Seven weeks of hard evidence suggest that the Green Bay Packers' Thursday Night Football clash with the Arizona Cardinals should be one of the games of the year.

The 6-1 Packers travel to face the 7-0 Cardinals for a meeting of two teams to have emerged as clear frontrunners for the top seed in the NFC playoffs and who boast a combined winning percentage of 92.9.

That is the best combined winning percentage for a game in Week 8 or later played on a Thursday since the 11-0 Chicago Bears played at the 10-1 Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, 1934. 

Yet recent history and misfortune on the side of the Packers may see what many hoped would be a fascinating spectacle fail to live up to its billing.

Including the playoffs, the Cardinals have won each of their last three games against Green Bay, and the contrast in the talent the two offenses will have available means the most likely outcome is that streak continuing in the desert.

 

Packers lacking firepower

The Packers are set to be without their top offensive weapon on Thursday after Davante Adams was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Adams needed to provide two negative tests, 24 hours apart, and be asymptomatic for 48 hours to be permitted to play against Arizona. He has reportedly not travelled with Green Bay and is not expected to play, leaving the Packers minus arguably the most complete receiver in the NFL, one who is maintaining the remarkable All-Pro standard he produced last season.

Adams is third in the NFL in receiving yards with 744. He has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 65.8 per cent of his targets. That is not too far above the average of 60.9 per cent, however, Adams leads receivers with at least 25 targets in burn yards per route with 5.1.

In other words, when Adams does win his matchup, he makes the most of it and creates significant separation, reflecting his reputation as one of the NFL's elite route-runners.

His absence will leave a massive void, one that will be more apparent because of the loss of the lead candidate to fill it.

Allen Lazard was placed on the COVID-19 list on Wednesday as a close contact of a person to have tested positive.

Unvaccinated, Lazard is out for five days, robbing the Packers of a receiver with a 71.4 burn percentage who has produced a big play on 44.3 per cent of his targets.

Without Adams and Lazard, the Packers are light on receiving threats to legitimately scare a Cardinals defense ranked second in yards per pass play allowed.

Running back Aaron Jones is Green Bay's second most prolific pass-catcher behind Davante Adams with 26 receptions. He may need to take on more of the receiving workload this week, though the Packers are hoping Marquez Valdes-Scantling can return from a hamstring injury and provide a spark with his downfield speed.

However, Valdes-Scantling's burn percentage of 43.8 from 16 targets so far this season indicates he may find it tough to lift a depleted group. Yet, regardless of whether it comes from Valdes-Scantling, Jones or tight ends Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis, Green Bay will likely require a significant contribution from an unlikely source to keep pace with a passing attack that is loaded by comparison.

Deck stacked for MVP contender Murray

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is firmly in the MVP race and, while that is in large part down to his own remarkable accuracy – 83.3 per cent of his attempts have been well thrown, the best ratio among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts – and playmaking ability, a lot of credit has to be attributed to the stellar performances of several receivers.

Three-time first-team All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins has unsurprisingly hit the ground running in 2021, posting a burn percentage of 80, the highest ratio among receivers with a minimum of 25 targets, and producing a big play on 45.7 per cent of his targets.

Christian Kirk, with a burn percentage of 75 and a big play rate of 38.8 per cent, is not far behind while veteran A.J. Green (35.6 per cent big play rate) has been unexpectedly rejuvenated after trading Cincinnati for Arizona.

The X-factor, however, is rookie Rondale Moore, whose speed out of the backfield has added another dimension to Kliff Kingsbury's offense.

Moore's average depth of target is just 2.3 yards, the lowest in the NFL (min. 10 targets), yet Moore is averaging 3.3 burn yards per route, above the average of 2.5, illustrating his effectiveness in the quick game with his ability to beat defenders with both speed and elusiveness.

His presence has allowed Kingsbury to get more creative in the deployment of his offensive personnel, using the threat of Murray and Moore as runners to his significant advantage.

That particular string is not one the Packers have in their bow and, despite an impressive performance against the Washington Football Team in Week 7, their defense appears ill-equipped to deal with an offense that also saw tight end Zach Ertz score on his debut last week.

No case for Green Bay’s defense

The numbers for the Packers on the defensive side of the ball are impressive in terms of limiting the efficiency of their opponents.

Indeed, Green Bay's defense is 10th in the NFL in opponent yards per play allowed (5.38), while the Packers have given up only 19 plays of 20 yards or more, the third-fewest in the league.

But the Packers' defensive absences are such that it will be a tough ask for them to slow down a potent Cardinals attack.

Jaire Alexander remains out with a shoulder injury, leaving the Packers bereft of his versatility to play as a starting outside corner and at the 'star' position on the inside.

Rookie Eric Stokes has not been a liability in coverage, however, he is allowing 2.04 burn yards per snap (the league average for corners is 2.01) and, minus Alexander's services, the Packers do not have a cornerback capable of consistently locking down his opposing receiver.

Only six interior defensive linemen have defeated a blocker on a pressure more often than Kenny Clark (22), but the Packers' defensive tackle is lacking support off the edge, with Za'Darius Smith a long-term absentee following back surgery and Preston Smith questionable for Thursday due to an oblique issue.

Of quarterbacks with 25 attempts under pressure, Murray's well-thrown percentage in those scenarios of 81 is second only to Mac Jones (81.2).

The Packers do not have the resources up front to make his performance under duress drastically worse nor do they have the resources in the defensive backfield to keep all the Cardinals' weapons under wraps.

With their own offensive arsenal severely reduced, it may take a vintage Rodgers performance of the highest order for the Packers to avoid enduring another frightful experience in Arizona.

Ronald Koeman has been sacked as head coach of Barcelona following a poor start to the club's first season without Lionel Messi in 17 years. 

Financial difficulties saw the six-time Ballon d'Or winner leave for Paris Saint-Germain and, in his absence, Koeman's side have struggled. 

The Dutchman replaced Quique Setien at Camp Nou in August 2020 and led Barca to Copa del Rey success in his first season, although they finished third in LaLiga and suffered a Champions League last-16 exit, as well as losing the Supercopa de Espana final to Athletic Bilbao. 

A shock 1-0 loss at Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday was the final straw and with the club in turmoil, it is imperative that Koeman's successor is chosen with great care. Stats Perform takes a look at the leading contenders who have been linked with the position. 

Xavi

With Koeman dismissed, Barcelona could turn to another club legend in Xavi, hoping the La Masia graduate can succeed where his predecessor failed with an unbalanced squad of ageing regulars and young talent. The former Spain international has presided over Qatari side Al Sadd since his retirement in 2019, leading them to a league title and six domestic cups.

Turning to a young coach who does not have any experience in Europe amid a time of upheaval could be viewed as a huge risk, however. Plus, will Xavi see this as the right time to return? The opportunity to manage Barca is likely to come around again at some stage.

Andrea Pirlo

Another candidate who enjoyed a glittering career as a central midfielder in his playing days, Pirlo replaced Maurizio Sarri at Juventus in August 2020 and won the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana, but was sacked at the end of his debut season following a fourth-placed Serie A finish and another disappointing European exit, this time against Porto.

While Pirlo has experience of coaching in a top-five league, his stint in Turin hardly demonstrated the Italian has the credentials at this stage of his career to rescue an ailing Barcelona side.

Roberto Martinez

Martinez has a greater coaching pedigree, although the highest level he has managed at has come on the international stage with Belgium — a job he still holds. The 48-year-old guided the Red Devils to a third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup and took them to number one in the FIFA world rankings, though a major trophy continues to elude them.

At club level, however, he has managed Everton and Wigan Athletic in the Premier League, winning the FA Cup but also suffering relegation with the latter, and also Swansea City below the top tier — rather different jobs to the one that faces the newcomer at Barcelona.

Erik ten Hag

Could Barca turn to another Dutchman to try to turn their on-field fortunes around? Ten Hag has built his reputation at Ajax, having previously worked at Utrecht and Go Ahead Eagles, as well as a stint with Bayern Munich's second string. He has twice won the Eredivisie title, while he appeared set to reach the Champions League final in 2019, only for Tottenham to produce a stunning comeback in Amsterdam.

Barcelona, who know what it is like to be on the wrong end of a second-leg turnaround in Europe, have well-documented financial problems at the moment, potentially raising an issue if they want to try to lure away a coach under contract elsewhere.

Antonio Conte

Conte is out of work, at least meaning Barca would not have to pay any compensation to appoint him. However, that does not mean the Italian comes cheaply, considering he has a hugely impressive resume. The former Juve boss made a quick impact at his previous two jobs, having returned to club duties after a spell in charge of the Azzurri.

He won the Premier League title in his first season at Chelsea, during which they produced an impressive 13-game winning streak, then ended Inter's Scudetto wait last term, leading the Nerazzurri to a first championship since 2010. His San Siro departure amid Inter's financial cutbacks does raise questions over whether he would want to go anywhere near Camp Nou right now, particularly with Manchester United also reportedly interested.

Marcelo Gallardo

A name strongly linked with the post, Gallardo started out his coaching career with Nacional in Uruguay. However, he has been in charge of River Plate — a club he had three stints at during his playing career — since 2014, winning the Copa Libertadores twice among an impressive list of honours at Los Millonarios.

