All eyes were on the Emirates Stadium on Sunday for the north London derby and there was a lot of comforting familiarity on display.

A red card, Erik Lamela attempting a rabona (and scoring it!) instead of using his right foot, and, of course, Spurs throwing away a lead.

Elsewhere, Manchester United remained on course to finish second as they ensured David Moyes' continues to dread returning to his former employers, while Sheffield United's first game since Chris Wilder's exit arguably proved just how good the Yorkshireman was as manager.

There was also a potentially vital win near the bottom of the table for Brighton and Hove Albion, and we have taken a look at all the best Opta facts from those games.

Arsenal 2-1 Tottenham: Spurs surrender once again in a north London derby

Lamela's opening goal will be shown in north London derby highlight reels for years – his rabona finish was so good, so audacious.

But even with that being the opening goal, it never really looked like being decisive, so underwhelming were Spurs otherwise from an attacking perspective – the fact they went on to lose meant they have now dropped 45 points from winning positions against Arsenal in the Premier League, the most of any team against a specific opponent in the competition.

After Martin Odegaard levelled, becoming just the fourth Gunners player to score in his first top-flight north London derby, Alexandre Lacazette's second-half penalty secured Arsenal the points.

It was Spurs' ninth league defeat of the season, the joint-most Jose Mourinho has ever suffered in a single season, and Lamela's sending off certainly did not help their situation.

In collecting two bookings, he became only the fifth substitute in Premier League history to score and be sent off in the same game.

His goal will be the enduring moment from the match, but in the grand scheme it was meaningless for a Spurs side in increasing danger of missing out on the top four.

Manchester United 1-0 West Ham: Moyes' Old Trafford misery continues

It was not an occasion for the neutral at Old Trafford as Man United scraped an unconvincing win thanks to an own goal by Craig Dawson.

The defeat means only Harry Redknapp (15) has managed more Premier League games away to United without winning than former Red Devils boss Moyes (14 – four draws, 10 losses).

The Hammers' difficulties in front of goal were partly to blame as none of their seven attempts were on target, the highest number of shots they have had in a league game without a single accurate once since August 2013 (nine shots).

On the flipside, Man United kept a fourth straight Premier League clean sheet for the first time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the club last achieving that feat in January 2018 under Mourinho.

They have also lost just one of their previous 23 league outings having suffered three losses in their opening six games this term.

Leicester City 5-0 Sheffield United: Blades suffer bruising defeat as they venture into the Wilder-less wilderness

Less than 24 hours on from confirmation of Wilder's "mutual" departure as Blades manager, many were likely left wondering why the club did not fight harder to keep him.

While seemingly doomed for relegation anyway, Wilder retained significant respect for the job he presided over at Bramall Lane, and Sunday's result showed why.

With interim boss Paul Heckingbottom taking over for the first time, he has already shipped five goals in a single game as many times as Wilder did in 227 matches (a 5-4 defeat to Fulham in 2017). Their former manager was never beaten by more than a three-goal margin.

Heckingbottom also became only the third manager in Premier League history to lose by five or more goals in his first game, but this should not take credit away from Brendan Rodgers' ferocious Foxes.

Kelechi Iheanacho scored his first hat-trick and also netted in three successive top-flight games for the first time. Jamie Vardy set up two of those goals and in doing so became only the sixth player to register 100 or more goal involvements in the Premier League after turning 30.

Those to achieve this before him were Teddy Sheringham, Frank Lampard, Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and Gianfranco Zola – esteemed company indeed.

Southampton 1-2 Brighton and Hove Albion: Seagulls remember their shooting boots as Saints sink

Much has been said and written about Brighton's woes in front of goal this term, but they got the job done here.

Their 2-1 win at St Mary's is only the second time in 2021 that they have scored twice or more in a single Premier League game – the other instance was their 3-3 draw with Wolves in their first match of the year.

This was their 11th outing since.

The win took Graham Potter's men three points clear of the relegation zone and just four behind Saints, who are in a difficult spot.

It is 10 defeats in the past 12 Premier League games now for Southampton, with Ralph Hasenhuttl coming under increasing pressure – their previous 10 losses came across a 38-match spell.

As expected, Drew Brees has announced his retirement, a decision that puts the full stop on a 20-year story that has seen the quarterback set numerous NFL passing records. 

Pick number 32 in the 2001 draft, Brees started out with the San Diego Chargers but will be best remembered for his time with the New Orleans Saints. 

He sits as the all-time leader with 80,358 passing yards, though should not get too comfortable on top of the pile, considering Tom Brady sits right behind him on the list.  

While Brady is to keep on playing after winning the Super Bowl in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his fellow forty-something has decided the time is right to move on to a new chapter. 

After 10,551 passing attempts (of which he completed 67.7 per cent), 571 touchdowns throws and 172 wins - plus one Super Bowl ring, of course - Brees bows out an undoubted great of the game. 
 

SAINTS GO MARCHING ON

It could have all been so different, though. Brees suffered a painful end to the 2005 season, injuring his shoulder in Week 17. When it became clear his future would lie away from the Chargers, who had a young Philip Rivers waiting in the wings, there were two possible destinations: Miami or New Orleans.  

The Dolphins, however, had concerns over Brees' recovery. They traded for Daunte Culpepper instead, the first of 15 different quarterbacks they have started since 2006.  

Meanwhile, the one they let get off the hook formed an alliance with head coach Sean Payton, one that turned the Saints from perennial strugglers to persistent winners. 

A franchise that had only made the playoffs five times previously has enjoyed nine postseason trips since 2006, including an unforgettable run in the 2009 season that culminated in winning Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, of all places.  

In the stadium he could well have called home, Brees completed 32 of his 39 attempts for 288 yards and two scores. Those numbers were good enough to see him named MVP as the Saints were crowned champions for the first time in franchise history.


SEVEN IN ONE AND THE HOT STREAKS

Brees' play has been central to the prolonged success for the Saints. He had five seasons with over 5,000 passing yards, a feat no other quarterback has accomplished more than once. Not Brady, not Peyton Manning, not Patrick Mahomes (yet).  

His total of 5,476 yards in 2011 saw him break Dan Marino's longstanding NFL record for a single campaign, though Manning squeezed above him by one solitary yard to take top spot on the all-time list two years later.  

The former Purdue Boilermaker has the record for most seasons with at least 30 touchdown passes per year (10). There were once seven in a single game in 2015, against the New York Giants, a feat only eight players have ever achieved in the league's history. 

However, no signal-caller has had more career games with at least three scores through the air than his total of 97. Same goes for four or more (37). And five (11), too.  

Brees' 54-game stretch with at least one touchdown pass from 2009 to 2012 is also an NFL record, while there were twice nine-game streaks where he posted 300 or more passing yards in each outing.


THE TWILIGHT YEARS, COMING CLOSE TO PERFECTION

From 2006 to 2017, Brees threw for over 4,000 yards in each and every season. While there was a downturn in his output in that category in the closing chapters of his NFL tale, he also became more careful with the ball. 

Indeed, in his final 54 starts there were just 23 interceptions, demonstrating his efficiency as part of a Saints offense that began to lean more heavily on the run game. 

In 2018, a 74.4 per cent completion rate for the campaign raised the bar. The following year, in a 34-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts, all but one of his 30 passes found a fellow Saint. That 96.7 per cent success on his throws is the best posted in a game for a player with at least 20 attempts. 

While his impact as a passer may have dipped, his importance to the Saints remained high. The 42-year-old did not get to ride off into the sunset as a Super Bowl champion, thanks in part to fellow golden oldie Brady, but he can be absolutely certain that he is destined to end up in the NFL's Hall of Fame.

