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Expect to hear more about Gareth Bale and Real Madrid

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In something that’s becoming a more regular occurrence, Gareth Bale put himself front-and-center on Thursday, scoring twice in his team’s Europe League Round of 32 match, giving Spurs at 2-1 lead on Olympique Lyonnais. While that result amounted to little more than holding serve at home, few people cared about Spurs’ state after seeing Bale’s display. With two direct kick goals overshadowing a seemingly trademark point blank miss, the 23-year-old Welsh winger has started to transcend discussion of where he sits among England’s stars. With comparisons to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo flooding Friday’s papers in England, Bale is starting to carve out a place in the wider, global conversation.

Highlights of the game (courtesy of FOX Soccer) are below, with Bale’s first half goal creating a lot of buzz. From over 30 yards out, Bale hits a knuckler at Remy Vercoutre, a shot that dives down and to the keeper’s right as it reaches its apex. At first blush, the ball doesn’t seem to be struck that hard, floating toward goal in a way that makes you wonder how anybody could score from that far out against a top-level goalkeeper. But from the side angle, you can see Vercoutre freeze, his weight shifted to far onto his left foot as his dive comes up well short.

A winger with that dead ball skill is going to be compared to Ronaldo, but after today’s reports from Madrid-based outlet Marca, those comparisons may become more common. Notoriously cozy with Real Madrid, Marca is reporting Bale could be part of “a new project” Real will undertake this summer. That project will likely be refactoring the squad after a disappointing league season, with head coach José Mourinho probably gone.

For the most part, Marca’s report amounts to thin speculation, but there’s one tidbit that makes you think Bale’s future may really lie at the Santiago Bernabeu:

As revealed by MARCA on 28th December, Real Madrid will have preference over clubs looking to snap up Bale, after an agreement between the two clubs when Real signed Luka Modric in the summer.

If true, what this amounts to is a right of first refusal. If Real Madrid’s willing to match another club’s accepted bid, they can have Bale. And that’s if Real don’t make a offer of their own. Clubs like Anzhi Makhachkala or Paris Saint-Germain could conceivably proffer a fee Real Madrid’s unwilling to match, but this arrangement gives Real a huge advantage.

But the veracity of this news isn’t the scenario’s only if:

If Spurs Chairman David Levy accepts Bale’s request to leave the London club at the end of the season, ‘Los Blancos’ will have first choice, heading a long list of admirers of the player.

So let’s walk through the ifs, both implicit and explicit:

    • If Gareth Bale wants to move, which may be linked to,
    • If Tottenham fails to qualify for next year’s Champions League, and
    • If Real Madrid are (a) interested,
    • (b) willing to meet an acceptably high fee,
    • (c) can convince Gareth Bale to sign, and
    • aren’t outbid, …

… then Florentino Perez will have his 10th Galactico.

As improbable as it seems that all those factors will lineup, that’s the nature of transfers at that level of the game. Some happen. Most don’t. Because of the relationship between Tottenham and Real Madrid, this scenario seems more likely than most, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually likely.

For discussion’s sake, let’s fast forward six months and imagine what Real Madrid would look like with Bale in the squad. Although he’s capable of playing other places, Bale is a left wing, the same position Critiano Ronaldo plays with Real. One of them could go to the right side, they could spend some time in the middle, but ultimately there’s going to have to be some compromise. And that compromise, one which entails having spend time in a non-preferred position, might lead to a drop off in production.

The hypothetical move may also push another quality player, Angel Di Maria, out of the team, though Marca seemed to focus on Bale as a potential through-the-middle solution, talking about Bale’s ability to play centrally and comparing his goal rate to those of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín. That positioning seems unlike. Tottenham manger briefly tried Bale in the middle of a 4-3-3 and ultimately decided to keep him left. As long as Real Madrid stays 4-3-3, Bale won’t be a good fit in the middle. But no matter who he’d replace – Di Maria or the Benzema/Higuaín duo – Bale would represent a very expensive means of marginal improvement.

Still, that’s the reality of acquiring players like Bale. The only teams that can afford him already have great players. In order to improve on them, you have to make some seemingly inefficient purchases. That’s often the only way the world’s haves and keep up with their peers. Barcelona, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich aren’t going to stop buying players just because the talent difference between Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gomez/Mario Mandzukic isn’t worth the $50-plus million Bayern’s likely to pay for the Polish international. They’re willing to be inefficient to be more competitive.

For some, this is the maddening world into which international soccer’s devolved. For others, it’s the inevitability of any competitive pursuit that operates at the extremes.

Regardless, at its core, this business involves players who can do things like this. Here are the highlights from Thursday’s game, where Bale and Lyon defender Samuel Umtiti engaged in a little game of golazo one-upmanship.

