Title races are the best, aren't they?

Months of games, so many ups and downs, goals scored and conceded, and yet it can all still come down to the finest margins in the closing minutes of the last day.

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, the winner is showered with praise; the loser is taunted and booed until my throat is sore.

With one matchday left, the title races in both Serie A and the Premier League are going to the final 90 minutes. Milan and Manchester City have their destinies in their own hands, but Inter and Liverpool are looking to respectively pounce on any stumble.

There is the potential for exceptional drama in Italy and England, but can the Nerazzurri and the Reds have much hope of pulling off the improbable and wrestling the respective title from their rivals?

Stats Perform has taken a look at some of the more dramatic title races from recent history that show anything is possible.

Every goal matters

The Eredivisie provided about as tense a finish as you could imagine in 2006-07, with PSV Eindhoven and Ajax unsurprisingly the main characters.

A strong title defence from Ronald Koeman's PSV began with 18 wins from 21 games, and just one defeat.

However, losing four and drawing four of their next 12 games coupled with Ajax winning five of six leading into the final day meant they were neck and neck on points heading into the last game.

Despite being behind on goal difference, a tremendous effort from PSV saw them pip their rivals after an emphatic 5-1 win over Vitesse, while Ajax could only muster a 2-0 victory over Willem II, losing the title by a single goal.

When goals made no difference in LaLiga

In the same season, Real Madrid made a disappointing start in LaLiga, drawing their first game 0-0 with Villarreal at home before going on to lose seven of their first 21 league matches.

After drawing four games in a row between mid-February and mid-March, title hopes seemed to be over for Fabio Capello's men, only for nine wins in 11 games to send them into the final day level on points with Barcelona.

Barca thrashed Gimnastic 5-1 away from home to do their bit, but Madrid eased to a 3-1 win against Real Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The Blaugrana had a significantly better goal difference of +45 compared to Madrid's +26, but that mattered not as the tie-breaker came down to head-to-head record, which was in Los Blancos' favour having beaten Barca 2-0 at home and drawn 3-3 at Camp Nou.

"Agueroooooo!"

Following Sheikh Mansour's takeover of Manchester City in 2008, the club had grown year-on-year and by the 2011-12 season, felt they were ready to mount a challenge at the top of the Premier League.

Roberto Mancini's side started well enough, winning 11 of their first 12 games, but three defeats across December and January dented hopes, while two losses and two draws in a five-game period in March and April all but killed them.

That was until five wins in a row coincided with Manchester United losing to Wigan Athletic and dramatically drawing 4-4 with Everton at Old Trafford.

City beating United on matchday 36 swung things in the Sky Blues' favour, and they went into the last day needing only a win against lowly QPR to seal it.

In typical fashion, they made it hard work for themselves, finding themselves 2-1 down heading towards the 90th minute. United had won 1-0 at Sunderland, which meant City needed two goals or they would have lost the title in agonising fashion.

An Edin Dzeko header made it 2-2, before Mario Balotelli slid in Sergio Aguero for one of the most famous goals in English football history, giving City their first top-flight title since 1969.

 

The ultimate last day head-to-head

It was like something out of a Hollywood film. All the previous nine LaLiga titles had been won by Clasico giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, but in 2013-14, Atletico Madrid believed they could spoil the party.

Barca were the pacesetters, winning 13 of their first 14 games, while Real Madrid were struggling after losing to both Atletico and Barca.

Diego Simeone led his team to an incredible 16 wins from their first 18 games, but a 0-0 draw with Barca made it look like it would be the tightest of run-ins.

Indeed it was, with Real coming back to the party after an 18-match unbeaten run, though back-to-back defeats to Barca and Sevilla stopped them in their tracks.

Gerardo Martino's Barca were wobbling too, losing three out of seven games between February and March, and then drawing with Getafe and Elche to give Atletico their chance on the final day.

As if it could not have been more dramatic, Atletico went into the last game three points clear, but needing a point to clinch the title, away at Barcelona.

Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring for the Blaugrana, but Diego Godin's header handed the crown to Atletico.

When six were not on the beach

You may not be as familiar with this final day, but it stands as one of the most remarkable in the history of the game.

Never mind two or three, there were six clubs that could still claim the Ligue 2 title going into the final round of matches in 2016-17.

Strasbourg, Amiens, Troyes, Lens, Brest and Nimes all in with a shout with one game remaining, all separated by three points at most.

Technically, the drama was not really with the winner of the title, but the other automatic promotion spot that was up for grabs, with Strasbourg able to hold on to top spot following a nervy 2-1 win against Bourg-Peronnas, but it was a 96th-minute strike from Emmanuel Bourgaud sealing a 2-1 win at Stade Reims for Amiens that provided unbelievable drama, taking the aptly named Unicorns from sixth to second.

I did not think I would be advising Inter and Liverpool to go into their games with an "Amiens mindset", but there we are.

Novak Djokovic returns to the grand slam arena, Carlos Alcaraz is threatening to follow in the footsteps of Rafael Nadal, and Iga Swiatek is suddenly unstoppable.

The French Open is rich in promise as the Roland Garros clay courts are swept in anticipation of the greats of tennis stepping out to begin their campaigns.

It has been the women's draw that has looked the most wide open in recent seasons, yet this year it is hard to look beyond Swiatek; however, the men's title battle promises to provide a sensational battle.

Here, Stats Perform assesses the contenders for the two main trophies: the Coupe des Mousquetaires and the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.


KID INTERRUPTS G.O.A.T. RACE

Nadal took full advantage of Djokovic and Roger Federer being absent from the Australian Open, carrying off his 21st grand slam title to go top of the men's all-time list, one ahead of those two great rivals.

Federer is again missing, rehabbing after knee surgery, and the likelihood is he has played his final major already, but Djokovic is emphatically back. His confidence is surging once more, having taken a knock amid the drama of his deportation from Australia in January and being frozen out of the Indian Wells and Miami events due to the United States' COVID-19 rules.

A semi-final run in Madrid, where he lost a three-set monster to Alcaraz, was followed by Djokovic carrying off the Rome title for a sixth time when he saw off Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.

Djokovic turns 35 on Sunday, as main-draw action gets under way in Paris, but he is the defending champion and firmly believes he can succeed again.

Assessing his prospects for Paris, Djokovic said after his Rome triumph: "With rankings and the way I've been playing in the last few weeks, I would rate myself as one of the favourites. I don't obviously spend too much time thinking who's going to win it or who might have the best chance. I always think about myself.

"I go there with the highest ambitions. I really like my chances. Best-of-five, you play every second day. It's a grand slam. It's different. Really, the grand slams are played different. You have to approach it differently. But the way I've been feeling on the court and off the court in the last few weeks, I really think I can go far."

The chief threat to Djokovic could come not from 'King of Clay' Nadal, but from the 13-time champion's fellow Spaniard, 19-year-old Alcaraz.

Bidding to become the first teenage winner of the men's title since Nadal, also 19, triumphed for the first time in 2005, Alcaraz arrives in Paris with four titles already secured this year, including three on clay in Rio, Barcelona and Madrid. The other title came on hardcourt at the Masters 1000 event in Miami, and Alcaraz has rocketed from 32nd at the start of the year to number six in the world rankings.

Many expect his grand slam haul to reach double digits, just like the Big Three he has grown up watching and learning from. The first slam must come somewhere, and it might well come in Paris in a fortnight's time.

Don't discount Nadal, but his form has been a shade unconvincing since coming back from a rib injury, while Tsitsipas looks the next most likely after winning on clay in Monte Carlo and finishing runner-up to Djokovic in Rome. The Greek has unfinished business in Paris, after the heartache of losing last year's final from two sets up.

 

IGA TO PLEASE? POLE GOES FROM SHOCK WINNER TO FIRM FAVOURITE

The first thing to point out is that the French Open women's singles title has been won by eight different players in the last eight years.

Iga Swiatek was a surprise champion in 2020, at the tournament that was delayed until the Paris autumn due to the pandemic. She was ousted by Maria Sakkari in the quarter-finals last year but returns on a roll, having won an incredible five consecutive tournaments.

The 20-year-old has won 38 of the last 39 sets she has contested, the odd one out going against her on a tie-break, and her winning streak has reached 28 matches. Since Ash Barty retired, nobody has been able to lay much of a glove on Swiatek.

