Manchester City face an uncertain immediate future in European competition after UEFA announced a two-season ban for the Premier League club on Friday.

European football's chief governing body, who also administered a €30million fine, ruled City were guilty of "serious breaches" of its Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

It marked the end of a lengthy probe into City's financial affairs, which was launched following a series of allegations made by German publication Der Spiegel in November 2018.

City denied any wrongdoing throughout the process and immediately announced their intention to appeal against the decision.

Below we take a look back at how this point was reached.

 

November 2018: Football Leaks allegations emerge

It has been 15 months since Der Spiegel published a host of articles claiming the defending Premier League champions flagrantly flouted UEFA's FFP laws. The German publication purportedly gained the information from whistleblowers Football Leaks and claimed Sheikh Mansour's City regime topped up multi-million-pound sponsorship deals with Abu Dhabi companies, using their owner's fortune, to meet the financial rules. It was also claimed City were cut a favourable deal by UEFA for overspending in 2014. City said in response: "The attempt to damage the club's reputation is organised and clear".

November 2018: UEFA warns City FFP investigation could reopen

UEFA said it would consider reopening a 2014 probe, which saw City fined and have restrictions on the size of Champions League squad imposed, if "new information comes to light". Early in December, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said: "We are assessing the situation. We have an independent body working on it. Very soon you will have an answer on what will happen in this concrete case."

March 2019: UEFA launches formal investigation

It was almost a year ago UEFA formally started an investigation into Der Spiegel's allegations, with Club Financial Control Board chairman and former Belgium prime minister Yves Leterme warning the "heaviest punishment" City face is "expulsion from UEFA competitions". City said: "The accusation of financial irregularities are entirely false. The club's published accounts are full and complete and a matter of legal and regulatory record".

May 2019: City respond to ban reports

After reports emerged in the New York Times that City were facing the prospect of a one-year UEFA ban, the club released a statement registering concern that their "good faith" in UEFA's investigation into their financial affairs could be "misplaced". 

May 2019: "Hostile process" slammed by City

Leterme had earlier in the year told Belgian magazine Sport and Strategy that City should face a ban from UEFA competition if the allegations were proven. A strongly worded club statement slammed the CFCB investigation as a "hostile process" after the probe was referred to the body's adjudicatory chamber for a final decision after the completion of Leterme's inquiry. The club said they were "disappointed but regrettably not surprised" by the decision.

November 2019: Reports say City set to avoid ban

Towards the back end of last year, it was reported UEFA were struggling to enforce its FFP regulations and City could avoid a ban and escape only with a fine.

November 2019: CAS deems City appeal 'inadmissible'

In June last year, City appealed against UEFA's investigation into alleged breaches of FFP to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). However, five months later CAS ruled City's appeal as "inadmissible" because UEFA had not reached a final decision on the case.

February 2020: UEFA announces ban

After a lengthy process, UEFA announced City have been hit with a two-year ban from European competition and a hefty €30million fine. The Adjudicatory Chamber of the CFCB found City guilty of "overstating its sponsorship revenue in its accounts and in the break-even information submitted to UEFA between 2012 and 2016". City again questioned the process of the investigation and announced their intention to launch an appeal with CAS "at the earliest opportunity".

Chelsea have committed €44million to the signing of Hakim Ziyech, who has become one of the most admired talents in European football over the past two seasons at Ajax.

The impending transfer was announced on Thursday but remains subject to Morocco international Ziyech agreeing personal terms at Stamford Bridge.

The 26-year-old was one of the best players on the pitch during a barnstorming 4-4 draw in November's Champions League clash between the sides.

Kepa Arrizabalaga may have been credited with an own goal but it was Ziyech's sensational bending free-kick from the right touchline that did the damage as the visitors opened up a 3-1 half-time lead.

Ziyech, who predominantly operates from the right but can play behind a striker, is now set to feature more regularly at the Bridge and we used Opta data to examine his ability.


THE EREDIVISIE'S MASTER CREATOR

Ziyech has been one of the Eredivisie's top performers since breaking into the first team at Heerenveen in 2012 having risen through the club's youth teams.

After a two-year stop at Twente, Ziyech moved to Ajax in August 2016 where his performances domestically and in Europe have seen his star continue to rise.

Since his switch to the Johan Cruijff ArenA, only four players can boast a higher goals return than his 38 while his sensational tally of 51  Eredivisie assists is 16 better than the 35 of Steven Berghuis, the next highest on the list.

Indeed, his combined 89 goal involvements is in the best in the league during this time, seven more than Berghuis, while Bryan Linssen (who has the most goals with 52 ) is way behind with 66 .

To really emphasise Ziyech's attacking brilliance, his 421 chances created since September 2016 is a whopping 134 more than second-place Berghuis.


MIXING IT WITH MESSI AND MBAPPE IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Ajax were the great entertainers of the of the 2018-19 Champions League and only a last-gasp goal from Tottenham's Lucas Moura denied Erik ten Hag's men a place in the final.

Ziyech was typically influential in that run to the last four and since August 2018 he has provided seven assists in Europe's premier competition (excluding qualifiers).

That is as many as team-mate Dusan Tadic and just one fewer than the best of eight achieved by Kylian Mbappe and Riyad Mahrez - and one more than Barcelona great Lionel Messi.

His five goals are 13 fewer than the sensational 18 scored by Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski in the same time, with Messi registering 14 .

Messi tops the list of goal involvements at 20 , with Lewandowski (18) , Mbappe (17) , Raheem Sterling (14) , Tadic and Mohamed Salah (both 13) above Ziyech's combined goals and assists tally of 12 .

