"Game's gone."

In the English-speaking football world, there are few better means to share your deepest frustrations than those two-and-a-bit words. Defending, diving, transfer fees, haircuts – there is not a pet peeve in the modern game that can escape that withering proclamation, even if nobody knows how far away 'gone' really is.

Still, nothing triggers the 'game's gone' gag reflex quite like VAR. That may prove to be the system's defining contribution: the rallying point for fans and professionals determined to bring football 'back' from this sanitised circus, where the clowns clean up the stalls mid-show while the ringmaster reminds the kids to keep fun to a minimum.

By half-time of Sunday's Premier League game between Tottenham and Manchester United, "game's gone" was cried, broadcast and tweeted with the gusto and impact you might expect. It wasn't really necessary, of course. We know the game is 'gone'. VAR has been pushing it 'gone' for months. It's a long, long way 'gone'. In fact, since it's practically a sitcom anyway: the game is so far gone that you can't even see the game. The game is a dot to you!

Edinson Cavani presumably felt like that. The Manchester United striker, already weighing up whether another season in England is worthwhile, saw his first league goal since February 6 disallowed for a foul by Scott McTominay on Son Heung-min in the build-up. Son tried and failed to grab McTominay's shirt, and the United midfielder caught him in the face with a flailing finger. Several replays in Stockley Park and on the sideline at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium convinced referee Chris Kavanagh that the contact was severe enough to merit disallowing the goal, but not to show McTominay what would have been a second yellow card. Five minutes later, Son made it 1-0 to the home side.

Predictable incandescence followed. "I'm amazed, really. If this is a foul, we should all go home. It's really bizarre," said former United captain Roy Keane on Sky Sports. Ex-Manchester City defender Micah Richards said football was beyond recognition, adding: "It's embarrassing. This is not football anymore. I know we have a laugh and joke, but it's spoiling our game."

Perhaps Jose Mourinho said it best: "I don't understand anything anymore." As for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, ever the populist: "The game is absolutely gone."

Rio Ferdinand added his fury to the frothing vitriol of social media. "Scrap VAR... an absolute shambles! The fella at Burnley volleyed Longstaff in the face earlier and wasn't a foul... now this! My tv is moments away from being on the patio in 100 pieces," the former United centre-back tweeted.

Ferdinand was comparing the Son incident to one in Newcastle United's earlier win at Burnley, when James Tarkowski was not penalised by VAR for kicking Sean Longstaff in the face while trying to clear from his own box. The message seemed to be that McTominay's errant pinkie was the more egregious, "unnatural" movement. The half-and-half screenshot memes bellowed their disapproval.

The point of retelling this story, at the end of a gripping game where United once more fought back to win away from home, is that that is what VAR is: the story. Everything else in football matches is a subplot. Spectators, who are still confined to watching at home, tune in expecting not the first goal, but the first visit to the pitchside monitor. 'The game' is played out on TV screens, in houses and stadia alike.

So what that Cavani recovered to force Fred's equaliser and then put United ahead? Who cares that Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba, lightning rods for Mourinho jibes in his United days, were standout performers? What does it matter that Spurs are now six points behind the top four and United are getting closer to Manchester City? The game's all the way over there!

To borrow a line from Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad for Real Madrid. 

A 2-1 triumph over Barcelona sees Zinedine Zidane's side take over at the top of the table. Their stay at the LaLiga summit could only last 24 hours - long-time leaders and noisy neighbours Atletico can go back above them if they take a point from their game in hand - but, make no mistake, Los Blancos are in the thick of a three-way title race.

A Clasico win - meaning they have won both league meetings in a season for the first time since 2007-08 - followed on from a 3-1 result against Liverpool in the Champions League. 

Just like in their midweek success in European action, Madrid scored twice before half-time to seize control. Barca will rue the deflection on Toni Kroos' free-kick that doubled the advantage, but they were undone for the opener by an audacious finish that capped a flowing attack.

Karim Benzema's 13th-minute goal continued a hot streak for a striker who keeps on scoring while seemingly waiting to see which rival will turn up to try and take his job.

His back-heeled finish to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen at the near post made it seven league games in a row where he has found the net. He becomes the fourth player for the club to manage such a streak in LaLiga: Cristiano Ronaldo achieved the feat four times, while Ruud van Nistelrooy (2007) and Gareth Bale (2018) are the other names on the list.

Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland have been heavily linked with Madrid, but Benzema remains the man right now.

Since Ronaldo departed the club in 2018, the Frenchman has stepped up to become the focal point in the front line. He has scored 21 LaLiga goals in each of the previous two seasons, while this term he is already up to 19. With plenty of games remaining, his career-best tally of 24, managed in 2015-16 despite making just 27 appearances, is well within his sights.

If Madrid were to retain their title, his role was always going to be significant, despite the transfer speculation. Hopes of a second successive crown appeared distant, however, when they suffered a 2-1 defeat to Levante on January 30, at which stage the champions sat seven points behind Atleti, who also had two games in hand.

Eder Militao was sent off in that Levante loss, dismissed after just eight minutes and 12 seconds. It was a short-lived third start in LaLiga this term, while the Brazilian defender had also been in the Madrid team that suffered a shock Copa del Rey exit to Alcoyano 10 days earlier.

The big-money signing from Porto in 2019 had yet to convince in the Spanish capital, to put it nicely.

His role may have remained as someone on the periphery of the first-team picture, too, had Zidane not suddenly been faced with a shortage of options to line up at the heart of his defence. However, with captain Sergio Ramos again sidelined and Raphael Varane self-isolating after testing positive for COVID-19, Militao stepped up to show his value during a critical stretch for his club.

The centre-back made a game-high six clearances on Saturday, as well as three blocks. Forget the heavy rain that beseiged Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano throughout the second half; a Barca tide came his way, yet - alongside Nacho - he made sure Madrid did not go under.

Just like against Liverpool, the makeshift pairing defied expectations. A potential point of weakness has instead helped fortify the team, with a partnership born out of necessity helping to change the outlook ahead of the run-in. If they can do something similar in the second leg at Anfield on Wednesday, a double remains distinctly doable.

Perhaps, too, Militao has shown that there can be life after Ramos, whose contract is fast running out at Madrid, just as there has been since Ronaldo said his farewells and headed for Turin.

At half-time in Saturday's Clasico, Barcelona had out-passed Real Madrid by 390 to 172 and enjoyed 69 per cent of the possession. A fat lot of good it did them.

Madrid were 2-0 up having had more shots on goal, with eight to Barca's six and more on target (3-1). Federico Valverde had also hit the post as things threatened to get truly ugly for the Blaugrana.

Ronald Koeman has seen a remarkable turnaround since the new year, with Barca transformed from also-rans to many people's title favourites heading into this 2-1 defeat to their bitter rivals.

But against elite opponents, as in painful reverses earlier this season at the hands of Madrid, Atletico, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, they again came up short. For that, their coach must take his share of the blame.

During a prior run of 13 wins and one draw in LaLiga in 2021, Koeman frequently deployed a 3-4-2-1 formation and the result was some swashbuckling performances, most notably a 6-1 routing of Real Sociedad before last month's international break.

This week's last-gasp 1-0 victory against Real Valladolid was far more laboured and Koeman blinked. Antoine Griezmann, having formed a free-flowing forward trident with Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, was consigned to the bench at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Dembele was the match-winning hero against Valladolid but here cut an isolated figure as a lone striker, with Messi dropping deeper and deeper into midfield, trying to make something – anything – happen.

For all their numbers in the middle, Barcelona could not turn their possession into clear chances, nor could their apparent control prevent them from being eviscerated time and again on the break.

Karim Benzema's backheel finish for the opener was of the highest class, but Barca looked clueless as the white shirts rushed towards them.

Perhaps mindful of his poor record in big games this season, Koeman abandoned his successful formula for an approach that left Barca painfully between two stools.

 

Messi audaciously shot directly from a corner just before half-time, outfoxing Thibaut Courtois with vicious dip to hit the post. It was the latest of countless demonstrations of his genius in this fixture, but it was also a shocking indictment of Barca's overall play that it felt like a legitimate ploy.

The enduring and repeated image of the first period was Oscar Mingueza sprinting back towards his own goal wearing an anguished look as the effervescent Vinicius Junior showed him a clean pair of heels. Madrid's Brazilian forward enjoyed a career-best outing against Liverpool this week and was in no mood for the fun to stop.

