Given he delivered back-to-back LaLiga titles and left Barcelona still at the summit, Ernesto Valverde's departure appears perplexing on the surface.

There has been no great decline to speak of, no obvious player revolt and no boardroom bickering.

Why then have the Blaugrana opted to part ways with their head coach and replace him with Quique Setien, a man who could only lead Real Betis to a 10th-place finish last term?

We have taken a look at the five games which might have ultimately resulted in Valverde's exit.

Roma 3-0 Barcelona. Champions League quarter-final second leg. April 10, 2018.

After being beaten in both legs of the Supercopa de Espana by Real Madrid to begin his reign, things picked up for Valverde, who enjoyed a 36-match unbeaten run at the beginning of the 2017-18 LaLiga campaign.

However, two and a half weeks before that title triumph was sealed, Barcelona were stunned in Europe.

Valverde's side were in control of the tie having beaten the Serie A side 4-1 at home, but Roma became only the third side in Champions League history to overturn a first-leg deficit of three goals or more.

Greek defender Kostas Manolas scored the crucial third goal eight minutes from time as Roma went through on away goals and Valverde suffered his first, but not last, European humiliation.

Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona. Champions League semi-final second leg. May 7, 2019.

Fast forward a year and a case of deja vu, with Barca sitting pretty on a 3-0 first-leg lead in their last-four tie against Liverpool.

The Reds were without Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino for the return fixture at Anfield, where Divock Origi's early goal only gave them a sliver of hope.

Yet Barca looked shell-shocked as Georginio Wijnaldum's double was followed up by another Origi strike, Liverpool incredibly progressing to a final they would win.

Described in the Spanish press as a "debacle", "tragedy" and "historic failure", the writing seemed to be on the wall for Valverde from that point.

Barcelona 1-2 Valencia. Copa del Rey final. May 25, 2019. 

Not even a second LaLiga title could silence Valverde's doubters, who had more ammo when his team lost to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final.

Valverde had hoped a victory would ease the pain of the Liverpool loss but Barca were stunned again, Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo putting Valencia 2-0 ahead before Lionel Messi pulled one back.

Rather than wield the axe, though, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu absolved Valverde of blame for the result.

 

Espanyol 2-2 Barcelona. LaLiga. January 4, 2020.

Away defeats to Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante would have looked costlier had the champions' nearest rivals Real Madrid not stumbled along themselves in the first half of this season.

Both teams' struggles were evident in a 0-0 Clasico draw at Camp Nou in December, but it was Barcelona's first result back after the mid-season break that would have set more alarm bells ringing.

Derby rivals Espanyol were bottom of the table and had not beaten Barca in LaLiga since 2009 but Frenkie de Jong was sent off as the strugglers claimed a 2-2 draw.

Barcelona 2-3 Atletico Madrid. Supercopa de Espana semi-final. January 9, 2020.

Five days later and it got even worse for Valverde and Barcelona.

Leading 2-1 in Saudi Arabia with nine minutes to go, the Blaugrana collapsed again late on, with Alvaro Morata and Angel Correa sending Atletico through to a final against their cross-city rivals Madrid.

It meant Barcelona had won just one of their previous five games, a sour note to end on for Valverde.

Barcelona are looking for a new head coach after sacking Ernesto Valverde - the man who led them to back-to-back LaLiga titles.

Valverde departs Camp Nou with the Blaugrana top of the table after 19 games in 2019-20, too.

Given his success with Barca, it seems a harsh decision, but do the numbers back that up?

With the help of Opta, we take a look at Valverde's two-and-a-half-year Barca reign.

 

69.5 per cent - Valverde took charge of 95 LaLiga games as Barca boss, winning 66 of those, drawing 22 and losing just seven. That 69.5 per cent win ratio is the fifth best return in the club's history, with Tito Vilanova way out in front with 92.10 per cent.

97 - Valverde, 55, will be disappointed he did not reach a landmark at Barcelona, with whom he was only three wins shy of 100 in all competitions.

36 - It started so well for Valverde too as the team were unbeaten in his first 36 LaLiga games, which remains the longest sequence for a new boss in the league's history. They won 27 of those fixtures.

43 - That long streak added to the final seven games of Luis Enrique's time in charge, when Barcelona were also unbeaten, giving them a LaLiga record 43-match unbeaten run.

4 - Valverde delivered four titles to the Camp Nou trophy cabinet - two LaLiga titles (2017-18 and 2018-19), the 2018 Copa del Rey and the Supercopa de Espana.

213 - Former Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and Villarreal boss Valverde has won 213 LaLiga games in his career, the fifth most of all time. Luis Aragones (344) is the leader in that particular category.

9 - Beating Real Madrid is a sure-fire way to win over the sceptics and Valverde has toasted nine victories over Los Blancos this century. No manager has managed more in the 21st century (level with Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone).

0-3 and 0-4 - Valverde's inability to deliver Champions League success is believed to be behind the decision to sack him, though. Barcelona beat Roma 4-1 and Liverpool 3-0 in the home first legs of knockout ties during the previous two seasons, but they went out on both occasions as the Giallorossi beat them 3-0 and the Reds 4-0.

