Chelsea have confirmed they will appeal against a ban from registering players for two transfer windows, but it leaves a number of stars with uncertain futures.

Eden Hazard's contract situation, with the forward's deal set to expire at the end of next season, could become particularly problematic for the Blues if they cannot replace the Belgium international in the market.

Callum Hudson-Odoi has also been targeted by Bayern Munich while loaned players including Mateo Kovacic, Gonzalo Higuain and Alvaro Morata will wonder what the ban means for them, although it could be reduced on appeal.

Here, we assess key Chelsea figures to examine how their transfer strategy could be affected over the next year.

 

EDEN HAZARD

The obvious place to start is with Hazard. The winger has made no secret of his desire to play for Real Madrid, but the emergence of Vinicius Junior at the Santiago Bernabeu may mean Los Blancos do not feel they need Hazard.

With Hazard heading towards the last year of his Chelsea contract, Maurizio Sarri has indicated the issue needs to be resolved sooner rather than later, but the transfer ban will complicate matters. And if Gareth Bale leaves Madrid, Neymar would likely be a top target with Hazard an alternative.

A parallel for the Hazard situation could be seen at Atletico Madrid, whose star player Antoine Griezmann signed a bumper new contract rather than trying to force a move elsewhere during their transfer ban. Might Hazard be persuaded to do the same?

CALLUM HUDSON-ODOI

Bayern have made it clear they will resume their chase for Hudson-Odoi at the end of the season, when - like Hazard - the youngster will also only have 12 months left on his deal.

Sarri claims Hudson-Odoi is playing more than any other Premier League teenager, but the forward appears impatient to kickstart his development in a similar manner to Jadon Sancho, who became one of world football's hottest prospects after leaving Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund.

Bundesliga giants Bayern - who need long-term replacements for Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery - will likely return with bids for Hudson-Odoi when the transfer window reopens, but regardless of how large the fee on offer gets, Chelsea may prefer to keep Hudson-Odoi and risk losing him for nothing in 2020.

 

GONZALO HIGUAIN

Higuain's future seems tied to Sarri and, if the Blues boss were to lose his job, it is hard to imagine Chelsea pursuing a permanent deal for the Juventus striker at the end of the season regardless of the transfer ban.

The Argentina hitman is seemingly not required in Turin after the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juve will want to cash in on the 31-year-old while they can. If Chelsea cannot buy the striker, someone else surely will be tempted by his prolific record.

ALVARO MORATA

Morata fell out of favour under Sarri but may yet have a future at Stamford Bridge under a different manager. If Chelsea cannot sign a striker until the end of the 2019-20 season, Morata may once more become an option for the Blues.

Atletico Madrid signed Morata, a boyhood supporter of the club, on an 18-month loan but it is possible both teams could agree to cut the deal short.

 

MATEO KOVACIC

Kovacic has spoken warmly of a possible permanent move to Chelsea and a transfer for the Croatia international seemed likely. Real Madrid may be unwilling to allow Kovacic to leave on loan for another season, though, which might mean he has to find a new club for 2019-20.


RUBEN LOFTUS-CHEEK

Should Kovacic leave, opportunities may become more regular for another of Chelsea's talented crop of young players. Loftus-Cheek has seen his progress halted by back problems but, fitness permitting, the England midfielder is an obvious contender to benefit from a transfer ban.

CHRISTIAN PULISIC

As Pulisic's move from Borussia Dortmund was announced in January, it is not expected the American's switch to Stamford Bridge will be affected by Chelsea's ban. Should Hazard be sold, Pulisic is an obvious replacement as he can play in a wide range of attacking positions.

 

MAURIZIO SARRI

Sarri is reportedly on the brink of the sack and another heavy defeat at the hands of Manchester City in Sunday's EFL Cup final would put him under even more pressure to justify tactics including the use of N'Golo Kante as a box-to-box midfielder.

But new managers typically want to sign players. Who would take a job knowing they have to work with an unbalanced squad, with a star player who has hinted that he wants to leave? Sarri could therefore be given more time to work with his players - exactly what the coach craves.

However, one of the leading contenders to replace Sarri, Zinedine Zidane, has worked under a transfer embargo at Real Madrid.

There is plenty to play for as bitter rivals Manchester United and Liverpool prepare to go head-to-head in a Premier League blockbuster at Old Trafford on Sunday.

United have the chance to extend their unbeaten streak in the league to 10 games, while Liverpool can move ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table.

The Red Devils are a rejuvenated force thanks to caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, while they are all but out of the title race, they can still have a major say on where the trophy ends up in May.

Ahead of the mouth-watering showdown in Manchester, we pick a combined XI from the stellar line-ups of two fierce foes.

 

Goalkeeper: David de Gea (Manchester United)

One of the Premier League's best and most consistent keepers, De Gea gets the nod ahead of Reds shot-stopper Alisson.

Liverpool have conceded 15 goals this season since Alisson's big-money arrival from Roma, 20 fewer than United. However, De Gea's quality over the years is undisputed. The Spaniard has also kept four clean sheets and let in only seven league goals since Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho after the December edition of this fixture.

Right-back: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)

Local boy Alexander-Arnold broke into the Liverpool first team at the start of last season and, having helped the Reds to the Champions League final, is well established as a first-team regular at 20.

Recent injury problems only served to show Alexander-Arnold's importance to the side, with Liverpool suffering for the absence of a defender who has proven his worth at the back and possesses real quality from dead balls.

Left-back: Andy Robertson (Liverpool)

After joining from Hull City in 2017, Robertson took time to nail down a starting place under Jurgen Klopp. He is now indispensable.

The Scotland captain has developed into one of the Premier League's standout performers at full-back, with his pace and energy allowing him to make a difference at both ends of the field. Mourinho claimed got tired just watching Robertson during his unplanned United swansong.

Centre-back: Victor Lindelof (Manchester United)

What a turnaround it's been for Lindelof. Error-prone and seemingly out of his depth following his arrival from Benfica in 2017, doubts emerged over the Swede's ability to succeed at Premier League level.

But the 24-year-old has started to justify his €35million price tag under Solskjaer. Assured, strong and confident on the ball, Lindelof is emerging as a fine defender amid United's nine-game unbeaten run in the league.

Centre-back: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)

The man credited with turning Liverpool's fortunes around in defence. The Reds were infamous for their back-line calamities before Van Dijk arrived last January.

The Netherlands international made an instant impact, scoring a winner against Everton, and has kicked on from there. His influential showings are expected to put him in the running for England's end-of-season awards.

