Casemiro claimed victory in the battle of the Brazilian midfielders as Manchester United won their sixth EFL Cup with a 2-0 success against Newcastle United on Sunday.

On the way to Wembley, it felt like Newcastle fans significantly outnumbered United's, seemingly four out of every five people donning black and white striped shirts.

That feeling continued in the stadium, with almost every Newcastle fan in their seat waiting for kick-off with about 45 minutes to go, their black and white flags flying in anticipation of a momentous occasion, while big gaps remained in the United end just 10 minutes prior to the start, though it was full by kick-off.

On a cold day in London, fans of both teams hoped to be warmed by some samba magic, with United and Newcastle having two Brazilians each in the middle of the park.

United manager Erik ten Hag opted for Fred and Casemiro, while Magpies boss Eddie Howe went with Joelinton and Bruno Guimaraes, with the latter back from suspension in time for the final.

 

Newcastle had not won any of the six games that Guimaraes had missed this season heading into Sunday's clash, and there was a renewed sense of optimism from the Geordie fans with their key man back.

However, a sloppy foul conceded by Guimaraes just after the half-hour mark gave United a chance to put a free-kick from the left, which Luke Shaw whipped in expertly for Casemiro to nod in.

Newcastle had actually started the game better, with only some poor execution in the final third preventing them from taking the lead, but their ruthless opponents struck first.

Casemiro became just the third Brazilian to score in an EFL Cup final after both Philippe Coutinho and Fernandinho did so in 2016 when Liverpool faced Manchester City.

It was also Casemiro's fourth goal in his last 12 games, one more than he had scored across his previous 89 matches.

The Magpies were caught napping again as Wout Weghorst was allowed to dribble to the edge of the penalty area before releasing Marcus Rashford, whose shot deflected off Sven Botman and over the helpless Loris Karius to make it 2-0.

Newcastle's third-choice goalkeeper was making his first competitive appearance in 728 days, having not played for anyone since his final outing of his loan to Bundesliga side Union Berlin on February 28, 2021.

Selected following Nick Pope's red card against Karius' former team Liverpool, the German could not have done much about either goal, and was able to show off some of his ability before the break when he denied Weghorst from making it 3-0 by tipping the Dutch striker's shot from 20 yards over the crossbar.

Newcastle tried to fight back in the second half, with Howe bringing Alexander Isak on for Sean Longstaff, leaving Joelinton and Guimaraes as the sole two in midfield.

Fred very much played a supporting role to the dominant Casemiro, and was replaced by Marcel Sabitzer with just over 20 minutes remaining.

With 12 minutes to go, Guimaraes made way, noticeably limping after a couple of knocks during the game. The former Lyon man certainly did not disgrace himself, completing 45 of his 49 passes (91.8 per cent) and winning back possession 10 times.

Joelinton tried to revert to his former ways as a striker, having more than twice as many shots as any other Newcastle player (five), but it was ultimately in vain.

It was the experience of Casemiro that told on the big occasion, with the 31-year-old having won so many finals with Real Madrid – including five Champions League titles.

 

In truth, it was far from a vintage United performance, with Newcastle having 61 per cent possession and 14 shots inside the opposition box to their opponents' five, while they also had 37 touches in the opposing box compared to the Red Devils' 17 at the other end.

Ten Hag's men did enough to win the game, though, and that is all that counts in a final.

It was so near yet so far for Newcastle, who were competing in their first major final since they lost to United by the same score at the old Wembley in the 1999 FA Cup final.

They remain without a trophy of any calibre since the 1969 Fairs Cup, but the stark improvement shown under Howe this season suggests they should not have to wait many more years.

As for United, they brought an end to six years in the trophy wilderness, and had man of the match Casemiro largely to thank.

Had they managed to sign Frenkie de Jong or Adrien Rabiot prior to opting for the Brazilian last year, who knows what could have happened?

They won't spend a moment wondering about that now, with the Red Devils basking in the glow of a cup win once again.

When Alex Ferguson addressed Manchester United's fans at Old Trafford in 2013 asking them to support his chosen successor, David Moyes, few would have anticipated what the next decade would be like for the club.

In the final nine years of his near 27 in charge of United, Ferguson won five Premier League titles, three EFL Cups and the Champions League.

The nine seasons following his retirement brought the Red Devils just one FA Cup, one EFL Cup and the Europa League.

That Europa League success in 2017 was the last time United won a trophy of any kind, with a rare gap of six years without silverware for the club with the most league title wins in England.

However, Sunday gives them an opportunity to bring that drought to an end when they face Newcastle United in the EFL Cup final, and it could be the latest step on the impressive return to form overseen by Erik ten Hag since his arrival ahead of this season.

 

The Dutch coach was the eventual replacement for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with Ralf Rangnick's interim spell in between, but it's easy to forget how badly things started for Ten Hag.

United's first two games of the season saw them lose 2-1 at home to Brighton and Hove Albion before being thrashed 4-0 at Brentford.

Since then, Ten Hag's side have won 28 of their 37 games in all competitions, scoring 74 goals and conceding just 32, and overall they have a win percentage of 71.8.

Between Ferguson leaving and Ten Hag arriving, United have had Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer as permanent managers, none of whom had a win percentage as high after their first 39 games, with only Mourinho's above 60 per cent (61.5).

In fact, Ten Hag has already won more games than Moyes did in his entire 51 game spell (27).

Interestingly, Ten Hag's United have only scored a few more goals than Mourinho's did in his first 39 games (75-71), and have actually conceded more (38-30).

In terms of goal output, this United team has not outperformed previous ones across their first 39 games by all that much, with Moyes' side scoring 66 and conceding 39, Van Gaal's scoring 68 and conceding 38 and Solskjaer's scoring 58 and letting 43 in.

Ten Hag's side have clearly been more efficient in finding the goals to win games though, forcing those fine margins in their favour that are so often the difference between what is perceived to be success and failure at top clubs.

 

Statistically, the only noticeably significant difference in Ten Hag's United compared to his predecessors during their overall tenures at the club has come in the intensity of the team's pressing game.

Under the former Ajax boss, United have been winning possession in the final third at an average of 5.5 times per game, compared to Solskjaer's era when it was 4.2, Van Gaal's at 4.1, Mourinho's at 3.9 and Moyes at 2.7.

The trend was developing that way under Rangnick's brief interim spell at 4.7 times per game, but Ten Hag has taken it up another level again this season, making them look more like the aggressive high-octane United people remember under Ferguson.

The addition of Casemiro to the midfield has undoubtedly helped, with the Brazilian one of the best in the world at winning possession and putting pressure on opposition players.

He has produced all-round performances for United though since arriving from Real Madrid, with only Bruno Fernandes (201), Marcus Rashford (153) and Christian Eriksen (116) recording more than his 102 attacking sequence involvements, with all three having played more minutes than him.

In fact, the additions of Casemiro and Eriksen seem to have brought Fernandes back to the form he showed when he first joined from Sporting CP in January 2020.

It is Rashford, though, who has been the undoubted star of the season so far.

The England international scored just five goals in 32 games in 2021-22, but has hit 24 in 37 this season, already his most in a single campaign for United and including 17 goals at Old Trafford, the most at home by a player in a single season for the Red Devils since Wayne Rooney in 2011-12 (19).

 

United find themselves in a title race after recent stumbles by Arsenal and Manchester City, while also into the FA Cup fifth round and getting past Barcelona in the Europa League play-off round.

The fans are onside again with prospect of new ownership possibly also round the corner, and there generally seems to be a genuine feel-good factor that has been missing outside of some false dawns in recent years.

When Ferguson spoke to the fans in 2013, it would have been hard to imagine a possible EFL Cup win being seen as such a potentially significant moment for such a proud club, but United fans know as well as anyone that one trophy can often lead to more.