The last Argentinian coach to take the top job at Barca did not last too long: Gerardo Martino had just one season at the helm. Gallardo would have to cut short his River journey to do so, a move he suggested was not likely after revealing he plans to see out a contract that runs until the end of 2021.

With the NFL approaching the midway point of its season, time is running out to stack fantasy wins and make a run at the postseason.

Whether you're right in the mix or on the outside looking in, now is the moment to go on a run and ensure you will be playing in the championship bracket.

The best way to do that is to identify the players with the opportunity to produce a performance that can serve as the backbone of a matchup-winning effort.

Here Stats Perform looks at four offensive players and a defense who are well-positioned to do just that in Week 8.

 

Quarterback: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles @ Detroit Lions

Hurts is developing a reputation as the king of garbage time stats and, though fantasy owners may not have the benefit of him playing from behind in garbage time this week, he does have an extremely favorable matchup to exploit.

Through his abilities as a dual-threat quarterback, Hurts has accounted for 2,077 yards of offense and 15 touchdowns so far this season.

He is averaging 245.1 passing yards per game and 51.5 yards on the ground. Going against a Detroit defense ranked 30th in yards per play, Hurts is a strong candidate to deliver gaudy fantasy numbers.

Running Back: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

On the surface, Jones' matchup with a Cardinals defense ranked eighth in opponent yards per play allowed is a tough one.

However, only the Los Angeles Chargers are allowing more yards per rush than the Cardinals (4.97), and Jones should see a heavy workload on the ground and through the air.

Indeed, with Davante Adams a doubt after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Allen Lazard out for the same reason, Jones - who is second on the Packers behind Adams with 26 receptions - could see a bump in targets from Aaron Rodgers.

Always a must-start as Green Bay's lead back, Jones' performance on Thursday could be a decisive one for fantasy owners, especially those who play in points per reception leagues.

Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers vs. New England Patriots

The Chargers will be out to get back on track as they return from a bye week following their Week 6 shellacking at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.

And they will be hopeful of hitting on several explosive plays against a Patriots defense that has given up its fair share.

The Patriots have conceded 77 passes of 10 yards or more, the seventh-most in the NFL.

That should be music to the ears of Williams, who has eight receptions of 20 yards or more, four games with at least seven receptions and a touchdown and two 100-yard performances. Expect this big-play threat to exploit a vulnerable New England secondary to a significant extent.

Tight End: Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers

The Falcons are surging, and much of that is down to the play of rookie tight end Pitts, who is living up to the reputation that saw him picked fourth overall in this year's draft by Atlanta.

Pitts has at least eight targets in each of his last three games and goes into Week 8 on the back of successive 100-yard performances.

Having clearly earned the trust of quarterback Matt Ryan, Pitts is receiving the target share and delivering the production to make him a must-start regardless of a tough matchup against a Panthers defense allowing the third-fewest yards per play in the NFL.

Defense: San Francisco 49ers @ Chicago Bears

The 49ers are firmly in must-win mode having dropped to 2-4, and the foundation for a winning effort in Chicago appears more likely to be laid by the defense.

San Francisco forced a pair of turnovers in the Week 7 loss to the Colts and the Niners' chances of adding to their takeaway tally seem strong with Chicago's rookie quarterback Justin Fields having thrown at least one interception in four of his seven appearances.

Fields committed five turnovers in Chicago's blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last time out and a 49ers' front led by one of the NFL's premier pass rushers in Nick Bosa should be confident of forcing him into more.

Few things in the NFL are as important as continuity.

Teams that develop an understanding through the experience of consistently lining up with the same players have a distinctly better shot of enjoying success than those who are constantly chopping and changing.

Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase already had a well-established rapport from their time at LSU, in which they combined for 20 passing touchdowns in 2019 as a high-powered passing game helped the Tigers surge to a National Championship.

The Cincinnati Bengals banked on that partnership translating to the pro game. A year after taking Burrow with the first overall pick in 2020, they passed on the top offensive linemen in the draft, much to the bemusement of many observers, to select Chase fifth overall.

Their faith in the mind meld between quarterback and wide receiver has, to this point, been handsomely rewarded.

Burrow threw for a career-high 416 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday while Chase went for 201 yards and a score on eight catches to help the Bengals emphatically brush aside the Baltimore Ravens 41-17 and take the lead in the AFC North.

With Cincinnati sitting pretty at 5-2, doubts over whether Burrow could showcase the required progress after the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie year are a thing of the past. Meanwhile, Chase is in hot pursuit of history and looks a near-lock for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Separated by a year, Burrow and Chase remain firmly on the same page, and they are helping a well-balanced Bengals team write an exciting new chapter in the story of a franchise that has predominantly been a tale of its shortcomings.

 

Burrow joins exclusive group

Burrow, having racked up 406 yards and three scoring throws in a meeting with the Cleveland Browns last year, became the fourth player with two games with at least 400 yards and three touchdown passes within his first 20 career outings. 

He joins a select club also featuring Patrick Mahomes, Nick Foles and Billy Volek.

Given the contrasting careers experienced by those three quarterbacks, that achievement is no guarantee of future success.

However, the displays Burrow has put on show through seven games suggest he is on the right path to vindicating his selection as a first overall pick and becoming a top-tier NFL quarterback.

Burrow does not have the strongest arm in the league, but he can beat defenses with his accuracy and his poise, both of which came to the fore against the Ravens.

He delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 80.6 per cent of his passes against the Ravens, according to Stats Perform data. That was only just above the league average of 79.8 for the week but it was the highest among quarterbacks who threw 10 passes to have averaged at least nine air yards per attempt.

Burrow finished the game with 11 air yards per attempt, illustrating his willingness to push the ball deep regardless of his perceived deficiencies in arm strength compared to some of the league's best.

And he remained accurate and aggressive in the face of pressure, his composure and intelligent movement in the pocket allowing him to excel even with Ravens pass rushers in his vicinity.

Burrow's well-thrown percentage under duress was 81.8 per cent, while he averaged 13.55 air yards on his 11 pass attempts with pressure.

Frustrating the Ravens with his ability to evade defenders in the pocket, Burrow's cool was exemplified by the Bengals' first touchdown of the game, which saw him shuffle to his left to avoid the monstrous figure of Calais Campbell after a play-action fake and uncork a perfect deep ball to an open C.J. Uzomah.

His prowess in that area has enabled Burrow to thrive while negating the issues on a still problematic offensive line, and having a receiver on a record-setting pace who has put concerns over his skill set to bed has significantly aided the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner's cause.

 

Chase on course for history

The Bengals selected Chase after a pre-draft process that saw plenty of pundits voice their doubts about a player who opted out of the 2020 college football season and who often relied more on physicality than his route-running to defeat the coverage of opposing cornerbacks.

Yet across the first seven games, Chase has made the Bengals' selection look astute by posting 754 receiving yards and scoring six touchdowns.

Chase's total puts him second in the league in receiving yards and means he has surpassed Harlon Hill (685 in 1954) for the most such yards by a player in his first seven career games all-time.

Averaging 107.7 yards per game, he is on track to smash the rookie receiving yards record set by former LSU team-mate Justin Jefferson, who finished the 2020 season with 1,400.

Chase is on pace for 1,830 yards and he is producing at such a rate in part because of the prowess he has displayed as a route-runner.

Going against an All-Pro cornerback in Marlon Humphrey, who went into Week 7 having allowed receivers to get open on only 19 of his 72 coverage matchups, Chase excelled at creating separation.

With 32 seconds left in the first half, Chase beat Humphrey's press coverage through selling an outside release and cleverly using his hands to render the corner's attempt to jam him immaterial as he got free over the middle for a 26-yard catch and run, setting Cincinnati up for a go-ahead field goal.

But Chase saved his best for the game-breaking play of the contest. Initially stemming outside as he lined up against Humphrey again, Chase showed his lower-body flexibility with a fluid break back to the inside on the slant. He then adjusted to a pass thrown slightly behind him before using his balance and body control to avoid three tackle attempts and proceeded to gallop free for an 82-yard score from which the Ravens never looked like recovering.

Announcer Kevin Harlan's description of Humphrey being "in a blender" could hardly have been more accurate and it encapsulated what Chase has blossomed into at the next level.

Producing a big play on 41.1 per cent of his targets – the sixth-highest rate among receivers with at least 25 targets – Chase is a wideout who can discombobulate even the most accomplished NFL corners, and more defenders seem likely to suffer the same fate as Humphrey as the Bengals plot a long-awaited return to the playoffs.

Defense defying expectations

Cincinnati's rise back to prominence is not all about Burrow and Chase, though.

They have played the most substantial role in the Bengals putting up 6.22 yards per play on offense, the third-best average in the league.

Yet a Bengals defense that held the Ravens to their lowest points total of the campaign is also worthy of significant praise.

Cincinnati's defense is allowing 5.14 opponent yards per play, the fourth-fewest in the NFL, the Bengals doing an excellent job of putting their opponents behind the sticks.

Indeed, only the Carolina Panthers (48) have forced more negative plays from their opponents than the Bengals (47).

The combination of an efficient offense boasting a receiver adept at delivering explosive plays and a defense that excels at creating plays where their opponents lose yardage is a winning formula that can lift the Bengals to stunning upsets over well-established contenders like the Ravens.

