Two-time Grand Slam winner Simona Halep's return to the WTA Tour ended in defeat to American Danielle Collins in almost three hours in the National Bank Open in Montreal on Wednesday.

World number 28 Collins triumphed 2-6 6-4 6-4 over the sixth seed Romanian, with the second-round match lasting two hours and 55 minutes.

Halep, who is a two-time winner in Montreal, was returning to the Tour for the first time in three months since suffering a calf tear against Angelique Kerber in Rome.

Collins, who has won titles recently in San Jose and Palermo, loomed as a tough first-up test for Halep, who broke twice to win the first set 6-2 as she generated eight break points to one.

The game turned from then on, as Collins sent down 4-1 aces in the second set and finished with 38 winners for the match.

Tokyo 2020 bronze medalist and third seed Elina Svitolina was bundled out in a second-round shock, losing 3-6 6-3 6-2 to Briton Johanna Konta.

Svitolina boasted a 5-0 record against Konta heading into the match but was beaten in a two-hour-and-11-minute struggle.

Top seed Aryna Sabalenka defeated former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in three sets to secure her third-round spot.

Sabalenka fought back from the brink, rallying to win the last five games and triumph 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 6-4 over the American wildcard in a two hours and 25 minutes.

Fourth seed Karolina Pliskova came from behind to win 4-6 6-3 7-6 (7-2) over Donna Vekic, while Jessica Pegula also fought back after a slow start to topple 10th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 1-6 6-3 6-2.

Greek 11th seed Maria Sakkari won in three sets 6-4 6-7 6-4 over Veronika Kudermetova, while 13th seed Ons Jabeur responded after a lopsided first set to win 2-6 6-3 6-4 over Daria Kasatkina.

Cori Gauff progressed after being 5-0 up as Anastasia Potapova retired, while Amanda Anisimova, Camila Giorgi, Rebecca Marino and Sara Sorribes Tormo all won too.

Canadian local hope Marino will take on top seed Sabalenka, while Gauff faces Svitolina's conqueror Konta.

Canadian fifth seed Denis Shapovalov was a major casualty in the second round of the National Bank Open in Toronto after a straight-sets defeat to Francis Tiafoe.

Unseeded American Tiafoe swept aside the local 6-1 6-4 in one hour and 15 minutes to secure his third-round spot against 11th seed Gael Monfils who beat John Millman 3-6 6-3 6-4.

Tiafoe was only in the Toronto main draw as a lucky loser after being defeated in qualifying by Emil Ruusuvuori but he hit 14 winners in an emphatic display.

World number 10 Shapovalov was unable to generate any break points while Tiafoe reeled off five games in a row, with two breaks, to win the first set.

The Canadian continued to struggle with his serve in windy conditions, as the American world number 52 won 88 per cent (23/26) of points on his first serve.

Another local hope, ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, also was eliminated, going down 7-5 6-4 to Serbian Dusan Lajovic.

The Canadian hit six aces to Lajovic's none, but was undone by unforced errors at key times, with a double fault gifting the Serbian a 6-5 lead in the opening set.

Australian 12th seed Alex de Minaur also bowed out after a one-sided 6-1 6-1 defeat to Georgian world number 42 Nicolas Basilashvili.

Basilashvili sent down 6-2 aces and converted five of his six break points generated in an impressive display.

Australian qualifier Jack Duckworth booked a third-round ticket against top seed Daniil Medvedev after upsetting 16th seed Jannik Sinner, who won last week's Citi Open.

Fourth seed Andrey Rublev won through with a 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 victory over Fabio Fognini, while seventh seed Hubert Hurkacz progressed with a walkover after Kei Nishikori retired with a shoulder injury.

Eighth seed Diego Schwartzman beat Benoit Paire 7-5 6-1, while 10th seed Roberto Bautista Agut handled Tommy Paul 6-3 6-4.

John Isner knocked out 13th seed Cristian Garin in three sets, while Lloyd Harris beat Feliciano Lopez in two and Karen Khachanov defeated compatriot Aslan Karatsev 7-6 (9-7) 6-4 to secure a third-round meeting with third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Tsitsipas pledged to help those affected by the fires in his homeland in his post-match press conference on Tuesday.

“My heart is with all the people of Greece,” Tsitsipas said. “I come from the south suburbs of Athens. When I was there a few days ago, I could see the fires from the south. Huge, giant clouds, smoke, which you could see from far, far away. It wasn't very nice. Even at the beach that day when I went to swim, you could see all the debris from the smoke and from the fires in the sea.”

Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks says he expects to have James Harden and Kyrie Irving join Kevin Durant in re-signing with the franchise ahead of their training camp.

The Nets, who were beaten 4-3 by eventual NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks in the Conference semi-finals last season, will be hold their pre-season training camp next month.

Durant, who last Saturday won gold at Tokyo 2020, recently re-committed to Brooklyn on a four-year deal.

Marks confirmed the Nets are in talks to extend the contracts of Irving and Harden, as they look to lock down their 'Big Three'.