Ten Hag said as much at his press conference on Friday, stating: "I see [the season] so far not as a success. It's more the road to hopefully success. It's only success when you win trophies, but on Sunday we have an opportunity to get success."

It did not prove to be a sign of things to come for Van Gaal, who was sacked after winning the FA Cup, or for Mourinho, who could not follow up his EFL Cup and Europa League double.

It feels like there's more substance to this United revival though, and there are few better ways to cement that than by ending their trophy drought at Wembley on Sunday.

Urs Fischer is not the kind of coach to get overexcited easily. Indeed, there has been little serious talk of a title charge at Union Berlin, despite the fact they have occupied one of the top three spots for much of the season.

"It's even more surreal than it was before the game," Fischer said after Union won 2-1 at RB Leipzig on February 11. "Forty-two points in the 20th round, what should I say?"

A week before, Fischer had insisted 40 points was the only target after Union scraped an unconvincing home win over Mainz.

But that target has been surpassed, and next up it's Bayern Munich, and if Union win, then why shouldn't their fans, players and even coach start to think that something magical could be just around the corner?

The only frustration for Union ahead of Sunday's trip to Allianz Arena is that they do not head to the home of the 10-time reigning champions as league leaders.

Bayern's defeat at Borussia Monchengladbach last Saturday handed Union, hosting lowly Schalke a day later, a chance to move top with a win. Yet a frustrating 0-0 draw, the first time they had dropped points since before the World Cup, instead sees them sit third, with Borussia Dortmund having leapfrogged into second.

All three teams sit on 43 points and, with 13 rounds of games remaining, the title race is wide open.

Union returned to form in style on Thursday, beating Dutch giants Ajax 3-1 at home to seal their progression in the Europa League.

"It really doesn't get any better. I'm not only proud of the team, we can all be proud of ourselves," said Fischer afterwards.

With the help of Opta data and a German football expert, Stats Perform looks at what has been behind Union's remarkable campaign.

More than one way to play

"Everybody is obsessed with pressing, pressing and pressing, leaving huge gaps for players to exploit," Lewis Ambrose, a football writer based in Berlin, told Stats Perform.

"Why I think [Union] are doing so well is they just don't buy into that. It's about protecting our box and the other team can have it as much as they want, they're just not allowed to do what they want with it."

The data suggests this is the case. Union head into Sunday's game with the fewest pressed sequences of any side in the Bundesliga.

On average, they allow their opponents 15.8 passes outside their own defensive third before a defensive action occurs. Opta defines this as passes per defensive action (PPDA).

PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside the pressing team's own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside their own defensive third. Essentially, a lower number means a team presses more frequently, while a higher number suggests a more passive approach.

Union have won the ball back in the opposition's third on 76 occasions across 21 league games this season, the second-lowest total in the Bundesliga after Bayer Leverkusen (69). Heading into the weekend, they also ranked in the bottom six for high turnovers (151) and bottom four for shot-ending high turnovers (19), scoring just once from such situations.

 

Bayern, on the other hand, lead the league with 138 instances of winning possession in the opposition defensive third, while they have the lowest PPDA (10.4). Their six goals from high turnovers is a joint-league high along with Eintracht Frankfurt, while Bayern are way clear in terms of high turnovers (237) and shot-ending high turnovers (42).

But Union are going about things their own way, and it's one of the secrets to their success.

Defence first

"Most Bundesliga teams are happy to play in a 'you score three, we'll score four' type of way, and it all ties into nipping the ball high up the pitch," Ambrose explained.

"Union have gone 'let's make sure nobody takes the ball in our final third, and they'll come onto us and leave gaps that way'. 

"In a league where everybody plays one way, they play the complete opposite way."

Sunday's game is between the two sides to have outperformed their expected goals (xG) more than any other Bundesliga teams this season. 

Bayern's league-high 45.03 xG has been improved on by 15.97, with the team scoring 61 goals, and this is by far the biggest margin in the competition. Union, meanwhile, have netted 11.15 goals more than they would have been expected to, based on the quality of opportunities they have created and shots they have taken (35 goals from 23.85 xG).

Going the other way, Union have conceded the second-fewest goals in the league (24), behind only Bayern (21). Yet their defence has been the best when it comes to expected goals against (xGA).

 

Union have actually conceded close to four goals more than would have been anticipated. This, combined with their 23.7 expected goals on target conceded (xGOT), which gives more credit to shots that end up in the corners compared with shots that go straight down the middle of the goal, shows they have been subject to some quality finishing from the opposition.

An uncompromising coach

Fischer was hardly the most celebrated of defenders during his playing career, which he spent entirely in his home country of Switzerland.

His coaching career, too, saw him lead FC Zurich, Thun and Basel before he made the move to Germany's second tier in 2018. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fischer got Union promoted in his first season in charge and after securing 11th in the 2019-20 season, took them up to seventh the following year and a remarkable fifth last term.

He has overseen 123 Bundesliga matches, winning 53 (43.1), losing 38 and drawing the other 32. As you'd expect, his team do not score many (176 in 123 Bundesliga matches, an average of 1.4 per game), but equally they keep things tight, conceding 169. Fischer has averaged 1.55 points per game in the top flight.

 

Ambrose believes Union are the perfect fit for Fischer, saying: "I can't imagine Fischer taking one of the top jobs in Germany and doing well.

"The only way it's ever going to work is if every player buys in, leaves their ego at the door, parks that to one side and is willing to sacrifice having fun on the pitch. I'm sure they're having the time of their lives, but if they're willing to sacrifice any flair, ego, they have to fight for the team and every loose ball."

The noisy neighbours

Hertha Berlin have for years been the prominent club in Germany's capital, but as they struggle at the wrong end of the table after scraping to survival last season, it's Union who are taking the bragging rights.

Since Union's promotion in 2019, they have won six of the nine derby meetings with their city rivals, who have taken just two victories. Union have won the last four by an aggregate score of 12-4.

"They're the model club," Ambrose says. "They don't spend much money, the fans get involved, the results improve, whereas Hertha have pumped money in chasing magic results and fallen deeper into crisis."

Going all the way...

Bayern are unbeaten against Union Berlin in the Bundesliga (W4, D3) – they have only faced Rot-Weiss Oberhausen and SV Darmstadt (both eight times) more often in the top flight without ever losing. Indeed, Bayern are the only current top-flight side that Union have never managed to beat.

Yet a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in August showed Union's mettle, and what better time to break their duck than now? After all, they have more league wins than Julian Nagelsmann's team this season (13 to 12) and have won each of their last three Bundesliga away games, equalling a club record.

 

Ambrose thinks Union will ultimately fall short due to results such as last week's draw to Schalke, but he sees no reason why the underdogs shouldn't believe they can pull off a sporting miracle.

"If they lose on Sunday, or finish six, seven points short, nobody is going to say they've failed," he said.

"I think they think they can [win the league] and they'll never admit it. They won't buy into the idea of a race, they're just riding the wave and enjoy it week by week.

"They'll back themselves to win any game at home because the atmosphere is brilliant and teams hate going there, and they'll probably back themselves to beat anyone away as well.

"There's no reason for them not to believe."

It will be third time lucky for followers of Jake Paul and Tommy Fury on Sunday as their twice-rescheduled bout finally takes place in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, and there are more than a few scores to settle.

Boxing has changed a lot recently, as demonstrated by the sheer interest generated by a fight between a YouTube personality and a Love Island runner-up.

While purists may sneer at Paul's lack of boxing clout and his stated ambition of becoming world champion, the fighters' rivalry has undeniably set tongues wagging.

Their feud can be traced back over two years and involves accusations of faking injuries, interventions from Tyson Fury and pledges from both men to end the other's career.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look back at the taunts, the postponements and the controversies that have marked their rivalry.

