Kevin De Bruyne is staying at "home" after Manchester City announced he has extended his deal with the club.

The Belgian playmaker – who arrived from Wolfsburg in August 2015 – has signed for a further two years, meaning he will remain at the Etihad Stadium until 2025.

There have already been plenty of highlights in a City career that has included two Premier League titles, one FA Cup success and four triumphs in the EFL Cup.

Stats Perform News has picked out some of the most memorable peformances from De Bruyne, who has made a habit of producing his best in the biggest games, both domestically and in Europe.

 

Towering over the Parisians – Manchester City 1 Paris Saint-Germain 0 (April 12, 2016)

De Bruyne instantly established himself as a vital member of Manuel Pellegrini's City team with four goals in his first five starts, but an ankle ligament injury in January 2016 proved damaging as their Premier League title challenge faded. He had regained form and fitness by the time a Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain came around. fA clinical opener with City under pressure during the first leg set in motion a gripping 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes and there was little to choose between the sides in the return until De Bruyne took aim from the edge of the box and sent the Etihad Stadium into raptures.

Slaying Messi and company – Manchester City 3 Barcelona 1 (November 1, 2016)

Pep Guardiola deployed De Bruyne as a striker at Camp Nou – a move that backfired in a 4-0 loss as goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was sent off. In the return Champions League group game, Lionel Messi crafted a majestic opener. Barca conceded an equaliser to Ilkay Gundogan, leaving De Bruyne to bend the game to his will – crashing in a free-kick after the break, while rendering the visitors' feted midfield overmatched and overrun time and again before being the catalyst for midfielder Gundogan's game-sealing third.

Happy return to Stamford Bridge – Chelsea 0 Manchester City 1 (September 30, 2017)

A frustrating spell at Chelsea yielded a mere two Premier League starts before De Bruyne pushed for a move to Wolfsburg. His fruitful time in the Bundesliga, where his efforts in 2014-15 saw him named Player of the Year, and subsequent brilliance for City showed that to be a wise career choice. De Bruyne enjoyed a moment of sublime vindication at Stamford Bridge when he strode forward, exchanged passes with Gabriel Jesus and arrowed an unstoppable left-footed shot beyond compatriot Thibaut Courtois.

Masterclass leads to seventh heaven – Manchester City 7 Stoke City 2 (October 14, 2017)

In the rare event of a team netting seven goals it is unusual to find supporters repeatedly chanting the name of a player who failed find the net. That is exactly what happened as City hammered Stoke: Jesus (twice), Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Fernandinho, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva were all on target, yet it was creator-in-chief De Bruyne who captured the imagination and adoration of the crowd. "They have De Bruyne, who is head and shoulders above any player in the Premier League in my view… because of the way he can dictate and effect the game," said Stoke boss Mark Hughes.

Classy cameo helps make it a treble – Manchester City 6-0 Watford (May 18, 2019)

City made history as they completed a domestic treble in the 2018-19 season, an achievement made even more impressive by the lengthy absence of De Bruyne, who started just 11 league games in a campaign hampered by injuries. However, the Belgian showed his class during the FA Cup final against Watford, even though he was only introduced into proceedings as a 55th-minute substitute. He scored a goal and created another as Watford were crushed 6-0 at Wembley Stadium, with De Bruyne named man of the match for his outstanding contribution off the bench.

Capital gains with Emirates double – Arsenal 0-3 Manchester City (December 15, 2019)

City were vulnerable in the first half of the 2019-20 season in the Premier League, though De Bruyne did not let his own standards slip for the faltering champions. He tormented poor Arsenal at Emirates Stadium and was comfortably the best player on the pitch, including scoring two of his side's three first-half goals. A Gunners team led by caretaker boss Freddie Ljungberg simply could not cope as De Bruyne dominated. It was his delivery that set up Raheem Sterling to score, though a slight deflection on the cross denied him an assist, much to his frustration.

Real deal helps City hit back – Real Madrid 1-2 Manchester City (February 26, 2020)

City rallied to defeat Real Madrid for the first time in their history in the first leg of the last-16 tie, vindicating Guardiola's tactics. Jesus occupied a wide role as De Bruyne was utilised as a false nine, a position that allowed him to have a major impact on proceedings. Isco put the LaLiga side ahead on the hour, only for the visitors to flip the game on its head in the closing stages. De Bruyne set up Jesus' equaliser, then calmly tucked away a penalty to reach 50 goals for the club. It was the first time he had both scored and assisted in the same Champions League fixture.

City produce red-hot spell to sink Blues – Chelsea 1-3 Manchester City (January 3, 2021)

Once again, Guardiola's decision to deploy De Bruyne in a more advanced role paid off. A COVID-19 outbreak meant City were shorthanded at Stamford Bridge, though this was the early stages of an irrepressible run of form that turned a potentially intriguing title race into a procession. They scored three goals in the space of 16 first-half minutes as Chelsea were cut open, De Bruyne's pinpoint pass through Cesar Azpilicueta's legs allowing Phil Foden to make it 2-0. He added the third himself, converting the rebound after Sterling had hit the post for a fourth goal against his old club.

Dustin Johnson has had little time to revel in the success of his record-breaking Masters triumph last November.

The world number one became the first player in the tournament's illustrious history to win with a score of 20 under par.

But the coronavirus pandemic meant the event could not be held in its usual April slot, with Johnson's triumph achieved amid an Autumnal rather than Spring backdrop.

This year, though, the action takes place at the traditional point in the calendar. So, here we are for the first major of 2021 and the expert team at Stats Perform News have picked out their favourites for the green jacket.

GEAR UP FOR THE SPIETH SHOW – Peter Hanson

Here is a statement of fact (okay, actually it's an opinion): golf is much more fun when Jordan Spieth is in the groove. We all know it to be true. And recently, boy have there been some tantalising moments to suggest Spieth will be flying at Augusta – a place where you could fill a lengthy highlight reel with his brilliance from years gone by. A rancid run of form saw Spieth ranked as low as 92nd earlier this year following a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open. However, four top-10 finishes from six events preceded a victory at the Valero Texas Open at the weekend – his first tournament win since triumphing at The Open four years ago. Spieth is always great viewing at a venue where he was champion in 2015 and has recorded three other top-three finishes. Key to success for Spieth will be if he can get the putter firing. On the PGA Tour this season, he ranks fifth for one-putt average, while his 27.91 putts per round tallies fourth.

BRYSON REVOLUTIONISED THE SPORT, NOW HE'LL WEAR GREEN - Dan Lewis

Having helped to revolutionise the sport en route to winning the US Open seven months ago, Bryson DeChambeau will now be looking to put his power game to good use with a second major title. The 27-year-old will certainly better his previous best finish of 21st in 2016 and, if he can continue to improve his putting, he has a serious shot of unseating Johnson.

THERE'S NO CURE QUITE LIKE WINNING FOR RORY – John Skilbeck

Who was that lurking in 39th place on the FedEx Cup standings last week? Is there another Rory McIlroy or is this where we are? By now, many thought we would be in an era of McIlroy domination, given the prowess he showed in his early twenties, but those predictions have been skewered, with McIlroy struggling to mount sustained title challenges in the majors. His career card shows plenty of top-10 finishes at the very elite level, but, since landing his fourth major at the 2014 US PGA Championship, the Northern Irishman has often been chasing essentially lost causes. There have been rounds which have amounted almost to self-sabotage, such as the closing 74 when he was genuinely in the hunt three years ago at Augusta, or the 75 with which he began last year. With coach Pete Cowen now on board, McIlroy is actively looking for remedies. There's no cure quite like winning.

DON'T IGNORE THE OBVIOUS, DJ CAN MASTER AUGUSTA AGAIN – Ben Spratt

Are we ignoring the obvious? Dustin Johnson is the Masters favourite and rightfully so. Since winning on his last trip to Augusta in November, DJ triumphed at the Saudi International on the European Tour but his PGA form has been mixed – just one top-10 finish from five tournaments. But no other golfer has had the benefit of returning to the scene of their triumph just five months later. Johnson did not just squeak to victory in November either; his 20-under 268 for the week broke Masters records and secured a five-stroke advantage. Do not bet against him mastering Augusta again.

IT'S NOW OR NEVER FOR VETERAN WESTWOOD – Pat Ridge

Westwood has never won a major, but he is in excellent form heading to Augusta. He just missed out to Bryson DeChambeau at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, losing by one shot – his best result on the PGA Tour since he tied for second at the 2016 Masters. He followed that up with a second-placed finish at The Players Championship, and it could be a case if not now, then will it ever happen for the 47-year-old? A strong performance will also do his Ryder Cup chances no harm, as he looks to match Nick Faldo’s record of 11 appearances for Europe.