It is about far more than the numbers with Brees, too, as Saints owner Gayle Benson made clear: "Drew is so much more valuable than all the records, awards and accolades that he amassed through a 15-year career with the New Orleans Saints and 20-year NFL playing career, one of the greatest in our league's history."

Next stop: Canton, Ohio.

For the last 15 years, Drew Brees and the city of New Orleans have been synonymous. 

He helped give an emotional lift to the city following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, transformed the franchise from a pushover to a perennial contender and delivered the city its only professional championship. 

And now after being a part of New Orleans for a generation of Saints fans, the 42-year-old Brees announced on Instagram on Sunday that he is retiring from football after 20 seasons.

"After 20 years as a player in the NFL and 15 years as a Saint, it is time I retire from the game of football. Each day, I poured my heart and soul into being your quarterback. Until the very end, I exhausted myself to give everything I had to the Saints organisation, my team, and the great city of New Orleans. We shared some amazing moments together, many of which are emblazoned in our hearts and minds and will forever be a part of us. You have moulded me, strengthened me, inspired me, and given me a lifetime of memories. My goal for the last 15 years was striving to give to you everything you had given to me and more," he wrote in his post.

"I am only retiring from playing football, I am not retiring from New Orleans. This is not goodbye, rather a new beginning. Now my real life's work begins!"

The future Hall of Famer leaves the game as the NFL's all-time passing leader with 80,358 yards and ranks second only to Tom Brady in touchdown passes with 571 and second in completion percentage (67.7). 

While Brady followed in the footsteps of Boston legends like Ted Williams, Larry Bird and Bobby Orr, Ben Roethlisberger is held in similar esteem in Pittsburgh with the likes of Terry Bradshaw, Roberto Clemente and Mario Lemieux, and Aaron Rodgers shares the Green Bay spotlight with Brett Favre, Brees is New Orleans' most celebrated professional athlete. 

New Orleans was a one-sport city for the first 35 years of the Saints' existence, and while Archie Manning was the face of the franchise in the 1970s, the team never found success with him at quarterback. 

That changed when Brees came to town. 

Brees joined the Saints in 2006 after not being guaranteed a starting job with the San Diego Chargers – the team that drafted him with the 32nd overall pick of the 2001 NFL Draft – after he suffered a devastating shoulder injury in the 2005 season finale. Despite helping the Chargers capture the 2004 AFC West title while earning his first of 13 Pro Bowl selections, his future with the franchise was uncertain with a shoulder to rehab and a young Philip Rivers waiting in the wings. 

The Saints offered him a starting job, and Brees not only seized that opportunity in rebuilding a struggling franchise, he also took it upon himself to help a proud city rebuild from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. 

In one of the most intense storms in United States history, Katrina decimated New Orleans when it made landfall in August 2005. A damaged Superdome initially served as a shelter to displaced residents and was in no shape to host NFL games, forcing the Saints to play home games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and even New York. 

Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, Brees and his wife, Brittany, created the Drew Brees Dream Foundation, raising millions of dollars for rebuilding efforts from Katrina, as well as programmes for children and adults with special needs, and child-care facilities. 

While aiding in the relief efforts of Katrina, his first season in New Orleans coincided with Sean Payton's first as coach, and the two teamed up to create one of the league's most dangerous offenses and galvanize a city that had been battered. 

After the Saints went 3-13 during their nomadic 2005 season, Brees led them to a seven-win improvement and an NFC South Division title, while throwing for a league-leading 4,418 passing yards – his first of seven seasons to lead the NFL in passing yards. Only two other QBs have led the league in passing yards more than once in this span – Brady in 2007 and 2017 and Roethlisberger in 2014 and 2018. 

Brees and the Saints brought joy to a community that had been through so much, but their storybook season ended at the hands of the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game. 

Three seasons later, however, Brees would finally bring a championship to the title-starved city. 

Led by the NFL's number one scoring offense, the Saints were nearly unstoppable, winning their first 13 games while exciting an already excitable city. They marched all the way to the Super Bowl, rallying for a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on February 7, 2010.  

Brees was named the game's MVP after tying Brady's Super Bowl record with 32 completions while throwing two touchdowns without an interception.  

If winning a title was not enough for a fervent fanbase, Brees further endeared himself to the people of New Orleans when he popped up in a bar packed with Saints fans after the team's Super Bowl parade and taught them the words to the cheer he would lead his teammates through before every game of their championship season. Video of the call-and-response chant between the quarterback and the fans went viral as he worked the crowd into a frenzy with Brees exchanging high-fives and handshakes. 

Less than 10 months after winning the Super Bowl, Brees was honoured as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, a culmination of sorts for his play on the field as well as his charitable work off it. 

In the magazine's Sportsman of the Year article, Saints tackle Jon Stinchcomb was quoted as saying, "People come up to Drew and don't say, 'Congratulations.' They say, 'Thank you. Thank you for coming here.'" 

While Brees was never able to lead the Saints back to a championship, the franchise has consistently been one of the NFL's best. 

Since 2006, only three teams have more regular-season wins than the Saints' 150 – the Patriots (181), the Packers (153) and the Steelers (153) – and New Orleans' 49 victories since 2017 are the most in the NFL. 

Despite being a quadragenarian for the past few seasons, there had been little statistical drop-off in Brees' production. He led the league in completion percentage in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before finishing second this past season, and finished in the top two in passer rating in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before a sixth-placed finish in 2020. 

This past season, however, was one of the most trying for Brees. Although he got off to a stellar start to his 20th professional season, he suffered multiple rib fractures and a collapsed right lung in Week 10, putting his future in the NFL into question. Although he missed only four games and played well at times during the final three weeks of the regular season, he had one of the worst performances of his postseason career in New Orleans' 30-20 loss to Brady the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a Divisional Round game on January 17. 

Hours after throwing three interceptions and a playoff career-low 134 yards, Brees was back on the Superdome turf in street clothes with his wife and four children soaking in what would be the end of a long and emotional ride with the Saints.   

Brees achieved sainthood in New Orleans through his inspirational work in the community in helping a city rebuild, along with transforming the city's beloved football team into a winner. 

An iconic image from the Saints' celebration on the field following their Super Bowl win was Brees lifting his one-year-old son Baylen – who was wearing giant noise-cancelling headphones and a Saints jersey with his dad's name and number on the back – high over his head as confetti fell on them.  

Nearly 11 years later, Brees and Baylen shared another poignant father-son moment. 

Following the playoff loss to the Buccaneers, the quarterback dad played catch with his kids on the Superdome turf - a lasting images of Brees before he exited the Superdome leaving behind an unparalleled legacy.

Sergio Reguilon's reaction to Erik Lamela's utterly audacious opening goal in the north London derby said more than any words could.

Faced with Arsenal defenders in front and a Lucas Moura pass just slightly behind him, Argentina international Lamela pulled an impudent rabona out of his bag of tricks to send the ball spinning into the bottom right corner, beyond a helpless Bernd Leno.

Reguilon, whose career at parent club Real Madrid means he will be well-versed when it comes to experiencing excellence first hand, ran off in pursuit of the goalscorer open-mouthed, with his hands seemingly glued to his head.

The left-back's expression was one of near-delirious shock at what will surely come to be remembered as one of the great Premier League strikes

Sport's capacity to surprise and delight is its greatest joy. Such moments have an incredible capacity to galvanise, but before and after Lamela's intervention, Tottenham produced some all-too-predictable sludge.

The goalscorer was only on the pitch because Son Heung-min pulled up with an early injury and his improvised finish was Spurs' only shot of any description during the first half.

