They say styles make fights, and it will be a true styles clash when the run-and-gun Indiana Pacers travel to take on the grinding Miami Heat on Wednesday.

Coming into the contest, the Heat sit sixth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 29-25, 4.5 games ahead of the 10th-placed Pacers (25-30). Miami have been treading water recently with a 5-5 record from their past 10, while Indiana have struggled to a 2-8 run.

While there are many complex layers to this contest, a lot of it boils down to one simple point: the Pacers want to play fast, and the Heat want to play slow.

The young Pacers, led by the current official league-leader in assists Tyrese Haliburton (10.3 per game), play at the fourth-highest pace in the league (101.9 possessions per game). Meanwhile, the veteran Heat outfit, led by the current league-leader in steals Jimmy Butler (2.1 per game), play at the third-slowest pace (97.1 possessions).

That mindset dictates many key indicators for each team, starting with the disparity in fast-break offense.

The Pacers lead the league with 19 fast-break points per game, while the Heat are 27th at 11.3 – so Indiana will run all over Miami, right?

Well, not necessarily. The hectic pace the Pacers play at is conducive to high-scoring offense from both teams – allowing the sixth-most fast-break points per game (15.0) – while the Heat often control the tempo and limit fast-breaks all together, allowing the fourth-fewest points per game in that category (12.1).

Another symptom of playing fast at all costs is turnovers, and that is an area the Heat will look to exploit.

Miami forces a turnover on 16.8 per cent of opponent possessions – the best rate in the league – and 17.4 per cent of their total points come directly from these turnovers, which is the second-highest percentage.

Meanwhile, the Pacers' commit turnovers on 15.0 per cent of their possessions, making them the eighth-most turnover prone side in the NBA.

Another key difference between the two franchises is their discipline defensively, which primarily presents itself in two areas – fouling and boxing out.

Miami allows an offensive rebound on just 8.6 per cent of opponent misses – the best rate in the league – while Indiana allow the second-most (12.1 per cent).

The Heat also limit their opponents to the second-fewest made free throws per game (16.2), while the Pacers give up the most (20.3).

While this game is essentially about a fast team and a slow team, it is also about a good defense and a bad defense.

For the season, the Heat boast the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the league, allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions, and they have been even better than that recently, with their mark of 109.8 across their past 15 games the third-best figure during that period.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, who started the season so far above expectations, their offense has cratered over that same 15-game span as Tyrese Haliburton's injury triggered a dismal run that resulted in the league's worst offense (109.3 points per 100 possessions). Haliburton has returned for their past three games, but there has been no improvement, with their 104.2 offensive rating in those three games also the worst figure in the league.

Indiana also rank 22nd in defense for both the full season and across the past 15 games, and their one strength on that end – Myles Turner, who is top-five in blocks per game (2.4) for the seventh consecutive season – is partially negated by the fact that Miami's offense only absorbs 3.8 blocks per game, tied for the league's fewest.

However, the silver lining for the Pacers is that they can bomb away from long range – averaging the sixth-most made three-pointers per game (13.8) – while the Heat are not equipped to stop them, allowing the second-most made threes per game (13.2).

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Indiana Pacers – Buddy Hield

While Haliburton and Turner are the Pacers' two best players at both ends of the court, Hield is the X-factor thanks to his marksmanship and the Heat's tendency to get beat from long range.

Averaging 3.8 made three-pointers per game, he trails only Golden State Warriors duo Stephen Curry (4.9) and Klay Thompson (4.2), Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard (4.1) and Charlotte Hornets point guard LaMelo Ball (3.9) – and Hield's three-point percentage of 42.8 is better than all of them.

Miami Heat – Jimmy Butler

Adebayo is the only All-Star selection this season for the Heat, but Butler is the straw that stirs the drink, and the key to their efficient half-court offense.

He is metronomically consistent – averaging exactly 14.1 field goal attempts per game in both wins and losses this season. Butler's ability to control the pace and not allow his opposition to dictate play will be crucial against a team with such a different style, as will his distribution skills, with a 20 per cent assist increase (4.4 up to 5.3) in wins.

KEY BATTLE – Who will control the pace?

It goes without saying that whichever team forces the game to be played at their pace should have the advantage, and unfortunately for the Pacers, it is far easier to slow the game down than speed it up.

By controlling the rebounds, limiting their own turnovers and staying switched on defensively, Miami can turn this into a halfcourt grind and take the sting out of Indiana's speed in transition, so it will be imperative that the visitors shoot well from deep.

If the Pacers can hit some early threes and build a lead, it will create a sense of urgency in the trailing side that inevitably leads to quicker shots, more possessions and a style that suits the away team.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Since the beginning of the 2021-22 season, these two sides have met on six occasions. Despite the fact that Miami have been a staple in the playoffs and the Pacers are on track to miss out for the third season in a row, they have split those six meetings 3-3.

Illustrating how evenly matched the teams have been, they are 2-2 in their past four, and 1-1 in their past two, while the three most recent contests have been decided by a combined margin of 10 points.

Debates around the greatest of all time in sport can often be as polarising as any other.

Now that LeBron James has surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to stand at the top of the NBA's all-time leading scoring chart though, it seems appropriate to review the case for the 38-year-old to be considered the greatest basketball player of all time.

In what has without question been at least one of the best careers ever seen, James has four NBA championships to his name, as well as four Finals MVPs, four NBA MVPs, 19 All-Star selections and three All-Star MVPs. His 13 All-NBA First Team selections are two more than anybody else.

Enough to make any doubter's eyes water.

Added to that, after overtaking Kareem on Tuesday, he not only stands alone atop the all-time scoring list, but has a real opportunity to pull away and perhaps even go past 40,000 before hanging up his sneakers. He has long been the playoff scoring king, with his 7,631 playoff points already 1,644 clear of second-placed Michael Jordan.

It isn't just racking up the points, he has also passed on his fair share of assists, recently pushing past Steve Nash on that all-time leaderboard, with James now fourth for NBA assists.

As the first pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, it was hardly surprising that James impressed from the start with the Cleveland Cavaliers, averaging 20.9 points per game (PPG) in his debut season from 79 games.

It was the 2005-06 season where he really exploded, though, averaging 31.4 PPG in the regular season, which remains his highest ever for a campaign, before recording 30.8 PPG in the playoffs, where the Cavs were eliminated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals by the Detroit Pistons.

James took Cleveland to the postseason for five straight campaigns, agonisingly losing the 2007 Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, before taking the mantel again in 2009 as he put up 35.3 PPG in 14 playoff outings before more Conference final heartbreak against the Orlando Magic.

The television event titled 'The Decision' was controversial, though undoubtedly captivating as James dramatically revealed he was leaving the Cavs for the Miami Heat in 2010.

However, it turned out to be the catalyst for him to reach the next step as he was immediately surrounded by more talent in Miami, and before long, much-deserved silverware.

Linking up superbly with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James reached the Finals every year in Florida, winning his first championship in 2012, before following it up in 2013 with another.

His numbers were slightly lower at the Heat than they had been in Cleveland, though that perhaps owed to the fact that when deciding to join Miami, he was joining forces with arguably the league's second-best player at the time in Wade.

James' first title win in 2012 saw him average 30.3 PPG during the postseason, and led the way as he got some revenge on the Spurs in 2013, excelling in Game 7 to win his second championship.

In 2014, James came back to Cleveland with the Ohio-born star's desire to take his team to the promised land for the first time, and he did just that.

Just as he had in Miami, James went to the Finals every year of his second spell with the Cavaliers – resulting in eight consecutive Finals appearances – and every year they played against the dominant Golden State Warriors.

After losing 4-2 in 2015, they returned to get revenge in 2016 as James starred on their way to an almost Hollywood-ending win against the Warriors, securing their first NBA championship after coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a team that set the record for the best regular season ever at 73-9.

They were unable to repeat the trick as the Warriors, with the addition of Kevin Durant, beat them in both the 2017 and 2018 Finals, but reaching four Finals in a row was still more than Cavs fans could have realistically expected.

Unfortunately for them, James was getting itchy feet again.

James had a solid enough start to life in Los Angeles, posting 27.4 PPG for the Lakers in 2018-19, though injury issues sustained by him and several of his new team-mates led to a wobbly season, and therefore, no postseason for the first time for James since 2005.

Inevitably, he came roaring back the following year and in spite of the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, James and the Lakers returned to win the "bubble championship", the fourth title of his career with a third different team. In doing so, he became the only player in NBA history to win Finals MVP with three franchises.

