Manchester United have confirmed Nicky Butt will leave his role as head of first-team development within the club's academy.

Butt has spent the past nine years working in United's academy, in coaching and player development.

A former team-mate of United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Butt won six Premier League titles, three FA Cups, the Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup during his 12-year stint as a first-team player at Old Trafford.

He left for Newcastle United in 2004 but returned to the Red Devils as part of the coaching staff in 2012, spending time as the United Under-23s interim manager in 2016-17.

During his time in charge of player development, current United stars Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Scott McTominay, Dean Henderson and Axel Tuanzebe have all progressed through the ranks.

"Having come through the academy myself to play almost 400 games for United, it has been an absolute privilege to come back and work with a new generation of talent making that same journey," Butt told the club's official website.

"I'm proud of the role everyone on the staff plays in giving our young footballers the best possible chance of fulfilling their potential, and the results are clear to see in the increased number of homegrown players reaching the first team."

Solskjaer added: "Nicky will always be a legend of United as a six-time Premier League winner and, of course, an integral part of our treble-winning team.

"That pedigree has made him a great source of guidance and inspiration to our academy players since he returned to the club. We are all going to miss him but Nicky knows he will always be welcome back."

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

Alvaro Morata believes Cristiano Ronaldo is happy at Juventus but says the superstar forward will certainly have been affected by the criticism directed his way.

Ronaldo joined Juve in 2018, signing a four-year deal in Turin.

He has gone on to help the Bianconeri to successive Serie A titles – their eighth and ninth in a row – yet has not been able to propel the team to Champions League glory.

It is a failure that cost both Massimiliano Allegri and Maurizio Sarri their jobs, while latest incumbent Andrea Pirlo will also be unable to count European success among any accolades this season, with Juve falling to Porto in the last 16 earlier this month.

Juve's chances of a 10th consecutive Serie A title also look slim, with a shock defeat to Benevento last time out leaving Pirlo's side 10 points adrift of leaders Inter.

With just over a year remaining on his contract, speculation around Ronaldo's future is rife.

And although Morata hopes his team-mate stays put, he understands why the 36-year-old – who was heavily criticised following Juve's Champions League exit – may be disappointed with what the Bianconeri have achieved in recent seasons.

"We have all been criticised but no one in the team has won as many trophies as he has," Morata, who is on international duty with Spain, told Cadena SER's El Larguero programme.

"It has affected all of us and whoever says it hasn't is lying. I am the first to know when I receive criticism. I'm sure he will know when he is criticised too. I don't have to explain who Cristiano is because we all know.

"Small details were what decided the Porto game. We are all to blame. If I had scored that header in the first half we would be in the quarter-finals.

"But you have to look on the positive side. We won the [Supercoppa Italiana], we have another cup final against Atalanta. We have to look at this season as one of change. Some things can be improved and that is all there is to it."

Asked about his relationship with Ronaldo, Morata replied: "We talk about everything apart from football. We spend a lot of time together and, when we aren't playing, we talk about all kinds of subjects, life, the world we live in.

"We talk about the pandemic situation in Spain, in Portugal.

"He gives that sensation because he is so used to being at the top. It's nothing to do with Juve because he would be the same at any other club.

"He seems happy to me but, the thing is, he is so used to winning that it's understandable he feels disappointed – as we all do. But he's happy at Juve."

Morata came through the ranks at Madrid while Ronaldo – who has scored 30 goals in all competitions for Juve this term – was in the middle of his Los Blancos career.

"I've never thought about that," Morata said when asked if Ronaldo could move back to the Santiago Bernabeu.

"A few years ago a friend asked me the same question but you know I am not going to answer. I want Cristiano to stay at Juve because I want Juve to have the best players.

"I hope to have him near but I'll be pleased with whatever he decides to do that makes him happy."

Bayern Munich wing-back Alphonso Davies wants to raise awareness for the plight of refugees worldwide after he was named as a global goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Canada international, 20, was born to Liberian parents in a refugee camp in Ghana after they fled their home country due to civil war.

Davies and his family were resettled to Canada when he was five, and at 16 he became the youngest ever player to represent the country's national team.

He is the first footballer to take on such a role with the UNHCR and vowed to help give refugees around the world a voice.

