It is safe to say LaMelo Ball has hit the ground running in the NBA.

The hype has long followed Ball and his rise in the basketball world, dating back to his high school days. His outspoken father tipped him to be a future number one draft pick – LaVar talking up his son at every turn.

While he was not the first name called on Draft night last year, LaMelo – the younger brother of New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo – has lived up to his billing since the Charlotte Hornets used the third pick on the 19-year-old sensation.

Prior to suffering a wrist fracture in March, Rookie of the Year favourite Ball ranked first in assists and steals among rookies, second in scoring and is tied for second in rebounds.

The face of an emerging and exciting franchise boasting Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, DeVonte Graham and Miles Bridges, Ball was the only player over the last 60 years to lead all rookies in total points, rebounds, assists and steals at the All-Star break.

Last month, Ball joined Stephen Curry (2010) and Jason Kidd (1995) as the only rookies with seven-plus threes and 10-plus assists in a game and was the youngest to do so. He also became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double in January.

"I'm really pleased for LaMelo that, not only has he gone to a situation that allows him to showcase what he can do, but the people around him from top to bottom really care about his development as a player and a person," Matt Flinn, who coached Ball during his time with the Illawarra Hawks in Australia's NBL prior to the draft, told Stats Perform News.

"We keep forgetting he's only 19. Can you imagine in three years when he's 22? Doing what he's doing now is quite special. In three or four years' time, he's going to be a superstar of the NBA."

Ball's playmaking ability has been on show throughout the 2020-21 campaign, right up until he hurt his wrist against the Los Angeles Clippers and underwent surgery – the fracture was reported to be potentially season-ending, though the Hornets have not ruled out a return.

By March 25, he had featured in the top 20 for assist percentage (33.4), a list including experienced stars, champions and former MVPs like Russell Westbrook, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Trae Young, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, Curry, Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry.

His assists/turnover ratio stands at 2.18 – better than Los Angeles Lakers legend James.

"You just look at his numbers – possessions plus assists, if you look at the guys with more than 800 possessions, he's sitting in the top 25 in the NBA. When you go through the list, the guys on that list, it's quite incredible for a 19-year-old," Flinn said, having tipped Ball to flourish in the NBA during a pre-draft interview with Stats Perform News.

"When we recruit guys, we look at assist/turnover ratio. Again, that's testament he's hitting the positive column for his usage rate. The ride for LaMelo is just beginning."

Through 41 games, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists this season in just 28.6 minutes per game. He would be the first player in NBA history to average 15/5/5 in less than 30 minutes per game in a season (minimum 40 games played), per Stats Perform.

When you compare his first 41 games to some of the past and current greats at the same stage, Ball ranks well.

His points-per-game average is better than five-time champion and Lakers great Kobe Bryant (7.0 in 1996-97), former MVP Harden (9.8 in 2009-10), Curry (13.4 in 2009-10), Steve Nash (4.5 in 1996-97) and Jason Kidd (9.4 in 1994-95).

When it comes to his assists numbers, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan (5.1 in 1984-85) – the owner of the Hornets – Nash (2.9), Dwyane Wade (4.3), Harden (2.1), Curry (4.6) and Kyrie Irving (5.7 in 2011-12) did not fare as good as Ball.

Highlighting his versatility, Ball's rebound average is better than Irving (3.8), Curry (3.8), Harden (3.2), Wade (4.4), Bryant (2.0), Nash (1.3), Kidd (5.7) and Allen Iversen (4.2 in 1996-97).

"It really doesn't surprise me," Flinn said when asked about some of the record-breaking numbers. "I'm not just saying it because the level of belief is probably the first thing that struck me about LaMelo.

"This kid was just born to play. You get a lot of players who are manufactured and they do an incredible amount of work, we put them in boxes in their roles they fulfill in teams. LaMelo really has no ceiling. You just have to look at him in transition and some of the passes he executes in the game.

"In transition, to be able to thread a needle and put the exact amount of spin on it so it holds up to hit a guy running at speed, you can't coach or teach that. Prior to him coming to me and going to Charlotte, he copped a lot of criticism, his family copped a lot of criticism for the show, whatever he did within his journey etc, but they've done an incredible job in the point leading up to me.

"Having allowed him to fail at times in some of the games he played. You look at the old mainstream coaching, 'Well we put accountability on our players and if you turn it over or don't stick to the system, we're dragging you'. That never happened with him during his pathway.

"They're certainly seeing the benefits of that now because when you strip it back now, he is a disciplined, great kid, who genuinely cares about his team-mates and makes people better around him. I'm so happy that he appears to have found his feet."

Flinn – who believes the Jordan-led Hornets have the potential to be a powerhouse in the next five years – added: "What I tried to do with him and what [Charlotte head coach] James [Borrego] is doing as well, even though you might be in a half-court situation, you try to get him downhill.

"When he gets downhill, he has so many escape routes when he commits. He will contest at the rim, he will leave his feet and have three escape routes. For me, that's the real special nature of his play.

"Always the question mark was his ability to shoot the ball [Ball is shooting at 45.1 per cent]. He will continue to get better shooting the ball no question. That will bring in a whole new dimension on how you defend him out of the pick and roll. He's still good enough to work in tight spaces.

"The first time I saw him throw a full-court baseball pass to hit a guy straight in the chest, I'll be honest, I thought 'what are you doing?'. But he rarely fails with those kinds of plays. He just has that unwavering belief. I said to him one time, 'if you weren't playing basketball, you'd probably be a quarterback given your arm and ability to read a player'. It's unique."

Ball was the favourite to be crowned the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year before he was struck down by injury. Does he still deserve the award?

"I might be biased but I really hope so. He is a once-in-a-generation player for the NBA," added Flinn, who said Ball would be devastated following the wrist injury as he "lives, eats and sleeps basketball".

"I believe he'd take winning over anything, but it would be something he'd deserve given the body of work he's been able to produce so far. I don't think you'd have too many arguments."

Gareth Southgate is set to bring up 50 games in charge when England start their qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup.

San Marino are the visitors to Wembley Stadium for the milestone match, with Southgate the seventh to make it to a half-century at the helm for England.

His record so far is impressive: 29 wins, 10 draws and 10 defeats. He has also introduced some notable names to international football, many of which will form the backbone for the Three Lions in this year's delayed Euro 2020 tournament. 

In total, 42 players have made their senior debuts under the current boss. Plenty have made an impact, though some have fallen by the wayside since getting a taste of the senior team. 

HITS 

Jesse Lingard 

Lingard is the only member of the current England squad to have made his debut in Southgate's first match in charge, a 2-0 win over Malta in October 2016. The 28-year-old was a key member of the 2018 World Cup squad but has not featured for his country since the Nations League Finals nearly two years ago, having struggled for minutes at Manchester United. 

However, a January loan move to West Ham has paid off. No player has been involved in more goals – Lingard has scored five while also providing two assists – since his debut for the Hammers in February. Southgate – who advised the player to remain in the Premier League – has duly taken note, handing him a recall. 

Harry Maguire 

Maguire made his first England appearance against Lithuania in October 2017, when he was playing for Leicester City. The centre-back quickly established himself in Southgate's side for the World Cup semi-final run, while he has continued to be a mainstay since for the national side.  

Indeed, the Manchester United defender has missed just 14 possible outings for club and country since that maiden outing, starting 28 out of England's 30 matches. 

Kieran Trippier 

Paris was the setting for Trippier's bow, the full-back handed a chance in a 3-2 friendly defeat against France that saw him start alongside then-Tottenham team-mates Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane. 

Now playing his club football in Spain with Atletico Madrid, the 30-year-old continues to be a key attacking outlet for Southgate's teams. His total of 55 chances created since June 2017 is comfortably the highest for England, with striker Kane second on the list with 37. 

Jordan Pickford 

No player has both played and started more games for England under Southgate than Pickford, whose debut came in November 2017.  With 30 appearances, he sits one ahead of Maguire.

The Everton goalkeeper will not be involved as his manager celebrates his 50th match at the helm, though, as an abdominal muscle injury sees him missing for March's World Cup qualifiers. His absence also offers some of his rivals for the starting job an opportunity to stake their claim to be considered number one, with Pickford's form having been somewhat unconvincing for a while.

Declan Rice 

Rice's introduction to action for England came via a substitute appearance during a 5-0 win over the Czech Republic two years ago, replacing Alli just after the hour mark. 

The midfielder started all six of the Nations League qualifiers in 2020-21, including scoring his first international goal in a 4-0 triumph over Iceland. As for his club career, only Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole played more minutes in the Premier League for West Ham than Rice before the age of 22.


MISSES 

Nathaniel Chalobah 

Having represented England through the youth levels from under-16s upwards, Chalobah has so far played one solitary minute for the senior team, with his late, late opportunity coming against Spain in October 2018.  

