Freddie Woodman could be excused for having nightmares on Friday night as Cristiano Ronaldo prepares for his second Manchester United debut against Newcastle United.

The 24-year-old goalkeeper has the unenviable task of attempting to stop one of the greatest players of all time – the newly crowned leading scorer in men's internationals – in front of a jubilant United home crowd.

It is a challenge that has proved beyond many of the world's best number ones, including former Newcastle stalwart Shay Given.

The last time Ronaldo faced Newcastle at Old Trafford, in January 2008, he scored three and United hit six...

RONALDO GOAL GLUT

This was a landmark game in a landmark 2007-08 season for Ronaldo, still less than a year on from his first Champions League strike and only now establishing himself as a prolific goalscorer.

The winger had an outstanding 19 goals in 24 games ahead of the visit of Nigel Pearson's Newcastle – days out from Kevin Keegan's second managerial stint at St James' Park – but was still waiting on a first career hat-trick.

Ronaldo was without a league goal against Newcastle, too, and that trend continued until half-time.

But the Magpies knew only too well how quickly he could take the game away from them; in the 2004-05 FA Cup semi-final, Ronaldo was booked for diving in the opening stages, then provided sublime assists for Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul Scholes before adding a clinching fourth himself in United's 4-1 win.

Sure enough, a second-half onslaught was led by Ronaldo, whose free-kick crept past Given for the 49th-minute opener.

Carlos Tevez made it two following an awful clearance from Given – actually one of Newcastle's better performers, with seven saves – and then sent Ronaldo through for his second.

Rio Ferdinand grabbed the fourth, but all eyes were on Ronaldo again as he chopped past Jose Enrique and fired in a deflected effort to complete the treble.

"This is a very special day for me," he said afterwards. "It makes me feel very proud to score a hat-trick for this great club."

Ronaldo followed in the footsteps of Andy Cole, Van Nistelrooy and Scholes in scoring a Premier League hat-trick against Newcastle for United, a record number for one club against another that remains unsurpassed (matched by Arsenal v Leicester City, Liverpool v Arsenal and Tottenham v Southampton).

A controversial Tevez finish, which prompted Alan Smith's red card, had completed the scoring and made this a day of firsts, with no previous examples – and only one since, Hull City versus Fulham in 2013 – of a Premier League game goalless at half-time ending 6-0. It also equalled United's 1968 record win against Newcastle.

THE FIRST OF MANY

The hat-trick was not just a first for Ronaldo but also a last – at least until now. He did not score another treble in his initial United stint, although a trip to Tyneside a month later brought two goals and an assist.

Ronaldo will expect to improve that haul on his return, though. There were 44 hat-tricks in his nine years at Real Madrid and a further three in three seasons for Juventus.

His 48 since the Newcastle game leads players in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions, just ahead of great rival Lionel Messi's 46.

In fact, until now, Ronaldo's final season at United was the last campaign in which he did not net a hat-trick. That is a streak he will be keen to preserve – perhaps as soon as in this friendly first fixture...

MORE MAGPIES MISERY?

Ronaldo is yet to lose to Newcastle in all competitions, with his 11 such outings coming in the middle of a 19-game unbeaten stretch for United in this fixture – their best ever sequence.

Newcastle won four times against post-Ronaldo United, however, while the hosts' long undefeated run at Old Trafford – spanning all 23 home meetings under Alex Ferguson – was ended during David Moyes' tenure.

But the Magpies, now led by former United captain Steve Bruce, should again make for accommodating party guests.

Woodman has shipped eight goals already this season, becoming the 13th keeper to concede at least two in his first three Premier League starts, although little blame can be laid at his door – the one-time Under-20 World Cup winner has actually prevented 0.11 goals, according to expected goals on target data.

The Newcastle man has matched Declan Rudd's miserable record in facing a penalty in each of his first three Premier League outings, beaten on the rebound against West Ham on the one occasion he was able to add to the four spot-kick saves he tallied in the Championship with Swansea City across two loan spells.

Only three Premier League teams have given away penalties in four or more matches in succession, but Newcastle's haphazard defending suggests Ronaldo may well get an opportunity from 12 yards on Saturday.

Regular taker Bruno Fernandes' only miss in 22 attempts for United was against Newcastle, while nobody has dispatched as many penalties as Ronaldo (84 – 31 clear of second-placed Messi) in Europe's top five leagues since he left England.

On his big day, who could possibly deny the 36-year-old that sort of opportunity?

Domestic football returns this week after the international break, and with it being the first set of matches since the transfer deadline passed, there are some new faces to consider.

Though one of them will be very familiar to everyone – Cristiano Ronaldo is back at Manchester United and an interesting option for fantasy teams.

Newcastle United are the visitors at Old Trafford in what many may be predicting to be a one-sided encounter, though Ronaldo's by no means the only threat to Steve Bruce's men.

Stats Perform has picked out seven players potentially in action over the weekend who could be worth signing up to give your fantasy team a boost.

HUGO LLORIS (Crystal Palace v Tottenham )

Spurs have enjoyed a solid start to their new era under Nuno Espirito Santo, winning all three league games to make themselves early leaders.

They've also not conceded a single goal, with Hugo Lloris the only goalkeeper in the division to already have three clean sheets.

Up next is a trip to Crystal Palace, and while you can never guarantee anything in football, Patrick Vieira's men have struggled during the early weeks of 2021-22. Lloris is surely a strong shout for a clean sheet.

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Leeds United v Liverpool )

The international break saw Alexander-Arnold become a hot topic of conversation again as his England career continues to stall – this time his performance in midfield attracting criticism.

Nevertheless, at club level there's little question that he'll return to his usual right-back berth, where he has excelled so far this term.

Leeds should offer the Reds stern opposition, but their style of play means Liverpool could be afforded a lot of space – if anyone can exploit that, it's Alexander-Arnold, given he has created five more chances (15) than any other player in the league and his six successful open-play crosses is a joint-high.

REECE JAMES ( Chelsea v Aston Villa)

If you're the type of fantasy football manager who loads their team with full-backs in the hope of the goal involvement/clean sheet double-threat, then you've probably already got James in your team.

But if you haven't, you may want to consider it.

The Chelsea wing-back is already on three goal involvements (one goal, two assists), the most among defenders and anyone in Thomas Tuchel's squad, and is part of a team that wouldn't expect to concede regularly.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN (Leicester City v Manchester City )

Leicester City have often been seen as a bit of a bogey team for Manchester City, so perhaps this is a bit of a wildcard choice.

However, Gundogan's enjoyed a stellar 2021 to date. His 12 Premier League goals is second only to Harry Kane (14) and has become an influential player in City's attacks over the past year.

He's probably not in the conversation to be anyone's captain, but his goals haul makes him a strong contender to at least get in your XI.

BRUNO FERNANDES ( Manchester United v Newcastle United)

Man Utd have averaged 2.9 goals per game over their previous 14 Premier League home matches, and with Newcastle taking just 10 points from the past 15 away games, the omens look good for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men.

With that in mind, the man usually behind many of United's goals is Fernandes, who is just two goal involvements from reaching 50 – only three players will have hit that mark quicker than him if he gets a couple against Newcastle.

Similarly, since the start of 2020-21, Fernandes' 10.3 expected assists (xA) is the highest in the Premier League and his 12 actual assists haul is level with Kevin De Bruyne as the most among midfielders.

IVAN TONEY ( Brentford v Brighton and Hove Albion)

He was the man who propelled Brentford into the Premier League with his goals, so when Toney got off the mark in the Premier League last out time out against Aston Villa, many will curiously wait to see if the floodgates now open.

That took him to 56 league goals (excluding play-offs) since the start of 2019-20, more than anyone else in the top four tiers of English football.

Granted, those came in lower divisions, but others before him have adapted to the Premier League – why can't Toney be the next Jamie Vardy?

CRISTIANO RONALDO ( Manchester United v Newcastle United)

Solskjaer's already said Ronaldo hasn't return to United to sit on the bench, so there's every chance the Portugal captain could make his second debut as a starter against Newcastle.

If he does, he will complete a formidable frontline for the Red Devils, regardless of who he's joined by, and given the mauling they handed out to Leeds United on matchday one, they certainly have big wins in their locker.

It's also worth noting that Ronaldo scored his very first club hat-trick against Newcastle back in 2008 – he couldn't do it again, could he? Either way, Ronaldo as captain this weekend looks a smart choice.

Kylian Mbappe remained at Paris Saint-Germain beyond the end of the transfer window, but his long-term future may not lie in the French capital.

The World Cup winner is a free agent at the end of the season and is reportedly ready to move.

Real Madrid, who bid for Mbappe at the start of this campaign, appear his most likely destination, but far less predictable is his potential replacement at PSG.

The Ligue 1 giants have months to plan their next move, so Stats Perform breaks down the possible options to fill Mbappe's big boots.

 

ERLING HAALAND

Borussia Dortmund remained firm in their stance of keeping hold of Haaland in the most recent transfer window, despite some heavyweight clubs reportedly showing an interest as deadline day approached. That interest will only increase in 2022 as the Norwegian has a widely reported €75million release clause that comes into effect at the end of the season. 

Landing Haaland would mean PSG replacing one of the world's best young goal-getters with another player of equivalent standing, the 21-year-old having scored 63 goals in 64 games since his Dortmund debut in January 2020, compared to 54 in 66 matches for Mbappe in all competitions.

HARRY KANE

Following Manchester City's failed pursuit of his signature, Kane announced towards the end of the transfer window he was staying put at Tottenham. City's loss – assuming they are not prepared to go back in for the England captain, as Pep Guardiola recently hinted at – could be PSG's gain.

