NFL fans have been spoiled by the standard of quarterback play in the 21st century.

A golden age led by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers is seemingly running right into another, though one largely dominated by quarterbacks with very different skill sets.

Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson have heralded the start of a fascinating new era. The success of Mahomes, Allen and Co. has in part been a product of their ability to make an impact with their legs as well as through the air.

Still, the ultimate test of a quarterback remains his ability to deliver in situations where the defense knows a pass is coming.

The confluence of the final years of the great pocket quarterbacks and the beginning of potential Hall of Fame careers of several dual-threat superstars can make a discussion about which modern-day signal-callers perform best in these scenarios a difficult one to settle.

However, Stats Perform has developed a metric to rank the top quarterbacks since 2008 in expected passing situations called spread value.

Spread value is calculated using our efficiency versus expected (EVE) metric. For quarterbacks, EVE measures performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations.

The spread value is generated using the EVE baselines for each season since 2008. In essence, spread value is how far a quarterback is above or below the cumulative baseline in that period, with significantly more weight given to recent results.

That weighting has undoubtedly influenced the quarterback at the top of the standings, though his consistently spectacular play has also played a substantial role.

Mahomes Magic

With the historic pace Mahomes has set since entering the NFL, it's no surprise the man leading the charge for 'the new generation' is atop the rankings.

Mahomes has racked up 18,707 passing yards over his first four seasons as a starter, comfortably surpassing the likes of Manning and Rodgers and putting him on track to go down as an all-time great.

His spread value of 6.429 is a product of Mahomes leading the NFL in EVE in three of his four seasons as a starting quarterback, including in a 2021 campaign that saw questions about his and the Kansas City Chiefs' ability to excel against two-high safety defenses.

Mahomes' task going forward will be to maintain his superiority with a receiving corps absent Tyreek Hill following his trade to the Miami Dolphins.

He will not lack for in-conference challengers, with a further six active AFC quarterbacks inside the top 20 for spread value since 2008. Half of those QBs reside inside his own division, encapsulating the arms race that is the AFC West.

Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers is 11th after finishing fourth in EVE last season, Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders is 17th and new Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson 18th. 

The man regarded as Mahomes' chief rival, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, is 12th behind Herbert. His position below Herbert can be attributed to his early struggles after entering the NFL and a 2020 season regarded to this point as his vintage year only being good enough for 13th in EVE.

Allen did improve to eighth in 2021 and, though some may wonder how much better he can get following his stupendous playoff duel with Mahomes, he will look to take the next step and help the Bills finally overhaul the Chiefs.

Yet for all the talk of the AFC being the deeper conference, there are seven active NFC quarterbacks in the top 20, with Rodgers (third), Dak Prescott (fourth), Matthew Stafford (seventh) and Kirk Cousins (eighth) all residing in the top 10.

A 2021 season in which he was 10th in EVE ensured Kyler Murray of 16th in spread value and, despite the disappointing end to the campaign, underscored the Arizona Cardinals' need to sign him to an extension. His NFC West rival Jimmy Garoppolo is three spots higher, above even his former New England Patriots mentor in an indication of the level of efficiency successor Trey Lance will need to at least match for the San Francisco 49ers to succeed in 2022 and beyond.

Breesy Does It

Despite a glorious career in which he compiled a plethora of records, some of which Brady has since broken, Drew Brees perhaps does not receive the same level of acclaim as his contemporaries in the NFL’s 'old guard' of quarterbacks.

But the New Orleans Saints' legend is second behind Mahomes in spread value. Immediately trailing him among that veteran group are Rodgers and Philip Rivers in fifth.

Brees' position is a consequence of him leading the NFL in EVE in expected passing situations for five straight seasons between 2008-12. He regained that spot in 2017 and the final season of his career in 2020 was the only year in which he finished outside the top five.

Those remarkable numbers are a tribute not just to Brees' accuracy – he was first in well-thrown percentage (min. 100 attempts) in 2019 and fourth in 2020 – but also to the longevity of the connection between him and former Saints coach Sean Payton.

But what of the man who ended Brees' career and stunned the NFL world by reversing his decision to conclude his own?

Tom Not Terrific?

Brady's career was over for all of 40 days and it will now continue for as long as the greatest of all time sees fit, even if he appears to have nothing left to prove.

While Brady's legacy is secure, the extra season(s) could help him climb the ladder in spread value, in which he is a – by his standards – lowly 19th.

His standing is impacted by a 2008 campaign in which he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 and his final year with the New England Patriots in 2019, which marked his worst EVE performance in expected passing situations over the 14-season span.

Brady's zenith in that regard came in the spectacular 2016 season in which he led the league in EVE despite playing only 12 games. He subsequently guided the Patriots to Super Bowl glory with a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.

The latest act of his incredible two-plus decades in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has not seen him return to those heights even as he has lifted the Bucs to the league's elite.

He was 12th in EVE in 2020 as he guided the Bucs to Super Bowl glory and 13th in 2021 in what appeared to be his final season in the league.

Brady will want to go out on top of the mountain and the Bucs will hope he is not about to hit the cliff, with two of his greatest rivals having carried on long past their peak.

Quit While You're Ahead

Given the four Super Bowls they share evenly between them and the prominent role they have played in football in this century, it is quite remarkable to see Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning so low in the spread value rankings.

Roethlisberger is 37th while Manning is way down in 67th, spots that belie their first-ballot Hall of Fame resumes.

But it's the weighting towards recent seasons that goes against Roethlisberger and Manning, both bowing out from pro football on the back of dreadful individual campaigns.

No quarterback with at least 300 attempts in expected passing situations had a worse EVE than Manning in 2015, when he was briefly benched for Brock Osweiler. In his defence, the end came extremely quickly for Manning following an MVP season in 2013 and a Pro Bowl campaign in 2014 and he still managed to do enough to go out by winning a Lombardi Trophy with the Broncos.

Roethlisberger's awful 2021 was easier to forecast, his mobility and ability to push the ball downfield already having waned before he posted the worst EVE of his career in his final season.

By contrast, Tony Romo called it a career in 2017, but his last full season as a starter was in 2014 when he was seventh in EVE. The former Dallas Cowboy stands sixth in spread value as a result.

Brady's play and his efficiency numbers from his two seasons with the Buccaneers suggest he is more likely to replicate Romo, who may well be his inspiration when he heads into his post-playing career.

Rory McIlroy has always seemed to possess an older head on young shoulders.

Indeed, when the Northern Irishman burst onto the scene in 2009, his success belied his inexperience.

His first major title came at the 2011 U.S. Open, as he finished eight strokes clear of Jason Day at Congressional Country Club in Maryland. Three more followed in the space of three years; two at the US PGA Championship and one at The Open.

It has been eight years since McIlroy claimed a major honour, but heading to The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, the 33-year-old's form is as strong as it has been since he lifted his second US PGA title in 2014.

And in recent months, McIlroy has been seen as one of the voices of reason amid the emergence of the LIV Golf Invitational, which started in London last week.

Charl Schwartzel won the inaugural event of the Saudi Arabia-backed breakaway competition, which has drawn the likes of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau.

"If it keeps going the way it's going, it's going to fracture the game – sorry, it's going to fracture the game more than it already is," McIlroy, desperate to focus on his own game this week, told Sky Sports on Tuesday.

"The professional world in golf has already been fractured, there's so many different tours, so many different things to follow, and I've always been an advocate of trying to make it more cohesive and try to get people to work together more. This is ripping that apart.

"It's certainly a burden I don't need. But I have pretty strong views on the subject and I don't think it would be right for me to have these strong opinions and not share them."

Perhaps what golf needs more than ever right now is a unifying force that both players and fans can get behind. McIlroy might present just that.

Rory reinvigorated

It has been a brilliant year so far for McIlroy. According to official PGA Tour statistics, he ranks first for scoring average (68.842), top for strokes gained: tee-to-green (1.888) and strokes gained total (2.282), while he also comes in third for driving distance (319.1 metres) and strokes gained off-the-tee (.913) so far this season.

That form has resulted in six top-10 finishes, including his second place at the Masters in April, which came courtesy of a bogey free 64 in the final round, and his victory at the Canadian Open last week.

Defending his Canadian Open crown will have given McIlroy a timely boost heading to Massachusetts, following on from his eighth place at the US PGA Championship last month. He is in fine fettle, but needs to overcome his major hoodoo...

Getting over the line

Four major titles in the space of four years seemed to have paved the way for McIlroy to go on and join the true greats of golf, but it has not quite been that way.

Since winning the U.S. Open in 2011, McIlroy has failed to make the cut on four occasions at this major, though has recorded top-10 finishes in each of the last three editions of the tournament.

His best result at any of the majors since 2014 came at Augusta earlier this year, but as we have seen in other tournaments on the circuit, McIlroy has been known to squander strong positions, and he might even prefer to be in the chasing pack come Sunday.

