Next month's trip to Liverpool is a no-go for Kevin De Bruyne, while March's crunch derby with Manchester United could be a return date for Manchester City's star midfielder.

That is the predicament facing Pep Guardiola after he confirmed the Belgium international will be out for four to six weeks due to a hamstring injury sustained during the 2-0 midweek win over Aston Villa.

De Bruyne, the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year, has been in typically sparkling form for City this term, scoring three times and providing 10 assists in the Premier League.

Guardiola's men are two points shy of league leaders United with a game in hand and into the last-16 of the Champions League.

Here, we look at the key games within a battle on all fronts where the EFL Cup finalists will be missing their talisman.

Cheltenham Town (A) - January 23

De Bruyne would probably have been rested for the weekend clash with League Two Cheltenham Town in any case, although the fifth round on February 10 also looks to be out of the question if City progress. In 16 appearances in the FA Cup, he has five goals and as many assists - claiming one of each in the 6-0 demolition of Watford in the 2019 final

West Brom (A) - January 26

City are back in Premier League action against Sam Allardyce's relegation-threatened Baggies next week. De Bruyne has two goals and three assists against the Baggies in the competition but could not manage a goal involvement as Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling failed to convert his late crosses during December's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. City have won nine games in a row across all competitions since that setback.

Sheff Utd (H) - January 30

Another relegation candidate follows, with bottom club Sheffield United facing a daunting trip to Manchester. De Bruyne created Sergio Aguero's opener before completing the scoring for a 2-0 win in this fixture last season.

Burnley (A) - February 3

Perhaps surprisingly, giving City's succession of recent 5-0 wins over Burnley, De Bruyne has never scored against Sean Dyche's men in the Premier League. He does have three assists, including the decisive passes for Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy to net during the most recent mauling last November.

Liverpool (A) - February 7

De Bruyne scored from the penalty spot as City beat the recently crowned champions 4-0 last July, although he missed uncharacteristically from 12 yards in this season's 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. Even though none of his five Premier League assists against Liverpool have come at Anfield, he will be a huge miss when City chase a first win on the red side of Stanley Park since 2003.

Tottenham (H) - February 13

De Bruyne scored in each of his first three Premier League appearances against Spurs and set up both City goals as the sides shared a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Etihad last season. Jose Mourinho's men were the last team to inflict a defeat upon City, 17 games ago.

Arsenal (A) - February 21

No Premier League team has conceded more goals to De Bruyne than Arsenal's five. City's number 17 scored twice and dazzled throughout in a 3-0 win at Emirates Stadium last term.

Borussia Monchengladbach (A) - February 24

UEFA named De Bruyne their Midfielder of the Season following his performances on City's run to the quarter-finals in 2019-20. Despite his club's patchy record in Europe's top competition, the 29-year-old has seven goals and 15 assists in 37 Champions League appearances for the English side.

West Ham (H) - February 27

Rodri converted De Bruyne's corner before the man himself rounded off a 2-0 win over West Ham when the teams met on February 19 last year. It was the last time fans were allowed into the Etihad Stadium.

Manchester United (H) - March 6

This could be the biggest Manchester derby for almost a decade given the state of play at the top of the table and must surely be the comeback target for De Bruyne. He opened the scoring in a 2-1 Premier League win at Old Trafford in 2016, a strike that remains his only goal involvement in seven league games against United.

'Mystic Mac' is back!... and not for the first time.

Conor McGregor steps back into the Octagon having not fought since knocking out Donald Cerrone after just 40 seconds at UFC 246 over 12 months ago.

That was supposed to be the first of three fights in 2020 for a rejuvenated McGregor, who had spent 14 months away following the ugly melee that followed his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018.

Then, of course, a global pandemic caused chaos to the world of sport and, in June, McGregor announced he was retiring from fighting, citing he was just not excited about the MMA game.

Fans of McGregor and the UFC had been here twice before and the scepticism that met his announcement was justified when it was confirmed the big-talking Irishman would face off against Dustin Poirier for the second time in his career.

Ahead of that bout on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi this weekend for UFC 257, we take a look back at McGregor's past 'comeback' scraps.


August 20, 2016 – McGregor beats Diaz by majority decision

In March of the same year, McGregor suffered his first loss fighting in the UFC after submitting to a rear-naked choke from Nate Diaz at UFC 196.

McGregor was slated to have his rematch against Diaz at UFC 200 but in April posted on Twitter: "I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese."

Two days later, he clarified that he had not actually retired but had fallen out with UFC bosses over promotional work and the fight was pulled.

But the bout was eventually staged at UFC 202 in an absolute classic that saw McGregor avenge the defeat via majority decision.

McGregor floored his opponent in round one and Diaz was downed twice more in the second round, but the Irishman survived a series of brutal blows in the third.

Diaz scored a takedown late in the fifth but McGregor saw out the time with the three judges scoring it 48-47, 47-47, 48-47, leading to a famous declaration: "The king is back!"


January 18, 2020 – McGregor beats Cerrone by knockout

Five months on from the ugly aftermath of the Khabib defeat, McGregor announced, "I've decided to retire from the sport formally known as 'Mixed Martial Art'."

High-profile incidents away from the Octagon had plagued McGregor, while he also launched his 'Proper No. Twelve' whiskey brand.

Still, the lure of the UFC proved too much for one of the all-time greats and a focused McGregor was back to fight Cerrone in Las Vegas in a bout pitting two of the sport's most popular stars against one another.

McGregor put on an absolute clinic and a series of brutal blows led to the bout being waved off after just 40 seconds. It marked his first victory in the Octagon since November 2016 when he defeated Eddie Alvarez to win the UFC lightweight title and become the company's first ever dual champion.

After the fight, McGregor said: "I made history tonight. I set a new record. I'm the first fighter in UFC history to secure knockout victories at featherweight, at lightweight and now at welterweight - across three weight divisions, so I'm very proud of that."


January 23, 2021 – McGregor v Poirier?

"Hey guys I've decided to retire from fighting. Thank you all for the amazing memories! What a ride it's been!"

And with that McGregor was done... again.

But really we knew he wasn't, and once more McGregor will step into the Octagon against an opponent he is familiar with.

Almost seven years have passed since McGregor earned 'Performance of the Night' honours after the fight was stopped after one minute and 46 seconds of the first round when 'The Notorious' put Poirier on the back foot then caught his opponent with a huge left hook behind the ear.

So the question remains: how will McGregor fare on his latest comeback from 'retirement'?

Silvio Berlusconi, Adriano Galliani, Cristian Brocchi, Mario Balotelli, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Gabriel Paletta.

There is a real Milan vibe about Monza, who are nestled 15 kilometres north of the Lombardy capital, as the ambitious club stand closer than ever to achieving their goal of Serie A promotion after spending their entire existence in the lower leagues.

Monza are owned by former Milan president and Italy prime minister Berlusconi, who returned to football in 2018 after selling his beloved Rossoneri a year earlier.

