European club football's main event is almost here, with two bona fide giants of the game set to face off at the Stade de France on Saturday.

Either Real Madrid or Liverpool will be crowned champions of Europe in Paris; whichever team manages it will be providing their fans with a glorious end to a tremendous season.

Of course, Madrid did what Liverpool could not on the domestic front, as Los Blancos head into this game as LaLiga champions – the Reds ultimately missed out to Manchester City on the last day of the Premier League campaign.

But this has still been a successful season for Jurgen Klopp's side, who could yet claim a treble having already lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup in England.

It promises to be an immense spectacle, with Opta's pre-match facts highlighting the wealth of footballing greatness that is set to be on display.

The history

Much of the build-up to this match has centred around two separate narratives of "revenge" relating to the 2018 Champions League final meeting between these two.

The first obvious desire for retribution comes simply from the fact Madrid won 3-1 in Kyiv – the other surrounds Mohamed Salah, whose match was ended early on that occasion after a collision with Sergio Ramos.

Either way, if Liverpool – and Salah – are to have their vengeance, they'll need to contend with Madrid's astonishing record: they have won each of their previous seven Champions League/European Cup finals.

To put that stat into context, no other team have even won the competition more than seven times, let alone won in seven consecutive final appearances.

But if you're looking for omens, answer this: who last beat Madrid in a European Cup/Champions League final, and where was it played?

Liverpool, in Paris (1981)…

The managers

For about 24 hours, Klopp had joined an exclusive list of managers who had reached the European Cup/Champions League final four times.

But then Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid pulled off their third great escape in as many knockout ties, meaning the Italian would set a new record for the most final appearances as a manager in UEFA's flagship competition.

But the historic achievement he'll no doubt be craving is still up for grabs.

Victory on Saturday will ensure Ancelotti is the first manager to lift the trophy four times, having won the competition in 2003, 2007 and 2014.

But here's another omen. The only club to beat an Ancelotti team in a Champions League final? That's right, Liverpool in 2005.

Nevertheless, Klopp doesn't have a particularly encouraging record against Los Blancos. He's faced them nine times in the Champions League, with his 33 per cent success rate the worst among teams he's faced at least three times.

The danger men

It would be fair to bill this match as something of a Ballon d'Or shootout.

Certainly, ahead of Saturday, the favourite is Karim Benzema, and with good reason. The France striker has enjoyed an incredible season and been central to Madrid's route to the final – he has scored 15 goals, two behind the all-time record for a single Champions League/European Cup campaign.

What helps make that such a remarkable achievement is the fact he would become the second-oldest scorer in a Champions League final (34 years, 160 days) after Paolo Maldini (36 years, 333 days) if he does net in Paris.

Madrid will likely need to keep the vengeful Salah in check, however.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Egyptian has 44 Champions League goal involvements, a tally bettered only by Robert Lewandowski (55) and Kylian Mbappe (47).

If Liverpool are successful, Salah will surely become the frontrunner for the Ballon d'Or – unless Sadio Mane, who has scored three in his past four Champions League games and won the Africa Cup of Nations, has a decisive impact.

The prize

Liverpool are bidding to join Milan with seven European Cup/Champions League crowns, the second-most in the competitions' collective history.

Of course, the only team with more than seven are Madrid. Victory for them will take them to 14 titles, remarkably twice as many as any other club, a fact that really highlights their obsession with the competition.

Either way, a behemoth of European football will enjoy another memorable occasion in Paris on Saturday.

But if it's Liverpool who succeed, it'll be difficult to look at this as anything other than the early stages of English domination in the Champions League, given Premier League teams have won two of the past three already.

Regardless of what occurs on the pitch at the Stade de France on Saturday, the 2021-22 season will have been a good one for Real Madrid.

Even if they are ultimately left with only the Spanish top-flight title to show for their efforts, there's an argument to be made that Carlo Ancelotti has defied expectations in his first campaign back at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Given the important losses of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos coupled with the fact only two new players were incoming, it would've been understandable if fans were less demanding than usual in their pre-season predictions.

After all, Ancelotti was seen as a safe pair of hands rather than someone who was going to come in, shake things up and preside over a philosophical overhaul – and looking back over the course of the season, he's been the perfect appointment.

Of course, the turmoil at Barcelona helped Madrid's cause, while Atletico Madrid's title defence fell flat early on. For a while Sevilla looked to be the only challengers to Los Blancos, but given they ran out of steam in the previous campaign, it's unlikely Ancelotti and his team will have been unduly worried by them – they ended up scraping a top-four spot.

As composed and dominant as Madrid were at LaLiga's summit, fans, pundits and journalists alike did go searching for potential weaknesses, or reasons for the chasing pack not to give up hope.

One area that appeared to be brought up more than most was rotation and the risk of burnout.

Full steam ahead

Between the start of the season and the end of December, six Madrid players had featured for more than 1,400 minutes in LaLiga. There are no surprises in this list: they would be considered the majority of the team's core players.

In the same period, only Espanyol (seven) had more players feature for at least 1,400 minutes in LaLiga, but they didn't also have Champions League football to contend with. Sevilla had three players meet the criteria; Barcelona had two and Atletico Madrid just one, goalkeeper Jan Oblak. 

Similarly, Madrid named the same starting XI three times in LaLiga this season. While that doesn't sound a lot, only Celta Vigo, Getafe, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna have done so more often.

It's clear to see Madrid have relied on a bigger group of core players than their rivals, and as such concerns about fatigue appeared astute earlier in the season.

But here we are, right at the end of the campaign: Madrid won LaLiga with four games to spare and are preparing to play in the Champions League final – and their route to this stage has relied on the ability to laugh in the face of fatigue, with Los Blancos coming back from the brink three times.

In that sense, you have to praise Ancelotti's squad management. Whether their lack of injuries has been by design or a fluke is difficult to speculate about, but there's clearly an element of Ancelotti swiftly establishing his preferred XI and then only wavering from it when absolutely necessary.

And when he did have to look elsewhere, there's no doubting who his favourites were.

Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga have come off the bench 23 times each across all competitions this season, the joint-most in the Madrid squad.

Granted, it's not as if they're two hopefuls promoted from the academy – both were expensive additions to the squad. But the frequency Ancelotti has turned to them as substitutes shows his belief in them to either carry out his instructions or make a difference.

Nowhere was that clearer than in the latter stages of the Champions League. Five of Camavinga's nine appearances in this season's competition have been in the knockouts, while Rodrygo has come off the bench four times in Europe since the turn of the year.

The latter has, understandably, taken a lot of plaudits in the second half of this season. He scored the vital aggregate equaliser against Chelsea, the brace that flipped the City tie on its head, and was inspirational off the bench away to Sevilla in the 3-2 win that essentially wrapped up the title.

Before the turn of the year, Rodrygo appeared to be struggling for relevance at Madrid. There will have been some wondering if he had a long-term future at the club, but he knuckled down after Christmas and has become a genuine weapon, seemingly embracing the fact you can still be decisive even off the bench.

On a per-90-minute basis, he heads into Saturday's game ranked fourth at Madrid for open-play chances created (1.4) and goals (0.34), joint-second for assists (0.34, behind Benzema on 0.35) and third for shots (2.4). He's beginning to show his worth.

Ancelotti's choice

Some might have generally expected more from Camavinga since joining from Rennes last year. He's not been able to establish himself as a regular in midfield at the expense of his more senior colleagues, perhaps unsurprising given he lacks the metronomic abilities of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and the grit of Casemiro. However, his impact shouldn't be overlooked.

In the second-leg clashes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, every single one of Madrid's eight goals came after Camavinga's introduction. Those goals ensured Ancelotti's men produced great escapes in each tie.

In fact, over the 146 minutes both Camavinga and Rodrygo have been on the pitch in the Champions League in 2022, Madrid have scored eight times and conceded none. Over 502 minutes without at least one of them on the pitch, they've scored six and let in 11.

