UFC 261: Masvidal vs. Usman set to excite

The UFC 261 match up between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal looks set to be a cracking fight when the two face off on April 24 in Jacksonville in front of a packed VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

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In the case of Masvidal, he’s made his intentions clear that he’s looking for revenge after losing the first bout between the pair at UFC 251 last year. Rewind to the first fight, and Masvidal was a late replacement for Gilbert Burns, which left him just six days to prepare before he embarked on an arduous journey to Abu Dhabi. Upon taking into account he had to lose 20 pounds to make weight compounded issues for him, meaning he wasn’t at his absolute best.

“[The weight cut] wasn’t fun. It was a lot of weight. I was 35 at the time. As you get older, the weight [cut] just sucks, you know? The last three pounds took longer than the first 17. Just trying to get those last three pounds out was a headache and a half. I don’t have to do that now for this fight. As I stand right now, I’m nine pounds away from the weight class, just ready to rock and roll.

“When I got to 18 pounds [off], I started like, ‘Wow, this hurts,’ but all I kept thinking is, ‘It’ll mean nothing if I go out there and knock this guy out, so I’m going to make the weight like a man,’ because I’ve never missed weight,” he said. “I signed that dotted line. Let’s compete. I’m going to make this weight. If not, then I shouldn’t have taken the fight. That would have been the coward’s way out. I made sure I made the weight and then gave it my best.”

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Although Masvidal will certainly head into the fight in a much better position to challenge, the tough to beat Usman, who’s won 13 fights in a row, will be a truly formidable foe. In excellent shape and raring to go, the current welterweight champion is understandably the betting favourite, with him priced at 1.29 and Masvidal at 3.85.

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Boasting a UFC record of 18-1 and in the prime of his career, it would take a brave man to not back “The Nigerian Nightmare” to register his second victory over Masvidal after ousting him by unanimous decision in their first fight.

With fans returning to the stands to watch these two elite fighters going toe to toe, they should be in for a real treat, as Masvidal will be looking for an upset over the in-form champion Usman.

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Consistent AS Monaco making waves in Ligue 1

In absolutely sensational form in Ligue 1 and in the quarter finals of the Coupe de France, AS Monaco have certainly been making waves this season.

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Currently sitting third in the league and having only lost once in their last 23 matches, their form has been nigh on flawless since December of last year. Having started the season inconsistently, one of the key catalysts behind their upturn in fortunes arose when coach Niko Kovac opted to switch to a 3-2-4-1 in possession.

Giving the team more defensive stability and allowing them to get the best out of their impressive forwards and attacking midfielders such as Wissam Ben Yedder, Kevin Volland, Sofiane Diop, Stevan Jovetic, Sofiane Diop and Aleksandr Golovin, it’s worked a treat.

The duo in central midfield have been nothing short of outstanding as well in this new system, as Youssouf Fofana and Aurelien Tchouameni have been formidable.

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The wingbacks have been another valuable element towards their success, with Caio Henrique and Ruben Aguilar in particular adding vital width and depth to attacks, which has stretched opposition backlines both horizontally and vertically.

Meanwhile, in terms of the defence, the likes of Guillermo Maripan, Benoit Badiashile, Axel Disasi, Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Lecomte in goal have steadily improved as the campaign’s gone on. Keeping seven clean sheets in their last eight games, they’re defending with assuredness, physicality and confidence.

Possessing plenty of depth across the pitch in the form of Eliot Matazo, Krepin Diatta, Pietro Pellegri, Chrislain Matsima, Gelson Martins and Fode Ballo-Toure, they’ve contributed impressively when given a chance.

Manager Kovac certainly deserves huge credit for instilling his philosophy so successfully and getting his players well and truly on board, with his presence integral towards their masterful campaign.

Priced at a decent 13 to win the Ligue 1 championship, they’re definitely in with a shout according to the bookies. In truth, however, finishing in the top three to earn Champions League qualification would be a sensational achievement for this young and exciting team.

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Having beaten giants Paris Saint-Germain and unquestionably the in form team in France at present, Monaco are proving to be an irresistible force in 2021, as they’ve progressed amazingly this crusade to become unlikely title contenders.

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Liverpool fully motivated for UCL clash with Real Madrid

Liverpool’s upcoming Champions League clash with Real Madrid is unquestionably one of the standout ties of the quarter finals.

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Facing off against each other for the first time since that famous 2018 Champions League final that Real Madrid prevailed in, Liverpool will be desperate for revenge. In what was a feisty contest that saw Sergio Ramos injure Liverpool’s Egyptian star Mohamed Salah, the Reds star’s comments ahead of the clash has added some additional spice. “Let’s just say that I have special motivation to win the tie and go through to the semi finals. What’s going to happen now isn’t going to change the result of the final in Kiev. That’s in the past,” he explained to Marca.