NEW FATHER RAHM CAN JOIN NEW WINNERS' CLUB – Chris Myson

Collin Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau were first-time winners in golf's majors in 2020. Going further back, 12 of the last 19 winners had never before won a major, while seven of the last 10 champions at Augusta was triumphing at one of the big four events for a first time. This could be Jon Rahm's turn to continue those trends. While first-time winners have been prominent, nine of the last 10 Masters winners had landed a top-six major finish in the previous two years before breaking their duck. Rahm, who recently became a father for the first time, came in a tie for third at the 2019 U.S. Open and has three straight top-10 finishes to his name at Augusta. He has recent form too. In seven events in 2021, Rahm has five top-10s and is yet to miss a cut.

Everyone, even Liverpool players and fans, could understand Vinicius Junior's reaction.

It was 27 minutes into the Champions League quarter-final first leg, around 30 seconds after Real Madrid's opening goal, finished with stylish composure by the Brazilian. He turned to the architect, Toni Kroos, and bowed.

It was a simple gesture to mark the simple brilliance of Kroos' long pass. A swing of the right foot, a burst of water from the slick Valdebebas turf, and the ball was arcing through the darkening Spanish sky and into Vinicius' run, right between two Liverpool defenders.

At 60.4 yards, it was the second-longest pass of the first half by an outfield player, and unquestionably the most impactful. It was also the fifth attempted long ball by Kroos in the first 45 minutes, four more than Liverpool's starting midfield trio managed between them.

Zinedine Zidane's tactic was clear: get the ball to Kroos, and he'll pick Liverpool apart. And he did. Every time the Germany star pivoted in midfield, every time Liverpool's central threesome so inexplicably dropped away, his passing lines painted the pitch like a canvas.

As the long deliveries towards Ferland Mendy and Vinicius down the Madrid left mounted, so did the uncertainty in the Liverpool defence. Trent Alexander-Arnold faced runners before him and the ball overhead, and he never seemed quite sure which one to deal with. When Kroos was again gifted time to lift his head and curl another pass towards the right-back, panic took over; his attempted header back to Alisson was gratefully pounced on by Marco Asensio.

That one didn't look a particularly complex pass. Very often, they don't. Therein lies the magic of Kroos: taking the art of the playmaker and making it mundane. There is such swaggering simplicity to his play that it sometimes looks the easiest thing in the world, yet few can match it, and fewer can stop it.

He ended the contest with 68 of 75 passes completed, with 90.7 per cent accuracy, the highest figures in the match by a Madrid player. Forty-four of those passes were made in the Liverpool half. Four of them created goalscoring chances, twice as many as any other player.

This isn't the Liverpool who won this tournament two years ago, of course, but neither is this the same Madrid that lifted four out of five Champions League trophies from 2014 to 2018. But Kroos won three of those, and on this form, he gives them a great chance of winning another. That indomitable triumvirate of Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric, just when it looks like it's finally run its course, proceeds to run a Champions League quarter-final match from start to finish.

With around five minutes left and the score at 3-1, Kroos played a blind ball across the Madrid half straight to Sadio Mane. Eder Militao and Lucas Vazquez reacted quickly, snuffing out the danger, as Kroos kept to the left and watched the play unfold, impassive, in control.

With the Premier League back following the international break, in many ways it was essentially business as usual.

Manchester United were underwhelming but came from behind yet again, while Harry Kane provided his customary reminder that he's probably a bit too good for Tottenham – or this Tottenham, at the very least.

Liverpool showed signs of having their mojo back in a 3-0 win at Arsenal that was inspired by Diogo Jota, though Manchester City moved another step closer to taking the Reds' crown.

At the other end of the table, Sheffield United – who have long looked doomed – are closing in on a Premier League record… Not that it's one they'll want to brag about.

Using Opta data, we look at some of the more quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action…

Diogo's Jota lot going for him

How much better off Liverpool would be now had Jota not missed a large chunk of the season is impossible to know, but it's a fair assumption they'd be in a stronger position than they are.

The Portugal international returned following a three-month absence in March, scoring the winner against former club Wolves before then netting thrice for his country during the international break.

He was held back at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday but yet again proved he doesn't need long to make an impact, his brace helping secure a 3-0 win over Arsenal – it was 0-0 when he entered the pitch around the hour mark.

Those goals took him to eight in the Premier League this season from 730 minutes, meaning he boasts comfortably the best minutes-per-goal record (91) among players to have scored at least once this term. The next best is Gareth Bale with five from 561 minutes (one every 112 mins).

His 4.7 xG overperformance suggests either his form is not sustainable or he's developing into an elite-level chance-taker – hopefully an injury-free 2021-22 will unveil the truth.

Kane eyes Cole feat

While 2020-21 has been rather hit-and-miss for Tottenham, the same cannot be said for Kane.

The England captain is enjoying another stellar season but, perhaps more pertinently, he seems to have added another string to his bow when it comes to setting up team-mates.

With that in mind, his brace at the weekend means he now tops both the Premier League goalscoring (19) and assist (13) charts. He probably won't match his personal best of 30 goals for a single season, but in terms of goal involvements he's only four adrift of the 36 he managed in 2016-17 (29 goals, seven assists).

Therefore he's in with a great shout of being only the second player in Premier League history to finish a season with the most goals and assists.

Andy Cole is the only player to lead both outright at the end of a season, accomplishing the feat in 1993-94 when he netted 34 times and set up another 13 – this was before the competition changed from a 42-game season to 38.

Mourinho and Spurs dreaming of Man United's comeback record

It was just another weekend of Manchester United coming from behind to snatch a win and Tottenham throwing away a lead.

United netted twice in the second half to cancel out Danny Welbeck's opener for Brighton and Hove Albion, clinching a 2-1 win at Old Trafford thanks to goals from Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.

It means they have gained 25 points from losing positions in the Premier League this term, a figure only ever bettered three times – West Brom (27) in 2010-11, United themselves (29) in 2012-13 and Newcastle United (34) in 2001-02.

It's been a different story for Tottenham this season, however, as they've not been able to hold on to leads – Newcastle rescuing a 2-2 draw against them on Sunday being the latest example, with the Magpies' xG of four being their highest figure since 2016-17.

They've now dropped 11 points due to goals conceded in the final 10 minutes of games, the worst record in the Premier League this term, and failed to win the six league games in which they've led at half-time. That's also a league-wide high.

As for Jose Mourinho, the 15 points he's seen Spurs surrender from winning positions in 2020-21 is already a joint-worst for him in a Premier League season.

Sheffield United on course for worst ever Premier League season

Okay, admittedly this one does depend on how you quantify "worst".

After all, Derby County hold the record for the fewest points ever won in a single Premier League season when they amassed just 11 in 2007-08, and Sheffield United already have three more.

However, Derby's 29 defeats equated to 76.3 per cent of their 38 matches, which along with Sunderland two years earlier, is the biggest proportion of losses in a solitary campaign.

Following the Blades' 2-1 loss at Leeds United on Saturday, they have lost 80 per cent of their matches this term (25 in total).

Given their form until now, few would be surprised to see them set a new Premier League record of 30 defeats.

It is safe to say Jrue Holiday enjoyed himself in the NBA last week.

The former All-Star sparkled for the Milwaukee Bucks before the weekend brought news of a four-year, $160million extension.

On the evidence of his performances since last Monday, it was a well-earned reward.

Holiday leads this week's NBA Heat Check, powered by Stats Perform data, alongside a man he might have counted as a team-mate this season.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Jrue Holiday

The Bucks paid a big price to get Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans in a bid to persuade Giannis Antetokounmpo to stay. It was a move that worked in that sense and is increasingly showing its merit on the floor, too.

Milwaukee may have tumbled to third in the East this season, but they are showing signs they might finally provide a threat in the playoffs.

Holiday will be key to that, as he was during a three-game winning run last week. After starting their road trip with defeat at the Los Angeles Clippers, in which Holiday scored 24 points, the point guard tallied 28, 22 and 33 respectively in victories over the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings.

An average of 26.8 over those seven days lifted Holiday's seasonal mark from 15.9 to 17.0.

Bogdan Bogdanovic

As the Bucks desperately sought reinforcements to prove their ambition to Antetokounmpo, a deal for Bogdanovic from the Kings was reportedly struck. Instead, however, he signed for the Atlanta Hawks.

Milwaukee are certainly a more serious prospect than Atlanta, but the Hawks are belatedly finding some form with the help of Bogdanovic.

The forward had just two starts for the season until late March but has since been in the lineup for six successive games, including a run of three wins last week that started with his 28-point display against the San Antonio Spurs in which he shot 70.6 per cent from the field.

Gary Trent Jr.

Last week allowed teams around the NBA to get a good look at the players they traded for before the deadline, and the Toronto Raptors could only be pleased with Trent's output.

He averaged 23.3 for the week, albeit the Raptors only won once. Trent had a staggering plus/minus of 54 in that demolition of the Golden State Warriors.

Norm Powell, the man Trent was traded for, tallied 13.7 points across three Portland games, although the Blazers won two of them.
 

GOING COLD...

Victor Oladipo

While Trent has had an instant impact, the same certainly cannot be said for Oladipo.

