Barcelona versus Cadiz is not a fixture that particularly stands out on the Spanish football calendar, but Sunday's meeting between the two is momentous for Lionel Messi.

Having played his 505th LaLiga game for Barcelona last weekend against Deportivo Alaves, Messi has now broken a record set by one of Barcelona's most-revered sons.

Xavi retains a legendary status at Camp Nou – his influence during a 17-year career in Barca's senior team was arguably unmatched, as the team was almost constantly built around him as that metronomic hub in midfield.

In the five years since his departure, many midfielders have been signed in the hope they can pick up the slack left behind, but none have successfully replaced him.

He may yet return as coach one day. Indeed, by all accounts it seems he was offered such a chance at least once last year.

But while the legacy of his playing days will remain unblemished, he has lost a slice of Barca history to Messi…

The appearances record

After starting the visit of the Andalusians, Messi moved one clear of Xavi's previous record haul of 505 LaLiga appearances in the Blaugrana.

Like Xavi, it has taken Messi 17 seasons to go beyond 500 outings in Spain's top flight.

But while Xavi opted to depart for a final payday in Qatar with Al-Sadd, whom he now coaches, Messi's career at the very top appears to be far from over.

His penalty in the 4-1 midweek mauling by Paris Saint-Germain took Messi to 20 goals across all competitions for the 13th successive season.

His stunning brace last weekend in the dismantling of Alaves left him on 15 in LaLiga, just one fewer than pacesetter Luis Suarez – it's pretty strong form considering many regard this Messi's worst individual season in over a decade.

 

Messi played his first LaLiga game for the club in 2004-05 before firmly securing himself a place in the first-team squad over the following two campaigns.

Xavi arguably made a slightly quicker impression, his 41 league outings across his first two seasons 17 more than Messi managed.

But Messi's remarkable consistency and longevity are reflected in the fact he has not played fewer than 31 LaLiga games in a single season since 2007-08, when he featured 28 times. The year before he made 26 appearances.

Having surpassed numerous club greats such as Guillermo Amor, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes and Andres Iniesta along the way, he now moves past the final pillar.

More records to come?

Of course, it almost goes without saying that it's unclear what further LaLiga records Messi will break because his future is so uncertain.

Will he stay? Will he join PSG or Manchester City? 

Given Messi's previous insistence that Barca have to be challenging for titles, on the evidence of this season and their financial state, it's difficult to see them in the hunt for the major honours in the near future.

As such, many will expect him to follow through on his attempt to leave last year when his contract expires at the end of the season.

That shouldn't prevent Messi taking another of Xavi's club records, with the Argentinian just seven behind his former team-mate's 767 Barca appearances across all competitions. No one has made more.

But Messi, who became LaLiga's all-time leading goalscorer long ago, will likely miss out on the chance of setting a new overall league record for appearances.

His 506 is still 116 fewer than Andoni Zubizarreta's 622, with Real Betis midfielder Joaquin – still active at 39 – the closest to the former goalkeeper's record on 568.

Sergio Ramos is the only other active player ahead of Messi on 507, with Athletic Bilbao's Raul Garcia (505) just behind the Barca captain.

Although missing out on such a record would be a minor footnote in an otherwise astonishing career, it's hard to escape from the thought Messi's legacy might be that bit more magical were he to spend all of his playing days at the same club.

Novak Djokovic continued his dominance of the Australian Open, winning the grand slam for a record ninth time on Sunday.

The Serbian star claimed his 18th grand slam crown with a 7-5 6-2 6-2 dismantling of Russian fourth seed Daniil Medvedev in the final.

Djokovic became just the second man to win a major at least nine times, with only Rafael Nadal (13 French Open titles) also managing that feat.

We take a look back at all of his Australian Open successes.

2008 – A maiden grand slam title

Aged 20, this was Djokovic's fourth main-draw appearance in Melbourne and his previous best had been the fourth round the year prior.

But he produced a flying run to the final, beating Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets in the last 16 and top seed Federer in the semis.

Djokovic, the third seed, was left with a surprise opponent in the final and he made the most of his chance, coming from a set down to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It was the first grand slam since the 2005 Australian Open not won by either Federer or Nadal.

2011 – The beginning of complete Melbourne dominance

Djokovic had to wait three years for his second title in Melbourne, but it started a wonderful run of dominance.

He was largely untouchable again on his way to the final, including wins over top-10 seeds Tomas Berdych and Federer.

Djokovic crushed Andy Murray 6-4 6-2 6-3 in the decider to win the first of an incredible three grand slams in 2011.

 

2012 – Coming through two epics

This would be a major best remembered for two matches – Djokovic's semi and final.

He took almost five hours to get past Murray in the last four in a match that seemed certain to ruin his chances in the decider.

Somehow, Djokovic came through that too, beating Nadal 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 (5-7) 7-5 in the longest Open Era grand slam final, which went for a gruelling five hours, 53 minutes.

2013 – Hat-trick complete

Djokovic extended his winning streak at the Australian Open to 21 matches with a third straight title.

He became the first man in the Open Era to win a hat-trick of titles in Melbourne.

Djokovic took five hours to get past Stan Wawrinka – the man who would break his run the following year – in the fourth round before again beating Murray in a final.

 

2015 – Another Wawrinka marathon, another Murray final

Fernando Verdasco and Milos Raonic were unable to stop Djokovic and, this time, Wawrinka failed too.

Djokovic beat the Swiss star in a five-set semi-final before a familiar face stood between him and another title.

Murray managed to split the first two sets, but Djokovic ran away with it from there 6-3 6-0 for a fifth crown.

2016 ­– Record equalled after Simon scare

It was the fourth round that proved to be the biggest scare in Djokovic's bid for a record-equalling sixth Australian Open title.

But he got through another gruelling five-setter, this time against French 14th seed Gilles Simon.

Kei Nishikori, Federer and Murray were unable to stop him from there as Djokovic joined Roy Emerson on six Australian Open crowns.
 

2019 – Record claimed in flawless fashion

For a six-time champion and the world number one, this seemed like a quiet run by Djokovic.

He dispatched of up-and-comers Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev, spent less than an hour on court with an exhausted Nishikori and was almost flawless against Lucas Pouille.

Only Nadal stood between him and a record seventh Australian Open title in a repeat of their epic 2012 final.

And Djokovic may have saved his best performance for the final, dismantling Nadal in just over two hours.

2020 – Thiem test survived to close in on Federer, Nadal

Djokovic entered the tournament on the back of six impressive singles wins at the ATP Cup.

After a brief first-round hiccup against Jan-Lennard Struff, Djokovic cruised into the quarter-finals.

He continued his dominance of Milos Raonic with a 10th win in as many meetings with the Canadian and then brushed a hurt Federer aside.

Thiem, playing his third major final, was a huge test, but Djokovic survived after almost four hours to extend his record in Melbourne. It was his 17th major title, moving closer to the tallies of Federer (20) and Nadal (19), as he reclaimed the number one ranking.

2021 – Injury threatens run before powerful finish

It was a largely uneventful start for Djokovic before suffering a suspected abdominal injury in the third round against Taylor Fritz.

He looked at risk of defeat despite taking the first two sets as Fritz fought back, but Djokovic looked healthy again in the fifth to win through.

