Novak Djokovic was in charge, and then he was not, He was injured, and then he was not. He was sliding to defeat, yet suddenly he was not.

And now the Serbian is a 17-time grand slam champion, fast closing on Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the all-time list, after an eighth Australian Open title.

World number one again, into the bargain.

And that familiar beat goes on. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have now swept up the last 13 slams between them. Interlopers, keep trying your best lads.

Many greats of the Open era barely gave a Castlemaine XXXX about the Australian Open until the mid-1980s, the likes of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe repeatedly giving Melbourne a miss.

Yet Djokovic has built his career around repeated triumphs on Rod Laver Arena and is now 8-0 in Australian Open finals, joining Nadal and Federer as the only players to have won a single slam eight or more times.

Nadal's 12 Roland Garros triumphs may never be surpassed, Federer has savoured eight Wimbledon successes, and now Djokovic belongs to the eight-and-up club.

In previous years Djokovic has used this fortnight as a springboard to a new season, but he arrived at Melbourne Park already on a high, fresh from helping Serbia to glory in Sydney in the inaugural ATP Cup, fresh from beating Nadal so soon into a new season. Fresh to take on the world.

Yet for a long stretch of this five-set final against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic looked anything but fresh.

After trading breaks, Djokovic was gifted the first set when Thiem flunked a backhand and then double-faulted.

Usually a mighty front-runner, Djokovic's game began to splutter. Two double faults in game three of the second set saw him hand over the advantage to Thiem, who was ahead despite his often mighty backhand operating temperamentally.

It was that single-handed shot that was threatening to undo Thiem's otherwise fine work as he forged to level the match, and a wild example gave back the break, with Djokovic looking sharper after a change of racket.

But the 32-year-old from Belgrade can blow up too, and when he dropped serve for a second time in the set, after being twice penalised for time violations before slamming a forehand over the baseline, Djokovic was rattled.

He approached chair umpire Damien Dumusois, tapped him on the shoe and snapped: "Great job man, especially in the second one. You made yourself famous, well done."

The inelegant show of dissent was followed by Thiem wrapping up the set then swiftly tearing to a 4-0 lead in the third.

Thiem's backhand was back, while Djokovic appeared physically sapped. Limping, at times almost unsteady on his feet; anyone else and you might have written him off.

But Djokovic has shown a limp and followed it with a sprint before.

And although Mr Dumusois had not heard the end of Djokovic's complaints - the umpire's failure to immediately over-rule a call of 'out' led to another snippy rebuke - soon the match began to turn around.

Thiem made sure of set three, but just as a first grand slam title came into the Austrian's sights, it was clinically wrenched away.

A cheap concession of serve in the eighth game of the fourth set allowed Djokovic to level. Thiem was a rabbit in the headlights, Djokovic on full beam.

Breaking in the third game of the decider put Djokovic firmly in control, and that was swiftly followed by the saving of two break points, which effectively killed Thiem.

So what then of Thiem?

He said all the right things afterwards, praising Djokovic and speaking of the bigger picture in light of Australia's bushfire crisis.

But after two French Open final defeats to Rafael Nadal, another slam setback will feel more painful by the day, particularly as he was in the ascent this time.

Ask Andy Murray, who lost four slam finals before making his breakthrough at the 2012 US Open, what these days feel like below the surface.

To take a Murrayism, Thiem is getting closer.

Thiem is certainly due a break. He fell short in the ATP Finals title match last November, losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas, and split from girlfriend Kristina Mladenovic at around the same time.

In an eye-catching move, he hired his compatriot Thomas Muster to join his coaching team for 2020, but they have already parted company.

When he beat Djokovic during the ATP Finals, Thiem said it took "something outstanding, something unusual" to achieve that feat.

That was a best-of-three contest though. Over five sets, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer remain the untouchable trio when it comes to slam finals.

A Djokovic fan, wearing a red and white T-shirt bearing the message "Serbia against the world", roared on his man as he reached the brink of this latest triumph.

Federer's haul of 20 slams is within striking range, with Djokovic three short of the Swiss and two behind Nadal.

And here's a thing: the men's game has still yet to see a grand slam singles winner born in the 1990s.

Thiem would have become the first. He held this match in his hands, and he dropped it.

Novak Djokovic extended his record for the most Australian Open titles, clinching an eighth after edging Dominic Thiem in Sunday's final.

The Serbian star moved onto 17 major crowns by overcoming Thiem 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 after three hours, 59 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.

Djokovic became the third man to win a single major eight times, with Rafael Nadal (12 French Open titles) and Roger Federer (eight at Wimbledon) having also achieved the feat.

We take a look back at all of his Australian Open successes.

2008 – A maiden grand slam title

Aged 20, this was Djokovic's fourth main-draw appearance in Melbourne and his previous best had been the fourth round the year prior.

But he produced a flying run to the final, beating Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets in the last 16 and top seed Federer in the semis.

Djokovic, the third seed, was left with a surprise opponent in the final and he made the most of his chance, coming from a set down to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It was the first grand slam since the 2005 Australian Open not won by either Federer or Nadal.

2011 – The beginning of complete Melbourne dominance

Djokovic had to wait three years for his second title in Melbourne, but it started a wonderful run of dominance.

He was largely untouchable again on his way to the final, including wins over top-10 seeds Tomas Berdych and Federer.

Djokovic crushed Andy Murray 6-4 6-2 6-3 in the decider to win the first of an incredible three grand slams in 2011.

 

2012 – Coming through two epics

This would be a major best remembered for two matches – Djokovic's semi and final.

He took almost five hours to get past Murray in the last four in a match that seemed certain to ruin his chances in the decider.

Somehow, Djokovic came through that too, beating Nadal 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 (5-7) 7-5 in the longest Open Era grand slam final, which went for a gruelling five hours, 53 minutes.

2013 – Hat-trick complete

Djokovic extended his winning streak at the Australian Open to 21 matches with a third straight title.