The two-time All-Star was the Miami Heat's most notable signing as a move for Trent's new Toronto team-mate Kyle Lowry did not materialise, while LaMarcus Aldridge headed for the Brooklyn Nets after agreeing a buy out with the Spurs.

On his third team of 2021, Oladipo was averaging 20.8 points for the season prior to his Heat debut but then tallied a measly total of 14 points across his first two games as a Miami player.

Zach LaVine

Oladipo's is not the only switch yet to prove profitable, with the Chicago Bulls making a big move to bring in Nikola Vucevic to pair fellow All-Star LaVine.

But LaVine, previously scoring 27.9 points in 2020-21, averaged an underwhelming 20.0 last week.

No player in the NBA saw a greater decrease in their made shots from three-point range - 3.5 previously but just 1.3 last week - and LaVine was among three Bulls in the top five in that unwanted table (also Vucevic and Lauri Markkanen).

DeAndre Jordan

Like LaVine, Jordan was not on the move ahead of the deadline. But he was still negatively impacted.

When Aldridge chose Brooklyn over Miami, the Nets center - already struggling to hold off surprise star Nicolas Claxton - saw his opportunities decrease further.

Jordan played in only two of his team's four games last week, appearing for less than 12 minutes in each and averaging 1.5 rebounds down from 7.5 for the season.

It was hardly the sort of entrance that said "I'm here to save the day". Luka Modric was still putting his headband on as he rather leisurely entered the Old Trafford pitch just a few moments after Nani's controversial sending off in the Champions League last-16 second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Los Blancos were down 2-1 on aggregate after a Sergio Ramos own goal had put United in the driving seat a short while earlier, but with the hosts a man light, Jose Mourinho sent Modric on as Madrid looked to suffocate Alex Ferguson's men.

Alongside Xabi Alonso, Modric was swiftly into the thick of it as Madrid tried to pull United this way and that, and he soon took matters into his own hands with Kaka, Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo unable to break through.

Allowed space just outside the United area, Modric's motioning for a shot lured Michael Carrick out of position and the Croatian easily breezed past him before lashing an unstoppable effort in off the right-hand post just seven minutes after coming on.

It was only his second goal for the club, but as it spurred Madrid on to seal a 2-1 win and a spot in the next round thanks, Modric has regarded that match as the turning point in his career at the Santiago Bernabeu.

A perfect storm

It's easy to forget how disappointing Modric's first season at Madrid was deemed to be. After all, before Christmas, he was voted as the worst signing of the campaign in a Marca poll, beating Alex Song of Barcelona to top the charts.

Two years Modric's junior, Song has been playing his football in Djibouti this season; Modric remains, at the ripe old age of 35, arguably the finest midfielder in Spain.

There are certainly comparisons to be made with Thiago Alcantara's first season in England, with Liverpool struggling to even maintain a challenge for the top four, let alone defend their title.

Thiago was seen as the missing piece of the puzzle, the sort of central midfielder that balanced flair with genuine playmaking abilities, unlike anyone already in the squad. It was said his arrival would enable to Liverpool to play with greater flexibility, but the reality has been a little different.

Teams are playing deeper against Liverpool, as evidenced by the fact their shots outside the area per game is up from 4.6 per game to 5.2, while they are being allowed 190.4 passes in the final third each match, up from 180.9. Opponents are more confident they can keep Liverpool out if they defend deep.

Of course, Liverpool's issues this term are plentiful – injuries have been particularly frequent, and Thiago himself has lost a significant chunk of the season in this regard.

But even when he has been fit, it's difficult to say the Spain international has transformed the Reds. In fact, they have a better league win percentage (57.1) when he doesn't play than when he does (37.5), while they tend to score more goals (2.4 per game, compared to 1.1 when he is playing).

One theory for Thiago's struggles has been his apparent lack of comfort with Liverpool's intense pressing style, but the data suggests that to be a red herring.

Granted, Liverpool do engage in 18.9 pressed sequences – instances where the opposition have three or fewer passes in a move, which ends within 40 metres of their own goal – per game, with their total of 567 the most in the Premier League this term.

But Bayern averaged 16.9 per game in 2019-20 and led the way in the Bundesliga in this regard. Meanwhile, they allowed 9.8 opposition passes per defensive action, with Liverpool's PPDA this term 10.7, showing the Bayern side Thiago played in wasn't too dissimilar.

So, why would Liverpool's off-the-ball intensity impact him so much? It seems far more likely the issue is simply that he's in the middle of a perfect storm of settling into new surroundings and a new team during an injury crisis that has impacted him as well.

Changing perception

Fans can forget that players are people first and foremost. Upheaval off the pitch can have a demonstrable effect on it – of course it can, just like life at home can impact the job performance of average Joe.

This was a key element for Modric, who explained how he found it difficult to settle in initially at Real Madrid, not only because as a club they are an entirely different beast to Tottenham but also as he didn't have a pre-season and gaining fitness was always likely to be a struggle when playing catch-up.

As for fan expectations, perhaps there was also a degree of misunderstanding from Madrid supporters. Maybe they were initially expecting something more than Modric.

After all, in his final season at Spurs, Modric was a key creator. His 96 key passes in 2011-12 was bettered by only two midfielders in the Premier League (David Silva – 104, Juan Mata – 103), evidence that much of the creative burden was on his shoulders.

So, perhaps the fact his creative ingenuity wasn't being so frequently displayed at Madrid coloured opinion.

Granted, his 17 key passes in 13 league appearances between the start of the season and January 1 left a lot to be desired, but his end-of-season record of 56 was the third-highest in the Madrid squad.

Time, patience and trust were seemingly key to Modric establishing himself, but to suggest he's played the same way at Madrid as in his best season at Spurs would be incorrect – the closest he's ever got to that 96 key passes haul since was 61 in 2015-16.

In fact, when you consider a whole range of his key metrics such as passes, pass completion, chance creation, touches of the ball and defensive areas, there hasn't been drastic fluctuation between 2012-13 and now.

Certainly, his 62.6 successful passes per 90 is up from 55 in 2012-13, while his touches have improved from 80 to 86.7, but those differences certainly aren't major. The fact is his figures have been pretty steady throughout his time in LaLiga.

But at 35, he has still played in 28 of Madrid's 29 league matches this term. He's arguably more important to them than ever before.

Coming back from being a target of ridicule to becoming a club great and winning the Ballon d'Or speaks to Modric's attitude and talent, but also serves as inspiration for Thiago.

While the Spaniard has not had to contend with quite the same level of criticism, there are certainly those unconvinced by him.

With a full pre-season under his belt and allowed to gel into a settled team that isn't constantly being chopped and changed due to injuries, Thiago can surely enjoy a sparkling second season at Liverpool. After all, the data proves the Reds' pressing shouldn't be a long-term issue for him given how Bayern played.

A 25-yard strike of his own against Manchester United would go down very well right now, although a similarly decisive impact against Madrid would surely be a nice compromise for the Barcelona product.

The first time Pep Guardiola was drawn to face a Bundesliga team in the Champions League as Manchester City manager, the match was postponed after a torrential pre-match downpour soaked the Etihad Stadium.

Twenty-four hours later, Borussia Monchengladbach were swatted aside 4-0 but there were some other, more incongruous storm clouds hovering.

Sergio Aguero scored a hat-trick, already his second of the campaign to move on to nine goals in his first five outings under Guardiola.  A brace that weekend at Swansea City took him to 11 in six, but his manager was not completely satisfied with the bigger picture.

"Sergio just has a talent to score goals that is natural, I cannot teach him that," Guardiola said.

"What I can tell him is there is a team behind him that is going to help him. I want to convince him to help them and, if it happens in that way, he's going to score a lot of goals."

Those fraught moments in Guardiola and Aguero's early relationship at City, one that looked to be hurtling towards an early end when Gabriel Jesus arrived in January 2017 and displaced the Argentina striker from the starting line-up, were long forgotten in the glowing tributes paid last week.

Aguero will leave City when his contract expires in June as the club's all-time record goalscorer and the top scoring overseas player in Premier League history.

Bundesliga opponents are back on the agenda this week, with Borussia Dortmund in town for the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final. Erling Haaland, presumed by many to be Aguero's most suitable heir, will be the focus of much pre-match attention.

Should City emerge from the pack of European heavyweights to claim Haaland's signature, the experience of Guardiola's previous centre forwards – from those who eventually thrived like Aguero, to those who fell by the wayside – suggest there would be plenty of hard work ahead for the Norwegian youngster.

False nines and harsh truths

Guardiola's most celebrated innovation during his trophy-laden stint in charge of Barcelona was Lionel Messi's deployment as a false nine, helping Aguero's compatriot to flourish into he world's finest player.

However, more traditional centre-forwards experienced collateral damage. Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry flanked Messi in the 2009 Champions League final triumph over Manchester United. A year later they had both left Camp Nou, as had Zlatan Ibrahimovic after a year under Guardiola most notable for his string of subsequent withering comments about the Catalan tactician.

