The championship is too important [to make changes towards the derby] because apart from the Scudetto you have a place in the next Champions League to fight for.

"The championship is our priority. We have to focus on Udinese and we have to approach this game with the right mentality. After this game we are going to think about the next one but today Udinese are our priority."

Im Sung-jae leads The American Express by one shot after the second round, while Phil Mickelson made history on the PGA Tour despite missing the cut.

South Korean golfer Im carded a seven-under-par 65 on the PGA West Stadium Course to hit the front in California on Friday.

Im – who finished tied for second at last year's rescheduled Masters, and is eyeing his second Tour title after breaking through at the 2020 Honda Classic – was flawless with seven birdies and no bogeys.

The 22-year-old is 11 under at the halfway stage of the tournament, ahead of Nick Taylor (66), Tony Finau (66), Abraham Ancer (65), Kim Si-woo (68) and overnight leader Brandon Hagy (70).

Defending champion Andrew Landy posted a second-round 69 to be tied for 37th and six strokes off the pace.

In his 2,201st career PGA Tour round, five-time major champion Mickelson carded 18 consecutive pars for the first time.

Mickelson – playing for the first time since November's Masters – following his opening-round 74 with a 72 as the American star finished seven shots outside the cut line.

"For that to be the first time, it's really shocking,” said Mickelson. "Surprising, because I really try to hit fairways and centers of the greens and just make easy pars.

"Looking at the scores, you're going to say, 'Gosh, you played two-over par, pretty easy courses, pretty poor start'. But I feel like there were a lot of good things to take from the week, even though the scorecard’s not going to show it."

Mauricio Pochettino knew it was only a matter of time before Kylian Mbappe returned to goalscoring form after netting a brace in Paris Saint-Germain's 4-0 rout of Montpellier.

Mbappe had been criticised following four games without a goal for PSG, and just two in his previous eight matches across all competitions.

But Mbappe responded to his critics with two goals and an assist as Ligue 1 champions PSG eased past 10-man Montpellier in Paris on Friday.

Mbappe is decisive every 58 minutes this season in Ligue 1 (14 goals and six assists) – the best ratio among players involved in more than one goal, per Opta. This is the first time he has been involved in three goals in the same league game (two goals and one assist) since February 2020 (against Dijon).

"I was happy before with his performance because his compromise, but also now that he has scored," PSG head coach Pochettino told reporters.

"We know that for a forward, to score goals or give assists it is fundamental, is part to generate this confidence that they need. So we are happy.

"We knew it was only a matter of time for Kylian to find himself again with the goal and the good performances."

After Montpellier goalkeeper Jonas Omlin was sent off in the 19th minute, Mbappe broke the deadlock 15 minutes later before teeing up star team-mate Neymar on the hour in the French capital.

PSG forward Mauro Icardi made it 3-0 a minute later, and Mbappe completed the scoring in the 63rd minute as the league leaders moved three points clear atop the table, with Lille due to play Rennes.

It was the first time in PSG's history that they scored three goals in the space of three minutes (three minutes and nine seconds exactly) in a Ligue 1 game.

Neymar and Mbappe have combined for 21 goals in Ligue 1 since 2017-18 – only the duos of Luis Suarez-Lionel Messi (31), Harry Kane-Son Heung-min (21) and Robert Lewandowski-Thomas Muller (25) have combined for more over the period.

Since his world-record arrival from Barcelona in 2017, Neymar has been involved in one Ligue 1 goal every 66 minutes (51 goals and 29 assists) – the best ratio among players involved in more than one goal over the period.

Neymar has scored 81 goals in 100 games in all competitions for PSG, but Pochettino praised the Brazilian's defensive contribution.

"I believe that the defensive and offensive balance is very important on every team," Pochettino said. "When you have so much talent inside the pitch, players so destabilising, you also run the risk of losing this defensive stability which is so much needed to compete in really big occasions.

"When the level of your opponent can be compared to you, the difference is not only made in the offensive phase, but if you are capable to defend and be able to recover the ball as soon as possible.

"I am happy too with the effort that Neymar has been doing in the last weeks. It is a player with an enormous amount of compromise. It makes us really happy but we already know what he does with the ball on his feet, but when he does this effort to help the team, that talks very well about him."