It remains to be seen whether it can be sustained, but a franchise that at regular intervals in its history has been known for poor personnel decisions and underwhelming performances is being rewarded for making the right choice in this year's draft and seeing its roster compete with rivals that entered the season viewed as existing on another level altogether.

It's way too early to declare the Bengals a complete team. Seven weeks of evidence is not enough for an organisation that has not enjoyed a winning season since 2015. However, what can be said with some certainty is Burrow, Chase and a defense performing well above expectations have put the Bengals in a position where results akin to what they produced in Baltimore will not be a surprise for much longer.

Manchester City's 6-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford, 10 years and one day ago, was probably the worst defeat ever endured by Alex Ferguson.

In the club's modern history, even in the post-Fergie wilderness, there had never quite been an occasion to match it, even accounting for Tottenham's victory by the same scoreline last year.

There has now.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the hero of Barcelona 1999, knew a thing or two about creating spectacles as a player. As a manager, he still has the knack.

Manchester United 0, Liverpool 5. Has there ever been a more abject, visceral demolition of the 20-time English champions in the Premier League era? Has it ever looked this bad?

A goal down after five minutes and a missed Bruno Fernandes sitter. A hat-trick for Mohamed Salah, the first in the league away to United since QPR's Dennis Bailey in 1992. A disallowed goal for Cristiano Ronaldo. A 15-minute cameo for Paul Pogba that ended in a red card. A total of 35 home goals conceded in 2021, their worst such return for 60 years. The biggest win for Liverpool over their rivals since 1925. And hardly a whiff of surprise about the whole sordid thing.

As former midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger tweeted at full-time: "A devastating day for all Man Utd supporters and the club but it didn't come out of nowhere. It was not a surprise."

City's 6-1 win in October 2011 was a watershed moment; a giant step on the way to their first Premier League title. But it was still an aberration: after all, United finished level on points that season and responded by winning the trophy back a year later.

This was more in keeping with Liverpool and City's 3-0 wins over David Moyes' United. Those games, too, were barely contests, barely surprising given United's problems, and barely left the manager anywhere to hide.

The Glazers have stood by Solskjaer, resolutely, perhaps misguidedly. Watching United lose 3-1 at Anfield was enough for them to sack Jose Mourinho three years ago. If they tuned in to Sunday's match, if they saw homecoming hero Ronaldo eclipsed by Salah and 'legacy fans' leaving in droves at half-time, can they afford not to act?

United have played nine games since the fanfare of Ronaldo's goalscoring return against Newcastle United. They have won three of those, drawn one and lost five.

That's bad enough, but consider the circumstances. Only a last-second penalty save from David de Gea ensured the 2-1 win at West Ham; only Ronaldo's injury-time intervention salvaged an undeserved victory over Villarreal; only Tom Davies' strange decision to pass to the offside Yerry Mina, rather than shoot, meant Everton left Old Trafford with only a 1-1 draw.

Fine margins have been the difference between United's form being considered merely unacceptable, and the alarms this embarrassment will sound. Nobody who has watched them across those nine matches could seriously claim what happened against Liverpool could not have been foreseen.

The rain-soaked turf was a glistening canvas depiction of everything wrong about Solskjaer's team – if we needed reminding.

There are the collective tactical concerns, as seen for Naby Keita's opening goal, when Mason Greenwood and Aaron Wan-Bissaka gave up their positions to press Liverpool with all the ferocity and endeavour of an apathetic tortoise.

There are the individual mistakes, some of which would be incomprehensible for amateurs, never mind those playing for the world's most supported football club. Keita and Salah each scored with the United back five blocking not their route to de Gea's goal, but back to the halfway line. Before Diogo Jota's tap-in, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, defenders who cost a combined £110million, shied away from a loose ball as though under duress to keep dirt off the sponsor logos on their shirts.

United have committed eight errors leading to shots this season, the joint-most in the Premier League along with Wolves. But where Bruno Lage's men counter that through tackling – only eight sides have won more – United have won a league-low 61. When it comes to making amends for these mistakes, the Red Devils right now are either not interested or not capable.

Salah completed his hat-trick early in the second half, Ronaldo had a fine goal of his own disallowed by VAR, but many United fans were no longer in the stadium to watch. The loyalty to Solskjaer's legacy as a player has kept him immune to the kind of vitriol seen in the final days of Moyes, or Louis van Gaal, or Mourinho, but little served up by any of Fergie's successors was quite as horrifying as this.

United's daunting run of games since the October international break has yielded one win, two defeats, five goals scored and 11 conceded. With Tottenham, Atalanta and City to come next, you'd expect them to lose all three.

This is Manchester United's new normal: a total, shameful mess.

David Alaba is one of few footballers who can claim to have experienced consistent success against Barcelona in the 21st century and he once again proved a thorn in their side as El Clasico went in Real Madrid's favour at Camp Nou.

In three games against Barca for Bayern Munich, Alaba enjoyed a 100 per cent win record.

Bayern scored 15 goals and conceded just two across those matches, eight of those coming in Die Roten's incredible Champions League quarter-final win of 2020.

And the Austria international remains unbeaten versus the Blaugrana, his stunning left-foot finish helping settle a game in which Barca misfired in their first Clasico since Lionel Messi's departure and Madrid's brightest young talent rose to the occasion.

 

Alaba opens his account in style

Alaba's goal, his first since joining Madrid, was one worthy of winning a fixture of such magnitude. Having won the ball from Memphis Depay on the edge of his own box, he surged forward before finding Vinicius Junior on the left flank.

The former Bayern star initially wanted the return pass but Vinicius eschewed that option, instead playing a superb ball to Rodrygo Goes in the centre.

Rodrygo's pass to find Alaba continuing his charge was inch-perfect, only bettered by the quality of a blistering finish from just inside the area.

Barca struggled to deal with Madrid's threat down the left flank throughout, Vinicius taking the chance to emerge as the star of a Clasico absent its departed modern-day leading man.

 

Vinicius shines in the spotlight

Vinicius went into the fixture having scored seven goals and provided the assist for three in all competitions. He did not add to either of those tallies but his influence across the Brazilian's 87 minutes on the pitch was obvious,

Ensuring Sergino Dest endured a difficult afternoon at both ends of the pitch, Vinicius attempted a game-high eight dribbles, four of which were successful.

No player on the field participated in (20) or won more duels (10) as Vinicius excelled at putting Barca under pressure.

Only Depay (six) and Ansu Fati (seven) had more touches in the opposition box, yet Barca's inability to make the most of those touches was telling.

Barca bereft of attacking inspiration

Alaba's shot that gave Madrid the lead had an Expected Goals (xG) value of 0.08, reflecting the difficulty he should have had in beating Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

It came seven minutes after Dest had blazed high over the crossbar with the goal seemingly at his mercy from close range. Barca did not have a chance as presentable until Sergio Aguero scored with a point-blank effort from effectively the final kick of the game after Lucas Vazquez had put it to bed with Madrid's second goal.

 

Barca finished with 12 shots but only two on target. Madrid hit the target with five of their 10 efforts. Nine of Barca's shots came from inside the box but they ended a frustrating encounter with only two 'big chances' compared to three for Los Blancos.

Those numbers are reflective of a game in which, without Messi there to stretch Madrid's shape, Carlo Ancelotti's men succeeded in staying deep and compact and hitting Barca on the counter, which they twice did to devastating effect.

When Barca got into the final third, the lack of creativity and threat in contrast to Madrid was startling.

Ronald Koeman could do nothing to prevent Messi from leaving under the financial pressures faced by Barca and he certainly cannot be blamed for a howitzer of a strike from Alaba that tilted matters in Madrid's favour.

Yet there will surely be questions asked as to how a man who played under Johan Cruyff at Barca can oversee a team that, at least on Sunday, was so desperately short of the attacking flair that has for so long defined this famous club.

The final score may have looked tight but, in the post-Messi era, the gap between Barca and their arch-rivals is a chasm.

Even in an age where the passing game is king, the best teams in the NFL can still fall victim to a dominant rushing performance.

Derrick Henry proved as much on Monday Night Football in Week 6, putting the Buffalo Bills to the sword with a 143-yard, three-touchdown performance as the Tennessee Titans claimed a thrilling primetime win.

It was Henry's fifth successive 100-yard game and his third this season with three touchdowns.

Unsurprisingly, the man who has won the rushing title in each of the last two seasons again leads the league in yardage on the ground.

More noteworthy, however, is the fact Henry is on pace to comfortably break Eric Dickerson's record for most rushing yards in a single season.

Dickerson's mark of 2,105 has stood since 1984, but Henry critically has the benefit of a 17th game in which to make NFL history.

But is Henry's pace sustainable? And, beyond writing one of the most incredible chapters in the NFL record books, what would it mean if Henry does surpass Dickerson?

Henry's potentially historic average

Following his dominant showing against Buffalo, Henry is averaging 130.5 yards per game, putting him on track for 2,219.

Such a gaudy average would be unsustainable for most backs. However, Henry has the exceptional skill set to again prove as the exception.

He finished last season with similar numbers, putting up 126.7 yards per game while leading the league with 378 carries – Dalvin Cook was second with 312 –  as the Titans star surpassed 2,000 for the first time in his career.

