Jurgen Klopp is staying on at Liverpool for an extra two years after signing a new contract that keeps him at Anfield until June 2026.

Rumours had started to circulate suggesting the German and his coaching staff agreed fresh terms, and the club made it official on Thursday.

The announcement came as Liverpool chase an unprecedented quadruple. Having already won the EFL Cup this season, they are into the FA Cup final, sit just one point behind leaders Manchester City in the Premier League and hold a 2-0 lead over Villarreal ahead of the second leg of their Champions League semi-final.

Injury-ravaged Liverpool finished 2020-21 third in the Premier League, 17 points behind Pep Guardiola's City, but Klopp has proven that to be a minor blip with the Reds back in devastating form this term.

Following confirmation of his new contract, Stats Perform looks back at some of the best and most notable victories from Klopp's five and a half years at the helm…

Liverpool 4-3 Borussia Dortmund, April 2016

Klopp surely felt he had a point to prove when going up against his former club in the Europa League quarter-finals, though it all looked to be going horribly wrong. After drawing 1-1 in the first leg, the Reds then trailed by two goals twice at Anfield and found themselves needing at least three goals in the final 25 minutes – somehow, they managed it. Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren all struck, with Liverpool incredibly netting with all four of their shots on target in the game.

Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City, January 2018

Although Liverpool still trailed leaders City by 15 points in the Premier League after this victory, in hindsight, there is a degree of this win being a watershed moment for Klopp's Liverpool. City were unbeaten in the league at this point, yet for much of the game Liverpool looked every inch their equal. While two late goals from City ensured a tense finish, the Reds were well worth the three points in what went down as a modern classic.

Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona, May 2019

The Reds seemed to have little hope here. Lionel Messi inspired a 3-0 dismantling of Liverpool in Camp Nou in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final clash, seemingly putting one foot in the final. But Klopp's side were in sensational form for the return at Anfield, with Divock Origi providing some early hope with a seventh-minute opener. Georginio Wijnaldum then laid on a second-half brace to restore parity, before Origi completed the turnaround 11 minutes from time. It was the first time since 1986 that a team wiped out a three-goal first-leg deficit to win a Champions League/European Cup semi-final.

Tottenham 0-2 Liverpool, June 2019

It may not have been a classic as a spectacle, but Liverpool fans – and Klopp – won't have cared. After falling at the final hurdle the year before, the Reds were European champions for a sixth time in 2019 as they beat Tottenham 2-0 in Madrid, with Mohamed Salah and Origi getting the goals.

Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United, January 2020

The 2019-20 title triumph was Liverpool's first league championship in 30 years – in that time, their bitter rivals United had won it 13 times to become the most successful club in the English top flight. While Klopp's side were already well clear at the Premier League summit when the ailing United came to Anfield in January 2020, there was a sense that their procession began with this 2-0 victory that left them 16 points clear at the top with a game in hand.

Manchester United 0-5 Liverpool, October 2021

Liverpool heaped the misery on United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer again in October. Paul Pogba's sending off certainly helped the visitors, but even before then the gulf was clear. This was the Red Devils' biggest losing margin to their fierce rivals since 1895 (Liverpool won 7-1 at Anfield), and worst ever at home. Mohamed Salah led the way with a hat-trick, in the process becoming the highest-scoring African player in Premier League history. The Reds went on to hammer United again six months later, winning 4-0 on Merseyside.

Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer are 10-in-a-row heroes for Bayern Munich, the lone mainstays of a decade of Bundesliga dominance.

Saturday's win against Borussia Dortmund means Bayern are German champions again, and veterans Muller and Neuer have been instrumental in the latest success.

Muller now has 11 Bundesliga titles in all, having also been a part of the triumphant 2009-10 team, and that stands as an all-time record.

There have been times in recent seasons when both Muller and Neuer have come under scrutiny, their places in the Bayern side being called into question.

Stats Perform has looked at how these two pivotal figures for Die Roten have bounced back in magnificent style.


The reinvention of Thomas Muller

Muller was integral to the title-clinching 3-1 win against Dortmund on Saturday, with the 2010 World Cup Golden Boot winner setting up Robert Lewandowski to make it 2-0 just before half-time.

Such contributions are expected of him nowadays, but the 32-year-old has reconfigured his game to reach this halcyon period in his career.

Muller went from scoring a career-high 20 Bundesliga goals in Pep Guardiola's final season at Bayern (2015-16) to just five in the following campaign under Carlo Ancelotti.

That drastic drop-off naturally caused many to wonder what was going on, even though Muller, handed his debut by Jurgen Klinsmann in 2008, had built up plenty of credit in the bank.

Muller's goal involvements (goals and assists) had dipped below 20 for the first time since 2011-12 during Ancelotti's only full season at the helm, as he added 12 assists to those five goals. Before this conspicuous 2016-17 season, Muller's goal hauls had always at least matched, but often comfortably beaten, his tally of assists.

In every season since, he has finished with more Bundesliga assists than goals.

Eight goals and 14 assists arrived in 2017-18, a campaign that saw Jupp Heynckes replace Ancelotti in early autumn, and that suggested Muller was back on track, only for another dip to follow during Niko Kovac's reign. Six goals and nine assists from Muller in 2018-19 saw him dip back under that 20 involvements mark, and as his 30th birthday approached there were concerns his best days were in the past.

How wrong Muller's critics were. As well as being a goal threat, Muller is now the most menacing creative force in German football. The departure of Kovac brought Hansi Flick to the Bayern top job in November 2019, and Muller finished that campaign with eight goals and 21 assists – the most assists in a Bundesliga season since such detailed data collection began in 2004-05.

 

He matched that career-best 29 goal involvements in 2020-21 (11 goals, 18 assists) and is well on the way to a similar haul this time (7 goals, 17 assists).

Muller has had nine seasons in which he has managed at least 20 goal involvements in the Bundesliga, not bad for a player that Ralf Rangnick almost pinched away from Bayern during Klinsmann's reign. Bayern academy boss Hermann Gerland is said to have told the club to reject the offer from Rangnick's Hoffenheim, and they owe him eternal gratitude.

Muller averaged 1.08 goal involvements per game under Flick, his best under any permanent Bayern boss, and has managed 0.89 during the first year of Julian Nagelsmann's reign, a sliver under the 0.93 he achieved in Guardiola's time at the club. He averaged a career-high 67.27 touches per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga under Flick, dipping to 64.34 under Nagelsmann.

Under Louis van Gaal, Ancelotti, Guardiola and Heynckes, he averaged in the 50s when it came to touches per 90 minutes, so his role today is more involved. Bayern can only hope it will stay that way.

When Bayern have had Muller in their starting XI since the start of the 2009-10 season, the campaign where he made his first big impact, they have won 74.7 per cent of games; without him, they have won 68.4 per cent (54 of 79). That has meant an average of 2.4 points per game when he has made the starting XI, to 2.2 when he has not started.


Neuer saves Bayern time and again

Like with Muller, there is a marginal gain to be observed from having goalkeeper Neuer in the Bayern side. Neuer joined from Schalke in 2011 and has made such an impact he is now the Bayern captain.

When he has started in the Bundesliga (307 games), Bayern have won 77.5 per cent of those games and picked up an average of 2.4 points, but when Neuer has been absent (64 games) those figures drop to a 71.9 per cent win rate and 2.3 points. The goals-against figure rises from 0.7 goals to 0.9 on average, too.

Now 36, Neuer has so far fended off a challenge from Alexander Nubel, who has been loaned out to Monaco this season to guarantee first-team action.

Nubel was also acquired from Schalke, joining Bayern in June 2020, but the 25-year-old has barely had a sniff of a first-team opportunity, and that is down to Neuer's form.

From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Neuer enjoyed five seasons where his impressive save percentage for each Bundesliga campaign fluctuated only slightly, between 78.57 per cent and 79.78 per cent per campaign.

Major doubts over his long-term future surfaced when he twice suffered broken metatarsal bones in 2017, forcing him to miss almost all the 2017-18 season.