A reunion with his former Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino in Paris would appear to make a lot of sense, if PSG could stump up the huge fee that Tottenham would still insist upon next year. Having finished as Premier League top scorer in three separate campaigns – one of only three players to do so along with Thierry Henry (four times) and Alan Shearer – he will feel he deserves his move to an elite club that can challenge for major honours.

 

LAUTARO MARTINEZ

Lionel Messi and Pochettino will know all about the qualities of their fellow Argentinian, who has shone brighter by the season for Inter over the past three years. At the age of 24 and having been linked with the likes of Barcelona, Tottenham and Man City, Martinez is reportedly on the brink of signing a new deal with the reigning Serie A champions, which could make PSG's life a lot more difficult when it comes to any negotiations.

Whether he is quite of the level to take the place of Mbappe is debatable, and this year should prove telling, with Martinez facing a greater onus to score heavily after Romelu Lukaku's departure from Inter. He has one goal in one appearance this term, a goal-per-game return he will be looking to maintain over the course of 2021-22.

ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI

While the likes of Messi, Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann all changed clubs during the transfer window, Lewandowski stayed put at Bayern Munich despite suggestions he was seeking a new challenge elsewhere. With Bayern under no pressure to sell, and the prolific striker having two seasons to run on his contract, a move away this year never seemed a realistic prospect.

But it will be a different matter in nine months' time and PSG could do a lot worse than go all out for the Poland international, even if he is now 33 years of age. Having last term scored 41 times in the Bundesliga – breaking Gerd Muller's single-season record – Lewandowski has maintained his lofty standards in the opening weeks of the new campaign with 10 goals in his first six matches for club and country, going a long way to strengthening his argument of being the best out-and-out striker around.

MOHAMED SALAH

Salah is in an identical position to Lewandowski insofar as the Egypt forward will be about to enter the final 12 months of his contract come the end of the campaign. After previously flirting with LaLiga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, PSG have their work cut out persuading Salah to make the move to Ligue 1 instead.

Should they manage that, though, they will have one of Europe's top attacking talents from the past four years. Indeed, since joining Liverpool from Roma ahead of the 2017-18 season, the 29-year-old's tally of 97 goals has been bettered by only four players in Europe's top five leagues: Ciro Immobile (104), Ronaldo (107), Messi (125) and Lewandowski (131).

 

DUSAN VLAHOVIC

The 21-year-old Serbian came of age in Serie A in the 2020-21 campaign, scoring 21 of Fiorentina's 47 goals to finish fourth in the league's scoring charts and earn the division's Under-23 MVP award.

While not quite in the same category as some of the others on this list, Vlahovic may well be the hottest property around come next June as he already has three goals in three appearances for his club in all competitions this term. 

RICHARLISON

Neymar's Brazil strike partner is another who has been touted for a move to Paris since Madrid launched their Mbappe offensive last month. Everton made clear that they were not interested in selling Richarlison in August, but that may change should PSG be prepared to spend big once again.

Now into his fourth season at Goodison Park, Richarlison has yet to score more than 15 Premier League goals in a campaign for the Toffees, but at the age of 24, he has gained huge experience and was a key member of Brazil's recent Olympic gold medal-winning squad in Tokyo. 

A frantic spell has followed Formula One's mid-season break, with a number of noteworthy moves this week squeezed in ahead of the third leg of a triple-header.

Max Verstappen and Red Bull have two wins from two since the campaign resumed, but Mercedes have responded by firming up their 2022 plans.

George Russell is in, with Valtteri Bottas out, replacing Kimi Raikkonen at Alfa Romeo. Raikkonen's final F1 season has been slowed by a positive coronavirus that continues to keep him out.

Alex Albon will get another chance in Russell's place at Williams, meanwhile.

But all thoughts of next year must now be put on the backburner as the series heads to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix.

Verstappen leads the way again, three points clear, but second-placed Lewis Hamilton has fond memories of this event, with seven pole positions, seven fastest laps and five wins – all records, the latter shared with Michael Schumacher.

A sixth victory is badly needed, preventing Verstappen from building up a head of steam again.

The Dutchman is looking for his eighth triumph of the year, a tally that only Hamilton himself in 2016 (10 wins) has reached without ending the year as world champion.

LAST TIME OUT

It was routine for Verstappen at Zandvoort as he became the first home winner of the returning Dutch GP.

The Red Bull superstar took pole comfortably and capitalised on a track that makes overtaking extremely difficult.

With Mercedes also running a slower car, Hamilton's only hope was a strategic triumph.

But Verstappen followed his rival in the first two times he pitted, wiping out any advantage, and the Briton ultimately settled for pitting a third time to pursue the fastest lap.

Ahead of his big move, it was a weekend to forget for Russell, who crashed in Q2 and then endured difficulties on race day, also speeding in the pit lane to end any chance of a points finish.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN ITALY

Sprint qualifying returns after a mixed reception at Silverstone, where Hamilton took pole for the shorter race but was beaten by Verstappen in the Saturday dash.

In a championship as tight as this, the extra points on offer could prove crucial.

The race will be of primary concern, though, and Mercedes need a result at a circuit Hamilton enjoys. The defending champion last week acknowledged Red Bull had pulled clear again in the second half of the season.

But the Austrian outfit will also want a better display from Sergio Perez, their second man.

His underwhelming performance in the Netherlands left Verstappen all alone against Hamilton and Bottas, who will want to bow out with a fifth constructors' title.

TOP FIVE OPTA FACTS

Fixture on the calendar – This will be the 70th grand prix at Monza, a record that explains why so many F1 benchmarks have been set in Italy. Schumacher's 247.6 km/h in 2003 stands as the fastest average speed from a race winner, while an unsurpassed eight different drivers led the 1971 edition.

Ferrari frustration – Although Ferrari have recorded 19 wins and 21 pole positions at Monza, neither Scuderia driver finished their previous home race. Not 1970 to 1972 have Ferrari had both men fail to finish consecutive Italian GPs.

Another Lewis landmark – On 3,999.5 points, Hamilton will aim to become the first F1 driver to reach 4,000. He is almost 1,000 clear of his nearest rival Sebastian Vettel, who has 3,053.

Latest Honda hero – Verstappen's next victory will be his 13th with a Honda engine, matching Nigel Mansell's tally. The pair trail only Ayrton Senna (32) in that regard.

A day to remember – Verstappen and Hamilton will be hoping to add this to the list of famous September 12 races: Fernando Alonso's only Monza win with Ferrari in 2010, Niki Lauda's 1976 return after his Nurburgring crash and Jackie Stewart's breakthrough 1965 triumph.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 224.5
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 221.5
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 123
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 114
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) – 108

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 344.5
2. Red Bull – 332.5
3. Ferrari – 181.5
4. McLaren – 170
5. Alpine – 90

The NFL is back and, for so many across the globe, that means it's time to examine the matchup data and prepare fantasy rosters for Week 1.

Unless you've left it remarkably late, fantasy drafts are in the rear-view mirror and it's time to set the best line-up to deliver an opening-week win.

But which players are ideally positioned to help fantasy managers start the year with a victory?

Here, Stats Perform looks at four players and a defense poised to deliver big fantasy points.

Quarterback – Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals @ Tennessee Titans

The pressure is firmly on Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray to deliver in year three of their partnership after they collapsed from 6-3 to miss the playoffs.

But if the Cardinals make a disappointing start to 2021, it is more likely to be because of their defense than Murray, who can do great damage against a Tennessee defense vulnerable to the ground game and to what the Arizona quarterback can do with his legs.

Tennessee gave up the fourth-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks last season. The Titans' 6.84 yards per pass play allowed was the 11th-worst rate in the NFL, while they were tied for the 10th-most rushing touchdowns conceded with 18.

Murray, who had 31 passing plays of 25 yards or more, ninth-most in the league, and averaged the second-most yards per carry (6.15) last season, is ideally equipped to take advantage of those vulnerabilities and put together a substantially productive fantasy day.

Running Back – James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans

Robinson's stock looked to have been dealt a major blow when the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne in the first round having selected his former Clemson team-mate Trevor Lawrence first overall.

But a season-ending foot injury to Etienne ruled him out for the year, meaning Robinson will get the bulk of the carries in the Jacksonville backfield.

He is coming off a tremendous rookie year that saw him rack up 1,070 rushing yards while averaging 2.34 yards after contact per attempt, the sixth-best rate in the NFL.

And he has the perfect matchup to carry that momentum into the new season, facing a Texans team in disarray amid the Deshaun Watson saga that gave up a league-worst 5.2 yards per rush last season.

If you have Robinson, start him.

Wide Receiver – Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions

Week 1 often delivers some weirdness but, on paper, the Niners could not have asked for a better matchup than the rebuilding Lions.

The Lions gave up 7.85 yards per pass play, the most in the NFL last season, and their young secondary is one San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan should have little trouble exploiting.

Jeff Okudah, the Lions' first-round pick from 2020 and starting cornerback, gave up a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – on 68.2 per cent of his targets. He conceded 15.28 burn yards per target, the third-most in the NFL.

As the 49ers' top wideout, Aiyuk will be frequently matched up with Okudah and, after producing a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets – the third-most among rookie wideouts with at least 50 targets – in his first season, this extremely gifted route-runner has a clear opportunity to make a hot start to a potential breakout year.

Tight End – Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons

It's difficult to get too excited about the Eagles offense, given it averaged 224 net passing yards per game since Jalen Hurts took over as the starting quarterback in Week 14 last year, 21st in the NFL.