In terms of chances created, Ziyech scores highly as well. His 39 is the same as Christian Eriksen and beaten only by Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos (51) , Tadic (47) and Messi (41) .


THE STATS

- Since the 2012-13 season, Ziyech has made 217 Eredivisie appearances, scored 79 goals and contributed 87 assists.

- Ziyech has at least 10 assists in each of his previous six Eredivisie seasons, no player has managed to do so in more than two campaigns in the same period.

- No players has more assists (51) , shots (528) , created chances (421) , completed dribbles (288) or recoveries (752) than Ziyech in the Eredivisie since he joined Ajax.

- Over the past two seasons, only Mohamed Salah (79) and Messi (77) have taken more Champions League shots than Ziyech ( 75 same as Cristiano Ronaldo). 

The Coppa Italia semi-final between Milan and Juventus will pit two of the greatest goalscorers of the modern era against each other.

Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juve's Cristiano Ronaldo are set to renew acquaintances when San Siro plays host to Thursday's first leg.

Both Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo are in the latter stages of their careers, but the prospect of them sharing the pitch still adds an extra layer of intrigue to the occasion.

Here we look back at the previous meetings between two of world football's most feared finishers.

 

2009: Inter 0-0 Manchester United, Manchester United 2-0 Inter

Ronaldo got the better of Ibrahimovic and Inter in the last 16 of the Champions League as, after a goalless draw at San Siro in the first leg, the Portugal great headed United's second goal of the return to secure their progression.

2009: Barcelona 1-0 Real Madrid

Ibrahimovic left Inter for Barca at the end of the 2008-09 season, while Ronaldo made a then world-record move to Madrid following United's Champions League final loss to the Blaugrana. CR7 would again be frustrated by Barca as Ibrahimovic wrote his name into Clasico folklore with a superb far-post volley from Dani Alves' perfectly placed right-wing cross.

2010: Real Madrid 2-0 Milan, Milan 2-2 Real Madrid

Though Ibrahimovic lasted only one season at Camp Nou, he renewed acquaintances with Ronaldo in the Champions League group stages. Ronaldo set in motion a victory for Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with a low free-kick from the edge of the area, but both players were held in check at San Siro in an entertaining draw.

2013: Portugal 1-0 Sweden, Sweden 2-3 Portugal

The second leg of the World Cup qualifying play-off between Sweden and Portugal proved unquestionably the best encounter featuring Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic so far, as they each delivered their best with a place in Brazil on the line. 

Ronaldo earned Portugal a 1-0 advantage in the first leg, and looked to have given them complete command of the tie five minutes into the second half in Solna. Ibrahimovic, though, turned the tie around with a headed equaliser followed by a rasping free-kick, only for Ronaldo to have the final say by superbly finishing off a counter and then emphatically converting from Joao Moutinho's throughball.

2015: Paris Saint-Germain 0-0 Real Madrid, Real Madrid 1-0 Paris Saint-Germain

The most recent meetings between the two featured no such fireworks as Madrid and PSG largely cancelled each other out across two Champions League group stage encounters, with Nacho scoring the goal that ultimately proved decisive in Los Blancos topping the group.

Each close-season transfer window has a defining 'saga' and everything points to the next revolving around Jadon Sancho and Manchester United.

Media reports began to circulate on Wednesday claiming Sancho is set to leave Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season, having emerged as one of world football's next great hopes since joining from Manchester City.

The England international seems likely to return home later this year and United are rumoured to be leading the chase, ready to pay £120million for his signature.

United's issues on the flanks are nothing new. For several years they have seemingly operated with a bizarre square-pegs-round-holes policy, assigning numerous players who clearly aren't wingers to wide roles.

We looked at the data to understand how Sancho stacks up with United's current attacking options.

A PROLIFIC CREATOR

It's difficult to imagine Sancho joining United and not having a swift and decisive impact. The only other genuine winger in their squad is Daniel James, and while the Wales international has enjoyed a solid debut season after a shock move, he has faded recently and clearly lacks a certain presence.

After Andreas Pereira (31), Fred (30) and Marcus Rashford (24), James (23) has created the most Premier League chances for United this term and his haul of six assists isn't matched by any of his team-mates.

By comparison, Sancho has laid on 47 opportunities for team-mates in the Bundesliga this season, the fifth-highest in the division, and his haul of 13 assists is the same amount as James, Anthony Martial and Rashford combined.

SUBTLETY IN THE FINAL THIRD

The United squad isn't exactly blessed with lots of physical attackers renowned for their aerial ability, which suggests hooking hopeful crosses into the box does not represent a fertile route to goal.

For the most part, United forwards aren't desperate to cross, with Pereira (28), Rashford (19) and Martial (7) often looking for alternative ways to penetrate the box, but James (79) is the 11th most-frequent crosser in the league, even if he's some way off Trent Alexander-Arnold (159).

Sancho fits in more with the former group, supplying only 22 crosses this season. Perhaps such a low figure is justified by the fact only five per cent were accurate.

Nevertheless, this does suggest Sancho is more subtle and deliberate with his creativity, and given he has crafted comfortably more chances and goals than the United contingent, it is difficult to argue he should alter his style.

A KEY INFLUENCE

As someone who creates so many opportunities, it wouldn't be unusual to expect Sancho to be somewhat wayward in possession, given the necessity to take risks.

But 80 per cent of his 496 passes into the final third have been accurate. Of the 284 Bundesliga players to play at least 50 passes into that part of the pitch, only 11 have greater accuracy than Sancho, though none of those attempted more than 308.

Martial, Fred, Mason Greenwood, Luke Shaw, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard have all been more accurate in the final third, but Sancho has attempted far more passes, while none of them have got anywhere close to the Dortmund star's chance creation record.