And his frightening combination of his size and speed has allowed Henry to display durability beyond most players at his position.

Henry has missed only one game across the previous two seasons, a period in which he carried the ball a league-high 681 times, with his 6ft 3in and 247lb frame and his explosiveness ensuring it is opposing defenders who typically come off worst in collisions.

A favourable schedule

Speaking to that explosiveness is Henry's 2021 yards before contact per attempt average of 3.01. That figure is comfortably above the league average of 2.40 and the difficulty in stopping Henry once he bursts to the second level of the defense is reflected by his number of big-play runs.

Henry leads the league with 19 rushes of 10 yards or more while he is the only player in the NFL with two runs of at least 50 yards.

Simply put, being in the path of this behemoth when he breaks into the open field is the most difficult position for an NFL defender to be in, and he will face plenty of defenses vulnerable to run during the remainder of the season.

On Sunday, the Titans face a Kansas City Chiefs defense ranked 30th in rush yards per attempt allowed (5.15), with six of the last 11 weeks of the season seeing Tennessee meet a team ranked in the bottom half of the league by that metric.

The blend of Henry's proclivity for big gains and a schedule that should present a plethora of opportunities for displays akin to his devastating effort in Week 6 is a perfect recipe for the former Alabama star sustaining his current pace and shattering Dickerson's record, which would be significant for several reasons.

Destined for Canton?

The magnitude of Henry breaking the rushing record cannot be overstated.

At present, it is only the advent of the 17th game that would make his current pace enough for him to surpass Dickerson, who averaged an astonishing 131.6 yards across 16 games.

Yet that would not detract from the scale of Henry's achievement, with that potential piece of history standing as a monument to his consistency.

In addition to claiming a record that has long since seemed unbreakable, Henry would become the first player in NFL history to record multiple 2,000-yard seasons, doing so in successive years.

Putting that into context, no player in NFL history has even posted back-to-back 1,900-yard seasons, with Dickerson the sole player to go over 1,800 yards in consecutive years, his record-breaking 1984 following a 1983 campaign he finished with 1,808 yards as a rookie.

Henry may only be in his sixth season as a pro but, should he maintain his pace and make NFL history, he can surely look forward to a place in the Hall of Fame.

The argument could be made that he would require a longer spell of dominance to secure a spot in Canton. However, Henry is on course for an unmatched two-year run at a time where the unstoppable bell-cow running back is considered a thing of the past.

This is the era of committee backfields, one where any running back taken in the first round can be viewed as a reach, and yet Henry is producing at an unprecedented rate amid a workload that would physically break many tailbacks and carrying the Titans to victories that have helped establish a two-game lead in the AFC South as they look for back-to-back division titles.

Tennessee's flaws on defense will likely prevent the Titans from seriously contending for a deep playoff run this year, but Henry has the distinct opportunity to make sure this season is memorable for entirely different reasons that would be worthy of him being immortalised and receiving a gold jacket after an increasingly astounding career comes to a close.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often seems destined to fail at Manchester United, and this season the stakes appear higher.

With media scrutiny mounting, Solskjaer's future looked bleak at half-time against Atalanta on Wednesday, with United 2-0 down and staring at a fifth defeat in eight games across all competitions.

"There is pressure all the time. There is pressure on me of course but we've been through this before and come through it stronger as a team and as individuals," Solskjaer said before that match.

His players came good. Goals from Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose arrival seems to have presented more questions than answers regarding Solskjaer's tactical set-up, rescued a vital three points in the Champions League, but Sunday brings an altogether different challenge, with Liverpool in town.

How the managers match up

Prior to the clash with Atalanta, Solskjaer had taken charge of 162 games at United, with Jurgen Klopp having hit that figure at Liverpool back in September 2018.

Four months earlier, Liverpool had slipped to a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Strengthened by the arrivals of Alisson and Fabinho, they would go on to win the European trophy in 2019 – Klopp's first piece of silverware at Anfield. A Premier League title followed in 2019-20.

Yet looking back over the pair's first 162 matches at the helm, it is Solskjaer who can boast the better win percentage (54.9 compared to 53.1).

While Klopp recorded fewer defeats in those games (31 to 37), Solskjaer won 86 times, three more than the Liverpool boss managed.

Klopp did, however, take Liverpool to two finals in his first half-season in charge, only to lose both, in the EFL Cup and Europa League. His third final, and the last within his first 162 games, was the defeat to Madrid in Kiev.

Solskjaer, comparatively, has reached just one final – United going down on penalties in the Europa League showdown against Villarreal at the end of last season.

United scored 299 goals under Solskjaer before Wednesday, from an expected goals (xG) value of 269.6, suggesting the level of chances they have created has not quite matched the finishing. That xG figure outperforms Liverpool's xG of 259.9, though the Reds netted 327 times.

Defence has been a major cause for concern this term, but overall Solskjaer's United kept 59 clean sheets in 162 games prior to tackling Atalanta, conceding 168 goals.

An expected goals against (xGA) of 185.2 suggests United's goalkeepers had plenty to do, though Liverpool only kept 62 clean sheets in the same amount of matches under Klopp, conceding four more goals (172).

Alisson's signing in July 2018 has certainly proved key, given Liverpool's xGA from Klopp's first 162 games was 135.3, suggesting goalkeeping may have been responsible for some of the Reds' issues.

On the right track?

"We've progressed over the years since I was [first here for] half a season. Sixth, third, second. You can see the progress, development and improvement. This season we still want to improve. We've signed players that have raised expectations," Solskjaer said before the Atalanta game.

While the underlying metrics may back up Solskjaer's point, digging deeper presents a more worrying picture.

United's goal tallies have improved, yet Solskjaer's crux is clearly in defence. His team allowed 685 shots last season, 70 more than in 2019-20 from the same number of games (61), with their xGA leaping from 59.2 to 71.5.

Klopp's side, on the other hand, managed to get Liverpool's defeats down from 12 to nine (in both 2016-17 and 2017-18) to seven in his third full season.

As Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah hit their stride, Liverpool's goal totals ticked up, from 87 to 92 to 129, and their highest xGA value in this period was 49.5, way down on United's worst figure.

While there may be similarities in results, Klopp used the first half of his Liverpool spell to implement a style of play, and lay the groundwork for European and domestic triumphs.

Solskjaer will insist he has a vision of what his incarnation of United should be, and though his record against other 'big six' Premier League sides is decent (W13 D10 L10), Liverpool are unbeaten in 18 league games, the longest current run in the top four tiers of English football.

Away from Anfield, they have scored at least three goals in each of their last five Premier League games. United have not kept a clean sheet at home in nine top-flight matches and, despite the calibre of players brought in during Solskjaer's tenure, the old rivals look worlds apart.

Over the past 17 years or so, few – if any – fixtures in world football have been more synonymous with drama, chaos and, above all, the world's best players than El Clasico.

In a way, we probably came to take it for granted what El Clasico meant in terms of entertainment and quality.

Of course, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo became the star attractions of the contest, El Clasico almost becoming its own side story in the wider narrative of their Ballon d'Or rivalry.

Ronaldo's 2018 departure took away one element, and some might even suggest it impacted Messi negatively as well, as he failed to have a hand in a single Clasico goal after his old nemesis moved on.

Now both are gone, with Sunday's Clasico at Camp Nou the first of an era in which neither Messi nor Ronaldo will play any part.

The last season that didn't have either Messi or Ronaldo make a Clasico appearance was 2004-05, and as such there are many people who feel LaLiga has lost some of its lustre, even with Karim Benzema showing the kind of productivity that is unrivalled across the top five European leagues.

 

That's perhaps partly – along with the slow re-establishment of the tourism industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – reflected by the fact there were still 52,000 tickets available for the match as of Tuesday morning.

But that's not to say these squads aren't worth watching. El Clasico may be at the start of a transitional period itself, but there are talents in both teams who look capable of defining this fixture for the next 10 to 15 years.

AN ARCHETYPAL BARCA MIDFIELD

Would Ronald Koeman be putting so much faith in younger players were it not for Barca's financial troubles? Even when you consider the club's history with La Masia, that's debatable.

But here we are, eight matches into the 2021-22 LaLiga season and only two clubs in Spain's top flight have a younger average starting XI age than Barca (26 years, 174 days). That highlights the significance of their squad replenishment since 2017-18, when their average starting XI age was 28 years, 36 days old – the fifth oldest in the division.

 

Nowhere in the Barca team is that more noticeable than in midfield, where youngsters are being forced to mature very, very early.

Gavi had only ever played two league games for Barca's second team before this season, and despite having just five LaLiga outings under his belt, he became Spain's youngest ever international earlier this month.

But the key thing to remember is, the talent – and seemingly attitude – is there. Gavi and Nico have made the step up this season to join Pedri, which could feasibly be Barca's long-term midfield trio, such is the ability and skillset the three teenagers have so far demonstrated.

Sadly, Pedri is likely to miss the Clasico this weekend due to injury, but the remarkable ease to which he took to LaLiga last season provided every shred of evidence needed to consider him a genuine key figure already. The maturity he showed at Euro 2020 only cemented that.

