LaLiga is arguably harder to call than ever before heading into 2021-22 – Barcelona no longer have Lionel Messi to guide the way and Real Madrid have seen significant upheaval, so surely the smart money is on defending champions Atletico Madrid?

Diego Simeone's men won the title in 2020-21 after watching Barca and Madrid trade success for seven years and look in good shape given they've not lost any major players. But can you really write off the 'big two'?

Well, you shouldn't, according to Stats Perform predictions.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Without further ado, let's look at what could occur over the 2021-22 LaLiga season.

 

ANCELOTTI DELIVERS THE GOODS

Carlo Ancelotti's back at the Santiago Bernabeu, and so – it seems – will the Spanish title. The Stats Perform model calculates Madrid have a 42.3 per cent chance of taking the crown back from their local rivals.

In fact, if the model proves accurate, Atletico may not even finish in the top two, as their 18.7 per cent chance is a fair bit smaller than Barca's 30.4 per cent likelihood of winning LaLiga.

However, it's worth pointing out that, because the model is based on historical data points and results, the Barcelona that appears here is one that has had Messi in the team for past 17 years.

It's entirely reasonable to expect Barca to see a significant drop-off given they'll no longer have the greatest player of all time on their books – as such, a 30.4 per cent chance of winning the title might actually be quite generous.

THE BIG FOUR?

The 2020-21 season was the tightest LaLiga title fight in recent memory. Although Atletico were 11 points clear at one point, with five matches left there were just three points separating first from fourth.

In that respect, it was the closest title race LaLiga had ever seen in a 20-team campaign (1987-1995, 1997-present) and the least predictable since 2006-07, when Madrid, Barca and Sevilla could all win the league on the final day of the season.

Sevilla's challenge ultimately faded before that stage in 2020-21 but they've managed to keep Julen Lopetegui, their coach, and their squad is largely unaltered for the time being.

The prediction model makes them fourth favourites for the title (6.8 per cent) and far better placed to take the final Champions League spot (69.4 per cent) for the third year in a row than their likeliest challengers Villarreal (36.2 per cent).

There was a 15-point gap between fourth and fifth last season – this is the closest to a 'big four' Spain has had in years.

 

FOUR TIPPED FOR RELEGATION TUSSLE

Rayo Vallecano, Real Mallorca and Espanyol were the three to come up from the Segunda last season. While most people would ordinarily point to the promoted sides as the most likely to be relegated, the prediction model disagrees.

It gives Mallorca a 30.7 per cent likelihood of going straight back down, and Espanyol are at 17.6 per cent – neither of those are among the bottom three, though Rayo (45.9 per cent) are seen as the second favourites to head back to the second tier.

But it's Elche (57.9 per cent) who are the clear front-runners in this regard, and then it looks agonisingly close for the third and final relegation spot.

According to the predictor, it's likely to be neck-and-neck between Deportivo Alaves (41.1 per cent) and Cadiz (41.9 per cent).

Bayern Munich are entering a new era under Julian Nagelsmann, but it looks unlikely much will change when it comes to their dominance of the Bundesliga in 2021-22.

It could be another good season for Wolfsburg, but things are not looking too good for Greuther Furth, according to Stats Perform predictions.

The Stats Perform League Prediction Model, created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, has analysed the division ahead of the new season to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results, with weighting based on recency and the quality of opposition. The season is then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Let's see what we can (likely) expect from the new Bundesliga season...

 

NO STOPPING NAGELSMANN

It looks like Nagelsmann's first season at the Allianz Arena is set to be a positive one. The predictor model gives Bayern a huge 84.3 per cent chance of winning the title for the 10th time in a row.

With the loss of David Alaba mitigated by the signing of Dayot Upamecano, there is little reason to doubt Bayern's credentials even as their new coach gets to grip with the job. Indeed, they are given just a 0.1 per cent chance of failing to qualify for the Champions League, while the likelihood of relegation stands at a big, fat zero.

Borussia Dortmund might have lost Jadon Sancho but they are still expected to be Bayern's biggest challengers, the Stats Perform model giving them an 11.7 per cent chance of a first title since 2012. RB Leipzig, third last term, have just a 2.9 per cent chance of finishing first, while Wolfsburg are fourth-favourites at a lowly 0.6 per cent. At least their chances of a Champions League spot stand at a strong 49.6 per cent.

TOP-FOUR TENSION

Last term's top four look likely to repeat their league positions, but don't discount Eintracht Frankfurt from a surprise Champions League place – they're given a 30.8 per cent chance of qualifying for Europe's top tournament.

Similarly, Bayer Leverkusen have just under a one-in-four chance of a top-four spot, with Borussia Monchengladbach at 14.7 per cent – slightly above their likelihood of a Europa League place.

 

BOCHUM OF THE PILE

Bochum won the second-tier title last term to return to the Bundesliga for the first time in 11 years. Their stay is not expected to be a long one, however: the Stats Perform model gives them a 54.8 per cent chance of being relegated in 2021-22.