Djokovic beat Raonic for the 12th straight time and then overcame Alexander Zverev, before finding good form in a semi-final thrashing of qualifier Aslan Karatsev.

He dropped five sets in his opening six matches, the most he has lost prior to the final in the 28 occasions he has made the decider at a slam.

Medvedev was on a 20-match winning streak heading into the final, but Djokovic stepped up on the court he loves.

Manchester United's opening-day 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace was a chastening reminder of the team's frailties, but there was a somewhat surprising voice behind the subsequent call-to-action for the club's hierarchy.

Luke Shaw provided undoubtedly the most honest assessment of the situation among United players, this from a player who had rarely come across as a natural leader during his time at the club.

"We have a very good group, but personally I think we need more players to strengthen the squad," he told Norway's TV2. "It can give us a boost. When you look around at how other teams are strengthening their teams, then we must also do it to keep up with the others."

Perhaps the fact he wasn't speaking to a British outlet resulted in a more relaxed, open response from Shaw, who then also went on to criticise their pre-season.

But it was a new, authoritative look for a player who has always seemingly preferred to keep away from the media spotlight, and few United fans would have disagreed with him.

What happened next, however, he probably didn't expect – among the four players signed on deadline day in October was a new left-back, a Brazil international with the kind of attack-minded profile many had hoped Shaw would develop at United.

While Shaw definitely showed signs of progress in 2019-20, Alex Telles' arrival was the clearest sign that his position was no longer assured – he needed to respond.

 

A SHAW THING

The fact Telles has made just six Premier League starts in his debut season at Old Trafford is as good a starting point as any when highlighting Shaw's improved standing, and in fairness to the new signing, he's hardly put a foot wrong.

Telles has looked a solid acquisition and certainly fits the bill as a forward-thinking full-back who is also capable defensively, but Shaw has reached a level he has arguably never shown before in his career.

As an attacking outlet, Shaw's output has improved almost across the board, as such he has made himself almost undroppable.

 

His five assists is already a personal high for a Premier League season, having only managed seven in total before 2020-21, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. He is creating 2.3 chances per 90 minutes, which is up from one last term and well clear of his previous best of 1.2 each game for an entire campaign.

Undoubtedly one reason for that is the fact he is taking more set-pieces, yet his average of 1.4 open play chances created per 90 minutes remains a frequency he has never matched before over the course of a season, proving his increased familiarity with dead-ball duties isn't skewing the data.

A quick glance at his average position activity maps shows his involvement in the left-hand channel of the attacking third is up on each of the past two seasons, as well as his final year with Southampton.

 

This shows Shaw is embracing greater attacking responsibility, and where that is reflected most is the number of passes (including crosses) he is playing into the box each game (7.4). His last season with Saints had been his best in this regard (4.4), yet he's way up on that, and his productivity here is more than two-and-a-half times what it was in 2019-20 (2.9).

Shaw's early days with Southampton appeared to promise much. Finally, he appears to be back on track, not that it's been smooth sailing.

 

COPING, OUTLASTING, PROGRESSING

Shaw's relationship with Jose Mourinho became something of a distraction at times during the Portuguese's ill-fated reign.

Granted, Shaw wasn't the only player Mourinho seemed to have a problem with, but his treatment of Shaw in particular did leave a sour taste.

In two-and-a-half years playing for Mourinho, Shaw only made 33 Premier League appearances. While he did have injury and fitness problems, the manager's attitude seemingly did little to endear himself to the player.

Mourinho publicly criticised him after a 2016 defeat to Watford, saying: "For the second goal, [Nordin] Amrabat on the right side, our left-back is 25 metres distance from him, instead of five metres. But even at 25 metres, then you have to jump and go press. But no, we wait."

Mourinho then used Shaw's positive performance against Everton in 2017 against him. He said: "He had a good performance, but it was his body with my brain. He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him."

This isn't to say Shaw has been faultless this season. In fact, his defensive focus has been questionable at times in 2020-21, such as against Tottenham and Manchester City, for example.

But it's fair to say the greater attacking impetus he is showing this term compared to under Mourinho means he is more than making up for the occasional defensive lapse, and it's not like he's being beaten time after time – on average Shaw is dribbled past once every two games, the second lowest frequency for a single season in his entire career.

The difference? Well, according to the man himself, belief and competition.

"I feel really good, obviously big credit to Ole for that for believing in me and pushing me," Shaw said last month. "Alex [Telles] as well, we have a great relationship and he pushes me each day in training. We get on really well. It's nice to have that type of competition, but we push each other to get the best from ourselves. When he plays, I want the best for him, and it's the same the other way round. It's a positive way for both of us to look at it and push each other."

 

THE BEST?

There was a time – not even that long ago – when the very suggestion of Shaw being among the Premier League's best full-backs would have drawn a chuckle of derision in response.

Granted, across the four seasons prior to 2020-21, Shaw's best record of open play chances created per 90 minutes was 0.2, but there can be no doubt he is now at least in the conversation.

 

Liverpool's Andy Robertson is generally seen as the standard-bearer for left-backs in England's top flight, and Shaw compares well from an attacking sense with the Scotland international.

Shaw's 40 chances created this term is one more than Robertson, while the latter is just ahead in terms of key passes in open play (29 to 24) – though the United man has made 20 appearances to his rival's 24.

Robertson is proving a more regular source of service, with his 213 passes into the box and 201 total crosses/corners far more than Shaw's respective numbers (129 and 105), but the United left-back's deliveries are far more reliable.

Shaw's 37 successful crosses/corners is just five fewer than Robertson despite playing almost half the amount of overall deliveries.

But what really highlights Shaw's growth is his xA (expected assists) figures. His xA per 90, so the amount of assists he would ordinarily be expected to get per game, is 0.21 in 2020-21. Not only is that better than his previous best by some distance (0.12), Joao Cancelo (0.24) is the only full-back doing better here this term.

 

Shaw has made himself almost indispensable to United, his influence all the more important given Aaron Wan-Bissaka isn't particularly refined as an attacking outlet and they very rarely play with conventional wingers on either flank.

Therefore, Shaw offers the kind of threat from the wings that arguably no one else in the United squad does – and as his xA record shows, he is proving a consistent danger that marks him out as one of the league's best.

After being plagued by questions relating to his mentality for years, it's fair to say he is responding in the ideal fashion, with Telles' signing seemingly an important catalyst.

While it might be a little early to declare him outright the Premier League's best, his current trajectory at least shows that to be a realistic aim.

"I know that everyone was cheering for [Serena Williams] and I'm sorry it had to end like this. I want to say thank you for watching the match."

Naomi Osaka's first grand slam title was memorable for all the wrong reasons - the Japanese left in tears after defeating her idol Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

Williams was penalised for receiving coaching, slamming her racquet and then arguing with the chair umpire, which cost the 23-time slam champion a game in the second set.

The mood on Arthur Ashe Stadium turned bitter as fans booed during the trophy ceremony.

"I just felt like everyone was sort of unhappy up there," Osaka told the 'Today' show a day after the final. "I know that it wasn't really – the ending wasn't how people wanted it to be. I know that in my dreams I won in a very tough, competitive match. I don't know. I just felt very emotional. I felt like I had to apologise.