Their next arrived by way of a looping Lamela header in the 71st minute, by which point Arsenal were deservedly 2-1 to the good. Either side of his second effort on goal, the winger collected a pair of petulant yellow cards and was sent off.

From seek and destroy to sleep and destroy

A Jose Mourinho masterclass this was not. His self-fulfilling acts of arch-pragmatism have become such a cliche.

Since becoming Manchester United boss in 2016, he has three wins in 20 attempts away from home against 'big six' foes. It is easy to forget it was not always like this.

Seven years ago this month, in his second spell at Chelsea – the other side of his imperial period at Inter and that tumultuous stint at Real Madrid – Mourinho faced up to Arsenal for Arsene Wenger's 1,000th game in charge. An evisceration ensued.

"We came to kill and in 10 minutes we destroyed," Mourinho said coldly of brutal 6-0 win at Stamford Bridge.

Faced with a talented but vulnerable Arsenal line-up on Sunday, the only thing in danger of being destroyed was the consciousness of any television viewers who filled up on a Sunday lunch before settling down on the sofa for kick-off.

Son's unfortunate departure left Harry Kane and Gareth Bale, both of whom scored twice to down Crystal Palace 4-1 in Tottenham's previous league game, isolated and forlorn.

All momentum from five consecutive wins in all competition was wantonly jettisoned. Bale managed 18 touches in the first half, seven more than Kane.

The Wales international was substituted with the score 1-1 and looked exactly as impressed as you'd imagine to see Moussa Sissoko taking his place, a player Mourinho tends to use for spoiling and harrying tasks in midfield. It was a statement of dubious intent.

Fundamental flaws

Of course, such moments grease the wheels of the Mourinho Show and its tired formats. Expect a terse response to Bale's apparent unhappiness, just cryptic enough to take up a decent chunk of the Sunday and Monday phone-in shows.

Then there was Mourinho's finger-wagging disagreement when VAR confirmed referee Michael Oliver's assertion that Davinson Sanchez had haphazardly blundered into Alexandre Lacazette for the decisive penalty.

Predictably, the Tottenham manager railed against it, too, telling reporters: "The only thing worse than our first half was the decision to award the penalty."

But even allowing for the mitigation of an injured star forward, an anonymous star forward and a seventh penalty goal conceded in the Premier League this season, everything else around those incidents was not remotely good enough.

Arsenal's skittish efforts in seeing out victory against 10 men – time must have stood still for Mikel Arteta as he waited for the linesman to rule out Kane's header before the England captain thundered an effort against the post – underlined the folly of Mourinho reverting to type.

Furthermore, Tottenham's attacking gifts stack up favourably when compared to their affectations for defensive solidity.

Sanchez managing to foul Lacazette as the striker launched into a near air-shot was pure comedy. Nobody managing to track Martin Odegaard's run for Arsenal's equaliser was no particular surprise, given the way everyone in white watched Cedric Soares take a long run at a drive against the upright a few moments earlier.

Tottenham lack the fundamentals their manager desires and he does not have the gumption to effectively harness moments of open-mouthed magic such as the one produced by Lamela. That is a combination that makes the six-point deficit to a revitalised Chelsea in fourth look like a yawning gap that is only set to get bigger.

Whenever boxing's matchmakers put together a bout that promises fireworks and destructive drama from the opening bell, pundits and fans alike spit out the same three syllables.

Hagler-Hearns.

Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns shared seven minutes and 52 seconds of unfathomable brutality in Las Vegas in April 1985, setting an impossible bar for every all-action fight ever since.

Hagler and Hearns met in their primes as two stars of a golden age in the sport's middle weights. The celebrated "Four Kings" were completed by fellow greats 'Sugar' Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.

There were nine fights in all between the quartet, spanning 1980 to 1989. Leonard and Duran met three times, with both men going the distance against Hagler. Hearns and Leonard shared 26 rounds over the course of two enthralling bouts separated by almost eight years.

And yet, the comparatively brief period Hearns and Hagler spent in one another's violent orbit stands as the high watermark of the era for many.

After Hagler died aged 66 on Saturday, we look back at three rounds that shook the world.

 

ROUND ONE

An elongated promotional tour taking in 21 cities whipped up severe animosity between the two fighters, with long-reigning unified middleweight king Hagler brooding over the perceived higher public standing afforded to fellow Americans Leonard and Hearns, along with the latter's withdrawal from their proposed 1982 meeting with a hand injury.

Hearns had showcased terrifying power at welterweight and light-middleweight. He demolished Duran inside two rounds in 1984, at the same Caesars Palace outdoor arena that staged his clash with Hagler.

Therefore, the expectations were of a measured start from the older man, who would draw the sting from a 26-year-old Hearns at a then-unfamiliar weight before taking him into deep waters.

Hagler was not reading from that script.

After eyeballing his foe throughout the introductions, he tore out of his corner at the opening bell and unleashed a wild and winging right hand that Hearns just managed to duck. The tone was set and there would be no let-up.

Hagler's gameplan – insofar as it could be deciphered from underneath the red mist – was to negate Hearns' three-inch reach advantage by attacking the younger man to the body.

Initially, that was a march straight into trouble as Hearns caught him with a left hand coming in and followed up with a right hook to shake Hagler.

The champion held for the briefest of respites before leather began to fly in centre ring – Hagler unleashing his chopping left hook and locating Hearns' chin to force a retreat to the neutral corner.

Hurt, Hearns shot back under heavy fire to escape the peril Hagler had planned on the ropes.

There was a minute gone.

The hunter and hunted patter was established. Hearns clipped Hagler with a left off the back foot to draw him on to a short right. Worryingly for the 'Motor City Cobra', 'Marvellous' was entirely unperturbed.

Hagler's booming straight right was working effectively, but Hearns' blurring fists continued to punctuate a fight in fast forward. A pair of rights found the jaw, still Hagler came. A flashing uppercut, still he came. But there was blood. A lot of it.

"There's blood all over Marvin Hagler's face, I can't tell where it's coming from," yelped commentator Al Bernstein

Seemingly spurred on by the change in circumstances, Hagler forced Hearns into the red corner and got to work, pounding the body. Hearns was sharp in the eye of the storm, soaking up two crunching left hooks and fighting his way out of trouble.

Well, until that unerring Hagler straight right sent him tottering backwards with nine seconds left in the round. By the time the bell sounded, they were trading once more.

Hearns landed 56 of 83 punches in the first round as Hagler connected with 50 of 82. It still beggars belief.

ROUND TWO

"Don't worry about the cut, Marvin," said his cornerman Goody Petronelli, unknowing that there were bigger problems afoot on the other stood.

At some point in the fury of the first three minutes, Hearns had broken his wrecking ball right. This perhaps explained his willingness to begin the second on the jab – that tool of relative conservatism largely lost in the maelstrom of round one.

Hagler met this adjustment with a change of his own. The switch-hitter turned to an orthodox stance for the first time in the fight and landed with a left-right combination.

Regardless, there would be no backwards step from Hagler. Back he went to southpaw, a right jab leaving Hearns disorganised and opening up more opportunities to the body.

A straight right was Hearns' retort along with crisp lefts to head and body, but Hagler shrugged them off and continued to bore forwards with blood all over the place.

His left hook was working like a dream and shuddering rights had Hearns in trouble on the ropes.

When the bell sounded, Hagler's bloody mask and Hearns' exhausted body gave both men the look of beaten fighters.

ROUND THREE

"Just box him, stay away and box him," Emanuel Steward implored Hearns, although the great tactician had reason to sense the bout was slipping away.