However, the 2020-21 campaign was one to forget as James recorded his lowest PPG for a season (25.0) since his rookie year, before the Lakers were dumped out of the playoffs in the first round by the Phoenix Suns.

Was it all over for LeBron? Not likely. He responded to that setback by scoring 1,695 points in just 56 games last season at an average of 30.3 PPG, his best regular season return since 2005-06.

James also reached a notable landmark last March, becoming the first player in NBA history to record 10,000 assists and 10,000 rebounds in a career.

Unfortunately for him, his team-mates were unable to match those efforts and the Lakers again failed to even make the playoffs, which could be why they were so desperate to find the funds to tie James' immediate future down as he was given a bumper contract to make him the highest-paid player in the league.

LeBron has thrived again this season, averaging 30.0 PPG from 43 appearances as he tries to drag the Lakers back to the playoffs.

Arguments can of course be made for the player with the most NBA titles Bill Russell, or the man whose name is synonymous with so many NBA records Wilt Chamberlain, while Lakers legends Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant have to be in the conversation also.

However, ask most people who they believe to be the greatest of all time and you wil have to go a long way to find someone who doesn't immediately blurt out the name of Michael Jordan.

The Chicago Bulls icon was a five-time NBA MVP, six-time NBA champion, six-time NBA Finals MVP, 10-time All-NBA First Teamer, 14-time NBA All-Star; won 10 scoring titles and retired with the NBA's highest scoring average of 30.1 PPG.

 

Jordan was a force of nature who always seemed to raise his game beyond others exactly when his team needed it, while James has experienced more disappointment in clutch scenarios.

He has also taken his team with him to ultimate success more than once, and arguably teams that had more limitations than Jordan's best times at the Bulls.

When you consider that Jordan is also in the argument for the greatest sportsman of all time, it is testament to James that he's even in the conversation.

"It's not heavy. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to be in this league for at least a few more years," James recently said as he closed in on Kareem's record.

Which is ominous for the rest of the league, quite frankly.

Is he the greatest of all time? As with most discussions on the topic, it probably doesn't matter.

James has scored more points than anyone else to ever compete in the NBA, and that is undisputed.

France will begin their quest to become the first side in six years to retain the Six Nations when they travel to perennial wooden spoon winners Italy on Sunday.

Les Blues ended a 12-year wait to get their hands back on the trophy last year, doing so in style as they claimed a Grand Slam with a perfect five wins from five.

Italy also ended last year's tournament on a high as they broke a 36-game losing run with victory in Wales and are now out to avoid finishing bottom for the first time since 2015.

While France may be reigning champions and in good form, Ireland are top of the world rankings and are many people's favourites to go one better than last year by finishing top.

Up first for Andy Farrell's Ireland side is a trip to Wales, who are in action for the first time since Warren Gatland replaced Wayne Pivac on the back of some alarming results last year.

England also have a new head coach in Steve Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones in December, with his first test a mouth-watering Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland.

Ahead of the opening round of action, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.


WALES V IRELAND

FORM

Wales' loss to Italy was their third in a row in the Six Nations – only once since the start of 2008, at the end of their 2020 campaign, have they endured a longer winless run – but Gatland's return has provided fresh hope.

The Dragons won their last seven on the bounce in the championship under Gatland, who landed three Grand Slams in his previous 12-year spell in charge before stepping down in 2019.

Ireland have won seven of their past eight games in the tournament, winning the past three of those by margins of at least 17 points and conceding just one try in total.

However, the away team have not come out on top in any of the past nine Six Nations encounters between these sides, with the nations sharing four wins each over that period and one draw.


ONES TO WATCH

Wales are without the injured Leigh Halfpenny, meaning Liam Williams will start at full-back, but they have plenty of other familiar and experienced faces in their starting line-up – George North among them.

He is one try short of matching Shane Williams' record haul of 23 for Wales in the Six Nations, and behind only Brian O'Driscoll (26) of all players in the tournament's history.

Plenty of eyes will be on Johnny Sexton in what will be his final Six Nations campaign, but Ireland have many other players for Wales to concern themselves with.

James Lowe, returning from a calf injury that ruled him out of the November fixtures, will be looking to push on from last year when he finished level with Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere as the joint-highest try scorer with three.

 

ENGLAND V SCOTLAND

FORM

Jones may have bowed out with the best win rate of any England head coach (73 per cent), but the Red Rose won just two of their final five home matches under the now-Australia boss – not since November 2008 have they had a longer winless run at Twickenham.

With former skipper Borthwick now at the helm as head coach, England are aiming to avoid losing their opening fixture in the tournament for a fourth year running, following a streak of five successive round-one wins.

Scotland have a far better recent record on the opening weekend than their opponents, having won four of their past six such matches, including the past two in a row – both against England.

Indeed, Scotland have lost just one of their past five Calcutta Cup clashes, having lost each of the previous seven. A victory on enemy territory this weekend will make it three wins in a row for the first time since 1972.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Manu Tuilagi's absence will be felt by England, who have handed a debut to wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, but Joe Marchant will add pace alongside exciting Harlequins team-mate Marcus Smith.

Smith was the top points-scorer in last year's Six Nations (71) and also registered over twice as many running metres as any other fly-half in the tournament (412), as well as beating more defenders than anyone other number 10 (10).

Hamish Watson is not ready for a return to the Scotland side this weekend in a blow for coach Gregor Townsend. The 31-year-old was one of just three players to make 50 or more tackles without missing one in the 2022 edition (70), along with team-mate Grant Gilchrist and Ireland's Caelan Doris (both 53).

Gilchrist is available, though, and he resumes a partnership with Richie Gray in the second row that impressed during Scotland's November internationals.

 

ITALY V FRANCE

FORM

The signs of improvement were clear to see from an Italy perspective in 2022 as they picked up a first win in the tournament since 2015 and then beat Australia for the first time ever in November's Test.

The Azzurri have now won five of their past seven Tests, as many as they had won in their previous 36 combined, but they have not won at home in the Six Nations since 2013 and have won back-to-back games in the championship just twice previously.

France enter the competition boasting a team-record 13-match winning run after winning every game in a calendar year for the first time in 2022. They were not always at their best towards the end of the year, though, with three of their past four wins coming by margins of five points or fewer.

Les Blues have won their opening match in each of their past four campaigns as reigning champions, which does not bode well for an Italy side who have won only two of their 23 Six Nations home matches against this weekend's opponents.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Italy are without the pace and power of Monty Ioane after he returned to Australia and became unavailable for selection in this championship. No player made more line breaks (seven), beat more defenders (21), completed more offloads (eight) and made more dominant tackles (seven) than Ioane in last year's Six Nations.

The Azzurri still have Pierre Bruno and Ange Capuozzo at their disposal, with the latter impressing on his tournament bow in 2022 en route to winning World Rugby's men's Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

Even with the likes of regular starters Jonathan Danty and Cameron Woki ruled out, France still boast a number of top-class talents in their squad.

Gregory Alldritt, who will combine with Charles Ollivon and Anthony Jelonch in the back row, made more carries than any other player in last year's tournament (65) and was one of two players, along with team-mate Julien Marchand (50), to hit 50 or more defensive rucks with 59.

 

The 2022 Six Nations may have proved to be a battle between the haves (France and Ireland) and the have-nots (England, Scotland, Wales and Italy), but this year's tournament is expected to be a far tighter affair.

France ended a 12-year wait for the title last time around, while claiming a record-equalling fourth Grand Slam, and they will fancy their chances of coming out on top again this year ahead of hosting the Rugby World Cup in September.

Ireland, who narrowly missed out to Les Blues 11 months ago, will have plenty to say about that as they look to continue building the momentum that saw them record a famous series win over New Zealand and climb to the top of the world rankings.

Both nations, ranked as they are as the world's top two as we edge closer to the World Cup, will very much have a target on their backs as the other contenders look to lay down a marker.

It is a time of change for England and Wales, who have brought in Steve Borthwick and Warren Gatland respectively on the back of disappointing campaigns last time out, with this year's Six Nations representing a first opportunity to see their sides in action.

While Italy would often be a side note heading into the competition – justifiably given they have finished bottom in each of the past seven editions – they ended a long-running winless streak with victory over Wales last year, which they followed up with a win against Australia three months ago.

And don't forget Scotland, who themselves came close to a historic win against New Zealand in November and finished level on points with fierce rivals England in last year's Six Nations.

Unfavourable fixtures for France

France are looking to do something not achieved since England in 2017 in retaining the Six Nations title, while not since 1998 – prior to Italy joining to make it a six-team tournament – has a nation won successive Grand Slam crowns, with Les Blues themselves the last to do so.