"I felt a little bit sad, because I wasn't really sure if they were booing at me or if it wasn't the outcome that they wanted. I also could sympathise, because I've been a fan of Serena my whole life, and I knew how badly the crowd wanted her to win."

Almost three years on and three further slam titles later, that softly-spoken Osaka is now a ruthless machine, just ask Williams.

En route to a fourth slam crown and second Australian Open trophy on Saturday, Osaka overpowered the 23-time major champion in the semi-finals, stopping her ongoing record-equalling quest flat in its tracks.

The queen of women's tennis for so long, Williams could not find a way to beat Osaka.

The here and now, Osaka continues to be Williams' kryptonite in the American superstar's bid match Margaret Court. It could explain why Serena was left in tears and cut short her post-match news conference.

There appears to be no way past Osaka.

Usually timid away from the action, Osaka is ferocious on court but just as calm - her triumphant 2021 Australian Open campaign further proof of that, having saved a pair of match points in the last 16 before topping Jennifer Brady on Rod Laver Arena, where she became the first woman since Monica Seles in the early 1990s to emerge victorious from the first four grand slam finals of her career. 

Lets not forget her anti-racism statements during the last year's US Open. The 23-year-old regularly wore masks onto court to protest against racial injustice in the United States. Osaka's off-court impact is just as powerful across the globe.

As the sun begins to fade on the career of an all-time great, Osaka has the world at her feet in an exciting new era for women's tennis.

Naomi Osaka can continue what is becoming a magical trend with a win in the Australian Open final.

The Japanese star will face Jennifer Brady in the decider at Melbourne Park on Saturday as she eyes a fourth grand slam title.

But Osaka, 23, can also continue an unlikely and rather incredible trend at the year's first grand slam – winning the crown after saving match point.

If she can get past Brady, Osaka would become the seventh woman in the Open Era to win the Australian Open after saving a match point along the way, joining Monica Seles (1991), Jennifer Capriati (2002), Serena Williams (2003 and 2005), Li Na (2014), Angelique Kerber (2016) and Caroline Wozniacki (2018).

Osaka was pushed to the brink by Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round of this year's tournament. She faced two match points at 3-5 in the third set, saving the first with an ace down the T – no woman has served more aces than her 44 at the tournament – before a powerful forehand forced Muguruza into an error. Osaka would win four straight games to reach the quarter-finals.

Wozniacki's success three years ago was particularly remarkable as she saved two match points in the second round against Jana Fett, reeling off six straight games from 5-1 down in the final set. The last time it happened in a women's draw outside of the Australian Open was at Wimbledon in 2009, and it has occurred three times since in Melbourne.

Osaka's coach, Wim Fissette, said the mental side of the game was a key focus for the star.

"I think it's just part of the workday by day and where we speak about different topics. And honestly, it's a very important topic for her. She knows the experience of the past years like when her attitude is good, her mind is very clear what she needs to do, what she wants to do, and then she plays well," he said on Friday.

"So, the base of playing really well is a good attitude. Doesn't mean you cannot be negative, like, at some point, you know. It's only human or normal to be frustrated maybe at one point, but to reset immediately, that's a very important one. So it's not something, let's say, we had, like, big conversations about, but it's a daily topic, and it's more coming from Naomi that she wants to be that person that's always, like, behaves well on the court. That's kind of a role model also for younger players."

While Brady shapes as a major test, Osaka has won every major at which she has gone past the fourth round.

Osaka is also on a 20-match winning streak, becoming the third woman since 2010 to achieve such a run – joining Williams (27 in 2014-15) and Victoria Azarenka (26 in 2012). The incredible run included a US Open semi-final win over Brady last year, and Osaka has proven unstoppable – a couple of walkovers aside. Brady pushed Osaka to three sets at Flushing Meadows and the American has put together a fine run of her own in Melbourne.

But the three-time major winner's hot streak has her well-placed for more history on Saturday, and to continue an incredible trend in Melbourne.

Staples Center will stage a clash of heavyweights on Thursday as the Los Angeles Lakers host the Brooklyn Nets, though it might not be quite the spectacle once hoped for.

Of course, most sporting contests are not quite what they used to be, owing to the lack of spectators allowed in the arenas.  

But the absence of Lakers star Anthony Davis with a calf injury, along with Kevin Durant's hamstring problem, which may keep the Nets forward out of a third straight game, further depletes a matchup that could be repeated in the NBA Finals.  

Yet LeBron James is still performing at the peak of his powers and the Nets' guard combination of James Harden and Kyrie Irving is firing on all cylinders, with the former dropping 38 points in a comeback from a 24-point deficit against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.  

Therefore, there will still be plenty to intrigue in this marquee showdown, even if the first meeting of LeBron and KD since Christmas Day 2018 is further delayed.  

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James - Los Angeles Lakers

James is the MVP frontrunner and he has maintained his remarkable levels of excellence this month, in which he has a pair of triple-doubles. 

He has successive double-doubles in his last two games, tallying at least 30 points for the fifth time this season in the win over the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves last time out. 

With Davis on the sidelines, LeBron will have to carry the bulk of the burden again if the Lakers are to claim their 23rd win.

Kyrie Irving - Brooklyn Nets

Despite sitting out Brooklyn's astonishing fightback against the Suns because of a sore back, no member of the Nets has been more prolific in the month of February than Irving.  

The man who helped LeBron deliver a title to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 is averaging a team-high 29.8 points per game this month. Harden is next with an average of 24.4.  

He is shooting 55.5 per cent from the field and 48.8 per cent from three-point range, while his season-long average of 28.3 points a game is a career-high.  

Irving will, however, be hoping for a better performance than the one he produced in his sole game against the Lakers last year, when he went seven of 17 from the field in a 15-point loss.

KEY BATTLE - WHICH 'OTHERS' WILL STEP UP?

Though the Nets will still have the best backcourt in the league at their disposal, the injury issues surrounding Durant and Davis increases the spotlight on the lesser-heralded members of the two supporting casts.  

The Lakers will be looking for more of the same from Dennis Schroder, the guard rising to the challenge in Davis' absence against the Timberwolves and scoring 24 points.  

For the Nets, the onus may be more on Joe Harris, who has impressive numbers in terms of field goal percentage (57.5) and three-point shooting (51.1 per cent) for the month of February.  

This potential Finals preview could well be decided by which team's 'others' can best fill the void if Durant joins Davis in playing the role of spectator.

HEAD TO HEAD

It's the first meeting this season between the Lakers and Nets, though recent history suggests Brooklyn can afford to be confident even if they are without Durant. 

The two teams split the season series last term, but the Nets have won three of the last four games having swept the season series in 2018-19. 

All three of those victories came by a single-digit margin.

Bruno Fernandes has urged Manchester United's emerging stars to seize their moment as they seek to make an impression at Old Trafford.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confirmed ahead of Sunday's trip to West Brom that teenage trio Shola Shoretire, Hannibal Mejbr and Amad Diallo would all be involved with the senior side.

Fernandes has been a leading light for United this season, helping to propel the Red Devils into possible Premier League title contention.

The Portuguese playmaker hopes the injection of youth into the United first-team fold will provide a boost, though he urged those making the step up to work hard and stay humble.

