Naomi Osaka made history after seeing off Jennifer Brady 6-4 6-3 in the Australian Open final for her fourth grand slam crown.

Osaka's big-match experience was telling against first-time finalist Brady in warm conditions, the former world number one reeling off six consecutive games after breaking at 4-4 in the first set to set the tone at Melbourne Park on Saturday.

Japanese star Osaka became the first woman since Monica Seles in the early 1990s to emerge victorious from the first four grand slam finals of her career, having boasted a perfect 3-0 record following success at the US Open (2018 and 2020) and Australian Open (2019).

Osaka - who fended off a pair of match points against Garbine Muguruza in the last 16 at Melbourne Park - also became the seventh woman to have won the Australian Open after saving match point, following in the footsteps of Seles (1991), Jennifer Capriati (2002), Serena Williams (2003 and 2005), Li Na (2014), Angelique Kerber (2016) and Caroline Wozniacki (2018).

Fans were treated to a topsy-turvy opening on Rod Laver Arena, in a rematch of the 2020 US Open semi-final, which Osaka won en route to her third slam title.

Osaka appeared to be on track for a commanding first set, cruising through the opening service game to love before breaking her opponent to love following a double-fault for a 3-1 lead.

Looking rushed in her maiden major final as Osaka enjoyed the big stage, Brady wrestled the momentum after reclaiming the break - the 22nd seed starting to outhit the former in a fascinating baseline battle.

Some out of character misses and errors crept into Osaka's game - 15 in total in the opening set, she managed just 21 in total in her straight-sets win over Serena Williams in the semi-finals.

Full of confidence, Brady had a chance to break Osaka, who fended it off to move ahead 5-4 before the debutant crumbled.

In control at 40-15, Brady's position wilted as she was was caught off-guard by an Osaka return that caught the line and it got worse after firing a volley into the net to gift the third seed the set.

For all of her hard work in an absorbing first set, Brady's hard work came undone early in the second - the fast-moving Osaka winning four consecutive games to close in on victory.

Brady managed to stop the rot by breaking back and clawing two consecutive games, however, it only delayed the inevitable as Osaka further cemented herself as the face of women's tennis.


Data slam: Osaka joins multiple winners
The 23-year-old won in 77 minutes to become the 12th woman in the Open Era to win multiple Australian Open titles. Osaka has now gone 21 matches without defeat - she is only the third woman since 2010 to enjoy an unbeaten streak of 20 or more matches, joining Serena (27 wins between 2014 WTA Finals and 2015 Madrid) and Azarenka (26 wins between 2012 Sydney and Miami).

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Osaka – 16/24
Brady – 15/31

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Osaka – 6/2
Brady – 2/4

BREAK POINTS WON
Osaka – 4/5
Brady – 2/4

Daniil Medvedev goes into Sunday's Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic in incredible form.

The Russian star extended his winning streak to 20 matches with a straight-sets victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-finals on Friday.

Medvedev became the 25th man in the Open Era to record a Tour-level winning streak of 20 matches. He is the sixth active player to manage the feat, joining Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro.

The 25-year-old's run has not only been utterly dominant, but also included some rather impressive wins.

Of his 20 victories, 12 have come against top-10 players, including Djokovic. Since November, Medvedev has beaten every other member of the top 10 except Federer, who has been out of action.

"It's great to know this. It's a pity that Roger is not playing. I would love to have played him. I'm not saying anything. I just would love to play against him. I mean, to play against Roger is always a privilege. Against Novak, Rafa, Roger," Medvedev said after his win over Tsitsipas.

"But it's great to hear this. I mean, happy about myself, because I remember one moment when I was already playing quite good I actually was struggling with the top-10 guys when I was maybe around top 20 or top 30.

"It's great to hear this and I'm really happy about it."

Along with Djokovic and Nadal, Medvedev's run has also included wins over Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev (three times), Andrey Rublev, Matteo Berrettini and Tsitsipas.

In his 20-match streak, Medvedev has won 44 sets and lost just seven, and two of those were in his five-set victory over Filip Krajinovic in the third round.

Medvedev has won three of his past four meetings with Djokovic, who edges their overall head-to-head 4-3.

His run will have Medvedev full of confidence as he bids to win a first grand slam title, needing to overcome the record eight-time champion in Melbourne to do so.

Sunday's Milan derby will be unlike any seen for much of the past decade: a battle between two genuine Scudetto contenders.

Inter head into the game, the 174th league meeting with their city rivals, at the top of Serie A. They are just a point above Milan, with 16 rounds remaining, after a run of 12 wins in 15 games.

The last time these sides met in the top flight while occupying the top two positions in the table was back in April 2011, when a 3-0 win for the Rossoneri helped propel them to their most recent title.

Much of the focus will be on star strikers Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They scored all three goals in Milan's win in the reverse fixture and clashed on the pitch in the Nerazzurri's more recent Coppa Italia triumph.

However, according to esteemed former Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, the real star of the show might be found in Inter's midfield.