After purchasing the club through his Fininvest company, Berlusconi turned to his trusted right-hand man Galliani – who was born in Monza – as CEO. Their partnership helped turn the Rossoneri into a superpower, with eight Serie A titles and five Champions League/European Cup crowns among the 29 pieces of silverware between 1986 and 2017.

Monza are also coached by former Milan midfielder and boss Brocchi, while the Serie B outfit also boasts ex-Rossoneri players Balotelli, Boateng and Paletta.

After completing their rise from Serie C to the second tier of Italian football amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2019-20, Monza are well and truly in the promotion mix – fourth and six points adrift of leaders Empoli, while they are only two points behind Cittadella, who occupy the final automatic spot through 18 games.

Moving up to Serie A would mean a Milan reunion for many of Monza's staff and players, as well as Brocchi – who won the Scudetto and two Champions League titles among other honours at San Siro between 2001 and 2008 before spending a brief period in charge eight years later.

"It is a dream that hopefully will come true. To have brought the Milan mentality coming from our board – always striving to build an important organisation similar to the Milan that won so much worldwide," Brocchi told Stats Perform News.

"Board, manager and some players have worn that shirt and the dream to recreate Milan here in Monza is beautiful and emotional."

"It is a tough season. There are many strong clubs, the ones relegated from A [in 2019-20] who have retained all the important players and those who last season had built up a squad for promotion and failed, so I think this year's Serie B is the hardest of recent times," he continued.

Monza – back in Serie B following a 19-year absence – are no ordinary second-tier team in Italy, with all eyes on the Bagai due to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi's presence has changed the landscape for Monza, who tried to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic before the star striker opted to return to Milan in January last year. However, Monza have since lured Balotelli and Boateng to the club.

"Working for Berlusconi and Galliani's club is grand because all media attention is on you. For sure everybody thinks Monza have to win every game because these two people have gone down in football history winning so much. And this is exactly our goal," Brocchi said.

"I know very well Berlusconi and Galliani's wish is to reach Serie A and win every game. We share the same mindset because I have grown up with them since I was nine. To me it is an honour to be the manager here.

"For sure it is beautiful and important for me to manage in a club like Monza that are very ambitious. It is not easy to take a club from Serie C to Serie A but it is emotional because you have a lot of responsibilities and adrenaline is always rushing. As I said, to face strong clubs with your own aim and manage to overcome them, would make this even better." 

Brocchi, who oversaw just seven matches as Milan coach before being replaced by Vincenzo Montella, continued: "Monza's aim is to improve. We started from C, we are in B and we want Serie A. The difference between us and other clubs is that once in Serie A we won't have the goal of avoiding relegation at the last game, but to rank in the top 10.

"Mr Galliani wants us to always be a strong team going for great objectives. This is what will happen should we win this league."

Balotelli and Boateng are set to play a key role in Monza's push for promotion following their high-profile arrivals.

Boateng has made an immediate impact, with the former Milan and Barcelona midfielder – on average – scoring a goal every 243 minutes in Serie B this season, the best average among Monza players with at least 90 minutes played.

Only Dany Mota has fired more shots on target than Boateng (23 to 10) among Monza players this term and the talented Portuguese forward has four league goals.

Balotelli – coming off a difficult spell at Brescia before their relegation from Serie A – scored with his first touch in Serie B on debut for Monza last month before being sidelined through injury.

"They [Balotelli and Boateng] arrived here in Serie B thanks to the acquaintance they had with Berlusconi and Galliani and even with me as a manager, since I trained them at Milan and we had a great relationship," said Brocchi, who was handed his first senior head-coaching role at Milan after replacing Sinisa Mihajlovic almost five years ago, having previously worked with the club's youth team.

"They settled in very well, they always train hard, they lead by example by showing the will to take me, Berlusconi, Galliani and Monza to Serie A. So far they have been important, let's hope they can give us even more in order to make this dream come true."

The experience of Balotelli and Boateng complements an exciting core of Monza players, including Mota and Brazilian full-back Carlos Augusto, as well as talented loanees Davide Frattesi (Sassuolo), Andrea Colpani (Atalanta) and Davide Bettella (Atalanta).

Both Balotelli and Boateng have tasted Serie A success in their careers to go with respective Premier League and LaLiga honours, with the latter part of the last Milan team to celebrate Scudetto glory in 2010-11.

The strategy of sporting director Filippo Antonelli and Brocchi to invest in promising young talent has continued to deliver results on the pitch.

Monza have allowed the fewest headed goals (one) in Serie B this season, while Brocchi's side have conceded 10 goals from inside the box – the least in the league, while they have scored five goals inside the opening 15 minutes of play – the joint most in 2020-21.

"Monza are a mix of experienced players and great young talents. The right mix to achieve our goals. Players like Balotelli and Boateng can help Mota, Carlos Augusto, Frattesi, Colpani or Bettella, all under-21 players for Italy and Portugal," the 44-year-old Brocchi said.

"You can't only field experienced players, you have to look for the right mix and this is what Antonelli and I looked for. I think experience helps youngsters and their exuberance helps the expert ones."

After thrashing Crystal Palace 7-0 on December 19, Liverpool were six points clear at the Premier League summit. 

Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were all on target in the clinical rout at Selhurst Park, after which Jurgen Klopp said: "It was really difficult to play against us."

The reigning champions had seemingly found top gear again. 

Fast forward to January 21 and, following a stunning 1-0 loss to Burnley at Anfield, Liverpool were left to wonder just where it had all gone so badly wrong.  

For a fourth successive outing in the league they had failed to score, while the shock result sees them stuck in fourth position in the table, six points behind leaders Manchester United. 

Never mind moving through the gears: the wheels have well and truly come off. 

BARNES HARMS AILING CHAMPIONS

Ashley Barnes' penalty condemned the Reds to a first home defeat in the league since April 23, 2017. It had been three years and 273 days since former Liverpool player Christian Benteke struck twice for Palace in a 2-1 triumph. 

The run of 68 games unbeaten was the second longest in English top-flight history. During the streak, there were 55 wins, 176 goals scored and 36 clean sheets. A total of 43 players were used, too.

Joel Matip, Georginio Wijnaldum, Firmino and Divock Origi were also in the starting XI that were beaten by Palace, managed by Sam Allardyce, nearly four years ago, while Trent Alexander-Arnold came on as a late substitute.


GOAL-SHY LIVERPOOL MISS CAPTAIN

Since Mane's early strike in the 1-1 draw against West Brom on December 27, Liverpool have registered 87 shots in the Premier League without managing to find the net. Eighty. Seven. Shots.

It was not for a lack of trying against Burnley, admittedly. They had 27 total attempts, their most in a single league match without scoring since April 2013 versus Reading (28).  

The absence of Jordan Henderson did not help. Even prior to kick-off, Liverpool had lost more of their 11 Premier League games without their captain (3) than they had in 45 games with him (2) since the start of last season.

KLOPP STREAK CAUSES CONCERN

This is not yet uncharted territory for Klopp at Liverpool; he previously went five league games without a win between January and February in 2017. 