112 - Unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi has been the most productive attacking player under Valverde, scoring 112 times and providing 46 assists for 158 goal involvements. Messi was involved in 47.9 per cent of Barcelona's 238 LaLiga goals under Valverde.

123 - However, it was not Messi who was handed the most starts by Valverde. With 109 appearances from the off, he is only fifth on the list, behind Sergio Busquets, Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Gerard Pique, who accumulated 123 starts.

Arguably the most surprising factor around Ernesto Valverde's exit at Barcelona is the distinct lack of surprise.

Since replacing Luis Enrique at Camp Nou in May 2017, the former Athletic Bilbao boss has won four major honours and claimed victory in 66 of his 95 LaLiga games.

And yet there has been an ever-present grumble in the background. Whether it be grievances over his style of play or somewhat more legitimate concerns over big collapses to Roma and Liverpool in the Champions League in the previous two campaigns, the rumblings of discontent have never been too far away. 

Still, his departure – which came after a 3-2 defeat in the Supercopa de Espana semi-finals to Atletico Madrid – seems a little harsh, and we look at five reasons Valverde, who has been replaced by Quique Setien, might feel he has been treated unfairly.

 

HE'S A TWO-TIME LALIGA WINNER

What seems harshest of all is that, despite frequent talk of a "crisis", Valverde steered Barca to LaLiga glory in each of his two full seasons in charge. Indeed, the Blaugrana were beaten just once as they cantered to the trophy in the 2017-18 campaign. The more sceptical of pundits may point to the fact that last season their great Clasico rivals Real Madrid endured a poor campaign, losing 12 times and finishing 19 points adrift. But still, while Champions League success eluded him, in LaLiga Barca have continued to dominate. Throw in a Copa del Rey and a Supercopa de Espana and the trophy return has remained healthy.

THEY'RE TOP OF THE LEAGUE

Okay, so if we're being honest, Barca have not been anywhere their best this term – particularly in defence where the 23 goals they have conceded is 11 more than Madrid and Atletico. But as things stand Barca are top of LaLiga, albeit only by goal difference from Madrid. Three defeats and four draws from 19 matches may not make for great reading for a club that has been so utterly dominant domestically, but they remain top of the pile.

MESSI IS A BALLON D'OR WINNER AGAIN

Granted, the caveat here is you could argue Messi doesn't really need to win football's most prestigious individual prize to lay his claims as the greatest player on the planet. But the fact remains he failed to win the previous three Ballons d'Or before beating Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk in 2019. Under Valverde, Messi has been at his majestic best, with the Argentina superstar scoring a remarkable 83 goals in 84 LaLiga games. While others from Barca's golden era are perceived to be on the decline, Messi has continued to wow the football world.

BARCA'S RECRUITMENT HAS BEEN…QUESTIONABLE

Valverde may be coach of the team and will probably have some say when it comes to the direction the club goes in with signings, but as is the way with modern football, others are in charge of recruitment. Chief executive Oscar Grau and sporting director Eric Abidal are ultimately responsible on that front, although it was Pep Segura prior to the former France international. Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jeison Murillo have been among the more head-scratcher signings, while Malcom was snatched from under the noses of Roma but proved a complete flop. Philippe Coutinho underwhelmed after his big-money arrival from Liverpool and was shipped out on loan to Bayern Munich, while Ousmane Dembele has been hit-and-miss at best. Arturo Vidal has had his moments, Yerry Mina mainly disappointed but at least brought in a big fee and Jean-Clair Todibo has rarely featured despite showing promise. Antoine Griezmann's arrival was met with fanfare but the France international has been nowhere near the standard he showed at rivals Atletico.

AGING STARS ON THE DECLINE

With the exception of Messi, who at 32 is like the proverbial bottle of fine wine and getting better with age, you can argue Valverde is getting the best from a crop of players who are no longer at the height of their powers. Centre-back Gerard Pique has been out of form, Luis Suarez remains an undoubted talent but perhaps not at the same level as he was in the treble-winning days of Luis Enrique, while Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are also in their 30s. To point the finger solely at Valverde is slightly ludicrous. 

Liverpool continued their relentless march towards the Premier League title with a 1-0 victory over Tottenham while Sergio Aguero sent records tumbling in Manchester City's resounding win at Aston Villa.

The Reds moved 16 points clear at the top thanks to Leicester City's defeat to Southampton – as Danny Ings kept up his superb form – though the gap was reduced slightly when City thrashed Villa on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Manchester United ended a three-match winless streak with a resounding 4-0 triumph over lowly Norwich City.

We review the key top-flight matches with the help of Opta data.

 

CHAMPIONS-ELECT SET NEW BENCHMARKS AS TITLE TILT CONTINUES AT PACE

Barring a collapse of epic proportions, it seems certain that the Premier League title will be Liverpool's for the first time come the end of the season – or earlier, at this rate.

Roberto Firmino's fifth goal in his past six appearances handed Jurgen Klopp's side the points at Tottenham, who lost successive league matches for the first time this season, and have also conceded 20 goals in 13 matches under Jose Mourinho.

Liverpool sit on 61 points at the top of the pile, the most any side has ever registered after 21 matches in a single season across Europe's big five leagues.

Klopp's team have amassed 104 points across their past 38 Premier League games, winning 33 times and drawing on five occasions; this is a record total by any team across a 38-match run in the competition's history.