Since then, the former Chelsea midfielder has started just 42 league games for Watford. This season he is plying his trade in the Championship, contributing three goals and an assist as the Hornets aim for an immediate return to the top flight. 

Dominic Solanke 

Solanke was part of the England squad that won the 2014 European Under-17 Championship, including scoring in a final against the Netherlands that was eventually settled by a penalty shoot-out. 

His senior debut came against Brazil in November 2017, but he has not been involved since. The striker signed for Bournemouth in January 2019 but failed to score in his first 38 Premier League appearances for the club, a barren run finally ended with a brace against Leicester in July 2020. He has been far more prolific in the Championship, getting 11 goals.

Lewis Cook 

Cook had success with England at youth level, captaining the squad that went all the way at the Under-20 World Cup. Solanke was also involved in that tournament, along with full internationals Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dean Henderson - who was not first choice in goal - and Fikayo Tomori. 

The midfielder's maiden appearance for the senior side earned his grandfather a tidy windfall through a winning bet, but that outing as a substitute against Italy at Wembley remains his only cap. Since then, he has started 58 games for Bournemouth, scoring once. 

Jack Cork 

Another to be handed a late cameo by Southgate, Cork featured for all of four minutes in a friendly with Germany in November 2017. A young line-up that included new faces Pickford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek managed a 0-0 draw at Wembley. 

The midfielder – who was part of the Great Britain squad coached by Stuart Pearce at the 2012 Olympic Games in London – was a regular at Burnley before injuries hampered him in the current season, restricting him to just nine league outings for Sean Dyche's team in the 2020-21 campaign. 

Lewis Dunk 

Dunk has helped Brighton and Hove Albion rise from League One to the Premier League, with his performances earning him an England opportunity against the United States in November 2018. He started in a 3-0 win that saw Wayne Rooney make his 120th and final appearance for the Three Lions. 

The centre-back has not featured since, however, despite remaining a mainstay for his club. Since August 2018, Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (10) is the only defender to have scored more Premier League goals than Dunk's impressive total of nine.  

It's entirely possible the staging of the 2021 European Under-21 Championship will have passed many people by, given the fact it's taken on a somewhat peculiar format of a mid-season group stage with the knockout phase following two months later.

Originally due to take place solely in June, organisers were forced into a re-think following last year's postponement of the senior competition. It was decided to split the Under-21s' event in two, therefore avoiding a clash.

Despite the rather unconventional format, the competition will see many of the continent's most-promising prodigies on display.

The tournament, based in Hungary and Slovenia, begins on Wednesday with the Magyars hosting Germany, and we have identified some high-potential talents to keep an eye on.

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

Lafont has been a regular at this age-group level with France for many years, but a brief stint at Fiorentina in 2018-19 did not go to plan, with the Toulouse youth product freely admitting his performances "were not the best" as he secured to a loan move to Nantes ahead of last season.

Only Andrea Consigli (six) made more than Lafont's four errors leading to shots in Serie A two seasons ago, but his dependability appears to have improved considerably since returning to France, with no shots occurring because of errors by him in 57 Ligue 1 matches.

He also produced a particularly strong performance in the shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, making four saves including a couple of eye-catching stops to thwart Angel Di Maria.

 

A closer at Lafont’s performances for a struggling Nantes side in 2020-21 reveals he has not had the greatest campaign. When discounting own goals and penalties by the opposition, Lafont has allowed 3.5 goals more than the ‘average’ goalkeeper would have been expected to concede in Ligue 1 this season (37 conceded, 33.5 xG on target).

The metric ‘Goals Prevented Rate’ can account for different goalkeepers facing a different volume of shots through a period of time. An example of this is that PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas has a goals prevented rate of 1.37 this season, meaning for every non-penalty goal that Navas has conceded (excluding own goals), the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 1.37. Lafont’s rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers to have played 1800 minutes of French top-flight football in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, France's regular at this level knows he has a very capable understudy in Illan Meslier breathing down his neck.

Prior to his 21st birthday earlier in the month, Meslier broke the record for the most clean sheets by an under-21 goalkeeper in a single Premier League season (eight) and has since added another to that figure.

That means he has three times as many shutouts as Lafont, which is intriguing because it raises the question of why then has Meslier not conceded fewer goals?

For starters, it suggests Lafont is more consistent but also highlights that when Leeds concede, the floodgates can really burst open. With those 46 goals spread across 19 matches, it means Meslier is conceding on average 2.5 goals per game when he doesn't get a clean sheet – this drops to 1.7 for Lafont.

 

On top of that, Meslier's seven errors leading to shots is more than any other player in the Premier League this term, perhaps showing he's still in the inexperienced, nervous phase that Lafont has seemingly left behind.

Meslier's superior save percentage of 71.1 compared to 65.7 speaks to the former Lorient youngster's shot-stopping abilities, though for the time being Lafont's greater consistency looks set to keep him first-choice.

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

A promising loan spell with Heerenveen last season alerted Lille to the talents of Ajax-owned Botman and he has been a real hit for Les Dogues since a reported €8m move, helping them to mount a serious Ligue 1 title challenge.

Lille's 19 goals conceded is the fewest in France's top tier and, while not necessarily entirely down to Botman, there's no doubt he's made his presence known as a reliable powerhouse at the back.

 

Of the 856 players across Europe's top five leagues to have engaged in at least 150 duels, Botman's 71.4 per cent success rate is the best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess.

Only four of the 157 players in the continent's elite divisions to have been involved in 100+ aerial duels have a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (72.5 per cent).

While his impressive physical attributes might lead to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 452 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

 

Of course, there is likely to be a glaring absence from the senior Dutch side at Euro 2020. with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp not expecting Virgil van Dijk to be ready for the tournament.

That means there is potentially a spot up for grabs in the centre of the Netherlands defence, and Botman's combination of power and elegance suggests he could be a good fit as Van Dijk's deputy.

Granted, the young defender – who hasn't been capped at senior level yet – still has a way to go to match up to the Reds star, but in the context of young defenders of a similar ilk, Botman certainly compares well and his strengths are similar to those of Van Dijk.

His aerial stats prove he's an excellent physical specimen, and his effectiveness in duels reflects the fact he's a difficult defender to beat. A strong showing here might just help convince Frank de Boer that Botman's ready to step up later this year.

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

Les Bleus are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in most areas, but the fact Kounde is turning out for the Under-21s in this tournament instead of the senior side exemplifies their depth in quality at the heart of the defence.

In his second full season with Sevilla, Kounde has kicked on following a hugely encouraging second half to 2019-20, so much so that he's arguably the first name on the team sheet for Julen Lopetegui.

 

His forward-thinking nature has made him key to the coach's 'Lavolpiana build-up' defensive structure, a setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward from a three-man backline.

Only two central defenders in La Liga have bettered Kounde's rate of 19.2 carries per 90, while there are just three who have covered more distance carrying the ball further up field than the Frenchman this term (2,774 metres).

This positivity is generally offset by Fernando dropping in to form a faux back three, while Kounde's movement up the right can often create overloads as he teams up with Jesus Navas, Sevilla's biggest chance creator (44).

 

But evidence of his progressive mentality doesn't stop there. While possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs, given the sheer number of simple short balls played between defensive colleagues, Kounde is clearly looking ahead, and often.

No defender has been successful with more forward passes in open play than Kounde this season in LaLiga (507), with the 22-year-old completing an impressive 79 per cent of these. Therefore, perhaps it's not surprising to learn no Sevilla player has been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences than he has (53), demonstrating his value to their forays forward, despite not attempting the shots or making the final pass in that move.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he is developing into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who would have looked at home in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

It's fair to say that, when Sporting CP set out to replace Bruno Fernandes, never in their wildest dreams would they have expected what they got. Pedro Goncalves had been a key figure for Famalicao in 2019-20, but to say he's surpassed expectations in Lisbon would be an understatement.

Goncalves operates in similar spaces to Fernandes, albeit drifting towards the right a little more, and his hot streak in front of goal has helped put Sporting on course for a first league title since 2001-02.

 

In 22 Primeira Liga matches, the attacking midfielder has scored 15 goals – none of which were penalties. The 22-year-old's xG total is just 6.9, meaning his over-performance of 8.1 is the biggest across Europe's top six leagues, aside from the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (9.3).

Of course, the chances of him being able to sustain such a run in the long-term are low, but it still highlights what a danger the former Wolves youngster poses in his current form.

 

Comparisons with Fernandes have been rife, for obvious reasons, but they show many different traits to their game.

In Fernandes' final 50 league games for Sporting, he averaged 3.4 shots per 90 minutes and 2.3 of those non-penalty shots came from outside the box – Goncalves attempts 2.6 on average each game, with only 1.1 coming from beyond the penalty area.

As such, the average quality of Fernandes' shots in his final 50 games for Sporting weren't outstanding, with his xG per non-penalty shot equating to 0.07. Goncalves' is almost double that at 0.13, suggesting he picks his moments more selectively while also taking fewer attempts.

