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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The January transfer window closed on Friday, but not every wantaway star got their move.

While a number of Europe's top sides were in the hunt for attacking reinforcements, deals could not be completed for several big names.

We take a look at a selection of forwards who were not on the move and analyse what the future could hold for them.

EDINSON CAVANI

Cavani's on-off transfer from Paris Saint-Germain to Atletico Madrid was only finally ruled out on Thursday, leaving the Ligue 1 club's record goalscorer at the Parc des Princes despite reported interest from the Premier League's big-hitters.

PSG coach Thomas Tuchel reminded Cavani "there are worse situations than staying" in the French capital, but with his contract up at the end of the season, he may not be around for too much longer.

Cavani has repeatedly been linked with Inter Miami, David Beckham's MLS franchise who can still make signings.

OLIVIER GIROUD

It appeared for a time as though Giroud's future might be intertwined with Cavani's, as Chelsea boss Frank Lampard openly discussed the merits of the PSG striker. But just as Cavani stayed put, so too did Giroud.

Moves to Inter, Lazio and even rivals Tottenham did not come off, while the former Arsenal man reportedly rejected Newcastle United.

Giroud has started only twice in the Premier League this season and must now hope he secures a place in the France squad for Euro 2020 despite his continued marginal role.

WILLIAN JOSE

There were very few attackers not linked with Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs during January, and Willian Jose remained a candidate for a transfer until deadline day.

Yet rather than joining Jose Mourinho in London, the Real Sociedad man spent Friday apologising to his current club's supporters for attempting to force the switch.

Willian Jose described a Premier League move as a "dream" but, at 28, he might wonder if such an opportunity has passed him by.

RODRIGO MORENO

It seemed to be a move that would suit everyone. Rodrigo would get a big move to Barcelona, providing the LaLiga champions with cover for Luis Suarez. Valencia were looking at former star Paco Alcacer as a replacement.

But the two clubs failed to agree terms, Rodrigo stayed put, and Alcacer headed to Villarreal.

It appears highly unlikely Barca will return for Rodrigo at the end of the campaign, perhaps instead turning their focus back towards Neymar, and the Spain international has surely missed his big chance.

The January transfer window is over, meaning the top clubs in Europe have to go with what they have got for the remainder of the season.

There have been some huge deals across the continent, with much of the major action was completed early on in the window.

Namely, Erling Haaland joined Borussia Dortmund, and the Norwegian sensation has already made a flying start in the Bundesliga.

Haaland's former Salzburg team-mate Takumi Minamino has joined runaway Premier League leaders, while there was also the small matter of Zlatan Ibrahimovic returning to Milan.

Here, we take a look at the best deals that went through.

Erling Haaland: Salzburg to Borussia Dortmund (€22.5m)

Haaland was arguably the most sought-after player in the January transfer window, with Dortmund reportedly beating RB Leipzig, Juventus and Manchester United to his signature. It already looks like the striker will take the Bundesliga by storm, having scored five goals in two substitute appearances that have lasted a cumulative 59 minutes.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic: LA Galaxy to Milan (free transfer)

At 38, not many players would have their pick of clubs, but Ibrahimovic certainly did. He took his time in deciding his next move after leaving LA Galaxy but, amid links to Bologna and Napoli, the Swede plumped to join his former club Milan. His impact at San Siro has been instant, with Milan unbeaten since his return, winning five of their six games in all competitions.

Takumi Minamino: Salzburg to Liverpool (£7.25m)

Haaland may have been the Salzburg player who drew the most attention, but Japan international Minamino should prove to be a bargain for Liverpool. The European champions moved quickly to bring in the 25-year-old for a measly fee of £7.25m. Able to play anywhere in the front three or even as an attacking midfielder, Minamino scored nine goals for Salzburg in all competitions this season before getting his big move and is a great back-up for Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

Dani Olmo: Dinamo Zagreb to RB Leipzig (up to €35m)

A star of Spain’s triumphant side in the Under-21 European Championships, Olmo has carried on his sparkling form from last season to become one of the most in-demand youngsters in European football. Having scored five Champions League goals this term, the 21-year-old was linked with a return to Barcelona, but ultimately opted to join Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig – a team which would seem to be an ideal place for the playmaker to continue his development.

