Marcus Rashford hit the winner and played a part – some might say – in Manchester United's first goal as the Red Devils beat City in Saturday's derby.

The in-form England international moved into early-career Cristiano Ronaldo territory by scoring in a seventh consecutive game for United, who have won nine in a row across all competitions.

Elsewhere in the Premier League, Liverpool's campaign continued to unravel as they were battered 3-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion, and their neighbours Everton remain in deep relegation trouble after a home loss to fellow strugglers Southampton.

Another derby saw Nottingham Forest get the better of Leicester City, with Steve Cooper's team beginning to get a foothold in mid-table.

With the help of Opta data, Stats Perform examines key statistics from the Saturday's standout Premier League games.

Manchester United 2-1 Manchester City: Making his Marc again

Rashford has been a shining light for United since returning from the World Cup, scoring in all seven games for Erik ten Hag's team.

He is the first United player since Ronaldo in March-April 2008 to put together such a streak, while his run of goals in nine consecutive games at Old Trafford makes him the club's first player since Teddy Sheringham in September-November 2000 to enjoy that level of home form.

Bruno Fernandes got the equaliser, after an opener from City's Jack Grealish, with Rashford not flagged offside in the build-up after chasing the ball but not getting a touch prior to his Portuguese team-mate lashing past Ederson.

Rashford's close-range winner soon after, in the 82nd minute, was set up by Alejandro Garnacho, who at 18 years and 197 days became the youngest player to provide an assist in a Premier League Manchester derby.

City had just one shot on target, their joint-fewest in a Premier League match under Pep Guardiola.

Kevin De Bruyne set up Grealish's headed opener, reaching double figures in Premier League assists for a fifth season, with only Cesc Fabregas (6) doing so in more campaigns, but that was of no consolation as City saw their title hopes dented.

Brighton and Hove Albion 3-0 Liverpool: Worth the wait for Seagulls

Jurgen Klopp's reaction summed it up, when he said: "I think everybody with a Brighton shirt on or a Brighton heart enjoyed the game a lot and I don't think anybody with a Liverpool heart enjoyed it for a second."

This was a horror show for the Reds, suffering their first league defeat at Brighton since January 1961 (3-1). Liverpool had gone 10 unbeaten away to the Seagulls in the league before Solly March's double and Danny Welbeck's sublime goal left them reeling.

Liverpool have suffered six defeats now in 18 games in the competition this term, three times as many losses as they incurred in the entire 2021-22 Premier League campaign. It was a fifth league loss away from Anfield, their worst season total since also losing five in 2017-18. This season is not yet at its halfway point for Liverpool, who sit ninth.

This game kicked off at 3pm locally. It was the first Saturday 3pm league game Liverpool have lost since going down 2-0 to Hull in February 2017, ending a 32-game undefeated streak in that slot.

March has four goals in his last four games, which is as many as he managed in his first 156 in the Premier League.

Everton 1-2 Southampton: Ward-Prowse piles on misery for Lampard

Sitting second-bottom now, Everton are having a dismal time of it under Frank Lampard's leadership, losing four league games in a row at home for the first time since a seven-game streak in 1958. They are winless in seven in the league, their worst run since an eight-game sequence under Rafael Benitez in October-December 2021.

Amadou Onana put the hosts ahead, becoming the fourth Belgian player to score for Everton in the Premier League, after Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini.

But Saints captain James Ward-Prowse then took over, netting twice including the 16th direct free-kick goal of his Premier League career, putting him just two behind David Beckham's competition record.

It was his 12th such goal in away games, more than any player has managed in the Premier League, and only Matt Le Tissier (44) has managed more away goals in the Premier League era for Southampton than Ward-Prowse's haul of 28.

Nottingham Forest 2-0 Leicester City: Johnson's derby delight

Brennan Johnson hit both goals in the East Midlands showdown, doubling his Premier League tally for the season and becoming the second-youngest Forest player to score twice in a Premier League game (21y 236d). Roy Keane, who struck a double against Leeds in December 1992 (21y 117d), remains the youngest.

Morgan Gibbs-White, at 22 years and 352 days, became the youngest to have two assists in a Premier League game for Forest.

Leicester are free-falling, with this a fourth consecutive league defeat. Remarkably, it is not yet their worst run of the campaign, having lost six in a row in August and September.

They have yet to win a point this season from a losing position, the only Premier League team to fail on that count.

The Dallas Cowboys headed into Week 18 still in contention for the number one seed in the NFC, but a desperate display from quarterback Dak Prescott saw them instead end the regular season on a bum note.

Although wins for the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers elsewhere meant the Cowboys would have finished as the fifth seed regardless, any optimism and momentum built up over the second half of the season was sapped by a stunning loss to the Washington Commanders.

The Commanders, already eliminated from the playoff race, crushed the Cowboys 26-6, helped by the worst performance of Prescott's career.

His completion percentage of 37.8 (14 of 37) was a career low, as was a yards-per-attempt average of 3.46. Only twice had the QB previously dipped below his Week 18 passer rating of 45.8.

"There's a lot we can learn from and get better and use this tape," said Prescott afterwards, and past experience at least suggests that is likely.

On the previous four occasions Prescott has completed under half of his passes in a game, he has guided Dallas to a win in his next outing. Across those four subsequent games, Prescott has completed 80.7 per cent of his passes for six touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Cowboys have won by 22.3 points on average.

A repeat against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round would represent a significant turnaround from the start of this season, however.

Prior to the Commanders game, Week 1 against the Buccaneers – a 19-3 loss – saw the most recent example of Prescott's pass completion dipping alarmingly, completing 14 of 29 attempts for 48.3 per cent.

On that occasion, a thumb injury ruled him out of the end of the game and then a chunk of the season before he was able to respond on his return.

The Cowboys went 8-2 over Prescott's next 10 starts, with both defeats coming in overtime. Dallas scored 351 points across that period, the highest-scoring 10-game span in team history.

Between Weeks 7 and 17, Prescott's 71.0 per cent pass completion led all QBs with 100 or more attempts. As only Patrick Mahomes (23) topped his 22 TD passes, the two-time Pro Bowler led the way for TD percentage (6.7).

But the Cowboys remained reluctant to rely too heavily on Prescott, running passing plays only 53.5 per cent of the time over this stretch – the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL.

This reluctance was understandable, too, given the clear warning signs ahead of that Washington game. Even without the ball regularly in his hands, Prescott threatened to derail his team.

His 13 interceptions were also a league high over those 11 weeks, meaning a pick six against the Commanders saw him end the year tied for the lead for picks (15) and pick sixes (three). Prescott played only 12 games to co-leader Davis Mills' 15.

Now, heading into the playoffs, Prescott is on a run of seven straight games with at least one interception. It is the longest such streak of 2022, while only five players have endured worse runs since he entered the league in 2016.

Prescott's careless aggression was already prompting murmurs from Jerry Jones before a Week 18 in which he averaged 10.9 air yards per attempt, up on his season mark of 8.2 air yards per attempt to that point.

He at least retains Jones' support heading into the playoffs, but the Cowboys owner will now want to see some return on a contract that pays Prescott $40million a year – in line with the deal signed by last season's Super Bowl-winning QB Matthew Stafford.

To this point, Prescott's playoff experience is made up of only four games and a single win.