Still, it could be worse. Greuther Furth are the favourites for the drop at 59.7 per cent, with a 15.8 per cent of finishing the season in the relegation play-off spot.

Cologne (27 per cent) and Augsburg (25.8 per cent) are the other favourites for the drop, while all four sides are given 18th out of 18 as their lowest probable finish.

Arminia Bielefeld fans should not feel too comfortable, either, given their side have a 19 per cent chance of going down.

Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes tied a major league record with 10 consecutive strikeouts as he finished with 15 K's in their 10-0 win over the Chicago Cubs in the MLS on Wednesday.

Burnes dominated for the Brewers on the mound, tossing 15 strikeouts across eight innings, only allowing four hits, completely blanketing the Cubs from the second to fifth innings.

After a 7-0 first inning for the Brewers, the 26-year-old right-hander came into his own starting in the second inning when he got his first strikeout of the game to Frank Schwindel.

Burnes' run kept on going, reaching a franchise-record eight straight strikeouts with a 97mph pitch to Willson Contreras in the fourth.

He added another to Ian Happ and rounded it out in the fifth by striking out Schwindel again to complete 10 straight.

Burnes joins Tom Seaver and Aaron Nola in MLB’s record books, with the latter also achieving the consecutive feat this season on June 25 against the New York Mets.

The records did not stop there, with the 15 strikeouts being a career-high for Burnes. That was the most K's without a walk in Brewers history and also the biggest Milwaukee shutout win in franchise history.

 

Ohtani ends home-run drought

Two-way Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani ended his 14-game home-run drought with a two-run homer in his side's 10-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. The home run was Ohtani's 38th of the season.

Ohtani's form had dipped since the All-Star break, managing only five home runs in 81 at-bats, with no RBI since July 31 until Wednesday's return.

Evergreen Adam Wainwright threw a shutout in a 4-0 win for the St Louis Cardinals over the Pittsburgh Pirates, pitching all nine innings, allowing only two hits with seven strikeouts.

To add to Wainwright's perfect game, he also had an RBI of his own. It was his 11th shutout of his career and first since 2016.

Ozzie Albies hit a walk-off homer to lift the Atlanta Braves into equal first as they triumphed 8-6 over the Cincinnati Reds, after blowing a 5-0 lead.

Trailing 3-2, Elvis Andrus and Jed Lowrie hit eighth-inning home runs to lift the Oakland Athletics to a 6-3 win over the Cleveland Indians.

 

Rays nightmare as Randy misses fly-ball

It was a bad game for the Tampa Bay Rays who lost 20-8 to the Boston Red Sox, with starting pitcher Josh Fleming conceding 11 hits and 10 earned runs into the fourth inning before being pulled. In that context, the Rays did not need right-fielder Randy Arozarena to fluff a routine fly-ball catch, allowing three more runs in the fifth inning to trail 14-0.

 

Miggy moves up to 499

With scores locked at 0-0 in the fifth inning, up stepped Miguel Cabrera to nail a home run over center-field. The homer not only broke the deadlock in the Detroit Tigers' 5-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles but it took Cabrera's career home-run tally up to 499, one away from joining an illustrious club, alongside 27 others.

 

Wednesday's results 

Minnesota Twins 1-0 Chicago White Sox
Houston Astros 5-1 Colorado Rockies
New York Yankees 5-2 Kansas City Royals
Miami Marlins 7-0 San Diego Padres
Los Angeles Dodgers 8-2 Philadelphia Phillies
Detroit Tigers 5-2 Baltimore Orioles
St Louis Cardinals 4-0 Pittsburgh Pirates
Boston Red Sox 20-8 Tampa Bay Rays
Oakland Athletics 6-3 Cleveland Indians
Atlanta Braves 8-6 Cincinnati Reds
Milwaukee Brewers 10-0 Chicago Cubs
Toronto Blue Jays 10-2 Los Angeles Angels
San Francisco Giants 7-2 Arizona Diamondbacks
Seattle Mariners 2-1 Texas Rangers
New York Mets - Washington Nationals (suspended)

 

Tigers at Orioles

Tigers manager A.J. Hinch has declared Cabrera will play in Thursday's series-finale against the Orioles, with the 500 home run milestone on the cards.

Romelu Lukaku's final kick of his first spell at Chelsea came in a Super Cup.

On August 30, 2013, the Belgian – then 20, still young, albeit one with the physical stature of a player much further on in his career – missed the decisive penalty as Chelsea became the first team to lose successive Super Cup fixtures, going down in a shoot-out to Bayern Munich.

Not long after that game, Lukaku headed to Everton, initially on a loan deal before he made a permanent move to Goodison Park a year later. A return to Chelsea, however, has always seemed a possibility for the striker who stormed onto the scene with Anderlecht in his teens.

Whereas a Super Cup marked the end of his first spell in London, Wednesday's meeting with Villarreal showed just why the Blues are set to break their transfer record to sign the 28-year-old, who arrives back at the club a Serie A winner and one of Europe's leading forwards.