"They have to keep their heads clean, because it's easy to come in to the first team and your head goes a little bit, and it's also hard when you have to go back and train and play with the other teams again," he told the club's official website.

"I was in that position some years ago and I know it's hard, but if you work and are humble and you understand that every time you play is a chance, no matter where you are playing, every time is a chance to show you are ready or that you want to make that next step.

"For us as a team, it’s important that when they come [to train with us] that they come to help us and learn from everyone and also give the qualities they have to the team.

"If they come to the first team it's because they have something good and that is something that can help us."

We took a closer look at two of United's most promising prospects, in Mejbri and Shoretire.

 

HANNIBAL MEJBRI, 18 – ATTACKING MIDFIELDER

Many will have had an eye on Mejbri's development ever since he joined the club from Monaco in August 2019 in a deal that could potentially cost €10million (£8.75m).

A France youth international, Mejbri quickly progressed to United's Under-23s last term despite only being 17 and has become a regular.

A technically gifted attack-minded midfielder, Mejbri has impressed not only with his ability on the ball, but his knack of crafting opportunities for team-mates.

In Premier League 2 Division One, his 42 chances created in 13 games is more than any other player, while his six assists is a joint-best for the league.

He has combined his creativity and comfort in possession to good effect as well, as evidenced by the fact seven of his carries (a movement of more than five metres with the ball) have led to chances created, a figured bettered by only five.

Mejbri has also attempted 49 dribbles, the fourth-most in the division, and won a remarkable 94 fouls – almost three times as many as anyone else – two of which secured penalties in the recent 6-3 win over Liverpool's Under-23s.

In fact, Wood recently urged referees to do more to protect him from such rough treatment, concerned Mejbri will suffer a serious injury if it continues.

He can expect similar attention if he does get minutes in the top flight, though Wood is adamant Mejbri does not let it get to him, saying: "I think he's the type that he wants the ball all the time, he's not going to shy away from it and that's what we want, you don't want your top players being worried, he just needs a bit of protection or it could result in him being badly injured."

SHOLA SHORETIRE, 17 – FORWARD

Shoretire joined the United academy in 2014 having previously played for Newcastle United, and for several years now he has looked like one of the next high-potential kids to come off the Old Trafford production line.

He made his debut for the club's Under-18s in 2018, in doing so becoming the youngest player to ever feature in UEFA's Youth League at 14 years and 314 days.

Shoretire – whose name is pronounced 'Shor-ay-ti-reh' – is most-often used as a winger (on either flank) for the Under-23s, but given his excellent dribbling, vision and finishing abilities, he could potentially have a future as a more central striker.

He signed his first professional contract on Monday, just three days after netting a hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers' Under-23s.

That took him to five goals in 13 appearances this term, while he also has four assists from 22 chances created.

Where he comes out particularly well is with regards to goal-ending passing sequences, of which he has been involved in 13 – only Mejbri (14) has a better record here.

Like Mejbri, Shoretire also has a penchant for taking the game to his opponents, as showcased by the fact he has created eight chances at the end of ball carries, the fifth-most in the league.

Given United's packed schedule over the next few weeks, with their European campaign set to resume, it wouldn't be a surprise to see these two make their first-team bows.

Even if they don't this season, it is surely only a matter of time.

Kevin Durant will make a long-awaited return to the Bay Area on Saturday as the Brooklyn Nets visit the Golden State Warriors in a mouth-watering NBA clash at Chase Center.

It is a game that pits the league's newest 'big three' (Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden) against a Warriors team led by Stephen Curry, whose incredible performances this season merit MVP votes.

But more significantly it is Durant's first road game against the Warriors since leaving them to join the Nets after the 2018-19 season that ended with Golden State losing the NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors in a series that saw the 2014 MVP suffer an Achilles injury.

Having missed the last three games because of coronavirus contact tracing protocols, Durant has been cleared and will face the team with whom he won two NBA titles and two Finals MVPs, though Curry does not expect his former team-mate to treat the contest any differently.

Reflecting on Durant's time with the Warriors, Curry told a media conference: "Two championships, an unfortunate ending with injuries and not getting it done in the 2019 Finals, but it was some of the best basketball the world has ever seen.

"The ability to put that much talent and experience together and make it work, there was no guarantee it was going to work, and we figured it out and it was an amazing run."

Asked about the emotions of his return, Curry added: "Honestly, I don't know how special it'll be because it's not at Oracle [Arena] and there's no fans, so it's kind of weird that whole vibe.

"We've got a tribute video which he deserves, and hopefully it'll be a moment that he'll appreciate. But outside of that it is kind of weird to be honest, in terms of all the things that have changed since 18-19.

"If you ask him how he feels he'll probably say it's another game and I'm sure that's how it will be once the ball drops on Saturday."

TOP PERFORMERS

Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors

Curry has bounced back from a 2019-20 season lost to injury in utterly remarkable form.

He is averaging 30 points a game, the only other season in which he has done so was in 2015-16, when he was named the league MVP in a unanimous vote.

Curry is shooting 43.5 per cent from beyond the arc, having made 10 threes in Thursday's win over the Orlando Magic, which he finished with 40 points.

That his tally against the Magic was not close to his season-high is indicative of the level at which he is playing.

The six-time All-Star has a 62-point game and a 57-point game this season, and has topped 30 points on 10 other occasions. Curry is back, and he's back to his best.

James Harden - Brooklyn Nets

Harden may not be scoring at the same level as Curry but his impact this season is undoubted.

The former Houston Rockets star is sixth in the NBA in PAR (Points + Assists + Rebounds) per game with 41.8, so far justifying the Nets' blockbuster trade for his services.

He started the month with his fourth triple-double of the season against the Los Angeles Clippers and has four successive double-doubles since.

Whether it's as a scorer, facilitator or rebounder, the Warriors will have to do all they can to limit Harden's influence.

KEY BATTLE: CAN DRAYMOND STOP DURANT?

With the Warriors still without rookie center James Wiseman because of a wrist injury and DeAndre Jordan out for the Nets, Durant may have to matchup with Draymond Green at center.

In the absence of Wiseman, the Warriors have had to turn to small ball and play Green at the five, and his clash with Durant promises to be a feisty one, given they weren't afraid to get in each other's faces as team-mates.

One of Green's tasks will be to stop Durant from getting into the paint consistently. That is no easy feat, but the Warriors have had success stopping teams in that regard this season.

Their 43.5 points in the paint allowed per game are the sixth-fewest in the NBA. If Green and the Warriors can limit Durant's opportunities to get to the hoop, they will have a much better shot of pulling off the upset.

HEAD TO HEAD

Durant and Irving inspired the Nets to a blowout win over the Warriors to start the new season.

The Nets emerged 125-99 victors, Durant scoring 22 points and leading Brooklyn with a plus-minus rating of plus 26.

That game was illustrative of the massive changes both teams have undergone. It was Brooklyn's second successive win over the Warriors but they had lost their previous eight meetings with one of most dominant teams in NBA history.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confirmed on Friday that teenagers Shola Shoretire and Hannibal Mejbri will be promoted to Manchester United's senior squad.

The young attackers have been playing for United's Under-23s this season and blossomed in Neil Wood's free-scoring team.

Still just 17 and 18, respectively, Shoretire and Mejbri are seemingly now considered a level above that which United's second team play, with both looking destined for big futures.