In that regard, he stands at odds with his opponent this week. Tom Brady may have been unconvincing this year, too, with his 25 pickable passes third in the NFL, but he is the master when it comes to the playoffs.

Brady's 13,049 postseason passing yards dwarf not only Prescott's total (1,048) but that of every other playoff QB combined. The 13 other projected starters have a total of 9,184 playoff career passing yards.

The Buccaneers have looked likely to be accommodating postseason opponents for much of this year; they limped to the NFC South title at 8-9 and rank 17th by Stats Perform's efficiency versus expected model, with the 12-5 Cowboys seventh in EVE. There should be a clear favourite in this matchup.

But Brady has spent his entire career delivering in big moments, whereas Prescott crumbled last week.

The Cowboys may only ask their QB not to single-handedly cost them this game, yet Prescott still must prove even that is not beyond him.

All eyes will be cast towards north London on Sunday for a derby that could have significant implications in the tussle for the Premier League title and the hunt for a top-four finish.

Arsenal's lead at the top of the Premier League will be just two points if Manchester City beat Manchester United on Saturday, while victory for Erik ten Hag's side would put them five ahead of Spurs in the quest for Champions League football.

Having so much at stake is nothing new for clashes between Arsenal and Spurs, with a meeting at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last May being decisive in the two sides' battle to clinch fourth spot, where a 3-0 win for the hosts saw the Gunners miss the chance to secure a return to Europe's elite club competition.

Arsenal then lost to Newcastle United and saw Spurs leapfrog them to secure a top-four spot on the final day of the season, but Mikel Arteta's side have responded superbly.

Gunning for glory

Arsenal's pursuit of a first league title since 2003-04 has caught many by surprise this season, as has Tottenham's inability to kick on having beaten their arch-rivals to Champions League football last term.

Since that loss to Spurs in May, Arsenal have won 15 of their 19 Premier League matches, picking up 47 points out of a possible 57, with losses coming in the aforementioned trip to Newcastle last season and at Old Trafford against United in September.

Spurs, meanwhile, have won 12 of 20 Premier League fixtures since the win against Arsenal, picking up 39 points from a possible 60 – six of which came in back-to-back victories to finish the 2021-22 season.

In attack, the two great rivals boast a similar record, with Arsenal scoring 45 goals in 19 matches and Spurs finding the net on 43 occasions, having played a game more, though five came in a 5-0 thrashing of Norwich City on the final day of last season.

Defence is where Arsenal have shown the biggest improvement, conceding 17 goals in 19 matches – just 14 of which have been this season – while Spurs have conceded 25 goals in the same period,

Those improvements for Arsenal have put them 15 points better off than they were at the same stage last season, while Spurs have exactly the same points total as they did at the halfway mark last year.

Kane leading the way as Arsenal come of age

Unsurprisingly, England captain Harry Kane has the best goalscoring record since the two sides met at the back end of last season, scoring 17 goals in 20 games – 15 of which have come this season, only Erling Haaland (21) having more.

A lack of goals from alternative sources has been an issue, however, with Son Heung-min scoring six in the Premier League since May 13, 2022, and Richarlison yet to find the net for Spurs in his 10 Premier League appearances.

Arsenal's top-scorer in the same period is Gabriel Martinelli (eight goals in 19 appearances), though Bukayo Saka is closely behind with six and Eddie Nketiah's fine run since stepping up to replace the injured Gabriel Jesus leaves him with three goals in 17 appearances, only five of which have been as a starter.

Saka (seven) and Martinelli (three) both have more assists than Kane, Richarlison and Son (two), though the England captain's tally of goals gives him the best minutes per goal/assist average of 105 minutes, with Arsenal's best being Nketiah (189 minutes).

Nketiah (17 per cent), Saka and Martinelli (both 15 per cent) have been similarly efficient in front of goal, while Kane's 21.8 per cent shot conversion rate is significantly higher than Son (11.5 per cent).

The fairly even spread of Arsenal's attacking options displays the shared responsibility that Arteta's side have in the final third, whereas Kane continues to carry his team-mates.

Kane stands as the highest-scoring player of all-time in the north London derby with 14 goals, scoring in all but one of his eight home Premier League games against the Gunners as he stands one away from matching Jimmy Greaves' all-time record for the club of 266.

Manchester City will attempt to celebrate a landmark game for Pep Guardiola by securing a fourth consecutive win over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday.

The eagerly awaited derby will be Guardiola's 500th match as a top-flight manager in an incredible trophy-laden career.

Of more importance for the City boss will be claiming a victory that would leave the champions only two points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal, who face a derby of their own at Tottenham on Sunday.

The Red Devils were hammered 6-3 when the two sides met at the Etihad Stadium in October, with Guardiola's men having done the double over their fierce rivals last season.

Fourth-placed United are flying under Erik ten Hag, though, and a win over City – who suffered a shock EFL Cup defeat to Southampton on Wednesday – would leave them only a point behind their neighbours.

Stats Perform has used Opta data to preview a huge derby showdown.


Another huge milestone for Pep

Guardiola has long since established himself as one of the best managers in the world, achieving great success with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.

He took charge of 152 LaLiga games during his Barca tenure, 102 in the Bundesliga with dominant Bayern and this will be his 246th Premier League match as City boss.

Guardiola has won 379 of the 499 top-flight encounters he has overseen, suffered 52 defeats and drawn 68 games. 

With a win percentage rate of 76, he has the most victories and highest win rate - for managers who have taken charge of at least 100 games - of any boss in Europe's big-five leagues since his first top-flight season in 2008-09.

United on a roll

Ten Hag has lifted the gloom and there is more of an air of optimism at Old Trafford, with United having won eight consecutive games in all competitions.

Since and including their win over Liverpool on August 22, no team has earned more Premier League points than United's tally of 35, winning 11 of their 15 games during that time.

The Red Devils have won all three Premier League games since the World Cup without conceding a goal and reached the EFL Cup semi-finals with a 3-0 win over Charlton Athletic on Tuesday.

City to add insult to injury by breaking scoring record?

Erling Haaland and Phil Foden scored hat-tricks as City put United to the sword just over three months ago.

Guardiola's men could break their record for the number of goals scored against United in a season, which stands at eight established by 5-0 and 3-2 victories way back in the 1954-55 campaign.

The most goals the Red Devils have conceded against an opponent in a Premier League season is nine against Liverpool in 2021-22.

Rashford can do no wrong

Marcus Rashford can do no wrong at the minute, scoring in every game since the World Cup.

He came off the bench to help himself to a late double in the win over Charlton, making it seven goals in six matches since returning from England duty in Qatar.

Rashford, who found the back of the net twice for the Three Lions in the World Cup, has scored 15 times this season for United – who are certainly not missing Cristiano Ronaldo.

After a week's break for the FA Cup, the Premier League is back with a full round of fixtures this weekend – in fact, some teams have midweek games too.

As such, fantasy football managers turn their attention back to team selections, transfers and captain choices.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform has picked out four options that might be worth your consideration…

Dean Henderson (Nottingham Forest v Leicester City)

Forest endured a pretty brutal reality check upon their long-awaited return to the Premier League, but things have started looking up in the past few weeks.

Henderson has undoubtedly been a shrewd addition between the posts and his recent form reflects Forest's general improvement.

Four of his five Premier League clean sheets this term have come in his seven most recent appearances, while Forest have collectively restricted their opponents to two or fewer shots on target in four of their past five outings.