This time, Lukaku watched on from afar as Chelsea, defeated on penalties by Liverpool in the 2019 edition, clinched victory in the shoot-out after a 1-1 draw in Belfast – Kepa Arrizabalaga coming on to be the hero.

 

ROM THE REMEDY

It seems wrong to be too critical of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea, given their remarkable success in his short time at the club. They went unbeaten in their first 14 games under the German, secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and, of course, won the Champions League.

Yet from Tuchel's appointment until the end of last season, Chelsea scored only 38 goals in all competitions.

The chances were being created - it would be difficult for players such as Mason Mount, who crafted the second-most opportunities in the Premier League last season, Hakim Ziyech, who opened the scoring in Belfast before going off injured, Christian Pulisic and Champions League final goalscorer Kai Havertz not to fashion their fair share.

Much was made of Timo Werner's first season at the club too, as the former RB Leipzig forward fluffed his lines time after time. He finished with six league goals but from 79 attempts, registering a shot conversion rate of just 7.59 per cent, while he only netted five of the 23 'big' chances, as defined by Opta, that came his way.

Up until the 27th minute at Windsor Park, when Ziyech tucked in from Havertz's centre, it was all Chelsea, but the same issues which had plagued their frontline last season were present once more.

In the sixth minute, Marcos Alonso's brilliant cross caught Werner on his heels. It would have been a gift for Lukaku. Werner forced a great save from the resulting corner, though that was the only shot he managed in his 65 minutes on the field.

More issues came after Ziyech's opener, as Chelsea (who had 67.9 per cent possession before the break) failed to add to their lead and let Villarreal – who levelled through Gerard Moreno – claim control.

Lukaku's imminent arrival, however, should ensure this profligacy, demonstrated again by Pulisic's 100th-minute miss from close range, is not repeated throughout the coming campaign.

Chelsea ended the game against Villarreal with 20 attempts, of which seven were on target. Had Lukaku's signing come in time, it is hard to imagine penalties would have been required at all to decide the outcome.

KEPA THE HERO

While Chelsea's forwards toiled, it was forgotten man Kepa who came on to be the difference.

In the 119th minute, Edouard Mendy made way for the former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper – just over 17 minutes after that change, Kepa dived low to his right to keep out Raul Albiol's weak effort and ensure the Champions League holders have now lifted the Super Cup in eight of the past nine seasons.

It was a brave call by Tuchel, who follows in the footsteps of compatriots Jurgen Klopp and Hansi Flick in winning the Super Cup – German coaches having triumphed in the last three editions.

With Lukaku soon to be back on board, it could – and perhaps should – be the first trophy of many for the Blues this term.

For now, though, this was just a nice story for Kepa, the keeper who once refused to be taken off in a cup final had come on late to help decide the outcome in his team's favour.

Romelu Lukaku's final kick of his first spell at Chelsea came in a Super Cup.

On August 30, 2013, the Belgian – then 20, still young, albeit one with the physical stature of a player much further on in his career – missed the decisive penalty as Chelsea became the first team to lose successive Super Cup fixtures, going down in a shoot-out to Bayern Munich.

Not long after that game, Lukaku headed to Everton, initially on a loan deal before he made a permanent move to Goodison Park a year later. A return to Chelsea, however, has always seemed a possibility for the striker who stormed onto the scene with Anderlecht in his teens.

Whereas a Super Cup marked the end of his first spell in London, Wednesday's meeting with Villarreal showed just why the Blues are set to break their transfer record to sign the 28-year-old, who arrives back at the club a Serie A winner and one of Europe's leading forwards.

This time, Lukaku watched on from afar as Chelsea, defeated on penalties by Liverpool in the 2019 edition, clinched victory in the shoot-out after a 1-1 draw in Belfast – Kepa Arrizabalaga coming on to be the hero.

 

ROM THE REMEDY

It seems wrong to be too critical of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea, given their remarkable success in his short time at the club. They went unbeaten in their first 14 games under the German, secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and, of course, won the Champions League.

Yet from Tuchel's appointment until the end of last season, Chelsea scored only 38 goals in all competitions.

The chances were being created - it would be difficult for players such as Mason Mount, who crafted the second-most opportunities in the Premier League last season, Hakim Ziyech, who opened the scoring in Belfast before going off injured, Christian Pulisic and Champions League final goalscorer Kai Havertz not to fashion their fair share.

Much was made of Timo Werner's first season at the club too, as the former RB Leipzig forward fluffed his lines time after time. He finished with six league goals but from 79 attempts, registering a shot conversion rate of just 7.59 per cent, while he only netted five of the 23 'big' chances, as defined by Opta, that came his way.

Up until the 27th minute at Windsor Park, when Ziyech tucked in from Havertz's centre, it was all Chelsea, but the same issues which had plagued their frontline last season were present once more.

In the sixth minute, Marcos Alonso's brilliant cross caught Werner on his heels. It would have been a gift for Lukaku. Werner forced a great save from the resulting corner, though that was the only shot he managed in his 65 minutes on the field.