Despite being reigning champions and in great form with 13 wins in a row, even those with strong French ties are wary of the threat a strong Ireland side pose.

"I don't want to downplay it at all, but we're not the best team in the world – Ireland are, and that's just a fact," 47-cap former France international Ben Keyser told Stats Perform.

"We are title holders, but we've fallen on our faces previously when we've entered the tournament as favourites. This year we've got to go to Ireland and England, so it's going to be a really tough year for France."

 

That trip to Irish capital Dublin in the second round may yet prove to be a showdown for the championship, as it was last year when the only blemish for Andy Farrell's men was a defeat in Paris.

It must be remembered, however, that Ireland were also top of the world rankings heading into the 2019 World Cup, when they suffered defeat to Japan in the pool phase before being knocked out by New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

 

'Wales way behind'

Before thoughts can turn to that huge match with France, and indeed the World Cup even further down the line, Ireland first have an away trip to Wales in what will present a chance to lay down a marker in their bid to land a first Six Nations title since 2018.

On the back of Gatland's shock return as Wales boss following the sacking of Wayne Pivac, though, all of a sudden Saturday's curtain-raising clash at the Principality Stadium looks nowhere near as clear-cut to predict.

"A month or two ago I'd have said that's going to be a tough one because it's Cardiff, but Wales are in a bit of disarray and it's hard to see how they're going to beat this Ireland," former Ireland and British and Irish Lions hooker Rory Best told Stats Perform.

"But all of a sudden there's a change at the helm and all of a sudden you're a lot more worried about this game in Cardiff. You know their style of play and you know Gatland will make them hard to beat. That makes this a potential banana skin for Ireland."

Former Ireland boss Gatland needs no introducing, having won the Six Nations four times during his previous 12-year stint in charge of Wales, three of those as Grand Slam winners.

Indeed, he has been involved in 60 Six Nations games during his time with Ireland and Wales, which is the same tally as the other five head coaches in this year's championship combined.

 

That experience and ability to get the best out of a squad will come in handy for Wales as they attempt to recover from a terrible 2022 that saw them lose at home to Italy and Georgia.

Making the leap from fifth to first is likely to be out of the question, but exactly what would represent a positive campaign for Wales with one eye on the upcoming World Cup?

"Third. Coming third would be good," Wales great and former skipper Sam Warburton told Stats Perform. "That sounds really defeatist because normally you'd always aim to win it, or finish second, but I'm being realistic.

"Ireland and France are putting on displays which have had four or five years of groundwork. Wales are coming into the tournament not entirely fresh, but pretty close to that. So naturally they're way behind where those teams are in their cycle."

 

Borthwick to get the best out of England?

Finishing third would be a case of 'best of the rest' when up against the world's top two sides, but recently appointed England head coach Borthwick will quietly be hoping to challenge for the title.

Unlike Gatland, this will be Borthwick's first taste of Six Nations action as a head coach, though he did play 25 times in the championship as a player, 10 of those as captain of his country.

While Eddie Jones' tenure turned sour, his sacking on the back of a tough autumn campaign still came as somewhat of a surprise, but the now-Australia boss still departed with the best record of any England head coach.

 

Indeed, Jones won the Grand Slam in his first Six Nations campaign in charge in 2016, so there is recent precedent there for Borthwick – who previously worked as Jones' right-hand man – to follow.

In the view of former captain Chris Robshaw, the Red Rose have plenty to be optimistic about with Borthwick at the helm.

"Steve coming in is a brilliant appointment," Robshaw told Stats Perform. "You just look at the team he's created around him, such as Kevin Sinfield in defence, and the change in mindset. 

"I think they've got a fantastic team and a group that's in a nice age bracket, with a couple of younger players who can add some spark and bring some life back into the side. What I'm seeing and hearing are good messages with a lot of excitement."

 

'Toughest Six Nations yet'

Not for the first time, Scotland head into the Six Nations with a rather big question mark over their head. As ever, consistency will be the key if they are to better last year's fourth-place finish.

The additions of Ben Healy and Ruaridh McConnochie, who previously represented Ireland and England respectively, will provide some welcome depth for Gregor Townsend to choose from in possibly his final campaign in charge.

Both men may feature in a blockbuster opener for Scotland at Twickenham, where they picked up a first win since 1983 on their most recent visit, albeit with that game held behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saturday's Calcutta Cup contest may well provide a better indication of exactly what the aim is for Scotland this time around.

 

"You never really know what to expect from them and that's exciting," Robshaw added. "That's why the Six Nations is brilliant, because anyone can beat anyone. It's why every day you have to be on it; if you're not you lose a game by the bounce of a ball and all of a sudden you're playing catch up.

"I think this year is going to be the toughest Six Nations yet. I don't think it'll be a Grand Slam year."

Robshaw will certainly not be alone in predicting a non-Grand Slam year, with teams expected to take points off each other, but what about at the other end of the table?

Perennial Wooden Spoon 'winners' Italy have finished bottom in every edition since 2016, but their aforementioned wins over Wales – ending a 36-game losing run in the competition – and Australia last year sent out quite the message.

Having avoided losing all five games for the first time in seven years last time around, the aim for the Azzurri now is to finish above one of the other five nations.

It all paves the way for what could be the best Six Nations in a number of years – certainly since the most recent World Cup – as new eras begin and some perhaps edge towards their pinnacle ahead of the Rugby World Cup in seven months' time.

Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets will travel to Boston on Wednesday to take on the Celtics in a tantalising clash between Eastern Conference contenders.

The Celtics, at 36-15, currently boast the best record in the NBA, while the 31-19 Nets occupy the fourth seed. 

Fresh off a trip to the NBA Finals, Boston have looked like genuine contenders since the opening day, building an elite, championship-level statistical profile.

Almost without fail, the eventual champion will show signs of elite play on at least one side of the ball throughout the regular season. Last year's champions, the Golden State Warriors built their identity on a top-two defense; the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks had a top-five offense and top-10 defense; the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers owned the third-best defense.

This year's Celtics side are currently in the rare air of sitting top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, guided by two no-brainer All-Stars on the wing with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and fellow All-Defensive selection Robert Williams III.

While games and series can often be decided by which team has the singular best player, the Celtics have been buoyed by the continued ascent of Tatum, who is now a legitimate MVP candidate.

This season the 24-year-old is averaging career-highs in points (31.1 per game), rebounds (8.7), assists (4.4), field goal makes (10.1) and attempts (21.8), three-point makes (3.3) and attempts (9.3), free throw makes (7.6) and attempts (8.8) – all while shooting his best field goal percentage (46.5) since his rookie season and a career-best 86.9 per cent from the free throw line.

The Celtics' elite record, profile and talent, combined with the fact they will be playing in front of their home fans will have them as favourites on Wednesday – but Irving and the Nets present a frisky opposition.

It is without question that the Nets have entered a mini tailspin since Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury against the Miami Heat on January 8. Brooklyn were 27-13 at the time but have won only four of their 10 games since.

Their ranks as the fifth-best offense and 10th-best defense for the season are both tumbling due to this past stretch, where both units have been the definition of mediocre, ranking 19th on offense and 18th defensively.

That is no fault of former Celtic Irving, who is enjoying a tremendous run of personal form. He has posted seven consecutive outings of at least 26 points and six assists, and after the Nets dropped their first four games of Durant's absence, they responded with four wins from their next six.

Also playing into Brooklyn's favour is the fact they are the NBA's second-best team away from home this season, while their 16-11 mark on the road is only bettered by the Celtics at 17-9.

Unfortunately for the Nets, Boston have also had little trouble at home. They own the fifth-best home record (19-6), and their overtime defeat against the New York Knicks on Thursday was their first loss at TD Garden since December 21.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White

Simply put, with Durant out of action, the Nets only have one superstar on the offensive end, and the Celtics have the perfect player to make Irving's life miserable. Or at least they normally would.

Smart became the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since 'The Glove' Gary Payton back in the 1995-96 season, and his impact on Irving has been evident in recent matchups – but he will miss this fixture as he recovers from an ankle injury.

Malcolm Brogdon – one of the favourites for Sixth Man of the Year – will take his place as the top defensive guard in the line-up, with help from Derrick White, and together they will aim to pick up where Smart left off.

In his past four games against the Celtics, Irving has only reached 20 points once, finishing with the following shooting performances: four-of-19, eight-of-18, seven-of-21 and nine-of-24.