In January 2021, McIlroy held the 54-hole lead at the Abu Dhabi Championship, but a final-round 72 saw him finish third. He finished five shots back from the winner and it was a similar story at the DP World Tour Championship in December, when he missed the chance to become the first player to win the event for a third time, giving up a last-day lead to finish five behind Collin Morikawa. 

Composure will be key for McIlroy this time around, should he be in contention.

 

A date with fate?

It might just be a coincidence, but fate is a funny old thing, and Sunday will mark 11 years to the day since McIlroy won his first major, when he claimed the U.S. Open so convincingly.

Another iron in McIlroy's fire could be that his win at the Canadian Open moved him onto 21 PGA Tour titles, edging him ahead of LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman. Going on to seal his second U.S. Open triumph, 11 years since he claimed his first, would be a fitting way for McIlroy to prove he is on the right side of this particular divide.

Now, he just has to go out and perform.

There has been a lot of talk about the money Liverpool are investing in Darwin Nunez.

The Uruguay striker arrives at Anfield for a fee that will likely end up surpassing their previous club record of £75million spent on Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in January 2018.

Benfica confirmed on Monday they had agreed to sell Nunez to Liverpool for an initial fee of £64m (€75m), with a further £21.4m (€25m) in add-ons. Liverpool provided their own confirmation on Tuesday.

The Merseyside club will likely be saying goodbye to a key player at the same time, though, with Sadio Mane being strongly linked with a move to Bayern Munich.

So can Nunez emulate what the Senegal star has been able to in his time at Liverpool, or can he even surpass it?

Stats Perform has taken a look at the 22-year-old to see what Liverpool might be getting for their cash.

Is Nunez a Mane replacement?

What appears to stand out above all else is that Nunez is being signed primarily to score goals.

He may not have hit the ground running at Benfica after making a €24m move from Almeria in September 2020, netting just six times in 29 Primeira Liga games (19 starts) in 2020-21, but he more than made up for it this season.

Nunez had an expected goals (xG) rating of 9.98 in his first season according to Opta, suggesting he was not scoring as many as he should, which he almost overcompensated for in 2021-22 by recording 26 goals in 28 league games (24 starts) from 18.4 xG.

By comparison, Mane – who is in the conversation for the 2022 Ballon d'Or – scored 16 goals in 34 Premier League appearances (32 starts) an xG figure remarkably similar to Nunez (18.3). So, while the chances that went their way were of a comparable value over the course of the season, the Uruguayan proved far more clinical.

The relative difference in quality between the top flights in England and Portugal must be taken into account, of course, but in the Champions League the duo also matched up well.

Nunez scored six goals from 10 appearances (six starts) from an xG of just 3.1, while Mane registered five goals from 13 games (11 starts) from an xG of 4.5. Once again, the 22-year-old proved a more dependable finisher of chances than the Senegal star.

Whether Nunez can translate this to English football remains to be seen, but there are other interesting parallels between the two players which indicate they are perhaps not as different as some appear to think.

In their respective leagues last season, Nunez and Mane also offered a similar degree of creativity. The former registered four assists from an expected assists (xA) total of 4.8, while Mane had two from 4.4 xA to his name, suggesting he was let down by poor finishing from his team-mates on occasion.

Both players have proven themselves to be comfortable running with the ball as well, attempting 86 dribbles each over the 2021-22 season, though Mane's success rate of 54.7 per cent was significantly better than Nunez's 45.4.

Of course, the chief difference between the pair is the fact former Southampton attacker Mane has mostly played off the left for Liverpool, whereas Nunez is primarily a centre forward.

That should not be an issue though, given the Reds addressed that side of the pitch only a few months ago by shopping in a familiar market.

Primeira Liga? Completed it, amigo

To the surprise of many, not least Liverpool, they had their hand forced at the end of the January transfer window and signed Luis Diaz from Porto, so it is a league they clearly know well.

Not that they hadn't already intended to buy Diaz, but reports suggested the plan was to do so at the end of the season, only for an unexpected advance from Tottenham to make them bring the transaction forward.

It proved a welcome necessity as Diaz hit the ground running and played a big part in Liverpool almost doing the unthinkable and winning an unprecedented quadruple.

However, with the Colombian taking the role on the left of the attack, Mane was asked to play in an unfamiliar central position for the remainder of the campaign, though broadly to impressive effect.

Nunez will be a slightly more natural fit in that central role, and like Diaz will be hoping the transition from the Primeira Liga to the Premier League is a relatively seamless one.

He already showed in his two performances against Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals this term that he can cut it against English opposition.

In the first leg in Lisbon, Jurgen Klopp's men ran out 3-1 winners, but Nunez scored the Benfica goal and played well enough that Virgil van Dijk recently listed him as one of his toughest ever opponents in an interview with Rio Ferdinand.

He arguably impressed more in the return leg at Anfield, when Van Dijk did not play. Nunez often pulled out to the left and stretched Liverpool's defence, and had it not been for their effective offside trap, could have had a hat-trick.

Nunez put the ball in the Liverpool net three times, but two were ruled out by the assistant referee as Benfica drew 3-3, losing 6-4 on aggregate.

He showed his force of personality in the final 10 minutes though as he also brought a tremendous save out of Alisson, and almost dragged his team back into a contest they had previously been well out of.

Can Liverpool adapt to Nunez?

Two of Liverpool's goals that night were scored by Roberto Firmino, who was excellent under the Anfield floodlights, but who has seen his previously key role in Liverpool's attack diminish in recent years.

It was appreciated that the way the Brazil international played in more of a 'false nine' role allowed Mane and Mohamed Salah to thrive, until the arrival of Diogo Jota in 2020, which signalled a slight move away from that as the former Wolves man increasingly played a role closer to that of a traditional striker in Klopp's system.

It oversimplifies Nunez to suggest he is an out and out number nine in the mould of an Erling Haaland. He drops deep and pulls wide similarly to smaller attackers, like the ones already at Liverpool in fact.

However, at 6ft 2in tall, he could also provide a weapon that will have the eyes of Liverpool full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson lighting up, particularly the former.

No other defender in Europe's top five leagues created anything like Alexander-Arnold's 129 chances this season, with Robertson second on 90, ahead of Fiorentina's Cristiano Biraghi (89).

He also created the most 'big chances' this season (defined by Opta as a chance from which a goal would be expected) with 27, while only Hoffenheim's David Raum (226) and RB Leipzig's Angelino (211) provided more open play crosses than his 191.

On paper, Nunez has everything needed to succeed in the Premier League. Pace, power, skill, shooting accuracy and lovely hair.

The Darwin evolution puns are already wearing thin, for which we take partial responsibility, but it will be best for the player if he ignores all comparisons.

Nunez can simply be his own man.

Even when Jack Grealish charged into the penalty area in the 87th at the Santiago Bernabeu last month and saw his shot cleared off the line by Ferland Mendy, there seemed no way Manchester City wouldn't be in the Champions League final.

They were already 1-0 up in the semi-final second leg, 5-3 up on aggregate. Real Madrid had three minutes plus stoppage time to turn things around – even for a side that produced some memorable comebacks en route to the semi-finals, turning things around looked impossible.

Yet we all know how the tale unfolded in a matter of minutes, with City's Champions League aspirations dissolving for another season.

Over the course of the two legs, City were comfortably the better team and yet to failed to advance through to the final in Paris, where Madrid went on to beat Liverpool 1-0.

City's failure served to highlight a key deficiency in their squad.

Whether that's fair or not is up for debate, because they have since gone on to win a fourth Premier League title in five years, and no one would've questioned the legitimacy of them seeing off Madrid, but when the victor is led by the type of figure the loser is lacking, it's an easy conclusion to jump to.

Karim Benzema may not have been at his unplayable best in last month's second leg, but he won and converted the ultimately decisive penalty, and the effectiveness with which he led the line in the first leg ensured Madrid were still in with a shout upon the return to Spain.

City will now hope they have such a goalscoring talisman in Erling Haaland.

A month after confirming an agreement was in place for Haaland, City announced on Monday that the prolific striker has put pen to paper on a five-year deal that will officially go through on July 1.

City are apparently set to pay £51.3million (€60m) to Borussia Dortmund for his transfer. Even when you consider the apparently significant agents' fees et cetera, it's difficult to see this as anything other than a bargain for City.

The dust may now have settled on City's recent collapse in the Spanish capital, but it's hard not to look at the deal through the prism of Champions League failure because of what will now be expected – rather than hoped for – with a player like Haaland in the team.

When trying to understand what has specifically gone wrong for City in the Champions League since Guardiola was hired, most people seem to have different opinions. Some might point to an apparent lack of on-field leaders, others highlight wastefulness at crucial moments, and of course there are many who have bemoaned Pep's dreaded "overthinking".

