If Thomas Tuchel is after any advice on how to deal with the Romelu Lukaku issue, the Chelsea head coach could do worse than to have a brief word with the man he will come face-to-face with on Wednesday.

Under now-Tottenham boss Antonio Conte across two seasons with Inter, Lukaku enjoyed the best form of his career, scoring and assisting a combined 81 goals in 95 appearances.

Lukaku has not been as prolific since returning to Stamford Bridge in August, finding the net seven times in 18 games, and already his future at Chelsea has been called into question following an explosive interview in the Italian press that was published last week.

The Belgium international was subsequently dropped for Chelsea's crucial clash with Liverpool on Sunday but is in line return for the EFL Cup semi-final first leg with Spurs after holding clear-the-air talks with his manager, meaning a possible reunion with Conte.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how Conte got Lukaku out of the "deep hole" he found himself in at Manchester United, as the striker himself put it, and explores how Tuchel can go about getting the most out of Chelsea's all-time record purchase.


ROM AMONG EUROPE'S ELITE

As well as declaring an unhappiness with his role at Chelsea and expressing a desire to return to Inter as part of his 30-minute chat with Sky Sport Italia, Lukaku also opened up on the "hurt" he felt when Conte departed San Siro.

That is no surprise given the Belgian's form between arriving at Inter in August 2019 and departing two years later. 

The 47 Serie A goals scored by Lukaku in 72 games under Conte is his best return under any of the 11 managers he has played for at club level, followed by the 43 netted in 103 Premier League games when working with now-national team coach Roberto Martinez at Everton.

That includes a return of 24 goals in 2020-21 alone, on top of 11 assists, as he became the first player to score 20-plus goals and set up 10 or more in a single Serie A season since Opta started to record such data in 2004-05.

Indeed, only Cristiano Ronaldo (83), Kylian Mbappe (97), Lionel Messi (106) and Robert Lewandowski (121) were directly involved in more goals in all competitions among players from Europe's top five leagues than Lukaku's 81 across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

 

FLOPPED IN FAVOURED FORMATION

That impressive form helped Inter end their 11-year wait for Scudetto success last time out, a year on from falling just short in the Europa League with defeat in the final, but Lukaku was not alone in inspiring the Nerazzurri to glory.

Alongside him was Lautaro Martinez, who was very much the perfect foil in Conte's preferred 3-5-2 formation, which the Italian used 31 times in 38 league matches last season.

It is a formation Tuchel has used on only two occasions in the Premier League this term – in September's 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City and the 1-0 victory at Brentford three weeks later. 

Lukaku started both games alongside Timo Werner and Chelsea's tally of five shots against City and five against Brentford are the fewest the Blues have managed in any league game this term – Lukaku responsible for just one of those – as were the four and two chances created respectively.

While City's quality and dominance of the ball must be factored in, Lukaku's minimal involvement against Brentford was surprising – and surely no coincidence.

That west London derby blank came in the midst of a 10-game run without a goal for Lukaku, not helped by niggling injuries and a COVID lay-off, which he has since put an end to with three goals in four matches.

Chelsea's formation in those three most recent games Lukaku has scored in, incidentally, came with three attackers spread across the frontline. And there was one other common denominator, too: Mason Mount being on the field.

 

MOUNT TO PLAY THE MARTINEZ ROLE?

Mount assisted Lukaku's most recent goal in a 1-1 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion from a corner and the pair have combined to create nine chances in total for one another in the league this term, making it easily Chelsea's most dangerous partnership.

No Chelsea player has combined more regularly with Lukaku than Mount, with the pair linking up 10.06 times per 90 minutes so far this season. While that may not appear a huge amount on the face of it, next on that list is Mateo Kovacic with 6.45 combined passes between himself and Lukaku per 90.

However, Mount still has some way to go if he is to match the 54 combined chances created for each other in Serie A by Lukaku and Martinez in their two seasons used in tandem at Inter, which equated to nine assists.

Lukaku's relationship with Mount does provide some promise, though, as does the Anderlecht academy product's goalscoring performances in his most recent two outings prior to being dropped against Liverpool, showing Chelsea do not necessarily have to replicate Inter's system to help their main man thrive.

 

TUCHEL WILL NOT SHIFT

Lukaku is averaging fewer passes, overall touches and touches in the opposition box this season compared to last, while also shooting less frequently, dribbling less and creating fewer chances for others.

Yet instead of attempting to find the perfect formula and personnel for Lukaku, Tuchel will not shift from his own way of thinking.

"We cannot just play like Inter in the hope that will bring the most out of Lukaku. The system they played not only suited Romelu but also Lautaro Martinez and others. If you don't have five players you can't play five defenders," Tuchel said on the eve of the Tottenham tie.

"It works both ways. It is more about principles of how we play. I feel he is more impatient than anything else. He wants to be involved more, wants more big chances. 

"Like with every transfer, you have to accept there is a change of environment, culture, team-mates, playing style, belief. He's not the first player to take time, but even while doing it he was scoring goals."

And maybe Tuchel has a point. After all, for all the talk of Lukaku's struggles and unhappiness, he is scoring at an almost identical rate to Cristiano Ronaldo (0.54 goals per 90 minutes compared to 0.56), and remains one of Europe's most prolific strikers of the past decade.

Now back from injury and a team exile brought on by his own actions, only Lukaku can ensure he avoids falling down another deep hole that he may this time be unable to escape.

Moreso than any other team in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers have lived at opposite ends of the league over the last two decades. 

Since 2002-03, Cleveland has finished with 25 or fewer wins in seven different seasons, tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the most in basketball.

But those seven dreadful seasons have also yielded some generational talents in the NBA Draft, most notably LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, leading to eight seasons with 50 or more wins over that span, the most in the Eastern Conference and the fourth most in the NBA. 

In the three full campaigns since James left Cleveland for the second time, the Cavs have gone an NBA-worst 60-159, but fans in Ohio are hopeful that this season's 20-15 start is evidence that those lean years have produced enough talent to fuel a franchise turnaround yet again.

Last season the Cavs accrued 34 losses before earning their 20th win, but their improvement runs even deeper. 

Cleveland has improved in almost every significant statistical category, but the growth on defense has been dramatic. Last year's squad had one of the league's five worst defenses, allowing 112.1 points per 100 possessions. This year, the Cavaliers are allowing 102.2 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the league and the top in the East.

When combined with an offense that has shown incremental improvement, the Cavaliers have a net rating of +5.2 per 100 possessions, the fourth best in the NBA and ahead of fellow Eastern contenders like the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks.

All of this has come with Cleveland facing the NBA's third-toughest schedule so far, with an average opponents' win percentage of .526. 

While some predicted that the Cavs' hot start would fizzle out into another losing season, the team has maintained its wining ways through nearly half the season and looks to be in position to continue.

Despite playing in a division with the Bucks and surprisingly good Chicago Bulls, Cleveland's remaining schedule is the easiest in the NBA by opponents’ average win percentage, with a majority of the upcoming being played at home.

Rookie Evan Mobley, selected with the third overall pick in July's draft, has been the catalyst for Cleveland's transformation this season. The 20-year-old big man is fourth in rookie scoring at 14.3 points per game but has made an all-around impact more typical of a veteran than a player who was in high school two years ago.

 

The Cavs' selection of the seven-footer Mobley was criticized by some pundits as redundant after the franchise had just re-signed center Jarrett Allen to a contract worth $100million earlier last offseason. 

Mobley and Allen have answered critics by forging one of the most formidable frontcourt defenses in the NBA. When Mobley and Allen are on the court together, the Cavaliers have a preposterous 95.3 defensive rating and opponents are shooting just 40.7 percent from the floor.

In a league that continues to downsize, Mobley has started most of his games at power forward, but the Cavs have found they do not sacrifice much offensively because their young star is so skilled and versatile.

While Allen has thrived around the rim this season, Mobley has the skill and athleticism to play everywhere, spacing the floor and keeping the ball moving on offense while smothering all sizes of players on defense.

Credit is due to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who identified early on that his frontcourt players were talented enough that he could buck the league's small-ball trend by starting his twin towers lineup.

Bickerstaff also had the courage to tell Kevin Love, the team's highest-paid player, that he would be coming off the bench. Love, who has been openly disgruntled about Cleveland's losing records in previous years, has embraced his new role and has seen a resurgence in both enthusiasm and efficiency.

The Cavaliers have been so pleased with Bickerstaff's leadership, in fact, that the parties agreed to a multiyear extension last week that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season.

Bickerstaff, Mobley and Allen – who is still just 23 years old – form a foundation that Cleveland intends to build upon for the next several years.

The Cavs' other unquestioned franchise staple is point guard Darius Garland, who has continued to improve in his third year. Garland is on pace for career-highs with 19.5 points per game, 7.3 assists per game and 47.9-percent shooting from the field. 

 

Garland has been forced to shoulder a heavy offensive burden and will be an even more vital player as the Cavs entered the second half of the season.

Backcourt mate and last year's leading scorer Collin Sexton was lost for the season after tearing cartilage in his left knee on Nov. 7.

Sexton's injury forced veteran guard Ricky Rubio into a more prominent role, a combination that worked very well for several weeks until Rubio suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Tuesday, ending his season as well.

The thinning of their backcourt led to the Cavs trading for the 16th-year veteran as an experienced floor general just before the calendar flipped to 2022.

It looks as if the 2021-22 season will be one of attrition, and a lack of depth may ultimately prevent the Cavaliers from maintaining an elite point differential in the East. But with a team so young, the franchise would have to be pleased just to play in the postseason again.

Going forward, however, Cleveland faces a crossroads decision in the coming offseason with Sexton's contract. The fourth-year guard is in the final year of his rookie deal, and the front office must decide if the Garland-Sexton backcourt combination is the best long-term option.

Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game last season, making it seem like offering him an extension would be the obvious solution. But high-scoring numbers like that typically demand a maximum contract – in this case, $173million over five years.

Garland and Sexton both stand just 6ft1, creating some flexibility issues. Since the latter was drafted in 2018, the Cavaliers have been wiling to live with a defensive liability in the backcourt as they focused on collecting talent and developing young players.

But now that Cleveland appears ready to make a run at the playoffs, more serious questions must be answered.

During Sexton's four-season tenure, the Cavs have allowed a staggering 115.5 points per 100 possessions while he is on the court versus 107.2 when he sits.

And despite Sexton's impressive scoring numbers, Cleveland's offensive numbers while he his on and off the court are virtually identical – over a sample size of over 12,000 minutes.