Brooklyn Nets – Bench shooters

While Irving is the obvious focal point and the engine that will make the Nets run, they will likely need one of their shooters off the bench to get hot.

In their win against the Lakers on Monday, second-year spark plug Cam Thomas and veteran Patty Mills scored 21 points each while combining to shoot eight-of-11 from long range. The previous game, a rivalry victory against the New York Knicks, the trio of Thomas, Edmond Sumner and Yuta Watanabe combined to hit six-of-six three-pointers.

Watanabe in particular could be a game-changer, as he is shooting 49 per cent from deep – the best figure in the league among players averaging at least one attempt per game.

KEY BATTLE – How will Brooklyn slow down the Boston wings?

As previously discussed, the Nets have been a top-10 defense this season, but they will definitely be without the seven-foot Durant, and will likely also be missing six-foot-10 former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Ben Simmons and six-foot-eight T.J. Warren.

It leaves them woefully undermanned when it comes to defending the All-Star duo of Tatum and Brown, and while Tatum is the exact kind of matchup Brooklyn had in mind when they traded a first-round pick to Utah for Royce O'Neale, they will likely be stuck with Joe Harris on Brown.

Watanabe, at six-foot-eight, and perhaps even six-foot-nine veteran Markieff Morris will get a chance off the bench, but the rest of Brooklyn's perimeter options are simply too small.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Since the beginning of February 2022, the Celtics are undefeated in nine meetings against the Nets, including a clean 4-0 sweep in the first round of last season's playoffs.

Boston have won both head-to-head matchups this campaign by 11 points – one with Durant playing, and one with him out.

The Club World Cup begins on Wednesday as seven teams compete to become world champions.

Representatives from each confederation will take part over 11 days in Morocco, with Real Madrid favourites to end up lifting the trophy.

That is not to disrespect any of the other participants, but Europe's stranglehold on the competition simply cannot be denied.

Although South American teams won the first three editions in its current format, the only occasion in the last 15 where the Champions League winners have not triumphed was in 2012 when Corinthians defeated Chelsea in the final, the last time Europe's best did not succeed.

With four-time Club World Cup winners Madrid present, can anyone realistically stop Carlo Ancelotti's men? Stats Perform has taken a look at the other participants.

CONMEBOL – Flamengo

It would be fair to assume that, as the only other confederation to claim the prize, the South American representatives will always be seen as the biggest challengers to Europe.

Flamengo have participated in the Club World Cup before, having reached the final in 2019 only to lose 1-0 to Liverpool after extra time.

The Mengao have faced some recent upheaval with head coach Dorival Junior leaving despite winning the Copa do Brasil and Copa Libertadores, just the third time they had prevailed in South America's premier competition.

Former Fenerbahce and Corinthians boss Vitor Pereira arrived in December and will be relying on star striker Gabriel Barbosa to fire his team to glory, as the ex-Inter man did when he scored the only goal of the Libertadores final against Athletico Paranaense in October.

Despite promising young midfielder Joao Gomes leaving for Premier League side Wolves, Pereira will hope his new team can at least make their way to the February 11 final when they face either hosts Wydad Casablanca or Al Hilal in the final four.

CONCACAF – Seattle Sounders

The Sounders are carrying the hopes not only of Seattle but of MLS as a whole. Due to a series of CONCACAF Champions League heartbreaks for American and Canadian clubs prior to Seattle's triumph last May, the league has had a long, long wait for representation on the world stage.

It is fitting then that the Sounders should be the team to do it, having broken so many barriers since arriving in MLS in 2009, selling out stadiums, enjoying instant success and signing big-name stars from European clubs.

Although the 2022 season saw the Sounders' ever-present record in the MLS playoffs ended, that was no reflection of the quality of this squad; injuries badly hampered Brian Schmetzer's side after their early-season focus on that successful Champions League campaign.

Joao Paulo is back fit again, Raul Ruidiaz provides a goal threat, Jordan Morris' pace causes problems for any defence, and captain Nicolas Lodeiro – a veteran of two World Cups – knits it all together.

The Sounders – and those watching back home – will be desperate to get through the second round and have a crack at heavyweights Madrid.

 

CAF – Wydad Casablanca

Otherwise known as Wydad AC, the Moroccans would have sealed their place regardless of being hosts after lifting the CAF Champions League in May.

Under the guidance of Walid Regragui before he left to lead the Morocco national team to the semi-finals of the World Cup, Zouhair El Moutaraji's two goals in the final against Al Ahly brought Wydad their third Champions League title.

Their record in this competition is less impressive, with their only previous involvement coming in 2017 when they were beaten by Mexico's Pachuca in the second round, before going down 3-2 to Japan's Urawa Reds in the fifth-place playoff.

Former Racing Santander and Birmingham City player Mehdi Nafti took over from Regragui after leaving LaLiga side Levante late last year, and Regragui thinks they can improve on their 2017 showing at least.

"I think the trap game is Al Hilal [second round]. If they manage to pass Al Hilal, they can go to the final against Real Madrid. Everything is possible," the Morocco coach told FIFA.com.

AFC – Al Hilal

The four-time AFC Champions League winners will compete with Wydad in the second round, with the winner going on to face Flamengo in the final four.

Ramon Diaz returned for a second spell in charge, and like several other head coaches at the Club World Cup, was not actually the one who lifted the trophy that got his team here in the first place.

Former Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim was in charge when Al Hilal beat Korea's Pohang Steelers in November 2021, before leaving by mutual consent to be replaced by Diaz.

Diaz is unsurprisingly the only former Oxford United manager at the Club World Cup, but the 63-year-old has plenty of talent to call upon in his quest for glory in Morocco.

Odion Ighalo and Luciano Vietto will be accompanied by a number of players from Saudi Arabia's impressive World Cup campaign, with Al Hilal looking to improve on their last CWC campaign when they were beaten by Chelsea in the semi-finals and Al Ahly in the third-place playoff in 2022.

CAF – Al Ahly

Al Ahly are also back again, somewhat fortuitously as they inherit Wydad's assigned host spot following the Moroccans beating them in the CAF Champions League final.

This will be the Egyptian side's eighth appearance at the Club World Cup, with their most impressive previous campaign seeing them finish third after beating Brazilian's Palmeiras on penalties in 2021.

Head coach Marcel Koller also played no part in his team's qualification for this competition, with the former Austria boss only arriving in September.

With a number of Egypt's national team players to call on, they will be hoping to repeat their previous meeting with Auckland City in the first round when they beat the New Zealanders 2-0 in 2006. 

OFC – Auckland City

This will be the 10th appearance for the Navy Blues, but they are back again after their 3-0 win against Tahiti's Venus in the 2022 OFC Champions League final.

That was overseen by head coach Albert Riera, not to be confused with the former Liverpool and Galatasaray winger, who took charge in December 2021.

Riera will be hoping to at least match his team's best ever performance at the CWC, when they came third in 2014 after winning on penalties against Mexico's Cruz Azul. 

It would take a momentous effort for anyone to stop Madrid, who somehow overcame Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool on their way to Europe's Champions League title last season.

Never say never, though.

Cristiano Ronaldo has scored many famous goals.

Undoubtedly, though, one of his most celebrated strikes came 15 years ago, on January 30, 2008.

On a winter evening at Old Trafford, Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth rocked up in fine form on the road, having won seven of their 12 away games in the Premier League.

Yet Ronaldo, in the midst of a 31-goal season in the top tier, was the difference. 

Having put Manchester United ahead in the 10th minute, Ronaldo stepped up, just under 30 yards out from goal, three minutes later.

His free-kick, taken in what would become his trademark style, went up, over the wall and swerved remarkably into the right-hand corner. David James, the Portsmouth goalkeeper, had no chance.

That goal is often thought of as the typical Ronaldo free-kick. Power, panache and pinpoint accuracy.

But is Ronaldo actually as good as a free-kick taker as that goal might suggest? Using Opta data, Stats Perform has taken a look.

Quantity, not quality?

Since that goal against Portsmouth up until the day his second spell at United ended (November 23, 2022), Ronaldo had more shots from direct free-kicks than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.

Of the 645 shots Ronaldo had, 41 resulted in a goal. That is from 700 club games, across stints at United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

On the face of it, that goal tally does not stand out as particularly impressive, at least given the fact that Ronaldo netted 619 times in total.

Yet he is behind only Lionel Messi (who else?) when it comes to goals from direct free-kicks, with the Barcelona great scoring on 51 occasions from such situations.

