Wednesday marks 24 years to the day since the late Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut with the Los Angeles Lakers.

While that first appearance against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the age of 18 was nothing to write home about, Bryant went on to enjoy a legendary career.

He won five NBA championships with the Lakers in the space of a decade and was selected to the All-Star Game 18 times, placing him behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19).

Bryant tragically died in a helicopter crash last year, aged 41, but his legacy will live on for generations.

Here we look back at where it all began for one of sport's most iconic figures and pick out some other statistics from his incredible career.


STEADY IMPACT IN ROOKIE SEASON

The Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant 13th overall in 1996 and traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.

It was a move that would have a lasting impact on the sport, although it took Bryant a few seasons to really start to make his mark.

He played six minutes off the bench against the Timberwolves on his debut, failing to register a point during his short cameo; he did get a rebound, a block and a steal, though.

That appearance made him the youngest player to feature in NBA, aged 18 years and 72 days old, but he was supplanted by Jermaine O'Neal (18 years, 53 days) the following month. Andrew Bynum (18 years, six days) took the record in 2005.

 

"Rest In Peace to the late, great Kobe Bryant." pic.twitter.com/jmqQMVC2UO

— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) February 1, 2020 BEHIND ONLY LEBRON

Bryant steadily became more involved and made the All-Rookie second team at the end of his debut campaign.

The Philadelphia-born star scored a combined 613 points in the regular season and playoffs before turning 19, which only LeBron James (625) can better.

One record James could not take from Bryant, though, is for the youngest player in NBA history with at least 20 points in a postseason game.

Aged 18 years and 250 days, Bryant registered 22 points in Game 3 against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference first-round series.

Bryant averaged 7.6 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 15.5 minutes on the floor during his rookie season.

To put that in some context, James averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists, albeit with far more minutes (39.5).

That is still some way below the levels of Michael Jordan in his breakthrough season, with the Bulls great averaging 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists in his first year in the league.


THE SCARCELY BELIEVABLE STATS

Bryant still went on to carve out a place as one of the greatest players of all time, receiving All-NBA honours in 15 seasons, being named in the first team on 11 occasions. Only James, with 13 appearances in the first team, beats Bryant's total.

He was also named nine times to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, matching the all-time high; Kevin Garnett, Gary Payton and Jordan achieved the same total.

In the 2005-06 season, Bryant recorded his highest points-per-game average for a single campaign, with 35.4. He led the NBA in scoring in that season and in 2006-07.

In January 2006, he scored 81 points in a 122-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors – the second highest individual score in an NBA game, behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks in 1962.

Bryant received his lone NBA MVP award in 2008, having become the youngest player to reach 20,000 career points aged 29 years and 122 days.

In his final game, on April 13, 2016, Bryant scored 60 points for the Lakers in a 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz. A fitting farewell after a phenomenal career.

Luis Suarez has appeared 67 times at Anfield. On Wednesday, with Atletico Madrid, that will become 68. The former Liverpool favourite will hope this is nothing like his last visit.

Anfield outing #67 – Suarez's first not in Liverpool colours – saw the striker's Barcelona side sensationally beaten 4-0 in 2019, crashing out of the Champions League despite a 3-0 home win in the first leg of their semi-final.

Suarez, who had passionately celebrated his Camp Nou goal, was jeered with each of his 31 touches on Merseyside, starting from the very first second when he took the kick-off.

The Uruguay great later described himself as "so sad" to get such a reaction, but he will surely again this week be greeted with a hostile reception entirely out of keeping with the adoration afforded Liverpool's latest leading man, Mohamed Salah.

Salah was in the stands when Suarez returned back in 2019, missing a Champions League match for the only time in his Liverpool career to date due to concussion. Divock Origi was the hero instead.

 

Since then, though, the 'Egyptian King' has firmly laid to rest any claim Suarez had to being the Reds' greatest modern forward.

According to Jurgen Klopp and several others, Salah is now the best player in the world – and Liverpool supporters will revel seeing him prove it against Suarez's Atletico.

Two standout seasons

There were several similarities between the 2013-14 season of Suarez and Salah's 2017-18 campaign, as each inspired Liverpool to the cusp of history.

On both occasions, the individual errors of team-mates – Steven Gerrard against Chelsea in the Premier League, Loris Karius versus Real Madrid in the Champions League – left the superstar forwards agonisingly short of the finish line.

Suarez had scored an outstanding 31 goals that year – all in the Premier League, matching the 38-game benchmark that belonged jointly to Alan Shearer (1995-96) and Cristiano Ronaldo (2007-08).

Like so many standards Suarez set, though, Salah reached and then surpassed that mark four years later.

Salah had 30 goals by Valentine's Day, becoming the first Liverpool player to tally as many in a season since Suarez, but then kicked on from there.

His four goals in a single game against Watford the following month again made him the first Reds star to celebrate such a haul this side of Suarez (versus Norwich City in December 2013).

Salah finished with a new record 32 league goals among an astonishing 43 in all competitions, joining Suarez in scooping the PFA Player of the Year award – the sixth and seventh Liverpool players to be recognised.

Crucially, too, whereas the 2013-14 season was Suarez's last at Anfield, 2017-18 was merely the first of many for Salah, who has moved well clear of his fellow Kop icon as a result.

Salah on track again

While Salah has not come close to that 43-goal total again – at least until now – he has maintained a high level throughout his Liverpool career.

Only in 2019-20 did the forward fail to net 20 times in the Premier League, and Klopp's men won the title that year.

But Salah's current form is hinting at the sort of season that would blow away his own previous performance, let alone Suarez's.

Going into the game against Atleti, Salah has 15 goals and six assists in just 13 appearances this season.

His run of scoring in 10 straight games in all competitions – a feat never previously achieved by a Liverpool player – ended in Saturday's draw with Brighton and Hove Albion, but the Egypt international still provided an assist for Jordan Henderson. This sequence of goal involvements in 11 matches in a row is the best of Salah's Reds career.

By comparison, Suarez never scored in more than five successive appearances – also his best run of goals and assists.

 

Salah has never been better and enters the Atleti match one shy of Gerrard's record of 14 home goals in the European Cup. Due to the timing of his departure for Barca, Suarez never even played a Champions League game for Liverpool, although he did win the competition in his first season at Camp Nou.

Whether on Wednesday or later in the season, that Anfield honour will surely soon belong to Salah, but it is not yet out of the question that he could follow Suarez in leaving Liverpool before the club might hope.

There are now less than two years to run on Salah's Reds contract and, as Europe's premier performer, he is in complete control of his destiny.

An ear towards the Liverpool fans when Suarez gets the ball this week might inform Salah of the worth of staying put, though. There are undoubtedly more records still to break, too.

Tottenham moved quickly after sacking Nuno Espirito Santo on Monday, appointing Antonio Conte as his successor just a day later.

The swift changeover is a huge departure from the shambles Spurs found themselves embroiled in during pre-season when initially hiring Nuno, who was apparently way down their list of candidates to replace Jose Mourinho.

Conte was said to have been Spurs' ideal choice back then but was reluctant to jump straight back into a job after leaving Inter. But now he does find himself in charge at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and he's got plenty of work on his hands.

While their 15 points from 10 Premier League matches is by no means a disaster as they sit ninth in the table, the major concerns relating to Spurs have been the style of play and Harry Kane's form.

With this in mind, Stats Perform delves into the Opta numbers to see what Spurs fans can expect from the Italian.