Nevertheless, despite Fernandes' penchant for a long-range effort, he only scored four times from outside the box in his final 50 league matches for Sporting – Goncalves already has three this term from 28 fewer games.

 

The biggest difference between the pair is assists. Fernandes' 20 in his final 50 outings for Sporting dwarfs Goncalves' three in 2020-21, but interestingly their expected assists per 90 minutes isn't hugely dissimilar. Fernandes is ahead 0.29 to 0.20 in this area, but a potential explanation for this potentially lies in the respective teams they've played in.

 

The next highest-scorer for Sporting this season after Goncalves himself is Nuno Santos with six – they don't have a prolific centre-forward, whereas Fernandes was supplying Bas Dost, who netted 76 times in 84 league games for the club between 2016 and 2019.

As we all know now, Fernandes was on the trajectory of an elite-level player. He's proven this at Manchester United, though there were certainly those who were sceptical about him prior to his move.

It'll be a tough ask, but why can't Goncalves continue to defy expectations?

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

Russian striker Fedor Chalov is undoubtedly one of the most experienced players involved at the tournament, with the 22-year-old having already played 115 Russian Premier League matches in addition to his 11 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Chalov burst on to the scene in Russia with CSKA Moscow at 18 years old back in November 2016 and scored in just his fifth top-flight appearance for the club versus Ural a month later.

After scoring six goals in each of his opening two league seasons at CSKA, 2018-19 was when he really began to make a name for himself in Russia - winning the league's top scorer award with 15 goals, while also posting his best-ever season tally for assists (7).

But Chalov's career hasn't kicked on as expected since then, scoring just 13 goals in 50 top-flight appearances over the past two seasons, but his performances have been stirring enough to attract the attentions of multiple Premier League clubs during the January transfer window.

 

Despite this, Chalov's numbers domestically at top-tier level are mightily impressive for a player so early in his career. Despite only being 22, Chalov's tally of 60 goal involvements since his Russian Premier League debut are the third most by a player in the competition.

Russia are certainly one of the underdogs for the 2021 Under-21 European Championship and are unlikely to top their group, having been drawn alongside favourites France. However, if Chalov can find form in the first stage of the tournament then he could be the linchpin to Russian hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages in May.

Kylian Mbappe has reached another milestone, with the Paris Saint-Germain star moving onto 100 goals in Ligue 1.

Mbappe initially opened the scoring on Sunday and then got his landmark goal to make it 4-0 in the second half, racing on to a gorgeous pass from Marco Verratti and coolly converting.

The 22-year-old started his career with Monaco, making his debut in 2015-16 before going on to star as the principality club charged to the title the following season.

Having earned his move to PSG, Mbappe has gone from strength to strength, and scored his 100th goal for the club in all competitions when he netted in a 3-1 win over Montpellier in December.

Mbappe is now a Ligue 1 centurion and, using Opta data, here is a breakdown of his 100 strikes in France's top tier.

Mbappe's 100 Ligue 1 goals 

2015-16

Mbappe opened his Ligue 1 account in February 2016, scoring a stoppage-time goal in Monaco's 3-1 triumph over Troyes. It was the only "big chance", as per Opta metrics, that the youngster had that season, while he also crafted four chances across 11 league appearances in total.

2016-17

As far as breakthrough seasons go, Mbappe's 2016-17 performance is up there with the very best. From 29 Ligue 1 appearances – 17 of them coming as starts – Mbappe scored 15 goals, created 31 chances and missed only five big opportunities. He scored his final top-flight goal for Monaco in a 2-0 win over Saint-Etienne. 

2017-18

Arriving at PSG alongside Neymar, Mbappe managed 13 Ligue 1 strikes from 28 appearances in his first season in Paris. Eight came with his right foot, while five came from his left, with just one of his efforts having come from outside the 18-yard box. His creativity also came to the fore, with the prodigy teeing up 52 opportunities in total.

2018-19

Having starred as France won the 2018 World Cup, Mbappe carried his sensational form into the following season, scoring a spectacular 33 Ligue 1 goals. Remarkably, 30 of these came from his right foot, and none with his head, while his total would have been even better had he put away the 27 big chances that he missed.

2019-20

Injury hampered Mbappe in his third season at PSG, limiting him to just 20 appearances in the league. He still managed 18 goals, none of which came from penalties, and crafted 40 opportunities for his team-mates.

2020-21

It is now 20 Ligue 1 goals for Mbappe this term. After a relatively slow start to the campaign by his standards, he has been in fine form lately, with his sparkling efforts against Barcelona in the Champions League cementing his place at the very top of the game.

When the Brooklyn Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the 2019 offseason, it was apparent that the team were destined to eventually become a juggernaut.

With two stars and the talent behind them to either keep a deep bench or trade for a third star, the Nets were always in position to become a contender, even with Durant sitting out last season to rehabilitate his ruptured Achilles.

Because of Brooklyn's pedigree, Steve Nash – the former two-time MVP turned first-year head coach – will not be considered for Coach of the Year.

But Brooklyn's road to title contention has been a bumpy one, and Nash has helped guide the Nets to the top of the Eastern Conference – alongside the Philadelphia 76ers – despite challenging circumstances.

The Nets have won six games in a row to climb to 28-13, tied with the 76ers for the best record in the East, but it can be easy to forget the obstacles Brooklyn have faced in the first half of the season. 

One look at the Nets' first game of the season, a 125-99 win over the Golden State Warriors, serves as a reminder of this team's dramatic metamorphosis.

Spencer Dinwiddie started in the backcourt alongside Irving to open the season but played just three games before suffering a ligament tear in his right knee, ending his season.

Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Landry Shamet and Taurean Prince combined to play over 80 minutes in the season opener and only now remains in Brooklyn after the James Harden trade – Shamet.

Since the Nets traded away much of their depth, Nash has tinkered with line-ups and found gems further down the bench to supplement the team's star-power.

Bruce Brown, who was acquired in November for virtually nothing, has morphed into a versatile role-player who is very efficient from the floor.

Brown played a total of 13 minutes in the Nets' first seven games this season but has become a key member of the team's rotation, starting in 23 games and guarding much taller players in Brooklyn's smaller line-ups. Brown is shooting 55.5 per cent from the floor this campaign and averaged 18.0 points during a six-game stretch before the All-Star break. Brooklyn are 11-2 when Brown scores in double figures this season and 7-0 when he scores at least 15.

Tyler Johnson was also an afterthought to start the season, appearing in just seven of Brooklyn's first 24 games. Since then, Johnson has played just under 20 minutes per game while developing into a reliable floor-spacer, shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the three-point arc this term and going five for eight from deep in his only start.

Journeyman Jeff Green is scoring 11.9 points per game since the Harden trade – compared to 6.1 before the deal – and has even started at center when DeAndre Jordan has been forced to miss games.

While Nash has been blessed with three star players on his roster, even the trio of Durant, Irving and Harden has faced hardships.

Irving took an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons in early January without communicating with the team first. While he only missed seven games, the mystery of Irving's absence left the Nets in a state of uncertainty and left Nash to answer for his star guard amid a barrage of media questions.

Nash showed the savvy of a veteran head coach and the sensitivity required in the new-age NBA by not vilifying Irving. A more authoritarian coach could have used the media to force Irving back, a move that may have jeopardised a relationship with a star player and eroded the trust of the entire team.

Irving returned with back-to-back 30-point games and is averaging career highs with 27.6 points per game, 52.0-percent shooting from the field and 41.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Then there is Durant, who has reminded the world that he may have been the best player in the NBA before rupturing his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals, but the former MVP has missed more games than he has played this season.

After two stints in league COVID-19 protocols, Durant has been sidelined for over a month with a hamstring strain and is expected to be out another week or two after having a routine MRI to track progress.

In all, the Nets have had 21 different starting line-ups this season, second only to the Houston Rockets' 26. That number is likely to increase soon, once Blake Griffin is ready to make his Brooklyn debut.

Only sharpshooter Joe Harris has played in every game for the Nets in 2020-21.

While Harden has been reliably excellent since moving to Brooklyn, Irving has missed 12 games and Durant has been absent for 22. The trio have been on the floor for just 186 minutes so far, less than 10 percent of Brooklyn's season.

Those minutes, however, have been transcendent, bucking a recent trend of power trios going through growing pains before hitting their stride.

With Durant, Irving and Harden on the floor at the same time, the Nets are averaging 120.6 points per 100 possessions. And while some pundits envisioned this offensive-minded trio taking turns in isolation plays, 64.8 percent of the Nets' field goals have been assisted when they all play together, more than when one or more of the stars is relegated to the sideline.

It is hard to deny Nash credit for the quick chemistry between Durant, Irving and Harden, and his ability to fill gaps with role players has kept Brooklyn playing well even when the stars are sitting.