Mingueza tired of that torment and took himself off to the Madrid box in the 60th minute to shin one in after Griezmann – on at half-time – dummied a cross from Jordi Alba, the full-back who was all at sea on the first goal before failing to head Toni Kroos' deflected free-kick off the line

Having made defenders look silly earlier on, it was Vinicius' turn to revert to slapstick as he broke clear with a chance to seal the points, only to botch a pass to Benzema where the idea was bad and the execution was worse.

To add to a mounting sense of chaos in torrential rain, Zinedine Zidane started taking off all his best players with an eye on Anfield.

The concluding moments were an encapsulation of this undulating LaLiga title race – hard to predict, full of errors and utterly captivating. Martin Braithwaite had a soft penalty appeal rejected amid great fury, Casemiro clumped into Mingueza and his perpetual mayhem to earn a second yellow card.

Top since November, Atletico Madrid will go back above their neighbours at the summit if they beat Eibar on Sunday. All three heavyweights will still fancy their chances, including Barca on account of their form leading into this weekend.

That is why this felt like such a missed opportunity for Koeman. His team have been the best in the country since January but he decided not to be bold when the stakes were highest.

For all the bridges built with a distant fanbase, turbulent boardroom and a star player whose future remains in the balance, this was a damaging backwards step.

And what of Messi? As things stand, his last act in this eternal rivalry will be delivering a free-kick for Illaix Moriba to hit the crossbar before a roving Marc-Andre ter Stegen hacked away at the rebound and booted the ball up Trincao's backside.

Perhaps he'll hang around after all.

Manchester City will take an aggregate lead into the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final for the first time when they travel to Borussia Dortmund, but there was another break with tradition in Manchester this week.

An hour and 15 minutes before events got underway at the Etihad Stadium, Pep Guardiola picked a starting XI that did not lead to raised eyebrows and mass consternation.

No midfield diamond, like the one that quickly lost its shine in a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in 2018; no overt caution as in the 1-0 loss at Tottenham that preceded a crazy second leg and an exit on away goals; no unwieldy 5-3-2 within which City froze so badly against Lyon last year.

Much of the runaway Premier League leaders' success this season has been based upon Guardiola harnessing the full depths of a talent-rich squad, mastering the art of pandemic football through shrewd rotation. So, given his line-ups have become increasingly tricky to predict, the prospects of a pre-match bolt from the blue were reduced.

However, if he has a best XI, the side that eventually prevailed 2-1 against Dortmund were something close to it. A midfield trio anchored by Rodri, ablaze with Kevin De Bruyne's creativity and gilded by Ilkay Gundogan's supreme movement and timely goals. Up front there was, well… no one in particular as Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden hovered around false nine Bernardo Silva.

And at the back, in front of an unusually erratic Ederson, were City's four best defenders this season. There was Joao Cancelo, the wildcard full-back/midfield hybrid who has given Guardiola's side a new dimension and added control. On the other flank, Kyle Walker – a right-back in the most conventional sense and one of Guardiola's most reliable performers of the past four campaigns.

At centre-back, the reborn John Stones was alongside Ruben Dias. An error on his England return last month stood out so much because Stones has been immense in sky blue this term. City have only conceded seven times with him on the field this season.

Then there is Dias, who joined as a club-record signing from Benfica in the aftermath of a 5-2 defeat to Leicester City. Such humiliation has never looked like being repeated with the Portugal international in harness.

"He’s been so important so far but still we have two months before the end of the season," Guardiola said ahead of Saturday's match with Leeds United, against whom Dias made his debut six months ago.

"He has been so important in the leadership and quality he has."

Despite their impressive individual performances, the Dortmund game was only the fifth time the Walker-Stones-Dias-Cancelo quartet has lined up together.

Given City have two Wembley dates this month and possibly more showpiece encounters to come as they pursue honours on four fronts, their potential status as a go-to defensive line is interesting, mainly because it is a setup in which the influential Dias seems a little uncomfortable.

The reason for this is rooted in the fact that, since City embarked upon their remarkable ongoing run of 27 wins in 28 matches, Guardiola's back four has not really been a back four.

In possession, which is most of the time when you're Manchester City, Cancelo's role is generally to bolster the midfield numbers. When Guardiola highlighted some of City's struggles in central areas against Dortmund, it was Rodri and Cancelo – tellingly not one of the Spain international's teamsheet midfield colleagues – who he namechecked.

That leaves three strung across the backline to start the build-up, a fundamental basis for any strong Guardiola performance. When Cancelo has started nominally from right-back, that three is usually Stones-Dias-Oleksandr Zinchenko. Walker's starts at right-back have often come with the left-footed central defender Aymeric Laporte in the line-up, meaning the back three in possession is Walker-Dias-Laporte.

Dias thrives in this position at the heart of things, with ball players on their natural sides flanking him. The problem when Walker and Cancelo start is Dias ends up on the left of the three, with Stones central.

"You are completely right, good point," Guardiola conceded when it was raised Dias was put slightly out of his comfort zone in midweek.

"We don't have left footer to pass the ball to the wider winger quicker with a natural left foot. That's true.

"But in that game we needed specifically Ruben in that position, with John, and that's why you use it. We won for other aspects in other positions and other situations."

So, Guardiola felt the trade-off was worth it due to benefits elsewhere. Considering how City came on strong down the stretch before Foden's dramatic winner, it is hard to argue too much.

A closer inspection of the games Walker, Stones, Dias and Cancelo have started shows Marco Reus' equaliser for Dortmund was the first goal City have conceded in this configuration. Previously, they drew 0-0 at Manchester United, beat Southampton 1-0 and Aston Villa and Borussia Monchengladbach 2-0, although Walker went off injured before half-time versus Villa and was replaced by Zinchenko.

But what of Dias? When starting with Stones, Walker and Cancelo, he averages 12 fewer passes per 90 minutes (78 down from 90) at a lower accuracy (91.1 from 93.8) than his overall season statistics, suggesting he is not so sure in possession on his unfavoured side of the field.

His duel success rate drops from 62.7 per cent to 50, with aerials falling from 66.1 to 54.5 per cent. His tackles per 90 minutes track upwards slightly from 0.9 to 1.3, although this could indicate the build-up flaws of this back three/four means more last-ditch defensive work.

Another game where Dias was on the left of the three in possession came in February against West Ham, where Walker started and Zinchenko performed the Cancelo role from the left.

Although Dias and Stones were the goalscoring heroes in a 2-1 win, City were ragged and Opta's expected goals (xG) figures for the game saw David Moyes' men 1.9-0.5 to the good at full-time, indicating Guardiola's normally smooth outfit rode their luck.

These are minor drop-offs and it is not as if City have looked useless in the games mentioned above. However, as Guardiola often likes to say, the biggest games can come down to the "small details".

Having the man who turned his defence around performing an uncomfortable task on one of those occasions is a risk he should perhaps avoid.

Joe Burrow showcased enough in his Ohio homecoming to suggest he has a chance to be the Cincinnati Bengals' saviour at quarterback.

But, after the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft saw a promising rookie season snuffed out by a serious knee injury, there is as much tension as there is excitement surrounding the Bengals.

Burrow tore his ACL and his MCL in a Week 11 meeting with the Washington Football Team, the Bengals losing four of their six games with him on the sideline to finish 4-11-1.

The relatively smooth transition Burrow made to the pros should raise hopes he can be the man to eventually bring success to a franchise that has not won a playoff game since the 1990 season.

Yet recoveries from injuries as severe as that of Burrow's are far from guaranteed and the holes on a roster that still looks some way from legitimate contention could mean another year of struggle for Cincinnati.

That may spell trouble for head coach Zac Taylor, who heads into year three as head coach with just six wins to his name.

What do the Bengals need to do to produce more tangible signs of progress in 2021? 

We used Stats Perform data to look back on their 2020 and their offseason moves so far to identify areas of focus for the coming year.

Offense

The set-up in Cincinnati was not conducive to success for a rookie quarterback, and the numbers bore that out in 2020.

Cincinnati ranked 30th in yards per play with an average of 4.92 while they were 28th in yards per pass play (5.48).

Yet Burrow's individual numbers from his 10 games suggest he was the right pick for a team that has been nothing short of moribund since their trip to the postseason in 2015.

