France and Ireland face off at the Stade de France on Saturday in a contest that may well determine exactly where the Six Nations title ends up next month.

Pre-tournament favourites France kicked off their campaign with a routine victory over Italy, while a much-fancied Ireland proved far too strong for reigning champions Wales.

Both sides picked up bonus points to lead the way at the top, setting up a mouth-watering encounter in the French capital as Ireland aim to stretch their nine-match winning run.

Wales have a chance to respond to last week's disappointment when they host a Scotland side who should be full of confidence following their Calcutta Cup win over England last time out.

The final match of the weekend takes place in Rome as perennial whipping boys Italy take on England with the aim of ending their long-running losing streak in the competition.

Ahead of the second round of fixtures, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.

WALES v SCOTLAND

FORM

Wales have lost just two of their 11 home matches against Scotland in the Six Nations, though one of those losses did come in the last such meeting two years ago at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli.

The last three encounters between the sides in the competition have been decided by a margin of seven points or fewer. Indeed, four of the last six clashes have seen the side losing at half-time come back to win the match.

Scotland are on their longest away winning streak in the championship, having won four on the spin – not since between 1925 and 1927 have they won five in a row on their travels. However, Wales have won nine of their last 11 Six Nations home matches.

ONES TO WATCH

Taine Basham was a rare shining light for Wales in their heavy loss to Ireland, the tournament debutant crossing over late on to prevent his side from losing to nil on a day to forget in Dublin. Basham also made 22 tackles, which is the most of any player on the opening weekend, missing none in the process.

A number of Scotland players impressed in the late win over England, not least Darcy Graham. The diminutive wing set up Ben White for the opening try, won the crucial turnover in injury time and beat six defenders – the most of any player in round one.

 


FRANCE v IRELAND

FORM

France and Ireland have played each other 100 times previously, with France victorious on 58 occasions, Ireland prevailing 35 times and seven games drawn. In the Six Nations, Les Blues edge the win record 11 to nine from their 22 previous encounters, the other two matches finishing level.

Ireland have lost their last two meetings with France in the competition, having been beaten in just one of the previous eight. Ireland's win rate of 41 per cent against Les Blues in the Six Nations is their lowest against any side.

After recovering to see off Italy last week, France are aiming to win their opening two Six Nations games for the third year in a row, this after managing it just twice in their previous eight campaigns.


ONES TO WATCH

France head coach Fabien Galthie, back involved after missing the Italy match with coronavirus, has put his faith in youth by handing Yoram Moefana his first Six Nations start. The 21-year-old impressed in his cameo role against Italy by playing a part in his side's last two tries.

Ireland will have to make do without injured skipper Johnny Sexton, who passed the 500-point mark in the Six Nations last week, so all eyes will be on Joey Carbery – the only change from the Wales game – at fly-half. The Munster number 10 is tasked with pulling the strings on his first tournament start.

 

ITALY v ENGLAND

FORM

England are the only side Italy have never managed to beat in the Six Nations, losing all 22 of their previous showdowns. England's 80-23 win in this fixture 21 years ago remains the most points scored and biggest winning margin in any fixture in the competition's history.

Italy have lost their last 33 matches in the competition – the longest losing streak by any team in the Five or Six Nations – in an unwanted run that stretches back to a win over Scotland in 2015.

Eddie Jones' visitors have lost their last two Six Nations matches, but only once over the last 15 editions have they lost three in a row, while not since 2005 have they lost their opening two games to a campaign.


ONES TO WATCH

Italy's Michele Lamaro (21 tackles) was one of just three players to make 20 or more tackles during the opening weekend, along with Basham (22) and Nick Tompkins (21). However, he also missed four tackles, which was the joint-most of any player, level with Dan Biggar.

Ben Youngs, who made the most kicks in play of any player in round one (17), is one of six players to make way for England. Should the experienced scrum-half make it off the bench, he will become England's joint-most capped player of all time alongside Jason Leonard with 114.

It took a 74th-minute goal from Marco Asensio for Real Madrid to see off Granada on Sunday, as Carlo Ancelotti's side capitalised on Sevilla's slip-up against Osasuna.

A 0-0 draw in Pamplona meant Madrid's victory saw them move six points clear of their nearest rivals in the title race. Both Los Blancos and Sevilla have played 23 games.

Ancelotti's team remain favourites to clinch the crown, though last week's defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey, and a previous 2-2 draw at home to Elche, showed they are far from infallible.

The former Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain boss made six changes for the Granada match (the most for Madrid from one game to another this season), which came hot on the heels of the defeat to Athletic, but by and large he has chosen to rely on a core group of players so far this term. 

However, with the return of the Champions League this month and LaLiga matches set to come thick and fast between now and May, might fatigue catch up with Madrid as the run-in approaches? 

The key performers

In total, 13 players have started 10 or more of Madrid's league matches. Of the teams placed second to fifth in LaLiga, Atletico Madrid (15) and Real Betis (14) have had more players start at least 10 games, while Barcelona and Sevilla have both used fewer (11) from the off.

Thibaut Courtois, unsurprisingly, has played in every top-flight game. He has kept eight clean sheets (five goalkeepers in LaLiga have kept more) and recorded a save percentage of 74.4 – among goalkeepers with at least 16 saves, only two have a better record than the Belgian.

 

He has played 2,070 minutes, conceding 20 times from 78 shots on target faced, while his expected goals on target (xGOT) conceded figure of 20.9 suggests he has not overly exceeded expectations when it comes to shot-stopping. Essentially, Courtois has conceded as many goals as would be expected given the quality of efforts he has faced.

Eder Militao has played (and started) 22 times, with David Alaba featuring on 21 occasions (also all starts). The defenders have accumulated 3,863 minutes between them in the league, and have contributed to the attack too, with seven direct goal involvements combined.

Karim Benzema has scored 17 goals from his 21 LaLiga appearances, while Vinicius Junior has been a real success story of Ancelotti's second spell so far. The Brazil winger has directly contributed to 17 goals in 1,694 minutes, averaging a goal or an assist every 99 minutes.

Fringe players to step up?

Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Ferland Mendy, Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Federico Valverde and Dani Carvajal have also reached double figures for league starts, while back-up options Rodrygo, Nacho Fernandez, Eden Hazard, Eduardo Camavinga, Isco and Luka Jovic have at least featured in a minimum of 10 games.

Hazard's time at Madrid has been plagued by injuries, but when called upon he has proved useful, creating 3.3 chances per 90 minutes played, which ranks highest out of the players to have played at least 25 minutes.

 

Isco's troubles from last season have continued but the playmaker still has guile and craft, with 2.4 chances created per 90 minutes suggesting he too can make an impact in the run-in. Gareth Bale, though, has made only three appearances in LaLiga, scoring just once, and it does not seem like he will be a man Ancelotti calls on too often even when fit.

With Vinicius suspended on Sunday, Ancelotti handed Rodrygo a chance to shine on the left flank. The youngster had three shots – second only to Asensio (eight) – but crafted just one goalscoring opportunity. Indeed, across his 18 LaLiga games this season, he is yet to score and has provided a solitary assist.

Jovic, meanwhile, has never hit the heights he previously did at Eintracht Frankfurt, though the Serbia forward does of course play second-fiddle to the evergreen Benzema. He has scored just one league goal from 12 substitute appearances this term.

Only Benzema and Vinicius have reached double figures for LaLiga goals so far in 2021-22, while the same pair are also the only Madrid players with five or more assists. Given the lack of end-product from his back-up brigade, it is no surprise Ancelotti wants to stick with the tried and tested.

But, has there been any drop-off?

Let's take a look at Madrid's most-used attackers in LaLiga this term, starting with Benzema.

The 34-year-old has kept scoring consistently through the season. However, despite being Madrid's top assister (seven), all of those came before the end of September.

There's an argument that his game time should have been managed better as well. Prior to the start of November, he completed the full 90 minutes of eight of Madrid's 10 league games – he clocked up 80 and 88 minutes in the other two.

Since that period, although he has technically only played a full league game four times, on two other occasions he played 89 minutes – it's worth noting that he was apparently suffering with his current muscular injury as far back as December and now appears a doubt for their upcoming Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain.

 

Vinicius, on the other hand, has been a consistent creator of chances, if not always providing assists. His last appearance, against Elche, saw him have 97 touches (his highest tally this season), craft four opportunities (his second-best effort of 2021-22) and engage in 25 duels, another season-high. He has registered over 1.0 xG twice in his last six games and against Elche attempted 13 dribbles, one shy of his season-best from August, showing his attacking output is not suffering as the season goes on.

As a team, Madrid have made seven, 12 and eight high turnovers across their last three league games respectively, up from a slight drop-off (five and three) in their previous two outings. Indeed, that figure of 12, achieved against Elche, is their highest of the campaign, suggesting any fatigue is not impacting Madrid's ability to press just yet.

If anything, Madrid are pressing more efficiently as the season has gone on. Their passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA – a metric that can quantify the extent and aggression of high presses) has dropped from an average of 19.6 in a six-game span between November 6 and December 12, to a median of 11.6 across the six fixtures since.