Mikel Arteta hopes Frank Lampard is given time at Chelsea as Premier League managers continue to deal with the challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Chelsea went top of the table with a 3-1 triumph over Leeds United on December 5 but have collected just seven points in their eight games since then. 

The worrying run included a 3-1 defeat away to Arteta's Arsenal on Boxing Day, a result that ended a seven-match streak without a win for the Gunners in the top flight. 

Lampard insisted on Friday he does not pay any attention to speculation over his future at Stamford Bridge and has now received support from the man in charge of a rival club. 

"I've known Frank for a few years as well and I've spent some time with him," Arteta told the media. 

"I would like [Chelsea] to support him and give him a chance. He has huge experience as a player, he is an icon over there. 

"He's done some really good things, but you need time and if there's something we haven't had in this calendar year, it's time to work on anything."

Arteta, who found his own position in the spotlight during Arsenal's struggles earlier in the campaign, feels clubs will benefit in the long run if they show some patience. 

"Fortunately, if [clubs] see what you're trying to do is going to have rewards in the future and they are a little bit patient, most of the time it pays off, if everybody is convinced that we are doing things the right way," the Spaniard said. 

"I speak with a lot of managers and some of them have been in the game for over 30 years, and they said, 'I never experienced something like that'. This is a new game, new rules. There are so many things we cannot control. It's out of our hands in a lot of moments. 

"I listen a lot to that because we tend to put more and more pressure and demand a lot of ourselves. It's a very strange league this season, and you can see that in many teams."

Holders Arsenal continue their FA Cup defence on Saturday when they travel to Southampton.

All four previous meetings between the teams in the competition have ended with Arsenal victorious; they also went on to win the trophy on three occasions, in 1979, 2003 and 2017.

Southampton have won just one of their previous nine meetings with Arsenal in all competitions, a 3-2 league victory in December 2018.

Kylian Mbappe scored two and set up another as Paris Saint-Germain beat Montpellier 4-0 in Ligue 1 on Friday.

Having faced recent questions over his form and focus, Mbappe responded with a decisive display at Parc des Princes to help Mauricio Pochettino's men to three points.

Mbappe broke the deadlock after Montpellier goalkeeper Jonas Omlin had earlier been sent off for fouling the France star, and he set up Neymar to mark his 100th PSG appearance with the second goal.

Mauro Icardi and Mbappe added two further goals within three minutes as the champions eased to a routine win, their fourth in a row by at least four goals against Michel Der Zakarian's side.

Montpellier, six games without a win in Ligue 1 before this contest, were left with a huge task when Omlin flattened Mbappe following a stunning throughball from Leandro Paredes, with a VAR review leading to the keeper's dismissal.

PSG eventually capitalised on their dominance 34 minutes in, Neymar and Angel Di Maria each playing decisive passes before Mbappe clipped a cool finish over substitute keeper Dimitry Bertaud.

It was Mbappe's 13th league goal of the season and the 13th time he has been assisted by Di Maria in the competition.

Neymar almost doubled the lead before the break but was thwarted by a good save from Bertaud, who then denied Mauro Icardi acrobatically early in the second period.

The second goal came on the hour mark, though, Mbappe teeing up Neymar for a simple finish after a fine lofted pass from Marco Verratti.

With the floodgates suddenly open, PSG scored a further two goals inside three minutes, Icardi drilling high into the net after good work from Alessandro Florenzi and then setting up Mbappe for a routine finish after Neymar led a quick break.

Bertaud did manage to deny Layvin Kurzawa a stunning fifth, tipping the full-back's bicycle kick onto the crossbar.

 

Even in these extraordinary times, Barcelona letting Luis Suarez go to Atletico Madrid is starting to look like the oddest decision of the season.

Suarez's double over Eibar on Thursday secured a 2-1 victory for the league leaders, who are seven points clear at the top with a game in hand over champions Real Madrid in second.

The Uruguay star, who has netted six in his past six league games for Atleti, is joint-top of the division's scoring charts alongside former team-mate Lionel Messi.

It seems increasingly likely that Suarez, and certainly Atletico, will be at the top of the tree come the end of 2020-21.