It is 38 league games since Liverpool last suffered a defeat. In the same amount of time, Spurs have lost 16 matches – including three defeats to the Reds.

AGUERO SMASHES RECORDS IN SIX-GOAL ROMP

It was a waltz in Villa Park for City on Sunday, as Aguero's hat-trick and a masterclass from Kevin De Bruyne propelled Pep Guardiola's side to a 6-1 win and up into second place.

With his second goal – which came early in the second half to put City 5-0 up – Aguero became the highest-scoring non-British player in Premier League history, moving ahead of Thierry Henry.

Aguero moved onto 177 top-flight goals when he thumped in his third, making the former Atletico Madrid forward the outright record holder for hat-tricks in the Premier League with 12 to his name – one ahead of Alan Shearer's tally of 11.

After his first-half double and assist for Aguero's hat-trick goal, Riyad Mahrez is the only Premier League player to both score and assist 20 goals or more since the start of last season in all competitions. 

De Bruyne, meanwhile, is now on 15 assists for this campaign after teeing up two of City's goals.

INGS KEEPS GETTING BETTER

Two of the Premier League's leading scorers went head-to-head at the King Power Stadium, but while Jamie Vardy failed to inspire Leicester City to victory, Southampton's Ings proved the match-winner as the Saints gained revenge for their 9-0 defeat in the reverse fixture.

Ings' effort nine minutes from time was his 14th of the season and his ninth goal in his past 10 top-flight appearances.

It means 40 per cent of Ings' 35 Premier League goals have come in this campaign, while he is also the highest-scoring Southampton player since Jay Rodriguez in 2013-14.

Dennis Praet put Leicester ahead and is the 14th different player to have scored for the Foxes in the Premier League this term, while Brendan Rodgers suffered successive home defeats for the first time since he took over.

UNITED'S FORWARDS RUN RIOT IN OLD TRAFFORD ROUT

Missing leading scorer Teemu Pukki, Norwich City never looked likely to trouble United, who cruised to a convincing win to lift themselves into fifth place.

It is the first time United have scored four goals in consecutive home games in the league since September 2017, while the Canaries have not won in nine Premier League matches.

Marcus Rashford scored twice and is now on 19 goals in all competitions this season – only Raheem Sterling, with 20, has more among Premier League players.

Juan Mata set up two goals, the first time he has provided two assists in a league match since October 2012 – also against Norwich – while Mason Greenwood has scored four top-flight goals this term, more than any other teenager in the competition.

Ninety minutes was not enough to separate Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana final on Sunday.

Madrid emerged victorious in a penalty shoot-out in Jeddah after extra time finished with the two sides still locked at 0-0.

It marked the fifth straight time a single-game final between the city rivals has gone to the additional 30 minutes.

Here we look back at an incredible run of all-Madrid marathons.

 

2013 Copa del Rey final: Real Madrid 1-2 Atletico Madrid

The third trophy won by Diego Simeone with Atletico, the Rojiblancos beat their rivals in their own backyard in a dramatic final at the Santiago Bernabeu that saw then Madrid boss Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gabi sent off.

Ronaldo had put Madrid ahead by converting Mesut Ozil's corner in the 14th minute, but Diego Costa equalised after being played in by Radamel Falcao and Miranda's near-post header sealed a famous triumph for Atletico.

2014 Champions League final: Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid

Having beaten Barcelona and Madrid to a shock LaLiga title, Atletico appeared poised to deny Los Blancos 'La Decima' after Diego Godin opened the scoring in Lisbon. However, Sergio Ramos' superb 93rd-minute header forced extra time, and goals from Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Ronaldo secured European glory for Carlo Ancelotti's men.

2016 Champions League final: Real Madrid 1-1 Atletico Madrid (5-3 pens)

More heartbreak on European football's grandest stage for Atletico as Madrid again denied them a first Champions League crown. Ramos bundled home the opener for Madrid but, after Antoine Griezmann struck the crossbar from the spot, Yannick Carrasco fired in from Juanfran's cross to level. However, Juanfran hit the post in the only miss of the shoot-out, Ronaldo confidently converting the winning penalty and giving Madrid their 11th European title and first of three in a row under Zinedine Zidane.

2018 UEFA Super Cup: Real Madrid 2-4 Atletico Madrid

Atletico laid down an early marker ahead of the 2018-19 season in a hugely entertaining Super Cup. Costa opened the scoring with a ferocious finish from a tight angle in the first minute in Tallinn and equalised after Karim Benzema's header and a Ramos penalty turned the contest on its head.

Saul Niguez's stunning volley gave Atletico a 3-2 lead in extra time and Koke added a fourth to seal victory, though it proved a false dawn as they finished 11 points behind Barcelona in LaLiga and went out in the last 16 of the Champions League. For Madrid, it was the start of a dismal season in which Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari endured disappointing tenures before Zidane was brought back.

2020 Supercopa de Espana: Real Madrid 0-0 Atletico Madrid (4-1 pens)

The final of the first four-team Supercopa in Saudi Arabia provided a disappointing spectacle, as Madrid and Atletico meandered to a goalless draw light on incident in normal time. There was a tempestuous end to extra time as Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde was sent off and, for Atletico, a disappointingly familiar finale as Ramos slotted home the decisive spot-kick.

