Modric to Real Madrid: The Luka-Xabi Alonso conundrum

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Let’s start with a conclusion: Luka Modric is a better soccer player than Xabi Alonso.

This needs to be said because many would claim otherwise. So be it. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but when we’re talking about Real Madrid’s purchase of the former Tottenham centerpiece, it’s very important to establish what the Spanish champions are getting. Have they acquired an upgrade to Xabi Alonso, a stalwart at the base of midfield since being bought from Liverpool three years ago? Or, have the Spanish champions bought a mere insurance policy? Because at $52.2 million, Modric would be an absurd Plan B.

Discerning who’s better: Alonso, or Modric

Imagine we had a list of possible attributes for a soccer player, picked out all the good ones, and asked where Alonso had advantages over Modric, and vice versa. The goal is to break the question down into enough parts that we can make a series of small, objective, non-controversial decisions. Once we have enough decisions, we’ll be able to piece them together to answer the bigger question.

In attack, there is one attribute where Alonso has Modric trumped: The ability to play a beautiful long ball. This skill alone, envied by anybody who’s ever kicked a ball, makes Alonso a world class player in many minds, and for Real Madrid, it’s a perfect fit. The potential to quickly transcend midfield and find Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria wide allows Real to play to José Mourinho’s conservative defensive preferences while still being one of the most potent attacks in the world.

But that’s the only attacking area where Alonso has an advantage over Modric. Modric is faster, can play more positions (and at different levels). He doesn’t have Alonso’s range of passing, but he has a wider variety. He’s a better and quicker decision maker on the ball and has better goal-scoring instincts.

All of that sounds like a real hatchet job on Alonso, but he’s being compared to one of the best players in the world. Take the unavailable Barcelona players out of the picture, and how many central midfielders have better attacking talents than Modric? “None” is an acceptable answer here (though if you disagree, the comments are at your disposal).

Defensively, the players are similar in their positioning acumen (when Modric is deployed in a deep role), though Alonso is more physically imposing. But with his lack of lateral quickness, Alonso’s physicality (and his use of it) isn’t always an advantage. Although he recorded twice as many tackles per league game last season (3 to Modric’s 1.6), Alonso committed more than three times as many fouls (1.7 per game to Modric’s 0.5) and was dribbled past at a greater rate (1.6 times per game to Modric’s 0.9). Given how Spurs used Modric last season, it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, though it’s pretty close. And it does confirm what you’d expect from the players’ skill sets: Modric is the quicker, less imposing player who’s both less likely to go in for (and win) a challenge and less likely to give up a bad foul.

It may be nuanced and take a few more words than you’d like, but it’s not difficult to make the case that Modric is a distinct upgrade to Alonso. Still, there’s a more interesting proposition at play with Real Madrid’s purchase: Is Modric a better fit for the Merengues?

Who’s the better fit: Alonso, or Modric

As it pertains to Real Madrid’s attack, that long ball ability shouldn’t be undersold, and while Modric may offer other qualities Alonso can’t, those qualities aren’t distinct from one of Modric’s new teammates: Mesut Özil. Özil tends to operate in more advanced areas than Modric. He’s best as the beneficiary of a team’s transition, not orchestrating it (one of Modric’s best skills). As complementing pieces, the prospect of watching Modric and Özil play together may be the best thing to come from this move (something that could happen with Alonso staying in the team, with Angel Di Maris sacrificed).

But was this the best use of $52.2 million? And even if he is more than an insurance policy, is Modric really worth that price to Real Madrid?

It’s not really a fair question. Under most circumstances, a $52.2 million signing would have a dramatic, squad-shaping impact, and we tend to judge purchases by that standard. But with the talent in Real Madrid’s fold, these aren’t normal circumstances. Aside from Lionel Messi (and perhaps Andres Iniesta and Zlatan Ibrahimovic), any potential Real acquisition would only marginally improve the team. That’s what happens when your team sits at the far right of the talent spectrum. Marginal improvements are all you’ve got, and with only the world’s best players dwelling in those margins, upgrades are going to be ridiculously costly.

Under such absurd circumstances, we need a different standard. If Modric can make any improvements to a team that posted 100 points and a +89 in last year’s Liga, he should be considered a spectacular success.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.

Alaves eyes upset of Barcelona in Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) The final of the Copa del Rey pits Barcelona’s star power against a tiny Basque Country club whose biggest weapons are its grit and gnawing hunger for a taste of glory.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Win or lose, Alaves is savoring the cup final on Saturday as the perfect finish to its first season back in Spain’s topflight in an decade.

[ MORE: Three key battles ahead of Chelsea-Arsenal FA Cup final ]

But to have a chance of winning the first major trophy in its 96-year history, Alaves’ ragtag collection of journeymen has to be squeezed of every ounce of effort by coach Mauricio Pellegrino to upset the cup-holders led by Lionel Messi.

One statistic illustrates how daunting their task will be: Messi, all by himself, has scored exactly as many goals as the entire Alaves squad this season, with 53 across all competitions.

“We will need to play a very complete match to have a chance, but we are a team that always competes to the maximum,” said Pellegrino, who is completing a noteworthy first season with the club.

The final will be the last competitive match at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon Stadium. An exhibition match the next day will be its farewell before demolition.

The final will also be the last match for departing Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who could bow out with a third straight Copa del Rey.

