Twelve days on from being barred from the Champions League for the next two seasons, Manchester City travel to face the most successful team in the history of the competition.

But, despite a UEFA punishment that will now be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and a domestic campaign being contested at a distance from runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool, there are reasons for City to be optimistic ahead of their last-16 showdown against Real Madrid.

Here, we look at some of the factors that could prove decisive in Wednesday's first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu – a match that might come to be viewed as season-defining for Pep Guardiola and his players.

 

Laporte the leader and lynchpin

All eyes will be looking for Raheem Sterling's name when the City teamsheet drops in the Spanish capital, with the England forward expected to win his race to recover from a hamstring strain suffered last month.

However, Guardiola has already confirmed an arguably even more influential performer will be available.

"Aymeric Laporte's injury broke the defensive organisation," a source close to the City boss told Stats Perform and this conclusion is hard to contest.

Guardiola was without his central defensive lynchpin for almost five months due to a meniscus injury suffered during the 4-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion at the end of August.

In the three games Laporte has started since his return, City have won each time and collected three clean sheets – the former Athletic Bilbao star bringing an air of assurance and authority a makeshift backline has largely lacked in his absence.

Since he signed in January 2018, City have conceded an average of 0.6 goals per game in the Premier League with Laporte in the team. This jumps to 1.1 without him, with their win percentage down from 86.3 per cent to 60.7.

Indeed, in 28 top-flight games not featuring the Frenchman during this period, City have conceded 31 times – one more than the 30 let in across 51 matches with Laporte on the pitch. 

"He just brings stability," former City captain and central defender Richard Dunne told Stats Perform.

"He reads the game well, he holds his position, he stays on his feet. He's a steady head in that defence. At times Nicolas Otamendi can get distracted and goes off out of position, John Stones can maybe dwell on the ball at times.

"For the whole team – for the midfielders in front and the goalkeeper behind – they can trust Laporte, they know what he's going to do and where he's going to be.

"Every defence needs a leader. Liverpool have one in Virgil van Dijk and City have missed it this season when Laporte's not been there."

 

Tactical flexibility

Laporte's lengthy spell on the sidelines also took a toll on City as an attacking force, with the build-up patterns so fundamental to Guardiola's style becoming a touch predictable and sluggish without the defender's astute range of passing from his immaculate left boot.

"A right-footer playing on the left tends to come back inside and the ball gets played down one side of the pitch the whole time," Dunne explained.

"A left-footer will play the ball down the line and City's game plan is to use the whole pitch. Laporte opens that up. He gives them more options in terms of playing out from the back."

Additional injury problems – such as the cruciate ligament damage sustained by Leroy Sane, who has not travelled to Madrid as he steps up work on the training field – have persuaded Guardiola to step away from the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 setup that blazed a trail to consecutive Premier League titles.

The experiments have largely been successful, with Kevin De Bruyne dazzling in a variety of roles amid frequent shape shifting.

Phil Foden made his first Premier League start of the season on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal in December, while the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final at Manchester United saw City play a hybrid 4-2-4 without a conventional striker. In each match, Guardiola's men were 3-0 up at half-time.

Elsewhere, using three at the back occasionally has served to limit the opposition, if also compromising City's attacking flow. Zinedine Zidane cannot be sure what configuration he will face, although seasoned Guardiola observers might think this is something in the Real Madrid boss' favour.

 

Madrid an antidote to Guardiola overthink?

If a wildcard selection backfires, City's manager will once again face the accusations of overthinking that have dogged his Champions League failures since collecting a second European title in three seasons at Barcelona in 2010-11.

This can be traced back to his Bayern Munich suffering a 4-0 hammering against Madrid in a 2014 semi-final, when all-out attack backfired. Last season, City were left to rue a safety-first approach in the first leg when a riotous return versus Tottenham ended in a 4-4 aggregate departure on away goals.

In between those blots there was the swiftly abandoned ploy of man marking Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi as Bayern raggedly chased a vintage Barca around Camp Nou, before Liverpool ran roughshod over a packed City midfield at Anfield in 2018.

It should be pointed out that decent chunks of luck have gone against Guardiola and his teams during this barren run, while his tactical tweaks have helped to yield numerous successes elsewhere. Nevertheless, a narrative is established.

Perhaps facing an opponent with whom he has enjoyed a career-long rivalry, while leading a club seemingly in the throes of a siege mentality, provides a handy opportunity to break it.

Before losing 1-0 with Bayern, Guardiola was unbeaten in seven games as a coach facing Madrid at the Bernabeu. In El Clasico, his record reads nine wins, four draws and two defeats, during a period where Madrid called upon the might of Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and others.

Zidane's current crop featured many of the heroes of Los Blancos' three consecutive Champions League final triumphs between 2016 and 2018, although they have one win in their past four matches across all competitions and face a potentially decisive LaLiga showdown versus Barcelona this weekend.

Then there is the tantalising ingredient of Guardiola's stance in support of a Catalan self-determination – another factor to fire the most vocal elements at the Bernabeu, those sworn enemies who will hope not to witness another of his greatest deeds.

Barcelona were held to a 1-1 draw away to Napoli on Tuesday, extending their unimpressive winless run in Champions League knockout matches in Italy to six.

Quique Setien's men fell behind late in the first half to Dries Mertens' gorgeous 25-yard strike, seeing the Belgian go level with Marek Hamsik as the club's all-time leading scorer on 121.

Barca did rescue a draw that at least sees them return home with an away goal, and therefore an advantage, with Antoine Griezmann equalising despite an otherwise anonymous outing.

Still, Barca - who had Arturo Vidal sent off towards the end - remain winless away to Italian opposition in the knockout phase of the Champions League since a 1-0 victory at Milan in April 2006, when Napoli's incumbent coach Gennaro Gattuso was in the Rossoneri midfield.

Following Tuesday's stalemate, we look back at the other results in this run...

Inter 3-1 Barcelona, 2009-10 (semi-final first leg)

The good old days, when Jose Mourinho v Pep Guardiola was about as gripping as it got. Although the tie was billed as being pragmatism v flamboyance, it was the typically disciplined Inter who thrilled in a 3-1 first-leg win in San Siro. Pedro opened the scoring, but the hosts ultimately romped to victory through Wesley Sneijder, Maicon and Diego Milito. The Italians succumbed 1-0 in Barcelona after the dubious sending off of Thiago Motta, but they clung on to spark comically passionate celebrations from Mourinho and Inter went on to lift the trophy.

