Throw them to the lions!

England's bloodlust was dramatically sated in Rome's modern sporting colosseum as Ukraine were ruthlessly torn apart, victims of such savagery that might make an emperor think he could soon rule Europe.

Four-nil, and even Jordan Henderson scored. England doubled their goals haul for Euro 2020 and have still yet to concede. This is Italian-like behaviour by the Three Lions. Where was the drama, where was the pain? This team rarely make it easy for themselves but here they trampled all over the opposition.

Goodness knows what Denmark made of it all, given they are next in line.

Home advantage at Wembley seemed to serve Gareth Southgate's players well in their early games at this tournament, and being taken out of that comfort zone triggered all sorts of concerns. If goals had been hard to come by at home, then would this be one of those nights of England toil, where perhaps they might grind out something ugly and winning but perhaps their bubble might burst too? Would it all end miserably, probably on penalties in that great English tradition.

By the time substitute Henderson nodded Mason Mount's corner past Georgi Bushchan for the fourth goal of the night, any such concerns had long been banished.

The Liverpool captain's first senior England goal arrived on his 62nd appearance. Of all England's goalscorers in their history, nobody has waited longer for that magical moment. Sol Campbell had been the previous holder of that curious record, scoring his first in his 47th appearance.

It was a third headed goal of the night, England now Europe's masters at using their noggins, netting 10 headers across this campaign and their 2018 World Cup semi-final run, where no other European side has managed more than four.

This team plays some beautiful football on the floor, with Jadon Sancho coming into the England ranks for this game and looking like he had been playing there all throughout this run, which will come as good news to Manchester United. Raheem Sterling's winding run and super throughball for Harry Kane to prod the fourth-minute opener was typical of this new England.

 

"I think rotations in the forward area for this team is so important," Rio Ferdinand said on the BBC at half-time. "People that run off the ball, run people away – it's not there for the naked eye sometimes, but it's people who are running people away, opening space and creating space."

Alan Shearer chipped in too: "Everyone's on the same wavelength, everyone wants the ball, backing each other up. It's really, really intelligent, exciting play."

But England do not eschew the direct stuff; Luke Shaw with a free-kick bang into the heart of the penalty area to set up Harry Maguire for the thumping 46th-minute header that made it 2-0, sparking joyous celebration.

And then Shaw with the delicious cross to give Kane the chance to nod England three clear just four minutes later.

Shaw, it should be said, was exceptional.

In the stadium where Jose Mourinho will resume his coaching career in the new Serie A season, as boss of Roma, Shaw provided the perfect response to his former Manchester United manager's recent criticism.

Mourinho reckoned Shaw's set-piece delivery in England's group game against the Czech Republic had been "dramatically bad", but even the Portuguese might shrink from picking any holes in this display.

It was remarkable that Kane finished as the Premier League's top scorer in Mourinho's muddle of a Tottenham side last season, and absurd that a couple of so-so performances for England early in this tournament should have led to doubt being cast on his place in Southgate's team.

He now has three goals in Euro 2020 and nine major tournament strikes across his England career, one behind all-time leader Gary Lineker.

Kane almost reached 10 in Rome, lashing a brilliant volley that was beaten away by Bushchan for the corner from which Henderson scored.

History told us that this game would go to penalties – all three of England's previous European Championship quarter-finals had.

Yet new England have little respect for anything that history might dictate, and now Wembley awaits them on Wednesday. England return home as heroes.

"It's the hope that kills you," Lineker joked on the BBC. To any English person used to failure, this all feels too good to be true.

But as Southgate said, teeing up the Denmark game moments later: "Everybody can really look forward to that, it's brilliant."

Ange Postecoglou changed the landscape of Australian football and now the trailblazer is tasked with leading an embattled Celtic back to the Scottish summit, having been dethroned by bitter rivals Rangers.

Postecoglou – cut from the same cloth as Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri – was appointed by Celtic last month amid some backlash in Scotland, but Bhoys fans are slowly starting to get an idea of why the former Australia manager is so highly rated.

With an emphasis on a high-octane style of attacking football and unrelenting belief in his philosophy, Postecoglou is the most decorated coach in Australian football history.

From South Melbourne to Australia and Japan, Postecoglou has won it all – a pair of National Soccer League championships, back-to-back A-League titles, a record 36-match unbeaten streak at Brisbane Roar, plus a ground-breaking 2015 Asian Cup triumph with the Socceroos and a J1 League crown with Yokohama F.Marinos - while silencing his doubters.

With fellow Australian Arthur Papas by his side in Yokohama, Postecoglou ended F.Marinos' 15-year wait for league glory in 2019.

As Postecoglou embarks on the biggest job an Australian coach has held in football, former assistant Papas – now in charge of A-League side Newcastle Jets – told Stats Perform: "It's a great achievement to be given a position of such stature.

"I'm ecstatic for Ange because the path to success is never a straight line. That is for everyone. The main thing is he's been consistent. Consistent in who he is as a person, how he approaches his work and what he believes in - and he believes in himself a lot.

"He is incredibly humble and hardworking, and full of self-belief. But he knows it's a big job, a difficult job. Celtic are another team who have fallen away in recent times and the pressure is immense, but I do think that's when he is at his best. He thrives under those conditions. It's a challenge after being so successful in Japan."

Postecoglou left F.Marinos with the highest winning percentage (49.2 – 58 victories in 118 games) in the history of the club. Since joining the Yokohama outfit, only two managers have a better winning percentage than Postecoglou from a minimum of 10 games: Toru Oniki (65) and Go Oiwa (50).

Despite the language barrier, F.Marinos bought into the Postecoglou way. Since 2018, the team ranked first for passing accuracy (86.5 per cent) and possession (63.2 per cent), while they were second for goals per game (1.9), expected goals per game (1.8), shots per game (15.2), shots on target per game (5.3), shot conversion rate (12.6), shooting accuracy (47.2), chances created per game (11.4), passes per game (619.4), passing accuracy in opposition half (82.4), big chance total per game (2.4), big chances created per game (1.8) and big chances scored per game (1.1).

Papas, who spent two seasons with Postecoglou at F.Marinos, added: "It's been well-documented the success in Japan but not really understood how difficult it is. People have asked me, for example, how will I deal with the pressure of being an A-League coach? I feel like saying, being in a country where not one player or staff speaks English and still getting a football message across and seeing it come to life so quickly, has more difficulty than maybe coming back here.

"Every job will have its challenge in the end. The main thing is [Celtic] have got themselves a world-class manager. A manager with a very clear philosophy and someone given the time, like every manager needs. Some use that time extremely well and you see progression, and others unfortunately – because the path isn't so clear, doesn't go that way. But given the time, he will be successful there for sure. He will be successful in his own unique way.

"Then, there will be another step after that because that's just Ange. He doesn't settle for that place and get comfortable. When he has had a bit of success, he wants more. That's why he is special at what he does."

Postecoglou, like Manchester City's Guardiola and former Chelsea and Juventus boss Sarri, pushes the boundaries. Firmly set in his belief of how football should be played, Postecoglou's approach never waivers and success follows the 55-year-old in his pursuit of excellence.

Asked about some of the initial negativity after Postecoglou's arrival at Celtic, Papas said: "Australian coaches, unfortunately, don't get start-up respect regardless, so there's always going to be someone that doubts you. What is important, is what you believe in about yourself.

"The thing is, he is so supremely confident in himself that it won't phase him. He knows it's just part of the challenge of where we are from and where we're going. He is a firm believer of it, we as Australian coaches probably get underestimated because of our passport not because of our competency. Having experiences across Asia, you see things and you're like wow.

"The passport unfortunately doesn't carry a lot of weight and definitely carries a lot of criticism at times, but he believes in himself.

 

"He will go there, it will take some time to engrain his ideas but there's no doubt they have a world-class manager that will turn that place upside down and get them on the right path."

During F.Marinos' triumphant season in 2019, Postecoglou's men covered the greatest distance in the J1 League (116.48km), ahead of Oita Trinita (114.79km). They also tallied the most total sprints with 191, more than FC Tokyo (174).

"Ange is the type that scours through every bit of information. If you're a staff member there, you need to be on top of everything because you'll get questioned at times about 'what was the data on this?', 'what were the statistics on this player?' He is obsessed with his work," Papas added.

"It doesn't matter how time progresses; he is just as obsessed as he's ever been in terms of details. There's a lot of work to get that engine going in the background to run that program in a way that he feels befits a world-class program."