“I feel very confident that first day of training camp we’ll be looking at those three in particular being signed, sealed and delivered and being part of the Brooklyn Nets for a long time to come,” Marks said in Wednesday's video conference.

"We're having those conversations with them. I think there's no immediate hurry to get any of these guys done in terms of the first day of free agency. These are opportunities for us to sit down, break bread together, meet with Joe Tsai [Nets owner] and really get on the same page."

Marks said that Durant's extension was "straight-forward", labelling the forward's decision to extend as "franchise changing".

“Kevin was honestly extremely straightforward, and very upfront about ‘I want to be here, this is it, get it done, and I want to get it done immediately.’ I don't blame him," Marks said.

"It was obviously very important for us. I can't tell you how important it was, and this is franchise changing when you can lock a person like Kevin up and he wants to commit to being here for the foreseeable future."

Marks also offered updates on both Irving and Harden who missed periods of the playoffs with injuries.

Harden, 31, battled a hamstring injury in the regular season which recurred during the playoffs, while Irving suffered an ankle sprain in Game 4 of the Bucks series and did not return.

“I've James working out, I've seen some videos of him and he's really trending in the right direction," Marks said. "Looks great, has really devoted himself this summer to rehabbing one the hamstring and just getting himself into top basketball shape.

"I was with Kyrie yesterday... It was a bad ankle sprain, there's no question there, so that set him back, but he's recovering and he's progressing well and is back in the gym and I have no doubt by the time training camp rolls around and even prior to that the guys will be together and be live on the court together playing and working out.

"But from a health standpoint no reason to be concerned about either one.”

Arsenal face a trip to Championship side West Brom in the second round of the EFL Cup.

Mikel Arteta's side failed to qualify for Europe last season – the first time the Gunners have missed out on continental competition since 1996.

It means they will feature in the EFL Cup second round, with the Premier League's top seven sides given a bye to the third round.

West Brom, who are under the charge of new boss Valerien Ismael, will be their opponents in the week commencing August 23.

The last time the sides met, a 3-1 victory for Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in May condemned the Baggies to a return to the second tier.

League Two side Barrow will host Aston Villa, while Southampton and Brentford will also face a fourth-tier team in the form of Newport County and Forest Green Rovers.

Two all-Premier League ties see Burnley travel to Newcastle United and Watford welcome Crystal Palace to Vicarage Road.

EFL Cup second-round draw in full:

Northern Section

Oldham Athletic v Accrington Stanley
Newcastle United v Burnley
Wigan Athletic v Bolton Wanderers
Huddersfield Town v Everton
Sheffield United v Derby County
Stoke City v Doncaster Rovers
Shrewsbury Town v Rochdale
Nottingham Forest v Wolves
Morecambe v Preston North End
Blackpool v Sunderland
Leeds United v Crewe Alexandra
Barrow v Aston Villa

Southern Section

Brentford v Forest Green Rovers
Millwall v Cambridge United
West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal
Norwich City v Bournemouth
Cardiff City v Brighton and Hove Albion
Birmingham City v Fulham
Gillingham v Cheltenham Town
Queens Park Rangers v Oxford United
Swansea City v Plymouth Argyle
Stevenage v Wycombe Wanderers
Newport County v Southampton
Northampton Town v AFC Wimbledon
Watford v Crystal Palace

The Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, the Honourable Olivia Grange has said that every arriving athlete from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be greeted by her on arrival.

Opportunism was the name of the game for Atletico Madrid in 2020-21 and, ultimately, it led them all the way to the title.

First, they pounced on the opportunity to sign Luis Suarez, then Diego Simeone's squad enjoyed a commanding start to the season that left their rivals playing catch-up.

Lionel Messi's situation at Barcelona contributed to the Blaugrana being slow out of the blocks, and although Atletico almost contrived to throw it all away in the latter stages of the season, they proved their resilience in seeing it out.

While opportunism led to success then, this season Atletico arguably find themselves on the cusp of a new, dominant era. Barca are in an even greater mess than 12 months ago and no longer have Messi to bail them out, while Madrid's only major signing has been David Alaba – in contrast, they have lost Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane is Manchester bound too. Add Zinedine Zidane's departure to that and it is very much a picture of transition at the newly refurbed Santiago Bernabeu.

Atletico, meanwhile, have not lost any key players and have even improved their midfield options with the signing of Rodrigo De Paul. It was not so long ago that Simeone's future seemed uncertain, but the past year has brought out a new side in him and that's helped Los Colchoneros reign in Spain.

Flexible Simeone turns over a new leaf

Throughout Simeone's time in charge of Atletico, there has been a common theme – you can either call it consistency or inflexibility, but it essentially depends on whether you are a critic or a fan.

However, it is difficult to say he was inflexible last season by any stretch of the imagination. Now, whether that was decisive in their title triumph is impossible to say, yet it does show Simeone is perhaps not the one-trick pony some insist he is.