 

Pedri performed an integral function in Luis Enrique's team as he complete more final-third passes (177) than any other player at the Euros, the teenager proving to be hugely dependable when it came to helping keep Spain in possession and on the front foot in those tighter areas of the pitch.

Of course, the way Spain play means their players are likely to have more passes than others, but the fact he fitted in so quickly speaks volumes. Andres Iniesta comparisons have never been far away, even while he was still at Las Palmas, and it's his excellence in this kind of facilitator role that lends further credence to it.

Pedri was involved in 4.2 shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes last season, which was only bettered by five players who ordinarily play in central midfield roles – Frenkie de Jong (5.0) ranked highest. While Iniesta averaged 5.1 each game back in his prime in 2015-16, that dropped to 2.9 in his final season, highlighting how Pedri is absolutely on the right track in terms of influencing Barca's build-up play.

But the beauty of the options Barca have coming through at the moment is that Pedri can realistically expect to have plenty of assistance when it comes to managing the side's considered, possessional style.

 

Gavi has a particularly interesting profile. While he's undoubtedly comfortable on the ball with respect to both passing and dribbling – his nifty turn to spin around Paul Pogba before getting a shot away in the Nations League final was proof of that – he's also a feisty individual.

He's engaged in 14.5 duels per match on average this season. Going back to the start of 2020-21, the only Barca players (minimum of 300 minutes played) to be more involved in that respect are Messi (14.9) and Ilaix Moriba (17.4).

Of course, it's worth pointing out he still has a lot of room for growth here. Gavi's already got four yellow cards across all competitions this season, and his tendency to go flying into tackles a little recklessly was notable during the Nations League, but if this side of his game is nurtured properly then it will be a real asset to Barca's midfield. It's easy to see why Luis Enrique said Marco Verratti is the teenager's idol.

The other potential long-term pillar of Barca's midfield is Nico, the son of former Deportivo La Coruna title-winner and Spain international Fran. Of the three of them, Nico's probably still got the furthest to go to nail down a regular spot, but the promise is there.

In Barca's B team he carried out various midfield functions but really came into his own once deployed as a pivot, the Sergio Busquets role, if you will. It's in this position that his strengths really shine through, as he is comfortable at receiving the ball under pressure because he's so good at using his physicality in conjunction with a delicate appreciation of the ball at his feet.

The similarities with Busquets in that sense are quite striking, though he still has work to do to get a prolonged chance in that position under Koeman, who called Nico out for a lack of defensive awareness in the defeat to Atletico Madrid. He was blamed for letting Thomas Lemar run clear for the first goal.

Nevertheless, there's a lot to like about Nico, particularly his satisfying comfort on the ball. Although not especially quick, his dribbling ability is going to really help him stand out. Sure, it's early days in the season and he's not played a huge amount of football, but so far he is completing 73 per cent of his dribble attempts, which won't surprise those who have been raving about him for a while now.

If given the opportunity to progress and develop, this trio could be Barca's next iconic midfield.

TWO MESSIS?

When Messi's exit was swiftly followed by the announcement of a then injured Ansu Fati taking the number 10 jersey, there were surely plenty of people wondering if it was too much, too soon for him.

Those doubts will not have stemmed from his ability, but rather concern for the mental toll such expectation could have on someone who – let's not forget – is still only 18.

But after 10 months out with a serious knee injury, he returned to the pitch against Levante last month and dazzled in a brief cameo, which included an excellent goal as he spun away from a defender and fired home from distance. It was the kind of reintroduction that suggested he was going to relish his new senior role rather than be cowed by it.

He made his first start of the season last weekend at home to Valencia and only needed 13 minutes to get Barca on the scoresheet. He came off the left flank, played a one-two with Memphis Depay and whipped a clinical effort into the bottom corner from 20 yards. Had it been off his left foot, there would have been more than a hint of Messi to it.

That took him to 11 LaLiga goals in 1,059 minutes since the start of February 2020. In that time, only Alex Fernandez (37.5 per cent) boasts a better conversion rate among LaLiga players with at least five goals than Fati (29 per cent).

Those 11 efforts come from a 4.5 expected goals (xG) value, which is of course a massive overperformance. Ordinarily one would be inclined to think such form is unsustainable, but Fati is clearly special. After missing the best part of a year, he's come back and looked extremely sharp.

One area Barca will hope for improvement is his ability to fashion chances for others because, not only did Messi score more than anyone else at Barca, he also created the most chances.

Fati's 1.7 key passes per 90 mins since the start of last season isn't bad, but Messi was at 2.6 in 2020-21. Of course, it would be unfair to expect anyone to rival Messi's output in terms of goals and creativity, but in an ideal world, Barca will pick up the slack somehow and Fati looks likely to be their next big hope, hence the new six-year contract with a €1billion release clause.

 

But perhaps Yusuf Demir can share some of the burden in future as well – after all, he was nicknamed the 'Austrian Messi' prior to joining Barca on an initial loan back in July.

The 18-year-old has been used sparingly since starting successive league games last month, but hopes for him are high. The Messi comparisons, perhaps rather obviously, come from the fact he's fairly small, left-footed and likes to dribble in off the right flank.

He's only five games into his Camp Nou career and undoubtedly raw, but Demir had been highly rated long before Barca took their opportunity to bring him in during pre-season.

At Rapid Vienna last season, Demir may have started in just six of his 25 Austrian Bundesliga outings (825 minutes), yet he amassed a respectable seven goal involvements, which averaged out at one every 117.9 minutes – of the players to feature for at least 825 minutes, only 10 had a better record.

 

Only one of those involvements was an assist, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story about his creativity as Demir was a regular creator when he did play, which is evidenced by the fact his 2.7 key passes per 90 was the sixth best among those to play at least 825 minutes.

But probably his most notable skill, and the one that inspires some of the Messi comparisons, is his dribbling. A dynamic and explosive player, Demir attempted 6.3 dribbles every game on average last term. No player (minimum 108 minutes) matched that. His 3.8 successful dribbles was also a league high, and it's that flair that has seen him find his way to Catalonia.

It remains to be seen what kind of an impact Demir can have at Barca this season, but there's every chance he and Fati could be terrorising LaLiga full-backs together for years.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT FOR LOS BLANCO

Barcelona's reliance on youth this season has been greater than Real Madrid's, for obvious reasons. But in Vinicius Junior they have one of most in-form players aged 21 or younger in world football, and Eduardo Camavinga joined in pre-season after developing into a serious talent at Rennes.

Camavinga remains something of a mystery regarding his long-term role and even suitability at Madrid, given he has only played five league games, but his promising beginning at Rennes offers plenty to be optimistic about.

For starters, he regularly featured in a midfield trio for Rennes and at least for the time being that will be the case in Madrid, but he also offers a nice blend of explosive flair and defensive work rate.

Only five players in Ligue 1 last season won more tackles than Camavinga (59) and all of them played at least 492 minutes more than him across the course of the season, while he also completed 66.2 per cent of his 65 attempted dribbles. Of the players to try at least 45, only six boasted a better success rate.

Obviously at a club like Madrid, Camavinga will expect to do less defensive work because they'll spend more time on the ball, but knowing they have someone in that number 8 role who is both effective in possession and without it can only be a good thing.

But while we wait for Camavinga to truly make his mark (he has only played 197 minutes in LaLiga), Vinicius is enjoying something of a coming-of-age campaign.

 

He's always looked exciting but so often there have been doubts over his decision making and decisiveness. For example, he only scored three goals in LaLiga last season from an xG value of 6.5 – he couldn't be counted on to make the difference.

But the strides he has made this season have been significant. The Brazilian is attempting more than twice as many dribbles each game (7.0) compared to 2020-21 (3.1), yet his success rate has improved (41.1 per cent to 44.6) as well.

In front of goal he's no longer wasting chances he should be converting – in fact, he's actually been clinical with five goals from 3.5 xG, his shot conversion rate going up from 7.5 per cent to 23.8.

For starters, this suggests he's picking his opportunities better, but the fact he's already at 3.5 xG highlights that he's getting himself into better positions as well.

Vinicius has rarely appeared to lack confidence, but now that seems to be translating into extra attacking responsibility and he's embracing it. He's carrying the ball more and across greater distances, but more importantly than that, it's leading to an increase in Madrid's output in the final third, with Vinicius' shot involvements from ball carries improving to 2.9 this term from 1.1 (per 90 minutes) in 2020-21.

Suddenly he's looking like the future superstar many thought he was destined to be when he left Flamengo, with his wonderful brace against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday a prime example of his new-found clinical nature.

Few would bet against him having a similarly decisive impact in El Clasico, but even if he doesn't, there will be enough young talent on display to highlight why this could be the start of an exciting new era in Spanish football's most watched fixture.

Lionel Messi has Le Classique on his mind, not El Clasico. Cristiano Ronaldo faces the daunting challenge of trying to out-match Mohamed Salah, arguably the best forward in the world at this moment.

This Sunday is one of those remarkable days in European football, with Messi and PSG heading to Marseille for a Velodrome battle, while Ronaldo and Manchester United tackle Liverpool.

Sunday also sees Barcelona and Real Madrid clash at Camp Nou, in LaLiga's first Clasico since Messi followed Ronaldo by bidding Spain farewell.