Here are some reasons Alaves can believe in an upset for the ages:

DONE IT BEFORE

Alaves has already toppled Barcelona this season.

A shocking 2-1 victory at Camp Nou on Sept. 10 was Alaves’ first win since its return to the first division following 10 years in the second and third tiers.

That surprise victory set it on its way to overachieving all campaign. It reached the Copa del Rey final by defeating the more talented Celta Vigo in the semifinals, and finished the league in a meritorious ninth place.

The bad news is that Barcelona showed no mercy back in Vitoria, where Luis Suarez scored twice in a 6-0 rout.

NO SUAREZ

But Suarez won’t be available for Barcelona on Saturday, when he serves a one-game suspension after being sent off during the semifinals against Atletico Madrid.

Luis Enrique could start Paco Alcacer in his place up front alongside Messi and Neymar.

OLD AND YOUNG

Alaves is not devoid of talent.

The 19-year-old right back Theo Hernandez, who is playing on loan from Atletico, is drawing rave reviews and interest from European powerhouses, including Real Madrid.

Marcos Llorente, a 22-year-old Madrid reserve player also on loan, has impressed as a defensive midfielder.

Captain Manu Garcia, at 31, is the only player who has been with the team through its rise from the third tier in 2013.

“Our coaches are telling us that by working as a team just like we have all year, we have a chance to win,” Garcia said.

OH SO CLOSE

Alaves came ever so close to winning the 2001 UEFA Cup when it defied expectations in its first European campaign by reaching the final against Liverpool.

Jordi Cruyff, son of Dutch great Johann Cruyff, scored late to level the thriller at 4-4 and force extra time, only for Alaves to succumb on an own goal by Delfi Geli.

“I want our fans to enjoy the day,” Garcia said. “I remember (the final in) Dortmund from when I was young. I have many memories of that day and that’s why I ask our fans to be proud of Alaves, and that they make the Calderon into our stadium because that is what we will need it to be.”

MLS at Week 13: Rivalries all around, TFC goes for eight games unbeaten

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Week 13 is here and we’ve got ourselves some pretty tasty matchups, after the weekend got off to a fast start on Thursday night when the Chicago Fire downed FC Dallas.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 13 ]

Meanwhile, the match of the weekend likely comes in the form of Toronto FC taking on the Columbus Crew, as Greg Vanney’s side puts their seven-match unbeaten run on the line at BMO Field.

Several other intriguing fixtures, including multiple rivalries, will take place as well, particularly in the Pacific Northwest as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers do battle.

Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew — 7 p.m. EDT on Friday

It’s been seven straight matches for the Eastern Conference leaders since they last lost and Toronto FC has become the clear favorite to hoist MLS Cup through the opening two months-plus. Of course that can change in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen that with the Crew as of late, who started out hot before losing four out of their last six and falling to fifth in the East.

Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers — 2:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday

There’s nothing like a Cascadia Cup match. Although both clubs aren’t exactly up to par at the moment, it’s still a rivalry match. That has to mean something, right?

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. D.C. United — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Whitecaps have picked up some steam lately, winning three of their last four, and unfortunately for D.C. they haven’t had any similar fortunes. Ben Olsen’s group are at the bottom of the East, and had it not been for the Rapids there would probably be more attention on how poorly they are playing.

New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Jesse Marsch’s club picked up an important tie against a red-hot Toronto last time out, but now they’ll meet a familiar rival on Saturday as they try to get back to winning ways. Meanwhile, the Revs have played significantly better as of late, scoring six goals in their two most recent outings.

Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Simply put, they only good thing the Rapids have on their side is that the match is at home, where the team has captured both of their wins this season. Sporting KC, meanwhile, continues to tear it up at the top of the West.

Minnesota United vs Orlando City — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Orlando has come back down to earth recently, so it’s time for Jason Kreis and co. to reset. Adrian Heath and the Loons continue to suffer through the growing pains of being a new side, something Kreis can relate to from his time in New York, but Minnesota has shown positive signs during the young season.

Real Salt Lake vs. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Union are looking really good as of late, and the winners of four straight could very well keep it up on the road against RSL, who have struggled to pick up results for much of the season.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Cali Clasico takes shape at Avaya Stadium as both west coast sides look for bragging rights out west.

Atlanta United vs. New York City FC — 5 p.m. EDT on Sunday

It was Patrick Vieira’s side that got the best of Atlanta when the two clubs met a few weeks back, and it’s bad news for Tata Martino’s men as NYCFC has caught more steam as they continue to rack up positive results in the Eastern Conference.

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo — 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday

We’ve got ourselves a Texas Derby down in Dallas, and this could be quite the interesting matchup as both sides enter Sunday on a bit of a downturn. It’s evident both clubs have exciting offensive firepower but which side will come out on top?

Emre Can’s insane bicycle kick wins 16/17 PL Goal of the Season

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It was about as good a finish as you’ll see in any season, and Emre Can was properly rewarded by the Premier League for his efforts.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

The Liverpool midfielder won PL Goal of the Season on Friday for his audacious and seemingly impossible bicycle kick against Watford.

The goal came off a routine cross from Lucas Leiva into the Hornets penalty area, but what Can did next was simply astonishing as contorted his body and acrobatically finished an overhead kick that was the talk of the PL for the rest of the season.

Can, 23, finished the 2016/17 PL season with five goals in 31 matches for Jurgen Klopp‘s side but none can compare to what he achieved at Vicarage Road.