Sven Botman (Newcastle United v Fulham)

Newcastle have excelled in many areas this term, hence their position in the top four. Defensively they have been solid, and Botman has more than played his part.

Eddie Howe's men have kept a clean sheet in each of their past four league games, with Botman playing at least 87 minutes in all of them.

Only four players have contributed to more clean sheets than his seven this season, and another will see the Magpies record five successive top-flight shutouts for the first time.

Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United v Manchester City)

Granted, Fernandes is not exactly an "out there" selection, so this is more of a reminder of the value he can represent.

For starters, he is in good form having provided an assist in each of his past two league games, and for the season only Kevin De Bruyne (41) has created more chances in open play (40).

While he only has three assists, his 4.3 expected assists is the third best in the division, suggesting his team-mates have not fully made the most of his craft.

But with Marcus Rashford in such form and a big game against City – following by a midweek trip to struggling Crystal Palace – up next, Fernandes will be a leading candidate to be decisive.

Evan Ferguson (Brighton and Hove Albion v Liverpool)

From a slightly obvious pick to a real wildcard, but bear with us.

Ferguson has made a big impact at Brighton over the past few weeks. The 18-year-old has been involved in three goals across his past two games (two goals, one assist).

If he gets another goal against Liverpool at the weekend, he will be the youngest player (18 years and 87 days on Saturday) to score in three consecutive Premier League games since Michael Owen (18y, 12d).

Is it written in the stars?

Erik ten Hag's arrival at Manchester United last year began a process of culture reset. For years, the club allowed big egos to inflate, and the team's mentality to shrink, while an arrogant hierarchy seemingly assumed waving big cheques guaranteed success.

Ten Hag has taken steps to fix all of the above, and in the roughly eight months since he began working in May, the difference has been significant.

"There was no spirit," Ten Hag said last week. "I saw no team dynamic in the squad. The mental resilience was very low. I saw that as an outsider – and also noticed it in my first weeks at the club.

"I looked at the culture of the club. I asked, 'how did Manchester United become great?'. The club has bought an unimaginable number of players in recent years who have not been good enough. Most purchases have been average – and at United average is not good enough. United's shirt weighs heavily."

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and you can't say Ten Hag's impact has come without "waving big cheques". But the problem with previous eras was how the money was spent.

Casemiro, who cost £60million, is the prime example. At 30 years old, there's no doubt some fans were unsure he was the man to reinvigorate a midfield that had quite literally been a problem for over a decade, but he's been exceptional and a big part of United's transformation.

From slow start to key man

Saturday's Manchester derby will be a true litmus test of not only United's progress under Ten Hag, but also the influence Casemiro has.

Let's not forget, City crushed United 6-3 at the start of October. Pep Guardiola's men were even 6-1 up for about 11 minutes before a late Anthony Martial double.

Their midfield of Scott McTominay, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes simply couldn't handle City's dynamism, and then Erling Haaland and Phil Foden were irresistible in front of goal.

That was, unsurprisingly, the last game before Casemiro took ownership of the holding midfield role at United. Casemiro has played 1,330 minutes across all competitions since, second only to Fernandes (1,349), while Scott McTominay has managed just 439.

Over the same period, only Newcastle United (24) have claimed more points than the Red Devils (23) in the Premier League, with November's 3-1 reverse at Aston Villa their sole defeat.

Of course, it's difficult to attribute United's improvement to Casemiro alone, but there's no doubt his effective blend of destructiveness and creative subtlety have made Ten Hag's midfield a completely different proposition.

Not only is he so adept at reading the game and snuffing out attacks, Casemiro's long-underrated technical abilities suit Ten Hag's style of play down to the ground.

More than meets the eye

Anyone who regularly watched Real Madrid during Casemiro's long stay will have already known there's more to him than simply kicking people. Admittedly, frequent viewers of arguably the most popular team on Earth is hardly a niche group, yet there was certainly a lack of awareness from fans and pundits alike regarding Casemiro's 'other' talents when he joined United.

Because Ten Hag wants his team to generally dictate possession, players without excellent technique will stick out like a sore thumb, which is presumably one explanation for Aaron Wan-Bissaka featuring so irregularly until the past couple of weeks.

The fact Casemiro has become so influential speaks volumes.

Every 90 minutes he averages 6.3 involvements in open-play passing sequences that end in a shot, a record bettered by only five central midfielders in the Premier League this term (min. 500 minutes), including more recognised creators like Fernandes (7.3) and Kevin De Bruyne (8.0).

Additionally, just five players in the entire league (min. 500 minutes) have been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences (48) without creating or taking the shot. Both of these highlight how central Casemiro's playmaking skills are from his deeper role, even if he's not necessarily the one playing the key pass.

But he is proving extremely effective without the ball as well, and his powers of ball recovery combined with smart distribution make him such an asset, with only Rodri (32, from 1,391 minutes played) initiating more shot-ending open-play sequences after winning possession than Casemiro (22, from 979 minutes played).

It's arguably that hard-working, destructive nature that makes him so refreshing for United, though. The only other central midfielder they've had over the past 15 years who has recorded at least three tackles and eight duel wins (3.8 and 8.1) on a 90-minute basis over a season is Marouane Fellaini in 2013-14 (3.1 and 9.3) and 2016-17 (3.0 and 10.8).

Fellaini's stats will be boosted by his aerial effectiveness, and obviously the Belgian never had the same technical grasp Casemiro has, with his two brilliant passes in the build up to Marcus Rashford's goals in the EFL Cup win over Charlton Athletic earlier this week prime examples of his class in that respect.

He's probably the most complete midfielder they've had since Roy Keane, and the fact Ten Hag so emphatically filled a void that's been gaping throughout the post-Alex Ferguson era is proof enough of the manager's culture shift at Old Trafford.

Beating City will be another major statement.

Joao Felix has moved to Chelsea as the latest acquisition in the Todd Boehly era, with the Blues looking to respond after a poor start to the season.

Eliminated from both domestic cup competitions by Manchester City, Graham Potter's side sit 10th in the Premier League and 10 points adrift of Manchester United in the hunt for a top-four finish.

Joao Felix arrives as yet another attacker in the quest to find a reliable outlet in the final third, joining on loan from Atletico Madrid until the end of the season.

Having failed to fully establish himself in Diego Simeone's plans after a €126million (£113m) transfer from Benfica in 2019, Joao Felix has a point to prove – though there are questions to be asked as to whether he is the addition Chelsea truly need.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform has delved into the numbers to assess whether Joao Felix can be the man Potter's side are crying out for or whether he is further evidence of a scattergun transfer market approach by the Blues.

Atletico's restrictions

Although never scoring more than 10 goals or contributing more than five assists in a single season for Atletico, Joao Felix's impact has been steadily growing since his first campaign in the Spanish capital.

In 2019-20, the Portugal international averaged a direct goal contribution every 207 minutes, reducing to 157 minutes in 2020-21, 137 minutes last season and 120 minutes this term – where he was already halfway to last season's mark of 10 goals and had three assists.

Given Simeone's style does not suit expressive players like Joao Felix, such a return can be taken as a positive sign of his ability in the final third, though a shooting accuracy of 47.29 per cent in LaLiga since 2019-20 ranks him near the bottom of forwards who have scored at least 10 goals in that period.

