Andy Murray marked his return to the Australian Open with a thrilling five-set win over Nikoloz Basilashvili and immediately targeted "a deep run" in the competition.

The three-time grand slam winner edged 21st seed Basilashvili 6-1 3-6 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 in a first-round match that lasted three hours and 52 minutes.

It is Murray's first win at the tournament in five years in what was his first outing at Melbourne Park since 2019, when he thought he might have to retire.

Murray was playing on the same court where a retirement video was played after defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut three years ago.

But the 34-year-old has battled back from injury setbacks admirably and last week reached his first ATP Tour final since October 2019 at the Sydney Classic.

With Japan's Taro Daniel now standing between Murray and a place in round three of the Australian Open, the five-time beaten finalist is eager to make up for lost time.

"It's amazing to be back," Murray said in his on-court interview. "It's been a tough three, four years. 

"I have put a lot of work to be back here and I have played on this court many times and the atmosphere has been incredible. 

"I have always had fantastic support and this is the court I thought I potentially played my last match on. 

"But it is good to be back, winning a five-set battle like that. I could not ask for any more.

"I would love to have a deep run here if possible. It's something I have not had at one of the slams since I came back from the injury and it is something that motivates me."

Wild card Murray broke hard-hitting Basilashvili nine times on John Cain Arena, but he looked physically drained as the match dragged on.

The former world number one showed incredible resolve to take the deciding set, however, against an opponent that had lost just once in seven previous five-set battles.

"I will hopefully keep improving. There are things in my game I can definitely do better," Murray said.

"I have played some of my best tennis here over the years. I feel comfortable here and I hope I can do well here this tournament."

Kyrie Irving does not feel compelled to change his stance regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the Brooklyn Nets potentially being without Kevin Durant for six weeks.

The seven-time NBA All-Star has refused to be vaccinated against coronavirus and is therefore banned from playing in home games due to New York's vaccine mandate.

Irving was left off the Nets' initial roster for the 2021-22 season, but that decision was reversed last month when the 29-year-old was included as a part-time player.

He has been restricted to four road games so far and has averaged 20 points, which is down on his career average of 22.8.

The Nets could do with Irving more than ever after losing Durant to a knee injury that will keep him out for at least a month, but the point guard is staying rooted to his decision.

"That's what I think comes into a lot of this culture and basketball and sport and entertainment," he said. "You bring in teams and you bring in situations. 

"Kev's going to heal, Kev's going to be okay, and we're going to have to deal with that as his team-mates. 

"But in terms of where I am with my life outside of this, I stay rooted in my decision. And that's just what it is.

"It's not going to be swayed just because of one thing in this NBA life. That somehow it's brought to my attention as being more important than what's going on in the real world. 

"It's just not happening for me. I respect everyone else's decision. I'm not going to try to convince anyone of anything or any of that, I'm just standing rooted in what I believe in. 

"Though we're dealing with this right now with Kev, I know I'm protected by the organisation, by my team-mates, by all the doctors I've talked to. And I just stand rooted."

 

Irving was speaking after leading Brooklyn with 27 points in their 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday – his best tally since returning to action this month.

The Nets are once again denied the chance to partner star trio James Harden, Durant and Irving, but head coach Steve Nash is hopeful others can step up.

"It's a great opportunity for guys and our team to grow," he said. "We can't rely on Kevin in ways we could, and we have to find ways and solutions to be competitive without him."

The Nets' 'Big Three' have played only 16 games together, going 13-3 across that period.

"It's a great challenge for us," Nash added. "I don't spend time dwelling on it. It wouldn't do us any good. It wouldn't do me any good. 

"It wouldn't do the team any good if the leader of the team is sitting at home contemplating how many games they haven't played.

"That would take me away from being excited and positive to come in every day and try to affect the group positively for these guys to feel empowered and to grow."

Real Madrid have announced that former star Paco Gento had died at the age of 88.

The former Spain international was considered one of his country's greatest players of the 20th century and formed part of one of the finest Madrid teams in history.