Central midfield: Ander Herrera (Manchester United)

The unsung hero at Old Trafford, Herrera has become an ever-present in United's starting XI since Mourinho was sacked.

Embodying all the characteristics that make up a fan favourite, the Basque battler has provided balance and bite, while freeing up Paul Pogba to shine.

Central midfield: Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool)

When Liverpool brought in Naby Keita and Fabinho ahead of this season, Wijnaldum appeared to be at risk despite an impressive 2017-18.

But the former Newcastle United star has lifted his game again, showing versatility by featuring across the midfield. The Dutchman has superb close control, a deceptive turn of pace and can influence the game in attack and defence.

Central midfield: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

The transformation of Pogba has been incredible. Out of favour and heading for the exit door under Mourinho – who left the World Cup winner unused on the bench in December's Anfield defeat – the lavishly gifted Frenchman is resoundingly answering his army of critics in England.

Pogba has been involved in 15 goals in 12 games across all competitions during Solskjaer's tenure, scoring nine goals and recording six assists – six more than he managed in 20 matches for Mourinho.

Right wing: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)

Liverpool's Egyptian king, Salah was one of the best players in European football as he hit the ground running back in the Premier League last season, scoring 44 times in all competitions.

The forward's early 2018-19 exploits were comparatively modest, but he has warmed to the task as Liverpool chase the domestic title. Now often deployed through the middle, Salah remains Liverpool's difference-maker in attack.

Left wing: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)

Occasionally overshadowed by Salah and Roberto Firmino, Mane has the tools to harm any defence, as he showed in the Champions League final when he dragged Liverpool level against Real Madrid.

The winger's sheer speed sees him create regular openings for himself, scoring 10 goals or more in each of his five Premier League seasons. Liverpool's recent stutter in the title race would have been worse without four goals in as many matches from Mane.

Centre-forward: Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)

Another player shining thanks to Solskjaer, Rashford is thriving in his central role at United.

Either pushed out to the right to accommodate Romelu Lukaku or among the substitutes under Mourinho, Rashford is now flourishing as the team's focal point with six goals in nine Premier League appearances. He had only managed three in his previous 15.

Liverpool's Premier League title challenge faces a significant hurdle on Sunday when they head to Old Trafford to face Manchester United.

Such is the rarity of the Reds mounting a serious tilt for a crown they last wore in 1990, this meeting is already something of an historic moment.

The last time they visited their fierce rivals in a league match while they occupied one of the top two positions, the year was 1996 and Jurgen Klopp was a 29-year-old Mainz defender.

That match - which was started by an Eric Cantona rabona from kick-off (no, really) - saw United triumph 1-0. But who was involved?

 

MANCHESTER UNITED

Peter Schmeichel

Already a three-time champion by this point, Schmeichel was well on his way to establishing his place as arguably United's greatest ever goalkeeper.

Gary Neville

Well before his days as club captain and pedantic TV pundit, Neville was a curtained 21-year-old making the right-back spot his own.

Ronny Johnsen

This was Johnsen's first meeting with Liverpool since his reported £1.2million move from Besiktas. It was a sizeable fee at the time, but he proved a sound investment.

David May

The man who left Blackburn Rovers the year before their title triumph would win his second in a row with United this season.

Denis Irwin

A stalwart of the left of United's defence, Irwin was in his prime. He needed to be, too, given the defensive cover he was getting ahead of him.

Karel Poborsky

Fresh from his starring role at Euro 96, Poborsky was another to be playing in this game for the first time. He managed 55 minutes of free-flowing elegance. And that was just the hair.

Nicky Butt

United's current youth academy supremo was a fresh-faced 21-year-old standing in for Roy Keane. He would get used to that role.

David Beckham

The man who scored from the halfway line against Wimbledon on the opening day of the season became an even greater hero to the Stretford End by blasting in this game's only goal.

Jordi Cruyff

A player trying to follow in his father's incomparable footsteps, Cruyff was decent without being spectacular. He was not the best defensively but, with Irwin behind him, it mattered little.

Eric Cantona

Nobody else would take a kick-off like that. Nobody else would retire at the age of 30, after captaining the side to the title that season. But nobody else is like Cantona.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

United's current caretaker-manager-supreme was still three years away from 'that' goal against Bayern Munich. However, in this, his first season at the club, he did not disappoint.

Paul Scholes (sub)

A replacement for Poborsky, Scholes would go on to play just a few more games for United than the Czech winger. Not often on the wing, mind you.

Ryan Giggs (sub)

For wing-wizardry, look no further than Giggs, already a 'double-double' winner and with so much more to come. Including, eventually, a haircut.

 

LIVERPOOL

David James

The athleticism, the speed, the unfathomable desperation to sprint off his line - it was all on show here, and mostly in the opening few minutes. It did nothing to stop a pretty impressive career, mind you.

John Scales

The straight man of the Wimbledon 'Crazy Gang', Scales moved to Tottenham just two months after this match, having spent only two years at Liverpool.

Dominic Matteo

Matteo had spent a fruitless loan spell at Sunderland the season before, but 1996-97 proved to be much more encouraging. Apart from losing this game, of course.

Phil Babb

Babb's importance to Liverpool seemed to be waning by this stage, but he was nonetheless a useful part of Roy Evans' back three.

Jason McAteer

The Republic of Ireland man's versatility made him suitable to the Evans system, even if he made few inroads in this game.

Steve McManaman

'Macca' brought the youthful legs that some of his midfield partners no longer had. It's a good job he could run as well as play.

Michael Thomas

A solid presence in the centre of midfield, Thomas' appearances began to diminish once Jamie Redknapp got over some injury problems. He remained a popular figure with the fans, though.

John Barnes

A bona-fide England great, Barnes was approaching the end of his best days by 1996. Beckham, Butt and company seemed to be running around him a little too easily at times.

Stig Inge Bjornebye

Like Ronny Johnsen, he was a relative unknown to English fans when he moved to the Premier League in 1992. Like Johnsen, he left as a real fan favourite.

Patrik Berger

Another Czech Republic star of Euro 96, Berger was a fine attacking force for Liverpool when injuries allowed, just perhaps not in this game.

Stan Collymore

Still a formidable centre-forward, this was the last season in which Collymore was close to the peak of his powers before a certain Michael Owen started getting in the way of the first team.

Jamie Redknapp (sub)

An often-underrated midfielder dealt an unfair hand by injuries, Redknapp did not get much of a chance to impress here.