The idea of there being a lack of on-field leaders has always seemed wide of the mark, while no one can accuse Guardiola of overcomplicating his selections against Madrid – even if they did try to claim that, City were on course for the final until the 90th minute of the second leg.

Similarly, wastefulness is something most clubs can be accused of at one time or another and, in fact, across all the Champions League ties from which City have been eliminated under Guardiola, they have scored 17 times from 16.99 expected goals (xG). Granted, there were occasions where they didn't score as often as they should have, but over time it evens itself out.

Yet perhaps this is where Haaland can make the difference. Sure, City's xG has evened out over the unsuccessful ties in question, but with a striker as freakishly deadly as the Norwegian, there becomes a greater opportunity to finish chances that maybe you wouldn't generally expect to.

Since his Bundesliga debut on January 18, 2020, Haaland has scored 86 goals in 89 games for Dortmund in all competitions, averaging a goal every 84 minutes.

Only Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski (123 goals in 108 games) boasts a better scoring rate over that period among players from Europe's top five leagues.

Despite struggling with injuries in the 2021-22 season, he still managed 29 goals in 30 games for BVB, including a strike in his final game. Twenty-one of those goals were scored via his favoured left foot, three came via his right and the other five were headers.

One thing you cannot accuse City of is being ineffective when it comes to controlling football matches and creating chances – they wouldn't have enjoyed the success they have in the Premier League, under intense pressure from an incredible Liverpool side, if not.

But in knockout ties when there is such a limited amount of time to respond to setbacks or make amends for certain mistakes, whether that's defensive or in front of goal, the value of the greatest strikers can shine through even more: Benzema showed that against City.

While there are likely to be stylistic compatibility questions to be asked regarding City and Haaland, particularly given the Premier League champions haven't really played with an out-and-out striker for a couple of years now, they suddenly have arguably the finest finisher of his generation in their arsenal.

If Haaland isn't the final piece of the puzzle in City's quest for a maiden Champions League crown, Guardiola might as well give up.

In an ordinary World Cup year, we would either already be engrossed in the group stages or be a matter of days away from the big kick-off.

But this is no ordinary World Cup year. We still have two of the 32 places to be confirmed for Qatar 2022, which is due to begin in November.

Tuesday's intercontinental play-off between Costa Rica and New Zealand will complete line-up, with their contest falling exactly four years to the day since Russia thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup.

Before that meeting, however, New Zealand's neighbours Australia face Peru in the penultimate play-off on Monday.

Both matches will give the victorious teams a vital taste of what it's like to play in Qatar, with the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium playing host to both winner-takes-all encounters.

Peruvian shamans are expectant

It will be a long day for any Australia fans hoping to catch the game before work – kick-off will be at 4am AEST.

Those who do brave the early start will surely be doing so out of loyalty and hope, rather than expectation.

The Socceroos' route through the Asian qualification phase was unconvincing to say the least. They scraped third place in the third round, finishing just a point ahead of Oman and seven adrift of Japan.

Australia met the United Arab Emirates in the fourth-round play-off and edged the game 2-1 to find themselves in the familiar locale of an intercontinental play-off.

This was how they reached Russia 2018, beating Honduras over two legs, with their 3-1 win at home in the second leg proving decisive after a 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula.

Monday's game will be only the second time Australia have ever played Peru. Coincidentally, that other instance was in Russia four years ago – Los Incas won 2-0 to claim a first World Cup win since 1978, although the result mattered not as it was the final group game and neither side could reach the knockouts.

Whichever team prevails this time will be in a familiar-looking group. France and Denmark, the other two teams in Group C four years ago, await in Group D alongside Tunisia.

A group of 13 Peruvian shamans believe it will be Peru, with a spiritual ceremony – which involved poking a picture of the Australia team with a sword – conducted on Saturday, apparently reaching the conclusion the Socceroos will be unsuccessful.

If it is Peru who make it, it will be just the second time they have ever qualified for successive World Cups, a remarkable achievement in itself given the country's domestic league is regarded as one of if not the weakest in South America at the moment: none of their four representatives in the Copa Libertadores this year claimed a single victory.

And yet Ricardo Gareca ensured his team finished ahead of Colombia and Chile in qualifying. The much-vaunted Ecuador only registered two points more than Peru.

Los Ticos back from the back

New Zealand fans will have a similar conundrum to their Aussie counterparts. Do they get up excruciatingly early to endure their nail-biting contest with Costa Rica, or do they just try to sleep through it and get the result a few hours later?

Either way, it's fair to expect a few more Costa Rican eyes to be on the game. The country's president Rodrigo Chaves has authorised an extra hour's lunch on Tuesday for public servants and private sector workers to allow fans to tune in.

The fact Costa Rica even made it this far is commendable given the difficult start they had to the third round of CONCACAF qualifying.

After one win from their first seven matches, a 90th-minute winner by Gerson Torres in a 2-1 defeat of Honduras last November proved to be the turning point.

Including that game, Costa Rica won six of their final seven qualifiers. The only game they didn't win was a 0-0 draw away to Mexico – in the end, Los Ticos only finished behind the third-placed United States on goal difference.

Success on Tuesday will see Costa Rica reach three consecutive World Cups for the first time, and in all likelihood they will make that four in 2026 given hosts Canada, Mexico and USA will qualify automatically.

New Zealand's preparations certainly don't go back as far as Costa Rica's, given the Oceania qualification section was only able to begin in March.

The All Whites cruised through, as they usually do, racking up 5-0 and 7-1 wins along the way, but Costa Rica will provide much sterner opposition.

Danny Hay's men have since played warm-up games against Peru and Oman, losing 1-0 to the former and drawing 0-0 with the latter.

It was Peru who prevented New Zealand reaching Russia 2018.

While they will once again be considered underdogs, there's arguably greater reason for optimism this time around now they are not facing a CONMEBOL nation and have just one match to play, rather than a two-legged affair.

In that sense, this is almost certainly the biggest match New Zealand have played since beating Bahrain 1-0 over two legs in November 2009 to qualify for South Africa 2010.

On that occasion they ended the World Cup as the only undefeated side after drawing all three of their group games.

A rather trickier group awaits this time with Spain, Germany and Japan already in place, but New Zealand won't care in the slightest if they just get the chance to cause an upset.

Real Madrid enjoyed a brilliant season, winning LaLiga comfortably before also being crown champions of Europe by beating Liverpool in Paris.

That 1-0 win at the Stade de France capped a remarkable run in the Champions League, with Los Blancos having instigated great escapes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.

It's difficult to recall any team enduring a tougher run to Champions League success, and yet Carlo Ancelotti – who was seen as a steady if slightly underwhelming appointment – managed to mastermind arguably his greatest triumph as a coach.

There's no sign of Madrid standing still, either. While the Spanish giants may have missed out on Kylian Mbappe, the fact they were in the hunt for him is evidence enough they are in a strong financial situation, perhaps unsurprising given their generally modest – by Santiago Bernabeu standards – outlay in the transfer market over the past couple of years.

Antonio Rudiger was signed up for next season nice and early, Aurelien Tchouameni's reported €100million signing was confirmed on Saturday, and the departures of Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Isco will give Madrid plenty of room for manoeuvre when it comes to wages.

Either way, there's nothing to suggest the LaLiga champions aren't going to be stronger in the 2022-23 campaign, meaning the chasing pack – namely Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla – have work to do, given how far behind they finished this term. 

Out with the old, in with the Nou

After a rocky start to 2021-22 that ultimately led to Ronald Koeman's dismissal, Xavi got Barca back on track and eventually secured second place, which was impressive given the top four looked beyond them for a while.

Nevertheless, their form did tail off a little in the final five or six weeks of the season, losing four of the final nine matches across all competitions.

Barca's season in general vindicated the decision to ditch Koeman for the inexperienced but well-regarded Xavi. It also proved the potential in the Blaugrana squad, as well as a degree of mental weakness at the business end.

 

Of course, it would be much easier for the club to build on the positives of this season were they not in a financial quagmire equivalent to over €1billion in debt.

As such, reports suggest Barca will largely be relying on free transfers, two of which are said to have been concluded already. Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen have apparently agreed to join, while Cesar Azpilicueta may follow the latter from Chelsea.

But the big question mark hangs over Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich talisman has made no secret of his desire to leave the Bundesliga, and Camp Nou is where he sees himself next – but Die Roten are playing hardball, and who can blame them?

A whole raft of players are expected to depart Barca, however, with Ousmane Dembele seemingly destined for Chelsea and the likes of Clement Lenglet, Antoine Griezmann, Samuel Umtiti, Oscar Mingueza, Riqui Puig, Martin Braithwaite and Sergi Roberto all expected to leave permanently. On top of that, Adama Traore and Luuk de Jong are highly unlikely to have their loans renewed, while Frenkie de Jong appears the most likely to deposit some serious money in the coffers, given Manchester United's interest.