With the majority of sides having now played half of their matches, the Stats Perform AI team have run the numbers to simulate how the rest of the LaLiga campaign will play out – and it's good news for Diego Simeone.

 

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

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

 

ATLETICO WIN AT A CANTER

Atletico have been given a 75.1 per cent chance of winning LaLiga, according to the model.

Simeone's men are predicted to finish on 86 points, nine clear of the rest of the field. They are given just a 17.8 per cent chance of coming second and dropping outside the top four is considered practically impossible.

Barcelona and reigning champions Real Madrid are predicted to end with 77 points apiece, with just a 12.4 per cent chance each of pipping Atleti to the title. Madrid have a 41 per cent chance of finishing second, slightly above Barca's 39.4, having beaten Ronald Koeman's side 3-1 in the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou last October.

Those two are, at least, very likely to end up in a Champions League place. They are expected to be joined there by Sevilla, who have a 47.8 per cent chance of finishing fourth on 65 points, just three above Villarreal and six clear of Real Sociedad. The remaining European spot is predicted to be a close battle between Granada, Getafe and Real Betis, with Diego Martinez's men odds on to snatch it.

Valencia fans might be enduring a difficult time (again), and our sim has Los Che missing out on European football once more, if only by four points. That said, they still have a 3.6 per cent chance of a Europa League spot, which is better odds than those given to Supercopa de Espana winners Athletic Bilbao.

 

WOE FOR HUESCA

At the other end of a relatively tight table, in which just 11 points will separate seventh from 16th, it looks like Huesca are in for a tough run-in. They are given a 59.7 per cent chance of finishing bottom of the pile and just a 5.1 per cent shot at avoiding relegation, having won only once so far this term.

Osasuna are predicted to end up just four points above them, with the bottom three likely to be completed by Deportivo Alaves, although Elche will also be right in the mix. In fact, with those two tipped to finish level on 39 points, survival could come down to their head-to-head record, making their showdown on May 11 potentially decisive. Elche have the advantage there, having won the reverse game 2-0 away from home.

Real Valladolid are expected to have just enough to stay out of trouble, although they have scant room for manoeuvre, with our predictor giving them an equal 15.1 per cent chance of finishing 17th and 18th.

Eibar and Cadiz are looking likely to stay safe; indeed, Jose Luis Mendilibar's men, along with Celta Vigo and Athletic, are given a 0.1 per cent chance of gatecrashing the top four. They might well have boosted those odds this week were it not for that pesky Suarez.

Martin Odegaard will not be involved for Real Madrid against Deportivo Alaves amid speculation he could be set to join Arsenal. 

Odegaard excelled out on loan at Real Sociedad in the 2019-20 season but has found first-team opportunities limited under Zinedine Zidane upon his return to the Spanish capital.  

The Norway international has failed to score or assist in his nine appearances this season in all competitions and, having made just five starts, seems keen to seal a move away in January.  

A return to the Basque club – where he managed seven goals and nine assists in 36 appearances – appeared to be on the cards, but Arsenal have now emerged as the clear favourites to sign the midfielder on loan.  

Madrid assistant coach David Bettoni, who is to take charge of Madrid while Zidane isolates after testing positive for coronavirus, was asked about Odegaard's future during his media duties on Friday - and hinted there could be developments in the player's situation soon.

"What happened with Martin is something that I don't know too well," Bettoni said.  

"I'm the assistant coach and there are some things that I don't follow too closely, so I can't give the exact context.  

"He is an important member of the squad and we'll see what happens with him in the coming days."  

Odegaard is not part of Madrid's squad for Saturday's LaLiga trip to Alaves amid speculation he could be confirmed at Arsenal imminently. 

The 22-year-old created 62 chances in LaLiga last term - a tally only beaten by four other players, one of which was predictably Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi.  

His contributions in terms of goals and assists helped La Real finish in sixth place. They also reached the Copa del Rey final, though that fixture against rivals Athletic Bilbao is yet to take place due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

 

The addition of Odegaard would add some welcome creativity to Mikel Arteta's squad, the Gunners having managed just 23 goals in 19 league games so far in what has been a topsy-turvy 2020-21 season.  