Paying Sexton long-term could lock in a future where the Cavs have the league's smallest backcourt and largest frontcourt, making them vulnerable to perimeter shot creators with size, the kind that has proven to be invaluable in postseason play.

All of that said, any team would be foolish to surrender a talented scorer like Sexton for nothing. A small-market team like Cleveland would be outright negligent. He is likely to get his extension, especially with the entire core being so young.

Garland, Sexton, Mobley and Allen have played less than 120 minutes on the floor together, and Cleveland's brass is likely to want to see them grow a bit more together.

Plus, teams in markets that are not free agency destinations simply do not have the luxury of being so choosy about trying to construct the ideal roster.

Although this Cavs team has some quirks that might project into a playoff ceiling in the future, Cleveland's front office has organically built a fun team – and one that appears to be a winner.

That is something the Cavs haven't done without LeBron James since last century.

You would surely have got good odds on Barcelona being the first club to splash the cash in the January transfer window, what with them reportedly not having any.

However, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola confirmed at a news conference on Thursday that Ferran Torres is on the verge of leaving the Etihad Stadium for Camp Nou, with the deal worth up to a reported £55million.

It may seem curious for Barca to be spending such amounts of money given the financial issues that meant they struggled to register new players at the start of the season until they had eased the wage bill, even leading to Lionel Messi having to leave for Paris Saint-Germain.

A recent bank loan has apparently enabled the deal, and Torres appears like the kind of forward-thinking signing the club should have been making in recent years instead of some of the more ill-thought-out moves that have been made.

New Barca boss Xavi is aiming to spearhead a new era with a club that has lost its way of late, with the nadir arguably being the humbling Champions League exit at the group stage.

With all that being said, is this actually a deal that would make sense for all parties? Stats Perform takes a closer look at what appears to be the first big deal of the upcoming January transfer window.

Why Barcelona want the player

When he joined City from his hometown club Valencia in August last year, Torres was considered to be one of the more promising youngsters to come out of Spain as a pacey wide forward.

Although it was a slow start in England for the then 20-year-old, a hat-trick for Spain in the 6-0 Nations League demolition of Germany was soon followed by his first Premier League goal in a 5-0 win against Burnley, before Torres went on to score a further six in the league last season, including an impressive treble in a 4-3 win at Newcastle.

It may well be his form for the Spanish national side that caught the eye of the power brokers at Camp Nou, though, with that hat-trick against Germany contributing to the 12 goals he has bagged for La Roja, including two at the re-arranged Euro 2020 tournament against Slovakia and Croatia.

A brace in the 2-1 Nations League win against Italy in October illustrated his quality, but a foot injury has kept Torres from playing since the final defeat to France in that competition.

Meanwhile, Barca headed into the winter break in seventh place in LaLiga, just two points off the top four but a whopping 18 behind leaders Real Madrid, albeit with a game in hand.

Despite their struggles without Messi, the Blaugrana are joint-third for goals scored (29), behind only Madrid (41) and Real Betis (32).

However, only Memphis Depay (eight) has scored more than three league goals, with second top scorer Ansu Fati managing to play just five games so far.

The loss of Messi was a huge blow, but it could be argued that Barca have actually missed Luis Suarez more since the Uruguayan was inexplicably allowed to move to Atletico Madrid after the 2019-20 season.

Martin Braithwaite was never likely to replace Suarez's goals, scoring 10 in 56 appearances (22 starts) since signing from Leganes in February 2020, and Luuk de Jong has managed just one in 12 appearances (six starts) since arriving on loan from Sevilla in September, with the Dutchman appearing to be heading out the door soon in any case.

Although he started life as a wide player, Torres seems to have been permanently reinvented as a central striker, which could be exactly what Xavi is after given his best attackers in Depay, Fati and Ousmane Dembele all prefer playing out wide.

Torres has bagged 16 goals in all competitions for Manchester City, as well as 12 for his country in less than 18 months.

It might not quite be the old 'MSN' attack of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, but if Xavi has Torres along with Dembele, Fati and Depay to call on, he will still boast one of the strongest looking forward lines in Spain.

Why Manchester City are happy to let the player go

It feels like a similar situation to the one that saw Leroy Sane move back to Germany with Bayern Munich last year.

Firstly, it seems clear that the move is happening because the player wants it rather than the selling club, but City will still be happy with the eventual deal should it go through.

"If he wants to leave, absolutely no disappointment," Guardiola said on Thursday.

"It's his desire. I'm happy for him. If you want to leave because you're not happy here, you believe you'll be happy in another place, you have to go. The career is short."

Torres has looked impressive for most of his short City career, but more than doubling their approximate £21million outlay on the player in less than 18 months represents a good deal in anyone's book.

He ended last season looking like he was about to become a breakout star at the Etihad, but with the arrival of Jack Grealish and return to form of Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling, it is difficult to see where Torres would get regular games away from the centre forward position, where he began this campaign.

City's failed efforts to sign Harry Kane in the summer suggested that Pep wanted more from his ultimate replacement for Sergio Aguero.

Torres boasts the best goals per 90 minutes record of any City player since he arrived in August 2020 (0.55), but his chances created total (29) was only marginally better than defensive midfielder Fernandinho (26), and well behind all other main attacking players.

It seems like the player is now more of a goal getter than a goal provider, but Guardiola probably feels he can still bring in a super elite player like Kane or Erling Haaland in the next couple of windows to fulfil that role, which would further leave Torres as a fringe player.

 

Why Torres wants the move

On the face of it, one can assume it is a simple desire to return to his home country. Torres joined City as a 20-year-old, and it would be no surprise, particularly given the way of the world since then, if he is feeling a tad homesick.

However, from a football perspective, it looks like a curious one. He will be leaving the champions of England, top of the league again and one of the favourites for the Champions League, to join a Barca side who now reside in the Europa League and who might struggle to even finish in the top four in LaLiga.

As well as returning to more familiar surroundings and much nicer weather, perhaps Torres is intrigued by the idea of leading the next era of Barcelona, obviously still a club with a huge history and reputation, now under the leadership of the legendary Xavi.

At City, Torres has been one of many, more than playing his part but ultimately not being someone Guardiola has relied on in the biggest games. He was an unused substitute in last season's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

Torres made 36 appearances in all competitions last term, and started the first six games of this campaign, but due to injury and simply not being selected, has not played in the Premier League since the 1-0 win at Leicester City on September 11.

The prospect of potentially becoming one of the faces of the resurrection of Barcelona will no doubt be a tempting one, even if it is certainly far easier said than done.

As with Sane and Bayern, it seems a simple case of a very talented player being wanted and needed more by the buying club than the selling one, and the deal itself does seem to leave everyone with a reason to be cheerful.

With so much going for it, this might even be one that Barcelona's accountants can stomach.

A magical man with a big beard bringing joy to people on Christmas Day? Yes, James Harden is back from COVID-19 protocols as the Brooklyn Nets travel to the Los Angeles Lakers for a festive fixture.

Nets coach Steve Nash confirmed the news on Thursday, while Paul Millsap and Jevon Carter are also newly available, but Brooklyn still have 10 players in protocols.

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Day'Ron Sharpe, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre' Bembry, Bruce Brown and James Johnson have been joined by rookies Kessler Edwards, David Duke Jr. and Cameron Thomas.

The Nets have not played since a 100-93 defeat to the Orlando Magic on Saturday at Barclays Center. Their three games leading up to Christmas – at home against the Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards, then a trip to Portland – were all postponed.

Nonetheless, Nash's team sit top of the Eastern Conference on a 21-9 record, and have not lost back-to-back games this season, though that could be put to the test with a team likely to still be extremely shorthanded in California.

Durant will be a big miss, with the 33-year-old leading the league in points per game (29.7), as will Aldridge, who sits 11th in the league for field-goal percentage (.573).

The home team have been missing players of late too, with head coach Frank Vogel and five of his men being absent as a result of being under the NBA's health and safety protocols in the chastening 138-110 defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday.

 

The Lakers sit on a surprisingly poor record under .500 (16-17) having lost four on the spin – at Minnesota and Chicago, followed by home defeats to Phoenix and the Spurs.

Despite having LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo on the roster, Vogel has been unable to get a consistent tune out of his all-star line-up.

With the Nets shorthanded to an even greater degree, the opportunity to produce what would have to go down as a slight upset should the Lakers win, given their respective form and records, will surely never be higher.

Davis remains sidelined by an MCL sprain, but the Lakers should still be able to put out a team that looks as strong as any other on paper.

Whether it is the Lakers putting an end to their losing streak or the Nets pulling out a win with barely enough players to call on, someone may just be claiming the occurrence of a festive miracle in the first encounter at the newly-named Crypto.com Arena.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Los Angeles Lakers – LeBron James

Despite his team being thoroughly outplayed, James managed to score 36 points with nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks in Thursday's defeat to the Spurs, and he will need to pull out a similar effort if the Lakers are to end their losing streak.

The four-time NBA champion has put early-season injury issues behind him to play the last 10 games in a row, scoring 30 or more points in nine of his last 13 outings.

James has also improved his rebound numbers of late, getting double figures in five of his last 10 games, having only done so once in his previous 11.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

With Durant, Irving and Aldridge unavailable, all eyes will be on Harden to finally show the form that won him the 2018 NBA MVP award in Houston.

The 32-year-old is averaging just 20.8 points per game this season, his lowest since the 2011-12 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His 40.4 per cent success rate from the field is also the lowest since his rookie year.

However, Harden has proven in the past that he can rise to the occasion when he's the main man, and sitting just 20 career assists away from 6,000, he may just roll back the years and pull the strings in the arena now formerly known as the Staples Center.

KEY BATTLE – Can the Nets be as deadly in mid-range?

Brooklyn currently sit top of the table for mid-range points this season, averaging 49.1, well ahead of the Utah Jazz in second (45.3).

Harden is third in the league for most points per game created via assists (21.8), behind only Chris Paul (23.0) and Trae Young (21.9), while Harden (24.4 per cent) and fellow Nets star Patty Mills (29.7 per cent) claim the top two spots for highest percentage of assists for mid-range field goals made.

However, the Lakers have the fourth-best record in the league for lowest field goal percentage allowed from mid-range (38.0), and so it is an area to keep an eye out for, especially with Aldridge and Durant out, both sitting in the top 10 for highest field-goal percentage from mid-range.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Lakers prevailed 126-101 when these two last met in April, and the teams have enjoyed five wins each from their last 10 encounters.

