Liverpool took a huge step towards a top-four finish on an action-packed Wednesday in the Premier League.

Jurgen Klopp's men beat Burnley 3-0 and, with every team in the division now having played 37 games, they head into the final weekend in fourth – ahead of FA Cup winners Leicester City on goal difference.

There were also away wins for Arsenal and West Ham as two former England managers bade farewell, while the current Three Lions captain saw Tottenham's season take another turn for the worst.

Joe Willock also claimed a piece of history for himself and here we look at that and some of the other best facts as the last midweek round of a condensed campaign came to a close.

Burnley 0-3 Liverpool: Klopp's men go fourth and prosper

Liverpool needed goalkeeper Alisson to head home an improbable last-gasp winner at West Brom last weekend, although this latest victory was more comfortable and arrived via conventional means.

Roberto Firmino became the second player to score in three consecutive Premier League games at Turf Moor after Anthony Martial. Following a difficult season, the Brazil forward's past three league appearances have yielded as many goals (three) as the 19 before.

Three days after Alisson, Nat Phillips also headed his first goal for Liverpool, while Andy Robertson claimed his second assist of the game when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wrapped up the points two minutes from time.

Scotland left-back Robertson has 35 assists since the start of the 2017-18 season. Only Kevin De Bruyne (49) has more in that period.

Crystal Palace 1-3 Arsenal: Gunners late show ruins Roy's farewell

Roy Hodgson was given a guard of honour and a rapturous reception for his final home game in charge of Palace and Christian Benteke continued his recent hot streak to keep hopes of a memorable victory alive.

The Belgium striker cancelled out Nicolas Pepe's opener after the hour, meaning he has scored in four consecutive Premier League appearances for the first time since April 2013.

Benteke is also on to double figures for the first time since he netted 15 times in 2016-17, although stoppage-time goals from Gabriel Martinelli and Pepe stole the points.

The strike from the 19-year-old Martinelli means the Gunners are now 60 matches unbeaten (W50 D10) in Premier League games where a teenager has scored.

West Brom 1-3 West Ham: Moyes sends Allardyce through exit door

Arsenal will not finish in the top six, though, as West Ham's brilliant season continued with a 3-1 win over relegated West Brom – after which Sam Allardyce announced he will leave the Hawthorns.

West Ham's 31 points away from home are their most in a top-flight season since they compiled the same amount in 1985-86, even if victory did not necessarily look likely when Declan Rice recorded the earliest penalty miss in Premier League history after two minutes and four seconds.

Matheus Pereira put the Baggies ahead. His 17 goal involvements (11 goals, six assists) are the most in a single campaign since Romelu Lukaku in 2012-13 (21).

Tomas Soucek's 10th goals of the season levelled matters and Angelo Ogbonna headed in from an Aaron Cresswell corner – the full-back's eighth assist of the season – before Michail Antonio made sure David Moyes enjoyed his eighth consecutive win over the departing Allardyce.

 

Tottenham 1-2 Aston Villa: Spurs slide again

Harry Kane was warmly applauded by the Spurs faithful despite reports of his desire to leave, something a sixth home loss – their most since 2014-15 – did plenty to explain.

All four of Steve Bergwijn's Tottenham goals have arrived as opening goals on home turf, but Sergio Reguilon's own goal brought Villa level.

It was the 1,000th own goal in Premier League history, 41 of which Spurs have been responsible for.

A familiar face proved to be Villa's matchwinner. Ollie Watkins' 14th goal of the season means he has the most by an Englishman in a Premier League debut year since Charlie Austin for QPR in 2014-15 – something that is unlikely to have escaped Gareth Southgate's attention.

Newcastle United 1-0 Sheffield United: Six of the best for Willock

Willock headed the only goal in first-half stoppage time for Newcastle, becoming the youngest player in Premier League history to score in six consecutive games at 21 years and 272 days.

The Arsenal loanee is the third player to complete the feat for Newcastle in the division after Papiss Cisse in 2012 and Alan Shearer in 1996.

It was not for the wont of trying on the part of Allan Saint-Maximin that Steve Bruce's men were unable to add to their advantage. The winger completed 15 dribbles, the joint-most by a player in the top five European leagues this season alongside Lionel Messi against Celta Vigo.

Sheffield United will hope to avoid an unwanted record of their own when they host Burnley on Sunday. This was their 29th defeat of the season, matching the hauls suffered by Derby County (2007-08), Sunderland (2005-06) and Ipswich Town (1994-95). No side has ever lost 30 games in a Premier League campaign.

Everton 1-0 Wolves: Richarlison lifts Goodison Park blues

Richarlison's winner ended a poor home season on a high for Everton.

Their 22 points amassed at Goodison Park in 2020-21 is their lowest in any league campaign in their history when converting to three points for a win.

Gylfi Sigurdsson was a familiar provider from the corner. Since his debut in the competition in January 2012, only Chris Brunt (25) and Christian Eriksen (24) have managed more set-piece assists.

Everton's 14 headed goals are the most of any Premier League side this term.

Juventus had more than the obvious reasons to rue the miracles worked by Atalanta head coach Gian Piero Gasperini as they were made to dig into dwindling reserves during Wednesday's Coppa Italia final.

Most of the way through their utter dominance of Serie A over the past decade, Juve decided winning alone wasn't enough – certainly not if they were to become a preeminent force in Europe.

They needed a superstar and along came Cristiano Ronaldo. That was half the job and, fittingly considering their marque signing, the other part concerned aesthetics.

Increasingly in the modern game, the way in which a team wins marks them out as great. Massimiliano Allegri was certainly no arch practitioner of catenaccio but he was a coach of substance more than style.

Juve did not want pragmatism, they wanted a philosophy. After all, Gasperini's Atalanta – all intricate whirring parts – were compiled on a shoe string and scoring goals by the bucket load. Why couldn't the grand Old Lady have some of that?

And so, Allegri made way for Maurizio Sarri. A ninth consecutive Scudetto arrived via Sarriball but with little of the desired joy. So off he went and in came club great and coaching rookie Andrea Pirlo.

Charged with improving a bankable winning machine, Pirlo headed to the final in Reggio Emilia with Juve's Champions League qualification hopes now out of their hands. Admittedly, his board don't seem too keen on that competition nowadays.

The Bianconeri tried to match Atalanta stride for stride during the opening stages but they coughed up chances and were fortunate to see the best of those fall to lumbering centre-back Jose Luis Palomino – Gianluigi Buffon's early save so crucial to this 2-1 victory and the goalkeeping great riding off into the sunset with one last piece of silverware.

Duvan Zapata fired into the side-netting and made the first half an utterly torrid experience for Matthijs de Ligt. Juve were snapping into challenges and trying to roll with the punches, but much of the first half looked like a team in the season's latest fashion trying to match a catwalk model stride for stride.

 

Then a player reared in the Atalanta style opened the scoring. For Juventus.

Dejan Kulusevski moved to Turin from Bergamo, via an electrifying loan spell with Parma, in deal that could be worth €44million to Atalanta.

Whether that is a price worth paying after the Sweden attacker's goal and assist denied them a first major honour for 58 years is a tantalising question, but selling gems like Kulusevski and Manchester United winger Amad Diallo at huge mark ups is a massive reason why Atalanta head into the final weekend in Serie A guaranteed a Champions League spot for a third consecutive campaign.

They are an impeccably run club, and this defeat to a Juve in shambles will truly sting. The build-up to the 31st-minute opener was as chaotic as the club who scored it, but Kulusevski's curled left-footed finish was an utter delight.

The response to that artistic flourish came via the sledgehammer of Ruslan Malinovskiy's left boot after the brilliant Remo Freuler – who completed more passes (55) and gained possession (nine) more times than any of his team-mates – ransacked Adrien Rabiot.

At that point, it felt like there was only one winner, but Juve regrouped, re-established their lead and Atalanta's discipline unravelled.

There will be a lot of guff spoken about Juventus' DNA and such, although this victory owed everything to the younger more recently attached parts to this Frankenstein's monster of a team.

De Ligt came out the other side of his Zapata ordeal and produced a heroic and painful block to deny Cristian Romero when it was still all square, giving the Dutchman a more grizzled contribution to this win than the wonderfully weathered Giorgio Chiellini alongside him.

Kulusevski drew a sharp reaction stop from Pierluigi Gollini and Ronaldo's deft backheel saw Federico Chiesa hit the post.

Ronaldo seemed happy to play second-fiddle to the bright young things alongside him and they combined for glory, Chiesa coming inside menacingly from the left and exchanging passes with Kulusevski to score emphatically.

It was the sort of sleek goal desired to be a feature of the post-Allegri years and this piece of silverware should help a team in transition, even if the evidence of the season as a whole suggests Pirlo is not the man to lead it.

Buffon lovingly strapped his gloves back on to lift the trophy – the 19th major honour of an incredible senior career at club and international level – but this was a night that belonged to the players who will shape Juve's future. It is a future that aspires stylistically to romantics like Gasperini, however little comfort that might provide for him and his beaten players.

