Kevin De Bruyne hit a scorching winner as Manchester City extended their Premier League lead to 13 points with a 1-0 victory against second-placed Chelsea.

A tightly contested game at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday came to life 20 minutes from time as De Bruyne intervened decisively.

Chelsea did not see much of the ball but had their chances to get on the scoresheet too, with Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech particularly wasteful on the counter-attack.

Pep Guardiola's City have now won 12 league games on the bounce, and it is difficult to see how they can be denied making it back-to-back titles in May.

City dominated much of the first half but were grateful for poor decision-making and execution from Lukaku and Ziyech on two occasions as Chelsea looked to counter early on.

The best chance for the hosts in the opening 45 minutes came when an effective high press set Jack Grealish through on goal, but Kepa Arrizabalaga deflected the £100million man's shot behind with his left leg.

The visitors should have taken the lead two minutes into the second half when Lukaku was sent clear by Mateo Kovacic, but Ederson palmed his shot away before Ziyech lifted the rebound over the bar.

The league leaders finally broke the deadlock in the 70th minute when former Chelsea man De Bruyne cut in from the left side before expertly firing past the despairing dive of Arrizabalaga from 22 yards.

The Blues tried to find an equaliser, but City showed their solid side to clinch the three points, moving a significant step closer to lifting the Premier League trophy once more.

Sequels, necessary or otherwise, tend to be widely popular. Whether it's in the world of boxing or on the big screen, audiences are consistently drawn in by the prospect of a second act.

But they are not quite as keenly anticipated in the NFL playoffs.

When it gets to January, there is a desire to see matchups that have not been witnessed in the regular season. That is a small part of the allure of the postseason.

Yet the opening day of 'Super Wild Card Weekend' will serve up one sequel and the third and final act of an AFC East trilogy.

Even though the first playoff games of the 2021 campaign are repeats, there is reason to believe they will be compelling. Here Stats Perform previews Saturday's action.

Las Vegas Raiders @ Cincinnati Bengals

The Raiders' visit to Cincinnati sees a matchup of two quarterbacks playing in their first postseason game, albeit at markedly different stages of their careers.

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr helped a team then based in Oakland to reach the playoffs in 2016, only for him to then miss out on their Wild Card defeat to the Houston Texans due to injury. Carr has made 127 career regular-season starts. Only two quarterbacks have ever had more prior to their first playoff start: Fran Tarkenton (174) and John Brodie (134).

Meanwhile, Joe Burrow led the Bengals to the playoffs in just his second season in the NFL and goes into his postseason debut in red-hot form. He has 971 passing yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions over his last two games. This is the 49th instance of a player having at least eight TD passes and no INTs over a two-game span. Burrow has the most passing yards of those 49 instances, over 100 yards more than the next closest (Ben Roethlisberger, 862 in 2014).

Burrow was the most accurate quarterback in the NFL by well-thrown percentage (min. 200 attempts) in the regular season. He delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 86.5 per cent of attempts, though in Carr he must outduel the man third on that same list (82.1 per cent).

Should he do so, Burrow will give the Bengals their first playoff win since the 1990 campaign. They have lost eight straight playoff games, while their span without a playoff win is the longest active streak in the NFL, and the fifth-longest streak in NFL history. Only one team ever lost nine straight playoff games: the Detroit Lions, who have lost their last nine postseason games.

New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills

The Patriots and the Bills playing for the third time in a little over a month may feel repetitive, but this game actually marks a playoff first.

It is the first playoff game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 in which the Pats and Bills have met.

Their lone playoff clash was an AFL tiebreaker in 1963, after the teams finished the season tied for first place in the Eastern Division (both 7-6-1). The Boston Patriots won that playoff game, 26-8, at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium.

With lows of minus 16 degrees Celsius expected in Buffalo on Saturday, a low-scoring close game would not be a surprise. The Bills (289) and Patriots (303) are ranked one-two in the NFL this season in fewest points allowed. Buffalo allowed the fewest passing touchdowns (12), and New England tied Denver for the fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (nine).

Yet if the Bills come out on the right side of the ledger, recent history suggests they will do so by a double-digit margin.

The Bills won 11 games this season and all their wins were by at least 12 points. Buffalo's average victory margin (22.1 points) was the highest in the NFL (New England: 2nd at 21.4).