The Nets' star-power makes Nash virtually ineligible to win Coach of the Year, an award that typically goes to an over-performing team that are good but not great. While Durant, Irving and Harden will receive accolades for the Nets' season, a lesser coach certainly could have derailed this runaway train given the numerous challenges.

Yes, the Nets have elite talent. But Nash has done plenty to maximise that talent while largely flying under the radar.

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.

Expectations are high in Chicago as the White Sox set their sights on the World Series.

Gone are the days of 100-loss seasons, with 2018's 62-100 record consigned to bitter memory. The White Sox are in contention mode after catapulting themselves into the mix last year, with a rebuild firmly in the rear-view mirror following a remarkable ascent during the 2020 coronavirus-shortened MLB season.

Led by American League (AL) MVP Jose Abreu, the White Sox returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

But it is win-now for the White Sox, who swapped manager Rick Renteria for Hall of Famer Tony La Russa in pursuit of a first World Series crown in 16 years.

Liam Hendriks is another new face in Chicago as the White Sox look to emerge from the shadows of city rivals the Cubs, who claimed the ultimate prize in 2016.

All eyes are on the White Sox in 2021 and while most projections tip La Russa's team to do well, All-Star closer Hendriks and his team-mates are focused on silencing the naysayers.

There will be a limited number of White Sox fans allowed to attend their home opener on April 8 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, after the team visit the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day (April 1).

"There's been some projections that said we will be pretty good this year, but there's been some that we've taken a little offensively," Hendriks told Stats Perform News. "We're focusing more on the bad ones.

"The mindset we gotta take is 'you guys don't think we're gonna get to 95, 100 or however many wins, we're gonna prove you wrong and watch us do what we need to do and we're gonna go out there and make sure we win this division'.

"The biggest thing is making sure we prove people wrong. It's time for the city of Chicago to get on the White Sox bandwagon, it's been on the Cubs one for too long now."

The White Sox snapped a 12-year postseason drought in 2020 – officially going from rebuilder to contender.

They were the first AL team to clinch a playoff spot, but only won three of their remaining 12 regular-season games as the White Sox took their foot off the pedal.

It proved detrimental as Hendriks and the Oakland Athletics eliminated the White Sox in the Wild Card Round.

Having contributed to the White Sox's demise, 2019 All-Star Hendriks now finds himself at Guaranteed Rate Field, where the experienced Australian signed a three-year, $54million contract via free agency – a record annual average salary for a relief pitcher at $18m.

"They did a really good job with their team last season," Hendriks said. "They had a bunch of good players and guys developing they were hoping for. Hopefully we can take it into this year.

"The big thing for me is keeping the foot on the gas for as long as we can. They self-admitted that once they clinched a playoff spot last year, they kind of got too relaxed, they thought they'd made it.

"All of sudden, they went 3-12 the last two weeks and they were looking at a wildcard spot instead of hosting a series. That's big difference."

Hendriks was named Reliever of the Year in the American League in 2020 after finishing with a 3-1 record, a 1.78 ERA, a 0.67 WHIP, 14 saves (second best in MLB), 37 strikeouts and three walks over 24 appearances and 25.3 innings.

His WHIFF percentage (swings and misses/pitches) was 180 last season – sixth best in MLB last season among pitchers who faced at least 50 batters. Compared to his new White Sox team-mates, Lucas Giolito (141) was the closest to that figure, well ahead of Codi Heuer (128), Lance Lynn (125) and Dallas Keuchel (81).

"The big thing I'm hoping to bring in is that intensity. It doesn't matter, you could clinch in July but that last month of the season is more absolutely more important than anything because that's when you get the momentum going into the playoffs and that's the one thing we have to focus on," said Hendriks, who spent four years with the Athletics before moving to Chicago at the end of 2020.

"The other thing, just dealing with some of the young guys in the bullpen. They had a good first taste of the big leagues last year but this is generally the year where guys have their biggest struggles – that sophomore slump.

"They think they have it all figured out but the league makes adjustments. Being able to deal with that and bounce ideas off the veteran guys out there is important. That's why bringing in guys like Lance Lynn, who's won a ring before, is a big deal."

Hendriks joins a bullpen that boasts World Series champions in Keuchel (also an AL Cy Young Award winner) and Lynn, as well 2019 All-Star Giolito.

"The biggest thing is I'm not trying to stand out at all in this bullpen," the 32-year-old continued. "We have too many guys who can do too many special things.

"This is the part where I can lean on what has happened to me in my career. Me and Evan Marshall in the team – we've both had our ups and downs and bounced around a bit, but we've come to a position where we're at now.

"We have some guys out there who are younger, in the middle and guys like me and Evan who are a little older with kind of life experiences.

"We're not trying to stand out. We're just trying to make sure we're flowing as a unit. If one of us has a tough day, the next guy in line picks us up. That's how it's gotta be. It's not one guy coming to save the rescue, it's an entire collection.

"We're gonna have seven or eight guys out there and at certain points of the year, we're gonna have to rely on all seven or eight to get it done and making sure we have confidence in everyone at all times."

Not since 2005, when sweeping the Houston Astros in the World Series, have the White Sox reigned supreme, but Hendriks added: "I think they have the right attitude [this year]. A lot of young guys. But this is a window that's not only open for just a year, but will be open for several years. I'm excited about being a part of that. They got a little taste of it last year.

"That's generally how it goes, you get your feet wet and the next year you're ready and know what to expect and embrace it. You don't let the moment get too big for you, you just take care of business. Hopefully we can make a bit of a run at it."

Hendriks is one of the MLB's superior closers, but it has not been an easy journey for the Perth native, rather a long and winding road taking him to the Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, back to the Blue Jays and then the Athletics in 2016.

It was not until landing in Oakland and some words of wisdom from a tarot card reader that Hendriks truly felt that he belonged in the big leagues.

Since taking over as the Athletics' closer on June 21 in 2019, Hendriks has recorded a 1.99 ERA over 68 innings pitched, with 39 saves, 14.7 strikeout rate and a 0.79 WHIP in 65 appearances, which all rank first in the league.

"A lot of the time, I felt like I was just there," Hendriks said. "I didn't feel like I had a place where to succeed. I put ceilings on myself. I'd cap myself in statistical categories or whether it be in the role I was at – I'm not that guy, I'll never be at that point. Just hoping to eke out here and there.

"Then I had a bit of a come to Jesus moment, where I used some different sources. My wife actually connected us with a tarot card reader – Ruby. She had no idea about baseball and she still has zero idea about baseball. But she was like, 'okay, why can't you do that?'. Then you get thinking, 'she's right, why can't I?'.  Why can't I break that record or get to his position that I thought was unattainable? You take those ceilings off and restrictions away, all of a sudden let the engine purr a little bit and look where we are.

"There was a lot of perseverance and persistence. The biggest thing for me is trying to prove people wrong. There's a lot of people out there that say I can't do it again, can't do it again, can't do it again. Now, it's going out to prove them wrong – 'you don't think I can do it again? Watch me, this is what I'm gonna do'."

Hendriks, who was close to re-joining AL rivals the Blue Jays continued: "It comes down to having a positive mindset. I had a chat with the pitchers recently. I consider myself some kind of a leader. I wanted to see where their minds are at.

"On the board, I wrote FIGJAM – f*** I'm good, just ask me. That positive mindset is one of the biggest things. If you throw a pitch with conviction, a pitch that you really want to throw, it's going to be better than a perfectly placed other pitch because you had that vibe, intensity and aggressiveness behind it.

"Convincing these guys, your pitches get people out. It's not like, okay he is usually getting a hit.

"The best hitter in the league is going to get a hit three out of 10 times, that means we win seven out of 10 times. That's the best hitter in the league. Don't ever doubt yourself against anybody.

"Pitchers are better than hitters and that's what we need to prove every time. Prove that you're better than the hitter in every single moment. That's one of the things I've taken into it. No matter what happens, you can't hit my fastball. I'm just going to keep throwing it until you get close to it, then all of a sudden, I'll pull the string and throw something else.

"It's a little cat and mouse game but you have to have the confidence behind it."

Hendriks is somewhat of a ninth-inning specialist, having recorded a 1.42 ERA (third), 0.68 WHIP (first) last season in 19 games. Over the course of his career, he has managed 95 games in the ninth inning – only tallying more in the seventh inning since entering MLB.

Since 2018, Hendriks tops the list for ERA (1.81) in the ninth inning among pitchers to have pitched 50 innings, while his WHIP figure (0.80) is only second to Josh Hader (0.77).

So, is there an advantage to having a traditional closer as opposed to a more analytic or committee approach?

"I think there is," Hendriks insisted. "I may be a bit biased because I want the ninth inning. Just purely based on the fact that you'll see guys and they will be really good in the highest leveraged situations throughout the game or anything and then they struggle in the ninth inning. It's a different mindset, different way of approaching the ball.