Less than 12 months ago, a trip to Old Trafford led to major questions over Trent Alexander-Arnold, but Sunday shapes as being different for the Liverpool full-back.

Alexander-Arnold, 20, came under fire after being caught out by Marcus Rashford, who scored twice inside 25 minutes in United's 2-1 win in March 2018.

But the England international has grown tremendously even since then, and his return from a knee injury has come at a good time for Jurgen Klopp's stuttering title contenders.

As ever, James Milner – and captain Jordan Henderson against Leicester City – did an admirable job at right-back in Alexander-Arnold's absence.

However, Liverpool have proven to be better with than without the speedy Alexander-Arnold, who has played 18 of their 26 Premier League games this season.

The Reds average more goals for (2.4 to 2) and fewer goals against (0.5 to 0.8) with Alexander-Arnold, although they won five of those eight games, with three draws.

Liverpool have been much more solid defensively this season, conceding just 15 times in 26 league games, and Alexander-Arnold has benefited from a more balanced approach by Klopp's men.

It is easy to forget Alexander-Arnold is just 20, and has already developed into a Liverpool regular, the club so comfortable with his displays they allowed Nathaniel Clyne to join Bournemouth on loan in January.

Capped five times by England, he has made huge strides defensively since Liverpool's trip to Old Trafford last year. According to Opta, he has made no errors leading to shots in the Premier League this season. In comparison, fellow full-back Andy Robertson has three, having played six more games.

Less than a month after his miserable outing at Manchester United, Alexander-Arnold produced a huge performance opposed to Manchester City star Leroy Sane in the Champions League.

He may or may not get a chance to directly atone for his display a year ago, depending on where Rashford plays for a United side with some uncertainty over the makeup of their attack due to Anthony Martial's groin injury.

But Liverpool – who have won just one of their past three Premier League games – have missed Alexander-Arnold and returning to the scene of a tough outing is another chance for the full-back to show just how much.

Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial - their performances have dominated headlines amid Manchester United's resurgence. But there is one unsung hero leading United back to the promised land: Ander Herrera.

Herrera has become undroppable under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Spanish midfielder has been an ever-present since Jose Mourinho was sacked in December, with seven of his 13 Premier League starts this season coming after the Norwegian's appointment.

"His energy and tenaciousness is vital for us. And that's why he plays, more or less, every single game," Solskjaer said after Herrera's goalscoring display in Monday's 2-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round. "He has loads of energy, he can cover the right hand side, he runs forward. You can't just praise one, it's 11 players, plus the subs, but Ander has done fantastic."

It's credit to Herrera's resilience and patience - a reason why many supporters want him named captain - after he was limited to just 13 league starts last season, down from his 27 in 2016-17.

The baby-faced assassin from Bilbao - who is as Manc as they come despite growing up in northern Spain - was in and out of the team at the start of the campaign, having suffered from Nemanja Matic's arrival the season prior. Fred's £50million transfer looked set to leave Herrera on the bench more often than not.

But, just like Pogba, Rashford, Martial and others under Solskjaer, Herrera is shining at Old Trafford, where United have a 71.4 winning percentage in the league this season, compared to 40 when he doesn't feature.

The passionate and hard-working fan favourite is still at his tenacious best, willing to get down and dirty for his team-mates. However, there is more to his game. He is providing the link between midfield and attack, freeing up Pogba.

Out of favour and headed for the exit door before Mourinho's axing, Pogba has scored nine goals and recorded six assists with Solskjaer at the helm. The shackles are off for the French World Cup winner and that's thanks to Herrera.

Herrera is thriving in the attack-minded approach in Manchester - the 29-year-old able to showcase his passing ability and focus on pushing forward, rather than the opponent under Mourinho.

He was deployed in a man-marking role on Eden Hazard by Mourinho in 2016-17. There was none of that at Stamford Bridge on Monday. Herrera was free to help run the show in London.

Herrera doesn't have his own emoji like Pogba or the skills of the flamboyant Frenchman. He is, though, the heart and soul of United - bringing balance and bite to a side filled with attacking talent. Sunday's Liverpool showdown is tailor-made for Herrera and slowly but surely, he's getting the recognition he deserves.

Luka Doncic has been likened to LeBron James and the duo's rookie numbers certainly show the Dallas Mavericks sensation and the Los Angeles Lakers superstar are comparable at this stage of the Slovenian's career.

It was Dwyane Wade who said 19-year-old Doncic's passing ability was "LeBron James-like" after facing the Mavs with the Miami Heat last week.

Doncic, the third overall pick in last year's draft, is the clear frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award, a prize James took home in 2003-04 when he was a teenager playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Four-time MVP James has gone on to establish himself as one of the greatest to ever play the game, and the statistics from his rookie campaign are remarkably similar to Doncic's debut season in Dallas.

With the help of Opta, we take a look at the numbers for Doncic in 2018-19 and James in 2003-04.

Points per game: Doncic 20.7, James 20.9

James was one of 17 players to average at least 20 points per game and he finished his first season 13th, behind the likes of fellow rookie Carmelo Anthony (21) and Tracy McGrady, who led the entire NBA with 28.

A sign of how the league has changed is evidenced by the fact that, at the All-Star break, there were 30 players averaging at least 20 points and one, James Harden (36.6), averaging more than 30. In his 55 games to date, Doncic is averaging 7.3 fewer minutes on court than James but is providing similar production.

Rebounds per game: Doncic 7.2, James 5.5

James may be taller and bigger than Doncic, but the Slovenian is proving adept when it comes to boards.

The Mavs youngster ranks 36th in the league in rebounds, with James finishing his first campaign 58th in that category.

Assists per game: Doncic 5.6, James 5.9

Wade's suggestion the two are similar in the way they dish the ball around is backed up by the stats.

Doncic is 21st in the NBA for assists per game, ahead of All-Stars like Stephen Curry and Paul George, though James was 13th overall in 2003-04.

Field goal percentage: Doncic 43, James 41.7

James attempted three more shots on average in his maiden term but Doncic is proving more efficient.

The rise of three-point attempts is also reflected in the fact Doncic is making 2.4 per game from seven attempts, while James' rookie average was only 0.8 made from 2.7 attempted.

Double-doubles: Doncic 13, James 12

Despite playing 24 fewer games than James did, Doncic already has more double-doubles than his counterpart managed.

Triple-doubles: Doncic 3, James 0

James failed to register a triple-double in his first campaign in Cleveland. Doncic became the second-youngster player to achieve the feat in January and has gone on to do it twice more.