Of course, it's not as if Camavinga himself has been a central figure to all eight goals. His importance in these scenarios is more centred on the wide-ranging skillset he instantly brings to Madrid – he can pass, he's confident on the ball and is a hard-working competitor.

His contributions were notable in all three second legs, but it was against City when he really forced people to sit up and acknowledge him. In the three and a half minutes that followed his 75th-minute entrance, Camavinga showed his poise with a nice switch of play, swept up effectively in midfield as Phil Foden looked to pounce on a loose ball, and then tackled Rodri out wide.

He was happy to accept possession under pressure several times, with one occasion seeing him turn and lift a wonderful pass over the City defence in the 82nd minute as Karim Benzema tested Ederson in goal. A minute later he was darting back in pursuit of Bernardo Silva, ultimately producing an exceptional sliding tackle to win the ball back.

Camavinga then played a vital role in Madrid's first goal in the 90th minute. His inch-perfect lofted pass to the back post allowed Benzema to turn the ball into the danger zone where Rodrygo was on hand to flick home.

Rodrygo's second in quick succession forced extra time, and Camavinga helped bring about Madrid's crucial third. It was he who carried the ball over half the length of the pitch before finding the Brazilian to cross towards Benzema, who won the penalty from Ruben Dias.

But he showed his value off the ball as well. His four tackles from 45 minutes on the pitch was bettered by only Federico Valverde (five) among Madrid players, and he played the full 120.

His showing was another reminder of the supreme talent Madrid brought in last year and, for many it might've even been enough to earn a starting spot in the final.

Both Camavinga and Rodrygo certainly deserve at least the chance to impact proceedings in Paris, but don't expect Ancelotti to lose faith in his preferred XI at this stage.

We've been here before. Saturday's Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid will be the third instalment of the two clubs tussling for European football's biggest prize.

That will make this the most common European Cup/Champions League final contest in the competitions' collective history.

There was Madrid's 3-1 win in Kyiv four years ago, and in 1981 Liverpool emerged 1-0 victors. And it is that Reds success many will be reminiscing about this week.

The 1981 edition was the last European Cup/Champions League final that Madrid lost – their seven such appearances since then have all been won.

To put that stat into context, no other team has won UEFA's elite competition more than seven times, yet Madrid have done so just since 1998.

But given that defeat came to Liverpool and also in Paris (at the Parc des Princes rather than Stade de France, but still…), the focus on that occasion is likely to be a little greater this time around.

La route de Paris

The paths of Madrid and Liverpool to Paris in 1981 were significantly less long-winded than in 2022.

With no group stage to traverse, the old European Cup went straight into a knockout competition and both sides enjoyed some one-sided scorelines along the way.

Finnish club OPS were first up for Liverpool. While the Reds could only return home with a 1-1 draw, any chances of an upset were emphatically blown away at Anfield – Bob Paisley's men won 10-1, though it wasn't quite good enough to break the club's record for biggest European win: an 11-0 defeat of Stromsgodset seven years earlier.

Little did Liverpool know that their next opponent would one day be the club's greatest nemesis. Alex Ferguson and Aberdeen faced the Reds in the second round, but once again Paisley's men claimed an emphatic win, going through 5-0 on aggregate.

CSKA Sofia didn't put up much more of a fight as Liverpool beat them home (5-1) and away (1-0) as well. Bayern Munich did prove a tougher nut to crack in the semi-finals, but after a 0-0 stalemate at Anfield, a 1-1 draw in Germany ensured the Reds progressed thanks to the away goals rule.

Madrid first crushed Ireland's Limerick 7-2 over two legs, before then seeing off Honved (3-0) and Spartak Moscow (2-0).

Inter awaited in the semis and did at least become the first side to beat Madrid in the competition that season, but their 1-0 win in Milan was insufficient to send them through as Los Blancos' star men Juanito and Santillana had earned a 2-0 victory in the first leg.

An underwhelming final

It's fair to say the build-up to the 1981 final – played on this day 41 years ago – was rather less expectant than for this season's.

Liverpool had struggled with injuries over the course of the season, with their fifth-placed finish in the league an indictment of their situation at the time.

They had won each of the previous two First Division titles and would go on to win the next three as well, so 1980-81 was a particularly low ebb when it came to the extended competition of domestic football.

As for Madrid, Vujadin Boskov's team were more renowned for being tough rather than silky, and they had just missed out on the Spanish title to Real Sociedad due to their head-to-head record – Los Blancos didn't get their next LaLiga crown until 1986.

Similarly, this was hardly a Madrid side that was revered on the continental stage at the time. Of course, they had won the first five editions of the competition, but since that run between 1956 and 1960, their only other triumph had been 15 years earlier in 1966.

The match didn't exactly surpass expectations as a spectacle, even if it proved a glorious night for Liverpool.

There were few chances of note in a cagey first half and not many more after the break – Jose Antonio Camacho's chip did at least cause some worry for Reds fans, but he got too much on it as his attempt flew over.

Another defender, Alan Kennedy, made no such mistake, however. The Liverpool full-back raced into the left side of the Madrid area, making the most of a failed clearance attempt by an opponent and smashed into the net from an acute angle with under 10 minutes to go.

They might have picked Madrid off on the break late on, but their inability to do so didn't matter as the Reds were European champions for the third time.

While that match was ultimately deemed an end of an era in some regards for an ageing Liverpool team, they weren't gone for long...

A sign of things to come?

This particular period was something of a golden era for English clubs in the European Cup. Liverpool's 1981 success was the fifth consecutive edition of the competition to be won by a team from England.

The Reds had won their first European titles in 1977 and 78, before Nottingham Forest claimed back-to-back crowns – in fact, they were the fourth team in a row to lift the trophy at least twice in succession after Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Ajax.

Aston Villa prolonged the English dominion in 82 and, although Hamburg were victorious in 83, the European Cup was back in Liverpool's hands again the following year – that would be the last English triumph until Manchester United's treble winners won the Champions League in 1999.

It seems astonishing now, given how synonymous Madrid are with the competition, but it took them 17 years to reach another European Cup/Champions League final. That 1998 victory over Juventus in Amsterdam reignited the club's obsession, however, with six more titles arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu since the turn of the century.

But Madrid arguably head into Saturday's showdown as the underdogs, with English football seemingly entering another era of domination.

If Liverpool win, they'll be the third English team in four years to win the Champions League – it'll also be the first time since the 1980s that England has had back-to-back winners.

Granted, English clubs threatened to establish a similar stranglehold over the competition earlier this century, with seven of the eight finals before 2013 containing a Premier League team, but such is the financial gulf these days, it's difficult to see the rest of Europe resisting for long.

There is a debate to be had that, even if Real Madrid lose Saturday's Champions League final at Stade de France and Carlo Ancelotti never lifts another trophy again, the Italian will still be able to stake a claim as being remembered as the greatest coach of all time.

After all, he has already won 22 trophies across a managerial career spanning 27 years that has seen him coach 10 different clubs in five different countries. Indeed, he this month became the first coach to win each of the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and LaLiga.

There is no questioning Carlo's credentials, then, but victory against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool in Paris really would take the 62-year-old into 'GOAT' territory as the outright most successful coach in terms of major European honours.

Ancelotti is currently level with Alex Ferguson and Giovanni Trapattoni in that regard with seven UEFA club competition triumphs – three Champions Leagues, three Super Cups and one Intertoto Cup, a much-derided competition that is now defunct.

Many would suggest a better barometer of determining the true Greatest of All Time would be to simply look at how many Champions Leagues or European Cups, as it was formerly known, a manager has won. In that case, Ancelotti is level with Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane with three apiece.