There have been shaky times since his lay-off too, most notably when Neuer's save percentage was a distinctly low 59.65 per cent in 2018-19, the lowest mark of all Bundesliga goalkeepers with at least 20 appearances that season.

Yet a corner was soon turned, and this term the save percentage stands at 73.75 per cent, his best effort since that five-season hot streak in the mid-2010s. From seeking a succession plan, Bayern have shifted the emphasis to hoping that Neuer has years still to come at this level.

Bayern Munich are champions of Germany for a 10th successive time after beating Borussia Dortmund 3-1 in Saturday's Klassiker to seal another Bundesliga triumph.

While the 2021-22 season has not entirely gone to plan, with Bayern falling well short in the DFB-Pokal and Champions League, they have once again dominated in the league.

Bayern's 10-in-a-row feat, with those successes coming under six different coaches, is something that has never previously been achieved in any of Europe's top five leagues.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind the Bavarian giants' latest title romp.

Ten in a row unmatched

Bayern equalled Juventus' record, set between 2012 and 2020, with nine titles in a row last season and have now overtaken the Italian giants' record for successive crowns.

Prior to this ongoing run, Bayern's longest streak of consecutive titles were the three in a row they managed on three previous occasions (1972-1974,1985-1987 and 1999-2001).

The only other team to have had such a long run of dominance in the competition was Borussia Monchengladbach from 1975 to 1977 with three titles.

 

Julian's title joy

Julian Nagelsmann masterminded Bayern's latest triumph in his first season in charge, but he fell just short of setting the record for the youngest Bundesliga title-winning coach.

Aged 34 years and 275 days on the day of the Dortmund win, Nagelsmann is 35 days older than Matthias Sammer was when Dortmund lifted the title in 2002.

Incredibly, Nagelsmann is a seasoned campaigner when compared to Lippo Hertzka, who had only just turned 28 when he won LaLiga with Real Madrid in 1931-32.

Lewy leads from the front

Robert Lewandowski has scored 33 Bundesliga goals this term, which is 12 more than next-best Patrik Schick, meaning he is now almost certain to win another Golden Boot award.

The Poland international has been at his ruthless best once again this campaign, netting every 81 minutes in the top flight.

It seems almost certain that Lewandowski will finish top of the Bundesliga scoring charts for the seventh time, and the fifth time in a row since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did so in 2016-17.

The only other player to have finished top scorer in the division as many times was Bayern great Gerd Muller, who did so between the 1966-76 and 1977-78 campaigns.

Muller the magician

Prolific striker Lewandowski is very much the poster boy of this Bayern side, but that is not to say he has done it all on his own this season.

Thomas Muller, for example, has assisted 17 goals in 30 games. That is the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues.

However, he is still short of the 21 Bundesliga assists he managed in the 2019-20 campaign, with that the most of any player since Opta began recording such data in 2004-05. He still has three games to match that total.

 

Neuer another ever-present

Muller has been a key member of Bayern's squad throughout their decade of dominance, as has goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer.

The pair will set a record for the most German top-flight titles won in a row, surpassing ex-team-mates David Alaba, Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez, who have all left.

Germany international Muller also lifted the title in 2010, with his overall haul of 11 seeing him surpass Alaba as the competition's outright most decorated player of all time.

There was a surprise guest at the wedding of Real Betis star Joaquin in July 2005 – surprise because this particular appearance hinged on the outcome of a football match five weeks earlier.

As Joaquin and his new wife stood at the front of the church in his hometown of Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz, something else couldn't help but hog attention.

The Copa del Rey trophy, draped in green and white ribbons stood tall – literally, because it's huge – and proud.

That's right, the Copa del Rey was an especially notable guest at Joaquin's wedding, as the winger – then 23 years old – had only recently helped Betis to just their second success in the competition and first since 1977.

Joaquin has always been regarded as something of a practical joker, with that not-so-subtle wedding decoration very much from his wheelhouse.

Fast-forward 17 years and Joaquin is readying himself for another tilt at the crown with his beloved Betis, who themselves haven't reached the final since that momentous 2-1 extra-time win over Osasuna at the Vicente Calderon.

 

Fittingly, Betis' opponents on Saturday will be the other club most people would associate with Joaquin: Valencia, with whom he won the only other trophy of his career in 2008 – also the Copa – during a five-year spell.

That triumph spawned another curious – but no less Joaquin – photo of the winger with the trophy, as he was snapped stark naked squatting next to the cup in Valencia's dressing room.

Hopefully social media won't see a repeat of that one on Saturday…

Joaquin didn't feature for Valencia in that final, however, and therefore his 2005 success will gratefully remain the focus for most.

While Joaquin is by no means the Betis regular he was 17 years ago when he was an exciting fleet-footed winger, this occasion will still be all about him in the build-up, with there also a degree of aptness around the fact Saturday's game is taking place in Seville, at La Cartuja.

This campaign is expected to be Joaquin's last as a player. Now 40, his contract expires at the end of the season and in November he hinted retirement was likely in 2022. Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini quickly looked to sweep that under the rug, adamant such decisions will wait until 2021-22 is finished, and there's been very little public discussion of the subject from he or Joaquin since.

It's easy to understand why many aren't predicting another year of Joaquin in LaLiga, though. Even if you ignore the fairly important point of his age, his time on the pitch has reduced significantly this term.

In LaLiga he has made only two starts this season and in total featured for just 395 minutes. Of course, he's been used across multiple competitions in 2021-22 and was named in the starting XI eight times in the Europa League.

But while his 31 appearances is actually one more than in 2020-21, his minutes-per-game average of 36 (1,117 total) is 12.4 minutes fewer than last term, highlighting how he's become even more of a peripheral figure.

But that's not to say his influence has waned. Pellegrini stood aside before the first leg of their Copa semi-final defeat of Rayo Vallecano to let Joaquin deliver a speech.

He said: "Look each other in the eyes. We are here because of ourselves. I don't know if I should talk to you as a team-mate, friend or captain, but I will do it as a Betico, because I know what many of them must be feeling here today.

"They are going to be there until the death. The Beticos, and this club, have suffered for a long time. Sacrifice and effort lead to glory. That's the reward.

"I had an uncle who used to say, and he taught me this, that there's nothing more beautiful than making other people happy – today we have that chance. We're going to go out there and show we want to be in that final."

Betis fell behind early on in that game in Vallecas but went on to win the game 2-1. They then looked to be heading for extra time when Bebe spectacularly put Rayo ahead with 80 minutes played of the second leg in Seville, but a moment of inspiration from Joaquin right at the end opened the Rayo defence up.

He brought down a cross-field pass, glided away from Bebe and slipped a perfectly weighted pass in behind the defence for Sergio Canales, whose prodded pass was deflected towards goal and tapped in by Borja Iglesias.

The entire Betis bench and staff mobbed Joaquin at full-time, fully aware of what their achievement meant to him – but it was also a show of appreciation, with the veteran's cameo showing he remains a very useful option.

On a per-90-minute basis across all competitions this season, Joaquin tops Betis' charts for assists (0.32), expected assists (0.29) and chances created (2.9), while his 4.3 dribbles attempted is bettered by only three players.

 

Of course, his sample size is much smaller than the likes of Nabil Fekir and Canales – the point isn't that he's better than them, simply that he's packing a lot of quality into his relatively brief appearances.

Don't expect to see his name in Betis' line-up on Saturday, but do not be surprised if he comes on and makes a telling impact – given the legendary status he holds not only at Betis but also in LaLiga, there'll be many willing him to enjoy a successful end to a fine career.

Let's not forget, his 595 LaLiga appearances is a record for an outfield player, while only one man in Spanish top-flight history has appeared in more seasons (Miguel Soler, 20) than his 19.

Assuming he does in fact play some part on Saturday, it will be his 106th Copa del Rey appearance, extending another record among non-goalkeepers.

A 17th wedding anniversary might not be a big milestone for most, but you can count on Joaquin bringing the Copa along for the celebrations if Betis succeed this weekend.