For much of his decade at the helm, Simeone has almost religiously set his teams up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, or at least something not too dissimilar. A back four has been the cornerstone of his systems. According to Opta data, he only ever started a match with a back three or five six times before 2020-21.

Yet, in the championship-winning campaign, Atletico lined up with a back three or five in 23 of their 38 LaLiga matches. Simeone had amassed a group of players with wide-ranging skillsets that aided versatility, and he truly embraced that.

Yannick Carrasco's work-rate saw him turned into a wing-back; Kieran Trippier's arguably suspect defensive capabilities became less of a concern because he was stationed further up the pitch. In attack, Luis Suarez and whoever partnered him – usually Joao Felix or Angel Correa – offered unpredictable movement that often saw them push out wide to create space for Marcos Llorente to run into.

 

Of course, that didn't occur all the time, but it is notable how all 12 of Llorente's goals came from either positions in the box or central positions just outside the area despite a lot of his work coming down the right flank in tandem with Trippier.

This flexibility in the final third also seemed to contribute to their effectiveness off the ball. Their 43 shot-ending high turnovers was bettered by only Barcelona and Eibar, though that figure equated to 15.3 per cent of their total high turnovers (281).

That percentage was better than both of those teams above them in the category, suggesting Atletico were more effective at turning those situations into danger, despite their PPDA of 11.5 only being the 12th lowest in the league.

But the overriding feeling looking back at Atletico in 2020-21 was the only real ammunition Simeone's critics had – that he was inflexible – seems to have lost relevance.

 

De Paul is Simeone's ideal schemer

It was only a matter of time before De Paul sought a new home after an excellent five-year spell in Italy with Udinese. It was there that he got his career back on track after struggling to make much of an impact with Valencia during his previous attempt to succeed in Spain.

He was a regular throughout his five years in Serie A but enjoyed his finest campaign of all in 2020-21, displaying a skillset that looks an ideal fit for the requirements of a Simeone team.

Throughout Simeone's 10 years as Atletico coach, his signings of creative players have tended to be hit and miss, with it a common perception that his intense demands both in training and during matches can sometimes stifle more mercurial talents who are not used to such workloads.

But De Paul, who is comfortable playing both centrally and out wide, has shown plenty of evidence he should be up to the challenge.

 

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A. Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists (xA) records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area that highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

His creativity and dribbling abilities are two facets that Atletico don't necessarily have in abundance in their central midfield options, yet he balances those with a genuine work ethic. De Paul could well be an absolute triumph of a signing.

Joao Felix's time?

Joao Felix's 2019 arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano was met by the clamouring of Simeone critics suggesting this was the signing that would finally see the renowned pragmatist cut loose and suddenly become the entertainer many hoped he could be.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, their haul of 51 LaLiga goals in 2019-20 was the lowest they had managed since scoring just 46 in 2006-07 – they somehow became even tougher to watch.

This did not do much to convince those adamant Simeone was to blame for Joao Felix's form – many people called for the young talent to be given a "free role" that allowed him to play without the shackles normally associated with the coach's disciplined system.

But for a period in 2020-21, there were real signs that Joao Felix was beginning to find his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisioned, his role - being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left - in the first half of last season saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But it's fair to say the Portugal talent did not manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

Joao Felix's productivity was not as impressive as a result. He went from creating 1.5 chances per game to 0.9 and appeared far less willing to run with the ball, attempting 26 dribbles compared to 43 before January 1.

Sure, his assists count went up from two to three, though between January 1 and the end of the season his expected assists (xA) value was just 0.77, suggesting he benefited from some help from his team-mates.

Joao Felix's influence in build-up play did not change dramatically, only going down to 4.0 shot-ending sequence involvements from 4.9, which was not massively better than he managed in 2019-20 (4.64), but he lacked the sharpness to make the difference at the top end of the pitch as often.

Hopefully 2021-22 will have less upheaval for him and allow for greater consistency. With Messi gone, LaLiga needs a new headline superstar – Joao Felix has the talent, but whether Atletico and Simeone can truly harness it is another matter entirely.

Nevertheless, Atleti excelled even when Joao Felix was not hitting the heights expected. As they see Barca and Madrid appearing significantly weaker, Simeone and his players are heading into 2021-22 as the team to beat.

Curtis Jones has been ruled out of Liverpool's opening Premier League game of the season at Norwich City through concussion.

The 20-year-old has featured in three of Liverpool's four pre-season friendlies and was pushing for inclusion for Saturday's trip to Carrow Road.

However, Jones was replaced during the first half of Monday's 3-1 win over Osasuna following a collision and will not be available this weekend as per concussion protocols.

"He had a slight concussion so we just have to follow the protocol," Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp told the club's official website.

"He is fine, he feels fine again, but that’s the protocol. He is available for training from Sunday on I think."

Liverpool will also be without influential left-back Andy Robertson for their meeting with Norwich, one which Jones would have been in contention to start.