That barren run four years ago included fixtures against Sunderland and Hull City – clubs now in the third tier of English football – and a home defeat to current Championship side Swansea City, who were celebrating at Anfield thanks to goals from Fernando Llorente (two) and Gylfi Sigurdsson.

However, Klopp has never previously gone four without a goal during his Reds tenure. The previous time that happened in his coaching career was while in charge of Mainz, who suffered a drought in the Bundesliga late in 2006.


POPE SAVES ALL AS REDS PAY THE PENALTY

Nick Pope excelled when Burnley ended Liverpool's 100 per cent home record in their title-winning campaign – and the goalkeeper was once again in outstanding form on Merseyside.

The England international made six saves to keep a clean sheet, having produced eight in his side's 1-1 draw in July at the same ground. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, no keeper has made more saves against a single opponent in the Premier League than Pope against Liverpool (19).

Barnes' penalty was the second spot-kick Liverpool have conceded at home this season too – they had only given up two penalty goals at Anfield under Klopp before 2020-21.

There is plenty for the German to ponder, then. While retaining the trophy is far from out of reach, what appeared to be a temporary blip is in danger of turning into a full-blown crisis.

The list of Kobe Bryant's accomplishments during his 20 NBA seasons is almost too long to recount.  

Yet among his All-Star selections, championships and signature moments, his 81-point game stands out both for its historical significance and its representation of Bryant's personality and career.  

Friday marks the 15th anniversary of this astounding feat, the closest anyone has ever come to Wilt Chamberlain's NBA scoring record, a seemingly impossible 100 points.  

Chamberlain reached triple digits on March 2, 1962, in a much different NBA than the one Bryant faced. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game that season while playing every minute of every game. In scoring 100 points, he led the Philadelphia Warriors to a 169-147 win over the New York Knicks.  

Bryant's feat, while falling short of the century mark, remains the gold standard for scoring in the modern game.  

On January 22, 2006, the Toronto Raptors travelled to Los Angeles to face the Lakers and were gaining confidence. After a desperate 1-15 start, Toronto's season had stabilised, and the Raptors entered Staples Center having won 10 of their previous 16 games. But Toronto had just allowed 113 points in a win against Seattle and entered the game giving up 102.2 points per game, third-most in the NBA.  

Bryant went on to make history, making 28 of his 46 field goal attempts – including 7-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc – and hitting 18 of 20 free throws.  

Perhaps the greatest testament to Bryant's achievement is that no player over the 15 years since has come particularly close to scoring 81 points in a game, despite several factors working in their favor.  

In 2005-06, a team got 79.0 field goal attempts per game on average, the fourth-slowest pace of all time. Almost any other season in NBA history would have been more likely to have an astounding scoring outburst.  

In the 1961-62 season, when Chamberlain made history, teams averaged 107.7 shots per game and attempted 37.1 free throws per game, nearly 11 more than in 2005-06.  

The league has picked up its pace since Bryant's feat as well, with teams attempting 88.8 field goals last season, giving the modern player more opportunities than Bryant had.  

The other advantage that current players have in piling up stats is the three-point shot.  

Bryant's 7-for-13 performance from deep was dynamic in 2006. Twice in the 2005-06 season, Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon made nine three-pointers in a game to lead the league. Only four players made more than seven threes in a game that season. The average team attempted 16.0 threes per game.  

Teams are launching an average of 35.1 three-point attempts during this young season, on pace to be the 10th in a row with an increase in long-range shooting. Ten players have already made eight or more threes in a game this season, despite most teams having played about 15 games.  

Even with a faster pace and increased frequency of long-distance barrages in the modern game, Bryant's 81-point mark still appears virtually unobtainable.  

Since that date, Devin Booker's 70 points are the high mark. There have been 19 games in which a player scored 60 or more, four by Bryant himself.  

One integral element to Bryant's scoring explosion was the composition of that Lakers team. Bryant did have Lamar Odom, but LA's other starters on that historic night were Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Smush Parker. The Lakers finished that season 45-37, far from a bad team, but Bryant scored 35.4 points per game as the Lakers relied on him almost entirely for scoring.  

Bryant scored 34.7 percent of the Lakers' points that season, the fourth-highest scoring share of all time. Only Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have scored a higher percentage of a team's points in a season.  

Given that profile, there are a few players who stand out as possible candidates to make a run at a historical scoring game in the foreseeable future.  

Booker, James Harden and Kemba Walker all have at least one 60-point game in their careers but now find themselves on teams with better supporting casts, making it unlikely they could get enough shots to chase history.  

Damian Lillard, however, could fit the mould perfectly. Team-mates CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic will both miss significant time due to injuries, and Lillard has crossed the 60-point barrier three times, all within the past 15 months. Add his 36.2 minutes per game – top 10 in the league – and 10.1 three-point attempts per game, and Lillard seems as likely as anyone to produce a dazzling scoring total.  

Stephen Curry scored a career-high 62 points on January 3 and will be a constant centerpiece in the Golden State Warriors' offense without Klay Thompson. While Curry is 25th in the league at 34.4 minutes per game, his historic three-point shooting makes him a constant threat.  

League scoring leader Bradley Beal remains in the mix, despite the Washington Wizards acquiring ball-hungry Russell Westbrook in the offseason. Westbrook has often taken games off due to rest, and Beal scored 60 on January 6. He also carries the advantage of getting to the free throw line 9.5 times per game, fourth in the NBA this season.  

That list ignores perennial MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, as well as young dynamos like Trae Young and Luka Doncic.  

The fact that there are so many candidates to make a run at 81 points without anyone coming close in the past 15 years indicates just how phenomenal Bryant's accomplishment was.  

Whether Bryant's mark lasts forever or is eventually bested, it will always be a brilliant snapshot of an all-time great player. He won championships before and after his 81-point game, but Bryant's legacy is as a scorer and a relentless competitor, perfectly represented by that gaudy scoring total 15 years ago.  

Bryant wore number eight and number 24 during his decorated career, but 81 is just as important to his legacy.

George Springer is reportedly packing his bags and heading to the Rogers Centre.

Widespread reports claim the Toronto Blue Jays have agreed to a six-year, $150million contract with star free agent and MLB World Series champion Springer – the largest deal in franchise history, eclipsing Vernon Wells' $126m extension in 2006.

The emerging Blue Jays, who returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2016, had been looking to make a splash in free agency after recruiting ace Ryu Hyun-jin ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Toronto appear to have landed their number one target and one of the most coveted free agents this offseason, despite interest in the likes of Francisco Lindor and DJ LeMahieu, as they challenge the likes of the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox in the American League.

Springer – a World Series winner and MVP with the Houston Astros – brings a wealth of postseason experience to an exciting young core of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio in Toronto, where the Blue Jays also boast number one right-handed pitching prospect Nate Pearson.

Teoscar Hernandez also had a breakout season for the Blue Jays, resulting in his first Silver Slugger Award.

But what does Springer's arrival mean for the Blue Jays in their pursuit of a first World Series crown since 1993? We take a look using Stats Perform data.

Experience and lead-off ability

Springer led the Astros to ultimate glory in 2017.