If she wins the French Open, that run will reach 35 matches, equalling the longest run in the 2000s, previously achieved by Venus Williams during a glory run that saw her win events including Wimbledon, the Olympic Games and US Open in the year 2000.

Tunisia's Ons Jabeur has been spoken of as a possible challenger to Swiatek, but she was swatted away 6-2 6-2 by the youngster in the Rome final last weekend.

So who challenges the favourite? Even those who have been there and done that struggle to look beyond Swiatek. According to Martina Navratilova: "You can’t be any hotter than she is right now."

Navratilova told the WTA website: "She looks pretty unbeatable on any surface, particularly the clay now."

The last player to beat Swiatek was Jelena Ostapenko, in Dubai. Ostapenko, a surprise 2017 French Open champion, had a sizzling spell of form in February but has gone off the boil since. It might take someone of her hard-hitting nature to knock Swiatek out of her stride, though, so if Ostapenko can navigate the early rounds she becomes a real contender. The Latvian's career record against Swiatek? An impressive 3-0.

Who else? Simona Halep's coaching tie-up with Patrick Mouratoglou – Serena Williams' former coach of long-standing – has raised eyebrows and now it might be time for it to raise her results level too. Halep has won in Paris before, in 2018, so don't count her out.

Aryna Sabalenka, Sakkari, Paula Badosa. Such players come into the mix if Swiatek slips up, but there has been scant sign of that happening.

Look away Liverpool, this may make for painful reading. Manchester City are not quite home and hosed in the Premier League title race, but all signs point to them brushing off Aston Villa on Sunday to clinch the trophy.

Another gripping race for domestic dominance culminates in City hosting Villa, while rivals Liverpool face Wolves at Anfield.

If City drop points, a Liverpool win would make Jurgen Klopp's team the champions. Yet recent history shows us that City rarely stumble against Villa, so a slip-up in the clash with Steven Gerrard's side would be a monumental shock.

A sixth title in the Premier League era beckons, which would rank City outright second behind Manchester United's haul of 13 championships.

Stats Perform takes a look here at key Opta numbers ahead of the final-day showdown

Saving the best for last

Pep Guardiola has repeatedly denied City lost their nerve against Real Madrid, when they remarkably surrendered what should have been a match-winning lead in the Champions League semi-finals.

Such wild things happen in football, Guardiola has reasoned, which is why he will take a meticulous approach to preparation for the Etihad Stadium clash with Villa. There could yet be an extraordinary finish to the season, but not if Guardiola can help it.

City have kept running through the tape in each of Guardiola's seasons in England, winning all five of their final league games under the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss. That ranks as the best such 100 per cent record for a manager in the competition's history.

Going back even further, to the start of the Abu Dhabi ownership era, City have lost just one of their final league games in the last 13 campaigns (W10 D2). That loss came when they went down 3-2 at home to Norwich City in 2012-13 when Brian Kidd was in caretaker charge for the last game. A year previously, they famously beat QPR by that same scoreline to clinch a first Premier League title.

This season, City have lost just one of their last 27 Premier League games (W22 D4), and are unbeaten in 11 since losing 3-2 at home to Spurs in February.

 

What it would mean for Guardiola

The City manager, who reports have claimed is ready to extend his contract until 2025, stands on the brink of Premier League history.

Should his side keep Liverpool at arm's length, Guardiola will become the outright leader for English top-flight titles among non-British managers, going one clear of both Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho.

This would be his fourth such Premier League title success in England, with only Manchester United's Alex Ferguson winning more. Guardiola has no intention of staying long enough to match Ferguson's staggering stack of 13 titles.

City have won 168 of the 227 Premier League games they have contested in the Guardiola era, scoring 562 goals in that time. Those are inevitably league-best figures, and it would be hideously out of character for them to crack against Villa.

A one-sided rivalry

It was not always this way, of course. Villa finished ahead of City as recently as the 2008-09 season (finishing sixth to City's 10th), but the tables turned in the dynamic between the teams when the Abu Dhabi investment began at the Etihad Stadium.

In recent years, this has been almost a formality victory for City, who have won nine of their last 10 Premier League games against Villa (D1), including the last six in a row.

City's last defeat to Sunday's opponents was a 3-2 loss at Villa Park in September 2013.

It is even more of a grim story when the focus falls solely on the games in Manchester. Villa have lost 15 of their last 16 away league games against City, losing each of the last 11 in a row since a 2-0 win in April 2007. This run of 11 is Villa's longest away losing streak against an opponent in their league history.

What's more, Villa's record when facing any league-leading team is unimpressive. They have won just one of their 21 Premier League away games against league leaders (D3 L17), beating Leeds United 2-1 in January 2000, and have lost the last seven by an aggregate score of 21-1.

Villa pulled off a shock of sorts when beating fourth-placed finishers Chelsea on the final day of last season, but they have not won their last game of a league campaign in consecutive seasons since the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. The second of those wins came against champions Arsenal, but that is almost a quarter of a century ago.

 

Doubling up on the last day?

City will have Erling Haaland on board next season, so a flip of tactics seems inevitable to accommodate the prolific striker. This term, City have tended to rely on their midfield and attacking wide players to deliver in front of goal, and three players have reached double figures: Kevin De Bruyne (15 goals), Raheem Sterling (13) and Riyad Mahrez (11).

Now it could be Phil Foden's turn.

Foden has scored nine Premier League goals this season, and if he scores against Villa it would make this season the first for City with two English players (Foden and Sterling) scoring at least 10 goals in a league campaign since 2004-05, when Robbie Fowler and Shaun Wright-Phillips were the pair.

In a pre-match news conference lacking much talk of the opposition, there was one question that stood out in that regard ahead of Rangers' Europa League final clash with Eintracht Frankfurt.

Gers captain James Tavernier was pointedly asked for his opinion on Eintracht wing-back Filip Kostic, given the pair are likely to see a lot of each other on the flank they'll share.

"Obviously I respect how he's been playing, he's a top player," Tavernier said. "But, I've just got to bring the best version of myself when the game starts and try to cause him all the problems, try to make him deal with me for the majority of the game. That's all I can really do."

Tavernier's response didn't offer any particularly great insight, but his mentality of wanting to cause Kostic as many problems was at least another identifier of how their duel could be such a key battle.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that Tavernier, a right-back, remarkably heads into Wednesday's game as the Europa League's top scorer on seven goals, and realistically – or, unrealistically – only a hat-trick from Eintracht's Daichi Kamada can prevent the Englishman from at least ending the season with a share of the competition's golden boot.

Further to that, he netted 19 times over the course of the 2020-21 season and could yet match that figure this term – he also has an impressive assists haul of 17.

If it needs reiterating, he's a huge contributor for Rangers in the final third.

So, given he's technically a right-back, there's obviously an element of Tavernier needing to be solid defensively on Wednesday, but some might suggest it's even more essential he's as sharp as ever going forward as that would not only give Rangers a credible threat on the right, but it would potentially keep Kostic occupied in a deeper position.

Granted, Eintracht's set-up with a back three should always ensure they have an extra man to cover for Kostic's runs forward, while the two attacking midfielders supporting Rafael Borre up top often occupy narrow, deeper berths in order to maximise the space out wide for their biggest threat.

Yet there's always the possibility of an overload in behind Kostic if the conditions are right, such is his attacking influence.

 

After all, the frequency at which Kostic delivers into the box is frankly astonishing. This season, he has been the executor of 519 crosses and corners, 140 more than any other player in the top five leagues – Trent Alexander-Arnold is second with 379.

Kostic's 78 successful crosses from open play is also a season-high. Of course, you would expect him to lead the way given he's attempted so many more than anyone else, but his 26.8 per cent accuracy (crosses/corners) is right in line with the average (among players with at least 100 attempted). That in itself is impressive given his greater frequency.

Another way of looking at it is, he is producing one accurate open-play cross every 45.4 minutes. While that may not sound incredible on the face of it, his 12.4 expected assists (xA) is the 10th highest among players in the top five leagues, highlighting just how much of a weapon he is in terms of his creative quality.

So, while he may be classed as a wing-back in terms of his position on a team line-up graphic, the Serbian is there for his attacking tendencies.