He became the first man in the Open Era to win a hat-trick of titles in Melbourne.

Djokovic took five hours to get past Stan Wawrinka – the man who would break his run the following year – in the fourth round before again beating Murray in a final.

 

2015 – Another Wawrinka marathon, another Murray final

Fernando Verdasco and Milos Raonic were unable to stop Djokovic and, this time, Wawrinka failed too.

Djokovic beat the Swiss star in a five-set semi-final before a familiar face stood between him and another title.

Murray managed to split the first two sets, but Djokovic ran away with it from there 6-3 6-0 for a fifth crown.

2016 ­– Record equalled after Simon scare

It was the fourth round that proved to be the biggest scare in Djokovic's bid for a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title.

But he got through another gruelling five-setter, this time against French 14th seed Gilles Simon.

Kei Nishikori, Federer and Murray were unable to stop him from there as Djokovic joined Roy Emerson on six Australian Open crowns.
 

2019 – Record claimed in flawless fashion

For a six-time champion and the world number one, this seemed like a quiet run by Djokovic.

He dispatched of up-and-comers Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev, spent less than an hour on court with an exhausted Nishikori and was almost flawless against Lucas Pouille.

Only Nadal stood between him and a record seventh Australian Open title in a repeat of their epic 2012 final.

And Djokovic may have saved his best performance for the final, dismantling Nadal in just over two hours.

2020 – Thiem test survived to close in on Federer, Nadal

Djokovic entered the tournament on the back of six impressive singles wins at the ATP Cup.

After a brief first-round hiccup against Jan-Lennard Struff, Djokovic cruised into the quarter-finals.

He continued his dominance of Milos Raonic with a 10th win in as many meetings with the Canadian and then brushed a hurt Federer aside.

Thiem, playing his third major final, was a huge test, but Djokovic survived after almost four hours to extend his record in Melbourne. It was his 17th major title, moving closer to the tallies of Federer (20) and Nadal (19), as he reclaimed the number one ranking.

The Algarve: Sun, sea, sand and, if you are the England rugby squad, a chance to discuss salary caps. 

Eddie Jones - a man not known for sugar-coating his words - made clear that England's pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal offered not just preparation time but also an opportunity to clear the air in the wake of the Saracens scandal.  

Joe Marler described the situation as the "elephant in the room", while Jones himself said the players needed to "get it out on the table" so they could all move on. The hope is voicing any grievances with what happened at the Premiership club will not allow any resentment to fester and, potentially, cause a splintering in the ranks. 

While their futures at club level remain uncertain, some of Sarries' stars will once again provide the backbone for England's push for glory in this year's championship. The one notable absentee is Billy Vunipola, once again sidelined due to a broken arm. Yet even without the number eight, hopes are rightly high for success.

They will no doubt have memories of their last outing, a painful Rugby World Cup final that did not go to plan. Having ended New Zealand's longstanding grip on the Webb Ellis Cup with a stunning semi-final win, England failed to hit the same heights in the showpiece game. In truth, they didn't even come close. 

That 32-12 loss to the Springboks in Yokohama must have hurt back in November, but - now the dust has settled and the debrief is all done - it can provide a catalyst to raise the bar, rather than the beginning of the end for the current crop.

Asked in a media conference if there was a concern over a World Cup hangover still lingering, young flanker Tom Curry offered a response that was both swift and to the point: "No".

Jones will not tolerate any self-pity either. Instead, the Australian will expect a reaction, starting with their trip to Paris on opening weekend. 

For Les Bleus, this feels like the first chapter in a new story. Head coach Fabien Galthie selected 19 uncapped players in his initial squad, suggesting he is free to shape the script going forward. 

England, however, do not have the thought of the 2023 World Cup at the forefront of their minds. Jones may not even still be in charge by then – his current deal runs until August 2021 – so his only focus is on winning now. 

Trusted lieutenants will once again will be relied upon to lead in the heat of battle, including Saracens duo Owen Farrell, who captains the team against France, and Maro Itoje. 

With Ireland and Wales – Grand Slam winners in 2018 and 2019 respectively – beginning new regimes following the departures of longstanding coaches, the familiar faces lining up in white shirts are considered favourites to reign this year. 

After so much talk around off-field issues and World Cup hangovers, the players may just be grateful just to get on with playing games.

Vunipola's absence is an obvious blow, considering his ball-carrying abilities, but there is more than enough power in the pack to cope without him. The time for talking is over; England know there are no excuses for failing to deliver a first title since 2017.

Over the past decade there has often been a sense of the unknown with France entering the Six Nations, but what should we make of the 2020 vintage?

Les Bleus were desperately unlucky to lose their Rugby World Cup quarter-final to Wales 20-19, that heartbreaking defeat in Japan bringing an end to Jacques Brunel's tenure.

It was already known Fabien Galthie would replace Brunel after the conclusion of rugby's most prestigious competition and he wasted little time in stamping his authority on the squad.

At a tournament where it seems every team is going through a transition of sorts, France – whose last Six Nations triumph was in 2010 – in particular are headed for a new era and there is plenty of intrigue over how they will fare.


OUT WITH THE OLD IN WITH THE NEW FOR LES BLEUS

When announcing his Six Nations training squad at the start of January, Galthie named 19 uncapped players in a 42-man party that had an average age of just 24.

Only 15 of the squad that travelled to Japan were retained in that selection, with Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Rabah Slimani and Yoann Huget among the notable absentees.

France have won the past two World Rugby Under-20 Championships with Louis Carbonel, Cameron Woki, Arthur Vincent, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Killian Geraci among the graduates from those teams called into the training squad.

Perhaps wisely, Galthie only has two uncapped players starting for a formidable opener against World Cup runners-up England at the Stade de France, with Montpellier duo Anthony Bouthier and Mohamed Haouas starting at full-back and tighthead prop respectively.