“That game is in the past, so I don’t think about it. I’m thinking about the team. Everyone is focused on their team and everyone wants to win… that’s it.”

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Seeing as Liverpool have endured a difficult season domestically, which has been littered with injuries to key players in all areas (especially the defence) and seen them struggle for consistency, their Champions League campaign has been full of upside.

Coming through a tough group impressively, that contained Ajax, Atalanta and Midtjylland, they then emphatically ousted a tremendous RB Leipzig 4-0 on aggregate in the Round of 16.

With Real Madrid not at their best either this season, but finding some promising form of late, that’s notably seen them emerge again as La Liga title contenders and defeat Atalanta impressively in the Champions League, they’ll too back themselves to progress.

In what looms as a captivating clash between two teams that have won a combined 19 Champions League/European Cup trophies, the bookmakers interestingly have Liverpool favourites at 1.71 to progress to the semis, whereas Real Madrid are at 2.05.

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Having won both the Champions League and the Premier Premier League in the last two years, Jurgen Klopp’s men importantly boast plenty of top level experience, which should be crucial in their quest for victory.

Against one of the finest teams in Europe, they’ll need all their nous too, in what will be a captivating, evenly matched quarter final contest, with Liverpool’s hopes of winning a trophy this crusade resting on the outcome.

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NBA: 76ers proving themselves as title contenders

In exceptional form in the NBA, which sees them currently sit second in the Eastern Conference having won eight of their last 10 games, the Philadelphia 76ers have cemented their position as title contenders.

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Possessing a fantastic team that includes two stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, plus the excellent Seth Curry, Tobias Harris, Dwight Howard and Danny Green, they’ve been a real force to be reckoned with.

With the likes of Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Tyrese Maxey, Mike Scott and Paul Reed offering good support off the bench, it’s been good to see them contribute too.

Having won 33 and lost 15 games, Doc Rivers’ excellently coached team have certainly been looking good, as he’s doing a tidy job of getting the best out of his team. Indeed, upon considering many key players had to sit out matches due to coronavirus and injury, this makes their record even more impressive.

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Boasting the second best defence and the 10th best offense in the NBA, there’s no doubting they are excellent on both sides of the court. One thing, though, that needs improving is their high turnover rate, as they rank a lowly 27th in the league. If they can keep possession better, this will immensely help them, for they won’t be exposed so badly in transition.

The recent addition of George Hill adds some vital extra quality and experience to the team in so many areas, something which Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, touched on aptly, saying: “A veteran, two-way guard who can shoot at a very high level and defend at a high level. One thing that Coach Rivers and Coach Burke can do right now is put five strong playoff-tested guys who can play both ends on the floor at one time if they want to do that, so we’re pretty excited about that.”

Priced at a decent $12 to take home the NBA crown, they’re rated as a decent outside chance by the bookmakers, which many would consider worth a bet.

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Although there’s still a long way to go in the season, if the 76ers can improve their offense, limit the turnovers and keep their stars fit, there’s every reason to suggest they’ll be legitimate candidates to be crowned champions come season’s end.

 

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Joan Mir eager to regain his MotoGP crown in 2021

Fresh from winning his maiden MotoGP championship last season, which secured Suzuki’s first crown in 20 years, Joan Mir will be keen to maintain his good form going into the 2021 campaign.

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Despite not winning a race until the second last round, the Spaniard’s incredible consistency saw him persistently pick up points, with him finishing on the podium on an eye catching seven occasions.

Taking full advantage of the sensational Marc Marquez missing last year due to injury, which is set to force him out of the first two rounds, Mir will be hoping to start well to get the jump on his countryman. When speaking recently ahead of the new season, it’s clear Mir’s relishing facing off against Marquez while noting he needs to improve his bike’s performance. “Well, for sure it will be really nice, I can’t wait to start to have battles with Marc,” he explained.

“The truth is we need to improve the speed with our Suzuki because we have a bike really balanced, but for sure it’s not the fastest one and to beat Marc we need the fastest bike. This is really important. We won the title because I’m clever, but not because I was the fastest at the moment with this package.

“So, this means that if I was able to manage the pressure with this package, which is actually not the best one of the grid, talking about speed, if we get the speed and we start to fight a bit for the pole positions, victories in every GP, then I think we can fight with Marc for sure.

“I think we are one of the ones who has more margin to improve on the grid, because I’m not a rookie but I have a lot to experience and a lot to learn – probably more than the others.”

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Such an intelligent and disciplined operator, the gifted 23-year-old’s rated as the second favourite, with the bookies pricing him at 7.50 just behind Australian Jack Miller at 6.50.

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With such heavy competition in MotoGP this year, other riders aside from Marquez and Miller such as Alex Rins, Maverick Vinales, Valentino Rossi, Fabio Quarataro, Pol Espagaro and Franco Morbidelli will all be pushing hard week in, week out for glory.