A Classique by name but certainly not by nature, Paris Saint-Germain took a step closer to the inevitable eighth Ligue 1 title of the QSI era thanks to goals from Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

Predictably, Lionel Messi's name did not feature on the scoresheet. Predictably, Neymar's name found its way into the referee's book after a foul followed by a tantrum.

These games are not always predictable of course. Few saw the five stoppage-time red cards coming when these teams last met at the Parc des Princes in Ligue 1, back in September 2020.

All hell broke loose on that occasion when the game's simmering tension reached boiling point. Accusations were flung this way and that, with the red-carded Neymar at the centre of many of them. Marseille won that game 1-0, doling out another painful blow to a PSG side who had lost the Champions League final to Bayern Munich just three weeks earlier.

PSG ridiculously failed to win Ligue 1 last season, an embarrassment considering the riches of their talent pool, but the trophy – L'Hexagoal – is heading back to the capital, and Sunday's 2-1 win over Marseille put the Parisian club 15 points clear with six rounds of games to play.

They could wrap up the title in midweek, but what would it really mean? Will it save Mauricio Pochettino's job? Probably not. Will it be the determining factor in whether Mbappe signs a new deal or heads to Madrid? Probably not. Will the PSG fans celebrate it with any great gusto? No, probably not, given many are apparently pig-sick of the club's leadership.

The Ligue 1 title has been reduced to a matter of interest only when PSG do not win it, given it should be a formality each season. And so on they plod, this gaggle of megastars and their various chums.

 

It is not quite the 'Zidanes and Pavons' policy of Real Madrid's Galacticos late period, but PSG are similarly top-heavy. While that Madrid side struggled at times in the league, they could put it together in the Champions League, the competition that remains out of reach for this PSG incarnation.

Was this Pochettino's final Classique? There are no assurances forthcoming over his future. If it is, he has nudged PSG ahead of Marseille on the all-time record between the teams in Ligue 1. This was a 33rd victory in the series, with Marseille having won 32 times and 20 of the league games having been drawn.

So one-sided has this rivalry become, however, that PSG have only lost one of the last 20 such league tussles between the sides (W15 D4).

That's a rivalry, only in the sense that Serena Williams versus Maria Sharapova was a rivalry on the tennis court. Williams lost two of their first three matches, then won the next 19 before Sharapova retired, barring one walk-over.

Sunday's encounter was certainly not a walk-over for PSG, as Marseille made a match of this Classique at times, recovering from Neymar's early strike to draw level through Duje Caleta-Car, with Gianluigi Donnarumma adding to his bloopers file as he failed to gather Dimitri Payet's corner. 

Neymar had a free-kick well saved by Pau Lopez, Messi had a couple of goals ruled out for offside calls, Mbappe smashed home a penalty after Neymar's shot was handled. William Saliba was denied a late Marseille equaliser after a VAR review showed he was narrowly offside. PSG actually finished this game having seen just 42 per cent of the ball, their lowest total in a Ligue 1 game since February 2013, also against Marseille.

And of course Neymar flapped indignantly after being booked for fouling Matteo Guendouzi. Just for a moment the combustible Brazilian looked to be risking a second yellow with his protests.

PSG can be fun to watch when they lose the plot, or when they attempt defending, but the joy that should be gleaned from seeing Neymar, Messi and Mbappe together is tempered by the sense of formality about all of this.

 

Almost 30 years have passed since it was Marseille's ownership that had critics up in arms, during the scandal-hit Bernard Tapie era, when it was OM who had the biggest stars.

In 1993, the year Marseille won the Champions League, Alen Boksic, Rudi Voller and Abedi Pele complemented a rich French contingent that included Basile Boli, Fabien Barthez, Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps.

The PSG of that era had stars too – David Ginola, George Weah and Valdo among them – and the great rivalry was ostensibly born, but the modern-day Marseille are no competition on a man-for-man basis with the current Parisian legion of luminaries.

Tycoon Tapie's substantial wealth and Marseille's financial clout had nothing on the Qatar Sports Investments money muscle behind PSG, though.

French football has been dealt the derogatory tag of a "farmer's league", a title bestowed due to a perceived lack of competition. And when the joie de vivre has been sucked out of even Le Classique, where does the game go from here?

An unlikely quadruple remains very much on for Liverpool after a 3-2 victory against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.

The national stadium was bathed in sunshine, resplendent, eagerly anticipating round two of arguably the biggest heavyweight clash in world football right now.

Fair enough, technically round three if you include the Anfield game earlier this season, but it felt like a second leg after last week's exhilarating 2-2 draw at the Etihad Stadium that left City one point ahead of the Reds in the race for the Premier League title.

A relatively innocent declaration from former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher recently that this is now the biggest rivalry in English football caused uproar from those who remember the days of Manchester United and Arsenal going at it, publicly hating one another, fiery encounters, pizza lobbing. That rivalry admittedly had it all.

This is a rivalry of quality, though. It would be a stretch to say City and Liverpool like each other, but there is a clear mutual respect, which some claim stops it being a proper rivalry.

It is an odd thing to point to when the same people were seemingly disgusted by the scenes at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday as City and Atletico Madrid players did not exactly shake hands after the final whistle.

There was some ill-feeling in Wembley ahead of kick-off, with a section of City fans choosing to make noise during a moment of silence to mark the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, which the Manchester club later condemned in a statement.

Purely from a football perspective, this is as good as it gets, possibly in the world. It is the new Real Madrid v Barcelona, and this was the latest chapter, their first meeting at Wembley since the 2019 Community Shield, which City won on penalties.

 

Of course, no-one particularly wanted to be at Wembley, as nice as it looked. With travel from the north west of England heavily affected by a lack of train services over the Easter weekend, questions were raised as to why both sets of fans were forced to travel to London to play a game that was not even a final, but that is a conversation for another day.

On this day, it was the red of Liverpool that reigned supreme.

A strong start for Klopp's men saw Ibrahima Konate continue his recent goalscoring form, nodding in his third goal for Liverpool in the space of four games from Andy Robertson's outswinging corner.

The freshness of the Reds told in the early stages, with Klopp having rested a number of key players in the week, while City had experienced a tough away trip to Madrid, and Guardiola was forced to make several changes to his usual line-up.

His decision to swap goalkeepers soon came back to bite him as Sadio Mane closed down Zack Steffen. While Ederson had teased Diogo Jota at the Etihad in a similar way, Steffen could not match the Brazilian's calmness and saw himself tackled by Mane to concede a farcical second.

Liverpool's midfield was masterful at Wembley. Fabinho managed to keep City's band of attacking midfielders relatively quiet, even after picking up a first-half yellow card. Thiago was just as mesmeric as he had been at the Etihad, finding or creating space, making full use of the vast pitch, and it was his sumptuous dinked ball out to Mane that led to the third, with the Senegalese smashing home inside Steffen's near post.

 

Of all three Liverpool midfielders, though, you could argue it was Naby Keita who stood out most.

The Guinea international has struggled for fitness and consistency pretty much ever since he arrived in a big-money move from RB Leipzig in 2018, but picked ahead of captain Jordan Henderson for this huge game, he did not let his manager down.

Keita won possession seven times, more than any other player on the pitch in the 73 minutes he featured, and with the ball during that time, nearly matched Thiago (26) for passes in the opposition half (24).

Last week's league encounter had seen City dominate the first half before Liverpool came back in the second, and it seemed the reverse was happening here, except the Merseysiders made more of their dominance with a three-goal lead at the break.

Guardiola's men started the second half much quicker, and had pulled it back to 3-1 within minutes, with a nice Gabriel Jesus run ending with Jack Grealish firing home, just days after admitting he wanted to score more goals after his £100million move from Aston Villa last year.

This was not the same City as last week though, quite literally given the number of changes, and they rarely looked like troubling their title rivals after that, with Jesus hitting an effort when through on goal straight at fellow countryman Alisson.