But both Woki and Boris Palu could make their debuts off the bench, while the inexperienced Demba Bamba and Peato Mauvaka are aiming to build on their fledgling international careers and Julian Marchand makes his first France start at hooker.


OLLIVON TAKES ON THE ARMBAND

If proof were needed of Galthie's intention to build for the future, then look no further than the decision to name Charles Ollivon as captain.

With Guilhem Guirado having retired from international rugby, Toulon flanker Ollivon was chosen to lead France against England despite the 26-year-old having gained just 11 caps.

England coach Eddie Jones promised his side will bring "brutal physicality" to Paris, so a starting XV with an average of 15 caps could be in for a baptism of fire.

It will fall on the likes of Gael Fickou (51 caps) and Bernard Le Roux (37 caps) to lead by example as the more seasoned players on the pitch to help Ollivon and the inexperienced players in the team.


EXCELLENT EDWARDS A SHREWD ADDITION

It is not just on the pitch where Galthie has looked to shape his own squad, there have been changes off the pitch too.

Les Bleus legend Raphael Ibanez – part of Grand Slam-winning Five Nations sides in 1997 and 1998 – has arrived as team manager, Laurent Labit has left Racing 92 for a place in the national backroom team, while William Servat, Karim Ghezal, Thibault Giroud and Nicolas Buffa will all serve under Galthie.

But perhaps the most important appointment is that of Shaun Edwards, who is the new defence coach.

Edwards is one of the most highly rated coaches in world rugby and had a plethora of options after leaving a similar role with Wales he had enjoyed for 12 years.

Working alongside Warren Gatland, Wales won four Six Nations titles, including the Grand Slam in 2008, 2012 and 2019, while they were World Cup semi-finalists twice in that time.

In August 2018 it was announced Edwards had agreed to take over Super League side Wigan Warriors but he later stated a contract was never presented to him.

The Warriors' loss could be yet be France's greatest gain. The chance to work with a promising, yet raw team is one that is sure to excite Edwards, who also been involved in the past two British and Irish Lions tours with Gatland.

Lamar Jackson was drained.

On January, 6, 2019, in his first NFL playoff game, the Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback had been restricted to under 200 yards passing by the Los Angeles Chargers, he was sacked seven times and the offense he led failed to score a touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter, at which point the game was gone.

Boos from his own fans ringing in his ears; critics questioning whether he could make it as an NFL quarterback.

He told his personal quarterback coach Josh Harris he needed some time off before they reconvened for their offseason work.

When they did, two weeks after the New England Patriots won Super Bowl LIII, the aim was to get back to basics.

"This is going to be a very slow offseason and it's going to be boring," Harris told Jackson.

Sometimes they would spend an hour mimicking the basic action of the throwing motion. Some days that was all they did.

Other days Harris would swing a broom at Jackson's legs, abdomen and head to replicate the pressure he feels in the pocket.

"He hates the broom drill," Harris told Omnisport.

"I always do this after he frustrates me to scare him. 'If you don't listen to me, I will hit you with this broom!'"

The mantra all offseason was "finding your rhythm" and Harris preached it for four days a week. It was supposed to be five but Jackson "always found a way to get out of Fridays".

On September 8, 2019, in his first NFL game of the season, Jackson got the chance to put the lessons he had learned with Harris just 26 miles away into practice.

He threw for 324 yards, torched the Miami Dolphins in their own stadium with five touchdown passes and had a perfect passer rating. It was the start of a campaign that would end with the MVP award, given to him in the same city on Saturday night.

--

Harris has known Jackson since his college days at Louisville. Jackson's mother, Felicia Jones, and his youth football coach, Van Warren, believed Harris could take the quarterback's game on. They were right, he won the Heisman Trophy later that year.

"He never acted like a person that was this gifted at football," Harris said.

"He's very teachable. He's a perfectionist, he gets frustrated when things aren't going well."

And if Harris wants the perfect rep out of Jackson, he knows just which buttons to push.

On his iPhone Notes app are a series of criticisms pundits have levelled at Jackson. Comments from the people who didn't think he could throw. Those who, like former Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts general manager, Bill Polian, thought he should change position.

"You can see when you give him a criticism, it turns into fuel," Harris explained.

"I've had other players, they wither under it. It motivates him, he's seen that [criticism] every step of the way."

-- 

The critics did not think Jackson, unquestionably an elite talent with his legs, would ever be able to lead the NFL in touchdown passes - as he did in 2019 with 36 scores.

So when Harris was designing Jackson's unique pro day before the 2018 NFL Draft, the aim was to prove to those in attendance that he could win from the pocket. Jackson took every snap from under centre and threw to multiple receivers instead of just one.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was there and so was Baltimore's quarterback coach James Urban, who impressed Harris by showing a keen interest in his drills.

When it came to draft night, Harris wore a purple tie, hoping it would prove a lucky omen and that his pupil would be selected by the Ravens.

One by one the players on the tables next to Jackson that night in Texas were drafted. Saquon Barkley to the New York Giants. Josh Rosen to the Arizona Cardinals. Jaire Alexander, Jackson's college team-mate, to the Green Bay Packers.

Soon only one pick remained in the first round. Amputee linebacker Shaquem Griffin was in the green room, though he was never going to be selected that high, as were running back Derrius Guice, and Jackson, whose entourage had flights booked back for the following morning thinking he would be chosen in the first round.

All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey had stuck around too, an interested observer in Jackson's fate.

When Guice's phone rang with the Philadelphia Eagles on the clock, Harris figured he knew what that meant. But there was another call coming into that room, to Jackson's phone.

"Everybody's in a daze," Harris said.

"He's just sitting there. I slapped him, 'Man, pick up the phone!'"

It was the Baltimore Ravens. They had traded up to select Jackson with the final pick of the first round, a move that would look incredibly shrewd less than two years later when he led them to an NFL-best 14-2 record.