A cursory glance at his map of open-play chances created proves that point.

 

But Rangers must also be aware of the danger posed on the opposite flank.

Ansgar Knauff has been one of the stars of Eintracht's journey to the final, with the 20-year-old becoming something of a revelation in the past few months.

As recently as mid-January he was turning out for Borussia Dortmund's second team in the third tier. Then he joined Eintracht on loan and has since scored important Europa League goals against Barcelona and West Ham.

His impact on the road to Seville has been significant, with his brilliant athleticism, bravery and confidence on the ball making him a real asset on the right-hand side.

Before Knauff's arrival, Eintracht were rather lopsided, with their other options on the right far from convincing. Sure, Kostic remains their main outlet, but Knauff's emergence has provided them with another – albeit stylistically different – threat on the other side, giving them greater balance.

 

Across all competitions since his Eintracht debut in early February, only Kostic (5.6) and Jesper Lindstrom (2.6) have amassed better xA records than Knauff, who is also fifth to those two, Borre and Kamada in terms of xA and xG (expected goals) combined.

He may not be their deadliest weapon, but he's proven he can offer them a lot, and his team-high 61 dribble attempts in that period proves he's happy to make his markers work for their money.

Oliver Glasner's team is full of neat, technical players and is also blessed with fine work ethic, as it would need to be to play their high-pressing football.

But their width and desire to attack from the flanks is fundamental to how they play – while it may be easier said than done, limiting their effectiveness out wide would go a long way to ending Rangers' 50-year European trophy drought.

Two years after meeting in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals, the Boston Celtics are on a mission to flip the script on the Miami Heat.

In that 2020 series, which the Heat won 4-2 in 'the bubble' to advance to the NBA Finals, the Celtics were the higher seed, and were playing in their third Eastern Conference Finals in the space of four seasons.

But in hindsight, it was Miami who were built to win that series, despite it being their first time past the second round since LeBron James carried them to the finals in 2014.

Jimmy Butler was invigorated in his first year in Miami, in his physical prime at 30 years old and was determined to show he was not at fault for pushing his way out of the Minnesota Timberwolves and being traded from the Philadelphia 76ers in the space of a year.

He was also supported by Goran Dragic, just two years removed from his lone All-Star appearance, who in the series averaged 20.5 points and 4.7 assists per game in 34 minutes.

As well as having two strong initiators, the Heat also had a complete mismatch in the form of Bam Adebayo against a Celtics team starting Daniel Theis at center, with no competent back-up. Adebayo averaged 21.8 points while shooting over 60 per cent from the field, with 11 rebounds and five assists per game, and was clearly the most dominant player in the series.

When taking into account an outlier 37-point showing from Tyler Herro on 14-of-of-21 shooting that single-handedly won Game 4 112-109 for the Heat – making it a 3-1 series lead instead of 2-2 heading back to Boston – it begins to become clear that there was not much the Celtics could do, given their personnel.

Fast-forward a couple of years, 22-year-old Jayson Tatum is now 24 and in the midst of a rapid ascension into the game's best players, 23-year-old Jaylen Brown is now 25 and has developed into a true number-two option, Marcus Smart is now 28 years old and the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and, more importantly, the supporting cast is built for the long-haul.

 

Replacing Theis with Al Horford may be the most consequential addition or subtraction on either side, with the potential to nullify the series-altering presence of Adebayo on the inside. Horford will also have help in the form of Robert Williams III – who became one of the best defensive players in the league this season – while Theis remains as a 'break glass in case of emergency' option.

Adding to the rise of the Celtics has been the emergence of Grant Williams as a reliable two-way player, capable of slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo while hitting over 40 per cent of his threes, as well as the trade to add Derrick White as a second defensively sound 'small' guard next to Smart.

For a team with a real defensive identity – willing to 'switch' every screen and allow their small guards to take on bigger assignments – being able to replace Kemba Walker with a trustworthy, stout defender completely takes away an avenue of attack for a sharp offensive team like Miami.

What it also means is that the Celtics will not have to waste any minutes on players who have no business in big playoff series – such as Brad Wanamaker and Semi Ojeleye, who combined for 21.8 minutes per game in the 2020 series.

A run to the NBA Finals would be fulfilling the promises of Boston's advanced numbers, which after the All-Star break had the Celtics as not just a legitimate title contender, but as the favourite, and a historic team.

During that stretch, the Celtics were the number one offense – with a gap to the Charlotte Hornets at number two – and the number three defense, with a net-rating of 12.7. The Memphis Grizzlies (7.6) were the only other team with a net-rating above 6.0.

For the Heat, Dragic has been replaced by Kyle Lowry, who is now 36 years old and recovering from his second hamstring injury of the playoffs, and the veteran presences of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder have been replaced by a combination of Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and the shell of Victor Oladipo.

Erik Spoelstra boasts arguably the deepest bench in the entire NBA, but this is playoff basketball, which generally comes down to each side's best seven players, nullifying their advantage on the back-end of their roster.

The identity of this Miami offense through the playoffs has largely relied on the brilliance of Jimmy Butler, who at 32 years old is putting together the best playoff run of his career, averaging 28.7 points per game on 52.7 per cent shooting, with 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals.

 

Miami's second-best scorer this postseason has been Adebayo, way down at 14.6 points per game compared to his 19.1 for the regular season.

Butler was perfectly matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers, who have no wing defenders capable of matching the Heat star physically – but the Celtics do not have the same problem.

The Celtics have at least four players – Tatum, Brown, G. Williams and R. Williams – who match up well with Butler, and they showed against the Milwaukee Bucks that they were more than happy to play straight-up defense and force one player to try and beat them with isolations all day.

If Miami cannot figure out a way to unleash a second scorer in a real way – be it Herro, Adebayo, or even Strus, who averaged 20.5 points in his two matchups against Boston this season – they may be playing straight into the Celtics hands. 

The one advantage Miami will have is the rest-factor. It will be five days since the Heat's Game 6 win against the 76ers, while the Celtics will only have one true rest day after handling their business in Game 7 on Monday night.

For the regular season, the Heat won all three of their games with at least three days rest, although the Celtics were the fourth-best team in the NBA coming off one day of rest (28-13, .683 winning percentage).

If the Heat can take advantage of their fresh legs and win Game 1, anything could happen, but ultimately, just like the Celtics were almost helpless in 2020, the Heat just may not have the horses this time around.

Of course it was penalties. It was never not going to be penalties.

Thomas Tuchel chose not to bathe the game in narrative and left Kepa Arrizabalaga on the bench this time, but it was another substitute who stepped up to deal Chelsea their second shoot-out agony against Liverpool this season.

The unlikely hero was Kostas Tsimikas, who stepped up to slot home the winning penalty and give the Reds their second trophy of 2021-22.

It meant that Jurgen Klopp became only the second manager to win the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and EFL Cup all with one English club, after Alex Ferguson.

He is also the first German to win the FA Cup and just the second Liverpool manager to take charge of the club in the final of four major domestic/European competitions (EFL Cup, Europa League, Champions League and FA Cup), after the great Bob Paisley. This is another golden era for the Merseysiders, no doubt about it.

As the sun shone down on Wembley Stadium, awash in a sea of blue and red and with a noise that could make the arch quiver, Chelsea and Liverpool played out their latest edition of "No, my German coach is better!"

Both teams had already contested three stunningly close encounters this season, drawing in both league games and with the EFL Cup final having to be decided by the 22nd penalty of a shoot-out.

Why did we ever think this meeting would be different?

The FA Cup final is one of the most traditional days in the football calendar, with 'Abide with Me', the national anthem and a royal presence on show.

 

Tradition was missing from the touchline though as both Tuchel and Klopp arrived dressed in tracksuits and baseball caps, while Chelsea for some reason decided to play in their changed kit of all yellow, perhaps trying to evoke memories for Liverpool of their first-half scare in the recent Champions League semi-final against Villarreal.

The attire may have been casual, but the start from Liverpool was anything but.

It was a case of sun's out, guns out for the Reds as they set about attacking Chelsea from the off, showing more of the intense counter-pressing that saw them through their semi-final with Manchester City a few weeks ago.

As in the EFL Cup final, Luis Diaz was a nuisance on the left, putting two balls into the box that very nearly found team-mates, before the Colombian was denied by Edouard Mendy when put through one-on-one by a sumptuous Trent Alexander-Arnold pass.

