It was another frustrating day for Manchester United against Watford on Saturday, while their rivals – and next opponents – Manchester City left it late at Everton.

Watford were, of course, the team that inflicted the defeat that cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job at United in November, and Ralf Rangnick will have been similarly frustrated, even if he is safe in the knowledge that he will not be getting the sack.

The same cannot be said for Marcelo Bielsa, however, who looks destined to see his stay at Leeds United brought to an end after a crushing defeat to Tottenham.

Following Saturday's Premier League action, Stats Perform delves into the key Opta facts from some of the day's games.

Manchester United 0-0 Watford: Red Devils revert to type

Man Utd's 4-2 win at Leeds United last week was a little more tense than Ralf Rangnick would have liked, at least for a while, but it was also a rare example of them getting a big goals haul.

It seemed to say more about Leeds than it did United, however, as Rangnick saw his side struggle in front of goal once again despite dominating visitors Watford.

 

Chances weren't an issue: they had 22 shots, but only three were on target. Their opportunities amounted to 2.7 expected goals (xG), just no actual goals.

That was the highest xG accumulated by any side who failed to score in a Premier League game this term, and the biggest negative differential between goals and xG recorded in 2021-22.

It was the fifth time United have failed to score in 14 Premier League home games this season, their worst record since 2013-14 (six).

Up next? The Manchester derby.

 

Everton 0-1 Manchester City: Champions breathe sigh of relief as Toffees' points tally makes grim viewing

Phil Foden rescued City at Goodison Park on Saturday, scoring eight minutes from time to seal a 1-0 win over Everton.

That goal ensured Liverpool can only cut the gap behind City to three points if they win their game in hand, with Pep Guardiola undoubtedly relieved.

He surely always had faith, however, as Guardiola had won each of his previous nine games against Everton – this victory took him to 10 on the bounce, making it his joint-longest winning run against a single opponent in his managerial career.

Everton's outlook is rather bleaker.

Defeat leaves them with just 22 points from 24 Premier League games this term. It is their lowest tally at this stage of a league campaign (if we assume three points have been awarded throughout history) since 1929-30 (also 22), when they were relegated from the top tier.

Frank Lampard's men certainly showed enough spirit at times in this game to suggest their fate will not be the same, but their nine points since the start of October is the fewest of every team in the Premier League.

Leeds United 0-4 Tottenham: Defensive woes leave Bielsa on the brink

It would seem Marcelo Bielsa could well be on his way out at Leeds after another grim defeat, this time at the hands of Spurs.

This loss took Leeds to 20 goal concessions in February, which is the most any Premier League team has ever let in during a single calendar month and worst since any top-flight side since April 1986 (Newcastle United – 21).

As such, they became only the second side in Premier League history to three or more goals in five successive games – four of those have been defeats, making it their worst such run in the top tier since December 2003-February 2004.

For Spurs it was a welcome change of pace after losing to Burnley in midweek, a defeat that led to an emotional outburst from Antonio Conte that made it seem the Italian's days at the club were numbered.

A major highlight for them saw Harry Kane and Son Heung-min combine for the 37th time in the Premier League, overtaking Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard as the duo with most goal combinations in the competition's history.

 

Brentford 0-2 Newcastle United: Bees' woes continue but Eriksen return puts struggles into perspective

The form of Brentford and Newcastle could not be much more different.

Brentford are now winless in eight Premier League games, seven of which have been defeats – Newcastle are unbeaten in seven, their best such run since 2011 (14 games).

Josh Dasilva's red card certainly did not help matters for the home side, with his 11th-minute dismissal the second-earliest in a Premier League game this term after Newcastle's Ciaran Clark (ninth minute against Norwich City in November).

But the match did give all fans and neutrals a reason to smile as Christian Eriksen made his return to the football pitch.

The playmaker suffered a cardiac arrest while playing for Denmark at Euro 2020, and he came on in the second half for his first competitive appearance since his medical emergency.

It was also marked his return to the Premier League, having last appeared in the competition 766 days earlier for Tottenham.

Scotland denied France glory in last year's Six Nations, with their dramatic victory in Paris meaning Les Bleus missed out on the title.

Now, France will be out for vengeance as they head to Edinburgh at the top of the standings with two victories from their opening two matches.

England, meanwhile, bounced back from their defeat to Scotland in round one with a hammering of Italy, and Eddie Jones' second-placed team host Wales at Twickenham. 

Wales lost convincingly to Ireland in their first game, yet defeated Scotland 20-17 last time out, though the defending champions are down in fifth place as it stands.

The final match of the weekend sees Ireland take on Italy in Dublin. The Azzurri are staring down the barrel of a 100th Six Nations defeat.

Ahead of the third round of fixtures, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.

SCOTLAND V FRANCE

FORM

Scotland have won four of their last six games against France in the Championship, including the last two in a row and a first win in Paris since 1999. They have not won three in a row against Les Bleus in the tournament since 1956-1958.

This will be the 99th meeting between Scotland and France in all competitions, with Les Bleus leading the head to head with 56 wins (L39, D3). However, honours are even across the last 10 clashes, with both sides picking up five wins each.

France opened their campaign with a pair of wins, something they also managed in 2021. The only time since 2011 when they have won their opening three games was in 2020, when they missed out on the title and a Grand Slam after a fourth-round defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Darcy Graham has beaten a Championship-high nine defenders so far. He is just ahead of French duo Gabin Villiere, Damian Penaud, and Marcus Smith.

France's Gregory Alldritt has made more carries (30) than any other player, while he has also gained 83 post-contact metres, the most of any forward and fourth most of any player, after Ireland's Mack Hansen (107), Scotland's Graham (86) and team-mate Penaud (84), as well as hitting 10 more defensive rucks (36) than anyone else.

ENGLAND V WALES

FORM

The last four Six Nations matches between these sides have been won by the home side on the day. Indeed, England have won their last four home games against Wales in the Championship, only once since 1930 have they enjoyed a longer such streak, a nine-game run between 1990 and 2006.

England have lost just two of their last 24 home games in the Six Nations (W21, D1), defeats to Ireland in 2018 and Scotland in 2021. Wales' last win at Twickenham in the Championship was in 2012. Since the start of the 2016 tournament, Wales have picked up just one away victory outside of Scotland or Italy, a 24-19 win in Paris in 2019.

England (49) and Wales (34) have made more maul metres than any other sides so far in this edition of the Six Nations.

ONES TO WATCH

Jones has named Ben Youngs on England's bench. If he comes on, Youngs will win his 115th Test cap, overtaking Jason Leonard as the country's most capped men's player. The scrum-half has been involved in five tries in his last six starts against Wales (three tries, two assists).

Alex Cuthbert is set to play for Wales for a 50th time.  He is looking to score his first try in the Six Nations since crossing against Italy in 2014.

 

IRELAND V ITALY

FORM

Ireland have won 21 of their 22 previous Six Nations matches against Italy, their sole defeat coming in 2013 (15-22), in what was the Azzurri's last home victory in the Championship.

Italy's next defeat will be their 100th in the Championship, they are currently on a record 34 match losing run, almost seven years since last claiming a victory (22-19 v Scotland, 28 Feb 2015).

Ireland hold a 100 per cent win rate against Italy at home in the Six Nations (W11), with the Azzurri the only side that has never won at the Aviva Stadium or Croke Park. Indeed, Ireland have scored 50 or more points in each of their last three home games against the tournament's whipping boys.

ONES TO WATCH

Hansen, Jamison Gibson-Park and Bundee Aki are three of just six players to both score and assist a try, the trio all scoring once and assisting one try after two rounds.

Italy's Federico Ruzza has won more lineouts (16) than any other player, including one steal, and team-mate Michele Lamaro has made the most tackles (41) in the tournament.

With another NBA All-Star weekend in the books, Thursday sees the league back in regular season action, with one of the more intriguing games taking place at Barclays Center when the Brooklyn Nets entertain the Boston Celtics.

They played in the same venue earlier this month, with Boston easing to a 126-91 victory, which the Nets will be eager to avenge this time.