"Those looking for the prototype of the modern footballer should look at Nicolo Barella and they will be satisfied," Sacchi said in his column for La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"The Inter player plays for the team and with the team, he attacks and defends, attacks with courage and fights to win the ball back.

"I've been following Barella since he was a kid. He came into Italy's youth teams when I was the Azzurri's technical director. He was not a phenomenon, he was physically frail, he did not have an incredible technique, yet he managed to reach very high levels.

"This shows that at the base of any successful career there is always hard work, training, the spirit of sacrifice and the desire to improve day after day."

For Sacchi, Barella represents the paragon of the modern player. But what makes him so effective?

BOX-TO-BOX BRILLIANCE

Barella is enjoying the best season of his career in terms of goal involvements, with three scored and eight assisted in 32 games in all competitions. Only five Serie A midfielders have been directly involved in more goals.

The 24-year-old has created 42 chances from open play across all competitions this term, only Milan playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu (44) has more among players in Italy's top flight, while Barella has also completed 469 passes ending in the final third, the highest number of any midfield player among Italy's top-tier sides.

Of course, as part of a three-man central midfield under Antonio Conte, creating opportunities is not enough (just ask Christian Eriksen). And, as Sacchi pointed out, Barella's impact is equally impressive when it comes to keeping the opposition away from your own goal.

He is third among Serie A midfielders for tackles won in 2020-21 (35, behind Adrien Rabiot and Marten de Roon), and third for duels won (175, behind Juraj Kucka and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic). That's a continuation of combative play honed at Cagliari, where, in his final two seasons, he was top of the league's midfield rankings with 480 duels won.

 

"COURAGE"

Sacchi spoke glowingly of Barella's bravery, of how an unassuming youngster developed into Serie A's most influential midfielder so early in his career.

He's right – there's a boldness to Barella's play that sets him apart.

In Serie A this season, he has completed 87 progressive carries in which the ball was moved between five and 10 metres up the pitch, which is the most of any attacking midfielder in the league. Twelve of his carries have ended in a chance being created, the fourth-best tally among players in his position.

These kinds of plays help Inter keep possession and limit the risk of losing the ball in dangerous areas. Indeed, Conte's side have faced only 18 shot-ending high turnovers of possession in Serie A this term, the lowest figure in the league, while only Napoli (230) and Juventus (212) have faced fewer pressed sequences than the Nerazzurri (232).

Once in more promising positions, Barella is still the man pulling the strings. His tally of shot build-up involvements – a measure of a player's involvement in sequences ending in a team-mate's shot on goal or chance created – stands at 60, the most of any attacking midfielder in the league.

Looking at sequences where players are involved in the build-up and also create the chance at the end, Barella is third in the division for his position with eight, just two behind Lorenzo Insigne and Ruslan Malinovskiy.

 

CONTE'S LIEUTENANT

Barella's eagerness to be at the heart of matters on the pitch extends to when Inter don't have the ball – at both ends of the pitch.

As well as being third among midfielders this term for tackles and duels won, Barella is fifth for regaining possession, having done so 168 times. When it comes to winning back the ball in the final third, he is top of the pile with 26 (both across all comps).

This, too, helps to set the tone for Inter's approach. In Serie A in 2020-21, they have made 190 high turnovers, a tally bettered only by Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta pressing machine (251). Plus, only Atalanta (129) and Juve (128) have had fewer high turnovers against them than Inter (130). It's an impressive combination, and Barella is integral to it.

As Sacchi said: "A detail that is far from negligible is the desire to put the group at the top of one's thoughts and, in this way self-centeredness, a disease of modern football, is fought and defeated.

"Barella is proving to be a driving force."

 

The return of UEFA club competitions this week offered a reminder that there remain significant hoops to jump through before the delayed European Championship kicks off.

Fixtures being switched to alternative venues due to local coronavirus regulations cast the multiple host city model for Euro 2020 in an unhelpful light, with March's international break set to throw up fresh challenges.

Postponing and rearranging a major sporting event due to ongoing and unspeakably tragic global circumstances makes any focus on the footballing concerns within the equation feel somewhat crass.

But all 24 men leading countries into the finals will look at their squads before kick-off and ponder whether the additional 12 months of waiting and haphazard preparation have been a help or a hindrance in terms of form and personnel.

For England manager Gareth Southgate, the delay looks to have been advantageous.

It is highly unlikely the now resurgent John Stones and Luke Shaw would have featured in his defensive plans, much less centre-forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is now the obvious back-up to captain Harry Kane.

Aston Villa's sparkling creative inspiration Jack Grealish now has England caps to his name, while a crop of richly gifted youngsters are flourishing.

None more so than Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden, who will go head to head when Premier League leaders Manchester City travel to Arsenal on Sunday.

Learning on the job

When Southgate comes to whittle down his final 23, versatility will count as a plus point for those hopeful of making the cut.

Foden and Saka have it in abundance, even if they have edged towards a degree of specialism during stunning runs of individual form during English football's winter months.