This is reflected by their high turnover total improving from 31 to 46. Madrid rank joint-10th in LaLiga for high turnovers (147), but no team has had more shots from such situations (37) and only two teams (Getafe and Celta Vigo, both on six) have scored more goals than Los Blancos (four) from these scenarios.

Ancelotti is not renowned for employing a high press, but when his team do hunt the ball in their opponent's territory, they continue to be highly efficient, a scary thought for their rivals.

Even if Madrid have relied on a select group of players more than others, they are not showing many signs of dropping off the pace.

 

Injuries, playing games on back-to-back nights and COVID protocols are part of the landscape of the NBA all teams are forced to navigate through in today’s world.

The Toronto Raptors were dealt significant blows to their roster over the season’s first two months, but now close to full strength, they’re climbing the Eastern Conference standings and will likely be looking to make a move before Thursday’s trade deadline.

Through the end of November, only four teams used more starting lineups than Toronto’s eight, as Nick Nurse was forced to constantly shuffle his rotation. The low point came Boxing Day, when the Raptors had 10 players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols and found out just hours before their scheduled tip-off against the Cleveland Cavaliers they would in fact play. With a patchwork eight-player roster featuring four hardship signees, they were promptly obliterated by 45 points.

Undermanned again two nights later, they suffered another defeat at hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. But as the regulars returned to the Raptors’ roster, the wins have been piling up.

With Monday’s 116-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets, Toronto extended their winning streak to six games and improved to 15-6 since New Year’s Eve – only the 76ers have a better record at 13-5 among East clubs. This surge has vaulted the Raptors into sixth place in the conference after sitting in 11th on December 30.

Much of the recent success is because Nurse can count on writing in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Gart Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes into his starting lineup.

The Raptors are 11-4 when starting VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, Trent and Barnes, averaging 114.3 points while shooting 45.9 per cent and making an average of 13.9 3-pointers in those games. When those five don’t start together, Toronto is 18-19, averaging 106 points on 43.4 per cent shooting with an average of 11.9 made 3s per game.

It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Toronto’s success is tied to the starting combination of VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, Trent and Barnes given how heavily the Raptors rely on their starting five.

Toronto’s starters account for 79.2 per cent of their scoring – the largest percentage in the NBA – with an average of 85.8 points per game – also a league best. The Raptors’ bench, meanwhile, is averaging a mere 22.6 points – the fewest by any group of reserves since the 2012-13 Portland Trail Blazers bench averaged 18.5 points. The difference of 63.2 points between Toronto’s starting five and reserves is the largest by a team in a season since 2004-05, when the Phoenix Suns had a difference of 73.2 points (91.8 starting average, 18.6 bench average).

Over the last few seasons, Nurse regularly asked VanVleet and Siakam to play serious minutes, but with a lack of a bench, Anunoby, Barnes and Trent are also spending more time on the court.

VanVleet averages a league-leading 38.6 minutes, followed by Siakam at 37.9 and Anunoby at 37.2. No team has ever had players finish a season 1-2-3 in minutes played per game since minutes began being tracked in 1951-52.

Barnes then checks in at No. 6 in the NBA with an average of 36.1 minutes. That’s right, four of the top six players in average minutes all play for the Raptors. Trent is no slouch, either, averaging 34.8 minutes – good for 16th in the NBA.

With depth being a considerable issue, Goran Dragic is likely to be shipped out. Acquired as part of the sign-and-trade that sent Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat, Dragic has appeared in just five games for the Raptors – and none since November 13 – as he’s been away from the team due to a personal issue. A handful of teams have reportedly shown interest in Dragic, and the Raptors would love to move the veteran point guard so they could shed his hefty salary and fill his roster spot with someone who will actually play.

Following the offseason departure of Lowry, the 27-year-old VanVleet has emerged as the team leader, averaging career highs in points (21.6), assists (7.1) rebounds (4.7) and made 3s (3.9). In 19 games since clearing the league’s health and safety protocols, the recently named first-time All-Star leads the NBA with 90 made 3-pointers since New Year’s Eve.

VanVleet, who is slated to participate in the 3-point contest during All-Star weekend, has been putting up eye-popping numbers over his last 21 games, averaging 24.3 points, 8 assists and 4.9 3-pointers. Only two other players have ever averaged 24+ points, 8+ assists and 4.5+ 3-pointers over a 21-game span in a single season and that’s James Harden and Damian Lillard.

During this incredible run, VanVleet has regularly been feeding Siakam, who has found his shooting touch on jumpers close to the basket.

Since December 14, VanVleet’s 46 assists to Siakam are tied for sixth most from one player to a teammate. His assists to Siakam are nearly double those of his next-closest teammate with 28 going to Anunoby, and 26 going to each Barnes and Trent.

Siakam is averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and 5.5 assists during Toronto’s winning streak – and no other Raptor has ever averaged those numbers over a six-game span in a single season. He had 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists Monday – the second time he’s reached those numbers in a game in his career. There have been only four other instances a Toronto player reached those numbers in a game in franchise history.

In 23 games since December 14, Siakam is averaging 23.3 points after averaging 18.8 points in his first 16 games, and part of the reason for that scoring boost stems from his 55.6 per cent shooting on jump shots attempted within 8 feet of the rim – fourth-highest rate in the league among those with at least 35 attempts. Prior to this stretch, he was shooting just 38.5 per cent on jump shots up to 8 feet from the hoop.

Trent, meanwhile, is shooting 56.7 per cent from the baseline – eighth in the NBA among those with at least 20 attempts – but it's the perimeter where he's suddenly gotten hot.

Since returning from a six-game absence with an injured left ankle, Trent is shooting 48 per cent from 3-point range – the best mark in the league among the 49 players with at least 50 3-point attempts since January 21. Most impressive about this stretch is he’s also attempted more 3-pointers than anyone else since January 21 with 100. So, in these last 10 contests he’s averaging 14.4 points off 3-pointers after previously averaging 8.1 points off 3-pointers while shooting 36.8 per cent from deep.

While he’s suddenly emerged as a dangerous 3-point threat, Trent has spurred Toronto’s swarming defence, which is forcing a turnover on 14.7 per cent of its opponents’ possessions – the highest rate in the NBA.

Trent's average of 1.84 steals per game is the fourth-highest rate in the league, while Anunoby ranks seventh at 1.68 per game and VanVleet is eighth at 1.66. Since steals first began being tracked in 1973-74, only one team has had at least three players finish in the top 10 in steals per game and that was the 2009-10 Golden State Warriors with Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and Stephen Jackson.

Barnes has also made an immediate impact on the defensive end. Selected fourth overall in the 2021 draft, Barnes was projected to be a disrupter on defence and he’s excelling, ranking fourth among rookies with 1.8 defensive stops per game.

His average of 2.6 offensive rebounds per game is the best among first-year players and has fuelled Toronto’s offensive attack. The Raptors’ average of 16.2 second-chance points per game trails only the Memphis Grizzlies’ average of 18.0 for the best in the league, and they’re an NBA-best 15-3 when scoring 18 or more second-chance points in a game.

With 15 points and eight rebounds on Monday, Barnes notched his fourth straight game with at least eight boards – the first Toronto rookie to accomplish that since Jonas Valanciunas in 2012-13. No Raptor first-year player has had a longer streak of consecutive games with eight or more rebounds since Jamario Moon had six in a row in 2007-08.

Barnes has been selected to participate in the 2022 Rising Stars event during All-Star weekend, along with second-year teammate Precious Achiuwa, who is averaging 7.8 points on 52.8 per cent shooting and 5.3 rebounds during Toronto’s winning streak.

The Raptors are one victory away from notching their first seven-game winning streak since the 2019-20 season, and have a couple of favourable matchups next on their schedule with games Wednesday and Thursday against a pair of last-place teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. (The schedule over the next three weeks actually looks quite advantageous, as the Raptors’ opponent winning percentage of .417 from Wednesday-March 4 is the third lowest among all teams.)

While playing on consecutive nights would seem to present greater problems for the Raptors, given how many minutes their starters play, it hasn’t been much of an issue for Nurse’s club. Toronto is 7-3 on games on zero days’ rest – tied with the Boston Celtics for the league’s second-best mark.

Toronto, though, may have a different look when it takes the court Thursday, or Wednesday for that matter, if the front office decides to make a move before the trade deadline to bolster the lineup.

October 17, 2020. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's double proved enough for Milan to claim a derby day victory over their great rivals, with Romelu Lukaku's goal not enough to inspire a comeback.

Much has changed in the intervening period between then and now.

Inter recovered from that defeat by going on to win the Serie A title for the first time since 2010. Yet coach Antonio Conte and talisman Lukaku have both departed for pastures new – London, to be precise, with Tottenham and Chelsea respectively.

Milan, meanwhile, finished second, 12 points behind their neighbours, but they have had a relatively settled period under Stefano Pioli. And on Saturday, the Rossoneri truly ignited the 2021-22 title race by ending Inter's domestic unbeaten streak at San Siro – a run that stretched to 28 matches in total, since that day in October 2020.

There was no Ibrahimovic for Pioli to call on this time, but another veteran forward stepped up in the form of Olivier Giroud, whose quickfire double did the damage.