But such upheaval will be difficult to contend with. Even if Lewandowski signs, it'll take something spectacular for Barca to be champions this time next year.

Finally Joao Felix's time to shine?

Diego Simeone's side were dethroned with little more than a whimper. Their title defence looked over before it ever really got started.

It was a disappointing season given many felt Atletico's squad was strengthened significantly last year. Griezmann, Matheus Cunha and Rodrigo de Paul provided extra spark, creativity and goal threat, though arguably none of them quite reached expectations, even if the Brazi forward did prove a dependable option off the bench.

The departure of Luis Suarez means a new striker is likely to arrive, and early indications are Alvaro Morata may be returning – granted, that may not be enough to get Atletico fans excited.

Either way, fans and neutrals alike will once again be hoping Simeone can finally find a way to get the best out of his more creative players.

 

Joao Felix is still yet to shine on a consistent basis, with 2021-22 a tricky campaign in which injuries, illness and suspension contributed to him making only 24 league appearances; just 13 of those were as a starter.

His 12 goal involvements came at roughly one every 100 minutes, which is a decent return, but there is clearly an element of Simeone not completely trusting him yet, otherwise he'd surely have started more frequently.

The exit of Suarez might allow for Joao Felix to take on a little more responsibility in attack, and who's to say that won't be the making of him?

No one doubts the talent's there; he just needs to show he can be Atletico's talisman on a regular basis. If he can, Atletico may again be the most likely to stop Los Blancos.

A Sevilla summer of upheaval

Sevilla fans are accustomed to seeing most of their squad replaced over the course of a transfer window – it's just what Monchi does.

While their rebuild may not be quite as extensive this year as in past windows, expect to see plenty of ins and outs; in fact, there's already been one key departure.

Diego Carlos has joined Aston Villa in a move that begins the dismantling of Julen Lopetegui's bedrock of a defence. In 2021-22, no team in LaLiga conceded fewer than Sevilla (30 goals), while only Manchester City (57) and Madrid (52) kept more clean sheets than Julen Lopetegui's side (51) across the top five leagues during the Brazilian's time at the club.

His centre-back partner Jules Kounde is widely expected to leave as well, with long-term admirers Chelsea once again able to flex their financial muscle now they're no longer sanctioned.

But while Sevilla boasted the best defence in LaLiga, it's easy to forget that for a while they looked to be the only team capable of challenging Madrid for the title.

 

In the end, they scraped fourth place, with their form between February 1 and the season's conclusion seeing them rank seventh with 24 points; Barca led the way with 38 in that period, while Madrid took 36.

Sevilla's biggest issue was scoring goals. Only Rafa Mir (10) reached double figures in LaLiga, with Lucas Ocampos (six) the one other to net more than five.

That – and centre-back – would appear to be where Monchi's focus will lie over the coming months, particularly now it seems Lopetegui will be staying.

But Monchi's got his work cut out keeping the team as competitive given the likely upheaval and small gap between themselves and bitter rivals Real Betis in fifth. 

A title challenge like that of 2020-21 would be an impressive feat, but if Sevilla can limit the break-up of their defence and sign a reliable striker, it would become more realistic.

The 2021-22 season may still be ongoing at international level, but Premier League and Ligue 1 clubs can officially register new signings for the next campaign following the opening of the transfer window on Friday.

Teams in LaLiga, Serie A and the Bundesliga must wait until July 1 for their business to go through – though that is not to say preparations are not already in full swing behind the scenes.

Indeed, a number of big deals are already in place and waiting to get the seal of approval, with Antonio Rudiger heading to Real Madrid and Karim Adeyemi brought in by Borussia Dortmund to replace Manchester City-bound Erling Haaland, while others – Darwin Nunez to Liverpool and Aurelien Tchouameni to Madrid – appear to be all-but complete.

One transfer saga came to an end before the window even officially opened, meanwhile, with Kylian Mbappe confirming that he is staying put at Paris Saint-Germain, despite strong interest from Madrid.

For others, there are weeks of uncertainty ahead. Having already picked out the big-name free agents up for grabs this window, Stats Perform looks at the transfer sagas that are likely to rumble on for a little while longer yet.


Player: Robert Lewandowski
Current club: Bayern Munich
Rumoured suitors: Barcelona, Real Madrid

While the futures of Mbappe and Haaland have already been resolved, arguably the world's best striker in Lewandowski is seeking pastures new after recently declaring that his time at Bayern "has come to an end" – even if the German champions do not quite see it that way.

The Poland international still has 12 months to run on his contract and Bayern are understandably reluctant to sell, even if that means forgoing a transfer fee in a year's time, making things particularly difficult for Barcelona, who are the rumoured frontrunners for his signature.

He was once again the hottest striker across Europe's top five leagues in 2021-22 when taking all competitions into account, the 33-year-old scoring 50 goals in 46 games for Bayern in what was his second-best goalscoring campaign across eight years in Bavaria, behind only the 55 netted in 2019-20.

 

Player: Sadio Mane
Current club: Liverpool
Rumoured suitors: Real Madrid

Whether it is to replace wantaway Lewandowski or to play alongside the prolific striker, Bayern are seemingly intent on bringing Liverpool and Senegal forward Mane to the Allianz Arena.

Bayern are reported to have had a second bid of €35.3million (£30m) turned down by Liverpool earlier this week, with the ball very much in the Reds' court – just like it is with the Bavarians and Lewandowski.

Mane would be a huge loss to Liverpool, having scored 90 goals in 196 Premier League appearances since joining at the start of 2016-17 – only Jamie Vardy (104), team-mate Mohamed Salah (118) and Harry Kane (134) have more – explaining their desire to snap up Nunez from Benfica.

 

Player: Gabriel Jesus
Current club: Manchester City
Rumoured suitors: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Real Madrid

Manchester City striker Jesus may just about be the most in-demand player up for grabs this window, with his agent confirming as many as seven clubs are interested in signing the Brazil international.

Arsenal are the only known team to be in discussions with Jesus' camp, though they are expected to face interest from the likes of rivals Tottenham and Chelsea, as well as reigning European and Spanish champions Madrid.

The stats reflect exactly why Jesus is so highly regarded – albeit not by City following the arrival of Haaland – as he has scored or assisted in 57 per cent of matches he has started in the Premier League, a figure bettered only by Salah (62 per cent), Thierry Henry (61 per cent) and City legend Sergio Aguero (60 per cent) among those to have started at least 10 games.

 

Player: Frenkie de Jong
Current club: Barcelona
Rumoured suitors: Manchester United

De Jong has not quite been able to match expectations at Barcelona since arriving from Ajax in a big-money deal two years ago, which the midfielder has regularly put down to being used out of position in central midfield.

The arrival of the Netherlands international's former Ajax boss Erik ten Hag at United has only intensified speculation that he could be on his way out of Camp Nou, with Barca themselves needing to offload players if they are to seriously strengthen elsewhere.

De Jong will leave a void to be filled if he does move on, though, as Sergio Busquets (51) was the only Barca outfielder to feature in more games in the 2021-22 campaign than the 25-year-old (47 apps).

 

Player: Christopher Nkunku
Current club: RB Leipzig
Rumoured suitors: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid

Nkunku well and truly burst onto the scene in the 2021-22 campaign with a combined 51 goals and assists in 52 games for Leipzig across all competitions, meaning he near enough directly contributed to a goal per game.

Only Europe's absolute elite players, Lewandowski (56 goal involvements), Benzema (59) and Mbappe (60), outperformed Nkunku in that regard, making links with Europe's top clubs unsurprising.

Still aged only 24, the four-cap France international may well be a Ballon d'Or winner in waiting if his trajectory over the past couple of seasons is anything to go by. But with two years to run on his Leipzig contract, it will take a huge sum for the Bundesliga side to even consider cashing in. 

 

Manchester United have become somewhat accustomed to disappointment over the past nine years, but the 2021-22 season arguably saw them plumb new depths.

United accumulated just 58 points, their worst record in a single Premier League campaign.

But on top of that, champions Manchester City's haul of 93 points meant United finished the season 35 points adrift of the summit – that is comfortably the furthest off the top the Red Devils have ended a term in the Premier League era.

It was also the first time since 1989-90 that United failed to finish a league season with a positive goal difference, as they scored and conceded 57 goals.

Interim manager Ralf Rangnick said during his tenure that the squad needed the equivalent of open-heart surgery, suggesting they needed potentially 10 new players.

There are arguably four players who head into the pre-season under new manager Erik ten Hag having not done themselves a disservice this season, though even they will still have points to prove.
 

Fred

The United career of Fred has been a peculiar one. It's fair to say even his most-ardent backers would admit he's not exactly been worth the monumental reported transfer fee of £52million.

But in his defence, a lot of his time at United has been spent playing out of position. At no point since he joined have the club had a world-class defensive midfielder, meaning he's very often been shoe-horned into that role.