March 2021: Tyson throws down the gauntlet

Tommy Fury's all-conquering brother Tyson Fury is often good value on social media, and the Gypsy King got the ball rolling for one of boxing's most talked-about feuds.

After Tommy Fury dispatched Scott Williams, his older brother offered congratulations on Twitter, suggesting Paul – who was gearing up to face former mixed martial artist Ben Askren – as his next opponent.

Paul responded by claiming he didn't know the elder Fury had a brother, but the duo would quickly become familiar with one another.

May-November, 2021: Paul gets personal, bout gets made

After British fighter Fury pledged to face Paul "any time, any place", the American stepped up his taunts and insults.

"Tommy, no one gives a f*** about you if it wasn't for your older brother, who I respect, or your catfish girlfriend [Molly-Mae Hague, a fellow Love Island contestant]," he said. "We all made you famous. You didn't make yourself famous."

Paul then provoked Fury by sharing a message he alleged he had received from Hague, asking him to give her a tour of the United States, which she claimed to be fake.

Paul told Fury to "make the right choice" and sign a deal to face off before the end of 2021, with a bout agreed shortly thereafter.

December 6, 2021: Fury's fitness woes

It's fair to say the reaction to the bout – initially set for Tampa, Florida on December 18, 2021 – was mixed. The prospect of a 'genuine' boxer – even one whose previous victories had largely come against journeymen – stepping into the ring with a YouTuber drew extreme reactions.

While Fury acknowledged he only agreed to the fight for financial reasons, promoter Eddie Hearn said: "If Tommy loses, he should go to a desert island and stay there for life."

With less than a fortnight to go before the fight, a chest infection and a broken rib prompted a "heartbroken" Fury to withdraw, attracting Paul's ire.

"He was scared," Paul said, before knocking down Fury's late replacement Tyron Woodley in the sixth round.

June 2022: Madison Square mayhem

Fury returned to the ring to beat Daniel Bocianski in April 2022, but negotiations for a rearranged meeting with Paul rumbled on, with a breakthrough reached in June.

"It's official, I'm taking little Fury's head off," Paul wrote on Twitter as the fight was pencilled in for August 6 at Madison Square Garden.

While Fury avoided fitness issues, the Manchester-born fighter was denied boarding when attempting to travel Stateside, with visa problems causing another postponement.

Referring to Fury as "Tommy Fumbles", Paul accused his opponent of deliberately avoiding the fight. Paul then returned to action in October, recording his most impressive win yet against former UFC champion Anderson Silva.

January 27, 2023: Third time lucky?

"The moment of truth has finally arrived," Paul announced last month. "On February 26, I will get in the ring with a 'real boxer,' and show the world the truth."

With Paul now 6-0 in professional bouts, a deal was finally agreed for him to face Fury in Diriyah.

Englishman Fury was in bullish mood.

"Jake Paul's boxing career ends on February 26 and I can finally move on with mine," Fury declared. "The world is about to see what happens when a proper boxer faces a YouTuber."

Shortly before the bout was confirmed, Tyson Fury weighed in once more. "It's going to be fun, and I expect Tommy to chin him," he said. "If he doesn't, he can stay in Saudi Arabia!"

January 29-30, 2023: Paul's doubts and baby controversy

Despite an agreement being reached for the fight, Paul told BBC Sport he "definitely" harboured doubts as to Fury's willingness to appear.

Paul attracted heavy criticism in the immediate aftermath of the bout being made, after 'announcing' the birth of Fury and Hague's child on Twitter before the couple staged their own reveal.

When Hague posted an image of newborn daughter Bambi on social media, Paul commented: "Just in time to watch your dad get knocked out."

February 23, 2023: 'Double or nothing' deal as foes face off

Despite Paul's doubts, Fury hailed "the best camp of my life" on social media before jetting off to Saudi Arabia last week.

The duo finally came face-to-face at Thursday's press conference, shaking on a "double or nothing" offer from Paul, who suggested Fury should receive no payment if he loses.

Paul and Fury were separated amid a minor fracas as both taunted the other about their previous fights, with the latter sending out a warning.

"This is in my heart, blood and soul, and you're going to feel that," Fury said. "You should have stuck to easy money fighting old men."

For a fight two years in the making with the backdrop of a deeply personal rivalry, the stage is finally set.

MLS returns this weekend less than four months on from one of the most exciting MLS Cup finals in league history.

Plenty has changed since Los Angeles FC beat the Philadelphia Union on penalties in early November.

Gareth Bale, who scored the dramatic LAFC leveller in a 3-3 draw, has retired, the Seattle Sounders made an underwhelming MLS bow in the Club World Cup, and Josef Martinez has left Atlanta United.

That is even before considering the arrival of expansion side St Louis City for the new season.

Those factors all contribute to Stats Perform's preview of the most interesting MLS teams to watch this year.

Inter Miami

There were finally signs of progress from Miami last year as they finished sixth in the East, only to be routed by New York City FC in the first round of the playoffs.

That was Gonzalo Higuain's final match before retiring, but the club looked to have already recruited his replacement in Leonardo Campana, who averaged a goal every 145 minutes in his debut season.

Miami have not settled for that solution, however, instead trading for Martinez from Atlanta.

While Martinez was the Golden Boot winner, MVP, All-Star MVP and MLS Cup MVP in the same season back in 2018, more recent campaigns have been slightly tougher.

Quite how Miami fit Campana and Martinez together remains to be seen, but they will hope to be a real force – at least in attack – in 2023.

Atlanta United

With Martinez gone, Atlanta no longer resemble anything close to the team who dominated in 2018, yet that does not mean they could not also be in for a big year.

Giorgos Giakoumakis has been signed to supply the goals up front, having led the Eredivisie and the Scottish Premiership in scoring in his past two seasons.

Giakoumakis should get plenty of opportunities to hit the ground running, with Atlanta ranking fifth in expected goals last season (57.5) but no team underperforming their xG by a wider margin (9.5).

Atlanta, like Miami, may have issues elsewhere on the pitch, but there will be understandable optimism about the prospect of the new forward linking up with Thiago Almada.

Almada was the Newcomer of the Year in 2022 and ended the year by winning the World Cup with Argentina.

 

Los Angeles FC

The last season could scarcely have gone better for LAFC, who pipped the Union to the Supporters' Shield and again to MLS Cup.

But as Philly no doubt prepare to fight back in 2023, this could be a trickier year for the reigning champions.

Far more damaging than Bale's exit was the sale of top scorer Cristian Arango, who could now be an opponent in the CONCACAF Champions League with Pachuca.

LAFC are on a collision course with the Union again in that competition, but last year's hard-luck story might prefer to focus on ending their wait for an MLS Cup title.

If LAFC do go all out for Champions League glory, they will risk derailing their league campaign – as has happened so many times in the past.

Seattle Sounders

No team can provide a better example for LAFC than the Sounders – both in how to do it and how not to do it.

Seattle won the CCL last year, completing their trophy cabinet, but it came at the cost of an awful MLS season.

So consistent in reaching the playoffs in each of their first 13 years in MLS, the Sounders fell well short in 2022, hurt by Joao Paulo's ACL tear in the second leg of the Champions League final.

The midfielder returned in the Club World Cup earlier this month, but Seattle fell at the first hurdle against Al Ahly.

Joao Paulo rejoins a highly talented squad, yet the wonder will be if largely the same group can run it back after following four MLS Cup final appearances in five seasons with two down years.

St Louis City

St Louis arrive in MLS in 2023 with a squad that looks every bit as short as one might expect from an expansion franchise reluctant to spend big.

Led by sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel, St Louis have shopped the German market with some fairly underwhelming results.

Neither of their two Designated Player signings, forward Klauss and midfielder Eduard Lowen, look especially likely to tear up the league, while their biggest name recruit is former Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Burki.