The Premier League leaders struggled, with just one shot in the first half and Grealish's goal their first effort on target. Their passing accuracy was also way down from its usual high standards at just 80.5 per cent, playing more long balls and failing to deal with Liverpool's famous press.

Though he did not find the net himself, the impact of Luis Diaz was clear for all to see again. The Colombian seems to be improving alongside Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah game on game.

He won four fouls as he was a constant thorn in the side of Joao Cancelo, while Mane also carried on the fine form he showed at the Etihad.

The former Southampton man became the first Liverpool player to score twice in an FA Cup semi-final since Robbie Fowler against Aston Villa in 1996, and the first to score a brace for the Reds at Wembley since Steve McManaman in the League Cup final against Bolton Wanderers in 1995.

In typical City fashion, they refused to give up until the end, making things interesting with a second goal back in stoppage time courtesy of Bernardo Silva after fine work from substitute Riyad Mahrez.

This was Liverpool's day, though, and if City struck a blow by staying ahead of the Reds in the league last week, Klopp's men responded with one of their own here as we head towards what promises to be an increasingly fascinating rivalry.

Liverpool fans sang Dua Lipa's 'One Kiss' as they got ready for a long journey back up the motorway, safe in the knowledge that history still beckons this season.

Late in the NBA season it appeared the Phoenix Suns may finish top-two in both offensive and defensive efficiency – a feat only accomplished twice in the 21st century.

Those two teams were the 2014-15 and 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, who both went on to win NBA Championships.

As Phoenix wrapped up the top overall seed with weeks to spare, their total efficiency took a dip in the final games as Aaron Holiday was gifted starts, and the duo of Ishmail Wainwright and Gabriel Lundberg were playing nearly a combined 50 minutes.

For the season, the Suns finished with the third-ranked defense, giving up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, and the fifth-placed offense, scoring 114.2 points per 100 possessions, giving them a net-rating of 7.5 (7.4 gap between offense and defense, rounded up to the closest decimal).

The 'per 100 possessions' qualifier is simply to provide an even playing field for teams that play at different paces – the Dallas Mavericks are the slowest team in the league, getting 95.6 possessions per game, while the run-and-gun Minnesota Timberwolves average 101.5 possessions per game.

Since, and including, the 1999-00 season, the 2021-22 Suns are the 13th team to finish top-five in both offense and defense.

The other teams are: 

1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers (fifth in offense, first in defense, 9.0 net-rating) 2001-02 Sacramento Kings (third in offense, fifth in defense, 8.1 net) 2005-06 Detroit Pistons (fourth in offense, fifth in defense, 7.6 net) 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (second in offense, fifth in defense, 7.6 net) 2007-08 Lakers (third in offense, fifth in defense, 7.3 net) 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (fourth offense, second defense, 9.6 net) 2009-10 Orlando Magic (fourth offense, fourth defense, 7.9 net) 2010-11 Miami Heat (second offense, fifth defense, 7.8 net) 2014-15 Warriors (second offense, first defense, 9.9 net) 2016-17 Warriors (first offense, second defense, 11.4 net) 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks (first defense, fourth offense, 8.6 net)

Of those teams – all of which won at least 57 regular season games – half made it to the NBA Finals, while the 1999-2000 Lakers, 2014-15 Warriors and 2016-17 Warriors are the three to win championships. The reigning champion 2008-09 Celtics were the only side to not make it to the Conference Finals.

The 2005-06 Pistons were two seasons removed from their 2004 title; the 2006-07 Mavericks featured many of the pieces that would win the 2011 title; the 2007-08 Lakers stuck with it and won back-to-back in 2009 and 2010; the 2010-11 Heat won back-to-back in 2012 and 2013; and the 2018-19 Bucks just needed to add Jrue Holiday to push themselves over the line in 2021.

 

What this means is that while this specific Suns side may not be guaranteed to win this year's championship, they have a great chance to make the NBA Finals, and it shows that as an organisation, they have hit a sweet spot that very few sides ever reach, right in the heart of a true championship window.

However, none of those teams had their championship windows opened with the arrival of a 36-year-old. While the Suns are at a stage where they do not simply live and die with the health of Chris Paul, they are very clearly not the same team when he sits.

The Suns are 53-12 in the 65 games Paul has played this season, and are still an impressive 11-6 without him, showing that he has helped turn the franchise around in a real way.

Paul's biggest contribution to the Suns has been culturally, turning a perennial losing side into a team that expects to win every time it steps on the floor, no matter who is suiting up.

He has now been a member of the best regular season teams in the history of four franchises – the New Orleans Pelicans, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets and now the Suns.

However, it would be silly to discount the improvements Phoenix were making prior to Paul's arrival, including going 8-0 in 'the bubble' ahead of the 2020 Playoffs. Much of that credit also goes to head coach Monty Williams, who has the Suns playing a system that seems to work no matter who is on the floor, especially at the center position.

After being released by the Charlotte Hornets, Bismack Biyombo was picked up on a minimum contract and produced the most efficient scoring season of his career, registering 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds per-36 minutes.

Career backup JaVale McGee has also been terrific, scoring 20.9 points and grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds per-36 in his 14th season in the league. 

For the season, McGee leads the Phoenix center trio in player efficiency rating (PER, where league-average is always 15) with 22.5, while Deandre Ayton is at 22.0 and Biyombo at 17.3.

The success of Phoenix's backup bigs has added fuel to the fire regarding the impending contract extension of Ayton, who the Suns made the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Ayton was eligible for a big-money extension this past off-season, but the organisation opted to wait until after this season when his contract expires, where they can decide if they feel he is worth the max-contract he is expected to demand, or if they are better served cashing on his perceived value through a trade.

Phoenix are paying Paul and Devin Booker max-contract money, and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges signed a four-year, $90million extension in December, which was considered a bargain for a player of his two-way impact.

The Suns have likely built something sustainable, but they are set to become one of the more expensive teams in the league, with an owner, Robert Sarver, who has never shown the willingness to go deep into the luxury tax.

While Paul's days as a superstar are likely numbered with his advanced age, Booker and Bridges are both 25 and yet to hit their prime, while Ayton – whether he is viewed as a cornerstone of the future or as a premium trade asset – is just 23.

However, chemistry can be everything and this team, as is currently constructed, has it in spades.

It is easy to see how this could be the start of an incredible decade of Suns basketball – they are mostly young, and just set a franchise-record for wins in a season with 64.

But they are outliers this year, and outliers come back to earth at some stage – often sooner than we expect.

So here it is. That time of year again where we separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the champions from the... rest.

The NBA playoffs get underway on Saturday with plenty of stories to be written and legacies to be cemented.

Can the Phoenix Suns turn their dominance in the regular season into a championship? Will the Milwaukee Bucks be able to retain their crown? Could someone from the play-in tournament sneak in the back door and go all the way?

These questions and plenty more will keep us glued to our screens as we watch the action unfold over the next two months.

But what of the individual stories? There are plenty of players who have made names for themselves in the business end of the season down the years, with lots of big names who will particularly want to make an impression this time around as well.

Stats Perform has selected five such players to focus on, explaining why they may just have a bit more to prove over the next few weeks than others.

James Harden – Philadelphia 76ers

It may feel slightly like shooting fish in a barrel to start with a player who is known for not being able to get over the line in the postseason, but we are not above easy wins here.

Harden has been to the NBA Finals just once in 12 postseason appearances, and that came 10 years ago with Oklahoma City Thunder.

Strictly speaking, his playoff averages have been impressive. While with the Houston Rockets, he averaged at least 26.3 points per game (PPG) in the playoffs, including an impressive 31.6 in the 2018-19 season.

However, it has more been one-off performances, invariably at crucial moments, that have let him down. This was summarised perfectly last year in Game 7 for the Brooklyn Nets against the Bucks, when he sank only five of 17 field goal attempts.

Now at the Sixers after a huge trade earlier in the season, and with the league's top scorer Joel Embiid on his side, Harden will surely be determined to silence his doubters and reach the second NBA Finals of his career. 