Raul de Tomas: Benfica to Espanyol (€20m)

Another club-record signing in LaLiga, De Tomas seems a gamble for such a fee, although one worth taking for an Espanyol side at serious risk of the drop. He might not have settled in Lisbon, but De Tomas was a persistent goalscorer at Real Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano and €20m will seem a snip if he keeps Espanyol in the top flight.

Paco Alcacer: Borussia Dortmund to Villarreal (€23m)

Ruthless in a Valencia shirt and too-often unused at Barcelona, Alcacer returns to LaLiga after scoring 23 goals in 37 Bundesliga appearances, despite problems with injury, after he was deemed surplus to requirements at Dortmund following Haaland's arrival. It might be a club-record purchase but, if he can fire Villarreal into top-four contention, it will be money well spent.

Julian Weigl: Borussia Dortmund to Benfica (€20m)

Weigl has had some of Europe's biggest clubs following his every move in recent seasons, with Manchester City said to be keen and Paris Saint-Germain reportedly prepared to pay up to €75m to reunite him with Thomas Tuchel. Having struggled for form and minutes under Lucien Favre, Weigl decided his best bet at this stage of his career was to pursue regular game time with Benfica. Still only 24, he will look an absolute bargain if he can recapture his early promise in Portugal.

Alvaro Odriozola: Real Madrid to Bayern Munich (loan)

It would be fair to say things have not quite worked out for Odriozola at Real Madrid, with the full-back having made just 18 LaLiga appearances in total for Los Blancos since his move from Real Sociedad. However, the 24-year-old has been handed the opportunity to prove he can cut it at the highest level at Bayern Munich, who were in desperate need of defensive reinforcements due to injuries to Lucas Hernandez and Niklas Sule.

Pablo Mari: Flamengo to Arsenal (loan with option to buy)

Mikel Arteta was desperate for a left-footed centre-back and in Mari he has found one that, after a string of loan spells away from Manchester City, made good on his potential at Flamengo, where he won the Campeonato Brasileiro and Copa Libertadores in the space of six months. He could be just what Arsenal needed and there is minimal risk involved in the deal.

Carles Perez: Barcelona to Roma (loan with option/obligation to buy)

After a bright start to the season, Perez found game time increasingly hard to come by at Camp Nou. The exciting winger will only cost an initial €11m if targets are met that turn Roma's option to buy into an obligation, which looks like it would be a snip. Given he is only 21, if Perez performs well there would be a good chance of significant profit further down the line.

There aren't many similarities between the San Francisco 49ers and Conor McGregor.

While McGregor plies his trade in blood-and-thunder five-round contests in the UFC Octagon, the 49ers operate in an NFL world where almost cinematic sporting dramas play out over around three hours in gargantuan stadia.

Yet there is one parallel that runs through McGregor's dominant recent victory over Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone and the Niners' surge to Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Sunday, and it relates to their shared use of a postural therapy method.

The Egoscue Method, created by founder Pete Egoscue, is a form of therapy used to eliminate chronic pain and increase functional mobility.

Jack Nicklaus said Egoscue "totally changed my life" following his well-documented back problems, and should the 49ers lift the Lombardi Trophy by beating the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, two former Egoscue staff members now employed by San Francisco will be among those celebrating.

Niners general manager John Lynch, who joined the team along with head coach Kyle Shanahan in 2017, knew Egoscue from high school, and their long-standing relationship led to the team hiring Elliott Williams and Tom Zheng as functional performance staff.

Brian Bradley, Egoscue's vice president of brand development and strategic partnerships, worked with the 49ers into Lynch's second year in charge but distanced himself from taking credit for San Francisco's success in 2019.

He told Omnisport: "I've worked with John since his college years, into his pro years and then afterward when he was an analyst, and then when he became GM, we knew we were going to do something together because he knows he has the best interests of every player at heart and he knows Egoscue has the foundational movement for that.

"They're in their third year and the reason why this kind of stuff is successful is because John has built a congruent organisation.

"They're not in the Super Bowl because of Egoscue, they're in the Super Bowl because they've drafted five number one draft picks for defensive line. They have an amazing quarterback, they have amazing running backs, they have a great tight end, they have a great team and the athletic trainers and the medical staff work very well with the strength staff, and then the functional performance coaches, who are right in between there, are doing an amazing job.