Burrow ranked seventh in the NFL in yards per game (268.8) across his 10 appearances for Bengals from Week 1 to 11, with his average impacted by his injury against Washington.

He had five 300-yard passing games and averaged a poor throw every 13.1 attempts, a better rate than Josh Allen (11.4), Deshaun Watson (11.9) and Lamar Jackson (12.5).

However, Burrow's numbers as a deep-ball passer were very disappointing. His 23 pass completions of 20 yards or more were two fewer than Dak Prescott, who played only five games, and he completed just eight of his 42 attempts of at least 21 air yards.

Burrow's passer rating on those throws was 53.9, 26th of 28 quarterbacks with at least 25 such passes.

He likely would have fared better going downfield had he benefited from greater protection. Burrow was sacked on 7.34 per cent of his dropbacks, the 10th-highest rate among quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks.

But Burrow can have confidence in his receivers. Tee Higgins' 908 receiving yards were the third-most among rookies in 2020 and both he and Tyler Boyd, who had 841 yards, proved dependable options on third down.

Twelve of Higgins' 14 third-down receptions went for a first down, while Boyd moved the chains on 15 of his 19 third-down catches.

Cincinnati's rushing attack was just as inefficient as the passing game, the Bengals ranking 27th with 4.06 yards per attempt.

Only four teams had fewer runs of 10 yards or more than the Bengals' 37, with Joe Mixon averaging only 3.6 yards per rush across his six games after signing a contract extension, his year prematurely ended by a foot injury.

Burrow and Mixon having their seasons curtailed cut short any intrigue surrounding the Bengals in 2020, and they won't be interesting in 2021 unless their signal-caller receives better assistance from the offensive line and a defense that ranked among the league's most porous last season.

Defense

The most complimentary thing you could say about the Bengals' defense last year was that it showed some signs of developing into a 'bend but don't break' unit.

Cincinnati allowed 6.10 yards per play in 2020, ranking 28th, yet they were closer to the middle of the pack in terms of points conceded.

The Bengals were 22nd in offensive points allowed (410), and 21st in opponent scoring efficiency, allowing a touchdown or field on 78 of 180 opponent drives.

While those numbers were far from the worst in the NFL, the Bengals defense still bent and broke far too often for Cincinnati to compete on a week-to-week basis.

Simply put, the Bengals did not do enough to put opposing offenses in difficult situations.

Cincinnati's tally of 67 negative plays forced was 30th in the NFL, with the negative play yardage of minus 208 yards the lowest in the league.

Only four teams produced fewer takeaways than their 17 turnovers, which produced a total of 47 points that ranked tied for 25th.

An anaemic pass rush was a critical reason for their inability to take the ball away. Cincinnati had the fewest sacks in the NFL (17) and the fourth-fewest quarterback knockdowns (66).

As was the case on offense, the running game provided little relief for Cincinnati, the Bengals continually gashed by opposing ground games.

Only the Houston Texans (5.20), allowed a higher yards per carry average than the 5.11 yards per attempt the Bengals gave up.

Additionally, opponents racked up 73 runs of 10 yards or more against the Bengals defense, 22 more than the league average of 51.

Despite a busy free agency, there isn't much to suggest Cincinnati will be drastically improved on that side of the ball in 2021.

Offseason

The Bengals lost their most disruptive pass rusher from last season as edge rusher Carl Lawson departed for the New York Jets in free agency.

Lawson had only 5.5 sacks but racked up 32 quarterback hits, with his combined hurries and knockdowns tally of 65.5 tied for ninth in the NFL.

Cincinnati immediately replaced Lawson by signing Trey Hendrickson to a four-year, $60million deal after his breakout season with the New Orleans Saints.

The Bengals are banking on Hendrickson being able to consistently replicate a 2020 season that saw him record 13.5 sacks, though that may be a more difficult task playing in front of a secondary that lost arguably its best player with William Jackson III leaving for Washington.

Jackson had double-digit pass deflections in three of his four seasons with Cincinnati and is coming off a year in which he had a burn percentage in coverage of 46.5, his lowest since his rookie campaign (34.7).

They filled the void he left by gambling on the athleticism of former Dallas Cowboy cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, whose burn percentage of 59.5 for his career is significantly worse than Jackson's 48.2.

Cincinnati can afford to have more confidence in Mike Hilton's reliability as a nickel cornerback. Hilton comes across from the Pittsburgh Steelers having posted a career-high three interceptions in just six starts last season.

The Bengals demonstrated their understanding of the need to better protect Burrow by signing left tackle Riley Reiff to a one-year deal after he allowed only two sacks and was penalised just once in 15 games for the Minnesota Vikings in 2020.

But Reiff is entering the latter half of his career at 32, meaning his arrival certainly should not prohibit the Bengals from targeting a top-tier offensive line prospect like Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater with the fifth overall pick in the first round.

With wide receiver A.J. Green ending his long association with Cincinnati by signing with the Arizona Cardinals, there may be a temptation to give Burrow, who has already endorsed the potential selection of former LSU team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, a dynamic third option to go with Higgins and Boyd.

However, after their failure to protect Burrow left him facing a lengthy recovery process to get back to the field, the Bengals must prioritise players who can give him a clean pocket from which he can put the franchise back on the road to prominence.

It was billed as one of the most important Clasicos in years. The outcome, it was said, could set the tone for the entire season and, by extension, the future of Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian's revelation he wanted to leave was still ringing in the ears of Barca directors two months on in October last year. While they'd managed to keep hold of him, owing to Messi's reluctance to drag his club through the courts, his form on the pitch hardly suggested he was at peace.

One goal in four LaLiga matches heading into that October 24 Clasico was his slowest start to a season since 2005-06 when he was a fresh-faced teenager still trying to establish himself.

What followed at Camp Nou on that Saturday looked set to plunge Barca further into crisis, as the Catalans lost 3-1 to Madrid despite dominating much of the match. It was a bad look for new coach Ronald Koeman – already under-fire – as well as Messi, whose failure to score took him to 515 minutes without a goal against Los Blancos in LaLiga, just seven shy of his worst ever barren run in El Clasico.

Messi's proviso for staying beyond the end of 2020-21 was that Barca had to look capable of winning titles; while supporters felt hard done by given Sergio Ramos' theatrics when winning a penalty, there was little in the Blaugrana's performance to suggest a title tilt was realistic.

But here we are, a little over five months later, and the outlook is rather different.

Koeman gets to know his squad

"Koeman explodes," read the front page of Mundo Deportivo the next day. "A Clasico robbery," declared Sport. Both publications listed their grievances with the result but largely glossed over Barca's issues.

This was more than just a one-off defeat in a Clasico, it was the second of four league losses in a run of just seven games. That run, culminating in a shock loss to promoted Cadiz in December, saw them suffer at least four defeats in the first 10 LaLiga matches of the season for only the second time since 1988.

 

Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Koeman.

His decision to implement his favoured 4-2-3-1 system wasn't necessarily surprising, but given Barca's attachment to 4-3-3, it was certainly seen as a bold move.

To say that it flatly didn't work wouldn't be entirely accurate, but Koeman's subsequent search for alternative set-ups speaks to the fact Barca weren't convincing.

Since suffering back-to-back defeats to Cadiz and Juventus at the start of December, Koeman has largely – depending on personnel and opponents – switched between 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1.

While their form hasn't been perfect across all fronts, they've not lost a LaLiga game since. The move to a back three in particular has appeared to resonate with the Barca squad, winning six of seven league – and conceding just three goals – matches when operating with such a defensive structure.

That 85.7 per cent win ratio is a significant improvement on the 63.6 per cent recorded in games where they've deployed a back four, suggesting the three-man defence allows for greater harmony across the team.

Frenkie finds his feet

Koeman's tinkering has helped bring the best out of several areas of the team, but most notably the centre of midfield. While Sergio Busquets has received widespread praise, arguably the two main benefactors have been Frenkie de Jong and Pedri.

De Jong's first season at Barca, while by no means bad, was hardly scintillating, and Koeman's arrival initially saw him placed in a double pivot, though activity maps show he often got drawn out to the left.

But over the season as a whole, compared to 2019-20, De Jong has clearly made good strides and is enjoying greater attacking freedom.