In fact, only six players have recorded more triple-doubles than Doncic in 2018-19 - one of whom is James.

Steve Stricker was confirmed as the new captain of the United States' Ryder Cup team on Wednesday, meaning the Wisconsin native will lead his country in his home state at Whistling Straits in 2020.

The appointment of Stricker follows Padraig Harrington being announced as Europe's captain for next year's event.

An emphatic 17.5-10.5 victory at Le Golf National in September 2018 saw Europe regain the trophy under Thomas Bjorn, as the likes of Francesco Molinari, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter played starring roles.

Yet while Europe have won six successive home Ryder Cups, their recent record on American soil has been mixed.

We take a look at the last five editions of the event in the USA.

 

2016 - Hazeltine

Result: United States 17 - 11 Europe

Europe had won three Ryder Cups in a row ahead of the 2016 event, but they were in for a shock at Hazeltine.

Darren Clarke's hopes of masterminding victory suffered a hammer blow on the first morning as the United States, captained by Davis Love III, pulled off a clean sweep of the Friday foursomes.

Rookies Thomas Pieters and Rafael Cabrera-Bello impressed as Europe narrowed their deficit, but the USA regained control in the second fourball session and went on to triumph by a six-point margin, the talismanic Patrick Reed defeating Rory McIlroy in a dramatic opening singles match to set the tone for the hosts.

2012 - Medinah

Result: United States 13.5 - 14.5 Europe

Is it really more than six years since the 'Miracle of Medinah'?

In the first Ryder Cup since the death of European icon Seve Ballesteros, the Spaniard's close friend Jose Maria Olazabal oversaw the most remarkable of comebacks to ensure Europe retained the trophy they had claimed at Celtic Manor two years earlier.

The USA were 10-4 up on Saturday afternoon, having won five of the day's first six contests.

However, Europe crucially won the last two fourball contests, with Poulter the architect of an astonishing turnaround in the anchor match.

Poulter and his team-mates then overhauled a four-point deficit in the singles, something that had only happened once before in Ryder Cup history, with Martin Kaymer sinking the winning putt to spark emotional scenes of celebration from the visiting team.

2008 - Valhalla

Result: United States 16.5 - 11.5 Europe

No European golfer in the professional era has claimed more major titles than Nick Faldo's six and the Englishman was also the most prolific points scorer in Ryder Cup history before Garcia moved past his tally of 25 at Le Golf National.

However, Faldo was nowhere near as successful in a miserable stint as Europe's captain, which yielded a heavy defeat to Paul Azinger's United States team at Valhalla.

The infamous 'sandwich-gate' incident - in which Faldo was photographed holding an apparent list of pairings only to then claim, somewhat unfeasibly, it was a list of lunch requests - was not the only gaffe made by the former world number one before the event had even begun.

Europe were then handsomely beaten when the action did get under way, trailing throughout on their way to a 16.5-11.5 loss.

Hunter Mahan was the leading points-scorer for the USA, who prevailed in seven of the 12 Sunday singles contests, but the likes of Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley, Justin Leonard and J.B. Holmes were among others to play starring roles.

 

2004 - Oakland Hills

Result: United States 9.5 - 18.5 Europe

In contrast to Faldo, the meticulous Bernhard Langer did not put a foot wrong in 2004 as Europe stormed to victory by a record margin at Oakland Hills.

Every member of Langer's team contributed at least a point, with wildcard selections Colin Montgomerie and Luke Donald among those to excel in a stunningly one-sided match.

In contrast, a USA team led by Hal Sutton and featuring three of the world's top 10 failed to deliver, with Chris DiMarco the only player to score more than two points for the hosts.

Montgomerie, in his penultimate Ryder Cup appearance as a player, famously holed the winning putt and went on to say: "That singles win over David Toms, in fact that whole week, rejuvenated me and my career."

 

1999 - Brookline

Result: United States 14.5 - 13.5 Europe

Prior to Europe's fightback at Medinah in 2012, the only previous instance of a team coming from four points behind in the singles came at Brookline, in distinctly fractious circumstances.

Mark James was Europe's skipper for an event sadly overshadowed by boorish abuse of visiting players by a partisan crowd and raucous scenes on the 17th hole on Sunday.

A mammoth putt from Leonard prompted an invasion of the green from the US team, even though Olazabal still had a putt of his own to come.

Ben Crenshaw's USA ultimately triumphed 14.5-13.5, but the 'Battle of Brookline' would be remembered for the wrong reasons.

In a subsequent autobiography, Sam Torrance - a vice-captain for Europe that week - described the final day of the 1999 event as: "the most disgraceful and disgusting day in the history of professional golf."

Right now the 2019 Cricket World Cup is now the focus for most international sides but England and Australia know this is also an Ashes year.

Plenty can change between now and the first Test at Edgbaston, which starts on August 1, as demonstrated in recent months.

Not too long ago, England were riding high after securing a series sweep in Sri Lanka, while Australia had lost a series at home for the first time against India.

Since then, however, Joe Root's side slipped up against West Indies and Australia returned to winning ways on home soil, crushing the Sri Lankans.

So, before the 50-over game takes centre stage, we grasped the chance to assess the state of the two rival nations.

BATTING

England began their busy winter without a clear idea over the identity of their top three in the order. Now, several months and six Tests later, they seem further away from finding a solution than when they left home. 

Keaton Jennings did make a century on Sri Lankan soil, but his problems against seam bowling were exposed once again in the Caribbean. Rory Burns fared better in the 2-1 series defeat, yet is still far from certain of his place in the Test XI. 

Joe Denly made his debut in Antigua, opening instead of the dropped Jennings, yet ended the West Indies series at number three and made 69 during the second innings in St Lucia.

It all leaves the top-order picture unclear. Candidates from outside the previous two touring parties know a stack of early runs in the County Championship will push them into contention That is easier said than done, though, considering the domestic schedule and pitches favouring seam early in the English summer.

At least the rest of the line-up is more settled. With Root locked in at four, England appear set to have Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, who briefly went up to three before resuming duties behind the stumps, in the middle order. That quartet can power the team to competitive totals, provided they get better protection from those above them.

Much like their opponents, the batting order undoubtedly remains the biggest question mark for Australia, even though the returns of Steve Smith and David Warner from suspension will provide a huge boost.