And it rarely takes long for his glaring inadequacies in such a position to come to the surface. First and foremost, his awareness of what's around him is poor, and that's arguably the nightmare situation for someone playing a role in which you expect to receive the ball under pressure just outside your box.

The 2021-22 season still had a bit of that for Fred, but crucially there were more signs of him operating more functionally as a 'number eight', rather than a six, and while few would consider him to be an outstanding passer, it's in this role where his excellent work rate and generally solid technique become much more of an asset to the team.

Among United players to feature for at least 500 minutes across all competitions this season, only Diogo Dalot (2.9) attempted more tackles than Fred (2.7) on a per-90-minute basis, while just three players engaged in more duels than the Brazilian (11.7). He also ranked behind only three for passes into the final third (7.5).

Now, perhaps perception plays a part in what many would consider a decent season for Fred, meaning his low performance level in the past suggests his improvement is exaggerated. But as long as he's not playing as a six again, expect Ten Hag to find a use for him.
 

David de Gea

Few would disagree with the suggestion De Gea's level dipped significantly a few years ago, but there were some positive signs in the 2021-22 season, almost as if he had reacted to the scare of seeing Dean Henderson get some game time in 2020-21.

In fact, his 2.8 goals prevented was the second-best score in the Premier League, highlighting how good his shot-stopping was.

Over the course of the campaign, only Illan Meslier (143) and Kasper Schmeichel (131) managed more saves than De Gea (128). This obviously proves just how unreliable the defence in front of him was, because no team of their stature should have such a busy goalkeeper.

For example, Ederson faced just 60 shots, which was the fewest of any goalkeeper to play over 1,600 minutes.

But despite De Gea generally enjoying a positive season when it comes to bailing United out, there remain plenty of fans and critics who feel the club could still do better than him.

Under Ten Hag, it would seem likely there will be a greater reliance on keeping possession, and this could be where other options are considered.

While De Gea's own-half passing accuracy of 88.2 per cent doesn't sound alarming, there were 12 goalkeepers (minimum 500 minutes) with better records, while the 96 and 95 per cent posted by Ederson and Alisson, respectively, show a significant gulf.

Similarly, in the same group of goalkeepers, De Gea ranked 18th (out of 26) for long-pass accuracy (33.1 per cent). The gap to Ederson (59.3 per cent) and Alisson (48.1 per cent) is even more pronounced.

Of course, a goalkeeper's primary function is to prevent goals, but if yours is completely out of sync with the team's style, then that's automatically an area where you're not maximising potential.
 

Cristiano Ronaldo

When Ronaldo's return was confirmed last year, there was an awful lot of noise around whether he was right for United.

People claimed that, despite his goals, Ronaldo made Juventus a less functional team because he didn't offer enough outside the penalty area.

Those suggestions never quite went away at United either because, regardless of how effective he proved to be in the box, the team in general played below expectations for practically the entire season.

It's impossible to say whether a different striker with a broader arsenal would have turned United into a better team, but given how deep their issues run, it seems a little unfair to pin the blame on Ronaldo.

After all, goals win football matches – he certainly did his bit. Across all competitions, he scored 24 goals at a rate of one every 132.9 minutes. Only Jamie Vardy (131.6 mins), Mohamed Salah (129.5 mins) and Riyad Mahrez (122.1 mins) netted with greater frequency among Premier League players (min. 50 shots).

Similarly, only Salah (31) and Harry Kane (27) scored more than Ronaldo, though each of them had at least an extra 800 minutes on the pitch than him.

Ronaldo's 24 makes him one of only six players to net at least 20 goals in a single season for United since Alex Ferguson retired, with Bruno Fernandes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (both 28) plundering the most in that span.

Surely Ten Hag won't discard him?
 

Anthony Elanga

There was an expectation Elanga was going to play a reasonable amount of football this season, such had been his progress in the United youth sides.

But he didn't feature in a single Premier League game until Ralf Rangnick's first match in charge at the start of December. Before then, he'd had one brief cameo in the EFL Cup before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer promptly forgot about him again.

As it happened, Elanga proved to be a bit of a Rangnick favourite. Even though a lot of his appearances were from the bench, no outfield player featured in more games for the interim manager than the speedy forward.

Rangnick clearly liked Elanga's pace, attitude and work rate, and he did chip in with three goals. Granted, that was hardly an outstanding number, but over the same period only Ronaldo (12) and Fernandes (five) managed more.

His nine chances created was a pretty poor return, but again, only Ronaldo (84) and Fernandes (67) attempted more shots than the Sweden international (27), so he was offering something in attack.

There's undoubtedly a lot of room for improvement there, and he'll need to sharpen up from a creative sense if he's to have a long-term future at the club, but he's clearly in a stronger position than 12 months ago.

The seemingly never-ending 2021-22 season may be ongoing, with a number of big international fixtures still to be played this month, but plenty of focus is already on the next campaign.

This month's conclusion will mark the end of an era for many players as their contracts come to an end – though for some it will provide a much-needed opportunity to begin a new chapter elsewhere.

For others, becoming a free agent simply provides more bargaining power when negotiating fresh terms with their current employers, at a time when most clubs cannot spend as frivolously on new players as they once could.

While some big-name freebies have already moved clubs, and others are reported to have signed pre-contract agreements elsewhere – such as Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen at Barcelona – others remain on the market.

Here, Stats Perform picks out some of those who are on the lookout for a new club.


Player: Paul Pogba
Current club: Manchester United
Rumoured suitors: Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain

United last week announced the departures of six players, with Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard and Pogba among them. While the first three of those will undoubtedly be of interest to teams across the continent, Pogba is arguably the most in-demand free agent around.

Juventus reportedly lead the way for the France international, who won eight trophies in four seasons with the Serie A giants prior to rejoining United in 2016. Whichever side of the divide you stand – that Pogba has too often been used out of position or is just simply not good enough – there is no denying his second spell at Old Trafford has not gone to plan.

Still, with 67 goals and assists in the Premier League since the start of 2016-17, United are waving goodbye to a player who has been involved in 17.5 per cent of their goals across that period – only Marcus Rashford (21.9 per cent) has directly contributed to more.

 

Player: Gareth Bale
Current club: Real Madrid
Rumoured suitors: Cardiff City, Getafe, MLS clubs

As the winner of 16 trophies across nine seasons at Madrid – one of those spent on loan at Tottenham – and still aged just 32, you would imagine Bale would have the pick of the world's top clubs to choose from in the upcoming transfer window.

But that is not quite the case, with hometown club Cardiff City and Madrid-based Getafe now considered the two favourites to land the Wales international. That does come with a caveat of sorts, though, as Bale's main focus is on entering November's World Cup with Wales in peak fitness, rather than adding to his trophy collection.

The forward has had a number of injury setbacks in recent years but, wherever he plies his trade next season, he will want to play more football than he did in 2021-22 when available. He featured in just seven of Madrid's 56 matches, totalling 290 minutes on the field, and started only four of those – seven per cent of all minutes Madrid played.

 

Player: Ousmane Dembele
Current club: Barcelona
Rumoured suitors: Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool

Barcelona were eager to get Dembele off their books in January, so much so that director of football Mateu Alemany publicly told the France international to find a new club "immediately". Five months on, after a strong second half to the 2021-22 season, Barca would like nothing more than to retain Dembele's services.

The former Borussia Dortmund attacker assisted 11 LaLiga goals between the start of 2022 and the end of the season, a tally that no other player across Europe's top five leagues could match, with Lionel Messi next best on 10 with PSG in Ligue 1.

Re-signing Messi has been touted, but that seems fanciful a year on from his emotional exit, so Barca may well focus on tying Dembele down to a new deal before PSG – who also have another ex-Barcelona favourite in Neymar on their books – add to a star-studded frontline.

 

Player: Paulo Dybala
Current club: Juventus
Rumoured suitors: Arsenal, Tottenham, Barcelona

Juventus are coming off the back of their first trophyless season in a decade, and with it comes the end of an era in many ways as Giorgio Chiellini is departing after 18 years in Turin, while Federico Bernardeschi is also on his way out and seemingly set for Napoli.

However, the name on everyone's lips right now is Dybala's, even if the Argentina international has not fully lived up to the admittedly huge hype following his arrival at Juve from Palermo in a €40million transfer seven years ago.

Dybala can still be pleased enough with his goalscoring return at the Allianz Stadium, having netted 115 goals in 293 appearances in all competitions, making him the club's third-highest foreign goalscorer of all time behind David Trezeguet (171) and John Hansen (124).

 

Player: Angel Di Maria 
Current club: Paris Saint-Germain
Rumoured suitors: Juventus, Barcelona

Di Maria signed off from PSG in the near-perfect manner with a goal and an assist in his final game for the club against Metz last month, though his importance clearly diminished following the arrival of Messi as he started just 19 Ligue 1 games last term, down from 23 in the two previous campaigns.