-- 

Harris was a little worried as Jackson continued to compile an MVP-calibre campaign. The sensational 47-yard touchdown run against the Cincinnati Bengals. The ludicrous touchdown pass to Mark Andrews when off-balance in Cleveland. The accumulation of yards on the ground (1,206) that would see him break Michael Vick's single-season record for most among quarterbacks.

"He's the media darling now," Harris thought.

Where then was he going to find the criticism to fuel Jackson?

Then came the shock 28-12 Divisional Round playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, which happened despite Jackson producing over 500 yards of total offense.

Not only did the Titans' defensive scheme give Harris and Jackson something to mull over this offseason, it also provided the coach with some new entries for his iPhone Notes.

"They're saying you're 0-2 in playoff games," Harris intends to tell Jackson when they next meet.

"They were even critiquing your precision passing in the Pro Bowl skills challenge. 

"I know it's silly but cool, I can use it."

Jackson will trot back out onto the practice field in Pompano Beach in two weeks' time as the freshly crowned MVP - the best player in the entire NFL.

But Harris will be ready, with his iPhone Notes, and his broom.

"I already know how to motivate him," Harris concludes.

"I've got a couple of bullets in the chamber for the MVP!"

Lamar Jackson is the NFL's MVP - an honour that comes as no surprise.

The Ravens quarterback delivered a sensational season in his first full year as Baltimore's starter, guiding them to an AFC-best 14-2 record.

Jackson, 23, not only proved how potent he is with his legs but showed he could win with his arm too, leading the league with 36 touchdown passes.

We look at five defining moments in Jackson's MVP campaign.

 

NOT BAD FOR A RUNNING BACK!

A Week 1 matchup against a Miami Dolphins roster that had been gutted of most of its star power allowed Jackson to feast. However, it was through the air, rather than on the ground, where he did his damage.

Jackson completed 17-of-20 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns - including two bombs to rookie receiver Marquise Brown - while rushing for just six yards on three attempts.

It was a defiant response to those who thought Jackson could not win with his arm. After posting a perfect 158.3 passer rating, he took aim at his critics by saying: "Not bad for a running back!"

BOUNCING BACK AGAINST THE BENGALS

Five of Jackson's six interceptions in 2019 came in Weeks 4 and 5, so he needed a response in Week 6 and, boy, did he deliver one.

He became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to pass for at least 200 yards (236) and rush for at least 150 (152), burrowing in for a 21-yard score on the ground too.

Jackson fell 21 yards shy of Michael Vick's single-game rushing record for a QB in the regular season, though another of his marks would soon be surpassed...

YOU MADDEN, BRO?

Four weeks later and the Bengals once again had no answer to the man quickly establishing himself as the best dual-threat QB in the NFL.

In going 15-of-17 for 223 yards and throwing three touchdowns, Jackson posted his second perfect passer rating of the season.

Yet it was his jaw-dropping 47-yard TD run that justified the MVP chants as Jackson spun away from three defenders as if he was being controlled by a Madden video game player.

LIKE MIKE... ONLY BETTER

Another primetime outing, another primetime performance; this time on Thursday Night Football against the New York Jets in Week 15.

The Ravens clinched the AFC North title, and Jackson possibly the MVP award, with a 42-21 demolition of the Jets in which the quarterback once again threw five touchdowns.

He also broke Vick's single-season rushing record (1,039 yards) for a QB on the opening drive, finishing with another 86 yards on the ground on just eight carries.

DEFYING LOGIC AGAINST CLEVELAND

If the spinning TD against the Bengals showcased Jackson's running ability, his connection with Mark Andrews in Week 16 highlighted his pocket presence, touch and poise as a passer.

With 15 seconds left before the half and no timeouts left, blitzing Cleveland Browns cornerback T.J. Carrie looked to take Jackson down.

Yet the former Louisville quarterback juked past the onrushing Carrie, kept his eyes downfield and, from an unbalanced platform, dropped a dime over Damarious Randall to Andrews in the endzone.

When the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers square off in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, it will not just be a meeting of the league's most talented quarterback against its most complete team. It will also be a matchup of the two greatest offensive minds in the game today.

They are in different stages of career and their journeys to this point have been markedly different, but no other offensive coach in the league does creativity and innovation to the level of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and 49ers boss Kyle Shanahan.

Despite the strength of the Niners defense and the improvements made by that of the Chiefs down the stretch, you will find few in Miami willing to bet against a shootout at Hard Rock Stadium.

It's a 61-year-old veteran against the 40-year-old christened as a genius almost throughout the league, and their intelligence and incredible acumen are sure to help keep the scoreboard ticking in what many expect to be a classic Super Bowl.

Kansas City Chiefs – Andy Reid

A former assistant of Mike Holmgren with the Green Bay Packers, Reid was schooled in the West Coast offense that Holmgren was immersed in during his time working under the legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh. 

The West Coast is an offense that is built on the principle of getting the ball to the receivers in space from them to gain yardage after the catch. 

Reid has stuck to that tenet of the scheme, but the genius in his approach lies with how he has incorporated the deep pass. The West Coast system may be designed to put players in space, but the Chiefs, through drafting the likes of Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, have added players so fast that they create their own space.

Star quarterback Patrick Mahomes attempted a deep pass of 20 yards or more at the ninth-highest rate in the NFL this season, despite missing the best part of 11 quarters with a knee injury, with the 2.4 yards of separation from the nearest defender his receivers averaged on those passes the second-highest amount in the league.

Such is Reid's faith in Mahomes' arm and the speed of his receivers, that one of the Chiefs' most frequent play-calls if four verticals – essentially just four receivers running straight down the field.

The raw pace the Chiefs have at their disposal allows Reid the luxury of stretching defenses deep, but he also uses their physical gifts to test opponents horizontally as well. Reid will frequently send his running back in motion to shift defenders over to a certain side of the field and make them respect the possibility of a short throw to that area, opening greater pockets of space downfield.

Respect for such motion is a result of the impact Hill has made on jet sweeps and reverses out of the backfield, the former fifth-round pick adept at ripping off significant gains through plays that are effectively an extension of the running game.