Genoa have sacked Andriy Shevchenko only two months after appointing the Milan great as head coach.

The Ukrainian was hired to replace Davide Ballardini on November 7, with his appointment one of the first major decisions made by the club's new ownership group.

Shevchenko had left his role as Ukraine coach in August, having taken his country beyond the group stage of a European Championship for the first time in their history at Euro 2020.

However, Genoa's form has shown no sign of improvement under the former Chelsea and Milan striker.

In nine Serie A games, Shevchenko did not preside over a single victory – they amassed three points and as many goals in that time.

His sole win in charge came via a slender 1-0 success over Salernitana in the Coppa Italia last month.

It was thought Genoa's performance in the 3-1 extra-time defeat to Milan in the Coppa on Thursday might have bought him more time.

But those reports ultimately proved inaccurate, with his former stomping ground San Siro being where his fate was settled.

England fought back with the ball after another batting collapse, but Australia remained on top after 17 wickets fell on a dramatic second day of the final Ashes Test.

Australia resumed on 241-6 in their first innings and were bowled out for 303 during Saturday's opening session, Stuart Broad taking 3-59 and Mark Wood 3-115 at Blundstone Arena.

The tourists then crumbled from 78-2 to 188 all out in reply, Chris Woakes top-scoring with 36 as the excellent Pat Cummins (4-45) and Mitchell Starc (3-53) did the bulk of the damage, with the ball zipping around off the seam and swinging prodigiously.

Australia were reduced to 5-2 in their second innings before closing on 37-3 in Hobart, leading by 152 runs and favourites to win the series 4-0.

Wood dismissed Starc and Cummins early on as Australia got the day's play under way, but Nathan Lyon struck the pacemen for three sixes as he held up England with a quickfire 31 and Alex Carey made 24, with Australia adding 51 runs for the last two wickets.

There was a sense of deja vu as England were two down early in their reply, Rory Burns run out without scoring on his return to the side and Zak Crawley caught by Travis Head at short leg to become Cummins' first victim.

Joe Root (34) and Dawid Malan steadied the ship, with left-hander Malan having a slice of fortune when he nicked Cameron Green behind with 13 to his name and Australia did not review.

Malan (25) was on his way after edging Cummins through to Carey, ending a third-wicket stand of 49, and England capitulated yet again, with Root trapped lbw by Australia's outstanding captain.

Lyon took a brilliant catch to get rid of Ben Stokes for four, before debutant Sam Billings (29) and Woakes offered some resistance, but Cummins ended another abysmal England innings by bowling Wood.

The tourists dazzled with the ball under the lights, with Warner bagging a pair and Marnus Labuschagne and Usman Khawaja departing, but Steve Smith (17no) and nightwatchman Scott Boland prevented further damage from being done.


Magnificent Cummins shows he's the best in the world

Cummins produced another exhibition of pace bowling as he exploited England's batting frailties yet again.

The Australia skipper was relentless and would have deserved a five-wicket haul, snaring Root with a brilliant delivery that nipped back sharply to claim the scalp of the England captain for the first time in the series.

He was supported well by Starc, Green (1-45) and Boland (1-33), who had Woakes dropped by both Warner and Khawaja early in the all-rounder's knock.


Woe for Warner as Broad strikes again, Robinson returns

It was an all too familiar story for Warner as he fell to Broad for the 14th time in Test cricket, Ollie Pope taking a stunning diving catch at point to remove the opener.

Not since Warner failed to score in both innings of the Old Trafford Ashes Test in 2019 had an Australian suffered the misery of getting a pair.

Woakes snared Labuschagne and Billings took a second Test catch when Khawaja gloved a brute of a rapid short ball from Wood. Ollie Robinson was unfortunate not to take a wicket when he returned to bowl after suffering back spams on day one as England finished a disappointing day strongly.

Stephen Curry was "a little concerned" about a hand injury he sustained in the Golden State Warriors' thrashing of the Chicago Bulls on Friday but declared: "I'll be all right."

Curry fell on his right hand during the Warriors' 138-96 rout of the Bulls at United Center – their 10th consecutive victory over Chicago.

The seven-time NBA All-Star, who scored 19 points, was initially worried about the damage he may have done, but says the pain did not last for long.