More issues came after Ziyech's opener, as Chelsea (who had 67.9 per cent possession before the break) failed to add to their lead and let Villarreal – who levelled through Gerard Moreno – claim control.

Lukaku's imminent arrival, however, should ensure this profligacy, demonstrated again by Pulisic's 100th-minute miss from close range, is not repeated throughout the coming campaign.

Chelsea ended the game against Villarreal with 20 attempts, of which seven were on target. Had Lukaku's signing come in time, it is hard to imagine penalties would have been required at all to decide the outcome.

KEPA THE HERO

While Chelsea's forwards toiled, it was forgotten man Kepa who came on to be the difference.

In the 119th minute, Edouard Mendy made way for the former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper – just over 17 minutes after that change, Kepa dived low to his right to keep out Raul Albiol's weak effort and ensure the Champions League holders have now lifted the Super Cup in eight of the past nine seasons.

It was a brave call by Tuchel, who follows in the footsteps of compatriots Jurgen Klopp and Hansi Flick in winning the Super Cup – German coaches having triumphed in the last three editions.

With Lukaku soon to be back on board, it could – and perhaps should – be the first trophy of many for the Blues this term.

For now, though, this was just a nice story for Kepa, the keeper who once refused to be taken off in a cup final had come on late to help decide the outcome in his team's favour.

Thomas Tuchel explained his extra-time goalkeeper substitution was based on statistical data, not spontaneity, with Kepa Arrizabalaga making two shoot-out saves to win the Super Cup for Chelsea.

Gerard Moreno's second-half strike cancelled out Hakim Ziyech's opener at Windsor Park and, with penalties looming, Tuchel sent on Kepa for Edouard Mendy in the closing minutes.

The Spain goalkeeper denied both Aissa Mandi and Raul Albiol in the shoot-out, ensuring a 6-5 penalties win for Chelsea after a 1-1 draw to secure their second Super Cup.

Speaking to BT Sport after the game, Tuchel explained his decision to bring on Kepa was pre-discussed and based on data introduced to him by his analysts and goalkeeping coaches.

"It was not spontaneous," Tuchel responded when asked about the extra-time change. "We talked about it with the goalkeepers after the first cup game against Barnsley. We had some statistics. We were well prepared."

"Kepa has the best percentage at saving penalties. We spoke to the players that this could happen when we play in knockout games. It's fantastic how Edouard [Mendy] accepted it.

"There is proof that Kepa is better in this discipline. They're team players. Edouard does not show the pride to not step off the field. He was happy to do it for the team and take this for the team."

It was a strange reversal of roles for the former Athletic Bilbao man – the world's most expensive goalkeeper – who in the 2019 EFL Cup final refused to go off when then-Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri attempted to bring on Willy Caballero. Chelsea went on to lose on penalties to Manchester City.

However, Kepa's heroics in Belfast banished any potential Super Cup demons for Chelsea, who picked up their first triumph since 1998, having lost to Atletico Madrid in 2012 and suffered shoot-out heartbreak against both Bayern Munich and Liverpool in 2013 and 2019.

Wednesday's win also ensured Tuchel, the third German coach in a row to lift the Super Cup after Jurgen Klopp and Hansi Flick, maintained his perfect record against Spanish opposition, winning four and drawing five of nine games.

It was not all good news after Chelsea's win, however, with Hakim Ziyech's shoulder injury marring another memorable European outing for Tuchel's men.

Ziyech did return to the stands in the second half with his arm in a sling, though Tuchel conceded "if you take a player out during the first half it's serious."

Chelsea will await news on the extent of Ziyech's injury while their attention now turns to hosting Crystal Palace in their Premier League opener on Saturday.

Kepa Arrizabalaga was the hero as Chelsea secured their first Super Cup triumph since 1998, running out 6-5 winners in a penalty shoot-out against Villarreal following a 1-1 draw in Belfast.

Hakim Ziyech opened the scoring after good work down the left flank from Kai Havertz before the former Ajax man's shoulder injury marred an entertaining first half.

Alberto Moreno and Gerard Moreno both hit the woodwork either side of half-time, though the latter restored parity with a fine finish to send the final to extra time.

Kepa, who was brought on in the closing minutes solely for penalties, denied both Aissa Mandi and Raul Albiol to make sure Chelsea came out on top.

The Champions League holders had started proceedings impressively too, Timo Werner forcing the first save as Sergio Asenjo had to react quickly to parry away a close-range effort from Havertz's inswinging corner.

Asenjo, though, was no match for Ziyech's sweeping finish after Havertz found space on the left and drilled towards his team-mate near the penalty spot.

Ziyech's injury, suffered while defending a set-piece situation, offered Thomas Tuchel a reason to be concerned, with Alberto Moreno then smashing an effort onto the crossbar.

Gerard Moreno was also denied in similar circumstances after the break, capitalising on Edouard Mendy's wayward clearance before seeing his low strike smack the post.

However, the Villarreal forward quickly made amends, exchanging a one-two with Boulaye Dia before lifting over Mendy for his 23rd goal of 2021, ranking him fifth across Europe's top-five leagues.