Somewhat surprisingly given the strength of their respective rosters, Celtics star Jayson Tatum was the only player representing either team to play in the All-Star game, scoring eight points during his 20 minutes on court for Team Durant.

Kevin Durant missed the game in Cleveland with a knee injury and is likely to be out of this clash as well. 

Nets general manager Sean Marks recently said Durant and new arrival Ben Simmons could be ready to play in the coming weeks, but the visit of the Celtics is likely to come too soon for both.

Steve Nash's team currently sit eighth in the Eastern Conference on 31-28, having fallen away dramatically in the last month, losing 11 games in a row until beating the Sacramento Kings on Valentine's Day.

Injuries have played a big part in the dip in form, but back-to-back wins against the Kings and the New York Knicks suggested they could be about to turn things around, even with a defeat to the Washington Wizards in their last game before the All-Star break.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have been going in the other direction, winning nine games in a row before a loss to the Detroit Pistons ahead of the break, and they find themselves sixth in the East on 34-26.

Coach Ime Udoka has led his team to a five-game winning streak on the road and will be looking to make it six in Brooklyn.

He will be reliant on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to pick up where they left off. The Celtics' star duo combined for 57 points and 20 rebounds in the recent 135-87 thrashing of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The impact of guard Derrick White could also be crucial after his recent arrival from the San Antonio Spurs. He has made a respectable start to life with Boston, averaging 12.3 points per game in his four outings.

The restart of the league signals the beginning of what will no doubt be a tense run in a tightly contested Eastern Conference, and both these teams will be looking to get off to a perfect start on Thursday.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets – Patty Mills

It's a home game, so Kyrie Irving (vaccination status) cannot play, and with James Harden gone and no Durant or Simmons yet, the pressure will once again fall on Mills to be his team's main man.

The Australian narrowly missed out on the three-point finals at All-Star weekend but is enjoying a career-best season for points (13.4 average per game) in Brooklyn after moving from San Antonio last year.

His three-point shooting is what has been letting him down in recent times, going five games in a row scoring single figures for points, before hitting 22 in the loss to Washington before the All-Star break, including five of seven from beyond the arc.

Boston Celtics – Jayson Tatum

Tatum has been his team's standout player this season, and the momentum from featuring in the All-Star game could see him raise that level even higher.

Only three players in the league have scored more than his 1,439 points this season (DeMar DeRozan - 1,547, Trae Young - 1,475, Giannis Antetokounmpo - 1,443), while only DeRozan (566) and Nikola Jokic (516) have hit more than his 500 field goals.

Interestingly, Tatum took more of a back seat when Boston beat Brooklyn earlier this month, with Brown and Marcus Smart (both 22) scoring more than his 19 points.

KEY BATTLES – Make a better start, Brooklyn

The recent game between these two saw the Celtics race out to a 35-16 lead after the first quarter. It was always a big ask for the Nets to do anything from there.

Where Brooklyn will likely look for success is in mid-range, where no team in the league has a higher percentage of field goals from (48.7). However, only four teams have a lower percentage of mid-range field goals allowed than Boston (39.9 per cent).

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Although the Celtics won at Barclays Center earlier this month, the Nets had won the previous four meetings between the two, including at TD Garden in November, and all three encounters last season.

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

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

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

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

Adeyemi had left Bayern six years earlier. It's a detail that has dominated much of his early professional career, with questions about why he left never far away.

Now 20, Adeyemi has previously spoken at length about his attitude as a kid, how learning wasn't much to his liking and distraction was a regular nuisance to him. These factors certainly didn't help at Bayern.

Neither, Adeyemi alleged in the past, did the club, who he said showed little support to players who strayed from "the plan". The collective, rather than individualistic talents, was prioritised.

He and Bayern were simply not a good match at the time. He left Die Roten and, while such a disappointment might've been enough to derail other ordinary kids, Adeyemi has since proven he is rather extraordinary.

A move to a smaller local club, Unterhaching, soon followed. It was there that, according to youth coach Marc Unterberger, Adeyemi was able to develop with a greater degree of individual emphasis and that eventually translated into him becoming a better asset for the team as a whole.

"He had his own thoughts on how to deal with things," Unterberger told Stats Perform in 2021. "We never wanted to change him completely, and I think we succeeded quite well. Karim is a really great guy and a great person.

"Until the time Karim came to us, we had never had such an exceptional player in our youth division.

"Of course, as a young person, you benefit from being accepted for who you are, but I would like to make it very clear that there was no situation within the team in which Karim behaved in such a way that we as a club were forced to act.

"On the contrary, over time he developed more and more towards putting himself at the service of the team. He was easily distracted, that's right, but let's be honest, something like this is normal when young people develop."

Unterberger arguably knows Adeyemi better than any other coach, given he was there for the youngster's entire six-year stay at Unterhaching.

"I can still remember it very well, the first time I saw him play in an Under-11 tournament," he recalled.

"Back then he was still playing for TSV Forstenried. My first thought was: 'We absolutely need this player'. Fortunately, it worked out later!"

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

But most importantly, that move proved an unequivocal success for the player, as did his next.

Adeyemi confirmed to Stats Perform last year that he rejected the chance to join Chelsea from Unterhaching in his teens, instead opting to move just over the border to Salzburg. Had he gone to London, maybe he would've broken into their first-team – but it's probably just as likely that he'd have been lost among the Blues' army of loan players.

That's not to say loans can't work. Adeyemi's Salzburg career was carefully mapped out for him even before he joined, and that included an initial 18-month stint with Liefering, who essentially act as a B team. A haul of 15 goals and eight assists in the second tier provided strong evidence the teenager was ready for the step up in 2020.

His introduction to top-tier football wasn't quite so explosive, only having a hand in goals in six of his first 29 Austrian Bundesliga matches, but a key factor here was the need to remain patient – only nine of those 29 games were as a starter.

It wasn't until the final three months of 2020-21 that Adeyemi began to nail down a starting role, with seven of his 11 starts coming between mid-February and the end of May. This period also yielded six of his seven league goals.

This proved the final push he needed – with Patson Daka leaving for Leicester City, Adeyemi went from being the forwards' supporting act to the leading man in attack.

As you'd expect, this led to a bit of a change in his role, but there's no doubt he's thriving, securing his first senior international cap in September and finding himself linked heavily with Borussia Dortmund.

 

Sure, chance creation frequency is down (2.7 per 90, to 1.6), but the pay-off in terms of his effectiveness in front of goal is more than worth it.

His 14 goals is a league high, while only Kelvin Yeboah (11.2) – who has since joined Genoa – can better Adeyemi's 10.1 non-penalty expected goals (np-xG). Though on a per-90-minute basis, Adeyemi ranks first in the division with 0.72 np-xG (minimum 650 minutes played).

But it would be doing Adeyemi a huge disservice to give the impression he's 'just' some poacher. He's an immensely exciting player characterised by his explosive pace, low centre of gravity and silky ability on the ball. Yeboah (21) is the sole forward with more carries leading to shots and chances created than Adeyemi (21), though the Ghanaian's total comes from nearly 300 minutes more on the pitch.

It's a similar story in the Champions League. His carries led to a combined total of eight shots and chances created in the group stage – the only Opta-defined strikers to better that were Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo (both nine) and Arnaut Danjuma (14).

 

Even if it's reductive to just look at that metric, there's no doubt his performances have translated to European football's biggest stage – Sevilla's Diego Carlos will have been hoping to never see the youngster again after terrorising the Brazilian in the group.

Adeyemi's displays were a major factor in Salzburg reaching the knockouts of the Champions League for the first time in their history.

It would be a truly inspirational tale were it to be him, the young Bavarian cast-off, who plotted Bayern's downfall this time.

Manchester United's inability to take their chances came back to bite them once more as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Southampton on Saturday.

Che Adams struck early in the second half to cancel out Jadon Sancho's opener at Old Trafford.

In the 3pm GMT kick-offs, Everton ended a six-match winless streak in the Premier League as Frank Lampard oversaw a vital 3-0 win over Leeds United at Goodison Park, while Watford were beaten by Brighton and Hove Albion and Brentford drew 0-0 with Crystal Palace.