The series against India and Sri Lanka did little to ease doubts over the top order, with the former's seamers dominating. Opener Marcus Harris was Australia's leading run-scorer against India with 258 at 36.85 but, for plenty of positive signs, his inability to convert starts into big scores hurt the team.

Joe Burns' big ton against Sri Lanka may be enough to get him a spot, while Travis Head has locked down his. Usman Khawaja scored what may have been a place-saving century in Canberra, having looked out of touch throughout the Australian summer.

 

The Australian Men's Cricket team celebrate the end of a successful Domain Test Series against Sri Lanka, winning 2-0 to claim the Warne–Muralitharan Trophypic.twitter.com/XJEMTmV06N

— Cricket Australia (@CricketAus) February 4, 2019

Kurtis Patterson also reached three figures versus Sri Lanka and may grab the final spot in the top six, although the remainder of the Sheffield Shield season could be decisive.

Shaun Marsh has surely lost his Test place for a final time, but he has continually scored runs at domestic level - not that that has mattered for the Shield's leading run-scorer this season in Matthew Wade. Aaron Finch, meanwhile, endured a miserable campaign after being asked to open.

Even during the successful series over Sri Lanka, Australia found themselves in tough spots at 76-3, 28-3 and 37-3. But they have been playing without their two best batsmen in Warner and Smith, the latter's ability to steady an innings and make big scores a particular miss.

Their returns may not solve Australia's problems but will help, although English conditions will provide yet another huge test.


BOWLING

Let us start with Australia, who, barring injuries, appear far more settled in this area of their team.

Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are sidelined with pectoral and back injuries respectively, though their places are safe. Neither reached any great heights during the Australian summer, but Starc did find form against Sri Lanka, grabbing a 10-wicket Test haul in Canberra.

The pace attack was led by Pat Cummins instead, who was impressive and deserved greater rewards against India. Those duly arrived along with Sri Lanka as he took 14 wickets at 7.78. His 28 wickets were the most by an Australian across the six Tests. Such was his form, it was suggested Cummins should be taking the new ball.

In a further good sign on the pace front for Australia, Jhye Richardson replaced Hazlewood versus Sri Lanka and was handy. The 22-year-old took six wickets in the series.

Nathan Lyon enjoyed another strong summer and was, alongside Cummins, Australia's best bowler against India. The off-spinner finished that series with an equal-high 21 wickets – alongside the hugely impressive Jasprit Bumrah – to lift Australia as Starc and Hazlewood largely struggled.

Australia will need more from Starc and Hazlewood during the Ashes, and the latter will certainly enjoy the seaming conditions not often offered on flat wickets at home. But with Cummins also approaching his best, Australia have yet another pace option capable of causing England problems.

England, meanwhile, chopped and changed their attack in overseas conditions, but will likely revert to a more tried-and-tested battery of seamers on home turf.

Stuart Broad may not be a regular on the team's travels anymore, but he will undoubtedly play a leading role in the Ashes, alongside the evergreen James Anderson. 

Moeen Ali also is locked in as the frontline spinner – England are unlikely to pick two unless the conditions at any of the venues are certain to suit – and, while his form with the bat has dipped over the past year, the all-rounder has taken 177 Test wickets in 58 Test appearances. 

With Stokes - fitness permitting - certain to be in the team too, England appear to have one seamer spot up for grabs.

Mark Wood burst back onto the Test scene with a scintillating spell in St Lucia that the national selectors will struggle to forget. The Durham paceman’s injury record makes him far from a certainty to complete such a congested series, even if two fragile-looking batting units suggest there could be a few extra days of rest.

Sam Curran was England's new golden boy at the end of 2018 before his reputation lost a little shine on pitches that failed to suit in the Caribbean, while Olly Stone's tour was cut short by a back injury. Wood was his replacement and may well have skipped to the front of the queue with his five-wicket haul.


CURRENT OUTLOOK

England are favourites to regain the urn on home soil, mainly due to the fact Australia have not won an Ashes away series since 2001.

The hosts prevailed 3-2 four years ago and a repeat result would not be a surprise, considering how both teams are strong in the bowling department. The tourists' hopes may rest on Smith and Warner quickly settling back in, but previous issues for the Aussies against the moving ball may once again come back to haunt them.

Like Swiss cheese, these teams have holes. However, their problems - plus being prone to batting collapses - should make for entertaining viewing.

The Champions League last 16 first legs conclude on Wednesday, with Atletico Madrid hosting Juventus and Manchester City travelling to Schalke.

Juve will be looking to Cristiano Ronaldo to find his European scoring boots as they bid to end Atletico Madrid's run of 12 Champions League knockout games at home without defeat.

Manchester City, meanwhile, are overwhelming favourites to see off Schalke and progress to the quarter-finals, but they will have to overcome a stubborn backline, which conceded just four goals in the group stages.

Here is the pick of the stats surrounding these two games, as provided by Opta...

Atletico Madrid v Juventus

1 - Cristiano Ronaldo has scored only one goal in his last eight Champions League games. He had found the net 11 times in his eight previous games.

6 - Antoine Griezmann has scored or assisted a goal in each of his six Champions League games at the Wanda Metropolitano (six goals, three assists). This season, he has been directly involved in six of Atletico Madrid's nine Champions League goals (67 per cent), with four goals and two assists – that is the highest ratio among the 16 teams left in the competition.

9 - Massimiliano Allegri has reached the knockout stages in each of his nine campaigns as manager in the Champions League. He was a beaten finalist in two of the last four seasons with Juventus.

6 - Atletico Madrid are unbeaten in the Champions League against Italian opposition under manager Diego Simeone (won four, drawn two). In those six games, they have only conceded one goal, by Kaka in a 4-1 win against AC Milan in March 2014.

6 - Paulo Dybala has scored six goals in his last seven Champions League appearances – more than in his previous 24 appearances in the competition with Juventus (five goals). All 11 of his goals in the competition have come with his left foot.

Schalke v Manchester City

9 - Schalke are unbeaten in their last nine European home games (won six, drawn three) – they last went longer without a home defeat between July 2003 and November 2004 (11 games).

4 - No player delivered more assists than Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez in the Champions League group stages this season (four, level with Kylian Mbappe and Memphis Depay).

6 - Schalke scored six goals in this season's group stages, the lowest tally amongst the 16 clubs left in the competition. However, only Borussia Dortmund (five) kept more clean sheets than Schalke (four).

2 - Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has won the Champions League on two occasions as a manager (2009 and 2011, both with Barcelona); a third trophy would equal Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley's record. He has also reached the semi-finals in seven of his nine previous seasons as manager but has not made the final since 2011.