Five years ago, Stephen Curry made history by being named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.

With his phenomenal shooting range and deadly accuracy from beyond the arc, Curry fuelled the greatest NBA regular season ever as the Golden State Warriors went 73-9 in the 2015-16 campaign.

Curry joined the select group of players in the 50-40-90 club and became the first person to do so while averaging over 30 points a game. 

It was a year that Curry seemed unlikely to ever top and certainly not in 2020-21, a season that followed a 2019-20 campaign essentially lost to a hand injury and one in which he did not have the benefit of playing with Kevin Durant or the injured Klay Thompson, with the core of the Warriors' dynasty that dominated the league largely gone.

Instead, this was supposed to be the year in which the rest of the NBA exacted a measure of revenge on Curry for torching them so devastatingly and so often.

Yet Curry, like all the greats, takes tremendous joy in subverting expectations, and he has done that to remarkable effect, surpassing his career-high average of 30.1 points per game from 2015-16 by racking up an incredible 32 per game to win the scoring title. The only other player to do so after turning 33 is Michael Jordan.

His consistently talismanic displays have pushed a Warriors team that would otherwise be watching the postseason from home into a mouth-watering play-in game with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Even if the Warriors lose, they will have another chance to reach the first round with victory over the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs.

Despite his remarkable efforts in extending the Warriors' season, Curry will almost certainly not win the MVP award for the third time, with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic an apparent lock to claim the honour.

But, after a year in which Curry shattered record after record, there is no doubt he is deserving of receiving the Maurice Podoloff Trophy once again.

 

A history-making year

Curry's scoring title, which he held off Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards to claim, was the crowning achievement of a regular season that saw him write a host of new pages into an NBA record book in which he already dominates several chapters.

He set a league record with 5.3 three-pointers made per game in what was his third season averaging at least 5.0, no other player in NBA history has achieved that feat once.

Curry racked up seven games with 40 or more points and at least 10 threes in 2020-21, his status as the greatest shooter and one of the greatest scorers of all-time illustrated by the fact no other NBA player has more than three such games in their entire career.

Excluding rookies, he is the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game having played fewer than 10 games in the previous season, with Curry breaking new ground at a time when many athletes begin to see signs of their bodies breaking down.

Indeed, Curry became the first player to have three 50-point games in a season at age 32 or older, while his points per game average was the highest in league history by a player of that age.

And, in a season where the late Kobe Bryant was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, it was only fitting that Curry emulated The Black Mamba. His performance in the January 3 against the Portland Trail Blazers, in which he exploded for 62 points, saw Curry join Bryant in becoming only the second player to score 18-plus points on three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws, Kobe doing so in his 81-point display on January 22, 2006.

As Bryant did so often during his career, Curry continues to find ways to set new boundaries for what is possible on an NBA court and, in 2020-21, he has done so while clearly elevating the play of a supporting cast well below the standard he has gotten used to in the Bay Area.

The impact of Curry's 'gravity'

To say that Curry makes the Warriors better is taking stating the obvious to the extreme, but not since the pre-Durant era has his influence been more readily apparent than a season in which he battled a tailbone injury and missed nine games over the course of the campaign.

The Warriors averaged 112.8 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court compared to 101.9 when he was off the floor. Their field goal percentage improved from 44.1 per cent to 48.4 with Curry in action while their three-point success jumped from 36.1 to 38.3.

Golden State's effective field goal percentage was 57.1 per cent when Curry played, up from 51.6 when he was absent, and he also improved the Warriors' ability to facilitate.

Their assists per 100 possessions jumped from 24.4 without Curry to 27.6, with the difference in point differential painting a clear picture of his overall impact.

The Warriors' point differential per 100 possessions without Curry was minus 4.5. When he did play, it was plus 4.3.

In other words, in the regular season, Curry was worth 8.8 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors, who benefited from several players raising their games with him on the court.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the player most positively affected by Curry's presence was Draymond Green. With Thompson suffering rotten injury luck, Curry and Green are the remaining pillars of the Warriors' original big three and their chemistry remains excellent.

This regular season, Green averaged 10.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 13.2 assists and 2.5 steals per 100 possessions with Curry on the court. Without him, those numbers dipped to 5.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 1.7 steals.

Andrew Wiggins averaged more points (30.4 to 23.6) per 100 possessions when Curry was out, a fact owing to the increased opportunities he gets when No. 30 is unavailable. However, Curry's presence made Wiggins a more efficient shooter.

Wiggins was good on 48.8 per cent of his attempts from the field with Curry compared to 45.9 without him. It was a similar tale with Kelly Oubre Jr, whom the Warriors hope to get back should they make it through the play-in tournament, as Oubre connected on 44.7 per cent of field goals when playing with Curry versus 42.4 the rest of the time.

That increased efficiency is likely a product of Curry's gravity - the extra attention he draws from defenders because of his threat from well beyond the three-point line that creates space for his team-mates.

Unfortunately, the biggest beneficiary of that gravity, center James Wiseman, won't be available in the postseason. A meniscus injury ended the second overall pick's season but the difference Curry made to his game was obvious.

Wiseman had 25.3 points per 100 possessions with Curry and 22.3 when he was missing. His field goal percentage (56.0 to 44.9) and three-point percentage (38.1 to 23.5) were also substantially better when Curry played.

The rookie experienced a similar jump in fast break points, which improved to 3.2 from 0.9 per 100, while he was significantly more effective near the rim with Curry commanding defenses' attention as Wiseman produced more points in the paint (17.9 to 13 per 100) and second-chance points (3.1 to 1.9.)

Curry has made a career out of making opposing big men look silly. Now, after seeing his evident influence on the Warriors' center curtailed, he will likely have to watch another of the game's giants take the top individual prize despite his own stupendous exploits.

Chef Curry vs. The Joker

Jokic has certainly done enough to merit being a frontrunner for MVP. The regular season saw him shoot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line.

No player with at least 30 field goals in a season in NBA history can claim to have topped Jokic in all three of those measures.

Finishing the year with a minutes total of 2,488 that only New York Knicks duo Julius Randle and RJ Barrett topped, Jokic's points, assists and rebounds average of 45.5 per game was the joint-best mark in the NBA alongside Russell Westbrook.

Yet Curry was close behind in fifth with 43.2, with his success in making the disparity between him and Jokic relatively meagre an impressive feat given the advantage the seven-foot Serb has in terms of rebounding.

Curry played nine fewer games than Jokic and, while their minutes per game were comparable (Curry 34.2 and Jokic 34.6), there was a vast difference in points totals.

Jokic finished with 26.4 per game, well adrift of Curry's league-leading mark of 32, which was the most in a season in NBA history by a player averaging fewer than 35.0 minutes per game.

The edge in terms of all-round impact goes to Jokic, but Curry has arguably outstripped a season that ended with him taking every first-place MVP vote in a year where rust and a lack of weapons around him had led some to expect a year of comparative struggle.

This was a season in which Curry unexpectedly redefined what is possible and dragged the Warriors to the cusp of a first-round playoff berth. Jokic's role as chief architect for a Nuggets team much better placed to contend is worthy of the acclaim he has received but, after Curry's stunning show of endurance and consistency in producing the spectacular to keep the Warriors in the running, it should not be a one-horse race for MVP.

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have all the momentum heading into the iconic Monaco Grand Prix this week.

Despite Red Bull starting the 2021 Formula One season with the fastest car, Hamilton has produced a spectacular start and holds a 14-point lead over Max Verstappen in the drivers' standings.

The seven-time world champion has won three of the first four races and battled back to finish second at Imola in the only grand prix he did not win, making a fantastic recovery after crashing.

Verstappen has made him work hard for those successes, but more is needed from Valtteri Bottas as questions continue over his future with the team. He is yet to record a top-two finish and Hamilton already has double his points total.

Rivals to Hamilton will hope the unpredictability of Monaco will boost their hopes to challenge. Three different teams have won the last three races here, Ferrari in 2017, Red Bull in 2018 and Mercedes with Hamilton last time out in 2019.

Red Bull are expected to be strong here and the team are 18 points away from making this circuit the one where they have collected the most points in their F1 history.

Monaco is the shortest circuit (3.34km) on the calendar and therefore is the grand prix with the highest number of laps (78).

LAST TIME OUT

Hamilton continued his dominance of the Spanish Grand Prix with a record-equalling sixth victory at the Barcelona circuit as Mercedes' two-stop strategy worked a treat.

Verstappen passed Hamilton on Turn One in a dream start for Red Bull after the defending champion had been on pole for the 100th time.

But Hamilton was not to be denied a fifth consecutive win at the race, pitting first and later passing Verstappen on fresher tyres in lap 60 of 66 in another masterclass from the Briton.

Verstappen – who got the fastest lap - had been kept out at the front and was unable to hold out, having to settle for second place ahead of Bottas.

Charles Leclerc was fourth ahead of the Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.
 