Milan 0-0 Barcelona, 2011-12 (quarter-final first leg)

Barca certainly couldn't be accused of failing to dominate in San Siro in 2012, as they controlled much of the game in Italy, but Messi and company failed to find a way through. Luca Antonini was crucial to that, making a brilliant last-ditch block late on to ensure Milan went to Camp Nou with a fighting chance. As it was, Barca had too much for them in the second leg, Messi scoring two penalties as they claimed a 3-1 win.

Milan 2-0 Barcelona, 2012-13 (last-16 first leg)

A major shock saw Barca seemingly staring at an early exit in 2012-13, with Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng scoring in a 2-0 win in San Siro. The Rossoneri had been forced to defend desperately at times, before stealing two goals in the second period. Thankfully for Barca it didn't prove costly, as they crushed Milan 4-0 in the return leg, with Messi's brace added to by David Villa and Jordi Alba. It made Barca the first team to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit without scoring an away goal.

Juventus 3-0 Barcelona, 2016-17 (quarter-final first leg)

Massimiliano Allegri's Juve became 'nearly men' in the Champions League, but there was also no doubting their class, as the 3-0 win over Barca in April 2017 showed. It was a commanding display in Turin, with two-goal Paulo Dybala turning on the style. Giorgio Chiellini rounded off the win that rarely looked like being overturned in Barcelona despite drawing inspiration from their comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round. Juve held out for a 0-0 draw.

Roma 3-0 Barcelona, 2017-18 (quarter-final second leg)

Barca have been involved in some monumental Champions League comebacks and turnarounds in recent years – on this occasion they were the victims. After winning 4-1 at Camp Nou, needing some luck to do so as they produced an unimpressive display, Barca looked destined for the semi-finals, but in Rome they were completely outmanoeuvred by an energetic Roma. Goals from Edin Dzeko and Daniele De Rossi left Barca twitching ahead of the latter stages and Kostas Manolas' header eight minutes from time secured a famous result, dumping Barca out of the competition.

Quique Setien has long been regarded as a strong judge of potential in young players – they said it was one of the reasons Barcelona hired him in January despite leaving Real Betis last year having arguably fallen short of expectations.

Ironically enough, Setien's keen eye and faith in academy products could end up costing Barca upwards of €60million, as the reimagining of their midfield looks set to continue.

Why? Because in 2017, just after becoming Betis coach, Setien stepped in and insisted the club not sell Fabian Ruiz to Barca's B team for €1m. A paltry sum in current terms, but at the time the midfielder had only featured a few times for the Verdiblanco's senior side and just spent time on loan at Elche.

"I refused as we wanted him at Betis. I saw Fabian's potential and we decided to keep him," Setien told Marca last year. His faith was well-placed – Fabian made 34 LaLiga appearances in 2017-18 and was one of the league's standout midfielders, earning a move to Napoli that reportedly cost €30m.

An impressive first season in Serie A vindicated the fee and marked him out as one of Europe's most promising midfielders, leading once again to rumours of interest from Barcelona, and Real Madrid too, with both apparently seeing him as a candidate to replace ageing midfield options.

Struggling to adapt to change, or lack of motivation?

It's not all been plain sailing, however. This season has proven a challenging one for Fabian, who had a quiet start to the campaign before seeing his form drop off dramatically.

When Gennaro Gattuso replaced Carlo Ancelotti, he retained faith in Fabian despite his issues, though his form didn't improve particularly with the alteration from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3.

Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport blasted Fabian just last month, suggesting there was a link between his form and the apparent interest of Barca, before saying his "slowness is embarrassing, almost penalising for Napoli's actions".

But there's a feeling in Italy that Napoli's signing of midfield competition in Diego Demme and Stanislav Lobotka have coaxed a positive reaction from the Spaniard.

With two goals in his past three matches, including excellent performances against Inter and Brescia, Fabian seems to have settled again – and just in time.

The audition

Given Fabian's wide-ranging skillset, he has been mentioned as a potential long-term replacement for more than one Barca midfielder.

Chiefly, it has been suggested he might be the ideal man to push out the increasingly unpopular – among Barca fans, anyway – Ivan Rakitic, as Fabian boasts ability on the ball, incisive passing skills and is a capable striker of the ball. 

While he may lack some of the industriousness of the Croatian, there's little doubt he would present a more refined technician in the final third.

However, with Frenkie de Jong already at the club, others feel Fabian could be moulded into a long-term successor to Sergio Busquets, owing to their similar physical attributes and the Betis product's excellent distribution.

According to Fabian, much of his game has been modelled on former Barca pass-master Xavi, having previously idolised Betis icon Capi – a more attack-minded midfielder – as a youngster, and such influences are clear to see.

Regardless of Setien's presence – as it's by no means inconceivable to think he won't be at the club next season – it's obvious this tie represents a real opportunity for Fabian to shine against the players he could potentially be brought in to replace.

How does he compare to Barca's current options?

Currently, there is no one in the Barca midfield creating goal-scoring chances at the same rate as Fabian, who has laid on 121 opportunities since the start of last season across all competitions - Rakitic (41), Busquets (50), Arthur (41) and Arturo Vidal (47) are all way behind.

Despite questions about his form, the Spaniard has played 38 key passes in 30 matches in 2019-20. De Jong is proving the most effective in that regard for Barca, but his 24 chances created in 33 outings on all fronts is also still some way behind Fabian.

Fabian's record of 527 passes into the final third over the past 18 months compares pretty favourably against Rakitic (598), Arthur (374), Vidal (273) and Busquets (717).

Fabian's average overall pass completion percentage at Napoli stands at 89 per cent, and while that is less than those posted by Busquets (91) and Arthur (93), it's by no means a dramatic drop-off and is the same as Rakitic's record. It suggests Fabian would have no issue acclimatising to Barca's style of play, regardless of whether or not Setien is still at Camp Nou.

But proving those previous struggles merely came down to a blip in a generally tumultuous season at Napoli and building on his recent revival with eye-catching performances against Barca, in a Champions League tie no less, would suggest he has the mentality as well as the ability to play for the Spanish champions.

Lionel Messi will hope to better a barren record on Italian soil when Barcelona visit Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

Quique Setien's first match in charge in the competition will see him tasked with improving Barca's fortunes on their travels in Europe, although Napoli have an enviable goalscoring record in front of their own fans.

Bayern Munich head to Chelsea in a repeat of the 2012 final that they lost on home soil, and goals certainly appear likely given the previous meetings between the pair.

However, the Bundesliga champions will need Robert Lewandowski to find his shooting boots given the striker has struggled in recent seasons when going beyond the group stages.

Here is the pick of the Opta facts ahead of two tantalising first legs...

Chelsea v Bayern Munich

17 - The four previous matches in all competitions between Chelsea and Bayern Munich have produced 17 goals, an average of 4.25 per game.