3 - Schalke have been knocked out in the round of 16 in each of their last three Champions League appearances – 2010/11 was the last time they made it past that stage, reaching the semi-finals.

Robert Lewandowski drew a rare blank as he failed to exploit Virgil van Dijk being suspended, but Bayern Munich arguably have the edge over Liverpool after a goalless first leg at Anfield.

Van Dijk's absence was billed as a crucial factor in Tuesday's clash of the titans - a last-16 tie that felt deserving of semi-final status if not the showpiece itself - with two high-powered sides who wanted to play the game at full speed without ever pausing to catch breath.

Liverpool mostly held Bayern at bay despite being without the most expensive defender in world football. Lewandowski - the top scorer in this season's Champions League with eight goals - lurked as a malevolent presence close to Van Dijk's deputy Fabinho whenever Bayern had the ball, but they could not create a chance for him to take.

Indeed, the Bundesliga champions did not muster a single shot on target, although the hosts could only manage two themselves. Lewandowski touched the ball just twice in Liverpool's box during the first half and when he did get on the ball near Alisson's goal shortly after the restart, Fabinho snuffed out his threat.

Alisson promised pre-match Liverpool would not "feel that loss" with Van Dijk unable to play due to his ban, claiming Liverpool were drilled so well it would make little difference despite his price and profile, and he was proved right with Lewandowski stifled.

Van Dijk has not missed a single minute of Liverpool's brilliant Premier League season, but suggestions he has been the sole factor in the Reds' rise looked out of place following this fine team display. Fabinho and Joel Matip may be a makeshift pairing, but they were not outclassed. Mats Hummels was similarly outstanding at the back for Bayern.

The key individual battle of the game instead developed on Liverpool's left wing where Sadio Mane gave the excellent Joshua Kimmich a working over, the likes of which he does not usually get in domestic football.

Mane tricked Kimmich into receiving a first-half booking, which will rule the Germany international out of the second leg, but he could not find the target with a brace of overhead-kick attempts before the break. Liverpool may feel Mane could have targeted Kimmich more in the second period as his yellow seemed a rare soft spot in the Bayern side.

With both sides determined to close down the other at every possible opportunity, Manuel Neuer and Alisson had moments where they looked briefly uncomfortable.

The prospect of Roberto Firmino bearing down on goal, seemingly at a million miles an hour, was not welcomed by Bayern's captain. It was hard to believe Firmino had been a doubt due to an illness that forced him to miss training. His energy levels appeared to be as high as ever until he dramatically faded in the second half and had to be replaced by wildcard option Divock Origi.

Mistakes in possession were too common from both sides, the rapid tempo of the match meaning players were regularly harried and harassed into misplacing passes.

And that lack of clarity continued in front of goal where the prolific Mohamed Salah wasted the clearest openings of the game for Liverpool. They may just rue his misses in Munich.

Tuesday marks 100 days until the Cricket World Cup gets under way when hosts England face South Africa at the Oval.

Starting with that opening clash on May 30, the world's 10 best ODI sides will battle it out over a round-robin phase, from which the strongest four teams will progress to the semi-finals prior to the decider at Lord's on July 14.

Of the nations involved, only half have tasted glory in the ICC's 50-over showpiece, while four of the last five tournaments have been won by Australia.

But the defending champions will not start as favourites this time around - that questionable honour will instead be bestowed on the home side - while Australia will have to cope with the distractions involved in welcoming back two of their best players from ball-tampering suspensions.

How will the holders cope? That question is one of the five major unknowns ahead of the action kicking off in 100 days' time...

 

Baggy Greens to struggle with Smith-Warner baggage?

Australian cricket was rocked last year when captain Steve Smith, his right-hand man David Warner and opening batsman Cameron Bancroft were all banned for their part in the Newlands ball-tampering scandal. Smith and Warner's suspensions are due to expire in March, two months before their first World Cup warm-up fixture against England at the Rose Bowl. As two of the world's finest players, it seems inconceivable that Australia would not select the pair, who will expect a hostile reception from the home crowd but have been around long enough to be able to block out any abuse from the stands. But will the predictable media brouhaha and constant questions surrounding their return become too great a hindrance?

Which Pakistan will turn up?

A global 50-over tournament in England should hold fond memories for Pakistan, who overcame fierce rivals India in the Champions Trophy final at the Oval two years ago. That 180-run hammering came just a fortnight after India had inflicted a 124-run thrashing during the group phase. And that, in a nutshell, is the Pakistan cricket team. They veer from the sublime to the ridiculous on a regular basis, proving consistently capable of looking unbeatable one day to utterly incompetent the next. The likes of Mohammad Amir and Hasan Ali can be devastating with the ball while Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam are explosive at the top of the order, but bet on Pakistan at your peril. They could go all the way. They could crash out in a series of batting collapses in the round-robin stage. The one guarantee is that it will not be dull.

Will the Universe Boss bow out in a blaze of glory?

At the age of 39, Chris Gayle will take part in his fifth and final World Cup after announcing he will retire from ODIs once the tournament is over. The scorer of the first double-century in World Cup history - smashing 16 sixes in making 215 off 147 balls against Zimbabwe four years ago - the self-styled 'Universe Boss' has spent much of the latter part of his career travelling the globe playing Twenty20 cricket for a number of high-paying franchises. As such, his involvement for the Windies has dwindled, but Gayle still manages to talk the talk - declaring himself "the greatest player in the world" recently. So, as he nears his 40th birthday, can Gayle walk the walk on his World Cup swansong?

Is Dhoni still the ultimate finisher?

If India are to reach the final, it will fall a week after MS Dhoni's 38th birthday. A veteran of well over 300 ODIs dating back to his debut in 2004, the wicketkeeper-batsman has proved himself to be the coolest of customers when the run chase reaches the wire. His unbeaten 91 from 79 balls delivered his country's second title in 2011 and despite moving up and down the order with regularity, he still somehow averages more than 50 with the bat. India fans have a new superstar to worship in the form of captain Virat Kohli, but Dhoni still remains an idol to millions in that part of the world. In recent times Kohli has proven the master of the chase but, in what is sure to be his final World Cup, can Dhoni have the last word, as he has so many times before?

Can England cope with the favourites' tag?

