Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving will miss the next three NBA games due to a family matter, the team announced on Monday.

The Nets will be without Irving for their upcoming three-game road trip, which consists of matchups against the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons.

Brooklyn – second in the Eastern Conference behind the Philadelphia 76ers – are already without former MVP Kevin Durant, who has been sidelined since February 13 due to a hamstring strain.

Irving has already missed time this season – the 2016 NBA champion was sidelined for two weeks due to a personal absence in January.

The seven-time All-Star also broke the league's COVID-19 protocols, which delayed his return to the Nets line-up, with the NBA fining Irving $50,000.

Irving had to sacrifice his salary for the games he missed while quarantining, which reportedly amounted to $816,898 in addition to the fine.

He is averaging a career-high 28.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game for the star-studded Nets this season.

The 28-year-old's field-goal percentage this season (52.0) is also a career-high.

Irving ranks second for field goals made per game (10.8 – a career-high), only behind Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal (11.3).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offense 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Gronkowski confirmed he held talks with rival teams in free agency before committing to Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for another year.

Five-time Pro Bowler Gronkowski returned to the NFL last season, a year on from his retirement with the New England Patriots.

The tight end was traded to the Bucs, where he joined fellow Pats great Tom Brady for a successful title challenge.

According to reports, Gronkowski agreed to return to Tampa on the same terms as in 2020, signing a one-year, $10million pact.

But the four-time champion had earlier told The Ringer he wanted "just to see what's out there" in free agency.

As his new deal was formally announced on Monday, Gronkowski met the media and was asked about speculation he discussed a potential move to the Buffalo Bills.

"There was a little extent to that," said Gronkowski, who started all 20 regular season and playoff games last year and was targeted 91 times for 53 catches, 733 yards and nine touchdowns.

"I was a free agent, so as a free agent, you're allowed to talk to other teams. There were a couple of other teams, also.

"But just overall I wanted to be back with the Buccaneers organisation. Just the set-up here is just unbelievable. Just the chemistry that I've built over the last season is just fantastic.

"So just overall I wanted to come back to the Buccaneers.

"You know, it's football, you never know how things are going to play out. So it's just good to listen to what else is out there, and there was something to a little extent.

"I knew I wanted to be here."

The Bills were 13-3 last season, two wins better off than the Bucs, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

The Chiefs were subsequently blown away by Tampa, as Gronkowski scored two touchdowns in a dominant 31-9 win.

Of his 14 postseason scores - all of which have come from Brady passes, a playoff record - five have now come in Super Bowls.

Bucs GM Jason Licht said in a statement on Monday: "In addition to his contributions on the field, Gronk has quickly become one of the most beloved guys in our locker room.

"His ability to perform at a championship-calibre level week after week, while also uplifting everyone around him, makes him an invaluable presence in our building.

"Rob's accomplishments speak for themselves and make him one of the greatest to ever play the game at his position.

"We are thrilled to have him back with us as we pursue another title in Tampa."

Tampa have worked hard to reassemble their successful 2020 team.

Brady signed an extension, keeping him with the Bucs through 2022, while Chris Godwin was franchise-tagged and Lavonte David signed a new deal ahead of free agency.

Once the negotiating period began, Shaquil Barrett and Gronkowski also came back.

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

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

Those stars certainly were not the issue.

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

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

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke down in tears at a media conference on Monday after revealing his return to the Sweden squad has not been easy for his family.

The Milan striker was recalled by Janne Andersson for this month's World Cup qualifiers against Kosovo and Georgia, plus the friendly with Estonia, paving the way for him to potentially play at Euro 2020.

He celebrated his first call-up in nearly five years by posting a picture on Twitter of himself in a Sweden shirt with the caption: "The return of the God."

Ibrahimovic, who turns 40 in October, is Sweden's all-time leading scorer with 62 international goals, the last of those coming against Denmark in November 2015. 

Speaking at a media conference on Monday, an emotional Ibrahimovic revealed the difficulty of leaving his family to join up with the national team. 

"I had Vincent [his son] here, who was actually crying when I left him. But it's okay...," he said, before breaking off in tears.

"This takes time away from my family and it's not an easy thing. If you have two kids crying every time you leave them, it's a bit hard. I'm human, even though I'm Superman.

"They are very proud."