Aghast, Steward found one of Hearns' entourage giving him a leg massage before the fight. Combined with the concussive head shots Hagler had landed at will, the result was rubbery limbs that did not convince as the Kronk Gym favourite looked to get on the balls of his feet and skip away at the start of round three.

Hagler's eyes never deviated from a moving target, but his problems were also stacking up.

Referee Richard Steele was increasingly zealous when it came to breaking the fighters up, preventing Hagler from doing the work he wanted to on the inside. After one of the official's interventions, he called the ringside doctor to have a look at the champion's increasingly gruesome cut.

Given Hearns opened the cut with a punch, a TKO defeat was on the cards for Hagler if he was deemed unfit to continue.

But no referee or no doctor was stopping this fight. Hagler decided it was time to take care of adjudication himself.

He had started to measure Hearns' increasingly predictable retreats, and a right to the side of the head saw his opponent stagger sidewards across the right, almost turning his back. Hagler knew the time was now.

A follow-up right to the temple robbed Hearns of any remaining equilibrium and another to the jaw saw him sag back before collapsing downwards, the breeze of Hagler's superfluous follow-up shots doing nothing to rouse him.

Flat on his back, Hearns tried valiantly to beat Steele's count, but a valedictory triumph belonged to Hagler after a cacophony of violent mayhem and savagery that remains celebrated to this day.

In France, they still speak joyously of Philippe Saint-Andre's wonder try at Twickenham, that majestic blue wave that swept from one end of the great stadium to the other, resulting in a score under the posts.

What a score that was, voted many years as Twickenham's 'try of the century', Blanco to Sella to Camberabero to Saint-Andre. The punch of the air, the high fives, the hugs. The wanton joie de vivre of it all.

But it came in a losing cause, on the final day of the 1991 Five Nations, in a championship decider. Some consolation, but a consolation nonetheless.

It was Geoff Cooke's team who lifted the trophy, Will Carling the beaming captain, the champagne spraying in England's dressing room.

France were a joy to watch, those great names still resonate, and they were so close to sashaying and side-stepping their way to a glorious Grand Slam.

So close. They finished second. The first losers.

Thirty years on from that March classic and there was nothing at Twickenham on Saturday that will be remembered quite so fondly as that vintage Saint-Andre moment, but there was so nearly an outcome that could have banished many bleak French memories from trips to London. Instead, England added to that long list.

Before Maro Itoje burrowed over in the 76th minute, this was poised to be a tale of a great French win, after a captivating clash. It would have been a third win in three games in this year's championship, talk would have turned to the Grand Slam.

Delightful tries from Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, stemming from that great Gallic brand of running rugby, were of the sort Blanc, Sella and co would have been proud.

Suspicions of a Twickenham hex hanging over Les Bleus were about to be banished. England had won nine of their 10 previous home games against France in the Six Nations, including the last seven in a row, but their dominance was about to be halted by a French side with bulldog spirit to match their silky skills.

Fabien Galthie was on the brink of getting one over on Eddie Jones, who was facing the prospect of his Red Rose losing a third match in four.

It would have been an eighth win in their last nine Six Nations games for France.

And then along came Itoje. England were over.

Weren't they?

France clung to the hope Teddy Thomas had held Itoje up. Referee Andrew Brace felt Thomas may have done just that, but the TMO knew better.

After what felt like an age, the try was given and French hearts broke. They lost 23-20.

What an achievement it would have been for Galthie's side to cross La Manche and return to Marcoussis triumphant.

Last month's major COVID-19 outbreak in their camp was worrying from a health perspective but came in tandem with questions about conduct and protocol too, with Galthie eventually exonerated despite leaving the squad bubble to watch his son play a rugby game, and no blame apportioned.

This France side re-emerged and played with verve from the first minute - Dupont crossed after just 65 seconds following lovely work from Thomas - before Anthony Watson replied as England reined in their visitors.

France struck again in the 32nd minute, electric play from the backs in blue ending with Penaud dancing in on the right.

Owen Farrell and Matthieu Jalibert kept the score ticking along from the kicking tee, then with time running out Itoje had the determining say.

"We are playing lovely rugby," France back-rower Gregory Alldritt told ITV after the final whistle. "We are enjoying playing all together on the pitch.

"We will go back to work on Monday and have a big, big game next week and we need to prepare for this game."

France went down in this game, but they are not out. The Six Nations title could yet be heading to Paris, even if the Grand Slam will not.

Wales, now the only team left in contention for a clean sweep of wins, will aim to complete a perfect campaign in Paris next Saturday night.

Given how they took this game to England, and how close they came to a famous victory, expect Galthie's men to rise again for the challenge of the arriving Red Dragons.

This was England's day in the end, but you still got the feeling this might be a French side who in the near future won't have to settle for consolation prizes or being the first losers. That Wales game will be titanic, and revealing.

Rarely has it been more important for teams to spend their money wisely in free agency. 

With the NFL salary cap dropping from $198.2million to $182.5m, those close to the limit will have to be especially prudent with their resources, while teams that have more to spend will have to make sure not to waste it on ineffective players. 

There are still several options for those front offices that are likely to be shopping in the discount aisle. Those whose pockets are more flush must be wary of expensive players that may not live up to their price tag. 

Here we look at some of free agency's best bargains, as well as identifying those players that teams should perhaps be wary of giving a lucrative contract.

Bargains

Justin Houston - Indianapolis Colts

Houston has been productive through stops in Kansas City and Indianapolis and proved he still had plenty in the tank with an eight-sack season for the Colts last year. The 32-year-old is 2.5 sacks away from becoming the 36th player to reach 100. He may be willing to take a one-year deal with a contender at this stage in his career. 

Jaquiski Tartt - San Francisco 49ers

Tartt has had some injury issues in his career. However, when he has been on the field, he has proven himself a versatile and physically imposing safety. In seven games last season, he did not miss a single tackle for the 49ers and, in a deep safety free-agent class, could prove a steal if he can stay healthy. 

Gerald Everett - Los Angeles Rams

Everett was never quite able to carve out a defined role in Los Angeles. Since entering the league in 2017, he ranks 22nd in yards per reception among tight ends. His average of 10.9 yard per catch in that time is only slightly below that of Hunter Henry (11.5) and Jonnu Smith (11.4), with that duo sure to command a higher price on the open market.

Mike Hilton - Pittsburgh Steelers

K'Waun Williams of the 49ers might get the most money of any nickel cornerback in free agency, but Hilton could provide as much value at a cheaper cost. He had three interceptions last season and his 32 pass deflections are the second-most by any Steelers player since 2017.

Kenyan Drake - Arizona Cardinals

Still only 27, Drake has been an asset as both a runner and a pass-catcher in his career, with the former Miami Dolphins back having compiled three successive seasons with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Investing in running backs can be risky, but Drake should come at a price that represents excellent value for money. 

Buyer Beware

Leonard Floyd - Los Angeles Rams

Floyd took the Dante Fowler route in signing a one-year deal with the Rams and benefiting greatly from playing on the same defensive line as Aaron Donald, posting a career-high 10.5 sacks. Potential suitors should heed the cautionary tale of Fowler, who cashed in after an 11.5-sack 2019 season but recorded just three in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons.

Juju Smith-Schuster - Pittsburgh Steelers

Smith-Schuster looked like one of the best wide receivers in football as recently as 2018, when he racked up 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. However, since Antonio Brown made his acrimonious exit from Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster has struggled to produce his best, ranking 98th among wideouts with a yards-per-catch average of 9.9. Teams should be wary of getting caught up in the name value here.