Atletico create significantly fewer shooting opportunities than many of their European counterparts, however, ranking outside the top 25 for most shots across all competitions in Europe's top-five leagues since Joao Felix joined. In comparison, Chelsea are fourth.

As Joao Felix has a low conversion rate, the 23-year-old needs more chances in order to increase his goal tally, which Atletico have not been able to provide on a regular basis.

Chelsea's creative void

Chelsea fans have celebrated just 20 goals in the Premier League this season, with only supporters from the bottom six and Crystal Palace having fewer opportunities to cheer, though that only scratches the surface of the Blues' issues in the final third.

A shot conversion rate of 10.75 per cent this season is only narrowly behind top-four chasing Manchester United (11.1) and Liverpool (11.6), showing that converting chances is not the issue, but instead lies with the lack of opportunities being created.

Chelsea have had 186 shots in the Premier League this season, only Brentford, Everton, Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth have had fewer, identifying the Blues' lack of creativity is perhaps a bigger cause for concern than a reliable scorer.

Raheem Sterling stands as Chelsea's most potent outlet this season with 22 chances created, a figure lower than the highest total of a single player from any of their rivals in the established top-six and European-chasing Newcastle United.

Converting those chances has been another big issue for Chelsea this term, with no player hitting the five-goal mark in the Premier League yet this season and only four players having scored twice or more this term.

Fix it Felix?

With a need to improve creativity and their record in front of goal, Chelsea will look to Joao Felix as a potential fix for both issues – though four goals and 10 chances created in LaLiga for Atletico this season does not suggest an immediate solution.

The biggest question mark over the deal, though, is where exactly Joao Felix fits into Potter's starting line-up, as neither he nor Kai Havertz are recognised centre-forwards but would likely have to adopt a false nine role.

At Atletico, Joao Felix has had the biggest impact down the left, with 53.95 per cent of his touches this season down that side, while Havertz has been more influential on either flank than he has through the middle.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is Havertz who shows the better capability of being transformed into a more natural option through the middle. Since he arrived at Stamford Bridge in September 2020, he boasts more goals and a higher shooting accuracy than Joao Felix.

The Portuguese's conversion rate of 15.82 per cent in that period is slightly better than Havertz's 14.07 per cent but the Germany international has had 20 more attempts at goal, benefitting from Chelsea's higher volume attacking approach compared to Atletico's.

On the face of it, Joao Felix does not stand out as the fix that Chelsea are crying out for this season, though the ability for Potter to chop and change his forward three with either Havertz or his new addition through the middle should yield more effectiveness in the final third.

In the 2022 NFL season, there have been few stories as remarkable as that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, who heads into the postseason with a golden opportunity to become the first rookie quarterback to lead a team to Super Bowl glory.

Purdy has been a revelation since being thrust into the spotlight as the starting quarterback in the wake of the fractured foot suffered by Jimmy Garoppolo in the Week 13 win over the Miami Dolphins.

This was supposed to be Trey Lance's team in 2022, but with the third overall pick in 2021 removed from the equation with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2, there are pertinent questions asking if it is now Purdy's for the long term, and they are merited given how he has performed in an extraordinary start to his career.

Belying his status as the last pick in the 2022 draft, Purdy has confidently piloted one of the best offenses in football, with the 49ers averaging a league-leading 33.6 points per game since he became the full-time starter.

In addition to Purdy ensuring the 49ers beat the Dolphins following Garoppolo's first-quarter departure, he has since won each of his first five starts, helping the NFC West champion Niners finish the regular season on a 10-game winning streak.

With the 49ers' win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 18, in which he threw three touchdowns, Purdy became the third rookie quarterback to win his first five starts, following Ben Roethlisberger (won first 13 starts in 2004) and Mike Kruczek (first six in 1968).

He is the third player in NFL history with at least two touchdown passes in each of his first five starts, joining Dan Marino and Billy Volek, while he is only the second rookie with at least two touchdown throws in six consecutive games. The other was Justin Herbert in 2020.

Purdy's passer rating over his first five starts of 119.0 is second only to Kurt Warner (131.4) in 1999. Though Warner was not a rookie, he went on to lead the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title, winning Super Bowl MVP in the process.

The support system for Purdy as he looks to make league history is excellent. San Francisco's offense is stacked with playmakers, with the addition of Christian McCaffrey to a group that already included Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle having a transformative impact on Kyle Shanahan's attack.

San Francisco's plethora of weaponry is a significant reason why Purdy went into Week 18 ranked fourth among quarterbacks with at least 100 plays in expected passing situations in Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE). Prior to the blowout of the Cardinals, Purdy was averaging 1.47 yards over expected in anticipated passing situations.

With a defense led by Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner Nick Bosa establishing itself as the NFL's best, the 49ers went into Week 18 ranked first overall in EVE.

By that measure, the 49ers are the best team in the NFL, but history is firmly against Purdy having success in his quest to guide them to a sixth Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

Nineteen rookies have started in the playoffs in the Super Bowl era, posting a 9-19 record across 28 games.

While no rookie quarterback has lifted the Lombardi, the performances of a selection of those to have entered the heat of the postseason battle in their first season offer a glimpse into what may lie ahead for Purdy, as he prepares to start his playoff career against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.

Ben Roethlisberger (2004)

Roethlisberger may be the best parallel we can draw for Purdy given their shared place in the NFL history books.

The Pittsburgh Steelers great enjoyed an entirely different draft experience in 2004, playing the role of frustrated spectator until the 11th pick as the famous Eli Manning-Philip Rivers saga took its course.

Roethlisberger made the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants initially look foolish for not valuing him higher, helping a juggernaut Steelers team to a 15-1 record and the number one seed in the AFC.

Yet his first postseason proved a difficult one for Big Ben, with Roethlisberger completing only 57.4 per cent of his passes for 407 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions, recording a passer rating of 61.3.

Three of his five picks came in the AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots, whose opportunistic defensive performance inspired them to a third Super Bowl appearance – and ultimately a third Super Bowl title – in four seasons.

Purdy has the benefit of having the league's premier defense on his side, and the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles would appear to be the only team in the 49ers' way who possess the capability to pose him problems akin to those Roethlisberger experienced back in January 2005.

The NFL has changed significantly since Bill Belichick's defense denied Roethlisberger a chance at history, but the Steelers' Conference Championship game woes of 18 years ago are a scarcely needed reminder of the value of protecting the football.

Purdy, who has 13 touchdowns to four interceptions, has done a largely impressive job in that sense, and if he continues in the same manner, the 49ers will be excellently positioned for a deep run. If the Niners do fall short, Purdy may take heart from Roethlisberger's second season, which saw him lead the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks.

Joe Flacco (2008) & Mark Sanchez (2009)

Flacco and Sanchez are also decent examples that could be a guide to how Purdy's playoff journey may go.

Unlike Purdy, they were both highly drafted quarterbacks, but they are comparable in that they had the benefit of supporting casts built for January success. Both made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

Flacco did not have to do much to get to that point with the 2008 Baltimore Ravens. Across his three postseason games, Flacco completed just 44 per cent of his passes for 437 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, giving him a passer rating of just 50.8.

Yet the Ravens were able to succeed by leaning on a third-ranked defense and a fourth-ranked run game, taking the pressure off Flacco. Indeed, Baltimore gave up just 19 points across the first two rounds of the playoffs. It was only when the Ravens faced a top-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers defense in the title game that Flacco's shortcomings as a rookie proved decisive.