"They [Williams and Zheng] used to work for me and I hired them but I won't take any credit for anything other than that. They're just good guys."

However, the aforementioned tight end, All-Pro George Kittle, was effusive in his praise when asked about Williams and Zheng ahead of the Niners' seventh Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Kittle, who recently revealed he has played with a torn labrum since 2018, told reporters: "I've worked with them almost every single day since I got here. They've been one of the most important parts of my recovery every single week, just from a function movement standpoint.

"After a game when you get hit a bunch of times, your body's kind of out of whack and they always help me get it back to square one which allows me to play week in, week out.

"They're incredible, incredibly professional, they have a great time doing what they do and the amount of guys that they've helped in the three years I've been here has been uncountable."

Getting the body in the right alignment is a key tenet of the Egoscue Method, and Bradley's influence in assisting McGregor in that regard was a factor in his devastating 40-second win over Cowboy.

Bradley said: "I got hooked up with Conor because, after the Khabib [Nurmagomedov] fight, I lost my mind about it.

"The minute I saw the fight with Khabib, I'm looking at it on my television saying, 'This is an unfair fight', and nobody knows that it's unfair because the way that Conor was aligned with his head position, upper back and hips, he wasn't able to drive punches from his hip.

"He was driving from his shoulder and he was trying to breathe with his shoulders, just watch him in the first round and the second round, he's heaving his shoulders up and down to try to breathe.

"My good friend and colleague [motivational speaker] Tony Robbins got a hold of him, and I took pictures of the TV and sent these to Tony and said, 'You've got to get these to McGregor somehow because something in his camp has gone wrong'. About six months later, he says 'Look, I'm meeting with him'.

"The idea of being a hip-driven athlete fully resonated with him [McGregor] because he said, 'I felt like I wasn't getting enough power out of my punch and I couldn't breathe, and I see by the pictures that you took when I was fighting, I see the cause'.

"I gave him five things to do 12 days out from the fight [with Cowboy]. I gave him a more resilient, hip-driven movement so that no matter what he was doing, you weren't going to see a kid who was out of breath in this fight.

"When he was fighting Cowboy, he drove his shoulder into his face four times, he didn't just raise his shoulder up, he drove from the leg through the hip, through the shoulder and up into his face. He won the fight with four punches off his shoulder and one kick to the head."

It is unlikely the 49ers will land such a quick knockout blow against the Chiefs, but if the stars align for them at Hard Rock Stadium, it will be in part because their functional performance staff got their bodies in the right position.

If the San Francisco 49ers have a big lead in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, their coaching staff are unlikely to let minds drift to thoughts of confetti, parades and rings.

They may have been forgiven for doing so three years ago when the Atlanta Falcons led the New England Patriots 28-3 late in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI.

Lady Gaga, the half-time act that year, had long finished singing. But it turned out the fat lady had not.

Back came the Patriots, Kyle Shanahan's offense unable to add further points to their total, and Tom Brady perhaps cementing his legacy as the G.O.A.T by inspiring a 34-28 overtime win that stunned the Falcons.

Shanahan has since left Atlanta, taking the Niners' head-coaching post shortly after, but he admitted this week that Super Bowl scars remain.

The same is true for the staff he brought with him. Those aiming to banish the demons of Houston. Of '28-3'.

"I'm not gonna lie; you still think about it quite a bit," the Niners' passing-game coordinator Mike LaFleur told Omnisport.

Shanahan said the only play he would have called differently in that second half was a second-and-11 pass play that resulted in Matt Ryan being sacked and pushed out of field-goal range.

Yet the Patriots' comeback was a brutal reminder of how even sizeable advantages can be eroded in the NFL.

At Super Bowl LIV, the Niners face a Kansas City Chiefs team that have already overturned 24 and 10-point leads this postseason.

Those who know Shanahan best believe a return to the Super Bowl will not suddenly trigger post-traumatic stress because '28-3' has always been with him ever since it happened.

San Francisco's run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel, who, like LaFleur, worked with Shanahan in Atlanta and at the Cleveland Browns, told Omnisport: "It's just the final game of the season, the stakes are incredibly high but I wouldn’t say that it would venture into Kyle's head any more than any other lesson.