But the two players who averaged the most targets per game for the Eagles in that time were their tight ends, Zach Ertz and Goedert. Ertz averaged 5.8 targets and Goedert 5.7 while playing a game fewer.

Goedert is the younger and more explosive of that pair and should command a higher share of the targets going forward. Facing a Falcons team that gave up 7.18 yards per pass play last year and conceded the third-most fantasy points per game to tight ends, Goedert's role in the offense is a recipe for him opening the season in stunning fashion.

Defense – Los Angeles Rams vs. Chicago Bears

Justin Fields will not be starting for the Bears against the Rams, and the first-round rookie might consider himself fortunate given the discrepancy between the talent on the Rams' defensive front and the Bears' offensive line.

The Chicago O-Line is 30th in Stats Perform's rankings, which is a poor position to be in at any point of the season but is especially troubling ahead of a matchup with a Los Angeles team that tallied 50 sacks for negative yardage in 2020.

Chicago allowed 23.8 per cent of points on giveaways last season and, with their O-Line facing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who beat a pass protector on 94 of his 103 pressures last term, the Bears appear poised to concede more points in that manner and reward fantasy players who invested in the Rams' defense.

The same two teams have not faced each other in consecutive Super Bowls since 1994, when the Dallas Cowboys ended the 1993 season by repeating as champions with a second straight rout of the Buffalo Bills, for whom the loss marked their fourth consecutive defeat on the grandest stage.

But the stars may be aligning for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs to end that wait and face off again in Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in February.

Tampa Bay crushed Kansas City in Super Bowl LV, becoming the first team to win the Lombardi Trophy at their home stadium with a 31-9 triumph.

And it is tough to look at the respective rosters following strong offseasons from both without feeling they should each be in position to renew acquaintances at SoFi Stadium.

The Buccaneers did an excellent job of keeping their title-winning core together, while the Chiefs attacked the glaring weakness that saw their hopes of defending the championship last season go up in flames.

Using its advanced data, Stats Perform analyses why these two powerhouses appear poised to emulate the feat of the Cowboys and Bills.

Bucs keep the band together

Faced with the complex challenge of retaining a host of free agents who made significant contributions to their Super Bowl triumph while dealing with a salary cap shrinking due to the impact of the pandemic and a season played largely without fans, the Buccaneers made good on head coach Bruce Arians' post-championship pledge to keep the heart of the roster intact.

There were, of course, some departures, but the pivotal cogs that helped propel the Bucs to a second title in franchise history were all tied down for 2021 and, in most cases, beyond.

Perhaps the most important move the Bucs made was to re-sign edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, who had 13 of Tampa Bay's 31 pressures of Patrick Mahomes in February to a four-year, $72million contract that is the joint-11th most expensive edge rusher contract in the league by average annual salary. 

The fact Barrett agreed to take a discount to stay with Tampa is reflective of the excellent situation the Bucs are in, and several of his team-mates were similarly eager to re-sign with a team superbly positioned to contend for more titles.

 

Veteran linebacker Lavonte David received long-overdue recognition in 2020 after years of stellar play and also received a two-year, $25m deal from the Bucs to keep him next to Devin White in the middle of the defense.

David allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, on 36.8 per cent of his targets. His 6.42 burn yards per target conceded was fourth best among all linebackers while White's pressure rate of 37.3 was the best for linebackers with at least 50 pass rush attempts.

They have a claim for being the top linebacking duo in football when it comes to affecting the pass game and the Bucs' front seven looks to have all the ingredients to give quarterbacks nightmares in 2021. Tampa retained the services of defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and added a first-round pass rusher in Joe Tryon, who recorded a 19.6% pressure rate off the edge in his last season for Washington in 2019, with 30 of his 35 total pressures seeing him beat a pass protector.

However, the Chiefs have made a series of impressive moves with the aim of ensuring Tampa Bay cannot disrupt their aerial attack to the same extent should they meet again.

Protecting Patrick

The defining image of Kansas City's 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV was that of Mahomes running for his life in the face of near relentless pressure from Tampa Bay.

Mahomes was playing behind an offensive line decimated by injuries. Right tackle Mike Remmers was forced to play at left tackle and guard Andrew Wylie had to take his place across the formation.

Kansas City's offense was unable to function at anything close to peak performance as a result, and the Chiefs' offseason appeared designed entirely to prevent such a scenario coming to pass again.

Joe Thuney was signed as a free agent to lock down the left guard position having served as one of most dependable players in football during his career with the New England Patriots. Thuney's pressure rate (4%) in 2020 was fifth among all guards and he will have Orlando Brown Jr. on his outside shoulder after the Chiefs traded their 2021 first-rounder among multiple picks to acquire him from the Baltimore Ravens to be their new left tackle.

Brown, who is switching from right to left tackle and gave up a pressure rate of 9% in 2020, may have some work to do as a pass blocker but Kansas City should expect him to help their run game. Only David Bakhtiari (3%) allowed run disruptions at a lower rate than Brown (3.6%) last year.

In addition to fortifying the left side, the Chiefs ensured they will have depth across the line. They used one of their two second-round picks on Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, whose pressure rate (1.6%) was joint-third best among Power 5 centers with a minimum of 50 pass protection snaps. He is set to start ahead of versatile free agent addition Austin Blythe and another rookie, sixth-round pick Trey Smith, is in line to get the starting right guard job ahead of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.

 

Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 season to aid the fight against coronavirus in his native Canada, should prove an extremely valuable reserve having been credited with allowing just two adjusted sacks on 354 pass protection snaps in 2019.

The big question mark is at right tackle, where Lucas Niang seems primed to start. He did not play in his rookie year after opting out and is, therefore, likely to be the player opposing pass rushes target. The Chiefs will hope he can reprise his form of his senior year at TCU, when he was not credited with an adjusted sack allowed on 123 pass protection snaps.

Kansas City defeated the Buccaneers in Week 12 of the 2020 season with the 27-24 score flattering Tampa Bay. Conventional wisdom says that with better protection, Mahomes and the Chiefs' explosive offense would have the advantage. But, after an offseason in which the Bucs solidified the strength of their team and Chiefs attacked a deficiency, is that actually the case?

Who has the edge?

There is statistical evidence to backup the argument that, if the Chiefs have genuinely fixed their pass protection, then they deserve to be Super Bowl favourites.

When he is not overwhelmed by pressure, Mahomes can be an extremely dangerous quarterback to blitz due to his ability to improvise and turn seemingly negative plays into explosive ones.

From a clean pocket, he can be little short of a nightmare to defend. In the Chiefs' title-winning 2019 season, when he was not pressured Mahomes delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball 84 per cent of the time, the fifth-best rate in the NFL. His pickable pass percentage of 1.81 was third.

Those numbers dipped in 2020, but his 81.6% well-thrown was still above average and his 2.39% pickable pass rate was 12th. With his 2019 following a stunning 2018 in which he was named league MVP, the likelihood is that last season was the anomaly.

Even if Mahomes does return to the remarkably high standards of his first two years as a starter, there's plenty to suggest the Chiefs still might not be able to outgun a Buccaneers offense that coalesced at the perfect time in the previous campaign.

In the final four games following the regular-season loss to the Chiefs and their bye, the Bucs ran the table going 4-0 and led the league with 357.3 net passing yards per game. Brady threw 14 touchdowns and just one interception.

 

That tailed off to 256 net yards per game, third among teams to play multiple playoff games, in the postseason as the standard of opposition improved, but the reality is his decision to leave New England for Tampa Bay rejuvenated Brady as a downfield passer.

Only Deshaun Watson (69) and Mahomes (67) had more completions of 20 yards or more than the 63 produced by Brady, who ranked fourth in air yards per attempt (9.50) among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes but was able to protect the ball while going deep more often, his pickable pass percentage of 2.20 second behind Alex Smith.

He will again have the benefit of arguably the deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL in his 22nd season. The Bucs franchise tagged Chris Godwin to keep him around while also re-signing Antonio Brown, and Brady will surely be confident of furthering his rapport with the former, who registered a burn on 72.6 per cent of targets last year, tied-seventh among receivers with at least 50 targets.

With Brady seemingly gaining new life midway through his fifth decade and turning the Tampa offense into a juggernaut late last season and Mahomes set to enjoy what should be a much higher standard of protection, the stage is set for a potential shootout should these teams book a rematch in five months' time.

The Chiefs have almost always been able to rely on outscoring their opponents. Yet, in a possible aerial duel with Brady and the Bucs, it is their defense, which ranked 18th with 6.42 yards per pass play allowed last season, that looks the most vulnerable.

There will be plenty of nerves around NFL locker rooms this week, with career-altering seasons lying ahead.

Many players will get second chances if the coming year does not go as planned, but some will not.

In a league where there are only 32 starting berths for quarterbacks and a further 32 openings for head coaches, the competition is brutal.

Coming off testing campaigns, Stats Perform picks out the QBs and coaches who cannot afford another slip-up in a make-or-break 2021.

Sam Darnold

New Carolina Panthers QB Darnold is still just 24, but so poor were the former third overall pick's performances across three years in New York that the Jets moved him on to take Zach Wilson with the second selection in 2021.

In Darnold's third and final miserable season with the Jets, he threw just nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions – numbers that could have been even worse as he threw 22 pickable passes, his pickable pass percentage of 6.51 the fifth-worst among QBs with 100 or more attempts.