Gento scored 182 goals in 600 official matches for Los Blancos, winning a club-record 24 trophies, including 12 LaLiga titles and six European Cups. He remains the only man to have won Europe's top club competition more than five times.

He also won 44 caps for Spain and featured at the 1962 and 1966 World Cups.

"Paco Gento truly represents all the values of Real Madrid, and has been and will continue to be a reference for madridistas and for the sporting world," the club said in a statement on Tuesday announcing his passing.

"He will always be remembered by madridistas and all football fans as one of their greatest."

Francisco Gento, who began his career with regional teams in his native Cantabria, joined Racing Santander in 1953 before his transfer to Madrid, where he spent 18 hugely successful years.

A fast and skilful wide player, described by Madrid as one "many believe to be the best left-winger of all time", Gento was part of an historic side that included Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa and Hector Rial.

He was part of the team that won the first five European Cups from 1956 to 1960 before he captained an all-Spanish Madrid side – known as the 'Ye-ye' Madrid – to a sixth title in 1966. Gento played in eight finals in total, a record he shares with Milan great Paolo Maldini.

Gento also won 12 LaLiga titles between 1954 and 1969, before he took over as Castilla coach following his retirement in 1971. After spells coaching Castellon, Palencia and Granada, Gento took up an ambassadorial role with Madrid and became the club's honorary president following the death of Di Stefano in 2016.

"He was fast and he hit the ball like a cannon," Di Stefano said of his old team-mate, as per Radio Marca. "That's not something you learn, it's something you're born with. You can only teach the rest."

LeBron James scored 25 points as the Los Angeles Lakers snapped their three-game losing streak by beating the Utah Jazz on Monday.

A superb late show from Stanley Johnson, who hit 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, saw the Lakers respond to their loss to the Denver Nuggets two days ago by winning 101-95.

Utah were hoping that size mattered, with Rudy Gobert playing his second game back following a positive coronavirus test and Anthony Davis still sidelined.

Gobert came up with 19 points and 16 rebounds, his second double-double in as many days despite not attempting a shot until the second quarter, but he could not prevent Johnson's clever layup move that put the Lakers 89-87 ahead.

In reality, it was Johnson's day: having been re-signed to a 10-day contract earlier, he scored six consecutive points in the final quarter and tied the game at 83-83, making seven of his nine shots.

Russell Westbrook's 15 points also proved key, but it was his spectacular dunk over Gobert in the second quarter – called for a technical foul – that drew the biggest cheers.

 

Booker hits season-high 48 as Suns roll on

The Phoenix Suns moved to 34-9 with a fourth win in a row, defeating the San Antonio Spurs 121-107.

Devin Booker scored 48 points, his best return in a game this season, finishing 18-for-33 from the field and sinking five of 13 three-point attempts.

Double-doubles from Chris Paul and Bismack Biyombo helped the Phoenix to a dominant fourth-quarter display, outscoring the Spurs 34-16 as they made it five straight wins in San Antonio.

 

Adebayo back with a Bam, Doncic drags Mavs past Thunder

The Miami Heat edged out the Toronto Raptors 104-99 as All-Star center Bam Adebayo returned from six weeks out following thumb surgery.

Adebayo's 14 points and a triple-double from Jimmy Buttler of 19 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds helped the Heat move into a virtual tie for the lead in the Eastern Conference with the struggling Chicago Bulls.

The Dallas Mavericks made it three wins in a row, a triple-double from Luka Doncic helping them to hold off a second-half comeback from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 104-102 victory.

CJ McCollum, back from a 17-game absence caused by a collapsed lung, scored 16 points as the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Orlando Magic 98-88 – their 10th straight victory over the East's bottom side.

 

Daniil Medvedev is happy to be considered the favourite for the Australian Open title but says Rafael Nadal remains the man to beat at Melbourne Park.

World number two Medvedev is now the top-seeded player in the competition after Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia on Sunday.

Competing in his first grand slam since winning the US Open in September, Medvedev made a solid start by seeing off Henri Laaksonen 6-1 6-4 7-6 (7-3) on Tuesday.