The academy product made 24 appearances in the Premier League for the Reds last term, averaging 68.07 successful passes per 90 minutes, sitting him behind only Thiago Alcantara (74.64) and Jordan Henderson (83.51) among Liverpool midfielders.

Thiago and Henderson both made substitute appearances against Osasuna after returning to Liverpool following Euro 2020 duty - and both are in contention to play a part against Norwich.

Asked if there are any other fitness doubts besides Robertson and Jones, Klopp said: "No, not from an injury point of view.

"But yeah, a few players had a shorter pre-season than others. All the others are healthy."

Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 14 Premier League matches against Norwich ahead of this latest meeting, scoring 44 goals across that period at an average of 3.1 per game.

Manchester United forward Anthony Martial is confident he will rediscover his best form this season after an injury troubled 2020-21 campaign.

Martial missed the end of the previous season and then failed to make France's Euro 2020 squad due to a knee injury sustained in March.

The 25-year-old – signed from Monaco in 2015 – scored seven goals from 36 appearances in all competitions last season, helping United to 21 wins.

Martial's goal tally was the fewest he has managed in a season since joining United, while a figure of 29 chances created also represents his lowest creative output during his Old Trafford career to date.

He made 27 starts in total and attempted 66 shots, with a conversion rate of 10.61 per cent, lower than fellow forwards Edinson Cavani (28.33 per cent from 60 attempts), Marcus Rashford (17.07 from 123) and Mason Greenwood (12 from 100).

With United bolstering their attacking ranks with the arrival of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, Martial has been linked with a move away from the club, Serie A champions Inter – who appear to be on the verge of selling Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea – rumoured as a potential destination.

However, reports have also suggested United have no intention of selling Martial, who is intent to make up for lost time.

"I am feeling a lot better after five long months," Martial, who made his first appearance of pre-season in Saturday's 4-0 thrashing of Everton, told United's official website.

"Getting back together with the team and training with them again, I really feel a great improvement. I am going to need a few more weeks to reach my top fitness levels, and I'm really happy just now to have made my return to training.

"To be honest, I was really happy to start [against Everton] after those long months without playing, it was tremendous to get back out there, especially with the fans and the win, brilliant.

"With the season I had last year, and the niggling injuries I had which prevented me from being at 100 per cent, I've since put in my best prep work, so as to be sure of coming back in the best form I can, and I hope I can get to my full fitness level as quickly as possible now, to set me up for a great season this time around.

"I hope to avoid injury, of course, and to be really ready and in top shape fitness-wise, to be able to have a great season, and win some trophies."

United kick-off their Premier League campaign at home against Leeds United on Saturday.

Jonny Bairstow says England can contend without Stuart Broad and James Anderson when India go in search of a rare Test win at Lord's.

Broad has been ruled out of the remainder of the five-match series after suffering a torn calf in training on Tuesday, while Anderson is expected to miss out with a quad injury.

Saqib Mahmood was called up to the squad on Wednesday and could make his debut in the absence of England's vastly experienced seam duo, with Moeen Ali poised to return in the longest format.

Bairstow cited the ODI series against Pakistan, which England won despite having to name a totally new squad at the eleventh hour following a coronavirus outbreak, as an example that other players can step in and take their chance.

“It would be a big loss [if both Anderson and Broad miss out], naturally, because they've got over a thousand Test wickets between them," said Bairstow.

"I don’t think it's too much of a destabiliser to be honest. I think with the nature of professional sport there is going to be injuries at times, there is going to be illness, it can happen overnight and you've got to be adaptable within the group.

"It's potentially a loss but with that comes an opportunity for other people. When we've seen that previously in the summer, in the Pakistan series, there were opportunities that arose for other people coming in and they rose to those challenges."

India also suffered an injury blow, with seamer Shardul Thakur missing due to a hamstring problem.

Ravichandran Ashwin could come into the team as a second spinner, while Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav are pushing for recalls.

The first Test ended in a draw after the final day was washed out at Trent Bridge, with the tourists chasing 209 to win. Both sides were docked two points in the ICC World Test Championship points for slow-over rates in Nottingham.

 

 

ROOT BACK ABOVE KOHLI BUT IN NEED OF SUPPORT

Joe Root's exploits in the opening Test moved him above India captain Virat Kohli into fourth in the ICC Test Batting Rankings.

Root came to the rescue with a masterful 109 in the second innings after the England skipper top scored with 64 in his side's 183 all out in the first innings.

England's top three of Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley are under pressure, with Haseeb Hameed waiting for his chance to step in.

 

KOHLI: MOEEN A DANGER MAN

All-rounder Moeen is poised to switch from The Hundred to the Test arena after he was called up this week.

Moeen claimed match figures of 8-226 when he returned to the Test stage against India in Chennai six months ago and Kohli is well aware of his quality.

Kohli said: "We are wary of his skills. He's obviously a very talented cricketer, brings consistency with the ball and as a middle-order or lower-order batsman. Especially in Test cricket, he can change the momentum of the game with the bat. 