DEADLY WHEN IT MATTERS

Sancho's not just a creator, however.

As well as his 13 assists, Sancho has also chipped in with 12 Bundesliga goals this season, a figure bettered by only Robert Lewandowski (22) and Timo Werner (20).

Those 12 goals came from 37 attempts, meaning he is averaging almost a goal every three shots, comfortably better than Martial (17 per cent of 48 shots) and Rashford (19 per cent of 74 shots).

A complete player in attack, Sancho offers an all-round threat that United simply do not possess.

He also appears to be the ideal player for United stylistically, with his attributes and dynamism similar to the likes of Martial, Rashford and Greenwood, around whom club seem intent on building their future.

Will Sancho be the next to join that trio?

Hakim Ziyech will need little introduction to Chelsea fans if the Morocco international does complete his move to Stamford Bridge from Ajax.

Ziyech was one of the best players on the pitch during a barnstorming 4-4 draw in November's Champions League clash.

Kepa Arrizabalaga may have been credited with an own goal but it was Ziyech's sensational bending free-kick from the right touchline that did the damage as the visitors opened up a 3-1 half-time lead.

Next season, the 26-year-old appears destined to play much more regularly at the Bridge, with reports claiming the Blues have agreed a £38million deal for the attacking midfielder.

Predominantly employed on the right, Ziyech can also play as a number 10 and here we have used Opta data to take a closer look at an exciting talent.


THE EREDIVISIE'S MASTER CREATOR

Ziyech has been one of the Eredivisie's top performers since breaking into the first team at Heerenveen in 2012 having risen through the club's youth teams.

After a two-year stop at Twente, Ziyech moved to Ajax in August 2016 where his performances domestically and in Europe have seen his star continue to rise.

Since his switch to the Johan Cruijff ArenA, only four players can boast a higher goals return than his 38 while his sensational tally of 51 Eredivisie assists is 16 better than the 35 of Steven Berghuis, the next highest on the list.

Indeed, his combined 89 goal involvements is in the best in the league during this time, seven more than Berghuis, while Bryan Linssen (who has the most goals with 52) is way behind with 66.

To really emphasise Ziyech's attacking brilliance, his 421 chances created since September 2016 is a whopping 134 more than second-place Berghuis.


MIXING IT WITH MESSI AND MBAPPE IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Ajax were the great entertainers of the of the 2018-19 Champions League and only a last-gasp goal from Tottenham's Lucas Moura denied Erik ten Hag's men a place in the final.

Ziyech was typically influential in that run to the last four and since August 2018 he has provided seven assists in Europe's premier competition.

That is as many as team-mate Dusan Tadic and just one fewer than the best of eight achieved by Kylian Mbappe and Riyad Mahrez - and one more than Barcelona great Lionel Messi.

His five goals are 13 fewer than the sensational 18 scored by Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski in the same time, with Messi registering 14.

Messi tops the list of goal involvements at 20, with Lewandowski (18), Mbappe (17), Raheem Sterling (14), Tadic and Mohamed Salah (both 13) above Ziyech's combined goals and assists tally of 12.

In terms of chances created, Ziyech scores highly as well. His 39 is the same as Christian Eriksen and beaten only by Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos (51), Tadic (47) and Messi (41).


THE STATS

- Since the 2012-13 season, Ziyech has made 217 Eredivisie appearances, scored 79 goals and contributed 87 assists.

- Ziyech has at least 10 assists in each of his previous six Eredivisie seasons, no player has managed to do so in more than two campaigns in the same period.

- No players has more assists (51), shots (528), created chances (421), completed dribbles (288) or recoveries (752) than Ziyech in the Eredivisie since he joined Ajax.

- Over the past two seasons, only Mohamed Salah (79) and Messi (77) have taken more Champions League shots than Ziyech (75 same as Cristiano Ronaldo). 

Much of the focus at the All-Star Game will be on the headline event and the Slam Dunk Contest, but the Rising Stars Challenge also offers great intrigue.

Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Trae Young will all be involved as Team USA take on Team World.

With the early success that quartet have enjoyed in their fledgling careers, the Rising Stars Challenge should serve as further compelling evidence the future of the NBA is in good hands.

Here we guide you through what to watch for when the league's brightest talents do battle.

 

ZION & JA TEAM UP

Williamson and Morant appear poised to contest a fascinating rivalry over the course of their careers, but on Friday they will be on the same side.

Number one overall pick Williamson, sidelined for much of the year with a knee injury, and Rookie of the Year favourite Morant went head-to-head two weeks ago and offered a glimpse into the future as Zion's New Orleans Pelicans beat the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Rising Stars Challenge will provide a window into how the pair's talents complement each other, which could potentially be crucial for future USA Olympic coaches.

With Morant set for a prestigious honour and Williamson having recorded two double-doubles in eight games, Team World will have a hard time slowing them down.

 

DONCIC DOUBLES UP

Likely to finish high in the MVP voting, Doncic will - along with Young - double up at All-Star weekend.

The Dallas Mavericks guard will contest the All-Star Game as well as the Rising Stars Challenge, having been picked as a starter for Team LeBron.

With the odds in favour of Team USA winning the Rising Stars Challenge, Doncic's best chance of success in Chicago should be in the headline event.


UNDER-THE-RADAR STARS

While Williamson, Morant and Doncic will claim most of the attention among the rising stars, there are several less heralded players with the chance to snatch some of the limelight.

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Canadian Brandon Clarke will face off having played an instrumental role in the Grizzlies' rise to playoff contention.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should be crucial to Team World's hopes, his development unhindered by a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder.