Only the run-heavy Baltimore Ravens averaged fewer net passing yards than the Jets last year (174.8 per game), a metric in which the Panthers ranked a mediocre 18th led by Teddy Bridgewater.

If Darnold cannot even reach those standards, his career as a leading man could be over already. Of course, Carolina start against Wilson and the Jets.

Daniel Jones

Playing in the same city as Darnold, Jones might have got off a little lightly. He is after all eight days older than Darnold, albeit he came into the league a year later.

There were signs of promise for the New York Giants in 2019, but Jones has not progressed as hoped. The clock is ticking, with opportunities elsewhere likely to be scarce given he was a surprise pick at number six two years ago.

Sacked 45 times in 2020, Jones might argue he has lacked protection from a poor Giants offensive line.

Sadly, the QB has looked best running for his life, averaging a league-leading 9.70 yards when the designated ball-carrier – and a slightly above average 4.62 when scrambling – but still scoring only a single rushing TD last year.

Kliff Kingsbury

Appointed in 2019 and handed first overall pick Kyler Murray, Kingsbury's first task in Arizona was to make the Cardinals more effective and exciting on offense – something he achieved by delivering the second-highest season-to-season improvement in total net yards in franchise history (+1,602).

But the Cards still finished last in the NFC West with only five wins, missing the playoffs for the fourth successive season. A further year down the line, that drought is ongoing thanks to a desperate 2020 collapse from 6-3 to finish 8-8.

With the talent on this team, 2021 needs to bring tangible results. Failure to deliver again could spell trouble for Kingsbury or general manager Steve Keim – an unenviable position to be in at the helm of still the worst team in football's best division.

Carson Wentz

Wentz is slightly different to the other names on this list in that he has enjoyed success in the NFL already. A Week 14 ACL tear in 2017 meant he watched the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl win from the sidelines, but his 33 passing TDs had already set a franchise record.

Those performances felt a long way away in an awful 2020 campaign, though. Statistically, he could hardly have been worse.

Wentz threw a joint-high 15 picks and led the way with 28 pickable passes, making up 6.78 per cent of his attempts while just 68.8 per cent were accurate, well-thrown balls – a league low among QBs with 100 or more passes. Given he also lost 326 yards to his NFL-leading 50 sacks, there was very little that went well when Wentz had the ball in his hands.

The 28-year-old is now on the Indianapolis Colts, reunited with the man who helped inspire his superb 2017 campaign in Frank Reich, but has already suffered with a foot injury and a COVID bout. With Reich as his head coach, Wentz has to return a better player or his days as a starter in this league are done.

Matt Nagy

The mood music around Chicago is not great heading into the new season. The arrival of Justin Fields in the 2021 draft should provide cause for optimism, but it appears unlikely the rookie will play right away to the frustration of fans.

Mitchell Trubisky is at least gone after a dismal run as the Bears' QB – last year comparable to Wentz by a number of advanced metrics but also averaging a below-par 7.94 air yards – but coach Nagy is starting with Andy Dalton, rather than Fields.

Nagy is also calling plays again, having given up that duty as the offense failed last year.

There has been plenty wrong on that side of the ball for the Bears in recent years, but Nagy is running out of excuses. Either his approach has to work or he must adapt fast.

Jameis Winston

Nobody on this list can be as motivated as Winston, who must have feared he had already used up his NFL lives as he watched the versatile Taysom Hill fill in for Drew Brees last season. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston's former team, won the Super Bowl.

But the erratic deep passer has won the New Orleans Saints' starting job ahead of Hill this year. His haphazard style might have to change if he is to keep the role, however.

Winston threw 33 TD passes in 2019, but he also had 30 interceptions – that combination a league first. His 10.70 air yards ranked second, yet 46 pickable passes led the NFL by some distance.

His play is at complete odds to the safer approach from the retired Brees, who last year threw to an open target with 81.8 per cent of his attempts and dispatched an accurate, well-thrown ball 81.0 per cent of the time but only averaged 6.41 air yards.

As in Tampa, Winston should be fun to watch. As in Tampa, he will do well to stick around... and a third chance feels unlikely.

With every NFL season, new stars emerge, thrusting themselves to the forefront of the consciousness with breakout campaigns that put them firmly in the conversation as one of the best players at their position.

Often such years come as a significant surprise, as was the case in 2020 when Justin Jefferson broke the record for receiving yards by a rookie, topping 1,400 having only posted 70 through his opening two games.

But frequently it is possible to project breakout seasons before they happen by looking at the numbers from previous years and the situation a player finds himself in heading into the campaign.

Using its advanced metrics, Stats Perform looks at five players poised to emerge with stellar performances in the 2021 season.

Joe Burrow – Cincinnati Bengals

The fate of the Bengals' season, and perhaps that of head coach Zac Taylor, rests predominantly on how Burrow fares on his return to regular-season action after a serious knee ligament injury curtailed his rookie year.

Burrow, the first overall pick in 2020, being back at his best is far from a guarantee. However, the former LSU star has seemingly grown in confidence in the preseason after some initial struggles in training camp and demonstrated enough in his 10 games last campaign to suggest he can justify his draft status and lift the Bengals from the AFC North cellar.

The primary issue facing Burrow is the lack of talent on the offensive line protecting him, which is a lowly 28th in the NFL per Stats Perform's rankings, with Cincinnati bemusing many by selecting wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase instead of tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth pick in this year's draft.

Yet Burrow does an excellent job of moving in the pocket and finding lanes out of it to escape pressure. He reads the field well and delivers his throws with consistently accurate placement. Burrow ranked sixth in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts with a well-thrown percentage of 80.6.

That number dipped to 69.8 when under pressure, but still gave him the best mark of any quarterback in the AFC North, reflecting his poise when the pocket breaks down.

With Chase joining Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in an impressive wide receiver room, Burrow has the weapons to make a huge leap in year two providing he stays healthy and the offensive line can produce even a slight improvement.

Damien Harris – New England Patriots

While the New England offense disappointed for the most part last year, their running game was efficient, and Harris played a significant role.

He averaged five yards a carry in recording 691 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 10 games. Those latter two numbers may be slightly underwhelming, yet Harris was one of the premier backs in the league when it came to getting to the second level of the defense in a hurry.

A patient back who reads his blocks intelligently, Harris' decisiveness and burst when he identified the running lane to hit allowed him to average 3.11 yards before contact by a defender per attempt, putting him 10th in the NFL.

His rate of 2.05 yards after contact was less impressive but still above the average of 1.91, while Harris was 11th in the NFL with 3.15 yards per carry on rush attempts where there was a run disruption by a defender.

The Patriots possess the third-best run-blocking line in the NFL, according to Stats Perform's rankings, and – though Cam Newton's exit may make their ground game less diverse – Harris could reap the benefits of facing lighter boxes if Mac Jones' impressive preseason translates into the regular season and gives New England's passing attack a much-needed jump.

Brandon Aiyuk – San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers' second first-round pick of 2020 was in a difficult situation as he dealt with sub-par quarterback play between the struggles of the oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo and backup Nick Mullens before they finished the season with C.J. Beathard.

However, the former Arizona State receiver still excelled in defeating coverage with his route-running ability and showed his potential with the ball in his hands after the catch.

Aiyuk caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie. He added a further two scores on the ground.

His big-play percentage of 33.1 was third among rookies with at least 50 targets behind Gabriel Davis and Tee Higgins. Davis has Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders as competition for targets with the Buffalo Bills while Higgins will have to share the receiving workload with Chase and Boyd.

George Kittle and Deebo Samuel will command a significant number of targets for San Francisco but Aiyuk holds an undisputed position at the top of the wide receiver depth chart, meaning he will likely see enough passes thrown his way in 2021 for him to outperform both Davis and Higgins.

With Garoppolo healthy and Trey Lance lurking as a high-upside successor, Aiyuk is in a much better spot in 2021 to surpass 1,000 yards and establish himself as one of the league's brightest young stars at the receiver position.

Marcus Davenport – New Orleans Saints

Davenport has yet to justify the trade up the Saints struck to draft him in 2018 despite flashes of the brilliance that convinced New Orleans to make such a dramatic move up the board.

His influence was limited by a series of injury issues in 2020 but Davenport still registered a pressure rate of 21.3 per cent that was 11th among edge rushers. His run disruption rate of 15.7 per cent was 12th.

The Saints did spend a first-round pick on an edge rusher in Payton Turner, whose stock rose dramatically late in the process. However, with Trey Hendrickson, who had 13.5 sacks last year, having departed for a lucrative payday with the Bengals, Davenport is in line for a clear uptick on the 374 defensive snaps he played in 2020.

At his best, Davenport is an explosive pass rusher blessed with tremendous power who can drive blockers back with the bull rush but also bend around the edge and flatten to the quarterback with excellent closing speed.

The Saints have not seen his best often enough, yet if he can stay healthy, Davenport can play a crucial role for the New Orleans defense as part of a front that has enough talent to ensure he will regularly have the benefit of one-on-one matchups to help him significantly pad his career total of 12 sacks.

Darious Williams – Los Angeles Rams

There is a strong argument that Williams has already enjoyed his breakout campaign, having racked up 14 passes deflected and four interceptions for the Rams last year.

Despite his superb 2020, Williams is not a player talked about as one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL. Should he back up last season's efforts with a similarly productive 2021 for a Rams team many expect to contend for the Super Bowl following Matthew Stafford's arrival, that may change.

Williams excels at reading the eyes of the quarterback to break on the football and make plays at the catch point, with his ball skills reflected by his gaudy press breakup and interception numbers.