Davies told the agency's website: "I am proud to join the UN Refugee Agency as a goodwill ambassador. My own experiences make me want to speak up for refugees, to share their stories and to help make a difference.

"Whilst the refugee camp provided a safe place for my family when they fled war, I often wonder where I would have been if I had stayed there and not benefited from the opportunities I got thanks to resettlement. 

"I don't think I would have made it to where I am today. I want people to know about the importance of helping refugees, wherever they are, in camps or cities, in neighbouring countries or countries of resettlement such as Canada.

"Refugees need our support to survive, but also access to education and sports, so they can fulfil their potential and truly thrive."

UNHCR head Filippo Grandi added: "Alphonso personifies the power of sport and we are truly honoured to have him joining us. 

"Sport has the incredible power to bring hope, to heal and to help shape the future for those forced to flee. In our work with refugees, we see daily what uplifting difference sports can make in their lives.

"His personal story, his talent and triumph as a professional footballer and his commitment to help refugees is impressive. I am looking forward to working with him."

Davies joined Bayern from Vancouver Whitecaps in July 2018 and was a key part of their 2019-20 treble-winning campaign and subsequent Club World Cup victory.

He has played 52 matches in the Bundesliga, tasting victory on 39 occasions, with five goals and six assists in the competition.

Davies has one goal and one assist, from 15 chances created, in the 2020-21 season.

Veteran Jamaican racehorse trainer Wayne DaCosta, who was hospitalized in February, has died.

France have named fly-half Romain Ntamack in the XV for their potential Six Nations-winning finale with Scotland on Friday.

The 21-year-old Stade Toulousain man replaces Matthieu Jalibert, who misses out with the head injury sustained during their thrilling 32-30 win over Wales last Saturday.

Ntamack was the 2020 Six Nations player of the Championship and would have been first choice in this campaign had he not suffered a jaw injury in December which gave Jailbert the chance to feature.

The match was originally scheduled for February 28 but a COVID-19 outbreak in the French camp saw the fixture postponed.

France must record a bonus-point victory, and win by at least 21 points, or claim a 20-point win and score at least six tries, to snatch the title away from Wales.

If France score precisely five tries and are victorious by 20 points the Championship will be shared for the first time since 1988.

In a twist of circumstance, it was Wales and France who shared the honours on that occasion, when the tournament was the Five Nations.

The return of Ntamack is one of two enforces changes, and five overall, made by France coach Fabien Galthie.

Paul Willemse is suspended after his red card against Wales so Galthie has decided to pair Swan Rebbadj and Bernard Le Roux at second row, with Romain Taofifenua named among the replacements.

Anthony Jelonch has been selected ahead of Dylan Cretin at blindside flanker, while centre Arthur Vincent comes in at inside centre as Gael Fickou moves to the wing with Teddy Thomas dropped to the bench.

"The Scots have the best defence in the tournament. They are very well organised and well disciplined," Galthie told France Rugby.

"We must not be wrong about what is at stake. You have to win the match, the rest will come later. We have to focus on performance and winning the match, we'll see what happens next."

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend makes four changes to his XV as outside centre Chris Harris, scrum-half Ali Price, hooker George Turner and fly-half Finn Russell return.

Russell is back from concussion which means captain Stuart Hogg returns to full-back while Sean Maitland stands aside.

Huw Jones, Scott Steele and Dave Cherry will be on the bench, where they are joined by Adam Hastings, who may feature for the first time in the tournament after injury and suspension absences.

"The match against France provides us with an opportunity to finish the Six Nations in our highest position in its history," Townsend told Scottish Rugby.

"This is a great opportunity for us to take on France, at home in Paris, as they also look to end the championship on a high."

France: Brice Dulin, Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa, Arthur Vincent, Gael Fickou, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Swan Rebbadj, Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Camille Chat, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Uini Atonio, Romain Taofifenua, Dylan Cretin, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Bouthier, Teddy Thomas.

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, George Turner, Zander Fagerson, Sam Skinner, Grant Gilchrist, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Matt Fagerson.

Replacements: Dave Cherry, Oli Kebble, Simon Berghan, Alex Craig, Nick Haining, Scott Steele, Adam Hastings, Huw Jones.