Further downfield, Reid also utilizes the speed of his wideouts with deep crossing patterns that give defenders, as Raiders safety Karl Joseph found out in Week 2, a difficult decision to make as to who to cover. The combination of the Chiefs' speed and Reid's play-calls so often puts defenses in a bind, which is something his opposite number Shanahan seemingly revels in finding new ways to do.

San Francisco 49ers – Kyle Shanahan

The only team that ranks above the Chiefs in average separation on deep passes is the 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo's completion percentage of 58.1 on deep throws is the best in the league, above Mahomes in second (47.1).

San Francisco and Garoppolo's presence at the top of those respective lists will surprise many given their postseason successes over the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers were built around a dominant running game.

But the fact the Niners are able to flourish on the ground and send it deep is testament to Shanahan, who creates huge holes for his troop of electric running backs with an outside zone scheme that is an extension of what his father Mike ran in Denver and Washington. Shanahan also does an excellent job of recognising a defense's weak link and relentlessly taking advantage of it to get his receivers open.

A master of misdirection and disguise, no coach in the NFL relies on motion and play-action more than Shanahan, and the results have been devastatingly impressive for a team that finished the regular season second in points per game with 29.9.

The two players that are most crucial to Shanahan's consistent success with deception are Kyle Juszczyk and rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

Juszczyk is the Niners' Swiss Army knife. Many balked at the $21millon contract the Niners gave the fullback in 2017, but he has more than proved his worth.

The Niners do not use him as strictly a traditional fullback, they deploy him as a tight end and as a slot receiver as well as in the backfield, and the fact he has the athleticism to block and catch passes from each of those spots makes it near-impossible to decipher what his responsibility on a given play.

Juszczyk was the lead blocker on Samuel's touchdown on a reverse in the 49ers' crucial Week 17 win at the Seattle Seahawks that clinched a bye and homefield advantage in the playoffs for San Francisco.

Samuel has slotted seamlessly into the offense, racking 802 receiving yards, but the threat of him as a runner out of the backfield has allowed Shanahan to add another dimension to his attack, forcing defenders to hesitate when he comes across the formation, as they did when he ended up being the lead blocker for one of four Raheem Mostert touchdowns in the NFC Championship game.

Stopping the Niners' diverse ground attack will be a primary focus of Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo but, with Shanahan being such a savant of disguise and having the likes of Juszczyk and Samuel at his disposal, it is difficult how to see that goal can be achieved in what will be a points fest if he and Reid perform at their play-calling peak.

Novak Djokovic is aiming to win a fifth grand slam in seven at the Australian Open on Sunday.

The Serbian faces Dominic Thiem in the final in Melbourne looking to extend his record to eight titles in the tournament and repeat his 2019 triumph.

It is continuing another dominant period for the 16-time grand slam champion, a spell which began at Wimbledon in 2018.

But how does his recent run of success compare to his previous triumphs, as well as those enjoyed by his 'Big Three' rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?

Federer – 8 in 10, 2005-07

The Swiss great was almost unstoppable for a period beginning at Wimbledon in 2005. From 2003 at the All England Club to the 2010 Australian Open, Federer incredibly won 16 of 27 grand slams, with a couple of separate utterly stunning runs. From Wimbledon 2005 to the 2007 US Open, Federer won eight of the 10 majors and was beaten in the finals of the other two. Only Nadal at the French Open (2006 and 2007) could deny Federer, who enjoyed wins over Andy Roddick (twice), Andre Agassi, Marcos Baghdatis, Nadal (twice), Fernando Gonzalez and Djokovic in deciders during that period. Starting at Wimbledon 2004, Federer also won 10 of 14 majors, but he has just four grand slams since 2011.

Djokovic – 6 in 8, 2014-16

The Serbian star began to make the most of his opportunities, starting from midway through 2014. Heading into that tournament, Djokovic had made 13 grand slam finals but won just six. However, since the Wimbledon final six years ago, he has won 10 major deciders and lost just two. A thrilling five-set final against Federer started the run before he reclaimed his Australian Open title. Stan Wawrinka upset him in the decider in Paris before the beginning of the 'Nole Slam', Djokovic winning four straight majors to hold every grand slam trophy simultaneously. A shock third-round exit to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon in 2016 ended a 30-match winning run at majors for Djokovic, who would have to wait until 2018 for his next grand slam title.

Nadal – 4 in 5, 2010-11

In an extraordinary career, Nadal has won just one Australian Open and two Wimbledon titles, impacting his runs. The Spaniard's best year in terms of major titles was 2010, when he claimed three before adding another at Roland Garros in 2011. Stunned by Robin Soderling in his first French Open loss in 2009, Nadal brushed the Swede aside in the final the following year, kick-starting a run of three straight major wins. Tomas Berdych and Djokovic were beaten in the Wimbledon and US Open deciders respectively, but his bid to hold all four at once was ended in the quarter-finals in Melbourne, where he suffered a hamstring injury and fell to David Ferrer. But, back in Paris, Nadal won a sixth French Open crown.

Novak Djokovic will take what is considered a major advantage into his Australian Open final against Dominic Thiem – an extra day's rest.

The 16-time grand slam champion brushed aside Roger Federer in straight sets on Thursday, a day before Thiem edged out Alexander Zverev in four.

At 32, Djokovic is six years older than Thiem, a player he holds a 6-4 win-loss record over but has lost to in four of their past five meetings.

But an extra day off has seemingly had little impact on the result of Sunday's final, especially in the past decade, when the player with more rest has won five and lost as many deciders.

"I have two days of no match right now, which actually is really good," Serbia's Djokovic said after his win over a hurting Federer.

"It gives me more time to recuperate and gather all the necessary energy for the finals."

Thiem, unsurprisingly, saw the benefits of not having the extra day despite coming off two tough wins over world number one Rafael Nadal and Zverev.