But Chelsea had good chances of their own, with Christian Pulisic putting an effort wide while Marcos Alonso was thwarted by Alisson.

It was difficult for much momentum to be gained with four lengthy stoppages for injuries, including Mohamed Salah reliving his experience from the 2018 Champions League final and having to come off in the first half.

Salah's replacement Diogo Jota fired over from an Andrew Robertson cross, while Romelu Lukaku did the same as he tried to outmuscle Virgil van Dijk. Liverpool managed nine shots to Chelsea's three in the opening 45 minutes, with 42 final third entries to their opponents' 18.

Despite that, a well-organised defence from the Blues saw the score remain level, and you wondered just what would it take to separate these two seemingly inseparable entities?

It was Chelsea's turn to start brightly after the break – Alonso and Pulisic going close again. More chances spurned.

As was the case with Liverpool, that initial burst died down, allowing the Reds to have a couple of shots narrowly miss the target through Diaz and Jota.

The woodwork was struck three times in the second half as both teams continued to try, and continued to fail. 

Van Dijk going off, and he was later seen to be hobbling, presented another injury concern for Liverpool heading into extra-time and Chelsea attempted to give Joel Matip a blistering welcome. Yet Liverpool stood firm.

Diaz received a standing ovation as he left the field, his second excellent performance in a Wembley final for the club, and he only joined on the last day of January.

The former Porto man was the first player to have six shots in an FA Cup final since Anthony Martial for Manchester United in 2016, who also did not score.

 

A big rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone went up from the Liverpool end at half-time in extra time while Chelsea fans waved their flags, one last effort to give their teams the slimmest of edges. But this one was destined for spot-kicks.

An early miss from Cesar Azpilicueta meant it looked like an extra-time substitute was going to yet again be his team's downfall, only for the Spaniard to be given a reprieve when Sadio Mane drilled at compatriot Mendy. Sudden death.

But Alisson had a save in his locker, too, getting down to his left to keep out Mason Mount's timid effort, setting the stage for Tsimikas, who had replaced Andrew Robertson, to send Mendy the wrong way and spark celebrations and smoke bombs aplenty in the Liverpool end.

It was yet more domestic cup heartbreak for Chelsea, who having appeared in five of the last six FA Cup finals, have only won one of them.

Liverpool's recent FA Cup record, however, was significantly worse. Klopp had only made it as far as the fifth round on one occasion in six attempts, going out in the fourth round four times and the third round once.

In fairness to Chelsea, much like the EFL Cup final, this one could have gone either way, and it must be remembered that having been in charge of Chelsea for just one year and 108 days, Tuchel has already overseen four major finals, matching Jose Mourinho.

As it was in February, this was Liverpool's day, finding those fine margins and getting over the line to do the EFL Cup and FA Cup double. Not bad for a team that supposedly didn't care about the cups.

A quadruple might now look unlikely given City's league form, but another final, a chance for a third trophy this term, awaits on May 28 in Paris – Real Madrid the opponents.

You'd not bet against that one going to penalties, either.

Following Wednesday's Coppa Italia final defeat to Inter, it was confirmed Juventus will finish the 2021-22 season without a trophy for the first time since 2011.

Last season under Andrea Pirlo, Juventus not winning Serie A was in itself shocking, but this season has only shown further regression.

Massimiliano Allegri returning to replace Pirlo after his single season in charge was viewed as a means to halt that slide, but Juve will not just likely finish 10 points off the Serie A title winners and without a trophy this term; the Bianconeri are set to finish with a double-digit deficit in a season where the champions will likely will not break the 85-point barrier.

How much the Turin club spend relative to the rest in Italian football must be brought into context. Granted, the financial impact of COVID-19 caused significant restructuring, but they are still the only club in Italy to have a gross annual payroll in excess of €150million and are joined by Inter as one of only two over €100m. Meanwhile, seven Juventus players make up the top 10 salaries in Serie A this season.

Given that comparatively gaudy expenditure, that represents a spectacular failure – especially in comparison to the likes of the notoriously thrifty Atalanta or this Milan project that has sought to maximise value on the pitch and cut unnecessary spending. The major issue with Juve over the past four seasons has been a dramatically diminishing return on investment, but how has it manifested on the pitch?

Juventus had this inevitable capacity to find a way to win games in Allegri's first stint, but they were still volatile. It would be misguided to look at this season in isolation when in a continuum. Cristiano Ronaldo's arrival for the 2018-19 season – which was viewed as the key signing to propel them to long-awaited Champions League glory – arguably accelerated the regression.

Real Madrid's midfield and Karim Benzema allowed Ronaldo to have a largely singular role as the end point to the team's actions in possession. At Juventus, a player who was largely a finisher and was not going to force defensive collapses between the lines by that point had to take on greater responsibility in the team's build-up. Despite the Portuguese star's stature in the game, he was effectively signed for a task on the pitch he was not capable of fulfilling.

Consider that in his last season at Madrid, Ronaldo was averaging 46.87 touches per 90, and 10.02 were in the opposition's penalty area. The next two seasons at Juventus saw a dramatic shift, where for touches per 90 he averages 54.5 and 56.26 respectively. Touches in the penalty area actually decreased, however, at 6.64 and 6.92 respectively per 90.

With Paulo Dybala as the team's attacking focal point, Miralem Pjanic had previously mitigated the deeply conservative nature of Juve's midfield, but with Ronaldo it became a bridge too far. Ronaldo might have sustained his goal involvements, but it came at the expense of the collective. The Bianconeri came no closer to winning the continental silverware he was brought to Turin to secure but, more importantly, declined domestically and were suddenly challenged for what had become a fait accompli that decade in Serie A.

Pjanic's departure at the end of 2019-20 further accelerates that regression, despite the arrivals of Arthur, Alvaro Morata, Federico Chiesa and Weston McKennie that off-season, as well as Adrien Rabiot, Mathijs de Ligt and Dejan Kulusevski the previous off-season.

Arguably, the additions of Rabiot, McKennie and Arthur have only further reinforced the rigidity of Juve's midfield over the years. Pjanic's final season saw him average 1.21 chances from open play per 90, along with 10.34 passes into the final third and 0.13 for expected assists at 92.66 touches. Not one Juventus midfielder since has been able to match all of those averages individually, and trying to replace them in an aggregate creates different requirements elsewhere.

 

Amid Dybala's increasingly marginalised status upon Ronaldo's arrival, it necessitated someone like Morata, whose fantastic movement and ability to incorporate the players around him is paired with erratic finishing in front of goal. It represents a sizeable trade-off. Still, Morata leads the Bianconeri for chances created (1.63) in open play per 90 in all competitions this season.

That provides some context for this season and Dusan Vlahovic's arrival, because he is almost the opposite to Morata – cold-blooded in front of goal, but much less flexible in build-up play and movement off the ball. Yet, while he creates fewer chances in open play (0.81) than Morata, the quality of his shots (0.13 xG per shot) is still lower than Morata's average of 0.16.

 

 

It all matters because, with the exception of Inter and Lazio, the Bianconeri still keep more of the ball than anyone else in Serie A. They both can and cannot afford for their midfield to be so palpably one-dimensional. While Juventus rank 19th across the top five leagues in Europe for touches per 90 (678.46) in all competitions, they rank 32nd for big chances created per 90 (1.56), and 50th for passes into the final third (53.02), calling into question the nature of their possession and how they actually generate their chances.

With that all in context, it can be difficult to definitively assess someone like Fabio Miretti or where he best suits in a system of play, because it is akin to developing an emotional attachment to a captor.

Yet Dybala's forthcoming departure from Turin at the end of this season is symbolic, let alone if he ends up somewhere else in Serie A.

His career trajectory over the past four years, coinciding with Juve's regression and eventual embarrassment of this season, represents how badly the club have managed squad composition and, to reference Jose Mourinho's famous quote, their Champions League dream that became an obsession. As such, they have lacked anything resembling a plan or clarity, and have been blindly led by ambition to this empty-handed season.

Liverpool may have lost ground in the Premier League title race to Manchester City, but they could claim a second trophy of the campaign when they face Chelsea in the FA Cup final on Saturday.