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN MONACO

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff believes Red Bull are the team to beat this week, even though Hamilton held off Verstappen in a thrilling 2019 duel in Monte Carlo.

He feels the high-downforce track plays to Red Bull's strengths and thinks data from the last sector of the race in Spain – which showed their rivals were strong – will prove an accurate indicator of Monaco pace.

Wolff also defended Bottas, insisting bad luck and slow starts were the only reason for his disappointing results.

Despite the season being four races old, he is regularly having to rebuff speculation about Mercedes moving on from the Finn.

Sergio Perez, meanwhile, is not under that level of scrutiny for Red Bull yet, but is still waiting for his first podium this season.

Charles Leclerc goes into his home race in impressive form. He has four consecutive top-six finishes and thinks Ferrari will be challenging for race wins again "very soon" after a strong start to 2021.

Lando Norris, who is fourth in the championship, goes into the race on a high after signing a new deal with McLaren.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Pole pivotal – The driver starting first has led after the opening lap for each of the last 17 Monaco GPs since 2002 when McLaren driver David Coulthard passed Williams star Juan Pablo Montoya. Since 2004, 12 of the last 16 who started on pole have won the race (75 per cent).

Mercedes momentum – The Mercs are looking to equal Ferrari as the team to have recorded the most one-twos in a F1 qualifying ever (80). They are the only team ever to have won more than half of their races (118 wins in 231 GPs).

Familiar faces - Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas have reached the podium together in 16 races, more than any other trio in F1 ever. That has also been the top three for four of the last five GPs.

Racy Red Bull – Christian Horner's outfit have taken five pole positions in Monaco, more than at any other GP for them in F1 alongside Japan. Only in Brazil and Malaysia (five at each), they have won more races than in the Principality. 

Fabulous Finns - Bottas could equal Kimi Raikkonen in a tie for second among Finnish drivers with the most pole positions in F1 (18), after Mika Hakkinen (26). 

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS 

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 94
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 80
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 47
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 41
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 40

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 141
2. Red Bull – 112
3. McLaren – 65
4. Ferrari – 60
5. Alpine – 15

The results will not be confirmed until later in the postseason, but the NBA's MVP race has been run and there appears to be a clear winner.

After a season in which Joel Embiid and LeBron James were each favourites at a time, and while a number of other contenders made impressive runs, Nikola Jokic is seemingly set to scoop the league's top individual award.

Jokic achieved what the others could not in remaining healthy, starting all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference.

But the 'Joker' was more than just the last man standing in a gruelling campaign, earning his recognition by averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

A worthy winner, the Nuggets center shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Stats Perform reflects on how Jokic ultimately outperformed his opponents to establish himself as the league's main man in 2020-21.
 

Month one: LeBron leaps above Luka

Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the preseason MVP favourites, while Los Angeles Lakers duo James and Anthony Davis appeared well set as both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant returned from injuries.

Doncic's hopes quickly took a hit once the campaign got under way, however, as the Dallas Mavericks slumped to 7-7 over the first month, the same middle-of-the-road record that ensured Jokic was not immediately thrust to the forefront of the conversation on a .500 Nuggets team.

Yet the Serbian quietly built the foundations for his awards challenge in that spell. He had five triple-doubles, including three in his first four games, and averaged 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.0 assists.

A 12-4 start for the Lakers meant the anticipated early James calls grew louder, the four-time winner an ever-present and averaging 24.4 points with an impressive 9.3 plus/minus rating.

Month two: Sixers star Embiid emerges

The PAR (points plus assists plus rebounds) chart Jokic topped in month one was led by Antetokounmpo in month two, with Jokic sliding to fourth behind Embiid and Doncic despite averaging 27.8 points over his next 16 games.

James was sixth, adding 27.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game to his totals between January 22 and February 21, but Embiid emerged as a serious contender.

As their star center put up a league-leading 33.9 points over the period, the Philadelphia 76ers improved to 20-11 to lead the East.

Missed games would ultimately cost Embiid, but they added to his case at this stage. He featured in 25 of the Sixers' first 31 outings, sitting out five defeats and only a single win.

Month three: Injuries interrupt favourites

Events in mid-March blew the MVP race wide open.

In the 76ers' win at the Washington Wizards on March 12, Embiid suffered a knee injury. However, James was the clear favourite for just eight days before he sustained a high ankle sprain as the Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks.

Curry could not capitalise as a tailbone issue kept him on the sidelines over the same stretch, instead allowing James Harden to improbably enter the reckoning.

A high-profile yet polarising trade to the Brooklyn Nets should have removed Harden from awards consideration, many argued, but his performances and stat line made a compelling argument.

Between his Nets debut on January 16 and March 21 – the end of the third month of the season – Harden became the key man in his new team's 'big three' and led the league in playmaking with 11.3 assists as Brooklyn went 22-7 with the 2018 MVP on the court.

Month four: Nuggets make their move

Although Harden, Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard – who has long led the league in 'clutch' points this year – all made runs, Jokic was the favourite at the time of James' injury, then with an even more impressive stat line, including 41.6 per cent shooting from three. Month four consolidated that position.

As Harden and Antetokounmpo each sustained injuries in early April, Jokic was boosted by the arrival of Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline.

The Nuggets got only five games (four wins) out of a Jamal Murray-Will Barton-Michael Porter Jr-Gordon-Jokic line-up, yet no five-man group in the league this season which played over 100 minutes averaged more than their 55.6 points per game.

Another injury disrupted Denver, but it was Murray rather than Jokic who went down, the guard tearing the ACL in his left knee.

The Nuggets were on a four-game winning run regardless by April 21 to improve to 38-20, giving Jokic a clear edge over Curry on a Golden State Warriors team hovering below .500.

Month five: Still in the thick of the action

As the playoff picture took shape over the final weeks of the season, a number of stars racked up DNPs to protect themselves for the challenges ahead. Jokic, despite repeatedly insisting he had no interest in the MVP award, did not.

The apparent winner finished the year having played 2,488 minutes, trailing only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.

Sunday's final-day defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers was the first time all year Jokic dipped below 26 minutes in a game, limiting the damage to his impressive numbers.

It meant he protected a healthy lead in the awards race, despite Curry's continued excellence in the final month. The scoring champion averaged an outstanding 35.6 points across his final 12 games to take the Warriors to eighth place.

Denver ended the year on a 13-5 run following Murray's injury, with Jokic putting up 26.9 points. Few can argue he is not a worthy MVP winner.

It's always nice to start with a "thank you".

If you're in the business of picking out some of the most noteworthy and unusual statistics from a Premier League weekend, a goalkeeper scoring the winning goal in stoppage time for one of the most famous clubs in world football does much of the job for you.

Alisson, we salute you.

However, Jarrod Bowen might not be saluting David Moyes, while the current incumbents at Goodison Park have few reasons to be cheerful.

All you need is glove

There was no doubt over the moment of the weekend or, for that matter, the moment of Liverpool's lacklustre season in defence of their Premier League title.

Alisson trotting up from his own half to head home a stunning winner for the ages at West Brom is sure to be replayed countless times over the coming years.

Brazil's number one became the first goalkeeper in Liverpool's 129-year history to score a competitive goal for the club.

He is the sixth goalkeeper to score in the Premier League, joining Peter Schmeichel, Brad Friedel, Paul Robinson, Tim Howard and Asmir Begovic on an exclusive list.

Remarkably, Alisson is the first keeper in the competition to score with his head.

Jurgie time?

The identity of the goalscorer was absurd and, at 94:18, it was Liverpool's latest away winner since Christian Benteke struck against his current employers Crystal Palace in March 2016.

However, Liverpool have made last-gasp winners something of a forte in the Premier League, despite such acts typically being associated with their most bitter rivals.

The Reds have scored 38 winners in second-half stoppage time, 13 more than any other club. Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham all have 25.

This sense of a never-say-die attitude has found fresh impetus under Klopp. Since his appointment in October 2015, Liverpool have recovered 94 points from losing positions – more than any other Premier League club during this time.

Teenage kicking for Carlo

Another game involving a Merseyside club and another unlikely goalscorer, but it was tale of woe for the hosts at Goodison Park.

Relegated Sheffield United beat Everton 1-0 thanks to an early goal from debutant Daniel Jebbison. At 17 years and 309 days, Jebbison became the youngest player to score a match-winning goal since Federico Macheda (17 years and 232 days) did so for Manchester United against Sunderland in April 2009.

There are not too many home comforts for Toffees boss Carlo Ancelotti right now. Only Fulham (four) – who, like the Blades, will be playing Championship football next season – have claimed fewer than their six home points in 2021.

Nine home defeats overall is the joint-most Everton have suffered in a league campaign, alongside similarly slim returns in 1912-13, 1947-48, 1950-51 and 1993-94.

Bowen on the board

Jarrod Bowen has enjoyed a productive season at West Ham, scoring eight goals and laying on five assists for David Moyes' men.

The former Hull City favourite might argue he would have been even more use with a few more minutes on the field.