That gives Messi an 8.1 per cent conversion rate from free-kicks in that timeframe, in contrast to Ronaldo's 6.3 per cent.

 

Naturally, given their status in the game, Ronaldo and Messi will almost always pull rank when it comes to set-pieces, especially at a free-kick in a dangerous position.

Miralem Pjanic, who ranks third for direct free-kick goals and was a club-mate of both players at Barca and Juve respectively, boasts better conversion rate than either (nine per cent).

Neymar's 13 goals from 147 attempts gives him an 8.8 per cent success rate, while James Ward-Prowse's 12 per cent (15 from 125, though this figure of course does not account for his strike against Everton earlier in January) is close to double what Ronaldo managed.

Indeed, when ranked against players from Europe's big five leagues that scored 10 or more direct free-kicks between January 31, 2008 and November 23, 2022, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dani Parejo had lower conversion rates than Ronaldo.

Club by club

So, having established that Ronaldo's free-kick finishing was somewhat erratic following that stunner against Portsmouth, let's check on how he stacked up at each club.

Across his career in Europe's top five leagues, Ronaldo netted 48 free-kicks in all competitions, from 782 shots (6.1 per cent).

 

Thirteen of those goals came at United, with five each in his final two seasons of his first spell at the club.

Indeed, Ronaldo's peak when it came to free-kicks was definitely between the 2007-08 season and the 2013-14 campaign, when he scored 35 times from that type of dead-ball situation.

His best single season tally was six, in the 2009-10 season – his first at Madrid.

From 2014-15 onwards he did not manage more than three free-kick goals during a season, while he scored only twice from 86 such attempts while at Juve, and managed no goals from four free-kicks in his second stint at United.

One of the greats?

As well as his effort against Portsmouth, Ronaldo has many other memorable free-kicks in the bank.

His stunning, 40-yard strike against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final; a mesmerising hit from even further out in a Madrid derby in 2012; and who can forget that spellbinding, hat-trick sealing effort that secured a last-gasp draw for Portugal against Spain in a 3-3 thriller at the 2018 World Cup.

Ronaldo might have gone off the boil from dead balls since the halcyon days either side of his move from Manchester to Madrid, yet there's no doubting that when he hits them true, there's not much any goalkeeper can do.

While he may not go down as one of the greatest free-kick takers in history statistically, he has definitely been a scorer of some great free-kicks down the years.

And who knows, maybe there'll be more to come in Saudi Arabia.

A year after hitting an all-time low when he lost a court battle in Melbourne, Novak Djokovic was back on top of the world and in floods of tears as he celebrated a record-equalling grand slam triumph on Sunday.

Djokovic endured a nightmare start to 2022 when he was deported from Australia for breaching border entry rules, having arrived in the country believing he had a valid medical exemption that would enable him to play in the first major of the year without being vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Serbian superstar suffered the humiliation of flying home after his visa was cancelled and he failed with an appeal in a Federal Court.

He had been consigned to the Park Hotel immigration detention facility during a miserable short stay in a country where he loves playing the most and has experienced unprecedented success.

Djokovic will head home with very different emotions this time around after beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets to match Rafael Nadal's tally of 22 major singles titles for a male player.

The 35-year-old was also unable to play in the US Open last September due to not being vaccinated, but normal service was resumed as he claimed a record-extending 10th Australian Open title with a 6-3 7-6 (7-4) 7-6 (7-5) triumph.

Djokovic could do nothing to prevent Nadal from lifting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup 12 months ago, but nothing was going to stop him getting his hands on the trophy on Sunday.

Tsitsipas put up a courageous fight, but one of the all-time greats was a cut above as he continued his astonishing domination of the first major of the year.

Not since Hyeon Chung produced a huge fourth-round upset in 2018 has the Belgrade native been beaten in the Australian Open, this victory extending his winning streak in Melbourne to a staggering 28 matches.

Tsitsipas, 11 years younger than his legendary opponent, declared he was physically and mentally ready for the huge challenge of facing Djokovic in his first Australian Open final.

The third seed from Greece led Djokovic by two sets in his only other major final, but was consigned to defeat in a 2021 French Open thriller.

There was no such drama on this occasion, as the favourite maintained his perfect record in Australian Open finals 15 years after he was first crowned champion at Melbourne Park.

He served brilliantly, once again demonstrated why he is widely regarded as the best returner of all time, and showed no signs of a hamstring injury that was probably the only thing that would have stopped him from securing yet another title.

Djokovic had to contend with questions about his father, Srdjan, posing with a group of men waving Russian flags that have been banned from the grounds during this tournament earlier this week but nothing was going to distract him in his quest to make history.

He was clinical and drowned out noise from rowdy spectators that were ticked off by the chair umpire time and again as he won another battle between youth and experience.

There were 36 winners from king of Rod Laver Arena and only 22 unforced errors, while he ruthlessly took charge of the tie-breaks as Tsitsipas was made to pay for mistakes at such key moments.

Fourth seed Djokovic orchestrated the crowd with his racket after earning two match points and his emotions came out after he climbed up to his box, where he was mobbed by his team.

He sobbed during a long embrace with his mother, Dijana, and dropped to the floor a year after he was floored by being unable to play in a tournament where he has taken on all comers.

Djokovic described this as his biggest victory given what he has had to endure and it lifted him back to the top of the rankings.

It was the 93rd ATP Tour title of his career and came on the back of winning a tournament in Adelaide in a dream start to 2023.

Twelve months after he detained, his rivals were unable to contain him and it would be a surprise if he has not moved beyond Nadal's tally of grand slam triumphs by the end of year.

LaLiga finds itself in the rather awkward position where it wants the competition to be competitive internally while also desperate for the 'big two' to remain the behemoths they are, because Real Madrid and Barcelona are good for business.

President Javier Tebas insists LaLiga is, in sporting terms, the most competitive league in the world, something he believes is proven by the performances of Spanish teams in Europe over the past 20 years or so.

To his credit, the incredibly divisive figure of Tebas has done plenty of good for Spanish football. In general it is far more financially stable than when he was elected in 2013, and the centralised sale of TV broadcast rights has levelled the playing field a little more.

Fairly or not, though, there are many who feel that there only being two – or three in some years – teams capable of winning the league shows its lack of competitiveness.

But when a club does rise above the rabble, the financial disparity between Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest makes the achievement of simply challenging all the more impressive.

This time it's Real Sociedad, and on Sunday they could make a statement.

La Real out to put the big boys on notice

The omens aren't great.

Real Madrid have lost only one of their last 15 LaLiga home games against La Real (W12 D2), the one exception coming in May 2019.

But there's something a bit different about this vintage.

Until the slender 1-0 Copa del Rey defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou on Thursday, La Real's nine-match winning streak across all competitions was the best such run they have managed since returning to LaLiga for the 2010-11 season.

Sitting third heading into the weekend, La Real are seven points clear of fourth-placed Atletico Madrid and already look near-certainties for the Champions League.

Defeat to Barca in the week was undoubtedly a setback, but it provided yet more evidence of them not being easy to beat.

The fact their 38 points from 18 matches is just two shy of a club record set in the 2002-03 season – more on that team later – highlights just how impressive they've been generally.

Yet, it doesn't tell the whole story. Imanol Alguacil has overseen this start to the campaign despite losing Alexander Isak to Newcastle United and then seeing his replacement Umar Sadiq succumb to a serious knee injury – from which he still hasn't recovered – after playing just 82 minutes for his new club.

The neat and intelligent Martin Zubimendi thrives in defensive midfield; 36-year-old David Silva continues to defy his age as the number 10; Robin Le Normand has developed into one of the most under-rated centre-backs in the league; Brais Mendez has taken their midfield to a new level; and Alexander Sorloth – who once scored no Premier League goals in a year at Crystal Palace and netted just four all last season for La Real – is the unlikely talisman up top.

The big Norwegian has scored eight goals, none of which have been penalties, in LaLiga. Only Robert Lewandowski (13) has more, while Sorloth ranks third for non-penalty expected goals (xG) with 6.0.

We can't call it a title challenge yet. They are still six points behind Barca having played a game more than the Blaugrana.

But with just over half the season still to go, La Real find themselves in position to pounce should Xavi's side let up – providing they can retain their own momentum.

Win at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday and everyone else will begin to take them a little more seriously as well.

Two points from immortality

La Real have been here before.

Their flirt with the title in the 2002-03 season is probably the best example of a so-close-yet-so-far tale in modern Spanish football.

It effectively came out of nowhere, too.

Four successive seasons of mid-table obscurity had offered no hint of what was to come, and what followed that campaign made it all seem like a farfetched dream.