It was a game that illustrated just how evenly matched the neighbours are, with Atletico going into the second half of the LaLiga season aiming to eradicate their five-point deficit to Madrid and leaders Barca.

Gabriel Jesus dispatched an unfussy left-footed finish to put Manchester City 4-0 up before half-time at Villa Park but knew this was no time to bask in his own achievement.

Beaming in a giggling grin, the Brazil forward made straight for Kevin De Bruyne, City's playmaker extraordinaire who had made it virtually impossible for him not to score the 14th goal of a quietly impressive season.

De Bruyne collected possession just inside the Villa half and strode purposefully away from Danny Drinkwater, who was enduring the sort of debut the director of a slasher horror movie might have found a little on the nose.

Soon enough he was in the position. The Kevin De Bruyne position.

You know the one – just on the edge of the final third, a little wide of the right-hand side of the penalty area. The perfect angle for De Bruyne to wrap that delectable right foot around the ball and arc it towards and then tantalisingly away from goal.

The sort of cross that screams "score me". All of Villa's back three heard the cries, with right-sided centre-back Ezri Konsa flinging himself in an ungainly heap in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable.

It was De Bruyne's 14th assist of the Premier League season and plenty of those have been similarly picture perfect. Number 13 also featured Drinkwater in the rear-view mirror for a simple pass to Sergio Aguero, who rifled in spectacularly from 20 yards to set himself on the way to a hat-trick.

Aguero's part in this scintillating 6-1 spree saw him pass Thierry Henry as the Premier League's top-scoring overseas player and Alan Shearer as the man with the largest collection of trebles (12) in the competition.

But there is no doubt De Bruyne is the beating heart of this City team, something that has become abundantly clear over recent weeks in the face of a new reality established by Jurgen Klopp's relentless and ravenous Liverpool.

Without wishing to underplay Guardiola's achievement in marching an intricate, high-end team to back-to-back Premier League titles, the past two seasons largely consisted of him sending out his favoured 4-3-3 formation and watching the marvellous Mancunian machine take flight.

Compromised by form and fitness problems for key players this time around, and with Liverpool disappearing over the horizon, the City manager has shuffled his pack into a range of tactical shapes over the past month.

A fluid 4-2-3-1 was rolled out for a 3-0 triumph at Arsenal in December – the second victory in a run of 10 wins from 11 in all competitions, where City began a recent theme of doing decisive damage before half-time.

De Bruyne ran the show as a number 10, scything a bouncing ball into the top corner with outstanding technique and curling home a more controlled effort either side of bursting through the right-hand side of the Gunners defence to set up Raheem Sterling.

There were similar antics the following weekend, from the right this time, as the Etihad Stadium bellowed De Bruyne's name after another assist that relegated a Jesus finish to a role in the supporting cast. High-flying Leicester were condemned to a 3-1 defeat.

City's only defeat in this prolific sequence came amid Ederson's early red card at Wolves. Guardiola substituted De Bruyne – whose throughball created Sterling's second of the game – and watched a 2-1 lead become a 3-2 loss.

A 3-4-3 reboot followed a lacklustre first half against Sheffield United. Guardiola deployed De Bruyne as a deep-lying and roving midfield general, who tore forward to make the points safe having set up Aguero to break the deadlock.

That configuration remained for a 2-1 win over Everton before De Bruyne excelled as one of Guardiola's false nines in a beguiling besting of Manchester United in the EFL Cup. He left Phil Jones twisted and bereft on the turf for the third goal in a 3-1 semi-final first-leg win.

It was back to old faithful and 4-3-3 at Villa Park, with De Bruyne lurching low and high into those pockets of maximum destruction. He even managed to create Riyad Mahrez's opener without touching the ball thanks to a delightful dummy.

City's newfound flexibility bodes well for when their Champions League campaign resumes with a mouth-watering last-16 clash against Real Madrid. Opening up these new shape-shifting possibilities would have been impossible for City and Guardiola without their Belgian master key.

Sergio Aguero set a Premier League record when he scored his 12th hat-trick in England's top flight as Manchester City beat Aston Villa 6-1 on Sunday.

The Argentina striker surpassed the previous best mark of 11 set by former England captain Alan Shearer across his celebrated spells with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United.

Aguero became City's all-time leading goalscorer in 2017 and has excelled under Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola since moving to the Etihad Stadium from Atletico Madrid in 2011.

Here, we take a look back over his record-breaking deadly dozen.


Manchester City 3-0 Wigan Athletic – September 10, 2011

It proved love at first sight between Aguero and the City faithful as he came off the bench to net a brace against Swansea City on his home debut. He went one better next time out at the Etihad Stadium. Two assists were laid on by David Silva, with the delicate skill and sublime pass to craft Aguero's hat-trick goal announcing the long and fruitful on-field relationship they would enjoy.

Manchester City 4-1 Tottenham – October 18, 2014

After two seasons without a Premier League treble, Aguero scored all four in this thrashing of Spurs, with two converted penalties and another miss from 12 yards in the middle of a remarkable haul.

Manchester City 6-0 QPR – May 10, 2015

Facing the club who were on the receiving end of Aguero's career-defining goal, there was none of the tension and suspense of three years earlier as City brushed a sorry QPR aside and condemned them to relegation. A barrelling solo run through a disorganised backline opened the floodgates in the fourth minute before Aguero pounced on an error from Yun Suk-young and completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot.