Only K'Waun Williams of the San Francisco 49ers allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on plays where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, at a lower rate than Williams, who did so on 30.3 per cent of balls thrown in his direction.

Williams' big-play percentage allowed of 16 was the 12th-best among all cornerbacks and, though his on-ball production may be a product of playing across from Jalen Ramsey, the fact he so frequently stood up to the test when challenged by opposing passing games indicates he is a player who can continue his ascent in his fourth year.

It's a passing league. You hear it said so often these days about how the NFL has become all about throwing the ball, rather than running it.  

Quarterbacks have dominated the MVP award in recent years, with the last player from another position to scoop the honour coming back in 2012. 

In the 2020 regular season, 18 players topped 1,000 receiving yards. That was actually a decrease from the previous campaign, when no fewer than 29 achieved the feat, but does not necessarily reflect a reverse on recent trends.  

Stefon Diggs led the way in the previous campaign with 1,535 yards. The Buffalo Bills receiver will be expected to be a key component for his team on offense again in 2021, yet no individual has topped the list for two straight years since Calvin Johnson, who managed to do so in 2011 and again in 2012.  

So who are the top contenders to lead the way this time around? Stats Perform takes a look... 

 

Stefon Diggs 

Acquired by the Bills through a trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Diggs enjoyed an outstanding first campaign in Buffalo. He not only led the way for receiving yards but also catches (127) and targets (166), aided by him playing in all 16 games in a year where COVID-19 impacted so many rosters. His 95.9 yards per game ranked second, even though he had just seven plays that went for 25 yards or more. Emmanuel Sanders has arrived during free agency to bolster the receiving group in Buffalo, yet the former Maryland Terrapin undoubtedly remains top of the depth chart and has established a rapport with starting quarterback Josh Allen.  

Calvin Ridley 

Ridley's third year as an Atlanta Falcon saw him emerge as a pass-catching superstar. The 26-year-old had 90 catches from 143 targets, resulting in 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Ridley recorded a big play of 45.1 per cent of his targets, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL among wide receivers. New head coach Arthur Smith got his chance at a top job after impressing in charge of a run-heavy Tennessee Titans offense, but by no means does that mean a receiver cannot prosper in his system. The main reason for Ridley hoping to improve on his previous numbers is the departure of Julio Jones, the franchise legend who did miss games through injury in 2020 but still had 51 catches.   

Justin Jefferson 

Rookie receivers are not meant to settle into NFL life as quickly as Jefferson did with the Minnesota Vikings. The first-round pick selected with the intention of replacing the departed Diggs had 88 receptions for 1,400 yards - surpassing the single-season record by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) back in 2003. That is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider he had just 70 yards combined in his first two games, yet he made up for lost time with seven 100-yard outings in the weeks that followed. Yards after the catch (YAC) will likely need to rise for him to surpass those numbers, considering he averaged 4.6 yards per reception in 2020, putting him down at 27th among receivers. 

Davante Adams 

A contract year, plus a quarterback with a point to prove (again) are potentially the added ingredients required for Adams to have a record-breaking year in what could potentially be his last for the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still around after an offseason full of intrigue - and the reigning MVP already fed his top option relentlessly in 2020. Indeed, Adams' average of 10.6 targets and 8.2 receptions per game were the best for any receiver in the NFL, as well as leading the way with 18 touchdown catches and 98.1 yards per outing. His total yardage of 1,374 was tied for fifth, but it should be remembered he played in only 14 games. He recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable, 70.1 per cent of the time and led all receivers with 3.9 burn yards per route. With the benefit of three more games than he had in 2020, Adams is perhaps the favourite to usurp Diggs at the top of the leaderboard.   

Tyreek Hill 

Hill averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch and 9.0 receptions a game as part of a high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. His final total of 87 catches came from 135 targets, showing how he remains a prominent option for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, helping him top 1,000 receiving yards for a third time in four years (he had 860 while playing in 12 games in 2019) and average 3.3 burn yards per route. The Chiefs are coming off a painful Super Bowl loss and may feel they have a point to prove, yet the main concern for Hill's hopes is the presence of a dominant tight end on the roster (more on him to come...). 

DeAndre Hopkins 

In his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Hopkins set a franchise record for receptions in a season, finishing up with 115 (matching his best season with the Houston Texans, by the way) for a total of 1,407 yards. His 7.2 catches per game ranked third behind only Adams and Diggs, aided by 13 plays that went for 25 yards or more. His YAC number (510) also ranked in the top 10 for all positions, helping him secure a fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. The 29-year-old has missed just two games in his entire career and while he is set to head into his ninth season, there has been little sign of him slowing up in terms of overall output.  

DK Metcalf 

Having gradually emerged in 2019 before making having a noticeable impact in the postseason, Metcalf made a further leap in his second year with the Seattle Seahawks. His big-play ability was demonstrated by his 15.7 yards per catch – Jefferson (15.9) was the only receiver to be targeted at least 120 times and finish with a higher average. Likewise, the Vikings rookie had 16 receptions that went for 25 or more yards, one more than Metcalf managed while working with Russell Wilson. His offseason included a spell on the track, he clocked 10.36 seconds in his 100m heat at the Golden Games and Distance Open in California, but now the focus is back to football, and Metcalf will hope to use that speed to help him improve on his gaudy average of 13.31 burn yards per target from 2020 and take the Seattle offense to the next level.

Best of the rest 

Who else could emerge from the pack? Michael Thomas led the league for receiving yards in 2019 with the help of Drew Brees, only to then endure an unexpected down year last time out. His early trip to the PUP list has likely ended his hopes of regaining the crown before Week 1 has even kicked off. Terry McLaurin had similar numbers to Hill (87 receptions on 134 targets), as well as 486 yards after the catch – a number only topped by four receivers. 

Meanwhile, A. J. Brown topped 1,000 yards for a second straight season with the Titans and trailed only Adams with 3.6 burn yards per route, though he now has former Falcon Jones for company on the roster. Allen Robinson should not be dismissed after having 151 targets on a struggling Chicago Bears offense, while Justin Herbert's emergence with the Los Angeles Chargers helped Keenan Allen average 10.5 targets per outing, second most in the NFL. If a long shot is more your fancy, Diontae Johnson had 88 receptions for 923 yards, but those figures came on 144 targets and Johnson's big-play percentage was a disappointing 21.3.  

Dak Prescott's return to fitness should help the Dallas Cowboys' plethora of receiving options, including Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, while Matthew Stafford's move to Los Angeles will be expected to pad the numbers for Rams duo Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.  

The year of the tight end? 

Blocking is still part of the job but catching balls has become a key aspect of life as an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce had the second-most receiving yards (1,416) and Darren Waller (1,196) also made the top 10. Waller actually had more targets out of the pair, while his 576 yards after the catch put him second behind only running back Alvin Kamara in the entire league. George Kittle made it to four figures in 2018 and 2019, only to then see injury ruin his fourth campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, one in which he was open on 90.5 per cent of targets and led all tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route. Expect him to try and make up for lost time. 

Then there is Kyle Pitts, the rookie selected fourth overall by the Falcons. Despite playing only eight games, he led the FBS in receiving yards (770) as he racked up 96.3 yards per game, averaging 17.9 yards per catch. If he can translate those ridiculous numbers to the pro game, Pitts will become immediately become prominent in Atlanta's offense, potentially taking away some opportunities that could go to Ridley. 

Drama has not been in short supply among the NFL quarterbacks this offseason.

There have been new names, new deals, new feuds, old feuds...

Now the 2021 season is on the horizon, but not every situation at the sport's most important position has reached a satisfactory conclusion.

There are intriguing QB scenarios to keep an eye on for plenty of teams this season, as Stats Perform explores.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Let's start with a rookie. While fellow first-round picks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones are set for starting roles, Trey Lance has a fight on his hands with the 49ers.

Lance is raw, having played just 19 college games in the FCS, and is set to begin the season behind Jimmy Garoppolo – fit again after becoming one of a remarkable number San Francisco players to suffer with injuries last year, unable to follow up their Super Bowl run.

But Lance's dual-threat ability gives Kyle Shanahan a new dynamic, as evidenced by his 14 rushing touchdowns in 2019 with North Dakota State. Garoppolo has only two career rushing scores.

That is likely to initially put the ball in Lance's hands in the red zone, where his legs should help improve a red zone efficiency of 53.2 per cent from the 2019 season, when a fully fit Niners team ranked 21st in the NFL.

By the end of the year, though, the 21-year-old will undoubtedly be keen for a bigger role, increasing pressure on Garoppolo while the team try to maintain a title challenge.

CHICAGO BEARS

Justin Fields is the second first-round selection starting the year behind an established NFL QB in Andy Dalton.

"There's no need for us to rush Justin," said Bears general manager Ryan Pace last week, explaining they were "very confident" in Dalton. "I just think the more time [Fields] has to learn that and observe, the better off for him," Pace added.

But Fields, who threw for 63 TDs and rushed for a further 15 in two years at Ohio State, is undoubtedly a more realistic long-term solution than Dalton, on his third team in three years.

Fields, like Lance, can run, ranking fifth in the Power 5 among quarterbacks with 7.42 yards per carry last year, but the Bears also need improvement through the air, having ranked 22nd with 228.4 net passing yards per game in 2020.

While the departed Mitchell Trubisky neither threw nor ran the ball well – delivering an accurate, well-thrown ball on just 71.6 per cent of passes and averaging 1.81 yards per carry – Fields (80.18 well-thrown percentage) can do both if given the opportunity.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

It is not only the teams who have spent first-round picks on passers who have a battle under center, with the Saints able to consider two options to replace the great Drew Brees.