"He's in great form right now, he's batting really well and with the ball he is always someone that the team has banked on, so we will have to be at our best going up against Moeen."

KEY OPTA FACTS

- England have lost just two of their 18 Tests against India at Lord's, winning 12 and drawing two. The last India win at the famous venue came in 2014. 
- England have failed to register a win in their past six Test matches (D2, L4), their longest winless run since 2017-2018, when they failed to register a win in eight matches (D2 L6).
- Root (8,887) is 14 away from becoming the second-highest run-scorer for England in Test history (Graham Gooch – 8,900). Root is the only player to score over 1,000 runs since the beginning of 2021 in the longest format.
- Ravichandran Ashwin (413) is five away from becoming the third-highest Test wicket-taker for India, with Harbhajan Singh on 417.

Chelsea's Champions League final win in May was their third consecutive victory over Manchester City in all competitions.

Only two managers have ever beaten Pep Guardiola three times in a row since he left Barcelona B: Jurgen Klopp, and now Thomas Tuchel.

It was Klopp's Liverpool who denied City three Premier League titles in three seasons when they triumphed in 2019-20. It's Tuchel's Chelsea who look best placed to wrestle the crown from the head of the champions in 2021-22.

The Blues begin their campaign in the UEFA Super Cup against Europa League winners Villarreal: no pushovers, as Manchester United will tell you, but a team who will not be expected to win in Belfast.

It could be a double celebration for Chelsea fans, too, as a deal to bring Romelu Lukaku back to the club from Inter looks set to be concluded shortly. It could well be Belgium's record goalscorer who makes the difference when Tuchel targets the club's first league title since 2017...

Putting it bluntly...

Chelsea went unbeaten in their first 14 games under Tuchel after he replaced Frank Lampard as head coach in January. They secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and won the Champions League for the second time.

It seems strange, then, to say they weren't particularly good going forward.

From Tuchel's appointment on January 26 to the end of last season, Chelsea scored 38 goals in all competitions, as many as Granada and Montpellier over the same time frame. By contrast, Tottenham scored 49, Manchester United 58, and City 70. A 4-1 win at Crystal Palace on April 10 remains the only occasion Tuchel's Chelsea have scored more than twice in a game.

The lack of cutting edge was not for a paucity of chances, either. They were third in the Premier League last term for shots, and their expected goals from open play in the top flight (42.5) was the fifth-best in the division. The problem was they underperformed that value by 6.5 – only Liverpool (6.6) did worse among top-half teams.

They may have found a €115million solution to that problem.

Rom's redemption

Lukaku enjoyed the season of his career in 2020-21. With 30 goals and 11 assists, only six players in Europe's top-five leagues were directly involved in more goals. All of those assists came from open play, too, a figure nobody in Serie A could better.

By contrast, Chelsea's most productive forward was Timo Werner (12 goals, 11 assists), with the Germany international's xG of 21.07 significantly down on Lukaku's 30.02. Werner was, of course, scrutinised ever more intensely for failing to take his opportunities (he scored 28.57 per cent of his 'big chances'), but there were no such problems for Lukaku, who converted 51.02 per cent of his.

Lukaku, of course, is more than a goalscorer. He created 63 chances last term, more than any Chelsea player except Mason Mount (109). He also completed 67 dribbles, a figure only two players surpassed for Tuchel's team. He was equally adept at carving out opportunities as he was at taking them, his partnership with Lautaro Martinez firing Inter to their first Scudetto in over a decade.

It's that all-round threat that was too often missing in his days at United, when Jose Mourinho deployed him generally as a rudimentary target man, not as the roving forward sometimes seen starting out wide for his country. The Lukaku of 2021 is a player who thrives when involved in sequences of play, not just when trying to finish them.

Given Chelsea were second only to City last season for passes per sequence (4.83), sequences of 10 or more passes (778) and build-up attacks (187), Lukaku will have every chance to operate at the heart of things.

Impregnable

Tuchel's first 10 Premier League matches produced only 13 goals, an average of 1.3 per game. There were 12 goals scored in their preceding two league matches alone.

We know about their limitations in attack, but the lack of consistent goal-fests also proves just how strong in defence they have become.

Only Manchester City and Liverpool faced fewer shots than Chelsea (336) in the Premier League last season, while they conceded 36 goals, a number only beaten by the champions. There was also just one game where they conceded more than a single goal under Tuchel: that bizarre 5-2 home defeat to West Brom, when the Baggies played like peak Barcelona, and Chelsea played like... well, like last season's West Brom.

Even with that defeat considered, Chelsea's expected goals against under Tuchel was just 20.53, well below City (26.58) or anyone else in England's top flight across all competitions. They kept 10 clean sheets in their first 14 league games under the German, equalling the quickest time for a manager to reach such a figure in Premier League history (Luiz Felipe Scolari did it in 2008).

From Tuchel's first game to the end of the season, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) than Chelsea in all competitions. And now, they reportedly want to add Sevilla's talented Jules Kounde to their defensive options.