A central midfielder on his way through the youth ranks at boyhood club City, Foden's deployment on the left-wing has more or less coincided with the record-breaking 17-match winning run across all competitions that left Pep Guardiola's side 10 points clear at the start of the weekend

Not that it stopped Guardiola starting the 20-year-old as a false nine away to Liverpool, before switching Foden to the right flank for the second half, from where he provided an assist and a goal to inspire a statement 4-1 win.

Then, with Ilkay Gundogan injured, he was back in midfield to open the scoring during Wednesday's 3-1 win over Everton.

"He can play in both positions, he is so young," Guardiola said ahead of the Arsenal game.

"Phil just needs - and for the age [he is], he will get it –  the timing to play inside.

"When you play as a winger you have to play in one tempo, with one timing and one rhythm. When you play in the middle you have to play with another one.

"When he gets this balance, he will be 10 times the extraordinary player that he is right now. It's just a question of time."

Foden has four goals and two assists since the turn of the year in the Premier League, the same figures that can be attributed to Saka since Mikel Arteta selected him on the right wing for the Boxing Day clash against Chelsea.

Saka has featured at left-back, in both wing-back roles and centrally during Arteta's tenure, but he got on the scoresheet in a dominant 3-1 derby victory and has not looked back.

"I see Bukayo evolving, getting better and getting to understand different positions and finally we will fit him in one that gives the best [result]," Arteta said back in July. It appears he has his answer.

Variety is the spice of life

Splitting Saka's 21 Premier League appearances this season into centre, right or left positionally, Opta data shows he creates 1.1 chances per 90 minutes when on the right.

Both of his top-flight assists this term have come when starting on that flank, while an expected assists (xA) scored of 0.23 per 90 indicates a better quality of pass into danger areas when set against stints on the left or through the middle.

The 19-year-old, whose four England caps have come at left wing-back, is similarly effective dribbling on either flank, with 1.4 (left) and 1.5 (right) completed per match.

That figure rises to 3.1 when Saka has played through the middle this season, although two appearances and a solitary – albeit goalscoring – start in a central three versus Sheffield United skew his numbers to a degree.

Guardiola's words this week suggest Foden will find himself back on the flanks at Emirates Stadium, but the City star's feel for a goal comes to the fore when he plays through the middle.

In six Premier League games where he has operated centrally, his goals per game rate of 0.81 per 90 minutes and 2.4 dribbles completed per game are his highest across the three categories.

A shot conversion of 30 per cent also dwarfs his efforts from the left (11 per cent) but 2.5 chances created from open play per 90 in the latter role is perhaps the most significant statistic when it comes to explaining why he has made Leroy Sane's old position his own.

Among Europe's best

Saka and Foden each stack up very well when compared to the leading players under 21 throughout Europe. Indeed, no player within their age range has played more than Saka's 2,317 minutes in all competitions across clubs in the big five leagues.

Foden (2,130) comes in sixth in that regard, while his 11 goals are third behind Moise Kean (16) and Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland (25). Saka's six goals overall place him seventh.

Jadon Sancho (11) is the only under-21 player with more assists than Foden (six), while the City player's 44 chances created from open play comes in second to the Dortmund winger – another handy illustration of the ample resources at Southgate's disposal.

How he should deploy them will be relentlessly discussed before June, even if those arguments are now the preserve of Zoom calls rather than crowded pubs.

What increasingly appears beyond debate is that Foden and Saka have established ironclad cases for inclusion, having at best been outside punts a year ago.

Along with their dazzling array of skills, the versatility Guardiola and Arteta have used to their benefit could prove invaluable to Southgate amid the cut and thrust of tournament football.

The Los Angeles Clippers ended the Utah Jazz's winning run in the NBA on Friday, while Joel Embiid and Jamal Murray posted 50-point games.

The Clippers snapped the Jazz's nine-game winning streak with a 116-112 victory in a clash between two NBA championship contenders.

Kawhi Leonard led the way for the Clippers with 29 points as they improved to 22-9.

Donovan Mitchell had a game-high 35 points, but the Jazz's winning run came to an end, with the Western Conference leaders now 24-6 this season.

Embiid's career-high 50 points, 17 rebounds and five assists helped the Philadelphia 76ers past the Chicago Bulls 112-105.

He is the first 76ers player to score 50-plus points since Allen Iverson in 2005.

Murray, meanwhile, was spectacular in the Denver Nuggets' 120-103 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The guard was an incredible 21-of-25 from the field, and eight-of-10 from three-point range, for his 50-point haul.

Murray and Embiid were the first NBA pair with 50-plus points on 65 per cent-plus shooting on the same day since Tom Chambers and Patrick Ewing on March 24, 1990, as per Stats Perform.

Nikola Jokic had a triple-double of 16 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the Nuggets' win.

 

Giannis leads Bucks, Curry's Warriors fall short

Giannis Antetokounmpo's double-double of 29 points and 19 rebounds saw the Milwaukee Bucks past the Oklahoma City Thunder 98-85.

Stephen Curry had 29 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, but the Golden State Warriors were beaten by the Orlando Magic 124-120.

Magic star Nikola Vucevic finished with a triple-double of 30 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.

Despite a double-double from Trae Young (31 points and 11 assists), the Atlanta Hawks went down to the Boston Celtics 121-109.