As one of only two NBA teams that have never won a division title, the Memphis Grizzlies are in prime position to cut that number in half this season.

Since joining the NBA as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995-96, Memphis have finished second five times but have never captured a division crown. The Charlotte Hornets are the only other franchise never to win a division title, though they did finish in a three-way tie for first place in the Southeast in 2015-16 but lost the title to the Miami Heat on a tie-breaker.

Roughly two months into this season and Memphis sit atop a weak Southwest Division with the franchise's first division title a distinct possibility.

No division has a worse composite record than the Southwest with Memphis (17-11), the Dallas Mavericks (14-13), San Antonio Spurs (10-16), Houston Rockets (9-18) and New Orleans Pelicans (8-21) combining for a 58-79 record (42.3). Weaker division opponents certainly will not hurt the Grizzlies' cause, but they appear more than capable of beating just about any team, evidenced by their 13-6 record against the Western Conference.

While Ja Morant has established himself as one of the game's young superstars in his third season, what is most impressive about the Grizzlies is how they have performed without him.

Morant has not played since November 26 due to a sprained left knee and he then entered the NBA's health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 on December 8.

Somehow, Memphis have been even better with their leading scorer on the shelf, going an inspired 8-1. Prior to this stretch, Memphis were 6-9 in Morant's career when he missed a game.

It has been a dominant run for the Grizzlies, who have outscored opponents by 176 points in those nine games. Since November 28 in their first game without Morant, the Grizzlies rank fifth in the NBA in points per game (113.7), ninth in three-pointers made (112) and lead the league in total rebounds (449) and total steals (108).

Clearly, Memphis are much more than just Morant.

During a five-game winning streak – all without Morant – the Grizzlies led every game from wire-to-wire before the run ended with a 104-96 loss to visiting Dallas on December 8. Included in that five-game surge was a stunning 152-79 thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the largest margin of victory in league history.

Memphis only rank 20th this season in opponent points per game (109.2) but something has clicked with the defence allowing a league-best 94.1 points during this 8-1 stretch. In the first 19 games this season, Memphis held foes to 101 points or fewer just twice but have done that seven times in the past nine contests.

Memphis are 13-1 (92.9) this season when holding opponents under 110 points. Only the Phoenix Suns (18-0), Charlotte (7-0) and Brooklyn Nets (15-1) have a better winning percentage in such games.

Maybe it was Morant's absence that forced the rest of the team to turn up the defensive pressure, but whatever the reason Taylor Jenkins' team now know they can win either with offense as they rank sixth in the league in scoring (111.0) as well as at the opposite end of the court.

Perhaps no victory was more indicative of what the Grizzlies can do than last Thursday's 108-95 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite missing Morant and starting guard Dillon Brooks (health and safety protocols), Memphis set a franchise record with nine steals in the second quarter en route to a season-high 18 and became just the second team in the past 13 games to hold star-laden Los Angeles under 100 points.

Several players have stepped up to fill the void left by Morant and none bigger than second-year guard Desmond Bane. A serious contender for the Most Improved Player award, Bane has taken a huge step forward in his sophomore season to become much more than a shooter with his usage rate going from 16.1 to 22.3 per cent.

In the nine games without Morant, Bane has averaged 17.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and shot 44.8 per cent from three-point range (26 for 58). He averaged 15.5 points and 3.8 rebounds while connecting on 37.4 per cent (46 for 123) from deep in the season's first 19 games. His points per game average has risen from 9.2 in 2020-21 to 16.0 this season – his plus-6.8 improvement only bettered by Reggie Jackson (+6.9), Miles Bridges (+7.1) and Tyrese Maxey (+8.7) among players to have played in 70 per cent of team games in both campaigns.

When a team's leading scorer misses time, the second-leading scorer is asked to pick up most of the slack and Jaren Jackson Jr. has answered that call.

During the 8-1 stretch, Jackson is scoring 21.1 per game on 50.4 per cent shooting, including 38.5 per cent (20 for 52) from beyond the arc. In 19 games played with Morant this term, Jackson averaged 14.8 points on 39.7 per cent from the field and 33.7 per cent from long range.

Jackson has scored 25 points or more in four of his last seven games after having only one such game through his first 20 this season.

With 25 points and five blocks in a win over the Toronto Raptors late last month, Jackson became just the third Grizzlies player to reach both those totals in a game since the team moved to Memphis. Pau Gasol (six games) and Marc Gasol (four games) are the only others.

Memphis' defensive improvement is clearly a team-wide concept, but Dillon Brooks may be the player most responsible. Brooks did not make his season debut until November 10 due to a broken left hand and the team clearly missed his intensity and leadership.

In 14 games this season with Brooks in the line-up, Memphis have surrendered 103.6 points per game and held opponents to 44.0 per cent shooting. In the 14 games he has missed, the Grizzlies have given up 114.9 points with opponents making 48.3 per cent of their shots.

Taking over at the point in Morant's place has been Tyus Jones, who had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league each of the last three seasons and is on his way to doing it again with 119 assists to 21 turnovers (5.67).

The biggest improvement in Jones' game has been his three-point shooting, making 40 percent of his first 65 attempts after he hit on just 32.1 per cent last season.

One area where Memphis have excelled all season is on the boards.

The Grizzlies rank third in the NBA in total rebounds (1,323) and tied for second in offensive rebounding (358). Steven Adams leads the way with 8.6 per game but gets plenty of help as Memphis are tied for second in the league with seven players averaging at least four boards per contest.

Those rebounds play a role in helping Memphis top the NBA in both second-chance points (479) and points in the paint (1,504).

With Phoenix and the Golden State Warriors looking like world beaters right now and the Utah Jazz not far behind, Memphis have been able to fly under the radar in the Western Conference.

While there is no telling how Morant's return will affect the Grizzlies, the team have done all the little things in his absence and that can only help them in their quest to finally hang a division championship banner at FedEx Forum.

The Eastern Conference clash between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls on Saturday would have been a fascinating contest regardless, but as we are all learning to live with, matters have been complicated by COVID-19.

The Bulls have seen their options depleted, with several players entering the NBA's health and safety protocols in recent days, including star man DeMar DeRozan.

Coming off a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago will be determined to get back to winning ways in Miami, but it is unclear at this stage who will even be taking to the court for Billy Donovan's team.

The Bulls (17-9) are second in the Eastern Conference as they travel to Florida to face the fourth-placed Heat (15-11), but have seen DeRozan, Derrick Jones Jr, Coby White, Matt Thomas and Javonte Green all sidelined by the health and safety protocols.

The Bulls' form has been one of the stories of the season in the NBA, with those who delighted in the Netflix documentary 'The Last Dance' dreaming of a first championship for Chicago since 1998.

Miami have been impressing as well, though. Having disappointingly followed up their run to the NBA Finals in 2019-20 with a first round playoff exit in a whitewash 0-4 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks last season, they appeared to be back to previous levels after winning six of their first seven games of this campaign.

That form has evened out in recent times, but with a home record of 7-4, including an impressive win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, the Heat will be confident of taking advantage of a depleted Bulls team, who they beat only a couple of weeks ago in Chicago.

One key area could well be how often the Bulls get into the paint, with Miami highest in the league for field goal percentage allowed in the paint (59.9), while Chicago have the second lowest (52.1).

Expect a strong start from Chicago, who boast the second most points per game from starters in the league (82.5) compared to Miami who have fifth fewest (68.2), although things may well turn as the Heat have the fifth-highest average points from the bench (39.1) while the Bulls have the second fewest (26.4).

DeRozan would undoubtedly be a huge miss for the Bulls. The 32-year-old has found life a breeze in the Windy City, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of his 24 appearances so far, sitting fourth in the league for average points per game (26.4).

Another possible absentee in the game is former Bull Jimmy Butler, who is 16th in the league for average points per game (22.8) but has missed the last few outings for the Heat with a tailbone injury, while Bam Adebayo will definitely be out after requiring thumb surgery.

Caleb Martin posted career-highs in points (28) and triples (six) as the Heat beat the Bucks 113-104, and along with Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Tyler Herro, will be hoping to go big again and take advantage of the shorthanded Bulls.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Chicago Bulls – Zach LaVine

If DeRozan is unable to play, the onus will fall on Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball to carry the Bulls to victory in Miami, with LaVine in particular almost certainly required to post a big score.

That should not be too much of a problem for the top point scorer in the NBA right now (670) who has played all 26 games for the Bulls so far this season, only failing to score more than 20 points on three occasions.

The shooting guard is also third in the league for dunks on a fast break with 17, which could come in handy when up against one of the older rosters in the NBA. Miami has the third-oldest active roster (28 years and 291 days) compared to the tenth-youngest Chicago (25 years and 112 days).

Miami Heat – Tyler Herro

The man announced as the best dressed athlete at Sports Illustrated's SI Awards on Tuesday will be hoping to look as impressive on the court when the Bulls come to town.

Herro scored 20+ points in 12 of his first 17 games this season, but has managed it just twice in his last six outings, including only scoring nine in the win against the Bucks.

The 21-year-old in his third season is increasingly becoming the Heat's key player, averaging 20.8 points per game, the 23rd most in the league, and will hope to impress more than judges of his attire with a big showing on Saturday.

KEY BATTLE – Will Bulls be able to find their mid-range?

The topic of mid-range shots and their usefulness seems to divide basketball fans, but it is an area that the Bulls in particular like to utilise as the team with the third-highest field-goal percentage from mid-range this season (45.1), behind only the Brooklyn Nets (49.0) and Portland Trail Blazers (46.7).

However, the Heat tops the table for lowest percentage of field-goals allowed from mid-range (34.7).

With DeRozan – who has the most field-goals made from the elbow this season (79) – likely to be missing, it could be that Chicago has to adjust their method of attack in Miami.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Heat prevailed 107-104 when these two met in November, and have won five of the last six meetings between the teams.

For many, Ralf Rangnick's arrival at Old Trafford has come eight years too late.

Manchester United have struggled since Alex Ferguson delivered a 20th league title in his final season in 2012-13.

David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have come and gone – the latter relieved of his duties following humiliating losses to Liverpool, Manchester City and lowly Watford at the end of a trophyless tenure dating back to December 2018.

There have been Europa League, FA Cup and EFL Cup successes and a couple of runner-up finishes in the Premier League since Ferguson left, but United have never looked close to competing for the title.

A lack of direction and vision from the top at United has seen the Red Devils slip behind their rivals – the absence of a clear footballing philosophy leaving the English powerhouse stuck in the past.