Postecoglou oversaw a rebuild at the Roar and after asking to be judged a year from the time he replaced ex-Socceroos boss Frank Farina, his project culminated in the development of arguably the greatest footballing side the country had ever seen.

Playing an entertaining and possession-based brand of football, the Roar won the championship in 2010-11 and successfully defended their trophy the following season amid a 36-game unbeaten streak – an all-time Australian football code record for the longest undefeated run, surpassing rugby league outfit Eastern Suburbs' record set 74 years prior.

Postecoglou also coached Melbourne Victory before his Australia appointment in 2013. In the A-League, his teams scored 1.7 goals per game; only one head coach (minimum 30 games) has a higher average in the competition's history (Graham Arnold - 1.8).

The Greece-born boss left Australia's domestic competition with a 51 per cent win percentage as head coach – the joint-fifth best of any manager in the competition's history.

Named Australia boss in 2013, Postecoglou led Australia at the 2014 World Cup, conquered the Asian Cup the following year and also secured their position at Russia 2018 before stepping down. The Socceroos scored 86 goals in A-Internationals under Postecoglou – the second most they have scored under any manager since the beginning of 1965 (Frank Farina - 197).

Australia won 22 games during his tenure; only two managers have won more since the beginning of 1965 (Frank Farina - 34 and Holger Osieck - 23).

"I don't believe there is a certain timeline and it clicks," Papas said. "The process starts from day one and it's more about what is around you to implement that. Certain positions, you can go in and have the ability to make certain changes early on, which might fast track that progression. The only thing is that it's something that always grows and gets better. Because it's such a clear way of working and style of play that you're constantly working on everyday getting better at doing that.

"It's not, this week we're going to change it and sit back, these messages are so consistent that it just becomes something you get stronger at over time but that's why it takes a bit of time also. It's not a situational philosophy, it's a very clearly-defined progressive philosophy that has clarity and certain principles/frameworks that get reinforced on a daily basis."

When Brazil spring to mind, you don't normally associate defensive stability and clean sheets with the Selecao.

Brazil's flair and free-flowing football have made them the most feared and entertaining nation in world football.

But Tite's Selecao are built differently.

Playing with 10 men from the 48th minute, defending champions Brazil overcame their numerical disadvantage and Chile 1-0 in the Copa America quarter-finals on Friday.

Lucas Paqueta came off the bench at half-time and settled the contest a minute into the second half in Rio de Janeiro, where Gabriel Jesus saw red for a shocking high boot to the face of Chile's Eugenio Mena.

There was a Chile onslaught as they pushed forward in search of an equaliser and while Ben Brereton hit the crossbar, Brazil stood firm to extend their unbeaten streak while setting up a showdown with 2019 runners-up Peru.

In a run dating back to November 2019, Brazil have gone 12 matches without a defeat, including nine clean sheets in the process.

 

"It's a football game, you can't have a smile all the time. Anyone who played knows, you even discuss with friends, discuss plays," said Neymar, who has attempted the second-most dribbles (21) behind Lionel Messi (22) this tournament, while he has been fouled the most (21). 

"Chile are a great team, it was a great test, but the important thing is that we got the victory and advanced to the semi-finals."

Brazil have now won their last five games against two-time champions Chile at the Copa, scoring 12 goals and only conceding once.

Since his appointment in 2016, Brazil have kept 41 clean sheets in 59 games under head coach Tite across all competitions (69.5 per cent).

It further highlights the defensive strength of the Selecao with Tite at the helm.

Against Chile, Casemiro made a game-high four tackles in midfield, defender Marquinhos tallied four clearances, and Richarlison intercepted the ball on five occasions while the star forward gained possession eight times along with full-back Renan Lodi.

When it comes to Tite and Brazil, it is a team effort. Attacking and defending together across the pitch.

As Brazil eye a 10th Copa title, Tite's side have style and substance.

As impressive as Italy were at Euro 2020 before Friday, much of that praise had been tempered – rightly or wrongly – by scepticism from some, with those suggesting their opponents to this point. and throughout their unbeaten run, had been sub-optimal.

It seemed a largely harsh assessment given they are playing at a major international tournament, though the unconvincing nature of their 2-1 extra-time win over Austria did bring with it a hint of doubt.

Regardless of whether or not the sceptics had been correct about Italy, Belgium – the number-one ranked nation in the world – were always bound to leave fans and pundits alike with perhaps a better appraisal of just how good the Azzurri are.

After all, there had been plenty of evidence to suggest Belgium had almost been the antithesis of Roberto Mancini's team in Euro 2020. While Italy had the most efforts on goal of any team at Euro 2020 (87, Belgium had 38) prior to the quarter-finals, Belgium were one of only two teams to face 20 shots in two matches along with Turkey, yet they had only conceded once.

But in Munich on Friday there only ever looked like being one winner, with Roberto Martinez's Belgium eventually running out of luck at the hand of a side that will take some beating, the Italians winning 2-1.

At least the pragmatism Belgium seemed to employ against Denmark and Portugal – when they only managed six shots per game – was less prominent here, as they reached that total by half-time.

But were it not for a fortuitous penalty just before the interval, a spot-kick converted by Romelu Lukaku, they would have been 2-0 down at the break.

Where Italy had perhaps lacked fluency against Austria, they were intensely impressive here – their ability to play straight through Belgium thanks to their exceptional ball-players in midfield was coupled with their desire to win the ball back, routinely having two men putting the pressure on.

Their press resulted in a tournament-high (joint with the Netherlands) two goals from high turnovers before the quarter-finals and a similar scenario led to the opener here, Verratti cutting out Thomas Vermaelen's pass out from the back and finding Nicolo Barella, who brilliantly held off a tackle before firing past Thibaut Courtois.

 

The Real Madrid goalkeeper's form had undoubtedly played a role in Belgium's progress as well, given his 1.7 goals prevented was the third-best in the tournament prior to Friday, though even he could do little to prevent Lorenzo Insigne's gorgeous 25-yard effort finding the top-right corner to make it 2-0.

Italy's approach after the interval seemed to relate more around keeping the ball, firmly aware that the less time Belgium had in possession the less likely they were to draw level. In the 24 minutes that followed half-time, the Azzurri's share of possession was 70 per cent, compared to 54 per cent in the first half.

That's not to say Belgium didn't trouble them. When attacking at pace they caused Italy some issues – Jeremy Doku beat Giovanni Di Lorenzo and played a teasing ball right across goal, but Lukaku somehow failed to net, with Leonardo Spinazzola making a vital block.

Then Dries Mertens darted through the middle and played Nacer Chadli into the same channel of the box, with his eventual delivery being deflected over Lukaku and agonisingly behind Thorgan Hazard.

But Belgium got to the quarter-finals mostly down to moments of individual quality, as highlighted by the fact their eight goals scored was way above their xG tally of 4.1, which was the lowest of the eight teams remaining.

And while Doku was a nuisance with this tendency to dribble, Belgium had little else to throw at Italy as it almost became Lukaku or bust. Their form had seemingly been unsustainable and their luck ran out in Munich.

 

Even if Eden Hazard had been fit, given his form over the past two years it is difficult to see how things would have been any different with him on instead of Doku.

Kevin De Bruyne was passed fit and his three key passes were more than anyone else in a Belgium shirt, but it would be fair to suggest he hardly filled the same talismanic role he has become accustomed to at Manchester City. While you have to take playing styles into consideration, he averaged 81 touches per game in 2020-21, but only 51 on Friday.

His average for Euro 2020 had been 74.1 per 90 minutes. Perhaps there was an element of Belgium playing him out of desperation without him being completely fit.

Either way, Italy's first-half intensity was what set the tone for their victory, yet it was their well-rounded nature as a team that saw them get the job done – the fact they still had more shots than Belgium despite already having the lead and playing with less attacking urgency being the case in point here.

For many, Euro 2020 was seen as the final chance for Belgium's so-called 'Golden Generation' to truly leave their mark on the international stage, with a title eluding them.

But they leave the competition after getting very few people excited, with Italy making something of a statement to those who until Friday had dismissed them as flat-track bullies.

Andy Murray's Wimbledon adventure is over – for this year at least – after Denis Shapovalov put an end to his challenge in a one-sided Centre Court clash.

The doughty two-time former champion insists retirement is not at the forefront of his mind, but a 6-4 6-2 6-2 loss to 10th seed Shapovalov was a fresh reminder of his current place in the tennis pecking order.