It is an unusual scenario for England, whose ODI fortunes dropped to an all-time low at the last World Cup, where defeats to Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh saw Eoin Morgan's side dumped out in the groups. That elimination proved a watershed moment, however, and in the intervening four years Morgan's men have transformed themselves into the ICC's top-ranked side, playing a brand of cricket that prioritises aggressive, attacking play over a ponderous, patient approach. Their startling evolution is best summed up by a pair of stunning innings at Trent Bridge in the past two and a half years - setting a new ODI record 444-3 against Pakistan in 2016 before smashing that mark with 481-6 against Australia in 2018. Familiar conditions should play into their hands, but will the hosts make light of the weight of expectation? We only have to wait 100 days to find out.

The Champions League last 16 continues on Tuesday, with Liverpool hosting Bayern Munich and Barcelona travelling to Lyon.

Bayern have a fairly rotten record against the Reds, but they may stand a good chance of a positive first-leg result if Robert Lewandowski and Sadio Mane continue their recent trends in the competition.

Lyon shocked Manchester City in the group stage before a peculiar run of five consecutive draws, but they will hope to stop Lionel Messi from continuing a quite remarkable scoring rate.

Here is the pick of the stats surrounding these two first legs, as provided by Opta...

Liverpool v Bayern Munich

1 - Bayern Munich have won only one of their seven matches in European competition against Liverpool (D4 L2). That came in the Cup Winners' Cup second round back in November 1971, with two goals from Gerd Muller and one from Uli Hoeness in Munich.

0 - Bayern Munich have not scored a single goal against Liverpool at Anfield (3 games).

19 - Liverpool are unbeaten in 19 consecutive European matches at Anfield (W14 D5), last losing at home back in October 2014 against Real Madrid in the Champions League (0-3). It is their second-longest unbeaten streak at home in European competition after their 40-match run between September 1974 and December 1991.

6 - Sadio Mane failed to convert more big chances than any other player in this season's Champions League group stages (6 out of 7 obtained). However, last season he scored seven goals in as many knockout games in the competition.

5 - Top scorer in the Champions League this season with eight goals, Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski will attempt to find the net in a fifth consecutive game, a feat he has never accomplished so far in a same season in the competition.

Lyon v Barcelona

6 - Barcelona are unbeaten against Lyon, winning four of their six previous matches with the French club, all in the Champions League. The Catalans have also scored in all six of those games.

44 - Lyon have averaged 44 per cent possession in this season's Champions League, the lowest ratio among the 16 teams left in the competition, whilst only Real Madrid have had more possession (65 per cent) than Barcelona (64 per cent).

4 - Lyon's Memphis Depay has assisted four goals in the Champions League this season, the joint-most alongside Kylian Mbappe and Riyad Mahrez. The last Lyon player to assist four or more goals in the competition was Juninho Pernambucano in 2008-09 (4).

90 - Since (and including) the 2009 Champions League final, Barcelona's Lionel Messi has scored 90 goals in 90 starts in the competition.

1,418 - Barcelona striker Luis Suarez has failed to score (or deliver an assist) in his last 1,418 minutes of play away from home in the Champions League - 23 hours and 38 minutes without finding the net or setting up a goal. The last time he scored on the road came in September 2015 against Roma at Stadio Olimpico.

Manchester City winger Leroy Sane will head back to the club and the competition where it all began for him this week.

Reunions have been a theme of the Champions League last-16, with Angel Di Maria having the last laugh when he helped Paris Saint-Germain to a 2-0 win at Manchester United after being barracked by the Old Trafford faithful.

There is likely to be a far different feel when Sane returns to the Veltins Arena for the first leg of City's meeting with Schalke, the Bundesliga team he left to move to the Premier League for an initial £37million in August 2016.

"The fans at Schalke are amazing and he didn't do anything wrong. They're proud that a big player like Leroy is one of their own," former Switzerland international Tranquillo Barnetta, who played alongside Sane in Gelsenkirchen, told Omnisport.

"They see it like this, so that's why I think it will be a good welcome."

Barnetta made his own return to Schalke for the 2014-15 campaign, following a season-long loan and Eintracht Frankfurt, as a gifted young attacker made an instant impression upon graduating to the first-team squad.

"You already saw his talent in the beginning in practice," he said of the then-18-year-old Sane. "It was impressive how he did everything.

"In the beginning, usually young players need some time but he was already there and present on the pitch, trying his things.

"He needed a couple more games to really make the breakthrough but, of course, with his speed and his talent I already saw that this was a special kid."

Roberto Di Matteo replaced Jens Keller as head coach in the October and Sane made his second Bundesliga appearance the following month, coming on for the last 10 minutes of a 4-1 win over Mainz.

He ended the campaign with three goals from 13 top-flight games, seven of which came as a starter. But Sane truly announced himself as an exceptional talent in an unforgettable Champions League last-16 encounter at the Santiago Bernabeu.

"We lost the first game against Real Madrid 2-0, so we had nothing to lose," Barnetta, now starring once again for hometown club St Gallen, recalled. "We thought maybe, if we can score, there is a little, little chance."

They did just that – Christian Fuchs and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar establishing first-half leads that were cancelled out on each occasion by Cristiano Ronaldo.

An injury to Eric Maxim Choupo Moting saw Sane introduced for a Champions League debut before the half hour and, after Karim Benzema put Madrid ahead on the night, the teenager took centre stage.

Collecting a pass from Fuchs on the right-hand corner of the penalty area, Sane shifted inside and curled a vicious shot beyond Iker Casillas – becoming the youngest player to score against Madrid in the competition in the process.

Sane proved a menace for an increasingly petrified Madrid backline and a driving run through midfield – that trademark shift in direction that somehow appears at once jolting and smooth was already in evidence – helped to create Huntelaar's second, making it 4-3 to Schalke and ensuring a grandstand finish.

"I'm not sure everyone recognised how close it was. In the last minutes we had a chance with [Benedikt] Howedes. If he scored this header we would have gone through and it would have been amazing," Barnetta recalled, having been wowed by his youthful team-mate.

"He was not afraid of Real Madrid or the Bernabeu and the fans. He just came on the pitch and did his thing.

"I always say that there is a little bit of luck in a career. Maybe his luck was that he could score in this game.

"Everybody was watching this game and if you score against Madrid everybody is talking about you. If you score an amazing goal like Leroy did, all the clubs are asking, 'Who is this guy?'."

There have been bumps in the road since, most notably Sane's surprise omission from Germany's shambolic World Cup defence in Russia.

But season-on-season improvement is in evidence under Pep Guardiola and, with talks over a new contract on-going, Barnetta feels the sky is the limit.