 

Wayward VanVleet

Fred VanVleet went four-of-20 from the field for just 12 points in 37 minutes, but the Toronto Raptors still got past the Minnesota Timberwolves 86-81.

 

Edwards' incredible dunk

Anthony Edwards was three-of-14 from the field for just seven points in 34 minutes in the Timberwolves' loss, yet the 2020 top draft pick produced a monstrous dunk.

Friday's results

Orlando Magic 124-120 Golden State Warriors
Denver Nuggets 120-103 Cleveland Cavaliers
Boston Celtics 121-109 Atlanta Hawks
Philadelphia 76ers 112-105 Chicago Bulls
Phoenix Suns 132-114 New Orleans Pelicans
Memphis Grizzlies 109-95 Detroit Pistons
Milwaukee Bucks 98-85 Oklahoma City Thunder
Toronto Raptors 86-81 Minnesota Timberwolves
Los Angeles Clippers 116-112 Utah Jazz

 

Heat at Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers (22-8) look to bounce back from their loss to the Brooklyn Nets when they host the Miami Heat (12-17) on Saturday in what is a rematch of last year's NBA Finals.

Novak Djokovic will take the advantage of having an extra day's rest into the Australian Open final against the red-hot Daniil Medvedev.

Djokovic is set to compete in his 28th grand slam final and ninth in Melbourne as the Serbian star eyes an 18th major title on Sunday.

The 33-year-old looked in good form in a semi-final thrashing of Aslan Karatsev on Thursday – 24 hours before Medvedev impressively dispatched of Stefanos Tsitsipas.

For the second year in a row, Djokovic will have an extra day's rest over his opponent ahead of the decider.

Since 2000, players who have had the extra day's rest have won 12 and lost nine of the 21 finals. Djokovic has had the slight advantage four times – and four times he has not – and won all eight finals.

Given he has battled a suspected abdominal injury at this year's tournament, the additional day could be an important factor for Djokovic.

He faces Medvedev, who is on a 20-match winning streak that has included 12 victories over top-10 players.

The latest of those was a 6-4 6-2 7-5 mauling of Tsitsipas in their semi-final on Friday.

A key for Medvedev in that success, in which he endured a third-set blip, was that it came in two hours, nine minutes.

Since 2000, men who won the second semi-final in less than three hours are 6-5 in deciders. That record drops to 3-7 when the last-four clash has exceeded three hours.

Of the three that have managed it after marathon wins, Djokovic achieved it twice – in 2012 and 2015, while Rafael Nadal was the other in 2009, when he beat Roger Federer in the final after winning an epic against Fernando Verdasco.

It leaves the extra day's rest likely to be less of a factor on Sunday as both men chase history.

Entering Australian Open final with an extra day's rest since 2000
2020: Novak Djokovic (won against Dominic Thiem)
2019: Rafael Nadal (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2018: Marin Cilic (lost against Roger Federer)
2017: Roger Federer (won against Rafael Nadal)
2016: Novak Djokovic (won against Andy Murray)
2015: Andy Murray (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2014: Stan Wawrinka (won against Rafael Nadal)
2013: Novak Djokovic (won against Andy Murray)
2012: Rafael Nadal (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2011: Novak Djokovic (won against Andy Murray)
2010: Andy Murray (lost against Roger Federer)
2009: Roger Federer (lost against Rafael Nadal)
2008: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2007: Roger Federer (won against Fernando Gonzalez)
2006: Marcos Baghdatis (lost against Roger Federer)
2005: Marat Safin (won against Lleyton Hewitt)
2004: Marat Safin (lost against Roger Federer)
2003: Andre Agassi (won against Rainer Schuttler)
2002: Thomas Johansson (won against Marat Safin)
2001: Andre Agassi (won against Arnaud Clement)
2000: Andre Agassi (won against Yevgeny Kafelnikov)
Wins: 12 Losses: 9

Sam Burns pulled five strokes clear at the halfway mark of the Genesis Invitational, while Dustin Johnson is among the chasing pack.

Burns, 24, carded a five-under 66 in the second round at Riviera Country Club in California to surge clear at 12 under on Friday.

Seeking a first PGA Tour win, Burns – who held a two-shot overnight lead – produced a bogey-free second round that included five birdies.

With his total of 130, Burns tied the 36-hole record at the tournament with three players – Davis Love III (1992), Mike Weir (2004) and Shigeki Maruyama (2004).

Johnson, the 2017 champion, is in a four-way tie for second at seven under after shooting a 67.

The two-time major winner recovered from a bogey at the second hole to post five birdies and sit alongside Tyler McCumber (68), Jason Kokrak (68) and Joaquin Niemann (68).

Jordan Spieth continued his good form with a second straight 68 seeing him at six under and in a tie for sixth.

Coming off back-to-back top-five finishes, Spieth is alongside Max Homa (70) and Wyndham Clark (69), while Alex Noren (70), Scott Harrington (66), Cameron Smith (68), Patrick Cantlay (70) and Matt Fitzpatrick (71) are a shot further back.