After hip resurfacing surgery gave Murray another shot at the career that at one stage looked all but over, it was a Wimbledon return which was high on his list of priorities.

This was Murray's first appearance in the singles since 2017, the year he was last defending champion.

Earlier this year the former world number one spoke of a belief that he could win the tournament for a third time, but he will be 35 by the time next year's championships come around and many have doubts about whether he will still be playing. He came into this fortnight at 118th in the rankings.

Not even the closure of the Centre Court roof could save Murray this time. That had been the spur, coincidentally or not, for his two previous late-night matches to swing around in the Scot's favour, as he saw off Nikoloz Basilashvili and then the unheralded German Oscar Otte to reach this last-32 stage.

Murray and Shapovalov went off after the second set of this contest, as evening turned to night in south-west London and the lights came on, but Murray did not return with super-human strengths this time, and his opponent raced to victory.

Shapovalov told Murray at the net that the Scot was his hero, and spoke eloquently about his appreciation of his comeback, and perhaps Murray would have quietly admired the Canadian's skill in moving in for the kill.

 

This match had been all one way for much of the first set too, but then Murray found a spark and pulled back from 5-1 adrift to 5-4, the crowd beginning to believe it could be his day again.

Murray believed too, of course, but this match proved a step too far for the champion of 2013 and 2016. There were flickers of Murray at his best, and he will represent Great Britain at the upcoming Olympics, where he is a two-time defending champion, but Murray's days of being a grand slam contender are, on the balance of probabilities, pretty much over.

His career has been a spectacular affair, and there was a familiar ovation as he departed Centre Court.

Shapovalov had rammed down an ace on match point, clinical in his despatching of the crowd's favourite.

Speaking at the end of the match, Shapovalov said in an on-court interview: "This is a dream come true for me.

"I've put countless years of hard work into every practice so that one day maybe I could play on Centre Court – to play against a legend like Andy today, to play a match like this. First of all, huge shout-outs to him. What he is doing nobody has ever done. He's truly an inspiration to many people, including me.

"I just told him at the net that he's my hero. Achievements aside, what he's been able to do in the sport with an injury like this and to play the tennis he's playing and moving the way he's moving.

"In his second match it was like vintage Andy and it was just so much fun to see as a fan. I was really excited and the first set today was super, super intense.

"It's incredible what he's done to make it to the third round like this and he's just starting back up so it's going to be amazing to see what he can do."

The Eastern Conference Finals took a titanic turn in Game 3 when the Atlanta Hawks' star point guard suffered a freak injury.

An unfortunate injury to the 'Greek Freak' in Game 4 presented yet another massive twist in this series.

With Trae Young considered questionable and Giannis Antetokounmpo listed as doubtful for Thursday's Game 5, the path to the NBA Finals got significantly more challenging for the Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.

Knotted at 2-2 in the East, the question now becomes which team is better equipped to overcome the loss of its superstar.

The first major injury setback of this series occurred with the Hawks up by three points in the final minute of the third quarter on Sunday, when Young accidently stepped back onto the foot of an official after passing the ball. He went down and stayed on the court until the next whistle before heading to the locker room.

While able to return in the fourth quarter, Young was not his normal explosive self. He hobbled his way to just three fourth-quarter points on four shots and Atlanta was outscored by 15 when he was on the court as Milwaukee pulled away for a 113-102 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.

A day after the game, an MRI revealed a bone bruise in his right ankle and although he was able to go through morning shootaround prior to Tuesday's Game 4, he was ultimately ruled out shortly before tipoff.

 

The second enormous injury in the series arose a few hours after Young was scratched.

Midway through the third quarter of Game 4, Antetokounmpo jumped to try to defend a Lou Williams alley-oop pass to Clint Capela and his left knee buckled awkwardly while landing. After remaining on the floor in pain for several minutes, he made his way to the locker room and was diagnosed with a hyperextension. An MRI the following day showed no structural damage.

The Bucks fell behind by 10 on Capela's dunk on the play Antetokounmpo was hurt and shortly after he exited Atlanta went on a 15-0 run to put the game away in a 110-88 win.

That run was fuelled by a trio of 3-pointers by Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finally looked he has overcome his own injury.

Bogdanovic has been saddled by right knee soreness that Hawks coach Nate McMillan said began to crop up in Game 5 of Atlanta's Eastern Conference series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the Hawks' five-game first-round series against the New York Knicks and their first four games against the 76ers, Bogdanovic averaged 16.4 points on 41.4 per cent shooting and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. His 27 3-pointers led the team and Young was the only Hawk to average more points at 28.3 per game.

In those first nine playoff contests, Bogdanovic also played more minutes than any Hawk, averaging more than 37 a game.

Over the next six games, however, he averaged 6.2 points on 26.8 per cent shooting and 16.7 per cent on 30 3-point tries in a little over 25 minutes per game.

In need of a spark with Young sidelined in Game 4, Bogdanovic shook off any lingering ailments and poured in 20 points while draining six 3-pointers – one more than he made in his previous six games combined. He once again found his shooting stroke on wing 3-pointers, connecting on 5-of-6 shots from there after misfiring on 18-of-20 attempts in the previous six contests.

Not only is his production invaluable for the Hawks, Bogdanovic also excelled when teamed with Young's replacement.

Bogdanovic played 28:55 minutes with Williams and made 7 of 15 shots and half of his 12 3-point attempts when they were together. In just under five minutes without him, Bogdanovic missed all four of his shot attempts – including a pair of 3-point tries.

This entire postseason, Bogdanovic has shot better from 3-point range when teamed with Williams, connecting on 41.9 per cent (13 of 31) with him compared to 27.5 per cent (25 of 91) without him.

While Bogdanovic stepped up, so did the man who was inserted in the starting lineup in place of Young.

In his first career playoff start in his 87th postseason contest, Williams made an immediate impact. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year had 13 points by half-time – the same number of points he had in the first three games of the East Finals – and finished with a game-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

In 35 minutes, the 16-year veteran had just one turnover while assisting on eight baskets, with three going to Capela as the two worked the pick-and-roll.

 

At 34 years old, Williams obviously is not as dynamic as the 22-year-old Young, whose averaging 29.8 points and 9.5 assists in the playoffs, but he proved to be plenty capable of leading Atlanta's offense, as he either scored or assisted on more than a third of the team's 43 made baskets.

Similarly to Young on the Hawks, it’s impossible for the Bucks to replace Antetokounmpo, who was averaging 29.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists in the 14 games before his injury.

Good news for Milwaukee, however, is it has not had that big of a drop-off in production without him this postseason. The Bucks are averaging 108.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the playoffs compared to 103.2 without him. By comparison, the Hawks are averaging 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Young on the court in the playoffs and 97.5 without him.

Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez are expected to handle more minutes with the backcourt tandem of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday shouldering more of the offensive load, and all four have shot the ball a bit better this postseason when not on the court with the two-time league MVP. (Middleton 47.9 per cent without Antetokounmpo/41.1 per cent with him, Holiday 45.5 per cent without/40.4 per cent with, Lopez 58.8 per cent without/53.9 per cent with and Portis 54.3 per cent without/45.8 per cent with.)

Middleton, meanwhile, has also already proven he can pick up the scoring slack.

He had eight of Milwaukee's first 10 points after Antetokounmpo left on Tuesday, and has three games this postseason with 35 points or more. In Bucks franchise history, only one player has more 35-point games in a single postseason and that just happens to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had six in 1973-74 and five in 1969-70.

Ultimately for Milwaukee, it could simply come down to Middleton's ability to make shots as the biggest difference between the team winning or losing. This postseason, the Bucks are 9-0 in games when Middleton shoots 40 per cent or better and 1-5 in games when he fails to reach that mark.

It is obviously not an ideal situation to be in, but Antetokounmpo and Young could still end up playing, though if they do suit up neither will likely be at full strength.

Both teams have also found some success navigating their way without their best players – the Bucks were 6-5 in the regular season without Antetokounmpo and the Hawks improved to 6-4 this season without Young on Tuesday.

Thursday's game is unlike any of those previous contests, however, with the winner moving one victory away from a berth in the NBA Finals.

Comaneci, Korbut, Biles, Scherbo. Those names are as engrained into Olympic legend as Bolt, Beamon, Griffith-Joyner and Owens.

Gymnastics might pass under many radars outside Games time, but television chiefs have it down as a ratings-winning banker.