That perhaps hints at a realistic approach, knowing a top-class keeper is required to stay competitive in their debut season, but Burki was hardly that by the end of his team at BVB.

He lost his place in the team in the 2020-21 season, having had the third-lowest save percentage in the Bundesliga (59.2) the previous year among goalkeepers with 10 or more appearances.

 

The suggestion Manchester United are enduring a trophy drought might feel frankly offensive to followers of Newcastle United, their EFL Cup final opponents.

When Newcastle last won a domestic cup, the 1955 FA Cup, they had twice as many major honours to their name (10) as Man United (five).

Since then, though, the side from Old Trafford have won 17 league titles, 15 domestic cups and five major European competitions.

In the same period, Newcastle have celebrated success only in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – a competition not recognised by UEFA.

Newcastle can end their 68-year wait for a domestic triumph on Sunday but must beat these most familiar of foes, for Man United have done more than most to extend that barren run on Tyneside.

Before this season, the Magpies' last semi-final was a 4-1 FA Cup defeat to Man United in 2005. Their last final was a 2-0 FA Cup defeat to the same opposition in 1999.

Those are counted among seven cup meetings between the sides since 1955, of which Man United have won six, including a 4-0 victory in the 1996 Community Shield.

That, like the 1999 FA Cup final, contributes to Newcastle's eight-game losing streak at Wembley – a record – having won on each of their first five trips to the national stadium.

 

Even in the league, Newcastle's best two campaigns since 1955 have seen them finish as runners-up to Man United. They have not finished above Man United since 1976-77.

This looked like being a season in which that sequence at least could be ended, but Newcastle have slipped below Man United and out of the top four since their semi-final win over Southampton.

In fact, only Aston Villa and Leeds United have collected fewer points than Newcastle in that time, while no Premier League team have earned as many as Man United.

Eddie Howe's men have understandably been distracted by their looming Wembley date, for which there could hardly be more fitting opponents.

"We're pleased the final's here. I didn't want the wait to be any longer," Howe said after Saturday's defeat to Liverpool, adding: "I wouldn't criticise the players in terms of focusing on the final ahead of the Premier League, but the talk of it has been there."

Yet even before this final, Man United have managed to hurt Newcastle again.

Nick Pope's red card in the Liverpool game saw him ruled out of Sunday's match, and Martin Dubravka cannot play either after spending the first half of the season out on loan at Man United of all teams.

Having played twice in the EFL Cup at Old Trafford, Dubravka is cup-tied and will receive a winners' medal only if his Newcastle team-mates lose. They will be relying instead on Loris Karius, making his debut for the club.

Even had Dubravka been available, Pope would be a big miss. He is so key to the way Newcastle play – with a high line but a slow defence – ironically due to his ability to do the thing that saw him sent off.

 

Pope leads the Premier League in keeper sweepings (24), mopping up passes in behind the back line effectively when not comically handling the ball outside his area.

No goalkeeper in the country then might have been better suited to combatting Man United's approach, which relies heavily on the speed of Marcus Rashford. They rank joint-first for fast breaks (22), joint-second for shots from fast breaks (16) and first for goals from fast breaks (seven), with Rashford scoring two of those.

Karius, now tasked with stopping Rashford, last appeared for an English club in another final, making two awful errors for Liverpool in their 2018 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid after sustaining a concussion.

His potential redemption tale in this showpiece adds another layer of narrative that was scarcely needed.

"It would be a magnificent chance for him to rewrite the story of his career," said Howe, while Dubravka added: "It's like the script from a movie. So incredible."

It is not a plot twist anyone involved with Newcastle would have chosen – except perhaps for those following the club this season for a documentary series. "Now we want a happy ending," said Dubravka.

Bruno Guimaraes is at least back from suspension to help with that, although so too is Brazil team-mate Casemiro in the Man United camp.

The former Real Madrid midfielder, like Rashford, provides a very physical threat, but of comparable concern to Newcastle and to Karius might be the considerable mental hurdles they must clear to finally bring silverware back to St James' Park.

A lot's been said and written about the various ways Erik ten Hag has changed Manchester United's trajectory since his appointment last April.

His signings have made an impact; he's started to build an identity; players appear to be improving; he's getting results on the pitch.

But beyond those areas, last week's 2-2 draw with Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Europa League felt like an example of how much Ten Hag has changed the attitude of the club already.

It was a significant departure from what most fans – of United or otherwise – have come to expect from away games in European knockout ties against the biggest clubs on the continent.

Unless you support say Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City or even Barca, there's a degree of acceptance that your team is going to spend much of the game under pressure when you face one of Europe's behemoths away from home.

This won't be lost on United fans. Even before the departure of the peerless Alex Ferguson in 2013, they would often set up with a view to halting the opponent rather than outplaying them, hence the importance of hard-working players like Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher.

In more recent years, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's use of counter-attacking tactics brought mixed results. While they helped the shock 2019 Champions League elimination of Paris Saint-Germain in one of the competition's most remarkable comebacks ever, United were then comfortably seen off by Barca 4-0 on aggregate in the next round.

Jose Mourinho's United were similarly pragmatic even though they never really came up against that same standard of opposition in Europe. His only Champions League knockout tie in charge of United was against Sevilla, who knocked the Red Devils out in the round of 16.

Of course, appearing to display something of an inferiority complex away from home isn't anything new, and it's certainly not specific to European competition – United have produced many performances some might perceive to be "negative" domestically in the past 10 years or so.

Either way, the manner of their display at Camp Nou was undoubtedly a refreshing change of pace.

United were the more dangerous and more competent side for long stretches of the game. Sure, Barca had the majority of the ball, as you'd expect, but Ten Hag's men seemed to have more purpose and direction when they had it.

They managed 18 shots last week at Camp Nou. Since the start of the 2003-04 season, United have only had more attempts away from Old Trafford in a European knockout game four times – those occasions were against Schalke, LASK, Sevilla and Copenhagen.

It bears mentioning that Barca had the same amount of shots, so this wasn't about United being dominant per se, rather having the attitude, belief and mentality to go to Camp Nou and not just assume the role of the proverbial lamb to the slaughter.

When facing Barca, you accept they will have a greater share of the ball, and generally speaking that brings shots, chances. But United were able to hurt their hosts without needing to control possession.

Their shots were worth 2.2 expected goals (xG) to Barca's 1.1. In the time that this data is available (since 2013-14), United have only recorded more xG in European knockout games away from Old Trafford seven times.

Again, these opponents were sides like Granada, Anderlecht, LASK and Copenhagen. Granted, their 2.1 away to PSG in 2019 looks good on paper, but Marcus Rashford's crucial penalty obviously accounts for a massive chunk of that, and United only managed five shots on that occasion. It was smash and grab.

United's high xG at Camp Nou was partly linked to their high number of touches (32) in the Barca box. Opta data in this metric goes back as far as the 2006-07 season, and since then they have only had more touches in the opposition's area four times in European knockout games away from Old Trafford.

Those were recorded against Villarreal, Sevilla, Schalke and Copenhagen.

Of course, trying to determine which of United's opponents have been of a similar standard to this current Barca side is subjective. Similarly, it's fair to ask how good Xavi's team actually are. But you could argue that, in the time this metric has been recorded, United never had more than 19 touches in the area of opponents at the level of Barca when not at Old Trafford.

In the 2008 final against Chelsea, United had 19. Away to Real Madrid in February 2013, they had 17. At Camp Nou in April 2019, they managed 12. The only club of a comparable stature to Barca against whom the Red Devils have broken that 20-touch barrier was Milan in March 2021, but that Rossoneri side wasn't a particularly impressive team; this Barca side is currently eight points clear of the Real Madrid team that pulverised Liverpool at Anfield earlier this week.

While United were slightly disappointed not to beat Barca last week, it was still possibly their most impressive performance in Europe for well over a decade.

They were positive, purposeful and generally threatening. There was no sign of fear or intimidation.