Triumphing for a fourth time in UEFA's showpiece competition, having previously done so with Milan in 2003 and 2007, and Madrid in 2014, would therefore set Ancelotti apart from the rest.

The hugely experienced coach has a great record when it comes to Champions League finals, too, with victories in three of his previous four such matches. The only exception to that? In 2004-05 when Liverpool famously beat Milan on penalties in a game they trailed 3-0 at half-time.

CARLO'S CUP PEDIGREE

The glitz and glamour of a Champions League final was far from Klopp's mind in that campaign when in his fourth season in charge of Mainz. The 2004-05 season was just as memorable for the German club's supporters as Liverpool's, though, as they finished 11th in what was their first top-flight campaign.

Seventeen years on, Klopp now has a shot at becoming one of 17 multiple-time winners of the European Cup/Champions League, level with the likes of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and even Manchester United great Ferguson.

He went all the way with Liverpool in 2019, triumphing over domestic rivals Tottenham, but his previous two finals in the competition ended in disappointment, with defeat against Bayern Munich as Dortmund boss in 2013 and against Zidane's Madrid as Liverpool manager in 2018.

Zidane may have been replaced by Ancelotti in the Madrid dugout, but this weekend presents Klopp – and indeed Liverpool – with a shot at redemption. Having won two trophies already with the Reds this season, Klopp's cup final record looks a lot better than it did just a few months ago.

He has now won eight of his 18 finals, which compares to 16 victories from 22 finals for Ancelotti across all competitions. In percentage terms, Klopp has won 44 per cent of finals he has contested, while Ancelotti has won 73 per cent.

A FAMILIAR FOE AWAITS

Ancelotti and Klopp are no strangers to one another, of course, with Saturday's showdown set to be their 11th meeting in all competitions. Ancelotti edges the overall record from the previous 10 encounters with four wins to Klopp's three.

Despite managing an Everton side far inferior to Klopp's Liverpool, Ancelotti lost just one of his three Merseyside derbies during his season-and-a-half in charge of the Toffees.

That includes three successive games without defeat, culminating in a 2-0 win in February 2021 – Everton's first Anfield victory since 1999 and their first win either home or away over Liverpool since 2010.

Ancelotti certainly had Klopp's number in the most recent of their battles, although the results of his two finals against English clubs in European competition have been mixed – the aforementioned shoot-out loss in 2005 and a 2-1 win two years later, both during his time with Milan and both against Liverpool.

The Italian has certainly stood the test of time, with his 70 per cent win rate in his second stint with Madrid bettered only by the 75 per cent enjoyed the first time around in the Spanish capital, and now a shot at history – a fourth Champions League and an eighth European trophy – awaits.

Against a familiar opponent in both Liverpool and Klopp, and in a city where he helped grow Paris Saint-Germain into a force to be reckoned with just over a decade ago, the stage is set for Ancelotti to further strengthen his claim as being the greatest of them all.

The start of the 2022 NFL season is still over three months away.

However, rarely is it considered too early to make predictions about what is to come in the upcoming campaign.

And, with the draft in the books, teams having made the vast majority of their offseason moves and the scheduled, we now have all the information we need to make such prognostications.

So after an extremely dramatic offseason defined by blockbuster trades, which teams are in the mix to excel in 2022 and which should already have half an eye on the 2023 draft?

To answer those questions, Stats Perform has produced projected totals for every team for the forthcoming season.

The projection projects every future game to give a predicted win percentage for each team across their games.

Rather than being a simulator of future games, the projections are calculated by looking at each team’s quarterback and QB Efficiency versus Expected – performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations – as well as team values for pass protection/pass rush, skill position players/coverage defenders and run blocking/run defense.

There are several standout takeaways from this season's projection, with a new power potentially emerging in the NFC and one of last year's Super Bowl teams seemingly set for regression.

Eagles to join NFC elite?

The Eagles suffered a meek exit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of last season’s playoffs.

Their win projection following an impressive 2022 offseason suggests replicating that this year would mark a gross underperformance. Indeed, Philadelphia's projected total of 12.0 is the second best in the NFC, trailing only defending champion Los Angeles Rams (12.2).

The Eagles' position is built on their strength in the trenches. Philadelphia finished the 2021 season ranked fifth in pass-block win rate and second in run-block win rate.

On the defensive side, the Eagles were eighth in pass-rush win rate and 11th in run disruption rate and made moves to boost both areas, signing Haason Reddick to a one-year deal after a second successive double-digit sack season in 2021 and drafting defensive tackle Jordan Davis – the star of the NFL Combine renowned for his ability to soak up double teams and excel against the run – in the first round.

Philadelphia also improved the back seven through both the draft and free agency, taking advantage of the slide of Davis' former Georgia teammate Nakobe Dean to boost a linebacker group seen as a weakness. Dean had six sacks, six pass breakups, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021.

And last week, the Eagles signed cornerback James Bradberry to a one-year deal. With Bradberry and Darius Slay, the Eagles now have the only two players to register at least 15 interceptions and 80 or more pass breakups since 2016 in a secondary that finished 11th in open-allowed percentage last season.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts' 10 rushing touchdowns were tied for the sixth most in the NFL last season. However, the pressure on him to improve as a passer will be immense following the Eagles' acquisition of A.J. Brown in a trade with the Tennessee Titans. Brown (32.8%) and the Eagles' 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith (35.0%) were both in the top 12 in big-play rate last year.

Brown registered a burn (when the receiver wins his matchup with a defender when targeted by his quarterback) 64.0 per cent of the time (league average was 59.5%) and he tied for the league lead with 4.0 burn yards per route.

Hurts had a 77.1 well-thrown percentage in 2021, which was below the NFL average of 77.9. An improvement will be needed for the Eagles to realise their potential. If that does not happen given the wealth of talent around him, then they may use their extra first-round pick in 2023 to help them find a quarterback better equipped to help them do so.

Can the Vikes Challenge the Pack?

The Vikings have not come close to challenging the Packers in the NFC North in recent times, missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

But the projection indicates that could change.

Bidding to stay competitive while undergoing a sea change in the front office and at head coach with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah taking over as general manager and Kevin O’Connell replacing Mike Zimmer on the sideline, the Vikings have a win projection within striking distance of the Pack.

There are several reasons for the gap between the two being so marginal. Aaron Rodgers was second in QB EVE last season, but Kirk Cousins was not too far behind in seventh for the Vikings.

Cousins also has the advantage of throwing to a receiving group that won a collective 35.3 per cent of its coverage matchups in 2021. The Vikings were fourth in the NFL in that regard. The Packers were third but have since traded Davante Adams, whose combined open percentage against man and zone coverage of 46.6 per cent was fifth among receivers with at least 100 matchups.

Thanks in part to an impressive 2021 season from Rashan Gary, the Packers were fourth in pass-rush win rate, but the Vikings were 10th and will hope to get Danielle Hunter healthy this year to aid their cause. And while Minnesota struggled on the offensive side of the trenches last season, their pass-block win rate standing of 26th was still only three spots below that of a Packers line that still has issues on the right side.

The Packers remain the better football team in most areas, but the loss of Adams has levelled the playing field somewhat for Cousins, whose efficiency numbers reflect his ability to produce on a similar level to Rodgers in the passing game.

Further narrowing the gap is the difference in schedules. The Packers face the 15th-toughest slate, but only eight teams have it easier than Minnesota on paper. The game is not played on paper, yet the numbers and the apparent quality of respective opponents point to the Packers looking over their shoulder in the division with more concern in 2022.

The Trey Lance question

It's difficult to make a judgment on how Trey Lance will perform as the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback after just two starts as a rookie last year.

Lance produced some encouraging flashes when he did play, blending aggressiveness with accuracy. But the volatility in range of outcomes for a player of his inexperience is higher than that of the man he will likely replace as the starter – Jimmy Garoppolo.