There is no other sport that combines quite the same level of athleticism, artistry and acrobatic magnificence, and pairs those factors with a stack of glamour and more than a hint of danger.

Most viewers of the Olympics will know how it feels to casually sprint 100 metres or swim a length or two, but the parallel bars, the pommel horse and the beam were typically last experienced as dreaded apparatus hauled out of school sports equipment vaults.

Anybody who avoided making a muggins of themselves deserved immediate respect, with these implements of humiliation ripe for dishing out a torturing.

On the Olympic stage, we see the human species at its most agile, yet vulnerable too, and that is why gymnastics has been the most viewed sport in the Games on American networks for many years.

Here, Stats Perform looks at three of the great Olympic gymnasts of the last 50 years, and considers who might emerge as a star at the Ariake venue in Tokyo this year.


GAMES GREATS

Nadia Comaneci: The Perfect 10

When Romanian Comaneci scored the first 'Perfect 10' in Olympic history at the Montreal Games of 1976, famously even the scoreboards were unprepared for her fabulous feat. They showed 1.00, with the Omega technology not built to display top marks. Comaneci was 14 years old, and she had made history on the uneven bars in the team competition. It was incredibly just the start of a run of 10s from Comaneci, who produced six more during her heady time in Canada, winning gold medals in the all-around event, the uneven bars and the balance beam.

 

Olga Korbut: Flipping brilliant

The young Comaneci would have watched Korbut dazzle at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the 17-year-old brought daring new routines to the Games stage. Her backflip to catch on the uneven bars drew gasps from the crowd and media alike. Television footage from the time shows Korbut produce her mesmerising routine, with one commentator questioning: "Has that been done before by a girl?". His colleague responds: "Never, not by any human I know of!"

The Korbut flip was born, a backward somersault on the beam followed, and millions across the globe watched in astonishment at her audacity and execution. The teenager from the Soviet Union won gold medals in the team, floor and balance beam disciplines, pushing gymnastics to new heights.

Vitaly Scherbo: Barcelona bounty

It has often been the case that women gymnasts have attracted more admiration than the men, but in 1992 it was Scherbo who stole the show. The 20-year-old Belarusian was a colossus, winning six gold medals for the Unified Team of former Soviet states with a revelatory exhibition of physical strength, craft and control.

Scherbo became champion at the parallel bars, vault, rings, pommel horse, team event and the all-around event. His haul of golds has only ever been surpassed in a single Olympics by swimmers: Michael Phelps (eight gold medals at Beijing 2008) and Mark Spitz (seven golds at Munich).


TOKYO CALLING

Simone Biles: Great already, and now back for more

What does Biles have in store for a Tokyo encore to her spectacular Rio performance? It was well known before the 2016 Olympics was that Biles was rather special, and the American delivered on the biggest stage, with four gold medals and a solitary bronze, becoming the first quadruple Olympic gymnastic champion since 1984 when the great Romanian Ecaterina Szabo also achieved success on that scale. Biles, a formidable character and sensational competitor, is stretching the limits of athletic achievement every time she competes, taking her beloved sport to new audiences and inspiring generations of youngsters to try the sport.

Now 24 years old, Biles appears to be in great shape for more success in Japan, but watch out for her team-mate Suni Lee too. The 18-year-old outscored Biles on day two of the US Olympic trials

Tang Xijing: China's great hope

Could Chinese teenager Tang be in the picture to deny Biles the all-around title in Tokyo? The 18-year-old took a surprise silver behind Biles at the 2019 World Championship, and it remains to be seen whether that was a one-off or if she can limit the errors that have at times impeded her success and strike again for a medal.

She seems sure to be somewhere in the frame, but the Olympics demands perfection or at least somewhere close to it. Tang has abundant talent, and how she competes against the world's best again, after being limited lately to domestic competition, will be one of many matters of intrigue under the spotlight in the Ariake gymnastics hall.

Usain Bolt charged into history in Beijing, Bob Beamon took one giant leap for mankind in Mexico City, and Florence Griffith-Joyner stunned millions with her Seoul sprint spectacular.

World records in track and field are always special achievements, but athletes take it to the next level when they produce such performances on the Olympic stage, with hundreds of millions of eyes watching across the globe.

At the Tokyo 2020 Games, expect records to tumble, but others will be far from easy to shift from the record books.

Here, Stats Perform assesses five Olympic records that look set to survive the Tokyo test, and five that look distinctly vulnerable.

FIVE TO SURVIVE

Men's 200 metres: USAIN BOLT, 19.30 seconds (Beijing Olympics, 2008)

As well as this 200m mark, the likelihood is that Bolt's 100m Games record of 9.63 from the London Olympics will be untouchable too. That is despite his Olympic bests being narrowly outside the world records he owns for both sprints (9.58 and 19.19). The 200m Olympic record certainly looks locked in to remain intact after Tokyo, with nobody threatening to go remotely close this season, at the time of writing in late June. Just like when he set Olympic high watermarks in the Bird's Nest Stadium – running what were then world records in the 100m and 200m – Bolt remains streets ahead of the rest.

Men's long jump: BOB BEAMON, 8.90 metres (Mexico City, 1968)

The most famous of all athletics records, Beamon leapt into sporting legend in 1968 with the jump that toppled the previous world record by an astonishing 55 centimetres. Before that, in 33 years the record had only been nudged on by 22 centimetres. Beamon's world record has gone now, broken by Mike Powell who cleared 8.95m at the 1991 World Championship, but he still owns the second longest leap and the Olympic record. This is no golden age for long-jumping, and it would send tremors through the sporting world if Beamon's mark could be beaten.

Women's 200m: FLORENCE GRIFFITH-JOYNER, 21.34 seconds (Seoul, 1988)

American Griffith-Joyner brought her unique brand of glamour to the world stage and had eyes popping with her staggering summer of success 33 years ago. She wiped an incredible 0.27 seconds off the 100m world record when clocking 10.49secs at the US Olympic trials, and at the Games in Seoul she doubled up, setting a 200m global best with a run of 21.56s in the semi-finals before going even quicker still in the final.

Women's 800m: NADEZHDA OLIZARENKO, one minute 53.43 seconds (Moscow, 1980)

This came in a world-record run, as Olizarenko led a popular Soviet Union 1-2-3 in the two-lap dash. The current world record, just 0.15secs quicker than Olizarenko's time, was set three years later. Olizarenko died in 2017, but her Olympic record looks set to stay in the history books for years to come, particularly given Caster Semenya will be absent in Tokyo.

Women's heptathlon: JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE, 7,291 points (Seoul, 1988)

American all-rounder Joyner-Kersee enjoyed staggering success in the 1980s as she pushed the standards of the heptathlon to still-unprecedented levels. Her world-record total from Seoul has looked unbeatable ever since, given no other athlete has come within 250 points. Joyner-Kersee also won gold in the long jump at the same 1988 Olympics with a Games record of 7.40m that also remains to this day and is likely to continue standing the test of time for many years to come.

 

FIVE TO FALL

Men's 1,500m: NOAH NGENY, 3:32.07 (Sydney, 2000)

This mark looks ripe to be broken, given the men's world record is 3:26:00, yet it continues to stand to this day. In 2019, the last normal year for athletics before the pandemic proved so disruptive, this Olympic best was bettered 31 times over the season. But the 1,500m is not a sprint and tactical racing is a familiar slowing factor over middle distance in the Olympics, with all eyes on the prize rather than the clock. An outright race, without any early teasing and slow-going, could see this record crushed. The men's 1,500m record last fell at the 1960 Rome Olympics, to Herb Elliott (3:35.6), and it feels ripe to go again.

Men's pole vault: THIAGO BRAZ, 6.03m (Rio, 2016)

Braz was a highly popular winner in his native Brazil five years ago, setting a Games record to boot. It would be a major shock if anyone but Armand Duplantis carried off the gold this year, with the American-born Swedish athlete the clear class act in the field. He had a 6.10m clearance in Hengelo in early June, and last year he went over 6.18m indoors. Unless he buckles under the pressure of the Olympics, Duplantis looks good to walk away with gold and a Games record.

Men's javelin: ANDREAS THORKILDSEN, 90.57m (Beijing, 2008)

Possibly the likeliest of all the athletics records to be beaten, Thorkildsen's gold-winning effort from the Bird's Nest is surely about to be overtaken. Germany's Johannes Vetter had a throw of 96.29m in May, when he hurled the javelin over 90 metres five times in one six-throw competition. The odd one out in that supreme performance was a world-class 87.27, confirming Vetter as the man to beat.