Eric Paschall's opportunities to shine on a national stage have been limited thanks to the demise of the Golden State Warriors this season, but the forward will have the chance to prove he is the Dubs' latest second-round gem.

 

YOUNG TRIBUTE TO KOBE

Proceedings at the United Center are set to be dominated by tributes to Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who were killed in a helicopter crash last month.

In the wake of their tragic passing, an emotional Young - having been mentored by Bryant - scored 45 points in the Atlanta Hawks' win over the Washington Wizards.

With two games on his agenda, Young will have ample opportunity to honour his idol by delivering on the court in his first appearance at the weekend as an All-Star.

Everybody loves an underdog, or so the saying goes, but Mike Tyson would probably disagree.

It was 30 years ago that the American powerhouse suffered a shock defeat to James 'Buster' Douglas, his perfect record ruined in stunning fashion.

The bout assumed top spot on the list of the greatest upsets in boxing history.

Here, Omnisport looks back on some of the sport's biggest surprises.

February 15, 1978: 'The Greatest' loses Spinks epic

Muhammad Ali was a 1-10 favourite when he first faced Leon Spinks, a man fighting professionally for only the eighth time, in Las Vegas.

After a titanic battle between boxing's biggest star and his unfancied opponent, Ali looked to have done just enough when the first scorecard was read out in his favour.

However, the two remaining judges decided Spinks was the winner, despite conceding almost two stones in weight to Ali. A rematch in September of that year produced the opposite result.
 

February 11, 1990: Iron Mike stopped by Buster Douglas

The Tokyo Dome played host to arguably THE biggest boxing upset in history, as Tyson lost his unbeaten record, which had read 37-0 with 33 KOs, to the unheralded Douglas.

Only one casino offered odds on Douglas winning the fight, his price a staggering 42-1. Yet that is what happened, with Tyson left to rue a lack of preparation for a contest he had presumed would prove a breeze.

'Iron Mike' was sent to the canvas in round 10, his aura of invincibility permanently shattered. In a tweet some 23 years later, Tyson, mastering the art of understatement, called it a "bad day at the office".


April 22, 2001: Rahman rocks Lewis

Hasim Rahman spent a month in South Africa, training at high altitude, ahead of his heavyweight world title fight with Lennox Lewis in Gauteng. In contrast, reigning champion Lewis was there only half as long, instead training in Las Vegas so he could film scenes for a cameo appearance in Ocean's Eleven.

Like Tyson before him, Lewis would pay a heavy price for his apparent over-confidence, as Rahman secured a spectacular knockout victory in the fifth round.

A subsequent rematch saw Rahman beaten in four, with a fiercely focused Lewis earning redemption.


March 8, 2003: Sanders dethrones Klitschko

Corrie Sanders was not expected to trouble WBO champion Wladimir Klitschko on German soil, yet the South African sensationally tore up the script.

Sanders caught the great Klitschko with a left hand late in the first round and knocked him to the canvas another three times in the brief but dramatic bout.

There were boos from an expectant crowd when Klitschko was stopped early in the second, with Sanders having only fought three rounds since being knocked out by Rahman in 2000.


June 1, 2019: Ruiz stuns Joshua

A late replacement, Ruiz shattered Anthony Joshua's American dream - and in the famous boxing venue of Madison Square Garden, too.

The portly California-born pugilist lived up to his nickname of 'The Destroyer', picked himself up off the canvas after being floored by Joshua to put the champion down twice before the end of an eventful third round.

Joshua gathered himself and kept on fighting, but Ruiz knocked him down twice early in the seventh before referee Mike Griffin stopped the fight with the Englishman back on his feet but looking shell-shocked.

Patrick Mahomes has made the same impact on the NFL that The Beatles did on music and the "rock star" Super Bowl MVP is well on his way to greatness with the same mindset as Pele.

That is according to Adam Cook, the man who nurtured the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback's phenomenal talent at Whitehouse High School in Texas.

Mahomes' stardom was catapulted to another stratosphere when he inspired the Chiefs' stunning 31-20 Super Bowl comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Hard Rock Stadium on February 2.

The 2018 NFL MVP got the Chiefs out of a hole to end their 50-year wait for a Super Bowl triumph.

Cook witnessed Mahomes' ability in a variety of sports and saw his signal-calling qualities at close quarters in his roles as quarterback coach, offensive coordinator and head coach at Whitehouse.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury got Cook a ticket for what he described as "the experience of a lifetime" of seeing his former student's finest hour on a glorious Sunday in Miami.

Cook knew Mahomes was something special when he first coached him in the fifth grade and is not surprised to see him striking the right notes at the highest level.

Asked if the 24-year-old can become an NFL great, he told Omnisport: "No doubt about it, that is what you are seeing. It's something we kind of expect, I expect it for him.

"Any time you want to talk about the greats; Dan Marino never won the Super Bowl, some great players never achieved that. The discussion you get is they never did win the big one, well Patrick has been the league MVP, he's won a Super Bowl and won Super Bowl MVP.

"He's already established himself as a Hall of Famer. Those are the things you are going to look at, the numbers he has put up. But knowing he's only 24 years old, if he keeps doing what he's doing and keeps his head level right, keeps working like he's been doing, yes, he could go down as one of the greatest.

"Definitely in my mind he's becoming the face of the NFL. He's so exciting, he's so fun to watch. He's got good people around him and he is where he is now because of the decisions he has made in his life.

"There is nothing wrong with wanting to be great, it's just are you willing to pay the price for being in those positions? That's the key and Patrick has made sacrifices in his life.

"He's like a rock star, much like The Beatles. Their lives were never the same, they ultimately changed everything about rock. They influenced so much of what we listen to today and I think Patrick is doing that to the NFL. He's changing the way the game is played."