Having been on the verge of going seven points clear, the incredible turnaround leaves Inter just one point above Milan, as the title battle between the two northern powerhouses looks set to go down to the wire.

Giroud brings the Z factor

Ibrahimovic is a big miss in any game, but in particular, a derby with title hopes resting on it.

The 40-year-old has scored eight Serie A goals in Milan Derbies (six for AC Milan, two for Inter) – only Giuseppe Meazza (12), Gunnar Nordahl (11) and Stefano Nyers (11) have scored more times in this fixture in the history of the competition.

For much of Saturday's clash – 75 minutes, in fact – the void in Milan's attack was evident, the Rossoneri having managed just one attempt on target, from Sandro Tonali in the first half.

But Giroud turned that on its head, first showing his poacher's instinct to prod in from Brahim Diaz's shot-cross, before holding off his marker and drilling in a low strike on the turn three minutes later.

Samir Handanovic should have done better to prevent Milan's winner, mind. Perhaps the Inter goalkeeper had been caught unawares, given his lack of action prior to the late red-and-black charge.

"Playing with him is something I see as a challenge, something that pushes me every day," Giroud said of Ibrahimovic in a recent interview.

"It's an opportunity to have him as my partner, to learn something more. He's an example for many strikers and when I was young I loved him, both on the pitch and for his strong character, and for the fact that he's demanding every day.  It's a healthy competition between us."

Giroud proved an old dog can still learn new tricks (from an older dog, that is) with his match-winning turn. The former Chelsea forward converted both of his two attempts, which came from two of his four touches in the penalty area, and a combined expected goals (xG) value of 0.8, as he became the first French player to score twice against Inter in a Serie A match.

All seven of Giroud's Serie A goals this season have come at San Siro, with those strikes coming only when he has started games (eight starts in total).

 

Inter's charge hits its first hurdle?

There has been a pretty seamless transition for Inter since Simone Inzaghi replaced Antonio Conte.

Edin Dzeko has come in for Lukaku, and Lautaro Martinez is still brilliant. Indeed, Inter are scoring at a similar rate to last season, netting on average every 38 minutes in the league.

Yet they more than met their match in the form of Milan, who earned a thrilling 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in November.

Inter had less possession (46 per cent) and won fewer duels (42 compared to 57), yet still created more chances (nine to seven) and had more attempts (11 to 10). They were unable to make the most of going ahead, though.

 

Ivan Perisic's goal – his 50th for the club – had the Nerazzurri in front by half-time but Inter have now failed to win three of their last four derby clashes, while Milan came from behind to beat them in Serie A for the first time since February 2004.

This result can hardly be considered as putting Inter into anything resembling a crisis. They have lost just two of their last 12 Serie A derbies and are still top, with a game in hand on their title rivals, though the manner of the defeat may take some coming back from.

Since the turn of the year, Inter have taken seven of the 12 points on offer and, in a title race with such fine margins (Napoli are only four points back in third), that has enabled the challengers to gain ground.

One positive for Inter, however, was a late red card for Theo Hernandez, who will face a suspension after lunging in recklessly on Denzel Dumfries.

Hernandez is one of Milan's best players, and his absence may just mean that, even though Inter lost the battle, they could go on to win the war provided they bounce back quickly.

The 2022 Six Nations campaign begins with a mouth-watering contest between defending champions Wales and a well fancied Ireland side at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. 

Wales won the championship for a sixth time last March, narrowly missing out on a Grand Slam with defeat to France in their final game, but they enter this year's tournament as outsiders in the eyes of many.

Much like Ireland, France will be eyeing top spot after going 12 years since their most recent triumph – Les Bleus' longest-such run since joining the Five Nations in 1947 – with their campaign beginning at home to an Italy side without a win in 32 games in the competition.

A relatively inexperienced England side do battle with perennial dark horses Scotland at Murrayfield for the Calcutta Cup, meanwhile, with the hosts looking to record back-to-back wins in this fixture for the first time since 1984.

Ahead of the opening round, Stats Perform previews the upcoming matches with help from Opta.


IRELAND v WALES

FORM

Ireland have won four of their last five meetings with Wales, though their solitary defeat in that run came in the most recent match between the sides in last year's Six Nations when going down 21-16.

Wales have lost their last four away games against Ireland, their worst-such run since losing four in a row between 2002 and 2006, but never before have they lost five in a row away to Ireland.

Ireland have won 27 of their last 29 Tests at the Aviva Stadium, including their last six in a row, with their only defeats coming against England in 2019 and France in 2021 – both in the Six Nations.


ONES TO WATCH

Johnny Sexton will win his 102nd international cap for Ireland this weekend and remains a key player for his country. The 36-year-old recorded the best goal kicking success rate of any player (minimum of three kicks) in last year's Six Nations, finding the target from 25 out of 26 (96 per cent).

Wales are without a long list of players due to injury, most notably skipper Alun Wyn Jones. It's set to be the first Six Nations the Dragons have played without Jones since 2006, with fly-half Dan Biggar being left with big shoes to fill in his first game as captain.

 

SCOTLAND v ENGLAND

FORM

Scotland have won five of their last six Test matches, with their solitary defeat in that run coming against the world champions South Africa in November.

England have won 15 of their last 18 Tests, including their last five in a row, although their three defeats in that spell all came in last year's Six Nations – just the fourth time they had lost more than twice in an edition of the tournament since 2000 (also lost three in 2005, 2006 and 2018).

This will be the 140th Test between the rival nations in a fixture that dates back to the first ever rugby international back in 1871. Scotland have won on 44 occasions, compared to 76 victories for England, with the other 19 ending all square.


ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have named a near-identical XV to the one that ended last year's Six Nations, Duhan van der Merwe among them. The British and Irish Lions wing beat 31 defenders in the 2021 edition, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's record for the most in a single Six Nations (30 in 2000).

In the absence of Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry will captain England at the age of just 23, making him the youngest player to do so since Will Carling in 1988.

 

FRANCE v ITALY

FORM

France and Italy have met on 45 occasions, with Les Bleus winning 42 of those matches. That 93 per cent win rate is their highest against any nation they have faced more than five times.

Italy have lost 23 of their last 24 away games with France in Test rugby, including their last 14 in a row. The Azzurri's only victory in France came in Grenoble in 1997.

France have won 12 of their last 13 Test matches at home, although their solitary defeat in that run came in their most recent Six Nations game against Scotland. They have not trailed at half-time in a home game since February 2018, going into the break ahead (17 times) or level (twice) in each of their last 19 such games.

ONES TO WATCH

Captain and recently crowned World Rugby Player of the Year Antoine Dupont will be looking to pick up from where he left off in 2021. He was directly involved in eight tries during the last Six Nations, more than any other player, scoring three and assisting a Championship-high five.

Sebastian Negri made 64 carries and 68 tackles during the 2021 tournament, his combined tally of 132 carries and tackles being the second most of any player in the Championship, behind only Taulupe Faletau (140). Italy could do with more of the same here to help avoid another loss.

 

Friday sees the official beginning of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, as the best of the best in cold-weather sports converge on Beijing.

Around 90 National Olympic Committees will participate, with approximately 2,900 athletes taking part in the 109 events at 13 different venues.

Some of the world's finest athletes will take to the snow or ice, though you may not necessarily know who in particular to look out for if you aren't a regular follower of winter sports.

Stats Perform has you covered, profiling seven of the most notable figures to keep an eye out for in Beijing…

Eileen Gu – Freestyle skiing

Nicknamed the "Snow Princess" in China, Gu will be one of the most intriguing athletes competing in these Games. The freestyle skier won two gold medals at both the Winter X Games 2021 and the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships.

Aside from being very good at her sport, Gu is also signed to a modelling agency and has appeared in local editions of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.

The 18-year-old is very much a medal hopeful, which is why it delighted China when the Californian decided to represent the country of her mother's birth instead of the United States.

Francesco Friedrich – Bobsleigh

Germans are good at bobsledding, winning gold in every bobsleigh event at PyeongChang 2018, and driver Friedrich might just be the best of the bunch.

The 31-year-old won a shared gold medal in the two-man bobsled in PyeongChang (with Canada), and an outright gold in the four-man event.

Friedrich also led the squad that comfortably won gold at the 2021 IBSF World Championships in a time almost a full second faster than runners-up Latvia, and recently won the World Cup title despite the German four-man bobsleigh suffering its first defeat of the Olympic season in the final race before Beijing 2022, coming second to Latvia.

Mikaela Shiffrin – Alpine skiing

A two-time Olympic gold medallist, Shiffrin also won four medals at the 2021 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, including gold in the Alpine combined.

Other notable achievements include being the youngest slalom champion in Olympic Alpine skiing history, she has won the most world cup slalom races in history (45) and became the first Alpine skier to win the world championship in the same discipline (slalom) at four championships in a row.

Suzanne Schulting – Short track speed skating

The dominant Dutch athlete won gold in every event at the Speed Skating World Championships in March last year, becoming only the second female to do so.

Schulting won gold in 2018 in the 1000-metre race and will be hoping to win multiple short track events in Beijing.