Before the late drama in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion, Bowen was substituted – the 23rd time this season he has been withdrawn during a match this term.

Aston Villa's Bertrand Traore didn't see the final whistle in the 3-2 weekend loss to Crystal Palace and has made way 22 times – the same amount as Tottenham midfielder Tanguy Ndombele.

Daniel Podence (19), Leandro Trossard (16), Alexandre Lacazette, Roberto Firmino and Miguel Almiron (15) are the other men in the division who must most dread the sight of the fourth official's board.

The most notable element of a disjointed goalless first half in Saturday's FA Cup final was the organic soundtrack.

At the Leicester end of the 21,000-strong crowd, there was a throaty collective roar when Kasper Schmeichel completed a routine catch from a right-wing corner. Referee Michael Oliver had plenty of unflattering appraisals of his work and a wildly off-target drive from Chelsea forward Timo Werner drew hearty guffaws.

There aren't really buttons on a fake crowd noise soundboard for any of that stuff.

The most significant crowd any of these footballers had played in front of for 14 months also seemed to have an impact on some adrenaline levels and resulting performances.

Leicester great Gary Lineker, so poignantly emotional after his boyhood club closed out an unforgettable 1-0 win, has enjoyed an enduring post-career link up with Walkers. The Foxes' current main goal threat, Kelechi Iheanacho, played like a punter who'd collected 10 crisp packets and won the chance to try playing at Wembley.

Iheanacho entered the game as the joint top scorer in this season's FA Cup and with 13 goals in his past 12 outings across all competitions. It counted for nothing, the Nigeria international's touch as heavy as his legs, while muddled decision making did nothing to lengthen the short leash Antonio Rudiger kept him on.

Werner draws another blank

Werner would give plenty for some of Iheanacho's prolific form, the type he enjoyed only last season at RB Leipzig. Here, we again witnessed the Chelsea version – tireless probing running to push the opposition defence deep and prescribe Jonny Evans a swift return to the treatment table.

But Werner snatched at his shots, inadvertently touched a goalscoring chance away from captain Cesar Azpilicueta and then saw Wesley Fofana hurl himself into back-to-back blocks. When the ball broke clear, Werner threw himself at Luke Thomas with the same gusto but none of the expertise to be booked.

The occasion was encouraging commitment, anxiety and a dearth of quality, with the notable exception of Mason Mount.

Chelsea's playmaker pirouetting under a high ball to stun a volleyed pass into Azpilicueta's path was easily the most beautiful piece of play before the interval. His shot from the return ball was deflected wide by Fofana, who seemed to take any attempt to test Schmeichel as a personal affront.

 

Azpilicueta found himself forward so often because he featured at wing-back, with the more naturally attacking Reece James on the right of Chelsea's back three.

The Blues began their run to the final with a victory over Morecambe and, to paraphrase the Lancashire town's favourite son, it felt like Thomas Tuchel had selected all the correct right-sided defenders but not necessarily in the right order.

In reality, however, the move came to look inspired, at least defensively as James effectively shackled Jamie Vardy's livewire running.

Youri's glory

The opening stages of the second half, Leicester finally managed to peg their opponents back. James still dealt with everything in immaculate fashion until, well, he didn't.

The 21-year-old botched a routine pass, hitting it at Ayoze Perez. Thomas snaffled the loose ball and Youri Tielemans straightened his run towards the Chelsea box.

Like Evans earlier, Thiago Silva's combination of old head and old legs persuaded him to let his opponent advance towards goal. Unlike Werner, though, Tielemans is a supreme technician at the top of his game.

The Belgium midfielder unleashed an unerring 25-yard firecracker into the top corner. Some thunder to go with the Wembley rain. Behind the goal, bedlam. Limbs. A cup final goal for the ages.

Tuchel decided to act and a pair of double substitutions followed, including former Leicester full-back Ben Chilwell's introduction. His every touch was booed, until he got his head to a cross from N'Golo Kante – the Foxes' 2015-16 title-winning hero, who endured no barracking.

That moment was one for a sharp intake of breath but Schmeichel plunged to his right for a stunning save. His later stop from Mount was even better.

 

Captain Morgan's VAR cocktail

The dying minutes meant time for another of Claudio Ranieri's old stagers as Wes Morgan came on for his first action since December, immediately barking instructions. The band, or what remains of it, were back together.

When he hoisted the Premier League trophy aloft five years ago, Morgan or none of the rest of us lived in the altered reality of VAR. But it saved him here after Chilwell tore off in villainous celebration, his attempt having cannoned in off his old captain after Caglar Soyuncu had tried to hack it clear. The replays showed a tight but obvious offside.

Morgan, Schmeichel and Vardy have a first FA Cup to go with their club's first league title. They are sporting immortals of the east midlands.

The Leicester faithful also have a new trophy-winning hero in Tielemans after his majestic man-of-the-match showing. Following Eden Hazard in 2018 and Kevin De Bruyne in 2019, another Belgium playmaker scored in an FA Cup final victory. A niche and far more palatable new normal.

And that was the best thing about the rash tackles, the blocks, the screamer, the bedlam, the shredded nerves, the drama, the villains and the heroes. The wonderful atmosphere in which it unfolded was all so instantly and beautifully normal.

Aymeric Laporte is set to represent Spain at Euro 2020 after switching his allegiance from France.

Manchester City centre-back Laporte has represented Les Bleus 51 times in total across the under-17 and under-21 age groups.

However, the 26-year-old was never handed his senior debut, despite being called up three times by Didier Deschamps.

Laporte came through the youth ranks at Athletic Bilbao and made 222 appearances for the Basque club until joining City in January 2018.

He was granted Spanish citizenship earlier this week and FIFA has confirmed he can play for Spain with "immediate effect".

A report by Marca earlier this week claimed Spain boss Luis Enrique lobbied the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to look into the possibility of Laporte changing allegiance, so it feels safe to assume he will be a key part of the former Barcelona head coach's plans for Euro 2020.

But how does Laporte compare to Spain's other options at centre-back?

Regular game time

Despite scoring the winner in last month's EFL Cup final against Tottenham and collecting a third Premier League title in four seasons at City, it has been a mixed campaign for Laporte on a personal level.

He went into 2020-21 as Pep Guardiola's go-to centre-back but the arrival of Ruben Dias and John Stones' resurgence means he is no longer first choice at the Etihad Stadium.

Nevertheless, the packed schedule undertaken across all competitions by the Champions League finalists means he has still played 27 games, starting 24 and completing 2,250 minutes.

Of centre-backs used by Luis Enrique this season, that places Laporte third behind Villarreal's Pau Torres (41 games, 3,675 minutes) and Athletic's Inigo Martinez (32 games, 2,914).

Sergio Ramos, who is now widely expected to have a new centre-back partner for La Roja, has been restricted to 21 games and 1,790 minutes by injuries this season, while Diego Llorente (14 games, 1,160) was compromised by a serious groin injury after joining Leeds United.

One would-be international colleague Laporte knows very well is club team-mate Eric Garcia. The 20-year-old is set to leave City after declining to sign a new contract last term.

While running down the clock to his anticipated move to Barcelona, Garcia has become a marginal figure in Manchester, despite Guardiola continuing to profess his admiration of his talents.

His 10 appearances and eight starts amount to 693 minutes, not significantly more than 514 minutes across seven caps for Spain this season.

Indeed, Luis Enrique started Garcia in all three of the March internationals, suggesting his lack of club action is not overly hindering his case.

Keeping it tight in Manchester

City's defensive improvements have been central to their success this season and, although no longer an automatic selection, Laporte has more than played his part.

The 14 goals conceded with him on the field are just four more than Guardiola's side have let in amid Garcia's sporadic outings. Only Torres (13) has amassed more than his 12 clean sheets.

Laporte ranks well across all of the key defensive metrics this season, with 18 tackles placing him level with Ramos and Torres.

Martinez has made 24, while Marcelo Bielsa's famously intense style of play might be largely responsible for Llorente going into 31 tackles during his relatively smaller workload.

Laporte's duel success rate of 63.7 per cent is the best of the bunch, with Martinez contesting and winning the most overall (263 and 149), while Torres is out in front in terms of recoveries (232).

In the air and on the ground

Standing at 6ft 3ins, Laporte will provide the kind of imposing presence Spain have perhaps lacked.

He has contested 100 and won 69 aerials, similar numbers to the 103 and 62 returned by Torres, who is of similar stature. Martinez's 136 contested and 82 won again show the Athletic man getting through plenty of work.

Perhaps Laporte's most celebrated quality is his capacity to start moves from the back via his superb left foot.

Centre-backs completing a high proportion of their passes is not unusual, given the generally simple nature of them, but Laporte generally plays in a notably progressive manner.

He has made 244 passes into the final third this season, more than any of the Spain centre-backs mentioned (Torres 240, Martinez 235), a trait that is sure to be welcomed by the attacking talents in Luis Enrique's squad.