Later, league leaders Manchester City moved 12 points clear at the top with a 4-0 thrashing of strugglers Norwich City at Carrow Road.

Manchester United 1-1 Southampton: Rangnick's right, but that won't get the Red Devils points

Ralf Rangnick may have risked the wrath of some pundits after bringing up expected goals in his post-match comments, but the interim manager is correct – his side are creating plenty of chances without putting them away.

United finished the game with 12 shots to Southampton's 13, but an xG of 2.6 to the visitors' 0.9.

 

Nevertheless, for only the second time in their Premier League history, United have failed to win back-to-back matches despite being ahead at half-time in both, having last done so in December 1998.

Across their 10 top-flight games under Rangnick, meanwhile, they have averaged fewer goals per game than they have under any other manager in Premier League history (1.4).

United are at least unbeaten in their last 12 Premier League games against Southampton (W5 D7) since a 1-0 home loss in January 2016, while having only scored two goals in his first 23 appearances for the club in all competitions, Sancho has since netted two in his last three.

Brentford 0-0 Crystal Palace: Bees stop the rot

Brentford ended a run of five straight Premier League defeats and registered a clean sheet for the first time in 12 top-flight games (since a 1-0 win over Everton on November 28), as they drew with Palace.

It was a match of few clear chances (there were only 15 shots in total), though Wilfried Zaha was convinced he should have been awarded a late penalty.

Zaha was making his 250th Premier League appearance for Crystal Palace, just the third African player to hit that milestone for a single club in the competition, after Shola Ameobi (294 for Newcastle) and Didier Drogba (254 for Chelsea).

Everton 3-0 Leeds United: Lampard up and running

Lampard claimed his first league win as Everton manager in style, as the Toffees snapped a four-match losing streak in the competition with an emphatic 3-0 win over Leeds.

Everton went 2-0 up before half-time through Seamus Coleman's first league goal in 69 games, since May 2019, and Michael Keane's 10th goal in the top flight for the club.

 

Both of those were headers and no team have now scored more headed Premier League goals than Everton, who are level with United on 336.

It was the first time Everton scored twice before half-time in 40 Premier League games, last doing so one year and nine days earlier against, coincidentally, Leeds at Elland Road.

Anthony Gordon diverted in Richarlison's shot to seal Everton's biggest Premier League win since a 5-2 victory over West Brom in September 2020.

Watford 0-2 Brighton and Hove Albion: No home comforts for the Hornets

Watford have now lost six consecutive home league games for the first time since August to October 1990, a run which also included a defeat to Brighton.

Neal Maupay and Adam Webster got the goals for Brighton, who have lost just one of their past 12 away games in the Premier League, all coming in 2021-22 (W4 D7) – no side has lost fewer away games in the top flight this term than the Seagulls.

Watford have not kept a clean sheet in any of their past 17 home Premier League matches, equalling the competition's record run without a home shut-out.

Roy Hodgson has taken on a big job, and Watford will want a favour from Aston Villa against Newcastle United on Sunday to remain within three points of safety.

Norwich City 0-4 Manchester City: Perfect Sterling hat-trick sees leaders storm on

City lost on their previous league trip to Carrow Road, but there appeared little danger of a shock this time around as Raheem Sterling's perfect hat-trick helped them to a 4-0 win.

Sterling became the third City player to score a perfect hat-trick in the Premier League, after Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero (twice). Meanwhile, no player has scored more away hat-tricks for the club in the competition than Sterling, with each of his last three coming on the road.

 

The ex-Liverpool attacker became the sixth City player to score as many as 10 headed goals in the Premier League, with only Aguero (19) and Niall Quinn (13) netting more.

City scored at least four goals in a Premier League away game for the 21st time under Pep Guardiola, at least eight more than any other side since the Catalan coach joined the club.

Norwich, meanwhile, have conceded 50 goals in their 24 Premier League games this season – only in 1938-39 (21) and 1946-47 (19) have they shipped 50 in fewer games in a single league campaign.

France and Ireland face off at the Stade de France on Saturday in a contest that may well determine exactly where the Six Nations title ends up next month.

Pre-tournament favourites France kicked off their campaign with a routine victory over Italy, while a much-fancied Ireland proved far too strong for reigning champions Wales.

Both sides picked up bonus points to lead the way at the top, setting up a mouth-watering encounter in the French capital as Ireland aim to stretch their nine-match winning run.

Wales have a chance to respond to last week's disappointment when they host a Scotland side who should be full of confidence following their Calcutta Cup win over England last time out.

The final match of the weekend takes place in Rome as perennial whipping boys Italy take on England with the aim of ending their long-running losing streak in the competition.

Ahead of the second round of fixtures, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.

WALES v SCOTLAND

FORM

Wales have lost just two of their 11 home matches against Scotland in the Six Nations, though one of those losses did come in the last such meeting two years ago at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli.

The last three encounters between the sides in the competition have been decided by a margin of seven points or fewer. Indeed, four of the last six clashes have seen the side losing at half-time come back to win the match.

Scotland are on their longest away winning streak in the championship, having won four on the spin – not since between 1925 and 1927 have they won five in a row on their travels. However, Wales have won nine of their last 11 Six Nations home matches.

ONES TO WATCH

Taine Basham was a rare shining light for Wales in their heavy loss to Ireland, the tournament debutant crossing over late on to prevent his side from losing to nil on a day to forget in Dublin. Basham also made 22 tackles, which is the most of any player on the opening weekend, missing none in the process.

A number of Scotland players impressed in the late win over England, not least Darcy Graham. The diminutive wing set up Ben White for the opening try, won the crucial turnover in injury time and beat six defenders – the most of any player in round one.

 


FRANCE v IRELAND

FORM

France and Ireland have played each other 100 times previously, with France victorious on 58 occasions, Ireland prevailing 35 times and seven games drawn. In the Six Nations, Les Blues edge the win record 11 to nine from their 22 previous encounters, the other two matches finishing level.

Ireland have lost their last two meetings with France in the competition, having been beaten in just one of the previous eight. Ireland's win rate of 41 per cent against Les Blues in the Six Nations is their lowest against any side.

After recovering to see off Italy last week, France are aiming to win their opening two Six Nations games for the third year in a row, this after managing it just twice in their previous eight campaigns.


ONES TO WATCH

France head coach Fabien Galthie, back involved after missing the Italy match with coronavirus, has put his faith in youth by handing Yoram Moefana his first Six Nations start. The 21-year-old impressed in his cameo role against Italy by playing a part in his side's last two tries.

Ireland will have to make do without injured skipper Johnny Sexton, who passed the 500-point mark in the Six Nations last week, so all eyes will be on Joey Carbery – the only change from the Wales game – at fly-half. The Munster number 10 is tasked with pulling the strings on his first tournament start.

 

ITALY v ENGLAND

FORM

England are the only side Italy have never managed to beat in the Six Nations, losing all 22 of their previous showdowns. England's 80-23 win in this fixture 21 years ago remains the most points scored and biggest winning margin in any fixture in the competition's history.

Italy have lost their last 33 matches in the competition – the longest losing streak by any team in the Five or Six Nations – in an unwanted run that stretches back to a win over Scotland in 2015.

Eddie Jones' visitors have lost their last two Six Nations matches, but only once over the last 15 editions have they lost three in a row, while not since 2005 have they lost their opening two games to a campaign.


ONES TO WATCH

Italy's Michele Lamaro (21 tackles) was one of just three players to make 20 or more tackles during the opening weekend, along with Basham (22) and Nick Tompkins (21). However, he also missed four tackles, which was the joint-most of any player, level with Dan Biggar.

Ben Youngs, who made the most kicks in play of any player in round one (17), is one of six players to make way for England. Should the experienced scrum-half make it off the bench, he will become England's joint-most capped player of all time alongside Jason Leonard with 114.

It took a 74th-minute goal from Marco Asensio for Real Madrid to see off Granada on Sunday, as Carlo Ancelotti's side capitalised on Sevilla's slip-up against Osasuna.

A 0-0 draw in Pamplona meant Madrid's victory saw them move six points clear of their nearest rivals in the title race. Both Los Blancos and Sevilla have played 23 games.