La Real pushed a Madrid side that included Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos to the wire, even beating them 4-2 at Anoeta to reinvigorate their campaign after a chastening derby defeat to Athletic Bilbao in late 2002 was followed by something of a blip.

The Basques headed into the final three games of the season knowing nine points would secure the rarest of title wins.

They had risen to most challenges to that point. Their little-and-large striker duo of Darko Kovacevic and Nihat Kahveci plundered goals at will, racking up 43 between them; Xabi Alonso gave them almost ceaseless control in midfield; Valery Karpin and Javier de Pedro provided ammunition from the flanks.

But it couldn't have been a shock that a team without a league title since 1982 crumbled in the end. A draw at home to Valencia was followed by defeat to Celta Vigo in Galicia, while Madrid beat Atletico Madrid.

La Real's win over Los Colchoneros on the final day of the season was insufficient to keep hopes alive as Madrid comfortably saw off Athletic.

It was a valiant effort, with La Real edged out by two points when all was said and done, but it was not the start of a prosperous new era. What followed was four seasons of dicing with relegation, the last ultimately claiming them and leading to three campaigns in the second tier.

The difference this time? Stability, consistency. The past six years have essentially confirmed La Real as a top-half team, finishing sixth or higher four times, including in each of the last three.

Imanol has been in charge for those three, moulding La Real into a highly organised, high-pressing and dynamic side. But their institutional excellence goes deeper than that, with synergy a key priority from top to bottom, hence how 15 members of the first-team squad have come up through the academy or the B team. Make that 16 if you include the coach himself.

In all likelihood, La Real probably won't get that close to becoming the first team to upset the established order of the historical 'big three' since Valencia in 2004. Barcelona and Real Madrid are still too big for most to really go toe-to-toe with over a 38-game season, regardless of Tebas' changes.

But with arguably a far more talented squad than 20 years ago, La Real are much better equipped to at least make title challenges a regular dream.

Last Sunday had the potential to change everything in the Premier League title race. Instead, it changed nothing.

Arsenal ended the weekend as they started it: five points clear of Manchester City with a game in hand.

Mikel Arteta's men took seven points from consecutive matches against third-placed Newcastle United, fifth-placed Tottenham and fourth-placed Manchester United.

They have passed the various tests left before them and maintained a healthy lead over City.

But they still have not played City themselves this season. That will change on Friday – just not in the Premier League.

The FA Cup fourth-round draw paired England's best two teams, providing a warm-up at the Etihad Stadium for their Emirates Stadium league clash in February.

These coming encounters are likely to bring more pressure for Arteta and Arsenal, who are without a title since 2004 and unfamiliar with such high-stakes matches of late.

The manager perhaps has a decision to make then on how to approach this cup tie – both in terms of his personnel and their approach.

When Arsenal exited the EFL Cup at home to Brighton and Hove Albion in early November, they did so with a team showing 10 changes to the line-up from their prior league win at Chelsea.

But does Arteta want to shuffle the pack again here and give the upper hand to City ahead of a far more important game in three weeks' time?

Speaking on Wednesday, Arteta weighed up the merits of cup progress – "that gives you more momentum, more confidence and prepares you better for the next match," he said – but he was also certain the league and cup matches would be "two very, very different games".

That was the case in Arsenal's double-winning campaign of 2001-02, when the Gunners beat eventual Premier League runners-up Liverpool at this stage of the FA Cup. That blood-and-thunder cup tie followed a fortnight after a tepid league draw.

Arsene Wenger praised the "outstanding" mental fortitude of his side, who were second at that point but did not lose another domestic match all season.

It was one of 16 examples – across 13 ties – in the Premier League era of the teams who finished first and second meeting in the FA Cup, EFL Cup or Champions League in the same season.

Although Arsenal's win against Liverpool was one of only seven victories for the league champions in those 16 attempts, another was the Gunners' round five win against Chelsea two years later, which was followed in their very next match by three points at Stamford Bridge that took them seven clear at the top.

Some consolation saw the Blues eliminate Arsenal from the Champions League later that season – a two-legged quarter-final tie around which Wenger's men stuttered in the league but clung to their unbeaten record.

In those cases, it appeared Arsenal benefited from getting a good look at their rivals in the first game before winning the second, precisely as Arteta suggested.

Meanwhile, the fear of losing momentum is understandable. Arsenal have played twice more against top-two rivals in the FA Cup and lost twice to Manchester United, who went on to take the title in both 1998-99 and 2002-03.

Such is the feel-good factor at Emirates Stadium right now, it is difficult to imagine defeat away to City with a much-changed team would dent Arsenal's confidence too significantly.

But heading home with a win on Friday would surely only increase belief in this side further.

Given the eight-day gap before the next Premier League match, Arteta – whose only major silverware to date was the FA Cup in 2019-20 – might be wise to consider this a helpful test rather than an unwanted distraction.

Normally, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks visiting the Phoenix Suns would feel like a battle for supremacy near the top of the league.

However, going into their clash at Footprint Center on Thursday, it threatens to be the latest in a poor run of form for Dallas, who not only have a bad recent record in Phoenix, but whose form has fallen off a cliff in 2023.

Their win at the Houston Rockets in their first game of the year was their seventh in a row, but since then they have a record of 3-8, including back-to-back home defeats to the Los Angeles Clippers and Washington Wizards in their last two outings.

Head coach Jason Kidd recently called for an improvement from his defense, whose standards have slipped this season.

Following defeat to the Atlanta Hawks last week in which they conceded 130 points, Kidd said: "In this league, if you do that, no matter if you have Luka or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] or LeBron [James], you're going to lose. It doesn't matter how many points you score, you're always going to be short.

"So until we put a better effort into playing defense and understanding what we have to do, we're going to score 120, but we're going to give up 130, 140. One night we might give up 150, but we'll be fine because we scored, so it doesn't look too bad."

The Suns are recovering from their own bad run, though.

Last year's runaway Western Conference winners started the season with 15 victories in their first 21 games, before only succeeding in six of their next 24.

Four wins on the bounce since then have sparked hope of a resurgence in Phoenix, though, and they will be hoping to take advantage of a vulnerable Mavericks side.

After his impressive performance in the 128-97 win against the Charlotte Hornets, Cameron Johnson said: "It's life – you weather storms. Things don't always go your way. We've found that out the past couple years. That doesn't mean you tuck tail, run, sell the farm, hide away forever.

"We have a lot of confidence in our group. Top to bottom."

Monty Williams' men will look to call on that confidence when they welcome the Mavs to Arizona.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS 

Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

The experienced Paul was absolutely central to the recent 112-110 win against the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 22 points with 11 assists, before putting up another 11 assists against the Hornets.

With Devin Booker out, Phoenix have had to share the wealth when it comes to scoring points, and Paul has been key when available in enabling others to find those points.

If Deandre Ayton (illness) is missing again, it will likely come down to the 37-year-old to step up once more.

Dallas Mavericks – Luka Doncic

The Suns are 20th in the league for points scored this season, but the Mavs are a place lower. That seems pretty crazy when you think they have one of the best players in the league in their ranks, and he is again having a productive season.

From 44 games, Doncic has led the way with an average of 33.8 points per game, the most in the league, with 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists.

The Slovenian will need help from his team-mates in Phoenix, and a lot more than he had when his 41 points against the Wizards wasn't enough for the win.

KEY BATTLE – Can the Mavs defense finally thrive with no obvious Suns threat?

As mentioned, Dallas have struggled to stop the opposition from racking up the points this season, going from the second-best defense in the regular season last year to 12th so far this.

One factor they could rely on here, though, is the Suns being without Booker and therefore without anyone averaging more than 17.5 points per game (Ayton). 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Prior to Dallas beating Phoenix 130-111 in early December, the Suns had won 10 in a row against them, while they have gone 9-1 in their last 10 home games against the Mavs.

It may have been 2am, but Atletico Madrid fans were in no mood to sleep anyway – 15,000 of them showed up at Madrid's Plaza de Neptuno to celebrate Los Colchoneros' thrilling Copa del Rey win.

It was so much more than a win, though. It was their first Copa triumph in 21 years, and to top it off, victory came against their great enemy.

When Real Madrid and Atletico tussled at the former's Santiago Bernabeu home on May 17, 2013, Diego Simeone's side had not beaten their bitter rivals since 1999.

But success for Atletico signalled their return as a major force in Spanish football.

They will lock horns in the Copa again on Thursday in their quarter-final at the Bernabeu, and for many supporters, the build-up will evoke memories of that iconic and feisty encounter.