The 31-year-old outfielder tallied a team-high 14 homers, 37 runs, 50 hits and 32 RBIs with a .265 average in 189 at-bats as the Astros reached the AL Championship Series (ALCS) last season.

Springer leads MLB with 136 home runs from the lead-off spot since 2015. The Blue Jays as a team have 129 homers from the lead-off spot over that time.

A two-time Silver Slugger, Springer has 39 lead-off home runs in his career – fourth most all-time behind Rickey Henderson (73), Ian Kinsler (48) and Brady Anderson (44).

Springer has recorded seven career World Series home runs – most from the lead-off spot all-time – and he is 19-for-56 (.339) in the World Series in his career. No other current Blue Jays player has a World Series hit in their career.

The three-time All-Star's 174 home runs since debuting in MLB via Houston are third most by an Astro in a player's first seven career seasons, behind only Jeff Bagwell (187) and Lance Berkman (180).

In 15 career games at the Blue Jays' Rogers Centre, Springer has slashed .358/.453/.604 with seven extra-base hits and 10 RBIs.

Springer to compliment Toronto's young star power

It has been a long time since Jose Bautista's memorable bat flip and back-to-back trips to the ALCS in 2015 and 2016.

But Guerrero, Gurriel, Bichette and Biggio have given Blue Jays fans a lot to be excited about.

The big-hitting quartet took the MLB by storm during last season's coronavirus-shortened campaign, lighting up the league and helping Toronto to a 32-28 record before losing to eventual World Series participants the Rays in the AL Wild Card Round.

Bichette is the first shortstop in MLB history to have a .300-plus batting average and a .500-plus slugging percentage in each of his first two seasons (minimum 125 plate appearances in both seasons).

Blue Jays team-mate Biggio became the first player in league history to have at least 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 100 walks through his first 159 career games (that is how many games he has played so far).

As for Guerrero, he is the only MLB player currently 21 or younger who has at least 100 career RBIs.

Of players aged 25 or younger, the Blue Jays topped a number of categories last season.

Based on age at the time of games, the Blue Jays had the most hits (234), runs (148), home runs (38), RBIs (137), XBH (93) and BB (103) in 2020.

A goalless first-half in the Supercoppa Italiana started and finished with Cristiano Ronaldo thumping speculative efforts into the deserted stand behind the goal as he chased a record. Or was it a record?

The most notable Juventus contribution in between was Wojciech Szczesny's incredible point-blank save to stop Hirving Lozano giving Napoli the lead with a flying header.

It was far from the rousing response to Sunday's sound 2-0 defeat at Inter that Andrea Pirlo would have hoped for, even if the same scoreline eventually fell in his favour for the first silverware of a fledgling coaching career.

Gennaro Gattuso, manning the other technical area with his typical demeanour of an overworked nightclub bouncer (remember nightclubs?), is famously firm friends with Pirlo.

After falling short as the overmatched apprentice against a masterful Antonio Conte at the weekend, the hirsute Juve boss would probably have preferred to pit his wits against anyone but the man who arguably knows him better than anyone in football.

They were an irresistible combination of silk and steel in the midfield as Italy won the 2006 World Cup and Milan lifted major prizes at home and abroad, while Pirlo's often cerebral autobiography is peppered with stories of juvenile practical jokes played at the expense of an easily riled Gattuso.

The playmaker was infamously allowed to joined Juventus on a free transfer in 2011, launching a dynasty alongside Conte that he is now charged with preserving,

Pirlo's glorious autumn of his playing career led Gattuso to play down his own influence upon his mate's earlier success in inimitably forthright terms.

"Don’t talk nonsense," he baulked in a 2017 interview when asked if he helped to make Pirlo a better player. "Let’s not confuse Nutella with s***"

Wednesday's encounter in Reggio Emilia was frequently closer to the undesirable end of that Gattuso spectrum, although any goalkeeper would gladly smear Szczesny's intervention to deny Lozano all over their pancakes.

Too often, Pirlo's Juve look like they're wading through a giant tube of chocolate and hazelnut spread. The are stodgy and lack flow - the notion that this team is more attractive than Massimilano Allegri's all-conquering side is fairly laughable.

But after half-time, they rolled up their sleeves in a manner in which Gattuso would have grudgingly approved.

Federico Bernardeschi, on for the ineffective Federico Chiesa, nearly scrambled home untidily shortly after the restart.

Kostas Manolas almost put through his own goal in the 64th minute and, from the resulting corner, Napoli played a crueller prank on their coach than anything Pirlo ever subjected him to. They failed to mark Ronaldo in the six-yard box.

Of course, the master marksman made no mistake and rammed home left footed for the 760th goal of his career. That puts him ahead of the great Josef Bican in some all-time rankings, although FIFA say the Austria and Czechoslovakia great has an "estimated" 805 to his name.

By most observers' best estimates, Lorenzo Insigne was surely going to send the game into extra time by converting an 80th-minute penalty after Weston McKennie's clumsy bundle into substitute Dries Mertens.

Insigne was one of the bright sparks in a drab a game and faced up to his own landmark of 100 Napoli goals. But, in another act worthy of the Pirlo-Gattuso slapstick scrapbook, he scuffed a woeful spot kick wide.

Further Szczesny heroics were required before Juan Cuadrado streaked clear to tee up Alvaro Morata to make it 2-0 win the final kick of the game.

Juventus are not playing beautiful football in their coach's image, far from it. But they celebrated with gusto at full-time having banished the end-of-empire stench that accompanied their efforts against Inter.

Have they turned the corner? Will this spark them into a convincing title defence in Sere A? Much like whether or not Ronaldo has broken another record, plenty of questions remain.

Manchester City and Aston Villa would have faced each other on the opening weekend of this Premier League campaign had Pep Guardiola's side not reached the final stages of the Champions League in Lisbon and earned an extra week to recuperate.

Plenty of what's happened since then - for both of these clubs and throughout the division - would have been impossible to predict, with a strange season springing surprises at every turn.

However, had City and Villa played one another in September, most observers would have confidently looked towards Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish to supply the creative inspiration for their respective teams.

It is safe to say each star midfielder has lived up to his billing over the first half of the campaign.

Mutual respect

Grealish earned a long-awaited England debut earlier this season and was a bright spark when England suffered a 2-0 Nations League defeat in Belgium.

Before the match, the 25-year-old revealed he spent his final preparations casting an admiring eye over a certain member of the opposition.

"For the past 24 hours, I've been watching little clips of my favourite players like I do before every game," he told Sky Sports.

"I watch loads of clips. I watch clips of De Bruyne, I watch clips of [Philippe] Coutinho, just players that are in my position, really.

"That's what I've done since I was a little kid and I still do it to this day - I have no shame in saying that and that's what gets me going for football matches."

After the match, De Bruyne conceded Grealish had also captured his attention.

"I rate him very highly," he said. "He's somebody I mentioned before, talking to the team-mates at City, in a random conversation.

"In England they talked about creative problems in midfield, but he brings that to a team. He deserves a shot."

Those warm words from De Bruyne seemed to carry a little more weight when a move for Grealish was rumoured to be one of the topics of discussion during Guardiola's successful contract extension negotiations in November.