Chris Paul – Phoenix Suns

This is likely the best chance the Suns will ever have to win an NBA championship, and ditto Paul.

An incredible regular season record of 64-18 saw them finish atop the Western Conference with a win percentage of 78.0, almost 10 per cent more than the second-place Memphis Grizzlies (68.3 per cent).

For Paul, this, therefore, is almost certainly his strongest chance to finally win a championship ring, especially having come so close last year.

The 12-time All-Star has the most assists per game in the league this season (10.8), and only Trae Young (737) has more overall assists than his 702, though the Atlanta Hawks star has played 11 more games.

At 36 years of age, Paul will not have many more opportunities, and will want to make this one count.

 

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks

It has been another memorable season for the young Slovenian, averaging 28.4 PPG as well as 8.7 assists and 9.1 rebounds.

In his two previous playoff campaigns, Doncic has stepped his game up even more, averaging 31.0 PPG in 2019-20 and a remarkable 35.7 PPG last year. However, on both occasions, the Mavericks still could not make it past the first round.

Dallas ended the regular season with a record of 52-30, winning seven of their last eight games, and will go up against the Utah Jazz in the first round, a team they have beaten twice in the last six weeks.

It is not so much that Doncic himself has a point to prove, but he will be looking for more help from his team-mates as he looks to get to the latter stages, where a player of his talent surely belongs.

Tyler Herro – Miami Heat

Another young player who has already put in some strong postseason showings in his short career so far.

Herro impressed in the 2020 playoffs, but last year the Heat were whitewashed by the Bucks in the first round. As the number one seeds in the East this year, all eyes will be on them to do much better.

While Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo will of course be important, Herro could well be the difference-maker.

The 22-year-old point guard has comfortably produced his best regular season so far, averaging 20.7 PPG, as well as 4.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds.

Many expect it to be Miami v Phoenix in a battle of two number one seeds in the Finals this year, in which case Herro will be looking to repeat his second-best scoring performance of the season when he came away with 33 points in the Footprint Center in January's 123-100 win against the Suns.

Ben Simmons – Brooklyn Nets

It has been a nervous wait for Simmons, not just to return to fitness, but to see if he would even have the chance to turn out for the Nets this season.

While it has not been suggested the 25-year-old will return from back problems imminently, it has been reported the Nets are looking to use the player they traded Harden for in February sparingly towards the end of the first round.

Thankfully for him, his team-mates made it through their play-in game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday and so take their place in the playoffs, where they will start off in a fascinating encounter against the Boston Celtics.

Simmons has not played a single minute of basketball this season, not since his notorious performances in last year's postseason with the Sixers that saw him draw the ire of Joel Embiid and coach Doc Rivers.

Although Embiid accused Simmons of wanting to be a star more than wanting to win, that he won't necessarily need to fire from the off could help him, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in excellent form for Brooklyn.

Simmons will want to discover the sort of form he showed in the 2018-19 campaign, when he averaged 16.9 PPG, as well as 7.7 assists and 8.8 rebounds.

It is perhaps the thrilling attacking play of his teams that has led to the common misconception that Jurgen Klopp is something of a risk-taking manager.

Any recent Liverpool highlight reel is likely to show an adventurous brand of football that would support the idea that this group of players are instructed to simply throw numbers forward at any opportunity.

In truth, though, their manager has proven himself to be more conservative when it has come to making his biggest calls at Anfield.

As much was evident from the fact that his obvious first priority upon arriving at the club in 2015 was to implement a sound defensive structure.

It could also be seen in Klopp's unwavering preference for a settled line-up in the biggest competitions - occasionally to his detriment, as in the case of a Diogo Jota knee injury suffered in a dead rubber against Midtjylland last season. 

For these reasons, a team selection showing seven changes for this evening's quarter-final second leg against Benfica felt hugely significant.

It is not like the reigning Portuguese champions were completely out of the tie, with a 3-1 aggregate cushion hardly worthy of being described as comfortable.

What's more, Nelson Verissimo's men had caused plenty of problems for their opponents en route to conceding a late sucker-punch goal in Lisbon last week.

Perhaps the key takeaway from this surprise selection, though, was not that Klopp has suddenly elected to embrace risk in the latter stages of a season that promises so much. 

Rather, it is that the German no longer believes that making sweeping changes represents a risk at all.

The opening goal certainly supported that line of thought; back-up left-back Kostas Tsimikas crossing for third-choice centre-half Ibrahima Konate to head home.

Tsimikas also went on to provide another assist in the second half and ended the game with three key passes, 11 regains and having been involved in 14 duels (with a 71.4% success rate)

Konate, meanwhile, posted a match-high 94 passes, two tackles and five regains, ably supported by fellow fringe figures James Milner, Naby Keita and Joe Gomez.

And, while a late flurry from a Benfica side with nothing to lose made for exciting end to a six-goal game at Anfield, the hosts' laxness was clearly a direct result of their knowing the tie itself was never in doubt.

Of course, for all that the contributions from the wider squad and the chance to rest key men made the night a satisfying one overall for Klopp, it is worth noting that a similar level of rotation remains unlikely between now and May.

The aggregate advantage, Anfield crowd, and the fact that Liverpool had only lost at home by more than one goal in the knockout stages of this competition twice before all fed into an unfamiliar line-up being named.

With an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City next and neither the Premier League or Champions League likely to offer opportunities for major changes, this was probably Klopp's last chance to truly mix things up. 

However, this manager is far too experienced to believe that there won't be plenty of need for his back-ups in the weeks ahead. 

While it is now unlikely there will be any repeat of last season's injury nightmare, it would be optimistic in the extreme to expect no further issues at all.

The legginess resulting from this most gruelling of campaigns is sure to tell at some point, enhancing the importance of every substitution.

That Klopp now has a deeper trust in his alternative options suggests Liverpool are well-equipped to handle the challenges to come.

Karim Benzema's brilliance was the difference as Real Madrid stormed into a 3-1 lead over Chelsea last week.

The 34-year-old, as evergreen as they come, was at his sublime best once again with a sensational hat-trick at Stamford Bridge to put Madrid on the verge of reaching the Champions League semi-finals.

It followed on from his three goals in that remarkable comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16 and it would not be unreasonable to expect Benzema to hit another hat-trick on Tuesday when Thomas Tuchel's reigning European champions visit the Santiago Bernabeu, such is the France international's prolific form.

"To say that we are dependent on Benzema is the truth, there is no need to hide it," said Carlo Ancelotti in Monday's news conference previewing the second leg.

"I am very happy to be dependent on Benzema."

While Benzema thrives with that dependence on his shoulders, Chelsea visit the Spanish capital without the striker they hoped would take them to the next level. It is safe to say that Romelu Lukaku's return to Stamford Bridge has not gone to plan.

 

Having rediscovered his best form over two seasons with Inter, driving the Nerazzurri to their first Serie A title in over a decade, Lukaku has come closer to resembling the much-maligned version of himself that struggled at Manchester United.

Lukaku will be absent through injury for what is his team's biggest game of the season, a rather fitting summary of how his second spell at Chelsea has played out so far.

All going wrong for Rom

It seemed the perfect match. Lukaku was fantastic for Inter, providing not only goals but also adding creativity to his game as he formed a supreme partnership with Lautaro Martinez.

Lukaku directly contributed to 35 goals in Serie A alone last season, converting 25 per cent of his 96 shots and creating 52 chances for team-mates, with 10 of those being big chances - defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would reasonably be expected to score.

The Belgian averaged a goal every 120 minutes and converted 20 of the 39 big chances that came his way, as Antonio Conte helped get Lukaku back to his best.

 

But matters could hardly be more different at Chelsea.

Lukaku has hinted that Tuchel's style does not suit his preferred way of playing, though his ability to drop deep and link the play at Inter seemed to have put the 28-year-old in good stead to do the same with the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic in west London.

The drop-off has been significant – just 12 Premier League starts, five goals and zero assists, while he has created only 16 opportunities and converted 17.2 per cent of his 29 shots, just 11 of which have been on target.