Overcoming history and financial muscle

Success had already returned to Atletico. They'd won the Europa League and European Super Cup twice apiece over the previous three years.

And even though Atletico eventually finished a commendable third in LaLiga that season – their highest finish since winning the title in 1996 – there was no getting away from the overwhelming sense of pessimism, which had long been the attitude most associated with the club.

No fewer than 25 derbies had passed since Atletico's last win over Los Blancos, and even that was a relatively hollow victory as they'd ultimately be relegated for the first time since 1930.

Atletico weren't trying to kid themselves into believing they possessed the same weapons as Madrid.

"We have an opponent against whom we cannot make mistakes," Simeone said. "When we talk about the chances that Real Madrid or we have in the final, they are better than us, without a doubt."

Even Atletico striker Radamel Falcao noted Madrid as the favourites because of the "budget they have, and the players they have". He had a point.

"But over one game, everything is different," Simeone added.

For Madrid, the gravity of the occasion couldn't be much more different. Expectation rather hope dominated the build-up as Los Blancos had already missed out on the league title and lost in the Champions League semi-finals.

Only the Copa del Rey could salvage some pride for the season – but not even that would have saved Jose Mourinho's job.

The win that sparked a golden era?

Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia dubbed it "Mourinho's last supper". The Copa del Rey showpiece wasn't technically his last game in charge, but it was his last final with Madrid and a match that many Atletico fans will consider to be up their with their most historic wins.

It was thrilling, gruelling, brutal, but certainly not pretty.

In typical Atletico fashion, Simeone's side did everything they could during the early exchanges to get the faces of Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo – who put Mourinho's side ahead with a 14th-minute header – was a target for a few meaty challenges.

But then Madrid started to return the favour. Ronaldo, too. He clattered Filipe Luis. Raul Albiol let Diego Costa and then Falcao know he was there.

Those two soon combined for the equaliser, however. Falcao's brilliant pass released Costa and his lethal left-footed finish beat Diego Lopez in the Madrid net.

The cards began to fly after half-time, among them a red for Mourinho after protesting a yellow shown to – surprise, surprise – Sergio Ramos.

Madrid dominated, hitting the post twice after also striking it in the first half, but Atletico held on to force extra time, and eight minutes into the additional 30 came the decisive blow.

Koke's right-wing cross to the near post was perfect for Miranda, whose glancing header left the net bulging and Atletico suddenly within touching distance of a famous victory.

Ronaldo's dismissal for kicking out towards Gabi's face made things a little easier once the subsequent touchline brawl settled. The Atletico captain soon followed him for a second booking, but by that point the game was into its fifth minute of stoppage time. Madrid's race was almost run.

A final throw of the dice saw Lopez go up for a last-gasp corner, but Atletico survived and the referee's whistle followed their clearance, sparking bedlam.

Fourteen yellow cards and three reds summed up the bruising nature of the game, though it was Atletico's fight and spirit that came to define it.

Belief takes root

"Mourinho, stay!" came the chants from Atletico fans at full-time.

The Madrid coach was quintessential Mourinho in the aftermath, simultaneously declaring it the worst season of his career while also noting that "for many coaches that would be a good year".

But this was not about Mourinho. No, if anything he was a mere footnote in this tale.

"If you had made the fans an offer in which you'd said: 'we won't win against them for 14 years but when we do, it will be in the Copa final at their stadium, with them scoring first, hitting the post three times and us winning in extra time,' they'd have signed up for that'," Simeone surmised with absolutely surety.

For some – not Atletico fans – this game may have been lost somewhat in the abyss of time given it's nearly 10 years since the occasion.

But that's arguably only the case because of the successes that have come since for Atletico. That Copa triumph was monumental in the moment, but breaking the duopoly of Madrid and Barca in LaLiga – 12 months later and again in 2021 – will be the legacy of Simeone once his chapter as coach ends.

Of course, it's impossible to definitively tie most successes in football to a singular event, one thing that changes the course of history.

But there was clearly a sense of the 2013 Copa victory taking Atletico to another level mentally. They'd finally overcome two great barriers: domestic success and Madrid's derby dominance.

If this glorious era with Simeone is summarised by Atletico upsetting the status quo, then it all leads back to that day.

Nearly 10 years later, Atletico certainly aren't the team they were then, but they'll go into Thursday's duel with belief that took root on the night of May 17, 2013.

The first trophy of the Italian football season is on the line on Wednesday when fierce rivals Inter and Milan face off for the Supercoppa Italiana at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh.

Scudetto holders Milan and last season's Coppa Italia winners Inter appear well out of the Serie A title race at the midway point this time around, trailing leaders Napoli by nine and 10 points respectively.

Inter are still in the mix for silverware elsewhere this campaign, though, as they have a Champions League last-16 tie with Porto on the horizon and are also through to the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia.

As for Milan, they are also in the first knockout round of Europe's primary club competition – where Tottenham await over two legs – but they were eliminated from the Coppa Italia with a 1-0 defeat to Torino in extra time last week.

It is fair to say that Rossoneri head coach Stefano Pioli has a fair bit of money in the bank should this season end trophyless, having ended the club's 11-year wait for Scudetto success last season.

But defeat to neighbours Inter in Saudi Arabia, coupled with that big gap on Napoli, could lead to some questions being asked.

If that sounds extreme on the face of it, let us remember this is a club that got through seven managers in the seven years preceding Pioli's appointment.

Inzaghi has less goodwill to play with, and Italian outlet Gazzetta dello Sport reported in the build-up to the Supercoppa tie that the former striker has been told Wednesday's match must be used as a turning point in a below-par season.

The showdown between two of Italy's three most successful clubs has plenty riding on it, then, but what does recent history tell us about teams winning the Supercoppa and what it meant for the rest of their seasons? 


Inzaghi to join elite list?

The Supercoppa has now been staged midway through the season in Saudi Arabia for three of the past five years (this is the final year of the arrangement), the exceptions being in 2020 and 2021 when it was held in Italy due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, the reigning Serie A winners have prevailed against their opponents three times out of four. The anomaly in that sequence? A Lazio side managed by a certain Inzaghi that saw off Juventus 3-1.

Indeed, having also won the Supercoppa in 2019 and last year with Inter, Inzaghi could join legendary figures Fabio Capello and Marcelo Lippi as the most successful coaches in the competition's history.

 

Lazio also finished fourth in Serie A that season – the only time they have finished in the top four in the seven seasons either side – but they had entered the Supercoppa showdown with Juventus sitting one place higher.

From collecting 2.25 points per game across their 16 matches, Lazio's form dropped slightly to 1.91 per game in the final 22 games.

There are plenty of other factors to consider, of course, but the same was also true of Inter after winning this cup last season.

The Nerazzurri were top of the table on January 12 when beating Juventus 2-1 to lift their first piece of silverware under Inzaghi, averaging 2.45 points per game up until that point.

In the subsequent four months, that dipped to 1.94 points per game and they were pipped to the title by Milan, although they did at least win the Coppa Italia.

Familiar theme

Juve are another example of results dipping after winning the competition – as a direct consequence or otherwise – going from 2.79 points per game to 1.95 either side of defeating Milan in Jeddah.

However, given just how good they were in the first half of that season, they still retained top spot in Serie A.

Juventus in 2020-21 is the outlier in our sample as they improved on a return of 1.94 points per game on average to 2.14 either side of seeing off Napoli 2-0 on January 20, 2021.

The Bianconeri went from fifth to fourth and qualified for the Champions League, yet that was not enough to keep Andrea Pirlo in a job.

Effectively, then, teams tend to drop off after winning the Supercoppa, rather than using it as a platform to push on. And on more than one occasion, lifting the trophy has not been enough to keep a coach in place beyond that season.

So while Pioli and Inzaghi in particular will consider this an opportunity to potentially transform their respective sides' Serie A campaigns and reel in Napoli, the stats show that is highly unlikely to happen.

Welcome to the weird world of pandemic era men's tennis, where the world number five is unmistakably the man to beat.

Novak Djokovic sits head and shoulders above the rest for now, and those ranked higher would surely recognise that too, as the Australian Open arrives.

The 35-year-old Djokovic is playing the tennis of a 25-year-old, and being allowed his liberty after arriving in Australia is good news for him, auspicious for the rest of the Melbourne Park field.

Djokovic was being packed off on a flight out of the country around this time last year, after a saga that made minor international celebrities out of local journalists who could interpret the ins and outs of court proceedings.