Wellington Phoenix eased to a 4-1 win over Melbourne Victory to hand the A-League's bottom club a ninth defeat in 12 matches this season.

A fourth consecutive loss for Grant Brebner's side looked on the cards from the moment Tomer Hemed scored a majestic 11th-minute opener for the hosts.

Reno Piscopo produced a dazzling piece of control to bring a high clearance under his spell, launching a blistering counter-attack where skipper Ulises Davila laid on Hemed to finish.

David Ball was the beneficiary of a 36th-minute goalmouth scramble before the picture-perfect goals returned as Davila curled home from outside the box after the hour.

Clayton Lewis got his first A-League goal as Victory again showed their vulnerability on the break, rendering Elvis Kamsoba's dinked finish to be scant consolation.

In Wednesday's later game, Perth Glory and Sydney FC played out an entertaining 1-1 draw.

Bobo swivelled to volley home a fine equaliser in the 63rd minute for Sydney after Bruno Fornaroli enjoyed a tap-in at the back post shortly before half-time.

Sydney remain sixth, four points above Wellington in eighth.

Perth are down in 10th but their 14-point haul is double that managed by lowly Victory.

James Harden believes Brooklyn Nets have found good chemistry on the court despite the absence of key men Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash said Durant will not be risked for road games against Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons this week but is the final phase of rehabilitation.

Durant has been sidelined by a hamstring strain since mid-February and was absent from the team that topped the Portland Trail Blazers 116-112 on Tuesday.

The 32-year-old averages 29 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists from 19 games, but Nash said he will be absent again for the trips to Utah and Detroit on Wednesday and Friday respectively.

Harden led the way for the Nets against the Trail Blazers with a double-double as they go toe-to-toe with Philadelphia 76ers the Eastern Conference.

He posted 25 points and a career high-tying 17 assists to fuel the Nets in Portland as they won without Durant and fellow superstar Irving, who was absent for personal reasons.

Harden claimed the Nets have clicked into gear ahead of meeting with the Jazz on Wednesday.

"The team chemistry, it's there. It's right where we need it to be," the 31-year-old told NBA.com

"Obviously missing Kevin and Kyrie, I think everyone else has a sense of what their roles are, and they're doing it to the best of their ability every single night. 

"I'm really proud of the guys. In order to be a special team like we're more than capable of being, we've got to have a sense of urgency every possession.

"Our sense of urgency in the way we play and our effort and our intensity on the defensive end, has to be there no matter what."

On the Jazz's recent improvements Harden added: "I think they're healthy. They're healthy and they finally have clicked.

"I think that loss in the playoffs in the bubble last year got to them a little bit and so they have a fully healthy team that's well coached and everybody knows their role and they have a great system and it works for them."

The Nets (30-14) remain within a game of the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers (31-13) who held on to beat the Golden State Warriors 108-98 on Tuesday.

Behind Tobias Harris' 25 points and 13 rebounds and Ben Simmons' 22 points, the 76ers earned their fifth consecutive road victory – the team's longest winning streak away from home since winning seven straight in 2018.

76ers coach Doc Rivers was pleased with the natural rhythm to the way in which Harris performed as he turns his attention to Thursday's game with the LA Lakers.

Rivers said: ''What I liked about his game, he didn't force it, he kind of just let the game come to him. And he made plays, not just with his shot but with the pass.

''As a group, we've won nine out of 10 games, the guys are playing good basketball - no need to talk about it."

England will be without Bukayo Saka for their opening 2022 World Cup qualifier against San Marino due to a hamstring injury.

Saka has stayed with Arsenal to continue his rehabilitation and a tweet from England's official account said it was hoped the 19-year-old would join up with the squad "later this week".

England host minnows San Marino at Wembley in Gareth Southgate's 50th game at the helm on Thursday.

Marcus Rashford also sat out training on Wednesday as he continues to recover from the foot injury he sustained during Manchester United's Europa League triumph at Milan.

Rashford was absent as United were knocked out of the FA Cup by Leicester City last weekend but he joined up with England despite club boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saying he "wasn't close" to playing at the King Power Stadium.

The 23-year-old, who was laid low by a stress fracture to his back last term, recently dismissed fears over an excessive workload, but he has played more minutes than any forward in Europe's top five leagues this season across all competitions.