He said: "Anything that involves the hands, especially the right one, you're a little concerned. But the feeling came back, the strength came back. It hurts, but I'll be all right."

Curry added: "I have some PTSD from [a hand injury sustained] two years ago. When I landed, it felt kind of the same, but we'll get it looked at and figure it out. Should be all right."

Rookie forward Jonathan Kuminga top-scored with 25 points in 26 minutes for Golden State, with Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins finishing with 22 and 21 points respectively.

Klay Thompson was rested as he eases his way back from a long injury lay-off, while Draymond Green could return from a calf injury against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday.

The Warriors' demolition of Eastern Conference leaders Chicago (27-13) was only their second win in six games and moved them to 31-11, sitting second in the Western Conference behind the 32-9 Phoenix Suns.

 

The Golden State Warriors showed off their newfound depth and flexed their muscle with a 138-96 rout over the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls on Friday.

Three Warriors scored more points than Stephen Curry, who finished with 19 points including four three-pointers in the win without Draymond Green (calf) and Klay Thompson (rest).

Top 10 draft pick Jonathan Kuminga top scored with 25 points, while Jordan Poole added 22 including five triples and Andrew Wiggins contributed 21.

Golden State piled on 78 points in the first half, leading by 31 at the main break and never looked back after the Bulls lost Zach LaVine to a knee injury early in the first quarter.

DeMar DeRozan was kept quiet with 17 points, two rebounds and seven assists, while Nikola Vucevic top scored for the Bulls with 19 points along with 14 rebounds.

Chicago, who were humbled 138-112 by the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, slip to a 27-13 record but remain top of the Eastern Conference.

 

Suns and Heat continue stellar records

Devin Booker scored 35 points including five three-pointers while Deandre Ayton had 27 points with 12 rebounds as the ladder-leading phoenix Suns won 112-94 over the Indiana Pacers. The Suns are 32-9 at the halfway mark, which is their second-best record in franchise history after 41 games.

Jimmy Butler returned from a three-game absence due to an ankle injury with 23 points, 10 assists and two steals as the Miami Heat rallied late to win 124-118 over the Atlanta Hawks. The Heat improve to 27-15 and sit second in the east.

Joel Embiid had 25 points, 13 rebounds and six assists as the Philadelphia 76ers got past the Boston Celtics 111-99. Embiid fell five points short of breaking the 76ers franchise record for 30 points or more in nine straight games.

 

Grizzlies winning run ended

The Memphis Grizzlies' 11-game winning streak came to a halt at the hands of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 112-85. The Grizzlies struggled from beyond the arc, making seven-of-31 (22.6 percent) from three-point range with Jaren Jackson Jr missing all six of his three-point attempts. Doncic had a triple-double with 27 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.

Novak Djokovic has won the last three Australian Open titles and lifted the trophy nine times in all, which means he arrived in Melbourne as a hot favourite to triumph again.

Yet even before the chaos of the last 10 days, this looked a tough Australian Open for Djokovic, given the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev have recently taken his scalp in major hard-court matches.

There was no doubt he was a worthy favourite, but Djokovic's dominance of the first half of last season was followed by a series of painful defeats, weakening his standing at the top of the game.

When the men's singles draw was made on Thursday, only two former champions featured: Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the 2009 winner.

Here, Stats Perform assesses the contenders to follow Djokovic onto the Melbourne Park throne.

NEXT NUMBER ONE? DANIIL MEDVEDEV

Last year's runner-up, given a sound pasting by Djokovic in a final that came nowhere close to matching expectations, has come a long way since that crushing blow. Russian Medvedev was the only man to beat Djokovic in a grand slam last year, doing so at the final hurdle of the final major, without dropping a set in the US Open title match. That denied Djokovic a calendar year sweep of the majors, which would have been the first time the feat had been achieved by a man since Rod Laver's 1969 complete set.

He also took the first set off Djokovic in the Paris Masters final in November, only to lose the match. What is clear is that Medvedev is amassing experiences against Djokovic: some good and some bad, but all surely massively helpful. He lost in their first three encounters but has won four of the seven since.

Progress like this is what repeat champions are made of. Medvedev has a 9-9 win-loss record when dropping the first set of matches over the past year, which shows he is not easily beaten. Only Djokovic (14-6) has a better record in that respect.