18 - Bayern won maximum points (18/18) and had a goal difference of +19 in the Champions League group stages this season, the best performance by a team in the group phase of the competition. However, none of the previous six teams to have won all their group games have subsequently lifted the trophy that same season.

1 - Chelsea have won only one of their past six Champions League games at Stamford Bridge (D4 L1), a 2-1 victory against Lille last December.

5 - Chelsea and Bayern scored the joint-most goals from set-pieces in this season's Champions League group stages (5), including three each from corners.

597 - Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski has scored 10 goals in this season's Champions League, only the second time he has reached double figures in the tournament after 2012-13 with Borussia Dortmund. However, he has failed to find the net in his past 597 minutes in the knockout stages of the tournament, his longest drought.

Napoli v Barcelona

2 - Napoli were eliminated in their two previous European Cup/Champions League two-legged ties with Spanish opposition, both times against Real Madrid: 3-1 on aggregate in 1987-88 (first round) and 6-2 in 2016-17 (round of 16).

0 - Barcelona's last away win against Italian opposition in the Champions League knockout stages came in April 2006, when they beat Milan 1-0, courtesy of a Ludovic Giuly goal; current Napoli boss Gennaro Gattuso played in that game for Milan. Since then, Barcelona have failed to win any of their five such away trips to Italy (D1 L4) and have failed to score in the past four.

20 - Napoli have only failed to score once in 20 Champions League games at the San Paolo, a goalless draw against Dynamo Kiev in November 2016. They are also unbeaten in their past seven home games in the competition (W5 D2).

1 - Barca have won only one of their past eight away games in the Champions League knockout phase (D2 L5), a 1-0 victory against Manchester United in April 2019. In those eight games, they have scored only two goals and conceded 17.

10 - Lionel Messi's total of two goals in five games in this season's Champions League group phase was his lowest for 10 years (since two goals in 2009-10). His only goal on Italian soil in the Champions League knockout stages was in the 2009 final against Manchester United at Rome's Stadio Olimpico – he has failed to find the net (or deliver an assist) in each of his subsequent five appearances.

After Gabriel Jesus saw a penalty saved in a 1-0 win at Sheffield United in January, Pep Guardiola identified goalkeeper Ederson as Manchester City's best spot-kick option.

"Ederson is the best. Believe me, Eddie is the best taker we have on the penalties," said the City boss last month.

"He has no blood in his brains, he's so calm, so he could do it."

With Sergio Aguero seeing an effort from 12 yards stopped by Kasper Schmeichel in City's 1-0 victory at Leicester City on Saturday, Guardiola may now have to consider passing the duties to his keeper.

City have failed with four of their seven penalties in the Premier League this season, and here we reflect on their struggles in 2019-20.

August 10, 2019: Sergio Aguero v West Ham - SCORED

There were signs of what was to come for City from the spot this season even in an opening-day 5-0 win. Aguero netted City's fourth from 12 yards, but only after referee Mike Dean had ordered a retake for encroachment, Lukasz Fabianski having saved his tame initial effort.

September 21, 2019: Sergio Aguero v Watford - SCORED

Aguero needed no second invitation in City's 8-0 thrashing of Watford, scoring the second goal with a confident low penalty struck straight down the middle after team-mate Riyad Mahrez had been fouled by visiting goalkeeper Ben Foster.

December 21, 2019: Ilkay Gundogan v Leicester City - SCORED

Schmeichel was unfortunate not to deny Gundogan in the reverse fixture at the Etihad Stadium, the Germany international just beating his outstretched arm to find the bottom-right corner and put the reigning league champions 2-1 up in an eventual 3-1 win prior to Christmas.

December 27, 2019: Raheem Sterling v Wolves - MISSED

The start of City's dreadful recent run of missed penalties began in a thrilling 3-2 defeat at Molineux. Sterling was given a second chance after Rui Patricio kept out his first attempt, with a retake ordered. The Portugal keeper denied him again, only for Sterling to tuck away the rebound.

January 21, 2020: Gabriel Jesus v Sheffield United - MISSED

The failure that sparked Guardiola's Ederson remarks saw Brazil international Jesus thwarted, Dean Henderson – on loan at the Blades from Manchester United, of course – moved to his right to palm clear with a diving, two-handed save.

February 2, 2020: Ilkay Gundogan v Tottenham - MISSED

Gundogan went for the same formula that saw him score against Leicester, but Hugo Lloris went low to his left to deny him in the first half, with claims for another penalty after the France international felled Sterling in pursuit of the rebound rejected following a VAR review.

February 22, 2020 Sergio Aguero v Leicester City - MISSED

Aguero placed the ball on the spot at the King Power Stadium after Dennis Praet was adjudged to have handled in the area. However, Schmeichel got the better of the Argentina striker, marking his fourth Premier League penalty save, one more than famous father Peter recorded while playing in the same competition.

Cristiano Ronaldo brought up 1,000 career appearances in Juventus' trip to SPAL in Serie A on Saturday.

A hero for Portugal, Sporting CP, Manchester United and Real Madrid across a decorated career, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner has racked up a succession of impressive landmarks.

And there have been plenty of moments of magic that live long in the memory along the way.

Here, we take a look back at 10 of Ronaldo's very best goals.

 

Manchester United v Portsmouth: January 30, 2008

Perhaps the finest free-kick Ronaldo has struck in his career.

The Portuguese developed his reputation as a set-piece master at United and he lashed a phenomenal 25-yard effort past David James as part of a double to send Alex Ferguson's side to the top of the Premier League.

His knuckleball technique sent the ball swirling into the top-right corner for one of his defining Old Trafford moments.

 

Porto v Manchester United: April 15, 2009

He had absolutely no right to score this one.

Back in his homeland for a Champions League quarter-final against Porto, Ronaldo picked up the ball in the middle of the opposition half, got it out of his feet and sent a searing strike flying past Helton to seal a 1-0 win at the Estadio do Dragao and a 3-2 aggregate triumph.

 

Almeria v Real Madrid: April 15, 2010

Ronaldo has developed into more of a penalty-box poacher in recent seasons, but this effort against Almeria was a reminder of how devastating he could be when starting from outside the area.

Rafael van der Vaart won back possession in the Almeria half and the ball was worked to Ronaldo, who accelerated past two challenges, left a third defender for dead with a stepover, and drilled home with his left foot. The visitors would go on to win 2-1.

 

Sevilla v Real Madrid: December 17, 2011

Sevilla have grown sick of the sight of Ronaldo – he has scored 27 times against them, after all – but this strike in a 6-2 thrashing is perhaps the best of them all.