Both Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount could not find extra-time winners and, with a shoot-out in sight, Tuchel sent on Kepa.

Opposite number Asenjo drew first blood with a stop against Havertz, but that advantage faded away when Kepa saved for the first time.

With no further misses between the other eight takers, sudden death kicks were necessary. After Antonio Rudiger rolled in his attempt, Kepa guessed the right way to deny Villarreal captain Albiol.

Opportunism was the name of the game for Atletico Madrid in 2020-21 and, ultimately, it led them all the way to the title.

First, they pounced on the opportunity to sign Luis Suarez, then Diego Simeone's squad enjoyed a commanding start to the season that left their rivals playing catch-up.

Lionel Messi's situation at Barcelona contributed to the Blaugrana being slow out of the blocks, and although Atletico almost contrived to throw it all away in the latter stages of the season, they proved their resilience in seeing it out.

While opportunism led to success then, this season Atletico arguably find themselves on the cusp of a new, dominant era. Barca are in an even greater mess than 12 months ago and no longer have Messi to bail them out, while Madrid's only major signing has been David Alaba – in contrast, they have lost Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane is Manchester bound too. Add Zinedine Zidane's departure to that and it is very much a picture of transition at the newly refurbed Santiago Bernabeu.

Atletico, meanwhile, have not lost any key players and have even improved their midfield options with the signing of Rodrigo De Paul. It was not so long ago that Simeone's future seemed uncertain, but the past year has brought out a new side in him and that's helped Los Colchoneros reign in Spain.

Flexible Simeone turns over a new leaf

Throughout Simeone's time in charge of Atletico, there has been a common theme – you can either call it consistency or inflexibility, but it essentially depends on whether you are a critic or a fan.

However, it is difficult to say he was inflexible last season by any stretch of the imagination. Now, whether that was decisive in their title triumph is impossible to say, yet it does show Simeone is perhaps not the one-trick pony some insist he is.

For much of his decade at the helm, Simeone has almost religiously set his teams up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, or at least something not too dissimilar. A back four has been the cornerstone of his systems. According to Opta data, he only ever started a match with a back three or five six times before 2020-21.

Yet, in the championship-winning campaign, Atletico lined up with a back three or five in 23 of their 38 LaLiga matches. Simeone had amassed a group of players with wide-ranging skillsets that aided versatility, and he truly embraced that.

Yannick Carrasco's work-rate saw him turned into a wing-back; Kieran Trippier's arguably suspect defensive capabilities became less of a concern because he was stationed further up the pitch. In attack, Luis Suarez and whoever partnered him – usually Joao Felix or Angel Correa – offered unpredictable movement that often saw them push out wide to create space for Marcos Llorente to run into.

 

Of course, that didn't occur all the time, but it is notable how all 12 of Llorente's goals came from either positions in the box or central positions just outside the area despite a lot of his work coming down the right flank in tandem with Trippier.

This flexibility in the final third also seemed to contribute to their effectiveness off the ball. Their 43 shot-ending high turnovers was bettered by only Barcelona and Eibar, though that figure equated to 15.3 per cent of their total high turnovers (281).

That percentage was better than both of those teams above them in the category, suggesting Atletico were more effective at turning those situations into danger, despite their PPDA of 11.5 only being the 12th lowest in the league.

But the overriding feeling looking back at Atletico in 2020-21 was the only real ammunition Simeone's critics had – that he was inflexible – seems to have lost relevance.

 

De Paul is Simeone's ideal schemer

It was only a matter of time before De Paul sought a new home after an excellent five-year spell in Italy with Udinese. It was there that he got his career back on track after struggling to make much of an impact with Valencia during his previous attempt to succeed in Spain.

He was a regular throughout his five years in Serie A but enjoyed his finest campaign of all in 2020-21, displaying a skillset that looks an ideal fit for the requirements of a Simeone team.

Throughout Simeone's 10 years as Atletico coach, his signings of creative players have tended to be hit and miss, with it a common perception that his intense demands both in training and during matches can sometimes stifle more mercurial talents who are not used to such workloads.

But De Paul, who is comfortable playing both centrally and out wide, has shown plenty of evidence he should be up to the challenge.

 

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A. Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists (xA) records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area that highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

His creativity and dribbling abilities are two facets that Atletico don't necessarily have in abundance in their central midfield options, yet he balances those with a genuine work ethic. De Paul could well be an absolute triumph of a signing.

Joao Felix's time?

Joao Felix's 2019 arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano was met by the clamouring of Simeone critics suggesting this was the signing that would finally see the renowned pragmatist cut loose and suddenly become the entertainer many hoped he could be.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, their haul of 51 LaLiga goals in 2019-20 was the lowest they had managed since scoring just 46 in 2006-07 – they somehow became even tougher to watch.

This did not do much to convince those adamant Simeone was to blame for Joao Felix's form – many people called for the young talent to be given a "free role" that allowed him to play without the shackles normally associated with the coach's disciplined system.