Ibrahimovic has impressed in Serie A this term with 15 goals in as many matches, and the ex-Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain striker believes he can still make an impact on the international stage.

"I'm just a piece of the puzzle, among many pieces. I'm here to do better, if Janne thinks I can,” he added.

"If you ask me, I'm the best in the world, but that doesn't help me much here. I've promised to decide matches, so now it's up to me!

"I'm just glad I'm here. I'm proud, I'm not demanding anything and I want nothing. I just want to contribute what I can. If Janne felt I cannot contribute or do what I have to do, then we wouldn't be here.

"As of today, I want to keep going as long as I can. I don't want to regret anything when I stop. That thought came into my head after the injury [in 2017].

"You should continue as long as you can with what you love. Football is what I want to do; that's what I love.

"I am who I am. But I'm not here to have my own show."

For a second season running, Frank Reich is turning to a quarterback he knows well.

There has been no shortage of churn in the Indianapolis Colts QB room since Reich became head coach in 2018.

Andrew Luck retired before the start of Reich's second season, having won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, Jacoby Brissett stepping into the breach only to miss out on the playoffs. That prompted a move for Philip Rivers, who worked with Reich when the pair were together at the Chargers.

But Rivers also retired after leading the Colts to an 11-5 record in 2020.

Having coaxed a relatively impressive final year out of Rivers, Reich backed himself to get a former star firing again. Indy will have Carson Wentz starting under center this year.

Wentz's performance level has badly tailed off in recent seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles, but his impressive early-career displays came when Reich was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017.

He will now head to the Colts confident he can rediscover his best form and help a team that competed last season even without significant star power, as Stats Perform data shows.

Offense

Wentz has never been better than he was under Reich.

Boosted by the experience of starting from the outset in his rookie season, Wentz was flying by the time year two rolled around. He threw 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions for a passer rating of 101.9 in 2017, earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro recognition, but a devastating knee injury kept him from playing a part in the Eagles' Super Bowl success, which came via an improbable run with backup Nick Foles.

There has been a steady decline since Reich departed following that triumph, though, and Wentz led the league in picks (15) and sacks (50) in 2020 despite playing just 12 games.

While the Colts will hope Wentz improves, they do not need the former second overall pick to be an elite QB to maintain last season's standard.

The Colts were unspectacular but comfortably in the top half of the NFL for yards per play (5.86, ranked ninth), yards per game (378.1, 10th) and net passing yards (253.3, 11th) last time out.

The Colts had the second-fewest sacks for negative yardage (19), losing only 133 yards, as the Eagles ranked worst in both regards (61 for 401 yards). Wentz will hope to prove he can perform much better when helped by a superior offensive line.

Rivers was asked only to be solid, though, as Reich preferred a run-heavy approach. Indianapolis kept 44.5 per cent of their plays on the ground last season, compared to Philadelphia's 37.8 per cent.

Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor – with 232 carries (ranking eighth) for 1,169 yards (third) and 11 rushing TDs (joint-seventh) – was relied on consistently in high-leverage situations. Malcolm Brown (28) and Dalvin Cook (27) were the only RBs in the NFL trusted more often on third down (24 carries).

Even the passing offense found a running back – in this case, Nyheim Hines (63 catches) – more often than any other individual receiver.

Defense

Where the 2020 recruitment of Rivers was a low-risk call that ultimately paid off, tiding the team over until the move for Wentz, the Colts went all-in on their big defensive signing.

Happily, that deal has so far been an even greater success.

DeForest Buckner signed a four-year, $84million contract after his trade from San Francisco, where he had been a second-team All-Pro selection and starred in the 49ers' run to the Super Bowl in 2019.

Those standards did not slip in Indianapolis as the defensive tackle led the Colts in sacks (9.5), QB hits (26) and tackles for loss (10).

Buckner's reward was a first-team All-Pro selection for the first time and he was joined in that regard by linebacker Darius Leonard (86 tackles), who is still on his rookie contract. The pair contributed to the Colts allowing the eighth-fewest total yards per game (332.1) and the second-fewest rushing yards (90.5), beaten only by champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the latter category.

They should be set to excel defending on the ground again this coming season, but the Colts might be a little more vulnerable through the air, even with Buckner's all-round talents.