Undoubted pedigree

It really is a sign of the times – and the Premier League's financial might – that Tottenham are able to sack a coach they never really wanted and bring in the bloke who won Serie A just last season.

Granted, Inter winning the Scudetto was hardly a fairytale story, and they spent a fair amount of money to build the team that got the job done, but you can't deny the fine job Conte did in two years there.

His first season saw them narrowly miss out to Juve by a single point, while they also got to the Europa League final only to lose to Sevilla – that was hardly a disgrace given the Spaniards have never lost a Europa League/UEFA Cup final.

It was clear to see Inter were building to something and in 2020-21 they got their first Serie A title in 11 years, ending the Juve domination that stretched back to 2010-11 and coincidentally began with Conte as coach.

Of course, it could be argued that Conte's return to Italian football was timed perfectly, with Juve slipping as a force and Serie A waiting for another team to take over, but there's no getting away from the fact Inter were dominant for a massive part of the season – they were top from matchday 22 all the way through to the end of the season.

After a 2-1 loss at Sampdoria on January 6, Inter did not lose again before sealing the title, with the 3-2 defeat away to Juve on the penultimate day of the season having no impact on the Nerazzurri's end position.

Conte turned Inter from perennial underachievers to champions, and while money was spent, so many of those brought in improved significantly under his guidance as well.

The system

Conte's tactical tendencies are well-publicised. In fact, there aren't many coaches in world football who are more associated with a specific system than he is with his.

During his last spell in the Premier League, which included one title success, his Chelsea lined up with a back three in all but six of his 78 top-flight matches.

In the long run, Spurs fans can expect such a set-up to lead to greater pressing intensity. While Inter's 294 high turnovers may have only been enough to rank sixth in Serie A (and it would have been the same in the Premier League) last term, that total was still far more than Tottenham (228), the third-lowest in the English top flight.

Among the two sides with even fewer high turnovers than Spurs were Nuno's Wolves (205).

Inter's 12.8 PPDA (opposition passes allowed per defensive action) for 2020-21 was roughly average across Serie A and the Premier League, suggesting Inter didn't necessarily do their most aggressive pressing from the front.

Additionally, it could be argued that Spurs actually have a group of players well-suited to making the most of an intense press. Of course, the Nerazzurri's high turnovers total was much greater, but when it comes to efficiency, Spurs were slightly better in 2020-21.

Spurs' shot-ending high turnovers accounted for 16.2 per cent of their total, while that figure was 15 per cent for Inter. They both scored five goals from such situations.

Granted, this doesn't take into consideration the differing cultural styles between the two leagues, with the Premier League quite open and Serie A traditionally a little tighter, but it suggests Conte's ideals might actually translate rather well to the Spurs squad.

That's not to say we should expect overnight changes. So far this season, Spurs rank 82nd out of the 98 teams in Europe's top five leagues for high turnovers (62) and pressed sequences (124). A drastic change of mentality will take a time.

Whipping up a Harry Kane

What Spurs fans will be most intrigued to see, however, is whether Conte can get Kane back to his best.

The England captain could not find a way out of the club in pre-season, with Manchester City lurking, and while he has not exactly kicked up a fuss in public about being made to stay, his performances haven't helped certain perceptions of him.

After all, he achieved the rare feat of finishing top of the goals and assists charts last season – that hadn't been accomplished since Andy Cole in 1994. His form was one of few positives for Spurs.

Yet in 2021-22, his productivity has dipped significantly. He has gone from scoring 0.7 goals per game to 0.1, with just a solitary strike in nine Premier League matches.

Now, it would be fair to suggest Nuno's tactics haven't helped. Spurs are joint-lowest – with relegation-doomed Norwich City – for shots per game (10.3), and it's difficult to blame that on one player, regardless of how much Kane has dropped off.

Kane has seen his own shooting frequency almost halve to just 2.1 per 90 minutes from 3.9 last season and he's not creating much either, his chances created dropping to 0.8 from 1.4 each game.

But with Conte, there is certainly cause for optimism, at least in terms of getting Kane firing again – assuming his poor form is down to system and not a reaction to not getting a transfer.

Granted, Romelu Lukaku and Kane are very different players, but Conte knew how to get the best out of the Belgian, who scored 47 league goals in 72 games under the Italian at a rate of one every 124.9 minutes (0.7 per 90 minutes).

Only for Steve Clarke at West Brom has Lukaku scored more frequently (one every 117.82 mins) in his career (top five leagues).

Of course, Lukaku wasn't doing it all by himself at Inter – his 3.0 shots per game last season was actually fewer than Lautaro Martinez's 3.8. They were essentially a two-man frontline, perhaps something we can expect to see with Kane and Son Heung-min once again.

Both Lukaku and Martinez averaged more touches (7.3 and 6.7) and shots (2.6 and 3.0) in the box than Kane (5.0 and 2.5) as well, further evidence of how Conte's system enables two central strikers to thrive as an attacking threat.

The relationship between Son and Kane has long been heralded, and last season Martinez and Lukaku linked up for eight goals from 29 overall chances – another tick in the pros column.

There will be those who claim Conte represents a gamble, especially given his rather volatile reputation and how that may not fuse well with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, yet you could argue no manager is a guarantee.

But what is undoubtable is Conte's track record and work ethic as a coach. There's every reason to think this could be a masterstroke for Spurs, but only if he's allowed to do it all his way.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is seeking a second away victory in a week as the Champions League returns, with the 3-0 success at Tottenham on Sunday being his first in six domestic games.

Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri will also be hoping for a win to seal qualification from Group H with two games to spare, having lost back-to-back Serie A matches.

Bayern Munich and Chelsea will expect more of the same after they both won 4-0 against their opponents last time out in the Champions League.

Stats Perform pick out the key Opta facts ahead of Tuesday's Champions League action.

 

Atalanta v Manchester United: Ronaldo aiming to hurt Italians once more

United are looking to record their 150th victory in the European Cup/Champions League, which would make them the first English side to reach this milestone, and fourth overall after Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.

Having failed to win in five domestic games prior to Sunday, pressure was starting to pile on Solskjaer. A third win in a row in the Champions League will boost confidence further.

Cristiano Ronaldo will be aiming to break Atalanta hearts as he did when he scored the winner in a 3-2 turnaround at Old Trafford on matchday three. Since returning to United, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in all three of his Champions League appearances – the last player to score in four consecutive appearances for the club in the competition was Ruud van Nistelrooy in April 2003.

3 - Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in three consecutive Champions League games for Manchester United for the second time, previously doing so in November 2007 en route to winning the trophy with the Red Devils. Inevitable. pic.twitter.com/eEYYnJpGV0

— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 20, 2021

 

Juventus v Zenit Saint Petersburg: Allegri can cheer up Old Lady by sealing qualification

Things are not looking great for Juventus domestically, trailing Napoli and Milan at the top of Serie A by 16 points after Allegri's men were beaten by Sassuolo and Hellas Verona.

It has been a much smoother Champions League campaign so far, though, as the Turin side have won all three Group H games and will secure qualification to the knockout stage with a win against Zenit.

This will be Juve's 10th time facing Russian opponents in European competition, winning eight of the previous nine (D1) and they have kept six clean sheets. Zenit are also winless in their past nine away games in the Champions League (D1 L8). This is their longest run without an away win in the European Cup/Champions League.

 

Malmo v Chelsea: Blues can expect more goals in Sweden

Chelsea will be confident of another comfortable win against Malmo to go within a point of sealing qualification to the knockout stage. No team has conceded more goals than the Swedish side (11) in the Champions League this season, while only Besiktas (11.1) have a higher expected goals against total than their 8.7.