Medvedev has a 54-9 record on hardcourts over the past 12 months, has gone mightily close to hitting number one in the rankings, and might see a lot of that top step in the months and years to come. On the 52-week rolling list, he holds a 16-8 win-loss record against top-10 opponents, which is second only to Djokovic (22-5).

Should Medvedev pull off a second consecutive grand slam win, it would make him just the third Russian man to win two or more grand slam singles titles, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov (French Open 1996 and Australian Open 1999) and Marat Safin (US Open 2000 and Australian Open 2005).

The last player other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back majors was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000).

 

OVERDUE SLAM INCOMING? ALEXANDER ZVEREV

The Olympic champion and ATP Finals winner is just lacking a grand slam title to confirm to the wider sporting world his status as one of the rising generation's preeminent performers. Zverev beat Djokovic in semi-finals en route to both of those big 2021 titles, and although he also lost three times to the 20-time major winner over the season, he took four sets off the man from Belgrade in those defeats.

Zverev is improving season on season, and if he avoids injuries or other tribulations in 2022 then he surely stands a strong chance of picking up that first slam before the year is out. He won six titles in all in 2021, more than any other singles player on the ATP Tour, and holds a 43-10 win-loss record on hardcourts on the 52-week rolling list.

When the draw was made, he and Djokovic were set on another semi-final collision course, and that prospect looked tantalising. Until recently so far apart, the gap has closed considerably, Zverev tallying victories that will have surely troubled the world number one.

NOT READY TO BE YESTERDAY'S MAN: RAFAEL NADAL

Because why the heck not? Nadal, at the age of 35, returned from a long foot injury lay-off with a title at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament this month, and if his record at the Australian Open is deemed unspectacular by some, the Spaniard himself takes great pride in his achievements.

Recently, in a Melbourne news conference, he was asked why he had not reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open since his title year, and Nadal swiftly put his questioner right.

"I am very sorry to tell you – I don't want to – but I have been in the final of 2012, '14, '17, '19," he said. "I got injured a couple of times here in my tennis career, so of course it's been a great tournament for me, and of course I had a lot of challenges in terms of injuries in this event. Sorry to correct you."

Polite as ever, but pointed. Nadal knows he has been successful in Australia and would surely not have returned this year if he felt there was no chance of another run to the final. He rightly takes issue with those who forget his feats. Remember, he, like Djokovic and Federer, sits on 20 grand slams.

Nadal reached the quarter-finals last year and lost from two sets up against Stefanos Tsitsipas, so he will want to banish that memory. There is little evidence of hard-court form beyond his win in a mediocre field last week in Melbourne, but he is Rafael Nadal and he wins tennis tournaments. At least one every year since 2004. A 6-8 record against rival top-10 players over the past 52 weeks is no great shakes, but you count out Nadal at your peril.

 

NEXTGEN OR NEXT NEW CHAMP? JANNIK SINNER

Tennis is such a generation game just now. The Big Three (Big Four, if you include Andy Murray) are in the twilight years of their careers, coming under long-awaited threat from the mid-twenties likes of Medvedev, Zverev, Dominic Thiem (absent from Australia), Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini.

Sinner is to the forefront of the pack of the next big group coming through (see also: Carlos Alcaraz, Lorenzo Musetti). At 20, the Italian is entering a big year in the context of his career. By the time Djokovic turned 20, he was sixth in the world, Federer was 14th on the day he left his teenage years behind, and Nadal was second. Progress comes at different rates.

Sinner was 15th in the rankings on his last birthday, in August, but has since dipped his toes into the top 10 and currently stands 11th. He won four ATP Tour titles in 2021, finished the year with a 49-22 record, and can reasonably be expected to kick on. The Italian has yet to majorly show up at the grand slams, with a Roland Garros quarter-final in 2020 his best run yet.

Expect that to change soon enough. Sinner is only 6-9 against top-10 players on the 52-week list, but he warmed up for the challenge that lies ahead in Melbourne with three straight-sets singles victories at the ATP Cup. His 42-14 record on hardcourts over the last year suggests the Australian Open should suit him as well as any slam.

Chicago Bulls' All-Star Zach LaVine will undergo an MRI on his left knee after limping out of the side's 138-96 loss to the Golden State Warriors.