That will be music to the ears of Chiefs fans, as will Cook's comparison of their prized asset to the legendary Pele.

Cook, now athletics director at Whitehouse, added: "I spent a year looking into sports psychology and read some great stuff about Pele.

"It was never about holding the trophy up, it was about the rituals and doing those little things right so he could enjoy the game.

"He'd put a towel on his head before games and picture himself in Brazil as a young kid kicking the ball around, he'd visualise himself doing all those things he needed to do to win the game and not necessarily the end product of winning the game.

"I think Patrick has that same mindset. His mindset will be to go back to the work, making sure his body is right and making sure he has a long career and stays ahead of all the competition out there.

"He was good at whatever sport he played at school, but it shouldn't be forgotten that he put so much work in. You couldn't get him out of the gym, he would be throwing whenever he could. He just loved to play and get better.

"I know a couple of years ago the Kansas City Chiefs had to tell him to quit playing basketball, because he was out there dunking on people. If you get a ball out there he's going to compete.

"He's probably the greatest competitor I've ever been around."

When the Inter and Milan starting XIs lined up before a cacophonous San Siro on Sunday, there were all the usual sights.

Fierce, steely stares, necks being flexed, legs shaken out. Big-match anxiety writ large.

Then there was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, turning around wide-eyed to survey the scene and wearing a big grin.

Perhaps he knew all along. Or thought he did.

Ibrahimovic's return to this fixture was a blessing for Milan, largely because it diverted the attention away from the gulf that has opened up between themselves and their great rivals since Antonio Conte took charge of the Nerazzurri.

"He is a champion who gives Milan quality and charisma," Conte said of Ibrahimovic in the build-up, although even in acknowledging this he could scarcely have envisaged the first-half evisceration his title-aspirants would endure, before turning the tables to top the table with a 4-2 derby win for the ages.

Now 38, Ibrahimovic's frequent aggrandisement – which always seemed to pinball between self-deprecation and a yawing lack of self-awareness – has come to grate as much as it entertains.

It was easy to conclude a Milan marooned in mismanagement and mediocrity had bought into the myth rather than the aging man the wrong side of major knee surgery when they offered him a route back from his expected retirement home in Major League Soccer.

The Rossoneri entered Sunday's game seven places and 19 points shy of Inter, but yet to taste defeat in the seven matches since Ibrahimovic's second debut.

In this Derby della Madonnina – a fixture where he, of course, knows both sides of the divide – he was Milan's talisman.

Stefano Pioli's team drove forward from kick-off and there were 67 seconds on the clock when Ibrahimovic lashed over on the volley from Samu Castillejo's cross.

The most striking element of the veteran's early contribution was his capacity to elevate those around him. Castillejo always had someone to hit from the right flank and was a constant threat, while Ante Rebic looked more like the player from Croatia's run to the 2018 World Cup final as opposed to the beleaguered individual Milan were recently hoping to send packing back to Eintracht Frankfurt.

The twinkle-toed Hakan Calhanoglu was the pick of the bunch, rifling against the post after nine minutes and popping up with palpable menace across the final third thereafter, never far away from a shrewd pass or lay-off to Ibrahimovic.

Inter were struggling to get out of their own half and, in line with trepidation painted across a touchline-prowling Conte, they fell behind.

Of course Ibrahimovic was involved, muscling above Diego Godin to knock down Castillejo's cross for Rebic to scramble past a bizarrely hesitant Samir Handanovic.

A VAR review did not spare Godin, the sort of reprieve it is hard to imagine would sit well with the gloriously grizzled centre-back. In mano-e-mano combat he simply came off second best to an opponent on a mission.

If Ibrahimovic's role in the opener was about brute strength, for number two he resorted to stealth, stealing into space at the far post as Milan Skriniar's gaze was diverted to the ball. Soon enough it was behind him and being nodded into the net by the man of the moment. Arms aloft, script fulfilled.

Only Conte and his warriors in blue and black, with the blood of an undulating Scudetto race in their nostrils, had other ideas.

Antonio Candreva thumped goalwards in the 51st minute. Blocked. Marcelo Brozovic thumped harder. 2-1.

In a flash, it was all square as a darting Alexis Sanchez was played onside by Andrea Conti's heal and he cut back for Matias Vecino to score.

Godin supplied the pass to Sanchez and the sense of Inter's centre-backs being freed from their earlier Ibrahimovic ordeal was underlined by Stefan de Vrij heading home, putting them on course for the sweetest of victories.

Ibrahimovic thundered a long-range free-kick just wide, crashing it into the advertising hoardings with the same force Milan's earlier dreams met reality, and a towering header hit the post.

Having just about negotiated the man with the occasional God complex, Conte brought on Victor Moses to set up a fourth for the prolific Romelu Lukaku. It's 54 points apiece with Juventus at the summit and Inter, with goal difference in their favour, might just have taken a significant step towards their promised land.

He waited, and waited, and waited. And then Barcelona scored. And their world made sense again.

Lionel Messi might be without a goal of his own since January 30, but he showed in Sunday's enthralling win at Real Betis that he doesn't need to find the net himself to keep Barca's fate under his spell.

The champions' 3-2 LaLiga win at a raucous Benito Villamarin was a crucial tonic at the end of a miserable week in which exiting the Copa del Rey at the quarter-final stage to Athletic Bilbao was merely a footnote.

First came the latest setback to Ousmane Dembele, now likely to be out of action until the end of the season with a hamstring tendon injury. Then, technical secretary Eric Abidal was quoted accusing Barca players of downing tools during Ernesto Valverde's final weeks in charge.