Given the City boss already must try to accommodate the playmaking talents of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva around De Bruyne, it is questionable whether he needs such a reinforcement in his creative department.

However, Opta data from this season shows Grealish is doing plenty to match the reigning PFA Players' Player of the Year.

King creators

Both De Bruyne and Grealish have started 15 Premier League games apiece this season, with the latter playing one more minute overall.

In that time, the Villa man has created 55 chances to De Bruyne's 51, although City's number 17 has 10 assists to Grealish's seven following an outrageous outside-of-the-boot cross for John Stones to open the scoring in Sunday's 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace.

Overall, they are second and third in the Premier League's assists table, Harry Kane's fruitful relationship with Son Heung-min helping the England captain to amass 11 for Tottenham.

Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes separates them at the top when it comes to chances created, having crafted 54 for his Old Trafford colleagues.

Those numbers continue to look incredibly strong when projected across Europe's top five leagues.

Hakan Calhanoglu has created 59 chances for Serie A leaders Milan, although only six of those have been converted, while the continental top five is rounded out by Lyon's Memphis Depay being level with De Bruyne on 51.

In terms of assists, Kane and De Bruyne are again one and two from Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (nine) and Roma's Henrikh Mkhitaryan (eight).

Goals, guile and grubby work

De Bruyne has fired off 57 shots this season (17 on target) to Grealish's 40 (14 on target).

However, City's designated penalty taker has only scored three, with his first Premier League goal from open play this season coming earlier in January at Chelsea.

Grealish has weighed in with five for Dean Smith's men, including a double in their logic-defying 7-2 evisceration of champions Liverpool.

Grealish has 81.2 per cent accuracy for passes ending in the final third, outstripping De Bruyne's 73.5 per cent, although the City favourite attempting 105 crosses and corners to the younger man's 51 goes some way to explaining this discrepancy.

In terms of dribble success rate, they are neck and neck again, with Grealish returning 63.8 per cent and De Bruyne 63.

Grealish has attempted 69 dribbles to his idol's 46, which does a little to explain the frequency with which he draws free-kicks.

His 73 fouls won is comfortably the highest in the division, with Palace's Wilfred Zaha (51), Liverpool's Sadio Mane (43) and Kane (40) up next.

A key reason for this could be how integral Grealish is to so much of Villa's attacking play. As per Opta, he is responsible for 11 per cent of his team's passes. By contrast, Zaha and Kane make five per cent and Mane four.

As players who cherish the ball so much, De Bruyne and his counterpart do plenty to get it back.

The UEFA midfielder of the year has made 74 recoveries, 27 tackles and seven interceptions in the Premier League this season, compared to 79 recoveries, 23 tackles and eight interceptions for Grealish.

It seems implausible that these two midfield maestros will stray too far from the thick of the action at the Etihad Stadium, which should make for a very watchable encounter.

Whether or not it amounts to a live audition for Grealish, only time will tell.

Manchester United's 0-0 draw away to Liverpool on Sunday left Ole Gunnar Solskjaer "disappointed", the Norwegian adamant they did enough to end the Reds' remarkable long-standing unbeaten home run.

But there were two silver linings; firstly, United remained top of the Premier League, and secondly, the point preserved their own exceptional streak without a defeat.

It ensured United's run without a loss away from home in the Premier League would surpass a full year, having last suffered a domestic defeat on the road at Anfield on January 19, 2020.

Liverpool's win on that occasion took them 30 points clear of United in the table, but the obvious gulf between the two last season has not carried into 2020-21.

United are away from home again on Wednesday as they go to Fulham, and avoiding defeat again will see them equal a club record.

EMULATING THE TREBLE WINNERS

The last United team to go 17 away games unbeaten in the Premier League was Alex Ferguson's famous treble-winning side in 1998-99.

United's run started on December 5 and lasted until the following September, therefore playing a major role in the Red Devils securing the Premier League title ahead of Arsenal, pipping Arsene Wenger's men to the crown by a point.

They scored 34 goals and claimed nine wins in those 17 games and conceded 16.

Should United avoid defeat to Fulham, statistically they appear set to improve of the 1998-99 team's run, as the current crop have already scored 36, conceded just 13 and won 12.

But even if they ultimately fall at the final hurdle at Craven Cottage, they are safe in the knowledge that no other post-Ferguson United side registers in the top seven for the club's all-time top-flight unbeaten away runs.

Whether or not this run would have occurred if fans were in the stadiums is another matter, but it's unquestionable that progress is being made at Old Trafford - or, you know, away from Old Trafford...

RESILIENT REDS

A key factor in United's impressive run has been the character and resilience shown by them.

They have rescued 18 points from losing positions on the road in 2020-21, which is already a record for a single Premier League season, bettering the 17 accumulating by Aston Villa (1993-94) and Newcastle United (2001-02). The previous best posted by United was 16 in 2002-03.

Certainly the pick of United's away comebacks this season was the 3-2 win at Southampton on November 29, as they fell 2-0 down before Edinson Cavani inspired a brilliant turnaround with two goals and an assist off the bench.

A WAYS TO GO

As laudable as United's current away form is, they are still some way off matching the Premier League's all-time record, however.

Arsenal's 'Invincibles' hold that honour, having gone 27 matches unbeaten away from home in the top flight.

That stretched from April 2003 to September 2004, spanning well over a full season as they comfortably beat the 23-game record they themselves set between August 2001 and September 2002.

The closest any team has got to either streak is Liverpool, who between January 2019 and February 2020 went 21 away games without defeat before they suffered a shock 3-0 loss at Watford.

It looked like 10-man Fulham were going to keep Chelsea frustrated until Mason Mount intervened.

The midfielder fired home with 12 minutes remaining to secure a 1-0 victory, just the Blues' second in their past seven Premier League games.

It was fitting that Mount proved the match-winner following another exemplary display in the Chelsea midfield, settling the contest with his second goal from outside the box this season.

The 22-year-old has 11 goals and 10 assists in 78 career appearances as a Premier League player for Chelsea. At the same age, Lampard (for West Ham) had scored 18 times and set up a further eight, but having played 44 further matches.

Ahead of Tuesday's trip to Leicester City, the Chelsea boss said of his struggling stars: "There are things that other players can look at with Mason." He has a point.

 

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

Surrounded by expensive, high-profile stars, Mount has cemented his place as perhaps the most important fixture in Lampard's system.

He has three goals and five assists in 22 starts in all competitions this term. The only Chelsea players with more goal involvements are all more attack-minded: Timo Werner (nine goals, five assists), Tammy Abraham (eight goals, four assists), Kai Havertz (five goals, five assists) and Olivier Giroud (nine goals).

There's an argument to say Mount has been let down a little in that regard. He has created 54 goalscoring chances in 2020-21, more than twice as many as any other player, while 27 of those have been from open play – again, more than anyone else.

Only Werner, Abraham and Giroud have managed more shots on target than Mount (14), eight of which have been from outside the box, a team-high tally. Nobody could accuse him of going missing in attack.