It is one of those quietly momentous moments in sport. The recent US Open tennis tournament happened without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and now a Clasico in Spain's post Messi and Ronaldo era is upon us.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looked at the impact Messi and Ronaldo have had on world football's biggest club game.

Messi and Ronaldo were Clasico mainstays

For the duration of Ronaldo's nine-year stint with Madrid, neither he nor Messi missed a Clasico in LaLiga. Both started 17 games and appeared as a substitute once each.

And the raw facts tell us Messi had far more to celebrate in the league series, with Barcelona winning 10 times and Madrid notching just four victories, with four games drawn, an aggregate scoreline of 39-23 going in the Blaugrana's favour.

Madrid had an average of 14.1 shots per game to 13.0 by Barcelona, but the capital side could not make that slight advantage count in the overall reckoning.

Taking all competitions into account, Madrid's overall Clasico record in the Ronaldo era perked up slightly (W10 D8 L14). They had two Copa del Rey final wins over Barcelona in this time, with Jose Mourinho's side snatching a 1-0 win thanks to Ronaldo's extra-time header in 2011. Ronaldo was then absent through injury for the 2014 final, Madrid winning 2-1 after a late golazo from Gareth Bale.

A Champions League semi-final success for Barcelona in 2011, however, was a sweet knockout blow, delivered after a swift double jab from Messi, his double in a 2-0 win at the Bernabeu being the telling contribution. Messi's goals that night, from a personal expected goals (xG) total of 0.8, were a blow from which Ronaldo and Madrid could not recover in the second leg at Camp Nou. Barcelona went on to beat Manchester United 3-1 in the final, Messi scoring the second goal and being named man of the match.

 

Who was Clasico goal king of the record breakers?

Messi hit an all-time record of 474 goals in LaLiga and Ronaldo grabbed a sensational 311 in nine seasons, but who saved their best finishing form for El Clasico?

The data tells us Messi wins this one, with both players deadlier away from home during their head-to-head rivalry.

Ronaldo hit six goals in nine LaLiga games at Camp Nou, but he only managed three at the Bernabeu against Barca, and they were all penalties. In Madrid's home league tussles with Barcelona, Ronaldo's shot conversion rate was just 6.4 per cent, but it would have been 0.0 per cent without those spot-kicks. The 6.4 per cent conversion rate ranked, of all the fixtures in which he scored in LaLiga, as Ronaldo's fourth worst.

Messi, during that same 2009-18 period, grabbed nine goals in nine league games at the Santiago Bernabeu, four of them penalties, and also scored three in nine home games against Madrid, a free-kick and two from open play. His shot conversion rate of 11.1 per cent at home was balanced out nicely by a sharp-shooting 27.3 per cent away to Los Blancos.

Six assists from Messi to just one from Ronaldo in the nine-season rivalry further underlined the Argentine forward's upper hand in these games.

Across his entire Barcelona career, which spanned 17 years at first-team level, Messi scored 18 LaLiga goals in Clasico battles.

 

What more can we learn from the Leo v CR7 LaLiga years?

Madrid targeted Messi, or at least the numbers suggest they tried to stop him through fair means or foul, albeit with limited success.

He was fouled 30 times at Camp Nou and 26 times at the Bernabeu during Clasico league games. No LaLiga opponent fouled Messi more than that combined total of 56 during the nine-year spell of the Ronaldo rivalry (Atletico Madrid - 47, Espanyol - 46).

Madrid conceded an average of 18.2 fouls per Clasico during that era, and won 12.6, and such margins can be significant.

Barcelona had a string of pass masters in their ranks, with the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets bossing the midfield for much of this vaunted period, and in the LaLiga Clasico games their precision was noticeable.

Passing accuracy of 84.2 per cent in the opposition half during games against Madrid during the Ronaldo years showed where they excelled, and Madrid's 74 per cent mark in this category showed they were often losing possession.

Giving the ball away to any team can spell trouble, and being inaccurate with more than a quarter of passes in the Barcelona half pointed to problems. Only against Rayo Vallecano (71.7 per cent) did Madrid have worse accuracy in that area of the field while Ronaldo was at the club, and that hardly mattered as they won all 10 of their LaLiga games against the side from nearby Vallecas.

Ronaldo's 73.6 per cent passing accuracy against Barcelona was his third worst against any LaLiga opponent, while Messi soared above him with 83.7 per cent, his sixth highest against all league opposition for the seasons from 2009-10 to 2017-18.

The fact he pulled off such consistency while targeting high-tariff manoeuvres in enemy territory further served to underline Messi's dominance of perhaps the greatest LaLiga Clasico head-to-head of them all.

 

Liverpool meet Manchester United in a clash of two of the Premier League's fiercest rivalries on Sunday, and it will also see two of the competition's star forwards face off.

Cristiano Ronaldo's move back to United was a sensational story late in the transfer window, and though the 36-year-old picked up where he left off in England back in 2009, it is Liverpool's Mohamed Salah who has taken the limelight so far this season.

Salah leads the way with seven goals from eight league appearances in 2021-22, including two quite sensational strikes in his last two top-flight matches, against Manchester City and Watford respectively.

His efforts, which also include four assists, a tally so far bettered only by Ronaldo's United team-mate Paul Pogba (seven), have helped Liverpool to five victories and three draws.

On Friday, Jurgen Klopp was asked in his pre-match news conference to compare Salah and Ronaldo, as two of the league's – and indeed world football's – best players.

"I never thought about that," he said. "Why should we compare Cristiano Ronaldo and Mo Salah?

"Both are world-class players and that's it. I would say, even though Cristiano Ronaldo's left foot is not that bad, I'd say Mo's left foot is probably better!

"Maybe then in the air Ronaldo is slightly better and his right foot is probably better! But speed wise they are both pretty quick, very desperate to score goals, so maybe that's it but I really never thought properly about that and never really thought about it."

While Klopp may not think to compare the duo, Stats Perform has used Opta data to assess how the star forwards stack up.

 

Premier League records

While Ronaldo always seemed set for stardom since bursting onto the scene under Alex Ferguson in 2003-04, Salah did have a rather more stagnated journey to becoming one of the top-flight's best players, with the Egypt forward initially struggling at Chelsea after a move from Basel in January 2014.

He scored twice in 10 league appearances in his first half-season at Stamford Bridge but, under Jose Mourinho, played only three times in the competition in 2014-15 before loan moves to Fiorentina and Roma, the latter switch eventually being made permanent.

But in his first season at Liverpool in 2017-18, Salah broke Ronaldo's record of 31 Premier League goals in a single campaign, scoring 32 times across 36 matches, averaging a strike every 91 minutes.

Salah's shot conversion rate of 22.22 per cent that season (from 144 attempts in total) is the best either he or Ronaldo have managed in their Premier League careers.

In terms of assists, Salah has twice reached 10 for a campaign, in 2017-18 and Liverpool's title-winning season of 2019-20. Ronaldo's best figure of eight was recorded in 2006-07.

Klopp pointed to Ronaldo's aerial prowess as an area where the Portugal star certainly edges out his Egyptian counterpart, and that is reflected in the data – the former Real Madrid man having scored 11 of his 87 Premier League goals with his head, compared to just six from Salah.

Salah has scored a remarkable 104 league goals from 166 appearances, while Ronaldo has scored his tally from 201 games in the competition.

 

The season so far...

Salah also edges the statistics when taking this season specifically into account. In all competitions, he has already netted 12 goals in 11 games, all of which have been starts, while Ronaldo has scored six times in eight matches.

Ronaldo has averaged a goal every 107 minutes, while Salah has done so every 80 minutes. The latter has also been involved in 16 goals compared to Ronaldo's tally of six, with the Liverpool attacker crafting 25 chances for team-mates.

Much has been made of Ronaldo's transformation into a penalty box poacher, though his 54 touches in the opposition area is some 39 fewer than Salah (93), perhaps speaking more to the differing styles of play between United and Liverpool.

Both players have outperformed their expected goals (xG), suggesting their finishing has been better than would be expected. Salah, however, is some three ahead (12 goals from an xG of 9.0), with Ronaldo's six goals coming from an xG of 5.4.

Salah scored three goals in his two away games against United last season (two in the FA Cup, one in the Premier League), and he could become the first Liverpool player to net in three consecutive matches at Old Trafford.

Replacing Romelu Lukaku was never going to be easy, though, in Edin Dzeko, Inter may have gone some way to doing just that.

The 2021-22 campaign may still be in its infancy, but 35-year-old Dzeko has made a fantastic start as Inter look to defend the Serie A title that Lukaku's goals propelled them towards last season.

Dzeko took his tally for the season to seven with a sublime volley against Sheriff in the Champions League on Tuesday. Inter were pegged back, but the former Roma man turned from scorer to provider to tee up Arturo Vidal and swing the match back in the Nerazzurri's favour.

Heading into the first Derby d'Italia of the season, Simone Inzaghi's Inter sit three points above Juventus, who themselves have had to contend with the loss of a superstar forward.

Cristiano Ronaldo beat Lukaku in the Serie A scoring charts in 2020-21, yet while Inter, spearheaded by Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez, lead the way for goals scored so far this season with 23, Juve are lagging some 11 behind.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses how the two giants of Italian football have adapted – and are still adapting – to the attackers at their disposal, and if that could prove the difference on Sunday.