There were few negative aspects of the performance, and so in a way it perfectly encapsulated Ten Hag's tenure so far. The Dutchman's United had already played well against – and beaten – good teams, but being the better side at Camp Nou against Barcelona is a bit different.

Four trophies are still technically up for grabs for United this term. While a quadruple is surely beyond them, another positive performance – and result – at Old Trafford on Thursday will be the biggest statement of ambition and progress yet for Ten Hag.

LeBron James spoke during the All-Star break of the Los Angeles Lakers' ability to "compete versus anyone in the Western Conference", buoyed by their prior results.

The Lakers won two of their final three games before the break, including a victory on the road against defending champions the Golden State Warriors.

Now, as the season resumes, the two teams meet again in LA, each needing a win.

Even with that minor upturn in form, the Lakers were left 2.5 games outside the play-in places. The Warriors, the ninth seeds, are little better off.

Missing out on the playoffs again is "just not part of my DNA", James added, meaning progress must now be swift.

The Lakers will hope then the "precautionary" decision to remove James from the All-Star Game due to injury is just that.

Although their previous win against the Warriors came without the all-time NBA scoring leader, it was on his return against the New Orleans Pelicans that the Lakers really impressed.

James appeared for the first time alongside new recruit D'Angelo Russell, while Anthony Davis joined the four-time Finals MVP in the starting lineup for only the 24th time this season.

Getting all three men on the floor together consistently will be key to any unlikely success story.

Against a Warriors team still missing Stephen Curry, a show of strength could set up a big second half to the season.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Los Angeles Lakers – D'Angelo Russell

Whether Russell can make the difference for the Lakers is another matter. But the team need that to be the case. His arrival, with Russell Westbrook departing, is the big change most likely to alter the course of the season.

The early signs are at least promising – he has averaged 17.3 points but only 1.7 turnovers through his first three games.

That is a level of efficiency not seen before in Russell's career – including in the half-season he spent with the Warriors – but should be enough to keep James happy, which is more than can be said for Westbrook, whose 3.5 turnovers per game were actually down on his career average.

Golden State Warriors – Jordan Poole

While Curry remains out, the Warriors will have to rely on Poole to provide their scoring threat.

More than half of his 35 starts this year (20) have come when Curry has been out of the lineup, in which games Poole has averaged 27.6 points per game.

It figures that Poole should be more influential when team-mates do not have Curry to instead look to, with the 23-year-old attempting 10.1 threes per game without the superstar alongside him.

Taking the ball and the shots counts for little, however, if Poole cannot get the Warriors enough wins to stay competitive. They are 9-11 this year when Poole starts but Curry does not.

KEY BATTLE – Lakers at the crunch?

Not helped by having a key man missing, the Warriors have repeatedly been frustrated by the way they have ended games of late.

The previous Lakers game was the source of some frustration as Golden State appeared set to recover from a tough third quarter before another wobble in the fourth.

In fact, across their past eight games that have been late and close – within four points in the last two minutes of the final quarter – the Warriors have been outscored in those scenarios in six.

If the Lakers can stick with the Warriors, they look the better bet to come through late on.

HEAD TO HEAD

The teams have split the series so far this year, with the Warriors' win on opening night followed by that home defeat. All time, the Lakers have a 259-173 lead over the Warriors in the regular season.

The lasting image of Josko Gvardiol's campaign in Qatar isn't one that his performances warranted.

Gvardiol enjoyed a fine World Cup as Croatia reached the semi-finals, but like so many defenders before him, the 21-year-old came unstuck against Lionel Messi.

If one were to fall on British footballing parlance to describe how Messi turned Gvardiol one way, then the other, and then back again en route to teeing up Argentina's third goal in a 3-0 win, then the term "sent to the shops" would probably be fitting.

Gvardiol might be stronger, more athletic and 14 years younger than Messi, but the latter is considered by many to be the best player of all time, and his nimble feet and speed of thought left Croatia's star defender clutching at thin air on that night at Lusail Stadium.

Yet that incident shouldn't mar what was a stellar tournament for Gvardiol, who will be tasked with keeping more superstars on a tight leash when RB Leipzig host Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Gvardiol has been heavily linked with Chelsea in the past. It remains to be seen whether the big-spending Blues will be back in for the centre-back, or will it be City – who might well be in need of a versatile, left-footed defender in the wake of Joao Cancelo's seemingly impending permanent departure and with speculation over Aymeric Laporte's future.

Real Madrid have also been mooted as having an interest, but Gvardiol has his eyes on a move to England.

"I want to play in the Premier League," he told The Times, while reflecting on his decision to join Leipzig over Leeds United in 2020. "Chelsea were really interested, but Leipzig told me they didn't want to sell me. My dream is to get to the Premier League one day."

This meeting with City could just be the audition Gvardiol needs to pass for that dream to come true.

The crown jewel of Croatia's next generation

Luka Modric might have been the driving force in Croatia's semi-final charge, and ultimate third-place finish, but Gvardiol was arguably just as integral.

On the ball, Gvardiol was superb, and that's something that will certainly be of interest to potential suitors. The composure and passing ability he has shown at Leipzig transitioned onto the international stage and by the end of the competition he had made 21 progressive passes – only 14 players managed more.

 

Gvardiol topped the charts for carry distance and ball carries, with his stature and pace making him difficult to stop as he moved out of defence while in possession, giving Croatia a different dimension when attacking.

He made 202 carries for a distance of 1,985.3 metres, an average of 28.8 carries per game and 283.6 metres per match, with Gvardiol playing every minute of Croatia's campaign.

Gvardiol completed 24 long balls in Qatar, behind only four other defenders, while only Argentina's Nicolas Otamendi attempted and completed more passes.

His only goal at the tournament came in Croatia's win over Morocco in the third-place play-off, though it was not just on the ball that Gvardiol impressed.

The youngster made more clearances (37) than any other player and won possession back 48 times, the most of any defender.

 

Leipzig the ideal fit

"Here in Germany I feel good, I'm in a good club and I play almost all matches," Gvardiol said in his interview with The Times.

Since he made the switch from Dinamo Zagreb, Gvardiol has made 48 appearances for Leipzig, starting 42 times. He has scored two goals, both coming this season and at home, and teed up a further two as well. For such a young player, Gvardiol boasts an impressive disciplinary record, picking up just eight bookings.

Leipzig have won 25 of the 48 matches he has played in, losing 12 and drawing the other 11. 

This season, Gvardiol, slotting in alongside Willi Orban, has played a part in keeping five clean sheets, and ranks second out of Leipzig's defenders behind the Hungary international in that regard.

Of his fellow Leipzig defenders, Orban is the only one to have won possession back on more occasions (173) than Gvardiol (132), with 65 of those regains coming in the defensive third.

When assessing Gvardiol's statistics per 90 minutes, he betters his centre-back partner for interceptions (1.44 to 1.39) and possession won (6.6 to 5.9), while he has a defensive-unit high 77.4 successful passes.

Orban is more of a stopper, evidenced by his 4.1 clearances, 2.5 headed clearances, 1.6 tackles, 8.6 duels and 4.6 aerial duels per 90 minutes. Gvardiol is an ideal folly with his progressive, accurate passing, though he averages only one tackle per game, while his tackle success rate of 57.1 is the joint-lowest out of Leipzig's defensive options.

 

Breaking the lines is a key facet of Gvardiol's play, and though Orban betters his total number of carries in the Bundesliga this season, the Croatian has taken the ball further than any of his team-mates in the competition (3,334 metres), averaging 10.23 metres each time.

Leipzig have provided Gvardiol with an ideal environment in which to thrive and develop, though he is about to face a stern test in the form of Europe's deadliest striker.

Much ado about Erling?

Erling Haaland has scored 32 goals in 31 appearances since joining City from Leipzig's Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund last year.