Ancelotti's team remain favourites to clinch the crown, though last week's defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey, and a previous 2-2 draw at home to Elche, showed they are far from infallible.

The former Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain boss made six changes for the Granada match (the most for Madrid from one game to another this season), which came hot on the heels of the defeat to Athletic, but by and large he has chosen to rely on a core group of players so far this term. 

However, with the return of the Champions League this month and LaLiga matches set to come thick and fast between now and May, might fatigue catch up with Madrid as the run-in approaches? 

The key performers

In total, 13 players have started 10 or more of Madrid's league matches. Of the teams placed second to fifth in LaLiga, Atletico Madrid (15) and Real Betis (14) have had more players start at least 10 games, while Barcelona and Sevilla have both used fewer (11) from the off.

Thibaut Courtois, unsurprisingly, has played in every top-flight game. He has kept eight clean sheets (five goalkeepers in LaLiga have kept more) and recorded a save percentage of 74.4 – among goalkeepers with at least 16 saves, only two have a better record than the Belgian.

 

He has played 2,070 minutes, conceding 20 times from 78 shots on target faced, while his expected goals on target (xGOT) conceded figure of 20.9 suggests he has not overly exceeded expectations when it comes to shot-stopping. Essentially, Courtois has conceded as many goals as would be expected given the quality of efforts he has faced.

Eder Militao has played (and started) 22 times, with David Alaba featuring on 21 occasions (also all starts). The defenders have accumulated 3,863 minutes between them in the league, and have contributed to the attack too, with seven direct goal involvements combined.

Karim Benzema has scored 17 goals from his 21 LaLiga appearances, while Vinicius Junior has been a real success story of Ancelotti's second spell so far. The Brazil winger has directly contributed to 17 goals in 1,694 minutes, averaging a goal or an assist every 99 minutes.

Fringe players to step up?

Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Ferland Mendy, Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Federico Valverde and Dani Carvajal have also reached double figures for league starts, while back-up options Rodrygo, Nacho Fernandez, Eden Hazard, Eduardo Camavinga, Isco and Luka Jovic have at least featured in a minimum of 10 games.

Hazard's time at Madrid has been plagued by injuries, but when called upon he has proved useful, creating 3.3 chances per 90 minutes played, which ranks highest out of the players to have played at least 25 minutes.

 

Isco's troubles from last season have continued but the playmaker still has guile and craft, with 2.4 chances created per 90 minutes suggesting he too can make an impact in the run-in. Gareth Bale, though, has made only three appearances in LaLiga, scoring just once, and it does not seem like he will be a man Ancelotti calls on too often even when fit.

With Vinicius suspended on Sunday, Ancelotti handed Rodrygo a chance to shine on the left flank. The youngster had three shots – second only to Asensio (eight) – but crafted just one goalscoring opportunity. Indeed, across his 18 LaLiga games this season, he is yet to score and has provided a solitary assist.

Jovic, meanwhile, has never hit the heights he previously did at Eintracht Frankfurt, though the Serbia forward does of course play second-fiddle to the evergreen Benzema. He has scored just one league goal from 12 substitute appearances this term.

Only Benzema and Vinicius have reached double figures for LaLiga goals so far in 2021-22, while the same pair are also the only Madrid players with five or more assists. Given the lack of end-product from his back-up brigade, it is no surprise Ancelotti wants to stick with the tried and tested.

But, has there been any drop-off?

Let's take a look at Madrid's most-used attackers in LaLiga this term, starting with Benzema.

The 34-year-old has kept scoring consistently through the season. However, despite being Madrid's top assister (seven), all of those came before the end of September.

There's an argument that his game time should have been managed better as well. Prior to the start of November, he completed the full 90 minutes of eight of Madrid's 10 league games – he clocked up 80 and 88 minutes in the other two.

Since that period, although he has technically only played a full league game four times, on two other occasions he played 89 minutes – it's worth noting that he was apparently suffering with his current muscular injury as far back as December and now appears a doubt for their upcoming Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain.

 

Vinicius, on the other hand, has been a consistent creator of chances, if not always providing assists. His last appearance, against Elche, saw him have 97 touches (his highest tally this season), craft four opportunities (his second-best effort of 2021-22) and engage in 25 duels, another season-high. He has registered over 1.0 xG twice in his last six games and against Elche attempted 13 dribbles, one shy of his season-best from August, showing his attacking output is not suffering as the season goes on.

As a team, Madrid have made seven, 12 and eight high turnovers across their last three league games respectively, up from a slight drop-off (five and three) in their previous two outings. Indeed, that figure of 12, achieved against Elche, is their highest of the campaign, suggesting any fatigue is not impacting Madrid's ability to press just yet.

If anything, Madrid are pressing more efficiently as the season has gone on. Their passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA – a metric that can quantify the extent and aggression of high presses) has dropped from an average of 19.6 in a six-game span between November 6 and December 12, to a median of 11.6 across the six fixtures since.

This is reflected by their high turnover total improving from 31 to 46. Madrid rank joint-10th in LaLiga for high turnovers (147), but no team has had more shots from such situations (37) and only two teams (Getafe and Celta Vigo, both on six) have scored more goals than Los Blancos (four) from these scenarios.

Ancelotti is not renowned for employing a high press, but when his team do hunt the ball in their opponent's territory, they continue to be highly efficient, a scary thought for their rivals.

Even if Madrid have relied on a select group of players more than others, they are not showing many signs of dropping off the pace.

 

Injuries, playing games on back-to-back nights and COVID protocols are part of the landscape of the NBA all teams are forced to navigate through in today’s world.

The Toronto Raptors were dealt significant blows to their roster over the season’s first two months, but now close to full strength, they’re climbing the Eastern Conference standings and will likely be looking to make a move before Thursday’s trade deadline.

Through the end of November, only four teams used more starting lineups than Toronto’s eight, as Nick Nurse was forced to constantly shuffle his rotation. The low point came Boxing Day, when the Raptors had 10 players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols and found out just hours before their scheduled tip-off against the Cleveland Cavaliers they would in fact play. With a patchwork eight-player roster featuring four hardship signees, they were promptly obliterated by 45 points.

Undermanned again two nights later, they suffered another defeat at hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. But as the regulars returned to the Raptors’ roster, the wins have been piling up.

With Monday’s 116-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets, Toronto extended their winning streak to six games and improved to 15-6 since New Year’s Eve – only the 76ers have a better record at 13-5 among East clubs. This surge has vaulted the Raptors into sixth place in the conference after sitting in 11th on December 30.

Much of the recent success is because Nurse can count on writing in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Gart Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes into his starting lineup.

The Raptors are 11-4 when starting VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, Trent and Barnes, averaging 114.3 points while shooting 45.9 per cent and making an average of 13.9 3-pointers in those games. When those five don’t start together, Toronto is 18-19, averaging 106 points on 43.4 per cent shooting with an average of 11.9 made 3s per game.

It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Toronto’s success is tied to the starting combination of VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, Trent and Barnes given how heavily the Raptors rely on their starting five.

Toronto’s starters account for 79.2 per cent of their scoring – the largest percentage in the NBA – with an average of 85.8 points per game – also a league best. The Raptors’ bench, meanwhile, is averaging a mere 22.6 points – the fewest by any group of reserves since the 2012-13 Portland Trail Blazers bench averaged 18.5 points. The difference of 63.2 points between Toronto’s starting five and reserves is the largest by a team in a season since 2004-05, when the Phoenix Suns had a difference of 73.2 points (91.8 starting average, 18.6 bench average).

Over the last few seasons, Nurse regularly asked VanVleet and Siakam to play serious minutes, but with a lack of a bench, Anunoby, Barnes and Trent are also spending more time on the court.

VanVleet averages a league-leading 38.6 minutes, followed by Siakam at 37.9 and Anunoby at 37.2. No team has ever had players finish a season 1-2-3 in minutes played per game since minutes began being tracked in 1951-52.

Barnes then checks in at No. 6 in the NBA with an average of 36.1 minutes. That’s right, four of the top six players in average minutes all play for the Raptors. Trent is no slouch, either, averaging 34.8 minutes – good for 16th in the NBA.