Denico Autry, Justin Houston and Al-Quadin Muhammad - their leading three edge rushers, who combined for 17.5 sacks and 22 QB hits – all entered free agency, Autry signing with division rivals the Tennessee Titans.

Offseason

Free agency has been quiet thus far for Indianapolis, but for good reason.

While the Colts have more than $38m of cap space remaining, the team appear to be wisely saving money to pay Leonard, who will otherwise be an unrestricted free agent in 2022.

On the offensive line, Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith are also due a pay day.

The Colts have already looked after two of their own by bringing back cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who defensed 12 passes on his way to two interceptions and a defensive touchdown, and Marlon Mack, the running back who had eight TDs in 2019 but played only once last year before rupturing his Achilles.

If spending remains as modest as suggested, the Colts will have some gaps heading towards a draft where their first-round pick is at 21.

The potential free agency departures of wideout T.Y. Hilton and tight end Trey Burton mean Wentz's receiving corps needs reinforcements, although the second-round tender placed on Mo Alie-Cox helped in that department.

It remains to be seen what the team will do to replace their edge rushers in the wake of Autry's $21.5m deal in Tennessee.

Should the Colts fail to address that issue and leave the onus predominantly on Buckner to pressure opposing quarterbacks, Indianapolis might be back where they started and it will be down to Wentz to ensure they are competitive again.

After an unpredictable 2020 Formula One campaign ended in wholly predictable fashion, the world's best drivers are back for more in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start to last season and prompted serious surgery to the planned race calendar.

At the end of it all, though, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walked away on top of the pile.

As so often in recent years, the task for the rest of the grid this coming year is simply to stop the reigning champion and his Silver Arrow.

While that is easier said than done, of course, the signs in pre-season are promising.

Will testing preparations derail Mercedes in the opening weeks? We are about to find out, as the Bahrain opener is just days away...

 

MORE HAMILTON AND MERCEDES DOMINANCE?

Hamilton's title in 2020 was his seventh, tying Michael Schumacher's competition record. A new benchmark is on the horizon if the Briton can repeat his success.

That is not the only landmark in Hamilton's sights, either: with 95 wins and 98 pole positions – both F1 highs – he can surely look forward to a pair of century celebrations this year.

But even if this is to be another sublime season for the 36-year-old, he surely will not find it as straightforward as last year.

Hamilton shut out the noise surrounding his future to claim 11 victories in 2020, yet the new contract he belatedly signed at the end of the campaign keeps him with Mercedes only until the end of 2021.

That spells another 12 months of uncertainty for the sport's premier driver, who also does not yet appear entirely at home in the new W12 car.

The Silver Arrows recorded only 304 test laps in pre-season – the fewest of any team – and may require Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to learn on the job if they are to extend their record-breaking streak of seven straight constructors' championships.

 

WHO CAN CHALLENGE THE DEFENDING CHAMP?

Mercedes team-mate Bottas has finished second to Hamilton in the past two seasons, but it would be a tough ask to expect him to outperform the 'GOAT' in the same car – even before considering potential issues with that machine.

No, if Hamilton is to be dethroned, Red Bull look the best bet.

Max Verstappen is undoubtedly the chief threat at the Austrian outfit, having qualified ahead of his team-mates on 36 of 38 occasions since Daniel Ricciardo departed (including a 17-0 record against Alex Albon in 2020).

Indeed, Verstappen – third last year – had the fastest lap time in testing, his effort of a minute and 28.960 seconds in Bahrain putting Red Bull on top in pre-season for the first time.

The Dutchman is pessimistic, though, saying: "[Testing] doesn't say anything about pure performance.

"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites. How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"

Ferrari can never be counted out, but they are starting a season with two drivers yet to win a world championship (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz) for the first time since 2007, when Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen lined up for the Scuderia. Of course, that year ended with Raikkonen being crowned champion.

 

ELSEWHERE...

There is no shortage of intrigue away from the top teams, with two big names returning to F1 – albeit only one of the two drivers having previously raced at this level.

Former champion Fernando Alonso is back, joining the rebranded Alpine team, formerly Renault – where the Spaniard won two titles.

Alonso's most recent race win came in Ferrari colours at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, since when he has gone 110 events without victory.