Brooks Koepka carded a 70 to be at four under, while Rory McIlroy and 2019 runner-up Justin Thomas both missed the cut.

McIlroy missed the weekend at an event for the first time since the 2019 Open Championship after finishing at seven over.

Carlo Ancelotti dismissed rumours James Rodriguez could leave Everton, insisting the playmaker was "happy" at the club.

A report suggested James, who joined Everton from Real Madrid in September last year, was unhappy and could consider a switch to Atletico.

But Ancelotti played down that talk ahead of Saturday's Merseyside derby against Liverpool.

"He is okay, he has no problem. I talk to him every day, he is happy here, confident, motivated," the Everton manager told a news conference.

"He had a little problem in the last few games with his calf. But now he is in good condition. He really feels good here because everyone takes care of him, and that's it.

"I don't know if he complains about the weather, but the weather we know that it is not the best weather ever, but there are a lot of things good in this area."

James has scored five goals and provided three assists in 17 Premier League games this season.

No Everton player has created more chances than his 30, 22 of which have been in open play, or his eight big chances.

Everton are seventh in the table and three points behind sixth-placed Liverpool, although they have a game in hand.

Thomas Tuchel's view of football was changed by Ralf Rangnick and in Ralph Hasenhuttl he is looking forward to going up against another coach who worked alongside him.

Chelsea head to Southampton on Saturday and Tuchel will pit his wits against Hasenhuttl, who coached RB Leipzig during Rangnick's time as director of football at the Red Bull Arena.

Tuchel was a defender at Ulm for Rangnick between 1997 and 1998 and, following the premature end to his playing career due to a knee injury, was hired as a youth coach at Stuttgart by him two years later.

Rangnick is credited with revolutionising German football by introducing an intense high-pressing, counter-attacking style that was widely adopted.

His influence on Tuchel is clear, with Chelsea allowing the fewest opposition passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the Premier League since his first game in charge against Wolves on January 27.

Across the entire season, Southampton rank fourth in the league with a PPDA of 10.7, behind only Liverpool (10.4), Chelsea (10.3) and Leeds United (8.9).

"I was a player with Ralf Rangnick. I played in the third and second division and learned from Ralf that it's not necessary to follow the striker to the toilet," Tuchel told the media.

"He made a third-division team stronger than we actually were with brand new tactics, the back four not man marking but defending in the space in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1.

"That was a gamechanger for me to watch football games after my experience with Ralf. It was different because I had a totally different view of what's going on.

"Ralf had his influence at Leipzig when he worked with Ralph as more or less the father of everything that happened in Leipzig.

"There are many coaches influenced by this philosophy, but I truly believe everybody has to find his own style, everybody needs to be authentic. You need to be yourself. You cannot copy anybody.

"The way from Ralph is very impressive. He had a very good season at Ingolstadt, very successful at Leipzig and now a big impact with his aggressive style of playing at Southampton.

"This is the challenge that we have to face. I cannot give you a reason why there is a trend, this is too much of a question for me right now."

Tuchel is unbeaten in six games since taking over at Chelsea, winning five straight since a 0-0 draw with Wolves in his first match.

Olivier Giroud found the back of the net in their 2-0 success over Newcastle United last Monday and Tuchel intends to give the France striker time to stake his claim for a new deal, with his contract due to expire at the end of the season.

Tuchel said: "No decision is made because it's too soon to make these decisions. [It's] too soon in the season and I haven't had enough time to make these decisions because I just started three weeks ago and we need more time to get to know the group better. Everybody deserves more time to show their value.

"What I can say is that I am super happy that he's here. He's one of the top strikers in the box, he's physically strong, he has an incredible first touch and he's strong in headers.

"He did an amazing game against Newcastle. He's very strong, very positive in training, very impressive.

"Right now, he plays a key role in the squad with a lot of young offensive players. He is a key figure, maybe not because he plays every three days 96 minutes, but because of the way he behaves and with his experience on a daily basis, he has a huge impact in the most positive way.

"This is what I can say. When the decision arrives, we will make it."

Jurgen Klopp hopes Liverpool can have a little more luck with regards to injuries next season, believing a full-strength squad would see them sitting much closer to runaway leaders Manchester City. 

Liverpool finished 18 points clear of second-place City in the 2019-20 Premier League season as they ended a 30-year wait to be crowned champions again. 

However, while they have struggled in the defence of their title, Pep Guardiola's squad are once again the team to beat. They set a new record with Wednesday's 3-1 triumph at Everton, becoming the first top-flight team to start a calendar year with 10 straight league victories. 

The Reds' focus has switched to finishing in the top four - they sit in fifth place ahead of Saturday's Merseyside derby, 16 points behind City - but Klopp feels such a huge gap would not have existed if he had key players available. 

Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have been long-term absentees, with fellow centre-back Joel Matip now out for the rest of the season. Diogo Jota, meanwhile, has not featured since December 9, while Naby Keita is only just nearing a return having yet to make an appearance in 2021. 

Asked in his pre-match media conference about what it will take to be closer to City next season, Klopp replied: "We don't have to think about that now.