"It's a hard question, how good he can be," he added, as Sane enters the Schalke game with 12 goals and 13 assists to his name this term in all competitions.

"But if he is continuing like this, to get even stronger and trying to score more goals than he already did, he can be so important for a team.

"He can make the difference, even if a team is not playing well, and that is what every team is looking for.

"I don't know how much you have to improve if you are already playing for one of the best teams.

"I just hope for him he is continuing like this and, if he spends the rest of his life at Man City, it will be a great career."

Cristiano Ronaldo will get reacquainted with Atletico Madrid on Wednesday for the first time since leaving their bitter rivals Real Madrid for Juventus, having boasted a fine record in derby clashes.

Atletico host Juve in the first leg of the Champions League's round of 16 and they are braced to face a familiar foe in the Portugal great.

Ronaldo was a regular rival of Atletico's after moving to LaLiga from Manchester United in 2009, and he went on to consistently be a nuisance.

He was on the winning side in his first eight Madrid derbies, before Atletico began to enjoy something of a resurgence and assert themselves in both LaLiga and the Champions League.

However, Madrid still generally got the better of them when it mattered and Ronaldo often played a significant role.

His form has shown no sign of letting up since moving to Serie A, scoring 19 goals in 24 appearances, and he will no doubt be expecting to continue his fine record against Atletico in their upcoming clashes.

Using Opta data, Omnisport takes a closer look at the five-time Ballon d'Or-winner's history against these opponents.

 

22  Ronaldo's overall haul of 22 goals against Atletico during his time in Spain makes him the Madrid derby's all-time top scorer. Only against Sevilla (27) and Getafe (23) has he scored more often.

10 –  Ten of those 22 goals were scored away from home. Only on trips to Sevilla and Barcelona (12) has Ronaldo been more prolific in front of goal.

8 – Ronaldo has taken more penalties against Atletico than any other side, and he has scored every single one of them.

3 – The 34-year-old has three hat-tricks against Atletico, with his most recent coming in May 2017's Champions League semi-final at the Santiago Bernabeu.

18  – No player has netted more often against Atleti during Diego Simeone's celebrated tenure than Ronaldo, whose 18 goals have come across 25 derbies.

5 –  Ronaldo has also chipped in with five assists to further punish Atletico from 10 clear chances created. He had better assist hauls against only Malaga, Espnayol (nine apiece), Levante (eight) and Athletic Bilbao (seven) in Spanish football.

19 – Only three of Ronaldo's 22 goals against Atletico were not with his right foot. All of the remaining trio were headers.

6 – Ronaldo has faced Atletico six times in the Champions League. His solitary defeat in those games (2-1 on May 10, 2017) had no bearing on the end result, as Madrid had won the first leg 3-0 thanks to his hat-trick.

Forty-seven passes, four chances created and one shot in 56 minutes does not sound too bad for your average midfielder, but James Rodriguez should not be average.

The Colombia international played a bit part in Bayern Munich's 3-2 win at Augsburg on Friday before being replaced by Thomas Muller. Given the latter's suspension, James will likely keep his place in the starting line-up against Liverpool in Tuesday's Champions League showdown.

That game could be a pivotal one in both Bayern's season and the career of James. The World Cup Golden Boot and FIFA Puskas Award winner of 2014, as well as the fourth most expensive signing in Real Madrid's history, is in a rut.

Where has it gone wrong?

THE KOVAC CONUNDRUM

As part of the loan deal with Madrid struck two years ago, Bayern have the option to sign James for a reported €42m, nearly half the fee the European champions paid Monaco in 2014. He is still valued by members of the club's hierarchy, such as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. He has spoken fondly of life in Germany.

He has managed just one league assist this season, but only three Bayern players have created more chances than his 29 - not bad for a player limited to eight starts due to injury.

The problem seems to be Niko Kovac.

After getting over a back issue, James was a big success in his first season under Carlo Ancelotti and then Jupp Heynckes, scoring seven goals and assisting another 11 in 23 Bundesliga appearances. He described Heynckes as "a very experienced coach who exudes calm and poise"; that he could speak Spanish made life even easier.

Under Kovac, things have been more difficult. A troubled run of results at the start of the season - including a four-game winless run - led president Uli Hoeness and chairman Rummenigge to round on the media for sensationalising the club's 'crisis'. They would have to admit, though, that James and Kovac at least do not seem to be clicking.

The player does not seem to fit with his coach's methods, either as a central midfielder or in the front three. The pair reportedly argued in December, although James insisted publicly: "There are no issues with the coach or any staff. I am happy here, I am calm and in the future, we will see what happens."

This was always likely to be a more difficult season for Bayern. Incorporating youngsters like Alphonso Davies, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka shows they recognise the need to overhaul an ageing squad, even if they dragged their feet over the problem for too long. Kovac's daunting task is to shape this developing side and drain the old blood, all while sustaining a treble challenge. For that, he needs players in tune with his ideas, or at least prepared to run through walls for him. James looks to be neither.

WHERE COULD HE GO?

James' predicament is indicative of a trend among attacking playmakers.

Across Europe's elite, players blessed with creative qualities are being marginalised if they are not tactically flexible, too. Jose Mourinho was apparently a trailblazer when he dispensed of Juan Mata to accommodate Oscar at Chelsea in 2013-14.

At Arsenal, Unai Emery has kept top-earner Mesut Ozil on the fringes. At Real Madrid, Isco is fighting a losing battle for a place in Santiago Solari's plans. Mata, now at Manchester United, is predominantly a back-up winger. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho is failing to convince in a flat midfield at Barcelona and Paulo Dybala's future at Juventus is unclear.

Of the teams who could afford James and his wages, few look likely to bother if Bayern pass on their option. Liverpool occasionally drop Roberto Firmino into a deeper role, but it seems unlikely they would spend a fortune on a possible reserve. Manchester City and Barca do not need him; neither do Juve, who are said to want Mohamed Salah if Dybala goes. United and Chelsea seem possibilities but, again, they are not set up to embrace James' best qualities. Even if Arsenal were, they do not have the funds to make it happen.

What of Paris Saint-Germain? Thomas Tuchel does use a 4-2-3-1 at times and would have both money to spend and a creative void to fill if Neymar heads back to Spain, as has been persistently suggested. Even so, there are plenty of 'ifs' and 'buts' here - too many on which to base a decisive career move.

As unbelievable as it would have sounded just two or three years ago, James' elite-level days are in limbo. A star turn against Liverpool might be needed if that is to change.

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