INSURMOUNTABLE

As Lampard has been eager to point out, Mount's influence is far beyond goalscoring.

In all competitions, only three Chelsea players have completed more passes than Mount (1,032). Two of those are centre-backs Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva, who enjoy the benefit of a playing position where attempted passes are likely to be over short distances to team-mates under less pressure.

Mount, on the other hand, is required to be bolder with the ball. He has completed 427 passes ending in the final third, significantly more than any team-mate, with Ben Chilwell nearest on 268. Similarly, Mount has played 121 passes into the penalty area, including crosses, which is nine more than nearest rival Chilwell.

And if there were any doubts around Mount's impact without the ball at his feet, consider that only N'Golo Kante (26) has won more tackles (24).

Still unconvinced? Allow Lampard the final word: "Anyone who knows football and watches Mason Mount play understands what an incredible talent he is. He's just turned 22. Imagine when he's 25, imagine when he's 27. The critics don't matter when it comes to Mason."

Willy Boly had an eventful derby and there was a penalty double for Matheus Pereira as West Brom boss Sam Allardyce maintained his unbeaten record against the team he used to support as a boy.

Albion claimed a huge victory in their bid to avoid relegation from the Premier League at Molineux on Saturday, beating bitter rivals Wolves 3-2.

There was no such entertainment at Anfield on Sunday, with a hugely hyped clash between Liverpool and leaders Manchester United ending goalless, while Antonee Robinson's red card was costly as Fulham were beaten by Chelsea.

Ilkay Gundogan matched his best Manchester City goal tally for a season in a 4-0 rout of Crystal Palace, while Tottenham captain Harry Kane made his mark in Yorkshire yet again 

With the help of Opta data, we take a look at some of the quirkiest stats from the top-flight action over the weekend.

 

Boly in thick of the action as Wolves pay the penalty 

West Brom ended an eight-match winless run to claim three precious points against their big rivals Wolves.

Defender Boly became the first Wolves player to concede a penalty, provide an assist and score in a Premier League game since Adlene Guedioura in May 2011 - which was also against West Brom at Molineux.

Baggies midfielder Pereira was on target with two spot-kicks, becoming the fifth player to score a brace of penalties in a top-flight game this season. The last time there were so many penalty doubles was back in the 2010-11 campaign.

Allardyce was a Wolves fan as a youngster, but his allegiances have long gone out of the window, as the Albion head coach has not lost in 12 Premier League games against Wanderers - his longest unbeaten streak against any side.

 

Gun firing on all cylinders

Kevin De Bruyne sparkled once again as in-form City hammered Palace to go second in the table.

The midfield maestro laid on one of two goals for John Stones, taking his tally of assists for City to a landmark 100.

Gundogan is another midfielder who has caught the eye this season and the Germany international was on target with a sublime long-range finish at the Etihad Stadium.

The former Borussia Dortmund playmaker has scored four goals in his past six Premier League games, as many as he could muster in his previous 55 matches in the top flight. His tally of six for the season is the joint-most he has scored for City.

 

Kane comes up smelling of White Roses again

Prolific Spurs skipper Kane led by example yet again in a 3-1 win at bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.

Kane scored his 19th goal of what is proving to be another outstanding season in Tottenham's first league win at Bramall Lane since 1975, having failed to secure maximum points in their previous seven visits.

England captain Kane has scored in each of his past six Premier League games in Yorkshire, a run that former Leeds United striker Mark Viduka was the last to achieve in 2003.

Leeds will have to be wary of the talismanic striker when Jose Mourinho's men return to the White Rose county for a clash at Elland Road on May 8.

 

Dire States: Rash Robinson costs Fulham

Fulham full-back Robinson was sent off late in the first half of the London derby at Craven Cottage for a rash lunge on Cesar Azpilicueta.

Chelsea had to be patient as they pushed for a winner, but Mason Mount struck to consign Scott Parker's relegation-threatened side to a 1-0 defeat.

Robinson was the eighth player from the United States to be given his marching orders in the Premier League.

The former Wigan Athletic left-back's dismissal also made Fulham the first club to have two players from the USA see red, Carlos Bocanegra being the other.

If Juventus are "a benchmark" and "a reference point", as Antonio Conte suggested pre-match, the Inter head coach can now feel much more positive about his side's Scudetto hopes after a superb 2-0 win.

Conte, formerly the main man in Turin, had good reason to be pessimistic even as the Nerazzurri entered the Derby d'Italia four points ahead of the champions.

Juve were the only Serie A opponents against whom Conte possessed an 100 per cent losing record, beaten in each of his prior three matches against his former club.

And Inter's misery in this fixture extended beyond the start of Conte's reign, going seven without a win as Juve used meetings with the Nerazzurri to consolidate their domestic dominance.

Indeed, there was little reason heading into this match to doubt Juve's credentials, with Andrea Pirlo's side seemingly building up a head of steam in his rookie season.

The Bianconeri had followed up a shock December defeat at home to Fiorentina with four straight successes in all competitions, scoring 13 times in the process.

Among those victories was a deserved triumph at league leaders Milan. Juve had not won at both Milan and Inter in the first half of a Serie A season in 80 years; they now had the opportunity to do so in consecutive away games.

But preparations were not ideal. Cristiano Ronaldo, like opposite number Romelu Lukaku, had not been able to enjoy the week of rest he had set aside, instead called from the bench in a midweek Coppa Italia tie and forced to see out extra time.

Ronaldo played on the fringes at San Siro, his most notable involvement an 11th-minute tap-in ruled out for offside, with the clash between two of Serie A's foremost scorers not panning out as many would have imagined.

Lukaku was as influential as ever in the Inter attack, running Giorgio Chiellini ragged as he contested 15 duels, winning nine, earned three fouls and conceded two, and created three chances.

There was no goal for the forward, though, as the game was decided in the midfield, where Inter were even more impressive, setting the tone right from the outset.

Marcelo Brozovic anchored the side, Nicolo Barella buzzed all over the pitch, and Arturo Vidal - the subject of a clip on social media that appeared to show him kissing the badge of former club Juve pre-match - made clear where his loyalties now lie.

Conte had failed to offer an explanation for some slow starts so far this season but certainly had no need to worry about that issue on this occasion. By half-time, Inter's only concern could have been their failure to add to a lead secured by Vidal.

The midfielder, whose previous Serie A goal back in 2015 had won Juve the title, spread the ball wide to Barella moments after Ronaldo's disallowed goal and then ran onto the subsequent cross, towering over Danilo to nod beyond Wojciech Szczesny and offer a muted celebration.

That was one of 11 first-half Inter efforts, their joint-high this season. Juve mustered just three before the break, a joint-low for them.

But this unpredictable Inter side had led 4-1 and trailed 2-0 respectively on the previous two occasions they had attempted 11 shots in the opening 45 minutes this term.

Juan Sebastian Veron, a former Inter star, told Stats Perform News prior to this game the Nerazzurri would "need to be decisive". Despite the opener, they were anything but.

Vidal's wait for his next Serie A strike should have lasted only three minutes, but he blazed over. Then so too did Lautaro Martinez after Szczesny saved from Lukaku.