With depth being a considerable issue, Goran Dragic is likely to be shipped out. Acquired as part of the sign-and-trade that sent Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat, Dragic has appeared in just five games for the Raptors – and none since November 13 – as he’s been away from the team due to a personal issue. A handful of teams have reportedly shown interest in Dragic, and the Raptors would love to move the veteran point guard so they could shed his hefty salary and fill his roster spot with someone who will actually play.

Following the offseason departure of Lowry, the 27-year-old VanVleet has emerged as the team leader, averaging career highs in points (21.6), assists (7.1) rebounds (4.7) and made 3s (3.9). In 19 games since clearing the league’s health and safety protocols, the recently named first-time All-Star leads the NBA with 90 made 3-pointers since New Year’s Eve.

VanVleet, who is slated to participate in the 3-point contest during All-Star weekend, has been putting up eye-popping numbers over his last 21 games, averaging 24.3 points, 8 assists and 4.9 3-pointers. Only two other players have ever averaged 24+ points, 8+ assists and 4.5+ 3-pointers over a 21-game span in a single season and that’s James Harden and Damian Lillard.

During this incredible run, VanVleet has regularly been feeding Siakam, who has found his shooting touch on jumpers close to the basket.

Since December 14, VanVleet’s 46 assists to Siakam are tied for sixth most from one player to a teammate. His assists to Siakam are nearly double those of his next-closest teammate with 28 going to Anunoby, and 26 going to each Barnes and Trent.

Siakam is averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and 5.5 assists during Toronto’s winning streak – and no other Raptor has ever averaged those numbers over a six-game span in a single season. He had 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists Monday – the second time he’s reached those numbers in a game in his career. There have been only four other instances a Toronto player reached those numbers in a game in franchise history.

In 23 games since December 14, Siakam is averaging 23.3 points after averaging 18.8 points in his first 16 games, and part of the reason for that scoring boost stems from his 55.6 per cent shooting on jump shots attempted within 8 feet of the rim – fourth-highest rate in the league among those with at least 35 attempts. Prior to this stretch, he was shooting just 38.5 per cent on jump shots up to 8 feet from the hoop.

Trent, meanwhile, is shooting 56.7 per cent from the baseline – eighth in the NBA among those with at least 20 attempts – but it's the perimeter where he's suddenly gotten hot.

Since returning from a six-game absence with an injured left ankle, Trent is shooting 48 per cent from 3-point range – the best mark in the league among the 49 players with at least 50 3-point attempts since January 21. Most impressive about this stretch is he’s also attempted more 3-pointers than anyone else since January 21 with 100. So, in these last 10 contests he’s averaging 14.4 points off 3-pointers after previously averaging 8.1 points off 3-pointers while shooting 36.8 per cent from deep.

While he’s suddenly emerged as a dangerous 3-point threat, Trent has spurred Toronto’s swarming defence, which is forcing a turnover on 14.7 per cent of its opponents’ possessions – the highest rate in the NBA.

Trent's average of 1.84 steals per game is the fourth-highest rate in the league, while Anunoby ranks seventh at 1.68 per game and VanVleet is eighth at 1.66. Since steals first began being tracked in 1973-74, only one team has had at least three players finish in the top 10 in steals per game and that was the 2009-10 Golden State Warriors with Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and Stephen Jackson.

Barnes has also made an immediate impact on the defensive end. Selected fourth overall in the 2021 draft, Barnes was projected to be a disrupter on defence and he’s excelling, ranking fourth among rookies with 1.8 defensive stops per game.

His average of 2.6 offensive rebounds per game is the best among first-year players and has fuelled Toronto’s offensive attack. The Raptors’ average of 16.2 second-chance points per game trails only the Memphis Grizzlies’ average of 18.0 for the best in the league, and they’re an NBA-best 15-3 when scoring 18 or more second-chance points in a game.

With 15 points and eight rebounds on Monday, Barnes notched his fourth straight game with at least eight boards – the first Toronto rookie to accomplish that since Jonas Valanciunas in 2012-13. No Raptor first-year player has had a longer streak of consecutive games with eight or more rebounds since Jamario Moon had six in a row in 2007-08.

Barnes has been selected to participate in the 2022 Rising Stars event during All-Star weekend, along with second-year teammate Precious Achiuwa, who is averaging 7.8 points on 52.8 per cent shooting and 5.3 rebounds during Toronto’s winning streak.

The Raptors are one victory away from notching their first seven-game winning streak since the 2019-20 season, and have a couple of favourable matchups next on their schedule with games Wednesday and Thursday against a pair of last-place teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. (The schedule over the next three weeks actually looks quite advantageous, as the Raptors’ opponent winning percentage of .417 from Wednesday-March 4 is the third lowest among all teams.)

While playing on consecutive nights would seem to present greater problems for the Raptors, given how many minutes their starters play, it hasn’t been much of an issue for Nurse’s club. Toronto is 7-3 on games on zero days’ rest – tied with the Boston Celtics for the league’s second-best mark.

Toronto, though, may have a different look when it takes the court Thursday, or Wednesday for that matter, if the front office decides to make a move before the trade deadline to bolster the lineup.

October 17, 2020. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's double proved enough for Milan to claim a derby day victory over their great rivals, with Romelu Lukaku's goal not enough to inspire a comeback.

Much has changed in the intervening period between then and now.

Inter recovered from that defeat by going on to win the Serie A title for the first time since 2010. Yet coach Antonio Conte and talisman Lukaku have both departed for pastures new – London, to be precise, with Tottenham and Chelsea respectively.

Milan, meanwhile, finished second, 12 points behind their neighbours, but they have had a relatively settled period under Stefano Pioli. And on Saturday, the Rossoneri truly ignited the 2021-22 title race by ending Inter's domestic unbeaten streak at San Siro – a run that stretched to 28 matches in total, since that day in October 2020.

There was no Ibrahimovic for Pioli to call on this time, but another veteran forward stepped up in the form of Olivier Giroud, whose quickfire double did the damage.

Having been on the verge of going seven points clear, the incredible turnaround leaves Inter just one point above Milan, as the title battle between the two northern powerhouses looks set to go down to the wire.

Giroud brings the Z factor

Ibrahimovic is a big miss in any game, but in particular, a derby with title hopes resting on it.

The 40-year-old has scored eight Serie A goals in Milan Derbies (six for AC Milan, two for Inter) – only Giuseppe Meazza (12), Gunnar Nordahl (11) and Stefano Nyers (11) have scored more times in this fixture in the history of the competition.

For much of Saturday's clash – 75 minutes, in fact – the void in Milan's attack was evident, the Rossoneri having managed just one attempt on target, from Sandro Tonali in the first half.

But Giroud turned that on its head, first showing his poacher's instinct to prod in from Brahim Diaz's shot-cross, before holding off his marker and drilling in a low strike on the turn three minutes later.

Samir Handanovic should have done better to prevent Milan's winner, mind. Perhaps the Inter goalkeeper had been caught unawares, given his lack of action prior to the late red-and-black charge.

"Playing with him is something I see as a challenge, something that pushes me every day," Giroud said of Ibrahimovic in a recent interview.

"It's an opportunity to have him as my partner, to learn something more. He's an example for many strikers and when I was young I loved him, both on the pitch and for his strong character, and for the fact that he's demanding every day.  It's a healthy competition between us."

Giroud proved an old dog can still learn new tricks (from an older dog, that is) with his match-winning turn. The former Chelsea forward converted both of his two attempts, which came from two of his four touches in the penalty area, and a combined expected goals (xG) value of 0.8, as he became the first French player to score twice against Inter in a Serie A match.

All seven of Giroud's Serie A goals this season have come at San Siro, with those strikes coming only when he has started games (eight starts in total).

 

Inter's charge hits its first hurdle?

There has been a pretty seamless transition for Inter since Simone Inzaghi replaced Antonio Conte.

Edin Dzeko has come in for Lukaku, and Lautaro Martinez is still brilliant. Indeed, Inter are scoring at a similar rate to last season, netting on average every 38 minutes in the league.

Yet they more than met their match in the form of Milan, who earned a thrilling 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in November.