In November, the 24-year-old gave an interview to the official Olympics website, saying: "I'm super motivated to train again and to do my best and become even better than last year. I want to go for gold at Beijing and of course to work for the upcoming World Cups."

Mikael Kingsbury – Freestyle skiing

Kingsbury might be the main one to watch early on in Beijing as he has already qualified for the freestyle skiing final, which takes place on Saturday.

The Canadian has won the most medals at the Freestyle World Championships of any male skier in history and is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the moguls.

Kingsbury started his Olympics on Thursday with a flawless run in qualifying to book an automatic spot in the final, finishing with a score of 81.15 at the Genting Snow Park.

Chloe Kim – Snowboarding

Snowboarding has become one of the most popular events at the Winter Olympics since it was first introduced in 1998.

One of the main snowboarders to keep an eye on in Beijing is Kim, who made history at PyeongChang 2018 when she won gold in the women's snowboard halfpipe at the age of just 17, becoming the youngest female competitor to win an Olympic snowboarding gold.

The American is also the current world, Olympic and X Games champion in the halfpipe and was the first to win all three titles.

Yuzuru Hanyu – Figure skating

The Japanese sensation has broken figure skating world records a staggering 19 times and has seven world championship medals and four Grand Prix titles to his name.

Hanyu is also a two-time Olympic champion and there is a tradition after each skate where his fans throw Winnie the Pooh cuddly toys onto the ice. But given the 2018 film was banned in China following social media comparisons between the cartoon bear and Chinese president Xi Jinping, it is perhaps for the best that only local spectators will be in attendance in Beijing.

The 27-year-old is aiming for a third consecutive title in the men's singles competition, which has not been achieved since 1928.

Eleven months on from playing the roles of party poopers against the same opponents, France will this weekend set out on a journey that Fabien Galthie and his men will hope ends with the Six Nations trophy being held aloft at the Stade de France on March 19.

Les Blues denied Wales Grand Slam glory with an enthralling 32-30 victory in Paris in the Dragons' final match of an otherwise perfect 2021 campaign, snatching the win through an injury-time Brice Dulin try, but they ultimately fell short by finishing four points adrift in second.

Now on their longest run without winning the championship since joining the Five Nations in 1947, with their most recent triumph coming in 2010, France will consider anything other than first place this time around a real disappointment.

But if that is to happen, then Galthie's side have a number of obstacles to navigate, not least beating defending champions Wales – now one shy of England's record of seven Six Nations crowns – in Cardiff in the fourth round of fixtures.

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years, yet few are giving them much of a chance this time around after failing to push on in the second half of 2021.

Wayne Pivac's side are without inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones and do not exactly have history on their side, having won back-to-back championships just once – doing so in 2012 and 2013 – but the Dragons do at least play three of their five matches on home soil.

 

A fast start is imperative but a first-round trip to in-form Ireland presents the reigning champions with arguably their toughest assignment of the tournament. Champions in 2018, four barren years would feel like a lifetime should Ireland miss out again.

Andy Farrell's charges are certainly not lacking momentum thanks to a strong end to the last campaign. Eight wins in a row, including a famous triumph over New Zealand in November – only their third win in that fixture in 33 meetings – has them riding the crest of a wave.

A lack of playing time at club level for certain players could hamper Ireland in their opener, however, setting up an intriguing game to kick things off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

While it is clear what can be expected from France, Ireland and Wales, fellow heavyweights England enter this latest edition as something of an unknown quantity due to injury absentees, skipper Owen Farrell among them.

Tom Curry will have to step up and lead an inexperienced England side that contains seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV to face Scotland. It will make for a challenging six weeks from Eddie Jones' perspective, but one he will be relishing in his seventh Six Nations with the Red Rose.

 

England are one of two sides, along with Ireland, yet to collect the Wooden Spoon. That cannot be said of Italy, who have propped up the table in each of the last six years, that after finishing bottom only once in the previous four campaigns.

Another disappointing 2021 saw Italy lose all five matches as their losing run in the tournament stretched to 32 games, the longest such streak in either Five or Six Nations history.

Italy's place in future competitions continues to be debated, with a possible promotion and relegation system being touted by some, but for now the Azzurri will simply be focused on proving their doubters wrong by ending a long-running losing streak that stretches back to 2015.

While there are some promising signs at age-group level, it is hard to see past Italy claiming an unwanted 17th Wooden Spoon this time around, particularly with trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff to prepare for.

Exactly who Italy will battle it out for to avoid bottom spot is a tougher question to answer than predicting an overall winner, with Scotland one of those whose campaign could go either way.

Experienced but too inconsistent, Gregor Townsend's perennial dark horses need to find a way to string together a run of victories to remain in contention right until the end. 

The hallmarks of a great team were there 12 months ago when enjoying more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), but there are still a number of issues that need to be ironed out.

That is a running theme throughout, though, and all adds to the unpredictability and excitement.

With fans back inside grounds, scores to be settled and no shortage of subplots, it is easy to see why this year's Six Nations is the most anticipated in several years.

Superstars of the winter sports world are lining up at Beijing 2022 to create more breathtaking Olympic memories.

This festival of fast-paced action and technical excellence, a bewilderingly brilliant show set on snow and ice, has delivered sporting legends since it was first staged 98 years ago.

The Winter Olympics has ballooned in scale since Chamonix 1924, but its foundations were set then, with bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, skiing in its varying forms and both figure skating and speed skating on the original programme.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the achievements of the greatest athletes to strike gold.

BIATHLON: Ole Einar Bjorndalen

Stemming from the sport known in 1924 as military patrol, biathlon is that peculiar blend of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. It might be archaic in origin, but so too is the 100 metres dash at the summer Olympics, and biathlon remains an integral part of the winter programme.

Norwegian master Bjorndalen has been its greatest exponent, winning five solo gold medals and three in relay events. He competed at each Games from Lillehammer 1994 through to Sochi 2014, first striking gold at Nagano 1998. Bjorndalen peaked at Salt Lake City in 2002, landing four golds.

His fame has never rivalled that of a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, even though biathlon commands huge television audiences in parts of mainland Europe. Yet the man whose hunger for devouring the competition earned him the nickname of 'The Cannibal' belongs in Olympic legend.

Four silvers and a bronze took him to 13 Olympic medals in all, the most successful male Winter Olympics athlete for the most successful nation in the history of the Games.

CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: Marit Bjorgen and Bjorn Daehlie

Bjorgen is the most successful athlete in Winter Olympics history, with eight gold medals, four silver and three bronze, out-ranking even Bjorndalen in Norway's parade of great champions.

She scooped 18 World Championship golds too, had 114 wins among 184 top-three finishes at World Cup events, and ranks as the third most successful Olympian of all time in terms of medals won, after swimming great Phelps (28 medals, including 23 golds) and Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina (18 medals, nine golds).

Bjorgen made her Olympic debut in 2002 but had to wait until 2010 before landing a first gold at the Games, triumphing in the pursuit, the sprint and the 4×5km relay. Three more triumphs followed in Sochi, before Bjorgen, by now a mother, won twice again at Pyeongchang in 2018. Her career climaxed in a dazzling triumph by almost two minutes in the 30km race on the final day of competition, the gold vaulting Bjorgen above Bjorndalen on the all-time list in the process. She retired a matter of weeks later, a mission accomplished.

Oslo-based Bjorgen ranks only just ahead of compatriot and fellow cross-country superstar Daehlie in the grand totting up. Daehlie was the first Winter Olympics star to land eight gold medals, winning those from 1992 to 1998, including two in front of home crowds at Lillehammer in 1994.

He captured four silver medals across his Olympic career, too, and might have gone on to enjoy success in subsequent Games, only for injuries from a roller-skiing accident to force him into retirement in 2001, at the age of 33.

SPEED SKATING: Eric Heiden, Clas Thunberg and Viktor Ahn

Heiden's story is remarkable, with the American sweeping the board by winning five gold medals at his home Winter Olympics in 1980, taking the Games in Lake Placid by storm and instantly making himself an all-timer in speed skating. He snatched Olympic records across the board, and his feat would be remarkable enough if the story ended there, as the only winter athlete in history to win five gold medals in a Games, but Heiden had more up his sleeve.

He turned his focus to cycling and represented the United States on the track before switching to the road, winning a US national championship and competing at the 1985 Giro d'Italia and 1986 Tour de France, crashing out of the latter late on in the race. Later he became an orthopaedic surgeon, and to this day operates a medical centre in Park City, Utah.

Finland's Clas Thunberg also won five Olympic golds in speed skating, three at the inaugural Chamonix Games and two at St Moritz in 1928, before he went on to serve as a politician. Claudia Pechstein of Germany and Ireen Wust of the Netherlands have also both won five golds.

The only speed skaters to win more have been Lidiya Skoblikova, a six-time gold medallist for the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and Viktor Ahn, a more modern marvel.

Ahn, a short-track speed skater, won the first three medals of his set competing for South Korea as Ahn Hyun-soo in 2006 at Turin. He added three more after switching to race for Russia at the 2014 Sochi Games, a tough pill for Seoul to swallow, with Ahn having cited a lack of support from South Korean authorities as the reason for his sporting defection. South Korean president Park Geun-hye demanded answers.