Martinez shot wide and Szczesny again denied Lukaku, before scrambling to retrieve Barella's deflected drive. A one-goal first-half deficit felt like an escape for Juve.

But if the Bianconeri were going to make their hosts pay, a swifter start to the second period would have to follow.

Instead, Inter scored with their very first shot after the break and finally the game was beyond Juve. A slipping Alessandro Bastoni's low, long pass somehow tore a gaping hole through the visiting defence and Barella, a deserving scorer, held off Chiellini and Gianluca Frabotta to finish high into the net.

Rather than call on Weston McKennie and Dejan Kulusevski to build on an advantage, as against Milan, Pirlo turned to the pair in a desperate, failed rescue bid.

Juve still had 32 minutes to forge a response after reinforcements arrived, but one strong Samir Handanovic save from Federico Chiesa was all they had to show for a period of pressure.

Inter could have added further goals on the counter yet will worry not. Indecisive, perhaps, Conte's side ended the weekend level on points with Milan. It is now for Pirlo and Juve, seven points back, to rise to this benchmark.

A little before the midway point of the season, heading into Sunday's Derby d'Italia, you could argue Inter have Juventus just where they would have wanted them.

Antonio Conte was brought to San Siro in 2019 and strongly backed in the transfer market with the primary aim of ending the dynasty he launched back in 2011-12 in Turin.

Juve have won every Scudetto since then but are four points behind Inter having played a game less.

Unfortunately for Conte, the Nerazzurri aren't the only side with designs on ripping away the Bianconeri's long-held crown.

Milan remain top of the table despite succumbing to a 3-1 defeat to Juve earlier this month, where they were subjected to arguably the most authoritative display of the fledgling Andrea Pirlo era.

Nine points separate Milan from Atalanta, Napoli and Lazio in fifth, sixth and seventh. Like fourth-place Juve, the former two have a game in hand on the leaders.

Inter are their local rival's nearest challengers, three points from the top and three better off than third-place Roma, who were left with wounded pride by Friday's 3-0 derby defeat to Lazio.

Struggles for consistency and congested title races can be seen across Europe as the effects of truncated pre-seasons and packed schedules continue to shake out.

However, the firepower up front for Inter and Juve provides a strong case for both breaking clear of the pack, while promising a thrilling high-stakes shootout at San Siro.

Lukaku-Martinez partnership brings joy

Conte's second and final season in charge of Chelsea in 2017-18 was soured before kick-off as Manchester United beat him to the signature of Romelu Lukaku.

It was clear that state of affairs did little for either man by the time they finally came together at Inter before the start of last season.

Had Lukaku ranked himself as being among the top five strikers in world football, as he did last month, during the 2019 transfer window, plenty would have sniggered.

But the big Belgian has put a patchy spell at Old Trafford behind him to shine at San Siro.

 

Since the start of last season, Lukaku has 51 goals in all competitions - placing him fourth among players across Europe's top five leagues during that period, in between Lionel Messi in fifth and a certain prospective weekend opponent who is five goals better off.

While not quite as prolific, Argentina international Lautaro Martinez has been a more than able accomplice, racking up 31 in 73 matches over the past season and a half.

Nevertheless, despite this mountain of goals and Inter being Serie A's top scorers, there is a sense that Conte's front two could be more clinical.

No player in the big five leagues with 25 goals or more to their name since the beginning of 2019-20 has a lower shot conversion rate than Martinez's 12.4 per cent.

While Lukaku's conversion rate in 2020-21 is comparatively healthier at 27.9 per cent, in Serie A alone his nine goals from open play come in below an expected goals (xG) figure of 9.8 (Lukaku's three converted penalties do not figure in Opta's xG calculations).

The concern for Conte is that this relative wastefulness takes a heavier toll on the big occasion.

Inter crashed out of the Champions League after winning a solitary group match and have failed to win any of their four Serie A matches so far against last season's top six - a run continued by the raucous 2-2 draw with Roma last time out.

Ronaldo finds ideal foil in Morata

An obvious fear from an Inter perspective is that issues Martinez and Lukaku might have on the grandest stages will only be magnified by comparison to who they face this weekend.

No man in the 21st century has hit the heights of goalscoring obsession known by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Even if Juventus do not have the rampaging version that thrilled at Manchester United and Real Madrid, Ronaldo is raging against Father Time with utter conviction when it comes to putting the ball in the net.

Only Robert Lewandowski - way out in front on 78 - has more than the Portugal great's 56 in the big five leagues from August 2019 onwards.

Among that group of attackers with 25 goals or more, Ronaldo has fired off the most shots with 354. Messi (329) and Lewandowski (297) are not particularly close behind.

Chillingly for opponents, he has found much greater efficiency this season. Ronaldo's shot conversion rate is 23.5 per cent in 2020-21 so far, a 10 per cent increase on the prior campaign. His 11 open-play goals in Serie A have an xG value of 7.9.

 

If there is a new level of serenity to Ronaldo's play, part of the credit can perhaps go to the man alongside him. 

Alvaro Morata was the third corner of the tangled Lukaku-Conte transfer triangle back in 2017, his time at Chelsea proving to be as sapping as Lukaku's at United. A loan to Atletico Madrid arrived midway through 2018-19. 

Despite that move being made permanent, another loan back to Juventus came prior to the current campaign. 

Under his old team-mate Pirlo, Morata looks like a player reborn, scoring 11 times in all competitions. Only four of those have been in Serie A but his seven assists over the course of the campaign are already more than he managed in the past two completed seasons - casting him as the ideal supporting act to Juve's indisputable lead performer. 

One of the best five in the world, one of the greatest of all time, Argentina's next superstar striker or the quiet man from Madrid. On Sunday, one of them is set to step forward and add a key twist to a gripping Scudetto race.

It is December 16, 2018 – Liverpool have just beaten Manchester United 3-1 at Anfield in Jose Mourinho's final match in charge of the Red Devils.

Victory sends Liverpool to the top of the Premier League, and while they ultimately narrowly missed out on the title that season, hindsight shows it was a signpost for their potential and depths United have plumbed.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in soon after on an interim basis and, despite there being critics who consistently call his abilities into question, there can be no doubt of the impact he has had.

Sunday January 17, 2020 – United go to Anfield top of the Premier League, three clear of their bitter rivals. It is an achievement in itself, though Solskjaer has taken every opportunity to play it down – his terse response when asked in his pre-match news conference if he had received messages of congratulations from former team-mates highlighted his indifference.

After all, in an ideal world for United, this is just the start – they must now look to make the summit their permanent residence in the table and continue to develop.

While Solskjaer would surely not say so publicly, there is one area in particular where United should seek inspiration from their old nemesis.

 

FULL-ON FULL-BACKS

One of the Liverpool's greatest strengths over the past few years on their ascension back to the top of the pile in English football has been their first-choice full-backs.

Generally speaking, it is quite rare for a side to have a right-back and left-back who are both effective at either end of the pitch, yet Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are just that, and especially so from an offensive perspective.