Inter had less possession (46 per cent) and won fewer duels (42 compared to 57), yet still created more chances (nine to seven) and had more attempts (11 to 10). They were unable to make the most of going ahead, though.

 

Ivan Perisic's goal – his 50th for the club – had the Nerazzurri in front by half-time but Inter have now failed to win three of their last four derby clashes, while Milan came from behind to beat them in Serie A for the first time since February 2004.

This result can hardly be considered as putting Inter into anything resembling a crisis. They have lost just two of their last 12 Serie A derbies and are still top, with a game in hand on their title rivals, though the manner of the defeat may take some coming back from.

Since the turn of the year, Inter have taken seven of the 12 points on offer and, in a title race with such fine margins (Napoli are only four points back in third), that has enabled the challengers to gain ground.

One positive for Inter, however, was a late red card for Theo Hernandez, who will face a suspension after lunging in recklessly on Denzel Dumfries.

Hernandez is one of Milan's best players, and his absence may just mean that, even though Inter lost the battle, they could go on to win the war provided they bounce back quickly.

The 2022 Six Nations campaign begins with a mouth-watering contest between defending champions Wales and a well fancied Ireland side at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. 

Wales won the championship for a sixth time last March, narrowly missing out on a Grand Slam with defeat to France in their final game, but they enter this year's tournament as outsiders in the eyes of many.

Much like Ireland, France will be eyeing top spot after going 12 years since their most recent triumph – Les Bleus' longest-such run since joining the Five Nations in 1947 – with their campaign beginning at home to an Italy side without a win in 32 games in the competition.

A relatively inexperienced England side do battle with perennial dark horses Scotland at Murrayfield for the Calcutta Cup, meanwhile, with the hosts looking to record back-to-back wins in this fixture for the first time since 1984.

Ahead of the opening round, Stats Perform previews the upcoming matches with help from Opta.


IRELAND v WALES

FORM

Ireland have won four of their last five meetings with Wales, though their solitary defeat in that run came in the most recent match between the sides in last year's Six Nations when going down 21-16.

Wales have lost their last four away games against Ireland, their worst-such run since losing four in a row between 2002 and 2006, but never before have they lost five in a row away to Ireland.

Ireland have won 27 of their last 29 Tests at the Aviva Stadium, including their last six in a row, with their only defeats coming against England in 2019 and France in 2021 – both in the Six Nations.


ONES TO WATCH

Johnny Sexton will win his 102nd international cap for Ireland this weekend and remains a key player for his country. The 36-year-old recorded the best goal kicking success rate of any player (minimum of three kicks) in last year's Six Nations, finding the target from 25 out of 26 (96 per cent).

Wales are without a long list of players due to injury, most notably skipper Alun Wyn Jones. It's set to be the first Six Nations the Dragons have played without Jones since 2006, with fly-half Dan Biggar being left with big shoes to fill in his first game as captain.

 

SCOTLAND v ENGLAND

FORM

Scotland have won five of their last six Test matches, with their solitary defeat in that run coming against the world champions South Africa in November.

England have won 15 of their last 18 Tests, including their last five in a row, although their three defeats in that spell all came in last year's Six Nations – just the fourth time they had lost more than twice in an edition of the tournament since 2000 (also lost three in 2005, 2006 and 2018).

This will be the 140th Test between the rival nations in a fixture that dates back to the first ever rugby international back in 1871. Scotland have won on 44 occasions, compared to 76 victories for England, with the other 19 ending all square.


ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have named a near-identical XV to the one that ended last year's Six Nations, Duhan van der Merwe among them. The British and Irish Lions wing beat 31 defenders in the 2021 edition, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's record for the most in a single Six Nations (30 in 2000).

In the absence of Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry will captain England at the age of just 23, making him the youngest player to do so since Will Carling in 1988.

 

FRANCE v ITALY

FORM

France and Italy have met on 45 occasions, with Les Bleus winning 42 of those matches. That 93 per cent win rate is their highest against any nation they have faced more than five times.

Italy have lost 23 of their last 24 away games with France in Test rugby, including their last 14 in a row. The Azzurri's only victory in France came in Grenoble in 1997.

France have won 12 of their last 13 Test matches at home, although their solitary defeat in that run came in their most recent Six Nations game against Scotland. They have not trailed at half-time in a home game since February 2018, going into the break ahead (17 times) or level (twice) in each of their last 19 such games.

ONES TO WATCH

Captain and recently crowned World Rugby Player of the Year Antoine Dupont will be looking to pick up from where he left off in 2021. He was directly involved in eight tries during the last Six Nations, more than any other player, scoring three and assisting a Championship-high five.

Sebastian Negri made 64 carries and 68 tackles during the 2021 tournament, his combined tally of 132 carries and tackles being the second most of any player in the Championship, behind only Taulupe Faletau (140). Italy could do with more of the same here to help avoid another loss.

 

Friday sees the official beginning of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, as the best of the best in cold-weather sports converge on Beijing.

Around 90 National Olympic Committees will participate, with approximately 2,900 athletes taking part in the 109 events at 13 different venues.

Some of the world's finest athletes will take to the snow or ice, though you may not necessarily know who in particular to look out for if you aren't a regular follower of winter sports.

Stats Perform has you covered, profiling seven of the most notable figures to keep an eye out for in Beijing…

Eileen Gu – Freestyle skiing

Nicknamed the "Snow Princess" in China, Gu will be one of the most intriguing athletes competing in these Games. The freestyle skier won two gold medals at both the Winter X Games 2021 and the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships.

Aside from being very good at her sport, Gu is also signed to a modelling agency and has appeared in local editions of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.

The 18-year-old is very much a medal hopeful, which is why it delighted China when the Californian decided to represent the country of her mother's birth instead of the United States.

Francesco Friedrich – Bobsleigh

Germans are good at bobsledding, winning gold in every bobsleigh event at PyeongChang 2018, and driver Friedrich might just be the best of the bunch.

The 31-year-old won a shared gold medal in the two-man bobsled in PyeongChang (with Canada), and an outright gold in the four-man event.

Friedrich also led the squad that comfortably won gold at the 2021 IBSF World Championships in a time almost a full second faster than runners-up Latvia, and recently won the World Cup title despite the German four-man bobsleigh suffering its first defeat of the Olympic season in the final race before Beijing 2022, coming second to Latvia.

Mikaela Shiffrin – Alpine skiing

A two-time Olympic gold medallist, Shiffrin also won four medals at the 2021 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, including gold in the Alpine combined.

Other notable achievements include being the youngest slalom champion in Olympic Alpine skiing history, she has won the most world cup slalom races in history (45) and became the first Alpine skier to win the world championship in the same discipline (slalom) at four championships in a row.

Suzanne Schulting – Short track speed skating

The dominant Dutch athlete won gold in every event at the Speed Skating World Championships in March last year, becoming only the second female to do so.

Schulting won gold in 2018 in the 1000-metre race and will be hoping to win multiple short track events in Beijing.

In November, the 24-year-old gave an interview to the official Olympics website, saying: "I'm super motivated to train again and to do my best and become even better than last year. I want to go for gold at Beijing and of course to work for the upcoming World Cups."

Mikael Kingsbury – Freestyle skiing

Kingsbury might be the main one to watch early on in Beijing as he has already qualified for the freestyle skiing final, which takes place on Saturday.

The Canadian has won the most medals at the Freestyle World Championships of any male skier in history and is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the moguls.

Kingsbury started his Olympics on Thursday with a flawless run in qualifying to book an automatic spot in the final, finishing with a score of 81.15 at the Genting Snow Park.

Chloe Kim – Snowboarding

Snowboarding has become one of the most popular events at the Winter Olympics since it was first introduced in 1998.

One of the main snowboarders to keep an eye on in Beijing is Kim, who made history at PyeongChang 2018 when she won gold in the women's snowboard halfpipe at the age of just 17, becoming the youngest female competitor to win an Olympic snowboarding gold.

The American is also the current world, Olympic and X Games champion in the halfpipe and was the first to win all three titles.

Yuzuru Hanyu – Figure skating

The Japanese sensation has broken figure skating world records a staggering 19 times and has seven world championship medals and four Grand Prix titles to his name.