The holders are unbeaten in their seven meetings with Swedish teams to date, winning four and drawing three against them across all competitions. The past three have all been against Malmo, with each of them ending in Chelsea victories.

Malmo have lost seven of their eight previous games against English opponents in European competition, including each of the most recent four. The only time they have avoided defeat in such games came against Nottingham Forest in September 1995, winning 2-1 in the UEFA Cup.

 

Bayern Munich v Benfica: Bundesliga champions to mark milestone with another win?

This clash with Benfica will be Bayern’s 500th game across all European competitions, becoming only the third team to reach this milestone, after Barcelona (587) and Real Madrid (575). A win would not only be a fitting way to mark the occasion, but will also see them clinch qualification from Group E.

Bayern are unbeaten in all 11 of their meetings with Benfica in European competition, with eight of those ending in victories for the Bundesliga champions. They have faced Benfica more times without losing than against any of their other opponents in European competition.

It is also set to be a historic night for Robert Lewandowski, who could be in line to make his 100th Champions League appearance. The Poland striker has netted 78 goals in the competition to date, which is already the most by a player through their first 100 appearances in the Champions League.

Other fixtures:

Dynamo Kiev v Barcelona

11 – Dynamo Kiev's last victory against a Spanish team in the Champions League came back in March 1999, beating Real Madrid 2-0 in a quarter-final clash. Since then, they have faced Spanish opponents on 11 occasions in the competition and failed to win all of them (D3 L8).

9 – Since the start of the 2018-19 season, no full-back has provided more assists in the Champions League than the nine from Barcelona's Jordi Alba. This is three times as many as any other current Barcelona player in the same period (Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho, 3).

Villarreal v Young Boys

8 – Arnaut Danjuma has generated eight shots following carries (moving five or more metres with the ball) for Villareal in the Champions League this season (six shots and two chances created) – only Vinicius Junior (10) and Jack Grealish (9) have produced more.

10 – Young Boys have not kept a clean sheet in any of their past 10 games in the European Cup/Champions League (W2 D1 L7), with their last one coming back in September 1986 versus Real Madrid (1-0).

Wolfsburg v Salzburg

1 – Wolfsburg have lost just one of their nine home matches in the Champions League (W6 D2) and remain unbeaten in six on home soil in the competition since a 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in December 2009.

3 – Salzburg could become the first Austrian side to win three consecutive European Cup/Champions League matches since Rapid Vienna in 1982.

Sevilla v Lille

1 – Sevilla have only lost one of their past seven home games in the group stage of the Champions League (W4 D2), with that lone defeat coming against Chelsea in December 2020.

3 – Since scoring in six consecutive Champions League appearances between October 2012 and March 2013 for Galatasaray, Lille striker Burak Yilmaz has only scored in three of his past 20 appearances in the competition.

A lot has gone right for the Tennessee Titans in 2021. With three straight wins, two against the supposed class of the AFC in the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs, and a 6-2 record, they can afford to feel extremely positive about the season to date.

But if anyone in Tennessee was plotting a deep playoff run akin to the Titans' unlikely charge to the AFC Championship Game back in the 2019 season, a huge wrench has just been thrown in those plans.

Indeed, the Titans must now deal with a significant piece of adversity following the news Derrick Henry suffered a foot injury in their Week 8 victory over the Indianapolis Colts that could keep him out for the rest of the season.

There is some hope Henry could return this campaign but the reality is they will be without the clear focal point of their offense for the majority of a run that will determine their playoff seeding, the Titans appearing destined for the postseason having taken a commanding three-game lead in the AFC South.

Gone are Henry's hopes of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record, though his absence does not necessarily mean the end of the Titans' hopes of seriously contending in the AFC.

While the Titans have piled much of the offensive burden on a running back who has 288 more rushing yards than any other in the NFL, there has been enough evidence from Ryan Tannehill to suggest he can handle the increased pressure not having Henry will bring, and his connection with a third-year receiver living up to his burgeoning reputation may help him do that.

Tannehill on target

His performance in Sunday's dramatic 34-31 overtime win over the Colts was not Tannehill's finest.

Tannehill was intercepted twice in the first half, his first setting up Indianapolis' second touchdown to put the Colts 14-0.

The second pick was fumbled back to the Titans on the return, Tannehill taking advantage of that reprieve to lead the Titans down the field and tie the game at 14-14.

From that point on, Tannehill was largely in rhythm, displaying timing and accuracy that was reflected by his well-thrown percentage from Week 8.

Per Stats Perform data, Tannehill delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 84.4 per cent of his 33 pass attempts.

Tannehill's ratio in that regard being so high is not a surprise, given he has excelled throughout the season at producing on-target throws.

Among quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts, only Joe Burrow (84) has a superior percentage of well-thrown balls than Tannehill (82.9).

With his 7.95 air yards per attempt below the league-wide average of 8.19, Tannehill may need to get more aggressive to help Tennessee record more explosive plays minus the services of a back in Henry who leads the NFL with 20 rushes of 10 yards or more in 2021.

Yet when he is in a groove, Tannehill can be a difficult quarterback to slow down, especially when his top receiver is performing at his highest standard.

Brown at this best

The Titans did not have Julio Jones against the Colts, but his absence was ultimately immaterial as A.J. Brown emphatically rose to the challenge of replacing his production in a monstrous showing.

Brown finished with season highs in catches (10) and receiving yards (155) and galloped in for a 57-yard catch and run that tied matters in the second quarter, demonstrating his upside with ball in hand by shrugging off a weak tackle attempt from Xavier Rhodes and surging down the sideline and into the endzone.

His chemistry with Tannehill evident throughout an undulating contest, Brown proved near-impossible to stop on the slant route, getting open on 90.9 per cent of his targets according to Stats Perform data.

While Brown appears to be coming into form, the Titans will need more from Jones having traded for the former Atlanta Falcons star in the offseason.

Jones is producing a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on 59.3 per cent of his targets, below the average of 60.8 for receivers (min. five targets) this season.

With the safety net of Henry gone, the Titans will likely need to lean on the passing game more to allow them to set up running opportunities against two-high safety defenses with lighter boxes designed to stop the aerial attack.

The Titans do not require Jones to separate to the extent Brown did against Indianapolis, but more consistency in beating defenders from the seven-time Pro Bowler is a must if Tennessee's offense is to excel without Henry against defenses of the standard they will face in Week 9.

Huge test out west

The credentials of the Henry-less Titans will be tested sternly right off the bat, as they travel to take on a Los Angeles Rams team that just received a huge boost to their defense.

On Monday it was reported the Rams had struck a deal for three-time first-team All-Pro Von Miller, who leads the league in sacks since 2011 with 110.5 and is still performing at an elite level at the age of 32. 

Miller's arrival sees him join Aaron Donald on the Rams' defensive front, giving Los Angeles two players who feature in the top four in Stats Perform's adjusted pass rush win percentage.

Prior to Week 8, Donald led the way with a stunt-adjusted win percentage of 60.2, while Miller was fourth on 47.1. That duo now gets to face a Titans offensive line that went into the week ranked 30th in pass protection win percentage.

Tannehill, therefore, should expect to come under plenty of fire in this primetime road game, meaning he will need to get the ball out quickly to negate the pass rush.

His snap to release time of 2.59 seconds is quicker than the average of 2.65 seconds, but a significant part of his potential success in maintaining that will be receivers expediently gaining the separation to give him the confidence to let rip with those quick-game throws that can keep him in rhythm.