Women's 100m: FLORENCE GRIFFITH-JOYNER, 10.62 seconds (Seoul, 1988)

Although 'Flo-Jo' clocked 10.54s in the 1988 Olympic final, that was a wind-assisted run and is not considered a Games record. Which means it is this 10.62 – set, stupendously, in the heats – that is the target. For years it has looked out of reach, but then Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran 10.63 in Kingston in June, and suddenly it no longer appears quite so insurmountable. Griffith-Joyner died in 1998 after an epileptic seizure, and over 20 years later her records are still being chased by the sprint elite.

Women's triple jump: FRANCOISE MBANGO ETONE, 15.39m (Beijing, 2008)

Cameroonian athlete Etone won gold in Athens and four years later in Beijing, setting the current Olympic record in the Chinese capital. That mark is the fourth furthest achieved in history by a woman; however, Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela has two of the top three triple jumps on that list, and she will be a red-hot favourite for the gold medal. The 25-year-old had a 15.43m effort in May, illustrating she is in shape for a record tilt.

When it comes to Lionel Messi, there are not enough superlatives to describe his brilliance.

That was the case following Messi's magical performance in his record-breaking appearance for Argentina.

Two goals and one unbelievable assist to guide Argentina to a 4-1 rout of Bolivia at the Copa America on Monday.

Three goal involvements all in 45-minutes work for Messi, who shattered another record with his 148th international cap, surpassing former team-mate Javier Mascherano.

Already La Albiceleste's all-time leading scorer, it was Messi's first brace for Argentina in 18 games, dating back to August 2019. The 34-year-old also recorded his second two-goal outing in a Copa fixture.

Messi improved his international tally to 75, while netting his 11th and 12th career Copa goals – the fourth-highest scorer for Argentina at the showpiece CONMEBOL tournament.

 

At this stage of his remarkable career, no one should be surprised by the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

However, Messi was simply incredible from the outset in a merciless display in the final Group A fixture in Cuiaba.

Messi – who has not missed a minute of Argentina's four Copa games in 2021 so far – broke the internet in the sixth minute.

Angel Correa's turn outside the penalty area sparked the move as the ball found the feet of Messi.

Messi's back was towards goal, while the superstar captain was surrounded by at least three Bolivia defenders. But, we know how this movie ends.

He somehow scooped the ball to Alejandro Gomez and the evergreen veteran finished on the volley to cap an irresistible passage of play.

A Messi penalty followed just past the half-hour mark – the 34-year-old converting the spot-kick to get in on the action.

What happened next was even better.

Close friend Sergio Aguero, who will unite with Messi at Barcelona in 2021-22, was the architect. Manchester City's all-time leading goalscorer playing a throughball approaching half-time.

Messi beat the offside trap and beat Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe with a superb lob in the 42nd minute.

If not for Lampe's heroics, Messi – who completed a game-high 63 passes in the opponent's half while attempting four shots on target (a Copa record) – would have finished the match with more than a hat-trick.

Regardless, it was a special display as Argentina extended their unbeaten streak to 17 matches (W10 D7) under Lionel Scaloni – the joint-third longest undefeated sequence of a coach in the country's history, alongside Guillermo Stabile.

While Messi still covets an elusive international crown with Argentina, the famous number 10 celebrated his latest milestone only he knows how.

Watching Alvaro Morata toil at Euro 2020 has been almost tragic, with every miss seemingly guaranteed to invite some form of pile-on, whether on social media or from fans inside the stadium.

Rarely do footballers inspire feelings of sympathy, with fans perhaps generally forgetting that these entertainers performing for our satisfaction are humans too, carrying out a job like any other member of society.

Maybe it is the money they're paid that prevents certain individuals from feeling empathy for footballers, but surely even the most vociferous cheerleaders of "footballers' wages for soldiers" and other comparable arguments must have felt some kind of compassion for Morata at one time or another during this tournament.

Even before a ball was kicked, Morata was already a hot topic of conversation after he was widely jeered by the home crowd during Spain's 0-0 warm-up friendly draw with Portugal at the Wanda Metropolitano, the home of the club – Atletico Madrid – that owns him. Just 11 days later it was confirmed he would be spending another season on loan at Juventus rather than return.

While Spain as a collective were booed in that game, Morata certainly bore the brunt of it, the crowd making their opinions known after he had wasted four chances. One of those hit the crossbar, meaning he was literally a matter of inches away from winning the match and capping off an otherwise impressive individual performance with a goal.

It has been much the same story during the tournament. No matter how many of those associated with the squad – including Luis Enrique, Dani Olmo, Koke and Aymeric Laporte – publicly defend their colleague, it seems the boo-boys have their target and will not waver.

And the particularly sad aspect of it all is that Morata revealed in a recent interview that even his wife and children have been victims of the abuse when attending Spain's group games at La Cartuja.

But has Morata even been that bad at Euro 2020? Generally speaking, you would have to say no.

 

Now, there is undoubtedly an elephant in the room: his wasteful finishing. No one is going to try and convince you Morata has been effective in front of goal – after all, the data says the exact opposite as his one goal comes from an xG (expected goals) value of 2.9.

In fact, only his team-mate Gerard Moreno has a worse xG differential (2.1) in the group games at Euro 2020, so there's no getting away from the fact Morata has not been clinical enough. On top of that, Morata has missed more Opta-defined "big chances" (four) than any other player in the tournament.

This isn't a new phenomenon, though; since the start of 2017-18 only Lorenzo Insigne (7.8), Gabriel Jesus (9.85) and Edin Dzeko (16.85) have underperformed their xG by more than Morata (7.3) among forwards in the top five leagues (minimum 40 goals scored).

Additionally, among the same group of players since 2017-18, only Alassane Plea (70.3 per cent) has missed a greater proportion of his big chances than Morata (66.4 per cent).

But, intriguingly, no one had more shots on target during the group stage at Euro 2020 than Morata, his six from 11 attempts exactly the same as top-scorer Cristiano Ronaldo.

This suggests the problem is an age-old one with Morata: composure. So much of this part of the game comes down to mentality, and mental health is something Morata has commendably been open about for much of his career.

 

He previously spoke about how mental illnesses should be considered ailments much like physical injuries, and in 2018 he revealed he was seeing a psychologist while at Chelsea.

In that sense, if we consider the incessant abuse of him, Morata's arguably performing better than anyone could feasibly expect.

Now, that raises the question of whether Luis Enrique should have taken Morata out of the firing line before things reached this stage.

It surely cannot be conducive to positive mental health to have 16,000 people enthusiastically communicating that something doesn't impress them much, as if Morata was performing keepy-uppies on stage at a Shania Twain concert.

But the striker insisted last week that he has found himself motivated by the jeers, particularly prior to the penalty against Slovakia. Admittedly, he did miss it.

"I'm proud of the fact I picked up the ball [to take the penalty] after people booed me in the warm-up," he said. "A few years ago, I would have been devastated but I'm really motivated. Whoever thinks the opposite doesn't know me."

It's also worth considering that, while there have been problems with Morata in front of goal, he has otherwise been a positive influence on the team.

For example, Spain's six shot-ending high turnovers have only been bettered by four teams following all group fixtures, while Morata fits into that philosophy given the fact he has won possession in the final third three times – only Memphis Depay and Ronaldo (four each) managed more in the group stage among forwards.

Similarly, Morata brings bursts of positivity and drive to Spain once he gets on the ball, as demonstrated by the fact he has recorded eight progressive carries measuring between five and 10 metres. The only out-and-out strikers to do better in the group stages were Alexander Isak and Ronaldo.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Morata ranks in the top 10 for forwards involved in open-play sequences that end in a shot (12), while his 24 touches in the opposition's box ranked him second behind Kylian Mbappe (27) ahead of the knockout fixtures. Both statistics are further evidence that he has been actively involved in keeping Spain in the ascendancy.

 

Unfortunately for Morata, many will look no further than chances converted when evaluating a striker's performances, and in tournament football when the action is so condensed, conclusions are 100 times more reactionary. Just ask Harry Kane.

But as long as Luis Enrique retains faith and the opportunities keep coming, there remains the chance of a Hollywood-esque conclusion to the hard-on-his-luck tale that has seemed to epitomise the past few years of Morata's career.