The Russian, who lost last year's Australian Open final to Djokovic in straight sets, will now take on either Liam Broady or Nick Kyrgios in round two.

He is aiming to become the first man in the Open Era to follow up his maiden Grand Slam title with another in his next major appearance.

Medvedev is not shying away from the spotlight, but the 25-year-old considers Nadal the real favourite for the trophy because of his incredible record.

"I like pressure but last year I started well here in Australia in the ATP Cup and I managed to be in the final here," he said.

"The tournaments in Australia are always really important for me. I like to play in Australia on hard courts. I want to do better here than I did last year but it's not going to be easy.

"But I always say whoever is the highest ranked is the favourite so this time I will go with Rafa because he has 20 Grand Slams."

The 20 major singles titles won by Nadal is equal to Djokovic and Roger Federer, who is also absent in Melbourne due to injury, as the most by a men's player.

 

Just one of those titles have come at the Australian Open, however, with the Spaniard – who beat Marcos Giron in his opening match on Monday – going all the way in 2009.

Nadal and Medvedev are in opposite sides of the draw and are on course to meet in the final, but many challengers await between now and then.

That path became a little clearer on Tuesday as world number eight Casper Ruud withdrew from the tournament due to an injured ankle.

Ruud had been due to face Alex Molcan in the first round, but his place will be taken by lucky loser Roman Safiullin.

Matthew Stafford celebrated the end of his long wait for an NFL playoff win as the Los Angeles Rams sealed a stress-free victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Monday.

The quarterback produced an immaculate performance as the Rams won 34-11 at SoFi Stadium, the venue for this year's Super Bowl, in the first match to be played on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Stafford was 0-3 in playoff games over 12 years with the Detroit Lions but threw touchdown passes for Odell Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp while running for another to ensure there would be no disappointment this time.

His reward is a showdown with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Florida next Sunday in the divisional round. The Rams were one of just three teams to beat the reigning champions in the regular season – a 34-24 win back in Week 3.

A 52-yard drive in the first quarter ended with Stafford finding OBJ with a four-yard pass for the opening TD of the game, the latter's first in the postseason.

It marked what would prove to be a display of efficiency from Stafford, who threw 13 of 17 passes – his lowest of the season – for 202 yards but did not commit a single turnover.

Von Miller – playing in his first postseason game since being MVP of Super Bowl 50 – sacked Kyler Murray as the Cardinals failed to respond, and in the first drive of the second quarter, Stafford found Beckham again for a 31-yard gain that led to his chance to run in touchdown number two.

Things went from bad to worse for the Cardinals as a Rams punt ended on the Arizona 1, and Murray thought he finally had a first down when he threw to AJ Green, but Nick Scott tackled the ball away from him to what was eventually called an incomplete pass. On the next play, Murray was panicked into rushing his throw from his own endzone, leading to a pick six as David Long intercepted and ran in for the TD.

It took until more than halfway through the second quarter for the Cardinals to get a first down as they fell 21-0 behind at halftime, and they were not back on the scoreboard until a little over four minutes remained in the third quarter.

Having surrendered a 17-0 lead over the San Francisco 49ers last week, the Rams were determined to avoid a repeat, Beckham making NFL history as the first player in the postseason to finish with 30-yard receptions and completions in the same game.

Stafford's seven-yard pass let Kupp, who finished with a team-high five catches for 61 yards, quell any fears of a late Arizona response.

Petra Kvitova was convincingly beaten to bow out of the Australian Open in straight sets in the first round on Tuesday.

The Czech 20th seed, a finalist in Melbourne in 2019, was crushed 6-2 6-2 by Romanian Sorana Cirstea on John Cain Arena.

Kvitova produced a staggering 39 unforced errors with just seven winners to bow out in 71 minutes.

It continued a mixed record at Melbourne Park for the two-time Wimbledon champion.

Kvitova has now bowed out of a grand slam in the first round 11 times – with four of those coming at the Australian Open.

Cirstea will face either Misaki Doi or Kristina Kucova in this year's second round.