Lukaku's 12 goals in all competitions do slightly exceed his expected goals (xG) of 11.8, showing he is at least scoring at a rate that reflects the quality of chances that have come his way, though he headed wide from Chelsea's best opportunity of the first leg (0.29 xG).

 

Chelsea won the Champions League without a recognised number nine, given Tammy Abraham's failure to cement a place under Tuchel and Werner's hit-and-miss form, which has continued into this campaign.

Indeed, Havertz netted the winner in Porto against Manchester City last May and in recent weeks has been the player Tuchel has utilised to lead Chelsea's line, even with Lukaku fit. It was the Germany forward who scored for the Blues against Madrid last week and he seems set to continue up front.

All going right for Benzema

In contrast, Benzema is at the very top of his game. His hat-trick at the Bridge took him to 37 goals for the season. That tally far exceeds his xG (28.3), illustrating just how excellent his finishing has been.

That supreme ability was on show in all its glory in the first leg. His opener was a quite wonderful header that he somehow kept down and floated beyond Edouard Mendy - Opta's xG model suggests there was just an eight per cent chance of that opportunity resulting in a goal.

Benzema's second, another header under three minutes later, was equally impressive, while his third came as a result of his aggression in the press, forcing a mistake that gave him a simple finish into an empty net.

Similar to Lukaku in Serie A last season, Benzema is converting roughly a quarter of his attempts across all competitions, and he has already crafted 66 chances for others and contributed 13 assists. 

Of strikers in Europe's top five leagues, only Robert Lewandowski has scored more goals than the Frenchman, who has as many assists as Lionel Messi and scores every 84 minutes.

 

Benzema is the heartbeat of a Madrid side pushing for a double, crucial to everything Los Blancos do in attack, dropping into midfield to aid the build-up as well as being in the right place to finish chances.

Lukaku, meanwhile, is on the periphery at Chelsea and though the £97.5million (€115m) outlay may yet prove worthwhile, he is not going to be able to stand up and be counted when his side might just need him the most.

That, perhaps, is a sign it was simply never meant to be for Lukaku at Chelsea after all.

The Champions League quarter-final second legs are here, and the competition's two most recent winners must overcome first-leg deficits to reach the final four on Tuesday.

Defending champions Chelsea were downed by a stunning Karim Benzema hat-trick at home to Real Madrid, who are bidding to be crowned European champions for a 14th time.

Bayern Munich, meanwhile, suffered a shock reverse at Unai Emery's Villarreal, who will surely require a remarkable defensive performance to keep the free-scoring Bundesliga leaders at bay in Bavaria.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the data from Tuesday's crucial European ties. 

Real Madrid v Chelsea: Benzema brilliance puts hosts in driving seat

Benzema's Stamford Bridge hat-trick has put Los Blancos on the brink of a semi-final spot, and he will be looking to continue his incredible European campaign when Chelsea try to overcome a 3-1 deficit in Spain.

After hitting consecutive European trebles, Benzema's tally of 11 goals is a new record for the most strikes by a French player in a single edition of the competition, and matches his record across the last two editions combined (he scored six goals in 2020-21 and five in 2019-20).

The 34-year-old's understanding with Vinicius Junior caused Chelsea all sorts of problems in London, and the duo have now assisted each other a combined five times in the Champions League this term (Vinicius providing four assists, Benzema one), the most of any two team-mates in the competition.

Carlo Ancelotti will qualify for the semi-finals for a record eighth time if Madrid can maintain their advantage against his former employers, equalling Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.

Chelsea, meanwhile, are making their first trip to the Santiago Bernabeu in European competition, and must become the first English side to win a Champions League game there by more than one goal to have any chance of progressing.

Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy's costly mistake at Stamford Bridge has left the Blues on the brink of an exit, with his dire pass to Benzema representing his first error leading directly to a goal in 20 appearances in the competition.

Chelsea may be encouraged by the fact they have not lost both legs of a Champions League tie since going down to Bayern Munich in 2019-20's last 16, and have won three and drawn two of their last six meetings with Los Blancos.

However, with Madrid progressing from nine of their previous 10 ties after winning an away first leg (the exception being a 5-3 aggregate loss to Ajax in 2019), Chelsea look unlikely to revive their title defence.

 

Bayern Munich v Villarreal: Emery eyes landmark success against Bavarian giants

Elsewhere, Bayern Munich are looking to avoid consecutive last-eight eliminations when they host Villarreal, with Arnaut Danjuma giving Unai Emery's men a precious 1-0 first-leg lead.

Danjuma has six Champions League goals this term, with only Robert Lewandowski (12), Benzema (11), and Mohamed Salah (eight) managing more, and could prove the visitors' best outlet on the counter-attack.

Indeed, Villarreal will certainly require a resolute defensive performance in Munich, having conceded 22 shots in their surprising home triumph.

However, Julian Nagelsmann's side were uncharacteristically wasteful in Spain, and their four shots on target last Wednesday marked the lowest such tally managed by a team to attempt over 20 shots in the competition this season.

 

Bayern unquestionably have what it takes to turn the contest around, however, and haven't gone consecutive Champions League games without scoring since a 5-0 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in 2013-14's semi-final tie.

Lewandowski will carry the burden of rescuing the Bavarian giants, having already scored two European hat-tricks in Munich this season (against Benfica and RB Salzburg). Only Cristiano Ronaldo (for Real Madrid in 2015-16) has ever managed three trebles in one Champions League campaign.

If the Yellow Submarine can pull off a remarkable success at the Allianz Arena, Emery will progress beyond the competition's quarter-finals for the first time in his career.

But the omens do not make for great reading for the Spaniard. The only previous time a side of his won an opening leg in the competition's knockout stages (Paris Saint-Germain's 4-0 win over Barcelona in 2017), they became the first team to be eliminated after winning a first leg by four goals, falling to an incredible 6-1 away loss. 

Whatever you think about the sporting merit of the introduction of the Play-In tournament to last year's NBA season, there is no doubt it made things more interesting for the neutral.

The Golden State Warriors were surprisingly eliminated after defeats to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies, while the Indiana Pacers were denied a playoff place by the Washington Wizards in 2021.

The format has returned for this season, and again, it promises to add all sorts of further intrigue to the playoff picture.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the mini tournament will take place from April 12-16. The teams that finished seventh and eighth play one another to determine the seventh playoff seed from their respective conference, while the loser of that game gets a chance to secure the eighth seed when they host the winner of a game between the ninth and 10th seeds.

Therefore, the teams that finish seventh or eighth only need to win one game to advance to the playoffs, while those in ninth and 10th must win two.

Whoever clinches the seventh seed in the east will face the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, while the eighth seed will take on the Miami Heat. In the west, the seventh seed will go up against the Memphis Grizzlies, and the eighth seed will be paired with the Phoenix Suns.

With the regular season over after Sunday's final games, Stats Perform takes a look at the eight teams with one last chance to secure their place in the 2022 NBA playoffs.

Eastern Conference

Tuesday, April 12 – Brooklyn Nets (7th) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (8th) 

It has felt like a season of distractions in Brooklyn this season, be it James Harden's struggles, Kevin Durant's fitness or Kyrie Irving's vaccination status, and now the debut of Ben Simmons, which it seems may come in the playoffs, if they make it that is.

The Nets will be favourites, having won 12 of their last 17 and with Durant and Irving both in excellent form. KD is averaging 29.9 points per game (PPG), while Irving sits at 27.4.

The Cavaliers do not arrive in great form, losing eight of their last 11 games. Though they were victorious in their last outing against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, the Bucks rested their starters, and Jrue Holiday only started to earn a foul and trigger a financial clause in his contract.

Darius Garland will be key if Cleveland are to stand a chance at Barclays Center, with the 22-year-old averaging 21.7 PPG.

Brooklyn have won three of their four meetings this season, including a 118-107 win at Barclays on Friday.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 13 – Atlanta Hawks (9th) vs Charlotte Hornets (10th)

All eyes will be on Trae Young as the 23-year-old looks to drag the Hawks into the playoffs, though it will take two big performances, even by his high standards.