In a 2006 biopic of stockbroker Chris Gardner's life, Will Smith portrays a man who has to overcome countless setbacks on his path to making a name for himself.

The script is written for Morata to become the decisive player in a victorious Euro 2020 campaign for Spain, giving him his own successful Pursuit of Happyness.

Neymar, a mask hanging from his left ear, took a bite from a bar and gestured this way and that. This was a game the world's most expensive player was happy to sit out, his unique talents probably better saved for another occasion.

Such as that which awaits Brazil on Friday, back at the Estadio Olimpico Nilton Santos in Rio de Janeiro, when Uruguay or Chile will be the opposition for Tite's team.

This Sunday showdown with Ecuador was one for La Tri to savour and the Selecao to get out of the way, perhaps learn a thing or two but ideally come through unscathed and with a thing or two for the head coach to mull over before the knockout stage begins.

So Ecuador made the most of their opportunity to face Brazil at just about their most meek, the 1-1 draw sending Gustavo Alfaro's team through to the Copa America quarter-finals and a likely clash with Argentina next.

Whoever Ecuador do come up against next, they will be back here at the Estadio Olimpico Pedro Ludovico in Goiania, where after holding the five-time World Cup winners to a deserved draw they had every reason to celebrate.

Ecuador are through to the Copa last eight for just the second time in the 21st century, and they were full value for their point as they finished above Venezuela and brought Brazil's 10-game winning streak – a record for Tite at the helm of the national team – to an end.

But what of Brazil? Tite made a raft of changes to ensure his hand will be as strong as possible for when the stiff competition begins, and it was hard to pick a promoted player who did his hopes of starting that quarter-final any good.

Certainly not Roberto Firmino, who started behind Gabriel Barbosa and played just 17 passes and had a mere 25 touches before being substituted midway through the second half. The Liverpool forward did not have a single goal attempt, and strikeforce spearhead Barbosa had only one, an early prod at a clever lobbed pass from Lucas Paqueta.

It fell to defender Eder Militao to show the Brazil attackers the route to goal, his neat header in the 37th minute opening the scoring.

Militao, Paqueta and Douglas Luiz danced away in a presumably rehearsed celebration, and you wondered if that was the kickstart this flat Brazil performance needed, the cue for a raising of their game.

'Vibra el continente' read the pitchside boards – 'Rock the continent'.

Brazil were rocking in a shy way here though, enjoying 71.1 per cent of first-half possession but not looking in the mood for a kill.

Angelo Preciado saw a thumping shot deflect just over the bar early in the second half as Ecuador chased an equaliser, and Enner Valencia also went close with a low strike before Angel Mena lashed past Alisson to level up in the 53rd minute.

Mena became the second substitute to score for Ecuador at this year's Copa, after Gonzalo Plata. Only Brazil (four) have benefited from more goals via a substitute this tournament.

A clever headed pass by Valencia set up the chance for the equaliser as Brazil's defence nodded off, and Ecuador went on to dominate the half, even swinging the possession dial around in their favour. They had 50.8 per cent of the ball in the second 45 minutes, five goals attempts to Brazil's two. Sebas Mendez was a titan in midfield, albeit against semi-interested opposition, winning possession a game-high 10 times and finding his man with 48 of his 50 passes over the 90 minutes.

 

Valencia was denied by a brave defensive header from Militao, who got to Preciado's dangerous cross just ahead of the former West Ham striker, and Ecuador then wanted a penalty when the ball struck Everton on the arm.

Mena almost scored a stunning second for Ecuador when his free-kick from close to the right touchline was whipped in with audacious curl and dip, forcing Alisson to tip over his crossbar.

Richarlison and Vinicius Junior came on as Tite looked to spark Brazil to life, but there was to be no ignition. It was the first time the reigning Copa America champions had scored at least one goal at the CONMEBOL showpiece and did not win since the 2015 edition.

Brazil are unbeaten against Ecuador in their last 11 games now, and this result probably matters very little, given the wins over Colombia, Peru and Venezuela that preceded it.

Moreover, the theory that you are only as good as your last game hardly applies when you rest the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Thiago Silva, Casemiro and Fred.

Yet Neymar, as he took another gnaw at his touchline snack, might have wondered when a Brazil team had ever looked so passive as this side did after the interval.

For years, Belgium's 'golden generation' has promised much but never quite lived up to its potential – in arguably their last opportunity for success, they are primed to give it all they have.

The one area of Roberto Martinez's team that would cause most supporters concern would be their aging backline, but in the face of sheer desperation and an attack brimming with quality, they stood firm in Seville to see off Cristiano Ronaldo and defending European champions Portugal 1-0 on Sunday.

It was a performance that brought further credence to the growing idea that pragmatism rules on the international stage, with Belgium making the most of a wonderstrike and then offering little threat themselves at the other end.

A gauntlet was laid down to Portugal and, despite boasting a squad far superior to the one they possessed five years ago, Fernando Santos was seemingly unable to harness that greater collective talent.

That's not to say Portugal have been great entertainers since winning Euro 2016. No, in fact pragmatism and even dull football have almost been a staple under Santos, and this was very much the case during the opening 45 minutes in Seville, with Belgium's difficulty in breaking down a typically rigid defence notable.

Though Romelu Lukaku's efforts at least kept the Portugal backline busy.

The occasion was perhaps understandably billed as Lukaku v Cristiano Ronaldo, though it was hardly a shootout between the pair as some might've hoped.

Instead, they were forced to graft in what was something of a slog, and that suited Lukaku a little more than it did record-chasing Ronaldo.

 

The Inter star was first a nuisance in the 10th minute as he brilliantly used his frame to block Ruben Dias and tee up Eden Hazard on the edge of the box, though his subsequent shot was sliced horribly high.

Later, in a move that highlighted his flexibility as much as his raw power, Lukaku surged through the middle as he led a break, impressively holding off Joao Palhinha, who desperately tried to foul him. Fortunately for Portugal, Lukaku's eventual pass was cut out and referee Felix Brych bizarrely opted against bringing the play back when Belgium failed to take full advantage.

But soon after, Lukaku's somewhat under-appreciated role took centre-stage once more, as he again bullied Dias on the edge of Portugal's box to sustain an attack, and just a few seconds later it was 1-0.

Thorgan Hazard, for much of his career often seen simply as "Eden's brother", took the game by the scruff of the neck, as he blasted past Rui Patricio from 25 yards.

That put him ahead of Eden for total Euros goals, his two coming in just three appearances. The older brother has one in nine games.

It was a moment of beauty somewhat out of keeping from the rest of a first half in which the majority of the highlights revolved around displays of physicality.

The goal arriving so close to half-time at least allowed Portugal a chance to regroup and potentially alter their system to be more aggressive in attack, which, in fairness, they were as Santos' men managed 15 shots compared to eight in the first period.

Portugal were on the front foot for most of the second half, their first proper chance coming shortly after a couple of attack-minded substitutions – Ronaldo did well on the right, drifting in and finding Diogo Jota in the box, only for him to blaze over.

The Selecao really upped the ante in the final 15 minutes, purely out of desperation.

Dias saw a goal-bound headed pushed away by Thibaut Courtois, before Raphael Guerreiro linked up with Ronaldo and saw a right-footed effort come back off the post.

At the other end Lukaku continued to be a vital outlet for Belgium. While chances were difficult to come by, his lung-busting runs relieved the pressure on several occasions, buying the Red Devils a little extra time.

But for all of Portugal's incessant pressure, keeping alive their dream of retaining the crown wasn't to be.

It wasn't a wasted couple of weeks for Ronaldo at least, the all-time great taking several more records.

He leaves Euro 2020 as the top-scorer in European Championship history with 14 goals and the top-scoring European player at major international tournaments with 21.

But the last one, the biggest record of them all is out of reach for the time being, with Ronaldo left tied on 109 international goals with Ali Daei.

While Lukaku still has some way to go to matching the exploits of his Serie A rival, Rom v Ron went the Belgian's way, and if he continues to produce similarly selfless displays over the next couple of weeks, he could well inspire the 'golden generation' to their defining achievement.

When two whipsmart kids from Compton first walked through the gates of the All England Club, the history of tennis was ripe for a radical makeover.

With beads in their hair and an air of mystery tailgating them onto the tour, this pair of teenage prodigies soon had the world at their feet.

Now, Serena Williams and Venus Williams are as much a part of Wimbledon tradition as strawberries and cream, and the championships without them is almost unthinkable.