The game against Villarreal in Northern Ireland could well showcase the new English champions in waiting.

Phil Foden could miss the opening month of Manchester City's Premier League title defence with the foot injury that ruled him out of the Euro 2020 final and left him in tears.

England playmaker Foden was laid low during the build-up to the Wembley showdown with Italy, having impressed in an extra-time cameo against Denmark in the semi-finals.

Roberto Mancini's Azzurri prevailed on penalties as the 21-year-old was restricted to a watching brief and, with City beginning their top-flight campaign at Tottenham on Sunday, he will be out of action once more.

Back-to-back home games against newly promoted Norwich City and Arsenal will also come too soon, with a September 11 trip to Leicester City after the international break or the following weekend's game against Southampton representing possible return dates.

"It's still a little bit sore. It was such a shame to do it just before the Euro final, it was really unfortunate," Foden told Sky Sports News.

"I'm working hard in the gym. Hopefully I can get back as soon as possible. I would say around three to four weeks more.

"Hopefully it flies by and I can get back on the pitch."

Foden was named PFA Young Player of the Year, scoring 16 goals and laying on 10 assists across all competitions as Pep Guardiola's side won a fourth consecutive EFL Cup and their third league title in four seasons.

Nevertheless, there were also moments of bitter disappointment, as Chelsea claimed a 1-0 win over their Premier League counterparts in the Champions League final before a crestfallen Foden discussed being ruled out of the Euros showpiece with England boss Gareth Southgate.

"I remember speaking to the manager when I got injured and I just burst out crying with tears, with devastation that I was injured,” he revealed.

"I was just praying on that day that the team won and unfortunately we didn't. But we're proud of what we did, we created history in getting to the final and I think next time we go into a major tournament it's going to help us.

"It was so good to see in the changing room how together everyone was. It was a special moment to share with the team.

"Come the [2022] World Cup, I feel like those experiences can only help us."

Alongside Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and John Stones, another member of that England dressing room is now a club colleague.

Jack Grealish joined City for a British record £100million from Aston Villa last week and Foden is relishing lining up alongside him.

"We're close. When I first went to England we got on really well on and off the pitch," he said of Grealish.

"I'm really glad he's signed here and hopefully I can get back playing with him and enjoy my football.

"He's fearless on the ball, he can change a game on his own. I believe he's a really special player for us this year and he's going to be key for us."

England seamer Stuart Broad will miss the remainder of the Test series against India after tearing his right calf.

Broad suffered the injury during the warm-up in training on Tuesday and will play no further part in the five-match series.

England called up Saqib Mahmood as cover on Wednesday, with James Anderson also set to miss the second Test at Lord's this week after struggling with a tight thigh.

An England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) statement read: "England seamer Stuart Broad has sustained a tear to his right calf and has been ruled out of the Test series against India.

"He underwent an MRI scan in London on Wednesday lunchtime, which revealed a tear."

Mahmood could be set to make his Test debut on Thursday in the absence of England's vastly experienced new-ball pairing of Broad and Anderson.

Pace duo Mark Wood and Craig Overton are also pushing for recalls, while off-spinning all-rounder Moeen Ali was added to the squad this week following a first Test that ended in a draw at Trent Bridge.

To paraphrase the apocryphal question asked of Abraham Lincoln's widow, "Aside than that, Mr Laporta, how was the lunch?"

When Lionel Messi jetted into El-Prat last Wednesday, it was to complete the formalities of a long-awaited contract extension that would commit him to the club of his life for the rest of his career.

At least, that's what the six-time Ballon d'Or winner and pretty much everyone else thought until he sat down for lunch with club president Joan Laporta on Thursday. After that, all hell broke loose.

"We had everything agreed but, at the last minute, it couldn't happen," he said at his tearful Sunday news conference, with the rampaging shambles of Barca's financial, internal and political affairs having put paid to the best laid plans.

Messi is now a Paris Saint-Germain player. It will be a jarring thing to type and read for some time, and the claims, counter-claims and recriminations over how Barcelona allowed things to reach this point of collapse will rumble on for some time.

It feels like a barely relevant sidenote that four days on from their greatest ever player addressing the media and being paraded around Paris, Barcelona will host Real Sociedad to begin their LaLiga campaign. What, if anything, can Ronald Koeman and his players salvage from the wreckage?

 

The Barcelona Way

The delayed election campaign that secured Laporta's return to the top job – his initial term between 2003 and 2010 having overseen the transformative tenures of Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola – was a fraught one for Koeman.

Victor Font, one of Laporta's rival candidates, pledged to bring in club great Xavi if he was successful, while the eventual winner's support for Koeman was tenuous and conditional at best.

After a chaotic 2019-20 season, where Ernesto Valverde's lamentable sacking cleared the way for Quique Setien to surrender LaLiga to Real Madrid and oversee the humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, Koeman was not a universally popular choice and easily viewed a stop-gap appointment.