"In saying that, it gives some fluidly. All of a sudden, if you're up by three, you know you're getting the ninth. If you know you're getting the ninth, you prepare for that inning. If you're not sure when you're going to pitch between the sixth and the ninth, the preparation gets a little different.

"Some guys are good at it, some guys aren't. I think any time you give a guy a certain role, it's easier to adapt. If you get that consistent role, you know what you need to do to get ready."

Data and artificial intelligence continue to play a huge role in MLB, and Hendriks added: "I have two separate ways of looking at it. I love the analytical side off the field because I love to be able to be able to compare and look at something and be like, 'okay, what was I doing when I was good, what was I doing when I was bad? What is the difference and this is one area I need to focus on'. Whether it be, for me, release height, release extension point, the spin axis, the spin rate and all that fun stuff.

"And as soon as the game hits, I don't know a single thing. I want to be as stupid as I can on the mound because as soon as you start overthinking things, you just start thinking that, you'll come up with some negative ideas and it snowballs.

"For me, I love the analytical stuff off field and ways to get better, but on the field, I want to be as dumb as possible. I use a company and they print out these little maps. The maps are colour-coordinated – get in the blue, blue is good and red is bad. It's the easiest thing for me to remember.

"I pull up my piece of paper in the bullpen, be like okay, so and so are coming up – blue, blue, blue. I don't even look at the red. I just notice where the blue is. So it's okay, fast balls up this guy is good. Easy. then I don't have to worry about anything else.

"It's a lot easier to play the game when you're not having to worry about anything else and letting everything take over."

A new era begins in earnest for Barcelona, with Joan Laporta's second spell as president confirmed on Sunday following his victory in the election.

Regarded as arguably the most important political event at the club in a generation, much was said to be riding on the collective decision of the socios, or members, who voted.

Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font had spent months outlining their plans in public, with La Masia, the club's crippling debt and the tumult caused by the previous administration among the main focuses.

But outsiders can be forgiven for thinking the election essentially boiled down to which candidate stood the best chance of convincing Lionel Messi to stay.

Laporta's first spell as president, from 2003 to 2010, coincided with Messi's rise from the youth ranks to global star, while he was also in charge when Pep Guardiola was promoted to the top job 2008.

While nostalgia may have played a strong part in Laporta's ascension, 54 per cent of voters feel he is the best man to navigate a challenging period – but what are the most important tasks facing him?

Messi – Should he stay, or should he go?

Laporta stopped short of insisting Messi will definitely stay put under his administration, which was probably wise given he only has a few months left on his contract. Fans would have surely seen through such a promise.

However, what he did throughout his campaign was emphasise his relationship with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner, while also pointing out Messi's lack of familiarity with his rivals.

"I am the only one who can ensure his continuity. If I don't win, I'm sure Leo won't continue at Barca," Laporta said at last week's debate. "He was not very happy with Freixa's time [Laporta's rival was an ally of the discredited Josep Maria Bartomeu], when they let him see that he was expendable."

Of course, Messi attempted to force an exit last year, but his refusal to drag the issue through the courts meant Barca managed to keep hold of their prized asset.

Since then he has insisted his future is tied to the competitiveness of Barca. Laporta's discussions with him will be key, but they could be undermined should Ronald Koeman's men collapse in the latter stages of the season.

Make La Masia a force again

For years Barcelona's La Masia academy was the jewel of the club, the inspiration behind many hugely successful teams and the school that developed some of the finest players to play the game.

Even though a significant portion of the current squad have come through the ranks, La Masia's standing isn't quite what it once was and the likes of Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique are all into their thirties.

But Laporta emphasised the importance of the academy during his campaign, adamant he would look to restore it to its former glory, previously saying: "It will be our pillar, the backbone of the club's values."

Nevertheless, with Ansu Fati emerging as a ready-made star and Ilaix Moriba recently establishing himself as one to watch, La Masia's reputation is already receiving a timely boost.

Sell high-earning fringe players

Eric Abidal's spell as sporting director was ill-fated, to say the least. A day after sacking Quique Setien in August, the Frenchman was unceremoniously dismissed as well, with his overseeing of transfers making him a contentious figure long before he was eventually shown the door.

Among his purchases were the likes of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Malcom, Jeison Murillo, Junior Firpo and Antoine Griezmann – it'd be difficult to consider any of those successes.

Granted, not all of his signings have been poor, with Pedri, Clement Lenglet and Frenkie de Jong brought in under his watch, but over the past few years the club has spent a significant amount of money on sub-standard players or underperforming so-called 'superstars'

As such, the Barca squad is bloated in terms of its wage expenditure and many of the back-up players are expected to be put up for sale, easing the financial strain and boosting revenues.

But before Barca can begin outlining transfer plans and a potentially revised recruitment strategy, Laporta needs to do something else…

Establish a new sporting department

Laporta is expected to bring his own people in to manage the club's sporting structure, and Jordi Cruyff – of course, the son of Barca icon Johan – is among the frontrunners for the sporting director post.

Cruyff is still thought to have significant influence and respect inside the club due to his family name, with the former Manchester United player recently affirming to Cadena Ser that he believes his father would have always backed Laporta in an election.

Mateu Alemany, former Valencia general manager, is also widely reported to be on his way in.

Alemany had played a major role Valencia's resurgence during the previous decade but left under something of a cloud in November 2019, with the Frenchman and club owner Peter Lim at odds.

Lim had dismissed popular head coach Marcelino Garcia Toral, of whom Alemany was a staunch backer, and that left the general manager's position looking untenable, particular after local reports claimed he wasn't even consulted about the subsequent appointment of Albert Celades.

Very little has gone right for Valencia since the exits of Marcelino and Alemany – their reputations, however, have remained firmly intact.

Strengthen the squad while managing debt

It's no secret that Barcelona's financial state is a mess – they have amassed €1.2billion in debt and that has unsurprisingly impacted their clout in the transfer market.

One of Laporta's main messages ahead of the election was that Barca needed a board and president with experience in such a tricky time, and that's certainly something he has in abundance.

In his first interview since being elected, Laporta stressed the need to make the club financially stable. He told Catalunya Radio: "The first thing will be to do an audit but first I will greet the workers. The club is in mismanagement and now we will finally be able to make the necessary decisions. We will do an audit and apply our shock plan so that Barca is economically sustainable."

Drastic changes could be on the cards, yet despite the financial state of the club, they will still need to work on improving the squad.

Juggling the two won't be straightforward, particularly when you add Messi's demand for competitiveness into the mix.

After weeks of delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Barcelona will at last hold their presidential elections on Sunday, March 7.

More than 111,000 members, or socios, will cast their vote either in person at polling stations or by mail to determine who will succeed Josep Maria Bartomeu in the top job.

Bartomeu stepped down last October, just days before a scheduled vote of no confidence against his board, but interim president Carlos Tusquets has hardly had an easy few months since.

As well as a delay in the hustings, which were initially set for January 24, Barca's off-the-pitch concerns have been exacerbated by official debt levels of more than €1billion and a legal investigation that involves Bartomeu, who was provisionally released under charges of unfair administration and corruption of business on March 3.

Meanwhile, the men's senior football team requires an overhaul made even more difficult by the economic damage wrought by COVID-19, with Ronald Koeman's men chasing Atletico Madrid in LaLiga and facing a likely Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.

The presidency has therefore become arguably the toughest job in elite football and could have a significant impact on the medium-term future of the club.

Who are the candidates?

There are three men in the race for the presidency: Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.

The favourite is Laporta, who previously held the post from 2003 to 2010, one of Barca's most successful periods that saw them win 12 major trophies, including their first treble under Pep Guardiola in 2009. He remains popular with a large part of the fan base and is arguably the candidate on best terms with Lionel Messi.

Freixa, who campaigned unsuccessfully in 2015, previously advised Laporta's board of directors and served as spokesperson under Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu, and has been involved with the club for 18 years. His knowledge and experience of working for different administrations at Camp Nou could be key.

Font, meanwhile, is banking on the support of those members who feel a fresh approach is needed. A successful entrepreneur, his expertise lies in telecommunication, media and technology, but his vision for Barca's future has been worked on since 2013 and perhaps represents the most prudent option available.

What do they promise?

The message from Laporta's camp is simple: "We are a group of Barca fans with ideas for the future and the experience to carry them out." He promises to focus on "social and human" results, as well as those on the pitch and in financial statements. He has vowed to put faith back in academy products from La Masia to complement the first-team stars, while he insists he is the best chance Barca have of convincing Messi to sign a contract extension.

Freixa's campaign – Fidels al Barca, or 'True to Barca' – is, he says, "a candidacy for the people, free of outside interests". Following a member-first approach, he has vowed to correct Barca's crippling €1.2billion debt levels without the need for outside investors. Freixa's focus is on weaponising the club's passionate supporters: he wants to pack out the stadium "with Barca fans, not tourists", with reward schemes in place for the most loyal followers, and make sure the planned Espai Barca redevelopment of the stadium and surrounding area does not compromise the club's image.