Manchester City 6-1 Newcastle United – October 3, 2015

Newcastle were heading for a half-time lead until Aguero nodded a 42nd-minute equaliser. It was the first of a scarcely credible five in 20 minutes – his third following a delightful exchange of passes between Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho the pick of the bunch.

Chelsea 0-3 Manchester City – April 16, 2016

Pellegrini's final season at City had petered out in terms of a Premier League title challenge. Aguero's emphatic pair of finishes at the end of scything counter-attacks led by De Bruyne at Stamford Bridge made that feel particularly wasteful. Thibaut Courtois' professional foul on Fernandinho meant the matchball was claimed from 12 yards.


Watford 0-6 Manchester City – September 16, 2017

A performance that offered an emphatic response to lingering questions over whether Aguero could operate effectively under Guardiola. After heading home De Bruyne's free-kick to open the scoring and converting David Silva's cutback, Aguero prodded in at the end of a brilliant dribble to cap his hat-trick in style.

Manchester City 3-1 Newcastle United – January 20, 2018

Newcastle were on the receiving end of more Aguero punishment as he glanced in a De Bruyne cross, crashed a penalty past Karl Darlow right footed and crowned Leroy Sane's riotous dribble inside the visitors' box with his left to complete a 'perfect' hat-trick.

Manchester City 5-1 Leicester City 1 – February 10, 2018

Another occasion where three goals were not quite enough for Aguero – he found the net four times in the second half of this crushing victory over the Foxes. Incredibly, this was the third time Aguero had scored at least four goals in a Premier League game, while the win moved City a whopping 16 points clear at the top of the table.

Manchester City 6-1 Huddersfield Town – August 19, 2018

It was only the second weekend of the new campaign but Aguero was already in top form in this demolition of the Terriers. "I never saw him like this since I was here," Guardiola said. "He is in an incredible condition with the ball and without the ball." Ederson's long pass sent Aguero clear for his first, he capitalised on Ben Hamer's error for his second, and the treble was sealed when he converted Benjamin Mendy's cross.


Manchester City 3-1 Arsenal – February 3, 2019

Aguero opened the scoring in the first minute, with all three of his finishes on this occasion coming from close range. It was his 14th hat-trick in all competitions for City, who moved within two points of Premier League leaders Liverpool thanks to this defeat of Unai Emery's Gunners.

Manchester City 6-0 Chelsea – February 10, 2019

A week later and Aguero had another matchball to add to his collection after City tore Chelsea apart at the Etihad. Aguero should have converted an easy chance even before his fourth-minute opener, a sensational 25-yard drive that left Kepa Arrizabalaga helpless. Ross Barkley's mistake gave Aguero a simple second and the treble was wrapped up from the penalty spot as City leapfrogged Liverpool.

Aston Villa 1-6 Manchester City – January 12, 2020

It was already a record-breaking day for Aguero in Birmingham, who surpassed Thierry Henry as the Premier League's highest scoring overseas player with his second of the game and 176th in the top flight. Kortney Hause coughing up possession let Riyad Mahrez set him up to overhaul Shearer. Aguero's blistering 20-yard effort into the top corner to start his hat-trick was the pick of the bunch.

Serena Williams finally ended her wait for a first title since becoming a mother with victory in the Auckland Open final on Sunday.

The 23-time grand slam champion saw off fellow American Jessica Pegula, winning 6-3 6-4.

Though Williams won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant, she has experienced plenty of frustration since returning to the circuit following the birth of her daughter.

However, the weight of her title drought has now been lifted going into the first slam of the year at Melbourne Park, where she is the bookmakers' favourite to equal Margaret Court's all-time record for major wins.

Here we look back on Williams' six finals since her return.

Wimbledon 2018 v Angelique Kerber - Lost 6-3 6-3

Seeded 25th, Williams produced a remarkable performance to reach the final at the All England Club less than a year after giving birth. She did not drop a set until the quarter-finals, but was handily beaten by Kerber in the championship match.

Looking back on her performance in finals, Williams said after the 2019 US Open: "Kerber doesn't count because I was exhausted. My baby was eight months, and that's tough."

US Open 2018 v Naomi Osaka - Lost 6-2 6-4

Little about the excellent performance of Osaka is remembered as the contest was overshadowed by Williams' furious exchange with umpire Carlos Ramos that saw her receive three code violations, resulting in a game penalty. The trophy ceremony was marred by boos from the crowd, with Williams having to comfort a tearful Osaka.

Wimbledon 2019 v Simona Halep - Lost 6-2 6-2

Williams looked in imperious form at SW19 and few would have bet against her going into the final, but she was blown away by Halep, who cruised to an emphatic victory in just 56 minutes to win her second grand slam.

Rogers Cup 2019 v Bianca Andreescu - Lost 3-1 ret.

In an eventual preview of the US Open final, Williams was betrayed by her body as she was forced to retire after four games in Toronto. Appearing in tears as she was treated by the trainer, Williams was unable to continue after seeming to complain of back spasms.