That performance against Metz, albeit in a dead-rubber, highlighted Di Maria's quality when used and it is perhaps little surprise that some big-name clubs are interested. A move to Juventus seemed a certainty not so long ago, but Barcelona are supposedly now the frontrunners for the 34-year-old.

Di Maria is not the only South American attacker available to sign on a free next month, either, as the aforementioned Cavani and Uruguay international team-mate Luis Suarez are also on the lookout for a new club following their exits from United and Atletico Madrid respectively.

All-time greats often aren't truly appreciated until after they have called time on their career. 

Following speculation he could hang up the cleats in the wake of the Los Angeles Rams' Super Bowl LVI triumph, Aaron Donald has ensured the NFL world will have more time to marvel at his remarkable talents.

It was revealed on Monday that the Rams had restructured Donald's contract to guarantee him $95m over the next three seasons. 

No years were added to Donald's deal, but the added guaranteed money will make the seven-time All-Pro defensive tackle the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history.

Eye-watering money, but the Rams won't have felt the need to look even twice at a contract that arguably represents the NFL's most expensive bargain.
 

Donald's outsized impact

Simply put, no non-quarterback has done more to impact the game than Donald since he entered the league.

Drafted 13th overall in 2014, Donald has amassed 98 sacks in his pro career, the most of any player in that time, with Chandler Jones his nearest challenger on 90.

Looking at tackles for loss, none of his contemporaries come close to matching Donald's production. He has racked up 150 tackles behind the line of scrimmage since 2014, 36 more than the second-placed player on that list, Cameron Jordan.

It is a similarly absurd gap between Donald and Jordan in terms of overall quarterback pressures.

Donald has racked up an astonishing 735 pressures since entering the NFL. Jordan (544) is the only other defender even above 500.

The title of most disruptive defender in the league is one Donald has monopolised, and he has done so despite the substantial energy opposing offenses have put into slowing him down.
 

Dominating double teams

Last season, no pass rusher was the subject of more double teams than Donald, who earned the attention of two pass protectors 182 times. 

Next on the list was DeForest Buckner (164) and the margin would likely have been greater if not for Donald's versatility, which allowed him to play 11 per cent of his snaps on the edge where double teams are less prevalent. Buckner played only 3.21 per cent of his snaps on the edge.

Despite the rate at which he was doubled, Donald still recorded a stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of 63.83 per cent. Only one other pass rusher with at least 100 one on one pass-rush snaps, Myles Garrett (53.56), posted a win rate above 50 per cent.

Doubled 95 times as a run defender, no player (min. 100 one on one run defense snaps) had a better double-team adjusted run disruption rate than Donald's 58.29 per cent. Lowering the threshold to 50 one on ones, Donald was still fourth in 2021.

The numbers don't always tell the entire story, but in Donald's unique case they are enough to encapsulate his value. He is a true unicorn who can impact the game at any point regardless of situation.

"It's not great news; it's phenomenal, outstanding, any nice adjective that you can place around it," Rams head coach Sean McVay told SiriusXM of Donald's restructure.

"It's a big deal, and he's earned it. And he truly is one of one, in my opinion. This means so much to me, to our organisation."

And Donald saved his best for the moments that meant most to the Rams last season.
 

Shining on the brightest stage

From the Wild Card Round rout of the Arizona Cardinals through to the nerve-jangling win over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals, there was a clear theme that defined the Rams' surge to the Lombardi Trophy, one of their defensive front overwhelming opponents to tilt matters in Los Angeles' favour.

It was Donald who unsurprisingly led the charge, ably supported by Von Miller, whom the Rams will face when they raise their Super Bowl banner against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 of the 2022 season, and Leonard Floyd.

Donald ended the postseason with 29 pressures while Miller recorded 27 and Floyd 22.

The depth of pass-rushing talent at the Rams' disposal prevented Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Bengals star signal-caller Joe Burrow from knocking off the Rams in contests that went down to the wire.

It was fitting that the final say went to Donald, who ended the Bengals' hopes of sending the Super Bowl to overtime with a game-tying field goal by knifing past left guard Quinton Spain with his devastating hand speed and using his flexibility to flatten his angle to Burrow, flinging him to the turf as the quarterback's hurried desperation fourth-down heave fell incomplete.

A jubilant Donald pointed to his ring finger in celebration. He now has that Super Bowl ring secured, along with a contract that properly reflects his importance to the reigning champions.

Donald isn't the straw that stirs the drink for the Rams, he is the chief ingredient in a cocktail of premium talent that has propelled the Rams to the NFL mountain top.

Sure, the trade for Matthew Stafford provided the critical final seasoning for Los Angeles, but the mix doesn't work without Donald's ability to blow up the best-laid plans of their opponents.

Those foes had hoped talk of Donald's retirement would remove the headache of game-planning to try to stop him.

However, the Rams have put such hopes to bed and made sure offensive coordinators across the league will have sleepless nights for a few more years when preparing to face an all-time great who will continue to provide value for money for Los Angeles even at his new exorbitant price tag. 

Never meet your heroes. Casper Ruud was setting himself up for a fall when he described Rafael Nadal as "my idol for all my life" heading into Sunday's French Open final, and when that fall arrived it was spectacular.

Ruud versus Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier was a classic mismatch on paper, and on clay.

The fanboy stood no chance, swept away 6-3 6-3 6-0 as Nadal landed Roland Garros title number 14, an absurd feat of sporting staying power, becoming the oldest men's singles champion at the Paris grand slam, moving to 22 majors, two clear of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

If Ruud needs a little consolation, the great Federer, at the peak of his powers, only took four games off Nadal in the 2008 final.

This is not the 2008 Nadal though. This is Nadal at 36 years and two days old, a player who needed a doctor at his side during the past fortnight to allow him to step on court.

Nadal has a foot problem that is said to be incurable, but thankfully it is treatable.

"We played with no feeling on the foot," Nadal told Eurosport. "We played with an injection on the nerve so that the foot was asleep, so that's why I was able to play."

While the foot was sleeping, the rest of Nadal's body was picking up the slack.

Ruud was six years old in 2005 when Nadal won his first French Open, and 17 years later he had the best view in Court Philippe-Chatrier of the Spaniard again in full flow.

This was his first match against Nadal, although they have often practiced together at the Spaniard's academy in Mallorca, where Ruud has done much of his learning. Here was another lesson.

Nadal loves a mid-afternoon match with the roof open, and a warm day in the French capital only enhanced his sense that the place was feeling like home.

He was on top without being masterful in the opening set, simply doing enough against the first Norwegian man to reach a slam final.

Trumpets blared Y Viva Espana when he wrapped that one up, then delivered a fanfare as Nadal strolled back onto court for the start of the second set.

He receives the first-class treatment in Paris, with the king of Spain, Felipe VI, on hand to witness the king of clay scale his latest career height.

There was perhaps brief concern for his royal highness when Ruud broke Nadal's serve early in the second set to eke out a 3-1 lead, but he needn't have worried.

Ruud won a 19-shot rally to earn three break points, and that was followed by a double fault from the favourite.

Nadal later called that game "a disaster", but he should probably let it go.

Armed with a 3-1 lead in that second set, it was imperative that Ruud should build on that.

He didn't win another game.

When Nadal swatted away a forehand to bring up a break point in the second game of the third set, he had Ruud right where he wanted him, and a vicious backhand out of the Norwegian's reach secured a seventh successive game.

Number eight followed, and then a ninth as the clean winners flowed from Nadal's racket. The winners and the games kept coming.

The contest had moved into mercy-killing territory. Make it quick Rafa, as painless as possible, don't drag it out.

When he fizzed a backhand down the line on match point, way out of Ruud's reach, it was all over. Two hours and 18 minutes was all it took. With a little less of his familiar between-points faffing, Nadal might have had it done inside two hours.

He lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires with the gusto of a man who had never held it before, and that in itself spoke volumes for this achievement.

Nadal's Roland Garros record now shows 112 wins and just three defeats, and this was a 63rd title on clay – a 92nd title overall. What a career.

Andres Gimeno, also from Spain, was 34 years, 10 months and one day old when he captured the 1972 French Open title, and until Sunday he was the oldest men's champion at this event.

Nadal spoke afterwards of his determination to keep playing, keep "fighting". He wants to wring every last ounce of strength from a body that is letting him know that retirement cannot be far away, and he is getting incredible bang for his buck just now.

Which is why we can now look at Wimbledon, and pose the question: can he do this again on grass?

And if at this point you are thinking, 'surely not', just remember what he has achieved in Melbourne and now in Paris this year, and ask yourself instead: why ever not?

After months of claim, counter-claim and controversy, the LIV Golf Invitational Series turns its focus to actual golf on Thursday.