Collecting Karim Benzema's pass 30 yards out, Ronaldo took advantage of the time and space given to him by the defence to blast a shot into the top-right corner, the swerve on the ball making it totally unstoppable. It was one of three he scored that day at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

 

Real Madrid v Valencia: May 4, 2014

It was not enough to keep Madrid's title chase alive, but this was another goal that showcased Ronaldo's killer instinct and dexterity.

In second-half injury time, with Valencia 2-1 ahead, Angel Di Maria volleyed over a cross from the left and Ronaldo swivelled to score a backheel volley and snatch a point.

 

Real Madrid v Espanyol: January 31, 2016

Although his game had become more refined from those buccaneering early days, Ronaldo showed here he was not quite done when it came to solo runs and spectacular finishes.

With Madrid already 3-0 up in what would prove to be a 6-0 thrashing, James Rodriguez's pass was deflected into Ronaldo's path and he did the rest, showing brilliant footwork to skip beyond three challenges before rifling home from the edge of the area with his left foot.

 

Hungary v Portugal: June 22, 2016

Portugal fell behind to Hungary three times in Lyon during Euro 2016, and Ronaldo brought them level on the second occasion with a display of fine skill.

The captain added a deft flick with his trailing leg to Joao Mario's right-wing cross to make it 2-2, and he cancelled out Balazs Dzsudzsak's second with a double of his own. It was enough to send Portugal into the knockout stages and from there they went on to claim a maiden international title.

 

Juventus v Real Madrid: April 3, 2018

Arguably the best goal Ronaldo has produced.

Moving away from goal as Dani Carvajal dug a cross towards the penalty spot from the right, he rose into the air to connect with a marvellous overhead kick. His leg was at a right angle to his body as he struck with the sweetest of volleys that flew past Gianluigi Buffon.

 

Portugal v Spain: June 15, 2018

Having twice given his side the lead, Ronaldo found Portugal 3-2 down to their Iberian neighbours in their thrilling opener at the 2018 World Cup.

The was a sense of inevitability when he stood over an 88th minute free-kick, but the execution was sheer perfection – power and dip combined to leave David de Gea with no chance.

 

Juventus v Manchester United: November 8, 2018

Another decorated Portuguese was celebrating at full-time when Jose Mourinho watched his Manchester United team complete a 2-1 comeback win.

But Ronaldo struck first with a sumptuous and technically brilliant strike, watching Leonardo Bonucci's raking ball over his shoulder to volley home.  

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to make his 1,000th appearance for club and country when Juventus face SPAL in Serie A on Saturday.

The Portugal superstar was named in Maurizio Sarri's starting XI after being rested for the 2-0 win over Brescia last weekend.

Providing the 35-year-old comes through the warm-up unscathed, he will bring up his incredible landmark and seek to add to his tally of 724 goals. 

It will be the five-time Ballon d'Or winner's 73rd outing for Juve, with the bulk of his matches having come for Real Madrid (438).

Manchester United sit second on that list (292), with 31 of his games coming for Sporting CP, a further two for Sporting B and 164 for his country. 

Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury will renew acquaintances for a much-anticipated heavyweight title rematch in Las Vegas on Saturday. 

The in-ring reunion between the pair has been near the top of boxing fans' wish lists ever since Fury incredibly climbed off the canvas in the 12th round of their drawn first meeting 14 months ago.

Wilder's WBC heavyweight title will again be on the line, with the champion set to compete on a grander stage than he did in Los Angeles and against a significantly fitter opponent.

It all makes for a tantalising prospect and, if this weekend's bout delivers the same drama as the first, it will surely go down as one of the great heavyweight rematches.

FURY OUT TO COMPLETE REDEMPTION

Fury has spoken openly about his battle with drugs and depression and his return to the kind of level he displayed in the first fight with Wilder is one of modern-day sport's most remarkable redemption stories.

However, the one thing his journey from losing the belts he won in a shock victory over Wladimir Klitschko to his return to the big stage lacks is a storybook ending. 

He has the chance to deliver that in Las Vegas. If he is indeed "match fit" as he has repeatedly claimed, Fury can afford to have great hope of seizing that opportunity.


CAN WILDER FINISH THE JOB?

As with Fury, the December 2018 stalemate is the only blemish on Wilder's record.

The Bronze Bomber could hardly have done more to secure the victory, but he goes into this fight facing questions over whether he can put Fury down for good this time around.

Wilder has said he will target a cut around the eye Fury suffered in his last fight. His success in opening up that old wound could prove key to settling things in his favour.


THE CHALLENGER'S GAMBLES

In the gambling capital of the world, Fury has signalled his intent to put everything on the line to win the WBC strap.

The Briton has spoken frequently about his desire to knock Wilder out. A more aggressive strategy would carry an inherent risk and potentially give Wilder more chances to unleash fearsome flurries of his own.

Wilder is not infallible and looked close to being stopped in the first of his two victories over Luis Ortiz. However, Fury's apparent change in strategy seems counter-productive given how he controlled the first fight.

A late change in trainer from Ben Davison to Sugarhill Steward also served to raise eyebrows and questions will be asked of that move and the change in approach should the challenger fall short.


WHAT NEXT FOR THE WINNER?

Regardless of who wins the sequel, there are already reports of an agreement being in place for the pair to complete a trilogy of fights. 

Yet, if there is a victor this time around, the spectre of Anthony Joshua, who holds every other world title belt in the division, will loom large for the champion.

Joshua appears to have a laundry list of opponents to keep him busy in the meantime. Yet eventually Fury and Wilder will have to end their spell as dance partners and the focus will turn a unification bout with Joshua that would mark the most significant heavyweight fight in decades.

Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder fought out a thriller in Los Angeles 14 months ago and the second instalment of a planned trilogy will be battled out in Las Vegas on Saturday night.

The WBC heavyweight belt goes on the line at the MGM Grand, which long ago jumped ahead of Caesars Palace as the hottest spot to see elite fighters pull on the gloves in America's gambling capital.

Within the vast urban sprawl of the hotel and casino's grounds sits the Garden Arena, where legends have been made and demolished.

Neither Fury nor Wilder is a stranger to the MGM Grand boxing ring, but neither man has had a career-defining fight there yet.

Fury versus Wilder II could be a classic. Their stunning draw in LA leaves all to fight for.

Here is a look at five of the most dramatic and memorable blockbuster showdowns in the 26-year history of the big-fight coliseum.

5. George Foreman beat Michael Moorer, KO, November 1994

Before he became a grill pan hype man, Foreman was frying rivals in the ring.

The veteran rolled back the years on one of the MGM Grand's first big bills, after fighting for permission to even step into the ring. With the 45-year-old having not had a bout in almost 18 months, the WBA initially refused to sanction the contest, but Foreman went through the courts to get the go-ahead, and it was worth the effort.