"We don't play them this year anymore - probably not, maybe the Champions League. For next year, then we have a little bit more time.  

"It's never the case that we thought, 'How can we overtake City and become the finest team in English football?'. We never saw it like this – we wanted the best version of ourselves.  

"We have that chance again, then if that's good enough, it's good enough. If another team is better, then that's how sport works. You cannot do more than be the best version of yourselves.   

"That's what we really try again, as a team especially. We need a little bit more luck, then a few other things as well.  

"But, in the beginning, slightly more luck with injuries would help. Then we can come closer to them.  

"I think we can all agree if I would say, probably Pep would say it too, that a full season for both teams and we wouldn't be 16 points away. But we are. That's how it is, we accept that.  This season, though, it is not about how close we can come to Manchester City."

Van Dijk has been out of action since the previous Merseyside derby at Goodison Park, back in October 2020.  

The defender was hurt early in proceedings following a challenge from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, while team-mate Thiago Alcantara also suffered an injury in the game after a wild tackle from Richarlison that saw the Brazilian sent off. 

Klopp, however, made clear the game takes on no extra importance because of what happened in that 2-2 draw last year, as Liverpool look to avoid suffering four consecutive Premier League defeats for the first time since December 2002.  

"We play the way we play. It's very emotional but we are always emotional, to be honest," Klopp - who confirmed on Friday that Fabinho will not feature at Anfield - said. "That's our way to play.  

"What the other teams do I don't know, because I have no influence on that. I can imagine that after the first game you try to create some stories around that, but we will be prepared for a football game, for a derby, like we always do.  

"Nobody can say about his team that they are not ready for derbies, from an attitude point of view, from an understanding point of view over how important it is.  

"This team always was [ready] and will be tomorrow. Obviously, there are stories around, all these kind of things, but I have nothing to say."

Club Brugge's midfield prodigy Charles De Ketelaere has been linked with Milan and Lazio and admits he dreams of testing himself in a foreign league.

De Ketelaere broke into Brugge's first team in 2019-20 and was named the 2020 Belgian Promising Talent of the Year last December, one month after making his senior international debut.

The 19-year-old also finished fifth in the voting for the Belgian Golden Shoe, which is awarded to the best player in the country's top flight.

De Ketelaere has a contract with Brugge until June 2023 and is interested in challenging himself abroad, though he is no rush to leave Belgium.

"Honestly, I do dream of an adventure abroad, but I don't have to right now," he told Krant van West-Vlaanderen.

"I will always make a healthy choice. Only sporting ambitious count. You always want to improve.

"There is no concrete career plan. A few foreign clubs were interested, but if I say that I want to stay at Club Brugge for another three years I would be very happy with that."

 

Brugge sit top of the Belgian Pro League and 13 points clear of second-placed Royal Antwerp.

The impressive De Ketelaere has only started 15 of their 26 league fixtures this season, but he has certainly made his impact felt.

De Ketelaere has supplied 35 key passes, which is the most of any player under the age of 21, and just under half of those have come following a carry.

His tally of 16 carries with a chance created is bettered only by Stef Peeters (18), Francis Amuzu (18) and Xavier Mercier (19).

The teenager is averaging two key passes per 90 minutes in the Pro League this season, as well as one interception, 4.8 recoveries and 1.9 tackles.

Former France international Yohan Cabaye has announced his retirement at the age of 35.

The midfielder had not made a competitive appearance since starting for Saint-Etienne in a defeat to Lyon on March 1, 2020.

Cabaye posted on Twitter: "It is with great emotion that after more than 17 years of passionate love for football, with emotions greater than any other, memories that will remain forever and unforgettable human and sporting encounters, I announce the end of my professional football career.

"If this decision may seem obvious, logical and inevitable to some, having spent 35 years in the world of football, it remains very difficult to take and to accept because my love for football is immense."

Cabaye debuted with Lille in 2005 and won a Ligue 1 and Coupe de France double in his final season with the club in 2010-11.

His performances over his final two campaigns with Lille, in which he scored 18 goals, provided 18 assists and created 140 chances across 90 games in all competitions, earned international recognition and a move to the Premier League with Newcastle United.

Cabaye quickly found his feet in England, scoring five goals and delivering six assists in his debut season as Newcastle fell just short of Champions League qualification.

His form attracted the attention of Arsenal, but Cabaye failed to force through a move in August 2013 and instead enjoyed one of the most productive spells of his career as he scored seven times and laid on a pair of assists in 20 games before departing for Paris Saint-Germain in January 2014.

Two further Ligue 1 triumphs followed, along with success in the Coupe de France and twice in the Coupe de la Ligue, but he failed to establish himself as a regular starter in Paris.

Just 30 of his 57 PSG appearances came from the start and he soon left for Crystal Palace, spending a further three years back in the Premier League before ending his career with Al-Nasr and finally Saint-Etienne.

Cabaye played for his country on 48 occasions, scoring four times.

His first international goal came against Ukraine at Euro 2012 and he was a regular again at the World Cup two years later. France's home European Championship in 2016, where they reached the final, saw Cabaye appear only twice and once as a starter.