The 31-year-old also beat Kvitova at the Australian Open last year – in the second round.

The Las Vegas Raiders have fired general manager Mike Maycock in the wake of the playoff defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Las Vegas lost 19-26 in the AFC Wild Card game on Saturday, though NFL media have reported that the Raiders had already made their decision on Maycock.

He was appointed as GM in 2019 and leaves with a 25-24 record.

The Raiders are now searching for both a GM and a head coach, after they passed up the chance to keep on interim Rich Bisaccia.

Las Vegas won their last four games to secure an unlikely wildcard spot.

Jon Gruden resigned from his post in 2021 after it was revealed that he had written racist, misogynistic, and homophobic emails between 2011 and 2018.

Stefano Pioli has revealed the referee apologised after ruling out what should have been a valid Milan goal in Monday's defeat to Spezia.

The Rossoneri slumped to a shock 2-1 loss as Emmanuel Gyasi scored with almost the final kick of a thriller at San Siro.

Title rivals Inter drew 0-0 with Atalanta on Sunday, but Milan failed to claim a win that would have sent them to the Serie A summit.

The hosts dominated the first half and took a deserved lead through Rafael Leao, just after Theo Hernandez had missed a penalty.

Yet their profligacy cost them in the second half when Kevin Agudelo equalised.

 

Milan were then left furious as Junior Messias' fine late effort was struck off due to a premature whistle from referee Marco Serra, who had blown up for a foul on Ante Rebic.

Serra appeared to realise his mistake, though that did nothing to appease Milan, who subsequently hit the bar through Zlatan Ibrahimovic only for Gyasi to snatch a last-gasp winner on the counter.

While Pioli was keen to point out the official's error, he acknowledged Milan did not control the game well enough.

"I tried to calm my players down, but I didn't manage as Spezia's goal proves," he told DAZN.

"We knew it was an injustice, we have ourselves to blame, but we share responsibility with the referee.

"I am sorry to say that. He even apologised, maybe that wasn't even a fault. It's a shame.

"However, we should have scored more goals in the first half. It's a bad night and we must react now."

 

Milan had 25 attempts in total, with eight on target. It was the most shots they have managed in a Serie A defeat since December 2017 against Verona (31).

Leao was a standout performer with four shots and as many key passes, while Ibrahimovic, making his 150th league appearance for the club, had a team-leading eight efforts.

"We could have won the game, somehow we lost," said Pioli, whose side finished the match with an expected goals (xG) value of 2.5.

"We knew we had a good chance, Leao's goal should have given us self-confidence, we failed to seal a win that we strongly wanted, but the season is still long."

Milan remain second, two points behind Inter and one ahead of Napoli in third, with Juventus next up on Sunday.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel has admitted that Mason Mount was not happy with starting Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Manchester City on the bench, but insists that it will "not last long."

The Blues' defeat at City saw them fall 13 points behind the Premier League leaders, and eyebrows were raised when Mount was named among the substitutes, not coming on until the 81st minute of the clash at the Etihad Stadium.

The England international has the most goal involvements in all competitions for Chelsea this season (13 – seven goals and six assists) and has created the most chances (47), ahead of Marcos Alonso (42), Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James (both 38). 

Speaking at a news conference ahead of the European champions' trip to Brighton and Hove Albion on Tuesday, Tuchel said that he received the "burning eyes" that previous Blues manager Frank Lampard had spoken about when he had dropped Mount in the past.

"Yeah, I get them and this is absolutely normal," Tuchel smiled. "But it's still within Mason's character of kindness and being polite and being respectful, so there is no harm in this.

"I get the eyes, I get the look. I know the look, of course. He is here to play these kinds of matches, but we were simply opting for runners. We thought we could break the line more often with Hakim [Ziyech] as a left foot on the left side and going for Christian [Pulisic] as a right side because of the arrival of Christian in the box.

"Normally, he is a bit more offensive, a bit more of a runner than Mason and we expected the spaces more behind the last line and not in front of the back four from City. So that was the decision.