The man who lost to Muhammad Ali in 1974's Rumble In The Jungle caused a seismic stir in Sin City with this 10th-round knockout victory, landing the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles as he became the division's oldest-ever champion. He had been outboxed for much of the fight, but Foreman found his punching power when it mattered.

4. Juan Manuel Marquez beat Manny Pacquiao, KO, December 2012

This was the final stanza in a Vegas quadrilogy for Marquez and Pacquiao, with a draw and two Pacquiao points victories in their previous clashes setting up another slice of MGM Grand history.

Amusingly, their second fight had been dubbed 'Unfinished Business', so the promoters needed to ramp up the anticipation for this one, pre-emptively titling it 'Fight of the Decade'.

It went a long way towards living up to that billing, earning Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year gong after Mexican Marquez turned the tables on his Filipino rival, driving a brutal right hand into Pacquiao's jaw in the dying seconds of the sixth round.

The fight-defining shot from the 39-year-old capped a sensational contest in which both men had been in trouble, and down went Pacquiao with a thud to the canvas.

Promoter Bob Arum suggested they go at it again in a fifth fight, but that never materialised. Marquez retired as a five-time world champion, his titles coming across four weights.

This was not a title fight, but the punch that collapsed Pacquiao forms a huge part of the Marquez legacy.

3. Floyd Mayweather beat Oscar De La Hoya, split points decision, May 2007

Anticipation for this light middleweight barnstormer reached fever pitch in the United States, where almost 2.5million households signed up for $55-a-throw pay-per-view television coverage, a record number.

Broadcaster HBO produced a four-episode mini-series building up to fight night, and there was also the saga of which corner Mayweather's father, Floyd Mayweather Sr, would be in, given their estrangement and his availability as a top-level trainer.

The answer was ostensibly neither corner in the end. Mayweather Sr reportedly priced himself out of a role with De La Hoya, and Mayweather was primed for the showdown by his uncle, Roger Mayweather.

The hype machine was pumping out hyperbole by the time the fight began, and the fact it turned out to provide huge entertainment was testament to the focus of both fighters.

Mayweather was given 116-112 and 115-113 verdicts, with De La Hoya 115-113 on the other, and the winner's verdict that it was "easy work for me" flew in the face of abundant evidence.

Floyd Mayweather Sr, showing not a jot of family loyalty, surmised that De La Hoya would have deserved the win.

2. Frankie Randall beat Julio Cesar Chavez, split points decision, January 1994

It was opening night at the Garden Arena, six weeks after doors to the MGM Grand hotel swung open for the first time.

The WBC super lightweight belt was on the line, Don King was the promoter pulling the strings, and for its outrageous shock factor, Randall's victory over Chavez that night ranks as one of the venue's greatest triumphs.

Chavez had been described months earlier by Sports Illustrated as "the world's greatest fighter", and he headed into this bout with 89 wins and one draw from 90 professional encounters.

Randall dominated the early stages but was pegged back by Chavez, only for low blows from the Mexican to result in two points being deducted by referee Richard Steele - the telling factor.

Chavez would have won a split points decision, rather than lost that way as he did, had he not been penalised, and later said he was "very upset" with Steele.

A bizarre rematch went Chavez's way. In a highly unusual outcome, an eight-round split decision favoured Chavez when an accidental headbutt from champion Randall left the challenger unable to continue.

1. Evander Holyfield beat Mike Tyson, TKO, November 1996; Holyfield beats Tyson, by disqualification, June 1997

Tyson effectively set up camp at the MGM Grand in the second half of the 1990s, having spent a large chunk of the first half behind bars after a rape conviction. He and promoter King landed a mega-money six-fight deal with the venue, after Tyson's comeback began there with a first-round win, by disqualification, over Peter McNeeley in August 1995.

A March 1996 dust-up with Britain's Frank Bruno was a major money-spinner, but nothing touched the prospect of a long-awaited collision with Evander Holyfield for commercial potential.

Holyfield and Tyson had been due to clash at Caesars Palace in November 1991, but a rib injury suffered by Tyson, followed by his incarceration, put paid to that.

Their 1996 showdown was billed as 'Finally', and the first fight – though now often overlooked because of what followed – was a monumental contest in heavyweight history, Tyson succumbing to just the second defeat of his professional career.

It featured thudding head collisions and the sight of Tyson being outboxed by the underdog until enough was enough for referee Mitch Halpern, who stepped in to stop the fight in the 11th round.

Halpern was kept busy that night but was prevented from officiating the rematch seven months later after a complaint from the Tyson camp, with Mills Lane stepping in at late notice.

It was to prove extraordinary, as Tyson bit both of Holyfield's ears during clinches in round three, spitting out a chunk of cartilage onto the canvas at one stage before outrageously claiming a punch had caused the injury.

Lane said it was a "b******t" explanation and disqualified Tyson, who was banned indefinitely. After a year, 'Iron Mike' had his licence back, but his glory days were over, those bites now more famous than any punch he ever threw.

What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. Instead, it is beamed around the world, with Fury and Wilder next under the spotlight.

The world of boxing will come to a standstill this weekend when Deontay Wilder faces Tyson Fury in an eagerly anticipated rematch at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

It has been 14 months since two of boxing's most eccentric characters fought to a contentious draw for Wilder's WBC heavyweight world title.

Predictions have been rolling in from pundits, fans and fellow boxers alike prior to Saturday's blockbuster clash.

Here we take a look at how the biggest names in the sport see the bout panning out.

 

Former heavyweight champion George Foreman – I pick Tyson Fury on points

"It's going to be good for boxing. I love it. I pick Tyson Fury to win on points," he told bookies.com "Millions will watch it, and it'll probably be a controversial decision. That Deontay Wilder can punch. Oh, he can hit, and he can hit hard. I think they're going to tear the wall down there because that rematch will be seen by a lot of people."

Anthony Joshua, the IBF, WBA and WBO world champion – Tyson Fury has more to his arsenal

"He [Fury] has more to his arsenal so that's why I'm leaning to him. Fury can punch a bit," 'AJ' said to Sky Sports. "He's underestimated with his punching power which makes him dangerous. If you underestimate someone it makes them dangerous because you don't respect them until you get hit."

Wladimir Klitschko – I wish, believe it or not, Fury might make it

"Either Wilder is going to knock out Fury or Fury is going to win on points," Klitschko, dethroned as heavyweight champion by Fury in 2015, told The National. "Personally, I respect Wilder a lot – he was in my training camp, we spent rounds in the ring. As many knockouts as he has, you’ve probably no one else, in current times, any heavyweights, including me. I think, or I wish, that actually Fury, believe it or not, might make it."