If the assumption was these supreme strikers were simply victims of playing second fiddle to Guardiola's star pupil, his stint at Bayern Munich suggested something more baked in to his football philosophy that meant centre forwards would adapt to the coach and not the other way around.

After a season under Guardiola in 2013-14, Mario Mandzukic stomped off to Atletico Madrid and accused the coach of a lack of respect. Robert Lewandowski took his place but the returns that now make the Poland superstar the most feared number nine in Europe were not immediately forthcoming.

A haul of 17 Bundesliga goals in 2014-15 was way below the levels he would go on to set. The breakout moment of his Bayern career came in September 2015, when he ravenously rattled home five goals in a mind-boggling nine minutes against Wolfsburg. An often-forgotten plot point of those Lewandowski heroics is they came as a substitute. Guardiola had started Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller and Douglas Costa in the sort of fluid forward line that did for the likes of Ibrahimovic and Mandzukic.

Since August 2011 – the month of Aguero's City debut and the first season Lewandowski was a regular starter at Dortmund - only Messi (483) and Cristiano Ronaldo (460) have scored more goals across all competitions among players from the top five European leagues than Bayern's star striker.

Lewandowski (380) is the only other player above 300, with Aguero seventh overall (257) behind Luis Suarez (295), Edinson Cavani (278) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (264).

If Haaland were to link up with Guardiola, history suggests these are the sort of levels he will have to hit. The signs of the past 18 months point promisingly in that direction.

The boy wonder

There were echoes of Lewandowski's Wolfsburg heroics – and, for that matter, Aguero's "anything you can do…" efforts of five goals in 20 minutes against Newcastle United a month later – in Haaland's sensational Bundesliga debut last January 18.

The 20-year-old came on as a second-half substitute and fired a 23-minute hat-trick to inspire Dortmund's 5-3 win over Augsburg.

In the spell from that game onwards, Haaland has 49 goals in all competitions, a haul only bettered across the top five leagues by Lewandowski (67) and Ronaldo (52). Despite being in contention for four major honours this term, City's leading scorers during the same period are Raheem Sterling and Jesus, with 24 and 22 respectively.

It seems Haaland would offer an obvious uplift, thanks in large part to his remarkable efficiency in front of goal. At Dortmund, he boasts a shot conversion rate of 33.6 per cent – better than any other player with 20 or more goals during this time.

For context, Lewandowski is back on 27.8 per cent and Romelu Lukaku and Andre Silva – each speculated alternatives should City be unable to land Haaland – convert just under a quarter of their attempts with 23.7 and 24.5 per cent respectively. Jesus (17.5) and Sterling (16.9) are about half as reliable as the man they will face this week.

A look at Haaland's expected goals (xG) figures for this season suggests judicious shot selection is a key part of his lethal makeup.

In the Bundesliga and Champions League combined, he has 29 non-penalty goals from 93 shots that have a cumulative xG value of 21.2.

By way of comparison, in 2018-19 – the campaign that will stand as his last truly great one in City colour – Aguero scored 24 times from open play in the Premier League and Champions League, outperforming an xG of 20.6 accumulated from 144 attempts.

Haaland's efficiency is again illustrated but a higher xG figure from 51 fewer efforts shows he is coldly selective when it comes to taking on shots, usually only pulling the trigger when a clear opportunity presents itself and to great success.

The speculative strike is not something he has a need to call upon too often, which holds an obvious appeal for a coach like Guardiola, who places such an emphasis on his team controlling every aspect of matches.

Attackers going rogue and firing off shots from all over the place is not high on the list of things he enjoys to see, placing a big tick next to Haaland.

Running and pressing until the end

Kevin De Bruyne's midfield masterclass to inspire a 2-0 weekend win at Leicester City was something of an archetype for what is required from City's big hitters.

Along with moments of high artistry such as his immaculate throughball to make Jesus' game-sealing goal possible, the Belgium international regained possession 14 times and contested 20 duels.

"This is one of our identities. When the most talented players in the world are able to do this kind of job," Guardiola said.

"There is no negotiation on this. You can play really badly but in terms of running and pressing for your team-mates until the end, we have to do it. Do it for your mates, because in the next action your mates are going to do it for you.

"We cannot deny that in the five years we were together the players we had run and fight every single game. That is one of the things I am proud of the most."

So, how would Haaland shape up to this non-negotiable part of the job description?

In 2020-21, the Dortmund centre-forward has won possession in the final third 31 times, made 65 recoveries overall, nine interceptions and contested 195 duels.

Even taking into account a BVB playing style that can be more chaotic than Guardiola's finely grooved City, these efforts stack up well compared to peak Aguero.

Only once under Guardiola has he won back the ball deep in opposition territory more frequently – 33 times in 2018-19, when he made his sole foray into double figures for interceptions (13) during the Catalan's tenure.

Aguero made 122 recoveries and contested 481 duels during Guardiola's first season at the helm in 2016-17, when City were some distance from their present model of efficient dominance. His recoveries/duels returns of 86 and 310 and 89 and 325 during the subsequent back-to-back Premier League triumphs are more in line with where Haaland might be at the end of the current campaign.

This begins to demonstrate that Guardiola's running and pressing until the end is not quite as advertised. Much as with Haaland's shot selection, there is an emphasis on picking your moments to lay down maximum effort. His is not the Heavy Metal Football under which the Dortmund of a previous era thrived, more Post-Rock Football laced with frequent and precise tempo changes.

In his final two seasons under Manuel Pellegrini, when City's sole major honour was the 2015-16 EFL Cup, Aguero won back possession in the final third 35 and 40 times – returns never bettered in the Guardiola era despite an improvement in his work off the ball being rightly lauded. A total of 126 recoveries in 2015-16 is one he has not topped, while 24 interceptions back in 2011-12 showed Roberto Mancini benefitting from the youthful enthusiasm of his record signing.

The idea that Guardiola strikers have to run themselves into the ground for scant reward is a horror story Mino Raiola might try to spin for his new favourite client. But Aguero's experience shows it is more of a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" relationship.

In 2018-19, he averaged 8.15 touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes. This figure increased to 9.08 last season, one only bettered by 9.99 in 2013-14 during his City career. During Pellegrini's final year in charge, Aguero's touches in the area were down to 6.67 per game.

Taking some time to adapt to Guardiola's methods is neither unusual nor limited to strikers, with Joao Cancelo and Rodri's second-season improvements this time around standing as the latest examples.

If Haaland became a blockbuster signing, there is no reason to think his rewards would be anything other than plentiful after a period of assimilation. For the next week or so, however, Guardiola's only concern will be keeping his precocious talents under wraps.

New York has long been starved of NBA success but now has two teams making strides in 2020-21.

The Brooklyn Nets have made plenty of noise as they have claimed a share of first place in the Eastern Conference, led by the 'big three' of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

But the New York Knicks, the city's favourite team, are also in playoff contention with a .500 record.

On Monday, the two teams go head-to-head at Barclays Center – and Durant, Irving and Harden could all feature for just the eighth time this season.

The Knicks will have their work cut out as they try to stop their star-studded neighbours.

TOP PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets - Kyrie Irving

Durant is likely to be seen as the Nets' difference-maker in the biggest games, while Harden, the third man in the 'big three', has established himself as an MVP contender. He cannot afford many more nights off.

But as both players recover from hamstring injury – Durant is "an outside possibility", Harden's absence is "just caution" - it will likely again be Irving's turn to carry the team, showing their remarkable depth.

The point guard leads Brooklyn in total points, scoring 27.7 per game – the best mark of his career and one which puts him eighth in the NBA among all players.

Irving had a game-high 34 points when these teams last met in March, a 117-112 Nets win.

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

First-time All-Star Randle has led the Knicks' improvement this season and he has been talking a big game ahead of this clash.

The forward responded to talk of Brooklyn's 'big three' by suggesting New York have a "big 15", of which he is undoubtedly the star, averaging 23.0 points and 10.7 rebounds this year.

Randle will certainly not be short of motivation.

He had 33 points in the game last month, just shy of Irving's total, and had to be held back from the officials after a late three-pointer was ruled out due to an incorrect traveling call.

KEY BATTLE - BROOKLYN BIGS TO BOSS BIG APPLE?

It is not just the Nets' superstar talent the Knicks have to worry about, as there is also a mismatch at center.

Third-year big man Mitchell Robinson was set for a breakout year in New York, seemingly contributing to the team's decision not to push harder for a buyout signing as Andre Drummond went to the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Robinson, posting 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals, fractured his right foot, leaving the Knicks with Nerlens Noel (4.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) and Taj Gibson (5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds) as their primary options at the five.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn have a whole array of possibilities at the position, led by buyout signings and former All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin but also including DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green and surprise performer Nicolas Claxton (7.9 points, 1.3 blocks).

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nets are 2-0 in this season's series, also beating the Knicks in January, and Monday's game could see a significant power swing.

The all-time record stands at 101-100 in the Knicks' favour, giving Brooklyn the opportunity to pull ahead for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

The Premier League made its comeback this weekend, and there was no shortage of drama on Sunday.