Antonio Rudiger is no stranger to putting himself in difficult and painful situations for the cause, as evidenced by the defensive lynchpin of Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea revival sporting a protective face mask during matches over recent weeks.

Nevertheless, even as a player who appears to relish a challenge and refuse to back down from a confrontation, Chelsea playing behind closed doors might have done Rudiger a favour earlier in the year.

The Stamford Bridge faithful, for all the success lapped up during the Roman Abramovich era, are certainly not shy when it comes to voicing their displeasure over an unpopular change in the dugout, of which there have been plenty.

There was the vocal backing for Roberto Di Matteo weeks after his sacking in 2012. Interim boss Rafael Benitez was the villain in that situation but calling out any perceived culprits among a squad often noted for wielding player power has also marked times of tumult.

When Jose Mourinho's second spell at Chelsea ended with the then-reigning Premier League champions lurching close to the relegation zone in December 2015, he was backed by plenty of fans amid accusations of player betrayal. One banner in the ground famously branded Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to be "The 3 Rats".

Had stadiums been full around the time of Frank Lampard's January demise, it is possible Rudiger would have faced similar scrutiny.

"There have been so many nonsense rumours around about me since last week," he told The Athletic in February, following speculation that urged the Chelsea board to dispense with Lampard. "I've never talked with the board about the situation of the coach or on any other topics."

In a separate interview with Sky Sports, Rudiger explained he suffered "immense" racist abuse online after Lampard's sacking, both an indication of the levels of toxicity at play and a deplorable sign of our times.

It certainly did not feel plausible that, in the space of four months, Rudiger would be arguably the form defender in European football and leading Chelsea's charge under Tuchel for a pair of major honours, starting in Saturday's FA Cup final against Leicester.

Indeed, the most remarkable element of Rudiger being singled out as a man responsible for so many of the ills at Chelsea around the fall of Lampard was how little he had been involved in the first team.

He started two of their first 17 Premier League fixtures before being recalled in the wake of a 3-1 defeat by Manchester City to start back-to-back games against Fulham and Leicester – the latter of which was a 2-0 defeat that effectively sealed Lampard's fate.

Overall, Rudiger made nine appearances in all competitions under the former England midfielder this season, with eight of those starts. His 742 minutes on the pitch were dwarfed by first-choice duo Kurt Zouma (1,999) and Thiago Silva (1,552).

Tuchel's decision to switch Chelsea into a 3-4-2-1 shape obviously did Rudiger and his fellow centre-backs a favour in the most basic terms of one more slot in the team being available, but the Germany international has repaid his countryman's faith emphatically.

In 21 appearances since, he has been involved in a remarkable 14 clean sheets. No defender in the Premier League, or elsewhere in Europe's top five leagues for that matter, can boast more in this time.

The six goals conceded with him on the field is also the lowest across the continent's elite divisions for any defender to have started 15 or more games from January 27 onwards, which was the date of Tuchel's first game in charge – a 0-0 draw with Wolves.

Rudiger rested up for Wembley in midweek when Chelsea went down to a lacklustre 1-0 home loss to Arsenal. He was an unused substitute for the only other league defeat of Tuchel's tenure, an unhinged 5-2 collapse versus West Brom after Silva was sent off.

In the 19 Premier League games Rudiger has not started in 2020-21, Chelsea have conceded 26 goals at a rate of 1.4 per game. With the ex-Roma man in the first XI, this plummets to seven in 17 (0.4 per game).

Those seven goals have arrived over the course of 1,530 minutes on the field, meaning Rudiger has seen a goal conceded every 218.6 minutes. This is the best ratio in the Premier League for any defender to have played 1,000 minutes or more this term, with Manchester City pairing John Stones (194.9) and Ruben Dias (148.1) next on the list – suggesting the Champions League final in two weeks' time could be something of a cagey affair.

When set alongside his Chelsea central defensive colleagues Zouma, Silva and Andreas Christensen, Rudiger's imposing qualities are evident. He has made 29 tackles in the Premier League this season, an average of 1.7 per 90 minutes, with no other member of the quartet averaging above one.

His 7.1 duels per 90 is bettered by Zouma (7.6), although both have the same return when it comes to duels won (4.8).

Of course, Rudiger has starred within a collective recalibration. In the Premier League, Tuchel's Chelsea have faced an average of 7.8 shots per game at an expected goals (xG) value of 0.6, down from 10.1 and 1 under Lampard.

Adjustments beyond the defence have also made the Blues harder to play against. They control matches far more effectively, with an average of 663.6 passes per game up from 612.7 at a slightly better accuracy (87.7 per cent from 86.3).

Chelsea are also pressing opponents more effectively, allowing an average of 10.1 passes per defensive action (PPDA) under Tuchel, behind only FA Cup final foes Leicester and Leeds United across the period in question. This season with Lampard in charge, they averaged 11 PPDA, which was fourth among all Premier League teams.

The improvements have made life a little easier for defenders, but when Chelsea step out at Wembley there will be no mystery over the identity of their standout performer at centre-back – even if he is wearing a mask. Rudiger has lifted himself off the scrapheap to become Tuchel's talisman.

Jadon Sancho signed for Borussia Dortmund three months after they last won the DFB-Pokal in May 2017.

Back then, it was Ousmane Dembele and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who scored to see off Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1 in Berlin. Major transfers followed for both: Dembele was quickly on his way to Barcelona, a €105million replacement for Neymar, while Aubameyang left for Arsenal for a reported €60m the following January.

This year, Dortmund returned to the Olympiastadion for their first Pokal final since, with envious eyes from across the continent casting longing looks again at their best attacking talent: Sancho and Erling Haaland. Inevitably, it was they who settled the contest with RB Leipzig, and before the half-time whistle had even blown.

At least, it feels inevitable with these two. Haaland, who scored the second in a 4-1 win after shunting the imposing frame of Bayern Munich-bound Dayot Upamecano to the ground, has hit 55 goals in 57 games in just under 18 months at the club. Sancho has been directly involved in 105 goals (50 scored, 55 assisted) in 135 Dortmund games. These are breathtaking returns for two players who weren't even teenagers when Dortmund last won the Bundesliga in 2012.

Haaland has always seemed an outlier in the expected development of a young footballer; a striker of such prodigious physical and technical gifts that it seems entirely plausible he was grown in a number nine laboratory. Dortmund are convinced they will keep him for another year and they probably will unless a European giant is capable of throwing a pandemic-defying nine-figure transfer bid their way.

Sancho's rise feels different. He is the product of calculated gambles as well as divine gifts. He is the 17-year-old boy who uprooted from Manchester City to speculate on game time in Germany, who made himself undroppable for one of the country's greatest clubs and was in the team of the season before his 20th birthday.

On Thursday, he was the best player on the pitch as Dortmund ruined Julian Nagelsmann's Leipzig farewell tour, as he became the youngest player to score twice in a DFB-Pokal final – at least until Haaland surpassed him. The transformation from brave kid to matchwinning bravura was complete. This was the dawning of a superstar.

His first goal, a curling effort from the kind of area Thierry Henry spent a career exploiting, was a thumping reminder of his finishing skills. His second was impudent footwork, as he collected Marco Reus' cut-back, danced inside the covering defender, and waited for Peter Gulacsi's despairing dive before putting the ball in the net.

Alongside Reus and Haaland, Sancho was a roving, controlled menace. He drifted into space to the side of the Leipzig back three but timed forward runs to perfection. His performance trod that fine line of spontaneity and foresight: unpredictable for defenders, while his team-mates knew where he'd be. Such a display can only come when talent meets application, and lessons are learned. For a 21-year-old to do it is remarkable. He even managed to make a total mess of overplaying a one-on-one chance before another counter-attack saw him set up Haaland for the fourth late on. He's still learning.

We may be in the final weeks of seeing Sancho as a Dortmund player. You can bet Manchester United's interest will only strengthen once Ole Gunnar Solskjaer watches back the highlights of this game, and they won't be alone. With a "gentleman's agreement" in place with Dortmund over his future, this could well be the transfer window where they elect to cash in.

They will do so in the knowledge that Sancho's journey to stardom is complete.

When has a player averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season but failed to win the NBA MVP award?

Here's a hint: the internet was in its infancy, Hootie and the Blowfish were selling albums by the millions and the Orlando Magic, of all teams, were the league's biggest thing.

Not since Shaquille O'Neal in 1994-95 has a player reached those numbers without taking away the NBA's most cherished piece of individual hardware. Shaq actually did it twice without winning an MVP, losing out to Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94 and David Robinson the following year. O'Neal did average 29 and 10 while winning an MVP with the Lakers in 1999-2000, and the two players who have hit those marks since (Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019-20) each came home with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Joel Embiid appears destined to buck that recent trend.

If money talks, it's given an emphatic answer as to who will seize the honour in 2020-21. Nikola Jokic has emerged as an overwhelming favourite in betting markets across the globe to claim his first MVP, with Embiid holding the second-shortest odds and a rising Stephen Curry emerging as a clear third in the public's mind.