Jameis Winston threw only 11 passes in New Orleans last season after leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the versatile Taysom Hill preferred when Brees was out injured, making four starts at QB.

But Winston has been confirmed as the starter for the new campaign – at least for now. Whether Sean Payton is willing to stick with an entertaining yet erratic QB for a full season remains to be seen.

The 27-year-old became the first player ever to throw 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions in the same NFL season as the Bucs went 7-9 in 2019.

Winston's 10.70 air yards ranked second, yet his pickable pass percentage of 7.69 was second-worst among those with 100 attempts or more.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

While some teams have multiple reliable options at QB, the Eagles scarcely have one. Having moved on from Carson Wentz, Jalen Hurts is their starter.

Last time out, in his rookie year, Hurts completed just 52.0 per cent of his passes – the worst rate of any QB with 100 or more attempts – and still could not quite keep up with the league's elite running QBs, averaging 6.00 yards per carry.

Yet Philadelphia's response was to trade out of the number six pick in this year's draft and then opt against taking either Fields or Jones, who remained on the board after they moved back up to 10.

Joe Flacco, now 36, is in as the back-up, while a "fired up" Gardner Minshew has arrived from the Jacksonville Jaguars after 37 TDs in two years but is set for a role as a third-stringer.

Unless Hurts makes significant strides, it is difficult to see how the Eagles will not again be in position to take one of the top college QBs in 2022.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers was at the centre of the most compelling offseason speculation surrounding a quarterback this offseason. However, the Green Bay Packers star was not the only former champion at the centre of offseason speculation this year, with Russell Wilson's agent informing ESPN of four trade destinations that would interest the Seahawks stalwart.

Seattle kept their man in the end, but Wilson will be looking for progress from last season, when he complained of "getting hit too much" – "a pretty normal reaction," according to coach Pete Carroll.

Wilson was in the MVP conversation for the first half of the year but was soon left exposed behind a poor offensive line, sacked 47 times to swell his career total to 394 – the most of any QB since he entered the league.

Although left tackle Duane Brown has missed practice as he waits on a contract extension – another development that has frustrated Wilson – the Seahawks have at least traded for guard Gabe Jackson. That move needs to work.

Wilson last year averaged 8.70 air yards while throwing a pickable pass at the sixth-lowest ratio in the NFL (2.64%), but he has to have help if Seattle are to succeed.

The Dallas Cowboys will be without All-Pro guard Zack Martin for their season opener with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following a positive coronavirus test.

Martin will subsequently be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, ruling him out of the meeting with the defending champions at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday.

Having seen their 2020 season hindered greatly by injuries, most notably to quarterback Dak Prescott – whose campaign was ended in Week 5 – but also to several members of their offensive line, the Cowboys will have been hoping for some continuity up front in 2021.

However, they will be minus the services of a four-time All-Pro in Martin, who played in only 10 games last year.

Of Martin, head coach Mike McCarthy, who confirmed Connor McGovern is the favourite to deputise, said: "He's frustrated, obviously, but this is the world that we live in.

"We will continue to work the combinations, but Connor McGovern will take the majority of the reps at right guard."

Martin's absence is a sizeable blow to a Dallas offensive line that must protect Prescott from a Buccaneers defense that pressured Patrick Mahomes 33 times in their Super Bowl LV win in February.

In his last full season in 2019, Martin conceded a pressure rate of 2.8 per cent that ranked third among all guards. That declined to 5.6 per cent last season, but Martin still performed well above the average (8.1 per cent) for his position, and McGovern (8.0 per cent) will need to improve if the Cowboys are to spoil Tampa Bay's Week 1 party.

Of all the individual achievements in Cristiano Ronaldo's career, this one may well rank the highest. 

The Portugal star is now the leading goalscorer in the history of international men's football, having reached 110 against the Republic of Ireland in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday despite seeing a first-half penalty saved.

Ronaldo surpassed the tally of 109 set by Iran great Ali Daei, a figure once thought unlikely ever to be beaten, in the 89th minute and moved onto 111 with a stoppage-time header in the Algarve to complete his double.

To honour the new Manchester United forward's latest record, Stats Perform picked out perhaps the 10 greatest goals he has scored in his remarkable career... 

 

Manchester United v Portsmouth: January 30, 2008

Perhaps the finest free-kick Ronaldo has struck in his career.

The Portuguese developed his reputation as a set-piece master at United and he lashed a phenomenal 25-yard effort past David James as part of a double to send Alex Ferguson's side to the top of the Premier League.

His knuckleball technique sent the ball swirling into the top-right corner for one of his defining Old Trafford moments.

Porto v Manchester United: April 15, 2009

He had absolutely no right to score this one.

Back in his homeland for a Champions League quarter-final against Porto, Ronaldo picked up the ball in the middle of the opposition half, got it out of his feet and sent a searing strike flying past Helton to seal a 1-0 win at the Estadio do Dragao and a 3-2 aggregate triumph.

 

Almeria v Real Madrid: April 15, 2010

Ronaldo has developed into more of a penalty-box poacher in recent seasons, but this effort against Almeria was a reminder of how devastating he could be when starting with the ball outside the area. 

Rafael van der Vaart won back possession in the Almeria half and the ball was worked to Ronaldo, who accelerated past two challenges, left a third defender for dead with a stepover and then drilled home with his left foot. The visitors would go on to win 2-1.

 

Sevilla v Real Madrid: December 17, 2011

Sevilla grew sick of the sight of Ronaldo during his time in Spain – he did score 27 times against them, after all – but this strike in a 6-2 thrashing is perhaps the best of them.

Collecting Karim Benzema's pass 30 yards out, Ronaldo took advantage of the time and space given to him by the defence to blast a shot into the top-right corner, the swerve on the ball making it totally unstoppable. It was one of three he scored that day at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

 

Real Madrid v Valencia: May 4, 2014

It was not enough to keep Madrid's title chase alive, but this was another goal that showcased Ronaldo's killer instinct and dexterity. 

In second-half injury time, with Valencia 2-1 ahead, Angel Di Maria volleyed over a cross from the left and Ronaldo swivelled to score a backheel volley and snatch a point.

 

Real Madrid v Espanyol: January 31, 2016

Although his game had become more refined from those buccaneering early days, Ronaldo showed here he was not quite done when it came to solo runs and spectacular finishes.

With Madrid already 3-0 up in what would prove to be a 6-0 thrashing, James Rodriguez's pass was deflected into Ronaldo's path and he did the rest, showing brilliant footwork to skip beyond three challenges before rifling home from the edge of the area with his left foot.

 

Hungary v Portugal: June 22, 2016

Portugal thrice fell behind to Hungary in Lyon during Euro 2016, and Ronaldo brought them level on the second occasion with a display of fine skill.

The captain added a deft flick with his trailing leg to Joao Mario's right-wing cross to make it 2-2, and he cancelled out Balazs Dzsudzsak's second with a double of his own. It was enough to send Portugal into the knockout stages and from there they claimed a maiden international title.

 

Juventus v Real Madrid: April 3, 2018

Arguably the finest goal Ronaldo has produced.

Moving away from goal as Dani Carvajal dug a cross towards the penalty spot from the right, the Portuguese rose into the air and connected with a stunning overhead kick. His leg was at a right angle to his body as he struck with the sweetest of volleys that flew past an idle Gianluigi Buffon.

Portugal v Spain: June 15, 2018

Having twice given his side the lead, Ronaldo found Portugal 3-2 down to their Iberian neighbours in their thrilling opener at the 2018 World Cup. 

While there was a sense of inevitability when he stood over an 88th-minute free-kick, the execution was sheer perfection – power and dip combined to leave David de Gea with no chance.

 

Juventus v Manchester United: November 8, 2018

Another decorated Portuguese was celebrating at full-time when Jose Mourinho watched his United team complete a 2-1 comeback win.

But Ronaldo struck first with a sumptuous and technically brilliant strike, watching Leonardo Bonucci's raking ball over his shoulder to volley home.  

The transfer window does not close. It slams shut, and on Tuesday, it slammed shut with a flurry of late activity.

LaLiga champions Atletico Madrid were heavily involved, with Antoine Griezmann re-joining the club on loan from Barcelona while Saul Niguez left for Chelsea.

It marked the end of a difficult window for Barca, who of course lost Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain, who rounded off a stellar three months by not only keeping Kylian Mbappe, but also adding promising left-back Nuno Mendes.

Earlier in the day, Cristiano Ronaldo's sensational return to Manchester United had been confirmed, perhaps putting the Red Devils right in the mix for the Premier League title, while Chelsea - buoyed by Romelu Lukaku's comeback - cannot be ignored.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the winners, and losers, of what has been a chaotic transfer window.

 

THE WINNERS

Paris Saint-Germain

Let's start with the obvious. Achraf Hakimi, Mendes, Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georgino Wijnaldum and, of course Messi. Oh, and PSG kept hold of Mbappe, too, rebuffing three bids - the final one reportedly worth €200m - from Real Madrid for the 22-year-old superstar who is out of contract next year. Speaking of out of contract players, Ramos, Donnarumma, Wijnaldum and Messi were all brought in for combined fees of €0, although their wages are sure to be astronomical even by PSG's standards. In Mbappe, Neymar and Messi, PSG have, on paper, what could be the most feared attacking trident of the modern era, not to mention Angel Di Maria in reserve. Mauricio Pochettino's side look suspect defensively but have Ramos to come in, while Donnarumma will compete with Keylor Navas. If they do not win the Champions League this season, will they ever manage it?