Font has been building his 'Yes to the Future' campaign for the best part of eight years. Founded on "new blood and good governance", his is an honest approach: accepting the club have reached "an historic crossroads" that requires professional experience to navigate, he says his project has the groundwork and the expertise to be by far the most viable for the club's future. His plan is "to revamp collectively the club and to ensure that Barca can contribute in a tangible way to making the world a better place".

Will they hire a new coach?

Ronald Koeman has rightly become fed up with questions over his future and will be glad when Sunday's elections are over and he can find out from the new president what his job prospects look like.

While there can be few guarantees for any coach – Barca could still win the treble this season, or end up with nothing – it feels unlikely Koeman will be in charge for 2021-22.

Laporta has reportedly considered offering the job to Arsenal's Mikel Arteta, having previously struck gold with former players when he gave the inexperienced Guardiola a shot back in 2008. Font, who has the valuable support of former club captain Carles Puyol, is believed to be eager to bring Xavi back to Camp Nou after the ex-midfielder's impressive spell with Al-Sadd in Qatar.

Freixa has at least offered Koeman a public show of support until the end of his contract next year, but he too has spoken of wanting Xavi back in Catalonia sooner rather than later, even if that would initially see him take over the B team.

What will happen with transfers?

Barca's dire financial situation makes star signings, the kind on which many past club elections in Spain have been based, a very difficult thing to expect.

Font has adopted by far the more prudent approach, warning fans that selling high-earning under-performers and restructuring the wage bill is essential to stave off a deepening financial crisis, but that is not a policy that will appease fans desperate to see Barca challenging for the Champions League again.

Freixa has gone for the Hail Mary, insisting signing Kylian Mbappe AND Erling Haaland would be perfectly possible and that he has an investor lined up who could bolster the club to the tune of €250m through a stake in Barca Corporate.

Laporta's priority is to build a competitive side around their club captain...

So, what about Messi?

As mentioned, Laporta claims electing him will give Barca the best chance of convincing Messi to stay. The Argentina star broke into the first team during Laporta's previous presidency and enjoyed great success in that spell, including winning the Champions League – the trophy he covets most – under Frank Rijkaard and Guardiola.

Font and Freixa, without any personal connection to call upon, have each admitted keeping Messi depends more on Barca's ability to sell the strength of their new project to the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

Again, Font is the real pragmatist. When El Mundo leaked details of Messi's massive contract, Font rejected the notion that paying such a salary was a financial burden too great to bear, insisting Messi was an asset who helped to generate as much money as he cost. However, he also told Onda Cero: "If [Messi] is not here in the future then it would not be the end of the world."

When Borussia Dortmund parted with a reported €20million to sign Erling Haaland from Salzburg a little over a year ago, they'll have been acutely aware of the coup they'd just struck – but whether they expected him to be quite this good is another matter entirely.

Those explosive first few months of the 2019-20 season at Salzburg left most of Europe's biggest clubs clamouring for the Norwegian, but Bayern were seemingly not among them. At least, not in the final straight.

While you can't necessarily have too many great players, few at the time or since have decried Bayern's lack of interest in the striking sensation, and that purely comes down to the presence of Robert Lewandowski.

Eleven months on from Haaland's Dortmund debut, Lewandowski won the FIFA Best Men's Player award having scored 60 goals across the qualifying period and led Bayern to a treble.

But the fact Haaland - named the Golden Boy soon after - was seen as unfortunate not to be nominated for the major gong ultimately won by Lewandowski is testament to the former Molde youngster's frightening potential.

Saturday's Der Klassiker is unlikely to have much bearing on Dortmund's Bundesliga title hopes given they'll still be 10 points behind Bayern even if they win, but the game does provide the opportunity to see the two sharp-shooters pitted against each other, like gunslingers in an old Western movie.

Haaland, along with Kylian Mbappe, is being outlined as the world's next great number nine, but is he already ahead of even Lewandowski?

LEWY'S LONG ROAD

It's easy to forget Lewandowski's backstory and route to the top, simply because he has been one of Europe's most-feared strikers for so long.

But Lewandowski's tale is one of rejection, perseverance and mastery – to say he always looked destined to reach the level he has would be revisionist. After all, the early years of his career in Poland were impacted by the death of his father, being cast aside by Legia Warsaw, a serious injury and failed transfers.

Sporting Gijon turned him down and the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull resulted in the collapse of a move from Lech Poznan to Blackburn Rovers.

 

He joined Dortmund in June of that year, a couple of months before his 22nd birthday – by comparison, Haaland was still six months from turning 20 when he signed for BVB.

On top of that, Haaland's early impact on the Bundesliga has been far superior to that of Lewandowski, whose first season yielded only nine goals in 42 games across all competitions. The Norwegian managed 24 in 27 matches.

Looking at that alone, it's easy to make the assumption that Haaland is destined for even greater things than Lewandowski, but it's worth pointing out the Pole was played out of position a lot in his first campaign.

"I was annoyed having to play as a number 10 instead of playing up front as the number nine," Lewandowski told the Daily Mail in 2016. "I played the whole season as number 10. The following season I thought about why I was in that position, then I realised my game had improved. I learned a lot and, when I played up top again, I realised playing as a number 10 had made me a better player."

The data backs him up as well. Not only did his overall productivity in front of goal improve from nine goals to 30, he was proving more consistent generally in those decisive moments, his conversion rate increasing from 8.5 per cent to 19.5.

DIFFERENT BEASTS

When looking at – or comparing – any player in relation to Lewandowski, you have to consider the two different versions of him; pre-26 and post-26.

It was around this age that Lewandowski began to harness the fitness and nutrition expertise of his wife Anna, and it's quite easy to spot when that appeared to start paying dividends, as his goals haul rocketed from 25 to 42 in 2015-16.

He has not gone below 40 in any full season since then and already has 34 to his name in 2020-21 (32 appearances) – he is also just four behind Klaus Fischer (268), the second most-prolific player in Bundesliga history.

Haaland's long-term future isn't at Dortmund and, by extension, doesn't appear to be in the Bundesliga, so matching Lewandowski's record in Germany's top-flight looks unlikely.

But what's clear is he has found this 'world-class' level much earlier than Lewandowski – Haaland has more goals (55) across all competitions than any other current under-21 player in Europe's top five leagues despite playing just 57 games. Jadon Sancho is his closest rival with 46 in 130 appearances.

 

Haaland's first Bundesliga season with Dortmund saw him score 13 times, outperforming his expected goals (xG) by 4.2 – that's a greater differential than Lewandowski has recorded since 2016-17 (7.8), though the youngster's figure here has dropped to 2.5 in 2020-21.

While that is 0.7 less than Lewandowski's 3.2 xG differential, either way he's scoring a lot of goals and more than he would ordinarily be expected to over a long period of time, which speaks for his clinical nature.

Further to that, Haaland – who earlier this term became the youngest player to net four in one Bundesliga game (20 years, 123 days) – boasts a stunning conversion rate at Dortmund. Last season's 41.4 per cent (all competitions) is better than Lewandowski has ever managed, though it was of course limited to half a season.

In 2020-21 he hasn't quite found the same standard, yet his 29.7 conversion rate in all competitions is still better than any other Bundesliga player with 10 goals or more. By comparison, Lewandowski's 28.3 per cent will be a career-high for a single season if he maintains it.

BRILLIANCE IN LONGEVITY

At the very least, Haaland is already a contemporary of Lewandowski's – his effectiveness in front of goal is utterly devastating and, as demonstrated, seemingly a level above that of the Bayern talisman during his early Bundesliga days.

But the challenge for Haaland is to maintain that level and keep kicking on, as Lewandowski clearly did around the age of 26 when analysing what he could do better, taking himself from an excellent number nine to arguably the best of his generation.

Haaland is building from a higher platform than Lewandowski ever was, therefore one has to suspect he has the potential to surpass his exploits.

Maybe he could be this generation's standard-bearer. If he has half the amount of perseverance as Lewandowski, that'd be a good start.

As for whether he's already better than Lewandowski – well, part of the Bayern man's brilliance is his longevity and consistency, how he seems to be getting better with age. But for Haaland to be rivalling the world's best before he's even 21 is an achievement in itself.

Barcelona versus Cadiz is not a fixture that particularly stands out on the Spanish football calendar, but Sunday's meeting between the two is momentous for Lionel Messi.

Having played his 505th LaLiga game for Barcelona last weekend against Deportivo Alaves, Messi has now broken a record set by one of Barcelona's most-revered sons.

Xavi retains a legendary status at Camp Nou – his influence during a 17-year career in Barca's senior team was arguably unmatched, as the team was almost constantly built around him as that metronomic hub in midfield.