A year later, Sanchez fared better with the New York Jets, hitting on just over 60 per cent of his passes for 539 yards, four touchdowns and a pair of picks, posting a passer rating of 92.7.

Though his numbers were better, the formula was the same, the Jets riding Rex Ryan's dominant defense and a ground attack that led the NFL in yards per game to the Conference Championship.

Flacco went on to enjoy one of the great postseason runs in the 2012 season in leading the Ravens to glory, beating the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but Purdy will have designs on comfortably surpassing Sanchez's achievements following the electric start to his career.

He has thrived throwing the ball to the intermediate area of the field. On throws between 10 and 20 yards, Purdy has a delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball 83.7 per cent of the time. That is second only to Andy Dalton (85.6) among quarterbacks with at least 20 such attempts.

But with McCaffrey, Samuel and Elijah Mitchell giving the 49ers arguably the most versatile backfield in the NFL, one in which both McCaffrey and Samuel are threats to run the ball, catch it out of the backfield or line up in the formation as a receiver, San Francisco can significantly ease the pressure on Purdy by leaning on the ground game and short checkdown throws that always have the potential to be turned into big plays.

On top of that, the defense, which finished the season with the second-best success rate (35.9 per cent) in the league, has consistently shown its ability to put the team on its back despite some signs of vulnerability in recent weeks.

Purdy's early success points to him having a career superior to that of Flacco and Sanchez, but the 49ers could manage him in much similar fashion to how they were handled in the playoffs in his first postseason experience.

Russell Wilson (2012)

One of the best rookie quarterback performances in the playoffs came from a player who was previously the thorn in the 49ers' side with the Seahawks.

Wilson won the Super Bowl in only his second season, but the groundwork for that run was laid during a superb rookie year.

The Seahawks star was excellent in his first postseason, completing 62.9 per cent of his passes for 572 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He posted a passer rating of 102.4, leading the Seahawks to a win over Washington at FedEx Field in the Wild Card round before falling short against the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional round.

Wilson had the benefit of a full regular season under his belt and was a better athlete than Purdy is at that point in his career.

Yet the 49ers will hope the repetitions Purdy has to his name in calmly leading them through the stretch run will be enough for him to perform at a level akin to that of Wilson, albeit with expectations of significantly better results.

Cautionary tales

As the overall record indicates, starting a rookie quarterback in the playoffs typically ends badly. Matt Ryan threw two interceptions in his postseason debut in 2008 and Dalton was picked off three times as he and the Cincinnati Bengals suffered Wild Card round heartache in 2011. Andrew Luck led the Colts to the playoffs in 2012, but his postseason bow saw him post a passer rating of just 59.8.

Robert Griffin III's sole playoff appearance in 2012 ended in a knee injury as he was beaten by Wilson and the Seahawks in a battle of the rookies, while in 2018 Lamar Jackson was confounded by a Los Angeles Chargers defense that frequently deployed seven defensive backs to hold the dual-threat in check and restrict him to a completion percentage of 48.3.

Mac Jones was the last rookie to start a playoff game, doing so last January, but was intercepted twice in trying in vain to help to the Patriots keep up with a Buffalo Bills team that blew them away 47-17.

Even if Purdy maintains his stellar level of play, there is a chance that, in the lottery of the postseason, it still may not be enough.

Indeed, Dak Prescott threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns for the Dallas Cowboys in his playoff debut in the 2016 Divisional round and still came up short as he was outdueled by Aaron Rodgers in a 34-31 thriller.

That game serves as a perfect illustration as to why the playoffs are a different animal. The stakes go up, and the standard can also rise to a point where a player's best is often not good enough. In a Wild Card game against a Seahawks team he had little issue beating in the regular season, it will soon become apparent whether Purdy has what it takes to give this Cinderella quarterback story a fairytale ending.

Gareth Bale announced his retirement on Monday, bringing an end to a trophy-laden and eventful career spanning 17 seasons.

Southampton product Bale made a name for himself at Tottenham, but it was in nine years at Real Madrid he truly rose to stardom – although he had a turbulent time in the Spanish capital.

Despite playing starring roles in two Champions League finals and winning 16 trophies, Bale's time in Madrid turned sour long before he departed last June.

The versatile attacker famously paraded with a banner that read "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order" in 2019 and that understandably did not go down well with Los Blancos fans.

Playing time continued to be limited at Los Angeles FC, but Bale scored an extra-time leveller in the MLS Cup final against Philadelphia Union, which his side won on penalties.

Yet for all his success at club level, it was arguably with Wales that Bale enjoyed his proudest moments, not least reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

Bale also played a huge part in ending Wales' 64-year wait to qualify for the World Cup last year, with their group defeat to England proving to be his final game as a professional.

As the curtain comes down on Bale's playing days at the age of just 33, Stats Perform breaks down the numbers from a remarkable career.

Bale played 664 matches for club and country and scored 226 goals, the majority of those unsurprisingly coming for Madrid (106).

He also netted 41 times in 111 games for Wales, becoming his country's record goalscorer and cap holder in the process.

The Cardiff-born forward also netted five goals for Southampton and three for LAFC at either end of his career, while bagging 71 in 237 matches for Tottenham.

It was his superb form for Spurs, particularly in the 2012-13 season, that saw Bale make a then-record €100.8million (£85.1m) switch to Madrid.

That would prove to be Bale's best season in terms of goals as he netted 21, nine of those from outside the box in the Premier League – a single-season record that still stands.

Add his four assists into the mix and only Robin van Persie (35) and Luis Suarez (28) played a direct part in more goals than Bale's 25 during that campaign.

As impressive as Bale was for Spurs, though, he did not have any silverware to show for it. That would all soon change at the Santiago Bernabeu.

He is the only player to score a match-winning goal in two Champions League finals, doing so in 2013-14 against Atletico Madrid and in 2017-18 to break Liverpool's hearts.

Bale scored twice against Liverpool, aided by a horror shown from Loris Karius, making him the first substitute to score more than once in a single Champions League final.

Those three combined final goals are second only to Cristiano Ronaldo (four), who it is fair to say will be far better remembered by Madrid supporters than Bale.

While his part in some of Madrid's triumphs in more recent seasons was limited, Bale does at least deserve his place in club folklore.

His 258 appearances for Los Blancos are more than the likes of Luis Figo (245) and Zinedine Zidane (227) made, and just short of the great Ferenc Puskas' tally of 262.

Furthermore, Bale is one of only 22 players in Madrid's esteemed history to have reach the 100-goal mark, his 106 strikes more than Brazil legend Ronaldo (104) managed.

When Fernando Santos called time on his eight-year stint as Portugal head coach after their 2022 World Cup quarter-final elimination, few would have correctly predicted his replacement.

Roberto Martinez also left his national team role after the tournament in Qatar, with Belgium disappointingly falling at the group stage.

The former Everton and Wigan Athletic boss took the Red Devils to the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, before reaching the last eight of Euro 2020, being eliminated by the eventual winners in both.

Martinez finds himself in charge of A Selecao now after his appointment was confirmed on Monday, and there is plenty of work to be done.

Qualifiers for the 2024 European Championships get underway in March and with the talent at their disposal, Portugal must be fancied to be among the favourites for the tournament in Germany.

Stats Perform has taken a look at five things in Martinez's in-tray that he will need to consider if he is to find success with his new team.