Stacking up a combined 12 singles titles from Wimbledon, and a string of staggering records, this great sporting double act has defined the past quarter of a century in the women's game.

Venus is now 41 years old, and kid sister Serena turns 40 in September. Both will be going flat out for more success at Wimbledon and over the course of the rest of the year. They have been relentless and supremely driven in the pursuit of greatness.

But it feels legitimate now to be talking about how the WTA Tour and the grand slams will look without the Williamses, because as much as they have together pushed the boundaries of achievement in tennis, neither can defy the march of time.

Or at least they cannot keep pushing back against that march, since both have done a truly spectacular job so far.

"Venus and Serena, they changed the game, they elevated the game, and that is the biggest thing that could happen to our sport," Johanna Konta, Britain's former Wimbledon semi-finalist, told Stats Perform.

"They changed the physical requirements, they pushed the whole level of the sport so high, which I think has really accelerated the depth of women's tennis that we're seeing today, and so I can't imagine the day coming when they're not playing.

"I'm sure it will come at some point, but I'm not too sure when that day will be."

 


AGE NO BARRIER?

Serena has a place in the record books as the oldest women's world number one, having last occupied that position in May 2017 at the age of 35 years and 230 days. Next on that list sit Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, both a relatively fledgling 30 when they were last in the top spot.

She is also the second oldest player to hold a top-10 WTA ranking. On Monday, as the championships begin, Serena, currently the world number eight, will be 39 years and 275 days old. Only Billie Jean King (39 years 322 days in October 1983) has held such a lofty place among the sport's elite later in life.

Navratilova comes next, with Venus just a short step behind in fourth place, having last been in the top 10 in July 2018, aged 38 and 29 days.

If Serena wins the women's singles title at Wimbledon this year – and several British bookmakers see her as favourite – it will make her the oldest player in the Open Era to win a title on the women's tour.

King won at Birmingham in 1983 at 39 years and 203 days, and Williams sits fourth on that particular list of the oldest champions for now, having captured the 2020 Auckland title at 38 years and 108 days.

The oldest Wimbledon women's singles champion remains Charlotte Cooper Sterry, triumphant for Britain in 1908 at 37 years and 282 days.

An injection of power and physicality, alongside a whole lot of finesse, has seen the Williamses bring a new dimension to tennis. It is far removed from the game Sterry might have played.


SERVING UP SCUDS

In 2010, only one player on the WTA Tour served more than 300 aces, yet by 2019, the most recent uninterrupted season, that had risen to seven players.

Advances in technology are a factor here, but so too is the scenario whereby a young girl watches Serena and Venus whizzing serves by opponents' ears around the turn of the century and wants to learn how that is done.

Serving need not just be the moment where a point begins, it can be the shot that ends the point too.

Venus owns the record for the fastest serve ever recorded by a woman at Wimbledon – sending down a 129 miles per hour scud on her way to victory in the 2008 final. The player on the receiving end of such vicious hitting that day? Serena.

"I'm glad she did it, because next time I know what to expect," was Serena's punchy post-match response.

From 2008, when the WTA first began to collect such statistics, through to 2016, Serena topped the charts every season when it came to the highest percentage of service games won.

She has also led the way in percentages of first-serve points won in eight of the last 13 seasons.

On July 5, 2012, Serena fired 24 aces past Victoria Azarenka in their Wimbledon semi-final and paired that women's singles record with another – her 102 aces across seven matches also setting an all-time tournament high.

Serena has a 98-12 win-loss career record in singles at Wimbledon, with Venus not far behind on 89-17. Where Venus has won five or her seven slam titles on the grass in London, Serena has accrued seven of her 23 majors at the championships.

Only nine-time champion Navratilova (120) has won more women's singles matches at Wimbledon than Serena. Roger Federer (101) leads the way among the men.

 


SHOWING SERENA THE WAY IN SAN JOSE

Konta handed Serena the heaviest defeat of her career in 2018, inflicting a 6-1 6-0 thrashing in San Jose.

The British player, however, is fully appreciative of Serena's standing in the game, the American's status as an all-time sports great. For Williams to leave the tour would leave a huge hole.

"I don't know anything else. I think that's a very lucky and privileged thing to say as an athlete, to be playing at the same time as one of our greatest ever," said Konta, a Jaguar ambassador.

"Equally, the men can say that with the likes of Roger, Rafa and Djokovic around, it's just a really exciting time to be part of the world of tennis.

"You constantly see players retiring as the years go by; it's a normal process. We had Maria [Sharapova] and Caroline [Wozniacki] retire at the beginning of last year. I think the way they timed their retirement was absolutely incredible.

"It's a normal course to happen, so from a player's perspective there'll be the initial thought of 'Oh my goodness, she's retiring', but the game keeps going and players keep playing.

"More than anything, not having Serena around anymore it will maybe be more noticeable in the fans, in the fandom, in the outside part of the sport, because she is such a big figurehead of our sport and rightly so."

Serena has reached the Wimbledon final on seven of her last 10 appearances in SW19, collecting five titles in that time. The final defeats during that span came in the last two years that Wimbledon has been held, however, with defeats to Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep sure to leave some scars.

 


THE KAFELNIKOV INFLUENCE

In recent years, Serena has invited the likes of showbiz A-listers Jay-Z, Beyonce and Drake to sit in her player's box at courtside, while she is a close friend of Meghan Markle and was a royal wedding guest.

She and Venus were once unknown quantities, but now both transcend their sport.

By the age of 16, Serena had it all mapped out, and her Wimbledon success can be attributed in a very small way to an unexpected Russian influence.

"I have decided when I go on the grass, I am going to serve and volley. There is one man player who plays great on the clay, and then on the grass he actually serves and volleys," Williams told a news conference at the 1998 Lipton Championships in Florida, weeks before her Wimbledon debut. "And I said, Serena, I have to do the same thing."

Who was this mystery man? All-court greats had been in short supply. Agassi?

"Yevgeny Kafelnikov, he plays great on the clay. He actually won the French Open," Williams said at the time. "He actually serve and volleys on the grass. I said, I have to do this too. If he can do it, I believe I can do it. That really helps me."

Former world number one Kafelnikov never went beyond the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, but his surprising influence lives on.

Serena is one short of Margaret Court's all-time record of grand slam titles and dearly wants to at least match that haul but ideally reach 25. The Wimbledon title looks out of reach for Venus, who has fallen out of the world's top 100, but for Serena it is a realistic target.

The elite field is thinning, with Naomi Osaka and defending champion Halep among the withdrawals, and there are question marks over the form and fitness of many other big names in the draw.

The eighth Wimbledon and 24th singles slam feels eminently achievable, and what a moment for the ages that would be.

 


GOING ON THE KONTA ATTACK

Konta was only denied a place in the 2017 Wimbledon final by a valiant Venus, the 37-year-old American experiencing a late-career resurgence during what proved a stellar year for her.

It nevertheless gave the Australian-born Briton a real taste, with a win over Halep en route to the semi-finals showing she has the game to take on the best on grass.

Another grand slam semi-final followed in 2019, this time on clay at the French Open, and quarter-final runs at Wimbledon and the US Open confirmed Konta was the real deal. She previously reached the 2016 Australian Open final four.

It has been tough going since then though, Konta going out in the first round at four of the last five grand slams. Injuries have got in the way, and the joy she felt at winning a title in Nottingham in June 2021 was tempered slightly by a slight knee problem.

That success on English grass was a first tour title for Konta since the 2017 Miami Open, and life for her is good in many respects. On May 17, her 30th birthday, she and boyfriend Jackson Wade became engaged, or as she puts it, they killed "two birds with one stone when it came to milestones on that day".

Assuming the knee holds up, success in Nottingham could pave the way for another fruitful Konta campaign at Wimbledon. Last year's tournament being cancelled due to the pandemic was a blow to everyone but particularly felt by the British players.

"I was really pleased with having won a title, the first title I've won in a few years," Konta said. "It's a very nice accomplishment and something I definitely don't take for granted, because coming by titles is very difficult.

"Obviously, I'm just trying to do the best I can in managing my body. After the quick change onto the grass I just need to take care of the different little niggles that I have and the ongoing things and anything new that arises, but I'm definitely looking forward to Wimbledon.

"I think it's just the fact that we have Wimbledon again this year. Wimbledon's such a big part of our sporting calendar here and our sporting summer.