LaVine left the court early on Friday with the Bulls suffering their worst loss of the season in his absence, days after a disappointing defeat to the Brooklyn Nets.

The Bulls are top of the Eastern Conference with a 27-13 record with LaVine averaging 25.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.

Bulls head Billy Donovan refused to be drawn on the extent of the injury but conceded the 26-year-old will miss Saturday's game against the Boston Celtics.

"I don't want to sit there and speculate that they've got more concern or not," Donovan told reporters after the game.

"I think they're just looking at it, he came down a bit funny. He's got some discomfort right now and they want to take a look. He didn’t feel like he could return."

He added: "I just don’t know until he gets an MRI. That's all it is right now. We leave tonight to go to Boston and he won't be going with us. We'll know a bit more detail tomorrow."

LaVine suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in 2017 playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

American Russell Henley holds a three-stroke lead at the halfway mark of the Sony Open in Hawaii after a seven-under-63 on Friday.

Henley, who won the Sony Open in 2013, carded an eight-under-62 on the opening day and backed that up to be 15-under and three shots ahead of second-placed Haotong Li.

Li along with third-placed Matt Kuchar and equal fourth Chris Kirk all carded rounds of five-under-65.

Kirk is one of 10 players tied for fourth alongside Seamus Power, Stewart Cink, Corey Conners, Adam Svensson, Keita Nakajima, Davis Riley, Dylan Wu, Brandt Snedeker, Payton Kizzire and 2021 Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama.

Henley's seven-under-63 was a round-best alongside Cink and Charles Howell III who both surged up the leaderboard.

The 32-year-old American had an even card on the second round before holing a bunker shot for eagle on the 18th hole, his ninth hole of the day.

Henley came home strong with four birdies and an eagle in his final six holes, including a 29-foot eagle putt. He has three PGA Tour titles across his career, the last being in 2017.

Veteran Jim Furyk dropped well off the pace after his fast start, with a two-over-round of 72 leaving him six under at halfway, while day one leader Kevin Na slipped to eight under after a round of one-over-71.

In a season when players are prone to missing time due to COVID-19 protocols, injury maintenance and routine rest, any single regular-season game rarely feels meaningful.

The Brooklyn Nets’ 138-112 thumping of the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, however, seemed to make a statement about the pecking order at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls maintain the best record in the East at 27-12, two games ahead of the Nets, but Brooklyn used a dominant second-half surge to display how astronomically high the team’s ceiling is.

Playing in front of a frenzied crowd, the Bulls matched the Nets shot-for-shot for a while, and the game was tied at 71 early in the third quarter. Brooklyn responded by tightening its grip on the defensive end of the floor and playing the last 8:29 of the quarter on a 30-8 run.

Chicago opened the fourth quarter by turning the ball over four times in five possessions, and the Brooklyn lead grew to as much as 38 before both teams removed their marquee players – a scary reminder to rest of the NBA that a juggernaut is looming in the East.

Irving makes the difference

With Kyrie Irving declining to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the Nets opened the season without him and played well with either Kevin Durant or James Harden running the show. Part of the luxury of having three of the league’s top 15 players is that one injury – or one bizarre soap opera centered around medical choices and municipal rules – doesn’t derail the season.

The Nets’ trio of All-Stars has still played only 16 games together, including the playoffs, but the early returns show that having Durant, Harden and Irving all on the court at the same time makes for a historically great offense.

The Nets’ change of heart to allow Irving to be a road-only, part-time player may have vaulted them to the top of the NBA title conversation.

With Durant, Harden and Irving on the court together, the Nets are scoring 125.4 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Utah Jazz have the NBA’s most efficient offense over the course of this entire season at 114.2 points per 100 possessions.

In all other scenarios over the past two seasons, including those when Durant and Harden play together, the Nets have operated with an offensive efficiency of 113.1 – an impressive number but one that is noticeably less than 125.4.

Nets, With/Without Kevin Durant, James Harden & Kyrie Irving On Court - Since 2020-21 (reg & post)

  With All  All Other Lineups Points/100 125.4 113.1 Opp Points/100 110.2 108.3 Point Diff/100 +15.2 +4.8 FG Pct .535 .481 Opp FG Pct .450 .449 3-Pt Pct .418 .449 Opp 3-Pt Pct .350 .347

Due to New York regulations, Irving can’t play home games for the Nets, but he is permitted to participate in most road games. After scoring 22 points in each of his first two games of the season, Irving needed just nine points in Wednesday’s blowout of the Bulls. His impact, however, is not lost on head coach Steve Nash.