Ex-world champion 'Iron' Mike Tyson – I'm rooting for Tyson Fury 

"I always root for him because he was named after me. That’s the natural thing to do, right? I'm biased towards him," the ex-heavyweight champ told BT Sport. "I don't care how hard you punch, it's hard to beat somebody who doesn't wanna quit."

Heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz – Deontay Wilder by knockout

"Tyson Fury and Wilder are two different fighters, but I don't think Wilder will respect him in the rematch, and I see the outcome by a knockout victory," Ortiz said after being floored by Wilder in their own rematch in November.

Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield – At any one time Deontay Wilder can get you with one shot

"Now it's which guy is going to fight his fight like this. I think at any given time, Deontay can get you out with one shot," Holyfield told Fight Hub TV. "Tyson Fury, it's going to take him a lot of shots to get you out. He ain't gonna get you out with one. It's gonna take a lot of shots to get you out. So I think it’s going to be a little bit more difficult for him."

Three-time world champion Lennox Lewis – Right now, Deontay's looking good

"I think it's gonna be an unbelievable fight, the boxer against the puncher," Lewis told Boxing Social. No predictions. I would have to say, right now, Deontay's looking good."

Shelley Finkel, Wilder's manager – This time they will do the count correctly

"This time the count will be done correctly and you will see Deontay’s hand raised and they will announce he is still heavyweight champion, by knockout," Finkel said in quotes reported by Max Boxing.

Frank Warren, Fury's promoter – Tyson will have all the answers

"At the end of the day, Tyson got up twice from those knockdowns [in the first fight]," Warren told talkSPORT. "So he showed what he was made of and I just feel Tyson is a complete boxer. He can box, he can punch, he can be southpaw, he can be orthodox and he's a very smart guy. And I think he will have all the answers for him this time."

Fourteen months have passed since Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder's arms were raised in unison in the middle of the ring at the Staples Center.

Both men left Los Angeles that night convinced they deserved to be taking home the WBC heavyweight belt, but a draw ensured it was the unbeaten Wilder who held onto the strap.

The stunning nature of a bout which featured two knockdowns and Fury's incredible final-round second wind after hitting the canvas meant a rematch was always likely.

Here, we talk a look at what Wilder and Fury have been up to since they first fought on December 1, 2018.

 

FEBRUARY 2019 - FURY SIGNS WITH ESPN & TOP RANK

Fury's reputation Stateside was certainly enhanced by his display against Wilder and that led to him signing a five-fight deal with United States network ESPN and promoters Top Rank.

It was feared such an arrangement would scupper a rematch with Wilder and a potential all-British bout against Anthony Joshua due to their conflicting television deals.

Yet Fury told the BBC at the time: "If I didn't want to fight Wilder then I wouldn't have taken it the first time. The fight is more makeable now because of this deal."

MAY 2019 - WILDER KNOCKS OUT BREAZEALE

The first of the pair to return to the ring was Wilder, not that he spent long there as he stunned WBC mandatory challenger Dominic Breazeale by knocking him out in the first round in New York.

There were still 43 seconds to go in that round when Wilder delivered a devastating example of his brutal power, flooring Breazeale with a big right hand.

Speaking in the ring after his 41st professional win, Wilder said of Fury: "That fight will happen, the rematch will happen."

JUNE 2019 - FURY STOPS SCHWARZ

Four weeks after Wilder wowed in Brooklyn, Fury pulled out all the stops in Las Vegas.

James Brown's 'Living in America' was the Briton's choice of music and he channelled Rocky character Apollo Creed in making his ring walk wearing a rope and top hat adorned with stars and stripes.

The previously unbeaten Tom Schwarz proved no match for Fury once the action began as he was stopped in the second round.

SEPTEMBER 2019 - TYSON OVERCOMES OTTO

Fury was the heavy favourite for his next fight against Swede Otto Wallin but a deep cut sustained in the third round meant it was far from a straightforward Las Vegas night.

He was awarded the victory courtesy of a unanimous points decision - the 29th win of a 30-fight career.

There were fears that the cuts sustained by Fury, whose attire of choice was a Mexican cape and a sombrero in celebration of Mexican Independence Day weekend, could delay the anticipated rematch with Wilder...

OCTOBER 2019 - FURY WRESTLES STROWMAN

It turned out those cuts did not prevent Fury from returning to the ring a month later, though the gloves were off when he did.

In what was perhaps another bid to increase his popularity in the States, Fury briefly joined the WWE and fought Braun Strowman at the Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia.

Fury won - by virtue of a knockout punch, of course - but it proved to be a short-lived career in scripted fights.

NOVEMBER 2019 - DEONTAY DOWNS ORTIZ

Wilder was encountering his own difficulties when Luis Ortiz outboxed him across the opening six rounds of their heavyweight title fight.

But, as has often been the case in Wilder's career, his awesome power proved the difference-maker, Ortiz sent to the canvas in the seventh.

It was Wilder's 10th straight title defence, drawing him level with the great Muhammad Ali.

DECEMBER 2019 - FURY CHANGES TRAINER

Three months after his family criticised Ben Davison for his role in the Wallin fight, Fury split with the man who had overseen his incredible comeback.

Davison was in his corner for the first fight against Wilder but Fury has elected to work alongside SugarHill Steward ahead of the rematch.

It is fair to say Barcelona's signing of Martin Braithwaite has raised a few eyebrows.

After being granted special dispensation to complete a deal for the Leganes forward outside of the transfer window, Barca announced the arrival of Braithwaite on Thursday.

Braithwaite moves to Camp Nou with a modest return of 10 goals in 43 LaLiga appearances and having had uninspiring spells at Middlesbrough and Bordeaux prior to moving to Spain.

Yet, this is hardly the first time a Barcelona signing has seemed puzzling to those on the outside.

Here, we take a look at some of the strangest, not necessarily the worst, signings Barca have made in recent history.

ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC

This feels like the caveat of surprising not worst needs re-emphasising. Ibrahimovic's standing as a world-class talent is not in question. But it was a signing that seemed out of place with Barca's style of play under Pep Guardiola, and a deal made even more perplexing by the club's decision to sanction Inter's signing of Samuel Eto'o, who was part of a devastating triumvirate with Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry. While Eto'o went on to win the treble under Jose Mourinho in 2009-10, Ibrahimovic – while still managing a solid return of 16 goals in 29 LaLiga outings – never really fit the mould at Camp Nou and reports of discord with Guardiola were always bubbling under the surface. He was shipped out to Milan a year later with a LaLiga and Club World Cup medal to show for his efforts.