That may be a tough ask against a secondary featuring an All-Pro corner in Jalen Ramsey who, prior to Week 8, had lost just six of his 70 coverage matchups.

But when Brown and Jones are both are healthy, the Titans have the receiving weapons to lean on the pass-catchers who do not draw Ramsey's coverage.

Tennessee's success in exploiting the matchups where the Titans have the advantage will play a critical role in deciding who wins the meeting with the Rams. The trip to Los Angeles figures to serve as an excellent barometer of where the Titans are without Henry, and it is the play of Tannehill, Brown and Jones that will determine how much of a threat they can be without their most feared weapon.

We went into the weekend almost expecting a certain Premier League manager to be sacked come Monday – as it turned out, the coach of the team he beat got the chop instead.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked like a dead man walking ahead of Manchester United's trip to Tottenham, but the Norwegian got his tactics and personnel just right as the Red Devils won 3-0, a result that has cost Spurs boss Nuno Espirito Santo his job.

However, most Spurs fans will be adamant it is a just punishment despite being so early in the season, and the numbers behind Nuno's 10 Premier League matches – the fewest of any permanent Tottenham manager ever – paint a similar picture.

Find all that and more as Stats Perform looks at the quirky Opta facts behind the weekend's action.

Toothless Tottenham

Even before the weekend, Spurs had been widely criticised for their dull brand of football under Nuno, but it reached its nadir on Saturday as a United side in crisis swept them aside with relative ease.

As such, Nuno has left Tottenham with them ranking joint-last in the Premier League for shots per match (10.3) with a Norwich City team that already seemingly has its journey back to the Championship booked, highlighting just how disappointing they've been as an attacking force.

Nuno amassed just 15 points from 10 games with Spurs. Since 2008-09, only twice have Tottenham taken fewer points from the same period of matches, while their haul of nine goals is better than at the same point in four previous Premier League campaigns.

Bruno adapting for Ronaldo

When Man Utd secured the return of Cristiano Ronaldo, a lot of focus centred around how he'd link up with compatriot and Portugal team-mate Bruno Fernandes – after all, they'd not always looked particularly compatible at international level.

While it's too soon to make major conclusions, what does seem clear is that Fernandes has had to alter his play. This is best identified by the fact he's having fewer shots now (2.9 per 90 minutes now, 3.6 before) and getting a smaller portion of them on target (1.5 down to 0.4 per 90 minutes), which suggests he's unable to get into better scoring positions because Ronaldo's already there.

But the flipside is Fernandes' creativity, and we saw this at its best for Ronaldo's gorgeous volley from his countryman's chipped throughball against Spurs.

Fernandes is now creating 4.6 chances every game, up from 2.7 before Ronaldo returned to United. With someone so reliable now leading the line for United, perhaps this setup will actually suit Fernandes' skills even more.

Ramsdale's a colossus

If there was one standout performance from an individual over the past weekend, it was surely Aaron Ramsdale in the Arsenal goal.

He's enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence and hushed plenty of doubters since moving in a pre-season deal apparently worth up to £30million, though his performance in the 2-0 win at Leicester City was his best yet.

In fact, it was arguably the best of any goalkeeper this season. According to Stats Perform xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Ramsdale prevented 2.45 goals as he saved all eight of Leicester's shots on target.

The last time a Premier League goalkeeper was deemed to prevent more goals in a single game was Alex McCarthy for Southampton in July last year – no Arsenal goalkeeper has ever had such a decisive impact since Opta started analysing such data.

Norwich facing challenge of historic proportions

Of course, Norwich City already looked doomed before Sunday's defeat to Leeds United, but statistically they have now reached tipping point.

They are left with just two points from 10 matches – the fewest amount of points any team has ever got in their opening 10 games and avoided relegation is three points.

That was manager Daniel Farke's 48th Premier League game in charge. His 10.4 win percentage and 0.48 points per game are comfortably the worst of any coach to preside over 48 matches in the competition.

Tottenham are once again on the hunt for a new head coach following the sacking of Nuno Espirito Santo on Monday.

For many, Nuno's fate had been sealed as soon as he took the job at the end of June, as it was widely reported that Spurs had failed to land a host of other coaches before turning to the man who had done a fine job turning Wolves into Premier League mainstays.

He lasted just four months at the helm, with his pragmatic approach not appreciated by the Spurs support – but Saturday's comprehensive 3-0 home defeat by a Manchester United side in the midst of a crisis of its own was the straw that broke the camel's back.

The fans made their feelings as Nuno's decision to substitute Lucas Moura with Steven Bergwijn was widely greeted with chants of "you don't know what you're doing", and the full-time whistle was met with thunderous jeers.

Speculation on Sunday suggested chairman Daniel Levy had opened emergency talks with other decision-makers at the club, and Nuno was gone the following morning.

Now, Stats Perform looks at who might be next in at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium…

 

Antonio Conte

Former Chelsea boss Conte will likely be most Tottenham fans' ideal replacement for Nuno. For starters, he is a free agent having left Inter after winning Serie A last season – breaking Juventus' nine-year grip in the process and ending the Nerazzurri's long wait for a league title.

The first three of those nine consecutive league titles for Juventus were won by Conte himself, who took a Bianconeri side that had not won the Scudetto since their revoked success in 2005 and established an era of dominance, going undefeated in the league in his first season (2011-12) and setting the Serie A points record (102) in his third.

His achievements in Italy are coupled with experience and success in England, winning the Premier League with Chelsea in 2017 (racking up an impressive 93 points) and claiming an FA Cup the year after.

Conte does have a reputation for being a volatile coach, and this may not lend itself to a long-term relationship with Levy, but his track record is almost unparalleled in terms of coaches currently available, and let's not forget that he turned Jose Mourinho's sloppy seconds at Chelsea into a side that was often sensational.

If Spurs act fast, they could potentially get him before the pressure is cranked up on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer again.

 

Zinedine Zidane

Another free agent – and a particularly glamorous option – is Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman's second stint as Real Madrid boss came to an end in May and he remains available.

Zidane won the Champions League three times in a row in his first spell as Los Blancos head coach and also claimed two LaLiga titles over his five years in the role.

The 49-year-old is the record holder for most consecutive LaLiga away wins (13) and the longest unbeaten run in Spanish football (40 games). Spurs would surely see him as a massive upgrade on Nuno, but the problem is Zidane does not appear to be easily coaxed.

When it looked as though Solskjaer was doomed last week, reports suggested Zidane wasn't interested – are Spurs able to offer a lure that United can't?

Brendan Rodgers

Less decorated than the previous two names, sure, but Rodgers has a wealth of experience in the English game and has done an admirable job in his current post as Leicester City head coach, guiding the Foxes to their first-ever FA Cup success last season as well as successive fifth-placed Premier League finishes.

He also claimed back-to-back domestic trebles in his two-and-a-half seasons with Celtic and, let's not forget, previously turned Liverpool from mere European hopefuls into title challengers – coming within two points of winning the Premier League in his second season on Merseyside.

Rodgers was tipped for the Spurs job when Mourinho left but was apparently committed to Leicester. However, recent reports have suggested he could be tempted by a new project.

He would also offer fans the kind of attractive football they crave.

Erik ten Hag

Ten Hag has impressed with Ajax, winning two Eredivisie titles and embarking on a memorable run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018-19, knocking Madrid and Juventus out before coincidentally going out to Spurs on away goals.