"There are disadvantages but also advantages. I think it's also a little bit of a challenge to have all the time one day off and all of a sudden two," he said.

"Of course, I have less time to regenerate, but with all the adrenaline and everything, it's going to be fine.

"I played two super intense matches against Rafa and now against Sascha [Zverev]. Of course, I'm going to feel it, especially [on Saturday]. But I'm going to have great treatment, easy hit [on Saturday], and then of course try everything to be 100 per cent on Sunday night."

Since 2010, the men with extra rest have won five and lost five finals. Djokovic has won his three, but he has also won all seven of his deciders in Melbourne.

Going further back and the win-loss record for men who played their semi-final a day earlier since 2000 is 11-9, barely an advantage.

Thiem has spent almost six hours longer on court than Djokovic, but in the prime of his career and eyeing a maiden grand slam title, having a day's less rest should seemingly have little impact.

Entering Australian Open final with an extra day's rest since 2000
2019: Rafael Nadal (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2018: Marin Cilic (lost against Roger Federer)
2017: Roger Federer (won against Rafael Nadal)
2016: Novak Djokovic (won against Andy Murray)
2015: Andy Murray (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2014: Stan Wawrinka (won against Rafael Nadal)
2013: Novak Djokovic (won against Andy Murray)
2012: Rafael Nadal (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2011: Novak Djokovic (won against Andy Murray)
2010: Andy Murray (lost against Roger Federer)
2009: Roger Federer (lost against Rafael Nadal)
2008: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (lost against Novak Djokovic)
2007: Roger Federer (won against Fernando Gonzalez)
2006: Marcos Baghdatis (lost against Roger Federer)
2005: Marat Safin (won against Lleyton Hewitt)
2004: Marat Safin (lost against Roger Federer)
2003: Andre Agassi (won against Rainer Schuttler)
2002: Thomas Johansson (won against Marat Safin)
2001: Andre Agassi (won against Arnaud Clement)
2000: Andre Agassi (won against Yevgeny Kafelnikov)
Wins: 11 Losses: 9

After days of dithering, Manchester United wasted no time at all in showcasing their latest toy at Old Trafford.

"He's already made an impact with his demeanour, his big smile," Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of Bruno Fernandes on Saturday, the midfielder no doubt grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of a home debut against a Wolves side containing five compatriots.

United fans, with thoughts of a mass walkout in protest against the ownership apparently forgotten, gave their new £46.5million man a huge ovation as his name was announced, along with the customary cheer when he first touched the ball.

It proved to be an encouraging if ineffective debut, as United failed to make the most of second-half territorial dominance against Wolves, the 0-0 draw marking the third time in a row they have been held at home in the league by Nuno Espirito Santo's side.

Fernandes was certainly not guilty of not trying. He had more shots (five), more shots on target (three) and attempted more passes (88) than any of his team-mates. He nearly found his range from the dead ball, too.

Let's examine the highlights - and disappointments - of Fernandes' first Premier League game...

33': Wolves were perhaps the better side in the first half, United's attack giving Rui Patricio's goal little trouble. Fernandes was the first to give him something to worry about, his swerving strike from outside the box bending a yard or so past the right-hand post.

40': Fernandes had found some rhythm by this stage and he nearly capped a good half with a debut goal, his powerful strike from the edge of the area from Luke Shaw's cut-back ultimately giving Patricio a routine save as it went down the middle.

46': Solskjaer talked up Fernandes' leadership qualities when the deal finally got over the line, and they were on show when he emerged from the tunnel for the second half giving pointed instructions to Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

55': Fernandes built a reputation in Portugal for refusing to shirk a challenge, and he was in the book for a cynical tug on Raul Jimenez, who was trying to launch a counter-attack.

58': Despite being a good 35 yards from goal, Fernandes tried his luck with a free-kick. He struck it superbly but, given the distance, Patricio made a relatively comfortable save high to his right.

67': With United now dominant but unable to pick their way through the Wolves rearguard, Fernandes tried a speculative effort that did at least force a corner after a Patricio fumble. He then took it short, but his eventual cross was poor.

78': Fernandes, who started as a number 10, was a little deeper in the second half but pressed high to draw an error from Matt Doherty that almost forced the opening goal, Mason Greenwood's shot taking a double deflection before ending up in Patricio's grateful grasp.

80': After another short United corner, Fernandes tried a tricky pass to Juan Mata that allowed Wolves to counter and win a corner of their own. By this stage, he looked to be tiring.

90+3': Wolves threatened a dramatic winner after a rare second-half foray forward, but Fernandes was on hand to make a timely clearance from inside his own penalty area.

After eight years, seven trophies, two Champions League finals and one shiny new stadium, the time has come for change at Atletico Madrid.

Saturday's 1-0 derby defeat to Real Madrid was only their fourth loss in LaLiga this season, but it leaves them 13 points behind the leaders and with no sign of that gap closing between now and May.

Madrid needed 56 minutes to break the deadlock through Karim Benzema, which is nothing new for Atleti – they remain redoubtable in defence, with only Los Blancos conceding fewer league goals this season – but their listlessness in attack is reaching crisis point.

Atleti have scored 22 goals in LaLiga, as many as fourth-bottom Real Mallorca. They have failed to score in four of their past five matches in all competitions, the exception being Angel Correa's goal in a truly disheartening Copa del Rey defeat to Cultural Leonesa. Most worrying of all is the fact they have won six times since October 29.

The typical ferocity with which they have played under Simeone since December 2011 is now seemingly exclusive to the head coach himself, who was booked in the first half at the Santiago Bernabeu after one too many furious marches from his technical area.

In short, Atleti are bereft of confidence, insipid going forward and with little obvious idea how to arrest their poor form. They are fifth in LaLiga, out of the Copa, beaten on penalties in the Supercopa de Espana final by their city rivals and with the daunting task of Liverpool to come in the Champions League. They are falling alarmingly short of expectations, especially given a pre-season investment of nearly €244million.