As across the entirety of last season, the former Ajax man has made 29 league appearances in 2020-21, but his goal involvements have enjoyed a boost (two goals, two assists in 2019-20, three goals and four assists in 2020-21). Added to that, he's averaging 1.1 key passes per game, up from 0.9.

 

But it's De Jong's general influence that has increased most, with his 87.1 touches per game up considerably from 66.2, while he averages 25.3 carries per game, as opposed to 17.7 last term.

Not only have De Jong's team-mates seemingly placed greater trust in him, but he's relishing the added responsibility. The Netherlands midfielder is seeing much more of the ball and using his increased influence effectively.

No player in LaLiga has covered more distance carrying the ball upfield than De Jong (4,375.8 metres), while he also leads the league in total progressive carries (405) and is second only to Pau Torres on progressive carries of 10 yards or more (168).

Indeed, De Jong ranks towards the top of almost every metric relating to ball carries, highlighting just how important he is to Barca getting up the pitch.

The heir apparent

It quickly became clear Pedri was going to establish himself in the Barca first-team squad following his move from Las Palmas, convincing the club they would be better served keeping the teenager around than sending him out on loan.

But it's only been since Koeman altered his position that he's really come to life, essentially nailing down a place in the starting XI.

For the first few months of the season, Pedri often operated from a slightly wider position, cutting in from the left onto his right foot. Now, while he still often drifts out to the left flank, the Spain international is spending more time in the central zone outside the opposition's penalty area.

 

He is averaging 26.9 more touches per game since the first 10 matches of the season – understandable given he's operating closer to the thick of the action – and that in turn has helped him create 1.4 chances per game, up from 0.8.

But to focus solely on that would be to do Pedri a disservice. His talent as a fine passer and nimble mover make him the ideal attacking conduit, as evidenced by his 132 shot-ending open-play sequences – ranking third among LaLiga midfielders to have played 900 minutes or more this term.

In fact, of these players, Pedri is involved in the most shot-ending open-play sequences per 90 minutes (6.2).

Andres Iniesta comparisons might be considered a little over the top at this point, but there's certainly no doubt the teenager is thriving. Maybe he could be the World Cup winner's heir...

Messi's miraculous revival

The chief instigator in Barca's revival has, of course, been Messi himself. Having only scored four times, with no assists, in Barca's first 10 league games this term, he's netted 19 and laid on eight in 17 since.

It has been a remarkable resurgence and central to Barca's climb up the table, with the Blaugrana's unbeaten run undoubtedly inspired by their talisman.

Messi's improvement has been almost inexplicable because his shooting habits haven't changed massively. After all, his shots per game are only up slightly from 4.9 to 6.0, with this increase spread across his efforts from both inside the box (2.9 shots per 90, up from 2.4) and outside the area (3.4 shots per 90, up from 2.7).

Again, there's not a huge difference in his expected goals (xG) value per shot, with his efforts worth 0.11 on average until December 6 and 0.13 since, yet Messi has gone from underperforming his overall xG (four goals, 5.6 xG) to massively overperforming (19 goals, 12.9 xG).

 

One potential explanation comes from looking at his shot maps over the two periods in question. Messi does now appear to be getting into the centre of the box more often, with as many as 10 of his 18 goals (excluding penalties) coming from this part of the pitch.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that Messi, without a significant pre-season, saw his preparations for the new campaign interrupted heavily by the off-field controversy. That period of turmoil will surely have taken its toll mentally, perhaps making it inevitable that his focus should drift and his form suffer.

Whatever the reason, Koeman has got Messi back on track and his team-mates able contributing in recent months, seemingly ensuring the coach will be safe for another season.

But the job is not done yet. Messi wanted Koeman and Barca to prove that winning titles was possible. They've more or less done that and now need his brilliance to guide them through a do-or-die Clasico.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not alone in facing a conundrum as he decides on who will play in goal for Manchester United against Tottenham.

Fantasy football players across the globe may also be wondering who to back between the sticks this weekend. Well, we might just be able to settle the debate.

As the Premier League season enters its decisive final weeks, we've got a handful of suggestions to give you the edge when it comes to your fantasy leagues, and one or two may just surprise you.

Without further ado, here are our picks for matchday 31, based on Opta data.

 

DEAN HENDERSON

Since taking over the number one spot with United while David de Gea was on parenting duties, Henderson has given little reason to suggest he should be dropped.

The England man might only have made four appearances in the top flight in 2021 but, of the 11 shots he has faced, he has saved all but one of them. That gives him a save percentage of 91, the best in the competition among keepers to play at least twice.

He could well be entrusted to keep Harry Kane and company at bay when United face Tottenham.

ANDY ROBERTSON

Even during a much more difficult season at Liverpool, Robertson continues to offer value as a defender given his undiminished attacking proclivities.

Only Aaron Cresswell (seven) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals among defenders this season than Robertson (six).

The Scotland left-back has had 80 touches in the opposition box, by far the most for a defender this term. He's an attacking threat to rely on.

 

JOHN STONES

Not only has Stones won back his place in Pep Guardiola's first-choice defence, he's even started proving a menace in the opposition box this year.

The centre-back has scored four goals in 2021, the most of any Premier League defender, having only managed one in his first 170 games in the top flight.

Given he already has eight clean sheets this year, behind only Cesar Azpilicueta (nine) among defenders, he should practically walk into fantasy teams at present.

JESSE LINGARD

He's been talked about pretty much every week since joining West Ham on loan – and for good reason.

Since his league debut for the Hammers in February, Lingard has been directly involved in nine goals (six scored, three assisted), matching Kane (seven scored, two assisted) for the most involvements of any player in the competition in that time.

West Ham face a tough test against Leicester City on Sunday, but Lingard has good recent memories of facing the Foxes: he scored the second goal when Manchester United won 2-0 at the King Power Stadium on the final day of last season.

 

RAPHINHA

Patrick Bamford has enjoyed a strong first Premier League season for Leeds United, but few would deny that Raphinha has been their standout attacking performer.

No Leeds player has created more chances (55) or provided more assists (six) than the Brazilian, who has also scored six goals of his own in 2020-21, most recently in the 2-1 win at Fulham on March 19.

If anyone can cause problems for Manchester City on Saturday, it's him.

DANNY WELBECK

Welbeck is enjoying a decent run of form for Brighton and Hove Albion, with goals in his previous two games against Newcastle United and boyhood club Manchester United.

The 30-year-old hasn't managed to score in three in a row in the Premier League since January 2014, but Everton might just be the ideal opposition for him to do just that.

Welbeck has more direct goal involvements (eight – four scored, four assisted) against the Toffees than he does against any other top-flight team. His goals have come for three different teams, too: United, Arsenal and Sunderland.

 

AYOZE PEREZ

Perez is another man with fond memories of his coming opponents.

The forward has managed three goals and three assists in his previous seven league games against West Ham, making them his most profitable opponents after Southampton.

Kelechi Iheanacho is the man in form at Leicester City, but Perez could well be a safe bet to make a decisive impact against the Hammers.

Few would forget the previous meeting between Tottenham and Manchester United – least of all Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The Red Devils manager described the 6-1 battering at Old Trafford as "my worst day ever", and "very embarrassing" as he tried to come to terms with United's heaviest defeat since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and some deeply worrying performance levels from his players.

It marked the first time since 1986-87 that United had lost their first two league games of a season, with Crystal Palace having humbled them 3-1 on matchday one. The intervening match was a borderline miraculous 3-2 win at Brighton and Hove Albion, when Bruno Fernandes scored a penalty in the 100th minute after the hosts had hit the woodwork five times.

While Jose Mourinho could celebrate vengeance on his old club, fans and pundits feared for his successor. Gary Neville blasted the "spineless" players as "absolutely pathetic"; Patrice Evra, sitting shellshocked in a Sky Sports studio, told the United stars: "Look in the mirror and be honest – you're an embarrassment."

In fact, it seemed Solskjaer was alone in promising United would bounce back. His vow to fight to turn things around sounded almost blindly optimistic, as Spurs suddenly looked the most obvious dark horse to challenge Liverpool and Manchester City in the title race.

And yet, ahead of Sunday's match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, only one manager is facing serious, persistent questions about his future – and it's not the man from Norway.

Now, it's Spurs who look to be going backwards, as the clamour for a change in the dugout grows and the incumbent looks increasingly unable to fix the problems.

ROLE-REVERSAL

Spurs' 6-1 win moved them to seven points from their first four matches and left United four points and 11 goals behind in the table.