Shoretire was spotted training with the United first-team squad last week and Mejbri is set to join him, with Solskjaer confirming it is his plan to integrate both into the senior group.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Solskjaer said: "Yeah, we've moved Shola up with us, Hannibal will probably join us, and we'll keep them with us for a while.

"Of course, it's a decision we have to make – are they going to train with us and travel by themselves and not be a part of the Under-23s group?

"We felt, with Shola, it was time for him to train with us. In the Under-23s games, he's just got to travel by himself; he can't be in the dressing room, but we felt it was the right thing to do for him.

"I think it's the next step in their development and we've just got to take the hit on them when they play in the Under-23s – that they've got to travel by themselves, because they're in our [first-team] bubble."

Shoretire and Mejbri have long been considered among the best prospects in United's academy, but what can they offer?

 

HANNIBAL MEJBRI, 18 – ATTACKING MIDFIELDER

Many will have had an eye on Mejbri's development ever since he joined the club from Monaco in August 2019 in a deal that could potentially cost €10million (£8.75m).

A France youth international, Mejbri quickly progressed to United's Under-23s last term despite only being 17 and has become a regular.

A technically gifted attack-minded midfielder, Mejbri has impressed not only with his ability on the ball, but his knack of crafting opportunities for team-mates.

In Premier League 2 Division One, his 42 chances created in 13 games is more than any other player, while his six assists is a joint-best for the league.

He has combined his creativity and comfort in possession to good effect as well, as evidenced by the fact seven of his carries (a movement of more than five metres with the ball) have led to chances created, a figured bettered by only five.

Mejbri has also attempted 49 dribbles, the fourth-most in the division, and won a remarkable 94 fouls – almost three times as many as anyone else – two of which secured penalties in the recent 6-3 win over Liverpool's Under-23s.

In fact, Wood recently urged referees to do more to protect him from such rough treatment, concerned Mejbri will suffer a serious injury if it continues.

He can expect similar attention if he does get minutes in the top flight, though Wood is adamant Mejbri does not let it get to him, saying: "I think he's the type that he wants the ball all the time, he's not going to shy away from it and that's what we want, you don't want your top players being worried, he just needs a bit of protection or it could result in him being badly injured."

SHOLA SHORETIRE, 17 – FORWARD

Shoretire joined the United academy in 2014 having previously played for Newcastle United, and for several years now he has looked like one of the next high-potential kids to come off the Old Trafford production line.

He made his debut for the club's Under-18s in 2018, in doing so becoming the youngest player to ever feature in UEFA's Youth League at 14 years and 314 days.

Shoretire – whose name is pronounced 'Shor-ay-ti-reh' – is most-often used as a winger (on either flank) for the Under-23s, but given his excellent dribbling, vision and finishing abilities, he could potentially have a future as a more central striker.

He signed his first professional contract on Monday, just three days after netting a hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers' Under-23s.

That took him to five goals in 13 appearances this term, while he also has four assists from 22 chances created.

Where he comes out particularly well is with regards to goal-ending passing sequences, of which he has been involved in 13 – only Mejbri (14) has a better record here.

Like Mejbri, Shoretire also has a penchant for taking the game to his opponents, as showcased by the fact he has created eight chances at the end of ball carries, the fifth-most in the league.

Given United's packed schedule over the next few weeks, with their European campaign set to resume, it wouldn't be a surprise to see these two make their first-team bows.

Even if they don't this season, it is surely only a matter of time.

Three weeks ago, it appeared this season was shaping up to be like each of the previous 14 for the Sacramento Kings.

A 115-96 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on January 20 marked the sixth defeat in seven games for the Kings and dropped their record to 5-10 – third worst in the Western Conference.

A month into the season and it was already looking like Sacramento would match the Clippers' dubious record of 15 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth from 1976-77 to 1990-91 for the longest playoff drought in NBA history.

Now one-third of the way into their season, however, the Kings have pulled within a half-game of the eighth-placed Golden State Warriors in the West on the heels of a 7-2 stretch. on Friday night, they take on the Orlando Magic.

The turnaround began two nights after the blowout loss to the Clippers with a 103-94 victory over the New York Knicks. The Kings' performance that night was emblematic of how they've managed to climb back into the playoff picture, but is their formula for winning sustainable?

Against the Knicks, the Kings found themselves up 89-87 with just under four minutes remaining after New York went on an 8-0 run. Sacramento then went on a 7-0 run of their own, punctuated by a Tyrese Haliburton three-pointer with 2:35 to play to put the game away.

The Kings ended up scoring 14 of the game's final 21 points, and over the next few weeks displayed a proficiency for closing out tight games.

Prior to January 22, the Kings had the NBA's third-worst fourth-quarter point differential at minus-2.8 while ranking 23rd in fourth-quarter scoring with an average of 25.5 points. Since then, they are averaging 28.1 points over the final 12 minutes of games.

It's been in the game's final moments, however, that the Kings have really excelled. Their 10.0-scoring average in the final three minutes since January 22 is the best in the NBA.

The Kings are finding ways to grind out victories and have a league-high eight wins this season by five points or less, but this typically is not a blueprint for success in the NBA.

The Kings' 5.9-point differential in their wins is the lowest in the NBA, and no team have finished a season with a point differential of less than 6.0 in their victories since 2005-06, when the Portland Trail Blazers were at 5.6 and the Atlanta Hawks were at 5.8. Sacramento, however, do not want to be too closely linked to those teams, as Portland were a league-worst 21-61 while Atlanta were not much better at 26-56.

Winning close games rarely leads to long-term success, seeing as only one team in the last 30 years have reached the playoffs while having a point differential of less than 8.0 in their wins – the 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers at 7.8.

In fact, in NBA history only two teams have reached the playoffs while outscoring their opponents by fewer than 7.0 points in their wins and those instances came well before man even walked on the Moon – the 1954-55 Rochester Royals at 6.6 and the 1948-49 St Louis Bombers at 6.8.

Grinding out wins over the long haul of a full season takes its toll and it may have caught up with the Kings in their last time on the court.

In Tuesday's 119-111 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Kings seemed to tire down the stretch, missing seven straight shots over a three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter as the Sixers went on a 10-0 run to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead with just over four and a half minutes to play.

Sacramento were playing for the third time in four days, so they were playing on tired legs, but it's also possible fatigue was setting in because each of their previous three games went down to the wire and the minutes are piling up for their stars.

De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield each played the entire fourth quarter on Tuesday and have regularly been playing in crunch time.

Since January 22, the Kings have four players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes – Haliburton (1st, 10.7), Fox (11th, 9.9), Hield (12th, 9.7) and Harrison Barnes (18th, 9.4).

The Nets are the only other team to have more than two players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes in that period.

Sacramento have counted on Fox down the stretch, as his 11 field-goal attempts in late and close situations since January 22 trails only the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (15) and the Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul (13) for the most in the NBA. Late and close situations here are defined as the last two minutes of the final quarter when the game is within four points.

Fox's shots, however, weren't falling on Tuesday.

Over a five-game stretch from January 30 to February 7, Fox led the league with an average of 13.2 fourth-quarter points (minimum three games) while shooting 57.8 per cent. He misfired on 10 of 13 shots, though, while scoring seven points in Tuesday’s fourth quarter.