Justin Kluivert was sorely missed by RB Leipzig against Liverpool and his injuries are increasingly frustrating head coach Julian Nagelsmann.

Winger Kluivert joined Leipzig from Roma on a season-long loan at the start of the 2020-21 campaign.

However, the 21-year-old - son of former Barcelona striker Patrick - has so far been limited to just three starts and 452 minutes of action in a Leipzig shirt across all competitions.

An ankle issue has provided Kluivert's latest setback, with his last appearance coming in January and his last start before Christmas.

Prior to being named in the line-up against Werder Bremen on December 12, Kluivert had scored in consecutive matches against Bayern Munich and Manchester United - his only goals so far this season.

Nagelsmann was impressed by the Netherlands international's performances in those games and believes his dribbling ability could be a real asset; he leads Leipzig with 5.4 dribbles attempted and 2.6 completed per 90 minutes this term.

But the coach was again without Kluivert as Leipzig lost their Champions League first leg 2-0 against Liverpool on Tuesday, with the German team attempting just 11 dribbles and failing to execute a single fast break.

"At the stage when we played Bayern and Manchester [United], it was the Justin we were hoping for," Nagelsmann said. "After that, he was gone again.

"He just trains very little, I don't see him much in training. That's the problem. He has to become more stable in terms of his body.

"Since he's been here, he's had far too few training sessions and therefore too little impact on the game.

"He basically has skills that would have done us good in the game against Liverpool. They would also do us good in the Bundesliga, like his deep runs and fast dribbling. He's also a goalscorer and has a good finish.

"But he simply has to become more stable. He's a little too injury-prone these days."

Leipzig would reportedly have to pay in excess of €10million to make Kluivert's move permanent.

Nagelsmann is not ruling out the possibility but would like to see more from the player over the coming months, referring again to the standard set in a 3-3 draw with Bayern.

Kluivert scored with his only shot at Allianz Arena, playing 78 minutes after being named in Nagelsmann's starting line-up.

"Obviously, we hope he has an even bigger impact on a successful season, that he stays healthy and that he can train more and get fit again for the games," Nagelsmann added.

"He's welcome to do as well as he did against Bayern Munich.

"In the course of the second half of the season, we will then decide what we do and what he wants to do. And how big his influence was and how it then continues beyond the summer or not, we will decide then."

It turns out all Liverpool needed was a short midweek break to Budapest to reconnect, restore some confidence and rediscover their ruthless streak.

Tuesday's 2-0 triumph over RB Leipzig in the Hungarian capital was a much-needed boost for Jurgen Klopp's squad, as the Champions League seemingly holds their only hope of silverware.

Before the second leg, though, they resume a Premier League campaign that has seen the focus switch from retaining the title to finishing in the top four. With no club spared from feeling the financial impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Reds can ill-afford to miss out on the monetary benefits that come from playing in Europe's premier competition.

Next up: the Merseyside derby on Saturday. Liverpool welcome their neighbours to Anfield having lost three league games on the spin for the first time in Klopp's reign, though the European trip helped quickly lift the gloom that had engulfed them following the disheartening 3-1 defeat to Leicester City.

Mohamed Salah scored against Leipzig, meaning the Egyptian now has 24 in all competitions. There was also a goal for Sadio Mane, who – unlike his fellow forward – has not quite hit the same heights as he reached previously.

A one-on-one finish lifted Mane's tally for the season to 11 in 31 appearances, though just seven of those goals have come in league action. The Senegal forward finished level for the Golden Boot with Salah and Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2018-19 on 22 goals, while last term he managed 18.

It will take a strong finish down the stretch to get close to those figures again, but is there a clear reason for Mane's dip in productivity?


ISSUES UP FRONT - AND AT THE BACK

After 24 games in 2019-20, runaway leaders Liverpool had scored 56 goals and let in 15. At the same stage this season, they have conceded 32. Without a solid foundation to build on, the sense of invincibility has disappeared, replaced instead by a vulnerability that offers opponents hope, provided they repel what comes their way.

The attack could help mask some of those defensive deficiencies. While they have managed fewer goals this season (45), the numbers have remained relatively consistent with previous years.

Though Liverpool's shot conversion rate of 17.58 per cent is slightly lower, they have done better when it comes to putting away big chances, per Opta data. At 45.31 per cent, the Reds have been more successful than a season ago (40.37), albeit their minutes-per-goal average is obviously up (48 compared to 40.24, while in the 2018-19 season it went even lower, down at 38.43).

After consistent improvement, a plateau or a dip was always going to come along at some stage. What was not expected, however, is the number of injuries Klopp has had to deal with. It should not be underestimated how the rotation behind the established forward line has had an effect, particularly with midfield regulars Fabinho and Jordan Henderson having to fill in for absent centre-backs.


TARGET PRACTICE REQUIRED

Key absences have obviously hampered Liverpool, but the established trio up top have remained relatively consistent in Klopp's line-ups. Diogo Jota did arrive to provide competition, yet his fast start to life on Merseyside was put on hold by a long-term injury. Yes, even new recruits were not safe from suffering pain.