With the projection assuming Lance plays 75 per cent of the snaps and Garoppolo 25, the Niners – who went 10-7 last year before surging to the NFC championship game – are projected to win 8.4 games. That puts them second in the NFC West behind the Rams, with the Cardinals in third with 8.1 in part due to DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension.

The takeaway from this is clear. The Niners, who were first in pass-rush win rate, eighth in run disruption rate, 10th in pass-block win rate, sixth in run-block win rate and 10th in collective open percentage among their pass catchers last season, have the support system to elevate Lance and ensure he keeps them in the mix.

But playing the eighth-toughest schedule in the NFL, it's impossible to predict how a move from a player in Garoppolo, who was 10th in QB EVE in 2021, to a high-upside relative unknown will go.

That's why one of the better rosters in the NFL finds itself closer to the middle of the pack. If Lance is who the Niners hope he is, they will quickly be back among the league's upper echelon. 

The Deshaun Watson question

While the Browns' trade for Deshaun Watson was the most controversial move of the offseason, there is no doubt his arrival in Cleveland has the potential to catapult them to the top of the AFC.

The projection certainly expects his acquisition to have that impact, with the Browns predicted to win 10.8 games. That’s behind only the Kansas City Chiefs (11.2) and Buffalo Bills (10.9) in the AFC.

Cleveland's schedule, which is the second-easiest in the NFL, plays a substantial role in the projection, which accounts for potential league discipline against Watson.

The Browns' predicted win total is also illustrative of the gap between Watson and the man he will displace as the starting quarterback – Baker Mayfield. Watson was seventh in QB EVE in 2020, whereas only eight quarterbacks with at least 100 pass plays in expected passing situations had a worse EVE than Mayfield last year.

Possessing a defensive line that was ranked in the top five in pass-rush win rate last year and an offensive line that was in the top 10 in run-block win rate along with two premier backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Browns have the personnel in place to dictate games in the trenches. After landing Watson, they now boast a quarterback who can help them properly capitalise on their advantage in those areas.

A Browns ascension could come at the expense of the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl last season – the Cincinnati Bengals. With a prediction of 8.1 wins, the projection does not anticipate the Bengals competing for the Lombardi Trophy in 2022. Instead, it expects a drastic bump back down to earth.

So, with the Bengals playing the 21st-toughest schedule in the NFL, why is their projection so low? Though the Bengals have made moves to improve an offensive line that was 25th in pass-block win rate last year (acquiring Alex Cappa and La'El Collins), their roster is not in a position to survive a Joe Burrow injury.

And with the Bengals' pass catchers 23rd in open percentage in 2021 and their defensive front 29th in pass-rush win rate, Cincinnati's projection serves as a clear indicator that the magic of last year’s playoff run may be very difficult to replicate.

While the Bengals' win total is closely tied to an over-reliance on Burrow, the Miami Dolphins' projected number is a product of a lack of faith in the man he beat to the honour of the number one pick in 2020.

Betting on Tua

The Dolphins had a busy offseason making aggressive moves to help set Tua Tagovailoa up for success under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel. However, those big swings will not be enough for Miami to make the leap, at least according to the projection.

A prediction of 7.8 wins and a third-place finish in the AFC East would represent a huge disappointment and likely push a franchise that has two first-round picks in 2023 to move on from Tagovailoa. Tua was 24th in QB EVE last season and, among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, he averaged the seventh-fewest air yards in the NFL (7.35).

While the Dolphins may look to use Tyreek Hill to stretch the field horizontally following his arrival in a blockbuster trade with the Chiefs, at this point it's tough to envision Tagovailoa making the most of having one of the best downfield weapons in the league at his disposal.

The Dolphins do not look likely to challenge Buffalo in the AFC East, but it may be a familiar tale for the Bills in which they play second fiddle to the Chiefs. Though Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes went blow for blow in one of the finest playoff games in NFL history last season, there was a decent gap between the two in 2021 EVE with Mahomes third and Allen 11th.

The Chiefs may have lost Hill this offseason, but – to make an obvious statement – as long as they have Mahomes under center, they will remain near the top of the conference.

Playing behind an offensive line that was masterfully reconstructed in 2021 and ended the year third in pass-block win rate and first in run-block win rate, Mahomes still has the ecosystem around him to make the most of his remarkable gifts.

The one thing that could hold him back is the strength of the division in which he plays.

A tale of two divisions

The Chiefs have seen the rest of the AFC West load up in an effort to end their reign in the division.

Yet none of the high-profile moves made this offseason – Russell Wilson's switch from the Seattle Seahawks to the Denver Broncos, the Las Vegas Raiders trading for Davante Adams and the Los Angeles Chargers acquiring Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson – will tilt the balance of power away from Kansas City, according to our model.

But the AFC West looks set to take the title of the best division in football with all four teams projected to win over nine games.

That is in marked contrast to the AFC South, where the Indianapolis Colts (8.6) have the highest total in the division.

The Titans, meanwhile, are predicted to slump out of contention after earning the number one seed in the conference last season. The Titans have the seventh-toughest schedule in the NFL and are projected to win only 7.5 games after winning at least nine in each of their four seasons under Mike Vrabel.

Despite traditionally remaining competitive under Vrabel, there are several red flags for Tennessee. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 17th in EVE last year playing behind an offensive line that was 28th in pass-block win rate. 

Tennessee's pass catchers ranked 18th in collective open percentage and on draft day traded Brown, who was third in combined open percentage (48.96) against man and zone coverage among receivers with at least 100 matchups in 2021. In other words, the deck is stacked against Tannehill preventing a poor division from being handed to the Colts.

If their season goes as the projection expects, the Titans may start focusing on 2023 and building a contender around Malik Willis.

And in the NFC South, it's probably not surprising that our model expects the Buccaneers to stay on top with Tom Brady back for another season.

You would have been forgiven for thinking the days of Jose Mourinho leading teams to European finals were over.

From 2002 to 2010, Mourinho-coached sides appeared in two Champions League finals and one UEFA Cup showdown. On each occasion, 'The Special One' triumphed.

He had to wait seven years for his next appearance in a continental showpiece, but he kept up his 100 per cent record – Manchester United beating Ajax to lift the 2016-17 Europa League trophy.

But that was an early peak in Mourinho's United tenure. His stock has since fallen. He was sacked in 2018 and then lasted just 18 months at Tottenham, the only club he has managed so far where he has not won a trophy.

He might have had the opportunity to win the EFL Cup with Spurs, though he was sacked before that rescheduled match could take place. Hard lines.

It was hard not to feel Mourinho's race had been run. He can no longer be considered among the truly elite managers, and that was reflected as he rocked up at Roma.

Not that Roma, three-time champions of Italy, are by any means a small club. They were in the Champions League semi-finals as recently as 2018.

Yet, their last title came in 2001 and their last trophy of any description came in 2008 when they won the Coppa Italia for the ninth time. Ironically, Mourinho's Inter then beat Roma in the Supercoppa Italiana at the start of the following season, the last time the Giallorossi had a chance to win a piece of silverware.

But Mourinho is a winner, and now he has the chance to remind everyone of that. He is back in a European final as Roma get the opportunity to win their first major European trophy. No other coach has reached the final of a major European competition with four different clubs.

"I am a coach with a certain history and Roma are a big club," he told UEFA's Italian website. "I did feel a little bit of responsibility to make this a big competition.

"The Conference League is our Champions League. This is the level we are at, the competition we are playing for. The club has not reached a game like this for a very long time."

The Europa Conference League may have been scoffed at when it was introduced but for fans of Roma, and their opponents Feyenoord, continental glory that would otherwise have evaded them is now within their grasp.

With a record-breaking striker leading the line in the form of Tammy Abraham, Mourinho might just have a fifth European title under his belt.

Life in the old dog?

Mourinho has overseen 54 games so far at Roma, triumphing in 28 of them to give him a win percentage of 52.