Ajax have been effective but also entertaining under Ten Hag, which would undoubtedly be a big attraction for Spurs fans who have grown weary after the best part of two years watching teams managed by Mourinho and Nuno.

It remains to be seen if the Dutchman – who has also been linked with Newcastle United – would be willing to leave mid-season, but it won't be long until a major European club comes for him. Spurs would do well to get to the front of the queue while they have the chance.

 

Sergio Conceicao

This would not be the first time that Conceicao has replaced his former team-mate Nuno – he took over from him at Porto in 2017 and has been in charge ever since.

A fiery character, this Porto team is in many ways built in his image: they are aggressive, direct and robust. It is not a style that pleases everyone, as Pep Guardiola criticised Conceicao's defensive approach before and after a Champions League match last year, but he has been effective.

Under Conceicao, Porto have not finished outside of the top two in the Primeira Liga, winning two titles and finishing second to Benfica and Sporting CP.

Since Bobby Robson left Porto in 1996, only Vitor Pereira (78.3) and another former Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas (90) have boasted better win percentages in the league than Conceicao (77.4), yet the incumbent's 146 matches is 56 more than the other two combined.

Paulo Fonseca

Highly regarded football coaches are probably Portugal's second biggest export behind Port wine – Fonseca is another who has been linked with numerous Premier League clubs in recent times.

Much like Conte, Ten Hag and Rodgers, Fonseca was also apparently an option for Spurs before Nuno, with negotiations reportedly ending due to tax problems.

Who is to say if that will be an issue again, but Spurs managing director of football Fabio Paratici is said to be an admirer, with Fonseca also still available after he left Roma at the end of last season.

He is known for his attack-minded football, which again will be a tick for supporters.

A dire defeat against Liverpool proved to be fatal for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United in 2018, but an even more humiliating loss to the Reds didn't – somehow – spell the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he continues to cling on.

That's not to say it was a comfortable week for Solskjaer after that 5-0 annihilation at Old Trafford – if you believe the speculation, he probably wouldn't have been in charge for Saturday's trip to Tottenham were it not for Alex Ferguson coming into bat for his former player in the boardroom.

Solskjaer was afforded time, how much we can't be sure, but it was enough to at least prevent United suffering three successive league defeats for the first time since December 1961, with the Red Devils so effective and clinical in a 3-0 victory that subsequently heaped the pressure on opposite number Nuno Espirito Santo.

Perhaps we should've seen it coming? "Lads, it's Tottenham."

There were a couple of major surprises when Solskjaer's team was announced: firstly, that he was making just two alterations to the side that was humiliated last weekend, and secondly, they were switching to a back three.

While United have played such a system numerous times under Solskjaer before, it's difficult to say that setup has been consistently effective for them, with results ranging from 2-0 wins over Manchester City and Chelsea, to 3-1 and 3-2 defeats to the Blues and RB Leipzig.

But it allowed United to address a couple of key issues from the Liverpool defeat – their defensive frailty and a lack of pressing from the frontline.

After all, precious few of United's pressures against Liverpool came in the opposing half. Edinson Cavani's presence alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at least alleviated that to a certain degree, and it might have paid off early on when the Uruguayan managed to get a tackle in on the dawdling Japhet Tanganga, only for Spurs to be let off the hook by a kind ricochet.

Nevertheless, United's start provided indications of how the opening 45 minutes was going to play out for them, with wing-backs Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushing high to good effect and the midfield trio taking it in turns to support Cavani and Ronaldo.

There was a sense that Solskjaer's decision to go with a back three was down to a lack of trust in his team off the ball, which would have been fair on the evidence of last week, but generally the switch worked well for United as Spurs struggled to impose themselves in the first half.

While they managed seven shots and had a goal disallowed for offside, none of those efforts were on target, with Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane – absent last week – working well in tandem.

That extra protection at the back allowed for the United midfield to be more aggressive as well, both on and off the ball. Between them, Scott McTominay and Fred combined for seven tackle attempts in the first half, while both routinely helped on the attack – the Scotland international making the run and pass for Ronaldo's own disallowed strike, as an example.

Of course, having a finisher of the standard of Ronaldo in attack is always a bonus and his wonderful volley proved that point perfectly, as he lashed into the far corner from a tight angle as he latched on to Bruno Fernandes' lobbed pass in the 39th minute.

That goal meant Nuno's men had to become a greater threat after the break, and to their credit, Spurs' possession had increased to 59.6 per cent for the second half up to the 70th minute, but United's back three continued to provide a solid foundation – in the same time period, the hosts had just one shot.

The standing of the match was undoubtedly playing even further into United's hands – if there's any feature of their play that has been consistently good under Solskjaer, it's their counter-attacking, and they finished Spurs off just past the hour in a not too dissimilar manner.

Fernandes was the one to rob Oliver Skipp just inside the United half before darting forward and feeding Ronaldo. His clever flick opened up space and the Portugal talisman sliced open the Spurs defence for Cavani expertly make it 2-0.

The average age of United's starting XI (28 years, 325 days) was the oldest Solskjaer has named in the Premier League, and here were his two most experienced players doing the business when he needed them most.

Solskjaer got the players, system and substitutes – spoiler alert – right, with Marcus Rashford wrapping things up on the break towards the end shortly after his introduction.

Of course, it's worth saying that Spurs were always likely to be a potentially kind opponent for a United side desperate for a response. Prior to the weekend, Nuno's side had the second fewest shots (94) and joint-third poorest xG record (9.2) in the Premier League this season.

In the end, everything played into United's hands and Solskjaer got the response he needed – but with a trip to Atalanta and a Manchester derby coming up, the pressure is by no means off.

Even in the wake of their Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Kansas City Chiefs entered the 2021 NFL season viewed by many as favourites to get back to the grandest stage and regain the Lombardi Trophy.

A banged-up offensive line that was dramatically overmatched against the Buccaneers' defensive front in their chastening February defeat in Tampa had been seemingly fixed by what looked an astute investment in both youth and experience in the trenches. Kansas City appeared poised to reassert themselves as a dominant power.

Yet the issue with using your resources primarily on one area is that other concerns can be swept under the rug, only to rear their head when attention turns back to competitive action.

That has proven the case for the Chiefs, who at 3-4 look anything but Super Bowl contenders, with a disappointing pass rush and the consistently poor play of an extremely vulnerable secondary resulting in a defensive performance that has seen them give up a league-high 6.57 yards per play.

Their defensive struggles have come combined with turnover problems for Patrick Mahomes and Co, meaning the Chiefs are some way short of the team that reached three successive AFC Championship Games.

Indeed, Kansas City entered Week 8 ranked 27th in Stats Perform's efficiency versus expected (EVE) model, which looks at down, distance, yards from goal, quarter, time remaining, and score difference and uses those six factors to train a model to predict yardage output for any game situation. From there, the projected yards are compared to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.

With the Chiefs performing at the level of a bottom-half team and arguably facing a make-or-break game against the New York Giants on Monday to even stay in the mix, who are the lead contenders for the Super Bowl? Stats Perform looked at the EVE rankings to identify the two AFC and NFC favourites.

AFC

1. Buffalo Bills

The Bills entered Week 8 ranked second by overall EVE, their drop from the top spot a result of them having a bye in Week 7.

At 4-2, the Bills have work to do to secure the top seed in the conference, but they have a compelling case for being the most complete team in the AFC.

Eighth in yards over expected on offensive plays, their average of 0.593 yards over the projected was bettered by only three AFC teams ahead of Week 8.