Such has been his rich form, that one or two games without a goal for Haaland results in speculation as to whether City actually know how to get the very best out of their striker, or if he is suited to Pep Guardiola's approach.

This will not be the first time Gvardiol has gone up against the Norwegian, having done so previously in April last year.

On that occasion, Gvardiol formed part of a three-man defence that helped Leipzig to a stunning 4-1 win at Signal Iduna Park, with Haaland kept quiet.

 

Haaland had 27 touches, but only four of those came in Leipzig's area, while his only shot was off target (he was only limited to zero shots in a game on one occasion in the Bundesliga last term) and he finished with an expected goals of 0.15. 

Leipzig will have more than just Haaland to worry about on Wednesday, of course. Gvardiol will likely have Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez bearing down on him at some stage, but an elite performance against this calibre of opposition might just get him that dream move to England.

It could even be with City, and the two legs of this last-16 tie could go a long way to convincing Guardiola.

Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold were so optimistic. After the commendable – albeit imperfect – 2-0 win over Newcastle United at the weekend, Liverpool seemed confident their luck was changing.

Liverpool had endured several previous instances this season of winning games but then struggling to build momentum.

"This feels a little bit different," Van Dijk said. Alexander-Arnold struck a similarly defiant tone.

But Jurgen Klopp's men were brought crashing back to earth in brutal fashion on Tuesday, losing 5-2 to Real Madrid at Anfield in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Let's not forget, Madrid were arguably fortuitous 1-0 victors over Liverpool in last season's final. But here, once Carlo Ancelotti's side were on the scoreboard, this was pretty much all Madrid.

It wasn't exactly plain sailing for Madrid, but they're built differently. They're a special case.

Eduardo Camavinga said it best in an interview with the Guardian earlier this week: "People think Madrid are dead, but Madrid are never, never dead."

So when Liverpool rather astonishingly found themselves 2-0 up against the European champions inside 15 minutes, surely even the most ardent Reds fans had a twinge of trepidation deep in their minds.

Madrid have made a habit of seemingly coming back from the dead. Their route to glory last season had them resembling the undead in virtually every tie, with frankly absurd comebacks seeing them past Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Lucky? Perhaps, but sometimes you create your own luck, whether that's with individual quality or benefiting from individual errors.

There was a lot of both going on at Anfield on Tuesday.

Darwin Nunez's opener was a delight. Making the run in behind the Madrid defence, he anticipated Mohamed Salah's precise low pass and met it with an impudent flick of the right heel, the connection perfect as Thibaut Courtois was left helpless.

That was the sublime. Then came the ridiculous.

Courtois controlled a bouncing pass in his own area, but with Salah bearing down, the goalkeeper panicked. An accidental touch off his knee caused him to lose all control of the situation, and the Liverpool attacker duly prodded home.

The ground refused to swallow him up, forcing Courtois to cope with the very public violation of his dignity.

But nothing about the opening 15 minutes suggested Liverpool could count on a clean sheet. There were slips, spills and errors galore, the slick pitch proving rather hazardous for both sets of players.

As such, it wasn't particularly surprising when Madrid did pull one back in the 21st minute with a moment of magic of their own.

After a quick interchange with Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior received the ball just inside the box. Seemingly surrounded, one drop of the shoulder opened up space and he somehow found the bottom-far corner.

While Liverpool chances continued to arrive, that incident felt like something of a turning point, and Alisson soon took some of the glare away from his goalkeeping counterpart.

Trying to play out from the back, his pass slammed straight against Vinicius' leg and ricocheted into the net. Klopp emitted a wry chuckle.

Suddenly it became a contest of who would respond better to such a setback. Madrid already showed their impressive hand – could Liverpool match them?

The answer was ultimately unequivocal.

Liverpool were again their own worst enemies at the start of the second half. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez failed to deal with Vinicius legally, the latter deemed to have fouled him on the left edge of the box.

Liverpool's defence lined up across the edge of the six-yard box. So bad was the defending here that Luka Modric didn't even try to put his delivery behind them, instead in front where Eder Militao – incredibly unmarked – was allowed to simply head home.

By now, the intensity Liverpool had shown during the first half was nowhere to be seen. At times Madrid looked like they'd struggle to give up possession even on purpose. The Reds were drained physically and emotionally – Los Blancos could smell blood.

The young Stefan Bajcetic was the next Liverpool player to commit a major error. Robbed of the ball in midfield, within seconds Madrid had the ball in the net again, the previously quiet Benzema seeing his rather tame left-footed effort deflect in off Joe Gomez.

But the fifth and final goal was all about Madrid's quality. Modric rolled back the years with a surging run before finding Vinicius, who showcased his ever-improving decision-making as he lured in the defender prior to slipping through to Benzema. He deceived three – including Alisson – with one swivel with the hips before effortlessly picking out the top-left corner.

Klopp referred to last season's Champions League final defeat to Madrid as "proper torture" – if that's an apt description, then it'll be intriguing to see how he labels this.

The Reds went from looking sensational to immensely fragile within about five minutes, and against Ancelotti's seasoned winners, that's never going to be a recipe for success.

This was the first time Liverpool have ever conceded five goals at home in Europe – it was simultaneously a harsh reality check and a grim reminder of how far they've fallen in less than a year.

Liverpool welcome Real Madrid to Anfield on Tuesday in the Champions League round of 16, and the latest meeting of Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti.

Their respective histories could have been so different.

After Everton and Liverpool had played out a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park in October 2015, in the Sky Sports studio, Thierry Henry reached across and placed his hand on a bewildered Jamie Carragher's knee as the news was announced that Brendan Rodgers had been dismissed as Reds manager.

Within minutes, the favourites for the role were being discussed, with frontrunner Klopp ultimately being the man to come in and take the club back to the summit of English and European football.

The second favourite had been Ancelotti, out of work at the time following his exit from his first spell at Madrid, and Carragher argued that while the Italian had the more impressive CV, Klopp was the more suitable choice for the Anfield hotseat after his success at Borussia Dortmund.

"I think with either of those coming to Liverpool, the supporters would be ecstatic," he said at the time. "If it was me, I would go for Klopp ahead of Ancelotti. I think he's got more to prove. Ancelotti is a great manager of course, but he's gone to clubs where you would expect to win trophies.

"It's a difficult job now at Liverpool getting them back into the top four. Forget talking about the title. And I think it needs someone with that energy and drive to get Liverpool back to where it wants to be and I think Jurgen Klopp's that man."

Of course, Carragher proved to be right about Klopp.

It will never be known what would have happened had Ancelotti been hired instead, but he has gone on to enjoy success at other clubs since, with spells at Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton before heading back to the Santiago Bernabeu in December 2021.

The two have faced off numerous times in opposing dugouts, with the upcoming two-legged Champions League tie set to be their 12th and 13th meetings.

It is interesting how frequently Klopp and Ancelotti have come up against one another, especially considering the Italian's 18-month spell at Everton was the only time they have managed in the same league.

They clashed on four occasions in Merseyside derbies – coincidentally after that had been the fixture that led to their names being linked with the Liverpool job back in 2015 – with two draws at Goodison Park in the Premier League and a 1-0 Liverpool win in an FA Cup third round game at Anfield.

The most notable encounter also came at Anfield in February 2021, with no fans in due to COVID-19 restrictions, where Ancelotti masterminded Everton's first win at the home of their neighbours since the turn of the century.

Their other seven meetings have come in the Champions League, Klopp coming up against Ancelotti for the first time during his penultimate season at Borussia Dortmund as they took on Madrid in the last eight, losing 3-0 in the Spanish capital before a spirited but unsuccessful 2-0 reverse back in Dortmund.

Two goals from Marco Reus in the first half had given the German side hope of a comeback, but Ancelotti's men put up the defences and managed to see the game out, a tactic that the Los Blancos head coach has used to good effect against Klopp on numerous occasions since.