But Rangnick's appointment on an interim basis until the end of the season suggests United are ready to come to the party and adapt to modern football – the most telling aspect of the former RB Leipzig boss' arrival being the two-year consultancy role he will take up following the 2021-22 campaign.

Rangnick – seen as an innovator who is known for his high-pressing philosophy and influence on some of German football's brightest minds, including Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel – could potentially be set to oversee a long-term transformation of United after leaving his role as head of sports and development at Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow.

"The question is always what vision and philosophy do they want," former Australia international David Zdrilic – previously a player and colleague of Rangnick – told Stats Perform, with United eighth in the table and 12 points off the pace. "If they want that type of football, then he's definitely the guy that can implement that on all levels, not just the first team. He can produce that right through the club and give it a real identity. That's if they want that identity. So that's the only question really.

"But when they say, 'Yes, this is the type of football we want to play,' and it seems like it's going in that direction, then clearly you can see [that identity] with all the clubs that he's worked at. Hoffenheim is a club that he brought from scratch and now they have that clear identity. Leipzig's another one. This [United] is different because this is a big, traditional club and they already have an identity of their own. I think the football they play is very similar to that style."

Rangnick will have his work cut out with a United side well adrift in terms of pressed sequences (12th, 164), passes allowed per defensive action (14th, 14.6), high turnovers (11th, 98), kilometres covered per game (17th, 104.6), defensive actions (17th, 296) and pressures in the attacking third (15th, 589).

"When you think of the old Manchester United days under Ferguson, it was always very attacking, very exciting type of football," Zdrilic said. "So, this certainly has its similarities. So that's going to be exciting to see how that develops."

 

Zdrilic knows Rangnick better than most – the pair's relationship dating back to 1998.

A 30-time international, Zdrilic was signed by Rangnick during his time as head coach of 2.Bundelsiga outfit SSV Ulm, who had just stepped up from the third tier of German football. The 63-year-old left for Stuttgart before the end of the season, though the club went on to gain promotion to the top flight.

They reunited at Leipzig, where Rangnick brought Zdrilic to the emerging Bundesliga outfit as a youth-team coach over three years.

Recalling life under Rangnick at Ulm, Zdrilic said: "It was not only the football, but just the way he approached his philosophy. Basically, his philosophy was just at the forefront for him from day one, and that was something I wasn't used to. We were playing football, but we weren't really talking about tactics in that degree back then. But he was very, very convinced in his philosophy.

"When I joined, they had just come up from third division to second division. I had one year in Switzerland and then he signed me for Ulm. When we were there, I just remember one conversation I had with him and we were talking about, because we started the season really well and by the halfway point in that year we were first and he was getting a lot of attention because of the way we were playing. The German public were looking at it, going, this is a new way of playing this pressing style with a back four. Everybody was playing a sweeper back then. A conversation I had with him was about, you know, how this season's going to go. In my head, you don't go from third division to second division, then straight to first division. So, I joined in second and I sort of said something to that effect, like, 'Yeah, but you know, it's not really realistic that we're going to go straight up to the Bundesliga.' The way he looked at me was incredible, it was like, 'Why not?' But not, 'Oh, why not?' It was like looking at me like I'm stupid, 'Why not?' Then sure enough, third division, second division, Bundesliga. He did it with Hoffenheim, third division, second division, Bundesliga, and then obviously with Leipzig, he took them from the fifth division all the way to Champions League and to one the best clubs in Europe now.

"It's just incredible that he has no doubts that that's possible, whereas most people would say you can't do that. He just knows 100 per cent that this is possible and he brought that from day one. That's something I saw and it stuck with me, not only in my playing days, but then as a coach was exactly the same thing about how we approach coaching, developing players and coaches. Everything is just like he knows 100 per cent what he wants and how to do it and that conviction is why he's so successful."

At Leipzig, after spells with the likes of Hoffenheim, Hannover and Schalke, Rangnick took charge of the team in two different spells, having initially joined parent company Red Bull as director of football in 2012.

Under Rangnick's leadership, Leipzig had gone from the regional league to Champions League qualification by 2017.

Rangnick – who will become only the sixth German to manage in the Premier League – was promoted to the head of sport and development for Red Bull in 2019, before eventually joining Lokomotiv earlier this year.

Indeed, Rangnick has only faced United twice in his managerial career when in charge of Schalke, who were outclassed over two legs in the Champions League semi-final in 2011 as Ferguson's side made their third final in four years.

"His network that he's built and his ability to find talent and produce talent," Zdrilic said of Rangnick's biggest strength. "You just have to go through all the names that he's found and produced. Now just recently you've got [Dayot] Upamecano going to Bayern Munich and he was at Leipzig. [Ibrahima] Konate's gone to Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp takes a lot of the players that he's developed because it's the same principle behind the philosophy. So [Sadio] Mane is over there with him as well, [Naby] Keita he took from Leipzig. All of these guys, so many talented players and he really has a strength in finding those players and developing them and obviously selling them on to big clubs. They are huge talents.

"I think the thing about him is he has the whole package. He can step in and coach like when he did at Leipzig two times when he wanted to get up to the Bundesliga the first time. He stepped in in the 2.Bundesliga and took them straight up. Then he stepped aside and gave [Ralph] Hasenhuttl the job. Then he did it again when they needed a coach after Hasenhuttl to step in before he got [Julian] Nagelsmann. So, it's just incredible his eye for what is needed and how to correct things. Not everybody sees that at the beginning. They see the results at the end, and that's probably why he obviously controls a lot of things and a lot of aspects. So, it's going to be interesting to see how it goes, not only as the head coach, but then what happens after that in terms of his role in developing Man Utd."

Rangnick has never managed outside of his native Germany, taking charge of five different teams in the German Bundesliga in his career. The last side he managed was Leipzig, winning promotion with them from 2.Bundesliga in 2015-16 before returning to the club for the 2018-19 top-flight season and leading them to third place.

Across 294 Bundesliga matches, Rangnick has a winning percentage of 41. He first took charge in the top flight in May 1999 at Stuttgart, losing 2-0 to Bayern Munich, while his last game in charge in the competition came 20 years later in May 2019 at Leipzig, a 2-1 defeat to Werder Bremen.

His best win ratio in the competition came during his first spell at Schalke (55.4 per cent), whom he led to second place and into the Champions League.

 

In Europe's elite competition, Rangnick took charge of 10 games with Schalke across the 2005-06 and 2010-11 seasons – his last match in the Champions League was against Ferguson's United in May 2011 in the second leg of that season's semi-final, losing 4-1 at Old Trafford and 6-1 on aggregate. His 10 games in charge have seen 38 goals scored (20 for, 18 against, 3.8 per game), the third-highest ratio of any manager to take charge of at least10 games in the competition as the Red Devils prepare for the knockout rounds this term.

His best top-flight finish as a coach is second, achieved in 2004-05 with Schalke, a side he took over mid-season and led to a runners-up position and also to the final of that season's DFB-Pokal, ultimately losing 2-1 to Bayern.

Zdrilic added: "He's very charismatic. He can be very firm, but with the players, I remember back then he knew how to approach the individuals. With me he was very clear, but it was just always the right type of conversation.

"There was a period when I had a little bit of an injury and I wanted to get back quickly and my head wasn't focused and he knew just to put his arm around and just get me back on track. The conversation just brought me right back to where I needed to be. You hear a lot of reports about players and that kind of connection that he has with the players. But at the same time, in terms of the business dealings and what he needs to do, he's very, very direct and he gets what he wants. He is very clear about that. So he's got all sides of that character, which is again, why he's done so well."

As soon as news of Rangnick's imminent appointment broke, attention swiftly turned to Cristiano Ronaldo and whether the five-time Ballon d'Or winner can fit into the high-pressing system.

Rangnick demands hard graft from every player, so can he accommodate a 36-year-old superstar not known for his pressing from the front?

Zdrilic pointed to Rangnick's time with Real Madrid and Spain great Raul at Schalke, saying: "Now you wouldn't think of Raul as being the typical pressing player, but he played a lot under Rangnick and [scored] a lot of goals. He was able to adapt to account for players that maybe aren't going to press as much as others. I don't see that being an issue.

"It's always a challenge anyway for any manager generally, but he's certainly equipped to do that. Back in my time, right at the start, I was the guy running and doing the pressing, and I had a striker with me who was a bit older. His name was Dragan Trkulja and he scored a lot of goals. He didn't do the same amount of pressing that I did, but basically still profited from that and was very clever in that system and we were a pressing side. So I have no doubts that he's able to put all the pieces together and find a way to make this team function with his philosophy and with Ronaldo."

It is very early in the season to describe any game as being akin to a playoff matchup but Tuesday's meeting between the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns has an extremely compelling case for receiving such a label.

The Warriors have been the class of the NBA to this point, their record of 18-2 the best in the league.

However, their title credentials will be sternly tested in Phoenix, where they will face a 17-3 Suns team looking excellently placed to go one better in 2021-22 after losing in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks last season.

The matchup between the two Pacific Division rivals will mark the first time in NBA history that two teams with a winning percentage of 85 or higher after a minimum of 20 games have faced each other.

In that sense, it is big as stages get in late November in the NBA, and the Warriors boast a player born to dominate such arenas in Stephen Curry.

 

Curry is enjoying another remarkable year, compiling a superb MVP resume after finishing third in the voting last term.

He is tied for the league lead in points per game (28.6) with former team-mate Kevin Durant, while his season-long plus-minus of 283 is comfortably the best in the NBA. Reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is a distant second on 197.

Curry's 105 made three-pointers are 20 more than nearest challenger Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings, seven of those coming on Sunday in another spectacular showing to propel the Warriors past the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.

He will be the lead protagonist in what is likely to be a fascinating encounter between two excellent backcourts. With Klay Thompson still yet to return after two seasons lost to injury, Curry has received magnificent support from the emerging Jordan Poole, who has averaged 19.8 points per game this month and is one of five Warriors in the top 10 in plus-minus for November, illustrating the depth at their disposal.

Three Suns also reside in the top 10 of that list, including their two guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

Eleven-time All-Star Paul continues to defy Father Time and is again the Suns' chief creative force after helping them come within two wins of an NBA title.

Meanwhile, shooting guard Booker is hitting a career-high 41 per cent of his three-point attempts, perhaps setting things up for an absorbing back and forth between him and the man most regard as the greatest shooter of all time.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Golden State Warriors - Draymond Green

With the vast majority of the attention on the enduring brilliance of MVP favourite Curry, it would be easy to overlook the contribution of Green, who has served as chief facilitator for the Warriors' talisman.