He remains unvaccinated against COVID-19 as far as is known, but Australia has relaxed its border controls and rolled out the red carpet for Djokovic this time, rather than arrange for him to be detained.

Had he been allowed to play in Australia and North America last season, Djokovic would surely have remained on the top rung of the rankings ladder.

Over the coming fortnight, Djokovic will chase down a 10th Australian Open title and a record-equalling 22nd men's singles major.

What might stop him reaching those goals? Stats Perform has looked at areas where there might be a crumb of hope for his rivals.

Frosty reception?

There might be the odd jeer. He has never been universally popular and he has, through his vaccination choices, seemingly given those that disliked him anyway another stick to beat him with.

But look, if you think crowd pressure is going to get to Novak Djokovic, you haven't watched enough Novak Djokovic. Move on.

Besides, his 'Nole' army is sure to mobilise in Melbourne. He won't be found wanting for support.

Weight of expectation

The greats in sport rarely get flustered, but perhaps these are the moments, as history approaches, when even a model of focus such as Djokovic might miss a step.

You can look at the 2021 US Open final, when Djokovic was chasing a rare Grand Slam of all four majors in the calendar year, only to lose in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev in the Flushing Meadows final.

He would have gone to 21 slams with that win, too, edging ahead of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with whom he was locked on 20 majors. Instead he was flat, out of gas. The greats do have bad days, but they're rare.

Nadal got the jump on both Djokovic and Federer by winning the Australian and French titles last year to unexpectedly surge to 22 slams, before Djokovic took Wimbledon to narrow the gap and Federer retired to make it a two-man race.

Djokovic has won four of his five finals since Wimbledon, with the exception being a surprising loss to Holger Rune at the Paris Masters.

If he loses, it might have to be early, while still relatively cold. Djokovic has a 100 per cent strike rate once he reaches the semi-finals in Melbourne, never failing to take the title once he reaches the final four.

The #NextGen stars

Who are we looking at here, now we know Carlos Alcaraz is going to be absent? The world number one's hamstring blow has only boosted Djokovic's title chances, while removing the tantalising prospect of a first grand slam match-up between the pair. To date, they have only played once, with Alcaraz winning a tight contest on clay in Madrid last season.

In fact, who even is #NextGen? Stefanos Tsitsipas has been around forever, it feels, but is just 24, the same age as Casper Ruud, who is very much on the rise after two slam finals last season. World number three Ruud is just about #NextGen, but fourth-ranked Tsitsipas probably isn't. His slam results have tailed off, and it would be a significant surprise if the Greek made it to the final from the top half of the draw. He has done well in Australia over the years though, with semi-final runs in three of the last four seasons.

Norwegian Ruud is a potential semi-final opponent for Djokovic, and that could deliver drama. Felix Auger-Aliassime is on the other side of the draw and won four titles last year, yet all were relative tiddlers, while it might be too soon for Rune to win over five sets against an all-time great, but he is a possible quarter-final foe for Djokovic.

So is a certain other player, who long left behind the #NextGen ranks...

Nicholas Hilmy Kyrgios

Nick Kyrgios versus Rune in the third round is a lip-smacking prospect. And if that happens and Kyrgios comes through it, despite having not played on tour yet this year, the prospect of a quarter-final against Djokovic would likely loom large.

Tennis being tennis, strange things can happen, but given his kind draw it is hard to see anyone beating Djokovic before the quarter-final stage. Should it be Kyrgios waiting for him at that point, it will be popcorn at the ready.

Last year's Wimbledon final was decided by a fourth-set tie-break, rather than what would have been a dishy fifth set, and Djokovic would again fancy getting the better ot the bellicose but hyper-talented Australian.

Yet Kyrgios has beaten Djokovic twice in their three career meetings, so this is potentially the real landmine on the path to the final. If someone can defuse Kyrgios in the early rounds, Djokovic would have no complaints whatsoever.

Djokovic's own body might fail him

Djokovic abandoned a practice session in Melbourne out of caution over a hamstring issue, but by Friday he was fit enough to face Kyrgios in an exhibition on Rod Laver Arena.

Had he held any serious fitness worries, he surely would have given that a swerve. Showing up sent a message to the field.

This is not to say Djokovic's health will hold and his body will last the distance, but then the same is true of everyone in the draw. This is tennis at the highest level and Djokovic has fought his way to grand slam titles while carrying injury worries in the past, and you suspect he will again, probably as soon as Sunday, January 29.

As well as bringing an end to a long-running transfer saga, Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Al Nassr likely brings the curtain down on one of the greatest careers in elite European football history.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner will unquestionably become the highest-profile player to feature in the Saudi Pro League when he makes his debut, but he is by no means the first to make a move of that nature.

A tradition of elite players spending the twilight of their careers in an unfamiliar league – whether for one last payday or to raise the profile of the competition – is long-running.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how a series of other superstars fared after making comparable moves, including all-time greats Pele and Johan Cruyff, and a legendary Spanish midfield duo.
 

Pele (New York Cosmos)

When Pele joined the North American Soccer League (NASL)'s New York Cosmos in 1975, the Brazilian had already cemented his place among the very greatest to play the game by winning three World Cups – the first as a teenager and the last as part of one of the all-time great Selecao teams.

Despite his advancing years, Pele's class remained on display in the United States, where he scored 37 goals and registered 30 assists in three years with the Cosmos, who won the NASL's Soccer Bowl in 1977. 

 

Franz Beckenbauer (New York Cosmos)

Having signed one World Cup legend in Pele, the Cosmos repeated the trick in 1977 with the acquisition of Beckenbauer, who played four seasons for the club either side of a brief return to Germany with Hamburg.

The Bayern Munich great can certainly count his time in the NASL as a success, winning three Soccer Bowls – the latter two without Pele.

Johan Cruyff (Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats)

As another highly decorated player moving to the NASL in the late 1970s, Cruyff represented both the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats following his brief retirement in 1978.

The Dutch innovator complained of playing on artificial surfaces in the United States before bucking the trend of most players on this list – Cruyff returned to Europe in the twilight of his career, leading Ajax to two further Eredivisie titles as well as winning the division with their rivals Feyenoord. 

Samuel Eto'o (Anzhi Makhachkala)

While every transfer on this list was left-field, few created as much shock as Samuel Eto'o's 2011 move from Inter to big-spending Russian outfit Anzhi Makhachkala. 

Eto'o reportedly became the world's best-paid player with his move to Anzhi, for whom he scored 25 league goals before billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov scaled back ambitions at the now-defunct club, leading the striker to head to Chelsea.

 

David Beckham (LA Galaxy)

The NASL established the tradition of footballing luminaries arriving in the United States, but Beckham's 2007 move to LA Galaxy helped Major League Soccer break new ground.

Beckham won two MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields with the Galaxy, but the wider impact of his move – which inspired several other big names to head stateside and led the former England captain to found Inter Miami – was huge. 

Xavi (Al Sadd)

Xavi called time on his playing career with Barcelona as a Champions League winner in 2015, opting to spend four years representing Qatar Stars League side Al Sadd before cutting his managerial teeth at the same club.

The 2010 World Cup winner won the Qatari top-flight once as a player and once as a coach before returning to Camp Nou last year, having both played and managed over 100 games with Al Sadd. 

Andres Iniesta (Vissel Kobe)

The second of Barca's pass masters left the European game in 2018, when Iniesta joined J1 league side Vissel Kobe in a shock move.

Considering he still captains the side at the age of 38, Iniesta must have enjoyed his time in Japan, where he has since been joined by compatriots Bojan Krkic and Sergi Samper.

James Rodriguez (Al Rayyan)

Whenever the World Cup rolls around, the idea of breakout stars is discussed. Few players have been more deserving of that tag than Colombia's Rodriguez, who top-scored at the 2014 edition.

Having enjoyed title successes with European heavyweights Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and enjoyed a – rather less successful – spell at Everton, Rodriguez is now plying his trade with Al Rayyan, who are languishing in eighth place in the Qatar Stars League.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)

Most of the players named on this list enjoyed some form of success – whether it be on or off the pitch – after making their surprise moves, but few can match the feats of Ibrahimovic.

Ibrahimovic was – like Ronaldo – 37 when he left Manchester United in 2018, scoring 53 MLS goals for the Galaxy in two hugely successful seasons before returning to Europe to help Milan win the Scudetto earlier this year.

While Ronaldo now looks unlikely to return to the pinnacle of European football, if Ibrahimovic can do it, few would bet against the Portugal great doing likewise. 

 

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