Ahn was controversially not invited to compete for the Olympic Athletes from Russia team at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. A state-sponsored doping scandal from Sochi saw the Russian Olympic Committee banned, with a makeshift team entering in their place. Ahn, who insists he has never cheated, said it was "outrageous" to exclude him.

FIGURE SKATING: Sonja Henie

Before she became a Hollywood movie star, and before Adolf Hitler became an admirer of her graceful routines, Norwegian Henie made her Winter Olympics debut as an 11-year-old in 1924. She was a raw talent at the time but in 1928 she landed the gold medal at St Moritz, before repeating the feat four years later at Lake Placid and completing a hat-trick in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. She had a fan in Hitler and warmly greeted the Nazi leader before the 1936 Games, which did not sit well with many, although she managed to set the controversy aside. Henie elected to turn professional after that triumph in Germany, ensuring she could monetise her talent, and American film studios soon beckoned.

Henie became an ever bigger star, appearing in a host of major box-office movies. Her Olympic gold medal success has never been beaten in figure skating, although Sweden's Gillis Grafstrom also won three consecutive titles in the men's event, with the first of those coming at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, where figure skating was part of the programme.

ALPINE SKIING: Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Janica Kostelic

Alberto Tomba, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Marc Girardelli were bona fide superstars of the slopes in the 1980s and early 1990s, but none of them have an Olympic record to match that of Aamodt.

At the age of 20, Aamodt denied Girardelli the super-G gold at Val d'Isere in Albertville's 1992 Games, pulling off a shock victory that was an omen of things to come, although it was 10 years before he won a second Olympic gold. In Salt Lake City, Aamodt captured the super-G and combined titles, while four years later in Turin he edged out Hermann Maier to take a third super-G title, becoming the first male alpine skier to win four Olympic golds. That he did that after two injury-blighted years, at the age of 34, only enhanced the achievement.

Within minutes of Norwegian Aamodt reaching four, so too did Croatia's Janica Kostelic, the only woman to achieve such a haul. She had won three times in Salt Lake City in 2002, taking the slalom, giant slalom and combined titles, and in Turin, after a bout of sickness disrupted her preparation, Kostelic defended the combined.

Aamodt has eight Olympic medals in all (four gold, two silver, two bronze), while Kostelic has six (four gold, two silver).

George North is looking forward to the day his children face the big choice: cycling or rugby.

North is also looking forward to the Six Nations Championship, starting this weekend, when Wales begin their title defence against Ireland in Dublin.

There is an awful lot for this 29-year-old to be looking forward to, now that his injury hell has passed.

For now, North is enjoying the freedom of being able to run again, after suffering an anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injury in his right knee last April, playing for the Ospreys.

It ended his year on the rugby pitch, ruining hopes of a starring role for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa and denying him a shot at the Springboks, Australia and New Zealand in the autumn internationals.

North would sooner have been healthy and active of course, but being sidelined has had its upsides. He and his wife, double Olympic cyclist silver medallist Becky James, welcomed their second son, Tomi, a brother for Jac, in October.

Rather than dividing his time between the family and Wales camps, North has been essentially a stay-at-home dad for months on end.

"It's been brilliant. Normally I'm away playing or touring or something," says North, who is a Land Rover ambassador.

"To have this time at home, it's priceless. But Becky's been a superstar. When I had my surgery to start with, I couldn't do much on crutches with Jac, and obviously Tomi's joined us now and he's class.

"I'm in that stage now where effectively I'm in pre-season again, and I'm absolutely battered when I come home from training. And I'm not much use to anyone, but she's been amazing through this whole process.

"It has been tough, but it's been amazing you know, the two boys are amazing. Thank goodness for Becky, because it'd have been a lot harder at one point, with one leg up and hopping around the place. Especially my surgery, it was very tough. But yeah, she's a superhero."

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years. Despite being holders, however, few are giving them much of a chance this time around.

After all, Wales have been up and down with results in the tournament. Across the last five years, they have trailed in fifth twice, as well as clinching a couple of championships, including the 2019 grand slam.

This time, they head into the tournament without a clutch of key players: North is absent, but so too is captain Alun Wyn Jones, with Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric also sidelined.

 

Head coach Wayne Pivac said his squad has lost around 680 caps' worth of experience, but Wales should still be no mugs.

The players Pivac has chosen for the tournament come with an average of 27.1 Test caps of experience, only topped by Ireland's 30.9 among the six teams.

Those that are missing are proven class, however. In last year's championship, Faletau had 66 carries, putting him in third place among all players, while Tipuric made the most tackles (82). Faletau was fourth on that list (74), and skipper Jones was sixth (72).

On the Six Nations all-time list, North, who has featured on the wing and at outside centre, ranks fourth for metres gained (2,548), third for defenders beaten (126), and third for most clean breaks (48).

Jones is top of the all-time tackles chart (719), with fly-half Dan  Biggar a different animal to the absent lock. Biggar sits second on the Six Nations' all-time try assists list, after setting up 17 five-pointers in the competition.

To lose a raft of proven top-level talent would hurt any team, and North is not blind to that. He has been in and around the Wales squad since his late teens, however, so is certain there will be no defeatist attitude in Pivac's camp.

"Obviously there are a number of players out missing, and I think Wayne's come out with a stat of something like 680 caps that he's lost," says North. "That's a tough place to be."

 

But can Wales kick on regardless? North says so.

"Well, that that's the only way you get better, isn't it? By pushing the standards up every time," North tells Stats Perform News.

"I think for us, as Wales, we're used to being the underdogs, and we're always used to being kind of like always wanting more, and I think that shows in the performances that we have and the results we have had of late.

"From the lads' point of view, that's something they will certainly be looking at: how they push on from last year. Obviously winning the championship [is one thing], but you know the next step is backing it up again and as we said, it's going to be incredibly tough for the boys."

In the 2021 Six Nations, Wales made the most tackles of all teams (871), were third for tackle success with a healthy 88.2 per cent record, ranked second for lineout success with 90.8 per cent, and matched France for the most scrum success with 96.2 per cent.

Pivac's side averaged 3.7 points per entry into the opposition 22, making them the only side to average over three points per entry. It is a hard act to follow.

The loss of veteran skipper Jones gives 32-year-old playmaker Biggar the opportunity to lead the team into the championship.

"Yeah, it's not easy following the most capped player in the world is it!" North says. "I wouldn't like to follow Alun Wyn, put it that way.

"But what you're getting with Dan is a fierce competitor who drives the squad from the front row, right the way back all the way through to the full-back.

"He expects high standards of everyone, and he expects those standards of himself. I'm excited to see Dan as captain because what you see on the field is a fierce competitor. And that's not just on the field, that's Monday to Friday, and that's in whatever jersey he is.

"He expects the best for himself, and also the best from others because you know he is a competitor and wants to win."

North has the most international tries of all current players in the world game, and he has spoken of hoping to be available to Pivac at the back end of the championship.  Wales have home games against France and Italy on March 11 and 19 to finish the campaign.

He longs to make his children proud, even though both are much too young to understand his day job, or to understand their mother was a world champion.

From the routines of parenthood to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium, North is focused on pulling out all the stops. Jac and Tomi are keeping him grounded but also fuelling his ambitions.

"Obviously they don't know what Dad does. They don't know what Mum used to do," he says. "And I think that's something that's special.

"I am looking forward to the day that I'd be able to play and Becky can bring the boys to watch. I'm incredibly proud and honoured to be able to play rugby, but to be able to share that with the boys and, you know, show them more. Whatever they want to do in the future, there's always that conversation, is it a bike or a rugby ball?"

North, who during last year's Six Nations became the youngest player to reach 100 caps for any country, is targeting the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a long-range goal.

That could add up to over two months away from home, and given he will be 31 by the time that tournament comes around, it might be a last shot at global glory.

"I've got a fair few steps to cross off before we get back in any jersey. Certainly it's something I want to be able to put my hand up and be fighting for my selection there," he says.

"I've been very fortunate to go to a few now, and you know that's a big push. It's not too far away, and it's something that is certainly exciting."

There he goes again, always looking forward.


:: George North is a Land Rover ambassador. Visit landrover.co.uk

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

March 8 will mark 10 years since Manchester United suffered one of their most one-sided home defeats in the Alex Ferguson era.

The Europa League last-16 first leg finished 3-2 to Athletic Bilbao, but the scoreline belied the contest. United were comprehensively out-run and outplayed, dismantled by Marcelo Bielsa's bold, brilliant Basques. Ferguson went as far as admitting that David de Gea kept embarrassment levels to a minimum: "Our goalkeeper's made four or five terrific saves in the game, so really, it's not the worst result for us."

Athletic's performance was one of the finest by an away team against United in the past 30 years. That might sound an exaggeration, but it was clear to everyone present in Manchester that night, Ferguson included. Javi Martinez, Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente were four of the visitors' standout stars but there was barely a misstep from any of them.

And one man – one teenager, to be precise – looked like he was playing a different game to everyone else.