But for a period in 2020-21, there were real signs that Joao Felix was beginning to find his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisioned, his role - being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left - in the first half of last season saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But it's fair to say the Portugal talent did not manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

Joao Felix's productivity was not as impressive as a result. He went from creating 1.5 chances per game to 0.9 and appeared far less willing to run with the ball, attempting 26 dribbles compared to 43 before January 1.

Sure, his assists count went up from two to three, though between January 1 and the end of the season his expected assists (xA) value was just 0.77, suggesting he benefited from some help from his team-mates.

Joao Felix's influence in build-up play did not change dramatically, only going down to 4.0 shot-ending sequence involvements from 4.9, which was not massively better than he managed in 2019-20 (4.64), but he lacked the sharpness to make the difference at the top end of the pitch as often.

Hopefully 2021-22 will have less upheaval for him and allow for greater consistency. With Messi gone, LaLiga needs a new headline superstar – Joao Felix has the talent, but whether Atletico and Simeone can truly harness it is another matter entirely.

Nevertheless, Atleti excelled even when Joao Felix was not hitting the heights expected. As they see Barca and Madrid appearing significantly weaker, Simeone and his players are heading into 2021-22 as the team to beat.

Chelsea's goalscorer Hakim Ziyech was forced off with a shoulder injury during the Super Cup contest with Villarreal, causing Thomas Tuchel reason for concern ahead of their Premier League opener.

The former Ajax man had opened the scoring for the Blues in Belfast when he tucked in from Kai Havertz's cross in the 27th minute – Chelsea having dominated proceedings up until that point.

Ziyech, who scored twice in 23 Premier League appearances last season, had also created a game-leading four chances before he went down clutching his right shoulder in the 39th minute after helping to defend a Villarreal corner. 

Chelsea's medical team rushed on to tend to the Morocco playmaker, providing him with an inhaler before Christian Pulisic was introduced in his place.

While the extent of his injury remains unclear at this moment, Tuchel would seem likely to be without Ziyech, who had to use his shirt as a makeshift sling as he walked off, for Chelsea's meeting with Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Ziyech returned from the dressing room with his arm in a sling as he took his spot behind the Chelsea bench for the second half. Villarreal's Alberto Moreno had struck the crossbar just before half-time, with the Blues still leading 1-0.

Real Madrid prospect Takefusa Kubo has re-joined Real Mallorca on a season-long loan.

Kubo moved to Madrid on a five-year deal in 2019 before being loaned out in the last two seasons and his most recent temporary switch takes him back to Mallorca.

The 20-year-old played for Mallorca in 2019-20, appearing 35 times in LaLiga, though he could not help the club avoid relegation.

He ranked third in Mallorca's squad for chances created (35) and first for successful dribbles (64), netting four times.

Real Sociedad were reportedly interested but Kubo, who appeared for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics, settled for a return to newly-promoted Mallorca ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Kubo spent last season with Villarreal and Getafe.

He played just 291 minutes at Villarreal but managed eight starts and 802 minutes with Getafe – a more productive spell that he will want to develop upon with Mallorca.

A short club statement on Madrid's official website announced the deal and said: "Real Madrid C. F. and R. C. D. Mallorca have reached an agreement for a season-long loan for Takefusa Kubo, until 30 June 2022."

Atletico Madrid centre-back Stefan Savic has signed a new deal with the Spanish champions, agreeing to extend his stay with the club until June 2024.

Montenegro international Savic has spent the past six seasons with Atletico and played a big part in last term's LaLiga title triumph.

The defender featured 42 times in all competitions in 2020-21 and started 33 of Atleti's 38 league games as Diego Simeone's squad won the title for the second time in seven years.

Atletico kept a clean sheet in 16 of those matches and won 24 of them for a win rate of 72.7 per cent, compared to 40 per cent in the five games Savic did not play a part in.

 

Since making his LaLiga debut in August 2015, no defender has helped their side to more clean sheets in the division than the 30-year-old (72), with Barcelona's Jordi Alba (68) next on the list.

Los Colchoneros confirmed news of Savic's new deal on their official website on Wednesday, four days before they begin their title defence away at Celta Vigo.

Savic, who has also won the Europa League and the Super Cup with Atleti, was previously under contract until 2023.

Curtis Jones has been ruled out of Liverpool's opening Premier League game of the season at Norwich City through concussion.

The 20-year-old has featured in three of Liverpool's four pre-season friendlies and was pushing for inclusion for Saturday's trip to Carrow Road.

However, Jones was replaced during the first half of Monday's 3-1 win over Osasuna following a collision and will not be available this weekend as per concussion protocols.

"He had a slight concussion so we just have to follow the protocol," Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp told the club's official website.

"He is fine, he feels fine again, but that’s the protocol. He is available for training from Sunday on I think."

Liverpool will also be without influential left-back Andy Robertson for their meeting with Norwich, one which Jones would have been in contention to start.