Jokic's credentials are unquestionably worthy. The Denver Nuggets big man is closing out an unprecedented season for a player who spends his time predominately in the post, having posted averages of 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists heading into Denver's final three regular-season outings.

Only two players in league history have averaged 25-10-8 in a season, and neither was a frontcourt player. The great Oscar Robertson did it three consecutive times across 1960-63, and Westbrook had two straight across 2016-18.

Jokic's immense value to a Nuggets team who have successfully withstood the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray to secure a top-four seed in the Western Conference is perhaps best illustrated by his share of the team's combined points, rebound and assists. No player this season has accumulated a higher percentage than his 24.5, with the Mavericks' Luka Doncic and the Knicks' Julius Randle tied in second at 22.8 per cent.

Embiid is well down on the list, ranking 16th overall due to the 20 games the somewhat fragile seven-footer has missed this season. His dominance and importance to the Eastern Conference front-running Philadelphia 76ers would show, however, if the chart were adjusted to exclude games in which a particular player was absent.

Using that criteria, Embiid has accounted for 23.2 percent of the 76ers' points, rebounds and assists in games that he's taken the floor. That number is right in line with that of the defending two-time MVP Antetokounmpo and would put him in the top five. For the record, Doncic would move ahead of Jokic for the top spot at 24.8 percent.

Embiid's scattered availability is no doubt detrimental to his case, more so when factoring in that Jokic hasn't sat out a game all season. Just once has a player missed 13 or more games in a season and been named MVP, when Bill Walton earned the award in 1977-78 despite playing in only 58 of the Trail Blazers' 82 games.

On the flip side, it's hard to find anyone who's been more instrumental to his team's success than Philly's All-Star center. The Sixers are 9-11 when Embiid has missed a game and 38-11 when he plays, a .776 winning percentage that would tower over the rest of the NBA this season.

Embiid's importance becomes even more apparent when viewing the 76ers' performance when he's been on the court as opposed to off.

Their points per 100 possessions drop to 105.1 from 117.2, while opponents' points climb slightly from 103.9 to 105.8. That means a point differential of +13.3 falls dramatically to -0.7. Their shooting from the field (50.5 per cent to 45.4 per cent) and from three-point range (40.4 per cent to 34.7 per cent) also decreases.

Though the Sixers have remained an elite defensive team without Embiid, all of those off-court offensive splits would rank near the bottom of the NBA. It's not hyperbole to summarise that without their franchise player, Philadelphia would be scrapping for a spot in the play-in round instead of being on the verge of claiming a conference regular-season title.

Embiid is far from the only star whose team perform at a significantly lower level when he's not around, though. The Warriors have won just one of the eight games Curry has missed, while defending champions the Lakers are a mediocre 12-15 when LeBron James has been injured or rested and have been 11.6 points per 100 possessions better when 'The King' has taken the court compared to off it.

Like Embiid, the slew of missed games is going to be hard for James to justify in the minds of voters, and he's not playing for a team set for the top playoff seed in his conference. And the Lakers' descent into the West's middle tier can't all be attributed to James' absences – they also were without Anthony Davis in two-thirds of the games LeBron hasn't played.

Curry also represents an interesting case, and if there were an MVP for only the season's final month-plus, he'd be a hands-down winner. The veteran sharpshooter has averaged an insane 36.7 points per game since April 10, a stretch in which the Warriors have gone 13-5 to elevate themselves from a postseason question mark to a lock for the play-in round.

The two-time MVP also has the on/off split factor working in his favour, as the Warriors are +4.0 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when he's on the court and a lottery-level -4.9 differential when he's not. Another potential feather in Curry's cap would be if he can hold off Washington's Bradley Beal for the league's scoring title, as four of the past seven MVPs led the NBA in points per game.

Curry has rightfully received the most credit for Golden State's late-season surge, but a closer look shows it hasn't been a one-man show. Andrew Wiggins is finally at least bearing some resemblance to the player the Minnesota Timberwolves thought they were getting back in 2014, one teams build franchises around, and the Warriors have posted a league-low 105.1 defensive rating since their hot streak began.

For all his heroics on the offensive end, Curry hasn't been a primary contributor to the Warriors' recent stretch of lockdown defense. Since April 10, opponents score fewer points (98.6 per 100 possessions, down from 107.6) when Curry is off the court and are less accurate from the field (41.9 per cent, down from 44.9), beyond the arc (27.9 per cent, down from 35.4) and in their effective field goal percentage (47.6, down from 51.9).

Jokic also won't be adding any All-Defensive Team mentions to his expanding resume, and it is a bit harder to quantify exactly where the Nuggets would be without him simply because he hasn't missed a game.

One thing's for certain, however – no player this season has had a larger impact on his team's offensive performance than the Serbian star. Their points climb to 118.2 per 100 possessions when he is involved, meaning a +6.0 point differential versus -0.7 when he is absent – despite the team allowing more points with Jokic on the court. The field goal percentage improves to 50.4, while their assists per 100 (28.4, from 22.1) are up and their turnovers (12.7, from 15.7) are down.

The Nuggets are arguably the league's most efficient offensive team with Jokic on the floor. Combine that with a unicorn quality of being the best passing big man of the digital age and a consistency edge on his main rivals, and you've got a recipe for a likely MVP winner. Curry and Doncic's otherwise strong candidacies take a hit by their teams currently standing eighth and sixth, respectively, in the West. Antetokounmpo likely gets hurt by recency bias (no one wants to vote for the same player three straight years) and his own team's success (the Bucks have still played at a relatively high level when he's missed games or not been on the court).

In reality, though, the race shouldn't be as lopsided as the betting odds suggest, provided voters can overlook Embiid's spotty attendance record. History shows, however, that will be a factor that ultimately works in Jokic's favour.

The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

It was a shame Harry Maguire's run of never missing a Premier League match for Manchester United had to end against his former club – even if Leicester City might have been pleased.

The United captain sat out Tuesday's 2-1 win for the Foxes at Old Trafford, a result that handed Manchester City the title and brought one of this season's few constants to an end.

Maguire had played in every minute of 71 consecutive league games for the Red Devils – and in his final five for Leicester before his transfer two years ago – until an unfortunate ankle injury saw him hobble off 78 minutes into his side's 3-1 win at Aston Villa last Sunday.

Granted, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may well have rested him for Leicester's visit anyway due to the "impossible" task of playing three Premier League games in five days, but the decision, in the end, was taken out of his hands as United's lingering title hopes finally died.

City were almost certain to win the league anyway and United are guaranteed a top-four finish, so their remaining league matches with Liverpool, Fulham and Wolves are of comparatively little importance even if second place is not yet secured. More pertinent is the looming Europa League final on May 26, when Solskjaer will get his first shot at silverware as United manager, possibly with his captain watching from the sidelines.

Depending on their performance and results in these coming four games, Maguire may at least be given some of the credit he deserves, which was notably scarce in that 71-match run.

CAPTAIN'S RUN

Firstly, the simple reality of playing that many consecutive matches without a minute's rest is more remarkable than many seem to realise.

Since the start of 2019-20, Maguire has played for 9,615 minutes in all competitions, more than any other player across Europe's top five leagues. The next on that list is Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer on 8,700 minutes, a difference that equates to more than 10 full matches.

Critics would argue praising a footballer for playing is no different to lauding any other professional –  much less handsomely paid – for simply turning up for work, but starting 106 matches across two seasons, any two seasons, is commendable. Throw in the unprecedented disruption of a global pandemic, the lockdowns, the pause in training and matches, the restart, the brutal rescheduling and the persistent restrictions on personal travel, and what Maguire has managed points to an astonishing work ethic and dedication.

Few people truly believe Maguire, or any defender, is worth the £80million United paid for him three years ago, but that kind of outlay undoubtedly looks better on a balance sheet when the 'asset' has been available for his team at every opportunity. Look at Eden Hazard, a €100m-plus Galactico who moved at the same time as Maguire and has played roughly a quarter of the number of minutes since for Real Madrid.

TOP OF THE CHARTS

Maguire has missed 11 games for United in all competitions, most of them in the domestic cups, so comparing them directly with and without their captain is a pretty redundant exercise.

Examining his individual numbers offers a broader picture of his influence, though. He has helped United to 42 clean sheets in all competitions, the most of any defender across Europe's top five leagues in that time. He is also directly responsible for by far the most clearances (391), headed clearances (244), duels won (645) and aerials won (432).

Anyone with Maguire's minutes will naturally build up those sorts of numbers, but his averages place him in good company, too. Since his United debut, Maguire's 3.66 headed clearances per 90 minutes is better than that of John Stones (2.47), Ruben Dias (2.86) and Antonio Rudiger (3.1), and a fraction behind Virgil van Dijk (3.94). His duels-won-per-90 rate of 6.04 is marginally better than Van Dijk's (5.95) and behind only Chris Basham, Jannik Vestergaard and James Tarkowski among central defenders from England's top tier.