"You'll never forget. Once you lose a Super Bowl like that, you just never feel comfortable with a lead, but that's been every single game since that we've been burying that weight.

"That's a lesson that you'll always be mindful of and you'll lose leads in the future but you'll do your best and better understand and think through how to handle situations - like all coaches that are able to have sustained success like Kyle."

LaFleur is adamant that Shanahan remained an aggressive playcaller in Houston, but he also recognises that, should the Niners find themselves in a similarly dominant position against the Chiefs, no one will be getting complacent.

Not with Patrick Mahomes on the other sideline. Not with '28-3' in their minds.

"I just know up in the box on Sundays, I don't care what the score is," LaFleur added.

"We had numerous times this year where we had big leads and you don't feel comfortable.

"I'm not saying the clock has to hit zero but the knees better be out or a lot of running the ball and the other team not using their timeouts."

Garbine Muguruza's climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro should give her belief nothing is impossible on the court, according to coach Conchita Martinez.

The two-time grand slam champion scaled the highest peak in Africa during the off-season, having endured a difficult 2019 that saw her begin this year outside the world's top 30.

But, unseeded at the Australian Open, Muguruza has impressively reached the final, in which American Sofia Kenin awaits on Saturday.

Martinez, who reunited with Muguruza ahead of this season having helped the Spaniard win Wimbledon in 2017, said the 26-year-old's decision to climb Mount Kilimanjaro would hold her in good stead.

"I think the mental part, you have to stay very tough. I don't know because I haven't done it," she told a news conference on Friday.

"Her stories, it's super cold where you can barely rest and you have to continue walking, where you had to overcome, I don't know, your fears and also be strong to continue.

"I think that gives you something mentally, that's for sure. I think she felt great about doing that. Not maybe everybody can reach the summit.

"She was stubborn enough to get there and she did it. I think that gives you something on the court where you might see something that is impossible, but everything is possible if you have the right mentality. She has the right mentality."

Now, Muguruza is a win away from achieving another fine feat – clinching a first hard-court grand slam title.

Standing in her way is Kenin, who she lost to in three sets in Beijing last year, and Martinez said being in control would be the key for Muguruza.

"She's a very good player. She's young. She's improving. I've been seeing her when I was working with [Karolina] Pliskova. I think she played her at the US Open 2018," she said.

"Last year I think she played her three times. I was with her a couple of times. She is a great player, very good fighter. She strikes the ball good. She is aggressive.

"I mean, the key is going to be to stay with her, to stay aggressive, try to be the one in command. It's not going to be easy, but hopefully she can do it.

"She's definitely improving. I mean, you can see over the time where she is. Like I said, it's not a one-time shot. A lot of work behind it. She's doing good."

Four head coaches will take charge of their first Six Nations matches when the 2020 tournament gets under way this weekend. 

Wales start the defence of their title against Italy in the opening match of the competition at the Principality Stadium on Saturday with Wayne Pivac at the helm and Franco Smith in charge of the Azzurri on an interim basis. 

Ireland begin Andy Farrell's tenure against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium later in the day, while France start a new dawn with Fabien Galthie in command against England at Stade de France on Sunday.

Here we take a look at the prospects of each nation for the 2020 campaign.

 

ENGLAND

Who's in charge?

There was frenzied speculation over the future of Eddie Jones after England were soundly beaten by South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final.

The canny Australian stayed in the role, though, and is contracted until 2021, but it remains to be seen if he will still be in charge at the next World Cup in France two years later.

Who's the key man?

Tom Curry was outstanding on the biggest stage of all in Japan, and the back-row will have a major part to play in the England's bid to win the Six Nations for the first time since 2017.

Curry is expected to deputise from the injury Billy Vunipola against Les Bleus in the opening round, giving another example of his versatility.

What can they achieve this year?

The World Cup runners-up should be fuelled by the agony of coming so close to being crowned world champions three months ago and have been installed as favourites.

Jones is determined to make England the "greatest team ever" and he must hope his Saracens contingent are not affected by the European champions' salary-cap saga.

 

FRANCE

Who's in charge?