The first event of a series previously known as the 'Super Golf League' gets under way at the Centurion Club, near London, next week.

A lucrative breakaway from the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, there will be plenty of interest in how LIV Golf fares – even if it is a largely unpopular venture.

Regardless of its wider reputation, though, the money of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) has still attracted some of the sport's best players.

So, what is the deal with LIV Golf? How does it work? Who will be playing? And why has it caused such uproar?

Stats Perform attempts to answer the myriad questions around this contentious competition.

What is LIV Golf?

A Saudi-backed rival to the PGA Tour has been rumoured for years, taking on various names before finally launching as the LIV Golf Invitational Series.

Greg Norman, a two-time Open champion and LIV Golf's CEO, has described this as the arrival of "free agency" in golf, with leading players skipping PGA Tour events to play in the new series.

That is exactly what the PGA Tour sought to avoid when it vowed to ban any players who joined a rival league, although that promise has not yet come to pass.

"Our mission is to modernise and supercharge the game of professional golf through expanded opportunities for both players and fans alike," reads LIV Golf's website, adding its aim to provide "a cutting-edge entertainment product".

That does not only mean a new series and new events, but also a new format...

How does it work?

Gone is the long-established structure of 72 holes across four days with the field cut after two rounds.

Regular season LIV Golf events will last only 54 holes and three days, with no cuts, meaning – organisers point out – there is no danger of eye-catching names being absent for the end of the tournament.

There are also shotgun starts, "ensuring a faster and more exciting pace of play", and smaller fields with only 48 players.

This may all be unfamiliar, but it is at least straightforward. The other changes are a little more complex.

Players will be pursuing individual glory, as at any other golf tournament, but there are also team prizes on offer, with each field broken up into 12 four-man teams.

At every event, there will be an individual winner – the traditional victor with the lowest 54-hole score – and a triumphant team, whose score will be calculated using their best two scores over the first two rounds and their best three from the third.

The first seven events of the season – four in the United States and one each in England, Thailand and Saudi Arabia – will provide a seasonal individual champion, while the year's most successful team are then identified at a further match-play knock-out tournament.

Who's playing?

With a number of big names publicly opposing the breakaway, Rory McIlroy referred to the then Super Golf League as the "not-so-Super League" back in February.

But LIV Golf claims to have received 170 applications and has been able to recruit some superstar talent – namely Dustin Johnson, whose agent said it was "in his and his family's best interest to pursue it".

"Dustin has never had an issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it has given him," David Winkle added. "But in the end, [he] felt this was too compelling to pass up."

It remains to be seen how regularly Johnson will appear in the series, given the field is set to change for every event. He is on board for the London opener, though, alongside Sergio Garcia.

With the four-man teams – who will have their own logos, colours and names – to be tweaked at each tournament, captains will draft players to join them. Unlike at the Ryder Cup, these captains are also active players.

The opening London draft is set for Tuesday, but Phil Mickelson – the most notable and controversial potential LIV Golf star – will not be involved.

Given his previous interest, Mickelson is surely likely to appear at some stage, but he has not played for several months since his comments in relation to the tournament and its funding prompted an apology.

Why's it so controversial?

Any rebel league that threatened the PGA Tour was unlikely to be globally popular, but Saudi Arabia's influence has contributed significantly to the backlash.

The country's human rights record is of major concern, along with its role in the war in Yemen, so ventures such as these – and the acquisition of Premier League club Newcastle United – by its PIF are widely cited as examples of sportswashing.

Norman has suggested Saudi Arabia is "making a cultural change".

While he described the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 as "reprehensible", the LIV Golf chief added: "Look, we've all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward."

Norman was speaking last month, by which point Mickelson's own discussion of Khashoggi's death had done a great deal of harm to the league's reputation.

The six-time major champion acknowledged Saudi Arabia's "horrible record on human rights" but added he was willing to commit to LIV Golf as it was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates".

Mickelson made those comments in November last year, although they were reported earlier this year just as the series sought to launch.

Norman said the saga "definitely created negative momentum against us" and revealed "everybody got the jitters", causing some players to back out.

Rafael Nadal versus Casper Ruud has the air of one of sport's great mismatches ahead of the French Open title match.

Nadal's record at Roland Garros is spectacularly intimidating as he bids for a record-extending 14th title on the Paris clay, having won all 13 of his past finals.

In sharp contrast, Ruud has never played a grand slam final. Nor until this week had he played a semi-final at this level, or a quarter-final.

Nadal will be chasing a 22nd title at the majors on Sunday, and Ruud a first; and yet there are factors that offer the underdog hope, not least the fact the favourite is pushing his body into a new fresh hell every time he steps onto court.

Coach Carlos Moya told ATPTour.com that Nadal, hampered by a long-bothersome foot problem, was carrying "a lot of wear and tear".

"But it's the final push," said Moya, anticipating one last gargantuan effort from the man who turned 36 this week.

"So far, Rafa has done an astonishing job of surviving without playing his best tennis."

Ahead of what could be a far tighter final than Saturday's one-sided women's showpiece, Stats Perform assesses the form and the stakes affecting both players.


One last swing at glory for Nadal?

It has long been the case that Nadal has nothing left to prove. Yet it is the Spaniard's instinct to want to push himself to new heights, and his quarter-final win over Novak Djokovic encapsulated that drive.

"All the sacrifices and all the things that I need to go through to try to keep playing really makes sense when you enjoy moments like I'm enjoying in this tournament," Nadal said after booking his place in the final. He was the beneficiary of Alexander Zverev's injury-forced retirement in the semi-finals, and now a first career match against Ruud awaits.

Should Nadal win, at the age of 36 years and two days, he would become the oldest men's singles champion at Roland Garros in history, surpassing his compatriot Andres Gimeno, who was 34 years, 10 months and one day old when he captured the 1972 title.

No other man in history has reached double figures for titles at a single grand slam, with Novak Djokovic's nine Australian Open wins the next most in a major. Across his 13 previous Roland Garros finals, Nadal has dropped only seven sets.

Given his injury problems, it is highly possible this will prove to be Nadal's final French Open. He has an astonishing overall record of 332-34 in sets won and lost at Roland Garros, emerging victorious from 111 of his 114 matches.

If Ruud looks too closely at Nadal's career numbers, they might become dizzying. The veteran has won 62 of his 91 titles on clay, once enjoyed an 81-match winning streak on the surface (2005-07) and has spent a record 871 consecutive weeks inside the ATP top 10, from 2005 to the present day.

He has never won the Australian Open and French Open in the same year, so that is now achievable, given his success at Melbourne Park in January, when he nudged one clear of Djokovic and Roger Federer on the all-time list of most men's singles slam wins.

"We haven't spoken about number 22," said Moya. "Obviously, it's on the horizon, but that would add pressure to Rafa. It's not necessary."


Would it be Ruud to crash the party?

Nadal said Ruud's run has been "not a surprise at all", and there were some experts who fancied the Norwegian to come through the bottom half of the draw before the tournament began, albeit with most making Stefanos Tsitsipas a likelier finalist.

A curiosity is the fact Ruud has trained at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca since 2018, and he has often practised with Nadal. This, though, is their first encounter in competition. The last first-time meeting in a men's French Open final came in 1997 when Gustavo Kuerten beat Sergi Bruguera.

Ruud, 23, would be the youngest men's singles grand slam winner since 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro beat Roger Federer in the 2009 US Open final. That was a sensation of a result, with the Argentinian ending Federer's five-year reign in New York, and Ruud may find some encouragement from such an upset.

Ruud leads the ATP Tour since the start of the 2020 season in clay-court wins (66), finals (nine) and titles (seven), yet all of his eight career titles have come at ATP 250 level, a relatively low tier of the professional game where the biggest names rarely compete.

He stepped up by reaching the final of the Miami Open, an ATP 1000 tournament, in April, but was beaten to the title by Carlos Alcaraz.

Sunday's challenger from Oslo, whose father and coach Christian Ruud was an ATP top-50 player in his mid-1990s prime, is a former junior world number one.

He has now become Norway's first grand slam finalist and must tackle arguably the most daunting challenge in the men's game.

Nadal said of Ruud on Friday: "I think in the academy we were able to help him a little bit. I like to see a good person achieving his dreams. I'm happy for him, I'm happy for his mom, dad.

"I know them very well. They are a super healthy family and great people. As always, I am super happy when I see these great people having success."

Nadal did not go on to say he would disbar Ruud from his academy should there be a shock outcome on Sunday.

Perhaps the thought of Ruud winning simply never crossed Nadal's mind.

Behind all the charm that Iga Swiatek brings to tennis, the relatable personality and the culture vulture sensibilities, there lies a ruthless champion.

Swiatek is now a two-time French Open winner, and goodness knows how many more grand slams the 21-year-old might add in the coming years.