A Wembley Stadium meeting between the Blues and the Reds is, of course, nothing new, with Thomas Tuchel paying the penalty – literally – for his ill-fated introduction of Kepa Arrizabalaga in February's EFL Cup final loss.

Revenge will certainly be on Chelsea's minds after substitute Kepa missed the decisive spot-kick in the shoot-out at the end of that goalless draw, and they will be desperate to avoid becoming the first team to lose both domestic English cup finals in the same season since Middlesbrough in 1996-97.

For Liverpool, meanwhile, their pursuit of the quadruple, and with it, footballing immortality, hinges on their ability to see off the Blues.

Who will be crowned the latest winners of football's oldest national competition? Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta numbers ahead of these two rivals' fourth meeting of the season.

Wembley regulars hunting cup success

Chelsea and Liverpool have met in the final of the FA Cup on just one previous occasion, with Ramires and Didier Drogba firing the London club – then managed by Roberto Di Matteo – to victory just over a decade ago on May 5, 2012.

Both sides have significant pedigree in the competition, with Chelsea making their 16th final appearance and Liverpool featuring in their 15th – only Arsenal (21) and Manchester United (20) have made more such appearances than the duo.

However, neither side have had it all their own way when making it this far, with Chelsea losing each of the last two finals.

The Blues are the first team to qualify for three consecutive finals since Arsenal between 2000-01 and 2002-03, but another defeat would make them the first team since Newcastle United in 1998-99 to lose on their last three final appearances (1973-74, 1997-98, and 1998-99).

Liverpool, however, have lifted the trophy on just 50 per cent of their previous final appearances (7/14). Only two teams have a worse success rate having reached 10 or more finals (Everton, 5/13, and Newcastle, 6/13).

 

Fourth time lucky as deadlocked rivals meet again?

Having both made their names coaching Bundesliga sides Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, Tuchel and Klopp are no strangers to one another, and have become accustomed to head-to-head meetings this season.

Chelsea and Liverpool have already met three times this campaign, twice in the Premier League and once in the EFL Cup final, with each of those games ending level.

Having clung on with 10-men to earn a 1-1 draw at Anfield in August, Chelsea fought back from two goals down in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge in January before enduring penalty heartache at Wembley the following month.

 

The last fixture between two English top-fight teams to see more draws in the same campaign was Arsenal v Chelsea in 2017-18 (four).

Fans of a penalty shoot-out, then, could be in for more entertainment on Saturday. 

The Mane for the big occasion

The electrifying form of January arrival Luis Diaz means Klopp's Reds have never had such attacking depth available, but could one of his longest-serving attackers make the difference here?

Since arriving at Anfield in 2016, Sadio Mane has scored six times against Chelsea, with no other player scoring more often against the Blues in that time.

Mane made an important contribution to Liverpool's 3-2 semi-final win over Manchester City, becoming the first player to score a Wembley brace for the club since Steve McManaman in the 1995 League Cup final against Bolton Wanderers.

Should Mane again find the net against one of his favourite opponents, he would become the first Liverpool player to score in consecutive Wembley appearances (when used as a neutral venue) since Phillipe Coutinho in April 2015 and February 2016.

 

Can Werner haunt his former suitors? 

Chelsea forward Timo Werner made headlines on Friday after claiming to have chosen Stamford Bridge over Anfield when he left RB Leipzig in 2020.

And the Germany international will hope to continue his excellent FA Cup campaign if he is chosen to lead the line at Wembley.

No player has made more goal contributions in the competition than Werner this season, with the 26-year-old recording two goals and three assists in the Blues' cup run.

While that tally is more than any Liverpool player has managed in the competition this term, it's also the most any Chelsea player has registered in a single FA Cup campaign since Pedro (six) and Willian (seven) both impressed in 2016-17.

However, Chelsea ended that season by falling to a 2-1 final defeat to Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, so Werner will be hoping any contribution he can make will prove more decisive.

 

In the context of a generally disappointing season for Juventus, securing one last trophy for a club great before he begins a new chapter would've at least provided one reason to look back on 2021-22 with a degree of positivity.

It remains to be seen exactly what happens next for Giorgio Chiellini. After all, he suggested on Tuesday that he might not have even been playing football at all this season were it not for Italy's Euro 2020 success.

But remaining at Juventus has become increasingly unlikely over the past few weeks, with a move to MLS – rather than retirement – strongly mooted despite him being contracted to Juve until next June.

In Tuesday's pre-match news conference ahead of the Coppa Italia final, Chiellini – perhaps as you'd expect – at least attempted to deflect the focus from himself, seemingly adamant he didn't want to be the big story ahead of the game.

Yet, regardless of his obvious deflection the day before, it will have been tricky for many to not look at Wednesday's showpiece as the last meaningful match of Chiellini's storied career for the Bianconeri, with little riding on Juve's final Serie A matches of the campaign.

Twenty trophies, 559 appearances – third only to Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero – and countless head injuries, Chiellini's laid everything on the line and dedicated the majority of his career to Juve, even when the likes of Manchester City and Real Madrid apparently came calling

But that one last trophy was a dream too far, with Inter ending their 11-year wait for a Coppa Italia triumph by emerging 4-2 victors after extra time.

As far as small mercies go, Chiellini could at least take solace in the fact he at no point looked out of place on the big stage.

Nevertheless, as good a defender as he's been down the years, there wasn't much Juve's captain could've done to prevent his side falling behind in a frantic first half at the Stadio Olimpico.

Nicolo Barella received the short corner and the run of Ivan Perisic created space for him to unleash a sumptuous curling effort into the top-far corner, the ball floating well out of the reach of Chiellini's not insignificant head.

But Inter became strangely negative after getting themselves in front, with Juve crafting several presentable chances as they became the controlling force – Chiellini found himself involved further up as a result as well, a comical fish-out-of-water-like run into the final third leading to a foul by Edin Dzeko.

Juve's superiority told early in the second half as a period of concerted pressure led to the ball dropping kindly for Alex Sandro, whose first-time strike found its way in via a deflection off Alvaro Morata.

Inter barely had enough time to look at the scoreboard before they found themselves trailing, as Juve sprung a brilliant counter and Dusan Vlahovic found the net at the second time of asking.

The game soon entered the realm of Chiellini, whose seven clearances at the end of the 90 minutes was a match high.

Within moments of Juve's second goal, the 37-year-old crucially blocked a cross that Dzeko was primed to tap home – true to form as a full-blooded centre-back, he celebrated his clearance as if he'd scored.

Soon after he was on hand again with a vital header, but like with the opener, he could only watch on as Inter levelled in the 80th minute. Chiellini's centre-back partners Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci tangled with Lautaro Martinez, who appeared to invite contact and then hook his foot around the latter's leg before tumbling.

It was as ingenious as the ultimate VAR-confirmed penalty decision was farcical, but Hakan Calhanoglu converted the spot-kick and Chiellini's night was soon over.

Soon after an important interception/clearance ahead of the lurking Martinez, Chiellini made way, perhaps owing to the knock received in that collision with the Inter striker.

Even at that point there was almost a sense of foreboding. While perhaps not a decisive presence at the other end, Juve were suddenly without their most experienced player and leader – the personality in the side dropped considerably in that one change.

It was fitting that De Ligt – a player who has flattered to deceive since essentially being brought in as Chiellini's long-term successor – proved to be the one to gift Inter the lead in extra-time, clumsily tripping Stefan de Vrij and allowing Ivan Perisic to rifle home the penalty, with the Croatian's spectacular second soon after signalling Juve fans to head for the exits.

As Inter players joyously made their way to the Nerazzurri end of the stadium at full-time, a dignified Chiellini trudged onto the pitch and shared a speechless embrace with Massimiliano Allegri.

While Chiellini helped Juve to more success than most players enjoy in a lifetime, when it came to giving him a fitting send-off, the Bianconeri failed him.

Amid the furore of Real Madrid's quite astonishing great escape in the Champions League – well, their latest – it's easy to forget they only won the Spanish title last weekend.

Of course, it had been long foreseen, but Madrid's 35th LaLiga crown was secured with their 4-0 win over Espanyol at the Santiago Bernabeu, leading to a party that had Marcelo climbing statues, Carlo Ancelotti smoking a cigar and David Alaba getting his chair out again.