"I felt Mason not 100 per cent in the zone where he is like untouchable, which he normally almost is. So we took that decision and it can happen from time to time. He's not happy about it, but it will not last long because everyone loves Mason – me included."

The former Borussia Dortmund head coach also suggested that Mount has missed playing with wing-back James, who has been missing with a thigh injury since the turn of the year, with the duo, along with N'Golo Kante, working well as a triumvirate since playing together at Stamford Bridge.

"Reece, N'Golo and [Mount] were so strong together," Tuchel added. "This is what we've been talking about. When you turn, you know without even looking he will come now or I will go and get the pass and he will come in, so I will be here.

"We are missing this. And I think, without asking him now, Mason is missing this. He has this genuine understanding with Reece and with Ben [Chilwell] on the other side."

Meanwhile, Emerson Palmieri, who Chelsea are rumoured to be attempting to recall from a season-long loan at French club Lyon to help solve their problems at left wing-back, has confirmed that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

The Italy international said on Instagram on Monday: "Hi everyone, just wanted to come here to say that I tested positive for COVID on Friday, and I truly feel fine and the rest of the family do too.

"Many thanks for all your caring messages. I hope to be back as soon as possible."

Cristiano Ronaldo has said he hopes to play for another "four or five years" despite turning 37 next month.

The Manchester United forward received the FIFA Best Special Award at a ceremony in Zurich on Monday in recognition of breaking the world record for international goals in September last year previously held by Iran's Ali Daei (109), with Ronaldo now on 115 goals for Portugal.

When asked by event co-host Jermaine Jenas about his "obsession" with the game and where it could take him, Ronaldo said he still has the same love for football as he did when he was younger, and gave an idea as to how long he intends to keep playing.

"I still have the passion for the game. Not just to score goals," Ronaldo said. "It's to entertain myself, because I have played football since I was five, six years old.

"When I go to the pitch, even in training, I still enjoy [it] and my motivation is still there. Even [though] I'm going to be 37 soon, I feel good, I feel motivated.

"I keep working hard, since 18 years old, and I continue. I love the game, I still have that passion and I want to continue.

"People ask me sometimes how many years more I am going to play, and I say I hope to play four or five years more.

"It's all about mentally, because I think physically if you treat your body good, when you need your body, it will give it back to you, so this is what I do."

Ronaldo has scored 14 goals in 22 games for United in all competitions since making a dramatic return to Old Trafford at the start of the current season, but recently indicated frustration at the recent form of the team.

The Red Devils currently sit seventh in the Premier League table, five points off fourth-placed West Ham and 24 points behind top of the table Manchester City, though with two games in hand over both.

Talking to Sky Sports last week, the former Real Madrid and Juventus marksman said: "I don't accept that our mentality be less than being in the top three in the Premier League.

"I think to build up good things, sometimes you have to destroy a few things. So why not – new year, new life and I hope that we can be the level that the fans want. They deserve that.

"We are capable of changing things now. I know the way but I'm not going to mention it here because I don't think it's ethical on my part to say that.

"What I can say is we can do better – all of us. Manchester United belongs to important things, so we have to change that.

"I don't want to be here to be in sixth place, or seventh place, or fifth place. I'm here to try to win, to compete.

"I think we compete but we are not yet in our best level. But we have a long way to improve and I believe if we change our mind, we can achieve big things."

The Arizona Cardinals have activated J.J. Watt from injured reserve in time for him to make an unexpected return for their Wild Card round clash with the Los Angeles Rams.

Watt was placed on injured reserve in November having undergone what was thought to be season-ending shoulder surgery in October.

However, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year has expedited his recovery and will line up for the Cardinals on Monday as they look to upset their NFC West rivals at SoFi Stadium.

Despite playing only seven games, Watt ended the regular season with the third-most quarterback pressures among Cardinals defenders with 32.

The Cardinals are looking to claim their first playoff win since the 2015 campaign when they lost the NFC Championship Game to the Carolina Panthers.

The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

False promises

From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

"You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

Falling outs

With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

Moshiri mayhem

Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

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