Those incidents alone would have been enough to make this a troublesome week for Barca, especially since they failed to sign a Luis Suarez replacement in January and are now scrabbling around for emergency deals to compensate for Dembele's newest injury. Then Messi, as he has for his whole career as the world's finest footballer, took things to another level.

It was 'only' a social media post – but it was a social media post from Messi. The club captain, the greatest player in Barcelona history, the man who is esteemed for the limited off-field distractions he creates caused a storm as newsworthy as the weather front battering northern Europe this weekend.

Messi is no fool. He knew what sort of reaction he would provoke by calling out Abidal for "dirtying" Barca players. Said to have had enough of being accused of wielding ultimate power at Camp Nou, he dragged Barca into a full-blown crisis with a mere Instagram story. He will not need anyone to point out the irony.

It all meant Sunday's visit to Betis, where Barca boss Quique Setien won most of his acclaim as a coach, was a mere sideshow. And yet, because of Messi, a week that threatened to derail Barca's entire season ended in a victory that might just set them right back on track.

Messi, who can cancel his contract at the end of this season, has long been said to be keen to see Barca build a squad capable of winning LaLiga and the Champions League. He would be forgiven for having a few misgivings when the Catalans lined up in Seville with veteran midfielder Arturo Vidal as a false nine, long before Sergio Canales' opener from the penalty spot must have left him feeling fed up in the extreme.

So, he chose to change the landscape.

First, he gathered a pass from Frenkie de Jong, who had turned expertly into space under pressure in his own half before spreading the ball wide. And he waited, and waited, and waited – and then dropped a lofted pass right onto De Jong's chest, begging to be volleyed home. Barca were level, De Jong having suddenly morphed back into the midfield dynamo of Ajax last season, and all thanks to Messi's intervention.

After Nabil Fekir scored a fine second for Betis against the run of play, Barca were under pressure again. But Messi, with seconds to go before the break, looked through the chaos to the bigger picture. His clipped free-kick landed for Sergio Busquets to control and fire home.

With 18 minutes to go, Messi completed his hat-trick of assists. Another deep free-kick, another pinpoint delivery, and this time an emphatic header from Clement Lenglet made it 3-2.

Three goals from set-pieces is not the Setien way, not the Barca way, but it was just what the Catalans needed after this most unsettling of weeks – even if it reminded us all just how willingly they dance to Messi's tune.

Mind you, who else has his sense of timing?

Pat Mahomes may become the NFL's first $200million player but he can expect to earn double that amount in endorsements, according to a sports marketing expert.

The quarterback further enhanced his blossoming reputation by steering the Kansas City Chiefs to a first title in 50 years, with his performance in the 31-20 win over San Francisco 49ers enough to earn Super Bowl LIV MVP honours.

After a trip to Disneyworld and an open-top bus parade to celebrate the team's success, Mahomes now finds himself playing a waiting game as he looks ahead to the offseason.

A first-round pick by the Chiefs in 2017, he is moving into the last year of his rookie deal. There is no doubt that his employers will pay him; the question is more about how much he gets.

The 24-year-old is expected to sign the biggest deal in the league's history, yet the eye-catching number - whatever it ends up being in terms of overall value, and guaranteed money - is not the only chance Mahomes will have to cash in on his superstardom.

Asked if Mahomes could match his record-breaking new contract in off-field deals, Darrin Duber-Smith - a lecturer in marketing at the Metropolitan State University of Denver - told Stats Perform: "For sure.

"The thing about endorsement potential is success is only one of a few important variables in whether an endorser becomes wildly financially successful.

"Pat Mahomes is likeable. Success helps, but likeability is a bigger factor. Longevity is a big issue, attractiveness is a big issue, as is success. Those are sort of the four biggest variables for endorsement success, in my opinion.

"Tom Brady has longevity and has had success, and is good-looking too, but he doesn't have that likeability.

"Mahomes doesn't have the longevity aspect yet, of course. We don't know about that because an injury can derail someone's career very quickly.

"I would compare him to Peyton Manning, though. He even has more endorsement potential than Manning, who is one of the most likeable and also one of the highest-grossing celebrity endorsers ever."

 

While Manning is still earning in retirement, Mahomes is part of a new generation of quarterbacks. Alongside Deshaun Watson and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, he is a superstar who will attract in sponsors, not just with his play on the field but also his personality.

His profile is aided by a change in the marketing landscape, according to Duber-Smith. Where once teams were the main attraction, now it is the players who have the pulling power.

"It's all about what we call 'star power' in the sports marketing world," he explained. "We can thank 15 or 20 years of fantasy football for that.

"Star power drives almost everything – people will go out and watch really poor teams, so long as there are one or two great stars. Teams can also make millions of dollars despite not winning for decades, just so long as the star power is there.

"The NFL has rallied this year, and I think that's down to a couple of things. First, they are paying a lot more attention to which games they are showing on television, so that really helps, but we also have 'Generation Z' coming in.

"They are different. With the millennials, we had a malaise for a period of time. Now, though, we have in this batch of new quarterbacks, probably the most exciting bunch we've possibly ever seen.

"It's all about quality. The Premier League is rated number one in the world, and the way you look at that is through player salaries. The thing about Americans is – and you're going to see this when the XFL fails – they don't like to watch poor sports.

"They like to watch the best in the world, which explains why the Premier League ratings are so much higher than our own MLS. We don't care where it comes from – if it's high quality, we will watch it."

There is little doubt about Mahomes' quality. Kansas City have drafted and developed a franchise QB who should be worth every penny of what they end up paying him. As one of the faces in the NFL, he should expect to be in high demand.

Bayern Munich versus RB Leipzig – if ever a fixture was about more than the game itself, this was it.