Solve the Ronaldo conundrum

"Decisions have to be made on the pitch. I won't rush into decisions. I want to meet everyone, and from today I want to talk and meet all the players," Martinez said at his first press conference as Portugal coach.

"Cristiano [Ronaldo] is part of that list. He's had 19 years in the national team and deserves respect, let's talk. From there, it's up to me to make the best list for the European Championships."

Ronaldo has 118 goals in 196 caps for Portugal, undeniably an international record to be proud of, but he will be 38 years old when Martinez takes charge of his first game.

One of the new boss' biggest issues with Belgium was getting the best out of ageing stars, and with Portugal arguably looking far sharper when Ronaldo was benched in Qatar – hat-trick hero v Switzerland Goncalo Ramos in particular – perhaps now is the perfect time to allow the former Real Madrid and Juventus man to fully focus on his new adventure in Saudi Arabia and call time on his international career.

Getting the best out of Joao Felix

This is a problem Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone is all too familiar with, hence why Joao Felix is being linked with a loan move to the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal instead of lighting up LaLiga on a weekly basis.

The 23-year-old has plenty of talent, but a lack of consistency belies the nine-figure fee Atletico paid Benfica for him back in 2019.

If Martinez chooses to move on from Ronaldo though, Joao Felix could find the space and responsibility to thrive at international level as part of a team where everyone would be expected to chip in.

Of players to have featured in at least 14 LaLiga games this season, only Mikel Merino, Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele average more than Joao Felix's 0.42 assists per 90.

Utilise Dias to build solid foundation

Arguably Martinez's main struggle by the end of his time with Belgium was managing a defence filled with players who were several years past their prime.

He will need to make sure that Portugal maintain freshness there as a good defence will always give you a chance in international competitions, such as when Portugal conceded just once in four knockout games on their way to winning Euro 2016.

One key decision could be taken out of his hands, with Pepe expected to announce his retirement from international football, but in Ruben Dias, Martinez has the perfect figure to build his defence around.

The Manchester City centre-back is one of the best in Europe and has shown under Pep Guardiola he can also be relied upon in a backline that pushes high to close space and allow the attack to press from the front, something Martinez has often favoured when he has had the tools to do so.

Build around Bruno

Since his move to Man Utd in January 2020, Bruno Fernandes has proven himself to be one of the premier midfielders in Europe, and at the World Cup, he began to show that he can lead for his national team as well.

Only Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi (both 10) had more goal involvements than Fernandes' five (two goals, three assists) in Qatar, while no-one produced more than his three assists.

In the Premier League this season, only Kevin De Bruyne (41) has created more chances from open play than his 40, with the Manchester City man having played a game more, and with plenty of attacking firepower to aim for with Portugal, Fernandes can in theory fill his assist boots over the coming years under Martinez.

Make the most of Leao

One of those talents Fernandes should be working with is Rafael Leao, one of the most exciting attackers in Europe right now.

While Santos had plenty of other fine players to choose from, it was surprising to see Leao reduced to just substitute appearances in all five games at the World Cup, though he still produced two goals before Portugal were eventually eliminated by Morocco in the quarter-finals.

The Milan forward should really be Martinez's primary weapon on the left of the attack, especially if he can replicate the form that saw him win Serie A's player of the season award as the Rossoneri claimed the Scudetto in 2021-22.

The Minnesota Vikings will finish the season with at least 12 wins, have arguably the finest receiver in the NFL and produced the largest comeback in NFL history last month.

At worst they will be the third seed in the NFC playoffs, and yet it is hard to think of a double-digit win team heading into the playoffs with so few outside the organisation believing they can contend to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

That will be of no concern to the Vikings, but their 2022 resume emphatically illustrates why they are not being taken seriously as potential Super Bowl champions.

Minnesota's season has been one defined by dramatic finishes in close games. Indeed, 11 of the wins the Vikings have claimed his season have been by a one-score margin, including their comeback from 36-0 down to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15.

Their sole double-digit win came in Week 1, when the Vikings eased to a 23-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers, a triumph cancelled out by their 41-17 defeat at Lambeau Field last week.

That loss left them with a point differential of minus 19. The current record for worst point differential in a season with at least 12 wins in NFL history is +21 by the 13-7 Frankford Yellow Jackets in 1925.

The 1925 championship was not decided by a playoff system -- only the most avid of NFL historians would know from memory that the Chicago Cardinals were awarded the title after the Pontsville Maroons were suspended from the league -- and there is a more recent comparison that reflects more kindly on the Vikings.

Minnesota's average margin of defeat this season stands at 22.3 points. That would be the largest average margin of defeat for an NFL team since the 1997 San Francisco 49ers (23.7).

San Francisco went 13-3 that season, which the 49ers finished as the NFC's top seed, and progressed to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Green Bay Packers.

Whether the Vikings have what it takes to imitate them and go deep into the playoffs despite the heavy defeats that have served to increase concerns about their viability as contenders remains open for debate.

It is a debate that is unlikely to be settled by their Week 18 regular-season finale with the three-win Chicago Bears, but they do have points in their favour, the most notable of which is a cast of pass-catching weapons that ranks 11th in the NFL in win rate against pass coverage.

Justin Jefferson, who is ninth in the NFL in combined open percentage (49.3) against man and zone coverage (min. 100 matchups), is the headline act. Having a receiver who can get open as frequently as he does is an obvious asset for a playoff team, one which has thrived in large part because of his 27 receptions of 20 yards or more.

He is supported by a true number one tight end in T.J. Hockenson and another excellent route-runner in veteran Adam Thielen.

While the Vikings have a cast of weapons that is the envy of many in the NFL, they also have a defensive front that boasts the pass-rush talent to limit opposing aerial attacks.

Minnesota's defense is sixth in the NFL in pass rush win rate, yet the Vikings' success in that regard has not resulted in defensive solidity. To the contrary, their 33 sacks for negative yardage are tied for 20th in the league and their success rate against the pass of 45.5 per cent is the fourth worst in the NFL.

And, even with the substantial merits of Jefferson and Co, there is reason to worry whether the Vikings can keep up with top-end playoff competition if they cannot stop their opponents.

The Vikings' pass protection took a hit with the loss of right tackle Brian O'Neill to an Achilles injury and at center they are down to third-stringer Chris Reed. 

If those injuries prevent Minnesota from adequately protecting Kirk Cousins, then it is unlikely to bode well for the playoff fortunes of a quarterback who has struggled when the defense knows he is passing.

Cousins has averaged minus 0.02 yards over expected in expected passing situations, according to Stats Perform data, which is 16th among quarterbacks with at least 100 such attempts.

In other words, in clear passing situations, Cousins is failing to elevate those around them, and he is getting little support from a run game that many expected to perform at a much higher level than it has displayed this season.

The Vikings' run success rate of 34.6 per cent is comfortably below the average of 37.5, with an O-Line that ranks 23rd in run block win rate struggling to open holes for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattinson.

There is no doubting Minnesota's talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball, yet the questions that have surrounded Cousins throughout his career persist and there are enough holes elsewhere on the roster to justify the doubts about their prospects as contenders. Football is not played on spreadsheets, but the numbers from an extremely curious campaign will be tough to dispute until the Vikings give the NFL world reason to.

A new year may bring fresh hope, but the same old problems were clear to see for Chelsea in their 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest on Sunday.