With a record-extending 17th Champions League final appearance wrapped up, Madrid can turn their attention back to LaLiga knowing they still have a reason to keep themselves sharp, and they could yet equal their best points tally (93) since reaching 100 in 2011-12.

Fittingly, their first league match as champions comes against the team they ousted, with bitter rivals Atletico Madrid playing host to Los Blancos at the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday.

While that match has taken a back seat over the past few days, in Spain there has been a debate centred on the derby rumbling in the background for some time now.

As champions, Madrid might feel entitled to a pasillo, or 'guard of honour' – but they won't get one.

'A public toll'

While the guard of honour is a tradition with deep roots in sport, there's little doubt that it's a polarising gesture.

A mark of respect, perhaps, but more and more it is seen as a tool of humiliation, particularly when expected in such contests between major rivals.

The decision was down to Atletico's decision makers rather than the players, though captain Jan Oblak made his feelings perfectly clear after their defeat to Athletic Bilbao last weekend.

He said: "As captain, I'm one of those who doesn't like to give or receive the guard of honour, but the club will decide and we'll do whatever is necessary."

Atletico subsequently released a statement on Monday confirming they'll not participate, with their strong response claiming the recent debate was stirred purely to stoke anger between fanbases.

They said: "Some want to turn what was born as a gesture of recognition for the champion into a public toll that their rivals must pay, also impregnated with the aroma of humiliation. Under no concept are Atletico Madrid going to collaborate in this attempt at derision in which the true values ​​of sport are completely forgotten and tension and confrontation between the fans is encouraged."

Additionally, Atletico suggested there was no such debate around Celta Vigo's decision not to give them a guard of honour at the start of this season, with the controversy around the upcoming derby "exaggerated and artificial".

Some might feel Atletico's disdain for the tradition is disrespectful, but there is refreshing sentiment behind their stance as well: not every mark of respect needs to be accompanied by a performative gesture.

In this age of obsessing over social media engagement, there seems a need to turn normal behaviour into a song and dance, the classic example being the tidy changing room photo. "That's class" or "respect [clapping emoji]" litter the replies on Twitter – it's not, it's just common courtesy.

If Atletico players, officials, coaches or fans wish to congratulate Madrid, it doesn't require a forced gesture.

Madrid's refusal

This is by no means the first time Madrid have been involved in guard of honour controversy. Four years ago, the debate around the pasillo was arguably at its zenith.

Barcelona had won the title prior to facing Madrid in El Clasico, meaning there were those in the Blaugrana ranks expecting a show of respect at Camp Nou.

But Madrid refused. Zinedine Zidane, coach at the time, pointed the finger. He suggested they might have reciprocated had Barca given them a guard of honour a few months earlier when Los Blancos won the Club World Cup.

Barca's justification then was that they didn't play in the Club World Cup so didn't need to acknowledge Madrid's success – not that Zidane was buying the excuse.

"It's a lie," he said. "You have to win the Champions League to play in the Club World Cup. I am not the one to decide that we don't want to do the pasillo. They didn't do it, we respect that; we'll not do it because they didn't do it."

Gerard Pique, true to form, found a novel way to get around the issue while simultaneously highlighting Madrid's refusal – he arranged for Barca's coaching staff to give the players a pasillo instead at full-time.

Had Sergio Ramos still been at Madrid, one might have been expecting a similar arrangement for Sunday.

'Party of the champions'

The only other time this century that the pasillo has been such a contentious subject was in 2008, when Madrid did receive one in El Clasico.

The 2007-08 season was a dire one for Barca. Not only did Madrid win the title comfortably with 18 points more than their great rivals, but Frank Rijkaard's men also finished 10 points adrift of second-placed Villarreal.

 

Although Barca crushed Valencia 6-0 leading up to the Clasico clash on May 7, 2008, they were unable to prevent Madrid claiming the title, setting things up perfectly for the ultimate humiliation.

"The party of the champions", read the front page of Madrid-based daily newspaper AS on the morning of the game. Notoriously pro-Madrid Marca went with "Barca is here", accompanying a picture showing where the visitors were due to form their guard of honour. And Catalan publication Sport highlighted the other side of things, saying, "the pasillo that suffers alone", and adding, "Barca fans do not deserve to have to see the pasillo".

Despite the shameless nose-rubbing of the Madrid press and the intense humiliation that was about to befall them, Barca gritted their teeth. "Although it hurts, we will do it," Rijkaard said.

Club captain Carles Puyol sang from a similar hymn sheet: "As an athlete you have to recognise the champion, and we will do that. They have won it on the pitch. Real Madrid have been fair champions."

The emotions of the two coaches that night could not have been more different. Rijkaard slowly ambled out and took his position, hands together behind his back, before the Barca players jogged out and formed two columns either side of the halfway line, the cameras of the Bernabeu crowd incessantly flashing with glee.

Meanwhile, Bernd Schuster watched on as his Madrid side triumphantly walked through that red-and-blue-walled corridor, twenty years after he was a part of the last guard of honour Barca performed in El Clasico, wearing a Blaugrana jersey.

Some, such as Pepe, Fernando Gago and Wesley Sneijder walked straight down the middle, seemingly preserving the thoughts of a true rivalry by refusing to thank their counterparts for the degrading act of a Clasico pasillo, but looking back, that was the least embarrassing part of the whole night for Barca.

What started with a pasillo ended in a pasting, with Barca flattered by a 4-1 defeat in which Madrid were utterly dominant.

Atletico will at least avoid one form of humiliation, but considering the contrasting fortunes of the two teams on the pitch this term, it's hardly a given that Diego Simeone's side will prevent a mauling.

Three matchdays remain in Serie A, and yet there is plenty still to be decided at both ends of the table – not least which side will be crowned champions.

Milan occupy top spot in their quest for a first Scudetto since 2011, but fierce rivals Inter are just two points behind and arguably have an easier set of fixtures to conclude the campaign.

Napoli and Juventus are not officially out of the title race just yet, though they are seven and eight points off first place respectively, therefore requiring a remarkable set of results.

Both Napoli and Juventus are already assured of a top-four finish, but there are several other teams still battling it out for the three remaining European spots.

Venezia appear doomed at the opposite end of the table after losing to fellow strugglers Salernitana on Thursday, with the latter's victory lifting them out of the bottom three – in all, six teams remain in trouble.

But just how will the remaining two and a half weeks of the season unfold? Using the Stats Perform League Prediction Model, we can try to forecast the final standings.

Created by Stats Perform AI using Opta data, the model has analysed the division to assign percentages to potential outcomes for each club.

The model estimates the probability of each match outcome (win, draw or loss) based on teams' attacking and defensive qualities, which considers four years' worth of results.

Weighting is based on recency and the quality of opposition, with the rest of the matches then simulated 10,000 times to calculate the likelihood of each outcome.

Let's take a look...

 

MILAN TO SEE THE JOB THROUGH

Milan still have Hellas Verona (ninth), Atalanta (eighth) and Sassuolo (11th) to face, whereas Inter's final fixtures are against Empoli (14th), Cagliari (18th) and Sampdoria (15th).

However, it is worth noting that if they finish level on points, Milan would be crowned champions by virtue of a superior head-to-read record against their rivals this term.

With that in mind, while Inter are only two points behind, they essentially need to take three more points than Milan over the final three matchdays.

And our model suggests the Rossoneri have a 62 per cent chance of retaining top spot, compared to a 37.7 per cent chance of defending champions Inter overtaking them.

Just to highlight how unlikely it is either Napoli or Juventus will pip the current top two to the summit, they have a 0.2 and 0.1 per cent chance of winning the title respectively.

A ROME ONE-TWO FOR EUROPA LEAGUE?

The Champions League places may now officially be wrapped up, but five teams are still battling it out for the three remaining European berths.

The sides that finish in fifth and sixth, currently occupied by Roma and Lazio, will qualify for the Europa League group stage.

Roma, according to the model, have a 59.1 per cent chance of nailing down fifth place – though if they were to drop to seventh, the Europa Conference League finalists could get into the Europa League by winning UEFA's third-tier competition.

Lazio would take great enjoyment from finishing above their neighbours and have a 36.9 per cent chance of doing so.

The first priority for Maurizio Sarri will be locking down sixth, though, and there is a 46.7 per cent likelihood of achieving that with Fiorentina three points further back.