He also frustrated Klopp in their first meeting as Liverpool and Napoli bosses respectively, with the Serie A side winning 1-0 at home in the 2018-19 group stage, restricting the Reds to just four shots – none on which were on target – as Lorenzo Insigne struck a late winner.

A Mohamed Salah goal in the reverse fixture was enough to send Liverpool through to the knockout stage with a 1-0 win at Anfield at Napoli's expense, with the Reds going on to lift the trophy in Madrid that season.

The two teams were drawn together again in the group stage the following year, with Napoli again defeating Liverpool in Naples, 2-0 this time, while they played out a 1-1 draw back on Merseyside.

Klopp and Ancelotti would not meet again in the Champions League until after their brief Merseyside derby rivalry, somewhat appropriately in the final as Liverpool faced Madrid in Paris last season.

While the game was heavily distracted by the chaos outside prior to kick-off that an independent investigation has since claimed was the fault of UEFA and the French authorities, on the pitch it had a feel of Klopp's previous struggles with Ancelotti.

Liverpool dominated large parts of the contest, but Madrid were largely able to contain them, though goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois still had to put in an outstanding performance to keep a clean sheet.

Ancelotti suggested after the 1-0 win thanks to a Vinicius Junior goal that Klopp's team were "more decipherable" than others he had faced, but ahead of their next clash, the German coach lavished praise on his opposite number.

"Carlo is the most relaxed manager I ever met in my life," Klopp said at his pre-match press conference. "One of the best people you can meet, fantastic person, a humble person, super smart and nice, and obviously his man management is at a completely different level to all of us, and I respect that a lot and admire it a lot."

Ancelotti reciprocated at his press conference, saying: "I have a good relationship with Klopp. We stayed for a year and a half in Liverpool during the pandemic, and we used to text each other and exchange gifts. He's a really lovely person."

There is clear mutual respect there, strengthened by the duo's personal achievements as well as how difficult they both find games against one another.

Klopp's teams have only managed to find the net seven times against Ancelotti's in 11 games, despite having 153 shots, suggesting the former Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain boss knows how to restrict them to low-quality chances.

Ancelotti has relied on his team's defensive solidity more often than not, and boasts the superior record with five wins to three defeats and three draws, but he has never been able to beat a Klopp team in an away game when fans have been in attendance, with a noisy Anfield on Tuesday a near certainty.

He surely takes slightly more pleasure in besting Liverpool than he does most other foes following one of his most painful defeats as a coach when his Milan side was beaten on penalties in the iconic 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, despite leading 3-0 at half-time.

This season's final will also be in the Turkish capital, but at least one of Liverpool or Ancelotti will not be there this time.

Klopp v Ancelotti. Germany v Italy. Beard v eyebrow. It is one of the great modern coaching rivalries, and round 12 should be another fascinating contest.

The Premier League title race took another twist on Saturday, with Arsenal now back atop the pile.

Manchester City's 3-1 win at Emirates Stadium in midweek had seemingly given them control of the two-horse race for the trophy.

But City's failure to build on that success and Arsenal's late heroics on the road at Aston Villa mean the Gunners have a two-point lead over Pep Guardiola's men with a game in hand.

Elsewhere, Liverpool boosted their top-four aspirations while denting those of Newcastle United, who have now won just one of their last seven Premier League games.

Here, Stats Perform looks at Saturday's biggest games through the lens of Opta data.

Aston Villa 2-4 Arsenal: Jorginho and Martinelli produce late show

Saturday saw Arsenal reassume command of what is fast becoming an engrossing title race, but it looked for a long time as if they would suffer another setback.

The Gunners appeared set to settle for a 2-2 draw at Villa Park, only for Jorginho's rasping injury-time drive to cannon off the crossbar and then deflect in off Emiliano Martinez. Gabriel Martinelli made it 4-2 in the 98th minute.

It marked the first time Arsenal have scored a 90th-minute winner away from home in the league since Martinelli netted against Crystal Palace in May 2021, which was also the last time they scored twice in the 90th minute in the same game in the competition.

Arsenal's joy should be tempered somewhat by defensive concerns.

Indeed, Arsenal have now conceded the opening goal in four of their last five Premier League games, one more than they did in their first 18 games of the 2022-23 campaign (3).

Chelsea 0-1 Southampton: Saints pile pressure on Potter

The result was overshadowed by the head injury suffered by Cesar Azpilicueta, but it was an extremely significant one for Southampton, who boosted their survival hopes by completing the league double against Chelsea for the first time since the 1987-88 season.

Defeat for Chelsea was their first at home against the team starting the day bottom of the Premier League table for the first time since April 2014 vs Sunderland (1-2).

The Blues have lost three of their last six Premier League home games (W2 D1), as many defeats as in their previous 25 league games at Stamford Bridge combined (W13 D9), that run piling the pressure on manager Graham Potter.

Chelsea's latest home loss was engineered by James Ward-Prowse, who in scoring his 17th direct free-kick goal in the Premier League moved just one behind record holder David Beckham (18), netting 13 of them away from home.

Nottingham Forest 1-1 Manchester City: Forest hold champions at bay

If Forest do manage to stay up, their home from will be a significant reason why. They are unbeaten in eight home games in the Premier League (W4 D4), their best home unbeaten run in the top-flight since a 20-game stretch between February 1995 and January 1996.

Prior to this stalemate, Forest had lost their last seven Premier League games against the reigning champions, by an aggregate score of 29-3, including a 6-0 defeat to Man City earlier this season. They avoided defeat against the reigning champions for the first time since December 1994, when they beat Manchester United.

Bernardo Silva's fine opener initially looked like it would be enough for City to take all three points and return to the top of the league, and continued a recent theme for the Portugal international, who has 32 Premier League goals for the club. Three of his last four goals in the competition have been scored from outside the box, with only three of his first 28 coming from distance.

Jack Grealish laid on the assist for Silva. Grealish has been directly involved in six goals (2 goals, 4 assists) in the Premier League since the conclusion of the World Cup. Grealish had one goal and no assists in eight league appearances this season prior to the World Cup break.

Newcastle United 0-2 Liverpool: Pope sends Magpies hopes up in smoke

Newcastle have an EFL Cup final with Manchester United to look forward to next Sunday, but they will be without goalkeeper Nick Pope after his red card in this one for handling the ball outside the area.

Pope's red card was the fifth instance of a Newcastle goalkeeper being sent off in the Premier League, with only Liverpool and Aston Villa (6 each) seeing more keeper reds in the competition. 

He conceded twice before being sent off in the 22nd minute - the earliest a goalkeeper has conceded twice and been sent off in a Premier League game.

Those two goals came inside 17 minutes and were as many as Newcastle had conceded in their previous eight Premier League games combined, proving enough to extend the Magpies' winless league run against Liverpool to 13 matches (D4 L9) and end their 17-game unbeaten run in the competition.

The Reds are the only team to beat Newcastle in the Premier League this season, with victory coming on the back of just their second away clean sheet in 2022-23.

Tottenham are in need of a lift following back-to-back defeats, and history would suggest it might come at the expense of West Ham in the absence of Antonio Conte.

Head coach Conte made a swift return to the touchline last weekend following gallbladder surgery and watched his side suffer a 4-1 Premier League defeat at Leicester City.

The Italian then oversaw a 1-0 Champions League defeat at Milan on Tuesday, but he has remained on his homeland in order to take time to make a full recovery from his operation.

Cristian Stellini will once again step up to take charge of Tottenham for the foreseeable future, and Conte's assistant's first task is to mastermind a home derby victory over West Ham this weekend.

Stats Perform previews the clash between the London rivals by picking out the standout Opta data.