Haliburton's fourth quarter – as well as his third quarter for that matter – was even more forgettable. His final points on Tuesday came on a three-pointer with 2:00 remaining before halftime.

It was a sub-par showing for someone who is shooting at a staggering clip when the game moves to the fourth quarter.

The 20-year-old rookie is making 60.6 per cent (40-of-66) on all fourth-quarter shots – tied for fourth in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 109 players with at least 50 shot attempts in the fourth – and has been connecting at an even higher percentage from beyond the arc.

Shooting an absurd 61.5 per cent on three-pointers (24-of-39) in the fourth quarter, Haliburton is on track to become the only player seeing regular minutes to shoot at least 60 per cent from deep in the final quarter in the last 15 seasons. Since 2005-06, Kyle Korver for the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks has the highest fourth-quarter shooting percentage on three-pointers at 57.4, among players with at least 50 3-point attempts.

Haliburton has also made seven clutch three-pointers this season to trail only James (11), the Charlotte Hornets' Devonte’ Graham (eight) and the Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (eight) for most in the league. Here, clutch is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when a game is within six points.

Considering Haliburton is knocking down 44.1 per cent of his shots in the game's first three quarters, his fourth-quarter shooting has been especially baffling. His increase in shooting of 16.5 per cent from the first three quarters to the fourth is the biggest in the NBA this season (minimum 125 field goal attempts in first three quarters and 50 in fourth).

His shooting has been exceptional but hitting a rookie wall could be a concern. Tuesday marked the 22nd game of the season for Haliburton – the exact same number of games he played all of last season collegiately at Iowa State.

The fourth-quarter exploits of Haliburton and Fox have played a big role in Sacramento's climb in the standings, but the climb is just beginning. The season is only a little more than seven weeks old and time will tell if the Kings have the strength to continue their playoff push.

Julen Lopetegui wasn't instantly won over by Jules Kounde following his 2019 arrival at Sevilla from Bordeaux, unlikely as that seems currently.

He had only made four LaLiga starts by the end of October in his first season, and although that was followed by a more prolonged run in the team, a rocky performance against Osasuna in December saw him back on the bench.

As it was, Osasuna weren't able to punish Kounde's struggles on that occasion – the closest they came was hitting the post after his misjudgement of a bouncing ball led to a clear opportunity.

He was withdrawn soon after and only made another two league starts – a defeat at Real Madrid and underwhelming 1-1 home draw with Deportivo Alaves – before the start of February.

Indeed, it arguably wasn't until LaLiga's resumption after the coronavirus lockdown that Kounde truly nailed down a place and found genuine consistency in his performances, but now he is probably the first name on the team sheet.

Sevilla's 'selling club' business model is no secret, and by that logic it is unlikely that Kounde will remain at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan long-term – after all, Manchester City were keen in pre-season.

In years gone by Barcelona would've been not only a likely destination for him such has been their affinity for Sevilla-developed talent, it would have also been a stylistically ideal place for him to play. But ahead of the two teams' Copa del Rey semi-final tie, the archetypal Barca defender appears to be well out of their reach financially.

The 'false right-back'

In 2006, two years before he came Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola wrote a column for El Pais in which he discussed what has become known as the 'Lavolpiana build-up', a defensive setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward.

While La Volpe's Mexico side used a back three, the key ball-playing and forward-thinking elements of this system are still evident in the four-man defensive structure at Guardiola's City now – it is also identifiable in Lopetegui's Sevilla.

Kounde is a massive part of that, with the young Frenchman a fine player technically, both on the ball and when distributing.

The attack-minded nature of Sevilla right-back Jesus Navas leaves a lot of space for Kounde to operate in, and he often helps create overloads on the right flank – his positional map shows how he essentially works as a secondary right-back when in possession, while Fernando drops back into central defence to form a back three.

 

The recent 3-0 win over Getafe show this perfectly, with Kounde almost spending as much time in the attacking half as he did his own.

While the 'Lavolpiana build up' is a risky strategy, the right players can ensure it brings greater incisiveness particularly when playing through a press, and Sevilla have clearly adapted well – they are one of just two teams to not concede a goal as a result of a high turnover this term.

At no point this season has Sevilla's ability to play through the press been more prevalent than when remarkably stringing together 37 passes leading up to Luuk de Jong's second goal in the 3-0 Copa win over Valencia last month. Kounde more than played his role in that.

 

The defensive playmaker

This setup suits Kounde down to the ground. It's no wonder City were interested in him before going for Ruben Dias, and by extension he would clearly suit the ethos cultivated at Barcelona.

In 2019-20, Kounde showed glimpses of his undoubted ability but it was his partner Diego Carlos who arguably attracted more acclaim.

But this season, building on his positive development post-lockdown last term, Kounde has stepped things up a notch and seemingly relished that forward-thinking ball-playing role.

That is most notable with respect to how often he has carried the ball – his 331 carries (defined as a movement of five metres or more in possession of the ball) is bettered by only six players in LaLiga this term, three of whom are Frenkie de Jong, Lionel Messi and Luka Modric.

Of those 331 carries, 205 have been progressive, so moving Sevilla up the pitch. This gives him another very high ranking, with Pau Torres (321), De Jong (288), Messi (252) and Raul Albiol (246) the four individuals to boast more.

 

Kounde ranks in the top 10 for several other carry-related metrics – last season he did not. In fact, his 338 carries in 2019-20 is only seven more than he has in 2020-21, which in itself highlights his development.

But his forward runs in possession aren't Kounde's only way of getting on the front foot. His passing is also very positive.

Possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs given many of the passes they make are simple short balls to their defensive colleagues, but Kounde is often looking ahead.

His 387 successful forward passes is more than anyone else in LaLiga, while his 486 attempted forward balls is second only to Torres (502), who has played 360 minutes more than Kounde.

The Sevilla talent's 79.6 per cent completion rate from such passes is also better than Torres' 74.5 per cent.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he has developed into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who wouldn't have looked out of place in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

While Sevilla and Lopetegui remain the perfect fit for Kounde, it is surely only a matter of time before his €80million release clause no longer appears a daunting figure for certain clubs – though Barca's perilous financial position means they won't be in the hunt.

He's come a long way from that shaky night in Pamplona.

Hansi Flick's Bayern Munich reign went from 0-60 at break-neck speed, as within 11 months of being appointing as caretaker boss, he'd essentially won everything.

It was the kind of impact that makes managers club legends, his influence all the more notable given the how underwhelming performances had been during Niko Kovac's ultimately ill-fated spell at the helm.

All that remains for Flick to win now of course is the Club World Cup, which Bayern will make their return to for the first time since 2013 when they go up against Al Ahly in the semi-finals on Monday.

While Bayern's preparations for the tournament haven't been ideal, given they were only in Bundesliga action on Friday and had their departure significantly delayed, they've arrived in Qatar as clear favourites.

It may well prove a welcome distraction for the time being, with talk over Flick's future beginning to become a minor irritant for all involved.

While the outcome of their efforts in this tournament won't directly lead to Flick leaving, failure will surely see the issue thrust into the spotlight.