“Kyrie definitely is another huge threat on the floor, whether he scores nine points or 29,” Nash told reporters. “Clearly you lose a generational talent when he’s not in the lineup.

“But there’s a level we reached (on Wednesday night) – with the purpose, the pace, the spirit, the resolve – that I thought was really important for our group to see how successful they can be when they do that.

“Even without Kyrie, can we bring that same level more often than not? If we do, we’ll get back to a top-10 defense like we were for most of the year and get back to pushing for the top spot in the East. But it’s hard work. It’s not easy, and you’ve got to do it day-in and day-out.”

Nash’s point rang true just a day later, when the Nets were beat 130-109 at home on Thursday by the Oklahoma City Thunder, albeit without Irving and Durant.

Brooklyn’s title hopes very well could come down to finding a way around the local regulations that prevent unvaccinated players like Irving from playing in New York, since the trio has already proven to be lethal.

Harden back in form

One powerful force allowing the Nets to climb toward the top of the East has been the re-emergence of Harden.

The league’s officials opened the season determined to stop rewarding offensive players for flailing and flopping in ways that aren’t natural to basketball, and some of the league’s brightest stars saw a sharp decline in free throw attempts, Harden included.

It is fair to say he has since adjusted.

Through the first 12 games of the season, Harden was averaging just 18.2 points per game and was attempting an average of just 4.7 free throws per game.

Since Nov. 12, Harden is scoring 24.8 points per game and attempting 9.8 free throws per contest.

The nine-time All-Star still isn’t shooting as efficiently as he typically does but has continued to thrive as one of the league’s best distributors. Harden’s 9.9 assists per game trail only Chris Paul’s 10.1 in the league this season. Harden is averaging 3.0 assists in both the first and third quarters, when he mostly plays with Durant and the rest of the starting unit.

His numbers will never again be as impressive as they were in Houston, where Harden was essentially a one-man offense, but he has adapted very well to playing alongside other stars and focusing a bit more on distribution – something that many critics doubted after he spent so long as the lone focal point with the Rockets.

Durant No. 1?

Durant remains the most reliable and lethal scorer in the league today, and his overall game puts him in the discussion for the best player in the world. He has played so well that it is easy to forget that he was rehabilitating from a ruptured Achilles tendon just 13 months ago.

Durant carried an incredible load in the last year’s playoffs, playing over 40 minutes per game, averaging 34.3 points and getting within a toe’s length of knocking out the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the only other player with a claim to be the best in the world right now after winning two MVPs and a championship over the past three seasons.

But Durant’s ball-handling and outside shooting make him feel like a more traditional creator of offense, and his playoff resume credentials speak for themselves after he won back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs with the Golden State Warriors.

The bench brings the right blend

Lost in the excitement over Durant, Harden and Irving playing together Wednesday in Chicago was how well the supporting cast played, even with Joe Harris, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Claxton missing the game.

Rookies Day’Ron Sharpe and Kessler Edwards were forced into starting roles and heavy minutes against the Bulls and met the challenge head-on. Sharpe was especially productive, totaling 20 points and seven rebounds in by far the best game of his young career.

The shooting of 13th-year guard Patty Mills has proven to be a crucial part of Brooklyn’s offense, and his 6-for-8 performance from behind the 3-point line against the Bulls indicates he will remain vital in the postseason.

This blend of youth and experience bodes very well for the Nets down the stretch. Sharpe, Edwards, Cameron Thomas and David Duke Jr. have all had impressive moments this season and have plenty of room to grow.

Mills, Aldridge, Harris, Blake Griffin and even Paul Millsap bring plenty of experience that will be appreciated this spring. And while at least a few of Brooklyn’s depth players will be cut from the playoff rotation, the roster appears to have the flexibility to account for unique playoff matchups.

The bottom line

While depth will play a role, the Nets will only go as far as their three stars take them this season.

The regular season will likely continue to be a roller coaster ride, full of ups and downs. Brooklyn has used 20 different starting lineups in 41 games this season, second most in the league, and that is a recipe for inconsistent results.