Green has 106 assists to his name in the month of November. No other non-point guard has registered more.

Shooting a career-high 55.5 per cent from the field this season, Green is once again proving he can be a critical part of a potential championship team, and the Warriors will need him at his best on both ends of the floor to maximise their hopes of seeing off Phoenix.

Phoenix Suns - Chris Paul

From his time with the Clippers, through his prominent role in engrossing playoff battles between the Houston Rockets and the Warriors to his increasingly impressive spell with the Suns, matchups that see Paul go against Curry have long since been must-watch affairs.

The 'point God' has consistently been overshadowed by the shooting magic of Curry but, among your more conventional point guards, there is still arguably nobody better.

Paul leads the league with 10.1 assists per game this season, justifying the Suns' decision to bring him back on a lucrative contract after their Finals agony of the previous campaign.

He must ensure the Suns' offense outshines Curry and the Warriors this time around if Phoenix is to send an early message by knocking off Golden State.

KEY BATTLE - Can Warriors beat Ayton on the boards?

The Warriors have been among the best rebounding teams in the NBA this season.

Golden State have registered 47.1 rebounds per game, good for fifth in the league.

Meanwhile, the Suns rank 15th in the same category with 45.7, but do possess one of the top rebounders in the league in Deandre Ayton.

The Suns center is averaging 11.4 boards per game, the sixth-most in the NBA.

If the Warriors are to have the advantage on the glass in this one, they will need to find a way to mitigate Ayton's impact.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Warriors prevailed 122-116 in the last meeting between the two teams, however, Golden State have won only one of their last four games against the Suns in Phoenix.

Lionel Messi has edged out Robert Lewandowski to the 2021 Ballon d'Or award, a seventh of his magnificent career.

World football's most prestigious individual accolade was back up for grabs this year, with the ceremony taking place in Paris on Monday, where Messi was announced as the winner with Lewandowski second.

The Bayern Munich striker would almost certainly have won his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2020, only for France Football to decide not to hand out the award due to the coronavirus pandemic, and was pipped by Paris Saint-Germain star Messi this year in the running for the 2021 iteration.

Lewandowski did get the consolation prize of the inaugural Striker of the Year award.

Was it the right choice, though? Using Opta data, Stats Perform assesses why the Argentinian may have been awarded this year's prize.

Last season: Barca swansong v Muller's record

Few anticipated that the first half of 2021 would also be the final half-season of Messi's time at Barcelona.

His sensational free transfer to PSG at the end of the campaign was forced by financial issues at the Catalan club, and he bid a tearful goodbye to the Camp Nou, but not before signing off with a few more goals.

Messi's last LaLiga campaign before heading off to France saw him bag 30 goals in 35 games, with a further five in six Champions League games.

However, team awards were scarce, with just a Copa del Rey to show for his efforts. Barca finished a meek third in LaLiga, and were eliminated – somewhat ironically – by PSG in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Something that may have counted against Lewandowski was his own lack of silverware compared to the previous year, where he and Bayern hoovered up a remarkable treble, including the Champions League. They did though still retain the Bundesliga title with relative ease, as well as clinching the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

They were eliminated from the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, also by a pre-Messi PSG, though this can hardly be blamed on the Polish striker, who missed both legs of the tie through injury.

Lewandowski himself remained in outstanding form, and last season broke Gerd Muller's 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga campaign, netting 41 for Die Roten in just 29 league games, with a deadly shot conversion percentage across the season of 29.93.

It may have been Messi's superior creativity that helped sway the judges, creating 77 chances in his 35 league games, 22 of which were big chances, compared to 32 and nine from Lewandowski in his 29 league appearances in Germany.

The former Barca man did only manage two more assists than Lewandowski (nine to seven) but completed 159 dribbles and 1,068 successful passes ending in the final third, compared to the Pole's 22 and 237. Of course, it should be noted that Messi's role is typically a deeper one than Lewandowski's, so those latter statistics are not too surprising.

This season: New adventures v same old story

Messi's start to a new life in a new league has not exactly matched the inevitable expectations that accompanied his arrival in Paris.

The 34-year-old has just one goal in seven appearances in Ligue 1 with a shot conversion percentage of just 4.17, though he does have three in four Champions League games for Mauricio Pochettino's side.

Lewandowski has continued to plunder goals against all-comers, with 25 goals in 20 games in all competitions for Bayern, including an incredible nine in five Champions League games, and his shot conversion rate is currently even better than last season at 30.86 per cent.

In all competitions, the former Borussia Dortmund striker has played almost twice as many games as Messi (20 to 11) so it is tricky to compare them too accurately in terms of output, but Lewandowski has created 26 chances to Messi's 18, with six big chances created to five, while Messi has the edge on assists (three to two), dribbles completed (22 to 20) and successful passes ending in the final third (222 to 146).

So far you would have to say it is the Pole who is impressing most in the current campaign, having also had a more productive season last time out, so where exactly did Messi win this award?

 

Internationals: Argentina v Poland

Despite being an individual award, there is no doubt that team accolades often play a big part in swaying the judges, and an eventful pre-season for Messi at club level was arguably the only thing that could possibly have overshadowed what happened at international level as he finally lifted his first trophy in an Argentina shirt.

Messi scored four goals and gave five assists as he led the Albiceleste to their first Copa America title since 1993, being involved in nine of the 12 goals scored by Argentina at the tournament.

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament.

Their star striker still managed to score three goals in three games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

 

Very little creates debate in football quite like the Ballon d'Or, and on the face of it this year's trophy could have gone either way, with honourable mentions for the likes of Jorginho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah and Karim Benzema.

It is Messi's Ballon d'Or in 2021 though, and it seems that Copa America success is what tipped it in his favour. PSG fans will be hoping that a domestic trophy haul over the next 12 months can see him installed as favourite to secure his eighth award next year, ahead of potentially his last attempt at World Cup success with Argentina.

Julen Lopetegui has come a long way. Very little highlights that more than the fact he has been mentioned as a potential long-term successor to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United.

While such a move probably won't occur, with Mauricio Pochettino seemingly the likeliest to walk through the door at Old Trafford at the end of the season, the speculation is at least a vindication of the work Lopetegui has done at Sevilla over the past two and a half years.

Of course, it wasn't long before his hiring by Sevilla that Lopetegui seemed to be the butt of all jokes in Spanish football, with the situation surrounding his Spain departure attracting criticism before he was swiftly shown the exit by Real Madrid.

But he is a coach who really has put in the hard graft, having quickly lost his first ever job in management before then opting to refine his skills in youth coaching, steadily working his way up to prominence.

His football may not be universally popular, but Lopetegui has restored his reputation in an emphatic way.

Julen's gambit

Lopetegui saw the writing was on the wall.

"I know the culture of the club. I am identified with [the club] and with its fans. I am not surprised by a dismissal because football depends on results and we are not achieving them," he said.

While you'd think that might sound like what Lopetegui would have said after getting dismissed by Madrid, it was actually a frank response to being ditched by Rayo Vallecano back in 2003.

Rayo, whom Lopetegui finished his playing career with, were in the second tier and won just one of their first 10 league matches under their new, inexperienced coach. They went on to suffer a second successive relegation.

Although getting sacked wasn't a surprise for Lopetegui, it seemed to shock him into something of a rethink – he returned to his first professional club as a player, Real Madrid, in 2006 as their head of international scouting, and two years later he was in charge of the 'B' team, Castilla.

That was the first of several roles focused on youth coaching, which would see him looking after Spain's Under-19s, Under-20s and Under-21s over the following six years. Two seasons with Porto reintroduced him to senior club football, before Spain came calling again.

This time it wasn't an age-group role, it was the real deal. Lopetegui took over from Vicente del Bosque in 2016 and set about establishing a new dynasty for La Roja.

 

It was a largely positive two years. Ahead of the World Cup, he had presided over 20 matches for Spain, winning 14 of them and losing none.

That made him the Spain coach to have overseen the most games without losing, while his 70 per cent winning record is second only to Del Bosque (76 per cent) among those to preside over at least 15 games.

Goals weren't hard to come by either. Sure, World Cup qualification in Europe can bring about some lopsided results that boost averages, but still, Spain's 3.1 goals per game under Lopetegui remains the best of any Spain coach (min. 15 matches).

However, his decision to enter a post-World Cup agreement with Real Madrid, which was announced just a few days before Spain's campaign was due to begin, did not go down well with the Royal Spanish Football Federation. He was sacked and Fernando Hierro was brought in at short notice to preside over an ultimately disappointing Russia 2018.

Many criticised Lopetegui; some understood why he'd accepted the Madrid opportunity, others suspected it to be a poisoned chalice.

Predictable Perez

Given what he said after being sacked by Rayo some 15 years earlier, why Lopetegui saw Florentino Perez as the patient type was mystifying.

"Real Madrid is still alive. This is still October, we have done some good things, made a lot of chances, and we will try and improve and be more effective. We are ready to play a game of this size and these demands," he said prior to what proved to be his final match in charge.

After the game, that appraisal turned to: "I feel sad, but I want to remain in charge. It's a big blow, but I'm strong enough to know everything can be turned around. I have a lot of faith in this group of players."

Only, Lopetegui wasn't given the chance to turn it around, as we all know, for a 5-1 demolition by Barcelona in El Clasico brought an abrupt end to his brief 14-match stint at the helm. In football terms, there was surely no greater humiliation for a Madrid coach.

 

It was only the third time this century Madrid have conceded five times to Barca in LaLiga, and it meant Los Blancos had lost three league games on the bounce – again, this has only happened on two other occasions since January 2000.

Of course, there's lots to be said for why Lopetegui failed at Madrid. For one, his first-choice full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were in and out of the team, and such positions carry great importance for Lopetegui.

Additionally, let's not forget this was a Madrid very much in transition after the departure – and failed replacement – of Cristiano Ronaldo. It was seemingly expected that Karim Benzema would instantly pick up Ronaldo's slack, despite only passing 20 league goals in two of his previous nine LaLiga seasons. The Portugal star never went below 25 in his nine campaigns in Spain.

 

While Benzema did ultimately score 21 times in the league, only four of those (one via the penalty spot) – split across two games – came during Lopetegui's 10 games. Decisiveness in the final third was a real issue for the team, demonstrated by the fact they failed to beat Levante despite having 34 shots and set a new club record of 481 minutes without a league goal.