US Open 2019 v Bianca Andreescu - Lost 6-3 7-5 

Another rout appeared on the cards as teenager Andreescu stunningly raced to a 5-1 lead in the second set. However, Williams - willed on by the ear-splitting roar of the Arthur Ashe crowd - fought back to level at 5-5 and at that point a turnaround appeared inevitable. The Canadian recovered, however, and dealt Williams her fourth consecutive major final defeat.

Auckland Open 2020 v Jessica Pegula - Won 6-3 6-4

Williams laid down an ominous marker when she brushed aside the promising Amanda Anisimova in just 44 minutes in the semi-final and Pegula had no answer in the showpiece as the 38-year-old claimed her 73rd WTA title. She was able to celebrate winning a tournament with daughter Alexis Olympia for the first time and announced she would donate her prize money to the Australian bushfire relief effort.

Just over a week out from the Australian Open, Williams looks in blistering form as she eyes a record-tying slam.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero has become the highest-scoring overseas player in Premier League history.

The Argentina star's double during Sunday's match at Aston Villa moved him on to 176 goals in England's top flight – one clear of Arsenal and France great Thierry Henry.

Aguero and Henry are undoubtedly two of the finest attacking players ever to have graced the league, but how do their records stack up alongside one another?

With a little help from Opta, we decided to find out.

Henry's home comforts

Both men's scoring rates are remarkably similar, with Henry's 175 goals coming in 258 appearances and Aguero usurping him on his 255th. The City favourite also shades it in terms of minutes per goal, with each strike clocking in at 106.86 minutes alongside Henry's 122.

The two players heavily favour their lethal right feet. Aguero notched 125 with that trusty boot – including his unforgettable title-clincher against QPR in 2012 – and Henry netted 136 with his stronger foot.

Aguero has 33 and 17 left footed and headed goals to Henry's 31 and 6, although the 1998 World Cup winner boasts more from long range – crashing in 29 from outside the penalty area to Aguero's 21.

Under pressure inside the box, Aguero has held his nerve from the spot 26 times to Henry's 23.

Indeed, one of the most significant differentials is home and away goals, with 55 of Henry's coming beyond the environs of Highbury and Emirates Stadium. Aguero has a century of Etihad Stadium strikes (102) but 74 on his travels.

Aguero the Toon tormentor

No Premier League team have felt the force of Aguero more often than Newcastle United. He has 15 goals in 13 appearances against them, although five of those came in the same 6-1 win in 2015.

Tottenham were used to the threat of Henry but nowadays struggle to contain City's prolific Argentine, who has 11 in 15 games versus the north Londoners. Chelsea (10 in 14) are another capital club to have suffered plenty of Aguero punishment.

The distinction of being Henry's most scored against Premier League opponent is a three-way tie between Villa, Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough, each of whom conceded 12 times to the former Monaco and Juventus forward.

Both Aguero and Henry have delighted their adoring faithful with eight league goals apiece at the expense of Manchester United, although the former's have come at a faster rate, across 893 minutes as opposed to 1,178.

Among his top 10 most agreeable opponents. Aguero's eight goals in eight outings versus Stoke City came across a mere 595 minutes. Henry plundered seven in six versus Portsmouth – a handsome return on 540 minutes' work.

Silva service and Pires the provider

Of course, both men have benefitted considerably from a stellar supporting cast.

No player has assisted Aguero in the Premier League more frequently than David Silva (21), although the former Spain playmaker will leave City at the end of this season, by which point the mercurial Kevin De Bruyne (18) might have already surpassed him.

Yaya Toure's 11 assists for Aguero equalled the tally supplied by Henry's erstwhile attacking ally Dennis Bergkamp, one fewer than the late Jose Antonio Reyes (12).

However, Robert Pires stands clear with 17 Premier League assists for Henry during a period where the duo excelled for club and country.

Another Frenchman, Samir Nasri, assisted Aguero on nine occasions – the same number of goals Freddie Ljungberg and Patrick Vieira laid on for Henry.

When it comes to returning the favour, Henry is clearly out in front with 74 assists to Aguero's 46.

Jose Mourinho certainly sprung a surprise with his team for Tottenham's Premier League clash with runaway leaders Liverpool as he handed a top-flight debut to Japhet Tanganga.

The 20-year-old, whose only previous experience of senior football came in an EFL Cup tie, operated in a centralised right-back role behind Serge Aurier, and was handed the unenviable task of shackling Sadio Mane.

Though Spurs were unable to record their third clean sheet of the season, Tanganga had an encouraging debut, winning 71.4 per cent of his duels.

We took a closer look at Tanganga's display in Spurs' 1-0 loss.

 

2' - It was quite an introduction to the Premier League for Tanganga, whose first touch was a goal-line block with his outstretched left leg to deny Roberto Firmino the opener. The Spurs youngster would have been well placed to thwart Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's follow-up effort had it been on target and not hit the post, though Tanganga was fortunate the ball did not go in via the back of his leg after it ricocheted off him. 

8' - Perhaps buoyed by that fine intervention, an eager Tanganga naively surged upfield to try to dispossess Mane, only to see the Senegal international easily turn away from trouble. Tanganga eventually brought Mane down and can count himself lucky not to have been booked.