Iker Muniain scored what proved to be the winner in the closing minutes, capping a quite astonishing performance from a relatively unknown 19-year-old at the home of the reigning English champions and Champions League runners-up. He was beguiling, fearless, two steps ahead – everything you might expect from a player who had been a fixture in the first team from the age of 16.

Today, Muniain has 481 appearances for the club, the eighth-most in their history. He has played under seven coaches and been integral to the plans of each. He is Athletic's captain, their standard-bearer, the man who inspired them past Barcelona in the Copa del Rey last month with a powerhouse of a performance. He is probably playing the best football of his career.

As Athletic prepare to face Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, they will hope that form continues. Muniain has finished runner-up in this competition four times, including twice last year. He lost the 2012 Europa League final, too, and the Supercopa de Espana two weeks ago.

Now more than ever, he deserves a winner's medal.

 

San Iker

There is something unquantifiable about Muniain's importance to Athletic; after his two-goal performance in the 3-2 win over Barca, coach Marcelino grasped for the right words to describe his impact beyond mere numbers, eventually settling on "a huge presence" and "constancy". But the numbers are also pretty good.

In 23 games in all competitions this season, Muniain has scored four goals and set up a further six. He is on track to surpass his best return for direct goal involvements in a single season of 16, set in 2011-12. Back then, he averaged a goal or assist every 284 minutes; this term, that figure is down to one every 186. He's already created more chances this season than he did under Bielsa in the whole campaign a decade ago, in part because he has set-piece responsibility these days.

 

Muniain has created at least 10 more chances (60) than any other player in LaLiga this term, while his tally of 72 across all competitions is eight more than second-place Vinicius Junior among players from Spain's top tier. It puts him fifth among players across Europe's top five leagues, behind Benjamin Bourigeaud (73), Bruno Fernandes (79), Thomas Muller (82) and Dimitri Payet (105). He has completed at least 14 more dribbles (41) than those players and made at least two more interceptions (19) than them, just to remind you that he's not your average playmaker.

And yet, those assist numbers feel a little low for someone who creates quite so many attacking opportunities, even though the numbers add up (his five assists in LaLiga this season come from an expected assists figure of 4.65). The problem perhaps lies in Athletic's rather chronic lack of ruthlessness – something that has reared its head in recent years, including in those unsuccessful finals.

 

Marcelino's side have scored 21 goals from 30.9 expected goals in LaLiga in 2021-22, the biggest negative difference in the competition. Their top scorer is Inaki Williams with five goals in 22 games. There's no Telmo Zarra, Llorente or Aritz Aduriz these days. Nobody has managed more than 15 in a season in the league since Aduriz in 2016-17 (16).

It makes you wonder how high that Muniain assist count would be had he been tempted away by another club to play alongside a Karim Benzema, Robert Lewandowski or Kylian Mbappe. Of course, it's not something the man himself has ever really considered. "San Mames is magic, magic," he said recently. "I'm lucky to play here, to have that feeling that runs over your whole body."

 

Captain Maravilloso

Compared with many star number 10s, Muniain has what you might call an atypical view of his football career (when he signed his latest contract in 2018, it contained no release clause – why would he ever want to leave?). Then again, he is far from what might be called a traditional player to wear that number, the kind of static central playmaker whose primary task is to get the ball to others to do damage.

One thing that sets Muniain apart is his movement with the ball. Whether working space in attack or simply keeping possession, as he did to brilliant, game-killing effect in the 120th minute against Barcelona, Muniain is devilishly difficult to dispossess. There's a reason he was once called the Spanish Messi.

Muniain is joint-11th among attacking players in LaLiga with the most take-ons in the opponents' half (57) this season, completing just over half of his overall attempts across the pitch; among that group, only Lucas Boye (68 per cent), Oscar Trejo (64 per cent) and Nabil Fekir (58 per cent) have better success rates.

That dribbling tends to yield results, too: Nico Gonzalez (five) is the only player in LaLiga this season with more take-ons ending in a chance created than Muniain (four).

 

Among LaLiga's forwards this season, only Vinicius (427), Nabil Fekir (302) and Goncalo Guedes (283) have tallied more carries – a run of five metres or more with the ball – than Muniain (241), while Vinicius is the only man in that list to create more chances at the end of a carry (19 to Muniain's 14). If you look at those chances in which the creator was also earlier involved in the build-up (nine), Muniain ranks joint-fourth in the division, again proving his importance to Marcelino's plans goes well beyond the final pass.

Athletic want their captain on the ball, and he rarely disappoints when he gets it, whether it be through bringing others into play or retaining possession until the optimum moment. As Marcelino said after the Barca match: "His decision-making, the technical ability... brutal."

And final-ly...

Athletic's policy of fielding only Basque players, the vast majority of them products of their own academy, is a laudable one. It's also an ethos that sets them at a disadvantage compared to rival teams.

In that context, their successes are remarkable: one of just three teams never to be relegated from Spain's top flight, along with Barca and Real Madrid, Athletic have won eight league titles, 23 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. Additionally, they lifted the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

It also means they have spent much of the past three decades playing catch-up to their own illustrious past. Since the double-winning side of 1983-84, they have lifted just two trophies, both Supercopas, in 2015 and in January last year. Their best league finish since 1998 was fourth place in 2013-14, and this is their fourth successive season without European football. 

Yet it's the final defeats that have hurt most. Barcelona (five times), Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad (boy, that one stung) have beaten Athletic to a trophy since 2009. Muniain has been at the club for all of them.

There is little shame in those defeats. Two of them came at the hands of Pep Guardiola's Barca, and the third was in Luis Enrique's first term in charge at Camp Nou. Two of those Barca teams won those finals en route to the treble, and all three ended those seasons as champions of Europe. Athletic also lost to Diego Simeone's Atletico in the Europa League final in 2012 and the runaway league leaders most recently in the Supercopa. They deserve recognition just for competing with these sides for so long.

 

Markel Susaeta told Stats Perform last year: "It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world.

"To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Muniain has lived it. He deserves to do so again, and this time, to lift a trophy: first for the fans at the stadium, and then on the famous Gabarra down the Nervion river. If that sounds romantic... well, this is a player who makes you love the game.

The 2022 Winter Olympics kick-off in Beijing on Friday, with 109 medal events to look forward to.

While several of these events are sports that many will only watch every four years when the Winter Games come around, some will be ones that quite a few will never have seen before, or at least not at the Olympics.

There will be seven new events at Beijing 2022, with some mixed team events – something that has been an increasing trend for the Olympics – and a new women's bobsled event among others.

Stats Perform is here to give you a brief guide to these debutants, so all you have to do is look forward to watching them.

Women's Monobob

This becomes the fourth bobsled event at the Olympics, along with the two-man, two-woman and four-man competitions.

You would have thought the obvious next step would be a four-woman event, but this iteration could be even more fascinating as the monobob – you may have guessed – is for just one athlete.

One other key feature in this discipline is that unlike the two and four-person events, all monobob competitors will race in sleds with identical specifications.

Two of the favourites for the Gold medal are American duo Elana Meyers Taylor and Kaillie Humphries, the two most decorated women in Olympic bobsled history with three medals each.

Freeski Big Air (men's and women's)

The snowboard big air event was introduced four years ago in PyeongChang, and such was its success that freeskiers now have their own version.

Like the snowboard event, the course has one big jump and competitors have three attempts at performing tricks to try and impress the judges, with their two best scores counting to their overall total.

Freeski Big Air has gained popularity at the Winter X Games among other competitions before now, but will finally be an Olympic event this year, with most eyes on the battle for gold on the women's side and one of the favourites Eileen Gu, who has decided to represent China instead of the US.

Mixed team snowboard cross

This event involves one male and one female competitor, with the men starting the race and the women finishing it, tagging over once the male competitor has crossed the finish line.

The two best teams from each of the four heats will advance to the semi-finals, with the two best from each semi-final going on to the final.

The American duo of Lindsey Jacobellis and Mick Dierdorff will be among the favourites after winning the 2019 world championships.

Mixed team ski jumping

While men's team ski jumping has been one of the more popular events since it debuted at the 1988 Games in Calgary, we now have a mixed version.

Four athletes for each team - two men and two women - perform a jump in the order of woman, man, woman, man. All individual scores will be added together to get the overall team score.

Slovenia were victorious in the first mixed team event of the Ski Jumping World Cup season in Willingen, Germany on Friday.

Mixed team aerials

This is another freestyle skiing event that consists of three athletes, including either two men and one woman or one man and two women, and as with the ski jump event, the teams overall score comes from adding up the individual efforts.

The event has been a part of the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup programme since the 2014-15 season and the FIS World Championships since 2019.

The Russian Olympic Committee are among the favourites for the event, having won the World Championship this year with their team of Pavel Krotov, Liubov Nikitina and Maxim Burov, who was the individual world champion in 2019 and 2021.

Mixed team short track relay

Two men and two women per country participate as a team of four in a speed skating relay situation.

The two women go first for two and a half laps each, followed by the two men for the same distance, then the women for two laps each, and again the men for the same for an overall distance of 2000 metres.

One interesting factor is that should an athlete fall, their team-mate of the same gender can tag in and finish the relay leg.