Former France captain Galthie was charged with the task of replacing Jacques Brunel after the World Cup and has put his faith in youth with an eye on the next World Cup on home soil. The appointment of Shaun Edwards as defence coach could be a masterstroke.

Who's the key man?

Teddy Thomas is a livewire wing who has been in fine form for Racing 92 this season and should show what he is capable after missing out on the World Cup.

What can they achieve?

It is difficult to know which France side will turn up at the best of times and, although there is an air of optimism with young players getting their chance, that could make them even more difficult to predict.

A showdown with England in Paris grants them a great opportunity to make a huge statement, but Les Bleus face a tricky trip to Cardiff after hosting Italy.

 

IRELAND

Who's in charge?

Farrell has earned his stripes as an assistant with Ireland, England and Saracens, and he will have plenty of experience under his belt for his first role as head coach after replacing Joe Schmidt.

Who's the key man?

James Ryan has been outstanding for Ireland and Leinster, and Farrell will rely on the towering lock to maintain his high standards, with powerful ball-carrying and set-piece acumen.

What can they achieve?

After the disappointment of bowing out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage and failing to retain their Six Nations title last year, Ireland will be a major danger if they can hit the ground running under Farrell.

The 2018 champions have strength in depth and should mount a strong challenge, with a home clash against Wales in the second round followed by a trip to Twickenham potentially decisive. 

 

ITALY

Who's in charge?

South African Smith stepped in for the Six Nations after a successful spell with the Cheetahs, taking over from Conor O'Shea.

Who's the key man?

Luca Bigi has been handed the captaincy with Sergio Parisse, set to make his swansong at Stadio Olimpico, retiring, and the hooker must drive the perennial recipients of the wooden spoon on and show they are up for the battle.

What can they achieve ?

A victory would be an achievement in itself given Italy have not come out on top in a Six Nations match since stunning Scotland in 2015.

 

SCOTLAND 

Who's in charge?

Gregor Townsend is under pressure to turn Scotland's fortunes around after they failed to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Who's the key man?

Stuart Hogg has taken over as skipper, and the full-back must show the sort of form that made him a British and Irish Lion.

What can they achieve?

There is no doubt Scotland have plenty of talent to call upon and can be a joy to watch on their day, but they have been shown to have a soft centre time and again.

Finn Russell will be a big loss for the first game against Ireland after he was sent home for disciplinary reasons.

 

WALES

Who's in charge?

Pivac succeeded long-serving fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland after the World Cup, and the former Scarlets boss has a hard act to follow.

Who's the key man?

Liam Williams will miss the first match of the tournament against Italy, but the inspirational full-back should be fit for the trip to face Ireland the following week, and Wales will need him to stay fit in their quest for back-to-back titles.

What can they achieve?

Depending on how they adapt to life under Pivac, Wales ought to mount a strong defence of their crown after securing a Grand Slam last year but face tough away assignments against Ireland and England.

Wayne Pivac on the touchline; the Principality Stadium crowd brimming with back-to-school excitement.

A new dawn was arriving for Welsh rugby as Saturday's Six Nations opener against Italy came into view.

Yet this story isn't about coach Pivac, nor new dawns, nor the fact we've reached the 20-year anniversary of the Cardiff stadium staging its first match in the championship.

Coaches come and coaches go and Pivac will have his day and leave; not even Warren Gatland was inclined to go on forever on the touchline.

And the inevitable truth is that stadiums decay, to be replaced by grander, more suitable settings for world-class sport. Which themselves will one day lose their lustre.

The St Helen's ground in Swansea and Cardiff's Arms Park used to proudly house the hallowed turf for Welsh rugby.

Some things, though, have a greater permanence. And what endures perhaps best of all in Welsh rugby is its carved-in-stone connection to the country's richly poetic and musical history, most pertinently the hymns and folk songs that permeate from Llanelli to Llanberis, Cardiff Bay to Cardigan Bay.

That time-honoured beacon of Welsh society - the male voice choir - remains as much a part of the rugby fabric as it ever was. This story celebrates the glorious communion between song and Welsh rugby.

Slated for success

In the heart of Snowdonia lies Blaenau Ffestiniog, a largely Welsh-speaking small town renowned for centuries for its vast slate mines, and home today to the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir.