ATALANTA TO PIP FIORENTINA

While the top six are forecast to remain where they are, our model predicts seventh-placed Fiorentina will miss out to Atalanta in the Europa Conference League play-off position.

After losing three games in a row, La Viola now have a 31.2 per cent chance of staying seventh, compared to 47.6 for Atalanta, whom they are currently level with on 56 points.

Verona are four points further back and that appears to be too big a gap to bridge, with the Gialloblu seemingly certain to remain in eighth.

Indeed, the 80.8 per cent likelihood of Verona finishing in that position is bettered only by the chances of Empoli staying 14th (90.2 per cent) and Venezia remaining bottom (87.4 per cent) given the points margin either side.

VENEZIA AND TWO OTHERS TO DESCEND

Thursday's 2-1 defeat away to Salernitana looks to have spelled the end for Venezia's brief stint back in the top flight as it leaves them seven points from safety. Their chances of escaping the drop sit at 0.1 per cent.

Salernitana still have a 36.2 per cent chance of dropping into the bottom three, but given they face the team directly below them – Cagliari – and Empoli in their next two games, they will surely like those odds.

Another win for Salernitana on Sunday would be massive at the bottom, as such a result will relegate Venezia and potentially Genoa, whom the model gives only a 1.2 per cent likelihood of climbing up to 17th.

Spezia and Sampdoria aren't quite out of the woods yet, but their five-point cushions should be enough to keep them in Serie A. Everything points to Sunday's contest being almost a straight relegation play-off between Salernitana and Cagliari.

The model suggests with a 63.3 per cent probability that Cagliari will go down, but their fate is in their own hands.

The first Grand Tour of 2022 starts on Friday, with the Giro d'Italia getting underway in Hungary.

Any chances of Egan Bernal being in line to defend his title were dashed in January, when the Colombian suffered serious injuries in a training ride in his homeland.

Fortunately, Bernal has recovered and is training again in Europe with his INEOS Grenadiers team-mates, but he will not be vying for a second successive maglia rosa.

Likewise, Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar is skipping the Giro to focus his efforts on a third straight yellow jersey. His fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic, too, will not be present for the 3,445.6km race that begins in Budapest and takes in a trip around Sicily before snaking its way around the Italian mainland, finishing with a time trial in Verona.

But the lack of standout favourites could well result in a more open race. Though not a general classification contender, Mark Cavendish is making his long-awaited Giro return, while Vincenzo Nibali will visit his hometown on what seems set to be his final appearance at this particular Grand Tour.

 

Stats Perform looks at the key storylines heading into the Giro d'Italia.

Picks of the bunch

This year's route features only 26.3km of time trialling – the lowest amount in a Giro since 1963, when there were no time trials. Instead, there is close to 51km of climbing, with much of that reserved for the gruelling final stages.

It is no surprise, then, that reigning world time trial champion Filippo Ganna, who has won six stages across the last two Giro and claimed gold in the team pursuit for Italy at the Tokyo Olympics, is not involved for INEOS this time around.

 

Leading the Grenadiers will be Richard Carapraz, the 2019 victor who will have support from Pavel Sivakov, a particularly strong climber.

For Alpecin-Felix, Mathieu van der Poel will hope to build on his impressive GT debut from last year's Tour de France and collect some points in the early stages, while Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) will want another shot at Giro glory.

Yates had top drop out in 2020 after testing positive for coronavirus but won two stages to finish third in 2021. Indeed, that makes him the best performer from last year's GC to feature this time around, with Damiano Caruso, who took second, also sitting out.

Tom Dumoulin won in 2017 and is back after a hiatus, while 42-year-old Movistar rider Alejandro Valverde is set for his final Giro appearance, with the Spaniard set to retire at the end of the season.

Mikel Landa took the maglia azzurra in 2017 and he leads a Bahrain-Victorious team that includes Wout Poels, who held the king of the mountains jersey for four stages of Le Tour last year.

Cav is back

After his sensational efforts in last year's Tour de France, when he matched Eddy Merckx's record of 34 stage wins, Cavendish will return to the Giro after a nine-year absence after he was confirmed to be heading up the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team.

Cavendish last featured in the race in 2013, topping the points classification after winning five stages.

His participation here does cast doubt over whether he will compete in Le Tour and get the chance to set the stage-win record in that race, especially as he turns 37 later this month (he'll celebrate his birthday with a 153km mountain stage from Santena to Torino on May 21).

However, regardless of whether he gets another shot at Tour de France history in July, Cavendish will be out to add to his 15 Giro stage wins. 

 

Nibali's long goodbye

The Giro passes through Messina on May 11, marking a return to his hometown for Nibali, the two-time champion who looks set to be making his final appearance in the race.

Nibali has won four Grand Tours and while the 37-year-old is unlikely to make any GC inroads (his last success was in 2016), it will be a glorious opportunity for him to bid farewell.

He was in tears after winning last year's Giro di Sicilia – how fitting would it be if he were to win an eighth Giro stage of his career back in the town where he grew up.

Nibali was the last Italian rider to win the Giro, and Italy's hopes rest on Trek-Segafredo's Giulio Ciccone, who crashed out in 2021.

If you can make it in New York, the theory goes that you can make it anywhere, so the path from Broadway to Sheffield's Crucible Theatre should hold no fear for Ahmed Aly Elsayed.

Aly is a new face to many on snooker’s expanding veterans' circuit, as the sport builds on the prosperity of its golden age by rolling out stars of yesteryear on its most famous stage.

As well as undisputed legends Jimmy White, Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty, regional title winners from all corners of the globe are rocking up in Sheffield for the World Seniors Championship, an annual jamboree that begins on Wednesday. Aly will become the first American to compete at the Crucible.

Life will replicate art when Egypt-born Brooklynite Aly competes, after he acted out two snooker player parts in the 2018 Broadway production The Nap, one of which was that of a finalist at the World Championship.

Aly's day job is that of billiard room manager at the New York Athletic Club, a renowned 24-story pile at 180 Central Park South.

"He's a very good player," Cliff Thorburn, the 1980 world champion, tells Stats Perform. "One of his functions at the New York Athletic Club is looking after the billiard room. They've got possibly the nicest snooker room in the world. It overlooks Central Park and I would highly recommend having a Sunday brunch there in the fall, as the leaves are changing.

"The park's right there and you look down on it. With your breakfast you get a Bloody Mary for starters, and it's just a fabulous place."

Thorburn, a Canadian with a 'Magnum PI' moustache, remembers Aly looking "rough around the edges" when he first set eyes on his cue action.

"But when I saw him in Toronto he had gained a polish to his game," said Thorburn. "He wears a suit very well, like Ronnie O'Sullivan or Judd Trump.

"Ahmed polished his game, and he's taken it to a new level, but you're only as good as the players around you unless you've got that special thing about you. He does, he's very sharp, and I expect something good from him, but this is the deep end. That's pressure, isn’t it!”

Performing shots to order on a table in front of Broadway audiences is one thing, but facing gritty rivals at the theatre venue in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, that has hosted the main tour's World Championship since 1977, will be a whole new test of Aly's stage presence.

"He had to play certain shots on Broadway, and of course the stage is live," said Thorburn. "He looks like a prince, he's got that air about him: well groomed, a good guy, a gentleman, competitive, and he loves his snooker. I hope he gives himself a fair shot at it."

Aly, the 2021 Pan American senior champion, who picked up that title at the Corner Bank venue in Toronto, will play Bradford's Wayne Cooper for the right to tackle 1997 world champion Doherty at the last-16 stage.

Snooker's emergence as a viable senior spectacle has reflected a growth market in sports where it is feasible to remain competitive long after a sportsperson's usual shelf life.

Golf's PGA Champions Tour is sport's ultimate veterans' circuit, with over $62million in prize money due to be paid out this year. Germany's Bernhard Langer has earned over $30million on that tour, mind-boggling considering this is not sport at its highest level.

Snooker is not aiming to compete at that level, but its equivalent tour is soaring in popularity, with the World Seniors Championship being broadcast by the BBC and staged at snooker's most established venue. Crowds will flock, just as they have to the elite World Championship over the past fortnight.