But this team made a statement in Wednesday’s road rout of the Bulls, showing what the whole league has feared since last season: Durant, Harden and Irving have the talent and chemistry to be one of the most potent NBA trios ever, and the Nets should be considered title favorites as long as all three can take the floor.

Erling Haaland has stated a decision on his future will be made soon, with the 21-year-old claiming Borussia Dortmund are pressuring him to make a call.

Haaland scored his 14th and 15th Bundesliga goals of 2021-22 on Friday, in a 5-1 win over Freiburg.

That victory lifted Marco Rose's Dortmund team to within three points of Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich, who are in action on Saturday.

Across 2021, only Robert Lewandowski (58) scored more than Haaland (43) in all competitions, of players in Europe's big five leagues.

Haaland has consistently been linked with a move away from Dortmund, with his agent Mino Raiola regularly flirting with Europe's elite clubs.

Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City are all said to be interested, with the forward reportedly having a €75million release clause in his contract that will activate at the end of the season.

Haaland has so far kept quiet about his next move yet, in an interview with Viaplay's reporter Jan Aage Fjortoft after Friday's match, the youngster confirmed he would soon be making a decision.

And it seemed Haaland was putting the onus back on Dortmund, claiming the club have been applying pressure on him for some time.

"The last six months I have chosen not to say anything out of respect for Dortmund, but now the club has started to press me into making a decision, but all I want to do is to play football," he said.

"But they press me to make a decision now about my future. So that means that I have to make a decision soon.

"They have started to put a lot of pressure on me, I have to accept that. I have chosen not to say anything out of respect for the club and the fans. But now a lot of pressure is coming from the club, so now is the time to get things started.

"This is what they want. It means that things will happen now. I have said from the beginning that I want to focus on football because that is when I am at my best, not when other things come to mind. So yeah, now they have put pressure for a while, it is time to get things started.

"Not now, because we are in the middle of a difficult period with a lot of games. All I want to do is to play football, but I can't do that now."

Pep Guardiola insisted consistency is the only reason for Manchester City's sizeable lead at the Premier League summit, as he hailed the "exceptional" nature of his side and their long-time rivals Liverpool.

City host Chelsea on Saturday as first take on second, though Guardiola's side currently hold a 10-point advantage, with Liverpool 11 behind in third place.

Following their 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, City are looking to secure the Premier League double over Chelsea for the fourth time, previously doing so in 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2017-18.

They have won their last 11 Premier League games, their fifth such run of 11 or more consecutive victories in the competition.

However, despite his team's healthy lead, Guardiola does not believe Chelsea or Liverpool have dropped off. Instead, he credits City with finding another level of consistency.

"The Premier League is the strongest," he told reporters. 

"We are here now because we were consistent, especially in the toughest month in December, when there were many games and how we overcame the tough situations we had in the squad, problems with injuries and COVID.

"We got results playing really good, but also not good, like against Arsenal how we were able to win. We were consistent. This is the reason why, no secrets.

"My opinion about Liverpool and Chelsea does not change one bit. They are more than excellent teams. One is the champion of Europe, the other is the biggest rival in the last two, three, four seasons.

"Football changes quickly. What you have to do is rise and increase a bit our football compared to the last two teams we've played. We'll have to do it tomorrow to compete."

Guardiola then enthused about the continued level of performance of both City and Liverpool, who have had a thrilling rivalry in recent seasons, adding: "I have to say it was because Liverpool and City were exceptional, not because the others were wrong.

"[Manchester] United were close I remember one year with [Jose] Mourinho, and last season, but we were exceptional. What Liverpool and City have done in the last four years has never been seen before in this country.

"Antonio Conte with Chelsea started a little bit in my first season here but after that Liverpool and City made a step, and I think the other opponents did well, Chelsea, United, Tottenham, but Liverpool and City were out of this world.

"I'm proud, after six years together, five years of success, that in January we are competing in every single game. That is an incredible credit to these exceptional players. My job is to put my words behind them, tell them the truth, that's what I need to continue."

Guardiola did, however, hit out at the suggestion City had been fortunate with COVID-19, something which Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk and Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel both claimed.

"It's a situation that's all around the world. We've had injuries, COVID," said Guardiola, who was one of 21 members of City's squad to miss last week's FA Cup win over Swindon Town after testing positive.