22' - Spurs were utilising a somewhat hybrid formation, with regular right-back Aurier sometimes operating slightly further forward to account for the raiding Andy Robertson. However, as Aurier squared up to Mane with Tanganga directly behind him in support, nobody had thought about Robertson, with Spurs' debutant eventually recovering to snuff out the attempted cutback to Firmino. 

32' - Tanganga's next direct duel with Mane resulted in a victory for the rookie. He stepped in to win the ball, outmuscled the Reds attacker and burst forward. This time Mane brought down Tanganga, who needed some treatment on a blow to the back of the head sustained as he fell.

37' - The Liverpool breakthrough. The Spurs defending in the build-up was shoddy but Tanganga's attempt to cut out Mohamed Salah's pass to Firmino was futile, the Brazilian opening his body to fire the league leaders ahead.

62' - After a quiet start to the second half, Tanganga made his mark by winning a 50-50 against Jordan Henderson, nullifying a potential Liverpool counter-attack.

64' - Tanganga may have been fortunate early on when the ball hit the back of his leg and did not go in, but Lady Luck was not smiling on him just after the hour mark as he slipped, fell and saw Mane glide beyond him. Toby Alderweireld had to deal with Robertson's eventual cross.

65'-  The youngster was in the wars again moments later after a loose touch from Robertson saw him chase the ball and mistime a tackle on Tanganga, who was caught on the shin by the full-back's studs. VAR did not look at the incident again and both men were still on the ground in pain when Paulo Gazzaniga pushed away Mane's header.

69' - A double change for Spurs saw a new role for Tanganga, who shifted across to left-back after a chat with Mourinho when Danny Rose was withdrawn.

88' - Spurs pressed for a late leveller – one that never came – and the newcomer offered very little to their attacking cause, opting to pass backwards or across and rarely venturing beyond the halfway line. Tanganga was, unsurprisingly, tiring late on as he let Henderson easily go past him via a one-two.

Mikel Arteta must prepare for life without the man who has scored 48.2 per cent of Arsenal's Premier League goals following Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's red card on Saturday.

The Gabon international, who netted for the 14th time on Saturday, will miss the Gunners' next three top-flight fixtures having been dismissed following a VAR review for a late challenge on Crystal Palace midfielder Max Meyer.

Only Southampton's Danny Ings has been more pivotal to his team in 2019-20, but how reliant are the rest of the Premier League clubs on their top scorer?

We crunched the numbers after Arsenal's 1-1 draw with Palace to find out.

All stats are prior to the 1500 kick-offs on Saturday:

 

Southampton:  Danny Ings – 13 of 25 goals (52 per cent)

Arsenal: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 14 of 29 goals (48.2 per cent)

Norwich: Teemu Pukki – 9 of 22 goals  (40.9 per cent)

Manchester United: Marcus Rashford – 12 of 32 goals (37.5 per cent)

Leicester: Jamie Vardy – 17 of 46 goals (36.9 per cent)

Chelsea: Tammy Abraham – 12 of 36 goals (33.3 per cent) ; Everton: Dominic Calvert-Lewin – 8 of 24 goals  (33.3 per cent) ; Burnley: Chris Wood – 8 of 24 goals (33.3 per cent)

Tottenham: Harry Kane – 11 of 36 goals (30.5 per cent)

Crystal Palace: Jordan Ayew : 6 of 20 goals (30 per cent) ; Bournemouth:  Harry Wilson – 6 of 20 goals (30 per cent)

Brighton and Hove Albion: Neal Maupay – 7 of 25 goals (28 per cent)

Wolves: Raul Jimenez – 8 of 30 goals (26.6 per cent)

Newcastle United: Jonjo Shelvey – 5 of 20 goals (25 per cent)

West Ham: Sebastien Haller – 6 of 25 goals (24 per cent)

Watford: Gerard Deulofeu – 4 of 17 goals  (23. 5 per cent)

Liverpool: Sadio Mane - 11 of 49 goals (22.4 per cent)

Aston Villa: Jack Grealish – 6 of 27 goals (22.2 per cent)

Sheffield United: Lys Mousset – 5 of 24 goals (20.8 per cent)

Manchester City: Raheem Sterling – 11 of 56 goals (19.6 per cent)

One story is dominating the sporting agenda in Spain on Saturday: Xavi's potential return to Barcelona.

The Catalan giants have reportedly earmarked the club great to take over from the under-pressure Ernesto Valverde at the end of the season, and held informal discussions with him on Friday in Doha.

Xavi, 39, is currently coach at Al Sadd but would likely relish a return to Camp Nou, where he won eight LaLiga titles and four Champions League trophies during a glittering playing career.

A strong affinity with a club is not a guarantee of success, however, and we have taken a look at eight other examples of players returning to manage teams they starred for.

 

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping away in May 2018, only to return 10 months later.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job. He is now back in Serie A and thriving with the Old Lady's bitter rivals Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Like Lampard, Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern Munich, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try and save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for AC Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league finish in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

Tottenham and England are set for a spell without talisman Harry Kane following his injury.

The striker suffered a ruptured tendon of his left hamstring and will require surgery, meaning he is not expected back in Spurs training until April.

With Jose Mourinho's men off the pace in the Premier League while England prepare for Euro 2020, the news comes as a blow to both club and country.