Still so young and with plenty of room for development, such as in qualifying and in the bike, it’ll be expected Mir will go from strength to strength again this time around.

Although it’ll be an immense challenge to win back to back championships, Mir will definitely back himself to just that, for he has the quality, knows the bike and has the self confidence to go all the way again.

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Inter Milan streaking ahead in Serie A

Currently sitting six points clear of rivals AC Milan with a game in hand at the top of the Serie A table, Inter Milan have really come into their own in 2021.

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Having lost only one game in 2021 back at the start of January against Sampdoria, Inter have been a real force to be reckoned with after this setback, for they’ve subsequently won nine of their last 11 matches (drawn the other two).

Moreover, the fact they’re in the midst of an eight game winning run accentuates their electric form.

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So effective defensively, they’ve impressively only conceded 26 goals in their 27 games, which is the second best record in Serie A. Organised, well drilled, efficient pressers and excellent in their duels, Antonio Conte has built a team that’s extremely challenging to break down. With some excellent central defenders in Milan Skriniar, Alessandro Bastoni and Stefan de Vrij, this trio in his three at the back system have excelled ahead of the experienced Samir Handanovic in goal.

When defending deeper the wing backs will often drop back to form a back five, but their impact has certainly been felt most keenly going forward. Adding width and depth to attacks and stretching defences out of shape, the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Ashley Young and Ivan Perisic have been vital.

Shifting the focus to the midfield, and Conte has plenty of talent at his disposal in the form of Marcelo Brozovic, Nicolo Barella, Arturo Vidal, Christian Eriksen, Stefano Sensi and Roberto Gagliardini. Possessing a nice blend of hard running, power, creativity and energy, Inter certainly have a fine array of options to select depending on the opposition or if any players are unavailable.

Boasting the most lethal strikeforce in Serie A in Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, who’ve scored a whopping 19 and 14 goals respectively in league action, the duo have been exceptional. The fact Lukaku has eight assists and Martinez five has amplified their impact.

Able to both score and create, this, in combination with their almost telepathic understanding and intelligent movement, has seen them be a nightmare for defenders all over to contain.

Seeing as the Nerazzurri have scored the joint most goals in Serie A with 65 alongside Atalanta serves as further testament to their offensive strength.

With no European commitments to worry about, Inter’s lead of six points with a game in hand over AC Milan will certainly be difficult for anyone to overcome. Priced at 1.05 by the bookmakers, they certainly believe Inter will come out triumphant.

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Consistent and full of quality at both ends of the pitch, Inter are unquestionably favourites to claim their first Scudetto since the 2009/2010 crusade, which would be a fitting reward for what’s been a terrific season.

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Barcelona closing the gap in La Liga title race

On an exceptional run of form in La Liga, Barcelona have been on the charge to reel in Atletico Madrid, as they’ve impressively cut their lead from double figures to just four points.

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Having won 13 of their last 16 league matches and unbeaten in 16, Ronald Koeman’s team are certainly in red hot form. Although they suffered the setback of bowing out in the Champions League, this could be a blessing in disguise for the Blaugrana, allowing them to focus their attention more on La Liga.

Seeing as they have had many injuries to deal with, their title push will get even stronger when the likes of Ansu Fati, Gerard Pique and Philippe Coutinho return to the fold.

Considering all the presidential election drama that’s been running in the background and the Lionel Messi saga, Koeman deserves immense credit for keeping his squad focused.

With Messi in masterful form, the fact he’s scored nine goals and supplied five assists in his last nine matches has been instrumental towards their rise up the standings. Ably supported by the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Pedri, Martin Braithwaite and Trincao, Barca have been a formidable force going forward. Indeed, the numbers depict this aptly, as they’ve scored 11 goals more than any other team in the league with 61.

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Possessing plenty of quality in midfield, with big names such as Frenkie de Jong, stalwart Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic and Riqui Puig helping them dictate and control matches.

On top of boasting one of the finest goalkeepers in world football in Marc-Andre ter Stegen, they have some emerging talents putting their best foot forward in the backline, with players such as Oscar Mingueza, Sergino Dest, Ronald Araujo and Junior Firpo playing with hunger.

When Barcelona boss Koeman was asked about his team’s title chances, his comments made for interesting reading. “First of all we have to look at ourselves and focus on winning. The team is very motivated at the moment, but not because of our rivals’ results, because of ourselves,” Koeman noted.

“We are playing with a lot of energy and the team is in incredible physical shape. We know from experience it’s not easy to stay at this pace and maintain this level of quality.”

Priced at 2.88 to claim the coveted La Liga title just behind Atletico Madrid at 1.72, the bookmakers certainly give them a real chance of coming out on top.