Yannick Ngakoue - Baltimore Ravens

Ngakoue has gradually declined since his 12-sack season with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017. Traded twice last year, he failed to impress with either the Minnesota Vikings (5 sacks) or the Ravens (3). The limitations to his skill set are such that he would be better landing with a team that can use him as a rotational edge player, rather than as somebody who is expected to lead the pass rush.

Chris Carson - Seattle Seahawks

It's difficult to argue too much with Carson's production, his 4,045 scrimmage yards since 2017 are 14th among all running backs. However, he has yet to play a full 16-game schedule in his career, with durability concerns exacerbated by his extremely physical style of play.

Will Fuller - Houston Texans

Issues staying on the field have defined the career of a player who is one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL. Add on a four-game suspension for violating league policy on performance-enhancing substances and Fuller represents a massive gamble for teams looking for receiver help.

"I'm just excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me."

The Detroit Lions are about to find out if that factor alone can restore Jared Goff to the player he should have been.

Goff was the first overall pick in 2016 and led the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2018 season. In September 2019, he signed a four-year contract extension in LA, including $110million in guaranteed money - then the most in NFL history.

But that deal does not kick in until this 2021 season and the Rams have long since lost faith in the quarterback.

So disappointing has been Goff's form, his former team had to send two future first-round picks and a third as well as him to the Lions to get Matthew Stafford in return.

Rather than their underrated stalwart QB, Detroit are set to head into the new campaign with Goff under center, starting a new era.

But the Lions must hope the struggling 26-year-old will not make their offense significantly worse, because their defense does not leave a lot of room for error, as Stats Perform data shows.

Offense

If there is a huge drop-off in Detroit's offensive output in 2021, it might not necessarily all be down to Goff.

There are understandable fears the QB might struggle to an even greater degree without the aid of Sean McVay's scheme – his passer rating in 2016, the year before the Rams changed coaches, was an awful 63.6 – but it is not only the system that looks an issue right now.

Wide receivers Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola are all set for free agency. The Lions surprisingly opted against franchise-tagging Golladay, who played only five games last season due to injury but still led the team in yards per game (67.6) and had gone for 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns the previous year.

Veteran running back Adrian Peterson will not be back after his 156 carries in 2020 either.

Detroit ranked 20th with 350.2 yards per game last season and have since lost their QB, three WRs and their most-used RB – and the defense is supposed to be the problem!

However, the departure of Peterson has at least cleared space for D'Andre Swift, whose rookie year included 10 total TDs, with 521 rushing yards and 357 receiving yards.

At tight end, there is talent, too, in the form of T.J. Hockenson, behind only Jones with 67 catches for 723 yards and six TDs.

Tyrell Williams has already been brought in as the task to rebuild the receiving corps begins. Barring some huge, unexpected investment, Hockenson and a top draft pick will be Goff's top targets.

Defense

If Goff was already feeling a little disorientated by the lack of depth in the offense, just wait until he gets off the field.

With the Rams, the QB would know errors could often go unpunished, with his defensive team-mates capable of making huge stops. In Detroit, the opposite is likely to be true.

Where LA conceded the fewest total points (296), fewest yards per game (281.9) and fewest yards per play (4.56) in 2020, the Lions were at the other end of the spectrum, ranking 32nd in all three categories.

The new QB has gone from sharing a locker room with the best defense around to the very worst.

And Detroit are actually set to get worse on this side of the ball, at least on paper.

They registered only 24 sacks in 2020, tied for 26th in the league, and Romeo Okwara contributed by far the greatest share of those with 10.0, ranking 10th. Just like Golladay, the defensive end was not tagged ahead of the deadline and is set instead for free agency, seemingly leaving his brother Julian – six games last year – as a starter.

Everson Griffen, the veteran signed from the Dallas Cowboys in a midseason trade, was next behind Romeo for sacks (3.5) and QB hits (eight). He is also a free agent.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Okudah had an incredibly difficult season at cornerback after being picked at number three overall.

The Lions were also not helped by 2020 signing Jamie Collins Sr.'s form falling off a cliff after agreeing a three-year, $30m contract. From his 2019 season with the New England Patriots, the linebacker was down 6.0 sacks, seven QB hits and two interceptions.

Offseason

So the Lions approach 2021 paying $6.5m more than last year at QB for an inferior player, while the cap has fallen to $182.5m. They have lost key players on offense and defense, having started from the low base of a 5-11 record.

It leaves general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell – both new hires – with just $9m of cap space to play with.

They need multiple wide receivers and cornerbacks just for starters, with drafting a QB of the future also in play.

Campbell did not exactly encourage optimism when he spoke of looking for "free agents that maybe aren't quite as talented but, man, they are gritty, salty guys that know how to compete". They "will help us in the meantime", he said.

Detroit retain the seventh pick in this year's draft – a vital asset – but the first-round selections received in the Stafford-Goff deal will not come into play until 2022 and 2023.

Looking some way short of a competitive NFL roster, Holmes and Campbell will be kept busy in their preparation for the new season, but this will realistically be a rebuild across multiple years.

For two-time Pro Bowler Goff, looking to recover his reputation, that might make for a painful 2021.

The Seattle Seahawks' Wild Card round exit in the playoffs was a result that underlined the need for significant changes, but they may be about to head down a path nobody expected or would advise. 

Frustrated by the level of punishment he has taken behind an offensive line the Seahawks have failed to properly upgrade, quarterback Russell Wilson this offseason reportedly provided Seattle with a list of teams to whom he would accept a trade. 

On that list are the Dallas Cowboys - who are out of the running having re-signed Dak Prescott - New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears and Las Vegas Raiders. 

If speculation is to be believed, the Seahawks are fielding offers for Wilson and do not appear dead against trading one of NFL's elite quarterbacks, with the Bears said to be the team in that quartet most interested in striking a trade. 

It would be a franchise-altering decision for a team that has consistently been in the playoff mix because of the heroics of Wilson. 

The likely outcome remains that Wilson is still a Seahawk in 2021, but what do Seattle need to do this offseason to ensure this same drama is not repeated next year? 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on another year in which regular-season optimism gave way to postseason frustration for the Seahawks and the moves they will need to make to be better placed to challenge for the Lombardi Trophy in 2021. 

Offense 

The Seahawks dispensed with the services of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer following the loss to the Rams, a move that appeared unlikely early in the season as the Seattle thrived after Schottenheimer and head coach Pete Carroll heeded the widespread calls to 'let Russ cook'. 

Yet there was an evident decline in the second half of the season. Of the 56 plays of 20 yards or more Seattle produced in 2020 - putting them a disappointing 23rd in the NFL - only 20 of them came in the final eight games of the campaign. 

It is perhaps no coincidence that the drop-off came in the wake of a 44-34 defeat to the Buffalo Bills in Week 9 that, combined with a subsequent loss to the Los Angeles Rams - a pair of games in which Wilson committed seven turnovers - sparked a change in approach from Carroll and a disagreement with his quarterback about how to fix the offense. 

Carroll reverted to type, relying on the running game and the strength of a defense that made strides down the stretch as Seattle clinched the NFC West title. 

From Weeks 1-9, only three teams registered fewer rushing attempts than the Seahawks' 193. However, from Week 10 onwards they attempted the 12th-most rushes in the NFL (218). 

And the difference in the Seahawks' performance on offense in those two timeframes could hardly be starker.

Between Weeks 1-9, Seattle led the league in scrimmage yards per game (434.5). From Weeks 10-17, they dropped to 24th with an average of 342.5. 

The numbers clearly point to an aggressive approach through the air being Seattle's best route to offensive success. 