If Alpine can be competitive and Alonso belatedly returns to the top step of the podium later in the season, he could break Raikkonen's record of 114 grands prix between triumphs (2013 to 2018).

The 39-year-old needs only three podiums to reach 100 in F1.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Schumacher is the familiar name but new face at Haas, forming an all-rookie line-up alongside Nikita Mazepin, his F2 title rival last year.

Schumacher, who won that championship, will debut at Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final race in Brazil in 2012.

Michael was also 22 when he made his F1 bow, although Mick will be seven months and 16 days younger.

Ricciardo has joined McLaren, who are 12 podiums shy of 500, and Aston Martin are back for the first time since 1960, replacing Racing Point and bringing in Sebastian Vettel.

Meanwhile, there will be increased attention paid to Williams' George Russell, who impressed when given a chance with Mercedes at Sakhir 2020, qualifying second and finishing ninth.

Didier Deschamps believes Ousmane Dembele can still become a more consistent contributor after recalling the forward for the start of France's World Cup qualifying campaign. 

Dembele has not played an international game since November 2018, when he came on as a substitute in a 2-0 Nations League defeat to the Netherlands. 

However, his form this season for Barcelona has led to the 23-year-old being included in Les Bleus’ squad for games against Group D rivals Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Bosnia-Herzegovina 

Deschamps handed the player his full debut back in September 2016 and, after injuries wiped out the vast majority of the 2019-20 season, is pleased to see Dembele back performing again. 

Still, the France boss sees further room for improvement, pinpointing the need to have an even greater impact on games.

"He is a player who showed his qualities very early. He is still young," Deschamps told the media on Monday. 

"If we haven't seen him for a while, it's because he's not been spared from injuries. By the time he recovered he was injured again. 

"Now he is able to play again, he is able to make the difference and score goals. He could score more and be more effective. 

"It is not a question of changing him. He has been playing at the highest level for a long time. He is young. It would be good for him, for his club and for us if he could become more efficient.  

"Of course, this is something that needs to be worked on. As you mature, you may make better choices. All forwards have moments when they are less efficient than others."

Dembele has scored nine goals and provided four assists for Barca in all competitions this season, his fourth at Camp Nou.  

His tally of 78 shots is already his highest for a campaign since arriving from Borussia Dortmund, with his conversion rate sitting at 11.54 per cent.   

He barely featured last term but was more clinical in 2018-19, when he had 14 goals and eight assists in 42 appearances. That season, he converted shots at a rate of 20.29 per cent, with 45.45 per cent success from 'big chances', where Opta expects a player to score.  

Dembele has had 15 'big chances' and created a further seven under Ronald Koeman for Barca, who made it five wins on the spin in LaLiga at the weekend with a 6-1 thrashing of Real Sociedad, in which the Frenchman one of the goals.  

"Ousmane has and always had this ability to create chances and make the difference. He is not always decisive in the area. That's where it's most difficult," Deschamps continued.  

"The important thing is his ability to make the difference.  Yes, he can be more consistent from the beginning to the end of the game. 

"I'm not saying he can't progress or improve. I prefer to look at the qualities anyway. They all have little flaws that can be erased with time.   

"Sometimes they don't, but that doesn't stop them from being good. We are talking about a player who has been at the top level for several years and he is still very young."

Andrea Pirlo must not let the disappointment of Juventus' shock defeat to Benevento linger for too long, Italy head coach Roberto Mancini has warned. 

The rookie Juve boss saw his team waste a chance to reduce Inter's advantage over them at the Serie A summit to seven points, with Adolfo Gaich sealing a 1-0 triumph for Filippo Inzaghi's side. 

Questions over Pirlo's leadership have already been asked and will persist, as the prospect of a 10th successive Scudetto disappears almost over the horizon.

It would take an Inter implosion and for Juventus to suddenly become infallible for the Bianconeri to catch the Nerazzurri. Neither prospect looks likely.

Mancini understands the pressure Pirlo is under and advised him to adopt a positive mindset to overcome his difficulties. 

"It is a delicate moment for him, but it is the life of all the coaches," he told a media conference. 

"The frustration must last as little as possible, then you have to think positively knowing that this happens in football. 

"He is young and he has started [his managerial career] in a big club. He has a bit of difficulty but he has begun a path."