"For the nation and for international tennis fans, I think it's just really brilliant. The fact we are going to have crowds, that will be almost a new experience having not played in front of big crowds for a long time."

Could Konta even win Wimbledon, becoming Britain's first women's singles champion since Virginia Wade in 1977?

"I definitely feel I have every chance to look to win seven consecutive matches," Konta said. "It's a hard ask and it's difficult to do, but I feel like I have every opportunity, every chance to give it a go and I'm looking forward to trying."

:: Johanna Konta is a Jaguar ambassador. Jaguar is the Official Car of The Championships, Wimbledon. To discover Jaguar’s unmatched experiences visit jaguar.co.uk/Wimbledon

For a moment it looked as though we were about to say goodbye to the outstanding team of the Euro 2020 group stage as early as the round-of-16.

But VAR came to the rescue in denying Marko Arnautovic a famous goal and, from then on, you just had the feeling fate was on Italy's side.

Roberto Mancini's Azzurri were aiming to extend their unbeaten run to 31 matches, setting a new record, and while Austria certainly went for it towards the end as they pulled one back through Sasa Kalajdzic, Italy saw out a historic 2-1 victory.

But where there was unrelenting praise before, there were arguably doubts about Italy and their system for the first time in Euro 2020, with Mancini forced to turn to his bench to get the job done in extra-time.

 

It should be said, for long periods they were dominant in the first half at Wembley, with their 12 shots the second-most Italy have managed in the opening 45 minutes of games at the tournament.

But there was unquestionably something missing, with Austria shrewdly set up by Franco Foda.

The German coach has proven tactically flexible in Euro 2020, switching between a back three and a back four – he chose the latter on this occasion as they zoned in on Italy's threat from the flanks.

David Alaba had been deployed at centre-back against the Netherlands but moved to left-back in the 1-0 win over Ukraine, and that was where he remained here.

Foda went with a double pivot again, giving the centre-backs extra protection but also ensuring Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne had little joy when cutting in from their respective wings, finding themselves crowded out more often than not by Florian Grillitsch and Xaver Schlager, whose five tackles were more than anyone else.

It became a recurring theme, with the only Italy player who looked even moderately threatening out wide for much of the game being Leonardo Spinazzola.

The left-back was bright in the opening 45 minutes, making some lung-busting runs up the flank and one of those led to arguably their best chance, when Nicolo Barella was denied by Daniel Bachmann. Nevertheless, he too was rather quieter after half-time.

Italy's struggles out wide were further highlighted by the fact they failed to deliver any open-play crosses before the break for the first time in a Euros game since 1980.

This was made even more surprising given 74.2 per cent of their attacks in the group stage came down the flanks. While an attack from the wings doesn't necessarily mean a cross has to be played in, it does suggest Foda was wise to focus his attentions on this area of the pitch.

Italy also weren't helped by the fact Giovanni Di Lorenzo offered very little by way of support to Berardi, who was a source of frustration well into the second period.

 

That was with the exception of one moment very early on in the second half, as Berardi got to the byline and drilled a low ball into the danger zone, much in the same vein as his assist for Manuel Locatelli against Turkey.

This time a team-mate couldn't get it into the goal, but instead of that acting as a source of encouragement, it was a tactic Berardi was barely able to carry out again.

Berardi's performance was summed up by his scissor-kick attempt in the 84th minute that was sliced high and wide. It was a final action befitting his underwhelming performance before being replaced by Federico Chiesa.

It was something of a surprise on matchday one when Berardi was the chosen man ahead of Chiesa out on the right. While the former justified that call in his first few games, the Juventus talent impressively staked his own claim here.

Five minutes into extra-time, Chiesa had hung out wide before springing into the box to receive a lofted pass from Spinazzola. He controlled it with his head, before cleverly knocking it underneath the approaching Konrad Laimer and smashing into the far side of the goal with a vengeance.

Another substitute in Matteo Pessina then got the goal that proved decisive, making the most of good hold-up play by Francesco Acerbi and powering home.

While Pessina's initial introduction for Marco Verratti, who had been key for Italy beforehand, raised eyebrows, Mancini's decision was ultimately vindicated in that moment.

Kalajdzic's late header saw him become the first player to score against Italy since Donny van de Beek for the Netherlands last October, but it could not prevent Italy from marching on to the quarter-finals.

On a day that saw Italy create history, with their unbeaten run as much to do with Mancini as any player such has been the transformative impact he's had, it was only fitting that his in-game changes made the difference.

Denmark know a thing or two about winning against all odds. While their 4-0 victory over Wales on Saturday may not fall into that exact category, it's fair to say their Euro 2020 campaign is very much built on such a platform.

After all, the Danes' greatest moment on the international stage, winning Euro 92, only occurred because of Yugoslavia's disqualification that came about to the breakup of the country.

This year they've had to cope with the stress of Christian Eriksen's health emergency in their group opener against Finland, the Inter midfielder suffering a cardiac arrest.

While Eriksen is on the mend, there's no doubt Denmark's inner resolve and desperation to honour the efforts of their team-mate have played a role in their performances – even if their second group game after the incident saw them suffer a slender defeat to Belgium.

The 4-1 win over Russia that followed saw Denmark become the first team in Euros history to lose their first two games but still qualify for the knockout phase. Qualification against all odds?

While Wales wanted to embrace a similar kind of 'nothing is impossible' attitude, just as they did when reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016, they were always going to be up against it versus Denmark – who essentially had a home crowd behind them in Amsterdam.

"We're playing at Christian's old home and we're so excited to give it our all against Wales," coach Kasper Hjulmand said in the build-up. "There is a huge connection between Amsterdam – and especially Ajax – and Danish football."

Wales defender Connor Roberts had suggested "99 per cent of the world" would be cheering on Denmark, a situation that Danny Ward said helped in creating a "siege mentality" in the Welsh ranks.

And there was certainly evidence of that fired-up attitude throughout, such as Wales' promising start that had them 7-1 up on the shot count (even if several were blocked) after the 18th minute, the fact Chris Mepham and Joe Rodon looked to be picking scraps wherever possible, and then there was the late red card for Harry Wilson.

Yet Wales seemed unable to tap into that adrenaline for long and Denmark began to look every inch a home side, with the fans – whether they were Danish or Dutch – seemingly responding to Hjulmand's request for the Johan Cruijff ArenA to be more red-and-white than orange.

It was only fitting, then, that Kasper Dolberg was the man to take the match by the scruff of the neck.

 

The former Ajax prodigy was considered one of the world's biggest young talents after coming through the academy in Amsterdam. While his career probably hasn't hit the heights some would have expected during his breakout in the Netherlands, there's no doubt he will have made plenty sit up and take note on Saturday.

He opened the scoring in the 27th minute, receiving a pass inside from the left courtesy of Mikkel Damsgaard, taking a touch to his right to open up a little space before rifling a gorgeous effort into the bottom-right corner from 20 yards.

The Nice forward almost certainly wouldn't have started were it not for an injury to Yussuf Poulsen, but here he was, back where he made his name, doing it all over again.

His subsequent celebration, as he stood where he shot with his arms stretched outwards at his sides, reminiscent of Russell Crowe in Gladiator. "Are you not entertained?"

Well, as it happened, he would get another just after the break.

Neco Williams' clearance from Martin Braithwaite's low cross summed up much of Wales' play – panicked and utterly lacking in conviction.

Dolberg was on hand to slam an unstoppable effort into that bottom-right corner again, and from there it never looked like being anything other than a comfortable Denmark win.

In truth, Wales' setup in the group stage provided little inspiration that they would've been able to chase any kind of deficit. They only forced six high turnovers, the joint-fewest of any team, while their expected goals against of 4.8 was only lower than four other teams, all of whom finished bottom of their groups.

To maintain that level and succeed against a Denmark side who were among the most-effective sides in terms of pressing (37 high turnovers, second only to the Netherlands) and also capable of mixing up their play (more 'direct attacks' than anyone else but also only bettered by Spain and Italy in terms of 'build-ups) was going to be a tall order.

While Wales made some desperate forays forward towards the end, late goals from Joakim Maehle and Braithwaite were just rewards for Denmark's excellent game management. 

But as good as Atalanta star Maehle was (again), the day belonged to Dolberg.

Back in Amsterdam, where both he and Eriksen set out on their journeys, Dolberg's brace sent Denmark on their way to a first quarter-final at a major tournament since 2004.

 

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