Since that game, the two teams' trajectories have been very different. United have taken 57 points from their most recent 27 matches, 15 more than Spurs, who have played a game less. Solskjaer's men in that time are behind only Man City when it comes to most points, most wins (16), most goals scored (53) and fewest conceded (22), with each side suffering a league-low two defeats.

Spurs, by contrast, have won 12 and lost eight since that Old Trafford visit, scoring 39 goals (the second-lowest in the top seven) and conceding 27 (the joint-most in the top seven). They have lost more times in home games since then (three) than United have in total (two), while the Red Devils have won eight of their most recent 14 away league matches as part of a club-record run of 22 on the road without defeat.

Goals have been a particular concern for Spurs despite the spectacular form of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Spurs outperformed their expected goals by nearly a factor of two in the win over United and have surpassed their seasonal xG in the Premier League by eight, showing the benefit of their ruthless centre-forwards. Such figures are always likely to even out eventually: in their most recent game at Newcastle United, xG suggests a 2-2 draw was just about the best result they could have hoped for on the day given the quality of chances they created and conceded.

'A BRITTLE HORSE'

Arsenal loanee Joe Willock's 85th-minute equaliser for Newcastle saw Spurs drop yet more points due to late drama. This season, they have given up 11 points thanks to goals conceded in the final 10 minutes of matches, the most of any side in the division.

Kane's double meant they had been winning at half-time, making that game at St James' Park the sixth in 2020-21 in which they have failed to win after leading at the break – again, the worst such figure in the top flight.

It has become a worrying habit for Mourinho's teams. During his first 120 Premier League games in charge of Chelsea, Mourinho saw his side drop only 14 points from winning positions and just six in their title-winning seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06. His United side gave up 18 points from winning positions in 93 matches; in 56 games at Spurs, he has watched his players surrender 26 points.

By contrast, United have become better at holding onto results. After giving up 14 points from winning positions last season, they have only surrendered seven in 2020-21, the same number as leaders City. Crucially, they have gained more points from losing positions (25) than any other Premier League side this term, underlining Solskjaer's demands for more "robustness" from his players.

That difference in holding onto points between Mourinho's old and present team has little to do with luck, or 'Spursyness', or even Bruno Fernandes penalties (he's scored four in 17 league games in 2021). Rather, it seems a natural result of stylistic differences, of percentages (mostly) playing out in United's favour.

THE 'UNITED WAY' IS WORKING

While United have scored 53 goals in 27 league games since losing to Spurs – fewer only than Man City (60 in 28) – Mourinho's men have scored 39 in 26, the sixth-best tally in that time frame.

Like Spurs, United are outperforming their xG for this season (by seven), but their superior goalscoring – and results – have emerged from what appears to be a broadly more attacking attitude since that October hammering.

United have attempted 390 shots since that defeat, fewer only than Man City (424). Of those shots, 163 have been on target, just one down on the league leaders. As for Spurs, they have attempted 268 shots in their most recent 26 games – that's the sixth-lowest figure in the league, and three behind Steve Bruce's much-maligned Newcastle United.

It follows that their chances created (186) is also the sixth-lowest number in the division in that time, and 124 behind United, who are again second only to Man City in this category.

The best Mourinho teams have been famously intransigent when it comes to giving up chances to their opponents, but again, Spurs do not fall into such a category. Since beating United, Spurs have faced 337 shots, more than 11 other clubs including north London rivals Arsenal (298), struggling Fulham (297) and Southampton (285). They have conceded 27 goals in that time; only West Ham (33) have let in more among sides currently in the top seven in the table.

In the same time period, United have faced 284 shots – that may only be the sixth-best in the league, but it's a major improvement on Spurs' tally – with only 22 finding a way in.

United are not the finished article, of course, and Spurs could yet end this troubled season with a top-four finish and an EFL Cup. Still, Solskjaer is making much stronger progress than Mourinho – something that seemed implausible six months ago.

At the onset of the season, the Atlanta Hawks were a trendy pick to be a team that could fight their way into the playoffs and be tough to eliminate in a postseason series. 

Sure, they finished mere percentage points ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season, but with the returning core of All-Star Trae Young, John Collins and De'Andre Hunter, plus the offseason additions of Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo, there was plenty of reason to believe the Hawks could capture their first playoff berth since 2017 in a top-heavy yet mostly mediocre Eastern Conference.

Injuries to Hunter, Gallinari and Bogdanovic, however, stunted Atlanta's growth, and the team sputtered over the season's first two months. And with another blown fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Southeast Division rivals the Miami Heat on February 28, the Hawks' record dropped to 14-20 as they slid into 11th place in the East, prompting team president Travis Schlenk to fire coach Lloyd Pierce less than halfway into his third season at the helm.

Schlenk believed the season could be salvaged and needed a new voice, promoting assistant Nate McMillan to interim coach.

The Hawks have responded.

They've since compiled a 13-5 record – behind only the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers among East clubs – to move into a virtual tie for the Southeast lead with the Charlotte Hornets, and into fifth place in the conference. They have also navigated around a recent injury to Collins, going 4-1 since he sprained his left ankle.

There are several reasons for Atlanta's surge, but it's no coincidence the turnaround under McMillan has coincided with the return of Bogdanovic.

Lured away from the Sacramento Kings on a four-year, $72million deal, Bogdanovic looked like a bust early, averaging 9.9 points on 38.5 per cent shooting and 36.2 per cent on three-point attempts in his first nine games, before missing the next 25 through the end of February with a sprained knee.

After working out the rust over a few games upon returning, Bogdanovic has found his shot and is thriving.

Since March 24, his 66.4 eFG (effective field goal) percentage ranks third in the NBA among the 99 players with a minimum of 75 attempts, while his 53.3 per cent shooting from beyond the arc ranks fifth among the 92 shooters with at least 35 three-point tries.

He was inserted into the starting lineup on March 26, and with Bogdanovic and Young together on the court, the Hawks have been lethal, averaging 117.1 points per 100 possessions, 49.4 per cent shooting and 45.7 per cent on three-pointers. Without them, they are averaging 102.7 points per 100 possessions, 41.7 per cent on field goals and 33.3 per cent on threes.

Bogdanovic has been especially deadly from the wing since McMillan tabbed him as a starter. Since March 26, his 21 three-pointers from the wing is just one fewer than Miami's Duncan Robinson for the league lead, while his 46.7 per cent shooting from the wing ranks fourth among the 47 players with a minimum of 25 attempts.

Young's scoring has dropped since Bogdanovic cracked the starting five (20.9 ppg since March 26 after previously averaging 25.8 ppg), but he's been distributing the ball to his teammates a little more (10.4 assists per game since March 26 after previously averaging 9.4 apg).

Since March 26, Young has assisted on 20 made baskets by Bogdanovic – the most by a guard to a single teammate – and 16 by Capela.

The Young-to-Capela show is nothing new, however, as Young has fed Capela on 99 made baskets on the season – fourth-most by any player to a teammate. Atop that list is Young’s 121 assists to Collins, and the Hawks are hopeful the two can add to this number as early as next week with Collins back practising.

Capela has had more opportunities inside with Collins sidelined, but really, he's been a beast in the paint all season.

The league's top offensive rebounder at 4.8 per game, Capela is third in the NBA in second-chance scoring at 4.6 points per game (minimum 20 games played).

His production in the interior has also increased with Bogdanovic starting, as he has been averaging 6.7 dunks and layups per game since March 26 – second in the league behind Zion Williamson's average of 10.6 per game. Prior to March 26, Capela averaged 5.5 dunks and layups per game.

Like Bogdanovic, Gallinari also got off to a sluggish start to the season and also dealt with an ailment, missing 12 games with multiple foot injuries. But also, similarly to Bogdanovic, he's found his stroke.

After averaging 11.2 points on 38.6 per cent shooting from the floor and 37.8 per cent from beyond the arc in his first 23 games, Gallinari is averaging 16.3 points on 47.6 per cent shooting – including 43.5 per cent on threes in his last 15. He's been one of the league's best at connecting on three-pointers from the wing since March 1, draining 47.1 per cent – the fourth-highest rate in the league among the 77 players with 50 or more attempts.

Gallinari hasn't been the only contributor off the bench for the Hawks over the last week.