Arsenal have created 158 scoring opportunities, of which 33 are considered big chances by Opta, well adrift of the league-high 53 recorded by Manchester City this term. The Gunners have managed 20 goals from 221 attempts (excluding penalties), slightly below their xG figure of 23. 

Emile Smith Rowe has been a revelation of late, contributing three assists in open play, but no individual has created more chances for the Premier League club than full-back Kieran Tierney, his total of 22 putting him one above Bukayo Saka. 

Having been busy so far in January trimming the squad, including the impending departure of Mesut Ozil, Arteta has admitted he hopes to make additions before the transfer window closes. 

"We are in that process right now, we have done the first part more or less and we are focusing now on the second phase," he told the media on Thursday. 

"Obviously this market and the context makes it difficult, but we are looking at options and we will see what we can do."

Next month's trip to Liverpool is a no-go for Kevin De Bruyne, while March's crunch derby with Manchester United could be a return date for Manchester City's star midfielder.

That is the predicament facing Pep Guardiola after he confirmed the Belgium international will be out for four to six weeks due to a hamstring injury sustained during the 2-0 midweek win over Aston Villa.

De Bruyne, the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year, has been in typically sparkling form for City this term, scoring three times and providing 10 assists in the Premier League.

Guardiola's men are two points shy of league leaders United with a game in hand and into the last-16 of the Champions League.

Here, we look at the key games within a battle on all fronts where the EFL Cup finalists will be missing their talisman.

Cheltenham Town (A) - January 23

De Bruyne would probably have been rested for the weekend clash with League Two Cheltenham Town in any case, although the fifth round on February 10 also looks to be out of the question if City progress. In 16 appearances in the FA Cup, he has five goals and as many assists - claiming one of each in the 6-0 demolition of Watford in the 2019 final

West Brom (A) - January 26

City are back in Premier League action against Sam Allardyce's relegation-threatened Baggies next week. De Bruyne has two goals and three assists against the Baggies in the competition but could not manage a goal involvement as Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling failed to convert his late crosses during December's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. City have won nine games in a row across all competitions since that setback.

Sheff Utd (H) - January 30

Another relegation candidate follows, with bottom club Sheffield United facing a daunting trip to Manchester. De Bruyne created Sergio Aguero's opener before completing the scoring for a 2-0 win in this fixture last season.

Burnley (A) - February 3

Perhaps surprisingly, giving City's succession of recent 5-0 wins over Burnley, De Bruyne has never scored against Sean Dyche's men in the Premier League. He does have three assists, including the decisive passes for Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy to net during the most recent mauling last November.

Liverpool (A) - February 7

De Bruyne scored from the penalty spot as City beat the recently crowned champions 4-0 last July, although he missed uncharacteristically from 12 yards in this season's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. Even though none of his five Premier League assists against Liverpool have come at Anfield, he will be a huge miss when City chase a first win on the red side of Stanley Park since 2003.

Tottenham (H) - February 13

De Bruyne scored in each of his first three Premier League appearances against Spurs and set up both City goals as the sides shared a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Etihad last season. Jose Mourinho's men were the last team to inflict a defeat upon City, 17 games ago.

Arsenal (A) - February 21

No Premier League team has conceded more goals to De Bruyne than Arsenal's five. City's number 17 scored twice and dazzled throughout in a 3-0 win at Emirates Stadium last term.

Borussia Monchengladbach (A) - February 24

UEFA named De Bruyne their Midfielder of the Season following his performances on City's run to the quarter-finals in 2019-20. Despite his club's patchy record in Europe's top competition, the 29-year-old has seven goals and 15 assists in 37 Champions League appearances for the English side.

West Ham (H) - February 27

Rodri converted De Bruyne's corner before the man himself rounded off a 2-0 win over West Ham when the teams met on February 19 last year. It was the last time fans were allowed into the Etihad Stadium.

Manchester United (H) - March 6

This could be the biggest Manchester derby for almost a decade given the state of play at the top of the table and must surely be the comeback target for De Bruyne. He opened the scoring in a 2-1 Premier League win at Old Trafford in 2016, a strike that remains his only goal involvement in seven league games against United.

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