Rashford's 3,328 minutes on the field place him ahead of Lionel Messi (3,292), Mohamed Salah (3,257), Harry Kane (3,172) and the England captain's Tottenham colleague Son Heung-min (3,138) among the five most used attacking players.

Saka made his international breakthrough earlier this season and has won all four of his caps playing as a left wing-back.

However, he has truly excelled since switching to a right-wing role at Arsenal.

Since being deployed there in a 3-1 Boxing Day win over Chelsea, Saka has four goals and two assists in 13 Premier League appearances, creating 17 chances during that time.

Jesse Lingard has revealed Gareth Southgate pointed him down the path towards an England recall.

Southgate will take charge of his 50th game when England begin their World Cup qualifying campaign against San Marino at Wembley on Thursday.

His first, against Malta in October 2016, was also Lingard's international debut and the attacking midfielder became one of Southgate's key performers as England charted a surprise run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.

However, struggles for form and fitness at Manchester United, along with difficulties in his private life, saw Lingard fall out of the Three Lions picture.

In January he joined West Ham on loan and has been a player revitalised.

Five goals in seven Premier League appearances for David Moyes' men earned an England recall for the 28-year-old, who thanked Southgate for his counsel and his influence over the Hammers move.

"He's shown a lot of support and belief in me, he gave me my England debut, which I'm proud of," Lingard told talkSPORT.

"I still kept in contact with him even though I wasn't playing, just to get his advice on what I should do.

"It was just about the right move, whether it was going out to Europe or staying in the Premier League.

"He said, 'If I was you, I would stay in the Premier League'. After that, it was about finding a Premier League side and West Ham fitted in perfectly."

Since his West Ham debut against Aston Villa on February 3, only Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho (six) has more Premier League goals than Lingard (five), while he is level with England captain Harry Kane and Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan over the period in question.

His 12 shots on target are a joint Premier League best along with Kane, giving him a shot conversion rate of 23.8.

Lingard also has two assists for the Hammers and has created eight opportunities for team-mates overall.

 

Another man in from the cold, although less dramatically, is Manchester City centre-back John Stones.

Like Lingard, Stones was a mainstay at Russia 2018 but last played for England in November 2019 after his club form dwindled.

However, a supreme centre-back alliance with Ruben Dias for Premier League leaders City made a recall for the 26-year-old a virtual formality – not that he necessarily viewed it that way.

"It was difficult watching from home," Stones told reporters, having also acknowledged Southgate "texted now and then" when he was out of favour.

"You feel a bit helpless that you can't contribute and be a part of the squad, but I used it as a motivation to strive to be better.

"When I got the text the other day, it was a great feeling to be back involved and see all the faces I've got some great memories with.

"I was very nervous. I had worked so hard and I was hearing people say, 'you should be in'.

"But I didn't take any of that in until the text arrived. I wanted to hear from the source. I was absolutely made up."

City remaining in contention for four major honours shows how impressive their overall performances have been this season, but with Stones in the team their record verges on the absurd.

In 20 games where the former Everton defender has not played, Pep Guardiola's men have won 13, drawn five and lost two for a 65 per cent win rate. In these games they conceded 19 times.

Out of Stones' 26 appearances, City have won 24 alongside a draw and a loss and have conceded only seven times. This tallies to 0.3 goals against and 2.8 points per game and a win percentage of 92.3.

Mike Tyson has declared he will meet fellow former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield for a third time on May 29.

The two boxing icons, now aged 54 and 58 respectively, have frequently floated the prospect of a trilogy encounter since footage was published of Tyson training with impressive ferocity last year.

Tyson did indeed return to the ring in 2020, more than 15 years after his last professional outing, and boxed an exhibition against fellow great Roy Jones Jr.

Holyfield's representatives told The Athletic this week that Tyson's team had "rejected all offers" and they "ended up wasting our time" during negotiations.

But, during an Instagram Live interview with Haute Living, Tyson said the bout was "on" this Memorial Weekend.

"I just want everybody to know the fight is on with me and Holyfield," he said, with Hard Rock Stadium in Miami having been mooted as a potential venue.

"Holyfield is a humble man, I know that, and he's a man of God. But I'm God's man and I'm going to be successful, May 29."