At the trade deadline, the Hawks shipped Rondo to the Los Angeles Clippers for 16-year veteran Lou Williams to provide another scorer off the bench. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year Award winner is averaging 13.2 points and 3.4 assists in four games, rejuvenating the reserves since making his Hawks debut on April 1.

With Williams on board, Atlanta's bench ranks fifth in scoring (43.6 ppg), ninth in shooting (46.8 per cent) and second in three-point shooting (53.8 per cent) since the start of April. Prior to April, the bench ranked 27th in scoring (31.7 ppg), 30th in shooting (40.3 per cent) and 16th in three-point shooting (35.9 per cent).

While the Hawks have become healthier – despite the recent injury to Collins – and are getting more production from their bench, they are also showing a proficiency at closing out games. Instead of wilting late, they are now flourishing.

The loss to the Heat on February 28 marked the 11th setback of the season for Atlanta in a game in which they led in the fourth quarter, and only league-worst Minnesota had more through the end of February with 12. Since the beginning of March, however, the Hawks are 13-2 when holding a fourth-quarter lead, and only the Denver Nuggets (15), Brooklyn Nets (14) and Phoenix Suns (14) have more such victories.

The Hawks' recent fourth-quarter figures are startling. Their PPG average has been 27.7 since March 1 after being 27.1 previously, representing a small improvement. Yet in that same period their opponents have averaged just 24.3 fourth-quarter points compared to 29.0 in the first 34 games of the season, Atlanta's three-point percentage has switched from 34.8 per cent before March to 41.9 per cent during the games since, and their PPG differential has switched up from being minus 1.9 prior to the upturn to plus 3.4 in their subsequent outings.

That means in terms of fourth-quarter progression they have gone from being 15th in PPG in games before March to eighth since, from 29th to second in opposition PPG, from 19th to second in three-point percentage, and from 29th to first place in PPG/difference.

Atlanta have played their way into a playoff position, and now the trick is staying there. One advantage the Hawks have going for them, though, is they have a relatively easy path the rest of the way.

Through the end of February when the team fired Pierce, Atlanta had the eighth-toughest strength of schedule (.512 opponents' winning percentage). The Hawks then made their push since the beginning of March with a schedule that was the eighth easiest (.478), and now they have the sixth-easiest schedule through the rest of the season (.480).

A moment to sum up the unflinching, non-negotiable terms of Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain's instant Champions League classic came just before the hour mark at the Allianz Arena.

Bayern head coach Hansi Flick hollered loudly and gestured insistently for his team to push up, to attack more, having pulled the deficit back to 2-1 but seen no reward thus far for their second-half bombardment of a PSG goal expertly patrolled by Keylor Navas.

Seconds later, Kylian Mbappe burst clear into the snow-flecked open spaces. "High line? Fine by me."

Manuel Neuer stared into the whites of the eyes of the forward phenomenon who embarrassed him in the third minute. Not this time.

The experienced goalkeeper stood firm to save, although Mbappe had already embarrassed himself slightly by straying needlessly offside. Who was going to catch him?

It was a night where excellence and errors were were ladled into a heady cocktail to be hastily knocked back and refilled over and over, the cagey feel of last season's final blown away in the blizzard.

Bayern were without Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry and lost Leon Goretzka and Niklas Sule before half-time. Marquinhos hobbled off after making it 2-0 to PSG – Neymar laying it on as he did for Mbappe to move on to 25 assists in the Champions League, more than any other player since his 2013-14 debut in the competition.

Left-back Abdou Diallo was the latest victim of a game that should have come with a health warning to those involved, meaning the visiting defence that started the second half was even more threadbare.

Still, Mauricio Pochettino instructed his troops to sit goadingly deep, inviting Bayern on to leave brutal counters for Mbappe and Neymar on the table.

Attacking with their usual uncompromising intensity without the figurehead of Lewandowski appeared fraught with danger, but Bayern did it anyway.

The often maligned Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting headed home Benjamin Pavard's cross to reduce the arrears, although there were moments when Leroy Sane flashed low balls across the six-yard box to nobody in particular when Lewandowski's absence was keenly felt.

In his own inimitable fashion, Thomas Muller sought to shoulder the burden left by his usual strike partner.

When faced with the likes of Mbappe and Neymar, Muller will never match them for aesthetics. His first act of the match was to turn away from a Lucas Hernandez pass, make a multi-limbed attempt to control the ball and somehow send it back into the full-back's path for a shot on goal.

It often doesn't look pretty, but Muller finds a way. As he did when converting Joshua Kimmich's free-kick to equalise with an hour played – one of an astonishing 10 chances created over the course of the 90 minutes by the majestic Bayern midfielder.

Muller's 24 goals in Champions League knockout games is fourth on the all-time list behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Lewandowski

Five minutes after scoring, he received treatment for a bleeding cut behind his ear. Five minutes from time, he was splayed out in the PSG penalty area having seen a shot on the turn deflected just wide.

By that point, Mbappe had tormented Sule's replacement Jerome Boateng and drilled in a low strike to re-establish PSG's lead and his own advantage in the duel with Neuer, which is sure to conclude thrillingly in Paris next week.

Because, even considering the misadventure and the walking wounded – Angel Di Maria set up Mbappe's winner before a hamstring injury added him to the list of casualties – Flick and Pochettino are unlikely to divert from this script.

Flick will reason all teams in the world are vulnerable to Mbappe and Neymar, but he will look to PSG's second-leg trials against Barcelona and Manchester United in the recent past and hope to reawaken those ghosts. This was Bayern's first Champions League defeat in 20 games so self-belief should be intact.

Pochettino has Mbappe with eight goals to his name in this season's competition and a brace at Bayern to sit alongside his hat-trick at Camp Nou. Him and Neymar feel like they're on a mission and unwilling to take a backwards step.

Next Tuesday cannot come around quickly enough. It probably won't stay 3-2 for long.

Kevin De Bruyne is staying at "home" after Manchester City announced he has extended his deal with the club.

The Belgian playmaker – who arrived from Wolfsburg in August 2015 – has signed for a further two years, meaning he will remain at the Etihad Stadium until 2025.

There have already been plenty of highlights in a City career that has included two Premier League titles, one FA Cup success and four triumphs in the EFL Cup.

Stats Perform News has picked out some of the most memorable peformances from De Bruyne, who has made a habit of producing his best in the biggest games, both domestically and in Europe.

 

Towering over the Parisians – Manchester City 1 Paris Saint-Germain 0 (April 12, 2016)

De Bruyne instantly established himself as a vital member of Manuel Pellegrini's City team with four goals in his first five starts, but an ankle ligament injury in January 2016 proved damaging as their Premier League title challenge faded. He had regained form and fitness by the time a Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain came around. fA clinical opener with City under pressure during the first leg set in motion a gripping 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes and there was little to choose between the sides in the return until De Bruyne took aim from the edge of the box and sent the Etihad Stadium into raptures.

Slaying Messi and company – Manchester City 3 Barcelona 1 (November 1, 2016)

Pep Guardiola deployed De Bruyne as a striker at Camp Nou – a move that backfired in a 4-0 loss as goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was sent off. In the return Champions League group game, Lionel Messi crafted a majestic opener. Barca conceded an equaliser to Ilkay Gundogan, leaving De Bruyne to bend the game to his will – crashing in a free-kick after the break, while rendering the visitors' feted midfield overmatched and overrun time and again before being the catalyst for midfielder Gundogan's game-sealing third.

Happy return to Stamford Bridge – Chelsea 0 Manchester City 1 (September 30, 2017)

A frustrating spell at Chelsea yielded a mere two Premier League starts before De Bruyne pushed for a move to Wolfsburg. His fruitful time in the Bundesliga, where his efforts in 2014-15 saw him named Player of the Year, and subsequent brilliance for City showed that to be a wise career choice. De Bruyne enjoyed a moment of sublime vindication at Stamford Bridge when he strode forward, exchanged passes with Gabriel Jesus and arrowed an unstoppable left-footed shot beyond compatriot Thibaut Courtois.

Masterclass leads to seventh heaven – Manchester City 7 Stoke City 2 (October 14, 2017)

In the rare event of a team netting seven goals it is unusual to find supporters repeatedly chanting the name of a player who failed find the net. That is exactly what happened as City hammered Stoke: Jesus (twice), Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Fernandinho, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva were all on target, yet it was creator-in-chief De Bruyne who captured the imagination and adoration of the crowd. "They have De Bruyne, who is head and shoulders above any player in the Premier League in my view… because of the way he can dictate and effect the game," said Stoke boss Mark Hughes.