This is the third relay event at the Winter Games along with the men's 5000m and women's 3000m relays.

Hosts China will be the favourites heading in after obliterating the 2,000m mixed relay world record at the Short Track Speed Skating World Cup in October.

Rafael Nadal made history by clinching a record-breaking 21st grand slam title with an extraordinary win in the Australian Open final.

The Spaniard became the first man to win 21 majors, breaking his tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal edged Daniil Medvedev 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 7-5 in an incredible final that lasted nearly five and a half hours on Rod Laver Arena.

We take a look at each of Nadal's grand slam successes.

2005 French Open
Nadal's maiden major was largely unsurprising. Then 18, Nadal carried a 17-match winning streak to Roland Garros. Ranked fifth in the world after starting the year outside the top 50, Nadal beat Federer in the semi-finals before getting past Mariano Puerta in the decider. He became the first man to win the tournament on debut since Mats Wilander in 1982.

2006 French Open
That would be the start of an almost unstoppable run in Paris. Lleyton Hewitt and a young Djokovic were unable to halt his run in 2006 before he again overcame Federer, this time in the final, after dropping the first set. It was the Swiss great's first loss in a grand slam decider.

2007 French Open
Federer's win over Nadal in the final in Hamburg heading into the French Open gave the Swiss hope after ending the Spaniard's 81-match winning streak on clay. But after beating Hewitt, Carlos Moya and Djokovic on his way to the decider, Nadal again proved too good for Federer in four sets.

2008 French Open
Nadal made it four in a row in 2008 in ruthless fashion. He lost just 25 games on his way to the semis before beating Djokovic. Federer again stood between him and the title, and the Spaniard handed his great rival a 6-1 6-3 6-0 thrashing.

2008 Wimbledon
The next meeting between the greats would prove far closer, far more entertaining and land Nadal his first grand slam title away from Roland Garros. After an epic lasting almost five hours, Nadal edged Federer 9-7 in the fifth set on Centre Court to win the Wimbledon final in near darkness.

2009 Australian Open
Having risen to world number one for the first time in his career in August of the previous year, Nadal celebrated the top ranking by winning his first hard-court major. After a comfortable run to the last four, he edged Fernando Verdasco in an epic semi-final that lasted five hours, 14 minutes. Another four-plus hours and five sets were needed to get past Federer in the decider.

2010 French Open
Nadal suffered a first ever loss at Roland Garros the year prior, going down to Robin Soderling in the fourth round. But he reclaimed the title in 2010, beating Soderling in straight sets in the final. He did not drop a set on his way to the crown.

2010 Wimbledon
It would be a memorable 2010 for Nadal, who would win three majors in a single year for the only time in his career so far. His biggest test at the All England Club came from Philipp Petzschner in a five-setter in the third round before wins over Soderling, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych from the quarter-finals onwards.

2010 US Open
Nadal had never been beyond the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows before his first success in New York in 2010. It was a comfortable run before a four-set victory over Djokovic in the final completed his career Grand Slam.

2011 French Open
Djokovic was too good for Nadal in the Rome final before the French Open, but the Serbian fell to Federer in the semi-finals in Paris. Nadal survived a surprise five-set battle against John Isner in the first round before again beating Federer in the decider.

2012 French Open
Nadal had lost three consecutive major finals – all to Djokovic – before he turned that around at Roland Garros. After a comfortable run to the decider, he needed four sets to get past the Serbian for his record seventh French Open crown.

2013 French Open
Nadal and Djokovic met in a Paris epic the following year, this time in the semi-finals. Nadal edged a classic encounter 9-7 in the fifth before cruising past countryman David Ferrer in the decider.

2013 US Open
Djokovic would get his chance on his preferred surface in New York later that year, but Nadal proved too strong in four sets in the decider. Nadal dropped just two sets on his way to the title.

2014 French Open
Djokovic had again beaten Nadal in the Rome final, but again was unable to stop the Spaniard in Paris. Nadal was untroubled on his way to the decider before recovering from a set down in the final to again beat Djokovic. The 14th grand slam of his career saw him draw level with Pete Sampras on the all-time list.

2017 French Open
After going two years without a grand slam title, Nadal ended his 'drought' in Paris in 2017, claiming 'La Decima'. He did so without dropping a set, rushing past Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka in his final two matches. Nadal became the first man to win a single grand slam 10 times – and he remains the only one to manage that feat.

2017 US Open
More success would follow in New York in what was arguably one of the easiest runs to a major crown of Nadal's career. The highest ranked player Nadal faced was world number 28 Juan Martin del Potro in the semis before cruising past Kevin Anderson in the decider.

2018 French Open
Nadal was at it again in Paris the following year. He lost a set to Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals but was otherwise relentless on his way to an 11th Roland Garros crown.

2019 French Open
Nadal was developing a new rivalry at the French Open, but it was not one to stop his success. He was again ruthless on his way to the final and for the second year in a row was too good for Thiem in the final.

2019 US Open
His run in New York was again comfortable, at least until he reached the final. Medvedev put up a huge fight in the decider, which eventually went Nadal's way after almost five hours on Arthur Ashe Stadium, as he closed to within one of Federer's 20 grand slams.

2020 French Open
Another year, another French Open title for Nadal. There was again no stopping the Spaniard as he romped through without losing a set, including demolishing Djokovic in the final.

2022 Australian Open
Nadal became the first man to win 21 grand slam titles with the unlikeliest of major crowns. Just months earlier, he had doubts over his career due to a foot injury. After reaching the final, a five-set quarter-final win over Denis Shapovalov his biggest test, Nadal produced an extraordinary comeback. After nearly five and a half hours, he came from two sets to love down against Medvedev to win the decider. He became the second man in the Open Era to win every grand slam at least twice, and was the first in the same period to come from two sets to love down and win an Australian Open final.

The NBA's Western Conference has dominated the East in recent memory, possessing most of the league's superstars for over two decades.

West teams have had a winning record head-to-head against East teams in each of the previous 12 full seasons, and the East has only had a winning record against the West once in the last 22 full seasons (2008-09).

Since 1999-00, the NBA champion has come from the Western Conference in 14 of 22 seasons.

The imbalance of power had grown significant enough by the 2013-14 season, when the West sported a .631 head-to-head win percentage, that some pundits called for a restructuring of the playoff system to stop giving postseason opportunities to below .500 East teams.

But the league appears to be finding its equilibrium again.

East teams have a .491 record in interconference games this season, the highest since 2008-09, and the playoff race at the top of the conference is as competitive as it has been in recent memory. Six teams sit within two games of the East’s top record, laying the groundwork for a captivating battle for postseason positioning in the second half of the season.

1. Miami Heat (32-17)

The 2020 Eastern Conference champions appear to have recaptured the form of a contender after a middling 2020-21 campaign that ended in a first-round sweep.

Battling through lengthy absences from both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat have climbed their way to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, thanks largely to the growth of Tyler Herro.

Herro was a promising rookie two years ago when Miami made their run to the NBA Finals but has carried the Heat offensively at times this season. He is scoring 20.4 points per game this season, up from 15.1 last season, without a drop in efficiency. The result is an 11-2 record when Herro scores 25 or more points in a game.

Defensive issues, however, have led coach Erik Spoelstra to mostly leave Herro out of the starting lineup and use him to torch opposing benches. Miami ranks third in the NBA in bench scoring at 39.1 points per game while ranking tied for 19th in bench minutes per game.

Miami's starting units aren't nearly as imposing on the offensive end but are suffocating opponents on defense. With Butler, Adebayo and Kyle Lowry all on the court together, the Heat are allowing just 98.0 points per 100 possessions, and opponents are shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range.

Spoelstra may face challenges in the postseason in trying to decide between offense or defense-first lineups, but few coaches in the NBA are as qualified to find the correct balance.

As long as Butler is healthy and fresh, no team wants to face this rugged and experienced group in a playoff series, and a deep run is certainly possible.

2. Chicago Bulls (30-18), 1.5 games back

Chicago’s hot start was one of the league’s signature stories early in the season, but a recent swoon has some pundits wondering if a few of the roster’s flaws can be exploited.

From December 19 to January 7, the Bulls went on a season-high nine-game winning streak. They scored 120.2 points per game over that stretch and climbed to 16 games over .500.

The Bulls have gone just 4-8 since and have failed to reach 100 points in four of those 12 games.

Chicago went 1-5 during this lull playing without Zach LaVine, including a January 14 loss to the Golden State Warriors in which he played fewer than four minutes before leaving with a left knee injury.

The Bulls have won both their games since LaVine returned, soothing any burning concerns, but that stretch revealed Chicago's roster is too thin to absorb any major injuries.

Perhaps even more concerning is the Bulls' record against top teams, going just 3-7 so far this season against the other teams in the East's top six.

Billy Donovan will rightfully get plenty of buzz to win Coach of the Year, but the Bulls ultimately look like an excellent regular-season team that may not be properly equipped for playoff battles.

Power forward Patrick Williams played just five games before he underwent surgery on his left wrist, and he was initially considered lost for the season. While there has been some recent momentum towards him returning for a playoff run, the 20-year-old may still be too green to push the Bulls over the top.