Simeone has not been helped by injuries. Joao Felix, the €126m man who devastated Madrid in the 7-3 International Champions Cup win in August, sat out Saturday's defeat due to a muscle injury, although his recent form means he would have been fortunate to start anyway. Diego Costa, who scored four against Madrid in that resounding pre-season success, has not started a league match in three months. Alvaro Morata, their one fit centre-forward, went off at half-time with an apparent muscular problem.

But excuses are running out for Simeone. The man who has worked miracles at times in turning Atleti from second-class citizens in Spain's capital to persistent LaLiga and Champions League contenders looks like his magic has worn off. The feel around the Wanda Metropolitano, the sparkling Atletico venue designed to reflect their modern prowess on the pitch, is much the same as the atmosphere at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in Mauricio Pochettino's final months in charge: how will anything change unless there's a new man in the dugout?

Atleti did at least start positively against Madrid and created the better chances in the first half. Angel Correa clipped the outside of the post and Vitolo brought a smart save from Thibaut Courtois from inside the box. That, though, was their only shot on target.

At half-time, Zinedine Zidane abandoned his plan to midfielder Atletico to death, bringing on Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior. One timely pass from the Brazilian allowed Ferland Mendy to set up Benzema for the winner 56 minutes in.

Atleti's best attempt at a comeback was a solitary wayward shot from Thomas Partey with 20 minutes left – irrefutable evidence of the team's stagnation under Simeone. "Stay, Cholo!" came the ironic taunt from the home fans. How much longer will the Atleti faithful sing the same thing and mean it?

His legacy at the club is secure, but his future, and that of Atleti, is weakened with every passing miserable 90 minutes. A parting of the ways, now or before next season at least, might be best for all concerned.

This Sunday the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will hope their gameplans can deliver the Super Bowl LIV title in Miami.

Though the Niners are viewed as the team with the vaunted defense, and the Chiefs the explosive offense, the reality is San Francisco scored more points per game during the regular season (29.9 to 28.2) while Kansas City allowed fewer (19.3 to 19.4).

To preview Super Bowl LIV, we used Stats Perform's advanced analytics and data analysis to profile the area where the game is likely to be won and lost - in the trenches.

 

SAN FRANCISCO'S FRONT FOUR v KANSAS CITY'S OFFENSIVE LINE

The Chiefs have aired the ball out on offense over the past two postseasons, and Patrick Mahomes' career playoff passer rating is 115.00 - the highest of all time among quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts.

He might be slowed down if the Niners' front four can continue their excellent pass-rushing production across the regular season and playoffs, though.

According to Stats Perform's metric for adjusted pressure on pass-rush opportunities, rookie Nick Bosa has generated pressure 26.6 per cent of time this season - way higher than his expected pressure rate of 13.1 per cent.

Former Chief Dee Ford, used almost exclusively as a situational pass rusher, also performs well (26.1 per cent compared to an expected pressure rate of 12.4 per cent), while both DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead (19.8 per cent and 18.8 per cent) also way exceeded their expected pressure rate (10.8 and 11.5 per cent).

Mahomes' two tackles will therefore be key, and while one has excelled, the other has struggled.

Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has allowed pressures on only 6.23 per cent of his 369 pass-protection opportunities, having been expected to give up pressure on 10.74 per cent of those snaps.

Schwartz has performed way better than the Niners' two bookends Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey in the allowed pressures category (10.08 per cent and 10.73 per cent).

However, where Bosa et al may have more joy is against former first-overall pick Eric Fisher. The left tackle, who only played half of the regular-season games due to injury, allowed pressure on 17.50 per cent of his 160 pass-protection opportunities - considerably higher than any offensive lineman playing on Sunday.

Look for 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to attack the weakness on that Chiefs line - Mahomes' blindside.

 

SAN FRANCISCO'S RUSHING ATTACK V KANSAS CITY'S RUN STUFFERS

This postseason the 49ers have 44.5 rushing attempts per game - the most of any team in a single postseason since 1976. The Niners clearly want to run the ball. A lot.

The men tasked with clogging up gaps and making that a less-than-appealing strategy are Kansas City's defensive tackles Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi and Mike Pennel.

When it comes to Stats Perform's run-disruptions metric - which measures how often a player disrupts a designed run play - Jones and Pennel excel.

From his 184 run snaps, Jones has produced disruptions 27.2 per cent of the time, considerably more than his expected disruption rate of 15.3 per cent.

Pennel, who has proven to be a nice pickup since joining in October, produced disruptions on 27.3 per cent of his 55 run snaps, with Nnadi at 19.8 per cent.

When it comes to the 49ers' rushing attack, San Francisco tend to ride the hot hand. Matt Breida led the team in yardage on the ground in September, Tevin Coleman had that honour in October and November, and Raheem Mostert has been the most productive back in December and the postseason.

Mostert has had 194 touches of the ball in the regular season and playoffs - more than any other skill-position player involved at Super Bowl LIV.

He has forced missed tackles on 24.2 per cent of those touches, the second best among running backs in the NFL.

Should he be asked to carry the load in Miami, he may be advised to run away from Jones and Pennel.

Dominic Thiem has shown the highly rated 'Next Gen' the way, though the rest of the Australian Open finalist's generation provides a cautionary tale.

Thiem's rise continues in Melbourne, where he will face Novak Djokovic in the men's singles final on Sunday in his third major decider and first away from the French Open.

But the 26-year-old Austrian sits in a generation alone; more established than the improving 'Next Gen' but still – like all others – chasing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

The likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Matteo Berrettini, Denis Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alex de Minaur can learn from Thiem's progression, while Daniil Medvedev, 23, has quickly proven himself.

Zverev, beaten by good friend Thiem in the semi-finals, admitted this week he had been impatient in his pursuit of grand slam success. The German is the world number seven and Melbourne shaped as a breakthrough, a new approach helping the 22-year-old into a first major semi.