Meanwhile, on defense, the Bills are allowing 0.788 yards under expected, which put them second in the league behind the New Orleans Saints prior to Thursday Night Football.

Their ranking and their performances have served as a reflection of quarterback Josh Allen's ability to prove his gargantuan year-three leap was no fluke and the significant strides made by the defense through six games.

Six of the Bills' final 11 games are against teams ranked in the bottom half of the league via EVE, giving them a clear opportunity to recover from early slip-ups against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans and establish themselves as the cream of the AFC crop.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

However, the gold standard of the AFC and - according to EVE - of the league as a whole are the Cincinnati Bengals.

That is not a sentence many will have expected to read after Cincinnati's first seven games but, in a tightly packed conference, they are worthy of consideration as genuine contenders to go all the way.

Their position atop the league by EVE is built on an offense that is fifth overall with a yards-over-expected average of 0.699, the best in the AFC, and a defense ascending earlier than anticipated.

The Bengals are third in the NFL in yards allowed under expected, though they figure to be sternly tested on both sides of the ball down the stretch.

Indeed, the Bengals have two games against a Browns team ranked third overall as well as meetings with another top-10 team in the Las Vegas Raiders and a 2-4 San Francisco 49ers team whose ranking of 13th is not reflected by their record.

A rematch with the Baltimore Ravens and an offense that entered the week seventh in yards over expected looms in Week 16 and that slightly more difficult road compared to the Bills makes it tough to install the Bengals as AFC favourites.

There can ill-afford to be any let-up from Joe Burrow - fifth among quarterbacks with 100 pass attempts with a well-thrown ball percentage of 82.4 - and dominant rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase if the Bengals are to emerge as a legitimate threat to win it all, but their Week 7 win thrashing of the Ravens suggests they will be undaunted by the challenge.

NFC

1. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams' bet that Matthew Stafford's arrival would take them to the next level is proving a successful one to this point, with Los Angeles 6-1 and looking every bit a team ready to make a concerted push to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

Sean McVay's team went into Week 8 fourth in EVE and as the class of the NFC, despite their heavy home defeat to the Arizona Cardinals back in Week 4.

After the malaise of Jared Goff's final year as quarterback, Stafford has elevated the offense to one that trailed only the Dallas Cowboys in yards over expected with an average of 0.965 pre Week 8.

That lift has been crucial in a year where the defense has, perhaps unsurprisingly, taken something of a downturn following offseason losses in the secondary and the departure of coordinator Brandon Staley.

Yet the Rams remain a top-half team on that side of the ball (11th in yards allowed under expected) and face a schedule that sees them take on just two top-10 teams by EVE the rest of the way.

They do have two games with a 49ers team the Rams have not beaten since 2018 but, analysing what they have produced so far and the tests to come for the Rams, it is difficult to envision an NFC Championship Game in which they do not feature.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Cardinals are the second-highest ranked NFC team after the Rams by EVE, occupying fifth spot overall prior to their defeat to the Green Bay Packers on Thursday.

Despite their 7-1 record, it is tough to make a case for the Cardinals over the defending champion Buccaneers, who approached Week 8 only just behind Arizona in sixth and have the benefit of an easier run-in.

In addition to facing those strange but potentially dangerous – if they ever put it together – 49ers in Week 9, the Cardinals must face the Rams again and have a meeting with a Cowboys team whose league-leading offensive effort had them ninth in EVE following the last slate of games.

While the Buccaneers have the significant challenge of facing the Bills in Week 14, a New Orleans Saints team 24th in offensive yards over expected are the only other remaining opponent on Tampa Bay's schedule in the EVE top 10.

The Bucs are 20 places higher than New Orleans on that side of the ball, with Tom Brady in the MVP conversation having thrown a league-leading 21 touchdowns through seven games.

Trust in the 44-year-old Brady and this Bucs offense continues to grow. By contrast, there are likely to be plenty of questions about the Cardinals after they fell short against a Packers team missing their three top wide receivers on Thursday.

The Rams and the Bucs are the best the NFC has to offer at this stage and, come the end of Week 8, the EVE rankings will likely reflect that.

When Joao Felix signed for Atletico Madrid in 2019, it's fair to say there were plenty who doubted it would be a happy marriage.

Atletico shelled out €126million on the Portuguese talent who had taken the Primeira Liga by storm in his first season, scoring 15 times despite not even being in the Benfica first team when the campaign had begun.

But how was this technical virtuoso going to fit into an Atletico side characterised by its work rate? How would he adapt to the demanding principles implemented by Diego Simeone?

Maverick talents known more for their technical attributes than anything else had often been seen as Simeone's blind spot, hence some trepidation about whether he was the right man to nurture Joao Felix.

The Portugal international's Atletico career has been a slow-burner, but once again there are signs he is beginning to find himself.

Stuck in limbo

Joao Felix had to miss the start of this season through injury, which was obviously not ideal, particularly given how 2020-21 ultimately turned out for him after a promising start.

For a period last season, there were real signs that he was finding his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisaged, his role in the first half of 2020-21 – being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left – saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

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

 

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

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

A potential explanation for Joao Felix's disappointing form overall for Atletico was the lack of creativity in central areas behind him. While some might suggest Marcos Llorente's 11 assists in 2020-21 disproves that idea, the former Real Madrid man over-performed his expected assists (xA) by 5.6 – a figure unmatched across LaLiga, suggesting such productivity was not sustainable – while he also did a lot of his best work towards the right.

There had undoubtedly been a major difference between how Joao Felix was used during his first two seasons at Atletico compared to his time with Benfica, where he was seen as more of a genuine striker.

He averaged 2.5 shots per game in 2018-19 with Benfica, and although there wasn't a massive drop-off in his first season at the Wanda Metropolitano (2.4), his expected goals per shot slumped from 0.15 to 0.12. While that may not sound like a lot, it shows a clear indication that the quality of his chances decreased and therefore suggests his similar shot frequency was a result of poor decision-making.

 

His xG per shot improved back up to 0.14 last term, though he was averaging just 1.26 shots each game, half as frequent as at Benfica.

The fact his average number of touches in the box fell from 4.9 per appearance in 2018-19 to 2.7 the following season and then 2.0 last term further highlighted the different role he was adapting to and went some way to explaining why he was having fewer shots.

Certain transfer window additions – especially Antoine Griezmann and Matheus Cunha – had some fans concerned for Joao Felix, given they were likely to be in direct competition with him for places.

Some felt his future was in a more deep-lying role as part of the central midfield trio, but recently he has excelled in a similar playmaking function but further up the pitch. Suddenly it has him looking like the Joao Felix we all knew was in there somewhere.

Rising to the challenge

Following an uncharacteristic recruitment drive for technical players in the most recent transfer window, a key buzzword around Atletico was 'balance'. Preserving balance in the team was going to be a major focus for Simeone as he looked to truly maximise what is arguably the most talented squad he's had as a coach.

At the moment, it appears to be working well, and Joao Felix seems to be nicely suited to the set-up that's being deployed.

Simeone is favouring the use of a front three that is spearheaded by Suarez, with Joao Felix to the left and Griezmann towards the right.

The roles of Joao Felix and Griezmann allow them a certain flexibility. They can go down the outside, but with the use of wing-backs there's not a necessity, therefore Atletico can really overload teams in the final third when the likes of Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco are overlapping out wide.

This appears to suit Joao Felix in particular, and he has thrived in an advanced playmaker role against Real Sociedad and Levante over the past week.