Unquestionably a good stopper, he has also proved suitably adept with the ball. Maguire has made 6,152 successful passes in his United career, again the most of any defender in those top European leagues over the same period. Of those passes, 2,142 have been completed in the opponent's half, which is the best figure for any nominal centre-back.

Compare United 2018-19 with how they have been since Maguire's arrival, and his impact becomes starker. In that season, when Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018, only six Premier League teams conceded more goals than United (70) in all competitions, while their Expected Goals Against tally of 71.8 was the fourth worst among Premier League sides. They also faced 694 shots, the third most behind Arsenal (709) and Tottenham (718), and kept only 12 clean sheets. Man City kept 33.

In Maguire's first season, United conceded only 51 in all competitions, the fewest of any Premier League sides apart from Leicester (49) and Sheffield United (45), with their xGA dropping to 59.24, the lowest of the 'big six' apart from City (55.02). They also faced 79 fewer shots and kept 27 clean sheets, more than any other Premier League side.

United have already conceded 61 times this season, but 12 of those goals came in their first three league games just a month after their run to the previous Europa League semi-finals and shortly following a legal case involving Maguire in Greece. They still have the third-best defence in the Premier League, have lost the joint fewest games (five) and have kept 24 clean sheets in all competitions, behind only City and Chelsea (31).

THE MAGUIRE WAY

Maguire can also claim to have had as much of an influence on United's patterns of play as any Solskjaer signing – barring Bruno Fernandes, of course.

Solskjaer's side have often faced difficulty against well-structured defences partly because the Red Devils sometimes lack players willing to break lines and pull opponents out of position. Counterintuitively, that's something Maguire does extremely well.

In the Premier League this season, only Ruben Dias (806) has completed more carries (moving with the ball five metres or more) than Maguire (685), who is regularly the starting point of positive United moves. Indeed, Maguire has started 24 open-play sequences to end in a shot, which is the highest number among Premier League centre-backs this term. 

Similarly, Maguire has 93 shot build-up involvements, a useful measure of those players who actively contribute to attacking situations without actually taking the shot themselves. Again, only Dias (98) has more among centre-backs, while each of them has seen those involvements end in a goal 13 times, the most in the league.

Maguire has not only made United's defence more resolute; he has directly impacted their use of the ball. His absence in the coming games will be keenly felt, but at least the United captain might start to be acknowledged as one of the most influential players in England.

Pep Guardiola's management of Manchester City has never felt quite as fraught as it did midway through his first season in charge, as the English winter of 2016-17 bit hard for a team in transition.

City collapsed to a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in a top-of-the-table clash, a setback that preceded a humbling 4-2 loss at Leicester City.

After that game, Guardiola infamously remarked, "I am not a coach for the tackles", and a 4-0 thumping at Everton the following month further fuelled suspicions in some quarters that 'The Barclays' was bringing the most celebrated coach of his generation to heel in its inimitable fashion.

As City bask in a third Premier League title in the past four years, it is striking how Guardiola's commitment to his principles has not wavered at all. If anything, times of high stress have only served to deepen his convictions.

Speaking before that 2016 ordeal, when Jamie Vardy ran riot with a hat-trick, Guardiola discussed the make-up of his ideal team, with tongue planted only partially in cheek.

"I love midfield players," he said. "Always I said, many times, if I could play with 11 midfield players, I would."

Fast forward four-and-a-half seasons, and City are into their maiden Champions League final having driven Paris Saint-Germain to furious distraction over the course of a 4-1 aggregate victory.

They got there without a recognised striker – playmakers Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan taking various turns at the point of the attack and winger Riyad Mahrez scoring three of the four goals. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a midfielder by trade, replaced Joao Cancelo at left-back midway through the second half in Paris and was a stand-out performer in Manchester.

Consider John Stones' resurgence as a ball-playing central defender and Ederson's own silky footwork between the posts and Guardiola really isn't too far away from his ideal.

"I have to admit it, I like the players that have the ability to keep the ball, don't lose the ball," he said before last Saturday's 2-0 win at Crystal Palace that brought City to the brink of glory.

"It's one of the principal things I am looking for. If they keep the ball, it is the best way to defend. The players have to keep the ball in difficult circumstances.

"In all my career I played with a lot of midfield players. I have the feeling you can play better with these kind of players."

Let's ignore the fact Guardiola picked a bizarre line-up featuring Rodri as his only specialist midfielder in Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea and dig into this theme a little more...

Pausa for thought

At City, "Don't lose the ball" is a non-negotiable update on Guardiola's Barcelona template of "Take the ball, pass the ball". As they have in the three previous completed campaigns, they boast a passing accuracy of 89 per cent.

There is an increased calmness and control to their play, as shown in their data over the course of the season.

City are taking fewer shots than at any other period in the Guardiola era. They average 15.9 attempts per game in the Premier League, down from 19.6 last season and lower even than the 16.6 from their manager's fitful first season.

Their figure of 2.1 goals per game is in line with their 2016-17 average and some way below what followed. The 100-point campaign of 2017-18 yielded 2.8 goals per game.

Sergio Aguero's thumping strike against Palace showed the killer finishing instinct Guardiola's battery of midfielders lack, which partially explains this drop-off.

But it has been absorbed because the overly frantic feel to City's play when Liverpool won the league last year is all but gone. An average possession figure of 64.2 per cent in the Premier League is actually their lowest under Guardiola, but their average open play sequence lasts 15.1 seconds and this has never lasted longer.

Another metric that hints towards control and the idea of City taking their time is their direct speed – put simply, how quickly the team progresses the ball upfield. This season, their attacks have advanced at 1.1 metres per second, which is their slowest or least direct under Guardiola.

If this means they do not quicken the pulse as much around the opposition penalty area, there are obvious benefits when it comes to protecting their own.

According to Opta, City have conceded 25 'big chances' in the Premier League in 2020-21, an average of 0.71 per game. This more than halves their 1.47 'big chances' faced from last season.

Along with some more refined work in possession, the talismanic influence of record signing Ruben Dias at centre-back should not be understated.

Of the 245 shots City have faced this season, 67 were blocked. That amounts to 27.3 per cent and the highest ratio of blocks under Guardiola. Anyone who watched Dias practically turn taking PSG shots in the face into an artform last week will not be overly surprised.

Conceding from 10.6 per cent of shots faced is City's second-best return of the past five years, following 9.7 per cent in 2018-19, while 35 per cent of shots faced being on target is another welcome low under their current manager.

In his first 30 league outings, Dias contributed to 14 clean sheets and saw just 18 goals conceded. They would be impressive numbers in any circumstances, but especially so when you then remember he walked into something resembling a train wreck.

"This isn't a team I can recognise"

"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad," a shellshocked Guardiola said. Leicester again. Vardy again. 5-2 this time, having led their opening home game of the season last September.

Whatever they thought as anxiety crept in when they were unable to build upon Mahrez opening the scoring against his former club, City ended up playing very badly indeed. Three of Leicester's goals were penalties. It was all impossibly error-strewn.

"The start of this season was so messy, for everyone," captain Fernandinho told The Players' Tribute.

"The way we had to come back [for Project Restart] after three months of inactivity, then we had practically no pre-season. Nothing like that had ever happened in our careers."

A month prior to their Leicester humiliation, City collapsed to a wretched 3-1 defeat to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. That disappointment cloaked a listless start to 2020-21, as the surreal darkness of pandemic football became a numbing reality.

Guardiola was trying to pick up the pieces professionally having lost his mother to coronavirus five months earlier. The strain was understandable and visible.

Dias completed his move from Benfica two days after the Leicester defeat and was thrust into a Bielsaball baptism in a chaotic 1-1 draw against Leeds United. Far from a team of midfielders, it was hard to spot any functioning midfield at all in Guardiola's side at Elland Road.

The Portugal centre-back's leadership qualities were soon apparent and the seeds of an imperious partnership with John Stones were sown. That defensive alliance only truly flowered after a 2-0 defeat at Tottenham, which saw Aymeric Laporte lose his first-choice status.

That loss meant City had taken 12 of the first 24 points on offer, leaving them marooned in mid-table after their worst start to a Premier League season since 2008-09. Six consecutive clean sheets followed in all competitions, although a torpid 0-0 draw at Manchester United did not suggest a team in good health.

In their next game, City were eventually breached – ironically by a Dias own goal – and struggling West Brom left the Etihad Stadium with a 1-1 draw.

"After that game, I had a feeling this isn't a team I can recognise. I didn't like what I saw," Guardiola said, who convened talks with his assistants Juanma Lillo and Rodolfo Borrell, head of player support Manel Estiarte and City's director of football Txiki Begiristain.

"I said we have to come back to our first principle. We started to rebuild and reconstruct the team from that point. We had success in the past and [we had to] come back on our positional play, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay more in position, run less with the ball."

New Year's resolution

A battling 1-0 win at Southampton got things back on track and ultimately launched a 21-match winning run across all competitions, while Guardiola hailed a 2-0 Boxing Day win over Newcastle United as the best performance of the campaign.