The women's tour is not yet officially in a post-Williams era, but if Serena and Venus never play again, the game is surely in safe hands.

A 6-1 6-3 dismantling of Coco Gauff meant Saturday's showpiece was no classic Roland Garros final. Great champions don't care much about classics, though. It's all about getting the W, and stacking those up. Classics are great, but only if you win them.

Nobody in the 2000s has hit on a hotter streak than the one Swiatek is presently living through. This was a sixth consecutive title in 2022 for Swiatek and a 35th match win in succession. Venus Williams had a six-title, 35-win run in 2000, and Justine Henin reeled off six successive tournament triumphs from 2007 into 2008.

The Pole is the youngest winner of two or more grand slams since Maria Sharapova, at 19, added the 2006 US Open title to the Wimbledon crown she sensationally secured as a 17-year-old.

Swiatek is among elite company there, just as she was when she fist-bumped her hero, Rafael Nadal, before stepping onto court.

How far can Swiatek extend this run? Well, Martina Navratilova won 74 successive matches in 1984, a record for the WTA Tour.

As Swiatek collected the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, she might have been aware that Lenglen, long before the WTA was formed in 1973, embarked on an even more staggering undefeated run.

The Frenchwoman is said to have strung together a 181-match winning streak in the 1920s. Some sources put it at 179, but at this stage we're splitting hairs.

When Gauff said at the post-match presentation that she hoped to play Swiatek in more finals, a beaming smile passed across the champion's face, but it faded just a little when Gauff said she hoped to pull off a win in future.

Swiatek, 21, overwhelmed first-time slam finalist Gauff, 18, on this occasion, but they might have many more big-stage matches to come. Swiatek has no interest in losing any such clash.

Based on their combined ages, this was billed as the 'youngest' Roland Garros final since 19-year-old Iva Majoli stunned 16-year-old favourite Martina Hingis in the 1997 showpiece.

The only grand slam final in the 21st century to feature two players with a lower combined age than the Swiatek-Gauff pairing was last year's US Open trophy match between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez.

Ahead of this match, American great Pam Shriver spoke on the Tennis Podcast about facing the greats of the game in the 1970s and 1980s, saying: "I played through these amazing streaks of Chris Evert, Navratilova, Graf, Seles... but literally the quality of Swiatek's game right now is equal to the greatest of all time during their streaks. She's the real deal."

This match was won by Swiatek identifying a weakness – the Gauff forehand – and targeting it, constantly. There was no escape for Gauff, who would have recognised the shot was letting her down.

By the end of the third game, Gauff had already committed 10 unforced errors and was a double break down. Welcome to your first grand slam final, Coco.

When Gauff slapped a rare forehand winner, she let out a cry of satisfaction, but the Florida resident then lashed the next ball she faced into the tramlines.

It was a 6-3 6-1 trouncing in Swiatek's favour when these two met in Miami in March, and the Paris crowd were longing for more of a contest this time.

When Gauff broke serve and led 2-0 in the second set, Swiatek's supremacy was briefly in doubt. That didn't last long.

Swiatek swept through her next service game and soon had two break-back points when Gauff flung in a third double fault of the match. Then a forehand – of course it was the forehand – went just wide from Gauff and the set was back on serve.

What would the response be from Gauff? She was broken in a flash, and the contest was effectively finished.

How did the match end? With Gauff flinging a forehand service return long. Yes, this was a final with a theme.

Swiatek saw the disappointment in Gauff's face as she approached the net, and the embrace was a sympathetic one, followed by a consoling pat on the American's back.

To be clear, that means nothing for their future rivalry. Swiatek is cold-blooded until the final point has been played out.

The AC/DC and Led Zeppelin fan, who has been reading The Three Musketeers while in Paris and visited the Palace of Versailles last week, has this clinical flip side to her character.

She lost her first tour final to Polona Hercog as a 17-year-old in 2019, but since that defeat in Lugano has been formidable in trophy matches, winning nine now and only three times being extended as far as 6-4 in any set.

This is why there might be many more slams to come, and perhaps Wimbledon glory awaits in the coming weeks.

Swiatek won the French Open as the world number 54 and a virtual unknown two years ago and has shown she can handle the pressure of being the top seed and hot favourite this time.

Evert, speaking on Eurosport, was drawn into fantastical talk about Swiatek perhaps one day rivalling Nadal for Roland Garros titles. On Sunday, the Spaniard will go after his 14th such triumph.

"She has to get past my seven, doesn't she, before we talk about Rafa?" Evert said, shrewdly. "She can look and dream about winning 10 [grand slams], and it's very possible that she will, but I don't think specifically she's thinking, 'I can win this tournament 14 times'."

That will surely be beyond Swiatek, but Evert's haul, the most by a woman, may not be.

For Wales, the wait is nearly over.

After a delay of more than two months owing to the horrific events that have unfolded in Ukraine, Wales finally get a shot at ending their long wait for a place at the World Cup.

With their opponents now known following Ukraine's impressive victory against Scotland in midweek, the Dragons' date with destiny finally arrives in Cardiff this Sunday.

And after a wait of some six-and-a-half decades since last appearing at the biggest football tournament of them all, the excitement could not be any higher.

If Wales are to jump the final hurdle and make it to Qatar 2022, though, they must do something no side has achieved since Croatia in October 2017 – beat Ukraine in a qualifier.

Ukraine have proved their resolve in more ways than one and now, spurred on by most of the world, Oleksandr Petrakov's battlers are potentially 90 minutes from the World Cup.

Stats Perform looks at how both sides shape up ahead of the showdown at Cardiff City Stadium.


QUALIFYING RECORDS

While Wales have enjoyed runs to the semi-finals and last 16 of the past two European Championships, not since 1958 have they competed on the grandest stage of them all.

Should they reach Qatar 2022, that gap of 64 years would surpass the record jointly held by Egypt and Norway of 56 years between tournament participations.

To put into context just how long ago Wales' only previous World Cup outing was, Brazil great Pele scored the only goal against them in that year's quarter-final.

At 17 years and 239 days, he still holds the record of being the tournament's youngest-ever goalscorer.

 

Ukraine have themselves competed at the World Cup just once, albeit having only had six previous attempts at qualifying as an independent nation.

The Eastern European country reached the quarter-finals in Germany 16 years ago, where they were beaten 3-0 by eventual winners Italy.

Like opponents Wales, they have twice qualified for the European Championship, as well as being given direct entry to the tournament as joint-hosts with Poland in 2012.

 

PREVIOUS MEETINGS

The two teams' pedigree is pretty similar, then, as is their record against one another down the years.

Only three times have they previously met, with two of those finishing all square in World Cup 2002 qualifying, and Ukraine winning the other 1-0 in a pre-Euro 2016 friendly.

Incidentally, current Wales boss Rob Page played the full 90 minutes in Ukraine's only previous outing on Welsh soil, with that contest ending in a 1-1 draw 20 years ago.

 

PLAY-OFF PEDRIGREE

Wales' record when it comes down to crunch fixtures down the years has been pretty impressive, having won all three of their previous World Cup qualifying play-off games.

The Dragons beat Israel over both legs in qualifying for the 1958 edition and saw off Austria 2-1 in March to set up their clash with Ukraine, who beat Scotland in the other semi.

History is not exactly on Ukraine's side in that regard, though, as they have failed to reach the tournament in each of their previous four play-offs – in 1997, 2001, 2009 and 2013.

 

If it is to be fourth time lucky, the Blue and Yellow will have to breach Wales' Cardiff City Stadium fortress, where Page's side are unbeaten in 17 matches since November 2018.

But Ukraine certainly know how to grind out results on their travels, having won each of their past three away competitive matches, including that 3-1 win in Glasgow this week.

In fact, Petrakov's side have gone unbeaten home and away throughout Qatar qualifying, as was the case en route to reaching Euro 2020.

That run of 18 games without losing in qualifying is a record only Belgium can match among European nations.

 

KEY MEN

When it comes down to the individual battles, at full strength there is very little between two nations separated by just nine places in the latest FIFA rankings.

For Wales, Bale undoubtedly remains the focal point of the side in what could reportedly be his final ever game in professional football should his side taste defeat.

The free agent has only played six games in qualifying, totalling 488 minutes, yet only five European players have been involved in more than his eight goals.

With those five goals and three assists, Bale is averaging a goal or assist every 61 minutes for his country on the road to Qatar.

 

There is not one standout star in the Ukrainian ranks, as such, but plenty of focus will be on Roman Yaremchuk, who was on the scoresheet at Hampden Park.

The Benfica attacker is Ukraine's top scorer this qualifying campaign with four goals, the past three of those coming in away matches.

This run to the qualifying play-off final has very much been built on unity, though, which will again be on show in the Welsh capital on Sunday.

Yet whether it is the chance to put history right, make a nation of people proud or anything in between, the end goal for Wales and Ukraine is ultimately the same.

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