Wilson's statistics on deep throws also support the argument that letting him 'cook' is in Seattle's best interests. Indeed, of quarterbacks to have attempted at least 25 throws of 21 or more air yards last season, Wilson led the way with 13 touchdowns on such passes. 

Yet for him to have the opportunity to make a strategy built around his remarkable deep ball prowess succeed, the Seahawks must do a better job in pass protection. 

Among quarterbacks to have at least 100 dropbacks, Wilson's sacks per pass play percentage of 7.77 was tied for the ninth-highest with Cam Newton. 

When given licence to do so, Wilson torched defenses. Allowing him that freedom, and reinforcing the offensive line, is the best way for the Seahawks to take the burden off a defense not without his holes despite a strong finish to the 2020 regular season. 

Defense 

Seattle's big splash last year was to strike a blockbuster trade for All-Pro safety Jamal Adams that caused excitement and raised eyebrows in equal measure. 

The decision to trade two first-round picks to acquire Adams from the New York Jets was met with scepticism from many. He may fail to ever live up to that price tag, but he did make a tangible impact on the success the defense enjoyed in 2020. 

Adams posted 9.5 sacks, the most by a defensive back in a single-season in NFL history, providing a significant boost to a Seahawks' pass rush that lacks dominant players up front. 

His efforts in that regard helped the Seahawks finish in the top 10 in opponent negative play yardage, Seattle forcing 109 negative plays for minus 393 yards. 

Yet the Seahawks were still extremely susceptible to the passing game. 

Seattle allowed 55 pass plays of 20 yards or more, tied for seventh in the NFL, indicating Adams had little positive impact in coverage. 

Where the Seahawks' defense consistently excelled was in defending the run. 

Only four teams allowed fewer runs of 20 yards or more than Seattle (7), and the Seahawks did not give up a single touchdown run of 20 yards. 

Finishing the year 12th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.48), the Seahawks will be out to join the league's elite on defense in 2021. 

To do that they will likely need better production from the defensive line in terms of turning pressure into sacks, of which they put up 46. 

That tally was good enough for seventh in the NFL, but plenty of opportunities clearly went begging with Seattle leading the league in hurries (190) and tied for sixth in knockdowns (104). Defensive tackle Jarran Reed was second behind Adams for sacks on the team with 6.5 and Carlos Dunlap (5) is no longer a Seahawk. 

The Seahawks cannot rely on a safety to carry the pass-rushing load on a regular basis, and finding a dominant edge player who can convert on the pressure they create should be top priority on defense in an offseason where they will have to perform a financial balancing act. 

Offseason 

Seattle must face up to the same challenge that beckons for the rest of the league, improving the roster by acquiring new talent and trying to keep their own while dealing with the issues presented by a declining salary cap. 

The Seahawks are scheduled to be $21.4million under the salary cap of $182.5m, that is more wiggle room than just under half the league and is little enough to raise doubts over how many free agents they can retain. 

Shaquill Griffin is likely to be the Seahawks' priority in terms of keeping their own players, Griffin having developed into an impressive starting cornerback for Seattle. 

He could command significant money on the market, potentially limiting Seattle's ability to re-sign veteran linebacker K.J. Wright. 

Seattle drafted linebacker Jordyn Brooks in the first round last year and he should slot in as the successor if Wright departs. 

Without a first-round pick because of the Adams trade, the Seahawks will need to get creative if they are to fill their most pressing needs on both sides of the trenches. 

General manager John Schneider has long been one of the best in the league at manoeuvring up and down the draft board. 

The onus is on him to do so and find financially viable solutions in free agency to ensure the pass rush improves and that the Seahawks do a better job of keeping opposing pass rushes away from Wilson. 

Should he fail to do so, Wilson's dissatisfaction may lead to some franchise-changing consequences next offseason. 

One of the most interesting offseasons in modern NFL history is on the horizon, with free agency set to begin next week.

Teams can negotiate with free agents from Monday, and franchises will be able to announce signings from Wednesday when the new league year begins.

The drop in salary cap, which is set at $182.5million, means many teams will have limited financial means with which to pursue their potential targets.

Yet there is a select group of players that will be able to command top dollar regardless of the economic challenges the coronavirus has presented.

Here we look at some of the players in that category by ranking the top 10 players set to hit the open market.

 

1. Shaquil Barrett - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With the Buccaneers franchising wide receiver Chris Godwin, Barrett is set to hit the open market and will earn a long overdue payday. Pivotal to Tampa's success in Super Bowl LV, only T.J. Watt (29.5) has more sacks over the last two seasons than Barrett's 27.5.

2. Trent Williams - San Francisco 49ers

It is extremely rare for left tackles of Williams' calibre to hit free agency. Williams would not be doing so had the Niners agreed not to franchise tag him. There have been positive noises about him re-signing with San Francisco, but Williams will likely command over $20million a year. He has not allowed more than 3.5 sacks since the 2014 season when he gave up six.

3. Kenny Golladay - Detroit Lions

Golladay was not franchised by the Lions following an injury-hit 2020, but that should not cloud what he did in his first three years in the league. One of the league's top big-play threats, Golladay's 33 receptions of 25 yards or more ranked fifth in the NFL between 2017 and 2019.

4. Aaron Jones - Green Bay Packers

That the Packers elected not to pay Jones $8million for one season on the franchise tag is not reflective of the running back's tremendous skill set. He has 43 touchdowns from scrimmage since entering the league in 2017, the eighth-most in the NFL in that time.

5. Carl Lawson - Cincinnati Bengals

One of the most underrated pass rushers on the market, the sack numbers have not quite been there for Lawson. He had only 5.5 last season but was tied-ninth in the NFL in hurries and knockdowns with 65.5. Lawson should flourish playing on a superior defense to that of Cincinnati.

6. Joe Thuney - New England Patriots

Franchised last year, Thuney could become the league's highest-paid guard and deservedly so. The picture of reliability, he has allowed just 1.5 sacks over the past three seasons in New England, playing in every regular season game.

7. Bud Dupree - Pittsburgh Steelers

Dupree has 19.5 sacks in the last two seasons, but his free agency value will be hurt by the torn ACL that brought his 2020 to a premature end. He has shown a nose for the football during his surge in production, Dupree's six forced fumbles from 2019-20 the fourth-highest total in that span.

8. Corey Linsley - Green Bay Packers

Linsley's pending free agency may have influenced the Packers' decision not to franchise Jones. They will surely make effort to bring the center back, Linsley having allowed one sack this season. For the second time in three seasons, he did not commit a single holding penalty and played a pivotal role in a rushing attack that finished eighth in yards per game.

9. Trey Hendrickson - New Orleans Saints

Hendrickson enjoyed a breakout year for a Saints team mired in salary cap hell. He won't be back in New Orleans, but should have no shortage of suitors at the age of 26 after finishing tied-second in the NFL with 13.5 sacks. 

10. Curtis Samuel - Carolina Panthers

Samuel perfectly fits an era where there is an increasing emphasis on wide receivers who can operate out of the backfield. He was second in rushing yards among wideouts with 200 and finished the year 11th in scrimmage yards per touch (8.9).

Another offseason sees another scramble for quarterbacks in the NFL.

Last year, Tom Brady was among those on the move and he ended the 2020 season with his first Super Bowl title in Tampa Bay and seventh in total.

Already in 2021 there have been significant deals at the position again, including the Los Angeles Rams' big play for Matthew Stafford, deeming him a significant upgrade on the expensive, underperforming Jared Goff.

There are big names remaining on the board, though, and we take a look at the state of play.