Williams could fetch another playoff-ready piece if the Bulls decided to place all their bets on the current core of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic – all in the prime of their careers between the ages of 26 and 32 – but such a move could jeopardise the team's future.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (30-19), 2 games back

Just a year after going 22-50, the Cavaliers have far surpassed last season's win total before the All-Star break, and the success has gone on too long to be considered a fluke.

Even after losing veteran point guard Ricky Rubio to a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, the young Cavaliers have continued to be one of the East's top teams, thanks largely to a stifling defense.

Cleveland is 6-7 this season in games when scoring less than 100 points, the best record in the league. The other top teams in the East are a combined 7-44 when held under the century mark.

The Cavaliers are allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions, best in the Eastern Conference, and that number drops to 102.2 when rookie big man Evan Mobley is on the court.

Mobley is third among rookies in scoring at 15.0 points per game, but it is his ability to play next to center Jarrett Allen that has made Cleveland's defense so imposing.

A seven-footer, Mobley could be slated as a center for almost any team in the league, but his quickness and ability to guard multiple positions allows him to be on the floor at the same time as Allen.

Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro are all 23 years old or younger, so a deep playoff run seems unlikely, especially with high-scoring guard Collin Sexton out for the year.

But Cleveland has the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, with a combined opponents’ winning percentage of .463.

4. Milwaukee Bucks (31-20), 2.0 games back

The reigning NBA champions have yet to live up to the sterling regular seasons of their recent past but remain in position for a run.

The Bucks are 6-7 over their last 12 games, including a 115-99 loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday.

Milwaukee’s fortunes will be determined by its three biggest stars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. With all three on the court together, the Bucks are outscoring their opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions. All configurations that have two or fewer stars on the court have a net rating of +2.6.

This heavy reliance on the Bucks' top trio is evident in Milwaukee’s 29th-ranked bench, which is scoring just 27 points per game.

This accomplished core will be competitive in any series they play, especially now that it has championship experience, but the road through the Eastern Conference playoffs could be a very challenging one.

5. Brooklyn Nets (29-19), 2.5 games back

With so many unknowns and moving pieces, the Nets are probably the most difficult team in the league to analyse. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving makes them an automatic title contender, but the availability of Brooklyn's stars will ultimately decide their fate.

Irving is infamously banned from playing home games but can play in most road games, essentially giving Steve Nash two separate teams to coach. Any day, either Irving could change his mind and get a COVID-19 vaccine, or New York could change its rules about workers being vaccinated, but the possibility looms of the Nets entering a playoff series with a part-time player.

Durant remains a marvel, averaging 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists in his second season back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He suffered a sprained knee on January 15, however, and could be out until the end of February.

The Nets are just 5-7 this season without Durant, and his extended absence could cause them to lose ground in the race for a top seed in the East. Then again, Brooklyn might not care about playing extra postseason road games, allowing Irving to join in the fun and saving Durant for when the games count most.

The Athletic's Shams Charania surprised many fans this week by reporting that Harden's name remains involved in trade talks. While these rumors would likely be more relevant to a deal in the coming offseason, the reports added another layer of uncertainty to a bumpy season.

6. Philadelphia 76ers (29-19), 2.5 games back

The Sixers have the NBA's second-best record since Christmas Day at 13-3, and Joel Embiid has built a strong case as an MVP candidate.

The overpowering center has scored at least 25 points in 16 straight games, a run that includes single-game scoring performances of 50, 42 and 40 points.

Perhaps almost as significant as his gaudy production is the fact that Embiid has played in 20 consecutive games for Philadelphia, the second-longest run of his career after a 26-game stretch during the 2018-19 season.

Embiid has always been a monster when he's on the court, and if his current run of health continues, the 76ers will be a difficult playoff matchup for anyone.

Hanging over the whole season, of course, is the standoff with Ben Simmons, who has yet to report this season and is losing game paychecks every time his team-mates take the court. Simmons' camp maintains the position that he wants to be traded after being publicly blamed for last season's playoff failures, but the Philly front office insists on getting a star in return.

A possible Simmons trade might be the most pivotal move out there for any possible championship contender, but the deal has been difficult to find for a unique 25-year-old guard who refuses to shoot and has yet to play this season.

With the conference loaded six-deep with imposing teams, only the top two seeds will be heavy favourites in the first round. Gone, it appears, are the days when one or two teams could cruise to a conference championship in the East without sweating.

Ousmane Dembele's Barcelona career appears to be drawing to a close, with the club's director of football Mateu Alemany confirming on Thursday that he is up for sale.

Dembele's representatives have been in talks with Barca since July over a new contract for a player that arrived at Camp Nou in 2017 in the wake of Neymar's departure to Paris Saint-Germain.

Barca splashed the cash – €105million, to be exact – to bring the winger in from Borussia Dortmund, where he had enjoyed a wonderful campaign in 2016-17 after a move from Rennes.

Despite Xavi wanting to keep the player, an agreement between the club and Dembele's camp has not been reached and the stand-off has now resulted in Alemany publicly stating the France international will no longer play for Barca now he has turned down their latest offer.

 

Dembele has struggled to establish himself as a key player at Barca due to injuries and some reported attitude issues, albeit he has hardly been at Camp Nou during the most stable period.

He has managed 31 goals and 22 assists in 129 appearances since his debut in September 2017, meaning he has been directly involved in 0.63 goals per 90 minutes, but he has played in just 52 per cent of Barca's LaLiga matches in that time.

Barca's plan is to move Dembele on now but, with his contract up at the end of the season, potential suitors may wish to bide their time and sign the attacker on a free transfer.

Stats Perform explores some possible destinations.

Liverpool

Could a move to Anfield be on the cards for Dembele? He has often been linked with Liverpool in the past, and Jurgen Klopp's direct approach could well suit a player that performed so well in the Bundesliga – a competition renowned for aggressive pressing and counter-attacks, which the Reds have down to a tee in the Premier League.

There is the small matter, of course, of Mohamed Salah. Arguably the best player in the world at the moment, the Egypt star plays predominantly from the right, in Dembele's preferred position. However, there is uncertainty over Salah's future, with a new contract not yet agreed. His deal runs out in 2023 and Dembele could present an ideal rotation option and eventual successor. Klopp would surely back himself to get the best out of the 24-year-old.

 

PSG

A team reported to hold a firm interest is Ligue 1 giants PSG. It would be ironic should Dembele – the man signed by Barca to replace Neymar – ended up playing alongside the Brazil star in Paris.

PSG already, of course, have a star-studded attack. But with Kylian Mbappe expected to leave at the end of the season and Lionel Messi, Neymar and Angel Di Maria not getting any younger, Dembele could provide a relatively cost-effective replacement, and a return to France might reignite his career.

Bayern Munich

Or could a move back to the Bundesliga be the trick for Dembele? Bayern Munich have plenty of top-quality wing options, with Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman, who has just signed a new long-term deal, complimented by youngster Jamal Musiala. Yet in all competitions this season, Dembele has created 2.4 chances per 90 minutes played, and that is better than any of Bayern's current wingers other than Sane (2.6).

His 6.7 dribbles attempted per 90 ranks behind only Musiala (7.8) and he leads the way in shots (4.5). Most important, perhaps, is Dembele's tendency to cross. He has delivered 6.7 open-play crosses per 90 in 2021-22, exactly two more than Bayern's best wide player in this metric (Coman - 4.7), something that Robert Lewandowski would surely relish.

Borussia Dortmund

This may seem an unlikely move, but what about heading back to Dortmund? Dembele was a superstar at Signal Iduna Park in his first spell there, although fans did not take kindly to his wish to leave, and that may well mean this would not get off the ground.

But, putting any negative emotions to one side, Dortmund have a vibrant attack under Marco Rose, though are likely to lose Erling Haaland in the close-season. While Dembele's wages might be an issue right now, should he remain at Barca for the rest of the season, could Dortmund use funds generated from a possible Haaland sale to bring back a player who played a direct hand in 30 goals (10 goals, 20 assists) and created 100 chances across all competitions in 2016-17.

 

Juventus

Another elite club that could provide a new lease of life for Dembele is Juve. The Serie A giants are not involved in the title race this season, at least according to their coach Massimiliano Allegri, though he will know the Bianconeri nevertheless must challenge for silverware in Europe or in the Coppa Italia. 

Dembele could provide the spark that is missing in Juve's attack, especially with Federico Chiesa expected to miss at least six months with a serious knee injury, while Dejan Kulusevski has been rumoured to be on the transfer list.

Newcastle United

One of these clubs is not like the others but, given their new-found wealth – and, perhaps, the need to make a real statement signing – maybe it would be foolish to discount Newcastle.

Whether Dembele would fancy swapping Barcelona for the north east of England and a Premier League relegation battle in January is of course up for debate, though what would not be up for debate is Newcastle, with their Saudi Arabia-backed ownership, having the funds to pull such a signing off.

Dembele would represent a step up in quality and would surely be an instant fans' favourite at St James' Park and alongside Allan Saint-Maximin on the other flank, provide some added star power to help Newcastle survive and, possibly, thrive in future seasons.

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