But Zinedine Zidane, Lopetegui's predecessor, saw this coming. As he bade farewell to the club alongside Perez just 15 days after winning a third successive Champions League title, the Frenchman spoke persistently about "change" and openly acknowledged he thought "it would be difficult to keep winning if I stayed".

Whether that was down to insufficient investment in the first team, the likelihood of retaining such high standards in the Champions League or a combination of both is unclear, but it would seem his successor was always on a hiding to nothing.

 

From rock-bottom to redemption

Lopetegui left Madrid with the second-worst win percentage (42.9 per cent) across all competitions in the club's history (min. two games), better only than Amancio (40.9).

 

But his record and impact at Sevilla couldn't realistically be much more of a contrast. Over his first 100 matches in charge in Nervion in all competitions, Lopetegui's 59 wins were a joint-record for the club.

It's almost fitting that his 100th career LaLiga match as a coach will come against his former team this weekend – it would be an even sweeter occasion were he to mastermind his first ever victory over Madrid, as success for Sevilla on Sunday will move them above Los Blancos and potentially put them top.

LaLiga is shaping up to be the closest it's been in years. Whether that's down to a dip in quality across Spain's top flight or not is a debate for another time, but Sevilla certainly looked well-placed to mount a challenge for the title having ultimately fallen just short in the final weeks of 2020-21.

At the very least, they are surely on track to finish in the top four in three successive seasons for only the second time since the Spanish Civil War, and it's this kind of consistency that's undoubtedly caught the attention of Man United, whom he defeated en route to 2019-20 Europa League success.

There are reasons to suggest he could be the sort of 'system coach' United need, as well. He's turned Sevilla into a side who dominate the ball, with their 64.4 per cent average possession for the season second only to Barcelona (65.8), while only the Catalans and Madrid have attempted and completed more passes.

But where many teams who like to dominate possession tend to press high, Sevilla do much more of their pressing in the middle third of the pitch – working with a striker like Ronaldo, who's engaged in just 113 pressures in the Premier League this season, ranking 30th at his position, may not be such an issue.

 

For example, Sevilla's 61 high turnovers are 10 fewer than any other LaLiga team this season, yet they have allowed opponents to have just four build-ups (sequences of 10 or more passes) that resulted in a shot or touch in the box. The next best record here is 10 (Barca and Villarreal).

This theoretically then gives Sevilla the chance to showcase their strength in picking through a counter-press, which is demonstrated by their 73 high turnovers against being the third-lowest in the division – none have led to a goal.

 

After getting by on individual quality and a helping of nostalgia for nearly three years, United need a coach who has proven he can mould a team to his philosophy – Sevilla may not be the most exhilarating team to watch, but they are effective and Lopetegui got results very quickly.

Certainly, Lopetegui ending up at Old Trafford any time soon isn't likely, but if Sevilla continue to churn out results in LaLiga and make themselves a genuine silverware rival to Los Blancos and Atletico Madrid, it's only a matter of time before Europe's biggest clubs come poking around. 

Where Lopetegui once saw Madrid as his greatest opportunity, he hopefully now just sees them as a mere obstacle in his quest for a crowning achievement: winning Sevilla their first title since the 1940s.

The NBA Rookie of the Year award won't be handed out for quite a while but if the first month of the season is any indication, voters are going to have plenty of options to choose from.

With teams having played roughly the first quarter of the season, this seems a good time to look at how some of the top draft picks are faring as they navigate their first campaign at the highest level of basketball.

 

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

After a dreadful start, including missing the first four games due to a sprained ankle, Cunningham has looked more like a player worthy of being a top overall draft pick. In his first three games, Cunningham averaged just 8.7 points on seven-of-39 shooting (17.9 per cent) while misfiring on 20 of 21 from three-point range. He's been far more effective the past six games, scoring 14.7 per contest on 36.3 percent from the field (33 of 91). It's highly unlikely that someone with Cunningham's ability will only shoot the 33.9 percent he's at now. This is, after all, a player who shot 40 percent on three-pointers in his one college season.

His shot selection will improve as he becomes more familiar with the pro game and learns defender's tendencies. Getting to the free throw line would also help improve his offensive efficiency since he's only averaging 1.9 free throws per game, though he is shooting 88 percent (22 of 25). There is inherent pressure with being the first player selected and Cunningham will have to carry that weight throughout his career. But because the former Oklahoma State star has a high basketball IQ and can rebound and distribute at a high level, he doesn't need to pile up points to affect a game's outcome.

The Pistons also are clearly in rebuild mode now, so wins are secondary, giving the well-rounded Cunningham plenty of minutes and opportunities to learn on the job.

Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Much like Cunningham, Green has the advantage of playing for a 2-16 Rockets team that have absolutely no expectations and are in a full-on rebuild for the foreseeable future. Green ranks third in minutes (555) among rookies and leads all first-year players in field goal attempts (228) and three-point attempts (115), so he's clearly not lacking for opportunities or touches.

Like many rookie score-first guards, the super athletic Green has faced his share of struggles and mostly from an efficiency standpoint. He's only shooting 38.2 from the field and 27.8 from behind the arc while dishing out 2.3 assists per game. While his overall numbers aren't eye-popping, Green has shown flashes of what he can and likely will become. Chief among them is a 30-point, 11-for-18 performance – eight for 10 from three-point range – in a loss to the Celtics on October 24.

He also had 24 points on nine-for-15 shooting with five three-pointers, five rebounds and five assists in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on November 2. A case can be made that Green is right where he should be after his first 18 games when compared to other rookie guards who have gone onto All-Star status.

Zach LaVine, for example, averaged 8.1 points on 42.2 percent shooting in his first 18 games, while Bradley Beal averaged 11.9 points on 35.9 percent from the field during that same span. Green still has three quarters of the season left to improve and there's no reason to think someone with his skill and athleticism won't as he becomes accustomed to the pro game.

Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Off to the best one-month start of any 2021-22 rookie, Mobley suffered a sprained right elbow in a loss to the Boston Celtics on November 15 and is expected to miss multiple weeks. While his momentum was stalled, the seven-footer shouldn't have a problem picking up where he left off upon his return to Cleveland's line-up.

If the Rookie of the Year award was being handed out in November, Mobley might have the best chance to take home the hardware as he's been equally impressive at both ends of the court. His offense has been better than expected with 14.6 points on 49.4 percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds and has even made eight of 26 from three-point range. He was tied for fourth in the NBA with 32 dunks through November 16 and has shown rare positional versatility.

There were questions about his offensive ability coming out of college but those have been answered and there's little doubt that Mobley is on his way to becoming a scoring force for years to come. A stellar defensive player at USC, Mobley has continued that path in his NBA career, flashing outstanding timing and discipline in rim protection. He leads all rookies with 1.60 blocks per game and his 24 total blocks were the second most by any Cavaliers player through the first 15 games of a career (Hot Rod Williams, 30 in 1986).

Mobley's injury has clearly left a huge void and the Cavs have been unable to compensate. They rank 26th in the league since November 17 in scoring defence (112.5) and have lost all four games without him following a surprising 9-6 start to the season.

Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Mobley's biggest challenger for the coveted one-month rookie award would be Barnes, who leads this rookie class in scoring (14.8), rebounding (8.4) and minutes per game (35.1) while ranking second in field goal percentage (48.6).

The Raptors' small forward is something of a Swiss Army knife with a well-rounded game and a tantalising set of tools. Barnes adjusted to the NBA very quickly, becoming just the second player (Shaquille O'Neal) since 1985-86 to accumulate at least 170 points and 85 rebounds while shooting 50 percent or better in his first 10 career games. Barnes' 212 points through 13 games were the most by any player in Raptors history and that's a franchise that drafted Vince Carter, Damon Stoudamire and Chris Bosh.

Besides Barnes' ability to score, rebound and pass, he's also excelling on the defensive end, often tasked with guarding the best player on the opposing team regardless of size. He's already been matched up against seven-foot Mo Bamba, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, James Harden and even some point guards. Barnes also has proven to be an adept ballhandler, which is a huge advantage when going up against other bigs.

Perhaps the only aspect of Barnes' game that is lacking is his three-point shooting, as he's only attempted 19 from long range and made five. The ability to stretch the court with deeper shots would make every other part of his offensive arsenal even more effective.

Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

By most accounts, the best pure passer in this draft class was point guard Giddey. A little more than a month into his NBA career and nobody would debate that. Giddey seems like a good bet to lead all rookies in assists, as he's totalled 105 thus far with the Sacramento Kings' Davion Mitchell ranking second with 68. But it's the Australian's all-around game that has the rebuilding Thunder looking very smart for nabbing him with the sixth overall pick.

Besides scoring 10.8 points per game, the six-foot-seven playmaker is third among first-year players with 7.3 rebounds and leads all rookies with 101 defensive boards. Giddey's performance in the first month has him among some elite company. With 105 assists and 131 rebounds in his first 18 games, he joins LeBron James and LaMelo Ball as the only teenagers to reach 100 in both in their first 20 NBA games. Giddey, who turned 19 last month, seems likely to record a triple-double soon after coming close on several occasions already.

After averaging 9.0 points on 37.1 percent shooting in his first 13 games, Giddey has heated up with 15.4 per game on 47.8 percent from the field in his last five games. Scoring is a bonus when it comes to Giddey, who has run the offense with the calm of a veteran and helped the Thunder be far more competitive than most expected.

Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to World Cup glory, triumphed in Italy and Europe with Napoli and won countless individual honours.

Along the way, the footballing great – who died at the age of 60 on November 25, 2020 – scored some of the greatest goals the game has ever seen.

No matter the occasion, or indeed the opponent, Maradona was often unplayable – as can be seen from our selection of his five greatest ever goals.

 

Argentina v England (June 22, 1986)

Hailed by many as the greatest goal of all time, Maradona picked up the ball inside his own half and dribbled past four England players before calmly rounding Peter Shilton.

The moment of magic arrived four minutes after the notorious 'Hand of God' goal and helped Argentina into the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup, a tournament which they went on to win.

Peter Reid, one of the England players that Maradona sauntered past, described the mesmerising second goal as an example of "an artist at work, at the best of his ability".

 

Argentina v Belgium (June 25, 1986)

The goal scored by Maradona three days later, this time in the semi-finals, was not too dissimilar in that he had four opposition players between himself and the goal.

He slalomed between two of them, jinked past another – in the process taking out a fourth – and fired past Jean-Marie Pfaff for his second goal of the contest.