They can help to create overloads in attack, with their presence in the final third still ensuring they carry a threat out wide even if the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have tucked inside, as they frequently do.

It's difficult to say United find themselves in a similar situation, however.

Luke Shaw has demonstrably improved as an attacking presence, suggesting the signing of Alex Telles motivated him to work harder.

The left-back is producing more crosses, successful crosses, key passes and passes into the box than he was last season, whereas Aaron Wan-Bissaka has regressed in each of those areas.

A reported £50million signing from Crystal Palace in 2019, Wan-Bissaka was billed as potentially United's right-back for the next decade, but at the moment he looks out of place in a team that generally attacks with speed, precision and commitment.

 

WAN-BISSAKA'S REGRESSION

Of course, a full-back's primary function is – for the most part – to defend, but as champions Liverpool prove, having players comfortable with both sides of the game provides a real advantage.

Wan-Bissaka certainly did not look to be a lost cause last season – his tally of three open-play crosses per game, while not outstanding, at least showed a desire to get forward. This season, there are only 13 players who have featured at least 10 times in the league to have averaged more than three.

But in 2020-21, Wan-Bissaka's numbers have shot down. Now he is delivering just 1.1 crosses per 90 minutes and his overall key passes total of eight only puts him level with United's back-up left-back Telles, who has played just six games.

Robertson leads the way among defenders with 32, while Alexander-Arnold, Joao Cancelo and Aaron Cresswell have 25 each, and next is the improved Shaw on 22.

 

UNBALANCED UNITED

So, what does this mean for United?

Above all it contributes to them being lopsided. It's no secret that they have issues on the right side of their attack, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford both preferring to operate from the left if not through the middle, while Mason Greenwood simply hasn't managed to recapture his form from last term yet.

This arguably makes it even more important to have a presence on the right, but seemingly Wan-Bissaka's team-mates do not have the same kind of trust in him as they do Shaw and Telles on the left.

Just 33 per cent of United's passes from the wing into the box this season have come from the right flank, which means they go down the left about twice as often.

There is no such disparity for Liverpool, though.

Even in a season when Alexander-Arnold's level is being criticised, Liverpool still frequently look to try their luck down the right.

In fact, 52 per cent of their passes from the wing into the opposing penalty area have been from his side of the pitch. They have much greater balance, and therefore this ensures they are less predictable.

Of course, this isn't just on Wan-Bissaka. As mentioned, it highlights an overriding issue with United's right wing, but it does also raise questions about whether they feel he is their best bet long-term at right-back.

In Wan-Bissaka's first season, his remarkable tackling numbers – which do remain impressive this term – and effort to get forward fairly frequently showed promise, even if some fans expected more from a £50m full-back.

But with United hoping this is the start of them establishing themselves among the leading powers of English football once again, there's little doubt a right-back with greater attacking presence would offer them another dimension.

Urban Meyer's coaching career looked to be over when he bid farewell to Ohio State following victory on arguably college football's grandest stage, the Rose Bowl, on New Year's Day in 2019.

It appeared to be the perfect send-off for one of the most successful and influential coaches in the college game.

Yet despite health concerns that forced his apparent retirement, Meyer clearly still had a thirst for a new challenge during his brief stint as a TV analyst.

That has been quenched with a step up to the professional ranks nobody had seen coming, Meyer on Wednesday appointed the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It is a splash move from the Jaguars that comes with a clear risk, with Meyer never having coached in the NFL during his storied career.

His first job at the highest level will likely see him get the chance to coach Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson quarterback considered a lock for the number one overall pick, who is widely regarded as the best prospect at the sport's most important position since Andrew Luck.

But will Meyer be able to get the best out of Lawrence and overcome his lack of NFL experience to succeed in turning the Jaguars around? There's a lot of evidence to suggest his achievements in college should translate to the pros.

A natural winner

Though all Meyer's experience has come in college, the first obvious sign for Jaguars fans is his track record of success.

In 17 seasons in the college ranks, Meyer never had a losing season.

His career record of 187-32 puts him third all-time in winning percentage (.854), with only Knute Rockne (.881) and Frank Leahy (.864) ahead of him.

Meyer's two-season stint at Utah ended with the Utes ranked as a top-five team, while he won two National Championships at Florida.

A third national title came during his time with Ohio State, the Buckeyes consistently excelling under Meyer on the back of some excellent recruiting.

Constructing success

The Jaguars have a nice collection of talent at receiver and some intriguing young pieces on defense but, after a 1-15 season, the Jacksonville job is one that will largely require building from the ground up.

Thankfully in Meyer, they have hired a renowned program builder, whose talent for having his colleges near the top of the high school recruiting rankings was crucial to his consistency at that level.

Indeed, only once in his tenure at Ohio State did the Buckeyes fail to have a recruiting class in the top five in the country.

The challenge of luring free agents and drafting players is a very different one and the Jaguars still need to hire a general manager who will likely oversee most of those duties.

But Meyer will unquestionably have some influence on those proceedings and, having regularly lured the best high school athletes to Columbus, there is reason to believe those skills will translate and he will prosper at evaluating draft prospects and convincing free agents to join the Jags.

Tailor-made for Lawrence?

Before last season's College Football Playoff, Meyer labelled Lawrence the best college quarterback ever.

The expectation is he will now get to work with Lawrence, but will he get the best out of the Clemson phenom?

Judging Meyer by what he did in the college ranks, the indication is he will.

Meyer had a top-five offense at least once in each of his stops at Bowling Green State, Utah, Florida and Ohio State.

At Utah, his option-based attack had the Utes ranked third in total offense in 2004, and helped Alex Smith blossom into a prospect picked first overall in the 2005 draft.

His two National Championships at Florida saw him turn Chris Leak, who never played an NFL snap, into MVP of the 2007 title game before he then built the offense around the athletic abilities of Tim Tebow, whose deficiencies as a signal-caller were exposed at the highest level.

Meyer's lone National Championship triumph at Ohio State came with Cardale Jones replacing an injured J.T. Barrett at quarterback for the final three games. Both Barrett and Jones failed to make the grade in the NFL.

The Buckeyes were eighth in total offense in 2018, Meyer's final year, with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. Haskins was picked in the first round but was cut by the Washington Football Team this season.

In other words, Meyer has consistently gotten excellent production out of quarterbacks nowhere close to Lawrence's level.

It will be a very different challenge in the NFL, where the speed of the game and the standard of defense is significantly higher and there is much greater parity than in the college ranks.

Yet Meyer's acumen as a talent developer is illustrated by the fact Ohio State had multiple players taken as first-round picks in all but one draft from 2014 to 2019. They had three in 2020 after successor Ryan Day's first season as coach.

Meyer has proven himself an outstanding coach who can attract players to his teams, get the best out of his players and tailor systems around the strengths of his quarterbacks.

There are few areas that are not considered strengths for Lawrence. There may be growing pains for both Meyer and Lawrence, however, the combination of their respective talents should win out as they adapt to the increased level of competition. Meyer is a risk, but he has what it takes to turn the Jags into a force in the AFC.

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