Manchester United

It remains to be seen whether United really needed to go out and buy Ronaldo, but the temptation – and reportedly, the requirement to get one over on noisy neighbours Manchester City – was just too much. However, there is no doubting Ronaldo brings a focal point you could argue was still missing from the Red Devils' attack, though with so much quality at his disposal the pressure will be on Ole Gunnar Solskjer to deliver a trophy. United spent big on Jadon Sancho and also brought in a world class defender in Raphael Varane. A title tilt might not be expected just yet, but silverware in some form must be the goal now. After fan protests during the botched Super League proposals earlier this year, the Glazer family seem to have gone all out to prove they want success.

Chelsea

When it comes to Premier League title contenders, Chelsea have surely put themselves well in the running. The European Champions have brought in two major additions in the form of Lukaku and Saul, both players with a wealth of experience at the highest level, and both on the back of title-winning campaigns last season. The Blues did sell Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud and Kurt Zouma, among others, but the strength in depth Thomas Tuchel has to play with is remarkable. A deadline day move for Sevilla's Jules Kounde did not materialise, but Saul adds another fantastic option in midfield to go alongside N'Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic and the in-form Jorginho.

Tottenham

For a long while, it looked as though Tottenham would be one of the big losers from this window. A prolonged managerial search eventually resulted in Nuno Espirito Santo's appointment, but the main saga was over Harry Kane's future. City reportedly made one bid, during Euro 2020, which was dismissed out of hand. The champions never did return with an improved offer, despite huge speculation, and Kane ultimately stayed put. Older players such as Joe Hart, Toby Alderweireld, Erik Lamela and Moussa Sissoko were moved out, while Bryan Gil, Pierluigi Gollini, Cristian Romero and Emerson Royal – a deadline day arrival from Barca – arrived to fill the gaps. Serge Aurier's contract was terminated, while three wins from three means Spurs sat top of the league heading into the international break.

Atletico Madrid

While Saul was a deadline day exit, Atleti have given themselves a great chance of retaining their LaLiga title. With rivals Madrid failing to land Mbappe, as well as losing two of their stalwarts, and Barca seemingly in disarray, there has never been a better opportunity for Diego Simeone's team to really assert themselves as top dogs in Spain. Griezmann's arrival, on a season-long loan with the option for either club to extend the switch, has bolstered a fearsome attack that already included Luis Suarez, Angel Correa, new signing Matheus Cunha and Joao Felix - though the latter may now find chances to play in his preferred position, nominally off the front man, even harder to come by. Saul was struggling to nail down a regular spot in the first team, but Atleti showed greater desire to keep Kieran Trippier, who stayed despite interest from the Premier League. Rodrigo de Paul also arrived from Udinese.

 

THE LOSERS

Barcelona

The chickens have finally come home to roost at Camp Nou. Years of mismanagement, and the impact of COVID-19, has left the club's finances in a shambolic state. Barca had agreed to a new deal with Messi only to then announce the deal could not be completed due to "financial and structural obstacles". Barca ended the window by selling promising youngster Ilaix Moriba to RB Leipzig and shipping off Emerson to Spurs. Then, late on Tuesday, Griezmann, who cost Barca €120m in 2019, was sent back to Atleti. Luuk de Jong, a target man Ronald Koeman worked with during his stint as the Netherlands' coach, was drafted in from Sevilla as a replacement. Memphis Depay seems ready to step up after his arrival from Lyon, while Eric Garcia and Sergio Aguero also came in on free transfers, though Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets were among the players who took pay cuts in order for Barca to register their latest acquisitions.

Inter

Serie A champions Inter were dealt a blow when, just after ending their 11-year trophy drought, coach Antonio Conte left the club. Financial difficulties meant the Nerrazurri had to cash in on prized assets, and Hakimi and subsequently Lukaku followed Conte out of the door. Lautaro Martinez did stay, however, with Inter reinvesting some of the funds to sign Netherlands right-back Denzel Dumfries, Roma striker Edin Dzeko and Lazio forward Juan Correa. Hakan Calhanoglu, meanwhile, joined from rivals Milan on loan, though it is difficult to see that being enough for Inter to challenge on all fronts this season.

 

Juventus

While Inter were weakened, it has to be said that Juventus – surely their closest rivals in the Scudetto hunt – also had a disappointing window. Like many European clubs, they have been hit hard by COVID-19, though appeared well set to challenge again after reappointing Massimiliano Allegri. However, Ronaldo decided he wanted out late in the window, and Juve did not stand in his way. An initial fee of £12.86m (€15m), payable over five years, was agreed with United, and Ronaldo left just like that. Moise Kean returned from Everton on a two-year loan with an obligation to buy as a replacement, while Manuel Locatelli was their other major acquisition and Weston McKennie's move from Schalke was made permanent. Based on the performance in Sunday's defeat to Empoli, however, Juve are far from the force they were during Allegri's last spell in charge.

Real Madrid

For a time last week, it really did look as though Madrid were going to end the window in sensational fashion. Three bids were lodged for Mbappe, but PSG did not buckle. Madrid did move for another French youngster – Edouardo Camavinga, who joined from Rennes on Tuesday – but overall it must be considered a poor window. Los Blancos allowed Ramos to leave on a free and sold long-time defensive partner Varane - just the eight Champions League winners' medals between them. Martin Odegaard was deemed surplus to requirements by Carlo Ancelotti and sold to Arsenal, though no buyers were found for fringe players Luka Jovic or Dani Ceballos. David Alaba's arrival on a free transfer from Bayern Munich at least softened the blow of Ramos' departure, and Mbappe may well be on board in 2022.

Manchester City

City broke the British transfer record to sign Jack Grealish from Aston Villa, who in turn have made smart acquisitions such as Danny Ings, Leon Bailey and Emiliano Buendia. While another attacking midfielder was more of a luxury than a necessity, City did miss out on Kane and then seemingly saw Ronaldo snatched from under their noses by United, though the club have claimed it is they who pulled out of the deal. Pep Guardiola went into the window wanting an out-and-out number nine following Aguero's departure, but for now the Premier League champions will have to carry on with makeshift forwards, it seems. Not that it did them much harm in 5-0 routs of Norwich City and Arsenal last month. Meanwhile, wantaway playmaker Bernardo Silva is still at the club, though he will remain a first-team regular.

Liverpool 

Unlike their league rivals, Liverpool never seemed focused on spending big. The Reds instead turned their attention to tying down the futures of key players, with Jordan Henderson, Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alisson, Fabinho and Andrew Robertson signing new deals. Ibrahima Konate came in from RB Leipzig to boost the defence – a clear area of weakness last season during an injury crisis – though Jurgen Klopp's squad does seem weaker. They have started the season well, but it remains to be seen how they cope without Wijnaldum and even Xherdan Shaqiri should injuries trouble them again.

The transfer window officially closed on Tuesday, meaning clubs across Europe must now make do with the players available to them until at least January.

It has been an eventful few months, with Lionel Messi ending his 21-year association with Barcelona by joining Paris Saint-Germain and Cristiano Ronaldo sealing an emotional return to Manchester United from Juventus.

The drama continued to unfold right through until the final stages of the window as Antoine Griezmann rejoined Atletico Madrid on an initial loan and Chelsea snapped up Saul Niguez from the Spanish champions, while Real Madrid brought in rising star Eduardo Camavinga from Rennes.

With Kylian Mbappe staying at PSG and Harry Kane still a Tottenham player, Jack Grealish's £100million switch to Manchester City from Aston Villa was the biggest deal in monetary terms, followed by Romelu Lukaku's £97.5m (€115m) move to Chelsea from Inter.

Stats Perform takes a look at the best deals that went through.

Hakan Calhanoglu: Inter to Milan (free transfer)

After failing to agree new terms at Milan, Calhanoglu completed a shock move across the city to rivals Inter, signing a three-year deal.

While not necessarily the most popular transfer, getting a player who created 98 chances last season – the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues – for free is quite something.

The Turkey international got a goal and an assist on his debut in the 4-0 win over Genoa, prompting coach Simone Inzaghi to proclaim the player "doesn't realise how good he is".

Manuel Locatelli: Sassuolo to Juventus (loan with €25m obligation)

One of Italy's most prized young assets, Locatelli secured a move to Juventus on a two-year loan that includes an obligation to buy for an initial €25m.

Among midfielders in Serie A last season, the 23-year-old made the most touches (3,304), passes (2,749) and tackles (81). He then impressed as Italy won Euro 2020, scoring twice in the group-stage win over Switzerland.

For a club looking to strengthen while saving money, this could prove a shrewd deal for Juve.

 

Danny Ings: Southampton to Aston Villa (£25m)

Villa appear to have invested the money they received for Grealish in shrewd fashion, signing Leon Bailey, Emiliano Buendia and striker Ings.

While the Ings deal materialised very quickly in early August, he certainly did not seem to need much time to adjust to new surroundings, scoring twice in his first three league games this season.

With 34 goals across his final two league campaigns with Southampton, there is reason to think the 29-year-old could be one of the smartest signings of the window.

Lionel Messi: Free agent to Paris Saint-Germain

The most spectacular free transfer of all time came after Barcelona had agree a new contract with Messi only to be forced to admit they could not let him sign it due to financial restrictions.

A tearful Messi bade farewell to his boyhood club before securing a move to PSG, who now boast a frankly terrifying forward line of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe.

Describing it as a 'free' transfer is somewhat misleading given the various costs involved in the different aspects of the deal, but for PSG to sign arguably the greatest player in history without paying a transfer fee is pretty amazing business.