The academy product made 24 appearances in the Premier League for the Reds last term, averaging 68.07 successful passes per 90 minutes, sitting him behind only Thiago Alcantara (74.64) and Jordan Henderson (83.51) among Liverpool midfielders.

Thiago and Henderson both made substitute appearances against Osasuna after returning to Liverpool following Euro 2020 duty - and both are in contention to play a part against Norwich.

Asked if there are any other fitness doubts besides Robertson and Jones, Klopp said: "No, not from an injury point of view.

"But yeah, a few players had a shorter pre-season than others. All the others are healthy."

Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 14 Premier League matches against Norwich ahead of this latest meeting, scoring 44 goals across that period at an average of 3.1 per game.

Manchester United forward Anthony Martial is confident he will rediscover his best form this season after an injury troubled 2020-21 campaign.

Martial missed the end of the previous season and then failed to make France's Euro 2020 squad due to a knee injury sustained in March.

The 25-year-old – signed from Monaco in 2015 – scored seven goals from 36 appearances in all competitions last season, helping United to 21 wins.

Martial's goal tally was the fewest he has managed in a season since joining United, while a figure of 29 chances created also represents his lowest creative output during his Old Trafford career to date.

He made 27 starts in total and attempted 66 shots, with a conversion rate of 10.61 per cent, lower than fellow forwards Edinson Cavani (28.33 per cent from 60 attempts), Marcus Rashford (17.07 from 123) and Mason Greenwood (12 from 100).

With United bolstering their attacking ranks with the arrival of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, Martial has been linked with a move away from the club, Serie A champions Inter – who appear to be on the verge of selling Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea – rumoured as a potential destination.

However, reports have also suggested United have no intention of selling Martial, who is intent to make up for lost time.

"I am feeling a lot better after five long months," Martial, who made his first appearance of pre-season in Saturday's 4-0 thrashing of Everton, told United's official website.

"Getting back together with the team and training with them again, I really feel a great improvement. I am going to need a few more weeks to reach my top fitness levels, and I'm really happy just now to have made my return to training.

"To be honest, I was really happy to start [against Everton] after those long months without playing, it was tremendous to get back out there, especially with the fans and the win, brilliant.

"With the season I had last year, and the niggling injuries I had which prevented me from being at 100 per cent, I've since put in my best prep work, so as to be sure of coming back in the best form I can, and I hope I can get to my full fitness level as quickly as possible now, to set me up for a great season this time around.

"I hope to avoid injury, of course, and to be really ready and in top shape fitness-wise, to be able to have a great season, and win some trophies."

United kick-off their Premier League campaign at home against Leeds United on Saturday.

Chelsea's Champions League final win in May was their third consecutive victory over Manchester City in all competitions.

Only two managers have ever beaten Pep Guardiola three times in a row since he left Barcelona B: Jurgen Klopp, and now Thomas Tuchel.

It was Klopp's Liverpool who denied City three Premier League titles in three seasons when they triumphed in 2019-20. It's Tuchel's Chelsea who look best placed to wrestle the crown from the head of the champions in 2021-22.

The Blues begin their campaign in the UEFA Super Cup against Europa League winners Villarreal: no pushovers, as Manchester United will tell you, but a team who will not be expected to win in Belfast.

It could be a double celebration for Chelsea fans, too, as a deal to bring Romelu Lukaku back to the club from Inter looks set to be concluded shortly. It could well be Belgium's record goalscorer who makes the difference when Tuchel targets the club's first league title since 2017...

Putting it bluntly...

Chelsea went unbeaten in their first 14 games under Tuchel after he replaced Frank Lampard as head coach in January. They secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and won the Champions League for the second time.

It seems strange, then, to say they weren't particularly good going forward.

From Tuchel's appointment on January 26 to the end of last season, Chelsea scored 38 goals in all competitions, as many as Granada and Montpellier over the same time frame. By contrast, Tottenham scored 49, Manchester United 58, and City 70. A 4-1 win at Crystal Palace on April 10 remains the only occasion Tuchel's Chelsea have scored more than twice in a game.

The lack of cutting edge was not for a paucity of chances, either. They were third in the Premier League last term for shots, and their expected goals from open play in the top flight (42.5) was the fifth-best in the division. The problem was they underperformed that value by 6.5 – only Liverpool (6.6) did worse among top-half teams.

They may have found a €115million solution to that problem.

Rom's redemption

Lukaku enjoyed the season of his career in 2020-21. With 30 goals and 11 assists, only six players in Europe's top-five leagues were directly involved in more goals. All of those assists came from open play, too, a figure nobody in Serie A could better.

By contrast, Chelsea's most productive forward was Timo Werner (12 goals, 11 assists), with the Germany international's xG of 21.07 significantly down on Lukaku's 30.02. Werner was, of course, scrutinised ever more intensely for failing to take his opportunities (he scored 28.57 per cent of his 'big chances'), but there were no such problems for Lukaku, who converted 51.02 per cent of his.