A team seemingly stuck in transition and unable to fully adapt to the methods of head coach Graham Potter, Chelsea face a huge battle to even finish in the Premier League top four this season – their absolute minimum target.

Amid all the talk of a struggling attack (only eight other teams have scored fewer goals per game than Chelsea this season), and the need for further freshening up in other areas, the situation regarding the goalkeeping position has all of a sudden gone very quiet.

The opening of the transfer window in recent years, whether prior to the start of a new season or midway through, would lead to strong speculation surrounding the future of Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Not so much this time around, with the Spain international usurping Edouard Mendy since Potter's arrival in September and performing steadily between the sticks in the four months since.

Indeed, it could be argued that Kepa has just about been Chelsea's most consistent performer under Potter, albeit far from perfect in what has been a difficult period for the Blues.

Eight times Kepa has been used in the Premier League this season, each of those appearances coming after Thomas Tuchel's departure, and he has kept a clean sheet in half of those matches.

To put that in some perspective, only Newcastle United's Nick Pope – statistically the best keeper in the division this season – is keeping shutouts at a better rate, with Manchester United's David de Gea and Aaron Ramsdale of Arsenal close behind.

Heading into the midweek round of fixtures, meanwhile, no goalkeeper could boast a better save percentage return than Kepa's 83.3 among those to have played more than once, with Pope (80.7) the closest to him in that category.

While he perhaps could have done a little more to keep out some of the six goals he has conceded, Kepa has yet to commit an error leading to a goal in the Premier League this campaign, unlike De Gea, Mendy, Jordan Pickford (one each) and Hugo Lloris (a competition-leading three) among others.

High-profile errors were for a long time a hallmark of Kepa's game. Not only that, the 28-year-old never seemed to be far from the headlines, a perfect case in point being a little under four years ago when refusing to leave the field after Maurizio Sarri tried to substitute him off in the EFL Cup final.

Three years later, in last season's final at Wembley, it was Kepa's missed spot-kick – the 22nd of a remarkable shoot-out – that led to Liverpool lifting the cup at Chelsea's expense.

There have been plenty of highs and lows in between, but that City match in particular may well come to define Kepa's time at Stamford Bridge, however long it is he remains at the club.

But now at a relative high point of his Chelsea career, the former Athletic Bilbao stopper will be out to prove himself once more when Chelsea and City face off twice in the space of three days this week.

It may well be that Potter opts to rotate for the second of those matches, an FA Cup third-round tie on Sunday, but Thursday's league clash at Stamford Bridge will see Kepa get the nod.

He has a pretty mixed record against City in his five seasons as a Chelsea player, conceding 10 goals in five matches, albeit with six of those coming in a single game in the 2018-19 campaign, and has kept three clean sheets.

"I'm feeling very well, I'm feeling confident with and without the ball. I'm feeling like I'm helping the team when they need it, so I'm happy," Kepa said in October after producing another fine display to keep out Brentford in a goalless draw.

"Of course, every player needs this confidence, this push, and I think for the goalkeeper it's even more important when you have continuity. For a goalkeeper, when you're not playing, in training it's not the same. I have to keep going, I have to keep working."

Keep working he has and, aided perhaps by a slice of luck owing to Mendy's injury problems and reported off-the-field problems, Kepa is now Chelsea's first choice until at least the end of the campaign, bar any surprise January moves.

And on the basis of the numbers alone, there is no real reason why Chelsea should look to change in that department in the long term. Of all goalkeepers in the Premier League this term, only Liverpool's Alison (8.4) has prevented more goals than Kepa on 4.1 – rising to 5.1 when excluding own goals.

Essentially, Kepa has kept out four goals more than expected based on the quality of chances for the opposition, bailing out an underperforming defence a number of times. On three occasions this season, Kepa has had to make five or more saves in a single game.

This may all say just as much about Chelsea's defence, which is stuck between the old and new, as it does Kepa. But as Chelsea prepare for their double-header against City, Kepa can at least afford a little smile as his redemption arc perhaps comes full circle.

Most football seasons carry a degree of unpredictability; that's just the nature of sport.

But it's certainly arguable that this season is among the least predictable in living memory due to the unique timing of the World Cup, which took place across November and December for the first time.

In Italy, Napoli would've presumably been the team most frustrated by the timing of Qatar 2022. On course for a first Scudetto since 1990 and the days of Diego Maradona, the Partenopei had been head and shoulders above the rest in Serie A before the World Cup and among the most eye-catching sides in Europe.

They'd lost just once – a 2-0 Champions League defeat at Liverpool – and won all but three matches across all competitions prior to the season's break. So, the key question facing them now is, can momentum survive a two-month hiatus?

The next 10 days or so will give us a fairly clear indication of just how good Napoli are.

Napoli's testing return

Napoli return to action in 2023 with one of the most-anticipated games of the season. Not only are their title credentials set for a thorough examination, but Inter could do with a positive result to kick-start their season.

Simone Inzaghi's men sit fifth, 11 points behind Napoli. A spell of four defeats in six Serie A games between August and October gave Inter an uphill struggle right from the early weeks of the season.

They recovered, to an extent, but did also lose to Juventus in early November. You'd have to think their chances of regaining the title they won in 2021, but relinquished to city rivals Milan last season, will disappear into the realms of impossibility if they are beaten on Wednesday.

Some might even suggest that's the case already. After all, Stats Perform's AI prediction model gives them only a 4.3 per cent chance of finishing the season top – though that is at least higher than the two teams directly above them.

It's not just this Inter clash that Napoli fans will have on their minds, however.

They host bitter rivals Juventus on January 13, and like Inter, the Bianconeri will also still harbour title hopes. That's assuming they don't suffer the unlikely fate of losing to Udinese – whose form tailed off after an incredible start – and winless Cremonese in the interim.

Perhaps all this talk of the title is a bit daft when you consider Napoli's clash with Juve won't even be the halfway point of the season: there remains a long way to go.

However, when a team has been as good as Napoli were before the World Cup, it's only normal to start considering how many more opportunities their rivals have.

Inter potentially have a joker in the pack, though.

Romelu's redemption?

It's been a difficult 18 months for Romelu Lukaku. His highly anticipated return to Chelsea was underwhelming, to say the least, and resulted in him making his way back to Inter.

"It's like coming home," he said. But injuries restricted the 29-year-old to just four appearances in Serie A before the World Cup, therefore Italy is very much still waiting for the real Lukaku to return.

In fact, the world is still waiting. Let's not forget, Lukaku did feature for Belgium in Qatar but did little to rebuild his fractured reputation.

Granted, injuries again limited his involvement but that performance against Croatia as Belgium were knocked out at the group stage was remarkable. He had five shots equalling 1.7 expected goals (xG), including three absolute sitters, yet he failed to convert any.

But if Lukaku does get back to anything like what he showed during his previous spell in San Siro, there's every reason to expect a slightly different Inter between now and the end of the season.

During those two campaigns with the Nerazzurri, Lukaku's haul of 47 league goals was bettered by only four players across the top five leagues. Similarly, his 35 non-penalty (np) strikes was only slightly above his np-xG (33.1 – also the fifth-highest in the top five leagues), which supports the idea he was dependable without being regularly lucky.

Of course, Antonio Conte's system at Inter was what many considered key in Lukaku's improvement. His pace, strength and running power – helped of course by his finishing ability – made the Belgian almost unplayable in a transition-based side.