Still, all was not well. The scheduled December 28 trip to Everton was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within City's squad and, on New Year's Eve, Guardiola did not like what he saw on the training ground.

"It was not a good session," Fernandinho recalled. "The attitude, the body language, the effort from some players, it was just obvious. Misplaced passes, players not tracking back, not running, not looking interested.

"After that session, Pep came and spoke to me as captain, as the leader of the team. He was blunt. He told me that not everyone was at 100 per cent. And, in this team, when you come to train, you do it at 100 per cent, or you stay home.

"He was right. And he made it clear that the responsibility for keeping those standards rested with me."

At 7am on New Years' Day, Fernandinho sent out messages to convene a team meeting. Home truths were spoken and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge were up next, with 14 senior outfield players fit and available.

"Before the match, I thought to myself, 'If these guys don't run here, that’s it, I'm done!'," Fernandinho said. He need not have worried.

City tore Chelsea to pieces before half-time, running out 3-1 winners and hastening Frank Lampard's move towards the exit door. Gundogan, Foden and De Bruyne got the goals and the team of midfielders were off and running.

A month later, that same configuration demolished Liverpool 4-1 at Anfield and what felt like a long shot back at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium had quickly become a formality. They are the first team to have been as low as eighth on Christmas Day and win the Premier League title.

"A real guy, a real player"

Fernandinho served as back-up to Rodri during that rampaging run, but his influence behind the scenes should not be underplayed. For all his majestic qualities on the field, David Silva lacked the capacity to rally his colleagues in the same manner last season, having inherited the armband from Vincent Kompany for his final year at the Etihad Stadium.

Dias has filled Kompany's considerable void as a defensive leader, with Fernandinho doing likewise as a squad figurehead.

There have still been memorable performances, with the Brazilian veteran somewhere close to his snapping and crackling best in a 1-0 February win at Arsenal. He started the EFL Cup final as City made it four successes in a row last month and then, on his 36th birthday, he gritted his teeth defiantly in the face of PSG's challenge, perhaps irritating Angel Di Maria in the process.

Like Aguero, Fernandinho is out of contract in June and could be set to follow Kompany, Silva, Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta out of the exit door, closing the book on their transformative era.

Since joining from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013, he has won more games (170) and completed more passes (13,821) than any other Premier League player. And yes, fans of the dark arts, no player has committed as many fouls (344) or received more yellow cards (51).

"I feel very good. The first time lifting the trophy at City, it's an amazing sensation," he told Sky Sports after his record-breaking sixth EFL Cup success and first as captain.

The sensations will be even more enjoyable when he gets his hands on the Premier League, with another more elusive prize maybe still to come.

"He's so important. He's a real guy, a real player who can play in several positions," Guardiola said, back at that pre-Leicester press conference in 2016 when he was asked how City might cope without a suspended Fernandinho. Not too well, as it turned out.

When presented with any plaudits for the successful refinement of his team's style this season, Guardiola has batted them away to insist the triumph "belongs to the players". That is certainly true in the case of Fernandinho, a midfield general and the perfect captain for this team of midfielders.

Manchester City have won their third Premier League title in the past four seasons, also making it a hat-trick of triumphs in England's top flight for manager Pep Guardiola.

Even more so than when City racked up remarkable 100 and 98-point totals in their back-to-back 2017-18 and 2018-19 successes, this has been a tale of collective endeavour.

After a November defeat at Tottenham left Guardiola's men languishing in 11th, with 12 points from eight games, a steady turnaround occurred, with City establishing irresistible momentum by the early weeks of 2021.

This version of City might not be as freewheeling and freescoring as in previous years – they are set to fall well short of the 102 goals they managed despite coming a distant second to Liverpool last term – but they have proved no less effective.

Here, we look at some of the key figures in their revival.

Ruben Dias

There were a number of factors that helped Guardiola to put the pieces back together after a crushing 5-2 defeat in City's first Premier League home game of the season versus Leicester City, but the fact they secured Dias as a club-record signing from Benfica two days later feels heavily symbolic.

The Portugal centre-back instantly provided the defensive leadership City have lacked since Vincent Kompany's departure in 2019 and shoring things up at the back took the pressure off an attack struggling to adjust to Sergio Aguero's more marginal role.

In Dias' 30 Premier League appearances, City have conceded 18 goals, four of which were penalties, set against an expected goals against (xGA) figure of 21.3. In the 30 games prior to his debut, Guardiola's men conceded 32 goals, including six penalties, from 29.5 xGA against.

The 23-year-old has unquestionably added a layer of steel that City previously lacked - something that was emphatically demonstrated by his heroic midweek showing against Paris Saint-Germain - although he is not the only player responsible for this development.

John Stones

Forlorn battles with form and fitness in 2019-20 left Stones at a career crossroads. Had Eric Garcia signed a new contract instead of running his deal down in order to join Barcelona on a free, his race might have been run at the Etihad Stadium.

Despite a lengthy chase for a senior centre-back – Dias having not been City's first choice – and Nathan Ake's arrival from Bournemouth, Stones chose to buckle down to rich rewards.

He impressed in City's opening 3-1 win over Wolves but then had to bide his time as a rotation option. Those midweek performances persuaded Guardiola to install him at Dias' first-choice partner after some unsteady outings from pervious mainstay Aymeric Laporte.

A goal-costing error on his return to England duty in March and a recent red card at Aston Villa showed some of the old frailties remain, but bravura showings in the Champions League wins at Borussia Dortmund and PSG demonstrated how far the 26-year-old has come.

With Stones on the pitch this season, City have conceded one goal every 195 minutes. Among defenders to have played at least 1,000 minutes in 2020-21, only Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger (219) has a better rate.

Joao Cancelo

Dias' compatriot Cancelo has typified two familiar elements when it comes to Guardiola teams – players often fare far better after a mixed initial season getting used to the Catalan tactician's demands, while innovation and excellence in the full-back areas is usually a sign of things being in very good working order

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning, he expected something we could not offer him but he is a nice guy with a great heart," Guardiola said in January, by which time it had become apparent how effective the former Juventus man was in his hybrid full-back/midfield role.

When City motored clear of the pack during 21-match winning run in all competitions that spanned December to March, Cancelo was key in helping to provide the numerical superiority in midfield Guardiola desires, while also proving versatile enough to operate both inside and outside from right-back or left-back.

Cancelo is the first Premier League player to average more than two tackles (2.7), 1.5 chances created (1.7) and 50 successful passes (61.5) per 90 minutes since Cesc Fabregas in 2017-18. To perhaps underline his unique interpretation of the full-back position, Cancelo is the only defender among the previous 10 players to hit these combined marks, going back to Aaron Ramsey in 2013-14.

Ilkay Gundogan

Particularly this season, everything in a Guardiola team is noticeably connected. The Dias-Stones axis has shored things up to the extent Cancelo can provide both extra midfield protection and an additional creative outlet.

A knock-on from this is Gundogan being able to make hay further up the field. When City last won the league in 2018-19, he performed with distinction in a holding midfield role during the run-in.

This term, the Germany playmaker has been unleashed to devastating effect, hitting a particular purple patch in front of goal as City swept all before them in January and February – netting braces to sink Liverpool and Spurs in the latter month.

In 26 appearances, Gundogan has scored 12 times. His 11 non-penalty goals are three better than any other midfielder in the division.

Gundogan's contributions have been particularly valuable give City's lack of a reliable goalscoring attacker, while also helping Guardiola's now go-to striker-less formation to flourish.

He could still finish the campaign as the lowest scoring top-scorer from a Premier League champion, a distinction presently held by Frank Lampard, who scored 13 times when Chelsea claimed glory in 2004-05.

Kevin De Bruyne

De Bruyne was named PFA Footballers' Footballer of the Year last season and has not stolen the limelight in quite the same way this time around. However, that is perhaps down to his team-mates not leaving him to fight a lone hand as he did for much of the previous campaign.

The Belgium maestro's contribution has still been very impressive. He has five goals and 11 assists in the Premier League, while he has now scored in City's past five Champions League knockout ties.

He has created 74 chances in 24 appearances, averaging 3.44 per 90 minutes – the best rate of any player in the Premier League, albeit down on his remarkable average of 4.37 last season.

Phil Foden

For club and country, Foden has enjoyed the kind of breakout season that seems to have been craved for some time, despite the fact he is still a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday.

A central midfielder as he came through the ranks at City, Foden has largely been deployed as a wide attacker and to devastating effect.

His 12 goal involvements (seven goals, five assists) are more than any under-21 player in the Premier League, while his performance and stunning solo goal in a 4-1 win at Anfield showed his taste for the big occasion – a priceless facet again demonstrated as the England international scored the winner in each leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Dortmund.

Having faced frequent calls to give Foden more game-time, Guardiola now counts the youngster as a practically locked-in selection for big games. As in each of his four seasons in senior football, Foden has featured more regularly, with 26 Premier League appearances and 15 starts to his name.

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