 

Romelu Lukaku: Inter to Chelsea (£97.5m)

Chelsea smashed their transfer record to bring back Lukaku, whose last action in his first spell at the club was to miss a penalty in the UEFA Super Cup shoot-out loss to Bayern Munich in 2013.

Lukaku plundered 24 goals and 11 assists in 2020-21 to fire Inter to the title and claim Serie A's MVP award, after which he pushed for a return to Stamford Bridge, where he felt he had unfinished business.

It might have been a serious financial outlay, but Lukaku showed in the 2-0 win at Arsenal what a difference he could make to a Chelsea side who are extremely tough to beat but not exactly free-scoring.

Eduardo Camavinga: Rennes to Real Madrid (€30m)

Madrid may have missed out on top target Mbappe, but they managed to get a deal over the line for fellow Frenchman Camavinga, bringing an end to 18 months of speculation surrounding the young midfielder.

It is the first time Madrid have spent money on a transfer fee since 2019, when they signed Eden Hazard from Chelsea for €100m, and in Camavinga they are signing a player for the here and now rather than the future.

Since making his debut for Rennes in April 2019, no player in Ligue 1 has attempted (230) or won more tackles (139) than the three-cap France international, who will now provide competition for Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Federico Valverde.

 

Saul Niguez: Atletico Madrid to Chelsea (loan with option to buy for £30m)

After being regularly linked with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool in recent years, Saul will finally get a chance to play in the Premier League with Chelsea this season.

A box-to-box midfielder, the Spain international is at his best operating in a central role, though his versatility and workrate have often seen him deployed out wide by Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

He made just 22 league starts last season, his lowest figure since 2014-15. However, since August 2019, Real Madrid's Casemiro (190) is the only midfielder to have attempted more tackles than Saul (159) in LaLiga.

Antoine Griezmann: Barcelona to Atletico Madrid (loan deal with an obligation to buy)

Two years after leaving Atletico in a big-money transfer, Griezmann has returned to the Spanish capital to boost an attack that already includes Luis Suarez, Joao Felix, Angel Correa and fellow new recruit Matheus Cunha.

Griezmann's Camp Nou career never truly took off and he failed to score or create a single opportunity across Barca's first three league games this season.

But Simeone will be confident he can get the Frenchman, who scored 94 LaLiga goals in 180 appearances in his first stint at the club, operating at somewhere close to his former glory.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo: Juventus to Manchester United (£12.9m rising to £19.7m)

Twelve years after departing Old Trafford, Ronaldo is once again a Manchester United player after completing a surprise return to the club where he won the first of his five Ballons d'Or.

Ronaldo scored 118 goals in 292 appearances under Alex Ferguson in his first spell, 42 of those goals coming in the 2007-08 season alone, and he remains a prolific forward despite his all-round game changing with time.

The Portugal captain scored 29 league goals in his third and final season with Juventus to win the Capocannoniere, making him the first player to finish as top scorer in Serie A, LaLiga and the Premier League.

The first international break of the 2021-22 campaign has arrived, and with it comes an opportunity for many national teams to start afresh.

Following the conclusion of the Copa America, Gold Cup and Euro 2020 in quick succession, all roads now lead to the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

For a number of players, the September qualifiers provide an opportunity to make an impression, while for others it is potentially a first taste of international football. 

With the games coming thick and fast over the next week or so, Stats Perform has looked at those in contention to make their senior international debuts.

Albert Sambi Lokonga (Belgium)

Belgium's golden generation of talent missed another opportunity to turn promise into something more tangible when losing to eventual winners Italy in the Euro 2020 quarter-finals.

Roberto Martinez has decided against wholesale changes after that disappointment, with Lokonga the only outfield player in line for his first cap, having failed to get further than the bench – against Greece in June – after previous call-ups.

A product of the same Anderlecht youth system that oversaw the development of Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker, among others, Lokonga sealed a move to Arsenal in July after impressing in the Belgian top flight.

The £15million signing has not had the best of starts to life at Arsenal, the Gunners finding themselves bottom of the English top-flight table having played at least three league matches for the first time since October 1974.

Lokonga, noted for his ability to play in front of the defence, featured in just two of those games yet still trails Granit Xhaka alone in terms of passes (113 to 139) and successful passes (97 to 118) and is behind only Sead Kolasinac for interceptions.

 

Claudinho (Brazil)

Citing concerns over the availability of his European-based contingent due to clubs being reluctant to release players to red-list countries, Tite has named a bloated Brazil squad for this month's triple-header of World Cup qualifiers.

Those complications appear set to deny Raphinha a debut, having impressed during his first year in the Premier League with Leeds United. 

Raphinha ranks seventh in the division for dribbles attempted since the start of last season (142), completing 42.96 per cent of those. He also ranks in the top 10 for chances created over that period with 68.

But Claudinho remains in line to be capped for the first time, called up after helping his country secure Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

The midfielder, whose signing at Zenit was announced not long after the Olympic tournament had concluded, described his call-up as "a dream come true".

Theo Hernandez and Moussa Diaby (France)

It is out with the old and in with the new as far as France's first post-Euros squad is concerned – to an extent, at least, with Olivier Giroud one of nine players to make way from the previous group named by Didier Deschamps.

Injuries have also played a part in that, potentially giving a quartet of uncapped players the chance to impress in the upcoming qualifiers with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine and Finland.

Hernandez, a more natural left-back option than brother Lucas, will feel his first call-up is long overdue following back-to-back campaigns as a regular for Milan, whom he joined from Real Madrid. 

Since making his Rossoneri bow in September 2019, no defender in Serie A has completed more dribbles than Hernandez (133), while only Federico Dimarco (87) and Juan Cuadrado (107) have created more chances than his 86.

Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and Roma's Jordan Veretout may also feature during this international break, but perhaps the most exciting of the new additions is Bayer Leverkusen winger Diaby.

The Paris Saint-Germain product scored twice and assisted another in Leverkusen's opening two Bundesliga games of 2021-22, while Alphonso Davies is the only player in the division to have attempted more dribbles this term (24 to his 22).

Known for his blistering pace and ability to take on opponents, Diaby could well provide Deschamps with a different option in an attack already packed full of talent.

 

Otavio (Portugal)

Three new players have been called up by Fernando Santos, who is looking to the future after his Portugal side's reign as European champions came to an end in July.

Goncalo Inacio is injured, but Diogo Costa and Otavio could each make their senior debuts during this international window, with the latter the name on many lips right now.

Otavio has tallied 11 goal involvementss in each of the past two Primeira Liga campaigns for Porto and has made a fast start to the new season with two assists in his first four games.

Since the start of last season, only team-mate Mehdi Taremi has provided more assists (12) in the Portuguese top flight than Otavio's 10, coming from 51 chances created.

The Brazilian-born attacking midfielder was granted Portuguese citizenship earlier this year and will be eager to show that Brazil's loss is very much Portugal's gain should he get some minutes over the next week.

Ricardo Pepi (United States)

The dual-national drama surrounding Pepi appears to have reached a resolution as the FC Dallas forward has seemingly pledged his allegiance to the United States over Mexico.

After breaking into the Dallas side two years ago and featuring regularly last year, 2021 has been quite the season for the El Paso-born youngster.

Pepi, who does not turn 19 until next January, has 11 goals and two assists in 21 games this term and scored the decisive kick in last week's penalty shoot-out win for MLS against their Liga MX counterparts in the All-Star Game.

He has 13 MLS goals in total, the fourth-most ever by a teenager – ahead of Freddy Adu – and just nine short of the record held by Diego Fagundez.

On the basis of the past four months in particular, the USMNT could have a potentially world-class player to lead their line for a number of years to come.

 

Karim Adeyemi (Germany)

For the first time in 17 years, Germany will play a match without Joachim Low in their dugout either as assistant or head coach when they face Liechtenstein on Thursday.

Hansi Flick is tasked with ushering in a new generation of German talents, with help from the old guard, many of whom were key to his successful spell at Bayern Munich.

Away from regulars such as Thomas Muller, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Manuel Neuer, Flick has included four uncapped players in his first squad – David Raum, Nico Schlotterbeck, Florian Wirtz and Adeyemi.

A technically gifted and supremely fast winger, Adeyemi has long been considered one of Germany's most promising young players, having cost Salzburg a reported €3m when he was 16.

Adeyemi, who left Bayern six years earlier, has been given the chance to spread his wings with Salzburg and has been strongly linked with Red Bull sister club RB Leipzig.

He already has six goals in six Austrian Bundesliga appearances this term, just one less than he managed in 29 top-flight appearances last time out – a return he will be looking to build on if he is given the nod by Flick.

Justin Bijlow (Netherlands)

The Netherlands are another European heavyweight going through a transitional period of sorts after turning to veteran coach Louis van Gaal for a third stint in charge.

Frank de Boer failed to get the most out of this talented Dutch squad and already Van Gaal has put his own mark on the team by calling up a few newbies.

There will be plenty of focus on the goalkeeping position as, with Jasper Cillessen not fully fit and Maarten Stekelenburg recently retiring, Joel Drommel and Bijlow can stake a claim to be the long-term number one.

Bijlow is considered one of the finest young goalkeepers in Europe and already has 45 Eredivisie games under his belt for Feyenoord, where he is a real fan favourite.

The 23-year-old has kept 15 clean sheets across those appearances and boasts a save percentage of 72.16. Van Gaal can seemingly rely on the young stopper, as he has made just one error leading to a goal.

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