Replacing Rom

Chelsea broke their transfer record to re-sign Lukaku in August for a whopping £97.5million (€115m). The cash was needed by Inter, who had already sold Achraf Hakimi to Paris Saint-Germain and lost their title-winning coach Antonio Conte as well. Lukaku had initially been happy to stay on under Inzaghi, but the pull of a return to Stamford Bridge ultimately proved too strong to turn down.

Across his two seasons with Inter, Lukaku scored 64 goals in 95 games across all competitions. Last season he scored 24 goals and set up a further 11, putting the suggestion he was merely a penalty box poacher firmly to bed. Indeed, Lukaku's tally of seven secondary assists (the pass before the assist) ranked joint-highest in Italy's top flight.

Lukaku refined his game and has returned to the Premier League a better player, leaving Inter with a huge void to fill. Dzeko represented a prudent option.

Having spent the last six seasons at Roma, Dzeko needed no adaptation to the league. He scored 85 Serie A goals during his spell in the capital, having previously played a huge role in Manchester City's Premier League title successes in 2012 and 2014.

Since his move to Wolfsburg in 2007, Dzeko has only scored under 10 goals in all competitions in three seasons, while he missed only 22 league matches during his stint with Roma. Reliable, experienced and a proven goalscorer. With Inter's financial restraints, it was a no-brainer.

Joaquin Correa, capable of playing anywhere across the frontline, has also come in to boost Inter's ranks, though the start Dzeko has made may have even exceeded the club's expectations. 

Dzeko is averaging just under a goal per game in Serie A, having netted six times across eight appearances, with an impressive shot conversion rate of 35.29 per cent and scoring five of the six big chances that have come his way.

He has also picked up where Lukaku left off in terms of creativity, crafting 15 chances so far across his 11 appearances in all competitions, registering two assists.

 

Partners in crime

Lukaku's departure also left Inter needing to find a suitable partner for Martinez. The duo combined for eight Serie A goals last season, more than any other pairing, albeit the first of those did not arrive until matchday eight in November.

In total, Lukaku found Martinez on 68 occasions in Serie A last term (at an average of 1.9 per game), with 16 of those being key passes, and five resulting in assists.

A brilliant example of their stellar combination in action came in a pivotal 3-1 win over Lazio in February; Lukaku – on a hat-trick at the time – charging clear of a desperate defender before coolly sliding it across for the waiting Martinez to tap in.

Martinez picked out Lukaku 52 times, providing three assists and creating a total of 13 chances for his strike partner. They played 36 league matches together, accumulating 2,069 minutes.

Dzeko too, however, has been able to link up well with Martinez. On average over the seven matches they have played in, he passes to his team-mate 1.7 times per game, with the Bosnia-Herzegovina forward creating two chances for his Argentine counterpart.

Across the 357 minutes played together, the duo have found each other 22 times, though Martinez is yet to craft a chance from those passes.

Inter, who have scored 78 goals across 32 Serie A games in 2021 (only Bayern Munich have managed more across the big five European leagues), would be extremely fortunate if this partnership proves as profitable as the Lukaku-Martinez axis did, though there are certainly bright signs.

 

Replacing Ron

Inter might have struck gold with Dzeko, but Juve have struggled in attack early in Massimiliano Allegri's second spell in charge.

With Ronaldo gone, the onus is on Paulo Dybala. He scored against Udinese in the opening game of 2021-22 and found the net against Sampdoria last month, only to succumb to an injury that has since kept him out.

Only four players across Europe's top five leagues managed more goals in all competitions than Ronaldo did last season (36), while Alvaro Morata (20) and Federico Chiesa (14) were the only other Juve players to get into double figures.

Dybala's injury issues have derailed his last few campaigns, leaving Morata as Juve's main goal threat.

The Spain international enjoyed an impressive partnership with Ronaldo, providing four assists and creating 15 chances in 2020-21, though the favour was not returned – Morata only receiving four key passes from Ronaldo in 27 league matches.

 

Yet if Juve can keep Dybala fit, there may be something for Allegri to build on, with Morata playing more passes to the Argentina forward than he has done to any other team-mate so far this season (12), albeit that has only resulted in one goalscoring opportunity.

Sunday's showdown at San Siro comes too early in the season to be truly decisive, though a second successive home win over Juve would be a huge boost.

In Dzeko and Martinez, Inzaghi has a functioning strike force that has already contributed 12 goals to Inter's cause. Allegri's two central forwards, meanwhile, have only managed six between them. 

Time flies when you're having fun, as the old cliche goes, but you don't need to have been enjoying yourself to notice how quickly we got to Week 7 of the NFL season.

Fantasy managers who have enjoyed strong starts may already be casting their eyes towards the playoffs and a run at the title.

Meanwhile, those owners who are mired near the bottom of their league might be wondering where it all went wrong and paying a dwindling amount of attention to their line-up.

Either way, there are plenty of players with matchups this week who can help deliver a win for your squad. Stats Perform looks at four offensive players and a defense who are primed to make a significant impact in Week 7.

 

Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons @ Miami Dolphins

The Falcons have had the bye week to rest after their win over the New York Jets in London and now get the chance to exploit another vulnerable AFC East defense.

They face a Dolphins team that will be playing only seven days removed from their game in the United Kingdom, and a defense that gave up 319 passing yards in their loss to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.

Ryan has two 300-yard games to his name this year and has thrown for multiple scores in every game after drawing a blank in the season opener.

Atlanta and Miami look like two teams heading in different directions, expect Ryan and the Falcons to take advantage and the 2016 MVP to record a big fantasy day.

Running Back: Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals vs. Houston Texans

Edmonds has been something of a frustrating case so far this season.

He is averaging six yards per carry but has not consistently received the workload to be a viable fantasy option.

That looks likely to change this week when the unbeaten Cardinals face the 1-5 Texans, who are allowing 4.74 yards per rush attempt, the fifth-worst average in the NFL.

With the Cardinals widely expected to get out to a big lead in a hurry, Arizona should be able to take the pressure off Kyler Murray and lean on their backs if the game gets out of hand, meaning Edmonds could be in store for plenty of garbage time yards.

Wide Receiver: Ja'Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals @ Baltimore Ravens

Chase is a fully fledged fantasy darling having exploded out of the gates as a rookie for 553 yards and five touchdowns.

He might be expected to hit a block in the road against a Ravens defense that only gave up six points to the Los Angeles Chargers last week.

However, Chase is tied for the league lead with eight receiving plays of 25 yards or more and only six teams have allowed more passing plays of 20 yards or more than the Ravens (24).

Keep the faith and look for Joe Burrow and Chase to connect on at least one big one to vindicate his starting spot in fantasy line-ups.

Tight End: Dallas Goedert @ Las Vegas Raiders

With Zach Ertz out of the picture following his trade to the Arizona Cardinals, expect a bump in targets for Goedert, who is averaging 14.4 yards per reception this season.

That increase in his share of the workload could hardly come at a better time for Goedert fantasy owners, as he and the Philadelphia Eagles travel to visit a Raiders team allowing the most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends.

Defense: New England Patriots vs. New York Jets

This one isn't too difficult. The Jets have committed nine giveaways this season, tied for sixth-most in the NFL, and four of those came from Zach Wilson interceptions against the Patriots at MetLife Stadium in Week 2.

Wilson and Co. have got themselves in the win column since then, but there is nothing to suggest that a Jets offense still without left tackle Mekhi Becton should succeed in avoiding turnovers in this week's return fixture in Foxborough.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman is under immense pressure and needs a convincing win over Dynamo Kiev, having failed to earn any points from the first two Champions League games of the campaign.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is also in great need of a positive result, having won just two of his past seven games across all competitions, losing four.

Bayern Munich and Chelsea seem set for comfortable victories, however, with Blues boss Thomas Tuchel targeting the joint-best defensive record after 10 games with a club in the competition.

Read on for more as Stats Perform looks at the key Opta facts ahead of Wednesday's Champions League action.

 

Barcelona v Dynamo Kiev: Can Koeman stop the rot?

Koeman will be desperate to prevent his Champions League record at Barcelona from getting any worse after successive 3-0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica in which the Blaugrana recorded a collective total of one shot on target, the least of any team in the competition.  

Despite only taking charge of four per cent of Barcelona’s home Champions League matches (5/131), 25 per cent of their total home defeats in the competition have come under the Dutchman (3/12), who is the only Blaugrana manager to lose more than twice at home in the tournament. 

Ansu Fati is perhaps Koeman's best chance of securing a positive result. The 18-year-old forward has been directly involved in three goals in two Champions League starts at Camp Nou (one goal and two assists), including an assist for Gerard Pique's goal in the 2-1 win against Dynamo Kyiv last year.

Benfica v Bayern Munich: Lewandowski-led Bavarians expect to stay unbeaten on the road

Bayern's record of eight European Cup/Champions League games unbeaten against Benfica is the joint-most by a team against an opponent since the tournament began in 1955.

With the Bavarian giants also on a record 19-match unbeaten run away from home in the competition (W15 D4), Julian Nagelsmann's side will feel confident of success in Portugal.

Furthermore, striker Robert Lewandowski - who has scored over a third of their 54 goals from that run (19 - 35 per cent) - has also netted five times in just six Champions League games against Portuguese opponents, including three against Benfica. No player has ever scored more times against sides from Portugal in the competition. 