ALEX SONG

Cameroon midfielder Song made over 200 appearances for Arsenal but not many truly thought he was a player with the calibre to shine at Barcelona. With Barca's midfield boasting the talents of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Thiago Alcantara, Javier Mascherano, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets when he joined in 2012 it was hard to see where Song fit in. And so it proved, with Song twice being sent out on loan to West Ham before a permanent move to Rubin Kazan was agreed in July 2016.

JEREMY MATHIEU

David Luiz, Marquinhos and Mats Hummels were all tipped as potential additions for a Barca side seeking a central defender in July 2014. For one reason or another none made the move and so Barca paid the €20million release clause to Valencia to make Mathieu the most expensive defender over the age of 30. Having only really played one full season as a centre-back it was not a deal that exactly screamed value. But, to his credit, Mathieu proved a useful squad player and he left Camp Nou with two LaLiga medals, three Copas del Rey and a Champions League win to his name.

PAULINHO

This one definitely falls under the category of surprising rather than worst. Paulinho was widely regarded as a £17million flop during a two-season stay with Tottenham so not many could have foreseen Barcelona forking out a reported €40million fee to sign the Brazil midfielder from Guangzhou Evergrande. But Paulinho was a solid squad man at Barca and his one-season stay – he would re-join Guangzhou in July 2018 – saw him make 34 league appearances, as well as returning a LaLiga and Copa del Rey double.

ARTURO VIDAL

Much like Ibrahimovic, it was not a question of Vidal's talent or achievements, more if he could fit the stereotype of a Barca player. The Chile midfielder, who has won top-flight titles in Italy and Germany with Juventus and Bayern Munich, has proven a useful player for Barca, helping the club to LaLiga glory last term, but has made just six league starts this term. The 32-year-old was the subject of reported interest from Inter in January.

KEVIN-PRINCE BOATENG

A player certainly not devoid of talent but Boateng is the sort of player who in years to come many will say out loud "I didn't know he'd played for them!" A nomadic career has seen him take in spells with the likes of Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund, Milan and Schalke but few would have imagined Barca would come calling in January 2019. However, with Ernesto Valverde on the lookout for back-up to Luis Suarez and Boateng having had experience of playing as a centre-forward in LaLiga with Las Palmas, a loan deal with Sassuolo was agreed. He made just four appearances and is now enjoying a temporary spell at Besiktas from Fiorentina.

JEISON MURILLO

Much like Boateng, Murillo arrived on a short-term loan in the 2019 January window as a short-term option. With injuries to Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen leaving Barca short at centre-back it was not particularly a surprise to see them enter the market, more that they moved for Murillo who had made just one LaLiga appearance for Valencia since joining on a full-time deal from Inter. Opportunities, as you may expect, proved scarce and Murillo played just four times for Barca.

The Financial Fair Play rain clouds that have been lingering for so long over Manchester City finally burst on Friday.

And yet, through the uncertain, murky gloom – which was not completely at odds with the Manchester weather earlier on this cold February day – there shined a familiar ray of hope.

Just as the rain subsided physically, so too can the storm pass – at least for this season – if Wednesday's evidence in City's 2-0 beating of West Ham is anything to go by. 

The full repercussions of the bombshell of a two-season ban from European competition and a €30million fine administered by UEFA for what the organisation's Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) deemed "serious breaches" of its FFP are still some way from being felt.

Not least because it is a ruling that barely starts the war, let alone ends it. City offered an immediate rebuttal, a denying of any wrongdoing and an intention to take their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

More battle lines were drawn when chief executive Ferran Soriano insisted allegations that City broke the rules "are simply not true" alongside an insistence the club had provided "irrefutable evidence" to the CFCB they had committed no wrongdoing. 

It is a scenario that will rumble on for some time. 

But here's the thing. Ultimately, you can have questions around City's financial conduct. You can feel uncomfortable about City's main means of defence throughout the process being to attack the validity of UEFA's investigation. You can even question the morality of football clubs being funded by oil-rich states.

It is fine to harbour those legitimate concerns and still be completely in awe of the slick machine Pep Guardiola has built, one many suggested would not be possible in English football. 

Sure, the Premier League trophy is headed to Liverpool this season and City's on-pitch shortfalls owe much to Guardiola's nonsensical decision not to replace Vincent Kompany, leaving City's defence low on numbers - the consequent re-positioning of Fernandinho after a serious knee injury to Aymeric Laporte in turn weakening his midfield.

But there were moments against the Hammers that reminded us of what has made City so utterly joyous during the previous two all-conquering title-winning seasons.

The intent was plain to see with a starting line-up blessed with City's wealth of attacking armoury. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings from midfield, Bernardo Silva employed further forward and Gabriel Jesus utilised wide in a front three – an intriguing subplot given it is a role he may have to fulfil against Real Madrid should Raheem Sterling not be fit and one in which he excelled as Brazil earned Copa America glory.

Indeed, had it not been for Jesus' dalliance, City twice would have been in front inside 15 minutes. West Ham clearly came with the intention to pack the defence and the midfield. The timeless David Silva unlocked that plan after just six minutes, playing an intricate sliderule ball into the path of Jesus who opted to try and round Lukasz Fabianski rather than take the favourable option of shooting. He was guilty of similar wastefulness when, after admittedly more fortuitous play, he was found by De Bruyne.

There was a delightful simplicity about the way City made the breakthrough. A De Bruyne corner, a front-post run by Rodri and a flicked header to the far post. 

But the second was much more a trademark of City under Guardiola. The intricate build-up play, the link-up between De Bruyne and his fellow creative genius Bernardo Silva, and the unerring finish from the former – who continues to be the beating heart of this team.

That such a performance came against a toothless, expensively assembled West Ham side shambling their way through a relegation battle should only partly detract from the credit City's performance deserves.

Sterner examinations are obviously on the horizon. Namely Madrid in what is a crucial last-16 Champions League tie, where you sense the atmosphere will be significantly more hostile towards UEFA and there will need to be more vibrancy on and off the pitch, though credit should be given to those game fans turning out for a hastily rearranged Premier League fixture with little riding on it.

Save for the brief, and somewhat unsavoury, "f*** UEFA" chants, and the self-deprecating singing of "City's going down with a billion in the bank" – a nod to a song rivals Manchester United used to taunt their blue neighbours with – the stands were understandably sedate and sparse.

But for now this was the sort of riposte City required on the pitch amid the uncertain turmoil off it. 

The FFP storm may still be gathering but with Guardiola, who has signalled his intent to stick around regardless of the outcome of the club's CAS appeal, there remains a feeling the light can shine through the dark clouds.

Over the past nine years or so under Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid had become that team "no one wants to play" in a knockout clash.