An ally's departure

It seems astonishing that there is even a hint of doubt regarding Flick's future at Bayern given the trophies he's won and the swift implementation of a vibrant brand of football.

But with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the club's chairman, set to vacate his position at the end of the season, reports in Germany suggest Flick will lose his closest ally in the hierarchy.

Additionally, Rummenigge's incoming replacement – Oliver Kahn – is not someone Flick is said to be particularly close with, while his relationship with sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has been called into question.

Flick eased links with the Germany job last week when he insisted he wouldn't leave Bayern "for that", but considering his strong impact on Bayern in a short period of time, the German Football Federation won't be the only interested party if the 55-year-old decides to move later this year.

Clashing over signings

Much of the speculation relating to Flick's supposedly poor relationship with those above him is centred on Salihamidzic, the man in charge of the signings. Even if the rumours are wide of the mark, it's easy to see why there might be disagreements.

None of Bayern's pre-season signings can claim to have tied down a regular place in the starting XI this season, not even Leroy Sane, who has made just nine Bundesliga starts.

Marc Roca and Bouna Sarr have played just six times between them, Douglas Costa has started three league games and Alexander Nubel – perhaps unsurprisingly – hasn't ousted Manuel Neuer between the posts.

But it goes back further than that. Lucas Hernandez, an €80million purchase in 2019, is still not a regular pick in defence (10 starts this season) despite such a significant outlay.

In the case of Sane, he is proving to be less effective as a creative outlet than all of his fellow wingers in the Bayern squad, with his 1.6 chances created per 90 minutes fewer than Costa (1.7), Serge Gnabry (1.9) and Kingsley Coman (2.4).

If Rummenigge's departure leaves Flick without significant backing higher up, perhaps he'll opt to jump before he's pushed.

The distraction

Regardless of what happens in Qatar, or in the remaining months of the season for that matter, Flick will have a CV unlike many other managers in the game should he take the opportunity to follow Rummenigge out of the door.

They enjoyed a clean sweep last season with their Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League treble, before adding UEFA Super Cup and DFL-Supercup at the start of 2020-21.

The Club World Cup is the only one that remains, and if they manage to lift the trophy it will be Flick's sixth title in 68 champions – that's one every 11 matches on average.

It's hardly make or break, with this competition arguably inconsequential when it comes to Bayern's major targets at the start of the season.

But from Flick's perspective, the opportunity to complete the set is one he won't want to pass up.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was kept waiting but finally scored his 500th career club goal for Milan against Crotone on Sunday.

The 39-year-old reached 499 on Tuesday with the opening goal against rivals Inter in the Coppa Italia, but he was later sent off in a 2-1 defeat.

Ibrahimovic should have netted the milestone goal in the first half against Bologna last weekend, only to miss a 26th-minute penalty, although Ante Rebic scored the rebound.

But the former Sweden striker's moment came at San Siro when he played a one-two with Rafael Leao.

Ibrahimovic fed Leao on the edge of the box and the young Portuguese slotted a perfect return ball behind the Crotone defence for his veteran strike partner to drive into the far right corner, securing another milestone for one of the greatest goalscorers of the modern era.
 

MILAN'S MAIN MAN

Enjoying a fine second spell with Milan now at the age of 39, Ibrahimovic's goals have fired Stefano Pioli's side back into title contention.

The Rossoneri have not won the Scudetto since 2011 - in Ibrahimovic's first stint at the club - and are without any silverware since the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana.

With Saturday's strike, Ibrahimovic now has 15 goals in all competitions this term, including 13 in the league, swelling his Milan total to 82.

His 122 appearances are his most for any Italian club - having also represented Juventus and Inter - while this goal set Milan on course for a 71st victory with Ibrahimovic in the side.

GLOBAL SUPERSTAR

Ibrahimovic has been one of Italian football's biggest names in the 21st century, but he has proven his worth worldwide between his spells in Serie A.

Indeed, the greatest share of his 500 goals came in the colours of Paris Saint-Germain, 156 in just 180 matches.

Ibrahimovic's Inter tally of 66 is third on the list after his Milan haul, with LA Galaxy next after he netted a remarkable 52 goals in only 58 games.

As well as scoring 26 times for Juve, Ibrahimovic has plundered goals in the Netherlands (48 for Ajax), England (29 for Manchester United), Spain (22 for Barcelona) and his native Sweden (18 for Malmo).

One in eight women in the Australian Open draw have already won a grand slam title.

One in eight. It is staggering that of the 128 players who set out in the hope of singles glory at Melbourne Park, there are 16 major champions among them, and perhaps never has it been so difficult to predict who will carry off the title.

Compare it to the men's draw, where there are just five grand slam singles winners, and where you would struggle to make a compelling case for any more than three of those this year, with apologies to Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic.

As long-running dynasties near their end on the men's and women's tours, the WTA is a lengthy step ahead of the ATP with a cast of appealing characters already assuming leading roles.

The leader of the pack

Three-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka is at the forefront of a school of rising stars, but she has impressive rivals for company.

The last four years have seen the 15 women's majors won by 12 different players, whereas in the men's game, Rafael Nadal (6), Novak Djokovic (5), Roger Federer (3) and Dominic Thiem (1) have creamed off all the top prizes in the same period.

Often criticised in the past for a perceived lack of depth, in the years when Serena Williams won seemingly at will, the women's tour has exploded with a rush of bright and young talent.

Osaka is a revelation and a leader, on and off the court. Twice a US Open champion now, and a winner in Australia two years ago, the 23-year-old Japanese star took a powerful stance for racial equality at Flushing Meadows back in September, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests. She wants to achieve even more off the court than on it, where she looks assured of one day leaving an impressive legacy.

If there is any area where Osaka's game falls down it is consistency. She has surprisingly not passed the fourth round in 14 of her 17 grand slam appearances, but on every occasion she has gone beyond that stage it has been en route to lifting a trophy.

In hot pursuit

Last year's three slam champions were, at the times of their triumphs, just 21 (Sofia Kenin - Australian Open), 19 (Iga Swiatek - French Open) and 22 (Osaka - US Open).

The women's game has not seen anything comparable in terms of youthful winners of its blue riband tournaments since 2004, when the 21-year-old Justine Henin won in Australia, Anastasia Myskina landed the Roland Garros title at 22, Maria Sharapova was a 17-year-old bolter to Wimbledon glory and 19-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova scored a stunning Flushing Meadows victory.

Last year does not touch the 1997 season, when a 16-year-old Martina Hingis won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open, denied a grand slam clean sweep by 19-year-old Iva Majoli's shock French Open final win over the Swiss.

But women's tennis is still seeing a remarkable shift to relative youth.

The 2019 season saw a then 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu scoop a stunning US Open win, while Ash Barty took the French Open.

Andreescu has been sidelined with a knee injury since the 2019 WTA Finals, but she is back for Australia, where Queenslander Barty, now 24, is the home hero.

Brace for the prospect of Andreescu and Barty joining Kenin, Swiatek and Osaka in a group of five who can take the women's game boldly into the post-Williams era.

But the Williams era isn't over

This is true, and again Serena will make another attempt to land that elusive 24th grand slam, the one that would move her level with Margaret Court on the all-time list.

She remains, at the age of 39, a magnificent competitor and a beguiling player, as does sister Venus, who turns 41 in June.