FA Cup: Arsenal never bothered by Sutton, go through to QF

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  Jamie Collins of Sutton United heads the ball at goal during the Emirates FA Cup fifth round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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It could have been one of the darkest days in the history of any professional football club — Premier League giants Arsenal, away to fifth-division Sutton United, a non-Football League side currently 105 places below them in the English football pyramid.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

Instead, Monday’s 2-0 FA Cup fifth-round victory over The U’s, played at Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane, proved as uneventful and routine for the Gunners as they could have hoped. Having been torn to shreds by Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League just five days ago, defeat at the hands of a fifth-division team was the only thing that could have further destroyed morale at the club.

Lucas Perez put Arsenal ahead in the 27th minute, when his curling, bouncing cross-shot toward that back post made its way through a sea of legs — including those of teammate Theo Walcott — and nestled itself inside the far post of Ross Worner (WATCH HERE).

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

It was then Walcott who doubled Arsenal’s advantage, in the 55th minute, by scoring his 100th goal for the club. Nacho Monreal‘s cross ran through a sea of bodies before finding Walcott unmarked wide of the far post, and his first-time finish was well hit.

Up next for Arsenal, it’s yet another fifth-division side, Lincoln City, who’ll come calling as the Gunners seek their third FA Cup trophy in four seasons.

[ MORE: FA Cup roundup — Premier League sides underwhelm in 5th round ]

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield Town 0-0 Manchester City
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea RECAP
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur RECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester United RECAP | REACTION

AT THE HALF: Arsenal in control, 1-0 up on Sutton in FA Cup 5th round

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  Lucas of Arsenal celebrates with team-mates after scporing the opening goal during the Emirates FA Cup fifth round match between Sutton United and Arsenal on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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For 26 minutes, Sutton United were absolute equals to Arsenal in the only place that counted: the scoreboard.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City? ]

In the 27th minute, Arsenal converted the prolonged periods of possession (71 percent as of halftime) into the opening goal of the two sides’ FA Cup fifth-round tie. Lucas Perez provided the breakthrough with his eighth goal of the season (all competitions) — perhaps unintentionally, as he seemed to be looking for Theo Walcott with his curling ball toward the back post (below video).

[ MORE: Fifth-division Lincoln City shock PL side Burnley in FA Cup ]

Should the Gunners hold on through 45 more minutes and advance, they’ll face yet another fifth-division side, Lincoln City, at home in the quarterfinals.

Elsewhere in the FA Cup

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield Town 0-0 Manchester City
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea RECAP
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur RECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester United RECAP | REACTION

LIVE — Sutton United hopes to upend Arsenal in FA Cup

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 20:  A pennant hangs in the Sutton United changing room prior to The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Sutton United and Arsenal at The Borough Sports Ground on February 20, 2017 in Sutton, Greater London.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Arsenal hopes to snap out of its form funk with a visit to tiny Sutton United in the FA Cup’s fifth round.

Sutton will be hoping to build on the non-league momentum provided by Lincoln City, who marched into Burnley and won 1-0 on Saturday. Speaking of the Imps, they await the winner of Monday’s match.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Sutton United vs. Arsenal ]

Arsenal, in addition to stopping the rot, wants a win to join Spurs, Manchester United, Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Leicester City, and Lincoln in the fifth round.

Manchester City and Huddersfield Town drew 0-0 on Saturday and face a replay for the right to join the quarterfinal fray.

FA Cup fifth round results

Burnley 0-1 Lincoln City — RECAP | REACTION
Huddersfield 0-0 Manchester City
Millwall 1-0 Leicester City
Middlesbrough 3-0 Oxford United
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-2 Chelsea
Fulham 0-3 Tottenham HotspurRECAP
Blackburn Rovers 1-2 Manchester UnitedREACTION

Appeals rejected, Neymar will stand trial

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 02:  Neymar of FC Barcelona leaves the National Court on February 2, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. Neymar was giving evidence over allegations of corruption and fraud surrounding his transfer to FC Barcelona.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Neymar, his family, Barcelona, and Santos are headed to court.

Not a great Monday for the Brazilian superstar and his clubs. They stand accused of hiding a portion of the transfer fee that helped Neymar head from Santos to the La Liga powerhouse Blaugranas.

[ MORE: Atlanta United from start to now ]

No appeals remain for Neymar, his mother, and their family brand N&N.

From Sky Sports:

The case stems from a complaint by Brazilian investment group DIS, which owned part of Neymar’s transfer rights and alleges that it received less money than it was entitled to when Neymar made the switch.

Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi was found guilty of tax fraud this summer, and is unlikely to serve his 21-month sentence.