Tyson and Holyfield's 1990s rivalry at the top of the heavyweight division has long gone down in sporting ignominy but remains a topic of grim fascination due to the abrupt and sudden ending to their second encounter in Las Vegas in 1997.

Having complained to referee Mills Lane about Holyfield using headbutts, Tyson bit a chunk out of the top of his opponent's right ear during a clinch in round three and spat it on to the canvas.

A delay ensued as Holyfield received medical treatment and Lane considered disqualifying Tyson before deciding against that course of action when ringside doctor said the reigning WBA champion was fit to continue, opting merely to deduct two points from the challenger.

However, Tyson then bit Holyfield's left ear when the action resumed and, when this became apparent at the end of round three, the fight was stopped.

That such a fiasco remains the defining event of their rivalry in the public imagination does Holyfield a disservice, such was the comprehensive and against-the-odds nature of his win in their initial meeting the previous November.

The former unified world cruiserweight champion had to bide his time for a shot at the self-styled 'Baddest Man on the Planet', with a planned meeting in 1990 thrown off course by Tyson's shock loss of his WBC, WBA and IBF belts to James 'Buster' Douglas.

Holyfield stopped Douglas inside three rounds of his first defence but losses to Michael Moorer and in two of his three thrilling bouts with Riddick Bowe, along with a brief retirement due to a heart complaint, gave the impression of boxing's only over four-time heavyweight champion being damaged goods by the time he got a crack at Tyson on the other side of the latter's prison sentence for rape.

But a then 34-year-old Holyfield came through some heavy weather early on to dominate Tyson and batter his compatriot to a stunning 11th-round defeat, setting the stage for a rematch that went down in history for all the wrong reasons.

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

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

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

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

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel is prioritising offensive work after seeing his side suffer a third successive defeat in the absence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

James suffered an ankle sprain last week, the issue forcing him to join Davis on the injury list, with the latter struggling due to a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis.

While James is only a recent absentee, Davis has already missed a considerable chunk of the season, with the Lakers 7-10 without him.

Center Davis is not expected back for at least another three weeks and there is growing concern James may yet need a similar amount of rest to avoid aggravating the problem.

The Lakers' latest setback came at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans in a 128-111 loss, meaning they have dropped to fourth in the Western Conference, and Vogel knows where he will be focusing much of his attention.

"We have a lot of emphasis on offensive side in last few days with LeBron and AD [Davis] out," he said. "I thought we had some growth, some real growth, some real positives about what we're doing offensively.

"We had a stretch in the second quarter where we hit a big drop that really hurt us in this game, but with the emphasis on the offensive end we didn't play well enough.

"We're going to miss guys like that, LeBron and AD, on both sides of the ball. So getting us organised offensively is probably by top priority right now.

"I know we can tighten up defensively but we've got to be better on that end."

Nevertheless, Vogel is also adamant he has enough quality at his disposal without James and Davis to steer the defending NBA champions back on track.

"We are staying positive, we have great belief in this group," he continued. "Even with Lebron and AD out, we can win games in this stretch and there's going to be a silver lining at the end of it.

"The growth we exhibit while shorthanded will pay dividends down the stretch. We're going to remain positive, keep playing super hard like today.

"We've just got to execute better and collect as many wins along the way as we can."

The international break might bring respite from the packed club calendar, but with Qatar 2022 now just 20 months away, top players have little chance for rest.

Still, the start of the European World Cup qualifiers brings an opportunity for the new names on the international scene to impress, particularly with more established stars unlikely to be involved in every minute of matches over these two weeks.

Several of the continent's top teams have offered first-time call-ups to those enjoying fine form and, while some were anticipated, others have left even the players themselves surprised.

We have picked through a selection of the new faces to look out for, with a sprinkling of Opta data to highlight why they deserve a chance to impress for their country.

 

Belgium: Orel Mangala and Albert Sambi Lokonga

Stuttgart's Orel Mangala has been linked with Arsenal and RB Leipzig due to his performances for Stuttgart this season. Only three midfielders have regained possession more often in the Bundesliga than the 23-year-old (166).

Also hoping to make his senior Belgium debut at the heart of midfield is Albert Sambi Lokonga, who assumed the captain's armband at Anderlecht less than a month after turning 21.