"We had a lot of people with COVID. At the beginning of the season we've had a lot of incredibly tough injuries for our players. They believe we were lucky - okay, we were lucky. The thing is the pandemic is all around the world, we are exposed to the virus, we are not the exception.

"If they believe this is the reason why... maybe. Sometimes it's the money we have, sometimes it's COVID."

Saturday's game is just the second between City and Chelsea in the Premier League in which they are the top two teams. The other such match finished 1-1 in 2015.

After beating Liverpool 4-0 in July 2020, and Chelsea 1-0 earlier this season, City are looking to become the fourth English club to win three consecutive meetings with reigning European champions in all competitions, after Notts County (1982), Tottenham Hotspur (1983-84) and Everton (1984-85).

The Africa Cup of Nations continues on Saturday with two mouthwatering games from Group D.

After 10 of the first 14 games of this year's competition finished 1-0, it was a nice change of pace that none of the four clashes on Friday did, but all four of the teams playing on Saturday would no doubt happily take a 1-0 in their favour.

Nigeria will be looking to follow up their impressive opening 1-0 win (naturally) against Egypt when they face Sudan, while Mohamed Salah and the Pharaohs will be aiming to bounce back against Guinea-Bissau.

Nigeria v Sudan

These two nations are meeting for the third time at the Africa Cup of Nations, but it will be their first encounter at the tournament for 46 years. Sudan won the first match 4-0 in the 1963 group phase, while Nigeria won 1-0 in 1976.

The Super Eagles will be looking to continue their impressive AFCON record in recent times, having won 10 of their last 12 games (L2), keeping six clean sheets.

Following a goalless draw in their opening match against Guinea-Bissau, Sudan have now managed just one win in their last 14 AFCON games (D6 L7), dating back to the 1972 tournament.

After scoring the only goal of the game against Egypt, and in his very first Africa Cup of Nations game, Leicester City's Kelechi Iheanacho could become the first Nigerian player to net in his first two AFCON appearances since Emmanuel Emenike in January 2013.       

One to watch: Samuel Chukwueze

The Villarreal winger made four key passes against Egypt, more than twice as many as anyone else in the game. The 22-year-old has two goals and an assist from 12 appearances this season in LaLiga, as well as averaging one chance created per game.

Guinea-Bissau v Egypt

This will be the first AFCON encounter between Guinea-Bissau and Egypt, but neither side come into it with anything like good form.

Guinea-Bissau remain winless in their seven matches at AFCON (D3 L4) and could become the seventh side not to win any of their first eight matches in the competition after Angola, Benin, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia and Uganda.

Egypt have lost two consecutive AFCON games for the first time since 2002. In fact, they have lost three of their last six in the competition, more than in their previous 29 combined (W21 D6 L2).

Guinea-Bissau have failed to score in five consecutive AFCON games. The only side to ever go six without scoring in the competition was Kenya in 1990.

One to watch: Mohamed Salah

Salah seems like the obvious pick but then the Liverpool star has scored 16 goals in the Premier League this season, six more than anyone else, and will no doubt want to improve on the solitary shot he managed against Nigeria.

Gabon gave themselves a great chance of making the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations thanks to Jim Allevinah's 88th-minute strike, which sealed a 1-1 draw with Ghana.

Once again shorn of talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who missed out due to "cardiac lesions" after contracting COVID-19 last week, the Panthers fought back on Friday.

Andre Ayew had lashed four-time AFCON champions Ghana ahead in the 18th minute with a powerful shot on the turn from just outside Gabon's area.

It was a brilliant effort from the Black Stars' captain, who according to Opta had only a five per cent chance of converting the opportunity, but the venom on his shot got the better of Gabon goalkeeper Jean Noel Amonome.

Yet it was the only attempt Ghana managed to get on target and they were made to pay late on when a quick free-kick caught their defence cold, with substitute Allevinah drilling in a low finish.

Ayew's angry reaction at full-time resulted in a fracas on the pitch, with the referee then showing a post-match red card to Ghana's Benjamin Tetteh, who punched a Gabon player in the face before seemingly fleeing the scene.

Gabon are on four points in Group C, with leaders Morocco now through. Ghana, meanwhile, must beat Comoros to stand a chance of progressing.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.