In the five years since his departure, many midfielders have been signed in the hope they can pick up the slack left behind, but none have successfully replaced him.

He may yet return as coach one day. Indeed, by all accounts it seems he was offered such a chance at least once last year.

But while the legacy of his playing days will remain unblemished, he has lost a slice of Barca history to Messi…

The appearances record

After starting the visit of the Andalusians, Messi moved one clear of Xavi's previous record haul of 505 LaLiga appearances in the Blaugrana.

Like Xavi, it has taken Messi 17 seasons to go beyond 500 outings in Spain's top flight.

But while Xavi opted to depart for a final payday in Qatar with Al-Sadd, whom he now coaches, Messi's career at the very top appears to be far from over.

His penalty in the 4-1 midweek mauling by Paris Saint-Germain took Messi to 20 goals across all competitions for the 13th successive season.

His stunning brace last weekend in the dismantling of Alaves left him on 15 in LaLiga, just one fewer than pacesetter Luis Suarez – it's pretty strong form considering many regard this Messi's worst individual season in over a decade.

 

Messi played his first LaLiga game for the club in 2004-05 before firmly securing himself a place in the first-team squad over the following two campaigns.

Xavi arguably made a slightly quicker impression, his 41 league outings across his first two seasons 17 more than Messi managed.

But Messi's remarkable consistency and longevity are reflected in the fact he has not played fewer than 31 LaLiga games in a single season since 2007-08, when he featured 28 times. The year before he made 26 appearances.

Having surpassed numerous club greats such as Guillermo Amor, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes and Andres Iniesta along the way, he now moves past the final pillar.

More records to come?

Of course, it almost goes without saying that it's unclear what further LaLiga records Messi will break because his future is so uncertain.

Will he stay? Will he join PSG or Manchester City? 

Given Messi's previous insistence that Barca have to be challenging for titles, on the evidence of this season and their financial state, it's difficult to see them in the hunt for the major honours in the near future.

As such, many will expect him to follow through on his attempt to leave last year when his contract expires at the end of the season.

That shouldn't prevent Messi taking another of Xavi's club records, with the Argentinian just seven behind his former team-mate's 767 Barca appearances across all competitions. No one has made more.

But Messi, who became LaLiga's all-time leading goalscorer long ago, will likely miss out on the chance of setting a new overall league record for appearances.

His 506 is still 116 fewer than Andoni Zubizarreta's 622, with Real Betis midfielder Joaquin – still active at 39 – the closest to the former goalkeeper's record on 568.

Sergio Ramos is the only other active player ahead of Messi on 507, with Athletic Bilbao's Raul Garcia (505) just behind the Barca captain.

Although missing out on such a record would be a minor footnote in an otherwise astonishing career, it's hard to escape from the thought Messi's legacy might be that bit more magical were he to spend all of his playing days at the same club.

Novak Djokovic continued his dominance of the Australian Open, winning the grand slam for a record ninth time on Sunday.

The Serbian star claimed his 18th grand slam crown with a 7-5 6-2 6-2 dismantling of Russian fourth seed Daniil Medvedev in the final.

Djokovic became just the second man to win a major at least nine times, with only Rafael Nadal (13 French Open titles) also managing that feat.

We take a look back at all of his Australian Open successes.

2008 – A maiden grand slam title

Aged 20, this was Djokovic's fourth main-draw appearance in Melbourne and his previous best had been the fourth round the year prior.

But he produced a flying run to the final, beating Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets in the last 16 and top seed Federer in the semis.

Djokovic, the third seed, was left with a surprise opponent in the final and he made the most of his chance, coming from a set down to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It was the first grand slam since the 2005 Australian Open not won by either Federer or Nadal.

2011 – The beginning of complete Melbourne dominance

Djokovic had to wait three years for his second title in Melbourne, but it started a wonderful run of dominance.

He was largely untouchable again on his way to the final, including wins over top-10 seeds Tomas Berdych and Federer.

Djokovic crushed Andy Murray 6-4 6-2 6-3 in the decider to win the first of an incredible three grand slams in 2011.

 

2012 – Coming through two epics

This would be a major best remembered for two matches – Djokovic's semi and final.

He took almost five hours to get past Murray in the last four in a match that seemed certain to ruin his chances in the decider.

Somehow, Djokovic came through that too, beating Nadal 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 (5-7) 7-5 in the longest Open Era grand slam final, which went for a gruelling five hours, 53 minutes.

2013 – Hat-trick complete

Djokovic extended his winning streak at the Australian Open to 21 matches with a third straight title.

He became the first man in the Open Era to win a hat-trick of titles in Melbourne.

Djokovic took five hours to get past Stan Wawrinka – the man who would break his run the following year – in the fourth round before again beating Murray in a final.

 

2015 – Another Wawrinka marathon, another Murray final

Fernando Verdasco and Milos Raonic were unable to stop Djokovic and, this time, Wawrinka failed too.

Djokovic beat the Swiss star in a five-set semi-final before a familiar face stood between him and another title.

Murray managed to split the first two sets, but Djokovic ran away with it from there 6-3 6-0 for a fifth crown.

2016 ­– Record equalled after Simon scare

It was the fourth round that proved to be the biggest scare in Djokovic's bid for a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title.

But he got through another gruelling five-setter, this time against French 14th seed Gilles Simon.

Kei Nishikori, Federer and Murray were unable to stop him from there as Djokovic joined Roy Emerson on six Australian Open crowns.
 

2019 – Record claimed in flawless fashion

For a six-time champion and the world number one, this seemed like a quiet run by Djokovic.

He dispatched of up-and-comers Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev, spent less than an hour on court with an exhausted Nishikori and was almost flawless against Lucas Pouille.

Only Nadal stood between him and a record seventh Australian Open title in a repeat of their epic 2012 final.

And Djokovic may have saved his best performance for the final, dismantling Nadal in just over two hours.

2020 – Thiem test survived to close in on Federer, Nadal

Djokovic entered the tournament on the back of six impressive singles wins at the ATP Cup.

After a brief first-round hiccup against Jan-Lennard Struff, Djokovic cruised into the quarter-finals.

He continued his dominance of Milos Raonic with a 10th win in as many meetings with the Canadian and then brushed a hurt Federer aside.

Thiem, playing his third major final, was a huge test, but Djokovic survived after almost four hours to extend his record in Melbourne. It was his 17th major title, moving closer to the tallies of Federer (20) and Nadal (19), as he reclaimed the number one ranking.

2021 – Injury threatens run before powerful finish

It was a largely uneventful start for Djokovic before suffering a suspected abdominal injury in the third round against Taylor Fritz.

He looked at risk of defeat despite taking the first two sets as Fritz fought back, but Djokovic looked healthy again in the fifth to win through.

Djokovic beat Raonic for the 12th straight time and then overcame Alexander Zverev, before finding good form in a semi-final thrashing of qualifier Aslan Karatsev.

He dropped five sets in his opening six matches, the most he has lost prior to the final in the 28 occasions he has made the decider at a slam.

Medvedev was on a 20-match winning streak heading into the final, but Djokovic stepped up on the court he loves.

Manchester United's opening-day 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace was a chastening reminder of the team's frailties, but there was a somewhat surprising voice behind the subsequent call-to-action for the club's hierarchy.

Luke Shaw provided undoubtedly the most honest assessment of the situation among United players, this from a player who had rarely come across as a natural leader during his time at the club.

"We have a very good group, but personally I think we need more players to strengthen the squad," he told Norway's TV2. "It can give us a boost. When you look around at how other teams are strengthening their teams, then we must also do it to keep up with the others."

Perhaps the fact he wasn't speaking to a British outlet resulted in a more relaxed, open response from Shaw, who then also went on to criticise their pre-season.

But it was a new, authoritative look for a player who has always seemingly preferred to keep away from the media spotlight, and few United fans would have disagreed with him.

What happened next, however, he probably didn't expect – among the four players signed on deadline day in October was a new left-back, a Brazil international with the kind of attack-minded profile many had hoped Shaw would develop at United.

While Shaw definitely showed signs of progress in 2019-20, Alex Telles' arrival was the clearest sign that his position was no longer assured – he needed to respond.

 

A SHAW THING

The fact Telles has made just six Premier League starts in his debut season at Old Trafford is as good a starting point as any when highlighting Shaw's improved standing, and in fairness to the new signing, he's hardly put a foot wrong.

Telles has looked a solid acquisition and certainly fits the bill as a forward-thinking full-back who is also capable defensively, but Shaw has reached a level he has arguably never shown before in his career.

As an attacking outlet, Shaw's output has improved almost across the board, as such he has made himself almost undroppable.

 

His five assists is already a personal high for a Premier League season, having only managed seven in total before 2020-21, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. He is creating 2.3 chances per 90 minutes, which is up from one last term and well clear of his previous best of 1.2 each game for an entire campaign.