Serena has lost her last four grand slam finals, however, and the most recent run to a title match came almost 18 months ago in New York, where Andreescu had her number.

As the new gang of five threaten to pull away from the old establishment, perhaps Williams is now in the next group, along with the likes of Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova: still perfectly capable of winning another slam or even multiple slams, but it feels important to strike now.

Serena has not won any of her last 10 slams, making it the longest span in her professional career without winning a major.

Barty party, or Sofia the second?

Osaka begins the Australian Open as favourite with bookmakers, but world number one Barty will have home support and could make that count. How she performs will be keenly watched, given she chose not to travel once the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, sitting out 11 months.

Should Barty get on a roll, hopes will be high she can become the first Australian woman to take the title since Chris O'Neil in 1978. Last year, Barty fell in the semi-finals to Kenin, and she will be eager to land a second slam title.

Kenin, whose intense concentration and steely resolve helped her pull off last year's shock Melbourne win, and follow up with a run to the French Open final, can be a match for anyone. She will be aiming to become the first woman to win back-to-back Australian Open titles since Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

Success on this level has come perhaps ahead of schedule for the American, and the same can be said for Swiatek, whose demolition of the field at Roland Garros in October made a mockery of her being ranked number 53 in the world.

The teenage Polish player became her country's first grand slam singles champion, and with that status comes the expectation she will follow it up. How that turns out for her will be one of the most intriguing of sub-plots in the new season.

Changing priorities

Halep said in a recent WTA interview that winning an Olympic medal was her "main goal" for 2021, although Osaka will also have the Tokyo Games firmly circled in her diary.

For the likes of those other players among the 16 slam winners in the Melbourne draw, there will be differing targets this year, too.

Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Jelena Ostapenko and particularly Garbine Muguruza may yet come good again on the big stage at some point this season.

For Venus Williams, Kuznetsova and Samantha Stosur, it may be a case of one final hurrah.

As the likes of Coco Gauff emerge as potential future big-stage winners, and fledgling ambassadors, the women's game looks in safe hands.

Anthony Martial's Manchester United debut is one of the club's most memorable in the modern era of the Premier League. His jinking run left Liverpool's defence in knots before he coolly slotted into the bottom-right corner to help secure a 3-1 win over his new team's bitter rivals.

It was a stunning start and one that promised much for the future, producing the ultimate response to the many pundits who had questioned his signing and reported £36million transfer fee.

Yet, five and a half years on, it's difficult to say Martial's debut resembles a microcosm of his United career, with those spectacular moments remaining fleeting rather than developing into sustained excellence.

Of course, 2019-20 was surely the closest he's come to finding consistency as he scored 17 times in the Premier League. Finally, the penny had seemingly dropped and Martial was developing the decisiveness he had previously teased in flashes.

But 2020-21 has been largely disappointing for the Frenchman and has fans wondering if he is their best option. Was last season just another false dawn?

 

THE REGRESSION

United fans will hope Martial's lively appearance off the bench in Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of Southampton is a sign of things to come – he got two goals and also won a penalty, albeit a questionable one.

There was certainly plenty to like about his performance, with both goals coming from the central zone of the penalty area, and the first saw him use his strength to see off a defender prior to finding the net. For a player whose suitability as a number nine has been questioned, it was a promising development.

But while there were undoubtedly reasons for optimism, we cannot disregard his previous struggles this season on the basis of that 9-0 win. Saints became subjugated essentially as soon as Alexandre Jankewitz was sent off after 82 seconds, and Martial's second came when Ralph Hasenhuttl's side were down to nine men.

Before Tuesday, Martial's shot conversion rate this season (5.9 per cent) had been lower than any of his previous campaigns with United. Even when you take into consideration his two latest goals, which lifts it to 13.3 per cent, he's still well down on 2019-20 (21.3 per cent) and 2018-19 (25.6 per cent).

His issues don't appear to come down to a lack of clear opportunities either, as prior to Tuesday he was actually averaging roughly the same amount of big chances per 90 minutes this season as in 2019-20 (0.7). However, he had been proving more wasteful from such situations, with Martial's big chance conversion rate of 0.15 per game down from 0.3.

Martial particularly excelled with regards to expected goals in 2019-20, with his xG rating of 11.3 meaning he netted six more than he would have been expected to – by comparison, ahead of the Southampton win, he had two goals from an xG of 4.5.

Positionally, Martial has generally occupied the same spaces as he did in 2019-20 but given his emphatic out-performing of xG was seemingly unsustainable, perhaps this is part of the problem.

A NEW THREAT

Edinson Cavani's signing, while initially criticised as a knee-jerk or 'panic' acquisition, was always likely to be a positive move for United as it offered them a new dynamic in attack. Martial may like to play at being a number nine, he may wear that shirt, but his characteristics are much different to those of Cavani.

Even though Martial has been regularly deployed as the focal point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's attack over the past 18 months, his positional maps still prove a predilection to operate from the left.

 

Being involved more towards the left than the right flank is understandable in one sense, given United carry greater threat there with Luke Shaw than they do on the opposite side with Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

But Cavani takes up central positions with greater regularity than Martial. As such, the Uruguayan's far greater goal frequency this term (one every 133 minutes, compared to one every 312.5 minutes for Martial) cannot be a surprise, even if Martial actually averages more touches of the ball in the area (7.6 per 90 mins, to 5.3).

There is also a school of thought that Martial's mentality becomes affected when he feels threatened. It's not a secret that he had long seen his future as a central striker, but Louis van Gaal felt he was better suited to playing on the flank and Jose Mourinho openly questioned his suitability to the number nine role.

The latter's arrival in 2016 coincided with the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who essentially killed Martial's chances of playing as a striker, and his form subsequently suffered almost across the board after a positive first season.

Although he showed signs of improvement in 2017-18 despite Romelu Lukaku's arrival, Martial was no more productive than when he first joined.

And now there's Cavani, who is out-scoring Martial five to four despite playing less than half the number of minutes in the Premier League this season. It seems he's treading on Martial's toes rather than keeping him on them.

CAVANI THE MORE DEPENDABLE OPTION?

For what it's worth, Martial's dip in form hasn't impacted United massively – after all, they've a better xG differential this term (5.7) than they did in 2019-20 (3.2) and are challenging at the top of the table, something they haven't really managed since Alex Ferguson's retirement.

 

Tuesday's mauling of Southampton might have been just what the doctor ordered for Martial, who had previously gone a month without a goal in all competitions, though few would have any complaints if Cavani was just starting out on a run as United's first choice in attack.

He may not possess the pace of Martial or indeed his ability on the ball, but he has proven more clinical as evidenced by his greater conversion rate of big chances (45.4 per cent, over 33.3), such as his nonchalant header against Southampton.

The experienced Uruguay international is also being presented with more big chances (1.5 per 90 minutes) than Martial (0.9), suggesting Cavani boasts a greater ability to create openings with his movement.

It is, of course, always handy to have players with varying skillsets and it offers Solskjaer the ability to choose individuals based on his set-up or the opposition on a given day.

But on current form, the more consistent talents of Cavani might just offer United the greater reliability they need if they're to sustain a title challenge.

At the very least, he would seem a smart choice on Saturday if fit having already netted three times in two games for United against Everton.

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