 

DESHAUN WATSON

It is not every day a QB of Watson's quality becomes available – and the Houston Texans might still argue he is not. But the 25-year-old was bogged down by a poor team last year, finishing 4-12 despite leading the league in overall passing yards (4,823).

Watson wants out, and the Texans would be well advised to listen to any serious offers if the alternative is to let one of the league's top talents sit on a massive contract.

The asking price will surely be high. Stafford, 33, threw for 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2020 – beaten by Watson across the board – and set a precedent when he went to the Rams for Goff, two first-round picks and a third.

What does that make Watson worth? Well, his desire to depart might bring the value down slightly, but Houston would surely expect picks as well as a QB prospect.

TUA TAGOVAILOA

Tagovailoa was the fifth pick just a year ago, but the Miami Dolphins might already be interested in moving on, especially if that means a trade for Watson.

Although there were signs of Tagovailoa's promise as he won his first three NFL starts, 2020 ended with his benching in a Week 16 comeback win and then three costly picks in a Week 17 defeat that saw the Dolphins miss the playoffs.

Miami might feel a move for Watson would make them contenders, while the Texans could use a talent like Tagovailoa in their rebuild.

There is a complication, however. The draft picks Houston would receive alongside Tagovailoa in return for Watson would be the same selections they spent themselves in a deal for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. In order to save face, an alternative package might appeal.

SAM DARNOLD

Such an offer may well materialise elsewhere in the AFC East. The New York Jets are likely to have an interest in Watson if they move on from Darnold and do not want to try again in the draft with the second pick.

That would have been the first selection had the Jets not inexplicably rallied to two wins, gifting Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The signing of Watson would significantly soften that blow, but it would most likely mean the Texans taking on Darnold, who has played for two more years than Tagovailoa and is still to show he is really up to the task. A career tally of 45 TDs and 39 interceptions for a passer rating of 78.6 does not compare favourably.

His team even failed when apparently tanking. Houston would hope a Darnold-led rebuild would fare better.

JIMMY GAROPPOLO

This busy market might have piqued the interest of San Francisco 49ers fans looking for a more reliable option at QB, where Garoppolo has started only 30 games in four years. It could be time for him to move on.

The landing spot for the 29-year-old would seemingly be New England, a place he knows well having previously served as Brady's understudy on the Patriots.

Brady stuck around longer than expected, so Garoppolo moved to San Francisco and performed well in 2019, starting all 16 games for the only time in his career and throwing 27 TDs before making the Super Bowl.

That proved the peak, however, with defeat in the big game, although the Pats look to be interested again having failed to properly replace - yes – Brady.

CAM NEWTON

Newton was the man Bill Belichick initially turned to, agreeing a one-year deal with the former MVP that makes him a free agent again this year.

A return to New England cannot be entirely ruled out, although a team and coach used to Brady's brilliance never really adjusted to a QB who threw only eight TDs.

Newton might have other options. Washington head coach Ron Rivera knows the player well from their time together with the Carolina Panthers and could be more appreciative of his other talents, notably a running game that brought 592 yards and 12 TDs on 137 carries in 2020.

JAMEIS WINSTON

Winston, once a number one overall pick, is another man heading for free agency. He spent last season with the New Orleans Saints but found himself third choice, behind utility player Taysom Hill, and participated in only 51 plays.

It was a far cry from the previous year when Winston was Tampa Bay's starter and involved in just about everything, remarkably throwing 33 TDs and 30 interceptions.

That 2019 campaign encapsulated how chaotic the 27-year-old can be, but he would argue he deserves to at least be competing for a start somewhere. If not back to New Orleans, Winston could be headed for somewhere like Washington and a team looking to change things on the cheap.

RUSSELL WILSON

Wilson certainly would not come cheap. And it seems improbable he would come at all, regardless of the suitor.

But noises of unhappiness in Seattle, where the Seahawks failed to give their superstar quarterback the help he needed, were followed by Wilson's agent saying only moves to the Saints, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders or Chicago Bears would appeal.

Dak Prescott's new deal in Dallas closed that avenue, while the Saints and Bears are already set to be way over the cap. Any blockbuster move for Seattle's most prized asset could change the entire complexion of this offseason, though.

There were 124 years of All-Star experience at last weekend's showcase game between Team LeBron and Team Durant in Atlanta. 

The Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine was responsible for one of those years. 

And of all the exceptional players at last weekend's event, the first-time All-Star from the Bulls is one of the more intriguing. 

While several All-Stars are future Hall of Famers – the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James, Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry and Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul just to name a few – and others are young and established stars – the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons – LaVine is a veteran who is suddenly developing into a superstar. 

In fact, over the past five weeks, no one is scoring more than LaVine, who is averaging a league-best 32.3 points since February 6, while making exactly half of his 104 three-point attempts. 

He's been so spectacular he's played himself into max contract talk, although other discussions have had his name in various trade rumours if the rebuilding Bulls do not plan to sign him to an extension before his contract expires in 2022. 

Now in his fourth season in Chicago after spending his first three with the Minnesota Timberwolves, LaVine has the Bulls in position to participate in the Play-In Tournament and possibly earn their first postseason berth since 2016-17. 

He has the Bulls on the cusp of the playoffs behind a breakout season in which he is averaging career highs in every major category – 28.7 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game, 5.1 assists per game and 3.5 made three-pointers per game, while shooting 52.5 per cent on all field goals and 43.5 per cent on threes. 

If those numbers look impressive, that is because they have only been reached once before in a single season in NBA history. 

LaVine joins Stephen Curry from 2015-16 as the only players ever to average 25-plus points, five-plus rebounds, five-plus assists and three-plus made three-pointers per game, while shooting 50 per cent on field goals and 40 per cent on threes. Curry won his second MVP that season while leading the Warriors to a record 73 wins. 

While Curry was already an established star at that point after winning league MVP honours and an NBA title the season prior, LaVine is unexpectedly proving that he also belongs among the upper echelon of players in the league. 

He has transformed himself into one of the league's most dangerous scorers, capable of knocking down a three-pointer, pulling up and hitting a mid-range jumper or beating his man off the dribble and finishing at the rim. 

Coming out of the All-Star break, his 167 dunks and layups are seventh-most in the NBA – and the most by any guard. And while the six-foot-six LaVine was also among the league leaders in dunks and layups last season (11th with 287), he is finishing at higher rate. 

He is converting 64.2 per cent of his dunk and layup attempts this season after making 57.4 per cent of his attempts last season, and that increase in field goal percentage of 6.8 is the eighth largest by any player six-foot-six or shorter. 

While many of the leaders among dunks and layups are big men – New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson, Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jazz centre Rudy Gobert – who live in the paint, the dynamic LaVine is just as much of a threat to knock down a three-pointer. 

His 120 made three-pointers rank fifth in the league and he is the league's only player with more than 120 dunks and layups and 90 threes. 

It is one thing to have made a lot of threes but another to actually be an efficient shooter – the Sacramento Kings' Buddy Hield has made 20 more three-pointers than LaVine but has hoisted up 94 more attempts – and LaVine has refined his shooting touch and is deadly from beyond the arc. 

He is hitting 43.8 per cent of his three-point attempts from the wing and his 53.8 per cent shooting from the corner ranks sixth in the league among the 103 players with at least 30 attempts.   

Overall, LaVine is shooting 43.5 per cent on three-pointers, an increase of 0.55 per cent from the perimeter from last season – the eighth-largest improvement in the NBA among players with at least 150 three-point attempts this season and last. 