"They're at the Crucible and rightfully so," said Thorburn. "I think it's the right place to have it, and there's a lot of memories that have come from these players that are going to be playing now."

Thorburn's great chum Bob Chaperon is returning to the Crucible stage, some 32 years since he became the last Canadian winner of an individual ranking title, beating Alex Higgins in the 1990 British Open final. Three weeks after that, Chaperon teamed up with Thorburn, who was recovering from a burst appendix, and Alain Robidoux to win snooker's World Cup for Canada.

Naturally, Thorburn is pulling for Chaperon, who faces Welshman Philip Williams first up.

"Bob was supposed to be here two years ago, but COVID stopped him," Thorburn says. "He’s playing Philip, who beat me here once before. So let me think, who do I want to win? Bob, yes Bob. I'm so glad I'm going to be here. Bob's got the chance to cause some damage."

The Premier League witnessed drama at both ends of the table on an absorbing Saturday, as Manchester City and Liverpool continued to trade blows in the title race.

Jurgen Klopp's men downed in-form Newcastle United thanks to Naby Keita's first-half strike, before City responded by cruising to a 4-0 thrashing of Leeds United at Elland Road.

At the other end of the table, Norwich City were condemned to a record sixth Premier League relegation at Aston Villa, and Watford look destined to join them after Burnley continued their incredible upturn in form at Vicarage Road.

After another frantic day of action, Stats Perform looks at some of the key Opta facts from Saturday's contests.

Newcastle United 0-1 Liverpool: Keita continues Reds' run

Liverpool's bid for a remarkable quadruple faced a tough test when they travelled to Eddie Howe's in-form Newcastle in the first clash of the day.

However, Naby Keita's 19th-minute goal proved the difference in a competitive encounter, and was Liverpool's earliest winning goal in a 1-0 Premier League victory since December 2016, when Georginio Wijnaldum netted after eight minutes against Manchester City.

Klopp's side had chances to extend their lead, with home goalkeeper Martin Dubravka making nine saves, his highest tally in a single Premier League match. Since 2003-04, when Opta data began, the only Newcastle goalkeepers to make more saves in a Premier League game are Tim Krul (14 against Tottenham in November 2013) and Karl Darlow (11 against Tottenham in September 2020).

However, a 21st clean sheet of Liverpool's league campaign was enough to move them to the top of the table - only in 2005-06 (22) have the Reds kept more shutouts in a single Premier League campaign.

Liverpool have now picked up 40 points from the last 42 on offer in the competition, and the win turned up the pressure on City ahead of their trip to Leeds later on Saturday.

Leeds United 0-4 Manchester City: Visitors draw on set-peice prowess to reclaim top spot

The Reds were not top of the table for long, however, as City claimed a 4-0 win over relegation-threatened Leeds at Elland Road. Goals from Rodri and Nathan Ake both came from set pieces, meaning City have now scored 18 set-piece goals (excluding penalties) this season, their most in a Premier League campaign since 2013-14 (22).

Pep Guardiola's men have also kept five consecutive away league clean sheets, the best such sequence in the club's history.

After Gabriel Jesus had made the points safe, Fernandinho stuck a superb fourth goal late on, becoming the club's oldest ever Premier League goalscorer at 36 years and 361 days old, overtaking Frank Lampard in 2015 (36 years and 338 days old).

Leeds, meanwhile, are looking over their shoulders after another heavy defeat. They have conceded a remarkable 20 league goals against the two Manchester clubs this season (11 against City, nine against Manchester United) – a new top-flight record for goals conceded against the duo in a single season.

Watford 1-2 Burnley: Clarets' revival continues after Cork ends barren run

Elsewhere, Burnley continued their incredible revival by coming from behind to defeat Watford, making Mike Jackson the first Clarets boss to win three of his first four league games in charge since Jimmy Mullen won his first four in 1991.

After James Tarkowski's own-goal put Watford ahead, Jack Cork ended his run of 84 Premier League games without a goal with his first strike since December 2018 (against Liverpool), before Josh Brownhill scored a late winner.

The Clarets are now five points above the bottom three after winning three consecutive Premier League games for the first time since April 2019, having won just three of their previous 21 games.

Roy Hodgson's Watford, meanwhile, look destined for relegation after becoming the first side in English top-flight history to lose 11 consecutive home league matches.

Aston Villa 2-0 Norwich City: Canaries suffer another relegation at Villa Park

Burnley's win had other ramifications, contributing to Norwich suffering their sixth relegation from the Premier League – the most of any club in the competition's history – after the Canaries were beaten at Villa Park.

Remarkably, Norwich have been relegated in each of their last four Premier League seasons (2013-14, 2015-16, 2019-20 and 2021-22). They are only the second side in English league history to suffer relegation in four consecutive campaigns in the top-flight, after Crystal Palace (1992-93, 1994-95, 1997-98 and 2004-05).

 

Dean Smith's men saw their fate sealed after becoming the first team to concede 70 Premier League goals this season after just 34 games, representing the earliest point in any league campaign they have reached 70 concessions since 1956-57 (in their 34th game in the old Third Division South).

Ollie Watkins set the tone for Villa's win with his first-half strike, and he has now scored at least 11 more goals than any other Villa player since his September 2020 debut (25 goals in all competitions).

Real Madrid are LaLiga champions for the second time in three seasons – and a 35th time overall – after beating Espanyol 4-0 on Saturday to clinch top spot.

Los Blancos have led the way pretty much throughout a campaign that has seen erstwhile champions Atletico Madrid and a Lionel Messi-less Barcelona struggle for consistency.

Indeed, Sevilla proved Los Blancos' biggest threat for large parts of this season, but Carlo Ancelotti's men never truly looked in danger of relinquishing their grip on another title.

Madrid's latest triumph came in Ancelotti's first season back at the club, with the Italian becoming the first head coach to win each of Europe's top five leagues.

While Ancelotti deserves plenty of credit, the title stroll would not have been possible if not for Karim Benzema and Thibaut Courtois at opposite ends of the pitch.

Here, Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind Madrid's latest title romp, which they could still yet add to with the Champions League in the coming weeks.

 

Madrid masterclass

Not only have Madrid won more European Cups than any side, their 35th LaLiga crown sees them overtake Juventus for the most titles among the top five European leagues.

Their two titles in three seasons, with the other coming under Zinedine Zidane in 2019-10, is as many as they won in the previous 11 campaigns.

Ancelotti's men have done so in style, too, having clinched top spot with four matchdays left, surpassing 2007-08 (three matchdays) for their earliest title win this century.

 

Carlo completes the set

Ancelotti won five trophies during his previous spell in charge of Madrid but the LaLiga title eluded him.

However, the 62-year-old can now lay claim to having won the title in Italy, England, France, Germany and indeed Spain – the first head coach to have ever achieved a sweep.

He is also the oldest coach to have won the Spanish top flight, some two years more senior than Fabio Capello was when also tasting success with Madrid in 2006-07.

Incidentally, Ancelotti and Capello are the only two Italian coaches to have reigned in Spain, with the latter having done so twice.

 

Karim the Dream

Benzema has led the way for Madrid with this his fourth LaLiga conquest, adding to the titles won in 2012, 2017 and 2020.

The France international has scored 26 goals in 30 league games this season, making this his most prolific campaign across his 13 years in Spain's top flight.

Not only does Benzema lead the LaLiga scoring charts, his 11 assists are also level with Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele as the most in the division.

Just to further underline the striker's importance this season, with 37 direct goal involvements he has played a part in 51 per cent of Los Blancos' 73 league goals.

Courtois a calming presence

For all of Benzema's goals, Madrid have so often called upon goalkeeper Courtois to rescue them this campaign.

The former Chelsea stopper has conceded 29 goals across 34 matches, keeping 14 clean sheets in the process.

Real Sociedad's Alex Remiro (18) can hold claim to keeping more shutouts, but a separate metric shows just how good Courtois has been in 2021-22.

The 29 goals Courtois has conceded have come from 33.4 expected goals on target conceded, meaning he has prevented 4.4 goals based on the quality of his shot-stopping.

To put that in some perspective, no goalkeeper in LaLiga has prevented more goals this season, while only five others across Europe's top five leagues have prevented more.

Benzema and Vinicius Junior may get most of the plaudits, but Courtois' influence has undoubtedly been significant.

 

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