 

Now, it's worth noting that Joao Felix was at fault for La Real's first goal in last weekend's 2-2 draw, but he played a similarly important role in ensuring Atletico fought back, his neat and intricate play in possession a real asset.

He was involved in 41 open-play passing sequences in that match, second only to Koke among Atletico midfielders and forwards. Given it's a metric that tends to be dominated by defenders and central midfielders, Joao Felix's high involvement here speaks to his significant influence.

He was then involved in 44 such sequences against Levante – again, Koke was the only midfielder or forward to be more influential in Atletico's build-up play than Joao Felix.

But there has been more substance to his performances than just build-up involvement – he seems to be relishing the attacking responsibility he has, and there's a certain maturity to be gleaned from that.

For example, it would have been quite easy for Joao Felix to go back inside his shell after coughing up possession in the lead-up to La Real's first goal, but he continued to demand the ball and drive at the defence.

His 22 ball carries was four more than any other midfielder or forward in that game, and there was such positivity in his movement in possession – he progressed 137.5 metres upfield with the ball, at least 45.8m more than any other non-defender on the pitch.

 

These often brought him inside as well as down the wing, from where he caused numerous problems and even set up Suarez's first goal with a gorgeous cross.

Joao Felix's output was then almost identical against Levante, with his carry progress increasing to 140.6m upfield, which was again a match-high among non-defenders, while his 21 overall carries was second only to Koke's 27 in that same group of players.

There are undoubtedly those who will remain unconvinced given he has had only one goal involvement (that assist against La Real) in five league games this season, so why are these figures important?

Well, Joao Felix's prominence in Atletico's build-up shows the influence he's beginning to exert. That, coupled with the positive nature – and frequency – of his ball carries, suggests he's finally found his niche in this team. He's injecting direction and purpose to their attacks.

Obviously, in an ideal world he will manage to add plenty of goals and assists as well in the long run, but for the moment the important thing for Joao Felix is that he finds continuity and consistency.

He looked to have been on the right path this time last year before a complicated second half to 2020-21 – hopefully for his sake this isn't another false dawn.

From 2014 to 2019, the Golden State Warriors put together one of the best stretches in basketball history, playing in the NBA Finals in five straight years and lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy three times as league champions. 

Those Warriors teams were a combined 322-88 in the regular season, giving them the most wins in a five-year stretch in NBA history. That .785 winning percentage is also an all-time NBA record over five consecutive seasons. 

While Golden State's time for dynastic dominance is likely in the past, is the team's window for winning NBA titles closed, or does the Warriors' 4-1 start to this season foreshadow a return trip to the Finals next June?

The cornerstones of last decade's title teams, head coach Steve Kerr and point guard Stephen Curry, remain in place and appear as capable as ever. 

While the Warriors' failures in last season's play-in tournament kept them from a true playoff appearance, their 16-6 finish to the regular season showed that a team can still thrive with role players around Curry when he is right, and the two-time MVP was that and more down the stretch. 

After returning from a tailbone contusion in late March, Curry averaged 36.9 points per game and shot 43.7 per cent from three-point range in his last 24 games, seemingly single-handedly boosting Golden State from below .500 into the Western Conference playoff race. 

Despite a rotating cast of team-mates – including the arrival and subsequent departure of Kevin Durant – Curry has been the engine that powers the Warriors' high-scoring offense. Over the past eight seasons, Golden State score 116.4 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court and just 103.5 per 100 possessions when he is on the bench. 

More surprising, however, is that the Warriors are better in almost every aspect of the game when their star guard is on the court, even in areas considered some of Curry's weaknesses. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, a sample size of over 26,500 minutes, Curry's presence has also helped Golden State improve their points allowed per 100 possessions, field goal defense, three-point defense, points in the paint and rebounding rate.

Curry is averaging 30.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists during the Warriors' 4-1 start and appears to be as potent as ever bombing three-pointers and pushing opposing defenses to their breaking point.

Klay's comeback, Green's regression

The uncertainty about Golden State's title hopes likely falls at the feet of the team's two remaining stars: Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Thompson, a five-time All-Star and Curry's 'Splash Brothers' backcourt partner, could be the most pivotal player in the NBA this season. 

The 31-year-old guard last appeared in a game well over two years ago in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors, suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Game 6. In November 2020, Thompson ruptured his right Achilles tendon during a workout. 

The Warriors fully expect Thompson to return to action this season, with Christmas Day's matchup against the Phoenix Suns set as an initial goal, 13 months since having surgery to repair his Achilles. 

While every injury and recovery is as unique as the players who endure them, Thompson and the Warriors can look to Durant's story as reason for hope. 

Durant made huge contributions last season for the Brooklyn Nets after missing the entire 2019-20 campaign while recovering from a ruptured Achilles. Durant's return to the court came about 18 months after surgery, but he almost immediately looked like himself, scoring 22 points in 25 minutes in his first game back. Within a month of his return, Durant had his first 40-point game and played over 50 minutes in a double-overtime road game. 

The Nets handled Durant with care last season, giving him occasional rest days and treating a strained hamstring cautiously, but he had no restrictions in the postseason, where he carried the load for Brooklyn and was inches away from defeating the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in a Game 7. 

The Warriors will likely ease Thompson back into action as he builds endurance and re-adjusts to the speed of live games, but the team have said they expect him to make a "full recovery".

Green is a three-time All-Star and five-time All-Defensive Team selection who appears to be battling age regression while still playing a vital role. 

Never known for his scoring prowess, Green averaged 7.1 rebounds and a career-high 8.9 assists last season while providing the defensive versatility to play in almost any lineup the Warriors wanted. 

Green's problem has been the gradual decline in his offensive production, most notably his outside shooting. Through the 2017-18 season, Green shot 32.7 per cent from three-point range and averaged 11.6 points per game. Since 2018-19, his three-point shooting has dipped to 28.1 per cent and he is scoring 7.4 points per night. 

While those declines feel relatively small now, they will likely be magnified in a playoff series where opposing coaches will be hell-bent on creating defenses to get the ball out of Curry's hands at the expense of leaving Green wide open.

Green garnered a reputation as someone who steps up in the postseason and shot 34.2 per cent from deep in his first 80 career playoff games. 

Since 2018, however, Green has converted just 25.4 per cent of his postseason three-point attempts over 45 games, and he has made just 21.1 per cent over his past 35 playoff games. Teams will continue to leave Green open in crucial games, and the Warriors' title hopes may hinge on whether he hits just enough to make defenses think twice. 

Wiseman, Wiggins and depth

Golden State's trio of battle-tested stars will be the core of any potential playoff run this spring, but the Warriors have another asset this season that they have lacked in recent years: depth. 

Going 54-83 over the previous two seasons was certainly not an ideal way to follow five straight Finals appearances, but a pair of non-contending years gave the team some extra assets and helped some of the Warriors' younger players gain experience. 

The dismal 2019-20 season yielded number two overall pick James Wiseman, whose rookie year was marred by injuries, including a season-ending meniscus tear in April. The 20-year-old center has played just 42 basketball games since leaving high school and remains raw, but his talent could prove vital in a Western Conference playoff bracket that will likely include Nikola Jokic, Deandre Ayton and Rudy Gobert. 

Wiseman is still recovering from his knee injury, but the Warriors are expected to provide an update early in November with a more definitive timeline for his return. 

Rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, the number seven and number 14 picks in this year's draft, will also look to compete for playing time, although Kuminga has yet to play due to a knee strain. 

The rest of Golden State's supporting cast has plenty of experience – at least in the regular season – but still has room for improvement. 