 

Chelsea v Malmo: Clean-sheet chasing Blues Luk-ing for big win

Both of Chelsea's Champions League games this season have ended 1-0 - a win over Zenit and a loss to Juventus - but the Blues will be hoping for a more convincing scoreline as they host a Malmo side that have already conceded seven goals (the second-most in the tournament) and have lost their last five games in the competition by an aggregate score of 0-24, losing by three or more goals on each occasion.

Chelsea centre-forward Romelu Lukaku, in particular, will be relishing the opportunity to boost his already impressive tally of 14 goals in 18 appearances in European competition since the start of the 2019-20 season. In this period, the only two players who have scored more non-penalty goals than Lukaku (12) across the Champions League and Europa League are Lewandowski (19) and Erling Haaland (18). 

Tuchel will also be hoping for a seventh clean sheet in his 10th Champions League game in charge of Chelsea. The Blues have only conceded three goals under the German so far, which would be the joint-fewest through a manager’s first 10 games of a club in the competition (along with Fabio Capello at AC Milan and Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid).

 

Manchester United v Atalanta: Ronaldo and Fernandes to rescue Solskjaer?

Manchester United boss Solskjaer comes into this game under pressure after a 4-2 loss to Leicester City in the Premier League. The Red Devils have lost 58 per cent of Champions League games (7/12) under the Norwegian - the highest percentage of defeats by any manager to have taken charge of an English side on 10 or more occasions in the competition.

Solskjaer will be relying on his dynamic Portuguese duo to earn a much-needed win at Old Trafford. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 18 goals in 23 Champions League appearances against Italian sides, while Bruno Fernandes' four goals and three assists is the most direct contributions to a goal from any midfielder since his debut in the competition for United.

Atalanta are no pushovers, however. The Serie A side have only lost one of their last seven away games in the Champions League, winning five and drawing the other, and have won three of their six UEFA European matches against English opponents (D1 L2).

 

Other fixtures:

Zenit v Juventus

0  –  Juventus have never lost in eight previous encounters with Russian sides in European competition (W7 D1), scoring 18 times and only conceding three, although their only failure to win came away at Zenit in November 2008.

4  – Juventus have won their last four games in the group stage of the Champions League without conceding a single goal, with two of these coming away from home – 3-0 against Barcelona in December 2020 and 3-0 against Malmo in September 2021. 

Young Boys v Villarreal

 – Villarreal have lost eight of their last nine games in the Champions League (D1), conceding at least two goals in all nine outings in this run. They will be looking for their first win in the competition since March 2009, when they won 2-1 against Panathinaikos under Manuel Pellegrini.

 – Young Boys are unbeaten in their last three home games in the Champions League (W2 D1), and could equal their longest run without defeat on home soil in the European Cup/Champions League – a run of four games between 1957 and 1959. 

Salzburg v Wolfsburg

21   – In Salzburg’s last four UEFA European competition meetings with German opponents, there have been 21 goals scored (six for, 15 against) – last season’s Champions League games against Bayern Munich alone saw 12 scored (2-6 home defeat, 3-1 away defeat).

 – Karim Adeyemi has won four penalties for RB Salzburg in the Champions League this season. Since 2003-04 (as far back as we have this data), no player has ever won more than four in a single season in the competition. 

Lille v Sevilla

32  – The average age of Sevilla’s starting XI in the Champions League this season is 29 years and 200 days; the oldest of any of the 32 sides. Sevilla have handed starts to five different players aged 30 or older in the competition this season (Jesus Navas, Fernando, Papu Gomez, Ivan Rakitic and Yassine Bounou), with only Malmo (six) having more.

15  – Lille have won just 15 per cent of their home games in the Champions League to date (3/20) – among teams to have played 20 or more home games in the competition, only Romanian side FC Steaua Bucharest have a worse win percentage (9.5 per cent - 2/21).

It's difficult to go back to back in any sport and, in the marathon that is an NBA season, that rings particularly true.

Seven franchises have achieved the feat, with the Golden State Warriors the last team to do so in 2018.

But the fact the 73-9 Warriors of 2016 proved unable to retain the title illustrates just how difficult a challenge it is to repeat and hold on to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Milwaukee Bucks will attempt to become the eighth franchise to successfully defend their crown, though they will face no shortage of competition.

With the 2021-22 season beginning on Tuesday, Stats Perform looks at some of the top contenders for the title in the coming campaign.

Milwaukee Bucks

Let's start with the obvious. The Bucks are the favourites because they have the best player on the planet, with all due respect to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was fourth in points per 75 possessions last regular season with 29.6 and dominated on the defensive glass. His defensive rebounding percentage of 28.9 was 12th in the league.

The main feather in his cap going into 2021-22 is his ability to elevate his game to another level. In leading the Bucks past the Phoenix Suns in last season's Finals, he racked up 211 points. That tied Bob Pettit for the third-most in a Finals debut behind Rick Barry (245) and Jerry West (218). Only West and Michael Jordan (both four) can better his tally of three games with 40 points or more in a single Finals.

Supported by Khris Middleton, who had five games of 30 points or more in the postseason, and an elite facilitator in Jrue Holiday, whose 10.5 assists per 48 minutes ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games, Antetokounmpo has a deep and dynamic surrounding cast, making the Bucks excellent candidates to go all the way again.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns may not be the first name on everyone's lips when it comes to title contenders but, having led 2-0 in the Finals before succumbing to Giannis and the Bucks, they are deserving of a place on the list.

In an offseason that could have seen much change, the Suns managed to keep the band together, the headline deal being an agreement that saw Chris Paul signed to a new contract.

While Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker are both the present and the future for the Suns, their title aspirations rest largely on the ageing shoulders of Paul. 

Paul was the only Finals player to finish above Holiday in assists per 48 minutes in the postseason (minimum 10 games), averaging 12.0 across the course of the playoffs.

He set up Ayton 143 times in the regular season and reached three figures in laying on buckets for Booker (118) and Mikal Bridges (106), living up to his moniker of 'Point God'.

However, with a combined plus/minus of -37 across the four successive losses to Milwaukee, he will have to raise his game when it matters most if he and the Suns are to end their respective waits for a title.

Los Angeles Lakers

Rarely has LeBron James not had a chance to win the NBA title over the course of his illustrious career.

However, injuries limited James to just 45 games and Anthony Davis to 36 in the regular season, forcing the Lakers into a play-in game.

James performed heroics to lead the Lakers past the Warriors in that game but they were subsequently bounced out of the playoffs by the Suns.

The Lakers' response was to add to their arsenal of stars by acquiring Russell Westbrook in a trade with the Washington Wizards.

 

Former MVP Westbrook tied Jokic for the league lead with 45.5 points/assists/rebounds per game in 2020-21 while breaking Oscar Robertson's record for career triple-doubles.

Such numbers will not be possible playing alongside James and Davis but, if he can thrive in a more supplementary role, the Lakers should be firmly in the mix to regain their 2019-20 title.

Brooklyn Nets

There is a case to be made that, had the Nets not been hit by injuries in their Eastern Conference semi-finals series with the Bucks, they would have been the ones lifting the trophy.

However, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were limited to only four games in that seven-game series, leaving the burden primarily on Kevin Durant.

For very different reasons, there will be a lot of strain on Durant in 2021-22.

The Nets are facing up to not having Irving for most of if not all of the campaign as the issue of his vaccination status casts a cloud over the start of their season, which begins against the Bucks.

Unable to play in home games or practice with the Nets due to being unvaccinated, the franchise has said Irving will not play until the matter is resolved.

That means the Nets face being without a player who averaged 51.7 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes last season.

Despite his absence, the Nets cannot be discounted as contenders due to the presence of Durant (57.5) and Harden (56.9), but that duo must stay healthy and must at least maintain if not exceed their 2020-21 levels for Brooklyn to have a legitimate shot.

Golden State Warriors

Once perennial favourites, the Warriors are perhaps more of an outside bet these days. However, when you have Stephen Curry, you cannot be taken lightly as a potential contender.

The Warriors missed out on the postseason in 2020-21 following consecutive defeats to the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in tournament, Curry having willed Golden State to an eighth-placed finish in the Western Conference.

Curry averaged a career-high 32.0 points per game and his scoring average of 32.1 points per 75 possessions was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9).

 

Converting a league record 5.3 threes per game, last season was the third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He is the only player to achieve the feat even once.

And with fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson due back at some point, having missed the past two seasons through injury, and Andre Iguodala returning to likely finish his career with Golden State, Curry should have much more help this time around.

He still has his main facilitator Draymond Green, who led the league in setting up Curry 194 times last term, while the onus will be on 2020 first-round pick James Wiseman to develop into the floor-stretching big man the Warriors drafted him to be after an injury-curtailed rookie year.

Andrew Wiggins' vaccination status is cleared up, ensuring the Warriors will have a former number one overall pick who shot a career-high 47.7 per cent from the field in the previous campaign.

Jordan Poole's 18 points in 19 minutes in preseason against the Lakers gave further rise to hopes he can emerge as a valuable piece for the Warriors, whose two rookie first-round picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody add to an intriguing blend of experience and youth that could help Golden State get back among the elite.

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