Thiem only won his first Tour title at 21, with his next three also coming at ATP 250 level before he took another step by clinching the Mexican Open in February 2016.

A reputation on clay being quickly established, he reached a semi-final at Roland Garros later that year – and another in 2017. Thiem shapes as the successor to Nadal's immovable crown in Paris, falling to the Spanish great in the past two finals.

It has been steady growth, although the improvement on hard courts has been particularly impressive, including a title at Indian Wells last year.

Patiently working, Thiem has risen to be being one win away from a breakthrough major, and his journey can be looked at by what is a supremely talented up-and-coming group.

Zverev won the 2018 ATP Finals, but it is last year's event in London that is set to be looked upon as the moment the 'Next Gen' truly made their move. Tsitsipas and Thiem played out a thrilling final, the former having beaten Federer in a semi and the latter posted wins over Djokovic and the Swiss great in the group stage.

Thiem is the only 26-year-old in the world's top 50 and just one of five in the top 100, joined by Juan Ignacio Londero, Hugo Dellien, Roberto Carballes Baena and Dennis Novak.

He was once a world number two junior and reached the 2011 French Open boys' singles final, falling to Bjorn Fratangelo.

A quick look at that year's boys' singles quarter-finals at all grand slams makes for interesting viewing. Kyle Edmund and Lucas Pouille have made Australian Open semi-finals, Jiri Vesely once reached 35th in the world, Carballes Baena is among them, as is the injury-plagued Jason Kubler and doubles star Mate Pavic.

Before Thiem takes to the court to face Djokovic, Luke Saville – a two-time slam winner as a junior – will play the men's doubles final. A highly rated junior, Saville beat Thiem in the juniors at the Australian Open in 2011 but has struggled to take the step up.

The current 'Next Gen' have already been more impressive and now they have Thiem to follow.

When Gregor Townsend signed a contract extension in 2018, he declared Scotland were entering a "crucial and exciting time".

Townsend added that he expected "improvements across the board" after being handed a new deal just over a year after replacing Vern Cotter as head coach.

Yet on the eve of their Six Nations opener against Ireland in Dublin, Scotland fans could be forgiven feeling more than a modicum of apprehension over what is to come in the next six weeks.

There was no shortage of excitement at Twickenham when Townsend's men conjured up a stunning second-half fightback to hold fierce rivals England to an incredible 38-38 Calcutta Cup draw last March.

A glance at the Six Nations table offered a reality check ahead of the Rugby World Cup, though, given Scotland finished second-bottom - their only victory coming against perennial wooden spoon recipients Italy.

There was much more misery to come when a defeat in a do-or-die clash with hosts Japan sent Scotland crashing out of the World Cup with a whimper after failing to make the quarter-finals.

Townsend was backed to stay on despite that early exit and defiantly stated "there's a lot more in this team". 

That team was already shorn of talismanic captain and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw following his international retirement, so there would be even more onus on Finn Russell to be at his mercurial best.

But as the squad stepped up their preparations for their showdown at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday, Russell was pulling the strings for Racing 92 in a Top 14 victory at Castres last weekend.

Disciplined for a breach of team protocol following an incident at the team hotel, it is not clear whether the brilliant fly-half will play any part in the Six Nations. 

Townsend, also without injured in-form wing Darcy Graham, has put his faith in Adam Hastings to fill Russell's huge shoes against an Ireland side that beat Scotland 27-3 in the World Cup just over just over four months ago.

There was plenty of positive talk from the former Glasgow Warriors boss this week despite turmoil even before the first ball is kicked.

"I don't know if we have a point to prove. What I can say is that the team have prepared really well, the intensity levels and communication in training have been excellent." he said.

"Things have gone well, but we know mindset has a big part to play in high-level sport."

While expectations may be limited, Scotland must show the fight Townsend has called for without the soft centre that has been exploited all too often during his reign.

Scotland have proven they can be great entertainers in the Townsend era, but they must make the case for the defence or the 46-year-old's tenure could be cut short.

Andy Farrell set his stall out when he named "a hell of a team" for his first game as Ireland head coach against Scotland in the Six Nations on Saturday.

There had been much debate over who would get the nod at the start of Farrell's reign following the agony of Ireland's Rugby World Cup failure.

Just over three months after Joe Schmidt's reign ended with a 46-14 World Cup quarter-final drubbing at the hands of New Zealand, Farrell showed he is ready to do things his own way when revealing his hand for the clash at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.

The dual-code international put his cards on the table ahead of schedule, handing a start to uncapped number eight Caelan Doris with Ronan Kelleher poised to make his debut off the bench.

Conor Murray kept his place over the in-form John Cooney, with Johnny Sexton leading the side following Rory Best's retirement.

While the names in the 23 were always going to be the main topic of discussion, Farrell very much made a statement with his tone and timing of the delivery.

He has had plenty of time to consider his approach to being a head coach after serving as an assistant, having been named as Schmidt's successor in November 2018.

Asked about naming his first team earlier than expected, the straight-talking Englishman replied: "I'd rather just get it out there and get on with the week."

The 44-year-old added: "There is a little bit of paralysis through analysis. You can look too much into things the whole time.

"It doesn't bother me about putting a team out there because that's all I’m bothered about, our team. Backing ourselves. You've got to make a decision and we've got a hell of a team going into Scotland."

There has been talk around the Ireland camp about a freshness that Farrell has brought after Schmidt's glorious spell in charge came to an anticlimactic end.

Ireland headed into the World Cup on top of the rankings and it is only two years since they won the Grand Slam.

Although they were unable to live up to expectations in Japan, you only have to look at the bench for the showdown with Scotland to see the strength in depth Farrell can call upon.

Peter O'Mahony, Cooney, Robbie Henshaw, Andrew Conway and the recalled Devin Toner are among the replacements.

Farrell has spoken of his intention to take Ireland in a "new direction", and there is surely no doubt he has the experience and passion to make a seamless step up to the top job.

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