Whereas Messi wanted to stay but had to leave this time around, last August he wanted to leave but had to stay – relations with Laporta's predecessor Josep Maria Bartomeu having broken down. On the field, the Blaugrana were inevitably a little bit all over the place.

But after a chastening 2-1 loss to Cadiz on December 5, Barcelona and a rejuvenated Messi went 19 games unbeaten in LaLiga. It was almost enough for an unlikely title success, but the run ended with a 2-1 defeat away to Real Madrid on April 10.

Koeman lost both Clasicos and his Barca only took a point from Atletico Madrid, failing to score in either game against the eventual champions. There were heavy Champions League losses to Juventus and PSG, and Koeman's record in big games was and is an obvious concern.

Yet, it was fairly bizarre to see the Dutchman treated with such disregard during the electioneering, which ran parallel to the long undefeated streak. After tinkering with various formations earlier in the season, Koeman had settled upon a 3-4-3 in which his team thrived.

Nevertheless, in May, it was reported by Mundo Deportivo that Laporta demanded Koeman commit to Barca's classic 4-3-3 and brand of football married to the club's traditions. A stay of execution would be dependent upon one of Johan Cruyff's former disciples committing to the Barcelona Way.

Back to the future

Looking at their performances from last season, it is easy enough to spot elements of classical Barcelona in Koeman's side.

They scored the most goals in LaLiga and had the highest expected goals (xG) figure of any team, indicating they cumulatively created a better quality of chances than their rivals.

The way they got to this point was also very Barca.

No side in LaLiga had a higher average sequence time than the Blaugrana's 14.27 seconds, while their average of 5.52 passes per sequence was also a league best. They were the only team to average above five.

In terms of sequences featuring 10 or more passes, they were streets ahead with 910. The next most 10+ pass sequences came from Madrid with 662. As a consequence, Barcelona also ranked top for build-up attacks – open-play sequences of 10 or more passes that end either with a shot or a touch in the opposition box.

Now as then in the glory days of Guardiola, you spend a lot of time chasing the ball against Barcelona.

Pedri enjoyed a breakout campaign so good he's only just been allowed to finish it, shining for Spain at Euro 2020 and the Olympic Games, while the evergreen Sergio Busquets ticked away in his customary style to average 95.52 passes per game. The next best midfielder in LaLiga on that metric was Madrid's Toni Kroos on 85.76.

 

Frenkie de Jong developed a knack of chiming in with some important goals from midfield after the turn of the year, while also showing his versatility by slotting into the back three when injuries and circumstances required.

Consider the presence of Riqui Puig and teenage sensation Gavi and the "take the ball, pass the ball" part of the Cruyffian legacy remains in safe hands, albeit with the fairly large assumption that there remains room for all of them on the accounts.

Pressing concerns

The other key facet of the teams in which Messi rose to his place at the top of the world game was their work without the ball.

Teams being at their most vulnerable in transition is now an accepted reality of the modern game, but Guardiola's Barcelona swarming opponents as soon as they lost the ball altered perceptions of what was required of elite teams in terms of intelligent commitment to the cause.

Barca operated under their six-second rule, which had nothing to do with anybody dropping food on the floor. They attempted to retrieve possession within six seconds of losing it via immediate and intensive pressing. If this was not possible, they would fall back into a defensive shape to guard against opponents now settled in possession and more able to play through the press.

Pressing methods and teams' aptitude in dealing with them have obviously evolved since Barcelona scared the life out of European football a little over a decade ago, but the principles remain. If a team wishes to play a high-possession game with a high defensive line, their defending from the front as to be impeccable.

In 2020-21, Koeman's side were merely quite good in this regard. Passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a metric that indicates how well a team presses. The lower the average number of passes an opponent is allowed to make outside the pressing team's defensive third before being met with a defensive action – such as a tackle, interception or a foul – the better the press.

Barca's 10.6 PPDA put them sixth best in LaLiga last season, below Celta Vigo, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Getafe and Real Betis. Although they scored the most goals from high turnovers (seven), this can be attributed to the sharp finishing of Messi and others, as their 37 shot-ending high turnovers were only the eighth highest.

They are not numbers that suggest Laporta's fantasy of seeing a whirring 4-3-3 back in motion is one grounded in reality. By comparison, Luis Enrique's "MSN" Barca of 2014-15 averaged a staggering 7.0 PPDA. Had Messi remained, his capacity to do this sort of work is diminished, but that is now a puzzle for Mauricio Pochettino to solve.

Messi's great friend Sergio Aguero is one of the attacking reinforcements, although a calf injury means he will be sidelined for 10 weeks. If the masterful Argentina striker's body still allowed him to press with suitable intensity, he would probably still be with Guardiola at Manchester City.

 

Memphis Depay is fit to start the new season and some of the onus will fall upon the Netherlands international to sharpen Barca up a little.