Lokonga, who could get a chance in place of the injured Axel Witsel, has regained possession 35 more times than any team-mate this season (157) and is also fourth for chances created (22).

Croatia: Kristijan Lovric

With Ante Rebic and Bruno Petkovic injured, the coming matches could offer a real chance to impress for Kristijan Lovric.

The HNK Gorica star is second in the top scorer standings in Croatia's top flight, with 15 goals in 24 appearances. With four assists also to his name, Lovric is behind only Tottenham's Europa League slayer Mislav Orsic and Ramon Mierez (both on 20) for direct goal involvements this season.

It's a seriously impressive return for the 25-year-old, particularly as he plays predominantly wide on the left of the Gorica attack.

England: Ollie Watkins

West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone may get the chance to win a first senior England cap, but a man almost certain to be given a chance in attack is Ollie Watkins.

The Aston Villa forward became the 10th Premier League player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool, and the first in a decade, in October's extraordinary 7-2 win over the reigning champions.

He has 10 in the top flight this term, while only captain Jack Grealish (17) has had more direct goal involvements than Watkins (15) in all competitions for Villa this season. Not bad for a man who was playing in England's sixth tier just six years ago.

 

Germany: Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala

Rising Bayern Munich star Jamal Musiala was expected to be named in Joachim Low's squad after he pledged his international future to Germany rather than England.

The 18-year-old, who only signed his first professional contract this month, is Bayern's youngest ever Champions League goalscorer and has already played 18 times in the Bundesliga this season.

Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz has also earned the right to shine on the senior stage. He is one of just two players under the age of 20 to be directly involved in at least eight goals across the top-five European leagues this season.

Italy: Rafael Toloi and Matteo Ricci

Brazilian-born Rafael Toloi has made it to the age of 30 without a senior international appearance, but his performances for Gian Piero Gasperini's outstanding Atalanta side made him hard to overlook.

Toloi averages seven possession regains per match for Atalanta this season and is comfortable when using the ball, completing 493 passes in the opposition half, the most of any Atalanta defender barring Berat Djimsiti.

Spezia midfielder Matteo Ricci, meanwhile, boasts 19 chances created in Serie A this season as well as 151 times winning back the ball, by far the highest tally for his team.

Netherlands: Jeremiah St Juste

Jeremiah St Juste has impressed at the back for Mainz this season, despite their involvement in a tense battle to avoid the drop.

There are only five Bundesliga defenders to win more tackles and duels combined than the 24-year-old this season (he has managed 165).

Previously a full-back with Feyenoord, St Juste brings a vital commodity to modern central defending: speed. Last season, he clocked a sprint of 22.1 miles per hour, bettered only at the time by Bayern winger Kingsley Coman.

Poland: Kacper Kozlowski

A relative unknown outside Poland, even Kacper Kozlowski himself was shocked to be called up to Paulo Sousa's squad this month.

Clearly, though, he has caught the eye for some all-action displays in the top flight for Pogon Szczecin. The 17-year-old averages 8.3 duels won and 17 passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes, each the most of any teenage midfielder in the competition.

Kozlowski, who is also renowned for a fierce long-range shot, has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs since making his senior debut at just 15, with Manchester United said to be among them.

 

Portugal: Joao Palhinha and Nuno Mendes

Linked with Manchester City (among others), Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes has been described as the standout young talent in Portugal's top flight.

Only Wilson Manafa (49) has completed more dribbles among defenders this season than Mendes (29), who has played in all but four of the unbeaten leaders' league matches.

The 18-year-old is joined in the Portugal squad by team-mate Joao Palhinha, a robust midfielder who has won 208 duels in the Primeira Liga in 2020-21 – no player in his position has won more.

Spain: Bryan Gil and Pedri

Pedri has been a revelation for Barcelona in his first season at Camp Nou, establishing himself as a key part of Ronald Koeman's midfield despite only turning 18 last November.

He has played 42 times already in 2020-21, the most of anyone at the club, and became the youngest player to record 100 touches in a single LaLiga game for at least 15 years against Osasuna this month.

Bryan Gil, meanwhile, has been thriving on loan at Eibar from Sevilla and in January became the second player born this century to score twice in the same LaLiga match, following in the footsteps of Ansu Fati.

 

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