Undoubtedly one reason for that is the fact he is taking more set-pieces, yet his average of 1.4 open play chances created per 90 minutes remains a frequency he has never matched before over the course of a season, proving his increased familiarity with dead-ball duties isn't skewing the data.

A quick glance at his average position activity maps shows his involvement in the left-hand channel of the attacking third is up on each of the past two seasons, as well as his final year with Southampton.

 

This shows Shaw is embracing greater attacking responsibility, and where that is reflected most is the number of passes (including crosses) he is playing into the box each game (7.4). His last season with Saints had been his best in this regard (4.4), yet he's way up on that, and his productivity here is more than two-and-a-half times what it was in 2019-20 (2.9).

Shaw's early days with Southampton appeared to promise much. Finally, he appears to be back on track, not that it's been smooth sailing.

 

COPING, OUTLASTING, PROGRESSING

Shaw's relationship with Jose Mourinho became something of a distraction at times during the Portuguese's ill-fated reign.

Granted, Shaw wasn't the only player Mourinho seemed to have a problem with, but his treatment of Shaw in particular did leave a sour taste.

In two-and-a-half years playing for Mourinho, Shaw only made 33 Premier League appearances. While he did have injury and fitness problems, the manager's attitude seemingly did little to endear himself to the player.

Mourinho publicly criticised him after a 2016 defeat to Watford, saying: "For the second goal, [Nordin] Amrabat on the right side, our left-back is 25 metres distance from him, instead of five metres. But even at 25 metres, then you have to jump and go press. But no, we wait."

Mourinho then used Shaw's positive performance against Everton in 2017 against him. He said: "He had a good performance, but it was his body with my brain. He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him."

This isn't to say Shaw has been faultless this season. In fact, his defensive focus has been questionable at times in 2020-21, such as against Tottenham and Manchester City, for example.

But it's fair to say the greater attacking impetus he is showing this term compared to under Mourinho means he is more than making up for the occasional defensive lapse, and it's not like he's being beaten time after time – on average Shaw is dribbled past once every two games, the second lowest frequency for a single season in his entire career.

The difference? Well, according to the man himself, belief and competition.

"I feel really good, obviously big credit to Ole for that for believing in me and pushing me," Shaw said last month. "Alex [Telles] as well, we have a great relationship and he pushes me each day in training. We get on really well. It's nice to have that type of competition, but we push each other to get the best from ourselves. When he plays, I want the best for him, and it's the same the other way round. It's a positive way for both of us to look at it and push each other."

 

THE BEST?

There was a time – not even that long ago – when the very suggestion of Shaw being among the Premier League's best full-backs would have drawn a chuckle of derision in response.

Granted, across the four seasons prior to 2020-21, Shaw's best record of open play chances created per 90 minutes was 0.2, but there can be no doubt he is now at least in the conversation.

 

Liverpool's Andy Robertson is generally seen as the standard-bearer for left-backs in England's top flight, and Shaw compares well from an attacking sense with the Scotland international.

Shaw's 40 chances created this term is one more than Robertson, while the latter is just ahead in terms of key passes in open play (29 to 24) – though the United man has made 20 appearances to his rival's 24.

Robertson is proving a more regular source of service, with his 213 passes into the box and 201 total crosses/corners far more than Shaw's respective numbers (129 and 105), but the United left-back's deliveries are far more reliable.

Shaw's 37 successful crosses/corners is just five fewer than Robertson despite playing almost half the amount of overall deliveries.

But what really highlights Shaw's growth is his xA (expected assists) figures. His xA per 90, so the amount of assists he would ordinarily be expected to get per game, is 0.21 in 2020-21. Not only is that better than his previous best by some distance (0.12), Joao Cancelo (0.24) is the only full-back doing better here this term.

 

Shaw has made himself almost indispensable to United, his influence all the more important given Aaron Wan-Bissaka isn't particularly refined as an attacking outlet and they very rarely play with conventional wingers on either flank.

Therefore, Shaw offers the kind of threat from the wings that arguably no one else in the United squad does – and as his xA record shows, he is proving a consistent danger that marks him out as one of the league's best.

After being plagued by questions relating to his mentality for years, it's fair to say he is responding in the ideal fashion, with Telles' signing seemingly an important catalyst.

While it might be a little early to declare him outright the Premier League's best, his current trajectory at least shows that to be a realistic aim.

"I know that everyone was cheering for [Serena Williams] and I'm sorry it had to end like this. I want to say thank you for watching the match."

Naomi Osaka's first grand slam title was memorable for all the wrong reasons - the Japanese left in tears after defeating her idol Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

Williams was penalised for receiving coaching, slamming her racquet and then arguing with the chair umpire, which cost the 23-time slam champion a game in the second set.

The mood on Arthur Ashe Stadium turned bitter as fans booed during the trophy ceremony.

"I just felt like everyone was sort of unhappy up there," Osaka told the 'Today' show a day after the final. "I know that it wasn't really – the ending wasn't how people wanted it to be. I know that in my dreams I won in a very tough, competitive match. I don't know. I just felt very emotional. I felt like I had to apologise.

"I felt a little bit sad, because I wasn't really sure if they were booing at me or if it wasn't the outcome that they wanted. I also could sympathise, because I've been a fan of Serena my whole life, and I knew how badly the crowd wanted her to win."

Almost three years on and three further slam titles later, that softly-spoken Osaka is now a ruthless machine, just ask Williams.

En route to a fourth slam crown and second Australian Open trophy on Saturday, Osaka overpowered the 23-time major champion in the semi-finals, stopping her ongoing record-equalling quest flat in its tracks.

The queen of women's tennis for so long, Williams could not find a way to beat Osaka.

The here and now, Osaka continues to be Williams' kryptonite in the American superstar's bid match Margaret Court. It could explain why Serena was left in tears and cut short her post-match news conference.

There appears to be no way past Osaka.

Usually timid away from the action, Osaka is ferocious on court but just as calm - her triumphant 2021 Australian Open campaign further proof of that, having saved a pair of match points in the last 16 before topping Jennifer Brady on Rod Laver Arena, where she became the first woman since Monica Seles in the early 1990s to emerge victorious from the first four grand slam finals of her career. 

Lets not forget her anti-racism statements during the last year's US Open. The 23-year-old regularly wore masks onto court to protest against racial injustice in the United States. Osaka's off-court impact is just as powerful across the globe.

As the sun begins to fade on the career of an all-time great, Osaka has the world at her feet in an exciting new era for women's tennis.

Naomi Osaka can continue what is becoming a magical trend with a win in the Australian Open final.

The Japanese star will face Jennifer Brady in the decider at Melbourne Park on Saturday as she eyes a fourth grand slam title.

But Osaka, 23, can also continue an unlikely and rather incredible trend at the year's first grand slam – winning the crown after saving match point.

If she can get past Brady, Osaka would become the seventh woman in the Open Era to win the Australian Open after saving a match point along the way, joining Monica Seles (1991), Jennifer Capriati (2002), Serena Williams (2003 and 2005), Li Na (2014), Angelique Kerber (2016) and Caroline Wozniacki (2018).

Osaka was pushed to the brink by Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round of this year's tournament. She faced two match points at 3-5 in the third set, saving the first with an ace down the T – no woman has served more aces than her 44 at the tournament – before a powerful forehand forced Muguruza into an error. Osaka would win four straight games to reach the quarter-finals.

Wozniacki's success three years ago was particularly remarkable as she saved two match points in the second round against Jana Fett, reeling off six straight games from 5-1 down in the final set. The last time it happened in a women's draw outside of the Australian Open was at Wimbledon in 2009, and it has occurred three times since in Melbourne.

Osaka's coach, Wim Fissette, said the mental side of the game was a key focus for the star.

"I think it's just part of the workday by day and where we speak about different topics. And honestly, it's a very important topic for her. She knows the experience of the past years like when her attitude is good, her mind is very clear what she needs to do, what she wants to do, and then she plays well," he said on Friday.

"So, the base of playing really well is a good attitude. Doesn't mean you cannot be negative, like, at some point, you know. It's only human or normal to be frustrated maybe at one point, but to reset immediately, that's a very important one. So it's not something, let's say, we had, like, big conversations about, but it's a daily topic, and it's more coming from Naomi that she wants to be that person that's always, like, behaves well on the court. That's kind of a role model also for younger players."

While Brady shapes as a major test, Osaka has won every major at which she has gone past the fourth round.

Osaka is also on a 20-match winning streak, becoming the third woman since 2010 to achieve such a run – joining Williams (27 in 2014-15) and Victoria Azarenka (26 in 2012). The incredible run included a US Open semi-final win over Brady last year, and Osaka has proven unstoppable – a couple of walkovers aside. Brady pushed Osaka to three sets at Flushing Meadows and the American has put together a fine run of her own in Melbourne.

But the three-time major winner's hot streak has her well-placed for more history on Saturday, and to continue an incredible trend in Melbourne.

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