He comes from a Lyon side who forced more shot-ending high turnovers than any other in Ligue 1 last season (62), while his 25 instances of winning possession back in the final third placed him joint fifth among forwards in the French top-flight. 

Antoine Griezmann won the ball 24 times deep in opposition territory last term in LaLiga, alongside 37 tackles and 100 recoveries, all of which were highs among Barca forward. He and Depay could certainly prove a useful nuisance in tandem.

Getting on with the job

Of course, it is not entirely certain Barcelona will be able to register Depay with LaLiga in time to face Real Sociedad, such is their parlous financial state.

Laporta claims this will not be a problem. But then, he said he'd re-sign Messi and essentially ran for election on a pledge he spectacularly failed to fulfil.

If it turns out Barca passed up on Messi because they decided to reject LaLiga's deal with CVC Capital Partners and its associated cash injection in favour of remaining in cahoots with Real Madrid and Florentino Perez's doomed Super League project, it's unlikely holding Laporta to account over whether or not Koeman plays 4-3-3 will be the top of anyone's agenda. It should be noted Madrid president Perez said it was "impossible" for him to have had such an influence, in response to allegations levelled by former Espai Barca Commission member Jaume Llopis.

One of the major reservations surrounding Koeman's appointment was whether he was the man to win Messi more Champions Leagues, with the clock ticking on the great man's career.

 

This might feel like an absurd grasp for positives and Koeman would be better off if the greatest player of all time was in his squad, but he is at least without one of the big over-arching narratives that Barca have specialised in both constructing and crushing themselves with over recent years.

Valverde was saddled with "only" winning LaLiga as European glory painfully slipped away. If Koeman can wrest back domestic control in these conditions, it would be recognised as a brilliant achievement in its own right. The atmosphere among fans back in Camp Nou might be perilous in the initial post-Messi weeks, but a few wins will place a defiant siege mentality within reach.

Since Cruyff was appointed head coach in 1988, this will be the first season without the late Dutch master, Guardiola or Messi – those three giants of the modern Barcelona – having any active association with the club. It is time for an institution on its knees to let go and turn the page.

Koeman put together a team that functioned well amid considerable turbulence last season and should be allowed to improve upon that template with the fine players that still remain, free from any Mes Que Un Club self-flagellation as Laporta tends to the dumpster fire he inherited and chucked a vat of petrol all over last week.

LaLiga's deal with CVC Capital Partners has been labelled "totally illegal" by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF).

The €2.7billion (£2.3bn) arrangement that was announced last week would see private equity firm CVC acquire 10 per cent of the league's commercial business.

The other 90 per cent of the investment was earmarked to boost cash-strapped clubs in the top two tiers of Spanish football amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the deal – which must be approved by two thirds of the 42 clubs involved at Thursday's general assembly – was heavily criticised by Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Madrid and Barca allege the agreement affects all clubs' audiovisual rights for the next 50 years, with Los Blancos threatening to take legal action against LaLiga and president Javier Tebas as they were not properly consulted.

In a long statement released on their official website on Wednesday, the RFEF said it is also totally opposed to the proposal that has been put forward.

The statement read: "This operation, carried out with the absence of the slightest publicity and concurrence in the selection of the successful bidder, has two parts. The one related to the commercialisation of audiovisual rights, on the one hand; and the rest of the LNFP businesses, which make up a heterogeneous group, on the other.

"Regarding the agreements between the LNFP and CVC related to the audiovisual rights of sports clubs and corporations, the RFEF must express its opposition. 

"Not only for legal reasons, which will undoubtedly generate numerous litigation derived from the agreement and may put its own viability in doubt, since it is intended to force some legal institutions to the extreme; but also for economic reasons, since the rights of clubs and SADs are heavily taxed for the next fifty years in exchange for a small amount of money. 

"But the most important thing is that the agreement increases inequality and, in a capital and definitive way, makes a reasonable evolution of the format of professional football competition in Spain impossible. 

"Causing that in practice and in application of the agreement the competition is petrified without the possibility of evolution or can only be modified when a third party outside the sports structure so decides or agrees, a fact that flagrantly violates the law and the European sports model. 

"In addition, forget about the clubs that play non-professional competitions that, at the time of their promotion to professional competition, will see that their income is reduced by CVC's remuneration, without having obtained any benefit from the contribution of that entity."

The RFEF also claims the agreement with CVC does not account for the clubs who will be promoted to LaLiga further down the line, which would see their income reduced if not paid upfront.

"If there are clubs who, with their own rights, wish to indebt themselves voluntarily, they are free to do so, whether at market rates or extortionate ones, but not through a totally illegal agreement which obliges everyone else, via a false attribution on the part of the LNFP of rights it does not own," the statement continued.

"We consider this attempt to bypass the law and create an agreement which is economically dreadful and deplorable in terms of the future of Spanish football while, in contrast, excellent for an investment fund and other possible beneficiaries.

"The RFEF must also warn that it will not allow during these 50 years any reduction in the contribution from audio-visual rights given to the lower tiers of football."

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