That is a slight dip from the 55 per cent in 2020-21, though that was over three fewer matches, but an improvement on the 46 per cent (from 35 games) and 42 per cent (from 24 fixtures) in 2019-20 and 2018-19 respectively.

 

Roma won 18 Serie A games this season, ensuring a place in the Europa League through a sixth-placed finish.

His 47 per cent win ratio in the league ranks him 10th out of Roma coaches to have overseen at least 10 games, while his 52 per cent in all competitions puts him joint-sixth, alongside predecessor Paulo Fonseca, of those bosses to have taken charge of at least 20 matches.

Perhaps Mourinho's decline is highlighted by the fact he is placing so much emphasis on winning UEFA's third-tier club tournament, but from Roma's perspective, that desire will surely be welcome.

Abraham the key?

Having been deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea, Abraham has become something of a cult figure at Roma.

Abraham called Mourinho "the best manager in the world" in an interview with talkSPORT in April, and he has certainly thrived under the Portuguese's guidance.

 

He has scored 27 goals across all competitions this season, one better than the previous best tally he had managed, which was 26 goals for both Bristol City (in 2016-17) and Aston Villa (2018-19), albeit both of those campaigns were in the Championship.

It has been a record-breaking season for Abraham. A first-half double against Torino on Friday saw the 24-year-old become the highest-scoring English player in a single season in the Italian top flight, surpassing the previous mark of 16 set by Gerald Hitchens at Inter in 1961-62. 

The only Roma player to score more than the England international's haul of 17 in a debut Serie A season with the club was Rodolfo Volk, who registered 21 in the 1929-30 campaign. 

He has featured in all but one of Roma's league games, starting 36 times and averaging a goal every 182 minutes, converting 17.8 per cent of his 95 shots, which ranks better than two of his seasons in the Premier League (13.33 per cent in 2017-18 and 16.22 in 2019-20).

Abraham has scored nine times from 13 Conference League appearances and he has proved many doubters wrong this season.

With a place in Gareth Southgate's World Cup squad later this year potentially up for grabs, playing a pivotal role in Roma's maiden European success would be some way to cap a fine campaign and seal his name in Giallorossi folklore.

Manchester City sealed the Premier League title in dramatic fashion as they came from behind to beat Aston Villa 3-2.

It meant Liverpool's own comeback win over Wolves was rendered meaningless, as Jurgen Klopp's team finished second, one point off the pace.

Chelsea capped an ultimately underwhelming campaign by beating Watford, who will be joined in the Championship next season by Burnley – the Clarets relegated by a defeat to Newcastle United, while Leeds United beat Brentford to stay up.

Already safe Everton were hammered 5-1 at Arsenal, but the Gunners' big win was not enough to get them into the Champions League as Tottenham thrashed Norwich City.

Elsewhere, Manchester United lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace to end a dismal season for them, but they did at least qualify for the Europa League, as West Ham were beaten 3-1 by Brighton and Hove Albion, meaning David Moyes' team will take a place in next season's Europa Conference League.

For the final time this season, Stats Perform looks at the best facts from across the Premier League's fixtures, using Opta data.

Manchester City 3-2 Aston Villa: Gerrard's dream dashed by Gundogan

Steven Gerrard never managed to win the league with Liverpool but he looked destined to give his old club a huge helping hand when Villa took a 2-0 lead at the Etihad Stadium.

Former Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho put Villa 2-0 up midway through the second half, and he has now scored five goals against City in the Premier League, more than against any other team.

However, substitute Ilkay Gundogan became the first player to score twice from the bench for City since Sergio Aguero did so against Everton on the final day of last season, as he inspired a comeback for the ages.

Gundogan scored either side of Rodri's equaliser – there were just 12 minutes and 22 seconds between City going 2-0 down, and then leading 3-2 in the match.

City have now won a sixth Premier League title, with four of those coming in the past five seasons under Pep Guardiola, while it was the first time the club have come from two goals down to win a top-flight game since February 2005.

Liverpool 3-1 Wolves: Salah seals share of Golden Boot but Reds settle for second

There will be no quadruple for Liverpool, who nevertheless have a Champions League final to look forward to on May 28.

Liverpool have finished the season on 92 points, the second-highest total by a side that did not go on to win the title in English top-flight history, behind only their own 97 in 2018-19.

Sadio Mane cancelled out Pedro Neto's opener (the third-earliest Premier League goal for Wolves, timed at 02:11), with the Senegal star having scored six goals on the final day of the Premier League season for Liverpool, the most of any player at the club – three of those strikes have come against Wolves.

Mohamed Salah finally got Liverpool in front in the 84th minute to take him to 23 goals for the season, meaning he shares the Golden Boot with Son Heung-min. Andrew Robertson added a third, which means Wolves have now lost their last 11 league meetings with the Reds by an aggregate score of 24-3.

Arsenal 5-1 Everton, Norwich City 0-5 Tottenham: North London rivals go big

It has been a frustrating end to the season for Arsenal, who let a Champions League place slip out of their grasp and fall into Tottenham's lap.

The Gunners put five past a much-changed Everton team. Arsenal have now scored more goals against the Toffees than any other side has netted against another team in Premier League history (117).

Arsenal are also unbeaten in their final league game in each of the last 17 seasons (W15 D2), winning the last 11 in a row, while Everton have lost their final league game in five of the last six seasons (D1), conceding at least three goals in each defeat.

Only in 1993-94 (22) have Everton lost more games in a Premier League season than the 21 defeats they have suffered in the competition this term, but they have nevertheless stayed up. Norwich were not so lucky, and their place at the bottom was confirmed by a hammering at home to rampant Spurs.

Tottenham ended the season with 71 points, only in three previous Premier League campaigns have they had more points – 86 in 2016-17, 77 in 2017-18 and 72 in 2012-13.

Son Heung-min is the first Asian player to win the Premier League Golden Boot, while Harry Kane has scored nine goals on the final day of Premier League seasons, the joint-most in the competition's history.

Burnley 1-2 Newcastle United, Brentford 1-2 Leeds United: Another late show caps Whites' survival

Leeds defeated Brentford thanks to a last-gasp Jack Harrison goal, and only City (nine) have netted more goals in the 90th minute than the Whites have this season (eight).

That effort, combined with Burnley's defeat at Newcastle, ensured Leeds avoided the drop and it was Burnley who were relegated.

Burnley netted their 300th Premier League goal, the 32nd side to hit that milestone in the competition, but it was not enough to inspire a comeback after Callum Wilson's double.

The Clarets faced a team in form, with only Liverpool (51), City (43) and Tottenham (41) having picked up more points than Newcastle in 2022.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

 

 

His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

 

 

Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

 

Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

Manchester City have done the job, just about.

Their remarkable 3-2 comeback victory over Aston Villa on Sunday ensured that the Premier League title is theirs for a fourth time in five seasons, ending Liverpool's hopes of a remarkable quadruple in the process.

While Liverpool will now turn their full focus to the Champions League final as they look to secure a third trophy of the campaign, Pep Guardiola will look to build on his side's domestic dominance heading into next season.

Erling Haaland's impending arrival is a strong start to doing just that, and City will have another go at the Champions League next term too with the Norway forward leading their line – the issue of playing without a "proper" number nine finally put to bed.

Had Guardiola and City got their way in 2021, they would have had a striker for this season, too, but Tottenham did not budge on their valuation of Harry Kane.

Yet that lack of a natural centre forward has ultimately not proved costly, and here, Stats Perform looks at the key moments behind City's title success.

Grealish arrives, but no Kane

City broke the English transfer record to sign Jack Grealish for £100million, and while the England international's form has at times been questioned, it was a statement of intent from the champions.

That being said, they missed out on Kane, meaning Guardiola would once again have to do it the hard way... or, at least, rely on his plethora of world-class attacking midfielders to play up front.