The Welsh Rugby Union invites such choirs on a rota basis to perform within the stadium before its home matches, knowing their presence rouses Cardiff crowds in such a way they become the team's 16th man.

Soon it will be the turn of Brythoniaid, seven-time winners of the National Eisteddfod. They are booked in for the match against Scotland in March.

"We've done it before," said Phill Jones, the choir secretary.

"Most of the choir are fanatical rugby supporters anyhow, so to be allowed to get on the pitch and be allowed to sing to 70,000 people is a bit of an experience."

 

Have the Welsh crowds lost their voice?

There have been questions asked recently about the atmosphere at Wales' home games.

Journalist and Pontypool rugby club media man Greg Caine argued on the Nation Cymru website that priorities were changing, and that Wales crowds had lost their voice, even at last year's Grand Slam decider against Ireland.

He wrote: "... the singing was seriously lacking, and it's almost become a cliche, but [again] many really were more interested in going to the bar than watching the match."

He pointed to a "day out" culture and added: "Whilst this isn't necessarily a bad thing – people are welcome to enjoy something they've paid for however they want – a symptom of the aforementioned attitude to the match is the general lack of singing, and it's that which I find most disappointing and demoralising when attending Wales matches."

Most surprisingly of all, Caine claimed Wales football supporters have developed a "wider repertoire" of songs and chants than their rugby counterparts.

"It does [surprise me]. I would say quite the opposite to be honest with you," Brythoniaid's Jones told Omnisport.

Such an argument could run and run; what defies debate is the sense that song is deeply ingrained within Welsh sporting culture, whatever the shape of the ball.

"The English only have one song"

"Anywhere, at any standard of rugby, you get singing in the crowd," said Jones. "We've got a local rugby team called Bro Ffestiniog, and even if the crowd might only be 50 or maybe less, they'll sing like mad.

"We'll take a choir, just to give them entertainment and help along as well, and they'll say it makes a heck of a difference.

"You'll only hear one song being sung in an English match and that's the chariot one ['Swing Low, Sweet Chariot']. You listen to a Welsh crowd and you'll get such variation. I think it's something we're very good at, and the Scottish and the French are as well."

Jones says singing in Wales has always come with a rivalry aspect.

"You go back to the days when there was real hardship," he said. "In those days, the chapels and churches were at their strongest, where you had congregations in the hundreds and singing was a part of life.

"Where we sing, there were two huge quarries with 7,000 men working, and at each level of the mine, there was a shed where they would congregate having lunch, and they used to have singing competitions between each shed.

"It was tradition back then, and that's how the choir started. Most of the big choirs in Wales are associated with areas where coal mining and chapels were very strong. There's a lot less now than there used to be.

"We're not so bad, but we used to have massive choirs; I would say 120 to 130 [people]. These days people have other things to do."

Together, this is what we'll do

The Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir struck lucky when they were invited to perform at Festival No 6 in Portmeirion, performing 'Go West' with the Pet Shop Boys in 2014 and joining a 2017 line-up that featured The Flaming Lips and Rag'n'Bone Man.

"Because of that, we got more wanting to be involved with the choir," Jones recalls. "We were down to about 45 in the choir at one stage but we're now up to around 75, so you have to be prepared to change. Not change too much, but you've got to adapt."

Will the national anthem - Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau - ring out inside rugby stadiums in 50 years' time? Will future generations still incant Calon Lan, these days a favourite of so many supporters? Might Bread of Heaven still be bellowed from the stands towards the end of this century?

Will Max Boyce's Hymns and Arias always resonate?

"I would think so, I would hope so anyway," said Jones. "The choirs are getting smaller, so you might not have the same size of choir that are taking part now. But even though they get smaller, I think they'll still go on."

Gary Morgan, secretary of the Cardiff Arms Park Male Choir, agrees.

"Those songs are there and they're not going away," said Morgan.

"Some of our choir might groan a little when it comes to rehearsing the same old hymns, but those are the ones the crowds want and they enjoy them so much. And when on match days the crowd are singing them back, it's just a moment of great pride.

"We sang at Gavin Henson's wedding last year. People always love to hear a Welsh male voice choir on a big occasion."

But not only are the choirs shrinking, they are ageing, too, which has to be a worry.