It was a tail of turnarounds throughout the four fixtures – three sides coming from behind to win while Newcastle United and Tottenham played out a topsy turvy 2-2 draw.

Manchester United needed a late goal to see off Brighton and Hove Albion, while Southampton and Aston Villa claimed victories.

United have now won 95 Premier League points after conceding first, seven more than any other team in the history of the competition and, using Opta data, we take a look at more of the best facts from across the day's matches.

Southampton 3-2 Burnley: Ings puts former club to the sword in thrilling fightback 

Southampton picked up their first Premier League home win since their opening game in 2021 as they came from two goals down to beat Burnley 3-2, ending a run of five league outings at St. Mary's without a victory (D1 L4).

The Saints had not won a league game that they had trailed in by two goals since March 2016, when they defeated Liverpool under Ronald Koeman, but Danny Ings inspired the turnaround against his former club.

Having teed up Stuart Armstrong's goal, Ings became just the fourth player in Premier League history to score in four successive appearances against sides he has previously played for in the competition, after Robbie Keane in 2004, Jermain Defoe in 2009 and Wilfried Bony in 2017.

It was Nathan Redmond who then dealt the decisive blow, volleying in from Theo Walcott's cross after Nick Pope had brilliantly denied Ings a second.

Redmond has been directly involved in five goals in his past two games for Southampton (three goals and two assists), as many direct goal involvements as he had registered in his previous 30 appearances in all competitions combined.

Chris Wood gave Burnley the lead from a VAR-awarded penalty – the 100th spot-kick taken in the top flight this season, and the 83rd to be converted. This is only the seventh Premier League campaign to see a century of penalties awarded.

Newcastle United 2-2 Tottenham: Kane double not enough as Spurs let another lead slip

Tottenham looked set to move into the top four as they led 2-1 at Newcastle – Harry Kane's double putting them ahead after Joelinton carried on his goalscoring form against Spurs; he has now netted a total of four Premier League goals in 62 appearances, with two of those coming in four matches versus the north London team.

Kane has been directly involved in 45 goals in all competitions this term, scoring 29 times and providing 16 assists, equalling his career-best tally from 2017-18 (41 goals and four assists).

He has also scored 84 goals in 120 away games in the Premier League for Spurs, the most goals any player has scored on the road for a single club in the competition, going past Wayne Rooney's 82 for Manchester United.

Yet his efforts were not enough – Joe Willock rescuing a point for relegation-battling Newcastle, who have drawn three consecutive Premier League games at St. James' Park for the first time since another three-game run spanning December 2017 and January 2018.

Tottenham have dropped four points from winning positions against Newcastle this season, their most in a campaign against a single side since also dropping four versus Arsenal and West Brom in 2015-16, while Spurs have now failed to win six Premier League games after leading at half-time, the most of any side in 2020-21.

Aston Villa 3-1 Fulham: History made at Villa Park before Cottagers collapse

Sunday's clash between Aston Villa and Fulham was the first game in Premier League history in which every player in the starting XI for both sides was born after the first ever Premier League game on August 15, 1992.

Despite Dean Smith saying he would be available, Jack Grealish was not in Villa's squad, and Fulham hit the front through Aleksandar Mitrovic, who – after 159 days and 23 games without a goal for club and country – has now scored six times in the past 12 days, five times for Serbia and once for the Cottagers.

Yet only Southampton (18) and Brighton (20) have dropped more points from winning positions in the Premier League this season than Fulham (16) after Scott Parker's third-bottom side suffered a collapse.

Trezeguet scored a rapid double – his two goals coming just 160 seconds apart. The Egypt international had previously attempted more shots without scoring than any other player in this season's Premier League (29).

Ollie Watkins helped himself to his first league goal in eight games, ending a run of 18 shots without a goal in the competition since netting versus Arsenal in February.

Manchester United 2-1 Brighton and Hove Albion: Matchwinner Greenwood in elite company

Only Wayne Rooney (15) and Marcus Rashford (13) have scored more Premier League goals as teenagers for United than Mason Greenwood (12), who struck late on to complete the turnaround at Old Trafford.

Former Red Devil Danny Welbeck opened the scoring in Sunday's final game – he became the first player to net as many as three Premier League goals against United after having appeared for the club in the competition.

The 2020-21 season is only the second to see two players who have previously appeared for Manchester United in the Premier League score against them (Wilfried Zaha and Welbeck), along with the 1997-98 campaign, when Dion Dublin and Mark Hughes did so.

But United have now won 25 points from losing positions this term, nine more than any other side, while Brighton remain winless at Old Trafford in 13 attempts in all competitions (D2 L11).

Rashford – who has only scored more league goals (five) against Leicester City than he has against the Seagulls – equalised after being teed up by Bruno Fernandes, who has been directly involved in five goals in three Premier League appearances against Brighton.

With the Premier League back following the international break, all eyes were set to be on the Emirates Stadium for a heavyweight clash between Arsenal and Liverpool.

Or, that's what the nostalgia of the Premier League wanted us to expect – the reality was rather different, as Arsenal's current status as Europa League-hopefuls at best was made brutally clear.

In fact, as it turned out, the day's most-compelling viewing came from elsewhere in London, as Chelsea suffered an abysmal home defeat by West Brom.

In the East Midlands, Manchester City took their customary step closer to the title, while Leeds United came out on top in an all-Yorkshire affair.

We have taken a look at all the best Opta facts from the four games.

Chelsea 2-5 West Brom: Blues bruised by Big Sam's Baggies in momentous defeat

It was a day to forget for Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea as their honeymoon period came to a bruising and humiliating end in a 5-2 home defeat by relegation-threated West Brom.

Chelsea did take the lead through Christian Pulisic, his first goal in 21 games across all competitions, but Thiago Silva's red card for two bookings in the 29th minute offered encouragement to West Brom.

Matheus Pereira's first-half stoppage-time brace – the goals separated by just two minutes and 46 seconds – put the Baggies in front, and Callum Robinson got a double of his own in the second period, becoming the first player in Premier League history to score at least twice home and away against Chelsea in a single campaign.

Mason Mount and Mbaye Diagne got the other goals, with Chelsea conceding five times in a home Premier League game for only the second time, the last being against Arsenal in October 2011.

Victory ensured Sam Allardyce became the first manager in Premier League history to win at Stamford Bridge with three clubs, while it was Tuchel's first defeat since replacing Frank Lampard in January.

The hard work starts here.

Leeds United 2-1 Sheffield United: Blades approaching new low

Sheffield United have looked doomed virtually all season – no win over Leeds United at this stage of the season was going to change that.

But in losing at Elland Road, it took them to 24 defeats in the league this term from 30 games – only twice in their entire history have they suffered more losses in a single campaign, 26 in 1975-76 and 2010-11, though on both occasions were from many more matches (42 and 46, respectively).

For Leeds, however, the win saw them complete a league double over their Yorkshire rivals for the first time since 1991-92 when they actually won the top-flight title.

While no one is expecting them to go close to repeating that title feat anytime soon, Saturday's visit of Blades did provide another reminder of the positivity Leeds have brought to the Premier League – it was the fifth time this term they have attempted at least 20 shots (23 this time) in a single game, with only Manchester City doing so more often (six).

Jack Harrison's opener was one of them, with the winger netting his seventh goal of the season to make this his best ever campaign in English football, while Raphinha teed him up to move on to a Leeds-high six assists in the Premier League in 2020-21.

They needed a helping hand, though. The seventh own goal of Phil Jagielka's career – only Richard Dunne (10) has more – proved decisive, making him the oldest outfield player (38 years, 229 days) to score in his own net in the top tier since Stuart Pearce in 2001 (38y, 252d).

Leicester City 0-2 Manchester City: Guardiola has the key to cleansheets

When you think about what Pep Guardiola the coach is associated with, 'tiki-taka', free-scoring teams and ball-playing centre-backs spring to mind immediately.

But now, perhaps we should add defensive solidity to that list?

Granted, Guardiola has coached great teams for the majority of his career, and they wouldn't usually have poor defensive records, but his runaway City side seems arguably one of his shrewdest ever.

After Saturday's 2-0 win at Leicester, who although third in the table were utterly subjugated, City have kept more clean sheets (28) and conceded fewer goals (26) in all competitions than any other side in Europe's top five leagues.

They prevented Leicester from mustering a single first-half shot for the first time in the league since December 2019 (against Liverpool), and the Foxes suffered just their third defeat in their last 17 top-flight outings.

Among the scorers for City was Gabriel Jesus, who continued his remarkable unbeaten run in games he's scored (41 – W39, D2), a record only James Milner (54) and Darius Vassell (46) can better.

It was the fifth league goal Jesus has managed against Leicester, making them his second-favourite opponent after Everton (seven goals against).