The failure to sign Kane was highlighted, ironically, in a 1-0 defeat to Spurs to start the season, though City bounced back with 5-0 thrashings of Norwich City and Arsenal.

Supreme at Stamford Bridge 

City fell short in last season's Champions League final against Chelsea, but on September 25, they rocked up at Stamford Bridge and, if the signing of Grealish was a statement of intent made off the pitch, this performance was one made very much on it.

Guardiola's team delivered a stellar display, especially in the first half, with Gabriel Jesus' goal enough to end Chelsea's unbeaten start to the season.

They may have only won 1-0, but City finished with 15 shots to five, registering an xG (expected goals) of 1.4 to 0.2 and dominated the ball (59 per cent).

Old Trafford dominance

City suffered a surprise set-back at the end of October, losing 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace. Fortunately for them, Liverpool drew 2-2 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield on the same day, and Guardiola's team rallied the following week.

A 2-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford was as dominant as you could get at the home of a city rival. The xG tells its own story – City's 2.37 to United's 0.75, 16 attempts to five, with five on target from the visitors, who hit the woodwork twice.

Twelve of City's shots came from inside United's area, showing just how easy they found it to carve open their neighbours, who managed just four touches in the opposition box (City had 32, and 92 final-third entries). The victory sparked a 12-game winning run that was bookended by a 1-0 home success over Chelsea and included a 7-0 rout of Leeds United and 6-3 dispatching of Leicester City.

Good fortune at Goodison

A 3-2 home defeat to Spurs snapped a 15-game unbeaten run that had seemingly put City well on track to securing the title with relative ease. And it appeared they may well drop points again in the next match, a tough fixture against relegation-battling Everton at Goodison Park at the end of February.

Phil Foden struck eight minutes from time to seal a 1-0 victory that moved City six points clear at the top of the Premier League, but Everton were denied the chance for a late equaliser from the penalty spot when referee Paul Tierney and VAR Chris Kavanagh failed to spot a handball by Rodri.

The Premier League clarified that the penalty was not awarded because there was insufficient evidence to show the ball struck Rodri below the level of his armpit, not because Richarlison had strayed offside in the build-up, and referees chief Mike Riley subsequently apologised to Everton for the mistake.

"Can this episode affect a whole season? I will review a lot of incidents. It looks offside for Richarlison; if it's not offside, it's a penalty," said Guardiola after the incident. Had Everton been awarded the penalty, and converted it, then the title might well be Liverpool's.

Champions League heartbreak fuels De Bruyne-inspired charge

With both Premier League meetings between the title rivals finishing all square, it was Liverpool who got the edge in the FA Cup in April, winning the semi-final clash 3-2. The sides seemed destined to meet again in the Champions League final, yet Real Madrid had other ideas.

Quicker than Carlo Ancelotti could raise his eyebrow, Madrid turned a tie that seemed all wrapped up in City's favour on its head thanks to two Rodrygo goals, and Karim Benzema's extra-time penalty capped off one of the all-time great comebacks, and one of the all-time worst capitulations, in the competition's history.

Yet City, who had beaten Leeds 4-0, Watford 5-1 and Brighton 3-0 in their previous three league outings, responded with a 5-0 demolition of in-form Newcastle United, with late goals from Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling really doing wonders for their goal difference. To boost their mood, Liverpool had drawn with Spurs at Anfield a day earlier.

That advantage grew further still three days later – Kevin De Bruyne scoring four goals (three with his weaker left foot) in a 5-1 defeat of Wolves.

Gundogan sparks a comeback for the ages

City's second-half comeback against West Ham dashed Liverpool's hopes of a true slip-up, though Riyad Mahrez's penalty miss in that match did allow the Reds to close the gap to one point heading into the final day, meaning Guardiola's side needed a win to guarantee the title.

In a narrative a Hollywood scriptwriter would have done well to dream up, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard was the manager tasked with ending City's charge and, in the process, giving the Reds the title (should, of course, Jurgen Klopp's team beat Wolves).

And that narrative seemed set to rule when Villa went 2-0 up at the Etihad Stadium thanks to goals from Matty Cash and ex-Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, with the visitors' two-goal lead still intact going into the last 15 minutes.

But Ilkay Gundogan – on what could well have been his final City appearance – had other ideas.

After coming on from the bench, he hauled City back into it with a header from Raheem Sterling's cross and, following Rodri's equaliser, the Germany international tucked in from a Kevin De Bruyne centre to complete a stunning, title-clinching comeback.

Four of Manchester City's six Premier League triumphs have gone right to the wire, where margins are so fine the title battle can be settled by a single man in a single moment.

Sergio Aguero of course set the standard in 2011-12 with surely the most iconic goal of the Premier League era, defeating QPR at the death and clinching a first City championship in 44 years.

Then, in 2018-19, it was Vincent Kompany's turn. Although the departing City captain made only 17 league appearances that year, he will forever be associated with the title win after his thunderous strike secured a vital late-season victory over Leicester City.

"Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?" asked Sky Sports' Gary Neville. Both Aguero and Kompany – and those celebrations – have since been committed to steel structures outside the Etihad Stadium.

The City hero was perhaps not quite so clear-cut in 2013-14, when Liverpool's collapse took centre stage, but Yaya Toure's 20 goals from midfield kept his side in touch. While City spent only 15 days of the season at the summit, the win that put them there in the final week perhaps provided the defining image of the champions' campaign, as Toure charged through the Aston Villa defence to score a goal that BBC Sport's Alan Shearer considered "like watching a 15-year-old against under-12s".

Three City legends have had seasons to call their own. Kevin De Bruyne, until now, had not.

De Bruyne was the PFA Players' Player of the Year in consecutive years, but the 2019-20 campaign in which he equalled Thierry Henry's 20-assist, single-season record ended with Liverpool on top. The 2020-21 season played out largely without fans and ultimately without a serious challenge to City, robbing their leading man of his platform.

Consistent excellence had for so long characterised the midfielder's career rather than any particular peak.

Now, however, after the decisive assist in another dramatic fightback against Villa on Sunday, 2021-22 might be remembered as the De Bruyne season – a most unexpected conclusion given how the campaign started, as perhaps his worst in a City shirt.

'Difficult physically and mentally'

The player of the year he may have been, but De Bruyne's 2020-21 season did not finish in the manner he would have wished.

The former Chelsea man lasted only an hour of City's Champions League final defeat to the Blues last May, suffering facial fractures that impacted his preparation for Euro 2020. De Bruyne found form again at the finals, only to hobble out of Belgium's last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle issue.

Although De Bruyne played in the next round, as Belgium lost to Italy, he continued to be hampered by the injury at the start of this season, appearing in City's Premier League opener but then not again for almost four weeks.

"It's been a bit difficult physically and mentally," the 30-year-old told the MIDMID podcast in November, revealing he had played through "some serious pain".

"It's going to be a little more difficult this year than usual," De Bruyne suggested, and that seemed a fair prediction.

The City superstar, who also missed time with COVID-19, made his 10th league appearance of the season in a 1-0 home win over Wolves on December 11. At that stage, he had scored only twice in the competition and failed to provide a single assist – averaging a goal involvement every 246 minutes.

The only comparable De Bruyne season in a City shirt was in 2018-19, when two knee ligament injuries meant his 10th league appearance did not come until early February. Over 465 minutes up to that point, he scored once.

That is the sole other example of De Bruyne not contributing an assist through his first 10 league outings in a season for City; in fact, he had tallied at least four assists and six goal involvements by that point in each of his other five campaigns prior to 2021-22.

A week before De Bruyne's podcast appearance last year, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was also asked to address his star man's form, acknowledging the "scrutiny" he faced while underperforming in a team as talented as City's.

"I'm not worried at all," Martinez said. "We feel that his best football is coming back."