Napoli v Juventus (November 3, 1985)

Napoli ended their 12-year wait for a league victory over rivals Juventus thanks to Maradona's brilliance of a different kind. If the previous goals were all about neat footwork and clinical finishing, this was more to do with sheer audacity.

A large wall, set five metres from the ball, was not enough to stop the Argentine maestro delicately lifting the indirect free-kick, rolled short into his path, into the one spot Stefano Tacconi could not reach.

Napoli v Hellas Verona (October 20, 1985)

This one was all about the technique - and the confidence to even think about taking it on. Maradona brought down the ball with his first touch, turned and sent a long-range drive flying over Giuliano Giuliani from a good 40 yards out.

What made it all the more special is that this strike came in a 5-0 thrashing of Hellas Verona, who were the reigning Serie A champions at the time.

Boca Juniors v River Plate (April 10, 1981)

Maradona spent a season with Boca Juniors before arriving in Europe, and it soon became clear what a talent he would become.

His first spell at the club may have been short, but he left behind plenty of memories, including a famous goal against bitter rivals River Plate. Intricate footwork in the penalty area left River helplessly bamboozled before Maradona converted from close range.

Diego Maradona enjoyed a stellar career, playing for some of the world's biggest clubs and instilling himself in World Cup folklore.

It is a year since the Argentina great died at the age of 60 after suffering a heart attack.

While his career was not shy of controversy, at his best Maradona was simply unplayable, and enjoyed success in South America and Europe, as well as on the international stage.

Stats Perform takes a look at his five greatest achievements, from World Cup success with Argentina to an era of Serie A glory with Napoli.


Bernabeu ovation

It takes something truly magnificent for Real Madrid fans to contemplate applauding a Barcelona player. Maradona delivered just that in June 1983, when he rounded Los Blancos goalkeeper Agustin and then, with the goal at his mercy, opted to sit the back-pedalling Juan Jose on the floor before tucking the ball home.

Maradona was given a standing ovation when he was later substituted – something that would not be repeated for a Barcelona player in that ground for another 22 years, when Ronaldinho was similarly honoured.

Goal of the century

Maradona's greatest goal is arguably the best in the history of the World Cup. He made the extraordinary seem easy as a matter of regularity and, on June 22, in a 2-1 quarter-final win over England, he did just that. In perhaps a summary of Maradona the man – and the player – his moment of magic followed on from possibly his most controversial act on a pitch: the 'Hand of God' goal.

Four minutes after inciting uproar in the England ranks, Maradona embarked on a mazy, remarkable run through the heart of the opposition and, within seconds, was coolly rounding England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to put Argentina into an unassailable lead.

World Cup glory

Following the win over England, 25-year-old captain Maradona led Argentina to a 2-0 semi-final victory against Belgium – scoring both goals once again – and a 3-2 triumph over West Germany in the final, as his country clinched their second World Cup crown.

Maradona finished the tournament in Mexico with five goals and a further five assists in seven games – no other player has done that since at a single edition of a World Cup.

He went on to captain his country again at the next World Cup, Italia 1990, before featuring twice in World Cup 1994, and he holds the Argentina record for the most appearances in the World Cup, with 21, ahead of Javier Mascherano (20) and Lionel Messi (19).

Triumph in Napoli

When Maradona arrived at Napoli in 1984, the club had not won a Serie A title in their 61-year history. After scoring 14 goals to help Napoli to eighth place in his first season, and netting another 11 as they finished third in his second, Maradona was the catalyst for a historic performance from the Partenopei in 1986-87.

They finished the season as champions, three points clear of bitter rivals Juventus, and the city exploded into celebrations that included an informal day of holiday to enjoy the moment. The triumph was by no means down to Maradona alone, but he is remembered as their inspiration and star.

Last-gasp joy as Albiceleste boss

Maradona's career as a head coach cut a stark contrast to his playing days, but a lack of success at the helm of Textil Mandiyu and Racing Club did not prevent him taking charge of his country in 2008. The highlight of a tumultuous two-year spell came in October 2009, when Peru came to Buenos Aires for a World Cup qualifier Argentina desperately needed to win to revive their hopes of qualifying for South Africa 2010. Maradona's decision to play Gonzalo Higuain ahead of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero proved a shrewd one as the striker gave Argentina the lead, but Peru levelled the match in the last minute through Hernan Rengifo.

The moment called for a hero and Martin Palermo, recalled to the national team by Maradona after a 10-year absence, scored the winner deep into injury time to prompt wild celebrations on the touchline and in the stands, with the image of Maradona sliding along the rain-soaked pitch on his belly etched into the country's memory.

To many it still sounds absurd, but on November 21, 2022, the 22nd FIFA World Cup will get under way in Qatar.

Twelve years will have slipped by since Sepp Blatter pulled a card from an envelope and declared Qatar the hosts, giving the Arab world its first crack at putting on the tournament.

When the announcement came at FIFA HQ in Zurich, former US president Bill Clinton wrestled to mask his disappointment and offered a congratulatory handshake as the Qatari delegation celebrated on the row behind him. Clinton was the US bid committee's honorary chairman. It was reported he smashed a mirror in fury after returning to his hotel suite.

The USA, Australia, South Korea and Japan had been the rival candidates to Qatar, and many in the game believed the Americans would be awarded the tournament.

Chuck Blazer, the crooked FIFA executive who was also CONCACAF general secretary at the time, smiled along as the triumphant Qataris took to the stage.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, chairman of the Qatar bid team, said: "Thank you for believing in change, thank you for believing in expanding the game, thank you for giving Qatar a chance. We will not let you down. You will be proud of us; you will be proud of the Middle East and I promise you this."

Within a fortnight, Blatter said any gay fans planning on travelling to Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal, should "refrain from sexual activity". He faced a swift backlash for that remark, which was supposedly made in jest.

He added: "I think there is too much concern for a competition that will be done only in 12 years."

That sounded almost like a polite way of saying "not my problem", and as the FIFA gravy train soon hit the rails, with widespread corruption being exposed, the World Cup was indeed taken out of Blatter's hands.

Where then do we stand, with 12 months to go? Is this really a World Cup at the wrong time, in the wrong place?

Stats Perform has looked at the state of play, and the concerns that Blatter so flippantly dismissed continue to linger. Others have since sprung up and remain active worries; but at the same time, perhaps there is still cause for a little cautious optimism.

 


Can Qatar now be considered a fit and proper host for a World Cup?

May Romanos is a Gulf researcher for Amnesty International, the human rights organisation. She hails from Lebanon and lives in London.

When Qatar was handed the rights to the 2022 World Cup, Amnesty jumped at the chance to turn the spotlight on human rights concerns in the country and lobby for positive change that might spread throughout the Middle East. Over 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the tournament, according to a Guardian investigation. Amnesty says that around 70 per cent of those deaths have not been satisfactorily explained.

Romanos says Amnesty harboured worries about "major labour abuse and exploitation".

It is not known exactly how many of those who have died were involved in the World Cup building project, given that over 90 per cent of Qatar's workforce are thought to be migrants, but staging the World Cup has been a major project for the country and it has been reported a significant proportion would have been involved in creating the infrastructure for the event.

These are the workers who built the stadiums, the roads and the hotels. Amnesty has been pushing for these workers to be afforded rights they could reasonably expect elsewhere in the world.

"In the first few years, the calls fell a bit on deaf ears and Qatar didn't really respond to the pressure, the criticism," Romanos told Stats Perform.

"Eventually in 2018 they signed this agreement with the International Labour Organization, which definitely indicates a higher political will to commit to reform the system and make this World Cup a driving force for change and leave a positive legacy for human rights."

Qatar has managed to introduce "important legal reforms to change the system to introduce better access to justice for migrant workers, introduced the minimum wage, [and] a mechanism to monitor the payment of wages", says Romanos.

"But what we are finding is that although the laws are there, their implementation and enforcement remain very weak, meaning that many migrant workers continue to be victim of labour abuses and exploitation."

The Qatari government has rejected claims of a spike in migrant worker deaths, stating that the mortality rate sits "within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population".

Qatar's World Cup Supreme Committee, through its Workers' Welfare legacy programme, says it is "achieving long-term tangible changes that now serve as benchmarks across the country and the region".

There have been new and improved laws introduced, directed at improving worker welfare, and Amnesty is optimistic these will make a telling difference.

"I think the political will is still there," says Romanos. "There is, I think, the need to get into action quickly and urgently because the window of opportunity is closing.

"We are 12 months away from this World Cup and I think it's very crucial that they take urgent action now to address the shortcomings and ensure the next few months will be very vital to deliver a World Cup that is not going to be tainted by labour abuses and exploitation or human rights concerns in general."


What can football do to help?

A UEFA working group visited Qatar in August, to take a first-hand look at work on the ground, amid concerns for the workers.

Gijs de Jong, general secretary of the Royal Netherlands Football Association, was among the delegation and spoke afterwards to praise Qatar's "significant positive progress with human rights legislation in the last three years", stressing he had "no doubt" this was hastened by the award of the World Cup. De Jong underlined, however, that the legislation was "not yet universally adopted".

According to Amnesty, there is a need for pressure to be applied to the Qatari authorities by all parties concerned with the World Cup.

Stats Perform pointed to the UEFA working group, and to David Beckham's reported big-money deal to be a tournament ambassador, questioning what role such figures can play in pressing for a better human rights situation.

"We want them, and we urge them, to take our concerns seriously," Romanos said. "Because they do have responsibility towards taking part in this tournament; they have responsibility to ensure their participation is not going to lead to further human rights violations.

"They have to use their leverage they have over FIFA and therefore over Qatar to push for further changes, and I think while we all agree there has been some legal progress, some of it remains ink on paper. The time is to recognise this but also to push further, to use the leverage they have to push Qatar and push FIFA to implement these reforms, so at least teams can go there confident in the knowledge their operation there is not going to lead to further human rights abuses."
 

What about the players? Won't they have enough to focus on without searching their consciences?

There is a tournament to win, and doubtless Qatar will put on a tremendous show in their space-age stadiums.

But politics will never be far from the surface, and players might be wise to at least be aware of the fundamentals of the human rights issues, which include oppression of LGBTQ+ people and discriminatory laws affecting women.

Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One superstar, used his platform ahead of the Qatar Grand Prix to highlight inequality and abuses.

"When we see a statement like this, we welcome it," said Romanos, "and we welcome players who decide to speak out about the human rights situation. We urge everyone to educate themselves and be ready to use their leverage or their voice to push for further changes.