However, Sergio Aguero was unable to cross another stadium off his list. He's played four times at the King Power Stadium without scoring – only two other grounds has he a worse goalless record (eight games at Anfield, six at Selhurst Park). Following the announcement of his end-of-season departure, it seems Leicester have largely avoided his wrath.

Arsenal 0-3 Liverpool: Arteta questions mount with his record not standing up to Emery's

Mikel Arteta's 50th Premier League match as Arsenal coach was one to forget – though it feels like we could say the same thing about rather a lot of his previous 49 games.

Brought in as Arsenal attempted a hard restart, ushering in a new 'era' with fresh ideas, Arteta it was hoped would turn the Gunners back into title challengers, but it seems as though they're even further away from that than under much-maligned predecessor Unai Emery.

This was Arteta's 17th Premier League defeat, four more than Emery suffered in his first 50 games, and the game itself suggested there remains a significant gulf between Arsenal and a Liverpool side that is nowhere near what it was last season.

Nevertheless, it is true that Liverpool's issues have mostly been consigned to Anfield recently, with each of their last six league wins – including this one – coming away from home. This is only the second time they've ever achieved such a run, the first recording since 1955.

Perhaps results against Liverpool aren't the best barometer to measure Arsenal against given they've beaten the Reds once in their past 12 Premier League meetings.

But Arsenal appear to be treading water under Arteta, with their points-per-game dropping to 1.3 from 1.7 in his second 25 league matches in charge.

It's all in the timing, the control of the ball and the precision swing. Like a glorious golf shot, the perfect cross in football is beyond many players, but Trent Alexander-Arnold strikes the football with such pace, whip and dip that it's no wonder he celebrated Liverpool's opener against Arsenal as though he had headed the ball into the goal himself.

It's The Masters next week at Augusta.

This Emirates Stadium clash was a reminder of last season's Premier League masters in full flow, or at least that was the case for the final half an hour, because the first 60 minutes was so drab the tape should be wiped forthwith and we'll never discuss it again. Arsenal's players, thumped 3-0, would want the whole game deleted from memory, given they were abject from first whistle to last.

Alexander-Arnold had been lively enough before the breakthrough came, and James Milner owed him a better finish from the precise cutback that reached the veteran Liverpool midfielder in the 35th minute. Milner shot wide of the left post.

But in a game between two sides whose seasons have fallen well short of expectations, it was a flash of wonder that reminded the visitors how they became champions with 99 points last term. Gareth Southgate dropped Alexander-Arnold from his England squad a fortnight ago, so this will inevitably be interpreted as some sort of response.

But really it was just Alexander-Arnold doing Alexander-Arnold things. He makes chances and he makes goals, handy attributes for a right-back. And when there is very little actual defending to be done, as was the case against a dreadful Arsenal side, Alexander-Arnold is a world beater.

Diogo Jota, the player on the end of that game-changing cross on Saturday, later described the delivery as "unreal". Jurgen Klopp, who was stunned by the full-back's international omission, said that he "showed his class again".

When all is not going to plan for the 22-year-old, possessing strong defensive cover can paper over his weaknesses, and with Liverpool having hit upon an injury crisis at the back this season, Alexander-Arnold has been unable to count on Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip or Joe Gomez getting him out of trouble.

So the impact of his handful of errors has been magnified, and the scrutiny reached its apex when Southgate decided he should miss those opening World Cup qualifiers.

Since the beginning of last season, Alexander-Arnold has created 172 chances across all club competitions and had 21 assists. On each count, those are the highest number among defenders in Europe's top five leagues. In the same period, he has made four errors that have led to shots and two that have cost Liverpool goals. Some would accept that ratio.

Gary Lineker, who knows a thing or two about being on the end of crosses for England, believes Southgate got it wrong in dropping Alexander-Arnold.

"The perfect response from @TrentAA to his bizarre omission from the @England squad," Lineker wrote on Twitter on Saturday night. "He's been brilliant tonight. Can't be left at home in the summer. Just can't be."

The Euro 2020 finals surely do beckon for Alexander-Arnold, with England's group rivals Croatia, Czech Republic and Scotland certain to be delighted if he stays at home.

Jota gave Alexander-Arnold a target after coming off the bench just after the hour mark, and the sublime cross from the right that found the striker on the edge of the six-yard box was a striker's dream.

Liverpool are still chasing fourth place, with Chelsea's defeat to West Brom earlier in the day a major boon to the Reds.

Mohamed Salah and Jota, with his second, finished off a lousy Arsenal who had just three goal attempts across the 90 minutes, and Mikel Arteta's men can now be counted out of the race for Champions League places.

Gary Neville, commentating for Sky Sports, condemned a "real flaky performance" by Arsenal, adding: "It's the worst I've seen them for a bit."

Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and Martin Odegaard all started for the hosts, and Pepe was the only one of the quartet to manage a shot.

Former Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp said Arsenal's display was "putrid", and Arteta would probably agree. This was their heaviest defeat at home against Liverpool in the league.

On the day Liverpool's reign as Premier League champions effectively ended – they cannot possibly catch Manchester City now this season – this was a reminder of how Klopp's men can roll over feeble opposition.

On they go now, to face Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday. The Spanish champions will know all about Alexander-Arnold, who would have made a phenomenal complement to Roberto Carlos back in the day. Now they simply have to stop him.

It's November 25, 2020. A young German winger stands on the touchline anxiously waiting to step on to the Allianz Arena pitch for his Champions League debut in his hometown.

But as he waits to be allowed on, there are people watching both on television and in the largely empty stands who know this isn't how it should've been.

Rather than wearing the all-red of Bayern Munich, Karim Adeyemi jogs on in the all-black of Salzburg with the Austrian champions 3-0 down.

A technically gifted and supremely fast winger, Adeyemi has long been considered one of Germany's most promising young players, having cost Salzburg a reported €3million when he was 16.

Adeyemi had left Bayern six years earlier and is a situation that has dominated much of his early professional career, with questions about why he left never far away.

Now 19, Adeyemi has previously spoken at length about his attitude as a kid, how learning wasn't much to his liking and distraction was a regular nuisance to him.

These factors certainly didn't help at Bayern. Neither, Adeyemi alleged in the past, did the club showing little support to players who strayed from "the plan". The collective, rather than individualistic talents, was prioritised.

But to speak to him in 2021, Adeyemi comes across as grounded and professional, yet driven, well aware of the level he wants to reach.

"I think it's a dream for every player to play in the Bundesliga or Premier League one day," he tells Stats Perform News. Yet, should he end up in England, it's fair to say he'll have taken the long route.

Chelsea were a keen admirer of Adeyemi before he joined Salzburg, the youngster confirming in the past that he turned down a move to Stamford Bridge in favour of Austria.

"I decided that with my family because I thought that Salzburg was the best destination for me," he continued. "Their playing style fits me well and we harmonised perfectly. I got along well with Christoph Freund [Salzburg sporting director] and everyone else. That's why I decided to join this club."

But while the average football fan might question his choice, Adeyemi's former coach at Unterhaching – with whom he spent the six years between Bayern and Salzburg – believes it was a mature decision that made perfect sense.

"Surprised? No, not at all. For him, Salzburg was the right club," Marc Unterberger told Stats Perform News. "Their philosophy suits him perfectly, and the proximity to Unterhaching, where his family still lives, is ideal.

"What is being done there, especially in training young players, is absolutely remarkable."

 

But what exactly has that meant for Adeyemi? The teenager adds: "It was my plan to first join Liefering [on loan] when I arrived at Salzburg. I wanted to perform well there and show my skills, then I wanted to have more and more contact with the first team [at Salzburg], and I think for every young player it's first of all important to get settled. Now I am at the first team and I am happy about it. That was my plan so far."

After spending a year and a half at Liefering, who essentially act as a B team for Salzburg, Adeyemi returned to his parent club having caught the eye in Austria's second tier.

He scored 15 goals and got eight assists in 35 league games for Liefering, strong evidence that he was ready for the step up.

Adeyemi hasn't been quite so explosive with Salzburg, only having a hand in goals in six of his 29 Austrian Bundesliga matches, but the key factor here is that he is having to remain patient – only nine of those 29 games were as a starter.

"Well, you can never be completely satisfied," he explained. "You always have things to improve. It was the same for me when I played in Liefering. I always want more. It's exactly the same here in the first team. I always say I am never satisfied with what I do, I always want more, and I think that's what I am focusing on.

"I am trying to improve my game together with the coaching staff. I'm trying to have progress in my development. Nobody knows what happens in the future."

It is a display of maturity and realism that belies many of the stories that have followed Adeyemi during his fledgling career. Unterberger believes the youngster is often shown in a negative light, adamant most kids are prone to distraction.

"I find that he is portrayed too negatively. Of course, Karim wasn't a classic academy player. He had his own thoughts on how to deal with things. We never wanted to change him completely, and I think we succeeded quite well. Karim is a really great guy and a great person.

"Until the time Karim came to us, we had never had such an exceptional player in our youth division. Of course, as a young person, you benefit from being accepted for who you are, but I would like to make it very clear that there was no situation within the team in which Karim behaved in such a way that we as a club were forced to act. On the contrary, over time he developed more and more towards putting himself at the service of the team.