Five-in-a-row frustration for Hammers

West Ham have lost five consecutive away London derbies since beating Crystal Palace 3-2 on New Year's Day in 2022.

That is their longest such run since a streak of six defeats on the bounce between April 2009 and October 2010.

David Moyes' men draw 1-1 at home to Spurs in August but only once in the past eight seasons have they avoided defeat in both Premier League meetings with Spurs – that being in the 2020-21 campaign.

More home comforts for Spurs?

While Tottenham are smarting from back-to-back losses in all competitions, they beat Premier League leaders Manchester City 1-0 in their last home game.

Although they lost 2-0 in their own backyard to fierce rivals Arsenal in their last London derby, they were unbeaten in five encounters with fellow capital clubs at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium before that painful setback.

Not since November 2004 have Spurs lost consecutive home London derbies,

Antonio to torment Tottenham again?

Michail Antonio should be licking his lips at the prospect of facing Tottenham.

The striker has scored in four of the Hammers' past five wins over Spurs, including the only goal of the game in three of those contests.

No player has ever scored in four 1-0 victories against the same opponent in Premier League history.

Hammers can snuff out Spurs set-piece threat

No side have scored from more corners in the Premier League this season than Tottenham's 11.

They might be hard pressed to bring up a dozen this weekend, though, as West Ham have not conceded from a corner this term.

If they are to turn the corner this weekend and get their bid for a top-four finish back on track, Spurs may have to be more creative in open play after firing a blank at San Siro.

"Is there any history between Newcastle and Liverpool that I don't know about? The atmosphere was like there was something that happened in the past."

Jurgen Klopp's question was understandable at the end of an enthralling 3-2 Liverpool win at St James' Park back in 2019.

A raucous Tyneside atmosphere had been ramped up further by controversy on the pitch and fights off it, with the presence of Liverpool fans in the Newcastle United sections – hoping to see their side take another step towards Premier League glory – playing its part.

Of course, when Newcastle were going for the title in the 1990s, Liverpool tried and succeeded to spoil the party with a pair of epic 4-3 Anfield wins, even if that meant helping rivals Manchester United to twice take top spot.

Newcastle's class of 2019 had similarly given their all – but not because it was Liverpool, with Rafael Benitez's men and their supporters relieved not to be relegated rather than worrying about settling scores.

For Newcastle, there is rather more riding on the outcome of Liverpool's visit this weekend for another Saturday night match. This one, Klopp might note, will have a little more history.

Liverpool are the only team to have beaten Newcastle in the Premier League this season, and that reverse fixture, back in August, was another hot-tempered affair.

A marginal offside call denied Alexander Isak a second goal, before Liverpool rallied to win with a 98th-minute winner having been repeatedly frustrated by the Newcastle time-wasting that led to the game dragging on so long.

It felt like a big moment for Liverpool as they went ahead of Newcastle with just their second victory in five matches at the start of the campaign. Meanwhile, the visiting players were booed off the pitch.

Heading into the return match, however, Liverpool are back below Newcastle. In fact, they are nine points below this weekend's hosts – the largest margin in the Magpies' favour ahead of a fixture between the two sides in the Premier League era. This is the first time since 1995-96, with that Stan Collymore winner, that Newcastle have led Liverpool going into both home and away meetings.

As Liverpool's season went on a downward spiral almost from the moment Fabio Carvalho broke Geordie hearts with his best Collymore impression, Newcastle – then missing a number of key men – were emboldened by the furious reaction of the Anfield crowd.

"My ideal is that we're booed off every week when we go to away grounds, because you don't want to be popular," Eddie Howe said afterwards ahead of a 17-match unbeaten league run, Newcastle's joint-longest in their history.

"We're here to win, we're here to compete," Howe added, "and we'll do whatever it takes to try to win."

Except Newcastle's undefeated streak has included only nine wins, topped up by eight draws – including five in their past six and three in a row.

Progress to the EFL Cup final has maintained Newcastle's momentum, but frustration has just started to fester since the semi-final, which was followed by stalemates against strugglers West Ham and Bournemouth that saw the Magpies fall to fourth.

While Newcastle may have a nine-point cushion to Liverpool, they equally could be level on points with the Reds by the time they play again in the league if Saturday's result goes against them.

Manchester City, winners at Arsenal in midweek, have shown how quickly such a gap can vanish.

The four-match winning run Liverpool would require for such a rapid turnaround – including Monday's defeat of Everton – seemed highly unlikely at the start of the week, but such a streak has proven very much within their capabilities in the past.

Liverpool won four in a row in the Premier League as recently as December, their 12th sequence of four or more consecutive victories under Klopp. Those include 17- and 18-match winning runs.

That is the threat Newcastle must attempt to guard against – along with challenges from Tottenham, Brighton and Hove Albion and the rest of the chasing pack.

As for Arsenal on Wednesday, a draw might well suit Howe's men. The form book suggests that result is likely, too, but an atmosphere akin to that of four years ago will not allow Newcastle to play conservatively.

They have the final next, then a trip to City. Liverpool face Real Madrid on Tuesday and host Manchester United at the start of next month.

A season-defining stretch for both teams might itself be defined first by what happens at St James' Park.

Kevin De Bruyne served up a reminder of his match-winning brilliance as Manchester City usurped Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, so Nottingham Forest will be on high alert.

City go to Forest on Saturday, looking to stay at the summit, and their Belgian playmaker is set to be a key figure once more, and potentially a big points winner when it comes to fantasy leagues.

In an unlikely top-seven battle, Brighton and Hove Albion will look to in-form left-back Pervis Estupinan to contribute at both ends of the pitch against Fulham, while Wolves and Brentford will be hoping for big contributions from Ruben Neves and Ivan Toney as they tackle Bournemouth and Crystal Palace respectively.

Stats Perform, using Opta data, has chosen these four players for your selection consideration ahead of the weekend games.

Pervis Estupinan (Brighton v Fulham)

With three assists in his last three Premier League appearances, including last time out against Palace, Ecuadorian Estupinan is making a huge impact for the Seagulls.

Only three defenders have provided more assists than him in the competition this season, while Estupinan is one of only four such players to create at least 20 chances from open play (21).

Head coach Roberto De Zerbi has welcomed the efforts of the former Villarreal player, saying: "He's very important in build-up, but he's becoming a complete player now."

Kevin De Bruyne (Nottingham Forest v Manchester City)

Dropped to the bench at Tottenham recently, De Bruyne has responded by showing his value to City.

After scoring the opener, De Bruyne assisted for Erling Haaland's clincher in the 3-1 win at Arsenal, meaning the Belgian has been involved in 16 Premier League goals this season (4 goals, 12 assists), bettered by only three players.

Since the start of the 2019-20 season, only Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (14) has both scored and assisted in more games in the competition than De Bruyne (13).

Forest beware: De Bruyne has assisted Haaland six times in the Premier League this season, more than any other player has assisted another.

Ruben Neves (Wolves v Bournemouth)

Wolves midfielder Neves has scored five goals in this Premier League season, equalling his best tally from the 2020-21 campaign.

Four of those five goals have come at Molineux, including in his last such appearance against Liverpool, so he will fancy his prospects of adding to that haul and setting an outright personal best for goals when second-bottom Bournemouth visit.

He is Wolves' joint top scorer in the league, matching Daniel Podence's total, and Neves brings abundant creativity too.

Ivan Toney (Brentford v Crystal Palace)

The visit of Palace should bring the best out of Toney, given he has scored in his last three London derby appearances (against Arsenal, West Ham and Tottenham), helping Brentford to a healthy five points.

Only Haaland (30) and Harry Kane (18) have been involved in more Premier League goals this season than Toney (17 – 14 goals, 3 assists).

Another factor in his favour is that among players with 30-plus shots this term, only Haaland (33.3 per cent) has a better shot conversion rate than him (23.7 per cent).

Page 6 of 105
© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.