Hanyu is also a two-time Olympic champion and there is a tradition after each skate where his fans throw Winnie the Pooh cuddly toys onto the ice. But given the 2018 film was banned in China following social media comparisons between the cartoon bear and Chinese president Xi Jinping, it is perhaps for the best that only local spectators will be in attendance in Beijing.

The 27-year-old is aiming for a third consecutive title in the men's singles competition, which has not been achieved since 1928.

Eleven months on from playing the roles of party poopers against the same opponents, France will this weekend set out on a journey that Fabien Galthie and his men will hope ends with the Six Nations trophy being held aloft at the Stade de France on March 19.

Les Blues denied Wales Grand Slam glory with an enthralling 32-30 victory in Paris in the Dragons' final match of an otherwise perfect 2021 campaign, snatching the win through an injury-time Brice Dulin try, but they ultimately fell short by finishing four points adrift in second.

Now on their longest run without winning the championship since joining the Five Nations in 1947, with their most recent triumph coming in 2010, France will consider anything other than first place this time around a real disappointment.

But if that is to happen, then Galthie's side have a number of obstacles to navigate, not least beating defending champions Wales – now one shy of England's record of seven Six Nations crowns – in Cardiff in the fourth round of fixtures.

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years, yet few are giving them much of a chance this time around after failing to push on in the second half of 2021.

Wayne Pivac's side are without inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones and do not exactly have history on their side, having won back-to-back championships just once – doing so in 2012 and 2013 – but the Dragons do at least play three of their five matches on home soil.

 

A fast start is imperative but a first-round trip to in-form Ireland presents the reigning champions with arguably their toughest assignment of the tournament. Champions in 2018, four barren years would feel like a lifetime should Ireland miss out again.

Andy Farrell's charges are certainly not lacking momentum thanks to a strong end to the last campaign. Eight wins in a row, including a famous triumph over New Zealand in November – only their third win in that fixture in 33 meetings – has them riding the crest of a wave.

A lack of playing time at club level for certain players could hamper Ireland in their opener, however, setting up an intriguing game to kick things off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

While it is clear what can be expected from France, Ireland and Wales, fellow heavyweights England enter this latest edition as something of an unknown quantity due to injury absentees, skipper Owen Farrell among them.

Tom Curry will have to step up and lead an inexperienced England side that contains seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV to face Scotland. It will make for a challenging six weeks from Eddie Jones' perspective, but one he will be relishing in his seventh Six Nations with the Red Rose.

 

England are one of two sides, along with Ireland, yet to collect the Wooden Spoon. That cannot be said of Italy, who have propped up the table in each of the last six years, that after finishing bottom only once in the previous four campaigns.

Another disappointing 2021 saw Italy lose all five matches as their losing run in the tournament stretched to 32 games, the longest such streak in either Five or Six Nations history.

Italy's place in future competitions continues to be debated, with a possible promotion and relegation system being touted by some, but for now the Azzurri will simply be focused on proving their doubters wrong by ending a long-running losing streak that stretches back to 2015.

While there are some promising signs at age-group level, it is hard to see past Italy claiming an unwanted 17th Wooden Spoon this time around, particularly with trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff to prepare for.

Exactly who Italy will battle it out for to avoid bottom spot is a tougher question to answer than predicting an overall winner, with Scotland one of those whose campaign could go either way.

Experienced but too inconsistent, Gregor Townsend's perennial dark horses need to find a way to string together a run of victories to remain in contention right until the end. 

The hallmarks of a great team were there 12 months ago when enjoying more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), but there are still a number of issues that need to be ironed out.

That is a running theme throughout, though, and all adds to the unpredictability and excitement.

With fans back inside grounds, scores to be settled and no shortage of subplots, it is easy to see why this year's Six Nations is the most anticipated in several years.

Superstars of the winter sports world are lining up at Beijing 2022 to create more breathtaking Olympic memories.

This festival of fast-paced action and technical excellence, a bewilderingly brilliant show set on snow and ice, has delivered sporting legends since it was first staged 98 years ago.

The Winter Olympics has ballooned in scale since Chamonix 1924, but its foundations were set then, with bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, skiing in its varying forms and both figure skating and speed skating on the original programme.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the achievements of the greatest athletes to strike gold.

BIATHLON: Ole Einar Bjorndalen

Stemming from the sport known in 1924 as military patrol, biathlon is that peculiar blend of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. It might be archaic in origin, but so too is the 100 metres dash at the summer Olympics, and biathlon remains an integral part of the winter programme.

Norwegian master Bjorndalen has been its greatest exponent, winning five solo gold medals and three in relay events. He competed at each Games from Lillehammer 1994 through to Sochi 2014, first striking gold at Nagano 1998. Bjorndalen peaked at Salt Lake City in 2002, landing four golds.

His fame has never rivalled that of a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, even though biathlon commands huge television audiences in parts of mainland Europe. Yet the man whose hunger for devouring the competition earned him the nickname of 'The Cannibal' belongs in Olympic legend.

Four silvers and a bronze took him to 13 Olympic medals in all, the most successful male Winter Olympics athlete for the most successful nation in the history of the Games.

CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: Marit Bjorgen and Bjorn Daehlie

Bjorgen is the most successful athlete in Winter Olympics history, with eight gold medals, four silver and three bronze, out-ranking even Bjorndalen in Norway's parade of great champions.

She scooped 18 World Championship golds too, had 114 wins among 184 top-three finishes at World Cup events, and ranks as the third most successful Olympian of all time in terms of medals won, after swimming great Phelps (28 medals, including 23 golds) and Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina (18 medals, nine golds).

Bjorgen made her Olympic debut in 2002 but had to wait until 2010 before landing a first gold at the Games, triumphing in the pursuit, the sprint and the 4×5km relay. Three more triumphs followed in Sochi, before Bjorgen, by now a mother, won twice again at Pyeongchang in 2018. Her career climaxed in a dazzling triumph by almost two minutes in the 30km race on the final day of competition, the gold vaulting Bjorgen above Bjorndalen on the all-time list in the process. She retired a matter of weeks later, a mission accomplished.

Oslo-based Bjorgen ranks only just ahead of compatriot and fellow cross-country superstar Daehlie in the grand totting up. Daehlie was the first Winter Olympics star to land eight gold medals, winning those from 1992 to 1998, including two in front of home crowds at Lillehammer in 1994.

He captured four silver medals across his Olympic career, too, and might have gone on to enjoy success in subsequent Games, only for injuries from a roller-skiing accident to force him into retirement in 2001, at the age of 33.

SPEED SKATING: Eric Heiden, Clas Thunberg and Viktor Ahn

Heiden's story is remarkable, with the American sweeping the board by winning five gold medals at his home Winter Olympics in 1980, taking the Games in Lake Placid by storm and instantly making himself an all-timer in speed skating. He snatched Olympic records across the board, and his feat would be remarkable enough if the story ended there, as the only winter athlete in history to win five gold medals in a Games, but Heiden had more up his sleeve.

He turned his focus to cycling and represented the United States on the track before switching to the road, winning a US national championship and competing at the 1985 Giro d'Italia and 1986 Tour de France, crashing out of the latter late on in the race. Later he became an orthopaedic surgeon, and to this day operates a medical centre in Park City, Utah.

Finland's Clas Thunberg also won five Olympic golds in speed skating, three at the inaugural Chamonix Games and two at St Moritz in 1928, before he went on to serve as a politician. Claudia Pechstein of Germany and Ireen Wust of the Netherlands have also both won five golds.

The only speed skaters to win more have been Lidiya Skoblikova, a six-time gold medallist for the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and Viktor Ahn, a more modern marvel.

Ahn, a short-track speed skater, won the first three medals of his set competing for South Korea as Ahn Hyun-soo in 2006 at Turin. He added three more after switching to race for Russia at the 2014 Sochi Games, a tough pill for Seoul to swallow, with Ahn having cited a lack of support from South Korean authorities as the reason for his sporting defection. South Korean president Park Geun-hye demanded answers.