"It's a real struggle to find anyone under the age of 40 wanting to join," Morgan said. "I couldn't give the choir the commitment I do now until I retired from teaching.

"But I can't imagine the Arms Park or the Principality Stadium without those songs. They're such an vital part of Welsh rugby life."

This year's Six Nations represents 20 years since Italy made their debut in the competition.

The Azzurri became the first new addition to the championship since France in 1940 at the turn of the millennium, and it has been a tough ride.

With the help of Opta, we look at the statistics behind Italy's Six Nations journey before they begin the 2020 campaign at Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.

Will it be an anniversary to celebrate?

 

At the bottom looking up

Since joining the competition in 2000, Italy have scored a total of 133 tries. Scotland have only touched down eight more times in that time frame, while England lead the way on 299.

The Azzurri have averaged the fewest carries (97.4), defenders beaten (10.96), metres made (323.25) and clean breaks (4.5) per Six Nations game.

Given the fact they are often facing a lot of pressure, it is unsurprising they lead the Six Nations with an average of 116.99 tackles per game.

However, they miss 19.1 per 80 minutes and consequently have the worst tackle success rate of all teams at 86 per cent.

A record for futility

It is fair to say Italy have not enjoyed a great time of it recently.

The Azzurri have lost their past 22 games in the competition, representing the longest losing run in Five/Six Nations history, having last year surpassed the 17 straight defeats suffered by France between 1911 and 1920.

There had been signs of promise for Italy when they claimed the Wooden Spoon just once between 2012 and 2015, but they last year took it home for the fourth tournament in a row and 14th time overall.

Franco Smith will be hoping to end a winless streak that stretches back to 2015 and started after their second away victory in championship history, both of which have come against Scotland at Murrayfield. They face trips to Wales, France and Ireland this year.

King Parisse

While he is only expected to play home matches in his final Six Nations, Sergio Parisse has certainly left a mark on the competition.

He has made more appearances (69), carries (785) – surpassing his closest rival in that regard Brian O'Driscoll by almost 300 – and metres (3,088) than any other player in Six Nations history.

Only Alun Wyn Jones (580) has made more tackles than the Italy number eight (540), while he ranks third in turnovers (36) behind John Barclay (37) and O'Driscoll (53).

Leading scorers

Parisse's seven Six Nations tries put him joint-top of Italy's all-time list with Mirco Bergamasco, a tally Tommaso Allan is just two shy of.

Bergamasco scored 17 of Italy's 22 points when they beat France in the Six Nations for the first time in 2011 and reached 122 in the competition before making the switch to rugby league.

Only former fly-half Diego Dominguez, who booted 29 against Scotland in Italy's maiden win in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2000, has more (162).

Garbine Muguruza can join a small group of women to have won a grand slam while unseeded since 2000 when she faces Sofia Kenin in the Australian Open final.

A two-time grand slam champion, Muguruza has put together a fine run in Melbourne, where 14th seed Kenin awaits in the final on Saturday.

A French Open and Wimbledon winner, the Spaniard can add a first hard-court slam to her collection, having previously never been beyond the quarter-finals at the Australian Open.

Ranked 32nd in the world, the former world number one is aiming to win the grand slam while unseeded.

We look at the unseeded women to have won a grand slam since 2000 ahead of the Australian Open final.

2007 Australian Open – Serena Williams

Having missed most of 2006 due to a knee injury, Williams entered the 2007 tournament in Melbourne as the world number 81. The American cruised through the opening two rounds before overcoming fifth seed Nadia Petrova. In between wins over seeds Jelena Jankovic and Nicole Vaidisova, Williams survived her biggest scare, coming from a break down in the final set to edge Shahar Peer 8-6 in the third. In the final, Williams dispatched Maria Sharapova to win an eighth grand slam title.

2009 US Open – Kim Clijsters

After retiring, Clijsters gave birth to her daughter in early 2008 and needed a wildcard to enter the 2009 US Open, her first grand slam since Melbourne in 2007. The Belgian's biggest early tests came against Marion Bartoli and Venus Williams, surviving in three sets, before a quarter-final win over Li Na. Clijsters beat Serena Williams in an extraordinary semi-final during which the American threatened a linesperson over a foot-fault call, before overcoming Caroline Wozniacki in the final for her second major title.