De Bruyne added: "I just needed more time than expected."

'Now he scores a lot'

De Bruyne's 11th game of this campaign was very different. In a 7-0 City win over Leeds United, the team's talisman doubled his seasonal tally by scoring twice, including a thunderous 25-yard drive for his second.

"For the whole team, it's a booster," De Bruyne told NBC Sports – although that surely applied more to the two-goal star than his team-mates, with City moving four points clear at the top of the table with the victory.

"There's been a lot happening this year, a little bit out of my control, so the only thing I can do is try to work hard and come back as quick as possible," he said.

It was clearly a turning point for De Bruyne, who scored 13 goals and provided eight assists in 20 matches from the Leeds game until the end of the season. A goal involvement every 82 minutes over this period just beats his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement).

Yet De Bruyne's role has altered in the past two years. He did not match his outstanding 33 goal involvements from the year Liverpool won the title, but 15 goals represent a career high.

The reason for that change perhaps has more to do with De Bruyne's City team-mates than the player himself.

In 2019-20, six of De Bruyne's 20 assists were for record goalscorer Aguero – more than for any other player. Of course, Aguero has since departed.

The retired striker was City's leading marksman in six of his 10 league campaigns in Manchester, including each of his first four playing alongside De Bruyne.

With Aguero gone and Erling Haaland not arriving until next term, City needed someone to fill the void in front of goal. De Bruyne, whether used in midfield or attack, has done that in the second half of the season.

Despite the slow start, City's top scorer has scored with 19.2 per cent of his shots in 2021-22; his previous high, in his debut 2015-16 season, saw a shot conversion rate of 14.3 per cent.

"I like it a lot," Pep Guardiola said in April after De Bruyne had netted four in four games – including two against Manchester United and one against Liverpool.

"He is not just a player to make assists – now he scores a lot of goals. I've said to him many times, 'I know you enjoy making a lot of assists, for you and your team-mates, but you have to score goals to reach another stage'. Now he is doing that, a lot of goals and chances."

'We have to move on'

De Bruyne either scored or assisted in 14 of those 20 games in the run-in, but he saved his best performances for when it mattered most – at least in the league.

There were suspicions City's season might fall apart when Real Madrid's remarkable semi-final recovery eliminated Guardiola's side from the Champions League at the start of May. With Liverpool in hot pursuit in the Premier League, the leaders were afforded little time to regroup as they headed straight into matches against Newcastle United at home and Wolves away.

"We are going to play against Newcastle thinking about [the Madrid defeat], for sure," said Guardiola in an enthralling news conference, revealing two days before the Newcastle match: "We didn't speak. No words can help what all of us feel. It's just a question of time."

Time, and Tottenham drawing at Liverpool, as it turned out.

A rare slip-up at Anfield on the eve of City's game against Newcastle eased the pressure on the champions. Then De Bruyne got to work.

Briefly restored to his 2019-20 vintage, De Bruyne attempted only a single shot at the Etihad but created six chances in a 5-0 win – his most in a single game this season – including an assist for Rodri's goal.

That performance prompted Jamie Carragher in the Sky Sports studio to declare De Bruyne "the greatest player to ever play for Manchester City", "the best midfield player in the world right now" and "the best player in the Premier League for the past three or four years".

Yet better was still to come at Wolves, where City became the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive league games by a margin of at least three goals. De Bruyne alone outscored Wolves by three, netting four in a 5-1 victory.

The first hat-trick of his City career was completed inside 24 minutes – the third-fastest in Premier League history – to blow away a Wolves team who had briefly threatened to cause their visitors some problems.

"It should have been five, to be honest," De Bruyne told Sky Sports, before conversation turned back to the Madrid match.

"It's very difficult to explain because it was just a mad five minutes," he said. "It's not that we played bad or something, it was just five minutes that you can't explain as a player. I don't know what happened. I was out of control on the bench anyway, so you feel a little bit in shock. It's not nice and the feeling is still not nice.

"But you need to move on. We're trying now to win the title and whatever happened unfortunately happened. We have to move on."

The Wolves display would have been fresh in Carragher's mind on Monday when he named De Bruyne his personal player of the season. The Premier League award followed ahead of the crucial final-day assist for Ilkay Gundogan, although other individual end-of-season honours may evade De Bruyne. Many are voted on well in advance of the final weeks of the campaign – before De Bruyne had done his best work.

Mohamed Salah is the FWA Footballer of the Year and may also be recognised by the PFA; he scored four goals in his final 11 games – as many as De Bruyne managed on one night in Wolverhampton.

A Premier League title, defined by his clutch performances, is not a bad consolation.

Manchester City are Premier League champions for a fourth time in five seasons, and a sixth time overall, after beating Aston Villa 3-2 in remarkable fashion on Sunday to hold off Liverpool.

City are now in front of Chelsea (five titles) as the competition's outright second most successful side and behind only Manchester United, who have lifted the title 13 times.

Indeed, only United (20), Liverpool (19), Arsenal (13) and Everton (nine) have won more titles in the history of the English top flight, dating back to 1888, than eight-time winners City.

The Citizens' latest title triumph was built on a solid defence and a potent attack, with no team in the division scoring more goals (99) or conceding fewer (26).

With the aid of Opta, Stats Perform looks at some of the other numbers behind City's successful title defence.

PEP PREVAILS ONCE MORE

City have won four of the past five Premier League titles, which is a level of dominance not seen in the competition since United lifted the trophy in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Pep Guardiola has been at the helm for those four most recent triumphs, making him the fourth coach in English top-flight history to win four titles over a five-season period.

He is in quite some company, too, with Alex Ferguson (United), Bob Paisley (Liverpool) and George Ramsey (Villa) the other names on that list. 

The Catalan is only the eighth man to win as many as four English top-flight titles, while only Ferguson (13) has ever lifted the Premier League more times.

Following equally successful stints with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Guardiola has now won the title in 10 of his 13 seasons as a top-flight manager.

To put that into some context, Massimiliano Allegri (6) is the sole other coach to have won more than five league crowns in that period across Europe's top five leagues.

CATCH US IF YOU CAN

City may have been pushed all the way in the end, but they spent 168 days at the summit – 98 more than any other team, and 157 more than valiant runners-up Liverpool.

The 2021-22 campaign did not get off to the best of starts for City, though, as they lost 1-0 at Tottenham on the opening weekend, with that one of only three losses all season.

That makes the Citizens only the fourth side in the Premier League era to lose their opening match yet still go on to win the title, and the 15th overall in English top-flight history.

CITY FALL JUST SHORT OF OWN RECORD

City had to do it the hard way. They were 2-0 down to Villa and matters looked bleak, but Ilkay Gundogan inspired a comeback for the ages.

It means City end the season with a positive goal difference of 73.

That is the second-highest goal difference in Premier League history, behind only their own mark of +79 in 2017-18 when scoring a record 106 goals and conceding 27.

The 26 goals conceded by City this term is an impressive return, though it is well short of the 15 let in by Chelsea in 2004-05.

GOALS GALORE

City may not have had a player who seriously challenged for the Golden Boot award, but the workload was shared with 16 different players registering a goal.

Set-pieces proved an important source of goals for the champions, who netted 22 times from corners and free-kicks, while conceding just once in this manner.

Their positive differential of 21 goals between set-piece goals scored and conceded is the largest on record in the Premier League since such data was first collected in 2008-09.

Speculation over Kylian Mbappe's future is finally over as he will be staying at Paris Saint-Germain.

The 23-year-old had widely been expected to join Real Madrid as a free agent, but it was confirmed on Saturday that the France forward has signed a new three-year contract with PSG.

Mbappe joined the Ligue 1 champions from Monaco, initially on loan, in 2017 and has become the capital club's leading light, despite playing alongside Neymar and, as of the 2021-22 season, Lionel Messi.