Ahn was controversially not invited to compete for the Olympic Athletes from Russia team at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. A state-sponsored doping scandal from Sochi saw the Russian Olympic Committee banned, with a makeshift team entering in their place. Ahn, who insists he has never cheated, said it was "outrageous" to exclude him.

FIGURE SKATING: Sonja Henie

Before she became a Hollywood movie star, and before Adolf Hitler became an admirer of her graceful routines, Norwegian Henie made her Winter Olympics debut as an 11-year-old in 1924. She was a raw talent at the time but in 1928 she landed the gold medal at St Moritz, before repeating the feat four years later at Lake Placid and completing a hat-trick in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. She had a fan in Hitler and warmly greeted the Nazi leader before the 1936 Games, which did not sit well with many, although she managed to set the controversy aside. Henie elected to turn professional after that triumph in Germany, ensuring she could monetise her talent, and American film studios soon beckoned.

Henie became an ever bigger star, appearing in a host of major box-office movies. Her Olympic gold medal success has never been beaten in figure skating, although Sweden's Gillis Grafstrom also won three consecutive titles in the men's event, with the first of those coming at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, where figure skating was part of the programme.

ALPINE SKIING: Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Janica Kostelic

Alberto Tomba, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Marc Girardelli were bona fide superstars of the slopes in the 1980s and early 1990s, but none of them have an Olympic record to match that of Aamodt.

At the age of 20, Aamodt denied Girardelli the super-G gold at Val d'Isere in Albertville's 1992 Games, pulling off a shock victory that was an omen of things to come, although it was 10 years before he won a second Olympic gold. In Salt Lake City, Aamodt captured the super-G and combined titles, while four years later in Turin he edged out Hermann Maier to take a third super-G title, becoming the first male alpine skier to win four Olympic golds. That he did that after two injury-blighted years, at the age of 34, only enhanced the achievement.

Within minutes of Norwegian Aamodt reaching four, so too did Croatia's Janica Kostelic, the only woman to achieve such a haul. She had won three times in Salt Lake City in 2002, taking the slalom, giant slalom and combined titles, and in Turin, after a bout of sickness disrupted her preparation, Kostelic defended the combined.

Aamodt has eight Olympic medals in all (four gold, two silver, two bronze), while Kostelic has six (four gold, two silver).

George North is looking forward to the day his children face the big choice: cycling or rugby.

North is also looking forward to the Six Nations Championship, starting this weekend, when Wales begin their title defence against Ireland in Dublin.

There is an awful lot for this 29-year-old to be looking forward to, now that his injury hell has passed.

For now, North is enjoying the freedom of being able to run again, after suffering an anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injury in his right knee last April, playing for the Ospreys.

It ended his year on the rugby pitch, ruining hopes of a starring role for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa and denying him a shot at the Springboks, Australia and New Zealand in the autumn internationals.

North would sooner have been healthy and active of course, but being sidelined has had its upsides. He and his wife, double Olympic cyclist silver medallist Becky James, welcomed their second son, Tomi, a brother for Jac, in October.

Rather than dividing his time between the family and Wales camps, North has been essentially a stay-at-home dad for months on end.

"It's been brilliant. Normally I'm away playing or touring or something," says North, who is a Land Rover ambassador.

"To have this time at home, it's priceless. But Becky's been a superstar. When I had my surgery to start with, I couldn't do much on crutches with Jac, and obviously Tomi's joined us now and he's class.

"I'm in that stage now where effectively I'm in pre-season again, and I'm absolutely battered when I come home from training. And I'm not much use to anyone, but she's been amazing through this whole process.

"It has been tough, but it's been amazing you know, the two boys are amazing. Thank goodness for Becky, because it'd have been a lot harder at one point, with one leg up and hopping around the place. Especially my surgery, it was very tough. But yeah, she's a superhero."

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years. Despite being holders, however, few are giving them much of a chance this time around.

After all, Wales have been up and down with results in the tournament. Across the last five years, they have trailed in fifth twice, as well as clinching a couple of championships, including the 2019 grand slam.

This time, they head into the tournament without a clutch of key players: North is absent, but so too is captain Alun Wyn Jones, with Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric also sidelined.

 

Head coach Wayne Pivac said his squad has lost around 680 caps' worth of experience, but Wales should still be no mugs.

The players Pivac has chosen for the tournament come with an average of 27.1 Test caps of experience, only topped by Ireland's 30.9 among the six teams.

Those that are missing are proven class, however. In last year's championship, Faletau had 66 carries, putting him in third place among all players, while Tipuric made the most tackles (82). Faletau was fourth on that list (74), and skipper Jones was sixth (72).

On the Six Nations all-time list, North, who has featured on the wing and at outside centre, ranks fourth for metres gained (2,548), third for defenders beaten (126), and third for most clean breaks (48).

Jones is top of the all-time tackles chart (719), with fly-half Dan  Biggar a different animal to the absent lock. Biggar sits second on the Six Nations' all-time try assists list, after setting up 17 five-pointers in the competition.

To lose a raft of proven top-level talent would hurt any team, and North is not blind to that. He has been in and around the Wales squad since his late teens, however, so is certain there will be no defeatist attitude in Pivac's camp.

"Obviously there are a number of players out missing, and I think Wayne's come out with a stat of something like 680 caps that he's lost," says North. "That's a tough place to be."

 

But can Wales kick on regardless? North says so.

"Well, that that's the only way you get better, isn't it? By pushing the standards up every time," North tells Stats Perform News.

"I think for us, as Wales, we're used to being the underdogs, and we're always used to being kind of like always wanting more, and I think that shows in the performances that we have and the results we have had of late.

"From the lads' point of view, that's something they will certainly be looking at: how they push on from last year. Obviously winning the championship [is one thing], but you know the next step is backing it up again and as we said, it's going to be incredibly tough for the boys."

In the 2021 Six Nations, Wales made the most tackles of all teams (871), were third for tackle success with a healthy 88.2 per cent record, ranked second for lineout success with 90.8 per cent, and matched France for the most scrum success with 96.2 per cent.

Pivac's side averaged 3.7 points per entry into the opposition 22, making them the only side to average over three points per entry. It is a hard act to follow.

The loss of veteran skipper Jones gives 32-year-old playmaker Biggar the opportunity to lead the team into the championship.

"Yeah, it's not easy following the most capped player in the world is it!" North says. "I wouldn't like to follow Alun Wyn, put it that way.

"But what you're getting with Dan is a fierce competitor who drives the squad from the front row, right the way back all the way through to the full-back.

"He expects high standards of everyone, and he expects those standards of himself. I'm excited to see Dan as captain because what you see on the field is a fierce competitor. And that's not just on the field, that's Monday to Friday, and that's in whatever jersey he is.

"He expects the best for himself, and also the best from others because you know he is a competitor and wants to win."

North has the most international tries of all current players in the world game, and he has spoken of hoping to be available to Pivac at the back end of the championship.  Wales have home games against France and Italy on March 11 and 19 to finish the campaign.

He longs to make his children proud, even though both are much too young to understand his day job, or to understand their mother was a world champion.

From the routines of parenthood to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium, North is focused on pulling out all the stops. Jac and Tomi are keeping him grounded but also fuelling his ambitions.

"Obviously they don't know what Dad does. They don't know what Mum used to do," he says. "And I think that's something that's special.

"I am looking forward to the day that I'd be able to play and Becky can bring the boys to watch. I'm incredibly proud and honoured to be able to play rugby, but to be able to share that with the boys and, you know, show them more. Whatever they want to do in the future, there's always that conversation, is it a bike or a rugby ball?"

North, who during last year's Six Nations became the youngest player to reach 100 caps for any country, is targeting the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a long-range goal.

That could add up to over two months away from home, and given he will be 31 by the time that tournament comes around, it might be a last shot at global glory.

"I've got a fair few steps to cross off before we get back in any jersey. Certainly it's something I want to be able to put my hand up and be fighting for my selection there," he says.

"I've been very fortunate to go to a few now, and you know that's a big push. It's not too far away, and it's something that is certainly exciting."

There he goes again, always looking forward.


:: George North is a Land Rover ambassador. Visit landrover.co.uk

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

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