Their resilience, work ethic and downright dirtiness made them arguably the toughest team to play against in Europe – not because of any particular brilliance, but because they were the embodiment of their coach on the pitch.

That aura has somewhat diminished over the past 18 months or so, and there's no getting away from the fact this has been a testing season for Atletico and Simeone, with few giving them a chance against European champions Liverpool in the Champions League last 16.

After finally getting past the Antoine Griezmann saga in pre-season, there had been a feeling Atletico could hit the reset button and begin a process of reinvention following signs of stagnation.

They've done anything but. While they remain shrewd defensively, in attack Atletico are as toothless as they have ever been under Simeone, having only scored more than one other side in LaLiga's top 10.

An anxiousness seems to have engulfed Atletico at times this term, their new-look team appearing uneasy with the pressure that accompanies their established status as favourites in almost any match.

But on Tuesday they were transformed. For a night, the real Atletico were back, and they beat Liverpool 1-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Their start was as good as anything Atletico have produced all season. Whether they were spurred on by the raucous atmosphere inside the Wanda or some feisty pre-match words from Simeone, it's unclear.

However, Atletico were sharper than the European champions everywhere, snapping into tackles, getting the ball forward quickly and directly, and their intensity off the ball was like the classic Atleti sides of the previous decade.

Atletico used to be the ultimate underdog, their tirelessness, tenacity and voracious nature mirroring the ideals and mannerisms of Simeone, who prowled the touchline throughout. They were never afraid of the big occasion, and all that came flooding back even when Liverpool were on the front foot.

A fortuitous touch off Fabinho allowed Saul Niguez to put Atletico in front after just four minutes.

An early goal from a corner, allowing them to absorb pressure and play on the counter or wait for errors – it was about as quintessential Atletico as it gets.

This situation should've seen them get a second goal in the 26th minute, as Virgil van Dijk's woeful defensive header was pounced on by Alvaro Morata, but after cutting inside Fabinho he could only shoot straight at Alisson from close range.

Liverpool were short of ideas in response, their first shot coming in the 29th minute – a rather hopeless long-range effort from the right foot of Andy Robertson, and Fabinho followed suit with a similarly harmless attempt soon after.

A Mohamed Salah shot that was crucially blocked by Felipe was the best the Reds could muster in the first half, and they fared little better after the interval and ended without a single shot on target, with Atleti's back four and hard-working front six doing a commendable job of limiting space for Liverpool to exploit.

"The people of Atletico always wanted a competitive team, a team that was strong in defence, a team that would play on the counter-attack and be a nuisance for the super-powerful sides," Simeone once wrote in the Coaches' Voice. They certainly delivered on that against Liverpool, with Atletico's coach spending virtually the entire match on his feet, playing the role of chief cheerleader.

Another opportunity fell to Morata on the break deep into the second half, but the much-maligned striker lost his footing at the crucial moment and he was withdrawn soon after.

And therein lies Atletico's biggest problem – with just seven goals, Morata is their most prolific scorer in LaLiga this season and there's every chance Liverpool will make him pay for wasting his two glorious opportunities when they resume hostilities at Anfield.

But on a night that Atletico once again reminded Europe of their status as masters of the mundane, Morata shouldn't be the focus.

No, at a time when many have suggested change is needed at the Wanda Metropolitano, Simeone showed evidence his dynasty's destructive powers are still capable of upsetting the elite.

Atletico Madrid appear clear underdogs as they welcome European and world champions Liverpool to the Wanda Metropolitano this week.

Liverpool have reached consecutive Champions League finals, winning the decider at Atleti's home last season, and are on course for a stunning record-breaking first Premier League triumph.

Diego Simeone's Atleti have similarly been counted among Europe's elite in years past, winning LaLiga in 2013-14 as they lost the Champions League final, a continental feat that was repeated two years later.

But the Spanish side are facing a battle just to finish in the top four in their domestic league this season.

They face Liverpool in the Champions League last 16, hosting the first leg on Tuesday, and we use Opta data to assess just where they have fallen away ahead of this mammoth task.

 

Steadily slowing since 2014

Simeone has long had a reputation for setting up his side to stifle the best in Spain and across Europe, but in 2013-14 – the greatest season in their modern history – Atleti packed a punch in attack.

The LaLiga champions scored 116 goals in their 61 matches in all competitions – 1.9 per game.

As they returned to the Champions League final in 2015-16, Atleti netted 89 times in 57 matches (1.6 per game), while they average just 1.1 per game this term.

Diego Costa alone scored 35 in 2013-14, and Atleti clearly lack a similarly prolific marksman right now, but their style of play in attack has also changed considerably.

Atleti still have a similar portion of possession – 46.8 per cent in 2013-14 to 47.5 per cent this campaign – yet they were previously far more effective at launching attacks from their low block.

A total of 108 fast breaks across their 61 matches in their best season works out at 1.8 per game. That was down to 0.4 fast breaks per game in 2015-16, and 0.5 per game in 2019-20.

Atleti have simply become far slower and therefore easier to defend against.

 

Alvaro Morata no marksman

Atleti's issues would still not be quite so grave if they were taking chances with the same regularity as previously, but a study of Expected Goals (xG) provides cause for concern.

Costa could have been expected to score 31.85 times across the 2013-14 season but instead beat that xG figure with his tally of 35.

The ability of Simeone's side to compete again two years later was largely due to the talents of Antoine Griezmann, meanwhile, signed after the LaLiga title success.

The France striker outperformed his xG of 18.84 by some distance with a total of 24 goals in all competitions, taking several chances he would not have been expected to score from.

This season, Alvaro Morata is Atleti's top scorer with just eight. Worryingly, he would have been expected to score 12.85 times already.

Joao Felix (three goals, 5.87 xG), Costa (two goals, 2.92 xG) and Vitolo (no goals, 1.62 xG) have all toiled in the final third, too, explaining Atleti's poor goals return.

 

Defensive standards slipping

And Atleti's problems are not just at one end of the field. Jan Oblak remains one of Europe's finest goalkeepers, but even he cannot match previous standards behind a much-changed defence.

The Slovenia star was outstanding in 2015-16, conceding just 26 times across 51 matches, keeping 32 clean sheets and saving 82.67 per cent of shots faced on target.

This term, Oblak has already let in 22 goals in just 31 games, with his save percentage 76.84

Where Atleti could have expected to concede 45.31 goals four seasons ago and allowed just 31, the margins have slimmed considerably: 27.5 xG conceded versus 24 conceded in 2019-20.

Just as Atleti have not effectively replaced Griezmann in attack, they look to be feeling the losses of Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez and Filipe Luis in defence, with Oblak unable to stem the tide.

Liverpool's all-star attack can now fancy their chances against a previously stingy back line.

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