The mid-range shot is somewhat of a lost art in the current game with the added weight given to a shot from a few feet further back beyond the arc, but it still has a place and if a shooter can connect from mid-range with regularity he becomes all the more threatening to score. 

LaVine has found his touch from mid-range, making 44.6 per cent of those shots this season after hitting at a 31.9 per cent clip last season. That increase of 12.7 per cent is the sixth-largest in the NBA among 73 shooters who have attempted at least 50 mid-range shots this season and last. 

Shooters shoot, and LaVine is thriving. His effective field goal percentage of 61.5 ranks second in the NBA among all guards. 

His all-round offensive game is one of the most complete in the league, and opposing defences are tasked with game planning against him, giving him similar treatment as they would give Curry or James, as he is a threat to score from anywhere on the court. 

Curry and James, however, have won multiple MVPs and titles. LaVine is certainly putting up MVP-type numbers, but the Bulls are not in the championship conversation. 

At the moment, at least. 

Chicago are only two games back of the Boston Celtics for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and are viewed as a team on the rise under first-year Bulls coach Billy Donovan. Instead of trading LaVine as was being speculated weeks ago, it is possible Chicago will be buyers at the March 25 trade deadline in their pursuit of a playoff berth. 

And if LaVine continues to excel and Chicago continue to improve over the next few seasons, MVP awards and NBA titles might not be out of the question for LaVine and the Bulls. 

Another year, another early Champions League exit for Barcelona.

Despite Lionel Messi's sparkling intransigence, there was to be no second 'remontada' against Paris Saint-Germain. After Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the past three years, 2021 saw Barca dance their last tango in Paris, a sixth season in a row of knockout failure. The opponents change, but the story stays the same.

Or does it?

This was not Rome, nor Anfield, nor Lisbon, the scene of last year's 8-2 annihilation by Bayern. This was not Barca collapsing under pressure, wilting before foreign crowds or just plain giving up. Their 5-2 aggregate loss to PSG was born of a wretched first-leg performance, but they are not the team they were just three weeks ago. At Parc des Princes, they showed that. Messi showed that.

Since that 4-1 loss at Camp Nou, Barca have won four games and drawn two, conceding just two goals, a penalty here and against Cadiz. They have closed back to within six points of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, breathing life into a title challenge that had looked over in the autumn.

In a Copa del Rey comeback against Sevilla, they played with verve and passion seldom seen in the recent years of squad mismanagement and boardroom chaos. And while they didn't beat PSG, they were the dominant side and thwarted mostly by man-of-the-match Keylor Navas, their performance in a different stratosphere to that sad clown act against Bayern a year ago.

We're into a new era now, of course. Joan Laporta, the man who appointed Pep Guardiola, who oversaw Messi's introduction to the world stage and counts the club captain as a friend, was voted in as president again on Sunday. He assured members he was their best chance of seeing Messi sign a new contract; what he saw on Wednesday as he watched from the stands will not have dissolved that belief.

What Messi wants, what he has always wanted, is a winning project. His protracted and ultimately futile efforts to leave last year were fuelled not just by the ugliness of Josep Maria Bartomeu's final months as president, but by the fear that winning the biggest trophies on offer – this trophy, to be precise – had slipped away. He wants a coach with a plan, a team with panache, and a collective drive to knit it together.

If he had none of that in the first leg, he certainly did in Paris.

Without first-choice centre-backs in Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo, Ronald Koeman dropped Frenkie de Jong into a back three with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza. It meant attacking full-backs, Pedri and Sergio Busquets could all be accommodated behind Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele. At an average age of 26 years and 166 days old, it was also Barcelona's youngest starting XI in a Champions League knockout tie since they beat Stuttgart 4-0 in March 2010 under Guardiola.

It was a bold set-up, and the players embraced it. They had 73 per cent of the ball in the first half, attempting 10 shots in the first 26 minutes, just two short of their total from the first leg. Dembele could have scored twice but for Navas; Mingueza narrowly missed contact with a clear header. Barca ended the half with 16 attempts, the most in the first 45 minutes of a game since January 2019 against Levante, and the most by far faced by PSG in a first half at home all season.

Kylian Mbappe perhaps thought the tie was dead when he swept home from the spot against the run of play, Lenglet punished by VAR for an entirely accidental trip on Mauro Icardi, but Messi had other ideas. His equaliser was a sensational, swerving strike that had Navas grasping at thin air. He should have made it 2-1 before the break, but Navas' leg and the underside of the crossbar combined to keep out his penalty. An inch or two either way, and they really would have believed.

That was the key difference to those awful European nights experienced by Messi since he last won this trophy six years ago. Where before came embarrassment, anger and inquests, here there was disappointment – but reason to hope. They outplayed last season's beaten finalists on their own patch in a way that looked impossible a month ago.

Barca are not where they want to be – far from it – and this season will still be remembered for failure in Europe. But they are, as a club, at last moving in the right direction. Whether Messi chooses to be part of that progress next season is, even now, difficult to predict. And if this was the last time we saw him in this tournament in a Barca shirt, at least it was a more fitting farewell.

The NBA is back in action after the All-Star break, with an enticing Western Conference matchup on deck on Thursday.

While the Golden State Warriors are far from being the force they were at the peak of their dynasty, an incredible season from Stephen Curry is keeping them firmly in the playoff hunt.

Curry's remarkable scoring talents and his stunning shooting from three-point range can be an equaliser in any game and means the Los Angeles Clippers, despite their superior place in the standings, can take little for granted at Staples Center.

The Clippers go into this clash on a four-game losing streak and will need Kawhi Leonard – enjoying his best shooting season since 2013-14 by converting on 51.1 per cent of his attempts from the field – and Paul George to be at their best to avoid that run being extended.

TOP PERFORMERS

Golden State Warriors - Stephen Curry

It may be predictable to identify Curry as the key man for the Warriors but, if they are to make the playoffs, it is going to be a case of him against the world.

Curry is coming off a spectacular performance at the All-Star Game, where he won the three-point contest for a second time before playing a starring role in Team LeBron's victory.

He has an average of 24.7 points per game for his career against the Clippers and put up 38 in the previous meeting between the two.

Curry will be out for a repeat performance in his first game versus the Clippers in LA since January 2019.

Los Angeles Clippers - Paul George

George was also on the winning team at the All-Star game in Atlanta, having played a pivotal role alongside Leonard for the Clippers.

For Los Angeles, George is the player whose presence on the court appears to have the biggest impact, given he leads the team with a plus-minus rating of 8.6

He is also the player best suited to help the Clippers keep pace if Curry begins a deluge from beyond the arc. George leads the Clippers in three-point attempts (7.8 per game) and is shooting 45 per cent from deep.

His effective field goal percentage of 60.4 is also a team-high and ranks above that of Curry (59.5).

KEY BATTLE - WARRIORS MUST LIMIT SECOND CHANCES

The weakness of the Warriors continues to be on the boards. Golden State is second last in total defensive rebounds this season with 1,381.

As a result of their inability to dominate on the glass, only one team – the Brooklyn Nets (556) – have given up more second-chance points than the Warriors (526).

The Clippers have racked up 485 second-chance points this term, 10th in the NBA, and with the consistency with which Leonard and George are shooting the ball, the game could get away from the Warriors in a hurry if they allow Los Angeles to dictate on the boards.

HEAD TO HEAD

The two teams split the first pair of games in San Francisco this season, the Warriors bouncing back with a 115-105 win two days after suffering a 108-101 defeat.

That victory ended a run of four successive losses to the Clippers that stretched back to October 2019.

Only two of the last seven games between the Warriors and Clippers have been decided by single digits, indicating a close encounter may not be in the offing.

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