In its plainest reading, absent any nuance, Sunday's Bundesliga clash at the Allianz Arena pitted history, heritage and prestige against, well, Leipzig.

Bayern, with their 29 league titles and five European Cups, are a global powerhouse, a team that would spring more readily to mind than almost any other if one were prompted to name one.

As with any club that boasts such a well-stocked trophy room, Bayern are not without their detractors, but respect for the Bavarians is universal, even if sometimes begrudging.

The same cannot be said for Leipzig.

Created in 2009 in circumstances not compatible with any club seeking to be ordained as 'proper' in the eyes of football's ardent traditionalists, RB Leipzig – and the prefix matters here – were at first perceived as a distasteful anomaly.

Having assumed SSV Markranstadt's spot in the fifth tier, consuming that club in the process, the Red Bull-owned franchise were far enough down the pecking order that their business model, a source of concern and even disgust to many, was not considered a threat to the established order.

But their very existence, at whatever level, was still too much for a great many supporters in Germany, who found little trouble distinguishing between Leipzig's unbridled commercialism – typified by their subversion of the '50+1' ownership rule – and their own clubs' multi-million Euro deals for stadium naming rights, kit sponsorship and the like.

It is against this backdrop of cynicism and widespread antipathy that Leipzig have risen to the heights of top-flight title contenders, making Sunday's trip to Munich a genuine six-pointer. 

Julian Nagelsmann insisted before the game that it would not be decisive, with his side heading into it one point behind the reigning champions.

Leipzig's head coach, himself just 32, has a young and exciting squad at his disposal – the youngest, in fact, in the division – and they play in a manner that makes you want to forget the stuffy off-field issues that colour people's judgement of this fledgling club.

But Bayern are the toughest of nuts to crack and, seeking an eighth consecutive Bundesliga title, it was the hosts who carried themselves with greater purpose on the pitch.

Thomas Muller passed when he should have shot, while Robert Lewandowski did get an effort away but saw it deflected wide during a first half in which the hosts were on top.

Bayern were awarded a penalty that was soon taken away after Lewandowski had strayed offside before being fouled, while Timo Werner's profligate finishing ensured the lively Christopher Nkunku's excellent cross went unrewarded.

Goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi's excellent late stop from Leon Goretzka ensured that, as in September's meeting in Leipzig, the spoils were split between two clubs who share little else in common.

There were winds of change in Dublin on Saturday as ferocious Ireland denied Wales a record-equalling ninth consecutive Six Nations victory with Storm Ciara fast approaching.

Wales crossed the Irish Sea braced for an almighty arm wrestle after an emphatic defeat of Italy on the opening weekend of their first tournament since Wayne Pivac replaced Warren Gatland.

The defending champions were second best in the battle of the 2018 and 2019 Grand Slam winners, failing to match their best winning run in the tournament at the Aviva Stadium – such a fortress for the men in green.

A highly anticipated showdown was expected to be badly affected by high winds and torrential rain, yet it was Ireland doing the damage in the first half to lay the platform for a magnificent 24-14 win.

Unconvincing in a win over Scotland at the start of the Andy Farrell era last weekend, this was much more like the Ireland side that was crowned champions under Joe Schmidt two years ago and topped the world rankings.

So uncompromising up front, with CJ Stander outstanding at number eight to claim a second successive man-of-the-match award, Ireland were magnificent in defence and clinical in attack.

The pressure finally told midway through the first half when the nimble-footed Jordan Larmour pierced a hole in the Wales defence, Nick Tomkins unable to haul the full-back to the ground before he touched down.

Johnny Sexton made a mess of the conversion attempt and Wales were in front against the run of play after Tomos Williams rounded off a slick move following great work from Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones.

Tadhg Furlong ploughed his way over at the other end as Ireland continued to batter away at the Wales pack and Josh van der Flier gave them breathing space when the holders were unable to halt a driving maul.

Hadleigh Parkes had a try ruled out before huge roars echoed around the ground when Wales were penalised at a scrum close to the Ireland line, prompting Farrell to leap up and punch the air. 

With the wind gusting at an increasing speed, Wales were much more of a force in the second half but Andrew Conway's try gave ruthless Ireland the bonus point.

Justin Tipuric crossed right at the end, but the damage had already been done as Ireland, led so well by Sexton, made it two wins out of two.

Wales also lost in-form wing Josh Adams and Biggar to injury as the Rugby World Cup semi-finalists suffered a first Six Nations defeat since losing to Ireland in Dublin two years ago.

Julian Nagelsmann insists the outcome will not decide anything, but RB Leipzig's trip to Bayern Munich is undoubtedly a pivotal moment in the Bundesliga title race.

A charging Bayern squad suddenly sit on top of the table, a point clear of their opponents. The reigning champions have hit top form, reeling off six league wins on the spin. They have scored 12 goals in their three outings since the mid-season break, too.

In contrast, Leipzig - who have enjoyed such a rapid rise since they were formed in 2009 - have stumbled in recent weeks.

A 2-0 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt was followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Borussia Monchengladbach last time out. Sunday's trip to the Allianz Arena should tell us a lot more about their prospects of lasting the distance.

With help from Opta, we look at key statistics behind both teams' recent performances - and identify how a coaching change may turn out to be crucial in the final reckoning.

 

Leipzig out of luck, or are they wilting under pressure?

Vibrant, youthful, exciting – set aside the off-field politics that surrounds Leipzig's ownership, and there is little to dislike about them on the pitch.

But since the post-winter break, Leipzig have relinquished their position at the Bundesliga's summit and won just once in four matches across all competitions. If they weren't hopeful of a title challenge this could be dismissed as a blip, but given their lofty ambitions, it warrants investigation.