2017 French Open – Jelena Ostapenko

Ostapenko was in fine form on clay heading into Roland Garros, where the Latvian stunned the tennis world. Untroubled early in the tournament, Ostapenko then played four consecutive three-setters on her way to the title, beating Sam Stosur, Wozniacki, Timea Bacsinszky and Simona Halep. Having turned 20 just days earlier, Ostapenko came from a set and 3-0 down in the second in the final against pre-tournament favourite Halep. She became the first Latvian to win a grand slam singles title, the crown also her first on the WTA Tour.

2017 US Open – Sloane Stephens

The highly rated Stephens, then ranked 83rd in the world, powered her way to the title in New York in 2017. The American had reached a semi-final (Australian Open) and quarter-final (Wimbledon) in 2013 before failing to go beyond the fourth round of a major leading into the US Open in 2017. A foot injury had sidelined her for almost a year after the 2016 Olympics, but Stephens stepped up on her return. She battled past the likes of Dominika Cibulkova, Julia Goerges, Anastasija Sevastova and Venus Williams before hammering Madison Keys in the final for her maiden major title.

Mitch Wishnowsky was out fishing when he got the phone call that changed his life.

He was a 20-year-old glazier in Western Australia, slowly getting back to normal after suffering from dengue fever in Bali.

The voice on the other end of the line had little sympathy, though.

"Mitch, are you done messing about in Bali?" John Smith asked.

"Stop wasting your life."

It was the first time Wishnowsky had spoken to Smith, the head coach of Prokick Australia, an organisation set up to help those Down Under have a career in American football.

"[He was] yelling at me, basically," Wishnowsky told Omnisport.

"Told me he'd change my life, [to] quit my job tomorrow, move to Melbourne. I was sold."

His parents, at least initially, were not, but on Sunday Wishnowsky will be punting for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.

It will be the realisation of a life-long dream... Sort of.

He had grown up playing soccer and Australian rules football, though shoulder injuries meant he had to give up the latter.

Wishnowsky had been urged to try American football - the flag variety - by some friends and it was when he was "messing around" punting that he caught the attention of someone who knew Smith and his colleague Nathan Chapman - both of whom spent time in the NFL.

"I always dreamed of being a pro athlete," Wishnowsky added.

"I was 20 and I had to give [Australian rules] away. I was devastated. I'm 20, I'm not going to be a pro athlete, time to move on.

"Randomly, this came out of the blue, this was my last chance."

From Melbourne, Wishnowsky went to a junior college in Santa Barbara and onto college in Utah, and in 2016 he won the Ray Guy Award, given to college football's best punter.

The NFL beckoned and the 49ers selected Wishnowsky in last year's draft, the rookie establishing himself as the team's starting punter in their run to the Super Bowl, where they face the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami.

He may be one of the few from his country in the NFL, but those who do hail from Australia tend to be punters.

Michael Dickson, Lachlan Edwards, Jordan Berry and Cameron Johnston all hold starting jobs in that position, and Wishnowsky puts the influx of Australian punters down to their grounding in Aussie rules.

"We just grow up from whatever age – five, four – punting a football," Wishnowsky added.

"If you ask us to throw it, we're useless because we didn't do it."

Jarryd Hayne and Valentine Holmes were not required to throw the ball, just run it, but neither was able to replicate the type of success they had as NRL players.

Rugby league star Hayne impressed enough to make the 49ers' roster in 2015 but lasted only half a season, while fellow Australia international Holmes returned to the NRL in November after a year on the New York Jets' practice squad.

"Even when Jarryd Hayne came over, I thought there are incredible athletes in Australia, [but] he's going to struggle, so just to do what he did was incredible," Wishnowsky said.

"Some of the athletes that are over here are incredible, so fast, so quick, cut up.

"They will eat pancakes and maple syrup every meal and they will just be cut. They are just different. I think it is a tough thing to get into."

Wishnowsky has had no such problems making the transition, though, and on Sunday he will achieve something beyond even his wildest dreams.

"I didn't even consider this," Wishnowsky admitted.

"My dream was to play in the NFL, it's almost a new dream to play in the Super Bowl."

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