"He was easily distracted, that's right, but let's be honest, something like this is normal when young people develop."

After all, Unterberger arguably knows Adeyemi better than any other coach.

"I can still remember it very well, the first time I saw him play in an Under-11 tournament," he recalls. "Back then he was still playing for TSV Forstenried. My first thought was: 'We absolutely need this player'. Fortunately, it worked out later!"

That might be something of an understatement in reality. The €3m fee that Unterhaching received made him the most expensive German under-18 player ever, while 2019 saw him win the Fritz-Walter Gold Medal, an award handed out to Germany's best youth player. Previous winners include Timo Werner, Emre Can and Mario Gotze.

And he has certainly shown flashes of his significant potential. In November, he became the first player this season to have a hand in four goals (one scored, three set up) in a single game in the Austrian Bundesliga. Only one other has matched that feat this term: his team-mate, Mergim Berisha. In December, he broke Salzburg's record for their youngest ever scorer in the Champions League.

Yet Adeyemi recognises he still has a long way to go.

"I can only talk for myself and not for the other players. I think if you feel comfortable within a team and you get your chances, then there's a possibility [of finding the right fit]. That's how it is between Salzburg and myself. I will continue to work hard for that. I want to develop more and become a man."

Given the talents Salzburg and their Red Bull sister club RB Leipzig have produced in recent years, few would doubt Adeyemi's in the right place to spread his wings.

Athletic Bilbao have long been a club unlike almost any other. It's fitting, then, that they are preparing for a cup final double-header never seen before.

The impact of coronavirus on the Spanish football schedule means Athletic will play in two Copa del Rey finals in two weeks. First, they will meet Basque rivals Real Sociedad in the delayed 2020 final on April 3; win that, and they'll be defending the trophy against Barcelona a fortnight later.

It could be a historic month for one of Spain's most prestigious clubs. One of three never to be relegated from the top flight – along with Barca and Real Madrid – Athletic have won eight league titles, 24 Copas del Rey and three Supercopas de Espana. That collection includes the 1902 Copa de la Coronacion, considered the first edition of Spain's premier domestic knockout competition.

Yet Athletic have spent much of the past three decades playing catch-up to their own illustrious past. Since the double-winning side of 1983-84, they have lifted just two trophies, both Supercopas, in 2015 and in January this year. The latter could not even be celebrated via a traditional trip down the Nervion on the Gabarra – where others say it with open-top busses, Athletic do so with a huge river-faring barge – as another occasion for fans was stolen by the pandemic.

The 2020 Copa final was pushed back this far to allow for the possibility of supporters attending in Seville, but that too won't be happening. Athletic must instead rely on an unseen but no less ardent backing from their absent fans, their loyalty undimmed by the distance from TV screens to La Cartuja.

Loyalty is one commodity Athletic have never lacked.

 

'IT'S A WARRIOR CLUB'

Athletic's first-team policy is renowned throughout the football world. For more than 100 years, they have only used players born in the region in the first team, the vast majority of them unearthed as unpolished gems in the cantera.

Iker Muniain, who will lead out the team as captain in the two finals, is one such example. He has been a fixture in the side since the age of 16, when he became their youngest debutant for 94 years in a Europa League qualifier in 2009 and, for much of those early years, he was viewed as one of the brightest prospects they had ever produced. He was still a teenager when he scored what proved to be the winning goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford in a Europa League match in 2012, when Athletic, coached by Marcelo Bielsa, so comprehensively outplayed the Red Devils that Alex Ferguson still remembers it as one of the toughest home European matches he ever faced.

Given his prodigious talent, some see Muniain's career as unfulfilled: no big move to a European giant, only a handful of Champions League appearances, and just two senior Spain caps seven years apart. A tally of 63 goals and 42 assists in all competitions means he only just makes the top 40 for goal involvements among LaLiga players since his debut, the same as Barca left-back Jordi Alba. But for Athletic, who award an annual prize to one-club men, 447 games by the age of 28 is something to celebrate. And if Muniain lifts the trophy after beating La Real, his story will become legend.

 

Muniain is not the only player to know nothing but Los Leones. Inaki Williams has also been linked with other clubs without ever pushing for a move – indeed, he signed a nine-year contract at San Mames in 2019, just in case his loyalties weren't clear.

Astonishingly, Williams has not missed any of Athletic's previous 185 LaLiga matches and has the competition record of 202, held by Jon Andoni Larranaga, in his sights. But you sense he would happily run himself into the ground if it meant victory on Saturday, rather as he did when he scored the extra-time winner against Barca in the January Supercopa.

"Playing a Basque derby is very special," he said this week. "Athletic are a fighting club, a warrior club – it's in our DNA. In every match [against Real Sociedad], I feel like I'm going to score."

That unifying spirit pervades the whole team. When Yeray Alvarez had to undergo chemotherapy after a cancer relapse in 2017, the squad shaved their heads in solidarity with the defender. Yeray is still less than two years into a seven-year contract signed in 2019.

That Athletic feeling never seems to leave those who do pursue careers elsewhere. Yuri Berchiche was drawn back after a decade away; Ibai Gomez returned twice, first in 2010 and then in 2019. Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez and Paris Saint-Germain's Ander Herrera have been linked with moves back, too.

Others have been lured in after careers beyond Bilbao, such as Raul Garcia and Oscar de Marcos. There are even two who made the fiendish decision to join from Sociedad: Mikel Balenziaga, who signed as a 20-year-old in 2008, and Inigo Martinez, who made the acrimonious switch three years ago to replace Manchester City-bound Aymeric Laporte.

Success might have been thin on the ground for Athletic in the past 30 years, but compromising on their ethos was never an option. It means it falls on the coaches to turn that sense of belonging off the pitch into identity on it, and Marcelino has done just that. They won the four-team Supercopa tournament, scored 13 goals in their first five league games – the best start by a new coach since Inaki Saez in 1980 – and, since he took charge on January 4, they have only lost to Barca (twice) and LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid.

"Marcelino has given extra confidence to the players," former Athletic man Benat told Stats Perform News. "I think Athletic have more experience lately. I do think Athletic are a balanced team. They can play with or without the ball and they can do great things with or without the ball."

Winning these games would be greatness indeed.

 

'IT'S ONE OF THOSE SPECIAL THINGS'

Given they have lost all three of their previous Copa finals, in 2009, 2012 and 2015, Athletic might feel relieved to have two shots at glory this month.

There is little shame in those defeats, though. Two of them came at the hands of Pep Guardiola's Barca, and the third was in Luis Enrique's first term in charge at Camp Nou. Two of those Barca teams won those finals en route to the treble, and all three ended those seasons as champions of Europe.

But while revenge served cold is on the menu for the 2021 final, the clash with La Real is arguably the main course. "If we can only win one, it's the one against La Real," said Oscar de Marcos this week, while Andoni Goikoetxea, one of the stars of 1984, described the match as one "in which the hegemony of Basque football will be played".

Former Athletic midfielder Markel Susaeta, who played in each of those most recent final defeats to Barcelona, told Stats Perform News: "I think the derby of Bilbao and Basque country, it's a little bit more important, that final.

"It's very difficult to play in a final with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia. Their salaries are very big and have the best players in the world.

"To play one final with Athletic and if you've grown up in the academy, it's one of the special things you can live as a football player. There's not many chances to win titles. It's very, very special."

Pozas, Bilbao, could seem a peculiar place for the average football fan on the day of 'Derbi Vasco', one of Spain's most famous rivalries.

Approximately one and a half kilometres in length, it is a street that's littered with bars and leads directly to the home of Athletic Bilbao: San Mames, with the grilled east stand and external screen visible between the final buildings.

It is on this street where Athletic supporters and their Real Sociedad counterparts meet up before the derby – not to scrap, as some might expect of such an occasion, but mingle side-by-side, sing and drink, and even swap club colours before walking to the stadium. Together.

"It's like a brotherhood," Mikel Mugalari, a lifelong Athletic fan, explained to Stats Perform. "Very rarely there's fights or incidents. We don't have that kind of hatred. It's a healthy rivalry."

It is little wonder this contest has been described as the "friendly derby", or "unique" as, although passion burns strongly on both sides, there is also a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Welcome to the Basque Country.

The phantom final

The next time these two famous clubs meet will be in the Copa del Rey final, the first between Athletic and La Real in their current guises. It was supposed to take place on April 18 last year but, much like virtually all sporting events around the globe at the time, it had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As such, we are left with the slightly awkward prospect of two Copa finals in the space of two weeks. The 2019-20 edition will be played on Saturday, before this season's showpiece – which also includes Athletic, but against Barcelona – takes place 14 days later.

Sadly there will be no fans in La Cartuja, Seville, for the first final, but the occasion will be no less momentous.