Young averages 28.4 PPG this season, the joint-fifth highest in the league along with Luka Doncic, as well as 9.7 assists per game.

Atlanta have won seven of their last nine, including a 130-114 success at the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

For Charlotte, they will look to trio Miles Bridges, LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier for inspiration, and have had a good end to the season themselves, winning 11 of their last 15.

They also beat the Hawks last month 116-106 in Charlotte, though each team has won two apiece of their four meetings through the campaign.

Western Conference:

Tuesday, April 12 – Minnesota Timberwolves (7th) vs Los Angeles Clippers (8th)

Despite the Timberwolves going into this one with home advantage, you would have to make the Clippers the favourites based on form and previous meetings.

Minnesota have lost six of their last 10, while the visitors arrive having won five of their last six.

The form of Karl-Anthony Towns, who is averaging 24.6 PPG this season, will be key for the hosts, as will that of Anthony Edwards, who scored a career-high 49 points in the recent win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Unsurprisingly, the Clippers have been a different prospect since the return of Paul George at the end of March, having lost eight of their previous 10 games before the 31-year-old came back, and winning six of seven since, albeit George only played in five of those games.

The Clippers have won three of their four meetings in the regular season, but the Timberwolves did win their last encounter in January. It should be noted that the team from Los Angeles won both games in Minnesota, though.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 13 – New Orleans Pelicans (9th) vs San Antonio Spurs (10th)

No team shows just how much the introduction of the Play-In tournament keeps seasons alive for a longer period than the Pelicans, who somehow have a shot at the postseason despite a disastrous start to their campaign.

Having lost 12 of their first 13 games, they are just two wins away from booking their place in the playoffs, and come into this one having won five of their last eight. 

Coach Willie Green will need CJ McCollum in top form, with the 30-year-old impressing since arriving from Portland earlier in the season, averaging 24.3 PPG since becoming a Pelican.

San Antonio recently won seven of eight games, but a slight wobble from the Spurs in the last few, losing their last three, may have thrown them off course at precisely the wrong time.

Like the Clippers, the Spurs could still be favourites despite being the away side, as they have won three of the four meetings between the two teams this season, including the most recent one in late March (107-103 in New Orleans).

There will be plenty to play for when the Boston Celtics arrive at Fiserv Forum to take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.

Heading into the game, the Celtics (50-30) occupy the Eastern Conference two seed, while the Bucks (49-30) are a half-game back in third, holding the tie-breaker over the Philadelphia 76ers (49-30) in fourth.

Since the All-Star break, no team has a better winning percentage than the Celtics (16-4), while Milwaukee are fifth over that period (13-6); but while the reigning champion Bucks find their feet, Boston have gone to a new level.

For the season, the Celtics are number one in defensive efficiency, as new head coach Ime Udoka's switching system has maximised the physical gifts of defensive stalwarts Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III.

At this point, Boston's defense is a given, but post-All-Star break, they have also had the number one offense in the league, and are putting a gap on the rest of the field. Over that time period, the closest team to Boston's 122.2 points per 100 possessions have been the Minnesota Timberwolves, 2.7 points per 100 possessions behind at 119.5.

For context, that 2.7-point gap is greater than the 2.6-point margin between the Timberwolves and the 11th-placed 76ers (116.9) for the same period, and Boston's 12.9 net-rating since All-Star weekend is a number generally reserved for some of the greatest regular season teams in league history.

However, the team right behind the Timberwolves on the list, in third place, are the Bucks, and it is no hot streak as they boast the fifth-best offensive efficiency over the whole year.

These teams are both serious contenders to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – but they go about it in very different ways.

Primarily, that has a lot to do with the Celtics' switching defensive system.

The Celtics 'switch' screens – meaning instead of fighting over or under the screening player to recover back to your assignment, the player guarding the screener takes on the assignment of guarding the ball-handler, while the ball-handler's defender takes responsibility for the screener and his next movements.

The Bucks, on the other hand, play 'drop coverage', which means their on-ball defender tries to force the ball-handler on a predictable path around the screen, while the screener's defender peels off into a help position, with the aim of forcing the ball-handler to pull up for a mid-range shot with their defender contesting from behind.

Both systems are formed on sound logic. In switching schemes, the idea is to eliminate as much dribble penetration as possible by keeping the ball-handler in front on the perimeter, while trusting the smaller guard to be able to deny the screener an easy catch in the paint.

Drop coverage, on the other hand, forces teams to consistently attempt mid-range jump shots, which are statistically the least valuable shot in the game.

In theory, Boston's switching defense should perform well against Giannis Antetokounmpo, as the Bucks' two-time MVP thrives at attacking the rim, while Milwaukee should be able to bait Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown into mid-range jump shots that can go cold for extended stretches.

But the numbers show it may not be that simple.

Boston allow the second-fewest amount of points in the paint per game, and while Antetokounmpo lives at the rim, the Bucks actually come in last in the league with their percentage of points scored in the paint.

While that may indicate that the Celtics' defense is playing right into how the Bucks like to play, Boston also allow the second-lowest three-point percentage in the league.

It poses an interesting question about Boston – is their defense truly so good that teams can not score inside the key or from long range, or is their defense the top-ranked in the league because their opponents just keep missing threes?

Opposing three-point percentage can be a messy stat due to general shooting luck, and Boston allow opponents to get up a league-average amount of attempts, so if they are due for some regression to the mean, it means they are due to be on the wrong end of some hot shooting nights.

Boston's defense also allows the lowest amount of opposition assists per game, but Milwaukee are third-last in assist percentage, so how much are the Bucks actually trying to do the things the Celtics are built to stop?

Milwaukee play at the fifth-highest pace in the league, while Boston play at the fifth-lowest – all signs point to the fact that something has to give, and whoever can play the game at their tempo may just hold the keys.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart is not the best scorer on the Celtics, or the best ball-handler, but he excels in the areas that have made this Boston team great during the second half of this season.

He is the bookmakers' favourite to win Defensive Player of the Year due to his ability to switch off of point guards and bang bodies down low against the bigs, unlocking the true upside of a switching system as post players regularly fail to take advantage of their significant height advantage.

The Bucks are a big team, so for the Celtics defense to rise to the occasion once again against a true contender, Smart will need to hang with Jrue Holiday on the perimeter, as well as keep Antetokounmpo out of the lane.

 

Milwaukee Bucks – Brook Lopez

Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee's best and most valuable player. However, the centrepiece of the Bucks' drop coverage is Brook Lopez.

Lopez will be the biggest player, with the longest arms, for either team, and Milwaukee's entire defensive scheme will revolve around forcing players to take and make shots over his outstretched arms.

He also has the size, and the underrated post game, to make life miserable for whichever undersized guard gets caught in screening actions and needs to switch onto the seven-footer.

Smart will be able to hold up if he establishes good early position, but if the Bucks can get Derrick White or Payton Pritchard involved in the switch, it could be a long night inside for Boston's defense.

 

KEY BATTLES – Who can get the most 'easy' points?

In a game that will likely resemble a playoff atmosphere, the winning team may simply be the side who make life easiest on themselves.

Fast-break points and free throws limit the amount of possessions a team needs to grind their way through a set half-court defense, and provide the easiest avenues to uncontested points.

Milwaukee rank as the eighth-best team at getting to the free-throw line, and fourth-best at denying their opposition free throws, while Boston are 21st at getting to the line.

As mentioned, Boston like to play at a methodical pace, ranking 20th in fast-break points, while Milwaukee have the fifth-best transition defense in the league.

 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

These two sides have met three times this season – all before the All-Star break.

Boston won the first two home fixtures – including an overtime win where Dennis Schroeder scored a game-high 38 points, before being traded to the Houston Rockets – while Milwaukee won the last meeting, and the only one at Fiserv Forum, 117-113.

After two years of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, things are back to normal at Augusta National for this year's much-anticipated Masters – though choosing a winner is as tough as ever.