PSG were desperate to keep hold of the World Cup winner and have now got their wish.

Here, Stats Perform breaks down the key numbers and records behind Mbappe's PSG career to date.

The headline numbers

217 - As he featured in PSG's starting XI against Metz, he has now made 217 appearances so far, more than any other player in the period since he joined the club. Of those appearances, 190 have been starts.

168 - Before the Metz game, the forward had scored an incredible 168 goals for PSG, 72 more than Neymar, who was second on the list since Mbappe made his PSG bow.

77 - Prior to the Metz game, he was also the leading assister since he joined PSG, creating 77 goals. 

775 - As expected, he also topped the PSG squad for shots, having had 775, with 398 of those hitting the target. Magnifique.

42 - No player had contributed to more goals across Europe's top five leagues this season heading into Saturday's match than Mbappe, who has been involved in 42.

The records

15 - This season, Mbappe became the first player to score at least 15 goals and provide at least 15 assists in a single Ligue 1 campaign since Eden Hazard did so for Lille in the 2011-12 campaign.

100 - When he scored against Lyon in March 2021, Mbappe became the youngest player to rack up 100 goals in Ligue 1, at the age of 22 years and 91 days. He is also the youngest player to net a century of goals in the top five European Leagues in the 21st century.

2 - Mbappe is already the second-highest Ligue 1 scorer since the turn of the century, having scored 132 times in the competition before Saturday's game. Only PSG great Edinson Cavani, with 138, has netted more.

1 - He is hoping to become the first player to finish as the highest goalscorer and the leading assist provider in the same Ligue 1 season since Opta began collecting such data in 2008.

8 - Ever consistent, Mbappe had scored at least one goal and delivered at least one assist in eight different Ligue 1 games this season, the highest tally of his career in the same top-flight campaign, prior to the final match of the 2021-22 campaign.

3 - Mbappe is aiming to be the third player to finish as the highest goalscorer in four consecutive Ligue 1 seasons, after Carlos Bianchi (four in a row with Reims and PSG) and Jean-Pierre Papin (five in a row with Marseille). 

50 - It is not just domestically that Mbappe has thrived. Since Opta collected such data, starting in the 2003-04 season, he is the fastest and youngest player to have reached 50 goal involvements in the Champions League, doing so in 51 matches, by the age of 22 years and 352 days.

32 - As of kick-off against Metz, Mbappe was 32 goals shy of matching Cavani's club record of 200 for PSG.

Miami. That's where this started. Where Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek were both champions at the same tournament for the first time.

Expect it to become, if not the norm, a regular occurrence over the coming years. Like Serena and Roger, and like Pete and Steffi before them, Carlos and Iga could well become the tennis royalty that reign above all others on the tour.

The 19-year-old Alcaraz heads to Roland Garros with four titles on the ATP tour this season, while 20-year-old Swiatek has five on the WTA circuit. Those are both tour-leading figures, with Alcaraz triumphing in Rio de Janeiro, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid, while Swiatek has won in Doha, Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart and Rome.

It is a global game, and these two are world leaders, based on their recent form. The Miami Open was as recently as April, and now the French Open awaits.

Swiatek has shown she can win big in Paris already, storming to the title without dropping a set as the world number 54 in October 2020, against all expectations. Nobody, Swiatek included, saw that coming, but the emergence of Alcaraz has been longer heralded, and now that is happening too.


"Practically unstoppable". "An overwhelming favourite". What the greats say about Swiatek and Alcaraz

Martina Navratilova, who landed the French Open singles at the height of her career in 1982 and 1984, won 74 consecutive tour matches in the latter year. That puts Swiatek's current streak of 28 into some perspective, albeit the young Pole is just seven away from matching the longest run on the WTA circuit since the start of the year 2000.

According to Navratilova, the Roland Garros tournament starts with an obvious prime contender.

"It's Swiatek against the field," she said, describing the Polish player as an "overwhelming favourite".

"Clearly, the pressure is not bothering her," Navratilova added, as quoted by the WTA website. "She’s just embracing that. It's great to see – when you are the favourite, and you keep on winning."

When Novak Djokovic lost to Alcaraz in the Madrid semi-finals, the disappointed Serbian said: "He held his nerves very well. For somebody of his age to play so maturely and courageously is impressive."

This is greatness recognising potential greatness.

Rafael Nadal had been beaten by Alcaraz in the previous round and accepts there is a changing of the guard in motion.

"When adrenaline goes up, he's practically unstoppable," Nadal said of his fellow Spaniard, "but then in some moments he commits errors, but it's logical because he plays with a lot of risk. It's his way of playing, and in that sense I think he has the level to be able to win against anyone in the world."


Handling the pressure, in their own words...

Swiatek, a natural introvert, travels with psychologist Daria Abramowicz, and is learning on the move how to handle the pressures of life at the top. Winning her last five tournaments points to a remarkable mentality, with Swiatek now firmly established as the WTA number one.

"I already know that I did some great stuff this season, so I feel like I can just play freely and not think I have to win some tournaments, or I have to win some matches, or I have to save some points," Swiatek said in Rome.

"This year, the pressure that I always put on myself, it's a little bit lower. For sure the expectations around are higher, but I never had a problem to cut it off and not to think about it. Also I'm gaining experience at that. I think with more and more tournaments, it's going to get better and better for me to cope with all of that."

Alcaraz, who has become physically mightier in the past 12 months, appears to have the mental steel that a champion requires, albeit he has yet to win one of the four majors.

He is embracing the hype around his French Open prospects by encouraging title talk.

In Miami, he said: "This year, I think that people are going to think that I'm going to be one of the favourites to win Roland Garros, but I always said that I have a different view. I don't have it as tension; I have it as a motivation. I really look forward to going to Paris, to fighting for the grand slam, and I am really looking forward to showing my great level in a grand slam too."

After triumphing in Madrid, he went a step further, telling Tennis TV: "Yes, I think I'm ready to win a grand slam."


What can they achieve?

Alcaraz and Swiatek would not be the youngest champion duo in a single edition of the French Open – Michael Chang was 17 years and three months when he triumphed at Roland Garros in 1989, and women's champion Arantxa Sanchez was only three months older.

They would be the youngest champion pairing this century, however. Currently, the youngest winners at the same French Open in the 21st century are Nadal and Henin, who turned 19 and 23 respectively during the 2005 tournament.

World number six Alcaraz is a long way off number one in the ATP rankings, but at the start of the year he sat 32nd, an awful long way from sixth spot. He is skipping steps as he races up the ladder and seems destined for the top.

He sits third in the Race to Turin, which ranks performances in the calendar year rather than on a rolling basis and decides the line-up for the end-of-season ATP Finals. There, Alcaraz is closing on leader Nadal and just a sliver (3,490 to 3,460 points is the margin) behind second-placed Tsitsipas, who has played 11 tournaments to Alcaraz's seven.

For Swiatek to be champion, she must break the run that has seen eight different women crowned in the last eight years: Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, Simona Halep, Ash Barty, Swiatek and Barbora Krejcikova.

The men's singles has been rather more predictable over the same period, with Nadal winning five times, Djokovic twice and Stan Wawrinka once. Nadal in 2005 was the last teenager to scoop the men's title.

The last woman to truly dominate at Roland Garros was Justine Henin, who won four years out of five from 2003 to 2007.

Swiatek can make it two from three, and if she reaches the title match, it would be a brave person to back against her given she has won 16 consecutive sets in finals.

With her five titles already this year, Swiatek is one away from becoming the first woman to beat that total in a season since Serena Williams won seven in 2014.

She is a red-hot favourite, while Alcaraz is a serious contender. A repeat of Miami would shock nobody who has been paying attention.

As the Big Three of the men's game begins to break up, and the Williams sisters dot the i's and cross the t's of their careers, the future of tennis looks to be in secure hands.

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