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With still 10 games to play, including a mammoth clash with Atletico and the clasico with Real Madrid, watching how they fare in the final third of the season will be absolutely fascinating in their quest to win their 27th league title.

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Boxing: Povetkin vs. Whyte a huge heavyweight clash

Alexander Povetkin and Dilian Whyte’s heavyweight bout looms as an intriguing fight, as the pair will do battle for the WBC heavyweight interim title.

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Considering Povetkin defeated Whyte in their first fight, Whyte will be desperate for revenge. Enlisting the help of former American boxer Harold Knight, who’s notably helped the likes of Lennox Lewis and Anthony Joshua, this looks like a smart move by Whyte’s camp. “I was brought in to bring some American flavour. To add that world championship experience, to add small little things to the recipe, to work on Dillian’s balance, to work on his jab and work on his defence,” Knight noted.

“Dillian’s already like a pitbull, already like an assassin, so I’m just adding a little gunpowder to the mix; a little pizazz, bring some maestro to it, so the world can see he has taken it to another level.

“We want Dillian to be able to use some of his weapons that have been dormant. He has them already, but needs to be reminded of them. He has them, but needs to ‘do what Emmanuel Steward would do’ – bring the fire and bring the smoothness out. Dillian already has all of this, I’m just adding a few more bullets to his arsenal.”

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With Povetkin now recovered from coronavirus, which forced the fight to be delayed, the Russian recently stated how he feels good and is ready for this colossal showdown. He is, however, rated as the underdog at 3.60 by the bookies, whereas Whyte is at 1.36.

If their first fight is anything to go by, this one should be full of excitement and drama too. In that bout, all the signs were pointing towards Whyte winning, as he knocked down Povetkin twice in the fourth round before the Russian knocked out Whyte with a devastating uppercut in the fifth.

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In what’s set to be a fascinating fight between two of the elite fighters in the division, the winner will most likely be rewarded with a mammoth fight against the winner of the two scheduled fights between Joshua and Tyson Fury.

This would be a fine prize indeed in terms of getting a title shot and receiving a hefty purse, which will only add to the occasion on March 27 for Povetkin and Whyte’s fight in Gibraltar.

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Revitalised Fulham fighting valiantly for EPL survival

Currently sitting just outside the relegation zone, but level on points with Brighton, Fulham’s much improved form has ensured they’re in with a real shot of avoiding relegation.

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Making a terrible start to life back in the Premier League by losing eight of their first 11 games, Scott Parker’s team have steadily gotten better over the last couple of months to put themselves back into the picture for safety. Having lost two of their last 10 Premier League matches, their uptick in results has been fantastic to see, as the team has also been playing some quality football.

Recording impressive wins over Liverpool and Everton in this period has demonstrated what a force to be reckoned with they’ve become.

Having a manager in Parker that’s given them focus, a clear playing style and remained positive has clearly helped them too. “Never am I looking at a league table and that will be my stance through to the end of the season,” Parker said.

“We got to this point we are now by concentrating on us and what we need to do. Our sole focus is us. The energy you lose from worrying about the what-ifs is really negative and it can sink you. We are now getting into the last run of games where everyone remembers – this is the moment.

“The journey this season has been nothing short of brilliant for me, because I have seen the team develop and the players grow, but in this moment now, this is where it is. We have got momentum and are in a very good place. We have been through a bumpy road, but have come out.”

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While they’re coming on in leaps and bounds, the issue has been that they’ve struggled to turn their good play into wins, with them drawing far too many matches. Indeed, the fact Fulham have drawn more games than any other team in the Premier League (11) evidences this aptly.

While they’ve passed up many chances, their defending has eye catchingly improved, with them only conceding 12 goals in their last 17 matches. This has unquestionably been an integral component towards their success, with the likes of Joachim Andersen, Tosin Adarabioyo and Alphonse Areola in goal forming a formidable base.

Boasting immense quality in midfield, with players such as Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Harrison Reed, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mario Lemina and Tom Cairney has given them depth and differing options depending on the opposition.

Possessing plenty of firepower going forward, with Ademola Lookman, Ivan Cavaleiro, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Josh Maja among their options, they’ve proved their worth admirably.

How they’re so tactically flexible and can operate in many various systems is a testament to Parker’s ability to instill his demands onto his players.

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While it won’t be easy for them to stay up, especially considering they still have to play some quality teams in the form of Manchester City, Leeds United, Aston Villa, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, they’ve proven they can hold their own against any team.

Priced at 2.80 to get relegated, which is a decent bet to consider, Fulham are understandably one of the favourites to suffer the drop. But with 10 games left to play still and their form heading in an upward trajectory, Fulham will back themselves to stay in the division.

Only time will tell if they, in fact, can, in what looms as an enthralling end to the season.

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