Dustin Johnson won the delayed 2020 event with a record score after it was pushed back by seven months from its usual slot, while Hideki Matsuyama made history of his own last year by becoming the first Japanese male to win a major.

Matsuyama's triumph was a memorable one, albeit with only a limited number of patrons present in Georgia due to social distancing measures being in place, though the build-up to his title defence has been far from ideal as he continues to battle a back injury.

Golf's elite can look forward to the return of spectators for the 86th edition of the most prestigious tournament of them all – and if excitement was not already at fever pitch, Augusta could also see the return of Tiger Woods, who has not played on the PGA Tour since November 2020 after being involved in a car accident.

But exactly who is best placed to claim the green jacket in the first major of the year? The expert team at Stats Perform have a go at answering that question ahead of the tee off on Thursday.

RAHM TO ADD TO US OPEN SUCCESS – Daniel Lewis

Despite being usurped by Scottie Scheffler at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking after an admittedly slow start to the year, Jon Rahm remains the man to beat heading into the Masters. The 27-year-old has posted top-four finishes in each major, while also finishing inside the top 10 in each of his last five participations. Following his success at the US Open at Torrey Pines 10 months ago, this is Rahm's time to shine at Augusta. 

SMITH TO GO ONE BETTER THAN 2020 – Patric Ridge

Less than a month on from his triumph at the Players' Championship, world number six Cameron Smith seems well placed to go on and seal a maiden major triumph. The Australian finished T2 at Augusta in 2020, albeit five strokes back from Johnson. But he comes into this tournament ranked higher than ever before in his career, and the 28-year-old has won two of the five events he has featured in this year. A T10 placing in last year's Masters will have been a disappointment, but Smith has the tools, and the form, to challenge this time around.

GOOD WILL HUNTING FOR GREEN JACKET – Peter Hanson

A year ago, you could be forgiven for not knowing a lot about Will Zalatoris. But the then 24-year-old finished just one stroke shy of eventual winner Matsuyama, and his clean ball striking will be a big advantage on a typically unforgiving Augusta course. Voted PGA Tour Rookie of the Year for 2021, Zalatoris has three top-10 finishes in 2022, including losing a play-off to Luke List at the Farmers Insurance Open. And how about this if you want more persuading: eight of the past 10 Masters champions were at 1.7 or better strokes gained tee to green in the three months leading into the Masters. Zalatoris is one of eight players who meet that criteria heading into the 2022 instalment.

DON'T BE A-DOUBTING THOMAS, BACK JUSTIN – John Skilbeck

Until his challenged fizzled out over the weekend last year, when he went from only three shots back to finish tied for 21st place, Justin Thomas was following a trajectory that seemed sure to lead to Masters glory. His record showed year-on-year progress, going from a tie for 39th in 2016, to a tie for 22nd a year later, then tied 17th in 2017, tied 12th in 2019, and fourth outright in 2020. Amid this, he won the 2017 US PGA Championship, and Thomas is too good a player to sit too long on just one major. He has the second-lowest scoring average this season on the PGA Tour, has three top-10 finishes in the past two months, and Augusta practice rounds with his great friend Tiger Woods can hardly have hindered his cause.

TIGER... JUST IMAGINE! – Russell Greaves

Lazarus was a one-trick pony, but if Woods were to win the Masters again it would constitute the second bona fide sporting miracle of his remarkable career. Woods' triumph in 2019 – his fifth at Augusta National – was his 15th major success, coming 11 years after his previous one. He became only the third golfer over 40 to win a major on US soil, joining Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. Now 46 and absent from competitive action since 2020 following his car accident, a win here would surpass anything Woods has ever achieved. He needs one more to equal Jack Nicklaus' six Masters titles, but would be putting a proud record on the line if he does choose to compete, as Woods has made the cut in each of his 21 appearances at this event.

The draw is out, and the World Cup suddenly feels a lot closer, with the elite preparing to go for glory at Qatar 2022.

A likely last hurrah on the World Cup stage awaits superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while new names will break through and rising talent will be put to the test.

Eight nations have been champions of the tournament that was first staged in 1930, and it will be France looking to defend the title this time.

Many of us pride ourselves on remembering World Cup trivia from past tournaments, but just how good is your knowledge?

These Opta-assisted 20 questions should sort the group-stage flops from the champions of World Cup quizzing. The answers are below, but don't cheat!

The first...

1. Name the English boss who at Qatar 2022 will become the first to coach a team at both the men's and women's World Cups?

2. Gregg Berhalter will become the first man to serve as player and manager of the USA at the World Cup. He appeared at the 2002 tournament and is now boss of the American side. To which present-day Premier League club did Berhalter then belong, becoming their first World Cup player?

3. Who became the first player to score a Golden Goal winner at the World Cup when he netted for France against Paraguay in a 1998 last-16 clash?

4. In the 2018 showdown between France and Croatia, who became the first player in World Cup final history to score for both teams?

5. Qatar will attempt to become the first nation from the AFC confederation to win their first World Cup finals match. Ten of the previous 11 have lost (including Israel in 1970), but who were the team who in 1982 managed a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia?

 

The last...

6. There have been 52 hat-tricks in the tournament's history, but who was the last player to score a treble in the knockout stages of the World Cup?

7. A goalkeeper won his 159th and final international cap at the 2018 finals, when he became the oldest player to appear at the World Cup, at the age of 45 years and 161 days. He saved a penalty in a 2-1 defeat for his team against Saudi Arabia. Who was that goalkeeper and what team did he play for?

8. Ghana reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 and Senegal did so at the 2002 finals. But who were the first team from Africa to make it to the last eight, doing so at the 1990 finals in Italy?

9. Brazil last lost a group game at the World Cup in 1998, since when they have won 12 and drawn three games at the first-round stage. Which team beat them in that 1998 tournament?

10. Cameroon have lost each of their past seven games at the World Cup (between 2002 and 2014). Only one team have ever lost more games in a row in the competition's history – nine between 1930 and 1958. Who were that team?

The most...

11. Just Fontaine scored his 13 World Cup goals in just six games for France. The competition's all-time record scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose, who netted 16 times for his country in how many appearances: 22, 23 or 24?

12. Who will become the only team to have appeared at all 22 editions of the World Cup when they take part in Qatar 2022?

13. Iran will be making their sixth appearance at the World Cup and have never gone beyond the group stage. Which country has made the most appearances (eight) without making it past the first round?

14. Which forward had the most goal involvements of all players in European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, scoring 12 and assisting six times in 10 games?

15. Since 1966, only three players have completed more than 12 dribbles in a single World Cup game, with Brazil's Jairzinho achieving 13 against Paraguay in 1970 and Paul Gascoigne matching that total for England against Cameroon in 1990. Who managed the most – 15 in a game against Italy at the 1994 tournament?

 

The GOATs...

16. Which superstar, who scored eight times and provided eight assists in 21 World Cup games, also holds the record for the most handball decisions given against a player at the tournament (seven) since records began?

17. Who holds the record for the most minutes played in World Cup history, having featured in 2,216 minutes of finals action?

18. Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo is one of only four players to score in four different World Cup tournaments. He will attempt to go one better this year, but Ronaldo currently sits alongside Pele, Klose and which other player?

19. Between them, Ronaldo (seven) and Lionel Messi (six) have managed 13 World Cup goals. How many of those goals came in the knockout rounds?

20. Ronaldo is one of just two European players to have either scored and/or assisted a goal in each of the last five major international tournaments (World Cup/European Championship). Who is the other player to have managed the feat?

 

Answers:

1. John Herdman (Canada – he managed Canada Women at the 2015 Women's World Cup)
2. Crystal Palace
3. Laurent Blanc (France)
4. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)
5. Kuwait.
6. Tomas Skuhravy (for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica, last 16, 1990)
7. Essam El Hadary (Egypt)
8. Cameroon
9. Norway
10. Mexico
11. 24
12. Brazil
13. Scotland
14. Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
15. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
16. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
17. Paolo Maldini (Italy)
18. Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
19. Zero
20. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

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