Classy cameo helps make it a treble – Manchester City 6-0 Watford (May 18, 2019)

City made history as they completed a domestic treble in the 2018-19 season, an achievement made even more impressive by the lengthy absence of De Bruyne, who started just 11 league games in a campaign hampered by injuries. However, the Belgian showed his class during the FA Cup final against Watford, even though he was only introduced into proceedings as a 55th-minute substitute. He scored a goal and created another as Watford were crushed 6-0 at Wembley Stadium, with De Bruyne named man of the match for his outstanding contribution off the bench.

Capital gains with Emirates double – Arsenal 0-3 Manchester City (December 15, 2019)

City were vulnerable in the first half of the 2019-20 season in the Premier League, though De Bruyne did not let his own standards slip for the faltering champions. He tormented poor Arsenal at Emirates Stadium and was comfortably the best player on the pitch, including scoring two of his side's three first-half goals. A Gunners team led by caretaker boss Freddie Ljungberg simply could not cope as De Bruyne dominated. It was his delivery that set up Raheem Sterling to score, though a slight deflection on the cross denied him an assist, much to his frustration.

Real deal helps City hit back – Real Madrid 1-2 Manchester City (February 26, 2020)

City rallied to defeat Real Madrid for the first time in their history in the first leg of the last-16 tie, vindicating Guardiola's tactics. Jesus occupied a wide role as De Bruyne was utilised as a false nine, a position that allowed him to have a major impact on proceedings. Isco put the LaLiga side ahead on the hour, only for the visitors to flip the game on its head in the closing stages. De Bruyne set up Jesus' equaliser, then calmly tucked away a penalty to reach 50 goals for the club. It was the first time he had both scored and assisted in the same Champions League fixture.

City produce red-hot spell to sink Blues – Chelsea 1-3 Manchester City (January 3, 2021)

Once again, Guardiola's decision to deploy De Bruyne in a more advanced role paid off. A COVID-19 outbreak meant City were shorthanded at Stamford Bridge, though this was the early stages of an irrepressible run of form that turned a potentially intriguing title race into a procession. They scored three goals in the space of 16 first-half minutes as Chelsea were cut open, De Bruyne's pinpoint pass through Cesar Azpilicueta's legs allowing Phil Foden to make it 2-0. He added the third himself, converting the rebound after Sterling had hit the post for a fourth goal against his old club.

Dustin Johnson has had little time to revel in the success of his record-breaking Masters triumph last November.

The world number one became the first player in the tournament's illustrious history to win with a score of 20 under par.

But the coronavirus pandemic meant the event could not be held in its usual April slot, with Johnson's triumph achieved amid an Autumnal rather than Spring backdrop.

This year, though, the action takes place at the traditional point in the calendar. So, here we are for the first major of 2021 and the expert team at Stats Perform News have picked out their favourites for the green jacket.

GEAR UP FOR THE SPIETH SHOW – Peter Hanson

Here is a statement of fact (okay, actually it's an opinion): golf is much more fun when Jordan Spieth is in the groove. We all know it to be true. And recently, boy have there been some tantalising moments to suggest Spieth will be flying at Augusta – a place where you could fill a lengthy highlight reel with his brilliance from years gone by. A rancid run of form saw Spieth ranked as low as 92nd earlier this year following a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open. However, four top-10 finishes from six events preceded a victory at the Valero Texas Open at the weekend – his first tournament win since triumphing at The Open four years ago. Spieth is always great viewing at a venue where he was champion in 2015 and has recorded three other top-three finishes. Key to success for Spieth will be if he can get the putter firing. On the PGA Tour this season, he ranks fifth for one-putt average, while his 27.91 putts per round tallies fourth.

BRYSON REVOLUTIONISED THE SPORT, NOW HE'LL WEAR GREEN - Dan Lewis

Having helped to revolutionise the sport en route to winning the US Open seven months ago, Bryson DeChambeau will now be looking to put his power game to good use with a second major title. The 27-year-old will certainly better his previous best finish of 21st in 2016 and, if he can continue to improve his putting, he has a serious shot of unseating Johnson.

THERE'S NO CURE QUITE LIKE WINNING FOR RORY – John Skilbeck

Who was that lurking in 39th place on the FedEx Cup standings last week? Is there another Rory McIlroy or is this where we are? By now, many thought we would be in an era of McIlroy domination, given the prowess he showed in his early twenties, but those predictions have been skewered, with McIlroy struggling to mount sustained title challenges in the majors. His career card shows plenty of top-10 finishes at the very elite level, but, since landing his fourth major at the 2014 US PGA Championship, the Northern Irishman has often been chasing essentially lost causes. There have been rounds which have amounted almost to self-sabotage, such as the closing 74 when he was genuinely in the hunt three years ago at Augusta, or the 75 with which he began last year. With coach Pete Cowen now on board, McIlroy is actively looking for remedies. There's no cure quite like winning.

DON'T IGNORE THE OBVIOUS, DJ CAN MASTER AUGUSTA AGAIN – Ben Spratt

Are we ignoring the obvious? Dustin Johnson is the Masters favourite and rightfully so. Since winning on his last trip to Augusta in November, DJ triumphed at the Saudi International on the European Tour but his PGA form has been mixed – just one top-10 finish from five tournaments. But no other golfer has had the benefit of returning to the scene of their triumph just five months later. Johnson did not just squeak to victory in November either; his 20-under 268 for the week broke Masters records and secured a five-stroke advantage. Do not bet against him mastering Augusta again.

IT'S NOW OR NEVER FOR VETERAN WESTWOOD – Pat Ridge

Westwood has never won a major, but he is in excellent form heading to Augusta. He just missed out to Bryson DeChambeau at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, losing by one shot – his best result on the PGA Tour since he tied for second at the 2016 Masters. He followed that up with a second-placed finish at The Players Championship, and it could be a case if not now, then will it ever happen for the 47-year-old? A strong performance will also do his Ryder Cup chances no harm, as he looks to match Nick Faldo’s record of 11 appearances for Europe.

NEW FATHER RAHM CAN JOIN NEW WINNERS' CLUB – Chris Myson

Collin Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau were first-time winners in golf's majors in 2020. Going further back, 12 of the last 19 winners had never before won a major, while seven of the last 10 champions at Augusta was triumphing at one of the big four events for a first time. This could be Jon Rahm's turn to continue those trends. While first-time winners have been prominent, nine of the last 10 Masters winners had landed a top-six major finish in the previous two years before breaking their duck. Rahm, who recently became a father for the first time, came in a tie for third at the 2019 U.S. Open and has three straight top-10 finishes to his name at Augusta. He has recent form too. In seven events in 2021, Rahm has five top-10s and is yet to miss a cut.

Everyone, even Liverpool players and fans, could understand Vinicius Junior's reaction.

It was 27 minutes into the Champions League quarter-final first leg, around 30 seconds after Real Madrid's opening goal, finished with stylish composure by the Brazilian. He turned to the architect, Toni Kroos, and bowed.

It was a simple gesture to mark the simple brilliance of Kroos' long pass. A swing of the right foot, a burst of water from the slick Valdebebas turf, and the ball was arcing through the darkening Spanish sky and into Vinicius' run, right between two Liverpool defenders.

At 60.4 yards, it was the second-longest pass of the first half by an outfield player, and unquestionably the most impactful. It was also the fifth attempted long ball by Kroos in the first 45 minutes, four more than Liverpool's starting midfield trio managed between them.

Zinedine Zidane's tactic was clear: get the ball to Kroos, and he'll pick Liverpool apart. And he did. Every time the Germany star pivoted in midfield, every time Liverpool's central threesome so inexplicably dropped away, his passing lines painted the pitch like a canvas.

As the long deliveries towards Ferland Mendy and Vinicius down the Madrid left mounted, so did the uncertainty in the Liverpool defence. Trent Alexander-Arnold faced runners before him and the ball overhead, and he never seemed quite sure which one to deal with. When Kroos was again gifted time to lift his head and curl another pass towards the right-back, panic took over; his attempted header back to Alisson was gratefully pounced on by Marco Asensio.