Predominantly playing on the left side of a front three, Mane has occupied similar positions to the previous season. His total number of shots appears on course to be similar, though there has been a noticeable decline when it comes to converting them.

His success rate of 14.29 per cent with attempts is his lowest since signing for the club. There is no such regression when it comes to taking big chances, yet his average of 255 minutes per goal is not just a major rise on previous years with Liverpool, but also higher than either of his seasons spent with Southampton.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Mane is underperforming in terms of his xG (expected goals) rate for 2020-21, with his seven goals from 63 attempts under his expected total of 9.3. In contrast, when helping secure a long-awaited championship, Liverpool's first in the top flight for 30 years, he hit 18 goals - a total managed from 77 shots - to comfortably outperform his xG of 13.7.


DERBY DAYS PROVIDE FOND MEMORIES

Having scored against Leipzig, Mane will be aiming to once again make an impact in what looks to be a pivotal derby for both teams. 

The 28-year-old was on target against Everton in the 2-2 result at Goodison Park back in October, a game that changed Liverpool's course dramatically as Virgil van Dijk suffered a serious knee injury. There were signs of cracks appearing before then - most noticeably in the shock 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa - but the Dutchman’s absence continues to be keenly felt.

The Reds leaned heavily on Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold as attacking outlets on their way to being crowned champions. The full-back pairing had 16 assists between them, the former leading the way with 10 (vastly higher than his xA - expected assists - value of 4.88).

This term, they have not quite had the same impact going forwards. They have three assists each, in line with their xA figures. Mane has also contributed the same number, having registered seven in the league in 2019-20.

Fatigue - both mental and physical - could also be an issue for Mane and his team-mates. According to former Liverpool player Vladimir Smicer, it would be understandable considering what they have been through, not just across the past few months but indeed ever since their unlikely run to the Champions League final in 2018. 

"Sometimes we are missing a bit of freshness in important moments in the game, which is the difference in regard to last season," Smicer told Stats Perform News courtesy of KIA.

"Even the VAR decisions against Liverpool this year, where last year everything was perfect, going well. 

"That might be why even Mane – a fantastic player, in my eyes one of the best players in the world – is suffering a little bit, whether it be with fewer goals, or his offensive potency."

Everton could be just the opponents to raise levels again, though. Mane has never lost a derby meeting in his Liverpool career, a record he will be keen to protect this weekend.

Pep Guardiola insists he has had no significant influence over Mikel Arteta's fledgling managerial career.

Arteta spent three and a half seasons working as one of Guardiola's assistants at Manchester City before leaving to take the top job at Arsenal in December 2019.

City travel to Emirates Stadium on Sunday looking to extend their record-breaking winning run of 17 matches in all competitions.

Thursday's 1-1 draw against Benfica in the Europa League means Arsenal have only won once in their past five games but Guardiola nevertheless expects a tough test from his former understudy, who he does not believe has been getting much luck of late.

"What I see the last month or two months, every game Arsenal plays better than the opponent," he said.

"Our dream as managers is to deserve the results. We play to deserve what we want to get. Sometimes you lose or you win, you cannot control.

"What we want to deserve he is doing and in the games over the  last month, always they are better than the opponent – analysis in terms of controlling the game, creating more chances and conceding few.

"We must have an incredible performance to play as good as possible with the ball and run a lot in the right tempo to get the ball because they have an exceptional build-up already.

"In the final third they have incredible energy with [Emile] Smith [Rowe], [Bukayo] Saka and [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang.

"In the future they will be a real contender to fight for the titles."

Despite such ambitions being a constant of Guardiola's career, he does not feel his influence is prominent in the work of a man who overcame him in last season's FA Cup semi-final.

"He doesn't need help. He is more than well prepared than to get help from me," he said.

"He is an important person in my life. We had a lot of contact in or period here in Manchester

"Everything going well for him makes me happy."

Guardiola added: "No, I didn't inspire him. What he knows he knows for himself.

"I'm not, absolutely in this case, any influence. What he is doing is all the credit for him and his backroom staff."

A look at some of the Opta data behind the two teams' performances this season backs up Guardiola's assertion that Arteta is not simply building a replica of City in north London.

City's patient build-up play is a hallmark of Guardiola's style and their 582 open-play sequences with 10 or more passes is almost 100 more than the next highest team in the division on this metric (Chelsea 493).

Arsenal are fifth in terms of such passages of play behind Liverpool and Manchester United, although their 338 is a significant drop on the numbers City's domination of matches has allowed them to rack up.

Similarly, when it comes to build-up attacks – sequences of 10 or more passes that end in a shot – City are top of the pile with 141, while Arsenal's 73 is once again fifth best.

When Guardiola teams are playing well, it generally follows that they are pressing very well. For high turnovers – those sequences that start 40 metres or less from an opponent's goal – only Liverpool (227) fare better than City (224) this term.

Arsenal are 10th in the league with 160, while they allow opponents 13.7 passes per defensive action on average, compared to City's 11.9, which further suggests a more aggressive pressing approach from Guardiola's men.

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