Using Opta data, we take a look at just how Kane's absence impacts both Tottenham and England.

 

SHOT-SHY

It should come as no surprise that Spurs and England shoot less often when Kane is not playing, with the forward boasting the ability and willingness to score from just about anywhere.

But Kane is also a wonderful playmaker, often dropping deep to create space and pick passes for runners such as Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura, Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season, Kane has played 187 Premier League matches, in which Tottenham averaged 15.6 shots per game. In the 24 fixtures he has missed, that figure drops to 14.9 shots per game.

The difference is more marked with England. Since his international debut in March 2015, the Three Lions have attempted 15.1 shots per game with Kane in the side (45 matches) and 12.3 without (16 matches).

 

GOALS DRY UP – AT BOTH ENDS...

So it follows that with fewer shots come fewer goals. Spurs and England certainly feel Kane's absence when it comes to putting the ball in the net.

The London club have scored 359 times across his Premier League matches since 2014-15, an average of 1.9 per game. They net 1.3 per game without him.

England score a hugely impressive average of 2.3 goals per game – 103 in total – when the top scorer in Euro 2020 qualifying is involved. That drops to that same mark of 1.3 when he is missing.

Interestingly, though, England's defence is statistically meaner when Kane is absent, conceding 0.5 goals per game, down from 0.9.

Tottenham concede roughly one goal per game regardless of their front man's availability.

 

WINNING WOES

Tottenham were already struggling to finish in the top four in this season's Premier League with Kane in the side, so Mourinho really has his work cut out now.

Their top-flight win rate since 2014-15 falls from 57.2 per cent to a relatively ordinary 45.8 per cent when Kane is not involved.

They have lost seven of the 24 games he has not been involved in, while their points return drops from 1.9 per game to 1.6.

Although England may concede more often on average with Kane on the pitch, they are a much better side going forward when they can count on their captain, winning 64.4 per cent of matches with him compared to 50 per cent without.

Harry Kane is not expected to return to training until April in a huge blow to both Tottenham and England.

The Spurs striker suffered a ruptured tendon in his left hamstring in the Premier League defeat to Southampton this month, and the club confirmed on Thursday he would undergo surgery.

The latest estimate for Kane's lay-off should concern Tottenham fans, with the team sixth and six points off a Champions League place, while England manager Gareth Southgate will also be worried as Euro 2020 approaches.

So, will Spurs stick or twist in the transfer market? And does Southgate have an alternative to his talismanic captain?

SON TO THE FORE AT SPURS?

Jose Mourinho had insisted prior to this injury he had little interest in January business. While that must surely change with this news, Tottenham have rarely been willing to spend big in recent seasons.

Might their new head coach instead tinker with his existing options, then? Son Heung-min would appear the obvious candidate to take on Kane's striking role.

The winger started up front at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup on Sunday and deputised well for Kane for a stretch last season, prompting suggestions the South Korea star might play better without his most lethal attacking team-mate.

Lucas Moura, who also led the line in Kane's absence last season, and Dele Alli are options to join Son in attack, while Troy Parrott – 17 years old with just two senior appearances to his name – would hope to be handed a more prominent role.

 

PIPPING RIVALS TO PIATEK?

Spurs finally looked to have suitable cover for Kane in the form of Fernando Llorente last season, only for the veteran to depart for Napoli on a free at the end of the campaign.

Now, Tottenham are not the only English side searching for goals in the mid-season transfer window, with Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace all short in that department, but Mourinho's men should have the profile to blow those rivals out of the water.

One man linked with Spurs, Newcastle and Villa in recent days is Krzysztof Piatek, the Milan striker now at risk of slipping to the fringes of the Rossoneri first team following Zlatan Ibrahimovic's return to San Siro.

Piatek was one of Europe's form strikers last season and, while his goals tally is far more modest this term – he only has four in 18 appearances in Serie A – Tottenham may have little choice but to take a risk. Milan reportedly want £30million rather than a loan.

 

ENGLAND U-TURN FOR VARDY?

Kane was the leading scorer in Euros qualifying with 12 goals and had been set to star for England in a finals tournament that will feature seven matches, including the semi-finals and final, on home soil at Wembley.

But perhaps Southgate is better equipped than Mourinho to deal with the absence of his key striker, with four of the Premier League's top five marksmen this term eligible for England.

Leading the way with 17 goals is Jamie Vardy, who has not featured for his country since the 2018 World Cup, citing in part his reduced role behind Kane in the pecking order as he stepped away from international football.

Yet with Kane facing a race against time to be fit for the finals, Vardy might now find himself a prominent figure if he could be tempted back into the squad.

 

FIVE YEARS ON, ANOTHER INGS CAP?

England are not short of options, as the Golden Boot race suggests, with Tammy Abraham in top form and both Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling capable of playing through the middle.

But Danny Ings will surely see this as his opportunity to add to his sole Three Lions cap earned in 2015 – he replaced Kane from the bench on that occasion – before awful injury troubles at Liverpool.

The Southampton striker, who scored the only goal in the game Kane suffered his injury, is enjoying the best season of his top-flight career, scoring 13 times already.

Southgate surely must at least assess Ings as an option in the March internationals, while Callum Wilson will hope to return to form for Bournemouth in order to stake his own case. Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin may also be in with a chance.

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