Mancini was speaking ahead of Italy's World Cup qualifying campaign, which kicks off at home to Northern Ireland on Thursday before visits to Bulgaria and Lithuania in Group C. 

Federico Chiesa is expected to play an important role for the Azzurri after his impressive season for Juventus. 

The 23-year-old has scored six league goals for the club since arriving on loan from Fiorentina in October, while only Alvaro Morata has made more assists (eight) than his six. 

He has also created three more chances (38) for his team-mates than any other Juve player in the top-flight this season. 

"I am happy because in the last two months he has improved a lot, but he can still improve more," Mancini said. 

"He still has room to improve and become a player capable of scoring plenty of goals and providing plenty of assists."

Mancini will be joined in the dugout by Daniele De Rossi, who recently joined Italy as a technical coach. 

De Rossi, who earned 117 caps for the Azzurri and won the 2006 World Cup, retired from playing in January last year after a brief stint with Boca Juniors in Argentina.

The 37-year-old made 616 appearances in a distinguished career with Roma and Mancini expects his experience to be invaluable.

"We talked about it some time ago, when he stopped and then decided to go to Boca," Mancini said. 

"We needed a person who could help us on the pitch, given the many commitments, and we made this decision. 

"He was an important player for the national team, a world champion. He needs to gain experience because he wants to be a coach. I think it was the right choice."

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

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

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

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

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

RUNNING HOT...

Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns

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

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

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

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

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

Luka Doncic

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

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

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

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

Joe Ingles

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

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

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

GOING COLD...

Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk

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

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

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

Stephen Curry

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

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

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

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

Trae Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spurs bounce back from European nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

Hammers give Arsenal a helping hand

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

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

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

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

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

There is nothing boring about them these days. 

Leeds return to Yorkshire with capital gains

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

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

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

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

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

Magpies' rotten run against Brighton continues

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

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

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

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

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

Pune will be the venue as England round out their tour to India with a three-match one-day series, starting on Tuesday. 

While the Test leg of the trip was won convincingly by the hosts, the two nations played out a high-quality Twenty20 battle that saw India rally from 2-1 down to prevail 3-2 in a decider.

Virat Kohli opened the innings in Saturday's fifth and final T20 fixture, but the India captain has confirmed he will be moving back down the order now the focus switches over quickly to the 50-over format.

"As far as the opening combination is concerned, Shikhar (Dhawan) and Rohit (Sharma) will definitely start. They have been amazing for us in the past few years," Kohli said ahead of the series. 

England used only 12 players during the T20 games, a decision taken with the focus on gaining experience in Indian conditions ahead of the World Cup in the same country later this year. 

However, white-ball skipper Eoin Morgan revealed the tourists will use the one-day fixtures to take a look at those players who have not featured too much on the trip so far. 

"Throughout the one-day series, we will see guys given opportunities, more so than we did in the T20 series," Morgan told the media. 

"It's going to be exciting, playing three games at the same ground against a very, very strong India side is a huge opportunity for everybody to go out there and get back into the frame of mind and the pace of 50-over cricket, but also for guys who haven't had an opportunity to really put their case forward. 

"Given there is a (T20) World Cup around the corner, playing any international cricket at all is a huge opportunity for guys who have been here, on the fringes, and not made selection so far."

Jofra Archer will not be involved after returning home for treatment on a persistent elbow injury, while Joe Root and Chris Woakes – two key players in the side that secured World Cup glory on home soil in 2019 – are not involved, England choosing to rest and rotate amid a hectic schedule while staying in bio-secure bubbles. 

Moeen Ali, Sam Billings and Liam Livingstone provide options to come into a batting order that will see Root missing from his usual position at number three. As for the bowling, leg-spinner Matt Parkinson will hope for a chance to impress, while Reece Topley could be the one to benefit the most from Archer's absence.

Jasprit Bumrah is a notable absentee from an India squad that does include Suryakumar Yadav - an exciting batsman yet to make his ODI debut - and left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav.  


Kohli close to matching Tendulkar

Having finished as leading run-scorer in the T20 series, Kohli is one away from equalling the record for most centuries for India in one-day cricket, the great Sachin Tendulkar sitting top of the pile with 20. The India captain is also one three-figure score shy of posting the joint-most hundreds for India in 50-games against England, as he stands on the brink of matching Yuvraj Singh's tally of four.