"Obviously, the obligation of players is different to the obligation of the football association who actually have legal obligation and responsibility to ensure they use their leverage, push for change but also do their due diligence to ensure the teams they send are not going to be linked to any human rights violations.

"For the players, we would welcome and we would love to see this happening more often, using this platform, using the leverage you have to shed the light on a very important issue and ensure this World Cup will actually leave a positive legacy, or any sporting event will leave actually a positive legacy."

FIFPro, the global players' union, has already gathered together a number of footballers for discussions with the Building and Wood Workers International organisation, which has campaigned for better and more rights for those who have literally shed blood, sweat and tears for the sake of building a futuristic World Cup landscape. Players have spoken directly to such workers and this dialogue is expected to continue over the months ahead.

Although FIFPro would not take sides on such matters, it is providing the pathways for such important discourse to take place. Then it falls to the players to choose their next course of action.

FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer Hoffmann said earlier this year: "Let's not forget that, while footballers have no say in the decision to pick tournament host countries, they inevitably become the face of those events when they run onto the pitch to compete. They feel a responsibility to foster human rights in those countries."

FIFA and UEFA are among the football authorities that have allowed players to take the knee before games, in support of the Black Lives Matter anti-discrimination movement. Whether FIFA will be quite so lenient if players are actively speaking out against the Qatari authorities while at Qatar 2022 remains to be seen.

The world governing body has rules for that sort of thing, to keep politics out of football. It has financial interests to protect – sponsors, TV, supreme committees – but it is understood there are significant voices within the game that would urge FIFA to allow players to speak and express themselves freely on rights abuses next year. FIFA would also be risking global contempt by blocking such discussion. The clock is ticking for Qatar.

"This World Cup has brought the spotlight and has pushed the authorities to commit maybe at a faster pace to reform these processes. Probably they had this in mind, but the World Cup accelerated this," said Romanos.

There are countries "with equally if not even worse troubling human rights records [that] are also eyeing to host mega sporting events", Romanos added, without naming names, promising "more scrutiny" for those that get to stage such international jamborees.

"We are still hopeful," she added. "We really think that if anyone can pull this together and deliver their commitments and deliver a World Cup that will have a positive legacy, Qatar can do it."


What can fans, including LGBTQ+ fans, expect from Qatar, and should they even travel?

The comedian and football presenter Elis James spoke on the Guardian Football Weekly podcast of the quandary of wanting to follow Wales to a World Cup, but being wary of being part of a showcase event in a country where deep injustices have been called out.

He said he had "reservations about Qatar, but we haven't qualified for a World Cup since 1958, so the head and the heart are saying two very different things".

"And I actually don't like myself for being in that position," James added, "because I wish I could have more moral certainty about this."

He is far from alone, and Amnesty is not calling for anybody to boycott the tournament, although there have been others who have gone down that route. There was a strong movement in Norway calling for the national team of that country to give the tournament a miss. Ultimately, missing out on qualification meant Norway sealed their own fate in that regard, while the nation's football federation had already voted against the prospect of a boycott.

"Obviously it's a personal choice," said Romanos. "At Amnesty, our role as a human rights watchdog is to inform about the human rights situation and invite people to educate themselves before going and know what will happen there and expect what will happen."

 

Qatar is considered unlikely by many observers to impose its strictest rules on visitors during World Cup time, which may mean LGBTQ+ fans of the game will not face any persecution. Rainbow flags are expected to fly in fan zones and inside stadiums, but whether this has any influence on Qatari daily life beyond the tournament remains to be seen.

Fan power for four weeks in November and December is one thing, but changing the way of life in Qatar is likely to involve gradual shifts rather than overnight change.

"I think it’s up to the individual to decide how they want to use the platform they have to push for greater changes," Romanos said.

"As a person coming from the Middle East myself, the moment I learned that Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup I was genuinely very happy because I felt like our region deserves to be mentioned with some mega sporting event.

"We love football, but we don't have great football teams; but football is huge in the Middle East, and I felt for once it’s good for us not to be connected with terrorism, wars.

"But when you look at the human rights situation of migrant workers and the abuses that happen, you would say, okay, let's do a World Cup that we are proud of as the first World Cup in the Middle East. That's why we believe there is still this window of opportunity."

It had long felt inevitable that Xavi would return to Barcelona at some stage and the time has finally come.

The former midfielder will take charge of his first match in Saturday's derby clash with Espanyol after replacing Ronald Koeman during the international break, having embraced both a financial and sporting crisis at Camp Nou that sees the team ninth in LaLiga and more than €1.2billion in debt.

Given his pedigree as a player for the club, where he won 25 major trophies, and the fact he delivered three cups and a Qatar Stars League title during his time in charge of Al Sadd, you would be forgiven for thinking Xavi could have chosen to bide his time and wait for a more opportune moment to take the job.

Yet here we are, with another of Europe's grandest sides appointing a club legend. It's a move that often resonates well with a disillusioned fan base, but recent history tells us a star playing career often counts for little when it comes to life in the dugout at the elite end of football.

There are a fair few examples of ex-players heading back to their old clubs in the past few years – and to different levels of success...

Mikel Arteta (Arsenal): Jury's out

When Arsenal lost their first three league games of the season without scoring a goal, it looked like the Arteta experiment might have run its course.

Now on a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions, buoyed by a derby defeat of Tottenham and a manager of the month award for September, it's beginning to look as though the former captain might just have got things on track at Emirates Stadium.

Winning the FA Cup last year was also a big feather in Arteta's cap, but there's still a sense that the next bad result is just around the corner. After all, he lost 20 of his first 60 league games in charge; it took Arsene Wenger 116 matches to reach that number.

Ronald Koeman (Barcelona): Failure

There is no question Koeman stepped into the breach at Barca at a terrible time, with an institutional crisis ongoing and the team having lost 8-2 to Bayern Munich in Quique Setien's final game in charge. He was chosen for his estimable record as a player at the club, and he did at least deliver Copa del Rey success last term.

Yet as soon as new president Joan Laporta admitted before this season that he was basically only keeping Koeman because there wasn't another option, the writing was on the wall.

Uninspiring football and a troubling run of results that culminated in a first loss to Rayo Vallecano since 2002 forced Laporta into action – he sacked Koeman on the flight home, if reports are to be believed. In the end, his contribution as a player offered little protection.

 

Niko Kovac (Bayern Munich): Short-term success

Kovac took over from Jupp Heynckes before the start of the 2018-19 season, becoming only the fourth former Bayern Munich player to become head coach (after Soren Lerby, Franz Beckenbauer and Jurgen Klinsmann).

Trophies were not a problem: Kovac won the DFL-Supercup 5-0 against old club Eintracht Frankfurt in his first match in charge, and the Bundesliga title and DFB-Pokal followed. Nobody at Bayern had ever won the double as both player and coach before.

It all turned a bit sour in 2019-20, though. Bayern won just five of their opening 10 league games and were thrashed 5-1 by Frankfurt in November, at which point Kovac and the club agreed the time was right to part ways.

Frank Lampard (Chelsea): Failure

Chelsea's record goalscorer only had one season of experience at Championship side Derby County before being entrusted with the big job at Stamford Bridge.

Losing 4-0 to Manchester United in his first game wasn't exactly a strong start, but Lampard did guide the Blues to fourth in the Premier League and an FA Cup final, all while navigating the difficulties of a transfer ban.

However, after a squad investment of close to £250million before 2020-21, Chelsea's progress stalled and a run of two wins in eight league games saw Lampard replaced by Thomas Tuchel. His points-per-game average of 1.67 was the fourth lowest of any permanent Chelsea manager in the Premier League era.

Andrea Pirlo (Juventus): Failure

Compared with Pirlo, Lampard was a seasoned veteran in managerial terms. Juventus handed the top job to their former star midfielder when his only coaching experience was nine days of looking after the Under-23s.

Pirlo's swaggering style as a player did not translate itself to the dugout: Juve lacked cohesion and creativity and were embarrassed when 10-man Porto knocked them out of the last 16 of the Champions League, a result that did more damage to Pirlo's position than any other.

The former Italy man delivered Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia success, and managed to drag Juve back to a fourth-placed finish on the final day of the season, but Inter had already marched to the title by then. In the end, Pirlo lasted less than a year.

 

Mauricio Pochettino (Paris Saint-Germain): Slow progress

Pochettino is a little different to the others on our list given his coaching experience covered Espanyol, Southampton and a memorable five years at Tottenham before he went to PSG, the club where he spent two seasons as a player.

The 49-year-old has won renown for getting his teams to play high-tempo, exciting football, but this has yet to be consistently evident in Ligue 1 even if results are mostly going his way.

Ten wins from 12 games have them comfortably top of Ligue 1, while wins over Manchester City and RB Leipzig stand them in good stead in the Champions League, but it feels like PSG are too often being rescued from mediocre performances by a moment of inspiration from a star player – and that's rarely been the Pochettino way.

 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Manchester United): Who knows?

Manchester United have become one of the most singularly baffling football teams in the world under Solskjaer, the man who won six Premier League titles as a player and scored arguably their most famous goal: the winner in the 1999 Champions League final that secured the treble.

Hired as an interim coach in December 2018 to repair the damage of Jose Mourinho's final months, Solskjaer rebuilt United's morale through sheer goodwill and a heady dose of nostalgia, both of which have kept him in the job ever since.

They finished second in the Premier League last term but lost the Europa League final, and seem to have gone backwards in 2021-22, with that 5-0 hammering by Liverpool almost sounding the death knell for Solskjaer. However, the talents at his disposal – not least Cristiano Ronaldo – seem to do just enough to keep Ole at the wheel on a weekly basis.

 

Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid): Resounding success... but walked away (twice)

Many of these clubs hoped to discover the next Pep Guardiola: the famous ex-player who could turn his first senior coaching job into something not just successful, but era-defining, unforgettable. Zidane at Real Madrid is the closest we have seen.

After spells as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti and coach of the Castilla, Zidane replaced the unpopular Rafael Benitez in January 2016 and led them to Champions League glory. He did the same for the next two seasons as Madrid became the first side in the tournament's modern era to win successive trophies.

Zidane also won two LaLiga titles: in 2016-17, in which he oversaw a club-record 40 games unbeaten in all competitions, and in 2019-20, when he had returned to club after walking away in May 2018. He left again at the end of 2020-21, the only season in which he did not win a trophy.

 

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