Chelsea never saw the same player partly because Thomas Tuchel is a more possession-orientated coach; those opportunities to release Lukaku in behind defences just weren't as frequent and he arguably isn't technically good enough to be a key player in such a setup.

As such, Inzaghi was aware he'd have to change his tactics somewhat to adjust to Lukaku this season – this will be tested to the max over the coming weeks, and its success will likely determine Inter's campaign one way or the other.

The Brooklyn Nets will look to extend their winning streak to 13 games when they travel to take on the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.

Brooklyn's current 12-game run is the best streak in the NBA this season, and they are showing no signs of slowing down, with their past two victories against the San Antonio Spurs (139-103) and the Charlotte Hornets (123-106) coming by a combined 53 points.

Over that 12-game span, the Nets have gapped the field as the best offensive team in the league. In fact, their 124.2 points per 100 possessions is 6.0 points better than the second-placed Portland Trail Blazers (118.2).

That gap is greater than the distance between the Trail Blazers and the 24th-ranked Minnesota Timberwolves (112.9).

Their offensive firepower has been ignited by some unbelievable, and perhaps unsustainable efficiency by their All-NBA duo.

Over the past 12 games, Kevin Durant is shooting 59.2 per cent from the field – well above his career-best field goal percentage of 53.7 from his 2016-17 and 2020-21 campaigns. It is the same story for Kyrie Irving, who has led the team with 29.3 points at 54.3 per cent shooting, which would both comfortably set new career-highs.

The all-time record for team three-point percentage in a season belongs to the 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets at 42.7 per cent, while during this stretch the Nets have shot the three-ball at an unprecedented 44.2 per cent.

Unless that pair – who are both in their 30s – as well as the Nets as a whole are truly about to shatter their own personal and franchise records, they will, at some point, have to come back down to earth.

However, there is no indication the Bulls will be the team equipped to stand in their way.

During the Nets' winning streak, the Bulls have had the third-worst defense in the NBA, conceding 119.2 points per 100 possessions.

A big part of that has been their inability to rebound and finish off their defensive possessions. They are allowing 16.8 second-chance points per game – the second-most – while at the same time being the league's worst offensive rebounding team, grabbing only 21.9 per cent of their own misses.

The Bulls have also been the absolute worst team in the league at restricting three-pointers, allowing an average of 15.7 made threes per game at an efficient 38.6 per cent.

But while the three-pointer has been the Nets' best friend and the Bulls' worst enemy, it is also the most volatile method of scoring, and teams will generally regress to the mean over the course of an 82-game season.

It means the Nets will not keep shooting this well, and the Bulls will not continue to get lit up from long range at this rate – and while it is impossible to predict when things will begin to swing in the opposite direction, both teams are due for a change of fortune.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets – Kyrie Irving 

While Durant is the Nets' undisputed best player, Irving is the X-factor, and his strong games generally coincide with wins.

Irving is shooting 52.6 per cent from the field and 43.7 per cent from deep in the 18 wins he has been a part of, while those figures plummet to 44.9 per cent from the field and 24.7 per cent on three-pointers in his nine losses.

Chicago Bulls – Zach Lavine

It is a similar story for the Bulls, who have DeMar DeRozan as their consistent centrepiece, but rely on Zach Lavine to bring the additional firepower to a team lacking in three-point threats.

For the season, the Bulls are hitting just 10.6 three-pointers per game – the fourth-worst figure in the league – but in the 15 wins Lavine has played in he has hit 3.5 threes per game at a red-hot 46.1 per cent clip. It is a stark difference to his 2.2 made threes at 30.6 per cent in his 18 losses.

KEY BATTLE – Who can control the paint?

It seems clear that whoever catches fire from long range will likely emerge victorious, but with so much volatility attached to high-volume three-point shooting, it may come down to whichever team gets the easiest baskets.

A diet of lay-ups, dunks and free throws will always be the most sustainable form of offense, and the Nets are a team that lack much true size beyond starting center Nic Claxton.

If Bulls center Nikola Vucevic can impose his will on Claxton early and perhaps get him into foul trouble, it could open up the paint and force Ben Simmons to play extended minutes as the Nets' primary rim protector, which is not where he shines defensively.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Bulls have won three of their past four meetings with the Nets, including the most recent fixture on November 1, coming away 108-99 victors after holding Irving to just four points.

The list of things that have not gone entirely to plan for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is pretty extensive.

From offensive line injuries to an inconsistent pass rush and the questionable decision-making of head coach Todd Bowles in his first year in the job, the Buccaneers have had to deal with both misfortune and a host of self-inflicted problems.

Yet the most bemusing issue in what can at best be described as an up-and-down season for Tom Brady following his about-face on his initial offseason decision to retire has been his lack of a rapport with Mike Evans.

Sideline frustration between Brady and Evans has been a common theme for Tampa Bay in 2022, with the latter's struggles seeing him go 11 games without scoring a receiving touchdown.

That frustration was alleviated emphatically on Sunday as Evans exploded for a hat-trick of touchdowns in helping the Buccaneers overturn a 21-10 deficit against the Carolina Panthers and clinch the NFC South with a 30-24 victory at Raymond James Stadium.

Evans caught deep shots of 63, 57 and 30 yards from Brady as he destroyed an injury-hit Panthers secondary.

He created a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on eight of his 12 targets in a performance that saw him rack up 207 receiving yards. Evans averaged 17.25 burn yards per target, trailing only Christian Watson and Davante Adams among wideouts with at least five targets in Week 17 as of Sunday.

It was belated reward for a season in which Evans, despite consistently appearing out of sync with Brady, he has excelled at getting open. Indeed, heading into Week 17, Evans led the NFL in combined open percentage (56.47) in matchups against man and zone coverage (min. 100 matchups).

His first deep touchdown reception saw Evans surpass 1,000 receiving yards for the season. It is his ninth successive 1,000-yard campaign, tying Tim Brown for the second-longest such streak in NFL history. Only San Francisco 49ers legend Jerry Rice (11) can claim to have more consecutive four-figure receiving seasons.

Evans' own record for the most successive 1,000-yard receiving seasons to start a career was also extended, but more important than his individual milestones is the confidence his treble could give both him and Brady as they prepare for the postseason.

The Buccaneers have had precious little on which to rely on the offensive side of the ball, save for their performance when going no-huddle and Brady's ability to lead comebacks in the fourth quarter.

Brady has a career-high five game-winning drives this season and four fourth-quarter comebacks, a tally that is one shy of his career-high in that respect.

But the rekindling of Brady's connection with Evans gives Tampa Bay something to lean on, a route to explosive plays that will be all the more critical in the postseason.

A narrow win over the Panthers won't do much to change perceptions that the Bucs are a team well short of being able to compete for a Super Bowl. However, Brady and Evans connecting consistently downfield improves the odds of them at least doing damage in the playoffs, especially in a possible first-round matchup with a volatile and vulnerable Dallas Cowboys secondary.

It's likely to be the final year of the Brady-Evans partnership in Tampa, one that has resulted in 32 touchdowns since the quarterback left the New England Patriots to head to the Buccaneers.

Though it remains a long shot that Brady's expected swansong with the Bucs will result in a second title in three seasons, his farewell may be extended a few weeks longer than many anticipated if he and Evans can deliver a few more demonstrations of the rapport that had previously made this offense so devastating.

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