England aim to keep streak alive

England have put together a run of three successive victories versus India in the one-day format; another triumph in the opener on Tuesday would see them equal their longest winning streak against their opponents in the format (four in a row was achieved in games between 1974 and 1981).

Key series facts

- India are set to face off against England for the first time in an ODI since losing a Cricket World Cup group game by a margin of 31 runs against the eventual champions, back in June 2019.

- The hosts have been involved in only one completed ODI against England at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune, beating them by three wickets there in January 2017.

- Both sides have only managed to win 50 per cent of their completed one-day games since the end of the Cricket World Cup. India have recorded seven victories, while their opponents have four wins across the same time period.

- Virat Kohli has registered 30 ODI knocks versus England, with his highest score against them in the format coming in Pune, posting 122 off 105 balls there in January 2017.

- Bhuvneshwar Kumar managed to get Jos Buttler out on three occasions during the T20 series, the most instances of any bowler dismissing a batsman across those five fixtures (conceding just 26 runs).

Jamie Maclaren and Nathaniel Atkinson were on target as Melbourne City chalked up a fifth straight win with a 2-0 victory over A-League leaders Central Coast Mariners. 

The Mariners staged a thrilling comeback from two goals down to defeat the same opponents 3-2 the last time these sides met in February, but a resurgent City made no such mistake in rainy conditions this time. 

Maclaren opened the scoring with his eighth goal in his past five appearances, coolly slotting into the right-hand side of the goal from Florin Berenguer's tee-up at AAMI Park. 

That was the in-form striker's eighth goal in his past four matches against the Mariners, and only the form of visiting goalkeeper Mark Birighitti denied Adrian Luna and then Maclaren from extending City's lead.

Atkinson's second A-League goal put City in command after 56 minutes, the full-back finishing from a tight angle after Andrew Nabbout's original shot deflected into his path. 

Maclaren had another great opportunity to extend the lead but his point-blank header was saved by Birighitti.  

City are now fourth in the standings, only four points back of the Mariners with two games in hand on their table-topping opponents.

Steve Nash is concerned by the amount of minutes James Harden is playing for the Brooklyn Nets but says it is difficult to limit his game time due to the way he lifts his team-mates. 

The Nets rebounded from a surprise defeat to the Orlando Magic with a 113-106 triumph over the Washington Wizards, Harden putting up 26 points, eight assists and five rebounds as Blake Griffin made his Brooklyn debut. 

Harden was on court for 39 minutes, the most for any Nets player. Prior to Sunday's win, the former Houston Rockets star had featured for 40-plus minutes in four of the franchise's previous eights outings either side of the All-Star break. 

This season, Harden is averaging the most minutes in the NBA with 37.9, with Julius Randle of the New York Knicks next on 37. 

Asked about Harden's time spent on court, head coach Nash said: "I'm concerned about the minutes.  

"I'm not sure what the answer is, though. He controls the game. He hasn't shot the ball well since the [All-Star] break, but he made three threes tonight.  

"He gets to the line. He makes assists, rebounds, steals. He's great around the basket. He had another great performance even if it wasn't necessarily a typical Harden game.  

"So it's hard to take him off the floor because he makes his team-mates better."

The Nets trailed by as many as 14 points during the first quarter and were down by five at the end of the period, yet Harden scored the opening nine points of the second as Brooklyn seized a lead they would never relinquish. 

There was a scary moment towards the end of the first half where Harden appeared to hurt his neck during a collision with Garrison Mathews. 

Harden insisted after the game he was fine following the incident. 

"I got hit in the jaw. My neck kind of twitched. I'll be all right. It's nothing. Get some treatment on it, get some rest and be ready to go the next game," Harden said. 

The Nets now hit the road for three successive games and Harden urged the team never to look beyond the next opponent. 

"I think every game is a test for us. We're not allowed to take anyone lightly. We don't have the luxury of that," he added.  

"We saw that last game. Every night we prepare for our opponent to the best of our ability, and the coaches do a really good job of that to prepare us, and we go out there and try to execute.  

"Our next opponent is Portland, who have been playing pretty well. We've just got to take it one game at a time, and that's the most important thing.  

"We can't look further down the line. I think if we have that mindset – one game at a time, one possession at a time – good things happen for us."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.