That one didn't look a particularly complex pass. Very often, they don't. Therein lies the magic of Kroos: taking the art of the playmaker and making it mundane. There is such swaggering simplicity to his play that it sometimes looks the easiest thing in the world, yet few can match it, and fewer can stop it.

He ended the contest with 68 of 75 passes completed, with 90.7 per cent accuracy, the highest figures in the match by a Madrid player. Forty-four of those passes were made in the Liverpool half. Four of them created goalscoring chances, twice as many as any other player.

This isn't the Liverpool who won this tournament two years ago, of course, but neither is this the same Madrid that lifted four out of five Champions League trophies from 2014 to 2018. But Kroos won three of those, and on this form, he gives them a great chance of winning another. That indomitable triumvirate of Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric, just when it looks like it's finally run its course, proceeds to run a Champions League quarter-final match from start to finish.

With around five minutes left and the score at 3-1, Kroos played a blind ball across the Madrid half straight to Sadio Mane. Eder Militao and Lucas Vazquez reacted quickly, snuffing out the danger, as Kroos kept to the left and watched the play unfold, impassive, in control.

With the Premier League back following the international break, in many ways it was essentially business as usual.

Manchester United were underwhelming but came from behind yet again, while Harry Kane provided his customary reminder that he's probably a bit too good for Tottenham – or this Tottenham, at the very least.

Liverpool showed signs of having their mojo back in a 3-0 win at Arsenal that was inspired by Diogo Jota, though Manchester City moved another step closer to taking the Reds' crown.

At the other end of the table, Sheffield United – who have long looked doomed – are closing in on a Premier League record… Not that it's one they'll want to brag about.

Using Opta data, we look at some of the more quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action…

Diogo's Jota lot going for him

How much better off Liverpool would be now had Jota not missed a large chunk of the season is impossible to know, but it's a fair assumption they'd be in a stronger position than they are.

The Portugal international returned following a three-month absence in March, scoring the winner against former club Wolves before then netting thrice for his country during the international break.

He was held back at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday but yet again proved he doesn't need long to make an impact, his brace helping secure a 3-0 win over Arsenal – it was 0-0 when he entered the pitch around the hour mark.

Those goals took him to eight in the Premier League this season from 730 minutes, meaning he boasts comfortably the best minutes-per-goal record (91) among players to have scored at least once this term. The next best is Gareth Bale with five from 561 minutes (one every 112 mins).

His 4.7 xG overperformance suggests either his form is not sustainable or he's developing into an elite-level chance-taker – hopefully an injury-free 2021-22 will unveil the truth.

Kane eyes Cole feat

While 2020-21 has been rather hit-and-miss for Tottenham, the same cannot be said for Kane.

The England captain is enjoying another stellar season but, perhaps more pertinently, he seems to have added another string to his bow when it comes to setting up team-mates.

With that in mind, his brace at the weekend means he now tops both the Premier League goalscoring (19) and assist (13) charts. He probably won't match his personal best of 30 goals for a single season, but in terms of goal involvements he's only four adrift of the 36 he managed in 2016-17 (29 goals, seven assists).

Therefore he's in with a great shout of being only the second player in Premier League history to finish a season with the most goals and assists.

Andy Cole is the only player to lead both outright at the end of a season, accomplishing the feat in 1993-94 when he netted 34 times and set up another 13 – this was before the competition changed from a 42-game season to 38.

Mourinho and Spurs dreaming of Man United's comeback record

It was just another weekend of Manchester United coming from behind to snatch a win and Tottenham throwing away a lead.

United netted twice in the second half to cancel out Danny Welbeck's opener for Brighton and Hove Albion, clinching a 2-1 win at Old Trafford thanks to goals from Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.

It means they have gained 25 points from losing positions in the Premier League this term, a figure only ever bettered three times – West Brom (27) in 2010-11, United themselves (29) in 2012-13 and Newcastle United (34) in 2001-02.

It's been a different story for Tottenham this season, however, as they've not been able to hold on to leads – Newcastle rescuing a 2-2 draw against them on Sunday being the latest example, with the Magpies' xG of four being their highest figure since 2016-17.

They've now dropped 11 points due to goals conceded in the final 10 minutes of games, the worst record in the Premier League this term, and failed to win the six league games in which they've led at half-time. That's also a league-wide high.

As for Jose Mourinho, the 15 points he's seen Spurs surrender from winning positions in 2020-21 is already a joint-worst for him in a Premier League season.

Sheffield United on course for worst ever Premier League season

Okay, admittedly this one does depend on how you quantify "worst".

After all, Derby County hold the record for the fewest points ever won in a single Premier League season when they amassed just 11 in 2007-08, and Sheffield United already have three more.

However, Derby's 29 defeats equated to 76.3 per cent of their 38 matches, which along with Sunderland two years earlier, is the biggest proportion of losses in a solitary campaign.

Following the Blades' 2-1 loss at Leeds United on Saturday, they have lost 80 per cent of their matches this term (25 in total).

Given their form until now, few would be surprised to see them set a new Premier League record of 30 defeats.

It is safe to say Jrue Holiday enjoyed himself in the NBA last week.

The former All-Star sparkled for the Milwaukee Bucks before the weekend brought news of a four-year, $160million extension.

On the evidence of his performances since last Monday, it was a well-earned reward.

Holiday leads this week's NBA Heat Check, powered by Stats Perform data, alongside a man he might have counted as a team-mate this season.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Jrue Holiday

The Bucks paid a big price to get Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans in a bid to persuade Giannis Antetokounmpo to stay. It was a move that worked in that sense and is increasingly showing its merit on the floor, too.

Milwaukee may have tumbled to third in the East this season, but they are showing signs they might finally provide a threat in the playoffs.

Holiday will be key to that, as he was during a three-game winning run last week. After starting their road trip with defeat at the Los Angeles Clippers, in which Holiday scored 24 points, the point guard tallied 28, 22 and 33 respectively in victories over the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings.

An average of 26.8 over those seven days lifted Holiday's seasonal mark from 15.9 to 17.0.

Bogdan Bogdanovic

As the Bucks desperately sought reinforcements to prove their ambition to Antetokounmpo, a deal for Bogdanovic from the Kings was reportedly struck. Instead, however, he signed for the Atlanta Hawks.

Milwaukee are certainly a more serious prospect than Atlanta, but the Hawks are belatedly finding some form with the help of Bogdanovic.

The forward had just two starts for the season until late March but has since been in the lineup for six successive games, including a run of three wins last week that started with his 28-point display against the San Antonio Spurs in which he shot 70.6 per cent from the field.

Gary Trent Jr.

Last week allowed teams around the NBA to get a good look at the players they traded for before the deadline, and the Toronto Raptors could only be pleased with Trent's output.

He averaged 23.3 for the week, albeit the Raptors only won once. Trent had a staggering plus/minus of 54 in that demolition of the Golden State Warriors.

Norm Powell, the man Trent was traded for, tallied 13.7 points across three Portland games, although the Blazers won two of them.
 

GOING COLD...

Victor Oladipo

While Trent has had an instant impact, the same certainly cannot be said for Oladipo.

The two-time All-Star was the Miami Heat's most notable signing as a move for Trent's new Toronto team-mate Kyle Lowry did not materialise, while LaMarcus Aldridge headed for the Brooklyn Nets after agreeing a buy out with the Spurs.

On his third team of 2021, Oladipo was averaging 20.8 points for the season prior to his Heat debut but then tallied a measly total of 14 points across his first two games as a Miami player.

Zach LaVine

Oladipo's is not the only switch yet to prove profitable, with the Chicago Bulls making a big move to bring in Nikola Vucevic to pair fellow All-Star LaVine.

But LaVine, previously scoring 27.9 points in 2020-21, averaged an underwhelming 20.0 last week.

No player in the NBA saw a greater decrease in their made shots from three-point range - 3.5 previously but just 1.3 last week - and LaVine was among three Bulls in the top five in that unwanted table (also Vucevic and Lauri Markkanen).

DeAndre Jordan

Like LaVine, Jordan was not on the move ahead of the deadline. But he was still negatively impacted.

When Aldridge chose Brooklyn over Miami, the Nets center - already struggling to hold off surprise star Nicolas Claxton - saw his opportunities decrease further.

Jordan played in only two of his team's four games last week, appearing for less than 12 minutes in each and averaging 1.5 rebounds down from 7.5 for the season.

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