Andrew Wiggins, the maligned former number one overall pick who was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves, has begun a second chapter of his career in a supporting role, and the move to Golden State has revived his career. Wiggins had a career-best shooting season last year, converting 47.3 per cent from the field and 38.0 per cent from three-point range. 

After sputtering a bit early last season, Wiggins excelled down the stretch and has averaged 20.0 points over his last 35 games. 

Damion Lee and Jordan Poole have gone through growing pains the past two seasons, attempting to fill in for Thompson in the backcourt, but both have emerged as interesting contributors. 

Lee has ignited the offense off the bench, averaging 14.2 points through five games this season with 12-for-26 shooting (46.2 per cent) from three-point range.  

Poole, a 2019 draft pick, showed a lot of improvement during last year's sophomore campaign. Although he is off to a slow shooting start this season, he is averaging 18.3 in 12 games as a starter, dating back to the start of last season. 

Back is 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala to provide a veteran presence on the wing, while six-foot-10 forward Nemanja Bjelica adds both size and outside shooting to a frontcourt still in flux. 

Contenders again?

The sum of all those pieces is a team with a relatively wide range of possibilities in 2021-22. 

So much weight rests on Curry's shoulders, and any serious injury to the Warriors' top man could spell disaster, as it did in 2019-20. 

There is no guarantee that Thompson can make signature contributions after returning from an absence that spans 28 months and counting. The playoff stage may prove to be too big for Golden State's collection of young prospects, and players like Green and Iguodala might be too far past their primes to provide the requisite lift. 

But the Warriors' roster holds the potential for a championship contender once again. 

Curry remains on the short list of star players who can control a playoff series, and there is enough depth in place to ease Thompson back into NBA action. After years of filling their roster with late draft choices and minimum salary veterans, the Warriors now have three lottery picks in Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody who could blossom into key pieces. 

In a competitive but wide-open Western Conference, Golden State still have questions to answer but have the potential to make a run at a fourth NBA title in the past eight seasons.

Rejoice, Leicester City fans – it looks like you've turned a corner.

A run of two wins in nine games in all competitions had led to all sorts of head-scratching, not to mention a few worried mumblings about Brendan Rodgers and whether he might think fifth place, an FA Cup and a Community Shield was as much as he could realistically achieve at the King Power Stadium.

Things have looked a little less scary in the Hallowe'en season, though. That emphatic 4-2 win over Manchester United kick-started a run of four consecutive victories (well, three, plus a shoot-out defeat of Brighton and Hove Albion in the EFL Cup). OK, they conceded eight goals in those four games, but one thing at a time.

Ironically, perhaps the biggest concern for Leicester right now is the major positive of their season: the form of Youri Tielemans. The Belgium international is being linked with new clubs with every passing man-of-the-match display amid little obvious progress in talks to extend his contract, which expires at the end of next season.

Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are just some of the sides said to be interested in the midfielder, described by Rodgers as both "a really gifted young player" and "a really respectful guy".

It's tricky to back up the latter with numbers, so we'll take Rodgers' word on that. As for being a talented footballer, there can be little argument. Not only is Tielemans Leicester's stand-out performer, but he has also been arguably the finest midfielder in England in 2021-22.

Youri-n good company

Signed initially on loan from Monaco in January 2019, Tielemans has come to define the Rodgers era at Leicester as much as the manager himself. After all, he's only missed seven out of 126 matches in all competitions since the former Liverpool boss took charge of his first game, shortly after Tielemans had made the move from Monte Carlo.

Since his debut against Tottenham on February 10 two years ago, Tielemans has played more Premier League games (97) than any other midfielder. He is one of just three midfielders, along with Declan Rice and Matt Ritchie, to play in every minute of 2021-22, and his 65 consecutive appearances represent the longest active such streak in England's top flight (James Ward-Prowse's 102-game run came to an end on October 16).

Among Premier League midfielders, only Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (780) has had more touches of the ball this season than Tielemans (707), while only the Tottenham man (626) and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson (565) have attempted more passes than Leicester's Mr Reliable (542).

Hand at the Tiel-ler

The most obvious – and visually striking – aspect of Tielemans' play is his long-range shooting. He has a real knack for kicking the ball into the opposition goal from a long way away, and at particularly important moments.

This year alone, there was the FA Cup final rocket against Chelsea, the thunderbolt in the 2-1 win at Brentford and that impudent curler against Manchester United (one that may or may not have been an attempted cross). Four of Tielemans' goals in 2021 have come from outside the box, which is a tally no Premier League player can surpass.

Still, Tielemans' midfield role at Leicester is hardly of the free-scoring Frank Lampard ilk. The best of his attacking output comes in creating openings for others. Since his Premier League debut, only Bruno Fernandes (127), Jack Grealish (166) and Kevin De Bruyne (190) have created more chances from open play than Tielemans (115). It's a figure that's helped Leicester to 171 league goals in his time at the club, a tally only bettered by Liverpool (210) and Manchester City (232).

Although Leicester's early-season form fell short, Tielemans seemed to embrace the burden of expectation. There are just four midfielders this term to create more chances from open play than him, and all of them tend to inhabit more advanced roles in their sides.

What's more, only Raphinha (24) and Fernandes (23) rank higher when it comes to the number of involvements in open-play sequences when their only action was to take a shot. Similarly, just Fernandes (22) has had more involvements than Tielemans (12) in sequences where their sole contribution was to create a chance.

Tielemans, then, has grown increasingly effective in the decisive moments of a period of possession, the kind where more advanced playmakers tend to thrive. But in Leicester's 3-4-1-2 system, where he sits at the heart of midfield, he is expected to contribute much more – and does.

As can be seen in his high touch and pass count, Tielemans is at the centre of Leicester's efforts in possession. Among Premier League midfielders this season, he has been involved in the most unique open-play sequences (458), defined as a passage of play that belongs to one team and is ended by defensive actions, stoppages in play or a shot. In such sequences to end in a shot, only West Ham's Said Benrahma (53) and that man Fernandes (68) have had more involvements than Tielemans (51).

This is balanced by his work without the ball. Of those five top-ranked players for open-play chances created in 2021-22, Tielemans has won by far the most tackles (11) and possession in the middle third of the pitch (33). He is a combative as well as creative force, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Leicester's defeat of United this month.

Bedevilled

Alongside the improving Boubakary Soumare, Tielemans was the best player on the pitch against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Red Devils. He had the most shots (four) and created the most chances (three) of any Leicester player and, level with Soumare, won possession the most for his side (seven times). Meanwhile, his 66 completed passes, 41 of which were in the United half, and 96 touches were the most of anyone in the game.

Simple offloads of the ball are to be expected from central midfielders, of course, but this was not an exercise in mere sideways passing. The variety of his distribution, the commitment to breaking lines and advancing play into the United half was clear. This was a performance worthy of capturing the interest of some of Europe's grandest clubs, as well as a bit of leeway when it comes to judging whether he meant that goal.

Tielemans has come to represent the best things about Rodgers' Leicester: talent, tenacity, and tactical acumen. He's a player who has won admiring glances from across the continent and one who faces a big decision in the months to come over his future.

For now, Leicester fans, he's yours to enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Packers lacking firepower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deck stacked for MVP contender Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No case for Green Bay’s defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xavi

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

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

Andrea Pirlo

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

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

Roberto Martinez

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

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

Erik ten Hag

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

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

Antonio Conte

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

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

Marcelo Gallardo

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Quarterback: Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles @ Detroit Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense: San Francisco 49ers @ Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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