Even with the in-form Timo Werner, Leipzig have been far less impressive in front of goal. Before the break they had scored 67 times but their expected goals (xG) was 62 – since returning they've netted six times, which corresponds exactly with xG.

They're averaging more shots now, 18.5 per game as opposed to 16.5 before Christmas, but accuracy has dropped to 49 per cent from 59, while big-chance conversion has decreased spectacularly from 41 per cent to just 17.

Leipzig are still creating chances at an almost identical rate, so the data suggests a decrease in composure is to blame for their issues.

 

Demme departure a factor

It was always likely to be a blow to lose club captain Diego Demme, the tidy and tenacious midfielder Leipzig allowed to join Napoli in the January transfer window.

Given he is more of a defensive-minded player, it's difficult to attach too much importance to his absence from an attacking perspective, but even the smallest change can have a ripple effect – after all, Leipzig averaged 2.9 goals per match with him in the starting XI and just 1.7 without him.

Their win percentage also takes a dip from 65 to 44.4 per cent when Demme has not been in the line-up.

They averaged 2.2 points each match when the German started, but that plummets to 1.6 if he has been absent.

 

Bayern back in business

For a time in the first half of the season, it seemed possible we could be in for a Bundesliga title race without Bayern. However, last season provided a cautionary tale.

Bayern eventually came good in the 2018-19 campaign, finishing strongly enough to win the title by two points despite Borussia Dortmund – who ended up second – holding a nine-point lead over them at the end of the 15th matchday.

Statistically, there were only negligible differences between how Bayern performed before and after last season's winter break, but this term there are notable improvements, even if there is a smaller sample of games to look at post-break.

Big-chance conversion is up from 40 per cent to 53; shooting accuracy is now 64 per cent when it was 51; they're averaging four goals per game compared to 2.8 and conceding one every match, as opposed to 1.2.

Whereas last season Bayern appeared to simply profit off Dortmund's collapse, this term there is early evidence of genuine improvement.

With that coming off the back of several uninterrupted weeks of working with their new coach, Hansi Flick, it seems a leadership change might be paying dividends.

The opening round of fixtures in this year's Six Nations did not disappoint.

Wales served up a feast of tries to kick things off, the defending champions showing a cutting edge as they thrashed poor Italy 42-0 in Cardiff.

The score was far closer at the Aviva Stadium, though, as Ireland edged out Scotland. New captain Johnny Sexton was the hero for the hosts, scoring all their points in a hard-fought 19-12 triumph. Next up: Wales.

England, meanwhile, got their just deserts following a shocking start against France. Failing to score a point in the opening half of a game in the tournament for the first time since 1988 left Eddie Jones' side with too much to do in Paris, Les Bleus delighting the home crowd by holding on for a 24-17 win on Sunday.

So, what will be on the menu for the second week? With help from Opta, we whet your appetite for the upcoming games.

 

Ireland v Wales

- Wales have lost just one of their last five Six Nations games against Ireland (W3, D1). However, their solitary defeat in that spell came the last time they travelled to Dublin in the tournament (2018).

- As for Ireland, they have an outstanding home record, losing just two of the last 22 Tests they have played in front of their own fans (W19, D1). Those defeats? Against New Zealand (November 2016) and England (February 2019).

- Wales gained the most metres (563) of any side in last weekend's opening round, ahead of Ireland (413). Wales also topped the charts for clean breaks (12) and defenders beaten (26, level with Scotland and France).

- Ireland's Jordan Larmour made the most carries (19) and metres (138) of any player last weekend, while Wales' Leigh Halfpenny ranked second in both categories (17 carries, 107 metres).

- Josh Adams crossed for a hat-trick against Italy, taking him to 13 tries in Test rugby since the beginning of 2019. That tally is two more than any other player has managed over that same period of time.


Scotland v England

- Scotland are unbeaten in their last two Six Nations matches against England (W1, D1), this after losing seven in a row before that. Not since 1982-1984 have Scotland gone unbeaten in three straight Calcutta Cup fixtures (W2, D1).

- Only once since 2000 have England suffered successive defeats to open a campaign (2005), but they have lost five of their last seven away outings, including the last two.

- England won 17 of their 18 lineouts in the defeat to France, their 94 per cent success rate the best of any side. In contrast, Scotland's 78 per cent success rate was the worst out of the nations.

- Stuart Hogg beat eight defenders against Ireland, more than any other player in week one. Team-mate Jonny Gray excelled in defence, ending as the joint-top tackler (22, level with Bernard Le Roux).

- Owen Farrell is 20 points away from reaching 900 for England in Test rugby. His highest haul in an international match came against Scotland in 2017, as he landed seven conversions and four penalties to finish with 26.


France v Italy

- France have won 18 of their 20 clashes with Italy in the Six Nations (L2) – scoring victories in each of their 10 home games in that run. They have averaged four tries per game against the Azzurri in the Championship, too.

- Italy hold an unwanted record, having now lost their last 23 Six Nations games. No other side has lost more than 17 consecutive games in Five or Six Nations history.

- France were not flush with possession in the match against England, yet they conceded the fewest metres (224) and clean breaks (6), as well as making the most tackles (182).

- Only England's Maro Itoje (44) hit more rucks in the opening round of this year's Six Nations than France duo Gregory Alldritt (43) and Charles Ollivon (37, level with Peter O'Mahony). Alldritt hit the most defensive rucks of any player (25) and slowed the opposition ball down on 16 occasions at the breakdown.

- France are beginning a Six Nations campaign with two successive home games for the first time since 2016, which also happens to be the last time they began with back-to-back victories.

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