Lukaku, of course, is more than a goalscorer. He created 63 chances last term, more than any Chelsea player except Mason Mount (109). He also completed 67 dribbles, a figure only two players surpassed for Tuchel's team. He was equally adept at carving out opportunities as he was at taking them, his partnership with Lautaro Martinez firing Inter to their first Scudetto in over a decade.

It's that all-round threat that was too often missing in his days at United, when Jose Mourinho deployed him generally as a rudimentary target man, not as the roving forward sometimes seen starting out wide for his country. The Lukaku of 2021 is a player who thrives when involved in sequences of play, not just when trying to finish them.

Given Chelsea were second only to City last season for passes per sequence (4.83), sequences of 10 or more passes (778) and build-up attacks (187), Lukaku will have every chance to operate at the heart of things.

Impregnable

Tuchel's first 10 Premier League matches produced only 13 goals, an average of 1.3 per game. There were 12 goals scored in their preceding two league matches alone.

We know about their limitations in attack, but the lack of consistent goal-fests also proves just how strong in defence they have become.

Only Manchester City and Liverpool faced fewer shots than Chelsea (336) in the Premier League last season, while they conceded 36 goals, a number only beaten by the champions. There was also just one game where they conceded more than a single goal under Tuchel: that bizarre 5-2 home defeat to West Brom, when the Baggies played like peak Barcelona, and Chelsea played like... well, like last season's West Brom.

Even with that defeat considered, Chelsea's expected goals against under Tuchel was just 20.53, well below City (26.58) or anyone else in England's top flight across all competitions. They kept 10 clean sheets in their first 14 league games under the German, equalling the quickest time for a manager to reach such a figure in Premier League history (Luiz Felipe Scolari did it in 2008).

From Tuchel's first game to the end of the season, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) than Chelsea in all competitions. And now, they reportedly want to add Sevilla's talented Jules Kounde to their defensive options.

The game against Villarreal in Northern Ireland could well showcase the new English champions in waiting.

Jonny Bairstow says England can contend without Stuart Broad and James Anderson when India go in search of a rare Test win at Lord's.

Broad has been ruled out of the remainder of the five-match series after suffering a torn calf in training on Tuesday, while Anderson is expected to miss out with a quad injury.

Saqib Mahmood was called up to the squad on Wednesday and could make his debut in the absence of England's vastly experienced seam duo, with Moeen Ali poised to return in the longest format.

Bairstow cited the ODI series against Pakistan, which England won despite having to name a totally new squad at the eleventh hour following a coronavirus outbreak, as an example that other players can step in and take their chance.

“It would be a big loss [if both Anderson and Broad miss out], naturally, because they've got over a thousand Test wickets between them," said Bairstow.

"I don’t think it's too much of a destabiliser to be honest. I think with the nature of professional sport there is going to be injuries at times, there is going to be illness, it can happen overnight and you've got to be adaptable within the group.

"It's potentially a loss but with that comes an opportunity for other people. When we've seen that previously in the summer, in the Pakistan series, there were opportunities that arose for other people coming in and they rose to those challenges."

India also suffered an injury blow, with seamer Shardul Thakur missing due to a hamstring problem.

Ravichandran Ashwin could come into the team as a second spinner, while Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav are pushing for recalls.

The first Test ended in a draw after the final day was washed out at Trent Bridge, with the tourists chasing 209 to win. Both sides were docked two points in the ICC World Test Championship points for slow-over rates in Nottingham.

 

 

ROOT BACK ABOVE KOHLI BUT IN NEED OF SUPPORT

Joe Root's exploits in the opening Test moved him above India captain Virat Kohli into fourth in the ICC Test Batting Rankings.

Root came to the rescue with a masterful 109 in the second innings after the England skipper top scored with 64 in his side's 183 all out in the first innings.

England's top three of Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley are under pressure, with Haseeb Hameed waiting for his chance to step in.

 

KOHLI: MOEEN A DANGER MAN

All-rounder Moeen is poised to switch from The Hundred to the Test arena after he was called up this week.

Moeen claimed match figures of 8-226 when he returned to the Test stage against India in Chennai six months ago and Kohli is well aware of his quality.

Kohli said: "We are wary of his skills. He's obviously a very talented cricketer, brings consistency with the ball and as a middle-order or lower-order batsman. Especially in Test cricket, he can change the momentum of the game with the bat. 

"He's in great form right now, he's batting really well and with the ball he is always someone that the team has banked on, so we will have to be at our best going up against Moeen."

KEY OPTA FACTS

- England have lost just two of their 18 Tests against India at Lord's, winning 12 and drawing two. The last India win at the famous venue came in 2014. 
- England have failed to register a win in their past six Test matches (D2, L4), their longest winless run since 2017-2018, when they failed to register a win in eight matches (D2 L6).
- Root (8,887) is 14 away from becoming the second-highest run-scorer for England in Test history (Graham Gooch – 8,900). Root is the only player to score over 1,000 runs since the beginning of 2021 in the longest format.
- Ravichandran Ashwin (413) is five away from becoming the third-highest Test wicket-taker for India, with Harbhajan Singh on 417.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.