Despite the obvious historic nature of it, coverage of the 2019-20 final wasn't entirely positive ahead of the initial date. The new format of the Copa del Rey – ditching two-legged ties for one-off meetings before the semi-finals – was met with much praise on the one hand in its first season last term, as it gave smaller clubs a greater chance of progression, but it simultaneously highlighted potential bias in the mainstream media.

"People are tired of so many Clasicos and want other teams to compete for the titles," La Real fan David Gonzalez said, pointing out 2010 was the last time neither of the 'big two' reached the final.

Mikel agreed as he looked back on last year's coverage. "If you talk to someone who really likes football, many say, 'Wow, finally a final without Barcelona and Real Madrid.' My kid was reading me the comments in the main national sports papers: most of the comments from Spain were saying it's not a final, no one will watch it, cancel it [because of coronavirus]. I couldn't imagine talk of cancelling [rather than postponing] a Madrid v Barca final because of the coronavirus situation. But there was lots of talk about cancelling it. Why? Because it's two smaller teams from the north, who aren't even Spanish."

The Basque Country, or 'Euskadi' to the locals, was granted autonomy in 1979, four years after the death of Spanish dictator General Franco, who prohibited the region's Ikurrina flag after defeating the Basque government's army in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

Although Mikel acknowledged, politically, Spain and Euskadi now find themselves in "a friendly situation", the lowest approval ratings of the Spanish monarchy are attributed to the Basque people and Catalonia, another excuse for the postponement of the final, he felt.

"It's going to be a Basque final, it's very important. In past finals there's been controversy because there's been whistles and yelling at the king," Mikel said.

"That's one of the things they don't like about this final in Spain. They were saying it should be cancelled because of coronavirus, but [in reality] don't want to have a televised final that will be viewed by millions over the world, to have whistling and yelling towards the king. What we say is, change the name [of the Copa]. That's it, it's a tournament [it doesn't belong to the king]. Change the name."

A bittersweet success?

Both David and Mikel remember the respective glory days of their clubs in the 1980s when, for four years, the league title didn't leave the Basque Country.

For David, that period brought immense highs and crushing disappointment. From seeing La Real lose the title to Real Madrid in 1980 due to defeat at Sevilla on the penultimate day of the season, to then inflicting similar misery on Los Blancos a year later.

"It just seemed unfair to me, but then the next year we won LaLiga in Gijon with [Jesus Maria] Zamora's goal in the very last minute when Real Madrid, who had already finished their match, were already celebrating winning the title," recalled David, who spent his very first salary on becoming a season-ticket holder.

Similarly, the 80s bring back both great and sad memories for Mikel, his worst being the 1984 Copa final – in which Athletic actually beat Barca 1-0 – due to the apparent vilification of his team following the infamous mass brawl at the end.

But, although both men agree the 2019-20 Copa final is momentous for the obvious reasons, there is also a consensus that this is essentially as good as it gets now – there's little hope victory for either team will be the prelude to sustained success it may have been in the 80s.

"A few years ago, I would tell you yes, without hesitation," David replied when asked if final qualification was a sign of things to come for La Real, who are fifth in LaLiga but 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Sevilla. "But today, unfortunately, football has changed a lot and for a club like Real Sociedad it is more difficult to maintain a good team like the one we have now."

"Until the Bosman rule's introduction [in 1995], Athletic had chances of winning, but now we have no chance of getting better than fourth, fifth, sixth," Mikel insists.

The 37-year wait

"We'll always consider the Copa to be our competition," Mikel says with a grin, as he highlights the fact only Barca have more than Athletic's 23 Copa wins.

Athletic celebrate their greatest successes in a unique way. La Gabarra, a barge, floats along the Nervion river with all the players and coaching staff aboard, the claimed title taking centre-stage while supporters line the riverbanks and bridges to join in the party.

La Gabarra is an iconic symbol of the club but, while Mikel remembers the last time it was used, many supporters will have never experienced such an occasion, for the lack of a major title since 1984 – not including the 2015 Supercopa de Espana – has seen the tradition become legend. Younger generations are consigned to looking upon the photos decorating the walls of bars on Pozas and imagining.

If ever an occasion merited its long-awaited return to the water, it's success in an all-Basque final. Just don't expect the blue-and-white contingent of the "brotherhood" to show their faces should the Copa head to San Mames for a 24th time.

The team from the Mile High City is rising again.

The Denver Nuggets are starting to resemble the team that put forth a thrilling and historic run to last season's Western Conference finals, the first in NBA history to win two series in a postseason when faced with a 3-1 deficit. They are 12-3 since February 27, tied with the Phoenix Suns for the league's best record over that period, and are the only team with three players (Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr.) averaging better than 20 points per game during that time frame.

So, what has changed? How have the Nuggets elevated themselves back to a legitimate contender after spending the season's first two months mostly languishing in mediocrity?

It is no secret that offense is Denver's calling card, consistently ranking among the league's most efficient teams on that end even when hovering around .500 for nearly all of January and February. Defense is the true key to the Nuggets' success, however, and will ultimately be the determining factor to whether Mike Malone's crew wind up as serious title contenders or early playoff flameouts. 

Simply put, the Nuggets are awfully hard to stop when they are able to stop opponents at a passable level. Denver is 24-1 this season when holding foes to a field goal percentage of 47.5 per cent or below, with only the NBA-leading Jazz (32-1) owning a superior winning percentage when keeping teams under that number. The Nuggets are 19-1 when limiting opponents to 106 points or fewer, just slightly behind Utah's 20-1 mark for the best in the league when doing so. 

HIGHEST WIN PERCENTAGE WHEN OPPONENT FG PCT. UNDER .475:

Jazz 32-1 .970  
Nuggets 24-1 .960 
Bucks 25-4 .862 
76ers 26-7 .788
Nets 22-6 .786
Suns 22-6 .786 

The Nuggets were able to squeak by the Clippers in large part due to Jerami Grant's incessant hounding of Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 37 per cent in LA's four losses and finished with a 6-for-22 dud in the deciding Game 7. But Grant's free-agent departure to Detroit and the since-traded Gary Harris' inability to stay healthy has frequently left Denver without its top two defenders from last season, and a void Malone has often had difficulty trying to fill.

Need more proof? Well, just harken back to last year's playoff bubble. The Nuggets put on a defensive clinic at times in their conference semi-final series with the Clippers, holding them to 42 per cent shooting or below in all four victories. The Jazz shot a combined 51.6 per cent from the field while taking a 3-1 lead on Denver in that opening-round classic. In the final three games, they shot 44.4 per cent as the Nuggets stormed back to take the series.

Denver had no answer for the Lakers' interior game and abundance of size in the West finals, in which the eventual champions shot nearly 59 per cent from inside the 3-point line to win in five games. 

Until now. 

Aaron Gordon was not the biggest name to change uniforms at the trade deadline, but the former Orlando Magic forward could very well wind up being the most impactful of all the moves. What the Nuggets needed most of all was another Grant, someone with the size and athleticism to capably guard multiple positions, effectively get to the rim and offer at least a mild threat of perimeter scoring.

Gordon is not as good from the outside as Grant, but he is shooting a career-best 37.1 per cent from 3-point range and at just 25, there is still room to expand his game further. He is a superior rebounder and finisher, however, having shot a strong 65.1 percent at the rim for his career. And now playing alongside the premier passing big man of this generation in Jokic, there's reason to suggest that number can go up as well.

The Nuggets did not acquire Gordon for his offense, however. The Magic allowed 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions this season with him on the court as opposed to him off it, and with a first-round matchup with either the Lakers or Clippers a real possibility, it was crucial that Denver added a player with the requisite size and skill to go head-to-head with Leonard or LeBron James.

It is an incredibly small sample size, but the returns have so far been smashingly successful. The Nuggets have opened the Gordon era with blowout wins over the Hawks and the admittedly depleted 76ers, and they are a plus-36 with their new acquisition on the floor over those two games.

With the defense seemingly upgraded and Porter's emergence as a legitimate third scoring option alongside the incomparable Jokic and the dynamic Murray, the Nuggets appear better equipped for an NBA Finals run after coming three wins short of getting there last season. 

Now, Gordon isn't the solution for all of Denver's issues. For all the great things Jokic does, rim protection will never be one of them. The Nuggets have allowed opponents to shoot 62.6 per cent at the rim, with only New Orleans having yielded a higher rate, and they were routinely manhandled inside by the Lakers' big lineups in the West finals. 

That looms as a potential problem again down the road, assuming the Lakers will have a healthy Anthony Davis for the playoffs, but one the Nuggets may have alleviated somewhat with the possibly under-the-radar deadline pickup of JaVale McGee. The veteran center provides the size and presence as an interior deterrent that Denver sorely lacked, though that benefit could come with a cost if it leads to Jokic playing less, or if he's alternatively moved to power forward, where his defensive limitations could be further exploited.

There are certainly worse problems to have, however, and there is little question the Nuggets got better at the deadline while many of their other chief competitors largely stood pat.

Buckle up, folks. The West's road to the NBA Finals just got a little more rocky.  

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